Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Masha Gessen explains what HBO’s Chernobyl got right and wrong:

Before I get to what the series got so terribly wrong, I should acknowledge what it got right. In “Chernobyl,” which was created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film—or, for that matter, in Russian television or film. Clothes, objects, and light itself seem to come straight out of nineteen-eighties Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow. (There are tiny errors, like a holiday uniform worn by schoolchildren on a non-holiday, or teen-agers carrying little kids’ school bags, but this is truly splitting hairs.) Soviet-born Americans—and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians—have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced. The one noticeable mistake in this respect concerns the series makers’ apparent ignorance of the vast divisions between different socioeconomic classes in the Soviet Union: in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.

Herein lies one of the series’ biggest flaws: its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power. There are exceptions, flashes of brilliance that shed light on the bizarre workings of Soviet hierarchies. In the first episode, for example, during an emergency meeting of the Pripyat ispolkom, the town’s governing council, an elder statesman, Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), delivers a chilling, and chillingly accurate, speech, urging his compatriots to “have faith.” “We seal off the city,” Zharkov says. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.” This statement has everything: the bureaucratic indirectness of Soviet speech, the privileging of “fruits of labor” over the people who created them, and, of course, the utter disregard for human life.

The final episode of “Chernobyl” also contains a scene that encapsulates the Soviet system perfectly. During the trial of three men who have been deemed responsible for the disaster, a member of the Central Committee overrules the judge, who then looks to the prosecutor for direction—and the prosecutor gives that direction with a nod. This is exactly how Soviet courts worked: they did the bidding of the Central Committee, and the prosecutor wielded more power than the judge.

Unfortunately, apart from these striking moments, the series often veers between caricature and folly. In Episode 2, for example, the Central Committee member Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) threatens to have Legasov shot if he doesn’t tell him how a nuclear reactor works. There are a lot of people throughout the series who appear to act out of fear of being shot. This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties. By and large, Soviet people did what they were told without being threatened with guns or any punishment.

Similarly repetitive and ridiculous are the many scenes of heroic scientists confronting intransigent bureaucrats by explicitly criticizing the Soviet system of decision-making. In Episode 3, for example, Legasov asks, rhetorically, “Forgive me—maybe I’ve just spent too much time in my lab, or maybe I’m just stupid. Is this really the way it all works? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives that is made by some apparatchik, some career Party man?” Yes, of course this is the way it works, and, no, he hasn’t been in his lab so long that he didn’t realize that this is how it works. The fact of the matter is, if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.

Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of “Chernobyl” imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable—and, in doing so, they cross the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie. The Belarusian scientist Ulyana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is even more confrontational than Legasov. “I am a nuclear physicist,” she tells an apparatchik, in Episode 2. “Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.” First, she’d never say this. Second, the apparatchik might have worked at a shoe factory, but, if he was an apparatchik, he was no cobbler; he has come up the Party ladder, which might indeed have begun at the factory—but in an office, not on the factory floor. The apparatchik—or, more accurately, the caricature of the apparatchik—pours himself a glass of vodka from a carafe that sits on his desk and responds, “Yes, I worked in a shoe factory. And now I’m in charge.” He toasts, in what appears to be the middle of the day: “To the workers of the world.” No. No carafe, no vodka in the workplace in front of a hostile stranger, and no boasting “I’m in charge.”

The biggest fiction in this scene, though, is Khomyuk herself. Unlike other characters, she is made up—according to the closing titles, she represents dozens of scientists who helped Legasov investigate the cause of the disaster. Khomyuk appears to embody every possible Hollywood fantasy. She is a truth-knower: the first time we see her, she is already figuring out that something has gone terribly wrong, and she is grasping it terribly fast, unlike the dense men at the actual scene of the disaster, who seem to need hours to take it in. She is also a truth-seeker: she interviews dozens of people (some of them as they are dying of radiation exposure), digs up a scientific paper that has been censored, and figures out exactly what happened, minute by minute. She also gets herself arrested and then immediately seated at a meeting on the disaster, led by Gorbachev. None of this is possible, and all of it is hackneyed. The problem is not just that Khomyuk is a fiction; it’s that the kind of expert knowledge she represents is a fiction. The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

In the absence of a Chernobyl narrative, the makers of the series have used the outlines of a disaster movie. There are a few terrible men who bring the disaster about, and a few brave and all-knowing ones, who ultimately save Europe from becoming uninhabitable and who tell the world the truth. It is true that Europe survived; it is not true that anyone got to the truth, or told it.

