Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gecko's Feet, Redux

John Stevens sent me this fabulous video he took of a gecko moving its foot, after reading my old post on gecko feet. Please note the backwards arrangement of its joints, so that the gecko can change the angle that the setae (the tiny hairs on their foot) touch the surface with, helping to shift the way the Van der Waal's force holds them there, and thus peel their foot away. John actually posted it on YouTube at my request -- many thanks!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quick Links: Coraline Boxes and the Antikythera Mechanism Reborn

In case you hadn't noticed, I don't always pay attention to publicity campaigns; so it was quite by accident that I came across two references to the movie being made of Neil Gaiman's chilling story Coraline, being made entirely by hand by an apparently very talented crew at LAIKA, an animation studio in Portland.

I had seen clips of the film and heard about it a little from Mr. Gaiman's own lips when he came to read on his recent journeys; but, well, as for publicity... I'm just dyslexic about things like that.

So I was very taken with the Coraline website's focus on things being made with peoples' hands, and the little vignettes of different people doing different tiny but important jobs made me very happy. So often you get someone working at Pixar or someplace whose whole world, for awhile, is to make fur moving in moonlight; but you never actually meet these people. It is nice to see the folks making this incredible stuff - in fact, it's nice to see people making, period. It gives me hope and joy. I can't help but think it must make Mr. Gaiman feel extraordinary, to be the spark at the beginning of such a creative fuse.

You can see "all the clips, trailers, and behind-the-scenes featurettes" at the official Coraline YouTube site (thanks to everyone who has helped me out on this).

On top of this, of course, there is the furor (a total unknown to me until yesterday) about the boxes which the crew of Coraline are putting together and sending to their favorite bloggers. These are real, actual boxes with real, actual stuff in them, being sent via snailmail. So, what we have is a crew of people who work with their hands sending love-letters of a very visceral sort to people whose work they access virtually; and the bloggers then turn around and blog about the boxes, creating viral publicity in a virtual medium about a movie which is all about being made by hand. I find this whole thing absolutely fascinating, because it underlines a point I've been trying to get my head around in the paper I've been writing: that certain blogs are about accessing a sort of truthful physicality which one might not be able to experience in the real world. It's away to access authenticness.

Like in the old age of Wunderkammern, explorers and adventurers went out into unknown parts and came back carrying artifacts from the places they'd been. These artifacts would find their way into the hands of collectors, who put them all together, showcasing their extraordinariness and trying to deconstruct what they were about.

Now there are bloggers, such as D and M, over at Curious Expeditions, who go out into the world and bring back oddities and wonders to their fellow bloggers, who collect their artifacts (pictures and words) so that others may see them and wonder. Some bloggers are more interested in made things, ideas, or ways of living; but they work to bring those realities to those of us who can't experience the things in context, and make our lives richer.

So it's a very interesting thing to see someone literally playing with this metaphor, sending physical, Wunderkammer-like artifacts to virtual Wunderkammer-makers. Who then turn them virtual in order to display them. A mobius strip of wonder, if you like.

My only question is - are they enclosing actual bits and pieces from the film-making process? Because that would take it to a sort of metalayer of mobius-ness.

The other thing I've come across just today [via Slashdot] is a nice article on a man who has now managed to recreate the Antikythera Mechanism more accurately than his previous attempt:

"The added details and precision of the new model are based on the breakthrough research by the The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, a joint effort by researchers from Greece and the United Kingdom. They were able to plumb the depths of the device, comprised of 81 separate pieces (including several fused together over time), and decipher many more of the inscriptions by using high-tech hardware and software..." [find out more about this, and the hardware and software, here].

In other words, all the things we've been hearing for several years now, about new systems for seeing inside the mechanism, have been paying off splendidly in - you guessed it - physical form. Hooray! We get to see it in action!

You can also see a 2006 slideshow of the researchers actually using the equipment here, if you feel so inclined.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Goodbye, Oliver Postgate

Oh, oh.

Oliver Postgate, the creator of Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers, and Bagpuss, among other television characters, has died.

