Sunday, August 20, 2017

Yonder Window

My house, not unlike myself, is getting old. I fight entropy in both cases as best I can but with an eye to the wallet, which is far from thick enough to be safely ignored. I have yet to require any replacement parts for myself unless you count a few dental crowns, but the structures on my property have not fared quite so well. Roofs, retaining walls, doors, furnaces, faucet valves, central air units, and kitchen appliances are among the many things that have decided to retire while I still had want of their services. Not wanting to emulate Grey Gardens, I patch or replace as needed, though no more than needed, which is to say I do no purely decorative remodeling. I do hire professionals, albeit reluctantly, when I don’t trust myself (e.g. for furnace troubles or for plumbing repairs beyond the most basic toilet-mechanism-replacement sort of thing), but if it is just a matter of mixing cement, wielding a shovel, or swinging a hammer I’ll be cheap and do it myself. I will admit to having had second thoughts while recently re-roofing the barn; about halfway through, it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t 18 anymore. However, once the roof was done – well, after the aches and pains faded anyway – I was glad to have saved the $.

The do-it-yourself job this past weekend was a window replacement. For passive solar reasons my roof has two-foot (61 cm) overhangs and no gutters. The rainwater spills directly onto gravel catchment pads which recharge the ground. This works well, but there is one basement window in one back corner of the house that is beneath a roof valley and so gets a lot of backsplash from the gravel during heavy rains. Unsurprisingly, after several decades of this it was the one window that was rotting away. (A few other windows have problems, such as cranky crank mechanisms, but none is rotting.) Replacing it along with the exterior frame and trim took me all day instead of the couple hours it would take a pro, but at least the cost was just in the low three figures instead of four. The original window manufacturer is no longer in business, which is just as well. In place of the original double casement with its finicky Rube Goldberg-esque cranks, I put in a slider: no gears, levers, and rolling wheels to foul.

Windows are an obvious solution to the need for interior light and ventilation, so it is no surprise that everywhere in the world they are as old as permanent structures themselves. Weather being variable, ventilation is not always welcome, however, so for comfort (and security) some way to close them was necessary. Hinged wooden shutters were the preferred solution and they persist to this day, but they defeat the “light” purpose. Something translucent was desired. In the ancient West the most common early solution for upscale folk was parchment (thin treated animal skin) while in the East it was paper. Fabric was a lower cost alternative. All three work but have limitations. Glass seems like an obvious answer today, but the ancients had a very hard time getting the stuff transparent. Until they did it offered no advantages for windows.

Glass per se is not difficult to make. Even the Sumerians were able to do it. Heat up a silicate (SiO2) such as quartz until the crystalline bonds break and you have glass. You can reduce the temperature at which this happens by adding a flux such as potash. Cuneiform tablets from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (650 BCE) include a recipe for glass. But that just gives you a blob of rapidly cooling glass. Turning it into something useful is much more difficult. Making it clear (manganese dioxide is the key ingredient for that) took centuries of trial and error. The Romans were the first to make glass windows in large numbers, and not until the first century CE. Because of the production techniques, the windows were small panes set in mullions. Techniques for rolling large sheets of plate glass had to wait until early modern times; Louis XIV wanted them for the mirrors and windows of Versailles.

Today, of course, as a small part of the overflowing muchness of the modern world, large glass windows are so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about them – until, that is, we have to replace them. Or when a gremlin stares back at you through one. I hate when that happens.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Looking Out the Window

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It’s a Mystery

Mystery novels are not my default fiction genre for reading myself to sleep at night, but they do show up on my end tables occasionally. Last week three were my soporifics. That probably doesn’t sound flattering to the books, but they didn’t last a week precisely because all proved to be good reads.

** **

Runaway by Peter May (2015)

Runaway is billed as mystery fiction, and it is, but it stretches the definition beyond the usual limits. Veteran Scottish crime fiction author and screenwriter Peter May tells a tale of youthful adventure and late-life remorse – and, of course, murder.  There are no private investigators and no police, except as people to be avoided.

