Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I Got No Strings On Me

Last Mechanical Monster reader Richard B. sent me these photos of a terrific Robot marionette he built for his grandson (strings not yet attached), and gave me permission to share them. Great design, I'd love to see it in action. Thanks, Richard!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Book Review: Move to Fire

Mike Harkins is a friend whom I met years ago when we were both freelance writers for a regional magazine. I like and respect him, and though I carried that bias into my reading of his book Move to Fire, if I didn't think it was genuinely good I simply never would have mentioned it. It's good.

Move to Fire (322 pages) is an impressive work of investigative journalism that Harkins spent years pulling together. It's the story of Brandon Maxfield, a 7-year-old boy shot through the spine and paralyzed for life when a semiautomatic handgun accidentally discharged as a family friend tried to unload it. Brandon and his family sued the gunmaker for manufacturing a defective product, and, years later, tried to buy the company at a bankruptcy auction so they could melt down its inventory of 20,000 cheap junk guns.

The case made national news. I remember it, and I remember thinking the same thing many people did: How could you argue that a gun was defective because it fired a bullet when the trigger was pulled, even if accidentally? Isn't that what a gun is supposed to do? In fact, wouldn't a gun be defective if it didn't fire when you pulled the trigger?

Harkins patiently, methodically explains why I was wrong.

As originally designed, the Bryco Model 38 was intended to be unloaded with the safety in the "safe" position, so that someone couldn't possibly fire it while unloading it. However, when that procedure was followed, the gun jammed. Rather than make an inexpensive fix to prevent jamming, gunmaker Bruce Jennings rewrote the instruction manual so that someone unloading the gun would first have to move the safety to "fire." At the very moment a user was trying to disarm the weapon, it was most vulnerable to an accidental slip of a finger to the trigger.

It would be like Ford building a new car with the brake and gas pedals reversed, then saying it wasn't their fault that people were careless enough to drive over cliffs.

The hero of the book is attorney Richard Ruggieri, who began his career working for defendants in insurance cases, representing companies against plaintiffs stricken with asbestos-related cancer. After several successful years he switched sides, partly driven by his conscience after badgering too many witnesses on their deathbeds, and his intimate knowledge of the Dark Side made him an invaluable Jedi Knight to Brandon's family. He knew all the tricks Jennings and his lawyers would use to hide their assets and evade responsibility, and dogged them relentlessly.

Favorable laws make it tough enough to win cases against gunmakers. Ruggieri's job was made magnitudes harder when the handgun that shot Brandon couldn't be found, having been lost by an earlier attorney in the case. Now he had to prove not just that one particular weapon was defective, but that the entire model line was.

The book is structured like a legal thriller, so that by the time it reaches its climactic three-part trial we know the heroes and villains and understand the stakes. Harkins draws the later chapters directly from the trial transcript, selecting passages that build on and pay off the groundwork he laid earlier.

The suspense is compelling. Harkins plays fair. Ruggieri's case has holes--not least the missing weapon--and some of his opponents' arguments are convincing. Move to Fire isn't an anti-gun screed. I found it an engrossing, well-built narrative that pulled me through, page by page. It's naturally structured like a three-act drama and ought to be a movie (in fact I believe Harkins is developing a screenplay).

Published via an Indiegogo campaign I was happy to support, Move to Fire has some flaws characteristic of self-published works, including a few typos and inconsistent usage and style. I wish a good copy editor had given it a final scrubbing before it went to press. I know first-hand how a second set of eyes can catch mistakes that the people immersed in making a book have overlooked for months.

[EDITED TO ADD: Mike tells me my copy is a first edition, and that many errors were subsequently found and fixed. Since I haven't seen newer editions I'll let my point stand as a reflection of my reading experience, with the understanding that it may be moot.]

Harkins knows these deep woods so well, and is so eager to guide readers through them, that I sometimes felt he didn't look back as often as he should have to be sure everyone was still following. Which is to say, a couple of times I got lost.

