Saturday, April 30, 2022

reeling from a time abyss

I found the time abyss in a miscellaneous assorted box of old cassette tapes that I decided to clean out. It turned out to be a recording of some of the programming from Mythcon X. That was in 1979, 43 years ago. The most interesting item was a panel discussing reactions to a then rather newly published book, The Silmarillion. The panelists weren't named, nor are they listed in the con's program book. Here's where having been there was of help: I was able to identify all of them by voice and manner of speaking.

One of them was myself. The second was Jim Allan - scholar Guest of Honor at the con, and the first important scholar of Tolkien's invented languages. The third was Jim Wallace, sometime president of the Fantasy Association, a MythSoc spinoff group. I haven't been in touch with Jim Allan for many years now, but I did stay in contact with Jim Wallace until he died about eight years ago. Was it spooky to hear his voice again? A little, but it's more that it brought back memories.

One of the things we talked about at some length on this panel was ... fan fiction. Yes! In 1979! And the reason we were talking about fan fiction was in reaction to our shared comment about how sketchy The Silmarillion was. It was full of tales told only in the briefest of outline, or not told at all but only referred to, sometimes with reference to how the full story appears in ... some other imaginary document. This generates the urge to tell some of these stories that Tolkien never got around to, and thus fan fiction. We made reference to the only easily-available Tolkien fan fiction at the time, Marion Zimmer Bradley's stories The Jewel of Arwen and The Parting of Arwen. Both of these, though based on The Lord of the Rings, have the same function as what we were imagining: to fill in parts of the story that Tolkien left out.

Then what should happen, soon after I listened to this tape, was to have the opportunity to participate in a Zoom discussion of scholarly study of Tolkien fan fiction, with guest speaker Dawn Walls-Thumma, author of this article on fan fiction, which I found interesting enough to want to discuss. Among the points she makes is that the oft-cited distinction in Tolkien fan fiction between "bookverse" and "movieverse" is somewhat illusory: even dedicated movie-inspired writers will draw material from the book as well, in part because there's so much to draw from.

So what I wondered was whether there was a distinction between those who, like us in 1979, seek to write in Tolkien's spirit and merely to fill in gaps in his stories, and those who, like many writers today, write altering the characters to be whatever they want - to, in the words of one of the participants, re-invent the myth to fit their contemporary needs. And the answer turned out to be yes: the technical terms in fan-fic criticism are "affirmational" and "transformational," that while transformational fic predominates, there are affirmational writers, some of them so dedicated they seek to replicate Tolkien's literary style as well as his form of content (no word on how well they achieve this). It's nice to know that.

Another point made at this meeting which gratified me was a distinction between fan fiction and reactive fiction in general. Advocates of fan fiction often try to validate and legitimize their activity by co-opting all fiction that reacts and responds to earlier works and call it fan fiction, e.g. Paradise Lost is Bible fan fiction. But it's not. It's like the definition of fandom itself: fanac is not defined by its content - it can be about anything - but by the context in which it's done, that of fandom. Similarly, fan fiction is a communal activity with certain characteristics, among them that it's not commercial - you'll note that back in 1979 we didn't cite Bored of the Rings as fan fiction, because it's not, it's a commercial parody - and, particularly important to the person making this point, it's predominantly women writers. Claim Milton and Shakespeare for fan fiction, you're just putting the same dead white males in charge again. It's like science fiction writers claiming Gilgamesh and Lucian of Samosata as their progenitors: those you're seeking to impress will not be paying attention to your claims.

But the co-opting of distinguished past reactive fiction as fan fiction has an aim beyond self-aggrandizement. It is to legitimize a form often denigrated as illegitimate and parasitic. See, they say, if Milton could do the Bible I can do it to the latest novel or TV show, and the creators have no cause to complain. But the objection being raised by authors to fan fiction of their own works isn't against the aesthetic right to be transformative or reactive, it's on the legal and moral question of invading the under-copyright work of living authors. (n.b. that Tolkien is no longer living, and while his work is still under copyright, under a reasonable time limit much of it would no longer be.)

(Oh, and the cassette? On its way to the MythSoc archives at Southwestern Oklahoma State U.)

Friday, April 29, 2022

the BISQC lineup

Today was the announcement of the ten quartets that will be performing in the Banff International String Quartet Competition at the end of August. I'm not attending this year, though I went to the last two triennial events, but I'm still interested, and I believe the concerts will be live-cast, so I intend to listen to at least a lot of them. (But that's aspirational. Doubting I'd have the stamina to attend them all any more is one reason I'm not going in person.)

