Monday, April 30, 2012

Helvacioglu: Eleven Short Stories - Prepared Piano Goes to the Movies

Eleven Short Stories
Erdem Helvacioglu 

Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu embarks on a fascinating project with this recording. He writes in the liner notes, “Eleven Short Stories is inspired by the works of film directors Kim Ki-Duk, David Lynch, Krzystof Kielowski, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Jan Campion, Anthony Minthella, Ang Lee, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and Steven Soderbergh.”

Using a prepared piano, Helvacioglu conjures up sonic impressions of various types of movies – as they might be interpreted by these directors. That’s not to say that Helvacioglu’s arranging soundtrack themes. Rather, he creates soundscapes that convey the emotions he’s after.

And there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between a certain director and an individual track. Part of the listener’s task is to listen to make sense of the sounds not only in terms of the stories they’re telling, but also what director’s style (or styles) it might be told in.

Helvacioglu’s tonal palette is wide-open, and imaginative. Some of the sound are distinctively pianistic, while others seem otherworldly. Throughout it all, though, there’s a clear underlying structure that gives each story its own internal logic.

Eleven Short Stories is an engaging release for anyone interested in the sound of the new – and the more you’re familiar with the directors that inspired these works, the deeper your appreciation of Helvacioglu’s accomplishment.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 3

I'm chronicling my efforts to get back into running after a long absence. To start, I'm participating in the Men’s 4-Miler Training Program offered by the Charlottesville Track Club

Now we’re at the point where I’m starting to feel like I’m challenged. This time we covered a full mile, still 60 seconds running and 30 seconds walking. I really shouldn’t be feeling it – I’ve run longer distances before. 

But that was pre-illness. 

This is the level where I am now, and so one mile is the distance I had to push a little to complete. We’re still just making circuits around the track, but I understand that changes next week. Fortunately, where I run at home I have a lot of hills, so transitioning to uneven terrain won’t be that bad. 

Folks how are used to reading real racing blogs, such as Ken's Milestones  have probably noticed the absence of times, paces and other data in these posts. There's a reason for that -- right now, they're still rubbish. When I have something to talk about, I will!

CCC 028 - Samuel Zyman

Samuel Zyman isa  prominent Mexican composer, as well as a respected and valued member of the Julliard School of Music. And he's the next installment in our ongoing  Consonant Classical Challenge.

Zyman blends Mexican musical traditions with classical forms to create works that sound fresh and original. Yet because he uses traditional instruments in traditional ways, his music has a familiarity to it that an audience can immediately grasp.

Samuel Zyman has written for both orchestral and chamber ensembles. His quintet "Musica para Cinco" presents the essence of his blended style of composition.

Zyman seamlessly incorporates the musical language of Mexico into his compositions. Encuentros demonstrates that ability. Although the work has a Mexican "sound" to it, there's more going on here than mere pastiche. Zyman develops his themes carefully, creating a solid "classical" composition.

 Samuel Zyman has composed several works for flute. Some feature the flute in a chamber ensemble, but there are some works for flute and orchestra as well, including two flute concertos. This is a movement from his second concerto. As you can hear, it's an exciting engaging work that shouldn't sound too outre for elderly concert-goers (but should definitely seem like a welcome breath of fresh air to younger ears).

Samuel Zyman is probably better known to Mexican than American concert-goers, and that's too bad. For orchestras that are wringing their hands at what to do about dwindling audiences that lack diversity, Zyman seems an obvious choice. He's a talented composer whose musical language speaks not only to the regular concert-goer, but to those of Latino background as well.

Recommended recordings 

 The Other Conquest (La Otra Conquista): Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1998 Film)

Illinois State University Wind Symphony - Maslanka: Symphony No. 7 ; Samuel Zyman: Cycles ; Matthew Halper Concerto for Flute and Wind Ensemble

Canto de Estío

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pearls Before Lio 2

There was an interesting convergence in two comic strips this past Sunday. Stephen Pastis has long been a character in his own strip, Pearls Before Swine. And, as I've noted before, he (or rather the cartoon version of him) have made cameos in other strips, usually as the butt of the joke. (click on images to enlarge)

Lio's featured the cartoon Pastis at least once before (Pearls Before Lio). There are all kind of subtle things going on here. First, no one in Lio talks -- or uses word balloons of any kind. The fact that Pastis does so marks the character as one coming from outside the confines of the strip. Second, he final gag has Pastis's head stuck on a duck's body. A reference, perhaps, to Lil' Guard Duck, another character from Pears? Third (and the point of this post) the unhappy Pastis threatening to complain to the strip's syndicate.

