The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Jan 17 19 2017

A Funny Fellow

Amy Poehler explained a lot about how much work goes into being funny, but some people make you smile without years of training and practice. (Amy Poehler was probably like that before all those years of improv, but hardly anybody knew that.). But the strangest comedy highlight has got to be Kennedy Steve, an air traffic controller with a big fan base.

Seriously! This guy is a traffic cop, sorting out airplanes that aren’t even flying yet, just taxiing to and from their gates. Most of the time, he’s telling people to wait. Occasionally, he’ll ask someone to hurry up. Mostly, he gives planes cryptic instructions for taxiing through the big airport.

Jet Blue 359, after the RJ, you can continue on to ALPHA all the way to KILO-ECHO. ’Cause you’re the next to go.

But he’s infectiously funny. When he’s working a shift, he’ll be the most listened-to channel at LiveATC. At least two separate people condense his traffic alerts to take out the pauses between calls, type out transcripts and upload them to Youtube where they regularly get tens or hundreds of thousands of listeners. (There are also lesser stars – grumpy Kennedy Jack and enthusiastic Boston John – but Kennedy Steve is clearly the big draw.)

What makes Kennedy Steve funny? I’ve been trying to work it out. I have a few ideas:

Mock Epic: A subtext of air traffic control is always the risk of terrible accidents, but most interactions involve minor annoyances and small delays. The context of these annoyances, however, is a power struggle between airline pilots (who are Masters Of Their Craft) and controllers (who are telling those Masters where to go, which is something they cannot be expected to enjoy). Kennedy Steve systematically exaggerates the challenges and delays and vexations while making light of them. When bad weather shuts down a big airport somewhere and lots of departing flights have to wait, he doesn’t just tell them to wait – he tells them to “call Clearance for an incredibly creative re-routing!” When the gate supervisors are clogging up the taxiways, he tells pilots that “your ramp is simply stellar!”

Heroic Struggle: The Roadrunner always has the Coyote and Acme Industries. Steve has tugs — the vehicles push and tow airplanes at the gate. Like planes, tugs need to get permission from Ground Control to go places. Steve is always complaining about the tugs, because they dawdle on his taxiways or don’t listen to their radios. Especially super tugs. Steve loves to complain that super tugs aren’t very super. It’s an eternal struggle, and that’s funny.

Funny Names: Taxiways are designated by letters. Because it’s very hard to hear letters accurately, controllers use the phonetic alphabet, and avoid using initials for anything else. This is a problem when you want someone to follow the MD-80 ahead of them, so controllers sometimes call that airplane a “Mad Dog”. Steve tells pilots to “Follow the angry puppy and contact the tower.”

NetJet flights are “the 1%.” During the USAir/American merger, flights that used one airline’s flight number but the other airline’s paint were “in disguise.”

Schtick: Steve doesn’t have a ton of jokes, but he has some running gags. Like the funny names, these give people permission to laugh.

Because of the way the airport is set up, some British Airways (callsign “Speedbird”) flights have to ask special permission to push back from their gate. The typical interchange is:

BA17: Kennedy Ground, (this is) Speedbird 17 requesting pushback.

Ground: Speedbird 17, Kennedy Ground. Pushback onto ALPHA approved.

BA17: Which direction do you want us to face? Speedbird 17.

Ground: Oh, face the front of the aircraft, sir! If you sit facing the rear, the people in back get frightened. But the plane can face SW.

It’s generally BA – I think I’ve heard it with Quantas, too. I don’t know if it’s limited to specific pilots. It’s not that funny, and it’s only a joke once, but the running gag quality sells the rest of it.

Discipline: Occasionally, people break rules, or things get fouled up. That’s always fraught, but Steve tends to finesse this by making fun of a common enemy. During rush hour when Steve is trying to get everyone parked or to the runway efficiently, there’s always some plane that has no gate and no place to go.

Plane: We’re gonna have to wait somewhere until the gate opens up.

Ground: Stellar!

Plane: Where’d you like us to wait?

