Friday, January 31, 2014

Why no product reviews? On Shootouts and Demos, with an apology to Extron

About what do AV designers talk? Design certainly, in all of its forms. Past projects and wish lists. Perhaps most of all, we talk about technology. For all of our talk on these things, there are relatively few actual product reviews or comparisons. I'll talk about products here, but stop short of a formal endorsement or non-endorsement. Why is this, and what are the perils of doing so? I can illustrate with two examples and an apology.

First, Infocomm 2013. AV_Phenom Mark Coxon saw the dizzying array of HDMI over structured cable extension systems and decided that an old-fashioned "Shoot out" was in order - he'd take a selection and compare for the benefit of the rest of it in the industry. Right away he ran into problems.

1. Acquiring Appropriate Gear
Manufacturers pretty much universally outwardly agreed that this was a great idea. When it came time to actually get sample products, roadblocks appeared. Their trade-show demos were strapped down to permanent displays. They were missing power supplies. They didn't know if they had the latest firmware updates. Some of these might have been legitimate issues. Some might have been a lack of comfort with the risk of taking part in a showdown under conditions they couldn't control. For whatever reason, it's something manufacturers aren't quite comfortable with. 

2. Creating a Fair Test
If you read the original post from last year,  you'll see that at the first try none of the extenders worked. At all. Blank screens all around. Removing the extension system and running sources directly to the display, of course, resulted in a perfectly clear picture. Every element of the test had been proven good except the extension system. Which means that the extenders were bad. Right?

Not right. Replacing an active HDMI cable with a .99cent special made everything work. So the problem is the active HDMI cable. Right?

Not right. Months later I saw the same problem - an active cable not working on the back end of an extender. Replacing it with a seemingly identical cable made the problem go away. What the issue appears to have been is a defective cable. Not quite so defective as to give no picture, but marginal enough to fail with some equipment.
Notes on Digital Video

Side note on digital video: as I'm sure you're aware, a digital signal is just a string of ones and zeros. One way to measure the integrity of such  signal would be with an oscilloscope. Ideally, ones should be very high, zeroes very low, with a clear sharp transition between. This is called an "eye pattern". As the signal attenuates and picks up noise the "eye" will flatten and become less sharply defined. Different receivers have different "eye masks" - their tolerance for imperfect signals. The problem with this kind of test is that, absent some rather costly and complex test equipment, it is impossible to determine where the signal is degrading, how, and to what extent. We're left with the binary "it works/it doesn't work". Which leads to the final issue:

3. They all work
Coxon's result was something I could have told him before he started: all of the extenders were able to pass video.  After all, for a manufacturer to sell a product which simple doesn't do what it is advertised as doing would be rather shocking and result in a short life for that manufacturer. Yes, there are secondary tests he could have performed but didn't. Unplug and reconnect the video source to measure sync time. Unplug and reconnect the power to compare startup time. The larger point is that these kinds of devices have become somewhat commoditized; not only do many have the same function, but they also have similar form-factor and, under the hood, use the same chipsets. It's ultimately a comparison of apples to very slightly different apples.

Are there manufacturers with product lines and ecosystems better suited for one application or another? Yes. Are there some which offer better reliability and better customer service? Also yes. I'm not quite ready to say that digital switching and transport is a pure commodity in which any device is equivalent to any other. What I AM saying is that they're close enough that, absent a great deal of time and equipment, it's quite challenging to make meaningful performance comparisons. 

Which brings me back to the beginning, in which I owe somebody an apology.

Some demo gear. I love demo gear!
A few months ago in my visit to Extron post I commented that their XTP switcher changed sources slowly, especially when switching between unprotected and HDCP protected content. This is true; it was unacceptably slow and much more so than other, similar products. So, when one of my colleagues (SMW senior consultant Joe Gaffney) received some Extron demo gear and saw that it switched very slowly I found myself unsurprised.  Fortunately, this was a test in the comfort of our office and Mr. Gaffney is quite diligent about getting things right. After watching the indicator lights on the front of the unit and making several calls to Extron, he determined that there's a setting to drop the HDCP handshake when non-HDCP sources are selected. If this setting is turned off, it has to initiate a new three-way handshake every time a protected source is selected. Hence the long wait time. Turning it off made the unit behave much more reasonably.

Is this what happened with the XTP demo at Extron's demo facility? Without an actual XTP matrix I can't say for certain, but I must admit that it's a possibility. While a manufacturer always should be sure their demo is configured to show the product in its best light, we need to remember not to take first impressions at face value. 

