Saturday, August 17, 2013

Burt Wetanson and Thomas Hoobler. The Treasure Hunters (1983)

     Burt Wetanson and Thomas Hoobler. The Treasure Hunters (1983) Humans hunted by aliens, a tired cliche, maybe. In this young-adult fiction Wetanson and Hoobler do a good job of putting a new twist on it: The Hunters have psychic powers, which they must not use. But one of the humans, Billy Miller, a teenager with self esteem and girl problems, is on the verge of the Discovery. How he learns of his powers, and why the Aged Master decides he must be initiated into their full use, forms the backbone of the story, which  is a pretty straightforward quest. The perils and encounters are well enough told that they ring true, but the characters are explained rather than shown. As SF, the book rates a solid ** (2007)

Gary Larson. Bride of the Far Side (1985)

     Gary Larson. Bride of the Far Side (1985) Larson’s genius is finding the mundane in the bizarre and the bizarre in the mundane. Animals, alien life forms, the stereotypical monsters of the movies, all have the same concerns, worries, and ambitions as ordinary suburban human beings, whose secret desires and naive common sense lead them into lethal choices. Two alien kids with three eyes each taunt a school chum wearing glasses as “Six eyes.” A Viking opens his lunch box, and complains that his wife has given him a tuna fish sandwich. A man and his boy watch riff-raff (lounging smokers and streetwalkers) displayed at the zoo.
     I like Larson’s drawings a lot. **** (2007)

Garrison Keillor. We Are Still Married (1989)

     Garrison Keillor. We Are Still Married (1989) I know Keillor’s breathy, hesitant, ruminative style of story telling from NPR’s The Prairie Home Companion, and that voice sounds in my imagination when I read these pieces. Keillor’s trick is to combine the mundane with the bizarre, the everyday respectable life with the occasional escape into the disreputable. He tends to melancholy, a gentle nostalgia for the good things of life which we will leave behind when we die, but that should be enjoyed while we still can. And while he never delves too deeply into his character’s or persona’s motives, he hints at depths that we can barely perceive, let alone understand.
     The title story illustrates this nicely. A couple, Earl and Willa,  becomes the subject of a reporter’s investigation into the effects of the death of a pet, Biddy, their dog. But the dog recovers, and Blair’s presence alters their relationship, so that Willa becomes an emblem of the ignored, taken for granted, oppressed wife, and makes her mark in print and on TV. Yet in the end they reunite, not because Earl changes, but because Biddy gets sick again, and Willa wants Earl’s company. Earl “takes her back”, with no recriminations, no demands. They get two new dogs, and soon, when spring breaks up the ice on the lake, things “will be as if none of this has ever happened.” Which is of course not true, since Earl has changed despite himself. Most of all, he has accepted Willa as she decides she wants to be. That, I suppose, is why they are still married.
     Good book. *** (2007)

Sue Grafton. ‘D’ is for Deadbeat (1987)

     Sue Grafton. ‘D’ is for Deadbeat (1987) A client wants Kinsey to deliver a check, but stiffs her for the fee, and then turns up dead. He had been put away for vehicular manslaughter, having killed five people while driving drunk. Kinsey suspects murder, and when the dead drunk’s daughter hires her to investigate the circumstances of her father’s death, she soon uncovers enough evidence to confirm the suspicion. The case unfolds with the usual twists and turns and secondary murders, but with less edge than the previously narrated ones. Grafton also eschews the near-death confrontation with the murderer, which was getting to be rather too formulaic for my taste. She reveals a talent for characterising even the walk-on parts, and has been allowed to leave in the mood-setting descriptions of weather and scene that her editors truncated in previous books. This combination makes for a more satisfying read than the earlier ones, despite its lack of tension. **½ (2007)

Scott Adams. The Dilbert Principle (1996)

     Scott Adams. The Dilbert Principle (1996), which is, that the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the one place where they can do the least damage, management. Adam’s  analysis of what ails the modern bureaucracy, public or private, is accurate. The net effect is therefore quite depressing. The main difference between public and private money wasters is that the former are called to account, since the (privately owned) media love to show up government’s sins. But they downplay or ignore the same events when perpetrated by some privately paid idiot. But there’s only one wallet: We pay for all money-wasting mistakes and thefts, public and private, one way or another. (That’s my principle).
     Management is a necessary evil; it’s a direct result of the size of the enterprise. The larger an organisation, the more effort it expends on managing itself. (That’s my principle, too). Hence the largest enterprises, governments and multi-national corporations, suffer from the same inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and inertia.
     Then there is the inefficiency of the market, which responds to people’s desires rather than to their needs The reason is of course that we, as Adams points out, all idiots. I wonder if he’s aware of the Greek derivation of the word. In ancient Greece, an idiot was a man focussed on his private concerns instead of participating in public life. We now live in a culture that not only thinks this is an OK attitude, which would be bad enough, but assumes self-centredness be the essence of a free, democratic society, which is not only absurd but appalling.
     I enjoyed the book for its wit, its pithy style (Adams is a natural aphorist), and for its hapless central character, Dilbert. But that pleasure's a high price to pay for a depressing insight. **½ (2007)
Update 2013: After serving on the Blind River District Health Centre Board for several years, I’m convinced that bureaucracy is a side effect of size. Smaller organisations are more effective, and therefore more efficient, because most management can be done in ad-hoc meetings face to face, and because the teams are small enough to be able to change as needed very quickly. Also, everyone can have a pretty overview of the whole operation. Size is wasteful, but it feeds egos.

