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.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

lunch from a pot

Since I'm not going out for lunch now, I made a big pot of jambalaya which should serve as my lunch for most of the week.

Ingredients: 2 boxes of jambalaya rice mix (any brand but Zatarain's, which is the only brand most of the markets carry and which is terrible); 2 pounds andouille sausage, chopped up; 1 pound boneless chicken thighs, also chopped up; 1 pound medium-small shrimp, completely shelled; 2 onions, chopped; 1 bell pepper, chopped. It's also supposed to have celery, but that's a nuisance to deal with. Picked up all these at assorted market runs over the last week.

Saute the veggies in oil, take them out; brown the chicken and sausage; add the rice mix and water (alt: chicken broth) and cook, adding in the veggies and shrimp in the last few minutes. Eat a bowl or two, put the rest in tupperware to refrigerate; wash the pot.

I also have a couple packs of seafood paella mix from the vendor at Pike Place where they toss the fish, from my last visit to Seattle two months ago (seems longer than that now), and I'll make that after I'm sure that I've found some dry chorizo, because it doesn't work with the more usual wet chorizo.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

and some books and movies

Up early this morning, so out grocery shopping again, this time at a semi-boutique market I visit only occasionally, close to home and one of only two outlets they have. The first morning hours are seniors-only, and by their definition I count as a senior, although nobody had told any of this to the employee stationed at the front door with hand-sanitizer wipes (much less annoying than the liquid stuff).

Inside, very civilized. All the customers very polite and cautious, unlike the stories I've been reading about large markets elsewhere. Low on packaged dinners, few paper products, but plenty of produce. This store doesn't sell packaged fresh meat; everything is behind the butcher counter, and they had plenty of everything. Had to caution myself not to buy more than I could use before it would go bad.

(Excuse me: B has alerted me that I need to shoo Tybalt out of the bathroom cupboard.)

In amongst editing work (this is the line and copy and house-style editing I most enjoy), I've gotten a little other entertainment, like books:

A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government by Garry Wills. No it isn't: not a history of distrust of government, I mean. It's a historically-organized set of polemics debunking all sorts of arguments for distrusting government. In brisk order, Wills dismisses Second Amendment wet dreams of the Revolutionary Era (few had guns, most were busted, few could fix them, and even the ones that worked were muskets that couldn't hit anything accurately), nullifiers, seceders, insurrections, vigilantes, Thoreau, and H.L. Mencken, about whom Wills is particularly bitter because he used to admire Mencken. Wills' idea of an admirable distruster of government is Dr. King, who didn't oppose government entire but only specific things that government did, and who justified civil disobedience with a set of moral principles, every one of which Thoreau violated, exposing Thoreau as a sanctimonious twit.

Cold Fire: Kennedy's Northern Frontier by John Boyko. I picked this up on my last trip to Canada. You wouldn't find it anywhere else. It's a history of the JFK administration's relations with Canada, detailed enough to show that things rarely ran smoothly. JFK just couldn't stand John Diefenbaker, Canadian prime minister for most of his term, especially after Diefenbaker made Kennedy plant a tree on his trip to Ottawa, wrenching out Kennedy's back. Boyko even goes so far as to blame Diefenbaker for Kennedy's assassination, because without the brace Kennedy had to wear after his back went out, he'd have slumped down after the first shot and wouldn't have been hit by the fatal one. Nevertheless, Diefenbaker is Boyko's hero, because at least he tried to maintain Canada's dignity even if all it did was annoy the Americans. After Diefenbaker was defeated in the April 1963 election, due (Boyko says) largely to Putinesque connivance by the Americans, his successor, Lester Pearson, is depicted as a spineless git who crumbled whenever he inadvertently did something the Americans didn't like. However, because Kennedy liked Pearson, he did give Canada more of the respect Diefenbaker had wanted. Unfortunately, Pearson and LBJ didn't get along.

and some movies:

