Openly questioning Neovictorian’s Sanity

Monday, February 18th, 2019

I recently read Neovictorian’s Sanity. The novel is, in a sense, didactic. It purports to explain how the world really works. For instance, our narrator — and presumably our author — remembers researching the Virginia Tech shooting, where one panicked student kept repeating that “It’s okay, they’re coming, they’re coming to help us!”:

Lesson number one is, They are not fucking coming.

Our hero, Cal — who, rather ironically, goes to Stanford, not Berkeley — finds himself recruited by a “good” conspiracy (the Network, or the Outfit) to fight the “bad” conspiracy (the Order).

The “good” conspiracy seems to be based on — I kid you not — a thinly disguised version of L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics — in this case, Heights, the new novel by Phillip Duke, announced in Analog Science Fiction, June, 1974, which grows into the ReHumanism movement.

Cal learns a lot from the Network, as these excerpts suggest:

  • Karsten taught that history wasn’t facts, or trends, causes, war and politics, Great Men or the power of the polis; history was a method of wisdom, the deep contemplation of which enriched understanding of men, women and societies. History revealed the gold and the dross of human behavior, and enabled more effective action in every area of life.
  • For instance, we know about a number of Soviet spies that were caught, working on the Manhattan project and secret military projects and the US delegations to Bretton Woods and the United Nations. But what about the ones that were never caught? I suspect a few spies spent entire careers undercover, retired well and died comfortably in their homes in the Virginia countryside.
  • The perfect crime isn’t the crime you get away with, it’s the crime that no one knows has even been committed.
  • “The ‘unseen,’ Mr. Black, might even be a group, an organization of sorts, but one that is silent. How would we know what effect such a group has had or is having on history? We know a good deal about Templars, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, the Black Hand and so on, but what if there are other groups around, that are operating in a shadow so complete that they might as well not exist?”
  • “Don’t show your cards”
  • “Do you ever get a feeling Cal, maybe you have since you were 12, 13, maybe even younger a feeling that you were almost like an alien observing earth from a distance, that your friends and family were often strange and stupid that everyone’s just acting acting acting all the time?”
  • “Do you feel that if it was necessary and right you could physically stop someone who was doing something bad and wrong, hurting innocent people, starting a war, threatening to use nuclear weapons, something like that?”
  • And put something in there that the herd will think is innocuous, and only the aliens will understand.”
  • It’s your future actions and choices and accomplishments that influenced what happened today. Physics works both directions in time — you might consider that.
  • The Outer Church and the Inner Church. It’s universal, everyone from the Greeks and their Mysteries to the Templars and the Masons and the German dueling societies and the Ivy League fraternities use some variation on it.
  • “Because social science is just a branch of the Order, and its purpose is to keep the mass fat, dumb and happy, so the Order can continue to be the Order.” “The Big Order or the Real Order?”
  • Do nothing for one breath. Do nothing, then assess, then take charge.

What Neovictorian really has to answer for is his young protagonist’s decision to carry a 1911 with two seven-round mags.

Anyway, as I read, I like to note interesting words (or phrases) I don’t see every day:

  • peripatetic – traveling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short period
  • gloaming – twilight; dusk.
  • so mote it be – “So mote it be” is a ritual phrase used by Freemasons, in Rosicrucianism, and more recently by Neopagans. It means “so may it be”, “so it is required”, or “so must it be”, and may be said at the end of a prayer in a similar way to “amen”.
  • contuberium – The contubernium was the smallest organized unit of soldiers in the Roman Army and was composed of eight legionaries, the equivalent of a modern squad. The men within the contubernium were known as contubernales. Ten contubernia were grouped into a centuria.

Again, the book is didactic, and that means it works in references to other recommended books:

In his afterword, he explicitly mentions his favorite authors:

In some rough chronological order they include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout always makes me cry.

The late William Patterson Jr.’s fine biography of Heinlein, In Dialogue With His Century, recounts several “mystical” experiences Heinlein had as a boy. I had a few, as well.

Was the term “GEV” just a mistake?

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Back in 1977, Steve Jackson Games came out with a sci-fi wargame named after the giant cybernetic tank central to its futuristic setting, the Ogre. Other units included infantry, artillery, and highly mobile hovercraft — known in the game as GEVs, or Ground Effect Vehicles.

Years later I learned that a ground effect vehicle is not a hovercraft, or air cushion vehicle, but a winged airplane, designed to use the wing-in-ground-effect — the reduction in drag experienced by an aircraft as it approaches a height approximately twice a wingspan’s length off the ground (or other level surface such as the sea).

