Friday, March 1, 2024

lecture and a play

I went to a guest lecture at Stanford because the topic sounded interesting. "A Poet's Thoughts on Perception, Cognition, and the Literary Image" was the subtitle, and it was by Richard Kenney, a noted poet who's an English prof at the UW.

He spoke of a lot of things, and ran considerably over his allotted time, but towards the end he focused on a neurological theory that what we think we see is generated by our minds predicting what we're likely to see, and only cross-checks itself against outside reality. I found this theory hard to believe, or if it is true that the cross-checking must be so frequent that it doesn't matter where the images originate, afterwards when driving home, relying on my perception of reality being accurate so I didn't hit another car when going through intersections without stoplights in the dark and pouring rain.

Kenney's purpose in bringing this up was apparently to suggest that if the theory is true, reality is no less a construction of our brains than the things we imagine are. So read more poetry and nourish your imagination, or something.

This and another remark that, if we removed all the words that are somehow metaphorical from the language, there wouldn't be much left, made me wonder if he'd read any Owen Barfield, because they were all things that sounded like what Owen Barfield wrote. But there was no question period, or if there was I didn't stick around for it.

The play came in online video form from the Mint Theater, which specializes in reviving obscure plays. Some are deservedly obscure, like the one I got on their mailing list from, but this is somewhat better. Never previously produced nor published, and sitting among the author's papers in a university archive, it's called Becomes a Woman and is by Betty Smith, author of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I've never read the book, but I thought I'd try the play, and it was good enough (and excellently acted, in front of a live audience) to get through.

The heroine starts out as a 19-year-old singing sales clerk in a sheet music store. Her name is Francie Nolan, which is the name of the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but even considering the age difference their life circumstances are quite different, aside from being poor and living in Brooklyn, so they're not the same person in the fictive universe. Francie is young and naive, and she's very pretty, so every man who comes in the store asks her out, which earns her scorn and reinforces her cynical co-worker's theory that men are all alike and all want the same thing (i.e. to ask Francie out). But then in comes Leonard, who's handsome and suave and apparently well-off, and when he asks her out she changes her mind about being asked out.

That's Act 1. In Acts 2-3 things turn out quite differently. Leonard isn't what he makes himself out to be (of course), and Francie goes through some dramatic vicissitudes which change her mind and her approach to life. She hardens and matures and she Becomes a Woman, hence the title. Anyway, I found it worthwhile to watch and you could watch it too, free on the web for the next two weeks.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

buon giorno Gioachino

After all, it's not every year we can celebrate Rossini's birthday.

Here's three of his lesser-known great overtures.

It's also Tim Powers' birthday. He's 18 in pirate years.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

browser wars

I usually keep two web browsers open on my desktop: Firefox, which is my regular browser, and Opera, which I use for a few things Firefox doesn't work on. For instance, if a vendor sends me a ticket as an e-mail attachment, Firefox will not display the QR code. I get an empty box. Neither will Opera display it, actually, but if I print it in Opera it comes out OK, which it doesn't in Firefox.

Some websites which didn't display well in Firefox now work better than they used to. One of them is Disney+, and this is fortunate because yesterday, Opera decided it no longer wanted to play videos, from any source. (The sound is still OK.) This happened directly in between one Disney video and another. Online advice for dealing with this problem included closing and reopening the browser, and clearing the cache. I don't know why I keep following advice to solve problems by clearing the cache, because it never works, nor did it this time.

Occasional websites, like Delta Airlines or Kaiser's video appointment service, won't function in either Firefox or Opera, so I have to drag out Google Chrome, which I otherwise avoid.

A non-web item that stopped working recently was our old reliable DVD player, useful for when we've already bought the DVD and don't want to pay additional money for streaming. As with Opera, the problem appeared directly between two files from the same source, in this case on the same DVD, and it took the same form: sound, but no picture. At first I thought the problem was with the monitor, then the disc, but testing proved that not so, and when the player made grinding sounds instead of loading another disc, I knew the end was upon us.

