Friday, April 20, 2018

library report

After many days of scouting around university libraries, the Tolkien Studies annual bibliography is completed. It has 227 items on it, some of which I still haven't actually been able to locate copies of or even confirm on WorldCat, but I'm confident they exist (the ones that I'm not are out) and I'll be trying to track them down later. I've got about two-thirds of the items in my personal collection, and about 50 articles in PDFs that I made at the library, ready for next year's "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" which is based on the previous year's bibliography, and there lies the story.

Once upon a time libraries made photocopies, and I still have a file drawer full of old ones from long-ago installments of the Year's Work. But then that clever invention the flash drive or memory stick or thumb drive or USB drive - pick your cognomen - made it to libraries, and it got easier both to take files from hard drives and to download them from computers. Sometimes.

Because library policies differ, and here's some of the ones I've been dealing with.

Library 1. This is one of the major research libraries in the western world, but you can't take hard-copy files onto a flash drive. It has two rancid old photocopiers by the circulation desk, where the flat screen will let you e-mail files to yourself. For security purposes you have to painfully type in your e-dress before each file, carefully looking for typos because the flat screen, like all flat screens, does not always register that you touched a key.

Then, after you've made the copy, you have to rush over to the public computer terminals and log into your webmail to find out if the copies came through and how they look, because there's no feedback on the photocopiers. Did both pages of the two-page spread make it onto the copy? No way to tell until later, honey.

Library 2. Gives weird error messages when you try to download a chapter from an online book. Go and ask for help. Be assured this can be done. Librarian comes back to the computer with you, gets the same error messages, and then says these files are only downloadable by students and faculty, not guests. (They already know you're a guest: you're wearing the prominent adhesive nametag they order all guests to wear.) You can read them online, but you can't copy them. Mind, they didn't tell you this before.

Fortunately I was able to get this item from another library. Otherwise I was going to come back with a digital camera and photograph the screen.

Library 3. This one has but one scanning device, and it takes flash drives, but it's so mysterious and complicated to use, and its user interface so opaque, that even the people who work at the tech desk (they've got three desks: circulation, reference, and tech) can't figure out how to use it. Go through the usual thing where the self-confident tech says he can make it work and then fumbles through the screen, going into the same options over and over again and they're not coming up with anything useful this time either, while you say "You already tried that" and they ignore you.

Library 4. This is the other major research library of the western world around here, and it is amazing. First, they have scanning machines all over the library, at least two on each floor. No waiting, no trucking books down to the circ desk. The scanner's got a big flatbed without an annoying photocopier cover, the machine knows how to trim the output so you don't get big black margins, and the interface is clear. Stick your flash drive in the USB slot, the screen comes alive and tells you to scan. Put the book on, touch the big green "scan" button on the screen, up comes a miniature preview of the scan so you can see if it worked. You now have a choice of 3 buttons: "scan" for the next page, "discard" if you don't like the last scan, or "next" if you're done and want to save the file, and which point it allows you to name the file or leave it with a default name, and a progress bar confirms it's being saved to your drive.

Then it says it's either waiting for you to scan the first page of a new file or remove your flash drive (no going through an eject procedure).

Who wrote this program? They actually know what users need, and are unique in the computer industry and should be preserved under a glass scanner.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

uh-oh, racism

Like, I hope, all decent-minded people, I was very disturbed by the story of the two black men, waiting in a Philadelphia Starbuck's for a business appointment, who were arrested after refusing to leave when the manager told them to because they hadn't bought anything, this despite the fact that Starbuck's treats itself as a public space where you're not necessarily expected to buy anything. (ETA: According to this interview with the men, they declined the manager's offer to buy drinks and said they were waiting for a meeting, but were never told to leave until the police accosted them.)

The police say they did nothing wrong, and by their standards perhaps they didn't. In which case it's their standards that's the problem. From their perspective, they were called in by management because these men refused to leave when asked. They still refused to leave, so they were arrested. But the reason the men refused to leave is that they'd done nothing wrong and were still waiting for their appointment, and the police's attitude was as the enforcers, the ones who get to say "You will do what we say," and not as the mediators who try to make society run smoothly.

As for the manager, Starbuck's says s/he is no longer at that store. (Making it sound as if they were moved to another store, like a priest caught molesting the third-graders.) I'm not sure how much the policy is the manager's fault. Starbuck's corporate says they have no policy of kicking out non-customers unless they're actively obnoxious, but whenever a flunky does something flagrantly against rules, I want to look into whether some slightly higher authority ordered them to act in this manner.

