The Merits of Having a Garden

One of the things I got back when I returned to the house was my garden. When I lived in the post-divorce apartment, I was above it all. I had a front porch, but no real contact with the soil. It was fine.

My current office (a corner of the dining room) overlooks the back yard. The bushes and trees were much overgrown when I returned and many of the perennials gone. I won't prune much until next year, since winter is on its way, though I am taking some of the bamboo back. I do get to feed the fish in the small pool every day. Nothing exotic, just thirty-nine cent goldfish that have grown surprisingly large. I can't really tell them from koi anyway, because I'm a total heathen.

But I go out every day and walk around and check things out, think about what I want to do next spring. Most of the butterfly garden is gone. Some years ago I had a neighbor whose back yard abutted on the yard of our triple decker. I was just starting to garden then, and Sinclair's garden was quite impressive. And every day she would get home from her job at MIT, and would walk around it with a drink and a cigarette, considering its many details. She really looked at it.

 From my desk, again

From my desk, again

So I try to channel her, and really feel what the garden is, and what might be changed. Sinclair would readily move plants, just to see if things could be improved. She gave me much advice across the back fence, and she was one of my favorite neighbors of all time.

My next door neighbor Lisa is a gardener too, as well as another writer, so I do have another compatriot.

There is not much to be done to it now, so I am not tempted away from my desk. But I do enjoy going out to look at it, while thinking about something. I almost called this post "the perils of having a garden". But that's really wrong. Writing feels more like growing things than building things, and the problems of rearranging things, only to find that a plot point or character does not like its new surroundings, has similarities to managing a garden as well.

But writers are prone to elaborate metaphors, so I'll stop there. Still, taking care of something that will only gradually become something, is the perfect pace to relax the mind from the frustrations of making stuff up. For now, I'll chalk that up as a time benefit. Next spring, I may have a different report for you.

Essential Writer Skill: Drinking Cheap

I like a good cocktail. So I also like a good cocktail podcast. Particularly a cocktail podcast that helps me save money while still enjoying myself.

The Daily Beast's Life Behind Bars is maybe a bit looser than I typically like my podcasts. A lot of people seem to like listening to hours and hours of people sitting around chatting. I don't particularly like chit chat or banter unless I am actually participating in it, and prefer for podcasts to be severely edited before I let them in my ears. Don't waste my time, or I'll listen to you at 1.5x or even faster.

That said, Noah Rothbaum and David Wondrich are entertaining enough, and have a great deal of information to impart. Of course, a lot of cocktail discussion seems to be about who invented what, what the original recipe was, and other such matters that seem to be a topic solely to have something to argue about.

Episode 13 was about the Manhattan, probably my favorite cocktail. In the course of this episode, David Wondrich told a story about a test he once gave some bartenders. They were given Sidecars to taste. One was made with the original, high quality ingredients: Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. One was made with California brandy, triple sec, and lemon juice.

 The robot is flabbergasted by this new intruder on the desktop

The robot is flabbergasted by this new intruder on the desktop

David tasted them also, and had to admit that it was almost impossible to tell the difference. I felt a moment of revelation. I like a good Sidecar, but the standard ingredients are a bit expensive for me to justify. But after this I ran out and got some E&J brandy. My home orange liqueur is Luxardo Triplum, so not a bottom level triple sec, but certainly not Cointreau.

This is a great Sidecar! Basic ingredients are pretty good these days. Fresh citrus juice is really the defining feature of any drink where it's an ingredient. Squeeze it right before you make your cocktail and you're golden.

There are a number of different ratios you can find for a Sidecar. I don't like remembering a lot, so I do two parts brandy, one part triple sec, one part lemon juice. I don't put sugar around the rim, though I might if I serve it to someone else. You might bump up the triple sec if you want it a bit sweeter.

I got a lot done today, and also sent a story off to my writing workshop for our next meeting, so I justified one, even though it's pretty late in the evening as I write this. Save your fancy Cognac or Armagnac for a snifter, squeeze a lemon, grab some basic brandy and triple sec, shake it up, and enjoy yourself.

You're welcome.

Do you have a favorite cocktail?

It says less about you than people like to think, but it is something to consider.

Normal is the Rarest Thing: Eighth Grade

Kids and teens in movies tend to be verbal, clever, quick, culturally aware, and sassy. To use the inevitable cliche, "wise beyond their years". They observe the events around themselves mordantly, understanding the hidden motivations of those they have to deal with. They might be, often are, horrifically oppressed by those who are dumber and less worthy than them, but who have a temporary ascendancy through circumstances, age, or legal authority. Eventually these clever kids manage to figure out a way out of their seemingly impossible situation, all while making pertinent and well-constructed observations.

Eighth Grade is nothing like that.

Life as it is lived

Kayla, the main character of the movie, is, well, normal. She is smart, but not that smart. She tries to be articulate, but talks like teens normally do, with lots of spacers words, like "like", hesitations, wanderings, assertions immediately softened, and sentences that end somewhere completely different than where they started. She is more potential than actual.

 Kayla uses highly social media

Kayla uses highly social media

She wants pretty much what everyone else wants. She wants to look better than she does—the actress, Elsie Fisher, had a significant case of acne, which apparently had made her hard to cast in other roles. It was real life adolescent skin. In one clever moment, Kayla spends quite a bit of time in the morning putting on concealer while watching a YouTube video. Then she gets back into bed and takes a picture of herself, affecting to be dismayed at how she looks right out of bed.

She has her own, barely watched, YouTube channel, where she gives others the life advice she herself has so much trouble following.

When real life situations get difficult, she genuinely does not know what to do. At one point a boy, older than her, tries to take advantage of her vulnerability, and when she resists, gets all pouty, and they both implicitly agree that it is all her fault. It's a brilliantly paced and excruciating scene, and the fact that what happened will never be seen or resolved is part of its power. It's not a tragedy, just the kind of thing that happens.

Is this really a movie?

Movies are a realistic medium, but often bootleg in theatrical techniques when they want to juice things up. Eighth Grade has the courage of its convictions. The incidents are small, the people involved flawed, the connections fleeting or missed. Kayla's father loves her, though she finds him just as exasperating as any thirteen year old finds their parent. Having been a befuddled dad myself, I am totally sympathetic with his position.

Everyone is on screens, but the movie has no "position" on this. It is neither good nor bad, it is just the way these people live, the water they swim in. That observational position is perhaps the bravest choice of all. The kids are just kids, as clueless or mean or loving as they always were, just in a new idiom. There is no deep tragedy here, either personal or societal.

It also helped that it didn't have any actors in it that I recognized.

Should you see it?

I'd say definitely. My date, who has a child that age, was very moved by it. I didn't cry myself, but I'm tough that way.

When you see the movie, let me know what you thought.

Cratons and Rift Valleys: the Bobbing Cork of the Colorado Plateau

Last week, I wrote about how little I actually know about geology. But, still, I am resolved to understand something about where my beloved Colorado Plateau came from.

Here is what I have puzzled out.

The Colorado Plateau is a big chunk of craton (a great word I originally learned from John McPhee...whom I will get to in due time). Craton is defined as crust that hasn't been affected by mountain building for at least a billion years—and you thought your home town had nothing going on. Cratons can either be shields, where old metamorphic and igneous rocks are on the surface (the Canadian Shield, for example), and cratonic platforms, where there are sedimentary rocks piled up on top of the thick ancient rock.

The Colorado Platform is a roughly circular chunk of cratonic platform, surrounded by mountains. Its thick basement rock is covered with many layers of sedimentary rock. And it has rotated a bit clockwise, which has opened up a rift valley to its east, the Rio Grande Rift, through which the river of the same name now flows.

About 17 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau kind of bobbed up, causing a big increase in erosion. Snow fell on its higher elevations, increasing the amount of water flowing in a dry environment.

