Thursday, December 31, 2009


Fritz, Will and 22 wonderful guys who are celebrating New Year's with us, wish you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2010!

Thursday, December 24, 2009


In just a little over an hour it will be Christmas. We had a good day here preparing. We shopped for food for our own quiet celebration of the day (a roast capon and a pie I'm going to make), and for the arrival of what little of my family is left on Sunday (roast turkey and all the subsidiary delights).

I spent much of the afternoon making mincemeat from an English recipe. No meat in this one, although apparently mincemeat originally contained it. This one is based on a purée of plums simmered in orange juice, into which is mixed raisins, currants, sultanas, cubed apples, zest from the orange skins, ground cloves, ginger and nutmeg, demerara sugar and some brandy. I'm using cognac because I have cognac and, not so incidentially, because I like cognac. It looks and smells very good indeed, currently resting overnight in a big bowl while all the various flavors get acquainted. Tomorrow morning it gets baked into a pie shell as the desert for our Christmas dinner.

A very Happy Christmas to all of you who read DesignerBlog, a thank you to those of you who leave comments, and best wishes for a great 2010!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I found this on a blog and from the date of the posting (which I realize is not necessarily the date of the event), this hack at MIT must have taken place some time in mid-September. Urban Prankster identifies the musical quote as the first seven notes of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Although not recently, I've written about the famous MIT student hacks previously. They are regulated by a shopping list of self-imposed safety and courtesy rules to insure that they remain a beloved and never harmful part of the Institute's life. They all involve considerable planning, timing, engineering skill and personal dexterity in order to install them on one or the other of the "great domes" in the heart of the campus, in one night and by transporting all the materials through a working library that exists in the dome.

The hack above seems to have required a considerable amount of structure to support the enormous musical banner because this is the actual shape of the dome,

seen here with a previous hack, a replica perfect in every detail of an Apollo 11 Moon lander, in place and awaiting discovery in the morning by MIT, Boston and Cambridge.
They must have built a wall of supports around the drum on which the dome sits. A quick search on the web for the dimensions of the great dome gives the circumference of the lower drum as 122.5 meters, which translates into 134 yards or just over 400 feet! So the students first had to assemble a support structure 400 feet long around the inner drum and then hang a 400 foot piece of cloth from it. It's an amazing accomplishment.


Jesus-era home found in Nazareth
BBC News

Archaeologists in Israel say they have uncovered the remains of the first dwelling in Nazareth believed to date back to the time of Jesus Christ.

The discovery sheds light on how people lived 2,000 years ago, when Christians believe Jesus was growing up there, Israel's Antiquities Authority said. A spokeswoman said Jesus and his childhood friends likely knew the home. It was found near the place where angel Gabriel is believed to have told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.

The archaeologists found the remains of a wall, a hideout, and a cistern for collecting rain water. "The building that we found is small and modest and it is most likely typical of the dwellings in Nazareth in that period," said Yardenna Alexandre of the Antiquities Authority, who directed the dig.

She said the 1st Century home, near the present-day Church of the Annunciation, is believed to have housed a "simple Jewish family" in two rooms and courtyard. She described Nazareth, now Israel's largest Arab city with a population of 65,000 people, as a "small hamlet" during the time of Jesus.

The discovery was made when builders dug up the courtyard of a former convent to make room for a new Christian centre. The dwelling will now become a part of the new centre, which is being built by the French Roman Catholic group, Chemin Neuf.

Just in time for Christmas, which is nice, and fortunately nobody got hysterical and claimed that this IS the house that Jesus grew up in. Back in the fourth century, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, went on a grand tour of the holy land. Anything she found that vaguely resembled something mentioned in the New Testament was instantly declared to be that thing.

Helena (right) returned home to Constantinople (which her son had modestly named for himself) with crates full of sacred objects. Among them were the nails from the crucifixion, the cross itself, the virgin Mary's mantle, Jesus' tunic and a length of rope used to tie him up, as well as identification of the exact sites of the birth, death and burial of Jesus. In the Sinai desert, she found the burning bush of Moses. The fact that it was three and a half centuries and two destructions of Jerusalem after any of these events (and well over a thousand years after the time of Moses) didn't cause her a single moment's hesitation or doubt.

Over the centuries, the Popes used to give fragments of the wood from the True Cross, as it became known, to various cardinals, bishops and Catholic royalty as rewards for great works done or encouragement for great works desired. One wag eventually estimated that if all the pieces of the True Cross in existence were gathered together in one place, there'd be enough wood to build a nicely proportioned country house.

