Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Secret Life of Ghosts, Or Whatever Happened to Aunt Gertrude?

Image from
You may never have heard of Leslie McFarlane, but odds are good that you've come acoss at least some of his work, if not the plays, short stories, and articles, then the children's books that have outsold any other title series for boys.

In 1976 (a year before his death) McFarlane  published an autobiographical book, Ghost of the Hardy Boys. The ghost here is the the author himself who depicted the first volumes of the Hardy Boys under the name Franklin W. Dixon. Unlike authors, like George Eliot or Mark Twin,who selected pen names for themselves the writers who churned out popular children's books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate were assigned names, which often carried on to other ghost writers as no author was considered irreplacable.

The irony of this book is that he devotes many pages protesting that he is far more than the writer who first breathed life into the pair of boy detectives and their formidable Aunt Gertrude only to be forced to both begin and end with the series that he did not own the rights to. The 20 Hardy Boys books he wrote served as his bread-and-butter and kept his family afloat when the Depression hit and other publishers had little or no money for authors.

Work from the Stratemeyer Syndicate served as the artist's equivalent of a day job while he wrote what he considered more serious literary work, which, he did succeed in publishing after a number of false starts. The false starts are as entertaining as they are educational.

McFarlane, who is Canadian by the way, embarks on his writing career by working for newspapers. His publishers generally J. Jonah Jameson look like a really nice guy. They discourage his literary ambitions as pulling him in the opposite direction needed for a newspaperman, but he doesn't give up and continues sending out manuscripts to magazines, often, not with any real understanding of what truly fits the publications. But he is not forced to simply learn by trial-and-error, as some editors take the time to give him really valuable feedback and direction.

That is one of the reasons why this book is of particular interest to people who write, all the insights into the world of literation. McFarlane learns to distinguish between what's popular and what's good and how to churn out what's popular for the sake of making money. But here's the rub, though he presents his Hardy Boys work as just for the sake of money, he takes particular pride in his craft, particularly in his infusion of humor and the memorable creation of the boys' Aunt Gertrude.

I put Aunt Gertrude into the title because her treatment in the reworked versions of the books issued in the later part of the 20th Century belie the fact that he does feel connected to his creation, for all his protests that it's all the property of the the syndicate. He is horrified to discover that her dramatic entrance into the series was completely cut in the new editions of the books, as demonstrated to him by a staff writer for a magazine named Bob Stall.

When Stall first approaches McFarlane to talk about the Hardy Boys series, he says he's not interested in discussing that work. After all, he feels he should be recognized for the four novels, 100 novelettes, 200 short stories, 75 television scripts, and 50 films he wrote. But Stall manages to get his attention when he shows him how the books have been eviscerated in the new editions.
They haven't just been streamlined. They've been gutted from beginning to end. Those old books were well written. They had words you could roll around in yhour mouth and taste. They had funy scenes. They had scenes you could wallow in. These new ones move faster all right, but too fast. There's never a place to stop and linger. That's why the old were so great for a kid. They had flavor. And now the flavor is all gone. 
Stall adds:
The books were written for a literate generation ... But not these new ones. And they'll engender an even less literate generation. 

Remember, this was reported back in 1976.  By today's standards, attention spans were long then; just look at the pacing in movies and television shows of the era compared to today's. Yet, people who remembered the previous generation noticed a difference and saw it as the sign of a trend.  Certainly, kids' books today move at an even faster pace than those that were read in the late 20th Century. 

You don't have to be a Hardy Boys fan, and I assure you, I never was, to appreciate McFarlane's reaction or to accompany him on his always entertaining journey to becoming a better writer and laughing with him at his youthful pretensions, which may just remind you of your own.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How many times did Edison fail in attempting to invent the lightbulb?
That's a trick question really. In fact, Edison did not invent the light bulb, though he did succeed in developing a viable version based on a carbon filament that he patented in 1879.  Finding it did take a lot of trial and error, around 3000 experiments, according to a Live Science account. But he wasn't done even after that patent. Within a year, he came out with a bulb based on a bamboo filament.

There is a very precise number connected to the experiments involved that would make people with OCD cringe, 2,774. It's cited in a Rutgers newsletter on the Thomas Edison papers  here:
No one, including Edison, ever counted the number of experimental lamps that they made. There were hundreds of experiments before he developed the bamboo lamp. And many additional experiments before the lamps were adequate for commercial production. In a letter to Edison in spring 1884, Francis Upton noted that the lamp factory had conducted 2,774 experiments (presumably since it had started operations in October 1881).
The link in that paragraph take you to a digital image of a handwritten note on the bamboo lamp.

