There is a lot of folklore about equestrian statues, especially the ones with riders on them. There is said to be a code in the number and placement of the horse’s hooves: If one of the horse’s hooves is in the air, the rider was wounded in battle; two legs in the air means that the rider was killed in battle; three legs in the air indicates that the rider got lost on the way to the battle; and four legs in the air means that the sculptor was very, very clever. Five legs in the air means that there’s probably at least one other horse standing behind the horse you’re looking at; and the rider lying on the ground with his horse lying on top of him with all four legs in the air means that the rider was either a very incompetent horseman or owned a very bad-tempered horse.
Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight, 2010.
February 28, 2015
February 25, 2015
None of these things is done “by instinct”. I sweat like hell to make it a rousing good story while getting in the preaching I want to preach … I suggest that to the extent that they are used unconsciously, unwittingly “instinctively”, they are sloppy craftsmanship and likely to be bad art.
There were four “themes” he did use over and over — deliberately and not “by instinct”:
One is the notion that knowledge is worth acquiring, all knowledge, and that a solid grounding in mathematics provides one with the essential language of many of the most important forms of knowledge. The third theme is that, while it is desirable to live peaceably, there are things worth fighting for and values worth dying for — and that it is far better for a man to die than to live under circumstances that call for such sacrifice. The fourth theme is that individual human freedoms are of basic value, without which mankind is less than human.
William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).
February 24, 2015
Three years ago, The Los Angeles Times published a feel-good story on the Little Free Library movement. The idea is simple: A book lover puts a box or shelf or crate of books in their front yard. Neighbors browse, take one, and return later with a replacement. A 76-year-old in Sherman Oaks, California, felt that his little library, roughly the size of a dollhouse, “turned strangers into friends and a sometimes-impersonal neighborhood into a community,” the reporter observed. The man knew he was onto something “when a 9-year-old boy knocked on his door one morning to say how much he liked the little library.” He went on to explain, “I met more neighbors in the first three weeks than in the previous 30 years.”
Since 2009, when a Wisconsin man built a little, free library to honor his late mother, who loved books, copycats inspired by his example have put thousands of Little Free Libraries all over the U.S. and beyond. Many are displayed on this online map. In Venice, where I live, I know of at least three Little Free Libraries, and have witnessed chance encounters where folks in the neighborhood chat about a book.
I wish that I was writing merely to extol this trend. Alas, a subset of Americans are determined to regulate every last aspect of community life. Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things.
Last summer in Kansas, a 9-year-old was loving his Little Free Library until at least two residents proved that some people will complain about anything no matter how harmless and city officials pushed the boundaries of literal-mindedness:
The Leawood City Council said it had received a couple of complaints about Spencer Collins’ Little Free Library. They dubbed it an “illegal detached structure” and told the Collins’ they would face a fine if they did not remove the Little Free Library from their yard by June 19.
Scattered stories like these have appeared in various local news outlets. The L.A. Times followed up last week with a trend story that got things just about right. “Crime, homelessness and crumbling infrastructure are still a problem in almost every part of America, but two cities have recently cracked down on one of the country’s biggest problems: small-community libraries where residents can share books,” Michael Schaub wrote. “Officials in Los Angeles and Shreveport, Louisiana, have told the owners of homemade lending libraries that they’re in violation of city codes, and asked them to remove or relocate their small book collections.”
February 19, 2015
Neil Davenport reviews Authenticity is a Con by Peter York:
Everyone and everything today must, it seems, be ‘the real deal’ — they must be walking, talking embodiments of heart-on-your-sleeve authenticity. After all, no one wants to be accused of ‘faking it’, as Kurt Cobain put it in his suicide note. From pop stars to politicians, being real, being oneself, being transparent, is pretty much a pre-requisite for entrance into respectable society.
But social commentator Peter York believes there is something rather phoney in the need to be seen as genuine. In his short polemical book, Authenticity is a Con, York provides several deliciously scathing snapshots of the current tyranny of transparency.