They did livecast the announcement today. So far they haven't put up any information on the quartets or their repertoires for the competition, but I did at least copy down the names and look them all up. They were identified by country or countries of origin, and I've classified them thus here. Interestingly, no Canadian groups this time: local favorites have traditionally done well at Banff. There was a point made to say that no countries were excluded.

So I'm putting them down here so that I have links to them and can listen to their clips at leisure:

US groups
Abeo Quartet
Balourdet Quartet
Isidore String Quartet

European groups
Quatuor Agate (France) (a 2019 competitor)
Animato Quartet (Netherlands, also Norway)
Karski Quartet (Belgium, also Poland)
Opus13 String Quartet (Norway, also Sweden)
Sonoro Quartet (Belgium, also Ireland)

Miscellaneous groups (both based in the US)
Dior Quartet (US/Israel/Korea/St. Lucia)
Terra String Quartet (US/Venezuela/Iceland/Australia)

The director of Banff is named as a mentor of the Dior Quartet, but he's not one of the judges so I don't know how much of an edge that will give them.

One thing I'm eager to see about the repertoire is that, where each previous BISQC has begun with a recital round of one Haydn and one "modern" (basically post-1905) quartet, this one is asking for the modern piece to be written 2000 or later. So out with the Bartok, Janacek, and Ligeti which have dominated in the past; if you want to play one of those (and I suspect most will), you'll have to save it for the ad lib round. I've gone through the complete list of compositions played, and find that, to date, six compositions that meet the date requirements have been played in ad lib rounds at the last two competitions - not counting the new compositions commissioned by Canadian composers for all the quartets to play. So there's plenty of material out there, some of it actually good. I'm looking forward to this.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

language and linguistics

My latest reading is a scholarly anthology called Language Invention in Linguistics Pedagogy, ed Jeffrey Punske et al (OUP, 2020). I'm not recommending this to you - for one thing, it's rare enough that I had to get it by inter-library loan from a university 2000 miles away - but it struck some interesting thoughts.

It's a book that kept turning up when I was searching for Tolkien references in the 2020 literature for my bibliography, so I had to look at it to see if there was enough about Tolkien in it to make it worth listing. There isn't, but he's frequently referred to. The topic is using invented or constructed languages ("conlangs" is the accepted term) in linguistics courses, and most of the contributions are by professors or college instructors reporting on classes they've taught. Often this involves having the students construct their own languages, but most of the classes begin with surveys of existing conlangs, and Tolkien's Elven tongues are always mentioned.

There are also frequent citations to Tolkien's essay A Secret Vice, an early and extensive discussion of the motivation for and practice of creating artistic conlangs, and several authors cite that Tolkien's "novels were developed in order to situate his invented languages in a time and place ... Thus, while other writers created conlangs for their fiction, Tolkien created fiction for his conlangs." Tolkien did say something like this ("The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse"), but to present it baldly, as these writers do, and without the context Tolkien's statement is embedded in, does rather oversimplify the process.

I found the most interesting chapter to be Arika Okrent's (a linguistics PhD but a journalist, not a professor) on how budding linguists find and develop their love for languages, and how they're distinct from other language students. Linguists are attracted by the structure and grammar of languages, not so much by the opportunity to read literature in that language, which is the customary motivation. Indeed, linguists who major in a specific language often find themselves hitting a brick wall with the analysis in their literature classes, which they find alienating. One French major tells of a class on Stendhal's The Red and the Black. He was asked "Why do you think Julien Sorel took the hand of Madame Renal?" and he says he wishes he had the nerve to reply, "I have no idea, but what I want to know is, why he used the subjunctive?"

I found I could identify with this, but only to an extent. I'm not a linguist, I'm linguistics-adjacent. I took Spanish and German in school (I switched to German because it was fun to pronounce and in hopes of reading the liner notes on German classical LPs), but I found memorizing vocabulary to be nerve-wracking, and I never got fluent enough to take literature classes in it. (But I hated the Leavisite dogma I was getting in my English lit classes, so I doubt I would have done well.) So while I was actually pretty good at language, I disliked learning the topic, which is also how I stood with mathematics.

