Saturday, August 29, 2015

can't stop the geography

When someone at a party inadvertently says "Slovenia" when they meant "Slovakia", I ought not to jump in and correct it without even a break for breath. That's really not very polite of me.

I'm sorry; it's instinctual. I can't stop the geography. You may have seen by now the collection of geographic "gotchas" from John Oliver's TV show. I can't prove this happened, I just swear by all that's holy that it did. The first of these "gotchas" I saw in its original innocent nesting in one of the regular episodes. As soon as the map of South America with the highlighting and the country-name label appeared, I was pointing at the screen and exclaiming, "They got it wrong! That's Paraguay, not Uruguay!" And I was already composing in my head a blistering e-mail to the show. And all that in the ten seconds that it took before John Oliver said, "Uruguay, a country that you think about so little that you didn't even notice that that's not Uruguay." Ah, a joke! Well, brother, I noticed. And I'd be the same for all the other times Oliver's pulled this stunt.

I ace the Sporkle tests that ask you to put country labels on maps of continents. I'm a whiz at quiz questions like, given a bunch of US states, what other state borders them all? or Which state extends further north, Washington or Maine? (It's Washington, it really is.) I remember the name of which country Bratislava is the capital of. I can't help it; it's just me.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Turner around again

Just as Bernstein's Mass and Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe are among the few compositions that will make B. eager to get up and go some distance to hear them, the painter who has the same power on her is J.M.W. Turner. The last time we saw a Turner exhibition, it was in New York (we were going to be there anyway); this time it was in San Francisco - and still is for three more weeks, so others in the area may see it too.

So to the DeYoung museum we drove today, only to learn that our tickets were also good for a simultaneous exhibit over at the Legion of Honor that also had some Turner, as well as Constable, Gainsborough, and others. (Did you know that Edward Lear painted? I had not.) So, though tired and arted out, we drove over there too, and were glad we did, for though very interesting it was much smaller and wouldn't have been worth a separate trip.

The main Turner exhibit at the DeYoung is of his late works, from 1835 on. There were several rooms' worth. Even leaving aside the unfinished works of a few shades over white canvas, Turner's art of this period is mostly of very bright colors, with faint and uncontrasting figures and scenery hard to make out. This one is a good example, and to underline the point its title is "Angel Standing in the Sun".

When I look at Impressionist art with ill-defined figures, I always have the irreverent thought that the artist needed a new pair of spectacles. I don't get that feeling with Turner. The figures aren't ill-defined, they're just difficult to see clearly. And it took me a bit, but I realized the reason for this is that the brightness is sunlight - duh, check out this painting's title again - and it's that overwhelming light that is blinding the viewer's eyes.

The creativity and daring of this is what's impressive. And to think that Thomas Kinkade called himself "the Painter of Light". He didn't know a photon's worth of light next to the blazing sun of J.M.W. Turner.

Of course, Mr. Turner's contemporaries were often baffled too. Some of them who liked his earlier work thought he'd gone mad. (A similar reaction to what some devotees of Beethoven - only 4 1/2 years Turner's senior, though he didn't live as long - had to the Ninth Symphony and the Grosse Fuge.) A common view of Turner's late art at the time, reproduced in the exhibit, was this:

But we were impressed, and that is why we have new placemats depicting a Turner Tiber-side view of Rome on our kitchen table today.

George Cleve conducts

I wrote yesterday an obituary for George Cleve, and today I thought I would show you a video of him conducting. I picked this one because, despite the shaky sound quality, the video is focused throughout on Cleve's conducting, and because the music - a fine, energetic performance with the Russian National Philharmonic - is Schumann's Fourth Symphony, one of the works Cleve had been scheduled to conduct with Symphony Silicon Valley a little over a month from now, and which now we will not hear him do. (Or his substitute, who has changed the selection to the Second.)

Also for the wincesome moment at the beginning where, just as Cleve is about to begin, a cell phone goes off in the audience, and he gives a little reproving glance behind him. I've seen that happen more than once.

If you don't know Schumann's Fourth, I'll just say that it's my favorite of his symphonies, an alternately dark and coy work in D minor, in four movements with a slow introduction, but the most exciting and interesting part to listen for comes between 21:07 and 22:55 on this video, the link passage between the scherzo and the finale, a trick Schumann borrowed without apology from Beethoven's Fifth, which does the same thing for the same reason: to tie the movements more firmly together and keep the audience, which was prone to this in those days, from applauding between them.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

George Cleve

Well, one of my favorite conductors just died. George Cleve was 79, and had been a fixture in the Bay Area for well over 40 years, since he first became music director of the San Jose Symphony back in 1972. Over the next 20 years, he transformed it from a part-time local band into a serious regional orchestra, increasing both the number and quality of the concerts. He really came to my attention with the bicentennial season of 1975-6, devoted to 20th-century American music, often with the composers themselves (big names, too: Copland, Thomson, Hovhaness, Chavez) brought in to guest conduct.

But Cleve could be highly abrasive and insanely exacting during rehearsal - B. sang with the orchestra in those years and can testify to the long rehearsals and the tantrums - and, though everyone acknowledged that Cleve led inspiring performances, eventually enough was enough and he was persuaded to retire.