The Mexican. Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts vehicle in which Pitt is a mostly useless but sometimes surprisingly ruthlessly effective mob flunky who's sent by his crime boss (Bob Balaban, who usually plays nebbishes but here is cold and nasty) to Mexico to fetch a particular antique gun (the Mexican of the title). Meanwhile Roberts, his on/off girlfriend with whom he has titanic arguments, is held hostage by a hit man (James Gandolfini, yes really) to ensure Pitt does the job. Cuts back and forth between the two until they're finally reunited a bit before the end. This movie got criticized for being tedious and overlong, but I found Pitt's misadventures (only some of the goofups are his fault) interesting. It's the developing friendship between Roberts and Gandolfini, which the reviewers liked, which I found getting tedious once she figures out he's gay and they start talking about relationships. When the oft-mentioned mob godfather finally shows up, he turns out to be played by Gene Hackman. Busy series of plot reversals with several deaths marks the ending.

Miss Sloane. Contemporary political thriller about a top Washington lobbyist played by Jessica Chastain. Asked to run a gun-rights campaign, she literally laughs it off and goes to work for the underfunded gun-control group instead, for the challenge of it. Though the incidents are all fictional, the arguments pro and anti are all real, and as the movie slowly sinks into the campaign, one realizes that despite the excellent, tightly-wound acting and crackerjack directing (by the guy who helmed Shakespeare in Love), the script isn't really very good. Eventually the battle becomes personal and the movie turns back into a thriller with a lot of twists in the ending. With Mark Strong (who's come a long way since he played Kate Beckinsale's Mr Knightley with ridiculous hair; now he has no hair at all), John Lithgow (who actually plays his character: good going John), and Alison Pill (whom you definitely should keep an eye on).

Friday, March 20, 2020

unsafe, no way

I thought it might be time to transition to having our groceries shopped for by the store, an option that's being heavily pushed both by the authorities and the stores themselves.

We do most of our shopping at Safeway, which dominates the food markets around here, so I logged on to their website, with an account we've never actually used before, and girded for battle. They offer both delivery and pickup, whereby you come to the store, call them, and they bring the groceries out to your car.

Pickup seemed easier to arrange than delivery, because the store people don't have to go anywhere, so I chose that option. I saw an option reading "Reserve a pickup time." There I found that they allow you to pick a time up to seven days in advance - no further - but that all times for all days were unavailable. That was true for three different stores. I was expecting that arranging a time might take a couple days, but no availability at all doesn't scan.

When I switched to delivery, there wasn't even an option to set a time. So how are you supposed to know when the delivery will be, and is it in fact not possible to arrange for either? So I phoned them. An hour's waiting later, I gave up.

So B's going out shopping today (this still remains her best day of the week to do it, as she's still working, just from home - and yes, they're paying her). My grocery needs can wait a couple days, but I'm going out when I need them.

This had better get fixed, and soon. Otherwise I'm going out grocery-shopping when I need to, regardless of anything else. And if They don't like that, they'd better get this fixed.


The little mailer from the census office came yesterday. It was a sheet of paper listing a website and an ID number which it turned out was keyed to your residence. First thing it asks when you log in is if it has the right address. (One of many places where it assumes goodwill on the part of the respondent.) Then it gave me my name in the inhabitant block - without middle name, so I just left it that way and filled in B's with her use name. Later I wondered if I should put full legal names in, but while the system will let you go back and change other answers, you can't edit the names without starting over, so I just left it.

Since I have a computer handy, I found this easier to deal with than the paper forms of yore, which required painstakingly handwriting things in outlined boxes. Long ago I used to roll forms like that into the typewriter and painstakingly line them up, but since my last electric one went on the fritz I no longer have a typewriter, so computer is easier.

There were some curious features. When you fill in your birthdate, it automatically tells you how old you'll be on the official census day: clever but disconcerting. It also asks you your sex: there are only two choices, which feels a little retro today, but it wasn't a problem for us. There was a whole raft of choices to describe the relationship of the other people in the household to the first one.