The moral of the story? Sometimes we all get things wrong. Evaluating products is hard. It's OK to make judgments, but make them carefully and be open to the possibility of revisiting them.

Those morals are a bit more universal than the world of AV, aren't they? Perhaps therein lies another lesson.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Torture and Torcher and original fiction!

"Where do you get your ideas" seems to be one of the first questions non-writers like to ask writers about their work. The more time I spend writing, the more it seems to be not quite the right question. The challenge - at least for me - isn't in finding ideas, but in shaping those ideas into something larger.  Ideas in and of themselves are pretty much everywhere. Some examples, from my own work and others of a few sorts of inspirations which speak to me:

MishearingsOverhearings, and Misprints
For those who don't know, I've worked in New York City for quite some years now. One day I saw a beggar holding a cardboard sign, hand-written in black marker the way such things often are, pleading for help as he was a "victim of government torcher." The person, the setting, and pretty much everything else about the situation were soon forgotten. What stuck with me was that misspelling (deliberate? A sign of poor education? Mental illness? Performance art? It's impossible to know). I found the near homonyms "torture" and "torcher" compelling enough to start tinkering and world-building around it. What I ended up with, of course, was "The Torcher's Tale", eventually serialized here.

Taken to a literal extreme, this is a technique used in some sorts of modern poetry. I'm thinking specifically of Bart Silliman, who's published entire volumes of simple transcripts of every word he uttered over the course of a week, traffic reports, and other "found language". My own inspiration doesn't run quite so far to the conceptual as this, but share the greater message in that openness to the world around us can be a source of art..

Here's a short scrap or horror that came to me from someone else's typo: "Willow water" for "shallow water". 

Strip slender branches of bark, soak in pure spring water. Mix lustrous hair, salty tears. 
Two drops fresh blood, three torn pages from your journal. All into the cauldron, slowly 
simmering, leaving air thickly scented; decaying pulp, moist earth, echoes.
I plant a bough entwined with another stolen lock and bloody tooth. Pour hallowed 
willow tonic, whisper prayers to beloved memories.
No matter if it fails to take root. From my dungeon more eyelashes, skin, bones, and 
humours can still be harvested, as will salty flow from eyes that once held devotion.

Images and Games, and Constraints
Sometimes a picture or phrase suggests a story. Those who've spent some time on this blog saw my collection of Nightmare Fuel stories from this past October. The Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers have also been known to share an image prompt from time to time. We've even toyed with the idea of a writing-only meetup in which we all take a prompt and try to make something of it.

I also adore writing games. Challenges to use certain words or concepts in a story, exquisite corpses, or shared "pass the story" exercises are not only great ways to get started on something, but great practice for thinking outside of ones comfort zone. If you again look back through my archives, you can see the blog-hop stories I wrote with various co-contributors. I don't necessarily think that all of these represent my very best work or are completely reflective of my style, but it's healthy as an artist to branch out.

What makes this kind of thing interesting to me is that the sometimes artificial constraint of having to use a certain image or follow some seemingly arbitrary rule makes it easier for me to write than a pure blank slate with no rules. The rules create a framework on which to build everything else.

Taken to an extreme, this kind of thinking can lead to absurdly difficult stunt-writing. One of my favorite professional examples is Christian Bok's "Eunoia". It's a weird sort of narrative poem divided into five chapters, each of which only uses one vowel. In case this isn't difficult enough, he attempted to use as many words as possible and have each chapter include a banquet, an orgy, and a nautical journey. This is the kind of thing in which I'm in awe.

Others' Works
Even if one isn't going to write fan-fiction or use other characters, there's rich inspiration to be found in other literature. Sometimes a story suggests an image; Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison read Robert Bloch's classic story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" (in which Jack is revealed to be a supernatural monster extending his life through murder of innocent victims) and became obsessed with the image of Jack in a sterile and clean far-future. Bloch took this image to write "A Toy for Juliette" which didn't do quite as much with Ellison's vision as it could have. Ellison's "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" took this one step farther and gave us what Ellison saw as the story.

I recall reading a story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction the author and title of which I can't quite recall; it told of an adult who had, as a child, visited a Narnia-like fantasy world and battled some great evil. Now, as an adult, he returned to actually finish killing it. What bothered me was the simple binary of good and evil, and the assumption that the "good" fantasy creature was pure good and the only solution was to slay the "bad" creature. So, I wrote the following, presented here in its entirety for your enjoyment. 