I majored in history at university; sticking mostly with American history meant that other languages didn't come up much. UC had a linguistics department, but it didn't occur to me to check it out until I took the basic intro course in my senior year. Surprise, I loved it. It wasn't about languages and the drill of memorizing them, it was about language, the concept, and the structural comparison among lots of languages which you studied on that level, but that you weren't expected to know well enough to speak or to read fluently. This was much more interesting than studying one individual language in detail. I learned enough about linguistic theory to disagree with Noam Chomsky, and a lot else.

I could have done with more of that, but it was too late. If I'd discovered this in my freshman year and the follow-up courses had been equally enticing, I might have changed my intended major, who knows?

Monday, April 25, 2022

reading Henry IV

Our Zoom play-reading group has been proceeding slowly - we skip some weeks due to schedule conflicts, and it took 3 sessions to get through Shakespeare's Richard II. A reference to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time by someone who'd momentarily forgotten which one was Richard II and which one was Richard III led to the amazing discovery that Tey had written a play about Richard II. She wrote it in 1932 for John Gielgud, after seeing him in the Shakespeare play, having determined that a broader perspective on Richard's life might make him more understandable and sympathetic. It employed the then-daring notion of contemporary 20th century language for these 14th century characters, and reportedly made Gielgud's name outside the Elizabethan stage. It's titled Richard of Bordeaux (Richard was Richard of Bordeaux for the same reason that his uncle was John of Gaunt, because he was born there) and we read it next, having found it in the Australian Project Gutenberg archive. Terrific drama, and it ought to be revived.

Now we're back to Shakespeare's next history play, Henry IV Part 1, which we began today. I get to play Falstaff. And here's the historical background notes I wrote for my fellow thespians:

In our previous plays, the inadequate King Richard II had been deposed and replaced by his first cousin, Henry IV. There's a catch, though. Henry wasn't Richard's legal heir to the throne. Richard's father, the Black Prince, was Edward III's eldest son, but Henry's father, John of Gaunt, was the third surviving son. The second son was Lionel of Antwerp. He had left a daughter who married into a gentry family called the Mortimers, and her current heir by this time is her grandson, Edmund Mortimer. It is he who, by strict primogeniture, should have succeeded Richard as king.

Accordingly, the Percy family - noble magnates from the north of England, the brothers Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Worcester, and Northumberland's son, known as Hotspur - who had rebelled against Richard II, now step up again. They find cause to quarrel with King Henry over the same thing they quarreled with Richard about - confiscatory royal finance, because the king always needs money, no matter which king he is - and they (the Percys) seize on Edmund Mortimer, to whom they're related by marriage, as the banner of their rebellion. They also ally with the always-rebellious Welsh, led by the shaman Owen Glendower. They make an odd assortment, as we'll see later in the play.

The other factor in this play is the king's son and heir, known here as Prince Hal. Shakespeare depicts him as a carefree carouser. This is according to a widespread legend, but we don't know how much truth there is in it. Hal's fellow carousers, though - the famous Sir John Falstaff and all the rest - are completely fictional, Shakespeare's own inventions. Shakespeare is careful, though, to ensure that he depicts Hal as not too naughty, and to let some hints emerge of the sober and mighty warrior king he will someday become.

Changes from history: Hotspur is depicted as a young hothead to contrast him with Hal, but he was actually an older seasoned warrior by this point. And the play combines two Edmund Mortimers: the warrior/rebel in this play was the (non-heir) uncle of the actual young heir.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

end of Pesach

As the light slowly closed on the last day of Pesach aka Passover on Saturday, I was at the family seder to which I'm customarily invited as a supernumerary member. This was news because it was the first time we'd done it in three years. Everybody was vaccinated - and I was fresh out of my second booster shot the previous afternoon, that's my other news - so we were feeling pretty easy about it. Even the cats were cool.

Normally it takes about two hours to get through the prayers, narratives, responsive readings, tiny skits, songs, and ritual eating (this is the matzo of affliction, these are the bitter herbs) and drinking (this is the second cup of wine, praise to the Lord who created the fruit of the vine) that make up the bulk of the seder before the meal is served - there's more afterwards, and you're not in a hurry: this is a relaxed occasion. But Jena, our hostess and mother of the clan, who acted as leader, took a turbo-charged way through the opening, reading fast and skipping a lot, and got through it in 65 minutes flat. Mark, her husband, prepared a fine lamb roast for the main dish plus magnificently tasty matzo-ball soup with home-made schmaltz as an ingredient and eggs fresh from the 15 chickens they have living largely in their back yard (this is out in the country to be sure). Guests brought sides; I made the same broccoli I had for B's family last week. Some sort of whiskey-infused flan and chocolate mousse for dessert.