What makes this doubly interesting is that in Pastis' own strip on the same day, the cartoon Pastis also threatens to complain to the strip's syndicate. Coincidence? Or is there some kind of subtext here?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lessons from York - 2B What We Didn't See

A UMD Industrial Rail O-gauge hopper car. Well worth the $10 I paid for it.
The Impact of Practicality
(part 4 of a 4-part series)

There were many things Dad and I saw – and didn’t see at the recent Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train York, PA. In part 1 and Part 2, I talked about what we saw in abundance, and why. Part three I mentioned an item seemed to have disappeared. But there was another item that I didn’t see  for a different reason.  It was one I was actually looking for – and couldn’t find because it was too well-designed.

In the 1990’s, operating O-gauge layouts were on the rise. More people were getting into the hobby, and looking for rolling stock to put behind the new locomotives that Lionel, MTH, Atlas and others were offering. All of these companies also made freight cars, but at around $40-$50 a piece, it was difficult to put together a train of any length.
An Atlas Industrial Rail hopper car. This one was a little pricier -- $20.

Enter UMD (United Model Distributors). They came out with a line of basic, good-looking rolling stock to meet the need. Their Industrial Rail series did well – and it was eventually purchased by Atlas, who continued to put out the cars with new graphics (they even expanded the line).

Although Industrial Rail cars were great for operators, they weren’t especially valuable. While new ones sold for $30, I could usually pick up an older UMD car (in the original box) for $10-$15. It was a great way to expand my rolling stock fleet.

The UMD hopper car with original box.
Industrial Rail pieces were never plentiful at the York meet. One time a vendor had several – but that was because an operating layout had been dismantled, releasing stock back into the market. This time, though, I didn’t see any Industrial Rail pieces.


Some pieces – even older UMD stock – has been showing up on eBay, but they’ve been selling for about $30 with $10 shipping. That’s far more than I want to spend.

But the sellers are getting those prices. So are Industrial Rail pieces disappearing from York because they're selling online?

The Atlas hpper car with box. A little bit fancier,
but in essence the same.
I don’t think that's the total answer. Most of the Industrial Rail pieces on eBay have been coming from a large hobby retailer. And once an item sells, the retailer places a duplicate up for auction. In other words, they’re selling off their old stock, one piece at a time. And only certain models are sold.

I think the majority of UMD Industrial Rail pieces don’t show up because they’re still in use. Most operators that would use Industrial Rail pieces are in their 50’s and 60’s. It might be another 10 years before that group begins breaking up layouts as they move to assisted living or liquidate estates.

I’ll keep my eyes open, but I will be very surprised if I see any at the fall meet.

Part 1A - The Impact of a Specialized Product on its Core Audience

Part 1B - The Impact of an Aging Demographic

Part 2A - The Impact of Faux-Collectability

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lessons from York - Part 2A What We Didn't See

The Lionel/MPC Coke Set from 1974. This year, this
"collectable" was conspicuously absent from the vendor tables.
The Impact of Faux-Collectability
 (part 3 of a 4-part series)

In part one and part two I shared what items we saw a lot of (and our best guess as to why) at the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet. it's one of the largest events of its kind, with attendance of around 15,000 - 18.000. So what trends at this show can be significant.

One thing I could always count on seeing was a Lionel/MPC Coke set. This train, initially offered in 1974, was instantly snapped up by collectors and put away. The purchasers were convinced that they had grabbed a rare collector’s item that would only increase with value over the years.

Well, over the years I’ve seen mint-in-the-box Coke sets, and seldom priced higher than $125 (close to the original selling price).  Last year it seemed as if everyone was trying to dump their set, without much apparent success.

This year, there was not a single Coke set for sale anywhere on the fairgrounds.


I don’t think it’s likely that the sets previously offered all found new homes. There has never been any real demand for the things – at least among train collectors. I have two theories.

First, it could be that vendors simply got tired of lugging the things to York and then packing them up to go home again. Even if you’re an amateur seller, there comes a point when you realize that large box that sits there meet after meet is just taking up limited table space that could be used to display something that’s going to sell.

Second, I don’t know much about the Coke memorabilia market, but it’s possible that those collectors have given these sets new homes. Before the rise of eBay, there wasn’t a lot of interaction between various collector’s markets. Now it’s easy to simply put the item up for auction, where any number of specialty collectors can find it.

I’m not sure which is the case with this item, but I’ll be on the lookout for it next show. If they all show up again, it may mean no one bid on them online either!

Part 1A - The Impact of a Specialized Product on its Core Audience

Part 1B - The Impact of an Aging Demographic

Part 2B - The Impact of Practicality

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lessons from York - Part 1B: What We Saw

A McCoy commemorative boxcar. A unique item over 40 years old.
It's got to be valuable, right? Well....
The Impact of an Aging Demographic
(part 2 of a 4-part series)

As I mentioned in the last post, Dad and I noticed some items that were prominently present and conspicuously absent from the largest regular toy train meet in the world. An item we saw in abundance were McCoy standard gauge cars.

Standard gauge trains were made from about 1906 to 1939, when smaller O-gauge trains took over the market. (After World War II, O-gauge trains would be supplanted by the still smaller HO-gauge trains which still dominate the market).

