Sunday, September 30, 2012

reasons to read The Hobbit

Two brief writings of mine on The Hobbit have just been published.

1. Back in July, a German Tolkienist named Marcel Bülles, whom I knew from the 2005 Birmingham conference, started compiling "75 reasons why you should read The Hobbit before watching the films," the idea being, I think, that he would publish one each day during the last 75 days before the movie comes out. I was one of the 75 reasoners he contacted, and my submission - which was based on a blog post I made here, and prior to that on arguments made in my article "Summa Jacksonica" in Tolkien on Film - is now online on his new website. You can read the whole compilation - so far there's only two others; I think I was an early replier - here.

2. Jason Fisher, editor of Mythprint, announced that the September issue would be Hobbit appreciation month, and invited contributions. That issue has just been published. My piece, like many others, was on how I came to read The Hobbit in the first place. This one isn't, I think, already publicly online, and it isn't based on a blog post, and it goes like this:

The person I have to thank is my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Lloyd. Along with assigning endless subtraction drills, she had the more admirable habit of spending the last half hour of class, once or twice a week, reading us a chapter from a children's novel. One of the books we got through that year was The Hobbit.

This was 1968, so it was near the height of the Sixties Tolkien boom, but as a child in deepest suburbia I knew nothing of that. Nor did I know that the book was "fantasy": I had no such categories in my mind. All I knew was that this story opened up vistas of landscape and adventure deeper and richer than any other book I knew - many of which were, in fact, classic fantasies.

A few months later I had the opportunity to borrow a copy (paperback, with the Remington cover). I seized the chance to revisit this story - and to read chapter 8, which I'd missed from being out sick that day. For years afterwards, that chapter felt different from the rest of the book to me, because it was the only one I didn't first hear orally.

Miss Lloyd had told us there were sequels (that was the way she put it), so when I finished reading the borrowed copy I did something the likes of which I'd never done before. I gathered up $4 of my allowance, rode my bicycle to a nearby bookstore - now long gone - and bought all four volumes for myself. From that point I was lost to the world.

It took another six achingly long years before I met anybody else who'd read Tolkien and wanted to talk about him, and, when I did, I found that many of them tended to ignore The Hobbit or even put it down. That intrusive and lecturing narrator, for instance. I actually liked the narrator - I thought he was funny, and his lessons on what dwarves and trolls were like added to the believability of the texture. Gradually, The Hobbit has become recognized as a masterpiece in its own right and of its own, distinct kind. Studies of it for its own sake are growing, and now (sigh) it even has its own movie. It's not quite such a little fellow in a wide world after all.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


1. For yesterday's dinner, to go with the ravioli, I sauteed spinach in a little butter, with more than a little crushed garlic mixed in. Nothing unusual about that; I make this all the time. What's noteworthy is that it's about to be ten years now since our memorable trip to Rome, from whose delectable restaurants I learned this recipe. From that vacation, the closest thing to adventurous we've ever taken, the things I remember best are that glorious in situ Italian food, and the stunning ecclesiastical architecture, which confirmed my adherence to the theory that architecture is frozen music.

2. Our once-hapless classical radio station, KDFC, continues making amends for itself with full-length works and interesting programming. Last night the imaginative theme for the major evening programming items was "not quite by Beethoven," and in addition to Brahms' First Symphony (known as "Beethoven's Tenth" to its boosters at the time), the whole enormous thing, we actually got the Jena Symphony, a work hardly anybody has played in half a century, since the inscription "par L. van Beethoven" scrawled on one of the original manuscripts was proved to be a put-on.

3. To another local church ethnic festival today. I won't say which one, because I'm not exactly recommending it. I go to these for the food. This was not bad, especially the dessert which I brought home to share with B., but the event was half-assed. The staff at the food counters were totally disorganized, and the idea of having forks around had not quite sunk in. There was nothing else there besides a religious-books table and a jumble sale; most of the jumble had nothing to do with the local ethnicity. And as I was rushing out, I heard one staff member exclaim to another, "We have a health inspector emergency!" I did not stay to hear more; some things are better not known.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How we know that William Shawn is dead

The New Yorker, October 1, 2012, page 25, "Talk of the Town" item beginning,

"One of the only farmers in New York City raising crops that are native to central Mexico is Gudelio García."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Phil and Linda

So here's the missing story from last weekend's Philip K. Dick Festival.

