Monday, August 31, 2009

Noel Sickles and Art of Sequential Art, Part 1

This series of posts is about finding beauty in ephemera. And few things are as ephemeral as a daily comic strip. It's something that takes but a moment to read. There's enjoyment, but it's fleeting -- usually forgotten by the time the reader's moved on to the next item.

Which is why I admire the artists and writers who do more than they have to. Mediocre art abounds in comic strips. And why not? What's the reward?

With Noel Sickles (1910-1982), it was the sheer joy of drawing, and pushing himself to become a better artist.

Sickles was a remarkable illustrator who did ground-breaking work in a number of media. But he's best remembered for his three-year stint (1933-1936) on "Scorchy Smith," a now-forgotten adventure strip. Forgotten, that is, save for Sickles' contributions.

His sequences were reprinted in the 1940's and greatly influenced the following two generations of comic strip and comic book artists. Here's part of the reason why.

Sickles was a master of negative space. That is, letting the shadows define the object, rather than lining out the surfaces. In the panel above, it's obvious that the scene takes place at night (click on the image to enlarge).

Notice that the figures are mostly blobs of black. This serves to show how bright the searchlight is, and also how dark the night is. And look carefully at the shading -- each one of those lines is hand-drawn. They cast a gray pall over the panel without obscuring the details of the figures.

And, of course, the absence of those lines make the searchlight's beam white-hot. And even the beam is a product of negative space. Most of us would draw two lines out from the searchlight to represent the beam. Sickles doesn't -- he simply stops the gray lines representing night and lets their collective endpoints define the beam's edges.

I also don't think it's an accident that those gray lines are slanted, either. The beam pulls the eye upward to the right, and the lines contribute to that motion. They're slanted just enough to hit the beam at angle, which helps provide contrast at their meeting point.

Now all of this is very fine, but consider this: Sickles didn't agonize for weeks over this drawing the way a fine artist might. It was one of four panels he drew for that day's sequence. And he was required to produce six such sequences a week, 52 weeks a year.

Below are two daily strips that put our panel in context. Don't be put off by the moire pattern -- if you click on the image you'll see the strip at proper size and the shading will display correctly.

In the two panels, notice the heavy reliance on negative space. The final image shows a rescue ship pulling close to island, with an amazing economy of line. The ship itself is mainly a black blog with small white circle suggesting a life preserver and an other white space suggesting the outline of the hull. A few small black blots behind it indicate the boat's wake as it moves. A large black blob to the right represents the island, with some white highlights that show depth.

Sickles was better than he had to be -- which is why his comic art has become the subject of serious study for working professionals. And why his run of "Scorchy Smith" is still a joy to read today.

So here's the question: think about the comic strips (either in dead-tree or online editions) you read. What function does the art serve to tell the story or deliver the gag? And are the artists you admire really working at the top of their game, or just marking time?

- Ralph

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where's Ken? Sailing to Nigeria

We've just wrapped up another Nigerian 419 scammer scam. I say "we" because I was able to make a few modest contributions to Ken's efforts. This is a mighty tale of adventure on the high seas with that old salt, Captain Frank Drake of Golden Hind Marine Salvage.

Captain Frank often states that he hates pirates and yet he seems surrounded by them. Many of his associates are either actual pirates or characters from "Treasure Island."

There's some other background information which might help you further appreciate our story: Golden Hind Marine Salvage is located at Surfside Six, Miami Beach which references an old TV detective show that was a spin-off of "77 Sunset Strip."

Frank's initial business partner is Travis McGee, John D. McDonald's fictional detective based in Florida. McGee often described himself as a salvage expert (see how it all ties together?).

The part of Captain Frank Drake is played by Henry Kulke. This character actor portrayed the gruff, plain-spoken Chief Petty Office Curly, part of the Seaview's crew on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea."

Captain Drake and his adventures manage to keep our Nigerian scammer, "Mr. George Khumato" on the hook for 50 days -- a new record for Ken!

Personally, I'm disappointed at the quality of Mr. Khumato's documentation. I think we did a much better job, like the poster we created above (click on the image to see it full-size). We might be on the wrong end of this racket.

Click the link below to download the PDF of our latest caper.

Captain Frank and George PDF

One final thing: the secret coded message is a simple cryptogram. Can you decypher it? Enjoy!

- Ralph

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Faux-ward Award

I'm very excited. Our small business just won 2009 Best of Orange (Virginia) Award for eating places by the US Commerce Association.

My partner and I have been running Digital Chips, Inc. since 1997 and it's nice to have some recognition. All I have to do is just pay for the cost of the award plaque (pictured, left), and we'll have something we can proudly display in our business.

