Wednesday, March 30, 2022

day in the library

Monday was my day for researching the annual Tolkien bibliography in the library, having exhausted the free databases at home. I drove over our local mountains to Santa Cruz, where the university library is the most useful for online searching and visitor-friendly of any I know. I bought a daily parking permit at the gatehouse, $10, drove over to the appropriate parking lot, and then walked the most stunningly beautiful quarter-mile walk from a parking lot to a college library of any I know. Even Cornell, which is the only other campus I know with pedestrian bridges over canyons as deep as this one's, isn't as attractive as UC Santa Cruz.

This was the first time I'd been there in three years, but I used to go annually so I remembered it well, including where to go to park, which isn't obviously labeled. Getting through campus is a drive through fields and forests, with only occasional buildings visible in the distance, one of which is a residence hall cluster with a vague similarity to The Village from The Prisoner.

Inside the library, masks were required and most everyone had one. The foyer to the library, which you must pass through on your way inside, is a cafe, and nobody there had masks. I settled down at a computer and spent five straight hours online searching, interrupted only by the obvious restroom breaks and much more frequent visits to the help desk, starting with one following seeing that the login screen no longer tells you what the visitor login is. (Though it does say there is one.) Then there was a hitch when it wasn't clear that inter-library access isn't available to visitors: it actually gives the option to enter a visitor account, and that's sure misleading. Lastly, when I left, I gave them a list of those databases on their pull-down menu where I found that the link was broken. You'd think they'd check this occasionally themselves, but maybe not. What if they're paying subscription fees for databases they can't access?

My other momentary paralysis came when I was about to save a file and realized I'd forgotten to bring along my thumb drive. Help desk provided the answer I should have thought of for myself. Save the file to the computer's download folder. Open up my webmail and send it as an attachment to myself. That worked except for one file which was too large to mail. Fortunately I remembered the web address and password to access the control panel for my personal website, so I stuffed the file up there until I got home.

As the years have gone by, I've had to spend less and less time in the stacks. Even the one relevant serial that UCSC gets in hard copy that no other library in my ambit gets is now available in online databases. And now, I'm finding that the pay databases have fewer items that aren't in the free databases than they used to. What the pay databases have is more complete citations (irritating to find a great article but the entry doesn't give the author's name) and, of course, many of them have full text. These I was grabbing so that I'll have them available to hand out to the Year's Work contributors next year.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

the slap

So people in the public sphere are talking about The Slap at the Academy Awards on Sunday, when presenter Chris Rock made a tasteless joke about Jada Pinkett Smith - wife of Will Smith, Best Actor nominee (and, later in the evening, winner) - having lost her hair. And Will, having apparently originally thought it was funny, caught the distressed look on Jada's face and decided to do the Really Macho Husband thing, walked up on stage and socked Rock in the kisser.

At this point the sound cut out on the U.S. show, but a very revealing verbal exchange between the two was captured by other broadcasters, revealed in a Twitter feed embedded in this article. Here's what they said:

Rock: Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.
Smith (who by this time has returned to his seat): Keep my wife's name out your fuckin' mouth.
Rock: Wow, dude.
Smith: Yes.
Rock: It was a G.I. Jane joke.
Smith: Keep my wife's name ... out ... your ... fuckin' ... mouth!
Rock: I'm going to. OK?

Here's my thoughts:

1) From the audience gasp at Will's first statement, this may have been their realization of why he did it.
2) Note Chris Rock's defense. He thinks that comparing Jada's current disease-caused shaven head with the cropped hair of a female military officer in a half-forgotten old movie is a joke about the movie? Dude, that's fucked up.
3) Will, probably from stress, is not clear. What he means is "Don't make crude jokes about my wife." But what he says is, "Don't mention her name." At all. And when challenged he just repeats the same words.

I have to say, though, this wasn't the most distressful moment of the ceremony for me. Part of it was that I've never seen any of Chris Rock's movies; I wasn't exactly sure who he is, so that it was him who got slapped didn't mean anything to me. (But then, this was The Evening Of The Presenters I'd Never Heard Of.)

No, the most distressful moment for me was, after much earlier having promised the first live performance of "We Don't Talk About Bruno" (it wasn't: one of the many cover versions on YouTube is live and uncut) and they cut the lyrics and turned it into an Oscars pitch song. Feh.

You know, it would have been a lot better if Will Smith had gone up, refrained from hitting, grabbed the microphone, and sung "We Don't Talk About Jada." A better reaction, and a better parody song.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

concert review: California Symphony

I bought a 3-concert series this year with the California Symphony, a small-scale professional orchestra that plays at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek in the outer East Bay. I missed the concert I was most eager to attend because it was at the height of the omicron wave, but I was at today's, the last in my set. They seem pathetically grateful to their subscribers; taped to my seat I found a personalized thank-you card from the principal trombonist, and it looks like others had similarly.

The California Symphony has a composer-in-residence program that lasts three years per composer, who premieres one new work in the spring each year. The composer for 2018-20 was Katherine Balch, but guess what: her third work, for March 2020, was postponed, and didn't get its premiere until this weekend's concerts.

But it almost got kicked in the pants again. With unnervingly good timing, just as the music had finished and the applause was breaking out, a fire alarm went off in the theater. So instead of the scheduled intermission, we all - audience and performers alike - spent 45 minutes out on the sidewalk in the cool dusk as the firefighters inspected the building.

