Quotulatiousness

July 7, 2015

Charles Stross on vampires

Filed under: Europe,History,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

On his blog, Charlie provides a crib sheet for his novel The Rhesus Chart including the all-too-common appearance of vampires in urban fiction:

Vampires: well, who hasn’t read enough vampire books or watched enough vampire movies to claim some expertise? Maybe I’m anomalous in having a low taste for urban fantasy, but while I’m writing a novel I can’t unwind by reading something similar to what I’m working on — so during my hard-SF phase in the 2000s I read far too much UF as a source of brain candy while writing books like Iron Sunrise or Saturn’s Children.

There are huge inconsistencies in the vampire mythology, largely because the idea of blood-sucking corpses (or the more abstract transferrable-curse-of-vampirisim) crops up in many different cultures. Northern European vampires seem to have their origins in primitive misapprehensions about the process of decay of bodies after death, and in the way contagious diseases spread through families living in close unhygienic conditions (such as tuberculosis). Religious trappings got layered on top early on, because religious beliefs are a way of making sense of the universe, especially its more inexplicable aspects: hence the holy water/crucifix allergy. So it occurred to me that given the Laundry Files universe as a setting, it ought to be possible to come up with an “origin story” for vampirism that fits the mythology sufficiently well to explain most of the core elements and that was consistent with the previously established motifs of supernatural brain parasitism. If instead of pure parasitism (the eaters in night, the K-syndrome parasites) we posit a commensal symbiote, or a parasite that uses the host to harvest food, you end up with something like the V-parasites — and indeed, this sort of parasitism is something we see in nature.

One of my beefs with the urban fantasy genre in general is that there’s a tendency for less thoughtful authors to absorb the eschatological trappings that have cohered around the monster myths they’re adopting without questioning them. (Holy water and vampires would be one example.) I wrote The Apocalypse Codex in large part as a response to this problem — to underline the fact that the Laundry Files universe is not driven by Christian religious eschatology (unless Cthulhu worship really is going mainstream). Another problem I have with many UF series is that they posit a hidden world of magic and monsters coexisting with our own … without any friction visible around the edges, even as vampires and demons rack up an impressive body count. The Rhesus Chart is part of my fix for this in the Laundry Files (although The Concrete Jungle makes some interesting observations about the true purpose of the Mass Observation programs of the 1930s to 1960s). Vampires are predators and predators are territorial. It’s also not a great leap of the imagination to postulate that if vampires exist and were identified as a problem in public, the scale of the response would rival that of the reaction to terrorism: mandatory naked noonday identity parades, police patrols with mirrors and stakes, and so on. So the first rule of vampire school is: vampires don’t exist … and if you see one, kill it and dispose of the evidence because it’s carelessness is a direct existential risk to your own survival.

World of Warships open beta

Filed under: Gaming,History,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I’ve been keeping an eye on World of Warships, if only due to the renderings of the various ships (as a kid, I used to love the diagrams of ships in publications like Purnell’s History of the Second World War). I doubt I have the time to play the game very much, but I’ll probably sign up for the open beta which began last week.

At Massively Overpowered, MJ Guthrie talks to the developers:

Immersion. That’s not a word you often hear associated with lobby-based PvP games. But in the case of World of Warships, the third title in Wargaming’s WWII-era trilogy, it’s more than just fitting; it’s defining. Although not a battle simulation, WoWS offers a genuinely immersive experience thanks to the historical authenticity and the level of detail in both the audio and visual departments. You’ve heard the devil is in the details? Well that’s where the immersion is, too. And now that open beta has started, more players are finally able to dive in and experience this for themselves.

To learn more about how the development team achieved such a high level of immersion, I went to the source: I visited Wargaming’s headquarters in St. Petersburg and talked with the devs who create everything you see and hear in the game. And after watching the creation process in action, I appreciated the ambiance all the more when I jumped in for a hands-on in the closed beta.

