Media bias: nothing new under the sun

 

Forsyth, Frederick. The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Judging from all the chatter about “Fake News,” one might think media bias is a wholly new phenomenon. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun.

I have earlier blogged about Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography “The Outsider,” specifically on how he reinvented himself as a pioneering thriller writer after his journalistic career came to an abrupt end. (The Day Of The Jackal to me still stands as perhaps the greatest thriller ever written.)

Forsyth never went to journalism school (he’d probably snicker at the thought): his formal training was as a jet fighter pilot! He had instead learned the craft on the job as a cub reporter for a regional newspaper, then decided to try his luck in London. By coincidence, the Reuters deputy bureau chief in Paris had just returned home with a heart condition. As this was a time of great political turmoil in France following de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria, the agency needed a replacement urgently. The polyglot Forsyth spoke French like a native and thus was hired basically on the spot.

Forsyth credits his boss in Paris, Harold King, with teaching him the value of professionalism and objectivity even on a subject where your own passions are palpable — such as de Gaulle, whom both men admired.

In this spirit, Forsyth relates a telling anecdote for those who think manufactured press conferences with planted questions are a recent innovation:

“I had turned twenty-four, and in January attended the now-famous press conference in the Elysée when de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community. It was a huge slap in the face to British premier Harold Macmillan, who, in Algeria in the Second World War, had pushed de Gaulle’s claims to be the sole leader of the Free French.

His conferences were no press conferences at all. He simply planted five questions with five ultraloyal senior pressmen in the audience, memorized the speech he intended to make in reply, and also memorized the placements of the five so-called questioners, because he could not see them. Harold King, in the front, was awarded a question to ask.

Later, Forsyth became the Reuters correspondent in East Berlin. I won’t detract from his many humorous tales of that period, many of which feature unintentionally comic behavior by the Stasi and regime officials. Pride of place is given to the press secretary of the East German Communist government, who acted as a de facto censor for the foreign press. Forsyth discovered that Kurt Blecha was, in fact, a former Nazi who underwent a “conversion” in a POW camp and now served the competing brand of totalitarians.

At Christmas, Easter, and on his birthday, I sent him an anonymous greeting card at his office. It was bought in East Berlin but typed on a machine in the West Berlin office of Reuters, in case my own machine was checked. It wished him all best, with his Nazi Party membership number writ large and purporting to come from “your old and faithful Kameraden.” I never saw him open them, but I hope they worried the hell out of him.

He tells of a few amusing amorous capers, one of which made it quite advisable for him to get back to the West. After another stint in Paris, he obtained a job with the BBC.

I learned quite quickly that the BBC is not primarily a creator of entertainment, or a reporter and disseminator of hard news like Reuters. Those come second. Primarily the BBC is a vast bureaucracy with the three disadvantages of a bureaucracy. These are a slothlike inertia, an obsession with rank over merit, and a matching obsession with conformism.[…]

The upper echelons of the bureaucracy preferred a devoted servility to the polity of the ruling government, provided it was Labor, and it was.

After various assignments, the BBC sent him to Nigeria to report on the developing civil war and the secession of what became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Here, Forsyth became an eyewitness to an unfolding human tragedy — his collected dispatches were later published in book form as The Biafra Story.

The BBC toffs were in lockstep with Whitehall (the Foggy Bottom of the UK) and the Wilson administration: they sided with the predominantly Muslim, pseudo-democratic, feudal regime of Nigeria against the predominantly Christian Igbo people who populated Biafra. (In this respect too, nothing new under the sun.) They repeated the propaganda of the Nigerian dictatorship as gospel truth.

Every journalist will know that he may have to report what a dictatorship is saying, but must make plain early on that it is the government talking, not him. This is the “attribution”—the words “according to the Nigerian government.”

Forsyth reported what he actually saw, and that did not go down well:

What I had actually done was point a Colt .45 at the forehead of my reporting career with the BBC and pull the trigger. It was not out of mischief but naïveté. I was trained by Reuters. I had never covered a controversial story in my two years with the BBC. I did not realize that when broadcasting for the state, a foreign correspondent must never report what London does not want to hear. And that is what I had done.

Forsyth was recalled to England, and then resigned from the BBC to continue reporting as a freelancer.

Every day, the horrors of Vietnam were copiously reported, but that was an American mess. Nigeria was a very British one, apparently to remain clothed in secrecy.[…]

For the record, there were no starving children visible at that time. They would appear later, and the ghastly images of them, splashed across the world’s media, would transform everything.

This happened after the blockade against Biafra had been enforced for a while. The Igbo grew their own sources of starches, but for protein were basically dependent on imports:

 It is a fact that an adult needs one gram of pure protein per day to stay healthy. A growing child needs five. The native population had always raised a few chickens and some small pigs for their eggs and meat. Other than these, there was no protein source and, unperceived, the hens and pigs had been consumed. The traditional protein supplement had always been fish; not river-caught fish but enormous quantities of Norwegian-imported dried cod called stockfish. These rock-hard sticks of cod went into the family stew pot, became rehydrated, and served as the family protein ration. For nine months, no stockfish had entered the surrounded and blockaded enclave. The meat/milk sources were gone. The national diet was now almost 100 percent starch.

And hence kwashiorkor made its appearance. Forsyth and others reported.

I did what I did, not in order to do down the Biafrans—far from it. I did it to try to influence the Whitehall argument that continued intermittently for the next fifteen months until the final crushing of Biafra, with a million dead children. The argument was between: “Prime Minister, this cannot be allowed to go on. The human cost is simply too high. We should reconsider our policy. We should use all our influence to urge a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution,” and “Prime Minister, I can assure you the media reports are as usual sensationalist and grossly exaggerated. We have information the rebel regime is very close to collapse. The sooner it does, the sooner we can get columns of relief food into the rebel territory. Meanwhile, we urge you to stick with the hitherto-agreed policy and even increase the support for the federal government.”

