He hid in plain sight

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Max Boot knew Tom Wolfe — slightly:

Like many people, I regard The Bonfire of the Vanities, the definitive portrait of New York in the 1980s, as one of Wolfe’s two masterpieces. The other was The Right Stuff, which was made into a much better movie than Bonfire. Wolfe got inside the minds of test pilots and astronauts in a way that no other writer has done before or since. The opening chapter, focused on the anxiety of the pilots’ wives who don’t know if their husbands will come home from work, instantly transported the reader to a psychological reality far removed from the glossy news coverage of the space program. The narrative was utterly seamless — as befits the New Journalism that Wolfe helped create, it read like a novel — and yet no one ever claimed that he made it up. There was a sturdy skeleton of reporting, invisible to the reader, upon which Wolfe hung his peerless prose.

Having gotten to know Wolfe a bit, I saw something of his method. He hid in plain sight — his three-piece white suits served as a shield that made the man within nearly invisible. To the extent that anyone so flamboyantly attired can recede into the background, he did. Wolfe did not talk much; he preferred to listen and to soak in the atmosphere. A quiet man, he did his talking in print. And now he has gone silent forever. American literature — and American life — will be the poorer without him.

I loved The Right Stuff — which includes his bit on the voice of the airline pilot — but I found Bonfire a bit over the top — like New York in the ’80s, I suppose.

Children in the snow

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Military sci-fi writer John Ringo grew up in 23 foreign countries, where his father worked as a civil engineer, including Iran before the fall of the Shah. He shared this story with an audience at LibertyCon in Chattanooga. It’s about Children in the Snow:

January of the first year I was there. I was ten years old. My father is working in Abadan, we were living in Teheran. He would work down there for three weeks, then come back to Teheran for a week, back and forth.

My mother decided that we were going to go down and visit my dad in Abadan. And we were going to take the train. It was winter, and Iran has more snow than you would expect. It’s a lot like Utah, actually. The weather was very, very cold. As a matter of fact, that year, right around Christmas, it had snowed so heavily that the roof of the airport collapsed from the snow. And I had to go upstairs and shovel the flat top of the building. Until I couldn’t move any more and we got an Ash Kali. And I’m not even going to explain what an Ash Kali is… just “day laborer.”

The train went down overnight. And, at one point, we were stopped on a siding and I woke up in the middle of the night, because the movement had stopped. And I kind of got out to look around, and we were in this upland valley in the Zagros Mountains. It was one of those nights that was so cold that you could see the trees cracking. There were these leafless poplar trees, and snow, and you kind of see a village off in the distance. The cold poured off the window.

While I was out there, I noticed some movement. And my mom had told me, and it was true, that they still had train robberies. So I was like “Cool! It’s bandits! What am I going to do?” I was an adventurous ten-year-old kid, right? Ooh, maybe bandits are going to be boarding.

But it wasn’t bandits. It was women and children in rags… who were going along the train track, picking up coal and rice and wheat that had fallen off the train… so they would have a little bit of heat, and a little bit of food, to make it through another day.

That image was, you can call it childhood trauma, if you like. And every time that I see certain directions, I realize that we’re heading in the direction… we are either headed towards children in the snow, or we are headed away from children in the snow. So at a certain level, everything that I do… is to try to make a world where the only reason that children go out into the snow is to play.

Heat management is crucial

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

If you’re not already familiar with “hard” science fiction from Atomic Rockets and Tough SF, this “Because Science” video on the truth about space war serves as a light introduction:

What they can’t see yet is that something happened

Monday, April 9th, 2018

Jeffro notes that contemporary science fiction and fantasy is godawful and discusses how to handle this fact with less-enlightened fans of the genre:

At this point you mention that they should really check out the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Whatever it is that they like or dislike, one of these stories is going to be a perfect fit for this person. Recommend one… talk about how you were surprised at how good they were and how they weren’t what you expected they would be. And then shut up.

(Note 2: On the internet, the argument never stops. In real life… you have to downshift to have an impact.)

A couple weeks later they should have more to talk about. They will be blown away by somethings, left cold by others. Cut them some slack: these sorts of people are taking their first steps into a larger literary world. And holy cow. Think about it. Nothing in this fantasy addict’s life is pointing this person towards the work of Robert E. Howard except you. Which means that you got to be the one to introduce them to Howard. That’s just crazy awesome in and of itself.