Suspecting that DVD players aren't major items in stores any more, I looked up the model number of ours on Amazon and found it's still in production and not too expensive. So I ordered another one, figuring I could swap it out without having to deal with any rigamarole regarding settings. I placed the new DVD on top of the old one, moved all the cords to the equivalent plugs, and pulled the old one out. Lo, it worked.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

concert review: Telegraph Quartet

Saturday evening I went to the Bing Studio, the little room in the basement of Stanford's concert hall, for a concert by the Telegraph Quartet. I was there to review them. They were playing modern music by three early-to-mid 20th century B's: Berg, Britten, and Bacewicz. All right, it wasn't all that difficult music - even the Berg, which is (mostly, effectively all) serialist, was not that hard to listen to, the Bacewicz is charming when played well, and the Britten is weird and fascinating - and they played it very well, as I acknowledged in my review. It was an enlightening and enriching experience, truly.

Yet the reason it was tucked away in the basement is that the main auditorium had been reserved by the Music Department for the quarterly concert by the student orchestra. The music from it was piped out to monitors in the lobby. At our concert's intermission, they were playing Ravel's Ma Mère L'oye, and when the string quartet concert was over, the orchestra was playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. And y'know, I would rather have been there.

Monday, February 26, 2024

on the cusp of bureaucracy

Hurrah, my new driving license arrived, just two weeks after my last visit to the DMV.

The process wasn't so much difficult - though it was that - as consequential, insofar as if anything went wrong I'd be without a license.

You can start as early as 3 months before the renewal date, and I did that. Went online and got an appointment at what I hoped was the most obscurely located (hence perhaps uncrowded) local DMV office - the one that opened at 7 AM that I used before has since closed. I arrive at noon, in time for the appointment, to find no open parking spaces and a long line for non-appointment customers. Go through the normal rigarmarole, to find a new wrinkle. Although in previous renewals my unusual optical situation (one of my eyes can't be corrected for distance vision) was merely checked off, this time they insist I get an eye doctor to verify it. They give me a form for the doctor to fill out, and a temporary license which, as it's only good for two months, expires before the real one does.

Then I have to get an appointment at the eye clinic. My local one has no appointments available for as long as they take appointments for. But it's easy to get one at another branch some distance away. I go there. Usual eye test, new prescription, doctor fills out form, notices that the DMV, when writing down the results of the eye test I took there, mixed the two eyes up.

I can't get an appointment online to turn the form in, because there's no option for this on the web site, which is very baroque and forces you to fill out the application form every time you log in, even if you specified you've already done that. So I decide to return to the same DMV office sans appointment, only this time when they open at 8.

This is much more successful. There's plenty of parking spaces and nobody in line. I get my business done without an appointment faster than I had with an appointment at a busier time. Clerk corrects error on the form, agrees that everything looks OK, confirms I did everything else on my previous visit, isn't put off by all the phantom applications I filled out on the web site, sends me off in the hope that the license will actually arrive soon.

It's two weeks later when I find that this was correct, and that brings us to today and, I hope, the end of this story.

Friday, February 23, 2024

theory in practice

So I've been watching, on YouTube, early episodes of the BBC quiz show Only Connect, which I'd long avoided because I hate the title. In practice it's strangely hypnotic. Its aim is to test both knowledge (over a broad field from academic and technical to British pop culture) and imagination. No one person is expected to display this; it's played in teams of three. I get the answers a lot less often that the teams do, but often enough that I could imagine myself being on a team, and every once in a while I get the answer faster than the teams do.

My favorite of its quizzes is the one where you're given up to three clues and have to guess what the fourth in the series is. Extra points if you guess the fourth after only two or (very rarely) one. (One case where they got it after one was where the one was the text of a 401 web error code and a contestant guessed very reasonably that the fourth would be the classic 404.) Some of the ones that I had no trouble guessing right faster than the teams did, and after only two clues, were
  1. Alexander the Great
  2. Aristotle
  1. Victoria
  2. Edmonton
  1. Ares
  2. Gaia
But my absolute favorite was the one which read
  1. Fear
  2. Surprise
The team given this was absolutely stumped. They were imagining something akin to the Five Stages of Grief (which has also been used in this quiz segment). Meanwhile the other team was chomping at the bit to answer it, and so was I. We knew that the fourth in that sequence is "devotion to the Pope," because "fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope" are the chief weapons - pardon, amongst our weaponry - of the Spanish Inquisition in the Monty Python sketch.