Home again before falling asleep, fortunately.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

towering influence

Several Tolkienists have written about the influence on his writing that they see from the works of John Buchan. One of them led a discussion today of Huntingtower, a book deemed a particular influence on The Hobbit.

I read Huntingtower for this - first book by Buchan I'd read - and I don't really see it. There are certain parallels, to be sure - middle-aged business-like homebody goes out on long country walk, has adventures, gets kind of subsumed by the story as it reaches its climax - and some specific detailed resemblances - Huntingtower takes place in the Scottish district of Carrick, which means "rock", and Bilbo visits a Carrock, which is a large rock - but I'm not too impressed with claims that the Gorbals Die-Hards are like the dwarves, even though both sets are short and numerous, or that rescuing the Russian princess is like reclaiming the treasure of Thror. Nor do the prose styles seem at all mutually reminiscent. Huntingtower was entertaining enough and readable, but I think The Hobbit is much better crafted. For one thing it doesn't turn slack and lose interest when the battles begin and Bilbo recedes from the forefront of the story, whereas Huntingtower does at the equivalent point.

I tried my hand at tenuous parallels by proposing one between John Heritage and Gandalf. He's initially a guide, he's initially somewhat obnoxious, he becomes a friend and a commander of the expedition but disappears from the viewpoint for a large part of the middle of the story ...

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

end of civilization

So now they're ending mask mandates on public transportation, just when I was barely beginning to think it was safe to use it again, at least until the next omicron spike rises. Fortunately I have a choice; many people don't. I just have to hope we're still in a lax trend when I next get on a plane in three months.
Biden was asked, “Should people continue to wear masks on planes?” and gave the supremely unhelpful reply “That’s up to them.” No! If it's up to anyone there, it's all the people around you! This is public health: what you do affects those around you as well as yourself. Freedom does not include the right to breathe deadly virus on those around you. You don't get to decide for yourself whether to take protective measures during a pandemic any more than you get to decide for yourself whether to drive on the right or the left, or whether to stop at red lights. The virus is not done with us yet, and there have to be enforced rules.

In other end-of-civilization news, I read that the AAA is discontinuing paper maps. That's a grave shame, as electronic maps, while very useful, are no substitute for big unfolding paper maps, the only kind where you can see detail and the big picture at the same time, and thus adequately understand where you're going. Online directions can be followed, but don't give a sense of why you're turning here or there, and even with today's advanced algorithms, it's still my hard-learned navigational smarts and knowledge of the area that has saved me from some absurd electronic directions; see my trip to LA last summer, when the directions took me miles out of the way to avoid one closed freeway exit, when taking the regular route and just getting off at the next exit was a satisfactory option.
It's also frustrating because, apart from the very occasional use of emergency road service, which I guess is worth the trouble to pay for it, maps are the only thing I belong to the AAA for.

Monday, April 18, 2022

holiday season

Friday was the first night of Pesach, and since it was also Good Friday and I'm married to a Catholic, it was appropriate to make matzo ball soup (with imitation-chicken broth) for dinner.

Sunday was the party at B's niece's house for the holiday I know, for the nature of the celebration it entails, as Eatster. I made an even simpler than ever before broccoli dish, which got entirely eaten this time: just steamed broccoli with a pine nut-basil-parsley-parmesan-lemon juice dressing that gets mixed and poured over it just before serving. Found it in the broccoli cookbook I bought at the Salinas Valley broccoli festival all those years ago.

Plenty of relatives including children and friends-o'-the-family around, so let's just hope there was also no virus.

And with a little hopefulness for the future, I've just learned that the seder from friends that I customarily attended pre-pandemic has been revived this year for next Saturday afternoon, just in time to fit into Pesach itself.

Meanwhile I'm awaiting the last-minute corrections in our tax return to be made, and am looking for consultation on a fairly minor but urgent legal matter, and am also finishing up another deadline ...