A Muscle Beach bodybuilder & his hapa surfer buddy battle a cult that exploits rich hippies

Monday, June 24th, 2019

Gwern reviews Conan the Barbarian:

(Got around to watching after reading an amusing tweet summary: “An underappreciated thing about the Conan the Barbarian movie is how low-key informed it is by 1970s California beach culture. It’s basically about a Muscle Beach bodybuilder & his hapa surfer buddy doing drugs, having casual sex & battling a cult that exploits rich hippies.” Having already watched Pumping Iron, which shows Arnold Schwarzenegger not long before while still trying to transition from bodybuilding to film and his milieu, I was intrigued by the comparison. And Stentz’s summary is… dead on. It’s so easy to see them as Californian bodybuilders bumbling around, having a good time, distracted by a hippie Californian Asian/human-potential cult — complete with longhaired acolytes twirling flowers and meditating, and hilariously homoerotic dialogue, which as “The Power and the Gory”, takes pains to remind us, was a big part of the bodybuilding scene as even straight bodybuilders would whore themselves out to gay men for money or access to controlled steroids/drugs. I was further surprised by how slow-moving and mild it is — it repeatedly pulls punches and takes more peaceful ways out than its bloody reputation would suggest (even the Seven Samurai-homage set-piece features possibly less bloodshed than the original), right up to the climax. Of course Thulsa Doom is going to transform into his giant serpent form and fight Conan, right? Nope! And then all the cultists just quietly disperse.)

I happen to be listening to Schwarzenegger’s memoir, Total Recall, and this all rings true.

We’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

Michael Shellenberger explains (in Forbeswhat HBO’s Chernobyl got wrong:

In interviews around the release of HBO’s “Chernobyl,” screenwriter and show creator Mazin insisted that his mini-series would stick to the facts. “I defer to the less dramatic version of things,” Mazin said, adding, “you don’t want to cross a line into the sensational.”

In truth, “Chernobyl” runs across the line into sensational in the first episode and never looks back.

In one episode, three characters dramatically volunteer to sacrifice their lives to drain radioactive water, but no such event occurred.

“The three men were members of the plant staff with responsibility for that part of the power station and on shift at the time the operation began,” notes Adam Higginbotham, author of, Midnight in Chernobyl, a well-researched new history. “They simply received orders by telephone from the reactor shop manager to open the valves.”

Nor did radiation from the melted reactor crash a helicopter that flew too close, as is suggested in “Chernobyl.” There was a helicopter crash but it took place six months later and had nothing to do with radiation. One of the helicopter’s blades hit a chain dangling from a construction crane.

The most egregious of “Chernobyl” sensationalism is the depiction of radiation as contagious, like a virus. The scientist-hero played by Emily Watson physically drags away the pregnant wife of a Chernobyl firefighter dying from Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).

“Get out! Get out of here!” Watson screams, as though every second the woman is with her husband she is poisoning her baby.

But radiation is not contagious. Once someone has removed their clothes and been washed, as the firefighters were in real life, and in “Chernobyl,” the radioactivity is internalized and not contagious.

Why, then, do hospitals isolate radiation victims behind plastic screens? Because their immune systems have been weakened and they are at risk of being exposed to something they can’t handle. In other words, the contamination threat is the opposite of that depicted in “Chernobyl.”

The baby dies. Watson says, “The radiation would have killed the mother, but the baby absorbed it instead.” Mazin and HBO apparently believe such an event actually occurred.

HBO tries to clean-up some of the sensationalism with captions at the very end of the series. None note that claiming a baby died by “absorbing” radiation from its father is total and utter pseudoscience.

There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.

“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.

The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.

At the end of the show, HBO claims there was “a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus,” but this too is wrong.

Residents of those two countries were “exposed to doses slightly above natural background radiation levels,” according to the World Health Organization. If there are additional cancer deaths they will be “about 0.6% of the cancer deaths expected in this population due to other causes.”

Radiation is not the superpotent toxin “Chernobyl” depicts. In episode one, high doses of radiation make workers bleed, and in episode two, a nurse who merely touches a firefighter sees her hand turn bright red, as though burned. Neither thing occurred or is possible.

“Chernobyl” ominously depicts people gathered on a bridge watching the Chernobyl fire. At the end of the series, HBO claims, “it has been reported that none survived. It is now known as the “Bridge of Death.”

But the “Bridge of Death” is a sensational urban legend and there is no good evidence to support it.

“Chernobyl” is as misleading for what it leaves out. It gives the impression that all Chernobyl first responders who suffered Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) died. In reality, 80 percent of those with ARS survived.

It’s clear that even highly educated and informed viewers, including journalists, mistook much of “Chernobyl” fiction for fact.

The New Yorker repeated the claim that a woman’s baby “absorbed radiation” and died. The New Republic described radiation as “supernaturally persistent” and contagious (a “zombie logic, by which anyone who is poisoned becomes poisonous themselves”). The Economist, People, and others repeated the “bridge of death” urban legend.

There is a human cost to these misrepresentations. The notion that people exposed to radiation are contagious was used to terrify, stigmatize, and isolate people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, Chernobyl, and again in Fukushima.

Women in the areas that received low levels of radiation from Chernobyl terminated 100,000 to 200,000 pregnancies in a panic, and those who were exposed to Chernobyl radiation were four times more likely to report anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

[...]

In the end, HBO’s “Chernobyl” gets nuclear wrong for the same reason humankind as a whole has been getting it wrong for over 60 years, which is that we’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants.

In reality, Chernobyl proves why nuclear is the safest way to make electricity. In the worst nuclear power accidents, relatively small amounts of particulate matter escape, harming only a handful of people.

