Quotulatiousness

October 11, 2014

“[French] society is corrupted and doesn’t have any moral principles”

Filed under: Europe, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:47

The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard on the reception Gérard Depardieu received from a “conservative” Russian politician:

Gérard Depardieu’s move to Russia had the effect of making the actor repent sexual activities conducted in Europe, a conservative Kremlin politician has said.

Reacting to the publication of Ça s’est fait comme ça, Depardieu’s memoir in which he discusses stints of employment as a grave robber and a male prostitute, Vitaly Milonov expressed sympathy for the actor.

“It wasn’t easy for him in France,” he told Russian newspaper MK. “There, society is corrupted and doesn’t have any moral principles.”

“I view Gérard’s book as sort of repentance, confession of old sins. Now that he breathed in the purifying air of Mordovia, all that filth left him. He sincerely repents what he was forced to do in his youth in France. He wants to live in a new way, without all that filth.”

October 10, 2014

Cory Doctorow – “Information doesn’t want to be free, people want to be free”

Filed under: Business, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:10

Cory Doctorow’s latest book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, briefly reviewed by Ian Steadman in New Statesman:

“Information wants to be free” is a rallying cry for many of those who fight against legal restrictions on the internet. The phrase was coined by the tech writer Stewart Brand in 1984 and referred to the way the web reduces many of the costs of producing and disseminating data to near zero. “Free” in this phrase has also come to mean “freedom”, because the internet makes it easy to avoid censorship.

Doctorow is challenging both interpretations – not because he doesn’t agree with them but because he thinks a crucial premise has been lost. “Information doesn’t want to be free,” he writes, “people want to be free.”

The first two-thirds of the book discusses ways in which artists are penalised by the internet’s present regulatory system. He criticises digital rights management (DRM) technology, which limits the platforms digital files can play on; not only does it mean we don’t “own” the files we pay for, but when a company that supports a file goes bust, the culture locked up in their DRM can be lost for ever. Doctorow describes this as “a library burning in slow motion”.

Many companies such as Apple sell devices that block you from downloading non-approved apps. “That is sold to creators as an anti-piracy measure,” Doctorow tells me when we speak on the phone. “But the most practical application has been to allow Apple to exert market power that it would never have had in any other world.”

This links to the final third of the book, which explores how systems for protecting copyrighted material can also be used for censorship.

Jesse Walker’s urban legend

Filed under: Liberty, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:49

In Reason, Jesse Walker tracks down the creator of an urban legend, only to discover that it was him:

During Banned Books Week last month, you may have heard that some busybodies banned Green Eggs and Ham because they thought the story was kinda gay. Metro reported that this happened “briefly in the 1990s because of supposed homosexual innuendos.” A Minnesota radio station said the book was targeted for its “homosexual theme.” Feministe announced that it had been challenged in California for, “No shit, ‘homosexual seduction’ on the part of Sam.” Many other outlets have related the same story, not just last month but in years past. In 2013, Dr. Seuss’ classic even made its way into the Oberlin Public Library’s banned books display. “Inside the bright orange book,” a local paper reported, a “slip explains that it was once thought to have ‘homosexual seduction,’ because Sam tried to seduce his friend.”

None of these reports say where or when this purported prohibition took place, other than those vague references to California and the ’90s. A Lexis-Nexis search turned up nothing. I asked the American Library Association, which sponsors Banned Books Week and keeps track of such things, if they were aware of such an effort; they told me it wasn’t in their database. Metro said it got its info from a book called Seuss Facts, which as far as I can tell does not exist — though a Facebook feed by that name did mention the alleged ban without citing a source. I got in touch with some of the other reporters and bloggers who had repeated the story. None of them were certain where it came from. After I contacted BuzzFeed‘s Spencer Althouse, who included Green Eggs in a banned-books list last year, he concluded that the story was “a terrible, terrible rumor” and added a correction to his article. I’m open to the possibility that there’s a real event here that I haven’t been able to track down, but that seems extremely doubtful.

Besides, I’m pretty sure I know where this began. It’s my fault. Sorry. My bad.

