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On the Security of Walls

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Interesting history of the security of walls:

Dún Aonghasa presents early evidence of the same principles of redundant security measures at work in 13th century castles, 17th century star-shaped artillery fortifications, and even "defense in depth" security architecture promoted today by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and countless other security organizations world-wide.

Security advances throughout the centuries have been mostly technical adjustments in response to evolving weaponry. Fortification -- the art and science of protecting a place by imposing a barrier between you and an enemy -- is as ancient as humanity. From the standpoint of theory, however, there is very little about modern network or airport security that could not be learned from a 17th century artillery manual. That should trouble us more than it does.

Fortification depends on walls as a demarcation between attacker and defender. The very first priority action listed in the 2017 National Security Strategy states: "We will secure our borders through the construction of a border wall, the use of multilayered defenses and advanced technology, the employment of additional personnel, and other measures." The National Security Strategy, as well as the executive order just preceding it, are just formal language to describe the recurrent and popular idea of a grand border wall as a central tool of strategic security. There's been a lot said about the costs of the wall. But, as the American finger hovers over the Hadrian's Wall 2.0 button, whether or not a wall will actually improve national security depends a lot on how walls work, but moreso, how they fail.

Lots more at the link.

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koranteng
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on the history of walls... deperimeterization is the way to go
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Start Up: hello robots, an audiophile on HomePod, the Big Switch decade, FBI v Cook, and more

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The 2018 Winter Olympics were targeted by – surprise! – Russian hackers. Photo by M. Cheung on Flickr.

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0800GMT each weekday). You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.«

A selection of 9 links for you. Or so you think. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Four examples from the automation frontier • Conversable Economics

Timothy Taylor:

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Cotton pickers. Shelf-scanners at Walmart. Quality control at building sites. Radiologists. These are just four examples of jobs that are being transformed and even sometime eliminated by the newest wave of automated and programmable machinery. Here are four short stories from various sources, which of course represent a much broader transformation happening across the global economy.

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They are short, but they don’t indicate anyone getting fired because of them.
link to this extract


The mental tricks of athletic endurance • WSJ

Alex Hutchinson:

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Starting in the late 1990s, the South African author and fitness researcher Tim Noakes advanced the view that our brains are wired for self-preservation. If you push hard enough to endanger your health—by overheating your core or compromising your brain’s oxygen supply, say—your brain will function as a protective “central governor,” automatically weakening the nerve signals driving your muscles. The feedback loop gives rise to the sensation of fatigue and signals you to slow down.

An alternate view proposed a decade later by Samuele Marcora, an exercise scientist at the University of Kent’s Endurance Research Group, posits that our limits are defined by the balance between motivation and perceived effort. We don’t stop because our fatigued muscles are incapable of continuing, in this view, but because the effort required to continue is greater than we’re willing to exert.

Whatever the mechanism, both camps agree that the subjective perception of effort is a sort of master controller—which means, in practical terms, that if you change your perception of a task’s difficulty, you can change your actual results.

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon. In a 2014 experiment described in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers led by Dr. Marcora showed cyclists images of smiling faces on a screen in imperceptible 16-millisecond flashes. The exposure boosted cycling performance by 12% over the level recorded with frowning faces projected in the same way. The sight of a smile didn’t lower the subjects’ heart rates or lactate levels, according to Dr. Marcora. Instead, it subtly altered how their brains interpreted those signals, evoking feelings of ease that bled into their perception of how hard they were pedaling.

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link to this extract


Apple HomePod – the audiophile perspective measurements! • Reddit

The writer is an audiophile, and says that the HomePod more than satisfies the requirements of an audiophile; almost flat frequency reproduction, but also that self-correcting system:

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Speaking of inputs, you have one choice: AirPlay. which means, unless you’re steeped in the apple ecosystem, it’s really hard to recommend this thing. If you are, it’s a no brainer, whether you’re an audiophile or not. If you have an existing sound system that’s far beyond the capabilities of a HomePod (say, an Atmos setup) then grab a few for the other rooms around the house (Kitchen, bedroom, etc). It’s also a great replacement for a small 2-speaker bookshelf system that sits atop your desk in the study, for example. When this tiny unobtrusive speakers sound so good, and are so versatile, grabbing a few of these to scatter around the house so you can enjoy some great audio in other rooms isn’t a bad move — provided you’re already part of the Apple Ecosystem.

AirPlay is nice. It never dropped out during any of my testing, on either speaker, and provides 16bit 44.1Khz lossless. However, my biggest gripe is hard to get past: There are no ports on the back, no alternative inputs. You must use AirPlay with HomePod. Sure, it’s lossless, but if you’re an android or Windows user, theres no guarantee it’ll work reliably, even if you use something like AirParrot (which is a engineered AirPlay app). I understand that’s deeply frustrating for some users.

