Saturday, December 18, 2010

Straco, Cragstan, and Bandai -- the comparison

I've been puzzling over these three toy train sets that have come into my possession. They all share the same track, but not much else. I know that one set was made by Bandai, and that the other two were made by Japanese companies for American importers. Did Bandai make all three, or did they all buy their track from a Japanese subcontractor?

Front to rear: Straco, Cragstan (?), and Bandai sets

If anyone has any info about these sets, I'd love to see it!

In the meantime, here's a comparison of the three sets. All are approximately HO scale, and all three operate off a battery power pack. The Bandai set consists of a diesel, a tank car, a gondola car, and a caboose. The Cragstan(?) set (I'm not sure it is Cragstan) is made up of a diesel engine and two box cars. The Straco set has a fairly detailed diesel switcher, a box car, gondola car, and caboose. Here's how they stack up.

Cragston(?) diesel (top) and Bandai diesel (bottom)

While the Cragstan diesel is more proportionally accurate, the Bandai engine required more involved manufacture. Cragstan's engine is basically a flat surface with applied lithography. Although it's not very clear from the photo, the Bandai has windows punched in the frame, as well as embossed detail. Both have a two-part body assembly (although it's easier to see where the nose section attaches on the Bandai piece).

Bandai gondola (top and Straco gondola (bottom)

As you can see, the Straco cars are shorter than those in the Bandai set. It's difficult to say which was more expensive to manufacture. The Bandai car has the entire frame painted black, including the interior. The blue sides have raised details stamped into the metal. The Straco car has flat sides but is lithographed both inside and out. Plus the ends are a more complicated folded metal shape.

Bandai caboose (top) and Straco caboose (bottom)

As handsome as most of the Straco set is, the caboose almost looks like an afterthought, especially when compared to the Bandai version. Both have bent ends, but the Bandai caboose has punched out sections to better simulate railing. The Straco caboose has smooth sides and roof for easier application of the graphics, while the Bandai used a stamper to provide detail (and open windows). It seems to me that if Bandai was contracted to produce the Straco set, they could have saved money by reusing the frame of their older caboose, and just putting a smooth metal body on top of that.

So are these three sets all products of the same company, or do they all have different sources?


Friday, December 17, 2010

Straco, Bandai, and Cragstan -- the hookup

No, it's not a band -- nor a law firm. As near as my limited research can tell, these are the four firms involved with the three disparate toy train sets I own. As I explained last post, these three sets have little in common, save the track supplied with them (click on the images to enlarge).

Left to right: Bandai set, Cragstan set (?), Straco set
So here's it goes: the set on the right, the Straco Express was made in Japan for the J. Strauss Company (Straco). The one on the left was made by Bandai, while the one in the middle was made by Bandai for Cragston (perhaps -- my info on this one is a little sketchy). I've also seen Distler and/or Karl Bub credited with similar trains. In all cases, the names attached were those of either the supplier or the distributor. And the supplier was simply putting their name on product manufactured for them in Japan.

So did Bandai make all three sets? Not sure. The track is identical, but the designs are completely different. Did each company commission a new design from scratch? It's possible, but it seems to me that Bandai would have reused some basic parts for all three -- such as couplers, trucks (wheels), or even car frames. But as you can see from the following comparisons, that's not the case.

The Cragstan(?) set uses directional coupling -- each car has a hook on one end, and an eye on the other, so the cars can only be connected in the same orientation.

Detail of the Cragston(?) box car's couplers.
 The Straco Express features a similar concept, but a different coupler design entirely!

Detail of the Straco gondola car's couplers.
 On the other hand, the Bandai set uses a universal coupler, with both the hook and eye incorporated into the same piece of metal. These cars can be connected facing either direction. It's much cheaper to use the same coupler on both ends, so if Bandai did make all three sets, why not use this design across the board?

If the same track wasn't included in all three sets, I wouldn't be asking these questions, but it seems odd that costs would be saved with track, and not with other measures. It's what led me to wonder if Bandai got the track from another Japanese company. Curious.

Next post we'll compare and contrast the rolling stock of the three sets.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Straco Express and the Mystery Train(s)

The problem with being interested in ephemera is that few others are (hence the designation) -- even the folks that created it. Take, for example, the cheap train set I picked up at a toy train meet. I'd written before about the Straco Express, and how -- remarkably -- it shared some characteristics with another train I'd owned for years. Specifically, they had exactly the same track (like the section at left).

Recently I found another toy train online, and successfully won it at auction. I wasn't necessarily interested in the train, just the track. Because between the track that came with the Straco Express and that still with my childhood train, I was exactly one curved piece short of a completed oval. Although the trains were approximately HO scale, they wouldn't work on modern track. The flanges of the wheels were too wide. Only the track that came with the trains had rails tall enough to accommodate the wheels.

The strange thing is that this train bears no resemblance to either of the other two that I have, as you can see from the photo, below (click on the image to enlarge). My suspicion is that the same Japanese company was contracted by three different firms to create an inexpensive HO scale train set. It would explain the use of the same track.

But that's where the resemblance ends. Even if the trains needed to look a little different for each client, I would expect some elements of manufacture to be recycled to further cut costs. If all three had the same couplers, for example, no one would really notice. Or the same trucks. But each of these trains using completely different tooling.

A recent discussion in the Train Collector's Quarterly publication had some additional information about these trains. The one I recently purchased was made by Bandai back in the early 1960's. Did Bandai make the other two as well, or did they further sub-contract and purchase the track for their sets from yet another Japanese firm?

Next post I'll go into more detail about what I've discovered so far about these mystery trains, and how they differ from one another.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

CD Review: Ferdinand Ries - a kinder, gentler Beethoven

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos, Vol. 4
Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Uwe Grodd, conductor

Ferdinand Ries is best remembered today (if at all) as Beethoven’s  personal assistant.  Although he served that role well – securing performances, publication deals and more – that wasn’t originally why their paths crossed. Ries came to Beethoven in 1803 to study composition.

Like his mentor, Ries was a piano virtuoso as well as a composer. His piano concertos were written primarily for his own use, to provide material he could use in performance – a standard practice of the day for any touring virtuoso.

Naxos has released four volumes of Ries’ concerti, the most recent featuring two of these works plus a shorter fantasia for piano and orchestra. So what does Ries’ music sound like? Sort of like a kinder, gentler Beethoven. His works have the same general structure, with some of the same harmonic turns that Beethoven favored. You’ll also hear big orchestral chords hammering away at important cadence points. But there the similarities end.