Robin Butterell. Miniature Railways

     Robin Butterell. Miniature Railways (n.d., between 1964 and 1967) Butterell has compiled as complete a listing as he could of all miniature railways open to the public at the time of writing. Many of the lines were privately owned and no doubt disappeared when their owners moved or died. The pictures are well done. He includes a map locating the lines in relation to major cities, but more detailed maps would have helped. An interesting record of what was. I wonder how many copies still exist, as such reference works are rarely kept once their information gets too much out of date. ** (2007)
John H. Clarke plays guitar, acoustic and amped. Great stuff. Visit his website or his YouTube channel. His own compositions are strongly influenced by the Spanish music he plays. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Centrifugal Brain Research

Ever wonder who comes up with those crazy amusement park rides? Well, wonder no more. They are of an experiment in neurology. Purpose: to explore the effects of gravity on the brain. The rides provide variable acceleration, and everybody knows that Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity proved that acceleration and gravity are the same. So the next time you ride one of those groovy monsters, you're not only scaring the hell out of yourself, you're also contributing to science. Be happy!

Death Star destruction was an inside job. Really!

The destruction of the Death Star was an inside job, part of a plot to reinstate the Skywalker family on the Imperial Throne. See this this video proof. Pretty convincing, eh?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bill Watterson. The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book (1989)

     Bill Watterson. The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book (1989) A collection of full colour Sunday comics. Watterson uses colour as subtly and skilfully as he uses line. A wonderful commentary on childhood, adulthood, Life, the Universe, and Everything. 42! **** (2007)

Robertson Davies. The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949) & The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947)

     Robertson Davies. The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949) Davies’ wit and sharp satirical observation makes this a book to enjoy. He is practising his style. Most of these paragraphs are very well formed, with exquisite sentences. Occasionally, they end with Marchbanks’ side of the response to his comments, most of them unflattering to the ladies whom he presumably regaled with his wit. The comments provide an indirect portrait of the still stuffy and narrow views of the respectable Ontarian, on which Marchbanks honed his wit. This social conservatism has moved West. The stereotypical Albertan now espouses the morality of the mid-20th century Ontarian, and suffers from the same urge to impose it on the rest of the country. I found myself eager to read selected passages aloud, an urge that Marie accommodated with her usual good grace. She even laughed at some of Davies’ passages. This copy is a first edition, but without wrappers. ***

     Robertson Davies. The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947) This volume too, is a first edition, but a second printing. In this earlier volume, Marchbanks (or Davies) restrains himself a little compared to the second one. But in both he expresses himself forcefully on the absence of a Canadian sense of pleasure. According to him, Canadians cannot abide mere fun, let alone culture (a much more strenuous pursuit). Although there have been changes for the better since the 1940s, sixty years later we still have a lingering sense that something advertised as good for you cannot be and must not be pleasurable. It was Presbyterians that set the ground-rules for social and cultural life in this country, and many of us suffer from a lingering hangover of puritan megrims. Only the terms of opprobrium have changed. The blue meanies oppose the arts not because of their putative immorality but because of their supposed impracticality. Significantly enough, the Harperites are willing to fund children’s sports via a tax break for family expenditures on hockey and other forms of mayhem, but not for music lessons. Like many money-mad people, they confuse price and value, and worse, have a very limited knowledge of the market that they profess to admire and understand. Update 2013: Families can now claim a deduction for music lessons and the like as well.
     Marchbanks’ struggles with his furnace form the leitmotif of his life as described in these diaries, and his repeated bouts of one or another kind of mild illness form the accompaniment. His casual mentions of daily triumphs and defeats remind us that in many ways our life has become much more comfortable in the last 60 years. But it hasn’t, therefore, become better. There’s more to the good life than creature comforts.
     The quotable bits in this book tend to be small paragraphs. Robertson has mastered the art of the long slow curve and the sudden break (he does not, however, use any baseball metaphors or allusions). He tends to use the semi-colon where most writers would use a period, so that his sentences appear to be lengthy to the eye, but not to the ear. (Davies writes for the ear, a rare skill and even rarer ambition). But here and there one finds a sentence that can be quoted without context. “If man has conquered the air merely to fill it with bombs and illiteracy, we might as well discount this civilisation, and try another.”  “New York, I perceive, contains almost as many rogues as Toronto.” “If we were all robbed of our wrong convictions, how empty our lives would be.” *** (2007)

Les Kozma, ed. Along These Lines (2004)

     Les Kozma, ed. Along These Lines (2004) The Canadian Northern Society has collected both oral and written history of the Edmonton - Camrose - Stettler - Calgary line, along with some of its branches. Kozma has done a nice job of arranging these. He begins with an account of how the CNoR Society came into being. We now take specialist historical societies for granted, but when they decided that they could and should preserve and recondition Meeting Creek station, such societies still had carried an aura of the quixotic and impractical.
     It’s a book to dip into, not to read, and like many such local and personal histories has more meaning for family and friends than for the casually interested rail fan. A grad student, however, could make much of the details mentioned in passing or assumed as general knowledge. The history of the railroad worker hasn’t been written. This is good documentation for such a book. The photos are reasonably well reproduced, but a few too many betray their origin as low-res scans of the originals. A map would help immensely, and its lack is the only serious fault. I detected no typos, which indicates careful editing. ** (2007)

Cyril Freezer. Model Railways on a Budget (1987)

     Cyril Freezer. Model Railways on a Budget (1987) Pre-DCC, pre-NEM standards, pre- high quality plastic molding, and it shows. But Freezer writes a nice breezy style, addressing (his younger) readers directly, and dispensing many useful hints. The hints still have value, despite our high tech models, and his advice about how to figure out the budget applies to many more departments than model railways.
     This is the second time I’ve read this book in less than a year.  It’s as fresh the second time round as the first time. I must have read it when I bought it in September 1987, but I can’t recall. I’m at the age where books I read years or decades ago are easier to recall than books read this week. **½ (2007)