Guess which path the Whitehall mandarins chose? Worse, through a sleight-of-hand, they actually armed the Nigerian regime while professing neutrality.

Another early lie was that no weapons at all were being shipped from Britain to fuel the war. The key word was from, not by. In fact, the supplies were coming from British stocks at the immense NATO weapons park outside Brussels, and thus technically from Belgium. They were then replaced by shipments from Britain to Belgium.

And thus, slowly but surely, Biafra was crushed to death, even as the famine became an international humanitarian cause célèbre. Forsyth tells at some length of the aid efforts by Catholic and Protestant aid organizations —including an improvised air bridge that is estimated to have saved over a million lives. A secular relief effort that started in France would later (1971) rename itself Doctors Without Borders.

On another occasion, the war hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC was asked to go to visit, be shown around Nigeria only, and return to peddle the official line. He duly went to Nigeria, but then refused not to go to Biafra. What he saw on the second visit so shocked him that he came back and denounced the official policy. He was immediately smeared as a gullible fool.

It was pretty standard to smear every journalist who expressed disgust at what was going on as either a mercenary, arms dealer, or [Biafran leader] Ojukwu propagandist, even though a million pictures are rather hard to dispute. No massive humanitarian tragedy, save those inflicted by nature herself, is possible without two kinds of contributors[: perpetrators and enablers].[…]

Starting with Sir David Hunt’s biased and flawed analysis, which was adopted by the Commonwealth Relations Office, taken over and intensified by the Foreign Office, and cravenly endorsed by Harold Wilson and Michael Stewart, what happened could not have happened without the wholesale and covert contribution of the Wilson government. I remain convinced of it to this day.

Nor was it necessary to protect some vital British interest, and what interest merits a million dead children? Britain could have used its huge influence with Lagos to militate for a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution. It chose not to, despite repeated opportunities, pursuing Hunt’s conviction that Biafra must be crushed no matter the cost, but without ever explaining why.

That is why I believe that this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.

Frederick Forsyth was a journalist not just with a brain and a heart, but with a kind of raw moral integrity and intellectual honesty that made it impossible for him to continue in that profession, as he was “blackballed” upon his return to England. Looking for a way to support himself, he struck gold as a fiction writer, almost single-handedly establishing a new kind of tightly factual thriller.

Many journalists were presstitutes [sic] and mediatamites [sic] in Forsyth’s day — nothing is new there. What has changed is more that they morphed from high-class courtesans to pathetic streetwalkers—and that the tools to expose them are more readily available to those of us who want to hear what really went down.

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RIP Jerry Pournelle, 1933-2017

The great Jerry Pournelle, political scientist, technological visionary, prolific science fiction writer (often in collaboration with Larry Niven), and computing pioneer all in one, just passed away after a brief respiratory illness. He had appeared at DragonCon only days earlier.

I’ve been following Chaos Manor on an off since it was first a print column in BYTE magazine, back in the Early Tertiary era of computing. The online version has a serious claim to being the world’s oldest blog.
Novels like “Fallen Angels” (with Niven & Flynn) or “The Mote in G-d’s Eye” (with Niven) would have made the reputation of a lesser man. But aside from being a prolific science fiction writer, he was also a compelling thinker and technological visionary. Even with half his brain zapped by radiation treatments, he could still out-think most soi-disant “intellectuals”. Pournelle suffered no fools intellectually, but by all accounts was a generous and solicitous human being in private.
Here is a taste of Jerry Pournelle in his own words. (He was, by the way, apparently the first writer to write a published novel entirely on a [then primitive and monstrously expensive] personal computer.)

HOW TO GET MY JOB

The question I get most often, both in mail and when I speak, is, “How do I get your job?” Usually it’s done a bit more politely, but sometimes it’s asked just that way. It’s generally phrased differently by computer audiences than by science fiction audiences, but both really want to know the same thing: how do you become an author?

I always give the same answer: it’s easy to be an author, whether of fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software, and play with the new stuff until they tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

To be an author, you must first be a writer; and while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

The late Randall Garrett, one of the most prolific writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, used to have a number of rules, many of them scatological. One of them was that no professional writer ever got anything from formal courses in writing. I think he was wrong, in the sense that a good formal introduction to the rules of grammar and spelling can be extremely useful; but he had a point, which is that there aren’t any secrets to be learned from creative-writing courses. If the only way you can force yourself to write that million words of your best work is to take a class in creative writing or attend a writers’ workshop, by all means do it; but do it understanding that the good comes from the writing you do, not from the criticism or theory or technique taught in the class.

May his memory be blessed. The science fiction field and the blogosphere are truly a poorer place without him.

 

Genesis of a masterpiece: “The Day of the Jackal”

I just finished reading Frederick Forsyth’s memoirs, “The Outsider“, on the way home from a business trip. Forsyth is a superlative raconteur and the book a treasure trove of anecdotes and insights, as well as offers a window into what makes him tick.

It somewhat surprised me that his ambition had never been to be a writer — his boyhood dream, growing up during WW II, had been to become a fighter pilot, and against daunting odds he was able to do his (then still mandatory) military service in the RAF and to qualify on the de Havilland Vampire jet. But I was outright astonished to read that he wrote “The Day of the Jackal” — a thriller that redefined the entire genre — in no more than thirty-five (35) days, that it was the first novel he ever wrote, and that the published text is unchanged from his first draft. It was, however, another case of Renoir’s famous quote: “This painting took me five minutes, but it took me sixty years to get to the point I could pull that off”.