October 3, 2014

QotD: Marketing

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

Among those currently imagining our possible futures, one of the most persuasive is the novelist William Gibson, who, having evolved quite a bit past the man who wrote Neuromancer in 1984, can hardly be said to be imagining futures at all, with his most recent novels constituting, in his words, “speculative fiction of the very recent past,” more oriented toward social situations than technological situations. With the possible exception of David Foster Wallace, no novelist of whom I am aware has ever written with such freshness and imagination on the subject of advertising and marketing, which is a big part of what Wallace called “the texture of the world I live in.” Nor has any novelist quite so precisely identified what is sinister in our world of ubiquitous sales pitches: that something whose entire purpose is to be at the center of our attention still manages to be somehow covert. The marketing mentality is an invasive species; earnest young people now speak entirely seriously about their “personal brands” at the same time they complain about the commodification of this or that. Gibson understands the strangeness of our times, and my own mental shorthand for the odd little details one sometimes encounters, particularly in urban life, when one identifies something that is entirely ordinary and yet feels as if it were not in its right time and place, is “Feeling like I’m living in a William Gibson novel.”

Kevin D. Williamson, “Futures Trading: We are no longer thinking about the future because we believe we are there”, National Review, 2014-10-01.

September 16, 2014

When the “best nutrition advice” is a big, fat lie

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

Rob Lyons charts the way our governments and healthcare experts got onboard the anti-fat dietary express, to our long-lasting dietary harm:

… in recent years, the advice to eat a low-fat diet has increasingly been called into question. Despite cutting down on fatty foods, the populations of many Western countries have become fatter. If heart-disease mortality has maintained a steady decline, cases of type-2 diabetes have shot up in recent years. Maybe these changes were in spite of the advice to avoid fat. Maybe they were caused by that advice.

The most notable figure in providing the intellectual ammunition to challenge existing health advice has been the US science writer, Gary Taubes. His 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, became a bestseller, despite containing long discussions on some fairly complex issues to do with biochemistry, nutrition and medicine. The book’s success triggered a heated debate about what really makes us fat and causes chronic disease.

The move to first discussing and then actively encouraging a low-fat diet was largely due to the work of Dr. Ancel Keys, who is to the low-fat diet movement what Karl Marx is to Communism. His energy, drive, and political savvy helped get the US government and the majority of health experts onboard and pushing his advice. A significant problem with this is that Keys’ advocacy was not statistically backed by even his own data. He drew strong conclusions from tiny, unrepresentative samples, yet managed to persuade most doubters that he was right. A more statistically rigorous analysis might well show that the obesity crisis has actually been driven by the crusading health advisors who have been pushing the low-fat diet all this time … or, as I termed it, “our Woody Allen moment“.

Rob Lyons discussed this with Nina Teicholz, author of the book The Big Fat Surprise:

Once the politically astute Keys had packed the nutrition committee of the AHA and got its backing for the advice to avoid saturated fat, the war on meat and dairy could begin. But a major turning point came in 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, led by Democratic senator George McGovern, held hearings on the issue. The result was a set of guidelines, Dietary Goals for the United States [PDF], which promoted the consumption of ‘complex’ carbohydrates, and reductions in the consumption of fat in general and saturated fat in particular.

By 1980, this report had been worked up into government-backed guidelines — around the same time that obesity appears to have taken off in the US. The McGovern Report inspired all the familiar diet advice around the world that we’ve had ever since, and led to major changes in what food manufacturers offered. Out went fat, though unsaturated fat and hydrogenated oils were deemed less bad than saturated fat, so vegetable oils and margarines became more popular. In came more carbohydrate and more sugar, to give those cardboard-like low-fat ‘treats’ some modicum of flavour.

Yet two recent reviews of the evidence around saturated fat — one led by Ronald Krauss, the other by Rajiv Chowdhury — suggest that saturated fat is not the villain it has been painted as. (The latter paper, in particular, sparked outrage.) As for fat in general, Teicholz tells me: ‘There was no effort until very late in the game to provide evidence for the low-fat diet. It was just assumed that that was reasonable because of the caloric benefit you would see from restricting fat.’

