Quotulatiousness

November 30, 2017

“[W]henever I visit a newsroom these days, I instinctively feel unhealthy, like a 19th-century Lake Poet visiting an especially polluted part of London”

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Colby Cosh goes well out of his way to rub salt in the wounds of daily commuters, while basking in the glories of working from home:

When Statistics Canada puts its big brains to work on measuring the time devoted to commuting, and the various ways in which people drag their butts to work, I always read the results with the particular interest-fascination-horror of a permanent non-commuter. I am well into my second decade of working full-time, pretty much exclusively, from home. I’m dragged out of the house very occasionally for assignments and broadcast appearances, but most of what I do for a living happens a few feet from my bed.

None of it, I should specify, actually happens in bed (and relatively little of it involves actual writing). As most people who have to physically travel to a job seem to suspect, working remotely gives you a scary, even nauseating freedom to customize your working arrangements. I suppose most of us professional shut-ins find that we have to establish arbitrary rules and mini-disciplines to prevent our lives from becoming totally unstructured and unhealthy. “Bed is for sleep” is one of mine.

All of my conscious writing and research is done strictly at a desk, whether or not I happen to be wearing pants. With that said, as I get older, I do find sleep to be a more important component of my overall work process. Naps can be magical, and the ability to get around a writing difficulty by means of one is something I would immediately miss if I became a miserable corporate prisoner/drone again.

This kind of consideration deepens the psychic divide between commuters and remote workers: we have trouble understanding one another’s worlds even when we have switched between them. Commuters shudder at the thought of an amorphous life with less social contact and minimal formal barriers between work and non-work. Indeed, I think working at home does make one a little dottier (note: this is not necessarily a practical disadvantage for a newspaper columnist). I suspect it may also discourage groupthink. It definitely cuts down on pointless meetings; and whenever I visit a newsroom these days, I instinctively feel unhealthy, like a 19th-century Lake Poet visiting an especially polluted part of London.

I’ve spent more of my time working from home over the last decade than sitting in the office (and therefore also needing to drag my carcass to and from said office), and I really do understand his viewpoint. It’s one of the things I anticipate with no joy at all, as any new job I’m likely to land will probably require a daily commute. On a good day, it’s about an hour’s drive to downtown Toronto, but there aren’t enough good travel days and taking public transit literally doubles that time. Spending four hours per day to get to work and back feels very wasteful, even when I can get in some reading on the way.

November 25, 2017

QotD: Reading

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

Reading is inherently ephemeral, but it feels less so when you’re making your way through a physical book, which persists when you’ve finished it. It is a monument to the activity of reading. It makes this imaginary activity entirely substantial. But the quiddity of e-reading is that it effaces itself. […] There is a disproportionate magic in the way black marks on white paper — or their pixilated facsimiles — stir us into reverie and revise our consciousness. Still, we require proof that it has happened. And that proof is what the books on my shelves continue to offer.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, “Books to Have and to Hold”, New York Times, 2013-08-10.

November 24, 2017

Not Guided by Policy: Hunter S. Thompson and the Birth of Gonzo Journalism

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

Today I Found Out
Published on 6 Nov 2017

In this video:

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” This is the opening line from the highly acclaimed roman à clef Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream written by Hunter S. Thompson, one of America’s most countercultural and anti-authoritarian writers. The untamed master of his own self-titled genre, “gonzo journalism,” Thompson set ablaze the American standards for journalism during the 1960s and 70s with a cornucopia of drugs, alcohol, gun toting, and most notably, his exemplary writing.

Want the text version?: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/07/not-guided-policy-act-gonzo/

November 14, 2017

QotD: Depressive writing leads to depressed readers

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

Agatha Christie gave her characters foibles, sure, and often there was a tight intrigue and not just the murderer but two or three other people would be no good. BUT the propensity of the characters gave you the impression of being good sort of people. Perhaps muddled, confused, or driven by circumstances to the less than honorable, but in general driven by principles of honor or love (even sometimes the murderer) and wanting to do the right thing for those they cared about.

You emerge from a Christie memory with the idea, sure, that of course there was unpleasantness, but most of the people are not horrors.