Helena's spectacular finds are probably what set off the mania for relics in the Catholic church. When I was a kid in Catholic school, there were frequent visits from priests or nuns or who would bring relics of saints for us to be impressed by, things like a sliver of Saint X's thigh bone or a scrap of the dress that Saint Y died in. I fairly quickly developed a mental picture of the saintly one dying and lots of people crowding around the bed, holding scissors behind their backs. Just waiting.


Winter sunset seen from the house on Monday. We've had a couple of days of wonderful weather between snow storms, the next one of which is supposed to hit on Saturday--when two cars full of my family are supposed to be arriving from central New Jersey and just north of Pittsburgh, PA.

Fritz's sister visited from Cambridge, MA last weekend and brought us a spike of brussels sprouts which she knows we love, with a few red bows added to make it a kitchen Christmas tree.

Now that we have a divided Christmas tree, the outside half, which is about five feet away from the bird feeder, has become a favorite place for the birds to eat what they've taken or to wait for their turn to get more. We frequently have a couple of them perched in and among the ornaments only inches from the glass. It's considerably better than television.

The seed feeder is now visited regularly by nuthatches, titmice, chickadees and goldfinches. We're hoping that the cardinals Fritz always had down the hill by his old house manage to find their way up to us this winter.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Give me a Ring some time and we'll talk

Our little flock of wild turkeys paid us a visit the other day as tree trimming was in progress. I happened to look out and there they were, moving as is their custom, very gracefully with a kind of stately stroll from the shed, just out of the picture on the left, to our little parking area, off right, and a large, flat-topped rock on which we sometimes put out a little grain. There were seven of them but one was a straggler who appeared only after these six had moved on.

Benjamin Franklin supported the wild turkey as the symbol of the fledgling United States instead of the eagle which he felt was a ruthless and violent bird. The turkey, native to the New World, impressed him as peaceable, noble and dignified, a more appropriate symbol. A widely read man, Franklin was surely aware that the eagle had been adopted as the symbol of every rapacious European empire from Rome to Austria (and would remain the favored symbol for at least three more European empires to come in the centuries after his death) and he wanted nothing to do with imperial symbols.

But Franklin lost on this issue and the American Eagle became our symbol. If I can shape it the way I'd like, I'm going to write about the eagle as symbol and the universal influence of the Roman Empire in a future post.


I got a Christmas card from some close friends this week with an illustration and text by artist David Price. Price works in a dizzying variety of styles but the card comes from his illustration/comics persona and is titled A Boston Christmas. Here is the text, adapted from The Twelve Days of Christmas:

Twelve Historians Hiccupping
Eleven Patriots Running
Ten Freedom Trail Followers
Nine Brahmins Boasting
Eight Students Studying
Seven Swan Boats Swimming
Six Marathoners Sweating
Five Leaping Celtics
Four Lecturing Professors
Three Baked Beans
Two Rowing Boats
and A Pigeon in an Ivy-Covered Tree


From BBC Newsbeat:

An 18-year-old has secretly painted a 60ft drawing of a phallus on the roof of his parents' £1million mansion in Berkshire. It was there for a year before his parents found out. They say he'll have to scrub it off when he gets back from traveling.


For any opera company that strives to be a forceful presence in a major urban setting, the idea of producing the four operas of Wagners Ring of the Nibleung eventually becomes something that must be pursued. Producing the Ring, with its major role for the orchestra as a character in the drama; it's technical challenges (two dragons, one small, one big; a man who morphs first into a frog, then into the small dragon; a bridge of rainbow mist over which the cast walks; a ring of magic fire that surrounds a sleeping goddess; water nymphs cavorting at the bottom of a river; the forging of a sword from many shattered pieces by a tenor (a tenor!) in precise time to the music as the tenor (a TENOR!) acts as percussionist while singing; and finally the burning and collapse of the final set, followed by the destruction of the world in fire and water--this is an enormous challenge.

That challenge is made even greater by the fact that composer Richard Wagner was a genius at nature painting, character delineation, mood painting and use of the fully developed Romantic period orchestra to describe cataclysms and other overwhelming events in music. The vivid detail Wagner conveys in sound is dreadfully demanding for any director and design team to achieve visually without looking puny and irrelevant. To top it all off, the Ring Cycle is brutally expensive to produce and the lead roles are extremely difficult to cast.

