Friday, March 21, 2014

The Trojan Drones

Back in 2009, I discussed the issue of censorship in the blogosphere ["Thoughts on Blogging" -- April 8th, 2009]; and in 2010, I talked about the issue of information control, secrecy and the public media ["Assange & The Assault on Internet Exchange" -- December 14, 2010].

In the last three years, the public's attention has been altered, largely as a result of the augmentation of scale of the computer device, towards devices that are portable, instead of tied down by weight and size to a desk. The personal computer has been transformed from a machine in situ, to a kind of advanced cell phone device--a computer on wheels. 

The new phones are as powerful and facile in some respects as full-sized computers used to be. They can send and receive written messages (like e.mail), take pictures, surf the internet, record financial transactions with credit cards. Like the older cell phones, however, they must still be periodically re-charged.

New so-called "social media" sites have grown up around this new technology--such as Facebook, Twitter etc.--which have capitalized on the easy interconnectivity, linking up users anywhere in the world, to sequences of text-threads  

One major drawback of the new devices is that they aren't large enough to provide a classic QUERTY keyboard, though most have a tiny version of this which can be used in the traditional "hunt and peck" manner which people who had never memorized the typing keyboard were forced to employ. Hunting and pecking, or thumbing, is now the new mode for millions of people around the world. 

Like any new gadget, the new cell-cum-computer phones are popular toys. Kids and grown-ups can both appreciate the novelty of making quick, efficient communications from any location, not tied down to a heavy wired device. 

People have begun to speculate about the effects of this new revolutionary device, and how it may influence our culture. And they've begun to wonder about the implications of being constantly "connected" to vast, intricate webs of users, as well as the potential for loss of privacy and confidentiality these new gadgets create.

Since January 2009 I've become a committed blogger, posting over 750 pieces, or essays, on a wide variety of subjects. I have no idea how many bloggers there are in the world. Two years ago, estimates were as high as 173 million, worldwide. I suppose that number much have increased since that time. I'm not sure anyone cares to know the number. 

Blogging bears comparison to earlier kinds of written communication. You type your entries on a typewriter keyboard, and they're read on screens big enough to accommodate a "page" that can be read easily. They're then "loaded" onto the internet, where they are "received" or accessible, like a kind of permanent telegram, complete with pictures and bells & whistles (links, videos etc.). 

Blogging programs are a kind of application. New applications, or apps, as they are now called, can be loaded on to any computer and used to connect to new spheres of access. You can do personal banking, play games and see a live-feed video of a Paris street. 

The first thing to remember about new social media gadgets is that they are proprietary mechanical devices (machines) which are produced to make money. They aren't made available as a public service, but must be purchased by the user. In order to connect to any other entity on the world wide web, one must forfeit some personal privacy in exchange for access. 

Cell phones are not just symbols, but invasive trojan drones of the media industry, designed to hook us up, track our behavior and movements, and analyze our habits and likes and dislikes, the more easily to target us for yet more advertising. The gathering of this data for other purposes has become a hot topic now. Do companies that service these devices, suck up data from users, store and sort and trade it (at a profit), with or without our permission, need to be regulated? Do companies have our best interests at heart? Will the government, which has now begun to spy on the vast internet network of exchange, gathering and storing up messaging data, be responsible enough not to misuse it, for political or other purposes (such as law enforcement)? 

Back in 2010, I spoke out against the use of cell phones ["The New Generation of Inter-Com Devices -- Why They're Bad" -- June 30k, 2010], objecting to the pernicious affects upon users (and others) in public, and in private. 

Since then, the new apps have moved the live voice off to one side, further compressing the window through which the oceanic exchange touches individual devices. In my last foray into this grey area of media ["Death of the Twinkie - Birth of the Hand-Held" -- August 11, 2013], I speculated about the possible death of the hand-held, using the impending death of the Twinkie Snack Treat as a metaphor. 

In spite of its enormous reach, I suspect that the new Social Media sphere may be a short-lived phenomenon. Blogging was the new kid on the block, and it's still with us. A lot of people, probably mostly kids and teens and young adults, have wandered away to fritter their lives on Twitter and Facebook, but I suspect that, given the severe restraints on communications those apps impose, they may endure only as resorts to necessity. 

