Why not make a teen Rambo and turn the project over to John Milius?

Tuesday, July 13th, 2021

I recently rewatched Red Dawn for the first time in decades, and it wasn’t nearly as cheesy as I expected. The Wikipedia entry explains how it got made:

Originally called Ten Soldiers, it was written by Kevin Reynolds. It was set in the near future as a combined force of Russians and Cubans launched an invasion of the Southwestern U.S.. Ten children take to the hills when their small town is captured, turning into a skilled and lethal guerrilla band.

Producer Barry Beckerman read the script, and, in the words of Peter Bart, “thought it had the potential to become a tough, taut, ‘art’ picture made on a modest budget that could possibly break out to find a wider audience.” He got his father Sidney Beckerman to help him pay a $5,000 option. Reynolds wanted to direct but the Beckermans wanted someone more established. Walter Hill briefly considered the script before turning it down, as did several other directors.

The Beckermans pitched the project to David Begelman when he was at MGM and were turned down. They tried again at that studio when it was being run by Frank Yablans. Senior vice-president for production Peter Bart, who remembers it as a “sharply written anti-war movie…a sort of Lord of the Flies“, took the project to Yablans.

The script’s chances of being filmed increased when Kevin Reynolds became mentored by Steven Spielberg who helped him make Fandango. MGM bought the script.

Bart recalls that things changed when “the chieftains at MGM got a better idea. Instead of making a poignant little antiwar movie, why not make a teen Rambo and turn the project over to John Milius, a genial and rotund filmmaker who loved war movies and also loved war? The idea was especially popular with a member of the MGM board of directors, General Alexander Haig, the former Nixon chief of staff, who yearned to supervise the film personally and develop a movie career.”

Bart says most of MGM’s executives, except for Yablans, were opposed to Milius directing. Bart claims he made a last minute attempt to get Reynolds to direct the film and went to see Spielberg. However, by this stage Fandango was in rough cut, and Bart sensed that Spielberg was disappointed in the film and would not speak up for Reynolds.

Milius was signed to direct at a fee of $1.25 million, plus a gun of his choice.

Milius set about rewriting the script. He and Haig devised a backstory in which the circumstances of the invasion would take place; this was reportedly based on Hitler’s proposed plans to invade the U.S. during World War II. Haig took Milius under his wing, bringing him to the Hudson Institute, the conservative think tank founded by Herman Kahn, to develop a plausible scenario. Milius saw the story as a Third World liberation struggle in reverse; Haig introduced Nicaragua and suggested that, with the collapse of NATO, a left-wing Mexican regime would participate in the Soviet invasion, effectively splitting the U.S. in half. Bart says, “Even Milius was taken aback by Haig’s approach to the project. ‘This is going to end up as a jingoistic, flag-waving movie,’ Milius fretted. As a result, the budget of this once $6 million movie almost tripled.”

Other changes included a shift in focus from conflict within the group to conflict between the teens and their oppressors, and the acceleration of the ages of some of the characters from early teens to high school age and beyond. There was also the addition of a sequence where some children visit a camp to find their parents have been brainwashed.

Milius later said, “I see this as an anti-war movie in the sense that if both sides could see this, maybe it wouldn’t have to happen. I think it would be good for Americans to see what a war would be like. The film isn’t even that violent — the war shows none of the horrors that could happen in World War III. In fact, everything that happened in the movie happened in World War II.”

Bart says Yablans pushed through filming faster than Milius wanted because MGM needed a movie over the summer. Milius wanted more time to plan, including devising futuristic weaponry and to not shoot over winter, but had to accede.

The Pentagon withdrew its cooperation from the film.

Dahl himself would be exasperated over the 1971 film’s endurance

Friday, July 2nd, 2021

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came out 50 years ago:

Dahl himself would be exasperated over the 1971 film’s endurance. Though he was nominally billed as its screenwriter, his original adaptation was scarcely detectable beneath all manner of uncredited rewrites, and he was vocal in his disdain for the result, Wilder and all. His list of grievances was long: Dahl had wanted the arch British peculiarity of Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers for Wonka, he was unhappy with the film’s foregrounding of Wonka over Charlie, he resented plot alterations and additions that muddied the cautionary neatness of his original tale, and he wasn’t a fan of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s perky song score.

