Collective Guilt and the Third Reich

Someone recently sent me a short essay on the rise of the Third Reich, the History of World War II, and the Nazi mind-set that started it. Below I’ve excerpted from my rejection letter.

I’ll have to pass on this. It is one of the most written-about topics in the history of the Western World.

I don’t think we can reduce Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” or Hannah Arendt’s signature work “Totalitarianism” down to half a page.

The rise of Nazism was the result of several phenomena in deadly combination: group-think as you write, and also militarism, racial and ethnic hatred, a dysfunctional German economy thanks in no small part to the vengefully and poorly engineered Treaty of Versailles, the German turn to mysticism and determinism as the source of authority of the state, and a poisonous political apparatus gone viral … a certifiable national psychosis.

Any idea of a disease of shared history, a kind of collective racial guilt, will never fly at If there is any validity to some aspect of that notion at all, it is to be found in the trend to simplified effortless no-work answers, but the guilt of acceptance lies with individuals, not a race, nation or its leaders. Only individuals can empower tyrants and monsters. You and I are not responsible for Dachau, the Civil War, or Rick Santorum.

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April Nights

It’s 8:00PM and 80 outside tonight in Phoenix. But it’s still April. It’ll be down to the low sixties by midnight. A perfect evening to open the windows and let in all that free air conditioning.

I notice our Home Page hit counter crept up over one million today. Holy cow, how did that happen? We’ve only been open for business here (so to speak) since 1995. So, even though I’ve been working on my BIO and haven’t posted a lot in the last month, folks are still coming to I hope you liked my recent ramble, “Golden Age of Rail.”

My BIO is coming along fine. All the autobiographical content is there. Editing my own writing is a lot harder than editing someone else’s, but I get far fewer complaints.

Nothing on TV tonight, which is good, actually. All my magazine subscriptions come to Phoenix now, and I’ve almost caught up on my reading. That’s good too, because I brought along a book I want to read when I have a nice chunk of uninterruptible time.

I caught one of those introspective pieces The New Yorker is so fond of publishing. I can rarely quite get into that genre. You know: the author looking at his life qua author, him writing about him writing it, comparing himself and his fears and aspirations to those of other authors living and dead, and re-living the trials and exaltation of writing about it as one’s own critic and obituary writer, all wrapped up into one long drawn-out cackling echo of angst and self-doubt. “Spiegel im Spiegel” sums it up: a beautiful musical piece by Arvo Part whose title means “mirrors in mirror” in reference to what you see, looking at yourself with parallel mirrors positioned both front and back. It’s two sides of the same picture, but you get extra thumbnail prints.

The article itself isn’t really the item here, but it’s “Farther Away” by Jonathan Franzen, in the April 18 New Yorker. In fairness, it’s exceptionally well written; as you can tell I just couldn’t quite get into this bit of Byronic self-eulogy.

The one phrase that caught my eye was: “the California woman I live with …”

Okay girls, I bet I know what you’re thinking. Is she so unimportant she doesn’t even rate a name? Everybody else in the story has a name, dead or alive. Is this a throwback to my own parents’ generation when we still heard “the little women” and “the missus” a lot? This is a SURPRISING slip for an author. This author doesn’t give away his age, but Franzen’s somewhat younger than I am based on what he describes of his youth. I’m 67. Is this an anomaly, perhaps just a decent gesture of privacy for this unnamed woman in California he says he yearns to be with? Are we basing harsh judgement on the only one instance where he fails to supply a name, or on the dozens of other instances where he does?

In the last century we would frequently hear married men refer to their spouses as “my wife”, which doesn’t raise any flags until you finally realize they never mention their wives’ names at all. It was a consistent pattern with some men, though never with others, who would always be heard to say “Mary” to the point where you’d pick up who “Mary” was just by context. “My wife” wasn’t an age thing either. I had one married friend ten years my junior who always said “my wife”, and I would tease him about that in earshot of his wife, and the mannerism still remained a complete compulsion with him.

In the case of The New Yorker author Franzen, we may never know for sure, but I’m betting he should have just written “the California woman I used to live with …”

No, still no TV tonight, but I do have the FM radio on, and that’s always tuned my favorite classical station, KBAQ 89.5.  I rarely go to any theater performance, and I am not normally a fan of critics’ reviews. I do have to make an exception for one Chris Curcio, KBAQ’s Theater Critic. I heard the following this afternoon.