Sunday, April 17, 2022

success in Berkeley

I accomplished the research I needed for the Tolkien bibliography at UC Berkeley on Saturday with no more trouble than I'd had in Davis on Thursday, although a lot more walking with a lot more hills. The only irony is that Thursday and Saturday were the two days lately on which it's been raining and they're the two days on which I've gone out. But, after having been unable to find parking at UCB on Thursday afternoon, I thought Saturday might be easier: not only less commuting, but a number of permit-only lots on campus are open to public parking on weekends and evenings.

(And if you're worried, as B. was, that they might be closed because it's Easter weekend: nah. Not a Catholic school, after all. Open today, too, but today I'll be busy.)

I am in fact impressed at how easy UCB makes work for outside scholars. In the library's computer banks are several machines labeled "Public access terminals," and you just go into the catalogs and look up the online sources, and if you've plugged in a thumb drive the computer automatically knows to save the downloads there.

Then I needed to go into the stacks to get some hard copies, and though the privileges desk doesn't open until 1 pm, the registration process was no-fuss. Checked my ID, then (as I knew they would) asked for the call number of something I'd be consulting. I handed over one of the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award first-ballot lists on which I'd carefully written the call numbers of the two books I needed that UCB has in hard copy, and that did it.

Then there are the absolutely fabulously user-friendly scan machines in the stacks, which assume you have a thumb drive, walk you through the process, show you each page as you scan it, show the number of pages you've done in the set so far, and display big "finish" and "delete" buttons along with the "scan" (next page) button at every stage. On top of which, the scanner is sensitive to what you put on its bed, and if it's a two-page spread with a blank left page, it still scans the whole spread.

The only problem is that the main library is a huge ornate old building, and the computer banks are up here, and the stack entrance is down there, and the elevators are on the other side, and it's a long walk from the nearest parking, longer even than Davis with hills and stairs. Fortunately I know both the library and the campus well, so even in my decayed state I at least knew where I was going.

So all I need now is to wait for the stuff I've ordered by inter-library loan to come in, and the bibliography will be ready; and reading for the awards is coming along too.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

day in another library

Stanford is still closed to visitors (they're private, they can do what they want), so there was nothing for it to complete what I could of the Tolkien bibliography research at UC Berkeley, which is an hour's drive from here without traffic, and UC Davis, which is two hours in the same direction. And it ws best to go as soon as possible before the next wave of virus hits. This week was good: quiet, no appointments, B. out at church rehearsal on Thursday, so no dinner at home.

My plan had been to go to Berkeley first, and finish up the lesser amount of material at Davis later in the day. But then on checking the hours I found that Berkeley is on intersession (Davis is not), and while the library was open in the morning, the privileges desk doesn't open until 1 pm, and a visitor without pre-existing access needs to stop there first.

So it was Davis in the morning, then, and Berkeley afterwards. I left on schedule at 7 AM, well fortified with caffeine, arrived at Davis on schedule at 9, long trudge from the nearest garage to the library (no privileges desk at Davis). Got some hard-copy items I needed to scan. The guy at the computer room help desk was apologetic but knew nothing, but a very helpful person at the circulation desk (and that's a phrase I don't type very often) knew how a visitor could scan items (though not that I had to buy a $1 copy card first, though it didn't charge for the scans), and even where the computers with guest accounts are so that I could access the library's online databases. At which point I found they had some books available online that their catalog didn't know about, aha.

Done by 11.30, lunch at a Burmese restaurant in town (good food in a rather fetid sauce), fueled the car, in Berkeley by 2, which would leave me 6 hours - just enough - to get my work done before the library closes (intersession rules again) if I could have found long-term parking. But by that time of day there was none to be had near enough to walk, and by the time I established that, not enough time to find one further way and get in by bus. Did find a short-term space by the GTU library, but that was only a little help.

So a satisfactory A for the day at Davis, a complete F at Berkeley, and I'll have to try again when I can come back in the morning.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

concert review: Redwood Symphony

My editor sent me to this concert, for my first SFCV review in six months, because they were biting off something bigger than a volunteer community orchestra would be expected to chew: Absolute Jest, John Adams's concerto for string quartet and orchestra.

Sounds congested, but in fact the quartet mostly plays as a group, not as four individuals trying to hog the spotlight, which is what multiple soloists in concertos usually do. I did what I could to study the work in advance, since I knew it had to be the focus for my review, but Adams's jittery, chaotic writing is not always easily absorbed. But I think I got the hang of it.

