Friday, November 27, 2009

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is a big, old-fashioned historical novel full of wonderful characters and grand ideas, from religious intolerance, to the uses of political power, to the bourgeois virtues. Speaking of the last of these, our hero Thomas Cromwell is a merchant and self-made man, a man of action who cuts moral corners because the alternative is surely worse. His relationship with Thomas More, a sympathetic monster, is the novel's centerpiece, with Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell's retinue of surrogate sons play supporting roles. One of those books I was truly hoping would never end...

Sunday, October 25, 2009


We finally saw "Milk" last night. Well-made, as expected, but I found it overall a little flat. Sean Penn's astonishing performance, however, is everything it is cracked up to be. The movie also ought to be an exhibit in Harvey Milk's canonization, if and when the Church ever comes around to making saints of gays and unconverted Jews.

The most interesting theme is the notion that Dan White was a tortured, closeted gay who was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by Milk. In the movie, White is ultimately the biggest victim of homophobia, while Milk, supremely comfortable in his own skin and a fighter from the very beginning, is anything but.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

28 weeks later?

My wife Laura wonders why Dick Cheney doesn't just "slink away" and leave us all alone. I would no more expect Dick Cheney to slink away than I would expect one of those infected guys in 28 Days Later to do the same. They just keep snarling and coming at you. Here he is again, offended that the Obama administration is taking some baby steps toward investigating our homegrown torturers. Well, at least we can all agree that there is something offensive here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Harry Potter and the...

... Half-Blood Prince, I believe. Saw it on IMax, with 3-D for the first ten minutes or so. What I can say about 3-D is that the technology is quite improved from what I remember. It no longer makes you nauseous, and some of the effects are fairly striking. Still, most of the time it reminded me of looking through a View-Master, with the obvious discrete foreground and background. I.e., still a gimmick.

The movie? Not bad overall, but not worth the $14 I spent. Too much teen angst and snogging for my taste. The new Dumbledore pales in comparison to Richard Harris. The memory pensieve is quite cool: Harry sticks his head in a toilet bowl and trips out. The journey across a lake straight out of Dante to retrieve the horcrux is poorly done, not nearly as intense as it is in the book (yes, I read it). Biggest problem: the vivid three-dimensional characters that J.K Rowling created in her excellent novels are portrayed by, alas, appealing kid actors who grew up to be second-rate young adult actors. What can you do?

Best man for the job

The President on reappointing Ben Bernanke:
“As an expert on the causes of the Great Depression, I’m sure Ben never imagined that he would be part of a team responsible for preventing another. But because of his background, his temperament, his courage, and his creativity, that’s exactly what he has helped to achieve.”
Like, what he said.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nautical terms

Highly recommended. Start with the definition of slush fund, which was new to me. Also by and large. Listen to some sea shanties while you're at it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Magnolia at age 10

I just watched it for the fourth time. Still tremendous... I haven't seen a better movie made since. And that includes Ratatouille, which would however be a good remedy for the mood Magnolia puts you in.

Friday, July 3, 2009

On cap and trade

My letter to the editor of the NY Times today should not be taken as an endorsement of the government giving away most of the carbon permits, as is proposed in the House bill. I'm a strong believer in auctioning as a relatively efficient way of enhancing government revenue. Nor do I endorse the bill's inadequate reduction targets. Still, the news article in the Times simply got the effect of a permit giveaway on emissions prices wrong.

To the Editor:

The claim that giving away permits keeps the price of emissions low reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how cap-and-trade programs work (“House Backs Bill, 219-212, to Curb Global Warming,” front page, June 27).

The price of emissions, and therefore the effect of the program on fuel and energy prices, will be determined by the total supply of permits (the cap), not by how they are initially allocated. Consumers will have to pay the price either way, as well they should, for their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

William A. Sundstrom
Santa Clara, Calif., June 30, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Munching down Middlefield

Palo Alto is smack in the middle of food heaven, but the town itself is a little thin, especially at the low-cost end. I recommend Tofu House (my favorite resaurant in PA) on El Camino and Mediterranean Wraps on California Ave. Downtown we now have Patxi Pizza, which is very good indeed, although hardly a budget meal.

