Archive for November, 2008

"I killed a man in France"

November 30, 2008

The other day I blogged a bit about the differences between Wicked, the book, and Wicked, the musical, about how the play is somewhat…lighter than the book. Not that I’ve seen a whole lot of musicals based on books, especially complex and subtle books, but certainly that sort of dumbing-down isn’t unique to Wicked. My favorite example is from South Pacific. Yes, the play is one of the great classics of music theatre (and, in touch as I am with my inner Broadway-Loving Gay Man I still sometimes get songs from it lodged in my head1). But it lacks a certain gritty je ne sais quoi that pervaded James Michener’s book.

In both book and play, Emile de Becque fled France in his youth, having killed the town bully. From he play2:

EMILE. He could do anything… take anything. I did not like that, I was young. I stood up in the public square and made a speech. I called upon everyone to stand with me against this man.

NELLIE. What did they do?

EMILE. They walked away.


EMILE. Because they saw him standing behind me. I turned and he said to me “I am going to kill you now.” We fought. I was never so strong. I knocked him to the ground. And when he fell his head struck a stone and… [Shrug.]

And here’s the book:

“How did you kill him?” Nellie asked, surprised at her courage.

“With a knife,” Emile said, showing some satisfaction, even at that distance.

And I won’t even start with Lieutenant/Commander (book and play, respectively) Harbison’s attempted rape of Nellie…


1. Damn, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” is there now… Couldn’t it at least be “Bali Hai” or “Younger than Springtime?”

2. Quoted from the libretto that was moldering in a box in my attic, A relic of my high school play one year. I played Henry, Emile de Becaue’s Polynesian servant. I had six lines, in French, a language I did not speak. Since then my theatrical experience has been restricted to playing various woodwinds in orchestras.


Michael Crichton, RIP

November 27, 2008

[Belated, but better late than never…]

My fond memories of Michael Crichton, who died a few weeks ago, long predate his latter-day status as reactionary alarmist. As a lad I saw The Andromeda Strain when it was first on TV, and, being nerdly even then, I was captivated. The alien virus plot—hm, come to think of it, maybe he was a reactionary alarmist even then—was (especially to a nine-year-old) clever and thought-provoking; the five-level super-sterile top-secret government germ-fighting lab (with computer-controlled lasers!) was as nifty as the Enterprise (for which I of course had “blueprints”); the pseudo-factual quasi-documentary style was impressive. And best of all, the heroes were brainy science guys (and one gal), just like I wanted to be. I was hooked.

Crichton wasn’t exactly a great writer, but then, most bestsellers aren’t written by great writers, and his prose was certainly sturdy and serviceable. His great gifts included a rare ability to work meticulously through details and present them in a completely understandable way. His plot devices were often wildly imaginative, but always tethered to reality. Not only did Jurassic Park give you resurrected dinosaurs, it convinced you that resurrected dinosaurs were entirely possible, probably even inevitable. Even Crichton’s wilder plots and weaker books—I’m talking about Sphere here—had a certain weird plausibility to them, and were chock full of interesting ideas.

For Attention To Detail I don’t think one can beat The Great Train Robbery. I’ve just reread it (having decided to read something by Crichton in memoriam, and that being the first of his books to hand), and I enjoyed it as much as when I first read it thirty years ago. I’m not sure whether it’s a novel chock full of seamy Victoriana, or an essay about seamy Victoriana in novel form. I also don’t know how closely it follows the real robbery, but that hardly matters. The mechanics of the robbery, fiction or not, are fascinating, the criminal slang (doubtless dumbed down, insofar as it is accurate, or else it would be completely incomprehensible) is atmospheric, the discourses on criminals and prostitutes and London life in general wonderfully lurid.

And Crichton himself directed the movie of The Great Train Robbery. I haven’t seen that in years, but I remember liking it as much as I liked the book. How not, with Sean Connery at the height of his suavity as the master criminal, Donald Sutherland as his sidekick, and mind-blowingly gorgeous Lesley-Anne Down as his mistress? I’ve just talked myself into seeing it again; on the Netflix queue it goes.

Django Testing

November 27, 2008

Like many a geek, I’m a lazy bastard, so it’s only recently I’ve gotten around to writing unit tests for my tiny website (I at least have the excuse of doing this only for jollies; I’m no professional web developer). I had vaguely assumed that writing (and tests) would be more trouble than it’s worth, and that it would be difficult to test Really Important Stuff anyway. I had also vaguely assumed that those vague assumptions were almost certainly wrong, and I was a contemptible fool for not having written the tests up front.

