Monday, August 22, 2016

Photos fo Cobalt and Sudbury (book reviews)

     Two Photo Album reprints: 1894 Souvenir of Sudbury & Cobalt the Silver City. (1981) Exactly what the titles promise, collections of photographs originally issued to boost the images of Sudbury and Cobalt, and attract settlers and investment. The original photographs show the care that went into making these expensive objects. A full plate (5"x7") photographic print cost about half a day’s typical pay. The photographers couldn’t afford to make technically poor negatives or unpleasing images.
     Composition is always workmanlike and often pleasing. Many of the photos show people lined up in front of buildings: an opportunity to have your picture taken for a low price was rare. Most of the pictures show banks and stores, and public buildings such as schools. The signage is sometimes overdone to our eyes: a wall was a great place to catalogue merchandise. There are a few interior shots. All pictures repay close study. One thing I noticed was unpaved roads bordered by wooden sidewalks. The pictures of mines include enough detail for a building models or dioramas.
     Exposure and development was calculated to provide a nice gradation from black to white, with the maximum of detail in the shadows and the highlights. Unfortunately, reprinting printed images always degrades the quality, and both albums suffer from the effects of making photographic copies of halftones. The Cobalt album is somewhat muddy, the Sudbury one somewhat pale. Both will join my modest collection local history books. **½

Ther'll Alway be an England, or at least a Giles Cartoon Collection

     Giles Cartoons 1991. In 1991, Giles stopped working for the Sunday Express, although he continued to select the cartoons for subsequent albums. I’ve always liked his cartoons, especially his Family. His compositions are wonderful, he uses shading and black to create a clear structure. His line is always confident, and his ability to create expressions with a squiggle here and a curve there is unsurpassed.
     The cartoons tell stories, with many incidental details, and always make or imply some comment on the events of the day. Some are mildly indulgent observations about the follies and quirks of the English, and I suspect had a great influence on their self-image, especially their stoic endurance of often horrible weather, the culture of the local pub, cricket, horse racing as a legitimate excuse for gambling, and so on. But more often his comment was satirical. I leafed through the album to select an example, and found it difficult going. At random: Grandma is mowing a great curved swath in the lawn, grass clippings flying all directions, newspaper readers shaken, drinks about to fall off the tray carried by her daughter, who says, “I told you not to trust her with the lawnmower after her horse refused at the first fence.”
     Wikipedia’s article is a good intro, and there’s a collection available at the British Cartoon Archive, hosted by the University of Kent. ****

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? (if you really want to know)

     David Feldman. How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? (1993) Feldman made a name for himself as a collector of much-puzzled-over trifles, publishing ten books and working on #11. His website lists all ten titles, all now available as e-books. This one (#6) is a typical collection, answering questions such as the title, and What did Barny Rubble do for a Living?, What’s the Difference between French and Italian Bread?, etc. His humour is too often arch, but insofar as we all come across puzzles we can’t solve, the books fill a need. Unlike many of the answer compilations that people circulate as emails, these are as well researched as possible.
     There’s a section on “frustables”, ie “frustrating imponderables”, in which Feldman not only fesses up about his ignorance, but provides overviews of what is and what is not known about questions such as Does anyone really like fruitcake? (Yes, I do, and I’m not alone, albeit in a minority, it seems. I think that fruitcake has to be soaked in brandy or rum, wrapped in foil and plastic, and allowed to ripen for a year or so.)
     The appetite for trivia will never be slaked. The number of click-bait sites featuring 10 Most Horrifying Worms and similar lists increases daily. Even New Scientist has Questions page, on which readers ask about odd stones or strange organic looking debris for other readers to asnwer.
     Good collection, a nice way to while away a few minutes when you’re too tired for productive work and pleasure, but not tired enough for sleep. ***

