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Archive for December, 2013

Something about the last day of a year makes people make lists and wallow in nostalgia, so here goes my contribution. Today, I’m thinking about what I regard as the quintessential rock song: Won’t Get Fooled Again.

This song, written by Peter Townsend and performed by The Who, is well-known, especially these days when even Jim Carrey is impersonating C.S.I.: Miami:

The music is a technical masterpiece, and Roger Daltrey belts out the words and that unforgettable scream. But for me, the lyrics are the heart of the song. I’m a writer, though I bang around on the drums when I have the chance. Let’s consider the words:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet,
And the morals that they worship will be gone,
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song.

Rock and roll is about rebellion, having grown up in a time when radical social change boiled up in the United States and inspired the youth of Britain. There’s a natural connection between rock and revolution. And as the first verse says, an uprising often ends up throwing out much that forms a society’s foundation. Of course, we’re reminded that revolutions are just as frequently spurred by people in the shadows who have motives not aligned with the wishes of the mass movement.

But as Eric Hoffer told us in The True Believer, revolutions all look alike. The song says the same thing:

Change it had to come,
We knew it all along,
We were liberated from the fall that’s all.
But the world looks just the same,
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war.

People rise up in search of rights and justice, and that is one of the constants of human nature, but too often, those movements devolve into the chaos of permissiveness and private interest. The Occupy Movement is a good illustration of this, a bunch of people who demanded this and demanded that without any leaders or direction. The result of all the change is often more of the same:

There’s nothing in the street
Looks any different to me,
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye.
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right,
And the beards have all grown longer overnight.

But it’s even worse than that. Look at the French Revolution. That society under Louis XVI was bad, but the Reign of Terror was no better, and Napoleon’s restoration of order brought about a deeper disaster for France. The same pattern held in Russia in 1917 and following.

I’ll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive.
I’ll get all my papers and smile at the sky
For I know that the hypnotized never lie.

Tyranny is too often the result of revolution, and people go from poverty to terror without any resource. The chorus of the song captures the feeling of being in the middle of the action:

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday,
And I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again.

And it gives a warning. In the movement, we’re at risk of being swept along toward an end not of our choosing. Such movements are hard to control once they get going, leaving prayer often the only thing available to those in the flow. But the gods of revolution are rarely forgiving or merciful.

The closing words sum up the point of this song:

Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.

This is true about revolutions and about many changes of all kinds. We went from Bush to Obama, and the change was in many ways to go deeper into government spying on citizens and other violations of rights. In jobs that I have worked over the years, a change in management most often results in a lot of busy work to end up right back where we started.

Rock and roll can rise to the same heights as any other form of music, and while Rush is my favorite band, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is for me the definitive rock anthem. It is in the spirit of the genre, but it also acts as a caution about where that spirit will lead in excess.

Enough discussion. It’s time for the music:

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If you hang out at left-leaning blogs or discussion boards and make comments that aren’t from the approved hymnal, you stand in good chance of being labelled a hillbilly–among many other things. That’s usually meant as an insult, often made by the same people who would get offended at many other ethnic slurs being used, and in fact, such comments miss their intended mark.

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This picture is of the famous Hatfield clan. The label, hillbilly, is of obscure origins, first appearing in print around 1900, as in this quotation from the New York Journal:

A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.

The Hatfields live on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, and I’m from the hills of western North Carolina, but otherwise, that definition about sums us up.

The people of the Appalachians and the Ozarks in the United States in large part come from Scotland originally. In other words, they were already a strong-willed and dour lot. The rulers of Britain wanted to change the demographics of Ireland by shipping in a group of Protestants to Ulster. The Irish being as stubborn and rebellious as the Scots, that plan didn’t work out too well, so many of those people moved on to America, where the land was wide open and the government far away.

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That picture is from the Blue Ridge Parkway, a handful of miles from my childhood home. It’s typical of the kind of land hillbillies occupy: rough, not all that productive in the agricultural sense, and therefore of little interest to those in power.

Given that kind of land, it’s no wonder that we have a reputation for insularity in thought and genes. But living in that territory requires a toughness that doesn’t come from buying food wrapped in plastic at a store. It also makes necessary a strong loyalty to family and a sense of self-reliance.

And it gave these people a distrust of outsiders coming in with citified ideas. One story I recall hearing a while ago is about social workers who decided to introduce the flour biscuit in preference to cornbread, thinking that what got served on the tables of the rich folk was a superior food. The problem is that with regard to calories and nutrients, cornbread is better. And it tastes better, too.

