Adventures of an oxygen hog

This is a tintinologist essay I wrote in Dutch in 1996. Upon rereading it I noticed that I didn’t feel too ashamed about it, so here it is again in English. Enjoy.

tintin-destination-moon-coverThe role of Captain Haddock in Destination Moon

Those who follow the adventures of the young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy will soon notice a certain development in the series. The main character starts out as a lone warrior in the battle against evil. Then slowly new characters enter the series, first as comedic obstacles, later as friends. Tintin’s own role changes through these acquisitions, as he becomes the clean cut foil to the other characters’ cheeky antics.

The most important representative of these new characters is Captain Haddock. He is Tintin’s closest friend, and the two become almost inseparable. Indeed, many of the stories start with the pair following each other into danger. After his introduction in The Crab with the Golden Claws the captain plays an important role in all of Tintin’s adventures—the stories up to and including The Secret of the Unicorn acting as a sort of warm-up period.

tintin-destination-moon-1Haddock has undoubtedly become the most popular character of the series. Tintin himself is drab. As the hero of the stories his behaviour must be impeccable, and acceptable to most readers. With such a cardboard character, the introduction of colourful extras to keep the series lively was almost inevitable. Captain Haddock, an old sailor, turned out to be the character that author Hergé could relate to the best.

One of the most important adventures that included the captain—or rather, one of the most important adventures for the captain—is Destination Moon (part one of a two-parter). Destination Moon started out as a straight-forward action adventure, the first to be written by somebody other than Hergé, but in the end Hergé decided against this approach and made the book a rocket building manual.

Everybody is of course familiar with the scene in which the captain accuses Professor Calculus of “acting the goat”. This leads the furiously indignant professor to drag the captain from rocket factory installation to rocket factory installation, dragging the reader along on what otherwise would have ended up a chapter sized info dump. Through the captain’s experiences the reader gains an excellent insight into the complexities of space travel.

From the moment Hergé decided to make the rocket building process the focus of an adventure, he had to figure out how to turn a boring technical description into the sort of thing his readers expected of him. Captain Haddock was the ideal vehicle for this. The man does not want to go to the moon. He wants to sit at home (a castle no less), smoke his pipe, drink his favourite Scotch, and at best worry about things like how magicians turn wine into water.

But Captain Haddock is also loyal to his friends Professor Calculus and especially to Tintin, and if said cabin boy wants to go to the moon, he, Archibald Haddock, can hardly let him go alone, can he? And thus Hergé uses Tintin to take the captain along in an impossible and otherwise boring adventure. And in the same way the captain is loyal to Tintin, so are the readers to the captain. The audience for a technical documentary was created.

The choice for Captain Haddock as the eyes and ears of the reader is an obvious one. Tintin is like a robot. Not only is it to be expected that he requires a lot less explanation (Captain Haddock on the other hand simply isn’t interested in space travel), but he also wouldn’t refuse a trip to the moon if his creator ordered him to.

The price Hergé (and Tintin) had to pay was a surprising one. A hero has to take the back-seat in his own series! Captain Haddock takes centre stage. Hergé even goes as far as forcing Tintin out of the main story. Tintin leaves the rocket plant for a hike through the mountains, supposedly to get some fresh air. He will take care of the espionage story that despite being important, and tailor-made for Tintin’s heroic bent, plays in the background. This way Captain Haddock temporarily ascends the throne in a believable manner—he has Tintin’s permission.

The captain is of vital importance to Destination Moon. His cynical, distant humour captures the attention of the reader, and transforms a serious subject into something light and airy.

I wondered if the importance of Captain Haddock could be measured in some way. I came up with the following methods:

  • Divide the book into scenes. Take stock of who does what in these scenes. Measure the importance of those actions.
  • Count the number of times somebody appears in the book.

The first method has the disadvantage that you just postpone the moment where you make the judgement call of what is important and what not.