Bill Watterson. Four Calvin & Hobbes collections

     Bill Watterson. Four Calvin & Hobbes collections. Calvin, the real version of Dennis the menace, and Hobbes, his stuffed toy tiger, are no longer with us. Watterson gave up drawing the strip some years ago, and all we have now are these splendid collections, and more recent ones with the Sunday panels in colour. They repay repeated reading, with Hobbes’ wisdom contrasting with and complementing Calvin’s innocent mischief. Calvin’s only moments of evil occur when he is trying to get the better of Susy Perkins, his neighbour and classmate, who thinks him to be the weirdest kid she knows. But she likes Hobbes, so she can’t quite hate Calvin.
     Calvin embodies pure boy, Hobbes is his imaginary playmate. The strip is a mix of Calvin’s real and imagined adventures. He hates school, and goes to great lengths to avoid homework. Yet his imagination shows that he’s no dummy. Hobbes expresses what Calvin presumably knows to be the better, more mature, more realistic attitudes and insights, but he is also pure jungle cat, just a whiff and a whisker away from real teeth and real claws and a real appetite for juicy little boys. Calvin’s alter egos, Spaceman Spiff and Stupendous Man, are his escape from realities he doesn’t like. His imagined embodiments as a tyrannosaurus that eats and crushes his enemies give him some solace. The line between fantasy and reality is a thin one. The veil that separates the inner and outer worlds tears often. Calvin knows when he is fantasising, but he also wishes that his fantasies were real. And sometimes they come too close to reality for comfort.
      The strip’s charm arises from this mix of reality and fantasy, maturity and childishness, acceptance of what is and escapes into imagined worlds where little boys are heroes that fight for justice or prehistoric lizards exacting vengeance. The effects range from mild amusement through wry sadness and to spluttering, gasping hilarity.
Many comic strips merely illustrate the text. Watterson’s drawings and text merge perfectly. In fact, the drawings often expand and extend the text’s meanings. I like his work a lot. **** (2007)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Olek crochets a cover for a locomotive

Olek is an artist that crochets covers for miscellaneous objects, some of which are other art works. Here's her latest: Polish locomotive I like her attitude.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Frank Ellison. Frank Ellison on Model Railroads (1954)

     Frank Ellison. Frank Ellison on Model Railroads (1954) This is the first model railway book I ever bought. It cost me 35 cents, or about 1½ hours babysitting money. I read it to pieces, and sometime in the 1970s rebound the book with cardboard covers and vinyl tape. The vinyl tape cracked when I opened the book a couple weeks ago, so I took the covers off, and decided to reread it before repairing the book.
     Frank Ellison emphasised operation “in a railroad like manner” when most people were still content to build models and run them round an oval a few times. Back then, building a layout, the locomotives, and the cars took so much time and effort that there wasn’t much energy left for actually operating the pike. Ellison set out to change that. His series of articles in Model Railroader, suitably edited, make up this book. About half the book deals with operation: the peddler freight, the through freight, passenger trains, engine changes, and so on. He reminds the reader that even a small layout with a few spurs can host a peddler freight and provide hours of entertainment.
     He believes scenery is essential as a backdrop or stage setting for the actors in the drama of railroading (he was a scene designer, builder, and setter by trade).  Thus, scenery, and how to design it to fool the viewer into believing the train is passing through miles of country, occupies most of the second half of the book. He spends less time on building models and adapting locomotives. With his theatrical background, he thinks of rolling stock as merely actors; it’s the roles they play that matter, and a good actor can play any role. Prototype fidelity matters less to him than the overall impression and reliable functioning.
     Ellison’s style is direct and clear. He is chatting with the reader, not pontificating. His casual assumption that model railroading is a man’s game jars nowadays, especially since so many women have declared themselves to be part of the hobby. He also assumes he’s talking to people who can afford to spend a fair bit of cash on their pastimes, which means he also assumes at least a high school education.  His materials and processes are dated, in fact many are impossible these days, since they have been replaced with plastics and electronics. But other than that, his points are as valid today as they were back then. He’s one of the pioneers of the hobby, one of the people who recognised early on that there was more to it than the craft of making miniatures. His influence is still with us. *** (2007)

Sue Grafton. C is for Corpse (1986)

     Sue Grafton. C is for Corpse (1986) Kinsey meets a brain-damaged young man, who believes he was run off the road in an attempt to kill him. He thinks he knows something that may make him a target. Kinsey agrees to investigate, but before she can get started, he dies, apparently of a brain hemorrhage. Kinsey has his $1000 retainer, and refuses to give up. She does find the killer. The corpse of the title conceals a murder weapon. As usual, Kinsey faces deadly danger in the denouement, and once again suffers injury. But the killer, a pathologist, will pay for his dastardly deeds.
     This outing moves as swiftly as the other books in the series, but the plotting feels a little stale. There’s a subplot involving Kinsey’s handsome but 80-year-old landlord, Elmer, and a 60-something gold-digging hustler who wants to take him for all he’s got. Kinsey manages to prevent that, too. The dialogue moves the story briskly and reveals character, but the whole piece feels too formulaic to be truly satisfying. That doesn’t make me any less a fan, though. ** (2007)

Norma Farnes, ed. The Compulsive Spike Milligan (2005)

     Norma Farnes, ed. The Compulsive Spike Milligan (2005) Excerpts from Milligan’s war memoirs, poetry, novels, and drawings. Most were selected by Milligan himself, or selected by Farnes as among his favourites.
     The overall effect is that of melancholy. The war did for Milligan; he never overcame its effects. Nonsense was his refuge, but a fragile one: working on The Goon Show triggered bouts of depression. Milligan’s friend Harry Secombe was able to find comfort in a Christian faith towards the end of his life. Milligan hated the Church for its complicity in too many evils of the world. And he could never sustain a normal mood or tone in his writing: any hint of sentimentality was ruthlessly converted in nonsense,  usually bizarre, sometimes surreally cruel. If ever a clown used his gifts to prevent himself from going crazy, Milligan did. That he failed intermittently only testifies to the depth of his horror at the human condition. He had many friends, which must have been a comfort to him.
     One Goon Show script is included, “The Battered Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-on-Sea”. Farnes says it’s one her favourites. It’s one of the best, perfectly plotted, and with nary a falter in the tone of surreal logic. *** (2007)

Faye Kellerman. Sacred and Profane (1987)