For York, authenticity is the ‘absolute favourite word of shysters and chancers; of motivational speakers and life coaches dealing with “human potential”; of people who think “I’m so worth it”… people with only the vaguest idea of authentication and none at all about the philosophical back story.’ He traces the ‘me generation’ tendencies back to 1960s America. For York, the authenticity peddlers sell the idea that if you’re ‘true to yourself’ then everything else, from a satisfying career to successful relationships, will magically fall into place. York understands that the free-yourself psychobabble has always sounded preposterous. To lampoon it requires very little effort.
York’s sharp eye provides insights aplenty. There’s a hilarious dig at hippy ‘t-shirt and trainers’ companies such as Facebook or Virgin, whose informality disappears when they are challenged on something substantive (‘you get some very formal legal action’, quips York). He points out the irony of early- to mid-twentieth-century black musicians like Lead Belly, who wanted to wear smart suits and play hotel jazz, having to ham up a jailbird persona in order to sate their white audience’s demand for an ‘authentic’ blues performer. York also notes how, in the 1970s, the desire to be inauthentic, to not be ourselves or down to earth, was a mark of boldness and imagination. Think of the sci-fi-based, proto funk of Parliament or Funkadelic, or how working-class bricklayers donned tights and make up during the Glam era. Roxy Music made a career out of not keeping it real. They even prompted the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray to declare them a threat to Britain’s rock culture with, as York says, ‘their posey eclecticism, poncey retrofuturism and their wholly meretricious concern with appearances’. And then there’s David Bowie who elevated artifice, pretension and inauthenticity to the level of an art-form.
Today’s art-school poseurs, though, are as swept up with authenticity as anyone else. York begins Authenticity is a Con by visiting Shoreditch and noticing a product called ‘honest man’s beard oil’. As readers of Sunday supplements will know, east London has the highest beard count in the capital. York has great fun juxtaposing Shoreditch’s quest for reclaimed-floorboard authenticity with its entirely invented (read inauthentic) claim to be an artistic Boho enclave. ‘It’s a thing of surfaces’, writes York, ‘anti-bling surfaces that actually cost much more than the gold and glass and shiny marble of mainstream bling’. Indeed, Shoreditch and Hackney are the kind of places that have specially designed ‘old man pubs’ that don’t actually feature any old men drinking in them. York calls Shoreditch ‘applied authenticity’, which is about as accurate and as real a description of EC1 as you will find.
And yet the authenticity-marketing scam goes far beyond east London. For over a decade now, we’ve experienced what can be called ‘kooky capitalism’, wherein huge companies re-brand themselves as ethical, people-orientated cottage businesses. York supplements the idea of kooky capitalism with his concept of ‘micro-connoisseurship’, which refers to the ‘market for luxury, for superior, smart, snobby, value-added goods – “positional goods” of all kinds. We’ve got millions of micro-connoisseurs agonising about the thread count in sheets, the back-story of a recipe, the provenance of a shop.’
February 18, 2015
At The Federalist, Leslie Loftis provides a bit of friendly (lawyerly) advice to men in the wake of the Fifty Shades of Grey bandwagon:
The Fifty Shades of Grey hype has started its saturation run-up to the movie release this week. I expected the music video releases, the Super Bowl commercials. I did not expect the branding promotions.
I am a lawyer. Ever since their first year of law school, lawyers see liability. And in this bondage-for-amateurs fandom that is 50SOG (hat tip to Tracinski for the abbreviation) liability lurks everywhere.
We live in an era of “yes means yes” and “always believe the woman.” Fun or not, consent or not, signed document or not — no man should ever engage in bondage sex behavior. The best of the law doesn’t allow contracts for bodily harm, no matter the parties’ intent. Some of the worst law throws out the constitutional standard of innocent until proven guilty. If a woman regrets and later reports consensual acts as rape and it comes down to her word against his, then he will lose.
In this legal environment, this sort of sex play is high-risk. So I was shocked to learn that mainstream chain Target was selling 50SOG-branded toys. I saw the 50SOG display and my mind immediately went to the McDonalds’ coffee-burn case. They are selling candles … for bedrooms … next to blindfolds. No potential problems here.
