You were hired to write

You were hired because ‘[a] writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’ (Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1942). If it was easy, there’d be little call to pay for it.

That said, writing for money (aka wordsmithing) is not currently on firm professional ground. Of course wordsmithing has never really been on firm professional ground. Writing for pay has always been either a trade or (and only very recently) a very suspect profession.

So, if we’re not on a solid professional platform, how do we do our job, especially in a white-collar environment? Like every other tradesperson: by plying our trade competently and acquiring authority as a direct result.

NYU Professor of Journalism, Jay Rosen, recently noted that, ‘the most reliable source of authority for a professional journalist will continue to be what James W Carey called “the idea of a report.” That’s when you can truthfully say to the users, “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”’ (Jay Rosen, ‘The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation’ 2010/09/06).

Rosen’s succinct, one-sentence definition of journalism requires only minor tweaking to be a succinct, one-sentence definition of technical writing:

I understand this, you don’t, let me explain it to you.

Let’s unpack this Rosen paraphrase to ram home Mann’s point about this not being an easy trade.

  1. I understand this

    Do you? Really?

    You’re writing a procedure to setup environment variables for a Java Application Server. And you’re writing a how-to on Linux kernel tuning. And you are explaining a display bug that only presents when using an iBus-based input method and an alpha-syllabic alphabet.

    Do you understand Java? Application Servers? Environment variables? Operating system kernels? The Linux kernel? iBus? Input methods? Abugida script systems?

    Do you? Really?

    If you don’t understand, you won’t know if the right information is being sent across.

  2. you don’t

    Do you know what your audience does and does not know?

    Your audience will say they don’t want to understand. They just want to accomplish their task (ie set the optimum Environment variable values; tune the kernel to perform as they want; or install the patch because they now know it addresses the bug their users are complaining about).

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here: I’ll allow that you realise your audience’s claim means they do want to understand, they just don’t want to work hard (or at all) to achieve that understanding. I’ll even allow that you’ve a notion (however ill-formed) of your audience’s knowledge, experience and ignorance.

    So, can you pitch your procedure or your how-to or your explanation just right? Can you make it clear and understandable without making it hard to parse. Can you filter in the necessary details and filter out the un-necessary details?

    If you don’t get the pitch right, you won’t get the information across.

  3. let me explain it to you

    Can you?

    Understanding something does not mean you can explain it to others. Knowing your audience doesn’t mean you can get them to listen to you.

    Explanation, like all communication, means engaging someone else’s attention. If you can’t engage the audience (which, in this case, means write engaging prose), your understanding and knowledge count for nothing.

    If you don’t engage the audience, you can’t get the information across.

Put it all together and it means technical writers need to understand the material, know their audience, and write engaging prose.

Aside from making Mann’s point for him (albeit less succinctly and less elegantly) some other consequences flow from this.

  1. A technical writer’s skill set is identical to that of any competent writer. So let’s lose the adjective and go back to ‘writer’ from here on.

  2. A writer’s skill set explains why most people aren’t competent writers. There are plenty of experts but most have no interest in, let alone awareness of, their potential audience (read developer comments in any bug-tracking database for half-an-hour to have this point hammered home hard). The occasional expert who is interested in their audience is still unlikely to have an engaging turn of phrase.

    And, while there are plenty of people interested in engaging an audience, they are routinely expert in nothing but their own narcissism.

  3. This skill set also explains why most people don’t think being a writer is difficult. Most people think communication is easy, since the people around them appear to understand them easily and automatically.

    If you can’t imagine why something is difficult to do, you aren’t going to understand why others think mastering it is worthy of time, respect and a decent salary.

This last point brings us back to writing as a trade: you won’t be respected by dint of having Writer as your job title. You might be respected for writing well. More important than the respect of strangers, however, is money.

And you were hired to write.

Which means you’re expected to understand the material, because you’re being paid to understand the material. And you’re expected to know your audience, because you’re being paid to know your audience. And you’re expected to engage your audience, because you’re being paid to engage your audience.

And you were hired to write because you write better than all those other people who don’t think writing is all that difficult.

So, when you’re writing about Java we assume you know Java, and you know Java users and you can engage them. And when you’re writing about the kernel, we assume you know the kernel, and you know kernel users and you can engage them. And when you’re writing about iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabets, we assume you know about iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabets and you know iBus and alpha-syllabic alphabet users and you can engage them.

Moreover, if you don’t know about Java or the kernel or iBus when you’re assigned a Java or kernel or iBus project, we also assume you will learn. You’ll learn the subject and you’ll learn the audience and you’ll engage with both effectively and well.

Because that’s why you were hired.

Thinking out loud about self-publishing

Independent film-making and independent music-making are long-standing and well-respected artistic and commercial endeavours. And, in both fields, ‘independent’ basically means self-funded

(NB: the term gets a bit stretched in both fields. It’s perhaps more accurate to describe independent music and film makers as those who either self-fund or self-raise their funding. That is, they either spend their own money to make the film or music or they raise the money to do so from other investors directly. In either case, they don’t get funding from their given field’s extant publisher equivalents: businesses that make money by marketing and distributing their works for profit.)

The equivalent behaviour in the book-writing field is, of course, self-publishing. And, unlike independent film- and music-making, self-publishing doesn’t have storied social status or value. In fact, it’s routinely seen as no better than (or even worse than) vanity publishing. This despite dozens of well-respected and successful authors taking to self-publishing over the centuries from John Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644 through Christopher Paolini’s Eragon in 2003 and beyond. (Others to take the self-publishing route include William Blake, Howard Fast, E Lynn Harris, James Joyce, William Morris, Wendy and Richard Pini, Matthew Reilly, Irma Rombauer, Dave Sim, Edward Tufte, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.)

On 2011/01/02, legendary literary agent, Richard Curtis, posted an article to his [e-reads] blog, ‘Do Authors Make Good Publishers’:

Do authors make good publishers? The answer is No. But it’s fascinating to watch them try.

In the way of things electronic, this prompted an immediate response all over the Interwebs, which prompted Curtis to publish a follow-up:

A blog I posted yesterday, Do Authors Make Good Publishers?, generated a record number of hits and a storm of comments, many of them fiercely refuting my contention that the answer to the question is No. The controversy even found its way onto Huffington Post.

As Curtis notes, the follow-up is mostly a re-posting (with permission) of J A Konrath’s own response, first posted on Konrath’s own blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, as the article ‘A Response to Richard Curtis’.

Near the beginning of said response, Konrath links to another of his blog postings, ‘You Should Self-Publish’ in which he notes he is (as of December 2010) ‘selling 1,000 ebooks a day’ and that:

Two close friends of mine have books on submission, waiting for the Big 6 to make offers. They’ve been waiting for a few months, and will probably have to wait a few months more.

Even being conservative in my estimates, these writers have lost thousands of dollars, and will continue to lose money every single day their books are on submission, rather than on Amazon.

Selling 1,000 ebooks a month equals $24,000 a year. Being on submission for 6 months is a loss of $12,000, and then waiting 18 more months for the book to be published is a loss of another $36,000.

He also notes that selling a 1,000 books a month is ‘a very conservative number — I have ebooks regularly selling 2000 or 3000 a month.’ He further notes that:

I’m on track to make over $200,000 on ebook sales in 2011, and have made over $100,000 this year. So I can earn more in two years on my own than I could in seven years with a traditional publisher. Hell, I earned more this month than I got as an advance for Afraid ($20k for Afraid, $22k for this December self-pubbing.)

Back at his article ‘A Response to Richard Curtis’, he gets more specific than ‘two close friends’ and calls out four authors — LJ Sellers, HP Mallory, Michael R Sullivan and Amanda Hocking — doing particularly well as ebook self-publishers and lists a further 43 ‘authors selling more than 1,000 ebooks a month, none of who had any traditional publishing background’.

I’d not heard of any of the listed authors but some quick searching turned most of them up quickly enough. Consider only the first and last five in Konrath’s list (minus ‘B Tackitt’ who I could only track down as a poster of interesting stuff on e-reader forums), all with an added sprinkle of hypertextual goodness:

Like the four called out above, these people aren’t producing works that look self-published.

In something of a follow-up, Konrath published a Guest Post by Robin Sullivan which provides rounded sales numbers (and links to the Amazon book pages) for 25 self-published authors, all of whom sold more than 2,500 copies of their various titles during December 2010.

The author list Sullivan includes in her guest post appears to be a sub-set of the list she published on the KindleBoards web-forum on 2011/01/01 as a post entitled ‘Dec 2010, 1000 books a month club (TBOM)’. (Stephen Leather is listed in the guest post but not in her KindleBoard posting. Also, I’m assuming ‘Michael Sullivan’ and ‘Michael R Sullivan’ are the same person: her husband.)

Another self-publishing author, Derek J Canyon, took the KindleBoards list and did some number and genre analysis on his blog Adventures in ePublishing. On the numbers front, he asks and answers the following key question:

[I]s 1,000 or more sales per month an indicator of success? That’s a good question. We don’t know how many of those books were given away for free or for a low price such as $0.99 (which would garner the author only $0.35 per sale).

But, even at a cover price of only $0.99, an author would make $350/month if they sold 1,000 units. That’s $4,200 per year. That’s not enough for a career, but it is a very nice income boost. I’d call this a success for any “hobbyist” or newbie author. If I make $4,200 this year, I’ll certainly consider it a success.

If you assume that the cover price of the book is $2.99 (the minimum required to receive a 70% royalty from Amazon), then the author is making just over $2,000 per month, or $24,000 per year! Even after Uncle Sam takes his cut, the author is probably left with a very good chunk of change. Enough for a couple very nice vacations a year, a snazzy home theater system, or a down payment on a house. I’d call this an unqualified success.

Anything more than $2,000 a month is getting close to being enough to live on comfortably. So, I’d say that 1,000+ sales per month is a success no matter how you cut it.

Which brings us back to the opening point, about self-publishing’s low social status. If I could add $2,000.00 a month to my gross income (no need to distinguish between A$ and US$ while the two currencies are hovering around parity), I suspect I’d take the same position as Joe Konrath does in his afore-mentioned article ‘You Should Self-Publish’:

As a writer, I could give a shit what the New York Times thinks of my latest, or if MWA gives me an Edgar award, or if I’m on a shelf in the Podunk Public Library. Those are all ego strokes.

I care about money, and reaching readers, and none of these things are necessary to make money or reach readers.

So, should writers take Konrath’s advice and self-publish? Perhaps….

There are at least two other questions to answer first. The first is practical: how much work is actually involved in turning a manuscript into a saleable product?

As I noted above, the folk doing well as self-publishers are producing a professional looking product. You can’t do that without effort, so anyone considering this route needs to understand how much effort is involved and know if they can put in that effort.

NB: assumed and otherwise unsaid in all this is that the professional looking product contains professional-grade prose. If you take some time wandering around the various author-sites linked to above, a common thread you’ll find is their professional approach to the craft. Most got close to, or even made it to, traditional publishing contracts or agency representation. Those that didn’t (most notably, Amanda Hocking) still took the work seriously, attending writing courses, writing a lot, and treating their work with appropriate editorial care.

Like the folks doing well, I’ve gotten close to traditional publishing contracts and I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I take a professional approach and produce professional-grade prose. If nothing else, earning my keep as a writer and editor for most of the last twenty-five years suggests other people believe this.

That said, I’ve turned other people’s manuscripts into books, and I’ve built a few dozen web-sites over the years. I know there’s a chunk of work involved turning a manuscript into a product, so it’s sensible to get an idea of how much work there is.

I suspect it’s about as much work as turning a manuscript into a printed book, or laying down the infrastructure for a professional web-site: ie a non-trivial but doable workload. I also suspect — at least with regards ebooks — it’s something of a combination of turning a manuscript into a printed book and laying down the infrastructure for a professional web-site.

Which brings us to the second question: what about marketing?

As Amanda Hocking notes in an interview with Tonya Plank published on The Huffington Post:

TP: What has been your strategy for marketing and publicizing your books?

AH: I didn’t really have a strategy. I think one of the advantages I have is that stuff considered marketing is stuff that I do a lot anyway. I’ve been active on social networks and blogs for years. I also send ARCs [advance review copies] out to book bloggers. Book bloggers are a really amazing community, and they’ve been tremendously supportive. They’ve definitely been a major force that got my books on the map.

When I first published, I did do a bit of promoting on the Amazon forums, but they’re not really open to that, so I haven’t really interacted there much at all in months. I hang out [on] Goodreads, Kindleboards, Facebook, Twitter, and I blog. And that’s about it.

The stuff Hocking does ‘a lot’ is stuff I clearly don’t do much of at all. I’ve got two blogs: Between Borders and Non-Standard Deviation. I’ve kept the underlying WordPress installations up-to-date, but I’ve not been what you’d call a prolific poster.

Similarly, I have a twitter account with exactly one posting. I use it to follow others, and those I follow mostly use Twitter as a convenient alternative to producing a link blog (ie a blog mostly consisting of links to articles they are interested in rather than a blog made up of articles of their own).

Not to say I can’t do this stuff, but deciding if it’s worth while isn’t as obvious as it appears.