For just before the catered dinner on Saturday evening, the schedule listed a "Special Secret Guest." This turned out to be a woman who had written to the conference organizer with an e-mail introducing herself with the words, "I am a dark-haired girl."

This is a phrase instantly meaningful to anyone versed in PKD studies. The dark-haired girl was an archetype in Phil's mind, the ideal lover and soulmate whom no real woman ever lived up to, though he kept thinking that he'd found her.

As a writer, Phil was a disciplined professional, but his personal relations could be fraught, especially his romantic ones. Over his life, he married five different women (and had five divorces, too), with God knows how many between, as Tom Lehrer would put it. This Linda, who appears in most of Phil's writings on the subject, was one of the inbetweeners. She was a student in the SF class of the professor who'd welcomed Phil, then at loose ends (to put it mildly), to move to the area, to Orange County.1 This was 1972. Linda was 18 and had just discovered SF; Phil was 43 with four wives behind him already.

Linda, now in her late 50s, came on stage and explained her background and then told her story. Phil had focused his intense attention on her. They dated for a while; he took her to social gatherings with other famous SF writers; and he proposed marriage to her in a letter, which she didn't know whether to take for real. It was not, she thought, a serious relationship - they did not have sex - so she made what she later realized was the mistake of letting him learn that she was also dating other men, including one of the writers she'd met through Phil.

Phil grabbed the wheel of the car she was driving at the time and tried to steer them into oncoming traffic. When she wrestled the car to the curb and ordered him out, he started punching her in the face.

After that she kept her distance from him, though interestingly they remained friends by letter and phone. Once when she ran into him at an SF con, he introduced her to his fifth wife as the woman who'd beat him up. Was he reshaping reality or just making a joke? She didn't know.

A shocked silence filled the hall as Linda finished her story. The organizer jumped up on stage and started babbling something about how we didn't have to hate PKD or disavow his work just because of this.

The thing was, though, that for me - and surely for anyone there more knowledgeable in PKD than I, which must have been most of them - what was moving or disturbing in this tale was hearing it from Linda herself. It wasn't that there was anything revelatory in the story. It was all recounted, in not much less detail than we heard it on Saturday, in the standard biography of PKD over 20 years ago.2

Anyone minded to dismiss Dick because of his treatment of women could find plenty of ammunition in that biography. The top story would surely be the time he concluded an argument with his third wife by having her committed for psychiatric observation. Sutin remarks dryly that the author whose work is all about the indeterminacy of reality "had made a rather definite decision as to what was real."

Unsurprisingly, this led to their divorce. What's interesting, though, is that she remains even today devoted to his memory, and she researched and wrote her own biography of him; it's not a hatchet job. And you also get reactions like this from Linda and most of the other women, dark-haired girls and otherwise, he was involved with: "he could be very cruel at times," writes his fifth wife, "but he loved me more than Dante loved Beatrice." Like LBJ, author of both Vietnam and Medicare, PKD is somebody you just have to accept as both very very horrid and very very good, and you can't integrate their extremes or seek a balanced verdict. You just have to admire the good and acknowledge the horrid, and that's what I've tried to do in these posts.

1. Also in the class was a young man named Tim Powers who became a lasting friend of Phil's, a character in Valis, and later a noted author himself.
2. Divine Invasions by Lawrence Sutin, probably the best biography of a genre SF author before Julie Phillips on Tiptree. I had a chance to speak to Linda at the conference dinner afterwards, and said that though of course I knew the story, I appreciated her coming and telling it to us herself.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Filled Ick

I spent the weekend at a Philip K. Dick Festival, I did. It was at San Francisco State, not too far away, the program looked (and turned out to be) highly interesting, it was inexpensive, and it was to be an intensive study of the work of one of my favorite SF authors, so what's not to like?