[…]

Stuart, a workmanlike film-maker hitherto best-known for documentaries and sitcom-like farces, directed it with a halting, gear-grinding rhythm and an erratic sense of pace: it’s a stately 45 minutes before Wonka even makes his first appearance, whereupon the film rushes through its fantastical factory setpieces with businesslike indifference.

It does take shockingly long for Wonka and his factory to make their appearance.

I didn’t realize the film introduced “The Candy Man”, which became Sammy Davis Jr.’s hit.

According to Wikipedia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was originally going to feature a little black boy, and the Oompa-Loompas were described (and illustrated) as African pygmies, but the film announcement launched a reaction from the NAACP.

Addendum: I also forgot that the film was the source of the oft-quoted, “I said, ‘Good day,’ sir!”

i-said-good-day-sir

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has just come out in paperback

Thursday, July 1st, 2021

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has just come out:

No, not the film. That came out in 2019. But now HarperCollins is publishing a novelization, written by Tarantino himself, and based on the earlier film. This particular type of fiction — the bastard offspring of the film treatment and the legitimate novel — is probably pop fiction’s least reputable genre, which no doubt is why it appeals to Tarantino.

When HarperCollins announced the project, Tarantino issued a statement:

To this day I have a tremendous amount of affection for the genre. So as a movie-novelization aficionado, I’m proud to announce Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as my contribution to this often marginalized, yet beloved sub-genre in literature. I’m also thrilled to further explore my characters and their world in a literary endeavor that can (hopefully) sit alongside its cinematic counterpart.

The genre is often looked down on:

Tarantino’s affection can probably be at least partially attributed to the year of his birth — 1963. Those of us born into the so-called Baby Boom generation grew up before videocassette players were widely available (and before DVD players and streaming services had even been conceived). Back in those benighted days, if you enjoyed a film based on an original screenplay and you wanted to experience it again after it had left the theater, your options were limited. You could wait for it to appear on television (where it would almost certainly be shortened, censored, cropped from its original aspect-ratio via pan-and-scan technology, and chock-full of commercial breaks), you could hope for it to enjoy a theatrical revival (highly unlikely), or you could seek out a novelization, which, though it would lack the colorful visuals and the musical score and the performances, would at least allow you to be thrilled once again by the plot and the dialogue, or some semblance thereof. Furthermore, although theaters wouldn’t allow people under 16 to see an R-rated film without parental accompaniment, bookstores had no such restrictions. A kid could buy the novelization of an R-rated movie without the book clerk asking to see his ID.

Gardner is one of those people who created our world but is little remembered by it

Sunday, June 27th, 2021

I was reading Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, when the tech billionaire advising the White House asked our protagonist, “Are you familiar with John Gardner?”:

“Gardner is one of those people who created our world but is little remembered by it. He engineered what were called the ‘Great Society’ reforms back in the 1960s. The program changed everything in America, from guaranteeing voting rights for the groups that were then minorities to establishing a government role in medical and retirement assistance, to even creating the public broadcasting networks that gave your child Sesame Street.”

Naturally I wanted to find out more:

A native of California, Gardner attended Stanford University. As an undergrad he set several swimming records and won a number of Pacific Coast championships, and graduated “with great distinction.” After earning a Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1938, Dr. Gardner taught at Connecticut College and at Mount Holyoke.

During the early days of World War II he was chief of the Latin American Section, Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service. He subsequently entered the United States Marine Corps and was assigned to the O.S.S., serving in Italy and Austria.

He joined the staff of the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1946, and in 1955 he became president of that group, and concurrently, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He also served as an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force, which awarded him the Exceptional Service Award in 1956. He was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and of the Educational Testing Service and a director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He served as chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Panel on Education, and was chief draftsman of that group’s widely circulated report, The Pursuit of Excellence.

Gardner was the founder of two influential national U.S. organizations: Common Cause and Independent Sector. He authored books on improving leadership in American society and other subjects. He was also the founder of two prestigious fellowship programs, The White House Fellows and The John Gardner Fellowship at Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1966 Gardner was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.

Gardner’s term as Secretary of HEW was at the height of Johnson’s Great Society domestic agenda. During this tenure, the Department undertook both the huge task of launching Medicare, which brought quality health care to senior citizens, and oversaw significant expansions of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that redefined the federal role in education and targeted funding to poor students. Gardner resigned as head of HEW because he could not support the war in Vietnam.

P.W. Singer and August Cole previously wrote Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, which I discussed a few times.

