Friday, May 29, 2020

on the audio

So just now I spent an hour talking about Tolkien into a microphone, with prompts from an interviewer. I hadn't done that since I was on the radio a dozen years ago. This wasn't for the radio, but you may be able to hear it soon. I said a couple things that surprised even me, but much of it was trying to put some basic concepts about Tolkien across. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

it's been punishingly hot

the last couple of days, and Tybalt is trying out various spots on the floor to spread himself out over. Maia prefers to curl up like a pill bug on one spot on the upstairs landing.

As for me, this is the kind of weather that would normally send me out to spend the afternoon reading in the public library, which at least has air conditioning. That's out now, so I must stay home and wait for the time when opening the windows will offer relief instead of increased intensity.

The most refreshing thing I did was watch a recording of the Great Performances broadcast of the LA Philharmonic's centennial concert. All three living music directors, past and present (Dudamel, Salonen, Mehta), each conducted a piece and then all three conducted together in a new work for three orchestras, very spectral. It's by Daniel Bjarnason, another one of those striking musicians from Iceland. Ah, Iceland. Sounds really good about now.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

a little bit online

This week the UK National Theatre's online offering is a several-years-old production of A Streetcar Named Desire, with a vocally unrecognizable Gillian Anderson as Blanche. I started to watch it, not because I really wanted to see Streetcar again (I saw it in Ashland in 1977), than because it's Great Literature to which I thought I should give myself Renewed Exposure.

But I was forcibly reminded of the fact that one sits through moderately tedious plays on stage because it's not really practical to leave, and besides you paid all that money to be there. Whereas on the small screen at home it's got to be better than that. I first got tired and quit during the long initial dialogue between Blanche and Stella, because it was so stagy. I decided to come back and press on, but when Stanley comes in, he's the only one of them who sounds like a human being, and I didn't want to risk getting too sympathetic to Stanley, so I quit again.

Today there was a fund-raising webcast by the Berkeley Symphony, and since I had an e-mail notification and (a not unimportant point) I remembered it was on, I tuned in. Several sheltering musicians played unaccompanied solo pieces, usually by Bach, which transfers well to the viola and even the clarinet. I liked best the one by the associate concertmaster, who not only was crisp but who injected a bit of jazz into his playing, very well injected I thought. Conclusion, video from the symphony's last live concert of the finale of Beethoven's Fifth, introduced by the music director as hopeful and encouraging music. Let's see that it is.

Friday, May 22, 2020

one works, the other doesn't

Given how content I am to hole up with B. and the cats, with just e-mail and blogs and an occasional phone chat with my brother to sustain me socially, I was surprised at how satisfying my latest web-based meeting was yesterday. Because it went smoothly and because it was populated with a group of actual friends (as opposed to just friendly acquaintances, like the library committee), it filled a socializing hole in my being I hadn't realized I was missing. In lieu of meeting annually in person, we're going to try meeting monthly online for a while. I think this will work.

The weekly grocery shopping, though, couldn't have been more stressful while still coming to an eventual successful conclusion. We'd tried to turn to online ordering and pickup from the store back at the start of April, but gave up because no slots were available. This week we looked again and they were. So we placed our order, which allowed specification of substitutions, with a pickup time of noon today. The instructions said, when your time arrives, drive to the store, park in one of the designated spaces, phone the number on its sign. Seemed easy.

The first crash came when the phone call produced only an intercept. When I went inside to inquire, the first thing I was asked - the first thing every store employee asked me during the day's saga - was, had we received the e-mail confirming the pickup was ready? No, but there was nothing in the instructions saying to wait for such an e-mail. I was told they were running way behind, partly because of the holiday weekend, but then why were they offering time slots they knew they couldn't fulfill? How late they'd be they couldn't say at that point, but when I tried again after dinner, a shifty manager whose stories kept changing finally settled on "sometime that evening." At about 9:15 the e-mail came. But why they couldn't have sent out a delay message or two with an ETA was not clear, nor was the utter and complete lack of interest of every employee in the fact that the dedicated phone number didn't work. Also unencouraging was the several-times-observed tendency of store employees to pull down their masks in order to talk, which rather misses the point of having one. Given that I couldn't reach the store even on its regular phone number (ring, ring), I probably spent more time in breathable risk by conducting this ideally no-contact pickup service than I would have had I done the shopping myself. Maybe we'll try this again next week, with no holiday and a longer prep span. Maybe.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

