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.

Wealthy republics do not last long

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle wrote Mercenaries and Military Virtue as a preface for a David Drake novel and then rewrote it into a standalone essay for There Will Be War:

A nation which despises its soldiers will all too soon have a despicable army.

The depressing fact is that history is remarkably clear on one point: wealthy republics do not last long. Time after time they have risen to wealth and freedom; the citizens become wealthy and sophisticated; unwilling to volunteer to protect themselves, they go to conscription; this too becomes intolerable; and soon enough they turn to mercenaries.

[...]

For mercenaries are a dangerous necessity. If they are incompetent, they will ruin you. If they are competent there is always the temptation to rob the paymaster.

Why should they not? They know their employers will not fight. They may, if recruited into a national army, retain loyalty to the country—but if the nation despises them, and takes every possible opportunity to let them know it, then that incentive falls as well—and they have a monopoly on the means of violence. Their employers won’t fight—if they would, they needn’t have hired mercenaries.

[...]

As Montesquieu put it, “a rational army would run away.” To stand on the firing parapet and expose yourself to danger; to stand and fight a thousand miles from home when you’re all alone and outnumbered and probably beaten; to spit on your hands and lower the pike, to stand fast over the body of Leonidas the King, to be rear guard at Kunu-ri; to stand and be still to the Birkenhead drill; these are not rational acts.

[...]

On the evidence, peace is a purely theoretical state of affairs whose existence we deduce because there have been intervals between wars.

[...]

When Appius Claudius told the Senate of Rome that “If you would have peace, be thou then prepared for war” he said nothing that history has not repeatedly affirmed. It may be wrong advice. Certainly there is an argument against it. But I think there is no argument at all against a similar aphorism: “If you would have peace, then understand war.”

Which is to say, understand armies; understand why men fight; understand the organization of violence.

[...]

We lost in 1965, when we defeated the guerillas, but failed either to take North Viet Nam or to isolate the battlefield. We tried to defeat hornets by swatting them one hornet at a time, a tactic that cannot possibly work. You must either burn the nest or retire behind window screens.

[...]

History has never been kind to wealthy republics. We can hope we are an exception.

People who work together don’t need diplomats

Monday, March 4th, 2019

It’s a lot harder to pull off a twist ending today than 60 years ago. I was reminded of this while reading Philip K. Dick’s “The Defenders,” in There Will Be War. World War III has continued, with all the humans living deep underground, while an army of radiation-shielded robots, or leadies, continues the fight on the surface. Eight years in, some suspicious humans come to the surface to survey the devastation:

“As soon as you left, the war ceased. You’re right, it was a hoax. You worked hard undersurface, sending up guns and weapons, and we destroyed them as fast as they came up.”

[...]

“You created us,” the leady said, “to pursue the war for you, while you human beings went below the ground in order to survive. But before we could continue the war, it was necessary to analyze it to determine what its purpose was. We did this, and we found that it had no purpose, except, perhaps, in terms of human needs. Even this was questionable.

“We investigated further. We found that human cultures pass through phases, each culture in its own time. As the culture ages and begins to lose its objectives, conflict arises within it between those who wish to cast it off and set up a new culture-pattern, and those who wish to retain the old with as little change as possible.

“At this point, a great danger appears. The conflict within threatens to engulf the society in self-war, group against group. The vital traditions may be lost—not merely altered or reformed, but completely destroyed in this period of chaos and anarchy. We have found many such examples in the history of mankind.

“It is necessary for this hatred within the culture to be directed outward, toward an external group, so that the culture itself may survive its crisis. War is the result. War, to a logical mind, is absurd. But in terms of human needs, it plays a vital role. And it will continue to until Man has grown up enough so that no hatred lies within him.”

Taylor was listening intently. “Do you think this time will come?”