     Faye Kellerman. Sacred and Profane (1987) This appears to be the second in the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series. On a camping holiday with Rina’s two sons, the elder finds bones. Decker eventually uncovers a sleazy alliance of respectable citizens and makers of snuff films, and has the satisfaction of seeing some of them brought down. But along the way a teenage hooker who has fed Decker needed information is murdered by a pedophile john; a couple of suspects come to a bad end; and Decker almost loses Rina.
     Kellerman writes in the Hammett tradition, adding her own angle on the private life of her hero, who is perhaps too deeply affected by the evil he must fight. Decker’s studies in Jewish religion are well done, his moral and emotional conflicts with Rina sound true, as does the mix of cynicism and pain in his colleagues and himself. On the strength of this book I bought another one, Sanctuary, well along in the series. I think I’ll have a hard time collecting them all, if I decide I want to do that after reading that one. **½ (2007)

Sue Grafton. Sue B is for Burglar (1985)

     Sue Grafton. Sue B is for Burglar (1985) I’ve been collecting the Kinsey Milhone tales for some time, after reading A is for Alibi, and J is for Judgment. Then I decided I would read them in order, so here goes.
     This time out, just two weeks after her first recorded adventure, Milhone is drawn into a missing person search that turns into a murder inquiry. A wife (psychopath) and her husband (obsessed by her) have murdered a friend with loadsadough, but made it seem the wife herself was done in by a burglar. Except that there’s no obvious motive, no clues, etc. Only the accident that the executor of a will needs a signature from a missing woman starts the unravelling of the case. Milhone is as obsessive as expected, but we don’t get much deepening of her character. On the other hand, a few unfinished plot lines in her personal life suggest To Be Continued in subsequent volumes.
     The writing is competent as ever (Grafton thinks in scenes), with believable dialogue and just enough quirkiness in the secondary characters to bring them to life as a competent character actor would. Occasionally, Grafton indulges in description of landscape and weather, and does so well enough that I suspect an unsatisfied urge to write more literary tales. **½ (2007)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Dorothy Sayers. Starkes Gift (tr. 1999)

     Dorothy Sayers. Starkes Gift (tr. 1999) A good translation of the story in which Wimsey first meets and falls in love with Harriet Vane. She stands accused of poisoning Philip Boyes, her erstwhile lover, with whom she broke up when he offered her marriage after having persuaded her, a vicar’s daughter, to live with him for several months. Wimsey finds out that Boyle’s cousin Norman Urquhart had been shortchanged in an aged relative’s will, which provides a motive; and then puzzles out the method, which involves arsenic eating.
     The beginnings of the love affair between Wimsey and Harriet is nicely handled. I don’t think Sayers knew exactly where to go with it, but she did not want Harriet to marry Peter out of gratitude, nor did she want Peter to accept Harriet’s offer of concubinage as any kind of payment for services rendered. By this time Wimsey had already morphed into a much more scholarly gentleman, with a sound grasp of moral philosophy, hence his admiration for Harriet’s refusal to marry the man who had seduced her. Her refusal of his offer of marriage is equally sound, so he does not pressure her, nor does he take up her offer to live with him, a good portent. But it does set Sayers an almost insoluble problem. If these two, destined for each other, are ever to marry, they must do so as equals, which they may be intellectually and before the law, but not morally, since there now exists an obligation between them. It will be Sayers’ task to remove that obligation, which she manages to do in Gaudy Night, but not without a deal more anguish than even fictional characters should have to endure.
Wimsey nags his good friend Insp. Charles Parker into marrying his sister Mary. Parker thinks he isn’t good enough to marry an Hon., an attitude that the Duke and Duchess of Denver approve of, but the Dowager Duchess does not. Sayers doesn’t show us Parker’s and Mary’s courting or married life, even though there is more than a hint that they were intended as a foil to  Pater and Harriet. Authors can be seduced by their creations, too.
     I like Sayers’ books, and have read several of them more than once. This German version is better than Keines Natürlichen Todes, perhaps because the style is less slangy. Slang is always a problem: what one culture finds worthy of slang another either ignores or can speak of only in hushed tones. Slang also dates quickly, so that it is difficult to recapture the intended tone when translating the text a couple of generations later. **½ for the translation. (2007)

Burger & Starbird. Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz (2005)

     Burger & Starbird. Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz (2005) The authors are profs, so the professorial tone and terrible puns should be no surprise. All in all, a nicely done tour of those parts of modern math that seem to the authors either most relevant to Real Life, or most interesting. They believe that math is fun, stimulates the imagination, and stretches one’s worldview. Correct on all counts. Recommended to mathophobes. **½ (2007)

Mike Bryant. The Ian Allan Book of Model Railways (1960)

     Mike Bryant. The Ian Allan Book of Model Railways (1960) Bryant writes in a chatty style clearly aimed at the younger modeller, whom he assumes to be a boy in middle school, or perhaps younger, with help from dad. He begins with references to adults, but quickly drops that. He produces a reasonable survey of model railway practice of the 1960s, with emphasis on the use of proprietary equipment. Here and there he gives clear enough instructions on scratch-building a few items, such as a country station, using card and printed brick sheet. The book would have been a good first book for a young modeller. Now, it gives us a glimpse of the way it was 50 years ago. Advertising litters the book, and no doubt made it profitable. Ian Allan also published several modelling magazines, and published books like this one as much to build his subscriber base as to help the readers. The photographs are small, and suffer from the limited technology of the time.** (2007)

Tony Koester. Realistic Model Railroad Design (2004)

     Tony Koester. Realistic Model Railroad Design (2004) Koester looks at just about everything. Since a lot of people freelance, he spends some time considering questions of believable graphics, logos, and such. He covers scenery, rosters, adaptation of prototype practices, and so on. The book is overwritten, partly because Koester tends to use three words where two will do, and partly because he belabours the obvious. He does help the reader consider the overall effect of the layout, and how various components and aspects contribute to or detract from it. In that sense, it’s a worthwhile book. ** (2007)

The argument from design

  Many people want to prove that God exists. A common argument (or proof) is to point to something designed and made by humans, such as a watch. These are obviously designed. So anything that looks like it's designed must have been designed, which means there's a designer. Natural objects such as flowers and bees, etc look like they've been designed, so there must be a designer. That designer is God.