"The Battle for the World as a Succession of Bedtime Stories
by L Czhorat Suskin

We were brave. Being brave means doing something even if it is scary. Like climbing the big ladder on the playground by yourself. That’s brave.

Anyway, like I was saying,  the world on the other side was strange and different, but we were brave. Even when it was hard to be. We were brave. We went through the hedgerow, to the world beyond, and fought the Reaper. It was big and scary, but the Guardian told us it needed to be beaten. We did, because we were brave.

No, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t scared. Being brave means doing what you need to do anyway. Even when you are scared.

Sarah and Billy and I were brave enough to cross over beyond the hedgerow, to fight the Reaper and to save the world.


I don’t remember the first time we met the Guardian, but I remember the first time he told us about the Reaper. On this side of the Hedgerow he looked like a dog. A beautiful dog. Like a golden retriever or something. He told us it would be scary, that the Reaper was dangerous. But we followed him.

Because we were brave.

On the other side, the guardian was bigger, like a wolf. A beautiful wolf. He walked like a man, but hunched over, like he wasn’t used to it. The way a dog would walk if you taught it to. Or one of those poor bears some circuses have.

What’s the other side like? It’s different. Like I told you, there were yellowish, licorice-smelling trees. Orange-red sand, the color of ripe tomatoes. Dusty, winding woodland paths between those weird trees. Sometimes we’d find these sorry bundles of sticks and string with little bundles of dried up food under them. This was the first lesson from the Guardian.

“This is an offering shrine of the Reaper’s people. Through these shrines they can let evil seep into the land.”

I frowned. “Why don’t you just get rid of them?”

The Guardian hung its head. “there are rules between his people and mine. Old rules I can’t break. His people were once very strong.”

No, I don’t know who made the rules. But aren’t there rules in all of the old stories? Remember the one about the girl visiting the dark half of the world who promised not to eat anything? And she had the six seeds and that’s why we get winter? It was probably like that. That’s a great point. Not knowing all the rules was probably why it was so scary.

So anyway, there were these little pointy, spiky bundles of sticks the Guardian called shrines. Billy ran at one of them and, without stopping, planted his foot next to it and kicked like he was shooting a soccer ball. The sticks were dry enough that they exploded into shards and splinters which he gleefully stomped. I was impressed.

“That was awesome. Let me do the next one!” I yelled.

“You gotta spot it first,” Billy answered. This gave us a great game for the rest of the trip. Whoever spotted one would yell “shrinekick!” and we'd race to see who could boot it first. We knew they were evil things by the long, angry scratches they’d give our legs if we didn’t aim our kick just right.

Sara never joined us and never spotted one.

Billy and I were brave, but Sarah was smart. She’s the one who found the Reaper’s one weakness disguised in a riddle, buried in a book called the White Grimoire. Grimoire is another word for an old, fancy book of magic.

He took us across the hedgerow, the way he always did. One side Mrs. Hiller’s lawn, and on the other a different world. Weird yellow trees, orange grass, and a purple sky. An artist would say that it clashes. Like when Mommy doesn’t like how you pick your clothes.

Anyway, there were buildings in the world beyond the hedgerow. Old buildings. Remember the pictures I showed you of our trip to Greece? They were buildings like that. We asked the Guardian about them.

“These are from before the Reaper. Long ago we built things like this, tall and graceful and lovely and adorned. Then came the battles. Now there’s time only to build simple, sturdy buildings. One day, after we kill the Reaper and all its progeny, we’ll again build grandly.”

Yeah, it was sad that they didn’t make fancy buildings anymore. That might have been part of what we were fighting for. To make the Guardian’s people safe enough to build fancy buildings again so we could see them.

He urged us on, but Sarah was staring at the ruined building. “Wait. If this was a computer game or a story or something there’d be something important in the building. It wouldn’t be there otherwise.”

I pointed out, very reasonably, that it was not a computer game or a story. Sarah just shrugged. We all played lots of games,but she was always the best at them. The one who told the rest of us to move the rug in the living room to find the hidden trapdoor, or tell the cyclops the name of an ancient Greek hero to scare it away. I guess that part came from reading stories.

“So what? If we don’t learn anything from them, then playing all those games is a just a waste of time anyway. I don’t want them to be a waste of time.  Let’s look inside.”

The Guardian didn’t seem to like it, but we went inside. The room smelled like a basement, all wet earth and mildew and forgotten memories. Sarah and Billy started hunting through broken stone shelves and decaying wood while the Guardian stood at the doorway, half-outside with a sometimes backward glance at us. “It is dangerous to stay here. The Reaper sometimes comes to these old, fallen places. We should go.”

