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Hidden Gems - Russian Ark (movie on DVD and Kanopy)

Do you like art? History? Cinema? This unclassifiable film takes you on a trip through Russian history by following historical figures from one gallery to another in the Hermitage Museum -- and all in one continuous 96 minute take! (the first feature film ever created in a single take). 


The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia is, after the Louvre in Paris, the 2nd largest museum in the world. Its collection has millions of items including an enormous number of masterpieces of Western European art from the Middle Ages to the present. 


Alexander Sokurov, the writer/director, has worked in films and television since 1979. Although he has directed over 20 documentaries to date, Russian Ark remains his great masterwork. 


Via Kanopy.

Posted on Apr. 27, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - Fortunes of War (Mini-Series)

In olden times when we watched videos at home using these strange, now antiquated, machines called "VHS players," I decided to rent this mini-series to give me something to do on a long, rainy weekend. I planned to watch it over the course of 2-3 days. Instead, I binge-watched it continuously, one episode after another, straight through until well after midnight on the first night. I could not stop watching. 


Contrary to the title, this is not a war movie, at least not in the typical sense. You would also not think that this story would prove so engaging either. Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thomson portray a rather ordinary British married couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, living in Romania in 1939. Guy starts out as a lecturer in English Literature at a university in Bucharest. But when the war starts and the Germans advance, they have to flee – first to Athens, then to Cairo. Guy's gregarious nature leads him to make friends with a motley assortment of expats: White Russians, displaced royals, diplomats, writers, journalists, literary types, dissidents, grifters and spies. 


You never see any battle scenes – the Second World War serves as a background, the political upheaval in Romania and its subsequent alliance with Nazi Germany imposing extraordinary situations and circumstances on the Pringles and their friends. Lacking action sequences, shoot-outs, chase scenes or other loudness, Fortunes of War above all else embodies the best elements of character drama. The mini-series format gives us more time than a movie ever could to get to know the characters, flesh out their personalities and motivations, show where the fractures form in marriages, friendships, and in some cases, ever shifting loyalties. 

The script starts out with excellent source material in the books by Olivia Manning: The Balkan and Levant trilogies.

Posted on Apr. 21, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - A month in the country

Do not look for a plot in this movie – you will not find one. Do not look for excitement either. You will not find any in this quietly beautiful, slow-paced, and thoughtful film. Disregard all summaries or descriptions, you find on the DVD container (or online). I have no idea what they're talking about or if the people who wrote these even saw the movie. 

Two survivors of the battlefields of the First World War meet in a small, quiet English town, then fall into a friendship. They interact with the townspeople as best they can, they struggle to fit into the new, alien (for them) environment and to re-enter a society in which no one but each other can understand their experience. One of them spends his days restoring a 500-year-old mural in the town's church. This mural restoration acts as a metaphor for the peeling back of layers to reveal what's hidden beneath – perhaps the rediscovery of their pre-war selves and the reintegration of these earlier personas into their present day lives?  No high drama, no heavy interpersonal conflicts, the title of the film says it all.  A Month in the Country is about precisely that – a month in a small English countryside community. It's about life, death, art, history, beauty, hope, recovery and change. 

Posted on Apr. 17, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - The Frisco Kid

At the beginning of The Frisco Kid, a small Jewish community in 1850 San Francisco writes to a rabbinical school in Poland asking for a rabbi. They send Gene Wilder. Along the way he meets some of the best and worst kinds of people: thieves and liars, but also many who help him out of kindness. He needs the help of an outlaw (played by Harrison Ford) to go through dangerous territory. Fans of the Marx Brothers will no doubt see their influence, and most will appreciate this buddy movie for its cross between borscht-belt humor and a parody of movie Westerns.  


