When I was in the Soda Gallery in the Bishop Arts District I noticed a notice posted inside extolling the virtues of Ramune Soda. I thought about buying a bottle, but the cap looked intimidating – plus I had a hankerin’ for some Root Beer.

The Ramune was stuck in my head, though. I know I had seen it before, and thought about where. One place was in the Anime, Rahxephon, that I worked my way through a couple years ago.


So I did some web searches on Ramune.

The most famous aspect of this Japanese soft drink is the bottle. The container is sealed with a glass marble jammed up into the neck and held in place by the pressure of the carbonation in the drink. To get at the precious fluid you have to knock the marble down, presumably with the plastic plunger tool that is attached to the plastic cap. Once this trick is accomplished, you have to hold the bottle, just so, in order for the marble to be caught between two little glass ears inside the neck, or else it will fall back and jam the opening.

Sounds like fun!

I was thinking about it and realized that they probably had Ramune at the Saigon City grocery store down in my neighborhood. They specialize in South Asian products, but have enough Japanese items that surely a few bottles of Ramune would slip in. I walked down there and, sure enough, they had a little section of Ramune.

Their selection of flavors wasn’t great, especially since I wanted to restrict myself to the glass bottles (plastic Ramune bottles? Oh, that’s just not right). I gathered up some Orange, Melon, and Lychee flavor and lugged it home. I drank a couple, and gave the rest out as Christmas Stocking-Stuffers.


The Ramune Cap, with instructions. If you've never opened one before... your gonna need this.

The Ramune bottle is fun – cool to look at, interesting to open, and, best of all, the marble that rattles around in the neck of the bottle is an entertainment even after all the sugar water is swallowed.

The history of the bottle is as cool as a rattling marble. It began with an Englishman, Hiram Codd, in 1872. He came up with the idea of using a marble to plug the neck of a bottle of carbonated beverage. For many years, this was the standard in Europe for bottled soft drinks. Because children would break the bottles to get at the marble inside – these old Codd bottles are collected and rare types are very valuable.

Apparently, the Codd bottle was never very successful in the United States, because the filthy Americans couldn’t follow instructions and would push the marble down with their filthy American fingers – thereby contaminating the beverage.

Eventually, the crown cap was invented and took over the industry. Except in Japan, where there was some resistance to changing over – the new automated bottling lines were expensive and the children were attached to the bottle with the marble in the neck.

The Codd neck bottle died out in Europe, but has continued to be popular in Japan. There are Codd neck bottles produced in India too, to support a cottage industry production of a drink called Banta. Now there is an American version of Ramune in Codd bottles, called Marble Pop.

I’ll have to get a bottle of this.

Oh, and here’s a link to another youtube video that has disabled embedding (some of you guys might prefer this one).

What I learned this week, December 23, 2011

The most important books I have read (recently)

The War of Art

and its companion

Do The Work

From Steven Pressfield

I’ve been a fan of Lana Del Rey for a long time (well, since June. In the world of modern pop culture, seven months is an eternity). It looks like she is going to break out – she has signed to Interscope Records and her album, Born to Die, will be out on January 31.

Best of all, it looks like she will be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on January 14.

Another single is out in the UK – Off to the Races. I’m not sure about it yet…

What I really am enjoying is that Lana Del Rey is rapidly becoming a polarizing artist – even though she doesn’t even have a real record or a real career yet – she is piling up the haters.

I love it…. You see, I know what I like, and I like Lana Del Rey.

Whenever you are feeling good, maybe full of holiday cheer. When you feel hope welling up within your breast and you know that mankind has a bright future ahead of him in this best of all possible worlds.

When you feel like that, read this next article and be reminded that we are all, all completely doomed.

Young brother eats cocaine from older sibling’s butt, then dies of overdose,

Believe it or not, the actual story is even worse than the headline suggests.

New Book of Mountains and Seas

One of the hidden gems down in the Dallas Arts district is the Crow Collection of Asian Art.