As a product, the HomePod is also held back by Siri. Almost every review has complained about this, and they’re all right to do so. I’m hoping we see massive improvements to Siri this year at WWDC 2018. There is some great hardware at play, too. What’s truly impressive is that Siri can hear you if you speak in a normal voice, even if the HomePod is playing at full volume. I couldn’t even hear myself say “Hey Siri” over the music, but those directional microphones are really good at picking it up.

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Sonos’s Play:1 and Play:3 and Play:5 only have Ethernet inputs, besides wireless. Just sayin’.
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The Big Switch: ten years on • Rough Type

Nick Carr looks back on his book about the rise of cloud computing (which he likened to the arrival of the electricity grid) published in 2008:

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The stories of the electric grid and the computing grid are both stories of technical ingenuity and fearlessness. The book’s second part, “Living in the Cloud,” is darker. In fact, it was during the course of writing it that my view of the future of computing changed. I began The Big Switch believing that the new computing grid would democratize the use of computing power even as it centralized the machinery of data processing. That is, after all, what the electric grid did. By industrializing the generation and distribution of electricity, it made power a cheap resource that everyone could use simply by sticking a plug into a wall socket.

But data is fundamentally different from electric current, I belatedly realized, and centralizing the provision of computing would also mean centralizing control over information. The owners of the server farms would not be faceless utilities; they would be our overseers.

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link to this extract


‘Olympic Destroyer’ malware hit Pyeongchang ahead of opening ceremony • Wired

Andy Greenberg:

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while neither Olympics organizers nor security firms are ready to point the finger at the Kremlin, the hackers seem to have at least left behind some calling cards that look rather Russian.

Over the weekend, the Pyeongchang Olympics organizers confirmed that they’re investigating a cyberattack that temporarily paralyzed IT systems ahead of Friday’s opening ceremonies, shutting down display monitors, killing Wi-Fi, and taking down the Olympics website so that visitors were unable to print tickets. (While Intel also scrubbed its planned live drone show during the opening ceremonies, the Pyeongchang organizing committee said in a statement that the cause was “too many spectators standing in the area where the live drone show was supposed to take place,” rather than malware.)

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Russian (state) hackers don’t seem too concerned that people can figure out their motivation.
link to this extract


Texts show FBI agents thought Tim Cook was a ‘hypocrite’ in the San Bernardino iPhone encryption fight • Business Insider

Kif Leswing:

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In February 2016, as Apple and the FBI were quietly sparring over how to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the perpetrators of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, two FBI officials unrelated to the case back in Washington DC were privately discussing their distaste for Apple CEO Tim Cook.

“And what makes me really angry about that Apple thing? The fact that Tim Cook plays such the privacy advocate,” Peter Strzok, an FBI counterintelligence agent, wrote on February 9, 2016. “Yeah, jerky, your entire OS is designed to track me without me even knowing it.”

“I know. Hypocrite,” Lisa Page, a lawyer for the bureau, replied minutes later. 

A week after that exchange, the strained relationship between Apple and the nation’s top law enforcement agency became international news when Cook wrote an open letter explaining why Apple would not create special software to unlock the shooter’s iPhone, defying a request to do so by the FBI.  The FBI eventually dropped the request because it found a third-party vendor who was able to extract data from the iPhone 5C without Apple’s help.

The exchange between FBI agents Strzok and Page is part of hundreds of pages of bureau text messages recently published by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs as part of a Republican-driven investigation into how the the bureau handled the Hillary Clinton probe.

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Guess Apple needed to work a bit harder on the privacy messaging (you confused iOS with Android, Mr Strzok). Though arguably that has happened since.
link to this extract


Economists say the rise of monopoly power explains five puzzling trends • Bloomberg

Peter Coy:

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Economists have concocted a variety of explanations for five recent phenomena in the U.S. economy that don’t match the “facts” that economists supposedly agree on. Now a Brown University economist and two of his doctoral students claim to have killed all five birds with one stone—advancing a simple explanation that accounts for all the anomalies at once.

Two changes explain all the discrepancies, they say. First, there’s been an increase in monopoly power, likely caused by an increase of power in the hands of dominant companies. Second, productivity growth has slowed and the population has aged, driving down the natural rate of interest.

The economists’ “unified explanation” has policy implications, says Gauti Eggertsson, the Brown economist who shared the work with two students, Jacob Robbins and Ella Getz Wold. The growth in monopoly profits strengthens the case for raising taxes on capital such as dividends and capital gains, and also suggests that antitrust authorities “should do more to prevent monopolies and oligopolies from forming,” they write.

The paper was released on Feb. 12 by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, where Eggertsson is a grantee and Robbins is a junior fellow. Here is a layman’s summary by Robbins.

The researchers tackle five so-called stylized facts—economists’ lingo for observations about the real world that are so consistent over time that they come to be accepted as true.  For example, one stylized fact asserted by the Hungarian-British economist Nicholas Kaldor in 1957 was that the way the national income is split between workers and capitalists tends to be roughly constant over time. In fact, labor’s share of national income, in the form of wages and salaries, has been on a steady downhill.

