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.

July 6, 2015

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 4, 2015

QotD: Literary status envy and the “deep norms” of SF

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

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.

Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.

July 2, 2015

QotD: “Feminist” and “Anti-Feminist” novels of the 1970s

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

While other literary novelists tended to steer clear of such contentious territory, the writers of cheap thrillers had no such inhibitions. In Pamela Kettle’s hilariously bad The Day of the Women (1969), a feminist political party, IMPULSE, wins the 1975 general election and inaugurates a reign of terror. “A female Prime Minister … human stud farms run by women … mass rallies at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the day of the dominating woman”: all were signs of “high-heeled fascism, a dictatorship of unbridled power lust”, according to the paperback blurb. The master of this kind of thing, though, was the pulp science-fiction writer Edmund Cooper, whose views on women’s liberation were full-bodies, to say the least. In an interview with Science Fiction Monthly in 1975, he commented that men were right to be suspicious of high-flying career women, because “most women are going to get themselves impregnated and piss off shortly after they’ve mastered the job and got themselves a decent salary”. He was in favour of “equal competition”, though, because then “they’ll see that they can’t make it. We have had free education in this country for a great many years, but where are the good female mathematicians? Where are the good female scientists? Where are the female Beethovens? They’ve gone back home to wash the dishes and produce children.”

These views shone through in his books: in Five to Twelve (1968), for example, twenty-first-century Britain is run entirely by women, with men reduced to “chattels”, not only few in number but physically dwarfed by their Amazonian mistresses. This terrible situation, we discover, is all down to the Pill, which liberated women from their own biology and made them “both in the literal and in the metaphorical sense, impregnable”. One man, a “troubador” with the bizarre name of Dion Quern, tries to resist, but, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, he meets a tragic conclusion. In Who Needs Men?, meanwhile, twenty-fifth-century Britain is again dominated by women, lesbian orgies are all the rage and Nelson’s Column has been renamed Germaine’s Needle. The plot follows the adventures of Rura Alexandra, “Madam Exterminator”, who is leading the effort to wipe out the last men hiding in the Scottish Highlands. But even she is vulnerable to the most dangerous weapon of all — love — as she falls for her opponent, Diarmid MacDiarmid, “the last remaining rebel chieftain”.

Dominic Sandbrook, State of Emergency — The way we were: Britain 1970-1974, 2010.

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 29, 2015

QotD: “Bodice Rippers”

Filed under: Media,Politics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture:

    There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
    –Proverbs 30:18-19

That last bit there, yeah, there’s a lot to that. It comes to my mind frequently these days, what with all the fake rape stories floating around and feminists dumbing down the definition of ‘rape’ and ratcheting up what constitutes ‘consent’ and universities attempting to regulate student sexual activity with silly rules about requiring explicit consent at each stage of foreplay. Really?

There’s something missing there. I mean, sure the university has to do this stupid stuff to avoid getting itself into a morass of Title IX lawsuits, but feminists have seized the opportunity to further their own agenda. They’ve brought in the whole toolkit of critical theory, and the oppressive patriarchy and complaints about gender bias and supposed female powerlessness to force the rest of us to accept their view that the only reasonable and moral basis for a sexual relationship is an a priori straight-up consent transaction, that the woman may unilaterally rescind at any time during the proceedings, and anything else is an assault on women (i.e rape).

However, how men and women interact with each other, the steps of the mating dance, is far more complicated. And the feminist square-peg-in-a-round-hole narrative totally ignores the popularity of the “bodice-ripping” romance novels, which are almost universally written by women for women, and hardly ever read by men. And the market is huge. Women are buying these books by the truckload. I found a list of supposedly the best bodice ripper novels and the intro is instructive:

    This is a list for Bodice Ripper romance novels that you think are a 5 star read. The best of the best – with alpha heroes, un-politically correct action, forced seduction, rape, sold into slavery plot lines, mistresses and cheating – the no-holds bar world of Bodice Ripper!

Notice the selling points: (a) alpha heroes, (b) forced seduction, (c) rape, and (d) sold into slavery plotlines. But where’s the consent? It’s not even in the equation. Oh, I’m sure that after the female lead is raped/seduced, she eventually falls in love with the alpha male and willingly and joyfully surrenders to his alpha maleness (I haven’t actually read any of these, I’ve just heard that that’s the way most of them turn out), but that’s all ex post facto.

