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“Paul, a folk-influenced singer-songwriter with ear-length black hair, forms a writing partnership with another man. They are wildly successful in the early 1970s, although sometimes controversial due to their socially transgressive lyrics. Paul’s ego and micromanaging ways drive a rift between the two, causing a breakup. The guitarist is arrested. However, they reconcile before death.”
(The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, KISS)
“A female singer with black hair and acute symbols in her name is born on a cold island in the 1960s. She achieves modest fame as part of a band and greater worldwide success as a solo act. She is noted for overdubbing lots of vocal tracks, often not in English. A psychotic stalker from a Latin country falls in love with her. Events culminate in a suicide attempt.”
(Björk, Enya, Sinead O’Connor, nearly Beyoncé)
“A punk-influenced band with ties to New York features a blonde female bassist and a dark-haired male singer-songwriter. Their relationship fails, and the band splits acrimoniously.”
(White Zombie, the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the Smashing Pumpkins)
“A biracial guitar player in a platinum-selling heavy metal band from California is involved in a fatal automobile accident. Nobody involved was wearing a seatbelt. The respective bands have all released a self-titled album, as well as an album cover that’s all-black except for the image of an animal.”
(Metallica, Motley Crue, Deftones)
“A UK rock frontman named after a disciple of Jesus forgets to delete his internet search history. Legal problems ensue.”
(Pete Townshend, Ian Watkins, Gary Glitter, nearly Massive Attack, partially Jimmy Savile)
“A songwriter/producer is renowned for his innovative use of sound. His records thunder with Wagnerian pomposity, and could be likened to a solid wall. The producer is a troubled man, however, and is haunted by demons. As the years pass he is blown like a paper bag into paranoia, mania, and eventually murder.”
(Phil Spector, Joe Meek, Varg Vikernes)
[minor cheats: Art Garfunkel didn’t write songs until the 1990s, Peter Paul & Mary had their final #1 hit three months before 1970, a guitarist in KISS was arrested but he was not the same one that the rest applies to, I don’t think D’Arcy Wretzky and Billy Corgan dated, Vince Neil and Chi Cheng played guitar but not in their respective bands, Chi Cheng died years after his accident, it’s a stretch to call Varg Vikernes a producer dot dot dot or a songwriter el oh el]
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This featurette opens Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life, and is my favourite part of the film. Hail Terry Gilliam.
It’s a parody of a pirate movie, filled with swordfights and swashbuckling and people yelling “‘ard to starboard!”. But as with Brazil, it’s actually a kind of fear teabag, steeped in subtle flavors of alarm, disquiet, and anxiety, releasing those flavours upon repeat viewing. You can’t separate The Crimson Permanent Assurance from the year 1983, or from Britain.
Incredibly, people once trusted banks. Almost. The local bank was like the local butcher: probably holding a finger on the scale, but at least you thought you understood him. He was part of your community. He was yours.
In the 80s, that started to change: the globe shrank, trade deals and computerized systems enabled companies to spread their tentacles across continents and oceans, and suddenly your bank was no longer part of your community. It was a shadowy, alien thing from somewhere else. Maybe the outer dark.
Finance has always had aquatic metaphors. Cash flow. Liquid assets. Trickle down. Mutual pools. Skimmed profits. As the financial sector exploded in size and complexity, the metaphors became more pointed. Loan sharks. Corporate raiders. Headhunters. Buccaneers. The idea that finance firms had become something akin to pirates is a compelling one. Amoral entities afloat a sea of cash, with no masters, no Gods, no loyalty but to the firm, flying the flag of civilized commerce only when it suited them. Scuppering enemies with leveraged takeovers. Burying treasure in offshore tax havens. Terry Gilliam’s idea was to make the finance = piracy metaphor literal.
The featurette opens with a bunch of elderly accountants slaving at their desks, while young men with American accents boss them around. (This reflects another British anxiety from the period: that venerable and supposedly honest British institutions would be swallowed by faceless American corporations). When one man gets fired, the rest mutiny, throwing their American overseers “overboard”. They then turn to a life of crime, sailing their building through London as if it were a ship, plundering and pillaging.
It’s a great bit of absurdist comedy, and Gilliam has fun turning accountants into pirates. They wield “cutlasses” made from the blades of office fans, fire “cannons” that are actually spring-loaded desk drawers, etc. There’s little Pythonesque wordplay, and almost every joke is a visual one. It’s almost like watching a comedy sketch made for deaf people; although they’d miss out on the bombastic score.
There’s the usual artsy film touches. The Crimson Permanent Assurance building is almost comically antiquated, even older than the men inside it, but the buildings they plunder are sleek and modern, webs of glass and steel spun by giant spiders (emphasising a theme of old vs new). The opening shot of downtrodden accountants hunched over rows of desks is matched with a parallel shot of the same men pulling oars in a Roman slave galley. The amount of money spent on tiny details must have been staggering. That list of subsidiaries on the corporate boardroom of the Very Big Corporation Of America? There’s actual stuff written there.
The film ends with the narrator cheerfully describing how The Crimson Permanent Assurance took on the world with their business acumen…and we see bleak shots of the building sailing across a desolate skyline, having destroyed everything. Then it falls off the edge of the world, and the rest of the movie begins.
The Pythons each brought something special to their troupe. Cleese and Jones had their characters, Idle had his music, Palin had his writing, Chapman had his dramatic acting skills. But the visions? The dreams? Those, in large part, came care of Mr Gilliam, and here’s proof, sailing across the main.
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This is the autobiography of pioneering aviatrix Hanna Reitsch, who set over forty world records between the 1930s and 1950s: first female flight captain; first woman to fly a helicopter; world distance record in a helicopter; winner of the 1938 German national gliding competition; first woman to pilot a military jet aircraft; first et cetera.
Hanna is famous for what she did, and famous for why she did it. From the words German and military and 1938 you’ve probably realised that she was flying for the Luftwaffe in World War II.
“Her flying skill, desire for publicity, and photogenic qualities made her a star of Nazi propaganda. Physically she was petite in stature, very slender with blonde hair, blue eyes and a ‘ready smile’. She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.” – Wikipedia
We all have a cross to bear. In Hanna’s case it was an actual cross, made of iron.