Once the novelty has worn off, people will easily tire of the triviality and pointlessness of setting down a dozen or so words, and expecting friends, or strangers, to appreciate or understand the meaning of our speech. Already, communication/media wonks have begun predicting the death of Twitter and Facebook. They're already old hat. 

People may tire of being persuaded to be constantly buzzing--mostly for no purpose--but the companies and corporations who produce these devices, and the companies which run the apps which live on them, have other things in mind. What will they think of next?  

I joined the blogging party, but I refused to titillate myself with Twitter. I figure that the kind of people who "tweet" to and "face" each other, probably aren't interested in discussing anything seriously, and so I have no regrets about not being a part of their game. Never having wanted to be a joiner, or a clubby type, I ignore their buzz as much as I can.  Every so often, someone I once blogged with, or exchanged an e.mail message with, will send me a Tweet alert, that there's a message waiting for me. 

Anything important enough to communicate with another person deserves to be heard privately. If you need to tell the world, or your close circle of "friends," what's on your mind, I would think that limiting it to a sentence or two would be a pretty sad commentary on the state of your consciousness, and of the low esteem in which you hold your readers. 

The new social media is a dumbing down of communication. People may be stupid--they usually are--but even naive, unimaginative people will quickly tire of something once the fun of discovery has passed. The very qualities which the new media demands, insures that they won't be loyal customers for long. The attention span of an ape is probably longer than someone who habitually uses Facebook or Twitter. And that is what will kill it, eventually.

It won't be a nano-second too soon for me.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Collector's Corner - Nostalgia Reigns

Everything in America eventually turns into a corporate stock fight, for the rights to exploit something that kids once got an innocent kick out of.  

When I was a boy, it seemed that there were endless things that you could collect. There were marbles, silver dollars, steel pennies, hub caps, indian arrowheads, rocks, toy cars, shells, postage stamps, Pez dispensers, records, medals. You name it, we collected it. 

In 1958, I was 10, in the fifth grade, and before I knew it, I was walking down to the local drugstore to buy packages of Topps Bubblegum packs each of which contained 5 current baseball "trading cards"--with real pictures of major league players, with their stats on the reverse side. The cards were numbered, issued in "series"--successively through the Summer season. 

According to the Wikipedia entry, the hardest cards to acquire over time, were those issued at the end of the "trading" season, since interest would wain and fewer sets of the final series each year were published (or sold). That sounds logical, but during the Season, that wasn't how it worked at all.

The first series in 1958 included many of the most desirable cards (players) in the set, and because they were the first to go off market, they were the toughest to find. By the fourth series of the Season, everyone had multiples of those, but because they were so common, they were nearly worthless. 

"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," Yogi was quoted as saying, among his collection of homely chestnuts. "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." 

Among the early cards issued, were Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle. Important players issued later might become just as sought after, but because they were on the market later, they always seemed easier to find. 

Mickey always looked like a hayseed, but his Oakie bluff was good enough for Yankee pride

I don't know how far I got with my collection by the end of the collecting year (in 1958), but by the end I probably had all but about a dozen of the toughest numbers. The San Francisco Giants came west in 1958, so though the cards all showed the statistics from the previous year (in New York), the team cards showed them as the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers came west the same year to Los Angeles, so though their stats had been made in Brooklyn, their cards said Los Angeles Dodgers. 

For baseball fans, there was no magic quite like Willie's special charisma and physical grace

There was keen interest in all the Dodger cards that year, as much as for the Yankees, with their loaded line-up of stars. No one knew it at the time, of course, but a little-noticed young Southpaw named Sandy Koufax would, in a few short years, ascend into the limelight as perhaps the greatest pitcher in major league history, so his card wasn't worth much despite being a low #187. A young Puerto Rican outfielder named Orlando Cepeda hadn't yet played a game in the bigs by 1957, but he soon would become the Giants proud Rookie of the Year for 1958. 