Forsyth, at the time, had over a decade experience as a practicing journalist, first for a rural English newspaper, then as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC. He had learned there to write clear, concise, publication-ready copy on short notice: before the days of word processors, scribbling an outline or a rough draft on paper, then typing the finished copy on a telex machine or dictating it over the phone to a typist/transcriptionist at the London office.

He had also learned, in his journalistic work, to research his subjects ahead of time (since deadlines needed to be met), and to develop “deep background” human sources for aspects of his reporting. (For instance, he would befriend forgers and underworld figures that taught him tricks for acquiring a false passport or a cover identity that his fictional protagonist would apply in the novel, and likewise learned how to acquire an untraceable sniper rifle.)

Originally, the essentials of the plot had come to him eight years earlier, when he was reporting from Paris during the turmoil following De Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria and the several assassination plots by the OAS that this triggered. (The one that opens the book is historical and came closest to succeeding.) He had then come to the conclusion that the OAS was so riddled with informants and so well-monitored that the only way such a plot could succeed was if the OAS hired a complete outsider, a very skilled professional assassin with great impersonation skills. (As he had lived in a less than luxurious area of Paris, near several dodgy bars that were OAS hangouts, he had a feel for the human dynamics in that organization.)

Especially in a first novel, the protagonist often includes a piece of the author. While on a moral plane, Forsyth and his fictional assassin couldn’t be more different, they both like the good life, and enjoy physical thrills like car racing — Forsyth did his military service as a jet fighter pilot, and later in life developed a taste for high-risk sports such as car racing, scuba diving, and parachute jumping. “The Jackal”s linguistic skills and mildly chameleonic abilities also mirror Forsyth’s: he had graduated high school fluent in  Spanish, French, and German, all of them learned by immersion during extended stays abroad. (In fact, it was the French that had gotten him the Reuters job, as they were suddenly a correspondent short in Paris when they most needed one.) As he points out, he thus picked up slang and gestures that one does not pick up in school. At the same time, his ability to slip into what he calls “my Bertie Wooster persona” (after P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional dimwitted aristocrat) served him well: he would pretend to be a British tourist with a few words of atrocious French or English, and people around him would wrongly assume he did not understand them and discuss matters they would not normally share with outsiders.

 

So when Forsyth found himself penniless and blackballed after returning from Africa, had to decide how to make a living again, and decided he was going to try his hand at writing, he was able to pound out the story in record time.

As he tells it, what he had no idea was how one gets a book published. He naively submitted his manuscript to four publishers in succession, without synopses and without hiring an agent—after three rejections, TDotJ was still lingering in the slush piles of the fourth. He did not engage an agent, as the idea did not occur to him. Then he had one of several great strokes of luck in his life: at a dinner party he was introduced to one Harold Harris, whom he was later told was the chief editor of Hutchinson Books (presently part of Penguin Random House). Upon going home, Forsyth wrote a 3-page synopsis of his novel, invited himself to Harris’s office as “a good friend I know socially”, not as “a novelist desperate to get published”, and talked Harris into reading the synopsis. Unlike the slush pile readers (“what’s the point? De Gaulle is alive, so we know how your book ends”), and probably thanks to the synopsis, Harris understood that the book wasn’t about the ending but about the cat-and-mouse game between the Jackal and the French police. He asked to read the whole manuscript: Forsyth raced back to the fourth publisher and sweet-talked a janitor into retrieving it from what turned out to be the reject pile, as Harris considered it unethical to read a manuscript currently under consideration with another firm.

After the weekend, Harris asked for 1-page for two more books, as he wished to sign a three-book contract. Forsyth thought of what he could distill from his journalistic experience, and came up with concepts (not yet finished plost) for what became The Dogs of War and The Odessa File. The rest is history. Very unusually for a novel, TDotJ was published as it appears in manuscript, without further editing. Forsyth acknowledges that Harris could have taken serious advantage of a rookie writer, but clearly was too much of an old-school gentleman to even consider doing so.

By an additional stroke of good luck, Fred Zinneman came to London shortly later to film a project that fizzled out, was given the book to read by an agent who had appointed himself to represent the movie rights of the book, and upon reading it decided this was going to be his next movie. Forsyth makes much of his lack of business acumen: at any rate, he never got rich off the movie, as he sold the rights for a UKP 20,000 lump sum (about US$600K in today’s money). It did, however, drive more sales of the book and helped make him a household name.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur would say about serendipitous discoveries. Likewise, Forsyth was able to make the most of the breaks he got primarily because he had acquired unusual skills relevant to his writing, appears to be blessed with an encyclopedic memory, and had honed his writing craft in a nonfiction field.

On Google and doublethink

The new Google slogan has been unveiled today (hat tip: Marina F.):

wip-google

For those who have been living under a rock: Google fired an employee for having the temerity to write a memo [draft archived here][full text here via Mark Perry at AEI] questioning the “diversity” (what I call “fauxversity”) and “affirmative action” (i.e., reverse discrimination) policies of the company. Said employee had earlier filed a labor grievance and is taking legal action. Now quite interestingly, here is an article in which four actual experts discuss the science underlying the memo, and basically find it unexceptional even though they do not all agree with the author on its implications. One of them, an evolutionary psychology professor at U. of New Mexico, has the money quote:

Here, I just want to take a step back from the memo controversy, to highlight a paradox at the heart of the ‘equality and diversity’ dogma that dominates American corporate life. The memo didn’t address this paradox directly, but I think it’s implicit in the author’s critique of Google’s diversity programs. This dogma relies on two core assumptions:
  • The human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities of outcome in hiring and promotion must be due to systemic sexism and racism;
  • The human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights, that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be competitive; any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink.
The obvious problem is that these two core assumptions are diametrically opposed.
Let me explain. If different groups have minds that are precisely equivalent in every respect, then those minds are functionally interchangeable, and diversity would be irrelevant to corporate competitiveness. For example, take sex differences. The usual rationale for gender diversity in corporate teams is that a balanced, 50/50 sex ratio will keep a team from being dominated by either masculine or feminine styles of thinking, feeling, and communicating. Each sex will counter-balance the other’s quirks. (That makes sense to me, by the way, and is one reason why evolutionary psychologists often value gender diversity in research teams.) But if there are no sex differences in these psychological quirks, counter-balancing would be irrelevant. A 100% female team would function exactly the same as a 50/50 team, which would function the same as a 100% male team. If men are no different from women, then the sex ratio in a team doesn’t matter at any rational business level, and there is no reason to promote gender diversity as a competitive advantage.
Likewise, if the races are no different from each other, then the racial mix of a company can’t rationally matter to the company’s bottom line. The only reasons to value diversity would be at the levels of legal compliance with government regulations, public relations virtue-signalling, and deontological morality – not practical effectiveness. Legal, PR, and moral reasons can be good reasons for companies to do things. But corporate diversity was never justified to shareholders as a way to avoid lawsuits, PR blowback, or moral shame; it was justified as a competitive business necessity.
So, if the sexes and races don’t differ at all, and if psychological interchangeability is true, then there’s no practical business case for diversity.
On the other hand, if demographic diversity gives a company any competitive advantages, it must be because there are important sex differences and race differences in how human minds work and interact. For example, psychological variety must promote better decision-making within teams, projects, and divisions. Yet if minds differ across sexes and races enough to justify diversity as an instrumental business goal, then they must differ enough in some specific skills, interests, and motivations that hiring and promotion will sometimes produce unequal outcomes in some company roles. In other words, if demographic diversity yields any competitive advantages due to psychological differences between groups, then demographic equality of outcome cannot be achieved in all jobs and all levels within a company. At least, not without discriminatory practices such as affirmative action or demographic quotas.
So, psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.
Weirdly, the same people who advocate for equality of outcome in every aspect of corporate life, also tend to advocate for diversity in every aspect of corporate life. They don’t even see the fundamentally irreconcilable assumptions behind this ‘equality and diversity’ dogma.

[“Jeb Kinnison” draws my attention to another article.] I just saw in an essay by Christina Hoff Sommers [see also video] on the AEI website that the National Science Foundation [!], as recently as 2007, sent around a questionnaire asking researchers to identify any research equipment in their lab building that was not accessible to women. In 2007. Seriously, I don’t know whether whoever came up with this “go find the crocodile milk” policy was gunning for a Nobel prize in Derpitude

 

derp seal

or trying to create sinecures for otherwise unemployable paper-pushers, or trying to divert bureaucratic energy into a Mobius loop that would minimize interference with serious decisions.

But on a more serious note: even before I saw the “paradox” remarks, I could not help being reminded of this passage in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The protagonist, Winston Smith, retorts to his mentor turned inquisitor:

‘But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach for ever.’
‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’
Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:
 ‘For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’ 

Precisely: doublethink. Thus it is possible, for example, that certain biological differences between men and women, or between ethnic groups, can be at the same time out of bounds for polite discussion,  yet entirely taken for granted in a medical setting. I remember when Jackie Mason in the early 1990s joked about wanting an [Ashkenazi] Jewish affirmative action quota for runners and basketball players: nowadays, that joke would probably get him fired at Google, while a sports doctor treating top athletes would just chuckle.

The root of evil here is twofold:

(1) the concept that even correct factual information might be harmful as it might encourage heresy [hmm, where have we heard that one before?];

(2) considering people as interchangeable members of collectives, rather than individuals. If one considers the abilities of a specific individual, then for the case at hand it does not matter whether the average aptitudes for X differ significantly between groups A and B, or not. (There is, in any case, much greater variability between individuals within a group than between groups.)

I would add:
(2b) overconfidence in numerical benchmarks by people without a real grasp of what they mean.

Outside the strict PC/AA context, it is the fallacy in (2b) which gives rise to such pathologies as politicians pushing for ever-higher HS graduation or college enrollment rates — because they only see “the percentage has gone up from X to Y” without seeing the underlying reality. They are much like the economic planners in the (thank G-d!) former USSR, who accepted inflated production statistics of foodstuffs and consumer goods at face value, while all those not privileged enough to shop inside the Nomenklatura bubble knew well enough that they were a sham. Likewise, those of us educated in a bygone era realize that the “much greater” HS and college graduation rates of today were achieved by the educational equivalent of puppy milling:

  • the HS curriculum has for most pupils been watered down to meaninglessness;
  • supposedly “native-born and educated” college students often are deficient in basic arithmetic and reading comprehension;
  • a general education at the level we used to get at an Atheneum or Gymnasium [i.e., academic-track high schools in Europe] nowadays requires either a college degree or an expensive private prep school.

But simplistic numerical benchmarks are beloved of bureaucrats everywhere, as they are excellent excuses for bureaucratic meddling. As Instapundit is fond of remarking: the trouble with true gender- and ethnicity-blind fairness — and with true diversity, which must include the diversity of opinion —  is that “there isn’t enough opportunity for graft in it”.

PS: apropos the calling the original author of the essay names that essentially place him outside civil society, a must-read editorial in the Boston Globe by historian Niall Ferguson. His wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, knows a thing or two about what real hardcore misogyny looks like, and how useless the Western liberal left is facing it. Moneygraf of the op-ed:

Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: The real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).

PPS: the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress weighs in on the controversy and applies some verbal ju-jitsu.

P^3S: heh (via an Instapundit comment thread): 3r06ultwiy725dfbgce3gelzczdktgliwnw8-aldmx0

P^4S: Welcome Instapundit readers!