Accuracy must take second place to what the players say they want, however:

Sounds really start to shine through once you turn the music down. Although the game’s smart music slider suppresses it when you fire, try clicking it off sometime to focus on the many ambient sounds. Tohtash said that the team has already added “about 3,000″ different sounds to the game. Players will actually hear different metallic sounds from the engines and hulls when the ships change speeds and from the guns when they fire. Engines have four different sound elements (engine, turbine, resonance, and post effects), and guns have three (attack, body, and echo or tail), which combine with recoil, load, and double echo. Using the various elements, the team took care to make different caliber of guns have different sounds. On top of all the types of sounds is the fact that they are positional, changing depending on what view players are in. If your camera is too close to the gun, you will get ringing in your ears after the shot!

Artillery sounds in World of Warships are something that diverges from historical accuracy. The team has access to reference videos, but focus groups have not wanted the more accurate gunfire sounds; they favor big booming ones. Tohtash admitted that actual sounds alone are a bit dry, but once effects such as implementing the bass and the full range of frequencies are added in, the sound is richer and fuller.

July 6, 2015

The 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War “was nearly the death of French Riesling”

Filed under: Europe,History,Military,Wine — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Paul Lewandowski on the non-military impact of the Franco-Prussian War:

The name “Franco-Prussian War of 1870” conjures few images in the popular consciousness. It is an obscure war that is easily overshadowed by the Napoleonic wars of a few generations earlier, and the First World War a couple generations later. However, fans of military history and wine aficionados should both be intimately familiar with the conflict that is considered the first “modern” war, and was nearly the death of French Riesling.

The balance of power established in Europe after Napoleon’s defeat in the early 1800s had begun to erode in 1870. The greatest threat to this order was the upstart principality of Prussia. This relatively small nation had forged its independence and thrust itself onto the world stage through martial prowess and total devotion to military readiness among its people. Nineteenth-century Prussia was in many ways the first “garrison state.” By the late 1860s, the crafty Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck had consolidated Prussia into the hegemon of northern Germany. Everyone in Europe recognized that Prussia was a rising European power. France meanwhile, was the aging colossus of the European order. It had been a global power for hundreds of years, sparring with the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs for power and control of the European continent. For France, the world was changing, and the stagnant nation failed to change with it.

[…]

Alsace produces almost exclusively white wines. Historically the primary varietals are Rieslings and Gewürztraminer, both of which are also produced in Germany. Alsatian wines distinguish themselves from their German counterparts by their intense dryness. While German wines traditionally retain some sugar following fermentation, Alsatian wines are produced with almost no residual sugars.

Riesling is considered a “top three” white wine, together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is most commonly grown in Germany and Alsace, but it is also cultivated in the United States, Australia, and Eastern Europe. Gewürztraminer meanwhile, is a wine variety that got its name in Alsace, though the grape it is derived from, the Traminer, has a somewhat hazy origin. Traminer is uniquely suited to Alsace, as it is considered by winemakers to be among the more difficult varietals to cultivate. Growers regard Traminer as “fussy” about different soils, unproductive, disease-prone, sensitive to frost, unruly on the vine, and inconsistent in result. Before modern cultivation methods, Gewürztraminer was difficult to cultivate consistently outside of Alsace.

Given the region’s unique productivity, Germany sought to obtain Alsace in the Armistice of Versailles. Once they took control of the region (along with parts of Lorraine), Germany’s actions became puzzling. They outlawed the production of Rieslings and Gewürztraminer in Alsace. Instead, the government imported low-quality, high-volume grape varietals like Chasselas and Elbling. Why would Germany want to destroy the unique productive capacity of their newly acquired region?

