June 29, 2012

Words of the Month - Out of House and Home

        Recently I got a postcard in the mail offering services to help you "Sell your home faster!"  And it struck me as very very wrong.  After all, who would want to sell their home?  Surely what you'd want to sell is your house, so that you can relocate and make your home in a new place?
        So what exactly is the difference between house and home?
        Both house and home come from Old English roots and have been part of English as far back as any words.  The root of house may have been more associated with the building, and the root of home more associated with village (as in the -ham suffix still used in English place names.)  Home may have shifted from ideas of "home-town," to the place you come from and the place you belong, to the locus of your domestic affections.  Through the ages both words have been used with implications of affection, and both words have been used to refer to mere buildings, but clichés  such as "Home is where the heart is" and "There's no place like home" get at the different connotations.  Generally speaking, home continues to carry connotations of family, emotional comfort, and belonging, while house is more likely to refer to a physical dwelling place.
        In the past several decades, however, real estate agents seem to have stopped talking about houses and begun to talk almost exclusively about "homes."  It's easy to understand how real estate agents, trying to evoke all that people hope for when they have to move house, started promising to help a family find not just a new house, but a new home.  I can understand the logic behind wanting to buy a new home, although I'm of the opinion that homes, like love, can't really be bought.  But even if you allow the idea of buying a home, surely no one would want to sell one.  And that can only mean that "Buyer's Desire Home Staging" company, who sent that postcard to my house, have completely forgotten what the word home means.  To them it is clearly nothing more than the prestige synonym for dwelling.
        Given that house and home have such a long intertwined history of usage, I probably can't really claim that the postcard was wrong in its use of the word "home" in this context.  But I don't care - I do think they're wrong!  You can buy houses, you can sell houses, you can even "stage" houses "to outshine the competition."  But I'm going to stand firm with another cliché, and assert that "Only love can make a home."

[Picture: In a Little Crooked House, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002.]

June 26, 2012

Winnipeg Neighborhood

        In honor of our family vacation across the border to Canada (and yes, we remembered our passports this time!) I thought it would be fun to feature a block print with a Canadian theme.  Granted, we won't be anywhere near Winnipeg, but I just fell in love with this charming collection of buildings.  This is a large-scale linoleum block cut for steamroller printing.  You can read all about the artist's process in her blog, where I found the piece.
        And that's all from me until I get back home!

[Picture: Winnipeg Neighborhood II, linocut by Miriam Rudolph, 2010.]

June 22, 2012

The Fantastic J.J. Grandville

        Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (1803-1847), known by his pseudonym J.J. Grandville, was a French caricaturist who first became famous for his illustrations of people with human bodies and the heads of animals.  He was acclaimed for his satire, and also for his proto-Surrealist visions, especially in the illustrations of Un Autre Monde (1844).
        You can see how these illustrations were inspirational to the Surrealists, and then later to many writers and artists of science fiction and fantasy, and now the steampunk movement.  Some of Grandville's work is grotesque and disturbing, some sly and cynical, some delightfully inventive, nutty, and beautiful.  I include here a few that I find especially appealing, but a web search will yield a lot more of his pictures.
        A note on his printing: I believe that most of Grandville's prints,
including those from Un Autre Monde, are lithographs.  Lithography is a method of printmaking where the image to be printed is drawn with an oil-based crayon onto a flat stone plate.  The process uses the fact that oil and water repel each other.  (For a detailed description, you can read up on the Wikipedia article.)  But for my purposes, what it really means is that there is no carving involved.  The final image looks just like the drawing it really is, not like a carving.  My prejudice, of course, is that this makes lithography merely a method of reproduction, rather than a medium of interest  and beauty in its own right.
(I would be happy to be convinced otherwise by any lithography artists out there!)  Still, they do count as printmaking, and at the very least, I count them as cool drawings!

[Pictures: Footbridge between worlds;
Beetle riding a frog-bird [Chimeras anyone?];
Mlle Tender et M. Tunnel, concert of steam cornet and soprano;
La Fosse aux Doublivores, all pictures are lithographs by J.J. Grandville from Un Autre Monde, 1844.
(Thanks to blacque_jacques's Flickr set of images.)]