In the early 1966 Bob McCoy, who had previously manufactured reproductions of vintage standard gauge trains, began offering a line of original locomotives and rolling stock. The designs were very plain and simple, but proved somewhat popular. Through 1998,when the company folded, many national and regional toy train collectors conventions offered commorative standard gauge cars from McCoy.

In the past, McCoy pieces have turned up here and there at York meets. This time, though, there were tables full of them.


Our theory is that we’re seeing the result of an aging market. Most toy collectors are interested in the toys of their youth. When McCoy started their line of originals, it was the first new standard gauge pieces to be offered in 40 years. Collectors who were 10 years old during the golden age of standard gauge (late 1920’s) were just in their 60’s. They had the disposable income, and the desire to own such pieces.

In 2012, those collectors would be in their 80’s and 90’s – if they were still alive. Most of their collections would have been broken up, either through downsizing or estate sales. So these pieces are back on the market. And not commanding too high a price. In some cases, they were being sold for below their original 1970’s selling price – and there didn’t seem to be many takers.

As with the general population, collector groups change focus as the generations are replaced. When the TCA was started in the 1960’s most of the members were interested in standard gauge. Eventually the focus shifted to prewar O-gauge, then postwar O-gauge, and on it goes.

These McCoy pieces only appealed to a specialized subset of the toy train collector’s market. While that shrinking group has freed up more items, it’s also meant that the demand – and therefore the prices – continue to decline.

Part 1A - The Impact of a Specialized Product on its Core Audience

Part 2A - The Impact of Faux-Collectability

Part 2B - The Impact of Practicality

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lessons from York - Part 1A: What We Saw

The Impact of a Specialized Product on its Core Audience 
(part 1 of a 4-part series)

Dad and I made our trip to York, PA from the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet.It’s still a big event, spanning seven exhibit halls in the fairgrounds, and attracting 15,000-18,000 visitors.

As we went up and down the aisles, passing hundreds of vendors selling vintage toy trains and accessories, we noticed some trends. And we always do, we speculated on what those trends were telling us.

This year, there were two types of items we saw on table after table – and two others that seem to disappear completely.

The new Lake Shore set offered by the LCCA. Did this
reproduction cause a flood of the originals on the market?
The meet is run and held for the membership of the Train Collector’s Association. Since Lionel Trains are the most popular brand with this group, it’s not surprising that there’s a significant overlap in membership with the Lionel Collector’s Club of America.

A few months ago, the LCCA announced a special collector’s set for its membership – a recreation of a Lionel passenger set (with all new graphics and color scheme) from the late 1930s. The announcement was made in their club magazine with an article and a beautiful two-page color spread.

A sampling of the original late-1930's small O-gauge passenger cars
from Lionel. Will the new LCCA offering make these more or less desirable?
The cars recreated were modeled after the 1600 and 2600-series small O-gauge passenger cars Lionel made from 1934-1937. The original cars came in three colors: blue, brown and green. They’re certainly not rare, and we’ve seen them before at the York meet.

But this time, these passenger cars were everywhere. Many vendors had them showcased or otherwise prominently displayed.

Did the LCCA offering prompt these dealers to bring out their stock? We think so. But did they do so just because the article reminded them that they had similar cars to sell, or did they want to try to move the original passenger cars before the reproductions hit the market and diluted the demand?

That may be a question best answered with a shift in pricing at the next meet.

Part 1B - The Impact of an Aging Demographic

Part 2A - The Impact of Faux-Collectability

Part 2B - The Impact of Practicality

Sunday, April 22, 2012

True Believer/Make Believer

So I shared an infographic, the World of Religion, showing the breakdown of the world’s religions on Facebook. Most of the comments I received were from my agnostic and atheist friends who were heartened to see the size of their numbers on the chart. One of them remarked that they were gaining on the “make-believers,” a play on the term “true believers.”

Although I didn’t take offense, the phrase did give me pause. Sure, to someone outside of a religious tradition worship practices can seem pretty silly. And it can look like it’s all made up. I’ve seen similar attitudes among practitioners of one faith regarding those of another.

And when we label a group a cult, aren’t we saying that their beliefs aren’t grounded in any theology, but are just “made up?”

I agree that ultimately one’s belief in a deity comes down to faith. Personally, I arrived at my current beliefs based on my background (Methodist), personal experience, and study of both Scripture and related theological writings from theologians such as Bothius, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan and others.

For me, my religion provides a structure to the world, and a blueprint for how I should develop spiritually. I didn’t make it up, nor did any other one person. Our worship service is carefully structured. Every element is symbolically significant, guided by Scripture. And perhaps because it has that weight of tradition, it feels right, somehow.

Taken collectively, the infographic shows that most people in the world have some type of religious belief system. We seem to have a natural urge to make sense of the world, and look for a higher purpose that might be behind it all.

