He was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past

Sunday, August 27th, 2023

Jason Crawford recently read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and it’s not really about Butlerian Jihad:

It is best known for its warning that machines will out-evolve humans, but rather than dystopian sci-fi, it’s actually political satire. His commentary on the universities is amazingly not dated at all, here’s a taste:

When I talked about originality and genius to some gentlemen whom I met at a supper party given by Mr. Thims in my honour, and said that original thought ought to be encouraged, I had to eat my words at once. Their view evidently was that genius was like offences—needs must that it come, but woe unto that man through whom it comes. A man’s business, they hold, is to think as his neighbours do, for Heaven help him if he thinks good what they count bad. And really it is hard to see how the Erewhonian theory differs from our own, for the word “idiot” only means a person who forms his opinions for himself.

The venerable Professor of Worldly Wisdom, a man verging on eighty but still hale, spoke to me very seriously on this subject in consequence of the few words that I had imprudently let fall in defence of genius. He was one of those who carried most weight in the university, and had the reputation of having done more perhaps than any other living man to suppress any kind of originality.

“It is not our business,” he said, “to help students to think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do. Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do.” In some respects, however, he was thought to hold somewhat radical opinions, for he was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past.

If you’re banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to be an actor, maybe you shouldn’t be an actor

Tuesday, August 15th, 2023

Hollywood will tell you what you’re supposed to do, Taylor Sheridan says, if you listen:

”If you’re banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to be an actor, maybe you shouldn’t be an actor. But the first thing I ever wrote [the pilot for Mayor of Kingstown in 2011] got me meetings at every major network, at every agency. I had multiple people trying to buy it.”

Yet Sheridan refused to sell. The studios, he says, wanted to hire a room of more experienced writers to tackle the project — you know, make TV the usual way. Sheridan felt that he knew exactly how to write the show himself. So even back then, getting his first taste of success as a writer, Sheridan was reluctant to let others adapt his material and demonstrated a willingness to walk away. Some might call that stubborn or impractical; Sheridan sees it as trusting his instincts and sticking to his creative guns. He put Mayor of Kingstown in a drawer.

Over the next few years, Sheridan made a name for himself writing a trio of acclaimed films — Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017) — which he dubbed his “modern American frontier” trilogy.

Another of his scripts, Yellowstone, was likewise originally written as a movie. Sheridan pitched it as “The Godfather in Montana,” and it ended up in series development at HBO. Sheridan says then-programming president Michael Lombardo was supportive, but the rest of his team wasn’t.

“I thought Taylor was the real deal,” Lombardo says. “In a world of people who pose, he was writing what he knew, and he cared desperately about the show. The idea of doing a modern-classic Western was a great idea — we were always doing urban shows, and this felt fresh.”

The one thing they all agreed on was that Yellowstone needed a big star to play its uncompromising patriarch, John Dutton. Sheridan pitched Costner, but HBO executives “didn’t see it.”

“They said, ‘We want Robert Redford,’ ” Sheridan recalls. “They said, ‘If you can get us Robert Redford, we’ll greenlight the pilot.’ “

Being a can-do type of guy, Sheridan went to visit Robert Redford.

“I drive to Sundance and spend the day with him and he agrees to play John Dutton,” Sheridan says. “I call the senior vice president in charge of production and say, ‘I got him!’ ‘You got who?’ ‘Robert Redford.’ ‘What?!‘ ‘You said if I got Robert Redford, you’d greenlight the show.’ “

“And he says — and you can’t make this shit up — ‘We meant a Robert Redford type.’ ”

A crisis meeting was scheduled with the network vp (“whose name I remember, but I’m just not saying it”) to get to the bottom of HBO’s reluctance.

“We go to lunch in some snazzy place in West L.A.,” Sheridan says. “And [Yellowstone co-creator] John Linson finally asks: ‘Why don’t you want to make it?’ And the vp goes: ‘Look, it just feels so Middle America. We’re HBO, we’re avant-garde, we’re trendsetters. This feels like a step backward. And frankly, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think anyone should be living out there [in rural Montana]. It should be a park or something.’ “


HBO typically retains the rights to scripts it develops and rejects, partly to prevent what happened next from happening — a project they spent time and money developing becoming a global smash for a competitor.