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A Grand Unified Theory of economics? Could be useful.
link to this extract


Essential sold fewer than 90,000 phones in its first six months • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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industry research firm IDC is now reporting that Essential sold fewer than 90,000 units in its first six months on the market.

Francisco Jeronimo, IDC’s research director, tweeted out the stat this morning, writing that the device is “still a long way from becoming a successful venture.” No one reasonably expected Rubin’s new smartphone company to go head-to-head with Apple or Samsung anytime soon (or ever for that matter). But 88,000 units, which is the exact figure IDC reports for Essential Phone sales in 2017, is still quite low and illustrates the uphill battle Rubin is fighting by launching a new phone in a mature, high-end market dominated by some of the world’s largest and most well-equipped corporations.

Essential is effectively a startup, and although it has some of the best expertise in the business alongside Rubin’s reputation, the company may not be able to weather the storm as it slashes costs on the Essential Phone and gears up to inevitably try and launch a successor. The device itself is now $499 after some aggressive cost-cutting and a temporary $399 Cyber Monday deal, suggesting Essential’s margins may be razor-thin at this point as it tries to get more units out into the wild.

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It’s a start. More important is whether it can scale up, and make a profit. I’m not optimistic: too many Chinese rivals.
link to this extract


Google’s next Android overhaul will embrace iPhone’s ‘notch’ • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman and Mark Bergen:

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Google is working on an overhaul of its Android mobile software for a new generation of smartphones mimicking Apple’s controversial new “notch” at the top of the iPhone X, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Android update, due later in the year, will also more tightly integrate Google’s digital assistant, improve battery life on phones and support new designs, like multiple screens and foldable displays, the people added.

A key goal of this year’s update to the Google mobile operating system is to persuade more iPhone users to switch to Android devices by improving the look of the software, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing the private plans. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

While Android dominates the middle and low-end of the global smartphone market, Apple controls much of the high-end with users who spend more on apps and other services. Embracing the notch may help change that. The design will mean more new Android phones with cutouts at the top of their screens to fit cameras and other sensors. That will likely support new features, helping Android device makers keep up with similar Apple technology.

What’s unlikely to change much is Android’s nagging problem: Most of the billion-plus Android devices globally run outdated versions of the operating system, exposing security holes and holding back Google’s newest mobile innovations.

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It sounds as though smartphone OEMs – most likely Samsung – really are anxious about how the notch is such a visual effect that makes the iPhone X stand out if someone is gazing over your shoulder.

Can’t see how adding a notch is going to induce switching, though. Might make them feature-competitive, but do we still think OS switching is done by a significant proportion of the smartphone population?
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.





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koranteng
7 days ago
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I Am the Very Model of a New York Times Contrarian

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Matthew Dessem's I Am the Very Model of a New York Times Contrarian is a zeitgeisty bit of doggerel that neatly sums up many of my frustrations reading the Grey Lady, stretching all the way back to the paper's shameful sell-job for George W Bush's disastrous Iraq invasion. (more…)

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koranteng
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useful idiots
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When You Have to Kill the Perfect Book Cover

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cassara

The projects that come across my desk as a cover designer at Ecco are diverse and always deeply engaging; they offer me countless opportunities to push myself not only as a designer, but also as a reader. I’m fully aware of how lucky I am in that regard—being in the book cover design business at all is such a privilege. I see my job as akin to being a sort of visual tour guide, leading a potential reader into the world that the author has created. What a lush, sparkling world I found in The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara.

paris is burning

This debut novel is set in New York City’s underground ballroom scene of the 1980s, where LGBTQ youth would gather to flaunt their fiercest drag looks, shock each other with increasingly daring vogue styles, and experience a sense of community and inclusion that was often denied them in everyday life. The notorious real-life House of Xtravaganza—known for being the first all-Latinx house to enter the scene, in 1982—features most heavily in this story; you might recognize the name from the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Cassara took great inspiration from the key members of Xtravaganza, most of whom appear in Paris is Burning, and it’s clear that he also did an enormous amount of his own research into how those balls must have looked, sounded, and felt to a young, aspiring queen. Every page sizzles with the heat of those stage lights, and you come to fall head-over-heels in love with these characters—Venus, Angel, Juanito, and Daniel. You want to party with them, laugh with them, and protect them. Life for these young people comes with so many dangers, between the AIDS epidemic and the constant adversities of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and poverty, but these characters find joy and laughter in everything. This is a heartbreaking but hopeful story about unapologetic living, the power of chosen family, and always striving to pair grit with glitter.