Teicholz also debunks the wonderful reputation of the Mediterranean Diet (“a rose-tinted version of reality tailored to the anti-meat prejudices of American researchers”), points out the role of the olive oil industry in pushing the diet (“Swooning researchers were literally wined and dined into going along with promoting the benefits of olive oil”), and points out that we can’t even blame most of the obesity problem on “Big Food”:

Which leads us to an important third point made by Teicholz: that the blame for our current dietary problems cannot solely, or even mainly, be placed at the door of big food corporations. Teicholz writes about how she discovered that ‘the mistakes of nutrition science could not be primarily pinned on the nefarious interests of Big Food. The source of our misguided dietary advice was in some ways more disturbing, since it seems to have been driven by experts at some of our most trusted institutions working towards what they believed to be the public good.’ Once public-health bureaucracies enshrined the dogma that fat is bad for us, ‘the normally self-correcting mechanism of science, which involves constantly challenging one’s own beliefs, was disabled’.

The war on dietary fat is a terrifying example of what happens when politics and bureaucracy mixes with science: provisional conclusions become laws of nature; resources are piled into the official position, creating material as well as intellectual reasons to continue to support it; and any criticism is suppressed or dismissed. As the war on sugar gets into full swing, a reading of The Big Fat Surprise might provide some much-needed humility.

September 10, 2014

Ruining royal reputations – it didn’t start on Fleet Street

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

In Maclean’s, Patricia Treble reviews a new book by Jonathan Beckman, called How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair:

Three years before revolutionaries toppled Louis XVI and his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette, France was mesmerized with a different tumult. Cardinal Louis de Rohan, scion of one of the nation’s grandest families, was in court, accused of stealing a famously expensive necklace from jewellers who’d created it. He claimed he’d acted at the behest of the queen, who then reneged on paying for the gaudy 2,800-carat piece. The resultant scandal solidified Marie Antoinette’s reputation for unbounded extravagance.

Yet, as Jonathan Beckman, explains in a masterful new account of the diamond necklace affair, nothing is as it appeared. There are fake royals, forged letters and disappearing gems as well as kidnappings, trysts and even a duel involving poisoned pigs. If the tale was fictional, it would be dismissed as an overwrought fantasy, yet in Beckman’s hands, its machinations unfold as an audacious caper that will enthrall readers much as the original events captivated Europe.

August 27, 2014

Reason.tv – P.J. O’Rourke on Millennials and Baby Boomers

Filed under: History, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:12

Published on 26 Aug 2014

“Just this whole process of going through the baby boom’s history, I began to realize what a nicer society — kinder, more decent society — that we live in today than the society when I was a kid,” says P.J. O’Rourke, best-selling author of Holidays in Hell, Parliament of Whores, and many other titles.

O’Rourke sat down with Reason‘s Nick Gillespie at Freedom Fest 2014 in Las Vegas to discuss his new book, The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way and It Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do it Again. As the father of three kids born between 1997 and 2004, he also lays down some thoughts about millennials, noting that they live in a much nicer, more tolerant world than the one in which he grew up. “I don’t think my 10-year old boy has ever been in a fist fight,” says O’Rourke, who was born in 1947. “I mean there might be a little scuffling but I don’t think he’s has ever had that kind of violent confrontation that was simply part of the package when I was a kid.”

He also feels that the internet “fragments information” in a way that destroys the sweep of history, at least at first. “You end up with mosaic information,” he says. “Now, I think over time the kids put these mosaics together but I don’t think the internet itself lends itself to the sweep of history.”

The interview also includes a tour of O’Rourke’s long and varied career in journalism, from his humble beginnings writing for an underground alt-weekly to his time as editor of National Lampoon and his incredible work as a foreign correspondent for Rolling Stone to his current position as columnist at the Daily Beast.

A prominent libertarian, O’Rourke also discusses the difficulties in selling a political philosophy devoted to taking power away from politicians.

“If libertarianism were easy to explain and if it weren’t so easy to exaggerate the effects of libertarianism — people walking around with ‘Legalize Heroin!’ buttons and so on — I think it would’ve been done already,” says O’Rourke. “But the problem is, of course, is that libertarianism isn’t political. It’s anti-political, really. It wants to take things out of the political arena.”