You owe it to yourself to check out the KBAQ link to the audio review below. Chris Curcio has an unusually well modulated speaking voice and remarkably succinct and to-the-point commentary, backed up with ample examples of exactly what he’s asserting. Everything about his reviews (normally a very boring event for most of us) is fascinating to listen to. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He awarded this play below zero points out of five, and his review is without doubt the funniest review I have ever heard or read in my life, besides being one of the best-articulated.

Circle Mirror Transformation“, audio file review by Chris Curcio (audio broadcast, April 25)



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Notes From All Over

BIO – No, I’m posting no new autobiographical snippets today, just my status report. Some time ago I read a comment posted by my friend Richard Wanderman on his own blog, to the effect that writing a blog post isn’t the same as going down to the corner local pub to hoot and holler with like-minded, fist-pounding patrons. To that I might add: writing a book isn’t the same as writing a blog post.

For one thing, I had no idea how big my draft was becoming. I’ve never written a book. When I finally created representative draft content for my whole six-decades-plus  autobiographical life span, I started doing what I hoped were some standard metrics to figure out my page count. I’d read many citations that authors don’ t want to exceed 200-250 pages if they’re anticipating the e-book publishing route. I found that paperbacks weigh in at around 325 words per page, hardbacks around 350, and publishers use a standard 250 word page length to allow for white space and, presumably, for photos and illustrations. Was I surprised to find my draft weighing in around the low 500 page range – horrors!

Secondly, blog entries like this one are generally written and posted in under an hour, or a few hours at most. From post to post, readers invariably encounter variations in style, relevance, interest level and raw writing skill. That’s even less acceptable when reading a book! Within one or two boring or badly written paragraphs in a book, most of us bail. I’m re-writing and chopping my book draft, paragraph by paragraph. I’ll confess, it’s tough. My book, “Afraid of Changing”, is up to its seventh major rewrite and 68th serial update.

My editing formula is simple. If my own single sentence or paragraph begins to bore me after ten re-readings, I need to either delete it, or figure out why it’s relevant and find a fresh approach that shows you why it’s relevant and interesting too.

MUSIC STREAMING – In January I wrote about the sad demise of our Bay Area’s last classical radio station, KDFC. They went to an NPR format and a low-power transmitter that doesn’t even reach the South Bay. KDFC does stream ad-free music over your broadband connection. If you’re tired of commercial broadcasting advertisements insulting your intelligence and eardrums with obnoxious ads, you can find your own kind of music streamed to your Mac or PC whether it’s hip-hop, classical rock, classical classical, jazz, or traditional and big-band jazz.

Unfortunately for KDFC, they went from being a big frog in a Bay-sized pond to a little frog in a huge digital pond. I prefer classical station KBAQ out of Phoenix (either streamed or on FM), but I’ve also bookmarked WFMT (Chicago) and KUAT (Tucson). There’s a great classical jazz station in Paris, France … but right now I’m listening to “Classical Jazz –” for early Dixieland and 40’s style tunes … Who’s Sorry Now?

Assuming you do love music and do have broadband, I’d suggest you download Apple iTunes to your Mac or PC today if you didn’t already do that years ago. Even if you never load a single favorite CD into your iTunes – and how could you NOT do that? –  the Radio icon in the menu bar gives you far better access to American and international radio than your table radio or even that $900 FM tuner.



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E-mail Etiquette

Slipped Through The Cracks: E-mail Etiquette

Back in the early 1990’s, e-mail had already been on ARPANet and other closed government and academic dial-up lines for about two decades. The new AOL, Prodigy and other e-mail services were starting to roll out to the popular culture. That’s when the trouble started. People who had never written a letter before in their life were suddenly sending out torrents of illiterate nonsense.

“E-mail etiquette” suggestion sheets were cropping up everywhere. Computer clubs of the era would even hold presentations on the topic of writing an electronic letter without annoying your friends. There was no way a user could not know that typing in ALL CAPS IS SHOUTING.

Today, all that has changed. For one thing, computer clubs all tanked. Club members discovered the information convenience of the new internet. Secondly, we have a whole generation of savvy youth who don’t remember a time when we didn’t enjoy the instant access of the internet. Thirdly, much of the “Baby Boomer” generation has already embraced at least part of the personal computer, mobile device and instant social networking services of the twenty-first century.

What we offer here is mostly for the benefit of those who somehow slipped through the cracks. If you have never actually seen any of the over 4 million Google hits on a search for “email etiquette” lists, invest about ten minutes in your social networking skills and do that now.