I think that’s weird, really. To get to be that guy to someone in this way. But here’s the thing: if you can do it once with an author as significant as Howard, you can do it a half dozen times.

Because here’s you two weeks later: “Oh, you thought Howard was good? Well you’re gonna love C. L. Moore!” But they’re going to tell you they’ve never heard of C. L. Moore. This is where you look baffled. “You never heard of C. L. Moore? How can you not have heard of C. L. Moore?!” Tell them to go read “Shambleau”… and they will come back later to thank you for it.

Wait a couple of weeks and you can run the exact same gag again. “You never heard of Leigh Brackett? That’s insane! She wrote the scripts for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and [the first draft of] The Empire Strikes Back. How can you not have heard of Leigh Brackett?!” Tell them to go read The Sword of Rhiannon.

There are other authors and stories you can drop on them depending on how they handle this. Heck, no matter what thing in fantasy or science fiction that they like best… they have no idea who it was that pioneered its original tropes or just how danged good the old authors were and how well their works stand the test of time.

But these sorts of people… they see nothing amiss in any of this at this point. They have no idea what has transpired within the critical space and the overall commentariat over the past few decades. Right now you are just some guy that has some positively stellar book recommendations which no one else in their lives seems to know about. They can intuit that they are looking at the fantasy and science fiction canon for the first time. They can see the astonishing literary quality of the old stuff. They can see that contemporary authors do not fare well in comparison. This is all self-evident.

What they can’t see yet is that something happened. But these people are in a very precarious position here. What does it take to push them over the edge? Just mention that these books and authors are routinely excluded from top 100 book lists and accounts of science fiction and fantasy history. Even watershed books like A Princess of Mars. What happens next is surprising. They won’t believe you. You can gently reiterate that it’s the case… but they will push back on this. This just doesn’t make sense. As far as they’re concerned… this CANNOT BE.

Fortunately, cell phones are ubiquitous enough now that someone can bring up the NPR list. Watch them as they go book by book mocking the more ludicrous entries. If they slogged through Patrick Rothfuss’s stuff, I’m sure they’ll have some choice words when they get to that one. Then watch the reaction when they get to the end and it sinks in that there’s not one mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere.

That’s right. In a couple of months they’ve gone from never having heard of the classic authors to being outraged that nobody else has.

Ask them to explain just what the heck happened? Or more importantly…. what is still happening.

Many firms don’t know their numbers

Saturday, April 7th, 2018

Alex Tabarrok has learned a lot about industrial organization by watching The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis:

In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. Lemonis doesn’t invest in a random sample of businesses nor even in a random sample of failing businesses. Nevertheless, the lessons that The Profit teaches are consistent with the new literature on management which has increased my confidence both in the show and the literature.

In the perfectly competitive model, price is equal to average cost and firms operate efficiently at minimum cost. Yet, Syverson finds that in the typical US industry a firm at the 90th percentile of the productivity distribution makes almost twice as much output with the same inputs as a firm at the 10th percentile. It’s not easy to measure inputs or outputs, of course, but even firms producing very uniform products show big productivity differences.

How can firms that use inputs so inefficiently survive? In part, competition is imperfect which gives inefficient firms a cushion because they can charge a price higher than cost even as costs are higher than necessary. Another reason is that small firms eat their costs.

A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage — a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.

The correct metaphor for competition isn’t a boxing match that knocks out the inefficient firm. The correct metaphor is a slow tide. Inefficient firms must scramble for a bit of high ground but as the tide ebbs and flows they can occasionally catch a breath when their head bobs above the profit line. An inefficient firm can survive for years before it inevitably sinks.

The second lesson from The Profit is that management matters and it matters in systematic and fairly easy to replicate ways. If mis-measurement explained productivity differences, Lemonis would not be able to successfully turn firms around. But he can and does. How?

One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.

Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases.

Can it be so simple? To be sure, Lemonis is a smart guy but very little of what he does takes genius. We know this because we now have robust evidence from India and Mexico that better management increases profits and productivity and that such increases can be sustained over the long run. In the studies from India and Mexico, randomly selected firms were given access to a “management intervention” and their productivity and profits improved and stayed higher for years after the intervention ended.

Moreover, what were these management interventions? Did some bright Harvard grad recommend a complicated swap-options deal? A new chemical process? A new management form? No. By and large, the interventions were simple. Just like the Lemonis interventions.

Will any shows from the Golden Age of TV endure?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Will any shows from the Golden Age of TV endure?