How did we get from there to now, where the characters aren’t even evil? They’re just dingy and grey and tainted, all of them equally. The victim, the detectives, the witnesses, will be vile and contorted, grotesque shapes walking in the world of men.

If this is a reflection of the psyches of most authors, I suddenly understand a lot about the self-hatred of western intellectuals.

But I wonder if it’s a fashion absorbed and perpetuated, communicated like the flu, a low grade dingy patina of … not even evil, just discontent and depression and a feeling that everyone in the world is similarly tainted.

I realized that was part of what was depressing me, partly because I’m a depressive, so I monitor my mood fairly regularly. BUT what about normal people? What if they just absorb this world view — and the idea that it’s smart and sophisticated, too — through popular entertainment, through movies and books and shows and then spew it out into the world, because it stands like a veil between them and reality, changing the way they perceive everything.

[…] such despairing stuff, such low grade despair and unpleasantness change us, particularly when they’re unremitting. You internalize these thoughts, they become part of you. If humanity is a plague, who will have children? If humanity is a plague, why not encourage the criminals and terrorists? If humanity is a plague who is clean?

You. Me. Most human beings. Oh, sure, we’re not perfect — I often think people who write this lack the ability to distinguish between not being perfect and being corrupt and evil — and we often have unlovely characteristics. But, with very few exceptions, most people I know TRY to be decent by their lights, try to raise their kids, help their friends and generally leave the world a little better.

Now, are we representative of everyone? Of course not. A lot of people are raised in cultures (here and abroad) that simply don’t give their best selves a chance. But why enshrine those people and not the vast majority who are decent and well… human?

Even in a mystery there should be innocent and well-intentioned people. It gives contrast to the darker and more evil people and events.

Painting only in dark tints is no more accurate than painting only in pale tints. It doesn’t denote greater artistry. It just hangs a grey, blotched veil between your reader and reality, a veil that hides what is worthwhile in humans and events.

Make yourself aware of the veil and remove it. It’s time the low-grade depression of western civilization were defeated. No, it’s not perfect, but with all its failings it has secured the most benefits to the greatest number of people in the long and convoluted history of mankind. Self-criticism might be appropriate, but not to the exclusion of everything else.

Say no to the dingy-grey-patina. Wash your eyes and look at the world anew. And then paint in all the tints not just grey or black.

Sarah Hoyt, “A Dingy Patina”, According To Hoyt, 2015-10-22.

November 9, 2017

Frankenstein: The New Romantics – Extra Sci Fi – #2

Filed under: Books, Europe, History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Extra Credits
Published on 7 Nov 2017

Industrialization and the Age of Reason benefitted society in many ways, but also created an atmosphere of dehumanizing mass production. The Romantic literary movement rose up to assert the value of emotion in a modern world, and praised science as a marvel whose discoveries bounded on magic made real.

Lois McMaster Bujold interview

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

It’s apparently a reprint, but since I missed it the first time, it’s a new one to me:

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer: You published a Star Trek fanzine in the 1960s, while the series was still on the air. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, so I can’t resist asking you about it. What was it like to be a fan writer in the 1960s?

Lois McMaster Bujold: It was a lonelier enterprise back then than it is now. I go into it a little in this recent interview.

Other than that, I expect it was like being a newbie writer at any time, all those pictures and feelings churning around in one’s head and latching on to whatever models one could find to try to figure out how to get them down on a page. Besides the professional fiction I was reading, my models included Devra Langsam’s very early ST fanzine Spockanalia, and Columbus, Ohio fan John Ayotte’s general zine Kallikanzaros. It was John who guided Lillian and me through the mechanics of producing a zine, everything from how to type stencils (ah, the smell of Corflu in the morning! and afternoon, and late into the night), where to go to get electrostencils produced, how to run off and collate the pages — John lent us the use of his mimeograph machine in his parents’ basement. (And I just now had to look up the name of that technology on the internet — I had forgotten and all I could think of was “ditto”, a predecessor which had a different smell entirely.)

Fan writing, at the time, was assumed to be writing more about SF and fandom, what people would use blogs to do today, than writing fanfiction. So an all-fiction zine seemed a novelty to some of our fellow fans in Columbus.