In a sense, Cleve didn't mind. By this time, he had his summer Midsummer Mozart Festival to lead every year, and he kept that going on and on.

A dozen or so years later, the San Jose Symphony had run into the ground and been replaced by Symphony Silicon Valley, and in 2005 they finally invited Cleve back. From the moment he took the stage for an all-Mozart concert, I felt transported back to the 1980s. But it was not quite the same. By this time, Cleve - who had some years earlier survived horrible injuries in a fire that destroyed his house - had matured from the spirited popinjay of his youth into a seasoned, portly figure with a striking resemblance to the older Brahms, white beard and all. He had also mellowed, both in temper towards the orchestra, and in conducting style.

Cleve always specialized in the Viennese classics - Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in particular - and in his later years led these works in a broad, expansive, deliberate way, which his deep learning and understanding of the music always made richly rewarding. When reviewing his work, metaphors of hearty meals of meat and potato always came to my mind. There's always room for traditional music-making of this style, so long as someone this good is making it.

Such were the guest concerts he led on his return. He'd found his truest specialty and stuck with it. When he was music director, of course, his programs were more varied, and it wasn't just in the bicentennial year that he explored American music. I have particularly fond memories of Henry Cowell's Fourth Symphony in 1987, the only time I've ever heard one of his symphonies live, and certainly the only time SJS ever did one: when it was over there was as close to complete silence in the audience, except from me, as was compatible with politeness.

And I remember other things as well. The performance of Debussy's La Mer so sparkling that it had me convinced it was really written by Ottorino Respighi. The day in 2006 I was leaving the city library and heard on the car radio that there was about to be a free performance at the symphony hall, so I hastily reparked my car and found George Cleve conducting Mozart's Gran Partita.

Cleve had been ailing in recent years. The last time I saw him conduct, a year ago in June, he was rather frail, moving quite slowly and needing an assist from his concertmaster to make it down from the podium. The music was equally gentle and cautious, but still moving.

I knew his ailment was serious when his name was quietly removed from the Beethoven and Schumann concert he'd been scheduled to open the SSV season with in October. Now it will be played in his memory.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

the Puppy-free ballot

The Hugo statistics are up as a PDF and linked to from here, and with comparison from the Puppy slates which are linked to from here, it's possible to extrapolate what the Puppy-free ballot would have been.

I'm not sure if anyone else has already done it, but I'm awake and at home and don't have parties to attend, so here are hypotheticals for the four fiction categories and Related Work, all of which were particularly disfigured by puppydom and for which I can be fairly confident that none of the Puppy candidates would have made the ballot without the slates' help. (A judgment that cannot be made for the Best Editor categories, let alone the Best Dramatic Presentation ones.)

Key. A = made the real ballot anyway despite the Puppies' help. B = made the ballot due to the ineligibility or withdrawal of Puppies. Note: There are typos and errors on the statistics (e.g. "Katherine Anderson" for Addison), and I may not have caught others.

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (A)
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (B)
The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu (B)
Lock In, John Scalzi
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

"The Slow Regard of Silent Things", Patrick Rothfuss
"The Regular", Ken Liu
"Yesterday's Kin", Nancy Kress
"Grand Jete (The Great Leap)", Rachel Swirsky
"The Mothers of Voorhisville", Mary Rickert

"The Day the World Turned Upside Down", Thomas Olde Heuvelt (B)
"Each to Each", Seanan McGuire
"The Devil in America", Kai Ashante Wilson
"The Litany of Earth", Ruthanna Emrys
"The Magician and Laplace's Demon", Tom Crosshill

"Jackalope Wives", Ursula Vernon
"The Breath of War", Aliette de Bodard
"The Truth About Owls", Amal El-Mohtar
"When It Ends, He Catches Her", Eugie Foster
"A Kiss With Teeth", Max Gladstone

What Makes This Book So Great, Jo Walton
Chicks Dig Gaming, Jennifer Brozek et al
Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, Brandon Sanderson et al
Invisible: Personal Essays on Representation in SF, Jim C. Hines
Tropes vs. Women: Women as Background Decoration, Anita Sarkeesian

One thing to note is that vol. 2 of Bill Patterson's Heinlein biography still wouldn't have made the ballot; it's 6th place on the Puppy-free list.

Another and most important thing to note is what this does to the male-female ratio of authors in the fiction categories, a topic of which I've written before. The actual ballot had 17 stories by men and 3 by women (15% women). The Puppy slates, taken as an aggregate, had 20 stories by men and 3 by women (13% women). The Puppy-free ballot above has 9 stories by men and 11 by women (55% women), which is in keeping with the post-Racefail numbers of recent years' Hugo nominees, and puts the lie to the Puppies' claim that they're increasing diversity, at least on this axis.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Puppies were harmed in the making of these Hugos

As I stated when reporting on my Hugo voting, I chose the semi-nuclear option of ranking no Puppy slate nominee above No Award, as a principled statement of my opposition to slate nominations. Rather to my surprise, voters of like mind dominated the Hugo voting, and with only one exception, no nominee on either slate won a Hugo. And if that meant "No Award" where there was no other option, then No Award it was, in five categories, which I think doubles the number of "No Award" winners in the entire history of the Hugos. So now we know who it was who bought supporting memberships in such numbers after the nominees were announced. It was outraged loyal fans like me. I was one of them. I'm proud to have played my part in scrubbing this stigma off the history of the Hugos.