Ries is more concerned with tuneful melodies than delivering pronouncements from on high. His motifs are light and appealing. While the solo piano part is challenging technically, it’s more about taking the listener along on a thrilling melodic journey rather than fully exploring the potential of either the instrument or the motifs.

Stylistically, Ferdinand Ries straddles the late classical and early romantic era. The Introduction et Rondeau Brillant Wo54 which appears on this release, is a good illustration of that. While not entirely free of Beethoven’s influence, Ries’ work seems more Schubertian in its free-form development.

Pianist Christopher Hinterhuber turns in a top-notch performance on this recording (as does Uwe Grodd and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra). His playing is light and fluid – perfectly suited to this material – yet it has power when it needs to. Hinterhuber really makes the cadenzas sparkle, and gives the impression that Ries’ music is actually fun to play.  An appealing collection of works for piano and orchestra!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Get ready for the reviews

One of the things I used to do quite frequently was review recordings. Most of them were published in 9X Magazine, the in-house publication of the Plan Nine Music record retail chain. It was a lot of fun, and a great excuse to sit around and listen to music. Recently, I've been given the opportunity to review again, this time for various sites across the Internet.

Since I don't know who will run across these reviews, I'll also be publishing them here as kind of a way to archive them. Plus, with the amount of writing I'm currently doing, an opportunity to have a piece do double-duty is more than welcome! Please feel free to add your comments about my commentary...

Monday, December 06, 2010

WTJU and the Fatal Fund-drive

The big news today (at least in the world of non-commercial broadcasting) is an article published in the New York Times.Waning Support for College Radio Stations Sets Off a Debate profiles two college radio stations on the chopping block: KTRU (Vanderbilt University) and WRVU (Rice University). Why? It's a way to cut expenses, and the perception is that no one listens, anyway.

It's a situation we know something about at WTJU (University of Virginia), having lived through a proposed format change that would have turned us into the third American/Roots station in our market.

WTJU is now entering it's Winter Fund-Drive, with our traditional Classical Music Marathon. For the next six days and nights, the classical department will take over the station (as did the jazz department in the fall, and the rock and folk departments will in the spring) and ask for the financial support of our listeners.

During the summer, when classical programming was on the chopping block, many people stepped forward to show their support for our multi-formatted station. But will they be there with the dollars? That's the question that we'll answer over the next six days.

If you're a listener to WTJU, either through our on-air signal or over the Internet, now is the time to step forward with a pledge. We need to raise $40,000 to make up the shortfall in our operating budget. I'll be on the air fund-raising of course, and even hosting all of the overnight segments!

Will we be part of the New York Times' self-proclaimed trend, or the exception to it? That will be up to our exceptional listeners.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Democracy Inaction

As I've mentioned before, I've been following the Twitter feeds of my elected officials (those that tweet, that is). Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) has really picked up the pace with his Twitter feed. I've been getting something from him every day and then some.

While he -- or most likely his staff -- have got the broadcasting part of Twitter down, they don't seem to do so much with the conversational part. Early on I did receive a response to my reply of one of his tweets, but not recently.

And that's a shame. Because while Twitter isn't the be-all-end-all of communication (or even social networking), it can be an effective way to have an ongoing conversation with constituents. I admit I don't share a lot of Rep. Cantor's views, but I try to be respectful in my conversations. But, alas, we don't seem to talk anymore. Here's our conversation over the past two days.

 GOPWhip: Take note: Members who vote "yes" on the rule for Dems' Tax Bill are voting to raise taxes & kill jobs. I'm voting "no."
10:51am, Dec 02

  RalphGraves: @gopwhip Just curious: is there *any* legislation you'll vote "yes" to? I understand what you're against. I don't know what you're for.  
10:58am, Dec 02 

[No reponse]


 GOPWhip: GOP majority must take incremental but significant steps to earn back public trust on fiscal issues starting w/common-sense spending cuts  
2:16pm, Dec 03 

 RalphGraves: @gopwhip This might be a good place to start. What about the Tea Party Caucus taking $1 billion in earmarks?

[No response]

Gee whiz. Even the equivalent of the form letter would be nice. Something along the lines of "Thank you for your tweet.We value your opinion."


I guess sometimes it's hard to hear the voices outside the echo chamber.

But I remain hopeful.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


You may recall the little dust-up in the Town of Orange concerning the use of the town's public transport system to transport students to a private Christian school -- an agreement made by the former town manager without the knowledge of most of the town council.

Well, according to the Fredricksburg Free-Lance Star, the story gets even better. In the most recent council meeting,
Greg McGowen, transit manager with Virginia Regional Transit, the nonprofit owner and operator of the bus system in Orange and many other localities told council members that former Town Manager John Bailey had told him the council would agree to the bus being used by students because members had children who attended the school.

None of the council members have children in the school, and Bailey did not consult the council about the arrangement.

The council fired Bailey Sept. 20.
The town council voted to discontinue the service at the end of the December, but as mayor, Chuck Mason said, "The issue was that the bus was being taken away from the people it was meant to help. But we left the door open for the school to come back with an alternative, such as buying or renting a bus."

Which, in my opinion, is what should have been the arrangement from the start.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A directory of literature (kind of)

So as I've been plugging away at my current National Novel Writing Month tome, and posting my progress on social media sites. Folks have been asking if they can read my latest work. Well, no. "The Army of Crime" isn't finished yet, and not really ready for public viewing.

However, a fair number for people (OK, mostly friends) have asked about the book I finished for last year's NaNoMo, and the one I did for the year before that.

Fair enough. Here they are.

First off, though, a little background: just thinking about novel writing seemed an imposing challenge to me, especially when I thought about all the great literary novels already written.

So I lowered my standards.

I've always been interested in the pulp literature of the 1930's, and was intimately familiar with the style. So more as an exercise than anything else, I decided to write my own pulp.

The initial story, "Murder Squad" was framed by a back story. In a forward I talked about discovering that my great-uncle Ralph (I really had such a relative),  a renowned non-fiction author of the 1950's (totally fiction) had a secret pre-war career as a pulp magazine author. He worked for a minor magazine publisher, and created a hero pulp character -- Raven -- to compete with the more popular Shadow, Doc Savage, and the Spider.

It was a lot of fun to write. So much so, that I couldn't resist writing another book with the same characters (or rather, I discovered another manuscript from great-uncle Ralph in the attic).

When I started the National Novel Writing Month event, I knew that time was of the essence. So I did a third novel about Raven. And then last year a fourth. And this year will be the fifth. I actually have about 20 outlines for Raven novels, taking the character from 1936 to the start of World War II, when many publishers (including my fictional one) discontinued their pulp magazines due to the paper shortage (and the rising popularity of comic books).