I was working in the Cotton Exchange building in downtown Dallas (the Cotton Exchange is gone now – they blew it up a couple years after I left) while they were building the skyscraper tower of the Trammell Crow Building. The construction site was visible from the windows of our office suite. I watched the steel skeleton climbing up and up – watched the workers scrambling over the latticework of girders. I watched the granite and reflective glass being raised and affixed to the building’s outer skin.

There is always a connection with a building that I watched go up. Since I saw it stretched out in time from the inside out – I feel I know all of its secrets. I know the shortcuts the architect made to get the outer shape. I saw the ventilation, plumbing, and elevator shafts carved out of the interior.

At one time the walkway around the base of the building contained an amazing collection of European sculpture and was one of my favorite places. The sculptures have been removed – and there is the promise to replace them with Asian pieces.

Behind the office building, on a floor level below, facing Flora street across from the Nasher Museum is the Crow Collection of Asian Art. Trammell and Margaret Crow have been collecting Asian art since the 1960’s and built the museum under a pavilion in back of the office tower. It is a small but effective museum, and a welcome addition to the other museums and performance venues in the Dallas Arts District – helping the area move towards the tipping point of becoming a well-known destination. In addition to exhibiting pieces from the permanent collection – the Crow Museum has developed a reputation for hosting impressive visiting temporary exhibitions.

Oh, one more thing. Admission to the museum is free.

A free museum is viewed in a different way than one that you have to pay to get in the door. Instead of making a big deal out of it – preparation and anticipation – you tend to simply wander in and take a relaxed view of the wonders within. I like it.

I have a confession to make – this time that I walked in to the museum it wasn’t because I had heard of some revelatory amazing exhibition or even that I felt the need for peaceful contemplation of a thousand years of artistic production.

I had to pee.

There are not a lot of public restrooms in a big city downtown. The homeless tend to take over and destroy any facilities that are open to anyone. So I decided to duck into the Crow Museum to use their restroom. Since I am a person that likes to meet their obligations – even though I should be able to use the bathroom and leave, there have been many times I’ve been to the Crow to see their art and not used the bathroom – I felt obligated to at least take a quick walk through the galleries.

I walked into the big room past the gift shop and found that it had been emptied. There was a bench in the center of the room and three digital projectors were shining on a long wall. The effect was that of a widescreen film being shown in a bare wooden room – very clean and beautiful. One guy was sitting at one end of the bench – I walked over and sat down on the other.

At first the film was showing some credits and bits of poetry while the soundtrack played some electronic music. It was very peaceful, but not much too it and after a few minutes I wondered, “Is this it?” It was an interesting thought – all this space and technology used to simply throw a few words on the wall along some jangling sounds. I began to wonder if it was an elaborate joke.

It wasn’t. I had come in right at the credits at the end. Soon the presentation looped back to the beginning and the real show began.

This was a film by Qiu AnXiong, an artist from Shanghai. The exhibition was called Animated Narratives and consisted of a two-part video installation called New Book of the Mountains and Seas, along with paintings associated with it.

The video started with a hand drawn animation of waves on the sea, then moved to a pastoral landscape. Soon, a farm appeared to grow on the land like an organic thing. The farm quickly grew to a village and then a walled town. Civilization continued to grow in an organic way – with fantastic animals taking the place of oil rigs, pumps, transportation, and warcraft. Everything grew and grew, with many scenes reminiscent of recent events, but warped into a strange surreal organic landscape. The Middle East (or something resembling it) is ravaged by oil production, the terrorists strike in a version of 911 even more surreal than reality, and then the inevitable disaster and destruction obliterated everything.

The film was in black-and-white and appeared to be animated ink drawings. After walking around and looking at some of the paintings, it was clear that it is actually paint on canvas. The artist overpaints as he photographs his work and generates the animation that way.