June 19, 2012


        The classical chimera, with its three random heads poking out of random places, has always seemed to me a most unconvincing beast.  It seems like a made-up monster rather than a plausible creature.  But in the word's more generalized meaning, a monster made up of elements from different creatures, fantasy is full of excellent chimeras.
        Really, almost any fantasy creature can be described in chimerical terms, from the Asian dragon with its "horns resembling those of a stag, his head that of a camel," etc., to the griffin's mix of eagle and lion, to the jackalope's conglomeration of other creatures' features.  But while they can be described by analogy, dragons and griffins seem to have their own integrated identities.  I want to focus on a few chimeras that are definitely hybrids but which, unlike their Lycian namesake, I wholly endorse.
        First of all, two chimeras of my own invention.  The walraconstrictor is a product of a game I used to play in college.  My roomates would give me two animals and my job was to combine them.  The only one I specifically remember, because it was our favorite, was the walraconstrictor.  Another chimera came to me in a dream.  I dreamt of the frowl and when I woke tried to sketch it.  I never could get it to look quite right, but I still think the concept is promising.
        A running joke in the fantasy cartoon series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is that the animals are all hybrids, including tiger-dillos, badger-moles, buffalo-yaks, cat-owls, elephant-rats, eel-hounds, ostrich-horses, and sabertooth moose-lions.  Indeed, when our heroes encounter the Earth King's pet bear in the episode "City of Walls and Secrets," they question whether the beast must actually be a platypus-bear, skunk-bear, armadillo-bear, or gopher-bear.  A "just bear" seems rare and strange to them.  P and T really enjoyed the chimeras played for laughs throughout the series.
        Finally, if you and your friends want to create your own chimeras, the game "exquisite corpse" can be adapted to animals.  Each person takes a turn drawing a portion of an animal - head, fore-body, or rear - in which all the artist can see of the other contributions is the very edge, to make sure they all match up.  There are also a number of split-page books that make it easy to mix-and-match animal parts.  My favorite is definitely Flip-o-storic illustrated by Sara Ball.  The sectioned animals are all post-dinosauric prehistoric creatures such
as the saber-toothed cat and the glyptodon.  The book includes good factual information about the real extinct creatures involved, presented so that you can also see how it would describe the chimeras you create.  It's fun to see how some combinations look too "normal" to be appealing, while other combinations don't seem to meld convincingly - but some mash-ups are just right.
        As long as humans have been telling stories they seem to have been creating monsters by combining features of the real animals they encountered.  So remember, all it takes to design your own mythical creatures is a well-stocked menagerie and a pair of scissors!

[Pictures: Chimaera of Arezzo, woodcut depicting the famous Etruscan bronze sculpture, from Monstrorum historia by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1642 (image from AMS Historica of the University of Bologna);
Walraconstrictor and Frowl, pencil and photoshop by AEGN, 2012;
Macraunyclagus and Dolothus, illustrations by Sara Ball from Flip-o-Storic by Britta Drehsen, 2011.]

June 15, 2012

World-Bettering Example 4

    Can Block Printing Save the Earth?

