Lone Survivor

Friday, October 24th, 2014

When the Lone Survivor movie came out, I read up on Operation Red Wings, but I only just got around to watching the movie.

The original plan kicked off with a six-man team of Marine Scout Snipers walking in under cover of darkness, but, because SOF air elements were going to be involved in later stages, that turned into a four-man team of SEALs inserting by helicopter — something the original planners thought would compromise the mission by revealing coalition presence in this area.

The movie depicts all the SEALs as fully kitted out and visibly encumbered, but they’re not wearing helmets, and it’s not clear that they’re wearing body armor, either. Two are armed with suppressed sniper rifles, while the other two have carbines with grenade launchers.

They make their way to a decent vantage point from which they can spot and indentify their (surveillance) target, Ahmad Shah, and his surprisingly large “army” of fighters.

They’re just out of rifle range and aren’t on a mission to take out Shah themselves. One of the spotters asks, “You make that shot?” and the sniper replies, “Negative. Wouldn’t have authority anyway.”

(I couldn’t help but wonder, what could four designated marksmen, all armed with higher-caliber semi-auto rifles, do to a few dozen insurgents caught in the open like that, before they could respond?)

In the mountainous, wooded terrain, the SEALs have “comms” problems and can’t report back their findings, call in support, or request an extraction — but they came expecting comms problems, so they don’t panic. On the other hand, they don’t seem to have a solid plan for handling the local situation without support.

In particular, they don’t seem to have a solid plan for handling a few locals stumbling upon their position. No one on the team speaks the local language, and no one has a plan for dealing with semi-hostile locals. When you don’t have a plan, you don’t make good decisions. I’m not sure what a good decision would have been, but both shooting the locals and letting them go have obvious downsides. I suppose they didn’t bring zip-ties? Paracord? A few extra hours could have made a big difference. Letting the enemy know you’re there, and that there are only four of you, seems like something you should put off as long as possible.

By the time the pursuers catch up to them, the SEALs are deep in rough, wooded terrain — where they do not have clear lines of sight for long-range shots.

One thing the movie drives home is just how physical modern combat can be. The SEALs take a beating from scrambling through the rocky, wooded terrain, take some terrible falls, and then, on top of that, get cut to pieces by fragments from RPGs, mortar bombs, ricochets, etc. And then they actually get shot. The through-and-through shots to the arms and legs don’t seem to slow them down much, but it all adds up.

If the film starts to feel more “Hollywood” by the end, that’s because it diverges from the book — and reality.

If you “enjoyed” Black Hawk Down, you should see Lone Survivor, too.

Welcome to Our Reality

Friday, October 17th, 2014

How do the Swedes recruit soldiers? Like this:

Why is Football More Popular than Ever?

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Why is football more popular than ever?

In practice getting people to watch spot advertising means programming that has to be watched live and in practice that in turn means sports. Thus it is entirely predictable that advertisers will pay a premium for sports. It is also predictable that the cable industry will pay a premium for sports because must-watch ephemera is a good insurance policy against cord-cutting. Moreover, as a straight-forward Ricardian rent type issue, we would predict that this increased demand would accrue to the owners of factor inputs: athletes, team owners, and (in the short-run) the owners of cable channels with contracts to carry sports content. Indeed this has basically all happened.

Here’s something else that is entirely predictable from these premises: we should have declining viewership for sports. If you’re the marginal viewer who ex ante finds sports and scripted equally compelling, it seems like as sports get more expensive and you keep having to watch ads, whereas scripted gets dirt cheap, ad-free, and generally more convenient, the marginal viewer would give up sports, watch last season’s episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix, be blissfully unaware of major advertising campaigns, and pocket the $50 difference between a basic cable package and a $10 Netflix subscription.

The weird thing is that this latter prediction didn’t happen. During exactly the same period over which sports got more expensive in absolute terms and there was declining direct cost and hassle for close substitutes, viewership for sports increased. From 2003 to 2013, sports viewership was up 27%. Or rather, baseball isn’t doing so great and basketball is holding its own, but holy moly, people love football. If you look at both the top events and top series on tv, it’s basically football, football, some other crap, and more football. I just can’t understand how when one thing gets more expensive and something else that’s similar gets a lot cheaper and lower hassle, that you see people flocking to the thing that is absolutely more hassle and relatively more money.

