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  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?
.  I didn't know exaclty what the pencil did until I found this:

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.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Going for the brass ring

Today I rode the  carousel at Hempstead Lake State Park. With my daughter (who did not want to go on by herself) and one other kid, that brought up the total number of riders to three. On the round just before ours there were just two riders. I suppose carousels have fallen out of favor, though they actually have a much longer history than I suspected. 

On the cashier's counter was a pile of papers with some more information about the carousel. Unfortunately, the powers that be at Hempstead Lake State Park did not bother to upload that to the park's site. For example, the historic carousel is named for Heckscher  because August Heckscher donated it to the park in 1931. It continued operating until 2001  (though according to this, it faced a crisis in 1981. In 2003, the carousel was taken apart and shipped across the country to Carousel Works in Ohio  for a full restoration at a cost of $400,000. The carousel was put back in place  and once again opened to the public in 2005.

 Pictures and some more details about its history are in About article by . What's interesting about the major restoration is that it truly lived up to its name. writes that in the decade between 1951 and 1961, eight of the original horses were replaced by aluminum ones. During the restoration project 10 years ago,  those replacements were taken out. In their place  "four original Illions carved horses that had been found in storage, as well as two Illions horses that were taken from a carousel in Pennsylvania, and two new horses that were carved in the Illions style by Carousel Works, Inc." were put in their palce. 

The handout at the carousel also gave some general history of carousels, which is easier to find sourced online. Specificially, what we consider a plaything of children -- and the young at heart, of course -- actually started out as an exercise in knightly combat. Wikipedia covers that in its entry on carousels:

The word carousel originated from the Italian garosello and Spanish carosella ("little battle", used by crusaders to describe a combat preparation exercise and game played by Turkish and Arabian horsemen in the 12th century).[3] This early device was essentially a cavalry training mechanism; it prepared and strengthened the riders for actual combat as they wielded their swords at the mock enemies.
By the 17th century, the balls had been dispensed with, and instead the riders had to spear small rings that were hanging from poles overhead and rip them off. 

The same point is made in a NYC report posted online  in connection to a carousel in Queens (which wasn't in operation when we visited the park a couple of years ago). Starting out with an eye to SEO, the NYC report includes all variant on name and spellings: "including carousel, carrousel, carousell, carousal, carosello, merry-go-round, roundabout, and steam riding galleries. "  However you spell it, the mechanism dates back to the 16th century:  "Following Henri II’s unintentional death during a jousting match in 1559, French horsemen began practicing with straw and wood figures attached to rotating circular frames"

The NYC report includes  this  citation: 
Much of the information found in this section is found in Frederick Fried, A Pictorial History of the Carousel  (New York: Vestal Press, 1964, various editions), Lisa English, “Roundabout,” Metropolis (July/August 1990), 57-69, “Forest Park: The Carousel,” viewed at  Also see Richard W. Johnston, “The Carousel,” Life (August 27, 1951), 100ff.; Robyn Love, “The Painted Ponies of Queens: Celebrating the Magic of the Carousel,” poster, City of New York Parks & Recreation, 1995, LPC files; Eric Pahlke, Treasures from the Golden Age: East Carousels (forthcoming, 2013). It is worth noting that most essays and books that are devoted to carousels lack specific citations and references to primary sources. 

In the Hempstead Lake State Park handout, it explained that the brass ring that used to adorn carousels has its roots in what the knights tried to catch as a test of skill. That was later adapted for riders of the ride for amusement, which it became by the beginning of the 18th century, according to the NYC report cited above.  The oldest one still around is in Germany. It was build in 1780, and there is more information about it here

As for the power used to propel the carousels, according to the NYC report,  the rides were first moved by serfs, then oxen. Later carousels incorporated steam power. In 2011, GE set up a solar powered carousel at South Street Seaport that it called Carousolar. But the ride was not intended as a permanent fixture in New York. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Telling a story through letters and posts

Don Quixote is the work that many identify as the first modern novel, a work distinct from epic romances or other high-brow treatments of fictions that were considered worthy of poetry rather than prose.  Of course, that was not an English work, but a Spanish one. The novel genre only arrived in England nearly 2 centuries later, and often the stories were told in the form of letters. 
Epistolary novels are set on the premise of the narrator, telling the story to a correspondent. Samuel Richardson opted for the epistolary form for both Pamela and Clarissa in the 1740s About a half a century later, Jane Austen used that form in Lady Susan.  Some decade or two afterwards, Mary Shelley framed the story of the archetypal mad scientist, Frankenstein, in her novel of the same name by having the story related by the sailor who picks him up on his sea voyage in letters to his sister. However, as the novel gener took off during the 1800s, most dropped the epistolary device, even if they were written in first-person. 

It hasn't disappeared altogether, though, modern treatments tend to mix the letters with narrative, often from different points of view, as in  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Some contemporary novels substitute emails for letters and sometimes also throw in texts or social media style updates in telling their stories. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a novel that is relayed solely through tweets, possibly grouped under hashtags rather than traditional chapter titles. 

But I wonder if anyone has attempted to tell a story through an online community bulletin board. I know that some reveal an awful lot about their lives through their posts -- about having children, having financial difficulties, attempts at getting a job, attempts at getting a loan, divorce, and calls for outright handouts.  That's all from one person's posts over the past 3 or 4 years. For writers of fiction, I thought that such an account could  form the central line of a narrative from which several key characters branch off. 