The other pieces, Beethoven and Copland that I know well and have been listening to since the days you had to get them on LP, were easier. Technical quality was kind of sloppy, but they got the jist of the music and gave it drive and enjoyability. The one thing I didn't find room to mention is that the Copland, which was the opening work, was accompanied by the sight and sound of ushers showing late-comers to their seats. Usual practice is to wait for a break in the music to do that.

And as I mentioned at the end, this is the third concert I've heard in a month - three weeks, actually - that was introduced with the Ukrainian national anthem. Winchester Orch, California Sym, now Redwood. Each with a different arrangement, too. As a gesture of support, it just shows how counter-productive Russian policy is. I wonder: if this were 1914, would we be hearing the Belgian national anthem?

Monday, April 11, 2022

names they should know

One source of amusement is closed captions written by people who don't know the subject matter of the (documentary, in this case) that they're captioning. (This is also why I declined the request to index a book on a subject I wasn't familiar with.)

Veteran orchestral player, elderly and perhaps a bit less than announcer-crisp, but quite intelligible if you know what he's saying, is talking about great conductors under whom he's played. And one of those names appears at the bottom of the screen as:

Fert Lengliff.

Care to guess who that is? It's perfectly obvious in the audio if you know it.

An even worse transcription is "Malcolm [mumbling]," which is quite intelligible as Malcolm Sargent.

Friday, April 8, 2022

concert review: Catalyst Quartet

Up in the City, this was the last concert in the Catalyst Quartet's series of the music of Black composers. I missed the previous concert because of the omicron wave, but I was particularly happy to get to this one, because it was an all-Florence Price concert. Not only that, it was all little-known works, all of which this group has recorded, but one of which they said neither they nor anybody else had ever performed in concert before this evening.

Two works for string quartet and two piano quintets with Michelle Cann, who proved most voluble when introducing the first work. When she begins by saying that Florence Price was born in Little Rock in 1887 and her father was a dentist, settle back, you're in for a long story.

The Piano Quintet in A Minor was written circa 1935 and fits the pattern of Price's other big works of the period. Four movements, starting with an earnestly Romantic, somewhat Dvorak-like, deracinated opening movement, followed by a gorgeous slow movement with a melody along the lines of African-American spirituals, then a lively Juba dance (again an African-American folk style), concluding with an equally lively but more deracinated and Dvorak-like scherzo.

The other piano quintet, which is in E Minor, is rather different. Three movements (possibly it's unfinished, but it doesn't sound so to me), the first much tougher and more irregular than other Price works I've heard, the Andante and concluding Allegretto more normal for her, but all of them very brief, which is unusual, for Price is normally a rather expansive composer.

The String Quartet No. 1 in G was unusual the other way around. It's definitely unfinished, having just two movements in the form of the normal first two. This time it was the first movement which was normal Price, typically agreeable. The second movement, instead of covering a single extended melody, was sectional with some repeating sections, of contrasting character, of which the most striking was the stealthy melody over a creepy walking pizzicato line from the cello.

The fourth work was Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint, not to be confused with the better-known Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, although catalogs often do, and the quartet said that until they saw the score they weren't sure if this was a different work or not. There's four songs here, of which I recognized two. I'm just reproducing the spellings Price gave them when I say that the two are "Little David Play on Yo' Harp" (which I know as "Little David Susskind, Shut Up," because what I know it from is an Allan Sherman album) and "Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho" (which I know as "Joshua Got a Bottle of Geritol," same reason). In both cases, playing it "in counterpoint" means using the opening phrase of the song as a fugue theme and running the piece out from there.

For dinner beforehand, I tried out a little Japanese-Korean restaurant that I ran across on my previous visit when I wasn't able to get off the bus until the next stop after the concert hall. I was curious enough to check the menu online and this time went back deliberately. It's mostly sushi and sashimi, which are outside my eating range, but they do have a decent menu of cooked food as well. I was a little alarmed when they told me the Korean-style fried chicken appetizer was five pieces, but it turned out that meant five small boneless strips, not five big pieces, so I could have ordered with it more than a plate of gyoza. But those chicken strips, besides being crispily fried, were inside fabulously moist and tender. I'll have to come back and try a more serious meal here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

take me to your census

This is fun. I've been looking relatives up in the 1950 US census.

I found my mother in her college dorm, and her parents - even though the enumerator misspelled their name - back at home, with their two live-in maids. (Did I know my grandparents had a maid? Yes, I recall my mother mentioning this. Did I know the maid was live-in? Well, I sort of presumed that. Did I know they had two? No.)