Finding The Road to Wigan Pier

Filed under: Britain,History,Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Dublin Review of Books, Enda O’Doherty reviews a recent work on George Orwell:

In early 1936 the publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned George Orwell to conduct an investigation into the plight of the unemployed in England’s industrial North, a project that led to the book The Road to Wigan Pier. Unemployment and hardship in Lancashire and Yorkshire were, on the face of it, not subjects that Orwell could have been expected to know that much about. True, he had written vividly about tramps and tramping, “spikes”, charity wards and common lodging houses, but he had little experience of England outside London and the home counties and few friends or acquaintances who were working class or came from a non-privileged background. His own sentimental education had been forged in the sleek landscapes of the Thames valley or, later, genteel Southwold on the Suffolk coast – the England inhabited by those he was to term “the lower-upper-middle-class”, the people who kept the country running and who, though they owned no land, still felt they were “landowners in the sight of God”.

If he did not have much relevant experience, what Orwell could offer his publisher were energy and passion, and a small but growing reputation as a young man with something to say. He also needed the money. Years later he told a friend that he would never have undertaken the trip north had it not been for the size of the advance Gollancz offered: £500, a rather large sum at the time for a writer still in his early thirties. As a man with not much taste for the high life, he reckoned he could survive for two years on that, and afford to get married.

[…}

Orwell’s account of his visit to Crippen’s mine in Bryn, near Wigan, a superb piece of journalistic writing, forms the second chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier and has also been anthologised separately as “Down the Mine”. The chapter focuses alternately on the miners who dig the coal and those who unthinkingly consume it, the latter portrayed primarily as the comfortable, even the decadent classes – as if coal was not burned too in redbrick terraced houses in working class towns. Here are the fillers, who shovel the freshly mined rocks onto a conveyor belt from a kneeling position, splendid, heroic creatures in spite of the cruelly demanding labour they are engaged in:

    They really do look like iron – hammered iron statues – under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men they are. Most of them are small … but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender, supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.

[…]

Victor Gollancz, who might be said to have been “close to the thinking of the Communist Party of Great Britain”, was not entirely pleased by the book which Orwell submitted to him in December 1936 and for which he had paid so large an advance. Not a great deal of exception could be taken to the first part, which was a fairly straightforward account of conditions in the North. Indeed Gollancz at first proposed – though the suggestion was not accepted ‑ that this should be published on its own as a Left Book Club edition. Into the second part, however, Orwell had stuffed his analysis and his always plentiful opinions, many of them strongly expressed and often focusing on the kind of people who formed a large part of the readership of the Left Book Club. Here are the urban, middle class intellectual socialists:

    … the more-water-in-your-beer reformers of whom Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are Communists now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all that dreary tribe of highminded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of “progress” like bluebottles to a dead cat.

Famously, there is the attraction of socialist doctrine for “cranks”:

    One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

And finally, rising to an apparent pitch of impotent frustration:

    If only the sandals and pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly.

Perhaps more than a little of this is tongue in cheek. One conclusion, however, can be tentatively drawn before moving on: at this stage of his life and intellectual development, Orwell preferred to portray socialism as chiefly a middle class fad and, while he was quite ready to idealise the working class “other” if it came to him in the right shape, he showed virtually no interest in working class politics or social organisation as they actually existed.

July 3, 2015

On the Move but going Nowhere – Optimism is Failing! l THE GREAT WAR Week 49

Filed under: Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 2 Jul 2015

Two months after landing in Gallipoli the fight has become a trench warfare. In Mesopotamia British troops were losing the optimism, they had felt just a few weeks ago. The change of seasons brought more heat, turning the weather from bearable to excruciating. Heat became a deadly foe. While the German crown prince Wilhelm unsuccessfully tried to break through the Western front in the Ardennes, the Austro-German force managed to drive back the Russians in the East.

For possibly the first time in military history…

Filed under: Cancon,History,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

… an air force has significantly under-reported the number of planes downed by one of its aces:

On June 26, the RCAF/Canadian Forces issued a news release stating that the new complex for the RCAF’s Chinooks at Petawawa will be named in honour of First World War flying ace Major Andrew McKeever of Ontario.

“Major McKeever was the epitome of what it means to serve one’s country, with an impressive 17 aerial victories to his name in the First World War,” stated Defence Minister Jason Kenney.

The RCAF news release also credited McKeever with 17 kills.