This said, this little exercise in thinking out-loud (so to speak) has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for more on the two questions directly.

We came so far for beauty: a useful metaphor

The sub-set of Mac OS X users and developer who actively prefer the platform to others = Oscar Wilde.

The sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others = H G Wells.

The metaphor’s potential use is in its ability to make evident the often cross-purposes arguments of each community.

Both Wilde and Wells were concerned about the good people could and should do.

Wilde, however, saw good in aesthetic terms. Good is a form of beauty, and to the extent something isn’t beautiful, it is not as good as it could or should be.

Wells, by contrast, saw good in ethical terms. Good is a form of worth, and to the extent something isn’t worthy, it is not as good as it could or should be.

This simplifies the concerns of both men enormously, of course. And it doesn’t map perfectly to the two communities, either.

But I’ve found these notions useful when I encounter yet another interminable ‘Mac OS X is just empty prettiness’ trolling from the Linux community, or the roughly equivalent Mac OS X moron’s troll: Linux is just a tech-weenie’s paradise, with no idea of what ordinary people want or need.

Neither of these bits of trollish invective are useful discussion points. But they reveal assumptions both communities do appear to hold about the other.

And, when I apply the differences between Wilde’s and Wells’s concerns and priorities as presented above, it’s easier to prise the assumptions out from the rhetoric.

To the stereotype Linux user, those Wildean, effete, Mac OS X users care only for prettiness, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the unworthy, even evil, things Apple and others do.

The stereotype, Wildean, effete, Mac OS X user, in response, argues that beauty is not just a surface quality, but a fundamental aspect of an object’s purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting ugly things on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

To the stereotype Mac OS X user, those Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux users care only for engineering, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the pain, even hurt, this ugliness causes.

The stereotype, Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux user, in response, argues that engineering is not just an annoying necessity, but the basic truth of an object’s purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting poor engineering on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

And, of course, both my faux-literary-giant straw men are right and both my faux-literary-giant straw men are wrong.

Wilde’s aesthetics didn’t make him blind to practicality, any more than Wells’s ethics made him blind to beauty.

But, their ability to understand, or at least appreciate, the other’s perspective didn’t mean their differences were only ones of degree.

To agree with Wilde is to agree that beauty is a fundamental part of the problem of ‘how to be and do good’. To agree with Wells is to agree that function is a fundamental part of the problem of ‘how to be and do good’.

From the Wildean perspective, beauty is part of how things (indeed the entire world) function. From the Wellsian perspective, beauty is a consequence of how things (indeed the entire world) functions.

These are deeper differences than they first appear, so I’m not expecting rapproachment between the two communties anytime soon.

More practically, however, awareness of this deep underlying difference might reduce the number of pointless arguments. So long as the metaphor makes it easier to detect that disagreeing parties are talking at cross-purposes, it will be useful.

three addenda

A clarifying point: I suspect the majority of computer users, even Mac OS X and Linux users, don’t actively prefer any particular platform. Further, I suspect the majority of computer users are, at best, indifferent, to computers. The metaphor is of no especial value with regards the point of view of this majority who don’t have a particular preference about the computer they use.

A disclosure: I am a member of that sub-set of Mac OS X users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others. At the same time, I work for Red Hat, a company replete with members of that sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer that platform to others.

That said, working for Red Hat has made me more inclined to conclude that even Linux users don’t necessarily prefer the platform they are using. I’ve encountered more than a few co-workers, good at their jobs and hard workers all, who use Linux primarily because it is (not surprisingly) mandated by the company.

A pre-emptive note: yes, the title is a tiny variation on the song title by Leonard Cohen. I knew that when I wrote the title. The song itself has only tangential connections to this piece. The title, however, struck me as being apposite enough to reference.

A Mundane Menacing

A mid-Winter’s day. 2006/06/26 09:25 Australian Central Standard Time, to be precise.

I’d just dropped my wife off to work near the entrance to Peel Street on Currie. Strictly speaking it’s an illegal stop. The car is straddling a bus zone and mostly blocking said entrance. Peel Street is closed to all but local traffic until August due to road works, however, so I don’t feel even a moment’s pang of guilt, especially since I’ve not blocked any actual buses or cars in the ten seconds I’m idling.

Having pulled out into Currie proper I’m now sitting in the right-hand lane, waiting with half-a-dozen other cars for the light to change so we can cross or turn onto King William Street.

It’s about as mundane a setting as you could find in any city on earth. People in cars and on bikes and on footpaths going about their day.

Unfortunately, on the footpath to my left, only a lane away, something ugly and stupid is happening. Even worse, for all its ugliness, this happening is as mundane as the cars and bicycles.

A big, beefy yob (190cm tall and on the plus side of 100 kilos) is shouting at, harrassing and threatening someone walking beside him.

He’s close to violence.

The object of his ire? A woman. 155cm tops, perhaps 60 kilos.

Oh, and she’s dressed according to someone’s interpretation of Hijab. (I’m no expert on the subtleties of these dress codes, but it looks like she’s wearing an abaya and a headscarf).

She’s half his weight, 20% shorter and half as strong. Which makes her a more than suitable opponent apparently. A fine example of Anglo-Saxon masculinity in action.

It’s good to know some of the lessons of our ‘bully those weaker than you but tug the forelock extensively when the bigger guys are around’ Federal and State Governments are making it down to the street.

To top it off, he has his wife and daughter (who can’t be more than 7) with him. I wonder what life lesson they’re getting today?

Perhaps the lesson is ‘it’s OK to menace and demean those weaker and smaller than you.’ Or maybe he’s just emphasising to them both that, on this street at least, he’s the bigger, tougher guy and they shouldn’t forget that, especially when we get home and there’s no-one watching. After all, a burly bloke who’s willing to threaten a small woman in the street is probably willing to do a lot more to an even smaller girl in the privacy of home.

Whichever, they’re good solid Family Values, at least so far as the term is used by people like Brian ‘I’ve got a conservative, biblical idea that a man should take a role of leadership in his life’ Houston and Nancy ‘there is nothing more hideous than seeing a wife stand up to her husband’ Campbell. So, that’s positive news on the street-level success of their evangelical efforts as well.

As for the small woman wearing a headscarf? I don’t know what worthwhile lessons you can draw from being threatened by a large, menacing stranger.

The few times it’s happened to me the only things I took away from the encounters were a sharp distress at being hated or feared simply because I existed; a permanent concern there was nothing I could do or say that would deflect or diminish that hatred and fear; and a growing willingness to see violence as a legitimate, perhaps even necessary, response to such a menace. Nothing particularly worthwhile in any of that.

The yob’s wife pulled at him to stop and the small woman turned up King William Street and away from the immediate threat of assault.

The light changed and the people in cars and on bikes and on footpaths (including the yob, the small woman and myself) continued about their day.

In Praise of Voting Below the Line

13:11.

I’ve just voted. Or, more precisely, I voted about fifteen minutes ago and I’ve just finished the walk home from my local polling station.

There are an almost infinite array of things to take delight from when voting.

The fact that our elections are conducted by fellow citizens, wearing nothing more than a laser-printed badge saying ‘polling official’ (prima facie evidence of a working civil structure).

The father behind me in the queue explaining, quite specifically, what he’s about to do (and why) to his kids, who are coming along with him because they’re already convinced voting is a cool and interesting thing to do.

The crowd of people from a dozen or so ethnic and national backgrounds happily hardening their arteries by scarfing $2.00 serves of grilled-sausage-on-white-bread-with-grilled-onions-&-lashings-of-tomato-sauce after voting. (Like many polling booths in South Australia, mine is on the grounds of a primary school, and said school is doing a little fund-raising via a semi-captive audience).

But, just now, it’s not the nobility of democracy in action, nor the worthiness of a healthy civil system, I’m moved to note. It’s my unashamed shadenfreude at filling out my Legislative Assembly ballot below the line. (Shadenfreude aside, I vote this way because voting above the line gives too much power to the preference deal-makers within the various parties standing for election.)

There are 54 people standing for 11 open seats in the upper house this election and some of them are truly awful.

Now, I could vituperate these folk. I could suggest Barbara Pannach and Basil Hille (the two One Nation candidates) are representatives of a paranoid, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, anti-reality, ‘I can’t handle complexity and want things to be the way I thought they were when I was young and stupid’ party.

I could say that Dennis Hood (number one candidate for Family First) is a hateful fundamentalist who’s arrogant swagger and self-righteous religiosity remind me more of Elmer Gantry than they do St Francis of Assisi or Hillel the Elder.

But it’s a lot more fun to put the numbers 52, 53 and 54 against their names as I finish laying down my preferences.

And it’s a lot more fun because vitriol doesn’t do anything but make me feel (temporarily) better. Putting these pathetic examples of adulthood last on a ballot paper means I’ve taken a concrete step towards these folk not getting into parliament.

Of course, if there are enough xenophobic dullards or sanctimonious fundamentalists out there, Dennis or Barbara (and even Basil, if there are an appalling number of xenophobic dullards) may still end up taking up space and time on the corner of North Terrace & King William Street.

But it won’t be because I’ve not done my personal bit to prevent them.

Twice as Cold as 0°C

It probably says more about me than anything else, but I’ve been asked the following question at least half-a-dozen times. In the interests of having a place to point future questioners I offer the following answer to the (apparently common) question:

if the temperature today is 0°C, and it will be twice as cold tomorrow, what will the temperature be tomorrow?

And the instant answer is:

-136.575°C.

Which is, in human terms, rather cold. The lowest temperature recorded and confirmed on Earth is -89.4°C, recorded on 21st July 1983, at Vostok, a Russian research station in Antarctica.

It’s also a rather dramatic drop in temperature. A lot colder than most people guess when they ask this or similar questions.

So, how did I arrive at this apparently drastic figure, and how do you divide zero by two and get a number other than zero in the first place?

The answers to both questions derive from the same, usually overlooked, point: the Celsius temperature scale, like the Fahrenheit scale (and many other, now obsolete, temperature scales such as the Newton, Romer, Delisle, Leyden, Dalton, Wedgewood, Hales, Ducrest, Edinburgh and Florentine scales) is a relative scale.

0°C isn’t the same as 0mm wide or 0V of electrical potential. Both these latter are absolute measures. You can’t get narrower than 0mm and you can’t get less electrical potential than 0V.

You can get colder than 0°C, however, since 0°C is just the freezing point of water.

So, to arrive at the frigid forecast above I simply converted the first figure to an absolute temperature scale (the Kelvin scale), halved it and then converted it back to Celsius.

Makes sense now? I didn’t think so.

Let’s step back a bit and take a look at the relative temperature scales, starting with the oldest temperature scale still in regular use.

The Fahrenheit scale, developed in 1724 by Gabriel Fahrenheit, used mercury to measure changes in temperature, since mercury exhibits consistent changes when it undergoes thermal change. Mercury expands and contracts as the temperature changes and this volume change is both uniform across a wide range and large enough to measure accurately.

In addition, mercury is cohesive rather than adhesive, so it doesn’t stick to the only transparent substance Fahrenheit had access to: glass. Finally, mercury is bright silver, making it easy to visually distinguish changes in liquid volume in a narrow tube.

Fahrenheit began by placing his mercury thermometer in a mixture of salt, ice and water. The point the mercury settled to on his thermometer was considered zero.

He then placed the thermometer in a mixture of ice and water. The point the mercury settled to this time was set as 30. Finally, ‘if the thermometer is placed in the mouth so as to acquire the heat of a healthy man’ the point the mercury reaches is set to 96.

Using this scale, water boils at 212 and it freezes at 32. This latter number is an adjusted figure on Fahrenheit’s part: it made the difference between boiling and freezing a relatively clean 180.

[NB, the above chronology isn’t the only possible process Fahrenheit undertook. The Wikipedia article on the Fahrenheit temperature scale notes several other mooted explanations. Cecil Adams’s The Straight Dope site also covers the origins of the Fahrenheit scale, focusing on the more amusing (or bemusing) possibilities.]

Less than twenty years after Fahrenheit’s scale was developed, the Celsius scale was created by Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius. His scale used the freezing and boiling points of water as the two key markers and put 100 degrees between the two temperatures.

Unlike today, however, in Celsius’s original scale, water’s boiling point was 0 and the freezing point 100.

In the years after his death in 1744, the numbering scheme was reversed. This change is routinely credited to another great Swede, Carl Linnaeus (also known as Carolus Linnaeus) but the evidence for this is circumstantial and not particularly convincing.

Numbering scheme aside, the modern Celsius scale (used pretty much everywhere on earth except the United States) is different from the one Celsius developed.

It doesn’t make much difference in day-to-day use, but the basis of the modern Celsius scale is the triple-point of water. The triple-point of a substance is the temperature and pressure at which the solid, liquid and gaseous states of said substance can all co-exist in equilibrium. And the triple-point of water is defined as 0.01°C.

As well, each degree Celsius is now defined abstractly. In Celsius’s original scale a one degree change in temperature was defined as a 1% change in relative temperature between two externally referenced circumstances (ie the boiling and freezing points of water).

Today, a degree Celsius is defined as the temperature change equivalent to a single degree change on the ideal gas scale.