“Of course. It has almost arrived now. This is the last war. Man is almost united into one final culture—a world culture. At this point he stands continent against continent, one half of the world against the other half. Only a single step remains, the jump to a unified culture. Man has climbed slowly upward, tending always toward unification of his culture. It will not be long—

“But it has not come yet, and so the war had to go on, to satisfy the last violent surge of hatred that Man felt. Eight years have passed since the war began. In these eight years, we have observed and noted important changes going on in the minds of men. Fatigue and disinterest, we have seen, are gradually taking the place of hatred and fear. The hatred is being exhausted gradually, over a period of time. But for the present, the hoax must go on, at least for a while longer. You are not ready to learn the truth. You would want to continue the war.”

[...]

“It’s a certainty that the Soviets have been tricked, too, the same as us. But we have found out. That gives us an edge over them.”

[...]

“With a hundred top-level men, we could take over again, restore things as they should be! It would be easy!”

[...]

“As you can see, the Tube has been shut. We were prepared for this. As soon as all of you were on the surface, the order was given. If you had gone back when we asked you, you would now be safely down below. We had to work quickly because it was such an immense operation.”

“But why?” Moss demanded angrily.

“Because it is unthinkable that you should be allowed to resume the war. With all the Tubes sealed, it will be many months before forces from below can reach the surface, let alone organize a military programme. By that time the cycle will have entered its last stages. You will not be so perturbed to find your world intact.

“We had hoped that you would be undersurface when the sealing occurred. Your presence here is a nuisance. When the Soviets broke through, we were able to accomplish their sealing without—”

“The Soviets? They broke through?”

“Several months ago, they came up unexpectedly to see why the war had not been won. We were forced to act with speed. At this moment they are desperately attempting to cut new Tubes to the surface, to resume the war. We have, however, been able to seal each new one as it appears.”

[...]

“People who work together don’t need diplomats. They solve their problems on the operational level instead of at a conference table.”

[...]

“It is the goal of history, unifying the world. From family to tribe to city-state to nation to hemisphere, the direction has been toward unification. Now the hemispheres will be joined and—”

[...]

“Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history.”

Captain Marvel

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019

Back in 1939, artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker created a superhero called Captain Marvel, who first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 (cover-dated Feb. 1940), published by Fawcett Comics. You’ve probably never heard of that title or that publisher, but based on book sales, the character was the most popular superhero of the 1940s, outselling even Superman.

Whiz Comics No 02 Cover Captain Marvel

So, naturally, Superman’s publisher — which was National Comics, at that point, not yet DC — sued, alleging that Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman. It was a ludicrous claim, but Fawcett eventually agreed to cease publishing Captain Marvel-related comics in 1953, when superhero comics weren’t selling well, anyway.

In the late 1960s Marvel Comics gained the trademark “Captain Marvel” — which makes a certain kind of sense — and legally had to publish a Captain Marvel title at least once every two years in order to retain it, which led to a number of half-hearted efforts with a rather uninspiring new character, Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree Imperial Militia, who is sent to observe the planet Earth as it is developing technology to travel into space. This Captain Marvel was created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan and first appeared in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (December 1967).

Marvel Super-Heroes No 12 Captain Marvel

Then, in 1972, DC reintroduced the original character under the new trademark of Shazam — which was originally the name of the wizard who granted young Billy Batson his powers and the magic word Billy had to say aloud to transform into the (adult) superhero, with the powers of the “gods”:

The wisdom of Solomon
The strength of Hercules
The stamina of Atlas
The power of Zeus
The courage of Achilles
The speed of Mercury

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics cycled through a few more uninspired captains, before settling on Carol Danvers, formerly known as Ms. Marvel, as their Captain Marvel and the basis for the upcoming movie.

Captain Marvel No 01 Cover Carol Danvers

Nitric acid poured over cores of powdered aluminum in a rubber matrix

Saturday, March 2nd, 2019

One of the stories in There Will Be War features an Israeli missile launch, and the technical details stood out to me — particularly since I read Ignition! recently:

In thirty eight sealed chambers, far overhead, nitric acid poured over cores of powdered aluminum in a rubber matrix. Solid fuel boosters roared to life. At a forty five degree angle, all of the missiles, save one, soared upward.

