Monday, January 30, 2012

concert review: Royal Philharmonic

This is what I went out on Saturday for. It was the same hall I went to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in a year ago, and for the same reason, to review it.

Unlike with the Viennese, or a lot of other orchestras that go on tour, I'd never really thought of the Royal Philharmonic as something you'd travel a great distance or pay a lot of money to hear. I had a lot of their recordings, and they seemed like a solid, workaday group. Anyway, they turned out to be fairly good, especially the lower strings, with enough eccentricities to make it really interesting. It seemed to me that their color and style, at least under a French Swiss conductor like Charles Dutoit, was better suited to playing French music that the German and Hungarian stuff we got.

The Liszt concerto, which isn't too froo-froo but which I could live without, was the first time I'd heard a piano concerto in Zellerbach. Holy vibrations, what awful acoustics for that setup.

Later, fought my editorial corner to get added grammatical errors removed again from my review.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Monty Hall's flying risccu

Visiting one of the world's few remaining independent general bookstores prior to a concert, I found an entire book about The Monty Hall Problem (that's the book's title) by Jason Rosenhouse. I only had time to browse through it, and I decided not to buy it at this time, but it looks fascinating. Rosenhouse is interested in the mental blocks that cause even professional mathematicians not to get this one. And he's done diligent research, tracking down earlier formulations of the problem (not necessarily set in Let's Make a Deal) and reprinting most of the original Marilyn Vos Savant columns that raised the controversy. I was surprised to find that Vos Savant's original reply included what I've always considered the killer proof of the correct reasoning: Imagine that there are 100 doors instead of 3, and that Monty opens 98 of them to reveal goats before inviting you to switch. Now will you believe that the other closed door is more likely to hide the desired car than the one you picked at random out of a hundred?

Rosenhouse considers it necessary frequently to specify that, in the third of the cases where the contestant did pick the right door originally, Monty chooses which of the two wrong doors to open at random. I don't see why it makes any difference whether he picks it at random or not; it's going to be one of the wrong doors either way. But Rosenhouse waits for quite a while before he makes the one absolutely necessary non-obvious specification (the obvious ones being that Monty knows what's behind each door, that the contestant is not Porgy and does not prefer a goat to a car, and that nobody behind the scenes is switching the prizes during one iteration of the game) to make this work, which is that Monty makes the offer to switch and opens a door for every contestant. Because if he does it only with selected contestants, he could select for the ones who chose the right door originally, and the probability assessment goes out the window.

It appears that Rosenhouse is also going to discuss other similar problems. At the point I had to put the book down, because it was time to get where I was going, he was just about to explain why, if you have two puppies of sex unknown to you, the question, "If at least one of the puppies is male, what's the probability that the other one is also male?" has a different answer from the question, "If [specified] Puppy A is male, what's the probability that [specified] Puppy B is also male?", because in the first question, the second puppy is contingent on the first puppy in a way not the case in the second question, where they're totally independent variables. That's similar to the situation in the Monty Hall Problem, where the reason that switching will win 2/3rds of the time is that the probability is contingent on whether you picked the right or a wrong door to begin with.

Anyway, interesting-looking book.

Friday, January 27, 2012

survey from the planet of the hip

The survey-taker on the phone was a (thankfully, because she had a lot to read at me) fast-talking woman who wanted to know my radio listening habits, if I was between the ages of N and N+X, which I am, just barely. These habits are, I had to say, minimal. I listen to the classical music station mostly in the car, not at home, and then only when I can pick up the signal, which isn't often. (The better one over the hills to the south packed up and quietly skipped town last fall, alas.) I listen to the all-news station in the car when I need to catch the traffic reports, or in case of natural disaster (partly because radio news keeps its head on better than does television news, but mostly because the power does not go out in the car). The last natural disaster around here that qualified was the Oakland fire, which was 21 years ago, so it's been a while. At least the survey-taker had heard of the all-news stations; I gather that the classical station wasn't on her list.

