Duck Duck Book

65 – home-made
05.31.2010, 7:07 pm
Filed under: technology

Home-made : contemporary Russian folk artifacts / [compiled by] Vladimir Arkhipov.
London : Fuel Publishing, 2006.
[MCL call number: 621.9 H765 2006; one copy, no holds]

Everyone makes things, even people who don’t think of themselves as practical or creative or skilled.  It’s natural for us human tool-builders to force the material of the world around us to give service in aid of whatever project we are engaged in.  Sometimes we do this in style, and then we’re likely to call it art.  But mostly, we just make do with manipulating whatever is lying around to do the job we need done now, whether or not the resulting tool or shortcut is sharp or elegant or lovely.  And when objects themselves are scarce, why then we really get busy making do.

Home-Made is a catalog of objects making do, created by everyday Russians during the twilight of the Soviet Union.  I can’t begin to characterize the entire collection, but I’ll mention a few items that charmed me:

  • a flowered china teapot, its broken handle replaced with a utilitarian stainless steel affair held on with a bolt (page 82)
  • a doormat/boot scraper made from discarded beer caps (page 24)
  • a corner basin made from a galvanized wash tub (page 272)
  • a basket with a handle, fashioned from a punctured rubber ball (page 219)

Each object’s photograph is accompanied by the story of how it came to be made, and a picture of the artisan, or of the person who explained the artifact’s provenance.  All of the items are part of Russian artist Vladimir Arkhipov’s collection of home-made things.

[thanks, Matthew]


63 – meet mr. product
09.15.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

Meet Mr. Product : the art of the advertising character / Warren Dotz, Masud Husain.
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, c2003.
[MCL call number: 659.1 D725m 2003: one copy, no holds]

Those readers who know me personally do not need to be reminded of how appalled I am to see the food advertising itself.  Probably the most dramatic horrors are the signs for barbecue restaurants that feature a cute, cartoonish pig salivating, wearing a bib, and waving a knife and fork — but there are countless other examples: anthropomorphized donuts, dancing fruits and vegetables, and hot dogs that walk and talk, just to name a few.  Ironically, at the same time as these characters disgust me, I also find them fascinating and compelling, which is, I guess, part of why they make good advertisements.  They’re adorable.  They’re disturbing.  They’re improbable.  They’re funny!

I think some of my discomfort with the food advertising itself is that the adorable little pig at the barbecue stand and its colleagues are actually encouraging consumers to eat them, which seems unnatural and perverse.  Products-brought-to-life which encourage consumption of other types are not so aberrant — for example, it used to be relatively common for muffler repair shops to have a gaily painted life-sized robot-like statue made of mufflers and other auto parts out front to advertise their services.  Certainly the muffler man, who is made out of mufflers, is encouraging people to consume mufflers.  But since real mufflers are inanimate, technological products, and since we’re not actually eating them, it seems less grotesque for the muffler man to invite us in to have our cars serviced.  His plea is that we patronize his establishment, because his purpose is to quiet the exhaust of an automobile.  The pig, on the other hand, has many interests of its own, and does not grace this earth solely to provide barbecue.

But, philosophical discussion aside, it is clear that the cute cartoon pig with a bib, the muffler man, the animated hot dog are all charming and unusual and make us notice the products they promote.  Some are clever and engaging.  Others are horrifically stereotyped.  Still others are so uninspired as to be instantly forgettable, unless perhaps they survive as cautionary examples for future marketers.  Meet Mr. Product attempts to give readers a tour of a wide swathe of the world peopled by these unlikely creatures.  After a brief history of the use of imaginary characters in advertising, the book displays hundreds of examples of “spokescharacters” who have been used to hawk everything from breakfast cereal to light bulbs to natural gas utilities.  Many are personifications of the products they sell, much like the little pig at the barbecue restaurant, but others are more akin to live product spokespeople — Betty Crocker, Little Miss Coppertone, Mr. Goodwrench, Aunt Jemima.

Many, many classic favorites appear in the book, including:

  • Uniroyal’s Nauga (page 176), alerting shoppers that the object to which it is attached is genuine Naugahyde,
  • the Jolly Green Giant (page 21)
  • Bibendum, the Michelin tire man (pages 14 and 207),
  • Manny, Moe, and Jack (page 213), of the Pep Boys auto parts stores, and
  • the 1940s version of the Jantzen diving girl (page 254) in her iconic red strapless bathing suit.

