Bull Sheet

The demise of the brick-and-mortar sheet music store is one of the lesser-known but keenly felt tragedies of the late 20th century. Perhaps not quite on the scale of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, but the degradation in quality of life is nonetheless palpable, to those who are paying attention.

Once upon a time, you could walk into a great big barnlike sheet music store (Byron Hoyt in San Francisco, for instance), paw through rack upon rack, and find whatever you needed, be it ever so obscure. But finding it wasn’t even half the point. With popular works, you could compare half a dozen different editions and choose one that you liked.

Today this material — a huge slug of our cultural history — is available only online. And the people who prepare online catalogs of sheet music have neither the time, the expert knowledge, nor the motivation to provide the kind of information prospective buyers need.

Tonight I went searching for an edition of the Brahms B Major Trio, Op. 8, revised edition. I found a Dover edition of the complete Brahms trios on Amazon, with both the original and revised versions of Op. 8. It said that on the cover, that’s how I knew. But nowhere on the Amazon Web page, nor in either of the customer reviews, could I find any mention of whether the edition was strictly a piano score or whether it included the violin and cello parts.

That’s a stark example, and it’s the norm, not the exception. Amazon has a product in stock, and I’d like to buy it from them, but I can’t, because they don’t give me enough information. The reason they don’t is because they don’t give a damn about classical sheet music. It’s not a big enough or profitable enough market for them. They want to sell me a Kindle (suuure…).

Even if they ponied up the essential information, though, shopping at Amazon would be nothing like shopping at Byron Hoyt in its heyday. On Amazon I can’t leaf through the music, decide if the print is large enough to be readable, decide if I like the editor’s markings, and also (with an unfamiliar piece) decide if it’s technically within my grasp.

I buy a fair amount of cello sheet music from cellos2go.com. It’s a great site for cellists, and Ellen Gunst, who is a cellist herself, recommends products (books, cases, whatever) that she feels are superior. But most of her sheet music listings have almost no information, just a scan of the cover, the composer, author, or editor’s name, and the price. With five books of scales and arpeggios to choose from, how do you know what to buy? Answer: It’s a crap shoot.

And here’s a sonata by L. Auerbach for cello and piano. It’s $69.95. I’ve never heard of Auerbach. Am I going to pay that kind of price without looking at the music? Of course not.

The good news is, by searching the Web I was able to find a downloadable PDF of the trio, complete with the violin and cello parts. It was scanned from an 1891 Simrock edition, and while the edition was in mint condition and the scan carefully done, the PDF is kinda gray and fuzzy. But that’s okay. I’ve got the music, and it cost me nothing except the printer paper and ink.

What I don’t have, online, is the ability to browse through music that I don’t know. And that’s a real loss.


For a long time I’ve wondered why people go in for tattoos. I mean, what if you change your mind?

The charitable interpretation is that these folks are celebrating the fact that all of the decisions in your life are real and permanent. There are no do-overs. But somehow I can’t convince myself that their thinking is that sophisticated.

This morning I saw a wacky little ad on Facebook — something about tattooing your Facebook home page because it’s naked. And the lightbulb went on. That’s why people get tattoos! They’re scared of being naked.

Our culture places a huge emphasis on outside things as markers of identity. All human cultures do. When you’re naked, you can’t define yourself in terms of your job, car, shelf of bowling trophies, or whatever. Okay, you’ve still got your haircut, but that’s it. In the absence of outside markers, we suffer a loss of identity — a loss of self. We don’t know who we are, apart from those things. Indeed, most of us probably have a lurking suspicion that we’re not anybody. Or at least, not the person that we’d like to be.

So a tattoo is an admission to the world that on some inner level you’re afraid of being overwhelmed by loss of self — of being revealed as nothing, as nobody. Thanks to the tattoo(s), though, even when you’re naked you’re still wearing the Nike swoosh or the Raiders eyepatch or whatever marker helps you construct your identity. Not saying anybody actually gets a Nike swoosh tat, that would be lame. But how is that barbed wire around your ankle really any different?

