Hornblower and the Island

I first read C. S.. Forester’s Hornblower books as a pre-teen, and I’ve re-read them several times since. A few weeks ago, I decided to see what iBooks had for Hornblower –I wanted to see if they had the continuation of the last, unfinished, Hornblower book. I didn’t find it (then), but I did trip over the Hornblower Addendum, five short stories Forester had written, and Hornblower and the Island, a pastiche by James Keffer. Bought and bought. I finished the Keffer book in the wee hours of this morning.

It took me some time to get into the book, because Keffer doesn’t capture Forester’s voice well, and his characters don’t really feel like the originals. It’s hard to describe what I mean, but like Justice Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

Forester’s style, first of all, feels rather traditionally British, and slightly urbane, without being unapproachable. Forester paid attention to the words and phrases he used to convey the action he had conjured up in his mind. To repeat a quote, he wrote in the Companion:

The words must be chosen, the sentences devised, which most accurately and most economically – and most suitably – describe the scene I am witnessing…An awkward sentence may bring the reader back to reality, just as a breaking stick may alert the feeding deer.

I don’t get the sense, on the other hand, that Keffer paid much attention to his actual prose. There is certainly no attempt to emulate Forester’s style, just a straightforward, unadorned recounting of the plot. The prose feels, for want of a better phrase, very American, both in its style and in some of the attitudes conveyed. (By way of contrast, Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot book feels like an Agatha Christie.)

Hornblower and the Island feels very much like fan fiction. Aside from the matter of authorial voice, it references a lot of things from the original series. Too many things. Perhaps the most noticeable thing is that he resurrects Hornblower’s closest friend, who Forester had killed off in Lord Hornblower. He does it more or less plausibly (helped by the fact that Forester did the deed without ever producing a body), but also brings in Hornblower’s old ship, old second lieutenant, and a host of other points. By the time it came to the point where one of the antagonists was an expatriate Frenchman who had been a sailor on one of the four French ships Hornblower battled at the end of Ship of the Line, I was saying, “aw, c’mon.”

I don’t think Keffer gets either Hornblower or Bush right, either. His Hornblower is nowhere near as conflicted as the original, nowhere near as self-conscious, nowhere near as self critical. He is much more open about his feelings, and much more willing to let Bush know how he feels about him — and much more willing to strategize and plan in front of Bush, something the original Hornblower much preferred to do by himself, lest anyone realize if something went wrong.

Bush, for his part, is not the original Bush. He is brighter, more insightful than Forester’s Bush, who was always portrayed as stolid, unimaginative, who Hornblower valued for his loyalty, and seamanship, but whose strategic abilities Hornblower had no faith in.

I will say that I felt Keffer’s Lady Barbara is closer to the original; unfortunately she only appears in the first part of the book.

Once I got past the issues of characterization and voice, I rather liked the plot. I think using Forester’s characters (and I’m curious how the Forester Estate views this book) actually does the book a disservice, by setting up invidious comparisons to Forester’s prose and Forester’s characterizations. On the other hand, the Hornblower name is what made me buy the book.

The book starts out two years after Waterloo. Hornblower is back home, and bored with life as the Squire of Smallbridge, even to the extent of snapping at Barbara in his unhappiness. She writes to her brother, the Foreign Secretary, Marquis Wellesley, to see if some use can found for Hornblower.

There is. After Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic, and he has been making a fool of the current governor, a career bureaucrat, Wellesley feels that Bonaparte will be more likely to respect a self made military man like Hornblower, and that Hornblower is smart enough, and strong enough, to be able to handle Bonaparte.

It’s an interesting situation. During the war, Hornblower had drawn Bonaparte’s attention, to the point when he was captured at the end of Ship of the Line, Bonaparte had ordered him brought to Paris for execution in the first part of Flying Colours, and the sentence had almost been carried out in Lord Hornblower.

So, Hornblower sails for St Helena with his family, aboard HMS Agamemnon, under the command of his old friend Captain Bush. Once he takes up office, he faces down Napoleon during their first encounter, and gradually develops a friendship with the former Emperor, who recognizes Hornblower as a kindred spirit, despite the fact that his role is that of Bonaparte’s jailer. In that role, he detects and foils a rescue attempt on the part of some French loyalists.