I'm sure the US Commerce Association doesn't hand out awards frivolously.

I wonder when their examiners came to Orange to do their evaluations of our business? What was it that made them consider us the best? Was it our famous digital chips that won them over?

Tough to say.

Because, of course, this entire award is a sham. First off, we're not located in Orange. Our business' official address is 391 CC Road, Hood, Virginia (about 20 miles NW of Orange). We do use Dominion Market Research in Orange, Virginia for our warehousing and order fulfillment, but I don't recall them having anything especially good to eat there.

Secondly, Digital Chips, Inc. isn't even in the food service industry at all. We create custom music compilations for various clients (mostly public radio stations) and also run DCD Records and Distribution. The only platters we sell are vinyl.

The Better Business Bureau had some additional info about this organization that awards businesses for a non-existent restaurant in the wrong town.

So to sum up, an organization I've never heard of notifies me that I've won a contest I didn't enter. And that, for a small fee, I'll be able to collect my prize.

Sound familiar? It's the old lottery scam, a variant on the Nigerian 419 scam.

Boy, did they pick the wrong people! Just ask our Nigerian correspondents!

- Ralph

Monday, August 17, 2009

At The Stroke of Midnight

I would be very surprised if a single person reading this knew who John K. Butler was. It's a shame, but not surprising.

Butler was one of the many second-tier authors whose stories populated the pulp magazines from the 1920's through the 1940's. Butler didn't stay a pulp writer long -- he went to Hollywood in 1943 and wrote scripts for movies and later TV shows.

Butler wrote a fair amount of crime stories, among pretty respectable company. Some of the best-known mystery authors of the era got their start in the pulps -- Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris, and Raymond Chandler to name a few (and if you don't recognize those authors, shame on you).

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett set the standard (after John Carroll Daly's lead) for hard-boiled detective fiction, but many, like Butler, had their own takes on the genre.

Butler's main contribution was a series of nine novelettes (each about 12,000 words in length) featuring Steve Middleton Knight, nicknamed "Steve Midnight," driver for the Red Owl Cab Company in Los Angeles. The stories, published in Dime Detective from 1940-1942, are tightly written, and have a gritty realism that make them interesting reading even a half-century later.

Steve Midnight isn't Jessica Fletcher in a cab, or even a Sam Spade. Unlike the stereotypical hard-boiled detective, he isn't especially world-weary, nor overly cynical. He only gets involved with crime when someone cheats him out of a fare, or is jumped, or the actions of others cost him his job. And his goals are equally simple. He's not out to catch a murderer -- that's for the police. He just wants to get his money or his job back.

According to the back story, Knight used to be a millionaire playboy until the Depression hit. The family fortune disappeared, and Knight's father committed suicide. Suddenly, Knight, with no job skills and no money, had to support his mother and ailing sister. Fast-forward to 1940 when the first story begins, and the former playboy's now behind the wheel of a cab. But Knight's not bitter, or resentful, which makes the character far more complex than one generally gets in the genre. He's just doing what has to be done to survive.

Butler follows the convention of narrating the stories in the first person. But the prose doesn't sound forced or overly dramatic. Here's Steve Midnight describing a regular fare:
She was a small, sad-eyed blonde with a veneer of glamor. She always dressed to the hilt and wore the latest screwy hats and affected the glib sophistication of a telephone operator out on Saturday's date. The veneer was an attempt to cover the disappointment in the tough life she had to lead -- singing in cheap clubs like the Corinthian, mailing money to her folks in Kansas, and at the same time supporting a stumble-bum prize fighter named Poke Haley who divided his time between being counted out on the ring canvas and taking alcoholic cures in all the local sanitariums.

(from "Hacker's Holiday")

I first ran across Steve Midnight in "The Hard-Boiled Dicks," a 1967 anthology by Ron Goulart. I was struck by the quality of the writing, and so it was only a matter of time before I purchased "At the Stroke of Midnight," which collects all of the Steve Midnight stories together.

Butler had an understated, compelling style that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you're a fan of hard-boiled detectives (new or old), film noir, or just plain good fiction-writing, I recommend "At the Stroke of Midnight."
"A racket plied against lonely people, against the sick, against the worried, against the aged. The lousiest racket in the world, hiding behind the cloak of spiritual religion and defying you to prove it's just a cloak."

Talking about some aspects of today's health-care debate? Nope, Steve Midnight making an observation in "The Saint in Silver" in 1941.

- Ralph

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ralph will love this (but count me skeptical)

Who wouldn't want to glide smoothly through the air, enjoying a million-dollar view on your way to work?