The ideal gas scale brings us almost to the point (finally, I hear you cry). As noted at the beginning of all this, the temperature scales above are relative scales: they give you a useful number to describe the thermodynamic energy of a system but they do so by creating a scale which is relative to some physical standard (whether that be the triple-point of water or the ‘heat of a healthy man’).

Back in 1787, however, Jacques Charles was able to prove that, for any given increase in temperature, T, all gases undergo an equivalent increase in volume, V.

Rather handily, this allows us to predict gaseous behaviour without reference to the particular gas being examined. It’s as if gases were fulfilling some Platonic conceit, all acting in a fashion essentially identical to an imagined ideal gas. Hence the ‘ideal gas scale’ which describes the behaviour of gases under changing pressure without reference to any particular gas.

The Platonic ideal falls apart at very high pressures because of simple physical and chemical interactions. For the sort of pressures needed to use a gas as a thermometric medium (ie measurer of temperature) on earth, however, all gases exhibit the same, very simple behaviour described by the following equation:

pV = [constant]T

or in words:

pressure multiplied by Volume = [a derived constant] multiplied by Temperature

Which means if you keep the pressure constant, as the temperature changes so does the volume. Or, if you change the temperature and keep the volume constant, the pressure goes up or down in direct relation to the temperature’s rise or fall.

One very nifty thing about this is the way it makes it possible to create a temperature scale which is independent of the medium used to delineate the scale.

Back in 1887, P Chappuis conducted studies using gas thermometers which used hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide as the thermometric media at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). Regardless of the gas he used, he found very little difference in the temperature scale generated. If the temperature of the gases changed by a value T, and the pressure, P, was held still, the increase in volume, V, was the same regardless of the gas being used to set the scale.

This change in thermodynamic activity has been recognised and accepted as the fundamental measure of temperature, since it is derived from measures of pressure and volume that aren’t dependent on the substance being measured.

One of the most important consequences of this discovery is the recognition that there is a naturally defined absolute zero temperature value. When the pressure exerted by a gas reaches zero, the temperature is also zero. It is impossible to get ‘colder’ than this, since at this temperature all atomic and sub-atomic activity has ceased. (And, before anyone asks, yes I know what negative temperature is, and it isn’t a temperature ‘below absolute zero.’ Systems with negative temperature are actually hotter than they are when they have positive temperature.)

In 1933 the International Committee of Weights and Measures adopted a scale system based on absolute temperature. It is called the Kelvin scale and uses the same unitary value for single degrees as the modern Celsius scale. So a one-degree change as measured by the Kelvin scale represents the same change in temperature as a one-degree change as measured using the Celsius scale.

The zero-point for the Kelvin scale, however isn’t an arbitrary one (eg the freezing point of water) but the absolute one.

Absolute zero is, as it happens, equivalent to -273.15 C, so converting between K and C is a simple matter of addition or subtraction:

C = K – 273.15
K = C + 273.15

So 0 degrees Celsius is 273.15 Kelvin. Using standard notation for each scale we can re-state this sentence thus:

0°C = 273.15K

Note there is no degree symbol used when denoting a temperature in Kelvin. And, just as there is no degree symbol, the word isn’t used either. The phrase ‘degrees Kelvin’ is incorrect: just use the word ‘Kelvin.’

Which brings us, finally, to explaining how I arrived at the temperature I listed at the beginning of this article. As I noted above, the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales are relative scales, so you can’t compare two different temperatures measured using these scales absolutely.

20°C is not twice as warm as 10°C, since both are a measure relative to the triple point of water.

The Kelvin scale, however, is an absolute scale. Different values measured using this scale are related in absolute comparative terms. 20K is twice as warm as 10K (although both values are pretty damned cold relative to what you or I are comfortable with).

So, to find out what temperature (in degrees Celsius) would be ‘twice as cold’ (ie half the temperature) of 0°C I simply converted the value to Kelvin:

0 + 273.15 = 273.15K

Divided this value by 2:

273.15/2 = 136.575 K

and converted it back to degrees Celsius:

136.575 – 273.15 = -136.575°C

Working in the other direction, twice as hot as 0°C is easy to calculate. It’s 273.15°C. Which is rather hotter than any human can handle.

If nothing else, this demonstrates how narrow a range of temperatures suit human beings. Let’s presume -10°C – 50°C is a useful range of liveable temperatures for human beings.

I’m being generous with this range. The low is, in human terms, well below the freezing point of water. And the high is, again in human terms, a long way above blood temperature. This range is only acceptable as a liveable range if we assume 1) the range refers to measured temperatures and 2) we have technology capable of keeping experienced temperatures (eg, in a dwelling or next to human skin) from reaching these extremes of heat and cold.

Converting this to Kelvin, we have a range of 263K – 323K. (I’m leaving the 0.15 off: it doesn’t change the arithmetic, other than to needlessly complicate things.)

The lowest temperature in this range is 81% of the highest temperature in this range. 323K (50°C) is only 19% warmer than 263K (-10°C).

Change the liveable range to 0°C – 40°C (a range more genuinely liveable, especially if we assume only basic available technology) and the hottest we can reasonably handle is only 13% warmer than the coldest we can live with.

Be even more conservative, and restrict the range so it runs roughly through the human comfort zone: 10°C – 35°C (a range that goes from ‘cold if you don’t have warm clothing’ through to ‘hot in the sun but bearable if there’s almost any sort of breeze’) and the hottest weather we can comfortably manage is only 9% warmer than the coldest most of us are willing to deal with.

No wonder folk are concerned about a 0.6°C increase in global surface temperatures over the last 100 years.

Mind Your Apostrophes

The apostrophe is the most troublesome mark in all English punctuation.

Broadly put, these troubles can be divided into four distinct areas:

  1. Computer-specific issues

  2. Using the apostrophe to indicate a contraction

  3. Using the apostrophe to indicate a possessive

  4. Differences between American and Commonwealth English

There is a fair degree of overlap between these areas, but dividing the troubles into four makes all the problems a little easier to handle.

Computer-specific issues

Computer-specific troubles associated with this little mark can be put down the limitations of the ASCII character set.

This old, but still widely used, 7-bit character set, forces computer users to overload the so-called ‘typewriter quote’ by dragooning it into use as:

the opening single-quote mark
the closing single-quote mark
the apostrophe
the prime mark

(Before anyone asks, the prime mark is used to indicate arcminutes when writing out degrees of longitude and latitude, as in 34° 57′ South, 138° 31′ East. It is also used in the United States as a shorthand for ‘feet’ in their legacy, non-metric measurement system.)

By contrast, most 8-bit character sets enable computer users to represent all of these characters properly (ISO 8859-1 aka Latin-1, the default character set used on computers running X-Windows is a notable and frustrating exception). The problem then becomes ‘which 8-bit character set?’. MacRoman? Windows Latin-1? Never forgetting the application viewing the text might not use the same character set to display ‘extended ASCII’ characters as the application used to create said text.

All of which explains and justifies, albeit briefly, Unicode.

I’m an unashamed fan of Unicode. It is an effective, well-designed, open, fully-documented and multi-platform alternative to ASCII and its various bastard-children. Unfortunately — as of late-2005 at least — it isn’t as widely used as I’d wish. For example, I’m still unwilling to switch away from plain ASCII for e-mail communications across computing platforms.

Given time, Unicode can and, I hope, will become the lowest-common denominator character encoding format for text exchange. If nothing else, I’d like to be in a position to use em-dashes and curly quotes in my e-mail.

Even assuming this happens, however, I don’t expect writers will suddenly start using the apostrophe and similar marks with due care.

Rather, the widespread adoption of Unicode will, I suspect, result in at least two things:

  1. it will fully expose the extent to which most computer users don’t know how to create opening and closing single-quote marks (to say nothing of the general ignorance of the prime mark’s existence at all).

  2. it will do nothing to improve the use of the apostrophe proper in written communications.

With regards result 1 above, so-called ‘smart quotes’ capabilities built-in to most word processors mean typographer’s quote marks and apostrophes turn up automagically in many people’s written work already. Hardly problem solved, but definitely problem ameliorated.

With regards result 2 above there is no curing the problem automatically. There is only taking the time to learn the over-loaded ways of the apostrophe and quote mark. So let’s take the time.

Using the apostrophe to indicate a contraction

The first place I remember being taught about the apostrophe is its use as a marker denoting missing letters in contractions:

can not becomes can’t in everyday speech
will not becomes won’t in everyday speech
because becomes ’cause in casual speech
and becomes ’n’ in bad advertising

And so on.

The last two examples above are worth paying attention to, especially if you are in a position to use proper opening and closing marks. In an ASCII-only setting, there is no question which character to use for an apostrophe: the typewriter or tear-drop mark is the only one available, so it’s the one to use.

If you are able to use proper opening and closing marks, however, denote missing letters in a word with the apostrophe or closing mark, even if the missing letter is at the beginning of the word.

Folks following Commonwealth English rules, especially, need to watch for this. Because Commonwealth editorial habit is to use single quote marks for direct speech and quotation, it is very easy to see a single quote mark at the beginning of a word or phrase (or single letter as in the example above) and, almost automatically, set an opening quote mark.

Even if you follow US English practise (which prefers double quote marks for direct speech and quotation) this is an easy error to generate, especially if you’ve gotten into the habit of typing the typewriter mark and letting your software’s ‘smart quotes’ feature generate an opening or closing mark on your behalf.

No software that I’m aware of tries to distinquish between ‘a word with an initial letter missing that requires an apostrophe’ and ‘a space followed by a typewriter quote mark that requires an opening quote’. In every case, the underlying algorithm will treat a space followed by a typewriter quote as cause to automagically turn said typewriter quote into an opening quote mark.

Using the apostrophe to indicate a possessive

This is, perhaps, the most troublesome use of a generally troublesome mark. That said, the basic rule for possessives is quite straightfoward: to denote possession, put an apostrophe and a lower-case ‘s’ at the end of the noun (ie person, place or thing) which owns. So we have:

If you’re having trouble deciding if a noun requires a possessive apostrophe re-cast the sentence so it has the form:

the [thing owned] of [the owner].

For example, each of the above sentences could be presented as follows:

  • the unusual interest in punctuation of Brian.
  • the failing memory of George.
  • the thoughts on the subject of possessive apostrophes of somebody else.
  • the searchable UseNet archive of Google.
  • the despair at my distractability of my wife.

None of these sentences is elegant, or even acceptable, English (‘of Google’, in particular, grates my editor’s ear). But they make it clear what is possessed and who or what possesses. With that established it’s easier to use the possessive apostrophe correctly in the preferred constructions further above.

Unfortunately, establishing that a noun can take the possessive doesn’t mean it should. Most will, but some won’t, and the exceptions start to pile up the more you look into the question.

First up, it’s worth noting that, just because a word ends with a letter ‘s’, doesn’t mean it doesn’t take the standard ‘apostrophe-s’ to indicate possession. Many such words behave like other words. To wit:

  • James’s last album
  • The bus’s inability to arrive on time.

A noun which ends in s because it is the plural form doesn’t take apostrophe-s, however: it only takes the apostrophe, like so:

  • the Klingons’ preference for Shakespeare ‘in the original Klingon.’
  • the ladies’ powder room.
  • four weeks’ holiday.
  • the footballers’ training camp.

The logic for this has two aspects. First, we add a possessive apostrophe after the ‘s’ in plural nouns because the thing that owns is the collective entity, not an individual example thereof. The apostrophe has to go after the plural ‘s’ in such a case, to distinguish it from a possessive ‘s’, which indicates that an individual member of the collective is the owner. For example:

The dogs’ persistence was rewarded when they finally managed to wrest my dog’s bone from her jaws.

The first possessive — dogs’ — indicates it is a pack of dogs who are persisting. The second possessive — dog’s — indicates it is a single dog that has lost her dinner.

And, please, please, don’t forget the difference between one lady and many ladies.

The lady’s powder room

is a powder room belonging to a particular woman.

The ladies’ powder room

is a powder room available for use by any number of women.

As for the missing ‘s’ in these plural possessives: its absence is fairly easy to explain. We don’t pronounce these words with two ess sounds, so we don’t write them with two s’s.

This logic is also the basis of the second general exception to the ‘always add apostrophe-s for possesives’ rule: names that end in ‘s’ only take apostrophe-s to indicate possesion if we actually pronounce the second s. So

  • Saint Saens’ pre-occupation with organ music.
  • Socrates’ self-righteousness.
  • Aristophanes’ cynicism.
  • Ulysses’ screwed up love-life.

But

  • Jesus’s disciples.
  • Kiss’s pyrotechnic rock concerts.

It’s this second exception — the not adding apostrophe-s on some words that end with s — that causes most arguments.

There are those who still argue for ‘Jesus’ disciples’ based on a ‘classical names don’t take the s’ rule that occasionally appears in old style guides. FWIW, I don’t follow this rule, primarily because even the old style guides can’t agree what constitutes a ‘classical name’ for the purposes of applying the exception.

And the ‘we add apostrophe-s if we pronounce the second s’ rule is subject to local pronunciation habits.