The Clangers shared their hollow planet with the Soup Dragon (pictured right), while the Iron Chicken - modelled from Meccano [aka Erector Set] - lived in an orbiting nest made of scrap metal.

I'm a late believer, but have since come to appreciate the little singing mice in Bagpuss - and was really a goner once I had read the whole set of Noggin the Nog books to my elder daughter.

Here's a snip from his obituary in the Guardian:

"In 1957-58 he joined one of the new commercial television companies as a stage manager. But it was when he was assigned to children's programmes that Postgate was drawn to his true niche in life. He thought the youngsters were getting a penny-pinching deal, especially in the matter of storytelling.

"Marionettes on strings or glove puppets were all very well, but to keep pace with expanding young imaginations, he felt that fully animated cartoons or puppet dramas were needed. And these were far too expensive for everyday use.

"With an artist friend, Peter Firmin, he set up an independent production outfit called Smallfilms to see if they could turn out affordable animation. Their studio was a cowshed (later replaced by a row of converted pigsties) on Firmin's farm near Canterbury, in Kent. Postgate dreamed up the characters and stories and taught himself the laborious skills of frame-by-frame animation.

"Firmin drew the pictures or designed the sets and made the models when they switched to puppetry. The bassoonist Vernon Elliott came in to furnish the music. They began with a 10-minute cartoon series, The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959), in which a stolid young Viking prince was up against an evil uncle and various Nordic monsters. By eliminating most overheads and taking little reward for themselves, Postgate and company were able to turn them out for a 10th of the going rate. They sold the series to the BBC."

It's a reminder of all the people who continue to try to make the world better, at little gain for themselves - who want to make people happy. I applaud them, and I applaud Mr. Postgate.

There is apparently still a pretty good DVD business for his odd little shows. Children love them, and they are just weird enough to appeal to adults, too. Check out the Dragons' Friendly Society, the center of all Noggin the Nog creativity and a nice example of good self-publishing working well.

More pictures of Mr. Postgate and his creations here.

PS. If you are interested in ordering Noggin the Nog stuff (or the DVDs of Bagpuss, etc) from within the US or other non-British countries, go here to their online eBay distributors, who will take actual plastic. The DFS themselves only take cheques.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

...With Fairy Tales For All

Edmund Dulac - my favorite illustrator

I am, without remorse, a deep believer in, and collector of, fairy tales. In my life I have read hundreds, perhaps thousands; and they never cease to fascinate me, because they all intersect. Russian tales intersect with European tales and even Arab tales; Northern European tales migrate oddly down to Southern Europe. Details travel. There are any number of fairy tale themes that seem to show up in all different places: the stepmother, the witch, the son seeking his fortune, to name some obvious ones - but then there are the less obvious, still ubiquitous ones: the things thrown over one's shoulder to thwart a pursuer; the pursued transforming into something (eg. grain of wheat) which the pursuer then transforms to destroy (eg. hen); the place beyond the sun or the worlds' end or at the back of the ocean.

In any case, I seem to have put far too much money into fairy tale collections in my lifetime, and it occurred to me today that I could, in fact, blog about different collections in the interest of, well, interest - and possibly as an understated list for possible Christmas-like perusal. So, without further ado, here we go - the best as I know it.

First of all, let me plug Andrew Lang's Coloured Fairy Books. There are twelve of them, from green to red to lilac and violet and so on, and they are really classic. Though Lang wrote for a living, these were not written by him but edited - by which really we mean collected from other, often foreign, texts and sources - by him, and translated by several other people, most notably his wife, who had a far greater influence on the style of translation and (proof)editing than she was ever given credit for.

They are beautifully illustrated in period style by H. J. Ford, who is reminiscent of Arthur Rackham or Frederick Richardson. Lang is famous for despising Victorian attempts at fairy-tale writing:

"But the three hundred and sixty-five authors who try to write new fairy tales are very tiresome. They always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple blossoms: 'Flowers and fruits, and other winged things.' These fairies try to be funny, and fail; or they try to preach, and succeed. Real fairies never preach or talk slang. At the end, the little boy or girl wakes up and finds that he has been dreaming.