My first approach to a cover always begins in my sketchbook. After reading the manuscript and taking brief notes, I begin drawing small thumbnail versions of loose cover ideas to work out composition and placement. This helps me to avoid getting mired in unnecessary details too early in the process. There is so much that I wanted to capture on this jacket, this was definitely an instance where I had to break it down to one overarching mood: I chose fa-bu-lo-si-ty.

house of impossible beauties sketches

Voguing obviously came to mind—could I represent the graphic hand movements cleanly? Would it be readable and tell the reader exactly what he or she needed to know right away? I found the work of an illustrator named Blake Kathryn who creates these dreamlike 3D illustrations, and while I loved that these figures appeared to be voguing, something about the digital rendering looked a bit too sci-fi.

house of impossible beauties comps

What about walking in the ball? Stomping down the catwalk in heels that could kill? Would that transport the reader? I found a great photo by one of my favorite photographers, Bobby Doherty, and also experimented with the work of fashion illustrator Francois Berthoud, and while they definitely captured fabulosity, I wasn’t getting enough of the magical feeling that a designer gets when they know that they’re on the right track. It’s nearly impossible to describe adequately, but perhaps it’s the moment when you know that you have something that will spark the perfect amount of curiosity in a potential reader. A good cover makes a viewer say, “Yes, nice! I see what you’ve done, very clever.” A great cover will make a viewer say, “OK, this is stunning. I MUST know why someone has put this on a book cover. Who/what/where/when/how?” I wasn’t there yet, and I knew it.

house of impossible beauties comps

I wanted to try one more symbolic image, especially since a particular visual had been stuck in my head since I first read the manuscript: lipstick on a cigarette. It combined sexiness and grit in a way that I thought could look intimate and familiar. This photograph by Alessio Paniccia perfectly captured the fact that this story was about multiple characters having a shared experience. Unfortunately there just wasn’t enough brightness or power in the overall design. I needed to turn it up several notches.

house of impossible beauties comp

The thought of using photographs of people was always going to be tricky—they couldn’t be too much of any particular thing, or it would be distracting. There had to be some ambiguity as to which character within the story the photo would actually represent, and universality is difficult to find. I knew that the lighting had to be spot-on, and thankfully I discovered the work of Aaron Feaver, who had an amazing series of high-glam, 80s-inflected club-like portraits from which I could choose.

house of impossible beauties comps

I still love these when I look at them now, but they’re too fashion-centric. Fab-u-lo-si-ty was there in spades, but I realized that what I really needed was more humanity. I had the great luck of stumbling across the photography of Florence & Nicolas on a blog somewhere (designers are like magpies—we’re constantly trawling art blogs and Tumblr pages, hoping to collect bits and bobs for future use), and saw one of the most affecting portraits that I’ve ever seen. It was so unimaginably perfect. There was androgyny, vulnerability, retro glamor, and a dynamic point of view. In this I saw Venus waiting in the wings, preparing to walk in a ball for the first time, with apprehension and adrenaline coursing through her veins. I wanted to reader to go where this photo was taking me.

florence + nicholas

With the photographer’s permission, I put together a design using that image.

house of impossible beauties comp

The editor loved it! The author loved it! I loved it! Success, on all fronts. When it came time to officially license the image, the photographer noted that he did not have a signed model release, which presented a legal obstacle to our use of the photo. No matter, I thought, I’ll just contact the model’s agency and seek a signed release. I was sure that it wouldn’t be a big deal.

It took the modeling agency 19 whole minutes to formulate that response. If you are thinking that I ever received further explanation, you are mistaken. “Info” was never heard from again—with or without punctuation.

With the wind taken right out of our cover sails, it was clear that we had only one option: to re-shoot the image. Nicolas Coulomb of Florence & Nicolas was so incredibly patient and obliging with me throughout the process of filing paperwork, sending me models to choose from, and planning out the rush schedule for the new photoshoot in Paris, which I would kind-of-sort-of art direct from NYC. It took weeks and weeks of planning on what was already a pressed timeline, but Florence & Nicolas made magic happen. I was sent the following contact sheet, and I immediately knew that we had struck gold.

house of impossible beauties contact sheet

house of impossible beauties final cover

With some final color manipulations, we had our cover. It was a longer journey than I had expected, but I’m so happy with this jacket. We’ve printed it on pearlescent stock, which enhances the natural glow of the image. My work is done on this one, so I can only hope that the jacket draws readers into the world of Xtravaganza—it’s such an intoxicating place to be.­

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Ms Mansplaining

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I’ve often wondered vaguely where the term “mansplaining” — the patronising way in which men who know nothing about a subject insist on explaining it to a woman — came from. Now I know, courtesy of a ‘Lunch with the FT’ feature in today’s Financial Times. The phrase was coined by the American writer and essayist, Rebecca Solnit. It was prompted by an experience she had at one of those high-end Aspen think-rests in which rich members of the US elite persuade themselves that they are really really interested in ideas. Reflecting on it later, she published a wonderful essay, “Men Explain Things to Me” in Guernica.

It’s terrific. This how it starts…

I still don’t know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion’s young ladies. The house was great–if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets–a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, “No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you.” He was an imposing man who’d made a lot of money. He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and said to me, “So? I hear you’ve written a couple of books.”

