Monday, June 25, 2012

Short Bits: What I've Read Lately

So I've been reading a number of things lately that aren't worthy of entire blog posts themselves, but are worthy of here goes...

As a gay kid, the Doc Savage books fascinated me, largely because of their covers. The muscular man in a tattered shirt recalled my childhood crush on Race Bannon (I'm not joking), and even as an adult I can't help but snicker a bit looking back; the images of Doc had him tailor-made to be a gay lust object, even though everyone seemed blissfully clueless about it. And even in the stories...he avoids emotional entanglements, hangs out with five other guys...hmmm, seems suspicious, eh?

Levity aside, I reread the first Doc Savage book, The Man of Bronze. It's a pulp classic, full-throttle pulp energy, throwing everything at the reader while still serving as a decent introduction to its characters and milieu. Doc's father, Clark Savage, Se., just died from a mysterious illness, and his son "Doc," aka Clark Savage, Jr., sets out with his five best friends to avenge his death. But he's attacked in his lab by mysterious assassins who seem to be Mayan, and the trail leads to a lost valley in Central America, a pocket of ancient Mayans, and to a confrontation with a vicious criminal who uses germ warfare to control a valuable resource.

It's nonsense, but it's energetic nonsense that's a ton of fun. It's got Haggardian lost civilizations coupled with Doc's slightly sci-fi gadgetry (what might now be termed "dieselpunk"). It's a worthy introduction to the series.

I mean, c'mon, how gay is this?

And then I dipped into more pulp...

Eyes of the Shadow is the second Shadow pulp novel, and suffers in comparison to the energetic first book. The second one's a bit turgid, with a slightly muddled plot about stolen Russian jewels and a group of criminals trying to kill off a series of men who were in on the secret, along with an elderly criminal who's pulling the strings and seems to get away at the end. It's OK, and has a few harrowing scenes, but was overall unmemorable.

As an aside, I recently listened to an audio version of Daniel Pinkwater's sprightly kids' book Attila the Pun, which besides being most amusing, has a character named Lamont Penumbra, who has a huge nose and skulks around by night wearing a slouch hat. Hm.

I just finished Cleek of Scotland Yard, one of Thomas Hanshew's countless Hamilton Cleek novels. Like the first, it's full of melodrama, but isn't as over-the-top enjoyable. It's basically a short-story collection given some connecting tissue, but the stories themselves are often letdowns. One mystery is a naked reworking of Doyle's "Silver Blaze." Two stories involve mysteries that turn out to be accidental, a theft that wasn't and a seeming attempted murder that turns out to be a bizarre twist of fate. One mystery is solved because by coincidence, Cleek had happened to spot the criminal doing something suspicious a year before. Another case is solved because Cleek just happens to know that a certain costume was all the rage in the Paris cabarets for a while. There are one or two noteworthy mysteries, including one of a boy who seems to vanish from a greenhouse-type room, but overall the book was a letdown.

Cleek himself becomes insufferable. He's almost moved to tears about the possible murder of a young boy, but it's so overdone and dramatic that it seems insincere. He's impossibly noble and forbearing, as well as profoundly judgmental and frequently correct in his snap judgments of people. And naturally, it ends with him being offered the crown of the country he's prince of (he's an exiled prince of a central European county, y'know), but he rejects it out of love for a common woman.

Some have wondered if Cleek was a Mary Sue for Hanshew; he's impossibly noble and blessed with every virtue, as well as being an actual prince and the object of adoration for nearly every person he meets. Not knowing much about Hanshew, I can't say.

Last up is The Benson Murder Case, the first of the Philo Vance series by S. S. Van Dine, aka Willard Huntington Wright. In this, Philo Vance, wealthy dilettante, is allowed by his pal District Attorney John S.F.X. Markham to poke around a real murder scene. Vance figures out who must be the murderer right away, and leads everyone else on a merry chase as lets on that he knows but won't share his methods or knowledge until the end.

It's a little annoying, to say the least. The crime itself isn't all that interesting (a broker is found shot in his home), and the jumping from one interview to the next gets a bit tedious. Vance himself is quite annoying at times, superior and supercilious, very affected in manner and speech, often seeming like a total prissy queen. However, it's kind of interesting on a meta level, as it was based on a real murder (the unsolved shooting of bridge expert Joseph Browne Elwell in 1920), and a method used in the book of determining a shooter's height is utter nonsense.

On the plus side, it's overflowing with real 20s atmosphere, something I always enjoy.

So, that's a sampling of some less-than-thrillworthy stuff I've read lately...entertaining enough, to be sure, but not always up to the standards one would like to employ.

More fun stuff on the way....

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Slightly Late Sunday Night at the Movies

Sorry for the delay, folks, I've had a wild few weeks. But now we're all gathered at our favorite restaurant, talking and catching up on all our adventures, trials and tribulations, and having a great time. Then, it's down the street to that old movie theater where they know us all by sight...

Since it's been a hot few days, I'm featuring some shorts that may cool us down...

And here's a pleasant surprise: the entire 1916 version of the Verne classic!

After the show, we make our way through the warm, humid air to our favorite cafe, for a glass of something cool and our final conversations before parting for the night.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE TURK, by Tom Standage

No, this isn't The Lustful Turk and other Victorian smut. This is a modern look at a remarkable bit of history.