At two hundred feet, the missiles leveled off. Robot control surfaces adjusted themselves. Jet engines caught the wind and fired into keening life. Although they had all been launched in the same general direction, as winds caught ailerons and rudders, they began to turn.

No one quite knows where the great captains come from

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle included Poul Anderson’s “Marius” in There Will Be War and wrote this preface to it:

In every generation there are those who can lead men to Hell. There are never many, for the secrets of that kind of leadership have not been written in books. No one quite knows where the great captains come from. They appear when needed — or they do not, and homelands die.

The great captains are not immune to the temptations of power; indeed, for those who can lead men to Hell, there is always the suspicion that they might be able to lead them to Heaven. If the generals do not think this way, we can be certain they will have followers to suggest the possibility.

Great soldiers are not often great governors. Sometimes they are: Julius Caesar was certainly preferable to most of his immediate successors and predecessors, Washington was certainly an able president, Mustapha Kemal was the best governor Turkey ever had. England has had able soldier kings. Napoleon reformed French society and developed a code of laws that has spread throughout the world, making one wonder what might have happened had the Allies left him in peace after his return from Elba.

Far too often, though, the habits of military power have been ingrained, so that the great captain becomes tyrant or incompetent — or both — as head of state.

The story involves a coup, in post-World War III Europe, to replace a benevolent dictator, before strongman politics become too ingrained. The academics behind the coup understand symbolic sociology — something like Asimov’s psychohistory.

Pournelle felt that the usual understanding of the story, that the scientific faction’s win was a win for humanity, was a misunderstanding:

Pareto, whose theory of the circulation of elites makes more sense than most contemporary sociology (and is worth a great deal more study than it receives), died in 1923. He was more interested in the description of society than in prescriptions for its change; to the extent that he was on record as favoring any social scheme it was classical liberalism of the sort espoused by Dr. Milton Friedman in this era.

[...]

Pareto wrote: “Had Aristotle held to the course he in part so admirably followed, we would have had a scientific sociology in his early day. Why did he not do so? There may have been many reasons; but chief among them, probably, was that eagerness for premature practical applications which is ever obstructing the progress of science, along with a mania for preaching to people as to what they ought to do — an exceedingly bootless occupation — instead of finding out what they actually do.”

[...]

Fourre and Valti are more concerned with theory — such as how many representatives shall be sent to the United Nations — than with such practical matters as rats and plague. And thus Fourre slays his oldest friend. Which of them is Marius?

Spoil its power and break it, so they can’t trust anything

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

I hadn’t even heard of James Warner Bellah before I came across his short story “Spanish Man’s Grave” in There Will Be War.

“This story is not science fiction,” Jerry Pournelle explains, “but it has its place in this anthology, for this is one of the stories that inspired Robert Heinlein to write Starship Troopers.” The connection is not obvious, but Bellah and his writing are inspiring:

Bellah was the author of 19 novels, including The Valiant Virginians (the inspiration for the 1961 NBC television series The Americans), and Blood River. Some of his short stories were turned into films by John Ford, including Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. With Willis Goldbeck he wrote the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

In World War I, Bellah enlisted in the Canadian Army, and served as a pilot in the 117th Squadron of Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. These experiences formed the basis of his 1928 novel Gods of Yesterday.

In the 1930s he worked as a journalist for the New York Post.

During World War II, Bellah served in the United States Army, starting as a lieutenant in the 16th Infantry, was detailed to the General Staff Corps before Pearl Harbor, and was later assigned to Headquarters 1st Infantry Division, later with the 80th Infantry Division. Later he served on the staff of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in Southeast Asia. He was attached to General Wingate’s Chindits in combat in Burma, and to General Stillwell and to Colonel Cochran’s 1st Air Commando Group. He left the service with the rank of Colonel.