“When the regime changed, Lombardo called me,” Sheridan says about the longtime HBO exec’s exit in 2016. “To his credit, he said, ‘I always believed in the show, but I could not get any support.’ His last act before they fired him was to give me the script back.”

As for that nameless vp, Sheridan says he left HBO and landed a production deal. After Yellowstone took off, he emailed Sheridan to say congratulations — and to pitch him a family drama.

Sheridan says he wrote back: “Great idea. It sounds just like Yellowstone.”

Why do they have to bootleg Coors?

Saturday, July 22nd, 2023

I have seen the number one movie of 1977, Star Wars, multiple times, but I somehow never caught the number two movie of 1977, Smokey and the Bandit, until recently.

The film stars Burt Reynolds, as Bo “Bandit” Darville, and four 1976-model cars, as his 1977 Pontiac Trans Am:

Hal Needham saw an advertisement for the soon-to-be-released 1977 Pontiac Trans Am and knew right away that it would be the Bandit’s car, or, as Needham referred to it, a character in the movie. He contacted Pontiac and an agreement was made that four 1977 Trans Ams and two Pontiac LeMans four-door sedans would be provided for the movie. The Trans Ams were actually 1976-model cars with 1977 front ends (from 1970 to 1976, both the Firebird/Trans Am and Chevrolet Camaro have two round headlights and in 1977, the Firebird/Trans Am was changed to four rectangular headlights, and the Camaro remained unchanged). The decals were changed to 1977-style units, as evidenced by the engine size callouts on the hood scoop being in liters rather than cubic inches, as had been the case in 1976. The hood scoop on these cars says “6.6 LITRE”, which, in 1977, would have denoted an Oldsmobile 403-equipped car or a non-W-72, 180 hp version of the 400 Pontiac engine.

The cars were 1976 models, the engines fitted to them were 455ci power plants, the last year these engines were offered for sale before withdrawal. All four of the cars were badly damaged during production, one of which was all but destroyed during the jump over the dismantled Mulberry bridge. The Trans Am used for said jump was equipped with a booster rocket, the same type that was used by Evel Knievel during his failed Snake River Canyon jump. Needham served as the driver for the stunt (in place of Reynolds), while Lada St. Edmund was in the same car (in place of Field). By the film’s ending, the final surviving Trans Am and LeMans were both barely running and the other cars had become parts donors to keep them running. This gives rise to various continuity errors with Justice’s patrol car, which during some chase sequences is shown with a black rear fender, which then reverts to the car’s bronze color again in later scenes. When it is finally torn off along with the car’s roof in the impact with the girder, the missing fender still reappears later on in the film.


After the debut of the film, the Pontiac Trans Am became wildly popular, with sales almost doubling within two years of the film’s release. It outsold its Chevrolet Camaro counterpart for the first time.

The premise of the film is that wealthy Texan Big Enos Burdette and his son Little Enos have sponsored a racer in Atlanta’s Southern Classic and want to celebrate in style when they win, so they bet Bandit and his truck-driving partner Snowman $80,000 that they can’t bootleg 400 cases of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours.

Wait, why do they have to bootleg Coors? Beer’s not illegal in Atlanta:

In 1977, Coors was unavailable for sale east of Oklahoma. Its lack of additives and preservatives meant that Coors could spoil in one week without refrigeration, explaining the film’s 28-hour deadline. A 1974 Time magazine article explains that Coors was so coveted for its lack of stabilizers and preservatives, and Coors Banquet Beer had a brief renaissance. Future President Gerald Ford, after a trip to Colorado, hid it in his luggage to take it back to Washington, D.C. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a steady supply airlifted by the Air Force to Washington. Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox would bring several cases after playing on the West Coast, by stashing them in the equipment trunks on the team’s plane. Frederick Amon smuggled it from Colorado to North Carolina and sold it for four times the retail price.

Coors is still brewed just outside Denver, Colorado. It is now sold in all states as Coors ships it in refrigerated train cars and bottled locally and sold in different parts of the country including the eastern US states.