Below are links to all the novels. One thing to keep in mind: while the writing is done, the editing has yet to start in earnest on any of these. I've tried to clean up as many mistakes as I can find, but there may be some plot points that need fixing, chronologies that need tweaking, and other structural issues a professional editor would see and correct. It's only after they've been edited that I will officially offer them to the world (and you'll see them on Amazon).

Murder Squad
Men mysteriously die of a weapon that doesn't fire bullets! Toy police badges are left at the scene of the crime! What does it mean? Can Raven solve the puzzle before becoming the next victim?

The Crimson Cypher
A dead thief found in an isolated farm yard clutches a coded message in his hand -- a message that pits Raven and Crow against a merciless army of killers in an international race to rescue Police Commissioner Rowland from certain death and save America from saboteurs!

Death in Five States
A beautiful young heiress is trapped in an express train full of killers! Can Raven and Crow reach her in time as the train of doom hurtles across the country, leaving a trail of murder behind it?

The Purple Doom
A mysterious figure holds sway over New York society. His demands are simple: pay to live, or die the horrible death known as the Purple Doom! And after Commissioner Rowland and MacGuffey are attacked, Raven must fight alone to stop the Purple Doom from destroying an entire city!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Election Day Fallout

Now that the election's over (and my head's had a chance to clear), I'd like to talk about an unfortunate side-effect of the process (and no, this isn't about actual results). I'd like to know if others acorss the country experienced something similar this election cycle.

I live in the 7th District of Virginia, where our House of Representatives race was between Eric Cantor (R), Rick Waugh, (D), and Floyd Bayne (I). Comcast, our local cable provider is located in the next town over, also located in the 7th District.

The biggest city in the area is Charlottesville, which is located in the 5th District. That was the battle ground of both parties, where Tom Perriello (D) fought to keep his seat against Richard Hurt (R). In addition to both local campaigns taking out ads, both national parties did so too, as well as many special interest groups, political actuion committees, and even some asstro-turf movements.

Our local cable provider uses the Charlottesville stations for its ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox feeds. Which meant I saw back-to-back-to-back-to back political ads for/against Perriello or Hurt. I didn't mind too much -- all of those ads were just part of what was being broadcast in Charlottesville.

Now the local Comcast provider, like others throughout the country, has the option of preempting ads on the cable channels to insert locally produced commercials. I expected to see some ads from either the Cantor or Waugh campaigns on those channels. No dice. All available slots were taken up with Perrirello and Hurt ads. So even on Scy-Fi, AMC, the Food Network, and TNT I was subjected to two or three of these 5th District ads at a time.

I never did see any ads for the candidates running in my district. And since our local news comes from Charlottesville, I never heard anything about the 7th District campaign on any station that Comcast provided.

Of course, I did my own research through the Internet, and tried to use other news sources from Richmond to find out what was going on. But I wonder: how many people still rely almost exclusively on TV for their information. And how many ented the polls in my district and saw the roster of candidates for the first time?

Did it make a difference in the results? Probably not. Cantor was pretty much a shoe-in. But would the race have been closer? Hard to say. The only information Comcast chose to give me was for a race I had no vote in. Now how does that serve the local customer?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

What Would Jesus Toot?

An interesting problem arose recently in the small town I live in. It's one with a number of issues bundled together, yet most of the players can only seem to see one aspect of it.

The Town Of Orange Transit (TOOT) is a subsidized shuttle bus service. For twenty-five cents, residents in the town can catch a ride around town and to certain locations outside of town.

At the most recent town council meeting, it was revealed that the former town manager had made arrangements with the Cornerstone Christian School, located seven miles away in the next county to provide transportation to and from the school. Since there were a significant number of students who came from Orange, it seemed like a good idea to those involved in that decision.

The majority of the council knew nothing of the arrangement until it was called to their attention -- primarily due to a complaint by a regular rider that the bus wasn't on its regular route at its scheduled time because it was transporting these students.

A heated discussion followed. Parents of the children involved didn't see what the problem was, and wanted the service to continue. A few of the council members (including the cousin of the headmaster) thought everything was fine. But most of the council was very uncomfortable with the decision, although in the end they agreed to let it stand -- at least temporarily.

Personally, I wouldn't have had a problem with the school renting the bus and paying the driver's salary to make the run. Then school funds would be used to transport their students -- not public money.

It would also be different if the bus stop in Madison County was, say, in the center of town of Madison and other people in addition to the students were using the bus to travel to Madison. With other riders using the service to do their shopping or go to work in Madison, TOOT would be serving the general public. But this bus is going out to the school for the sole purpose of transporting these students and only these students -- there's nothing else around it. So the town of Orange is in a real sense underwriting the transportation costs for a private Christian school.

But for me as a Christian (worse yet -- Presbyterian) the issue of the separation of church and state was trumped by a comment made in the meeting. The grandmother of one of the students -- and part of the county's more prominent families -- said:

"The parents of these students are more important to the tax base of the town than the elderly and underprivileged people of this community."

Wow. I am hard-pressed to find any Christian thought in that statement.

After all, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40) 

So however the elderly and underprivileged are treated in Orange by professed Christians, so (by proxy) do they treat Christ. A disturbing point to miss in any discussion involving Christian education... 

Monday, November 01, 2010

Where's Ralph? Writing again

Well, it's November, and time for me to start my annual National November Writing Month novel. The goal is to create a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I've managed to do it the past two years, and for some reason, feel strangely confident that I can do it again.

So where are those other masterworks? Still not ready for prime time, I'm afraid. I consider my NaNoMo novels practice works, giving me an opportunity to hone my writing skills. I like the near-impossible deadline as it keeps me from second-guessing myself. Should I just describe the table, or craft it as a metaphor for modern life? Doesn't matter. Clock's ticking, just write something.

The other problem with my novels is that, in my opinion, they are so specialized that they would appeal to a very, very, very small number of people at all. All of my NaNoWriMo novels are homages to the hero pulps of the 1930's. So to really understand and appreciate what I'm doing, you really have to:

1) Be familiar with pulp literature of the 1930's, as it was published in popular magazines of the day.
 Most of it was never reprinted, save by small specialty presses, so chances are the average person has never run across any examples of this genre.

2) Know what a hero pulp is. It was a specialized pulp magazine sub-genre, based on a heroic character.
Each issue would feature a lead novel of 30,000-60,000 words about the character. The Shadow is a good example. So is Doc Savage and the Avenger. Both of them had their adventures reprinted in paperback series in the 1970's (but how many people know or even read them?).