And then beyond the bodice-rippers, there’s the 50 Shades books, which takes the bodice ripper one step further, and again, huge seller. So I think there’s something about how the relationships are portrayed in these books that touches women’s psyche at some basic level. Women are attracted to strength. No woman likes being the partner of a weak man. I’m sure feminists would like to believe that this whole aspect of male/female relationships doesn’t exist, but E L James’ bank account says otherwise.

And of course, James’ success has resulted in other authors piling on: 8 Series to Start After You Finish the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong. I do not recommend the 50 Shades series and I’m certainly not recommending any of these wannabes, which look even sleazier, if that’s possible. My point is, if what feminists want to be true is indeed true, then why are these books so popular? (hint: it must be that damn patriarchy again!)

Feminism is trying to force us all to live in a world that simply doesn’t exist. Fake rape stories and real lawsuits, not to mention damaged and ruined lives, are the toxic sludge that results from mixing feminism with the sexual revolution and letting it simmer for five decades. We’ll be cleaning up these messes for a very long time.

I wonder if Mattress Girl has read the 50 Shades books?

“Sunday Morning Book Thread 06-07-2015: The Man Within [OregonMuse]”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2015-06-07.

June 27, 2015

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

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.

June 21, 2015

QotD: Getting into trouble in Imperial Germany

Filed under: Europe,Humour,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

All three of us, by some means or another, managed, between Nuremberg and the Black Forest, to get into trouble.

Harris led off at Stuttgart by insulting an official. Stuttgart is a charming town, clean and bright, a smaller Dresden. It has the additional attraction of containing little that one need to go out of one’s way to see: a medium-sized picture gallery, a small museum of antiquities, and half a palace, and you are through with the entire thing and can enjoy yourself. Harris did not know it was an official he was insulting. He took it for a fireman (it looked like a fireman), and he called it a “dummer Esel.”

In German you are not permitted to call an official a “silly ass,” but undoubtedly this particular man was one. What had happened was this: Harris in the Stadgarten, anxious to get out, and seeing a gate open before him, had stepped over a wire into the street. Harris maintains he never saw it, but undoubtedly there was hanging to the wire a notice, “Durchgang Verboten!” The man, who was standing near the gates stopped Harris, and pointed out to him this notice. Harris thanked him, and passed on. The man came after him, and explained that treatment of the matter in such off-hand way could not be allowed; what was necessary to put the business right was that Harris should step back over the wire into the garden. Harris pointed out to the man that the notice said “going through forbidden,” and that, therefore, by re-entering the garden that way he would be infringing the law a second time. The man saw this for himself, and suggested that to get over the difficulty Harris should go back into the garden by the proper entrance, which was round the corner, and afterwards immediately come out again by the same gate. Then it was that Harris called the man a silly ass. That delayed us a day, and cost Harris forty marks.

I followed suit at Carlsruhe, by stealing a bicycle. I did not mean to steal the bicycle; I was merely trying to be useful. The train was on the point of starting when I noticed, as I thought, Harris’s bicycle still in the goods van. No one was about to help me. I jumped into the van and hauled it out, only just in time. Wheeling it down the platform in triumph, I came across Harris’s bicycle, standing against a wall behind some milk-cans. The bicycle I had secured was not Harris’s, but some other man’s.

It was an awkward situation. In England, I should have gone to the stationmaster and explained my mistake. But in Germany they are not content with your explaining a little matter of this sort to one man: they take you round and get you to explain it to about half a dozen; and if any one of the half dozen happens not to be handy, or not to have time just then to listen to you, they have a habit of leaving you over for the night to finish your explanation the next morning. I thought I would just put the thing out of sight, and then, without making any fuss or show, take a short walk. I found a wood shed, which seemed just the very place, and was wheeling the bicycle into it when, unfortunately, a red-hatted railway official, with the airs of a retired field-marshal, caught sight of me and came up. He said:

“What are you doing with that bicycle?”

I said: “I am going to put it in this wood shed out of the way.” I tried to convey by my tone that I was performing a kind and thoughtful action, for which the railway officials ought to thank me; but he was unresponsive.

“Is it your bicycle?” he said.

“Well, not exactly,” I replied.

“Whose is it?” he asked, quite sharply.

“I can’t tell you,” I answered. “I don’t know whose bicycle it is.”

“Where did you get it from?” was his next question. There was a suspiciousness about his tone that was almost insulting.

“I got it,” I answered, with as much calm dignity as at the moment I could assume, “out of the train.”

“The fact is,” I continued, frankly, “I have made a mistake.”

He did not allow me time to finish. He merely said he thought so too, and blew a whistle.

