Tuesday, March 31, 2020


Scene 1. Supermarket customer service counter, because I'd been told they keep the toilet paper there.

ME: Good morning. I have two questions. First, do you have any toilet paper?

MAN BEHIND COUNTER: We do. [Hands me a 4-pack.] Would you like another one?

ME: Sure. Thanks! [He hands me another one.]

(Second question omitted for the sake of the dramatic unities.)


Scene 2. Check-out counter.

CLERK: Um, we have a limit of one pack of toilet paper per customer.

ME: Really? The man at the counter offered me two. Since that's the only place you have toilet paper, I wouldn't have two if he hadn't given them to me.

CLERK: The limit is to ensure there's some for every customer.

ME: Sure, but that would apply just as much if the limit were two. I had no way of knowing he was violating his own rules.

CLERK: Who helped you? Was it the man who's there now?

ME: [Looks over to the customer service counter.] Yep, that's him.

CLERK: That's the store manager. [Rings up my purchases.]


Hobbits give other people presents on their birthdays. My present for B. is two 4-packs of toilet paper.

Monday, March 30, 2020


After having received one darkly conspiratorial comment and one attempt at a helpful comment that directed me to the very blog post I was asking questions about, I decided to just go ahead and try the state's unemployment insurance website. All the concerts I'm scheduled to review for the last three weeks and the next month have been canceled, so since I'm paid for reviewing that makes me a genuine employment victim of the epidemic.

I managed to get through it, no thanks to the website which kept dumping me out of the system so that I'd have to log back in. Fortunately it saved my draft, but not the last page I'd completed as of any given dump, so I'd have to fill that out again.

And sure enough, at the beginning when it asks for the reason for your unemployment, COVID-19 is listed on the drop-down list. So I felt like I was in business.

Unfortunately, it got tougher than that. Most puzzling was way near the end, when it asks a separate question of whether you're unemployed because of a natural disaster. Well, uh, yeah. Pull-down list. Choose "public health" as the reason. (Others are things like fire, earthquake, flood.) But there's nothing in there specifically about COVID-19. There's a free-text box for an explanation, so I explain it there. The fact that they didn't put a specific COVID-19 option here makes me uneasy.

But that wasn't the beginning of it. First trouble was back up near the start when it asks how much I'm paid per hour. I'm not paid per hour, I'm paid by the piece. This is a standard form of compensation; I don't see why they don't give it as an option. If I'm working by the hour, are my hours only when I attend the concert, or does the time I spend writing the review count? Since I'm not paid by the hour, nobody's keeping track of my hours writing, least of all me. And I rarely write at one continuous sitting. I used the hours spent at the concert, which are typically two hours per gig.

Then I had to put in my other employer, the university press for which I co-edit Tolkien Studies, since I get paid royalties every year and pay taxes on them. Hours per week? At a wild guess, I spend half my time on that, so let's say 20. That puts my hourly pay rate down to something truly microscopic. That's even assuming my royalty figure is anywhere near correct. I don't have last year's figure; all the paperwork is currently with the accountant who's doing my taxes. I used the previous year's figure.

Nor was there any way to indicate I'm still working on that. I had to put today down as the last date. Am I ineligible for UI because I'm still working half-time, if it is half-time? Does the fact that my earnings per hour are truly derisory cancel that out? That's not even mentioning the impossibility of reconstructing the identity of the first day I worked at either job, another weird thing they want to know (I've been writing for SFCV for over 15 years, editing for TS over 7): approximations are not allowed. Or the surreal experience of trying to find a category that my employer's business is in. Nothing for publications of any kind. For a moment I thought "culture" was the answer - we cover cultural events - until I picked it and discovered they'd cut off the first four letters of agriculture. Christ. In the end I picked "Other."

Does the fact that I had to fudge, invent wild guesses, make up things, and even give totally misleading information on the form in order to fill it out at all make me liable for anything? At least, at the very very end, there was an evaluation form. In the free text box I said there was no way to indicate I'm paid by the piece, and that I could find no way to inquire about this. And for a rating of the site I picked "Very Poor."

is there money?