März 1941: Adolf Hitler verleiht Flugkapitän Hanna Reitsch das Eiserne Kreuz [2. Klasse]
Mitte: Hermann GöringIn this book, Hanna comes off as apolitical (although all Nazis were apolitical after the war, weren’t they?), and other than some generic, learned-by-rote boilerplate (“I had been brought up to be a patriot”), she offers no commentary on the politics of the time or her own relationship to it. Hanna was only interested in the Nazi party because they allowed her to fly their pioneering warplanes, and much of the book is long, poetry-like meditations on the euphoria of flying.
Now I am shivering, all over, in every tissue of my body, and my bare hands turn blue as, nearly ten thousand feet above the earth, in my summer frock, I sit, basking in rain, hail and snow, my streaming hair tossed like seaweed in a storm.
Flying can be addictive: and the thrill must have been even greater for the men and women who were the first. Hanna flew in the years before the thermals were choked with traffic. She flew virgin airlines instead of Virgin Airlines, and saw parts of the earth from angles and altitudes that nobody else ever had.
When flying a plane, certain things have to be done in a certain order. Auxiliary fuel pump off. Flight controls checked. Instruments and radios checked. Altimeter set. Hanna writes like she’s preparing for flight. While a modern writer would probably try to hook the reader with a dramatic mis-en-scene about a near-fatal crash or something, Hanna tells the story more or less in chronological order: her childhood in Silesia, her dreams of being a flying missionary doctor in Africa, her early experiences flying an unpowered glider, her work as a stuntwoman and flight instructor, her arrest in Lisbon as a suspected spy, and her years of military service.
The book doesn’t have a lot of dates. I often found myself asking “what year is it?” and not getting an answer. It’s clear that Hanna’s obsession with flight made her a veteran at an extremely young age. Midway through the book, a man called Wolfram Hirth hires her as an instructor for his school. I assumed she was in her twenties or thirties, then she casually drops a mention that she needed her parents’ permission to skip another year of school.
While teaching Hirth’s students, she learned an important lesson herself: when in the air, it’s extremely easy to die.
Before this last pupil took off for his test, I went with him carefully, point by point, through every aspect of his flight. He had done well in his “A” and “B” Tests and, seeming now perfectly at ease and sure of himself, would, I had no doubt, pass this last one quite easily.
He took off in his glider normally and then, for a whole two and a half minutes, flew exactly as the book, without a fault. Now he had only to fly one turn, circle wide and land. He tumed — rather steep but quite well — and then, — plunged in one straight swift dive to earth.
I had never heard before what sound a plane makes when it crashes and at first I could not move. Then I ran down the hillside towards the wreckage, knowing, as I ran, that my pupil was already dead.
It fell to me to break the news to his mother, who lived in a nearby village.
I will never forget how I walked to her cottage through the fields, alone, how the poor, old woman saw me coming and called to me before I could speak:
“Ach, Fräuleinchen — ich weiss schon . Mein Sohn! Mein Sohn ist nicht mehr”
How did the mother know her son was dead? Because he’d had a dream that morning of his controls failing and told her. There’s a superstitious, mystical quality to some of these early pilots, as though they don’t fully trust their rational faculties. I suspect that most of them have abnormal psychologies.
Hanna herself would have many encounters with death. She describes being trapped inside a storm, performing a stunt in San Paolo that would have killed dozens if it failed (which it nearly did), and most seriously, a crash in the legendary rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.
Nobody built planes like the late-era Reich. Nobody should have built planes like the late-era Reich. With the Eastern Front collapsing, Hitler invested wildly in all sorts of unpromising projects, hoping for a magical technological ticket out of Germany’s inevitable defeat.
The results were a series of ghastly Wagnerian nightmares that look like they’re from a comic book and have names that sound like death metal bands. Planes like the Gotha Go 229 (a jet-powered “flying wing” stealth bomber) and the Bachem Ba 349 Natter (a vertical take-off interceptor that famously had no landing gear, with the pilot expected to either eject mid-flight or commit suicide by ramming an enemy plane) were twenty years ahead of their time technically and six hundred years behind ethically.
But the greatest, or worst, of the Nazi experimental warplanes was the Me 163. A lightning-fast “interceptor”, it was little more than a rocket with a human being attached, shooting up to 30,000 feet within ninety seconds on a 4,500 HP backwash of hypergolic combustants. With its regular test pilot Heini Dittmar was hospitalized due to a broken spine, Hanna was chosen to take his place riding the tiger.
To fly the rocket plane, Me 163, was to live through a fantasy of Münchhausen. One took off with a roar and a sheet of flame, then shot steeply upwards to find oneself the next moment in the heart of the empyrean.
To sit in the machine when it was anchored to the ground and be surrounded suddenly with that hellish, flame-spewing din, was an experience unreal enough. Through the window of the cabin, I could see the ground crew start back with wide-open mouths and hands over their ears, while, for my part, it was all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions. I felt as if I were in the grip of some savage power ascended from the Nether Pit. It seemed incredible than Man could control it.
The Me 163 could attain speeds of up to 1,130 km/h, which meant that “the smallest error of judgement might mean the loss of the machine and [Hanna’s] own death”. Even correct judgement was no guarantee. Her test flight immediately suffered a crippling technical issue – the exposed undercarriage got jammed – and she couldn’t contact the towing plane to abort the test. She successfully flew the plane for a while, but as she attempted to land, the Me 163 stalled due to the protracted undercarriage, and she lost control and tumbled to the ground at over 240 kp/h.
We plunged, striking the earth, then, rending and Cracking, the machine somersaulted over — lurched — and sagged to a stop. The first thing I realised was that I was not hanging in my harness and therefore the machine was right-side up. Quite automatically, my right hand opened the cabin roof— it was intact. Cautiously, I ran my hand down my left arm and hand, then slowly along my sides, chest and legs. To my thankful amazement, nothing was missing and all seemed in working order.