The premiere work, designated a song cycle but more an amorphous vocal thing, was titled Illuminate and sets a farrago of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, Adrienne Rich, and various others for three female singers, whose voices leap and cascade over each other, entangling and merging, as if playing leapfrog in the murky pond of the poetry. Balch warned in the pre-concert talk that we wouldn't be able to make out most of the words. Indeed, despite the stunning excellence of the singing, even with the lyrics in front of me I couldn't usually tell where we were, which puts paid to the composer's notion that the music reflects the meaning of the words even if you can't discern them. Not that the instrumental parts seemed to vary: it was insistent fragmented industrial, often squealing and squawking to a momentary stop. Balch studied with David Lang, and it shows in her vocal work, the high piping quality of which also curiously reminded me of the Masque in Michael Nyman's Prospero's Books.

It was preceded by an orchestral work, Three Studies from Couperin by Thomas Adès. This was more of the same: fragmented, hollowed out arrangements of the Couperin pieces leaving nothing familiar or detectable inside.

The main work after the extended intermission was Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, which was played in a cautious crystalline fashion as if this is what the previous works would have sounded like before someone broke the glass and left it all littering the floor.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

not quite yet

Four years and a few months ago, I reviewed a concert with a 12-year-old prodigy named Alma Deutscher playing her own violin concerto which she'd written at the age of 9.

I had rather mixed feelings about the music. On the one hand, I didn't think a pleasantly melodic work should be penalized because it was written in 2015 instead of 1845 which is what it sometimes sounded like. On the other hand, it was anodyne enough that I doubted it would get played at all if it weren't for the publicity attendant on the composer's age.

On the third hand, I could hardly blame the composer. I pointed out that even the greatest child-prodigy composers of the past, Mozart and Mendelssohn, were writing at the same age music that was likewise pleasant and fully competent, but no more than that: impressive mostly just for the composer's age. They didn't produce any of the masterpieces they're remembered for until their late teens - Mendelssohn wrote his Octet when he was 16 and Mozart his 'little' G-minor symphony at 17.

So I concluded, "I would like to check in with Deutscher in a few more years and hear what she’s writing then."

And lo and behold, the San Jose Opera has announced a production of Deutscher's opera Cinderella for the next season. Deutscher herself, now 17, will be making her debut as a conductor. But! This isn't a new work, it's another one from 2015 although it has been revised since then, and this is actually a revival of a production put on in tandem with the symphony concert I reviewed. Apparently nothing of hers that's been recorded is much more recent than that either, so I'll have to wait a bit longer to hear what Deutscher is composing a few years later.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

senseless, unsensible

A local theater group has been heavily promoting their production of a stage musical version of Sense and Sensibility. I actually saw their equivalent version of Pride and Prejudice and liked it, but I hadn't felt as enthused about this, even after learning you could see it livestream.

Then they released a video consisting of tiny clips from the songs. And one of those clips consisted of the words:

But my sweet Marianne
All you see is a man
On the wrong side of five-and-thirty

I think I'll give it a miss.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

serious nonfiction for the general reader

Philip Ball, The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Here's a great work of mythopoeic scholarship, lucid and imaginative. A modern myth, says Ball, is one which originates, or at least is utterly transformed, in modern times with a modern setting. It's not a reconfiguration of older myth like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. It becomes myth when it becomes a cultural icon beyond its original literary form, and for that purpose it helps for that origin not to be of too high a literary quality, or else the story will become literature and not a myth, too tied to the original telling.
You can get a sense of what Ball means by his examples, each taking a chapter: Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein (for the monster), Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, The War of the Worlds (for the alien invasion), Sherlock Holmes, and Batman. A final chapter speculates on the mythic potential of zombies.
Each chapter traces the history of the myth through precursors if any (a lot of them for vampires), details how the author of the core story presented the character, and then how it was transformed in later retellings, especially in movies. And there's also a lot of speculation on what makes these myths gripping. What does it mean that the ultra-rational Holmes was created by an author who fell for hoax fairy photos? Is Mr. Hyde a sexual predator? Is Dracula? Is Batman?
This is all soberly and thoughtfully, not luridly, handled, and Ball doesn't hesitate to evaluate a lot of bad movies or otherwise cast his opinions. (Batman and not Superman, for instance, because Ball thinks Superman is boring.)

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
The author is an academic historian, but this is a general reader's book, not an academic treatise. It's several books in one.
First is a rather fuzzy account of 19C continental expansion, though it goes into guano islands and their contents with great gusto. It's sketchy on the effects on the Indians, and it ignores the long-standing lust for acquiring Canada and brushes off Caribbean filibusters because that would contradict the narrative that the great colony-grabbing of 1898 was an entirely new turn for the US.
At this point the book becomes a history of the Philippines and Puerto Rico as colonies - there's very little on any others; even the guano islands get dropped at this point - but this is the best part of the book, as it tells little-known stories of the US's appalling behavior as a colonial power: the brutal military suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines which our own liberation of them from Spanish rule had fostered; the racist and dehumanizing medical experiments carried out on Puerto Ricans by doctors with reputations as great humanitarians because their sojourns on the island have been brushed out of their biographies. Immerwahr is also pretty caustic on cultural depictions:
West Side Story ... was first conceived as a Romeo-and-Juliet story about a Jewish woman and a Catholic man. But the creative team, seeking relevance, swapped out the Jews for Puerto Ricans. Sondheim was nervous. "I can't do this show," he protested at first. "I've never even known a Puerto Rican." His lyrics bore that out. ...
World War 2 offers an interlude with the only serious considerations of Alaska - the building of the Alaska Highway - and Hawaii. If you've ever wondered why Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps on the mainland but not in Hawaii, the answer turns out to be that military rule there was so strict as to make the whole islands effectively internment camps.
But after the Philippines win their independence (another strange twist in US policy) and Puerto Rico becomes a commonwealth, the book changes course into soft empire, and here it takes on a strange boosterish quality, as - starting actually with WW2 - American plastics, materiel, mechanical standards (like uniform screw sizes), and the English language take over the world. Immerwahr even credits American empire with the success of the Beatles, for it was a massive nearby US air base that brought American rock & roll records to Liverpool and kicked off the locals' enthusiasm for listening to and making that kind of music. Or so he says. Books on the Beatles usually explain the cultural exchange by pointing out that Liverpool was a cosmopolitan port city. Weirdly, there's little about the harmful effects of these bases. It's blasé about Gitmo and doesn't even discuss Diego Garcia, which you'd think would be red meat for Immerwahr.
So I have my doubts about this book's viewpoint and broad-scale accuracy, but it sure has some interesting things to say.