Comments on the winners:
Novel: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. As I noted before, after the opening section it rapidly dropped off in interest for me, though I still think this was the most Hugo-worthy of the nominees in this category.
Novella: No Award. No comment.
Novelette: "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. This was the only short fiction nominee on the entire ballot not to be a Puppy, so, perforce, it was the only one to win a Hugo, and the only one I voted for in first place, though I thought it too whimsical to even be a good fantasy story. That shows, alas, the weakness of a Puppy-filled ballot. It also means that both this year's fiction winners are translations. I'm not sure if the Hugos has ever had one of those before.
Short Story: No Award. No comment.
Related Work: No Award. If any of the categories deserved that result, it was this one.
Graphic Story: Ms. Marvel. The last time I read finalists in this category was in 2011, and while I found some (well, one) of them amusing, the writing quality was amateurish. This year's are much better, and this one is really of professional quality, a thoroughly deserving winner I put in first place. It's about a teenage girl who’s secretly a superhero, but she finds it difficult to go out and perform super deeds because her parents have grounded her. Though she's a Muslim immigrant to the US from Pakistan, rather than a Hindu immigrant to the UK from India, she reminded me of the girl in Bend It Like Beckham, who similarly was sneaking around to pursue her indigenous passion behind the backs of her conservative old-country parents. As the story of this girl's practical life problems, I found it fascinating. When a super villain shows up near the end, I could feel my interest rapidly dwindling, but that's just my lack of interest in superhero comics showing up.
Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): Guardians of the Galaxy. The only nominee appearing on a Puppy slate to take the Hugo. I didn't vote in this category; I haven't seen anything in it.
Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): Orphan Black season 2 finale. I have at least bit and piece familiarity with all the nominees here, and voted in first place for this one, with misgivings. I've seen the first two seasons of the show. Despite the terrific quality of the acting, I'm reluctant to proceed any further, because the plots of the second season seemed to me to be devoted to jerking the viewer around. I wrote about this, and specifically my problems with the finale, here. Nevertheless, I think the series deserves at least a career award for Extreme Cleverness, and this is the only way to get one, though I'm also thinking that the "single episode" Hugo rule for TV shows is due for retirement in this age where an "episode" no longer stands alone but is merely an hour-long chunk of a greater continuity.
Best Editor (Short Form and Long Form): No Award. Well, well. That's what I voted for, because all the nominees were from Puppy slates, but I really expected a couple of the several worthy editors on the ballot, who were in no sense responsible for their Puppy endorsements, to take the award.
Best Professional Artist: Julie Dillon. Her work is good, and she was the only non-Puppy on the ballot, so she gets the nod from me, and the Hugo.
Best Semiprozine: Lightspeed Magazine. In this category there was a choice of non-Puppies, and I put Lightspeed in first place largely because I was impressed with their "Women Destroy Science Fiction" issue, which was the Book of Honor at the last Potlatch.
Best Fanzine: Journey Planet. There were two issues of this zine in the Hugo packet, one about Doctor Who and the other about sports. I'm not very interested in either. Still, they're legitimate topics for fanzines (anything is a legitimate topic for fanzines), and they feature a lot of reliable fanwriters. And it's the only non-Puppy nominee, so it gets my nod and the Hugo.
Best Fancast: Galactic Suburbia Podcast. Three chatty women from Australia natter randomly about SF for a bloody hour and half in each episode. I wish you could browse podcasts; I took to skipping ahead in this one. I listened to the (then) latest episode, hunting for the part where (according to the printed summary on the website) one of the hosts would discuss the Hugo short fiction nominees. Mostly she didn't discuss them, but what really arrested my attention was her description of Gray Rinehart's novelette about humans dying on an alien planet, because the story she was talking about was actually Lou Antonelli's short story about humans dying on an alien planet instead. Oops! Has anybody told her she goofed up? I put this second, and gave my first-place vote to the other non-Puppy fancast, Tea and Jeopardy, which at least is scripted and not so rambling, though the preciously cute premise for the author interviews - that the interviewer is having the guest over for tea, with calling cards and a butler - wears thin after a while, and its plausibility crumbles when the guest's voice is obviously on the phone.
Best Fan Writer: Laura J. Mixon. I put her immediately below No Award. As I noted before, yes, Mixon performed a public service and all, but it's not an achievement I feel like celebrating, nor do I find there's anything about the quality of the writing as such that's award-worthy. Maybe not Mixon's fault, because she had a complex story to untangle, but it was a slog to get through.
Best Fan Artist: Elizabeth Leggett. I've nothing against pretty pictures of horsies, but it's not my own idea of fannish. Possibly she won because she's associated with Lightspeed, which seems generally popular. I gave my first-place to Ninni Aalto, whose work I thought fresh, clever stuff.
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Wesley Chu. His novel in the Hugo packet, The Deaths of Tao, is a sequel and makes no sense if you haven’t read the precursor. Fortunately, I attended his reading at Borderlands which included an excerpt from the first book, which I found amusing enough. And, sigh, he's the only non-Puppy nominee.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

review of self-referential book

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (Basic Books, 2007)

When Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach was published in 1979, it seemed everyone I knew was talking about it. When his Metamagical Themas was published in 1985, most of them were talking about it. But I've never heard anybody discussing this one. Hofstadter's strange disappearance from public discourse is something I've noted before. Purportedly it's due to his continuing insistence on trying to understand human cognition, a task that apparently everyone else has given up as hopelessly impractical. But from this book I sense a deeper problem.

