Wednesday, May 5, 2021

a shavian mystery

Looking through the biography of Winston Churchill by Roy Jenkins (2001), and reading the part about Churchill's truly unfortunate involvement in trying to prevent the abdication of King Edward VIII, I find a transcript of a strange letter - Jenkins mentions "the rashness of content and the jauntiness of tone, in sharp contrast with the note of measured respect in which he normally addressed his sovereign" - encouraging the king to hold out against pressure to abdicate and naming some potential allies he should enlist.

It's not clear if one of these is intended to be the person named in point 5 of the letter: "For real wit Bernard Shaw's article in to-night's Evening Standard should be read. He is joyous."

I wonder what Shaw said, and indeed whether it had anything to do with the abdication at all - it could have been "oh, you must read this funny article," irrespective of anything else Churchill was saying. I'm still wondering.

There's nothing about this letter in Frances Donaldson's biography of the Duke of Windsor (1975), which I happen to have - the inscription shows it was a high-school graduation present from my aunt - but Donaldson does give context, that Jenkins doesn't discuss, that reveals how futile Churchill's intervention was. By the date of the letter, 5 Dec. 1936, Edward had definitely made up his mind to abdicate, though Donaldson says that Churchill's influence "temporarily weakened the King's resolution." (Churchill came to dinner with the king - Jenkins says the previous day, Donaldson says on both days.) Donaldson even says at one point that the king had already rejected the participation of Lord Beaverbrook, one of Churchill's suggested allies ("He is a tiger to fight. A devoted tiger! Very scarce breed").

But what of Shaw? Donaldson never mentions him; Jenkins says nothing else either. I consulted the monumental biography of Shaw by Michael Holroyd (v. 3 of 4, 1991). All he says of the abdication is that Shaw made "an approving reference" to it in the play he was writing at the time. Holroyd does, however, devote a couple of pages to recounting Shaw's rather peripatetic friendship with Churchill.

If the research libraries were open, I might be able to track down the original article - I doubt there will be microfilms of the Evening Standard (which was one of the papers of Lord Rothermere, another megalomaniac press baron like Beaverbrook), but if there's a collected edition of the complete journalism of Shaw it might be there. But they're not open, so it's moot for now.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

remembering the cold war

I was reading historical accounts of the earlier decades of the Cold War, and remembering what it was like to live through it.

We really did have drills at school in which we huddled on the floor underneath our desks for a specified period, 60 or 90 seconds, while our teacher patrolled the room to ensure we were doing it properly. I doubt that, as a small child, I really understood what it was for, but in retrospect to protect yourself from the Bomb that way seems pathetic. I suspect it was drills of that sort which generated the exchange in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,
'I thought,' he said 'that if the world was going to end we were meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something.'
'If you like, yes,' said Ford.
'Will that help?' asked the barman.
'No,' said Ford.
Of course, what we were afraid of, that might bring these bombs, was Communism. So what was Communism, and why was it bad?

We were told that Communism imposed totalitarian control over life, and that specifically it was a politico-economic system that abolished private property.

This was perhaps a misleading way of explaining it to a small child. I knew that our house was my parents' property, but the only form of private property I was actually familiar with was my own, which consisted of my clothes, and my toys and books. If Communism abolished private property, it therefore seemed to me that, under it, I would have to live in some sort of dormitory with strange boys, and we would get all our clothes out of a communal drawer. Yech!

I had never had to share my clothes - as the oldest child in the family, I never even wore hand-me-downs, though my brothers did - but I had lived, at camp, in dormitories with strange boys, an experience I found utterly unappealing. So I was firmly anti-Communist.

Which reminds me that I had read somewhere that Barry Goldwater supported making school year-round. I was 7 years old, so that was enough that I was opposed to Barry Goldwater too.

Monday, May 3, 2021

the pandemic that (perhaps) never ends

One on my reading list has pointed out that, the more the virus flourishes in - at the moment - India and other Asian countries, the greater the likelihood that a new genetic variant will emerge that is immune to and unaffected by our vaccines, either completely or partially enough to be significant. The actual likelihood of this happening is uncertain, because we don't know enough about the virus's evolutionary patterns, but it's certainly more than zero and becomes higher the more transmission is going on.

This is not a point I'd previously directly considered, though I certainly know that it's possible.

In which case, the person points out, we'll have to start all over again with the lockdowns and the development of a new vaccine.