And there are plenty who never achieved total nationwide household-name sort of fame:

  • the little duckling with a bib (page 151) who once graced the sign for Waddle’s diner here in Portland (“Eat Now at Waddles,” it said, though the example in the book is a little less direct),
  • Mr. Zip (page 224), a very sketchy, high-on-smack-looking postal carrier used to promote the US Postal Service’s new Zone Improvement Program in the 60s,
  • Miss Curity, the first lady of first aid (page 255), promoter of Curity bandages and tape, and
  • the dapper Wool Council lamb (page 249).

Unfortunately, there is no index, though the arrangement of the book might help readers locate the particular spokescharacter they seek — eight chapters focus on characters who advertised food, drinks, products aimed at children, restaurants, technology, car parts and automobile-related products, household goods, and personal and leisure products.

62 – everyday drinking
07.12.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

Everyday drinking : the distilled Kingsley Amis.
New York : Bloomsbury USA, 2008.
[MCL call number: 641.21 A517e 2008; nine copies, no holds]

If you are already a drinker, no doubt you can carry on without the aid of experts — the imbibing of alcohol is not an art that requires any particular level of elegance or finesse.  But, if you desire advice, or if you are interested in refining your skills, or if you’d benefit from a modest amount of humorous diversion, you might take a look at Everyday Drinking.

In this volume, Kingsley Amis, known as an author of fiction, but also a rather notorious lush, provides instruction on every aspect of drinking: choosing and buying alcohol, learning the facts you’ll need to discuss it with actual wine or liquor snobs, assembling bar equipment, planning a cocktail party, making the drinks, serving the drinks, fooling your guests into thinking the drinks are better than they in fact are, cleaning up, and managing your hangover.  Amis’s advice is often helpful and the majority of it is quite sincere, but it is his snotty-pants tone that really makes the book worth reading.  For example, in the section listing the most essential tools for the bar:

“1. A refrigerator.  All to yourself, I mean.  There is really no way round this.  Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator on which they have a claim, even its ice-compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like food.”  (page 38)

Amis goes to lengths to educate readers about the various French and German wines, how they are made, how they ought to be drunk, and when it is better to remember that if you are British, you could just as well drink beer.  He describes in detail a weight-loss diet for the drinking man, provides general advice to the drinking traveler, repeatedly cautions readers against imbibing too many sweet drinks (they are, in his view, sure-fire hangover-producers), and gives an artfully constructed plan for successfully posing as a booze expert in mixed company.

But his in-depth chapter on dealing with a hangover may be the best part of the book.  It includes a helpful dissection of the hangover into its constituent parts.  These are, chiefly: the physical, which, obviously, consists of the physical symptoms, headache, sensitivity to light, stomach upset, achiness, excessive thirst, etc.; and the metaphysical: “the psychological, moral, emotional, spiritual aspects: all that vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realization” (page 79).  Amis follows with practical advice for dealing with each aspect of the hangover.  For the physical hangover, rest, liquids, a hot shower and/or bath, etc.  For the metaphysical hangover, an initial affirmation that the ravages of the hangover are just that, rather than evidence of a greater moral or social failing on the part of you, the afflicted person; followed by a course of hangover reading and listening, carefully chosen to guide you from misery through to calm, without having to linger too long with self-reflection and self-pity.

Everyday Drinking collects three previously long-out-of-print volumes: On Drink, Every Day Drinking, and How’s Your Glass? The first is a compendium of drinking advice, arranged in topical chapters, the second is a collection of newspaper columns on various drinking topics, and the third is a series of drinking tests (multiple choice and essay) intended to gauge and improve the reader’s knowledge of drinking subjects.  This newly reprinted and collected edition begins with a brief introduction and glossary for American readers — the glossary is a real relief to anyone who is not familiar with the odd Briticisms (and perhaps Amisisms?) Amis employs: “hock,” “the local,” “Malvern water,” “stroppy,” etc. The book also has a decent index, and although there is no bibliography following the text, the second chapter of On Drink (page 9 in this volume) is really a bibliographic essay on drinking literature (current to the early seventies, when this part of the book was originally written).