Greatly overshadowed by the earlier films of its co-stars (Ford in Star Wars and Wilder in Blazing Saddles), many people do not seem to even know about this gem. Wilder can play straight drama when called upon, and Ford reveals himself as a far more gifted comedic actor than most realize. You would not think at first glance that the two would work so well together, but put both of them on camera, and you get this kind-hearted, whimsical and often hilarious movie. 


This movie is so entertaining, perhaps even locals can forgive them for calling the city "Frisco."

Posted on Apr. 14, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - After Hours (Movie)

When you hear the name "Martin Scorsese" does the phrase "screwball comedy" spring to mind? Maybe it should. In 1985, years after establishing himself as one of the great film directors of our time with movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Scorsese directed an absurdist comedy worthy of the old Ealing comedies of the 1950s. Unlike the screwball comedies of old, however, After Hours takes the silliness of a typical screwball comedy down a much darker alley: think "Film Noir meets Dada."  


An ordinary guy stumbles down a rabbit hole leading him from surviving (sometimes just barely) one bizarre, inexplicable situation after another. All he wanted was a fun night out. Instead he finds himself living through a nightmarish chain of events he can neither control nor escape. Every time it looks like he has made good his escape, he quickly finds out that, no, he hasn't. And, to make matters worse, Horst thinks he lacks discipline (but then Horst thinks that about a lot of people). Next, toss in Cheech and Chong because, well, why not?

Posted on Apr. 7, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - A Carnival of Buncombe

Do you think that the present state of political discourse in the United States has hit an all-time low? Do you think the population has grown irrevocably divided? We hear words like "unprecedented," and "in all of our history," and other hyperbole nearly every time a political commentator opens their mouth. Along with blaming the mess on social media and technology.   Well, read H.L. Mencken on U.S. politics of the 1920s through the 1930s, and then you will see that now, a hundred years later, our current situation does not look so unprecedented afterall. They didn't have Twitter or Facebook, but they had the same divisiveness and inflammatory remarks. The difference in Mencken's lifetime: they did a better job of proof-reading and had editors and typesetters to catch the more obvious errors. 

Most people today only know Mencken from his quote, frequently turned into an internet meme, about how no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the average American.* Mencken wrote for decades (mostly for the Baltimore Sun), however, employing a wit and invective that many a commentator today must envy. You do not need to recognize all of the names in order to enjoy his writing – Mencken's columns he wrote for the Baltimore Sun reprinted in this book, refer to many failed candidates and other people who everyone at the time recognized but have since fallen into obscurity. You do not have to have a detailed knowledge of the history of the time to enjoy this book (although it may help). 

A few excerpts from Mencken are below. 

On Presidential candidates: 

“All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form. This is to say, they are all extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds.” 

On political discourse: 

“It seems to me that this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon, and that it is nowhere so horribly apparent as in the United States…”

“It has been, by God's will, a very bitter campaign, which is to say, an unusually honest one.”

On the urban-rural divide in America:

“What the average native yokel believes about the average city man is probably nine-tenths untrue, and what the average city man believes about the average yokel is almost as inaccurate.” 

*Note: The actual quote is "No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

Posted on Mar. 23, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

New Chess books in the Mechanics' Institute Library Feb 2023

Improve your chess calculations : the Ramesh Chess course 794.1 Im78

In practice you can "run through" problems on a chess board to see how a given move will work out. During games, however, it is against the rules to do this. The process of figuring out the results of a given move or series of moves chess players call "calculation." This book provides advice and exercises for players to improve their ability to visualize the board in a variety of different situations.

A. E. J. Mackett-Beeson Chessmen 794.1 M157

A wonderful, beautiful, well-illustrated book on the chess pieces showing remarkable chess sets throughout history. A very welcome donation to our collection.

Danny Gormally Pandemic shark : a journey through the world of chess improvement 794.12 G671p

A grandmaster addresses the common mistakes that amateur chess players (and also grandmasters) often make. Organized thematically by kind of mistake. Intended for beginners and intermediate players.