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency

Tuesday, June 15th, 2021

Ben Espen reviews the D&D-inspired anime Goblin Slayer, whose main character is old school:

The Goblin Slayer, in his obsession with killing goblins, studies them relentlessly. He learns their ways, and schemes better and better ways to kill them. It reminds me very much of this Hill Cantons blog post about they way Chris Kutalik’s Vietnam veteran father played D&D like he was leading a patrol in ‘Nam. All the other adventurers find the Slayer kind of weird. And he is kind of weird. But he is really good at what he does, and he takes a real problem very seriously that no one else does. The metajoke here is of course that everyone else this fantasy world thinks they are playing the modern roleplaying game of improv theater with fantasy superpowers, while the Goblin Slayer lives in Fantasy F**king Vietnam.

Here’s how Chris Kutalik describes Fantasy F**king Vietnam:

My father was a Vietnam vet. Not a “I scrubbed B-52s on Guam” or “flew F-16s in the Texas National Guard” kind of vet, but a Purple-Hearted combat veteran of the First Cavalry. I always felt that he hated the war though, what it did to him body and soul — he still carries shrapnel in a shoulder to this day. It haunted him, but he spoke freely of it and even let it enter our play with him.

On long hikes he’d send me or my brother, stick in hand, to walk point — several yards in front so that the sudden blast of an imaginary mine or grenade didn’t wipe out the “squad”. Hike done we’d jog back to the car Jody-chanting: “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, living my life full of danger.”

And I played D&D with the man.

Somewhere in the summer of 1981, I ran a few sessions as a DM where he played a first-level mook of a Fighting Man, fittingly called the Tunnel Rat, alongside my brother’s bland-by-comparison elf. He played the game with every bit of a rigor that phrase conjures up for latter-day REMFs.

He pored over the equipment tables, grilling me on the properties of this or that item. It took him about five seconds to grasp the killing power of the standard Molotov-like flask of oil. He bought 20. Grokking the need to travel light and mean he skimped on armor and the excess weapons so common in our summer camp D&D experience. He bought dogs instead.

Viet Cong Tunnel Complex

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency. At first my brother’s PC walked point. When that nearly ended with his death at the hands of a goblin ambush, he switched to running his dogs into rooms and closing the door before running in on the attack. When that stopped working, he doused the dogs with oil, set them on fire, and loosed them into the massed ranks of his opponents.

There wasn’t a trap in the place he didn’t find, and little in the way of anything hidden missed his eye.

The game was tense, adversarial even. It brought out a side of him that scared me a little. I think sometimes we forget that games — especially such demanding ones as the role-playing variety — aren’t always leisurely fun, sometimes they mix passion and a welter of emotions in them. Those sessions certainly did, but I treasure them because they taught me something about the man.

This is the flip side of Tucker’s Kobolds:

Tucker ran an incredibly dangerous dungeon in the days I was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This dungeon had corridors that changed all of your donkeys into huge flaming demons or dropped the whole party into acid baths, but the demons were wienies compared to the kobolds on Level One. These kobolds were just regular kobolds, with 1-4 hp and all that, but they were mean. When I say they were mean, I mean they were bad, Jim. They graduated magna cum laude from the Sauron Institute for the Criminally Vicious.

When I joined the gaming group, some of the PCs had already met Tucker’s kobolds, and they were not eager to repeat the experience. The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible. The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight “okay” monsters like huge flaming demons.

It didn’t work. The kobolds caught us about 60′ into the dungeon and locked the door behind us and barred it. Then they set the corridor on fire, while we were still in it.

“NOOOOOO!!!” screamed the party leader. “It’s THEM! Run!!!”

Thus encouraged, our party scrambled down a side passage, only to be ambushed by more kobolds firing with light crossbows through murder holes in the walls and ceilings. Kobolds with metal armor and shields flung Molotov cocktails at us from the other sides of huge piles of flaming debris, which other kobolds pushed ahead of their formation using long metal poles like broomsticks. There was no mistake about it. These kobolds were bad.

We turned to our group leader for advice.

“AAAAAAGH!!!” he cried, hands clasped over his face to shut out the tactical situation.