        I'm faking you out here - this isn't another post about speculative fiction.  No, I'm back to block prints, but I've got a couple of block prints from Jan Amos Comenius, a seventeenth-century Czech educator who believed in the power of pictures to educate, and the power of education to make the world a better place.  Comenius is called the father of modern education for his design of a school system much like the public school system used in the US today, for his general theory of education based on principles of investigation, and for his textbooks.  His textbooks were the first to use illustrations for instruction and they were based on the ideas of teaching children in the vernacular, starting with what was familiar to them, making the acquisition of knowledge enjoyable, and universalizing education.  Comenius explained that he would try "to allure boys' attention with pictures that amusingly teach the chief things of the world."
        According to Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, Comenius's travels "led him to hope that education might mitigate enough local bigotries to unite mankind."  Art can indeed have a special place in this job of uniting people through education, because images have the ability to communicate across linguistic barriers.  Sad to say, Comenius was not entirely successful, as mankind is not yet united.  Still, he didn't give up on this dream despite having all his property and writings destroyed by bigots not once but twice.  So we shouldn't give up yet, either.
        I've picked three woodcuts from Comenius's 1657 work Orbis Sensualium Pictus, "The Visible World in Pictures."  My daughter T has recently been on an ancient Roman kick and checked out of the library a First 1000 Words in Latin book which really drove home for me the revolutionary genius of Comenius's ideas.  T had a grand time flipping through the full-page illustrations in her library book, and soon started referring to family members by their Latin names. ("Mater, can I please have a snack?"  I suppose she should be using the vocative declension, but still…)  Now try to imagine a 9-year-old having fun voluntarily learning Latin from a words-only textbook consisting purely of long vocabulary lists to be memorized.  See how clever Comenius was?
        Besides the pedagogical novelty, however, I find the illustrations pleasing, both as windows into the world of his students, and as woodcuts in their own right.  As is so often the case, I don't know who designed or carved these little vignettes, but they certainly seem more attractive to me than the line illustrations that appeared in so many textbooks of my youth in the 1970's.  I like the boy in his hat and collar as he goes stiltwalking along.  I like that the different birds are set actively in a scene instead of statically on their own.   And the bookshop?  Well, bookshops are
always cool, but I'm very much interested in the ways in which this view differs from modern bookstores - and the ways in which things are still the same.
        Finally, a couple of Fun Facts about J. A. Comenius:
1.  He believed in prophesies and revelations, and said that 1672 would begin the new millenium of Christ.  (He died in 1670, so never got to see himself proven wrong on that one.)
2.  He tried to invent a language in which it would be impossible to express a false statement.  (Which sounds good, but then what would become of all my beloved fantasy?)

[Pictures: Children's games, woodcut from Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Jan Amos Comenius, 1658 edition;
Fowl, from 1669 trilingual edition);
Bookshop, from 1658 edition.]
(Quotations from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971.)

June 12, 2012

World-Bettering Example 3

    Heroism Is Contagious

       I recently read about a couple of social psychology studies that left me feeling pretty I-told-you-so-ish.
        Participants were told they were taking part in a memory study.  They watched short television clips, wrote down what they remembered seeing and how the clip made them feel, and were paid for their participation.  After they thought the study was over, they were asked if they'd volunteer to help with an unpaid study.  Another, similar study ended with participants being asked to "help out" an experimenter with some dull extra task.  In both cases, participants who had watched a television clip celebrating virtuous behavior were considerably more likely to volunteer for extra service than those who had watched a neutral clip.  In other words, exposure to the example of heroism makes people more heroic.
        The experimenters are not sure exactly how this effect works.  Do the "warm fuzzies" change something in the brain?  Do people who have just stated on an assessment that they're feeling inspired feel compelled to live up to those claims?  What exactly is going on here?  Well, obviously the social psychologists are interested in studying the causes further, but I'm more interested in pointing out the implications of the results.
        If we know that people really do respond to the examples in their lives, that incidents of goodness really do fuel further goodness, that learning about heroes can make heroes of the rest of us…  If we know, in short, that virtue can be contagious, this is just one more confirmation of the power of stories to make the world a better place.  This is exactly why it's so important to hold up high ideals in the books we read and write.  It means that when people of all ages read books about characters with courage and integrity, they will be more likely to try to follow those examples.  It means that when we're shown worlds in which characters work to Do the Right Thing, we are more likely to try to be those characters in our own world.  So make sure that the next book you read is a heroic book, and help make the world a better place!

[Picture: The Enormous Turnip, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008.]
(I read about these studies at the Psycho Babble blog.)