[…]

ECM: Miles Vorkosigan is an amazingly resilient kid (and then an amazingly resilient adult), but it sometimes seems like moving to Escobar or Beta Colony, or staying with the Dendarii, would make his life much easier. His attachment to his home planet is a little mysterious. What are Miles’s favorite things about Barrayar?

LMB: I actually put off this question for last, as it was strangely hard to answer. (I may be overthinking it.) Partly it’s that it requires me to reboot a character I haven’t written in some years, and hold his whole 43-years-book-time character development in my head at once. Why does anyone love their childhood home, or their family, if they do? (Not a universal given among F&SF readers, I observe; it’s a very anti-domestic genre. Don Sakers’s Analog review of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen touched on this.)

Miles’s favorite place on Barrayar is easy to tag: the lakeside retreat at Vorkosigan Surleau, and the wild Dendarii mountain range backing up behind it. Actually including its obstreperous people. As ever, Miles is a conflicted hybrid, half city boy and half country, half Betan and half Barrayaran, half future and half past, stretched between in a moving present. Family, friends, landscapes; all made him and all hold him. And from his very beginning, with all those painful medical treatments as a barely comprehending child, he’s been taught that he can’t run away when things get hard. But which also taught him that painful things can get better. It’s a lesson he’s taken to heart, and not only because it validates his own questioned and criticized existence.

(Miles being Miles, he may also take this a step too far, and confuse pain with hope, which would make him not at all the first human to stray down such a path.)

November 2, 2017

George Orwell had a lot of rejection slips for Animal Farm

Filed under: Books, Business, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

But of those, this one from T.S. Eliot is perhaps the most representative:

(Click to see full-size)

H/T to Raj Balasubramanyam for the image.

November 1, 2017

Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus – Extra Sci Fi – #1

Filed under: Books, Europe, History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Extra Credits
Published on 31 Oct 2017

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein launched the entire genre of science fiction. What made it unique? What did Shelley create, and how did her view of the possibilities of science shape the way we imagine our world even today?

October 30, 2017

QotD: Responding to “do my homework for me” requests from students

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

There is one certain kind of email interview, however, which I’m going to single out for attention. Just recently, I got an interview request from a high school student which was clearly nothing more than the questions he received as part of a assignment, and he thought he could fool me into answering them for him. Now, this wasn’t the first time I’ve received such a letter, so even though I’m answering him the rest of you smartass students need to listen up as well: Listen, kiddo, I didn’t just fall off of the fucking turnip truck. Don’t let my spectacular bod fool you; I’m old enough to be your grandmother, and I was probably outwitting teachers before your parents were born. I’ve been around the block more times than you’ve masturbated, and if you think you can trick me into doing your homework, you need to be slapped harder than I’m willing to give you for what you can afford. It’s bad enough when adult reporters try to get me to do their work for them, but it reaches a higher level of impudence when the person who thinks he can outwit me isn’t even as old as the last bottle of wine I drank. So cut that shit out; if you want to interview me come up with some proper questions, record it, then write the damned paper yourself. The practice will do you good, and one day you’ll thank me when you become an actual writer rather than a fucking stenographer whose “craft” consists of parroting whatever moronic propaganda the cops are shoveling out at press conferences in the late 2020s.

Maggie McNeill, “Not Last Night”, The Honest Courtesan, 2016-03-17.

October 21, 2017

QotD: Writing for the internet

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

It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you’re a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic. The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you.

Megan McArdle, “How to Win Friends and Influence Refugee Policy”, Bloomberg View, 2015-11-20.

October 11, 2017

Reading Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Richard Blake introduces one of the greatest English historians and explains why his work is still well worth reading:

Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was born into an old and moderately wealthy family that had its origins in Kent. Sickly as a child, he was educated at home, and sent while still a boy to Oxford. There, an illegal conversion to Roman Catholicism ruined his prospects of a career in the professions or the City. His father sent him off to Lausanne to be reconverted to the Protestant Faith. He came back an atheist and with the beginnings of what would become a stock of immense erudition. He served part of the Seven Years War in the Hampshire Militia. He sat in the House of Commons through much of the American War. He made no speeches, and invariably supported the Government. He moved for a while in polite society – though his increasing obesity, and the rupture that caused his scrotum to swell to the size of a football, made him an object of mild ridicule. Eventually, he withdrew again to Switzerland, where obesity and his hydrocele were joined by heavy drinking. Scared by the French Revolution, he came back to England in 1794, where he died of blood-poisoning after an operation to drain his scrotum.

