Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Thousand Words

At a recent concert, as at every sizable one beyond the most sedate that I’ve attended in the past decade, in the audience there was a large crop of alit cell phones atop waving arms. Not that long ago rules against cameras and recordings at concerts were pretty strictly enforced, but with the proliferation of smart phones they are so widely flouted as to be unenforceable in most venues. Not a few of the attendees around me experienced the night primarily through their phones, reviewing photos and video clips immediately after recording them and then posting them to social media; only occasionally did they look directly at the band. Since the marginal cost of taking a digital photo is zero, people take far more than they did a decade or two ago. When someone wants to show you a particular photo stored on a phone, they typically flick through hundreds of pics in order to find it. On hard drives, flash drives, and the cloud they store photos in the thousands. Some people, of course, are very methodical with their files; they separate digital photos neatly into thematic “albums,” each with contents of manageable size. Most, however, are more slipshod: doing the online equivalent of the pre-digital practice of saving pictures by tossing them all helter-skelter into a big box.

1947 model Kodak Brownie
Photography is nearly two hundred years old, but for the whole of the 19th century it was the domain of the specialist. A camera simply wasn’t something ordinary people had around the house to record events of their daily lives. All that changed thanks to George Eastman, a lifelong bachelor who liked nothing more than to bake pies, bicycle (perhaps to wear off the pie), and make photography simpler. Founder of Eastman Kodak, he and his researchers invented a new flexible photographic film and purpose-designed a camera for the film that ordinary folks could afford and use. The Kodak brownie was offered for sale in 1900 at a price of $2. Millions of brownies were sold over the next eight decades. True, they weren’t remotely up to the standards demanded by commercial photographers, but for a shot of your 10-year-old niece on a pony they were just fine. The first camera I remember using as a kid was my parents’ 1947 model brownie.

Polaroid Snap digital camera
Humans are an impatient breed, however, and they dislike waiting for film to be developed, which typically was at least two days in the 1950s; one hour photo shops came along later. They wanted to know right away if the pictures were properly framed and lit. Polaroid came to the rescue in 1948 with their instant cameras. Polaroid had appeal beyond instant gratification: privacy. You could take embarrassing photos without worrying about whether the folks in the photo shop giggled over them or kept their own copies. It became the camera of choice for nonprofessional photos of an adult nature. Polaroid took a devastating hit in the 90s and 00s from digital photography, which also produces instant results, but in recent years it has made something of a comeback. The new Polaroid cameras in a range of prices and sizes are digital but print out an instant hard copy just like the old models. This has distinct advantages: Sometimes, as many people have learned to their cost, it is not a good idea to save a particular photo in an easily shared electronic format; it is better to print a single pic and delete the digital file from the camera. True, it still can be scanned and shared, but that is troublesome enough to be less common than an impulsive finger-tap on a phone made under the influence of brandy.

All this comes to mind because an hour ago I printed out hard copies of a few digital pics for a photo album – the kind with actual pages in a three-ring notebook. I like old fashioned albums you can hold in your hands, just as I prefer actual books to Kindle. Of course I do have purely digital file folders of pics and, for reasons of time and money, I do occasionally read books online, but given a choice when time and money are not significant issues I prefer the bulky material ones. It’s a quadruple sensory thing: not just sight but tactility, aroma, and the sound of pages turning. I suppose one can taste a book or photo too, and thereby employ all five, but I choose to leave that one out. Also, a physical photo album forces one to edit. A good photo album, like a well-written biography, is concise; it contains key information without overwhelming the reader/viewer with boring repetitive details. It is defined as much by what is left out as by what it contains.

Oldest photo in my album: my
great great grandfather
Ferdinand Meyers, b.1832
My physical photo albums aren’t especially good (in the sense of being interesting to anyone but myself), but they serve my purpose. There are three books: 1) family photos predating 1950, 2) photos from 1950 to 1970, and 3) photos from 1970 to present. If that seems unequally distributed it’s because my mom snapped a lot of photos in the two decades between 1950 (the year my sister was born) and 1970 (the year I graduated high school). Even after I trimmed the contents – tossing the excised pics into a box – they still make a larger book than the other two combined. I reorganized the first two albums when they became mine. The reorganization was necessary to suit my chronological taste (I have a BA in history); the two previously weren’t organized that way at all. My mom had selected photographs well out of a big box of them, but if there was any theme or pattern to their place in the albums it was a mystery known only to her; photos decades apart were as likely as not to be on the same page.
Most recent album photo: I mashing
poor Samantha Fish after her concert

I rarely force anyone else to look at the albums, but I do think they are more graspable to others in a holistic way than images called up to an LED screen. Moreover, they are more graspable to me. Perhaps Millennials and GenZs feel differently, but if I want to wallow in the past, a hold-in-hands album is the way to do it. It recalls not just what is in it, but what is left out. Unless someone throws the albums out they even will survive long after the passwords to my digital files are forgotten. I don’t fret about that though. All things are temporary, very much including memories. 

