Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Review: Railway Modelling (C J Freezer)

Freezer, C J Railway Modelling (1963) This is the second edition. I wonder what changes were made from the first one; and what changes Freezer would make if he revised the book today (he died about two years ago.) There’s no question that he expects people to make do with whatever materials and skills they have. Cardboard, wood, wire, and paper figure prominently. He assumes basic craft skills, such as cutting, painting (with a brush), sanding, gluing, and soldering. He’s writing at a time when the after effects of the 2nd World War were still felt. The Swinging 60s were still a year or two off, but Freezer’s repeated wonder at how “ridiculously cheap” the new products are reminds us that the sudden prosperity of the 60s was apparent, not real.

The illustrations are especially instructive. Consider the exploded view of a locomotive, properly shaded and hatched to differentiate the materials used. Or the diagrams of model buildings, or the cross section of a carriage. There’s enough information for a reasonably handy person to build the model. If nothing else, these drawings will inspire confidence: Freezer makes the whole process look so simple. He covers all aspects of railway modelling, including garden railways. It’s a charming book, definitely personal, with a dry humour that disarms even when he’s talking about things a modern writer wouldn’t even hint at, such as how to get the “domestic authorities” on side.

It’s well worth reading today. The text is clear and straightforward; Freezer has the knack of writing as if he were talking to you. The photos show then well-known model railways, such as Peter Denny’s. (Freezer was also editor of Railway Modeller, and used his contacts.) I enjoyed reading the book. A recent thread on uk.rec.models.rail that referred to freezer and others as inspiration for the current generation of modellers. Rightly so, and these pioneers of serious modelling have a continuing influence. They recognised, defined, and solved the problems, and their solutions have become standard operating procedures. ***

Custom Postage Stamps

Gian Gomeschi just commented on Royal Mail's plan to release a set of stamps in January 2010 depicting long-play record album covers. He thinks Canada Post should copy the idea. I concur. Those 12x12 covers are not only examples of high illustrative art, they are also a record of changing tastes and styles in commercial imagery. Not to mention the nostalgia factor, which I think drives a lot of extra stamp sales. Framed stamps and stamp sheets make a cool wall decoration.

His comments reminded me of Picture Post, Canada Post's custom stamp service. You can create your own custom stamps (domestic postage rate) at:

I've made three stamps so far. Here's the image I used on my most recent stamp. I like this service.
You get a sheet of 40 stamps for a little over $40 or about $1 a stamp. Cheap IMO, when you consider that your stamps will be unique and all your own. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Reviews: C S Lewis

Lewis, C S The Dark Tower (1977) I didn't finish the title story, a "romance" playing with the themes of time travel, precognition, clairvoyance (across "time"), and the nature of reality. According to the note by Walter Hooper, Lewis was much taken by Dunne's An Experiment with Time, and Dunne's theory of dreams as visions of the real past and future. It is of course nonsense, of the kind that building vast theories on ignorance and a little learning provokes. Dunne (or anybody else at the time) didn't have the neurological data that make it pretty clear that dreams are random activity in the brain, perhaps with the side effect of storing and pruning the memories of the past day(s), and certainly influenced by whatever anxieties perturb the sleeper. Lewis, like almost all Dunne's enthusiasts, knew too little physics to realise that Dunne's theory was probably bunk, although the state of physics and cosmology at the time left some possibilities open which now appear closed.
The other tales are intriguing. The Man Born Blind shows, via his puzzlement at not being able to see light, how everyday usages confuse and mix many different meanings. The Shoddy Lands provides an eerie glimpse into the mind of a shallow, silly, self-centred woman. Ministering Angels is a neat little satire on a number of themes, mostly on "the new ethicality", and the role of sex in people's lives (certain types of academics get it all wrong, it seems.) Ten Years After is an wonderful fragment about the aftermath of the sack of Troy, and Menelaus's and Helen's eventual reconciliation (perhaps). ***