She was wrong: her skull was shattered in six places, her upper jaw was displaced, and her nose was nearly torn away. “Each time I breathed, bubbles of air and blood formed along its edge.” With consciousness fading, Hanna found a pencil and pad and wrote a message explaining why the crash had occurred. She also tied a handerchief around her head so that the her rescue party wouldn’t see her face. It would be a long time before she would fly again.
Her dramatic crash made her a celebrity within the Nazi party, and it was here that she had her most intimate encounters with the inner machinery of the state. Some of it’s funny, like this sitcom-worthy encounter with Hermann Göring.
[Göring] planted his bulk squarely in front of me, his hands resting on his hips.
“What! Is this supposed to be our famous ‘Flugkapitän’? Where’s the rest of her? How can this little person manage to fly at all?”
I did not like the reference to my size. I made a sweep with my hand roughly corresponding to his girth.
“Do you have to look like that to fly?”
In the middle of my sentence, it suddenly struck me with hot embarrassment that, in the circumstances, my gesture might be considered out of place. I tried to halt it in mid-air, but too late — everyone, including Göring, had seen it and there was a great burst of laughter, in which Göring joined.
But mostly these conversations are unsettling, the way it’s unsettling to read a conversation involving a well-programmed chatbot that knows how to say the right things but is clearly non-human. History remembers most of the NSDP’s upper echelon as high-IQ sociopaths, men skilled at reforging reality using words – words that they didn’t truly mean at all.
As Hanna wines and dines with the inner circle of the Party, I was interested to learn about the rifts dividing Nazi Germany – particularly, the conflict between the “Gott Mit Uns” Protestantianism of the Prussian and Weimar eras, and the odd blend of pagan, atheistic, and social Darwinist thought of Heinrich Himmler.
In our family, we had always avoided mentioning the name of Himmler : my mother saw in him the adversary of Christianity and he could therefore have nothing in common with us.
Hanna eventually meets Himmler, and challenges him both on his anti-Christian beliefs and rumors she’s heard about his social policies. This is one of the few times Hanna expresses a political opinion.
We then turned to another problem, about which my feelings were strong, his attitude to women and marriage. I reproached him for looking at the matter from a purely racial and biological stand-point, considering woman only as a bearer of children and through his directives to the SS, about which, admittedly, I had only heard rumours, tending to undermine morality and destroy the sanctity of marriage.
These are probably references to Lebensborn, an SS-initiated breeding program that sought to improve Germany’s racial purity through abduction, insemination, and selective abortion.
Himmler replied to my charges factually and at considerable length. He assured me that he shared my views entirely. His policy had been misrepresented and misinterpreted, either unintentionally or from deliberate malice. It was very important, he said, that these tendentious rumours should not get about, particularly at the present time.
The real problem, Himmler explains, are people who spread rumors. He ends the conversation by thanking Hanna for her outspokenness (which is hard not to read as “you’re toeing the line, so don’t step across it”), and asking her to report all subsequent rumors to him.
But the elite Nazis aren’t just manipulative, they’re also delusional. At a second meeting with Göring (not long after her crash), Hanna is shocked to learn that he believes the Messerschmitt Me 163 to be ready for mass production. She argues with him at length – the plane is a dangerous toy, more likely to kill its pilot than an enemy – but he refuses to allow reality to disturb his illusions. German might and German industry will prevail. A German failure ontologically doesn’t exist. Certain people remained in this state of mind until Berlin crashed down around them.
To be blunt, I was soon asking the “naive or liar” question about Hanna herself. In 1944, she receives an a document by a friend in Stockholm, alleging something (we’re not told what, but can guess) about “gas chambers” in Germany. She queries Himmler about this:
I telephoned Himmler, obtaining permission to visit him at his headquarters in the field. Arrived there, I placed the booklet before him.
“What do you say to this, Reichsführer?”
Himmler picked it up and flicked over the pages. Then, without change of expression, he looked up, eyeing me quietly:
“And you believe this, Frau Hanna?”
“No, of course not.”
Was Hanna telling the truth here? She knew about Lebensborn. Did she not know about the Holocaust? It seems hard to believe. She was an important figure in the Vergeltungswaffe rocket program, which relied on slave labor in camps such as Auschwitz. For her have no idea whatsoever by 1944 is…interesting.
Whatever the case, 1944 is very late in the game. Soon everyone would know.
With the end fast approaching, Hanna became increasingly land-bound, serving in an advisory role to Luftwaffe forces on retreat from Stalingrad. She was a brilliant flyer but had zero skills as a soldier, to the point where she asks a German soldier to help her distinguish German shellbursts from Russian ones. There’s a pervasive grimness to this part of the book. Cities are falling. Critical resource centers and railhubs are being lost. The Russians are pushing west with overwhelming force. Every possible factor is working against the Reich.
There was only one way Germany could have achieved victory: a technological miracle. This was the last hope, that at the eleventh hour some brave scientist would shatter an atom in an interesting way, invent anti-gravity propulsion, or summon Himmler’s Norse gods down from Valhalla to do battle against the Asiatic hordes. This was what Germany needed to win – a Wunder-wuffe, or miracle weapon.
Spoiler: the miracle never occurred. Germany was defeated, and although World War II ended with a mighty science-conjured explosion, it didn’t flash to Germany’s benefit.
Hanna Reitsch was one of the final people to see Adolf Hitler alive. After a harrowing late-night flight into Berlin through heavy Russian flak (the entire city was under siege, and nobody knew if there was even an intact runway left for a landing), she arrived at the Reich Chancellery along with fighter ace Robert Ritter von Greim and then descended to the Fuhrerbunker.
Greim reported on our journey, Hitler listening calmly and attentively. When he had finished, Hitler seized both Greim’s hands and then, turning to me: “Brave woman! So there is still some loyalty and courage left in the world !”
But Hitler didn’t need more loyalty and courage from his followers. It was their loyalty and courage that had brought him to this point. It’s no credit to fight an insane war, nor obey insane orders, and Hanna’s mild questioning of Göring’s miracle planes was a thousand time more useful to the war effort than the blind obedience Hitler demanded from his followers.