The understanding of human cognition is purportedly the topic of I Am a Strange Loop; I say "purportedly" because it doesn't really engage with the subject. It does have a thesis: that human consciousness and understanding lie within the complexity of the system, not in the accumulation of the individual parts. ("Strange loop" is his term for a system that holds itself up by its own bootstraps.) I'll buy that thesis. The Game of Life (which is mentioned just once, in a footnote) long ago taught us that systems can be built to far greater levels of complexity than any of the rules making them up.

So far so good, but Hofstadter builds his case almost entirely from philosophical principle, rather than scientific research. As a result, there's an airy, detached quality to the whole thing, much of it recycled from his previous books. Mostly he spends his space by getting off on the wrong track philosophically and pursuing it firmly to questionable destinations.

For instance, Hofstadter seems to believe that our brains are not the limit of our consciousness. He advances the notion that bits of our consciousness exist in the minds of everyone who knows us really well, and that we can feel this sense of them inside ourselves. He implies that anyone who doesn't feel this is a psychopath. Well, I like the general notion of interconnectedness - there's an old Jewish proverb (not quoted by Hofstadter unless I missed it) to the effect that nobody is really dead so long as someone lives in body who remembers them, a maxim I've found of comfort - but I feel a huge gap between Hofstadter's hypothetical notion of embracing someone else's soul and the practical reality of just having a pretty good exterior idea of what sort of things they're likely to say, think, and like. Which I guess means that Hofstadter thinks I'm a psychopath. Thanks a lot, Doug.

One of the recycles is a long discussion of Gödel, again (Escher and Bach also make obligatory appearances), for apparently the sole purpose of teaching us that mathematical systems are complex. No kidding. It also reveals the author's burning disdain for Bertrand Russell. Some people think Russell was a credulous peacenik; Hofstadter thinks he was a lousy mathematician. Well, at least that's different. I was modestly entertained by the story of the early 20C amateur math buff who amused himself by counting up the number of syllables required to describe integers, and finding shortcuts. (e.g.: "One hundred forty-four" is 6 syllables, but "twelve squared" is only 2.) With the exception of some landmark numbers ("one trillion"), they tend to get longer with magnitude, and the buff wondered what was the smallest integer whose English-language descriptions always use at least thirty syllables. It would have to be very large. But wait! Once he found it, it could be described as "the smallest integer whose English-language descriptions always use at least thirty syllables," which is only 24 syllables! Oo-ee-oo. If you're tickled by that sort of paradox, go read Metamagical Themas instead: it's full of them.

However, I was so unentertained by the first chapter that I only continued reading the book because it was the only thing handy for the exercise bike one day. There's a lot of personal matter in this book - one chapter is entirely devoted to demonstrating the thesis of others living in us by expressing the author's devotion to the memory of his first wife - and the first chapter contains repeated, mostly irrelevant, references to his vegetarianism.

Normally I have no problems with vegetarians - I'm in favor of the right of any adult (and even, to a large extent, children) to eschew any food for any reason. But Hofstadter is the one kind of vegetarian I dislike: the sanctimonious vegetarian. Not only does he go around preaching, and his loved ones somehow magically convert along the same stages of the path to enlightenment that he does at the same time he does, but he declares that he cannot respect anyone, no matter how otherwise worthy and no matter how far in the past, who is less perfectly vegetarian than he. Most hypocritically, this comes oddly from a guy who freely admits swatting mosquitoes without compunction, and who even provides a chart (it's on page 19) showing a continuous gradation of consciousness level from the mosquito (and lower!) up to "normal adult humans." It doesn't suit someone who proposes such a gradual curve to draw a firm line across it and say, not just "This is where I personally draw the line," but to insist that everyone else draw it in the same place, or else earn his condemnation as immoral for drawing it in a slightly higher place sanctioned by the culture they live in.

He can't keep to the topic; he can't bring himself to relevant conclusions; he operates entirely in philosophical abstractions; he digresses massively; he uses his own brain as the model for everybody else's; he lectures the reader; and he indulges in TMI. This is a once-renowned author gone to seed.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Henry Cowell online

So let me tell you what's excited me in musical recordings and why I wanted to be able to record sound feed off the Internet. (I got it to work by changing to a different default MP3 player.)

It's symphonies by Henry Cowell.

Cowell, who has a local connection - he grew up 14 miles from here, and I drive past his home street all the time - is one of my favorite early/mid 20C composers, and for my tastes the most under-rated. I'm not going to put him on my list of Greatest 20th Century Symphonists, but I do like his music. And not just the symphonies.

Cowell began as a highly imaginative experimentalist composer, particularly for piano. He invented using your palm or entire forearm to play washes of "tone clusters" and dogging the sustain pedal and playing by directly rubbing and plucking the strings. (This piece was played on radio in the 1930s with a large prize offered to any listener who could guess the instrument. No one did.)