In 1958, Hank Aaron was the most complete ballplayer in the game--power, speed, average, great in the clutch; he'd go on to play another 18 years, fulfilling the promise of his youth 

In 1958, the major leagues consisted of two divisions, the National and the American. There were eight teams in each league. The Pennant winners in each league played against each other in the World Series. There were no "play-offs" and no wild cards or also rans. With only 16 teams in the country, there was a lot of room in other places for minor league clubs. The talent was concentrated in these 16 franchises, not spread out and diluted as it is today. Any player who hoped to ascend to the majors, would have to be among the top 5 players in his minor league, or he wouldn't be noticed.    

National League

Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Dodgers
St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates
Cincinnati Redlegs
Philadelphia Phillies
Milwaukee Braves
San Francisco Giants

American League

New York Yankees
Kansas City Athletics
Detroit Tigers
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Boston Red Sox
Washington Senators
Baltimore Orioles

I remember that the players I most wanted, aside from the whole Giants team members, were the Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra cards. They were first, or early second series cards, and I'd missed  my chance to get them early, because I hadn't caught the bug until late June or early July of the year, well after they had gone out of print. The only way you could get those cards was by trading cards with other collectors. Once you had a tough card, you generally didn't try to acquire another one, so prying loose a card from someone who had one was nearly impossible. You had to give up something that the other collector didn't have, or a card he coveted which you didn't. I don't think I ever owned the Mantle card, but I did manage to wangle a Hank Aaron (the so-called "white lettered" version, which was easier to find than the "yellow lettered" one). 

For a long time, I looked in vain for the Ed Bouchee card, which had been numbered #145. A kid I knew on my paper route claimed to own this card, and used to tease me about it. But I read now, that Ed Bouchee was charged and convicted on exposing himself to young girls, and his card was withdrawn before it was ever published, and so #145 never appeared, a permanent missing link. Poor Ed Bouchee--what a thing to be famous for.

Collecting can become an obsession, even a kind of mental disease. Stamp companies trying to lure kids into the collecting game often mentioned that FDR had been an avid stamp collector, not mentioning that it was a sedentary pastime he'd adopted after being stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair--not something he would naturally have chosen, since he'd been an active, physical man prior to the disease. Serious collectors are occasionally described as addicts. Our obsession with physical objects, imbued with almost magical qualities that make them seem priceless possessions, is an uniquely human phenomenon, though there are apparently some birds which will "feather their nests" with bits of tin foil or colored ribbon, as if it were decoration. Blogging, of course, can become a bad habit. 

The collecting bug had bitten me, in 1958, and I was hooked. Reefer Madness. I longed to have a complete run of the whole set. Then one day in the early Fall of the year, my mom and I were downtown on an errand, and she had to buy some cigarettes at a dimestore counter. What should be resting on the counter by the cash register, but a box of Topps Baseball Card packs! And not only that--these were in the waxy black wrappers, the color of the first series cartons! I begged my mom to buy me a couple packs, which she did, reluctantly. Once outside the store, I tore open the packs and was overjoyed to find the new first series cards of players I'd never been able to get in stores before. This was a stash that had lain dormant for weeks behind the counter. Realizing that this was an opportunity not to be missed, I begged and begged my mother, who eventually ended up buying the whole box for me. I don't recall now what the per-pack price was--could it have been 5 cents a pack, or as much as a quarter?--almost certainly not--else she wouldn't have popped for all of them. It was a little like finding a $50 bill on the sidewalk. You just knew that chance had favored you and that it was folly to question your luck. 

As the years passed, the card collection ended up in the basement with my other childhood effects, and I would notice it whenever I went down there. After 1974, I stopped visiting home, and I have always supposed that my brother Clark, who was 13 years younger than I, must have discovered them at some point. He eventually became an avid vintage rock music record collector, so I assume he must have realized their potential, and sold them. I still have my old world stamp album--a behemoth of about 6 inches thick--which I retrieved from home in 1973. Stamps are harder to sell on the wholesale market, so I doubt they'd have any interesting value today.

In the 1970's and 1980's, the sports card memorabilia industry really got cranked up, with complete runs of sets like this going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The sports memorabilia auction scene has fed off the internet, evoking both rising and falling price spirals to all kinds of collectibles. The sports card market crashed in the '90's, but it may have come back up by now. It's not something I watch.     