You must not believe anything you hear on this show

Sunday, June 16th, 2019

Bill Cooper sounds like quite a character — but that’s just what they’d like you to think:

Reputed instances of Cooper’s prescience are legion. An early roundup of these forecasts can be found in the August 15th, 1990, edition of the newsletter of the Citizens Agency for Joint Intelligence (CAJI), an organization Cooper created, billing it as “the largest private intelligence-gathering agency in the world.” Published on a dot-matrix printer, carrying the tagline “Information, not money, will be the power of the nineties,” Cooper ran an article entitled “Every Prediction Has Come True.” He listed 16 of his most recent prognostications that had come to pass “or will soon be fulfilled.”

These included the disclosure that “the CIA and the military are bringing drugs into the United States to finance their black projects.” Cooper also predicted that “the rape of the Savings and Loans by the CIA is only the tip of the iceberg. At least 600 banks will go under in the next two years.” The current monetary structure, Cooper said, “will be replaced by a cashless system that will allow the government to monitor our every action by computer. If you attempt to stay out of the system you will not be allowed to buy, sell, work, get medical care, or anything else we all take for granted.”

Cooper continued to make predictions in his watershed book, Behold a Pale Horse. Published in 1991 by Light Technology, a small New Age–oriented house then located in Sedona, Arizona, Behold a Pale Horse is something of a publishing miracle. With an initial press run of 3,500 (500 hardcover, 3,000 paperback), by the end of 2017, the book was closing in on 300,000 copies sold.

[...]

Eight years before the Trench Coat Mafia murders at Columbine High School, Cooper wrote: “The sharp increase of prescriptions of psychoactive drugs like Prozac and Ritalin to younger and younger children will inevitably lead to a rash of horrific school shootings.” These incidents, he said, “will be used by elements of the federal government as an excuse to infringe upon the citizenry’s Second Amendment rights.”

[...]

“I am no Prophet, I am no Nostradamus, I have no crystal ball,” Cooper proclaimed. He was “just an ordinary guy.” There was nothing supernatural about his predictions. Anyone could do it. It was all in the methodology, summed up in what he called his “standard admonition,” the one rule every prospective Hour of the Time listener had to obey, “no matter what.”

“You must not believe anything you hear on this show,” Cooper declared. Nor was the listener to believe anything they heard from any other shortwave host, “or Larry King Live, Dan Rather, George Bush, Bill Clinton, or anyone else in this entire world, whether you hear it on radio, on television, or from the lips of someone standing right in front of you.

“Listen to everyone, read everything, believe nothing until you, yourself, can prove it with your own research,” Cooper told the audience. “only free-thinking, intelligent people who are prepared to root through all the crap and get at the truth should be listening to this show. Everyone else should just turn off their radio. We don’t even want you to listen.

“Listen to everyone. Read everything, believe nothing . . . until you can prove to yourself whether it is true or false or lies between the many shades of gray. If you don’t do this, if you cannot do this, or are just plain too lazy to do this, then I can assure you that you will march into the New World Order as a docile slave.”

Then Cooper made the sound of a sheep. “Baaa! Baaa! Baaaing all the way.”

Cooper’s most famous prediction was made during the June 28th, 2001, broadcast of The Hour of the Time. A little past his 58th birthday and drinking heavily, Cooper was doing his program from a studio he’d built in the den of his house at 96 North Clearview Circle, atop a hill in the small White Mountains town of Eagar, Arizona, 15 miles from the New Mexico line.

“Can you believe what you have been seeing on CNN today, ladies and gentlemen?” Cooper asked the Hour of the Time audience that evening.

“Supposedly, a CNN reporter found Osama bin Laden, took a television camera crew with him, and interviewed him and his top leadership, lieutenants, and his colonels, and generals…in their hideout!

“Now don’t you think that’s kind of strange, folks?” Cooper asked with his signature chuckle. “Because the largest intelligence apparatus in the world, with the biggest budget in the history of world, has been looking for Osama bin Laden for years, and years, and years, and can’t find him!

But some doofus jerk-off reporter with his little camera crew waltzes right into his secret hideout and interviews him!”

This meant one of two things, Cooper told the audience. Either “everyone in the intelligence community and all the intelligence agencies of the United States government are blithering idiots and incompetent fools, or they’re lying to us.”

The fact was, Cooper told the audience, no one in the U.S. intelligence services was really looking for Osama bin Laden. They knew where he was. They had since the beginning of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Bin Laden, along with his entire family, was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“They created him. They’re the ones funding him. They supported him to make their new utopian worlds…and he has served them well.” There were rumors floating around the mass media that bin Laden was planning attacks on the United States and Israel, but this was just subterfuge, Cooper said. “If Osama bin Laden is an enemy of Israel, don’t you think the Mossad would have taken care of that a long time ago?” Cooper asked.

Something else was in the wind. There was no other reason for the government to allow the CNN report but to further stamp bin Laden’s bearded, pointy face upon the collective American mind-set. Bogeyman of the moment, the Saudi prince was being readied for his close-up.