P^5S: Megan McArdle weighs in (via Instapundit) and reminisces about her own early years in tech.

Thinking back to those women I knew in IT, I can’t imagine any of them would have spent a weekend building a [then bleeding-edge tech, Ed.] fiber-channel network in her basement.

I’m not saying such women don’t exist; I know they do. I’m just saying that if they exist in equal numbers to the men, it’s odd that I met so very many men like that, and not even one woman like that, in a job where all the women around me were obviously pretty comfortable with computers. We can’t blame it on residual sexism that prevented women from ever getting into the field; the number of women working with computers has actually gone down over time. And I find it hard to blame it on current sexism. No one told that guy to go home and build a fiber-channel network in his basement; no one told me I couldn’t. It’s just that I would never in a million years have chosen to waste a weekend that way.

The higher you get up the ladder, the more important those preferences become. Anyone of reasonable intelligence can be coached to sit at a help desk and talk users through basic problems. Most smart people can be taught to build a basic workstation and hook it up to a server. But the more complicated the problems get, the more knowledge and skill they require, and the people who acquire that sort of expertise are the ones who are most passionately interested in those sorts of problems. A company like Google, which turns down many more applicants than it hires, is going to select heavily for that sort of passion. If more men have it than women, the workforce will be mostly men.

She explains how she then moved into a field — policy journalism — that is also heavily male, but that she found she could get as passionate about as her former colleagues about [then] bleeding-edge technology.  Passionate enough, in fact, that she did it for free for five years (under the blog name “Jane Galt”) until she was hired by a major national magazine on the strength of her portfolio. Passion combined with talent can move mountains—or, if you pardon the metaphor, shatter glass ceilings.

P^6S: in the libertarian magazine Reason, David Harsanyi: By firing the Google memo author, the company confirms his thesis and “The vast majority of the histrionic reactions on social media and elsewhere have misrepresented not only what the memo says but also its purpose.” In the same magazine,  Nick Gillespie adds that “The Google memo exposes a libertarian blindspot when it comes to power: it is not just the state that wields power and squelches good-faith debate”.

P^7S: now this is Muggeridge’s Law in action. (Hat tip: Marina F.) I was certain this was satire when I first saw it…

 

Literary-friendly entertainment fiction: the “progressive rock” of books

 

 

I had an interesting discussion with the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress about more literary sci-fi and its sales potential the other day, and was reminded of this when I heard the audio of a Coldplay concert last night.
My daughter had attended live and went gaga about how this was the best concert she had ever heard. Having listened to about 2 hours worth of Coldplay, I can hear why this band is popular. It’s definitely a cut above today’s pop music — which is, of course, damning with very faint praise. It also has a few clever harmonic touches — but they are added in, for my taste, homeopathic doses, and smothered in pop cheese and endlessly milked hooks. (I was actually surprised they had a live drummer: the drum parts are so monotonous to my ears that I was convinced they were using a drum machine with very good samples.)

But apparently, that is as much musical sophistication as you can add and keep a mainstream pop audience nowadays. Sgt. Pepper era Beatles, or ELO in their heyday, are far-out progressive rock in comparison — heck, so is even Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys! But here’s the point exactly: they know their market, and they produce exactly what the market wants. If they are at all disaffected musically, they are suffering all the way to the bank.

All this has a parallel in fiction. Allow me to explain.

In pure entertainment fiction, everything is secondary to “the meat and potatoes” of the genre: in military sci-fi or space opera, for example, those would be a strong, sweeping plot, protagonists you can root for, credible antagonists, lots of action, and the like.

And no, that does not mean “dumb” fiction: plots and characters can be very complex, and about certain special interests that are central to their chosen bailiwick, genre writers and their fans alike can be detailed and obsessive to the point of “weaponized autism”. So if, say, Larry Correia geeks out about guns, or David Weber about orbital mechanics, that is not just tolerated but expected. (Never mind the level of painstaking detail seen in police procedurals and the better techno thrillers.)

But for anybody who is well-read, the prose in many works of genre fiction can be irritatingly pedestrian, if not outright “dumbed-down”. This is especially true of the American market: a few recent contemporary romances I read for “market research” seemed to have been deliberately written at an 8th-grade reading level. British readers seem to expect somewhat more polished prose.

At the other extreme, in pure “literary fiction”, one can often be forgiven for assuming that entertaining the reader is an afterthought at best. Writers of such books are often academics or academic wannabes, and peer approval is more important to them than anybody actually reading their book for pleasure.

There are writers that are trying to steer a middle course: combine entertainment mainstays with prose that those who love the language for its own sake will find pleasant to read — and if some readers need to look up a word on their Kindles, well, so be it. Often such books have philosophical, sociological, and/or spiritual themes running through them. “Literary-friendly entertainment fiction”, if you like. Dave Freer and Brad Torgersen are examples in the sci-fi field. Yet discussions with, among others, our BbESM suggested that the market for “literary-friendly entertainment fiction” is limited.

The musical equivalent of “literary fiction” would be contemporary classical music — which for the most part has no mainstream audience, and is written by academic musicians for academic musicians.

The Freers and Torgersens (and up to a point, Lois McMaster Bujold) would be like progressive rock: music that tries to retain some of the accessibility and energy of rock and pop music while also seeking a broader musical horizon. Now the best bands in that genre — take Yes or ELP in their heyday, or Genesis before they turned pop, or Rush and Dream Theater in a somewhat harder vein — have rabid and faithful cult fan bases — but “cult” is the operative word. I am sure the three guys in Rush made a ton of money over the years by building up a like-minded audience and reliably delivering the goods to it — but aside from airplay for “Tom Sawyer” , “The Spirit of Radio”, or “Limelight”, their mainstream appeal is always going to be limited.