It turns out, no surprise, that the latter vague assumption was correct. Python’s doctest and unittest frameworks are already relatively simple, and the django testing framework makes them simpler still (there’s a bit of annoying boilerplate to figure out in python’s raw unittest, which the django framework thoughtfully hides). The setup for test databases is especially nice.

[Mind you, in my first attempt I did somehow manage to blow away my local copy of my database—not just the test database, but the real one. I never did figure that one out…]

Embarrassingly, one of the first tests I wrote turned up a bug. Not to be wondered at, I suppose.

One note, on the very slim chance someone finds it useful. The django test framework looks for tests in each app’s model and test modules. At first I was annoyed by this: I like to put doctests in other places, as they really belong in the docstrings of the functions and classes they test. But—and you already know this if you’re a better python programmer than I—there’s a trivial way around this. The unittest and doctest modules already coexist awfully well. doctest.DocTestSuite creates a TestCase from a module’s doctests, and this can be amalgamated with unittests by defining a function called suite in the test module, which django will look for. That is, put something like this in or tests/

def suite():
    # An easy way of finding all the unittests in this module
    suite = unittest.TestLoader().loadTestsFromName(__name__)
    for mod in myapp.views, myapp.forms:
    return suite

A Lion Among Wicked Men

November 26, 2008

lion-among-men Zipping through the new books section of the library last week I came across Gregory Maguire’s A Lion Among Men, subtitled “Volume Three in the Wicked Years” (from which subtitle, new to the series—and from the fact that it introduces more threads than it seems likely to resolve—I conclude Maguire plans more Volumes in the Wicked Years). I’m now halfway through reading it aloud to the child. If you think the Wicked books are wholly inappropriate for reading aloud to one’s children, well, you’re right, but there it is.

As you’ve gathered from the title, the focus of the book is the Cowardly Lion, named Brrr, previously seen as a cub in Wicked. Brrr is (no surprise) not exactly a coward in the way of Burt Lahr, but more naive, dandified, and depressive. He comes by his sobriquet through his accidental involvement in the bloody suppression of a miners’ strike (emerald miners, that is), from which he acquires both fame and shame, as he only gradually realizes.

The story is framed by Brrr’s interview with Yackle, the mysterious crone and oracle from Wicked, on business is a Court Reporter for Emerald City magistrates, a position he seems not to have taken entirely voluntarily. She interrogates him more effectively than he interrogates her, and the bulk of the book is thus his life story, or parts of it. We also learn a little (to start with) more of her history. Meanwhile, the Clock of the Time Dragon lurks nearby…

I still haven’t figured out what I think of Maguire’s writing. I don’t mean whether it’s good—it’s very good—I mean whether I like his archly ironic juxtaposition of vaguely fantastical language with informal modern idiom, the dialogue that leaps from (intentionally) pompous fantasy-language to Victorian guttersnipe to street thug to modern American slang. Here’s the beginning of Brrr’s interview with Yackle:

It’s been a long time since I have seen Death this close up, he thought. This is Death refusing to die. She’s a centerfold for a mortuary quarterly.

“I was quite a looker in my time,” she said. Was she reading his mind, or only being smart, to know that she must be hideous?

“Oh had they invented time as long ago as that?”

“A comedian,” she observed. “I come back from the very gates of death to be interviewed by a vaudeville wannabe.”

“Let’s get started.” He flipped open his notebook. At the top of the page he wrote a note to himself: Interview One. Don’t Vomit.

And from Yackle:

“You want the three historic segments of my earthly life? I’ve lived through a good deal of these modern times, if you can call it living. I’d arrived, preaged and preshrunk, a crone at birth, just at the end of the Ozma regency, before Pastorius was deposed by the Wizard and the infant Ozma was secreted away, probably murdered…

“Following the Wizard’s abdication of the Throne, the brief and blameless twin interregnums—first of Lady Glinda, that bottle blonde, and the of the so-called Scarecrow, who came to power and left it again faster than a pile of autumn kindling responds to a winter torch.

Last year I (and the daughter) saw Wicked, The Musical (alas, in its touring incarnation, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel being long goine). It was, thought I, nothing like the book. The book was subtle, sad, disturbing, and deeply, deeply twisted, weird to the core. The play was none of those things. It was a musical about a green girl and her boyfriend, with (SPOILER ALERT!) a tacked-on happy ending. It only vaguely hinted at the intricate politics of Maguire’s Oz, at its complex societal structure, and above all at the otherworldly strangeness of it all. The characters themselves were (inevitably, in any transition from book to musical) flattened into caricatures: Glinda became a simple society airhead, Elphaba herself a bit of a wisecracker. The acrobatic flying monkeys were good, though, I’ll give it that.

