Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Quarter of Eight

I just finished rereading "A Quarter of Eight," a Shadow novel published in the October, 1945 issue of Street and Smith's Shadow Magazine. Each issue of the Shadow Magazine, from 1931 through 1949, featured a 40,000-60,000 word novel about the crimefighter, along with a collection of mystery novellas and short stories.

As with any other popular entertainment, the tastes of the audience changed over time, and pulp fiction houses changed with them. In the 1930's, action and adventure -- the more fantastic the better -- was the key. By the early 1940's, audiences seemed to have matured, and stories became somewhat more realistic.

Most pulp magazines ceased publication after the Second World War. Tastes had changed once again, and this time there was a format change as well. Paperback novels were on the rise, and the demand for monthly fiction magazines sharply declined.

To counter this, Street and Smith editor Daisy Bacon worked with the authors to retool the house heroes -- Doc Savage and the Shadow -- to reflect the realities of postwar sensibilities. The authors were encouraged to write in a more mature and realistic style as well.

"A Quarter of Eight" is a good example of the postwar pulp ascetic. It was written by Walter Gibson, who created the Shadow (the magazine version) in 1931 and wrote 283 novels featuring his mysterious character. The story's begins during the war in Martinique, with four men involved in a treasure hunt.

The hunt involves the lost treasure of Francisco Bobadilla, an actual historic figure. In 1502 Bobadilla, governor of the Indies, was killed when a hurricane overtook his 31-ship convoy bound for Spain. Lost in the storm were ships laden with gold.

In Gibson's novel, it's suggested that Bobadillo actually hid the treasure on the island, and sunken ships were just a cover story to discourage wealth seekers.

It's a tautly written tale -- only about 27,000 words long, yet it spans years and follows the twists and turns as four treasure hunters go their separate ways and later reunite, each with a piece of the puzzle that leads to the booty. Some die and pass on their secret (and identifying tokens, the title's piece of eight broken into quarters), and once men start dying, the Shadow gets involved.

But take a moment and read the story's opening paragraphs.

Four men were in Sargon's back room that night.

What their names were didn't matter, because nobody used his right name in Martinique -- not if he could help it.

These were the times when the island was dominated by the Vichy government, when a man's life was valued only in terms of his wits. What these men were was known only to themselves -- individually.

In those days, almost everything was illegal in Fort de France, the capital of Martinique. Tension smoldered like the hidden fires of Mount Pelee, the towering volcano which twenty years before had all but blasted the island off the map.

What might blast Martinique next was anybody's guess.

Men who used their boats to carry supplies to waiting Nazi submarines might, on the return trip, bring in weapons from Free French freighters, for distribution among the local Underground. Yet no one could question this inconsistency; it might simply be a cover-up.

The greater a man's value to one side, the greater his value to the other. This was the law in Martinique, during this fateful period while the outcome of the war seemed hanging in the balance. It was policy for a man to think only of himself.

Simon Sargon followed that policy to the letter.
Wow. Engaging, evocative -- and we haven't even met the four men yet! That's storytelling by a master. "A Quarter of Eight" is a fairly short read -- an evening's entertainment. But entertaining, indeed!

If you thought pulp magazine fiction was just overheated purple prose telling absurdly simplistic stories for adolescents, this might change your mind.

- Ralph

Thursday, January 28, 2010

CE Classical Challange Revisited

Back in September I decided to take a quantitative look at the types of classical music being programmed on public radio stations. I've looked at 10 stations so far, and more are being processed. I'll present the data and my take on each station's programming in future posts, but first I'd like to lay the foundation for the study.

Now first of all, I recognize that the primary purpose of music programming is to do good radio. That is, create an overall sound that's consistent (so listeners know what to expect when they tune in) and appealing (which is why Ravel's "Bolero" doesn't work on air -- the beginning is way too quiet for radio, and just sounds like dead air). But public radio has an additional standard, and that is to enlighten, inform, and entertain.

In virtually any other radio format there's a close connection between what's played on the air, what people are currently hearing in concerts, and what artist recordings they're buying. With the exception of oldies formats, listeners expect to hear current artists and new recordings.

There's a perception that classical music is as dead as Latin, but that's not the case.