August 25, 2014

Terry Teachout on H.L. Mencken’s Days Trilogy

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:45

To clarify, Terry Teachout is talking about a new omnibus edition of H.L. Mencken’s Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days (which I’ll certainly be adding to my various bookstore wish lists):

It happened that I hadn’t looked at any of the Days books since The Skeptic, my Mencken biography, was published in 2002. Nor had I looked at The Skeptic since I last wrote about Mencken. That was four years ago, in a New Criterion essay about the Library of America’s two-volume collection of his Prejudices essays in which I suggested that

    Mencken might possibly be a young person’s writer, one who excites the unfinished mind but has less to offer those who have seen more of life. Certainly those who look to literature for a portrait of the human animal that is rich in chiaroscuro will not find it in the Prejudices … If a great essayist is one who succeeds in getting his personality onto the page, then H.L. Mencken qualifies in spades. The problem is that his personality grows more predictable with closer acquaintance, just as the tricks of his prose style grow more familiar. Like most journalists, he is best consumed not in the bulk of a twelve-hundred-page boxed set but in small and carefully chosen doses.

Hence it was a very pleasant surprise to return to the Days books after a long absence and find my original judgment on them to be confirmed anew. I described Happy Days as “one of [Mencken]’s most completely realized achievements … a masterpiece of pure style” in The Skeptic, and went on to say that Newspaper Days was “at least as good … It, too, is a not-so-minor masterpiece of affectionate reminiscence, one that in a better-regulated world would be recognized as a modern classic.”

August 24, 2014

QotD: Hypochondria

Filed under: Health, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch — hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into — some fearful, devastating scourge, I know — and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever — read the symptoms — discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it — wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance — found, as I expected, that I had that too, — began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically — read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee. Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.

I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! Students would have no need to “walk the hospitals,” if they had me. I was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma.

Then I wondered how long I had to live. I tried to examine myself. I felt my pulse. I could not at first feel any pulse at all. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to start off. I pulled out my watch and timed it. I made it a hundred and forty-seven to the minute. I tried to feel my heart. I could not feel my heart. It had stopped beating. I have since been induced to come to the opinion that it must have been there all the time, and must have been beating, but I cannot account for it. I patted myself all over my front, from what I call my waist up to my head, and I went a bit round each side, and a little way up the back. But I could not feel or hear anything. I tried to look at my tongue. I stuck it out as far as ever it would go, and I shut one eye, and tried to examine it with the other. I could only see the tip, and the only thing that I could gain from that was to feel more certain than before that I had scarlet fever.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

August 22, 2014

“Overtime” by Charles Stross

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:11

Another short work from the “Laundry” series by Charles Stross:

All bureaucracies obey certain iron laws, and one of the oldest is this: get your seasonal leave booked early, lest you be trampled in the rush.

I broke the rule this year, and now I’m paying the price. It’s not my fault I failed to book my Christmas leave in time — I was in hospital and heavily sedated. But the ruthless cut and thrust of office politics makes no allowance for those who fall in the line of battle: “You should have foreseen your hospitalization and planned around it” said the memo from HR when I complained. They’re quite right, and I’ve made a note to book in advance next time I’m about to be abducted by murderous cultists or enemy spies.

I briefly considered pulling an extended sickie, but Brenda from Admin has a heart of gold; she pointed out that if I volunteered as Night Duty Officer over the seasonal period I could not only claim triple pay and time off in lieu, I’d also be working three grades above my assigned role. For purposes of gaining experience points in the fast-track promotion game they’ve steering me onto, that’s hard to beat. So here I am, in the office on Christmas Eve, playing bureaucratic Pokémon as the chilly rain drums on the roof.

(Oh, you wondered what Mo thinks of this? She’s off visiting her ditz of a mum down in Glastonbury. After last time we agreed it would be a good idea if I kept a low profile. Christmas: the one time of year when you can’t avoid the nuts in your family muesli. But I digress.)