The L.A. Opera has wanted to break into the big time for a couple of decades under the directorship of the protean Placido Domingo who manages it in addition to managing the Washington D.C. opera AND maintaining an astonishing Indian summer of a singing career at age 68. The original idea, and an inspired one, was to collaborate with Industrial Light and Magic on all the magical effects and the elaborate scenic transitions called for in Wagner's four operas that must happen to precisely timed musical interludes.

The first opera of the four, Das Rheingold, is written in one act with three major shifts: from the depths of the Rhein River, where a primordial lump of gold is snatched from its aquatic guardians to begin the cycle of greed, fratricide, betrayal and final redemption, to the mountain top home of the gods; from the mountain top to caverns in the depths of the earth where a race of dwarf slaves works in perpetuity to forge treasure for their master who seized the gold; and from the caverns back to the mountain top where the newly completed fortress/palace Valhalla has been constructed for the gods who enter it over the rainbow bridge.

Unfortunately, the deal with Industrial Light and Magic fell through for whatever reasons, and the L.A. Opera didn't have the resources at the time to do it's own production. Placido eventually managed to find a director and a viable concept to do the Ring at the Washington Opera. This is the so-called "American Ring" based on American imagery and iconic symbols, telling the mythic story with Francesca Zambello as director and Domingo taking one of the leading roles. The production has won extensive praise but has developed more slowly than hoped as money became tight in the current economic crisis. Gotterdammerung, the fourth and perhaps most demanding of the four operas was premiered in a semi-staged concert performance--its scenery and direction will catch up with it in sometime in the future.

In L.A., the visionary German director/designer Achim Freyer, who studied and worked with Berthold Brecht finally began a Ring production based strongly on Brechtian alienation technique, freeing the Ring from just about every visual cliché that has grown up around it over the 135 years since its premiere under the composer's own supervision and direction. For reasons that will probably be obvious from scrolling through these production pictures, Freyer's vision has been dubbed "The Star Wars Ring" in some circles.

Inevitably, however, the controversial production has taken a toll on the company whose financial watchdogs, along with the creative team itself, did not realize in time just how much Freyer's developing vision would actually cost.

Los Angeles Opera Is in Deep Debt Because of ‘Ring’ Cycle

The Los Angeles Opera’s $32 million “Ring” cycle has helped push the company to the brink of financial disaster, forcing it to borrow $14 million from the county, The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday. Stephen Rountree, the chief executive of both the opera and its home, the Music Center at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, said the loan would be repaid with some of $30 million in emergency pledges by opera trustees as the money comes in. Right now, he told The Los Angeles Times, the company is $20 million debt and the money is needed “literally next week.” The company’s creative team did not “fully appreciate that they needed to put out $20 million of the $32 million for the ‘Ring’ cycle two years in advance,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. The loan from the county came in the form of a bond issue, which was approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Interestingly, local government came to the company's aid, something that didn't happen when the New York City Opera nearly went under due to it's abandonment by a newly appointed general director after he had run up millions in expenses in planning his new regime, and subsequent mismanagement by the Board of Directors in the wake of his departure.

Should cities, states and/or the U.S. government get involved in funding the arts? In Washington, consevative lawmakers have reduced the National Endowment for the Arts to a shadow of its former self in outrage that art should ever be controversial, deal in subjects involving sexuality, or make political statements--particularly political protest or criticism of the established order.

In Europe, the exact opposite philosophy has prevailed, with major theaters, symphonies, opera houses and other art institutions receiving generous subsidies within a culture that realizes the powerful and essential place of the arts in a nation's life. Recently these subsidies have been reduced due to economic necessity (Germany, legendary for the level of its arts support, nearly went under financially after taking on the disastrously mis-managed East Germany following the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall). In the new economic reality, European arts companies have learned to combine lowered levels of state support with ties to industrial giants that have discretionary funds to bestow from their vast profits.

In the U.S., arts organizations can depend on some limited industrial contributions along with a pittance, if anything at all, from the government. The vast majority of the money comes from public donations, with special emphasis on what the members of a company's Board can contribute. While thus freed from the dead hand of the Washington politicians who want art to be pleasant, decorative, establishment-affirming, completely de-sexed and politically irrelevant, this situation means that our arts are extremely vulnerable to shifts in the economy at any given time. We've lost a huge number of theater, dance, and opera companies, symphony orchestras and other arts organizations during the current crisis. It will be many years before the damage can be repaired, if it even can be repaired, in many communities.