"Such are the new fairy stories. May we be preserved from all the sort of them!"

Despite Lang's sentiments on the matter of "new" authors, another favorite tome of mine is Hauff's Fairy Tales, now tragically out of print. These are some of the most wonderful and imaginative stories, told in a wandering style that encompasses, in some cases, an Arabic style of telling, while in others, a Black Forest location. The stories are long and complex and totally entertaining; it's hard to explain why they are so enjoyable, except that they have a lighthearted touch that seems to simply emanate from a joyfulness in the art of storytelling.

Wilhelm Hauff, a German of good family who was apparently largely self-taught from his grandfather's library, started writing these amazing tales from his own imagination when he was 22, and wrote prolifically for three years before his death of fever in 1827. He also wrote several novels, which I have not read or even seen in print (though his Memoirs of Beelzebub strikes me as intriguing).

And on the subject of someone sitting down and writing a fairy tale collection, let me say right now that I have almost never read any fairy tales as entertaining as ex-Python Terry Jones' Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories. They manage to do a wonderful job with all the fairy tale elements, while somehow being terribly modern in their appeal - and have a wonderfully silly twist, as you would expect from their author. Just let me quote The Silly King, about a king who, with age, has become extremely eccentric:

"Nobody, however, liked to mention how silly their king had become. Even when he hung from the spire of the great cathedral, dressed as a parsnip and throwing Turkish dictionaries at the crowd below."

Of course, when the Princess (whom he named Fishy - although everyone calls her Bonito) has a suitor, the Lord Chancellor must find a way to make him acceptable to the suitor's father, who has come to arrange the marriage. A call is put out and numerous doctors provide numerous solutions:

"One eminent doctor had a lotion which he said King Herbert must rub on his head before going to bed, but King Herbert drank it all on the first night, and was very ill. So a second eminent doctor produced a powder to cure the illness caused by the first doctor, but King Herbert put a match to it, whereupon it exploded and blew his eyebrows off. So a third doctor produced a cream to replace missing eyebrows, but King Herbert put it on his teeth and they all turned bright green overnight."

Needless to say, I highly recommend this collection, especially for reading aloud.

Andrew Lang also did an abridged collection of Arabian tales called The Arabian Nights Entertainments, published (with more wonderful Ford illustrations) by Dover, as all the Lang books are. It's beautiful to look at and a great read for all ages. Less good for children, but a fascinating read, is The Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night, translated by J. C. Mardrus and Powys Mathers. This version is a relatively faithful translation of the original, complete with sort-of salacious bits, sexism, racism, and other biases of the original. It's a revealing peek into social politics in another place and time - and good stories, to boot.

If you're wanting the salacious bits pumped up a little, you should be looking for the Thousand Nights and One Night, by Richard Francis Burton, the gadabout adventurer who traveled in disguise to Mecca and was in the first trip by Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the Nile. He worked for the East India Company and, later, the Royal Geographical Society as an explorer. And, apparently, he he liked unexpurgated books (he also did a translation of the Kama Sutra).

I heard about this version of the Arabian Nights first from something (I forget what) written by Diana Wynne Jones. As it happens, she also has edited a volume of (other people's) fantasy stories, called Spellbound; wherein one chapter is taken from a book called Hobberty Dick, written by distinguished folklorist and literary historian Katherine Briggs. Just the one chapter, though, was enough to really turn my head, because the world she describes, in 1652, is one of people living under siege from the fantastic folk populating the world all around them. I never before thought about what it might be like to look out from a position of extreme superstition, where everything must be done according to rules, and in every corner of the world are spirits who may or may not be friendly - or who might turn hostile at any moment for the slightest and most whimsical reasons. So, even though this is not really a collection, I would recommend it as being unusual and interesting.

In more specific arenas, we can refine by country and subject matter.