another web meeting platform

It's called WebEx, and it's what a different meeting of mine was on today. Since by now I have a microphone, if still no camera on my desktop (and I'm not planning on getting one), I could sign in hard-wired without suffering through my tablet on wifi. I'd found Zoom's interface to be cramped on the tablet, so it's not fair to compare that to WebEx on the (much larger) desktop, but I did figure out how to work the commands, and the tile display got all 11 other people in the meeting on one screen, even the others who had no video (who'd mostly telephoned in), so their displays were blank.

Video displays were pretty good on WebEx, but sound was variable. People who came through loud and clear on incidental remarks suddenly started fading in and out or getting caught in transmission stutter when they had the floor and spoke at length. But most of what they said came through.

The curious thing was that, unlike with Zoom, I had no visual display for myself (even though there'd be nothing on it), and, even more curiously, I could not hear myself on the headphones, though others assured me they could hear me. However, if there's any measurable delay in sound transmission, which there probably is, even a fraction of a second, it would be best not to hear yourself, as to hear yourself speaking live on even a small delay is a good way to make you trip up on your words. It did mean, though, that there was no way to tell if I was emitting background noise or (unlikely as it'd be in the circumstances) feedback.

Anyway, now we know the microphone works, both in itself and in persuading the computer and the meeting software to go along with it, that's the important part. So now I can go ahead in planning the matter that I bought it for.

and ... a dog

This is the most enjoyable classical lockdown video I've heard recently: members of the Peninsula Symphony, one of our local volunteer orchestras - who'd already done the slow movement of the Second - in a less than polished but quite bang-up energetic and sizzling performance of a cut-down chamber instrumentation of the first movement of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. The retransition section (from about 4.45 to 5.40) in particular is quite wonderfully well done.

And ... look underneath the flute from about 3.25 to 4.15 (go full-screen for this), and you'll have a little visual treat.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

not an expert

As I recall, it was my friend the late Kate Yule who once wrote an article trying to figure out how good a cook she was. I found that I identified precisely with her predicament, so I think I'm on the same level.

What Kate said was, on the one hand there's people who manage to burn a pot of water, don't know what to do with an egg, or find "heat in microwave for 2 minutes" to be a challenge worthy of their mettle (and sometimes take a weird pride in all this). Next to them, people like Kate or I are whizzes, experts, virtuosi.

On the other hand, there's professional chefs. Next to them, we're fumblers, complete beginners.

Somewhere, there's a level of everyday mastery, basic competence and understanding of how the things you do work, but without artistry or complex technique. Put it this way: the kinds of recipes that Julia Child wrote, I'd find very difficult or unnecessarily time-consuming. (My goal in cooking is to have dinner, not to spend time in the kitchen.) But the kind of recipes you see on the backs of packages, or that get published in local newspapers (food columns in major papers are another matter), those are easy and I get a lot of ideas from them.

Same is true with computers and electronics. I have a basic end-user's knowledge of how things work and go together, supplemented - as with cooking - with some hard-earned experience when things didn't go right. That was enough to make me my mother's computer guru, a status true of a lot of children my age. On the other hand, I know professional techies socially, and most of the time when they speak of their jobs I can't even figure out what they're talking about.

Where does that leave me, then? Willing to dive in to deal with certain situations, but always ready to stop when I run up against the limits of my knowledge. Recently I heard it said that I think I know more than I do, and that really hurt, because knowing how much I know and asking for help when matters get beyond there is one thing I always do. For instance I was once tasked with replacing the fill valve in a toilet tank. I figured I could do that myself, and I did. But when the ancient flex water pipe started to leak when I reattached it, I stopped, re-closed the valves, and called a plumber. That I knew I couldn't deal with, and I wasn't too proud to admit it immediately. Something similar happened with B's monitor, where neither the instructions nor the unit's behavior was clear to me, though it was up and working when I was done, if with fragility.