3) Know the style well enough to understand what I'm doing.
This is the hardest part of all. I'm not making fun of the purple prose and breathless action sequences dished out by Walter Gibson, Lester Dent, Norvell Page and countless other authors. These aren't pastiches. Rather, I'm celebrating the accomplishments of these authors by trying to write in a style that is authentic as possible to their work (without imitating it).
I'm taking my characters and situations just as seriously as they would. I'm not putting in any deliberate anachronisms, nor slipping in any type of modern subtext as a wink to the reader.

So given such a small audience, I know I'll never see any of these on a New York Times best-seller list.

So what about self-publishing? With e-books, its certainly easy enough, but there's a final step that needs to be taken. Before I would consider it, I would have these manuscripts professionally edited. I think they're basically good, but I also know that I don't see everything. I know why that character's in the room, but did I communicate the reason to the reader? I'd like these to be an enjoyable read, and that's something that editing can ensure.

In the meantime, though, I'll be banging away at this month's novel. I don't have to answer to any accountant to justify why I'm writing this instead of something more commercial, nor do I have to explain to an editor just what the heck happened in the last chapter. It's all unfettered fun, and I expect to enjoy every minute of it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Recovery - Day 4

Powerwalking w/2 lb. weights
Day 4
Time: 11:45
Distance: .4888

Day 3
Time: 9:54
Distance .3707 miles

Day 2
Time: 6:47
Distance: .2737 miles

Day 1
Time: 4:17
Distance: .1517 miles

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Recovery - Day 3

Powerwalking w/2 lb. weights
Day 3
Time: 9:54
Distance .3707 miles

Day 2
Time: 6:47
Distance: .2737 miles

Day 1
Time: 4:17
Distance: .1517 miles

Here's what this post is about.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Recovery - Day 2

Powerwalking w/2 lb. weights
Day 1
Time: 4:17
Distance: .1517 miles

Day 2
Time: 6:47
Distance: .2737 miles

Here's what this post is about.

Why I still by CDs (it's not because I'm old)

Yes, I still look for -- and purchase -- CDs. I'm not a technological dinosaur by any means. I have no problem downloading (legally) just the hit song of a current group. I, like many others, am not willing to pay for filler.

There are three basic reasons why I still purchase a lot of music and rip it myself, though. If you haven't gone all-digital, perhaps one or more of these apply to you.

Liner notes
Most of the music I purchase these days falls into one of two categories. If it's popular music, then I'm getting compilation albums of obscure genres, defunct record labels, or career highlights of forgotten or little-known bands.

I always know what I'm getting into musically, but I rely on the liner notes to put things into context. How did the label start? Why did it fail? What was the band's lineup at the time of the recording? How was the regional market for this genre different than the national? These are some of the things I expect the compilation liner notes to answer (and for the most part they do -- especially British releases. They take this stuff seriously).

I also buy a lot of classical music, and liner notes are equally important there. I'm long past the stage where I need to read about Beethoven tearing up the dedication page to the "Eroica" symphony. I'm very familiar with that story -- but then I'm not buying yet another version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, either.

Rather, I'm purchasing works by lesser-known composers, or modern composers. I rely on the liner notes to provide biographical information (especially for the newer composers), and detailed information surrounding either the composition or performance history of the work.

Was Joachim Raff's first symphony well-received? How was Leo Smit's music saved and championed after his death in a concentration camp? How did Robert Simpson fit into the musical world of Tudor England? This information helps me appreciate the works on a different level. They're not just music floating in space, but rather part of the vast continual tapestry of classical music stretching from the middle ages to the present day.

Multi-movement classical works
I know for most people, hearing a single movement out of a symphony or a piano sonata is no big deal. It's short, it has the hit tune, and after a few minutes its over.

Unfortunately, I don't function like that. While early music suites were put together casually (even by the composers) and could be mixed and matched, by the time you get to the 1600's, composers are starting to use mult-movements in their works to provide contrast and drama. Monteverdi in 1624 strings together several madrigals to make up his drama "Il combattimento di Tancreci e Clorinda." Each madrigal stands alone musically, but it's only when you hear them in sequence that the full story and dramatic pacing comes through.

And most of the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven was written specifically for multi-movement forms. The typical classical symphony begins with an uptempo rousing first movement. Then there's a slower second movement in a related key to change the pace. Then a lively scherzo (but much lighter musically than the first movement) in triple time to get the juices flowing again. Finally, the last movement, which is lighter in construction than the first movement, but faster to get everyone excited again.

While each movement has a beginning and end, they're not four separate pieces of music strung together. Beginning in the1800s composers carried over themes, motives, rhythmic patterns from movement to movement. So to fully appreciate the over-arching structure of the music, you really have to hear all the movements in order.

I can't purchase classical music except movement by movement ($$$) and once I've downloaded it, I can't really control how they'll show up in shuffle. Yes, I could make folders for each work, but really: that doesn't solve the problem.

In iTunes, I can join adjacent tracks to play as one continuous "song." Works for me. Now when Haydn's "London" symphony comes up on shuffle play, I know I'll hear the whole thing (which is the way I want it). Ditto for Vaughan William's chamber opera "Riders to the Sea."

Multi-disc classical works
Unfortunately, I can't load everything onto iTunes and join tracks. Havergal Brian's First Symphony is so big, it's spread over two discs. And you can only join tracks from a single disc in iTunes. So that one has to sit on my shelf for later listening. Ditto with my Wagner Ring Cycle (averaging 3-4 per opera), and other larger symphonic and operatic works.

So if I want to listen to something that runs more than 75 minutes (and I do with fair frequency), my only recourse is to pull the discs off the shelf and put them on.

Unavailable and irreplaceable recordings
Most of the stuff I'm really interested in just doesn't turn up that often as a digital download. So even if I wanted to go that route, I generally don't have that option. A good number of the discs I purchase are actually out of print (or seem to become so shortly after I buy them).

But that's fine, because at least I have a hard copy for backups. And I've needed them. I recently had a 1TB hard drive go belly up before I could adequately back up my music library. I lost some downloads I'm not interested in replacing, and some I won't be able to even if I could (the band websites are no longer online) but the Kurt Hessenburg Symphony on Cassandra? No problem.

So that's why I still buy CDs. Most of them used, many out of print, but still. The ones I pick up still have value beyond the digital tracks they contain.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Recovery - one step at a time!

Yesterday I finished up three and half months of hospital treatment (friends and family know what for -- that's not the point of this post), which left my body pretty beat up. I had just started doing some serious running when this thing hit, and after an enforced period of inactivity, I'm raring to get back on the road. Like my writing partner Ken, I'll be documenting that return as a way to keep me going!