Sandworm

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

The Russians have been spying on foreign powers — shocking, I know — using software that researchers have dubbed Sandworm:

Although iSight only has a small view of the number of victims targeted in the campaign, the victims include among others, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Ukrainian and European Union governments, energy and telecommunications firms, defense companies, as well as at least one academic in the US who was singled out for his focus on Ukrainian issues. The attackers also targeted attendees of this year’s GlobSec conference, a high-level national security gathering that attracts foreign ministers and other top leaders from Europe and elsewhere each year.

It appears Sandworm is focused on nabbing documents and emails containing intelligence and diplomatic information about Ukraine, Russia and other topics of importance in the region. But it also attempts to steal SSL keys and code-signing certificates, which iSight says the attackers probably use to further their campaign and breach other systems.

The researchers dubbed the operation “Sandworm” because the attackers make multiple references to the science fiction series Dune in their code. [...] It was encoded references to Dune — which appear in URLs for the attackers’ command-and-control servers — that helped tie some of the attacks together. The URLs include base64 strings that when decoded translate to “arrakis02,” “houseatreides94,” and “epsiloneridani0,” among others.

“Some of the references were very obscure so whoever was writing the malware was a big Dune geek,” says John Hultquist, senior manager for iSight’s Cyber Espionage Threat Intelligence team.

“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”

Crowley’s children

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

It turns out all those nutty Christian evangelists who warned that rock and roll was satanic were right, Jules Evans notes:

[Aleister] Crowley appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. John Lennon once said ‘The whole Beatles thing was do what you want, you know?’

A statue of him also appears on the cover of the Doors’ album, Doors 13. The Doors admired Crowley as someone who’d ‘broken through to the other side’, and who was a master of anarchic showmanship. Jim Morrison once said, in very Crowley-ite words: ‘I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning.’

Jimmy Page was a huge Crowley fan, and bought his house next to Loch Ness. Crowley’s famous motto, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, was embossed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin III.

The Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull were into Crowleian magic through the film-maker Kenneth Anger — hence their album His Satanic Majesties and their song Sympathy for the Devil. Jagger also made the soundtrack to Anger’s film, Invocation to my Demon Brother, while Marianne Faithful appeared in Anger’s Lucifer Rising, which starred a future member of the Manson Family.

David Bowie was also a big fan of Crowley — he mentions him in the song ‘Quicksand’, and was very influenced by Crowley’s magic techniques, symbolism, and superman philosophy. Bowie was deep into the occult in the 1970s, particularly during the making of ‘Station to Station’ when he feared he’d invoked an evil demon, and that witches were trying to steal his semen to make a Satanic love-child (no, really).

In the 1980s, of course, various metal bands were explicitly into Crowley, from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden. More recently, and perhaps more surprisingly, Crowley’s ideas are apparently an influence on rap stars like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and that ardent practitioner of sex magick, Ciara.

More broadly, as we’ll examine, pop culture helped to make Crowley’s philosophy of unfettered egotism — do what thou wilt — the ruling philosophy of western society. We are all Crowley’s children.

Great Martian War

Friday, October 10th, 2014

The Great Martian War mixes authentic (and inauthentic) World War I footage with SFX War of the Worlds tripods — and a not-at-all-period soundtrack:

The History Channel has a two-hour special planned:

We made the decision from the start not to use WWI archive footage that showed real casualties or troops fighting. Though we strongly believe our show honours the veterans of WWI and seeks to look at the war afresh through a science fiction story we recognised the need to be sensitive to the original archive material and the people in it.

As well as the untreated period archive that illustrates our story we had in some cases to insert realistic computer graphics into that archive. That was a complex process of creating super realistic Alien war machines animating and rendering them then match compositing them into archive that was often hugely distressed and degraded. The modern animated elements then had to be similarly degraded so that they bedded into the period archive. No two pieces of original archive are alike so each shot presented a very complex set of issues for the teams involved.

On top of that we created a number of shots using live action of extras in detailed period costume on a purpose built trench system, (the same one used for the WWI scenes in ‘Downton Abbey’!), and on location. Our Aliens were then composited into this footage and the whole thing retro treated with pops, scratches, grain and distress to sit alongside original war footage, hopefully invisibly.

We also co-opted real archive from the years around the war and re-interpreted it to help illustrate our story. We don’t pretend to bring to our fake documentary the kind of rigour necessary in real documentary. We needed to re-interpret archive to tell our fictional story. So for instance our footage of riots around the Whitehouse is real but took place after WWI… And in a world where Germany, France and Britain fought on the same side against a single Alien invader our uniforms and kit do not always strictly chronologically match the timeline of the real war!

