June 29, 2018

Annual Interruption in Service

The Other Front is on The Continent, returning ca. July 18th.  

The Coming of Psmith

The first Wodehouse book I ever read was Psmith, Journalist, a lively early effort, set in pre WWI New York.

This week I've been reading the one that came right before, Psmith in the City, which is set in London and draws heavily on the author's brief stint with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (on Project Gutenberg, here).  Both books were compiled from a series of stories that appeared in The Captain magazine in 1908, when Wodehouse 27.

The age of 27 is sort of a magic one, by the way.  I certainly mark it as the first year of my life in which I displayed something resembling sentience.  I believe Bill James was the first to notice the effect, but numerous studies have shown that athletes tend to peak around the age of 27.  And mental athletics as well:  Einstein came up with E=mc2 when he was 26.

Whether it was age or inspiration, the emergence of the smartly-dressed, logorrheic Psmith marked a watershed in Wodehouse's career.  It is the moment when he begins to give in to his inner lunatic.  Psmith (the initial "p" is silent he says, as in "pshrimp") first appears as a secondary character in Mike.  But in Psmith in the City he - Urkel-like - takes over the show and relegates the likable Mike to the role of straight man:
Between ourselves,' confided Psmith, 'I'm dashed if I know what's going to happen to me. I am the thingummy of what's-its-name.' 
'You look it,' said Mike, brushing his hair. 
'Don't stand there cracking the glass,' said Psmith. 'I tell you I am practically a human three-shies-a-penny ball. My father is poising me lightly in his hand, preparatory to flinging me at one of the milky cocos of Life. Which one he'll aim at I don't know. The least thing fills him with a whirl of new views as to my future. Last week we were out shooting together, and he said that the life of the gentleman-farmer was the most manly and independent on earth, and that he had a good mind to start me on that. I pointed out that lack of early training had rendered me unable to distinguish between a threshing-machine and a mangel-wurzel, so he chucked that. 

Everything before this is competent, everything after it is Wodehouse.  In a later Preface to the Psmith stories, the Master said it was some of the easiest writing of his career:
Psmith has the distinction of being the only one of my numerous characters to be drawn from a living model.  A cousin of mine was at Eton with the son of D'Oyly Carte, the man who produced the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and one night he told me about this peculiar schoolboy who dressed fastidiously and wore a monocle and who, when one of the masters inquired after his health, replied “Sir, I grow thinnah and thinnah.” It was all the information I required in order to start building him in a star part.

Rupert D'Oyly Carte

Young Rupert was not known for his rhetorical excesses, but his brother (also an Etonian) did have that reputation, so Wodehouse may have conflated or coagulated the two.  In any case he said it was "the only thing in my literary career which was handed to me on a silver plate with watercress around it."

The resulting character is rich, upper-class, socialist, verbose, fastidious, long-limbed, big-hearted, and surprisingly serviceable in a riot (in Psmith in the City he emerges from two of them - one of which he started - requiring only minor repairs).
As drawn for Mike

Psmith is more than a wacky character, though.  For Young Me, and for Old Me, he is also a role model. He is kind and values friendships, and lives by a peculiar but unbreakable code.  Frances Donaldson, in P. G. Wodehouse: A Biography, says Evelyn Waugh was particularly taken with Psmith because of that code:
Psmith is the only Wodehouse character possessed of the aristocratic virtues. Evelyn adored the aristocratic virtues, which for him were the only thing (apart from piety) which separated mankind from the lower forms of life, and in consequence he was considered a snob. Yet it is dull to confuse people who like the qualities which, because of their upbringing, background, and circumstances, are more likely to be found in dukes than in those less materially fortunate, with those who simply like dukes. All the aristocratic virtues are based on self-confidence, an equipment which makes for quick-wittedness, moral fearlessness, unconformity, and lack of envy, although sometimes for less attractive qualities. 

Psmith is certainly confident, and while not extravagant, does insist on the civility of small luxuries:
Do you mean to tell me, Comrade Jackson, that your appearance belied you, that you were not interested? Well, well. How we misread our fellow creatures.' 
'I think you might have come and lent a hand with Prebble. It was a bit thick.' 
'I was too absorbed with Comrade Waller. We were talking of things of vital moment. However, the night is yet young. We will take this cab, wend our way to the West, seek a cafe, and cheer ourselves with light refreshments.'