August 18, 2014

“It’s strange that the oldest literature becomes the model for the digital age”

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:04

Harvard University Press is putting all 520 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library online beginning in September:

When James Loeb designed his soon-to-be-launched series of Greek and Roman texts at the turn of the twentieth century, he envisioned the production of volumes that could easily fit in readers’ coat pockets. A century later, that compact format is still one of the collection’s hallmarks. Beginning in September, however, the iconic books will be far handier than Loeb had hoped: users of the Loeb Classical Library (LCL) will have the entire collection at their fingertips. After five years of dedicated work on the part of the library’s trustees and Harvard University Press (HUP), which has overseen LCL since its creator’s death in 1933, the more than 520 volumes of literature that make up the series will be accessible online. Besides allowing users to browse the digitized volumes, which retain the unique side-by-side view of the original text and its English translation, the Digital Loeb Classical Library will enable readers to search for words and phrases across the entire corpus, to annotate content, to share notes and reading lists with others, and to create their own libraries using personal workspaces.

LCL managing editor Michael Sullivan, whose position was created earlier this year to supervise the virtual library, said that the digitization project is “a major leap forward in the history of the Loeb.” According to HUP executive editor-at-large Sharmila Sen, the launch of the digital LCL marks “a moment of rebirth” for the historic collection. She explained that in the years preceding the library’s 2011 centenary, the trustees and HUP administrators began to think about how to make the LCL “relevant to the twenty-first century.” Even though online databases of Greek and Latin literature have existed for years, said the library’s general editor, Jeffrey Henderson, a classics professor at Boston University, the digital Loeb will be unprecedented in its accessibility and scope: for the first time, readers without knowledge of Greek and Latin will be able to explore a vast range of the classical literary heritage online through high-quality, modern translations. He added that the project, which cost the LCL foundation more than $1 million, will serve as a model for the digitization of other HUP series, noting, “It’s strange that the oldest literature becomes the model for the digital age.”

Consolidating a vast literary corpus involving two different alphabets into an interconnected, elegant, and easy-to-use website required much behind-the-scenes work, Sen said. Designing the software for the digital library and transferring the data have concluded, she noted, but the project overseers view the current product — which will be available by subscription to institutions and individuals — as only a 1.0 version. The website will be a dynamic workspace, Henderson pointed out, adding that user feedback will help the editors increase its functionality.

H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.

August 17, 2014

“Down on the Farm” by Charles Stross

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:06

I’m quite a fan of the “Laundry” series of SF/horror stories by Charles Stross. I thought I’d read all of them (well, all that have been released, anyway), but a discussion thread on the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list alerted me that I hadn’t read “Down on the Farm“, which is available for free on the Tor.com website:

Ah, the joy of summer: here in the south-east of England it’s the season of mosquitoes, sunburn, and water shortages. I’m a city boy, so you can add stifling pollution to the list as a million outwardly mobile families start their Chelsea tractors and race to their holiday camps. And that’s before we consider the hellish environs of the Tube (far more literally hellish than anyone realizes, unless they’ve looked at a Transport for London journey planner and recognized the recondite geometry underlying the superimposed sigils of the underground map).

But I digress…

One morning, my deputy head of department wanders into my office. It’s a cramped office, and I’m busy practicing my Frisbee throw with a stack of beer mats and a dart-board decorated with various cabinet ministers. “Bob,” Andy pauses to pluck a moist cardboard square out of the air as I sit up, guiltily: “a job’s just come up that you might like to look at—I think it’s right up your street.”

The first law of Bureaucracy is, show no curiosity outside your cubicle. It’s like the first rule of every army that’s ever bashed a square: never volunteer.

If you ask questions (or volunteer) it will be taken as a sign of inactivity, and the devil, in the person of your line manager (or your sergeant) will find a task for your idle hands. What’s more, you’d better believe it’ll be less appealing than whatever you were doing before (creatively idling, for instance), because inactivity is a crime against organization and must be punished. It goes double here in the Laundry, that branch of the British secret state tasked with defending the realm from the scum of the multiverse, using the tools of applied computational demonology: volunteer for the wrong job and you can end up with soul-sucking horrors from beyond spacetime using your brain for a midnight snack. But I don’t think I could get away with feigning overwork right now, and besides: he’s packaged it up as a mystery. Andy knows how to bait my hook, damn it.