During their run, Bandit annd Snowman are pursued by Texas county sheriff Buford T. Justice, played by Jackie Gleason:

“Buford T. Justice” was the name of a real Florida Highway Patrolman known to Reynolds’ father, who was once Police Chief of Riviera Beach, Florida. His father was also the inspiration for the word “sumbitch” used in the film, a variation of the phrase “son-of-a-bitch” that, according to Reynolds, he uttered quite often. Gleason was given free rein to ad-lib dialogue and make suggestions. It was his idea to have Junior alongside him throughout the film. In particular, the scene where Sheriff Justice unknowingly encounters the Bandit in a roadside diner (a “choke and puke” in CB lingo) was not in the original story but was rather Gleason’s idea.

Gleason’s Buford T. Justice follows quite clearly in the footsteps of Clifton JamesSheriff J.W. Pepper, from Live and Let Die (1973):

When asked about the Blaxploitation element of the film, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz said he invented Sheriff J.W. Pepper as a racist small-town southern sheriff, setting him up for mockery as a foolish pompous figure that the audience is meant to side against.

This reminds me that Bandit and Snowman are conspicuously non-racist, in contrast to Justice.

Anyway, Clifton James’ sheriff also falls in the footsteps of another:

Actor Joe Higgins, who was born in Louisiana in 1925, landed the role of Sheriff J.W. (and added his real name Higgins) for a series of Dodge commercials starting in 1969. He was prolific on American television for guest roles in many series including ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Hill Street Blues,’ ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘The Twilight Zone.’

Over the course of the TV campaign for the new Dodge Challenger, Sheriff J.W. evolves from pulling over drivers for having a “racing vee-hickle” in the city limits, learning of how affordable the new car is, to later schooling his younger deputies in slapstick fashion. The last spot from 1972 ends in his humiliation when flying chickens escape the trunk of a car and would have been a comedic moment right at home in the Roger Moore era.

Seeing success with the spots, Dodge anointed Higgins as the “Safety Sheriff” and Higgins would tour the country at motor shows and conventions, as well as speaking to high-school kids about driving and promoting the use of seat belts.

At the peak of his popularity, Higgins filmed a PSA for the Office of Traffic Safety with then-Governor Ronald Reagan.

Would a cup of “Pee-kwod” appeal to anyone?

Friday, July 21st, 2023

When I was a kid, Starbuck was the name of a cocky fighter pilot in the original Battlestar Galactica. It was a fanciful, sci-if name, like Skywalker. Somewhere along the way I picked up that it was a real name, but it was still surprising to see a coffee-shop chain of the same name (but with a non-apostrophe s):

In 1971, our founders got together with artist Terry Heckler to define their new brand. They wanted the company’s name to suggest a sense of adventure, a connection to the Northwest and a link to the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders. Co-founder Gordon Bowker, a writer, initially proposed calling the company “Pequod,” after the ship in Herman Melville‘s classic novel “Moby-Dick.” But Terry objected – would a cup of “Pee-kwod” appeal to anyone?

The brainstorming continued. While researching names of mining camps on Mt. Rainier, one of the best known landmarks near Seattle, Terry came across “Starbo,” which eventually led the team back to where they’d started. In “Moby-Dick,” the name of the first mate on the Pequod was, you guessed it, Starbuck. A brand was born.

I somehow forgot the name of the first mate on the Pequod. It turns out Starbuck is the name of a prominent real-life whaling family.

Bankhead’s father had warned her to avoid alcohol and men when she got to New York

Thursday, July 20th, 2023

In Aliens, loudmouth Colonial Marine Private Hudson asks his butch female squad mate, “Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”

“No, have you?”

All the Right Movies recently noted that Cameron took this from a story about the husky-voiced 1930s icon Tallulah Bankhead. A columnist said to her “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” and she replied, “No, darling. Have you?”

This got me to track down a few more stories about Tallulah Bankhead:

Her father hailed from the Bankhead-and-Brockman political family, active in the Democratic Party of the South in general and of Alabama in particular. Her father was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1936 to 1940. She was the niece of Senator John H. Bankhead II and granddaughter of Senator John H. Bankhead.


As a child, Bankhead was described as “extremely homely” and overweight, while her sister was slim and prettier. As a result, she did everything in her efforts to gain attention, and constantly sought her father’s approval. After watching a performance at a circus, she taught herself how to cartwheel, and frequently cartwheeled about the house, sang, and recited literature that she had memorized. She was prone to throwing tantrums, rolling around the floor, and holding her breath until she was blue in the face. Her grandmother often threw a bucket of water on her to halt these outbursts.