But some city and town governments have begun to understand that a healthy arts scene actually benefits the local economy. Boston's Mayor Tom Menino spoke several years ago in support of an arts center rather than a sports megaplex for the city, making the memorable statement that sports fans come into town, pay for parking and seven beers and then go home, whereas arts patrons come in for a weekend, take hotel rooms, eat at restaurants, visit a couple of museums and do some shopping during the day, pumping a lot of their disposable income into the city in various important ways.

L.A.'s city officials seem to have realized something similar--Ring of the Nibelung productions are major draws for opera lovers from all over the world. Overheard conversations among what one might call "Ringheads" at intermission frequently run like this:
--Are you going to the Seattle Ring?
--Yes, then Berlin and I've also got tickets to the D.C. Ring--it's better cast than the Bayreuth Festival--you?
--Seattle AND Chicago, and I'm also going to New York for the last year of the MET's old-fashioned production--probably our last chance to see a tree on stage that actually looks like a tree!"

Ring photos by Monika Rittershaus, photographer, and the Los Angeles Opera

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree!

Fritz and I got the Christmas tree up and decorated over the past two days. He'd had an idea germinating for quite some time about how to use an unusual tree on the property.

Beautifully shaped, it had developed from the stump of a tree he'd cut ten or twelve years earlier.

Four thick new trunks and three thin ones had sprung from the sides of the old stump. Surprisingly they all somehow managed to coordinate into a very symmetrical shape. His plan was to cut the stump in half, take the two resulting half trees and put one outside and one inside a house that had a big wall of windows, decorate both halves, and give the illusion that the tree had grown through the wall. The problem was, he lived in a 1792 house, built when window walls weren't even a gleam in some architect's eye.

Then I built a house with a window wall and he thought this would be the year to do it before the tree got any taller. The peak of the great room is 14'-6" above the floor.

The ground level of the planter in front of the house is almost exactly the same level as the floor inside, so the tree halves would line up almost exactly as they had when it was growing.

We began by cutting the stump down the middle or as close to the middle as possible. As things worked out, the first half we cut down had a little more than half of the bulk of the tree and topped off a little higher than the remainder.

So, that "half" became the outdoor section of the tree and the remainder, above, was to be for inside the house.

Although it's pine rather than a hardwood, this tree was very heavy and awkward to move. It came up the hill on the roof of the Jeep and we maneuvered it into position to raise. At this point I realized we were going to have trouble getting it upright with only one of us able to hold it in place while the other secured it to the facade of the house. So I installed a pulley in the center of the window. Fritz pulled and kept tension on the line, while I walked the tree up. As soon as it was upright we tied the rope off , securing it temporarily.

Then I got up on our long ladder and secured the trunks with wire to deck screws set into the top of the big horizontal beam where nobody will ever see them.

The view from inside the house.

Once we'd gotten the exterior section installed, we went down to our local Surplus and salvage store where we'd seen ornament packages on sale cheap--shatterproof plastic balls in either red and gold or red and silver in a variety of sizes, 84 to a package. We got one of each and decorated the outside.

We passed the inside half through one of the room's side windows, secured it and did a little cosmetic tree surgery. Then we hung our ornaments, ornaments each of us has had for years, passed down through our families, as well as ornaments that have been given to us or that we've made ourselves.

We checked the effect inside and outside and it works wonderfully well. We're going to have lots of friends and family members with us over Christmas and New Years and are hoping they'll have as much fun with it as we are.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The crescent moon through the trees outside our front windows. There's snow on the ground and coating the trees now, and at night even a quarter moon makes everything luminous. We've got almost all our Christmas shopping done, and we know what we want to get for any gifts remaining to be bought.

We're having my side of the family here this year. Except for my younger daughter and her boyfriend, none of them has seen the house completed--in fact the last time they were here it was a cold, empty shell with six months of construction still to go. My elder daughter, son in law and granddaughter will not be coming east from Oregon this year, what with the new baby and search for a house to buy. But we'll be ten of us all together on the 26th and 27th and I think we'll have a very good time.

There's a very eccentric Christmas tree on the property. Fritz has been growing his own for long before I came into his life; this one has grown out of the stump left after he cut the original tree for a Christmas many years ago. We've had our eye on it for years, with the thought to doing something extremely unconventional with it. It will be something of an engineering feat, but if we can pull it off it will be sensational. A challenge is something I rise to like a wolf to red meat. I'm not sure when we'll cut it down, bring it up here to the house and start the process but it will be fully documented here.

A heavy frost on the edge of the "cliff" just behind the house. The cement blocks of the first of the three vegetable garden terraces are visible at the very top of the frame.