I write ‘Dr Jones’s Office’ because I say ‘Doctor Jones’s Office’ (that is, I pronounce the second s). If you say ‘Doctor Jones’ Office’ (ie you don’t pronounce the second s) you would, quite rightly, leave the second ‘s’ off the written version.

Since English pronounciation varies widely, even amongst native speakers, nothing is gained arguing for ‘one true way’ of writing such possessives. Which won’t stop people arguing, sometimes passionately, for their preferred approach.

My only advice: be consistent. And don’t waste a lot of energy if your editor has a different preference. Just remember who’s authorising accounting to write your cheque.

it’s vs its or pronoun possessives

The final exception to the ‘add apostrophe-s to indicate possession’ rule is the most problematic, which is why it gets a sub-head all its own.

Pronouns are the special case in the ‘indicating possession’ stakes: they never take the possessive apostrophe. So we have:

  • He lost his mind.
  • These rocks are ours. Those rocks over there are yours.
  • The snake coiled its body around the hapless pig.

The biggie here is possessive ‘its’. Because the word ‘it’s’ exists (it’s the contraction for ‘it is’) it is common in the extreme to see errors such as ‘The snake coiled it’s body…’ even in professionally written and edited writing.

It’s an incredibly easy error to make, and not as easy to detect as you might think. There are, however, at least two ways of avoiding the error in the first place or detecting it in the second.

I learned the ‘no pronouns take the possessive apostrophe’ rule. So, if I have a moment’s doubt, I just mentally substitute ‘his’ or ‘hers’ and, voila, I know which spelling is correct.

  • The snake coiled his body around the hapless pig.

This still makes sense, so it’s correct to use the possessive ‘its’ here. OTOH

  • Whatever it’s doing, the pig wants it to stop.

Substitute ‘it’s’ with a gender-specific pronoun like ‘his’ and the sentence doesn’t make sense:

  • Whatever his doing, the pig wants it to stop.

So, this sentence is using the contraction of ‘it’s’. The apostrophe indicating the missing ‘i’ is correct here.

Another way of checking for missing or errant apostrophes is to concentrate on ‘it’s’ as a contracted form. If you write ‘it’s’ in a sentence, mentally read it out in full as ‘it is’ to check if the sentence still makes sense.

Other methods for avoiding the error can be devised, I’m sure.

One more difference between American and Commonwealth English

In American English the apostrophe is used to form plural numeric dates:

the 1930’s.
the swinging ’60’s.

This is incorrect in Commonwealth English which treats the numbers as if they were letters and sees the added ‘s’ as nothing more than an extra letter denoting the plural on an otherwise correctly spelled word:

the 1930s.
the swinging ’60s.

(Note in both examples, however, the apostrophe before the 60. This is to denote missing characters: in this case the characters are ‘19’.)

Both Commonwealth and American English put the apostrophe to use in forming other unusual plurals, however. For example, when suggesting we should

mind our p’s and q’s

the apostrophe-s to denote the plural of individual letters is the preferred form for followers of Hart’s Rules and devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style.

Why Does Anyone Care About This?

Finally, for those who think this is all a distraction from ‘real work’ I 1) wonder why you’ve read this far and 2) offer Paul Robinson’s sublimely wonderful The Philosophy of Punctuation. Short, sweet and an almost pure delight.

Some Speculations on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Some Speculations on “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”

One of the things I like about the Star Wars movies is that they reward thought. If you pay attention, there are a lot of details in the films and those details fit together in ways that add depth to the galaxy in which the story is set. This is in stark contrast to so many other films which don’t reward thought — such as The Tuxedo or the film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which actually have the remarkable property of revealing entirely new levels of stupidity the more you think about them. Which, I suppose, is also an achievement in its own way.

What’s especially nice is that none of these details are dwelt on or spotlighted; they’re just there. That means Star Wars is one of the better examples of filmed science fiction, since it doesn’t waste time in elaborate explanations of its universe, it simply presents that universe as a going concern and expects the audience to pick up the details as it goes on.

I did a previous essay, speculating on various aspects of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Like that, this piece approaches the Star Wars films as source material for roleplaying games. That means what follows is chock-a-block full of spoilers. I’m going to assume everyone reading this has already seen all the films and is familiar with the various revelations made along the way. Those looking for advice on whether or not Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the sort of film they’d like to go see should go to any one of the hundreds of regular reviews the film has received. This discussion presumes those reading are familiar with the film and are interested in analysing it for what it tells us about the universe it’s set in. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want anything spoiled, you should stop reading now.

Star Wars as Serial

It’s no secret that Star Wars is based on the cliffhanger movie serials that flourished from 1912 to 1956. The text scrolling towards infinity that opens each movie is taken from the chapter openings of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). And the most recent film features a character — the clone leader working with Obi-Wan Kenobi — named Commander Cody, which I take as a deliberate tip of the hat to Commando Cody, who appeared in the serials Radar Men from the Moon (1952) and Commando Cody, Sky Marshall of the Universe (1953). A nice acknowledgment of sources.

However, to work as a serial, it should be possible to watch the six movies in numerical/chronological order. As I pointed out in my previous essay, this was already difficult because the introduction of Yoda in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, with the gag that the annoying little green alien turns out to be the great Jedi master, is completely undercut by having Yoda appear in Episodes I and II. As it turns out, that’s the least of the problems, since Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith undercuts (or blatantly telegraphs) almost every major revelation in the latter episodes.

Remember the big revelation of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back? The moment where Darth Vader tells Luke “No. I am your father.” An absolutely stunning moment. Well, if you watch Episode III before Episode V that revelation has no impact at all. Episode III makes it blatantly clear that Vader is Anakin Skywalker and that Luke is his son. Instead of being surprised, you’re left wondering why it took so long for someone to get around to telling the kid. Okay, Yoda hints at it, but Obi-Wan (Ben) just flat-out lies.

Or the exchange between Yoda and the spirit of Obi-Wan earlier in the Episode V:

Obi-Wan: That boy is our last hope.
Yoda: No. There is another.

Instead of sitting there wondering “Who? Who is this other?”, after seeing Episode III you will instead be sitting there wondering what’s wrong with Obi-Wan. I mean he was there at the birth alongside Yoda. He knows who the other is. Why has he forgotten? Does being dead degrade the memory? And the big revelation of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi that the other is Princess Leia and that she is Luke’s twin sister is, of course, rendered completely moot.

At the moment, it seems the only way to really watch Star Wars is in the order in which the films were made. Start with Episode IV: A New Hope, then Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Then swing back to Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones and end with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Rather than working as a traditional serial, Star Wars is more like a Quentin Tarantino film. It’s like Pulp Fiction (1994); it starts in the middle and ends in the middle, with the chronological beginning and end of the narrative occurring along the way.

Now this isn’t a big deal if you’re mining the movies for background information. From that perspective, it really doesn’t matter what order the films are best viewed in. But it does come across as a failure of craft on the part of George Lucas. Ideally, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith should have ended with certain mysteries preserved and the impression that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker were different people. Sure, the audience would have known the answers to the mysteries and that Vader and Anakin were one and the same, but that should be because they’re familiar with where the story goes, not because the film goes out of its way to answer all the questions.

Or, perhaps not. Once Episode III: Revenge of the Sith comes out on DVD, I’ll sit down and watch all six movies in numerical order. I’ll see how the later episodes unfold in light of the earlier ones. Perhaps they’ll work in a different way, with things like the revelation of Luke’s parentage having a sense of suspense and tragic inevitability rather than surprise. We’ll see. But, for the moment, I’m feeling somewhat disappointed.

Republic and Empire

One of the joys of the prequel trilogy is watching Palpatine’s plot unfold. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many years involved with games in which players think “planning” means talking about making a frontal assault before launching it rather than just attacking without any discussion, but I really like Palpatine. Oh, sure, he’s evil, but at least he knows how to go about achieving his goals.

One of the things I noticed in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is Palpatine’s aides — a bald-headed woman (whom I’m informed is named Sly Moore) and a male with white horns or tentacles (who I’m informed is named Mas Amedda). These are the same aides he had in Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Mas Amedda (at least) is also seen assisting Chancellor Valorum in Episode I: The Phantom Menace. They are both obviously part of the Senate bureaucracy. As such, it makes sense that they should transfer over to working with Palpatine when he becomes Chancellor. However, the fact that keeps them on right up to the point where he declares himself Emperor (and, possibly, beyond; we really don’t see the capital planet Coruscant again after Episode III) suggests he’s very confident of their loyalty. Which, in turn, suggests something about how Palpatine came to power.

In the real world, Joseph Stalin (1879 – 1953) gained power by becoming the General Secretary of the Communist Party. While this title came to be synonymous with “leader of the Soviet Union”, it originally meant little more than what it said: “secretary”. You know, the person responsible for organising meetings, keeping the minutes, preparing official correspondence, overseeing the membership rolls, and so on. None of the other party members wanted the position because it involved all the mind-numbing trivia that goes with running any sort of large organisation. Stalin, however, realised that while the position required a lot of work, it also allowed him to exercise a great deal of hidden control. As General Secretary, it was Stalin who set the agenda for meetings, deciding what would be discussed and — perhaps more importantly — what wouldn’t be. Controlling membership rolls allowed him to stack party branches with his allies and to fill administrative positions with those who supported him — or, at least, didn’t oppose him. The General Secretary was the bottleneck through which all decisions passed and that gave whoever held the position a great deal of quiet and unobtrusive power. Stalin once said “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” And Stalin always made sure it was either him or his people who counted the votes.

Another real world example is J. Edgar Hoover (1895 – 1972) who became head of the FBI in 1924 and held that position until he died. Though unelected, he wielded sufficient power that even successive Presidents were afraid of him and reluctant to go against his wishes. While Presidents and members of Congress (or, in the Star Wars universe, Chancellors and Senators) may come and go, the bureaucrats go on forever. For an amusing take on this phenomenon and how it affects the political system, one cannot do better than the British television series Yes, Minister (1980 – 84) and its follow-up Yes, Prime Minister (1986 – 88).

So, by the time of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the bureaucrats have ensconced themselves in positions of power and are the ones really running things. Palpatine even tells us as much:

Palpatine: If I may say so, Your Majesty, the Chancellor has little real power. […] The bureaucrats are in charge now.

Just as an aside, one of the interesting things about the Sith in the movies is how they all get better mileage out of telling the truth than by lying. Palpatine does it. In Episode II, Count Dooku tells Obi-Wan there’s a Sith Lord secretly controlling the Senate. Even Darth Vader’s revelation about being Luke’s father. It’s just that the heroes are reluctant to believe them. The Sith deceive not by lying, but by withholding information. By contrast, it’s the various heroes are who are occasionally rather loose with the truth.

We don’t know how far along the concentration of power in the hands of bureaucracy was when Palpatine arrived on Coruscant as the new Senator from Naboo. I’m inclined to think it was the usual level of petty privilege and empire-building one finds in any large administration; the sort of thing that can be annoying, but which can be overcome by effective leadership. Palpatine, however, recognised it as a path to power and seems to have gained control of Mas Amedda (and, presumably, others) allowing him to wield a great deal of control over events behind the scenes. He could tie up legislation in endless red tape and derail discussions with points of order. He could even indirectly influence the appointment of Senators — those who could be brought around to his way of thinking would find their proposals and initiatives progressing smoothly through the system; those who couldn’t would find their effectiveness limited. Since governments like those who get things done, members of the first group would be rewarded and re-appointed by their home systems; those of the second would be recalled and replaced. After a while, Palpatine would have a vast base of support within the Senate while appearing to be no more than a mild and inoffensive Senator from a small and distant system.

That such a base existed is obvious from the films. When Palpatine deposes Chancellor Valorum in Episode I he has no apparent difficulty in being nominated as a replacement and in winning the subsequent election. Part of that would have been a sympathy vote in reaction to the Trade Federation’s invasion and occupation of Naboo, but a large part of it had to be genuine support. Perhaps Palpatine’s base was not enough to get him elected without the addition of a sympathy vote, but a sympathy vote would not have been sufficient all by it self. By Episode II, the base has grown; which makes sense, since, as Chancellor, Palpatine would have been in an even better position to reward supporters, discredit opponents and to quietly corrupt the uncommitted. As we see in that film, once the proposal is made, Palpatine is voted his Emergency Powers without difficulty. And in Episode III that base seems to have grown to become a majority; when Palpatine declares himself Emperor, there’s thunderous applause. Doubtless, this reflects not only the growth of his own base, but also the removal of the Senators who would have formally represented the various systems that joined the Separatists.

Still, it’s worth noting, that for all the support he enjoys, Palpatine still uses cat’s paws in the first two episodes to initiate his moves. He manoeuvres Queen Amidala into calling for the vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum and Representative Jar Jar Binks into proposing that he be given Emergency Powers.

Another quick aside. In my last essay, I described Jar Jar as a “Senator”. Turns out that he’s not. He’s actually described as a “Representative”. Since the Galactic Republic doesn’t seem to be a bicameral system, that probably doesn’t mean that he’s a member of a House of Representatives or Commons in contrast to the Senate. Instead, it seems that while each system or region has one Senator, major groups within that system have Representatives who act as assistant- or vice-Senators, observing and advising the main Senator and able to act on the Senator’s behalf when the actual Senator is not available. A minor point, perhaps, but I think it’s worth noting. Especially if someone wants to run a game centred on the Old Republic Senate.