The novel alternates between 1965 and 2015. In 1965 the central character Jack MacKay, upon his expulsion from high school, convinces four of his friends to leave notes for their parents and run off with him from Glasgow to London in a van in order to become a successful band in London – something the author tried himself as a teenager. Along the way, Maurie, one of the runaway friends, insists on picking up his cousin Rachel in Leeds to rescue her from an abusive relationship. Despite one disaster after another, the six make it to London where they fall in with a trendy psychologist who dabbles in LSD, celebrities, and attractive young men. Heartbreak and murder ensue. Three of the original runaways including Jack return to Glasgow feeling beaten and disillusioned.

50 years later, the prime suspect in the 1965 slaying is himself murdered. Maurie, who is terminally ill and barely ambulatory, learns of this and urges a second runaway, this time from offspring and grandchildren. Once again he means to travel from Glasgow to London where two of the original six had stayed behind in ‘65. Jack and Dave need little persuasion. Jack maneuvers his grandson into driving them in a trip that is scarcely less eventful than the first one. There is much unfinished business in London after all these years. The two murders – one a half-century old and one new – are only a part of it, and mostly for Maurie. For the others it’s largely a poignant tale of paths not taken and of choices that still exist.

This finely written novel is not the usual mystery fare, and it likely speaks the most to those old enough to contemplate the consequences of those untaken paths.

** **

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

After Peter May, it was time for a well-seasoned classic, and it’s hard to get more classic than Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe is a century too late to be the prototype pulp detective, but he nonetheless is the archetype; he is everything we still imagine a private detective to be. For those who know the character only from the movies, the portrayal most like the Marlowe of the books is that of Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944). In purely cinematic terms, I like Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep better, but Powell’s is closer to the flavor of the literary character: a world-weary cynical wisecracker who doesn’t take life very seriously, yet chooses to finish the jobs he takes even when it would be far wiser and safer not to. My pick was The Little Sister, which I hadn’t previously read.

The Little Sister is the fifth of the seven Marlowe novels and the last from the decade in which the character is most at home. By 1949 several of Chandler’s novels and short stories had been adapted to the screen and he had written a few screenplays of his own including The Blue Dahlia and Double Indemnity. Chandler had had a mouthful of Hollywood and he didn’t much like the taste. (See Writers in Hollywood, an article he wrote for The Atlantic in 1945 in which he explains why; multiply all his $ figures by about 20 to adjust for inflation.) He brings his insider knowledge and perspective to this novel, which features second tier actors, producers, and agents along with the criminals, lowlifes, and drug dealers interacting with them. The novel is worth the price just for the glimpse of 1940s Los Angeles.

The action begins when the interestingly named Orfamay Quest, an apparently uptight and na├»ve young woman from Manhattan Kansas, walks into Marlowe’s office and asks him to find her brother Orrin, who is missing. She doesn’t want to involve the police in case he has fallen in with a bad crowd and the police might cause him trouble. Orfamay is not quite what she seems to be, however, even though "nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth." Orrin and Orfamay, it soon turns out, are half-siblings of B-actress Mavis Weld who has a real chance of becoming an A-actress. Mavis is also the girlfriend of a semi-retired gangster named Steelgrave on whom the cops would love to pin something. Several seemingly unconnected threads involving photos, blackmail, greed, an old unsolved murder, drugs, film studio politics, and scorned affections intertwine. Bodies pile up from ice picks and bullets. Even more than usual, Marlowe is loose with the law, thereby annoying the police who are alternately sadistic and kind – frequently in the same encounter.

Chandler always writes very well and he often is funny even as he conveys the mood he wants: “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled old and stale like a living room that had been closed too long.” Or, “Down at the drugstore lunch counter I had time to inhale two cups of coffee and a melted cheese sandwich with two slivers of ersatz bacon in it, like dead fish in the silt at the bottom of a drained pool.” Yum. The Little Sister is another solid entry in the Chandler bibliography. Definitely recommended.

** **

The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin (2000 – trans. 2008)

Anyone who is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but hasn’t read Boris Akunin needs to start right now. Holmes’ contemporary Erast Fandorin first appeared in print as a 20-year-old neophyte detective in The Winter Queen, a tale set in 1876. The State Counsellor, the sixth Fandorin mystery begins in 1891.