Winchell Chung, who runs the Atomic Rockets website and goes by the handle of Nyrath, did the original art for the game, and I recently asked him, was the term “GEV” just a mistake? Or were they not meant to be air-cushion vehicles (ACVs) originally?

He wasn’t sure, but he made three points:

  1. The draft rules described units as armored hovercraft. Not aircraft. Fast moving ground units. They were called GEVs.
  2. I vaguely remember reading that GEM [for Ground Effect Machine] was a synonym for hovercraft, and I assumed GEV was a variant.
  3. I used a Popular Mechanics cover as inspiration.

Popular Mechanics Tiger Sharks of the Vietnam Swamps

He swapped out the propeller in the back with twin jet turbine engines and made the skirt look armor plated:

Winchell Chungs GEV 1 Winchell Chungs GEV 2 Winchell Chungs GEV 3

Then he sent a trial drawing to Steve Jackson, who added his comments in red:

Winchell Chungs GEV with Steve Jackson's Comments

The clinging death

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

In Jack London’s White Fang, the wolf-dog goes through an ugly episode under the ownership of the ironically nicknamed Beauty Smith, an ugly man, inside and out:

At irregular intervals, whenever a fight could be arranged, he was taken out of his cage and led off into the woods a few miles from town.  Usually this occurred at night, so as to avoid interference from the mounted police of the Territory.  After a few hours of waiting, when daylight had come, the audience and the dog with which he was to fight arrived.  In this manner it came about that he fought all sizes and breeds of dogs.  It was a savage land, the men were savage, and the fights were usually to the death.

Since White Fang continued to fight, it is obvious that it was the other dogs that died.  He never knew defeat.  His early training, when he fought with Lip-lip and the whole puppy-pack, stood him in good stead.  There was the tenacity with which he clung to the earth.  No dog could make him lose his footing.  This was the favourite trick of the wolf breeds — to rush in upon him, either directly or with an unexpected swerve, in the hope of striking his shoulder and overthrowing him.  Mackenzie hounds, Eskimo and Labrador dogs, huskies and Malemutes — all tried it on him, and all failed.  He was never known to lose his footing.  Men told this to one another, and looked each time to see it happen; but White Fang always disappointed them.

Then there was his lightning quickness.  It gave him a tremendous advantage over his antagonists.  No matter what their fighting experience, they had never encountered a dog that moved so swiftly as he.  Also to be reckoned with, was the immediateness of his attack.  The average dog was accustomed to the preliminaries of snarling and bristling and growling, and the average dog was knocked off his feet and finished before he had begun to fight or recovered from his surprise.  So often did this happen, that it became the custom to hold White Fang until the other dog went through its preliminaries, was good and ready, and even made the first attack.

But greatest of all the advantages in White Fang’s favour, was his experience.  He knew more about fighting than did any of the dogs that faced him.  He had fought more fights, knew how to meet more tricks and methods, and had more tricks himself, while his own method was scarcely to be improved upon.

As the time went by, he had fewer and fewer fights.  Men despaired of matching him with an equal, and Beauty Smith was compelled to pit wolves against him.  These were trapped by the Indians for the purpose, and a fight between White Fang and a wolf was always sure to draw a crowd.  Once, a full-grown female lynx was secured, and this time White Fang fought for his life.  Her quickness matched his; her ferocity equalled his; while he fought with his fangs alone, and she fought with her sharp-clawed feet as well.

But after the lynx, all fighting ceased for White Fang.  There were no more animals with which to fight — at least, there was none considered worthy of fighting with him.  So he remained on exhibition until spring, when one Tim Keenan, a faro-dealer, arrived in the land.  With him came the first bull-dog that had ever entered the Klondike.  That this dog and White Fang should come together was inevitable, and for a week the anticipated fight was the mainspring of conversation in certain quarters of the town.

Then comes the clinging death:

Beauty Smith slipped the chain from his neck and stepped back.

For once White Fang did not make an immediate attack. He stood still, ears pricked forward, alert and curious, surveying the strange animal that faced him. He had never seen such a dog before. Tim Keenan shoved the bull-dog forward with a muttered “Go to it.” The animal waddled toward the centre of the circle, short and squat and ungainly. He came to a stop and blinked across at White Fang.

There were cries from the crowd of, “Go to him, Cherokee! Sick ’m, Cherokee! Eat ’m up!”

