Saturday, August 31, 2013

Doing things in Auckland

For the past week I've been in Auckland, and haven't heard a radio, haven't watched television, and have only touched a computer to print out the boarding passes for our flight back to Dunedin.  Of course, we had an iPad with us, and my new Samsung Galaxy phone, so we had plenty of communication with the outside world, but in the house we were staying at they barely watch television any more (and who can blame them?) and the radio isn't turned on as a matter of course. 

We did Sudukos and read books, and went out and so on, so we were hardly starved for entertainment.  I finished one of Agatha Christie's least successful books, A Pocket Full of Rye, a book so contrived to fit to the silly nursery rhyme that characterization is virtually nil, and plot isn't much better. The murderer is a disappointment, because we actually want someone who provides a much more interesting solution to the plot.  There were times when Christie could be quite witty, and could allow her characters to speak for themselves. Here, however, she's forever providing stereotypes, so that the characters are barely distinguishable from each other as people. She also introduces a new detective, Neele, but he's such a dullard (though she keeps telling us he's not) that she has to bring Miss Marple in about three-quarters of the way through to provide some light relief.

I also finished reading Justin Lee's Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.  This is one of the most generous-hearted books on this usually contentious subject I've come across, that I would recommend it to anyone who wants to find a way through the current mire. Not that Lee has all the answers, or attempts to give them, but he does want people from both sides to acknowledge each other and be able to communicate. I'll probably write more about it at another time. 

We went to see Speaking in Tongues, by Australian playwright, Andrew Bovell.  This NZ production, at the Herald Theatre, was brilliantly put across by the four actors (all familiar faces from TV) and their director.  The cast played nine roles in all, each person in the story intersecting at some point with at least one other character.  Structurally I'm not sure that it quite works, but the scenes within the piece are often intense and there's a great deal of reflection on relationships throughout. It's certainly a very actor-driven piece; they're required to perform considerable feats not only of memory but of timing: the show opens with two actors often speaking in unison, but not necessarily the same two actors; they often cut into each other's lines and finish them off and so on. Other scenes are more conventional in approach but there's a terrific section in the second half when a recording of one of the actresses is intermingled with the live dialogue. The sound person is very involved in this play, and has to be on his/her toes constantly.

When I say structurally I'm not sure that it works I mean that individual scenes work to a climax - for the most part - but the two acts don't particularly.  In fact, the night we went, so unsure was the audience that the first act had ended that no one clapped. When it became evident that it had indeed ended I was so amazed at the silence, that I started to clap and was soon joined by some others. The second act ends in a similarly abrupt way with a number of loose ends left hanging.  While I appreciate that Bovell is probably not intending to write a 'well-made' play in the older sense, I couldn't quite see why he worked against the elements he presented to such a degree that he left his audience a bit stranded.  Anyway, what do I know?  The play has been a huge success wherever it's been presented.  I think this is mainly because it provides the actors with such rich characters to work on. Apparently the film version, (Lantana) is more cohesive (our hosts actually watched it the next night on DVD), so maybe that's a hint that Bovell felt he needed to bring some more order to things in the screen version. 

We also attended the Joan Baez concert, on Thursday, at the wonderfully over-the-top Civic Theatre.  It's like Dunedin's St James Theatre used to be before it was hacked around and turned into several smaller cinemas. Joan was preceded by Kate Fagin, an Australian folk singer (or 'independent roots' singer, as she's dubbed on her website), who suddenly appeared on stage, sang a song, introduced herself, sang another song (again accompanying herself on the guitar) and then sang two more songs with piano accompaniment.  She was good, but the crowd really wanted to see Baez.  Most curiously, after Fagin, there was a fifteen to twenty-minute interval, in spite of the fact that Fagin had taken only about ten to fifteen minutes herself.  The stage was reset for Baez and her group, and you had to wonder why what Fagin had done was so remarkably different to what was then set up; surely it could all have been left as it was.  Anyway, after a bit of an irritating interval, with a kind of amateurish feel to all the jostling about that went on onstage, Joan finally appeared - unannounced, something that the NZ Herald critic thought was poorly handled - and just began to sing.  Her charisma made you forget the weak start to the programme (in different circumstances, I'm sure that Fagin is a very good performer), and she was soon joined by her son, Gabriel Harris, on percussion, and the multi-instrumentalist, Dirk Powell, who during the evening played banjo, guitar, bass guitar, piano, fiddle, accordion, and probably something else. Baez's assistant, Grace Stomber, a short young lady, joined Joan in one or two of the songs, but mostly contented herself with swapping Baez's guitars between every song during the entire night. Presumably she was off tuning them and adding capos or maybe even giving them a bit of polish.