He was a member of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of California beginning in 1952.

His short story “Spanish Man’s Grave” is considered by some to be one of the finest American Western stories ever written. His last script was A Thunder of Drums. Bellah’s depiction of the Apache is protested by some and lauded as realistic by others.

In the early stages of his career, Elmore Leonard modelled his style closely after Bellah’s writing.

He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles during a visit to his friend James Francis, Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles.

None of his works appear to be in print.

I collected a number of interesting passages:

  • “The experience of war never quite leaves a young man or woman. A great many are utterly destroyed by it. All are indelibly and subtly marked by it, because, for good or evil, the memory never quite leaves any of us.”
  • The fears of man are many. He fears the shadow of death and the closed doors of the future. He is afraid for his friends and for his sons and of the specter of tomorrow. All his life’s journey he walks in the lonely corridors of his controlled fears, if he is a man. For only fools will strut, and only cowards dare cringe.
  • Never the same route, for fear of forming military habits hostiles could depend upon.
  • For there are no soft-handed girls on the lone plains; only the echo of their laughter in dreams.
  • And a plains uniform is a poor badge of glory. Worn leather, reeking of horse sweat and body sweat. Shirts bleached to the blue of distant rain, the armpits white with salt rime. Battered gray beaver felt, threadbare on the head, with the sweatband stinking when you ease up the brim.
  • And no violins. No flowers. No band music. Only the dreariness and the loneliness and the final knowledge that you have flung down your youth into this empty void and that there your youth will die, far from the lights of cities, wasted forevermore.
  • “Effen it’s a homestead,” Tyree said, “it’s burnin’ down.”
  • Brown acid smell of horses. Green acid smell of men.
  • His fleshless hands at fifty-six were gray talons, and there was not enough blood left in him, after the years of his service, to take the iridescent blue from his lips.
  • A worn-out man, old before his time, drained by the Colors, sitting his mount a thousand miles down the wastelands, staring at distant smoke with his eyes closed.
  • “Mr. Pennell, there are only three things to remember out here. Always make them think you are in force, or will be soon. Always frighten them until they stop thinking and take refuge in Medicine. Then turn it against them, spoil its power and break it, so they can’t trust anything. And always treat your luck with respect, so that it will never turn against you.
  • This far the gods will let a man go—to a cairned grave on a lonesome downslope where he may lie in sleep forever. But here another man takes over, for there is always smoke still ahead and the march goes on.
  • Your first man dead in violence is a sick thing in your mind for many suns and many moons, until the others fade its picture.
  • But you never forget the first white woman you see that the Apaches have worked over.
  • They saw the two halves of the dog first, and the dust and hair and clotted abomination of the ax, flung under the broken wagon. Flies were there, green and translucent, glutted lazy.
  • The man was roped and arched in final protest at the little field’s edge.
  • He had fought, like a panther. The ground was lacerated with his fight.
  • Corporal Bartenett found the woman—“Alice Downey Graeme, his Wife.” And there it was, and how can you say what it was?
  • Thirty Apaches, by the pony marks, blood-drunk and beast hot. Reeking to defile. Hair-tearing hands, grease slick. Fetid-breathed and shrieking with obscenity.
  • “A two-day start on us they got, and the girl they got, about ten, eleven years old. See there,” and he pointed. “Her go-to-meetin’ dress.” He shook his head at Pennell’s question. “No,” he said. “I don’t think the girl, yet. Only the mother. But I sure hope the girl ain’t big for her age, ‘cause we gotta long haul to catch up on ‘em, sir. I sure hope she ain’t—”
