calimac: (Default)
2017-09-20 05:43 pm


You travel hundreds of miles to attend the memorial service of someone you hardly ever met because of your love and affection for the mourners in their family, whom you do know well. That's why it's more than worth the trip.
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2017-09-16 11:25 pm

concert review: Pacific Symphony

I'd known that Orange County had its own professional orchestra, but up until now almost nothing about it. But opportunity arose, so I found my way to the office park between Santa Ana and Costa Mesa where lies the Segerstrom Concert Hall. It's right next door to another venue also called Segerstrom Hall, which had on a stage play. It would be futile to suggest that this is confusing.

The hall is small, shaped more like a hatbox than a shoebox, and has bright beefy acoustics. This was ideal for displaying the orchestra, led by longtime music director Carl St. Clair, in the Farewell and Magic Fire Music chunk from Wagner's Die Walküre, completely riding over even the immensely powerful and profoundly deep voice of experienced Wotan Greer Grimsley. (Grimsley looks rather like Patrick Stewart with a full head of long hair, and sounds not unlike him too.)

This acoustic quality would be highly exposing of performing flaws, but there really weren't any. St. Clair gave an urgent searching quality to Wagner, Strauss's Don Juan, and the anchor of the program, Beethoven's Fifth. An abrupt way with the fermatas on the opening theme reinforced that. The orchestra was tightly marshaled without being strained, and had a smooth sound with only the piccolo poking out on top.

There's a huge video display above the orchestra, though the hall is not so large as to need one. But this is LA, where nothing is real unless it appears on screen.

Pre-concert lecturer Alan Chapman noted the simple construction of Beethoven's famous opening motif, and said that "the genius of Beethoven (or Mozart) is to take something that simple and make something that complex from it." That's exactly right, and sums up what awed me about this work on my first encounter with it, an encounter which made me a permanent fan of the heavy classics.

In other good news, availed myself of proximity to have a long palaver with [personal profile] sartorias in her lair.

In sad news, heard of the recent death of DavE Romm. Alas. I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
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2017-09-16 06:39 am

going out

As for why I'm in LA, that will come later. But as long as I'm here, I decided to try out two iconic entertainment venues that I'd never been to before.

My reaction to the Hollywood Bowl was, "And now I don't ever have to come here again." Hearing that parking was dicey, I took a park-and-ride bus that delivered us to the front entrance. But words are insufficient to describe the battery of elevators, escalators, tunnels, and other passages, plus a metal detector, that it was still necessary to pass through, past an assortment of stands selling hot dogs and banh mi sandwiches, and picnic tables packed with people eating them, to head further uphill to the arena itself. It was an even longer and more arduous walk afterwards to where they parked the buses to leave, though at least that was downhill.

The arena itself is huge. I splurged on a plastic sports-stadium seat, instead of the wooden benches. I think I was a quarter mile from the stage, and yet still less than halfway up the seating area. There are large video screens by the side, and a tinny amplification system. This did not enhance an otherwise creditable all-Mozart program by the LA Phil. And the Bowl's clout does not extent to prohibiting aircraft from flying overhead during the concert. I would far rather have gone back to Disney Hall, if only the regular LA Phil season there had started yet.

The Comedy Store was a new experience for me. In my extreme youth (and I mean extreme) I saw live both Bill Cosby (in a theater) and Allan Sherman (in a hotel lounge). But I don't think I'd seen live comedy since then. I didn't know quite what it'd be like. The main room is a nightclub setup, with upright chairs and small cocktail tables. The doorwardens ask you how many are in your party, and escort you to seats they choose. I wound up sharing a table with two young women who conversed during the entire show. The performers' microphone was loud enough that I didn't have trouble hearing, but the distraction was still annoying. Fortunately we are long past the days when smoking was allowed in such places.

The show consisted of a series of 15 or 20 minute stand-up comedy sets, each ending by the performer abruptly announcing, "I gotta leave now" (did a red light go on at the back of the room?) but then having to stick around for the degrading job of introducing their successor, after asking the PA guy who it'd be. It started at 9 pm, and how long it lasted I don't know, because after about 2 hours people started to leave, enabling the performers to start making whining jokes about how few people were still there to hear them. I stayed for 3 hours and heard 10 or 12; I lost count. One black man, one white woman, the rest all white men. Lots of jokes about male-female relations, mostly rueful about the foibles of men. Most of the performers were in their 40s or older; the audience looked mostly under 40. This enabled a couple of the Gen-X types to make jokes about Millennials, rather hostile ones. One of the oldest performers made jokes about AA meetings, an underexplored and impressively productive topic for humor. The only performer I'd ever heard of was Yakov Smirnoff, though I gathered from the introductions that some are known for their podcasts or tweets; it's a new world. Most of the performers were pretty good, a couple decidedly not.

Tickets were actually a $20 cover charge; you're required to buy at least two drinks, but considering that this is a profit-making function, it wasn't too much a ripoff at $8 for a glass of wine or $4 for a Coke, which were my choices. Fortunately the servers were on the ball, because they take your credit card when you order your first drink and don't bring it back until you finish your last, which is alarming. They claim to offer vouchers for parking at a garage 3 blocks away (a long walk), but there was nobody at the exit to give me one when I left.
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2017-09-12 08:50 pm

eating like kings

You all remember this classic Far Side cartoon:

I think it was David Levine and Kate Yule who would remark, "They're eating like kings on the front porch" whenever a spider web had managed to cross their front walkway.