Ringo Starr – Photograph

Monday, May 22, 2017

After Midnight

Brick and mortar stores continue their decline as online shopping sites outcompete them in price and convenience, but there are real-space businesses that are likely to hang on. 24-hour convenience stores and diners are particularly hard to replace. Perhaps 24-hour pizza delivery by drone will cut into the sales of these places in time, but that time is not yet here. Where permitted by law – and even where not – late night food and alcohol providers have serviced workers for as long as factories have operated night shifts. Late-night and round-the-clock establishments proliferated rapidly after the Second World War. 7-Eleven convenience stores opened shop in 1946. The name came from the original business hours (7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), but these were extended as it became obvious that demand didn’t end at 11 but persisted 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, the first 24-hour 7-Eleven was in Las Vegas, but even smallish communities soon proved to have enough hungry night owls to support the model.

I rarely make use of 24-hour convenience stores. When I do it almost invariably is at the behest of some companion who finds unbearable the notion of surviving the next few hours before daybreak without a sandwich, Fritos, chocolate bars, Snapple, or (big one) cigarettes. In fact, I’m trying to think of a single exception when it was my idea to go into one of these places between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. There might be one, but none comes to mind. There are occasions, however, when I make self-motivated use of a 24-hour diner. There is a handy one (across from a 7-Eleven as it happens) in nearby Morristown. I pass it on the way back from NYC, which makes it a convenient place to stop after a show or concert or some other activity. It’s also close enough to my home for a stand-alone visit. One of the advantages to single life is that if I do get the urge for dessert (or breakfast) at 3 a.m., I simply go out the door with no explanations needed. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

The habitués of all-night diners are a distinctive mix in the small morning hours. Some are just workers and/or students with peculiar hours, so this is a normal time for them to have a burger. As one might expect, there are ample numbers of stoners with the munchies. After the bars close (2 a.m in Morristown; 4 a.m. in NYC) there is a wave of hungry inebriates and partied-out revelers. The atmosphere is strangely mellow usually – and a bit surreal. Lack of sleep offers a certain buzz of its own, so even the sober patrons have a slightly glazed appearance to their eyes. As neither a drinker nor a smoker of herb nor a night shift worker nor even (usually) sleep deprived, I suppose I’m typically the oddball. The diner food is better than I make for myself at home and the environment is weirdly beguiling, which gives the lie to the old admonition, “Nothing good comes after midnight.”

Yet, while that saying is wrong on the face of it, like many generalizations it contains a kernel of truth. Many good things finish after midnight, but not so many start up then. That’s when crack and heroin dealers (and their customers of course) come out to play. It’s when the seedy after-hours clubs open. It’s when drunks and overly-sleepy folk take to the roads. It when buzzes start to fade and hangovers begin. It’s when we make really bad romantic choices. It’s when we send ill-considered texts and emails – even a perfectly legitimate business email sent at that time raises suspicions among the recipients if there is any typo or error in it. It’s best not to post anything on social media. In one his routines, Chris Rock notes that anyone withdrawing $400 from an ATM at 3 a.m. isn’t likely to do anything good with it. Some of us know what he means. So, if you began before 12, you’re probably fine seeing it through even if it takes until dawn. Your carriage won’t turn into a pumpkin. But if it’s already after midnight, maybe you should let it go until daylight… unless it’s a bite at the diner.

DOROTHY - After Midnight

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recap: May 20 Derby Bout

Last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) on their home track in Morristown NJ hosted the Wonder Brawlers visiting from the Central New York Roller Derby based in Chester, NY.

The early jams gave no indication of how the match would go. An early lead by the JDB was lost when a power jam by #003 Sinful Pleasures put the Brawlers ahead 8-17. Before long, however, the JDB strong bench of jammers and well-structured blocking began to tell. #00 Mental Block took back the lead for JDB and #235 A-Bomb, with her ability to exploit holes in the pack, added to it with a 28 point jam. Pressured by JDB jammers, “hit it and quit it” jams by #13 Hot Cakes and #18 Summer of Sam were not enough to prevent the point spread from widening through the first half. #3884 CaliforniKate took the JDB over the 100-point mark, and the first half ended with JDB ahead 116 – 28.