When I worked for the government, back in the early 1980's, I knew a fellow who collected baseball cards seriously. He acquired special plastic envelopes for the cards, and could quote values for all the important numbers. Later, I met a Chinese gentleman in San Francisco, who had gotten seriously into the card business, investing over $200,000 in his own edition of sports cards; but he'd gotten in just a bit too late, and had lost his shirt. Once, years later, I was at a used book sale, and someone had donated several complete boxed sets of later Topps series cards, but someone said that they were so late in the game, even complete sets weren't worth the trouble of storing or listing them for sale.

In the 1990's, I became interested in collecting rare copies of modern (post 1900) first editions. As my interested intensified, I found myself spending the kind of money you usually reserve for big necessities, like engine overhauls or a new dress suit. It didn't take long to realize that if I wanted to collect seriously, really seriously, the best way was to become a trader, instead of just a collector. The rare book dealer I knew then, told me "collecting is for dummies, Curtis, you should become a dealer. You'll see books you never imagined you'd ever see, much less own, and you'll actually have the experience of holding and studying and appreciating them, albeit temporarily." I've never had better advice in my life.

It wasn't long before I had become a serious used rare book dealer, a profession I pursue now more or less full-time (since 2001, when I retired after 27 years with the Federal Government). No matter how long you live, or how much you love what you own, you can't take it with you. I like to tell my customers that we're all "custodians" of our stuff; we're just taking care of it until the next generation(s) arrive(s) to relieve us of our abandoned dreams and burdens. 

Harry "Suitcase" Simpson--so nicknamed because he was traded so often among various teams that he never needed to unpack his suitcase 

Here's to you, Don Mossi, still alive at 85, who'd win 17 games with Detroit in 1959, eventually retiring in 1965 at age 36. What a face!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bearing Fruit

Peaches on a White Tablecloth

Color has touched this fruit only in certain places, but with the greatest care.

The shadows of the muslin are of a cool blue, like that of crockery in a humble cottage just outside of Paris. Its white has yielded to the failing light.

They are nestled in gravity’s palm, as if just supporting them were a labor of love.

If color alone could sustain us, these peaches would be good enough to eat.

They are only orange by convergence of allied tints, such as the red of apples, or the yellow of lemons. But to combine these, without the proper restraint, could ruin everything.

Roundness, globular, is light folded into itself to make a translucence.

The half-life of any growth is a logarithm of its decay, turning sweetness into sour, green into yellow, and red, and finally brown.

The sugars sing their special white purity along the palette of the scraping knife.

Oxygen eats the space around them, as if hungry.

The peaches are actually blue.

After CĂ©zanne

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Japanese Protest Nuclear Option

The Japanese national character is divided about equally between traditional respect for authority, and a commitment to technological progress. 

I lived in Japan for a year in 1985, and was able to see this phenomenon up close. Japan was ruled by an emperor all the way through the end of World War II. The Japanese post-War boom was built on the factory system, transforming its agrarian economy into a world economic leader, producing automobiles and computers and all kinds of manufacturing. The Japanese are proud of this accomplishment, but they still tend to worship authority, even when it may not be in their interest. They also prefer order to disorder, and are reluctant to stand up for individual rights or radical points of view.

Since the Fukushima disaster, however, they have begun to take a stand against the government's continued commitment to nuclear power technology. 

As readers of this blog know, I am against nuclear power development. There are at present several key unsolved problems with it. The dilemma of what to do with the nuclear waste it produces, the pollution produced when plant failures and accidents occur, and the continued dangers of handling radio-active materials. Our supposed "commitment" to containing the hot waste over several centuries is a legacy no society wants to inherit.

It's very possible that nuclear technology will advance over time, allowing us to produce energy with greater efficiency and safety than we now are capable of, given the state of our knowledge. It may well be that other methods of generating electricity will be developed before nuclear is improved. We can't predict the future. Necessity often drives innovation, but insisting on dangerous practices--in effect, making guinea-pigs out of human populations, when so-called "fail-safe" technologies are failing, with very serious consequences--to drive solutions is silly. Sometimes, a little prudence and patience are needed. 