General Krapov is secretly traveling by train from St. Petersburg to a post in Siberia, where he being sidelined for a while due to bad publicity from an incident with a female prisoner. Fandorin is responsible for Krapov’s safety during the stopover in Moscow, though the responsibility doesn’t come with adequate authority. Neither the police nor the security service are specifically under his direction and the two agencies are virtually at war with each other. Someone impersonating Fandorin boards the train before it reaches Moscow, assassinates Krapov, and escapes. Fandorin is arrested for this but is quickly released thanks to the witnesses on the train. But who leaked the information about the “secret” trip and to what killer or killers?

The reader learns the answer to the second part of that question right away. In fact, the book alternates between the perspective of Fandorin, and that of Green, the leader of the revolutionary Combat Group. We learn of the pogrom that turned him into what he is. The Combat Group throws bombs at the elites, robs banks, and commits political murders to further its purposes. We see things from the points of view of the nobility, the underclass, those in between, and the insurrectionists. Meanwhile there are personal intrigues, double agents, professional infighting, and femmes fatales. Fandorin’s job is to solve a crime, but the crime can’t be separated from the social context. Knowing what we know about Russia’s fateful upcoming 20th century adds a deep portent to all the goings-on.

Andrew Bromfield’s translation is clear and readable. That’s all one really can ask.

If you’re already an Akunin fan, this will keep you one. If you aren’t one yet, pick up The Winter Queen. You’re likely then to seek out The State Counsellor.

** **

Trailer for Murder, My Sweet (1944). Except, strangely, for the title (changed from Farewell, My Lovely), this is the truest to the spirit of a Chandler novel of any film adaptation to date.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

One of Those Blogs that Ramble Nostalgically before Getting to the Point

I live in a house that previously belonged to my parents, so naturally there are a lot of artifacts of theirs in cabinets and closets and other storage spaces. I’m no hoarder. I’m actually pretty good about keeping the place free of clutter by throwing out useless things. There are, of course, some items of sentimental value that I keep. Also, there are some things I don’t use but that are useful in principle. If they are not actually in the way, they tend to get left where they are. There are my mom’s teacups, for instance. I’m not sentimental about them. I’ve never have had a formal tea party and I doubt I ever will. On the occasions when I drink tea, I always use (as I do for coffee) a mug for its heft and capacity. I nearly always serve tea to others in mugs too. I doubt I’ve poured tea more than three or four times into a china cup in the past fifteen years, and then only for guests who specifically asked for a cup rather than a mug. Only once was the full set used during all that time, and on that occasion by a quasi-niece as a lark with her friends. Nonetheless, the space the cups occupy in the hutch otherwise would be empty, so it simply doesn’t occur to me to give them away or sell them on eBay. Writing that last sentence was the first time it ever did, but I still don’t plan on it.

What brings all this to mind is an ashtray. Years ago I disposed of most of the ashtrays that had been stored in various cabinets, but there is one that is both useful (some people do still smoke, at least outside on the porch) and of mild sentimental value. Dating to the 1940s, it was in my parents’ home before I born. I recall it being on some table or household surface my entire life.

Like most Americans of my generation I grew up in a smoke-filled house, travelled in smoke-filled cars, worked in a smoke-filled office, and relaxed in smoke-filled restaurants and bars. I am not a smoker and never was. In the 70s, however, I was so accustomed to life amid ambient smoke that I truly didn’t notice it. The nose is an accommodating organ that way: after a while it stops informing you of whatever is constantly present. Lacking the zeal of the reformed, to this day I am less sensitive to tobacco smoke than the typical former smoker. Throughout the 70s, ashtrays were normal items on counters, coffee tables, and desks in homes and workplaces. It was the rare den, living room, dining room, or kitchen without at least one.

The decline of smoking accelerated in the 80s and 90s as tobacco smokers became first segregated and then banned altogether from work spaces, indoor public spaces, and bars. In the 90s automobiles without ash trays started to appear though my ’98 GMC pickup has one. As smokers became exiled to the out-of-doors in one venue after another, ash trays began to vanish from homes and offices as well. Apparently, younger folk no longer always recognize one when they see it. Recently a Millennial at my house for a get-together employed my keepsake ashtray for a candy dish. I thought it was a clever repurposing and quipped that it still was being used for something bad for your health. This evoked a puzzled response. She hadn’t recognized it as an ashtray, but thought it was a purpose-designed candy or hors d'oeuvres dish.