Then she had to ask if I regularly listen to any of the following musicians, and rattled off a bunch of names I'd never heard of. Nope. Then another bunch of names I'd never heard of. Nope. Then a third bunch of names, some of which I had heard of ("Lady Gaga", "Coldplay"), but I wouldn't know their music if it hit me over the head. Then a fourth bunch of names which ... wait, was one of those Madonna? I once watched a clip of her singing "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" from the movie. Does that count? The survey-taker chose to interpret that as declaring myself an ardent Madonna fan. A few more of these and we were done, and we still hadn't gotten anybody, even among active pop musicians who might conceivably show up on the radio, whom I do actually listen to. (Suzanne Vega? Enya? Weird Al Yankovic?)

And is there anybody else in the house between the ages of mumble who might be interested in taking this survey? On both counts, no. In another two months I, too, will be too old for this. Can't wait.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

If you order by the yard the kind of music that Mozart composed by the yard, you get a concert full of yard goods. Such was the part of this evening's event that consisted of Pinchas Zukerman playing and vaguely leading one and a half Mozart violin concertos. The one was K. 216 and the half was made out of two scattered movements, K. 261 and K. 373. The last of these in particular is pure hackwork and you can't make anything else out of it, so you'd be better off not trying. Tucked in among these, Zukerman traded his violin for a viola, not that you'd notice, and gave out Hindemith's Trauermusik with the mute button on. It was such a crabbed and repressed performance that Zukerman had to start waving his arms at the audience to let them know it was over so they could applaud.

After intermission, our hero returned without an instrument but with a baton and turned his full attention to the orchestra for a decidedly non-yard goods piece of Mozart, the "Great" G-minor symphony K. 550. The orchestra hitched its metaphorical pants up and delivered, very well, a fleet, fine-boned performance, soberly and classically shaped, designed to give the lie to words like "urgent" and "explosive" in the program notes.

Monday, January 23, 2012

of the day

1. Of course Giffords was going to resign eventually.

2. Of course the 49ers weren't going to make it to the Super Bowl.

3. Newt Gingrich?

4. If Chinese New Year's is on Monday, will all the Chinese restaurants be closed?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

from others to demons

Yesterday, The Admirable Jo Walton Her Rail Journey Around the U.S. was in San Francisco. In the back room of the Borderlands bookstore's cafe annex she fulfilled the purpose of her travels by reading the tantalizing opening sections from the new softcover edition of Among Others and taking a Q&A session.

So much of interest was spoken by the author during the latter that I would feel infringing on her intellectual property rights were I to report too much of it. I think fair use will allow me two examples. She enunciated a credo of the intelligent fantasy reader by stating that if you want her to read your entirely realistic novel, you have to be a really good writer, and instanced Vikram Seth as meeting that standard. (On limited exposure, I endorse him too.) And she spoke of her creation of the fairies in Among Others. As Welsh herself, she considers Celtic mythology and lore part of her heritage, but so many authors, particularly American, have ground Celtic fairies down into cookie-cutter dust1 that she didn't feel she could use them. I consider this another instance of a principle I've had to repeat in discussions of movie adaptations: that the book is NOT "still on the shelf" but in the mind of the reader, and if the reader's mind has been polluted by a bad adaptation, so has the book; in this case the polluted book is the stream of traditional Celtic mythology.

Afterwards, a passel of us including the, and several other, author(s) adjourned for dinner at a boutique pizzeria and small-plates joint, hand-selected by Debbie Notkin for fitting several necessary criteria: only a five-block walk away, willing to accept a reservation for an expected influx of about 20 people plus or minus N, quiet enough so that we could hear ourselves talk over dinner2, and really good food. Several of us munched pancetta pizzas with caramelized onions, yum, and the carrot soup was said to be exquisite by those who had it.

