Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Understanding Jack: Who Jack the Ripper was and what he did

Words: Nick van der Leek

There's a reason why Jack the Ripper is a name that is still used and remembered 119 years later. And if you're superstitious about numbers, here's a number for you: 1888. That's the year it all happened.

If you live in South Africa as I do, where violent crime is a staple in our local newspapers, then it's tempting to wonder how Jack the Ripper ever made a name for himself. Surely there have been criminals far more vile and depraved than he was? Once again, there's a good reason why the name Jack the Ripper is remembered more than a hundred years after his crimes, and despite the comings and goings of thousands of brutal murderers and their murderous deeds.

The reason I am writing this article about Jack the Ripper is because I recently visited my sister where she works in the mountains, and I spent some time idly browsing through her bookshelf. I found a book by Terry Pratchett, some other pulp fiction, and then I pulled out a slim novel. I quickly thumbed through the pages and soon I was captured by the dark spell of what happened in 1888. Let me warn you a final time: there is a very good reason why this criminal has the notoriety that he does.

During the time that a series of incredibly violent killings took place, the Central News Agency received a number of letters written by someone claiming to be the murderer. Although plenty of hoax letters were also received, three letters are commonly believed to be genuine. I will not reproduce them here, but I'd encourage readers to google the "Dear Boss" letter (dated Sept. 25, 1888), the "Saucy Jack" postcard (Oct. 1, 1888) and the letter "From Hell" (postmarked Oct. 15, 1888). All three are chilling, and the third is particularly hard to decipher. This being the case, as one studies the maniacal handwriting, the content in "From Hell" slowly begins to manifest: "fried and ate" refers to the other half of Catherine Eddowes' kidney (the 4th of the "canonical" five victims), half of which was provided with the letter in a small box.

What makes the Ripper story even more grotesque is the uncertainty surrounding the case. What I mean is that while five victims (all prostitutes, all murdered between August 1888 and November 1888) have been identified by authorities such as Sir Melville Macnaughten as "belonging" to one serial killer, there is a long list, with as many as thirteen, other possible victims. It soon becomes obvious that London was a cesspool of crime in those days, and these crimes were particularly heinous in that they were aimed at women, and the slaughter was almost without exception, violent and disturbing. For a murderer to gain fame, to stand out, under such circumstances is particularly horrible, and almost unimaginable. These then are the achievements of Jack the Ripper:

Mary Ann Nichols was the first victim, discovered in Buck's Row at 3:40 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1888. She was discovered, like the victims after her, with vicious slashes (perhaps just a single, or two slashes) to her throat. The Ripper quickly achieved a sickening and repulsive reputation, so much so that the street of this first murder was renamed Durward Street (in Whitechapel, close to the London Hospital).

Annie Chapman was around 4 years older than Mary Ann Nichols. She was discovered without her uterus, on Sept. 8, 1888. Elizabeth Stride was just two years younger than Chapman, and originally born in Sweden. She was killed on Sunday Sept. 30, 1888, and discovered at 1 a.m. off Berner Street (since renamed Henriques Street) in Whitechapel. Catherine Eddowes was just one year older than Stride, and killed on the same day as Stride. The "Saucy Jack" postcard made reference to a "double event this time," and the handwriting in all three pieces are similar.

What I noticed when looking at the handwriting was the savagery in the letter "t." The side of the brim (crossing the t) hooks downward in a manner that does indeed suggest malice.

Early in the morning of Sept. 30 (the day of the double murder), police fanned out, hoping to locate evidence or the suspect himself. At around 3 a.m. Constable Alfred Long came upon a scrap of cloth near an apartment building in Goulston Street. The cloth was later linked to Eddowes' apron, but more sinister was the writing, chalked on the wall behind it: "The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing." The Police Superintendent on the scene, fearing a worsening of the prevailing religious tension (and especially anti-Semitism), ordered the graffiti to be removed from the wall. This occurred, despite arguments between the officers on the scene, at 5:30 a.m., and without having the graffiti photographed first.

