Battleship was a popular children’s game of the 1970s.
No silicon chips, no electricity required. The game involved strategy (and yes, a little luck).
Everyone who was a kid during the 1970s (I speak from experience here), either had a copy of this game, or had a friend who did.
Battleship was a fun game, but it was also a fun game that had some excellent marketing and advertising behind it. The above commercial is pretty clever; and I remember it well, forty years after it last aired on television.
One of my late-night activities during this prolonged shutdown is to rewatch all 6 seasons of The Americans.
The series ended in 2018, and that had been the last time I’d seen any of the episodes.
Two years isn’t a long interval, for rewatching a movie or TV series, or for rereading a book. My general rule of thumb is to wait at least five years before consuming any story content a second time. (And I prefer to wait more like ten years.) But The Americans is simply that good. Continue reading “Rewatching ‘The Americans’”
In 1995 I was 27 years old, and making regular trips to Aguascalientes, Mexico for my job.
I really enjoyed Mexico. And Aguascalientes was a wonderful place in those heady post-NAFTA days.
While I was in Mexico, I often heard the music of an American—Tejano— singer, Selena Quintanilla Perez (mostly known by her first name, Selena).
Selena’s songs were on FM radio in the United States a lot, too. Pop with a Latin flair. Not bad. But there was another reason why I remembered Selena.
At that time, I was constantly, obsessively studying Spanish. I had studied the language for two years in high school and one year in college. I spent hours going over my homemade Spanish vocabulary flashcards, and my dog-eared Spanish grammar book.
I like languages, and mastering Spanish became a point of pride for me.
I recall hearing that Selena was sometimes criticized because her Spanish…wasn’t that fluent, even though she was Mexican American. Some of her lyrics were in Spanish, but she apparently struggled to speak the language when interviewed by the Spanish-language press.
I also recall wondering, sometimes, if my Spanish was better than Selena’s yet.(I’m competitive that way; silly, I know.)
Then on March 30, 1995 (I was coming back from Mexico that day, as chance would have it), I heard an announcement on the news. Selena, age 23, had been murdered by an older woman who was the manager of her fan club.
I never knew Selena, obviously; and it has never been my habit to closely identify with celebrities. Selena’s death, tragic though it was, did not profoundly sadden me. But I did remember the event, and it did make me reflect on my own mortality. At 52 I am acutely aware that life doesn’t go on forever; but at 27—not so much.
It isn’t only the old who die. Sometimes it is the young and up-and-coming, those who seem to have their entire lives ahead of them. Until something unexpected happens.
And all of us in between, of course. Life is short, and we need to make the most of every day.
I watch a fair amount of television every week: Chicago PD, Blue Bloods, Deputy, and others. (Yes, I have a thing for cop shows.)
The episodes that I have seen so far have not yet accounted for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not doubt the creative folks at all the major television studios are pondering that matter right now. How to incorporate the much-changed world of coronavirus into scripts and storylines?
And then there’s the fact that real-life actors will be concerned about social distancing.
Many showrunners, I’m sure, will have a strong desire to completely ignore COVID-19. After all, television shows take place in a parallel world, anyway.
But that will be difficult to do, given the health concerns. A TV kiss is now fraught with risks, isn’t it?
But—on the other hand, social distancing is going to make the mechanics of most TV plots much more difficult to pull of, in myriad ways. Dramatic dialogue and group dynamics aren’t quite the same when all communications take place via conference call or Skype.
Your favorite TV shows: yet one more thing that has become infinitely more complicated, and probably not as much fun, thanks to the pandemic.
The American Civil War is an obsession for some history buffs. While you won’t catch me passing my time on the weekend participating in any Civil War reenactments, I do enjoy reading about the conflict and its aftermath—that period in American history known as Reconstruction.
I like to read novels that a short, economical, and fast-moving. By contrast,I love big, thick history books.
I’m talking doorstops. I like history books with maps, and generous photo sections in the center. History books in the 500- to 800-page range.
Working my way through a thick history book provides a certain kind of satisfaction. It makes me feel like a college student again.
There is one history text, however, that even I found formidable for a long time, because of its scope. I’m talking about Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. This three-volume set is almost 2,600 pages long. Shelby Foote (1916 – 2005) began writing it in 1954. The first volume in the set was published in 1958. The third volume came out in 1974. So this gargantuan project consumed two decades of Shelby Foote’s life.
I first became aware of The Civil War around 1995. I was on a flight from Atlanta to Cincinnati,. The passenger in the seat next to me was reading the third of the three volumes. Since I have long been inquisitive about other people’s reading habits, I asked him about it. My fellow passenger spent the next fifteen minutes rhapsodizing about Foote and his writing. Then he went back to his reading. I left him alone for the rest of the flight.
I didn’t purchase the books right away, but they remained in my mind. Then I bought the three-volume set on Amazon about a decade ago.
I kept putting off reading the books, however, because I was concerned that reading them would require two decades of my life.