Recollection of the subsequent proceedings is not, so far as I am concerned, amusing. By a miracle of good luck — they say Providence watches over certain of us — the incident happened in Carlsruhe, where I possess a German friend, an official of some importance. Upon what would have been my fate had the station not been at Carlsruhe, or had my friend been from home, I do not care to dwell; as it was I got off, as the saying is, by the skin of my teeth. I should like to add that I left Carlsruhe without a stain upon my character, but that would not be the truth. My going scot free is regarded in police circles there to this day as a grave miscarriage of justice.

But all lesser sin sinks into insignificance beside the lawlessness of George. The bicycle incident had thrown us all into confusion, with the result that we lost George altogether. It transpired subsequently that he was waiting for us outside the police court; but this at the time we did not know. We thought, maybe, he had gone on to Baden by himself; and anxious to get away from Carlsruhe, and not, perhaps, thinking out things too clearly, we jumped into the next train that came up and proceeded thither. When George, tired of waiting, returned to the station, he found us gone and he found his luggage gone. Harris had his ticket; I was acting as banker to the party, so that he had in his pocket only some small change. Excusing himself upon these grounds, he thereupon commenced deliberately a career of crime that, reading it later, as set forth baldly in the official summons, made the hair of Harris and myself almost to stand on end.

German travelling, it may be explained, is somewhat complicated. You buy a ticket at the station you start from for the place you want to go to. You might think this would enable you to get there, but it does not. When your train comes up, you attempt to swarm into it; but the guard magnificently waves you away. Where are your credentials? You show him your ticket. He explains to you that by itself that is of no service whatever; you have only taken the first step towards travelling; you must go back to the booking-office and get in addition what is called a “schnellzug ticket.” With this you return, thinking your troubles over. You are allowed to get in, so far so good. But you must not sit down anywhere, and you must not stand still, and you must not wander about. You must take another ticket, this time what is called a “platz ticket,” which entitles you to a place for a certain distance.

What a man could do who persisted in taking nothing but the one ticket, I have often wondered. Would he be entitled to run behind the train on the six-foot way? Or could he stick a label on himself and get into the goods van? Again, what could be done with the man who, having taken his schnellzug ticket, obstinately refused, or had not the money to take a platz ticket: would they let him lie in the umbrella rack, or allow him to hang himself out of the window?

To return to George, he had just sufficient money to take a third-class slow train ticket to Baden, and that was all. To avoid the inquisitiveness of the guard, he waited till the train was moving, and then jumped in.

That was his first sin:

(a) Entering a train in motion;

(b) After being warned not to do so by an official.

Second sin:

(a) Travelling in train of superior class to that for which ticket was held.

(b) Refusing to pay difference when demanded by an official. (George says he did not “refuse”; he simply told the man he had not got it.)

Third sin:

(a) Travelling in carriage of superior class to that for which ticket was held.

(b) Refusing to pay difference when demanded by an official. (Again George disputes the accuracy of the report. He turned his pockets out, and offered the man all he had, which was about eightpence in German money. He offered to go into a third class, but there was no third class. He offered to go into the goods van, but they would not hear of it.)

Fourth sin:

(a) Occupying seat, and not paying for same.

(b) Loitering about corridor. (As they would not let him sit down without paying, and as he could not pay, it was difficult to see what else he could do.)

But explanations are held as no excuse in Germany; and his journey from Carlsruhe to Baden was one of the most expensive perhaps on record.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

June 18, 2015

John Kay’s Other People’s Money

Filed under: Business,Economics,Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

John Kay posts the introduction to his new book Other People’s Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People? to be published in September:

The assets of British banks are around £7 trillion – four times the aggregate of the yearly income of everyone in the country. The liabilities of these banks are a similar amount. The assets of British banks are five times the liabilities of the British government. But the assets of these banks mostly consist of claims on other banks. Their liabilities are mainly obligations to other financial institutions. Lending to firms and individuals engaged in the production of goods and services – which most people would imagine was the principal business of a bank – amounts to about 3 per cent of that total (see Chapter 6).

Modern banks – and most other financial institutions – trade in securities, and the growth of such trade is the main explanation of the growth of the finance sector. The finance sector establishes claims against assets – the operating assets and future profits of a company, or the physical property and prospective earnings of an individual – and almost any such claim can be turned into a tradable security. ‘High-frequency trading’ is undertaken by computers which are constantly offering to buy and sell securities. The interval for which these securities are held by their owner may – literally – be shorter than the blink of an eye. Spread Networks, a telecoms provider, has recently built a link through the Appalachian Mountains to reduce the time taken to transmit data between New York and Chicago by a little less than one millisecond.