June 8, 2012

World-Bettering Example 2

    Inspired Inventions

        Last post I mentioned Neal Stephenson's claim that it's the job of speculative fiction writers to inspire scientists and inventors.  He wasn't making up the connection out of thin air.  Throughout history there have been any number of real-life inventions that have been presaged by fiction, but I want to focus on the ones that didn't merely follow in fiction's footsteps but that can be explicitly attributed to inspiration from a specific fictional source.  Other people have made lists of technologies from sci-fi, and you can see Smithsonian's list here.  But I narrowed down all these proposed technologies based on two criteria.  1. The inventor acknowledged direct inspiration from a sci-fi source, and  2. The invention makes the world a better place.  That meant I am inclined to leave out of my collection a number of inventions used exclusively or primarily for killing people.
        Take the example of atomic power, pioneered by Leo Szilard after he read H.G. Wells's The World Set Free.  I know people often argue that the ability to kill lots of those people makes the world better for our people, but I find this much too problematic in my celebration of how the world can be bettered.  However, Wells did not inspire Szilard to work only on the science.  His book also inspired Szilard to campaign for arms control and the peaceful use of nuclear power.  Technology is the proverbial genie which, once set free, is difficult to control.  This is why helping people envision a variety of possible outcomes is crucial if we are to learn to use new technologies responsibly.  (D and I fall into this discussion from time to time - how much should science be reined in because of the probability that some new discovery or invention will be applied to unscrupulous or downright evil purposes?)  Still, just because something has been used for evil doesn't mean it can't also be used for good, so I have left a few ambivalent inventions on my list.
        Jules Verne is probably the place to begin.  He wrote, "Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real."  This idea was taken to heart by Igor Sikorsky, who invented the modern helicopter under the inspiration of a Verne book called Clipper of the Clouds.
        Verne, with his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, also gets credit as the inspiration behind "father of the modern submarine," Simon Lake.  Indeed, when Lake's Argonaut became the first submarine to work successfully in the open ocean, Jules Verne sent him a note of congratulation.
        "Star Trek" and its nifty communicators was the inspiration for Motorola's development of the mobile telephone.  The director of research and development Martin Cooper said, "That was not fantasy to us.  That was an objective."
        "Star Trek" is a great example of a sci-fi future in which technology has been a positive force, and I'm sure it's inspired more than just a few people.  It was "The Next Generation" that inspired Steve Perlman's idea for Apple QuickTime.
        Arthur C. Clark is the sci-fi writer who portrayed satellites being used for mass communication.  In a list of technology inspired by sci-fi, Robert Rea proposes this as the inspiration behind the launch of satellites in the following decade.  But although this seems plausible, Rea offers nothing concrete to back up his assertion, so I just don't know.  There are an awful lot of inventions in the "I'm not sure about the inspiration" category.  Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy envisions something very like a modern e-reader, but again, I don't have any evidence that the inventors of e-readers were responding to the inspiration of Adams's idea.
        At least we do know that The Hitchhiker's Guide influenced the developers of AltaVista's web translation software.  I assume that the importance of translation is pretty obvious to a lot of people without any need for particular inspiration from science fiction.  However, the team that named the program were obviously sci-fi fans, because they called their software Babel Fish.  (Of course, Douglas Adams's Babel Fish is not technology, but a miraculously improbable alien species…)
        This may be a similar case to that of the Taser.  Invented by Jack Cover as a non-lethal alternative to guns, the Taser's name was originally the acronym TSER, after a fictional invention, the Tom Swift Electric Rifle.  The long-running Tom Swift series was written under the collective pseudonym Victor Appleton and featured myriad inventions.  Certainly Cover found the sci-fi series inspirational in a general way, but whether his invention is directly attributable to the specific idea in the book I don't know.
        Tom Swift also gets credit for inspiring Apple founder Steve Wozniak to become a scientist.  Wozniak said that the Tom Swift books made him feel "that engineers can save the world from all sorts of conflict and evil."
        But I can't neglect to mention the most iconic sci-fi technology of all, space flight itself.  Robert Goddard, who built the first liquid-fueled rocket, attributed his fascination with spaceflight to H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds.
        Finally, here's some inspiration in progress.  NASA's web site has an article called From Inspirations to Inventions, mentioning some of the fictional inspirations behind the modern space program.  It ends with a brief analysis of some "Star Trek" technologies, such as warp drive, that are under study and development by scientists now.
        So just remember (to paraphrase Verne and Wozniak), Anything that one person can imagine, another person can make real… and then use to save the world from evil.  Now get out there and get inspired!

[Pictures: "The clipper of the clouds," illustration by Léon Benett from The Clipper of the Clouds by Jules Verne, 1887;
Cover of Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle: or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land by Victor Appleton, 1911.]