While there is a certain dramatic irony in having the heroes do the things that ultimately bring about the fall of the Republic, Palpatine’s manoeuvres do bring up the question: why doesn’t he just have one of his supporters initiate these moves? Two reasons suggest themselves.

First, while Palpatine may have control of the bureaucracy and various Senators, he doesn’t have wide public support. If an action proves sufficiently unpopular it could backfire on those seen as sponsoring it. Thus, Palpatine and his supporters need fall guys — Amidala and Jar Jar — who can take the blame in case things don’t work out. It’s not until Episode III that Palpatine is secure enough in his power to dispense with the cat’s paws and to announce the creation of the Empire himself.

Second, there seems to be a strong division between the public and private life. People seem to be willing to do and support all kinds of things privately, but want to project a different public image. It’s all about appearances. And, in fact, that’s one of the themes running through the series. In Episode I, Queen Amidala pretends to be one of her own handmaidens. In Episode II, Padme and Anakin pretend to be refugees and in Episode III they keep their marriage secret. Darth Vader’s armour disguises the fact that he’s Anakin Skywalker. Three of the four Sith we encounter have two identities — Palpatine/Darth Sidious, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader — and I’m willing to assume the fourth, Darth Maul, also had another name, it’s just that it was never revealed.

It’s this sort of duality — some might call it hypocrisy — that allows corruption to grow. Basically, the Galactic Republic seems to have fallen because it allowed its public life to become just a facade. No doubt, most people saw this as a sign of sophistication and Realpolitik — no-one could really support and live by all the ideals and principles they publicly espoused; all that was just for show. Or, as the Romans used to say, “the forms must be observed”, no matter what the underlying reality. But the overall effect of such attitudes is corrosive. Certainly, it weakened the system enough to allow Palpatine to bring about the collapse of the Republic.

From the Army of the Republic to the Forces of the Imperium

One of the surprises of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is that, against all expectations, it wasn’t Darth Vader who changed sides. It was everyone else. Throughout the film, we see various Jedi happily leading large numbers of Clone Troopers against Separatists fighting against the central government. In Episodes IV to VI, we see Darth Vader leading large numbers of Stormtroopers against a new group fighting against the central government. He’s stayed the same, while the surviving Jedi, Obi-Wan and Yoda, have gone from leading the Troopers to supporting those fighting against them.

Of course, that was after the Troopers turned against them. It’s interesting to note that the Jedi were exterminated by being fragged by their own troops, not unlike what happened to American officers in Vietnam.

About forty minutes into Episode III there’s a scene where Anakin meets Chancellor Palpatine at a theatre where he’s watching an aquatic ballet. The scene is interesting because it takes place after the battle of Coruscant, the final stages of which we saw at the beginning of the film, yet you’d never know it if you hadn’t seen the earlier part of the movie. All the people seen in the background act normally, as if it’s just another night at the opera. I know as I was watching the sequence, one of the things that went through my mind was “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you know there’s a war on?!”

Now, the behaviour of the citizenry of Coruscant may just have been an example of them keeping a stiff upper lip; of not allowing the Separatists a moral victory by having their lives disrupted. But, then it occurred to me, other than bits of debris from the space battle raining down onto Coruscant, there’s no reason why any of the citizenry need to be aware there’s a war on. The entire conflict is being fought by proxy.

The Army of the Republic consists of clone troops led by Jedi Knights. The only people outside of the Jedi and the Senate who seem to be involved in the fighting are those actually living on the planets where some of the fighting is taking place, like the Wookiees on Kashyyyk. For everyone else, the war would be no more than something that appears in news reports or which gets blamed for certain goods being more expensive or unavailable. The Clone War is more of an inconvenience than a direct threat.

This seems to be the case even with the Separatists, who deploy droid armies to do their fighting for them. We don’t see any more than a small slice of the war, but since the opening text of Episode II: Attack of the Clones tells us that “Several hundred solar systems have declared their intentions to leave the Republic”, it may be possible that some of those seceding systems were directly invaded by the Jedi and their Clone Troopers, bring the war up close and personal to at least some of the Separatists.

Or, perhaps not. The Jedi were more like police officers than soldiers. They seem to have been pressed into service to lead the Clone Army only because there doesn’t seem to have been anyone else available. This can be seen from how they approach the task. Only Yoda seems to have made the transition to a military role; he acts like a General, directing operations from a secure position. The other Jedi all lead from the front, treating their troops as ancillaries to their own personal efforts rather than military units. And Obi-Wan doesn’t even treat them as ancillaries, they’re back-up. He goes ahead of his troops to Utapau looking for General Grevious. While it may make sense, given a Jedi’s abilities and training, for Obi-Wan to act as a commando, infiltrating enemy positions ahead of the main force, that’s not how the leader of a military operation should behave.

Given that, it’s entirely possible that the Jedi-led Army of the Republic confined itself to countering the military moves of the Separatists, while concentrating on killing or capturing the leaders of the movement. Certainly, in Episode III the Jedi are more concerned with eliminating General Grevious than with defeating the droid armies. To them, the entire conflict seems to be about individuals and personalities, not about widespread disaffection or vast impersonal forces.

It that’s correct, it means the task of occupying the defeated Separatist systems would have fallen on the Clone Armies after the destruction of the Jedi. These armies would have been led by a newly recruited officer class drawn from those systems that remained loyal. And everyone who signed up would have become an officer, since the clones filled all the front-line positions, which would have made recruiting easy. That would be the seed of newly formed Imperial forces and their primary job wouldn’t have been fighting — the war was over — it would have been occupying recalcitrant systems and bringing them into line. Armies of occupation invariable attract petty tyrants — those who enjoy exerting power over others — and bring out the bully in even the most well-meaning individuals. Given Palpatine’s predispositions, these natural tendencies would have been given free reign, or even actually encouraged. After all, if the citizenry hates the occupying forces, the officers of those forces will be that much more loyal to the Emperor, since they know what will happen to them if the Emperor were removed.

The newly occupied systems would have been put under the control of military governors. This would have set up a hierarchical system of local governors, planetary governors and regional governors all answerable to the Emperor. Once established in the occupied systems, this arrangement could be extended into those systems that remained loyal during the Clone War until finally in Episode IV: A New Hope the Emperor could abandon even the pretence of democracy and rule directly through the military hierarchy he had created.

Grand Moff Tarkin: The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away. […] The regional governors now have direct control over territories.

Even though the Empire was declared barely twenty years before Episode IV, the members of the Imperial Forces would see themselves as part of a New Order, which would explain their contemptuous references to the “Old” Republic. A subtle sign of this is the use of titles.

In the Republic, various titles such as Queen, Count and Knight were in use, though they seem to have been survivals of an older time and no longer carried the political power they once did. The Empire doesn’t use any of these titles. They seem to have been swept away and replaced with ranks. This would strengthen the conviction among the members of the Imperial forces that they were part of a “new order”, distinct from the “Old Republic” even though, ironically, the Empire was much more feudal in structure than the Republic, even with all its titles, had been.

It’s interesting to note that in Episode I Tatooine is outside the Republic — Republic credits are not accepted and slavery exists despite the Republic’s laws against it. However, in Episode IV things have changed. Stormtroopers conduct searches through Mos Eisley without anyone batting an eye and Luke talks about going to the (Imperial?) Academy and is disenchanted enough with the Empire to talk about joining the Rebel Alliance. Apparently, the Empire was not willing to accept any systems outside of its control and extended its rule even to those parts of the Galaxy that never were part of the Republic.

Similarly, things seem to have deteriorated economically. Han Solo is a smuggler and, from his comments, it would seem the Imperial navy spends at least part of its time boarding ships and looking for contraband. Han’s problems with Jabba the Hutt all stem from the fact that he dumped a cargo when he thought he was going to be boarded. While there probably was some smuggling in the Republic, it seems to be a much bigger issue in the Empire. The reason is probably taxes: maintaining those large Imperial forces — much bigger and more expensive than the Order of ascetic Jedi Knights could ever have been — would take money and lots of it. Everyone would feel the weight of Imperial taxes and, as Imperial authorities went out of their way to try and collect as much revenue as possible, smuggling would become a growth industry. This may also explain why, in the later episodes, everything looks so old an worn. This may just be a reflection of the fact that Episodes IV, V and VI take place in outlying territories, far from the centres of power, but it may also indicate a general deterioration in the standard of living in the Star Wars galaxy.

It would also account for the Death Star. There would be no need for it as a military weapon. One of the effects of the Clone War would have been to eliminate every other military force in the galaxy, leaving only the Army of the Republic standing. In fact, that’s probably one of the reasons Palpatine launched the war. Not only did the Separatist crisis justify his Emergency Powers, but it also served to eliminate any potential rivals. The Death Star existed only as at terror weapon; a way to intimidate systems into co-operating with the Empire. Which is why, when the Rebel Alliance managed to destroy it, it was such a great victory. Since the Death Star was primarily a psychological weapon, it’s destruction had a disproportionate effect in showing that the Empire was vulnerable and could be defeated.

It also suggests why the Emperor took charge of the second Death Star and the campaign against the Rebel Alliance personally. He had to nip the Rebellion in the bud and show that the destruction of the first Death Star was no more than a fluke — perhaps one that could be blamed on incompetent leadership rather than Rebel resourcefulness. His plan in Episode VI — luring the Rebel Alliance into making a move designed to lead to their own destruction — also reflects Palpatine’s various manoeuvrings in the earlier episodes.

Just in passing, I’d like to note that it’s not unreasonable that the first Death Star took around twenty years to complete. Prototypes often take a long time to get all the bugs worked out and, if the Emperor’s management style was like that of Darth Vader — choking the head designer or engineer to death every time a test didn’t work right or when he didn’t like the decor — the question isn’t “Why did it take them twenty years to complete it?” so much as “How did they manage to finish it in only twenty years?” Also, I assume the second Death Star was already under construction at the time of Episode IV rather than being built entirely in the time between Episodes IV and VI.

If the Clone War resulted in the elimination of all the other military forces in the galaxy, it also explains why the Rebel Alliance was so slow to form. It had only just won a major victory before the beginning of Episode IV. The Alliance would have been made up of various planetary militias, who would have had to find each other and link up. as well as disaffected members of the Imperial military, who found their job of oppressing the various systems of the galaxy distasteful. As with the construction of the first Death Star, it’s not so much that it took the Rebellion twenty years to form and take its first effective action, so much as it is impressive they managed to do it so quickly given the conditions they started from. And, of course, the members of the Alliance would have wanted to avoid using armies of Droids so as to disassociate themselves from the earlier Separatists.

Not that it would have helped. To the members of the Imperial Forces — and, perhaps, many ordinary citizens of the Empire — the Rebel Alliance would appear to be no more than a revival or a continuation of the old Separatist movement. The fact that the Separatists wanted to secede from Coruscant, while the Alliance wanted to take it over and restore the Republic, would be seen as a trivial difference.

While the Clone Wars may have been removed from the citizenry, the war between the Empire and the Alliance was fought directly. Very few proxies here.

Of course this is most obvious in the ranks of the Alliance, which are full of recruits fighting directly. However, it also seems to be the case in the Imperial Forces. While it may be safe to assume that any Imperial forces wearing full-face helmets — stormtroopers, snow troopers, scout troopers, TIE Fighter pilots, AT-AT drivers, etc. — are clones, in Episodes V and VI we seen enough individuals without such helmets in relatively low level front-line positions as NCOs and the like. Jobs that in the Clone War were filled by Cody-level clones.

We aren’t told enough to know why this is the case, but a few possibilities suggest themselves. First, Palpatine may have wanted to get as many non-clones — people with friends and families among the citizenry — into the military as possible in order to broaden his base. Military families tend to support the government of the day, no matter what it is. Alternately, the Empire simply may not have been able to afford to keep ordering Cody-level clones from the Kaminoans. It’s unlikely that Palpatine would have stopped ordering clone Stormtroopers, since they would constitute the one group in the military whose loyalty he could absolutely depend on, but he may have decided that Cody-level NCOs were an expense he could live without. Or it may have been some combination of the two.

The irony, of course, is that by creating a group of petty tyrants such as the Imperial officer corps, Palpatine not only extended his power, he also laid the groundwork for the opposition to it. Eventually, the people of the Galaxy could no longer ignore the abuses of the Empire, it affected too many directly. And that opposition is what ultimately led to the fall of Palpatine and his Empire.

The Jedi and the Sith

One of the things I was hoping Episode III: Revenge of the Sith would do is finally explain what the cause of the animosity between the Jedi and the Sith was. In Episode I we had:

Darth Maul: At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.

Revenge for what? Given that the drive for revenge is apparently what drives the entire plot, you’d think at some point someone would explain what the grievance was; what wrong the Sith felt the Jedi had done to them. In a film called Revenge of the Sith you’d think Palpatine/Darth Sidious would take time out from his machinations to have a good rant and explain exactly what it is that he’s taking revenge for. If for no other reason than to bring his new apprentice, Darth Vader, up to speed on what it’s all about. Or to tell the smug Mace Windu exactly why it is that the Jedi deserved what happened to them.