He was an utter madman by that point, reality blasted from his brain and leaving only the shifting sand of hope and memory. He was Fuhrer of a nation that existed largely inside his own imagination. He “rewards” Greim by appointing him chief of the German air force…but Germany no longer had an air force to command!
But his life’s final decision was eminently sane: and agreeable to both his supporters and enemies alike.
On our second day in the Bunker, 27th April, I was summoned to Hitler’s study. His face was now even paler, and had become flaccid and putty-coloured, like that of a dotard. He gave me two phials of poison so that, as he said, Greim and I should have at all times “freedom of choice.” Then he said that if the hope of the relief of Berlin by General Wenk was not realized, he and Eva Braun had freely decided that they would depart out of this life.
Hanna ended up not using the phial of poison. She escaped the Fuhrerbunker, and survived well into the 1970s. Her death is a source of mystery and speculation – did she commit suicide using the phial in the end? I’m not so sure. She spent some time in American detention, and they certainly would have taken any means of suicide away from her.
The older ones had been through the First World War, you could tell it from their faces and their scars. After doing their duty for years in the trenches, they had returned home to be insulted and spat upon and have the shoulder-straps torn by hooligans from their uniforms. It was no wonder that their experiences had made them very embittered. “. . . Just as if it was us who had been the trouble-makers,” they said, almost in self defence, “—as if it was a positive pleasure to stop a Lewis gun bullet. . .”
This reminds me of the (possibly exaggerated) stories of Vietnam veterens getting spat on at LAX. It’s a damned sight easier to support the troops when they’re victorious troops. Soldiers from a lost war are often regarded with pity and even suspicion, like broken toys.
This was to be German’s legacy in World War II. Defeat, ruin, national shame, division, and a rebuilding enabled by the erasure of the past. It’s understandable, if only in hindsight, why Hanna cared so much about flying. There wasn’t damned thing worth having on the ground.
The title of the book seems uncannily appropriate. Hanna’s realm was the sky: one that lasted longer than a thousand years.
And now there is silence, everywhere. Earth and sky seem wrapped in sleep. My glider-bird slumbers, too, gleaming softly against the stars. Beautiful bird, that out-flew the four winds, braved the tempest, shot heavenward, searching out the sky, — soaring higher, as I am soon to learn, than any glider-plane has ever flown before.
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Here’s a riddle:
“As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kitts.
Kitts, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?”
This riddle simultaneously tests the reader’s memory, multiplication, reading comprehension, and lateral thinking skills. It’s as old as the hills (which isn’t saying much since many hills were formed yesterday) and there are several apparently correct ways to solve it. And your idea of the correct answer tends to change the longer you think about it.
The classic answer is “one”. If the narrator met the others on the road, then they must have been going in the other direction, away from St Ives.
But wait: what if the narrator is on horseback, and the others are on foot? Then he could have easily overtaken them on the road.
And wait a little more: the wording is crafty. The man has seven wives; we’re not told that they’re on the road with him. Maybe they’re at home, fanning themselves in a couch while exclaiming “lack a day!” or whatever women in the 18th century did. Same for sacks, cats, and kitts. “With” is a preposition that can either mean “accompanied by” or “characterised by”, and its usage here is unclear.
And all the narrator knows is that these people are on the road to St Ives. They needn’t be going there: maybe they’ll stop halfway, have a picnic, and then go back home. I don’t think there’s anything worth seeing at St Ives.
Even as a straightforward multiplication problem, the riddle is confusing. Is the answer 2,802 (the geometric series of wives, sacks, cats, kitts, plus the narrator and the husband?). But surely the 49 sacks don’t add to the count – their only purpose is to store the cats and kitts – so the answer is 2,753. Except line six explicitly tells us to count the kitts, cats, sacks, and wives…but doesn’t say to include the narrator or the husband. So maybe it’s 2,800.
To summarise, the correct answer is 1, 9, 2802, 2753, 2800, 69, 420, 666, 1234567890, and many others besides, your choice of which depends on grammatical and syntactical ambiguities. Being able to calculate correctly is no use against such quicksand.
In IT, you hear the mocking analogy “steel door in a cardboard wall”. It describes a security system that tries to defend the indefensible. Here, mathematics is like a steel-framed bridge spanning two cliffs made of chalk. You can use a calculator to add up numbers. You can create a futuristic quantum D-wave supercomputer with no purpose except to add up numbers. It won’t help.
There’s no way to know how many people were going to St Ives, because the answer rests not on mathematics but on the English language.
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Caricatures – and minimalistic art – are compelling arguments for the existence of magic. Start with a blank page, add a line, add another line, add a third line, and a bird explodes into life, convulsing the page with movement.
You may have seen Scott McCloud’s explanation of how comics work: they’re a subtractive art that works by stripping away details and forcing the viewer’s mind to fill the empty holes. Art is a heavy stone, and either the artist or the audience can carry it. For realistic art, the artist has done all the heavy lifting. David Ligare’s Naxos (Thrown Drapery) requires little reconstructive work for the audience: everything he wanted to say is there on canvas. But for a caricature, the “real” picture exists in the viewer’s mind: and the drawing is a series of keys and ciphers recalling it to memory.
That makes the magic even cooler, though. Because you performed the trick of making the bird looked real. Your mind contained the blaze: all the artist did was light a match. It also implies the possibility of failure: a person who has never seen a bird would never know what it looks like based on a three line sketch. A caricature is worth a thousand words…but you have to write the thousand words yourself.
This also explains how (successful) caricatures are frequently so different to each other. They rely on cached images in the viewer’s brain, and two people might have different caches. As an example: Ben Garrison is a political cartoonist who supports Donald Trump. He has often been noted for his flattering depictions of Trump’s physique.
I would call this a caricature of Trump. Garrison has identified certain qualities (Trump’s height and powerful build) and created an image his audience will instantly recognise.
Anti-Trump cartoonists draw him differently: a grossly obese pile of half-melted wax perpetually throwing a tantrum (art by Damien Glez, reproduced here for educational purposes):
Again, an unrealistic pastiche of traits, but you can easily recognize the figure being depicted. People are made of different, sometimes contradictory elements (Trump is tall and muscular but also somehow fat and shapeless) and a cartoonist can choose which traits to emphasise or ignore.