Sherrod Brown, Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
Democratic Senator from Ohio writes about predecessors who carved their names into the same desk that he uses on the Senate floor. (Apparently this is customary, though there's the occasional puritan who refuses to deface government property.) Some of them are pretty well-known, like Hugo Black, Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern. Others are obscure except to Senate buffs like me. What's curious is that Brown can't hide, and doesn't even try to hide, that two of the least-known, Herbert Lehman and Theodore Francis Green, got a lot more done as governors (of New York and Rhode Island, respectively) than they ever did after coming to the Senate, where they kind of ossified.
The lesson seems to be that yes, you can change America. But only with a heck of a lot of effort and you can't change it very much.

Monday, March 21, 2022

concert review: Winchester Orchestra

This was not an ordinary concert, not for us.

B. has decided to occupy much time in her retirement with practicing and improving her playing on the violin. Along with taking lessons and playing chamber music with friends, she's wanted to join a non-professional orchestra. She's been practicing with a wholly amateur group called the Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra, which I've mentioned here before; but what I hadn't mentioned is her quest to try herself out in an ensemble which, while still non-professional, is a serious orchestra that puts on serious concerts.

And she alighted on this group, the Winchester Orchestra, which looked like a potentially achievable challenge and which offered the further temptation that their March concert was scheduled to include Beethoven's Fifth, a worthy goal for any orchestral musician to aim for. And so for a while, the sound of the second violin parts of Beethoven's Fifth and the other works on that program filled our house during B's lengthy home practice hours.

But then the omicron wave arrived, and the music director decided to postpone that concert and substitute an all-strings program so that everybody could be masked. And so B. switched to practicing this instead. Either way, she found it a challenge: the level and above all the speed at which the conductor had the orchestra play, the challenges of getting to nighttime rehearsals at the isolated music building in the back of a hillside junior college, and the sheer amount of time and sweat that practicing entails has made this more drudgery than fun. So for her next act, B. is thinking of going down a notch in the non-pro sweeps. More on that when performance time arrives.

But she made it through to this concert, and from this listener's standpoint it was worth the effort. The orchestra has the usual wobbles of a non-pro group, but mostly I thought it shone very nicely. The conductor, Scott Seaton, has a clear beat despite not using a baton in concert (he did at rehearsal), and has definite ideas about interpretive matters like emphasis and phrasing that he's able to communicate to the players and have them respond to. The result was a work of art in the performance as well as in the composition, and that's what you want of a concert.

The orchestra had further luck in the venue, a Mennonite (of all things) church in Willow Glen, whose small but spaciously-shaped sanctuary had stunningly great acoustics that gripped the 24-member orchestra and enlarged the sound to be as rich and full as it deserved. About 60 people attended and got to hear a good 75-minute concert. Winchester is so lucky it didn't wind up in the theatrical but unmusical Hammer Theatre in downtown San Jose like some of the other local groups.

The program included, as appetizer, Mozart's unutterably catchy Divertimento in F, K. 138, which I was surprised to find, when the conductor asked, that I was one of only 2 people in the audience who knew it; for the main course, Tchaikovsky's gorgeous and wholly characteristic Serenade; and for dessert, an arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's lively little Libertango for strings plus piano and clonk (I don't know what it's called, but you hit the two halves of it together and it goes clonk). Plus, as unscheduled introduction, the national anthem of Ukraine. Because of course you do that.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

folk festival

I couldn't miss this one. A collective performance at the Freight & Salvage of several luminaries - including my adored Christine Lavin - of the American folkie singer-songwriter movement (mostly just one person with an acoustic guitar: occasional substitution of subdued electric or of piano), usually their own compositions, sometimes each other's, sometimes old folk or pop numbers.

Being solo performers, they played mostly separately. Each did a mini-set of 2 or 3 songs, then they all sat together and took turns for another total of 3 songs each. Then they closed with a couple of joint performances, finishing off with "You've really got a hold on me."

In their solos,
Christine Lavin played a male (het) edition of "Good thing [s]he can't read my mind," including a verse on "I am watching chick flicks," which referenced Terms of Endearment and The Way We Were, which would be a bit much even for me. She also sang my (obscure) favorite of her songs, "Fly on a Plane," which utterly stunned the audience: no applause, except from me.
Patty Larkin sang her setting of William Carlos Williams's poem "The Fool's Song."
Cliff Eberhardt sang a tribute song to all the things he's forgotten on tour and left behind in his hotel room. Near the end, it included the line "I left my heart in San Francisco."
John Gorka sang a sardonic toast to being from New Jersey, and also the folk song "Wayfaring Stranger."

Very relaxed evening. The room about 2/3 filled. The performers pointed out that for a couple of years there, they weren't sure if they'd ever get to perform live again, so they were so happy to be here, with an audience - which is pretty much the same thing Richard Thompson said at his concert last month. And we were happy to have them.

It rained that day, for a wonder, but I didn't get wet. Now that BART runs all the way to east San Jose, and the Berkeley station where the Freight is is on that line, I decided to take BART the whole way, and even coming back at 11 PM I still felt toasty enough from the concert that it wasn't too tedious.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

two string quartet concerts

I've been to two string quartet concerts at Herbst in the City this week. One was pretty good. The other was truly exceptional.