We offer the below tips for folks who imagined they must personally re-invent customs of email usage and socially acceptability. (Horrors, how could they have known?) We offer these tips in the same helpful spirit as basic potty training. “Feel free to forward to everyone you know.”

1. BAN FORWARDED EMAIL: “FW:FW:FW” forwarding chains are generally messy and unwelcome. Many people delete them without reading.

2. NO GOOD GUY POINTS: If all someone does is forward other people’s forwarded stuff, their friends are entitled to complain that they never write, because they didn’t.

3. NO REPLY EXPECTED: Corollary of #2. People who didn’t actually write anything themselves, should expect no replies.

4. LARGE FONTS ARE SHOUTING TOO. Somewhere in the universe, there is one soul who spends all his time reformatting the gibberish of others into large, easy-to-read 36 point bond Brush Script bold italic fonting, then decorated in various Bozo The Clown bright colors. Do not, I repeat, do not do this, and don’t forward content to which others added their own creative finger-paints. That’s insultingly annoying.

5. PHOTO COLLECTIONS: OK, kids and animals are, awwww, CUUUTE. If the original photographer isn’t credited with the image content, chances are somebody’s being ripped off, and most of the time they are trying to make a living or run a website with great images like the ones being forwarded anonymously to the whole world.

6. ATTRIBUTION AND COPYRIGHTS: A lot of highly creative text is similarly circulated with author or copyright credits stripped off. If we don’t know who wrote it, think twice about forwarding a rip-off to friends who might realize that “everybody does it” didn’t cut it in grade school either.

7. SUPERPATRIOT SENTIMENTALIA based on one’s own personal trademarked, licensed franchise on Liberty and the U.S. Constitution is not necessarily amusing to the 99% of a readership who never heard of one’s own skinhead chapter.

8. RACIST PROPAGANDA: If one’s one true accomplishment in life was an accident of birth, this is one of those many things that should be re-thought before admitting in public. OK, maybe one happened to be born with an epidermis. Perhaps the country into which they were unceremoniously dropped automatically recognized them as a citizen. Or maybe they were anointed at birth with a lifetime membership in the First Zygotian Church of Gondwanaland, the One True Faith that nobody else ever heard of it. No one gets to claim credit for that.

9. BE HONEST AND ADMIT SOME FOLKS REALLY DON’T KNOW HOW TO READ: Do you know an e-mail Black Hole? What do they actually do when they receive that personalized email from a friend who asks a direct question? Do they strap on the old drool bib, let their jaw go slack and mumble, “Oh how nice, I have mail” and DELETE it?

10. “THIS IS GREAT”: If we MUST forward something, (a) It better be good (b) It’s better if it’s topical to our interest group (c) Strip out all the FW:FW:FW markup (d) Preserve any credits and attribution (e) Never read or forward chain mail (f) Give our friends credit for enough intelligence to decide what to do with their own email. DON’T add tacky instructions like “this is great” and “forward to 10 other friends”.

CONCLUSION: Email can still be fun and useful when used reasonably. 95% of the problems are generated by 5% of the users. Certainly, you can still forward content; just use common sense. “Free postage” doesn’t buy us the right to be friendly and courteous in public while insulting our friends’ intelligence behind the email ramparts.

By: Alex Forbes, ©2-8-2011

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‘Knight and Day’ Plot Gimmick Used Before

I recently read a New Yorker review of this new Tom Cruise movie (they did not recommend it).

I need your help to identify the origin of the unlimited-power battery plot gimmick. You would probably have to be 60+ years of age and to have read a lot of the sci-fi of the mid to late 1950’s.

The movie “gimmick” was that Cruise plays a future-world soldier of fortune type who has somehow acquired or invented a battery. The battery is physically about the size and weight of a pack of cigarettes — or perhaps, if you prefer, an iPod nano. Defying many laws of physics at once, THIS battery can supply enough electrical energy to run a large city, and do so indefinitely. Continue reading

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“That Sentence Should Be Taken Out and Shot”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of sentences, improperly executed.

You already know exactly what kinds of sentences the “taken out and shot” quip refers to: long, drawn-out constructs of mixed metaphors and tortured simile (“A riveting wit that commands a commotion like gasoline on an ant-hill”), gigantic leaps of logical absurdity (“construction of the pyramids must have been directed from a spaceship from 10,000 feet”) … “It was a dark and stormy night.” Exactly: Bulwer-Lytton fodder.

But where did the “taken out and shot” quip originally come from?
Continue reading

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