There are artists with “two-track” outputs: nice tuneful pop songs or rock anthems for the casual listener, and more profound work for the serious aficionado. There’s a couple Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin songs that everybody knows, for instance, but they only scratch the surface of what these artists could do. Similarly, there are fiction writers who bankroll their more serious output with occasional crowd-pleaser offerings. Some people would call this “selling out”, but the “two-trackers” are basically following in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven (!): he would write reams of bagatelles (short, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) and song arrangements to pay his bills and stave off the creditors, while he worked on the symphonies and piano sonatas that earned him his place in the pantheon of classical music.

Sarah Hoyt seeks a slightly different course (like her acknowledged literary guiding light, Robert A. Heinlein). Yes, there are philosophical elements and literary allusions in works like Darkship Revenge — and not always in small doses, mind you —  but they are blended in subtly, carefully mixed in with the “meat and potatoes”.  Similarly, Lois McMaster Bujold (possibly my favorite living writer in any genre) has deep psychological material in her novels, but makes sure not to skimp on the things that Baen’s target audience wants in a novel. In music, this would be a “progressive pop” approach, with Coldplay at the more timid edge and Steely Dan at the more daring edge.  (More experimental artists like Frank Zappa would actually derive quite a bit of their appeal from extra-musical factors, such as shockingly bawdy lyrics.)

What does all this mean for a writer? The answer will, of course, be different for those trying to make a partial or complete living off our pens, and for those of us for whom fiction writing is a labor of love rather than an income stream. Robert Heinlein used to quip that his favorite five words in the English language were “pay to the order of”, and until late in his career made sure to write books that are easy to read on the surface — but that reveal several layers when read in depth.

 

Writers, which classical composer are you?

Some time ago, Sarah Hoyt wrote a long post at MadGeniusClub on making oneself “write like the wind”.  Somewhat tangentially related, Christopher Nuttall blogged in the same venue about the three types of writer: the “wannabe”, the “amateur”, and the “professional”.

The wannabe was memorably depicted by Albert Camus (in “The Plague”) as a civil servant named Joseph Grand who wants to write a number but has spent ten years looking for the perfect opening sentence. The amateur does get things written and published, but for him, the writing is just a hobby (perhaps even with a therapeutic aspect) and (s)he treats it as such: if he is too tired to write or the creative juices aren’t flowing, then so be it. For the professional, on the other hand, writing is a day job, and bills don’t get paid unless books get written. [A commenter would add a fourth category: the “moonlighting” writer who has a day job to pay the bills, but treats the writing as a second job.]

In a nutshell, the recommendations of both writers boil down to: if you want to make a living from writing, (a) treat it like a job, and make yourself write whether you want to or not, whether you have inspiration or not; (b) make yourself write fast, because the more you write, the better you get at it, and the more there is for people to buy. Especially (b) is a far cry from the romantic fantasy of the writer as an “artiste”-demiurge.

But is there only one path to being a writer? As I see it — if I may use a musical metaphor — it boils down to which composer one wants to be.

At one extreme are the Mozarts and Vivaldis. A snide joke among some classical musicians has it that Vivaldi didn’t write 400+ concertos, but 400+ times the same concerto. Of course this is a cheap shot, but even people who generally love classical music would be hard-pressed to name any Vivaldi composition other than the Four Seasons.

Disparaging comments aside, “The Ginger Priest” did help establish the concerto as a classical music form, which in itself is no mean musical legacy. None other than J. S. Bach  studied his work diligently and transcribed several of his concerti for keyboard instruments. You might say Vivaldi was a kind of E. E. “Doc” Smith among composers.

Mozart was every bit as prolific and crowd-pleasing as Vivaldi—which elicited from the always sharp-tongued Glenn Gould the notorious quip that “Mozart died too late rather than too early”. The main reason so many of Mozart’s compositions did endure (while the likes of Ditters von Dittersdorf have been forgotten) is very simple: Mozart was a transcendent genius. He simply preferred to write lots and in a very accessible idiom, even as he occasionally ventured into ‘learned’ composition for his own pleasure and was very skilled at it. He was perennially short of money, as he enjoyed the good life and had no steady patron—he might have nodded in agreement at Heinlein’s statement that his favorite five words in the English language were ‘pay to the order of’.

At the other extreme stood Maurice Ravel. Nicknamed ‘the Swiss watchmaker’ by colleagues, he was a total perfectionist with a very modest output (after WW I, he averaged about one composition per year). Financially secure as a tenured professor of composition, he had no need to “compose to pay the bills”. In fact, he was as well known as an orchestrator of other people’s music as for his own compositions — Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition was originally solo piano music, which Ravel orchestrated. Impervious to others’ opinions but relentlessly self-critical, he quipped to fellow composer Arthur Honegger: “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”

 

Anton Bruckner was eternally plagued by self-doubts. In response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues, he would endlessly revise his symphonic works  — for example, there are at least five extant versions of the First Symphony — in response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues.

 

The creative struggles of Beethoven in his major works — the symphonies and the 32 piano sonatas, which have been named “the New Testament of solo piano music” — are legend, as evident from the minefields of corrections and erasures in his manuscripts , which drove copyists and score engravers alike crazy.  The resulting financial woes he addressed in part through patronage, but also through a parallel “pay the bills” compositional output written to publisher’s order: folk song arrangements, variation cycles, and “Bagatelles” — short, inventive piano pieces accessible to a somewhat skilled amateur. Yes, even this archetype of the “artiste-demiurge” wrote to pay the bills sometimes! The writer who churns out popular romances or mysteries under one pen name in order to subsidize a more literary output under his/her own name took a page, so to speak, from Beethoven’s playbook.

Liszt is a special case that has no real parallel among fiction writers: a wildly popular concert virtuoso who wrote piano showpieces and arrangements of symphonic works for his own use in performance (making the most of his unique technical skills), then retired to focus on more profound compositions.