Now, I've never been asked to leave a Starbuck's, but I also have never asked to use the restroom, which is apparently what brought these men to the manager's attention. I'm very reluctant to use a restroom where I have to ask to have the door opened at any store where I'm not a customer, and if I do I'm prepared to say that I'll buy something if that's the requirement. I can't imagine being told to leave the store instead, still less having the police called on me if I object.

And it's the fact that I can't imagine it, as a white person, while blacks say this sort of thing happens all the time to them, that convinces me that racism is still a thing, even though I don't personally witness it.

However, I have experienced plenty of less blatant, but both obnoxious and more quietly frustrating behavior by store employees, and indeed by humans in general, of a kind that, if I were black, I would be likely to attribute to racism.

I know this because I see them do it. When I read blacks complaining about, not blatant offenses like the Starbuck's case, but subtle cases of micro-racism, I often think, "Gee, that sort of thing also happens to me all the time."

I found an excellent example of this in a conversation among black journalists about being black in public spaces. It's sparked off by the Starbuck's incident, but then it gets down to micro-racism, and includes this:
Bouie: I think, to someone who isn’t faced with it all the time, it just seems innocuous. “Oh, they want to help.” But if I’m clearly looking at—to use a recent example—a piece of photography equipment and someone comes up to ask, “What can I help you find?” I don’t feel like I’m being helped at all!
Harris: Nine times out of 10, they’re really trying to “help” you not steal. ... The funny thing—to bring it back to the visible vs. invisible dichotomy—is that when I really do need assistance, it’s often like I’m not there.
Good god, does that ever happen to me. I can't count how often I'm in a store, frantically looking around lost and desperate for help and can't find anyone to help me, or no one approaches me even if they're around and not busy (I have to go up to them); and, by contrast, the number of times I'm clearly happily minded my own business and a clerk approaches me entirely of their own initiative and says, "May I help you?"

At times this double phenomenon has gotten so frustrating I have even actually said, in response to the query, "Yes, you can help me. You can tell me why it is that when I obviously need help, no one ever offers it, but when I don't need help, I'm always offered it." (There's no answer to this question, so they don't give one.)

This is almost exactly what the black journalists are citing as micro-racist. Aisha Harris does add, as an example, "I am 2 feet away, looking directly at you, maybe while holding an item in my hand that I need a different size of, and the salesperson is so obviously avoiding eye contact!" And that is more extreme than I've experienced, but not very much so.

So to an extent here - at least to an extent - what these blacks are experiencing as micro-racism is just ordinary human behavior regardless of race.

Do I conclude from this, however, that the racism exists only in the blacks' minds? No. I do not. What I conclude is that racism is so endemic that blacks cannot tell if particular white behaviors are racist or not. That's a more subtle, but even more shocking, condemnation of our culture. It may result in a black overestimate of the pervasiveness of racism, but the racism has to be pervasive in the first place or the blacks wouldn't be seeing it whether it was there or not.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

My editor sent me up to SFS last week, to review a concert I'd conspicuously omitted from my own subscription series, because it featured Strauss's Alpine Symphony, a work I had not been eager to hear.

This was pure prejudice. Long-ago traumatic experiences with other long, late-period Strauss tone poems had made me allergic, and I'd never actually really listened to the Alpine Symphony.

But I figured I'd better do so now, especially because SFS is a great orchestra, and reviewing it brings out my most advanced discrimination of performing practice.

I wound up listening to the Alpine five times, three with the score, which is a lot more times than optimal with a work I really don't care for very much. But at least I acknowledge its crafty construction and found it easy enough to grasp.

That done on Sunday, I spent all of Monday at the university library in the woods, sweating away at research, mostly on computer, for the Tolkien Studies bibliography. That was 7.5 hours straight, with only rest-room breaks, not even stopping to eat. I estimate three more days, at various other libraries though not quite so intense a time, before I'm done.

The result of this is going to be the corn feed for next year's Year's Work in Tolkien Studies, and I can see some fun time with some truly wretched criticism this time. My favorite is the gay-themed study which finds, in the scene from The Hobbit where Bilbo and the dwarves climb fir trees to escape from orcs, only to have the orcs light the trees on fire, a metaphor for gay sex. What? Well, the trees are longer than they are wide, and they're on fire. I guess this is how some minds work.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Powell booked

So it's the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, and the BBC has decided to commemorate that fact by broadcasting the entire text on the radio, something that wasn't done at the time Powell made it. There's no tape, either, so they're having an actor read it.

And much concern is being raised. Is it really appropriate to commemorate this way a speech which, even at the time, was considered so toxically racist that it got Powell - previously an important figure in the Conservative Party - summarily sacked from the front bench and permanently exiled to the lunatic fringes of British politics?