Note the pieces' title references to Irish mythology. This interest in his ancestral culture was a root of Cowell's lifelong devotion to ethnomusicology - another was spending childhood time in San Francisco among Chinese and other Asians - and his later music grew more folk-oriented: conservative and accessible on the surface, but still quirky and imaginative. Some of it was pure Americana, and some based on his foreign travels.

But I'm a symphony collector in particular. Cowell wrote 20 symphonies, most in his later years. Seven of these were commercially released in the LP era. I have all of those, and CDs of a few reissued in that era. But that leaves a large gap.

Imagine my delight, then, to discover that - with the latest added quite recently - not only are all seven of those on YouTube, so are more recent performances of two, plus additional recordings - some old vintage radio tapes or private LPs, some recent performances - of five others. This includes the two performed at the American Symphony Orchestra concert five years ago that I considered traveling to New York to attend, but didn't.

The YouTube search results for Cowell symphonies are kind of a mess, so before I ripped recordings off them all - which I wanted in case they disappear later - I made a little web page listing of all of Cowell's symphonies, with links to the recordings.

Which ones should you listen to, if you care for any? Definitely Nos. 4 and 11: they're the best, and they're also the ones with two recordings each. In each case, however, the older recording (listed first), though of poorer sound, is the better performance. Of the five previously unavailable symphonies (2, 8, 9, 13, 14), all new to me, the brightest discovery is No. 9, despite the dreadful (especially at the beginning) sound quality.

So now I have 12 (well, 11.5) of Cowell's symphonies on record. Will we ever complete the set?

Monday, August 10, 2015

it ain't me, babe

I'm not sure whether to tell you that my latest review is up at SFCV or not. Oh, there's a review there, with my name on it, and I wrote large parts of it - and turned it on Friday morning, so why it took till Monday afternoon to appear I know not - but despite it not being overlong it got so drastically cut that an entire composer (André Previn) disappeared, and, a la Peter Jackson cutting down Tolkien, other stuff I didn't write got put in, mostly a strongly-expressed opinion that I do not share.

I've just had a long and rather warm talk with my editor, who's promised to correct some of these problems, so I don't know what you're going to see if and when you click, so I'll leave it at that. That nothing like this happen again is my strong hope and desire.

My boon companion for that concert was Lucy H. A couple days later, I took B. back over there for the final blowout "prelude performance", which didn't precede anything - instead of 2 pieces in 60-70 minutes, it was four pieces and an intermission in 2 1/2 hours - and which was played by the secondary set of artists who deserve no condescension. It featured the brightest and perkiest rendition imaginable of Beethoven's Op. 12 No. 2 violin sonata, with violinist Petteri Iivonen (whose CD was available and which we promptly bought) and pianist Mika Sasaki. Sasaki and Michael James Smith did equal honors to Schubert's Grand Rondo. This was followed by a softly melancholy version of Schumann's Op. 80 piano trio and a chaotic attack on Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence sextet.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Samsung and the dryer

I am getting used to two new pieces of equipment in my house. Both, as it happens, are by Samsung.

While I was off in Nebraska and Kansas and such places, our washing machine died. I got a distressed call from B. while I was browsing the exhibits at the Eisenhower museum. A repairman told her that the electronics were fried, so repair was not worth the cards. He gave her the names of two retailers known for reliable customer service. I phoned one from the road, the one that opened earlier in the morning. But when I got home to go shopping, it proved to be closed on Monday, so I went to the other one. (Lesson in how to get my business.) This was one of those Men Shopping experiences: took about 20 minutes, including filling out the paperwork.

We're used to top-loading washers, but the salesman convinced me to go for a front-loader. Not only are they more efficient, but machines these days have such large drums that a smaller person would have trouble reaching in a top-loader to get the clothes out. Now we have this thing with a huge bulbous glass eye in front looking out on our garage, not that there's anything to see. When I'm out there I feel like I'm being spied on by the gang from The Prisoner, or by a squat white alien. As a machine, it's proving good, except that I have to get used to using a higher-than-suggested spin cycle to get more water out.

At about the same time, B. insisted on replacing, or more accurately supplementing, my Nook Color with a Samsung Galaxy tablet. The Nook is optimized for reading book files, and it also web browses but it's not very good at it. I'd been using it for my travel computer but with some frustration. The Galaxy is better. In particular it comes installed with the Google Maps app. I could never get Google Maps to display properly on the Nook.

There are, however, some problems with the Galaxy. I spent 3 hours on the phone with their representatives on some of these. For instance, I wanted to turn auto-rotate off, because I like to read in bed and don't want the screen turning 90 degrees on me. Unfortunately I did not know the term "auto-rotate", and my attempt to describe it baffled the guy on the phone, who had no idea what I was talking about. That's part of why it took so long. It turned out that the command is in a second, hidden, settings menu that's totally separate from the menu that comes with an icon on the screen labeled "Settings." Who knew?