Much of the available ‘real’ archive WWI footage of frontline ‘combat’ was actually reconstructed during and after the war well away from the front line for propaganda and dramatic purpose, but where we had any doubt we avoided that archive and made our own. We did this from scratch, painstakingly constructing our shots with reference to photos and footage from the war and deliberately tried to confine ourselves to angles and camera technology available in 1913- 17. Cameras then were hand cranked at an irregular frame rate locked onto a tripod and rarely mounted in anything moving.

Star Wars Art: Posters

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Star Wars Art: Posters includes a couple images that caught my eye:

Star Wars Frazetta-Style Poster

Star Wars Revenge of the Jedi Poster

The Eccentric Polish Count Who Influenced Classic SF’s Greatest Writers

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Alfred Korzybski deserves a more prominent place in our histories of science fiction, Lee Konstatinou argues:

Korzybski inspired a legion of students, and the meta-science of “General Semantics” that he created affected disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and cybernetics.

But his most powerful effect might have been on John W. Campbell’s Golden Age. Indeed, Korzybski is probably the most important influence on science fiction you’ve never heard of.

Alfred Korzybski was a Polish aristocrat who came to North America near the end of World War I after being injured in the war. Trained as an engineer, he created a philosophy he called General Semantics (not to be confused with semantics as a linguistic discipline). General Semantics was part of a much larger philosophical effort, early in the twentieth century, to create a logically ideal language and a contribution to intellectual debates about the so-called “meaning of meaning.”

Attempting to build on the work of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, Korzbyski tried to explain, among other things, why humans were uniquely prone to self-slaughter. He hoped, quixotically, that his meta-linguistic system might save us from our own worst tendencies.

Korzybski coined the well-known slogan, “The map is not the territory,” to sum up his ideas:

To defeat our Aristotelian habits of mind, to help humankind achieve what he called “sanity,” Korzybski created a mental and spiritual training regime. He recommended that we achieve a “consciousness of abstracting,” an awareness of our own process of abstracting the world, in order to gain a better understanding of what he called “silence on the objective level,” the fundamentally non-linguistic nature of reality. Korzybski advised that we engage in a “semantic pause” when confronted with a novel stimulus, a sort of neurocognitive Time Out.

He profoundly influenced Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, A.E. Van Vogt — and many others:

Many other Golden Age writers, such as H. Beam Piper and Reginald Bretnor, incorporated Korzybski into their fiction. And his influence stretches well beyond the conventional boundaries of the Golden Age.

Frank Herbert, for instance, ghostwrote a nationally syndicated column on General Semantics, under Hayakawa’s byline, while writing Dune (1965). Korzybski’s ideas are visible in Herbert’s depiction of the Bene Gesserit’s mental and physical training regime.

Adam Smith and the Romance Novel

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

The novel was the up-and-coming genre of the 18th century:

The cultural ubiquity of the novel in our age makes it hard to remember, first, that it is a genre and not just a word for any narrative (despite what the youth of America seem to think), and second, that it had or ever needed a rise. But rise it did, in the 1730s and ‘40s.

The seminal literary historian Ian Watt was one of the first to study the phenomenon, and to link the rise of the novel to the simultaneous rise of the middle class and of middle class literacy. This new class, accustomed to the typical literary division between tragic aristocrats and royalty on the one hand and comic, lower class characters on the other, needed a place to read about itself, and to see its own values reflected well. They also suddenly had cash, which makes such desires relevant.

The productions that were called novels in the early-18th century were essentially tabloidized versions of the goings on in royal places. Their titles tell you more or less all you need to know about them: Letters From a Nobleman to His Sister (they’re close), The Mercenary Lover, The Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes. But a large part of the pleasure of such novels was not in seeing real life sketched in the form of fictional persons. It was figuring out if Countess Vanity-in-her-Wardrobe was meant to stand in allegorically for, say, the opposition leader in Parliament, or refer to some highborn member of the queen’s household.

But in the 1740s, long fictional prose narratives that had previously concerned themselves with aristocrats became … a little less about aristocrats. Starting with Daniel Defoe and really taking off with Samuel Richardson, novels centered on the conflict between politically connected aristocrats and the members of the classes below them.