Handy Andy

Starting to think about expanding my Inform 7 Handbook. I’ve gotten a number of nice compliments on it, so I know people are finding it useful. If I’m able to put together an IF class this fall, having an even heftier textbook would be a good thing. (I could even print out spiral-bound copies and sell them.)

Jeff Nyman has just uploaded a PDF on how Inform assembles the text in a room description, and I’m thinking, “Oh, I should probably do something like that for every chapter in my handbook.”

Also, I’ve started doing a survey of the types of puzzles in IF. This material should be equally useful for authors and players (including me, which is one of the reasons I’m doing it — I’m lousy at solving puzzles). The Handbook could use a whole chapter on puzzles, I think, complete with spoiler examples from existing games and probably a few coding tips too.

To create a well-rounded survey, I’m not just relying on stuff I know already. I’ve played part or all of half a dozen more games so far, and I’ve just barely started. Varicella is brilliant — and impossible. I had to use the walkthrough. Lots of other interesting games too. I went through All Hope Abandon by Eric Eve and found it modestly enjoyable, with a few good puzzles. Eric is a New Testament scholar, so his depiction of Hell is perhaps more liberally interwoven with theology than I’m equipped to appreciate, but that’s one of the fun things about writing IF: You get to pull in bits of this and that based on whatever fascinates you.

Not that I’m planning to write a game about cello playing, though. That would be a bit too esoteric.

Caution and Paralysis

I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach a couple of classes — one in interactive fiction, another in computer-based music-making. I’m sure there would be enough interest to fill a couple of small classes (say, 8 to 10 students each) if the price were kept reasonable. The difficulty is figuring out where to hold the classes.

I have several options, all of them problematical.

If I had no more than half a dozen students, I could easily teach a class out of my home. The sticking point is liability insurance. Insurance is a peculiarly post-World War II issue. Seventy-five years ago, during the depths of the Great Depression, anybody who had the expert knowledge to teach a course in their dining room would certainly have done so if they needed the money. They would never have considered that they needed liability insurance. Homeowner’s insurance didn’t exist at all in the 1930s.

What has changed?

Society is less homogenous than it was 75 years ago. Because of increased physical mobility and the concomitant weakening of the bonds of community, you’re more likely to run into people who have no reason not to cause trouble if they see an advantage in it. So the risk of inviting strangers into your home is undoubtedly a bit higher. And my impression (not researched) is that there’s more litigation per capita than formerly, which means the probability of your getting sued is higher.

The intrusiveness of government regulation also plays a role. Seventy-five years ago, auto insurance wasn’t mandatory. (Massachusetts was the first state to make it mandatory, in 1927; other states followed suit by the 1940s.) Health insurance was, I’m sure, a rarity in those days. In effect, then, we’ve been softened up by the insurance industry, which has fostered an environment of pervasive low-level fear. Unless we have coverage, we’re paralyzed.

I’ve looked around for other venues where I might teach. The local library has rooms available, but they won’t let me charge students a fee; I’d have to teach for free, as a volunteer. (Gee, I wonder what bean-brained bureaucrat thought that one up. Let’s see — we’ll deprive our clientele of high-quality content by structuring the use of the facility so that people who really know their subject matter and are not already wealthy will have to go elsewhere.)

There are empty buildings downtown, no more than a few blocks from here, but … well, I’m betting whoever owns the building would have issues with liability insurance. If I were a church-goer, I could approach my church about using one of their meeting rooms. But alas, I’m not. I’m almost hypocritical enough to join a church (probably the Unitarians) purely to have access to their facilities, but I like going to the gym on Sunday mornings. Exercise is a high priority for me.

Maybe I’ll buy a great big tent and put it out in the back yard. That way at least I won’t have hordes of students invading my home. Except that they’ll need to use the bathroom, and — no, wait. I don’t have a back yard, so that’s out.

Guess I’ll have to come up with some other creative approach.


Glanced at a news story tonight. It appears the head coach of the Oakland Raiders (a football team) is suspected of having broken the jaw of one of his assistant coaches.

This is hilarious, on at least two levels.