The full title is The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, and it's a fascinating book. I've been intrigued by automata lately and I'd heard about the Turk years ago, and now I found out there's a few whole books about him. This is the easiest to find and thankfully it's a cracking good read.

The Turk was built in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor who was hoping to impress Maria Theresa, the Queen of Hungary and Croatia, as well as Queen of Bohemia, and Archduchess of Austria. (Oh, those crazy Hapsburgs...) The Queen was interested in science and engineering and was amazed by the device. It took the form of a large box with a figure in Turkish garb sitting behind it, with a chessboard on top. Von Kempelen would set up the chessboard, open the doors to show the clockwork gear inside, close them again, invite someone to sit down, and then wind up the automaton. It then proceeded to play an impressive game of chess.

Sound unlikely? It amazed the court and made von Kempelen a celebrity. He soon became an influential engineer in Hungary, but was plagued by his creation; people kept insisting he show it and let them play against it. He took it on tours of Europe and during one of those, it played against Benjamin Franklin. Von Kempelen died poor in 1804, and his son sold The Turk to Johann Malzel, a musician and showman who made The Turk world-famous. He took it on more tours of Europe (it played a game against Napoleon Bonaparte, and won), and in North and South America. Edgar Allan Poe observed the Turk in action and wrote a memorable essay, "Malzel's Chess Player," in which he put forth his theory as to how it worked. Poe got the closest of anyone, but still missed a few things and his reasoning was often flawed.

Malzel died returning from South America, and The Turk eventually ended up, half-forgotten, in a museum in Philadelphia that was eventually consumed by fire, taking The Turk with it.

Naturally, it was a hoax with a human operator; that is common knowledge today. But it was fervently believed to be an actual automaton for a long time, which can be attributed to 18th century society being wowed with the possibilities of technology and thinking anything was achievable. As the 19th century dawned and more complicated machines became commonplace, like steam engines and locomotives, people began to realize that The Turk couldn't be an actual thinking machine and more blatantly suspected a hoax. (What's amazing is that some people today still believe it wasn't a hoax, as if that sort of advanced artificial intelligence technology was available in 1770!)

But I won't reveal some of the exact workings of the device; you'll have to read that for yourself. And a replica has been made that matches the original to the best of all reports.

Standage's book is a fun, zesty read that also looks at The Turk's role in the development of computers (it was an inspiration to Charles Babbage) and its legacy in the era of Big Blue and other chess-playing computers. The Turk was also an inspiration to the literary world. Many wrote about it or things like it, like Ambrose Bierce in "Moxon's Master" and John Dickson Carr in The Crooked Hinge. A few plays were written about it as well, none of them terribly accurate.

Search this out; it's in print and available in libraries as well.  And here's a video featuring the reconstruction:

And another of a charming model made of The Turk:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I'm still here

Haven't been reading much blog-worthy, and work has been taking a toll, and my social life has been having ups and downs. I took a long road trip today, and I'll have some photos later. And if I finish the book I'm reading soon I can review that. And some other stuff.

Sorry for the little break. I'll be back soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dust & Corruption Calendar for June 2012

It's June, summer is off and running, and the livin' is anything but easy because we're grown up now and don't have months off to cavort in the sunlight. But there's always a few things to attract our attention...

6/1 to 6/23 - Artomatic! The DC area's signature arts event, with loads of visual and performance pieces available. Go on multiple days, you'll need a few to take it all in. Pay close attention to the 11th floor, were several of my friends have installations. 1851 S Bell St, Crystal City, VA. Check the Artomatic website for hours and schedules of performances.

6/7 - Hot Todd Lincoln's Burly-Q Barbecue. Burlesque & comedy, hosted by my pal Hot Todd Lincoln. Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC. Doors 8:30, showtime 9:00, $10.

6/14 - A Midsummer Night's Enchantment. A grown-up evening at DC's Tudor Place; stroll the gardens, peruse vintage illustration art from old fairy-tale books, and nosh on snacks and cocktails. Tudor Place, 1644 31st St NW, Washington, DC. 6:00 to 8:00; free to Tudor Place members, $15 to the general public. 

6/20 - The Evil League of Ecdysiasts Presents: Whedonism! A Tribute to Joss Whedon. Burlesque and comedy tribute to writer/director Joss Whedon. Red Palace. Doors 8:30, showtime 9:00, $10.

Alas, not a whole heck of a lot happening this month, but I'm sure you can find something to fill in the time, can't you?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Phantom Serenade, Untouched by Human Hands

A concert at the museum! Usually they're quite interesting occasions, and tonight's is no different. In conjunction with a new exhibit, we're given a tune from the 1700s, from an unusual musician.

I've been fascinated by automata lately, and this one is a classic. The "Joueuse de Tympanon" was indeed created in 1772 as a present for Mare Antoinette, and is in truth a miniature version of her. She plays about 8 different tunes, depending on which drum was inserted. And for a while, her hair was actually made from Marie's, and her outfit from her clothes. La Joueuse was badly damaged during the French Revolution but was restored in the 1800s.

All that said, there is something creepy out her, like something from Hoffmann or Poe. One can't help but wonder if she gets loose and commits horrible deeds in the city at night...