Make-believe? Perhaps.

But I wonder who put that urge in us in the first place…

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 2

I'm chronicling my efforts to get back into running after a long absence. To start, I'm participating in the Men’s 4-Miler Training Program offered by the Charlottesville Track Club

Today was the second meeting of the Men’s 4-Miler training. We ran (actually walked and ran) three-quarters of a mile, which was an increase over the previous week. But that’s the idea – to build towards that 4 mile race on June 17, we need to keep building up strength and building up the distance.

I felt pretty much the same this time as I did last week after the session. That is, I was just shaking the rust off. My joints were fine. I didn’t feel especially sore or tired -- at the time. However, I finished a 3 hour-session on my riding lawn this afternoon. When that was over, I felt pretty stiff.
Youch! I'm thinking next time I’ll need to take more breaks and keep the joints loose.

A Life Less Virtual

For the past two days I’ve been offline. It was time for the biannual trip to York, PA with my Dad, and keeping up with social media just wasn’t an option. So what’s been happening over the past two days?

It’s easy to buy into the notion that in the world of social media you have to publish or perish. That turned out not to be true. Here's what I discovered after doing nothing online for two days:

Facebook: No one seemed to notice I was gone (at least from the comments). What did I miss? Several posted slogans, a few video links, and some detailed reporting on the minutiae of my friends lives. I didn’t lose any followers, nor gained any. So no change.

Twitter: It looks like I missed some interesting discussions, but that’s OK. I actually picked up five new followers while I wasn’t tweeting. Maybe I should have more no-tweet days to boost my numbers! Also, Klout reported that – during my absence – I’m now influential in a new category. Not sure how that works…

LinkedIn: Some people looked at my profile, and I received two connection requests. So business as usual with no input from me.

Google+: No one added me to their circles, but no one kicked me out of any I was in. So no change.

Podcasting: I wasn’t able to publish any new podcasts this week. Although I missed my deadlines, the number of downloads for both the DCD Classical Cast and Garage/Soul ’66 increased. Less is more? Or are people just getting caught up?

Bottom line: the past few days simply confirmed something I already suspected. I can step away from the Internet whenever I want to without doing any real harm to my online brand equity (such as it is). And that’s good to know.

Because sometimes it’s good to get away.

Friday, April 20, 2012

CCC 027 - Jack Jarrett

The Consonant Classical Challenge continues with American composer Jack Jarrett. Jarrett has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including heading up the composition department at the Berklee College of Music. Jarrett is very much concerned with the connection between the composer and the audience.

As he says on his website,
Unfortunately, the legacy of the 20th century has been to make the music-loving public extremely wary of ALL new music. They are more interested in safe masterpieces than in experiments. The same audience that eagerly embraces new theater, movies, literature and popular music now shuns new musical experiences in the concert hall -- a fact reflected in the limited repertoire of symphony orchestras and opera companies. Although the era of musical innovation for its own sake seems now to have passed away quietly, serious composers of today face not only the challenge of harnessing and mastering the broad musical language itself, but also that of reaching out and building a receptive audience for their work -- a task made even more difficult by lack of opportunity to establish any meaningful rapport with that audience.
Jarrett's style is a conscious interpretation of past musical traditions with his own unique compositional voice. Listen carefully to his composition Romeo and Juliet. You might hear (as I did) some traces of Shostakovitch, but this is no pastiche. Jarrett's tonal language may be conservative, but his ideas aren't.

One of Jack Jarrett's most popular works is his Elegy for String Orchestra. It's moving piece that quietly evokes a longing through it's supple lyricism.

 Jarrett creates works that are distinctively modern. His First Symphony, for example, while using a somewhat traditional language simply couldn't have been written a century ago -- the melodic gestures and overall structure clearly place it in the late 20th century.

Jack Jarrett is a composer actively trying to win back audiences scared off by what they perceive as "modern music." His compositions are appealing, well-constructed, and communicate real emotion. So why isn't his music programmed (or recorded) more often? It's somewhat of a puzzle to me, especially after hearing his work.

Recommended Recordings

The New American Romanticism (features Jarrett's Symphony No. 1)

The Chamber Works (features Jarrett's Andantino for Cello and Harp)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Interest in Pinterest

I have to admit Pinterest was one social media trend I was slow to pick up. I first noticed various female friends and family members using it -- which is not surprising, as its user base skews heavily female. But it's not exclusively female, so I'm giving it a try.

The concept is simple enough -- find an image you like online, and pin it to one of your boards. The use of boards helps organize your images by theme. And, just as with other social media sites, folks can follow you (and you can follow them) to see what others are doing. Like an image? Repin it to one of your own boards, or leave a comment.

Because of the visual nature of Pinterest, and it's user base make up, I decided to try my hand at creating some boards that would both be appropriate for the site, and also that would be of interest to others (as well as myself).

