Saturday, December 9, 2017

two Christmas choral concerts

I don't usually get to two of these in one year, but fate decreed.

First was the Ragazzi Boys Chorus, which I attended with athenais, and reviewed at the behest of the chorus' publicity people, who were rather persistent. But it was only fair; after four years at the Daily Journal, I'd never covered one of their own concerts before.

Some nice stuff, especially the English Renaissance anthems, and some modestly imaginative new works. The carol singalong, though, didn't work: the throbbing heavy organ was out of place, and the choral arrangements were too complex for a singalong to latch on to.

Second was by the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, subscribed to with enthusiasm by myself and B. and all the other Friends of vgqn, who sings therein. It was at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose, where SSV plays, and was led by associate director Michael DiGiacinto.

This highly textured and well-balanced chorus was most excellently displayed in superb arrangements (by Dan Forrest and Peter Wilhousky, respectively) of "The First Noel" and "Carol of the Bells," plus James McKelvy's wacky setting of "Deck the Halls" in 7/8 time.

The big pieces on the program were two oft-played modern British classics. Britten's Ceremony of Carols, accompanied by harp (Karen Thielen, a true master of tone color on her instrument) was vigorous and charming, and the more angular Gloria of John Rutter - whose finale starts out sounding like Carl Orff and finishes up like John Williams - was likewise invigorating and sometimes unexpectedly beautiful.

Rutter calls for an instrumental ensemble of brass, percussion, harp, and piano doubling organ, and as long as the brass was there, we also had a couple antiphonal pieces by Gabrieli and Praetorius with the chorus forming one choir and the brass the other. Interesting experiment, and it worked pretty well.

And there were singalongs here too, better arranged than Ragazzi's, and encouraged by mugging comments by the conductor. One set of secular carols - "The Christmas Song" (you know, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), which was co-authored by Mel Tormé, probably requires Tormé to do it justice - and one set of sacred ones. The latter included "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" ("Hark the Herald Tribune sings / Advertising wondrous things" - T. Lehrer) and "O Come All ye Faithful" ("Oh come let us adore him / Pippin the Cat" - Kalimac).

On the way over, we stopped for a brief walk-through of Christmas in the Park. Every year, Chavez Plaza is filled with Christmas trees which are decorated by various local organizations, both religious and secular (clubs, charities, schools, etc.), and in among them, as festive as any others, were trees by the local atheist group and the Satanic Church. The sight of these would probably cause Roy Moore's wig to fly off, but around here we take such diversity in stride. Also dioramas with recorded music playing, one of The Nutcracker in such sound quality as to suggest it was recorded by Tchaikovsky himself, and another of "Deck the Halls" at the speed of a dirge.

Friday, December 8, 2017

world according to cat

We closed the doors to the bedrooms last evening, and the cats began to fear and tremble. This rare event means the closing off of hiding spaces in preparation for the most dreaded of all feline events, Going To The Vet. Pippin even decided that hiding (downstairs) was a more productive use of his time than eating his dinner. If you know Pippin, that's a dramatic decision.

Perhaps due to the totalitarian threat implied by the doors, they came along fairly quietly when it was time to enter the carriers. Two cats, two carriers. Some authorities advise that if your cats get along with each other, as ours do, you could use just one carrier. But considering what Pippin does in his fear in the carrier, it's just as well that Maia not be there. Also, a cat carrier in our house is like an electron shell that only holds one electron. If you open up the shell when there's already an electron there, it shoots out. You'll never get a second one in at the same time.

At the vet's, though, it's entirely different. Here, getting them out is the trick. When we opened up Maia's carrier, she cautiously stuck out her head and one paw, staying in that attitude for a long time. When she finally finished emerging, I intoned, "That's four small steps for a cat, one giant leap for cat kind."

They're doing fine, and everybody's shots are now up to date.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


1. Despite the date, I hastened to San Jose Tofu to buy a block - first stage in a campaign to have as much as I can stand to eat (perhaps one a week) in the month remaining - and to give the retiring owners best wishes.