Friday, August 19, 2016

Photos that Tell a Story: The Picture Post Album

     Robert Kee. The Picture Post Album (1989) Kee’s history of the magazine, Britain’s version of LIFE, which preceded it, but learned from it. Picture Post’s founding owner (Hulton) and editors (Lorant and Hopkinson) wanted to use photography as the medium for telling stories, not as an adjunct to text. They succeeded brilliantly, in large part because Hulton was a social reformer, and expected the future to be one of progress in equality and social justice.
     The Second World War began when the Post was barely eleven months old, and it became a major factor in maintaining British morale. It published pictures of all social strata at work and play, of soldiers and civilians experience of the war, mixed with a bit of discreet cheesecake and sentiment, and in every issue dealt with some more serious topic such as the future of health care, or the conduct of the war. The photographs were brilliant, and their layout and captions told the story. The amount of text apparently varied, but the Post published articles and short fiction too, as well as leaders (editorials). The magazine could be sharply satirical, as when it published black rectangles instead of the pictures about the home front that the editors wished to print but which the censors forbade.
     But the focus was the pictures, and this book shows us the range of subject matter and style. Many of it images have become the ones that we think of when celebrities and artists of the mid-twentieth century are named.
The photographers were among those who shifted photography away from vaguely conceived imitation of fine art in other media into its own realm. We now take it for granted that photography can be anything the photographer wants it to be, but that it works best as the record of a moment whose significance isn’t understood until it’s captured in a photo, that photography can distill meaning as well as any painting, precisely because it fixes what would otherwise be a distorted memory of a glimpse.
     The magazine morphed into the owner’s mouth-piece when Hulton disagreed with the post-war politics of Labour. He also pioneered the advertorial, a dubious honour. That wasn’t what the readers wanted, and TV with its illusion of immediacy cut into the visual reporting of illustrated news magazine. It died in 1957, a parody of itself.
Hopkinson’s Foreword ends with a hopeful claim that a magazine of high-quality photo-reportage and writing could be viable. He had no inkling of what digital photography and the Web would do to new media.
     A nostalgia trip for anyone who knew the magazine or the times in which it thrived, and a necessary record for those who did not. ***

Leacock, humourist and satirist

     Stephen Leacock. Literary Lapses and Winnowed Wisdom (1910 & 1926) Leacock suffers from his reputation as Our Great Canadian Humourist. He does write humorous pieces and some wonderfully bizarre fantasies, his sense of the absurd is exquisite, but his real strength I think is satire. His taught economics, the dismal science, which isn’t a science but is dismal, especially when its practitioners have a political or philosophical axe to grind. There’s only one law of economics: trading is an exchange of wealth. Everything else is ideology, psychology, and (mostly) superstition. Leacock understood this, and his savage attacks on the rich, their greed, indifference, and ignorance, are disguised by a veneer of absurdity, or surrealism, or a bonhomie that may trick you into thinking that a snarl is a grin.
     Leacock likes to use the naif as his narrator, as in How to Make a Million Dollars, not nearly as well known as My Financial Career, and not nearly as pleasant to read. It begins “I like millionaires”, and pretty soon we realise that the millionaires are venal, self-indulgent, greedy, and more or less corrupt. But the narrator sees only the fine clothes, fine food, fine houses, and fine drink, all which he would like to have more of himself. He can’t make a million dollars, but he can ingratiate himself into millionaire society: they will feed him well in exchange for his flatteries.
     Leacock knew his audience, and was careful to write the nonsense that elicits laughter rather than awareness. He was a complex man, who knew perfectly well that humans are a good deal less than they wish to be and persuade themselves they are. His need for approval often made him pull his punches and sheathe his claws. His best pieces are those in which he can indulge his sense of the absurdity of daily life without risking satire, such as The Men who have Shaved Me, or The Everlasting Angler (he was an avid fisher all his life). But his most powerful ones are the satires, see Summer Sorrows of the Super Rich.
     Reprinted in A Treasury of Stephen Leacock (1999), along with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I bought it for $1 at a yard sale, excellent value. Recommended. ****

Looking for Tiny Trains and Loving it: In Search of the Narrow Gauge (1996)