Anyway, Baez was wonderful when singing in her middle to low register; struggling a bit in her upper register.  She is 72, so she has an excuse for no longer being able to sing as she once did, but for the most part her vocals floated with ease across the accompaniments, often sliding between the beats but never losing their rhythm.  My wife was the one who'd been really keen to see her, since she's been a fan of Baez since the early sixties.  But I was won over to her as well; I've heard her songs sung around the house as long as my wife and I have been married, but it was altogether different hearing them sung by a little old lady picking away at a guitar in front of a couple of thousand mostly grey or white-haired people.

For a full review of the evening read Liz Gunn on the 13th Floor. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Not making time

Last night I made a weak attempt to impress my readers by showing that I could find out what some audio equipment names meant.  I'm not going to try the same thing tonight, even though Fender bass amps at Musicians Friend are on the menu, as it were.  Fender is a name that actually means something to me, though in a limited sense, as referring to guitars.  But obviously Fender have spread their wings considerably, and far more than musical instruments are part of their manufacturing these days.  Fender's history is quite interesting, and worth reading about if you have the time.

Strictly speaking I don't: I'm supposed to be practicing music for the Junior Singing Competitions here in Dunedin this weekend, practicing some nasty accompaniments to some clarinet music for a young man who'll be turning up to rehearse in the next week or so (I'm subbing for his normal accompanist), reading two books that I'm supposed to review, finishing off the Grimhilda! book, and a host of other things.  And that's apart from what needs to be done around the house in terms of day to day sorting out and maintenance.  Then we have to fit in time to go for a fitness/recreational walk (dog included), catch a bit of a kip, if necessary, and so on.

None of this has anything to do with Fender.

Consumption

Remember back in the dim, distant past when consumption almost always meant someone had tuberculosis?  If you were in a novel, or a stage play, and were dying of consumption, you were automatically offered an extra dose of romance, because for some reason there was something peculiarly romantic about consumptives: think of Mimi, in La Boheme, or Violetta in La Traviata.  Dostoevsky has several consumptive character in his novels, but Dickens managed to limit himself to just one: Smike, in Nicholas Nickleby.  Thomas Mann goes to opposite extreme, and in The Magic Mountain includes an entire cast of consumptives - admittedly the book is set in a sanatorium.  One of Anne of Green Gables' friends dies of 'the galloping consumption' (as opposed, I suppose, to the dawdling version).

Consumption/tuberculosis continues to fascinate more recent writers and creators: Ingrid Bergman died of consumption in The Bells of St Mary's (isn't that an unnecessary apostrophe there? - shouldn't the title have been the less alliterative, The Bells of St Mary?) as did Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge - at the end of her biggest performance. Fictional consumptives achieve all sorts of last minute heroics.  Even in anime and manga, you'll find a variety of consumptive characters.  Plainly Japan has a bit of a thing about the disease.

But tuberculosis, as it's more generally known these days, is barely visible in the Western world.  Large sanatoriums have been turned into all sorts of non-medical establishments. And those awful outside verandahs have been closed in, hopefully.  It was normal to put TB patients out in the fresh air for their health - even letting them sleep out in the open air (though under the verandah roof).  I suspect more than a few TB patients died of pneumonia rather than TB.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fantasy animals

It's a night for randomness, since I'm not feeling 100% well. 

If I say to you, Presonus Firepod, you'll know what I'm talking about, I'm sure.  For those who don't, Presonus is a brand name.  Firepod is...well, Firepod is...let me get someone else to explain it: It's a Firewire interface with eight analog inputs. There, that helped now, didn't it?