Some believed the Ripper murders were the work of a Jew some called the "Leather Apron." Some believe the Ripper tried to reinforce the link to "Leather Apron" by intentionally dropping the cloth where it was found. Personally I believe that the message was already there and the murderer dropped the scrap by mere coincidence. Be that as it may, the graffiti (with the double negative feature) appears to be written by a Cockney, and the standard translation would be: "The Jews are men who will not take the blame for anything." It was written by someone who must have felt wronged by someone Jewish, and there were many in the area at that time.

Jack the Ripper achieved unparalleled publicity. Because of reforms to the Stamp Act (in 1855), it was possible to publish and circulate newspapers at a scale hitherto unheard of. It was also the dawn of mass circulation of newspapers, and a time where plenty of local content newspapers and magazine came into existence (including the Illustrated Police News). It has also been suggested that the name "Jack the Ripper" was coined by newspapermen, in order to sell more newspapers. If this was the case, it provided the blueprint for the serializing of serial killers that came afterwards, including the "Boston Strangler" and in the 1960s, "Jack the Stripper."

While the conjecture is interesting, the haunting reality remains that we still do not know for sure who Jack the Ripper was. He was never caught, or convicted. His fifth murder was also the most troubling of them all. Mary Jane Kelly was Irish (born in Limerick) and was different from the other 4 in that she was born in 1863 (the others were all born in the 1840s). She was 25, 20 odd years younger than the other victims. And unlike the other victims, she was discovered much later, at 10:45 a.m., Nov. 9, 1888, in the room where she lived (13 Miller's Court, Dorset Street).

Kelly had invited the killer into her room (which suggests the killer must have appeared respectable and well mannered), and here he was able to perform his macabre activities for as long as he wished. In the book that I found on my sister's bookshelf, there was a grainy photograph of Kelly. It's difficult to describe just how gruesome her body had been mutilated. She had been disemboweled, the white bone of her femur was visible after chunks of her flesh had been removed (and skewered on picture hooks in the room). It is difficult to make out the face in the photograph, because with the neck having being severely cut, and along with lacerations to her face, the skin unfolded.

In the picture it's obvious that the body has been butchered almost entirely, for it was found with the heart missing, and many other internal organs scattered about the room. And as in the other murders, there were extensive lacerations to the genital area and the abdominal area. Suffice it to say the picture of Kelly provides an extremely disturbing portrait of Jack the Ripper.

So, who and what are we dealing with? The Ripper murders are characterized by progression. Each murder goes further than the last (in terms of brutality). Throat cuts and the removal of organs as well as progressive facial mutilations typify the canonical five. We can reasonably assume a frenzy of excitement taking hold of the murderer, one that is intensified with incisions, particularly to the lower abdominal area. All the murders occurred on or near weekends, they happened at night, often at the end of the month (or close to it), and in out-of-the-way quarters with public access. Each murder began with the slashing of the throat, and in the case of Stride, it has been argued that the murderer was interrupted (but another victim was taken later the same night).

The worldwide media frenzy that the Ripper unleashed did have a positive side-effect. It created awareness of the poverty and harsh conditions prevailing in parts of London at the time, and reformers were able to build on this awareness to change the conditions there.

While it's possible that Jack the Ripper had many more victims, or possibly that he committed some of the crimes mentioned above (but not all), someone perpetrated these crimes. In fact, there was at least one witness who provided a description of a man leaving with her friend. And it must be answered, how was this man able to walk in the early light of day, unseen, able to hide his bloodstained hands and clothes? Many believe the Ripper must have lived in close proximity to the murders, and indeed, all the murders mentioned above occurred in a specific part of London.

Today many believe that Montague John Druitt was Jack the Ripper, and I am one of them. Born in Dorset, he was the son of a well-known physician. He enjoyed cricket, and was good at sports (which would explain strong hands and arms, and being fleet of foot). Many experts have speculated that the Ripper ought to have some medical background to have performed his surgeries and extracted the organs (knowing where to find them) as quickly as he did. Having grown up in a family filled with physicians (his brother was also a doctor), not only would he have been exposed to the tools of the trade, but also books and materials detailing the internal human body. And Druitt quite possibly felt angry about his decision not to study to be a doctor (as so many Druitt men had). Instead he studied at Oxford, and practiced as a barrister.