But no. At no point in any of the films is this important bit of backstory explained. Which, I guess, means we’re free to speculate and construct our own rationales.

So, let’s look at what clues we have. In Episode I it was established that an individual’s link to the Force was through the midi-chlorians in their cells. When someone is strong in the Force it means they have a high midi-chlorian count.

In Episode II it was implied that Jedi weren’t allowed to love and were probably celibate. This would keep with their overall ascetic philosophy. Yet, the numbers of Jedi, while limited, seem to remain steady. Just think of all the Younglings we saw being trained by Master Yoda. If Jedi don’t reproduce, where do these Younglings come from? The obvious answer is they are recruited from the population at large.

Qui-Gon: Had he been born in the Republic, we would have identified him early, and he would have become Jedi…

This is confirmed by the testing of young Anakin. The tests don’t seem to be improvised; if anything, they seem to be standard. The Jedi are used to testing individuals to determine their ability to use the Force. And, of course, there is the simple expedient of taking a blood/tissue sample to determine what an individual’s midi-chlorian count is.

This means that individuals with high midi-chlorian counts pop up regularly in the general population. These individuals seem to be distributed among all species. While we see more human Force-users than of any other species, that seems to reflect the fact we see more humans in general throughout the films than any other species. There’s nothing to suggest that any species has a greater propensity for being Force-sensitive/having a high midi-chlorian count.

We also know from the example of Anakin that Force-sensitive individuals can and do use their connection to the Force unconsciously and instinctively. Anakin’s reflexes appear faster than normal because he can see things before they happen. And, as shown by the test at the Jedi Temple, he’s also either clairvoyant or able to read minds, since he can identify what’s on the small viewing screen without seeing it directly. This means, Force-sensitive individuals would be faster and more effective than ordinary members of their species. While not as powerful as a Jedi (or Sith) whose training allows them to use their connection with the Force to achieve various spectacular effects, such individuals would nevertheless be superior to most of those around them.

Superior individuals popping up at random in the general population. They sound like mutants. Or super-heroes. It sounds like the basic premise of the X-Men from Marvel Comics.

If that’s the case, then the animosity between the Jedi and the Sith may be the same as the disagreement between Professor X and Magneto: the Jedi believe that superior individuals should serve the greater good; the Sith believe their superiority means they should rule.

Such an interpretation would explain why the Sith want revenge. It’s not for some specific wrong done to them in the past, it’s because each individual Sith would see the Jedi as denying them, personally, their proper position of power and privilege. The Sith resent being forced to hide and to operate in secrecy and they blame the Jedi for that. That’s why they’re angry. Further, they would also see the Jedi as weaklings who allow themselves to be bullied by inferiors. They would hold the Jedi in contempt. Which would make it especially galling that the Jedi are so effective at forcing the Sith to remain hidden and secretive.

It would also explain why the Jedi are celibate. The Jedi appear to be independent of the Senate. They have their own Temple and run their own affairs. Yet they serve the Senate and work as peace-keepers within the Republic. Clearly there’s some sort of arrangement between the Jedi Order and the Republic, probably one going back to the founding of the Republic. If these speculations are right, and the Jedi represent a group of innately superior beings, that arrangement probably reflects an ancient stand-off. The Jedi had power, but the Republic had sheer numbers. Rather than fighting what would surely have become a war of extermination, the two reached an agreement. The Jedi would be allowed to live in peace and pursue their studies in the Force provided they didn’t breed. That way the citizens of the Republic would be reassured that the potential menace of a horde of Force-sensitive super beings would be contained. At some point — perhaps as part of the wars accompanying the formation of the Republic — the Jedi also took on the role of protectors and keepers of the peace. This would have raised their public standing and undercut some of the fear and resentment they might have inspired, but it would not have eliminated it. Only the knowledge that Jedi numbers would remain limited could do that and the only way to guarantee that would be if the Jedi did not reproduce.

This also suggests that any group or organisation seeking to explore and develop the powers of the Force would need to be affiliated with the Jedi Order. It seems unlikely that the Republic would tolerated any such groups acting independently. A few unattached Force-sensitive individuals would be acceptable — the Jedi could always deal with them if they became a problem — but not any sort of organised group. Another reason why the Sith would resent the Jedi.

This raises an interesting question. If the Jedi maintain their numbers by recruiting Force-sensitive children who appear in the general population, where do the Sith get their recruits from? Clearly, it would have to be from the same source. But the pickings would be mighty slim after the Jedi got through recruiting all the infants with high midi-chlorian counts in an area. Either the Sith are content to take the leavings — those who were either missed or whose Force-sensitivity was considered too low to justify Jedi training — or they would confine themselves to the fringes of the Galaxy, where the Jedi and the Republic are spread thin. After all, as we know from the example of Anakin, even someone with the highest midi-chlorian count ever known could be missed if they’re born on a world outside the Republic.

If the first possibility is correct — the Sith recruiting the Jedi’s leavings — it would be another reason why the Sith want revenge. Each of them would have personally been rejected by the Jedi at some point as “not good enough.” Naturally, that would breed resentment. However, it would also diminish any threat the Sith might pose. After all, these are the guys who were rejected for not being good enough. Unless you assume the Jedi are spectacularly incompetent on a regular basis, then those rejected as not good enough presumably really aren’t good enough.

The other possibility is the more likely. The Sith would normally operate on the fringes of the Republic. The problem here is that the only Sith we see in the films are all based on Coruscant, the capital of the Republic and right under the noses of the Jedi Council. It is strongly implied, though, that Palpatine/Darth Sidious is the exception rather than the rule. And, it’s worth noting, that after the death of Darth Maul — who he may have brought with him to Coruscant — Palpatine recruits his next two apprentices, Darth Tyranus and Darth Vader, from what would be the only source of Force-sensitive individuals on Coruscant: the Jedi Order itself.

The relative scarcity of Force-sensitive individuals would also explain why there are only ever two Sith — “no more, no less. A master and an apprentice” as Yoda put it at the end of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. With the Jedi Order regularly scooping up the majority of Force-sensitive beings into its ranks, the Sith really couldn’t maintain any large numbers. Of course, if the Sith are all megalomaniacs convinced they have a right to rule, as I’ve suggested, they probably wouldn’t work all that well together in large groups anyway. Two at a time may be about as complex an organisational structure as they can maintain. A Master with two or more apprentices would always be worrying that they might team-up against him before turning on each other. Better to have only a single apprentice.

Of course, if there can be only two, an apprentice would always be worried that if their master found a better prospect, they could only take on that new apprentice by first discarding — ie killing — their current apprentice. And that’s what we see happen in the films. At the beginning of Episode III Palpatine manoeuvres Anakin, who he wants to take on as his new apprentice, into killing his current apprentice, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus. At the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi he tries to do the same again, trying to get Luke to kill Anakin/Darth Vader before taking his place. Such an approach would also have the benefit of selecting for the strongest possible apprentice; if a prospect isn’t capable of killing the current apprentice, then they’re obviously not powerful enough to take their place. It’s brutal, but effective.

Darth Vader: Luke. You can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and we can rule the galaxy as father and son.

Another possibility is that, unlike Jedi, the Sith aren’t celibate and take on their children as apprentices. This isn’t the case in the films, where the four Sith we encounter are clearly not related, but it may be the case under other circumstances. One element that hints at the possibility is the name “Darth”. All the Sith referred to in the movies have a appellation beginning with “Darth”: Darth Plagueis, Darth Sidious, Darth Maul, Darth Tyranus and Darth Vader. When Darth Vader first appeared in Episode IV: A New Hope I assumed that “Darth” was a name. Obi-Wan refers to “A young Jedi named Darth Vader” and even addresses Vader as “Darth” during their duel on the Death Star. When Episode I came out with two new Darths, it suggested a pattern where all Sith are called “Darth” and I revised my opinion and came to think that “Darth” was probably a title. The Sith equivalent of “Lord”, which is how the various Sith are also addressed: Lord Sidious, Lord Maul, Lord Tyranus and Lord Vader. More recently, however, another possibility suggested itself to me.

Perhaps “Darth” is a name, only it’s a family name and the Sith originate in a culture that puts the family name first, like the Hungarians or the Chinese. When accepting an apprentice, as Palpatine does in Episode III, the ceremony acts as a rite of adoption, in which the new apprentice is accepted as a descendent of some original founder named Darth Something-or-other. As part of the process, the apprentice is given a new name: “Darth” to show they are now part of the family and an individual name from a culturally appropriate list. It may be that Sith would normally take their offspring as apprentices, but have been forced to adoption because of circumstances. They still carry on using the family name “Darth” as a way of maintaining the appearance of a continuous line of descent and of thumbing their nose at the celibate Jedi.

One difficulty with this idea is that, if the Sith are using “Darth” as a way of indicating figurative descent from a common ancestor, then why are they also referring to themselves as “Sith”? Why would a group of two — who aren’t Simon and Garfunkel or The Captain and Tenille — come up with a name for themselves? The Sith are always referred to as if they are equivalent to the Jedi, a rival order, not just an occasional pair of lonely malcontents. The implication is that the Sith were once such an order and the successive pairs we see in the films are just the remnants of that. If that’s the case, and “Darth” is a family name, then presumably there were other families within the Order, but the Darth line is the only one to have survived. That suggests that the “revenge” the Sith are seeking is for the destruction of that ancient order and, if that’s the case, it’s something that really should have been explained somewhere in the films.

Another issue that isn’t addressed in the films is: what happens to all the Force-sensitive individuals born after the fall of the Jedi? If such individuals are constantly popping up throughout the Galaxy, then an entire generation of them would have come to maturity in the twenty-odd years following the end of Episode III. There are no signs the Emperor is recruiting such individuals to create a Sith Order in place of the Jedi Order he destroyed. Similarly, there are no signs that Force-sensitive individuals are being systematically hunted down and killed.

In Episode IV: A New Hope Darth Vader’s commitment to the Force is treated as a faint relic of an archaic religion. Even Han Solo dismisses talk of the Force as a “hokey religion”. This seems odd, since Episode I establishes that the Force has a material basis — the midi-chlorians — and the Jedi were running around only twenty-odd years earlier, performing amazing feats. This suggests that Palpatine must have been deliberately undermining belief in the Force, suggesting that it was no more than an ancient form of mysticism connected to the Old Republic and not something worthy of being taken seriously by the citizens of his brave new Empire. Fostering such an attitude is inconsistent with hunting down Force-sensitive individuals.

The Emperor could have fostered disbelief in the Force as an official attitude while he had a secret Task Force hunt down and either kill or recruit Force-sensitive individuals, but there’s no evidence of any such group in the films. In fact, if anything, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Further, we know that Princess Leia was the daughter of Anakin Skywalker and probably inherited some of his high midi-chlorian count — else why would Yoda consider her the other hope the Jedi had — and she served as a Senator, working in close proximity to the Emperor. Yet he ignored her. She must have shown signs of being Force-sensitive that a Sith Lord would have recognised, yet she seems to have merited no more attention than her actions on behalf of the Rebel Alliance justified.

The Emperor and Darth Vader only become interested in Luke Skywalker after he causes the destruction of the first Death Star. In the opening text of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back we’re told that Darth Vader is “obsessed with finding young Skywalker” and, later in the film, while the Emperor notes that “The Force is strong with him”, his main concern is that “The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.”

Finally, as noted, at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi the Emperor plays Luke off against Vader, suggesting that he’s sticking to the there-are-only-ever-two-Sith arrangement.

The obvious conclusion is that Palpatine is neither destroying Force-sensitive individuals, nor recruiting them into an expanded Sith Order. He seems to be just ignoring them, while playing down general knowledge of and acceptance of the Force. This indirectly supports the notion that the Force-sensitive constitute a mutant-like group within the broader population of the Galaxy. Since the Emperor is a member of this group, he doesn’t want the broader population to realise that they are being ruled by one of these superior beings. Even with his mastery of the Force and vast army of loyal clone stormtroopers, he may fear that, should the population turn against him, their sheer numbers would tell in the end. So he dismisses stories of the Force and the Jedi as exaggerated myths from a time gone by. Also, by keeping knowledge of the Force to himself and his apprentice, he preserves an edge over others.

Similarly, he’s not worried about other Force-sensitive individuals because without training, they may be superior to their fellows, but would present no threat to him. If any do arise that present a threat, he can do exactly what he did in Luke’s case: deal with them personally — either secure them as a new apprentice or try to have them killed.

One interesting possibility is that by following such a policy, Palpatine may actually have been serving the greater ends of the Force itself.

Balance and the Force

One of the elements introduced in Episode I: The Phantom Menace was a prophesy:

Mace Windu: You’re referring to the prophesy of the one who will bring balance to the Force…

Exactly why the Force was out of balance, why it needed to be brought into balance and how this was to be accomplished are questions that were not addressed. In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith an indication of what form this balance would take is finally given:

Obi-Wan: With all due respect, Master, is he not the Chosen One? Is he not to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force?