“I’m telling you to be prepared for a major attack!” Cooper declared. The target would be a large American city.

“Something terrible is going to happen in this country. And whatever is going to happen they’re going to blame on Osama bin Laden. Don’t you even believe it.”

Two and a half months later, on September 11th, 2001, after two commercial airliners flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in a cataclysm that killed 2,996 people, including 343 New York City Fire Department personnel, Cooper’s prediction came to pass.

By the time Cooper got on the air that morning, the towers had already fallen. Several hours passed before the name Osama bin Laden surfaced on the BBC feed Cooper was monitoring. The British station, which Cooper regarded as marginally more reliable than the American networks, was doing an interview with the former Israeli Prime Minister General Ehud Barak and Richard Perle, chairman of George W. Bush’s Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee.

Widely known as the Prince of Darkness, in part for his Reagan-era support of Edward Teller’s $100 billion Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars, Pperle said teh attacks on New York and Washington were “clearly an act of war.”

“All our Western civilization is under attack,” Barak put in. The interviewer asked Perle if he thought the United States would be justified in firing cruise missiles at Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Perle, who along with fellow neocons Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld would soon push hard for the reinvasion of Iraq, answered in the affirmative.

The Afghani authorities had “allowed Osama bin Laden to operate in their territory,” Perle said. That alone was reason enough for a military strike. Bin Laden was involved, no doubt about it. Yes, Barak agreed, there was “every reason to believe” bin Laden was behind the attack.

It was then Cooper interrupted the transmission, shouting, “How do they know who did it?

“If the United States government had no warning like they say, if they didn’t know who was going to mount these attacks, and there are no survivors from the people in these planes, how do they know Osama bin Laden is behind it?”

So, yet again, Cooper was right.

[...]

Cooper made another prediction. “Folks, I can assure you that 72 hours from now we will be at war. We will be bombing two or maybe three countries….Because that’s how it works. When governments are attacked, they lash out. Thousands of people who had nothing whatsoever to do with what is happening at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are going to die.

“Nothing will be the same after today,” Cooper said grimly.

“Get ready for it, folks, because that’s what you’re going to be hearing in the next weeks and months on radio and television: Nothing will be the same after today….Because I’ll tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what the people who really did this want you to think, that nothing, nothing, will be the same after today.

“And you know what? They’re right. They’re telling the truth about that. Within weeks the Congress will pass draconian legislation aimed at restricting the rights of American citizens. You’re going to have surveillance cameras on every street corner. You think your phones are being tapped now, just wait.

“No one is going to gain from this except a very small group of people. Everyone else will lose. No one will lose more than the American people.” This would be the most grievous casualty of the 9/11 attacks, Cooper told the audience, the nation itself, the America that could have been.

Freedom, the most elusive of qualities, best distilled in the inspired documents of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had been dealt a fatal blow: “From now on, freedom will be whatever the law allows you to do.”

[...]

It was soon after that Cooper’s final prediction came true.

“They’re going to kill me, ladies and gentlemen,” he told the audience. “They’re going to come up here in the middle of the night, and shoot me dead, right on my doorstep.”

And, around midnight on November 5th, 2001, less than two months after the 9/11 attacks, that’s exactly what happened.

(Hat tip to Neovictorian.)

Hermann Oberth had originally intended to build a working rocket for use in the film

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

One of the first serious science fiction movies was Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond, or Woman in the Moon, which was released in the US as By Rocket to the Moon:

Lang, who also made Metropolis, had a personal interest in science fiction. When returning to Germany in the late 1950s he sold his extensive collection of Astounding Science Fiction, Weird Tales, and Galaxy magazines. Several prescient technical or operational features are presented during the film’s 1920′s launch sequence, which subsequently came into common operational use during America’s postwar space race:

  • The rocket ship Friede is fully built in a tall building and moved to the launch pad
  • As launch approaches, the launch team counts down the seconds from ten to zero (“now” was used for zero), and Woman in the Moon is often cited as the first occurrence of the “countdown to zero” before a rocket launch
  • The rocket ship blasts off from a pool of water; water is commonly used today on launch pads to absorb and dissipate the extreme heat and to damp the noise generated by the rocket exhaust
  • In space, the rocket ejects its first stage and fires its second stage rocket, predicting the development of modern multistage orbital rockets
  • The crew recline on horizontal beds to cope with the G-forces experienced during lift-off and pre-orbital acceleration
  • Floor foot straps are used to restrain the crew during zero gravity (Velcro is used today).
  • These items and the overall design of the rocket led to the film being banned in Germany from 1933-1945 during World War II by the Nazis, due to similarities to their secret V-2 project.

Rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an advisor on this movie. He had originally intended to build a working rocket for use in the film, but time and technology prevented this from happening. The film was popular among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun’s circle at the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR). The first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the rocket-development facility in Peenemünde had the Frau im Mond logo painted on its base. Noted post-war science writer Willy Ley also served as a consultant on the film. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which deals with the V-2 rockets, refers to the movie, along with several other classic German silent films.