That's the vision behind the AIRBIA, a finalist in the ReBurbia suburban design competition. Sleek airships will drop down and pick you up in your neighborhood and deposit you in the city center. So much more appealing than riding the bus!

Check out the pictures -- while it does look beautiful, I'm not holding my breath on this one!


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Hubble Deep Field 3D Image produced and posted this wonderful video that explains the importance of the Hubble Deep Field photo, and why it matters to all of us.

I came across it shortly after reading about another town hall meeting disrupted by angry people shouting their views and attempting to shut down opponents expressing theirs.

How small we all are. How small our differences in a universe where large numbers of galaxies can go undetected because they're so far away. Maybe a little stargazing would do us all some good.

- Ralph

Monday, August 10, 2009

Separating the Twits from the Chaff

How many friends have I really got?
You can count them on one hand.
How many friends have I really got?
How many friends have I really got?
That love me, that want me, that'll take me as I am.

- "How Many Friends," The Who

One of the good things about Internet communication, as opposed to older forms, is the exactitude of the quantification.

How many people listen to me on the radio? Arbitron gives me a vague idea, but no one knows for sure. How many people follow me on Twitter? I have a number. FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc.? All provide exact numbers on followers.

But as the Who sang, how many friends have I really got? (Online, that is)

Some measure Twitter success by how many people follows them. And I admit, I get a little ego boost when I get another add notification. But numbers alone can't be the measure of success. I'm interested in talking with and learning from folks that, well, share at least some of my interests.

I'm not sure "Britany137" is such a person (if it's really a person at all). Like barnacles, my Twitter feed periodically accumulates this type of follower, ostensively a lonely young lady with a few desultory and vaguely racy tweets. And links to her pictures, of course.

Then they're the get-rich-quick businesses, that have ways to build your Twitter follower count, or make money at home, or -- you get the idea.

The real head-scratchers are the tangentially political Twitterers. Now I follow my elected representatives that tweet, but I don't think I've done a lot of political posting. Nevertheless, I've managed to accumulate some real wingnuts from the far right and the far left.

All of which makes me wonder. Are any of these people actually reading any of my posts before deciding to follow me?

And the answer, of course, is no.

Some, like the faux-young ladies, are simply spambots. Others are concerned about building up large amounts of followers, and basically, the more people you follow, the more follow you back (at least for a while).

I decided that it was time to clean house and block some of these undesirables. I lost about 10% of my followers, but that's OK. I'm not sure US_Bankrupt wanted to discuss the finer points of Franz Schmidt's orchestral works, anyway.

And after all, you're known by the company you keep.

- Ralph

Day 121 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Friday, August 07, 2009

WVTF and Famous Firsts

I don't want to take anything away from WVTF because they have done something remarkable. According to their press release,
The latest radio ratings released by Arbitron, Inc. show NPR member station WVTF Public Radio ranks #1 against all other commercial and non-commercial radio stations serving Charlottesville [Virginia]. WVTF is ranked #1 with a 9.9 share of the area’s radio listening. The #2 station has a 9.3 share (country WCYK-FM), and the #3 station (adult contemporary WQMZ) has an 8.1 share.
Charlottesville is an interesting radio market. It has the standard mix of commercial stations, with a few oddities. It has two AAA format stations, non-commercial WNRN and commercial WCNR. It also has four non-commercial stations serving the area, WVTF, the afore-mentioned WNRN, WMRA, and WTJU.

For WVTF to capture the majority of the public radio audience is no mean feat in itself -- there's lots of competition. But to capture the majority of the total audience, mixing in folks who prefer classical rock, top 40, country, etc. is news, indeed.

As I said, I don't want to take away from WVTF's accomplishment. According to Arbitron, they're the winner. But before we read too much into this, let's look at how that data was collected.

Arbitron stats aren't quite as cut and dried as those for, say, website traffic data.

While Arbitron collects data in some major markets with electronic devices known as Personal People Meters (PPMs), for smaller markets they still rely on people filling out listening diaries. Which is what was used in the 231st-ranked Charlottesville market.

So how reliable is the information from such a diary? Well, it depends on how much get filled in. Arbitron provides some info about their diaries. Mark Ramsey gives a little walk-through of the competing (but very similar) Nielsen radio diary.

One other piece of information: potential diarists are contacted initially by phone to ask if they would like to take part in the Arbitron survey. Which automatically eliminates homes without landlines (about 20% of households), skewing the potential survey pool to an older demographic.

For a public radio station to emerge on top is still a big deal, though. Because as flawed as the Arbitron system is, the numbers are still used by stations and their advertisers/underwriters to determine ad/underwriting rates and whether or not advertising/underwriting on a station makes good business sense.