When not eating and drinking, and putting on fine clothes, and talking about himself, he found time to become the greatest historian of his age, the greatest historian who ever wrote in English, one of the greatest of all English writers, and perhaps the only modern historian to rank with Herodotus and Thucydides and Tacitus. The first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire astonished everyone who knew him. The whole was received as an undisputed classic. The work has never been out of print during the past quarter-millennium. It remains, despite the increase in the number of our sources and our better understanding of them, the best – indeed, the essential – introduction to the history of the Roman Empire between about the death of Marcus Aurelius and the death of Justinian.

I’ve read a few abridged versions of Gibbon’s great work, and I intend to start on the unexpurgated version once I’ve finished the New Cambridge Modern History (I have all in hand except Volume XII, the Companion Volume). This is why Blake considers Gibbon to be such an important and still-relevant writer:

1. Greatness as a Writer and a Liberal

I cannot understand the belief, generally shared these past two centuries, that the golden age of English literature lay in the century before the Civil War. I accept the Prayer Book and the English Bible as works of genius that will be appreciated so long as our language survives. I admire the Essays of Francis Bacon and one or two lyrics. But I do not at all regard Shakespeare as a great writer. His plays are ill-organised, his style barbarous and tiresome. I fail to understand how pieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, with their long, ranting monologues, can be thought equal to the greatest products of the Athenian theatre. I grant that Julius Caesar is a fine play – but only because Shakespeare stayed close to his ancient sources for the plot, and wrote in an uncharacteristically plain style. Perhaps I am undeveloped in some critical faculty; and I know that people whose judgements I trust have thought better of him. But I cannot see Shakespeare as a great writer or his age as the greatest in our literature. […]

2. His Scholarship

As said, this was not my first meeting with Gibbon. I was twelve when I found him in the abridgement by D.M. Low. As an undergraduate, I made use of him in the J.B. Bury edition up till the reign of Heraclius and the Arab conquests. In my middle twenties, I went through him again in a desultory manner, skipping chapters that did not interest me. But it was only as I approached thirty that I read him in the full and proper order, from the military resources of the Antonines to the revival of Rome under the Renaissance Popes. It is only by reading him in the whole, and by paying equal attention to text and footnotes, that he can be appreciated as a supreme historian. […]

3. His Fairness as an Historian

Even where he can be criticised for letting his prejudices cloud his judgement, Gibbon remains ultimately fair. He dislikes Christianity, and is convinced that it contributed to the decline of the Empire. His fifteenth and sixteenth chapters are one long sneer at the rise and progress of the Christian Faith. They excited a long and bitter controversy. There was talk for a while of a prosecution for blasphemy. But this was only talk. A man of Gibbon’s place in the social order was not to be taken into court like some hack writer with no connections.

September 8, 2017

QotD: Never ask where writers get their inspiration

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

My Dark Age adventure, Shieldwall: Barbarians! is Young Adult, meaning, in this case, Sharpe or Conan but without the shagging, and with slightly more moral compass — really you can read it as being “in the tradition of” Harold Lamb and the Pulpmeisters of Yore and ignore the YA tag. When I wrote it, I had in my head “Robert E Howard does Rosemary Sutcliff (but not that way (though they would have made a lovely couple))”.

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.

September 1, 2017

QotD: Writing as a profession

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

“Changing the world” or even “changing the world of science fiction” was never my goal, fortunately. “Not getting my utilities cut off for nonpayment of bills” was. That, happily, turned out to be a more feasible aim.

It is the nature of the book market that one cannot be financially successful without also being well-known, one’s name being one’s brand-name, more or less. Which is felt to be the means and which the end will vary from writer to writer, natch. And whether one really needs “rich and famous” or if “self-supporting and well-known in my field” will do. Beware those moving goalposts, which can always make one feel artificially bad.