Bankhead’s famously husky voice (which she described as “mezzo-basso”) was the result of chronic bronchitis due to childhood illness.


She soon moved into the Algonquin Hotel, a hotspot for the artistic and literary elite of the era, where she quickly charmed her way into the famed Algonquin Round Table of the hotel bar. She was dubbed one of the “Four Riders of the Algonquin”, consisting of Bankhead, Estelle Winwood, Eva Le Gallienne, and Blyth Daly. Three of the four were non-heterosexual: Bankhead and Daly were bisexuals, and Le Gallienne was a lesbian. Bankhead’s father had warned her to avoid alcohol and men when she got to New York; Bankhead later quipped “He didn’t say anything about women and cocaine.” The Algonquin’s wild parties introduced Bankhead to cocaine and marijuana, of which she later remarked “Cocaine isn’t habit-forming and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.”


After over eight years of living in Great Britain and touring on their theatrical stages, she did not like living in Hollywood; when she met producer Irving Thalberg, she asked him “How do you get laid in this dreadful place?” Thalberg retorted “I’m sure you’ll have no problem. Ask anyone.”


Her 1932 movie Devil and the Deep is notable for the presence of three major co-stars, with Bankhead receiving top billing over Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant; it is the only film with Cooper and Grant as the film’s leading men although they share no scenes together. She later said “Dahling, the main reason I accepted [the part] was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!”


In 1933, while performing in Jezebel, Bankhead nearly died following a five-hour emergency hysterectomy due to gonorrhea, which she claimed she had contracted from either Gary Cooper or George Raft. Weighing only 70 lb (32 kg) when she left the hospital, she vowed to continue her lifestyle, stoically saying to her doctor “Don’t think this has taught me a lesson!”


In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock cast her as cynical journalist Constance Porter in her most successful film, both critically and commercially, Lifeboat. Her superbly multifaceted performance was acknowledged as her best on film and won her the New York Film Critics Circle award. A beaming Bankhead accepted her New York trophy and exclaimed: “Dahlings, I was wonderful!”


Bankhead had no children, but she had four abortions before she had a hysterectomy in 1933, when she was 31.


An interview that Bankhead gave to Motion Picture magazine in 1932 generated controversy. In the interview, Bankhead ranted about the state of her life and her views on love, marriage, and children:

I’m serious about love. I’m damned serious about it now. … I haven’t had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long. … If there’s anything the matter with me now, it’s not Hollywood or Hollywood’s state of mind. … The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN! … Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!


For these and other offhand remarks, Bankhead was cited in the Hays Commission’s “Doom Book”, a list of 150 actors and actresses considered “unsuitable for the public” which was presented to the studios. Bankhead was at the top of the list with the heading: “Verbal Moral Turpitude”. She publicly called Hays “a little prick”.


In addition to her many affairs with men, she was also linked romantically with female personalities of the day, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel, Beatrice Lillie, Alla Nazimova, Blyth Daly, writers Mercedes de Acosta and Eva Le Gallienne, and singer Billie Holiday.


Bankhead never publicly used the term “bisexual” to describe herself, preferring to use the term “ambisextrous” instead.


Her last coherent words reportedly were a garbled request for “codeine … bourbon”.


Bankhead’s voice and personality inspired voice actress Betty Lou Gerson’s work on the character Cruella De Vil in Walt Disney Pictures’ One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which the studio calls “a manic take-off on famous actress Tallulah Bankhead”.

Where Barbies rule and Kens are an underclass

Tuesday, July 4th, 2023

Greta Gerwig, the brain behind the new Barbie movie, considers herself a feminist, but…

But this movie is also dealing with [the idea that] any kind of hierarchical power structure that moves in any direction isn’t so great. You go to Mattel and it is really like, “Oh, Barbie has been president since 1991. Barbie had gone to the moon before women could get credit cards.” We kind of extrapolated out from that that Barbieland is this reversed world [where Barbies rule and Kens are an underclass]. The reverse structure of whatever Barbieland is, is almost like Planet of the Apes. You can see how unfair this is for the Kens because it’s totally unsustainable.

