BootsnAll Travel Network

What my blog is about

I'm a gay man living in San Francisco. Some years ago, I saw a group who defined their mission as covering "Art, Spirit, Sex, Justice". That pretty much covers what I'm likely to post about. And there will random musings regarding science and technology. And travel. I started by calling the blog "Music of the Spheres", without realizing just how many people had already used that phrase for their own purposes. Apparently, people don't think so often of the music of tigers. So here it is.

afghans for Afghans–personal knitting for global connection

June 16th, 2008

A week or so ago, I got an email newsletter from a local yarn shop that included an invitation to knit a rectangular shawl for women going into a maternity hospital in Kabul.  This is only one of the projects of afghans for Afghans.  I really like the idea of putting my knitting to work to create a connection among people far across the world.

And I spend my working life dealing with the new infants of California collectively, as statistics–and I’m not minimizing the significance of what I do–but it’s not personal, not individual, in the way that this will be.  I know that, whatever I produce will be given to one particular woman; and I’m grateful for the chance to produce something that I hope she will like.

Unfortunately for me, they’ve asked that the shawls be ready to ship in July, which means that I’ve got to get my jet skis on, and make tracks.  I found some beautiful, soft, wool yarn in the local yarn shop–balls of variegated blue, or green, or purple.  I’m knitting the shawl longways, so I can change colors and get lengthwise stripes.

The project is supported by the American Friends Service Committee of San Francisco–who provides, among other things, a place to store the items as they accumulate. 

This whole project just leaves me smiling with hope for humanity.  

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Falling in love with Baroque opera

June 15th, 2008

Over the past few years, I’ve started to go to performances of Baroque operas, particularly the operas of Handel.  I’m delighted that these operas are getting performances these days, and that there are so many fantastic singers that have the ability to sing them. 

It took me a while to understand how the genre works, since the first operas that I had come to know were Wagners, and those are almost the complete opposite, in terms of the way that the story is communicated.  In Wagner, there are few moments that qualify as an “aria”…mostly what happens is that the characters on stage sing the dialogue back and forth at each other, and the orchestra provides commentary and clarification.  It’s that layering of thematic material that makes repeated hearing of The Ring so rewarding.

But I digress.  The way that the story is told in Baroque opera goes differently.  The dialogue is sung, usually in fairly simple phrases with minimal accompaniment as recitativo.  And all the “plot” happens in these understated parts.

But then, one character [or occasionally a duet] will break off and let loose with an aria.  The content of the aria is not plot–rather it’s psychological insight about how the character is feeling about the situation at hand.  The musical structure is usually ABA.  That is, there is an opening part, a contrasting middle, and then the opening part “repeats”.  The technical term is a da capo aria–meaning “from the top”.  Part of the tradition of these operas is that the singer is supposed to ornament the repetition.  I suppose that some listeners hear that as only more beautiful singing–and more technically demanding–but to me the main function is to intensify the emotional content of the aria.

As preparation for the upcoming run of Handel’s Ariodante the San Francisco Opera offered several occasions to learn more about it.  One is their Insight Panel Discussion, where several of the people involved with the productions discuss the opera.  In this case, the panel consisted of the conductor Patrick Summers, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, and bass Eric Owen.

Patrick Summers explicitly compared Handel to Shakespeare as two great psychological dramatists.  And he explicitly compared the arias in Handel to the soliloquies in Shakespeare.  He even said that they run about the same length.  But he pointed out that, in the case of Handel, the text is usually only a line or two.  What takes time is that the aria tends to look at the words from several directions, using the musical accompaniment to amplify the emotional meaning.

Susan Graham gave the example of the aria “Scherza infida…”, in which Ariodante is reacting to the [false, as it turns out] news that his bride-to-be has been unfaithful.  Ms. Graham said that she probably says the words “scherza infida”–mock me, faithless one–several dozen times over the course of the six minutes of the aria.  But each one, with its musical setting, is communicating a different emotional color that moves through–anger, disappointment, sorrow, bitterness, resignation and on and on.  Here’s Anne Sophie von Otter singing the aria. And here’s an amazing version from Philippe Jaroussky, a male soprano.