The Japanese government's insistence on relying on nuclear power plant technology to meet the energy needs of its people may finally be hitting a wall of public indignation. It's unclear how many such nuclear disasters it will take before humankind realizes that this technology, in its present state, is simply unsuitable for future use. 

Now, on the third anniversary of the Fukushima melt-down, crowds of Japanese are taking to the streets to protest their nation's commitment to a nuclear future. In my experience, the Japanese are a very obedient people, who are reluctant to criticize their government, or its policies. They are a stoic people. 

But common sense has told them there's an enormous disconnect between these proven failures of a risky technology, which is endangering their population and its limited landmass, and industry's irresponsible insistence that everything is fine, and no one needs to worry. They simply don't believe it, and there's no reason they should.

Americans tend to have a similar kind of confidence and complacency about our own "know-how." Despite Three Mile Island, we believe that a similar "accident" or mistake is unlikely to occur here. But experience is teaching us that even small mistakes, or natural disasters, result in problems that are so devastating, and long lasting, and hard to fix, that the risk assessments must be revised. Were a huge earthquake to cause one of our West Coast facilities--such as Diablo Canyon, Humboldt Bay, etc.--to fail, the feeling of risk would suddenly be much less "remote" than it is. 

The message of Fukushima is clear. These accidents are going to happen in the future, and there is little in our current state of technology, either at the construction, running maintenance, or problem mitigation stages that will protect us from the consequences of such disasters. If safe sources of energy are inadequate to provide the fuel necessary to sustain our present state of consumption and living, then society will either have to moderate its needs, or reduce its numbers (and demand). 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Dilemma - An Intellectual Cocktail

In discourse, the weight of evidence may fall on one side or the other. Of course, it's up to the contestants to "interpret" what raw evidence may signify. Sometimes, in science, or philosophy, or politics, there is equal support for opposing positions. In those cases, a compromise may be in order, but sometimes there is no way to balance one viewpoint against another, without one side or the other feeling completely vanquished.

In matters of taste, sweetness and bitterness compete for attention, with sourness and saltiness and mouthfeel all complicating the mix. Sensibility, that complex mixture of feeling and cognition, is the quintessentially human trait which enables us to refine our appreciation of experience by combining the raw data of what we can measure and quantify, with the personal, idiosyncratic, emotional quality which we think unique to our species.

In taste, especially, we can combine different portions of taste influences to produce a happy coincidence of effects, though how each person senses things differs.  Lemon, for instance, is noticeably less dry than lime, which seems to contain less sweetness, and may be more acidic. 

Amaro, and Campari, are classic European dry liqueurs which Continentals may take straight, or with soda, or on the rocks, to cut the summer heat. Unlike Americans, Europeans seem less drawn to pure sweetness than to somewhat dry, spicy aperitifs. These highly spiced liqueurs make interesting components of cocktails, though they need to be handled with delicacy, lest they overwhelm a combination. 

I've tried the ginger/amaro tandem before here, and I decided to go out on a limb, figuratively speaking, and add another dry European spice, with Campari. 

Rum tends towards sweetness, being distilled from sugarcane. Taken straight, it is clearly reminiscent of the tropics, where sugar cane is harvested. But it can be coaxed into different kinds of effects through unusual combinations. Here, I've taken the Ginger Ale and Amaro duo, and built it onto a platform of Caribbean golden rum, and added Campari and lime. To balance this, I've kept the portion of Ginger Ale high, to avoid any rumor of dryness. What occurs, to my taste, is a kind of ultimate balancing act of tastes, the sweet, bitter, sour flavors all conspiring to create a flavor that is neither wholly ingratiating, nor dismissively dry. 

Can opposing flavors, like irreconcilable differences, cancel each other out, producing a bland result? Or might they co-exist in a happy harmony, a diversity of flavors which all sing their specific pitch, without disturbing the lyrical line?    

Mixed as always by proportion, this recipe would yield two cocktails, swirled and served up in frosted cocktail glasses (but be careful, the ginger ale will fizz up your shaker--better to let it breathe a bit so to top doesn't blow off and spill your creation!).