The second method at least comes with a (implicit) definition of importance, but that definition is not necessarily correct. The spy story in the background for instance is terribly important to the story. If the spies had succeeded in bringing the rocket down, there would have been no part two—or more likely, part two would have looked completely different. And yet the spies hardly appear at all in the book.

In the end I cowardly decided to let you, the reader, choose whether you want to draw any conclusions from the quantitative part of this essay.

The following table was created by counting the number of panels a character appears in.

Haddock 438
Tintin 337
Calculus 275
Snowy 176
Wolff 148
Baxter 124
Thom(p)son 71
Boss spy 25
Moon rocket 21
X-FL 12
Radio operator dark 12
Radio operator blond 9
Nestor 8
Doctor 8
“Baron” 7

Captain Haddock appears on almost as many pages as Tintin (55 and 54 respectively). The number of panels sporting the sailor however is nearly 25% more. This phenomenon occurs, as far as I am aware, in no other Tintin book.

As an aside, during my counting exercise I noticed that one time Snowy appears in two different places at once. The week before the final launch, the astronauts are gathered for a wrapping-things-up meeting. Snowy is present. When the plant’s general manager, mister Baxter, asks how things are going, Professor Calculus replies that almost everything is done, except Snowy’s space suit. The ‘camera’ then cuts to another scene in another location, in which we see Snowy act in a five panel joke involving his space suit.

Such cutaway scenes are perfectly valid in comics (or any other type of story) though, so perhaps this is not a mistake by Hergé, who otherwise was always the perfectionist.

References:

  • Hergé (pseudonym of Georges Remi), all Tintin books in Dutch translation.
  • W.A. Wagenaar, in: De taal van het beeldverhaal (a publication of Het
    Stripschap), whose excellent essays were a inspiration for this, my attempt.
  • Harry Thompson, whose weak biography (Kuifje/Hergé, Een dubbelbiografie, Uitg. Balans/Kritak, 1991; a translation of Tintin: Hergé & his creation, Hodder & Stoughton) were also an inspiration, albeit a negative one.

Leiden, sunset

Design around Amstelpark

amstelpark

The old “don’t leave valuables in your car” sign was a cartoon of a fat man with a stubly face, a mask and a crowbar. It had a caption: “nothing in, nothing out“.

The new sign is an artsier affair. Not only does it depict a broken window, it also suggests the designer cracked that whole signing thing. The way it’s executed though makes it look as if a lot of little fingers are pointing at the letter P.

The miniature parking spots are for cargo bikes.

Bicycle manufacturer Fietsfabriek went bankrupt last year. Rumour has it they wanted to get rid of those pesky creditors. The new Fietsfabriek sells scooters too. The box on the back of this scooter is theirs. I am not sure it was sold with the scooter—the paint is slightly different for starters. The box immediately makes me think of the scooters of delivery boys, but it’s too small to carry pizzas. The owner presumably put it there for groceries, or because she thought it looked cool.

Do paviours like to be bested by street sign makers? Probably not. The white bricks here warn oncoming car drivers of the speed bump, but what are those black bricks doing there? Did the paviours have a couple left, did they think “waste not, want not”? Or were they trying to go for all black and white, until they ran out of black?

But more importantly, why did they choose this pattern? It’s too random to be unintentional.

If you’re thinking that I am unusually wordy around my photos today, you’re right. I read Ik zie ik zie last weekend, Hans Aarsmans collection of photo essays. (He’s wordier.) I think he broke me.

Cutting up old books

Did I say ‘up’? I meant ‘open’. Bought a couple of candidates for everybody’s favourite free e-book repository. It turns out the two of them had never been read. I know this because the pages were still stuck together, and I had to cut them open with a pocket knife. One was from 1880, the other from 1897.

It’s not the first time I discover books in that state, but I still think it is weird. My guess is that these books have been in the inventories of book seller after book seller for well over 100 years, going from new to unsellable to antique to, oh no, unsellable after all. (Us Dutch have a word for products that overstay their welcome in a store’s inventory: winkeldochter, lit. shop daughter. The Germans say Ladenhüter, lit. shop guard.)

