Pleasing the public vs pleasing the experts or, why the Kingston Trio is like the Eiffel Tower

We went to see the Kingston Trio in concert the other night. It’s a strange set up, since the Kingston Trio stopped performing over 40 years ago. In their place, however, are three guys fully sanctioned by the originals, a sort of super tribute band, or maybe a clone band that carries the original name and has the original strong catalog. These guys have been doing this forever and they are very good. I once saw the original band in the 1960s and these guys are actually put on a better concert.

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The original Kingston Trio

Anyway, the experience led me to read up on the KT and their history. The Kingston Trio revolutionized folk music in the early ’60s, and, some might say, music in general. Their finely crafted songs and harmonies raised folk music to heights of popularity it had never seen before, and spawned unknown numbers of imitations. American type folk music even became popular around the world. No folk group and very few music groups of any kind ever enjoyed the success and popularity of the KT.

For all their success, however, the KT were scorned by lesser, more traditional folk groups and even trade publications as not being “authentic”, or “pure” enough to the source material. This was ironic, because the KT never even claimed to be a folk group, let alone an “authentic” one. If you have ever heard “authentic” folk singing, with its monotony, droning vocals, rudimentary musicality, and repertoire of songs about obscure tragedies or dreary and dated subjects, you would understand why the KT did so much better. They were enjoyable and fun, and the public responded. Another criticism of the KT was that they weren’t “socially aware” enough and didn’t participate in the fashionable protests of the era. What this really meant was that they were more interested in pleasing the public than in posturing. After all, nobody goes to congress for entertainment, why go to a folk concert for politics?

So the Kingston Trio became immensely popular with the public while being dismissed by the “experts”. As strange as this sounds, the phenomena is really quite common. It even extends to historical landmarks.

I am currently working on a book tentatively titled “The Secrets behind the Structures”, giving the inside story of some of the world’s landmarks. Here is a webpage devoted to the project. Anyway, in researching the book, I frequently come across beloved structures that were condemned at the time by the experts. Gothic cathedrals, for instance were considered ugly and too ornamented and elaborate by many architects and critics when they first appeared. The term Gothic was a term of derision since the Goths were the barbarians that sacked Rome. The common people, however, looked on the Gothic cathedrals with their soaring spaces and stained glass as a vision of heaven itself.

eiffel-tower

The Eiffel Tower was condemned as a rusty industrial eyesore by the intellectuals and artists of Paris, but ordinary citizens looked on in wonder and awe at Gustav Eiffel’s achievement. They still do.

Tower Bridge, now a beloved London Landmark, was criticized by many artists, architects, and city planners of London because its quasi-Gothic architecture didn’t match the nearby Tower of London. Now, even China has built a replica.

So, if the experts didn’t like the Kingston Trio, who did?

Everyone else.

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The last combat deaths of the First World War took place over six months later, and were in Scotland!

When the Armistice was declared in November of 1918, hostilities of the Great War were officially over and a cease fire went into effect. In the final seconds on the Western Front, there was a fury of gunfire in the final seconds before the deadline, as soldiers competed to see who could claim to have fired the last shot of the war. Different sources claim different names as the last death of the war, but since men were scattered in so many places, exactly who died last in the seconds just before the cease fire is uncertain. Some were no doubt killed hours or even days later in isolated places that didn’t get the word of the cease fire on time.

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Despite this confusion, however, we can say for certain that the last combat deaths of the First World War took place on June 21, 1919…..in northern Scotland! This is the story.

When the Armistice was signed ending the First World War, the German Navy was in a difficult position. The allied powers were undecided whether to scuttle the ships, or divide them up as spoils of war among the allied nations. If they were divided up, exactly who got what and how would it affect the balance of power in Europe in the future? While the allies tried to figure this out, they decided to intern the German surface ships at Scapa Flow, the gigantic British Naval Base in the north of Scotland. A total of 72 German vessels, including several battleships, were anchored in Scapa Flow awaiting final disposition.

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Admiral von Reuter

 

The German command of this dreary mission was given to Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. While the Allies negotiated the fate of the German High Seas Fleet, the ships were still under the command of von Reuter and still manned by their German crews. As may be imagined, the morale of the Germans was close to rock bottom. In addition to being defeated, they sat day after day in one of the bleakest places on earth, watching the fog and rain. They could not go ashore or even visit other ships. The food was miserable, mail was slow, and many of the men were close to mutiny. A few already had. Von Reuter found maintaining discipline increasingly difficult as they awaited a decision on their fate.