The book has a lot of technical detail about handguns: firing pins, slides, triggers, dual magazines, safeties that move up and down instead of side to side. Those details are important; the gun is practically a character itself. I would have appreciated one clear photo or diagram of it to help me understand how it worked, as well as how it failed to work.

These are nits and quibbles that don't detract from my admiration of the book. Whatever polishing it might benefit from wouldn't change its fundamental quality and accomplishments. Move to Fire is a passion project by a writer who knows how to mine facts, build characters, and use them to tell a terrific story. The fact that this writer had to mount an Indiegogo campaign to publish the sort of long-form journalism that magazines used to be proud to print is an indictment of how the field has fallen. Still, without modern crowd-financing the story might never have been told at all. I'm grateful it was.

The recent recipient of a prestigious starred review from Publisher's Weekly, Move to Fire is available on Amazon.

Friday, February 19, 2016

World's Fair Greetings!

Friends and long-time readers know of my love for both the 1939 New York World's Fair, which I featured in my book Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, and old-fashioned red-blue 3-D images (called "anaglyphs"). Here, now, in this very post, those worlds collide.

I like visiting antiques shops in other parts of the country. Our local shops are fine, but different places have their own regional flavors. I also think the vintage pickings aren't as good here in California as they are elsewhere because we're a state of emigrants who left all their old stuff behind when they moved out here.

So while in Ann Arbor, Michigan a couple of days ago (see my previous post!) I browsed a shop and discovered a treasure: a pack of 3-D "Stereovue" souvenir cards from the Fair. Each card is the size of a small postcard, in a cardboard pack meant to be mailed home. Here's the front cover:

And here are several of the cards. I'm posting them large so you can look at them with your own red-blue glasses (everybody should have a pair!). Clicking on the images should make them much larger.

In all my research on the 1939 World's Fair, I hadn't seen these 3-D cards before. In fact, I was surprised to see the red-blue anaglyph technology at all--I thought it hadn't been invented until the 1950s. A good 2011 book by Craig Yoe and Joe Kubert, Amazing 3-D Comics, described Kubert developing it for comic books beginning in 1952. Kubert wrote that he'd seen publications using red-blue 3-D pictures serving in Germany in 1950-51. Obviously it had been around at least a decade before then. I wonder if the Fair was one of its earliest uses?

These are beautiful little gems in near-mint condition from 77 years ago. The cards don't look like they were ever touched, and I can't believe the plastic lenses of the enclosed viewer survived without cracking, What a tremendous find! If anybody wants to see more, let me know and I'll fire up the scanner.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Go (Quick Web Search) Wolverines!

Not a Wolverine.

Honestly, I was about 96% sure that University of Michigan students are Wolverines, but since I haven't cared about college sports since I was in college, I thought I'd better double-check.

I got home late last night from an exhilarating and exhausting trip to the University of Michigan, where I gave three different talks in two days. I think everything went very well. Unless my hosts were lying, so did they. I've never been to Ann Arbor and found that it lived up to its reputation as the quintessential Midwestern college town. I had some time to do my favorite thing in new places: wander aimlessly. Even better, I got to do it through light snow flurries, which is an exotic treat for me (not so much for others who don't live in coastal California, I know).

I did not make it to Zingerman's Deli, which a couple of people told me I must. Now I have a reason to go back.

Several months ago, professor Alex Stern asked if I'd be interested in talking about Mom's Cancer with her class on Health, Biology and Society. Indeed I was, and since I was flying two-thirds of the way across the country I encouraged her to find as much work for me to do while there as she could. I was subsequently booked to speak at the Ann Arbor District Library the evening after the class, and talk with honors students at a luncheon the next day.

Three different audiences with three different talks, and not really one I could pull off the shelf (I do have a couple of standard stump speeches but they didn't fit the bill). I'm not afraid of public speaking but I was a little nervous taking three untested talks for their first spins around the track the day of the big race.

I think it worked out.