This is the "argument from  design", and it doesn't work. Actually, there is no proof of God's existence. And there is no proof of God's non-existence, either.

If you want to prove God's existence, then the general form of the proof will be:
1) If some statement about XYZ is true, then God exists.
2) The statement about XYZ is true.
3) Therefore God exists.

There are at least three problems with this.
ONE. The premise "The statement about XYZ is true" is either an axiom (an assumption), or else it is a theorem (a statement proven by reason). Either way, the argument makes God's existence logically dependent on or derived from some statement about XYZ. But for a statement about XYZ to be true (or false), XYZ must exist. So God's existence logically depends on or derives from the existence of XYZ. But that's absurd, since by definition, God's existence cannot depend on or derive from the existence of anything else. Hence, you cannot prove God's existence. QED.
TWO: If the premise is an assumption, then the argument in effect assumes what it is designed to prove. It's circular. In this case, the assumption is: "If something looks like it's designed, then it is designed; and if it is designed, there must be a designer." But if there is a designer, then things will look like they're designed. Therefore there is a designer. Therefore things will look like they're designed. Therefore there is a designer. Therefore... See?
THREE: So you've proven God is the Designer of the Universe. Now what? What kind of God is this Designer? Did he design parasites, which can cause their hosts to die horrible and painful deaths? What about diseases that have wiped out millions of people, like the bubonic plague? Where will the claim that only God can design living things go when humans design and make them? Actually, humans have already done that.
In other words, conclusions raise as many questions as they answer. Once you've proven something or other, it becomes a premise for further proofs. It becomes a basis for further questions. Some of those questions will not be the kind you wanted when you set out to prove your point. That's the way logic works.

A local pastor once asked me to participate in a "debate" about the existence of God. I refused. I said than any true Christian will not worry about such arguments, since for a Christian "God exists" is a given. It's an axiom. It's one of those statements you use to prove things you want to prove. The pastor understood my point, but I don't know what he told his youth group.

Of course, you need other axioms in order to get anywhere. And that's where the trouble starts. You can prove anything you want if you select axioms that produce your conclusion. Religious people of a certain kind just love proofs. Proofs mean that they are right and everybody else is wrong. And once you've proved that to your satisfaction, you can do whatever you want to those evil people who disagree with what you have proven is God's will.
You don't have to start this process with God. You can go with Historical Necessity. Or the Supremacy of the Aryan Race. Or that Capitalism equals Democracy. Or whatever.
Ideology is simply a religion without a god.

R. Sekuler & R. Blake. Star Trek on the Brain: Alien Minds, Human Minds (1998)

     R. Sekuler & R. Blake. Star Trek on the Brain: Alien Minds, Human Minds (1998) I found a marginal note by me, so I have read this book before. Perhaps I can’t remember as well as I could, or perhaps the book is forgettable. I lean towards the latter, because yesterday I found I could remember most of a book that I’d read a couple of years ago, merely from reading the back cover blurb.
     This book ranks lowest of the Star Trek spinoffs that aped The Physics of Star Trek. Its authors are no doubt nice people and decent fellows, to judge from their jacket photos. Professors at a couple of minor liberal arts colleges, they no doubt enjoy a good reputation among students. If this book constitutes evidence, their courses don’t demand much, and offer a deal of mild entertainment. But as a discourse on the nature of mind and behaviour, this book falls short.
     The defects show up most strongly in the section on memory, in which the two authors waffle around the concepts of memory as storage and memory as a process, without ever making clear what either conceptualisation entails, and how, if at all, Star Trek illustrates or exemplifies them. In particular, they use the notion of “procedural memory” for what are clearly behaviours shaped by operant conditioning. That people can “learn new skills” supposedly shows that procedural memory can remain intact even while trauma has damaged or destroyed “declarative memory”. The authors imply that this is a mystery, which it isn’t. Our behaviours are shaped by operant conditioning, so it should be obvious that damage to one part of the brain shouldn’t affect the shaping of behaviours mediated by other parts of the brain. If it were otherwise, it would be a mystery that some strokes impair the ability to walk but not to talk, and vice versa. Actually, the fact that “procedural memory” can remain intact when other kinds of remembering are impaired supports the concept of memory as behaviour. Similar muddles show up in other sections.
     The authors are best when they deal with interactions between people, at which level questions of how to conceptualise the way the brain actually functions are irrelevant. Although they don’t use the word “conditioning”, much of their talk about phobias, for example, makes it clear that phobias are glitches in behaviour, and can be fixed by working with sufferers to change their responses to the triggers of phobic behaviours.
     The central question, whether we can in fact imagine truly alien minds, is dealt with briefly. We can to some extent imagine the sensorium of other creatures. Technical advances in making visible details that can be seen only in UV light show that we can get a vague sense of what it would be like to see like a bee. In some circumstances, a human can actually do so, sort of: the authors cite the experience of a man whose cataract operation permitted UV to enter his eyes, which resulted in unusual responses in the retina, and affected his sense of colour. But all aliens that we imagine will share human traits with us. Those are the only traits we can imagine. We can imagine aliens that resemble the more exotic terrestrial creatures in looks or actions (think of the alien in Alien, for example), but again, our imaginings are based on what we know. It cannot be otherwise. The truly alien is unimaginable by definition. Thus, the authors very sensibly draw attention to how both human and non-human characters in Star Trek exemplify human traits, and so help us understand ourselves.
     All in all, this is a lightweight and forgettable work. But I already said that, didn’t I? ** (2007)

Edna O’Brien. Mrs Reinhardt (1978)