This week it will be all power walking with 2-lb. weights (and probably next week as well). As you'll see, these early stats will be rubbish, but I'm hoping they improve. Here we go!

Today's stats:

Powerwalking w/2 lb. weights
Time: 4:17
Distance: .1517 miles

Tomorrow will be better.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

NPR, Juan Williams, and the collateral damage

I've had more than enough of the pundits nattering on about NPR's firing of Juan Williams. What hasn't been talked about, though, is the damage NPR did to their affiliate stations by this reactionary and ill-thought move.

A little background
These days, most people use the terms "NPR" and "public radio" interchangeably. But they're not. Each of the hunderds of radio stations across the public radio system is independently owned and operated -- many still primarily licensees of universities and colleges.

Each independant public radio station (just like your local TV station) runs a mixture of locally and nationally produced programming. NPR is a network similar to NBC or Fox. Your local TV station may identify itself as "Fox 19" or "NBC 12" to make that association stronger. For decades, NPR has been encouraging local stations to do that as well, and so effectively that many listeners think their local station IS NPR.

But just as there are many syndicators that provide programming to television stations (King Features, Viacomm, etc.) there are others that provide programming to public radio. People mistakenly say they like "A Prarie Home Companion" on NPR. Garrison Keillor's show is actually produced and provided by American Public Media (APM) -- not NPR. (APM also produces "Marketwatch.")

If you're hearing "This American Life" on your radio, you're not hearing it on NPR. That feed's coming from Public Radio International (PRI).

But the reality is that virtually all public stations carry NPR's "tentpole" programs -- "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." They're called that because for many stations, their audiences dramatically spike when those two shows come on. And they bring in the most pledges from said audiences. Some stations raise three-quarters of their operating budget from pledges made during those shows.

Which is good -- because NPR programming is expensive. For some stations, carriage fees (primarily to NPR) can account for half their operating budget. But after two decades of careful brand placement, most stations are stuck. They don't dare drop NPR -- nothing from APM or PRI could possibly replace the audience and the cash (although their shows are significantly less expensive).

Left hand, meet right hand
Most public stations are in the middle of their fall fund drives. NPR puts out suggested dates for their affliates to do these drives. They provide special fund-raising breaks and mentions in thier programs to help the stations out (and to further cement the link in the audiences' minds that their local station IS NPR).

So this controversial firing happened in the middle of the mostly-NPR corodinated fund drives for public radio stations across the country. You would think someone at NPR would realise this was the wrong to time do such a thing. Especially because they made this mistake before. When NPR dismissed the popular Bob Edwards, it was also in the middle of an NPR-corodinated fund drive, and the reaction didn't really hurt NPR, but it hammered the member stations.

Killing the messenger
Remember: to most people, the local station IS NPR. So the local stations have been forced to bear the full fury of listeners (and Faux News dittoheads) calling and expressing their outrage at NPR's bone-headed move. It's tied up phone lines and interferred with the fund drives.

But it's done something more dangerous. Just like the Bob Edwards controversy, people are voting with their dollars. Pledges are being cancelled, underwriters are pulling their contracts, and as a result, some local stations are taking a serious financial hit.

And whether or not the station makes its goal, when that carriage fee bill comes from NPR it will need to be paid in ful -- or elsel. The local station, which has no input into what NPR does, will have to make due with less money. NPR will receive the same amount from the local station they always have.

The bottom line -- keep pledging!
So regardless of how you feel about Juan Williams and NPR, please support your local public radio station. It needs your help more than ever.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A legal resolution to an embarrassing situation

The WTJU copyright issue, day 53 -- resolution.

That's the big news in my little world. I finally got a response from the general manager at WTJU, and so formally sent off my consent to have my image used on the WTJU website.

Good thing I wasn't in a litigious mood! But I always felt it was something best handled between rational adults rather than hired lawyers. So what did I do? I granted the University of Virginia and WTJU the non-exclusive right to use my image in full or in part in any media they chose for the support of WTJU. I also stipulated that should the image be used in full, the phrase "courtesy Ralph Graves" should appear either in the lower right hand corner of the image, or directly under it. I further waived any fees for the use of this image.

If you're not of a legal bent, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. It's simply this. According to current copyright law, when something is created, it is automatically the property of the creator. You don't have to register the work with the Copyright Office. So the image used (until today without my permission) was my property.

By granting a non-exclusive license to UVa and WTJU, I gave them permission to use the image, but I can still use it, and I can grant other people or organizations permission to use it as well. I know they only wanted to use part of the image, so I included that in the permission. But if they decide (for some reason) to do a postcard or a print add with the full image, then I'd like to get credit, primarily to serve notice to others that the image is owned by someone (me).

So there you have it. It always was a simple transaction, and should not have dragged on for two months, but in the end everyone (even me) got what we wanted. WTJU can use my picture, and I can still claim the image as mine.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Crowdsourcing Judge Parker

Yesterday I made an observation about the Judge Parker comic strip that turned out not be true. I had thought that current artist Mike Manley was the first to depict the exterior of the Spenser farm house, but an anonymous poster provided some panels from previous artist Eduardo Barreto showing the same structure (like the one below - click on image to enlarge).

Still, I appreciate Manley's attention to detail. It's definitely the same house, with the same number of windows on each side of the door.

If you consider how much time the average person spends reading a daily strip (measured in seconds), this level of craftsmanship is far above what the artist need to do to "get by."

So well done. Mr. Manley. And also many thanks to our anonymous commentator for setting the record straight!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A milestone for Judge Parker?

I've been reading Judge Parker since I was in high school, and I think today something significant happened in the strip. In the panel below, you'll see something that I don't recall seeing rendered by any other Judge Parker artist -- the exterior of Abby Spenser's house.

Harold LeDoux, long-time artist for the strip was the master of the interior. He had a very clear idea of what the breakfast nook in the kitchen looked like, for example, and consistently depicted it throughout the years. The curtains were always the same pattern, the furniture always in the same place (in relation to the angle shown in the panel), and so on. He showed the same attention to detail with Sam Driver's office, and other recurring locations.

LeDoux didn't depict exteriors much, though. He occasionally would show all of Spenser Farms laid out in the distance when characters were on a hill overlooking the estate, but when they got close to the house, it was basically head shots and door frames.

Eduardo Barreto, who replaced him, also stuck mostly to interiors. So hats off to Mike Manley, the newest artist to take over the strip, for venturing into new ground. Frankly, I always thought the house would be an upscale version of a 50's ranch home, but Southern antebellum works, too.