     Bob Wetham. In Search of the Narrow Gauge (1996) When Wetham’s father was posted to Peru in the 1970s he developed a love of trains and narrow gauge ones in particular. In this collection of reminiscences and photographs he tells of several of his journeys, most of them in South America. He really did go out of his way to see and ride the last narrow gauge trains. A few of the lines have become tourist lines, but most have long since gone.
     The book focuses on the journeys, not the technical details of the lines. Wetham spent a very cold night in Patagonia, and years later returned on a guided tour. He risked permanent disappearance in Africa, and endured surveillance by police and army in other parts of the world. He comes across as a nice guy who’s happy to share his passion for trains. Oddly, it’s a page turner, I think because he tells things as they happened. The photos are well printed, too, I wish there were more of them. But in the pre-digital photography and printing age, pictures and printing were more expensive than they are now, a bare quarter century later. Recommended for anyone who likes trains and travel. **½

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The humour of horror: Charles Addams

     Charles Addams Nightcrawlers (1957) Wikipedia lists this as the 5th compilation of Addams’ drawings. Addams has a knack for combining the everyday suburban life of middle America with traditional horror tropes. This makes his Family endearing, We recognise that even terrifying monsters have a homelife and trouble raising their children. That’s what made the TV series a hit, despite its clumsy production values and often awful scripts.
     But all is not sweetness and dark. Addams also takes evil seriously: The TV host of “Here is Your Life” reveals “...the wife you haven’t seen for eighteen years” about to appear from behind the curtain, carrying a gun. Or a little boy dribbling not crumbs but thumbtacks to mark his trail. OK, that’s mere meanness, but mere meanness is merely the mildest evil.
     He’s also good on the purely bizarre: A TV repairman tells the customer he has fixed the “dead area difficulties” etc, by mounting a huge eye and two large ears on the antenna above the set. A allusion to Big Brother, perhaps.
      I think Addams influenced cartoonists like Gary Larson, and also created an audience for them. My copy is a Pocket Books reprint of 1964, well done on good paper, but I had to re-glue the back. A keeper. ***

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Men In Black: A Classic

    Men in Black (1997) [D: Barry Sonnenfeld. Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn et al] I think this is the fourth time I’ve watched this movie. Maybe the fifth. It holds up well.
     It’s inspired by a comic book series that seems to be a rather rambling, unfocused mess. The movie delivers a coherent story, with witty dialogue, well-done riffs on stereotypical characters, a superlative storyboard, and actors who know that to make a fantasy work means hinting at the backstories that animate their roles. The whole crew obviously had fun making this ridiculous story work. Competent photography, well-executed special effects, direction that keeps the story moving fast without ever losing the audience, music and sound that rarely intrude, sly allusions to the tropes of the genre. What more can you ask for?
     It’s the actors that make this fantasy above average. Jones has the world-weary look of a pro who has seen it all, but hangs in there because a) it’s his job; b) he’s good at it; and c) it’s necessary. He’s moderately patient with recruit Will Smith, who delivers his standard smart-ass character, a wise guy who has trouble with authority, but takes the job seriously. All the secondary roles are done well, even the tow-truck driver has a history, hinted at when he reveals a gun tucked into his waistband.
     Movies like this are often underrated. They’re slick, live-action fantasy comic books after all, and what can such a genre teach us about real life? A lot, actually. That loyalty matters. That the cranky outsider is essential precisely because he’s a cranky outsider, and sees things that others miss. That life demands sacrifice. That with luck, a bit of talent, and damn hard work, you can exceed your own expectations. That the universe is a mysterious, dangerous, and wonderful place. And that a movie crew that believes in the project can deliver a classic. ****

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

In a current Techopedia article about how Big Data can improve self service, the author claims that self service empowers people to do task themselves. Nope. What it actually does is download those tasks onto the customers. However, most of the cost-savings do not accrue to the customers, but to the shareholders.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