In Richardson’s extraordinary popular debut, Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, a ladies’ maid resists the seductions of her boss so effectively that he marries her. Things take a more tragic turn for the eponymous heroine of Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady, a woman of the Austenesque gentry class who has the misfortune to run into a degenerate lordling who will feel very bad about himself after he rapes her and drives her to one of those shockingly common stress deaths of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The highborn ladies of the previous nouvelles scandaleuses (we say it in French when sturdy middle-class English won’t do) are often already married, so courtship is really not the point of those novels. The “romance” of the early romance novel is purely in the imagining of oneself enjoying the things that Adam Smith alluded to in his first description of the invisible hand in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: the palaces and equipages of the rich and splendid. It may also lie in the realization that even people who occupy those high states can be unhappy and comically ridiculous, even in the throes of our envy of them.

But with Richardson’s novels, the question of courtship and the ethics of the pursuit of money came under the fiction’s scrutiny, just as they came under Smith’s eye in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. It’s not the aristocracy that Smith addresses when he talks about the proper attitude towards getting money: They already had it, after all. It’s to that same middle class that was reading Richardson’s tales of aspiring women.

Fill in the Blanks

Monday, October 6th, 2014

There it is: ______s are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like ______ and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

It’s not exactly Mad Libs, but it caught my fancy. Do you recognize the source?

William Morris

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

William Morris Design for Trellis Wallpaper 1862William Morris is known for many things. As a writer and a medievalist, he inspired Tolkien to pen The Lord of the Rings. As a socialist and a craftsman, he dreamed of a post-capitalist world where all labor would provide the gratification assigned, in his lifetime, to art.

Alain de Botton considers him one of the great philosophers:

The 19th-century designer, poet and entrepreneur William Morris is one of the best guides we have to the modern economy – despite the fact that he died in 1896 (while Queen Victoria was still on the throne), never made a telephone call and would have found the very idea of television utterly baffling.

Morris was the first person to understand two issues which have become decisive for our times. Firstly: the role of pleasure in work. And, secondly: the nature of consumer demand. The preferences of consumers – what we collectively appreciate and covet and are willing to pay for – are crucial drivers of the economy and hence of the kind of society we end up living in. Until we have better collective taste, we will struggle to have a better economy and society.

[...]

The experience of building and fitting out his house taught Morris his first big lesson about the economy. It would have been simpler (and maybe cheaper) to have ordered everything from a factory outlet. But Morris wasn’t trying to find the quickest or simplest way to set up home. He wanted to find the way that would give him – and everyone involved in the project – maximum satisfaction. And it fired Morris with an enthusiasm for the medieval idea of craft. The worker would develop sensitivity and skill; and enjoy the labour. It wasn’t mechanical or humiliating.

He spotted that craft offers important clues to what we actually want from work. We want to know we’ve done something good with the day. That our efforts have counted towards tangible outcomes that we actually see and feel are worthwhile. And Morris was already noticing that when people really like their work, the issue of exactly how much you get paid becomes less critical. (Though Morris always believed, in addition, that people deserved honourable pay for honest work.) The point is you can absolutely say you are not doing it purely for the money.

[...]

The [décor] firm [he established] soon encountered a very instructive problem. If you make high quality goods and pay your workers a fair and decent wage, then the cost of the product is going to be higher. It will always be possible for competitors to undercut the price and offer inferior goods, produced in less humane ways, for less money.

If you ask a comparatively high price – to ensure the dignity of work and quality of materials and so make something that will last – you really risk losing customers.

The factories and machines of the Industrial Revolution had brought mass production. Prices were lower, but there was a loss of quality and a dependence on routine, deadening labour in depressing circumstances.

[...]

For Morris the key factor is, therefore, whether customers are willing to pay the just price. If they are, then work can be honourable. If they are not, then work is necessarily going to be – on the whole – degrading and miserable.

So, Morris concluded that the lynchpin of a good economy is the education of the consumer. We collectively need to get clearer about what we really want in our lives and why, and how much certain things are worth to us (and therefore how much we are prepared to pay for them).

An important clue to good consumption, Morris insisted, is that you ‘should have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

Morris believed that a good economy should pass the following tests:

  • How much do people enjoy working?
  • Does everyone live within walking distance of woods and meadows?
  • How healthy is the average diet?
  • How long are consumer goods expected to last?
  • Are the cities beautiful (generally, not just in a few privileged parts)?