New music by living composers such as Steve Reich and John Adams is eagerly anticipated. Innovative groups like the Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can All Stars have strong fan bases and active touring schedules. Top-flight artists such as Matt Haimovitz and Gil Shaham are releasing their own recording on their own indie labels.

Young performers, composers, and ensembles are using social media to connect with audiences and fans the same way their pop music counterparts do.

While it's not quite a one-to-one correspondence, in the popular music realm someone who only goes to concerts will be exposed to the same body of music and the same artists as someone who only buys recordings, or someone who only listens to the radio (and granted, most people are somewhere between those extremes).

What about classical music? The most popular solo artists are opera stars. How often are their their recordings on the air?

Joan Tower, Michael Torke, Thomas Ades, Libby Larsen and other composers regularly introduce new music into the repertoire. How likely is it to be played on the radio?

The Anonymous 4 and other early music groups have successful careers. How often is music of the Middle Ages or Renaissance aired?

Many amateur musicians perform classical music by singing in church choirs and/or choral societies. How frequently will they hear choral music on the radio?

The purpose of the C.E. Classical Challenge is to see if, in fact, there is a disconnect between what stations are airing and what listeners are experiencing elsewhere in the realm of classical music. And if there is, what is the extent of that disconnect?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Skribit Suggestion Box

We're trying out a new feature for C.E. Conversations. While Ken and I both have our interests and passions, sometimes the well runs a little dry. And, quite frankly, sometimes I'd like to write about something different. But what?

That's where you, the reader, comes in. On the right, you'll see a box for Skribit. It's basically a suggestion box for this blog. Just share your thoughts about the kind of posts you'd like to see, and it then becomes part of my to-do list (at least, that's how I'm treating these suggestions).

In the meantime, we'll keep plugging away. We've got a series of posts in the works, and some other one-offs besides.

But this is the Internet, after all, so let's get interactive!

- Ralph

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Scorchy Smith and the Limits of Search

The Internet's a great resource for information -- but it's not the only resource. Sometimes we forget that unless something's been digitized it isn't on the web.

And while there's a lot of highly specialized websites, blogs and forums that provide a wealth of information on some pretty obscure and/or tightly focused topics, there's still a lot missing.

Case in point: I just finished a four-part series on a very obscure comic strip, "Scorchy Smith" and Noel Sickles, one of the artists who worked on it.

Although Sickles only drew the strip from 1933-1936, his work continues to be a major influence in the field of comics to this day. Because Sickles is an important figure (even in a highly specialised field), a fair amount of information was available online.

I decided to continue with a series on the artists who followed Sickles and look at how each one's vision changed the strip. That's when I ran into trouble.

A 1950s sequence by Rodlow Willard, man of mystery
(as far as online references go).
Bert Christman took over in 1936. He joined the Flying Tigers and was killed in action. There's a little information available, but not a lot about his art work.

Frank Robbins, who also drew Scorchy Smith in the 1940's, was an important artist to both the newspaper comic strip and comic book genres with a long, successful career. It's easy to find information about Robbins, although very little about his work on Scorchy Smith.

As for the other artists who worked on the strip, some have only one or two citations -- others are just cyphers (at least online).

Robert Farrell, Ed Good, Rodlow Willard, Milt Morris. Occasionaly mentioned, seldom linked to.

That's not to say there's no information about these artists somewhere in the world. Old comic strip collections, newspaper archives, AP business records -- just nothing online.

So I've hit the edge of the Internet. And it's an important lesson to remember.

Yes, you can call up all kinds of information online. But you can only dig so deep. And sometime you can't dig at all.

- Ralph

Monday, January 18, 2010

Social media grass taking root

If all politics are local, then something interesting is going on in politics. Although this post is about something that's happening in Orange County, VA, I'd very much like to know if similar things are going on elsewhere.

The fallout of our falling economy has left the Old dominion with a projected shortfall of $2.9 billion. Naturally, this has meant the state will be cutting funds to counties, and pretty drastically. In Orange, the superintendent was told to trim as much as $5 million from the school system by reducing services and personnel.

Now this isn't a new story -- localities all across the country are facing similar difficult choices. But what happened next isn't, I don't believe.

In the past, such budget struggles might be played out in the issues of our weekly local paper, and a few folks with the passion and desire to follow such things might turn out to a meeting or two if they happened to see the notice for it.