I was unable to find my father. He would have been either at university or med school then, but he turned up in neither city, nor could I find his mother. But the two of them had moved around a whole lot after the divorce when my dad was 12. I did find my grandfather, who stayed put for the rest of his life.

B. wasn't available at the moment to ask, but I guessed what city her parents were living in then, and found them on the first shot, with a 3-year-old daughter, their only child at the time. (You will not get B's sister to admit how old she is today.)

Then there's the enumeration district maps. There's a terrible search interface for these at the National Archives, but someone has made a much better one. These are only necessary if you know the address you're looking for and can find it on a map, and need to know the district to limit your search. I found the name/county search function was sufficiently powerful that I didn't need that. But I did enjoy looking at the maps of the area I grew up in. Clearly the post-war boom which was going full-throttle in the 60s had not started yet in 1950, judging by the tiny towns and the vast agricultural zones (orchards, mostly, I remember, from what was left of them) separating the towns. A different world.

Monday, April 4, 2022

another 48-hour Shakespeare play festival

Silicon Valley Shakespeare does this annually: giving teams each with 4 actors, a writer, and a director 48 hours to write and rehearse a 10-minute skit based on a given Shakespeare play and employing a given premise, each different for each skit, and then perform them before an audience when the 48 hours are up. I've seen these before, and they can be pretty funny.

This year the venue was Foothill College, and the premise was to mash up your assigned Shakespeare play with a popular TV show of your choice. The most successful premise, as well as the most obvious one - possibly these facts are connected - was Titus Andronicus as Chopped, the cooking competition show (which I've actually seen). With one actor as the host and two as the judges, that left one to play all three contestants: Titus, Tamora, and Aaron, which she did virtuosically.

Best single line, however, was in another skit when Captain Kirk, trapped in a Shakespeare re-enactment, wonders how it will come out, and is told, "Not well. It's Richard the Third. Star Trek is never good when it's an odd number."

I also liked one with brilliantly goofy acting by a guy who keeps coming on stage as different characters who all promptly get killed, with his body repeatedly having to be dragged off stage by the same long-suffering other actor.

And the Puck, who, though the Dream mash-up was nominally with Buffy, kept singing snatches of "We Don't Talk About Bruno."

These few highlights aside, though, I thought this year's version was less amusing, and less coherent, than ones I've seen in the past.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

air-fry at last

So now that I have the basket necessary for my oven's air-fry function, after six months of waiting for it, what shall I do with it?

Cook some chicken wings, of course. I'd seen coating mixes for sale specifically formulated for air-fryers, so I picked up one of those and tried it today.

The biggest mystery was the difference between the cooking instructions on the mix package and in the oven manual. The manual said cook chicken wings at 425-450 for 27-32 minutes; the package said 375 for 15-20 minutes. The latter seemed awfully fast; could the difference have anything to do with the oven manual saying no preheating was required for air-frying? For baking/roasting it takes about 12-15 minutes to heat up to such a temperature. Or could it be that the package instructions were for a dedicated air-fryer and not for an air-frying function on an oven?

I decided to lean towards the latter, preheated the oven, and cooked it at 425 for 24 minutes, which was quite long enough.

The basket is a metal mesh pan, with a slight basket indentation, with handles on both ends, almost as wide as the oven. (The ordering instructions had specified the size of the oven.) It's big enough to hold ten small-medium wings. You put it on a low middle shelf and place a baking sheet below it to catch any drips.

And it cooked fine, and it did not smoke up the kitchen. (An important point, since we don't have a kitchen fan.) Nice crispy and crunchy breading, but not too thick, on well-cooked but not dried-out wings, still tasty after they'd cooled off, a tasty meal. No grease, because no oil, ta da. But rather messy: coating dripped through the basket onto whatever surface I placed it on both before and after cooking, and adhered to the basket, which is too large to soak in our sink. So considering the cleanup, I may not do this too often, but it did taste impressively good.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

short answer to the day's burning science question

According to this article, the star-namers did have Tolkien in mind. Earendel was the name for the morning star (Venus) which Tolkien found in Old English poetry and which inspired him to create the character, originally of the same name, in The Silmarillion. In his later work he took to spelling it EƤrendil, and that's how it appears in the published books. (The diaeresis over the "a" is to remind you they're two separate vowels, not a diphthong.)

concert review: Ragazzi Boys Chorus

And this is how I write a review when I want to emphasize how good the chorus was - when the local symphony or opera need a boys' chorus, this is who they get, and well-deserved - and de-emphasize some of the choice of repertoire and the instrumental part of the program.