Turning their ships over to the Allies to be distributed to their former enemies was a bitter pill to swallow, and von Reuter planned to scuttle the ships if he got the chance. The British, however, were alert to such a move, and how much cooperation von Reuter might get from some of his fellow officers was uncertain, so the long wait continued. Von Reuter secretly made preparations and awaited his chance.

The months passed and most of the German crews were taken off and sent back to Germany. This actually made things easier for von Reuter, because it gave him a way to retain only officers and men he could trust. Finally, the Treaty of Versailles was scheduled to be signed at noon on June 21, 1919. This would formalize the final disposal of the ships and allow the British to take possession from their German crews. Admiral Sydney Fremantle, the British commander planned to seize the ships on June 21st. Instead of seizing the ships in the morning, however, Fremantle decided to take advantage of some rare good weather and take most of the British ships out to conduct some long-overdue torpedo drills. The seizure would take place in the afternoon upon his return.

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Admiral Fremantle

Seizing his chance, von Reuter signaled the German ships to hoist the Imperial German flag and scuttle. Water rushed into the ships, with the smaller ones sinking first. The British, alerted to the situation, sent smaller gunboats to stop the Germans, who were by now escaping in lifeboats. At this point, several British boarding parties swarmed about several of the ships, but met resistance from the Germans. The British, considering the Germans had made themselves enemy combatants once again, opened fire on the Germans, killing 9 and wounding 16. All together, 1774 Germans were recaptured. The nine deaths were the last combat deaths of the First World War; over six months later and in the north of Scotland.

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Of the 74 interned ships, 54 were sunk, including the big battleships. Some of the ships were re floated and some were salvaged. Although the British were angry that the Germans had gotten the better of them, they were relieved that the whole thorny question of who was going to get the ships was now moot. In ensuing years, more of the wrecks would be salvaged and only a few now remain as dive sites.

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Judging books by their covers

Someone said you can’t judge a book by its cover but you can usually judge it by its back cover. The idea, of course, is that the facade of a book, at least the front part, can be deceiving about what’s inside. The back cover is usually much more revealing.

I saw a human example of this principle today in an unlikely place: a toy store. There was a distinguished looking man, maybe 60-70, approaching the front counter. He was well dressed had neat, silver hair, and a no-nonsense look to him. He could have been a TV doctor, maybe head of cardiac surgery or something similar. This was not unusual, since the toy store had a good stock of  high level educational toys suitable for the man’s grandchildren. What would this gentleman want; maybe a detailed anatomy model, or a chemistry set, or an electronic kit? He reached the counter and addressed the clerk with the confident air of a man who knew exactly what he wanted. He stated his requirements in a clear, steady voice.

“Excuse me, do you carry Whoopee Cushions?”

 

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If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we…. The fallacy of comparing things that aren’t equivalent.

 

After the first moon landing, we heard a lot of people say that if we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to solve all our social problems. This was a gross misunderstanding of what was involved in the two problems. Placing a man on the moon was a straightforward technical problem. Each part that was solved led to the next step in a logical manner. Social problems, on the other hand, are complex and involve a staggering number of  variables, any one of which can cause a reaction that affects the rest. The moon shot involved manipulating things; social problems involve manipulating people. Big difference. Things don’t fight you and react in unpredictable ways…people do.

I was reminded of this on a cruise last week, when the ships company put on  a “Festival of Nations Show”. This show, a staple of most cruise lines nowadays, features members of the ship’s crew parading with the flags of the nations they came from. Cruise ship crews are amazingly multinational. The cruise director/master of ceremonies ended up by saying that they have people from 50 nations among the ship’s crew and they all get along, so why can’t the world get along that way? The passengers all nodded sagely, although nobody actually sang Kumbaya.

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This is the same false equivalency the If-we-can-land-a-man-on-the-moon…  people indulge in and it’s just as pointless. The reason the world doesn’t get along as well as the ship’s crew (and I don’t believe for a minute that all is sweetness and light below decks, but let’s assume that it is.) is very simple. Are you ready?

The cruise line gets to select who it hires, and gets to fire anyone who doesn’t work out.  The world doesn’t get to do that. Nobody had the opportunity to refuse to include Iran in the world, and you can’t fire North Korea. All the countries and all the pain-in-the-butt jerkwads in the world are not subject to hiring or firing for the common good. If the cruise ship people had to hire everyone who applies and could not discipline or fire anyone after that, cruise ships would be just as dysfunctional as the rest of the world.

…and with the possibility of drowning.

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Turning Points-Paths taken and not taken

How many people do you know who talk incessantly about getting their big break, and how different life will be once they get it? Maybe you think the same thing. One day you’ll get that life changing bit of good fortune.