I suppose that’s a good thing. There is a country-western homage to classic vices from 1947 (about the same age as the ashtray) Cigarettes Whiskey and Wild Wild Women. Millennials – especially the younger ones 18-24 – have cut back on all three. According to the consumer expenditure data of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the year 2000 in inflation adjusted terms, spending on tobacco by Americans in this age-range has fallen by a third while spending on alcohol has cut in half. (Yet binge-drinking and non-automotive alcohol-related hospitalizations are up in the same group – figure that one out.) Tobacco sales have fallen only slightly in other age groups while alcohol sales to non-Millennials are up substantially. The Bureau doesn’t keep track of the final part of the song, but other studies show that Millennials are dating and having sex a good deal less than their elders did at their age. They’re eating their fruits and vegetables though: their spending on those is up well over 50% since 2000.

I have nothing against responsible bibulation of whiskey, and I have not a word to say against wild wild women either as an identity or as a companion of such. But in truth, I don’t much miss days and nights when Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I’m happy to have a new candy dish.

Sons of Pioneers – Cigarettes Whiskey and Wild Wild Women (1947)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Over the Top

“Over the top” is always a chancy choice, as is appropriate for a phrase that originates in WW1 trench warfare. Occasionally it achieves some success though, and “some” is what it achieves in three recently visited popular entertainment products.

Empress (2017), a graphic novel by Mark Millar and Stuart Immonen
This retro space opera is the first 7 issues of the Empress comics collected as a hardcover. Those familiar with Mark Millar’s other work (e.g. Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service, among others) or with movies based on them should have some inkling what to expect here. Millar typically goes far over the top while eschewing out-and-out parody. The result is both campy and disturbing, two descriptions that don’t usually go together. Kick-Ass and its sequels, as examples, ramped up violence beyond what one ever expects to see in mainstream Western comics (and far beyond what appeared in the two anything-but-tame movies) while presenting the would-be superheroes as the unbalanced characters they would have to be. Wanted confirmed every nightmare you ever had that the world really is run by a sociopathic criminal elite. Kingsman: The Secret Service is Bond and beyond. The derring-do in Empress makes Flash Gordon look like a poser.

The time is 65,000,000 years ago when earth is one planet in an interstellar empire inhabited by an earlier version of humanity. (We aren’t given an evolutionary history of this ancient breed; presumably, evidence of these earth outposts was wiped out by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, though that event is not a part of Empress.) The empire is run by King Morax whose governing style makes Flash Gordon’s adversary more appropriately called Ming the Merciful. He is ruthless not just by inclination (though he does have that inclination) but as a matter of policy. He believes the only way to hold the scattered empire together is to respond to the slightest hint of defiance anywhere with overwhelming and savage reprisals in which “collateral damage” is the main point. It encourages the locals to eliminate signs of defiance themselves.

In her youth the beautiful Emporia was infatuated by the bad boy take-charge ways of Morax, but as his wife and the mother of his children she has a change of heart. Not least, she worries for the safety of her children whom, she knows, Morax won’t hesitate to execute if they give him the tiniest cause. Emporia takes her kids and flees with the help of Dane, her square-jawed, well-muscled, always superbly competent bodyguard. Morax is not amused. He is more concerned with Emporia’s public display of defiance than with the flight per se. He cannot be seen to take it sitting down. Is there more to Dane’s relationship with Emporia than just the dutiful loyalty of an honorable bodyguard? Emporia’s daddy-worshipping daughter thinks so, and she may be onto something.

Empress is not just 1930s-style space opera. It is space opera cranked up to 11. Immonen’s artwork suits the story perfectly. If you “get” and like Millar, you’ll like this.
** **

Walkaway (2017) by Cory Doctorow
Dystopias are commonplace in science fiction, but this is a rarer beast. It is a utopia of sorts, or at least the beginnings of one. It brings to mind a line from an earlier time: “tune in, turn on, drop out.” If we take the “turn on” part of that 60s mantra to mean turn on tech instead of something psychedelic, it pretty well describes the philosophy of the main characters in Walkaway.