I hung stood between. I wanted to help search, but I trusted the Guardian. He knew this world better than we did. I was just about to tell my friends that we should leave when Sarah shouted in triumph.

She’d found the book. Later, we’d work together to solve the riddle.


We came back again and again to the world beyond the hedgerow. The twisted yellow trees with their faint licorice smell seemed almost normal after a while, as did the purple sky. We'd followed hints and riddles in the White Grimoire for months, seeking out the crystal shard, the golden hammer, hidden paths to the parts of the world where the Reaper lived. Billy and I always found the treasures, weapons and secrets, and were always home before supper.

As long as kids are home in time for supper, everything is fine. We were having a grand adventure. We were saving the world.

Yes, it’s still important to to be home for dinner. You can’t save the world on an empty stomach!

Anyway, the Guardian helped us trap the last Reaper in a squalid hut, smelling of week-old eggs and alien dirt. It was an ugly thing, all tentacles and slime and joints that bent the wrong way. It was ugly as the Guardian was beautiful.

It was cornered and weak and we had the weapons and the answers to the riddles. We’d been brave and strong and smart.

We knew how to rid the world of it.



The story of the world beyond the hedgerow? No, last night wasn’t the end. Yes, the Reaper was beaten, and we never saw the Guardian again. Sarah went back once more, without me and without Billy. We didn’t see her until later. Her clothes were torn, her skin and hair caked with old dust. Dirt-stained fingernails clutched a book. Not shining and magnificent like the White Grimoire. This was a plain book, a dirty battered chewed up thing smelling of mildew and neglect. The half-torn cover revealed handwritten pages.

Her eyelids were red and swollen and her voice hoarse. “I can’t go back again. I think the guardian saw me.”

We looked at her and at the book, not sure how to answer. Billy finally asked what it was.

“The Reaper’s diary. I’ve been reading it all day. He... well, here’s a part near the end. Listen.”

She read. “The magic of the way-shrines holds, but not for long. The dogmen found someone from across the barrier to start breaking them. If many more fall, there will be no protection, no sanctuary. The rest of the dogmen will come, finish looting the ruins of the topless towers, and fill the world with ugly, squat bunkers.

I fear not for myself; old magics still protect me from the dogmen. I fear for our world, but I will be brave and smart and wise and fight on. For the future.”

Sarah looked up from the book. “I think.. we might have done the wrong thing.”

We tried to go back again and see. See what? What we’d really done, I guess. And maybe what we could do to fix it. If it needed fixing.

It didn’t matter. The hedgerow, when we got back to it, just lead us to the neighbor’s backyard. Whatever door we’d snuck through to the other world was sealed forever.

We never really talked about it again, but I think we all learned something about ourselves.

We were brave. We were strong. We were smart.

We were not wise.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hardware is Dead! Long Live Hardware! - in defense of the appliance, and a look ahead at software solutions.

Last week Ryan Pinke joined a new tradition in proclaiming the video conference Codec dead. In my own look ahead I posited a potential future free of boxes, in which software solutions largely replace dedicated appliances. Is Pinke right on this one? Have we reached, or are we nearing the end of hardware? I don't think that we are, and still predict a variety of appliances having use in the foreseeable future.

What do you mean "Appliance"?
No. Not that kind of
A quick word for those not up on the lingo - an "appliance" is a device dedicated to a single task. An AV control processor is an appliance. A VTC Codec is an appliance. A DSP (Digital Signal Processor for audio mixing and processing) is an appliance. etc.

The alternative to an appliance is a general-use computer utilizing software for varying tasks. Instead of a dedicated VTC Codec from Cisco or Polycom, for example, one can run a desktop conferencing program. A computer is more functional, multi-use, and can be easily upgraded and reconfigured as required tasks and available software standards change. A computer as opposed to an appliance seems like a very appealing choice.

So Why Is Hardware Still Alive?
I was pondering this question while running errands. If a general-use PC gives you flexibility and lower cost, what does the appliance give you?  For one obvious answer, see this photo I snapped  as I passed the Cartier store on Fifth Avenue, here in New York.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall. That something
is a data backup reminder dialog box.
See that lovely video wall with the loop of their running jaguar logo? Do you see what's in the upper-left corner of the image? That's right, it's an ugly, utilitarian "Back Up Your Data" dialog which those running the thing probably don't even know about. That's part of the challenge in using PCs; they require attention and maintenance. They want to run virus scans. OS updates. Data backups. PCs don't do these things constantly, but often enough that the threat of an interruption or reboot or dialog pop-up is worth considering for uses which are sensitive, mission-critical, or just embarrassing.