World trade has grown rapidly, but trading in foreign exchange has grown much faster. The value of daily foreign exchange transactions is almost a hundred times the value of daily international trade in goods and services. The annual volume of payments processed in Britain is £75 trillion: about forty times Britain’s national income. Trade in securities has grown rapidly, but the explosion in the volume of financial activity is largely attributable to the development of markets in derivatives, so called because their value is derived from the value of other securities. If securities are claims on assets, derivative securities are claims on other securities, and their value depends on the price, and ultimately on the value, of these underlying securities. Once you have created derivative securities, you can create further layers of derivative securities whose values are dependent on the values of other derivative securities – and so on.The value of the assets underlying such derivative contracts is three times the value of all the physical assets in the world.

What is it all for? What is the purpose of this activity? And why is it so profitable? Common sense suggests that if a closed circle of people continuously exchange bits of paper with each other, the total value of these bits of paper will not change much, if at all. If some members of that closed circle make extraordinary profits, these profits can only be made at the expense of other members of the same circle. Common sense suggests that this activity leaves the value of the traded assets little changed, and cannot, taken as a whole, make money. What, exactly, is wrong with this commonsense perspective?

Not much, I will conclude. But to justify that conclusion, it will be necessary to examine the activities of the finance sector and the ways in which it does, or might, make our lives better and our businesses more efficient. Assessing the economic contribution of the industry is complex, because there are many difficulties in interpreting reported information about the output and profitability of financial sector activities. But I will show that its profitability is overstated, that the value of its output is poorly reported in economic statistics, and that much of what it does contributes little, if anything, to the betterment of lives and the efficiency of business. And yet many things that finance could do to advance these social and economic goals are not done well – or in some cases at all.

June 17, 2015

Bernard Cornwell talks about his recent book on Waterloo

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

Novelist Bernard Cornwell wrote a history of the battle of Waterloo and talks to John J. Miller about the book and the battle it describes here.

Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell

June 16, 2015

The Author of All Quiet on The Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 06:51

Published on 15 Jun 2015

All Quiet On The Western Front is surely the most prominent anti-war book and book about World War 1 of all time. The German author Erich Maria Remarque fought on the Western Front until he got wounded. During his recovery he collected stories from his comrades and started writing the book. Just one year after publication, a movie was made in the US where Remarque later emigrated to.

QotD: The Young Adult fiction of Ronald Welch

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

I’d already been tinkering with the idea of writing a YA story, something for Ranger’s Apprentice fans to move on to.

Commercially, the idea was, “They’re going to read Bernard Cornwell when they are older; let’s take some money off them now.” However, my main motivation was wanting to write something my son could read — the magnum opus my agent was shopping owed too much to the War of the Powers (Am I the only person who remembers that series?). I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Welch, the YA writer I read when I was a kid.

Welch was a WWII veteran turned grammar school teacher. He wrote what we would now call YA books about young officers finding their place, and he did it in just about every major conflict involving English combatants from the Horns of Hattin, through Marlborough’s campaigns, to his chronologically last book, Tank Commander, which is an utterly awesome tale of World War One, culminating in the Battle of Cambrai, the first modern tank assault.

We’re not talking trash here. Each book was well researched, the writing is good — he even won a Carnegie Medal for Knight Crusader, which puts him in the same ballpark as Rosemary Sutcliff. As far as I can see, his star faded after his death, not because of his quality as a writer, but because he became unfashionable:

  • His books simply have boy cooties. They are about young men learning leadership and responsibility while being shot at and shooting back without qualms … doing their job in adverse circumstances.
  • He’s not an anti-imperialist. I don’t think he’s pro-imperialist either. He just tells things as they were with people accepting the ethos of the time. His characters generally show matter-of-fact respect for other cultures, but don’t question their own right to be in Palestine or India or wherever, or question very much at all.
  • He’s not anti-war. His fight scenes also go all the way up to 11 on the Conan Scale. I don’t think he likes war, but — having fought in WWII — he sees it as necessary, and the experience itself as worthy of writing about.

This last, bears further examination.

Modern war books aimed at younger people tend towards:

    OMG my best friend just got killed. Look at that dying horse. War is Hell. At least I and my friends will (drum roll) Preserve Our Humanity.

Ronald Welch, who pulls absolutely no punches, by the way, is more:

    OMG my best friend just got killed. You there, put that dying horse out if its misery. War is Hell. Watch the left flanks chaps and some of us will get to live through it. I said WATCH THE DAMNED LEFT FLANK!!