This is, notably for me, the first decennial census in my entire life where I'm living in the same residence as the previous census. We've been in this house for 12 1/2 years. Our previous house we were in for 16 years, but it only covered one census. Though I've lived in other areas, that too was never at census time, and all my census locations have been in one of three counties in this immediate area.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

in the scrum

How the shelter arrangement was working I didn't know at first, as I didn't leave home, aside from bringing newspapers in and taking trash out, for the better part of two days.

But I needed to drop off my tax forms at my accountant's office (they said push them under the door - it's inside an office building - and someone will pick them up later), and figured I could do some shopping at the same time. I deliberately drove a route along commercial streets so I could see what was happening.

The traffic was light, yes, but it was hardly a ghost town. Only when I saw the empty parking lot at a mall did it seem spooky. A lot of restaurants had little neon "open" signs in the windows, so at least for now the chances that one is open are good enough to make inquiries worth a shot.

The only lots where I saw a lot of cars were at supermarkets. I went to one from a local chain which had seemed relatively normal during earlier stages of the crisis, though it had been hit badly by panics the last time I was there on, I think, Monday morning. Its lot was a lot less full than others, and I didn't have too much trouble maintaining distance from other shoppers. Still, I want to keep these excursions down.

Result: produce, fully recovered. Plenty of broccoli. Still lots of holes in the packaged dinners section. Paper towels, but still no toilet paper.

Cases in Italy are still going up, and now they're considering banning all outdoor activity. That might help, but it may not be clear that, because of the incubation period, the reason cases are going up now is because of what happened before the restrictions were put into place at all. So new restrictions won't have any effect on that: what it might have an effect on is what happens 2-3 weeks from now. This is what I mean by being behind events.

In the meantime, lots of work at home. I'm trying an electronic connection which is turning out to be ... challenging. But useful when it's working.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

on the verge

It's 10:45 AM on the first day of the shutdown, and two things have just happened:

1) I got an automated phone call from the county, telling me of the shutdown. Oh really? Perhaps they waited until now so they could prepare the other item mentioned in the phone call, which is their official website about it.

Terrific, but how are the people who rely on the computers at public libraries - I see them there in great numbers every time I visit - going to access this website, or anything else on the internet? Because the libraries are, of course, closed.

2) B. has come home from work. Rather to her surprise, she'd received last night, after she'd normally have gone to bed on a work night, an e-mail defining her workplace as an Essential Business. Because they've got to have computer data storage, even though there's no shortage of it. B. works with a lot of people from Asia, who visit there frequently. Her supervisor is actually from very near in China from where the virus broke out, so it's a good thing he didn't go back for a visit last December as he usually does at that time of year.

So B. went to work this morning and spent the time persuading them that a person in a few of the heightened risk categories should not be there, and they finally sent her home.

Meanwhile ... three weeks of sheltering, that seems tolerable. I'll miss checking out library books, but maybe I can re-learn the incredibly bizarre, complex, and unintuitive methods for checking out e-books. Absent anything urgent showing up, the only thing I regularly need to leave home for is groceries, since we have limited room to store staples and frozen things, and we live mostly on vegetables which are perishable. So I hope the panic buying dies down soon. We'll run out of toilet paper in several weeks, so I hope I can find some before then.

The problem is, I doubt it's going to be just three weeks. Here and here is the data showing that if the shutdown is to serve its intended purpose of flattening the health-care need curve, it'll have to be in effect for some two years, and even then it will only have a modest effect on the fatality rate.

And I doubt that will be tolerable, not to mention the effect that even the three-week version will have on the economy. (I expect a lot of restaurants to close permanently. I'd like to support them by ordering takeout, but is there a list of who's offering that? I don't want to have to check a whole bunch one-by-one.) There may be newer and fiercer rules being put into place long before the three weeks are over. Remember that three weeks ago from now there were no closures or restrictions. I went to three open concerts during that next week. Everything's been piled on us bit by bit since then, and I don't expect it to stop now.