It's been fun and easy to do, but I end up doing a lot of self-editing. Once I've selected the topic for a board, I'm careful to make sure every image directly relates to that topic.

For example: one of my boards is labeled "Unusual Vintage Toys." The idea is to share images of older toys that are either oddball in what they are or depict, or would never pass today's child safety standards. So a cast iron tractor from the 1930's makes the list (old and dangerous), but a modern metal toy tractor wouldn't (not vintage). Mattel's "Mystery Date" game is pinned -- but only the original 1960's version, not the reissues or collector's versions (which might still be odd, but not vintage).

My other two boards feature vintage print. One is a gallery of some over-the-top magazine covers from 1930's pulp magazines. There's lot to choose from, but I'm skipping the whole pulp horror genre. These questionable publications moved from just damsel-in-distress to women being menaced with torture and mutilation. You might find these covers reproduced online -- but not on my Pinterest board. Ditto with ones that accentuate racial stereotypes. I run a clean board here!

Yes, the book's a classic. But this one's a little
too racy for my board.
I have a third board with vintage paperback covers from the 60's. The best really capture the Mad Men flavor of the times. The idea is to collect images that depict what artists thought at the time was high fashion. Again, I keep the content focused. So no covers of historical novels with people in 18th century costumes, for example -- modern dress only. And although the bulk of the covers feature women, I'm not pinning anything that shows women dishabille (like the cover at left).

It seems to me that this curation is part of what Pinterest is about. And why one would follow (or not follow) a particular pinner. If my boards keep within the limits of taste that I've set, then over time folks will be more confident about following them.

And building that trust is part of the fun -- and the challenge for me as I look for content to pin to my boards.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In Praise of Pulps - Part 2

In Part 1 I (hopefully) laid the groundwork for my admiration for the genre of pulp fiction, and why I think it's important.

During the 1930's and 1940's the market for popular fiction seemed unlimited, and a lot of authors wrote a lot of stories very quickly to fill the demand. Most were journeymen, writing forgettable tales with shopworn plots and cardboard characters.

But then there were others, who so thoroughly mastered their craft that they could turn out novels on demand with engaging characters, innovative plots and -- most importantly -- prose that came alive.

Yesterday I provided a sample of the average level of pulp writing. The author, R.T.M. Scott. Scott was hired by Popular Publications to write a 40,000-60,000 word novel monthly featuring their new masked vigilante character, the Spider.

After the first two issues of the magazine, Scott was replaced by Norvell Page, and the character was never the same. And that's a good thing. Because, thanks primarily to Page's contributions, the Spider pulp novels are still being reprinted and discussed here in the 21st century.

Here's the opening to Norvell Page's Spider novel, "The City Destroyer." first printed in 1935

A man and woman stood rigidly against the wall. The man wore rumpled pajamas, the woman's nightgown was green silk and an inset point of lace dipped between her breasts. The window as up and a cold wind flapped the curtains and the woman's nightgown. She was frightened, while the man was very angry.

"For the last time," he said raspingly, "you've got all the papers."

Three men in overcoats faced them and two held automatics carelessly. The third man was scowling at the woman. Abruptly his head jerked up. He whispered words out of the corner of his mouth.

"Quick, Jiggs, the kitchen! Somebody's in there!'"

The man on his right whirled on his toes, took two quick strides, and slapped a swing door open. It banged back against the wood and quivered. Jiggs held it there with his left hand while the muzzle of his gun swept around the kitchen. He grunted, switched on a ceiling light, and looked again carefully. He crossed to the kitchen window and found it locked. Jiggs turned off the light once more and went back into the other room. "Nobody in there, " he reported. "Musta been the wind."

As he left the kitchen, the narrow door of the broom-closet opened and a hunched figure in a long black cape stepped out. Piercing blue gray eyes were narrowed beneath the broad black brim of a slouch hat. There was a thin, mirthless smile on the hunch-back's lips. Without a sound, he glided toward the swing door. His arms crossed; smoothly his hands slid under the cape and two black automatics spouted from his fists. He stepped into the doorway. "Stand still, you three gentlemen," he said softly, "Keep your hands down."
Now this is the reason I'm a fan. Page does a number of things right to bring the reader into the story and keep them breathlessly turning the pages.

First, he starts the story at the last possible moment. The reader isn't lost, but they have questions. In the first two sentences we know something's very wrong. Who is the couple, and why was their home invaded? What papers are the crooks looking for? Who is that strange figure in the kitchen (readers of previous issues would know it was the Spider).

Second, Page shows rather than tells the story. There's very little exposition. Things are happening. The scene communicates the peril, the author doesn't have to turn to the reader and explain that these people are in danger.

And notice how cinematic this is. Can't you imagine this sequence as the opening to a film or a TV show?

The character of the Spider might be a little over the top for today's readers, but I still learn a lot about the craft of fiction writing by studying Page's work. He knows how to move a story along without letting the narration get in the way.