Ground: Atlanta?

When pilots talk to air traffic controllers, the convention is that they identify who they’re calling (in case they’re on the wrong frequency) and who they are (because one controller is dealing with lots of planes). Inevitably, someone forgets.

Unknown Plane: Ground?

Ground: Plane?

But Steve makes an exception for his natural enemy, the tug: if a tug does something wrong, it’s a Big Deal and Steve will threaten to punish them by sending them the long way around.

I still don’t know how he does it.

On sale at Amazon today: E. P. Thomspon’s The Making of the English Working Class for Kindle. $1.99.

by Karrie Fransman

An accomplished graphic novel, the work of several hands, recounts a country week in which a group of young artists set to creating a graphic novel about the death of the artist. In the end, neither the artists nor we really come to grips with the absent artist, and the varied media employed – loose watercolors, photographic comics, contemporary high-style comic art – sometimes tug uneasily at each other.

Jan 17 13 2017

Night Witches

by Jason Morningstar

A table-top role playing game (and sophisticated study of the nature of narrative) by Jason Morningstar, author of the insightful narrative game Fiasco, which explores the dynamics of the caper movie, and Grey Ranks, a game about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that achieved things we did not think games could achieve.

This is the story of the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an all-woman force that flew more than 1000 combat mission against invading Germans. As in Grey Ranks, the outlook is grim: we are flying obsolete bombers against a superior enemy, our own Army despises us because we are women, and our government is perpetually suspicious of success and of failure. Amidst the brutal carnage and foolishness, we can perhaps find friends and lovers among the women of the regiment – but of course such particularity may be unsocialist revanchist perversion.

The center of Night Witches and its underlying brilliance lies in what we would call, in other circles, its collection of writing prompts. For example, when the 588th arrives at its first duty station, the players are asked:

Which officer of the 588th was in no condition to fly when the Regiment arrived in Trudgen Gornyaka? What is being done to keep livestock off the runway, and why isn’t it working?

You’ve got to love this. We’re still early in the war, we’ve already got pilots in love with other pilots, pilots in love with their airplanes, an officer with a drinking problem, the NKVD snooping around our beloved Captain, a critical shortage of gaskets. We’ve got the Germans. And now we’ve got goats on the runway, again! And there’s a Mysterious Reason that the goats keep getting onto the runway. Improv: go!

Morningstar (along with fellow narratives game designers the Paul Czege and D. Vincent Baker) teaches us a lot about the interface between games, hypertext fiction, and old media.

Michael Tsai, who is on a blogging roll lately, has a great rundown on the latest kerfuffle about static typed languages like Swift and whether their value outweighs their inconvenience.

The underlying problem is simple. In dynamically-typed languages like Obejctive C, you can have a container that holds different kinds of things and, if you get mixed up, you might find yourself sending a message to an object that it can’t handle. If you’ve got a mix of Dates and Colors in the same list, you might send a color an request for its day of the week; if you do that, the color looks at you all funny and nothing good will happen.

Reading this debate, I was startled to realize one thing I’d overlooked: I almost never make type errors. I make plenty of errors – for me, programming is always about correcting errors – but type errors are once in a blue moon affairs.

I wonder if strong typing is a solution to a problem we don’t really have, or whether I’m just Doing It Wrong.

If the current political situation were proposed in a novel, I’d dismiss is as utterly implausible. Presidents don’t begin their term with 37% approval, because people with 37% approval don’t win elections. Presidents don’t get elected because Russia thinks they’ll be good for the Fatherland. Presidents don’t get CIA briefings before inauguration that explain that the president is being blackmailed, and has probably acceded to the blackmailers’ demands.

Meanwhile, our local Democratic City Committee staggers on as it always has, planning to have its twice-a-year parties and doing little else. Still, this is the natural first line of resistance and, if things continue in this vein, Resistance.

The caucuses are coming up. I think people who come to a Saturday morning political caucus in a year without national elections deserve something better than a fast-food donut and a box of coffee. We may not win the all battles, but we need the good songs and the good food.