February 14, 2015
Jonathan Band talks about “fifty shades of fair use” and how E.L. James found wealth and fame after filing off the serial numbers and rebranding her fan fiction:
Fifty Shades of Grey, which is being released this Friday just in time for Valentine’s Day, is sure to be one of the top grossing films of the year. Depending on your point of view, fair use is to blame — or thank — for the existence of the Fifty Shades franchise.
The movie is based on the three erotic Fifty Shades novels, which have dominated (pun intended) book sales for the past three years. Over 100 million copies of the novels have been sold, the first novel of the series has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 140 weeks, and the novels have been translated into 51 languages. And to make sure that no dollar is left behind, Target just began distributing a line of Fifty Shades sex toys to coincide with the film’s release. Similarly, Vermont Teddy Bear is offering a Fifty Shades of Grey Teddy Bear, featuring smoldering eyes, a suit and satin tie, a mask, and mini handcuffs.
The British author of the series, E.L. James (a pseudonym for television executive Erika Mitchell), originally wrote the trilogy as fan fiction of Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight series, and posted it in installments on the fan fiction site FanFiction.net under the title Master of the Universe. Some of the readers complained that it was too racy for the site, which tries not to host adult content, so James moved it to a website she created, FiftyShades.com. At some point the popularity of the story must have convinced James of its potential commercial value, so she eliminated the potentially infringing references to Twilight characters and plotlines while retaining her original bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism themes. She divided this revised version into three novels that were published as e-books by an Australian virtual publisher.
February 13, 2015
The son of Golden Age SF author Andrew Offutt talks about his father’s other books:
My father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, grew up in a log cabin in Taylorsville, Ky. The house had 12-inch-thick walls with gun ports to defend against attackers: first Indians, then soldiers during the Civil War. At 12, Dad wrote a novel of the Old West. He taught himself to type with the Columbus method — find it and land on it — using one finger on his left hand and two fingers on his right. Dad typed swiftly and with great passion. In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than 400 books. Two were science fiction and 24 were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using 17 pseudonyms.
In the mid-1960s, Dad purchased several porn novels through the mail. My mother recalls him reading them with disgust — not because of the content, but because of how poorly they were written. He hurled a book across the room and told her he could do better. Mom suggested he do so. According to her, the tipping point for Dad’s full commitment to porn, five years later, was my orthodontic needs.
Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting. Upon completion of a full draft, he transcribed the material to his typewriter, revising as he went. Most writers get more words per page as they go from longhand to a typed manuscript, but not Dad. His handwriting was small, and he used ampersands and abbreviations. His first drafts were often the same length as the final ones.
Manuscripts of science fiction and fantasy received multiple revisions, but he had to work much faster on porn. After a longhand first chapter, he typed the rest swiftly, made editorial changes and passed that draft to my mother. She retyped it for final submission. At times, Mom would be typing the beginning of the book while Dad was still writing the end.
His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.
Eighty percent of the notebooks described sexual aspects of women. The longest section focused on their bosoms. Another binder listed descriptions of individual actions, separated by labeling tabs that included: Mouth. Tongue. Face. Legs. Kiss. The heading of Orgasm had subdivisions of Before, During and After. The thickest notebook was designed strictly for B.D.S.M. novels with a list of 150 synonyms for “pain.” Sections included Spanking, Whipping, Degradation, Predegradation, Distress, Screams, Restraints and Tortures. These were further subdivided into specific categories followed by brief descriptions of each.
Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.
During the past four centuries, we have seen the world in semi-Epicurean terms as a great and internally consistent machine. To understand it, we observe, we question, we form hypotheses, we test, we measure, we record, we think again. The results have long since been plain. In every generation, we have added vast provinces to the empire of science. We do not yet perfectly understand the world. But the understanding we have has given us a growing dominion over the world; and there is no reason to think the growth of our understanding and dominion will not continue indefinitely.