In thinking about why the form of Baroque opera doesn’t seem too unfamiliar, I finally realized that it’s actually the same idea as the pre-Sondheim Broadway musical–there’s some dialogue where the plot is moving forward, then the emotion gets to be just too much, and the characters break into song.  I know it’s a bit of a stretch to think of Guys and Dolls and L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the same time, but they do have something in common.

I got to see the final dress rehearsal for the SF Opera production, and it was totally fantastic!  And, I get to see if for real at the end of the month.

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June 13th, 2008

I’ve always been fond of the number 13.  When I was young, somewhere around 8 or 10, we moved into an apartment building.  There were fifteen floors, numbered 1 to 12, then 14, 15 and 16.  Similarly, the apartments on each floor were numbered 1 to 12, then 14 to 17.  It seemed so silly to me.  Did the people in 1414 not notice, that they were “really” in 1313.  Oh well, as long as we don’t mention it.

It’s always seemed to me that 13 is a bit of an outsider among smallish numbers.  The numbers from 0 to 9 are quite an clique.  I can just see them peering over their lorgnettes and murmuring that those others are “just not our type”…  With all this metric system, 10 has gotten quite an exaggerated sense of it’s own importance.  And 12, well, that’s a dozen.  And any number that describes a collection of doughnuts or bagels is bound to feel a certain dignity.

Eleven feels a certain modest pride for its role in keeping books organized.  The ISBN number makes use of eleven by way of making sure that there isn’t a typo as an ISBN is copied over.  The number after the dash at the end is the remainder when the rest of the number is divided by 11.  And that’s why sometimes the ISBN number ends in X–it means that the remainder is 10, so the ISBN uses the Roman numeral.

But 13, it seems to me, on top of being quite “underutilized”, has the disadvantage of calumny having to do with the “unlucky” nature of dinner parties where there are a total of 13 diners.  But really, I’ve never understood why anyone would believe that some numbers are more unlucky than others.

And, besides, 13 is a prime number, and that’s rather special.  Anyway, I’m a fan.

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Book: A Void

June 7th, 2008

[Warning: Posting from a world of odd cogitation.] 

This book, A Void, is a translation by Mr. G. Adair into Anglo-Saxon of a Gallic original, La disparition. It contains a mystery about Mr. Anton Vowl, who is abruptly gone without a word. A group of individuals look for him without luck.  His diary contains particular prosody by a quincunx of famous authors: One is by W. S. and begins thusly:

Living or not living: that is what I ask:

If ’tis a stamp of honour to submit

To slings and arrows waft’d us by ill winds,

Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions

OK, I give.  This effort to write without using the letter “e” is waaaay beyond my ability to sustain for any length of time.  So, the point of the French original [by Georges Perec, so you can see why I couldn’t mention his name in the paragraph above] is that it manages to be a more than OK mystery that, along the way doesn’t use the letter “e”.  [According to the flyleaf, Perec’s next novel Les Revenentes made up for the imbalance by using only the letter “e”.  Yoicks.]  Astoundingly enough, the translator has managed to produce a version in English that respects this difficult constraint.

By the way, the technical term for a work that avoids a particular letter is lipogram.  In English, the “usual” letter to avoid is “e”.  If you imagine a work that avoids the letter “x” for example, it would probably go completely unremarked.

An interesting choice is the poetry.  In the original, there are five poems copied into the diary of Anton Vowl [or Voyl in the French].  The poetry is all exceedingly familiar to any French reader–but wouldn’t have the same familiarity to English speakers.  So the translator found poetry that, I expect, we all recognize:  “Living or not living”, PBS’s Ozymandias, John Milton’s On his Glaucoma, Arthur Gorden Pym’s Black Bird [‘Quoth that Black Bird, “Not again”.’]  The one poem that remains in French–or rather the Gallic version–is Arthur Rimbaud’s Vocalisations [in French it’s Voyelles.  Just so you can appreciate the amazing talent

Here’s the first line of the original:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,

And the translation:

A noir, (Un blanc), I roux, U safran, O azur:

The poems, in addition to being recognizable “copies” of the originals, also scan like their models. 