Ghost Riders In The Sky

Monday, June 12th, 2023

I hadn’t heard of Neil LeVang when I stumbled across this performance of Ghost Riders In The Sky:

As his bio notes:

Levang unknowingly created a new genre of music that would eventually be called Surf Rock with his 1961 arrangement of Ghost Riders In the Sky, performed on The Lawrence Welk Show.

I’m pretty sure I knew the song from Dick Dale’s 1963 cover, which is, of course, surf guitar, too.

There are many versions:

The original version by Stan Jones was recorded in late 1948 or early 1949. A recording by Stan Jones and his Death Valley Rangers was issued on Mercury 5320 in May 1949.

Hundreds of performers have recorded versions of the song. Vaughn Monroe reached number 1 in Billboard magazine with his version (“Riders in the Sky” with orchestra and vocal quartet).

I don’t think I realized that the melody is based on the Civil War-era song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.

Unfortunately the mechanism was weak

Wednesday, May 31st, 2023

Today is Clint Eastwood‘s 93rd birthday, which reminds me that I recently re-watched his 1992 western Unforgiven and couldn’t help but notice that he shot a double-action revolver, at a time when single-action revolvers were the norm. This was a Starr 1858 Army:

The Starr revolver was first introduced in 1858 as a sidearm for the U.S. Army, being called the “Starr 1858 Army”. This revolver was a six shot, black powder percussion revolver with a unique feature; a double action or “self-cocking” trigger mechanism. Unfortunately the mechanism was weak and the gun lost favor with soldiers after having their triggers break in combat all too often.


To fix this, the gun was given a more simple single action system and reproduced in 1863 as the “Starr 1863 Army” revolver. This model was far more favorable with troops, though other revolvers like the Colt 1860 Army and Remington 1858 New Army were more popular.

Daenerys Targaryen is modeled on Moses

Friday, April 21st, 2023

Misha Saul suggests that Daenerys Targaryen is modeled on Moses:

  • Born into royalty.
  • Led her people out of destitution.
  • Freed slaves.
  • Works miracles.
  • Suffers trials and doubts and betrayals on the way to the Promised Land.
  • Ends up a hardened warrior, dictator and self-righteous killer of men, women and children.

How much does a Pulitzer Prize increase weekly sales?

Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

How much does a Pulitzer Prize increase weekly sales?

The 2014 general nonfiction winner, Tom’s River by Dan Fagin, went from 10 copies to 162 copies sold (6,266 copies sold to date) on BookScan. History winner The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor went from 27 copies to 433 copies (3,375 copies sold to date). 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri, the 2014 poetry winner, went from 11 copies to 81 copies (353 copies sold to date). Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller, the biography winner, out in paperback, went from 62 copies to 387 copies (5,038 copies sold to date).

We know that fungi can infect humans

Tuesday, February 14th, 2023

I haven’t watched The Last of Us (yet), but it seems to be based on a scenario I’ve discussed before of how a zombie outbreak could (semi-plausibly) happen:

We know that fungi can infect humans. We also know that fungal networks exist in most of the world’s forests. These mycorrhizal networks have a symbiotic relationship with trees and other plants in the forest, exchanging nutrients for mutual benefit. These networks can be quite large, and there are studies that demonstrate the potential for chemical signals to be transmitted from one plant to another via the mycorrhizal network. That, in turn, means that fungal filaments could perform both vascular and neural functions within a corpse.

This leads us to the following scenario: microscopic spores are inhaled, ingested, or transmitted via zombie bite. The spores are eventually dispersed throughout the body via the bloodstream. Then they lie dormant. When the host dies, chemical signals (or, more accurately, the absence of chemical signals) within the body that occur upon death trigger the spores to activate, and begin growing. The ensuing fungal network carries nutrients to muscles in the absence of respiration or normal metabolism.

Part of the fungal network grows within the brain, where it interfaces with the medulla and cerebellum, as well as parts of the brain involving vision, hearing and possibly scent. Chemicals released by the fungi activate basic responses within these brain areas. The fungi/brain interface is able to convert the electrochemical signals of neurons into chemical signals that can be transmitted along the fungal network that extends through much of the body. This signal method is slow and imperfect, which results in the uncoordinated movements of zombies. And this reliance on the host’s brain accounts for the “headshot” phenomenon, in which grievous wounds to the brain or spine seem to render zombies fully inert.