That’s the flaw that many people have when they construct pedestals for themselves. Just because something works for you doesn’t mean that it’s best for everyone. And it’s wrong to say that we hillbillies never open up to the outside world. For example, I’ve been to graduate school and teach school (English composition and literature) and I’ve done a bit of book writing of my own.

For a good overview of this group of people, have a look at the History Channel’s Hillbilly: The Real Story:

You’re welcome to come around for a plate of beans and cornbread–and maybe something a mite stronger, if you don’t tell the revenuers–but if you take a mind to telling us how to live, you’d best be able to run back to town faster than 850 ft/sec.

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Thanks to Netflix and this useful site, I recently watched my way through Breaking Bad. This was a thoroughly pleasing series, both for its relentless logic and its humor. There is also a point of interest for those of us who study literature.

First, consider the character of Everyman.

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He is the subject of the mediaeval morality play by the same name about a man who must account for his life before moving on to either heaven or hell. The term has moved over the years into a name for an ordinary person who gets caught up in difficult times.

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Alfred Hitchcock made most of his films on this character type.

Also recall the last discussion about tragedy. In the ancient days, a tragedy required a hero–someone with a divine parent in the ancestry–who also has a character flaw, typically hubris. Again, these days, tragedy gets applied to just about anyone whose life goes from good to bad due to some personal failing. (It gets applied to a lot more, but that’s often in error.)

These things bring me to Walter White.

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He starts out as a high school chemistry teacher with a disabled son and a baby on the way, a man who founded a company using his skills as a chemist and got cheated out by his partner, and then finds himself with lung cancer.

(Heere there be spoilers.)

By the end of the series, everything in his life has come crashing down. The fact that he tears down his enemies with him doesn’t change the nature of the story as a tragedy.

The point here is the nature of tragedy in the modern world. Walter White gets screwed over by corporations, by his health insurance company, and ultimately by his life. Breaking Bad is a well done show, but it reveals the tragedy of our days. The real flaw is our willingness to accept the power of the few abusing the many.

This is not a flaw that is beyond cure.

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This being the season of peace, love, joy, and all that rot, I feel the need for a corrective. Or better yet, a purging. That is what catharsis means. And for that, we need a tragedy.

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Yes, I’m talking about A Christmas Carol, the finest version on film starring George C. Scott in 1984. Let’s recall that a tragedy is the story of a hero who starts out in a high place and falls low through some flaw in his character. For the purposes of this article, I’m considering Ebenezer Scrooge to be just such a tragic hero.

At the beginning of the tale, Scrooge is a successful man of business who contributes to the economic life of the British Empire and supports himself and his profligately breeding employee, Bob Cratchit. He possesses a logical mind and a keen wit. But thanks to the interference of spirits and one wretched night, by Christmas Day, he has fallen to an addled spendthrift making promises that he won’t be able to keep, the victim of base sentimentality.

But you probably knew the story. (Though perhaps not the way that I characterized it.) The question here is regarding Scrooge’s flaw. This will take some consideration.

The reflexive answer is greed, but he is not greedy. He recognizes at the start that money has to be earned, that giving money away only results in the wealth being spent to no good end. What we don’t work for, we don’t value.

We could say that Scrooge has fallen into senility, but that can’t qualify as a tragic flaw, at least not in the proper sense, for the flaw has to be a moral failing or error in judgement. The fate that we’re all born to is sad, but hardly distinctive or instructive in this context.

The fact that a tragic flaw can be an error in thinking helps here. Over the course of the night, Scrooge is subjected to emotion in the absence of reason. The spirits will not engage with him on a rational level. Instead, they remind him of the circumstances in his life that cause him regret, a feeling that is fatal to getting work done. They present to him scenes of suffering, without permitting any consideration of how the desperate people got into their stations in life or what social policy would be best to ameliorate that pain.

Thus we find the answer. Like an alcoholic who cannot take one drink in safety, Scrooge is susceptible to sentiment. He comes to believe in the false promises of a workers’ paradise in which ambition will be lost and achievement scorned. Like Oedipus walking blindly off the stage into exile, Scrooge faces an end of penury and wallowing in emotion.

There, do you feel better now? If so, I’ll expect your payment in the mail. Or you could just buy my book.

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The news today (15 December 2013) reports the death of Peter O’Toole, one of the finest actors of our day.

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I first became aware of him while watching the movie of the week, probably on a Sunday after raking leaves or some other yard chore. Lawrence of Arabia is one of those definitive films that you must watch. It’s grand sweeping scenes and fine acting out of a story that we still don’t know to be a tragedy or a comedy will stand as one of the best through the ages.