There is, of course, a certain stilted quality to the prose–it’s amazing to me how frequently the prose just flows along and I don’t notice that there aren’t any “e”s.

If you want a bit of a trial, try writing a paragraph of Anglo-Saxon.  Soon you’ll remark that this task is difficult.  But I know that you will find ways to bring forth your cogitations using this unusual diction and syntax.

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Naked Night at Blow Buddies

June 6th, 2008

Given the name, I suppose that you won’t be surprised when I tell you that Blow Buddies is a sex club in San Francisco for men who want to find other men for, shall we say, oral enjoyment.  It’s always quite a diverse group of men, all ages, ethnicities, builds, styles….there are a few rules of the establishment–no cologne, “no polyester”, and shrieking about “Sex and the City” is probably not a good idea.  They do encourage bare skin, and it’s always warm enough not to need clothing.

And once a month–the first Wednesday if you’re planning travel–they have a Naked night.  On that night, everyone checks all their clothing except shoes and socks.  It’s one of my favorite times to go.  It seems that, in addition to our clothing, we also shed some of our defensiveness that urban living requires.  The result for me is often an evening of quite friendly connection.

It’s also great to see the variety of the men who are there.  And there is a certain shamelessness that comes from everyone being naked–and plenty of guys are obviously aroused.  I think that it would also do most guys a lot of good to see the varieties of “equipment” as well.  According to legend, all men are concerned that they don’t “measure up”.  Well, take a look and get over it.

The other amazing part of the evening for me is that, for any uniqueness of appearance, there seems to be someone else who is noticeably turned on by that uniqueness.  If I want to connect with a tall, skinny guy with lots of body hair and a large member–well, I can find one…plenty, in fact.  I’ve had to get over the fact that not every man is equally interesting to me in the erotic arena.  But really, I understand that what I’m doing is looking at the surface.  Is it any more superficial than saying that I want to marry an Ivy-league educated lawyer?   

As the evening goes on, I find myself thinking of the experience as more a matter of weaving a connection among the various possibilities of men who I attract and men I’m attracted to.  Most of us seem not to be overly “specialized” in our tastes.  Frankly, one thing that really gets me interested is another guy making clear that I’m just what he’s been looking for.

And, when it’s time for me to go, I can leave with a light heart and a spring in my step.

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Other Countries, Other Customs–Obama and TUCC

June 5th, 2008

When I was studying German in high school, I learned a proverb that has passed the test of experience: “Andere Laender, Andere Sitten”–Other Countries, Other Customs.  My version wouldn’t be so much “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” as “When in Rome, don’t be surprised that the Romans aren’t Germans”.  As I’ve traveled around, I’ve found this proverb to provide useful perspective.

For example, when I was in the Peace Corps in Malaysia, I found that it was considered to “abrupt” to answer a question just “Yes” or “No”.  Appropriate answers were more like “Not Yet” or “Already”.  So, to the question “Are you married?” or “Have you converted to Islam?” the polite answer is “Not yet.”  [And both of these are considered quite appropriate questions for casual conversation–as is “How much do you make?” and others about how life in the U.S. compares with television that don’t bear repeating.]

When I’m in a different country, it’s easy for me to remember that I need to “translate” the customs in order to understand what’s going on.  The more difficult task is when I’m here in San Francisco, and realize that I’m having an interaction across a culture barrier.  Even little things like “Next Saturday“.