Monday, March 16, 2020

in a hole in the ground there sheltered a resident

So now the entire urban area is being put under "shelter in place" orders, effective tonight for three weeks. It's kind of exasperating, because if this is necessary at all, it ought to have been done weeks ago when it might have had a measurable effect. Even two weeks ago, which is when the performance cancellations began to trickle in. It's been a steady increase in rules and restrictions since then, each bringing in a new and more suffocating regime. There's no reason to suppose this will be the last, but there is a sense that all this is running behind events, trying to catch up. Each new restriction is generated by the realization of what has already happened. An endless series of barn doors are being slammed behind an endless series of empty horse stalls.

But despite the name (the order actually says "All individuals currently living within the County are ordered to shelter at their place of residence"), it's not the kind of shelter-in-place that the police would order if there were an armed criminal loose. It's full of loopholes, to be Exercised with Caution. We "may leave [our] residences only for Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Functions, or to operate Essential Businesses, all as defined in Section 10." There we learn that we may still go out to buy food and other grocery items (including that restaurants can offer takeout and delivery), medicine, hardware; do our banking and our laundry; get our cars gassed and repaired; and oh good, it looks like I can still keep my appointment with our accountant to have our taxes done.

In the meantime, as I discovered having some shopping to do this afternoon, it's spawned off yet another wave of panic buying, after the one last weekend that emptied the toilet paper aisles of all the stores that hadn't been emptied by the previous wave. Even at 2:30, less than three hours after the announcement came out, and long before the normal late-afternoon wave of post-work customers, the supermarkets were packed with people all breathing each other's air like the ones waiting for screening at airport customs, how productive.

I'd noticed while out at other stores early this morning what had been swiped off the shelves and what hadn't. Toilet paper and paper towels, gone; cleaning supplies, not. Vegetables, gone except for asparagus and brussel sprouts; fruit, not. (Apples, pears, and grapes, that is: berries were kind of absent.) Chicken, gone; beef and pork, not.

Fortunately for me, I mostly work at home anyway. In fact I have so much research and editing to do for Tolkien Studies over the upcoming weeks that I'd have to force myself to leave home. The biggest problem is that my home research on the annual bibliography is always followed by work in proprietary databases in various university libraries which only allow visitors to use them on-campus. My first-resort library is outside of the urban area and at last report remained open, but I'm doubtful about the risk of going there. And the other two are closed to outsiders entirely. But I have a workaround in my pocket.

now what?

What's really unclear to me, as it was with the invasion of Iraq, is: what's the endgame here? What are we trying to accomplish, and what will constitute accomplishing it?

It's clear enough that all these societal shutdowns are intended, not to stop the virus, because it's already embedded too much in the population to make that feasible, but to slow the growth of infections enough to keep the hospitals from getting overwhelmed when people start getting sick. But how long do we keep having to do this? Until everyone's exposed to the virus, despite our attempts to keep them away? So ... the better we are at this, the longer we'll have to keep doing it?

And how long will that be? Months, I'd think. Most arts groups I follow started with cancellations through mid or late March and then extended it to the end of April, with no promise it would stop there. One federal health official suggested a complete lockdown of society for two weeks, but that only makes sense if we assume that everyone's already infected and we're just waiting to see who gets sick, and I doubt that's the case.

Maybe the virus will slow down and get sluggish during the summer, as the flu usually does, and people can peek their heads over the parapets and go back to doing a few normal things. But if that's all that happens, it will come roaring back in the fall, probably worse than ever, which is what the 1918-19 pandemic did. And we'll have to go through the whole weary round again, until a vaccine is ready the next year. And will that clamp it down? And what if acquired immunity is only temporary, as it usually is for similar viruses? The 1918-19 pandemic ended when the virus mutated away from more deadly strains (because they killed their hosts too efficiently), but this virus, while deadly, isn't that deadly, so it's not under so much evolutionary pressure.