The WTJU copyright issue, day 43.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Welcome to Off Topic'd

It's been quite a while since our last post, and many things have changed.

When Ken and I started "CE Conversations" back in 2006, the idea was to do a blog about consumer electronics (the "C.E." of the title), and for Ken and I to alternate posts in an open conversation (the "Conversations" of the title).

It very soon turned into a blog about other things we were interested in, such as movies, books, personal observations on life and culture (both high and popular). And as Ken got more involved with other projects, his participation lessened, making CE Conversations more like RG Monologues.

So we've worked on a redesign and a new title, and here we are.

CE Conversations becomes Off Topic'd
"Off Topic'd" is a play on the words "Off Topic." The cardinal rule of blogging is to stick to a single topic -- be it fly fishing or genealogy -- and write exclusively about that. Audience builds because readers know what to expect -- another fascinating post about knitting (or whatever).

The problem is that I'm deeply interested in a bunch of different things -- some related, some not. Plus, I write and edit blogs professionally, so I already write tightly focussed posts as part of my job.

CE Conversations/Off Topic'd I write for fun, so I'm writing about whatever I feel like. Sure, the numbers may not get very high, but that's OK. Some people get it.

So the title refers to my preference to go off topic as often as I care to. It's more fun that way.

Where's Ken?
Ken's still around, and we still work closely together -- our conversations are offline now, I'm afraid. Ken remains a writer of this blog, and he'll contribute whenever he feels like it (he, too, writes professionally on deadline, so writing without a deadline is fun).

An Invitation for Writers
And that's where you come in. I'd love to share this blog with a few other like-minded (read: eclectic) writers. Drop me a line if you're interested. No money -- just glory.

So is there a theme to Off Topic'd?
Yes, there is. My motto is "finding beauty in ephemera." I like to hold up for examination things that usually don't get much attention even the first time around -- like comic strip art. I also like to look for patterns of behavior and try to move from the specific to the general -- like trying to find general characteristics in collecting. And sometimes there are things I just think people should know about if they don't already -- like knowing what "cutting the Gordian knot" means.

Bottom line: this blog has a new look and new title, but basically it's just a readjustment to what the blog has actually become rather than a change of direction.

Hope you enjoy!

And of course, if you have any ideas, suggestions, or questions. contact me. There's still a conversation or two to be had here.


The WTJU copyright issue, day 23. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Time for a new tack

Well, a week ago I contacted the General Manager of WTJU to alert him about a copyright violation on the new WTJU website. Basically, UVa is using one of my photos without permission (shown right). I offered an easy out -- send me a request for use, and I'll grant it without charge (because I'm a volunteer and I'm happy to help). Here we are nine days later and no response.

So I've decided that perhaps I'm contacting the wrong person. I sent the following email to the station's webmaster. Let's see what happens.

The website mockup looks great, but it's using an image of mine that I have not given the University permission to use. I'm happy to do so (at no charge), but someone needs to contact me about it. Attached is the original photo, along with the email that wrote to Burr on 8/10.

I have yet to get any kind of response, so perhaps this message hasn't reached the right person. Could you please either forward this along or let me know who I should be sending this to?

I would very much like my photo to be used -- but legally to protect everyone's interests.


Saw the mockup for the new website -- it looks really great.

I know you're talking with the UVa legal department about various things, and I'd like to help you keep things in order.

I'm not sure who put the photo of the board operator's hand on the header, but I do know they don't have permission to use the image -- because it's mine. I took that photo and posted it to my Facebook account.

Attached is a copy of the original photo, where you can clearly see that I have my Gamut playlist open on the computer screen.

I didn't say anything when it was grabbed for the forum, I thought things were volatile enough.

I'm perfectly happy to allow the station/University to use the image without charge. I'd consider it a donation to the station. But to make sure all the t's are crossed, the appropriate people need to shoot me an email asking permission for use, which I'll promptly reply to.

That way there will be permission on file that just protects everyone (and shows you're on top of things).

Please email the request to:

[email address provided]

with the subject line:

Photo clearance

I'm very honored that folks considered this image captures part of the spirit of the station, and I'd love to have it used for that purpose.

The WTJU copyright issue, day 9. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Trying to prevent more embarrassment

I've already pointed out how the University of Virginia used one of my images without permission. I think the assumption was that since I had posted it on Facebook, it was fair game (it isn't).

UVa's currently working on a new version of the WTJU website, and have posted a preview for volunteers to look at. And there it is -- my copyrighted image at the top of the page (the original's shown below).

Let's be clear: as a volunteer for WTJU I'm happy to let UVa use the image. But they do have to ask.

To get the ball rolling, I've written the following email to Burr Beard, the general manager for WTJU. Hopefully this will all be cleared up soon.


Saw the mockup for the new website -- it looks really great.

I know you're talking with the UVa legal department about various things, and I'd like to help you keep things in order.

I'm not sure who put the photo of the board operator's hand on the header, but I do know they don't have permission to use the image -- because it's mine. I took that photo and posted it to my Facebook account. Attached is a copy of the original photo, where you can clearly see that I have my Gamut playlist open on the computer screen.

I didn't say anything when it was grabbed for the forum, I thought things were volatile enough.

I'm perfectly happy to allow the station/University to use the image without charge. I'd consider it a donation to the station. But to make sure all the t's are crossed, the appropriate people need to shoot me an email asking permission for use, which I'll promptly reply to.

That way there will be permission on file that just protects everyone (and shows you're on top of things).

Please email the request to:

[I supplied an email address here]

with the subject line:

Photo clearance

I'm very honored that folks considered this image captures part of the spirit of the station, and I'd love to have it used for that purpose.

So here we go: the WTJU copyright issue, day 1.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Where's Ken? On the Appalachian Trail

C.E. Conversation's been a little one-sided for some time now because our other contributor, Ken insists on going out and doing things instead of just blogging about them.

His latest adventure took him out to the Appalachian Trail, where he spent four days hiking from Thorton Gap, Virginia to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. So why didn't he write about it? Because he made a video, that's why -- and a darned good one at that.

Check out Ken's recent adventure.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Straco Express and the Mystery Train

If you've ready my earlier post this 1960's Japanese tin toy train, the Straco Express, you'll know I was confronted with something of a mystery. This train set I purchased had the exact same section track as a set I owned in my childhood. And yet, when I put the two together, they couldn't be more different. (You can click on the images to enlarge them.)

The Straco Express had clear markings on it, which allowed me to find some background information about the toy. It also had fairly sophisticated metalwork. The engine required quite a bit of hand assembly, and each of the three cars were constructed in a different fashion, requiring mostly different tooling.