So the Force would be brought into balance by destroying the Sith. While this does fit with what ultimately happens at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, it does represent a rather odd usage of the term “balance” and it is almost immediately brought into question by Master Yoda:

Yoda: A prophecy… that misread could have been.

Yoda is right. Obi-Wan’s interpretation of the prophecy doesn’t make any sense. When Qui-Gon reports to the Jedi Council in Episode I that he had been attacked by a mysterious warrior he believed to be a Sith Lord, he was met with incredulity. “Impossible! The Sith have been extinct for a millennium,” he is told. Obviously, at the time the Jedi Council believed that (i) the Sith were extinct, and (ii) that the Force still needed to be brought into balance. The combination of these two beliefs is inconsistent with Obi-Wan’s interpretation. If he were correct, then the Council would either have accepted that with the extinction of the Sith, the Force was already in balance and the prophecy had been fulfilled or rendered moot; or they would have concluded from the fact that the Force still needed to be balanced that the Sith were not extinct and would have been out hunting for them. Obi-Wan’s interpretation is clearly a bit of wishful thinking prompted by the exigencies of the Clone War.

So what is the prophecy about? In my previous essay I suggested that Anakin is the one who brings balance to the Force by falling in love. I still think that’s basically right, but let me put a slightly more hard-edged spin on it.

We know that Force-sensitivity is caused by a higher than average concentration of midi-chlorians in the cells of an individual. We also know that, even without training, such a concentration of midi-chlorians grants the individual certain superior abilities — they are faster, stronger (an unconscious application of Jedi telekinesis) and probably more insightful and persuasive (unconscious application of the Jedi mind trick). And, from the example of Anakin and Luke (and, probably, Leia as well), we know that a higher midi-chlorian count is somewhat hereditary.

The natural superiority of those that are Force-sensitive would mean they would gravitate towards positions of power. They would become great kings, gang-leaders, CEOs, conquerors and so on. Not all of them, of course, but enough. Given the propensity of those in such positions of power to spread their seed — it’s estimated that the direct male descendants of Genghis Khan (Temujin, 1167 – 1227) number around 16 million worldwide, for example — this means that a few Force-sensitive individuals in one generation would result in a disproportionately greater number of Force-sensitive individuals in the following generation. While specific Force-sensitive individuals might found their own Dynasties and Houses of their legitimate descendants, Force-sensitivity would gradually spread and the average midi-chlorian count of the general population would go up. After a few hundred years, Force-sensitive individuals would be in the majority. After a few thousand, they would constitute the entire population.

Unless, of course, something like the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic had established a compromise in which Force-sensitive individuals didn’t breed. Then, no matter how many new Force-sensitive individuals were added to the mix each generation, the midi-chlorian count of the general population would remain pretty low, even after thousands of years. If the Force is aiming at an entire Galaxy of Force-sensitive individuals, then, from an evolutionary point of view, the Jedi Council and the Galactic Republic are just huge blockages in the pipeline. Hence the prophecy.

Anakin helps bring balance to the Force so that ultimately everyone gets to be Force-sensitive, not just a concentration of Jedi and Sith. He does so by (i) destroying the Jedi, (ii) helping overthrow the Galactic Republic, and (iii) having children. Sure, he does it by initiating a long, bloody, drawn-out process that will cause much pain and suffering to all concerned, but if the Force is sufficiently indifferent to individual health and happiness and concerned with the long-term and big-picture, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to proceed. Sometimes you just have to clear out the pipes and let nature take its course. It’s not pleasant, but it works. In my previous essay I said “a balanced Force may be a luxury the Star Wars Galaxy really can’t afford.” That may still be true, but it may also be something that the Force doesn’t care about. Ultimately the Force gets what the Force wants.

Not quite as nice as saying Anakin brings balance to the Force by falling in love, but in the end it amounts to the same thing.

What Good is the Force Anyway?

Towards the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Padme Amidala lies dying. She’s struggling to give birth to her twin children, but as one of the medical droids attending her says “Medically, she is completely healthy. For reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her.” The individuals the droid is addressing these comments to are Yoda and Obi-Wan.

Think about that. Yoda, who we are repeatedly told is the most powerful Jedi of them all, who has a midi-chlorian count second only to that of Anakin Skywalker, in whom the light side of the Force is presumably more powerful than any other creature in the Galaxy, stands by and watches as Padme dies. All he can offer, referring to the twins, is:

Yoda: Save them, we must. They are our last hope.

Why doesn’t he use the Force to try and help Padme? Why do he and Obi-Wan just stand there and watch as the medical droids struggle to deliver the babies and preserve Padme’s life?

Two possibilities occur to me. The first is that Yoda — and, by implication, Obi-Wan as well — are really cold, Machiavellian bastards. If the children are the last hope the Jedi have, then the best way to hide them until they reach maturity is to keep the Emperor and Darth Vader completely unaware of their existence. To do that, having the dead body of a seeming still-pregnant Padme would be useful. Once the two Sith Lords hear about her death and funeral, they will assume that any child she was carrying died with her. The children can be safely raised by foster parents because no-one will be looking for them. From that perspective, a dead Padme is much more useful than a live one. Yoda realises that and that’s why he doesn’t make any effort to try and use the Force to save Padme’s life. It’s cold and heartless, but Yoda’s got the big picture to consider.

The other possibility is that Yoda doesn’t do anything because he can’t. That’s not the way the Force works. This is actually the more likely explanation, since Obi-Wan doesn’t try to do anything either. Nor does he argue with Yoda, suggesting that Yoda should intervene. Obi-Wan also realises that there’s nothing the Force can do. It’s all up to the medical droids.

Thinking about that, I realised that at no point in any of the films do we see the Force being used to heal. When various characters — who are mostly Jedi — loose limbs, the missing appendages are replaced with cybernetic substitutes. No-one uses the Force to reattach the severed member or to coax the body to grow a replacement. I know the Star Wars roleplaying games have listed healing Force powers, but there doesn’t seem to be any support for that idea in the actual films.

Well, no; strictly speaking, that’s not entirely true. One Force-sensitive character does suggest that it would be possible to use the Force to save Padme’s life and to preserve life in general. Unfortunately, it’s the chief bad guy:

Palpatine: He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying. […] The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.

Now, Palpatine may well have been lying. After all, he was trying to bring Anakin over to the Dark Side. And, at the end of Episode III he doesn’t use the Force to help preserve the badly injured Anakin. He relies on technology — a medical capsule, droids and cybernetic replacements — just like everyone else. So, it’s possible that not even the dark side of the Force can be used for healing.

So, what is the Force good for? We have seen characters use it to move objects telekinetically, block and deflect blaster bolts, influence the weak-minded, perform amazing leaps and sense objects, events and presences otherwise beyond the range of their other senses. Force-sensitive individuals have preternaturally good reflexes because they can see events before they occur and, sometimes, they have prophetic dreams. That seems to be pretty much it. The Force helps make one a great fighter, but doesn’t seem to be of much use beyond that.

Perhaps that’s why Yoda is constantly counselling others to accept death and loss. It’s good advice because not even the Jedi can do anything about them. It’s just that, with all their great abilities in other areas, Jedi are likely to feel that they should be able to do something and to be angry and guilty when they find they can’t. For all their great powers, the Jedi have to deal with the same limitations as everyone else.

Politics

The Greek thinker Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) once divided systems of government into six broad types, based on how many people got to participate and on whether the results were good or bad. The scheme looked like this:

good bad
rule by one monarchy tyranny
rule by a few aristocracy oligarchy
rule by the many democracy anarchy

Of the good types of government, Aristotle ranked monarchy as the best, since it was the most focused and efficient. A monarch wouldn’t waste time and resources in discussion, exploration or trying to reach compromise. They would simply determine what needed to be done and would proceed to do it. The worst of the good forms was democracy. In a democracy, things would inevitably get bogged down in debate and negotiation, issues would get sent out to committees to investigate and nothing would get done, no matter how urgent or necessary, until a clear majority of the population could be brought around to agreeing on them.

When it came to the bad forms of government, he ranked them the other way around. There the worst was tyranny because the same qualities of speed, efficiency and focus that made a monarchy so effective at doing good, made a tyranny equally effective at inflicting harm. The best of the bad forms of government, by contrast, was anarchy. There the same inefficiencies and impediments that would slow a democracy down, would limit the amount of harm that an anarchy could do.

Now, down the centuries, many people have interpreted Aristotle’s ideas in many different ways, but to me what it’s all boiled down to is: unless you have some way of guaranteeing that a particular government will always be good, you have to assume that any particular government will sometimes be good, sometimes be bad, and usually be somewhere in the middle. That means, when deciding what type of government you want, you need to pick not the one that will bring the greatest benefit when it’s good, but the one that will do the least harm when it’s bad. You want the government that is the most survivable when it all goes wrong — because, in the long run, things will go wrong.

For those that read my previous essay, yes, this is another version of the same sentiment expressed by Sir Winston Churchill as “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the other forms which have been tried from time to time.”

I mention all this because it occurs to me that Star Wars presents two bad forms of government. An anarchy in the form of the Republic in Episodes I to III and a tyranny in the form of the Empire in Episodes IV to VI and invites us to compare and contrast them. The case isn’t biased by presenting the good form of one and the bad form of the other, both are pretty bad. We have the muddled mess of the Old Republic versus the bloody brutality of the Empire.

Of the two, I must admit I end up preferring the Old Republic. One may despair at how the Senate failed to deal with the Naboo crisis in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but that pales into insignificance when one considers the absolute horror of how the Empire casually destroys the entire planet of Alderaan just to demonstrate the power of the new Death Star battle station in Episode IV: A New Hope. The Old Republic may be frustrating, but the Empire is serious scary.

After the Empire

While on the subject of politics, it would be interesting to see where the Star Wars Galaxy goes after the defeat of the Emperor in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. While I have no doubt that the Rebel Alliance would try to establish a New Republic, I doubt they would succeed.

After the decay of the Old Republic, the Separatists, the Clone War, the Empire and the Galactic Civil War, I think that most systems would be very slow to trust any sort of new central authority, no matter how well meaning. While they may pay homage to the idea of a united Galaxy, it seems more likely that each system and region would end up primarily looking out for its own interests. It would be like Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire; no matter how much various regions may have missed the unity of the old system, none of them were prepared to give up any of their autonomy to a new central government.

Of course, the break-up of the Star Wars Galaxy may be more like periodic Times of Trouble that afflicted China between Dynasties. A relatively short period of division and jockeying for position before the Galaxy reunites under some new coalition.

Either way, though, I think the Star Wars Galaxy is in for a rough few hundred years. Mind you, such a period is rich with possibilities for a roleplaying campaign and would be perfect for the rise and spread of free-range Force-users as described above. Like I said: the Force always gets its way.

Unresolved Issues

With Episode III: Revenge of the Sith being the last Star Wars movie for the foreseeable future, there are still a couple of loose threads that remain unresolved.

Boba Fett

First is Boba Fett. I’ve never really understood the popularity of this character. When he was introduced in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, he seemed interesting enough, but not especially so. He was another bounty hunter. He just happened to be the one who captured Han Solo — well, okay, that suggested that he was a little smarter and better than the other bounty hunters, but not exceptionally so.

That changed with Episode II: Attack of the Clones when we learnt about his origins. Boba Fett, it turns out, is “brother” to all the clone troopers in the Galaxy. That gives him a certain significance. But there’s more.

In Episode I: The Phantom Menace we’re introduced to Anakin Skywalker, a young boy unusual because he has only a single parent (a mother). Around the age of nine he meets some Jedi and ends up losing that parent.

In Episode II: Attack of the Clones we’re introduced to another young boy with only a single parent (a father), Boba Fett. Around the age of nine this young boy also meets some Jedi (actually, one of the same Jedi: Obi-Wan Kenobi) and ends up losing that parent.

This creates a parallelism between the two characters, Anakin and Boba, almost as if they are slightly different versions of the same idea. Such parallelism usually means that the two characters will be used to comment on one another. It’s like an experiment and its control: we see how the slight differences between the two (one raised only by a mother and adopted by the Jedi, the other raised only by a father and left abandoned by the Jedi) lead to their different histories and fates.

Given that, I was interested in seeing what Episode III would do with Boba Fett. How it would develop this parallelism. Unfortunately, as you all doubtlessly know, Boba Fett doesn’t appear at all in Episode III — though another interesting parallel between him and Anakin is hinted at. When Palpatine tells Anakin the story of Darth Plagueis who “could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create life” the set-up of the shot and the way Palpatine is looking at Anakin suggests that he might have been the one responsible for causing Anakin to be conceived by the midi-chlorians. In Episode II it’s established that Palpatine is the one responsible for arranging for the Kaminoans to grow the clone army. That means he’s also indirectly responsible for Boba’s existence, since part of the payment to Jango Fett for providing the genetic samples from which the clones were grown was the creation of Boba Fett as a son. So Palpatine may be the hidden force behind both Anakin and Boba coming into existence. A sort of mutual shared grandfather.