Well, a large spider visible at the center of its web managed to do the same thing at ours today, and that was a feat, because the nearest available fastening points, the walls surrounding our front and side patios, are some eight feet apart. The main web, an impressive structure on its own some two feet high, was near the side, and a pair of long but sturdy threads connected it over to the front wall.

It was with some regret that I cut those connecting threads prior to walking through, and the big spread-out web promptly curled up into a ball with the spider still in the middle of it. Better site planning next time?
calimac: (Default)
2017-09-11 08:33 pm

a sign

1. The most interesting unintended point in my recent reading, apart from the scholarly treatise with a footnote on p. 307 reading "See p. 307" (this book is from the 1950s, so it's not a sign of the recent decline in copy-editing), came in a book titled Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner (HarperCollins, 2016). The idea of discussing just one year in the Beatles' career - this is the year in which they transformed from a mop-top touring pop band to mod-dressed studio artists recording "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" - is to give a closer focus on their lives than a broader coveraged book can do.

Anyway, the detail is extensive enough to discuss the theatrical acting career of Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's girlfriend. And there's an illustration in the form of a copy of the program from a play she appeared in. It's on p. 37 and it looks like this:

Did you notice - because Turner says nothing about it - a name of particular future moment on that cast list? And yes, I've checked, and that person was associated with this company, so that is the same one and not a namesake. I was tickled and perhaps you shall be.

2. Possibly in honor of the anniversary of 9/11, I watched World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's movie about the two cops who were pulled out alive from the wreckage after being found the next day. It's tasteful, it doesn't indulge in conspiracy theories, and it's detailed on what the cops had been doing that got them caught in the first collapse, but the rescue was simultaneously overdramatized and oversimplified, and I got more uneasy the more attention was spent on the wives and families. The movie doesn't try to hide that most people still missing the day after never came back, but to push these two gives the impression that the movie is saying they somehow deserved a happy ending more than others. I don't think that was intended, but that's how it comes across.

3. And today's weather featured a midwestern-style late afternoon thunderstorm, donner and blitzen fizzing out of a not entirely overcast sky without a drop in temperature or humidity, unlike the uniformly bleak vista from pole to pole and low temperatures that are normally required to get such action in California, and that normally only in late fall or winter. It's changing, all right.
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2017-09-10 07:16 pm

Kingfisher, by Patricia A. McKillip

The topic for today's meeting of our Mythopoeic Society discussion group. As usual with a McKillip, I enjoyed reading this book, especially for passages like this one:
"Sorry, sirs," the driver announced upon consultation with his dash. "Both lanes are blocked up ahead for nearly a mile. They don't know how long before the road is cleared." He paused, listening again. "They're - ah - they're advising people to turn around, catch another road back in town that runs through the hills around the - ah, the - ah - problem."
He sounded oddly shaken. Leith asked, "What exactly is the problem?"
"Seems to be a mythological beast in the middle of the road, sir."
Or this one:
"You disgrace the name of King Arden." Somehow Leith and Val had pushed their way into the tightly crowded kitchen. "You disrupt people's lives and steal from them," Leith continued sharply. "You are not true knights, and no true god would accept your worship. You're nothing but marauding thieves."
"We are questing knights, Sir Leith," Prince Ingram protested. "You can't change facts by calling people names."
"You're trashing a restaurant kitchen. How proud would your father be of that?"
But don't think from these that this is a book that lives off the ironic contrast between a modern setting on one hand and medievalist and mythic content on the other. In fact they're strangely well integrated. This is a story set in a standard fantasy imaginary kingdom with monarchs and princes and wizards and lore and magic, with landscape modeled on the Oregon coast, that just also happens to have cars and cell phones and restaurants, lots and lots of restaurants. McKillip, who's always concentrated on the domestic arts in her stories, and has set plenty of previous books in inns or castle kitchens, also focuses this one on cookery and even more on dining.

But it's more than that. I began to realize what kind of book I was reading in chapter 3, when it dawned on me that the file of staff marching into the dining room of the all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant was actually a Grail Procession. This is a Grail quest Arthurian novel with different names, but it's not just a one-on-one encoding, as the characters are more complex than that, not everything fits neatly, there is (as one observed at the meeting) a considerable amount of The Faerie Queene mixed in also, and the characters are actually descendants of the original "Arthur" centuries ago.

Further, another informed us at the meeting that the villain's cookery appears to be a parody of a current high-end restaurant trend that I'd not heard of, called molecular gastronomy.

There's a lot to this book; the characters are lively and well-drawn even though quite a lot of them have to be crammed in to a relatively short space, and the main dispute - a scholastic/theological one - is never resolved, so maybe there'll be a sequel? I enjoyed reading this one.
calimac: (Default)
2017-09-09 11:50 pm


So one epic-sized hurricane drowned much of east Texas, and another one is at this moment bearing down on Florida, with a third right behind it that may miss Florida but has already socked the small Caribbean islands that the previous one already got.

Closer to home, there's been huge wildfires around both LA and Portland.

What we had locally was merely an epic heat wave over Labor Day weekend, 109 F according to the high-school sign down the street. Occasionally over the summers it's gotten too hot to stay up on the upper floor of our townhouse over the days, but never before quite this extreme or this extended.

Then, after that was over, we had a power outage, which explains my general absence from online for a few days.

This isn't the "new normal." We're long past the tipping point (by over 20 years now, I'd guess), and have reached the stage where climate will probably continue to get measurably worse nearly every year. This article seems as accurate as anything I've read on what to expect.