Additionally he worked as a teacher in Blackheath from 1881. He was dismissed from that job (at George Valentine's boarding school) in 1888. At the same time his mother was suffering from depression and madness (she died two years later, in 1890, in an asylum). It's possible that Druiit broke down mentally after the Kelly murder. That he was both exhilarated and fully and finally appalled and ashamed of himself. If this is the case, recent evidence demonstrates that Druitt argued his final case effectively. Possibly Druitt remained intelligent, but not so emotionally. Macnaughten, upon whose report much of the suspicion is based, (that he is the Ripper) nevertheless makes some stupendous errors in his assessment: he describes Druitt as a doctor, and puts Druitt's age 10 years off the mark. This seems, in large part, to invalidate Macnaughten as a credible investigator, and Inspector Frederick Abberline has argued the same point, going so far as to doubt Druitt's connection to the Ripper.

I disagree with Abberline for a few fairly unscientific reasons. One, the handwriting in the three letters is similar to Druitt's. Secondly, given the circumstances of Druitt vis-a-vis his parents, Druitt can be reasonably assumed to have a motive (to get revenge against his mother for going mad, and allowing him to be born, and to subconsciously live out the fantasy of being like his father). Thirdly, Druitt did have the use of accommodation in close proximity to the murders. A picture of Druitt shows a man with darkness in his eyes, but an otherwise gentlemanly demeanor. There is the beginning of a moustache (the Ripper was said to have one).

It's my opinion that Druitt didn't commit suicide, but that his family suspected him all along, and had him murdered (his coat was filled with heavy stones, and his body was not discovered until weeks after he began his sleep on the bottom of the river). They were a well to do family, and given the Ripper's worldwide reknown, capture would mean the wiping out of the family reputation and possibly ruin their ability to practice (as physicians).

Montague Druitt died shortly after the last murder (committed on Nov. 9, 1888). It was at the end of that terrible year that his body was found floating in the River Thames at Chiswick; on the last day of 1888. He was 31 years old.

Pierneef Country - by Nick van der Leek [COUNTRY LIFE, February 2012]

Visiting the countryside that inspired Pierneef brings home why he’s arguably South Africa’s greatest painter.
The great artist at work.
I approach an electric perimeter fence with my camera. Beyond the wire is a vineyard, whitewashed buildings and a pair of soaring peaks. It’s the scene depicted by Pierneef in his Peaks seen from Lanzerac. I lean forward to photograph it just right and accidentally touch a wire with my left hand.  ZZZik!  A short time later I land back on my flip-flops, feeling as though I’ve been kicked hard in the back – and convinced the fence is operating just fine.
Pierneef’s painting shows a copse of massive bluegums rising over the winelands and dwarfing the Lanzerac homestead. Today there’s no sign of the trees. I also notice that the buildings he depicted have been replaced by a hotel and spa. And when I go tramping through the vineyard, trying to line up the mountains as they are in Pierneef’s Peaks, the vines are twice as tall as I am (unlike in the painting).
Pierneef's fairy-tale image of Table Mountain draws the viewer through endless middle ground towards impossibly sheer slopes.
Pierneef chose the now-vanished trees to portray the magnificence of the landscape, but I’m not sure if it succeeds. However, his fairy-tale image of Table Mountain – seen through tall pine trees – is an immaculate portrayal of a ‘monumental’ South African scene.
The foreground is bare soil in shadow. From there the viewer’s eye is drawn through endless middle ground to the impossibly sheer slopes of the mountain, its top pushing clear through a raft of clouds. Nowadays the same scene shows fewer trees and the shoulders of Table Mountain are cut with ribbons of tar and urban sprawl, but it’s still possible to stand at the last remaining trees on Signal Hill and look back at the mountain and imagine what Pierneef saw.
It’s worth noting that if Tinus de jongh, my great-grandfather; painted the heart of South Africa’s landscapes flush with sentimentality, then Pierneef painted their soul in all its glory. (The landscape has always been the main subject for the greatest South African artists.)

The pinnacles overlooking the Valley of Desolation at Graaff-Reinet were greatly exaggerated by Pierneef

Pierneef's paintings often featured baobab trees

Pierneef's painting of Hartbeespoort Dam fairly closely resembles the real thing

Rustenberg Kloof - the scene of Pierneef's signature piece - is a magical place, buzzing with insects and studded with crystal clear pools of water.