In the second half the Brawlers came back determined to put points on the board and up the aggressiveness of their blocking. Given current formation tactics in blocking, defense has become more of a coordinated group effort, but #26 J8ded Sk8ter for the Brawlers and #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes are notable for well-timed hard hits. The Brawlers succeeded in racking up points. #4 White Lie had multipass success in power jams despite firm JDB walls as did #003 Sinful Pleasures. However, JDB continued to score as well including in jams by #8 Lil MO Peep and (in star passes) #64 Madeleine Alfight. #13 Hot Cakes took the Brawlers over the 100 mark, putting the score at 167-110 with minutes remaining in the game. Despite a last chance push – including the Brawlers stopping the clock at 13 seconds in order to squeeze in one last jam – the bout ended with a Final Score of 176 – 120 in favor of JDB.

For Wonder Brawlers – #26 J8ded Sk8ter as blocker, #4 White Lie as jammer

For Jerzey Derby Brigade – #33 Doom Hilda as blocker, 8 Lil MO Peep as jammer

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Gone Fishin’

Four mini-reviews of page, screen, and speaker:

** **

Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón

If you’re looking for something a little different in detective fiction (but only a little different), Blue Light Yokohama might be for you. Nicolás Obregón, a dual citizen of Spain and the UK, has lived both in the US and in Japan on magazine assignments. He loved his time in Japan. Though the reviewer for the Japan Times notes a lot of local customs and quirks Obregón simply has wrong, on balance his multicultural perspective helps more than it hurts.

Newly appointed police Inspector Iwata, a troubled man with a barely controlled drinking problem, is assigned to investigate serial killings involving an apocalyptic cult that uses a black sun as a symbol. Iwata has a rocky professional relationship with Sakai, his female partner. He soon suspects a connection to the supposed suicide of his predecessor and also begins to believe he deliberately has been set up to fail. Most of the usual detective fiction tropes are in play here, but Obregón handles them well enough. Playing them out in a Japanese setting prevents them from seeming stale. Thumbs Up – not way up but up.

** **

Dr. Strange (2016)

Yet another Ditko/Lee collaboration, Dr. Strange first appeared in Marvel comics in 1963. Though this was high tide of my childhood comic book enthusiasm, this character failed to appeal to me back then. Despite the passage of so many years, I still was inclined to be suspicious of the movie when I gave it a chance last week, but it turned out to be a great deal of fun. For those put off by mystical elements in film, rest assured that there is a quasi-scientific justification for the goings-on that is not a lot more silly than what we are asked to swallow in most science fiction.

Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon whose hands are damaged in a car accident. Medical science cannot restore their former dexterity. He hears of an accident victim who shouldn’t walk but does, and seeks him out. The fellow directs him to seek his answers and a possible cure in (where else?) Katmandu. There he joins a monastic order of sorts where he learns about other dimensions, mirror realities, mystical (in effect) forces, and, of course, a threat to earth. There is always that disgruntled former acolyte ready and able to wreak destruction, isn’t there?

The fx are marvelous and make more sense in context than the trailers make them seem. Above all, the script is witty enough to have saved even a less well-produced movie. Against my own expectations, Thumbs Up.

** **

How the Hell Did This Happen? by PJ O’Rourke

In a fiercely tribalistic era when books with remotely political content are apt to be either shameless panegyrics or livid polemical rants (more often the latter), the former National Lampoon editor delivers an exasperated analysis of the 2016 election with mordant humor that is refreshingly 360 degrees. His endorsement of Hillary Clinton last fall was lukewarm to put it mildly: “She is the second-worst thing that could happen to America.” Accordingly, his perspective is not willfully blind to foolishness, malfeasance, and (yes) sagacity on all sides. If you want a book full of bluster and rage that decries opponents as not just wrong but evil and that finds humor only in the hypocrisies of others, this is not it. But if you’re one of the many nonplussed folks out there who have been asking the titular question not just since the election but for well over a year, this offers some answers while sharing bewilderment at the rest: Thumbs Up.