59 – fruit hunters
02.5.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: technology

The fruit hunters : a story of nature, adventure, commerce and obsession / Adam Leith Gollner.
New York : Scribner, c2008.
[MCL call number: 641.34 G626f 2008; 13 copies, no holds;
also in audiobook format at: CD- 641.34 G626f; five copies, no holds]

Probably all of you have encountered a mysterious fruit at some time in your lives.  Perhaps you met it in the produce section of an grocery store specializing in imports from afar, perhaps you ate it while traveling abroad or even just in another part of your own country.  Perhaps you’ve never eaten this fruit; you’ve only read about it and wondered what it might be like to actually taste it.

Adam Leith Gollner traveled widely, ate every new fruit he could find, and scouted out scientists and farmers and weirdos who are obsessed with fruit — and recorded his experiences in The Fruit Hunters.  It’s not really a book about fruit; it’s about people and fruit.  In talking about the people, he has to talk about the fruits, of course, so you get some of both; but it’s the fruit crazies, the obsessives, the true believers who are really the focus.  These people’s stories are so varied and bizarre that it’s hard to characterize them, but here’s a terse sampling of a few of the remarkable fruits and fruit-lovers you’ll find in Gollner’s text:

Fruitarians eat only fruit: for increased health, to build a closer communion with God, or to maintain a connection to primeval man.  Some vary the fruit-only rule by eating a “caveman diet;” fruits  and air-dried raw meat.  Others eat fruits and mineralized rock dust.  But all maintain that eating a diet overwhelmingly composed of fruit is the best, the purest, the most compelling.  Gollner visits several fruitarians and dines with them, while discussing spirituality, the practice of traveling around the world following the ripening cycle of durian fruit (see below), and other topics.

Gary Snyder, an apple grower in Wenatchee, Washington, has invented a fruit product called the Grapple.  This horrifying concoction begins as a Gala or Fuji apple, which is then permeated throughout with artificial grape flavoring.  It’s available in blister packs of four at big box stores, and in some places, pre-sliced in baggies.  Gollner visits Snyder and tours his facility, though the secret method for turning apples into Grapples is not revealed.

Eat a miracle fruit, a berry grows in the sub-tropics, and everything — seriously, everything — you put in your mouth for the next couple of hours will taste sweet.  Gollner meets fruit people around the world who grow the berries themselves and are willing to share a few with him, but in the U.S. they’re almost unknown.  The berries contain a protein called miraculin,  which acts as a short-term befuddler for taste buds, making sour things taste sweet.  Miraculin is banned by the FDA, very possibly due to secret pressure from sugar company lobbyists.

The durian is renowned as the foulest-smelling fruit on earth.  Durians are famously banned from the subway system in Singapore, and they are unwelcome in many refined public places, such as fancy hotels, throughout Asia.  And yet the durian is a beloved fruit in its home territory, and fruit tourists seek it out.  Durian-scented condoms, Gollner reports, are popular in Indonesia.

The Fruit Hunters acts a bit like a history of fruit, but Gollner is a journalist and it shows.  His writing style is informative while still a bit breezy, and the book is something like a very long lifestyle piece of the sort you might find in a highbrow magazine or newspaper.  The facts-and-figures addict in me was a little frustrated at times, but on the whole I found the book quite captivating.  And The Fruit Hunters easily passed one of the tests I use to see if I should review a book here in Duck Duck Book — while reading it, I often found myself wanting to read bits and pieces out loud to anyone who happened to be around, or sometimes, to a friend or colleague who I thought would enjoy a specific anecdote or factoid.

58 – new york’s forgotten substations
12.1.2008, 8:01 pm
Filed under: technology

New York’s forgotten substations : the power behind the subway / Christopher Payne.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 625.4 P346n 2002; two copies, no holds]

Does it not seem that everything about a big city’s subway system should be underground? All the machinery and all the mechanisms to control the subway surely ought to fit neatly below the streets, as the stations and tunnels do. Even the transit system control room that sometimes features in action films is in a windowless room and therefore, filmgoers imagine, is probably underground along with all the other subway infrastructure.

But not everything that makes the trains go fits under the earth. Notwithstanding suburban lines and stations that are wholly aboveground, the power that electrifies the third rail or the overhead wire has to come from somewhere — usually somewhere well away from the tunnels and the tracks. In New York City, the subway system was built with strategically placed power substations near each line. In each one, electrical power from generating stations around the region was converted from high voltage alternating current to low voltage direct current, which ran the trains. In the early 20th century, each of these substations was filled with giant round machines called rotary converters, as well as a quantity of other mechanical equipment like switches, busses, gauges, and breakers.