2. Changing bandages is difficult when in the company of a curious cat.

3. Wandered by the living room just as B. turned the television on. Heard announcer say, in a shocked voice, "He's marrying a divorced American actress who's three years older than he is." Can't determine which part shocks the announcer most, but realized with a mixture of amazement and regret that I know who's being discussed.

4. Firefox updated itself, again. This time I had trouble figuring out what happened to my bookmarks. I could bookmark a page, I could find (under the icon of a bookshelf) the list of recent bookmarks, but where was my big classified file? And, once I found it, what was an easy way to display it? Turned out they did something very sensible with it: Ctrl-B toggles it on and off as a sidebar, which is much more convenient when I want to consult multiple bookmarks than the old pull-down menu was. I like that; what I didn't like was how difficult it was to figure that out.

5. More big fires, this time in the LA area. Collaterals of friends are being affected by these. Those who say "In December?!" don't know California. I'm afraid this is going to be normal.

6. Al Franken has to go, but Roy Moore is not being prevented from arriving, and Donald Trump is still there. Isn't there something wrong with this disposition? I'd have Franken say, "All right, I'll resign: to take effect the minute that Moore is either defeated or expelled, and Trump is impeached."

6a. I have to agree, though, with regrets, that Franken has passed his sell-by date. It's not so much the incidents themselves, which were routine creepy masher gropings (bad, but deserving a more measured denouncement), but the sanctimoniousness of his response that got him. To the first charge he said it was just one case of bad judgment which he regrets. That might have been forgivable, but no surprise, it turns out he did it all the time. The gap here is what kills it. Kevin Spacey had the same kind of response, and though the charges against Spacey were much worse, it was, again, the divorce of that response from reality which made it game over.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

culinary tragedy

The news came out today: San Jose Tofu is closing at the end of the month.

This is a culinary tragedy because this tiny shop in San Jose's Japantown makes the best tofu in the Western hemisphere - possibly, these days, in any hemisphere. It's made fresh every day, it doesn't keep more than a couple of days (even refrigerated), and where every packaged tofu I've ever had is gross, slimy and rubbery, this stuff is light, tender, and tasty.

But the third-generation owners are getting old, and tired of hauling buckets of soybeans around, and they can't get replacement parts for their machinery even from Japan any more, and apparently there isn't a fourth generation available to carry on.

Despite its small daily output, San Jose Tofu has distributed to local Asian markets, and that's where I first found it, at a tiny market near where we used to live. When that place closed down, I transferred to an excellent Japanese-Hawaiian produce place near our new home, and when that closed, although there's a Japanese supermarket that also carries it intermittently, I started dropping by the home office whenever I was downtown. I could always park on the street, not bothering to feed the meter, duck into the doorway, ask the lady who was always there - Amy, her name is - for one tofu, please. She'd fish a block out of the vat, put it and some liquid on a small styro square in a plastic bag, I'd give her $2.25 and be out in a jiffy. Then home to the fridge to be stir-fried with veggies and mabo sauce for that evening's dinner.

I'll miss it. I just hope we still have for a while the other server of great things that I go to deepest San Jose for, the equally aging lady who sells the best tamales I've had, from a shop which - unlike San Jose Tofu - has been through 3 locations in the 12 years I've been going there.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

Oh, was this ever an interesting reviewing assignment.

A new violin concerto.

Played as soloist by the composer.

Who's 12 years old.

It's not as bizarre a circumstance as it may seem. As I noted in the review, I hear equally proficient young performers every year, and while juvenile genius composers are not common, they're not unknown, even now. For a recent example, I didn't even mention Jay Greenberg, who caused a flurry over a decade ago, but has been less heard of since he reached adulthood.

But I was determined to give full and honest consideration to Alma Deutscher the composer, and not to coo over the child prodigy. I was encouraged in this by her own attitude towards her composing abilities as expressed in her 60 Minutes segment, in which she also declared a belief in the purpose of music that I'd heard before.