“How high is up?” is one of those dangerous questions that each writer must answer for themselves. Setting goals unrealistically high guarantees frustration, too low risks not challenging oneself to do as well as one otherwise might. (As a rule of thumb, it is also better to focus on what you can do, and not on other people’s non-controllable responses. “Finish a book” is controllable, “sell a book” less so, “become a bestseller or win an award” still less so. Unhappy is the writer who boards this train wrong way round.)

As for time, it passes at exactly the same rate for everyone, regardless of how one chooses to apportion it. It’s all choices and tradeoffs. Some prices might really be too high, some rewards too meager; only the person who is leading that life can decide.

That said, when I contemplate the ever-upthrusting mountain range of reading matter in the world, effectively infinitely more than I could ever read in my remaining lifetime, I do sometimes wonder why on earth I’m trying to make more, yeah — if that were my only motivation. Except that writing is in itself an intrinsic pleasure for me, if a weird one — I sometimes wonder if writing fiction ought to be classified as a dissociative disorder. So I would likely still be making up stories even if no one else wanted them, only with less social approval.

Lois McMaster Bujold, “Ask the Author: Lois McMaster Bujold”, Goodreads, 2015-04-21.

August 24, 2017

QotD: Reader demands

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

Readers often ask for more of the same, but I think in many cases that’s not what they mean; what they are really saying is, “Give me a story that will make me feel the way that one did!” Which may actually be quite a different thing, but is much harder to articulate.

(Or, for all those fractal follow-ups, there’s always Fanficwoman. To the rescue!)

Lois McMaster Bujold, “Ask the Author: Lois McMaster Bujold”, Goodreads, 2015-04-21.

August 22, 2017

QotD: Writing about the past

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

If you’re writing in the past — or even if you are just living in the present — you should have an idea of how the past was different, and the factors that shaped that.

If you assume the past was just like the present only less “enlightened” you’re presupposing history comes with an arrow, and that today is of course more “advanced” than the past. While this is true of science — of course — it’s not always true of what was inside people’s heads. In many ways because even the poorest of us struggle less than in the Middle Ages, it’s become easier to develop mental habits of laziness and other “rich person” vices. What you think is enlightenment might be considered sheer nonsense by your descendants. For instance the enlightened thing at one time (even Heinlein has a whiff of it) was genetic culling. Now we’re finding that what we know about genes isn’t that straightforward. Throw in epigenetics and someone with a gene to be a “moron” can turn out to be a genius. More, even overtly bad disease genes are linked to genes we need and can’t survive without. BUT the enlightened opinion in the early twentieth century was to improve humanity and save human suffering by culling out the sick and the lame and the “inferior races.” (No, Hitler didn’t invent that.)

Some of our concepts (and I’m not going to name any because it’s a fight I don’t need, but I’m sure you can think of some) will prove just as monstrous to our descendants.

If you don’t have a sense of that, you don’t have a sense of the past, which unfortunately means you don’t have a sense of the present.

If you think that there is an objective way to end poverty or stop drug use, or whatever, and it’s ONLY your way, and even your opponents think your way is right and are being villainous and “evil” by opposing it you not only shouldn’t be writing historical fiction, you definitely shouldn’t be voting. You should find the nearest kindergarten and use it as a safe space.

Because out here in the real adult world, the past and the present and complicated places, with different modes of arranging life that worked with the circumstances at that time, even if they now set our teeth (or our hair) on edge.

If you can’t accept your ancestors were different from you, thought differently and responded to different necessities, you have no business preaching multiculturalism.

Because what makes a culture different is not the hairstyles, the dresses or what they ate, but how one must live to survive. And yes, some cultures are factually worse than others at providing their people with the necessities (or the luxuries) of life. Arguably most past cultures were (barring our finding some atlantian high-developed scientific culture we’ve heard nothing about.)

That doesn’t give you the right to to stomp your feet and rewrite the past to justify your boorish self-regard in the present.

Your ancestors were both more and less enlightened than you in ways you can’t even understand, and your superimposing your beliefs on them is the act of a mental midget standing on the shoulders of giants and peeing down.

Sarah A. Hoyt, “What Has Gone Before Us”, According to Hoyt, 2015-08-03.

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