The second issue is control. It's easy to control an appliance through a third-party control system creating, in the best scenarios, a  seamless interface for an entire AV system. One can even create a single "speed-dial" button to switch inputs to the videoconference Codec, adjust the camera to its proper preset, and initiate a call to a specific endpoint. With a PC-based system, this is a more challenging proposition. Depending on the specifics of the control system and PC set up it might not even be possible.

What can we do with PCs?
The flip side of all of this is that, in many ways, the lower-cost lower-capability hardware options  are less appealing and may end up being the real users. For mission-critical or very high-profile spaces, a high-end hardware appliance is quite appropriate. For the smaller space in which you don't need the capability and reliability you'd possibly be as well off with a PC-based system as with a lower-end Codec. In my look ahead, one thing I posited was the possibility of going the other way: not worrying about integrating a PC with a larger system, but creating a PC-based room with no appliances. Is this possible today? Quite likely. (Please note that usual disclaimers apply: none of the below is an endorsement of any specific products, products are mentioned as examples only. In other words, don't use these just because I mention them). That said, consider:

Content Sharing: Mersive Solstice, software-based video sharing. Run it on the PC or server and use Wifi to share content.

Video Conferencing: Lync, Jabber, Skype, or your favorite software Codec.

Video Conference Camera: Any webcamera would suffice, but if we're looking at high-end conferencing one of Vaddio's USB cameras (either PTZ or fixed) should give a nice image.

Video Conference Audio: If we want wireless mics, we will need one box as a receiver. The Shure ULX-D has native Dante connectivity, which will come in handy. Alternatively, we could put hardwired mics at a table. Then use a Dante break-in box. Then use Dante virtual soundcard software to bring the audio into the Codec.

Interconnectivity with other spaces: h.264 streaming. 

Device Control: IF we want to stick with no boxes, then HRS Control's UDC software, running either on the local PC or a centrally located server. An iOS, Android, or Windows device can then be used as a control interface. 

Audio Output: You'll still need an amplifier. If it network-enabled the aforementioned Dante can be used for audio transport, freeing one of the need to colocate amplifier and PC. 

Is this a solution I'd use today? Some of it might be. What makes it important - and what makes it interesting - is that it is shows how far we can break from traditional design in which everything is a box. 

My final thought? The appliance isn't dead or even, perhaps dying. It IS losing its place of dominance in the market as other options become available. Will hardware ever truly die? That I doubt. What I do agree with is that it's no longer the only choice.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Back to Narnia - Musing on Fantasy Literature and Reading Lessons

One of the nice presents our family was lucky enough to receive this winter holiday season was from an old school friend of my lovely bride's: a nicely illustrated box set of the seven Chronicles of Narnia books as an early-arriving but late-delivered (we thought it was for Christmas) birthday gift for Chloe.  At just seven years old, we feared that these might be a bit tough for her. Then again, yesterday when I told her she was getting the ante-penultimate brownie she pondered a half second before answering "so there are two left." Vocabulary is clearly not an issue, and the girl loves reading at least as much as I did at that age. The Narnia books themselves are a very, very hazy memory for me, but the wondrous, open-ended anything-can-happen feeling in a great fantasy novel is not. It's something that, beneath the writerly analysis and tendency to overthink, I still feel today.  Still, these are books targeted perhaps a touch older than she is, so I thought it would be nice for her to have a guide. With this in mind I told her that I'd like to read along with her, picking up the book when she sets it down to catch up (and only to catch up - she didn't want me cheating and reading ahead!) so we can talk about the characters and what happened. Now, through the wonders of technology, you have the chance to read along with us for my musings on both the books and the process of reading them with a young child.

We started before the beginning, with The Magician's Nephew, mostly because the set we have numbers it first. This doesn't strike me as a bad place to start; it introduces Narnia at the very beginning (literally the beginning - we see its creation as a new world) and learn the origin of familiar objects and settings, such as the lamppost in the woods and the famous gateway in the back of a wardrobe.

