Random Musings: 06-29-2010

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    Thoughts about books I’ve recently read, this time out.

         In the early days of personal computers, Commodore was a trailblazer. In January 1977, Commodore was the first computer company to announce an affordable personal computer. The PET would sell for $495.

         Later came the Vic-20, and the Commodore 64, both of which were affordably priced when compared to the competition. Commodore was also the first company to sell one million computers.

         Yet Commodore, which began as a typewriter company in 1958, evolved into a calculator business in 1966, and then became a computer company in the 1970s, ceased operations in 1994. What went wrong? And why is it mostly forgotten today?

         On The Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore by Brian Bagnall (Variant Press, 2006) explores the ups and downs of a computer industry pioneer. Overall, this 561 page book is a good read, though it does have both major and minor shortcomings. The minor shortcomings include occasional punctuation errors. The biggest shortcoming is the lack of an index. But maybe Bagnall will correct that shortcoming in a subsequent edition.

         Myself, I still have an affinity for my Commodore 64- and for the Word Writer software I used. I did a lot of writing on that computer.

     

         When I reached page 22 of Tales To Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro (Bloomsbury USA, 2004), I was stopped cold by this passage:

         “After Captain America, Jack (Kirby) and Joe (Simon) were invited to work on an issue of Fawcett Publications’ Whiz Comics, which starred Captain Marvel, a crippled newsboy give supernatural powers by an ancient wizard he met in an abandoned subway tunnel. When Billy yelled, “Shazam,” he became a caped adult hero who could fly and fight evildoers.”

         BZZZZZ!!! Wrong! The “crippled newsboy” was Freddy Freeman, who became Captain Marvel, Jr. And who did so by shouting the name of his hero, Captain Marvel (making him the only superhero who can’t say his own name out loud). Billy Batson (Captain Marvel) was a reporter for radio station WHIZ. What’s more, Billy and Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2 in 1940, where Billy met the wizard, Shazam, in the subway tunnel; Freddy Freeman first appeared in Whiz Comics #25 in 1941. Captain Marvel gave Freddy a portion of his powers to save his life.

         Captain Marvel and the “Shazam Family” are not obscure characters who made brief appearances decades ago. They are well known characters still around today (and currently owned by DC Comics). This is either sloppy research on Ro’s part, or an editor took it upon himself or herself to change his text with regard to that paragraph. Either way, it makes me wonder what other factual errors the book contains.

         As it is, though, I won’t be reading any further to find out.

     

         Speaking of getting things wrong, John Kenneth Muir, the writer of A History and Critical Analysis of Blake’s 7 (McFarland & Company, 1999), had several critical comments to make about Babylon 5 (which ran from 1993-1998), many of which were off base.

         Before I go into that, I should say that as far as I could tell the main portion of the book- which concerns the British science fiction series Blake’s 7 (1978-1981)- contained both factual information about that series and well-reasoned opinions. Why he couldn’t have shown as much care when discussing other shows later in the book is beyond me.

         Anyway, with regard to his Babylon 5 comments, Muir displays repeated ignorance of that series, suggesting he’s either never watched the show, or only seen it on occasion. First, it’s Commander Sinclair, not Captain Sinclair. Second (and most laughable), the episode “Soul Hunter” does not involve a “space vampire.” Soul hunters do not feed on others, as vampires do. They “preserve” the souls of important people, believing they’d be lost otherwise, as they claim there’s no afterlife. And in “Soul Hunter”, the eponymous character, who has missed getting to the moment of death of several key figures, and has become unhinged, has taken a pre-emptive strike approach to preserving the souls of those he believes to be worthy. Such as Delenn.

         But he doesn’t feed on these souls, or otherwise draw nourishment from them.

         Muir also asks (pages 176-177) what viewers learn about Sinclair in the two-hour pilot of Babylon 5, other than that he had 24 hours missing from his memory? Apparently, he either doesn’t recognize or dismisses as invalid the storytelling convention in which you learn more about a character as a series (or a book) progresses. It’s a perfectly legitimate means of storytelling to not to reveal everything about a character at the start.

         Yes, when we meet Roj Blake in “The Way Back”, the first episode of Blake’s 7, we learn that he’s a former rebel who’s been reconditioned (and who will soon become a rebel again), but we don’t learn what prompted his initial rebellion. I could think of a dozen probabilities, but they’d just be guesses.

         It seems clear Muir doesn’t like Babylon 5. Fine. But his criticisms would carry more weight if he got the rank of a main character right and accurately described the events of an episode he critiqued.

     

         For the record, Blake’s 7 was a well-written show about a band of criminals who take on an oppressive regime, though, like Doctor Who at the time, it had a limited budget. Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks for Doctor Who, created Blake’s 7 and wrote all 13 episodes of the first season. Unfortunately, while the series was released on videotape in the U.S. in the 1990s, it has yet to get a U.S. DVD release.

     

         I’m Working on That: A Trek From Science Fiction to Science Fact by William Shatner, with Chip Walter, compares and contrasts Star Trek technology with real world tech. Shatner, who confesses to not being as up to speed on technology as his famous fictional counterpart, writes in a conversational style, and presents himself as a man eager to learn.

         I’m Working on That is an enjoyable read, whether you’re a Star Trek fan or not.

     

         Remembering Himan Brown:

     

         On June 4, Himan Brown died at 99. Brown was one of the most respected figures in radio. Perhaps best known for his work on Inner Sanctum Mysteries (which he created, produced and directed), Brown also worked to keep dramatic radio alive long after its heyday. He was the driving force behind CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a Peabody award winning program, which ran from 1974-1982.

         Brown, who was conducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990, also worked as a producer or director on Grand Central Station, and Adventures of the Thin Man, among others.

     

     

    Copyright 2010, Patrick Keating

     

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