So let's drive south on Middlefield Rd., which runs roughly parallel between El Camino and 101. Toward the southern limits of PA you'll pass our fine local grocery store, Piazza's, and soon cross the border into Mountain View. Bear left after the Toyota dealership onto Old Middlefield Rd., which passes through a typical ugly CA landscape of small warehouses and light-industry businesses, punctuated by a string of cheap eateries. At the corner of Rengstorff, we have three quite good Mexican/ Latin American establishments: La Costena, famous for made-to-order burritos, the reliable Los Altos Taqueria, where you can get a hearty bowl of homemade soup along with the usual fare, and the greasy but very tasty La Bamba, featuring a nice pupusa.

Until tonight I had heard good things about but never tried Uncle Frank's BBQ, at the back of a dive bar called Francesca's. I am not a BBQ expert by any means, but I found the food very fine and the portions, well, bordering on excessive. I recommend it.

A sad moment in Old Mid food history was when DeeDee's chaat buffet and Indian grocery, just past Toyota, closed and was bulldozed to make room for... say what?... an overgrown vacant lot! But you can still eat very well for not much on Old Middlefield.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dafnis Prieto Si o Si Quartet, Stanford Jazz Workshop

I went not sure what to expect, figuring a Cuban drummer with a couple more Cuban guys in the quartet was going to play Afro-Cuban jazz, but also noting that he has been Henry Threadgill's drummer of choice on a couple of occasions, so anything goes. The Latin element was in there, but for the most part it was edgy modern jazz, sometimes with an identifiable beat, which was 7 as often as 4, sometimes just a tight free-jazz pulse. Complex composed passages. The rest of the band is first rate, especially Manuel Valera on piano, who has Keith Jarrett's way with angular solo lines (the rest: Peter Apfelbaum, tenor sax; Armando Gola, bass).

Criticism? Too much drum! Prieto is awe-inspiring, and he plays with the band, not against it, but he's so clever and busy (and loud in a small space) that one is easily distracted. Not an unpleasant distraction, mind you...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Carnatic Jazz

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen (2008) is the most exciting jazz album I have acquired in some time. I'm not a big fan of eclecticism and too-clever cultural fusions, so my expectations were not high, despite the rave reviews. Expectations overturned big time. To call it "Indo-jazz fusion" doesn't really do it justice. The highlight here is the interplay between the improvisations of the two alto saxophonists, Mahanthappa and Kadri Gopalnath, the former a jazz player in the contemporary New York vein, the latter not a jazz musician at all but an interpreter of South Indian Carnatic music. Gopalnath's energy and off-kilter tonalities bounce off Mahanthappa's cool virtuosity, backed up by a stellar blended rhythm section. Everyone is probing, exploring, learning. You, the eager listener, will do the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Well, I never thought he was the greatest, but he may well have been the weirdest, and he recorded some great songs in his prime. Most people seem to think Thriller is the pinnacle, but I kind of prefer Off the Wall, at least the propulsively funky side 1. He was a few months younger than me... strange.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Wire

Finally finished the fifth and final season on DVD. Was it the best TV series of all time? Certainly a contender, in my mind. What I particularly appreciated was the relentless efficiency of the story-telling: not a wasted moment on the screen. Along with the writing, acting, production, sociological and political themes, all that stuff too. And an appealing crook who read his Adam Smith.

I had heard that the fifth season was a let-down, and how could it not be, following on 3 and 4, perhaps the two most perfect TV runs ever? Still, as a person who briefly contemplated a career in journalism and did a very short reporting stint on a small-town paper, I actually found the newspaper story line pretty compelling. The final episode's closing epilogue was uncharacteristically contrived and unnecessary, however... an unfortunate way to go out.

