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Lileks @ Lunch

James Lileks writes about everything - except sports and gardening

That was my dad, he said paternally

Here’s a look at the undying machine behind teen serialized novels. Atlantic:

Eighty-five years have passed since readers first encountered both the Hardy Boys and their teen-detective counterpart, Nancy Drew, yet new books continue to be released several times a year. The novels bear the same pseudonyms as the originals: Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene.

Hey, let’s not forget Victor Appleton. That was the name of the guy who wrote the Tom Swift books. Victor Appleton II was the name they slapped on Tom Junior’s series, and I remember those well.

Tom Swift, Jr.'s Cold War-era adventures and inventions are often motivated by patriotism, as Tom repeatedly defeats the evil agents of the fictional "Kranjovia" and "Brungaria", the latter a place that critic Francis Molson describes as "a vaguely Eastern European country, which is strongly opposed to the Swifts and the U.S. Hence, the Swifts' opposition to and competition with the Brungarians is both personal and patriotic.

When I was a kid I couldn’t figure out why they used fictional countries. Same with “Mission: Impossible.” The USSR would be insulted? Who cared? Anyway, the wikipedia article says “The Tom Swift books have been credited with laying the foundations for success of American science fiction and with establishing the edisonade (stories focusing on brilliant scientists and inventors) as a basic cultural myth.” Well . . . no. They may have reinforced the idea, but Tom Swift came along in 1910, decades after Frank Reade. You know, the inventor of this thing:

He was literally the father of the genre: after a while they started a Frank Reade Jr. series, and steam-powered men and horses gave way to electrical miracles. Tom Swift grew out of those books.

HELL ON EARTH Conor Friesdorf has a great piece in the Atlantic about the moral quandaries of uploading consciousness to computers. Would we punish Hitler for 6 million years? Or:

Ghengis Khan, who perpetrated all manner of atrocity less than a millenia ago, would inspire some sympathy, I think, if it were discovered that his contemporaries had imprisoned his consciousness upon his death as punishment for mass murder. Were he discovered in mental chains after eight centuries of suffering, there would be demands for his release and debates about applying morality across time. And utilitarians would debate the consequences of his military victories across the centuries. Perhaps he’d be freed due to his unfathomably long punishment and the fact that his victims seem so remote to us. Or maybe he’d be forgotten in prison, as is done to so many individuals in our existing system. These are wild thought experiments, but with them I only mean to illustrate a narrow point: Radical life extension would so scramble and confound our normal notions of justice that there’s no telling how future Americans would react to the new reality.

It’s like consigning Zod to the Phantom Zone.

ART This has bothered me for a long time. There are some old games I’d love to play again, but you just can’t. Do companies feel any obligation to keep their stories and plays from vanishing forever, with only a few YouTube clips and screenshots as evidence they ever existed? You know the answer to that. The vast, unplayable history of video games, on BoingBoing.

The text message that's crashing iPhones

Here’s the story behind the iPhone text message that makes your phone reboot. Cult of Mac:

Contrary to what you might read elsewhere, the bug has nothing to do with your iPhone not being able to deal with the Arabic language, and it is definitely not a secret plot by terrorist group ISIS to hijack ur phonez. The issue comes from the Unicode at the end of the message which, according to some users, decodes to an infinitely repeating message that overloads your iPhone’s memory and causes it to wig out.

My daughter sent it to me yesterday. She found it unnerving, which didn’t stop her from trying it out on everyone she knew. As one of the commenters says:

I want to know who the hell has the time and the ambition to find THE text string that does this to a phone. Who the crap sits home and says “I think I’ll find out if a really odd text string will crash a messages app”. Who does that?

My money’s on young, bored, Russians.

GEEK The top story on Digg this morning appears to have been chosen for its subject, not the brilliance of the prose. It’s high-school quality. Remember how you padded out an essay with meaningless opening paragraphs? Did you begin the  piece with an assertion that was undone by your first example?

There are many unsolved mysteries in the world. What exactly is a smell? How do magnets work? Why is it that wasps are mean but bumblebees are nice? Scientists have studied these cryptic matters for centuries but have repeatedly come up empty-handed; teachers have been forced to shrug in front of classrooms full of expectant students, some of them even turning their pockets inside out to emphasise how truly stumped the academic world is by almost everything.

Criminey. The turning-out-of-pockets communicates poverty, not ignorance.

Perhaps the most enduring mystery of mankind is the grand mystery of space. It was precisely the allure of this big empty bastard that inspired many early games developers to set their games in the infinite and unknowable cosmos just outside our atmosphere. That, and televisions had black backgrounds anyway, so it was very easy for games to draw space.

That’s two paragraphs spent on nothing. Will the third paragraph reveal the point? We press on:

Elite was one such space game. David Braben’s space-postman classic was released in 1984 for the BBC Micro and allowed players to explore a pixelated simulacrum of our own galaxy, laser-joust with space pirates, trade space goods and discover new space worlds. Ask literally anybody about Elite and they’ll say ‘phwoar, what a game,’ while rubbing their thighs. It really was that good.

Literally everybody will say “phwoar.” While rubbing their thighs. It was really thigh-rubbing good.

If this makes you despair about the quality of writing on the internet, read Sadie Stein's short tale about an old man and a pineapple request. You will feel much better.

ART I had no idea the same guy did all the early Elvis Costello albums, or that he was a legend in the industry, or that he killed himself in 1983. Barney Bubbles was his professional name; Colin Fulcher was his given name. Says wikipedia about his demise: “He had considerable personal and financial worries. His sleeves were being rejected by musicians, such as Elvis Costello.” Wonder what he would have designed for “Goodbye Cruel World.” Just looking at that cover you knew it was a dud.

SCIENCE! The movement to get rid of people never goes away. FastCo asks: “These Photos Tackle An Uncomfortable Question: What If There Are Just Too Many People On Earth?” Here’s one of the photos:

You’re supposed to think that’s pollution instead of steam. The countryside doesn’t seem particularly overcrowded, does it? Anyway:

The subject of population control wasn't always taboo. "The bestselling environment-related book of the '60s and '70s was not Silent Spring, it was Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb," says Butler. "So this was a huge and integrated topic of conversation decades ago, and then it fell off the radar screen.”

I wonder why! Ehrlich’s predictions were so spot-on. You can read the entire book online here, which would seem to be preferable; the resources required to print it out, and the industrial infrastructure required to tote it around the planet, would seem to be contrary to its intention.

An excerpt:

States with mandatory retirement assistance programs that require younger workers to pay for the older ones. Next question?

VotD Since I've been complaining and snarking a lot, here's something nice: five seconds of cute bears, wrestling.

Awww.