     Edna O’Brien. Mrs Reinhardt (1978) I see by the flyleaf note that I bought this book in 1980: I can’t recall reading it. Reading it now, it seems dated in its themes and above all its tone. The stories deal almost entirely with broken relationships, and usually with domestic violence, sometimes physical but always psychological. Gloomy and depressing for the most part. A few are milder, perhaps O’Brien wrote them for women’s magazines, which wouldn’t tolerate the franker and more brutal language of the stories she wrote for literary journals. Some are quite self-consciously Irish, which doesn’t help: their aim seems to be to epater les curés, and perhaps shocked the naiver sort of priest; but the religious that I’ve met are not as easily shocked as their parishioners.. She writes well, but I don’t have much sympathy for her characters. Either I’ve become callous, or the time for this sort of story is past, and I’m as much a creature of my time as anyone else. ** (2007)

Dorothy Sayers. Keines Natürlichen Todes Translated by Otto Bayer.

     Dorothy Sayers. Keines Natürlichen Todes Translated by Otto Bayer. I can’t judge the quality of this translation, except indirectly. It looks like Bayer had difficulties with Sayers’ style. It’s allusive, and accurately reproduces the class as well as regional dialects. Difficult to do in German. Most difficult is Wimsey’s constant (and quite self-conscious) shifting of register. To reproduce this in German takes a good ear for this sort of thing in both languages. Bayer struggles, but succeeds only intermittently. What this translation shows is that Sayers was above all a great stylist. I also found it tough sledding to read German, perhaps because Bayer’s colloquialisms are German and not Austrian. Oddly enough, the brief bio and commentary in the afterword was easier to read, more academic, therefore more impersonal. ** (2007)

Iain Rice. Mid-sized and Manageable Track Plans (2003)

     Iain Rice. Mid-sized and Manageable Track Plans (2003) Rice is one of the worthy successors of John Armstrong. He designs layouts rather than track plans, but beginners and moderately experienced model railroaders, who are the intended audience of this book, either haven’t understood the difference or haven’t come to understand its importance. Every layout is based on an actual prototype (one of which is John Allen’s Gorre & Daphetid), and each displays Rice’s ability to think in terms of the layout as a whole. Close study reveals some typos and a couple optimistic grade calculations and other technical glitches. But these hardly detract from the book’s success. Rice wants us to imagine what we can do with our space, and in this he succeeds brilliantly. *** (2007)

Dick Hafer. Sometimes You Gotta Compromise (1995)

     Dick Hafer. Sometimes You Gotta Compromise (1995) Hafer’s cartoons in Model Railroader received enough compliments that Kalmbach risked a collection, which turned out to be successful enough to warrant both a 2nd printing and a second book in 1996. The cartoons range from pretty lame to sly and subtle, most with enough of a satiric edge to raise a smile if not a guffaw. However, like most themed humour, insiders will find the results more amusing than outsiders. The draughtsmanship is very good, and Hafer has the sense to make himself the object of much of the satire. **

    Dick  Hafer. This is Not the Honeymoon I had in Mind (1996) Same quality as the first book. ** (2007)

Sunday, August 04, 2013

James G. Robins. World Steam Locomotives (1973)

     James G. Robins. World Steam Locomotives (1973) Robins’ artistic skill nicely complements his discussion of steam locomotives, which, though he admires them, he knows to be uneconomical and inefficient. Writing in the early 70s, he has a tad too much optimism about the longevity of steam in those parts of the world where labour is cheap and coal plentiful. Apart from that, hindsight can find no fault with his discussions, and his pictures are lovely. *** (2007)

D. A. Boreham. Narrow Gauge Railway Modelling (1978, 2nd edition)

     D. A. Boreham. Narrow Gauge Railway Modelling (1978, 2nd edition) Boreham has a sly sense of humour, and a nice comfortable direct style of writing. He addresses himself to people who are ingenious and skilled enough to be able to use both scrounged and professional materials and tools to make their models. He does say that there’s no point in making stuff, especially small parts, that are commercially available, but even 1978 narrow gauge modelling still required a lot of scratchbuilding. Boreham describes a number of tricks that are worth considering, such as how to make a doubly curved roof over a wooden form using tissue paper and glue. A charming book, which I’ve read before. I enjoyed rereading it. **1/2 (2006)

A. C. Kalmbach. Model Railroad Track and Layout (1952, 5th edition)

     A. C. Kalmbach. Model Railroad Track and Layout (1952, 5th edition). Apart from the dated technology, which reminds us of how much easier it is to build a layout these days, Kalmbach’s unarticulated assumptions about a layout are the most interesting. He recommends studying the prototype for examples of good track planning; and discusses several examples of “good” layouts in terms of their operation. But it was Frank Ellison that drew the what to us now seem the obvious conclusions: that a layout should be designed as whole, as a stage for the trains, whose operation should simulate that of the prototype as closely as possible. It was, I think, no accident, that Ellison’s articles were published Kalmbach's Model Railroader, since Ellison articulated what was in Kalmbach’s mind, and which his text in fact foreshadows and implies.
     The technical details of track building, layout construction, and electrical work have mostly historical interest. These matters have been refined and simplified so that most people nowadays will have little difficulty building a layout that works. *** (2006)

Kathryn Ivany. The C&E Railway Station Museum (2003)

     Kathryn Ivany. The C&E Railway Station Museum (2003) Ivany tells a mix of social, economic, and railway history in this well done short book. A few plans would have been nice, but she wasn’t thinking of the needs of modellers. What’s most interesting is the rivalry between Strathcona (So. Edmonton) and Edmonton, a rivalry that wasn’t settled until the CPR built the High Level Bridge. Actually, the rivalry hasn’t quite died down: the revival of Whyte Avenue around 109th St was in part a (successful) attempt to move Edmonton’s cultural life to the South Side.
     The building that now stands about 3 blocks away from the original station’s site is a replica in outward appearance only. The original’s internal arrangements were altered several times to suit its owners, who used it as a residence. When it was to be moved, it fell apart, probably because too many odd cuts had been made in its bearing walls and beams to accommodate these changes. A new structure was built. Since the original plans have not been found, the present layout presents an educated guess about its appearance.
     Photos and other illustrations are as well reproduced as can be expected. A few too many typos mar the text, and occasionally Ivany’s grammar is confusing, but overall, the book rates **½. (2006)

