Wed, Jun

The Festival of Books at USC Was Like a Return to Almost Normal Times


GELFAND’S WORLD - We seem to be in a post-Covid moment, as evidenced by the return of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

We could be headed for another lockdown -- or not -- but for one glorious weekend, the USC campus was adorned with tents and kiosks and performance stages. There were also indoor panels which generally included a moderator and at least a couple of speakers. It was a chance for authors to present their works and later to sign their books. And unlike the early months of the pandemic, people were free to wander around, passing each other, breaking into conversations, and discussing books and politics with authors and with each other. 

That's right: this was an in-person event. Masks were required for the indoor happenings, but outdoors almost nobody wore one. Whatever the reality of the remaining pandemic, people seemed to genuinely enjoy being back in a crowd where they could browse and chat and eat. 

I chose to attend a Sunday event titled The End of the World As We Know It, presented early Sunday afternoon in front of a crowd I would estimate at about a hundred people. LA Times reporter Rosanna Xia was the moderator. University of Oklahoma professor Lucas Bessire talked about aquifer depletion in Kansas, his original home. Michelle Nijhuis spoke about her book Beloved Beasts, which is subtitled Fighting For Life In An Age of Extinction. The broad theme was, of course, the damage that our human species is doing to the natural world (water and elephants both) and efforts by some of us to protect both species and other parts of the natural order. 

In fact, there were numerous panels on the climate crisis, but also panels on the latest fiction, on cooking, and one panel titled Writing Food Into the Story. It's an interesting point that much of detective fiction (Spenser, Commissario Brunetti, and so on) includes lengthy descriptions of cooking and serving food. 

So, we've got the Festival of Books back in our lives. The downsides were the cost of gasoline to get there and the price of parking once you got there, but admission is always free, and it is a kick to walk around the campus past the hundreds of tents full of publishers and authors and organizations: Remember the Self Realization Fellowship that you drive past on Sunset as you approach the end of the road at Pacific Coast Highway? I got a chance to hear about the Fellowship from one of its representatives and was told that the organization is based on Yoga and the teaching of meditation. 

There were lots of children's books and playing areas and one tent dedicated to a group called Reading to Kids which you can find online here.  

There were also multiple organizations of independent writers and California writers both North and South, all meant to help you to write and get published and, perhaps, even to make a few bucks in the process. There were the Independent Writers of Southern California which you can find here and the Book Publicists of Southern California. 

There were also tents full of books for sale by local bookstores (Book Soup, Vromans) and even tents run by authors with their own self-published books. 

The main story behind this year's festival is that it happened. It's back, and we can once again mingle among thousands of other readers and writers and representatives of the publishing business. 

Pansori, the Korean art of musical storytelling 

Over the weekend, the Korean Culture Center Inc. held its 50th anniversary celebration. The KCCI is centered at a Presbyterian church near the corner of Vermont and 24th St, in an area that has historical ties to the Korean independence movement of the early 20th century. At that event, there was a demonstration, at least to this viewer, of the breadth of culture in this wider Los Angeles area. 

Pansori is a Korean artform which involves a singer and a drummer. It involves dramatic use of the voice in both expressive speaking and demonstrative singing. Our performers on Saturday were a brother and sister who now reside in Orange County, but who apparently originally come from the L.A. area. Ellie Kim is at Sunny Hills High School and her brother Allex Kim is at Beatty Middle School. Both were impressive in their performances. They traded off duties as singer and drummer. 

The other element of Saturday's celebration was meant as a memorial to the late Rev. Kwang Duk Lee, who grew up in what is now North Korea, managed to reach the United States, and founded the KCCI in 1972. He passed away in 2020, and in this Covid era, the celebration of his life has had to wait until now. 

A Return to Live Theater 

During the upswing in the pandemic a couple of years ago, theaters and musical groups closed down all over the country. Los Angeles was no exception. I can remember going to the final performance at LA Opera and then waiting until fairly recently for them to restart. It's been something similar for live theater. I'm now getting announcements for theater performances all over town. This is a welcome development. We should also notice that we're getting close to the annual Hollywood Fringe Festival. You can find information about it here.  It officially runs June 9 - 26, but it looks like there will be preliminary performances starting as early as June 2. 

A curious graph where the term "exponential" is correct 

There is hardly any word in the English language more misused than exponential. In mathematics, the term refers to things that vary proportionally over time. For example, an exponential curve is seen in the decay of uranium atoms, where the radioactivity drops by half each time that one "half-life" goes by. A scientist would refer to that decay as "two to the minus t," where t is the half life. Each time one half-life goes by, you multiply the activity by one-half, and you get the new activity. 

So why am I bringing this up? 

If you look at the Los Angeles County Health website, you can find a page on the Covid pandemic here. What's interesting to me is that the death numbers seem to be falling exponentially, with a half-life of about two weeks. The shape of the curve is instantly recognizable to those who work with exponentially declining things, as you might see in biochemistry or radioactive decay or, indeed, many other things. 

The curve peaked right around the beginning of February. If you trace along the curve, it drops by about half around the middle of February and then by another half as you go two weeks further. 

One property of a true exponential decay curve is that it goes down and stays down. That statement does not necessarily imply that the Covid numbers in Los Angeles County will also stay down. Perhaps we will have a new variant that can reinfect people who have already had an earlier variant, or could infect those who have been vaccinated. We can't disprove any of these possibilities, but the current numbers suggest that something interesting is going on. 

It's not entirely obvious what that interesting thing is, but we might hazard a guess that we are seeing the equivalent of the beginnings of herd immunity. Perhaps we've gotten to the point where most of us have either been vaccinated or exposed to the virus, the result being that the few cases that are now showing up don't have much of a population to spread into. 

The reason that this decay curve is interesting to me is that I'm not seeing some new carefulness among our population in terms of avoiding catching Covid. I see something that is quite to the contrary. So maybe we've finally gotten lucky, two years and a million dead later. 

One little aside. Every time you hear a newscaster say that something is "exponentially greater," you will know that that person is mathematically illiterate. The term "exponential" refers to the shape of the growth curve or the decay curve, not to the magnitude of change. My savings account is growing exponentially, in that it will double in about 80 years, but that does not mean that it is growing quickly. The reason that the term exponential has found its way into the popular usage is a different property, which goes like this: If you compare an exponential function with some other power function (X squared, for example), the exponential function will eventually grow to be larger than the other function, and will stay larger. It might take a hundred-thousand years to get to this level, but given enough time, it will get there. This property is of interest to mathematicians, but seems to be misunderstood by most everybody else.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])