Archive | February 2012

The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus — Knopf, 2012 — 9780307379375

I really wanted to read this book when I first heard of it. A literary novel that explores the concept of language and what happens when we can not longer communicate with those we love — it sounded very interesting. In a dystopian future, adults become ill from the sound of their children’s voices and waste away, while the children themselves are immune. A great concept and fascinating to read, especially since (even though this is the first book of his I’ve started) I think Ben Marcus is a skilled writer whose sentences are well crafted.

But it’s so bleak. The plot, the language, the overall atmosphere. Bleak and visceral and almost a pain to read at times — not because it’s bad, but because I think Marcus is good at describing the bleakness. Coupled with this dreary atmosphere is the fact that none of the characters have really been well developed, at least at the point where I stopped. But stop I must; this one can wait for another day. Until then, here’s a particularly nice passage from the book.

The true Jewish teaching is not for wide consumption, is not for groups, is not to be polluted by even a single gesture of communication. Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. The language kills itself, expires inside its host. Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end. Language is another name for coffin. Bauman told us the only thing we should worry about regarding the sermons was if we understood them too well. When such a day came, then something was surely wrong.


Skydiving from Space (almost)

I seem to have my head in the clouds today. I read recently about Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian who plans to break the world record for highest skydive later this year as part of project Red Bull Stratos.

That’s all well and good, but let’s look at the current world record holder, and adviser to the Stratos project, Joseph Kittinger. The picture above shows him skydiving from a height of 31,300 metres / 102,800 feet. That’s 31.3 kilometres, which means he jumped from not the troposphere (or part of the atmosphere that we inhabit), but the stratosphere. Basically, almost space.

To backtrack, Kittinger was a United States Air Force pilot who participated in Project Excelsior. The purpose of this project was to see if it would be possible for pilots of high-flying air craft (and, in the future, space travellers) to survive a fall back to Earth if they successfully ejected from their crafts.

The testing evolved from dropping crash test dummies from flying cargo planes, to sending humans up to heights of around 100,000 feet in open air gondola carried by balloons, and eventually evolved into Project Excelsior. In this final stage, Kittinger suited up and was carried up to the stratosphere in the aforementioned open air gondola, and then jumped back to Earth.

After two attempts (the first not that successful, but the second one better), it was during Excelsior III that Kittinger succeeded in his mission and set a new world record for highest skydive, as well as three other records. His parachute system, designed by Francis Beaupre, consisted of a small pilot parachute that opened several seconds after stepping out of the gondola. (Those few seconds of free fall we required to build up speed in the thin air.) Shortly after, a drogue chute would open, and this would ensure that the sky diver did not spin out of control. After 4 minutes and 36 seconds, Kittinger’s main chute opened and he floated down to Earth. This parachute system was entirely automatic, in case the sky diver were unconscious. The total time it took Kittinger to land was 13 minutes and 45 seconds.

What’s impressive is that this third attempt occurred in August 1960, almost 52 years ago. It will be exciting to see what happens with Baumgartner’s attempt, given all our technological advancements since then. You can read more about Project Excelsior here, and check out the old-timey video below about Kittinger’s final skydive.

Earth from the International Space Station

Thanks to Mark, of It’s Weird Out There, for sharing this awesome time lapse video of images of Earth taken from the International Space Station. I’ll leave you with the uploader’s instructions.

Serving Suggestion: 1080p, lights off, volume up :)

Why Reading Matters

Here’s a great 2009 BBC documentary all about why reading matters.

Ella Fitzgerald — That Old Black Magic (1958)

Ella Fitzgerald — That Old Black Magic (Live in Rome, 1958)

The Woman in Black

Susan Hill — Vintage UK, 1998 — 9780099288473

Recently I’ve discovered that I’m basically a wuss, meaning that I could only read this short novel during the day. It wasn’t always this way: I once read The Shining while on vacation at a cottage in the woods. Perhaps I’ve learned my lesson. That being said, this book, while enjoyable, was actually not THAT scary.

It’s the story of Arthur Kipps, a solicitor from London, who visits a remote village in a marshy part of England to sort through the documents of a recently deceased client. Upon his arrival, he’s greeted with intense stares and ominous silence from the villagers every time he mentions that he’s going to Eel Marsh House, the home of the dead woman. To make a short novella even shorter, ghostly encounters ensue.

What makes The Woman in Black interesting is the pace. For most of the story, the reader feels as though they know what is going on, but Hill takes her time when it comes to Kipps becoming aware of the entire situation. This deliberate pacing, coupled with Hill’s extensive use of commas in place of colons or even full stops, leaves you with a sense of wading through the story to get to the end (though pleasantly so). When the end does arrive both the reader and Kipps, who has caught up in his knowledge of the plot, are in for a surprise. While some might find the story to be too slow, I found it to be a nice, simple, short read. As for the movie, if I see it I’m sure I’ll find it terrifying.