We reject supernatural explanations partly because we have no need of them. The world is a machine. Nothing that happens appears to be an intervention into the chains of natural cause and effect. We know that things once ascribed to the direct influence of God, or the workings of less powerful invisible beings have natural causes. Where a natural cause cannot be found, we assume, on the grounds of our experience so far, that one will eventually be found. In part, however, we reject the supernatural because there is no good evidence that it exists.
[…] It seems that Hitler was a convinced believer in the occult. He took many of his decisions on astrological advice. It did him no visible good. He misjudged the British response to his invasion of Poland. He was unable to conquer Britain or to make peace. His invasion of Russia, while still fighting Britain, turned his eastern frontier from a net contributor of resources to a catastrophic drain on them. He then mishandled his relations with America. So far as he was guided by the astrologers, I hope, before he shot himself, that he thought of asking for a refund. It was the same with Himmler. Despite his trust in witchcraft, he only escaped trial and execution by crunching on a cyanide capsule made by the German pharmaceutical industry.
Turning to practitioners of the occult, I see no evidence of special success. They do not live longer than the rest of us. However they begin, they do not stay better looking. Any success they have with money, or in bed, is better explained by the gullibility of their followers than by their own magical powers.
So it was with Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) — the “Great Beast 666,” or “the wickedest man alive.” He quickly ran through the fortune his parents had left him. He spent his last years in poverty. Long before he died, he had begun to resemble the mug shot of a child murderer. Whether his claims were simply a fraud on others, or a fraud on himself as well, I see no essential difference between him and the beggar woman who cursed me in the street. He had advantages over her of birth and education. But he was still a parasite on the credulity of others.
Sean Gabb, “[Review of] Crowley: Thoughts and Perspectives, Volume Two“, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-05-18.
February 12, 2015
Consider the Little House on the Prairie books, which I’d bet almost every woman in my readership, and many of the men, recalls from their childhoods. I loved those books when I was a kid, which seemed to describe an enchanted world — horses! sleighs! a fire merrily crackling in the fireplace, and children frolicking in the snow all winter, then running barefoot across the prairies! Then I reread them as an adult, as a prelude to my research, and 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.
There’s a scene in one of the books where Laura is excited to get her own tin cup for Christmas, because she previously had to share with her sister. Think about that. No, go into your kitchen and look at your dishes. Then imagine if you had three kids, four plates and three cups, because buying another cup was simply beyond your household budget — because a single cup for your kid to drink out of represented not a few hours of work, but a substantial fraction of your annual earnings, the kind of money you really had to think hard before spending. Then imagine how your five-year-old would feel if they got an orange and a Corelle place setting for Christmas.
There’s a reason old-fashioned kitchens didn’t have cabinets: They didn’t need them. There wasn’t anything to put there.
Imagine if your kids had to spend six months out of the year barefoot because you couldn’t afford for them to wear their shoes year-round. Now, I love being barefoot, and I longed to spend more time that way as a child. But it’s a little different when it’s an option. I walked a mile barefoot on a cold fall day — once. It’s fine for the first few minutes, and then it hurts like hell. Sure, your feet toughen up. But when it’s cold and wet, your feet crack and bleed. As they do if the icy rain soaks through your shoes, and your feet have to stay that way all day because you don’t own anything else to change into. I’m not talking about making sure your kids have a decent pair of shoes to wear to school; I’m talking about not being able to afford to put anything at all on their feet.
Or take the matter of food. There is nothing so romanticized as old-fashioned cookery, lovingly hand-prepared with fresh, 100 percent organic ingredients. If you were a reader of the Little House books, or any number of other series about 19th-century children, then you probably remember the descriptions of luscious meals. When you reread these books, you realize that they were so lovingly described because they were so vanishingly rare. Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day: beans, bread or some sort of grain porridge, and a little bit of meat for flavor, heavily preserved in salt. This doesn’t sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing. But it was all they could afford, and much of the time, there wasn’t quite enough of that.