In the meanwhile, what about commerce? Some cities are shutting down restaurants. Despite one news report saying California is doing it too, it isn't: the governor says food service remains vital. Of course that may change at any moment, as so many other declarations have. I think I read that some European countries are closing all commercial outlets except groceries, pharmacies, and banks. That may be feasible for a short period, a couple weeks maybe, but after that too many urgent needs of daily life that can't be handled by delivery or mail-order will pile up; I won't name any, because you can too.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

musical opinion

Alex Ross on why livestreaming concerts without an audience is not the answer. (And that's not even addressing the question of: what if the performers are affected by the virus, which I believe is the reason that sports aren't taking this course.)

musical reference

If by any chance you're wondering what the source is for Randy Rainbow's latest parody, about the coronavirus, here's a very good version of the original. (From Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser.)

Friday, March 13, 2020

alternative universe

We need a meaningless distraction, so here's one. Let me tote up the concerts I was going to attend this month before they were all canceled. Or postponed, if a time for that ever shows up. So this is a survey of how I prefer to spend my time. Here I am salivating for the meals I'm not going to have.

Tuesday, March 10: Pavel Haas Quartet, Herbst, SF
This one was on my subscription. A Bartok quartet (the Fourth), which is tough but can be interesting, even fun in the right hands; a Martinu (the Sixth), which is likewise, rather unlike the Martinu works I most enjoy; and with the addition of pianist Boris Giltburg, the Dvorak A-major quintet, which is a nice piece but not one I'd normally go a great distance for.

Thursday, March 12: San Francisco Symphony, Davies, SF
Also on my subscription. MTT conducts The Firebird and Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 2. Gautier Capuçon was to be soloist and he's pretty good. Standard repertoire, stuff MTT is good at, pleasant to hear. Also a piece of MTT's own, Lope, which I know nothing about.

Friday, March 13: Peninsula Symphony, San Mateo PAC
This was to be the last event in the Violins of Hope residency and I was planning to review it for the Daily Journal. They would be playing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, one of the more obviously Jewish concertos in the repertoire (and a special jealous-love/hate object for the Nazis), and Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes, which is an interesting and fun semi-klezmer piece.

Sunday, March 15: Monterey Symphony, Sunset Center, Carmel
I was really looking forward to this one, which is why I was willing to drive all the way to Carmel to hear it. Two rarely-heard symphonies: Tchaikovsky's Third, the most obscure of his numbered canon but a little-known gem, and Shostakovich's Fifteenth, possibly the most cryptic and enigmatic symphony in the repertoire. Why did the composer litter it with quotations of things like the William Tell Overture and Wagner's Fate motif? Nobody knows: I found a clue in his earlier work, but I'm not telling.

Friday, March 20: Oakland Symphony, Paramount Theatre, Oakland
Say what? When I signed up to review this for SFCV, it was because Shostakovich's rarely-played Fourth was on the program. Now it says Brahms's Fourth: a great piece, a favorite of mine, and perhaps Brahms's least-played symphony, but not anywhere near so rare. And the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto again. It was the last concert on the list to be canceled, and I was already considering that I'd best not risk going.

Saturday, March 21: Symphony Silicon Valley, California Theatre, SJ
Big Beethoven program, because it's the birthday. Nakamatsu plays the Piano Concerto No. 2, the lightest of the bunch, and the Choral Fantasy, which is an enormous piece of fluff. Also Schumann's Fourth, my favorite of his symphonies and the piece that was canceled once before, after George Cleve died. Here it would have been conducted by John Nelson, who could also have done an excellent job. I'm sorry to be missing it.

Sunday, March 22: Masterworks Chorale (I don't have recorded where this was to be)
I'd had this marked as a possible Daily Journal review item, and I briefly moved it up the priority list when Peninsula Symphony canceled, until Masterworks canceled too. It was to be Vivaldi's Gloria, a work to really shake up the ears of people whose only knowledge of Baroque choral music is Bach and Handel, and a living composer named Dan Forrest whom I was looking forward to learning something about.

Thursday, March 26: Sir András Schiff, Herbst, SF
On my subscription, but I was looking forward to this even though I'm not very fond of Schiff as a pianist. Yes, it's an all-Beethoven program, but he was going to play the four sonatas of Opp. 26-28 (which includes the "Moonlight"), oh yum.