Oscar Wilde expressed the credo, "The artist is the creator of beautiful things." I've read similar principles expressed in music by people like the composer Alan Hovhaness and the critic Bernard Levin. Levin once wrote that music is centripetal, a term I thought of using in the review and then thought better of.

Then I got to the music. What do I say? Some people seem to hold that music written in what we generally consider a 19th-century style is all right for those old buffers from the 19th century but is anathema if anyone tries doing it today. I cannot accept that attitude. While I believe that to understand a work one must consider the circumstances of its creation and the intent of the creator (as context, not as the end-all answer to its meaning), I also believe that, in measuring quality, the work stands on its own, and is good or bad regardless of its date stamp or other circumstances of its creation. If we're going to criticize Alma Deutscher for writing 19th-century-style music, we have to find reasons for that criticism in the work itself.

Some would say that latter-day epigones will never be as good because the style isn't native to the creator. That's true in some cases: contrast Tolkien, steeped in his medieval inspirations, with his imitators who are not. And that may be the case here. As I listened to the concerto, the word that crept into my mind was "anodyne," and that I did put in the review. When I listen to really bad genuine 19th-century music, that's not how it sounds. What I think then is "full of hot air." Alma Deutscher is not full of hot air: her music is concise and well-, if simply, shaped. She may be more anodyne than the writers of 19th-century hot air, but she is also a better composer than they are. I hope I made it clear: if I wasn't bowled over by simple precocity, I'm also not saying this is bad music. I said in the review that it was pleasant and agreeable, and that's praise as far as it goes. I can still remember themes from it, which is more than I was expecting.

But what about her native style? Well, what is her native style? She's 12 years old! She may not even have one yet. I've noticed before that even Mozart was only a child prodigy, and not an immortal genius, until he was 18 - and that's early; most non-prodigy composers didn't write anything immortal until their mid-20s. I'd like to hear if this one grows into her shoes as she reaches maturity.

But I may not get much of a chance to find out. Because a child prodigy is a child prodigy, but a former child prodigy is merely an adult. I'm well aware that, no matter what I think of her music, or whether it's actually up to the quality of its 19th century models, no self-respecting orchestra of any reputation would play a new work that sounds like this if it weren't by a child prodigy. I've heard new music in antique styles before, music that was as good as this, written by adults. It was self-published and lingered in obscurity. So does much else that isn't atavistic, for that matter; getting on stage is not simply a matter of pure quality and never has been.

All of this was playing around my mind as I kept the review succinct, by word count limits, and as focused as I could.

Monday, December 4, 2017

driving to Santa Rosa

Seeing that next year's SMOFCon will be in Santa Rosa, I visited its website from curiosity. I'm unlikely to go - even when I was working on conventions, they were of a different order or my work was of a different kind and I wasn't part of that community - but I was curious as to their site - is it in an area that was affected by the recent fires? No - and the directions.

On that, I have a few comments.

They recommend San Francisco (SFO) for flights, and do so on the grounds of its larger size and greater number of options. I wouldn't put it that way. I'd say that those are the reasons you might find yourself using SFO regardless of whether it's the best airport or not.

When I'm picking among multiple possible airports, I start by figuring out which one best fits my ground transportation needs. Then I see what the flight options and costs are. Only if some other airport's advantages in that respect outweigh its ground disadvantages do I switch.

So if you just want to go to Santa Rosa and not drive around a lot, Sonoma County (STS) is obviously best. The site says fares there can be quite high. I'm sure that's true (I've never had to price them myself), and that could indeed drive you to consider SFO or Oakland (OAK) even if you had no plans to visit those cities.

But which of SFS or OAK is logistically superior, leaving aside which has more flight options? (And OAK has some non-stops to unexpected far-off places: it could surprise you.) You have to weigh those.

SFO is far more likely to be socked in by fog, and that's a consideration at this time of year.

OAK being smaller is frequently less crowded. However, my minimal experience there says that security checkpoints are more likely to be overwhelmed there, and once I saw baggage claim chaos at OAK worse than almost anywhere else.

The site says SFO has an airport shuttle; it doesn't say about OAK, but actually the same service goes to both.