[Having received a few “if you’re not with us you’re against us”-style communications recently, I think this is as good a place as any for an aside: Those who know me personally are aware of my political philosophy. While those views inevitably seep into blogs about walks, novels, movies, sports, coffee, and so on – how can they not? – it is not my intent to bludgeon readers of this blog squarely on the head with them. Memes written by professional propagandists of every flavor are easy enough to find elsewhere. For those who find satisfaction writing and sharing those, by all means go at it. But in a kind of Gresham’s Law of discourse, circulating that stuff tends to crowd out all other coins. There are so many intelligent, thoughtful, and entertaining writers/conversationalists who hold philosophies with which I radically disagree that I dislike missing out on what they have to say beyond tired political arguments that never reach resolution but only run out of time. At bottom, differing ideologies, to the extent they are coherent, trace back to differing first principles about the nature of (to steal from e.e. cummings) man-unkind, which is why they always will be irreconcilable at any other level. Yet, they rarely are discussed at that level. Propagandists instead focus on swaying nonideological voters emotionally rather than philosophically on topical events; as long as more than one side does this, it is an unending task. Richard’s Pretension is one hill where I choose not to be Sisyphus. Sorry Albert, but I don’t think he’s happy.]

 ** **

Samantha Fish – Chills and Fever (2017)

If you’re a regular visitor to Amazon, the site’s AI is likely to generate a “recommended for you” list that is pretty helpful, especially if you take the time to tweak the AI’s assumptions about you by telling it to ignore anomalous views and purchases. Its errors in my case are as likely to be omission as commission. It did notice, however, that basic blues-based rock-and-roll is the core (not the whole, but the core) of my music purchases, and it thereby recommended the 2017 Chills and Fever album by Samantha Fish.

I’ve been aware of Kansas City’s Samantha Fish since hearing and liking the Lay It Down track from the Black Wind Howlin’ album a few years ago. She is a capable guitarist with an appealing voice, but I didn’t buy that cd or anything else by her at that time. The new recommendation prompted me whimsically to check her tour schedule, however, and this Wednesday she appears in a surprisingly cozy venue in Teaneck NJ. I bought tickets and gave Chills and Fever a listen. The title song has more of an Amy Winehouse vibe than is typical for Samantha, though that is not a bad thing. Overall the album fits the pattern of her earlier work and includes solid covers of such blues numbers as “Either Way I Lose” and “Hello Stranger.” It’s not absolutely my favorite album of the past 12 months (that’s Rock is Dead by Dorothy) but it’s a good one. Amazon made a sale. Thumbs Up.

Samantha Fish – Chills & Fever

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fire in the Sky

A few weeks ago a friend of mine (hi, Ken) suggested we attend a ceremony for the 80th anniversary of the crash of the zeppelin Hindenburg on May 6 in Lakehurst, which is about 1.5 hours by car from my house. That sounded like an odd enough event to be worth a look. At least two weeks advance notice of our intent to attend was necessary. Since Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (formerly Lakehurst Naval Air Station) is an active military base, we required security clearance. For some strange reason, we both were deemed acceptable and were allowed on base.

The Hindenburg was far from the worst aerial disaster. Amazingly, the majority of the 97 passengers and crew survived: 13 passengers and 22 crew were killed along with one civilian crewman on the ground. It wasn’t even the worst airship disaster – it ranks 5th. The highest toll was from the crash at sea in 1933 of the US Navy airship Akron; 73 out of the crew of 76 lost their lives, yet this event is little remembered. What makes all the difference to public consciousness, of course, is that the Hindenburg disaster was a media event. Film crews were on hand, and Herb Morrison’s live narration of the events still haunts.

Completed in March of 1936, the Hindenburg was the final iteration of zeppelin design. It was the fastest and most luxurious way for civilian passengers to cross the Atlantic. At 245 meters (803 feet) the craft was huge. It could accommodate up to 70 passengers. In 1936 it completed 17 transatlantic round-trip flights both to North and South America. The trip from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst (which had the facilities to handle airships) usually took 2.5 days though the fastest transatlantic run was 43 hours. The Hindenburg originally was designed for helium, but helium was scarce. The USA was the only significant supplier, and Congress had declared it a strategic material that could not be sold overseas. So, the ship instead used hydrogen for lift. Besides, decades of successful employment of hydrogen, including in World War 1, had convinced the Zeppelin company that the gas could be handled safely. On May 6 1937 this proved to be fatal overconfidence.
1936 arrival at Lakehurst
with USCG escort

Exactly what happened is still unclear. Conspiracy theorists long have suspected sabotage, but neither the American nor the German investigations of the accident turned up any evidence of it. “Static charge” was offered as a possible ignition source in 1937, but this was then and still is disputed by many with expertise in the field. One of the speakers at the ceremony last Saturday was Dr. Horst Shirmer, son of the lead aeronautical engineer for the Hindenburg. Dr. Shirmer as a boy also was a passenger on the airship, though not on the fatal flight. His suspicion is that a glowing ember of soot from the diesel engine exhaust was a likely culprit; the ship had outgassed hydrogen unusually late in the landing process that day as part of an unorthodox approach due to weather conditions. This made ignition from such an ember more possible. He readily admits, though, that there is no way to be sure.