Inside Edison's Lab. Photo by Ariella Brown
But of the famous quote about Edison claiming not to have failed 10,000 times but to have found 10,000 ways that did not work? There does not appear to be a written account saying exactly that, though it does apply to his experience with the battery more than the bulb. The Rutgers newsletter dug up a quote that comes pretty closed in Edison: His Life and Inventions an authorized biography by Frank Dyer and T. C. Martin which was first published in 1910.  In it Edison's friend and associate, Walter S. Mallory, offers this account:

"This [the research] had been going on more than five months, seven days a week, when I was called down to the laboratory to see him [Edison]. I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: 'Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?' Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: 'Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won't work!'"
Photo by Ariella Brown

There you have it, not exactly in the words you find on quotes sites, but the same idea. If you're interested in learning more about Edison and his experiments, including the invention he did consider a failure (talking dolls), do take the time to visit Edison's lab in Menlo Park, NJ. It's held by the National Park Service. Find information on exhibits, hours, fees, etc, here. If you time it right, you can go over to see Edison's home, Glenmont, pictured here on the same day. Special events are planned for Edison Day on June 6.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Favorite books from the children's section

My daughter recently finished reading The Orphan Train and declared it to be her favorite book. It certainly is good and worth reading. I'm not sure I would call it my favorite. But I'm not sure I can pin down any single book as my favorite. Among all the books I've read, I'd find it too difficult to select one or even a handful for that distinction. I can, however, give a listing of favorites among children's books that  have much to offer adults as well.

To start, there's  a picture book geared toward the very young: Leo Lionni's Frederick. This fable really encapsulates what's behind capturing and representing experience in literature without getting all theoretical.

Another book  that touches on a similar theme in a more extended narrative set in the past in a Jewish community  is Pheobe Gilman's Something from Nothing.

While those two works are not as well-known as they should be, my next few selections are likely among the books you have read. They include:
Amelia Bedelia
The Snowy Day (wonderful illustrations)
Alice in Wonderland
The Little Prince
A Wrinkle in Time
The Chronicles of Narnia
Matilda (I prefer it to Ronald Dahl's better known and more often adapted Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
Anne of Green Gables

Not quite as famous, though still classic works include:
All of a Kind Family
The Borrowers
Five Children and It

A few of my favorites have been written relatively recently. They include
Everything on a Waffle
The View from Saturday
Note:I tried to keep to books aimed at children 12 and under to limit the list. It would grow a lot longer if I were to include the books marketed to tweens and young adults. Also I may add on more books as I discover or rediscover them.

Related post

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chocolate variations

Mark Miodownik devotes nearly 20 pages of Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World to chococolate. Yes, chocolate. Though the cocoa beans are a natural product, it takes quite a lot of processing to turn them into the confection popular around the globe. Miodownik warns readers that the bean in its natural state tastes nothing like the chocolate he loves to eat; he's tried eating right off the plant and regretted it.

He then goes through the history of chocolate consumption. It started out as drink made by the Olmecs and then the  Mayans. That brew did not have the sweet taste we associate with hot chocolate today, though. It was rather bitter, which after explorers introduced the drink to Europe in the 17th Century, it proved less popular than coffee or tea.  Adding sugar wasn't enough to make it wholly palatable as the 50% cocoa fat rendered the drink "gritty, oily, and heavy" (83).

It took two centuries for a Dutch chocolate company called Van Houten to come up with a way  of applying  a press to the to remove the cocoa butter from the roasted, fermented beans. The yielded  the cocoa powder that serves as the basis of today's cocoa drinks, as well as the ingredient that goes into chocolate cakes.

Arriving at the solid chocolate made into bars was actually the real of what Miodownik calls "counter intuitive genius: having removed and purified the cocoa fat, and having pulverized the cocoa powder separately, why not mix them back together again, add in some sugar, to create an ideal cocoa bean" (83).  And solid chocolate was born.

He says credit for the first chocolate bars does not go to the Dutch or the Swiss but to an English firm called Fry and Sons. However, the Swiss are credited as the first producers of milk chocolate. With an abundance of milk powder from the Nestle company, they combined two products with long shelf lives to achieve a milder, sweeter chocolate than ever before (84).

 It's the differences in milk that produce different tastes in and for chocolate around the world. Sounding a rather Britishly biased, Miodwonik describes  American chocolate as having a "cheesy, almost rancid flavor." That results from incorporating milk in which enzymes reduce fat.  In contrast, the chocolate in the UK gains a "milder caramel flavor" from the sugar added to liquid milk that is reduced to a concentrate before being added to the chocolate. Europeans still opt for powdered milk, which he says provides a "fresh dairy flavor with a powdery texture" (85).

Generally, one prefers the taste of chocolate of one's native country, and the differences in ingredients do explain the outrage some British ex-pats felt at being denied their Cadbury chocolate in the US, as per the recent Financial Times article "British tastebuds caught in crossfire of chocolate war." It all due to the uncommon content of chocolate on different sides of the Atlantic.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The cat and the pencil trick in "Nightmare Alley"

If there are any magicians out there, you can clarify how the trick is really put together, though I think I figured out the essential points. I just read  William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley,which is much, much darker than the film adaption starring Tyrone Power that came out just a year after the book. Some of the changes are clearly there to satisfy the Hays Code, though some of the cuts work well at eliminating the cliched Freudian psychology that is in the book.  The obsession with parents is eliminated, and Stan, the protagnoist, is presented as an orphan.