Driving. I'm not a particularly good driver, but I'm competent. I can drive a stick shift, which most people today can't, but that's because I was trained at it at an early stage. What I am really good at is road navigation. I know that not because I feel skilled at it, but because it feels easy, because a vast number of people seem completely helpless at it, and because real experts don't intimidate me as they do in the above fields.

Typing. As a professional secretary, which I temped at for a while, I was no better than moderate. But I was a pretty fast and accurate copy-typist until my hands wore out.

Sports. That's a good case, because (when I could still do active sports) I divided them into two groups: those I was minimally competent at (though never any more than that) and those I couldn't do at all. That's a fundamental distinction not often-enough made. Anything requiring hitting a moving ball with an implement, forget it: tennis, softball, or anything else of either ilk, I'm laughably bad at, like the person who can't boil water. I couldn't hit the ball at all, or make it go anywhere if I accidentally did. But with hand (or foot) is another matter: I could dribble and shoot a soccer ball or basketball in the prescribed manners, so long as there was nobody trying to prevent me. In a game, there always is, so I was of no use in those. My best game of that sort was volleyball, where the opposing players all have to stay on the other side of the net. I also found a knack for golf, where there's an implement but the ball stays still until you hit it. I think I could have developed into a fairly decent amateur if I'd had more of a taste for the game, but I'm not much of a game-player at all, even sedentary ones. I limit myself these days to computer playing of klondike solitaire (at which I think I'm good, because I've heard people say they never win games, whereas I often do) and the occasional tetris (at which I've never gotten above level 10, which is not considered very high by expert standards).

So my question is, does this make sense to you? How do you parse it, and where do you sit on the scale?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


Three packages were delivered yesterday.

1) B's newer and bigger monitor. Her old one stopped working for a while a few days ago. Power was on, screen was working, nothing wrong with the data connection, but the display was blank. It started up again later, but in any case it's difficult to do her job with big complex displays that fall off the edge of the monitor. (They have bigger monitors in the office.) It's my job in this house to install things like this. It was rather puzzling: I'd never seen what it called an HDMI data cable before, and was worried as to whether B's computer would have a port for it. It did, right next to the VGA port. The monitor's instructions weren't clear as to whether it required a VGA cable also. Turned out it did, and a good thing I didn't take out the one from the old monitor, because there wasn't one in the package, though the parts list said there was. Then I had to figure out where the control is to change the screen resolution display. Gaah.

2) A pulse oximeter. Put your finger in the little clamp and it measures your blood oxygen saturation. Obviously useful in the current crisis. I'd ordered this some time ago when the seller claimed they were still available. Then the package was somehow delayed in shipping, or so the seller's messages said. A check with the shipper's site revealed the truth: they were still waiting for the package to show up. Apparently more had been sold than the seller then had. Under those circumstances, I'm surprised it came as early as it did. (We've both used it: we're fine for now.)

3) A microphone, to plug into my computer's sound input jack. If I'd had this last weekend, I might have been able to join the John Garth interview session on Zoom without all that trouble. I'll get to test it later this week with another meeting, this time on WebEx, and at least I won't be forced to rely on my tablet, or the telephone with no incoming video.
But none of that is what I bought the microphone for. What I did buy it for will come up later.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

John Garth on Zoom

In a covid-free world, John Garth would probably have given his talk on his upcoming book, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth, sponsored by the Wade Center, at the Wade Center, and I wouldn't have been able to be there. Instead, it was webcast, and by signing up in advance, 60 people from all over were able to listen in.

Unfortunately, it was on Zoom, which I hadn't known before I tried signing in on my desktop, which then had to download and install Zoom while interviewer Laura Schmidt, the archivist at Wade, was giving her introduction. All spectators were automatically muted both for sound and video, but that didn't prevent Zoom from acting in its usual manner. Strange thing about Zoom is that, while you don't have to click on "Start Video" to see the existing video, you do have to click on "Join Audio" in order to hear. And it refused to do that because it couldn't find a microphone on my computer for the very good reason that I don't have one. I had to hastily fetch my tablet, which I already had Zoom installed on, and join the meeting again there, in order to hear a blessed word. But not all of them, because as before it stuttered a lot and I missed much.