The other problem with the Galaxy is that, unlike the Nook, websites recognize it as a mobile device. Southwest Airlines redirects it to their mobile website, which doesn't work. Yelp asked me if I wanted to download the Yelp app. OK, I thought, until I got to the page informing me that the app sought access to the following functions on my computer, including the microphone and the camera. There was no option on that page for saying "No fricking way" or "Are you crazy?" so I terminated it with extreme prejudice. However, when I visit the Yelp page, it asks again.

Nevertheless, it's been very useful and I'm glad to have both now.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

remembrance of Daily Shows past

The inner tubes are full of memorial articles looking back at the reign, and the snarks, of Jon Stewart, who concludes his tenure today. But the article on the subject I want to draw your attention to is Rolling Stone's on the 25 best Daily Show correspondents - the other folks on the show. From Colbert and Oliver down to folks I'd never heard of because I wasn't watching back then, there's an appropriate clip provided for every one of them.

I'll admit that I often skip over the correspondent segments on the show. I find that the relentless stupid act of Jason Jones or Samantha Bee can get tiresome at times, though not always. But almost every single one of the clips chosen for this article is terrifically funny. If you only have time for one or two, I'd particularly recommend Al Madrigal on the Latino candidates in the 2016 presidential race, and Wyatt Cenac on the fraught topic of racist place-names. As with the women on the show, they say things that Stewart as a white male can't say without being paternalistic, and they say them in a tremendously funny way.

You can also see new host Trevor Noah's first appearance as a correspondent, which impressed me very much even at the time, and it goes back to a set of Frank DeCaro's movie reviews, which have the knack of amusing me even when I liked the movie that DeCaro panned.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mythcon supplemental

The kindly David Emerson reports the location of Jasmine Edison's "Sub-creation." However, that doesn't mean I can get it to play. I get an error message saying I have a flash blocker. Which I don't, not to my knowledge. I tried googling this condition, and cannot understand any of the discussions, except for a couple "simple" solutions which don't work. Anyway, back to Mythcon:

Colorado Springs is a tricky city to get to. Direct flights are few, and connections can be awkward. It may make more sense to fly to the big Denver hub and just drive, since it's only an hour and a half. Since we wanted a car anyway for some touristing, that's what we did.

Our hour at the rental center was a strange experience. After turning down an offer to upgrade to an SUV, I was directed to a particular space number in which was parked - an SUV. Shrugging, we inspected it, loaded our baggage, and very cautiously - I'd never driven an SUV before - proceeded to the exit, where the guard told us we had the wrong car. That had never happened to me before, which is why I hadn't checked the license number against the contract. Back to the agent, who said the right one must be somewhere. Drove around the lot and couldn't find it. Back to the agent, who was unconcerned that her car was missing, and issued us another one. Which proved to be - another SUV, pretty much identical to the first one. (I was still charged the original price.) Shrugging, we piled in again and drove off, in hot pursuit of dinner, which it was by now well getting on in time for. The highly-recommended Mediterranean restaurant in Aurora turned out to be on vacation for two weeks, so we ate in a dull but adequate Anglo-Mex place across the parking lot.

That was Wednesday. The other car adventure took place Friday morning. On the steep drive up to the Wolf Center (of which more below), the "check engine" warning light came on. Decided to risk the rest of the drive but to proceed immediately to deal with this on returning to town, especially after reading the manual which said if this light comes on, go to a dealer immediately. The rental agency had no outlet in Colo Springs, so I phoned the Denver office, where a manager used to dealing with these problems assured me it was probably nothing important, perhaps an oil change needed. He gave me complex instructions for a reset: press two buttons at once while turning the ignition and holding the brake (and patting your head and rubbing your stomach). That didn't turn the light off. He seemed to think I should just ignore it, but I said I'm not risking my return to Denver on this; I'm going to a Toyota dealer. Fortunately there was one nearby. The friendly tech took five minutes to run a diagnostic and tell me it was a loose gas cap. (No charge for this burning information.) Since I had not yet added any gas, this was the agency's fault, either when they added gas or failed to check the cap after the previous customer did so. Apparently the car runs a self-check on itself periodically and warned me of the problem in the only way it knows how, rather like a baby which cries the same way whether it's just hungry or suffering serious pain.

So our Thursday and Friday outings were mostly animalic in nature, to suit B's interests. (Not that I'm uninterested.) The wolf rescue center is up in the mountains and features wolves of various species, coyotes, and foxes (foxes are very cute) in large pens, which they can be lured to the visible parts of by raw meat treats thrown by the guide. They were great to see; unfortunately the guide was under some delusion that the animal-lovers who'd gone to all the trouble to sign up for the tour in advance and drive up to the center need to be converted to the cause of animal rescue by the shock treatment of gruesomely graphic descriptions of what happens to wolves caught in steel limb traps or foxes raised by fur-farmers. B. was nauseated and we nearly walked out. Despite the delight of seeing the animals, we'd disrecommend the place for that reason alone. (I've written. We'll see what they say.)

We would and did - to others at Mythcon - recommend the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, which is on the mountainside just above the city. (Despite this locale, it's less steep walking than the Balboa Park Zoo in San Diego.) They specialize in giraffes, and have built a balcony over the pen so that you can view the giraffes from a giraffe's-eye view. The heads look weird bobbing up and down right in front of you, as they search to see if you're carrying any of the lettuce that may be purchased from a booth just behind. There is also a walk-through pen where you can pet wallabies (and the occasional grey kangaroo), and a grizzly exhibit where the bears were frolicking in their pond right up against the glass wall against the other side of which B. was pressed up in fascination. (Me, I'd rather stay considerably further than a glass wall's distance from grizzly bears.)