Anonymous. Locomotive Plan Package Book 2 (1944)

     Anonymous. Locomotive Plan Package Book 2 (1944) Published by The Model Craftsman, one of several predecessors of Railroad Model Craftsman, this book reprints plans and articles from that magazine, along with what are (somewhat ambitiously) called instructions for building the locomotives depicted. I suspect Bill Schopp as the author of most of the articles, which display his characteristic vagueness and assumption of high skill levels in his readers, as well as his colloquial style.
      The plans are a mix of general arrangement drawings “simplified for the modeller”, shop cards with limited information, and elaborate drawings reproduced from the Locomotive Cyclopedia (Simmons Boardman.) Thus, they mostly provide too little information, and sometimes too much. The instructions are laughably incomplete, even I think for the kind of craftsman for which they were intended. Eg, “The drivers may be made up on the lathe, but some fellows may wish to buy castings”. The castings would have to be trued up on the lathe, too. The suggested materials range from wood to tinplate cut from cans, which reflects the dearth of modelling supplies during wartime. It’s left up to the modeller to glean what he can from the drawings and develop patterns for cutting parts. There is a brief description of how to make a pattern for casting drivers from Linotype metal, and how to progressively modify it for larger counterweights.
     Reproduction of the halftones is abysmal, even for the times. Model Craftsman used photo offset to copy the original pages. The line drawings also suffer from this process, with small details sometimes blurring together into almost indecipherable blobs of ink. The scale is usually 1/8" to the foot, which is too small to resolve smaller parts precisely enough for accurate modelling. The reader is often referred to photographs that weren’t reproduced, since they would not have fit into the layout of the book.
     The book does have historical interest, as an example of how awful the so-called good old days really were. Building models was not for the fainthearted. Modellers of all kinds had to contend with a lack of parts and materials that we just don’t tolerate anymore. Kits were few and far between, and consisted mostly of rough castings and chunks of unfinished materials. Modellers had to have a skill set that for the most part could only be acquired in an apprenticeship for tool and die maker or machinist. It’s amazing what these craftsmen accomplished. I have a series on building a “kitchen table locomotive,” which gives the kind of detailed help that the average person with average skills needs, but this series of articles wasn’t published until the mid-60s, by which time decent quality kits were available.
     The time it took to build the models almost completely from scratch of course reduced or eliminated the time available for building a layout. This suggests the main reasons for founding the clubs: pooling what little time they had enabled te modellers to build a layout they could share, as well as providing larger pikes than they could hope to build in their small and cramped homes. * (2006)

G. H. Deason. Simple Cardboard Models (1969)

     G. H. Deason. Simple Cardboard Models (1969) The title is an optimistic misnomer. Deason clearly has lots of experience building models in card and paper (with metal and wood bits added as needed), and his notion of what’s simple is not  what a beginner might think. He describes the construction of rather large traction engines and boats, as well as motor cars and trains. Simple these models are not: they are all motorised, working machines. Deason uses shellac and glue, as well as layering, to produce what are in effect high strength composite materials. Like Taylor (see How to Build 20 Railroad Models), he assumes rather more craft skills than most people possess, but I suppose that most buyers of his book would already have tried one of the “easy to build” cut-and-assemble card kits.
     In any case, the book shows what can be done when one is obsessed with building models on the cheap, and counts the cost of time as zero or even positive: after all, model building is a pleasant way to while away the hours between work and necessary business. Like Taylor, Deason writes in a plain, colloquial style. He  should explain his technical terms more than he does. This book, too, has merely adequate half tones, and pretty good drawings. From a few throw- away comments, it appears that Deason was one of the people behind the Micro-Models line of kits printed on post-card sized cards. I have one of those, and the smaller bits would take a magnifying glass to see clearly enough to make accurate cuts. **½ (2006)

Frank Taylor. How to Build 20 Railroad Models (1941/53)

     Frank Taylor. How to Build 20 Railroad Models (1941/53) Ah yes, the Good Old Days of building models, the ones that recent whinges about the dumbing down of Model Railroader refer to.
     Frank Taylor describes the making of everything from boxcars to cranes. He prefers brass and tin sheet (ie, tinned iron). He uses nails as well as glue to hold the parts of the models together. Most of his work is done in O scale, which at the time of writing was still number 1, and OO (1:76 in 19mm gauge) was still a contender. He doesn’t have modern glues or plastics available. Details parts are few, and scale lumber is not even a distant dream, except for O scale, for which a “fellow with a circular saw” can cut exact scale sizes. He wrote at a time when the “local lumber yard” would cut wood to small sizes for you, when the 1/16" 3-ply wood was widely available because of the strength of the model plane hobby, when “cut and shape the two pieces of the coupler pocket” was deemed sufficient help. Taylor does promote the building of culverts and other merely scenic items, which don’t after all, contribute to the running of the trains. Around the same time as he wrote his construction articles, Frank Ellison was beginning his series on model railroads. His ideas and his Delta Lines changed the hobby forever.
     Taylor writes in a nice, clear, colloquial style, with occasional asides into the philosophy of building models based on the prototype, and with frequent mention of alternative materials and methods. The book is a pleasure to read, and many of Taylor’s tricks and techniques are still worth con knowing. The plans and drawings are good, the photos merely adequate; the book was printed in 1953, when halftones tended to muddiness unless the original was brightly lit and contrasty. Despite the dated technology and assumption of rather more craft skills than most people posess, Taylor’s book is still worth reading, and it’s certainly inspiring. It's out of print, but if you find a copy, buy it. ***