I'm going to go on as I have been, because it's too late to do anything else. I keep thinking of editor Malcolm Edwards' only work of fiction, a short story called "After-Images." That was about nuclear war, but it illustrates the principle of what people do in a situation like this.
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2017-09-03 09:40 am

in memory of Houston

I see some bloggers are memorializing the flooding of Houston, since it's not likely to fully recover for quite some time, with their own memories of the place. So why not: I've only been to Houston once, ten-and-a-half years ago (that long, really?), and here's what I wrote about it at the time:

I was so glad that Corflu was scheduled for February. The last time I'd visited Texas was in August, and the heat was memorable. I wasn't going to do that again. But as long as I was to be in Austin again, I wanted to see some more of Texas. On my one previous visit, I'd gone into the Hill Country, and though I would have been happy to return, I preferred to try somewhere else within driving distance where I'd never been before.

Houston. Houston sounded good, especially in February. That meant I would be going east, and I determined to go far enough east to find good Cajun food, which was said to leak over on to the Texas side of the Louisiana border. And I could visit the one tourist attraction that any red-blooded science-fiction fan would want to see in Houston, the NASA Space Center.

The more caustic tourist guides told me that the visitor center there had been turned into more of a NASA theme park, but I didn't find it all that bad. It's a large functional museum with such interesting material as a walk-through mockup of the space shuttle crew area, which is much smaller than you might expect. My only complaint, besides the appalling cafeteria, was that all the relics of past glories - one of the original Mercury capsules, the original Skylab mockup used for crew training, a moon rock display - are tucked into a dark back room with no sign telling you how to get there. A 90-minute shuttle trip took us onto the main campus, with stops at the original Mission Control (into which the original 1965 equipment - complete with dial phones - was reinstalled when the room was decommissioned a decade ago), the crew training facility (from a mezzanine catwalk we could look down onto the huge main floor filled with mockups of everything that currently flies, including pieces of the space shuttle in various different orientations), and one of the original spare Saturn V rockets, lying on its side in a shed built around it to protect it from the elements (with an excellent docent lecture on the rocket's function and role - not that any of this was new to me, but it was a pleasure to hear it well told).

I'd picked a motel on the edge of Houston for ease in getting around, which put me in the most desolate suburban sprawl imaginable. Within three blocks (though they were big blocks) of the motel were two different Chuck E Cheeses. I didn't eat there. On the day I ventured into central Houston I did find a genuine Cajun diner of the kind I'd seen in Louisiana. It's called Zydeco. At lunchtime you join a line of hungry businessfolk stretching out the door. The line moves quickly and you pass a menu board that does not do justice to the variety of unidentifiably brown things in the steam table trays. On reaching the server, shout over the noise at him the same unintelligible syllables that the guy before you said. This will get you a bowl of what looks like watery mud. As you sit down at one of the cafeteria tables and dig in, the first couple spoonfuls will make you think "What the hell is this?" but after that it tastes really good. Yep, that's the genuine Cajun diner experience all right.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is worth a visit. It has a big walk-through butterfly cage, where large quantities of impossibly colored wings flit before your face or settle down on little birdbath-like stands where their bodies gorge on honeycombs or fruit pieces. It has dinosaur skeletons. It has displays with everything you could possibly have wanted to know about oil drilling. It has a gem room, a hushed chamber with huge uncut stones still attached to hunks of the living rock from which they were wrenched, all reverently lit behind glass. And when you've finished looking at those, you notice a corner around which there's another whole room of them. And another beyond that. And all the time you are there, the sound system is discreetly emitting Pachelbel's Canon.

On the other hand, I have never seen a bigger ripoff than the Rothko Chapel on the University of St. Thomas campus, this despite the fact that they don't charge anything to see it. I knew that Rothko was a minimalist painter, but I hadn't realized that even he would decorate an uninspiring and otherwise empty concrete octagonal chamber with 14 paintings every one of which was in flat undifferentiated black. I sat on a plain bench for a couple of minutes to act respectful-like while the docent read a book in the corner, and then walked out shaking my head, any desire to visit the modern art museum a couple blocks away completely squelched.

I found a far better, and positively fannish, work of art in a neighborhood not far away. You've heard of the Tower of Bheer Cans to the Moon; well, in Houston there is a beer can house, a house covered in aluminum siding made entirely of beer cars. The owner made a decades-long project of removing the tops and bottoms of beer cans, flattening out the rest, and attaching them to his house with the various brands arranged in pleasing color patterns. He also made a low front fence out of intact beer cans. There was nothing to do but admire this from the street, so I didn't find out if he drank all that beer, or what.
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2017-09-02 08:58 am

women composers

A topic much explored by Lisa Irontongue, who's noted the peculiar tendency of major orchestras to under-program them. The relative dearth of important women composers historically is less due, I think, to neglect of their works - though there's that too - than to the barriers of access to the highly technical art of composition being then even higher for women than for men, so few ever got a chance to write anything, notable or not.

But in the last century education has become more equitable, and today interesting and important new composers are as likely to be women as men. Yet even in their contemporary music offerings, those major orchestras tend to book mostly men. They might throw in one piece by Kaija Saariaho and that's it.

My discoveries of contemporary women composers in concert have been in other venues, and over the years I've learned to look forward to seeing names of unfamiliar women on contemporary concert programs, because the chances are higher for women than for men that I'll find somebody really good. Whether it's because the women, being suppressed by other outlets, are more apt to be unknown gems, or simply that women are more likely to write in a style that appeals to me, I don't know.