  • “Tyree,” he said, “you and Marcy fix Mrs. Graeme decently for burial. I want her to have something on. Unmarried men clear out of the area…
  • The book tells you how to force the march, but a good sergeant is better than the best of books, and deep anger is better than a sergeant. Space out to fifty-five paces and stagger the odd files twenty yards to the right. That keeps the dust down and gives the mounts air to breathe. Unbit to graze on all halts, even the shortest. Halt ten minutes in the hour, and forty minutes every sixth hour for watering. Trot twenty minutes every second hour, and lead for the full hour before watering call. And talk up the horses. Tell them what you want out of them, for you can always bring a horse in on your side with the right kind of talk.
  • On the day the first Apache fire spot was still warm when Ross Pennell put the palm of his hand on it, the night of that day he put in his own fires. Squad fires. Fifty paces apart along the skyline. Enough fires to indicate two companies and their escort train.
  • Crazy is like fever. On and off. But every time it comes, it stays a little longer, until you die of it or it breaks.
  • At first you can’t believe it when you come to plains’ end, for no painting can ever show it as it is. The frost blues and the silken yellows of the tablelands. The reds that are watered out to the color of broiled lobster claws. The purples that have distant church music in them. The greens that you can smell for sweet mown grass. All worked into one breathlessness and swept across the horizon. At dawn, there is a golden rim around it. At sundown, nothing contains its endlessness.
  • “For two days now, by daylight, they could have watched from the high ground and seen that there were no two companies behind us! If they had done so, they would have circled wide to try to hit us from behind. But they didn’t do that, so that means they still believe we are two companies, and they have run to Medicine to get away from us, they’ve run to Spanish Man’s Grave for sanctuary… and that’s what I’ve been trying to make ’em do!”
  • “The louder the band plays the worse the shooting! The less brain the more flags! Only a trained soldier looks right in a bright uniform! Listen, Tyree. If we get up high ourselves—” and he pointed up toward the mesa tops “—Spanish Man’s Grave will stand out to you and me like a cut thumb, for it’ll be a bottleneck on a route that no well-trained soldier would ever think of taking through the tablelands.”
  • “Those dead Spaniards,” Pennell said, “came through the easiest route. The fact that they were all killed means they must have laid themselves wide open to tactical murder. They’ve done it all through their history; that’s why they’ve got no history left to make.”
  • The Apaches sat about their fires, safe in the ancient power of Medicine. Sat on the robes of their long-dead warriors, robes that were sewn with the symbols of the massacre story. Robes that boasted and lied and gloated in their needle tracery. Robes that had been used so long that they were no longer thick enough to hold smells in them for long. They sat frozen in fear when they saw Pennell, their faces turned toward him, or rose in white, unbelieving panic as he called through cupped hands and his voice rang in the narrow defile like the voice of doom: “The little Graeme girl! Lie flat where you are!” Then he saw her… “She’s by the fire on our left, Tyree! Hand these bastards the bill!”
  • “And are you all right, Alice?” She curtsied again. “Yes, sir; I am now, sir.” She walked toward them slowly with the ancient and solemn dignity of all of womanhood. And she said, “But I’m awfully glad you came, for I was very frightened…” not to Pennell alone, but turning her head to all of them, looking at their red eyes and their scraggly beards, their haggard faces, but knowing them for her own, with silent gratefulness that seemed to reach out and touch them with warm hands, and soft. And the way of their own hard living was suddenly more worthwhile in that moment than all the emeralds of Hind and all the gold of Cathay.