Ambiguous, longed for and desolate

Friday, June 14th, 2019

Science fiction illuminates the dreams of the new moon-rushers:

Take the origins of Pence’s reference to the “lunar strategic high ground”. In one of the first moon novels written after the second world war, Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), an atomic scientist and his teenage crew discover, on what they believe to be the first mission to the moon, a base from which the Third Reich’s rump intends to rain nuclear vengeance on to Earth. Heinlein, an aeronautical engineer who was one of the first American science fiction writers to gain a mainstream audience, had seen the V-2 and the Manhattan Project make real the rocket ships and superweaponry that had been his prewar stock in trade. Such authors were highly exercised by the strategic implications. In the same month that Heinlein’s book was published, John W Campbell, the preeminent American science fiction editor of the age, published an essay by his and Heinlein’s friend L Ron Hubbard on the strategic necessity of America being the first nation to build such a moonbase for its missiles. A year later Colliers, a mass market magazine, was warning of a “Rocket Blitz from the Moon”.

The idea rode high for a decade. “He who controls the moon, controls the Earth,” General Homer A Boushey told the American press in 1958. The US air force investigated the possibility of demonstrating that control, and adding to the moon’s craters, by conducting a nuclear test on its surface, one that would be ominously and spectacularly visible to most of the world below (Carl Sagan, later to be prominent in the fight for nuclear disarmament, was one of those who worked on the project).

It did not happen. Though the Apollo programme was a crucial piece of cold war strategy, its goal was not to occupy the moon or use it as a missile base. Rather, it was to show the world the remarkable resources the US was willing to invest in advancing its technological power; the means, not the end, were the message. But Hubbard’s megalomaniacal dreams of an Earth controlled from the moon still lurks in that idea of the “strategic high ground”.

Rocket Ship Galileo used the moon not only as a way of thinking about the prospect of nuclear war, it also made it a way of understanding the aftermath. (“The moon people … ruined themselves. They had one atomic war too many.”)

These visions of existential dread led Arthur C Clarke to argue in Prelude to Space (1947), a novel about the preparations for a moon mission, that “atomic power makes interplanetary travel not just possible but imperative. As long as it was confined to Earth, humanity had too many eggs in one rather fragile basket.” That feeling informs dreams of space travel today. Musk, in particular, talks of war, pandemics, rebel AIs and asteroid Armageddons all making it vital for humans to become a multiplanetary species. A more junior Silicon Valley space mogul told me he wants to help build a moonbase for the same reason that, before cloud computing, he would back up his files to a second hard disk: something might happen. (Of course, such plutocratic panic feels dangerously close to the idea of a bolthole for the select.)

As active proponents of the new space age, Clarke and Heinlein realised that linking the moon only with nuclear catastrophe would be a poor sales pitch. To get the public on board, a more fertile idea was the dream of building human settlements on the moon, which could somehow be portrayed as both wonderful and mundane. In Heinlein’s short story “Space Jockey”, the problem facing the astronaut protagonist is not Ming the Merciless or a swarm of comets but the amount of time he has to spend away from home; the resolution is his decision to take a desk job in comfortably domestic Luna City, built under the surface of the moon. A teenager whines that “nothing ever happens on the moon”. This dualism of the familiar and the fantastic is epitomised in the motif of Earth playing the same role in the moon’s sky as the moon does in Earth’s, lighting the landscape’s darkness.

It is not a new insight; Galileo realised that nights on the nearside of the moon would be earthlit, just as earthly nights are moonlit. All early lunar fiction draws the reader’s attention to Earth waxing and waning in the alien sky as the clearest possible indication of the revolutionary Copernican insight. Twentieth-century heirs made a similar use of the image of worlds reversed. Earthlight (1955), Clarke’s first moon-set novel, opens with the accountant Bertram Sadler, new to the moon, looking out of his train window at the “cold glory of this ancient, empty land” illuminated by “a light tinged with blues and greens; an arctic radiance that gave no atom of heat. And that, thought Sadler, was surely a paradox, for it came from a world of light and warmth.”

Clarke’s paradox was made plain to see in the famous image Earthrise captured by Apollo 8: a world of warmth and light rising above the cold glory of ancient emptiness. The contrast was strong enough – the blasted basalts below unworldly and unappealing enough – that the colonised, normalised moon which Clarke and Heinlein had imagined fell back into the realm of fancy, if not that of the absurd.

So why does returning to the moon now seem plausible again? For one thing, China, or any other country, can put a man or woman on the moon with far less effort than it took the US in the 1960s: as a way to claim parity with a fading superpower, that relatively modest effort has obvious attractions. And as the effort involved has been reduced the resources in the hands of private individuals have increased: Bezos may choose, in the near-term, to yoke his dreams of expansion into space – unlocking untold wealth – to the more parochial ambitions of the US government. But that is convenience, not necessity. Being the richest person on the planet brings with it its own superempowerment.