Saturday, March 28: Jerusalem Quartet, Herbst, SF
On my subscription. I don't know this group, but they were to offer a hefty program of Haydn (Op. 76/2), Brahms (Op. 51/1) and Shostakovich (No. 9).

Sunday, March 29: San José Chamber Orchestra, St Francis Church, Willow Glen
This was going to be exciting. Not only was it a totally new venue for me, but it featured music by five living composers, only two of whom (Judith Shatin and Henry Mollicone) I was familiar with, and two of the pieces were to be premieres. (Now they say they'll do them next season.) I was going to have to do some prep work for this one, since it was an SFCV review assignment.

I have two concerts down - one pencilled in, one review assignment - for the weekend of April 4-5. As of now, they're still on, but I don't expect that will last.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

it's starting to get surreal around here

Or so the news tells me. I'm not seeing too much of it in my daily life, but then - hey, "social distancing" is my daily life. I'd say that the days in which, aside from purely business transactions with store clerks and such, I don't speak with anyone except B. (and the cats, to whom I talk quite a lot), quite outnumber the days that my conversation is wider. The vast majority of my social interaction is over the internet, and that's been true for well over 20 years.

I'm still doing grocery shopping and a few other errands. All I've seen unusual is that, on Monday in one store, the toilet paper was nearly cleaned out. (I didn't check the hand sanitizer: I dislike using the stuff, and I doubt its efficacy on viruses anyway.) That store had recovered its supplies a bit by Wednesday, and another store looked completely normal.

All the concerts I was going to attend this month have been canceled, one by one. Nothing next month has been hit yet, but I'd be surprised if this doesn't wipe out at least the rest of the concert season, through June. The theaters, as in stage plays, had been resisting longer than the musicians, and had put out announcements about how they would be scrubbing down their premises and encouraging caution by attendees, but that was obviously not enough. The ones I'm on the mailing list for have been putting out closure announcements, pretty much simultaneous with the closure of Broadway.

I don't follow sports, but what concerns me is the closure of libraries. Stanford - which judging from their general attitudes towards outside visitors has probably been salivating for a chance to do this - has closed their libraries to all unaffiliated users. One local town issued a statement that they're closing all city facilities to the public. That should include the library, but there's nothing about it on the library website. My town is not closing the library, but they're canceling all programs.

All this is of concern to me because I'm in the middle of compiling the annual Tolkien Studies bibliography. The first stages of this are done at home, using public web databases. But I should be ready to take my usual round of 3 academic libraries by next week. But the third of them is Stanford, and now I'm not sure if I should even go to the other two, assuming they're still open by then. It's my job, but it's not worth the risk of spending two full days in two more uncertain environments.

What's most grim is knowing that none of this will prevent the virus from spreading. The goal here is to slow down the spread enough so that an eruption of cases won't overwhelm the health system. That's the goal. We'll probably all get it eventually, and - since that will still be long before there's a vaccine - we just have to hope our systems are strong enough to withstand it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

words and phrases I misunderstood as a child

A couple of these came recently to memory

Out of wedlock = as a result of wedlock (You can see how confusing that was)

Approximately = exactly, precisely

Contemporary = successor, imitator, in the manner of

Scenic = something in what you're looking at is moving. If the view is still, it's not scenic.

Blind spot = if you look in that direction, you will literally be struck blind. It wasn't clear to me if glancing away would restore sight, so be careful! (I can specifically remember thinking this on an occasion I can pin down to when I was 7 years old.)

Monday, March 9, 2020


Over the last few days I've had the peculiar experience of watching my job disappear out from under me. The job in question is reviewing classical music concerts, and along with other events, they're being cancelled.

The concert I attended at Stanford last Wednesday (review here) was prefaced by the director of the presenting organization announcing that, enacting the university's order regarding large gatherings, they were cancelling all their mainstage concerts for the next month. This one slipped in just under the wire. It was not very well attended, and that may not have been lack of enthusiasm, because it was a good show.