But this time, school employees and concerned citizens have harnessed the power of social media. Within a very short time, a Facebook fan page appeared for the Orange County Education Association, a group that "is an organization of dedicated teachers and support staff in Orange County Schools, Virginia."

They've been diligent in providing links to news stories, and cultivating their followers to help get the word out, and encouraging supporters to attend meetings en masse. They also have links to relevant legislators, and so on.

Now the OCEA is, according to information on its website "a VEA (Virginia Education Association) community."

So does that make the sudden flowering of the OCEA astroturfing?

I don't think so. Rather, I think it's simply showing a tighter focus for the VEA. OCEA isn't hiding it's affiliation to the VEA. But it is using local people to talk to local people. Orange County educators are contacting to their friends and colleagues -- the ones who ultimately will have to foot the bill for the shortfall -- directly, which has greater impact than the message coming from a statewide organization.

[For those who might be wondering, Virginia is a Right To Work state, so -- for better or worse -- there's no teacher's union with any kind of political clout.]

There's still much that OCEA could do with social media to rally the troops. There's no Twitter feed (that I could find). While there are links and contact info provided, there's not a lot of deeper level information available or detailed courses of action outlined.

But still, compared to the last time I wrote about how Orange County politicians used the Internet, it's a big improvement.

In olden times, a group like OCEA would have depended on the newspaper getting their story out, and would have had to come up with funds to take out newspaper, radio and/or TV spots to get their message out.

Facebook fan pages and Wordpress websites are free. And, potentially these days, reach more people who might respond.

So how are non-political interest groups using the Internet in your area?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Noel Sickles and the Art of Sequential Art - Epilogue

Back in September I did a series of posts on the art of Noel Sickles. I did have one final post on the subject, though. In light of the new trend of newspapers dropping comics altogether, it might be worth while to look at what's been lost.

Current newspaper comics are much smaller than they were in the 1930's and 1940's. And smaller space means smaller panels, which means less detail in the drawings. it also means fewer panels, which decreases the pacing of the story. It also limits the area for word balloons, which means shorter, simpler dialog.

In other words, Noel Sickles' artwork would be impossible to print in a modern newspaper's comics section.

Take a close look at the panel below. It sets the scene for the action sequence to follow. Notice how Sickles lays everything out. There's the train, waiting on the siding, puffing smoke and ready to roll. You can see the trainmen in conversation next to the telegraph pole, and down near the corner, Scorchy and Spike furtively moving towards them. The scene is gray, as it takes place at night, but judicious placement of black shadows through everything in relief, and give you a sense of depth.

If you had to fit it into a standard panel size today, it would look like mud.

(click on image to enlarge)

In the story, Scorchy and his pals are embroiled in a Central American civil war. They've hijacked a train to escape rebel bombers, and are currently holed up in a tunnel. Notice in the two sequences below, how Sickles tells his story.

There's his signature use of dramatic lighting, especially on the faces. But look carefully at the three panels with long shots. They're all consistent. The telegraph station, although shown from three different angles, is clearly the same structure. The switch is in the same relative position, and there are two telegraph poles (no more, no less) between it and the building.

Many artists wouldn't sweat such details. After all, this was meant to be read once and forgotten. Getting the details approximately right would serve -- but not for Sickles. And that careful attention makes the sequence more believable, and more engaging.

Finally, look at the smoke coming out of the locomotive in the last panel. It puffs out in a realistic fashion consistent with the movement of the engine. Motion in a static panel.

(click on image to enlarge)

To many, comics are superfluous -- which is why they continue to be treated so shabbily by newspaper editors.

And that's too bad. Noel Sickles and the golden age of adventure comics might be a thing of the past. But there are plenty of talented artists and writers who can tell engaging stories through comics given a chance. I wish they had it.

- Ralph

Monday, January 04, 2010

How loud is allowed?

I think of H.R. 6209, the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act as one of those "feel good" bills. After all -- everyone knows that TV ads are much louder than the programs they're embedded in, right? And everyone hates it, so it's only right that the government step in and DO SOMETHING, right?

It's certainly attractive legislation for the congresscritters, that's for sure. After all, if come out against loud TV ads, no one's going to start protesting outside your office door dressed in funny costumes and howling for your head.

Two questions to ask of any legislation that feel-good bills always seem to get a pass on.