Is pulp magazine fiction the greatest literary genre ever? Hardly. But when it's done well, it can deliver a roller coaster ride of fun and excitement. And who wouldn't want to have that kind of reading experience once in a while?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Praise of Pulps - Part 1

I admit it. I thoroughly enjoy pulp literature of the 1930's and 1940's. There are some good literary reasons to appreciate it. The pulp fiction magazines that circulations numbering in the hundreds of thousands laid the foundation for much of the popular culture to follow.

The masters of the hard-boiled detective school, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both started in the pulps. Science fiction started as pulp genre, and virtually all the Golden Age authors, from Isaac Asimov to Ray Bradbury were first published in pulp magazines. Hollywood and TV have mined the pulps for stories and characters.

I enjoy pulp literature not only as a reader, but as a writer. This is fiction writing at its most basic, and you can learn a lot about story-telling both by the writing that works really well, and the writing that doesn't (the mistakes are easy to spot)

In order to survive as pulp fiction writer, you had to write reasonably well, and you had to be fast. With the bulk of the writers, the latter skill trumped the former. Pulp fiction, like TV shows today, were created primarily to entertain. It could be artistic, or illuminate the great truths that high art does, but if above all else, the story had to keep the readers turning the pages.

I really admire the writers who could produce quickly, and produce top quality work at the same time. Because they really didn't have to. There was plenty of writing that was "good enough" floating around.

Below is an example of average writing (tomorrow I'll have some top quality stuff for comparison). R.T.M. Scott was a successful pulp author. His recurring character Secret Service Smith was reasonably popular, and on the basis of that popularity, Scott was hired to write the lead novel for the Spider magazine.

The Spider was one of many masked heroes who had their own magazine. The lead novel (usually 40,000 - 60,000) words featured the character in a full-length adventure with shorter stories filling out the rest of the issue. If you're a writer (or thinking of becoming one) imagine being contracted to produce a 60,000 word novel every month. Whoa.

Scott's writing was fairly typical for the market -- and he's not one of the reasons why I'm a fan of the genre. Here's the first three paragraphs of his novel "The Wheel of Death," published in 1933.
Dusk was falling and the lights were turned on in Grogan's Restaurant. It was a small, gloomy place, with a dozen round tables and two curtained booths were special customers could eat and talk unseen. At the rear were two still smaller rooms, the kitchen and beside it a tiny cubicle of an office with contained Brogan's battered desk and an old-fashioned iron safe.

It was rumored that things happened in Grogan's Restaurant, things which were best kept hidden from the honest light of day. It was said that narcotics could be bought there, and it was whispered that young girls had entered the place and never again been seen by their friends. The West Side police of Manhattan had visited the place may times. But Grogan made no objection to such visits, and the police found nothing. Yet the rumors and the whispers persisted.

Burly Dan Grogan stood now near the rickety cash register, his yellowed teeth clamped tenaciously about an unlighted cigar. He had only three customers. Two men, hard-eyed and low-voiced, were smoking and drinking in one of the booths. At the back of the restaurant, near the door of the room which contained Grogans' safe and desk, was a man with plastered hair and high-waisted trousers who was consuming his third cup of coffee.
What's wrong with this passage? I get that he's trying to establish the scene, but the writing's pretty flat. There's a lot of passive voice used. All that "it was whispered," and "it was rumored" stuff is supposed to establish background and mood, but to me it's all plodding exposition. Three paragraphs into the story -- which let me remind you, people are reading for action and adventure -- and all we have is a floor plan and a brief sketch of some people who may or may not be important.

Ordinary, and uninspired. Scott wrote the novels for the first two issues of the Spider magazine, then Popular Publications hired Norvell Page. And everything changed. Page is one of the reasons I am a fan of this genre. Tune in tomorrow for Part 2!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pearls Before Cul de Sac

Stephen Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine is a member of Team Cul De Sac. Richard Thompson, suffering from Parkinson's disease, had to take some time off from drawing his comic strip Cul de Sac to receive treatment, and a variety of his colleagues have stepped forward to help keep the strip going during his recovery.

In the 4/1 Sunday sequence, Pastis makes fun of his inability to mimic Thompson's loose style. (click on images to enlarge)

But I think the self-deprecation is more exaggerated than most people think. Check out a recent sequence from Pearls Before Swine. In the great East Coast/West Coast Cartoonist War, Pastis draws several characters from other strips -- and nails each style.

Beetle Baily, Cathy, and Dolly from Family Circus are all drawn with the characters in proper proportion. And note Mooch, the cat from Mutts. Patrick McDonnell's style is radically different than Pastis', yet the character looks right.