The concert I attended on Saturday (review here) actually was cancelled, and ingeniously (nobody else seems to have thought of this idea) was put out on webcast instead. As the only reviewer I was also, as far as I could tell, the only invited guest actually in the auditorium. The other half-dozen people in the audience were technical and production personnel.

I rather feel as if I was skipping along the edge of a crumbling cliff, or that I was Legolas in the Hobbit movies climbing up falling rocks. (That this image is locked in my head is not the least dismaying part.)

I was scheduled to attend three concerts this week (but only to review one of them). One was cancelled by order of the venue. One, by a less heavily-scheduled ensemble, is being postponed to a yet-unchosen future date. And the third, which is by a different presenter in the same venue complex as the first one? The presenter announced that, since they couldn't use that venue, they were looking for an alternative. It seems to me that kind of misses the point. Anyway, they didn't find one, so the question is moot.

Others are also going. Yet others, at least so far, are not. Or in at least one case they've issued an announcement but haven't bothered to put the news on their website. (By contrast, the previously-mentioned group sent 1) an e-mail and 2) an automated phone call, as well as 3) putting it on their website. That's more like it.) So I don't know what, if anything, I'll be doing this month. Or, if it's there to do, whether I should, given that I fall into a few of the risk factors for the virus.

The next question is, what if we're exposed and have to enter self-quarantine? Incubation period for the virus is said to be two weeks. If I actually get the virus I may be in bigger trouble, but apart from that, we have to eat. I've seen articles on how to pack enough food for a two-week period that you don't even know when or if it will begin, but they're not very helpful for us. They rely too much on storable staples which are too high-carb for us, and on more freezer space than we have.

But I went out today to the big grocer and got what I could. Only toilet paper had virtually vanished from the shelves. We have three favorite ground-turkey-based dinner recipes; I bought enough turkey for one of each and put it in the freezer, and made sure we had enough of the other ingredients, and nothing that would perish before mid-April. Along with various breakfast and lunch things that we won't draw on until they're needed, that will keep us going for three days, and after that we'll rely on food delivery services. Best solution I can think of.

The cat show on Saturday was cancelled by the venue. We were the venue for our book discussion group on Sunday, and we didn't cancel. Six friends, about as many as can fit in our tiny living room, came and we had a busy discussion. Nobody sneezed, or even much coughed. Today I resumed my pattern of having lunch in local Chinese restaurants. I was the only customer there at 12:30, which is not exactly usual. Maybe not a good sign. The period of the lockdowns is variously a couple weeks or a month, but I don't foresee this as being anywhere even close to over by then.

Friday, March 6, 2020

corona chaosium

If I were younger and in robust health, I wouldn't worry too much about the coronavirus. For people in that category, it doesn't seem to be any worse than an ordinary flu, and the usual precautions would be sufficient, with the usual unpleasantness to follow if they fail. But being in a couple of the higher-risk categories, I want to be more cautious. Plane flights and airports are an excellent vector to get sick. I have three such trips scheduled for spring and summer, and if things don't clear up by then - and if this is going to be anything like the 1918 pandemic, they won't - I'm probably going to have to cancel on two, and drive to the third and closest, which will probably take me the better part of three days.

Assuming they're on at all, because closing public events - for now, just the next month's worth or so - is the latest manifestation. I'm not in favor of cowering in terror, and I wasn't going to worry about concerts and other performances: the ones I attend are not large events, and I've never caught anything from them, unlike large conventions.

But now I have to. The first indication of that I saw was when Stanford's Music Department announced at the start of this week that they were cancelling all their performances for the next month. Then on Wednesday I went to a concert at Bing sponsored by Stanford Live (the university's concert promoter, an entirely separate sub-entity) to learn from the introductory remarks by the sponsor's director that Stanford was ordering the cancellation over the same period of all public events drawing more than 150 people. This was the last one in under the wire. (It wasn't heavily attended and there may have been not much more than 150 people there. I was there to review it, and that'll be up soon.)

The director spoke as if we already knew this, but I'd heard nothing and there had been no news items about it, though, on later checking, I found unpretentious announcements on both the Stanford Live and main university websites. But there's great confusion. Today, Friday, on the radio I heard an ad for a Stanford Live event less than four weeks from now. It's been cancelled.