What should we do for breakfast?

Update: One reader suggests poached pears in little puff pastry cups. That sounds pretty good! How about Pizza Carbonara – egg, ricotta, pancetta, a bit of spinach?

by Deborah Levy

Booker-award nominee and early work by the author of the current sensation, Hot Milk. Two London couples (and a teenage daughter) share a villa in France. Beset by the usual woes – growing boredom, diminishing talent, looming bankruptcy – their uneasy friendships are strained when a stranger, Kitty Finch, turns up naked one morning in the swimming pool and is invited to stay.

This ought to work. The writing is enviable. Somehow, I missed the turnoff.

Jan 17 8 2017

Red Harvest

by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, which became a great movie, and The Thin Man, which spawned one of the first movie franchises, but this is his great novel.

An operative of the Continental Agency (we never learn his name) is dispatched to Personville, California, a small city. People in the know call it Poisonville. His client is murdered before they can meet, and we begin single-handedly to wrest the town from the control of an unsavory league of industrial goons, booze smugglers, beer distributors, and a police department they jointly own. In the middle of everything is Dinah Brand, a woman whom everyone loves: the long line of her lovers soon includes the Continental Op, but that doesn’t change his plans.

The body count is formidable, so high in fact that at one point the investigator himself goggles at the total. So many characters die so quickly that Hammett has a hell of a time helping us keep everyone straight. This is the novel that changed American mysteries and from which film noir springs.

It ought to have been the start of a long line of books. Whiskey and Hollywood got in the way, but we’ll always have Poisonville.

Jan 17 5 2017

Wishful Drinking

by Carrie Fisher

A witty, self-deprecating memoir by the late actress, this slender and likable volume reflects on what it was like to live in the fishbowl of celebrity. It was tough enough to be Debbie Reynold’s daughter, still harder to be Eddie Fisher’s child. That would’ve been plenty, but Fisher was bipolar to boot. “If my life wasn’t funny,” she writes, “it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

by Elinor Lippman

Frederica Hatch is a daughter of the regiment – the regiment in the case being Deming College where her parents, Professor Hatch and Professor Hatch, teach and oversee the faculty union. She was raised in a dormitory, the daughter of houseparents and the special darling and mascot of a women’s college. When she herself goes off to college, she notices the professors’ labradors and golden retrievers, beloved and fussed over by lonesome and homesick students. She says, “the dogs reminded me of me.”

One day, Frederica learns that her father had been briefly married before he met Freddy’s mother, and finds the prospect of this mysterious, shadowy figure of his past fascinating. Then, the ex-wife comes to Deming to serve as the houseparent, and difficulties ensue. By the author of The Inn At Lake Devine, who is not to be confused with Laura Lippman, this was an especially fortunate find at the redoubtable Big Chicken Barn.

Jan 17 3 2017

How To Help

I asked Nikki Pope, co-author of Pruno, Ramen and a Side of Hope, how people who aren’t attorneys can help. She has some suggestions:

One thing is to find out what your local innocence project needs. One of our exonerees profiled in Pruno, Larry Lamb, moved to the Boston area to live with his son and to get away from the negative influences in his life.

The most effective way to put a dent into wrongful convictions is to prevent them in the first place. Compelling law enforcement to adopt best practices like proper eyewitness identification procedures and videotaping of interrogations would be great. I’m not sure what Massachusetts’ policies are; I sent a copy to Governor Baker (a Kellogg classmate of mine) to encourage him to encourage MA law enforcement to adopt or refine best practices.

Conviction Integrity Units have been effective in some jurisdictions at finding and exonerating innocent people. The unit must legitimately be interested in correcting the wrong; something that is just for publicity is more harmful than doing nothing.

Most innocence projects are understaffed. They get many more requests for investigation than they have resources to investigate. These aren't even legal services, just private investigators. Many donate their time, but if they were paid, the cases would get to the top of the list faster. Funds to pay private investigators are always welcome. If you're in the Boston area, check out the New England Innocence Project and find out what they need - volunteers, investigators, lawyers.