Okay, this is like a puzzle within a puzzle.  We've solved what a Firepod is, but now we have to find out what a Firewire is. Well, apparently it's similar to the cord you might use to plug into your computer, with a USB on one end, and a different kind of connection at the other.  I use one such beast to connect the Kindle to the computer, at times. Firewire, simply put, is a way to connect different pieces of equipment so they can easily and quickly share information, and there's a photo of a typical example included here for your benefit.

So a Firepod is a Firewire with, you may remember, eight analog inputs.  Somebody on Facebook tonight claimed that when he sees Input used as a verb, he sees a German golfer. That's not only irrelevant to our discussion, since we're talking about input as a noun, but somewhat obscure to me, so we'll move on.  Note that the Firepod has analog inputs.  I was trying to visualize this, and decided that in the end it was easier to show you than explain it.  Here's a picture - count the inputs: 


I assume that the analog aspect (I'm talking as one who knows nothing about audio equipment, so correct me if you wish) means that it isn't digital signals that are being transmitted.  That would seem obvious to me, but I've been wrong before when I've said something was obvious (frequently, in fact, especially domestically).

However, this little excursion has introduced me to a couple of animals I didn't know before, the Firepod, and the Firewire.  They sound like creatures who could quite easily inhabit the world of Ursula le Guin, but I don't know, since, as I said in my last post, I've only read one of her books...

Ursula le Guin meets KiwiRail

I think I've only read one book by Ursula le Guin, and I have no idea what its name was.  I seem to remember I didn't enjoy it very much, but perhaps I wasn't the target audience. I think it had a dragon in it, but I suspect more than one of her books has a dragon in it, since she's a fantasy writer.  Perhaps it's time to try one of her books again, and see if I've changed enough to enjoy what she writes. 

Since I've only read that one book by this author, it's unlikely I've read it while travelling on KiwiRail.In fact, it's probably unlikely I've travelled via KiwiRail at all, since that company managed to demolish most of the rail infrastructure in our part of the world.  Not economic enough, or some such, they claimed, but neither was it promoted as an alternative to road transport. I don't mind travelling by road, because you can stop when you like and stretch your legs, or check out some interesting thing you've seen on the way.  For instance, when we stopped in Ashburton on our last trip south from Christchurch, we had lunch in the lovely garden with the clock tower.  We'd stopped there before, a number of years ago, when my youngest son was still a teenager, I think. The difference this time was that we heard the clock tower doing its interesting striking and saw the fountains perform their regular dance and discovered that the Art Gallery is just across the road, and that there was a wonderful exhibition of pottery on at the time. So, yes, there are benefits to road travel.

There are many non-benefits: tiredness from driving long distances (especially on New Zealand's winding roads), a confined space, a need to concentrate all the time, an inability to really take in the view while driving, and much more. A train offers you the means to have a bit of shut-eye if you desire, to move about and stretch your legs while still travelling, no need to concentrate if you don't want to, and the chance to just watch the world sail by. 

We've been deprived of all this by KiwiRail, along with a number of other NZ citizens.

Anyway, that was all a bit of a ramble, and regular readers of this blog won't be in the least bit surprised by that. 



Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting sidetracked

While I was thinking about the matter of wholesale printing just now, I though how strange it is that while books are increasingly appearing in digital form, junk mail is just increasing, full stop. I guess there's a digital equivalent of junk mail - it appears in borders and columns and banners on our web pages, for starters, and is surprisingly easy to ignore.  But the curious thing I can't quite get my head around is why junk mail on paper should be increasing.  Is it because the long-established form of advertising is at a crisis point, and when crises arrive, the lemmings often start heading off in the wrong direction - like over the cliff.  The equivalent in junk mail terms is that instead of there being less junk mail there's more than ever.

At a tangent, for a moment, it must be pointed out that lemmings are much maligned in terms of being a species that jumps over cliffs.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I had the thought that it was a myth that lemmings commit mass suicide, and a bit of quick checking on the Net confirms that, on the whole, it is.  Many lemmings live too far away from the sea, for one thing, to go hiving off committing hari-kari as a group.  Those that do live near water are perfectly capable of surviving in it - they're very good swimmers, apparently.  The reason they swarm to a region that's not their home area, is because food becomes scarce when there's a large increase in the population; the tribe splits and numbers of them go somewhere else to live.  Makes sense.