 Yeah, I should show you a map of where it is—try to ignore the fact that the mapmaker didn’t know how to spell “plateau”

Yeah, I should show you a map of where it is—try to ignore the fact that the mapmaker didn’t know how to spell “plateau”

A lot of other stuff happened over that time, of course, from hot spots that punched mountains through the cratonic crust to salt valleys. And what caused the plateau to rise up like that is a subject of some debate. In the future I'll get to a popular possible cause, involving a disappearing tectonic plate, which resulted in, among other things, the anomalous position of the Rocky Mountains (no, I did not realize their position was anomalous either).

Different languages, different approaches

None of the geology books I own about the specific geology of the Colorado Plateau ever use the word "craton", or ever bother to explain, in basic terms, what makes the Colorado Plateau the Colorado Plateau. They mostly give a quick overview of rock types, geologic processes, and geologic time, and then launch into insanely detailed descriptions of the origins of Navaho Sandstone and the Ali Baba Member of the Moenkopi Formation. That's fine, I guess, but it never got to what I wanted to know, which was what was different about this place.

If they'd just said "it's kind of like a raft of ancient rock, separate from the Basin and Range and mountain areas around it, a raft covered with layers and layers of sedimentary rock, which got pushed up and started to erode much more quickly", I'd have had an image to hold on to, a way of organizing my thinking.

But don't rely on me

But I'm not expert. And, as I said before, geologists either seem to write about the Colorado Plateau, or everything but the Colorado Plateau. John McPhee, in his many books about geology over the decades, collected a couple of decades ago into the omnibus Annals of the Former World, mentions it only once, while discussing something else. A lovely book called Rough-Hewn Land, by Keith Heyer Meldahl, is subtitled "A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains" and taught me a lot, but deftly dodges around the Colorado Plateau in its eastward journey in an almost perverse way.

By that point I was taking this kind of personally. Sometimes it would appear on a map, but not be mentioned in the text. Sometimes it would lurk just off the edge of the map. There was almost a feeling to trauma to the whole thing, as if something so horrific had happened there that no geologist could manage to even remember having learned about the place.

My Essentials of Geology by Stephen Marshak, a book I have found quite useful, actually does mention the Plateau, and points out its cratonic nature in a map of the cratons of North America. But it too does not spend much time on it.

So a lot of what I have here I've kind of pieced together. The Colorado Plateau is a raft, or a cork (I like that because it's roughly circular), a block of rock of long standing, which has been a single unit for a really long time, has gotten covered with sedimentary rock and partly eroded quite a few times, but only in recent eras has floated up so high that it has eroded in a way that makes it so cool to visit.

I'll get into more detail on that when I get a chance.

So what gives?

What happened among those geologists? Was there really some terrible disaster that left most geologists denying that there even is such a place, while sunburned, dust-spitting characters in worn boots stumble out of the dry wilderness with improbable tales of the De Chelly erg and the Dewey Bridge Member while never really getting clear about where they have been? Do these two groups talk, or do they carefully never acknowledge each others' existences?

There is a story here, of course. If necessary, I'll make it up.

What Happened to My Office?

 Doesn't look too bad, does it?

Doesn't look too bad, does it?

As I mentioned last week, I've moved back into my house from my post-divorce apartment. My former wife has moved out to what sounds like a nice apartment nearby, easy for the kids to move between.

 Context helps. Of course, a lot of that stuff is temporary

Context helps. Of course, a lot of that stuff is temporary

But what I did lose my nice small office, on an enclosed porch with lots of windows. Last time I was in this house, the kids were younger, and I worked diligently in a basement office. I was down there for years, but never really liked it.

 A bit bedraggled, but every writer needs a garden to take care of

A bit bedraggled, but every writer needs a garden to take care of

So I'm not moving back down there, not right now anyway. Instead, I have set up in the dining room. It's kind of exposed, but then, only my son is currently here, and his schedule is such that he is not usually hanging around here.

The consolation is a nice view of the garden from my seat. Yes, it's kind of bedraggled. It's a fair amount of work to maintain a garden, and no one else in the house was up for it.

So, for now, that's where I am. Let's all keep an eye on my productivity, and we'll see how I do.

Where do you prefer your office?

Or do you even need one?

Geology: the Missing Science

Doesn't that sound like the title of one of those ancient textbooks you could find in the back stacks of school libraries? Still, as far as science fiction goes, geology does not have a big role.

I did not grow up studying, or at all interested in geology. It helps that I grew up in Illinois, where all is glacial till, and bedrock only emerges at odd locations, like Starved Rock State Park, a favorite place to visit and climb around in my childhood. You are no longer allowed to climb around there, but we used to do incredibly dangerous things. That's what geology is for. And then I moved from one glacial landscape to another, New England, all drumlins and the traces of glacial lakes. There are a lot more things you can fall off of out here, though, so that was some progress.

 Fun fact: if you Google "geology", pretty much all the top images are of the Colorado Plateau

Fun fact: if you Google "geology", pretty much all the top images are of the Colorado Plateau

I only developed an interest in geology when I started spending a lot of time on the Colorado Plateau, around Four Corners, the area that holds most of the famous national parks of the Southwest, like Zion, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, and Canyonlands. Geology there is bold and in your face.

I've set one story specifically there, in the future in Escalante Canyon ("The Breath of Suspension"), and several in an area of an alien planet that is similar to the Colorado Plateau (the Tessa Wolholme stories, "Above Ancient Seas" and "The Last Castle of Christmas"—I really should get back to that world....)

Geology strong affects what humans do, how they live, and how their world looks and feels.

Enjoying it is one thing, understanding it is quite another

Over the years, I acquired a number of books and wall charts on the geology of the region. I would read them, trying to distinguish the various geologic eras I was looking at (from the deep Paleozoic at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, through the Mesozoic strata in Zion, to the youngest rock in Bryce, halfway into the Cenozoic). I'd see how all of these locations are part of one gigantic multilayered structure, the Grand Staircase. Even when I was successful, I still didn't really get what was going on with the Colorado Plateau.

So, recently, after my last trip there (Boulder Mail Trail, Escalante Canyon) I decided to learn a bit more about geology in general. That doesn't mean that I got all interested in the things like the Moh's Scale of mineral hardness, which every geology text feels obliged to spend some time on. I know diamonds are harder than talc. Don't push me any farther. But I did want to figure out how the land had formed,and what in particular made the region of the Colorado Plateau so specifically interesting.

Several levels of explanation

One interesting thing I found was that there are some quite good books on the geology of the Colorado Plateau specifically, and some good popular and lightly technical books on geology in general, but they don't overlap much. Larger scale geology books and textbooks seem uninterested in the Colorado Plateau, while the more regional books spend little or no time on the larger picture into which the Colorado Plateau fits. I get the impression that canyon country geologists are their own breed, somewhat crusty, somewhat stuck in their ways, kind of like Boomer science fiction writers. Geologists from other regions are reluctant to mess with them, or trespass on their turf. Or maybe, more properly, their caliche. In several of the books I read, they were dubious about plate tectonics. The books are a decade or two old, and they couched their objections as anyone with a working set of analytical tools usually does: "hey, let's not go overboard here, this is cool, but we should be careful about using it to explain everything" followed by a muttered "punk kids think they can tell me how to look at a landscape."

So, next time, we'll check out cratons, the rift valley of the Rio Grande, and other such interesting matters.

How much do you know about your geology?

I was on a panel at Readercon, and someone in the audience wanted to talk about leaving your body to science. I wondered if you were allowed to pick which science, and whether anyone ever left their body to geology. None of the mortuaries around here seem to offer fossilization as an option.

The Big Move

Right now, I'm in the midst of packing to move. A huge proportion of my possessions are books, even in this electronic era, and those are mostly packed. Still, those are what makes this more of a trial than it needs to be.