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder and harder to focus audiences’ attention on the movies that Hollywood deems most important

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

Warner Bros. found that viewers with myriad options tend to retreat to the programs most familiar to them:

It’s an experience any Netflix user can identify with: Sitting down to pick out a movie, scrolling through choices for an hour — only to settle, finally, on an old episode of “Friends.”

I must admit that I do find myself scrolling through options for far too long — especially for someone who ends up watching so little — but I definitely do not find myself settling on something old and familiar very often. (Another admission: I did enjoy the original Terminator a few months back, though.)

Just under 500 new TV series premiered last year — compared to 182 new shows in 2002, according to an annual report released by cable network FX. Netflix plans to release nearly 100 original movies and documentaries this year.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. households already have more than one streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, up from 59% two years ago, according to market-research firm Ampere Analysis; of these households, nearly 42% subscribe to three separate streaming services. And the two biggest Hollywood studios, Walt Disney Co. and AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros., are preparing their own streaming services, set to launch by the end of this year.

Three-quarters of U.S. households have more than one streaming service? Wow.

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder and harder to focus audiences’ attention on the movies that Hollywood deems most important. On Sunday night, Hollywood will gather to honor the most prestigious movies of the year at the 91st Academy Awards. On Monday morning, executives in Hollywood will likely wake up yet again to the news that fewer people cared to tune in to their big night—just as they did last year, when the telecast lost 6.4 million viewers, or about the population of Indiana.

I don’t normally approve of Schadenfreude

Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade before, and it recently came up in a comment thread, so I finally bought a (digital) copy and read it. The premise is that advanced aliens land on Earth, prepared to awe the locals, but the locals are a medieval English army, preparing to go to war. They rush the ship and slaughter the crew — save one blue-skinned prisoner:

Soldiers were trained to react when such things happened, not to think. The bow of Red John sang. The foremost demon lurched off the ramp with a cloth-yard arrow through him. I saw him cough blood and die. As if the one shot had touched off a hundred, the air was suddenly gray with whistling shafts. The three other demons toppled, so thickly studded with arrows they might have been popinjays at a contest. “They can be slain!” bawled Sir Roger. “Haro! St. George for merry England!” And he spurred his horse straight up the gangway.

[...]

The crew of the ship numbered about a hundred, but few carried weapons. We later found all manner of devices stored in the holds, but the invaders had relied on creating a panic. Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble. The ship’s artillery was ready to use, but of no value once we were inside.

Later, when the English army takes the captured ship to an alien-controlled planet, they see the same tactical flaws:

The trouble of the Wersgorix was that they had gone too far. They had made combat on the ground obsolete, and were ill trained, ill equipped, when it happened. True, they possessed fire-beams, as well as force shields to stop those same fire-beams. But they had never thought to lay down caltrops.

[...]

Yet it was scarcely fair. They had no body armor. Their only weapon for such close-in fighting was a knife attached to the muzzle of the handgun, to make a most awkward spear… or the gun itself, clubbed.

Further, the aliens don’t realize how primitive their opponents really are:

Now all the Wersgorix know about us is that we have suddenly come from nowhere and — if Branithar’s boasts be true — done what no other host has ever achieved: taken one of their strongholds! Would you not move warily, were you their constable?

In fact, the aliens struggle to accept just how brash their English foes are:

They could be a punitive expedition, I suppose. For reasons of military secrecy, they could have used one of our own ships and kept their most potent weapons in reserve. It doesn’t make sense. But neither does it make sense that barbarians would blandly tell the most powerful realm in the known universe to surrender its autonomy. Unless it’s mere bluster.

My 50th-anniversary edition opens with multiple introductions. In the first introduction, by Poul’s daughter, Astrid Anderson Bear, she mentions that the story was published as a novel in 1961 and lost the Hugo award to A Canticle for Leibowitz. I have to agree with her assessment: no shame there. (Incidentally, Canticle is not available for Kindle. My mass-market paperback is already yellowing. It seems like the kind of book that needs an acid-free paper edition — maybe the library-bound one?) Astrid goes on to describe her father’s interest in the Middle Ages:

A few years later, in May of 1966, Diana Paxson hosted friends and acquaintances at a small medieval-style tourney in her backyard, about a mile from the Grove Street house. That small gathering became known as the First Tourney, from which sprang the Society for Creative Anachronism, now a world-wide organization with tourneys and events happening most weeks, year-round. [...] And my father was an early and enthusiastic member, earning a knighthood for his fighting and additional awards for his poetry, and spent many happy hours in what is called the Current Middle Ages.