Wow, this totally confuses me. Is there extra money, above and beyond the $1200 federal stimulus, available only to people who file for unemployment? And is it, as it appears from here, on a flat per-capita basis regardless of earnings?

Why haven't I read anything about this anywhere but on the site of a politics-and-cat-pictures blogger?

I don't think I would normally be eligible for unemployment or would it be financially worth the trouble to apply if I were. My earned income is as a gig worker (concert reviews), and I haven't been formally laid off, but it's true that all my gigs (the concerts) have been cancelled, totally outside of the control of my employers (the site for which I write reviews), from the second week of March through at least the end of April.

I'm not paid that much for the reviews, but a flat $600 per week? That's something even any middle-class person could use. Anyone know anything about this? I'd like some background before descending into the blizzard of government web sites.

obit erdictum

Krzysztof Penderecki has died.

Here's a standard obit if you want one.

Here's what I wrote the last time I heard Penderecki in a concert. I still stand by it.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

and now, the answer to that question

Woody Allen's memoir: made to get killer reviews.

Monica Hesse, Washington Post (although the best line is the headline, which she didn't write: "If you've run out of toilet paper, Woody Allen's memoir is also made of paper")

Catherine Bennett, The Guardian ("The only person who stood to benefit from the silencing of Woody Allen was Woody Allen.")

some encouraging news

Encouraging for me, at least. It came in the mail yesterday.

The last I'd heard about the aftermath of my auto accident from January was about a month ago, when I received official letters from the other two drivers' insurance companies confirming that they'd agreed, from consulting the police report which had been taken on site, that the driver who crashed into me from behind was entirely responsible for the accident. (That pushed my car into the one in front of me: thus three cars.)

I'd already received a check from my insurer for the market value of my almost-new but totaled car, which was enough to cover the entire cost of the slightly-used car I bought to replace it, and I trusted my insurer to worry about recouping that from the other company. My only remaining question was, would the at-fault driver's insurance cover any of the cost of the rental car I'd had in the interim? When I spoke with my adjuster on the phone, she said they'd look into that.

And an eloquently-phrased answer to that question came in the mail yesterday, in the form of another check.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

last time meme

Last time I traveled abroad: To the big Tolkien exhibit at the Bodleian in Oxford, June 2018.

Last time I slept in a hotel: In Seattle, this January.

Last time I flew in a plane: Coming home from Seattle.

Last time I took a train: Probably last year, going to SF on CalTrain, the only train I ride more than utterly rarely.

Last time I took public transit: BART to SF for a concert, late February.

Last time I had a houseguest: At least 20 years ago, because that was when we got rid of our ratty sofabed.

Last time I got my hair cut: Oh, a while ago.

Last time I went to the movies: The two Oscar-nominated movies I wanted to see, Little Women and Jojo Rabbit, in quick succession in, I think, the first week in February.

Last time I went to the theatre: Princess Ida by G&S, late February.

Last time I went to a concert: As the only invited guest, aside from the people involved in putting it on (I was reviewing it), on March 7, already into the shutdown period. They webcast it.

Last time I went to an art museum: Last June, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Big Renoir exhibit.

Last time I sat down in a restaurant: Probably about March 13. I'd been making a point over the previous couple of weeks to eat lunch in as many of my favorite local Americanized Chinese restaurants as possible.

Last time I went to a party: Our book discussion group met on March 8, the last possible weekend that would have been feasible. Party-party, New Year's.

Last time I played a board game: Sometime around 30 years ago, B. and I played a game of chess.

Friday, March 27, 2020

world according to cat

I woke up very early, as I often do, and came into my office to work. Then Tybalt came in. He wanted to lounge in my arms and get scritched for a while, which is fine as long as I'm only reading; then he wanted to interpose his bulk between the keyboard and the screen; then he wanted to sit in my window.