Lewis, C S The Abolition of Man (1943, 1978) Lewis argues that the still-current attitude that crime is a sickness abolishes moral responsibility, which has two bad consequences. First, it reduces a man or woman to an infant, incapable of moral or ethical choice. Second, by promoting treatment rather than punishment, it results in far crueller confinement that mere punishment would do. He makes a good case.
But this argument is a starting point for a more serious one: that there is a universal moral standard, or natural law, and that all the great ethical teachers and traditions have recognised it. What's more, it's remarkably consistent across time and culture. It is not a matter of faith or religion, for religious traditions that disagree directly about the existence of god nevertheless agree on the ethical fundamentals. It is not mandated nor does it logically flow from any religion. It is merely the way things are, and human beings of all kinds recognise it to be true.
Finally, Lewis notes that those who wish to insist that it is kinder to treat people as sick rather than wicked are making assumptions about values. Thus the argument is one about justifying values. But no ought can be justified by pointing to is. So the argument that what is should govern ought depends on a hidden assumption of values – yet values are what the argument explicitly denies. Therefore, the argument is self-contradictory. This is an updating of Socrates argument against the Sophists, and a pretty one it is, too.
Lewis admits that although there is a universal standard, there is no universal agreement, and that the agreement varies over time. He claims that this lack of agreement and variation merely reflects the fallen nature of humankind, which entails that our perception and understanding of the universal moral law will be distorted, contingent, and partial. To some extent, history, with its record of philosophical argument, will over time correct and enlarge our perception. This in turn entails that our descendants will consider us to be just as benighted morally as we consider our ancestors to be.
What is attractive about Lewis is his clear-eyed gaze on our moral predicaments, and his willingness to urge commitment to what he knows is a partial and flawed moral judgement. Yet that partial judgement is all we have to guide us. In this he reminds me of Luther's "Sin boldly", for Luther too understood the contingent nature of our moral (and legal) judgements. Yet we must act. The moral value of our actions will of course also be flawed, which means that we will inevitably commit some wrong. What Lewis has noticed is that we try to avoid the inevitable guilt for that wrongdoing by transforming our moral judgements, limited and subjective and personal as they are, into supposedly value-neutral scientific choices. That, he says, is evil. (He ignores the equivalent transformation of individual moral judgenment into claims of universal, divisnley authorised, moral law.)
Some of his examples don't work well after a half century of neurology, but his core argument, that we are morally responsible, and that punishment recognises and acknowledges this responsibility, is sound. We each suffer from some glitch or flaw that makes us incapable of making certain judgements correctly, but we are still responsible for them. To deny that responsibility is to rob us of our dignity as human beings, as moral agents. There is another consequence: it offers the perpetrator an escape from responsibility, which I think may be worse.
Lewis did not live to see the increasing number of refusals of moral responsibility on the grounds of physical or psychological illness. He would no doubt have added a chapter to this essay. ***½

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Poem: Within the Heart of Each of Us


My father is a lonely man,
He has one good, bright eye,
A lame foot, a crooked hand,
And a heart twisted and wry.

He came from the east,
From the mountainous rim
Of this green valley, the last
He'll see before his eye dims.

He broke his oaken staff
On the back of a red-eyed wolf
That then lay stark and stiff.
His good, bright knife
He left in the heart
Of another beast's life.

His body broken and worn,
Of his weapons bereft,
My father waits for the lion
That will ransom his death.

[1978; publ. in Northern Ontario Anthology, Cobalt, Ontario]

Poem: The Sea Son's Eyes Are Blue and Green

A poem for many voices

stars shape faces in his head, burst
coalesce and grow like trees
an old man's face
looms in the branches
see, see his hair
entangled in the boughs
see, see his hair
entangled in the branches of anemones

stars burst on the rocking water

I am scattered over the water
my fragments are scattered over the water
my face is entangled in the pattern the waves make
I am reborn in every motion of the water

stars burst in the rocking water

he gathers them into his head
they glitter
in the darkness
they blaze like the sun
that shattered on the water and became stars
bursting in the sea son's head, in silence
that touched the inside of his face
and grew like a tree

In that other place where these things happened
I sat me down by the waters of language and wept,
For behold, I had no face, my name was taken from me
And given to the wind.