The loot

Stuff I acquired on Queen’s Day this year:

I’ll William Tell you one book among them: De Idioot. Intriguing.

I bought the two football comics, the five old books, and the Grisham for the total sum of 2.35 euro. The Hiaasen I got for free from a guy who was handing out books for free.

The other three comic albums and four books I got from the post-retailgastic dumpster diving.

How the decay of Wikipedia can be measured

The decay of Wikipedia can be measured by expressing the chance that it will fork.

That’s all I’ve got.

A fork is a term from the community of open source programmers. It means a split of a project into two distinct projects working from the exact same code base. These splits often happen for philosophical reasons, with opinions divided over the course a project should take.

See also: Oh goody, I’ll dance to that (about the fork of Mambo into Mambo and Joomla).

Train

trein-utrecht-

The train from Utrecht to Schiphol Airport, a 20 minute trip. For some reason it always seems to be made up of thousands of cars, mostly empty.

M109

in-the-field

Picture I took ages ago, during my military service. We were practising at a 15 km range in what otherwise was a very quiet place where wild boars loved to come.

Sometimes the heath would catch fire, and we would have to take out our shovels and extinguish the flames by hitting them.

Going for the second Inbox Zero in my life

The last time I achieved Inbox Zero was somewhere last year. You should think I would be able to remember the exact date, but there you would be wrong. Sure, it was a momentous occasion. So momentous in fact that for days I was wrapped in the sound of heavenly trumpets and glided through life without care for such mundane things such as dates, diaries, and indeed, ouch!, lampposts.

This week I am going to try it again. I say week because Inbox Zero cannot be achieved in a single day, and the reason for this is simple. Some of the mails that one finally gets around to answering will elicit further replies from their overjoyed recipients. I will do the large part of the work today, but real Inbox Zero will be achieved some time later this week.

Life is good.

Update 5 pm: I am down to 7 e-mails (from about 20). I assumed I had about 3 two-hoursers hidden in my mail: this turned out to be 4. (A two-hourser is an e-mail that promises about two hours of work doing stuff you long ago agreed to do before you can either bin or archive the mail.)

Distributed Proofreaders sends its 20,000th ebook off to Project Gutenberg

Today the counter for public domain e-books at Distributed Proofreaders says: “20,000 titles preserved for the world!” At the top of the Recently Completed Titles list is Niederländische Volkslieder by Hoffmann von Fallersleben, though I don’t know if that is the official #20,000.

Project Gutenberg expects to post its 30,000th English language ebook somewhere during this week. Late last year Distributed Proofreaders produced its 500th Dutch language ebook, Vanden Vos Reynaerde, of which I was one of the two post-processors (together with the mysteriously named Clog, who may have put in one or two hours more work than I, he said understatingly).

Distributed Proofreaders started in 2001 (the same year as Wikipedia). They were crowd-sourced projects 5 years before the term was invented by a Wired editor. Before Distributed Proofreaders it took volunteers about 40 hours to produce a single ebook for Project Gutenberg. This was a problem as volunteers often lost interest half way through, and abandoned projects without notification. Distributed Proofreaders doubled and in some instances tripled the production time, but was nevertheless a better proposition for volunteers. An ebook project got split into pages, and people could work on as little as a single page and still be productive. It then took a single person again to ‘glue’ those pages back together again in a single ebook, but by then a lot of the work had already been done.

The success of this new model is shown in the amount of books produced. Of the about 30,000 ebooks published by Project Gutenberg since 2001, two-thirds were produced by Distributed Proofreaders.

A welcome side-effect, the Project Gutenberg people assure us, is that the Distributed Proofreaders produced ebooks are of a consistent and high quality. Another side-effect is that this production model makes it easier to tackle difficult books.

Project Gutenberg started publishing electronic books before anyone else, in 1970, when then-student Michael Hart got a present of lots of computer time on the then nascent internet, which he used to publish out-of-copyright books there.