And what I say is: if we get to that point, then the pandemic will never end. Because there are three reasons why it's dragging on as long as it is, and only one of those reasons is slowness and inefficiently in the distribution of vaccine. The other two are 1) failure of a sufficient number of people to abide by lockdowns and other safety procedures; 2) failure of a sufficient number of people to get the vaccine.

And if we have to start all over, the number of people too weary of all this to either abide by safety procedures or to get the new vaccine will only increase. What they can't grasp is that rigid adherence for a long enough period is the only way to end this. If you give up because you just want it to go away, it never will.

I've been reading, for instance here, that countermeasures are being dropped too quickly and not enough people are getting vaccinated. A few more weeks should do it, the writer says, but it's not happening. And yet, as the writer doesn't say, that applies only to the U.S. and assumes nothing more virulent comes from overseas, which of course it will if it exists at all.

The original writer says that, considering the possibility of a renewed pandemic, we should therefore take advantage of our newfound freedom to do things, because it may not last. And to an extent that's good advice. But everything I've read about "so what can we do now?" talks about balancing: the risks - because the vaccine isn't 100% protective and there's too many unvaccinated still spreading virus around - against your personal need to do these things. The risk seems constant; it's the extent of the need that allows you to take greater risks.

Those needs are usually expressed in psychological terms - there's a limit to how long you can stand being cooped up at home all day - and here, as an extreme introvert, my needs are low. Back last fall, when the virus transmission increased dramatically, I cut out the few things I was going: supplementary grocery shopping (in addition to our weekly pickup order) in person, and getting takeout meals from indoor restaurants. Once I was vaccinated, I resumed those things. And I'm also going back to the gym, which I ceased when the pandemic started last March, not in the fall (to be fair, that's when the gyms closed).

But not much more. I've had exactly one outdoor dine-in restaurant meal. My brother and I are planning a day's travel expedition when he visits next month, and that will involve more meals. I'm prepared to attend socially distanced, preferably outdoor, concerts when they resume, like Menlo's potentially in July. (The San Francisco Symphony just now got around to telling me, as a subscriber, something I already knew from news reports, that they're going to start a few indoor but distanced concerts in May and June, but I doubt I'll go: too much nuisance getting there.)

Two more things I am definitely not attempting until and unless things markedly improve. 1) overnight car trips: too much still shut down, and too many logistical hassles also involving my advancing personal health issues. 2) Airplane flights. That's the one area where I don't trust the conventional assuring wisdom, in this case that the air circulates so it's OK to be cooped up with strangers for hours. I don't trust it because I have too much personal experience of catching nasty colds and flus from airplane rides.

John Oliver read my mind

"The Covid vaccines: the end result of the world's greatest scientists working around the clock to save countless lives, immortalized in a card we'll all definitely lose in a month. Vitally important, but also too big to fit in any standard wallet. Way to fumble at the one yard line, science." - John Oliver

Friday, April 30, 2021

unfolded in review

Blogger Scott Alexander is running one of his book review contests, in which readers submit lengthy analytical and critical reviews of a book of each writer's choice, usually non-fiction, and then his general readership votes for the best one. (Among the non-finalists this year is a very interesting view of The Silmarillion. It's in the docs file on this page, alphabetized under T for "The".)

So one of the finalists this year covers Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker, which interests me, as the book is a critique of librarianship, which was my profession for most of my working life. It struck me as the most sophomoric book I'd ever read. "Sophomore" means "wise fool," and Baker combines some highly appropriate complaints about the difficulties and limitations of using microfilm with some incredibly ignorant attacks on libraries for supposedly discarding perfectly serviceable print material, mostly newspapers, after microfilming them.

According to Baker, this was still going on wholesale into the 1990s, but I knew there had to be something wrong here. I was taught in library school, in 1980, which was over 20 years before Baker's book was published, that discarding serviceable print material this way was a bad idea that had been abandoned in the 1950s. It was not good library practice. I suspect Baker's claims were, at the least, selective and misleading. I didn't work in library preservation, but that's also the impression I got from such comments about the book that I heard from specialists in that area.

I was one of several librarians who weighed in on the comments section there, which seems now to have settled down after a day or so of heavy-duty response.