And this comes to mind because I was reading Ada Palmer's wise essay about censorship. And yes, she mentions the Spanish Inquisition. Amongst the article's weaponry is the point that censorship doesn't have to be formally conducted by governments. They can lure people into censoring themselves, and their chief weapons for doing this are described as
  1. fear
  2. deliberate unpredictability (i.e. surprise)
So you can see that, silly as Monty Python is, it's based on reality.

Answers to the unanswered quiz items above. Remember we want the fourth in the sequence.
1. Socrates (each was taught by the next).
2. Winnipeg (Canadian provincial capitals from west to east).
3. Hermes (planet names, inbound, in Greek).

Thursday, February 22, 2024

more world according to cats

It's not going to eat you, Maia: it's only a laundry basket.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

world according to cats

The cats were sleeping in the lazy hours of the afternoon as I hoisted the remaining half-bag of cat food from storage to the upstairs bathroom where we feed them. I managed to keep it silent enough that the food did not rattle.

Closing the bathroom door, I no longer worried about sound as I opened the canister we keep up there, poured the food in, and sealed it up again.

So I was not at all surprised, on opening the door, to find two faces at the threshold patiently looking in. As I left, the cats were scouring the bathroom trying to figure out where the food went. They knew they'd heard it, so it had to be there somewhere.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

presidential greatness

A news item has been running around that historians have once again been asked to rank all US presidents in order of greatness, with the obvious one coming last and the relatives of James Buchanan thanking the scholars for getting him out of the bottom hole at last. However, it's hard to get at the actual list, and I had to fight my way past a series of "Danger Will Robinson" warning labels from my internet security provider to do it.

So as a public service, here's the list, enhanced by me with full names and terms of office. The authors forgot that there were two presidents named Harrison so they didn't distinguish them, so I just guessed which was which. Also, although Biden is called #46 there are only 45 names because there was a 19th-century president, Grover Cleveland, who served two separated terms and gets two numbers - a numbering practice not followed in any other case I know of office-holders more likely to experience repetitions.
  1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45)
  3. George Washington (1789-97)
  4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09)
  5. Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)
  6. Harry S. Truman (1945-53)
  7. Barack Obama (2009-17)
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61)
  9. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)
  10. John F. Kennedy (1961-63)
  11. James Madison (1809-17)
  12. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
  13. John Adams (1797-1801)
  14. Joe Biden (2021- )
  15. Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)
  16. Ronald Reagan (1981-89)
  17. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77)
  18. James Monroe (1817-25)
  19. George H.W. Bush (1989-93)
  20. John Quincy Adams (1825-29)
  21. Andrew Jackson (1829-37)
  22. Jimmy Carter (1977-81)
  23. William H. Taft (1909-13)
  24. William McKinley (1897-1901)
  25. James K. Polk (1845-49)
  26. Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97)
  27. Gerald R. Ford (1974-77)
  28. Martin Van Buren (1837-41)
  29. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81)
  30. James A. Garfield (1881)
  31. Benjamin Harrison (1889-93)
  32. Calvin Coolidge (1923-29)
  33. Chester A. Arthur (1881-85)
  34. George W. Bush (2001-09)
  35. Richard Nixon (1969-74)
  36. Herbert Hoover (1929-33)
  37. John Tyler (1841-45)
  38. Zachary Taylor (1849-50)
  39. Millard Fillmore (1850-53)
  40. Warren G. Harding (1921-23)
  41. William H. Harrison (1841)
  42. Franklin Pierce (1853-57)
  43. Andrew Johnson (1865-69)
  44. James Buchanan (1857-61)
  45. Donald J. Trump (2017-21)
I would find it difficult to vote in a survey like this. How do you account for actual malignancy in presidents? I count five clear-cut cases, not all of which are ranked at the very bottom; plus about three more with malignant traits passing beyond foolish or erroneous policy, and no, I'm not counting "being a slave-owner in a slave-owning society" as evidence of malignancy. (Though it is notable that only 3 of our first 18 presidents were entirely free of either the taint of this practice or of fellow-traveling in its favor.)