Science fiction, too, has cast space travel in economic, rather than political, terms. Once again it is hard to avoid Heinlein, this time his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950). Its main character is DD Harriman, a tycoon who, having made his fortune from other technologies, persuades and cons investors of all sorts to provide the further resources he needs to realise his true dream, the founding of a moon colony. After the sheer Soviet Union-surpassing, 2.5%-of-GDP scale of the Apollo effort became manifest in the 1960s, the story seemed quaint. Moon missions were the work of nations, not cigar-puffing wheeler dealers. Now it seems oddly prescient.

If strategic rivalry, existential fear and plutocratic caprice were the only narratives science fiction had lent the moon, one might feel justified in taking a dim view of the whole affair. But there is more. A lifeless world may again provide new insights into a living one, as it did with Earthrise. It is in such changed perspectives on worlds and their peoples that the true promise of science fiction surely lives. Heinlein’s most successful lunar novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1967), is driven by a thrilling plot. But the reason it continues to be loved by many, especially in Silicon Valley, is the strange, contradictory, savage but cosy, polyamorous, Malthusian, libertarian, utopian and carceral society it conjures as its cyborg setting. Similarly, the most striking recent novel about the moon, John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other (2017) sets itself in the “Society of Cousins”, a matriarchy inspiring and troubling, idealistic, indulgent and somewhat stifling. It is, to borrow the subtitle of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), an ambiguous utopia.

Which is as much as you can hope for. The moon, as it becomes a target for politicians, billionaires and enthusiasts inspired by science fictions past, should remain ambiguous, longed for and desolate, always the same and yet shockingly new, a strangeness sitting in the sky for all to see.

Jiemba Sands can move

Monday, May 20th, 2019

The oddly named Jiemba Sands has compiled his best Instagramwins and fails” into one YouTube montage and his acrobatic stunts into another:

DefunctTV’s History of the Muppet Show

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

DefunctTV presents a history of The Muppet Show:

The source material deserves most of the blame

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

Bryan Caplan argues that Game of Thrones has had awful pacing problems since they wrapped up Storm of Swords at the end of season 4:

But the source material deserves most of the blame. What should have happened:

1. Feast for Crows should have lived up to its name. In this book, a horrific winter descends on the North while Stark loyalists fight Baratheons fight Wildlings fight Boltons fight Greyjoys, leading to mass famine and swarms of refugees fleeing south. Meanwhile, Dany fights for control of Slaver’s Bay, and Cercei struggles for control with the religious fanatics. The book ends with Boltons attacking the Night’s Watch, allowing the Others to break through the Wall.

Major deaths: Stannis, Davos, Melisandre, Ramsey Bolton, Rickon, all the Night’s Watch except Jon and Sam, all the named Wildlings, Jorah, all of Dany’s slaver enemies.

2. In Dance with Dragons, the horrible winter continues south, along with swarms of refugees. The Night King takes over the North and besieges Moat Cailin. Cercei kills off her enemies in the Sept Massacre and sends Jaime to reinforce Moat Cailin with technical help from Sam Tarly. It looks like it’s going to work, but Dany (with Tyrion as her Hand) attacks King’s Landing with her dragons, leading to general collapse of the Lannister’s resistance. The book ends as the Others swarm Riverrun and take the Twins.

Major deaths: All of Cercei’s local enemies, Jaime, Cercei, Tommen, all the Tullies, all the Freys.

3. In Winds of Winter, Dany desperately tries to fight the Night King with her dragons and allies as the devastation of the North gets repeated everywhere North of Dorne. Littlefinger (who has long-since married Sansa and killed Robert Arryn) lures the Night King to the Eyrie after obtaining ancient lore to bind the Night King to his will. Meanwhile, all the remaining named characters rally to Dany, fortified by Sam’s technical help. One dragon gets turned undead; the Night King uses him to destroy the Eyrie, killing Littlefinger and Sansa. As the book ends, King’s Landing falls, and the survivors desperately retreat to Dorne.

Major deaths: Littlefinger, Sansa, Tyrion (who desperately tries to repeat his victory at Blackwater Bay), Sam, Varys.

4. In A Dream of Spring, the survivors fortify Dornish defenses. Winter abates, and much of the Night King’s army slowly rots into extinction. The Night King tries breaking the impasse with his undead dragon, but fails due to Arya’s spycraft. This opens the way for a multi-pronged counterattack. Half the remaining beloved characters die on five different fronts. In the end, they force the Night King back beyond the Wall, and prepare for the next Winter. This time, when a Stark says “Winter is coming,” all Westeros believes him!

Major deaths: Half the remaining beloved characters, but probably sparing Dany and Jon to give a little hope for the future.

Furthermore, each of these seasons should have been a full ten episodes. Cutting story-telling for special effects is a rotten trade-off. And never skimp on polishing the dialogue, which is the glory of the first four seasons!

One last thing: The Night King shouldn’t just talk; he should be a cool Satanic figure who bluntly points out the wickedness of Man and uses it to rationalize human extinction.