We abandoned most of our carried items and donkeys to speed our flight toward the elevators, but we were cut off by kobold snipers who could split-move and fire, ducking back behind stones and corners after launching steel-tipped bolts and arrows, javelins, hand axes, and more flaming oil bottles. We ran into an unexplored section of Level One, taking damage all the time. It was then we discovered that these kobolds had honeycombed the first level with small tunnels to speed their movements. Kobold commandos were everywhere. All of our hirelings died. Most of our henchmen followed. We were next.

I recall we had a 12th-level magic user with us, and we asked him to throw a spell or something. “Blast ‘em!” we yelled as we ran. “Fireball ‘em! Get those little @#+$%*&!!”

“What, in these narrow corridors? ” he yelled back. “You want I should burn us all up instead of them?”

Our panicked flight suddenly took us to a dead-end corridor, where a giant air shaft dropped straight down into unspeakable darkness, far past Level Ten. Here we hastily pounded spikes into the floors and walls, flung ropes over the ledge, and climbed straight down into that unspeakable darkness, because anything we met down there was sure to be better than those kobolds.

We escaped, met some huge flaming demons on Level Ten, and even managed to kill one after about an hour of combat and the lives of half the group. We felt pretty good — but the group leader could not be cheered up.

“We still have to go out the way we came in,” he said as he gloomily prepared to divide up the treasure.

Tucker’s kobolds were the worst things we could imagine. They ate all our donkeys and took our treasure and did everything they could to make us miserable, but they had style and brains and tenacity and courage. We respected them and loved them, sort of, because they were never boring.

Just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite

Friday, June 11th, 2021

In The Scout Mindset Julia Galef argues that Star Trek’s Spock is a “Straw Vulcan” — a caricature of rationality designed to make rationality look foolish — but Tim Hartford sees him as a rather typical economist:

There is another way that we economists might learn from observing Spock’s mistakes. He is a truly terrible forecaster. Galef, rather delightfully, has gone through the full catalogue of Star Trek, finding every occurrence she could of Spock making a prediction.

“[There’s] only a very slight chance [this plan] would work,” Spock tells Captain James T Kirk at one stage. The plan works. “Intercepting all three ships is an impossibility,” he warns Kirk during another adventure. Kirk intercepts all three ships. The chance of a daring escape? “Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7,824.7 to one.” They escape.

[...]

Yet this sort of overconfident nonsense is common in real-world punditry. We seem to have an unslakable thirst for knowledge about the future. Sadly, knowledge about the future is not easy to acquire, so we satisfy ourselves with the pretence of knowledge. If you can’t be accurate, at least sound self-assured. Spock does, every time.

“My choice will be a logical one,” he upbraids a subordinate, shortly before making another fatal error, “arrived at through logical means.”

Well said. But his record is not so good. According to Galef’s tally, when Spock says something is “impossible” it happens 83 per cent of the time, and when he gives something more than a 99.5 per cent chance, it happens just 17 per cent of the time. (He does OK with his forecasts of “likely”.) This makes him a reliably contrarian indicator, as Kirk seems to have realised — just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite.

Failing that, if you want to become a better forecaster, do what Galef did: look back at old forecasts and keep score.

Queer was in the air in the Los Angeles of the Prohibition and post-Prohibition eras

Friday, June 4th, 2021

I jokingly noted that The Big Sleep features a number of “pansies” and a lot of alcohol. The annotations in my copy explain the first ingredient:

Queer was in the air in the Los Angeles of the Prohibition and post-Prohibition eras. The 1920s and early ’30s saw no fewer than ten new terms for “homosexual” recorded, including “fag” (ca. 1923) and, for that matter, “queer” (Auden used it in its current neutral/proud sense in a letter of 1932). Gay and lesbian subcultures were more visible than they had ever been before, thanks in large part to Prohibition speakeasies, where otherwise law-abiding Americans of all sexualities mingled and were often entertained over drinks by drag performers. The so-called Pansy Craze was all the rage in post-Prohibition New York and moved west in the early 1930s. At B.B.B.’s Cellar (where the floor show was called “Boys Will Be Girls”) and the Bali nightclub on the Sunset Strip, gay entertainers sang and danced for Hollywood celebrities. It was considered de rigueur to employ an obviously gay maitre d’, even at restaurants and clubs that were not considered “gay.” Flighty hotel clerks and swishy sidekicks, played by renowned queer actors like Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, were featured in Hollywood films. Marlowe’s “fag party” reference may be to Hollywood parties, covered with a wink and a nod by the newspapers. All-male pool parties were hosted by, among others, Cole Porter and George Cukor; according to Irwin Winkler, director of De-Lovely, a 2004 film about Porter, they competed “to see who could have more boys by the pool.”

