Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Comments on the 2018 Kaua'i Writers Conference

From November 5th - 11th I attended the Kaua'i Writers Conference ( It had two aspects, first four days of master classes, and then three days of the conference more broadly.

Kaua'i ( is a genuine tropical paradise, a relatively small Hawaiian island with a population of about 60,000. It happens my son teaches high school there, which is one reason I attended.  The picture is one I took of closing ceremonies on the beech.

The master classes seemed to have up to about 30 students each and met for three hours a day with one or sometimes two teachers. ( In the conference there were a variety of talks on various aspects of writing and publication. (

It took place in a grandiose, slightly worn resort with the largest swinging pool in Hawaii half-ringed with hot tubs and an island in the middle.  All overlooked a beach on an inlet. ( Our room was nice but not fancy, the food was good by conference standards. Things generally ran smoothly.

Demographics: My perspective may have limited my count, but I'd guess there were about 200 people in Master classes and about 300 attendees to the conference as a whole. There was a range of age and nationality, but the prominent group was middle-aged Caucasian women. My impression was that about half of the attendees were from the Hawaiian Islands.  There were a scattering of Asians and two blacks (one from Nigeria).  A few places had been allocated to students from a local college. I was sitting for lunch one day with a Brit. Conversation turned to how people stood in line for busses in different cultures. (I. E. a lone Brit is visibly in a queue whereas in Greece any group is a mob.) A young Asian woman sitting next to me had been rather quiet, so I asked her where she was from. She said Saipan; she was one of the local college group. I asked about bus queues. She said there are no busses in Saipan.

My impression was that the most popular genre was memoirs by people who believed they had led interesting lives or, more often, had had interesting jobs or professions.

I attended the master class given by Nicholas Delbanco ( on voice. It had some virtues and some faults. The faults were size and the room. Some fell away, but at the beginning there were 30 people. The room, which could have held 60 people, had narrow tables arranged in ranks as for hearing a lecture; it should have been is some sort of round-table arraignment. The virtues were the writers and the teacher. There were too many of them, but the writers were almost universally smart, experienced, and serious. Typically they were people who had written in some other field (I.e. the author of several history books, a lawyer who had written books on law etc.) and now wanted to write fiction. 
Delbanco has immense experience and resources as a teacher of contemporary writing and did marvelously considering the number of participants and the inappropriate room.

The version of the conference I attended two years ago ( was dominated by people form the traditional publishing world to the degree that, with a couple of exceptions in panels, it was as if hardcover books were the only game going on in publication, a strange illusion.  In 2018 that was no longer the case. Talks included discussion of electronic publishing, self-publishing, how to manipulate Amazon, and something new to me, "hybrid publishing", a sort of cross between self and traditional publishing, where a publisher selects a book submitted by an agent or author and they then share the cost and allocate any profits in varying proportions depending on what each contributed.

Never the less agents and prominent writers set a lot of the tone.  Characteristically the prominent writers urged people in the audience to be true to themselves, write what they inwardly wanted and the like, whereas the agents delivered strong guidelines about what the publishing industry wants and expects. Jayne Smiley, who always intended to and does write different sorts of books, commented that winning the Pulitzer Prize helped in arguing with her publisher. Her agent, however, told a story that elicited some sympathy for publishers. There used to be a mystery writer named Sue Grafton who wrote a series of rigidly similar mystery novels. Her publisher wanted her to write them as fast as twice a year whereas she wanted to slow down to one every two years, or something like that. The agent pointed out that at that time Grafton’s novels accounted for about half the publisher's income.

A couple of writers who had a calling to speak for their minority group were prominent in the conference two years ago and that was a live topic of discussion. Not this time.

Of the many talks ( the one I attended and enjoyed most was Smiley. I've read only one of her books (A Thousand Acres) and was only moderately impressed, but she's fun and smart and has had an interesting career.  The one I liked least was billed as on the Jungian notion of the hero’s journey. I thought, good, I can get ideas about plot structure. It turns out she was interested in only on step, (the second, "Refusing the Call"). She gave us brief writing assignments related to evocative phrases. One was "The stakes were high." Feeling irritable, I wrote about an enclosure walled by stakes so high they made the garden shady.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Demo at 50

I spent Sunday at a symposium on the 50th anniversary of a demo of the Online System (NLS) by Doug Engelbart and his group in 1968. The demo is famous in computer history.  