I’m exaggerating, of course. Nevertheless, a three-volume, 2,600-page text does represent a major time commitment. Also, there is an opportunity cost involved. In the time that it would take me to read a 2,600-page work, I could read as many as six or seven shorter books.
Nevertheless, Shelby Foote’s Civil War books had been mocking me, all these years, from their place in my home library. Now that I’m quarantined (along with the rest of the country), I recently decided to start reading the first volume, at long last.
Wow. Foote’s nonfiction historical writing reads like a novel. You fall into it, and you don’t want to come up for air.
When Foote began writing his magnum opus in 1954, television was still a novelty. When the last volume came out in 1974, there was no Internet, and still no cable television as we know it today. (I don’t think VCRs were even common yet in 1974.)
Attention spans were longer. People still liked to sink their teeth into big, thick books with plenty of meat on the pages.
Foote’s writing has meat. Every page is filled with little nuggets and asides that you’re unlikely to find in shorter texts. If you are ready to immerse yourself in the American Civil War, these are the books for you.
Shelby Foote has become a subtly controversial character in this era of political orthodoxies. He was born in Mississippi and he died in Tennessee. Foote was a Southerner through and through.
It isn’t inaccurate to call him a Confederate sympathizer. In fact, he called himself a Confederate sympathizer. In 1997 he told an interviewer:
“…I would fight for the Confederacy today if the circumstances were similar. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding about the Confederacy, the Confederate flag, slavery, the whole thing. The political correctness of today is no way to look at the middle of the 19th century. The Confederates fought for some substantially good things. States’ rights is not just a theoretical excuse for oppressing people. You have to understand that the raggedy Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and probably couldn’t even read the Constitution, let alone understand it, when he was captured by Union soldiers and asked, ‘What are you fighting for?’ replied, ‘I’m fighting because you’re down here.’ So I certainly would have fought to keep people from invading my native state.”
I’m about two hundred pages in, and I don’t detect any real Southern bias. If it’s there, you would really have to look for it. (This is mostly a military history, not a history of the causes behind the Civil War.) But in this regard, Foote parts ways with McPherson and Foner, whose pro-Union sentiments are apparent even in the titles of their books.
I should also reemphasize (as if it weren’t clear already) that this is not The Civil War for Dummies. Likewise, if you’re looking for a book to “cram” for an American history final that covers the conflict, this is not your book—or books.
In fact, I would recommend Shelby Foote’s 3-volume set only for the reader who is already somewhat familiar with the names and events of the war. By this I don’t mean only Grant and Lee (everyone knows them!), but also John Bell Hood, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Jubal Early. When you hear the names Chancellorsville and Shiloh, do you immediately think of Civil War battles? If that’s you, then you’ll enjoy these books. Otherwise, you might want to start with the McPherson text—which, though long enough, is a bit more accessible.
The Civil War: A Narrative, is history for history lovers. And if you love history, you don’t want “just the facts”. You want a narrative, and a deep, richly woven one—which is exactly what Shelby Foote spent twenty years of his life creating. Now, fifteen years after his death, history lovers continue to appreciate the fruits of his long labors.
I discovered Aaron Shepard’s Sales Rank Express about thirteen years ago, give or take. Here was a website that allowed you to check the Amazon sales rank, reviews, and other data for books based on author, publisher, title, etc.
For authors who nervously check their hourly sales and review data, Sales Rank Express was a blessing. (Not that I’m that kind of author, mind you….but I know that some authors are like that.)
Sales Rank Express was always a free tool. Aaron Shepard never charged for access to it, so far as I know. All he asked was that users view ads for his books on writing and publishing. These ads were always small, and placed unobtrusively at the bottom of the page.
Sales Rank Express seemed to work well for everyone. It provided Aaron Shepard with a low-friction advertising platform for his books targeted at authors. Authors loved the site, too. A win-win all around.
But Amazon has made yet another change to its code, and Sales Rank Express no longer works. It now returns an error message with each query.
Inundated with emails about the error codes, Shepard has posted a message on the homepage of Sales Rank Express, indicating that the site is down, “probably for good”. The query fields and buttons are gone, too.
A shame. I’ll miss the site. But I’m grateful that we had it for so long. Nothing good, they say, lasts forever…especially on the Internet.
Browne’s book, published in 2009, had previously been languishing somewhere in the midlist (which is expected for a book published a decade ago).
Now it’s #2 on Amazon’s nonfiction chart.
How did that happen? Well, isn’t it obvious—the coronavirus pandemic.
But wait: It gets better. Apparently, End of Days contains a prediction that bears an uncomfortable similarity to the current COVID-19 global outbreak:
“In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments,” it said. “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
Silvia Browne claims that she began receiving premonitions at the age of 5. Make of that what you will.