We also drove down to Pueblo, where we saw injured raptors in a few dusty pens at a desert-side rescue center, of which the handsomest was a peregrine falcon. Also in Pueblo, we toured a preserved Victorian mansion which was Margaret Thatcher's house. When you say "Huh?" which is what everyone at Mythcon said to whom I mentioned this, I should explain that Margaret Thatcher presided over this house starting in 1893, when it was built with the money of her husband John, a local banker and merchant, and so you can see, as you should not be surprised to learn, that the world has contained more than one woman named Margaret Thatcher.

I actually pulled this form of ponderous humor to prepare a philosophical point for my brother, the tiny-minded one who thinks that statements of fact are either true or false, no ambiguities. Is it true or false that this house was Margaret Thatcher's home? If I say it's true, I am deliberately misleading hearers into thinking I mean the British prime minister, and to mislead deliberately is to lie, by definition. Yet it's not false, either. To resolve this paradox needs the additional information that it's a different Margaret, yet in other cases my brother refuses to listen to additional information.

Colo Springs is at 6000 feet elevation, higher than Denver, though the road feels mostly downhill. Some reported feeling tired or dehydrated. I did not. I had no more trouble climbing stairs than at home (which is enough), and needed less water than I do after spending time outside on bone-dry days in California.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Mythcon, part 3

There was more music at Mythcon, some of which I didn't hear because it was opposite my paper. However, the same performers did a reprise on Monday morning. Two women from what's apparently a troupe called Sassafrass sang acappella two-part duets full of tumbling counterpoint and stark open harmonies. They were very good, but an hour of it became, to me at least, overly monotonous. The lyrics were hard to make out, as were their speaking voices. When they said they were going to sing about the death of Walter, I wondered who Walter might be until I realized it was actually the death of Baldur.

Mythcon's venue was the Hotel Eleganté - not at all as sleazy a hostelry as its name implies - in Colorado Springs. It's a large, rambling property, ranging from one to four stories high in different parts, on the south side of the city right by the freeway. The ambiance of Colorado Springs is revealed in, fortunately, only one place, the front entrance where sits a huge stone tablet bearing the Ten Commandments, suggesting that Judge Roy Moore had been a guest at one time, though I realize the proximity of Focus on the Family is more likely to blame.

Otherwise the hotel was good, though some of our members with mobility issues complained about having been assigned inappropriate rooms and having some trouble getting them changed. Mythcons believe in group dining, and the hotel fed us in a glass-roofed garden room, basic but pretty good food, highlight a poached salmon for Saturday's dinner, unless you count the banquet (in a ballroom) where of 3 choices most of us ordered prime rib which was likewise excellent.

Programming was in the upper floors of a small four-story tower near the front of the hotel, reached either by an obscurely-placed elevator or even more elusive staircases. Once we found it, the running or elevating up and down the floors made for a somewhat diffuse locational feeling, but the program book made clear which named rooms were on which floors (if you couldn't already guess which floor the Summit Room was likely to be on), and some of the rooms had panel windows gazing out upon the mighty mountains immediately to the west.

Sunday morning, B. and her fellow Catholics drove out to a church in Old Colorado City, once a separate city and considerably older and more colorful than the rest of Colorado Springs of which it's now a part. "Old" seemed the operative word for this church, they reported, whose carpet had apparently not been cleaned since the 19th century and whose emissions of dust and pollen got only worse when the air conditioning came on. I'm sorry I directed them there - there wasn't a word about this feature on its website - though the mass was at a more desirable "not to miss any Mythcon programming" time than the offerings of other nearby churches.

Otherwise, though, I can recommend Old CC highly, particularly for its impressive variety of restaurants which we patronized for pre- and post-con meals. Uchenna is the best Ethiopian restaurant I've ever dined at. As all should know, Ethiopian food is eaten not with utensils but by scooping up the food in chunks of injera, the indigenous bread that comes with. It looks like a rolled-up dirty washcloth, but it's actually good and especially so here, light and tasty. Wider variety of menu offerings than I've elsewhere seen, as this restaurant offers Mediterranean food as well, and their Ethiopian entrees also seem Mediterranean-influenced. The Mason Jar is so called because they use a lot of them. Your drink comes in a mason jar, so do the crackers for your soup and the packets of sweetener for your coffee. It's midland American food, and the fried chicken is fantastic: crunchy without being overloaded, and not a trace of grease. The soups are really good too. I want to return to the city just to eat here again.

Final report, on getting to Colorado and what else we did, to come.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Mythcon, part 2

My paper was first thing Sunday morning, which gave me at least plenty of time to get the AV set up. It was titled "How Do You Solve a Problem Like King Arthur?" (title echoing a line by that great American poet, Oscar Hammerstein II), and categorized various ways to tell an Arthurian story in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the weight of Malory (and, later, T.H. White) looming over you. I was told afterwards that I had been very entertaining. Biggest audience reaction at the time was the groan over the horrible pun I made about Jo Walton's Arthurians (a pun basically irreproducable in print, so sorry).