In addition, Kenney tweeted the details of the news release.

Defence Watch later cited the CF news release.

But a sharp-eyed Defence Watch reader pointed out that the Canadian Forces news release contained a major error.

McKeever had significantly more than 17 kills.

Nearly twice that number, actually. (But you can pick pretty much any number from 18 to 41 and be correct by at least one of the competing “standards”.)

QotD: “US tankers were notorious for identifying everything as a Tiger tank”

Filed under: Europe,History,Military,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

When you read unit accounts, whether it’s the actual unit after action reports or the published books, everyone talks about Tiger tanks. But in looking at it in both German records and US records, I’ve only found three instances in all the fighting from Normandy to 1945 where the US encountered Tigers. And by Tigers I mean Tiger 1, the type of tank we saw in the film [Fury]. I’m not talking King Tigers, the strange thing is that the US Army encountered King Tigers far more often than Tigers. That’s partly because there weren’t a lot of Tigers left by 1944, production ends in August 1944. There were not a lot of Tigers in Normandy, they were mostly in the British sector, the British saw a lot of Tigers. Part of the issue is that US tankers were notorious for identifying everything as a Tiger tank, everything from Stug III assault guns to Panzer IV and Panthers and Tigers.

There was one incident in August of 1944 where 3rd Armored division ran into three Tigers that were damaged and being pulled back on a train, they shot them up with an anti-aircraft half-track. And then there was a single Tiger company up in the Bulge that was involved in some fighting. And then there was one short set of instances in April 1945, right around the period of the film, where there was a small isolated Tiger unit that actually got engaged with one of the new US M26 Pershing tank units. They knocked out a Pershing and then in turn that Tiger was knocked out and the Pershing tanks knocked out another King Tiger over the following days. So I found three verifiable instances of Tigers encountering, or having skirmishes with US troops in 1944-45. So it was very uncommon. It definitely could have happened, there are certainly lots of gaps in the historical record both on the German side and the US side. I think the idea that the US encountered a lot of Tigers during WW2 is simply due to the tendency of the US troops to call all German tanks Tigers. It’s the same thing on the artillery side. Every time US troops are fired upon, it’s an 88, whether it’s a 75mm Pak 40 anti-tank gun, a real 88, a 105mm field howitzer, they were all called 88’s.

“Interview with Steven Zaloga”, Tank and AFV News, 2015-01-27.

July 2, 2015

Frankford Junction, Pennsylvania

Filed under: History,Railways,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Rob McGonigal looks at the history of the railways in the area of Frankford Junction, where Amtrak train 188 came to grief in May:

In the aftermath of the tragic May 12 derailment due to excessive speed of Amtrak train 188 in Philadelphia, many casual observers wondered what a 50-mph curve is doing in the middle of the fastest, busiest rail corridor in the nation. It’s a reasonable question, especially given the generally tangent track and flat topography in the area.

The existence of that curve traces back to the earliest years of railroads in Philadelphia. As in many cities, Philadelphia’s rail network developed in piecemeal, uncoordinated fashion. What became Amtrak 188’s route through the city began in the 1830s as three separate projects.

The Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore ran generally southwestward from a terminal about a mile south of downtown (“center city” to Philadelphians). The Philadelphia & Columbia, part of the Main Line of Public Works rail/canal system to Pittsburgh, utilized a terminal in center city. The Philadelphia & Trenton, which connected with services to New York, originated in Kensington — an inconvenient 2½ miles northeast of center city. As Albert Churella relates in the first volume of his mammoth history of the PRR (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), municipal authorities in 1840 granted the P&T permission to extend its line into center city, where it would connect with other railroads. However, fierce opposition from teamsters, who profited from hauling freight between the rail terminals, and area residents, who did not want steam trains in their streets, prompted the city to revoke permission, and the P&T was not extended.

