Monday, November 28, 2011

Vintage Wallet Inserts

An unused but apparently vintage wallet I recently picked up included two wallet-sized pieces of extremely cheap paper printed extremely cheaply with various features, warranties, seals, and an ID “card.” I scanned in the four images:

Finest in Leather

The American Designer Award for Finest in Leather. Impressive! Something tells me that perhaps there was no such thing, nor was there an entity called the “Leather Industries of America,” but perhaps I am being too cynical.

Leather Wallet Warranty

I guess the warranty is as to the materials, not the workmanship or construction. If the wallet falls apart in a couple weeks, that's on you, buster.

(Two months in, the wallet seems to be holding together fine.)

Replaceable Windows

Now, where to find these “additional windows”...

Identification Card (Approved)

Good to know that this is an “Approved” identification card. Or is it the bearer of the card who has been approved? And “card” is a stretch. These inserts are printed on some of the flimsiest paper I've ever encountered, several notches below newsprint.

In the vital stats section: Blood type. Good thinking, I guess.

Notice how the “Zip” is in a slightly different typeface? Looks like Helvetica regular as opposed to the condensed sans-serif used for the address blanks. (Typographers: In the condensed font, I notice that the a, y, and r have distinctively curved elements. Is this maybe the special font that Bell developed for phone books, designed to be legible at extremely small sizes? ) The addition of the “Zip” later on indicates that the original design of the insert dates from the pre-zip-code era, that is, before the early 1960s, but that the wallet itself is newer than that.

Basic standards of tomfoolery would of course require one to write in “Federal Bureau of Investigation” in the “Employed by” blank.

Maybe not the best idea nowadays to just give out your SSN to the random stranger who finds your wallet.

Friday, November 25, 2011


I just saw these guys in concert recently. What a concept - a rotating collective of Tuareg-Berber musicians from the Sahara region of northern Mali, playing traditional Bedouin music with a bit of a Santana-and-Zeppelin-inspired rock style, on traditional instruments + electric guitars and basses.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: A Dance at the Slaughterhouse

Lawrence Block
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

I am a huge, huge Lawrence Block fan. My love affair with his books started about twenty years ago when my dear great aunt lent me her copy of Eight Million Ways to Die. Since then I’ve read everything Block has written that I could get my hands on.

A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is the ninth installment of the Matt Scudder series, which is Block’s best series by far. The Scudder books are not only extremely gritty murder mysteries but also a complex and realistic record of the main character coming to grips with his alcoholism.

Matt Scudder was a brilliant, if sometimes ethically questionable, detective in the NYPD who resigned from the force after a bullet he fired (while drunk and on duty) ricocheted and killed a little girl. Since then, he has been working as an unlicensed private detective and struggling to stay sober.

By the time of Slaughterhouse, Scudder is has been in AA for several years. He has a stable relationship with his girlfriend Elaine, resists drinking through the whole book, and pursues two cases at the same time: tracking down the producers of a snuff film and figuring out whether a wealthy lawyer did or did not kill his wife.

It’s a shame that this is the only Edgar that Block has won. Slaughterhouse is a perfectly good book, but my favorite Scudder stories are the ones earlier in the timeline (like Eight Million Ways to Die and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes), when he is in the initial fits and starts of his recovery. They make you suffer right along with him as he goes through agonizing backslides which only make it that much harder for him to climb back up onto the wagon.

No matter how long he has been sober, Scudder is (and you are) always, always conscious of alcohol around him. He’s confronted with it all the time, like when he goes out to dinner and the dinner menu says, playfully, “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine!” When his cases aren’t going well, or he’s under stress, it’s doubly hard; the first thing he always fantasizes about is a glass of bourbon. Or a bottle of bourbon.

At one point in Slaughterhouse, Scudder meets a contact, a young cop, in a bar. The cop is drunk, argumentative, and clearly on the same path Scudder himself was on. After making one attempt to get their meeting to happen somewhere else, Scudder eventually chooses to leave the cop there in the bar. He feels guilty about leaving without making more of an effort, but his sponsor reminds him that, as an alcoholic, your first responsibility is not to drink. You cannot always save others because it may take all you have just to do that.

Blurb writers are always comparing Block to Elmore Leonard. I don’t know why they think this is a compliment, given how great Block is and how annoying Leonard is. I wish that Hollywood would stop making movies out of Leonard’s books and make a good movie out of one of Block’s. Eight Million Ways to Die was made into a movie, and it does star Jeff Bridges, who of course is fantastic, but the adaptation is disappointing. Instead of New York, it takes place in Los Angeles, where Matt Scudder definitely doesn’t belong, and Scudder has resigned from the police force because he killed a drug dealer, rather than a little girl; not quite the same thing.