Once the book gets going, it does move well. I got into the meat of it last night, and it held my attention until I finished it around 3:30 this morning. So clearly, Keffer can plot well, and the scenes between Hornblower and Napoleon are well done. He establishes a minor character, Lieutenant Brewer, as an aide to Hornblower who he reuses in other books; it looks like he’s starting his own series of books around Brewer.

I just wish this book had been better copy edited, and was either more in keeping with Forester’s actual characters and voice, or simply didn’t use them at all. It’s choppy in places — at one point, the action jumps back to Europe, in a way that’s a little hard to follow at first. There are some minor continuity errors that could have easily been fixed without affecting the book.

On balance, as a Hornblower book, it doesn’t succeed. The characters are wrong, the voice doesn’t match, and the central friendship with Bonaparte invalidates the first chapter of Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies — Forester would have written that much differently had the assignment to St. Helena “actually” happened. As a piece of standalone fiction, it works much better, and I may check out some of Keffer’s other “Brewer” books to see if he does better.

Interview Questions for the Next President

In another year, it will be time to start thinking about hiring another President of the United States. What we get from the press is constant handicapping of the race, a series of short sound bites, and staged debates that are more about scoring points against the opponent rather than revealing more about the candidates.

I can do without the horse race aspect of the reporting entirely. What I’d like to see are long, conversational interviews with each candidate, where the goal is to let the candidate talk, so that we can learn more about each one. I’m not interested in playing “gotcha”, but I would like the interviewer make sure each question was fully, thoughtfully, answered.

1. Why do you want to be President?

I want to know why they’re running. Ego? Power? A feeling they can make a difference? It’s a lot of work running for president — what drives them?

2. What kind of previous government experience do you have?

It’s very popular to complain about Washington insiders, but I’d rather have someone who knows what they’re doing. I want to see someone who has demonstrated competence in a government role, who has dealt with an opposition party or a bureaucracy, and who has shown that they can be trusted to act for the good of their constituents, not just themselves.

3. Do you have any executive branch service anywhere?

The presidency is more like a governorship than it is like a legislative position.You have to set policy, deal with cabinet heads, and deal with emergencies. A state governor –especially of a large state — is more apt to have had more germane experience than a senator or representative.

Government service is also unlike a business. You can’t dictate to Congress, for example — they represent (at least in theory) the people and their states too; you have to find some sort of common ground and work from there.

4. What do you view as the role of the federal government?

Does the candidate feel have a limited vision of the role of the federal government, or an expansive one?

5. Tell us about your management style.

Some presidents have been very hands on, others have tried to hire good people, and let them do their stuff. It’s a very tricky balance — one of the criticisms of Jimmy Carter is that he got lost in the details of governing. Other presidents have been too hands off.

6. Who are the people you are relying on for this campaign? If elected, what role would they have in the government?

7. How do you pick people to work for you? What kind of people would you be looking for if elected?

The President’s staff makes or breaks an administration. It’s crucial to have trustworthy people who share the president’s vision, but it’s also crucial to have people strong enough advise them when they’re wrong. They need to be competent to carry out their duties. And they need to be honest.

I want to know from the candidate how they would go about hiring a Cabinet and other staff. What do they look for? What qualities are important to them? What process do they use? Would they consider using former opponents, or members of the opposite party?

8. Have you ever had to work with your political opponents? What have you accomplished with them?

9. Are there any political opponents you admire? Who and for what?

The American federal government is set up to divide power. It’s not at all uncommon to have a President of one party and a Congress of another. And even if the Congress is of the same party, working with them is often like herding 535 cats. I want to see if the candidate has dealt with this before, and if they have, what they did. What were they willing to offer the opposition? How were they able to compromise? How were they able to shepherd a piece of legislation through the legislative thicket?

I want to hear about their values. I want to see that they can work together for the common good. I want to see what they can recognize as a worthy opponent.