When reading this to a young relative he pressed the pause button, looked at me, and said - with the certainty of youth - "that's you."

Well, maybe...but who doesn't like light refreshments?


Psmith also shares my distaste for public transportation, which I come by honestly and held strongly even during my straitened formative years:
'The first thing to do,' said Psmith, 'is to ascertain that such a place as Clapham Common really exists. One has heard of it, of course, but has its existence ever been proved? I think not. Having accomplished that, we must then try to find out how to get to it. I should say at a venture that it would necessitate a sea-voyage. On the other hand, Comrade Waller, who is a native of the spot, seems to find no difficulty in rolling to the office every morning. Therefore--you follow me, Jackson?--it must be in England. In that case, we will take a taximeter cab, and go out into the unknown, hand in hand, trusting to luck.' 
'I expect you could get there by tram,' said Mike. 
Psmith suppressed a slight shudder. 'I fear, Comrade Jackson,' he said, 'that the old noblesse oblige traditions of the Psmiths would not allow me to do that. No. We will stroll gently, after a light lunch, to Trafalgar Square, and hail a taxi.'

Mike's complaint that this will be "beastly expensive" does not even register.

But Psmith is not a hedonist or narcissist.  The Psmith stories are in fact unusual for their sense of social responsibility.  Psmith repeatedly intervenes in various ways to aid Mike in his efforts to be kind to people, and to protect him from the consequences that ensue.  But not without a bit of protest:
'This habit of taking on to your shoulders the harvest of other people's bloomers,' he said meditatively, 'is growing upon you, Comrade Jackson. You must check it. It is like dram-drinking...  When you were free and without ties, it did not so much matter. But now that you are confidential secretary and adviser to a Shropshire Psmith, the thing must stop. Your secretarial duties must be paramount. Nothing must be allowed to interfere with them. Yes. The thing must stop before it goes too far.'

But it never does.  In Psmith, Journalist Mike, Psmith, and an underemployed American reporter take on tenement landlords and the mob, and (barely) live to tell the tale.

All of this ante both bellums, of course.  I never put much stock in Orwell's line that "Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915," but Mike could well have been.  He was true to his school, and he did the right thing, and in early 20th century England those fellows were fed into the proverbial wood chipper.  Psmith, one suspects, might have gotten through - perhaps working in signals or intelligence, as Wodehouse's older brother Armine did (after getting shot at the Battle of the Somme).

At that moment Wodehouse was having a wildly successful time in New York.  George Simmers, a thoughtful critic in the UK, has written an essay on Wodehouse and the Great War, which notes that
Keeping the Atlantic between himself and the war zone let Wodehouse in for some adverse comment, and he fell out briefly with publishing firm A. and C. Black over his seemingly unpatriotic absence in America. It is unclear how much this disturbed Wodehouse, who had good reasons for staying in America, besides being medically unfit for the army. He had recently married, and from Miss Springtime of 1916 onwards was consolidating his reputation as a witty and original Broadway lyricist, helping to produce confections of light escapist entertainment, whose concerns were very distant from the harshness of battle.

Armine Wodehouse wrote moving poetry about the war, Simmers explains, and "if we judge [P.G.] by the standards appropriate to Armine’s introspective honesty about how he is being changed by the experience of war, then Wodehouse’s work must seem trivial, even repugnant..."  But Wodehouse knew this.  Simmons reminds us of this passage from Wodehouse on Wodehouse:
I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn. The ones that fail are the ones where the writer loses his nerve and says:  “‘My God! I can’t write this, I must tone it down”’.

But this is a bit too diplomatic.  Wodehouse hated politicians, hated war, hated militarism and dictatorship in all its forms.  And he hated the other kind of novel, too.  In 1922 he saw off that school in The Clicking of Cuthbert, when a romancing young golfer encounters a Russian novelist at a local literary society.  A sycophantic Englishman tries to ingratiate himself with the Great Man by professing admiration for those well-known titans of Russian literature, Sovietski and Nastikoff.  But he gets the cold shoulder:
No novelists any good except me.  Sovietski--yah!  Nastikoff--bah!  I spit me of zem all.  No novelists anywhere any good except me.  P.G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad.  Not good, but not bad.  No novelists any good except me.