If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of television out there — by the increasing number of shows being praised by your peers, by the cascade of critically acclaimed programming on the ever-enlarging expanse of channels and pay tiers and streaming services — you’re not alone. At the Television Critics Association’s winter meeting in January, John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, highlighted the ongoing explosion in scripted programming. According to a report on Landgraf’s speech in Variety, 2017 saw 487 scripted series air on networks, cable, pay cable, and streaming services — up from 455 in 2016, which was up from 422 in 2015. Only 153 of the 2017 series aired on network TV — ABC, NBC, etc. — while 175 were on basic cable. Streaming services are the biggest driver in the latest TV boom; outlets like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu accounted for another 117 series. HBO and the other premium cable channels made up the final 42.

“Overall, the total series output on television since 2002 has grown by 168 percent,” Variety reported. By way of comparison, America’s population is up about 13 percent in the same time. The number of hours in the day has remained static, at 24. Simply put: There’s vastly more content (to use a vulgarity that reduces art to a consumable but feels proper when describing the aforementioned torrent) than ever before — and that’s not including the ever-increasing number of feature films or video games that take hundreds of hours to play or YouTube channels making millionaires out of 6-year-old kids. The fragmented nature of our viewing habits means a TV show on a pay cable station can get by with a few hundred thousand viewers if critics like it and it pulls in awards; the biggest “hits” in the world of scripted entertainment are watched by less than 5 percent of the population, if we are to trust the ratings. Of course, with a plethora of viewing options — live airing, DVRed recording, streaming on TVs and laptops and iPhones — relying on something as prosaic as the Nielsen ratings to measure popularity is a mug’s game. We need to scan Google searches and Twitter trends and Facebook topics to see what’s really driving the conversation at any given time.

[...]

For several decades, the syndication model provided repetition that helped create a common cultural currency. That model has now weakened — syndication has become less appealing to audiences — as the marketplace has been flooded with new programs and as new technologies have created new viewing options. This will likely make the sitcom almost obsolete as anything other than a day-of laugh-delivery device. The Simpsons at the peak of its powers is a show rooted in its time, one that relies as heavily on pop-culture references as it does on repeated lines of clever dialogue becoming inside jokes among initiates. Strip the show from its moment — as future audiences will experience it — and take away the repetition needed to impress the cleverness of its wordplay on viewers, and what are you left with? Something that lasts? A masterpiece that rewards critical scrutiny for future generations? Or something that fades into the ether, a pleasant memory for those born between 1970 and 1990, and perhaps an artifact of interest to scholars studying the 1990s, but few others?

The culture will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself

Monday, March 12th, 2018

Amazon Studios recently announced plans to adapt the first novel of Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series, Consider Phlebas.

Philosophy professor Joseph Heath offers an appreciations of Banks’ Culture:

In this context, what distinguishes Banks’s work is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has also driven changes in the social structure, such that the social and political challenges people confront are new. Indeed, Banks distinguishes himself in having thought carefully about the social and political consequences of technological development. For example, once a society has semi-intelligent drones that can be assigned to supervise individuals at all times, what need is there for a criminal justice system? Thus in the Culture, an individual who commits a sufficiently serious crime is assigned — involuntarily — a “slap drone,” who simply prevents that person from committing any crime again. Not only does this reduce recidivism to zero, the prospect of being supervised by a drone for the rest of one’s life also serves as a powerful deterrent to crime.

This is an absolutely plausible extrapolation from current trends — even just looking at how ankle monitoring bracelets work today. But it also raises further questions. For instance, once there is no need for a criminal justice system, one of the central functions of the state has been eliminated. This is one of the social changes underlying the political anarchism that is a central feature of the Culture. There is, however, a more fundamental postulate. The core feature of Banks’s universe is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has freed culture from all functional constraints — and thus, he imagines a situation in which culture has become purely memetic. This is perhaps the most important idea in his work, but it requires some unpacking.

The term “meme” was introduced by Richard Dawkins, in an attempt to articulate some cultural equivalent to the role that the “gene” plays in biological evolution.2 The basic building-block of life for Dawkins, one may recall, is “the replicator,” understood simply as “that which reproduces itself.” His key observation is that one can find replicators not just in the biological sphere, but in human social behaviour. In many cases, these “memes” produce obvious benefits to their host, so it is not difficult to see how they succeed in reproducing themselves — consider, for instance, the human practice of using fire to cook food, which is reproduced culturally. In other cases, however, cultural patterns get reproduced, not because they offer any particular benefits — in some cases they are even costly to the host — but because they have a particularly effective “trick,” when it comes to getting themselves reproduced.