The Inspiration For Disney’s Robin Hood Wasn’t Actually Robin Hood

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

The inspiration for Disney’s Robin Hood wasn’t actually Robin Hood:

Since the 1930s, Walt Disney had been interested in telling a version of the 12th century Alsatian story of Reynard (or Renart) the Fox. In the Roman de Renart, Reynard the Fox is summoned to the court of a cruel lion, King Leo, to answer charges brought against him by Isengrim the Wolf. Leo sends out various agents, including a bear, an ass, and a cat, to get him to court, but Reynard overcomes all three of them (incidentally, the Cat is named Tibert or Tybalt, which is why in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio calls Tybalt a ‘rat-catcher’ and ‘king of cats’), defeats Isengrim, and becomes Leo’s new advisor. This was just the start of a quite complex body of stories about Reynard, many of which were satires directed at aristocratic society.

The problem with all this material is that it was extremely violent (the bear gets attacked by bees, Tybalt loses an eye, and Reynard decapitates a rabbit and substitutes its head for a secret treasure). Reynard is a crook, and a deeply anti-authoritarian one at that. Walt Disney concluded that the material simply wasn’t appropriate for children. But Ken Anderson, one of the key members of Disney’s creative team, held onto the idea an periodically played around with it. In 1968, when the studio was looking for follow-up to The Aristocats, Anderson suggested doing a Robin Hood story. But Robin Hood is a problematic story for children, since like Reynard, he is anti-authoritarian. However, by merging the two figures and making an animated fox the hero fighting against a cowardly lion who is not the legitimate ruler, Anderson was able to kill two bird with one stone by taming the violence and reducing the anti-authoritarianism of both stories. Additionally, making the story animated rather than live-action helped create distance between the characters and the young audience, reducing the likelihood that they would absorb the anti-authoritarianism of the story.

The choice to model Robin Hood loosely off the story of Reynard was an inspired one. While Reynard is not a familiar figure to English-speaking audiences, foxes are still considered clever and sly, which fits well for Robin Hood. Modeling Prince John after Leo but making him a coward is a brilliant contradiction (as well as echoing the Cowardly Lion of The Wizard of Oz). Isengrim the wolf becomes the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. Making Allan-a-Dale a rooster riffs nicely on the character of Chaunticleer the Rooster, who is perhaps the most famous (to English-speakers at least) of all the Reynard cycle characters, because Chaucer wrote a version of his conflict with Reynard in “The Second Nun’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. The addition of two poor church mice as supporting characters is also a clever little joke.

When I first heard about Reynard the Fox, I got a chuckle out of the name, because renard is French for fox:

The traditional French word for “fox” was goupil from Latin vulpecula. However, mentioning the fox was considered bad luck among farmers. Because of the popularity of the Reynard stories, renard was often used as a euphemism, so that today renard is the standard French word for “fox” and goupil is now dialectal or archaic.

10 Lessons From Real-Life Revolutions That Fictional Dystopias Ignore

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Esther Inglis-Arkell lists 10 lessons from real-life revolutions that fictional dystopias ignore:

The Enemy of Your Enemy Is Not Your Friend. And even though smugglers who deal in that contraband may seem to oppose their government, they’re actually part of a stable system.

The Top Guy Isn’t Always the Problem. There were, and are, plenty of dictators who brutally check every attempt at reform. There have also been kings who supported the cause of justice and attempted reform, only to be stopped by a large group of people who had enough power and wealth to topple the monarchy more quickly than peasants could.

Sometimes Making Concessions Leads To Rebellion. Authors are concerned with making dictators frightening, rather than frightened. Remember that sometimes a “reasonable response” is not actually a reasonable response. Dictators are morally wrong — but they might be, practically speaking, right not to compromise.

Two Downtrodden Groups Will Usually Be Fighting Each Other. Both the Union and the Confederacy passed conscription acts. Exceptions to both conscription acts were contingent upon wealth.

Never Neglect the Practicalities. Women rioting for bread got the ball rolling on both the French and the Russian revolutions.

New Regimes Come With Crazy Ideology. Sometimes these radicalization plans are horrific, like China’s Great Leap Forward. The program was meant to modernize the nation, but was planned and executed by non-experts. As a result the modernization plans included asking farmers and urban neighborhoods to make steel in “backyard furnaces,” build aqueducts with no training, and kill every sparrow. The resulting insect plague and irrigation disaster caused a food shortage that resulted in between 18 and 45 million deaths.