I have always loved my copy of French Fairy Tales (the one published in 1971 by the Hamlyn Publishing Group). The stories smack deliciously of peasant tales, being all about magic things which provide food and money, or stories of outwitting the Devil - rather than the usual Perault stories like Puss in Boots and Beauty and the Beast. Hamlyn also did an English Fairy Tales, which is similar, containing such lesser known stories as Molly Whipple and The Princess and the Hazelnuts. Both of these are illustrated wonderfully by Ota Janecek. I really cannot say how interesting it is to see stories that have the true flavor of the working people in them; most fairy tales have the quality of having been handed around and polished so much that any sense of the dreams and desires of the people from whom they came have been worn away a little. These, however, reflect a certain hungry gusto which I find refreshing.

Apparently, Hamlyn Publishing Group (as in Paul Hamlyn, who was later awarded the BCE for his publishing efforts and philanthropy) also did a Chinese Fairy Tales and a Persian Fairy Tales, which both sound fascinating. I am much saddened to see that I can't recommend a place to find any of these books except the English Fairy Tales (which you can find on Amazon used), but perhaps you will have better luck.

A small but worthwhile volume is Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales, a compendium of stories about heroines: "Active, witty, brave and resourceful, these fair maidens can fight and hunt as well as any man, defeat giants, answer riddles, outwit the Devil, and rescure friends and relatives from all sorts of dangers and evil spells."

The illustrations by Margo Tomes are delicate and sometimes a little creepy, and if like me you wish there were more kick-ass fairy tale girls in the world, this is a book for you.

Another couple of small volumes are The Devil's Storybook and The Devil's Other Storybook, both by Natalie Babbit, are short, funny stories about the Devil trying to find ways to increase the population of his realm. The Devil in these books is a trickster and a cheat, always getting bored and restless and coming up to our world to see what kind of mischief he can stir up. They are comic and full of earthy gusto (but still suitable for kids):

"ONE DAY when things were dull in Hell, the Devil fished around in his bag of disguises, dressed himself as a fairy godmother, and came up into the World to find someone to bother."

They're simple, but I like them.

Lastly, I am sad to say the Journal of Mythic Arts, the voice of the Endicott Studio, "a nonprofit organization dedicated to literary, visual, and performance arts inspired by myth, folklore, fairy tales, and the oral storytelling tradition," has closed. This journal, and its attendant blog, was a great resource for all things literary and folkloric, and a place to see really worthwhile art as well. It will be mourned, but the archives remain online. You can read about it here (though I notice a picture by one of my own faves, Rima Staines, showcased on the Last Issue page, in the link above).

Other Links:

Artsy Craftsy has a wonderful selection of art prints, ecards and so on with images by Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Aubrey Beardsley, Kay Nielsen, and others. Truly worth looking at...Especially Dulac, of course; but also check out John Bauer, another fabulous illustrator.

Lisa Falzon has an interesting, introspective article here about illustrators John Bauer and Kay Nielsen and their influence on her imagination and her drawing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Unready Reading Room

I was looking for images for a project and came across this amazing image drawn by Muirhead Bone, a Scottish artist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a picture of the British Museum Reading Room, under construction. It's a little confusing, because the drawing is listed as being done in 1907, but the Reading Room is listed as being in use since 1897. Go figure.

Just in case you're wondering what it looks like now, here's a recent image:

It's always stunning to me to get a glimpse into how these spaces were built. They appear so sublime - and yet, someone had to work to make them that way. In fact, if you want to humanize it a little, know this: the ceiling surface is a type of papier-mâché.

I'll throw in these other pictures of the British Museum (below) for extra fun. I love looking at old pictures of familiar places.

Making a Manga Out of Life

My friend Gwyan sent me this link to Chris Scarborough's photography [click on "photography"] wherein he takes a picture of a real girl and then uses digital means to push her features closer to those of a manga (or anime) character. The result is quite startling.

I decided, for the purposes of the Media Literacy class I teach to 6th-graders, to make one of myself. In the body image section of the class, we explore how the media retouches all the images we see of people so that they are closer to the ideal set by the industry. Then I teach the kids how to use Photoshop, and they retouch their own image.