But that's why I was so eager to hear the New Millennium Chamber Orchestra's concert of music all by women composers, and to take the chance to review it for the Daily Journal. And sure enough, I found a dandy composer new to me: Reena Esmail, whose The Blue Room you can hear in full here, in a performance more technically accomplished but perhaps less winning than I heard last weekend.

This also gives me a chance to link to Anne Midgette's top 35 20C/21C female composers, with plenty of sound clips. Many of those names are ones I've found in delighted discovery since I began reviewing: Caroline Shaw, Jennifer Higdon, Anna Clyne, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Gabriela Lena Frank, Valerie Coleman; and others I've known longer: Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Julia Wolfe, Lera Auerbach, Sofia Gubaidulina, Libby Larsen, Judith Weir, and the criminally forgotten Florence Price. Of course there are some on the list whose music has impressed me less, some I don't care for at all, and a full 8 I still hadn't heard of, but so it goes. Reena Esmail is not on the list; neither are two other of my favorite discoveries, Belinda Reynolds and Stefania de Kenessey; so there's always more work to be done.
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2017-09-01 11:47 am

uh-oh, I patronized the KKK

That is not a subject line I ever expected to write. But perhaps, since it's weird enough, this local story may have gone viral: the one about the restaurant in Santa Cruz which closed after widespread dismay over the revelation that the owner had contributed to David Duke's senatorial campaign.

I ate at that restaurant. Fairly frequently. It was the best Chinese restaurant on Santa Cruz's westside, and I'd often repair there for lunch after a hard morning's research at the UCSC library. The outside facing was a blank wall with high unrevealing windows and a plain, dingy door: the look of the most uninviting dive imaginable. Inside, though, it was modestly elegant and a little glossy, as was the food. I used to defend it from bad reviews, and my only complaint was that they charged you extra for tea, which no other Chinese place does in my experience.

I'm not in favor of organized boycotts of businesses for political opinions unrelated to the topic of their business, but if the entire customer base of Santa Cruz and sundry chooses spontaneously to recoil in revulsion at this news about the owner, I will in this case find myself among them.

The owner, who is white and not Chinese, plays a supporting role in the article, both feet stuck firmly in his mouth. He calls the population "stupid," which he then corrects to "ignorant," for believing that David Duke is anything but innocuously "defending the civil rights of European-Americans, whites." Uh-huh. You go on believing that, and that "European-Americans" is the name of a legitimate ethnic group,* and we'll go on avoiding your restaurant.

He also wonders why it is that only white people get called "Nazis." Does he? Does he really?

*Do I need to explain why it isn't? Somebody - might have been Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I can't find it right now - wrote an essay about the illegitimacy of the bunching of white ethnicities into a racial solidarity movement. I'll go to a German-American festival, where I expect to find jolly men in lederhosen serving beer and bratwurst, but if I read the words "European-American festival," I expect to see skinheads with swastika tattoos. Or not see them, because I won't be there.
calimac: (Haydn)
2017-08-31 11:36 pm

reviewer talk

I've been mostly offline for a few days because my computer was in the shop.

And I was out much of today to ensure I was up in the City in time for the early-evening start of an SFCV staff writers' meeting.

I like to go to these because our work as reviewers is so solitary. It's soul-feeding to have an occasional tangible reminder that I'm part of a team who are all doing the same thing, and not just by reading their work.

This one, besides the social chatter, took the form of a round table discussing the journalistic aspects of our work. It's useful for those of us who've never worked in traditional journalism - my professional writing training was exclusively that of an academic historian - to learn a little from those who have had that experience.

A few points of particular interest to me, which I note here mostly for my own reference:

One advised us to write our reviews as soon as possible, to preserve the immediacy of the reaction. Another advised waiting, to let the thoughts jell. I find myself more and more tending to jot down phrases between pieces and at intermission, preserving the immediacy that way, and then writing the review the next day basically by stringing those phrases together. I wonder if that's really a good way to write, but the reaction was, "If it works for you ..."

I am concerned about vocabulary. Alex Ross says writing about music is easy, but he's Alex Ross. The rest of us aren't. I tend to think of only a small percentage of the words I actually know. Often I find myself using a thesaurus, but not to find said-bookisms, just to remind myself of other words I know that might fit. That wasn't deprecated, but one who has taught English suggested that finding yourself overusing one word is a clue that you need to rethink what you're saying: useful advice if you have the time and wit to take it.

How much allowance should we make for the imperfections of non-professional performers? Should they not be held to standards they're not claiming to achieve, or are the standards of music absolute? SFCV's editorial policy is not to review non-professional groups that don't meet professional standards, and to drop them if they fall below that - something I could have reported on in a couple cases where I wrote with kid gloves in the review itself. But it's tougher for me since my other outlet has a beat with only two professional venues and a lot of prominent non-pro groups, so I have to review them all the time. My policy - of always mentioning their non-pro status and judging them by how far above or below a fairly tight interpretation of that standard they fell - seemed to receive approval, though one doubted that such groups should be reviewed at all. Not in prominent outlets, perhaps, but my other outlet is a local free paper. I write there to let the readers know what's going on musically in their community, and to give the performers a chance to accumulate press clippings.

Talking afterwards with our top piano reviewer, he said that he reserves strong criticism for professionals who play sloppily or make dumb mistakes. I agree, though I lack his chops to discern technical problems beyond a certain level except in pieces I know well. I judge performers by the emotional impact they make; to me a bad performance is one where the player is just "phoning it in."