The BBC says, they're not honoring it; they'll interrupt it with commentaries and critiques and so on, but a lot of people are still very disturbed by this.

My suggestion for cutting this dilemma is inspired by the story of the Welsh Guard band which had been ordered to play to welcome a visit of the Saudi King. Not feeling desirous of honoring him, but not wishing to disobey orders, they expressed their opinion by bringing him in to the tune of the "Imperial March" from Star Wars. The King had no idea, of course ...

So here's my suggestion. You can broadcast Enoch Powell's racist speech ... so long as the actor you get to read it is the one who played the Emperor Palpatine in the movies. That'd send a Welsh Guard kind of message.

And guess what? They don't make note of the connection, they just give his name, but that's exactly who they got.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

English suites and others no. 30

Jules Massenet is a French composer mostly known for his operas, but he also wrote a lot of suites. This one, the Scènes Pittoresques, has always particularly appealed to me because it sounds so very, very French.

The movements are Marche (0.00), Air de ballet (3.47), Angelus (6.35), and Fête bohème (11.38).

to be there

Went out last night to see the film of the National Theatre Hamlet, the production with Benedict Cumberbatch his own self.

I have to say it was a fairly pretentious and overwrought production, and why was Horatio carrying a backpack around for nearly the whole play? I didn't read them until after I came home, fortunately, but I can't say I disagree with this review from when it was on stage, or this one either.

As the reviewers suggest, it was at its best when they just let Benedict get on with it, speaking the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

the panel report

And here it is, my writeup of the panel discussion of anti-Semitism and Bach's St. John Passion.

When doing a writeup like this, I see my job as conveying the sense of the panel rather than giving my own thoughts on the subject, since that would be a personalized rather than a reportorial view in a very limited word space.

Here, however, I can say what I actually think of all this.

I've never actually heard the St. John Passion performed. I have, however, heard its surviving companion, the St. Matthew Passion. Bearing in mind what the moderator said about music enhancing the meaning of the words it sets, I consider that experience essential.

The panelists compared John with Matthew a lot. John, they said, is by far the more vehemently anti-Semitic Gospel. That's interesting, because one of my reactions to the St. Matthew Passion was to find it just full of libel against the Jews. John would probably be worse.

Nor did I find myself very impressed with the panelists' argument that Bach mitigates against the anti-Semitism by emphasizing the theological view that all are sinners, all are responsible for the death of Christ. That's only mitigating if you are yourself a Christian, ready to throw yourself on God's mercy and seek forgiveness. If you're not, it's pretty hollow.

I've often heard before that Luther expected his reformed version of Christianity to attract the Jews to convert en masse, that when they didn't it really pissed him off, and from then on he was far more anti-Semitic than he'd been before. This story turns out to be true, and speaks to Luther's lack of understanding that whatever Jesus may have been, he was not the Jewish Messiah. Jews not prepared to accept a new covenant that cancels and replaces theirs will find nothing here for them.

I kind of doubt I'd feel comfortable sitting through the St. John Passion, mitigated or no, especially because Bach's religious music is not my aesthetic idol anyway, but I did expect what I got from the St. Matthew, and I was willing to be there. The reason for that is essentially that this music is 300 years old. It's not speaking to current issues; and, having heard from one of the panelists about the squalor and disdain in which Jews of the time lived, I'd be surprised to find a Christian of that time and place who wasn't anti-Semitic.

(Even today, we have people who seriously argue that Blacks are somehow responsible for their socio-economic handicaps, without considering the conditions in which they're forced to live. If that belief can exist with all of today's enlightenment, and the less vehement ghettoization of Blacks, of course it'd be universal back then about Jews.)

To my mind, it's a far different thing than dealing with the anti-Semitism in, say, The Death of Klinghoffer, which is current and insidious - the more so as there are people who insist it is not anti-Semitic, a position only made tenable by defining anti-Semitism down so that nothing less than the genocidal qualifies. That denial makes me angry in a way that excusing Bach does not.

So in general I would rather avoid Bach's Passions than not. But it doesn't bother me that they exist and are performed, especially if the performers are willing to acknowledge that the texts are problematic. They took an honest look at it here.

Monday, April 9, 2018

the anti-semitic interface

Pesach has technically been over for a couple days now, but the seder-holding family to which I am honorary sundry sensibly decided that yesterday was a better Sunday for gathering than the previous Sunday, so that's when we had it.

We usually gather at 4 pm, and I would be working that afternoon; but it usually takes us a while before we sit down, and the seder is about half ritual before it gets to the serious eating, so with hosts' consent I said I'd be late. I expected to and indeed arrived about 5, and we got started immediately thereafter.