They had similar programs. One late Haydn, one epic-sized 19th century work, one mid-20C central European work by a composer more agreeable than Bartók.

The pretty good ensemble was the Pavel Haas, four Czechs (2 M, 2 F) who named their group after a Czech composer who died in the Holocaust. They didn't play his music, though. They played Martinů, his 7th, a bustling and energetic work written while the composer was recovering from a severe injury (he fell off an unrailed balcony in the dark - ouch!), but doesn't sound like the composer is suffering.

It sounds, instead, like it's bustling off in various directions at once, a good look for one of those quartet ensembles which sounds like four entirely distinct voices in conversation. It was a less good look on Schubert's G major, which though never boring or slack came out kind of ropy and overextended, as if it was just trying to speak plainly and not achieve the blissful harmonic realms of great Schubert. The Haydn (Op 76/1) was more successful at being matter-of-fact.

The exceptional ensemble was the Esmé. Four young Korean women (very tall, all of them), working in Germany where they all trained, who gave their group a French name.

Even in their opening Haydn (Op 77/1), it was apparent they had a distinct sound, extremely bright and airy, floating out and exposing Haydn's graceful construction. This worked less well with the lush harmonies of Korngold's 2nd, which while played well and incisively, gave off a wet and lurid sound as if what was being exposed here was living flesh.

None of that prepared us for what came with Dvořák's Op 106. This was awesome, a performance for the ages. Somehow the ensemble's airy sound was perfectly matched to Dvořák's balance and expression, while the piece flowed along with the ideal bounce and energy which makes for a winning visit to this composer. Everything felt as if it belonged there and was contributing to the whole. And to think I've heard performances of Op 106 that sounded dull or routine.

This was SF Performance's annual subscriber gift concert, for which they usually come up with something special. This group is apparently well-known in Europe, but this was, they modestly explained, their first-ever performance in North America. (Actually, they had a concert scheduled a couple days earlier in the Cal Tech chamber music series, but it was cancelled for some reason.) They're on tour for a couple more weeks, but they aren't playing the Dvořák again. That was ... truly amazing, and I'm sorry for anyone who missed it.

Friday, March 18, 2022

an ominous rumble

Rumor is filtering over from Europe about a new variant virus which hasn't had much of an effect in the US yet. But it might soon, and thereby lies a practical concern for me.

I had been intending to put off compiling the annual bibliography for Tolkien Studies for another month, in favor of more urgent matters. But this task requires going out to the university libraries to search the proprietary databases. For two years I couldn't do that because the libraries were closed, and I had to resort to makeshift solutions.

But now the libraries are open, some of them anyway, and I am looking forward to going. But if the new variant spreads, will they stay open? It would be folly to wait a month and then find I was too late.

But before I visit the libraries I have to do first the even more extensive work in my own collection and in the public online databases, so that I can have as much information already down on my list, maximizing the efficiency of my time in the libraries by being able to pass over many of the listed items with "OK, I already have that one."

And that's going to require several days of perspiring work over a hot computer, and I'm starting that now. If I can get over the hill to Santa Cruz, my library of first resort, before the end of next week, that'll be great.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

worse than changing clocks

I'm going to keep harping on this because it is so very, very wrong.

From a Washington Post article:
Sleep experts widely agree with the Senate that the country should abandon its twice-yearly seasonal time changes. But they disagree on one key point: which time system should be permanent. Unlike the Senate, many sleep experts believe the country should adopt year-round standard time.

“We do applaud stopping the switching during the course of the year and settling on a permanent time,” said Jocelyn Cheng, a member of the AASM’s public safety committee. But, she added, “standard time, for so many scientific and circadian rationales and public health safety reasons, should really be what the permanent time is set to.”

Daylight saving time “does not ‘save’ evening light at all, it simply steals it from the morning when it is necessary to maintain our healthy biological rhythms.” (David Neubauer, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University)

Experts say circadian misalignment has been associated with adverse effects on cognition and mood as well as cardiovascular and metabolic function. “It’s really not a good thing to have your internal body clocks out of sync,” Zee said. “Imagine being in jet lag a lot of the time; it can’t be good for you.” (Phyllis Zee, chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine)

The current enthusiasm for permanent daylight saving time is “grossly misguided,” said Neubauer, who predicted a return to “the extremely unpopular 1970s dark winter mornings with commuters going to work and children going to school long before sunrise, inevitably leading to injuries and fatalities.”

Zee said her “heart sank” when she saw the news of the Senate vote. Of the three potential time systems for the country to be on — permanent standard, biannual switching and permanent daylight saving time — she said, the last is “probably the worst choice.
(And why am I writing about this and not Ukraine again? Because I don't have to write about Ukraine. The entire US Senate didn't just vote to support Putin, did it?)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022


1. In the absence of the full report, I don't have much to say about the news that the scripts for the (unpreseved) 1955-56 BBC radio version of The Lord of the Rings have been discovered, save that it's not surprising that it was Stuart Lee who discovered them, as he's done previous estimable work on Tolkien in the BBC archives. It should be recorded that Tolkien's own reaction to the script and performances included words like "dreadful," "not well done," and "sillification."

2. The Senate has passed a bill mandating year-round DST. Oh no, no, no. The one thing worse than changing the clocks twice a year would be staying on DST over the winter. What advocates of DST seem to fail to understand is that changing the clock doesn't make the day longer, it just moves it around, and in winter there's not that much to move. DST is supposed to make you happier because the sun is up, so it won't make people happy having to get up and go to work in the dark when they didn't have to do so before. Here's a little map showing how grim it would be, and that's from an article favoring the change. The last time we tried year-round DST - anybody else remember that? - it was popular when enacted but a complete disaster in the implementation and quickly repealed.