And then there was Johann Sebastian Bach. As Mauricio Kagel memorably put it, “Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but all believe in Bach”. A virtuoso on multiple instruments (not just keyboards), with an intellect that probably exceeded even Mozart’s, Bach was a scholar as much as an artist, and had an active interest in the practical side of instrument design. His work ethos struck an interesting balance.

In Bach’s days, one couldn’t live strictly off composing: Bach’s principal income streams were as a church organist (legendary in his day), a court musician, and eventually as the musical director and assistant principal of the St.-Thomas high school in Leipzig. (He generated secondary income streams from music all his married life, as an organ building consultant, as a reseller of Silbermann’s early pianofortes, and the like.) As part of his duties in Leipzig, for several years he wrote a fresh cantata every week [!], many of which have sadly been lost (though over 200 have been preserved). He was thus every bit capable of churning out works on demand on a tight production schedule. (To be sure,he routinely recycled material, and levels of thematic borrowing that nowadays would be considered plagiarism were accepted in his day.)

At the same time, at the works that mattered most to him, he worked slowly and painstakingly — the first autograph MS for The Art Of The Fugue, for instance, dates from 1741, while the final fugue was still unfinished at Bach’s death nine years later. Most unlike Beethoven, few erasures are evident in Bach’s manuscripts until his eyes started faltering near the end of his life: he would write the whole composition in his head and at the keyboard, then put it down on paper when it met his exacting standards of quality. Fairly little of his music was published during his lifetime, primarily cycles of keyboard works. Bach studied music of other composers with great attention and mined it for forms as well as themes (to which he applied his never-surpassed mastery of counterpoint), but was essentially indifferent to public acclaim or fashion: while he took his musical duties seriously, the very notion of writing to fit the popular fashion of the day was alien to him. At the end of the day, this devout Lutheran with an impressive collection of theological books wrote his major works S. D. G. (soli Dei gloria, for the glory of G-d alone), as he was wont to write on his manuscripts.

Coming back to Sarah’s “Write Like The Wind” post. She mentions that endless revising and agonizing about language will not be noticed by one’s readers. Like with so many things in life, the ‘law of diminishing returns’  — just like a $20m Stradivarius obviously will not sound 1000x better than a violin custom-built by a luthier for, say, $20K. Sure, there is a reader segment (yours truly included) that enjoys exquisitely crafted prose for its own sake. However, beyond a certain point one is better off finishing up and moving on to the next work. One would like to believe that there is a golden mean between assembly-line hack work on the one hand, and toxic perfectionism on the other hand.

 

Fair Use: what does it mean for writers and scholars?

Academics, writers, musicians, video producers, publishers, and other creative professionals have all heard of the “fair use doctrine”, that under certain circumstances allows us to quote copyrighted text, images, or sounds. But what is it, in plain English?

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a legal professional — I have merely acquired a working knowledge of the concept through my day job — and nothing I write here should be taken as legal advise.

Second, while the concept existed in common law for a long time before that, “fair use” was officially enshrined as statutory law in 1976 as 17 U.S.C. § 107 

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

[Emphasis mine in the above.]

This four-part test was actually first formulated by US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845; “what’s in a name?”) in the ruling on Folsom v. Marsh: this case concerned somebody who had published his own two-volume condensation of a 12-volume biography of George Washington. SCOTUS decided that yes, such derivative works were within the rights of the original copyright owners (the plaintiff), and that Marsh, the defendant, had violated their copyright.

In plain English: Justice Story argued that by publishing an “all the good bits” abridgment, Marsh had greatly reduced the sales potential of the long original.

Let me illustrate the four-part test with a few concrete examples:

(1) Quoting another scholarly author’s argument in a scholarly work, with proper source attribution, and clearly marking it as a quotation rather than one’s own words: fair use, and common established practice.

  • typically, the works being quoted are noncommercial to begin with
  • typically, the quote is a very small percentage of the full paper or book
  • the “market value” of a scholarly paper is measured in citations, and your action will generally only increase those

(2) Quoting a phrase, quip, aphorism,… of another author in one’s novel, clearly marking it as a quote? Accepted practice. Typically, the quote is 0.00x % of the whole book, and this is actually a way of bringing tribute to the writer being name-checked.

(3) Quoting a few lines from a poem or song lyric in your fiction book? Aha, now this is another matter — because even a few lines constitute a nontrivial percentage of the original work, so this would fail the amount and substantiality test.

My editor taught me a serviceable workaround: paraphrasing the lyrics in my own words. It is the words that are subject to copyright, not the ideas conveyed in them. [Cf. the idea-expression divide in intellectual property law.]

And if the poem in question is in the public domain (e.g., Shakespeare, Tennyson,… or generally anything published before 1923) then of course no issue arises.

(3b) Quoting a picture or graph from one work in a scholarly work of yours? Well… as “masgramondou” put it, “one picture is worth a thousand words — assume the same holds for copyright purposes”. The way I think of it: the image is a complete unit unto itself, and it would be more akin to quoting an entire chapter or section of a written work (or an entire verse or chorus of a song lyric).

And so, where for a textual quotation source referencing would be adequate, one would have to apply for copyright permission to the original copyright holder. In practice this is less of an imposition than it seems: most scholarly publishers have a (semi)automated mechanism in place where one can apply online with full personal details, details of the work being quoted, details of the work it’s being quoted in (review articles are actually the most common scenario), and commercial or noncommercial character of the derived work. (The last time I needed such permission for a paper in my day job, it cost me $0 and all of two minutes.) The licensed picture is then almost invariably accompanied by a statement along the lines of “From H. Slowcoach and L. Tortuga, Journal of Chelonian Reproduction 12, 345 (1967). Copyright American Association for Herpetology. Reprinted with permission.”