9. How do you make decisions?

When I was in school, my math teachers always said, “Don’t just show me the answers, show me the work”. What I didn’t understand then is that the teacher wanted to see how we thought through the problem, and understood the basic concepts.

In the same way, I want to see how a candidate thinks through a problem. I’m hoping, first of all, that they do think through a problem, rather than running with their first gut reaction. How do they approach problem-solving? What kind of research do they want to do? How do they evaluate conflicting values? Concretely, what’s their decision making style? Long discussions with subordinates? A lot of reading? Doing research, then setting it aside for a moment?

10. What past presidents do you admire? Why?

Here, I’m looking for thoughtfulness and historical awareness. I’m not looking for a quick list of the names of the presidents on Mount Rushmore.

I want to see that the president has some sense of how our government has and does work, and who they think has made it work best, and who has responded to crises the best. This of course, is also a value judgement, and I want to get a sense of what they value.

11. What would you look for in a Supreme Court Justice? What past or present justices do you admire? What would you criticize about past or present justices?

Because Supreme Court Justices have lifetime tenure, its important that the President choose well. I want to hear what kind of legal philosophy they’re is looking for.

12. What are your domestic priorities?

Now we get to to the candidate’s positions, which is where the press usually begins and ends. To my mind, these are much less important than the candidate’s overall philosophy, competence, temperament, and honesty, because the presidency is essentially, at least in modern times, a reactive job. Presidents spend much more time putting out fires than they do promoting their own agendas. Still, I do want to hear what they think is important, what programs they would like to advance, and I want to know whether their priorities align with my own.

13. What are your international priorities?

Again, presidents are more likely to be reacting to world events than they are to initiating action, but the president does have more scope for action on the international stage than they do domestically. I want to know what their priorities are, what alliances they think are important, what policies they want to continue, and what policies they want to change — and why.

14. What worries you about the world situation?

Maybe worry is too strong a word, but I do want to see an awareness of what’s going on in the world, and an understanding of the threats and opportunities America faces, and a historical awareness of what we, as a nation, and the Presidency, as an office, can do in the face of them.

Overall, what I’m looking for is someone who is intellectually and morally honest, thoughtful, and has the mental and emotional capacity to deal with the problems they will face. I expect them to put the countries needs ahead of their own needs, or the needs of their party or region. I would prefer someone whose political biases match mine, but I also recognize the need to compromise with an opposition.

Chasing the Type 9

The MBTA is in the process of adding 24 new streetcars, called the Type 9, * for the Green Line for the extension to Somerville. The first one, #3900 went into revenue service in December, and I’ve been wanting to ride one since.

A gentleman by the name Stefan Wuensch has created a site showing real time location data of each train on the system, and I’ve been monitoring it to see if I could see #3900 running. Yesterday, it was running on the B line with #3902, and I decided to head into town.

I got to Riverside, and checked the site again. #3900 was inbound from BC, and I was curious to see whether we would get to Kenmore before or after it. The B line is shorter, but also slower. As we approached Fenway on the D Line, I could see it approaching Blandford Street on the B. As the lines merged at Kenmore, it was one train ahead of us.

I saw that the Type 9 train was terminating at Park Street. I decided I wanted to see if I could take it back outbound. Decisions, decisions. Do I take my train all the way to Park Street, and hope it takes some time to turn the Type 9 around, allowing my train to catch up, and allowing me to board an empty train? Or do I get off at Boylston? That way, even if the train is turned around fast, I’m still going to be ahead of it. It also means I will have to pay to re-enter on the outbound side, and possibly getting onto an already crowded train. I decided to get off at Boylston, walked fast past the old PCC and Type 5 parked on the outside inbound track, up to the Common and back down to the outbound platform.

First up was a Type 8/7 combo bound for the B Line and Boston College. “Great,” I thought. “The Type 9 will be less crowded. The train loaded, and left, and I saw the the next train approach. It was the Type 9, and it was now signed for the C Line. “Great,” I thought. “It’ll be easier to get back to the Riverside line”. As the trolley pulled into the station, I grabbed my phone, and took its picture.

MBTA Type 9 #3902
MBTA Type 9 #3902

And then it continued on, without stopping. Curses, foiled again.