In another introduction, David Drake notes that the thoughtful core of the book is that technology is not intelligence — before he shares some fun “Easter eggs” in Anderson’s work:

It was rare for a magazine to run two stories under the same author’s name in an issue: the novelette was credited to Winston P. Sanders, a pseudonym that Poul used a number of times. The name is a joke. If you’ve read Winnie-the-Pooh, you may recall that Winnie is living “under the name of Sanders.” [...] Notice the name of the monk telling the story: Brother Parvus, a church name which he tells us he took from his nickname as a layman. So: his nickname was Little. He also tells us that he was a younger son of Wat Brown. Very coyly Poul has told us that the novel is by Little Brown, a very upmarket Boston publisher who most certainly did not publish The High Crusade or anything else by Poul Anderson until quite late in his life.

Another key point of the story is that primitive institutions, like feudalism, serve a purpose and have their strengths:

Yet this realm, in theory a republic of freemen, was in practice a worse tyranny than mankind has known, even in Nero’s infamous day.

[...]

The Wersgorix had no special affection for their birthplace; they acknowledged no immediate ties of kinship or duty. As a result, each individual had no one to stand between him and the all-powerful central government.

[...]

In England, when King John grew overweening, he clashed both with ancient law and with vested local interests; so the barons curbed him and thereby wrote another word or two of liberty for all Englishmen.

[...]

The Wersgor were a lickspittle race, unable to protest any arbitrary decree of a superior. “Promotion according to merit” meant only “promotion according to one’s usefulness to the imperial ministers.”

[...]

The Wersgorix had similar weapons, of course, but less determination to use them.

[...]

But the Wersgorix were not a knightly folk. They were more prudent and forethoughtful than we. It cost them dearly.

[...]

Indeed, this race had been supreme among the stars so long that only their soldiers now had occasion to develop a manly contempt for death.

[...]

[W]hile the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home.

[...]

Where it comes to intrigue, I’m no master of it myself, no Italian. But the star-folk are like children.

[...]

Well, on Earth there’ve been many nations and lords for many centuries, all at odds with each other, under a feudal system nigh too complicated to remember.

[...]

On our Earth, we’ve perforce learned all the knavery there is to know.

[...]

“They know so little about the detection and use of traitors out here,” he remarked to me, “that I can buy this fellow for less than an Italian city. Our allies never attempted this, for they imagined that the Wersgor nation must be as solid as their own. Yet isn’t it logic, that so vast a sprawl of estates, separated by days and weeks of travel, must in many ways resemble a European country? Though even more corruptible—”

[...]

I was thinking that the Wersgor type of government commands no fealty.

[...]

As I said before, the collapse of Wersgorixan was not unlike the collapse of Rome, and similar problems found a similar answer. His advantage lay in having that answer ready to hand, the experience of many Terrestrial centuries.

[...]

Their central government had always been a distant thing to them, a mere collector of taxes and enforcer of arbitrary laws.

[...]

Many a blueskin found his imagination captured by our rich ceremonial and by a government of individual nobles whom he could meet face to face.

[...]

Having little military tradition of their own, the Jairs, Ashenkoghli, and Pr?*tans did not realize how those cruel years welded bonds of loyalty between native peasants and English aristocrats.

This might make good reading for any high-tech force sent off to a primitive land.

What, in all this world, could bring the greatest happiness?

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Just as John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian was popularizing this bit of wisdom, Jerry Pournelle included it in his preface to There Will Be War:

There was once recorded a remarkable conversation between Genghis Khan and one of his soldiers. The Kha Khan asked a guard officer what, in all this world, could bring the greatest happiness. “The open steppe, a clear day, and a swift horse,” said the officer. “And a falcon at your wrist to start up the hares.” “Not so,” replied the Khan. “To crush your enemy, to possess his wife as he watches, to see enemies fall at your feet. To take their horses and goods and hear the lamentations of their women. That is best.”

Openly questioning Neovictorian’s Sanity

Monday, February 18th, 2019

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

Lesson number one is, They are not fucking coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his afterword, he explicitly mentions his favorite authors:

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

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

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