In thinking about the whole “controversy” regarding Barack Obama, Reverend Wright, and Trinity Church, I realized that I’ve been recognized that his experience of his church is not the same as my understanding of the various churches that I’ve attended over my life.  As part of that understanding, I’ve recognized that a soundbite isn’t going to provide the amount of context that I need to “translate” the experience for me.

On top of this, there is perhaps a lot more to the experience.  There is a really great post–in a Wall Street Journal blog of all places–by Steven Waldman talking about Barack Obama’s White Family and Black Church.   It put a much expanded context together for me.

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Film “Note by Note-The Making of Steinway L1037”

June 4th, 2008

I don’t see many movies over the course of a year, but last weekend I went to see a new documentary “Note by Note–The Making of Steinway L1037”.  The film follows the assembly of one piano, over the year that it takes.  The main focus is on the people who do the work, and on their incredibly dedication and artisanship.

The film opens with a team of workers carrying a long board, then mounting it on the bending mold and pulling it into the shape of the piano frame.  The amount of leverage needed to do the bending amazed me.  After a lengthy period of relaxing into the new shape, the frame is taken off for several months of resting.  Then the various other parts of the piano were brought together.

But the real heart of the film are the people who do the work.  They are clearly working class people–one of them grew up blocks from the factory in Queens, New York.  This same person talks about the diversity of the workforce–calling it a “real United Nations” right on this team.  And it’s quite clear that, whatever the disagreements about life outside the factory, all of the workers respect the dedication and artistry of the whole team.

One of their points of pride is that the whole piano is made by hand–not that power tools are not used, but they are always under the control and eye of a human.  One worker talked about the piano factories that use computers to do the work, and he complained that all the pianos sound exactly the same–they have no personality.

Another strand of the film are the concert artists–classical, jazz and pop–who come to the factory to try out pianos for upcoming performances.  All of them explained, in one way or another, that pianos have “personalities”…that some of them make it easy for the performer to do what they want to do and others fight back making it hard to get through the performance.  In one case, a performer came into a room with a number of pianos and went from one to another playing the first bars of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  Sometimes, he’d take a good long time; others he’d play three notes and leap up and move on to the next.

At one point, one of the workers talked about going to Carnagie Hall for a performance and saying to the usher “That’s my piano”–explaining that he had made it.  The whole film is a wonderful tribute to a group of people who bring hearts and hands and minds to a complicated task.

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Entering the U.S. in Vancouver airport

May 29th, 2008

Well, I headed back to the U.S after my visit to Vancouver.  For people who haven’t taken a plane from Canada to the U.S., the process is a bit unusual.  After checking in, I proceeded through duty-free shopping, and then went through immigration to the U.S.  After that, it’s U.S. customs, then [finally] checking my luggage and on to the departure gates.

I don’t remember seeing it this time, but at least once, there was a big banner saying “Welcome to the United States”, right there in the Vancouver airport.  I have to say that it felt weird.

I have to believe that, if there is an incident, the police officers who show up are Mounties, rather than U.S. agents.  And, indeed, as far as that goes, what state is Vancouver in anyway?

And I wonder if the staff who work in the stores–like Starbucks or Tim Horton’s–in the departure area are, in fact, paying U.S. income tax.  In some ways, I think that there is a certain amount of fiction in the whole process.  The stores allow me to pay in U.S. dollars, but they always give the change in Canadian funds.  And, the stores themselves are typically Canadian, rather than U.S.A.nian–Tim Horton’s rather than Dunkin’ Donuts, for example.

I suppose it’s convenient for people traveling from Canada to the U.S. to be able to fly to almost anywhere in the U.S., because the arrival airport doesn’t have to deal with customs and immigration–but really, it seems so disrespectful of Canadian sovereignty.  Yet another example of “Big Brother” not acting neighborly, I suppose.

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Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver

May 28th, 2008

Jeremy and I spent a wonderful afternoon in Van Dusen garden.  This is a 55 acre garden [about 20 city blocks] in urban Vancouver–not downtown, a mostly residential area.  The garden was established in 1975, so it has had some time to mature.