Lastly, there's structuring of reviews. One recommended the "layer cake" approach of alternating between background and present-day matters, but that's mostly useful for opera and other cases of single-work concerts. For concerts with 3-5 works, my usual beat, I try to avoid the "and then they played ..." approach and present the works by some theme that's the backbone of my review, which may not be the order they were played in. With a large program - e.g. a guitar recital which may have 17 pieces - you don't have to mention everything. Pick out some highlights or themes and concentrate. Even with fewer pieces you can do that. (Closest I came to that was when I reviewed a concert with a premiere of a concerto when I knew that's what I was there to cover. I tucked the rest of the program into one brief paragraph at the end.) True enough that the one time I reviewed a gala potpourri with 20 different pieces, I managed to at least name-check every composer on the program, but that was before the word limit was cut. Actually leaving part of the program out of the review is a big step I'd have to brace myself to take.
calimac: (Default)
2017-08-27 04:47 am

Hamlette & ye Bugges

Silicon Valley Shakespeare, the folks who did Julius Caesar last year in a dirt amphitheater up in an isolated mountain canyon, did Hamlet there this year. I went back, even though so did the flying bugs, who made their presence quite conspicuous for the first half.

Also returning were a few of the actors, all of whom in this Hamlet were women, some of assorted races. I not only don't mind that kind of gimmick in a classic play, I tend to be intrigued and attracted to it, so long as they don't mangle the text. (They didn't; even Hamlet's misogyny was intact.) Though the actors, mostly local journeyfolk, didn't have the depth of OSF's best, they all, including the smaller parts, brought strong character to their roles, and the production as a whole had more spirit and heart than OSF's latest misconceived Hamlet.

The Prince herself tried to make up in dedication what she lacked in anguish and fury; and, except when stabbing people, at which she was not convincing, was quite adequate for this demanding part. Each famous soliloquy came out with honesty. The emotion belonged to Gertrude; I'd never heard the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia announced with such tragic sorrow. Claudius figured out how to make herself imperturbable without being wooden, something a lot of Claudii have trouble with; unfortunately, she also played the Ghost the same way. Laertes transformed Act 1 sparkle to Act 5 ferocity. Ophelia looked like a ghost when still alive. Horatio - the nearby high school's drama teacher - was the cast's best line-reader. Polonius had the most extraordinary accent. An Austrian native about as well assimilated as Ahnuld, she seems to have learned English as a combination of Cockney, Irish, and Australian.

If I can forget about the bugs, I may return.
calimac: (Default)
2017-08-26 01:07 pm

a few more things about St Louis in August

If a thunderstorm hits the airport, they shut the place down as if they'd never expected anything like that would ever happen.

The Cathedral Basilica was well worth seeing, a 20C church covered with mosaics and otherwise with the aesthetic principles, just not the artistic style, of a Byzantine basilica.

At Grant's Farm, you can ride on a tram through the deer park and see the deer, elk, and bison without having to walk around in the sweltering heat. Baby bison are unexpectedly cute.

There's a section of town where all the noted Italian restaurants are. I won't say the good ones, because the one we ate at was more emphatically old-school than it was good. If you want a lunch heavier than a full dinner, this is where you go. You might get better Italian at an informal family-style sports bar place in the suburbs.

The quality of toasted ravioli, St Louis's culinary specialty, varies tremendously depending on where you get them. Nor did I have success with the local barbecue.

On the other hand, you don't have to go where it was invented to get a good concrete, which is what they call an extra-thick frozen custard.

There's also something called "trashed wings." Apparently these are chicken wings with the sauce baked on. Despite the name, I like it that way.

For a preserved slice of what a town here looked like in the early 19C, go across the wide Missouri to St Charles. The shops probably didn't sell boutique olive oils back then, though.

Air conditioning is your friend.
calimac: (Default)
2017-08-22 10:54 pm


And we awoke and found us here on the dark hill's side

One of my friends of most venerable standing is not only the leading expert on Tolkien's use of astronomy in his fiction, but he also lives in the exurbs south of St. Louis, right in the middle of the path of totality of Monday's eclipse. What are the odds? Did he move there, 30-odd years ago, to prepare for this day?

Regardless, he and frau were well-prepared for a small invasion of assorted friends from long-off and far away for a backyard eclipse party. We dined on hamburgers and bratwurst, and spent our extra time watching old movies of King Solomon's Mines (in which an eclipse plays a key cameo role) and listening to dreadful BBC radio dramatizations of Tolkien's love life ("Ron, hold me!"). The topography cooperated, as the backyard tops a hillside which faces south, the ideal direction. The heavens also cooperated: while it rained on the day we arrived and again upon leaving, it was clear for the days in between, with only a few wisps of cloud around at the eclipsical moment. The projections of pinholes over the skylights kept viewers informed of progress if they ducked inside for air-conditioned relief from the heat.

I've seen an annular eclipse before, so I knew all about the bite being taken out of the sun, the eerie dimmed lighting, the crescent-shaped shadows of the spaces between the leaves. But I hadn't seen totality, and that's what I was eager to experience.

It was different from what I expected. The sky did not go dark; it was still blue with visible clouds and no stars. What did happen as the moon obscured the sun was that the sun's corona popped out. Bright but not painfully so to the naked eye (and quite blocked out by eclipse glasses), this huge splotch around the utterly black disc provided enough light to prevent night but not enough to allow day. The effect was more like that of the kind of twilight that emerges when the sun sets prematurely behind a mountain - as indeed it had.