[...]

“Punk” first appeared in Elizabethan England, initially meaning “prostitute,” then more widely naming the mistress of a criminal or soldier. By the American 1920s it had jumped genders and referred to a young male, generally a criminal or a ne’er-do-well, and frequently the male concubine of a prison inmate, hobo, or sailor. “I told you I didn’t like that punk,” Sam Spade growls of the youthful Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.

I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that

Friday, May 28th, 2021

Commenter Kirk recently suggested that I address Heinlein’s Starship Troopers — or certain parts of it, which address an article he shared:

If Isegoria wanted to treat the bits and pieces of the referenced work (Starship Troopers, R.A. Heinlein) that don’t address his hypothetical “future government by veterans” in a manner similar to how he has done Fehrenbach’s seminal work, I think it would be a good idea.

Starship Troopers has aspects that tend to distract people reading it from the ground truths that were contained therein, some of which the linked article mentions. The overall trend towards “de-civilization” that Heinlein outlines as the backstory/justification for the world he creates in the book is something you can observe going on all around you, in the general insanity prevailing the day.

I have my doubts about the prescription he came up with, but the bastard damn sure got the diagnosis right…

Long-time readers — and new-but-astute readers — might realize that I’ve discussed Heinlein here many, many times.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers presents many ideas through the character of Mr. Dubois:

I thought about it during the last session of our class in History and Moral Philosophy. H. & M. P. was different from other courses in that everybody had to take it but nobody had to pass it — and Mr. Dubois never seemed to care whether he got through to us or not. He would just point at you with the stump of his left arm (he never bothered with names) and snap a question. Then the argument would start.

But on the last day he seemed to be trying to find out what we had learned. One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never settles anything.”

“So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”

They had tangled before — since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”

“You seemed to be unaware of it,” he said grimly. “Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that `violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”

He sighed. “Another year, another class — and, for me, another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think.”

You can quickly see why Heinlein’s Starship Troopers would get labelled fascistit mocks communism:

He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

“These kitchen illustrations demolish the Marxian theory of value — the fallacy from which the entire magnificent fraud of communism derives — and to illustrate the truth of the common-sense definition as measured in terms of use.”

Dubois had waved his stump at us. “Nevertheless — wake up, back there! — nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx, nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value… and this planet might have been saved endless grief.

“Or might not,” he added. “You!”

I had sat up with a jerk.

“If you can’t listen, perhaps you can tell the class whether ‘value’ is a relative, or an absolute?”

I had been listening; I just didn’t see any reason not to listen with eyes closed and spine relaxed. But his question caught me out; I hadn’t read that day’s assignment. “An absolute,” I answered, guessing.

“Wrong,” he said coldly. ” ‘Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human — ‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible.” (I had wondered what Father would have said if he had heard “market value” called a “fiction” — snort in disgust, probably.)

“This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him… and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.” He had been still looking at me and added, “If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier… and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”

“Uh, I suppose it would.”

“No dodging, please. You have the prize — here, I’ll write it out: ‘Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.’ ” He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. “There! Are you happy? You value it — or don’t you?”

I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids — a typical sneer of those who haven’t got it — and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.

Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. “It doesn’t make you happy?”

“You know darn well I placed fourth!”

“Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you… because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion… and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

This passage most directly addresses Kirk’s point about our societal decline:

I found myself mulling over a discussion in our class in History and Moral Philosophy. Mr. Dubois was talking about the disorders that preceded the breakup of the North American republic, back in the XXth century.

According to him, there was a time just before they went down the drain when such crimes as Dillinger’s were as common as dogfights. The Terror had not been just in North America — Russia and the British Isles had it, too, as well as other places. But it reached its peak in North America shortly before things went to pieces.

“Law-abiding people,” Dubois had told us, “hardly dared go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons… to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably — or even killed.

This went on for years, right up to the war between the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony. Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places — these things happened also on the streets in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings. But parks were so notoriously unsafe that honest people stayed clear of them after dark.”

I had tried to imagine such things happening in our schools. I simply couldn’t. Nor in our parks. A park was a place for fun, not for getting hurt. As for getting killed in one — “Mr. Dubois, didn’t they have police? Or courts?”

“They had many more police than we have. And more courts. All overworked.”