Read the rest.

Making sense of Malick's TREE OF LIFE

I feel very blessed and grateful that so many people have stopped by to read my thoughts on The Tree of Life, which are admittedly as incomplete as Malick’s film. One reader, Nick van der Leek, nails the film perfectly when he commented, “It was while reading your review (or treatise?) that I finally made sense of what seemed extremely fragmented... I realised that Malick intentionally created a fractured, semi-coherent story in order to render 'disconnection'. You mentioned it somewhere, how the elevators have Jack untethered to the world... Thus Malick introduces the bridge at the end, to evoke a final sense of conciliation with the world and all that we do not know, do not understand and have un-connected ourselves from.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kodak Dies, Fujifilm Thrives

How a culture of complacency wiped out one of the world’s best loved brands

In 1975 Steven Sasson, an electrical engineer at Kodak, invented the digital camera. Four years later British New Wave band The Buggles released “Video killed the radio star”. The song was a nostalgic tome to the technological upheaval of the 60’s. The portent of the lyrics, from The Age of Plastic album, should have presented Kodak executives with an early warning. But nearly a century of business bliss (and near monopoly) created a culture of smug complacency at Kodak, and that would be its undoing.

In the mid 70’s Kodak was approaching its zenith. By 1976, 90% of all camera film sold in America (and 85% of all cameras sold) came from a brand ranked in the top 5 most valuable brands in the world. People loved Kodak then for its innovativeness. The Economist described Kodak recently as “the Google of its day…known for its pioneering technology and innovative marketing.” And certainly, that innovation started with its founder, George Eastman, in 1880. Eastman’s strategy was to sell cheap cameras, but make money off the consumables they needed (camera film, photo paper and chemicals). While historians theorise that Eastman conjured up his famous name by remixing the letters of his home state (North Dakota – NoDak), Eastman wanted the name of his company to be short, not easily mispronounced and unique. The name, and presumably the brand, Eastman felt, should not resemble anything or be easily associated with anything other than itself. Eastman also expressed partiality towards the letter ‘K’, which he described as a “strong, incisive sort of letter.”

The attention to detail in Kodak’s nomenclature, along with its simple yet brilliant strategy (analogous to cheap razors and expensive, disposable blades) and seemingly endless innovation soon propelled the company towards dizzy heights. As early as 1888 Kodak was trumpeting its sassy and convenient technology: “You press the button, we do the rest.”
For two generations or more, the Kodak brand shared headspace with the likes of Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Marlboro, Lego and Volkswagen. In 1969 Kodak, the world’s favourite film was taken aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft to document the first moon landings.

Just a decade after photographing the moon, a Kodak executive called Larry Matteson wrote a report on the anticipated mass migration from film to digital. According to an article in the Economist, Matteson envisaged the process starting via government reconnaissance and professional photography before filtering into the mass market. Although Matteson was broadly correct, he saw these changes taking thirty years, fully manifesting by 2010. Even Matteson underestimated the pace of both innovation, and early adoption. Smartphones and Facebook, and the internet and social media in general, probably had a lot to do with this, none of which were around in 1979. The suddenness of this digital mutiny, however, also surprised Kodak’s main rival, Fujifilm.