I excused myself early to make my way up to Herbst for a performance of a stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, in town very briefly on tour. This condensed the book into a 90-minute show by selecting key sentences out of the letters and from "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", the latter of which was presented as prologue. After which, Screwtape retires to his study to dictate his successive letters addressed to the unfortunate junior tempter Wormwood. Though the moment when Screwtape transforms himself into a centipede is omitted, because the adapters couldn't figure out how to present it onstage, Screwtape's secretary Toadpipe, who completes that letter for him, is present in a form like unto a cross between Peter Jackson's Gollum and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, scribbling on paper and sending the letters up from hell in an industrial-revolution-style pneumatic tube, gesticulating and making various Serkis-like cat-barfing noises in response to Screwtape's observations, and miming assorted human characters as Screwtape describes them.

Screwtape himself, suave in a smoking jacket, is played by Max McLean (best known as an audio narrator of Christian books) in the vocal style of a slightly tipsy schoolmaster, more pedagogically crafty than sinisterly demonic, but less pedantic than John Cleese's reading of the book, with highly inflected mannerisms designed to deliver the oomph behind Lewis's satire. His voice was amplified with a body mike, and various amplified sound effects punctuate the production, particularly during Screwtape's paean to noise and cacophony. For a moment there it was a little too close to hell for me.

1. I guess that image, which is mine, not Jo's, is a mixed metaphor; sorry.
2. In fact it is quiet on hearing-impaired principle, as evidenced by the staff communicating in ASL, though they also have spoken English for customers who know not the other language.

Friday, January 20, 2012

I've branched out

For some years I've been reviewing local concerts for SFCV, but lately they've been publishing occasional CD reviews as well, and I've now joined the ranks of the CD reviewers. A couple weeks ago my editors sent me a 2-CD set of early Shostakovich film music, no doubt choosing me because I'm a known Shostakovich enthusiast (for proof, part one and part two), and they got an extensive burble on the subject. I'm actually less enthusiastic about his early music than his middle and later works, but I enjoyed this a great deal, thanks in particular to a snappy performance.

Ninety minutes of unfamiliar pit cabaret music is a lot to absorb, and more than one might want to tackle all at once. I actually wrote the review while listening to the music for the second time through. For me, throwing in references to the Shostakovich symphonies I was passingly reminded of was easily done spontaneously, though perhaps I should have said that the dark, funereal moments were more like the harrowing "Babi Yar" movement of the 13th than like the 14th. But that would have taken more wordage to explain, and I was running long enough as it is.

The click and play excerpts were chosen by my editors rather than myself. The first excerpt, which is the very beginning of the score, gives a good idea of what the cheeky early sections are like, and near the end of the 3-minute excerpt is one of those detached string interludes I mentioned. The second excerpt, however, though from much further on in the score, isn't very typical of the later parts' character and might be a bit misleading.

I have another review CD on my desk, deadline and publication date unknown, to me at least.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Iron Lady

I was just too curious to resist the call of the movie house for this one. I could have saved money by just renting a DVD of Iris, also a retrospective-oriented movie about a once-strong old woman in the throes of dementia with a husband played by Jim Broadbent.

Because, really, that's what it is. And it's somewhat ghoulish that this could be done to someone who is, after all, still alive. (Iris had died not long before.) Politically, which is the part I was interested in, this was a fragmentary fantasia on Thatcherite themes. I do mean fragmentary: take all the political scenes in this movie and string them together, and you'd have the trailer for a better political movie. And I do mean Thatcherite, also: it's entirely from her pov, treating her colleagues and opponents alike as the pusillanimous knaves she undoubtably thinks they are.

The only other major political figures in the script for any purpose other than to be name- or face-checked (the other actors are recognizable as the famous pols they play in cameo mostly through their hairstyles) are Airey Neave and Geoffrey Howe. (Not a word about Keith Joseph, though I recognized his hairstyle briefly in a Commons scene, and Michael Heseltine exists purely to be name-checked and then to declare his candidacy, baffling any viewers who don't already know who he is.) Nicholas Farrell plays Neave as the Wise Old Mentor, and Tony Head, who really ought to know better, delivers a bad Geoffrey Howe impersonation.