These were not the nation’s dispossessed; they were the folks who had capital for seed and farm equipment. There were lots of people in America much poorer than the Ingalls were. Your average middle-class person was, by the standards of today, dead broke and living in abject misery. And don’t tell me that things used to be cheaper back then, because I’m not talking about their cash income or how much money they had stuffed under the mattress. I’m talking about how much they could consume. And the answer is “a lot less of everything”: food, clothes, entertainment. That’s even before we talk about the things that hadn’t yet been invented, such as antibiotics and central heating.
Megan McArdle, “When Bread Bags Weren’t Funny”, Bloomberg View, 2015-01-29.
February 10, 2015
Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown, guest-posting at Charlie’s Diary, discuss a thoroughly awful man of letters:
Like now, there were ripoff booksellers masquerading among the legitimate ones, though today’s scammers (see Writer Beware) are rarely as colorful as the rascally Edmund Curll — printer, pirate, and pornographer. He stole material with flagrant disregard for copyright. As soon as some prominent person died, he collected gossip — it didn’t matter if it was true — for a biography, and if he didn’t have enough material, he made it up. Prominent people reportedly dreaded dying because of what Curll would do to them. A faint echo of the Curll treatment occurred a couple weeks ago, when Colleen McCullough’s obit started off by noting how fat and unlovely she’d been.
Curll churned out so much X-rated stuff under various guises that the word ‘Curlicism’ became synonymous with porn. Prison, a stint in the stocks, even being blanket-tossed and beaten by the boys at Westminster school not only didn’t stop him from theft and libel, he turned them all into marketing opportunities. Even when he was convicted of libel and forced to publish an apology and a promise to stop printing, his repentant words touted his latest books.
He’s best known for the twenty-year running duel with the poet Alexander Pope, from whom he not only stole, he lampooned under his own name and with sockpuppets. It began when he first pirated Pope, prompting the poet and his publisher to meet Curll at the Swan, where they slipped a mega dose of “physic” (think ExLax) into his drink. He turned that, too, into a marketing event, once he’d recovered from the extremes of ejecta; when Pope published a couple of triumphant pamphlets, claiming Curll was dead, Curl came right back with new material demonstrating that he was very much alive and up to his usual racket.
Their history — and there are other equally crazy-ass stories — remind me of the whoops and hollers of internet feuds and FAILS now, among writers, editors, publishers (some individuals wearing all three hats).
Aside from the Curlls, most booksellers, the publishers of the eighteenth century — like the editors working at traditional publishers now — were hardworking people who made careful decisions about what to publish because they were the ones fronting the costs of printing and of copyright.
The booksellers of Grub Street were all about copyright. For most of the eighteenth century, they met yearly, over sumptuous dinners, to hold a copyright auction that was exclusive to the booksellers. Interlopers were unceremonious chucked out.
February 1, 2015
Rick McGinnis on the steadily reducing relationship between the class system as described by Karl Marx and the modern world:
I blame Karl Marx for a lot of things, but after inspiring some of the most destructive and blood-thirsty governments in modern history, his most abidingly destructive legacy is hobbling our understanding of the word “class.” For as long as I’ve been alive, when almost anyone talks about the class system they end up invoking images frozen somewhere in the middle of the European 19th century.
Arrogant entitled aristocrats and heartless mill owners; upright bourgeois, dispirited workers and peasants. It’s a world of frock coats and cloth caps and sunless terraced slums under smoke-filled skies, and while it’s a useful image if you want to start a discussion about the Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t do much to help describe the fluid, amorphous, endlessly adaptable way that class works in the modern world – and probably always has, even if one writer managed to fix the word to a tether at a spot roughly between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Which is why I don’t have much hope that Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict (Telos Press, 220 pages) will do much to budge our discussion of class to a point somewhere closer to the world of suburbs, computers, megamalls, and package vacations. It’s not that Kotkin’s book doesn’t struggle – mostly successfully – to make a discussion about class relevant, but that decades of framing class in antique trappings has made the word and everything it invokes seem anachronistic, or even irrelevant, to modern people and especially Americans.