Two decades later, it was clear that the three lines should be connected. In 1864 the Junction Railroad was opened, linking the PW&B with the P&C’s successor on the line to the west — the Pennsylvania Railroad. (Indeed, the PRR had interests in all three of the lines by this time.) Three years later the Connecting Railway opened. It diverged from the P&C/PRR line at a place designated Mantua Junction (and later, in expanded form, Zoo interlocking), arced around the northern part of the city, and connected with the P&T in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. As with the connection at Mantua Junction, the geometry of the lines at Frankford Junction resulted in a sharp curve.

July 1, 2015

Budd Railcars in 1952 – “Clear Iron”

Filed under: History,Railways,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 05:00

Uploaded on 17 Aug 2011

Educational film released in 1952 by Marathon Newsreel Production in association with the Budd company. Shows the railcars being manufactured and in operation. Also features many steam and diesel trains from the early 1950’s.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budd_Rail_Diesel_Car

The Budd Rail Diesel Car or RDC is a self-propelled diesel-hydraulic multiple unit railcar. In the period 1949-62, 398 RDCs were built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. The cars were primarily adopted for passenger service in rural areas with low traffic density or in short-haul commuter service, and were less expensive to operate in this context than a traditional locomotive-drawn train. The cars could be used singly or several coupled together in train sets and controlled from the cab of the front unit. The RDC was one of the few versions of the DMU-type train diesel multiple unit to achieve commercial success in North America.

The basic car was adapted from a standard 85 ft (25.91 m) coach. They were powered by two Detroit Diesel (then a division of General Motors) Series 110 diesel engines, each of which drives an axle through a hydraulic torque converter, a technology adapted from military tanks of World War II. RDC trains were an early example of self-contained diesel multiple units, an arrangement now in common use by railways all over the world.

[…]

Both the Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) purchased RDCs. The Canadian National purchased 25 cars outright, and acquired many more second-hand from the Boston and Maine Railroad. These cars, which the CN called Railiners, were used primarily on secondary passenger routes. The CP purchased 53 cars. The first one ran on November 9, 1954, between Detroit, Michigan and Toronto. It was the first stainless steel passenger train to operate in Canada. CP used the RDCs, which it called Dayliners, throughout its system. CP also made extensive use of them on commuter trains around Montreal and Toronto. Via Rail inherited many of these cars when it took over CN and CP passenger services in 1978.[39] Via continues to use RDCs on the Sudbury–White River train in Ontario.

Another Canadian purchaser of RDCs was the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, which operated passenger service between North Vancouver and Prince George. RDCs continued to operate on this route until all passenger service ended under BC Rail, PGE’s successor, in 2002.

Extensively refurbished RDCs were supposed to been used to operate Blue22, a rail service between Toronto Union Station and Pearson Airport, by 2010. The service, which was transferred to Metrolinx ownership and opened in 2015 as the Union Pearson Express, ultimately uses newly designed Nippon Sharyo DMU trains instead.

June 30, 2015

QotD: The three classes of books

Filed under: Britain,History,Humour,Media,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:

  1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
  2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
  3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula “The Worst Hundred Books,” and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

Oscar Wilde, “To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, 1886-02-08.

June 27, 2015

“Individualism” as an epithet

Filed under: Europe,History,Liberty,Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Frank Furedi explains the odd origins of the word “individualism”:

One reason why the idea of individualism generates so much confusion is because, throughout its history, it has been defined by parties that were hostile to it. Indeed, the very term itself was an invention of the opponents of liberalism. As Steven Lukes pointed out in in his useful study, Individualism (1973), the term first emerged in French – individualisme – as part of ‘the general European reaction to the French Revolution and to its alleged source, the thought of the Enlightenment’. For those opposed to the Enlightenment, individualism served as a swear word to be hurled at the enemy.