The speed, however, with which the moon snuffed out the last bits of the sun's disc was much greater than the earth's at sunset, and that's what provided the greatest eeriness. At that moment, the ambient light around us abruptly became much darker over the course of just 3 or 4 seconds, and reversed just as abruptly at the end. It was like ... what was it like?

A fenris-wolf or other mythological monster eating up the sun?


A sign from the heavens that the End Times are nigh?


A dimmer switch. That was it. A giant, celestial dimmer switch.
calimac: (blue)
2017-08-20 03:29 am

confederate statues

I'm a little behind the curve on this one, but I've been away from my computer, and this enables me to say what I haven't heard everyone else say.

I think some history has been lost, and some other history is being found, on this issue.

And what's being lost isn't that the Civil War happened, or that it was important, or that Lee and Jackson were prominent and memorable figures within it. Of course that will be remembered.

But what I haven't seen addressed in any of this is a knowledge of the post-civil war "national consensus," for lack of a better term, of their place in it. This is something I've seen discussed in a number of older history books about the period, pro-Union ones, including James McPherson's.

To re-integrate the ex-Confederates into the Union, and to let them have a little self-respect after their crushing loss, a sort of informal pact was made about the judgment of the war in American history. The South would admit that they lost (when asked why his side was so crushed in the Battle of Gettysburg, Gen. Pickett said, "I believe the Federal Army had something to do with it") and that their cause was a bad one. In return, the North would acknowledge the bravery of the Confederate soldiers, and the greatness of their top generals.

There was no lie in this. The CSA military did fight well and bravely, and on a purely military level, Lee and Jackson were two of the most brilliant generals ever produced on this continent. You can say this without defending their cause; Rommel was also a brilliant general.

This consensus was proclaimed by a man who said "with malice toward none, with charity for all," and advised that we should "bind up the nation's wounds." He was, as you may recall, shot for his pains. The consensus perhaps came into being at the formal surrender ceremony for the Army of Northern Virginia. Gen. Chamberlain (he of Little Round Top) conducted the event for the Union, and surprised the Confederates by unexpectedly ordering his troops to give the salute of honor to their fallen foes.

And I think it's because of that acknowledgment that, up until now, Northerners have ignored the profusion of statues of Lee and Jackson and anonymous Confederate soldiers that festoon Southern town squares. After all, they were great generals and brave soldiers. Let the descendants have their pride.

Up until now. Not any longer. Because if that's the history that we had that's now being forgotten, there's another history that the books I read had ignored that's now being rediscovered. And that is that the ex-Confederates and their descendants have not been living up to their side of the bargain. And not just in the hard facts of racial oppression in the South for over a century and still echoing in ugly ways today, but also in the symbolism which is the subject of the consensus.

Those statues. They aren't lovingly-crafted monuments erected in the echo of the loss, like the WW1 cenotaphs in every British town and college chapel. They're cheap mass-produced knock-offs from Northern factories, put up later, in the Jim Crow era, not in memory of a loss but in defiance of that loss. (the evidence) Look at the capital letters in the term "Lost Cause" and read what's been said about it. Its memorializers don't acknowledge it was bad, they only regret that it was lost.

Nor do we notice who's being honored. There's Jackson, who died during the war (of the aftereffects of "friendly fire," by the way), and thus had nothing to say afterwards. There's Lee, who retired from public life and quietly became a college president. But where is the CSA's third best general, James Longstreet? You don't see many statues of him. After the war, he became a Republican and actively co-operated with the Union government. For that, he's considered a shame in the white South. Confederate apologist historians retroactively blame him for Gettysburg, at best a dubiously tenable position, even hinting that he was secretly a traitor to his cause.

And how many statues do you see in the North of Grant and Sherman? Some, but not a lot; not in every town square. Militarily, they were just as brilliant as Lee and Jackson. They saved the Union, and their place in the history books is absolutely secure. But they don't need all those statues to secure it. And Sherman in particular, for his marches through Georgia and South Carolina, is loathed in the white South with an intensity that no Confederate, not even the equally ruthless Forrest, post-war one of the founders of the KKK, for ghu's sake, is in the North.

This is all coming out in response to the fact that some of the support is finally going over the top. I think it was the Charleston massacre that turned the tide. It doesn't seem that anything can convince us we need gun control, but that did finally convince us to take down the CSA flag, a sore point for years, and began to get people like Mitch Landrieu to think seriously about those statues. And the response to the statue removal, in Charlottesville and elsewhere, has only reinforced the point. When one side has actual neo-Nazis on it, there is something seriously wrong with that side. It doesn't make the other side automatically virtuous, but it does suggest that hysterically inflating any problem that isn't the Nazis, or outright making stuff like "alt-left" up, is an evasion of the truth.

When Trump said, "Who's next, Washington and Jefferson?" he was not, as some claimed, equating Lee with Washington. He was making a "slippery slope" argument. But others have openly equated them. Perhaps you've seen a little squib, forwarded by Trump's lawyer John Dowd, titled "Lee is No Different than Washington." That's an open equation. The arguments in it are deeply dishonest, but I'm not going to fisk them now. I will just say that it's poisoned the well for any explanation or understanding of Lee's actions. I would have been happy to explain his moral views that led him to take up the rebel cause, and why that wasn't considered at the time (even by his foes) the outright act of treason that it would be in retrospect, but now I can't. It would no longer be the act of purely disinterested historical analysis that I'd intend it as. It would be a defense of white supremacy. That well has been poisoned, and it's time to give it up.
calimac: (Default)
2017-08-19 01:10 am

an administrator's tale

Nicholas Whyte has published the second part of his memoirs of being Hugo Administrator at this year's Worldcon. I do not wish to criticize a conscientious, successful, and innovative administrator whose tenure should become a landmark in future practice of how to do the job well, but a couple matters regarding how he handled the security of the results - keeping them confidential, and ensuring that the correct winners were announced - made me a little nervous reading his story even though I knew it would come out all right in the end. It's not how I and my colleague did it, twenty-odd years ago.