At this time of year, one of the spectacles is the laburnum walk.  [It’s on the main page of the link above.]  This is a path with trees on both sides.  At this time of year, the trees are in bloom with graceful chains of golden blossoms–think wisteria, but yellow!  And in the beds below, there are bazillions of lupine [i.e. blue bonnets].  It’s just wonderful.

Also, this is rhododendr0n season.  Van Dusen has a whole “walk” of various rhodos.  They include some colors that I haven’t seen many other places–ORANGE! and yellow…and a wonderful white with a large purple splotch.  In addition, they have some rhododendron hybrids that are fragrant!  Oh my goodness…the scent reminds me most of a spicy melon–slightly vegetable, slightly spicy, slightly floral….it’s subtle, but definite.

We continued our stroll through the Fern Dell–it’s a great time of year for ferns…the weather hasn’t gotten too hot yet, and there has been plenty of rain.  Jeremy’s garden is quite shady, so he has lots of ferns, too.  He’s quite jealous of the fact that Van Dusen can manage to grow some of the ferns that are too finicky for his garden.

We wandered off to the far end of the garden.  It’s another of our favorite spots–the meadow.  The plantings there are all grasses and meadow wildflowers–but at this time of year, they’re just getting started.  I’ll be back in Vancouver in August, and by then, it should be spectacular.

We returned by way of the waterfall–for an artificial water feature, it’s remarkably realistic.  Both Jeremy and I commented on how much it reminded us of a waterfall that we had seen last year in Tasmania.  Van Dusen Garden has some really remarkable water features.  There are a number of lakes/ponds.  Last year, toward the end of the season, we saw a staff person in one of  the ponds up to their chest and “harvesting” the water lilies that were totally clogging the surface.

One of the other charming features is a floating bridge across one of the ponds, that heads from the bamboo grove toward the exit.  It’s a wonderful spot, and I’m glad that we’re members, so we can go for a while and see what’s happening.

On the website [above] let me recommend the “Bloom Calendar”, which gives some pictures of different corners of the garden at different times of year.

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Erdos Numbers–Nerd World meets “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”

May 23rd, 2008

Perhaps you remember a parlor game from a few years back, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”.  The game was to connect a chosen movie star to Kevin Bacon in six or fewer links from one actor to another, with the links being films in which the two actors appeared.  There is a version of this divertissement that is enjoyed among mathematicians.  In it, the role of Kevin Bacon is played by Paul Erdos.                                                 Paul Erdos was a Hungarian mathematician, whose dedication to mathematics was so strong that for much of his life he had no fixed home.  He traveled around the world, visiting universities for periods of time and working on mathematical discoveries with the resident faculty.  Over the course of his life, he published a large number of mathematical papers, most of them with joint authorship.  So, in the math nerd world version of “Six Degrees”, the link is provided by writing a joint mathematical paper–rather than appearing together in a movie.                                                                             In this scheme, Paul Erdos gets Erdos number 0.   His 511 co-authors get Erdos number 1.  Their co-authors get number 2 and so on. I wanted to describe all this, because I think that many people believe that math nerds are loners, who sit in our rooms doing calculations with big numbers.  In fact, mathematics is a social activity … mathematicians actually do love to get together and bat ideas around.  It’s  tends to be fairly low key–but there are any number of mathematical papers that got their starts as scribblings on bar napkins.                                                                                                                    Along those lines, there was a story when I was a graduate student that the American Mathematical Society had once had their annual convention in Las Vegas.  Afterward the story goes, the Society was invited not to come back again.  Even though there are about 5000 mathematicians who attend, there wasn’t much gambling [and they were surprised at that?!] and for recreation, the mathematicians sat around talking and drinking a beer or two.  Just not very profitable by Las Vegas standards.  I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the story, but it strikes me as only too true of the way that mathematicians behave.                                                                                                                                                                                                By the way, my Erdos number seems to be 4. 

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