Mostly, of course, it's Meryl Streep delivering the Illusion of Life so well that a fantasy-oriented viewer like me wonders, "Why bother?" As you watch this elderly woman tottering around, buying a pint of milk for 49p, figuring out which side of a DVD is up, and tossing her dead husband's clothes in plastic trash bags, you begin to thank the political incursion scenes, fragmentary as they are, for reminding you just who and what this pathetic-looking figure really was.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

of the day

To the dentist in the morning to have a temporary crown affixed, with all the attendant drilling and sticking your entire jaw into gel and such. At least it fixes a hole that had become quite annoying during eating.

Instead of nitrous oxide, which I've probably had enough of, this dentist believes in relaxing his patients by prescribing them a little pill. It must be some powerful pill, because the pharmacy had raised a huge fuss over dispensing any of it, and the dentist subsequently earned my gratitude by being willing to negotiate the pharmacy's labyrinthine phone tree in order to get this settled.

One takes it the evening before, and I immediately drifted off to eight hours of a dreamless sleep. Immediately on returning home from the dentist (B. drove, both ways), I drifted off to eight hours of a dreamless sleep again, which wasted the whole afternoon. Pandora, I was later told, got on top of me in hopes of arousing me for feeding, but no luck.

We've had the outside furnace door locked, so I'm afraid it's now off-limits for homeless men to huddle and risk getting monoed or burning down the house.

I'm going to Potlatch, but now I find all sorts of tempting concerts going on at home that weekend. And, when I'm there, the Seattle Symphony is off for the week. Rats. The things I do for science fiction.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

DVD reviews

Midnight in Paris. It was a good thing when Woody Allen finally stopped playing the Woody Allen character in Woody Allen movies. Now he leaves it to people like Owen Wilson, who is actually much better at it. The whimsical plot of this movie creaks and groans a great deal in getting itself set up, but once it's off and rolling - that is, once Owen accepts what's happening to him and just goes with the flow - it's an absolute delight from then on through the last drop. The previous Woody film it most resembles is The Purple Rose of Cairo. It's not quite as good, but the theme is the same: can you live in your fantasies?

Three other points. 1) In one sense, the plot is about the inevitable breakup of Owen and his fiancée. Usually I find such stories too sad and upsetting to watch. But they're so obviously utterly unsuited for each other from square one, and it's handled so lightly and skillfully, I didn't mind. (It's necessary, however, to empathize with the goofball him rather than the brittle her, and I'd like to hear from women who've seen it if this was a problem for them.) 2) In another sense, it's a love letter to Paris. I've never been to Paris, but mutatis mutandis (a big caveat, for the cities have very different atmospheres) the street scenes of this movie remind me vividly of what it's like to just walk around Rome, so now I feel I know what it's like to walk around Paris. Thanks, Woody. 3) After you watch the movie, watch the trailer. It's an amazing trailer. It gives simultaneously an accurate and a cheekily misleading idea of what the movie is like, and, unlike every other movie trailer of the past couple decades, it doesn't summarize or even give away the plot. Amazing.

Nightmare Alley. The 1947 film noir with Tyrone Power. Watched as a crude substitute for reading the novel, which I don't want to do, but I was curious. First reaction: A lot of good acting, too much of it gone to waste on typically crappy Forties-movie romantic dialog. Second reaction: Oh, come on, would that carny blather really work on everyone? "Every boy has a dog," say the shysters, so every man will think the description of the image of a boy running barefoot through the hills with a dog is him. Well, I didn't have a dog. I never ran barefoot either. Did have hills, though. Third reaction: This is supposed to be the story of the fall of an over-reaching man. Actually, though, it's mostly about his rise, leaving his fall to be stuffed hastily, details mostly undepicted, in the last reel. Fourth reaction: Yes, that was a big flashing neon plot sign prefiguring the end of the movie at the very beginning. I thought so. Final reaction: Wow, what a creepy story. No wonder the author's wife left him.