August 12, 2014

The very different American and British baby booms

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

In sp!ked, Jennie Bristow reviews P.J. O’Rourke’s latest book, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again).

For the British ‘Baby Boom’ was very different to its American sibling, in both respects of the word. Demographically, Britain – like many other Western countries immediately after the Second World War – experienced a spike in the birthrate, but this dropped back quickly until the mid-1950s, when there was a less dramatic, but more sustained, bulge over the next 10 years.

[...]

Size isn’t everything, however, and the other aspect of the Baby Boom label is the period of prosperity and growth that followed the war in the US. O’Rourke’s introduction to the UK edition of The Baby Boom points out another fact that tends to be ignored in the slating of the British Baby Boomers – that ‘postwar experience in America was very different from postwar experience in a place where war, in fact, occurred. That is, we had the “post-” and you had the war.’

[...]

Throughout the book, O’Rourke’s fond accounts of growing up during the Fifties, which are generally amusing and often stylistically annoying, hammer home the space, freedom, affluence and indulgence enjoyed by the American Baby Boomers as children. In Britain, accounts of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the Fifties tend to extend to children playing by the river and neighbours leaving their front doors unlocked, glossing over the more drab reality that kids did not have anything to play with inside, and that most homes were not worth burgling.

Given the divergence in experience between the British and American Baby Boomers, one might wonder how the American debate, about the problems of the Boomers’ size, wealth and health (which, many grumble, means they will live ‘too long’, robbing younger generations of their fair share of pensions and healthcare resources), became plonked on to Little Britain with scant regard for the differences.

The answer lies partly in what the US Boomers did share with their counterparts in the UK, and in parts of Europe, too. This was the experience of growing up in the tumultuous Sixties, when youth appeared to be in the vanguard of a cultural revolution that swept aside established norms and values, rejecting the authority of tradition and, above all, of adults.

Swiftly demolishing another great myth about the Sixties, O’Rourke points out that, in reality, ‘the Baby Boom was the tailgate party, not the team on the field’: ‘There was a lot of “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” (Pete Townshend, born 1945), but it wasn’t my generation that was causing “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye, born 1939) during the “Youthquake” (a coinage from Punch, edited by people born when mastodons roamed the earth).’

August 5, 2014

ESR on “requesting orders from the International Lord of Hate as to which minority group we are to crush beneath our racist, fascist, cismale, heteronormative jackboots this week”

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 15:10

ESR discusses the ongoing civil war in the SF community that most non-fans — and even many actual fans — may not be consciously aware of:

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.)

All this might sound like I’m inclined to sign up with the Evil League of Evil. The temptation is certainly present; it’s where the more outspoken libertarians in SF tend to have landed. Much more to the point, my sense of humor is such that I find it nearly impossible to resist the idea of posting something public requesting orders from the International Lord of Hate as to which minority group we are to crush beneath our racist, fascist, cismale, heteronormative jackboots this week. The screams of outrage from Rabbits dimwitted enough to take this sort of thing seriously would entertain me for months.

August 2, 2014

There are “writers” and then there are writers

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:12

An old discussion on Slashdot, where Neal Stephenson tries to explain why science fiction works are not considered worthy by the literary world:

First of all, I don’t think that the condescending “quality” press look too kindly on Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer. So I disagree with the premise of the last sentence of this question and I’m not going to address it. Instead I’m going to answer what I think MosesJones is really getting at, which is why SF and other genre and popular writers don’t seem to get a lot of respect from the literary world.

To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

“I’m … a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

“Yes, but what do you do?”

I couldn’t think of how to answer the question — I’d already answered it!

“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

“From … being a writer,” I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.

The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper — to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church’s goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.

Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It’s the same as in a modern book when it says “this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation.”

[...]

Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition — which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn’t need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It’s conventional to refer to these as “commercial” novelists, but I hate that term, so I’m going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called “literary” as opposed to “commercial” but I hate that term too, so I’m going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them — hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer’s conference. Because she’d never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer — one so new or obscure that she’d never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn’t be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she’d never heard of me was because I was famous.

H/T to Lois McMaster Bujold for the link.

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