My childhood Santa Fe, however, was a different story. As near as I can recall, the set always only had three pieces -- the Santa Fe diesel, vaguely resembling an F3, and two box cars. No caboose.

The boxcars are slightly bigger than the Straco Express boxcar, and are much more cheaply made. The metal has no embossed details, and the roof is rounded rather than creased. Having two of the same car body with different graphics is a huge savings over having three different car designs.

I have yet to find anything about this set either online or in reference books available. Clearly it was made in Japan, most likely in the late 1950's-early 1960's. Did the FJ Strauss company (who had the Straco Express made for them) also make this set? There's no markings anywhere, save for a small marking on the back of the engine saying "Trade Mark Made in Japan."

If anyone has information about this set, I'd love to know more. Was it the same Japanese company making toys for two separate American importers? That's my guess, but I'd really like to know for sure.

 - Ralph


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Well, this is embarrassing (but not to me)

There's a huge controversy stirring at WTJU, the station I volunteer for (but this post isn't about that). The University wants to makeover the station, and listeners are understandably upset (OK, me too). The University hurriedly set up a forum for listeners and volunteers to share their thoughts.

They came up with a really nice header for the site. (Click to enlarge) This is the embarrassing part.

You see, I recognized the image -- because I took it. Here's the original. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Notice the computer screen -- it's showing the playlist blog for my show "Gamut" that I was updating at the time.

I didn't give the University permission to use this image, so where did it come from? Well, I posted it on my Facebook page, so it apparently was lifted from there. So here's the dilemma. Do I send a take-down notice to the University for the unauthorized use of my work? Or leave it alone?

The takeaway (as if I didn't already know it), is that anything online is fair game -- to anyone.
 - Ralph

Friday, June 25, 2010

Straco Express - A closer look

Here's a little bit more on this toy train I've been nattering on the last two posts.

The Straco Express was an HO-scale electric train imported by the FJ Strauss Company around 1960. The set consisted of a locomotive, a boxcar, a gondola car, and a caboose. It also included an oval of sectional track, three railroad signs, and a battery-operated transformer.

Below are photos of each of the cars (click on each image to enlarge), and a special bonus video!

The locomotive is the most detailed component, and -- as it's all embossed metal -- the most complex to assemble. It mostly resembles an EMD SW-1, a very popular switch engine (especially among toy train makers) at the time.

The boxcar is also embossed metal and shares the same frame as the gondola car. I'm not sure the U.S. Mail ever had boxcars painted red, white, and blue -- but Lionel did. Their 6428 U.S. Post Office boxcar was offered in the early and middle 1960's.

The gondola car shared the same frame as the box car. It had a lithographed floor -- an impressive amount of detail for such an inexpensive item. The edges of the body are curled in, giving the sides added strength. And although very hard to see the white letters against the pale yellow sides, the gondola is marked N.Y.C. (New York Central)

To me, it looks like the creative team ran out of gas when they got to the caboose. The locomotive and freight cars are fairly well proportioned, but the caboose is a little small. Nevertheless, it still has an impressive amount of detail, particularly the railings on the ends of the car.

Although I don't have a complete circle of track, I did have enough to do a test run. The battery-powered transformer's control isn't very subtle -- it's basically on or off. Here's the Straco Express, barreling down the track across the wasteland of my desk. All aboard!

 - Ralph

BTW - If anyone has an extra curved section of track from an FJ Strauss, MRK, or Americo tin toy train set, let me know!


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Straco Express - A Better Story

Last post I shared an Antiques Roadshow version of my purchase of a small, tin toy train. But there's an even odder story (and I think a more interesting one) associated with the Straco Express.

The train was offered for sale "as is." (There's a picture of the Straco Express I purchased at right). It was in a small cardboard box with the locomotive, two cars, and a caboose. Included was the battery-powered transformer, and some track. Not enough track to make a complete circle, but what survived from the original set.

One of the reasons I decided to purchase the set was because I recognized the sectional track in the box. It seemed to be a match to the ones that came with a small toy train set I had as a child (pictured at right).

When we got back to Dad's house, we pulled out the old set, and the sectional track matched! We had tested the Straco locomotive, and it worked, so I was excited to put all the track together and start running trains.

But when I combined the tracks from the Straco set and my old set, I was exactly one piece short. I couldn't complete the circle. The set was HO scale (sort of), so I invested in a circle of modern HO sectional track. No luck. The flanges on the wheels are wider than those of most HO-scale locomotives, which causes the engine to bounce up and down on the ties of the track, breaking the electrical connection.

So I'm stuck until I can find a curved piece of track.

But that's not the whole story. The train I bought was the Straco Express, a Japanese-made toy for the American-based Strauss Company (not the same ones who make the jeans). But the one I already owned, though also Japanese in origin, was not. And with the exception of the track, the trains have almost nothing in common.

In the photo below, the boxcar from the Straco Express (left) is next to one from my childhood Santa Fe set. The two boxcars have different frames, different body styles, different trucks (wheel assemblies) and different roofs (angled vs. rounded).  Click on images to enlarge.

Did two different companies sub-contract to the same source for the track? Did one Japanese company actually make both sets for different American firms based on client designs? I don't know -- but I'd sure like to find out. Internet searches have yielded almost no additional information about the train of my childhood.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Straco Express - The Antiques Roadshow Version

Even if you've never watched "Antiques Roadshow," you've heard this story before. Here's my version:

At a recent toy train show I spotted this 1960's Japanese toy train on a table. It was an HO gauge electric labeled the Straco Express. I'm not normally interested in such things, but there was something appealing about it (possibly the bright colors of the lithography). The set was priced at $25.00, but I was able to talk the guy down to $20.00. When I got back home and looked it up online, I saw that one had recently sold for $2,500! I'm rich!

(Sorry for the screen shot. I wasn't able to get the full entry before it was removed from the site. Click on the image to enlarge.)

Many people have a similar story in mind as they search out antiques and "collectibles" at yard sales and thrift shops. And many definitely have it in mind when they price their stuff!

But such situations are extremely rare. And often -- as in the case of my purchase, not quite true. I did indeed purchase a Straco Express tin toy train. And while it's identical to the one sold in Canada for $2,500, there are critical differences.

First, I don't have the original box, nor do I have any of the little railroad signs and accessories that came with the set. Especially for ephemeral items such as cheap Japanese toys, original packaging seldom survived. That makes it rare, and accounts for a large part of the value. Same with the small accessories, which often disappeared into the vacuum cleaner.

While my Straco Express does have the original transformer (operated by two D cell batteries), I don't have a complete circle of track. So even though the engine runs, I can't really run it -- if you know what I mean. And that also decreases value.