3 Parts Golden Rum
3 Parts fresh Ginger Ale
1 Part Amaro
1 Part Campari
1 Part fresh lime juice

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Clover Blossom Mix

This is the season in California when the clover sprouts out. Clover is a weed, invasive and prolific, though not entirely unwelcome. Its leaves, rounded, in groups of three, make a pleasant ground-cover, at least as long as they're green, which usually isn't very long.  

Honey made from bees who forage in clover is sometimes called Clover Blossom Honey, a popular kind on the market.  

I used to think that so-called 4-leaf clover was a myth, but that's not the case. Four-leaf clover, though rare, occurs in nature. The odds of finding a four leaf clover are about 1 in 10,000, assuming you were patient enough to search for them. It's possible that you could pore over several thousands of plants before finding a single example. There must be a genetic disadvantage to four leaf clusters, since they occur in such a small ratio.   

I don't believe I've ever seen one, except in photos like the one above. In this age of computer manipulations, one can never be quite sure that what you see in a picture is real, or the result of some kind of customizing of the image. 

Four leaf clovers are said to be emblems of good luck, and finding one may presage good prospects in romance. In Ireland, where the clover (or shamrock) has most symbolic significance, wearing some in your coat lapel may be popular. I was only in Dublin briefly several years ago, and I don't remember seeing anyone wearing clover leaves, though the motif, being one of their national emblems (like the harp), is ubiquitous there.

Here's a concoction that's honey-based. The Barenjager is a German liqueur. The Germans are very big on sweet things. Their wines tend towards the syrupy, though they can be very delicate and sophisticated. They tend to go well with German food, which is no surprise. Along the borderlands between Germany and France, you'll find wonderful vintages, ranging between very sweet and crisply dry. 

Shaken and served in chilled (frosted) cocktail glasses. Very good with honeyed salted almonds, by the way. Pure honey has a kind of "burnt" smell, which is always associated in my mind with bee-stings. I've only been stung about half a dozen times, but it always gives me a super-sized pain, like being stabbed with a glowing needle. Something of the vividness of that memory, I think, informs the intensity of my taste buds towards honey. Putting it into a drink concoction softens the "heat" of the honey, and makes it seem the very essence of alpine purity. The dry vermouth smooths it out and balances the excessive sweetness.    

3 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
1 part Barenjager honey liqueur
1 part fresh lemon juice

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Delta and the Gavel

The classification and evaluation of rare books is one of the premier functions of our culture. Great sums of money, amid the rarified atmosphere of finely tuned bibliographical knowledge and the application of the tools of scientific research, are exchanged,  relying on the professional appraisal of the values of the great books of the past, and present. 

Books may be valued for their contents, or for their scarcity, or for something that attaches itself to them, like the provenance of ownership. 

In the rare book trade, the appraisal of value is of the keenest interest, since the prospects for a decent or healthy return on investment depend upon the validity of an approximation of worth in the marketplace.  Ultimately, the value of anything depends upon what it may actually have sold for in the past, or what it might be expected to sell for in the future. An established valuation may be higher, or lower, depending upon the reliability of such criteria. If an auction value for a certain book took place a long time ago, it may no longer be a reliable indicator. If there's been a sudden influx of copies of a book thought, until then, to be scarce, even a recent transaction may no longer be a valid measure. Books, like stock shares, may be stable, or volatile, depending on their trading beta.         

Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Room 
                                                                                                               --photo courtesy Yale University

There are different theories about how to appraise the potential value of books, as with any kind of collectible object. Over the years, I've meditated about the process of determining value, and have come up with the following model of how to measure the value of any particular book. It's primarily theoretical, but I believe, given its admittedly relative nature (there is no absolute assignable dollar value to any specific item), it still has considerable weight in the practical application.   

I divide the classification of value into three separate aspects: Desirability, Scarcity and Condition; and I've visualized this triad as a delta, in which the area contained within the three aspects intersect, comprises the total value of a book.    