Maybe I've spoken of this before, but it's very interesting to me how the kids never try to turn themselves into a perfect and glamorous version of themselves. They always want to be aliens, or elves, or make themselves older, a different color, or even change gender. In any case, my hope is that they come away from the class with an insider's awareness of what is being done to all the images they are being presented with - and, as such, learn to take it all with a grain of salt, maybe even learn to dissect it a little. A lot of the ills of youth are based in the feeling that we can't possibly live up to expectation, and I feel the media is not helping this. So this is just my little bit of work toward fixing the problem.

In any case, it's so interesting to see oneself transformed into an idealized version of oneself. I am torn between horror at the result and a strange feeling that this is what I'm supposed to look like. I must be reading too many comics...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hindu Dieties for Christmas

I had a few hours to myself in San Francisco the other day (a wonder in itself), and I happened across The Little Book of Hindu Dieties, a remarkable book in that it seems to conflate Shiva, Vishnu and the rest with the Power Puff Girls. I was extremely taken with the image of Kali, so cute! And yet with the severed-arm skirt and the head in her hand...

The Little Book is the product of Pixar's Sanjay Patel, working via his gheehappy site, where you can get books, prints and clothes with the images on them. I really wished I could get a t-shirt of the Kali in the book, but alas, kids' sizes only (these links here don't work but a fix is promised). The links page is of some interest, too.

Then I found that, of course, bOINGbOING had already showcased GheeHappy, including a plush Kali doll made by a friend of Patel's:

It was tempting to buy the book, given that my kids are big on Hindu mythology comic books, which tell the gazillion tales about the panoply of Hindu gods. My elder daughter used to even talk with strangers about "severe penances," which she learned about while reading the story of Parvati. That was always interesting to try to explain; lots of sidelong looks. The comics can be a great teaching tool, and very entertaining (though you may have to suffer the odd looks if your kids take them to heart). You can get hindu comics here, if you're interested.

In any case, this made me think about going to check out what's been happening with Nina Paley, who created Sita Sings the Blues, an indescribably fabulous set of animations which, last I saw, were just that: a series of wonderful shorts from the Ramayana which she was hoping to parlay into a feature film. Now I find she has done just that, to my intense joy - but guess what? They moved the copyright year back again. She is having trouble with rights for the songs.
[editor's note: This is what happens when you try to get a blog post out in very little time after not sleeping enough. I need to check my sources! I am still trying to "rediscover" the source where I found out about this... More soon. In the meantime, it looks like there will be a big fight in 2018 when they try to extend again.]

I have to say, copyright is a tricky business - and I do mean business. Every time it looks like Disney's oldest character, namely one Mickey Mouse, is about to go out of copyright, our obliging (but certainly not corrupt; never that) government takes it into their heads to extend the date when things go out of copyright. Why is this? No one knows. Surely it couldn't have anything to do with the fact that Disney is so fabulously rich, that they can afford the most expensive lawyers to slap down independent artists and perhaps to lobby continuously about the copyright thing. No, there must be another reason.

I'm waxing sarcastic. Unlike me to be annoyed at something like this, but I have friends who have been on the wrong end of a Disney lawsuit. And I do keep hoping they'll lose the copyright one of these days. Everyone else has, throughout the history of copyright. It's supposed to be fair, right?

In Nina Paley's case, she built the shorts around songs which were due to go out of copyright, and then the dates moved were out of copyright, but then found she had to pay for synch rights - and of course, the person or corporation who held those rights is now asking far more than any individual could possibly pay. So theoretically she could be up as a felony criminal for using them without permission. Sigh. So it might never be released.

I despair at the fact that this fab-o movie came to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago but I missed it. The trailers look marvelous. Go check it out, and keep an ear to the ground about the copyright thing; Ms. Paley has a blog, a very smart and somewhat disillusioned chronicle of neat stuff. It's a crying shame it can't be released. The movie has won more awards than I've seen attached to a single animated work before. Stunning.

Here's the trailer, in case you wanted to see it:

Update: go see what Roger Ebert has to say about the movie!