First, the assistant coach was flat on his back in the hospital with a broken jaw but declined to tell the police what had happened, and didn’t want to press charges. Just how warped would your value system have to be for you to zip your lip after your boss broke your jaw and threatened to kill you?

Second … is anybody really surprised by this kind of incident? Football is all about beefy guys bashing one another until bones break. The coach wasn’t doing anything he doesn’t urge his players to do on a daily basis.

I have two diametrically opposed suggestions.

One would be to outlaw football altogether. It’s clearly a subhuman form of entertainment. Anybody who likes football … I don’t even want to know why you like it. Just go away.

The other would be to stop being ashamed of the violent ethos of football. Embrace it. What we should do is get rid of the referees, the rules, and the protective gear. No helmets, no padding. Send these guys out on a field, let them beat one another to a pulp and rip one another’s faces off, and sell tickets. Why pussyfoot around? That’s what the fans are paying for anyway, let’s give ’em what they want!

No more hypocrisy. If a football coach wants to beat the crap out of his assistant, I say let him. The assistant knew exactly what he was letting himself in for when he took the job, and he proved it by refusing to talk to the police. Why waste taxpayer dollars investigating the crime?

Reading: The Thin Man

Having absorbed a few recently published mystery novels, I thought it would be fun and possibly instructive to compare and contrast them with one of the old masters. So I pulled out my copy of Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man. I have no memory of ever having read it; quite likely I picked it up on a book-buying binge. I mean, how can you be a mystery fan if you don’t own Hammett? That would be like being a Christian and not owning a Bible.

The plot is full of twists and turns. The reader gets smacked in the face with a couple of tuna-sized red herrings, but even the parts that do relate to the central thread are nicely tangled.

Just as interesting, the book is pretty much all plot. The trend in recent years has been strongly toward mysteries that include lots of schtick — the sleuth’s family life, details of horse racing or life in a Medieval monastery, whatever. Hammett has a deft touch with schtick, but he tosses in a line or two and then gets on with the story. Asta puts her paws up on Nick’s chest. Nick pours himself another drink. That’s about as deep as it gets, except for one wonderful facet of the book: It’s clear that Nick and Nora love and trust one another. He can come out of a female suspect’s bedroom with lipstick on his mouth, and Nora doesn’t feel a need to say anything. Not only does she not say anything, she doesn’t even react. It’s not important to her because she knows perfectly well that Nick is not fooling around.

Not only does she know it perfectly well, Hammett feels no need to rub our faces in the fact that she knows it. Given the same incident, the average modern mystery writer would feel compelled to riff on the subject of marital trust for at least two long, utterly tedious paragraphs. Hammett just lets us glimpse their marriage in action and then goes back to spinning out the plot.

After reading several mysteries that dwell lovingly on the details of cuisine, I was especially delighted by one particular sentence in The Thin Man. Can’t find it at the moment, but somebody or other is visiting Nick and Nora’s hotel suite at meal time, and room service has set up a table in the suite. The sentence is, “He put a forkful of food in his mouth.” That’s the entire description of the dining experience — bam. I loved that sentence. Hemingway couldn’t have done it any better.

Healthy Choice

I haven’t been watching the health care shenanigans on Capitol Hill (and around the country) with any assiduity. It’s too depressing. Also, I don’t own a TV, which is a nice way of filtering out the noise.

Personally, I’m strongly in favor of a single-payer Canadian or European plan. But I have reluctantly concluded that what is belched forth by Congress as a result of all this hoo-ha is likely to be no better than what we have now, and very possibly worse.

Our ostensible leaders do not know how to lead, or are blocked when they try. The system is broke, and Washington ain’t gonna be able to fix it, because Washington is what’s broke.

My prescriptions for how things ought to be are diametrically opposed to the prescriptions offered up by “conservative” knuckle-draggers, but my observations of the deficiencies of the present system may be similar to theirs. We all feel a profound sense of frustration.

Here in California, the busy bureaucrats in Sacramento are powerless to balance the budget, so they’re slicing the educational system to ribbons. Never mind that producing an entire generation of poorly educated or uneducated citizens will eat holes in the tax base and make the problem worse — nobody in Sacramento is thinking that far ahead.