I joined the group in 1970, about two years after the demo and stayed till 1980.  The first two talks in the morning were about the demo and how it had been achieved.  Computer processing necessary for the demo took place at SRI in Menlo Park and was connected to Engelbart controlling the computer and dwarfed by a giant display screen in what is now Bill Graham Civic Auditorium by a two-step microwave link.  The whole process was intricate, fragile and something of a miracle in terms of both software and hardware.  Of course, I'd heard about it, but never in such detail with excellent slides created by some of the people who did the work.  I found the morning very interesting.

By my guesstimate there were about 250 people gathered at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, roughly one tenth of the people who saw the demo.  The audience was dominated by old, white men, as were the presenters.  About half of it was younger, down to teenagers, but again predominantly white men.

Engelbart's work is conceptually separate from the Internet, but historically it has been much entwined with it.  His lab at SRI was the second node on what became the ARPANET and eventually the Internet.  The notion of linking documents came from Doug and/or a philosopher named Ted Nelson (see below), but the implementation, as we know it in the Internet today, came later from other sources.

All of the speakers credited Doug's person and his thinking as important influences in their lives.

Later morning sessions discussed the immediate impact of the demo on computer research and development.

The sixteen presenters, including several computer luminaries, expressed many interests and viewpoints, but the afternoon sessions tended to focus on whether Engelbart "vision" was being fulfilled by the contemporary computer world.  Engelbart set out his vision in a paper in 1962.   Basically it is not a vision about hardware or software, but about building tools to aid the process of solving problems: "By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems." Speakers were in general highly aware of the distinction.

Speakers tended to say that the computer world has sadly failed to implement the vision, mostly because it has been diverted into getting rich.  There was some criticism, for instance of Google, even though Google was one of several sponsors of the meeting.  One speaker recalled the first time an advertisement appeared on the Internet and his moral disgust at seeing it there, which was shared by his colleagues.  Facebook took several hits from speakers, although I notice more than one person sitting in the audience sneaking a look as they listened.  Wikipedia was several times praised.  This was a group of smart, collegial,  bland, and well-off guys, and a few gals, beating themselves up for not having done more for the world in the manner Doug envisioned and suggesting ways, none of them very likely in my perspective, of doing better.

In the foyer of the auditorium, there were demos of software influenced by Doug’s thought or practice.  Dean Meyers showed a version of NLS running on Windows.  I was most impressed by a small teaching tool based on links running on an Apple II.  It's been a while since I saw a running Apple II.

The problem from my perspective is that forces like capitalism and the human propensity to divide into groups and squabble tend to subsume whether people communicate with the aid of computers.  For instance, climate change was mentioned several times.  Undoubtedly, computer-based exchange and examination of knowledge can help with scientific and technical problems having to do with climate change.  But the coal companies have computers too.  At a high level, everybody knows what to do about climate change: eliminate fossil fuels and cultivate forests and other absorbers of greenhouse gases.  This is not a technical problem -;  it is a political problem.  Again, Internet computer communication has had diverse and profound effects on politics; whether they have reduced conflict or mismanagement remains to be seen.  The methodical use of the Internet by the Russians and others to confuse people was not motioned in my hearing and efforts by China to mold social identity was mentioned only once.

The overall moderator was Paul Saffo  who describes his occupation as "futurist." That and chatting with old friends and acquaintances, some of whom I would not have recognized without nametags, recalled to me how strange it was when I first began working in what is now called Silicon Valley that people's identity seem to center on what they hoped or planned to do rather than what they had done or where they had come from.  I have not yet become comfortable with it.  After all, the past has happened and shaped us as it has.  The future is at best a plan and for sure uncertain.