I really enjoyed the film and its presentation. You really have to see in it in its carefully constructed widescreen format to appreciate the work, but if you can’t make it to the Crow:

Here’s an online version (wait through the ads). I’m not sure how long this will be online.

Here’s another link to a version of the piece.

If that link doesn’t work for you, here’s about three minutes of the film. This section is near the end, and it does not do justice to seeing it live.

I enjoyed it enough to come back a couple days later and take a look at part two. This is another widescreen video set up in the mezzanine two floors higher up in the museum. It’s another animated work, this time concerning mad cow disease, genetic programing, biowaste disposal, environmental catastrophe and man’s eventual fate among the stars.

I couldn’t find the whole thing, but here is a bit of part two.

Don’t be afraid to wander into a museum, more or less unplanned. I should do this more often. I should not be so cheap to be afraid to do this even when I have to pay for it.

Another Project – Kindle Case

Well, I installed a monitor on my exercise bicycle and then I built a case for my camera. Now, I decided on another stupid project – something I would be better off buying… but anyway.

You see, I lost my Kindle. It was my 2nd generation model – the one I received for Christmas two years ago. I felt awful. I know that a replacement isn’t that expensive anymore but I hate losing gifts – plus I try to take care of my valued possessions and I felt like an idiot. I do carry my Kindle with me literally everywhere (that’s the idea of having one) and will pull it out and read for a few seconds whenever a spare moment comes up (that’s the idea of having one) – so I suppose it was inevitable that I would misplace it eventually.

So after a week or so of terrible withdrawal symptoms, I gave up and waltzed over to the closest Everything Store and bought one of the little Kindle 4 with special offers. It was only 79 bucks and came with a discount and a gift card so it ended up costing less. I keep all my books organized, categorized, and  backed up with a program called Calibre (very highly recommended if you have an ebook reader) so it was a simple task to load all the books onto my new device.  I already have more books on the damn thing than I can probably read in the rest of my life.

The thing is tiny. It is also very light. I had to think a bit about how to carry it. I had spent a bit of money on a genuine Moleskine cover for my old Kindle. It protected the device well and came with a Moleskine Reporter Notebook attached for quick ideas while I was reading. I didn’t want an attached case for the new Kindle, however. The nice thing is its tiny size and feather weight – it makes it easy to hold. But I needed something to protect it while I was carrying it. I played around with some small sleeve-like things and a tiny plastic box that I lined with foam, but none of these fit the bill.

After thinking about it, I decided to make my own. I wanted something to protect it, maybe disguise it, and something that wasn’t much bigger than the Kindle itself.

So I decided to hollow out a book.

The first step was a stop down at the big main Half-Price Bookstore where I walked down the clearance sections with my Kindle measuring it against the books. I wanted a hardback that was only a half-inch or so bigger than the Kindle. I learned a little bit about bookbinding too. A lot of modern hardcovers are bound with the signatures glued directly to the spines. I didn’t want one like that – I wanted a book with the signatures glued to a flexible piece of cloth or paper that was separate from the spine. I wanted one that looked like this – so I could slice the pages out of the book while keeping the spine intact.

Most importantly, I didn’t want to pay more than one dollar.

I found a used copy of Dancing at the Harvest Moon, by K. C. McKinnon that met these requirements. I apologize to Mr. McKinnon and his fans. I apologize to book fanatics everywhere. It feels sacrilegious to carve up a perfectly good book (even a used one for sale for a buck) to make a portable home for an ereader. Sorry. Get over it. I promise to actually read another copy of the book when I get time. There is even a movie, with Jacqueline Bisset – and I promise I’ll watch it if I get the chance.


On with the slaughter.

Here is the book I chose, and the Kindle. And a razor knife. Oh, the humanity.

The first step is to cut the pages away from the spine and end boards with a razor knife.

Next, I used the knife to divide the pages into three groups, keeping each group glued together as best I could. I helps to cut at the borders of the signatures. The center section is the thickness of the Kindle, with the rest of the pages divided evenly into two groups.