A considerable slice of the blame for the budget impasse lies at the feet of the prison guards’ union, which has ruthlessly championed harsher sentences and the building of more prisons. Cutting the prison population to 1/3 of its present level doesn’t seem to be something our legislators are able to contemplate, and it’s not hard to see why: Voters are filled with fear, and it’s easier to focus your fear on criminals running loose than to look at the root causes of the mess. Because who knows what to do about the root causes?

Every year, moving to Denmark seems like a better idea. I’d have to learn to speak Danish, and I guess the climate is a little crisp. But hey, I’m a smart guy, learning a language shouldn’t be a problem. And I can buy a warm coat.

Just don’t y’all follow me, okay?

Reading: Oh, Faye

Elmore Leonard has said that when writing his novels, he tries not to write the parts that people skip.

Yesterday the mystery novel at the top of my stack was Faye Kellerman’s The Burnt House. I found myself skipping large chunks of it.

It’s a police procedural, but not all police procedurals are so strikingly devoid of action and suspense. Reginald Hill, for instance, is capable of turning out a stylish procedural whodunit. I expect I’ll try another Faye Kellerman novel, but maybe not this week.

The Burnt House starts with a bang, literally — a commuter flight from L.A. to San Jose loses its hydraulics (or something — the details hardly matter, except that it’s not terrorists) within 30 seconds after takeoff and slams into an apartment building. But that’s the only real excitement that Kellerman deploys, and of course it’s over and done with on page 2. The rest of the book sees the cops plodding through a couple of convoluted investigations, a process leavened (if that’s the right word) by Read more

Reading: Hunt Sharp

Grabbed a stack of mystery novels from the library. Quickly absorbed Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich and The Hunt Club by John Lescroart. They couldn’t be more different. About all they have in common is nasty crimes and the obligatory Thrilling Climax in which the main Good Guy is face to face with the main Bad Guy.

Also, both authors seem quite concerned about food — a feature I noticed in a recent Kate Wilhelm mystery as well. Maybe this is a trend; do you suppose?

Evanovich writes fast-paced humor, and there’s lots of wiggle-wiggle-wink-wink sex. The heroine, Stephanie Plum, works in a bail bond place, and her main job is tracking down lowlifes who didn’t show up for their court dates. But that’s the fun part. She spends most of the novel being stalked by a psycho, which is less fun except that she’s well protected by her two boyfriends (that’s right, two, and she sleeps with them both in the course of the book, though she only actually has intercourse with one of them). Twelve Sharp is not a whodunit — any doubt about who done it gets erased very early on. It’s a crime suspense story.

Lescroart (it’s pronounced “les-squah,” by the way) writes in a slow-paced but absorbing style. The action in The Hunt Club, which is a whodunit, is utterly serious, though it’s leavened by the obligatory private eye/cop repartee. There’s only one sexual encounter in the book, and it’s Read more

Not Fiction

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing another novel — poking at a few plot outlines, drafting a few scenes. Today I’m coming, reluctantly, to the conclusion that I’m not likely to be able to pull it off.

Technically, I could do it. I know how to sit down and write 500 pages of characters, action, and dialog, and because I’m a professional, they would be of publishable quality. The lurking problem is that I just don’t like people enough. Novels are about people, and I no longer care about people — neither my characters nor my (possible) readers.

The Rush Limbaugh/Sarah Palin Republicans have soured me pretty decisively, that’s part of it. I’ve also been musing lately about a few failed romantic relationships. (The failed ones would amount to precisely 100% of the ones I attempted.)

And then there’s the amateur music on Broadjam. I got a free membership to Broadjam laid on me (I may be doing some writing for the site), so I’ve been listening to tracks uploaded by other musicians. Now, these are the people who care enough about their music to record it, to finish recording it, to join an online site that provides networking with other musicians, and to upload their recorded tracks to the site — presumably with the idea that someone may want to listen. So basically, they’ve self-selected as the upper 50% of aspiring musicians.

Unfortunately, the distribution of clues among the participants is haphazard. Very few of them are entirely clueless: To paraphrase Lincoln, many of them Read more