Eventually, the socialist aspects of the community faded away, and the Herberts ran a general store there

Sunday, January 22nd, 2023

Frank Patrick Herbert Jr. was not born into an aristocratic family and did not receive specialized training as a mentat or Bene Gesserit witch:

His paternal grandparents had come west in 1905 to join Burley Colony in Kitsap County, one of many utopian communes springing up in Washington State beginning in the 1890s. The Burley communards printed their own currency, paid everyone an identical salary, and championed gender equality. Eventually, the socialist aspects of the community faded away, and the Herberts ran a general store there.

Herbert’s father, Frank Patrick Herbert Sr., had a varied career including operating a bus line, selling electrical equipment, and serving as a state motorcycle patrolman. His mother, Eileen Marie McCarthy, was from a large Irish family in Wisconsin. According to unsubstantiated family lore, during Prohibition, Frank Senior, Eileen, and another couple built and ran the legendary Spanish Castle Ballroom, a speakeasy and dancehall off of Highway 99 between Seattle and Tacoma.

Herbert’s childhood included camping, hunting, fishing, and digging clams. At 8 he is said to have jumped on a table and shouted, “I wanna be an author.” His parents were binge alcoholics, and young Frank often had to care for his only sibling, Patty Lou, who was 13 years younger. He had a checkered career at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, including dropped and failed classes. But his career as a writer had already been launched. He was an enthusiastic reporter on the student newspaper. A classmate remembered him rushing into the “news shack” behind the school, shouting: “Stop the presses! I’ve got a scoop!”

In May of his senior year, he dropped out. The following summer he worked on the Tacoma Ledger as a copy and office boy, doing some actual reporting as well. In the fall he went back to school, writing feature articles and a regular column for the school paper. At 17, he sold a Western story for $27.50. He was elated, but the next two dozen stories he wrote were all rejected. In 1938, worried about his parents’ drinking and his 5-year-old sister’s safety in the unstable home, he and Patty Lou took a bus to Salem, Oregon, where they sought refuge with an aunt and uncle.

After graduation from Salem High School in 1939, Herbert moved to California and got a job at the Glendale Star as a copy editor. Barely 18, he lied about his age and smoked a briar pipe to seem older. By 1940 the 19-year-old was back with his aunt and uncle in Salem, and talked his way into an “on-call” job with the Oregon Statesman as a photographer, copy editor, feature reporter, and in the advertising department.

In the spring of 1941, he and Flora Parkinson drove three hours north to Tacoma, where they got a night court judge to marry them. Back in California, he worked once more for the Glendale Star, and in February 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor, he registered for the draft. The next day the couple’s daughter, Penelope Eileen, was born. By July he had enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to Portsmouth, Virginia as a photographer. There, tripping over a tent tie-down, he suffered a head injury that resulted in an honorable discharge. He went back to California, where he discovered his wife and daughter had vanished. His mother-in-law in Oregon wouldn’t tell him where they were. Flora and Frank Herbert were subsequently divorced, and she was given custody of baby Penny.

From 1943 to 1945, Herbert worked as a reporter for the Oregon Journal in Portland. He was writing fiction as well. In 1945 he had his second sale, a suspense story set in Alaska that appeared in Esquire magazine and earned him $200. By August of 1945, he had moved to Seattle and was working on the night desk at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Gone With the Wind is the new improved Vanity Fair

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Lex Fridman’s reading list doesn’t include William Makepeace Thackeray‘s Vanity Fair, but Steve Sailer’s review has me intrigued:

It’s extremely enjoyable. Despite a fairly rambling plot covering almost 800 pages from roughly 1813 to 1828, it’s a page-turner because the characters and situations are interesting enough that you want to find out what happens.

I’d describe Vanity Fair as the precursor to Gone With the Wind, in that it centers around two young women, the nice but mopey Amelia (the precursor of Melanie Hamilton, played by Olivia De Havilland) and the not nice but more interesting Becky Sharp (Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh).


The male characters in both tend to be army officers who go off to a big battle, Waterloo in VF and Gettysburg in GWTH.

Overall, I’d say that GWTH is the new improved VF, with more memorable characters and settings. Margaret Mitchell always denied having read Vanity Fair, but Gone With the Wind sure seems like a punched up version of Vanity Fair, with Mitchell raising the stakes wherever Thackeray was inclined to let them ride.