Dragonglass is very similar to the stone found by Obsidius in Ethiopia

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire features “wights” (undead zombies) created and controlled by “the Others” (intelligent undead), which are vulnerable to “dragonglass” (obsidian). HBO’s Game of Thrones makes both its wights and “white walkers” (its preferred term for the Others) vulnerable to the volcanic glass and has the smith frantically forging weapons out of dragonglass before the undead hordes arrive — which is not how obsidian weapons were made in the real world:

Obsidian gets its name from this mention in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (AD 77):

…among the various forms of glass we may reckon Obsidian glass, a substance very similar to the stone found by Obsidius in Ethiopia.

Most mob members don’t want to look too closely at the details

Saturday, April 20th, 2019

Robin Hanson recently watched Downfall on Bryan Caplan’s recommendation and found its depiction of Hitler and the Nazis too cartoonishly evil to take seriously:

So much so that I wonder about its realism, though the sources I’ve found all seem to praise its realism. Thus I was quite surprised to hear that critics complained the movie didn’t portray its subjects as evil enough!

[...]

The conclusion I have to draw here is that no remotely realistic depiction of real bad people would satisfy these critics. Most people insist on having cartoonish mental images of their exemplars of evil, images that would be contradicted by any remotely realistic depiction of the details their actual lives. I’d guess this is also a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum; any remotely realistic depiction of the details of the life of someone that people consider saintly, like Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King, would be seen by many as a disrespectful takedown.

This is probably the result of a signaling game wherein people strive to show how moral they are by thinking even more highly of standard exemplars of good and even more lowly of standard exemplars of bad, compared to ordinary people. This helps me to understand self-righteous internet mobs a bit better; once a target has been labeled evil, most mob members probably don’t want to look too close at that target’s details, for fear that such details would make him or her seem more realistic, and thus less evil. Once we get on our self-righteous high horse, we prefer to look up to our ideals in the sky, and not down at the complex details on the ground.

He adds this addendum:

This attitude of course isn’t optimal for detecting and responding to real evil in the world. But we care more about showing off just how outraged we are at evil than we care about effective response to it.

Not just physical beauty, but a sense of idyll, wonder or perfection

Monday, April 15th, 2019

Tanner Greer explains China’s obsession with anime and cosplay, which they call the “second dimension”:

The size of this two-dimensional world astounds. Consumers of this culture, broadly conceived, number 270 million in China, according to a March 2017 article on Sohu (with 90 million “core users” according to newer data). [...] An impressive display of the zeal and market power of this group is the China International Cartoon and Animation Festival, held each year in Hangzhou. In 2018 the festival pulled in 1.3 million attendees. (In contrast, last year’s New York Comic Con broke an American record with only 200,000 visitors.)

[...]

What is it that draws these overwhelmingly urban, educated, middle-class Chinese youth to the second dimension? Ask this question to them, and you will hear the same word again and again: meihao — a compound of the Chinese words for beautiful and good, used to describe not just physical beauty, but a sense of idyll, wonder or perfection.

“Our 3D world cannot compare to the meihao of the second dimension,” explained Sun Wei, a college freshman who volunteers her weekends managing booths at manga meetups. “Only in the second dimension you can see a truly meihao sort of life.”

[...]

At first glance, 2D culture does not seem optimized for relaxation. It demands an unusual commitment from even its most casual participants. User participation on Bilibili is an excellent example: stream an anime episode on Bilibili and your video screen will be flooded with hundreds of moving “bullet comments” zipping across the screen. But not just anyone can leave their bullets on Bilibili — to register, users are required to first ace a 100-question test on site etiquette and 2D culture trivia. If you cannot answer questions such as “The vocaloid singer Hatsune Miku is based on the voice of which Japanese voice actor?” (A: Fujita Aya) and “In the anime series Full Metal Alchemist, the character Xiao Mei is always accompanied by what animal?” (A: a pet panda) you cannot register. Even casual engagement with the 2D world requires mastery of an esoteric array of 2D themed slang, memes and trivia.

[...]

In no other place has Japanese animation been so explosively popular: even in Japan, anime is perceived as “nerdy” (the realm of otaku) whereas in China it is mainstream, in the same way that in America sci-fi is seen as geeky but superhero movies are not.

What could you do to affect British policy, strategy, tactics and equipment?

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Anthony Williams has written an alternative-history sci-fi book, The Foresight War, which sounds like something I just might have to get:

What if you went to sleep as usual in 2004 and woke up in 1934? What if you had vital knowledge about the forthcoming Second World War, and could prove that you came from the future? What could you do to affect British policy, strategy, tactics and equipment? How might the course of the conflict be changed?

And what if there was another throwback from the future — and he was working for the enemy?

The novel follows the story of these two ‘throwbacks’ as they pit their wits against each other. A very different Second World War rages across Europe, the Mediterranean, Russia, the North Atlantic and the Pacific, until its shocking conclusion.

[...]

I started to write The Foresight War in order to put down on paper — and thereby exorcise — thoughts which had been buzzing around in my head for years concerning the Second World War. As my primary interest is in military technology, ideas about how this aspect of the war might have developed differently formed the core of the novel. However, in order to turn these concepts into fiction the book clearly had to contain more, so I spent a lot of time researching the tactics, strategies, geography, events and key personalities. The structure of the novel was determined by the principal historical areas and phases of the conflict, as I did not want to depart too much from these. Once the scene was set, the story to a great extent wrote itself, occasionally veering off in directions I hadn’t expected. The main problem was the conclusion, which I didn’t decide on until just before I started the final chapter.

