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The transience of showbiz glory

The Easter fire at Notre Dame in Paris was distressing, of course. I was a bit less distressed than the average, for reasons I expressed in my April 19th podcast. But yes: a great shame, and a real esthetic loss.

For an English child of the 1950s Notre Dame is for ever linked with the movie actor Charles Laughton, who played Quasimodo in the 1939 version of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It’s not actually clear to me why that should be. I was born too late to see the movie when it was in theaters; there were of course no video tapes or DVDs in the 1950s; and the Derbyshires didn’t acquire a TV set until I was thirteen.

We just seemed to know about Laughton’s Quasimodo by osmosis. Wits of the lower kind all had Laughton impersonations in their annoying repertoires. Visiting your house, friends and relatives of that species would announce themselves by calling “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” through the front-door mail slot; then, when you opened the door, they would lurch in hunchbackwise saying, “Sanctuary much!” Everybody got the joke. Or “joke.”

I’m not sure I ever did see the Charles Laughton movie. I read the novel later on in life, and remember being surprised at the barely-concealed sado-eroticism of it. Disney made a movie version of that? Disney?

Laughton’s bio at is a sad reminder of the transience of showbiz glory. He was a huge star in his time, by no means only in Britain. (He became a U.S. citizen, died in Hollywood, and is buried at Forest Lawn.) Now he’s pretty much forgotten.

The last time I heard his name mentioned was in the silly 2001 Bruce Willis / Cate Blanchett caper flick Bandits, when Billy Bob Thornton, listing his phobias for Cate, tells her: “I’m afraid of Charles Laughton, actually.” The YouTube clip of that scene mis-spells Laughton’s name in the subtitles …

Easter and Passover

Several Radio Derb listeners emailed in to scold me for saying that “the Jewish calendar is lunar.” Some of it is, they allowed, but some other of it isn’t.

Sure, I knew that. I was speaking loosely. Do you really want to bandy calendricals with a guy who knows his date of birth in Mayan?

Any significant calendar system for common use (so not, for example, Astronomer’s Julian) needs to have both solar and lunar components. Every agricultural society needs to track solar cycles to know when to plant and when to harvest; the moon seems to govern some natural processes (tides, menstruation) and is handy on dark nights when artificial light is hard to come by.

(Among those natural processes are some disturbances of the mind; hence “lunacy.” That sounds like empty superstition; but a truthful, level-headed acquaintance of mine who worked as a counsellor and on-call rescuer to alcoholic members of a big metropolitan labor union told me that full moon was his busiest time.)

Still, any particular calendar leans one way or the other—more solar or more lunar. That’s why the date of Easter moves around. Easter Sunday is defined by a combination of lunar and solar events (it’s the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after March 21st), whereas the rest of the Christian calendar—Christmas, Saints’ Days, and so on—is pretty solidly solar.

The Jewish calendar leans more lunar, that’s all I was saying. Passover starts on a full moon.

And then there’s the vexed question: Why isn’t Easter celebrated at Passover? Jesus, like other first-century Jews who could make the trip, went to Jerusalem for Passover to purify himself at the temple. That was when he was arrested and executed. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder. So how is it that in (for example) A.D. 2024 Easter Sunday will be March 31st but Passover starts April 22nd?

Here you really do get into the calendrical weeds. The perps here are the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. As best I can understand it, the Emperor Constantine, who called the council, wanted to separate his now-official church clearly from the Jews, to express disapproval of their having killed Jesus.

And the Easter Bunny? No idea.

Qing Ming

The traditional Chinese calendar also leans lunar. The big festivals that Round Eyes know about—New Year, Lantern, Dragon Boat, Mid-Autumn—are all lunar.

There is some solar structure in the traditional Chinese calendar too, though. Just as Easter moves around in our solar calendar because it’s lunar, there is a major Chinese festival that moves around in their lunar calendar because it’s solar.

This is Qing Ming, the festival of Pure Brightness. Because it’s solar, it’s pretty well fixed in our calendar, always occurring on April 4th or 5th. (Explaining that one day variation gets you really deep down in the weeds.)

How do you celebrate Qing Ming? The main thing is, you sweep the graves of your ancestors. The Derb ancestors, on both sides of the family, passed away on distant continents, and recent generations were anyway cremated, not interred; so neither I nor Mrs Derb could carry out the proper observances this April 5th.