The trick was to adapt to the shift in consumption, and perhaps manage that shift, but without accelerating it. According to Matteson “[I]t was best not to hurry the switch from making 70 cents on the dollar on film to maybe five cents at most in digital.”
Kodak had to adapt, the problem is, they did so far too slowly, which was compounded by copycat competitor, Fujifilm, who were both hungrier and more anxious than Kodak to seize every new business opportunity. The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles provides a prime example – while Kodak dawdled, Fujifilm announced to the world’s largest film market that a cheaper competitor had arrived. Although Fujifilm was aware at the time that the film market’s final sell by date was fast approaching, they were keen to squeeze every drop out of it. This was a first instance that allowed Fujifilm to flourish at the expense, and in the home market, of their long time rival.
The core of Kodak’s demise was this: Kodak’s original business model, to build cheap cameras and sell expensive film didn’t apply to digital cameras. And while Kodak made a foray into pharmaceuticals (thinking their chemicals prowess could lead to new generic drug patents), Fujifilm outplayed Kodak in diversification as well. While Kodak’s pharmaceutical ambitions dissolved, Fujifilm’s nanotechnology expertise allowed them to make a more intuitive, more focused foray, via a line of successful anti-oxidant cosmetics called Astalift, directed towards Asian markets. Kodak eventually moved from a “chemicals” product psychology to one more focused on “imaging”, but by then the digital camera market had quickly became a jungle filled with wily opposition, with behemoths Canon and Nikon on one end, and a slew of smartphone makers on the other.
The Economist suggests that Kodak’s boss, George Fisher, who “offered customers the ability to post and share pictures online…might have [started] something like Facebook” during his tenure between 1993 and 1999. But failure to outsource production stymied creativity, and a company famous for its brilliant inventions, quickly found itself running short on stealth. Denial that Fujifilm posed any sort of threat suffocated the sort of energetic stimulus competition usually serves. Kodak’s Rochester bosses also suffered from “small town syndrome”, in that the community did not criticise the company. Meanwhile a fundamental shift was taking place under their feet: a legacy of traditional business, of hard won inventions and stand alone products that could be carefully and rigorously released, with all patents and marketing in place, was giving way to the rapid fire formula that is now a staple of the tech titans. Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who gives Kodak strategy advice, believes the firm lacked the speedy “make it, launch it” mindset.

Complacency made Kodak a victim of a “wait-and-see” and “holding thumbs” mentality, based on riding on the coattails of earlier achievement. Kodak was looking to China’s new and emerging middle class for salvation, but the bulk of this market went from not owning a camera to digital, skipping film cameras completely.
And while Fisher spent the 90’s making Kodak synonymous with “picture sharing”, Antonio Perez (since 2005) reckons Kodak should be all about digital printing, which means foisting the Kodak brand into the same arena as Kyocera, Nashua and Konica Minolta. Perez has also attempted to earn money for Kodak through extensive patent litigation, including suits against Apple (a company currently worth 2400 times Kodak’s value) and HTC, amongst others. Kodak claims to be the proprietary owners of the technology patents that govern the transmission of photos from mobile gadgets. Kodak is also suing other companies to prevent them from selling “picture sharing” technology. But while Kodak is down, they’re by no means out. 1100 US digital imaging patents are about to be flogged, which ought to fetch $3 billion, according to some pundits. Not bad for a company that has insisted it had no intention of filing for bankruptcy protection (until doing so in January this year).

Meanwhile, profits have plummeted at Kodak, from $2.5 billion in 1999 to a third quarter loss of $222 million last year. Kodak stocks once in the $90 range in the late nineties, gravitated to $0.36 cents in early 2012. Amazingly, while Kodak’s bright yellow future slowly turns sepia, Fujifilm’s foliage has been bursting with the evergreen glow of financial prosperity. Since Kodak’s leadership has been inconsistent of late, Fujifilm has seen revolutionary change, particularly with Shigetaka Komori at the helm. Instead of competing through marketing as Kodak has, Komori has tried to get Fujifilm into new business, and developing new products, whilst developing in-house expertise.

In the end Fujifilm learned the trick that Apple has come to perfect: finding the balance between outsourcing and choreographing manufacturing processes on the one hand, and maintaining in-house expertise and factory floor innovation on the other, whilst “making and launching” innovative, leading edge, quality products. In a sense, the high tech industry is about products leading the market, not marketing. And in this sense, above all, Kodak failed. Kodak wanted to remain a marketing giant, outsourcing all of its production, so that it could focus on building its brand. But when it comes to technology, the brand is only as good as its last iteration. The Economist sums up the difference in the outrageous fortunes of the two photo film companies’ best: "Kodak acted like a stereotypical change-resistant Japanese firm, while Fujifilm acted like a flexible American one."

In hindsight it is a pity Kodak didn’t take that Buggles song of 1979 more seriously: “They took the credit for your second symphony, Rewritten by machine and new technology, And now I understand the problems you can see…” In the end, the “Google of its day” started off as a hard working company, and then with its success, grew lazy and lost its way.