My hosts and instructors of the Health, Biology and Society course, Laura Olsen and Alex Stern. The class is a fascinating interdisciplinary thing pulling together material and students from science and humanities to focus on the socio-economics of cancer. By the time I got there, all the students had read Mom's Cancer and were frighteningly well prepared.
About 80 students take the class. Big group! Before I shot this photo I said, "Anybody who doesn't want to be on Facebook look away," so students whose faces you can't see obviously have something to hide. After the class I signed a lot of books and had some great one-on-one conversations. The future is in good hands.

Alex said the students are used to collaborating on worksheets and projects in their table groups (which they've all wittily named), so I suggested we could do jam comics, in which everyone draws the first panel of a comic and then passes it on for someone to draw the next, and so on. It's a great improvisational storytelling exercise whose success depends on the participants' willingness to play along and have fun. These guys were terrific.

Weather was crisp but not unbearably cold, with an inch of dry icy show on the ground and occasional flakes drifting through the sky. The campus is home to roving gangs of squirrels that are fluffier, fatter and browner than those I'm used to, and nearly tame thanks to food handouts from big-hearted students. The squirrel at the top of this post was literally begging at my feet.

They put me up at the Michigan League, which looks like a typical student activity center (cafe, study areas, meeting rooms) except it has a hotel hidden on its fourth floor. Weird but nice. I remarked to someone that one of my favorite things to see while traveling is bricks. We don't have brick buildings in northern California. Ours all fell down in 1906. 
Wandering Ann Arbor. Look at all the bricks!

If your college town doesn't have an old movie theater converted to showing obscure arthouse films and Oscar shorts, you're going to the wrong college.
Some of the people who dropped by the Ann Arbor District Library that evening. The girl at center in the salmon-colored shirt next to Alex Stern is her daughter Sofia, who is a budding graphic novelist, likes plain cheese pizza, and is my new best friend, not least because knowing me puts her only one degree of separation away from her hero Raina Telgemeier. 

Jim Ottaviani is the writer of science-themed nonfiction comics. His subjects have included physicists Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman, Quantum Theory, the Moon Race, Jane Goodall, and Alan Turing. Jim and I are Facebook friends but had never met, and I didn't even know he lived in Ann Arbor until he told me he'd try to make my talk. And he did!

In addition to Jim, two other creators whose work I know and appreciate showed up completely out of the blue. Jerzy Drozd teaches comics, makes webcomics and podcasts, and with Ernie Colon illustrated a graphic adaptation of the Warren Commission Report (published by Abrams ComicArts!). His wife Anne Drozd, in addition to being his collaborator on several projects, is also on the library staff and introduced my talk.

I expected Jim to show and was excited enough about that, but to get Anne and Jerzy at the same time was like Christmas morning.

With Jerzy and Anne.
Enjoying adult beverages after the library talk with Jim, Jim's wife Kat, Anne and Jerzy. It turns out we've all worked with my pal and editor Charlie Kochman at Abrams, and so traded much intelligence and strategy.
Heh heh heh.

Wednesday morning I had some wander time before lunch with about 15 or 20 honors students. This was a less formal setting and I aimed to say more than I usually would about the history of comics as an artistic and literary medium (the Art of the People!) still working to gain respect. Hope I made a good case. I had an especially nice pre-lunch conversation with philosopher and honors program advisor Henry Dyson.

The luncheon set-up. I sat in a comfy chair up front while students grabbed a plate of food (good stuff!) and ate while we talked.

After lunch I went downstairs to a car waiting at the door to whisk me to the airport, where after about seven hours on two planes (separated by a rice bowl dinner at LAX) and another hour and a half dodging fender-benders on a rainy drive home, I oozed into bed dreaming of snow-blown bricks and hungry squirrels.

This trip was a nice career highlight for me. Thanks to Alex and Laura for making it happen (and for teaching my book!); Jim, Kat, Jerzy and Anne for talking shop; Sofia for drawing me a picture; and the students for being good people and good sports. Great school and town! Someday I'll be back for Zingerman's.