But what if you’ve already had it and didn’t realize it? What if you have already come to a crossroads and gone the wrong way? This is probably more common than we realize, and sometimes, a split second decision can determine our path for the rest of our lives.

Here’s a case in point: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became friends in the 1940s when they were both struggling entertainers; Martin as a crooner and Lewis as a slapstick comedian. They played clubs here and there, but neither was really going anywhere. One night, at a late and sparsely attended show, Lewis decided to play a trick on Martin. Martin was doing his usual singing act to an indifferent crowd when Lewis, in a borrowed waiter’s uniform appeared with a huge slab of meat on a skewer yelling “Hey; who ordered the steak?”

Martin knew nothing about this and was startled. He turned and saw Lewis.

That’s where the turning point occurred. Most people would have snarled at Lewis to get off the stage or tried to freeze him with a dirty look. If Martin had done that, the rest of both of their careers probably would have languished.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis | Early memories | PinterestMartin and Lewis-Annex4Pardners Jerry Lewis Dean Martin movie poster print | eBay

But he didn’t. Martin recovered instantly and began exchanging wise cracks and the audience loved it. Over time, they began appearing together, honing their act into a two partner pandemonium. Martin was a gifted comedian and great adlibber himself and the combination clicked to become the biggest act in America. Soon Martin and Lewis were in the movies and a TV series. They had a falling out in later years, and the act broke up, but each became wealthy and famous.

And it all hinged on a single moment.

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How Poland saved Western Civilization….Twice!

When most Americans think of Poland, if they think of it at all, they think of it as a faraway place where they make kielbasa and have a serious shortage of vowels in their names. Some, who know a little more about the place know that it has had a very bad time of it in the twentieth century by being located between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Talk about a bad neighborhood. One author called the area “the bloodlands”.  Between being invaded by Germany and “liberated” by the Red Army, it would be hard to tell which was worse, since each event resulted in a soul-crushing foreign rule and mass murder as a tool of government administration. So has Poland always been a victim? And what have the Poles ever done for us? Well, how about helping to win WWII? The Polish 303rd  fighter squadron helped defeat the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Polish scientists helped crack the German secret codes.

Not enough? How about this; the Poles saved Western Civilization….twice!

The first time was in 1683. The Ottoman Empire was at its height and was pushing deep into Europe. The Ottomans had been waging constant war on any part of Europe they could reach and had made much of the European areas bordering the Mediterranean uninhabitable through conquest or slave raids. Now the sultan had laid siege to Vienna, one of the intellectual and cultural centers of Europe, and the gateway to the rest of the continent. The Ottomans were on the verge of victory as they attacked again and again, wearing down the defenders. Of course, the Turks, themselves, were weakening from  the fighting, but they would soon outlast the defenders of Vienna. Once Vienna was taken, the Ottomans would use it as a base to attack the rest of Europe, and to replace European civilization with a repressive Islamic dictatorship. For the Europeans, things looked bleak.

Then the Poles showed up.

The Battle of Vienna, 12 September 1683 | Justice4Poland

Jan Sobieski and the Poles at Vienna 1683

 

The Polish king, Jan Sobieski had brought a relief force all the way from Warsaw to help break the siege. He swooped down on the Ottomans with 23,000 Polish troops, including the famous heavy cavalry, the “winged hussars”. The Poles charged downhill with 15,000 mounted men, possibly the biggest cavalry charge in history. The Ottomans were overwhelmed, losing thousands of men. They abandoned the siege and retreated back to Istanbul, and leaving their camp and artillery behind. Over the ensuing years, the Ottomans were driven from Hungary and other European areas they had formerly occupied. The Turks never again threatened Vienna and went no deeper into Europe. Europe and Western Civilization had been saved.

The Poles had saved western civilization, but they weren’t through yet.

After the first First World War, the Communists took over Russia and, once they had consolidated their power, decided to spread their revolution to their neighbors. Europe was devastated and mostly bankrupt after the war, and many people were sympathetic to the Communist promises of a better life with less effort. Not everyone realized the hollowness of these promises and the fact that Communist rule meant state terror, shortages, complete loss of freedom, the stifling of all innovation and improvement in everyday life, and the good possibility of state-imposed mass murder. Lenin ordered he Red Army, fresh from defeating the Czarist forces to began a push into Europe to bring the entire continent under the Soviet heel. Once Warsaw fell, the plan was for the Red Army to join revolutionaries in Germany in imposing a Communist regime there and spreading to the rest of Europe. The Poles grimly awaited the invaders, determined to stop them.