One of the early rituals is to wash away the cares of the day. You hold your hands out over a bowl and your neighbor pours from a pitcher of water over them, and then you say what you would like to wash away and all respond, "So be it." These cares often range from anxiety attacks to "about thirty pounds," but this year I had something unusually specific.

What I'd been at work doing was not my usual task of attending a concert for review, but a panel discussion. The SF Bach Choir, prior to performing the St. John Passion next month, decided to convene a passel of religious scholars to ask the question, "Was Bach anti-Semitic?"

That was what I had just spent two hours listening to them talk about, and by then I was really eager to wash it away, preferably with the aid of a few cups of the Pesach ritual wine.

But now it's the next morning, I have my notes before me, and I'm ready to begin creating the write-up I was sent there to make. (And the answer to the question? It was pretty much, "Yes, but not nearly as anti-Semitic as Martin Luther.")

Saturday, April 7, 2018

concert review: The World of Henry Cowell

Back from Bard Music West's two-day Henry Cowell festival: three concerts (Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening) with pre-concert talks, all in a small church at the upper end of the Noe Valley, a residential district in San Francisco.

Friday I was good and took public transit. Drive to the end of the BART line. Then BART. Then a bus. Then walk: two blocks, steep uphill, in the rain. Reverse afterwards: at night, in the dark, in the rain.

Saturday it wasn't raining, but the transit runs even less frequently, so I drove, fortunately finding actual open parking spaces in this neighborhood, a rarity in the City. Took along a bag lunch in a cooler for dinner so I didn't have to venture out for that.

Unlike the OtherMinds Cowell festival about ten years ago, this one was as much around Cowell as on him, featuring a lot of music by composers associated with him, or music resembling his - either precursors or successors - as much as his own. The highlights were actually here. Pieces like Ruth Crawford's Three Chants for Women's Chorus, to nonsense texts in an arresting early modernist style, sung brilliantly by the women of the Volti chorus, or the under-rated Leo Ornstein's Suicide in an Airplane (dating from 1913 and probably one of the first ever attempts to depict mechanistic sound in classical music), played by the ubiquitous pianist Sarah Cahill, were the most memorable experiences of the bunch. Some early songs by George Crumb sound influenced by Cowell, with string-strumming and knocking sounds on the piano, but according to Crumb he didn't know Cowell's music at the time. Also sounding a lot like Cowell, with its use of vocalization by the instrumentalists, and quite eerily beautiful at times, was a new piece, The Sound of Your Solitude and Mine by Eugene Birman, composed in collaboration with a choreographer in commemoration of Cowell's works with Martha Graham. A piano piece by Carl Ruggles was actually consonant, say wha?

Some early Cowell piano pieces, including the famous Banshee (sound made by leaning over the soundboard and rubbing the strings), were well done, but his larger chamber pieces, the United Quartet and Homage to Iran, which ought to sound fun, were taken with too much dogged seriousness, a tone which was overall the hallmark of this festival. It could have used more wit and less awe. Nevertheless it was a good show, and I'm glad I went.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

didn't know

After processing the shock and sorrow, what struck me about the YouTube shooting was what I hadn't known.

I hadn't known that YouTube was located there. As with the nearby neighborhood, also in San Bruno, where the gas pipeline suddenly blew up one quiet dinnertime a few years ago, it was a particular locale I'd never been, though I pass very near by it all the time.

I did discover Netflix hq, in another nearby town, this way. I just happened to drive by a building with a Netflix sign on it one day, and only later realized it must be the place where they plan all those bewildering additions and subtractions to their streaming list.

What they do at YouTube hq I'm less certain of, since their customers upload most of their videos, but one thing I certainly hadn't known is that it's possible to make a living doing this, but that appears to have been the shooter's occupation, until the decision by YouTube to "demonetize" (lovely word) certain types of videos rendered this particular form of feeding less lucrative, and that was what she was angry about. Angry enough to drive 300 miles, acquire a gun and use it, which is pretty angry, though not, it occurs to me, angry enough to come up with something a little more effective than this turned out to be.

That the shooter was female, and one whose principal interests seem to have been animal rights rants and exercise videos, seems to have bewildered a good number of people not expecting this sort of narrative.

But what bewilders me is mostly how the revenue stream worked. Exactly how did her videos generate money, when they did? They've all been taken down now, to deter the curious I guess since they're not supposed to have been inflammatory, but a few clips survived long enough to illustrate news programs on the shooting. I for one would not pay money to watch a home-made video of a woman with a hostile glare affixed to her face demonstrate squats while wearing a camouflage unitard, or even watch it for very long for free, but to each their own.