Monday, February 19, 2024

Hugo, I'll stay home

"We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." - T.B. Macaulay

I'm beginning to be reminded of that by some of the reactions to the scandal regarding last year's Hugos. No question that it was very badly run and all sorts of rules both written and implied were violated. The question at hand is, Now what do we do about it?

Here's a proposal that makes me wonder. The author sweepingly denounces
the cartel of self-proclaimed "SMOFs" (secret masters of fandom) who treat the Hugos - and Worldcon more broadly - as their birthright, playground and personal fiefdom. The Hugo Awards are supposed to be democratic in nature and process; the behavior of the self-proclaimed "SMOFs" is fundamentally anti-democratic - and this is by no means confined to Chengdu Worldcon.
Note that last clause in particular. That being the author's belief, why is one of the proposals that
Individual Cons should no longer administer the Hugo Awards - this should be done by an independent, rotating committee.
Wouldn't that continuing committee be a "cartel" even more than having each convention run the Hugos separately? Sure, if it's rotating it wouldn't be the same people every year, but that's what we have now. There is an informal mass of people known as the permanent floating Worldcon committee, who keep turning up doing the job - and a good thing that often is: they have experience, they're not starting from scratch every year - but each Worldcon is a separate entity and has its own administration. That means that, a few specific overlapping individuals aside (and the relevant one has resigned), the upcoming Worldcons in Glasgow and Seattle are in no way complicit in or tainted by anything that was done by Chengdu. If we had a permanent Hugos committee, we'd lose that.

In any case, practice has been to hermetically seal off the Hugo subcommittee from the main Worldcon committee, for the purpose of protecting the main committee - which can be an awfully large number of people, with uncertainty as to which workers formally qualify as part of it and which don't - from the constitutional provision that those responsible for the Hugos are ineligible as candidates. The main committee can't make the Hugo administrators do anything. Whether Dave McCarty, the Chengdu administrator, accepted direction from above is unknown - we only have his e-mails to his subordinates - but, if so, that was his decision. And a permanent committee wouldn't have been immune to unwonted sensitivity to Chinese censorship.

The current situation is that each Worldcon appoints its own Hugo administrators. And these are either seasoned trusted experienced people who've done it before - which class included Dave McCarty until last month - or new people without any historical baggage, or, mostly these days, some of each. A continuing committee would have the same sort of people, because who else is there to do the job? And without being individually selected by the Worldcon committee, who would select them? Would the committee choose its own new members? Would the Worldcon Business Meeting? If we don't trust the Worldcons themselves to do it - they're selected by the members, who are the ultimate authority.

Perhaps it's clear, then, why I'm also dismayed by another proposal, which reads
No one involved in the administration of the 2023 Hugo Awards, or who assisted in the collection of political evidence, can ever be allowed to have any role in administering the awards ever again.
What exactly is the point of this stricture? It must be just to punish the specific individuals involved and to chill all future administrators with the threat of this very meek form of cancellation, because it can't be to keep maladministrators out of office. It's fallacious to think that only the people who did this, could have done it. Nobody would have suspected Dave McCarty of it until he did it. If someone else were in his place, maybe they would have done the same thing. Human fallibility isn't limited to identified miscreants, but it's convenient to identify a scapegoat and then think you've solved the problem.

I don't think any Worldcon is likely to appoint McCarty again, even without directives. Some of the lower flunkies were perhaps naive or ill-informed and not as responsible. My belief is that we should learn our lesson from this, as we did from the Puppies affair, and move on. A constitutional provision specifically prohibiting the erroneous acts of Chengdu couldn't hurt, but being aware that this flaw in administration could happen is the best way to prevent it from happening again.