And there's more. The cat show this weekend, cancelled by order of the county, whose venue it uses. The concert I'm reviewing tomorrow, not cancelled but closed to the public and to be livestreamed. The organizer has invited me, as the reviewer, to attend anyway, and since to me being there makes all the difference in reviewing, I shall.

Meanwhile, two theater companies I'm on the mailing list for, Berkeley Rep and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, have announced that their shows are going on. They're just going to scrub down their theaters a lot and ask audiences to take sensible precautions. The Freight and Salvage, the folk and roots music venue, is taking the same tack.

One thing I have been doing is making a point of having lunch in Chinese restaurants, not that I don't often do that anyway. I've been reading articles about such places deserted by Western customers making the racist equation of Chinese = virus. These would be Americanized Chinese restaurants, obviously; the ones designed for a Chinese customer base aren't going to be attracting many ignorant westerners at any time. I want to do my part to counteract the fallacy, but maybe it doesn't apply here, because the ones I've been in this week don't look any less busy than they normally are at that hour.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

California peeling

In California, most of the Democratic delegates are assigned by congressional district, and a candidate has to get 15% of the vote in that district to be eligible for delegates. So I took the current voting statistics and ran a little analysis. Sanders and Biden are the only candidates who cleared the threshold in every one of the 53 districts, almost always in that order. Bloomberg hit the threshold in 21 districts, always in third place.

Warren made the threshold in 5 districts, 2 in SoCal and 3 in the Bay Area, all fiercely progressive. Rather than describe their geographies, I think I can best characterize them by naming their Congressional representatives: Pelosi. Adam Schiff. Barbara Lee. Anna Eshoo. Ted Lieu.

Sanders cleared a full 50% majority in 3 districts, all heavily Hispanic ones in the LA area.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

concert review: Bay Area Rainbow Symphony

I'd never even heard of this group ("dedicated to promoting and supporting LGBTQ musicians and composers" - program book), despite its having been around for a dozen years and having as music director Dawn Harms, well-known to me as associate concertmaster of New Century and for various chamber music performances. I've also seen her standing around odd corners of the Stanford music building teaching violin students.

I found out about this group and this concert because they were listed among the events of the Violins of Hope residency. I wanted to get to as many of these performances as I conveniently could, whether or not I was reviewing them. As I explained to both the music director of the residency and its publicity manager, both of whom were in the audience and came up with surprise to see me there, I don't go to concerts just to review them: I'm there because I like the music.

A number of the Violins of Hope were in the body of the orchestra, but to give them a special display, the concert featured a brief and informal three-violin concerto, titled Interplay, by Chris Brubeck. He'd written this for the Boston Pops to play with three women who specialized in different styles of violin: classical, jazz, and Celtic folk. Here the violinists were Harms and two of her colleagues from other groups, Kay Stern and Robin Mayforth. I thought Brubeck could have exploited the variety of techniques more, but it was a pleasant piece.

Also pleasant was a hearty overture by Ethel Smyth, whose work you don't get to hear much. The leading suffragist among composers, she was on the program to honor the centenary of the success of that movement (which hit the US and UK at about the same time). The overture was to her opera The Boatswain's Mate, a comedy featuring "a feisty and resourceful heroine" (it says here), based on a story by W.W. Jacobs. Yes, the horror writer. You knew he was better-known in his own day for humorous sea stories, right?

And the concert concluded with a hefty and expansive rendition of the Scottish Symphony by Mendelssohn, included on a Violins of Hope program because his work was banned by the Nazis. The orchestra was quite up to this work as to the others.

The concert was held in the main hall of the SF Conservatory of Music. After a typical Conservatory-entrance gauntlet of mass confusion over how the tickets were supposed to work, I got in and had a pleasant time. Bus service being spotty on weekends, I drove in and parked in the City Hall garage, which meant a long walk through blustery urban streets, but at least I was able to depart with efficiency.