One thing was clear: that despite the book's title, it is not a travelogue of "the places that inspired" as previous books by the likes of Robert Blackham and Matthew Lyons have been. And indeed, I was pleased to see that Garth is at pains to avoid what he delicately calls "erring on the side of credulity" of these works. The problem, Garth says, is that if you see a place and are reminded of invented places in Tolkien, you tend to think that if Tolkien saw it too it must have inspired those places. This is most often obvious nonsense, chronologically impossible, and most importantly diminishes the fiction by making fictional place A a simple encoding of real place B.

In fact, as Garth says, Tolkien was a great synthesizer who merged and reconciled loads of even contradictory inspirations; this is true of all his sources, not just geographical, and from the excerpts read from this book, the author is taking a similar approach that he took to Tolkien's early inspirations in his book Tolkien and the Great War. This is less a book about the real places than it is about what was going on in Tolkien's mind that the real places operated as the merest seeds for. Most of the research took place in Tolkien's papers and in written period material rather than out on the ground.

I'm hoping, then, that we may see an end to such inane ideas as that a couple of stacks in Birmingham were the "real" original of The Two Towers, and indeed there's an appendix specifically dealing with such debunking. If I had been going to ask a question (questions were submitted by chat), it would have been whether he was dealing with that, but I didn't have to.

The bulk of the book, it emerges, is divided into chapters by the type of place dealt with: the sea, the mountains, rivers and waterlands, forests, warscapes, craftscapes, and, yes, towers. Plus beginning discussions including Tolkien's early attempts to transmute England directly into his fiction, and on geographic inspirations from outside England.

Well, I'm looking forward to getting this large-format and well-illustrated volume. Tolkien and the Great War is a monument in Tolkien studies, and I expect this one to be as well.

Friday, May 15, 2020

electronic glitch

I had my first Zoom meeting for work (library committee) yesterday. It did not go well. Video was fine, though figuring out how to tile the images on my little tablet screen (where it works quite differently than on a full-sized screen) was difficult. But the audio was terrible. About a quarter of the time, in bursts, it worked fine, but the rest of the time it stuttered so badly I could not make out what was being said. Probably a combination of wifi problems (our internet connection tends to wilt in the heat) and my underpowered Galaxy tablet.

The meeting overlapped with Claire Chase's marathon webcast recital of new music for flute, but that's OK, since the first hour of it filled up my appetite for that sort of music anyway. And I missed a chunk of it when the signal froze. But the fact that I was willing to watch that much of it, and was captivated by the performance, was a good sign in itself, as this is the first concert, as opposed to a recording of a specific piece, that I've watched online.

I was attracted to the first hour by the opening piece, Steve Reich's Vermont Counterpoint for 1 live flute and 10 recorded ones (which the performer is supposed to record beforehand). It's a typical chunk of cascading minimalism, and I already knew I liked it. Chase kept switching among different size flutes, which I don't recall the performer doing when I once heard this work live, so perhaps it's up to the performer which line is live and which are recorded.

The other two were works that Chase commissioned in 2013 as the beginning of a long sequence of commissions which the marathon was chiefly designed to celebrate.

I liked Pessoa by Marcos Balter, which similarly is for 1 live and 5 recorded, only these are all bass flutes. The swirling lines of the spooky, cavernous sounds made for an eerie and arresting effect. Luciform for (regular) flute and electronics by Mario Diaz de Leon was spikier. The flute played jagged phrases or soothing lines over wavering or fluctuating electronic chords. Sometimes the electronics turned jagged and drowned out the flute. Occasionally I looked around wondering if a cell phone was ringing.

A brief premiere piece at the end, by someone whose name I didn't get due to the signal freeze, consisted of Chase reciting a Gertrude-Stein-like rhythmic poem interspersed with breathing its words into her flute mouthpiece.

If the recording is online, it's not on the webcast site, but you can find Chase playing all three of the main works on YouTube.