* The MBTA uses the same “Type” nomenclature to designate models of Boston streetcars that its predecessor, the Boston Elevated Railway, did. Types 1 – 5 were Boston Elevated models, dating from the early 1900s up to the early 1950s, before going to an industry standard streetcar, the PCC streetcar in the 1940s. When it came time to replace the the PCCs, they prototyped a Type 6 car before going with the US Standard Light Rail Vehicle, manufactured by Boeing. When the Boeing LRV failed to live up to expectations, the T went with a custom design, the Type 7, which is still in service, along with the Type 8 cars, which are a “low floor” car designed for wheelchair accessibility.

Ex Post Facto

One of the earliest constitutional protections we have–even before the Bill of Rights — is that neither the federal nor the states can pass ex post facto laws, which are laws that retroactively criminalize an act which was permitted before, or retroactively make the punishment worse than it was before, or changes the rules of evidence in such a way that makes it easier to get a conviction.

This means that if I do something that is not against the law today, and a law is passed forbidding it next week, I cannot be prosecuted for it, because the law criminalizing it was passed after the act. The term is derived from Latin meaning “out of the aftermath”.

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Colds Suck

I’ve been dealing with a cold now since Wednesday. Wednesday wasn’t too bad, mainly a scratchiness at the back of my throat that’s always an omen of bad things to come, and a feeling of deep weariness, enough to cancel out of a planned MeetUp. Thursday was a little worse, and Friday it really began to hit – I had real trouble focusing, my sinuses were not liking me, I had a headache, and it was clear I was running a fever. I managed to get my work done for the day, and went to bed directly after supper.

For some reason, I have weird work dreams when I’m sick and Friday night was no exception. I spent most of yesterday in bed, and today I’m in full drippy mode, too foggy to read, eyes watering so much that all I want to do is close them, but too rested to sleep,

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Happy 2019!

Happy New Year!

Today I’m closing out the last day of a Christmas vacation. It frankly hasn’t been a great vacation — I came down with a GI bug just before Christmas Day dinner at my brother’s house. I’d been fine when I left here, but an hour or so after we got there, things went south; I lost my appetite, was unable to eat my sister-in-law’s wonderful roast beef dinner, and when the chills started up, I knew I needed to get home, the sooner the better. I had my mother do the driving, and we nearly made it home before the puking started. Fortunately, I had a pan with me.

That night is a blur of fever and gastric upset. I distinctly remember thinking some code I’d written the week before must have had a bug in it that made me sick; I was dreaming of editing the code to fix the bug. I haven’t been that messily sick since I was a kid.

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Christmas in Rockport

I first became acquainted with Rockport, a small town at the tip of Cape Ann, as a diver. I was certified at Old Garden Beach, and spent nearly every Sunday for the first couple years of diving in either Rockport or Gloucester, and gradually became familiar with the area, but I never spent much time in the town center.

Eventually, after a few years, I decided it would be fun to visit the town at Christmastime, and ever since then, I’ve gone back nearly every year. They put a big tree in the center of town, and the are a lot of small crafts-y type shops in the town center.

We paid our annual visit today, this time with my mother, sister, and sister-in-law. Before heading into town, we stopped at Halibut State park, where we took a hike down around an old quarry, and ended up at the overlook over the ocean. We wandered around for a while, then headed into town.

The there was a “Maker’s Fair” today; we had to park about four blocks up, by the train station. We poked into a couple of stores, and I picked up some stocking stuffers at Tuck’s Candy store, then stopped into one of the restaurants for lunch. We probably should have moved on when they told us they couldn’t sit us by the harbor as they had a large party coming in; as it was, the service was slow, and by the time we were done it was getting dark. 

When we got out, I got a couple of pictures of the Christmas tree. The iPhone XS automatically shoots in high dynamic range, which helps even out the exposure for both the lights on the tree and the tree itself. Then we did a quick tour of the shops on Bearskin Neck, and then called it an evening, taking the long way back in order to see the Christmas lights along the way. It was a good day.

Rockport's Christmas Tree
Rockport’s Christmas Tree