3. I sympathize with Ukraine under attack, but I wish its politicians would stop begging the West to establish a no-fly zone. This is not, as the term might suggest, a neutral peace-keeping measure. It would consist of militarily attacking Russian planes, ergo going to war with Russia, and NATO has made very clear that it's not going to war with Russia over Ukraine. We're in a situation similar to the early stages of the World Wars (not a parallel that invites much confidence in the future), and the NATO countries should do the equivalent of what the US did then, which is support from outside. Supplying Ukraine with planes and letting them enforce their own laws would be best. And good luck with that: it's not feasible to enforce no-fly over such a vast area.

4. Gas prices are up, and Republicans are blaming Biden. That's silly. Biden blocked Russian imports on bipartisan demand, and we still have plenty of oil. And our fuel prices are still lower than Europe's have long been. Prices went up because the oil companies exploited the crisis: they could raise their prices so they did. That's the oft-touted free market for you.

5. Twitter thread on 'prospective memory,' i.e. remembering that you intend to do something. I don't have ADHD, but I have concerns in this area. This is why I consider my pocket appointment book my portable memory and feel lost without it - though not as helpless as I tend to think. I've lately taken to numbering daily chores, including the medicines I take, so as not to skip one; since they're daily, I don't have the usual problem of mentally numbering things and then saying, "I know I had five tasks, but I can't remember what the fifth one was."

Monday, March 14, 2022

the plane course before us

I just did something I hadn't done for over two years: reserve and purchase a future plane flight. There's travel on my schedule this summer, and as a 2-3 day drive through country that elects the likes of Paul Gosar is even less appetizing than a plane flight, the flight it is.

For B., who is coming with me, it'll have been even longer. Not flying is one of her goals in life, and in 2019 she achieved that status for the year. Mythcon that year was in San Diego, an easy day-and-a-half drive from here, so she hasn't been on a plane since 2018, when Mythcon was in Atlanta, and wasn't getting there fun.

But age, and the particular effects of living through isolation, have had their further effects, and I've instituted a number of new regulations involving our flying policies:

1. Not to change planes during a journey any more if it can possibly be avoided, that is the law.
I found a Southwest flight that makes a stop but does not change planes. That requires flying out of SFO rather than San Jose, but in some respects SFO is actually easier to deal with.

2. Not to think we can walk all the way to the gate with our carry-on luggage any more, that is the law.
Nowadays you can reserve wheelchairs while making your reservation. Being in a wheelchair also makes it a lot easier to get through TSA check. (Should we sign up for PreCheck? I don't think so. That's for frequent flyers and our whole shtick is not to be frequent flyers; also, the sign-up process, which includes going in for an interview, looks as arduous as the actual screening.)

3. Not to stuff ourselves into 2 seats of a 3-seat economy row any more, that is the law.
Southwest has a program where you can buy 2 seats for one person and get a refund afterwards, so we're trying that. On other airline flights with 3-seat economy rows, we're going business or first class. It's not that much more expensive for a short domestic flight, and the main catch is that, being few in number, they sell out faster than the rest of the plane does.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

one more for the road

Call Me a Cab, by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime, 2022)

This is the fifth posthumous novel to appear under Westlake's name since his death over a dozen years ago. Each, including this, has come with a claim that it will (probably) be the last. This one, which was written about 1978 and appeared in abridged form then as a magazine story, but for some reason never made it to book form, is the only one of the five that isn't darkly serious, and despite the publisher's name there is no crime. It's not comic, but it is fairly lighthearted.

The gimmick here is that a young woman, unable to decide whether to accept her longtime boyfriend's marriage proposal, is taking an extra five days to think about it by taking a taxi across the country instead of flying from NYC to LA to meet him. It's told in first person by the cabbie, and the idea of a young male cabbie narrator with an attractive young woman as his passenger may make you think of Westlake's 1969 novel Somebody Owes Me Money. It should, because not only are the situations similar, so are the characters.

Like Chester, the cabbie in Money, Tom, the cabbie in Cab, is a relaxed fellow with no goals in life other than to get along at what he's doing. Katharine, the passenger, is an achiever with a high-powered job, used to making decisions, and perplexed as to why she's hesitating over this one.

The rather sloggily-paced book traces their drive across the country, their adventures along the way (taking a woman in labor to the hospital, being scooped up while on a walk by a rich elderly couple in a fancy car who want to take them on a pub crawl - in western Kansas?), details the mechanics of getting meals (shared) and hotel rooms (not shared), and recounts their conversations, particularly about marriage - Tom is divorced - and their differing goals in life.

Eventually they do meet the boyfriend and arrive in LA (in that order), and Katharine has a sudden burst of self-realization that she could have had a lot earlier, except then there would be no story, and I'd better stop there. This isn't top-drawer Westlake, but it's very far from bottom-drawer either.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

concert review: Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony

Hurrah, I finally got to a live concert at Kohl Mansion, the first one since the Violins of Hope event two years and one month ago. Preconcert talks moved online; vaccination certificates and masks required; limited seating to allow for distancing.

The event was a chamber concert by musicians of the San Francisco Symphony. I've been to chamber music concerts by symphony musicians before; they have the advantage over regular chamber music concerts, which are invariably strings with or without a piano, that it's easy enough to recruit other instruments to play. So you might get a trio with flute or a quartet with oboe, although the repertoire works I most desire to hear performed this way, Saint-Saëns' Septet with a trumpet and Brahms's Trio with a French horn, I rarely have.

However, the most common unusual instrument to accompany the usual gang on such an event is a double bass, and that's what we had here. This inevitably means we get a piece by Rossini, who wrote a number of chamber works with double bass, and Dvořák's String Quintet with a double bass in it. (String Quintets more usually add to the standard string quartet - 2 violins, viola, cello - another viola, sometimes another cello. The Dvořák is by far the best-known work with this less usual disposition.)