Then Maia came in. She sits on the worktable behind me and peeps. If I turn around to pet her, she jumps down and heads out of the room. A clue! She wants to be fed! (The food is in the bathroom.) If I turn back around again, she comes back.

Now I have two hungry cats all over the room. I am surrounded by cats; cats are everywhere around me. (B. isn't working today, so she's not awake to provide an alternate focus.) But the clock says no, no, not quite yet.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Asimov explains it all

This is a project I've been playing with off and on since Isaac Asimov's centenary a couple months ago. Even with other duties, I find I now had the time to finish it off.

Asimov's favorite writing was the science column he wrote monthly for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1958 until his final illness in 1992, totalling 399 columns. It was a continuation of a column he'd begun for Venture Science Fiction, F&SF's sister magazine, earlier in 1958, and transferred to F&SF when Venture folded, so by that count there are 403 columns.

Doubleday published a selection of columns as a book in 1962, and successive books cleaned up some of what had been missed. By 1966 Asimov was regularly taking every 17 columns (because that made a book of reasonable size) and putting them out in book form. Only 9 of the early F&SF columns were omitted (of which 3 were added in prefaces to later collections), and the last 19 were never collected. That makes 22 collections (not counting several repackagings), some of which were among my earliest Asimov reading and all of which I have in paperback in a nice row on my shelf. I also have photocopies of all the uncollected columns. Some are obsolete due to later discoveries, but they all read very well.

Asimov was given free rein to write about any aspect of science that interested him. In his earlier years he had some standard topics that attracted most of his interest - astronomy, chemistry, number theory, some aspects of physics - most of which he wrote about as histories of discoveries in those fields. In later years he ranged more widely - the uncollected set includes a remarkable four-essay sequence on the technical history of photography through the invention of television. Sometimes he ventured into science policy and philosophy, or left strict science entirely, as you'll see below. His writing style also changed; in particular he became freer and more personal in his introductions.

What I thought was: how about classifying the columns by topic? I took a handy library classification scheme (not Dewey or LC) and classified each column by its main topic. Sometimes this could be arbitrary, as many of the columns are interdisciplinary. For instance, when Asimov writes about spectroscopic analysis of starlight to determine chemical composition of stars, which he did more than once, is that physics, astronomy, or chemistry? I judged by the main thrust of the article. That did mean that some sets of articles which Asimov intended as a sequence are broken apart. There are also some peculiarities due to the structure of the classification system, as we'll see. Here's the results:

Philosophy (3)
All 3 of these are polemics arguing for rationality in reasoning, though each takes a different perspective. He also made this point in the specific context of science, which I class separately, but these are about thought in general.

Mathematics (18)
Most of these (13) are on some aspect of number theory, at which Asimov considered himself an enthusiastic amateur. There are 3 on geometry (Euclidean, non-Euclidean, and fractal), and 2 on mensuration.

Science (general) (16)
I put here essays on the principles and philosophy of science (10) or scientific impostures or honest errors (6). The former group include lists of great scientists and defenses of scientific methodology as well as the arguments for scientific rationality which also appear in the latter group.

Physics (67)
Includes relativity (3), gravity and ballistics (7), pressure (3), thermodynamics (8), light and the speed of light (10), sound (2), electricity & magnetism & electromagnetic radiation (11), subatomic particles (9), quantum theory (3), and electronics (5), plus a few miscellaneous items (including thalassogens, the creation of the A-bomb, and electric lighting and television as technological achievements).

Chemistry (44)
Asimov's scientific training and career were in chemistry, but mostly in organic and biochemistry. Biochemistry I classify with biology, but most of his essays in straight chemistry were on physical chemistry. We have many on the periodic table and the classification of elements (10), the discovery and nature of individual elements (13), and radioactivity (5). There are also scattered essays on catalysis, valency, electrochemistry (2), spectrum analysis, silicon compounds (3), organic molecular structure, stereoisomerism, enzymes, and fuel in the sense of chemical technology (2).