“I guess I don’t get it.” If a boy in our city had done anything half that bad… well, he and his father would have been flogged side by side.

But such things just didn’t happen.

Mr. Dubois then demanded of me, “Define a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ ”

“Uh, one of those kids — the ones who used to beat up people.”

“Wrong.”

“Huh? But the book said — ”

“My apologies. Your textbook does so state. But calling a tail a leg does not make the name fit ‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you housebreak him?”

“Err… yes, sir. Eventually.” It was my slowness in this that caused my mother to rule that dogs must stay out of the house.

“Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?”

“What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.

“What did you do?”

“Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him.”

“Surely he could not understand your words?”

“No, but he could tell I was sore at him!”

“But you just said that you were not angry.”

Mr. Dubois had an infuriating way of getting a person mixed up. “No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?”

“Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you indicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?”

I didn’t then know what a sadist was — but I knew pups. “Mr. Dubois, you have to! You scold him so that he knows he’s in trouble, you rub his nose in it so that he will know what trouble you mean, you paddle him so that he darn well won’t do it again — and you have to do it right away! It doesn’t do a bit of good to punish him later; you’ll just confuse him. Even so, he won’t learn from one lesson, so you watch and catch him again and paddle him still harder. Pretty soon he learns. But it’s a waste of breath just to scold him.” Then I added, “I guess you’ve never raised pups.”

“Many. I’m raising a dachshund now — by your methods. Let’s get back to those juvenile criminals. The most vicious averaged somewhat younger than you here in this class… and they often started their lawless careers much younger. Let us never forget that puppy. These children were often caught; police arrested batches each day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret — in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that spanking, or any punishment involving pain, did a child permanent psychic damage.”

(I had reflected that my father must never have heard of that theory.)

“Corporal punishment in schools was forbidden by law,” he had gone on.

“Flogging was lawful as sentence of court only in one small province, Delaware, and there only for a few crimes and was rarely invoked; it was regarded as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ ” Dubois had mused aloud, “I do not understand objections to ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism? However, that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense.

“As for ‘unusual,’ punishment must be unusual or it serves no purpose.” He then pointed his stump at another boy. “What would happen if a puppy were spanked every hour?”

“Uh… probably drive him crazy!”

“Probably. It certainly will not teach him anything. How long has it been since the principal of this school last had to switch a pupil?”

“Uh, I’m not sure. About two years. The kid that swiped — ”

“Never mind. Long enough. It means that such punishment is so unusual as to be significant, to deter, to instruct. Back to these young criminals — They probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes. The usual sequence was: for a first offense, a warning — a scolding, often without trial. After several offenses a sentence of confinement but with sentence suspended and the youngster placed on probation. A boy might be arrested many times and convicted several times before he was punished — and then it would be merely confinement, with others like him from whom he learned still more criminal habits. If he kept out of major trouble while confined, he could usually evade most of even that mild punishment, be given probation — ‘paroled’ in the jargon of the times.

“This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and viciousness, with no punishment whatever save rare dull-but-comfortable confinements. Then suddenly, usually by law on his eighteenth birthday, this so-called ‘juvenile delinquent’ becomes an adult criminal — and sometimes wound up in only weeks or months in a death cell awaiting execution for murder. You — ”

He had singled me out again. “Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house… and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken — whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?”

“Why… that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!”

“I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?”

“Uh… why, mine, I guess.”

“Again I agree. But I’m not guessing.”

“Mr. Dubois,” a girl blurted out, “but why? Why didn’t they spank little kids when they needed it and use a good dose of the strap on any older ones who deserved it — the sort of lesson they wouldn’t forget! I mean ones who did things really bad. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” he had answered grimly, “except that the time-tested method of instilling social virtue and respect for law in the minds of the young did not appeal to a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class who called themselves ‘social workers’ or sometimes ‘child psychologists.’ It was too simple for them, apparently, since anybody could do it, using only the patience and firmness needed in training a puppy. I have sometimes wondered if they cherished a vested interest in disorder — but that is unlikely; adults almost always act from conscious ‘highest motives’ no matter what their behavior.”

“But — good heavens!” the girl answered. “I didn’t like being spanked any more than any kid does, but when I needed it, my mama delivered. The only time I ever got a switching in school I got another one when I got home and that was years and years ago. I don’t ever expect to be hauled up in front of a judge and sentenced to a flogging; you behave yourself and such things don’t happen. I don’t see anything wrong with our system; it’s a lot better than not being able to walk outdoors for fear of your life — why, that’s horrible!”