    (J. R. Green) The Wonders of the Ancient World (1983) Well done pamphlet about the 7 Wonders. Quick now, can you recite their names? I couldn’t either, still can’t. Anyhow, Green, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at Sydney University (Australia) writes well, packs an immense amount of information into very few words, and manages to get across what these Wonders meant to the Greeks, who made the list. The illustrations assembled from many medieval and later sources by the Reader’s Digest team (RD take credit for the booklet) suit the text very well, and show how absence of data does not deter people from creating detailed pictures of things they have never seen. Certainly out of print by now, but that’s not the only reason this is a keeper. Lovely little reference, the kind that can settle friendly arguments. ****

Great Model Railroads 2016

     Kalmbach Publishing Co. Great Model Railroads 2016 It’s time to review another of these special annual Model Railroader issues. Model Railroader is a strong proponent of operations: the owners of all the layouts featured here either designed them for operation, or added operations after exposure to the entertainment value of the railroad game. They also want a stage for the trains, the actors in the drama, as Frank Ellison described it in his articles about the Delta Lines, a showcase for railroad-like operations in the 1940s and 50s. So the layouts look good, interpreting or echoing some prototype and set in a recognisable time.
     The articles generally follow the “How I Built My Railroad” format, which will be helpful to the novice. Since the magazine is intended as inspiration and showcase, this makes sense. However, I sometimes wonder whether page after page of basement- or garage-sized layouts might not overwhelm the new modeller, who more likely has a small bedroom or a corner of a family room available. The layouts here range in size from 299 to 1800 square feet. Most are in the 400 square foot range.
     That being said, the photography is excellent, the concepts are interesting, and every builder has solved some common problem in an unusual way. The most successful layouts, to my eyes, are those that use a minimalist approach. That is, design a track plan based on the prototype, which disliked spending unnecessary money, and so tended to build just enough track to get the job done. Use enough scenery to give the trains a setting. Avoid cluttery detail, but set up scenes that tell a story. Use colour and lighting to create the ambience desired, which is of course the illusion that we are looking at a miniature universe. Give the operators what they want while giving the mildly interested hangers-on something to look at and enjoy.
     While these layouts are large, they not complex. They all provide a full evening’s operation, some with a half dozen, other with a dozen or more players. The make playing at railroading easy enough to avoid frustration, and complicated enough to hold interest.
     A few faves:
    The Shasta Route (HO, Southern Pacific), a well thought out train-watchers layout with grand vistas and some switching to keep the puzzle-solvers busy. There’s enough staging to allow for a satisfyingly busy day down by the tracks.
     The Appalachian Route (On30, fictitious), which creates a nice early 20th century ambience for the nostalgia buff who likes to see small trains in large landscapes, and lots of laid back switching in towns and villages hosting small and medium-sized businesses.
     River City (HO, Minneapolis & St Louis), which recreates a few miles of small town railroading, with enough operation to keep a half dozen or so people busy for relaxing evening. The builder kept close to prototype track arrangements, but fudged a bit by including some defunct businesses to increase work for the peddler trains.
     This issue is no longer in print, but back issues are available from Kalmbach, and many hobby shops will still have a few copies on their racks. ***

The Past's Long Shadows: Trophies and Dead Things, by Marcia Muller

     Marcia Muller. Trophies and Dead Things (1990) Sharon McCone tracks a serial killer who’s randomly picking off people, including Perry Hilderley,  a client of Hank’s, colleague and lawyer at the All Souls Legal Cooperative. She solves that one, but the case isn’t over yet. Hilderley has left his fortune to four people whose connections to him and each other are obscure. McCone solves that one, too, but not without two more deaths. Muller likes stories in which the past’s long shadows darken the lives of the more or less innocent young. Here, it’s the anti-Vietnam War protest movement of the 60s. Multiple betrayals and confused motives messed up lives back then; unfinished business prompts some people to lethal action now.
     A plausible plot with not overly-TV’ed characters. The story moves at a leisurely pace. The back-stories of the All Souls characters advance a few steps. A couple of kittens appear here and there, and end up at McCone’s place. Love hurts are healed, somewhat. There’s no mention of fees, especially McCone’s, ever being paid. Well done entertainment, a cut or two above the average for the female PI genre. **½