The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries. The original BBC adaptations, with Ian Carmichael. I saw these when they were first on Masterpiece Theatre decades ago, but I'd only ever seen a couple of them since. In fact they were my introduction to Sayers, almost the only canonical murder-mystery novelist I really like. Take the eleven Wimsey novels, remove the four with Harriet Vane (whom the producers obviously didn't want to handle), delete the two remaining ones which are the least good, and you have the five of this series. They turn out to be quite delightful, particularly in catching stock British tv actors of the day whom I recognize from The Prisoner etc. In fact, one of them was one of the Castle Anthrax "doctors" ("They, uh, have a basic medical training, yes") in Holy Grail. Holy blood!

The least successful was the adaptation of one of the best books, Murder Must Advertise. Too much of what makes that story delightful had to be edited out to fit, and Paul Darrow, later to win fame as the psychopathic Avon on Blakes 7, is too coiled and repressed to be well-cast as the weak, self-indulgent Tallboy. He's just about the only case of that, though. The script for The Nine Tailors, best of the five originals, tears the novel apart entirely but rebuilds it moderately well. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is better still, with some great small parts. Clouds of Witness actually improves on a somewhat dodgy novel. Best of all the adaptations was Five Red Herrings. I've only read the novel once; I found it difficult to keep track of who was who among seven irascible Scottish landscape painters, nor could I work up much interest in which one of them killed which other one of them, and when, amid a welter of railway timetables. But on television, where you can see all seven and try to remember which is which, it works pretty well.

By the way: though all five stories are set off by a dead body, only two of them turn out to be actual murders, with villainous intent to kill.

Monday, January 9, 2012

King John and the Bastard

My Shakespeare reading group's play tonight was The Life and Death of King John, a play now so obscure that some may not even know Shakespeare wrote a play on that subject. It should be played more often; it's quite dramatically effective. And it suffers from having the most famous most misquoted line in Shakespeare: "to gild refined gold, to paint the lily" (Act 4, Scene 2), usually rendered as "to gild the lily," which doesn't make any sense, or, rather, the original version is the one that doesn't make sense, both (and several others in the same speech) being cited as examples of "wasteful and ridiculous excess."

Among the dramatis personae are characters called "the Bastard" and "the Lord Bigot". I knew Shakespeare wrote propaganda, but this is ridiculous. (For the humor-impaired: that was a joke.)

I got to read Hubert the Executioner in the emotional scene where Prince Arthur pleads not to have his eyes put out. Rather than making him sound deep and clumsy like Wilfred Shadbolt, I tried for a lighter voice vaguely inspired by that of another famous Hubert, Humphrey. I also got to be the aforementioned Bastard in one scene. He's one of Shakespeare's fine examples of a loose, casual-speaking character. Done with a bit of gum-chewing drawl he's a lot of fun to play. And also the leading citizen of Angiers, who when asked to declare allegiance either to John or to Philip of France (representing Arthur's rights), basically says "Let's you and him fight over it." And when they reply, "We've got a better idea. Let's both of us unite and destroy you first, and then we can discuss who gets the allegiance of the ruins," hastily changes his mind.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

and about time

Found this photo recently. Everybody knows that Obama has a dog, so here for a change is Obama petting a cat. Or "stroking", as they call it over there, this being Larry, who lives in Downing Street with the title of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office. (Some guy in the background of the picture might also have a job thereabouts.)

Friday, January 6, 2012


I suddenly remembered something I'd taken note of several months ago and then forgotten about, which was that my passport was about to expire. I'm not planning any foreign trips any time soon (I might go to Canada sometime, and you need a passport for that these days, and I might go to Arizona, and with their new laws I'm not going there without a passport either), but I feel unequipped without a valid passport in the house.

All the forms may now be found on the State Dept. website. That leaves the fee ($110 for a renewal, ouch) and the photo. Put on my jacket and tie, because this is official business, and went to a notary office deep in the Silicon Valley industrial zone. They took four photos, trying for one in which I keep my head straight and don't squint. Concluded that the first one was the best - is it not always so? - and printed that.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


1. To my list of things written last year.
I had another article in press that slipped my mind, one which arrived in print yesterday with a last year's date on it: "A Tolkien Classification System" in the December issue, no. 32, of that intensely special-interest occasional magazine, The Tolkien Collector. It's a discussion of and outline for a suggested way for prolific collectors to arrange their books by and especially those about Tolkien in an order more interesting and possibly more useful than just author and title, drawing on my long professional experience with fine-grained library classification.
I also have an article that I submitted to Chunga when the newly-released issue was being first prepared, so if it's accepted it'll be in the next one, but I haven't heard back from the editors about it yet.