These substations have now been taken out of service, or had their equipment replaced with more modern technology — but in the late 1990s as the last manual substations were being scrapped, photographer Christopher Payne visited as many as he could, and took pictures of the buildings and their equipment. In this slim volume, some substations are shown with modern electronic equipment side by side with out-of-date manual equipment. Some are disused hulks filled with crumbling machinery, weeds, and peeling paint. Some photographs focus on the incredible workmanship and decorative detail in utilitarian structures like cast iron staircases, window frames, and building facades. All of Payne’s pictures highlight the inherent beauty of the machines and their environment.

Payne introduces his photographs with a series of short essays on the history of New York City’s transit substations, the machines they employed, the methods of their operation, and the basics of how they worked. The essays are supported by dozens of historical and contemporary photographs of substation buildings and workers running the power conversion machinery, and many diagrams explaining the layout of the machinery and the principles by which it operated. Payne’s history and technical explanations are fantastically clear, and his own photographs are both beautiful and interesting. So you should find the book educational, if you want to learn more about the power that runs the trains; and should also find it engaging, if you are interested in the beauty that can be found in practical things.

56 – manhole covers
10.6.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: technology

Manhole covers / Mimi Melnick ; photographs by Robert A. Melnick ; foreword by Allan Sekula.
Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1994.
[MCL call number: 628.24 M527m 1994; one copy, no holds]

Have you ever looked down while crossing the street, and been shocked by the venerable age, or even the simple artistic grace of a manhole cover? They’re on nearly every city street. Some are plain, but intriguing because they are marked with the names of long-departed utility companies or municipalities; others are elegant works of art illustrated with flowers and geometric designs. Some are more pedestrian, covered with simple grids, plain over-all patterns of dots, or radial designs. But once you start to really see them you are likely to find a wide variety of different designs and patterns.

One reason is that although they are walked on and driven over every day, manhole covers are made of cast iron, and are incredibly heavy and durable. So they can have very long lives. Another is that utility companies, businesses, and local governments have had different rules about what manhole covers should and shouldn’t be like over time, and when the rules and fashions change, so do the new manhole covers. It is now generally required that manhole covers be marked with the name of the company or agency that operates whatever it is they provide access to. But, a hundred years ago, they were more likely to be marked with the name of the foundry where they were made.

Mimi Melnick and Richard A. Melnick’s book of photographs of manhole covers offers an engaging tour of manhole covers in many cities in the United States — it is not a comprehensive survey by any means, but there is much to savor in their selection of portraits. (Manhole Covers could be improved by an index to the locations in which each photograph was taken, but even though I am fervently devoted to the importance of indexes, I found that this oversight was quickly forgotten as I leafed through the book.) Mimi Melnick’s introductory essay traces the history of manhole covers, their manufacture, and their role in the infrastructure of American cities, and the 121 pages of manhole cover photographs that follow may well start you on the habit of looking down as you walk.

50 – lost
01.1.2008, 6:22 pm
Filed under: technology

Lost : lost and found pet posters from around the world / Ian Phillips.
New York, N.Y. : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 636.0887 P559L 2002; two copies, no holds]

Even if you have never had a pet, are allergic to cats, find dogs uncivilized, and think pet owners are deluding themselves when you hear them describe the close relationships they have with their animal friends, Ian Phillips’s collection of lost and found pet posters could still charm you.  Some of the posters will look familiar, like those you see in your own neighborhood, but others are astonishing for their content.  Some particularly engaging examples include:

  •  “Lost. kitten /  Name.  Kitty / Address: 2227 E Moodie St. / what / kind of / cat.  Half / Siameses.  Half normal.  / color.  black / meows lot.” (this accompanied by a vaguely cat-like and decidedly four-legged creature, with a word balloon proclaiming “meow meow meow meow?”)
  •  “Big black rat escaped. / Reward to finder. / Rats name is Poison.  Please help!”
  •  “Lost female dog / Children crying”

Phillips includes some thoughts on collecting lost pet posters ethically, and a nice set instructions for creating a poster when your own pet is lost.  Lost has no index, though there is a nice guide to the geographic locations where the posters included in the book were collected.