Guns, Germs and Steel – A Book Review

“Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond is an extremely interesting book about what factors might be responsible for the varied trajectories that technological progress has taken in different times and places and by different peoples around the world.

Diamond reviews the history of the two most advanced civilizations found on Eurasia, namely the Far Eastern Kingdom of China and the Euro-Middle Eastern complex of cultures that succeeded from the Sumerians.  He catalogs the series innovations that occurred since the end of the Last Ice Age that catapulted humanity from the Stone Age to the Space Age in the space of 13,000 years.  Now this sounds like a long time but compare it to the hundreds of thousands of years in which the only progress was advances in stone spearhead technology.

Next, we are walked through the other civilizations that existed around the world.  We meet the new world cultures in mesoamerica and the andes.  We follow the Austronesians as they go from Taiwan to every island between Madagascar and Easter Island.  We meet the various peoples inhabiting sub-Saharan.  And we meet the Australian aborigines and the inhabitants of the New Guinea highlands.  And we watch as these primitive cultures collide with the modern Europeans.  And we see how the Guns, Germs and Steel of the title decimate these primitive cultures.

And finally, Diamond explains how the vicissitudes of geography are completely responsible for the difference between Albert Einstein and Yali the genius of the New Guinea highlands.  Apparently we are all exactly the same.  I know this because Mr. Diamond repeats it liberally throughout the text just in case you aren’t paying close attention.

And I will admit that many of the points are very persuasive.  It is quite interesting how the Austronesian people developed along entirely different technological trajectories depending on what were the resources of the various islands they ended up on.  So, those that ended up on New Zealand or Hawaii were able to progress to agricultural societies while those on wretched dots of land like the Chatham Islands barely clung to life as hunter gatherers.  And the great advantages of inhabitants of Eurasia are fairly convincing.  Being able to borrow from civilizations in all directions around you surely helped the people of Europe to advance rapidly.  But when at the end of the book he hunts for a reason as to why European culture was able to outperform the Chinese and other Asian cultures in the colonial period he rather weakly claims that the comparative isolation of Europe due to the fragmentation into peninsulas and islands was the reason.  To me this seems to be a case of blowing hot and cold.  Or possibly the Doctrine of the Three Bears.  This place is too isolated, this place is not isolated enough but this place is isolated just right!  Seems a bit weak.

Well anyway, I learned a good bit about early human civilization.  I also found out that the modern Japanese came from the Korean people.  But I’m not sure I really believe that the Australian Aborigines are really that close to their own space program.  But Mr Diamond thinks they are.  Good luck with that.

It’s a good book and highly interesting.  I recommend it if you can ignore the virtue signaling.

Topper – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The pre-Oscar TCM movie festival continues so I decided to re-watch Topper.  This is without a doubt one of the goofiest screwball comedies of the 1930s.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are George and Marion Kirby, a young married couple.  They’re rich and they live a wild life.  They stay up all night dancing and drinking and driving around in a crazy fin-backed whale of a roadster.  Their banker is a middle-aged mouse of a man named Cosmo Topper.  Topper has a proper wife who wants Topper to get up at 8am and go to bed by 11pm and have lamb on Sunday and steak on Tuesday and boiled vegetables on Wednesday.  She expects him to be the respectable banker so she can be part of high society.

When George and Marion show up at Topper’s bank one morning for a business meeting you can tell that all three of them think that Topper’s life is not much fun compared to the Kirbys.  Driving back from the meeting George is characteristically driving like a madman around some hairpin turns when he gets something in his eye and crashes them.  Staggering out of the wreck George and Marion gather their senses and realize that they have died in the crash and are now ghosts.  Taking stock of the situation they realize they don’t have any good deeds on their records to allow them to expect admission through the pearly gates.  The scene dissolves with the ghosts themselves dissolving into invisibility.

In the next scene Topper is at home with the missus.  We witness the boredom of his respectable existence.  At this point a mechanic shows up with the Kirby’s repaired sports car.  Both the mechanic and Mrs. Kirby remark on how mismatched this car would be for Topper.  His pride is stung and he takes off with the car.  The car gets the better of him and he crashes it at the same spot that the Kirbys crashed.  The Kirbys make their presence known and Topper eventually gets over his fright.  The rest of the film is the tale of the Kirbys trying to humanize Topper and make his life happier.  This is the good deed that they hope will get them into heaven.

With a plot this frothy everything depends on the characterizations of the stars.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are at their witty best bantering together while teaching Topper to be a man and not a mouse.  Roland Young brings his characteristic upper-class Englishman’s mumbling confused manner to his portrayal of Cosmo Topper and Billie Burke as Mrs. Topper is the outraged prim and proper wife who needs to learn that a husband still needs to be a man.  An uncredited part has Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano and singing for the happy couple.  All in all, I’d say this is a goofy comedy that from my point of view provides good entertainment.  The story sails along and even the minor characters are well done and add to the fun of the story.

I give this movie 4 out of 5 stars.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a mathematician and securities trader who also waxes philosophical.  The last of his books that I am reading is entitled “The Bed of Procrustes.”  Now the title alone would guarantee I would want to know about it.  In Greek Mythology, Procrustes is one of those idiosyncratic monsters that the Hero, such as Heracles or as in this case Theseus must conquer in order to eliminate Chaos and promote civilization or something like that.  Freud made much soup from this sort of thing.

So, Procrustes had a bed that he let travelers sleep on at night.  The catch was that if the sleeper was shorter than the bed then Procrustes would stretch him to the correct size.  And if the sleeper was longer than the bed then he would trim him down to fit.  According to the story up until Theseus arrived the bed-sleeper length optimization procedure had been 100% fatal to the “sleeper.”  And when Theseus shows up he turns the tables (more furniture!) on Procrustes and performs a bed fitting exercise on him.

Taleb is using the metaphor of Procrustes Bed to represent how often in life humans look at situations from the wrong point of view.  And he returns to one of the oldest formats to address his subject, the aphorism or proverb or wise saying.

The Bed of Procrustes is one hundred and fifty-six pages long.  His other books like the “Black Swan” are four or five times as long.  His next book will be written on the back of a match book cover.  I approve of this trend.

I’ve started reading them.  Some of them are pretty good.  I’m comparing them to those other aphoristic writers Solomon, Confucious and Robert A. Heinlein (through the agency of his alter ego Lazarus Long).  The emphasis is different.  Taleb is talking about life from the point of view of a savvy operator not a philosopher or a saint.  He has more in common with Lazarus Long.  But there are many interesting observations and some of them are original in some aspect.  When I finish reading Procrustes Bed and do some comparison to his peers I’ll probably have more to say, but one thing that occurs to me is to put out a regular quote of the day (week?) from someone.  I’m sure it will make me appear wiser.  Here’s the first one:

“What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.”

Shakespeare has Polonius declare that brevity is the soul of wit.  Polonius is a windbag so you have to wonder whether Old Will believed this statement or not.  But I find that, many times, less is decidedly more, especially when you’re under the gun to fit in blog posting into a busy day.  I see that many bloggers churn out a couple of thousand words in a post.  I like to put up about five hundred or so (and sometimes less).  I know everybody is busy nowadays and I don’t want to impose so let’s stop right here.

2001: A Space Odyssey – A Science Fiction Movie Review

(Warning, this whole review is one long spoiler.  In my defense this movie is 49 years old.)

The only good thing about The Academy Awards is that for the whole month before, TCM plays many good (and not so good) old movies.  Last night I watched 2001.  As the exit music was finishing it occurred to me that this was the first time in almost fifty years that I had watched the movie from beginning to end.  Back in 1968 I attended the film in a large theater in Manhattan as part of a class trip.  At the time I was a sci-fi fan but I distinctly remember becoming incredibly bored during the “Infinity” sequence.  And sure enough, last night I found my eyes glazing over as I waited for Keir Dullea to stop making funny faces and show up in Versailles.  And then it also occurred to me that it was actually a very, very good movie.  So, let’s talk about it.  You already know I don’t like the “Infinity” sequence.  But I find the rest of the film is excellent.  Not everybody cares for Kubrick’s style in film-making.  There is a great deal of stylization and idiosyncratic imagery that bothers many people.  And without a doubt it is highly un-naturalistic.  In fact, the ape men were the most realistic as personalities.  The other characters are decidedly wooden.

But without a doubt this movie is an amazing spectacle.  The matching of images to the musical soundtrack is perfect.  The sequences of space ships landing and maneuvering are shown as if they were dancers in a ballet.  The “Dawn of Man” sequence is riveting.  I could believe that the actual event was very much like the portrayal (minus the monolith of course).  It captured the essence of human ingenuity.  The desperate and sordid circumstances of that ingenuity ring true.

And then there’s HAL.  I hate HAL.  I always have.  But he is the perfect Frankenstein Monster.  And the arc of his crime and punishment is, for me, a thing of hideous beauty.  His relations with the astronauts are as creepy and dishonest as some Dickens villain, something like Uriah Heep.  Some people feel sadness when Dave lobotomizes HAL and reduces him to the level of a two-year-old singing “Daisy.”  I never shared that sadness.  I guess I’m more Old-Testament.

So, that brings us back to the “Infinity” sequence which sucks.  But following it we have what I call the “Versailles” scene where I guess Dave lives his life out as a captive of the monolith makers.  This is weird and I guess necessary to set up the conclusion.  Dave dies and is reborn as the next stage of human evolution.  And he is returned to our solar system and the picture ends with him floating above earth to the sequence of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz” playing us out.

In sum we have a fifty year old movie that is still visually stunning, that addresses the inexplicable advance of savage animals to the brink of interplanetary travel and the frightening prospect of facing our masters in artificial intelligence.  What’s not to like?  Well he could have added a few good-looking space babes but nobody’s perfect.

A Murder of Manatees by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction Book Review

As noted earlier, Larry Correia has published a second installment of his Tom Stranger stories (A Murder of Manatees: The Further Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent[Audiobook] By: Larry Correia, Adam Baldwin, Audible Studios Sold By: Audible).

I have to admit.  This is a guilty pleasure.  The stories, such as they are, border on the ridiculous.  The plot is just an excuse to allow Tom Stranger and his friends and enemies to interact in an adventure that resembles science fiction in the same way that the old 1960s Batman tv series resembles Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies.

But I don’t care.  It’s fun.  Correia fills his little two-hour audiobook with good natured jabs at himself, modern politics, culture and the conventions of pulp science fiction.  There’s never any doubt that Tom and his associates will provide quality, excellent customer service and that the bad guys will get their comeuppance.

And we can also be assured that Adam Baldwin will continue to find ways of voice portraying whatever ridiculous characters Larry invents, no matter whether it’s a bubble gum snapping android from the Jersey Shore or a hard-tweeting U.S. President on the battle field of the Mar-a-Lago golf course.  Having only previously known Adam Baldwin’s acting skills from Full Metal Jacket, Firefly and Chuck I wasn’t prepared for his wonderfully hammy touch to this kind of goofy material.  He absolutely makes the most of the story and its characters.

I just finished it today and I enjoyed every silly second of it.  Bravo Larry and bravo Adam.  I only wish there were more.  And what I really wish is that Hollywood would wake up and make the Monster Hunter saga into a movie series (either tv or big screen).  And I think Adam Baldwin would be a natural as Agent Franks.

But that’s a rant for another day.  Meanwhile if you like goofy tongue in cheek pulp sci-fi or you’re a fan of Larry Correia or Adam Baldwin then I highly recommend A Murder of Manatees.  You could think of plenty of worse ways to spend two hours.

Is the Alt-Lite Helping, Hurting or Neither?

I was listening to the ZMan’s Friday Podcast today.  In one segment he raised the question whether people like Jordan Peterson helped or hurt the right-wing cause.  Peterson is a psychologist academic who is battling the politically correct behavior codes in Canada’s universities (and other areas of life).  He is a civic nationalist who does not espouse any ethnic nationalist leanings and in fact specifically rejects any white nationalism as the flip side of the identity politics on the left that he rejects.  ZMan concluded that for the most part the civic nationalists were a detriment.  This he said was because they tended to position themselves barely to the right of leftists.  And moreover, they were programmed to lose every fight.  Their only function was to register each new veer to the left with an ineffectual protest.  This response was their only function (other than being paid).

I found this interesting from a few different angles.  First off did I agree with this analysis?  Secondly was I in the same compromised position?  Was I my own enemy?!!!

I’ll address this question first.  I think the answer is no for two reasons. First and most importantly, I haven’t changed my opinions over time to keep up with the changing societal position.  My moral and social point of view hasn’t shifted to the left, over time.  If anything, it has moved to the right.  For that reason, I am safe from the charge of being a right guard of the left wing.  The question of mercenary status is easily answered by my lack of any site monetization.  Check and check.

So back to the first question, do I agree with his evaluation?  I do agree that there are lots of shills.  There seem to be a number of guys doing their act to collect pennies.  This actually doesn’t bother me.  We all have to make a living.  But what is more important is the claim that these guys are just barely staying to the right edge of the leftists and that they maintain this position by constantly shifting leftward over time.  Well, I don’t know.  Some of these guys are not so much moving left as much as they started in the center and seem to be gravitating rightward bit by bit as the Trump train rolls along.  In that case, I guess I give them the benefit of the doubt.  The folks the ZMan seems to be describing are the never-Trumpers.  This includes guys like Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol and Kevin Williamson.  These were folks who were willing to embrace Hillary Clinton rather than deal with Donald Trump.  To me that’s the kind of position that precludes being an actual conservative.  At least with Trump you had some chance of saving the country.  But are there any never-Trumpers in the Alt-Lite?  If anyone knows any let me know.  I’d like to look them up and see if the ZMan had this thing right or not.

So conditionally, I’m gonna say that the Alt-Lite ranges from neutral to helpful.  Some of them are moving along to a useful supportive position that reinforces the appeal of the movement to include some of the slow-moving center.  And the worst are just parasites feeding off attention in the wake of the Trump Train.  And even that isn’t such a bad thing from my point of view since I’m even enjoying my piece of that action too.  After all Trump is now the greatest show on earth and what would the circus be without the vendors selling the popcorn, the program notes and souvenirs?

One Million B.C. – A Science Fiction Movie Review

Turner Classic Movies is a mixed bag. They do play a lot of good old movies.  But then you have to endure Alec Baldwin or Tina Fey talking to the insufferable host, Ben Mankiewicz about movies or anything else.  Well anyway, they’ve been playing a lot of old bad sci-fi movies lately.  It’s been great.  I’ll give my thoughts on them.  This is usually a combination of nostalgia and shock.  I’ve seen most of these movies before but in some cases I haven’t seen them in over fifty years.  Neither they nor I have aged well and so the re-acquaintance is sometimes off-putting to say the least.  Both these movies and my younger self have lost a lot of respect in my current eyes.  But today’s movie is a treat because I actually never saw this epic before.  And first off do not mistake this masterpiece for the sound alike “One Million Years BC” re-make with Raquel Welch.

This is the 1940 masterpiece with those two towering thespians Lon Chaney Jr. and Victor Mature. Honestly this movie should get a special award for unbelievably bad special effects.  But special effects is just the tip of the iceberg.  The cheesiness of the sets, the really bad acting and the silliness of the plot combine to create a feast of cinematic awfulness.  I loved it.

One of my favorite scenes has Victor Mature as caveman Tumak poking a seven foot tall miniature Tyrannosaurus rex in the stomach with his poorly made spear.  The monster is so obviously a man in a cloth suit that it’s hard not to burst out laughing, and actually I did.  Only slightly less silly are the real animals like dogs, goats, cows and even elephants covered in fake hair to make them “prehistoric-looking.”  Especially funny is the armadillo with horns glued onto its head.  It has been magnified to be the size of an elephant.  But it doesn’t seem to be doing anything particularly dangerous.  But the cavemen do look really scared of it.  Equally frightening to the cavemen are magnified images of modern day reptiles.  There are tegus and rhinoceros iguanas and even a baby alligator with a fake sailfish sail glued to its back.  One interesting historical circumstance is the fact that several of the reptiles are noticeably harmed by each other in some fight scenes including one tegu that is obviously killed in a fight with the fake sailfish alligator.  Nowadays the Humane Society would have the film-makers drawn and quartered for so much as stressing out a mosquito on set.  Progress!

But where the movie really shines is the portrayal of caveman tribal dynamics. Tumak is the son of the clan leader Akhoba (played by  Lon Chaney Jr).  When Tumak accidentally attacks Akhoba for trying to steal a chunk of dino-burger.  Akhoba throws him off a cliff.  After this he wanders away and ends up being adopted by a more enlightened clan.  They’re probably from Scandinavia because they have blondes, good table manners and neutered males.  After he gets ejected from the new tribe for beating a spear maker who objected to being robbed Tumak ends up back at the old clan cave with his blonde girlfriend in tow.  Apparently she likes the bad boy type and thinks she can fix him.  While Tumak was gone Akhoba has been demoted from chief to crippled loser after being severely injured in a fight with a giant goat.  Breaking with caveman etiquette Blondie institutes women and children and crippled losers first at food distribution time.  Surprisingly, Tumak is supportive of the new arrangement.  Progress!

Well anyway there soon ensues a crisis involving a volcanic eruption and a giant iguana that ends up with both clans coming together with Tumak as the new chief. The End.

Wow. This movie must be seen by all science fiction fans.  Afterwards you’ll have a new found respect for stop action animation or even well-made monster suits.  Only recommended if you really enjoy very bad sci-fi.

Scott Miller’s Appalachian Christmas – A Country Music Review

Christmas Music in the Middle of February?  I know, what’s up with that?  So, I’m a slacker, so sue me.

Anyway this is an album of well known and not so well known Christmas songs.  It’s completely instrumental.  Lots of fiddle and mandolin.  I’ve actually been listening to it since before Christmas and even though it seems odd, it fits the dark winter nights very well.  Highly recommended.

Have My Say

A few years ago, I was reading the forum posts of one of the bigger photography websites.  It was one of the forums that was supposed to deal with non-photographic discussions.  So here was where people could talk about the world at large.  Anyway, the discussion turned to gun control.  I read about ten pages of comments and what I noticed was that anti-gun folks outnumbered the pro-gun contingent by about fifty to one.  And this numerical advantage was used to good effect by preventing any of the anti-gun folks from having to complete any rational discussion of even their most outlandish statements.  Whenever it looked like a pro-gun point was about to be made the anti-gun crowd dog-piled their opponent and shifted the argument to some new attack point and the whole process began again.  Finally, when in exasperation the victim lost his temper and barked back at his attackers he was labeled as rabid and hateful and his comments were deleted and he was banned from the site.

 

It bothered me.  Now, I didn’t know any of the participants from Adam.  I had read their comments before and of course I had my own preferences on their opinions based on where I agreed or disagreed with them.  But this was different.  This was basically censorship.  You were not allowed to have certain opinions.  But that wasn’t a policy of the website.  At least not a published one.  It was an unwritten one.  Basically, it was a private club.  But only the members knew it.  Every one else was there at the tolerance of the club members.  And this club was very regimented.  There was an orthodoxy about politics, religion, sexual orientation, environmental policies, climate change, gun control, race relations and especially culture.  Any variance from these orthodoxies were handled in exactly the same way.  The offender was mobbed and silenced and if necessary banned.

 

Well needless to say I went out of my way to be evicted.  I waited for a topic that I was sure would trigger the mob and knowing that it was my last hurrah I went for the gusto.  I didn’t attempt logic or even anger.  I went straight for mockery and insult.  It was glorious.  Of course, it was deleted but not until a furor arose.  Surprisingly, I was told I could return if I apologized and recanted.  Hah.

 

Anyway, that’s why I built this website.  I wanted a place where I could talk about photography and science fiction and movies that I liked and if I wanted to talk about politics I didn’t have to worry about being banned.  I could have my say.  But what I also recognized is that I should let other people have their say too.  Now I don’t mean I have to allow trolls to trash a thread or allow them to tell everyone else what they can’t say.  But it does mean that everyone doesn’t have to agree.  Some of my readers hate Donald Trump.  Okay, fine.  If you want to say why, no problem, go ahead.  By the same token, I think the Clintons are criminal grifters who also happen to be Alinskyite radicals.  So we’re probably not gonna agree on politics.  But maybe we both like Sony mirrorless cameras or classic horror movies or hiking in the southwest deserts.  So, if we can agree to disagree then we can still talk about things we both enjoy.

 

So that’s how I see this site working.  Because of my political slant I’m gonna guess that it will mostly attract people of the same general political slant.  But based on some of the poll results I’ve seen there is a significant population of folks from the left side of the aisle.  I have no problem with that.  You can even have your say.  Just don’t be jerk about it.  And that goes for our side too.  No need to be a jerk.  Keep it decent.  No dog piling.  No ad hominems.  Just opinions and no trolling.  Life’s too short.

 

There, I had my say.

For Any Fans of Larry Correia’s Tom Stranger Audibook He’s Come Out With Another.

Adam Baldwin (Firefly’s Jane Cobb and Chuck’s Colonel John Casey) narrates the continuing adventures of Tom Stranger, the most service oriented interdimensional insurance agent you’ll ever meet.   I’m a fan of Larry’s Monster Hunter series and I always like stuff that has Adam Baldwin in it.  And the fact that he’s right-wing guy doesn’t hurt either.

I haven’t listened this one yet but the first one was very entertaining, very funny.  And Adam does a very good job covering all the voices.  Of course I’d prefer if Baldwin could be playing one of Larry’s Monster Hunter characters (Agent Franks?) in a movie version.  But I’ll take what I can get.

So I don’t know if this second one would benefit from listening to the first one, first.  So I recommend getting them in order.

Tom Stranger 2: A Murder of Manatees AVAILABLE NOW!