Efstratios Grivas The passed pawn : power of the passer, an innovative course 794.12 G872

Arranged thematically by the kind of passed pawn position. With a tribute to Aaron Nimzowitsch in the introduction reminding us of his warning: The passed Pawn is a criminal, who should be kept under lock and key. Mild measures, such as police surveillance, are not sufficient.

Boroljub Zlatanovic The essence of chess strategy 794.12 Z825e

A 2 volume work. Volume 1 : Strategic elements ; volume 2 : Pawn structures. Recommended for club players, advanced players and masters.

Gabor Kalla. Basic chess openings 794.122 K14b

An excellent "first book" about chess openings for beginners who have only just started to study on how to improve their game. Keep in mind that this and many of the best "beginners books" are old enough to have some lines that no longer work effectively in club play. Very good for beginners to learn the core concepts of a given opening, but for more up-to-date and detailed lessons, look for a book specifically about a given opening.

Sergey Voronkov Masterpieces and dramas of the Soviet Championships 794.157 V954

A massive three-volume work covering Russian chess games from 1920 to 1953. An important addition to our collection for those members who want to study the great games of the early 20th century and for chess historians who want to see the development of opening thought and the roots of current ideas. Includes a selection of games annotated by the players themselves, checked with modern computer evaluation to provide up-to-date analysis. "It's hard to find the right balance between analytical facts and historical truth." (From the Forward by Garry Kasparov).

Walter Tevis The queen's gambit / Ebook

The library recently purchased a license to the eBook version of Walter Tevis' popular novel about a young woman chess champion in the mid-20th century America. (Basis for the Netflix mini-series of the same name).

Dima Novak Pushing pawns Fic Novak

A new young adult fiction book from an "indie" publisher. Urban high school kid Moses Middleton hoped that chess competition could be a ticket out of mediocrity, but everything goes pear-shaped after a disastrous tournament. That's when he meets Viktor, a mad Russian grandmaster who agrees to coach the team by revealing the secrets of Soviet chess.

Posted on Mar. 20, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Hidden Gems - World Press Photo

In the bookstacks of the Mechanics Institute Library, hidden in an almost literal sense, we have many books that, once you find them, can hold you in fascination, to the point of losing track of time. Among these hidden gems we have an annual publication, World Press Photo, that compiles the most compelling and relevant photographs from photojournalists for the year. Even just looking at the covers you get a sense of the events that, although you may remember them, happened more recently or later in the past than you thought. Picking up the 2017 issue, I find myself shocked all over again by the cover photograph of the immediate aftermath of the assassination of a Russian Ambassador by an off-duty Turkish police officer. Or the 2014 issue cover showing an eerie picture of a crowd of people outside at night holding up their mobile phones -- African migrants in Djibouti trying to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia to contact their relatives. Opening these books and looking through the photos can lead you through a tour of your own memory. Oh, I remember that now. Has it been that long since that happened? It feels like last year.  

The World Press Photo Foundation is a global platform connecting professionals and audiences through trustworthy visual journalism and storytelling, founded in 1955 when a group of Dutch photographers organized a contest ('World Press Photo') to expose their work to an international audience. In the six decades since then, the annual contest has grown into the world's most prestigious photography competition, with the objectives to support professional photojournalism, stimulate developments in photojournalism, encourage the transfer of knowledge, help develop high professional standards in visual journalism and promote a free and unrestricted exchange of information.

(Adapted from promotional material by the World Press Photo Foundation)

Posted on Mar. 16, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Noteworthy new books March 2023

The Mechanics Institute Library acquires new books each week. Some you will see on the new books tables, but members often check out some of the most popular books right away. If you do not know how to place a hold on a book, please call us at 415-393-0102 (or send a message to [email protected]). 



Tokyo Stroll by Gilles Poitras. 