It’s all about taking responsibility, keeping presence of mind, in just about the most hostile human environment.

Very few young readers will grow up to be soldiers. Many of them, however, will face crappy situations. At work when a project implodes. Socially when people turn on them. In a family when a child is very sick, or when a marriage breaks down or turns abusive…

In all those circumstances, there are points neither for maintaining a personal moral hygiene nor for being sensitive. If everybody is going to get through this thing, somebody has to watch the left flank. That person may well be you.

And that’s the kind of book I wanted to write.

M Harold Page, Shieldwall: Barbarians! Writing and self-publishing an old school boy’s young officer story set in Attila’s invasion”, Charlie’s Diary, 2015-06-03.

June 12, 2015

The long-lasting impact of the “Little House” books

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

Jason Kuznicki on the deep emotional grasp Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books are still having today:

“Not ‘Harry Potter’!” says Alice, age five. “I want ‘Little House’!”

It’s the age of negotiated bedtime reading. My husband and I oblige, and tonight we read from Little House in the Big Woods, the first installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized autobiography. We take turns reading: Alice reads, then I do, then Scott does. Then Alice reads again. It’s never enough.

What draws her in? A lot of things. The characters are mostly female, young, and strong. Laura herself begins “Little House” at four, an age that wins our daughter’s ready empathy. Not unlike the first volume of “Harry Potter,” Little House in the Big Woods introduces an unknown world; done properly, that’s always exciting. As generations already know, the story is clean and earnest, without affectation or smarm. And it’s told in words that Alice can read all on her own — a great confidence builder.

It’s sometimes hard to fathom, though, just how different Laura’s life was from our own: churning butter, salting meat, boiling down maple syrup… Megan McArdle discussed all this in a recent piece for Bloomberg. The “Little House” books open up a lost world for today’s kids — and for today’s adults:

    [A]s an adult… what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.

We’re not just talking a different skill set, then. The skills came of necessity, and of hardships almost wholly unknown today: “Little House” contains the actual sentence, “They had never seen a machine before” — because, well, they hadn’t.

June 10, 2015

QotD: The Rabbits and the Evil League of Evil

Filed under: Liberty,Media,Politics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On the one hand, you have a faction that is broadly left-wing in its politics and believes it has a mission to purge SF of authors who are reactionary, racist, sexist et weary cetera. This faction now includes the editors at every major SF publishing imprint except Baen and all of the magazines except Analog and controls the Science Fiction Writers of America (as demonstrated by their recent political purging of Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day). This group is generally frightened of and hostile to indie publishing. Notable figures include Patrick & Theresa Nielsen Hayden and John Scalzi. I’ll call this faction the Rabbits, after Scalzi’s “Gamma Rabbit” T-shirt and Vox Day’s extended metaphor about rabbits and rabbit warrens.

On the other hand, you have a faction that is broadly conservative or libertarian in its politics. Its members deny, mostly truthfully, being the bad things the Rabbits accuse them of. It counteraccuses the Rabbits of being Gramscian-damaged cod-Marxists who are throwing away SF’s future by churning out politically-correct message fiction that, judging by Amazon rankings and other sales measures, fans don’t actually want to read. This group tends to either fort up around Baen Books or be gung-ho for indie- and self-publishing. Notable figures include Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, Tom Kratman, John C. Wright, and Vox Day. I’ll call this group the Evil League of Evil, because Correia suggested it and other leading figures have adopted the label with snarky glee.

A few other contrasts between the Rabbits and the Evil League are noticeable. One is that the Evil League’s broadsides are often very funny and it seems almost incapable of taking either itself or the Rabbits’ accusations seriously – I mean, Correia actually tags himself the “International Lord of Hate” in deliberate parody of what the Rabbits say about him. On the other hand, the Rabbits seem almost incapable of not taking themselves far too seriously. There’s a whiny, intense, adolescent, over-fixated quality about their propaganda that almost begs for mockery. Exhibit A is Alex Dally McFarlane’s call for an end to the default of binary gender in SF.

There’s another contrast that gets near what I think is the pre-political cause of this war. The Rabbits have the best stylists, while the Evil League has the best storytellers. Pick up a Rabbit property like Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 and you’ll read large numbers of exquisitely crafted little numbers about nothing much. The likes of Correia, on the other hand, churn out primitive prose, simplistic plotting, at best serviceable characterization – and vastly more ability to engage the average reader. (I would bet money, based on Amazon rankings, that Correia outsells every author in that collection combined.)

Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.

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