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:


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.)

The Virginian will live 100 years, if the Bolshevists and the IWW permit civilizations to endure so long as that

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Back in 1923 a little newspaper called the Los Angeles Times asked Edgar Rice Burroughs to write a thousand words about his extremely popular but non-literary works:

Mr. Ford suggests that I talk to you about my books — “At the Earth’s Core,” “The Chessmen of Mars” and the “Tarzan” stories. He wants me to talk about them for a thousand words… What I can say of them without outraging modesty can be put in fewer words by far. I think they are bully stories and that they fulfill the purposes for which they were written — to entertain and to sell. They were not written for any other purpose. Sometimes reviewers waste whole columns on them explaining that they are not what I never intended them to be — contributions to classical literature. That is misspent energy. Did a sport writer ever discuss the table manner of Battling Siki as seriously affecting his success in the prize ring? The only standard by which I judge the fiction that I enjoy is whether it has the punch to hold my interest and is able to deliver the k.o. to dull care and worry.

It seems to me that no one who functions properly above the ears can possibly read fiction for purposes of instruction or enlightenment. It is written by men no better, and oftentimes not so well, equipped to think as the reader. Each book contains the personal viewpoint of one man or woman, and even that opinion is usually seriously affected by what he thinks the public will pay $1.50 or $2 for. Occasionally there is a great piece of fiction, once in a hundred years, perhaps, or maybe I had better say a thousand years, that actually molds public opinion; but in the meantime fiction either entertains or it does not entertain, and that is all there is to it. What entertains you may not entertain the other fellow, but God knows there is enough of it written each year so that it is our own fault if we are not all entertained.

The really great purpose of fiction, however, is, as I see it, that it is a stepping stone to other and vastly more entertaining reading. The reading of clean fiction should be encouraged since the reading of anything will form the habit of reading and one day the novitiate, having no fiction on hand, will, perforce, have to read something else, and, lo, a new world will be opened to him — and there are so many wonderful books outside the fiction lists; but gosh! how they do charge for them. My favorites are travel exploration, biography and natural history, but there are others — countless others in which you can find more wonderful things than I or any other writer can invent.
Did you ever read an annual report of the Smithsonian Institute? I recently sat up nearly all night reading one that is ten years old, almost, and when, at dinner the following evening I recounted my adventures of the previous night to my three children they held them spellbound and elicited a thousand questions, 999 of which I could not answer.

And then there are magazines such as the Geographic, Asia and Popular Mechanics. These three constitute an encyclopedia of liberal education for adult or child that arouses a desire for more knowledge and fosters the habit of reading.

I am fond of fiction, too, although I do not read a great deal of it. And I have my favorites — Mary Roberts Reinhart and Booth Tarkington are two of them. When I read one of Mrs. Reinhart’s stories I always wish that I might have been sufficiently gifted to have written it, and then when I read something of Tarkington’s I feel the same way about that. I have read “The Virginian” five or six times, and “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” as many. I believe “The Virginian” to be one of the greatest American novels ever written, and though I have heard that Mr. Wister deplores having written it, I venture that 100 years from now it will constitute his sole link to fame — and I am sure that “The Virginian” will live 100 years, if the Bolshevists and the I.W.W. permit civilizations to endure so long as that.

I’m rather shocked that I’d never even heard of Mary Roberts Reinhart before:

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876 – September 22, 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie’s first novel in 1922.

Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase “The butler did it” from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase. Rinehart is also considered to have invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908).

She also created a costumed super-criminal called “the Bat”, cited by Bob Kane as one of the inspirations for his “Batman”.

Booth Tarkington wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which I know from the Orson Welles movie.

Having Will Smith as the star is the antidote

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Z Man describes Netflix’s new Will Smith movie Bright as Alien Nation with Orcs and Elves instead of space aliens:

The Elves are the Jews of this imaginary world, as they are smart and run everything.The humans are the whites, keeping society running, while the Orcs are the blacks, occupying the underclass and subjected to discrimination.


The interesting thing about this movie, though, is they don’t present the multicultural future as a paradise of diversity. Instead, it is more like Brazil where the underclass is huge and the middle class is small and fragile. In this context, the Elves live in beautiful gated communities, away from everyone else. The humans and Orcs are mixed up in the squalor, with the humans having a marginally better existence. It is a future where diversity is tolerated out of necessity, but everyone dreams of their own ethnostate.

The other strangely realistic aspect is the gross inequality. The Elves live like royalty, as they are at the top of the social order. They are clean and white and orderly. Everyone else is dirty, dark and disorderly. The implication is that the Elves pit Orcs and humans against one another, in order to exploit them. The result is the world extreme diversity is a world of poverty, for all but the elite. Imagine if the whole country was like New York City, where the elite live in penthouses and everyone else in tiny apartments.