The Wodehouse I love was made by war.  After the Great War he understood that he could never again try, as he had in the Psmith stories, to set his farces in real places.  He created an imaginary England, untouched by war, and populated it with imaginary estates like Blandings and Totleigh Towers.

As if it never happened

He allowed Psmith to appear once more (to be married) in the second Blandings novel, Leave it to Psmith.  After toiling in The City and the rough streets of New York, Psmith had ascended to a better place.  As Waugh put it, "it is a world that cannot become dated because it has never existed."

Serious students should consult The Annotated Psmith project, here.

A welcome invention

Anti-drone gun shoots drones at drones.


June 27, 2018

That's the stuff

[T]he north London teacher has announced she is using the [$1 million] she won in March with the Varkey Foundation global teacher prize – a kind of Nobel prize for teaching – to set up a campaigning charity to get more artists and arts organisations into Britain’s schools.

BONUS:  Melvyn Bragg photo op


The 4th-worst team in the NBA

As every shoolchild knows, the success of an NBA team in the regular season is strongly influenced by relative shooting skill and defensive ability.  Teams that shoot well and are good at keeping their opponents from shooting well tend to have great success.  This chart shows the relationship for the 2018 season, plotting the Effective Field Goal % differential (EFG% minus opponents' EFG%) for each team against its winning percentage.

This simple relationship accounts for about 2/3 of the variance in winning percentage in the Association during the regular season.  For teams in the southwest quadrant, the next steps are pretty simple:  find players who shoot and defend better (both, ideally).  One obvious role model would be the Galacticos Warriors, the rightmost dot on the chart, whose ability to score under all conditions only slightly overshadows their strong defense.  In 2018 these qualities ultimately led (not without adventure) to their third championship in four years.

But the chart also illustrates something that our eyes told us, to wit, the Warriors of 2018 were exceptionally brilliant, but were also underachievers, delivering a winning percentage of .707 as compared to the .811 that their shooting and defensive prowess might have rightfully earned.  In fact, the Warrior’s shortfall against the regression line was among the worst in the NBA, and the worst for a playoff team (gold bars are playoff teams).

Note that most playoff teams significantly exceeded their predicted winning percentage in the regular season.  Why?  Because the EFG% differential only accounts for 2/3 of the variance in performance.  Most good teams do other things well:  winning the possession battle, getting second-chance baskets, and controlling the pace of the game so as to favor their preferred style of play.

But the 2018 Warriors are not like most good teams.  They can be the fourth-worst team in the NBA versus expectations and still pour champagne at the end.  They are so good they just don’t have to care about the rest of it.  Has there ever been such a team?  Ever?

Let's play the first quarter left-handed

This also sheds some light on the Warriors’ plans for the 2018-2019 season.  Steve Kerr and the front office have made no secret of their intention of going with lots of younger players.  This is partly for economic reasons and partly because they will need to eventually find replacements for the aging Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.  But it is probably also true that a group of young players competing for their future will try harder.  

And aren’t we all sick of this.  In 2016 they failed to win a championship, in 2017 they failed to sweep in the Finals, and now this.  After years of disappointment, isn’t it time for the Warriors to start being the great team we know they can be?

June 25, 2018

Non also (re)tweets


June 23, 2018

Nothing more needs to be said



The food of Penang

I hadn't looked in for a while, but am happy to report that Ken Hunt's Penang food blog is still going strong.  For currency conversion, 10 RM is currently worth about $2.50.   In Penang, that gets you this:


Good dog

When Olsen and pilot Tab Burnett arrived, they found a wet and injured Amelia Milling alongside the river accompanied by a white dog. Both were airlifted to Anchorage, where Milling, 21, was treated for bumps and bruises and released.

Olsen said Milling told them that, after sustaining injuries a day earlier, she had fallen while trying to cross Eagle River. That was when Nanook sprang into action, helping pull her from the glacier-fed river, which is typically between thigh- and waist-deep on most Crow Pass hikers this time of year.