[...]

To sum up: if you are interested in the “what ifs” of World War 2, with particular emphasis on technology and tactics, you will probably enjoy this book. If you’re more interested in how being thrown back into the past might affect the personalities involved, you probably won’t.

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it

Monday, April 1st, 2019

I read Neovictorian’s Sanity a couple months ago and noted that the afterword explicitly mentioned some of his favorite authors, starting with Dashiell Hammett. I had been meaning to read some Hammett for years, so I swung by Amazon and found that The Maltese Falcon was just $4.00 on Kindle.

The story is better known for the Bogart film, which brings up the biggest difference between the book and the movie: the character of Sam Spade looks absolutely nothing like Bogart. Early in the book he’s described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” and a bit later, well, I’ll let Hammett describe him:

The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

That seems more like Stacy Keach as Mike Hammer.

I remember watching bits of the Bogart film as a child, and my dad commenting that the gangsters didn’t seem especially fierce. Years later, a friend of mine who was into hardboiled detective fiction and film noir pointed out that the Code prevented the movie from accurately portraying many of the villains as gay. In the book, Spade’s receptionist describes his visitor as “queer,” which I would’ve taken to simply mean odd, if I hadn’t been forewarned, and later in the story that same character is referred to as a “fairy.” Another member of the gang, generally called “the boy,” is also called a “gunsel,” which can rather ambiguously refer to a criminal with a gun or a catamite. This suggests that their corpulent boss might also have had unusual tastes.

Anyway, Sam Spade drinks a distracting amount — Bacardi in a wine glass, Manhattan in a paper cup, etc.

Something that caught my attention early on is the murder weapon: a Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver. Another character has a Luger in a shoulder holster. The gunsel has two automatic pistols in his coat pockets. That’s one of the few times I would recommend (non-automatic) revolvers.

The first few pages of the story didn’t strike me as stereotypically hardboiled, but by the end it had the patter I expected:

“I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”

“But—but, Sam, you can’t! Not after what we’ve been to each other. You can’t—”

“Like hell I can’t.”

[...]

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around—bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.

[...]

Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business—bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.”

It’s a quick, fun read.

When it can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for the human consumption

Monday, March 18th, 2019

The King of Surf Guitar just passed away. I saw him play back in the mid-90s, and it was literally painfully loud in the small club. I had been to plenty of loud concerts, and I couldn’t take it:

Dale was born Richard Anthony Monsour in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1937. He was of Lebanese descent from his father and Polish-Belarusian descent from his mother. His family subsequently moved to Quincy, Massachusetts. He learned the piano when he was nine after listening to his aunt playing it. He was given a trumpet in seventh grade, and later acquired a ukulele (for $6 part exchange) after becoming influenced by Hank Williams. The first song he played on the ukulele was “Tennessee Waltz”. He was also influenced musically by his uncle, who taught him how to play the tarabaki and could play the oud.

Dale then bought a guitar from a friend for $8, paying him back on installments. He then learned to play the instrument, using a combination of styles incorporating both lead and rhythm styles, so that the guitar filled the place of drums. His early tarabaki drumming later influenced his guitar playing, particularly his rapid alternate picking technique. Dale referred to this as “the pulsation”, noting all instruments he played derived from the tarabaki. He was raised in Quincy until he completed the eleventh grade at Quincy High School in 1954, when his father, a machinist, took a job working for Hughes Aircraft Company in the Southern California aerospace industry. The family moved to El Segundo, California. Dale spent his senior year at and graduated from Washington Senior High School. He learned to surf at the age of 17. He retained a strong interest in Arabic music, which later played a major role in his development of surf rock music.

Dale began playing in local country bars where he met Texas Tiny, who gave him the name “Dick Dale” because he thought it was a good name for a country singer.

Dale is credited as one of the first electric guitarists to employ non-Western scales in his playing. He regularly used reverb which became a trademark of surf guitar. Being left-handed, Dale tried to play a a right-handed guitar, but then changed to a left handed model. However, he did so without restringing the guitar, leading him to effectively play the guitar upside-down, often playing by reaching over the fretboard rather than wrapping his fingers up from underneath. He partnered with Leo Fender to test new equipment, later saying “When it can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for the human consumption.” His combination of loud amplifiers and heavy gauge strings led him to be called the “Father of Heavy Metal”. After blowing up several Fender amplifiers, Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares saw Dale play at the Rendezvous Ballroom, Balboa, California and identified the problem with creating a sound louder than the audience screaming. The pair visited the James B. Lansing loudspeaker company and ask for a custom 15-inch loudspeaker, which became the JBL D130F model, and was known as the Single Showman Amp. Dale’s combination of a Fender Stratocaster and Fender Showman Amp allowed him to attain significantly louder volume levels unobtainable by then-conventional equipment.