I thinned out some carpenter's glue with water to stick all the pages together.

Next, I soaked each of the three groups of pages in the glue. This was pretty hard - trying to get the glue between all the pages. Then I stacked them up, with plastic between each group so they wouldn't stick together, and weighted them down to dry.

This was the part that didn’t work too well. I thinned the glue too much and it didn’t stick like I wanted it to. Also, anyone that has experience with water-based adhesives will recognize that once the pages are wrapped in plastic and weighted down they will never dry. I had to unwrap them and set them out to dry, which took a long time. I have to think of a better way to do this.

I’m thinking of epoxy resin thinned with alcohol – though that would be a real fire hazard. I’ll work on it.

When you look online, most folks only spread glue on the outside of the pages and then cut down through with a razor knife. I wanted to go a little more serious than that – I wanted to glue the pages together into something like a block of wood and then cut the center section out with a band saw.

I traced the outline of the Kindle on the center section and then cut it out on the bandsaw. One edge is open - the book spine will go there and keep the Kindle from falling out.

Again, here, I didn’t do as good a job as I should. You can see that the paper wrinkled as I was cutting. Plus I was in too much of a hurry and didn’t mark or cut the outline as neatly as I would have liked. It works great, but looks a little ragged. I’ll be more careful next time.

Then I glued the cut out center section to one of the end pieces and then glued both end pieces to the cover boards.

At this point, I spent some time applying extra glue to the sides of the stacks of paper and to the exposed paper. I thought about lining the opening with thin foam, but the paper itself is a pretty good cushion. After I took this picture I peeled away a couple pages until a nice picture of a duck was displayed. I also cut a piece of good quality paper and glued it over the ragged exposed spine – mostly to give it a bit of a neater look and for a bit of reinforcement.

It took a long time to dry. I couldn’t resist messing with it, but any problems could be fixed with a little bit of glue-water mix.

Finished, with the Kindle inside.

Closed, it looks like a perfectly ordinary boring book.

The only thing left is to put a closure onto it. I thought about concealing small magnets in the glued pages, but that’s a bit more complicated that I want to get this time. I need to go to a fabric store and buy some elastic so I can drill a couple holes and install an elastic closure, Moleskine style. I should have done this before I glued the pages to the cover boards, but I didn’t think of it.

I’ll use this for a while, and then, if it works well, I’ll do a second generation – applying what I learned. Hopefully, it will look a bit better and I’ll put in the magnetic closures… that would be cool. Maybe a space for a pen. Maybe a little spot to keep a USB charging cable…

The mind boggles.

Oh, by the way… while I was working on this, I got my old Kindle back. I left it somewhere and the people that found it couldn’t figure out how to get my information off of the Kindle. After about a week they thought of looking in the attached Moleskine Notebook where I had my name, address and phone number. I am very appreciative and thankful they called me and I was able to pick it up. After thinking about it for a while I decided to keep the new, smaller Kindle and let Lee take the old one back to school with him.

The Wasp Factory

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.” – Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory, opening lines.

The Wasp Factory is the first novel by Iain Banks, published in 1984, and the minute I saw the opening sentences I knew I would read the whole book. He had plenty of time to think through the opening, and it is crackerjack. How can you not be irresistibly intrigued by a first person narrator (probably unreliable), “Sacrifice Poles,” an escaped brother (escaped from what?), and a “Factory” (capitalized) that foretells the future.

I had seen mentions of the book here and there – mostly associated with strings of adjectives such as: dark, disturbing, violent, disgusting, hard to read, gruesome, grotesque, unparalleled depravity, monstrous, shocking… and plenty more. Well, so far so good. Then I found it mentioned in a book titled 500 Essential Cult Books. That was enough for me to move it to the front of my to-be-read queue.