The organizer, a lecturer in the SFSU English department, kept insisting that this was a Festival, but it was really a small academic conference, about the same size (100+ people) as Mythcon, and similarly featuring papers and other formal presentations. There were several names I recognized as stars of PKD studies, including some fiction authors like Jonathan Lethem and Rudy Rucker, but there were only two people present I knew personally. I'm not a Dickian scholar myself, just a fan of his work, so I didn't expect anybody else to pay any attention to me, but I got to make a few comments after papers and had a few interesting and friendly conversations here and there: particularly one with Umberto Rossi, an Italian scholar with good idiomatic English but the most amazing accent, who had made a passing comparison of PKD with C.S. Lewis. I was able to flesh out his knowledge of that other author a little bit.

The papers and talks were lucid and insightful. My brain was swelling but my body was sore from all that sitting. What struck me most was how productive PKD's work is: angles of politics, of science, of prose style and characterization, of literary context, of philosophy, of religion, were all addressed productively. Behind many of the talks was an awareness of the Exegesis, a massive pile of philosophical-psychological-religious essays and notes to himself that PKD wrote over his last decade to try to make sense of a bout of intense spiritual experiences that hit him over a few weeks in 1974. A large selection of this work has recently been published in book form (a smaller book came out about 20 years ago), and one of the major panels featured several of its editors and commentators describing how the new book came to be. One of these editors, Erik Davis, also gave a talk on PKD as a subject of religious studies. He talked very fast and very lucidly and was altogether the most awesome speaker. (All or most of the proceedings will be online soon, I'm told. A grad student videographer was running back and forth frantically as the proceedings jumped bewilderingly from room to room, and I hope the work turns out to be viewable.)

One of PKD's goals in the Exegesis was to identify premonitions of his revelations in his earlier fiction, and many of the papers addressed that theme. His post-1974 work is consciously gnostic, and one of the most interesting talks was by a student scholar showing that his early novel Eye in the Sky (one of my favorites) may be seen as gnostic too.

Jonathan Lethem in his talk compared the Exegesis to notebooks by Dostoyevsky and Robert Frost, undisciplined works not intended for publication that reveal a fuller picture of the author's personality and concerns, and open up new levels of understanding of the published work. And I was thinking that, on a slightly different level - for it's more creative work than private notes - Tolkien's multiple posthumous volumes of Silmarillion papers and linguistic material are the same thing: massive, bewilderingly complex, frustratingly inconsistent, sometimes difficult to read - and absolutely essential for understanding the author's mind and work.

And there were movies! Two of them. Director-screenwriter John Alan Simon presented his own adaptation of Radio Free Albemuth, completed a couple years ago and still in search of distribution. I thought it a fine version, charming in its low-budget atmosphere, with devotion to the ornate plot and some good acting (from Alanis Morissette among others), smoothing out the book's characteristic quirkiness but gaining coherence in the process, and preserving the message and the tone of the source. And later on, when I talked with him, John recorded me saying so, along with other short endorsements by others to be loaded up on the movie's Facebook page. Also a short Mexican film, in Spanish with subtitles, called Nia, a slightly cryptic adaptation of the short story "The Electric Ant" with a female protagonist.

But the most interesting and provocative thing that happened at the conference was something else, which I'll save for tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


1. At Rosh Hashanah services, the rabbi gave an impassioned sermon on the need for communitarianism. People who wonder why most Jews are Democrats should have come hear this.

2. Attended the reading by Roz Kaveney (clever and allusive), Malinda Lo (thrilling) and Cindy Pon (atmospheric) at a tiny screening room in the back of the ground floor of an office building in downtown SF. Now I have to consider buying books.

3. Listening to an obscure overture by Rossini (there's more of them than you think) with a section that I'm sure comes verbatim in some other overture, but I can't remember which one. [Ed.: found it!]

4. Reading paper submissions for Tolkien Studies is reminding me of accounts of slushpiles at sf magazines. Chip Delany once recounted an academic who, when asked why he didn't mention Bester's The Demolished Man in his paper where it would have been relevant, asked "Is this something I should have heard of?" I just encountered a similarly yawning gap of knowledge by a purported Tolkien scholar, and my brain hurts.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I hear a ring

Much to my luddish disgruntlement, I had to get a new cellphone. The folks at the AT&T store explained that the reason I'd been having trouble picking up a signal lately is that they're in the process of shutting down the 2G network that my old phone runs on. Too expensive and obsolete to maintain, they said. They had the temerity to compare it to 8-track tapes.