(I’ve noticed a lot of people laughing at Garrison’s depictions of Trump, but nobody laughing at Glez’s. Maybe this is for tribal reasons, but some of us also seem uncomfortable with cartoons that improve reality instead of mocking and defacing it).
But caricatures have a dark side. They are unreliable. They can reify lies or misconceptions. A cartoon short man wearing a bicorn hat will instantly be identified as “Napoleon” even though the real Napoleon wasn’t short. And even if Trump starts cycling steroids and pumping weights to become the muscular ubermensch of Ben Garrison’s nocturnal dreams, left-wing cartoonists will still draw him as a fat manbaby.
* * *
It seems to me that history is a caricature. And the longer the given period of history, the more extreme the caricatures become.
Nobody’s ever written a complete biography of a person. It would be unreadable. Nobody wants to hear about the shit Arthur Schopenhauer took on Monday 21 May 1810, at 3:31pm. Nobody even knows these things to begin with.
Biographers – even honest ones – curate what they need from their subject, slicing out sections with the care of a florist taking a graft from a plant. Their choice is driven by the same factors as Garrison and Glez’s – personal taste, propaganda, and (overwhelmingly) availability bias. Biographers can’t write about what they don’t know about. We portrayed dinosaurs as huge lizards for decades, not because of malicious conspiracy, but because the feathers didn’t survive fossilization.
According to some people, biographical flexibility is a feature, not a bug. Some of history’s most famous and heavily emulated heroes – Jesus Christ, Siddh?rtha Gautama, – have an element of interpretability. They’re like blank canvasses. Or half-drawn birds. Their words are open to translation, their private thoughts unknown and inscrutable. Traditionalists, radicals, kings, and paupers all see themselves reflected in these figures. People love them for the same reason they love getting a blank tile in the game of Scrabble – you can make it say whatever you want.
Some of pop culture’s thorniest debates (what would Martin Luther King Jr have really thought about black people rioting in 2020?) touch on this anxiety. How is it that one man is being split into two or three or more by his biographers? Which is the real one? Is this not an insult to his memory? Does he even have a memory to be insulted? Does he even exist except as a puppet to be manipulated by his followers?
According to the Church of Scientology, founder L Ron Hubbard is “much-decorated war hero who commanded a corvette and during hostilities was crippled and wounded”. Other biographies regard him a different way. Competing caricatures. I think the internet’s current conception of him as a worthless con artist misleading as well: he could also be a brilliant author. There’s a battle happening between caricatures, with the real L Ron Hubbard (if he can even be reconstructed) gradually getting trampled.
History contains wars. History also is a war. WWII ended almost eighty years ago now, but the iconomachy of competing images – Winston Churchill, saint or sinner? – continues.
* * *
H. P. Lovecraft was a New England fantasist whose big idea was to de-emphasise the human experience. The earth isn’t the center of the universe, and the human mind isn’t the center of all possible mind-spaces. This seems obvious now, but wasn’t in the 1920s. In the average science fiction (or scientifiction) story from this period, aliens from distant worlds are portrayed as people. There’s always the scene where the bug-eyed monster lusts after our women: human males like attractive girls, so aliens will as well.
But in Lovecraft’s work, the cosmos has no pivot, core, or central reference point. Aliens aren’t failed humans. Humans aren’t failed aliens. Us and the Other are orthogonal to each other, beyond comparison. We occupy a certain niche, and in another niche, another sentient lifeform might exist. We would each regard the other as being unthinkable, horrific, and perhaps not even alive.
Lovecraft was shy and afraid of disease. He was also a bigot, even by the standards of his day. This may have been informed by his philosophy: if humanity exists in a tiny margin of sense and order, any attempts to leave that niche will probably corrupt everything (he married a Jewish woman, of course). If he’d lived a century later, he’d be one of those “online thought leaders” with ten thousand Youtube videos who never showers or leaves the house.
For years, Lovecraft’s status within the fantasy and horror community was such that the World Fantasy Award was commemorated by a bust in his image. Eventually, Lovecraft’s racism cast a shadow over his work, and the bust became controversial.
Anyway, a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color). I’m conflicted.
This is 2011 WFA winner Nnedi Okorafor’s summation of HP Lovecraft: a racist man. Nothing else about him matters. She alludes to his skill as a writer only once, and it’s only as an adjective to racist.
I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist.
But are people honoring the talent, or honoring the racism? It’s fully accurate to state that Lovecraft was bigoted against blacks. What is, perhaps, inaccurate, is that this needs to be the dominant memory of his legacy, ahead of his literary talent or influence. Her blog post is restrained, the comments section less so.
These old ways are dying i say throw the little fucker’s malignant image into the dust bin of history. Good riddence to bad rubbish.
Yes, Lovecraft’s racism was part of his character and I don’t want people to stop discussing that. But there’s the opposite extreme of viewing historical figures solely as cultural footballs. Team Racism does not win if Lovecraft’s face is on the WFA prize. A statue dedicated to HP Lovecraft is not a statue dedicated to racism. It remains a statue of HP Lovecraft: who was a complex and troubled person irreducible to politicized buzzwords.
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In 1484, a man called Christopher Columbus resolved to sail westward from Spain to the Indies across the Atlantic Ocean. But there was a problem: it was impossible.
Obviously, America is in the way. But even in theory, sailing to the Indies wouldn’t work. According Eratosthenes the world is 40,000km around, and Japan’s coast is approximately 20,000 kilometers from the Canary Islands. A 15th century ship couldn’t have made that kind of journey.
But Columbus had salesmanship, so he shopped around for smaller estimates of the Earth’s size. He finally settled on an estimate of 29,000km. He furthermore insisted that the landmass of Eurasia took up about six sevenths of the earth’s circumference, leaving only one seventh of the circumference covered in the Atlantic. As a result, he calculated a voyage that was many thousands of kilometers shorter than it actually would have been. The Spanish monarchs were dumb enough to finance it.
