Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Inspiration for Model Railroaders

    Mike Shafer, ed.  Railroads You Can Model (1976) and More Railroads You Can Model (1978) Out of print. Just what the titles say: Overviews of several railroads with suggested trackplans. These books are part of Model Railroader’s successful attempts to shift the hobby towards modelling prototypes, not only in appearance but also in operation. Each article describes the line, summarises the operations, and illustrates settings, rolling stock, and locomotives.
    As history of the lines covered, well above average. Anyone who wants to base his layout on, say, The Ontario and Western or a branch of the GM&O, would find the articles very useful. The modelling suggestions are track plans, most of them redolent of the spaghetti-bowl school: get as much track as possible into the space as possible. But there are also signs of the coming revolution: “holding tracks”, now known as “staging”, figure in most of them, and track arrangements emulate the prototype. Several of the plans assume a garage-sized space, so that the track to scenery ratio is relatively low. Photos of structures and industries prompt the modeller to create prototype scenes.
     A nostalgia trip for the older modeller, a good source of information for the neophyte or railroad fan, and inspiration for anybody in the hobby. Worth looking for, I think. **½

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Spies as self-deluded fools

     Phillip Knightley. The Second Oldest Profession (1986) The subtitle ”The spy as patriot, bureaucrat, fantasist, and whore” describes the thesis pretty accurately. Knightley surveys the history of security and intelligence agencies in Britain and the US, and to a lesser extent in Germany and Russia. The book is pre-glasnost, so it assumes the Cold War setting. There is varying detail about various operations, both regime-disruptive and intelligence-gathering. The net effect is to confirm whatever suspicions one may have about the price/payoff ration of these services. Bottom line: failures are more common than successes, and the focus of these services has shifted from providing useful information (much of which can be gathered from open sources) to empire-building and "counter-intelligence." Spies spend most of their resources spying on each other.
     The most worrisome aspect is that paranoia and fantasy drive the world-views of these organisations. (They also drive the world-views of many people afraid of the enormous reach of computers, much greater than anything Knightley or his sources envisaged in 1986). The result is such a massive amount of data that no humans could sift through it all, let alone make sense of it. Thus the increasing reliance on AI algorithms. AI algorithms are inevitably biased, and will yield false positives as well as false negatives. The danger is that the merely human recipients of algorithm-supplied intelligence will trust it. As Pedro Domingos says,  People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.
     An essential book IMO, still remarkably relevant after 30 years.  Considering the increasing paranoia and fantasy in online discourse, perhaps even more relevant. ***

Monday, January 07, 2019

So you want to show off your Latin

     Eugene Ehrlich. Amo, Amas, Amat and More (1985) A dictionary of Latin words and phrases in more or less common use. By the 1980s, Latin was removed from almost all high school curricula, even as an elective, but many people still used Latin tags and phrases. This book will help anyone who reads works from the 1980s and earlier.
     Ehrlich divagates often, adding wry and not so wry comments to his explanations. Such as this one:
     sit non doctissima coniunx
     A Roman formula for a happy marriage.
     One of Martial’s epigrams, Literally “may my wife not be very learned”, revealing more than we would like to know about one Roman’s attitude towards women.

    To which I would add, many men would agree with Martial. I don’t: I prefer sit doctissima coniunx.
      Ehrlich uses the English/American convention of Latin pronunciation. I learned a different one in Austria, but (as he points out) we don’t really know how Latin was pronounced. Nor, I think, do we know how the dialects varied. Pleasant introduction by William F. Buckley, Jr.  A well done reference book. ****

A Beatles Book

     Lee Minoff et al. The Beatles Yellow Submarine (1968) The book of the movie, made up of graphics and text. The movie was an excuse to put Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Chub Band on the screen, and it worked very well. We watched it with our children. Wonderful movie.
     Beatles music was a staple in our home, making this book a nostalgia trigger. Unlike many conversions from screen to page, this works as well as the movie, perhaps better. The plot is simple: the Blue Meanies want to take over Pepperland, but of course they fail, thanks to the Beatles.
     A fun trip. ***

Le Corbusier, one of the first starchitects.

     H. Ginsberger. Le Corbusier. (1959) Catalogue of an exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work. The show, whose North American tour comprised Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, and San Francisco,  consisted of photographs, drawings, and models of the buildings, and projects; paintings, tapestries, and sculpture; and quotes by Le Corbusier. The catalogue includes a brief biography and discussion of Le Corbusier’s philosophy of architecture. Well organised and printed, it’s a nice little souvenir and document.
     I bought this booklet many years ago, when I had notions of becoming an architect. I’m still interested in architecture, but think that the emergence of starchitects has been a disaster. Le Corbusier was one of the first. He took it for granted that he could plan cities, living spaces, without consulting the people who would inhabit them. He knew best, but he was I think remarkably obtuse about the psychological and social effects of buildings. It did not, apparently, occur to him to ask whether people would like to live in huge apartment towers surrounded by vast parkland traversed by multi-lane traffic arteries. Where this kind of urban planning has been tried, it has been a dismal failure. Low-rise buildings interspersed with small to medium green spaces, seem to work much better, perhaps because then the parks and gardens feel more closely connected to the buildings that border them.
     Le Corbusier’s signature style of elevating the house on stilts separated the home from the land on which it stood, visually, functionally, and psychologically. His use of unadorned concrete had the same effect. His theories spoke of buildings scaled and proportioned to fit the human body, but his practice was singularly devoid of human content. In this, he prefigured the practices of the starchitects that followed him. For much of the 20th century, buildings were erected not to serve their clients but to display the architect’s style. Le Corbusier has much to answer for.
     As a survey of Le Corbusier's work, well done, hence ***

Paper Money

     Richard Doty. Paper Money (1977) An overview of paper currency available to numismatists. Doty promotes the hobby with numerous colour photos, and a brief survey of paper currency by country and region. I learned a few new facts, such as the issue of Notgeld (emergency money) by towns and villages when the national bank was unable to supply cash. The Chinese were the first to use paper money about 1400 years ago, but they soon gave up on it because it was too easy to counterfeit, and because the temptation to print too much was too great. They did not use paper money again until the 1800s.
     The West invented paper money independently, when bankers and merchants issued letters of credit. Since the issuers were good for the coin specified on these instruments, people quickly realised that letters were tradable, and began to use them make payments. The next step was to use paper bills as means of exchange, at first always with the promise to redeem them for real money, i.e., metal coin. Eventually, paper bills were defined as legal tender. The history of paper money is thus the history of the slow recognition that money is information about wealth and not itself wealth. Nowadays, most money circulates as debit and credit entries in bank accounts. Canada and a few other countries now use plastic instead of paper for bills, testifying that cash will likely not disappear in the near term. But the steady development of money from precious materials to pure information is nearly complete.
     An interesting little book. Numismatics, like most collector hobbies, has declined, which makes this book an historical document. **½