In Europe, nineteenth-century conservative and counter-revolutionary thought was dominated by hostility to reason and the rights of the individual. Individualism was blamed for the corrosion of traditional communities and the decline in community solidarity. And this conservative representation of individualism, as a narrow-minded, egotistical outlook that selfishly ignores the needs of others in society, continues to predominate. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, describes individualism as ‘the habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterised by the pursuit of one’s goals without reference to others’. In case the reader missed the implicit moral judgement here, the OED adds that individualism comes ‘sometimes with negative connotations of self-centredness or anti-social behaviour’.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was increasingly common to attribute some of the most destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution, particularly the break-up of communities and social disorganisation, to the rise of individualism. When Auguste Comte, the French philosopher and founder of the discipline of sociology, condemned individualism as ‘the disease of the Western world’, he gave voice to a sentiment that transcended the ideological divide between conservatives and socialists. Individualism had few friends on either the left or the right of the political spectrum. The representation of individualism as a selfish, anti-social and destructive creed provided an ideological narrative for demonising liberal currents of thought.

Price Ceilings: The US Economy Flounders in the 1970s

Filed under: Economics,History,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 25 Feb 2015

In 1971, President Nixon, in an effort to control inflation, declared price increases illegal. Because prices couldn’t increase, they began hitting a ceiling. With a price ceiling, buyers are unable to signal their increased demand by bidding prices up, and suppliers have no incentive to increase quantity supplied because they can’t raise the price.

What results when the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied? A shortage! In the 1970s, for example, buyers began to signal their demand for gasoline by waiting in long lines, if they even had access to gasoline at all. As you’ll recall from the previous section on the price system, prices help coordinate global economic activity. And with price controls in place, the economy became far less coordinated. Join us as we look at real-world examples of price controls and the grave effects these regulations have on trade and industry.

American literacy and the unanticipated boost that was World War 2

Filed under: History,Media,Military,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Terry Teachout makes the unusual claim that it was the Second World War that “made America literate”:

It’s said that two things about war are insufficiently appreciated by those who, like me, have not known it first-hand: 1) It is, when not terrifying, mostly dull, and 2) it is, like all human enterprises, subject to the operation of the law of unintended consequences. Few aspects of World War II better illustrate both of these points than the Armed Services Editions publishing project. Between 1943 and 1947, the U.S. Army and Navy distributed some 123 million newly printed paperback copies of 1,322 different books to American servicemen around the world. These volumes, which were given out for free, were specifically intended to entertain the soldiers and sailors to whom they were distributed, and by all accounts they did so spectacularly well. But they also transformed America’s literary culture in ways that their wartime publishers only partly foresaw — some of which continue to be felt, albeit in an attenuated fashion, to this day.

[…]

Thus, the Armed Services Editions, which were published by a civilian organization called the Council on Books in Wartime — compact, oblong, two-column-wide paperbacks that were designed to slip easily into the pockets of a uniform. They were sold to the military for six cents per volume. Since books were regarded by the U.S. government as “weapons in the war of ideas,” the military specified that nothing would be published that might “give aid and comfort to the enemy, or which may be detrimental to our own war effort,” or that was not in accord with “the spirit of American democracy.” Still, it was the Council on Books in Wartime, not the military, that chose the titles, and while a few of the longer ones were abridged, none were censored.

The first ASEs were shipped in September of 1943. About 155,000 crates of books were subsequently distributed each month. Each crate contained between 30 and 50 new titles that fell into one of the following categories:

  • Mysteries, thrillers, and Western novels by such popular writers as Max Brand, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, W.R. Burnett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and Luke Short.
  • Bestselling “blockbuster” novels, such as Henry Bellamann’s Kings Row, Edna Ferber’s So Big, Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend, Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, many of which had been or would soon be turned into movies.
  • Collections by humorists and writers of light verse, including five titles by Robert Benchley, six by James Thurber, and three by Ogden Nash.
  • War-themed books like Bill Mauldin’s Up Front and Ernie Pyle’s Brave Men.
  • Biographies, histories, memoirs, and other nonfiction titles, including Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Virgil Thomson’s The State of Music, and Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin.
  • Classic novels and poetry, some easily accessible (David Copperfield, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), others less so (Moby-Dick, Vanity Fair).
  • A modest but not exiguous complement of “serious” modern novels, short stories, poetry, and plays, most of them representative of then-current mainstream taste (Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men) but some of which were decidedly recherché (Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men, Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet)