For all its emphasis on shades of gray, The Wire clung to fairly standard cop-show moral conventions in its portrayal of the police: flawed and capable of very bad behavior, but with their hearts in the right place-- in fact so much so that we were inclined to accept that their ends justified their means. What defied cop-show convention was that the bad guys could be understood as complete human beings in terms of their development, motives, and moral code... and that, nonetheless, to understand is not-- necessarily-- to forgive.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

State Oddity

I caught a little of the California Report's interview with the Gubernator on KQED radio this morning. The whole California budget situation has an air of the surreal. Arnold has assumed the strange hybrid persona of a scolding schoolmarm mixed with budget deficit Terminator, and the act has really gotten tedious. Of course there's a lot of posturing, but serious cuts will occur, and it is bizarre to be living in one of the richest and most successful economies in human history and contemplate the shutting down of the state park system, or the gutting of health insurance for poor kids, or the gradual deconstruction of the world's greatest public system of higher education.

Everyone can easily point to their favorite culprits. The housing meltdown and recession are big proximate contributors, for sure, but the budget problem is structural. California's extremely rigid 2/3 majority requirement for both tax increases and budget passage is clearly an obstacle to a reasonable solution, particularly in the context of political polarization. The more polarized the legislature, the more extreme the views as you move away from the median legislator, and we now see what happens when the wacky right-most 1/3 hold veto power over the whole budget process. Even Arnold, nominally a Republican, has given up on these idiots and devotes his energies to badgering the Dems.

A new state constitution could offer a way out in the long haul, and I'm sympathetic to holding a convention. But in the land of Prop 13 you do have to be careful what you wish for. An alternative would be measures to depolarize the legislature. Even left-wing Democrats, who would personally be losers in a system that favored more centrist politicians, ought to be willing to make the sacrifice if the ideological cutoff at the 2/3 majority could be moved leftward toward the center. It's hard to imagine much real progress under the current rules until this happens. The new commission-based redistricting scheme provides some hope here, but it will take a long time before the impact is felt.

Bottom line in the short run: Please, please, please, Barack, help us out! Or perhaps a more Terminator-like threat is in order: Barack, don't turn us away, we can pull the rest of you back down with us!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Taste Oddity

I just picked up a used copy of Essential David Bowie: Best of 1969-1974 at the local library sale. I've heard 'em all before, of course, and I sure have enjoyed some of those old Bowie songs over the years. "Space Oddity" is a genuine pop-rock classic, "Suffragette City" is enjoyably leering, "Changes" and "The Man Who Sold the World" are compellingly hooky, even if Richard Barone and Nirvana both did better with the latter. But what about the rest of it? This is his best? It's a snooze. Could he be right up there with the Doors and the Dead among the all-time most overrated artists of the rock era?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Slime mold and other garden news

This excellent thing appeared overnight in the front yard. It appears to be Fuligo septica, which rather unfairly I think goes by the popular name dog vomit slime mold. The resemblance is there, but there aren't many dogs that could produce such a color, unless they had snuck into the turmeric. At any rate, the slime mold is a fascinating and often beautiful organism.

I include an additional photo for those whose tastes in flora run in a more conventional direction: one of several glorious ceanothus bushes in the back yard. A native plant every drought-conscious California gardener should consider: looks fantastic year round, and thrives on neglect.

Monday, March 2, 2009

In Tempus Praesens

That's my son Alexi (the good-looking one) with Anne-Sophie Mutter, arguably the world's greatest violinist. We heard her play the U.S. premier of Sofia Gubaidulina's violin concerto, "In Tempus Praesens," with the SF Symphony. Exquisite.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sandor Deki Lakatos

For $2 at the local public library book sale I picked up a brand-new copy of a CD by Sandor Deki Lakatos and His Gypsy Band, "Rakoczi Csardas." Well, the guy kicks ass on the fiddle, and the band just cooks for an hour's worth of frenetic Hungarian gypsy tunes. Easy to understand what Brahms and Bartok liked in this stuff, but one also suspects that Mr. Lakatos is not entirely unfamiliar with the classical violin repertoire. When I checked, this album was not available on Amazon, but others by him were. I wonder if he's related to the philosopher... or maybe Lakatos is Hungarian for "Smith"...