The last speaker was Ted Nelson.  He is extraordinarily eloquent.  He described his personal and intellectual relationship with Doug over a lifetime.  I cannot describe what he said, only admire it.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Fake News from the Rhine

Last week I attended the San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's four operas The Ring of the Nibelungen.  Let me first of all say that this was a satisfactory experience.  The orchestra, central to these operas, was in great shape and wonderfully conducted.  The singers were all good, some terrific.  I could make some carping criticisms of some singers – there always such criticisms to make – but I don't want to bother.  The acting was good.  Above all, the special imaginative and emotional hit The Ring offers was present in abundance.

What is the special Ring hit?  It is the musical re-evocation of themes, events, and objects, that have occurred through musical cross-references by means of repeated, sometimes altered but recognizable, Leitmotifs.  Let me take a small example.  When the most important female protagonist, Brunhilda, is a demigoddess riding high, the celebrated Ho-jo-to-homusic is associated with her entrance.  At the end of the next Opera she has been demoted to mortal and obliged to marry the tenor.  Basically she is happy with her fate —; she loves the guy and loves feeling love.  But, realistically, her response is complicated and ambivalent.  As she is exploring her ambivalence she recalls, (in translation) "Once heroes bowed to me.”  When she sings those words we get a brief poignant touch of Ho-jo-to-homusic in the midst of her love music.  Repeat that process 200 times and one hundredfold and you get a musical experience that enters your mind and emotions as no other. It is the result of intense and creative coordination of text, music, and setting.

But mostly I want to bitch about the stage setting.  It's really awful, more awful than merely ugly or crude would be.  Generally, it is not coordinated.  Let me acknowledge first that in general I am uncomfortable with resetting plays or operas in times other than the author's intent, although it certainly can work.  Let me acknowledge also that anyone presenting The Ring has a problem about setting.  When and where does The Ring take place?  It takes place in mythic never never land.  And what pray does mythic never never land look like?  Though Wagner provided ample descriptions of scenes in his libretti, the history of productions of The Ring is strewn with failures of staging.  But we can be sure of a couple of things.  It is set in the forest. The vast forest that covered Germany in the middle Ages as Wagner imagined it.  Second it is set by, on, and in the river Rhine

Wagner's idea of nature is not problematic.  It is the solid and meaningful background in which the decline of the gods and triumph of human love takes place in The Ring.  The notion that  nature is something humankind is destroying by exploitation is a late 20th century idea at least in its popular form, well after Wagner.

The first scene of the first opera, Das Rheingold, challenges stage designers.  Wagner’s detailed directions describe it:
(Greenish twilight, lighter above, darker below. 
At the bottom of the Rhine
The upper part of the scene is filled with moving
water, which restlessly streams from right to left.
Toward the bottom, the waters resolve themselves
into a fine mist, so that the space, to a man’s height
from the stage, seems free from the water, which
floats like a train of clouds over the gloomy depths.
Everywhere are steep points of rock jutting up from
the depths and enclosing the whole stage; all the
ground is broken up into a wild confusion of jagged
pieces, so that there is no level place, while on all
sides darkness indicates other deeper fissures.)
 (The curtain rises. Waters in motion. Woglinde
circles with graceful swimming motions around the
central rock.)

For reasons unknowable to Wagner, the stage director, Francesca Zambellohas decided to begin The Ring in California in the time of the gold rush, extend its duration to approximately the present, and through sets and projections depict the loss of the natural world to industrialization.  In Wagner's libretto the action takes around 25 years and involves no reference to what may be going on outside the world of the story.

Of course the Rhine does not flow in California so, although the name of the opera is Das Rheingold and the Rhine maidens ("Rheintöchterin German) sing the German text, "Rheingold" etc., the subtitles read "River maid" and "River gold.”  The river is a stream running through the middle of the stage and the Rhine maidens are not water sprits, but healthy looking California girls dressed in 19th-century party ware.  

The powerful Sacramento River flows through California, was the location of the gold rush, and was involved in environmentally destructive placer mining, which appears on some screen projections, but Zambello ignores that. Perhaps the notion of subtitles translating Rheingold as “Sacramento Gold” was too ridiculous even for her.