I replied, “Several, actually.”

He said, in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice, “And what are they about?”

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book–with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said–like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen’s class on Chaucer–“gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless–for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we’ve never really stopped.

Lovely, isn’t it. She’s a very good essayist. Remember her lovely LRB Diary piece about the luxury coaches which ferry Silicon Valley’s overpaid elites from the San Francisco that their stock options have rendered unaffordable for normal human beings?

It begins:

The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening, but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course wifi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.

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Martin Amis on the Genius of Jane Austen (and What the Adaptations Get Wrong)

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Jane Austen

This essay originally appeared in 1998.

*

Jane Austen, as they might say in Los Angeles, is suddenly hotter than Quentin Tarantino. But before we try to establish what the Austen phenomenon is, let us first establish what it is not.

About 18 months ago (in the summer of 1996) I went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral at a North London cineplex. Very soon I was filled with a yearning to be doing something else (for example, standing at a bus stop in the rain); and under normal circumstances I would have walked out after ten or fifteen minutes. But these weren’t normal circumstances. Beside me sat Salman Rushdie. For various reasons—various security reasons—we had to stay. Thus Ayatollah Khomeini had condemned me to sit through Four Weddings and a Funeral; and no Iranian torturer could have elicited a greater variety of winces and inches, of pleadings and whimperings. So one was obliged to submit, and to absorb a few social lessons.

It felt like a reversal of the Charles Addams cartoon: I sat there, thoroughly aghast, while everyone around me (save the author of The Satanic Verses) giggled and gurgled, positively hugging themselves with the deliciousness of it all. The only good bit came when you realized that the titular funeral would be dedicated to Simon Callow. I clenched my fist and said yes. No particular disrespect to Simon Callow—but at least one of them was going to die.

“Well,” I said, when it was over, “that was bottomlessly horrible. Why is it so popular?”

“Because,” said Salman, “the world has bad taste. Didn’t you know that?”

Still, “bad taste,” all by itself, won’t quite answer. I can see that the upper classes might enjoy watching the upper classes portrayed with such whimsical fondness. But why should it appeal to 400 plebs from Hendon? In any postwar decade other than the present one, Four Weddings would have provoked nothing but incredulous disgust. A 1960s audience would have wrecked the cinema. Yet now it seems that the old grievances have evaporated, and “the million,” as Hamlet called them, feel free to root for the (congenital) millionaires. They can lapse into a forgetful toadyism, and abase themselves before their historical oppressors.

Class is harmless, class is mildly cool; class is even felt to be . . . classy. Four Weddings is of course deeply “sentimental” in the colloquial sense: it displays a false and unworthy tenderness. But it is sentimental in the literary sense, too: an old form has been speciously revived. Houses, parties, house parties, amorous vicissitudes in opulent drawing rooms and landscaped gardens, do’s and don’ts, p’s and q’s, old money, and unlimited leisure. It is Jane Austen’s world, in a sense; but the invigorating intelligence is gone, to be supplanted by a simper of ingratiation. Here, the upper crust is playing cute. Dilemmas and entanglements are not admitted to Four Weddings. Nothing weighs anything at all.

*

Persuasion has recently been filmed, and so has Sense and Sensibility, and there are three versions of Emma in the works (not to mention Clueless), and no doubt someone will soon knock off the tartly mock-Gothic Northanger Abbey, and someone else will find the nerve to tackle the problematic austerities of Mansfield Park—and that will be that (except for the little-known fragment Lady Susan). Pride and Prejudice has been comprehensively taken care of in the BBC’s six-part, $9.5 million serial, which has been emptying the streets of England every Sunday night (and which will arrive on American screens in January 1998).

Austen fever, or more particularly Darcymania, is upon us. Features editors have been reduced to commissioning interviews with lorry drivers and insulation engineers who happen to be called Darcy. Tourist pilgrimages to Jane Austen’s house (in Chawton, Hampshire) were up about 250 percent in October, and sales of Austen tote bags, Austen crockery, Austen sweatshirts, Austen tea towels, and Austen aprons and pinafores were comparably brisk; while you’re listening to The Jane Austen Music Compact Disc (stuff she might have heard or played), you can rustle something up from The Jane Austen Cookbook (all ingredients have been modernized); and so on.

Much of this enthusiasm is, of course, collateral enthusiasm, or Heritage enthusiasm: a blend of disembodied snobbery and vague postimperial tristesse. No doubt, too, many of the serial’s 10 million viewers watched it in the same spirit as they watched Four Weddings—contentedly stupefied by all the eccentricity and luxe. But such wastage is inevitable, and even appropriate. Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion play at the art houses. Pride and Prejudice plays in your living room; and—true to the book—it comes at you with a broad embrace.