It is worth noting that Browne’s book isn’t the only old title to become the target of renewed interest in recent days. A 1981 novel by Dean Koontz also contains plot elements that are eerily similar to the coronavirus outbreak. (Koontz’s book even mentions “Wuhan”. Creepy, huh?) And what about Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel of the “superflu”, aka “Captain Trips”? The Stand, originally published in 1978, is now #13 in fiction in the Amazon Kindle Store. Meanwhile, the 2011 movie Contagion, a film about–you guessed it—a civilization-destroying flu, is the most watched movie on Amazon.
King, Koontz, and the makers of Contagion never claimed to be prophets, of course. Nevertheless, in times like these, the End of the World is on people’s minds, and so there is an appetite for such fare. And where there is demand, there is eventually supply. Mark my words: Before this is over, some YouTube preacher or psychic will gain 15 minutes of fame for loudly predicting that the coronavirus is the death knell of civilization.
The problems with predictions
There are problems with such predictions, of course. First of all, the pandemic is nothing new. Civilization has been through many pandemics, dating all the way back to ancient times. An unnamed pandemic threw the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian into disarray. (Justinian himself caught the plague, but he recovered.)
Plague also battered the Romans, and before that, the Ancient Greeks. A plague in Athens was a major factor in one phase of the Peloponnesian War.
There was the Black Death in the 13oos in Western Europe, but that wasn’t the only plague to strike pre-modern Europe. Shakespeare wrote several of his most famous works while…quarantined for the plague.
Shakespeare’s business model was also disrupted by plague. For long periods in the early 1600s, London authorities closed the playhouses—William Shakespeare’s bread and butter.
Early American history is marked with outbreaks, too: typhoid, cholera, smallpox. More Civil War soldiers, on both sides, died from communicable diseases than from battlefield wounds.
There have been no such pandemics in living memory, but there was a catastrophic one in the 20th century, barely a hundred years ago. The Spanish Flu (H1N1) pandemic of 1918-1919 killed 50 million people worldwide. That same pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States.
This would mean deaths of over 2 million in terms of today’s US population. No one in the scientific community is predicting a coronavirus death toll even close to that number.
But what about Silvia Browne’s seemingly on-target prediction of “a severe pneumonia-like illness” that sweeps the globe “in around 2020?” Browne made that prediction in 2009, I’ll remind the reader.
Here’s a guess: Perhaps Browne read Dean Koontz’s 1981 novel, which reportedly has a similar plot line. (That actually isn’t as unlikely as you might think; Dean Koontz has sold a lot of books over the years.)
Let me give you some inside baseball here—which will help put your mind at ease regarding all these prophesies of doom, and their eerie semblance to current events.
I write fiction, both thrillers and horror. Every time I sit down to write a new novel or short story, I try to be as original as I can. (I succeed, most of the time, I think.) But I know that certain story elements tend to be common over certain genres.
For example, every romantic film or novel follows a familiar plot: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Sound familiar?
Now suppose that you’re going to write a story (or make a prediction) about the End of the World.
Here, too, you have some obvious elements to work with. Without resorting to supernatural or extraterrestrial causes, your end-of-it-all plot is probably going to involve one of the following:
Are there any others? Not that I can readily think of. Zombies? No, that’s supernatural. What about a collapse of the Internet or the power grid? That would certainly be disruptive, and some people would die as a result, but it wouldn’t be apocalyptic.
Also remember that there were some viral outbreaks in the 2000s, that were points of serious concern for a while, but which eventually went away, like the Avian flu outbreaks of 2003~5.
So, to have predicted in 2009 that a “pneumonia-like illness” would baffle scientists and take thousands of lives ten years hence would not necessarily have required psychic powers. That’s all I’m saying.
If you’ve ever read your horoscope, or maybe the little slips of paper inside Chinese fortune cookies, you’ll notice a trend: Most purportedly psychic predictions of the future rely on general, widely applicable statements (“You are coping with a broken heart,”) or extrapolations based on past data.
Finally, I should note that I am not one of those snide, debunking New Atheist types. I believe in God…also in an afterlife. I’m open to elements of the paranormal. (Hey, I wrote a novel about a haunted road in rural Ohio, after all.)
But I believe that faith, or the openness to possibilities, must be tempered with healthy skepticism. I was raised Roman Catholic. But if someone tells me that the image of the Virgin Mary can be discerned in the mold on their shower curtain, I’m going to require a lot of evidence before I declare it a miracle.
And so should you maintain your skepticism, when prophets of doom predict the end of the world. Especially in times like these.
Kenny Rogers passed away yesterday. The singer was 81 years old.
Kenny Rogers had his heyday as I came of age. He was a country western singer; and in the early 1980s, no self-respecting suburban adolescent male would have admitted to a liking for country music. But I liked Kenny Rogers, nonetheless.
His best songs were fine examples of lyric storytelling. “Coward of the County”, “The Gambler”, “Long Arm of the Law”, and “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille”. Each one of these songs creates a little movie in your head, when you listen to it.
As noted above, Kenny Rogers’s music was ubiquitous in the early 1980s. We heard less from him in the new century, and he retired for good in 2015.
He’ll be missed, but his music lives on, of course.