Full disclosure: I have known Gilles for about 30 years, at times working in the office next to his. So now you know I am very biased. He writes books on Japanese anime, makes frequent trips to Japan and in answer to almost any question he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese culture and all things Japanese (even if your question has nothing to do with Japan). Tokyo Stroll, as you can guess, does not bother much with the usual "tourist traps," instead shows you how to find the interesting out-of-the-way places of all kinds: temples, bars, book stores, toy stores, public parks and more. Intended for people who like to walk. 


Existential physics : a scientist's guide to life's biggest questions by Sabine Hossenfelder.

A physicist who has gathered a large following on YouTube explains scientific concepts for the non-scientist. This is her first book and by all accounts she employs the same wit and humor to her writing as she does her videos.


Pests : how humans create animal villains by Bethany Brookshire.

The author challenges the idea that sees some animals as only problems to be solved. From a given animal's perspective, we may look like the pests.


Neurocomic by Dr. Matteo Farinella and Dr. Hana Roš.

Nonfiction graphic novel explaining the physiology of the brain and describing theoretical and experimental developments that led to our present understanding. Graphic novels have reached a point in their evolution that makes them no longer "just for kids" comic books.


Terry Pratchett : a life with footnotes : [the official biography] by Rob Wilkins.

Pratchett may be known mostly for the book Good Omens (made into a popular mini-series) that he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman. He also wrote scores of "Discworld" books that have proven immensely popular (and some made into mini-series). This biography has the same wit and humor as Pratchett himself did.


The Magic Kingdom and Foregone, the last two novels of Russell Banks.

Banks' novels have proven very popular with Mechanics Institute members, judging from our circulation records. Readers among may have missed these two novels after we had to shut our doors during the pandemic.


The book of lost names by Kristin Harmel.

Librarians are suckers for books about librarians. In this one, taking place in the past and present, a librarian searches for people who do not know who they really are.


Please report your bug here by Josh Riedel.

An app developer in the San Francisco Bay area blunders into an alternate universe.


The passenger and Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy.

These companion novels by McCarthy came out in 2022, 16 years after his last one. Hollywood turned two of his previous novels  into movies: No Country for Old Men and The Road.

Posted on Mar. 8, 2023 by Steven Dunlap

Chess trivia - Could Elon Musk buy FIDE?

The question came up during Paul Whitehead's lecture preceding Felix German Memorial Tuesday Night Marathon on December 13: could Elon Musk buy the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and then do whatever he wants with it? The short answer is no. Verifying this answer leads us to some interesting (to chess players anyway) trivia.

The International Chess Federation, known the world over as FIDE (pronounced "Fee - Day") the initials of its official name in French (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) is a Non-governmental Organization (NGO) and as such would be extremely difficult, even for a billionaire, to take over. 

Want more information? Mechanics’ Institute Librarians are here to help! I found a downloadable copy of The FIDE Charter that can help cure your insomnia. This document will tell you that FIDE draws members of its General Assembly from constituent national chess associations, and this body elects FIDE's officers, commission members, etc. As such, no mechanism exists for a single individual to take over this organization. 

Musk would have to take over enough national chess Federations to acquire a two thirds majority in the FIDE General Assembly to change FIDE's bylaws. And even if he tried, he would run afoul of this rule: 

[To meet the Obligations of Member Federations a Member Federation must] "[A]ct independently from any government, public or private institution." (Article 11, section 'l'). 

The FIDE charter has rules for "suspension and expulsion of member federations" that empowers its current leadership to kick out any national chess federation. So if Musk managed to get his hands on a member federation and attempted to stage a coup, he would be failing to "act independently from ... a private institution" (that institution being any given one of Musk's business entities). 

And if Musk tries to dispute the expulsion, well, best of luck with that: 

FIDE decisions can only be challenged by an appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, using binding arbitration according to Swiss federal law.

And so I conclude, no, Elon Musk can't "Buy FIDE and do whatever he wants with it."

Posted on Mar. 3, 2023 by Steven Dunlap