*

Some may be funnier than others, but all Jane Austen’s novels are classical comedies: they are about young couples finding their way to the festive conclusion, namely marriage. Furthermore, all Jane Austen’s comedies are structurally the same comedy. There is a Heroine, there is a Hero, and there is an Obstacle. The Obstacle is always money (not so much class—Mrs. Bennet’s origins are in “trade,” but so are Mr. Bingley’s). With the exception of Emma Woodhouse, all the Heroines are penniless and have no dependable prospect other than frugal spinsterhood.

As the Hero heaves into view, he will appear to be shadowed by a female Rival—schemer, heiress, or vamp. The Heroine, for her part, will be distracted, tempted, or merely pestered by a counterfeit hero, a Foil—seducer, opportunist, or fop. The Foil can be richer than the Hero (Persuasion, Mansfield Park) and, on the face of it, much better fun (Mansfield Park). The Hero can also be uglier than the Foil. In her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (which has a double Heroine), Emma Thompson does what she can to spruce up Colonel Brandon—the part is given to Alan Rickman—but the novel makes it plain that he is an old wreck at thirty-five. Brandon represents authorial punishment for Marianne’s unrestrained infatuation with her Foil, John Willoughby (played in the film by the charmlessly handsome Greg Wise). The flaws of the Foil will highlight the Hero’s much solider merits. While the Heroines have their foibles, the Heroes are all near paragons. Two of them—Henry Tilney and Edmund Bertram, both well-born younger sons—are vicars of the Church of England.

In Pride and Prejudice Austen turned up the dial that controls the temperature of comedy, giving it some of the fever of what we would now call romance. Both Rival and Foil are almost melodramatically garish figures: the self-woundingly feline Caroline Bingley, the debauched and self-pitying George Wickham. They create logistical difficulties, but neither is capable of mounting a serious threat to the central attraction. For Elizabeth Bennet is the most frictionlessly adorable Heroine in the corpus—by some distance. And, as for the Hero, well, Miss Austen, for once in her short life, held nothing back: tall, dark, handsome, brooding, clever, noble, and profoundly rich. He has a vast estate, a house in town, a “clear” ten thousand per annum. His sister, Georgiana, has thirty thousand pounds (the same as Emma)—whereas Elizabeth’s dowry amounts to about a quid a week. No reader can resist the brazen wishfulness of Pride and Prejudice, but it is clear from internal evidence alone that Austen never fully forgave herself for it. Mansfield Park was her—and our—penance. As her own prospects weakened, dreams of romance paled into a modest hope for respectability (or a financial “competence”). Persuasion was her poem to the second chance. And then came death.

*

This autumn, as the new serial got into its stride, distressed viewers rang up the BBC in tears, pleading for the assurance that fate would smile on the star-crossed pair and that all would yet be well. I was not among these callers, but I sympathized. And I quite understood why the Pride and Prejudice video, released midway through the run, sold out in two hours. When I was introduced to the novel, at the age of 15, I read 20 pages and then besieged my stepmother’s study until she told me what I needed to know. I needed to know that Darcy married Elizabeth. (I needed to know that Bingley married Jane.) I needed this information as badly as I had ever needed anything.

Pride and Prejudice suckers you. Amazingly—and, I believe, uniquely—it goes on suckering you. Even now, as I open the book, I feel the same tizzy of unsatisfied expectation, despite five or six rereadings. How can this be, when the genre itself guarantees consummation? The simple answer is that these lovers really are “made for each other”—by their creator. They are constructed for each other: interlocked for wedlock. Their marriage has to be.

Andrew Davies, who adapted the novel for television, was shrewd enough to regard his function as largely obstetrical—to get the thing out of the page and onto the screen in as undamaged a state as possible. After all, he had before him the example of the Olivier-Garson version of 1940 (based on a script by Aldous Huxley, among others): cold proof that any tampering will reduce the original to the emollient and the inconsequential. Huxley’s reading is fatally winsome; even Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a good egg. Still, the adapter has to do what the adapter has to do. The pious and vigilant Janeite looks on, ever ready to be scandalized by the tiniest breach of decorum.

Very early on, we see Elizabeth in the bedroom she shares with Jane, saying, “If I could love a man who would love me enough to take me for a mere fifty pounds a year, I should be very well pleased.” This puts us in the financial picture (and we will soon be seeing Mr. Bennet sighing over his account book); but it commits Elizabeth to a predisposed mooniness quite at odds with her defiant self-sufficiency. Later, when the scandal of Lydia’s elopement breaks, and Darcy gauntly takes his leave of Elizabeth in the inn near Pemberley, Austen writes, “Elizabeth felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again on such terms of cordiality as had marked their several meetings in Derbyshire.” This translates as a one-line soliloquy: “I shall never see him again!” Austen’s lines show a brave face in social adversity, Davies’s an admission of a love Elizabeth does not yet feel. Each shifted brick threatens the whole building.