“I agree. Young lady, the tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it (I should not have sneered at their motives) but their theory was wrong — half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct.”

“Sir? But I thought — But he does! I have.”

“No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not — and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.

These unfortunate juvenile criminals were born with none, even as you and I, and they had no chance to acquire any; their experiences did not permit it. What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.”

“But the instinct to survive,” he had gone on, “can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.”

“We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race — we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.

“These juvenile criminals hit a low level. Born with only the instinct for survival, the highest morality they achieved was a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang. But the do-gooders attempted to ‘appeal to their better natures,’ to ‘reach them,’ to ‘spark their moral sense.’ Tosh! They had no ‘better natures’; experience taught them that what they were doing was the way to survive. The puppy never got his spanking; therefore what he did with pleasure and success must be ‘moral.’

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ ”

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”

Mr. Dubois then turned to me. “I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty.’ But duty is an adult virtue — indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents — people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail.”

“And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’… and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”

Steve Sailer calls Heinlein the Moses of the Nerds and notes that Heinlein was not an ideologue, but rather an artist whose medium was ideas, an intellectual provocateur.

A bungalow court is a style of multi-family housing which features several small houses arranged around a central garden

Wednesday, May 26th, 2021

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe follows someone down a street with three bungalow courts:

A bungalow court is a style of multi-family housing which features several small houses arranged around a central garden. The bungalow court was created in Pasadena, California in 1909 and was the predominant form of multi-family housing in Southern California from the 1910s through the 1930s. Homes in bungalow courts were generally small, low-rise houses in the spirit of bungalow design; however, the homes were designed in a variety of architectural styles, including Swiss chalet and Spanish Colonial Revival. Bungalow courts also integrated their courtyards with the homes, providing green space to homeowners.

Bungalow courts were generally marketed at people who wanted the amenities of a single-family home without its high cost. While each family in a bungalow court had its own house and garden, upkeep and land were shared among the residents.

Bungalow Court

Bungalow courts were especially popular in Pasadena, the city of their origin. The courts’ design prompted the Pasadena City Council to pass regulations requiring all multi-family housing in the city to be centered on a landscaped courtyard. In addition, of the 112 surviving bungalow courts in Pasadena, 43 have a historic designation such as a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The city is attempting to list the remaining eligible courts due to the design’s role in Pasadena history.

They’ve largely been zoned out of existence.

An aristocratic family in decline, an ancestral mansion teeming with secrets, an atmosphere of illness and unease, and a creepy butler

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

Chandler’s hard-boiled Marlowe novels resemble another genre, my annotated The Big Sleep explains, updated to 1940s LA:

An aristocratic family in decline, an ancestral mansion teeming with secrets, an atmosphere of illness and unease, and a creepy butler: Chandler transplants elements of the Gothic novel and the classic English mystery into the Southern California landscape. Critic Edward Margolies has called it “Los Angeles Gothic.”

[...]

A decade earlier, Dashiell Hammett had experimented with combining elements of the Gothic and hard-boiled genres in The Dain Curse (1929), set in San Francisco and starring the Continental Op in a mystery involving a family curse, a religious cult, and a troubled young heiress, Gabrielle Dain Leggett.

The Castle of Otranto is arguably the first gothic novel, and it is inarguably terrible.

Why change Science Dog to Séance Dog?

Saturday, May 22nd, 2021

When I saw the teaser trailer for Amazon’s new Invincible series, I was mildly amused by Omni-Man and his son playing catch the long way — around the Earth:

But I couldn’t help but think of what speed would be required to orbit the earth near the surface — and it’s roughly 8 km/s, or 18,000 mph, or Mach 23.

So it would take an hour to orbit the earth, and it wouldn’t be preceded by any noise. And, of course the ball would burn up and lose speed long before finishing the trip. It wouldn’t travel predictably, either.

The original Invincible comic came out in 2003, right before its creator Robert Kirkman went on to produce his Walking Dead comic, which of course landed its own hit show. Another one of his creations shows up in the Invincible comic, as something his teenage protagonist reads, but it shows up in the show in a slightly different form:

I always like to open up the hardest hitting question right off the bat. So: why change Science Dog to Séance Dog?