It's possible to imagine a book that may not even exist. In Roman Polanski's cinematic version [The Ninth Gate, 1999] of Perez-Reverte's novel The Club Dumas [1993], the narrative is based on the proposition of the existence of a limited edition of a book that has been co-authored by the devil. We know that such a book does not exist, but we can imagine how valuable such a book might be, if it actually did. Desirability is a fluctuating quality within the marketplace. How badly someone, or some institution, may want something, may depend upon a number of things. Windows of time or opportunity may open, or close. Markets themselves may heat up, or cool down, reflecting trends in the general economy, or changes in fashion or taste. 

A certain edition of a book may be very common, or scarce. If a book is scarce, its possible value may rise, but only if there are suiters for it. An ingenue's beauty may make her attractive, but her inheritance expectations may make her even more desirable. A common book may exist in countless pristine examples, but command no value at all, simply because no one wants it, at least at a premium. A book's desirability may be said to decrease in proportion to its lack of scarcity. If there were thousands of pristine copies of the Gutenberg Bible, then its value would be much less. Still, given its nearly universal interest, its value would still be very high, because of the demand. 

Limited editions are, in effect, an attempt to speculate the market, using a premeditated scarcity to exploit the desire for collectible copies of a text that usually is, in its common trade iteration, many times less valuable. Purveyors of finely printed and bound books, using techniques once common to the making of nearly all printed matter, may exist only by plying their trade as a deliberate production of rarities, to subsidize the continued life of the moveable type craft. 

In order for a book to rise to highest levels of value, all three aspects of quality must be high. High, that is, relative to the number of probable customers, and the intensity of their desire. It may be that there is only one customer for a book, but if there is only one copy of that book available, its value will certainly be influenced by its scarcity. On the other hand, if that copy is in tattered condition, it may not command anything like what it would were it to be in excellent, Fine condition. 

We know for a fact that there are many priceless famous paintings that continue to be "missing" since the great Nazi art thefts of the early 1940's in Europe. The value of such an unique and coveted painting, held secretly by a private collector, might have a theoretical value on the open market, but since its existence cannot be made public without jeopardizing its ownership, its value is really much less, unless another private party, willing to risk disclosure, should agree to pay a figure that might approach its presumed "public" value. 

In the hierarchy of the antiquarian book trade, older books are almost universally considered the most desirable, though age, in and of itself, is no measure of value. Incunabula, published in the early 16th century, may have very little value, given the large number of surviving copies. Whereas a fine copy of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in a Fine original dustwrapper, may command as much as $100,000 or more on the retail market. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, or To Kill a Mockingbird, may be much more sought after, but because those books are much more common in their desirable first edition states, they aren't worth nearly as much. 

Special copies, signed for instance by their authors, or by other famous people, may elevate an otherwise ordinary copy or edition into the limelight. A copy of a Hemingway edition, inscribed by its author to a famous literary friend, like Fitzgerald, could turn a common book of no particular interest, into an object of great desirability. 

Condition, in and of itself, is really of small significance. Scarcity, too, by itself, is not crucial. But as desirability rises, the importance of the other two rises with it. A truly impressive "condition copy" of a book may command many times the price of a pedestrian copy, all other factors being equal. 

Often times, it's difficult to appraise the value of a unique copy, since there is no existing previous transaction by which to measure or compare it. 

The appraisal of the value of books is not a science, though reasonable approximations can be made, based on previous records, and experience of the trade. My little theoretical model is useful only when used in conjunction with these other criteria. Every book presents a particular instance. I once found a book for $65 at a reputable dealer's shop, which I then sold to another antiquarian dealer for $1450. This copy then turned up in a third dealer's catalogue for $25,000!! There's no doubt that the $65 price was a bargain, but the neon nose-bleed price given it at the other end was unquestionably over the top of any sensible valuation. Still, if it had sold, for anything approaching its sky-high ask, the marketplace would certainly have influenced its "correct" value. In the trade, the market rules. We can argue until we're blue in the face about whether something is "really" worth such-and-such, but the proof is at the auctioneer's gavel. 


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Su-Mee at 47 Months

Su-Mee at 47 Months

As readers of this blog may recall, I did an exposĂ© on our pet cat Su-Mee back in November 2012. 