My lady did the best she could for us, going up the back yard that evening and burning some Hell Money in the family barbecue pit.

For the ancestors

If you mention Qing Ming to an educated Chinese person there is an excellent chance he’ll respond by rattling off the poem about it by the ninth-century poet Du Mu.

While my better half was burning Hell Money out back, I recorded a reading of that poem and put it on my website.

What with her Hell Money and my poetry reading, we figure the ancestors should rest in peace for another year.

(Du Mu is not to be confused with the much more famous eighth-century poet Du Fu, who can be heard moving around behind the scenery in Fire from the Sun.)

Nonfiction book of the month

On a friend’s recommendation, as part of the everlasting project to fill gaps in my historical knowledge, I read Whipple’s To the Shores of Tripoli, which is of course about the First Barbary War of 1801-1805.

What a mess! All I knew about this war prior to reading Whipple—I mean, all I thought I knew—was that Thomas Jefferson at last got fed up with the North African states preying on American shipping, had given them a good sharp lesson, and that was the end of that.

In fact the war was a bungled cluster-hug, the young republic’s military men, president, legislators, and diplomats falling over each other’s feet in a clumsy dance that is painful to read about.

The U.S.A. was a comparatively minor power with not much money to spend on military establishments; the big European nations were distracted by the Napoleonic Wars; and communications across three thousand miles took weeks. The piracy problem wasn’t decisively settled until a decade later, after Napoleon had been worn down and “the War of 1812 [had] proved the mettle of the U.S. Navy.”

There’s some thrilling stuff in there, though—especially the capture of Derna. I’m surprised William Eaton isn’t better-known: I confess I had never heard of him.


Eaton was another twelve-pointer, like Hernán Cortés (who, by the way, also fought a couple of rounds with the pirate-rulers of the Barbary Coast, nearly getting drowned as a result). An interesting question for discussion is: Which of these two men, Eaton and Cortés, was treated worse by his own government? It looks to me like Eaton, but I’ll entertain opposing opinions.

As in any war, there is tragedy and comedy to contemplate. For tragedy, spare a thought for the four crewmen of the warship Philadelphia in the passage below. The Philadelphia had been captured by the bashaw (ruler) of Tripoli and its officers and crew held as prisoners for nearly two years. Under the terms of the treaty that ended the war, they were to be repatriated.

Of the 307 officers and crew only six had died, none of them officers. When the survivors were about to be released, the bashaw sent for the five renegade sailors who had professed to turn Muslim. Yusuf offered them the opportunity to renounce their conversion and return to the squadron. Only one … elected to remain a Muslim and stay in Tripoli. The others chose to leave; one of them had a wife and four children at home. But the bashaw, evidently regarding their Muslim masquerade as an insult to his religion, promptly called the guards and had them marched away. “We had a glimpse of them as they passed our prison,” marine private Ray recalled, “and could see horror and despair depicted in their countenances.” They were never heard from again. Consul Lear chose not to protest.

For comedy I’ll take the fate of the Barbary admiral Mahomet Rais, who lost his own ship to the American sloop Enterprise:

Rais made it [back] to Tripoli, where he was greeted by a furious bashaw who stripped him of command and sent him riding through the streets mounted backward on a jackass with sheep’s entrails hung round his neck. For good measure the humiliated ex-admiral was also given 500 bastinadoes.

You win some, you lose some.

Breaking in to privacy’s last citadel

Brain-machine interfaces—BMIs—seem to be edging their way out of the labs into everyday reality. Scientific American, April 1st:

Machines That Read Your Brain Waves

Thanks to noninvasive tools that have been around for decades, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), physicians and neuroscientists can measure changes in your brain without drilling a hole in your skull. And now some of the problems that made these tools finicky, expensive and hard to interpret are being ironed out, meaning that neural interfaces are suddenly showing up at Amazon and Target. Which presents a challenge because measuring brain activity isn’t like making microwave popcorn. There are enormous privacy and ethical issues at stake.

Well, yes. There’s nothing more private than “brain activity,” a category of phenomena that includes, though it’s not limited to, your thoughts.

The University of California, April 24th:

A state-of-the-art brain-machine interface created by UC San Francisco neuroscientists can generate natural-sounding synthetic speech by using brain activity to control a virtual vocal tract—an anatomically detailed computer simulation including the lips, jaw, tongue and larynx.