These panels show that Pastis can mimic other cartoonists' styles convincingly -- except when it serves the humor for him not to.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Inquiring Minds

A member of our congregation has become an Inquirer. Don't feel badly -- I didn't know what that meant either until God tapped me on the shoulder.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), there's a rigorous course of study one must pursue in order to become ordained. Just taking an online course won't cut it. Candidates for ordination, once they've formally started the process, are called "Inquirers." It's a better term than student, as part of the process is for the person to inquire what exactly they're called to do. And sometimes, the answer isn't to be ordained.

In addition to some extensive coursework at an accredited school (in this case, Union Presbyterian Seminary), the prospective candidate must show growth not only in academic studies, but also in spiritual development, interpersonal relationships, personal and professional development. And the Inquirer should be an active member of a congregation (for the interpersonal relationship portion if nothing else).

Which means that a member of the Session (the governing body of the local church) is appointed to work with the Inquirer. The role of that person is to meet regularly with the Inquirer, and through discussion be able to assess candidate's development as they move towards the final step for ordination.

Our Inquirer asked that I be assigned the task of working with them -- and so that's how I came to learn about this process. Although I'm working with someone who's undertaken a major faith journey, I suspect I'll be going on a journey myself. Even after just a couple of conversations, I've learned a lot, and have been given much to think about -- some of which I might share in future posts.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Men's 4-Miler Training, Part 1

I’m starting a new adventure today – kind of.

I signed up for the Men’s 4-Miler Training Program offered by the Charlottesville Track Club. For a modest fee, volunteers from the club hold weekly group training runs and supply a nine-week program schedule to help men go from not running at all to being able to complete a 4-mile run.

I had just started running when I had to go into the hospital for an extended stay. By the time I got out, I had lost most of the muscle strength I had built up. After a few tries, I decided the best course for me was a more structured program – so I signed up for the training.

The first session today wasn’t bad at all. All the volunteers are encouraging, and the run (this time) was easy – just twice around the track for a distance of a half mile. And it was a combination of running and walking (30 seconds run/60 seconds walk).

I felt good after it was over, and actually was looking forward to the week’s schedule of runs and exercise. We’ll see if I can sustain that attitude!

Friday, April 13, 2012

CCC 026 - Richard Danielpour

Richard Danielpour is an American composer, and the next to be featured in our  Consonant Classical Challenge. Danielpour studied with Vincent Persicetti and Peter Mennin at Julliard. Although originally a serialist, Danielpour's mature style owes much to Persicetti, and is cast in a decidedly tonal and accessible language.

His work, Vox Populi is representative of this style. It was originally composed for orchestra, but the symphonic band version has gained wide acceptance.

Danielpour maintains that "music [must] have an immediate visceral impact and elicit a visceral response." And his music achieves that. His Concerto for Orchestra vividly illustrates this concept.


Danielpour is an accomplished pianist as well as composer. In addition to an impressive amount of music for solo piano and chamber groups that include piano, Danielpour has written four piano concertos, the latest one premiered in 2009. Listen carefully to this excerpt, and you'll hear how Danielpour not only references classical music traditions, but also American jazz, and George Gershwin in particular, while maintaining an original and unique compositional voice.

Richard Danielpour creates distinctively American-sounding music. His works are well-received internationally, and orchestras and artists regularly commission music from him. Danielpour embodies the cosmopolitan excitement of New York City, and his music should electrify even the most staid blue-hairs (without terrifying them).

Recommended Recordings

 Richard Danielpour: Concerto for Orchestra; Anima Mundi

 Danielpour: First Light; The Awakened Heart; Symphony No. 3

(includes Danielpour's first cello concerto with Yo Yo Ma)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Phantom Insider 2

What I thought was a cameo has turned out to be a regular feature. Back in December I noted the appearance of Lee Falk in the comic strip, The Phantom. The current creative team of Tony DePaul and Paul Ryan had brought in the creator of the strip, Lee Falk back as a character to provide a synopsis and introduce a new storyline.

Now that the current story arc is wrapping up, here's Mr. Falk again to introduce the next chapter. As with the previous appearance, he's been drawn into the scene, but speaks directly to the reader. (click on image to enlarge)

It's a nice touch, and a nod by the creative team to the long history of the strip. And for the novice who doesn't recognize the significance of Falk, it also doesn't get in the way of the story. Another well-done cameo. I'll be looking for future appearances.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Old Fashion Locomotive and Three Carriages

No, the title isn't a typo. As you can see from the photo below, that's exactly the Engrish used on this Japanese toy. The Old Fashion is another childhood toy I recently unearthed. This one, as I recall, was used as a decoration on a birthday cake. (click on images to enlarge)

The importer's label lower right reads "Shackman, New York, N.Y."
 A cheap Japanese toy for the day, I'm still impressed with the overall build quality. The pieces are metal, and are fairly heavy. The wheels all roll freely, and the hooks are thick enough that they don't bent easily (which is probably why they aren't broken).