So even if WVTF doesn't actually have the 15,503 listeners the numbers say they do, it doesn't matter. Because, like Wall Street investors, it's not what the numbers are, it's what you believe they mean.

- Ralph

Day 118 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

HD Radio sells out

Something interesting happened in Gainesville, Florida this week. The city completely sold out of HD Radios. There're some lessons to be learned here, but first a little background, and then some perspective.

The background
Public radio station WUFT had been the area's sole classical music station for some time. The station, owned by the University of Florida, decided to ditch the classical format for news and talk. Rather than just pull the plug, the classical music was moved to an HD2 channel. In answer to the howls of protests from long-time listeners, the general manager said: "buy radios." Which, apparently, they did.

The perspective
It's no secret (except to the radio industry) that HD Radio is a non-starter with the general public. So the total number of HD Radios available for sale in the Gainesville area was not that high, to begin with. I would be surprised if a retail store like Best Buy had more than 10 units total in stock.

No matter how vocal the opposition, when it comes to format changes, only a fraction of the pissed-off audience actually does anything. Out of tens of thousands of listeners, a station will receive perhaps 10 or 20 letters of protest. So the total number of people looking for HD Radios to keep listening to classical music is only a fraction of the total disenfranchised audience.

The takeaways
This story has three important messages if you pay attention.

1) Want to move HD Radios? Give listeners a compelling reason to use them.
Most HD Radio signals are just simulcasts of a station's regular programming. That's not compelling. Some do additional programming, but it's not promoted. In WUFT's case, the switch was a highly publicized one, primarily due to the controversy. And it was the only source of the programming people wanted.

2) Music to talk: get used to it.
Just because a station's non-profit, doesn't mean they're not looking at the bottom line. For public radio stations, the numbers speak for themselves: news/talk attracts more listeners than classical music, brings in more donations to the station, and (because it's all syndicated) can be run with less staff. WUFT's switch may seem evil to its long-time listeners, but in management's eyes, it was the logical thing to do. The story's been played out on other stations throughout the system and will occur in much more in the future.

3) HD Radio offers a way out.
WUFT's management knew their decision was controversial, but they had an out. They didn't kill classical music, they just moved it to another location (albeit an underpowered one that few had the necessary equipment to access it). WAMU did it with their popular bluegrass programming, and other stations have done it with formats they wish they weren't saddled with. This is a tactic we'll see used again throughout the system.

4) Internet streaming, the untold story.
Missing in all the coverage is the fact that WUFT's exiled classical programming is streaming on the web. And that's really where the potential for audience growth lies. As it gets easier to access the Internet in portable devices you can use in your car, Internet radio listening will continue to grow. So in the end, it doesn't matter how many bought HD Radios. The smart people have made the move to their smartphones, and even if it didn't make the news, that's where the action really is.

- Ralph

Day 116 of the WJMA Podwatch.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Less Talk - Less Interest

I've mentioned my dislike of the single syllable male name radio format before. Whether it's called "Sam" or "Tom" or "Dave" or "Jack," the concept's the same. Take tracks that market-test the best across several near-related genres, mix them together in a "crazy" format, and add minimal voice tracks that do nothing but make short, snarky comments about... nothing.

Personally, if the DJ isn't going to say anything interesting or helpful, then I'd rather have no voice at all. And if I'm just listening to music with no DJ, well, I'd rather listen to my own crazy mix on my iPod than some else's generic blandness.

It turns out there's I'm not alone. Mark Ramsey, in his Hear 2.0 blog asks the question "Where's Radio's Humanity?" As he says, "people respond to people."
"voices" and the passions of those "voices" and the brands born of those "voices" will become more important to radio, not less. I don't care what lessons PPM gives us in that regard, because PPM is essentially mapping a path for music-intensive stations to be easily substituted by music-intensive alternatives. What makes one station different from another - one digital solution different from another - is its voice. Its humanity.
Now the sardonic wiseacre voice of Sam (et al) is certainly identifiable, so it qualifies as a brand. But is it a voice you can respond to? I can't, because there's nothing there to relate to. The voice is provided as part of the syndicated service that is Sam, and is generic enough to fit in any market, large or small.

And that's perhaps the problem. I'm sure it's cheaper to boradcast Sam then to staff a station. But it's also less engaging. Which means listener loyalty is low. Which means ads aren't very effective. Which means smart businesses go elsewhere to get their message out.

So how much money does that save in the long run?
People respond to people. Makes sense to me.

- Ralph

Day 114 of the WJMA Podwatch.