Don’t forget those uvular consonants, guys!

The pop-science outlets are all talking about these BMI advances. Even discounting for a certain quantity of hype and some false dawns, it looks as though technology is poised to invade the last citadel of privacy and personal autonomy—what Sam Beckett called “the ring of bone,” i.e. the human skull. Our thoughts may not be private much longer.

I’m ready for it. As a science-fiction addict from way back in the Golden Age of that genre—the middle decades of the 20th century—I was reading stories about telepathy—and thinking about it, as I’m sure any telepaths in my neighborhood could have told you—while still in short pants.

The four biggest themes in Golden Age sci-fi were: space exploration, time travel, robotics, and telepathy. Of those four, telepathy has proven least durable in popular culture. There were some major telepathy hits in Golden Age literature—A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan (1940), Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953), Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953), John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids(1955)—but telepathy in movies and TV has been below the major-hit level, and usually gets yoked with telekinesis and teleportation for visual punch.

There’s just not much visual punch in thoughts.

Three to Conquer

One of the best telepath-normie encounters from that era is in Chapter 4 of Eric Frank Russell’s Three to Conquer (1955).

The novel’s main character, Wade Harper, is a natural telepath. He figured out in infancy, though, that his best life option was secrecy. Nobody knows he’s a telepath. He lives a normal life, only occasionally, carefully, helping out law enforcement when he can do so without revealing his talent.

By chance he encounters Joyce Whittingham, a normal-seeming woman whose nervous system—including of course her thoughts—has been taken over by malevolent aliens. He kills her/it, and is soon the subject of a police manhunt.

Grasping that humanity is in danger, he decides to unmask himself to the authorities, to help them track down other normal-looking people who’ve been taken over. He makes for FBI headquarters in Washington, DC and turns himself in as the woman’s killer, but has to talk his way past low-level “shields.”

“The Whittingham business has to do more or less with national security. Therefore I can talk only so someone who’ll know what I’m talking about.”
“That would be Jameson,” promptly whispered Pritchard’s thoughts.
“Such as Jameson,” Harper added.
They reacted as though he had uttered a holy name in the unholy precincts of a cheap saloon.
“Or whoever is his boss,” said Harper for good measure.
With a touch of severity, Pritchard demanded, “You just said that Stevens is the only member of the FBI known to you. So how do you know of Jameson? Come to that, how did you know my name?”
“He knew mine too,” put in Slade, openly itching for a plausible explanation.
“That’s a problem I’ll solve only in the presence of somebody way up top,” said Harper. He smiled at Pritchard and inquired, “How’s your body?”
Out of the other’s bafflement Harper extracted a clear and detailed picture of the body, said in helpful tones, “You have a fish-shaped birthmark on the inside of your left thigh.”

Pritchard goes off to check with Jameson in a different office. In his absence, Harper asks Slade for a sheet of paper and commences writing.

He scribbled with great rapidity, finished a short time before Pritchard’s return.
“He won’t see you,” announced Pritchard with a that-is-that air.
“I know.” Harper gave him the paper.
Glancing over it, Pritchard popped his eyes, ran out full tilt. Slade stared after him, turning a questioning gaze upon Harper.
“That was a complete and accurate transcript of their conversation,” Harper informed. “Want to lay any bets against him seeing me now?”

The fun thing about being a telepath would be playing head games like that with normies. The downside would of course be that once you’d unmasked yourself, nobody would want to be around you. And try getting into a poker game!

Scourby’s Bible

I browsed the latest Great Courses brochure, looking for a course of lectures to listen to while I do my work-out. Nothing appealed to me sufficiently; so on an impulse I downloaded Alexander Scourby’s reading of the entire King James Bible instead.

A friend advertised the Scourby readings to me a year ago and I’ve had them in mind ever since. I’m much more a reader than a listener, though, and I’ve been telling myself for years that one day—one day!—I shall set myself to read the whole KJV on a proper reading plan.

Now, a year older, I’ve turned some kind of corner. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there are some things I shall never get around to, reading the Bible most likely one of them. So why not just listen to Scourby? I paid the twenty bucks and did the download. It’s a little over a gigabyte, which is 47 hours of audio—about a minute and a half of audio per cent.