Seemingly the Walt Disney 'documentary' White Wilderness in which lemmings were seen diving off cliffs, and which may be an important source of much misinformation about lemmings, was faked.  White Wilderness was one of the Disney True-Life Adventure series, which, rather than showing reality, often misdirected viewers by mocking up scenes that had more effect than the real thing would have.  (We see the same thing in reality TV these days.) The trivia section of imdb.com on this film, states: This picture was filmed in Alberta, Canada, which is not a native habitat for lemmings. They were imported from Manitoba for use in the film, and were purchased from Inuit children by the filmmakers. The Arctic rodents were placed on a snow-covered turntable and filmed from various angles to produce a "migration" sequence; afterwords, the helpless creatures were transported to a cliff overlooking a river and herded into the water. The entire sequence was faked using a handful of lemmings deceptively photographed to create the illusion of a large herd of migrating creatures. 

Now I don't know who wrote this, so it can't necessarily be taken as gospel, but you can find more information about it on the Wikipedia article,where there's some background to the discovery that something underhanded had taken place in the filming.  Further information about it can be found on the Wikipedia article on Lemmings, in which we learn that Disney and co weren't the only ones perpetuating the myth of lemming mass suicide.

This is all a bit of a sidetrack from printing and junk mail, but like so many of my blog posts, one thing leads to another and often the 'another' is a bit more interesting.  How many other nature documentaries are faked in some way?  How often is the urbane voice of David Attenborough telling us something that in fact isn't what we're seeing at all?  (See the paragraph about Attenborough towards the end of this article.)  I watched a nature film not long ago in which the narrator (it wasn't DA, for a change) insisted that some particular thing happened because evolution had decided that it should; and if it isn't evolution doing some mythical decision-making, then it's the species itself deciding that life as it is isn't good for the long haul and somehow making its physical features change. The fact that this isn't science at all but speculation is never mentioned: we all know that Evolution is the answer to everything so just throw it in whenever you want it to be the convenient explanation.

See, I'm getting sidetracked again...onto a hobby horse.

Photo courtesy of Sunday Mercury Net, where there's an interesting and positive article about lemmings.

Paradoxical cat

Apparently it was Erwin Schrödinger's birthday yesterday, our time, and because the UK and US are still catching up, they're still celebrating it.  Google, in fact, has celebrated it by producing one of its doodles:


I'm not quite sure why there's a particular fuss about this one of Erwin's birthdays; it's only his 126th, not the sort of number you'd normally celebrate with or without the hundred.  Can anyone remember their 26th birthday celebrations?  I'm not going to ask if anyone can remember their 126th, because I don't expect that people of such an exalted age will still be playing on their computers at this time of night. Actually, according to our current records, no one has lived to the age of 126 as yet - to find people that old you have to go back to early Biblical times.  The oldest person on record in modern times was Jeanne Calment, of France, who lived to 122 years, 164 days, and her birth date was verified.  Jeanne was certainly close to celebrating her 126th birthday, you might say. 

Meanwhile back to Schrödinger, who's famous in popular science, as it were, mostly for his paradoxical cat - or the lack of his cat.  Don't ask me to explain, because quantum physics - in which the cat features to a certain extent - isn't one of my specialties.  The cat features even more in science fiction, I think, where some very clever stories have been woven around this fictional creature.  For some reason the cat has taken on a life of its own, becoming part of popular culture, and while its name is known the reason why it is important (or unimportant) is much less known.  That's a bit of a paradox in itself.

 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dogs, cats

Because we have several grandchildren, we've tended to have a couple of booster seats somewhere in our car most of the time.  These come in handy when the grandchild who lives with us happens to go out in the car with us, or when another grandchild stays overnight and we have to drive him or her home the next day. 