Always, when I read a first-person work of fiction, I like to start to work out how reliable the narrator is. In “The Wasp Factory” the protagonist, Frank Cauldhame, is surprisingly honest, reliable, and self-aware. Especially considering he is a sixteen year old serial killer (though he claims his days of killing human beings are over) eunuch, living on an isolated island with his father, trying to deal with life through an endless series of violent, cruel, and depraved rituals – a litany of horrific obsessive compulsive behaviors that, while nasty and disgusting, are the only defense that he has against the hopeless situation that he is trapped in.

As the book goes on Frank’s constructed mythology begins to make internal sense. His series of altars, rites, and symbolic defenses begins to come together as a terrible religion that he has developed in response to a hostile world. For me, one of the surprisingly disturbing sections was a relatively innocent night Frank spends drinking at a pub on the mainland with a friend of his. He drinks way too much and struggles through a horrible night of sickness and vulnerability. It serves as a reminder of how helpless he is once he ventures away from his carefully constructed bulwarks of ritual.

It is a first novel, however, and sometimes you can almost hear Iain Banks thinking, “Let’s see – how can I up the horror a little bit more, what to do next? What taboos can I break now? What will crawl out from under this next rock?” It’s a harrowing ride, but if you are willing to go along with it – there are rewards. Frank is an undeniably unforgettable character and one that you will be glad you met in fiction – because you certainly won’t want to meet him in real life.

Don’t invite him to your family picnic.

The novel picks up momentum, unveiling secret after mystery after shocking revelation. Frank’s brother is on his way home, his father is beginning to seriously unravel, and even the island itself seems about to unleash some final cataclysmic horror as the novel comes to a terrifying climax.

It is at this point that the novel did let me down a little bit. The promised Götterdämmerung never does arrive. Instead there is a “twist” ending – which, although it certainly isn’t expected and does explain more than a few mysteries – for me, it failed to really satisfy the promise of the earlier story. It left me flat – which is a shame, because the rest of the novel was really something – though I’m not sure exactly what.

If nothing else, The Wasp Factory is a unique and polarizing piece of literature. A lot of people have written about the book, with a lot of widely varied opinions. I spent way too much time surfing around looking at WordPress Blogs that discuss The Wasp Factory. Read through some of these – you might learn something.

Blog Reviews of The Wasp Factory

Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge

(click to enlarge)

An HDR photograph of the Calatrava designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge across the Trinity River near downtown Dallas. I was setting up the tripod when the train came steaming along over the trestle between me and the cable-stay bridge. I had to rush the picture before the train went by and didn’t get the focus right… better luck next time. This is a tone-mapped image taken from a single RAW exposure. Since the train was moving at a pretty good clip, I couldn’t use a three-exposure HDR image – I tried it and there were too many strange effects around the train because it was in different spots in each exposure.

Unsilent Night

I was looking for something to do on a Saturday night – and through the power of this interweb-thingy here I discovered that there were going to be Food Trucks in the Arts District… and then there was going to be something called Unsilent Night.

The idea was to get a group of people all carrying boomboxes – each with one of four MP3 files boomboxing away. These were selections of electronic music – bell sounds and such. This group of people making music would march through downtown Dallas at night with the sounds bouncing off skyscrapers and such.

Sounds like a good idea to me.

But first, I had to get a boombox. I dug around and found a small white soundthrower that used to belong to Candy’s mother. It was portable enough and put out a bit of sound, but I needed batteries – plus, it didn’t play MP3 files.

So off I drove to the local everything store and bought a small pack of blank CDs (no blanks at home, only DVDs). My idea was to burn the 44 minutes MP3 I had downloaded from the Unsilent Night web page onto a CD that would play in the boombox. The thing takes six C batteries. At the store I discovered that they don’t sell six C batteries – only packages of 4, eight, or ten. The pack of ten costs less than the pack of eight – so I have four C cells left over.