I’ve just finished up Genesis. Scourby’s voice is exactly right for the job. He breezes through the begats, never tripping over a name. I would want a couple of practice runs at verses like Gen. 46:17:

And the sons of Asher: Imnah, and Ishvar, and Ishvi, and Beriah, and Serah, their sister; and the sons of Beriah: Heber, and Malchiel.

I don’t think I could suppress an occasional snicker, either. Gen. 46:21:

And the sons of Benjamin were Bela, and Becher, and Ashbel, Gera, and Na’aman, Ehi, and Rosh, Muppim, and Huppim, and Ard.

Whatever became of Muppim, and Huppim, and Ard? Were they, perhaps at some unconscious level, the inspiration for Eugene Field’s Wynken, Blynken, and Nod? (And is Eugene Field a dead ringer for Stephen Miller, or what? Hey—focus, Derb, focus!)

Scourby, however, keeps the same level, authoritative, snicker-free tone throughout. I can’t wait to hear how he copes with Mahershalalhashbaz and Chushanrishathaim.

Math Corner

I’m occasionally asked whether Mrs Derbyshire shares my mathematical inclinations.


Answer: Not at all. My lady is highly intelligent, but her intelligence is concentrated over in the verbal zone. Her command of English is near-total, though she didn’t start learning until her late teens. She grills me constantly about vocabulary, grammar, and usage. Just this evening:

She: “Why do we say ‘spring a leak’? Why ‘spring’?”
Me: “Uh … Well, see … It’s like a spring of fresh water bursting out of the ground. See?”
She: “But that’s a noun. ‘Spring’ the verb means ‘jump.’ And itsprings a leak. Where did it jump?”
Me: “Uhhh … Oh wait, I forgot to put the garbage out.”

She makes fun of my math interests, in a good-natured spousely way. Just recently, for example she tweaked me by emailing this, that was going around on one of her social-media networks.

For once I returned her serve right back over the net. Within a very few minutes I’d emailed my reply:

But that’s EASY! The value of the integral is −2.981266944005515…
Not quite sure how you get a PIN out of that, though.

I used an app, of course. (This one.) That the internet has made math chores a whole lot easier, is true. That it’s taken all the fun out of math, is false, at any rate if you have an un-mathematical spouse.

2010-12-24dl[1]John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT(also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

(Republished from VDare by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Science Fiction 
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  1. Anonymous[123] • Disclaimer says:

    Like the Christmas tree, the Easter Bunny, originally Osterhase, is a German tradition, brought to America by German pietists in the 18th century.

  2. dearieme says:

    One of the problems with deducing a date for the crucifixion is that Passover was moveable in the lunar calendar. The priests wanted “first fruits” for their rituals so if the winter had been unusually hard they deferred Passover. Or so says a historian I read a while ago.

    I suspect there’s an empirical rule about religions that lay down severe lists of instructions about behaviour. Because living life is too complicated to be reduced to a mere set of instructions, the followers of such religions will always devise a back-handed way of avoiding their own rules.

    Can anyone think of a rule-bound religion of which this is not true?

  3. MEH 0910 says:

    Inspector Clouseau the hunchback

    “The bells! The bells! They deafen me!”

    • Replies: @Achmed E. Newman
  4. On section 3, Mr. Derbyshire, regarding Qing Ming:

    This one day of “tomb sweeping” is a perfect example for me of how the Chinese people have NO religion left after 40-50 years of hard-core Communism. I know that they burn money at the grave sites of their loved ones to send it to the beyond with them. It’s kind of materialistic to begin with, to figure that money will still be required in the afterlife, especially paper fiat money. Do they think God has been duped by the Federal Reserve Bank and the CCP like the peons?

    See, they don’t burn even real fiat money though. They burn fake stuff, like Monopoly money. Then, I asked this young lady why they didn’t burn real money, if they supposedly took this Buddhist/Taoist stuff seriously. “Well, we have to BUY that fake money, so … you know …”

    OK, it’s just another day to cook up lots of food, take a day off, and visit relatives – they should just admit it.

  5. @MEH 0910

    That was hilarious, MEH! I’ll have to borrow some of these Pink Panther ones from the library. They were slightly before my time.

    • Replies: @MEH 0910
  6. anonymous[340] • Disclaimer says:

    Anything new on Assange since last month’s diary?