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But we mustn’t forget him in The Lion in Winter, playing Henry II opposite Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Acquitaine. “I could have conquered Europe, all of it, but I had women in my life”

But on this day, only one thing feels appropriate:

Thank you, Peter O’Toole, for having dreamed for us.

Crossposted at Greg Camp’s Weblog and Oghma Creative Media.

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Recently, I was asked to explain how to write a good review of a book for sites such as Amazon and Goodreads. This is because Oghma Creative Media is developing a beta reader program. The idea there is to have a group of readers who will receive e-copies of books that we’re promoting, with the requirement that the people write reviews.

So what makes a good review? No, it doesn’t mean that you have to say the book is the best thing you’ve read. I’m talking about an honest and well-crafted piece on the book you’ve read. Here’s what I mean:

1. Read

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You have to read the book. That doesn’t mean skim, and it doesn’t mean the first chapter only. It means the whole book. You can’t say what the author was trying to do or what the story is about until you’ve seen the totality of it. If something was so bad that you couldn’t get past page fifteen (I’m talking to you, Ayn Rand), say that, and have done with the review.

2. Essence

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Once you’ve read the book, write out in one sentence what you believe it to be about. What is the overall impression the book has left with you? This isn’t a summary of the plot. You’re not talking about what happened. You’re saying what is the meaning of the book. For example, Romeo and Juliet is the story of how love makes us defy others to be with our beloveds. Watership Down tells of the determination to survive and live well despite what fate and chance do to us. Those are two quick examples. I could refine them from there, but that shows how to get started.

3. Examples

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Now you have to illustrate the main theme that you found. Tell me about the main characters, a few important scenes, and so forth that show how you figured out the essence of the book. If I’m reviewing The Lord of the Rings and claim that friendship is a key theme, I’ll show you passages where Frodo and Sam are talking to each other and supporting each other, or I’ll give you the meeting between Aragorn and Eomir at the battle for Gondor. The point is to give your readers a taste of the book that shows you’ve grasped the essence of it.

4. Spoilers

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Give away as little as possible of the plot. One of the pleasures of reading or watching is surprise. If you must reveal something, tell your readers in advance

5. Conclusion

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Why is this book worth reading? If it isn’t, why not? The conclusion of an essay is where you make the sale to your reader. It’s just like a car dealership. If you tell the customer all the facts about the car and take the customer out for a drive, but don’t ask the person to buy, you haven’t sold a car. In a review, you want to sum up. Tell me, your reader, what I need to do and what I’ll get out of the book in question.

To see examples of a reviews that I wrote, look here or here or here.

But as always, keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting, and keep reviewing.

Crossposted on Oghma Creative Media.

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In my series on guns and gun information for writers, I’ve mostly stayed away from political matters, since the emphasis here is on what a writer needs to know to get gun facts correct in stories. But today, I’m wading into the thick and smelly. The subject is assault rifles.

First, let’s dispose of another term that shows up in the media and elsewhere, the assault weapon. This is plainly silly. Any weapon can be used to attack. Any weapon can be used to defend. In fact, most weapons are good at both functions. That’s especially true about most firearms. Some have advantages in one or the other area, and we’ll get to those in a moment, but calling something an assault weapon is generally redundant. Certainly, this term has been exploited by advocates of gun control. Note in particular what Josh Sugarmann, currently the head of the Violence Policy Center, had to say in 1988 in a position paper:

Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.

But my job in these articles is to inform writers so as to remove confusion.

Moving on then. Have a look at the classic military rifle at the start of the twentieth century:

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That’s a Swedish Mauser that shoots a 6.5mm round. The rifle is fifty inches long. The Russian Mosin-Nagant was forty-eight inches. And that was typical for the standard primary arm of the day. Yes, the Americans and the British were using rifles of around forty-four inches, but that’s still lengthy.

There are advantages to this. As I mentioned before, a longer barrel gives the powder time to burn, thereby increasing the velocity. A greater distance between the front and rear sights creates a longer sight radius. This doesn’t affect the inherent accuracy of the gun, but it does make lining up a shot easier for the shooter–at least that’s the idea. And military doctrine of the day expected soldiers to hit targets at considerable distance. Remember that generals always come prepared for the last war. The belief was that the common soldier should be able to fire aimed and effective shots at targets way over yonder. Consider, for example, the mad minute, a requirement of British soldiers to land more than twenty shots in a twelve-inch circle at three-hundred yards in less than sixty seconds. The story goes that during the Christmas peace in World War I, German officers remarked to their British counterparts that they were surprised about the Brits having so many machine guns, when actually the men were just firing the bolt-action SMLE.