For instance, while the British win at Waterloo and so English society mostly goes on as before, the Southerners lose at Gettysburg and soon the old society is, like the title says, gone with the wind. The Southerners need to learn a lot of hard new lessons about life. Melanie and her husband Ashley Wilkes fail to adapt to the new world, while Scarlett, despite her self-centered sense of entitlement and general knuckleheadedness, eventually succeeds.

In contrast, from the first page of Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp, a poor orphan, is smarter than the rich people around her. Thackeray points out near the beginning of the book that when she claims to love children that she would soon learn not to make claims so easily disproved. “The little adventuress” seldom learns over the 800 pages because she was already supremely worldly wise from a tender age.

In contrast to Scarlett, Becky is always rational to the point of being cold-blooded. Becky wants material comfort and to rise in status, but she lacks particular passions (until late in the book when she starts to develop a gambling problem). She has no Ashley Wilkes to pine over.

Indeed, Becky is so reasonable that she often behaves surprisingly nicely to the other characters because, having calculated all the factors, she doesn’t see how it could cost her much.

And Mitchell takes Thackeray’s admirable but stiff Captain Dobbin, who is lovelorn over Amelia throughout who foolishly ignores him, and turns him into the pirate king Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who instead of being lovelorn over Melanie is lovelorn over Scarlett. This creates the 20th Century’s most popular fictional couple.

We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise

Tuesday, December 27th, 2022

C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for The Chronicles of Narnia and then for Mere Christianity, but he’s also known for works like The Inner Ring, Dangers of National Repentance, The Necessity of Chivalry, Equality, On the Reading of Old Books, and The Great Divorce.

I’d been meaning to read his essay on Men without Chests, which opens The Abolition of Man, and, like Brett McKay, I had assumed it meant men without spines, or courage, or manly virtues, which isn’t quite right:

His lament is that modern society makes men without heart.


While the nature of emotional responses is partly visceral and automatic, a man’s sentiments also have to be intentionally educated in order to be congruent — to be more in harmony with Nature. Such training teaches a man to evaluate things as more or less Just, True, Beautiful, and Good, and to proportion his affections as merited. As Lewis notes, this training was considered central to one’s development throughout antiquity.

In the 20th century, it began to be posited that there was not a natural order to the world, and that things did not possess an objective value which demanded a certain response; rather, people simply brought their own feelings to objects, and these feelings are what gave the objects their value. Such feelings were culturally conditioned and relative to particular societies and individuals, and were thus completely subjective. Lewis observes that certain corollaries followed from this conclusion, mainly that “judgements of value are unimportant,” “all values are subjective and trivial,” and “emotion is contrary to reason.”

Rather than education seeking to improve young people by both increasing their stock of facts and honing the sensitivity of their sentiments, students began to be tutored in facts alone. This shift was thought to benefit youth, protecting them from the emotional sway of propaganda. But Lewis argues that not only did dropping an education in and emphasis on sentiment fail to provide this protective effect (and in fact made students more susceptible to hype and disinformation), it atrophied their capacity for virtue and human excellence.

The ostensible subject of his essay is “a little book on English intended for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools’” that he dubs The Green Book, by two amateur philosophers posing as professional grammarians whom he refers to as Gaius and Titius. They present an ad for a cruise as an example of bad writing:

From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible. He will have no notion that there are two ways of being immune to such an advertisement — that it falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water. There are two men to whom we offer in vain a false leading article on patriotism and honour: one is the coward, the other is the honourable and patriotic man. None of this is brought before the schoolboy’s mind. On the contrary, he is encouraged to reject the lure of the ‘Western Ocean’ on the very dangerous ground that in so doing he will prove himself a knowing fellow who can’t be bubbled out of his cash. Gaius and Titius, while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.


I have hitherto been assuming that such teachers as Gaius and Titius do not fully realize what they are doing and do not intend the far-reaching consequences it will actually have. There is, of course, another possibility. What I have called (presuming on their concurrence in a certain traditional system of values) the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ may be precisely the kind of man they really wish to produce. The differences between us may go all the way down. They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. That position will be discussed later.


But I doubt whether Gaius and Titius have really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy. I think they have slipped into it for the following reasons. In the first place, literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier. To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do.