Richard Tames. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (2004)

     Richard Tames. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (2004) Brunel is one of my heroes: an engineer of vision, daring, imagination, skill, and leadership. Relative to what had been done and what was deemed possible in his day, his projects were on a scale that have been equalled but not surpassed. He showed what engineers could do, and he did it mostly with the help of raw human and animal power. He led his workers by example, risking his own life along with theirs, suffering injury and barely escaping with his life when workings collapsed or were flooded.
    Brunel failed as often as he succeeded, but by showing how to plan and organise the construction of very large structures, he led the way to the kind of mega-projects that we take for granted these days. Administrative and financial difficulties played as large a role in success and failure then as now.  So did ego, and Brunel’s ego was huge. He was driven as much by a desire for worldly success and acclamation as by artistic ambition. His life was one of overwork in all ways; we know little of his family life, but indirect evidence suggests that he was at best a competent father and husband. His children did as well as children of the gentry would. His friends were few, drawn primarily from his family and from professional rivals. Brunel died of nephritis, not a pleasant way to go, leaving several projects to be completed by others. The civil engineering works designed for the Great Western Railway are his most enduring monuments.
     Tames has written short but well written sketch of Brunel’s life. He has the knack for the telling detail, such as Brunel’s comment on how well he got on with Robert Stephenson despite their intense rivalry as engineers. *** (2006)

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Feldsparia: Personifications of Websites.

Feldsparia: Personifications of Websites.

This link takes you to Jon Kirchmeir's Blog. Jon died on March 19 of this year. Find out more on the page titled Jon.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Matt Ridley. Nature Via Nurture (2003)

     Matt Ridley. Nature Via Nurture (2003) Ridley’s densely argued thesis that the genes cannot work without input from the environment is a pleasure to read. Much of his research is first-hand: he has read the papers he cites or alludes to, and/or has spoken with the people who wrote them (including his own wife.) Unfortunately most of his older research is third of fourth hand; his comments on Skinner show a thorough (and very common) misunderstanding of behaviourism. But that’s a minor flaw in a well done book, one that unlike many of its kind reflects current research. A book that anyone who wishes to understand where biology is going should read. Some of its inferences will no doubt soon prove wrong, but that’s because the field is expanding so quickly. Something like a coherent vision of how organisms become what they are is emerging. The central message: we, like all other organisms, are the product of an exquisite interplay between what we are born with and what our environment foists upon us. **** (2006)

Chris Ellis. The Airfix Magazine Annual (1971)

     Chris Ellis. The Airfix Magazine Annual (1971) It seems Airfix produced a magazine to promote its plastic kits. This book appears to be a compilation of articles from the magazine. It’s useful even to today’s modeller, both as a source of prototype information and for simple but effective techniques for adding detail to the kits. The emphasis is heavily in military and aircraft modelling. ** (2006)

O. S. Nock. The Triang-Hornby Book of Trains. (Ca. 1966)

     O. S. Nock. The Triang-Hornby Book of Trains. (Ca. 1966) Another of Nock’s potboilers, and apart from a cursory but interesting enough survey of railways in the mid-60s, merely a listing of Triang’s stuff - which was pretty awful. Nock, obviously well-paid to be a shill, overstates the quality of the terrible products produced by Triang, which in fact cheapened the Hornby material they absorbed with that company. Thus, the book turns out to be an unwittingly instructive example of all that was wrong with British manufacture after the war. The owners understood neither the rapidly rising quality of their competition’s products, nor the even faster increase in consumer awareness of that quality, which resulted in a more or less disdainful rejection of inferior goods. * (2006)

Cyril J. Freezer. Model Railways on a Budget (1987)

     Cyril J. Freezer. Model Railways on a Budget (1987) A cursory look at how to scrounge, with enough details to encourage the beginning model railroader to continue. Some sound advice of where to trade cash for commercial quality, and where scrounging pays off , mostly in trackwork and scratch building of structures, vehicles, and locomotives. Good enough for its time, but not the best of Freezer’s work, Some of the tips are still useful, and may become more so as our economy dwindles. ** (2006)

Ralph Davis. A Commercial Revolution (1967)

     Ralph Davis. A Commercial Revolution (1967) Davis summarises the case that a revolution in import-export trade from the late 1500s to the late 1700s preceded and prepared for the Industrial Revolution. One has to trust his generalisations, since he has very few numbers to illustrate his argument. He describes how English trade shifted from exporting woollens to Europe to exporting manufactures to America, and importing and re-exporting raw materials from there and from Asia (mostly India.) The most interesting point is that the rapid expansion of capital to finance the increasingly long transport routes put in place the capital markets that financed the Industrial Revolution. Also, the increasing wealth of the American colonies stimulated the production of the manufactured goods they needed, which prepared for the Industrial Revolution. A complicated tale; Davis’s summary is clear enough. ** (2006)

Al Franken. The Truth with Jokes (2006)

     Al Franken. The Truth with Jokes (2006) Paperback edition with added chapters. Franken is a proud liberal Democrat, and he’s mad. The book discusses how Bush won in 2000 and 2004, and goes on to describe his record of corruption, deceit, and most of all incompetence. The leaders of his Republican administration are very clever, but they apply their cleverness to fantasy problems. That’s stoopid. The cost of their fantasies and stoopidity has been hundreds of thousands of lives, in Iraq, Israel and adjoining territories, and without doubt in the USA also, because of the Libertarian neglect of their duties as governors. Franken tries to lighten the tone with humour and irony, but succeeds for only a few seconds at a time. Overall, this is a depressing book. Franken did predict the swing against the Bush regime in the 2006 vote, although it wasn’t the rout he hoped for. Let’s hope the Democrats produce a vision that attracts the political middle, the people who distrust both the extreme right and the extreme left. In the meantime, we have our own version of Bush. His substance is the same, and his style is more thoughtful. But the Harper Conservatives are as fantasy ridden as the Bush Republicans. *** (2006)