Aside from offering more about what goes on in the heads of the characters, the book gives more tricks of the trade for the con man. One of them was bothering me because it was clearly set up but never completely explained. A man that Stan is trying to win over offers him the test of activating a sensitive electronic scale without touching it. From his preparation, it's clear that a cat and a pencil are essential to the trick. Stan also carries the pencil in and picks up a cat while there. When the cat's owner picks her up afterwards, he remarks on how dirty her fur is.

 It occurred to me that rubbing the cat's fur generates static electricity. But  I didn't know exaclty what the pencil did until I found this:  What's explained in 30 and 31 is that the pencil conducts electricity through the graphite. What the reader has to infer is that Stan rubbed the pencil on the cat to get it electrically charged enough to have an effect on the electronic scale even without coming in direct contact with it. Has anyone tried out such a trick?

Somewhat related post, as it references the same book/film 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The marriage of opposites

Shakespeare begins Sonnet 116 with the declaration, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments." In real life, some marriages may not be based so much on the coming together of minds but on the attraction of opposites. That's the case for introverts who marry extroverts, as was the case of each of the three authors featured in perspectives-on-introversion.
The two could complement each other, and come, potentially, come up with a better balance than a couple consisting of two social butterflies who always seek out a crowd or two introverts who end up staying home all the time. On the other hand, the two might clash when it comes to deciding how often to go to parties, entertain others, and how many guests to invite. 
The extrovert may push for more social opportunities, which recharge his/her energies, while the introvert may feel stressed by having to constantly make small talk at such gatherings. Is it inevitable that they end up citing irreconcilable differences in divorce court?
Not necessarily.
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingSusan Cain, who admits to being an introvert happily married to an extrovert explains that being married to one's social opposite can work quite well. The key is to understand the other's point of view and arrive at a compromise that will be a win-win for both. She offers the example of such a couple in conflict over the gregarious husband's desire for weekly dinner parties. His introvert wife dreaded such social situations and wanted to be absent from them, a solution that did not appeal to him. The winning solution was one that cut back the parties to twice a month and that changed the format to a buffet style with flexible seating that allowed the shy wife to select a seat at an edge or within a smaller group that would allow her to opt out of small talk and opt into more meaningful, intimate conversations. Other conflicts over public versus private outlets could be resolved in similar ways.

related posts:

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Views on Boundaries

Personality types and introversion recently came up on one of the online boards I comment, which
made me consider another aspect of the difference between introverts and extroverts. It's not just a matter of people who need to be alone to recharge in contrast to those who need to be around other people to feel energized. There are real differences between the two in how they view the way people should relate to each other, and that can give rise to misunderstanding or the wrong assumptions, and, yes, I'm thinking of a particular incident..

From what I've observed, introverts assume that boundaries should be in place unless otherwise specified, whereas extroverts are more likely to assume the opposite.  Consequently, while an extrovert would assume it is neighborly to drop in on someone, an introvert would rarely do so unless s/he is expressly invited to come at a particular time. That doesn't mean the introvert doesn't like his/her neighbor but that the assumption is that people want to be left alone unless they tell you otherwise.

Now to get to the particular incident of different assumptions of what constitutes polite behavior, here's the example. I had a friend who stayed in the empty house of a neighbor of a relative once. Said relative told me afterward that the friend was shocked at what the friend did. I was imagining all sorts of horrific scenarios and then was told that the really shocking thing was this: the friend did not pick up the mail that was put through the door slot. Now if you're an introvert, your assumption of boundaries would tell you to leave as much of someone else's stuff alone as possible. That would extend to handling someone else's mail that just happened to be delivered through the door. It takes an extorverted mindset to assume that showing such respect for someone else's privacy is a lack of courtesy.

I'm now adding one other example about circumspection with respect to boundaries, as it just happened. I commented on someone's post and referred to a Talmudic story to make my point. Someone else said I was misrepresenting it and said I got the name wrong. In truth, I would do the same, but only if I were 100% surethat the other person got it wrong.In this case, the name I had writen was correct. I ascertained it again for myself by getting out the primary source. When I pointed that out, the woman who had disagreed with me had to concede that point and then made excuses for herself that she had just been on a long flight, etc., etc. I understand making mistakes when tired. I do that myself and have even been guilty of making typos I would normally spot. However, I would not ever challenge someone on the basis of at hazy recollection, and then say, well, what do you want from me, I was tired.. That's also part of introversion: being very prepared and very sure before speaking up, particularly when publicly contradicting someone.