TV is TV, and TV demands visual equivalents for every “it,” for every “that.” And the visual is always literal, funnily enough. Any protracted passage of background explication is accorded a lavish collage. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, with its revelations about Wickham’s character, inspires a scene set in Cambridge: Darcy in his gown and mortarboard, striding through a colonnade, mounting the stairs—and surprising Wickham, who has a half-clad scullery maid on his lap. We see Lydia and Wickham’s midnight flit (how they cuddle in the carriage!), we see Darcy pacing the festering streets of London in search of them, and we see the runaways in their bedroom at the rude tavern. From the start, Elizabeth and Darcy don’t just think about each other, they have hallucinations about each other, thus unavoidably indicating romantic obsession. But he isn’t in love for quite awhile, and she isn’t in love till much later on. These two slow-built awakenings are the heart of the book.

Davies’s more minor interpolations are usually pretty deft and sometimes downright felicitous; he is an expert who has midwifed much of the British canon onto the screen. But every Janeite is like the Princess tormented by the Pea—we are so tender, so delicate. . . Elizabeth would never say (skeptically), “Astonish me!” Even the lascivious Lydia would not yearningly repeat the (invented) line “A whole campful of soldiers . . .” Nor did she or would she say, “We shall have some laughs!” When Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s first offer of marriage, he notes that she spurns him “with so little effort at civility,” whereas the book has the clearly superior “so little endeavour at civility.” A few pages earlier, a beguiling subjunctive is lost when “I expected at least that the pigs were got into the garden” becomes “the pigs had got into the garden.” I could go on.

And I would go on, indefinitely—but I’m loath to abuse the reader’s patience. A deep immersion in Jane Austen tends to transform me into something of a Regency purist. Indeed, I start to find that her rhythms are entirely displacing my own; normal social intercourse becomes increasingly strained and long-winded. If, for example, the editress had called, hoping for news of the near completion of this piece, I would have been like to reply, “Nay, madam, I find I get on exceedingly ill. I need more sequestration with Miss Jane. May I extort, therefore, the indulgence of a further se’nnight?” This is of course anachronistic of me. And Jane Austen is not—and will never be—an anachronism.

*

In David Lodge’s novel Changing Places (1975), a tweedy little British academic goes to teach at Euphoric State University in California, while a big brash American academic goes to teach at a rain-sodden redbrick called Rummidge. The American, Morris Zapp, wearily begins his seminar:

“What are you bursting to discuss this morning?” “Jane Austen,” mumbled the boy with the beard. . . . “Oh yeah. What was the topic?”

“I’ve done it on Jane Austen’s moral awareness.”

“That doesn’t sound like my style.”

“I couldn’t understand the title you gave me, Professor Zapp.” “Eros and Agape in the later novels, wasn’t it? What was the problem?” The student hung his head.

The immediate joke here is the contrast in literary-critical situations, the British still struggling in the ethical battlefields patrolled by F.R. Leavis, the Americans vaulting off into the architectonics of myth and structure. But Lodge’s deeper point is that Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape contingent, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the Semioticians, the Deconstructors—all find a happy home in six samey novels about middle-class provincials in early 19th-century England. The critics are kept at it because the readers are kept at it; with every generation Austen’s fiction effortlessly renews itself.

Each age will bring its peculiar emphasis, and in the current Austen festival our own anxieties stand fully revealed. Collectively, we love to wallow in the accents and accoutrements of Jane’s world; but for the closeted reader the response is predominantly somber. We notice, above all, the constriction of female opportunity: how brief was their nubility, and yet how slowly and deadeningly time passed within it. We notice how plentiful were the occasions for inflicting social pain, and how interested the powerful were in this in fiction. We see how little the powerless had to use against those who might hate them. And we wonder: who on earth will marry the poor girls—the poor girls? Poor men can’t, and rich men can’t (except in novels), so who can? We fret and writhe at the physical confinement (how understandably desperate these filmmakers are to get their cast out of doors). Of all virtues Jane Austen valued “candor”; but candor, as we understand it, has no social space in which to exercise itself. One honest exchange between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth and Persuasion disappears. We long to give them our liberties. We wonder at their self-repression. And we are chilled by their circumambient boredom.

The BBC’s new serial has been touted in the press as revealing the latent “sensuality” of Jane Austen’s world; naturally it reveals much more about the blatant sensuality of our own. Austen, after all, is notoriously cerebral—a resolute niggard in her descriptive dealings with food, clothes, animals, children, weather, and landscape. But we in the 1990s will not have it so.