But Cherokee did not seem anxious to fight. He turned his head and blinked at the men who shouted, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail good-naturedly. He was not afraid, but merely lazy. Besides, it did not seem to him that it was intended he should fight with the dog he saw before him. He was not used to fighting with that kind of dog, and he was waiting for them to bring on the real dog.

Tim Keenan stepped in and bent over Cherokee, fondling him on both sides of the shoulders with hands that rubbed against the grain of the hair and that made slight, pushing-forward movements. These were so many suggestions. Also, their effect was irritating, for Cherokee began to growl, very softly, deep down in his throat. There was a correspondence in rhythm between the growls and the movements of the man’s hands. The growl rose in the throat with the culmination of each forward-pushing movement, and ebbed down to start up afresh with the beginning of the next movement. The end of each movement was the accent of the rhythm, the movement ending abruptly and the growling rising with a jerk.

This was not without its effect on White Fang. The hair began to rise on his neck and across the shoulders. Tim Keenan gave a final shove forward and stepped back again. As the impetus that carried Cherokee forward died down, he continued to go forward of his own volition, in a swift, bow-legged run. Then White Fang struck. A cry of startled admiration went up. He had covered the distance and gone in more like a cat than a dog; and with the same cat-like swiftness he had slashed with his fangs and leaped clear.

The bull-dog was bleeding back of one ear from a rip in his thick neck. He gave no sign, did not even snarl, but turned and followed after White Fang. The display on both sides, the quickness of the one and the steadiness of the other, had excited the partisan spirit of the crowd, and the men were making new bets and increasing original bets. Again, and yet again, White Fang sprang in, slashed, and got away untouched, and still his strange foe followed after him, without too great haste, not slowly, but deliberately and determinedly, in a businesslike sort of way. There was purpose in his method — something for him to do that he was intent upon doing and from which nothing could distract him.

His whole demeanour, every action, was stamped with this purpose. It puzzled White Fang. Never had he seen such a dog. It had no hair protection. It was soft, and bled easily. There was no thick mat of fur to baffle White Fang’s teeth as they were often baffled by dogs of his own breed. Each time that his teeth struck they sank easily into the yielding flesh, while the animal did not seem able to defend itself. Another disconcerting thing was that it made no outcry, such as he had been accustomed to with the other dogs he had fought. Beyond a growl or a grunt, the dog took its punishment silently. And never did it flag in its pursuit of him.

Not that Cherokee was slow. He could turn and whirl swiftly enough, but White Fang was never there. Cherokee was puzzled, too. He had never fought before with a dog with which he could not close. The desire to close had always been mutual. But here was a dog that kept at a distance, dancing and dodging here and there and all about. And when it did get its teeth into him, it did not hold on but let go instantly and darted away again.

But White Fang could not get at the soft underside of the throat. The bull-dog stood too short, while its massive jaws were an added protection. White Fang darted in and out unscathed, while Cherokee’s wounds increased. Both sides of his neck and head were ripped and slashed. He bled freely, but showed no signs of being disconcerted. He continued his plodding pursuit, though once, for the moment baffled, he came to a full stop and blinked at the men who looked on, at the same time wagging his stump of a tail as an expression of his willingness to fight.

In that moment White Fang was in upon him and out, in passing ripping his trimmed remnant of an ear. With a slight manifestation of anger, Cherokee took up the pursuit again, running on the inside of the circle White Fang was making, and striving to fasten his deadly grip on White Fang’s throat. The bull-dog missed by a hair’s-breadth, and cries of praise went up as White Fang doubled suddenly out of danger in the opposite direction.

The time went by. White Fang still danced on, dodging and doubling, leaping in and out, and ever inflicting damage. And still the bull-dog, with grim certitude, toiled after him. Sooner or later he would accomplish his purpose, get the grip that would win the battle. In the meantime, he accepted all the punishment the other could deal him. His tufts of ears had become tassels, his neck and shoulders were slashed in a score of places, and his very lips were cut and bleeding — all from these lightning snaps that were beyond his foreseeing and guarding.

Time and again White Fang had attempted to knock Cherokee off his feet; but the difference in their height was too great. Cherokee was too squat, too close to the ground. White Fang tried the trick once too often. The chance came in one of his quick doublings and counter-circlings. He caught Cherokee with head turned away as he whirled more slowly. His shoulder was exposed. White Fang drove in upon it: but his own shoulder was high above, while he struck with such force that his momentum carried him on across over the other’s body. For the first time in his fighting history, men saw White Fang lose his footing. His body turned a half-somersault in the air, and he would have landed on his back had he not twisted, catlike, still in the air, in the effort to bring his feet to the earth. As it was, he struck heavily on his side. The next instant he was on his feet, but in that instant Cherokee’s teeth closed on his throat.