May 6 2017 at crash site. Photo by
Ken Kaplan
Part of my reason for attending was to see what sort of crowd such a ceremony would draw. There was not an obvious pattern. Aside from two childhood passengers of the airship (not on the disastrous flight), few of the hundreds present had any real connection to the Hindenburg or to anyone who had been on the ship’s last flight. They spanned ages and backgrounds. Why attend this memorial activity? There is, of course, the eerie sense of connection to history that one can have in certain places and in the presence of certain objects. We often seek out that sensation. Beyond that, though, I think there is something about events such as this that reminds us in a special way of the randomness of the universe. Sometimes things just happen that are beyond our control. They may be in the control of other people or in the control of no one at all. Will Durant: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice." Some of us survive, at least for the moment. Some of us don’t. For those of us still here, what is there to do but tell stories of those who have gone, lay a wreath, and move on? Our May 6 will come – but not today.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

By Land and Sea

Brief reviews of two recently viewed flicks in which the destination is the journey:

** **

A Walk in the Woods (2015)

I frequently walk the walk. No I’m not talking about politics with that much overused phrase. I mean actual walks. Typically not far, though. Oh, I’ve hiked a bit in a few National Parks and pounded miles of sidewalks in various cities for sightseeing purposes, but I don’t pretend to be ambitious with my footsteps on any regular basis. When I’m feeling particularly lazy, which is most days of the year, I’ll keep the “walks for walks’ sake” (rather than for the sake of business or errands) on my own property. At present I live on 5 acres. That’s a smidgeon more than 2 hectares by the reckoning of 95% of the world’s people. [Congress made the metric measurement system official in the US with the Metric Act of 1866, but after 151 years has yet to persuade a majority of Americans to use it for anything but illegal drugs.] Four of the acres are wooded, and I have a serpentine footpath that is long enough to clear the mind but short enough that my instinct for sloth doesn’t overwhelm my impulse to use it.

One walk I never seriously considered taking is the entire 2200 mile (3500 km) Appalachian Trail – a dedicated footpath from Maine to Georgia. One needs a certain freedom of money and time (including someone back home to pay bills and feed the cat) to spend 6 months hiking in the mountains. Yet, about 2700 people per year try it; most don’t finish. About 2,000,000 hike at least a portion of it each year.

The reader might notice that I have yet to say anything about the movie. That is because there is not much to say. Septuagenarians Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) and Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) walk the whole Appalachian Trail and talk like grumpy old men along the way. That’s about it. Redford and Nolte’s chemistry is OK, but their act gets repetitive. The little side plots are contrived and add nothing valuable. The scenery is nice. The non-fiction book on which the movie is based, like almost everything written by the real Bill Bryson, is clever, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable. Read the book instead.

The movie is not actually painful, but nonetheless Thumbs mildly Down.

** **

Moana (2016)

Set entirely in a Polynesian mythological universe, Disney’s tale is as surreal as an acid trip. Nonetheless it is coherent in its own terms and is friendly both to kids and adults.

The ocean delivers a stone to the child Moana, whose name means “ocean.” Years later, 16-year-old Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) learns from her grandmother that her people, currently bound to a single island, were once voyagers and explorers. She also learns that life in the world is slowly dying because the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) had stolen a pounamu stone, which was the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti and the source of the power to give life; in a battle with Te Ka, a lava monster, Maui then lost the stone in the ocean. It is, of course, the stone the ocean gave to Moana. Defying her father and her village, Moana sets out alone across the ocean to find Maui, return the stone to Te Fiti, save her people, and remind them of their heritage as voyagers. Along the way she must face the natural elements, pirates, a very egocentric Maui (who is annoyed that he gets no respect from people), and Te Ka.

It’s a rousing well-produced tale with a well-crafted heroine and signature Disney artwork and music. Thumbs Up.