Both are major airports as far as airline and rental car selection are concerned.

If you drive, the difference in traffic is likely to be a wash. SFO directly connects to the 101 freeway, but you have to drive on surface streets through the City. OAK is a long mile from the 880 freeway, but once you're there it's all freeway. Commuter traffic, if you hit it, can be very bad on either, but it's worse on the OAK route, at least in the part of the route that's I-80, between Emeryville and Richmond.

Bridges. You have to cross over one on each route, and they both charge tolls, but in one direction only. SFO-Santa Rosa goes over the Golden Gate Bridge, which charges toll on the way back. Those tolls are only taken electronically, so you'd best talk to your rental car company about that. OAK-Santa Rosa goes over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which charges toll on the way to the con instead (I could explain the discrepancy, but you wouldn't want to read it), and that one does still take cash, $5 for cars.

However, if you've never been over the Golden Gate Bridge, then for Ghu's sake do. It's one of California's finest sights. But that gets into tourist attractions, and that's another post. This one is just practical logistics.

There's another airport option, you know. Sacramento (SMF). Check flights to that. There's no toll bridges on the drive. While SFO and OAK are 70 miles away from Santa Rosa, SMF is 100 miles, which is not that much of a difference at that scale, and for most of the route the traffic will be less, unless you hit holidays. Google Maps will route you through Vallejo, which looks at first glance out of the way. If efficiency is the goal, I'd go down I-80 at least as far as Hwy 12 at Fairfield. The direct route over Hwy 128 and local roads is scenic, so it's good for meandering, but it's mountainous and twisty and will save you neither miles nor time if those are concerns.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

reading and eating

Did I tell you that B. has her voice back? Well, her speaking voice, anyway. The therapists said that not speaking was not really doing anything to heal the voice (it's really designed for people whose speaking style had abused their voice, and that wasn't true of her), so they took her off it.

That was before Thanksgiving, so that meant she could talk to her relatives (If you could talk to the relatives / Learn their languages / Maybe take a relative degree) and also participate in the reading around the (virtual) fire that our Mythopoeic Society discussion group does each December.

For joint readings, we picked the comic interview dialogues with the superhero booking agent and the supervillain threat analyst from John Scalzi's Miniatures collection of short-shorts. We each had this book on our e-readers, having each bought it without knowing the other was doing the same. The first interviewee is female and the second male, and the interviewers are unmarked, so that gave us our casting. I was a little surprised at times at what got the biggest laughs.

For the dinner table, I honored one of our hostesses, who is a Polish-American proud of her heritage, by making a Polish dish of chicken with cream and herbs. I know it's Polish because I used a sauce mix I'd picked up at Tesco on my last visit to the UK. London, at least the part of it I was staying in, is full of Polish expatriates and its markets are consequently full of imported Polish food packages, the way ours are full of Mexican and Asian. I must say that Google Translate was up to dealing with recipe instructions in Polish.

Friday, December 1, 2017

I'm not getting down in the gutter with this guy

as Eisenhower said about Joe McCarthy, or at least not in direct address, but over here where nobody is listening (yes, I know), I'll say that I still can't get over the guy who denounced my Tolkien Society blog post.

Asked (by somebody else) to explain his evaluation, he said that "it would work as a social media post." But if it would work as anything, it couldn't possibly be "the most badly written piece of garbled English I have ever read" as he'd said earlier. That's just a drive-by insult, then, and all he really meant was that he thought the tone of discourse, the voice it was written in, inappropriate for the forum.

That'd be a reasonable criticism if he'd said so originally. Still, I have news for him. It's a blog. It says "blog" in big letters at the top of the page. A blog is a form of social media. The whole purpose of the TS blog is for discursive informal pieces without the formal and impartial journalistic style of, say, the TS press releases.

Of the various inaccurate specific charges he makes, which merely suggest he has serious reading deficiencies, one is susceptible to simple objective identification: sentence fragments. There's nothing necessarily wrong about sentence fragments; it depends on how they're used. There's only two utterances in my post that aren't full regular sentences: one exclamation and one exhoratory imperative (the latter is the first sentence of the last paragraph). That's not too many, and both are standard forms of discourse in informal writing.

I could go through the sequence of paragraphs and show how each is related to its neighbors, but that would be wearisome and I don't he'd be capable of following it anyway, if he had trouble with the original. As for finding anything hilariously ambiguous in the identification of Christopher's son, that's just pathetic.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lincoln's clown car

Lincoln's Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac by Stephen W. Sears

This is the first time I've tried reading a book on the US Civil War that's pitched at such a high level of detail. It's 900 pages on generalship in the army that basically spent four years in Virginia (with occasional excursions north), running around after Robert E. Lee. I've been at it for days and not out of 1862 yet.

It's not just the commanding generals. It's all the generals, of whom there were a bleedin' lot, with occasional excursions into colonels.

Here's what I'm learning about generalship:

1. Incompetent generals complained at being charged with incompetence.

2. Competent generals also complained at being charged with incompetence, as well as not having their achievements mentioned in dispatches, and even accusations of treason.

3. Generals frequently had their command assignments switched around. Whenever this starts, I can usually skip ahead a few pages without missing anything.

4. Generals feuded with each other. Constantly.

5. Generals were more likely to explain their strategic plans in letters home to their wives than to their fellow or subordinate generals.

6. Some generals consistently overestimated the size of the enemy's forces. Others didn't.

7. General McClellan, in command, tried his utmost to avoid doing anything, and got terribly upset whenever he did accidentally do something.

I'm hoping this miasma changes soon, and so, it's clear, does Mr. Lincoln.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

the last homely house - or not, as you may think

As you drive through a prosperous residential neighborhood, it may seem to you that the buildings are divided neatly between the single-family dwellings and the apartment houses.

But maybe not. Down our street are some residences that look, architecturally and at first glance, like large single-family homes. But a closer look reveals that they're actually duplexes, or even (if you could get behind them) four-plexes, smaller homes squashed together with shared walls.

Or consider our own townhouse complex. Each townhouse, of identical exterior design, is a separate building, and each has a separate street number. But there are shared spaces as at a large apartment block, and management is responsible for the exterior gardening and maintenance, for instance.

Why should this matter? Well, what if there's a law, or a city policy, distinguishing between single- and multiple-family homes?

We have one. The city has been rolling out new garbage bins, with a recycling container for food scraps. (The food will be fed to pigs. The pigs will not be fed to humans, presumably because of the irregularity of their diet. That means we're recycling our food scraps into spoiled pork meat as well as porcine effluvia, a notorious pollutant. It's not clear to me how this is an ecological improvement.)

The bins, we've been told, are going to single-family houses, but not to apartment buildings. Maybe at some later time, but not now. At some date over a period of weeks, they'll come by after the regular pickup and swap the old bins for the new ones, so be sure to leave yours out after the pickup. So we left ours out and waited each week ...

Finally, a new bin appeared at our curb. The old one didn't go away. But when, having instructed ourselves in the rules for food scrap recycling, we put out the bin the next week, I saw that we were the only house in the complex to have one.

This deserved a phone call. The recycling company didn't know much, but they referred me to the city, who were most responsive. (When the person you reach says "I'll have to refer this to my boss; he'll call you back," you don't expect the underling to call you back a half hour later to report that her boss is busy preparing a report for the city council meeting tonight and will call tomorrow, still less that he actually will.)

Turns out, by city classification, that we're not single-family houses, but a multi-family complex. So we don't get the bins. But apparently the people who delivered the bins had a list of accounts, and since our complex has one account they delivered one bin, and I just happened to get it.

It could be worse, the city man said. At least they didn't take away the old bins. At the four-plexes down the street, they delivered one bin to each and took away the four old bins, each of which had more garbage space than the new one does. He's just gotten finished straightening that one out.

So yes, it does matter if your home is single-family or multi-, and the city would have been wise to check the list of homes before handing it over to the cart deliverers.