Sunday, February 1, 2009


In the cinematic genre of "animated tales of environmental apocalypse that the whole family can enjoy," this is a great one, just a notch below Princess Mononoke. I thought it was at its best in the early scenes back here on earth, but there were plenty of wonderful moments on the Buy-N-Large cruise ship, which presents a quite plausible vision of our human future. The scene in which the infantile, obese, grub-like humans roll and bounce across the pitching deck is a grotesquely funny send-up of Titanic in a movie full of movie quotes, obligatory in clever animated features these days. The robotic love story is touching, and surely you are meant to question whether it is at all a good idea that the humans return to earth, whatever their good intentions. Better to leave it to the humble little machines. Already they seem capable of making better movies than mere humans.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Road Shows, Vol. 1

Our greatest living improviser, Sonny Rollins seems only to have sharpened and deepened his glorious sound as he enters his 79th year. It is the paradox and the beauty of the saxophone that it can simultaneously achieve a ringing metallic intensity, warmth, and fluidity, and no one has perfected the sound the way Sonny has. Road Shows, Vol. I, collects live performances from 1980 to 2007, and the energy and excitement is evident in every cut. The unaccompanied flights of fancy, the high-pressure honking and wailing, the witty musical quotes, it's all there. Not every cut is studio quality... in particular, the piano on "Easy Living," recorded in Warsaw in 1980, may last have been tuned before the War, but by and large the sound is great and the music could not be better.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sudden tanoak death

The latest Pacific storm, mild as it was, blew the haze right out of Silicon Valley and greened up the moss and lichens in our foothills... a perfect afternoon for a stroll through beautiful Huddart County Park in Woodside. As in many of our coastal range forests, the tanoak is widespread in Huddart. A variable tree, it is often found at the margins of dense redwood groves, heroically stretching upward to compete for sunlight with the world's tallest species.

The tanoak has tremendous aesthetic value, its rather smooth light gray bark, mottled with patches of moss, providing contrast with the deeply fissured and dark maroon redwood trunks. The tanoak's ovoid, deep green, and slightly serrated leaves remind me a little of the leaves of the American chestnut, a magnificent east-coast beauty that no longer grows beyond head height before succumbing to the chestnut blight.

Our tanoaks now suffer a similar fate, alas--this species apparently the tree most vulnerable to sudden oak death. The accompanying photo, from a UC-Berkeley report, is typical of what one sees throughout Huddart Park. One's sadness at what may eventually be the loss of 100 percent of the tanoaks is compounded by the thought that the sudden oak death organism, Phytophthora ramorum, is ubiquitous in these hills. The notion that its spread may be slowed much by human effort seems wishful thinking to me. If the true oaks prove to be no more resistant than the tanoaks, the California landscape faces drastic and depressing changes ahead.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The new president's speech did not disappoint, but the highlights were, most appropriately, Rev. Lowery, and especially Aretha's rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Breathtaking. I'll never again hear it as a cheesy second-rate rip-off of the Brit national anthem. We own it now.

Update: I guess we already owned it. Some history I should have known.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Free Jazz Classics

In my college days I loved free jazz for its anarchy and noise, rhythmic freedom, silent spaces, and the beautiful contingency of collective improvisation. And I still do... but now I come to find out that the great free jazzers I thought I knew and loved were also secretly composers of intricate structures and melodic themes worthy of Shostakovich, if not Mozart or Richard Rodgers. This and more you will learn from The Vandermark 5's extraordinary two-CD recording, Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2. The musicianship is first-rate. The compositions reward careful listening, again and again. And they'll give you just the amount of noise you crave.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hey kids, don't eat these!

They are alleged to taste pretty good, but your first may be your last!