 Some of my books

Some of my books

I moved to this apartment when my marriage ended, four years ago. Now I'm buying my ex-wife out and moving back to the house, and she is moving to her own apartment. Don't ask me if this is a wise financial decision. There is a lot of sentiment involved, perhaps a bit too much.

Interestingly, though I am moving from an apartment to a house, the quality of my writing area will decrease. Right now my office is a weatherized porch on the second floor, just off the kitchen. It's a smallish room with good light, and just enough room for my desk, a table for the printer, and a bookshelf.

 More of my books. Not my worst habit.

More of my books. Not my worst habit.

The house has no real space for a separate office. I'm not ready to confiscate a bedroom from one of my two kids, even though one of them is off at college. So it will either be back to the basement, where I worked for so many years, or in a space in the dining room. My dining room gets more use than some, because I like having people over, but maybe I'll turn the space into a hybrid library/office/dining room. It does have a nice sliding glass door opening out on my garden, which is currently an overgrown mess. Bringing that thing back to life is my first goal.

I used to have a big garden party in the late summer for all of my writer and writing associated friends. My then-wife never liked it, and I missed a couple, and then moved out. I don't know if I can manage to schedule one before the weather cools down and gets too unpredictable.

This is what passes for exciting news in the life of a writer! Packing. Dismantling things. Fretting about where the moving truck is going to park. Yeah, you have no idea.

Maybe You Should Exercise a Bit

There really are only two things we know about how our actions are affecting our health. I don't know you. I've never met you. But I know (statistically) two things you should try to do:

  • Eat a little less
  • Exercise a bit more

Sadly, pretty much everything is in there. And even if I'm wrong...well, you know I'm not wrong.

We really do like reading things we already know

 Well, he was attacking me with a banana

Well, he was attacking me with a banana

Still, newspapers and websites need to fill space, and some of us have an insatiable urge to read about diet and exercise, just as some of us like reading about organizing things. As you may have guessed, I'm guilty of both. Reading about it is a partial replacement for actually doing it, whatever "it" is.

And The New York Times writes about exercise all the time, particularly in their somewhat loosely named Science section (Tuesdays). Often they cite studies of various sorts. "Studies show". We all know studies show that virtually every study is misleading.

Gretchen Reynolds seems to get the duty of spinning some tiny study involving eighteen people who only ate standing up for two weeks or something (not a real study...as far as I am aware) into a plausible-seeming article about health.

Last week it was about how our experience in gym class in our youth affects our attitude toward exercise in adulthood. It's based on that gold standard of high-quality studies, the online questionnaire. Yeah, you should probably stop reading right now.

Did you hate gym class? Does it matter?

The subhead of the article starts with the observation that people who filled out the survey "tended to harbor vivid memories of gym class". Because that's the kind of person who wanders around the internet filling out lengthy online questionnaires about immensely tedious topics like how you felt about gym class! And like all these articles, they cite what people say about why they don't exercise as a cause, rather than an excuse. "Thirty years ago I hated gym class, so I can't bear the idea of getting off the couch now". I don't know why people bother. Why not say "I don't exercise. I don't like it. Go away"? Own it!

Look, I get it. I was inept as a child and young adult. Picked last, slow, clumsy, and bored. I never really found gym class interesting or useful. I never looked forward to it. I would find some similarly malfunctioning friend and hang out in the outfield talking and hoping no one would hit anything in our direction.

Now I exercise a fair amount. I lift, I run, I bike, I enjoy the hell out of it. I would still be miserable at kickball, and apprehensive at the idea of trying to hit a thrown baseball with a stick. Someone I went out with recently told me that a friend of hers observed that no one ever came back from going out to exercise saying "man, I wish I hadn't done that". I hope she goes out with me again. People with interesting friends are always the best people to know.

Exercise makes you feel better, even if exercise itself doesn't always feel great. Gym class didn't teach me anything about that.

Now, maybe gym classes should. They should focus on finding things that are relatively fun to do that get your heart pumping, build muscle, and maintain flexibility. It should help you build lifelong habits that make your life long.

Because habit is everything, intention almost nothing.

I still don't think your memories of gym class have anything to do with it.

What habit do you wish you had?

And which one did you wish you didn't?

The Vacuous Horror of Word Forms That Are Not Forms

I recently received a Word form to fill out. You know the kind—a bunch of questions, and then, after each one, a line made out of a series of underline characters. Presumably this is meant to be printed out and filled in by hand, but usually the spacing between the lines is too narrow for actual handwriting. And no one wants a handwritten form back in the mail.

 And here I thought everyone loved forms   

And here I thought everyone loved forms

 

So you're clearly expected to fill it out in Word, or whatever program you favor. As soon as you start to type the information, the collection of underlines moves to the right, eventually wrapping and messing up the alignment of everything else on the page.

Often these spaces don't have enough room for the requested information, so even if you spend time to delete the extra underlines (yes, some people do do that), you still have to mess up the rest of the page, making the document hard to read, and stupid-looking to boot.

I can't tell you how many of these things I've gotten over the years. HR departments are particular offenders, in my experience, but all sorts of seemingly competent people create them.

Forms are an important interface with customers

Now there's a nerdy pronouncement for you. Nevertheless, it's true. My day job is marketing, and on the rare occasions when I've had the authority, I've tried to make sure any forms we send out are clear, easy to fill out, and don't ask any unnecessary questions.

Before we get to how to easily solve the "underline cascade" problem, it's worth thinking about the unnecessary question thing.

It's also startling how many questions people add to forms just...because. They aren't interested in the answer, in fact often don't even look at it or record it. They just know you should ask if the person is married, or owns a dog that weighs more than five pounds, or enjoys Scrabble.

Once I helped a Behavioral Health department remove almost a dozen questions from a complex form just by asking who tracked that piece of information. They'd been using the form for years. In fact, they just copied it over—they'd lost the original.

Your customers interact with you in a variety of ways, and forms, both paper and online, are a key one. Don't torture them. Subliminally, that makes you look like a jerk. Do you really want your customer to think you're a jerk? Except in certain types of business, mostly aimed at males in late adolescence, I'd say no.

Use fields, for heaven's sake

In the copy brief questionnaire I use for new clients, each free text answer is a field. You tab between them, and you can't actually write anywhere else on the form. They expand to contain the text you put into them. The form does get longer, but nothing reflows.

(And if you're someone who'd like some good marketing content, you should head on over to Sturdy Words, my freelance marketing website, and check it out)

Word fields are stupid easy to use. Word is an incredibly capable program, and almost no one uses it anywhere near its full capability. You can put in fields that will expect a zip code, or a date, or whatever exact thing you want, as well as free text.

I resisted the urge to fix this company's form, as I have, in the past, resisted fixing forms HR has sent me. That's just a sickness, and I struggle against it. Of course, if someone wants to pay me to fix their forms, I'm delighted to do it.

What are your company interface pet peeves?

And what solutions do you stop yourself from providing?

The Crises of the Stuart Century: Wrap Up

If you need to catch up, my posts about the Crises of the Stuart Century were:

 Yep, that pretty much covers it.

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

So why am I going on about the various political conflicts during the seventeenth century? Well a number of reasons, and it might be useful to go through them, so you understand what I'm about, as well as how what I'm about influences my work.

  1. It's interesting. Now, this is largely subjective. Usually, when people talk about why they don't like history, they mention "memorizing dates". People learn sports stats, the details of who wrote a favorite song and under what circumstances, or how to roast a goose. To think productively about something, you have to know something about it. Yes, I know this is probably an unpopular and even problematic attitude nowadays. Nevertheless, it remains true.I happen to enjoy learning about the actions and misbehaviors of influential or interesting people of the past, and the characters of 17th century England were certainly interesting. To celebrate, I just put on Edward German's "Nell Gwyn Overture", a cute piece of incidental music from 1900. Let not poor Nelly starve--if she could have gotten royalties from her future fame, Charles would not have had to make this plea to his brother James on his deathbed.