The Waterhole

Graeme Base — Puffin, 2001 — 9780142401972

I stumbled upon this book recently and was immediately transported back to my childhood. The Eleventh Hour and Animalia were two of my favourite books when I was young. I was so impressed with The Eleventh Hour that I didn’t open the special pouch at the back of the book containing the solution to the mystery for YEARS, and when I did it was a most solemn occasion.

The Waterhole was completely off my radar until now, but it’s a lovely book. Each spread features animals in a different country, region, or environment gathering around a waterhole. As you turn the pages, the waterhole shrinks, to the despair of the animals. This is brilliantly achieved by the use of a die cut within the book — as you turn the pages, the size of the die cut (and thus the waterhole) shrinks.

In addition to the animals gathered around the water source, each spread has a list of animals to find in the illustration, in true Base fashion. All the animals you’re looking for are native to the region currently featured in the spread. Not to ruin it for everyone, but when the water runs out the animals you’re looking for are all extinct. What a great way to teach children about the environment, different ecosystems and animals, as well as making them aware of the animal heritage we have lost.

Not to mention that Base’s illustrations are lovely, as always.


Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Art

Joshua Knelman — Douglas & McIntyre, 2011, 9781553658917

I’ve always wanted to be a master thief. Or a master spy, but for the purpose of this review let’s stick with thief. What could be better than sneaking into a museum or a luxurious mansion and making off undetected with spoils like fine art and gems? Well, according to Joshua Knelman my fantasy is just that: a fantasy.

This book is an eye-opening look at the art and antiquities market, and how so many pieces of art that are sold legitimately were in fact stolen and then fed back into the market. It also dismisses the myth that fine art is stolen by the so-called “high-class thief,” who’s bored and has no wants in life, but loves the challenge of illegally acquiring more objets d’art, à la Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown Affair.

Knelman spent years interviewing police officers who attempt to relocate stolen art, as well as legal professionals who are well versed in the art market and the lack of overview and regulation it, for better or worse, enjoys. It was surprising to learn that there are just a handful of police departments and professionals in the world dedicated to finding lost or stolen art — among them, the LAPD Art Theft Detail, the FBI Art Crime Team, England’s Scotland Yard Art and Antiquities Unit, the Art Loss Register, and a police team in Québec that currently doesn’t even have a well-working website. Most of these units consist of only a couple of police officers. Even more surprising was the fact that New York city, one of the biggest art markets in the world, does not have members of its police force dedicated to this task.

Also interesting is the profile of the typical art thief: in essence, simply a thief who steals art. Decades ago, when art didn’t command the astronomical prices it does today, thieves were quite uneducated about art. It was only when they realized its potential value that art became a target, and even then it took a while for thieves to learn what was valuable and what wasn’t, and how to get it off their hands once they have it. Knelman looks at a series of high-profile art thefts that occurred over the years, and even develops a relationship with Paul, an art thief from Brighton, UK, to gain his inside perspective.

Then there’s the mysterious author of the blog Art Hostage, who seems to know a lot about art theft and posts articles on art crimes around the world while lambasting the often futile efforts made by police and institutions to get the art back. (Incidentally, the author of this blog has a second one, Stolen Vermeer, where the latest posts indicate that there is soon to be a major breakthrough in the Gardner art theft, one of the most famous art heists of all time. Stay tuned!)

Overall, Hot Art is very readable and well-informed. Not only does Knelman nicely discuss the people and events he’s chosen to focus on, he also lists a vast number of other books that deal specifically with several of the events he mentions — and the topic is so interesting that who wouldn’t want to read more about it! The only qualm I had was when he interviewed the police officers in Québec about their work. Knelman reiterated over and over again that one key element that would help police officers around the world better understand the international stolen art market is communication: departments around the world have to be able to communicate with each other, given how quickly art moves over borders and across seas. It was clear that the Canadian officers clearly hadn’t heard of the LAPD’s Art Theft Detail, and yet Knelman didn’t actually tell them about it until a couple of years later! I almost threw the book across the room.

Still, a great book, and one that has made me want to read more about the murky international market of fine art.


North Korean Photoshop Tutorial

To finish the day, and a North Korea hat trick, here’s a great North Korean Photoshop tutorial. I can’t describe the video any better than they can:

There’s no crime against humanity a spot brush can’t fix.

(College Humor, via Gizmodo)

What is going on in North Korea??!

Has Kim Jong-un been assassinated, or has there been a coup?? Let’s all wildly speculate!!!


UPDATE: We all jumped the gun! But who cares? It finally made me tweet! Also, it gives me a chance to post this pic again!


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