Very fine playing. The double bassist was in tune, apparently - judging from previous experience - a difficult thing for a double bassist to manage. But these folks are from the SFS, an orchestra of supernal quality, and even the back of the second violin section, the usual residence of both the violinists here, is top-notch. And for the first time I got to write a published review of something by Florence Price. Here's the review.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Turning Red

The new Pixar movie, streaming on Disney+ as of today.

In much the same way that Buffy used vampires as a metaphor for teenaged angst, Turning Red uses a 13-year-old girl periodically metamorphing into a giant red panda as a metaphor for puberty. Body parts awkwardly growing, developing body odors, hair growing in unexpected places ... This movie is really quite explicit about a lot of issues of early adolescence. It's set in 2002 for apparently no other reason than to make it credible that the heroine would have a major crush on a boy band of the kind that were popular then. (Also, no cell phones, the presence of which would undercut some of the plot crises.)

It's stunningly detailed in many respects, including ethnic issues: the heroine is from a Chinese family, keeping many Chinese cultural traditions - including, apparently, turning into red pandas - living in Toronto. She has three inseparable friends, distinguished from each other by each being of a completely different ethnicity.

Yet it doesn't really follow through on the puberty metaphor, as the heroine exploits her panda nature by virtue of all the other kids finding it not weird or awkward but cute and fuzzy. And then there's the climactic conflict sequence, which while it doesn't devolve into a thrill-park ride (as e.g. Monsters Inc.), does set high marks in the over-the-top, ridiculous, overextended, unnecessary, and undercutting the movie's previously-established norms categories.

The heroine is a nerd, a top student, generally well-behaved when not a panda, which is a real plus; but much of the plot is about her struggles to get out from under the control of her tiger mom of a mother, who knows exactly what to do that she thinks is caring but utterly embarrasses her daughter. A later sequence reveals that mom as a girl had similar struggles with her mother, which raises the questions of how did mom grow up to be so insensitive and controlling, and how did grandma (as she now is) change into a more caring and understanding figure?

Similar Gumby-type animation style to Disney's Encanto, and the magic in both movies makes equally little sense, but while Turning Red (I keep misremembering the title as Seeing Red or Turning Panda) is pretty good, I rank it far below Encanto in subtlety and differentiation of characters, quality of music (the boy band is not really very good, which I suppose is authentic), and above all pacing. There's a slower paced section of Turning Red in the later middle, but I found the first half so incessantly fast-paced that I had to turn it off for a while halfway through to catch my breath.

Thursday, March 10, 2022


I've been officially on Medicare since the beginning of the month. Today was my first chance to try it out, with a previously-scheduled checkup procedure at the hospital, and also needing to reorder a medication online.

My online signup with Medicare from my previous HMO went fine and I got the new card, with the same ID number, on it some time ago. Admittedly I was slightly worried by the mail I kept getting from their sales office, warning that my insurance was about to expire and urging me to talk with them about a new plan. Had the fact that I'd signed up for Medicare not been processed by the system?

Well, not by that system, but my actual medical record transferred over just fine. The only difference is that the new card has a barcode on the back instead of a magnetic stripe, so it goes for a different reader at the checkin desk.

Now I await the gradual cessation of a flood of mail from other Medicare providers urging me to sign up with them.

As the technician at the hospital was checking my ID, she remarked, "ah, you have a birthday coming up." I do indeed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

his best song

So recently I had cause to mention Irving Berlin in a comment, and that sent me off listening to videos of some of his songs, and that led me, as it inevitably does where Irving Berlin is concerned, to Annie Get Your Gun, the show which as far as I'm concerned has all his best songs in it.

And that led me, in turn, to discover what I must consider the very best performance of his very best song, Reba McEntire as Annie O. lamenting that you can't get a man with a gun. You may think this over-the-top, but I find it funny and very much in character.

And here's another one, with Reba in equally fine form, in a song you might not have heard because it was added for a 1966 revival. Resemblances to "Oh Happy We" from Candide are probably coincidental.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

music of Ukrainian composers

In the current crisis, one supports efforts to display the Ukrainian flag a bit. And those of us with heads in classical music can further show our offstage support for this beleagured country by listening to music of Ukrainian composers. But who are Ukrainian composers? Here I have to explain a bit about the cultural identity of Ukraine.

When Putin says that Ukraine is really part of Russia, what he means is that in the days of the Soviet Union, and even more those of the Russian Empire, the state was a single socio-economic entity. One thing this means is that people moved about the state and conducted their cultural careers irrespective of internal borders, and indeed in imperial days there really weren't any. Even occupied Poland was fully incorporated into the Russian state after 1832. But this applies to nations far more culturally distinct from Russia than Ukraine or even Poland.

Take, for instance, Aram Khachaturian. Unquestionably an Armenian, proud of his nationality and reflecting his national character in his music. But he was born in what is now the nation of Georgia, because ethnicities geographically mingled. And as a citizen of the USSR, he went to its cultural center of Moscow to study and essentially lived there for the rest of his life. But he was still Armenian, and his physical absence in Russia doesn't mean Armenia is any less of a country. And this applies also to Ukraine.

So we can find composers who are ethnically Ukrainian, and we can also play landsmanship as you'll see below. Here's Wikipedia's list. Let's run down through a few whose works I know.

Valentyn Silvestrov
Now aged 84, he's the most distinguished and widely played internationally of distinctly Ukrainian composers. Like his near age-mate Arvo Pärt (Estonian), he started out as a modernist and gradually turned to religiously and liturgically inspired music, though he doesn't share Pärt's minimalist tendencies. I know him best for his somber and Shostakovich-inspired Symphony No. 5, but his other later symphonies have equal weight and seriousness, notably the Symphony No. 8 from only about ten years ago.