Fortunately, they still offer inexpensive dumbphones (I do not want a smartphone) for their pay-as-you-go "GoPhone" accounts. I bought a clamshell model for $40, and, while taking my mother to a doctor's appointment, spent my hour in the waiting room setting the thing up: setting the shortcut keys, choosing a slightly nicer wallpaper from the few on offer, entering my contact numbers (which didn't transfer over with the sim card) and deleting the AT&T house numbers it came pre-programmed with, and so forth.

I had to wait till I got home and could get on the computer to get my preferred ringtone, something else that wouldn't transfer over from my old phone. When I first got a cellphone, I had some trouble with ringtones. My first thought had been that a phone should sound like a phone, so I picked the pre-programmed selection that sounded like an old-fashioned phone. The problem with that became apparent at an airport rental car counter when my phone rang and I thought it was their phone that was ringing.

So I decided to pick a musical tone. I didn't want any of the electronic geegaw sounds in the pre-programmed repertoire; besides, several of those are so common that, again, I wouldn't be sure it was my phone. The obvious choice for me would be something classical, right? So I went to the AT&T ringtone store (which was damn hard to find on their website, and still is), and found among their meager classical selections the cat theme from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.

Perfect for me, right? It turned out not. The cat theme is played on the low register of the clarinet, and it just wasn't loud or piercing enough to be heard against any background noise at all if my phone was in my pocket. I needed something louder, and, more importantly, brighter in timbre.

Another visit. The cat theme was gone. I picked my favorite of what was there, St. Anthony's Chorale, the theme (not actually by Haydn, though Brahms didn't know that) of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn. This wasn't particularly loud either, and it had a worse problem that I hadn't expected. My phone rang in the car, and I thought, "Oh, the radio's playing the Haydn Variations. How nice." Even though the radio was already playing something else. My mind just didn't associate this theme with a cellphone, and I feared that if I did train my mind to make that association, then whenever I heard the Haydn Variations I'd think, "Uh-oh, better answer my phone." Clearly, I would have the same problem with any other classical tune I selected.

What I needed, then, was something non-classical that 1) I liked, 2) would somehow "be me", 3) wouldn't also be too many other people, 4) would be bright enough to hear in a noisy environment, 5) I would be willing and able to associate in my mind with "my phone is ringing." Nothing in the AT&T store filled the bill. When the perfect answer hit me, I was able to find several versions on a cheap upload site, picked one that had good sound quality and a tolerable cutoff point, and managed to download it. Fortunately I also had the wit to create an account and save the site on a bookmark, so I just grabbed it again for the new phone, though I had the deuces' own time getting the thing uploaded on the phone. (It wouldn't upload automatically, so I had to use the web browser, and was stymied several times by not realizing that "search for" didn't mean (the unwritten default option of) "go to".)

Not to keep you in suspense, if you've never heard my phone ring: it was the instrumental opening of this.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Semyon Bychkov, week 2

I'm not sure what happened with this program. Originally, Bychkov was scheduled to conduct Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. I would have loved to have heard what he could make of that. But then it was changed to the Eleventh.

I have to say I was a little disappointed at that news. Not that I don't love the Eleventh. Though it has four movements, it doesn't have at all the structure of a traditional symphony, but is a free-flowing continuous tone poem of enormous size, about half sorrowfully mournful, a quarter vehemently determined, and one quarter absolutely hair-raising in intensity, depicting the events around the Winter Palace massacre of 1905 (the official and stated interpretation) or sub-rosa objecting to the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which had just happened at the time the work was written (the revisionist interpretation).

But I'd heard Bychkov conduct SFS in this work before. This was probably 20 or more years ago, but it still stays in my mind as one of the most memorable concerts I've ever attended, and for me it first marked Bychkov as a conductor to watch. I didn't really need to repeat it, and would have liked to have heard him work his magic on something else.

So after all these years, how fared his Eleventh? Wonderfully balanced and blended sound from the orchestra, of course - at the ovation he gave a special bow to the violas, who give out the first theme - and all the tremendous power the piece needs. But it also got a little eccentric at times, with odd tempo gyrations in the third and fourth movements. In the second movement, the alarmingly vivid portrait of the march on the Winter Palace, Bychkov used to conduct the actual massacre - a moment that you cannot miss - twice as fast as Kiril Kondrashin, the Soviet conductor whose recording I learned this piece from.* Now he conducts it three times as fast.