Some of the repertoire was good. I actually decided to go to this concert because they had scheduled Bruckner's Locus Iste, which is my favorite motet of all time, and they did a gorgeous job with it. In fact, they did a gorgeous job with all the choral music, including some pieces that were not worth the trouble of performing. While the arrangement of "How Can I Keep From Singing?" was brilliant (and by a noted choral composer), the arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" was, as I suggested in the review, "rather elaborate." At the least. And that final "Ave Maria" - there are better versions.

But on the decision to show off a couple of the choristers' abilities as pianist and violinist, I had to write with considerable restraint. Just because you're a good singer, and can also hit all the right notes on that instrument you play on the side, doesn't mean you should do the latter in public. The pianist eked out a dull version of a Debussy prelude, and the violinist played most of the first movement of the Mendelssohn concerto with perfectly adequate intonation and rhythm but no inflection or character whatever. Imagine a robot voice reading a Shakespeare soliloquy; it was like that. When he launched into the cadenza, which is designed for the violinist to show off, I could hardly believe the bleak landscape.

Fortunately that didn't last too long. Ragazzi's publicists are always after me to cover them, but it's hard to review concerts consisting of 16 short pieces, and it's harder to schedule reviews of groups that don't put their schedule out at the beginning of the season. Since I wanted to go to this one anyway, I filed for a review; and the opportunity to hear good chorusing inspired B. to come along, once I had made a scouting visit and established there were handicapped parking spaces within a reasonable walk of the mission church, which is situated in the middle of the pedestrian-only section of the Jesuit university campus.

Friday, April 1, 2022

XPO customer

Kevin Standlee often writes in his blog about XPO, the company he works for doing shipping logistics. Well, I have become an XPO customer. They delivered a package to me today, and I'm here to tell you about it.

For six months now, since we bought our new Samsung oven, Samsung has been promising to deliver the air-fry basket that goes with it that I ordered separately. They kept giving me delivery dates and then delaying them, a few days or two months. April 1 was like the sixth date I was given. But this time it wasn't delayed. On Wednesday I got an e-mail from Samsung saying it had actually shipped and they were handing me over to their delivery service, XPO.

On Thursday, I got a phone call from XPO. It started out as an automated phone call, but as soon as I pressed the first button on instruction, the automated voice said there was a technical problem and it would hand me off to a human. It did. First we went through some confirmation blither, then the human seemed to tell me that the basket wouldn't be delivered on Friday after all; then she said it would. (Possibly she was the idol that neither always tells the truth nor always lies but gives a random answer.) But after we got that straightened out, she said no delivery time window had yet been set, and they'd call me back when it was. Furthermore, the delivery guy would phone 30 minutes out. But an adult needed to be home to accept the package; they wouldn't leave it on the porch.

I was just telling B. about this, so she'd know about the expected calls and the delivery, when the phone rang again. Same deal: automated voice, technical problem, human, confirmation blither. This is my phone number, this is my name & address, with zip code, yes you may call me by my first name. (You'd think that the first time they'd have a checkmark they could click: "Yes This Customer Will Permit You To Call Them By Their First Name. Christ, Give It A Rest Already, Will You?") But this guy didn't have the delivery time window either. Instead, he seemed to think he was the first call. Same info. I listened patiently; clearly his computer hadn't told him that I'd already heard this stuff.

Despite these assurances, I never got a call with the delivery time window. Instead, I got it by e-mail. 12:30-4:30, Friday afternoon. Fine.

The phone rang at 11:30 AM. Good thing I was already back from my morning errands by then. He'd be there in 20 minutes. Took closer to 30, but he was there. Handed over the package, took a photo of me with it with his phone. No signature or any other fuss.

And that's my experience with XPO. Much more conscientious about their service than a lot of companies one deals with in this manner, but still subject to weird glitches, from the technical problem with the automated phone call, to some unclear statements by the first person, to a needless repeat of the first phone call, to being told I'd get another phone call but getting an e-mail instead, to a delivery before the time window, which is OK except that I might have missed it; and generally an immense amount of fuss over a package, the kind that Amazon would just drop off and that would be an end to it.