  7. Swamp Creatures in Congress need to outlaw some of these mega-intrusive tech measures, but we can’t count on them if they can squeeze some campaign-chest dollars out of selling off our thoughts to the highest corporate bidder. Whatever haphardzard sausage-making method works to secure their tenure at $174k is the method they’ll use to subvert the US Constitution. They aren’t picky.

  8. “Now he’s pretty much forgotten.”

    Not if you are a long time viewer of Turner Classic Movies. One of the few television programming designs I miss from days watching television.

    • Replies: @Achmed E. Newman
  9. I’d be interested in seeing comparisons of people’s brains using these intrusive brain mapping techniques before n after exposure to decades of Hollywood ‘entertainment’ n public education. I suspect these cause massive measurable changes due to the conditioning, n probably all resulting in the exact same pattern.

  10. Old Prude says:

    Last year I finished reading the KJV through for a second time. I am always amazed by some of the shocking violence and sex in the Old Testament. They never went over those passages in Sunday school. And all that stuff about circumcision is a bit weird.

    My favorite passage 2 Kings 23: And he [Elisha] went up thence to Bethel: and as he was going up by the way there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

    As I get older, I find Jesus comes across as an arrogant hippy smart-aleck. I can see why they had him killed. I think I would have supported the act. Forgive me, Lord.

    • Replies: @Achmed E. Newman
  11. Even as a young teenager I was awed by Charles Lawton’s performance in Witness for the Prosecution. There’s the bar boys; see if you can clear it.

  12. @EliteCommInc.

    I only peruse the TV once in a coupla months when bored at a hotel somewhere, EC, but last I recall that TCM channel has gone to shit too. I may be thinking of AMC or both, for that matter. Any TV-viewing commenter here should feel free to correct me and set this straight.

  13. @Old Prude

    LOL on that last paragraph, O.P.! Of course, he WOULD forgive you, just like a tree-hugger being cut into a couple of pieces by your feller-buncher … might …

    I have gotten pissed at some of the parables. OK, you want me to obey, but then you praise the one guy that took a chance with all your money and could have blown it all. Then, there’s the equal pay for different amounts of work one. To paraphrase, “why are you upset that I paid this guy the same money for 1/2 the work?” Was that one pro-Communist, as in “each according to his needs” or anti-Commie, as in, “don’t even think of forming that labor union, as I’m the Boss, and I can pay people however I see fit? You’re just an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks ..” Am I confusing the Bible with the movies, here?

  14. Wonderful old movie about a celebrated American ship involved with the Barbary Coast action; I love the scenes with the boats flying the oversize American flags; no doubts about who the Good Guys were!

  15. macilrae says:

    Several Radio Derb listeners emailed in to scold me for saying that “the Jewish calendar is lunar.” Some of it is, they allowed, but some other of it isn’t.

    I have noticed that right after a non-Jew has got the word “Jew” out of his mouth, ears prick up. If he then makes an inoffensive factual statement, such as this one, he is almost sure to be rebuked if it is at all possible – only Jews should be telling how things are with Jews and any gentile presuming to do so runs a grave risk of censure. If he feels he must however, he should a use reverent, hushed tone, making utterly sure the statement is laudatory – and still the poor b*gger better hope he didn’t put his foot in it.

    If the statement could in any way perceived as negative, another anti-Semite has been exposed and I am pretty sure that calling the Jewish calendar “lunar’ is sailing mighty close to the wind.

  16. Scourby, however, keeps the same level, authoritative, snicker-free tone throughout. I can’t wait to hear how he copes with Mahershalalhashbaz and Chushanrishathaim.

    Or Wriothesely, Cholmondeley and Featherstonehaugh.

  17. The fun thing about being a telepath would be playing head games like that with normies. The downside would of course be that once you’d unmasked yourself, nobody would want to be around you.

    A bigger downside is that if you couldn’t turn off your reception of other people’s thoughts, you couldn’t stand to be around other people. See Spider Robinson’s Very Bad Deaths.

    • Replies: @Dutch Boy
  18. Dutch Boy says:

    When Laughton was chosen for the role of Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, his co-star Clark Gable sought to establish a rapport with him by bringing him to a high class Hollywood whorehouse. The homosexual Laughton was not amused and their relationship soon degenerated into open hostility. This was fortuitous for the movie production, since their characters’ hostility came across vividly on the screen.

  19. Dutch Boy says:
    @Rex Little

    Agreed – it would be a nightmare.

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