At this point the staging is merely silly and distracting.  It gets worse in the beginning of the third opera because it tampers with protagonist’s conception of self.

Wagner’s stage directions for Siegfried act I scene 1 are: 
(A rocky cavern in a forest containing a naturally
formed smith’s forge with large bellows.

In this forest a villain named Mime has raised the ultimate hero Siegfried without exposure to other human beings.  But he has been exposed to the forest.  He constantly refers in dialogue to how he had learned about life and himself from the birds, animals, and trees of the forest and at one point leads in a bear, this arrogant adolescent’s idea of a joke on Mime.

But trees and rocks not what we see when the curtain rises in this production.  Mime's cave has become a dilapidated mobile home located in an industrial wasteland (see above).  No home for bears here.  The real problem with this is that the hero could not have grown up with the self-image or the image of how to relate to others he had in an industrial wasteland. The scene leaves the audience possibly annoyed but certainly confused.

By the end of the opera via staging and projections the setting has progressed to a 20th-century industrial wasteland, which serves to suggest, nay assert, the destruction of nature by humans. Whatever the name of the river, it has dried up and we last saw the whatever maidens collecting garbage on its dry floor in a scene Wagner describes as set "in a  remote wooded valley where the Rhine flows".

Between scenes toward the beginning of the last opera a substantial orchestral passage embodies musically the hero’s trip down the Rhine.  The swelling music movingly reflects the flow of the river. It is frequently excerpted and has become a warhorse of symphony concerts. The curtain raiser for the first opera is a beautiful and hypnotic projection depicting a powerful river and related stuff. It would have been appropriate and satisfying to repeat it here. But no, we get more projections of industrial waste. It is weird to hear Siegfried’s Rhine Journey while looking at in concrete and power lines.

Wagner provides detailed stage directions for the end of the opera:

(As the whole space of the stage seems filled withfire, the glow suddenly subsides, so that only a cloud
of smoke remains, which is drawn to the background
and there lies on the horizon as a dark bank of cloud.
At the same time the Rhine overflows its banks in a
mighty flood which rolls over the fire. On the waves
the three Rhine daughters swim forward and now
appear on the place of the fire.)
 (Hagen, who since the incident of the ring observed
Brünnhilde’s behavior with growing
anxiety, is seized with great alarm at the appearance
of the Rhine daughters. He hastily throws spear,
shield and helmet from him and rushes, as if mad,
into the flood.)

 (Woglinde and Wellgunde [Rhine maidens] embrace his neck with
their arms and draw him with them into the depths
as they swim away. Flosshilde, swimming in front of
the others toward the back, holds up the regained
ring joyously.)
 (Through the bank of clouds which lie on the
horizon a red glow breaks forth with increasing
brightness. Illumined by this light, the three Rhine
daughters are seen, swimming in circles, merrily play-
ing with the ring on the calmer waters of the Rhine,
which has gradually returned to its natural bed.)
 (From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and
women, in the greatest agitation, look on the
growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length
glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of
Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit
assembled, as in Waltraute’s description in the first
 (Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the
gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the
flames, the curtain falls.

None of this happens as described in this production. Instead see a barren, post-industrial landscape.  The Rhine Maidens, once flirtatious hotties, embodiments of positive libido, are now bedraggled and bent. Siegfried is not on a pyre of wood for Zambellohas moved his immolation off stage, but Gibichung vassalsn are carrying old tire casings in that general direction.   Valhalla is not seen.  Etc. Most important the Rhine does not flood the stage. There is no Rhine, and whatever river flowed in the first opera has dried up.

Because the Rhine does not reflood the stage to allow the Rhine Maidens to swim up and remove the ring from Siegfried’s finger, the setting fails the resolution the text and music embodies.  Zambello has imposed a moral of painful disharmony rather than resolution.  She ties to solve the problem she has created by adding a child who comes on stage after theverything Wagner wrote is over carrying a sapling, which she plants.  This is Bullshit.  This is Fake News.  And like political fake news, the confusion it causes is as bad as it's dishonesty.