Astronomy (128)
Asimov's favorite science, though he never studied it. Mostly on cosmology and astrophysics (29), the sun (4), the Earth as a planet (5), the Moon (6), other individual planets and satellites (26), asteroids (5), comets and meteors (5), the solar system in general (12), types of stars (19), and the Milky Way and other galaxies (9). There are also a few on observational astronomy (5) and astrology (he's against it).

Geology (5)
The makeup of the Earth and topics in historical geology (Cambrian fossils, radioactive dating).

Physical geography (18)
On the general topic, 5 (mountains, rivers, islands, oceans, icebergs). Also mathematical geography (5), the history of exploration (3), meteorology (3), climatology (2, both on ice ages, though in one [Jan. 1959, how's that for perspicacious?] he predicts that the greenhouse effect will mean the end of ice ages).

Biology (27)
A lot on biochemistry, obviously, with a wide spread of subtopics (12). Also: nature of life (2), cytology (2), physiology (2), genetics and evolution (4), paleontology (2), microbiology (3).

Botany (1)
It's on photosynthesis, which the classification puts here rather than in biochemistry.

Zoology (9)
Blood (2), thyroids, dinosaurs and their extinction (2), the platypus, and 3 on the physiology of body size (square-cube law and all).

Anthropology (2)
One on evolution that's specifically about human evolution, and a social essay mostly applying physiological differences between the sexes to an argument in favor of women's rights.

Psychology (1)
Arguing that IQ tests don't measure intelligence in any meaningful way, and specifically dismissing any significance to racial test differences.

Education (1)
A personal essay, recounting Asimov's frustrating and aborted career in academia.

Sociology (2)
Science fiction as futurology.

Human geography (2)
Statistical essays on the population of cities.

Auxiliary sciences of history (13)
Mostly on calendars and time zones (9), with 2 on place nomenclature (but not earthly: lunar features and planets) and 2 to impress on the reader how long the Earth and the universe have existed by mapping their histories onto an imagined single year.

History (7)
In later years, Asimov sometimes wished he'd chosen a career as a historian rather than a chemist. Most of these are thoughtful and imaginative accounts of the impact of the development of technology on history, including one on the impact of the longbow and one on how the geography of the Nile affected Egyptian civilization.

Religion (3)
Two are really on science - a rebuttal of scientific-based arguments for the existence of God, and an analysis of what the star of Bethlehem might astronomically have been - and the third sociological (a brilliant interpretation of Ruth as an anti-racist polemic), but the fundamental topic is religious so I put them here.

Social welfare (4)
A few editorial-style polemics on the problems of violence, curbing personal vices (he doesn't think "Just say no" is much of an answer), and a clumsy but well-meaning one on why old women were perceived as witches, plus an outlier in the form of a personal reminiscence of a cruise to watch the launching of the last Apollo mission.

Political science (2)
More editorials, in favor of computerization to ease the functioning of society, and on world government.

Social economics (7)
Includes 6 on what Asimov considers our most urgent social problem, population growth, and 1 on energy policy.

Economic exchange (1)
Evolutionary essay on the development of tools, followed by economic media of exchange, and on into business.

Engineering and technology (13)
Runs from land transport to lighter-than-air flight to space vehicles and space flight (5, one debunking UFOs), plus robotics, the technology of fusion, tools to measure time, and photographic and motion picture cameras (3).

Language (2)
Etymological studies of scientific words, one on number names and one on chemical nomenclature, the famous "You, Too Can Speak Gaelic."

Literature (7)
On science in the works of great authors (2: Shakespeare, Milton), analysis of his own background and character as a writer (2), the historical background to tub-thumping poetry (2), and the future of books (1).

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

have a little Shakespeare to occupy your time

The Guardian has commissioned 25 noted actors to perform solo speeches, most of them pretty famous, from Shakespeare plays, in their indoor voices. You can watch them all - most are about 2 minutes long - here.

I give particular honors to Damian Lewis in the first part of Antony's funeral oration for Caesar, and Joanna Lumley, oh yes, in the scene where Viola figures out that Olivia is in love with her.