June 5, 2012

World-Bettering Example 1

    Less Dystopia, Please

        I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the roles I think speculative fiction can play in society is to help make the world a better place.  Another thing I'm always going on about is my dislike of unrelieved doom and gloom in fiction.  Of course it's always nice to find someone who agrees with me, and in this case I've found (somewhat unexpectedly) science fiction superstar Neal Stephenson.  Stephenson has been arguing that recent science fiction is too much about nihilism and apocalypse.  This is a bad thing because such negative scenarios aren't inspiring, and without the inspiration of imaginary hopeful futures, people (by which he means specifically scientists) will be less likely to work toward solutions to the problems of today.
        Admittedly, the only book of Stephenson's that I've ever read is Snow Crash (recommended to me by D because of the linguistics connection).  The world as depicted in Snow Crash is hardly "The Jetsons," and indeed philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 that "the problem with Snow Crash is… that it isn't inspirational."  But perhaps it was criticisms like this that turned Stephenson's thoughts to the lack of hopeful sci-fi visions of the future.  According to a recent article in Smithsonian, Stephenson went to a futurist conference in 2011 and found that the audience was blaming sci-fi authors for the slow pace of real-life technological innovation.
        Smithsonian cites Denise Caruso of Carnegie Mellon University as saying that "science fiction helps [scientists] think about how the work they're doing might eventually turn out."  And that "worldbuilding, she says, helps people anticipate how innovations might be used for good or ill in daily life."
        Neal Stephenson's response is the Hieroglyph project, intended to inspire writers to inspire scientists.  He hopes that if writers start infusing sci-fi with more optimism, "young engineers and scientists will absorb ideas from the stories and think, 'If I start working on this right now, by the time I retire it might exist.'"
        Will it work?  Who knows, but I'm all for it!  Stay tuned for some concrete examples of fictional inspiration in the next couple of posts.
        You can read Smithsonian's entire article here.

[Pictures: The World that Was, wood block print by Fritz Eichenberg, c 1975-9.]

June 1, 2012

Jan Lievens

        Three or four years ago the art world rediscovered Jan Lievens.  Lievens was a contemporary of Rembrandt, born in the same town only one year later (1607-1674.)  Although he was compared favorably with Rembrandt when they were young, later in his life he moved from city to city and experimented with different styles, which may have been why art history tended to ignore him.  But Lievens had something going for him that, in my view, gives him an importance Rembrandt never achieved - Lievens made wood block prints.
        Not only did Lievens make woodcuts, which Rembrandt never even seems to have tried, but apparently he carved at least some of them himself.  This was still the era when most woodcuts were carved by master woodcarvers from drawings made by the famous artists.  It's true that many artists and woodcarvers worked together in a collaboration that seems to demonstrate a real meeting of the minds, but still, it's always interesting to me when an artist of that time period chose to do his own carving.  Did he believe he could more accurately capture his own vision if he did it himself?  Did he wish to master another technique?  Did he want to avoid the expense
of hiring a woodcutter?  Was he in too much of a hurry to wait for a carver to schedule his project?  Who knows.
        Most of Lievens's woodcuts are portraits, and they make it easy to see why he had a successful career as a portraitist.  His characters are portrayed smoothly and clearly, but with enough personality to make them seem like real people capable of capturing the imagination.  Although he may have carved most of his other blocks himself, this two block print was apparently carved by François Dieussart.  One block is the black lines - the "normal" relief block print part.  The other is the tone block, out of which were carved the highlights.  When it was printed with a midtone color, with the black block printed on top, it produced a chiaroscuro image, with its emphasis on lighting.
        This last example is interesting not only because it's a rare landscape among all Lievens's people, but also because it doesn't look carved.  The quality of the lines and shapes looks like an ink drawing.  On the one hand, you have to admire the carving skill that can duplicate that look.  But on the other hand, I like the look of carving, so it always seems a bit of a waste to hide it!  Still, I do like this little slice of scenery very much.

[Pictures: Philosopher with an hour-glass, woodcut by Jan Lievens, 1630-40;
Bust of a bearded man, facing right,  woodcut by Lievens, 1630-40;
Bust of an old man, full face, woodcut with one line block and one tone block by Lievens, 1630-40 (Images from the British Museum);
Landscape with a Group of Trees, woodcut by Lievens, c 1640 (Image from Smithsonian website, piece from the Rijksmuseum.)]