For those who like mysteries but for whom the Matt Scudder series is a little too dark and/or explicit, Block’s Burglar series is tamer but just as well-written. The central character, Bernie Rhodenbarr, is a used bookstore owner by day and a burglar by night. He always manages to stumble across corpses while on his night job and has to solve the murders himself to prevent them from convicting him of the murder.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nebula v. Hugo

I thought it was high time I used this space to address another excellent reader question: what is the difference between the Nebula and Hugo awards?

The short answer is that the Nebula is voted on by sci-fi writers, while the Hugo is voted on by sci-fi fans.

I suppose one could think of the Nebula as being more like the SAG Awards, and the Hugo as being more like the MTV Viewer’s Choice Awards.

The Nebula

The Nebula was started in 1965. It is mainly awarded for writing – novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories – although every year there are also a couple service awards and one for “best dramatic presentation,” which is usually a film.

It is awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which is a professional organization for science fiction and fantasy authors. There are several levels of membership, which are determined by how much you have published, and you can only vote on the Nebula if you meet the criteria for being in one of the top two levels. To be in the second-highest level you have to have sold at least one short story to a professional publication (the SFWA has a list of the ones they will accept) and you have to have been paid at least $50 for it. To get into the top level you have to have sold three short stories or one novel or one full-length professionally produced dramatic script.

The Hugo

To vote for the Hugo, on the other hand, all you have to be is a supporting member of that year’s WorldCon (World Science Fiction Convention), which you can do by paying $50 to the World Science Fiction Society. That gets you voting rights for the current year’s nominees and the final ballot, and nomination rights for next year’s awards. You don’t even have to attend the convention. The only caveat is that you can’t nominate your own work, and you can only nominate up to five works each year.

The Hugo is older than the Nebula; it was first awarded in 1953, skipped in 1954, and then awarded every year from 1955 until now. It is awarded in a wide variety of categories which change from year to year and can include books, films, TV shows, fanzines, art, and people. My personal favorite is a special award given in 1969 to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins for Best Moon Landing Ever.

The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories, the first major sci-fi magazine in the United States.

An Unexpected Finding

When I launched this whole book-review project, I predicted that I would like the Nebula winners more than the Hugo winners. Presumptuous as I am, I thought that since the Nebulas are awarded by the writers, they must be of higher quality.

But so far, lo and behold, I have given the Hugo winners slightly higher ratings than the Nebula winners. As of today, I have read 44 of each (of which 20 books have won both awards). The Nebula winners have an average rating of 2.95 and the Hugo winners have an average rating of 3.27.


Another Fan's Nebula-v-Hugo Analysis
Hugo Awards website
Nebula Awards website

Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review: The Eye of the Needle

Ken Follett
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is a blockbuster page-turner with all the ingredients - war, sex, human drama, and international intrigue with the fate of the free world at stake. It also has several elements that I am a particular sucker for: spies, WWII-era Britain, remote Scottish islands, and violent storms at sea.

The main character is Henry Faber, a careful, ruthless, handsome German spy. Faber is known as Die Nadel (The Needle) because of the trademark stiletto he carries and with which he kills a fair number of people over the course of the book.

Traveling around the southeast coast of England in early 1944, Faber discovers that the forces the Germans have been observing building up in East Anglia, which they believe will be used to invade France at Calais, are a hoax. He even is able to take a roll of pictures of dummy cardboard planes to prove it. This leads him to the natural (and correct) conclusion that the Allies are planning to invade at Normandy instead. If he is able to let his bosses in Germany know this, it could change the entire course of the war.

Faber then tries to make his way up from London to his contact, a U-boat stationed off the coast of Scotland, before he is caught by the pesky MI5 agents on his tail. He runs into a number of frustrating delays and setbacks. Desperate, he eventually steals a fishing boat and sets out for sea in the middle of a huge storm, only to get shipwrecked on a barren, windswept island populated by only four people: an old shepherd, a young farmer who lost his legs in a car accident, the farmer’s sexy estranged wife, and their baby son.

The shepherd and farmer are immediately hostile and suspicious, but the wife, Lucy, is quite receptive to Faber... to say the least. The challenge for Die Nadel then is to elude the two men, find a way to contact the U-boat by radio or boat, and to avoid getting distracted by falling in love with Lucy.

Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan are pensive in the
1981 screen adaptation of this blockbuster.
Like The Day of the Jackal, the story is told primarily from the point of view of the bad guy. This can get emotionally confusing. On the one hand, Faber is the enemy and you want him to get caught, and you don’t like that he kills Home Guards and innocent rooming house landladies. But, on the other hand, almost up to the very end, you root for him to win his hand-to-hand fights and to get it on with Lucy.

The details of spycraft are not as gritty and realistic as in, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - but then again, Follett doesn’t have the advantage of a background in British intelligence like LeCarré does.
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