1) Will this law effectively address the problem it's supposed to?
2) Are there any potential unintended consequences that this legislation might lead to?

Many folks assume that Congress will be banning loud commercials. Nope. According to the bill, it simply directs the FCC to devise a standard that precludes overly loud commercials.

Now some aspects of volume are tied to the physical world and aren't matters of opinion. If you stand next to a revving aircraft engine without ear protection, you will lose your hearing. If you use a sandblaster without ear protection, over time you will experience hearing loss.

But this bill isn't about absolute volume levels -- it's about relative levels. And that's where things get messy. Let's look at the actual legislation.

"Advertisements accompanying such video programming (described earlier as any video programming that is broadcast or that is distributed by any multichannel video programming distributor) shall not be excessively noisy or strident."

I like string quartet music. My wife, who has a hearing loss, doesn't. The higher range of the violin sounds harsh and piercing to her -- almost painfully so. So if an ad uses a violin, one of us thinks its strident, while the other doesn't. Who will decide for the nation?

There's always been a generation gap when it comes to music. Older people complain that what youngsters listen to isn't music -- it's noise. So if an ad uses the latest pop song, who decides if it's "excessively noisy?"

What does excessive mean, anyway? Are two or more audio tracks going on simultaneously? Too many sound effects? Too many voices talking at once? There are all kinds of innovative and/or edgy ads that some people enjoy that others absolutely hate. So who decides what's "excessive?"

(2) such advertisements shall not be presented at modulation levels substantially higher than the program material that such advertisements accompany and

(3) the average maximum loudness of such advertisements shall not be substantially higher than the average maximum loudness of the program material that such advertisements accompany.

Seems reasonable -- unless you know a little something about sound.

First off, one of the reasons ads can sound louder than the show is that their sound is compressed further. Mono sound fed through two speakers can have a greater impact than stereo. Lessen the contrast between high and low, and the sound has more punch to it. So if you go by volume level, an ad could still be within the prescribed range, yet still sound louder to the human ear.

And let's take a look at that guideline in section three. The ad can't be louder than the average maximum loudness of the program. Think of a horror or suspense movie. Most of it is very quiet until POW! something scary happens. If the POW! is the volume limit, then commercials aired at the level during the quiet parts of the show will seem excessively loud. How loud or how soft something is perceived to depend on context -- what's the volume compared to what it was before?

Also, who determines this average maximum volume? Will broadcasters or content creators need to provide a number with their program? Will they have to go back and note the average maximum volume for everything they aired? Will they not be allowed to air anything until they provide that number?

Ads are inserted after the fact by the various network and cable providers. So if Comcast's equipment isn't calibrated properly and ads are fed at a higher volume than the programming -- who's at fault and who pays the fine?

A final thought. According to Wikipedia's article on dynamic compression (and other sources)
Most television commercials are compressed heavily (typically to a dynamic range of no more than 3dB) in order to achieve near-maximum perceived loudness while staying within permissible limits... While commercials receive heavy compression for the same reason that radio broadcasters have traditionally used it (to achieve a "loud" audio image), TV program material, particularly old movies with soft dialogue, is comparatively uncompressed by TV stations. This results in commercials much louder than the television programs, since users turn up the volume to hear soft program audio. This problem is a difficult one to solve because much TV program audio contains very little audio energy to be electronically "expanded" with a compressor in an attempt to even out the volume. Even across the cable TV dial with myriad audio program volume sources, there is a wide disparity of audio volume levels.
In other words, TV ads are already making the most of a particular volume level while the programming sources aren't. So advertisers can still be within the technical guidelines (such as they are) of the proposed legislation and still sound louder than the surrounding material.

The sane thing to do here is not passing legislation that just makes things complicated for everyone. It's really quite simple.

Wield your remote as the weapon it was crafted to be. Hit the mute button.

Because this legislation quite simply ignores the reality of broadcasting and the science of acoustics. So either it will fail in its purpose or -- more likely -- a set of arcanely bizarre hoops will be constructed to force reality to match the rules. And that benefits no one.

Seriously, of all the issues facing us right now, is it really the best use of our elected officials' time to adjust the volume of our TVs by law? Is this really the most pressing problem in their constituents' lives? If so, then we're much better off than I thought.

- Ralph