Of course, some things have changed since then. For instance, we did not, as described in his first part, have a research team of assistants to verify eligibility and get contact information. Our team of two did all the work. My partner was primarily responsible for certifying and counting ballots; I was primarily responsible for research and contact with nominees. But these days both parts of this work are more complex and it requires more hands to do it.

But to turn to the last stages of the process. The part in this year's story that made me nervous was having an outside source print winner cards for every nominee, prior to the administrating team stuffing the correct cards into the envelopes. This is exactly how the mistake was made in 1992, still remembered today, of having the wrong winner announced. True, this mistake can be avoided simply by taking greater care in the stuffing of the envelopes, and such care was indeed taken this year, but 1992 was the year before my own first run, and the memory was very fresh. It simply never occurred to me to take such a risk for the sake of an aesthetically beautiful card.

We, the administrators, prepared attractive but simple and straightforward winner-announcement cards ourselves. Decent layout software existed even then, as did laser printers. We had the template ready beforehand, but the winners' names were not entered and cards printed until the counting was finished and verified. No incorrect winner could have been announced because no incorrect cards ever existed. Our procedure had the further advantage of allowing us to prepare a single card when the winner was a tie.

Nor did we tape the envelopes to the ceremony script, as was done this year. Had anybody suggested such a procedure I would have declined, I hope politely but definitely firmly. The two administrators sat at a table backstage with the Hugos lined up on the table and the cards in our hands. (The winner plaques, which we'd supervised the making of, had been attached to the bases by the base designer the day before, under our supervision. Nobody else saw the winners before the ceremony. We didn't even let our own supervisor see the press release.) We'd confirmed with the ceremony head on the order of the awards. As the MC announced each category, we handed the correct envelope to the presenter and the Hugo to the stage runner. Everyone had been informed of their duties at a pre-show rehearsal. Unlike certain Oscar administrators we could name, we were not tweeting photos of Emma Stone and our attention was on our jobs. There was also no chance of a presenter accidentally taking the wrong envelope off the ceremony script, as actually happened at the Hugos this year. An alert presenter and a well and properly labeled envelope prevented any mishap, and kudos to both of them, but I and my colleague would not have taken any risk of letting the envelopes out of our hands before the moment of the presentation.

Everyone has to have their own way of doing things. This was ours. Both our method and the one used this year were endorsed by the success of the well-run results.
calimac: (Default)
2017-08-16 05:02 am

when is the eclipse, anyway?

This is bizarre. I'm going to be outside of St. Louis, and I thought I'd look up the time of the eclipse.

The NASA site says that totality will occur 18.17-18.19. Universal Time. And what is that in something humans understand? Well, here's a Universal Time to Central Daylight Time converter. 18, that's 6 pm if you're not in the army, converts to 1 pm local time. That sounds right; Central Time is 6 hours earlier than the UK, where UT is based, minus one for DST, makes five. So the eclipse will be around 1:18 pm, OK?

But wait! Here's the National Weather Service site, which is linked to from the NASA site, and it says 11:18 AM.

So which is it?
calimac: (JRRT)
2017-08-14 11:28 am

omentielva otsea

It's Quenya for "seventh meeting." It's the International Conference on J.R.R. Tolkien's Invented Languages, and it's been held every other year since 2005. Always, until now, in Europe; but when it comes to within a few miles of my home, I can't resist it.

I have to explain that, since Tolkien was a professor of language by trade, his writings on his invented languages are extremely complex and full of technical detail. Those who study them tend to to be specialists in that particular area, while other Tolkienists, even those who are masters of detail in other areas, tend to avoid it. Kind of like the place of catalogers among other librarians, come to think of it (speaking as a cataloger). Even Tolkien's son Christopher, who is qualified to study the languages, left most of this material out of his posthumous volumes, and it's being edited, slowly - because it's voluminous and extremely crabbed - by a team of Tolkien linguists who are publishing it in small-press editions, because only small-press numbers of people are interested or could possibly understand it.

I'm not one of those scholars of language, though I did study linguistics (as a theoretical study of language) in college and found it fascinating. I'm one of those other, non-linguistic Tolkien specialists. Yet I have read the proceedings of past Omentielvar, and found that I could follow most of what they were saying. So I thought I could float above water here, and indeed I could. It's interesting and meaningful because Tolkien applied the same principles and methods of creativity to his languages as he did to everything else he did.

The sort of people who just want to tattoo something in tengwar (Tolkien's principal invented alphabet) on their biceps would not have the patience for Omentielva, and indeed inquiries about "How do you say/write ...?", which most everyone here has gotten, were a running humorous theme of the conference. It was in fact the second smallest formal convention of any kind I've ever attended, with only 17 attendees, about half of them European. (Not counting 2 more non-attending Europeans who presented papers by Skype, which worked pretty well.) Of the 5 people, all of them Americans, who have worked on editing those small-press linguistic papers, four of them were here, and made up half the American contingent. Most of the attendees were male, but 3 were women, not one whit less sharp, learned, or generally nerdy than the men. Ages ranged broadly from 20s to 60s.