Polish defenses Battle of Warsaw 1920

At first, the Polish army fell back in disorder, and as the Russians approached Warsaw, their victory seemed certain, and Europe seemed doomed to become Communist dominated. But the Poles had broken the Russian codes and  Polish Chief of State Józef Piłsudski came up with a plan to exploit this knowledge.

Jozef PiIsudski

In a complex battle., the Poles lured the Russians into a trap and defeated them. The Russians lost over 15,000 killed and had to abandon their plan to foment and assist Communist revolution in Europe and turned inward. This was bad luck for the hapless Russian people, but a lifesaver for Europe. Although Poland would fall to Hitler a few years later, Europe had avoided the fate of Russia, and along with it, 50 years of repression, terror, purges, economic stagnation, and cultural sterility.

So raise a glass to the Poles, and maybe have a kielbasa. We owe them a lot.

 

 

 

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How Amazon makes it unnecessary to eat a rotten egg

Fashions change in writing as do readers’ tastes. Some of this is just popular culture preferences and some is the result of technology. One technology driven change is the increasing importance of a book’s beginning.

Of course, savvy writers already know how important a book’s beginning can be. If you submit to a publisher, many will only want the first 50 pages or so. This means that if a book is slow to get started, it might never do so. The editor will toss the submission if it doesn’t grab the reader from the beginning. It wasn’t always so. Even well regarded novels of the Victorian Age were, shall we say, a bit leisurely in how they began. Pages of description and musings before anything resembling a charactwer or plot were not unusual. Some books even larded up the beginning with a preface, such as this one from a tome entitled Abbeychurch, or Self concern and self conceit (Many older novels featured alternate titles for some reason.) Anyway, here’s what confronts the unsuspecting reader on the first page;

beginning

Exhausted Student Sleeping Over Books Stock Images - Image: 25222634

Huh? What?….Sorry, I must have dozed off there for a minute. Now, where was I? Oh, yes; beginnings. Well, you can see that Victorian readers apparently had extraordinary patience, and were willing to wade through a swamp of prelude to reach the high ground of an actual story, but they were almost a captive audience. What were they going to do if the beginning was boring? Maybe watch TV instead? Maybe pop in a DVD? Maybe surf the web for something better? Nope. It was either read a novel or try to scare up some people for a game of Whist or lawn darts. Technology, or lack of it, helped to pepetuate the dull beginning.

Things are different now. The written word has a lot of very flashy competition out there. Few people will sit still for a plodding beginning when other diversions beckon. You have to grab the reader by the neck and yell “Keep reading, damn you!” Now, technology has done even more to  made a dull beginning an endangered species. As  you probably know, Amazon sells a lot of books, and almost every book listing features a picture of the book cover with the caption Look Inside! If you click on the cover picture, the screen will show the first 20 pages or so of the book. You can even download them into your Kindle. This is the electronic equivalent of browsing through a book in a book store (Except that you can do it in your underwear if you like, something bookstores often frown upon.) This is absolutely critical. This is your big chance to snare the reader and hog tie him. You have to make him want to read more; to make him need to read more. If the beginning doesn’t turn him on, he will never buy the book on the off chance that it will improve. A famous critic once panned a book after reading only the first few pages. When the author objected that he hadn’t read the entire book before condemning it, the critic famously replied “I don’t have to eat an entire egg to know that it’s rotten.”

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The beginning is your best and possibly only chance to make the sale. Write a grabber beginning. I have to confess that my own record is a bit spotty in this regard. I start most Max Hurlock Roaring 20s mystery with the murder itself, described in a way to arouse the reader’s interest and curiosity. Once the reader is turning the pages to clear up the crime, I can afford to start filling in background, characters, and plot points. Sometimes, I just start with something to make them read on to clarify things. Here are some beginnings from the series

Death of a Flapper- First line: “That’s odd. There’s a light on in Miriam’s room.”

 

Death and the Blind Tiger- First line: The sudden silence when the engine stopped would have been restful and pleasant if the biplane had not been 2,000 feet in the air at the time.

Death in Unlikely Places–  First line: Everyone was surprised at how much blood a thick wool sweater could absorb.

Death across the Chesapeake- First line: Like mourners at a funeral, the small group of people stood in the hallway in front of the closed office door, talking in hushed tones and shaking their heads.

So that’s why it’s important to start off with a grabber. For the record, my own favorite grabber first line is from Charlotte’s Web.

“Where is Papa going with that ax?”

the white men with their ax

I dare anyone to stop reading at that point!

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