Revolutions Take Place on a World Stage. When Americans rebelled against Britain, they didn’t do it alone. The French enacted devastatingly effective naval warfare against the British, committing 32,000 sailors to the cause. They also contributed soldiers, supplies, and money. Which made it awkward when France underwent its own revolution, and both the royalists and the republicans expected the United States to be on their side.

Violent Conflicts Keep Cropping Up From Within. Every revolution starts out by employing the “we are all brothers and sisters” ideology to get people on board.

Fear Alone Can Precipitate the Explosion. The French revolution was exported from Paris to the provinces because peasants, coming off a bad harvest and looking forward to a good one, were worried that their local nobility would sabotage their food supply in retaliation for the goings-on in Paris. Terrified, they took to the country houses, demanding food, cash, and rights. They took the Revolution nation-wide not because any particular event sparked retaliation, but because they feared it soon would.

Afterwards There Will Be Mythology for the Losing Side. There are very few regimes so terrible that they can’t be romanticized. This is especially true after they have been defeated. It’s easy to be sentimental about something when nobody has to deal with it anymore.

How to Write a Thriller

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

Ian Fleming explains how to write a thriller:

People often ask me, “How do you manage to think of that? What an extraordinary (or sometimes extraordinarily dirty) mind you must have.” I certainly have got vivid powers of imagination, but I don’t think there is anything very odd about that.

We are all fed fairy stories and adventure stories and ghost stories for the first 20 years of our lives, and the only difference between me and perhaps you is that my imagination earns me money. But, to revert to my first book, Casino Royale, there are strong incidents in the book which are all based on fact. I extracted them from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.

The first was the attempt on Bond’s life outside the Hotel Splendide. SMERSH had given two Bulgarian assassins box camera cases to hang over their shoulders. One was of red leather and the other one blue. SMERSH told the Bulgarians that the red one con-tained a bomb and the blue one a powerful smoke screen, under cover of which they could escape.

One was to throw the red bomb and the other was then to press the button on the blue case. But the Bulgars mistrusted the plan and decided to press the button on the blue case and envelop themselves in the smoke screen before throwing the bomb. In fact, the blue case also contained a bomb powerful enough to blow both the Bulgars to fragments and remove all evidence which might point to SMERSH.

Farfetched, you might say. In fact, this was the method used in the Russian attempt on Von Papen’s life in Ankara in the middle of the war. On that occasion the assassins were also Bulgarians and they were blown to nothing while Von Papen and his wife, walking from their house to the embassy; were only bruised by the blast.

So you see the line between fact and fantasy is a very narrow one. I think I could trace most of the central incidents in my books to some real happenings.

We thus come to the final and supreme hurdle in the writing of a thriller. You must know thrilling things before you can write about them. Imagination alone isn’t enough, but stories you hear from friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that will also ring true in fiction.

Having assimilated all this encouraging advice, your heart will nevertheless quail at the physical effort involved in writing even a thriller. I warmly sympathise with you. I too, am lazy My heart sinks when I contemplate the two or three hundred virgin sheets of foolscap I have to besmirch with more or less well chosen words in order to produce a 60,000 word book.

One of the essentials is to create a vacuum in my life which can only be satisfactorily filled by some form of creative work – whether it be writing, painting, sculpting, composing or just building a boat – I was about to get married – a prospect which filled me with terror and mental fidget. To give my hands something to do, and as an antibody to my qualms about the marriage state after 43 years as a bachelor, I decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book.

The therapy was successful. And while I still do a certain amount of writing in the midst of my London Life, it is on my annual visits to Jamaica that all my books have been written.

But, failing a hideaway such as I possess, I can recommend hotel bedrooms as far removed from your usual “life” as possible. Your anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and distractions will create a vacuum which should force you into a writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will also make you write fast and with application. I do it all on the typewriter, using six fingers. The act of typing is far less exhausting than the act of writing, and you end up with a more or less clean manuscript The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine.

I write for about three hours in the morning – from about 9:30 till 12:30and I do another hour’s work between six and seven in the evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and putting them away in a spring-back folder. The whole of this four hours of daily work is devoted to writing narrative.

I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren’t disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks.

I don’t even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished.

When my book is completed I spend about a week going through it and correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting passages. I then have it properly typed with chapter headings and all the rest of the trimmings. I then go through it again, have the worst pages retyped and send it off to my publisher.