Su-Mee is one of two Siamese cats we own. We had three, but our oldest one, Coco Rose ("Sunshine") died in November last year. Su-Mee and Coco never quite bonded with each other. Coco was already almost 16 when Su-Mee entered the scene, her place as senior member unchallenged. We had gotten Su-Mee, who was born in February 2010 to replace Lottie, who had died of breast cancer the previous January. I think Su-Mee and Lottie would have gotten along famously, but they missed each other like ships passing in the night. From a purely visual standpoint, they looked more alike than any of the other Siamese cats we've owned, both with pointed faces and darkly browned fur. 

Su-Mee has become the dominant figure in our household. He's grown into a substantially large animal, a little like Vanilla, the first Siamese we owned, who died at 19 some years ago. He's long, and would be lean but for his love of his "chocolate crunchies"which he consumes at an alarming rate. No appetite problems with this guy! 

Su-Mee has a facial expression that's slightly "dangerous"-looking. If you didn't know him, you might suspect he's a "difficult" character, but you'd be wrong. He's just a big pussy-cat. He loves to sit on your lap--which is what he's doing in the picture above, on my knees in bed--and in the mornings when I'm at my home computer, he's up on my right shoulder, purring for attention and kisses. He looks almost like a panther, with those deep-set eyes and sharp black snout. 

We had him fixed when he was just a few months old, so we've had none of the complications that arise from an hormonally mature male cat. No spraying, no skanky odors, no unpredictable moods. Su-Mee likes to joust with Mocha, our other male, but it's all innocent play. They never get really angry with each other, the way Mocha used to once in a while with Coco. I suppose it's partly the difference in their ages. They seem like very distinct personalities, Mocha stand-off-ish and private, Su-Mee gregarious and demanding. 

We've deduced that cats raised in "normal households" where there's freedom of movement and lots of touching and human contact, are better as adults than animals raised in strict confinement, which is characteristic of professional breeders' compounds, or public animal shelters. A cat raised in a small cage or room, with little or no contact except with other cats, may be excessively shy or emotionally "isolated" in adult-hood. We hear routinely these days that it's best to adopt animals from shelters, rather than from breeders. From a casual point of view, that makes a lot of sense. Animals left for adoption may be euthanized if not adopted, and there are always plenty available. But if you want an animal suitable for a pet, an animal raised in a loving household will likely be healthier and better socialized than a rescued animal, which may have been abused or neglected, or be suffering from separation anxiety, disorientation, or grief (from an expired owner). It's important to be "wanted" as a pet owner, just as much as you may "want" to own a pet. In the Bay Area, there are a couple of professionally run boarding facilities, where the animals are given play time each day, and not ignored completely. We've used them before, and will certainly do so again. They aren't cheap, but for animals you love and consider a part of your family, it's an expense we bear cheerfully. 

Su-Mee has become a great and dear companion, whom I expect to spend most of my remaining years with, God willing. A famous British publisher, Michael Joseph [18978-1958] was a serious cat fancier, who wrote a couple of juvenile cat titles, as well as Cat's Company [Geoffrey Bles, 1930], and later, Charles: The Story of a Friendship [Michael Joseph, 1943], a non-fiction account of his Siamese cat. The latter book is scarce in its first edition, and now commands prices in the hundreds, if you can even locate one. I once owned a copy, but to my present regret, sold it. 

The intimacy that may become established between a human and a cat is different than that between humans and dogs, or humans and horses. Cats are "domestic" creatures in a way dogs aren't. Dogs must be taken out and walked every day, and they require regular exercise. Cats can live comfortably in a household, and will thrive there, away from the terrors and risks of the outdoors, where they may be hurt or killed, become diseased or mistreated by strangers, or get into a number of difficult situations. Indoor cats are generally better off than outdoor ones, though I wouldn't necessarily insist that this applies uniformly to all individuals. Some indoor/outdoor cats live very peaceable lives, though on average they tend not to live as long. All cats are individuals, which is not always obvious to people who've never owned one. 

All in all, Su-Mee has me well-trained. He's my master, and I'm his slave. He has the perfect arrangement for his comfort and convenience, one I wouldn't dare to violate. It's a mutual thing, with both parties satisfied.