The change from the Leningrad to the Eleventh, which while monumental is slightly less enormous, left room for an addition to the program, in the form of Schubert's Unfinished. This again was eloquent and beautifully played and balanced, yet offered in a soft, gentle tone resembling Schubert's symphonic juvenilia, and, as so often in such cases, defying the program notes, which emphasized the break from Schubert's earlier work.

Maybe the addition is what prompted Bychkov to play the Shostakovich so fast and the Schubert so lightly. I didn't check its actual running time, but we were out by 10 pm, which with a program this large and heavy shouldn't have happened.

* So do most other conductors these days. I haven't seriously checked the score to see which tempo, vis-a-vis the surrounding passages, it actually endorses, but I really should.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I oughta get a fedora

Here's my latest SFCV article, a set of previews of what I consider to be interesting local concerts this fall.1 Just a regular roundup, except for those introductory paragraphs, and there's a story behind that, a story in which I actually played news reporter for a bit.

Back in early August, I saw an article in the Mercury News reporting that San Jose's charming chamber music venue, Le Petit Trianon, might be closing. Uh-oh. I forwarded it to Janos Gereben, who put it in the weekly news column he writes for SFCV.

So when Michael Zwiebach, my editor, called me up two weeks later and asked for a set of fall previews in a hurry for an upcoming compilation article - I wrote them in one pass that evening, which accounts for some awkward phrasing - the elephant on the table was the status of the Trianon. Nothing had appeared in the newspaper since the original article, and the websites of the groups and sponsoring societies that play there listed the venue as normal, as if nothing was wrong. I was assigned the task of finding something out. So I phoned up several of these groups and left messages on their voicemails, identifying myself as a writer for SFCV and asking for anything they knew about what was going on and anything they could say about what they were planning to do about it.

The first person I heard back from was the publicist for the San Jose Chamber Music Society. She sounded a little taken off-balance by the question, and wasn't sure she could say anything for publication.2 I said, "Look, this news is out there, and your concertgoers are going to ask about it. You need to have some kind of response ready, and it's my job to report that." She rang off to go confer, and soon afterwards I got a call from the president of the society, who did have the authority to speak for them. I framed his comments into a concise statement, read it back to him, got his OK, and that's what appears by his name in the article.

Later on, I got calls back from some of the other groups, and they all said pretty much the same thing: they'd talked to the owners, they expected the venue would be available at least for this concert season, and they were making backup plans, just in case, that they weren't releasing yet.

In the meantime, the editors' plans for a big compilation article failed to materialize, and my news report sat unused. Another two weeks later, I got another call from my editor, asking for an update. This time I had a better idea. Rather than talk again to the performing groups, since the only information they had was from the building's owner, I decided to go straight to the source. So I drove down to the theater and visited its office, introducing myself as a reporter for SFCV. There I talked to a man who told me his position with the owning corporation, though he didn't give his own full name, and it was he who told me that they'd filed for bankruptcy protection. The only problem was that this had just happened, and they hadn't had time to tell their clients and lessees yet. This was last Thursday, and they were planning to get the word out on Friday. I said fine, we're publishing on Monday (as it turned out, it was Tuesday), so we'll just hold it till then.

In the event, I was scooped by the Mercury, which had an article on Saturday saying pretty much the same things I'd been told. So, no news scoop for me, but few outside the immediate local area read the Mercury, so it's still fairly newsworthy, and the editors were happy. And I must say that I find the reporting side of this job to be more enjoyable when it involves eking hard facts about venues out of arts administrators - even if I didn't really get many - than when it consists of trying to think of productive interview questions to ask famous conductors over the phone.

1. Just the South Bay ones are mine. The Mondavi Center listings at the end are by someone else, whose name was also on the article when it was first posted. That's the last remnant of the original compilation plan, the other parts of which were published separately.
2. Actually, first she told me her understanding of what was going on, and then she asked me not to publish it on her authority. Don't ever try that with a real reporter.

Monday, September 10, 2012


It's a nice idea - to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit by inviting Tolkien fans worldwide to have a meal at 11 am (local time) on the anniversary of the publication date, Friday of next week. Indeed, it's in the tradition of the Tolkien Society's annual birthday toast to the Professor, which is held at 9 pm (local time) on his birthday anniversary, January 3rd.