Presentation on the Music of the Ainur by a composer who's written an orchestral piece depicting it. The computer speakers weren't working properly, so it was hard to hear the file she played. I thought it came from online, but I can't find it either by Googling or YouTubing. Anyway, her name is Jasmine Edison and the piece is called "Sub-creation", so if you have better luck finding it, let me know.

This composer thinks that Iluvatar did Melkor a disservice by suppressing his dissonance. Maybe so - it would certainly have made for a different music, and it might have prevented the spoiling effect of Melkor's subsequent rage - but the audience member who commented on this by saying that you can't have music without dissonance any more than you can have a story without conflict was wrong on both accounts. I saw no point in objecting at the time, however.

Paper on post-9/11 interpretations of The Lord of the Rings. Quoted with some incredulity a writer who described Frodo as destroying the enemy using the enemy's own weapon. Um, didn't this person read the book?

Panel on "Fantasy and World View" in which lots of interesting things were said. Much discussion of what parts of the external world are mentally constructed and what parts are undeniable reality. Didn't quite engage with the question that most irritates me on this topic, the insistence of some people, mostly techies, that "facts are facts" and their inability to grasp that the framing, context, and extrapolation of those facts are subjective and open to interpretation. (Example: see Edward Tufte on the data that either should or should not have been a warning of an issue with Challenger's O-rings.)

Banquet, with Jo Walton's GoH speech discussing concrete specifics of how to convey elements of the fantastic in fiction when they either are or are not a surprise to the characters experiencing them. (What do you say after you see a dragon on the street? Well, if you see them every day and they're not bothering anyone, would you mention it at all?) Numerous food sculptures, better-constructed but less wittily titled than usual. Not Ready for Mythcon Players, unreadier than usual. And the Mythopoeic Awards. B. was on the fiction committees and approves of the winners. I was on the scholarship committee and approve of the winners.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mythcon, part 1

I ditched the evening programming after the costume presentation (cutest entry: "Baby Smaug") because of the musical program to follow. I enjoyed this motley crew's Tolkien-themed Beatles parodies of years past, but I have no interest when they do the Rolling Stones. So I am here writing this.

Better music made an appearance in today's program when Jason Fisher delivered an erudite paper on resemblance and possible influence of Goethe's "Erlkönig" on Tolkien's Black Riders and Old Man Willow. He even went so far as to play a clip of the Ford of Bruinen scene from Jackson's "Fellowship" with Schubert's setting of Goethe substituted for whatever crap Howard Shore wrote for that scene. It was so much better this way it wasn't funny. I suggest we make a full Schubert lieder recital as a substitute soundtrack for the entire movie. Except then I'd have to watch the thing again.

Other good papers: Kris Swank defending multi-cultural casting in recent Arthurian movies/tv shows by pointing out the long history of Moorish or Saracen characters, some of them explicitly described as black-skinned, in medieval Arthurian sources. Panel on "Reclaiming Tolkien's Women for the 21st Century", with contributors to the Society's new book on the subject. Highlighted by co-editor Leslie Donovan's testimony that reading of Eowyn in adolescence was her first encounter with a female character who did what men do, and that this played a major role in shaping her feminist self-identity. Diana Pavlac Glyer on the writing of her upcoming book on the Inklings, Bandersnatch (no info online yet, I think). John D. Rateliff's brilliant GoH speech on the personal history and self-references in Charles Williams's Arthurian poems. It's a rare scholar who can be so fascinating on material that most of the audience probably hasn't read.

Friday afternoon, nine of us, under John's direction, gave a group reading of an abridged adaptation of Tolkien's recently-published Fall of Arthur, for multiple narrators and occasional speaking characters. When an audience member remarked afterwards on how well we'd rehearsed, we all laughed wildly. We'd gotten together at a round table (appropriate) outside the programming room about five minutes beforehand to discuss how to pronounce "Gawain" (we settled on Gow'n) and that was about it.

But I've noticed at previous years' group readings that the rehearsal, when there is one, usually goes better than the performance. So this time, merely because we couldn't find an earlier time at the con all to meet, effectively we just skipped the middle step and gave the rehearsal as the performance.

More to come. The sagas of getting here - of engine warning lights, pettable wallabies, and Margaret Thatcher in Pueblo, Colorado - also to come later.

whole lotta Schubert going on

Last week I attended and reviewed two all-Schubert concerts from the Menlo Festival's current Schubert extravaganza.

The first one, which was the second to appear, I'd volunteered to cover mostly for the chance to hear the Octet live. It's not a piece I'd ever realy come to terms with, and this concert helped. Then there was the "Wanderer" Fantasy, which I couldn't remember if I knew well enough to recognize or not. Turned out that I did. Oh, and there are too arpeggione players.

The second concert, which was all about Death, was more of a challenge, for incidental reasons. I like to be well-rested before a concert, but this time I wasn't, so my mental absorbtive capacity was limited. And I had to write most of the review longhand on an airplane flight the next afternoon, and then type it up on a strange computer once I got where I was going.

Upcoming, the non-Schubert concert, or the one with a Schubert-shaped hole in the middle of it.