They are a sharp-eyed bunch at Jonathan Cape and, apart from commenting on the book as a whole, they make detailed suggestions which I either embody or discard. Then the final typescript goes to the printer and in due course the galley or page proofs are there and you can go over them with a fresh eye. Then the book is published and you start getting letters from people saying that Vent Vert is made by Balmain and not by Dior, that the Orient Express has vacuum and not hydraulic brakes, and that you have mousseline sauce and not Bearnaise with asparagus.

Such mistakes are really nobody’s fault except the author’s, and they make him blush furiously when he sees them in print. But the majority of the public does not mind them or, worse, does not even notice them, and it is a dig at the author’s vanity to realise how quickly the reader’s eye skips across the words which it has taken him so many months to try to arrange in the right sequence.

But what, after all these labours, are the rewards of writing and, in my case, of writing thrillers?

First of all, they are financial. You don’t make a great deal of money from royalties and translation rights and so forth and, unless you are very industrious and successful, you could only just about live on these profits, but if you sell the serial rights and the film rights, you do very well. Above all, being a successful writer is a good life. You don’t have to work at it all the time and you carry your office around in your head. And you are far more aware of the world around you.

Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings and, since the main ingredient of living, though you might not think so to look at most human beings, is to be alive, this is quite a worthwhile by-product of writing.

Creating a Nation of Readers

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Publishers gave away over 100 million books during World War IIgood books, in a disposable format:

Serious books were hard to find before the war. An industry study in 1931 highlighted the book trade’s limited audience. Nineteen out of every 20 books sold by the major publishing houses cost more than two dollars, a luxury even before the Depression. Those who could afford them often struggled to find them. Two out of three counties in America lacked any bookstore, or even so much as a department store, drugstore, or other retailer selling enough books to have an account with a publishing house. In rural areas, small towns, and even mid-sized cities, dedicated customers bought their books the way they bought other household goods, picking the titles out of mail-order catalogs. Most did not bother.

There was another, less-reputable class of books, though, that enjoyed broader distribution. Cheap mysteries, westerns, and comics could be snapped up at newsstands in paperbound editions that cost far less to produce than hardcover books. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, publishers tried to take advantage of this format to publish a wider range of books. Most efforts failed. Then, in 1939, two new entrants changed the equation. Pocket Books and Penguin Books each offered a mix of new titles and reprints of hardcover books, including some of a literary bent. More importantly, they sold these paperback books on magazine racks.

Americans could put down a quarter and pick up a book all over town, from train stations and drugstores. Within a year, Americans bought 6 million paperback books. By 1943, Pocket Books alone printed 38 million copies. “It’s unbelievable,” said the head of Random House. “It’s frightening.”

Old-line publishers had good reason to be scared. They were in the business of selling a premium product to an affluent audience. The sudden flood of paperbacks threatened to swamp their refined trade and erode its prestige. The cheap, disposable format seemed best suited to works of little lasting value. That Penguin and Pocket Books included some distinguished titles on their lists threatened the stability of these categories, even as their sales still tilted heavily toward the lower end of the spectrum. Paperbacks were expanding the market for books, but that market remained divided.

Then, war intervened. The key actors in the book trade organized themselves into the Council on Books in Wartime, hoping to use books to advance the war effort. In February of 1943, they circulated an audacious proposal. They proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just six cents a volume.

Hardcover books could not possibly be produced so cheaply. But magazines could. So the Council decided to use magazine presses, printing two copies on each page, and then slicing the book in half perpendicular to the binding. The result was a book wider than it was tall, featuring two columns of text for easier reading in low light. The real innovation, though, was less technological than ideological. The publishers proposed to take books available only in hardcover form, and produce them in this disposable format.

The plan, breathtaking in its ambition, was sure to engender skepticism among publishers asked to donate the rights to some of their most valuable property. So the chair of the committee, W.W. Norton, took care to appeal not just to the patriotism of his fellow publishers, but also to their pursuit of profits. “The net result to the industry and to the future of book reading can only be helpful,” he explained. “The very fact that millions of men will have the opportunity to learn what a book is and what it can mean is likely now and in postwar years to exert a tremendous influence on the postwar course of the industry.”

The program turned The Great Gatsby into a success. Apparently A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was hugely popular with the troops.

(Hat tip to Steve Sailer.)