What's this Book About? A refresher

For those interested in the plot (and who either don't know it or have forgotten it), two young London children named Digory and Polly are sent out of this world and into another by Digory's narcissistic and cruel Uncle Andrew - the titular magician.   Through the use of magic rings crafted from Atlantean dust they travel first to Wood Between Worlds, in which clear pools of water serve as portals to our world and others. From there their explorations take them to the dead world of Charn, in which Digory recklessly and impetuously awakens the evil Queen Jadis, providing an antagonist for the remainder of the series. She'd put herself into an enchanted sleep after - in a clear allegory of nuclear war - she'd killed every single living thing in her world through the magic of the Deplorable Word.

The famous Narnia lampost.
Image by Ej.culley
Jadis's follows the children to London, where here magic doesn't work but her supernatural strength makes her something of a menace. Through use of the magic rings, they manage to bring the evil witch through the Wood between Worlds and, eventually, to the new world of Narnia, as of yet still unformed. A Lonon cabby and his horse also make the trip.

In Narnia we meet the lion-god Aslan, who literally sings the world into existence. In atonement for bringing the evil witch into the newly formed world, Aslan sends Digory along with the carriage horse - now winged through Aslan's magic - to a hidden garden near the edge of the world for a magic apple of all things. It would not only keep the witch at bay for a time, but is quite healthy and loaded with a great deal of delicious symbolism. Digory takes the trip with Polly and the horse, resists the witch's temptation to eat the apple himself or take it back to London to cure his ailing mother, and is rewarded by Aslan with another magic apple so he can cure his mother after all. A final chapter details Digory's move away from London and the creation of the famous wardrobe we'll see in the next book.

Reading as a Writer and Parent

Teaching children to read is so much more than teaching them to read the words which, as I said above, isn't much of an issue now. In some ways this is a very nice introduction to "real" fantasy literature because it is so simple;  the witch is evil. Uncle Andrew is also evil, but not so much as the witch. Giving in to the temptation to keep the magic apple is wrong because it would be a betrayal of the trust Aslan had given Digory - and because it would be wrong for him to save  his mother with an act counter to the values he taught her. This correct act is rightly rewarded. Digory is the closest to a complicated character we get; he's basically good, but badly wounded by family troubles and dreadfully impulsive. There was a moment of violence between him and Polly - just one moment, but an unmistakable crossing of a line - which prevents us from seeing him as just a hero. 

The more interesting thing reading this as an adult is how apparent the work's flaws are. The quest to get the magic apple was all too easy, with no obstacles of which to speak. Aslan is a being of pure good, and Jadis a being of pure evil. In addition to the idea that a powerful woman is a villain and also a temptress, she's somewhat of a boring villain, with no motivation or real personality aside from a desire for power. She's more a force of nature than a person. Compare, say, Queen Mallow in Cat Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Boat of Her Own Making. Mallow was quite the villain and did a fair measure of harm to the denizens of Fairyland, but once we meet her we see that she had her own personal reasons for doing so. In the end, she was more to be pitied than hated.

Speaking of the apple, I'm not sure how I feel about that element. On one hand, the adult writer in me finds it painfully heavy-handed in its symbolism. As we are a non-religious household, it's symbolism that sailed right past our young reader's head to little effect, so no harm and no foul on that. What almost bothered me more is the forced "happy ending". Digory made the right choice in resisting the temptation to steal the apple to cure his mother. As a reward he gets... a magic apple to cure his mother. This is almost exactly the same complaint I had at the end of Disney's Tangled - the sacrifice is rendered meaningless by granting the reward anyway. 

That's not to say that the writing, although perhaps a bit old fashioned - lacks charm. Take, for example, this passage in which the two children arrive in the dying world of Charn:

"It's very funny weather here," said Digory. "I wonder if we've arrived just in time for a thunderstorm; or an eclipse.""I don't like it," said Polly.

Both of them, without quite knowing why, were talking in whispers. And though there was no reason why they should still go on holding hands after their jump, they didn't let go.

I especially like the bit about the two of them holding hands and called it out as an example of "showing, not telling". They're nervous. How do you know that they're nervous and a bit scared? Not because they say so, but because they don't let go of each other.

Reading as Readers

All of the object lessons about literature, about reading, and about writing aside, one of the very best things about this process has been sharing the pure pleasure of fantasy literature. The journey from Uncle Andrew's study through the Woods Between Worlds and eventually to Narnia evokes the open-ended feeling of limitless possibility which attracted me to fantasy in the first place. If one looks past the symbolism, characters, authorial decisions, one is left with not just a story, but a fantastic story. A story in which it feels as if anything can happen, and we're along for the pure joy of exploration. 

It's easy for us grown-ups to forget that sometimes. If understanding of the bigger picture is my gift to my children, a view through young and innocent eyes is their gift to me.