Of course, any copies of the book (or the audiobook) that you'd like to send to others will be great. We're giving most of our share of the proceeds from book sales to support the exonerees and organizations that provide legal and social support services to exonerees. I actually prefer the audiobook because I hear something different every time I listen.

by Courtney B. Lance and Nikki Pope

In recent years, more than a thousand Americans who were serving long prison sentences have been freed because, as it turned out, they were demonstrably innocent.

The criminal justice system is absurdly stacked against people who, for one reason or another, were wrongly convicted. It’s not enough to cast doubt on the conviction; in some states, convicts must show that no reasonable jury could possibly have convicted them. Convicts have had to sue to force the state to disclose that it possesses evidence that could exonerate them, and then must sue again to force the state to permit that evidence to be tested. Prisoners released on parole at the end of their sentence benefit from programs intended to prevent repeat offenses; because the exonerated never committed a crime in the first place, they can’t receive any of these benefits.

This book offers a number of close looks at some people who spent a long time in prison for crimes with which they had nothing to do. Some of the people are remarkable. Many are worthy of emulation.

The book’s one flaw is that it lacks a call to action. Our treatment of exonerees is unjust; finding it so, we should put a stop to it. Where do we begin?

Jan 17 2 2017

Dear Daughter

by Elizabeth Little

I snapped up this mystery after reading a New York Times column by Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in which French was asked for a list of the best contemporary crime writers.

Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane, Stef Penney, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott — and two of my favorite up-and-comers are Jamie Mason and Elizabeth Little.

At first, this novel – a first-person caper about a Kardashian-like celebrity suspected of having murdered her ghastly mother – seems an unlikely choice. French draws characters quietly and with great care, while many of Little’s characters are off-the-rack. French cares a lot about setting, but here the twin ghost towns of Adeline and Ardelle could, give or take a tapped-out ore deposit, lie anywhere from North Dakota to Pedernales, from Vermont to Ouray.

And yet, in the end, the book works. The character concepts may come straight from the department store, but they're nicely accessorized and, by the time we approach the finale, we’re actually going to miss some of them.

This was weakest season of a reflection on art that always walks the edge of frivolity, but all is salvaged at the last minute when the writers remember the Mozart Oboe Concerto where it all began.

by James D. Hornfischer

This 2011 history is large and was well-received, but I’m not convinced I see the point. A 21st-century history of the US Navy in the Solomons necessarily starts in the shadow of Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, specifically his Volume 5 on the Guadalcanal campaign. Morison had formidable advantages: he was a Harvard historian, he was a sailor, he had personally met every US president since Teddy Roosevelt and in the war he held a presidential commission to record its naval history. Morison knew the senior officers, he had staff to track down survivors and documents, he was a terrific writer, and he’s still in print.

Hornfischer relies on Morison for a number of anecdotes and accounts. He adds some details and skips some others. He takes greater pains to emphasize the surface fleet, but Morison is hardly unjust on this score. Hornfischer a little bit more frank in drawing character sketches of the senior officers, but only a little. Morison actually knew these people; Hornfischer has to rely on the record, but Hornfischer has the advantage of not running into them at parties and reunions.

One problem with Morison, which Hornfischer repeats, is that almost every mistake and shortcoming is committed by the losing side, which in almost every case is the side with the least metal. In August, the US Navy can’t get out of its own way; lookouts don’t look out, radar doesn’t work or is installed in the wrong ships, admirals express themselves poorly. By November, it’s the Japanese navy that has all the bad luck. This is an illusion of causality: the losers remember the inept lookout and the wrong turn as a lost chance, but the winners forget them.

I wonder, for example, whether Ghormley got a raw deal. The contemporary verdict, which Hornfischer largely endorses, is that he was a timid commander, and perhaps a negligent one, a micromanager who approached a nervous breakdown before his relief by Bull Halsey. That could be right. Could you put together a case that Ghormley was under overwhelming pressure to account for every paper clip, to lose nothing, expend nothing, and above all not to lose?