I've seen similar choking hazard-sized Japanese trains made a few years later, before they switched exclusively to plastic. The metal on those later models were so thin that parts sometimes snapped off in transit from Japan.

Not this one, though. Small, inexpensive, but still built a little better than it had to be. I'm glad we kept it!

(The label on the box says "Shackman, New York." I wonder if it's the same as Shackman Stores?)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Build a Skyscraper

I recently reclaimed another toy I had as a child. The Build a Skyscraper set is a building toy that was made sometime in the early 1960's. There's no manufacturer information at all on the packaging, instructions, or the blocks themselves. Just a note (in a bad translation) that ti was made in "Western Germany."

As you can see, the set's pretty small -- and entirely self-contained. In addition to providing a variety of blocks to make one very elaborate or several simple city structures, you also get pieces to make a bridge, and three autos.

The set assembled -- just like the box art!

The original price on the bottom is marked 50 cents. I've seen them on eBay for about $30.00, which seems about right. The blocks aren't precisely cut, and the windows aren't printed exactly center -- so this isn't the highest level of German toy manufacturing.

Or I could build one of these other designs.

Still, there's a certain charm about the set, especially when I put the pieces together. I just need to be sure to assemble them on a perfectly flat surface, though. Because, as you can see from the photo below, those blocks weren't cut exactly square!

Or just create something on my own. Beep, beep!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Pearls before Foxes

I was kind of surprised by a comic strip cameo this Sunday. Pig, from Stephen Pastis' Pearls Before Swine made an appearance in Slylock Fox & Comics for Kids. (click on image to enlarge)

Slylock Fox is a kid's activity page with a little minute-mystery puzzle. In this case, there are three cartoon characters. Popeye's necessary, as he's the solution to the puzzle (not to give anything away). Snoopy makes sense, as Schultz's gentle humor appeals and can be understood by both kids and adults.

But Pearls Before Swine? That's a very curious choice. Longtime readers know I admire Pastis' work very much, but I never thought of it as an especially kid-friendly comic. Perhaps Bob Weber, Jr. was thinking of just recognizable figures. Peanuts is published in just about every paper. Maybe Pearl's reached that same level of ubiquity.

Hard to say.

I checked to see if Pig was missing from Pearls that day, but he wasn't. So I'm guessing this was a unilateral move on Weber's part rather than a planned crossover.

No matter, I enjoyed the reference, if not the puzzle solution (which I thought was kind of lame).

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Other Side of Easter

Easter's a pretty big holiday -- even if you're a Christian.

In our church (as in many others) there's a sense of celebration. After all, it's marking an important event, and the significance of that event. Christ rose from the dead, (as He said he would), and because He did, there is hope for us to do the same -- no matter who we are.

And while everyone turns out for the Easter service, not many attend the other half of the story -- the Maundy Thursday Tenebrae service. There are varying traditions for this service, but here's what we do in our church.

The purpose of the service is to recount the final days leading up to the crucifixion. Just as the Easter service lets us relive the hope and joy of those who first heard the news, the Tenebrae service reminds us of the utter hopelessness and despair Jesus' followers felt during those last days.

The Tenebrae (Latin for shadows) service brings home those emotions. In our church, at each major part of the story, the lights are dimmed a little more. It's already evening, so there's little light streaming through the windows, anyway. You can feel the darkness closing in as the story progresses and the lights go out, one by one.

The final part of the service is the stripping of the church. After the last words are spoken, all the portable elements of worship are removed. The candles, the paraments (the cloths hanging from the pulpit), the Bibles, the banners -- even the pastor's stole and the cross around her neck.

And when everything has been silently carried out, the communion table is draped with a black cloth. The darkened sanctuary has now become a tomb. The pastor, followed by the congregation files out silently.

Why would anyone go to such a downer service?

I go because it's deeply moving.

And I also go because it puts the joy of Easter into perspective.  There's a big difference between being happy because everyone else is, and being happy because you've been sad and received some really great news. It's a longer emotional arc, which makes the joy that much sweeter.

Our Tenebrae service only draws about a third of the attendance of our Easter service. But here's a curious thing. Everyone who's attended our Tenebrae service keeps coming back year after year. They all say its one of the most moving services they've ever experienced.

I agree.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The transcient beauty of flowers

We visited my dad this weekend, and everything was starting to bloom. Dad has a long-standing tradition of photographing the spring flowers, and so he and I walked the property and took pictures.

That's Dad, at left, zooming in for a closeup of a dogwood bloom. The outdoor fireplace was built by his father in the 1950's and was the center for many Fourth of July family gatherings over the years.

For me, the experience was bittersweet. I know that there will come a day when we'll have to give up this house. And when we do, the azalias put in by my grandfather in the 1930's, the dogwood planted in memory of my grandmother, and the perennials planted and tended by my mother will all disappear.

But I'll still have the memories of the sights and smells of our family homes. And these images, too. (click on any image to enlarge)