As this list suggests, the ASEs were intended to please a broadly popular audience. But even the bestsellers tended to be more elevated in tone than their present-day counterparts (Somerset Maugham was represented by five novels, John P. Marquand by six). And it was taken for granted that each crate of books would always contain two or three genuinely challenging titles. The first series of ASEs, for instance, included Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Herman Melville’s Typee, and H.L. Mencken’s Heathen Days. Such books were “sold” to skeptical readers with enticing flap copy, as in the case of the ASE edition of The Great Gatsby: “Its pages are filled with masterly realism, melodramatic action, searing irony, and swift romance…Here is a story that is American to the core.”

In any case, it scarcely mattered what the Council on Books in Wartime printed, for all of the ASEs were hugely popular among servicemen, so much so that they were frequently torn into pieces so that they could be shared more easily. A.J. Liebling, who covered the war in Europe for the New Yorker, even saw them on the beaches of Normandy after D-Day. “These little books are a great thing,” a Brooklyn infantryman told him. “They take you away.”

June 26, 2015

The Austro-Hungarian Empire Strikes Back I THE GREAT WAR Week 48

Filed under: Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 25 Jun 2015

Just a few weeks ago Austria-Hungary’s military laid in shambles. But with German support from August von Mackensen and other German generals, the tide is turning on the Eastern Front. Even Lemberg can be conquered again and the Russians are still on their Big Retreat.

Vowels, consonants … and how we understand the written word

Filed under: History,Media,Middle East,Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the New English Review, Colin Wells undertakes to explain why Arabs hate reading:

Though little reliable research has been done on Arabic literacy, the little that has been done is quite clear in one regard. As Johns Hopkins researcher Niloofar Haeri concludes in her contribution to The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (2009), throughout the Arab world educated people find reading very difficult, don’t like to do it, and do as little of it as possible — even the librarians.

Why this uniformly strong dislike of reading?

Haeri’s answer is that Arabic literature is written in “classical Arabic,” the archaic language of the Quran, which is stilted, difficult, and often unfamiliar to speakers of the many modern dialects of spoken or “street Arabic.”

[…]

If you look up “writing” in the current Encyclopedia Britannica online, you’ll find an article by David Olson, a leading scholar of writing systems at the University of Toronto, where much of the most important research on literacy has been done over the past half century. Among the entry’s many interesting bits of information, one brief observation is easily overlooked: writing that has only consonants must be understood before it can be read, while writing that has both consonants and vowels reverses that process.

With consonants alone, the consonants act as hints, but the reader has to fill in the missing vowel sounds, as in “Ll mn r crtd ql” or “Nc pn tm thr ws lttl prncss.” This seems easy enough, at first glance. With both consonants and vowels, on the other hand, you read it first and then go on to figure out what it means, as in “Look out the window and bring me the nail file.” In Olson’s academese, with consonantal writing “interpretation precedes decipherment,” while with alphabetic writing “decipherment precedes interpretation.”

With a fine-tuned academic alertness to thin ideological ice, Olson deftly skates away from exploring the implications of this well-known fact. Nor is he alone in doing so. Only two kinds of consonantal writing are widely used today, Hebrew and Arabic, and both are considered sacred by their practitioners. So among scholars, there’s an unspoken and perhaps understandable reluctance to look closely at how — and at how well — they work when it comes to reading them, and especially to countenance that alphabetic writing might be easier to read.

Hebrew writing is a special case, a consonantal script for a dead language that was brought back to life by European Zionists for use in Israel, where alphabetic script is also commonly used. But it’s no secret that the Arab world has a huge literacy problem, though most of us in the West are unaware of just how severe it is. Not only are very few books published in Arabic overall, virtually none are translated into Arabic from other languages. This intellectual starvation and isolation contrasts with the many millions of books published in, and the hundreds of thousands translated into, alphabetic languages each year.

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