"She slipped and fell, and the dog was able to save her and get her back to shore," Olsen said.


Non appreciation day

A shoutout to Non Morris, London gardener par excellence, whose fine art/gardening/wandering blog, The Dahlia Papers, ran from 2013 to 2017.

Robert MacFarlane introduced me to Non, inadvertently.  I greatly enjoy reading MacFarlane, one small dose at a time.  He's a bit like Hopkins that way.  You read something like...

...and you say well that's splendid, what's the rest like.

Like that, is the answer.  Thousands of lines of it, and after 20 of them my eyes glaze over.  It's exhausting and the pure technical proficiency does not overcome the fact that Hopkins has one big thing to say, and having said it, is more or less repeating himself the rest of the way.

MacFarlane has a bit of the same problem.  He writes detailed and precise paragraphs that simultaneously dazzle and prompt multiple window-switches to look up the ancient words he employs.  Here is a magnificent, maddening example from Chapter 2:
Five thousand feet below us, the Minch was in an ugly mood. Grey Atlantic water, arrowed with white wave-tops. Our twin-prop plane reached the east coast of the Isle of Lewis and banked north towards Stornoway, bucking as it picked up the cross-buffets of a stiff westerly. The air was clear, though, and I could see the tawny expanse of Mòinteach riabhach, the Brindled Moor: several hundred square miles of bog, hag, crag, heather, loch and lochan that make up the interior of Lewis. 

This is all well and good.  Fair is fair, I bought the book after all.  And where hyperverbality and textwise self-indulgence are concerned, I reside in a quonset hut made of Waterford crystal, so my policy on stones must necessarily be somewhat restrained.


MacFarlane's topic is The Landscape is all its forms.  I had imagined that there were two ways to approach this.  You could take an immersive approach and write evocatively, ushering the reader into an imaginary world not unlike the moor at Culloden, but patently counterfeit and very nice, knowing full well that if some unfortunate should ever got to the moor at Culloden, they'd say "it was nicer in the book."

Not as nice as it looks

Or else you could write sparingly and tantalizingly, miming a report of the bare facts, but in reality functioning (as the zen master said) as a finger pointing at the moon.  Maybe McPhee's Coming Into the Country was like that.  Last January Alaska Public Media did a brief piece on the book, and quoted a fellow named Alan Weltzein as saying “I distinctly remember feeling like I was having a love affair when I was reading Coming into the Country in the late 1970s.  I had this kind of trust in his representation, so I could ride along with him when he defined what the country means if you live in Alaska.”

MacFarlane has found a third, possibly insane, way.  Think of it as a hand-carved ivory chess set pointing in the general direction of the moon.  In Chapter 1 of Landmarks  there appears a manifesto, which avers that writing about the land and its human signification are one and the same:
But we are and always have been name-callers, christeners. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words. ‘Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,’ in Wade Davis’s memorable phrase. We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words. The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp.

Ok, so I will read this book, one dense, daft spondee at a time.

But after I have sipped my dram I will turn with relief to The Dahlia Papers.  Non Morris has taken a look at Landmarks and professes admiration.  But her beautiful illustrated post may also be read as a refutation.

Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’, First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Her photographs remind us that the landscape is not just about the words, it's also perhaps even more about...the landscape.  It's one thing to put on a waxed canvas jacket and say the words "craggish" and "heath" a lot.  Non Morris gets out into world - the real one - and takes pictures, and adds brief accompanying text.  She finds her way, and we go with her.  This is better, I think.

Hopkins knew it. "There is no royal road to poetry," he said. "The world should know by this time that one cannot reach Parnassus except by flying."

June 21, 2018

I can't endorse that

A group of scientists is using stem cells to grow "minibrains" that contain Neanderthal DNA, and hopes they'll learn to control crab-like robots. 