Borys Lyatoshinsky
Soviet-era composer and Silvestrov's teacher, also distinctly Ukrainian by ethnicity. Something of a modernist who uncomfortably accommodated himself with Soviet restrictions. His best-known orchestral work is a short and rather hushed Fantastic March from 1920, thus predating those strictures.

Reinhold Glière
Late-imperial composer of the generation of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, who stayed on into Soviet days. Teacher of both Lyatoshinsky (above) and Prokofiev (below). Not generally thought of as Ukrainian, due to spending most of his career in Russia and having a German father (though he respelled his surname to look French). But he had Ukrainian ancestry on his mother's side, he was born and raised in Kyiv, and he displayed Ukrainian nationalism in his music. His magnum opus was an epically-long and dark-toned Symphony No. 3, titled "Ilya Muromets" and inspired by a folk hero of that name of medieval Kievan Rus days, when (as Ukrainians like to point out) Kyiv was the capital of a powerful state and Moscow was but a tributary village.
But one other piece of Glière's has earned immortality far beyond any fame his name can carry. After 20 seconds into this piece you will say, "Oh, yes: that." It's a dance movement from an early Soviet ballet called The Red Poppy. Whenever moviemakers or the like want music that instantly conveys a warning message of "uh-oh, the Russians are coming," they choose this. It is the most purely Russian music ever written, and it's by a Ukrainian, so there.

Now we'll get into the landsmanship stakes, finding famous composers with an association with Ukraine even if they lack a personal Ukrainian identity.

Sergei Prokofiev
Not Ukrainian by ancestry at all, but he was born and spent his early childhood on an estate in what is now eastern Ukraine, where his father was working as a soil engineer. This was before the current boundaries were drawn, but Prokofiev's home region is madly proud of him: they hold a music festival in his honor and have named an airport after him. There isn't much Ukrainian about Prokofiev's music, though like Glière he wrote a piece honoring a hero of Kievan Rus days, the 13th century prince Alexander Nevsky, in the form of the music for Eisenstein's 1938 film. Of this, the Battle on the Ice, depicting Nevsky's defeat of the Teutonic Knights on the frozen Lake Peipus, is the most memorable part.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky wasn't Ukrainian either, but he was visiting his sister's family at their estate in central Ukraine when he wrote his Symphony No. 2. He happened to hear their butler singing a Ukrainian folk song called "The Crane." Tchaikovsky was charmed enough to use it as the main theme for the finale of his symphony. (It's a simple melody undercutting a grand fanfare version that occupies the first 45 seconds of the movement.) Ever since, the work has been known as the "Little Russian" Symphony, because, so help me, "Little Russia" was the common name for Ukraine at the time. (Not any more, OK?)

Mykola (Nikolai) Ovsianiko-Kulikovsky
And now for something completely different. This circa-1800 nobleman and patron of his own private orchestra occupies a special place among Ukrainian composers because he is A HOAX. Sources differ on whether a man of this name existed, but as a composer he is ENTIRELY FICTIONAL. His symphony was written purely as a dig at prejudiced Soviet music critics.
Here's the story. Mikhail Goldstein was a composer from Odessa, who was criticized in the 1940s for using Ukrainian themes in his music on the grounds that, as the son of immigrants and - even more - as a Jew, he could not appreciate Ukrainian culture and shouldn't be using it. Incensed, Goldstein decided to get his own back by conveniently "finding" in an archive a "long-forgotten" Haydnesque symphony with an impeccably Ukrainian pedigree and, of course, using Ukrainian folk music. It was praised as a great discovery, certified as authentic, widely performed, and recorded by the distinguished conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky. Then Goldstein revealed that he'd written it; it was a hoax.
Was Goldstein denounced as a traitor to Soviet music and hounded out of the country? Or did the authorities merely shrug and continue to claim that the original attribution was accurate? Bizarrely, both these things are true. Goldstein went to Germany, and when I first came across reference to Ovsianiko-Kulikovsky in the 1970s, sources following Soviet info still depicted it as authentic.
You can judge this rather charming little piece for yourself here with the original recording by Mravinsky.

Friday, March 4, 2022

concert review: Agave Baroque

I asked to review this concert because I was intrigued by the program: no fewer than six members of the famous 17th-18th century Bach musical family.

There were the ultra-famous J.S. Bach, the two less well-known of his four musical sons, and three second or third cousins, one of whom would also have been J.S.'s father-in-law if he hadn't died before J.S. married his daughter. I'd heard the sons' music before, but not the cousins'.

What intrigued me is that all six composers had a distinct musical sound. That's easy to hear in 19th century music, not so obviously perceptible in 18th, but it was here. An educational evening.

Also liked hearing the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor arranged for four strings, guitar, and harpsichord, though the arranger wasn't identified.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

we don't sing about what?

To my recent collection of cover versions of "We Don't Talk About Bruno," A. Ducker offered a link to a parody version, "We Don't Talk About Pluto." It's quite amusing and well-written, though better-written than -sung (and they ought to learn how to spell "its"). But: over fifteen years since the IAU reclassed Pluto as a dwarf planet, and people are still that upset about it?

It might help to remember why Pluto was reclassed. Pluto was discovered in 1930. It was supposed to be another gas giant like Uranus or Neptune, but it wasn't, and the more we studied it over the years the less well it fit in with the other planets. But it wasn't until 60 years later that we began to discover other trans-Neptunian objects that were more like Pluto and started to realize that was the class into which it properly fit. And after due consideration the IAU formally created such a category. That's the story.