But the Hobbit meal thing is also a sign of the creeping Jacksonification of Tolkien, and to that degree it bothers me. This is because they call it Second Breakfast. With capital letters.

No such thing exists in Tolkien, but I suspect many readers don't know that. Hobbits do like to eat a lot, and the prologue to The Lord of the Rings says they're fond "of six meals a day (when they could get them)." In chapter 2 of The Hobbit, Bilbo, having (as he thinks) safely gotten rid of his dwarvish visitors, has breakfast and then, just out of relief, sits down "to a nice little second breakfast."

But the idea of a formal, regularly scheduled, hobbit meal actually called "Second Breakfast" is an invention of Peter Jackson's movies.

Do you see the difference? The parenthetical "when they could get them" and the description of Bilbo having "a second breakfast," indefinite article and uncapitalized, signals that it's all ad hoc - what you think you can get away with. Pippin in Minas Tirith, after surviving Denethor's questioning, is hungry enough to "eat three breakfasts on end," though in a city turned military camp he surely doesn't get that many. As far as I can find, nowhere else in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings is there mention of a second breakfast, though the hobbits do like their breakfast and any other occasions to eat.

In inventing extra hobbit meals, Tolkien is undoubtably thinking of the English customs of elevenses and afternoon tea, in-between-meal snacks both of which are mentioned in Tolkien's works as hobbit practices; indeed "tea" is the meal to which Bilbo invited Gandalf in the first place - though in the end, with 13 uninvited dwarves also attending and calling for meat dishes and cheese, it looks more like high tea, which is a heavier meal later on, what Americans would call an early supper, and not an everyday event.

In having what he calls a second breakfast, Bilbo is, I suspect, trying to excuse himself for having something heavier than an elevenses snack, as well as not admitting to himself how late in the morning it actually is (it's somewhere between 10:30 and 10:50 am, according to the text). He is not following a regular formal hobbit practice, and he uses the term because it doesn't actually have a name of its own.

If the sponsors of the 9/21 event want us to munch together simultaneously at 11 am, they should call it elevenses. There's no call for a second breakfast as such unless we're as discombobulated or stressed out as Bilbo and Pippin were.

Not if we're celebrating Tolkien's book, anyway. Whenever book-fans complain about the changes and additions in Jackson, we're told condescendingly, "But he had to do it that way because it's a mooooovie." Fine. The movie is different from the book, we get it. In that case, then, let the movie be the movie, and let the book be the book, and don't mix them up with each other. And whatever you want to do to celebrate the movies, don't commemorate the publication of Tolkien's book with a meal called "Second Breakfast." It means well, but it clashes, it clangs.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Feed by Mira Grant

Our MythSoc book discussion group tackled this novel, which I had on my Nook because it was part of Reno's Hugo nominee package last year. (In some ways the most valuable thing I got out of my Worldcon membership.) It isn't mythopoeic fantasy, but a fairly hard SF novel. I was impressed with the SFness of it; the bio-medical lingo explaining a future world full of zombies rang credibly. Others found it less so, and were bored by the expository lumps, the dull blog entries, etc. I at least found the book captivating enough to be readable; others didn't even give it that much.

The setting is interestingly one in which the zombies are already there and everyone is used to them; the plot exists in that setting and the author conveys this concept clearly. The problem is that, while the characters are used to having the zombies around, the reader isn't, and the question of how practically to live in a society in which zombies are constantly roaming around, ready to eat your brain and/or infect you, was too concerning to leave any room to worry about the political thriller aspect of the plot, even though it was accomplished via zombie.

And while the bio-medical lingo worked, the cultural context had problems. The characters are simultaneously terrified of the zombies and completely blasé about them, an unexplained combination. The terrorist attack-by-zombie is specified to be shockingly unusual, but here's how we're told that criminals don't otherwise utilize zombies: it's considered a heinous crime punishable by execution. Oh, well, that will eliminate it, no problem; even more so in a society where everyone's expecting to die by zombification at any moment. And major presidential campaigns employ teenage bloggers for news coverage, and let them attend top-secret strategy sessions because (the candidate actually says this) if they're kept out they might write unkindly in their blogs. It's obvious as early as chapter one, in which the heroes dart through a zombie-occupied city (if zombies have short half-lives, where did these all come from, and if they're drawn to victims, why are they hanging around where there aren't any?): this is a Cory Doctorow wet dream story, the teenage blogger as hero.