At any rate I sat in my car at the DART station and burned the CD, loaded it into the boombox along with six of my ten C batteries… and I was ready to rock and roll. Well, maybe not rock and roll, but at least ring the bells a little.

When I climbed out of the train at the Pearl station I walked into a huge crowd of Santas milling around, working their way to the Arts District. I found out later that this was something called the “Santa Rampage” – a combination flash mob and pub crawl. There were about five hundred people in various versions of Santa Costumes – and I kept running into them all night. It looked like fun.

I manged to get a brisket and grilled cheese sandwich from Ruthies while the Santas were all having a pillow fight up by the Opera House. I’m glad I bought mine early because five hundred hungry Santas make for long lines at a handful of food trucks. I walked around the Arts District looking at Santas until it was time to hoof it over to the Akard DART station to meet up with the other folks for Unsilent Night.

At first I was disappointed because there were only a handful of people standing there with a half handful of boomboxes. The Cowboys were on TV, maybe people stayed home for holiday football. But as seven o’clock neared, a good number of latecomers appeared and we became a healthy little group of close to a hundred people.

We all synchronized our boom boxes, waited for the music to build a little, and then off we went. I have to admit, it was cooler than I had expected. The music was mesmerizing. It’s is interesting how it changes – both as the four different pieces of music cycle through their various peaks, valleys, and changes in instrumentation (the one I had – #1 – was mostly bells, but others sounded like voices, or drums, or other stuff) and the way the music bounced off the buildings and blended with the background noise of the city.

You could vary the sound a lot by moving back and forth in the line of people walking along the sidewalk. Not only were we playing different pieces of music, started at slightly different times (I jostled mine too much and had to start over – it didn’t matter) but everybody had different players. Most used iPhones with hand-held speakers – but some folks were prepared with more hefty weapons. On guy pulled a cart with a computer UPS – this gave him power for not only some serious speakers but flashing lights that he wired himself up with.

We walked down Main Street which was really hopping. I need to visit this area again – it wasn’t as dead as when I worked down there. The restaurants were open late, the bars were filling up, the street was full of cars slowly working their way through. We looped around Neiman Marcus – the Christmas Displays were awesome, past the Joule Hotel then back through some narrow alleys. These were especially cool – the music would bounce around in the enclosed spaces until it was almost deafening.

I really liked it.

We made it back to the Akard DART station after about an hour of walking and then took a break. While we were there, the five hundred Santas – most of which had been drinking quite a bit – showed up and crammed aboard a Green Line Train – off to their next stop. They seemed happy and full of… well, they were full of Christmas Spirit – along with other stuff. The Santa thing looked like fun. I’ll have to check it out next year.

Then we did a second Unsilent Night walk – this time back through the Arts District. This walk was more out in the open and the sound wasn’t as impressive – except when we paused for a while under the canopy next to the Trammel Crow Museum of Asian Art. It was shaped like a giant reflector facing down and we all stood along the stairs with the fountain bubbling in the center – that was magical.

By the way, we did walk past the Wyly Theater and the Transcendence art installation. The ice is now, of course, completely melted, and the remaining stones sit there in the gravel. There are still some white squares of gravel left where the original blocks were. Nobody payed attention – or even noticed that the raked gravel was there – it was very dark.

We walked back to the station and I was getting tired – a lot of walking. The organizer talked of next year and trying to increase the participation (the New York Unsilent Night walk has been going on for decades and has thousands of participants).

I’ll definitely do this again. It was fun to walk through downtown on a holiday evening, looking at the lights, the buildings, and the five hundred drunken Santa Clauses. The music was almost an added bonus – though it is the reason for being there.

Lots of fun. See you next year.

A few Santas check out Three Men and a Taco gourmet food truck.

Ruthie's before the Santas show up.

The organizer of Unsilent Night gave us some instructions before we set out with our boomboxes.

The usual crowd at the Akard Street train station on a Saturday Night

A train full of Santas