The libretti Translations are by Frederick Jameson .You can read them all at:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Comments on The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This novel has real strengths and real drawbacks. It recounts suffering and resistance of two sisters, their father, and communities of associates, friends, and loved ones in France during the invasion and occupation by the Germans in WW II.  The action is mainly set in a small country town, but also in Paris and other rural parts of France.  It portrays movingly the grinding preservation and degradation of the French people as the war goes on with respect to practical matters like getting enough to eat, but also to persona feelings, like fearing for loved ones, or social and cultural loss, like the loss of faith in society.

The prose is generally clear and eloquent and every few pages are graced by tellingly beautiful and effective metaphors.

Three plot lines sometimes support and intensify one another and sometimes overlap and obscure one another. At the heart is the story of two sisters who respond to the early death of their mother and the emotional crippling of their father in very different ways.  One is rebellious, an actor-outer, whereas the other bargains everything for security.  Their father is himself the victim of the trauma of serving in the French army in WW I and the early death of their mother.

The second line of plot is the participation mainly of the rebellious sister in the resistance to the Germans, in particular her smuggling Allied airmen out of the country, which provides a lot of tense scenes.  The stay-at-home sister eventually, and somewhat out of character, becomes involved similarly in saving Jewish children.

The third line of plot is a frame story involving an ill, old woman in Seattle in the present day.  The reader's uncertainly about her relevance creates minimal tension.

The characterization in general is clear and moving. In the case of the sisters and their father, it reaches beyond being clear into being unremitting. Certainly every few pages from beginning to end the author informs us of how the sisters have responded differently to their different lack of parenting and how they feel about one another.

During about the time I read this book, I read, or rather audited, Arnold Bennett's novel The Old Wives Tale.  It too is about two sisters, one of whom is, in her 19th century English fashion, rebellious and adventurous, while he other is a stay-at-home.  It establishes the difference between these two sisters and their attitude towards one another and their difference in the first 50 pages of a very long novel, and after that simply lets us see how it plays out.  Hannah would've done well to follow similar strategy; we get tired of her rehashing these family differences.  The same thing applies to their relation to their father, which Bennett establishes and anchors its importance in the beginning of the novel.  It remains a live issue without our having to be told about it.  This economy leaves Bennett free to develop a whole world.

One of the virtues of The Nightingale is the portrayal two German officers who are stationed in a small town and become involved with the sisters.  The difference between the two officers is fully realized; one is a loyal German but a decent human being troubled by the war and his role, the other is a sadistic bastard.

I happen at the same time to be reading another relevant novel, Heinrich Böll's group portrait with lady, which very fully portrays the life of middle-class and other Germans during the war, and how it changed as the war approached its end, as Hannah portrays so well in France.  Böll's method of characterization is very much more complex than Hannah's.  Böll creates as a character an author like an investigative reporter who compares and contrasts the various accounts of the various characters by various other characters.  Just as we don't see eye to eye on one another, his characters do not see eye to eye on one another and he reports it.  The results are a very nuanced and multidimensional portrayal of the individuals and of their world.  Hannah's focus on the two sisters and certain aspects of their relationships seems narrow and repetitive by comparison.

The frame story of the ill, old woman in Seattle is a tease.  The reader comes to believe perhaps halfway through the novel that she one or the other of the sisters and the uncertainty is only resolved at the very end.  The whole frame story is unnecessary and unlikely. Hannah never explains how she got to Seattle many years after the main events of the novel.

The story sometimes falls into melodrama. For example, two lovers are reunited as one is about to die, á La Bohème.

So reading the novel was in part frustrating. I wish the author had stopped redwelling on the family relations, effectively established, which would have freed her cover some of the other complex cities of the German occupation of France, for example the role of those French who were perfectly happy to have the Germans arrive and save them from communism and Jews.  The frame story was simply an unnecessary and improbable obstruction.  But still is a moving book, with flash of wonderful writing and a moving portrayal of the suffering of war.