Most evenings Starr settles down somewhere on Fritz's legs. Usually he has them stretched out on a footstool and she gets herself comfortable securely in the crack between his legs and goes to sleep. This night he was reading on the couch. A pile of Robert Sabuda's magnificently paper-engineered pop up books is on the coffee table in the background.

Do check out Sabuda's work if you don't know it. A gay artist who works out of a studio in Brooklyn, New York, his work is dazzling and makes excellent gifts. I'll post some examples soon.

The largest and prettiest of our several woodpeckers, affectionately nicknamed Big Red, at the suet block.

With the coming of winter, I've been doing more indoor projects. For a while we've needed some more CD/DVD/video tape storage. I wanted something that wasn't a conventional rack, something more architectural and interesting, to flank one of the the corner hutches in the great room. Here's the first one--I start the second today. They're made of red oak scrap left over from the construction of the staircase to the second floor and the bookshelves set into the wall next to them.

Speaking of furniture, here's a lovely tribute to the original bent wood chair design written by Gavin Plumley.

150 years ago, Michael Thonet perfected Konsumstuhl Nr.14. Having begun in the 1830s by bending a gluing wood to make functional yet beautiful furtniture, the Gebrüder Thonet makers perfected this unique design. The chair was made in huge numbers (over 50 million replicas) and filled the kaffeehausen of Thonet's native Vienna. In addition to its streamline beauty, the distribution of the chair was equally ingenious. 36 disassembled chairs including their screws could be packed in a single box (with a volume of one cubic meter) and then shipped across the world. They were assembled on arrival. Thonet is considered a pioneer of industrial design and the chair no. 14 - today 214 - the most successful industrial product in the world: it established the starting point for the history of modern furniture.

Gavin's a young English musicologist who specializes in symphony music, art song and opera of the early twentieth century centered in Vienna. As much of what I've been listening to and buying for the last decade or so comes out of that same time and place, we've been corresponding happily via our blogs for a couple of years.

Gavin's blog is titled Entartete Musik, the Nazi term "degenerate music," which they banned and whose composers they did their best to destroy. But Gavin's interests extend to the art, architecture, cuisine and café life that surrounded and interacted with the great music of the period. last weekend at the Metropolitan Opera, I was delighted to find that the major program note for Janacek's opera From the House of the Dead, adapted from Dostoevsky's novel, was by Gavin.

This is inspired lunacy. I have no idea how stable it is, and I bet the aerodynamics are truly bizarre. But what a delightfully over the top thing this is!

This speaks for itself!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Opera Boston, the adventurous, intelligently run and visionary company that has become Boston's premiere opera company in a surprisingly short period of time, sent this notice out to many of us today:

Dear Friends,

I am very happy to share with you the news that in their December 2009 issue, ARTFORUM, one of the premier magazines devoted to the visual arts, voted our production of Shostakovich’s The Nose one of their top ten musical events of 2009!

We are all honored to keep such august and glamorous company as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ojai Music Festival, and the Wooster Group.

Here's the entry on ARTFORUM's site:

9. Dmitri Shostakovich, The Nose, performed by Opera Boston (Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston) For those who missed the taut, acerbic New England premiere of this speak-truth-to-power production—an “anarchist grenade”—you can catch a version this season at the Met.

I've got a ticket to a performance of the MET's new production this coming spring. They've got a lot more resources than Opera Boston and they've engaged Paolo Szot, the sexy, rich-voiced Argentinian baritone who took a short hiatus from his opera career to star in the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific in New York, picking up a Tony award for Leading Man in a Musical in the process. They may well mount a tremendous production, but OB put on a show that could have played New York with pride and won it's own awards in the process.


Oh, and here's the handsome--and out--Mr. Szot, whose nose will desert his face and assume a life of it's own, running around St. Petersburg in the sharp, witty and anarcic opera that Dimitri Shostakovich made of Nikolai Gogol's typically outrageous satire on Czarist Russian society.


With a big tip of the hat to Geoff at Life and Times of a Gay Guy:

Top Ten Anagrams for "Defense of Marriage Act"

10. Free! Free! Satanic dogma!
9. America's negated offer
8. Fanatics referee dogma
7. Fear of Satanic emerged
6. Farce of a disagreement
5. I fear act of same-gender
4. Deceit of free anagrams
3. A farce of it: same-gender
2. A. Gore fancies mate Fred

And the number one anagram for "Defense of Marriage Act":
1. Fear decrease of mating

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