[...]

Historically, in this process of competition among cultures, a dominant source of competitive advantage has been the ability to promote a desirable social structure, or an effective system of cooperation. Consider the enormous influence that Roman culture exercised in the West. The fact that, one thousand years after the fall of Rome, schoolboys were still memorizing Cicero, the Justinian code remained de facto law throughout vast regions, and Latin was still the written language of the learned classes of Europe, is an extraordinary legacy. The major reason for imitation of the Romans was simply that their culture is one that sustained the greatest, most long-lasting empire the West has ever seen.

Similarly, Han culture was able to spread throughout China in large part through the institutions that it promoted, not just the imperial system, but the vast bureaucracy that sustained it, along with the competitive examination system that promoted effective administration.

Societies with strong institutions become wealthier, more powerful militarily, or some combination of the two. These are the ones whose culture reproduces, either because it is imitated, or because it is imposed on others.4 And yet the dominant trend in human societies, over the past century, has been significant convergence with respect to institutional structure. Most importantly, there has been practically universal acceptance of the need for a market economy and a bureaucratic state as the only desirable social structure at the national level. One can think of this as the basic blueprint of a “successful” society. This has led to an incredible narrowing of cultural possibilities, as cultures that are functionally incompatible with capitalism or bureaucracy are slowly extinguished or transformed.

This winnowing down of cultural possibilities is what constitutes the trend that is often falsely described as “Westernization.” Much of it is actually just a process of adaptation that any society must undergo, in order to bring its culture into alignment with the functional requirements of capitalism and bureaucracy. It is not that other cultures are becoming more “Western,” it is that all cultures, including Western ones, are converging around a small number of variants.5

One interesting consequence of this process is that the competition between cultures is becoming defunctionalized. The institutions of modern bureaucratic capitalism solve many of the traditional problems of social integration in an almost mechanical way. As a result, when considering the modern “hypercultures” — e.g. American, Japanese, European — there is little to choose from a functional point of view. None are particularly better or worse, from the standpoint of constructing a successful society. And so what is there left to compete on? All that is left are the memetic properties of the culture, which is to say, the pure capacity to reproduce itself.

[...]

Now consider Banks’s scenario. Consider the process that is generating modern hypercultures, and imagine it continuing for another three or four hundred years. The first consequence is that the culture will become entirely defunctionalized. Banks imagines a scenario in which all of the endemic problems of human society have been given essentially technological solutions (in much the same way that drones have solved the problem of criminal justice). Most importantly, he imagines that the fundamental problem of scarcity has been solved, and so there is no longer any obligation for anyone to work (although, of course, people remain free to do so if they wish). All important decisions are made by a benevolent technocracy of AIs (or the “Minds”).

And so what is left for humanity (or, more accurately, humanoids)? At the individual level, Banks imagines a life very much like the one described by Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper — everything becomes a game, and thus at some level, non-serious. But where Banks went further than Suits was in thinking about the social consequences. What happens when culture becomes freed from all functional constraints? It seems clear that, in the interplanetary competition that develops, the culture that emerges will be the most virulent, or the most contagious. In other words, “the Culture” will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself, by appealing to the sensibilities and tastes of humanoid life-forms.

A fountain pen is not a screwdriver

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Willis McNelly’s interview with Frank Herbert had a number of interesting tidbits I thought I’d quote (or paraphrase):