(3c) Recycling somebody else’s artwork in your own commercial fiction book? Unless it’s in the public domain or you licensed it form the copyright holder, you are setting yourself up for litigation or at the very least “cease and desist” letters.

Stock photos are another matter. They are “works made for hire” from a copyright point of view: once you bought them, they are yours to use. Their use in book covers can entail other issues — such as when two authors use the same stock photo — that one may wish to avoid, but they are in a different realm than copyright infringement.

Coming back to scholarly nonfiction for a moment: The scientific world in recent years has seen the emergence of licensable image libraries (e.g., Springer Images). Particularly in the life sciences, where diagrams and elaborate artistic renderings are more common than straight plots or data visualization, such image libraries have their places, and can save money compared to hiring a skilled visual artist with the appropriate background.

(4) What about music?

• In a music-centric novel, describing musical compositions in great detail — short of actually including transcribed scores — is apparently fine.

• Using audio of a well-known popular song for an audio book or a book trailer in practice means licensing. It can get tiresome enough that people might instead hire a musician to compose something “in the style of [insert popular song]” and use that instead

• most classical compositions are in the public domain, but specific audio recordings (e.g. for use in an audiobook or book trailer) need to be licensed. As part of the “open culture movement”, there are artists that make their own recordings of classical pieces available under Creative Commons licenses: these may be a good alternative. Otherwise, you know what? Go to your local conservatory and offer to pay somebody to record the track for you.

(5) Reproductions of visual works of art

• What if I, say, wanted to use a digital image of a Renoir painting as a book cover? (Assume it’s a “literary fiction” book, since that’s what cover designers tell me such use would signal.) The copyright here applies to the photograph, strange as this might seem. Museums that allow downloading of digital images of their collection typically stipulate that such images are “for personal use only”. In some cases, if photography in the museum is permitted, one can legally visit the museum in person, take a picture (usually without a flash) and use that.

Speaking of book covers: who “owns” the copyright to a book cover? They are generally produced as “works for hire” by a cover designer, and whoever commissioned the work and paid for it owns the rights to the cover (typically: the publishing house, or the author if it is an indie publication). Recycling by somebody else as artwork for commercial publication projects without licensing or permission constitutes copyright infringement.

Very recently and importantly: Concerning the special case of “thumbnails” showing up in searches or use in product links, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in Perfect 10 v. Amazon  that these are a highly “transformative” use and that they are to be considered fair use. The ruling gave much weight to “the public interest” [in search engines etc.]. It also  held that hyperlinking to such images does not constitute “secondary copyright violation”.

(6) What about parody?

Parody (if clearly recognizable as such) is an affirmative defense: a landmark court case on the matter is Campbell vs. Acuff-Rose Music, a.k.a., the “Pretty Woman” case. It involved the rappers 2 Live Crew, fronted by Luther Campbell (stage name “Luke Skywalker”), who had recorded their own “version” of Roy Orbison’s classic song: they had kept only the iconic bass riff (which I presume they  programmed into a Roland TB-303) and chanted (I would not dignify their performance with the term ‘singing’) their own lyrics over it (which focused on such features of the woman as her derrière, hair in certain places, promiscuity—you get the drift). They had in fact approached the copyright owners (Acuff-Rose) for licensing the song for a parody but been told to take a hike, then recorded their own version anyway. The court found in their favor, ruling that parody was a “transformative” use [in the legal sense of the word] rather than a merely “derivative” one.

marcel_duchamp_mona_lisa_lhooq
Marcel Duchamp’s parody of the Mona Lisa is often cited as a classic example of a transformative work

So for example, if I were to release an album and issue an ad with a picture of my own album cover, plus one of “St. Anger” by Metallica as “this is not what you will get”, I would be over the line — a picture is a complete unit, and promotional material is clearly not scholarship or commentary. If instead I drew a parody cover of a fictional album “St. Anal” by “Banalica”, I would probably be safe — but even then I might get legal advise first to be on the safe side.

 

 

Summarizing:

  • there is a simple 4-factor test for “fair use”
  • in general, scholarly use is much more permissive than commercial use
  • anything quoted should be a trivially small percentage of the whole work, and in particular should not be a self-contained unit of the whole work
  • use should not detract from the commercial revenue potential of the original
  • there are commonly accepted usages; there are abusages that are manifestly illegal; and there is a gray zone in between when one might wish to get legal counsel, or at the very least err on the safe side.

Media companies tend to be very aggressive (often to the point of seeming absurdity) in asserting their rights: for noncommercial use, a recent development has been Lenz v. Universal Music. (a.k.a. the “dancing baby case”). The plaintiff, Stephanie Lenz, had posted a YouTube video (less than 30 seconds) of her baby dancing to the Prince tune “Let’s Go Crazy”. Universal Music sent a takedown notice under the DMCA: in response, Ms. Lenz sued Universal, and the case eventually reached the Ninth Circuit Court, which held for that

[copyright holders have a] “duty to consider — in good faith and prior to sending a takedown notification—whether allegedly infringing material constitutes fair use”.

This almost creates the legal situation that exists in Israel — where “shimush hogen” (fair use) is legally a right rather than an affirmative defense, and one can actually sue a company for not permitting fair use. However, to be clear: this does not mean that use that is obviously not fair in the legal sense of the word now magically has become so.

Dessert

By way of dessert, here is a musical example of a “transformative work” I rather like. The original was a Rob Dougan track called “Clubbed to death” used in The Matrix soundtrack. It ironically itself starts off with a sample from an orchestral performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I remember thinking “boring, but could be a good track to jam over” when I first heard it — then a guitarist named Tom Shapira recorded this amazing improvisation over it. Enjoy!