It was not a good grip, being too low down toward the chest; but Cherokee held on. White Fang sprang to his feet and tore wildly around, trying to shake off the bull-dog’s body. It made him frantic, this clinging, dragging weight. It bound his movements, restricted his freedom. It was like the trap, and all his instinct resented it and revolted against it. It was a mad revolt. For several minutes he was to all intents insane. The basic life that was in him took charge of him. The will to exist of his body surged over him. He was dominated by this mere flesh-love of life. All intelligence was gone. It was as though he had no brain. His reason was unseated by the blind yearning of the flesh to exist and move, at all hazards to move, to continue to move, for movement was the expression of its existence.

Round and round he went, whirling and turning and reversing, trying to shake off the fifty-pound weight that dragged at his throat. The bull-dog did little but keep his grip. Sometimes, and rarely, he managed to get his feet to the earth and for a moment to brace himself against White Fang. But the next moment his footing would be lost and he would be dragging around in the whirl of one of White Fang’s mad gyrations. Cherokee identified himself with his instinct. He knew that he was doing the right thing by holding on, and there came to him certain blissful thrills of satisfaction. At such moments he even closed his eyes and allowed his body to be hurled hither and thither, willy-nilly, careless of any hurt that might thereby come to it. That did not count. The grip was the thing, and the grip he kept.

White Fang ceased only when he had tired himself out. He could do nothing, and he could not understand. Never, in all his fighting, had this thing happened. The dogs he had fought with did not fight that way. With them it was snap and slash and get away, snap and slash and get away. He lay partly on his side, panting for breath. Cherokee still holding his grip, urged against him, trying to get him over entirely on his side. White Fang resisted, and he could feel the jaws shifting their grip, slightly relaxing and coming together again in a chewing movement. Each shift brought the grip closer to his throat. The bull-dog’s method was to hold what he had, and when opportunity favoured to work in for more. Opportunity favoured when White Fang remained quiet. When White Fang struggled, Cherokee was content merely to hold on.

The bulging back of Cherokee’s neck was the only portion of his body that White Fang’s teeth could reach. He got hold toward the base where the neck comes out from the shoulders; but he did not know the chewing method of fighting, nor were his jaws adapted to it. He spasmodically ripped and tore with his fangs for a space. Then a change in their position diverted him. The bull-dog had managed to roll him over on his back, and still hanging on to his throat, was on top of him. Like a cat, White Fang bowed his hind-quarters in, and, with the feet digging into his enemy’s abdomen above him, he began to claw with long tearing-strokes. Cherokee might well have been disembowelled had he not quickly pivoted on his grip and got his body off of White Fang’s and at right angles to it.

There was no escaping that grip. It was like Fate itself, and as inexorable. Slowly it shifted up along the jugular. All that saved White Fang from death was the loose skin of his neck and the thick fur that covered it. This served to form a large roll in Cherokee’s mouth, the fur of which well-nigh defied his teeth. But bit by bit, whenever the chance offered, he was getting more of the loose skin and fur in his mouth. The result was that he was slowly throttling White Fang. The latter’s breath was drawn with greater and greater difficulty as the moments went by.

It began to look as though the battle were over. The backers of Cherokee waxed jubilant and offered ridiculous odds. White Fang’s backers were correspondingly depressed, and refused bets of ten to one and twenty to one, though one man was rash enough to close a wager of fifty to one. This man was Beauty Smith. He took a step into the ring and pointed his finger at White Fang. Then he began to laugh derisively and scornfully. This produced the desired effect. White Fang went wild with rage. He called up his reserves of strength, and gained his feet. As he struggled around the ring, the fifty pounds of his foe ever dragging on his throat, his anger passed on into panic. The basic life of him dominated him again, and his intelligence fled before the will of his flesh to live. Round and round and back again, stumbling and falling and rising, even uprearing at times on his hind-legs and lifting his foe clear of the earth, he struggled vainly to shake off the clinging death.

At last he fell, toppling backward, exhausted; and the bull-dog promptly shifted his grip, getting in closer, mangling more and more of the fur-folded flesh, throttling White Fang more severely than ever. Shouts of applause went up for the victor, and there were many cries of “Cherokee!” “Cherokee!” To this Cherokee responded by vigorous wagging of the stump of his tail. But the clamour of approval did not distract him. There was no sympathetic relation between his tail and his massive jaws. The one might wag, but the others held their terrible grip on White Fang’s throat.

I don’t think London would’ve been too surprised by those early UFCs.

Almost a vampire story, but with dogs

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

I recently listened to an audiobook version of Jack London’s White Fang and was surprised by how much the opening chapters resemble a horror story:

The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air. It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned his head until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across the narrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.

A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness. Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.

“They’re after us, Bill,” said the man at the front.

His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparent effort.

“Meat is scarce,” answered his comrade. “I ain’t seen a rabbit sign for days.”

Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for the hunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.

At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of spruce trees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at the side of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered on the far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, but evinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.

“Seems to me, Henry, they’re stayin’ remarkable close to camp,” Bill commented.

Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.

“They know where their hides is safe,” he said. “They’d sooner eat grub than be grub. They’re pretty wise, them dogs.”

Bill shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know.”

His comrade looked at him curiously. “First time I ever heard you say anything about their not bein’ wise.”

“Henry,” said the other, munching with deliberation the beans he was eating, “did you happen to notice the way them dogs kicked up when I was a-feedin’ ’em?”

“They did cut up more’n usual,” Henry acknowledged.

“How many dogs ’ve we got, Henry?”

“Six.”

“Well, Henry . . . ” Bill stopped for a moment, in order that his words might gain greater significance. “As I was sayin’, Henry, we’ve got six dogs. I took six fish out of the bag. I gave one fish to each dog, an’, Henry, I was one fish short.”

“You counted wrong.”

“We’ve got six dogs,” the other reiterated dispassionately. “I took out six fish. One Ear didn’t get no fish. I came back to the bag afterward an’ got ’m his fish.”

“We’ve only got six dogs,” Henry said.

“Henry,” Bill went on. “I won’t say they was all dogs, but there was seven of ’m that got fish.”

Henry stopped eating to glance across the fire and count the dogs.

“There’s only six now,” he said.

“I saw the other one run off across the snow,” Bill announced with cool positiveness. “I saw seven.”

Henry looked at him commiseratingly, and said, “I’ll be almighty glad when this trip’s over.”

Go ahead and read the first three chapters. They’re their own short story — almost a vampire story, but with dogs.

Dune does neither

Monday, February 11th, 2019

T. Greer recently mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists these books as required reading:

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, Orbit Books, ISBN: 0316005401
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550706
J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), ISBN: 0803270763
F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume I: Rules and Order, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0226320863
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Orb Books, ISBN: 0312863551
Frank Herbert, Dune, Ace Books, ISBN: 0441172717
Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed, Harper Classics, ISBN: 006051275X
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Harper Collins, ISBN: 0060652942
James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, ISBN: 0300078153

Smith also requires students to read the prologue to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and sections 125-169 in The Gay Science (or The Joyful Wisdom).

Smith’s discussion questions often pit one text against another:

  • What hope does Nietzsche place in the coming of the Overman? What obstacles does Nietzsche suggest stand in the way of the change the Overman might bring to the world?
  • Consider the links between the Bene Gesserit plan to create the Kwisatz Haderach described in the Appendix and Nietzsche’s ideal of the Overman.
  • How do the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit appear to differ in their quest for human perfection? Why does the emergence of hierarchies based on the cultivation of extreme human talent lead back to the sort of aristocracy this novel depicts?
  • Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?
  • How might someone following the literary and moral sensibility that Lewis fears might take root read the events of the novel to this point? The Harkonnen plot relies on the exploitation of the Atreides’ characters as much or more than it does on brute force. In what ways does their understanding rely on an understanding of the virtues Lewis suggests we need?
  • Consider Lewis’ arguments about what leads human beings to sacrifice themselves for a cause. How does this relate to the Fremen? To what degree have the Bene Gesserit and others in the novel embraced the quest for mastery Lewis describes near the end of the chapter?
  • What are the major moral features of Fremen society?
  • How does the Bene Gesserit plot to manipulate religion explain the Fremen response to Paul and Jessica?
  • What does it suggest to you that the Bene Gesserit never really articulated a reason they wanted to create the Kwisatz Haderach?
  • Lewis argues that efforts to “see through” first principles actually result in less understanding of our world than analyses that presuppose the existence of a natural law. Does this help us understand the Harkonnen’s myriad failures throughout the book in any way?
  • To what degree does Paul Muad’dib transcend the efforts of others to control him? In what significant ways do Lewis’ warnings about danger of scientific control over human life resonate in the novel? How does this seemingly differ from Herbert’s intent in writing?

I didn’t take to Dune initially, but it really stuck with me. T. Greer is not a fan:

Just don’t think Dune is that interesting in the questions it poses or deep in the answers it hints at. Really good science fiction tends to excel in the 1st; enduring literature excels in the last. Dune does neither.

The Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Bryan Caplan is a fan of dystopian fiction, but he had overlooked Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (subsequently republished as Time Will Run Back) until last December, because he had feared a long-winded, clunky version of Economics in One Lesson — but he gave it a chance, and his gamble paid off:

I read the whole thing (almost 400 pages) on a red-eye flight – feeling wide awake the whole way.

The book’s premise: Centuries hence, mankind groans under a world Communist government centered in Moscow. People live in Stalinist fear and penury. Censorship is so extreme that virtually all pre-revolutionary writings have been destroyed; even Marx has been censored, to prevent anyone from reverse engineering whatever “capitalism” was. However, due to a marital dispute, Peter Uldanov, the dictator’s son, was raised in an island paradise, free of both the horrors and the rationalizations of his dystopian society. When the dictator nears death, he brings Peter to Moscow and appoints him his heir. The well-meaning but naive Peter is instantly horrified by Communism, and sets out to fix it. In time, he rediscovers free-market economics, and sets the world to right.

Yes, this sounds trite to me, too. But Hazlitt is a master of pacing. It takes almost 200 pages before any of Peter’s reforms start to work. Until then, it’s one false start after another, because so many of the seemingly dysfunctional policies of the Stalinist society are remedies for other dysfunctional policies.

[...]

In most literary dialogues, at least one of the characters has the answers. (“Yes, Socrates, you are quite right!”) What’s novel about Hazlitt’s dialogues is that all the characters are deeply confused. Even when they sound reasonable, the Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them.

The Great Idea was originally published in 1951. Stalin was still alive.

The one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature

Monday, January 28th, 2019

One of the best-named TV Tropes is the load-bearing boss — the big bad guy whose death causes his whole evil lair to collapse, for rather ambiguous reasons.

What I didn’t realize was that the original Dracula had just such an ending, but it was edited out:

As we looked there came a terrible convulsion of the earth so that we seemed to rock to and fro and fell to our knees. At the same moment with a roar which seemed to shake the very heavens the whole castle and the rock and even the hill on which it stood seemed to rise into the air and scatter in fragments while a mighty cloud of black and yellow smoke volume on volume in rolling grandeur was shot upwards with inconceivable rapidity.

Then there was a stillness in nature as the echoes of that thunderous report seemed to come as with the hollow boom of a thunder-clap – the long reverberating roll which seems as though the floors of heaven shook. Then down in a mighty ruin falling whence they rose came the fragments that had been tossed skywards in the cataclysm.

From where we stood it seemed as though the one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature and that the castle and the structure of the hill had sunk again into the void. We were so appalled with the suddenness and the grandeur that we forgot to think of ourselves.

This leaves no evidence of there ever having been a vampire.

Les Gentils, les Méchants

Saturday, January 12th, 2019

Voilà! Les Gentils, les Méchants:

(With a tip of the chapeau to a certain ami.)

45.3 million of Netflix’s 137 million accounts watched Bird Box

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

Netflix rarely releases data on viewership of its content:

But in the case of “Bird Box,” a tale about a resourceful mother protecting her children from a homicidal force, the company said a record-setting 45.3 million of its 137 million accounts watched at least 70% of the movie in the first week of its release.

[...]

The movie’s budget is modest by Hollywood’s standards: about $30 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. Controlling costs while delivering content that lures in subscribers could become more important for Netflix. Its content spending has ballooned rapidly and reached an estimated $12 billion last year, according to industry analysts. Netflix hasn’t disclosed its 2019 programming budget yet.

Fake it until you make it

Saturday, December 29th, 2018

So many people want to be social media “influencers” that they’re now faking brand deals to look sponsored and thus successful:

A decade ago, shilling products to your fans may have been seen as selling out. Now it’s a sign of success. “People know how much influencers charge now, and that payday is nothing to shake a stick at,” said Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor in chief of Fashionista, a fashion-news website. “If someone who is 20 years old watching YouTube or Instagram sees these people traveling with brands, promoting brands, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do everything they could to get in on that.”

But transitioning from an average Instagram or YouTube user to a professional “influencer” — that is, someone who leverages a social-media following to influence others and make money — is not easy. After archiving old photos, redefining your aesthetic, and growing your follower base to at least the quadruple digits, you’ll want to approach brands. But the hardest deal to land is your first, several influencers say; companies want to see your promotional abilities and past campaign work. So many have adopted a new strategy: Fake it until you make it.

Sydney Pugh, a lifestyle influencer in Los Angeles, recently staged a fake ad for a local cafe, purchasing her own mug of coffee, photographing it, and adding a promotional caption carefully written in that particular style of ad speak anyone who spends a lot of time on Instagram will recognize. “Instead of [captioning] ‘I need coffee to get through the day,’ mine will say ‘I love Alfred’s coffee because of A, B, C,’” Pugh told me. “You see the same things over and over on actual sponsored posts, so it becomes really easy to emulate, even if you’re not getting paid.”

Let the best woman win!

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018

Don’t deny girls the evolutionary wisdom of fairy-tales:

Ironically, far from contaminating young female minds, these Disney princess stories — and their fairy-tale-fic precursors — provide vitally helpful messages that parents could be discussing with their girls.

Cinderella, for example, revolves around the perniciousness of what researchers call “female intrasexual competition” — the often-underhanded ways women compete with each other. While men evolved to be openly competitive, jockeying for position verbally or physically, female competition tends to be covert — indirect and sneaky — and often involves sabotaging another woman into being less appealing to men. Accordingly, in Cinderella, when the king throws a ball to find the prince a wife, the nasty stepsisters aren’t at all “let the best woman win!” They assign Cinderella extra chores so she won’t have time to pull together something to wear. (Mean Girls, the cartoon version, anyone?)

[...]

Understanding this evolutionary mismatch helps women get why it’s sometimes hard for them to speak up for themselves — to be direct and assertive. And identifying this as a problem handed them by evolution can help them override their reluctance — assert themselves, despite what feels “natural.” Additionally, an evolutionary understanding of female competition can help women find other women’s cruelty to them less mystifying. This, in turn, allows them to take such abuse less personally than if they buy into the myth of female society as one big supportive sisterhood.

[...]

In other words, the allure of “princess culture” was created by evolution, not Disney. Over countless generations, our female ancestors most likely to have children who survived to pass on their genes were those whose emotions pushed them to hold out for commitment from a high status man — the hunter-gatherer version of that rich, hunky prince. A prince is a man who could have any woman, but — very importantly — he’s bewitched by our girl, the modest but beautiful scullery maid. A man “bewitched” (or, in contemporary terms, “in love”) is a man less likely to stray — so the princess story is actually a commitment fantasy.

RIP Laverne De Fazio

Wednesday, December 19th, 2018

Penny Marshall has died, at age 75, “due to complications from diabetes” — after having been diagnosed with lung and brain cancer in 2009 and then making a full recovery.

I didn’t know much about her early life and career:

Carole Penny Marshall was born in the Bronx. Her mother taught tap dancing, while her father directed industrial films. She attended the University of New Mexico for 2½ years. While there, Marshall got pregnant at 19, and soon thereafter married the father, a football player.

Marshall made her screen debut in 1968 with small roles in Richard Rush’s “The Savage Seven” and Jerry Paris’ “How Sweet It Is!,” on which her brother Garry was a writer. She also had small roles in Paris’ 1970 film “The Grasshopper,” but she found much more work on television, guesting on series including “That Girl,” “Love, American Style” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”

From 1972-74 she recurred on “The Odd Couple,” a show developed for TV by brother Garry, as Myrna, the schlumpy secretary employed by Jack Klugman’s Oscar Madison. (Marshall reprised the role for the 1993 reunion movie, “The Odd Couple: Together Again”).

She was a series regular on the critically acclaimed but short-lived CBS sitcom “Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers,” in which she played Janice, who frequently mocked her brother-in-law, played by Sand, for his romantic failures.

In 1975 she guested on “Mary Tyler Moore” but, more importantly, on “Happy Days,” where Marshall’s Laverne De Fazio and Cindy Williams’ Shirley Feeney first appeared on an episode where Fonzie chooses two girls from his little black book for a double date with Ron Howard’s Richie. (“Happy Days” was, like “The Odd Couple,” co-created by Penny’s brother Garry Marshall); letters to the show revealed that viewers liked the Laverne and Shirley characters, and when Garry Marshall was asked by then ABC programming exec Fred Silverman to come up with an idea for another sitcom with which to build a Tuesday night comedy block, he devised “Laverne & Shirley.”

Outsiders apart from conventional society and untroubled by its disapproval

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

While thinking about where hippies come from, I revisited Bohemianism, which seems like an odd name for a similar phenomenon:

Literary “Bohemians” were associated in the French imagination with roving Romani people (called Bohémiens because they were believed to have arrived from Bohemia), outsiders apart from conventional society and untroubled by its disapproval. The term carries a connotation of arcane enlightenment (the opposite of Philistines), and carries a less frequently intended, pejorative connotation of carelessness about personal hygiene and marital fidelity.

The title character in Carmen (1876), a French opera set in the Spanish city of Seville, is referred to as a “bohémienne” in Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto. Her signature aria declares love itself to be a “gypsy child” (enfant de Bohême), going where it pleases and obeying no laws.

Where did hippies come from?

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Where did hippies come from?

Were they a totally novel development, as they were portrayed at the time?

In 1948, jazz crooner Nat King Cole was on Top of the Pops for eight straight weeks with the single “Nature Boy.” The song became a standard and was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee. (Much later, director Baz Luhrmann had a haggard Ewan McGregor type out the chorus at the end of his 2001 film Moulin Rouge.)

The record set off a brief journalistic frenzy in 1948 over its hitherto unknown lyricist eden ahbez, who had long hair and a beard, dressed in a robe and sandals, ate only fruits and nuts, had given himself a Book of Genesis first name and cosmic A-to-Z last name, and lived in a tent under the first “L” in the “Hollywood” sign.

In other words, years before the word was coined in the 1960s, this guy was a hippie. He and the dozen or so other robe-wearing proto-hippies who hung around a German couple’s health-food store in Laurel Canyon called themselves “Nature Boys.” Hence the song’s odd title.

Trying to figure out the story behind this weird anomaly led me to a 2003 article entitled “Hippie Roots & The Perennial Subculture” by Gordon Kennedy and Kody Ryan. They make the case for the origins of the hippie phenomenon in late-19th-century Germany: nudism, hiking (Wandervogel), health food, and the whole back to nature “life reform” business. It’s all more or less German.

This helps explain an odd phenomenon I noticed while hiking with my father in the Hollywood Hills above Laurel Canyon in the 1960s-1980s: About one out of four people we’d pass on the trails would reply to “Good day” with “Guten tag” or a Nordic equivalent. (Then during the early 1990s recession, hiking became fashionable in LA and the Teutonic flavor was quickly swamped.)

I’m a bit surprised the Sailer’s surprised by this. German Romanticism led to both hippies and Nazis. Many New Age ideas go back to Rudolph Steiner and the Theosophists — including pursuit of the almighty Vril.

Mass society fragmented and thereby stabilized

Monday, December 10th, 2018

In high school, Steve Sailer and his classmates were assigned Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller Future Shock, about how the ever-accelerating waves of change would soon overwhelm us — but it didn’t happen:

Instead, mass society fragmented and thereby stabilized. My cousin, for example, remains a hippie, and he’s recently talked his mother into wanting to go to Burning Man. Today, nobody much cares: Burning Man seems less shocking than funny.

Yet when I was a small boy, virtually every male in America, except perhaps violin soloists, had short hair.

It’s difficult to make clear just how big a deal hair length was in the 1960s. When I was six in 1965, my family went to England. We were sitting around at Heathrow waiting for our flight back to the US when a young man with collar-length hair walked into the waiting room. “It’s a Beatle!” screamed a girl. The excited crowd surged toward John, Paul, George, or, possibly, Ringo. I dispatched my mother to get the Beatle’s autograph. She returned bearing the signature “Peter Noone,” the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits.

The point of this anecdote is that in 1965 so few males had hair covering two-thirds of their ears that transatlantic travelers assumed that anybody who did must be a rock star. (And we were right.)

“Perhaps Ecclesiastes got it right.”

I can pin down when rock fans started to let their hair grow. Buffalo Springfield’s remarkable single “For What It’s Worth” (“Stop, children, what’s that sound?”) is usually thought of as an early Vietnam War protest song, but it was actually inspired by the Sunset Strip curfew riots over the planned demolition of the Pandora’s Box nightclub. Even in November 1966, however, a mob of protesting Los Angeles rock fans looked clean-cut.

That must have been the last time they got their hair cut. In the summer of 1967, some visitors wanted to “go see the hippies,” so my parents drove us over Laurel Canyon to Sunset. The Strip was jammed with us tourists agog over the longhairs.

After a while, though, you got used to odd new social phenomena like this sweeping the world. In fact, soon everybody expected it. A decade after 1967’s Summer of Love, for instance, the media were all primed for punks to take over. After all, an entire ten years had gone by! (That was 35 years ago.) In 1979, everybody was told to dress in 2 Tone black-and-white clothes and listen to ska, but diminishing returns were visibly encroaching.