  • Ecology is the science of understanding consequences.
  • The name of the game is power.
  • There is a law of supply and demand as long as you only have one form of exchange, but once you start getting other media of exchange, such as force, then the law of supply and demand gets different beats on it, different rhythms.
  • Western man has assumed that if you have enough power, there is no problem which won’t submit to this approach, even the problem of our own ignorance.
  • It’s my contention that feudalism is a natural condition of human beings…not that it is the only condition or not that it is the right condition…that it is just a way we have of falling into organisations. I like to use the example of the Berlin Museum Beavers. Before World War II there were a number of families of beaver in the Berlin Museum. They were European beaver. They had been there, raised in captivity for something on the order of seventy beaver generations, in cages. World War II came along and a bomb freed some of them into the countryside. What did they do? They went out and they started building dams.
  • Campbell turned down the sequel. Now his argument was that I had created an anti-hero in Paul in the sequel, and he has built his magazine on the hero. But Galaxy snapped it right up and paid Campbell’s rates.
  • Virginia Heinlein says that every time that Bob wanders away she says, “Cut to the chase.”
  • As my wife is fond of telling my children, a fountain pen is not a screwdriver.
  • So there was a light from back in there and so she could see the cards, and she said, see if you can predict the cards. And she had been shuffling them, so she picked up the first card, and I closed my eyes, and I saw that card. And so I told her…that was it. She put it down. That was the card. I swear to you, Will, I went through that entire deck, predicting every card that she was going to see, and there wasn’t a failure at all. I told her every card. I did it the same every time.
  • Well, one of the threads in the story is to trace a possible way a messiah is created in our society, and I hope I was successful in making it believable. Here we have the entire process, or at least the large and some of the subtle elements of the construction of this, both from the individual standpoint, and from the way society demands this of you. It’s the references in there, you know, that the man must recognize the myth he is living in, because the creation of an avatar is a myth-making process. We’ve done it in our…in recent times. Look at what’s happening to John F. Kennedy.

How Star Wars was saved in the edit

Saturday, February 24th, 2018

I wasn’t aware of how Star Wars was saved in the edit:

I actually like the idea of Luke looking up through his macrobinoculars (or theodolite) at the battle above Tatooine.

(Hat tip to Morlock Publishing.)

The story of the rebel lieutenant

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

Owen Stephens shares what might very well be the best roleplaying-game story of all time, the story of the rebel lieutenant, from when he was putting on a demo of the then-new Star Wars roleplaying game:

Nostromo

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

In his interview with Frank Herbert, English professor Willis E. McNelly mentions the parallels between Dune and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

Sci-fi fans may recognize Nostromo as the name of the ship in the original Alien:

The ship was originally called the Snark, then later the Leviathan, before Ridley Scott chose the name Nostromo due to his love of Conrad’s works. People and places from Conrad’s works would go on to feature repeatedly as the names of space-going vessels in the Alien franchise, inspiring the names of the Narcissus (also from Alien), the USS Sulaco (from Aliens), the USCSS Patna (from Alien3), the USS Verloc (from Aliens versus Predator 2), the USS Marlow (from Aliens vs. Predator) and the USS Sephora (from Aliens: Colonial Marines).

The ship’s role as a tug, pulling an automated ore refinery, only tenuously links it to the Conrad story, which revolves around the corrupting influence of vast mineral wealth — silver, by the way, not spice.

Conrad’s author’s note explains how the story came about:

As a matter of fact in 1875 or ‘6, when very young, in the West Indies or rather in the Gulf of Mexico, for my contacts with land were short, few, and fleeting, I heard the story of some man who was supposed to have stolen single-handed a whole lighter-full of silver, somewhere on the Tierra Firme seaboard during the troubles of a revolution.

On the face of it this was something of a feat. But I heard no details, and having no particular interest in crime qua crime I was not likely to keep that one in my mind. And I forgot it till twenty-six or seven years afterwards I came upon the very thing in a shabby volume picked up outside a second-hand book-shop. It was the life story of an American seaman written by himself with the assistance of a journalist. In the course of his wanderings that American sailor worked for some months on board a schooner, the master and owner of which was the thief of whom I had heard in my very young days. I have no doubt of that because there could hardly have been two exploits of that peculiar kind in the same part of the world and both connected with a South American revolution.

The fellow had actually managed to steal a lighter with silver, and this, it seems, only because he was implicitly trusted by his employers, who must have been singularly poor judges of character. In the sailor’s story he is represented as an unmitigated rascal, a small cheat, stupidly ferocious, morose, of mean appearance, and altogether unworthy of the greatness this opportunity had thrust upon him. What was interesting was that he would boast of it openly.

He used to say: “People think I make a lot of money in this schooner of mine. But that is nothing. I don’t care for that. Now and then I go away quietly and lift a bar of silver. I must get rich slowly—you understand.”

There was also another curious point about the man. Once in the course of some quarrel the sailor threatened him: “What’s to prevent me reporting ashore what you have told me about that silver?”

The cynical ruffian was not alarmed in the least. He actually laughed. “You fool, if you dare talk like that on shore about me you will get a knife stuck in your back. Every man, woman, and child in that port is my friend. And who’s to prove the lighter wasn’t sunk? I didn’t show you where the silver is hidden. Did I? So you know nothing. And suppose I lied? Eh?”