Baker's ignorant approach was also obvious to me from his complaints (not in the book but in some associated articles) about card catalog conversion to electronic form. Now that was my specialty, so I could see the flaws straight out. Baker's argument was that a lot of valuable information, often specific to the individual copy, was preserved on catalog cards that didn't get transferred to electronic form. But he was mistaken. For one thing, when I did the job, at least, that information got transferred. For another, he seems unaware that, even after discarding the main card catalog, the library preserved a master card catalog in the back workroom called the shelf list, and those cards had not only the information Baker was concerned about, but more information, e.g. on acquisition dates, that never appeared in the public catalog at all.

This gives me a chance to say here, since it wouldn't have fit the comments section, how retrospective conversion, which is the technical term for what I did, worked. I would take a section of the shelf list, which has just one card for each book (where the public catalog has multiple cards for authors, titles, subjects), sit down at the computer, and log in to a union catalog database like RLIN or OCLC. These were the ancestors to the public WorldCat you may use today; the main difference was that they were designed for librarian use only, used specialized search functions, and displayed the results in the hypertext mark-up language called MARC that catalogers use and everyone else finds incomprehensible. They were loaded with records from their users and with the online database from the Library of Congress.

I would search for each book in turn, and if I found a matching record, I would edit it for errors and omissions (sometimes necessary with the more sketchy records from obscurer libraries), add our local data - copy-specific information like provenance, call number and shelving location - and enter the record. We were now listed as holding that book.

If the book wasn't in the system - and especially in the earlier years it often wasn't - I would copy the info from the card, adding the hypertext tags, and create a new record. Or, if some other edition of the work was already there, I'd copy that data over into a blank record and save work that way. This was called variant-edition cataloging.

This work required a lot of care, not just the ability to conduct accurate searches. OCLC's search system was extremely bizarre: to search for The Lord of the Rings you'd type lor,of,th,r and then the search would bomb out because there were too many editions, so you'd have to get at it some other way. And this was bad because OCLC charged by the search, so you'd best know beforehand what would work and what wouldn't.

Also vital: Knowing all the tricks of cataloging to distinguish between different editions was vital, especially with foreign books with different publishing practices; a working knowledge of various European languages, at least as far as their publishing practices were concerned (Asian languages were rare in the libraries where I worked, though I did once have to catalog a book in Farsi); complete comfort with all the complex and numerous MARC tags; accurate typing and the ability to look at catalog cards all day without getting walleyed.

Every once in a while I'd find something odd on a card, a lack of sufficient information to identify whether a record I'd found online fit the book, or something on the card that didn't fit with the online records, like a publication date preceding what was clearly the first edition.* In which case I insisted, sometimes against some supervisory opposition, on going to the stacks and checking the actual book. Usually I found an error or omission in the card and was able to recatalog the book, sometimes from scratch - another skill set.

*This was particularly common at one library, where a long-ago cataloger who didn't read French would misread the enactment date of the French copyright law as the book's publication date.

Going to the stacks was particularly exciting when I worked at the Hoover Institution, where the stacks (closed to public use) were in the shaft of the Tower up a rickety elevator, and as the shaft had no windows, each floor was pitch-black until you felt around for the light switch. And what was then revealed was a small cramped space full of dust and piles of books on the floor because they'd long since run out of room.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

not parosmia

Athena Scalzi reports that she has the common post-Covid symptom of parosmia, wherein foods that you formerly liked - in her case, mint, coffee, peanut butter, and meat - all taste and smell really bad, rancid and disgusting.

What interested me is that at first she thought the particular batch of food had just gone bad. Because that's what happened to me, long ago, with milk.

I was 9 years old and used to drinking an individual-serving container of milk with my school lunch. One day the milk tasted off. Not horribly rancid as in parosmia, just spoiled. I figured it had gone bad. Next day, the same thing. Third day, I made sure it was fresh milk, and I had someone else take a sip of it from a cup. They said it was fine, but I found it still spoiled.

So I figured something had gone wrong with me and milk, and I've never drunk any plain milk since. I do eat cheese, and I sometimes use milk in cooking, but I don't drink milk.

I haven't tried any in the interim either. In this way it differs from beer. Every decade or so I try a glass of beer to see if it still tastes like beer. It always does, so I put it down and leave it alone for another decade.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

no news yet

As this is not India, life is slowly beginning to emerge from under the carapace. The CDC has relaxed the mask-wearing guidelines for open outdoors activity. The government has announced that vaccines are now available for all adults, and B. and I, having long since signed up at the state's "My Turn" websites, have received e-mails and texts telling us that it's our turn.