Thus at the outset, on our television screens, Darcy and Bingley thunder toward Netherfield Park on their snorting steeds, while Elizabeth enjoys a hearty tramp on a nearby hillside. Later, climbing from the bath, Darcy looks out of the window and sees Elizabeth romping with a dog. Lydia is surprised half-clad by Mr. Collins—and gigglingly confronts him with her cleavage. In the throes of his imprudent passion for Elizabeth, Darcy takes up fencing. “I shall conquer this,” he mutters. “I shall.” Returning to Pemberley, unshaven, with the hot horse between his thighs, he dismounts and impetuously plunges into a pond. Here, clearly, we are moving away from Jane Austen, toward D.H. Lawrence—and Ken Russell. “There is a lot of pent-up sexuality in Austen’s work,” Davies has said, “and I have let it out.” But why stop there? Why not give her a course of vitamin C and a back rub? Austen’s characters resist the ministrations of the therapy age, the “venting” age. As literary creations, they thrive on their inhibition. It is the source of all their thwarted energy.

Now for the performances, which are a testimony to great strength in depth and to the accuracy and inconspicuousness of Simon Langton’s direction. Jennifer Ehle is not quite the perfect Elizabeth, for such a creature could not exist; Elizabeth, simply, is Jane Austen with looks, and such a creature could never have created Elizabeth. Ehle, like Debra Winger, is one of those actresses whose presence floods the screen. She has the spirit and the warmth; she has a smile of almost orgasmic sweetness; she contrives to look voluptuous and vulnerable in the egg-cozy maternity outfits that “authenticity” has reduced her to; and she has the eyes; but she cannot quite inhabit the surrogate wit. Colin Firth is an insidiously persuasive Darcy, as he makes his journey from probity to democratic right feeling. To know her heart, all Elizabeth needs is the facts before her. Darcy has to complete two centuries of internal evolution.

The ensemble players are led by Alison Steadman. Some dull dogs have found her Mrs. Bennet too broad, too Dickensian, but in fact she establishes a miraculous equipoise between bitterness and boiling vulgarity (and this balance is stabilized by clear traces of her past allure). Susannah Harker makes a languid, comfortably ponderous Jane; Julia Sawalha gives us Lydia’s “high animal spirits”; David Bamber is a marvelously contorted and masochistic Mr. Collins; and Anna Chancellor locates an unexpected pathos behind Caroline Bingley’s expert taunts. The one important failure is Mr. Bennet. Benjamin Whitrow’s line readings are thoughtful and confident, but he is too quick to take refuge in wryness and twinkle. The most disillusioned character in all Jane Austen, Mr. Bennet is the dark backing behind the bright mirror. He, too, is very close to his creator, and Jane Austen feared his weakness in herself. Mr. Bennet sees the world as it is, and then makes sport of his own despair.

*

The sensualism imported by Davies and Langton brings one unarguable gain: all those creamy, dreamy scenes in the bedroom shared by Elizabeth and Jane, with the candles lit and the hair down, make us feel the crucial heaviness of their sisterly love. We are reminded that the emotional argument of the book is intimately bound up with this relationship; and we feel its weight without realizing why it weighs so much. Watching Marianne’s near-death scene (lovesickness, fever) in Sense and Sensibility, I wondered why I was so pierced, and so desolated, when Elinor addresses her sister as, simply, “My dearest.” We are moved because the soft words are literally true—and may well remain true, for life. With the unmarried, no reconfiguration awaits the pattern of their love; their nearest are their dearest, and that is the end of it. In Persuasion we sense Anne Elliot’s further privation as she probes for warmth in the humorless solipsism of her sister Mary. And we naïvely console ourselves that Jane Austen, whatever else she lacked, at least had Cassandra.

Apart from that very welcome interment, Four Weddings and a Funeral had something to be said for it: as a result of one typically embarrassing scene, an opportunist edition of “ten Auden poems” climbed into the bestseller lists. This book was called Tell Me the Truth About Love and had a photograph of Hugh Grant on its cover (and Grant, incidentally, makes a very creditable Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility). On Jane Austen, Auden was great but wrong:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass,”
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

We of the 1990s would most certainly shock Jane Austen, with our vast array of slovenly and unexamined freedoms. Nonetheless, there is a suspicion of cant in Auden’s elegant lines. “Brass”—money, security—made Charlotte Lucas accept Mr. Collins (“disgracing herself” with a prudential marriage), but it didn’t make her love him. Elizabeth turned down Mr. Collins; and, with so little endeavor at civility, she turned down Mr. Darcy, too, with his ten thousand a year.

Writing about Gray’s “Elegy,” William Empson said that the poem presents the condition of provincial oblivion as pathetic without putting you in a mood in which you would want to change it. But “change” is the business of satire. Satire is militant irony. Irony is more long-suffering. It doesn’t incite you to transform society; it strengthens you to tolerate it. Jane Austen was indeed an English spinster of the middle class. She died in unrelieved pain at the age of 41 (and with the greatest “last words” of all time: asked what she needed, she said, “Nothing but death”). On the other hand, she has now survived for nearly 200 years. Her lovers are platonic lovers, but they form a multitude.

Martin Amis will be in conversation with Will Self at the 92nd Street Y on February 8, 8pm.

__________________________________

From The Rub of Time, by Martin Amis, courtesy Knopf. Copyright 2018, Martin Amis.

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