So we all gathered together in the same small meeting room on Cal State's Hayward campus, we all ate our meals together at the same table in the dining commons, slept in independent pod rooms in the same dormitory, and generally lived the life of a scholarly community for 3 days, packed with detailed technical presentations. Of the items on the busy schedule, I find I can most easily describe the ones on the scripts: one describing an inscribed rock tablet found in North Carolina that was originally taken as a Viking relic, but whose runes turned out to be Tolkien's, and hence could not predate the 1950s; one comparing the tengwar to other scripts, notably Pitman shorthand, whose notation also systematically reflects their phonetics; and one analyzing the history of one cryptic tengwa. I was relieved that a presentation of Asterix comics translated into Elvish languages, even with the nonce-words identified below on the screen, were a challenge even for these experienced linguists to translate back. I gave a presentation myself, not on the invented languages, but on the related topic of whether Americans reading the deeply English Tolkien in the original are separated from the text in a way that other foreigners, for whom it's been translated into their own idiom as well as their own languages' words, are not. We had no definite conclusions but an interesting discussion.

And, as the organizers had accepted another suggestion of mine, on Saturday morning we packed nearly everybody into a rented passenger van where I drove them to Berkeley, and gave my walking tour of the campus and Telegraph, including many fabled Sixties historic sites. And, this being Omentielva, we then spent the better part of two hours in Moe's Books. As I've been there often before and will go again, I spent most of that time sitting with one of our younger members, a Swiss, having a conversation that consisted mostly of giving each other informative lessons in Swiss and American history and government.
calimac: (Default)
2017-08-08 06:18 am

o to be a blogger

Tom Lehrer famously said, "I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that." If the paradox embedded here seriously bothers you, then read this and be enlightened.

It was a sad day when the San Jose Mercury News removed Richard Scheinin from classical music reviewing and put him on the real estate beat, but at least it means he gets to write bizarre stories like this.
calimac: (Haydn)
2017-08-06 03:00 pm

concert review: the end of Menlo

Saturday evening concluded the Music@Menlo chamber music festival. Since returning 5 days earlier from my trip to states beginning with an I, I'd been plunged back into it, including such features as:

A masterclass in which, after hearing each of two sets of student performers, the instructor threw his hands up in despair at his failure to think of anything he could critique them on.

A prelude performance of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Not my favorite work by a long shot, it nevertheless impressed with the intensity of its color, and even more by the players' introduction, in which the second violinist recited a translation of the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired the work, while the rest of the musicians played passages that seemed to correspond with the particular events of the poem. A brilliant job by the performers.

(The poem depicts a woman ashamedly confessing to her new boyfriend that she's already pregnant by another man. He forgives her, and their love is transfigured. Pretty terrible already, and the music is worse. But now you know why Schoenberg wrote it as a sextet, and if you think that's a stupid argument, I once heard a Menlo performer give a talk seriously pitching for a calendar date encoded in the number of bars a piece had.)

Another prelude performance interrupted twice by what sounded like the same very loud cell phone going off. At the end of the piece, festival co-director David Finckel appeared on stage to announce, through tight lips, that the performers would be doing those passages over again, to get a clean recording (audition tapes for their younger performers being an important by-product of the festival). They got an even bigger applause after the remakes than they had originally. And I wonder if Menlo has procedures to ban egregiously errant audience members.

A concert by the 10-to-18 year old students including the usual hefty samples of Dvořák and other hoary classics played with the fresh dedication always heard here, but also a new thing for one of these concerts, a piece by a living composer (which means, as the students excitedly declared, that you can shoot him a message asking if something in the score is a misprint, which you can't do with Dvořák). The piece was a string sextet (yes, another one) by Jörg Widmann, whom I knew from a stunningly crappy piece of merde dropped on the Banff String Quartet Competition last year. The sextet was far better, a concise technobeat moto perpetuo with some minimalist sensibility. I actually kind of liked it. Here, you can listen to them playing it here (the music begins just after 5 minutes in).

An evening concert of late Romantic music bifurcated between elegant, restrained performances and madly impassioned Expressionism, which I reviewed.

And Saturday's final concert, whose major work was a string Octet by George Enescu, which he wrote poised on the century's edge in 1900, at the age of 19. It's half a 19C work and half a 20C one in musical style, and is largely composed of lyrical melody with a good sense of structure keeping the very long, virtually unbroken work from meandering. There are many solos, usually for one of the first two violins (here Bella Hristova and Danbi Um) or the first viola (Paul Neubauer) backed with amazingly interesting harmonies from the rest of the ensemble; these alternated with dramatically intense tuttis. This piece comes right behind the previous concert's Kreisler string quartet for most interesting discovery of the year, but I doubt I will ever hear it played so well again, even if I ever do.

An overlapping ensemble played Shostakovich's early Octet movements, Op. 11, with great drama but without sounding at all like Shostakovich, and the year's theme of showing off the violin came in some brief pieces by Dohnányi (with piano), Martinů (with cello), and Corigliano (without anybody), all played by either Hristova or Um with great display but not that much memorability. Give me Enescu, a relative ranking I never thought I would be making.

As this will be serving as my formal review of the final concert, here, have a photo:
The Enescu Octet showing off. From left around the circle: Bella Hristova (vn), Paul Neubauer (va), Soovin Kim (vn), Clive Greensmith (vc), Nicholas Canellakis (vc), Richard O'Neill (va), Arnaud Sussmann (vn), Danbi Um (vn). Photo by Carlin Ma, courtesy of the Music@Menlo Festival.