  2. It tells us a lot about the origins of our political system. Yeah, I know. That sounds a bit too wholesome and improving. Still, it really is fascinating to try to inhabit the mental world of people who don't know that someday there will be filibusters and primaries. Now, yes, a narrative of steady progress toward freedom is not tenable. But still, it is startling how every attempt to reassert Royal prerogative was successfully opposed, sometimes with violence, sometimes with Parliamentary maneuverings. People recognized rights, and defended them. Reading their arguments, seeing their positions, and understanding their ambitions, shows us what is functional in a political system, and what isn't.

  3. It reflects our own time, sometimes in disturbing ways. This is what struck me the most as I read the book. The Stuart century starts with a fairly ordinary royal administration under James I. Then it falls apart into brutal civil war and ends in a military dictatorship. The large-scale collapse of civil government, leading the widespread violence and death, in a country not threatened from outside, is quite disturbing, though it did come in the middle of a century that seemed devoted to senseless ideologically and theologically driven violence. In England ideology and interest overwhelmed a sense of common nationhood. And, after all that, no one had a working government model to replace the one that had been destroyed. A military dictatorship ensued, but only because they had a supernaturally skilled military and political leader, Oliver Cromwell, to be military dictator. And he never came up with a system that would go of itself. Once he died, they had no choice but to return to the royal system they had so violently destroyed.

But once you've killed a King, and run things pretty successfully without one for awhile, can a King ever feel completely secure? The body politic under Charles II was disordered, violent, moody, and more than a little deranged. And their King and his brother, the heir, were both in the pay of the King of France. Patriotism doesn't pay the bills after all. So vast conspiracy theories convulsed the nation, leading to riots and executions. Our petty Vince Fosters and Seth Riches have nothing on Edmund Berry Godfrey lying in a ditch on Primrose hill, impaled on his own sword, or the attempted assassination of both the King and his successor.

When the next crisis came, a major part of the ruling clique invited a foreigner to come in and replace their legal monarch, and then just brazened it out: "I really don't get what you're going on about". We call this coup the Glorious Revolution, and, in fact, its somewhat low origins do not prevent this new period from being the fount of much of our thinking on the legitimacy of democratic government.

Then, safe at last, everyone, or at least everyone with the leisure to indulge themselves, sank into childish and vicious party rivalries over issues of little ultimate significance. That's the happy ending!

The Hobbes metric

Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588 (when his mother was supposedly frightened into labor by news of the approach of the Armada) to 1679. Someone similarly long lived born in 1625, the year Charles I became King, would have lived to 1716, two years into the reign of George I, the first Hanoverian monarch. King Charles would have been executed when they were 24, Cromwell become Lord Protector when they were 28, Charles II King when they were 36, and the Glorious Revolution when they were 63. Someone who lived in interesting times.

Do you think you'll see anything like that amount of political change over your life?

For all its flaws, our system has been remarkably stable. What are the chances that that will continue?

Dealing with Classical Music Hosts

I've previously been a jerk about "The Moldau". Now it's time be a jerk about on-air classical musical hosts.

It's not an easy job. How much information should you provide about each piece? How many unfamiliar pieces should you mix in with the old warhorses? And how many old warhorses should you include that are performed by unfamiliar orchestras, or with innovative interpretations? I get that there is more work involved than us listeners appreciate.

 Chris Voss is annoyingly good looking too.

Chris Voss is annoyingly good looking too.

Still, you could have an interesting and pleasing personality. My home station is WCRB, though, weirdly, its player just will not load in Firefox, my default browser, so I have to have a separate Chrome window to listen to it. My favorite host by far is Chris Voss, on in the afternoons. I'm not quite sure what makes him so appealing. He is funny but not ingratiating, and seems to both love the music and be a regular guy you'd like to hang out with. I also don't get a sense of staleness from his programming choices.

I used to also really like another WCRB host, Lynnsay Maynard, who had that same afternoon slot. Then she disappeared. Earlier this week, I was listening to my other favorite station, All Classical Portland, and I recognized a familiar voice. It was Lynnsay! She seems to have moved out to the west coast. That's a pity, but at least I get to hear her again.

 I can hear Lynnsay through the miracle of the internet

I can hear Lynnsay through the miracle of the internet

At All Classical Portland I do miss Robert McBride, who recently left. He was incredibly knowledgeable, and seemed to have met and interviewed almost everyone in the field. He seemed a bit austere, but always hopeful that we could appreciate what he was finding for us to listen to. And I've had a crush on Brandi Parisi since she was the overnight host, many years ago. She also teaches philosophy and seems to have cool-looking tattoos. She has distinct likes and dislikes, though she won't force them on you. I remember her very gently indicating to another host her dislike of Simone Dinnerstein's interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, which I appreciated even though I rather like Dinnerstein's Bach.

Classical hosts who fail tend to try to ingratiate themselves by being jokey when they clearly aren't at all funny, or by being a bit cutesy, as if we are all children in music appreciation class. Or by being dead boring. Though I said I was going to be a jerk, I really don't want to name people I don't like. There's a senior person at All Classical who is just dull.

And here in Boston we have a morning host I find simply appalling. I won't even listen until this person has safely left the air. My dentist is a WCRB listener, and he says he has another patient who loathes this host. If I didn't know he was a professional, I'd ask to meet this woman. Bitching about our shared dislike of the morning host would be a great first date. WCRB has a tradition of divisive morning hosts. For years it was Robert J. Lurtsema (chirping birds!) who drove some people crazy.

So, yeah, I've baited you with the internet's main currency, rage and denunciation, and instead given you a bunch of stuff I like, and been bizarrely discreet about my dislikes.

Do you have any hosts you particularly like...or don't?

You can remember ones from your childhood too. A good host can really open things up to a beginner...and a bad one can make the whole thing seem intolerable.

Are Writers Better Liars Than Other People?

From The Volokh Conspiracy, an interesting case of a criminal defendant on the stand being questioned about whether the fact that he is writing a work of fiction makes his story of events even less credible than it already is.

 Haven't you always wanted to do this? (Shutterstock, from ABA Journal)

Haven't you always wanted to do this? (Shutterstock, from ABA Journal)

In Don't Trust the Defendant — He's a Novelist!, Eugene Volokh details how the prosecutor questioned the defendant on the stand about the novel he was working on. "But this book of yours is a work of fiction. But everything you're testifying here—now, you're telling us the truth today, aren't you?" the prosecutor says.

The defendant attempted to appeal, calling this line of questioning "nothing short of a character assassination".

We lie, but only in ways we know you will not actually believe

As a novelist, I am a bit distressed the idea that just mentioning someone is writing a novel is considered, by both sides, as bringing in something shameful and an indication of a deep character flaw.

Now, it seemed like the defendant, William Dangelo McKinney, had a lot of other evidence against him that he violently assaulted his girlfriend and then stabbed another man to death the next day, when that man came to pick the girlfriend up to take her to work.

There is a lot more to lying than coming up with a consistent narrative. There is a lot about demeanor, an understanding of what other people might or might not know, a sense of how the audience is taking the story, and a kind of low-level persistence that can masquerade as moral certainty. I'm not sure writers tend to have any of those in better supply than anyone else.

And we are certainly able to distinguish fiction from reality. That, in fact, is why we write fiction in the first place.

Should you be fined for being a novelist?

Volokh does not mention another distressing element of what happened to McKinney as a result of his foray into fiction. As the record of the appeal at McKinney v. State says in a footnote:

Although it is not apparent from the quoted portion of the record, McKinney asserts in his brief that the book was a "fictional romance novel." (McKinney's brief, p. 18.) The trial court imposed the $50,000 fine on McKinney, in part, "to make sure there's no opportunity for Mr. McKinney to profit" from publishing a novel.

A $50,000 fine for trying to write a novel? Would they similarly try to keep him from profiting from selling gardening services or even a nonfiction book on the history of hair styles? There is no indication that the novel relied for its plot or its proposed marketing on his crime. He had written the book a while before, during a previous stint in prison. It doesn't even indicate that it would take the first $50,000 of royalties, or something like that. It seems that the fine was imposed just for daring to write a book in the first place. And the $50K shows an overoptimistic view of what first published novels typically earn.

I'm not sure this case is the best one on which authors should take a stand, but I certainly it appalling that I could be charged with a crime, and then have an additional penalty imposed because I wrote a novel.

As any writer knows, writing a novel is its own punishment.

Do you think that a jury should take a fiction writer's profession into account while judging truthfulness?

And what other professions should we regard as suspiciously good at managing truth? Lawyers? Politicians? Marketing people? If the latter, I could be in for some kind of double punishment.

S-Town: the Self-important Blowhard as Culture Hero

In 2012 a depressed restorer of antique clocks wrote This American Life to tell the staff about an uninvestigated and unpunished murder in his home town of Woodstock, Alabama. Produce Brian Reed was intrigued enough to eventually go down to Woodstock, meet John B. and investigate the murder.

 The podcast does have a great logo

The podcast does have a great logo

It turned out to have been no murder. John B. was totally wrong. But, for some reason, Reed found John B. fascinating and decided to investigate other things about his life. and turn the results into a podcast, S-Town ("Shit Town" being John B.'s nickname for his hometown). John B. committed suicide during production, and Reed then investigated that, uncovering John B.'s private sex life, among other things.

Reed affected to find John B. fascinating, and I, as podcast listener, was expected to do the same. Instead, I found John B. to be a tiresome blowhard. People claimed he was a fantastic restorer of antique clocks, a genuine expert. I don't even believe that, though my belief he was a faker even in that is unsupported by evidence, and is just prejudice on my part.

Talking a lot doesn't make you fascinating

We've all met people like John B., always talking about how much they read about all sorts of different topics and how deeply they've thought about everything. John B. provided no indication of understanding anything, and, in fact, seems to have poisoned himself with mercury while doing fire gilding...though that, like so many facts in this podcast, is never to be confirmed, since the autopsy did not check for mercury.

I still listened to the whole thing, because it kept promising to become more interesting than it actually ever did. And Reed is pretty good at digging around, and getting people to talk pretty freely. That's a real skill, and you do get some self-revelation from people, some of whom probably regretted being quite so open when the podcast finally was available.

We may be facing a shortage of genuinely compelling true crime

But the success of the podcast Serial has stimulated a lot of people to create multi-chapter investigations of past crimes and misbehavior. Serial itself never convinced me that its central character, Adnan Syed, was anything other than guilty. The BBC's Death in Ice Valley...well, I don't want to give spoilers, but I found it unsatisfying. These people do seem to play fair: if they are stymied, or can't figure something out, they don't pretend they have, and don't fake any kind of resolution if there is none.

But the problem is a lack of interesting unsolved crimes, fascinating locals, and evocative situations. That unfortunate shortage is pretty much why mystery fiction was invented. John B. is a typical serial liar, always rambling around the subject and trying to avoid giving away that he doesn't know a damn thing. I didn't get the appeal. I don't think the podcast did John B. any favors by exposing him to a wider audience, and most of the controversy the podcast aroused was about the invasion of privacy, not so much that John B. wasn't much worth listening to.

An actually interesting podcast: Reply All

By contrast, a podcast that is consistently interesting and showcases interesting people is Reply All. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman always seem to find interesting puzzles, and then find interesting people to provide pieces of the explanation. Plus, Vogt and Goldman are incredibly funny, and give each other shit in a realistic and delightful way. I always learn something interesting from them.

So that's one thing. An interesting host (or two), who is skeptical, willing to dig deeper, and doesn't take anything at face value, can go a long way to making the story more interesting, even if sometimes they don't get all the way to the conclusion. In fact, at least once, they've reopened an investigation when they realized they'd actually reached a wrong, or at least incomplete, conclusion.

So that's my prejudice: I'd rather listen to smart people tell me about interesting true things than half-smart people bullshit me about pointlessly untrue or half-true things.

What serial podcasts do you like to listen to?

It's a genuinely interesting art form. Though I think Serial benefited quite a bit from great theme music, and its charming Mail Chimp ad, all of which turned it into something iconic. But don't forget The Nisha Call...actually, by the time it became an issue, I had totally forgotten the Nisha Call, and never bothered to go back and find out what it was. No, I don't want you to write and explain it to me.

Getting Things Done When You're a Dumbass

If I ever write a self-help book, that will probably be the title. Of course, I don't get much done, so I am unlikely to ever write that book. Consider some of my entries here to be notes to such an unwritten life-transforming masterpiece. As I've written before, part of the problem with inspirational stories of self-transformation is that the people transforming themselves seem way more on the ball, even as alleged disasters, than any of us actually are.

"I was a nationally known newscaster, but I worried that maybe I did not entirely deserve my success, money, and beautiful wife, and sometimes fretted that I would suffer some kind of setback in my steady climb to even greater success...though fortunately I was wrong about that" was pretty much the starting point of Dan Harris's 10% Happier, a book about meditation.

I listened to it on audio while running, lifting, and considering starting a meditation practice. The chipper and self-important Harris (who ably read his own book) did not persuade me, and I am still pretty unmeditated. By the way, audio sucks for anything you want to fast forward through, and Harris's book, like many similar books, is an OK magazine article packed with so much filler it's like one of those OTC nostrums you get that somewhat glumly fesses up that, when you really give it a good look, it is made up of "98% inactive ingredients". It's made for skimming over at hydrofoil speeds.

But enough about him. I'm not well known or successful, so when I try something and think maybe it works, and then tell you about it, it might work for you, though probably not. But mostly I can tell you what doesn't work, isn't working, or probably won't work, and so probably will not work for you either. News you can use! That is, assuming you are not the lighter-than-air Dan Harris, but a regular shlub kind of like me.

This is generally known as "bitching", "whining", or "this explains why you're sitting alone writing blog posts", but I prefer to think of it as a deep look into procrastination and despair for the benefit of my readers.

And that's just the introduction!

I just redid my website, with a new design, and a new generation of Squarespace (I procrastinated so long I jumped right from Version 5 to Version 7). On my original website I had several stories for download. They had been there forever, and for the new version I wanted to upgrade and add a few newer stories. Like a lot of things, I had been putting that off, and recently decided to get down to it.

 Cover with one of the stories

Cover with one of the stories

First off was finding the original of each story.

So then I search around my folders, and see my original submitted version of the story, and also the marked up galleys, which is what actually got published. Those changes are not reflected in the original electronic draft, they are scribbled on a PDF that was then scanned.

Versioning is always a problem in marketing as well. You have original text, changes in editing, changes in review, changes in design, and even changes later on when you discover some awful mistake. If you have not rigorously kept track of those changes and saved them back into some master as-produced version, someday you will be asked to reprint an updated design, or with someone else's branding added, on a really short timeline, and you are left desperately trying to figure out what the "real" version actually is, which you should know because you wrote and produced the damn thing.

And here I'd finally gotten to this task after putting it off for weeks, only to find it is even more work than I thought it was. But I've written about this before. And here I'm writing about it again! Is it any mystery why I may not be as productive as I should be?

Then, once those changes are incorporated into the document...choices, choices. Fonts, formats, links. Grumbling and whining. And you know what? I did it! It still doesn't look quite like what I want it to, but you can get some new stories at my Free Stories page. So it was all worth it. Pretty much. Now, to get to those five or six other important things I had written down on my list this morning....

What always takes longer than you think it should?

"Everything", while a reasonable answer, is not acceptable. What has the biggest disproportion between estimate and achievement, even if you know perfectly well that's true, and has been true every single time you've done it?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 4, Whigs vs Tories

This is the fourth in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

 Is this choice really so hard?

Is this choice really so hard?

OK, so this one is not so much of a crisis as the previous ones. It didn't lead to a bloody civil war, it didn't result in show trials, it didn't cause the existing power structure to switch out their chief executive for the ruler of a sometimes-hostile foreign power. The savagery of the conflict between the nascent political parties, starting under Charles II and reaching maturity as a recognizable party system under Anne, indicates a more functional political system, where the savagery become more rhetorical. While there would be riots and civil broils aplenty over the coming centuries, including invasions by the "OMG, would you jerks go away already?" Stuarts, there would not again be a serious internal threat to the system. Still, it was savage, and in a way that looks uncomfortably familiar.

So let's go back to the reign of Charles II.

Exclusion, and the birth of the Whigs

In the late 1670s, the paranoia of the Popish Plot united with the Exclusion Crisis, that is, the desire to keep Charles's Catholic younger brother James from taking the throne on Charles's death. Charles had no legitimate children, and while his Protestant oldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, was popular, there was never any serious possibility of the succession going to him—he did try to invade on James's accession, and was quickly defeated.

A series of Test Acts banned Catholics from serving in various offices. And in 1679, at the height of the Plot, elections returned a highly anti-James Parliament, which promptly proposed an Exclusion Bill. Charles dissoved this Parliament, and there was a frenzied second election. It is now that something like an organized political party, soon to be called the Whigs, emerged. The Whigs met in London coffee houses and at the Green Ribbon Club. They orchestrated what Kishlansky calls "a lurid press campaign...to keep up interest in the Popish Plot long enough to influence the October elections", and won a strong majority in favor of Exclusion.

Charles had the power to prorogue Parliament, and used it—seven times over the next year. It worked. The derangement of the Popish Plot receded somewhat. And the King's supporters imitated the Whig political organization, and thus the Tories were born.

When Parliament finally met in late 1680, the Tories had some power too. According the Kishlansky, "the governing class was now irredeemably divided". Tory propagandists associated Whigs with the revolutionaries who had killed Charles's father. Over the next five years, Charles regained a lot of his power. He purged the judiciary of anyone not loyal to him, and these judges then made possible "capital convictions for sedition and ruinous judgments for slander" against the King's opponents. Then the Rye House Plot (1683) gave Charles cover for arresting and purging his opponents.

The maturing of party politics under Anne

By the early eighteenth century, under Queen Anne, the party system had reached maturity:

...Whigs and Tories were no longer opprobrious labels (after Scottish and Irish brigands, respectively): they were organizations whose opposition dominated the political life of the nation...local officials were purged and repurged...electoral contests for borough offices gradually replaced rotational systems, and party affiliation infected every aspect of social life from patronage to friendship and distorted every market from commodities to matrimony...party conflict politicized England....the parties were divided over matters of outlook, principle and instinct. There was remarkably little overlap.

This blend of policy debate, red-faced rage, and team sport is incredibly familiar. For late Stuart England, party politics was like a new disease, against which the people had no antibodies. And like such a disease, it ran through the population, and then became endemic, flaring up periodically, like the Plague.

Flare ups are still inevitable. The idea the people will settle down to push forward consistent policy agendas without conspiracy theories, claims that their opponents are secretly aliens or perverts, or attempts to politicize mundane daily activities like eating dinner and going to musicals, has always been a pipe dream of people who (like me) seem to lack the gene for team spirit.

This party system survived the end of the Stuarts and the advent of the Hanoverians. Given the civil conflict and outbreaks of violence it replaced, it's hard to wish it had not appeared. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they believed they had created a system immune to such shenanigans. They were so wrong so fast, you have to wonder why we think they were so smart.

Are you a team player?

It doesn't really matter which team you support, as long as you support it fervently.

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 3, The Glorious Revolution

This is a continuation of my series on the Stuart century, responding to A Monarchy Transformed by Mark Kishlansky

 Best rebranding of a high-level takeover  ever

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover ever

After Charles II died, in 1685, his Catholic brother took the throne as James II. Charles had had numerous children by various mistresses, but his own wife, Catherine of Braganza, had proved incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term. Charles had himself promised his paymaster, Louis XIV, that he would convert to Catholicism at some point, but there is no sign he ever did so. James, on the other hand, was an ardent Catholic. This irritated Charles, who knew better than to take religion too seriously, and he insisted that James raise his two daughters, Mary and Anne, as Protestants, and it is as Protestants that each would become Queen.

But it isn't just that James II was a Catholic, though that aroused the most passionate popular opposition. He was also an absolutist, who wanted to recentralize power and push back against Parliament.

A slight detour to New England

Here in New England, where I live, this led to the creation of the Dominion of New England, on the model of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (when an English King copies the administrative structures of Spain, you know you've got trouble), unifying the Mid-Atlantic and New England colonies under the notorious Governor Edmund Andros.

For years there was a diner on Trapelo Rd. in Belmont, MA, called the Andros Diner. I presume it was named after the Cycladic island by its Greek proprietors, not the Governor, but it always seemed a bit tone deaf. I'm pretty sure children are no longer taught to execrate the tyrannical Andros (my children certainly seem pretty indifferent), but this attempt to revoke the colonial charters and centralize the administration of the colonies was part of the long history that led to the Revolution.

But Kishlansky, despite teaching at Harvard, spent no time at all on New England in his book. But what Andros, at James's orders, attempted in New England, James tried himself in old England. Stuarts could never stand alternative centers of power, but were never effectual in manipulating and co-opting them. Instead, they just tried to squash them, which led to one execution and one deposition among the six Stuart monarchs, along with a lot of political chaos for the rest, not a sterling record.

None dare call it treason

Angry at James, and worried that he would have a male heir with his second wife, the Catholic Mary of Modena, a substantial group of wealthy and powerful men, already being called Whigs (we'll see a lot more of them when I get to the reign of Anne), conspired to replace him with a foreign but Protestant monarch, William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands, with which England had fought three wars between 1654 and 1672. It definitely helped that he was married to James's Protestant daughter Mary, and that she would become Queen.

One reason the politics of ancient Greek city states were so volatile was that the wealthy of a city felt more connected to the wealthy of another than they did with the politically violent rabble in their own home town. And while the Greek poleis all shared a common culture, language, and contempt for all those losers in the world who who would never have the right to compete in the Olympic games, going to other cities to get help in internal political conflicts didn't seem like that big a deal, and it happened fairly frequently. For example, before Athens was a democracy, Sparta intervened to help depose the tyrant Hippias and (unsuccessfully) try to install someone they liked better. Later Persian intervention in the Peloponnesian War and in other conflicts always made those conflicts both worse and longer-lived. But internal conflict among the Greeks suited the Persians just fine. They couldn't defeat the Greeks militarily, but fortunately volatile and fratricidal Greek politics gave them a cheap way to keep the Greeks busy, at least until Alexander showed up.

Getting back to England, prior to the nobles who conspired to bring William over, a similar group of English nobles had conspired with the Scots against James's father, Charles I in the 1630s. In The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas wrote “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates," quoted, I see, in Die Harder. The apposite quote is from the Elizabethan writer John Harington:

Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In both cases, the wealthy and powerful conspired against their own government with a foreign power, because they felt that this was made necessary by powerful forces within their own country that were taking it to its doom. And both times, they succeeded. Arguably, the result of their actions is the democratic form of government we now enjoy and whose fragility we fret over.

"The culmination of decades of manipulation of English public opinion"

In late 1688 William issued a declaration that his invasion was necessary to "preserve and maintain the established laws, liberties, and customs" of England. According to Kishlansky "the declaration was a masterpiece of propaganda, the culmination of decades of Dutch manipulation of English public opinion".

Still, landing with Dutch troops in Torbay was a daring move for William, and if James had used his larger army effectively, he could well have crushed the invasion force. But several of his key commanders went over to the invader, and James eventually fled, to create an alternate court that political romantics could daydream about for nearly a century to come.

This crisis and its resonance

No one ever seemed to find the behavior of the oppositions of Charles I and James II treasonous or even outrageous. A large number of people were willing to put up with even the military intervention of a foreign power if it supported the right side. Of course, nationalism wasn't anything like the powerful organizing force it became in the nineteenth century.

I won't spend a lot of time belaboring the modern parallels, but it's worth thinking about.

Whose intervention would you accept if it enabled you to defeat the people you know are going to destroy your country?

And after you succeeded, would you be proud of this, or would you let it gently evaporate from the pages of the official history textbooks?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 2, Plots and Conspiracies

This is the second in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Charles II's reign is usually remembered for licentiousness, disease, and corruption, as well as for the Great Fire. But it was torn by two major conspiracy scares, the Popish Plot (1678-1681) and the Rye House Plot (1683), where many people were arrested, tried, and imprisoned, exiled, or executed.

The Popish Plot

 They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

Exactly what actually planned by anyone and who was actually guilty of anything is completely unclear. The Popish Plot was started by a genuinely odious mountebank and opportunist named Titus Oates, 29 and newly returned from abroad, where he had been rejected by several Jesuit schools. Oates seems to have been a brilliant confabulator. He had an almost supernatural talent for discerning what someone wanted to hear, a seemingly total recall of the details of every lie he told, and an ability to rapidly incorporate new events into his growing story. He was helped out by the fact that, if you accuse enough people, one of them will have done something suspicious that can be worked into the story.

Everyone was terrified of Catholics, the enemy within, and the knowledge that the childless King's heir was his younger brother James, who had become Catholic, put everyone on edge. Charles was not theologically reliable himself—and both brothers were in the pay of Louis XIV (though seldom providing value for money, pretty much the story of the Stuart dynasty as a whole). When the man to whom Oates had gone twice to swear evidence, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was found face down in a ditch on Primrose Hill, seemingly murdered, a crime that has excited a lot of speculation from that day to this, it seemed to be evidence that Oates was telling the truth.

At least 15 people were executed, accompanied by mass demonstrations. Other informers, seeing a good opportunity, jumped aboard the conspiracy, informing on their neighbors, who were arrested in their turn. It became a crime to even deny the existence of the plot. Informers, mobs rampaging through the streets, the terror of arbitrary arrest: various people used the panic for their own purposes, but this was not any kind of top-down state terror. In fact, King Charles was really in part the target, and his attempt to have Oates arrested was unsuccessful. This was a genuine mass movement started by one failed seminary student, who struck a match amid a huge stack of dried kindling.

The frenzy went on for nearly three years. Oates was eventually disgraced, rejected by many of his former allies, who now found him inconvenient.

The Rye House Plot

In 1683 Charles found a pretext to strike back at his enemies. There was a plot to murder both him and James simultaneously, as they were returning from a horse race in Newmarket. Though there were definitely several groups who were plotting rebellion against the Stuart monarchy, no one has ever known how well-organized this particular operation was. It served as an excellent opportunity for Charles to get his own back, harking back to the grandaddy of all anti-Stuart plots, The Gunpowder Plot, and use the fear of conspiracies to move against his enemies, which included much of the population of London. This frenzy was directed at Dissenters, those Protestants who were not part of the state Anglican church, including many Quakers. Again, many arrests and executions. This time the operations really were top down, directed by Charles himself.

It doesn't take social media to get rumors, fake news, mobs, violence, and intergroup strife. But it's definitely worth taking a look at the reign of Charles II to get a good sense of how various forces can try to take advantage of inchoate rage and panic to achieve their own ends. I'd like to think we were beyond mass arrests, perjured evidence, and panicky magistrates trying to calm down the mob before it turns on them, but sometimes I am not so sure.

What kind of Plot do you think would be most suitable for our own touchy era?

And will the first one be against our monarch, or be run by him?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 1, The Civil War

I recently read A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714, by Mark Kishlansky. It's part of The Penguin History of Britain series. The book is from 1996, and it looks like the series is getting a refresh. I don't know if there will be a new edition of this book, however, since Prof. Kishlansky died a few years ago.

I quite enjoyed it. It's almost entirely a political history of the Stuart century, from the accession of James I (and VI of Scotland) to the death of Anne. Don't read it for insights into the literature, architecture, or science of the time, interesting though all of those were. Kishlansky barely mentions any of them. Religion does get covered, mostly because of its strong influence on politics.

 That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

But I was actually reading it for the politics. I'm interested in the nature of political legitimacy, when people accept it, and when they reject it--and the Stuart period has multiple collapses of legitimacy. I'm apprehensive of our own time, and want to see how other eras handled it and what the consequences were.

I see four periods during the Stuart century that can provide us with some ways to view our own time: The English Civil War, the two great conspiracy panics of Charles II's reign (the Popish Plot and the Rye House Plot), the Glorious Revolution where some rich people used the panic of the population to dethrone their legitimate monarch and invite the ruler of a frequently hostile foreign power to take over the position instead, and the savage beginnings of recognizably modern party conflict during the reign of Anne. The Stuarts were frequently annoying and usually infuriating, but they were never dull.

The biggest one comes first: the English Civil War.

Pulling out the guns

I've always been interested in the English Civil War, the most violent of these collapses of legitimacy, but I've never really understood it. I read A Monarchy Transformed to read about it in the context of its entire era. I do understand it a bit better, but I now know it's going to be a long road.

James I took over a kingdom where the incumbent, Elizabeth I, had been kicking the can down the road for decades.It was like inheriting a vehicle whose frugal previous owner had not done any maintenance, never changed the oil, and bribes the inspector at emissions testing time as cheaper than doing the necessary work. So James had trouble with financing, as did his son Charles I after him.

Not that their notoriously expensive art-collecting lifestyles didn't contribute. It isn't hard to imagine a monarch who did a better job managing Parliament, wars, the Scots, the Irish, and religious strife better than Charles I. But it is hard to imagine one who comes through the crisis unscathed.

Eventually, everyone pulled out their guns, got into their gangs, and fought it out. Not satisfied with one bout of civil war, they took a break and had another. It's important to remember how brutal and bloody this all was. According to Geoffrey Parker in Global Crisis, his global history of the 17th century,

[The English Civil War]...killed about 250,000 men and women in England, Scotland and Wales, or 7 percent of the total population...Between 1640 and 1660, several hundred thousand men and women were maimed or rendered homeless; and tens of thousands more were taken prisoner and enslaved by the conquerors....

Civil wars are the most brutal of wars.

Then the victors killed the King, because he really was just so damn annoying there really wasn't much else they could do. I'm sure most of them knew it was a bad idea, but Jesus, what a pompous jerk. Even the fact that both he and his sidekick Archbishop Laud were both really short, around my height, doesn't make me sympathize with either of them.

OK, he's dead. Now what?

But then what? Between various Parliamentary factions, religious groups, and the Army, there was constant mistrust, hostility, and conflict. Eventually a charismatic leader, Oliver Cromwell, became dictator and turned England into a successful bully that punched way above its weight in European affairs.

But neither he nor Parliament ever created a functioning political system to replace the previous one, so when he died, there was nothing to do but ask Charles's son, Charles II, to come back and pretend nothing much had happened. Successful Truth and Reconciliation efforts require a small bit of Truth and a whole lot of Reconciliation, ignoring a lot of past bad behavior until everyone involved is dead, and this one was surprisingly successful.

But why did everyone start killing each other in the first place?

But it's hard to really see the hostility that led to the death of seven percent of the population in a few short years (something like 22.5 million dead in a proportional conflict in the United States in 2018, if you want a cheery number). Oh, you read about squabbles about altar rails and ship money and Catholicism, but that seems like the usual incomprehensible issues people in the past seemed to get so exercised about. But under all that was clearly a lot of rage.

Of course, it might be that the islanders were just getting competitive with the Continent, where the Thirty Years War had become the bloodiest European conflict before the Twentieth Century. Keeping up with the Hapsburgs, and all that.

After an earlier squabble with Parliament, Charles I dismissed it and ruled on his own for the next eleven years, the period of Personal Rule (or the Eleven Years' Tyranny, if you want to be a sorehead about it). Things actually looked OK. Harvests were good and there were no big disasters, so it seemed to be working. But underneath the surface the finances were just not adding up. And there was no way to raise taxes without Parliament. Afterward, people probably looked back at this period with longing, thinking about how good life had been, even as the foundations had slowly collapsed.

So a halcyon period can conceal the rot that causes its structure to collapse. And this particular collapse was horrendous. I think it was worse than our own Civil War...but maybe more like any future civil war we might have. No one in the future will really understand what we were fighting about either. I'm not sure I do, and I live right here.

Will we feel lucky if we get our own Cromwell?

Why does everyone think that if we get rid of our clunky, old-school political system, we can agree on a shiny, efficient new one?

Next time: Conspiracy theories and more conspiracy theories. OK, Plots.

The weirdest scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey

A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to see the restored 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 mm at the Somerville Theater.

It was fantastic. I'd forgotten it started with an actual overture, Atmospheres, by Ligeti. At the Somerville the speakers are huge, and you felt it in your chest. Plus the theater still has a curtain, which remained closed until the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra.

What's wonderful about it is how unconciliating it is. Unlike pretty much ever other science fiction movie, it doesn't seek to meet your expectations, charm you, or to make you feel good about yourself. In fact, it thinks you're kind of dull. After all, you're just sitting in a darkened room, eating popcorn and staring at it.

It has no real characters, a plot whose main motive force comes late in the movie from a piece of malfunctioning industrial equipment crossed with a bad employee ("Open the pod bay doors, Hal...this is going on your performance review"), and ends in a strange sequence that telescopes a man's life into a few minutes of accelerated senescence.

The abominable Dr. Floyd

 "I've got my eye on you."

"I've got my eye on you."

But before we get there, we have to follow the sinister bureaucrat Heywood Floyd as he travels incrementally from the Earth to the Moon and refuses to inform anyone of anything in every place he moves through. I took him for granted when I saw the movie as a kid, or even in college when I saw it again, but now he seems a complete fraud. He has a strained, dishonest-feeling conversation with his young daughter over a videophone. He can't come to her birthday party. One has trouble imaging this fine-tolerance piece of bureaucratic machinery wearing a party hat and blowing a noisemaker at a kid's birthday party. In fact he can barely pretend to care about his offspring--that is, assuming she is not a crisis actor of some sort, hired to create a simulacrum of a real life.

 Does this hat make my head look fat?

Does this hat make my head look fat?

Floyd then has a strained conversation with a bunch of Russians, who include the only non-stewardess/receptionist women in the movie. These women are also not forced to wear unflattering bulbous headgear like their servile American sisters (as far as I am aware, these Kubrikean bonnets have not yet been used in The Handmaid's Tale). They are friendly with Floyd, but don't believe a word he says. They've all played this game before. They let the somewhat-less-sophisticated Smyslov ("guys always think they're so smart") ask the obvious question about the transparently fake story of a disease outbreak at Clavius. Floyd stonewalls shamelessly. Lying doesn't even give him pleasure, but it's the only thing he knows how to do.

 Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

We then see a sequence of the technological sublime, as Floyd flies from the space station to the surface of the Moon—where he goes to a conference room to give a briefing. In general, the movie alternates vividly realized scenes of space travel with mundane, even boring sequences of people being people in a technological civilization, Unlike the terrified ape men of the opening sequence, they doze off, eat at Howard Johnson's, get tans, and lie blandly to their fellow evolved apes: the ultimate goal of our striving.

Then we see Floyd give a briefing. He has killed men with his bare hands, we just know it. But here he just stands behind a podium and tells everyone they need to sign security oaths, penalty for not doing so unstated but obviously pretty bad. After all, the airlocks all have breathable air on only one side, if you catch my drift....

Then Floyd takes another spaceship to the terrible discovery, along with a subordinate named Halvorsen and a guy who hands out sandwiches. Here we have as blandly corporate a piece of toadying as I have ever had the bad luck to live through:

HALVORSEN: You know that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
SANDWICH GUY: It certainly was.
HALVORSEN: I'm sure it beefed up morale a hell of lot.

Floyd told a crew if high-level professionals they couldn't tell anyone the truth about what was going on, and then ordered them to sign loyalty oaths. Maybe what boosted morale was the fact that no one was actually detained for interrogation. But these guys know their business. In an organization, a lot of your time is spend assuring your superiors they deserve their positions, and the rest is spent clarifying to your subordinates that they certainly deserve theirs.

Floyd then goes to the site of the excavated monolith, where he touches it, an oddly humanizing gesture, showing the man beneath the functionary. Then the monolith screams, and we cut to Discover One, en route to Jupiter.

We will see Heywood one more time, right when Dave finally eliminates HAL and we hear HAL sing "A Bicycle Built for Two". Floyd tells the viewer what the purpose of the mission is, revealing that no one on board had any idea of why they were traveling out to Jupiter. Poole and Bowman were really professional, because they never once say to each other "Do you ever wonder why the world created a crash program to send us out to Jupiter?"

Of course, Floyd thought he would be addressing the full crew of Discovery, not just the one survivor, Dave Bowman. I can't judge how much any of this can be counted his fault, but somehow I'm inclined to think that Floyd carries a lot of responsibility for how things worked out. However, I'm sure he's already chosen someone less politically adept to take the fall. Maybe Sandwich Guy.

The weirdest scene

What, you thought I forgot about this?

The weirdest scene is the one where the languidly sun-bathing Dr. Poole watches a video from clearly fake parents wishing him happy birthday. It's pre-recorded, and the movie has been at pains previously to let us know that the round-trip message time delay is now over seven minutes.

 An even weirder birthday party than the first one

An even weirder birthday party than the first one

Again a birthday party, again a weirdly stiff, fake-seeming encounter, except that this time only one side is able to speak. Poole watches the video placidly, lounging in shorts and white sneakers and socks. His "parents" sit behind a large cake covered with lit candles (absurd overkill indicating a support crew just out of view) and tell him about other people who failed to show up for this event. Presumably the two of them are going to eat the cake in Poole's honor. They discuss a few other family members, a problem with some bureaucratic form, and then say goodbye. Poole watches without showing any reaction, and without recording a reply to send back.

In a movie full of stiff, by-the-book characters, Mr. and Mrs. Poole are the stiffest and most clearly reading from a script written for them by bureaucrats. Then, after the transmission ends:

HAL: Happy birthday, Frank.
POOLE: Thank you, HAL. A bit flatter please.

HAL lowers his headrest. That is as much reaction as Poole can manage. Is it any wonder we fear being replaced by AIs? Who will really notice the difference?

By the way, the only way I could have gotten all this straight, despite having seen the movie only a couple of weeks ago, was by the meticulous shot by shot analysis of the entire movie at Idyllopus Press, well worth reading.

What struck you most on rewatching the movie?

And if you haven't rewatched it on this latest release, you really should.