But what I wondered is, why did it take 60 years? Could some of the others been found earlier if we were looking? If not, how much does Pluto stick out from this new category? The key feature, I figured, was the apparent magnitude. I got a list of important TNOs from Wikipedia, and then looked them up individually, and have here what I haven't seen elsewhere, a list of them, ordered by apparent magnitude:

formal name	nickname	disc.	observatory	apparent magnitude

Pluto				1930	Lowell		13.65-16.3 (mean 15.1)
Makemake	Easterbunny	2005	Palomar		17.0
Haumea		Santa		2004	Palomar		17.3
Eris		Xena		2005	Palomar		18.7
Quaoar		Object X	2002	Palomar		19.1
Orcus				2004	Palomar		19.1
Ixion				2001	Cerro Tololo	19.8
Lempo				1999	Kitt Peak	19.9
Varuna				2000	Kitt Peak	20.3
Sedna		Dutch		2003	Palomar		20.5-20.8
(unnamed)			1996	Mauna Kea	21
Gonggong	Snow White	2007	Palomar		21.4
(unnamed)	Buffy		2004	Mauna Kea	21.8-21.9
(unnamed)	Niku		2011	Mount Lemmon	22
(unnamed)	Drac		2008	Mauna Kea	22.89
Albion		Smiley		1992	Mauna Kea	23.3
(unnamed)	Biden		2012	Cerro Tololo	23.34
(unnamed)	Farout		2018	Mauna Kea	24.6
(unnamed)	FarFarOut	2018	Mauna Kea	25.3
Arrokoth	Ultima Thule	2014	Hubble		26.6

I've inserted the nicknames because many of them hit the news before they were officially named, so the nickname became what they were generally known as. I could have told you that there were TNOs known as Xena and Easterbunny, but would have blanked on what their official names were.

Anyway, from this list it's clear that Pluto is the brightest. But if you know magnitudes, you can see that even Pluto is faint beyond the reach of an ordinary backyard telescope, let alone the naked eye. Tombaugh's telescope was, I think, the 61 cm at Lowell, and a list at Wikipedia's Apparent magnitude article indicates that a 50.8 cm telescope can see up to magnitude 16.4. So he could probably have not quite seen any other TNOs. The discovery of Pluto - which had been photographed before, but nobody had noticed it because it wasn't the big planet they were looking for - was sheer luck. It might not have been discovered till later, with a better understanding of what it was.

Remember that Ceres was also originally considered a planet, and it was only after the discovered asteroids began to multiply in profusion that a new category was created. The same thing happened here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Priscilla Tolkien

I don't have any further information, but I've just heard of the passing on Monday of Priscilla Tolkien, youngest and last surviving of JRR Tolkien's four children and his only daughter.

Priscilla Mary Anne Reuel Tolkien was born 18 June 1929, so she was 92 years old. She was a little young for The Hobbit when it was being told aloud to her brothers, but by the same token was able to extend the letters from Father Christmas until 1943, when she was 14. At about that time she typed out parts of The Lord of the Rings. She got her university degree from Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall. Seeking a non-academic role in life out of her father's shadow and one that would be of practical assistance to the world, she became a probation officer, though in her later working years spent much of her time teaching and training in the broader field of social work.

I met Priscilla Tolkien on a couple of occasions. It was her custom for many years to invite first-time attendees of Oxonmoot, the Tolkien Society's annual informal conference, to an at-home at the large and rambling yard of her house in the leafy parts of north Oxford. Often there were a small grand-nephew or grand-niece or two playing in the yard. (A notable great-aunt, Priscilla never married or had children of her own.) She was always friendly but formal, reminding me in that respect and also in appearance of what one sees of the Queen, who is of a similar age.

Priscilla Tolkien often spoke at Tolkien Society events, and wrote a few articles recollecting her father and his work. Most important of these was The Tolkien Family Album, an extensive collection of photographs that Priscilla had kept, sorted and captioned in collaboration with her brother John. Her contributions were valuable and her person was cherished.

singing Bruno

There are a lot of cover versions of "We Don't Talk About Bruno," the complex multi-character song from Disney's Encanto. I've caught quite a few, and here are the best.

The best cover version, by the Sharpe Family Singers.

(There's also another family-singers version, which I'm not linking to because not one of them can sing.)

This one is also pretty good.

This one kind of impressed me. The singing quality is not that great, but they not only sang but acted out the song in one camera shot. Others have sung the whole thing with no retakes, but nobody else has also acted it in one shot.

The father-daughter version: well-performed, but just a wee bit disconcerting.

(If Dad, singing Dolores' part, is going to change "man of my dreams" to "girl of my dreams," why is he also singing of marriage with his 9-year-old daughter? Yeeks!)

Acapella singing group with few specific character-by-character singing assignments.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

reading Richard II

In our Zoom reading session of the first two acts of Shakespeare's Richard II, I was cast primarily as John of Gaunt. Gaunt's first line is "I have, my liege," and since Shakespearean puffery has become our default mode of expressing medieval & Renaissance language, I immediately thought of Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and modeled my portrayal of Gaunt rather on that voice.

Until, that is, I got to his deathbed scene in Act 2, Scene 1, where he sounded better hoarse and nearly breathless. He takes 12 lines to say that a dying man is likely to speak directly to the point since he doesn't have much time left to say anything. And then he does go on, and on, and on, delivering among much else the famous patriotic "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle" speech.

But he is blunt about it, dressing down his wayward nephew King Richard with such ferocity that Richard threatens to execute him, but that's not a very effective threat towards a man on his deathbed, so Richard is left to stew in frustration.

I also got to read the part of the Lord Marshal in the tournament scene (Act 1, Scene 3). The Lord Marshal's principal job is to formally depose the contestants as to their identities and purposes. To Bolingbroke he addresses himself, "What is thy name? and wherefore comest thou hither?"

And if that doesn't send your mind back to Holy Grail and the Keeper of the Bridge of Death, you just haven't been paying attention. So that suggested a reading of this part ... I've been spoiled, I tell you, just spoiled.