Ultimately the sailor, disgusted with the sordid meanness of that impenitent thief, deserted from the schooner. The whole episode takes about three pages of his autobiography. Nothing to speak of; but as I looked them over, the curious confirmation of the few casual words heard in my early youth evoked the memories of that distant time when everything was so fresh, so surprising, so venturesome, so interesting; bits of strange coasts under the stars, shadows of hills in the sunshine, men’s passions in the dusk, gossip half-forgotten, faces grown dim…. Perhaps, perhaps, there still was in the world something to write about. Yet I did not see anything at first in the mere story. A rascal steals a large parcel of a valuable commodity—so people say. It’s either true or untrue; and in any case it has no value in itself. To invent a circumstantial account of the robbery did not appeal to me, because my talents not running that way I did not think that the game was worth the candle. It was only when it dawned upon me that the purloiner of the treasure need not necessarily be a confirmed rogue, that he could be even a man of character, an actor and possibly a victim in the changing scenes of a revolution, it was only then that I had the first vision of a twilight country which was to become the province of Sulaco, with its high shadowy Sierra and its misty Campo for mute witnesses of events flowing from the passions of men short-sighted in good and evil.

An English professor interviews Frank Herbert in 1969

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

In 1969, English professor Willis E. McNelly interviewed Frank Herbert on the origins of Dune:

Herbert does in fact sound just like a sci-fi geek. At this point, the first novel had been quite successful — pulling in fifteen thousand dollars — and the second novel was about to come out under a new publisher. I found Dune oddly compelling.

Silly, fun things are important

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

Yesterday’s Falcon Heavy test flight was impressive:

Launching a Tesla roadster into space was, of course, a ludicrous stunt. Kids these days may not get the allusion to the opening scene of Heavy Metal:

The South Park guys had quite a bit of fun — 10 years ago — spoofing that scene — and the rest of Heavy Metal:

A few hours after the launch, Elon Musk answered some questions:

Good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure, Marina Benjamin argues — good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society:

In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki — who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them, despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism — and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Elbert Hubbard wrote his “literary trifle,” A Message to Garcia, one evening after supper, in a single hour, as an unnamed piece for his magazine, the Philistine:

It was on the Twenty-second of February, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-nine, Washington’s Birthday, and we were just going to press with the March “Philistine.” The thing leaped hot from my heart, written after a trying day, when I had been endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers to abjure the comatose state and get radio-active.

The immediate suggestion, though, came from a little argument over the teacups, when my boy Bert suggested that Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War. Rowan had gone alone and done the thing — carried the message to Garcia.

It came to me like a flash! Yes, the boy is right, the hero is the man who does his work — who carries the message to Garcia. I got up from the table, and wrote “A Message to Garcia.” I thought so little of it that we ran it in the Magazine without a heading. The edition went out, and soon orders began to come for extra copies of the March “Philistine,” a dozen, fifty, a hundred; and when the American News Company ordered a thousand, I asked one of my helpers which article it was that had stirred up the cosmic dust.end-of-paragraph

“It’s the stuff about Garcia,” he said.

I love that 1899 style: get radio-active!

Hubbard goes on to claim that millions of copies have been printed and distributed. The story’s fame has definitely come and gone though:

The phrase “to carry a message to Garcia” was in common use for years to indicate taking initiative when carrying out a difficult assignment. Richard Nixon can be heard using it on the Watergate tapes during conversations with Henry Kissinger and John Ehrlichman. It has also been used as the title of children’s games, dramatized on radio shows, and was tailor-made for the Boy Scouts of America. A passage in the 1917 Boy Scouts Yearbook emphasizes the connection: “If you give [a Boy Scout] a ‘Message to Garcia’ you know that message will be delivered, although the mountains, the wilderness, the desert, the torrents, the broad lagoons or the sea itself, separate him from ‘Garcia.’”

The actual story about Rowan delivering a message to General Garcia is just a short preamble to Hubbard’s diatribe against half-hearted work:

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion.

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba — no one knew where. No mail or telegraph message could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly. What to do!

Some one said to the President, “There is a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and was given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia — are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing — “Carry a message to Garcia.”

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias.

No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man — the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it.

Go ahead and read the whole thing for a dose of old-school American can-do spirit.

Message to Garcia Cover

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest, who described it as something he expected to find out about on Isegoria.)