And there's something else. That sale took place on ebay. If I were to put mine up for auction, there's no guarantee I'd get anywhere close to that amount. In fact, there's currently a similar set for sale online, with the original box, and most of the accessories, for $26.00. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The short, Antiques Roadshow-style story is great, but I'm not really $2,500 to the good. But I am in possession of an item that I was happy to pay $20.00 for. And one that has an interesting story of it's own -- which I'll share next post.

- Ralph


Friday, June 18, 2010

The Golden Ticket and the NPR Time Delay

At this point I'm used to the time lag between when news breaks and when mainstream media gets around to reporting it. It's still a little disconcerting when I run across an specific example -- especially from a usually reliable source like National Public Radio.

On July 16, NPR reported on a new opera premiering in St. Louis. The article was a pretty good informative piece about The Golden Ticket, an opera based on Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But the date's important. According to the article,
The opera called The Golden Ticket seemed like just that — a natural way for opera companies to attract new audiences by bringing families into the opera house. But the world premiere under way now at Opera Theatre of St. Louis did not have a sweet ride from conception to opening night.
Felicity Dahl says that if sweets improve with age, then The Golden Ticket is ready to be tasted. 
"It naturally takes a long time, but this took far too long," she says. "I take my hat off to St. Louis for biting the bullet, and I don't think they'll live to regret it."
The story makes it all sound like no one knows yet how the work will be received.

But I already knew.

One of the cast members, Jennifer Rivera, wrote in her blog "Trying to Remain Opera-tional" on July 14,
So last night, at our opening of The Golden Ticket, something wonderful happened.

The real story is the World Premiere, and that it was a success. I can say that it felt from stage as if the audience was with us every step of the way. They laughed in all the right moments, and even in some new moments where we hadn't necessarily anticipated the laughs.
[Ms. Rivera's post tells of something else that happened at the world premiere -- I encourage you to read it].

And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote on the same day:

There aren’t that many new operas designed to make the audience laugh out loud. “Ticket,” which opened Sunday evening, does just that — and with honest, sweet humor — combining ingenious music that neatly parodies assorted operatic cliches and a clever libretto that has fun with Dahl’s delicious morality play. Add to that a nearly ideal cast, and you have something enjoyable for adults and children alike.

So let's review:

The evening of the premier Jennifer Rivera posts that the opera was a hit with the audience. The same night the St. Louis paper says the same thing. So the word's out to those following this story -- the opera's a success.

Two days later NPR reports on this new opera being staged in St. Louis. The basic thrust of their story:  How will the audience receive it? Only time will tell.

Time's already told.

Come on, even if the story was written before the premier, a quick check on the 15th would have pulled up those stories, and the article could have been made current before being released on the 16th.

Running out-of-date stories? Now that's lamestream media.

 - Ralph

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Medieval vs. Modern

I'm currently rereading Barbara W. Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century." Some people think that history is irrelevant -- and really old history is really irrelevant. I disagree. People don't really change that much over time, and seeing how others act in similar situations to ours can be illustrative (plus there's the added insight of understanding how we got to where we are).

Case in point: a passage from Tuchman's book talking about one of the few female practicing doctors of the age:
At the University of Bologna in the 1360s the faculty included Novella d'Andrea, a woman so renowned for her beauty that she lectured behind a veil lest her students be distracted. Nothing is said, however, of her professional capacity.
And then this news item from last week, where Debrahlee Lorenzana claims in court papers that she was forced out of her Manhattan Citibank job because she was too good looking. Her male managers found her appearance "too distracting."

Two women at work, separated by almost 900 years. So how much have we really progressed?

Monday, June 14, 2010

This Week in Law hosts an exception discussion of copyright

Although not a lawyer, I'm a big fan of This Week in Law. Program #62 was particularly outstanding, especially in providing real insight and practical, first-hand looks at the use and value of copyright in a file-sharing world. Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing editor and author, along with Mike Masnick of TechDirt discussed with host Denise Howell and regular Evan Brown how files haring and "piracy" hasn't hurt or devalued their creative content.

Many studies have shown that when it comes to music, a record label's best customers are those who share files. I encourage you to listen to this podcast episode even if you normally don't (or don't think a law-oriented discussion is your cup of tea).

Among other things, Doctorow presents an interesting concept; that the emotional investment companies have in their business models often trumps the practicality of said models. It certainly explains the continued efforts of the RIAA!

Doctorow tells the story of what happened when the E.U. considered changing database copyright laws. In Europe, database information can be copyrighted, giving each information company its own little monopoly. In America, this information can't be copyrighted. Result: In America the information industry grew 25 times over the same period the European information industry declined. Apparently, the only thing that prevented a sharper decline were the investments some European companies made in American firms.

So what happened when the E.U. looked into lifting the copyright restrictions on databases? In reality, everyone could see it was the way to go, but even the companies that invested in the U.S. firms weren't emotionally ready to give up their exclusive control. So the restrictions remain, to the benefit of the U.S. industry, and the detriment of the European.

There's more in this program, such as how the lack of copyright spurs fashion innovation and why link farms don't matter. This is important stuff, and something we should all be informed about. Because the laws being put on the books, and the draconian punishments that go with them, aren't being formed on the reality of the situation, but on the emotional investment of the major players -- and that affects all of us.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Breaking the Fourth Wall of Comics

Last Thursday two cartoonists teamed up to create something unique. Each turned in their regular comic strip that with a gag. But if you were lucky enough to read them on the same comics page, both together created a third gag that perhaps was greater than the whole.

To start the process, look at Stephen Pastis' strip "Pearls Before Swine."

If you've follow "Pearls Before Swine," you know that Pastis has riffed on the squeaky-clean single-panel comic "Family Circus" before. And perhaps you might think it was Pastis just having fun at another strip's expense.

Now look at the Family Circus panel for the same day.

The "Not Me" gag is a well-established one, and there have been variants on this theme for years. The mother demands to know who spilled the milk, or broke the vase, or tracked mud into the house, and one or more of the children say "Not Me" as the aptly-named invisible character runs away.

If you saw the "Family Circus" without the "Pearls Before Swine" strip, you might think this was just another Not Me gag.

But it's not.

Usually Not Me runs away with a mischievous glance over its shoulder. Not this time. Note that Not Me walks away with a shrug -- not even it knows who threw the sunflower seeds on the floor.

And there in lies the genius of this collaboration. By breaking the fourth wall (in this case, the barrier between comics), Pastis and Keene have delivered a joke that is far funnier (in part because its unexpected) than either strip delivers individually.

Now that's comic genius.