Robert Kirkman: [Laughs] Yeah, look. I think that the nuts and bolts answer… I’m trying to come up with something creative and fun, but the nuts and bolts answers is that Science Dog is a separate comic book that Cory Walker and I created that just happened to appear [in Invincible]. It’s possible that we may do a movie or TV show or something at some point. Instead of putting that down in our deal with Amazon, on Invincible, we decided to strip it out and put in something new so that we would have the ability to do that.

I haven’t watched The Boys or read the original comic, but I was immediately reminded of it:

I don’t know how much you necessarily can speak to this, but how instrumental if at all, was the success of The Boys in selling the show to Amazon?

Internally, I don’t know. I mean, The Boys had not launched yet when this got greenlit. So the success of The Boys wasn’t the only reason this got picked up. But I think that they knew they had something special in The Boys from the get go. Internally, I can’t help but think that Amazon had to be like, The Boys is going to work and maybe Invincible will work too, let’s give it a shot. So I’m very appreciative Garth [Ennis] and Darick [Robertson] were able to create the comics. Everybody’s been able to accomplish so much with the show, I think it really paved the way for what we’re going to be able to do with Invincible.

It was going to rain hard

Wednesday, May 19th, 2021

Chandler’s Marlowe novels are associated with trench coats and fedoras — and rain. But they take place in Los Angeles. It turns out that The Big Sleep came out at a peculiar time:

In fact, heavy rains and flooding covered the LA area in February and March 1938. The Red Cross called it the fifth-largest flood in history, and the Los Angeles Times reported a death toll of more than thirty.

In fact, the previous two years (1936-1937 and 1937-1938) were exceptionally rainy.

The expanded Wilshire was emblematic of the newly auto-centric city

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

Chandler’s Marlowe novels take place in Los Angeles and “Bay City” (Santa Monica). My annotated version of The Big Sleep explains the historical importance of Wilshire Boulevard:

A historic and even prehistoric route, once traveled by the Pleistocene animals that ended up in the tar pits at La Brea, Wilshire was widened in 1924 as part of developer A. W. Ross’s scheme to move shopping away from the traffic-choked downtown.

The expanded Wilshire was emblematic of the newly auto-centric city: it could accommodate six lanes of traffic, had synchronized traffic lights, and funneled automobiles to a brand-new shopping district (named Miracle Mile in 1928) where each building had its own parking lot.

They didn’t foresee the high cost of free parking.

The flowers acquired associations of decay and disease

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe meets his sickly, old client in the wealthy man’s orchid hothouse, which my annotated edition describes as “one of many symbols of wealth and decadence adorning the Sternwood residence”:

Orchid-collecting fever swept England and America at the turn of the twentieth century.

[...]

In literature the flowers acquired associations of decay and disease. In J. K. Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884), the sickly, impotent scion of an aristocratic family is smitten by their grotesque forms, “puffy leaves that seemed to be sweating blood and wine” and “sickly blooms” that appeared “ravaged by syphilis or leprosy.” His orchid fever ends in a fantastic dream encounter with a syphilitic orchid woman.

In H. G. Wells’s 1894 horror story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” the carnivorous flower with roots “like fingers trying to get at you” drugs its victims with its heavy perfume, then sucks their blood.

Naturally I had to find a copy of The Flowering of the Strange Orchid. It’s a quick read.

A few points stood out. First, when the orchid collector gets his rare flowers, which had been collected by a man who died in the process, his housekeeper declares, “I should be afraid of some of the malaria clinging to them.” This is just before malaria‘s life cycle was understood.

Second, when the collector survives the orchid’s attack, his housekeeper gives him “brandy mixed with some pink extract of meat,” which reminded me of Bovril and the odd history of its name.

Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio

Monday, May 10th, 2021

In the summer of 2003, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” was poised to become a hit — but it wasn’t sticky:

Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio.

[...]

Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound.

[...]

DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular.

[...]

They sandwiched it between the types of songs that Rich Meyer had discovered were uniquely sticky, from artists like Blu Cantrell, 3 Doors Down, Maroon 5, and Christina Aguilera.

[...]

When WIOQ first started playing “Hey Ya!” in early September — before the sandwiching started — 26.6 percent of listeners changed the station whenever it came on. By October, after playing it alongside sticky hits, that “tune-out factor” dropped to 13.7 percent. By December, it was 5.7 percent.