June 17, 2018

Reykjavík Roadblock

A penalty kick that ought to have given Argentina a 2-1 lead on Iceland in their World Cup match today in Moscow became electric when Hannes Halldórsson turned away Lionel Messi, prompting an absolute explosion of emotion from the Icelandic TV announcer.
Fiddle dee dee,
Fiddle dee dum,
Iceland beat Argentina,


June 12, 2018

That was a good band


June 11, 2018

And that's the name of that tune


June 10, 2018

How to introduce Perry Mason to America's youth

June 08, 2018

Shaun Livingston update

Missed two shots in the Finals, made 13.

Career totals so far:  Ten teams, 769 games, three rings.

See you next year.




June 06, 2018

Got my new walking music

Game recap

June 05, 2018

You know, for kids

Includes the smash hit, "Ego the Living Planet".


June 04, 2018

X Company: A Fine Canadian WWII Show

Just a recommendation for the fairly excellent, Mission Impossible style WWII Canadian edition show X Company, slightly low rent, but really engaging, with a fun group of a bit beyond stock characters, with lots of touches of emotionally charged realism, and an entertaining reminder that Nazis were really terrible people.  Like a lot of great shows , the unbelievable parts are often the most historic.  I spent of a lot of  time thinking: "But that means they would have to.. oh God."

Some cheese, but without it it would be too brutal.  The gruesomeness is alluded too, and there's a lot of the best thing: high stakes dinner parties.  Extra points for centering on women who do things like leap on burning tanks and shooting Nazis inside with sidearms, and pushing back on their (epically) dysfunctional relationships with SS General Dad.

Production's over, but recommended. Digestible nazi-shooting fun with a good side dose of we're not exactly innocent either.

June 03, 2018

A Japanese "Nighthawks"

Inoue's "Night View of a Ginza Store" (1882) 


That's just stupid

Also a new record for three pointers in a Finals game (9).

Game #2

Livingston 5-5, now 9-9 for the Finals.

Tremble, Cleveland.


Timely warning

June 02, 2018

Wodehouse on London vs NY, 1908

London was too big to be angry with. It took no notice of him. It did not care whether he was glad to be there or sorry, and there was no means of making it care. That is the peculiarity of London. There is a sort of cold unfriendliness about it. A city like New York makes the new arrival feel at home in half an hour; but London is a specialist in what Psmith in his letter had called the Distant Stare. You have to buy London's good-will.              

- Psmith in the City


A penguin that can't remember the score

Nice of you to notice

From The Ringer:
There’s a clear difference when Livingston is in the game instead of [the other bench] players. The Warriors have a net rating of plus-25.8 in the 23 minutes he has played with their four All-Stars in the playoffs, even higher than their net rating with Iguodala (plus-22.9 in 110 minutes). That number drops to plus-11.7 in 110 minutes with Looney. They play Golden State basketball when Livingston is the fifth option: All five players can handle the ball, make plays for others, and score, and everyone but Curry can comfortably switch screens and defend multiple positions. A lineup is only as strong as its weakest link in the playoffs, and there are no weak links when Livingston is the worst player.


June 01, 2018

Résumé of the estimable Jake Parker

We were walking through a bookstore some years ago when this caught my eye, tucked away on a high shelf:

The 2008 book is the first in the Flight Explorer anthology series, and Jake Parker had the cover and a story  featuring his creation, Missile Mouse.  It might be targeted at kids, but it was impossible to miss the quality of the art, and the note-perfect execution of the story.

We apparently weren't the only once who noticed, as Missile Mouse returned for Missile Mouse and the Star Crusher (2010), which also had an epic trailer:

And more great art:

The excellent Rescue on Tankium3 followed in 2011.

From our perspective Parker kind of disappeared after that, kidnapped, we assumed by roving bands of Disney talent scouts who intended to use his considerable talents to help storyboard things like Spymaster! A Marvel Story and Infinity War 6: Thanos Really Dies This Time We Promise.

And we were half right.  If you're thinking Missile Mouse has a few things in common with Rocket Raccoon, well, you're right:

He did some movie work, and did some classes and videos, but in 2014 we got Skull Chaser:

And in 2015 he got serious about a project that had long been back-burnered.  The Kickstarter was successful, he got the work done, and the book is now about ready. So we got that going for us.

And then we got an e-mail from him today with this:

Yes, please.

His "web-site" is here.