That’s the reality of multiculturalism. The hidden cost of maintaining order inevitably bankrupts the middle-class. The people at the top are always getting their beak wet first and they will do what they must to protect themselves and their position. That means the cost of maintaining order falls on the middle, which quickly disappears. University towns exist in idyllic diversity, because billions are hoovered out of the surrounding economies to support the paradise. The university town scales up to be Brazil.

The movie does not spend much time contemplating the Elf class. All we learn is they live apart, but control society, with the help of human assistants. They do give us a surprisingly frank portrayal of the Orcs. They are physically superior to humans and they have an affinity for hip-hop culture, but most are too dumb to do anything other than menial jobs. The Orcs are so obviously a deliberate analog to modern blacks that I’m shocked they get away with it. I guess having Will Smith as the star is the antidote.

I’m reminded of the original Star Trek and how it could tackle current issues by applying even the slightest patina of sci-fi. For instance, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield features half-black, half-white people who hate the half-white, half-black people who share their planet — so it’s just a silly TV show! Nothing to worry about, sponsors!

Do research before taking vengeance

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

The New York Times interviews Niall Ferguson about books:

Which historians and biographers do you most admire?

Amongst those currently writing, Simon Schama stands out as the Dickens of modern historiography: bewilderingly erudite and prolific, passionate in his enthusiasms and armed with the complete contents of the thesaurus. We agree to disagree about politics. I have also hugely admired Anne Applebaum for her trilogy on the Gulag, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe (“Iron Curtain”) and, most recently, the Ukrainian famine (“Red Famine”). Walter Isaacson has established himself as the great American biographer of our time. “Leonardo da Vinci” is his best book, I think. Whereas the earlier books were pure journalism, he is now showing academic scholars how to write accessibly about subtle and even recondite subject matter. I read quite a number of biographies while researching “The Square and the Tower.” My favorite was probably Michael Ignatieff’s on Isaiah Berlin, which led me into the vast, delightful rabbit warren of Berlin’s correspondence.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I own books by a number of people who have insulted me in print, but I don’t think it is all that surprising that I do research before taking vengeance.

Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?

Volume one of “Kissinger” is the best thing I’ve done. Second prize goes to the first volume of “The House of Rothschild.” Both these books were constructed on a foundation of prodigious research. But I am also very fond of “Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power,” because it so infuriated a certain species of second-rate professor of post-colonial studies — though not so much that they actually read the book.

He mentions many more books.

Clean up your room

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

Kermit the Frog — and Jordan Peterson — remind you to clean up your room:

Professional ironists love drug history

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Scott Alexander recently wrote about Adderall, and this got Steve Sailer wondering about the cultural effects of speed-type drugs. He ended up stumbling across the same 15-year-old article that I cited, well, 15 years ago, which reviews Marcus Boon’s The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs:

The hundred and eighty years since De Quincey’s invention [of "the discourse of recreational drug use"] have seen a great expansion in the pharmacopoeia, especially since 1862, when the drug company Merck began to produce cocaine. (One of its great early advocates was an ambitious young Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud, who claimed, among other things, that “repeated doses of coca produce no compulsive desire to use the stimulant further; on the contrary one feels a certain unmotivated aversion to the substance.” Yeah, right.) Diamorphine, also known as heroin, was first synthesized for commercial use in 1897. The men who discovered it, Felix Hoffman and Arthur Eichengrun, had also, a couple of weeks earlier, invented aspirin; for some years, heroin could be bought over the counter and aspirin required a prescription. Professional ironists love drug history.

To Sailer’s point, Jean-Paul Sartre’s wrote his 1960 “existentialist blockbuster” The Critique of Dialectical Reason on speed:

Sartre is probably a bad advertisement for the effect of amphetamines as an aid to composition, but he is by no means the only example of a writer who used speed to help him work. For sheer quantity, Boon notes, it is hard to beat Philip K. Dick, who from 1963 to 1964, under the influence of the methamphetamine Semoxydrine, wrote “eleven science fiction novels, along with a number of essays, short stories, and plot treatments in an amphetamine-fuelled frenzy that accompanied or precipitated the end of one of his marriages.” (That “accompanied or precipitated” nicely captures how little fun it must have been to be Mrs. Dick.) If Philip K. Dick does not entirely convince on grounds of literary merit—and the books in question aren’t quite his best material—then how about Graham Greene, who was pounding Benzedrine when he wrote his 1939 travel book about Mexico, “The Lawless Roads,” and the novel that came out of his Mexican travels, “The Power and the Glory”? (The paranoid and menacing atmosphere of that superb novel, which describes a whiskey priest being hunted by Communist revolutionaries, surely owes something to Greene’s pill-chugging.)

Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen,” with the important proviso that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Auden seems to have been the only unquestionably major writer to use drugs in quite this way, as a direct source of energy for his work. He represents the apotheosis of a utilitarian approach to drugs; and it is therefore logical, if he was going to take drugs, that he would gravitate toward speed, which is the utilitarian drug par excellence.