Whether intended or not, Kotkin points out that encouraging people to live in crowded cities not only stifles the ownership of private property that’s been a mark of increasing mass material prosperity for two centuries, but it re-creates a renting class at the mercy of moneyed landowners that he describes as a “new feudalism.”
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.
[George] handed me a small book bound in red cloth. It was a guide to English conversation for the use of German travellers. It commenced “On a Steam-boat,” and terminated “At the Doctor’s”; its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics: “Can you not get further away from me, sir?” — “It is impossible, madam; my neighbour, here, is very stout” — “Shall we not endeavour to arrange our legs?” — “Please have the goodness to keep your elbows down” — “Pray do not inconvenience yourself, madam, if my shoulder is of any accommodation to you,” whether intended to be said sarcastically or not, there was nothing to indicate — “I really must request you to move a little, madam, I can hardly breathe,” the author’s idea being, presumably, that by this time the whole party was mixed up together on the floor. The chapter concluded with the phrase, “Here we are at our destination, God be thanked! (Gott sei dank!)” a pious exclamation, which under the circumstances must have taken the form of a chorus.
At the end of the book was an appendix, giving the German traveller hints concerning the preservation of his health and comfort during his sojourn in English towns, chief among such hints being advice to him to always travel with a supply of disinfectant powder, to always lock his bedroom door at night, and to always carefully count his small change.
“It is not a brilliant publication,” I remarked, handing the book back to George; “it is not a book that personally I would recommend to any German about to visit England; I think it would get him disliked. But I have read books published in London for the use of English travellers abroad every whit as foolish. Some educated idiot, misunderstanding seven languages, would appear to go about writing these books for the misinformation and false guidance of modern Europe.”
“You cannot deny,” said George, “that these books are in large request. They are bought by the thousand, I know. In every town in Europe there must be people going about talking this sort of thing.”
“Maybe,” I replied; “but fortunately nobody understands them. I have noticed, myself, men standing on railway platforms and at street corners reading aloud from such books. Nobody knows what language they are speaking; nobody has the slightest knowledge of what they are saying. This is, perhaps, as well; were they understood they would probably be assaulted.”
George said: “Maybe you are right; my idea is to see what would happen if they were understood. My proposal is to get to London early on Wednesday morning, and spend an hour or two going about and shopping with the aid of this book. There are one or two little things I want — a hat and a pair of bedroom slippers, among other articles. Our boat does not leave Tilbury till twelve, and that just gives us time. I want to try this sort of talk where I can properly judge of its effect. I want to see how the foreigner feels when he is talked to in this way.”
It struck me as a sporting idea. In my enthusiasm I offered to accompany him, and wait outside the shop. I said I thought that Harris would like to be in it, too — or rather outside.
George said that was not quite his scheme. His proposal was that Harris and I should accompany him into the shop. With Harris, who looks formidable, to support him, and myself at the door to call the police if necessary, he said he was willing to adventure the thing.
We walked round to Harris’s, and put the proposal before him. He examined the book, especially the chapters dealing with the purchase of shoes and hats. He said:
“If George talks to any bootmaker or any hatter the things that are put down here, it is not support he will want; it is carrying to the hospital that he will need.”
That made George angry.
“You talk,” said George, “as though I were a foolhardy boy without any sense. I shall select from the more polite and less irritating speeches; the grosser insults I shall avoid.”
This being clearly understood, Harris gave in his adhesion; and our start was fixed for early Wednesday morning.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
January 24, 2015
But looking back I can say that, all unwittingly, Kabul and the army were right to regard Elphy’s arrival as an incident of the greatest significance. It opened a chapter: it was a prelude to events that rang round the world. Elphy, ably assisted by McNaghten, was about to reach the peak of his career; he was going to produce the most shameful, ridiculous disaster in British military history.
No doubt Thomas Hughes would find it significant that in such a disaster I would emerge with fame, honour, and distinction — all quite unworthily acquired. But you, having followed my progress so far, won’t be surprised at all.
Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth century — Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan — I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement — in short, for the true talent for catastrophe — Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.
Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.
George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.
January 8, 2015
Jeff LaSala explains why the films based on JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit must be judged separately from the the books:
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films get a lot of flak for being overwrought and overlong. Many of the criticisms are valid enough (I have some of my own), some are a matter of taste, and some, I feel, are simply misguided. My view, as a fan of Tolkien first and Jackson second, is that the naysayers are judging the films for what they’re not. They are not a cinematic translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel but an adaptation in the truest sense of the word. And they are specifically an adaptation of events in Middle-earth 60 years prior to Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party which include those covered in The Hobbit and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.
To adapt something is to change, alter, or modify it to make it suitable for new conditions, which is where the problems occur for fans of a richly detailed story. No, not merely a story, a whole legendarium (Tolkien himself called it such) that lots of people care a hell of a lot about. The expectation seems to have been that Jackson should have kept to the books closely, should have told the story just as Tolkien did. But ultimately, that’s just not realistic.
It’s not like he didn’t know what’s in the books; in addition to knowing them well, he was surrounded by Tolkien scholars, Elvish linguists, and other literary experts. Rather, he’s an uber-successful director, producer, and screenwriter who has to wrangle massive movie budgets and we’re not. He loves Tolkien’s work but had taken on the self-imposed, if herculean task of maneuvering a beloved tale through the Hollywood machine. Have you ever watched a comic book, novel, or even play adapted to film and thought, “That’s exactly how I would have done it”? If you have, then that’s amazing! If not, well, in this age of Hollywood remakes, reboots, and adaptations, why expect these films to be any different?
It’s been said that “the filmmakers have wrung all they could out of the source material,” but I find that to be a lazy stab because it’s simply untrue. Indeed, to me that’s the irony. While three Hobbit films meant there should be room for some fleshing out of otherwise sparse details — the very thing people are complaining about, that he made a short book longer than they felt it needed to be — Jackson still didn’t actually cover everything. I reserve a more final opinion for when the Extended (i.e. the real) Edition of Five Armies comes out, because it promises to include 30 more minutes, but there are elements of the story simply left off.
I can forgive almost any extension or stretching of characters and themes, so long as they’re not completely antithetical to Tolkien’s ideals, but only if the existing story, including the appendices-based backstory, is exhausted first. Beorn’s house; the Eagles and their eyries (and why they help at all); the drunk Wood-elves and the full interrogation of the dwarves; the thrush and its world-saving delivery of vital information; the aftermath of the battle — all of these have been gutted. In the behind-the-scenes features of the DVDs, you can even see that some of it was filmed (such as the captive dwarves being brought before Thrandruil, not merely Thorin), but never made even the Extended cut. Sadly.
But these are movies; they need to take into account a moviegoer’s patience (and bladder). Of course, short making a full-blown movie series (rather than mere trilogy) there is never enough time to cover everything. Think of all that was removed from The Lord of the Rings, which has a full run-time of just over 11 hours. Given that, are you in the “What, no ‘Scouring of the Shire’?” camp or the “Nah, it’s fine as is” camp?
Well, I still want the Scouring, but I agree that it would have been worse to give it a perfunctory couple of minutes on the screen than to omit it altogether. I’d pay to see it as a stand-alone, but I don’t know if that would be viable commercially.
Mike Masnick included a fascinating chart in this story:
What it shows is that while new books are available for sale, they quickly go out of print and are basically not available — until you get down to 1923, at which point the works are in the public domain. Think of all those works that are no longer available to buy in that major gap in the middle. Heald has since updated that research to show how serious a problem this is — and demonstrating how the arguments against letting these works into the public domain make no sense. He demolishes the arguments made by some that a public domain will be either “under” or “over” exploited (yes, both arguments are made), as neither makes much sense.
It appears that copyright is doing similar damage in Europe. At the latest Chaos Communications Congress in Germany, Julia Reda, the European Parliament member from the Pirate Party gave a talk on the state of copyright law today (you can see the video here and included a similar graphic concerning books available in Europe: