Early Peanuts

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

When they introduced their Prime Reading program recently, the folks at Amazon included The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 1: 1950-1952 in their collection of free reading, and I was more than a little curious after reading about how Snoopy killed Peanuts.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but the early strips are jarring in a few ways. First, of course, the art is different. I actually like the early art just fine. Second, the cast is different. Yes, Charlie Brown is the main character, but the other characters are Shermy, Patty, and Violet — none of whom I even remember from the strip’s heydey.

It’s not even clear that Snoopy is Charlie Brown’s dog — but it is clear that Snoopy is a dog.

Peanuts First Three Strips

He doesn’t stick purely to traditional dog stuff though. Even just a few pages into the collection he’s doing people stuff.

Peanuts Rootbeer For Sale

I think I can now say, “I only like old Peanuts — before they sold out.”

End-of-the-World Fiction

Friday, October 21st, 2016

Rebecca Onion “ate up” the canon of traditionally literary end-of-the-world science fiction — Alas, Babylon; The Sheep Look Up; Lucifer’s Hammer — and some newly published respectably literary postapocalyptic books — California, The Dog Stars, Station Eleven — and then found Audible recommending something subtly differentPatriots, by James Wesley, Rawles (the comma is intentional):

I didn’t understand that I was making a leap between genres when I purchased Patriots, which turned out to be a best-selling 2009 book of prepper fiction. Downloading it sent me down a new rabbit hole that I have yet to exit. Through prepper fiction, I find myself experiencing a subculture by way of its novels, finding some of its ideals repellent, while slowly — and unhappily — coming to agree with others.

One feature, I found, differentiates prepper fiction from mere apocalypse fiction: lists. Apocalyptic stories sacrifice some details of characters’ survival tactics on the altar of narrative. But in prepper tales, lists are inevitable. I have to quote this whole paragraph, about a survival group’s knife-buying tactics, to give you a sense of how Rawles, a notorious lister, does it:

For skinning knives, most of the members bought standard mass-produced Case and Buck knives, but a few opted for custom knives made by Andy Sarcinella, Trinity Knives, and Ruana. Most of them also bought a Leatherman tool and a CRKT folding knife. For fighting knives, most purchased standard factory produced knives made by Benchmade or Cold Steel. Kevin bought an expensive New Lile Gray Ghost with Micarta grip panels. Against Kevin’s advice, Dan Fong bought a double-edged Sykes-Fairbairn British commando knife. Kevin warned him that it was an inferior design. He preferred knives that could be used for both utility purposes and for combat. He observed that the Fairbairn’s grip was too small, and that the knife’s slowly tapering tip was too likely to break, particularly in utility use. Dan eventually wrapped the knife’s handle with green parachute cord to give it a more proper diameter. Because the Fairbairn did indeed have a brittle tip, Dan did most of his utility knife work with a CRKT folder with a tanto-type point.

The lists are a point of complaint for some reviewers online, but the authors of these books know that they’re writing something that’s a cross between a novel, a shopping list, a survival manual, and a field guide; this is a wholly experimental form, and the results can be awkward. After a while, though, I relaxed into it. Like a high school junior struggling through Moby-Dick’s whaling chapters, the new reader has to realize that prepper fiction’s blend of description and plot is meant to make the minute details of a supercomplex material phenomenon more visible. Those lists soothed me, since they spoke a language I — a cook, a sometime backpacker, and a committed cataloger of household goods — found easy to understand.

Here’s where things take a hard right turn:

Even as these books revel in the virtues of self-reliance, they graphically condemn the uselessness of other people who refuse to help themselves. Inevitably, after a catastrophic event, a prepared protagonist encounters people who just cannot believe that their water isn’t going to come back on or that the government isn’t going to come to bring them their refrigerated insulin.

These sheeple are unreasonable, fussy, picky, and stupid. Are there really people who still can’t understand that grocery stores don’t fill up by magic? In these books, they are legion.


In more than one of these books, the prepper encounters people who expect him to share the resources he’s planned ahead to store. The analogy with communism or socialism is often explicit.

The Usual You-Go-Girl Fare

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

The creators of Zootopia explain the original concept and the big story shift that turned the film upside down:

Steve Sailer suggests that it “started out culturally rebellious but then got throttled by the test marketers and executives into the usual You-Go-Girl fare.”

Blade Runner’s Uplifting Ending

Monday, October 17th, 2016

Ridley Scott discusses his way of working — and drops a fun bit of trivia about Blade Runner at the end:

See What I Did There?

Saturday, October 15th, 2016

Alan Moore progresses from eccentric comic-book writer to insane novel writer with his latest work, Jerusalem:

Like Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “Jerusalem” largely hinges on the events of a single day (in this case May 26, 2006) and a particular place: the Boroughs, the depressed neighborhood in Northampton where Moore grew up. (The Jerusalem of the title is the metaphorical one William Blake imagined building “in England’s green and pleasant land.”) As with “Ulysses,” Moore shifts his narrative technique and point of view from chapter to chapter. And, as with “Ulysses,” no detail, however minute, is purely decorative; it’s all part of the mammoth Rube Goldberg machinery, including an actual mammoth (or, rather, its ghost) that sets the story’s denouement into motion.

The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s), who comes from a long line of artists, lunatics and “deathmongers,” that being a Northampton tradition of midwife/morticians. The moment during which the characters and their actions converge is the eve of Alma’s opening reception for a series of paintings inspired by her brother’s recollections of a near-death experience from when he choked on a cough drop at the age of 3. But then there’s also a chapter concerning the then-unknown Charlie Chaplin’s experiences in Northampton in 1909, and one in which a Christian pilgrim brings a relic to “Hamtun” (as it was then called) in 810, and one about how Alma’s great-great-grandfather lost his mind in 1865 when the fresco he was repairing in St. Paul’s Cathedral started talking to him, and so forth.

That’s all to prime the reader for the central third of “Jerusalem,” which takes place above time itself, in “Mansoul” (as in John Bunyan’s allegory “The Holy War”), where “The Dead Dead Gang,” a crew of ghostly children led by a girl in a cape made of decomposing rabbits, are having adventures and investigating mysteries. (Their Northampton accents are augmented by “wiz” and “wizzle,” the afterlife’s conflation of “was,” “is” and “will be.”) One advantage of being dead, it turns out, is that you can perceive space-time from the outside, as when the gang encounters the Platonic form of a Northampton landmark:

“The Guildhall, the Gilhalda of Mansoul, was an immense and skyscraping confection of warm-colored stone, completely overgrown with statues, carven tableaux and heraldic crests. It was as if an architecture-bomb had gone off in slow motion, with countless historic forms exploding out of nothingness and into solid granite. Saints and Lionhearts and poets and dead queens looked down on them through the blind pebbles of their emery-smoothed eyes and up above it all, tall as a lighthouse, were the sculpted contours of the Master Builder, Mighty Mike, the local champion.” (That would be the Archangel Michael, who is engaged in an eternal metaphysical snooker tournament that determines the fates of the city’s residents.)

Read that passage out loud, and you can’t miss its galumphing iambic rhythm. Moore, in fact, keeps that meter running for the entire length of the novel, and that’s just where his acrobatic wordplay begins. One chapter takes the form of rhymed stanzas. Another is blank verse, run together into paragraphs but pausing for breath every 10 syllables. A third is a play whose central seam is a conversation between Thomas Becket and Samuel Beckett.

The novel’s most difficult and wittiest chapter is written in a convincing pastiche of Joyce’s portmanteau-mad language from “Finnegans Wake,” and concerns Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who spent her final decades in a Northampton mental hospital. At one point, the malign spirit of the River Nene tries to persuade her to drown herself: “It is a ferry splashionable wayter go, I’m trold, for laydies of o blitterary inclinocean. But then fameills of that sport are oftun willd, vergin’ near wolf, quereas with you there’s fomething vichy gugling on.” (Note the allusion to Virginia Woolf, who did drown herself.) Lucia declines, and goes on to encounter Dusty Springfield (“Dust’ny Singfeeld”), with whom she has sex while Number 6 from “The Prisoner” looks on. Yes, this is relevant to the plot, more or less.

Books this forbiddingly steep need to be entertaining in multiple ways to make them worth the climb, and Moore keeps lobbing treats to urge his readers onward: luscious turns of phrase, unexpected callbacks and internal links, philosophical digressions, Dad jokes, fantastical inventions like the flower resembling a cluster of fairies — the “Puck’s Hat” or “Bedlam Jenny” — that is the only food the dead can eat. Those who have read Moore’s comics will recognize some of his favorite themes too. Snowy Vernall, who experiences his life as predestined, is in the same boat as Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen”; there’s a strain of Ripperology left over from “From Hell”; the demon Asmodeus, who appeared in “Promethea,” plays a prominent role here in a different guise.

If cleverness were all that mattered, “Jerusalem” would be everything. Its pyrotechnics never let up, and Moore never stops calling attention to them. Again and again, he threatens to crash into the slough of See What I Did There?, then comes up with another idea so clever he pulls out of the dive. (When the book, in its homestretch, hasn’t yet demonstrated much of a connection to William Blake, Alma Warren effectively engages a detective to work one out, in the person of the real-world actor Robert Goodman jokingly pretending to be a private eye called “Studs.”) The only way to endure “Jerusalem” is to surrender to its excesses — its compulsion to outdo any challenger in its lushness of language, grandness of scope, sheer monomaniacal duration — and confess it really is as ingenious as it purports to be.

What redeems the relentless spectacle, though, is that it’s in the service of a passionate argument. Behind all the formalism and eccentric virtuosity, there’s personal history from a writer who has rarely put himself into his own fiction before: the family legends and tragedies that Moore has blown up to mythical size to preserve them from the void, and the streets and buildings, lost and soon to be lost, whose every cracked stone is holy to him. Northampton, Moore suggests, is the center of all meaning, because so is every other place.

The Mr. Rogers Of Painting

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

The Mr. Rogers Of Painting popularized “wet on wet” oil painting:

The only public record of any tumult in Ross’ life is in his relationship with the man who taught him to paint, William Alexander. Alexander, who had his own PBS show, The Magic Of Oil Painting, claimed to be the originator of wet-on-wet oil painting, the technique Ross used on Joy Of Painting.

Classical oil painting is a time-consuming process of building up slow-drying glazes to produce a luminescent effect. If a layer is insufficiently dry, colors blend and become muddy. The wet-on-wet technique speeds this process up considerably by controlling the mixing of colors on the canvas so highlights and shadows are created with a quick series of gestures. Once mastered, it becomes easy to whip out a competent, representational image in a very short amount of time.

Bob Ross Painting

Alexander never got over what he felt was Ross’ theft. Without speaking to whether Ross unfairly took credit, it’s fair to say that it’s not the method of paint application that caused Ross to surpass his former mentor in popularity. Watching Alexander highlights just how much Ross’ personality benefits his show. Not simply with his widely quoted peacenik platitudes (as endearing as those are) but also in the rhythm he folds into his tutorials. Ross maintains a smooth, unbroken cadence as he shifts between instructions on brush placement or color mixture to a completely unrelated observation about the epileptic squirrel he’s rehabilitating. Each comment punctuated by the rhythmic pat of the brush or scraping of the palette knife against the canvas becomes almost musical.

Ross’ teacher didn’t have nearly the same on-camera ease. He spoke distractedly in a thick German accent and contemplated how artists suffering from a surplus of imagination led to acts like Van Gogh slicing off his own ear. A host who muses on self-mutilation in a brusque Teutonic inflection just won’t find the same level of enthusiasm among public television viewers as the softcore hippiedom of Bob Ross.

Marc Andreessen’s Library

Saturday, October 8th, 2016

The lobby at Andreessen Horowitz is also Marc Andreessen’s library, and it’s full of books about Hollywood:

In 1908, the country’s nine largest filmmakers formed the Movie Picture Patents Company, insisting that no one else could make movies because they controlled the patents on the original movie camera, co-created by Thomas Edison at his lab in New Jersey. The patents belonged to Edison, and he backed the Patents Company. So a new wave of filmmakers moved to the West Coast, where the courts were less friendly to Edison. Hollywood became a place to make movies in part because it was so sunny — you could film outdoors more often and with fewer lights — but also because it was so far away from New Jersey.

Who the Devil Made It — an oral history of Hollywood collected by the director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich — begins in the days of the Patents Company. Allan Dwan, who started making movies in the 1910s, tells Bogdanovich that as independent filmmakers moved west, the Patents Company hired strongmen to enforce its patents. Dwan remembers snipers climbing trees overlooking movie sets and taking shots at the cameras they deemed illegal. He would film as far as he could from the railroad stops, so he and his crew were harder to find.

The story of early Hollywood is very much the story of Silicon Valley, full of innovators fleeing the old rules in search of the new. It only makes sense that the lobby of Andreessen Horowitz is stocked with books on early Hollywood, including Who The Devil Made It. Bogdanovich and Dwan tell a story not unlike the one told in What the Dormouse Said, where a group of freethinkers rise up in the 1960s and create the personal computer, pushing against entrenched giants like IBM.

Andreessen Horowitz Bookshelf

As The New Yorker explains, Andreessen and Horowitz are pals with [Michael] Ovitz, the guy behind CAA, one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies. When they started their firm, they went to Ovitz for advice.

“Call everyone a partner, offer services the others don’t, and help people who aren’t your clients,” he said. “Disrupt to differentiate by becoming a dream-execution machine.” They did all that. And, in contrast to typical Silicon Valley VCs, they hired a whole team of publicists who guided Andreessen Horowitz stories into Fortune and Forbes. They hung some Rauschenbergs around the office — just like CAA. And when people pitched them, they drank from glassware rather than plastic. The books complement the Rauschenbergs and the glassware. They, too, lend authority.

Sports Viewership Down

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

The NFL has seen massive viewership growth over the past decade — and a massive viewership drop over the past few weeks:

“Sunday Night Football,” television’s highest-rated prime-time show for five years running, has seen a 10 percent viewership drop so far this season. Cable’s top sports property, “Monday Night Football,” is down 19 percent — the series’ slowest start in a decade. Through two games, “Thursday Night Football” viewership is down 15 percent.

It’s not just the NFL.

The Summer Olympics on NBC were down double digits in viewership from the London Games. ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” posted its lowest viewership average in at least a decade. Six NASCAR races from Aug. 21 to Sept. 25 logged double-digit viewership drops in race-to-race comparisons. Four prime-time UFC telecasts on Fox registered a combined 10 percent viewership drop this year.

Plus, several big events posted record low viewership, including the U.S. Open’s men’s and women’s tennis finals and the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.

Tyler Cowen on Game of Thrones

Thursday, September 29th, 2016

Tyler Cowen plays overrated-underrated in his recent Vox interview, and this one surprised me:

Game of Thrones
I’ve never watched the TV show, but I tried to read the book and found that it’s way too much effort for what you’re getting in return. So I have to say it’s overrated.

I’m not surprised that he didn’t like the books, or that he never watched the shows, but too much effort?

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Writing ‘Black Panther’

Saturday, September 10th, 2016

Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about writing Marvel’s Black Panther comic:

I’m struck by how focused you are on telling a political story over a superhero story. Why did you make that decision?

I wouldn’t draw that dichotomy. I think “X-Men,” for instance, has long been a political book. Marvel has a long history of [political books]. “Captain America,” quintessentially, is a political book. I mean, it’s “Captain America.” … If you look at the current miniseries that Marvel’s been doing, “Civil War,” it’s all about profiling. I think, probably, the distinction I would make here is that “Black Panther” is much more focused on governance, which is a dry, boring word. But it’s more focused on governance than traditional superhero books, and that’s because Black Panther’s a king, he’s a monarch. There seems to be a really huge difference between him and other superheroes, so I thought that was really important.

Black Panther Comic Page

It’s reminiscent of “The Godfather,” in a way. He has this inheritance, he has this burden, but he also has this power, but it’s not necessarily beneficial to the people who are under his protection.

Or necessarily beneficial to him. It might not be the choice that he would have made had he been able to determine his own life.

Our Wonderful Nature

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

Our Wonderful Nature turns its attention to the tiny water shrew in mating season:

Another episode looks at the gluttonous chameleon:


Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Mike Judge’s Idiocracy came out 10 years ago:

C. M. Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons explored this premise a half-century earlier. It was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two after being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965.

Bureaucratic Comedy

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

The real divide in politics pits the people who think government looks like The West Wing against the people who think it looks like Yes, Minister:

The soaring principles of The West Wing did sometimes turn up in Yes, Minister (and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister), but by the end of each half-hour they had usually been buried in a committee or snuffed out in a seedy bargain. The result may not have been an inspiring vision of good government, but it was one of the wittiest TV shows of the 1980s; this week, sadly, saw the death of Antony Jay, the British broadcaster who co-created and co-wrote it.

Jay was a man of the right; his writing partner, Jonathan Lynn, hailed from the left. They nonetheless worked well together, perhaps because the specific policies that popped up on their two shows barely mattered.


The setup was simple: A somewhat well-meaning but basically spineless politician takes command of the Department of Administrative Affairs, and the department does everything it can to keep him from changing anything. (Yes, Prime Minister kept the basic formula in place, but now he had the entire British government to deal with.) Early in the first show’s run, the viewer is primed to sympathize with the minister and to cheer his occasional reformist victories, but with time he comes to represent a different sort of social malady—a man willing to do virtually anything for votes and publicity, just as the bureaucrats he locks horns with are willing to do virtually anything to maintain the status quo. The two shows’ 38 episodes, which ran from 1980 to 1988, sometimes feel like a public-choice textbook in sitcom form, with characters happy to spell out the venal rationales for everything they do.

Calculating Folk

Friday, August 26th, 2016

The dwarves of modern fantasy stories tend to be associated with Norse culture, but the dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth were inspired by another ethnic group:

We have, then, a bunch of short, bearded beings exiled from their homeland, who have dreamed forever of returning. They are linked to a place they lost long ago, dwell in other realms throughout the earth, and yet are so profoundly connected to their own kingdom that it remains vivid to them while for others it is a fading memory. There is one tribe that offers a perfect real-world parallel to Tolkien’s dwarves; there is only one nation that has remained existentially linked to the kingdom its people lost long ago even as it mingled among kings and queens and common folk of other lands throughout history: the Jews. In a reflection on Tolkein and the Jews, to which this essay is indebted, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks notes that the dwarves’  “sorrowful song of longing to return to their homeland might have been lifted from a Middle Earth Kinnot Tisha B’Av” — a reference to the lamentations read by Jews when they mourn the destruction of Jerusalem.

The dwarves of Middle Earth, the central characters of one of the most beloved books of all time, are indeed based on the Jews. This was confirmed by Tolkien himself in a 1971 interview on the BBC: “The dwarves of course are quite obviously, [sic] couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” he asked. “Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Similarly, in a letter to his daughter, Tolkien reflected, “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”

This passage from The Hobbit takes on a different tone once you see the parallels:

The most that can be said for the dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they would all have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it….?There it is: dwarves 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 Thorin and company, if you don’t expect too much.

Tolkien himself was no anti-Semite though. Here’s his response to a German publisher inquiring into his racial background before taking on The Hobbit:

I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the 18th century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Don Quixote de la Garrapata

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

I didn’t watch the Tick cartoon or the live-action show, but I did read the original comics back in the day, so I made time to watch Amazon’s pilot for a new Tick show, and I must agree with this review:

The Tick 2016 throws a bravura mix of tones at its audience: it’s campily loopy yet deadly serious, satirical yet sincere, cartoonish yet fraught with dread.

I was not expecting them to take The Tick into darker and edgier territory, but it certainly makes the hero’s delusional idealism stand out even more.

If you’re interested in the original comics, there appear to be no collections in print. Sigh.

By the way, as a gun guy I got a chuckle out of the Terror’s henchmen, armed with Ruger 22/45 Lite pistols:

Tick Terror Henchmen with Ruger Lite Pistols