2. Pyffe asked, since I'd posted my song to feed cats by, if I might post my alluded-to songs to clean litter boxes by. Actually, most of them are just nonsense reworkings, but there is one rather more special. The delightful singer-songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman have an old-home nostalgia song called "Your State's Name Here", which you may hear them perform on this video. Lou sings generic lyrics in praise of a generic state, and at any point where something specific is called for, Peter interrupts with words like "your state's name here" or "the state songbird" or "place a colloquialism right here," all of which of course fit the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the rest of the lyrics perfectly.

It seemed to me that this song was crying out for a parody called "Your Cat's Name Here," and many years ago B. and I collaborated on writing one, which we performed with great success at a couple of filksings when I was still attending them occasionally. I won't print the entire lyrics here, but there were a lot of comic references to annoying feline behaviors that cat owners like us somehow put up with and even find endearing, and the chorus alludes to a daily duty that never seems to show up in other paeans to cats, so I tend to sing it while performing that duty. It goes like this, the first singer's part in ordinary type and the second singer's interjections in bold brackets:
Oh, [your cat's name here], oh, [again], what a cat
She always brings presents, a fish, bird, or rat
When I rise in the morning, each day of the year
I clean out the catbox of [your cat's name here]

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

concert review update

Review of the concert I attended last weekend. All Beethoven, all the time. Such conservative programming won't get any complaints from me when it's played this well. Music is a performing art: even masterpieces need to be performed to live.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

75 years ago

Today, the sainted Geri Sullivan reminds us, is the 75th anniversary of the first science fiction convention, which was held in Leeds, Yorkshire.

A few miles to the south, 75 years ago was also the 45th birthday anniversary of the author whose first book that would today be eligible for a Hugo, The Hobbit, was already in press and would be published in September. In fact, only the following day he would send the two endpaper maps to his editor. At that point nobody - author or publisher - had the slightest notion of what would be in store after that, least of all the impending doom I wrote about last month.

Anyway, happy birthday, JRRT. He's 120 today - "twelvety," I guess, as 111 is "eleventy-one."

Monday, January 2, 2012

on feeding cats

I have my songs for cleaning litterboxes; now I find I have one for the rarely-ceased task of feeding them. This is mostly about skinny Pandora, but chubby Pippin makes a guest appearance in the bridge.

Hungry kitty, you're the one
You make breakfast lots of fun
Hungry kitty, you've got to have food, it's true
Doo doo doo dee doo

Hungry kitty, joy of joys
Till I feed you, you make noise
Hungry kitty, I'm somehow still fond of you

Oh oh oh …
Every day when I
Make my way from the tubby
I find a little fellow who's
Cute and orange and chubby
Rub a dub dubby

Hungry kitty, you're so thin
Yet you scarf that food all in
Hungry kitty, I'm going to keep feeding you

(and if you don't recognize the tune, it's this classic)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

peace and a concert

This was a quiet new year's for us. For once, we were both in bed and asleep before the witching hour. Aside from Friday's wedding and a New Year's Eve celebratory lunch, my only commemorative indulgence was a New Year's Day afternoon concert and dinner afterwards. The concert was by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra and was titled "I Like Ludwig," and they didn't mean Ludwig Spohr. A solid two hours of the essence, the quiddity, of mid-period Beethoven from an orchestra of unparalleled grit and color, enough to make even a jaded listener - I hope - remember how he came to be considered a great composer in the first place. I shall be saying so in my review, which is to be written next. Happy Asimov's birthday on Monday and Tolkien's birthday on Tuesday; I shall have to find equally sedate ways of celebrating those.