But World War I bogged down into trenches, and the leaders needed a way to break out. Winston Churchill loved the idea of the tank, while Americans used the trench broom, a short-barreled shotgun, and the Germans toyed with this:

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the Bergmann MP-18. It fired the 9mm Parabellum cartridge and thus was a submachine gun. We developed our own in the form of the Thompson, known as the Tommy Gun. We’ll talk about this type of gun later.

The Russians tried this beast, the Fedorov avtomat from 1915:

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It fired a full-power rifle cartridge, but its design was complicated.

A battle rifle cartridge is as powerful as it is for the purpose of penetrating armor and hitting targets at long ranges. But firing a lot of those rounds in a hurry isn’t conducive to accuracy without a gun mount, and military thinkers were coming on the idea that when a lot of people are running at you quickly, you need to shovel the lead out. The distance involved won’t be that much–under three hundred yards.

The need for this became apparent especially in World War II on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Germans had the Mauser K98, a shortened version of the Gewehr 98, their long battle rifle from the First World War, firing a full-power round, and the MP-40:

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a submachine gun or machine pistol that shot the standard 9mm used in German handguns. But battle rifles are good for a thousand yards, and handguns do their best work at talking distances. What about in between?

Introducing the MP-44:

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It fired a bullet of 7.92mm from a case that was 33mm in length. The Mausers used 7.92 x 57 rounds. The notion there is that it’s easier to retool if you’re not changing the barrel diameter. But the reduced power of the cartridge allows for easier control of fully automatic fire necessary to stop mass attacks inside of three hundred yards. Hitler got a look at the gun and declared it a Sturmgewehr–an assault rifle. He loved adding “assault” to everything, but even though the thought about this weapon was defensive, being able to send a wall of bullets down range is useful in storming (the other translation of sturm) through an enemy’s line, particularly in urban combat.

Are you thinking that the MP-44 looks familiar? How about this weapon:

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If you think that the AK-47 looks a lot like the German rifle, you’re not alone. In fact, lots of people other than Mikhail Kalashnikov have said the same thing. The Russian gun shoots a 7.62 x 39 round, their battle rifle round being 7.62 x 54, has a detachable magazine with the distinctive curve required by the shape of the cartridge, and is made for the same purpose as the MP-44. The Russians declared, Oh my Marx, no, we didn’t copy the German gun. Uh huh. It’s length, by the way, is around 35 inches with the stock extended.

Americans, loving plastic and high-tech widgets, went for this ray gun:

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the M-16, designed by Eugene Stoner, a man who had been working in the aircraft industry. It’s made of plastic and aluminum and so forth, all with the purpose of reducing its weight. It shoots a 5.56 x 45 cartridge. In English units, that’s a .22, a tiny round. General Curtis LeMay tried an early model out and figured it made a good primary weapon for air base security police, and some of our special forces units operating in Vietnam in the run up to our full involvement there liked it, so Robert McNamara and his bean counters–I mean whiz kids–decided to inflict the M-16 on everyone. (Do you get the idea that I don’t like it? We’ll discuss it’s mechanism in the future.)

Today, the lines between submachine gun and assault rifle are getting blurred:

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This dingus, one of the stars of Stargate SG-1, shoots a pistol round that acts a lot like a light-weight rifle round that can’t decide what it wants to be.

But what is an assault rifle? Remember that the goal of such a weapon is to facilitate rapid movement in close-quarters battle or to stop an enemy attempting such. That being the case, it has to have the following characteristics:

1. Intermediate cartridge

I’ve explained that here and there in this article, but the round is intermediate between the power of a handgun round and a battle rifle cartridge. It’s not a .45 ACP, and it’s not a .30-’06, but it wants to be able to do what both of those can do.

2. Detachable magazine

Changing out magazines is easier than pulling out stripper clips of rounds and shoving them into the fixed mag.

3. Selective fire

The weapon must be capable of semiautomatic fire–one trigger squeeze, one shot–and full-auto–keeps shooting till the trigger is released or the gun runs dry. Many of them also have a three-round burst setting. But without full-auto capability, it’s not an assault rifle.

And that’s the key point. In America, unless you have a Class III firearms license and all the paperwork and tax stamps, you can’t legally own a full-auto gun. The AR-15, the semiautomatic only version of the M-16, is no different from any other semiautomatic rifle in its basic functioning, except that it looks funny. People who say otherwise are simply trying to cloud the issue. If your character is a chief of police who has to kowtow to the mayor, that person may refer to a gun as an assault rifle. If your character has an anti-gun agenda, the same is true. But you need to know the correct definitions so as to be aware of when you’re creating characterization.

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