Hornfischer is critical of Capt. Howard Bode of the Chicago, but Bode’s 1943 suicide makes him a safe target.

If you’re going to write a new account of Guadalcanal, it seems to me you need to take advantage of our more distant perspective. In 1949, the emphasis was naturally on violence and suffering, because the audience had been there or had known people who were there, and they wanted to know what it was like. Today, we might spend a little more time on why and how. All those freighters and support ships, base personnel and clerks were indispensable. That was a tough sell in 1949, but we’ve seen Mr. Roberts (about a freighter) and 12 O’Clock High (company clerk) and The Caine Mutiny (junior officer on a minesweeper that never sweeps a mine) now. Remember: they didn’t have computers or calculators; they didn’t even have ball-point pens.

The other thing you could do in a new account is to recognize that today’s audience doesn’t necessarily know the difference between a light cruiser and a destroyer, what either was supposed to do, or how they did it. We’re almost half as far from Guadalcanal as Guadalcanal lay from Trafalgar. We also understand how the stereotyped language of gallant sailors and heroic deeds can mask the ghastly reality, and to look more squarely at some less-than-noble actions from which Hornfischer still prefers to glance away as soon as he decently can.

  • You have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
  • However greedy, evil, vain, and cruel, power will find servants. Some of those servants will prove capable.
  • The grownups will not protect you.
  • When offered the choice between truth and justice or tickets to the inaugural ball, Republicans will take the tickets.
  • Ask not what your galaxy can do for you: ask what you can do for your galaxy.
  • Do not rely too much on the Democratic Party: the institution will sometimes seek safety and compromise at the crucial moment. The volunteers will bear any burden and pay any price, but someone has got to ask.
  • The problems of little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
  • All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you.
  • That may be less than you thought.
  • You cannot outrun what is coming.
  • Faith manages.
  • Hope.

by John Lukacs

24 through 28 May, 1940 were the critical days when Britain might have fallen down the slippery slope, the m0ment when Hitler might have won. On the 24th, the British Army was encircled at Dunkirk and Churchill’s ten-day-old Ministry was tottering. Five days later, it was not yet the beginning of the end, but Hitler had not won and now he never would.

After Trump, the danger of collaboration is very much in the air. Plenty of people said, in 1938, that things might turn out tolerably. Plenty of people said, in 1939, that sensible German ministers would eventually set things right. Plenty of people said in 1940 that things would be fine, until the same people said that all was lost.

by Abby Hafer

This lively and witty volume by anatomist Abby Hafer examines the question of Intelligent Design by asking, “just how intelligently designed are we?” She begins with the observation that male genitals are vulnerable to all sorts of maladies and discomforts that any industrial designer would immediately remedy, and that any magazine reviewer would ridicule. She immediately sends a letter on the topic to her Unitarian minister, who used the argument in a sermon on Faith and Testicles.

In fact, it would be easy to design people better. Kangaroos have a much easier time with childbirth. Rabbits can eat wood; people have the organ that lets rabbits digest sawdust, but in people it functions only to give us appendicitis. Our ancestors negligently lost a crucial mechanism for producing our own vitamin C: most mammals make plenty of the stuff but monkeys, awash in tasty fruits, didn’t notice that they were broken until they moved to Norway and got scurvy.

KATNISS EVERDEEN, WHITE HOUSE INTERN APPLICATION by Cora Frazier.

I have wanted to be a White House intern ever since November 8, 2016. That night, my younger sister looked up at me and said, “What are we going to do, Katniss?” and I got out my computer, made a user name and password, uploaded my high-school transcript, and turned to her and said, “Go see if Peeta has any thread and old bread sacks, because I’m going to need business-casual clothes. And a recording device.”

“I’m pleased that soon the manufacturing jobs will be coming back to District 12.”

A fascinating movie by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy about a school for deaf children in Ukraine and shot in sign language, without subtitles. It’s an uncompromising and deeply pessimistic film, featuring some extraordinary long shots – in both senses of the word.

The Tribe