Deception, math errors, stupidity…but it led to the great success of the century, perhaps the millennia. The colonization of the new world.
For years, the caricature of Columbus as a brave explorer dominated. But as with Lovecraft, other caricatures have since come to replace it. It appears that Columbus vastly mismanaged his early New World colony. Allegations of tyranny and brutality soon grew to the point where he was arrested and imprisoned upon his return to Spain from the third voyage. “He was a man of his time” isn’t much of an excuse. He wasn’t a man of his time. The other men of his time put him behind bars.
Columbus Day is now a holiday celebrated in the United States. It has also become politically controversial, as the unpleasant connotations of Columbus’s name grow larger in the public’s mind.
For some people, Columbus means “brave explorer”. For others, it’s “tyrant”. A day with Columbus’s name is either symbolic of the first or the second – it can have no other connotations. And as with Garrison and Glez’s radically different visions of Trump, neither side is really correct or incorrect. The concept of Columbus somehow instantiates both ideas, although not among the same people at the same time.
I assume one of the two narratives will finally crush the other some day. Probably the politically correct one. Columbus, Ohio will have to change it’s name, or exist as a flagrant reminder of colonialist brutality. The 2355 people surnamed “Columbus” in the United States will probably seem as socially ridiculous as the handful of people still surnamed “Hitler”. It should be impossible for one person to insist that their distorted reality is the true one, but in practice it happens all the time. Even Ben Garrison would probably start drawing Trump has morbidly obese if he had a gun held to his head.
Trump, who is eminently still alive, largely exists as a word-cloud associative symbolism matrix (tall + fat + weird hair + orange skin + (…)). Political cartoonists grab whatever keywords they need to describe him, and as the years condemn, they’ll soon grab fewer and easier words. Trump will simplify. Flatten. He’ll lose dimension. He’ll break free from reality, the words absorbing his essence.
The problem with history is that it keeps getting longer, which means everyone inside it gets smaller, and simpler.
Earlier, I said that Napoleon wasn’t short, and he wasn’t. But the day might come when he’s historically short: when so many new events and faces are crowding the books that he’s crushed away to almost nothing. In ten thousand years, his final protean nub of biography will be something like “SHORT. FUNNY HAT.”
In the Hindi language there is a word called ???, Jhootha, which literally means “food partially eaten by someone”. All of history is Jhootha, masticated stickily in someone’s mouth and then spat in a chewed-up lump into your mind. There’s bite marks all over your conception of Donald Trump. Saliva is dripping from your mental cache of HP Lovecraft and Christopher Columbus. Jhootha has a second meaning, by the way: Liar.
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In the world of Star Trek there’s an impossible game that you win by refusing to play. Aside from getting a good performance out of Marina Sirtis.
There are things like that in our world too: ambiguous scenarios where “winning” is as imponderably subjective as Charlie Sheen’s sexuality. Years ago, researchers conducted a study where first-graders were given an unsolvable math problem. American first-graders abandoned the problem after thirty seconds. Japanese first-graders worked on it for an entire hour until stopped by the testers.
This is sometimes cited as a story of how American children lack willpower and need instant gratification and blah blah smartphones. Is it, though? The problem was unsolvable. Putting any amount of effort into it is a waste of time. Maybe this is a story about how American children are better at questioning authority.
Or consider the Marshmallow test. You offer a child a choice: one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows if he sits patiently for twenty minutes. Apparently, children who choose to wait go on to have positive life outcomes like lower crime rates and higher SAT scores and the ability to plug USB drives in correctly first try.
But what if this is the tail wagging the dog? Disadvantaged children often come from homes where adults are untrustworthy and lie to them. They might think “I don’t know if you have marshmallows and I don’t want to waste 15 minutes finding out. I’m calling your bluff right now.” The causation might be wrong: poor impulse control doesn’t cause poverty; poverty causes mistrust for adults.
Or what if children don’t care about marshmallows? Or what if they’d be just as satisfied with one marshmallow as with two and want to get on with their day? It’s actually pretty unclear what lesson we can take from this about the psychology of children.
I’m reminded of those “experiments” where you walk up to a person in a mall and offer them $100 today or $102 tomorrow. Nearly everyone takes the $100, even though an interest rate of 2% a day is amazing. Wow, people are stupid. Unlike you and I, who are smart.
…But wait, you also have to price in possibilities such as
- The experimenter is a con artist
- You won’t be able to find the guy tomorrow and collect your $102
- You can’t get off work tomorrow
- You’ll get in a car crash tomorrow
- Society will have collapsed by tomorrow
This is the flaw in both the experiment and Marxist-derived economics – not all money is equal. We’re not making an apples-to-apples comparison of $100 vs $102. We’re comparing a solid $100 in your hand right now vs a rubbery, nebulous, sorta-maybe $102 tomorrow that you might never even get. Actual money is vastly more valuable than hypothetical future money, and the person who chooses the $100 is making the correct choice.
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This song and a case of amoebic dysentery made me throw up. “Ignition (Remix)” is disgusting, foul, and amoral. The fact that people – even now – are listening to this repellently evil track makes me regret the discovery of ears. I’d rather hear the “ignition” of an Auschwitz death camp oven.
What’s the problem with “Ignition (Remix)” you might ask? Do you even want to go there?
Well, I’m not going to tiptoe around the issue. I’ll give it to you straight. We can’t avoid the elephant in the room.
It’s the lyrics:
So baby gimme that toot toot
Lemme give you that beep beep
Runnin’ her hands through my ‘fro
Bouncin’ on twenny-fo’s
While they sayin’ on the radio
R Kelly says “runnin’ her hands through my fro'”. Impossible. He doesn’t have a ‘fro. He has never had a ‘fro. His hair is styled in cornrow braids.
In the song’s music video he actually strokes his un’fro’d hair as he says the line. Like a true sociopath, R Kelly flaunts his crimes in front of your eyes. The director should have ended the shoot (and his life), demonically possessed the raw footage in the Arriflex, and started a career as one of those ghosts that kills you seven days after you watch the tape.
“Runnin’ her hands through my ‘fro?” She may as well have been running her hands through R Kelly’s sense of moral decency, because he possesses neither.
The worst part? It’s unnecessary. He could have said “Runnin’ her hands through my rows”. It would have scanned perfectly, and slant-rhymed with “twenny-fo’s” and “radio”. This sort of revolting deception should end careers. After reading R Kelly’s Wikipedia page, it seems he committed shameful acts after this song’s release, too.
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Rotten.com was a website that collected pictures of dead people. As old as the internet itself, it survived lawsuits, DDOS attacks, and being featured on the Howard Stern show. In 2017, it finally went offline. The website that harvested death became death. If it was a human body, it would have decayed to bones by now.
Imagine a website, Botten.com, that collects pictures of dead websites. It wouldn’t be exciting: just screenshots of 404 and ERR_NAME_NOT_RESOLVED messages. Dead people rot; dead websites cease to exist. At least it’s not the other way around. I’m glad my body will hang around as an annoying smelly mass instead of vanishing peacefully into the ether. No matter how unloved and ignored I was in life, someday it’ll end, and then someone – if only the county medical examiner – will pay attention to me.
Rotten.com had a FAQ page, and one of the questions was “are they real”? They, meaning the pictures. As if car crash victims are like freakish Bigfoot sightings instead of something that could happen to any of us this afternoon.
The webmaster’s reply was stark. “Pictures of this nature aren’t particularly rare; they are merely hidden from the public in most cases.”
Hidden by whom? Traditionally, the media and the government stopped you from seeing upsetting photos. It used to be easy (and common) for a state actor to control and prohibit the release of a photograph, and there are photos that we know exist and which we’ll never see. Diana, Princess of Wales, shattered like a bisque doll against the asphalt of a Parisian tunnel. Rudolf Hess, post mortem after what was either suicide or extrajudicial execution by MI6 agents at Spandau Prison. Photos can die, but they can also be imprisoned and serve life sentences.
In 2020, social media is the primary way people view images, and the volume of digital data overwhelms traditional state censorship. 95 million photos are shared on Instagram every minute. Far more than anyone wants to look at. When you scroll a feed, you’re rolling the dice that the next picture won’t be of an amputated penis.
Hiding atrocities now falls to contractors for Facebook and Twitter, typically located in the Philippines or India. These business process outsourcing (BPO) companies provide human content moderation at scale for large companies. They’re the thin brown line separating Facebook from 4chan. Scrolling social media all day might not seem like an especially demanding job, but apparently the job causes psychological problems.
“The despair and darkness of people will get to you”
In his first few weeks on the job, Rahul felt shocked by the graphic videos he encountered of car crashes and child abuse. Eventually, he grew desensitized.
“It gets to a point where you can eat your lunch while watching a video of someone dying. … But at the end of the day, you still have to be human.” Rahul said he didn’t see a therapist — it wouldn’t have been useful to him, he said.
…it was a graphic video of a child being abused that stuck with him. After seeing the video, he began to notice a change in his own behavior that worried him. “I am not a bad person,” he told Rest of World. “But I’d find myself doing little diabolical things, saying things I would regret. Thinking things I didn’t want to.”
This reminds me of a six year old article from Wired, outlining the same problem.
Eight years after the fact, Jake Swearingen can still recall the video that made him quit. He was 24 years old and between jobs in the Bay Area when he got a gig as a moderator for a then-new startup called VideoEgg. Three days in, a video of an apparent beheading came across his queue.
“Oh fuck! I’ve got a beheading!” he blurted out. A slightly older colleague in a black hoodie casually turned around in his chair. “Oh,” he said, “which one?” At that moment Swearingen decided he did not want to become a connoisseur of beheading videos. “I didn’t want to look back and say I became so blasé to watching people have these really horrible things happen to them that I’m ironic or jokey about it,” says Swearingen, now the social media editor at Atlantic Media. (Swearingen was also an intern at WIRED in 2007.)w of humanity.”
Some content moderators end up traumatized by their experiences, and some are now suing the the companies they used to work for. Others (like Swearingen) have the opposite problem: they’re not traumatized. Quite the reverse: looking at horrible things is becoming far too comfortable for them.
Is there a solution?
Some people enjoy seeing this content. Or are stimulated in some way by it. Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not newspaper column documented the bizarre and unfortunate, and became an American institution. Rotten.com got millions of clicks a month in 1997. In recent years, subreddits like /r/watchpeopledie have replaced them. Whether this is normal or not is up for debate: it’s conceivably useful.
Someone on Hackernews had the idea of outsourcing content moderation to /r/watchpeopledie.
It’s kind of brilliant. There’s clear lines of supply (disturbing pictures + people who like looking at them) and demand (content moderation + boredom alleviation) on both sides. People would do this job for free, or for MTurk-level wages.
I can think of only two problems with this idea
1) Everyone has different triggers. Perhaps I enjoy beheading videos, but am upset about animal abuse. A /r/watchpeopledie user can selectively avoid links containing disturbing content, whereas a content moderator has to view everything.
2) Doing something recreationally doesn’t mean you’ll succeed with it as a job. Game development studio Ion Storm hired level designers who had created mods for Doom and Quake, on the theory that the skill would translate to the work environment. Often, it didn’t. Doing something for fun is a radically different vibe, because you have agency and can choose the shape of your task. At work, the task’s shape is imposed on you by management. It’s not the activity that’s fun, it’s the freedom.
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Zardip is a robot alien whose body keeps breaking down. He has come to our planet in human form to learn about dieting, nutrition, and exercise, and other things that would be useless for a robot.
The show’s concept shines through like a radioactive skeleton: “Mork and Mindy, but educational”. A typical episode features Zardip interacting with his new human friends, misunderstanding some heath concept in an amusing way, and being corrected. All the usual cliches make an appearance. Is there a rap song about the importance of health? Does air contain air?
I love the show’s title more than I love my family. It simultaneously manages to be clunky, overlong, grammatically challenged, redundant (is there such a thing as “unhealthy wellness”?), and if that’s not enough, it contains the word “Zardip”. Some TV guides didn’t even print the full title, shortening it to Zardip’s Search.
Zardip’s Search For Blah Blah is live action and mostly shot on the same 2-3 sets. To break things up there’s cutaway scenes featuring 2D animation, claymation, and even a few seconds of CGI (which must have cost a fortune in 1988), giving it the air of a variety show. It provides basic medical information mixed with dubious factoids – it repeats the “43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile” urban legend, for example. The end credits thank a “Dr Robin Williams”, which feels like a joke.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Canadian broadcasting achieved a striking international presence, particularly in the British Commonwealth. As an Australian boy I saw damned near everything Nelvana and Atkinson’s Film Art ever made, or so it seemed. The historical reasons elude me. Perhaps the syndication rights were cheaper? In any case, Zardip’s Search For Schnorp doesn’t belong in a class with Babar and Caillou. Briefly syndicated, achieving no lasting fame or notoriety; it’s one of hundreds of shows that once existed and then abruptly didn’t.
Wikipedia questionably asserts that “the show has a cult following among Canadians who attended grade school in the late 1980s and early 1990s”. This cult must have overdosed on zero sugar Kool-Aid and died from excess Healthy Wellness(tm), because I can’t find them online. The IMDB entry for Zardip’s Search For Arglebargle has just seventeen ratings (averaging 7.8/10, higher than the last Quentin Tarantino film) and only two reviews. A VHS transfer exists on Youtube with about two thousand views per episode. It likely won’t come to Netflix tomorrow (or, for that matter, the day after).
Zardip is played by a striking child actor called Keram Malicki-Sanchez. He turns in a powerful performance, reminding me of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. What happened to him? I Googled his name, praying that Zardip’s Search For A Printable Title wouldn’t be among the top results. It was. RIP.
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At age nine, anything seemed cool if it was rumored to contain swear words. I lived in awe of the Rapper Who Swears (Eminem), the Videogame That Swears (Grand Theft Auto 3), the Books That Swear (Tom Clancy’s), and particularly the Cartoon That Swears (South Park).
When I finally saw the South Park in adulthood, I was surprised. The Cartoon That Swears turned out to be an intelligent and funny show with a lot to say and a finger close to the pulse. But I never really liked the show’s cultural commentary. It always had a strained quality, with Trey Parker and Matt Stone struggling so hard to be both funny and profound that you could see sweat dripping from the storyboards. I preferred the episodes that took a lighter touch and had the kids just goofing around.
The duo’s 2004 film Team America: World Police has similar strengths and weaknesses. Lots of jokes land, but many others don’t, and there’s a clear reason why.
It’s about Team America, a covert spec-ops force who (in the opening scenes) blows up the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Arc de Triomphe while attempting to stop a terrorist attack in Paris. One of their members dies in the fiasco, and his replacement is Gary, a Broadway actor. With Kim Jong Il and terrorists from Durkadurkastan threatening to commit “9/11 times 2,356”, they need Gary’s acting skills to infiltrate a terrorist cell.
Straight away, there’s a horrible miscalculation: puppets. Nobody likes puppets, or wants to see puppets. They’re creepy. The nightmare fuel is at relatively low levels during dialog scenes, but whenever a puppet moves or does something the odd stiffness is all you can focus on. It would have been better as CG, or South Park style cutouts, or live action. Anything except puppets.
But TA:WP‘s big problem is that the geopolitical satire elements just don’t work. Who are we laughing at? And at whose expense? There’s a saying that comedy should punch up, not down (in other words, make jokes about deserving targets). I don’t agree: often it’s unclear who the “deserving” target is in a given joke and reducing comedy to a form of cultural warfare is gauche, to say the least. But Team America doesn’t punch up or down. It punches the air. And itself.
An example: the first scene involves Team America destroying half of Paris. “Okay,” I thought, “it’s mocking gung-ho American aggression.” But soon things get muddled: the terrorists actually pose a credible threat to global stability, and Team America’s methods are both necessary and successful in fighting them. The film basically chops away its own knees: creating straw men and then valorizing them.
And (as Roger Ebert mentioned at the time) it’s striking that the White House is spared as a target. Team America operates on their own, without supervision (it’s mentioned that it’s sponsored by corporations, a shot at Halliburton that goes nowhere). The implication seems to be that if a military operation ends in disaster or tragedy, it’s the fault of a few loose cannons on the ground. Nobody higher up should be blamed or held to account. Is that what they’re saying? I don’t know. What are they saying?
To be clear, I don’t care that the film is apolitical, nor do I want it to be full of Bush jokes (nothing was more hack in 2004) But when you make a movie about a complex geopolitical situation, you should have more to say than “everyone is a retarded fag, plus the military is cool”. It’s a rough bit to laugh at.
But I insulteth the film too much. A lot of it is really funny. There’s one gag as hilarious as anything I’ve seen recently, and it has nothing to do with politics. As Gary gets briefed at the top-secret Team America base, he’s told that if he’s taken prisoner he’ll want to take his own life using a special tool. You’re expecting a high-tech gadget…but Spottswood hands him a hammer. A fucking claw hammer.
There’s plenty of jabs taken at the messiah complex of certain actors. The funniest Simpsons episodes are the ones that riff off the cartooning industry, and Parker & Stone are likewise in their element when writing about showbiz. They’ve never been afraid to shit where they eat. They famously attended the 2000 Oscars dressed in drag and high on LSD, which might explain why they don’t generally get invited to nice occasions like that.
Even the Thunderbirds-esque puppets sometimes work as a source of “anti-comedy” (think Tim and Eric). There’s a moment where Gary is riding a motorbike, collides with the camera, and awkwardly flips over. It’s so jarring and dumb that it gets a laugh. I’m pretty sure that this was an actual accident left in the film.
This is the sort of film where you find enjoyment in the decoration – the occasional bit of inspired craft or filmmaking, the funny one-liners, the songs – rather than the substance. TA:WP is like scaffolding that stays up while the building at the center collapses. The satirical core of the film – which should have been its strong element – ends up just being a gaping black hole.