Related interest:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

New Yorkers are far more honest than the folks in DC

I was thinking about this today. You know, New York gets bad rep, but I believe that people in Washington DC are less honest than people in the Big Apple. As it turns out, the Honest Tea test proves my hypothesis. Not only did 80% of participants there fail the honesty test, but one person even stole the rep's bike! And NY turned out to be much more honest than people predicted. heck out the infographic for a quick overview. To see it contextualized by more information about the test, see   Oh, and beware of people from our nation's capitol. Perhaps the lack of integrity so often found in politician seep into the water there.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cuts and shurgs: observations on RSC 2008 Hamlet

 I finally saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) 2008 stage of Hamlet, which is available in full online free (completely legal) here.  Nearly all productions of Hamlet make extensive cuts because the full play would run around 4 hours. That's what Kenneth Branagh aimed for with his film version. The run time for this one is just over 3, and like many adaptions, there is no Fortinbras at the end. 

This is meant as a video version of a stage productions, so it is generally limited to what you would see on a stage without film enhancements. The notable exception to that is the use of camera views that I believe was used to replace the effect the live production had achieved in placing a large mirror in front of the audience. That generally works well, particularly as reference to ubiquitous CCTV cameras that would be familiar to people around London (making their way in NYC now, as well). 

Some reviewers didn't care for another camera effect: that of actors addressing it directly when speaking some of the lines, particularly Hamlet for some of his soliloquies. I remember having the same reaction many years ago when watching a BBC performance of The Merchant of Venice in a Shakespeare class in college. Then I found it distracting, though not so much here. I believe that the reason why we find it jarring on a screen is that the close-up makes it seem rather like breaking the frame of the actors within a play when they come face-to-face (as if on a video call) with us. When you would see it on the stage, it would be far less intrusive because of the physical distance between the performer and the audience. 

David Tennant is engaging with some of the same mannerisms he brings to the the Doctor's character, though without the sideburns. I found some of the mad antics a bit much. (Admission of personal bias: I'm give to understatement rather than overstatement and do read Hamlet as an introverted intellectual)  They must have been the  director's idea, as Ophelia did the same kind of thing. 

I didn't really care much for Ophelia who didn't get to convey any emotion other than hysteria and madness. When calm, she was rather wooden. As for stripping down  to her underwear for her madness, some pointed out that it was inconsistent with the description of her drowning, which is attributed to the weight of her water-logged clothes. That's a good point.  I can think of two possible defenses for the direction here, though I wouldn't have gone that route myself. One is that Ophelia's mad entrance is described as entering with her down. For Shakespeare's audience, that would have been seen as a state of undress, as a properly put together young lady would have her hair contained. To achieve that in modern terms, the hair alone wouldn't cut it. Two: in King Lear, when Edgar assumes madness, he strips off his clothes, so that typical mad behavior in Shakespeare.

  I didn't like the way the Mousetrap scene was done -- overly crude and in-your-face kind of obvious. I suppose they thought otherwise the Shakesperian double entendres would just fly over the audience's head.  There is also the bit of anachronism of male actors for female roles when the play is set in modern times, though I suppose that may be meant to contrast the more realistic contemporary look of the production we are watching with the artifice of the players' performance.

One thing that I liked in  that scene was the transference for the cameras. Hamlet rebels against being caught by the cameras and then uses one himself in recording the play and catching Claudius' reaction. 

The king's reaction is much calmer in this production than the way it comes across in other. He carries a lantern over to Hamlet and shows him with a shake of the head that he knows that Hamlet knows, and he's letting him know that he knows. That may be going just a bit far, given that Claudius resumes the pose of liking Hamlet for the fencing match, and why would Hamlet go along knowing that he knows that he knows?

What I liked in the last scene was a kind of closing the circle visual. The cut Hamlet put into his own hand after speaking with the ghost, remains a reminder for a while with a bandage. At the end he transfers the same cut -- also on the left hand -- to Claudius. That makes the actor's controversial shrug a bit more understandable, as he is already poisoned. 

As we don't have the textual ending of Fortinbras, the play ends with Horatio's emotional farewell to his friend, who has died in his arms. That makes it a rather more intimate death than one that would get the royal honors that Fortinbras said he would bestow on the prince of Denmark. 

Overall: I wouldn't go so far as some who claim this is the definitive Hamlet for the 21st century, but it's one that most people would probably enjoy watching.  I suppose that each generation has to endure assumptions about how Hamlet is to be made accessible to them. At least this one doesn't open with a summation like Laurence Olivier's opening to his film version: "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind." 

Speaking of how the generations reinterpret Shakespeare's play, you can watch a sort of companion to the production video, Tennant's exploration of the play's enduring popularity also available online  (note the video is just a tad out of sync).

The most striking thing for me in that video was seeing the rare first editions of Shakespeare housed in the British Library handled  so casually -- no gloves. When I had to use books in the New York Public Library's Arents Tobacco Collection, I had to be more careful with an Oscar Wilde typescript.  But I was a mere student at the time, and one of my Grad Center professors was a disciple of  Stephen Greenblatt.
Back then New Historicism was still, well, new. Greenblatt's appearance in this video indicates that his approach is not quite mainstream.  Shakespeare is subjected to biographical details inserted into understanding his plays with the Hamnet/ Hamlet connection. The name of Shakespeare's son who died in childhood was Hamnet, which does sound an awful lot like Hamlet, but is not quite the same. It's hard to hear the difference  in the video which accepts the connection as a given. It's Greenblatt's argument in "The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet." Some of the argument is rather forced, but I won't get into all of that here.