A pretentious typographical note. Wicked (at least the edition I read) was set in  Truesdell, a reconstruction of a lost Frederic Goudy typeface, one of his more “hand-carved” designs. It’s a strange-looking font, that put me in mind of Grimm’s grim Fairy Tales, of kobolds and gremlins and dangerously mischievous faeries,  of ancient signs carved in walls of long-abandoned caves. It gave an already-strange book an even stranger affect. It may have been a bit much, but I liked it. I must be in the minority there, though, as the publishers changed the typeface for the sequels. Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men are set in Bembo. Now Bembo is a very fine typeface—one of my favorites—but it seems somehow earthbound after the creepy excess of Truesdell.

Election Day!

November 4, 2008

PolAt last, it’s almost over! I don’t expect the 2012 campaign to fire up until at least next January.

The polls were more crowded than I’ve ever seen them. Which is saying almost nothing; I probably had to stand in line for all of five minutes. That is one of the advantages of living in a small town. Despite the Small-Town Values that I must thus possess, I voted for Obama.

Is it more funny or sad that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will certainly have the most intelligent and insightful commentary of the evening?

Me In Concert

November 4, 2008

In case some early music fan in the greater Boston area happens to stumble on this in the next few days: the group I sing with is having concerts this weekend. The other singers are generally better than I am, so I expect it to go well—

Concordia Consort & Ars et Amici vocal ensemble
   “Sweet Harmony / Dolc’ Armonia”
Sacred & secular vocal & instrumental music from England & Italy
*  anthems by Gibbons, Tallis, Byrd
*  madrigals by Byrd, Morley, Verdelot, Arcadelt, Gabrieli
*  motets by Marenzio, Scarlatti, Palestrina
*  instrumental works by Dering, Tye, Byrd, Bertali, Gesualdo

Ars et Amici
        Eileen Cecilia Callahan & Beth Spaulding, sopranos
        Sheila Beardslee & Sue Delaney, altos
        Craig Thomas & Jody Wormhoudt, tenors
        Michael Lauer & John Nesby, basses
Concordia Consort   Sheila Beardslee, Christine Alderman, Janet Gibson,
        George Mastellone & Brian Warnock, recorders
Two performances:

Friday, November 7 at 8:15 PM
    Trinity Episcopal Church, 81 Elm Street, Concord
    $15 suggested donation; $10 students, seniors & R/EMM members
    Info:  978/264-0584  or
Sunday, November 9 at 4 PM
    Wakefield Town Hall Opera House, 2 High Street in Sanbornville NH
    $15 suggested donation; $10 students, seniors
        Proceeds benefit ongoing Opera House restoration
    Info:  603/522-0126 or 603/522-6349

We had to destroy the village in order to save it

November 2, 2008

Jeff Jacoby opines in today’s Boston Globe that a vote against Massachusetts’ Question 1—the ballot question to eliminate the state income tax—is a vote in favor of Dianne Wilkerson continuing to stuff her bra with cash. Or something like that.

Now Jacoby’s job as the Globe‘s token conservative op-ed guy is to say crazy-ass things like this. He is at least entertainingly provocative, and sometimes he’s even right (well, half-right). But this seems a little over the top even for him. Previously he (et al.) had argued, in what I now realize was a fit of comparative reason, that we should vote yes on 1 to Send A Message To Those Bastards on Beacon Hill. Now he seems to have come to the conclusion that the best way to get a hornets’ nest out of your attic is to burn your house down. At least, that’s all I can discern of his “logic” today. I should think that ballot questions about taxes are a rather less effective way to fight political corruption than, for example, arresting corrupt politicians. And they’ve already done that.

BTW: that Ballotpedia site I linked to above looks pretty nifty. Check it out!

In which I finally learn what’s in a TrueType font

November 1, 2008

LMNOP Last week someone posted an interestingly bizarre problem in the LilyPond newsgroup: using Times New Roman on Vista, the letter N becomes “Ị.” Go figure. Debugging that seemed like a fun puzzle, so I looked into it a bit, and concluded that there was a bug in the font. Someone who knows more than I do diagnosed it more completely: it turns out that the ‘post’ table assigns the name ‘N’ to three different characters, confusing LilyPond (or pango, or freetype, or whatever). Microsoft already knows that, but have no plans to do anything, presumably because Microsoft software doesn’t use the post table, and Microsoft doesn’t care about any stinkin’ software other than their own.

For reasons that escape me, this was enough to inspire me to learn what’s inside a TrueType font. The format is, not surprisingly, both simple and and Byzantine. I’ve cobbled together a python program to fix the problem with MS’s TNR. In case anyone is curious, it’s below the fold. For heaven’s sake don’t assume it won’t ruin anything you run through it.