In the second place, I think Gaius and Titius may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda— they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.


Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others.


This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao‘. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.


Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’.


When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgement discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him. But Gaius and Titius cannot believe that in calling such a death sweet and seemly they would be saying ‘something important about something’. Their own method of debunking would cry out against them if they attempted to do so. For death is not something to eat and therefore cannot be dulce in the literal sense, and it is unlikely that the real sensations preceding it will be dulce even by analogy. And as for decorum — that is only a word describing how some other people will feel about your death when they happen to think of it, which won’t be often, and will certainly do you no good.


It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato.


The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

A while back T. Greer mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists both Dune and The Abolition of Man as required reading and combines their ideas:

Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?

Don’t carry anything you don’t control

Saturday, December 24th, 2022

Alma Katsu — who spent 30+ years working for CIA and NSA and went on to write spy novels, like Red Widow — noticed that — spoiler alert!Andor incorporates spycraft into its story better and more subtly than many spy shows:

Spies Everywhere

Andor made it abundantly clear that when you’re involved in a conflict like this, you are always being watched. There are spies and watchers everywhere. Senator Mon Mothma, who knows her driver is an Internal Security Bureau (ISB) plant, complains there is “a new spy every day at the Senate” as well as at the bank where she is trying to discreetly move funds to the rebellion. Free agents, or volunteers, roam the streets of Ferrix, hoping to luck into information they might be able to sell. It becomes quickly apparent that Luthen, architect of the rebellion, has developed a vast network of spies. Spies are such a given that it’s almost humorous when Saw, leader of a partisan group, becomes outraged when he finds out Luthen even has a spy inside Saw’s own ranks.


Covert Communications

Covcomm is essential to running a spy network: it enables you to communicate securely with your assets without the risks that come with meeting in person (a risk Luthen mentions this when a highly-placed agent that he hasn’t laid eyes on in a year requests a meeting.) Covcomm was featured prominently in the show: we see Bix shimmy up a hidden tower to send broadcasts to the handler on a special transmitter (obviously designed to elude detection by the Empire). On the other end, we see Luthen and Kleya, his lieutenant, in the backroom of their antiques shop, the front for their operations, glued to their receiver, listening for messages from agents dispersed all over the galaxy.

Disguise and Persona

Operations officers often must wear a disguise in order to get to a meeting undetected or slip behind enemy lines. This is less about fooling a close observer than it is about slipping past the enemy’s army of watchers. We didn’t see too much in the disguise department in Andor except for Luthen, and it was like something out of The Americans as he alternated between his true self and his false persona, the proprietor of a high-end antiques shop on Coruscant, for which he dons a flamboyant wig and clothing.

Good Tradecraft

The spies of Andor practice good discipline as they ply their trade, from not carrying commercial communications equipment (“don’t carry anything you don’t control”) and always having an exit strategy (“build your exit on the way in,” Luthen warns Cassian), to the chalk marks on the sidewalk that Kleya follows to know where to meet insurgent team leader Vel.

The Destructive Culture of a Toxic Security Organization

Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the atmosphere and culture of a Gestapo-like security bureaucracy. It is eat-or-be-eaten, and often management is missing-in-action, out of design rather than incompetence. You’re rewarded for affirming management’s viewpoint, not for rocking the boat or pointing out problems. Officers compete for turf and to move up the ladder, all under the watchful eye of ruthless supervisors who are themselves afraid of putting a foot wrong or being eaten alive by their underlings.


Protecting Sources

One of the toughest aspects of the espionage business is the protection of assets. When an important asset is at risk, do you leave him in place to continue receiving intelligence or do you pull him out for his own safety? To what lengths do you go in order to protect that asset?

In Andor, the ISB stumbles across a rebel plan to attack a facility. Lonni Jung, an ISB supervisor and embedded asset for the rebels, tells Luthen that their man is going to walk into a trap. But if the rebels warn the man off, the ISB will see there’s a mole in their midst. Luthen makes the decision to let their man (and his entire squad) be slaughtered by the ISB rather than risk exposing their asset. Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the sometimes cold-hearted calculations spymasters are forced to make. Not only does this sub-plot reveal a lot about Luthen, but it left Lonni, the embedded asset, with the knowledge that 30 men died to protect him — a sacrifice he didn’t ask for.