One other thing bothers me. In the 1950s, SF was full of cautionary tales of post-apocalyptic nuclear-bombed landscapes, and totalitarian dystopias. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, these were joined by environmental catastrophes. But today, I find it hard to work up interest in the threat of imaginary zombies when we face crises like climate change and peak oil (and other lesser-known problems like peak phosphorus), which are actually happening, right now, like a WW3 nuclear holocaust in slow motion. Where is the SF about what we're facing today? Am I just missing it, or does it not exist, or insufficiently so?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Democrats, day 3

The big speeches last night were on the virtues of communitarianism. This was most impressively shaped by Joe Biden, who managed to make ringingly clear a rather subtle point on how a communitarian approach to national policy feeds the soul and satisfies the heart of America. He took his "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive" stump speech line and expanded on it by arguing that addressing the nation's underlying emotional needs is an important job of the President, and one which Obama has fulfilled.

And I'd say he's right. Obama speaks like a technocrat (and he did so again tonight, like a technocrat who's had elocution lessons that stuck with him), but he knows where the spirit goes. Others do not, and that was why - to take an example Biden did not use - it was so disconcerting when at one point GWB went all Western-movie sheriff on bin Laden (I'm gonna git him), and then later said he didn't care whether we got the guy or not. It was not only disconcerting, it was disorienting. I'm not about to buy another American car, but if we shrugged the whole U.S. auto industry off, where would that leave us? We must remember that the companies exist for the sake of the people, and not the people for the companies.

Republicans were probably totally allergic to the whole idea, being divided into libertarians (in turn divisible into philosophical libertarians and Craig T. Nelson-style obliviatti) and racists, because nobody determined to declare that anyone who gets government help is a lazy layabout, or who invents stories that the black president is a foreigner, is anything but a racist. But while they're not listening, it was worth saying.

Seen earlier on: Brian Schweitzer, less impressive than four years ago, and Jennifer Granholm, who gave out the "D puts you forward, R is for reverse" line, which ... come on. If Republicans were still conservative, they could point to "Keep Right" signs. (British socialists used to point to "Keep Left" signs.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This was, I believe, quite literally the first concert of the season. MTT is apparently away, and the regular grand gala opening will be in two weeks when he gets back. In the meantime, the guest conductor holding the fort is Semyon Bychkov. This is the guy who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic on their tour concerts here a couple years ago, and you have to be really good to get invited by them.

He's been to SFS and impressed me here before, and he did it again tonight with Tchaikovsky's Fifth. This was a performance shaped for smooth and compelling flow. Nothing was jerky, and the infamous false ending in the finale flowed on to the next thing without a murmur. Nothing was shrill, either, as loud as it got. Bychkov got the SFS to layer the sound smoothly, with special richness in the strings. At times the sound was almost Brucknerian, and the shape of the piece had a kind of Brucknerian inevitability to it too. This was Tchaikovsky with all his weaknesses carefully minimized. The only thing a bit odd was the idiosyncracy of the note values in some of the wind solos.

Also on the program, Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture, also excellent - Bychkov had shown unparalleled insight into Wagner in his Vienna Phil concerts - and Bruch's Violin Concerto, a dull performance because it was with a dull soloist, Pinchas Zukerman.

Next week, Bychkov does Schubert and Shostakovich, and no dull fiddlers in sight. I can't wait.

(No Democrats for me today, so I missed the Big Dog. I didn't even try to catch anything on the radio driving up to the City. Instead, I listened to CDs of Gilbert and Sullivan, whom I've been experiencing an unsated craving for lately.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Democrats, day 1

I got home in time to see the last 2.5 or 3 hours of this, something around that.

We don't get Cspan on our bargain-basement cable service, so I watched it on PBS. PBS specializes in recursive commentators, the kind who say, "What she just said is [what she just said]."

Hey, it's Lilly Ledbetter. I remember her from four years ago. Glad she's doing OK, even though the law with her name on it couldn't provide retroactive justice for herself.