In near-future Canada, Hubert, Etc. (yes, the “Etc.” is part of the fellow’s name), Seth, Natalie (runaway daughter from ultra-rich family), and others have walked away from the “default” world of jobs, bills, and judges. The walkaways step outside the system. They no longer need it. Modern tech has made possible the end of scarcity, and inequality is maintained only by the elite rigging the economic system through corporate controlled governments. In voluntary ad hoc associations, walkaways occupy and repurpose abandoned factories where they hold “communist parties” with DJs and with 3D printers churning out goods to be given away for free. Hydroponic food is also to be given away. The techies among the walkaways are even on the verge of defeating death by digitally scanning brains; the hope is to be able one day to download them into back-up bodies. Naturally, the current elite of the default world are threatened by all this; their status vanishes if wealth and the whole notion of property become meaningless. They respond with lethal force, but can they stop the walkaway tide?

Cory Doctorow describes himself as emphatically a man of the Left, yet his voluntaristic anarcho-communist vision is weirdly similar (except for labels) to anarcho-capitalist post-scarcity utopias such as James Hogan’s Voyage from Yesteryear or Vernor Vinge’s post-Singularity fiction. This helps explain why Cory Doctorow is a winner of the libertarian Prometheus Award for science fiction. It’s the “anarcho” element that makes me count this utopia as over the top. My philosophical preferences are as anarchistic as anyone’s, but I think Mogadishu has settled the issue of whether those preferences are practical. They are not. In The Dark Knight Alfred tells Bruce that some men just want to watch the world burn. True enough. Some – he didn’t say but also true enough – just want to plant their boots on other people’s faces: domination for the hell of it, you understand. Armed gangs will fill the void in the absence of law.

Nonetheless, Doctorow’s vision is entertaining and much of it is plausible. We really are in the midst of another industrial revolution that will shake up society profoundly. Also, even if the world as a whole is unlikely to shed “default” power structures, as a matter of personal lifestyle “tune in, turn on, drop out” wasn’t bad advice (properly understood) in the 60s, and the reinterpreted version isn’t bad today.
** **

Atomic Blonde (2017)
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Anthony Johnston, Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 Berlin in the final days of the Wall and the Cold War. It’s a particularly risky time for intelligence agencies and their contacts because their unsavory double-dealings could be exposed in the power shake-ups underway. The movie is structured as a backflash ala Murder My Sweet or DOA as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) recounts events in an interrogation room.

Lorraine is an ice queen who appropriately takes ice baths. She is sent to Berlin when a British agent is killed and a list of agents stolen from him. An East German trying to get to the West is the original source of the list and he has memorized it. Lorraine is to get the list, extract the East German, and find a double agent. But who in Berlin isn’t a double agent? Her contact in Berlin, David Percival (James MacAvoy) is particularly unreliable. Her task might not seem enough of a reason for the unrelenting violence and mayhem that follow, but it’s the only explanation we have.

The over the top stunts, car crashes, bullets, punches, and general kickass-ery rarely pause for a breath, and through it all Lorraine is an unstoppable force of nature. In a hypothetical matchup, Bond wouldn’t survive 30 seconds with her. One of the few nonviolent interludes is Lorraine’s lovemaking with a female French agent, who is playing a spy game of her own. So, who among the primary characters is really working for whom? It’s complicated, and at the end of the day we really don’t care. It’s hard to believe Lorraine cares. We are left to assume she likes the danger and mayhem for their own sake, and that one assignment is as good as another. Personal sharing is not her style, however, so that’s only a guess.

The camerawork and cinematic style are well suited to the subject matter, the stunts are impressive, and the fight choreography is extraordinary. And there is Charlize. For those reasons alone the movie is worth a look, which is good because there aren’t any other reasons. Don’t worry too much if you have trouble following the plot. The various intrigues and betrayals are just excuses for more violence, so the details aren’t important. Perhaps that’s the point.
** **

I assume that Blondie’s Atomic was not in the '80s soundtrack of Atomic Blonde because the song was released in 1979. Or maybe it wasn’t included because it was just too obvious. I don’t mind being too obvious, so: