c o l o p h o n

June 22nd, 2008

How to Spot a Jap (1942)

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“To sum it up, spotting a Jap depends on three things: (1) Appearance, (2) Feet (3) Pronunciation.”

June 5th, 2008

World Wide West

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The web as frontier. Vanity Fair has a long history of How it Was Won.

It was necessary to have a strategic system that could withstand a first attack and then be able to return the favor in kind. The problem was that we didn’t have a survivable communications system, and so Soviet missiles aimed at U.S. missiles would take out the entire telephone-communication system. At that time the Strategic Air Command had just two forms of communication. One was the U.S. telephone system, or an overlay of that, and the other was high-frequency or shortwave radio.

So that left us with the interesting situation of saying, Well, why do the communications fail when the bombs were aimed, not at the cities, but just at the strategic forces? And the answer was that the collateral damage was sufficient to knock out a telephone system that was highly centralized. Well, then, let’s not make it centralized. Let’s spread it out so that we can have other paths to get around the damage.

May 23rd, 2008

Is there a text in this post?

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Stanley Fish has a blog?

May 12th, 2008

The double entendre survives climate change

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Once more, I have to salute the headline writers at BBC online. This:


has been on the “most e-mailed” list all through the weekend. Gentlemen, good work in keeping the British end up.

May 2nd, 2008

Escape Routes

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Yesterday, London’s Evening Standard asked me for a quick rejoinder to Nick Cohen’s piece about James Bond. Cohen was writing about ‘For Your Eyes Only’ — not the film, but the exhibition that’s currently at the Imperial War Museum.

I’ve never been much interested in memorabilia exhibits. Captain Kirk’s handbags! Darth Vader’s original costume ears! That sort of thing. Why bother? I’m guessing, and I hope, that it’s an easy and fun way to bring in visitors and cash to otherwise underfunded institutions. So be it.

Cohen took issue with the curators’ trying to show how the Bond fictions might ‘reflect the reality’ of the real Cold War. Fair point, I would have said. Cohen dismisses it all as ‘escapism’. But what kind of escapism? Escape from the impending nuclear holocaust, ruthless Soviet opponents and fear of Communism? Surely not. All the Cold War fear is there in Bond. No one’s about to confuse From Russia With Love and Bambi.

As a stylist, Fleming was a pretty poor show. But he knew his audience. Like a medieval mountebank reeling off poems filled with silks and swords, he knew that the crowd wants to hear about the high life, and about the possibility of heroic deeds making the world a fair, safe place.

It looks like my squib has been bumped by Boris Johnson’s imminent mayoral coronation, but here it is anyway.

Shocking. Positively shocking. Judging by his article in Wednesday’s Standard, Nick Cohen would have preferred it if the Imperial War Museum’s James Bond exhibition, ‘For Your Eyes Only’, remained classified. Arguing against the curators’ view that the Bond phenomenon might ‘reflect the reality of the cold war’, he cocked a sceptical eyebrow worthy of Roger Moore: ‘It bore as much relation to yesterday’s stand-off with Soviet totalitarianism as [the BBC spy-drama] ‘Spooks’ does to conflict with Islamist totalitarianism.’

It’s true Ian Fleming was no grim realist. Writing in Barbados, he stuck to a regime of cocktails and scuba diving while churning out the words. But was the ‘sex and derring-do’ that Cohen describes really an escape from the chilly world of Soviet bombs and mutually-assured destruction?

Fleming’s escapism was aspirational. If most fans couldn’t drink martinis, save the world and get the girl, we could read about it. We could watch it. But as we watched, we couldn’t help noticing the ubiquitous fictional submarines, missiles, spies and guns. Bond’s popularity lay not in escaping or forgetting the real conflict, but in taming it. Like ‘Spooks‘, 007’s world is a pretty good, though dark, mirror, reflecting the desires and fears of its time.

A quick postscript, since space here isn’t at a premium. Michael Chabon, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, had his 40s comic-book writers name their superhero ‘The Escapist’. It was a nod to Houdini. But it was also a joke about comic books being escapist trash. As Chabon and others have shown, the signs of the times are deeply ingrained in those comics, and their style in turn came to occupy its own aesthetic and psychic space, laying foundations for, among other things, pop art. Setting up some kind of fanciful opposition between ‘escapism’ and ‘reflecting reality’ will get us nowhere, since it may be precisely the things that we want to escape from — and escape to — that are most revealing.

April 29th, 2008

Gustatus Similis Pullus

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William J. Broad writes about Trevor Paglen’s I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me at the NYT [Bugmenot]. Paglen has collected unofficial unit patches from U.S. covert ops projects. (I particularly like the one that looks like Death from Discworld. And don’t miss Groucho Marx in the slideshow.)

Wizards appear on several patches. The one hurling lightning bolts comes from a secret Air Force base at Groom Lake, northwest of Las Vegas in a secluded valley. Mr. Paglen identifies its five clustered stars and one separate star as a veiled reference to Area 51, where the government tests advanced aircraft and, U.F.O. buffs say, captured alien spaceships.

[via Bookslut]

April 27th, 2008

Ways to an early grave, then and now.

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A friend of mine here in California smokes these:

Seneca Cigarette

Seneca brand cigarettes. They’re sold cheap – free of federal taxes – on some native American reservations. (Which sort of takes the sting out of 500 years of evictions and genocide.)

‘Seneca’ cigarettes? Oh, I want that to be a sly dig. Here’s why.

There’s an apocryphal story about Seneca the Younger, spread about in the middle ages by an Italian archbishop named Jacobus de Voraigne. Voraigne wrote hagiographies full of spectacular miracles and deeds of saintly derring-do – a sort of 13th-century Kitty Kelley.

A couple of centuries later, William Caxton spotted a good market for that sort of thing, and Archbishop Jacobo’s book – the Golden Legend – went platinum.

Jacobus was also a big fan of the old ‘nomen est omen’ trope. According to the Legend, Seneca went to the Emperor Nero (who had been his pupil) to be rewarded for his services. Unfortunately for Seneca, Nero remembered what a bastard of a teacher he had been, and got his own back by offering his old dominie a choice of nasty ways to die:

Whereupon Seneca opened his veins in his bath, and bled to death: and thus was the omen of his name fulfilled, for se necans means one who kills himself. And Seneca had two brothers, Julian Gallio the orator, who likewise took his own life, and Mela, the father of the poet Lucan, who also opened his veins at Nero’s command.

All in all, not a lucky family, and poor old Se-necans should have seen it coming.

(According to Tacitus, Nero wanted Seneca dead because Antonius Natalis had implicated him in the consipiracy led by Piso. But don’t let that ruin a good story about an affronted schoolboy emperor.)

For Voraigne, nomen was omen. Etymology was a kind of magic. When the novelist T.H. White edited a bestiary from the century before Voraigne’s, he put it like this:

This is why we have had to put up with such a lot of the etymology of Isidore. Urica the canker burns (urit): but it also makes people urinate. Even words were hitched up and entangled with the universe.
Everything held together, was logically coherent. ‘Why? Because’ was the leit-motif of the ages of faith.

And so to Seneca cigarettes. Why? Because: hegemony-sponsored suicide, then and now. I wish that brand name could be a sly dig by an indigenous classicist-medievalist account exec.

I think it unlikely. But I’m still glad my brand’s Camel.

April 15th, 2008

Books + stairs = staircase

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How happy can stairs make me? Very happy. Courtesy of small (and clearly very cool) London practice, Levitate.

My pal Crystal has just started working for them, and I am now deeply envious. Discount?

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April 11th, 2008

Review review

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The Second Plane: not, it seems, M.A.’s finest hour (or six years).

After a decent interval, Michiko Kakutani has reviewed the book for the NYT [Bugmenot]. She hates it, and I think she’s right. The essays don’t sit well in a collection, they date from, and they don’t date well. It’s not a good book. Its arguments are sloppy, verging on absurd. Even the writing is shoddy, by M.A.’s standards. Yes, perhaps, it’s been said, Martin is going the way of Kingsley. Yawn.

I have a fondness for M.A.’s books. For Money, for London Fields, for The War Against Cliché, without which I would never have written a printable review. Even for Koba the Dread. That, of course, makes me the more disappointed in The Second Plane.

And yet, what interests me more – and not by way of defending Amis fils – is the protean Michiko. The Michiko who once slated a history of ‘Swinging London’ in the persona of Austin Powers. It was, it should be said, execrable ventriloquy, and so is the review of The Second Plane . The ‘chuckleheaded’ in the first sentence that Steven Poole has such fun with over at Unspeak – ‘In one of these chuckleheaded essays…’ – sounds to me like a bad effort at one of those great reviews by Amis that Sam Anderson mentions in his list for Critical Mass. (The ones that start with lines like ‘While planning the murder of Gale Ann Benson, Michael X also found time to start work on a novel’).

And the rest of the Kakutani review is dull, dull, dull. ‘For instance’, ‘As for’, ‘And for’, ‘In this book Mr. Amis says’. MK may be right, but it seems she also has two reviewing modes: the gratingly tone-deaf and the irredeemably bland. The weird infelicities don’t help:

And his own reasoning in these pages tends to be specious or skewed. He sets up ridiculous paper tigers to knock down easily: For instance, he suggests that Western liberals acted as if “suicide-mass murder” committed by Islamic terrorists was “reasonable, indeed logical and even admirable.”

Come on. A ‘paper tiger‘ isn’t the same as a ‘straw man‘ — and is he really constructing either? More likely just a roll-up. Let’s have a verdict from The War Against Cliché:

‘The adversaries of good book-reviewing are many and various, but the chief one is seldom mentioned—perhaps because of its ubiquity. […] The crucial defect is really no different from that of any other kind of writing: it is dullness. The literary pages throng with people about whom one has no real feelings either way—except that one can’t be bothered to read them.’

Ah, you got me, Michiko: I read you. This time. And I agree with you. I really do. I just wish that your take-downs could be more engaged and less bonkers, your writing less mannered and more consistent. Leave the impersonations to John Crace, mkay?

April 8th, 2008


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Junot Diaz, Robert Hass … Bob Dylan?


The Oscars. Or possibly the Pulitzer Prizes for 2008. I forget which.

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