[1973; publ. in 39 Below, Edmonton]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Review: Muller, Tannen und Wolken

Müller, Dr. Phil Karl Friedrich Tannen und Wolken (Firs and Clouds) (1934) A curious book. Fay found it at a yard sale, and bought it for me. The copyright date is significant - one year after Hitler was made Führer by a vote of the Reichstag (that Hitler became dictator by legal means is something that is rarely taught, and never emphasised.) The publisher describes itself as “Volkskunstverlag”, “publisher of folk arts.” This does not refer to naive painting, it refers to the arts of (and about) the Volk, the German people. The racist undertones are deliberate.

Also significant is the author’s academic title – Germans have overvalued such titles for generations, with some justification, since it was the ramping up of secondary and post-secondary education that enabled Germany to speed up its industrial revolution in the 1800s. But the assumption that a man with a D. Phil (and a Leica) will be a better photographer than the ordinary shutterbug is of course nonsense. The photos in this album are second-rate considered as art, and merely average considered as tourist snapshots. They are pleasant enough, and would grace a family album, in which they would serve to recall a hiking holiday. Müller uses all the rules of composition and landscape lighting – trees etc in the foreground to frame the distant vista, white clouds contrasting against the sky (difficult to do with the films of the time), layers of hills fading away to create the illusion of depth. He knows his stuff. But the pictures are banal and ultimately boring. They have some interest as documentation of the rapidly disappearing farm architecture of the region. But they don’t do what even many casual snapshots do: make us see the object with new eyes. They merely confirm the sentimental “Heimatliebe” (love of the homeland) that the Nazis pretended was the essence of patriotism.

What’s interesting is the almost total absence of any modern artifacts - no roads, no cars, no power lines, no agricultural machinery. The Black Forest is presented as an almost medieval landscape of peasant farms and semi-wilderness. Only the few people in modern dress, shown walking away from the camera, indicate that these photos were made in the 20th century. Why this nostalgia for a country life that never existed? In part, this is the debased legacy of Romanticism, the revulsion against modern technology and cities. But since it went further in its kitschiness in Nazi Germany than anywhere else, I think it’s also part of the Nazi ideology of Blut und Boden, blood and soil. It’s easier to feel sentimental about the farm, the forest, the mountains, to pretend that this supposedly more virtuous way of life still exists, than to face up to the injustices of corporate capitalism. We have a version of this sentimental claptrap in our own times: the idealisation of the small town. *

Stone Kiss (Book Review)

Faye Kellerman, Stone Kiss (2002)

Decker is asked to help find the missing niece of his half brother’s wife. But when he gets to New York, the family puts him off. He looks up an old nemesis, Chris Donatti, whom he sprung from jail because the evidence had been cooked, and who has become a major supplier of drugs and women. Donatti becomes a key figure in the denouement, and even more entangled with Decker and his family. The family, personal, and business relationships are a tangled mess, not clarified by corrupt cops, religious scruples, and horrific family dysfunction. Donatti is a psychopath, which makes for tension and violence, but when his purposes coincide with Decker’s, he is an ally. He uses violence as a tool, with no particular pleasure.

In fact, the book has a lot of violence – Kellerman is clearly angling for a wider audience. The result is a book that’s very TV, even its elucidation of the sources of evil has that facile psycho-babble that makes so much American TV less than credible. The accounts of Jewish life are, as always, interesting, and I must take them at face value. In the books between the first two (I read the second one) and this one, Decker has discovered his birth family, which was Jewish, so he turns out to be Jewish after all. But he still has close ties to his adoptive family. Etc. These aspects of the narrative are more interesting than the violence, which feels more like a movie than real life. A minor disappointment, despite its swift narrative rhythm. **