One of the things I'm looking for at this convention is something to fill the huge unspoken gap in Democratic politics: someone good to run in 2016. After tonight, I want to vote for Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio. What an inspiring speaker; what a moving story. Reminds me a little of the new guy who told his moving story inspiringly eight years ago.

Not Ted Strickland, though. Hoarse, bullish in both senses of the word, thinks a guy working 60 hours a week in an auto plant is a success story.

Michelle Obama, the final act of the evening (I hope so; I turned the TV off afterwards to avoid listening to the commentators again), was more fragile and emotional than in her speech four years ago. Maybe she figured she could afford to be. She said that Barack is still the same man she married twenty years ago. Resisted the impulse to ask, "Was he targeting civilians with drone strikes then, too?" I know; what she really meant was that she's relieved at having been able to carve out a stable home life in the White House after all.

... post interrupted by a political campaign call about a state proposition. Was unable to convince this person that its number alone was not enough to remind me offhand which one it was (there's eleven on the ballot this fall). Seemed to think that meant I'd never heard of it, but still wouldn't respond to my requests to tell me which one it was. After several go-rounds of this, she had the gall to ask why I was getting upset, and asked if she should call at a better time. Told her not to call at all and hung up. Afterwards, looked up the proposition. Oh, that one. Yes, I was planning to vote the way she advocated, but now I'm not so sure.

Monday, September 3, 2012

unconventional cities

This is of no significance, but it tickles my trivia sense enough to record.

So the Republican convention was in Tampa, and the Democratic one will be in Charlotte. I've never been to either city. After having gotten to all 50 U.S. states, I'm in search of new criteria by which to consider myself less well-traveled domestically, and I find that the official list of metropolitan statistical areas does nicely, as those two regions are the two largest on the list that I have, in fact, never been to. If the Hampton Roads (Virginia Beach-Norfolk) area doesn't count, because I've been to Williamsburg which is technically within its ambit, then the only others in the top 50 I've missed are Jacksonville and Birmingham.

It's not a coincidence that all five of these are in the South. That's the region of the country in which my travels are the most spotty, and indeed, of the next fifty MSAs (I lost patience at counting after that), 6 of the 10 I haven't visited are also in the South. The closest I've been to Tampa is Orlando, and the closest I've been to Charlotte is Raleigh/Durham on one side and Columbia on the other, 20 years apart and under very different circumstances.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

a minimum of Hugo thoughts

When I turned to the Locus website to see the Hugo results, I was at first distracted by what my eye saw as much bigger news: Stan Schmidt is retiring. As he points out, his tenure at Analog matches John Campbell's. Somehow 1978 doesn't seem as long ago as 1937 seems distant from 1971, but that may be because of what I can remember. Certainly he seemed to keep his editorial juices flowing in a way that many thought Campbell did not, and I haven't heard mutterings that he was worn out, but after such a tenure, that may be the time to go.

So, the Hugos. Ah, Among Others won Best Novel. That's the only nominee I've actually read. I thought it a subtle fantasy in the Diana Wynne Jones mode, quite brilliant in its unobtrusive way, but I fancy that's not the aspect that won it the Hugo. Perhaps it was all the references, even though they're not central to the story, to the narrator reading old SF novels, further evidence of the popularity of a recursive "SF eats its young" theme that I noticed in a couple of the (nevertheless pretty good) short fiction nominees last year.

When I was a member, and read them all. I didn't read any of them this year, except for the Scalzi quip which happened to float in front of my face online, and which was passingly amusing, but ... come on. At least it didn't win. (I suspect Scalzi is secretly relieved too.)

The only DP nominee I saw was the movie Hugo. I didn't like it. With its title, I'd have thought it an inevitable winner, but ... it didn't. Instead, the 500-pound gorilla won. Merely the fact that it is that large is achievement in itself.

Fanzine went to one of the two nominees I don't know. (I don't even know what a "fancast" is, let alone that there was a Hugo category for it, though I can guess what it is - a fannish podcast - assuming that I know what the word "podcast" means, which I'm not entirely sure that I do.) At least I've heard of the fan writer and artist winners, and most of the other nominees too. I expect that average to plummet sharply in the future.