A little late, actually, as we've already both had ours through our health provider, which had bumped us up a step or two. B. was already out of the two-week post-second-shot latency period for Easter, and my turn came this week. So I've resumed in-person shopping, though we'll continue using the supermarket pick-up service for staples and packaged foods, since that's so convenient and means less trudging through the stores in our aging bodies: but I will resume choosing my own produce.

I'm also resuming getting take-out meals from indoor restaurants, and am trying slowly to check out the local Chinese places I hadn't been to before; more when I've made more progress on that.

And we've both resumed going to the gym, which we rather intensely had wanted. B. has joined a new gym with better equipment and a lower membership cost than our old one, and I'm trying it out on a guest pass. Then I'll go back to the old one for comparison purposes, and decide after that, so more on that later too.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Hobbit first

Sherwood Smith asked her readers, did you read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings first, and how did the experience go? She got a lot of interesting answers. Here's mine:

I read The Hobbit first. I was eleven and in the fifth grade when my teacher chose it as one of the books she read to us, chapter by chapter, in the final minutes of the school day. I was quite taken with it, but the real breakthrough came a few months later when I was offered the chance to borrow a copy. I grabbed the opportunity to read it for myself instead of just hearing it aloud, and to catch up on the Mirkwood chapter which I'd missed through being sick that day.

Like so many of the readers who'd written to Tolkien during the interval between H and LOTR, I was most enchanted by the historical and geographical vistas revealed in the story, with hints of so much more left untold. My teacher had told us there were sequels - she used the plural. Immediately after finishing the book I did something I'd never done before, which was to raid my own money and ride my bike down to a small local bookstore and buy copies of all four volumes.

From that point I was lost to the world. I read the whole thing again each year on the anniversary of my first reading. It took six years - achingly long years if you're an adolescent - before I found anyone else who'd read the books and wanted to discuss them. And that was a discussion group of the Mythopoeic Society. And there I've been ever since.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

uh oh, Oscar statistics

So I was reading this article by Dan Kois noting that Nomadland, which just swept the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (second woman ever to have won that award), and Best Actress, "is one of only six movies focused on the lives and stories of women ever to win" Best Picture. "By my count," the author says.

That's potentially subjective, and requires familiarity with all the individual movies to judge, but something else Kois says is more easily measurable. "When men get nominated for Best Actor, their movies are Best Picture contenders, I wrote. When women get nominated for Best Actress, too often their movies are not."

I have a database. I can count that up real fast. So I did. Going first from 2010, when is when the number of Best Picture nominees was increased to 8-10, I find the number of Best Leading Actor/Actress finalists that are also nominated for Best Picture comes out like this:

Number    Actor      Actress
  1                    3
  2         2          4
  3         3          4
  4         6          1
  5         1

That's an average of 2.25 for women, 3.5 for men.

Going back to 1945-2009, the period in which there were 5 Best Picture nominees (throughout this period and since, there's always been 5 nominees for the acting awards), I find:

Number    Actor      Actress
  0         1          8
  1         9         27
  2        21         20
  3        24          8
  4         8          1
  5         2          1

That's an average of about 1.5 for women, about 2.5 for men. It's not as overwhelming a tendency as Kois's wording implies, but it's a decidedly strong - and lasting - bias.

The one year that all 5 Best Leading Actress nominees were also in movies nominated for Best Picture, by the way, was 1978, when Diane Keaton won for Annie Hall, which also won for Best Picture, and her competitors were Jane Fonda in Julia, Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, and both Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point. (The Best Picture nominee that didn't have a Best Actress nominee in it was Star Wars.) Of those four movies, two have relationships between women at or near the center of the story; two emphatically don't. Take that for what it's worth. (The year that no Best Actor nominees were nominated for Best Picture was 2007, but I don't know anything about most of those movies in either category, so will refrain from analyzing.)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

English suites and others no. 43

Antonín Dvořák was not the guy who invented the keyboard layout; he was a composer. He was a Czech in the days when that meant you were a citizen of the Austrian Empire, but he identified intensely with his ethnicity. He was one of the leading figures among late-19C composers of various nationalities who found inspiration in their own people's folk songs and dances and in the rhythms of their native language.

Accordingly, Dvořák's music could be very Czech, and what more so than his melodic and dance-filled Czech Suite?

The movements are: Prelude (Pastorale) (0.55), Polka (4.44), Minuet (9.43), Romance (14.34), Finale (Furiant) (19.03).

As for what else Dvořák did, that's even more interesting and we'll get to it.