The rest of the time, the dog commandeers the booster seat.  Or he did until recently when we removed the cover because it needed a wash, and he didn't find the hard plastic to his liking.  It's not as if he uses the booster seat to sit up and look out the window.  I'm not sure that he'd be able to see out the window even if he did. (Perhaps we should check out pads and seats online to see if we can get him a combination of proper seating so he can actually see out the window.)  But when the booster has its cover on he's happy just to lie there, his head hanging over the edge, dreaming - I suspect - of what it would be like if his head was stuck out the window and the wind was making his ears fly backwards behind him. 

I have no idea why dogs like to have their heads stuck out the window with the wind making their tongue loll around in their mouth, and their eyeballs thud back into their sockets, and the aforesaid ears (our dog's are particularly long and fluffy at the moment) trailing behind them.  As a human, I could endure this for maybe five minutes before the buffeting would force me inside. Dogs seem to be able to handle it indefinitely. 

We have a friend who has a dog that's similar in size to ours, and he loves to put his head out the window - in fact he'd have his whole body outside the window if it was practical to hold him at the same time. 

Isn't it curious that dogs, which are just as much part of the human fabric of life as cats, love to travel in cars, while cats almost entirely abhor it?  From the time our dog was small he would travel in the car happily, and we only have to mention the word 'car' these days to have him scratching madly at the front door trying to get out and race to the vehicle.

Perhaps it would do the tempers of cats good if they'd consent to travel outside their chosen boundaries occasionally.  It might get their lazy bodies off the top of the couch where they lie pretending to be invisible.  They wait for you to plonk yourself down, and then, just when you least expect it, they delight in giving your ear a good wallop, tearing it open with their claws in the process.  This doesn't endear them to humans.

Dogs somehow manage to chew at your hands while playfighting without doing you damage (well, ours does).  Cats don't know what playfighting is.  We have a cat as well as a dog.  We've had cats almost as long as we've been married.  Only rarely have they consented to behave in a way that was rational to human beings.  Dogs can barely help themselves: they're open, honest, humble, full of integrity, and downright crazy.  Cats are just crazy.

Photo courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

Monday, August 05, 2013

Guilty by Suspicion

I came across a DVD in the Library the other day called Guilty by Suspicion.  It stars Robert de Niro, so I thought it was worth a look, though I'd never heard of it before.  It turned out to be a powerful movie about the McCarthy era, when politicians began having hearings that brought many Hollywood actors, writers and directors into disrepute because it was claimed they had Communist sympathies.  The appalling period in America's history is well known, and was covered more recently in grim fashion in the George Clooney movie, Good Night, and Good Luck. 

Guilty by Suspicion is just as grim in its own way, and ends before McCarthy and his cronies are brought to heel.  It's the story of a fictional Hollywood director, David Merrill.  Merrill is highly successful, the golden boy of Darryl Zanuck (who, of course, wasn't fictitious), and in the middle of a big project when he's called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Merrill, like many of his generation, has dabbled lightly in meetings related to Communism (especially as the Russians were allies until after the Second World War) but has had no real connections with Communists as such.  This isn't a problem for the House Committee: they will find dirt where there's no dirt, and will turn friends into enemies. 

The cast is uniformly good and the directing (by Irwin Winkler, who also wrote the script) is sharp, if occasionally melodramatic - though given that it relates to the fifties, it's perhaps intended to echo some of the film-making traits of that period.  The value of the film for today is that is shows how prone to paranoia the US seems to be: in that period it was the Communist takeover, which eventually became the long-lasting Cold War.  When the Cold War finally fizzled out of its own accord, the US turned its eyes to another enemy, and gradually this enemy appeared in a variety of guises, but most of them were Arabs.  And then, after 2001, the new catchword became the War on Terror.  In none of these 'wars' has the US come out in what you'd call in any way 'successful,' and perhaps this is because most of these so-called enemies are trumped up by the US's various spy agencies, or by politicians.  Now, it seems, the US is turning in on itself and spying on its own citizens, as well as millions of non-Americans in countries that are America's allies.  Will there ever be an end to this fear-mongering?  For a country with such strength, power, wealth and breadth, it seems surprisingly incapable of being at peace with itself, or with other nations.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Books

The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn't have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you're fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you're reading a whole new book.
Ursula K. Le Guin"Staying Awake" from Harper's Magazine (Feb. 2008)