Boba Fett’s next chronological appearance is in Episode V. His interaction there with Darth Vader is interesting. Throughout the rest of that film, Vader casually kills any subordinate who has displeased him and arbitrarily changes the terms of deal he made with Lando Calrissian, yet he relates to Boba Fett almost as if with an equal. He reassures Fett that Han Solo “will not be permanently damaged” and, later, when Solo is about to be carbon-freezed, that “The Empire will compensate you if he dies.” It’s almost as if Vader recognises that Fett is a distorted reflection of himself.

And, in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Boba Fett gets eaten by a Sarlacc. A rather sorry end for the character, who (if memory serves) doesn’t even get a line of dialogue in that movie.

Somehow, I just feel that there should be more. But that may just be me. When I noticed the parallelism, I was interested in seeing where it was going to lead, but, it seems that it doesn’t lead anywhere. Which is a pity.

Princess Leia

No, I’m not going to complain about Leia saying she can remember her real mother in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. when, as we see in Episode III, her mother dies within minutes of giving birth to her. Leia’s the daughter of Anakin Skywalker. The Force is strong in her. Obviously she developed an empathic bond with her mother while still in the womb. That’s why she says all she can remember is “Just… images, really. Feelings.” After the various other sensing abilities displayed by Force-sensitive individuals, that’s not all that big a reach.

The reason I bring up Leia is that, like Boba Fett, her story feels incomplete. When she first appeared in Episode IV: A New Hope her function seemed straightforward enough. She was the beautiful princess who needed to be rescued and who served as a love-object for a simple farmboy like Luke to aspire to. She was a prize. Okay, that sounds really sexist, but that’s the way the story worked.

However, as we learned more about her background in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi Leia acquired some unexpected dimensions. It turns out that she’s another example of parallelism, only this time the character being paralleled is Luke. Consider: both Luke and Leia are the children of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala. Both were taken away shortly after birth and raised by foster parents. Both developed adversarial relationships with Darth Vader without realising he was their father or having him realise they were his children. Both become important parts of the Rebel Alliance and both are considered the last hope of the Jedi by Obi-Wan and Yoda.

The differences between the two are equally interesting. Luke is male, Leia female. Luke was raised by struggling moisture farmers on a distant, backwater world; Leia grew up amidst power and privilege as a princess on Alderaan and a member of the Imperial Senate. While Luke only yearned for a life of adventure until circumstances dropped one in his lap, Leia went out and lived it. She became an important part of the Rebel Alliance and seems to have had encounters with Darth Vader, in at least one of which she bested him — Vader’s comment “You weren’t on any mercy mission this time” in Episode IV hints at such. Leia seems to have fought the Empire with diplomacy and guile, while Luke confronts it as a fighter, piloting X-Wings and becoming a Jedi Knight. In the end, it’s Luke alone who confronts the Emperor and he’s the one who reconciles with the pair’s father as Vader/Anakin lays dying in a Docking Bay aboard the second Death Star.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we get to see Luke’s adventures — the original Star Wars trilogy is very much about the adventures of Luke Skywalker — while Leia’s adventures are only alluded to. This makes sense in terms of action and spectacle — X-Wing dogfights and lightsabre duels are much more visually interesting than diplomacy or negotiation — but the impression is that Leia led a very exciting life right up to the moment when she appeared in the first film. After that, it’s almost as if she passed a baton to Luke; as if there’s only so much adventure the Skywalker twins could have and, if Luke were to have his moment in the sun, she had to fade into the background.

The overall effect is that Leia’s story feels incomplete. As with Boba Fett, there’s a great set-up, but no follow through. None of it seems to lead anywhere. This is only accented by the developments in Episode VI where Leia starts to come back into her own. She infiltrates Jabba’s palace disguised as Boushh the bounty hunter and, later, kills Jabba. Finally she learns that she too is Force-sensitive and, potentially, as good a Jedi as her brother Luke. Then it all stops. Somehow, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. It feels unfinished, as if there should be just a bit more to it. Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me.

In Conclusion

As with my essay on Episode II: Attack of the Clones this hasn’t been a traditional review. Instead it’s been a collection of ideas and observations of the sort of things that can be gleaned from the Star Wars movies and which can be used to spark inspiration for a roleplaying game. And not necessarily even one specifically based on Star Wars or even space opera. There’s a lot of meaty goodness there which can be drawn on and used in all manner of games and settings.

The Passion of the Christ: an inflammatory perspective

Take a quick trip with me back to the mid-1980s. My first job post-uni I luck out. I make a lot of money twiddling test tubes on the Moomba gas fields in the Cooper Basin (South Australia’s mid-north, up near Cooper’s Creek, where Burke & Wills died).

Moomba is a hyper-masculine world. There are no women, and there are a few men avoiding the watchful eye of the constabulary in their home towns. We work fortnight-on/fortnight-off shifts (fourteen days in the field, fourteen days at home, repeat ad nauseam). It’s the embodiment of Australian ‘mateship.’ It’s also the embodiment of Australian boozing and brawling.

Fast forward several shifts. We newbies aren’t wet behind the ears anymore but we’re still spending more time together than with the old hands. A kid my age and I are having lunch in a transportable behind the main laboratory. His parents are Greek immigrants. My mother’s father escaped the Nazis in ’33 by jumping ship in Port Adelaide and staying on as an illegal immigrant. (He got legal by joining the army in ’39 and served in North Africa and New Guinea.)

I know about the kid’s Greek (and Greek Orthodox) background, because he wears it on his sleeve. I don’t know if he knows I’m Jewish. I’m not a closet Jew but I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve (or my head).

I don’t remember how, but the conversation turns to the then emerging AIDS crisis. It gets a bit tense. The kid’s homophobic and very quickly suggests AIDS is ‘their fault.’ I note that HIV is not ‘just a gay disease.’ Besides, blaming someone for being infected by a disease is like blaming the Jews for being caught in the Holocaust.

I’ve never forgotten his reply.

‘Maybe the Jews deserved it, too.’

I didn’t hit him. I didn’t shout at him. In fact, I didn’t say anything. I walked away and never spoke to him again.

So, do I think Gibson’s film will inflame anti-Semitic feeling? Do I think it will revive the deicide slander?

Yes, I do.

Do I think Gibson should be stopped? That the film should be banned?

Of course I don’t. Supporting freedom of speech means defending speech you don’t like.

Do I think Gibson has guts putting the film together in the first place?

Not particularly.

The Western world is still Christendom. Christians of whatever denomination may disagree, but they’re distracted by details. Traditional Hindus decry the secularisation of India but that doesn’t make day-to-day life in India less culturally bound to Vedic myths and traditions.

Similarly in the West. People living here may be woefully undereducated about their religious traditions and mostly clueless about history and theology, but Westerners still equate ‘religion’ with Jesus and Christmas and ‘good will to all [people who look like me or at least dress like me and use the same civil calendar]’.

Making a gory film which says Jesus was the coolest guy ever is about as gutsy as singing a be-bop version of the US national anthem at a US baseball game. It’s different but hardly threatening to the pre-conceived notions the audience has about the material.

For myself, I’m glad Gibson’s film is fomenting the reactions it is. I’ve never trusted the whole post-Vatican II ‘Jewish-Christian relations’ schtick. 2,000 years of slander and blood and murder and suddenly it’s ‘all’s forgiven, we really like and respect you guys?’ Yeah, right.

If Gibson’s film reveals a festering anti-Semitism just under the surface of Western society, I’m all for it. It’s always good to know who your enemies are.

The Gentle Art of Pitching

No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. Professionalism is no virtue; a professional is simply one who gets paid for doing what an amateur does for love. But in a money economy, the fact of being paid means your work is going to be circulated, is going to be read; it’s the means to communication, which is the artist’s goal.
Samuel Johnson
Life of Johnson
by James Boswell
Ursula K Le Guin
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
from the Introduction to ‘April In Paris’

It doesn’t matter if you take Johnson’s hard-nosed approach or prefer Le Guin’s pragmatic acceptance of reality, your understanding should be the same: no-one cares how deeply or sincerely you want to write.

Sincerity is like honesty. A valuable commodity in its own right but no guarantee a person can write. I’ve known more than a few miserable bastards who could (and do) write like angels.

People in the business of buying words care about said words, not how hard they were to put down or how much you want to keep doing so.

Wordsmithing is a trade and a profession. It’s a lot of other things as well. For me, for example, it’s the only viable alternative to skid row (I’m a lousy employee). Others dignify the craft and their obsession with it using labels like ‘calling’ or ‘art’ and they aren’t necessarily wrong. But getting paid for putting the right words in the right order is a trade and a profession before it is anything else.

Which makes a writer a salesperson. Every day you head into the marketplace, pitching your craft skills and the pithy words resulting from said skills. And, just like every other salesperson, you will mostly be pitching to complete strangers.

Selling your precious creations to strangers is almost the entire writing game. You make a pitch to a person in a position to give you money for your words. They accept the pitch and ask to see the work. If they want it, they give you money and you get a credit. (Byline; name in print; and published are other terms for the same thing: the visible sign someone’s paid you money for words.) If they don’t want it they say ‘thanks but no thanks’ and you find someone else in the market for words and make the pitch to them.

After you’ve made a few sales you may find yourself in the happy position of having these buyers calling you offering money before you’ve got words to sell. Or, you’ll be in the happy position where you’ll pitch and they’ll buy your words on the basis of the pitch alone. I’m in both these happy positions as a writer of non-fiction and journalism. Consequently, in these markets I don’t touch a keyboard until someone has already agreed to purchase the words.

In other markets (eg screenwriting) I’m in much the same position as any other beginner. So I find people in a position to give me money for my words and make my pitch. Repeat as necessary.

A writer is a salesperson, first and foremost. If you don’t like the idea of selling words, find another way of making a living.

If the idea of selling words doesn’t put you off, you’ll need to master at least one other art besides writing: the art of pitching. And pitching is selling. Nothing more and nothing less. Or, to quote screenwriter Max Adams:

All pitches are Sales, with a capital S.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 5 ‘What a Pitch Is, and Isn’t’

So how long is a writer’s sales call? How long do you have to pitch? Depending on circumstance, between 30 seconds and 5 minutes.

At the 30-second end is a cold-call pitch to an editor at a newspaper or magazine or an assistant at a film or TV production company. You’ve got maybe thirty seconds to convince them that 1) you aren’t a complete idiot, and 2) your story is worth taking a closer look at.

At the luxury 5-minute end of things, you’ve probably been invited to pitch, and you’re pitching something pretty substantial, like a column idea, a major feature article (upwards of 3,000 words) or even an entire book or film.

Pitching isn’t easy, and each market has its own rules, quirks and expectations. But the single most important thing to have in your pitch is a hook. A reason for the buyer to want to hear more. And you’ve got to get that hook out there in half-a-minute, perhaps less.

Having a hook is perhaps most important if you want to sell fiction. The business of selling fiction, whether it be books, short-stories, films or TV-series, is fraught with failure and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to these failures. As screenwriter William Goldman once famously observed, in the world of buying and selling made-up stories, ‘no-one knows anything.’

Max Adams has a formula for making the hook of a fiction clear. It revolves around three words: ‘must’ and ‘or else.’ What must the person with the most to lose do or else what dire thing will happen. For example:

Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action/adventure about Indiana Jones, a procurer of lost artifacts who must travel to Egypt and find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis unearth it and use it to take over the world.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 6 ‘Pitching a Spec Script’

That’s a story I want to read, or see, or listen to. The ‘or else’ is pretty damned major (the Nazis take over the world) and the ‘must’ (find the Ark of the Covenant) isn’t chopped liver either.

Note how nothing is held back. This pitch isn’t a tease. It tells the whole story in 40 words but leaves you wanting to know more. It’s the sort of pitch that can turn a thirty-second phone call into a five-minute conversation and, perhaps, an invitation to submit the material or come in and talk some more.

Buyers of non-fiction and journalism want hooks just as much as producers and fiction editors do. But they look at material differently. An acquisitions editor for a fiction imprint or the commissioning producer at a film or TV production company might make less than one purchase a month. An editor at a newspaper or magazine likely makes dozens of purchases every week.

Buyers of non-fiction need more material and they need it more often. The hooks that grab their attention are as much about filling their publications with words as they are about making sure those words are compelling and interesting.

During the early-1990s I wrote a weekly computer column. The hook was easy. Lots of ordinary people are suddenly buying computers they can’t use: this column will fill in the blanks, week-by-week. Readers will keep coming and advertisers will follow forthwith.

That pitch — almost literally: that’s about as long as my pitch was — got me a weekly column which paid the bills (and more) for two years. (I quit over editorial and advertising interference, by the way: I had to scramble to make up the lost income but I never regretted keeping my integrity intact.)

Another pitch — this time to Australian MacUser — consisted of: ‘you don’t have a book review column, want me to write one?’ Two years worth of regular cheques and several thousand dollars worth of books thanks to that sentence.

In each of the above cases I was offering a solution to a problem the publication didn’t necessarily have. Computer columns and book review columns are common enough but not every newspaper or magazine needs them. That said, each pitch was directed at the daily problem magazine and newspaper editors face: what copy do I put between the ads that will keep readers coming back each issue.

The primary risk I was taking when pitching the columns above was that they were columns. Pitching a column (or any regular feature) means you’re selling not just a story, but a never-ending series of stories. Editors are, rightly, cautious of such pitches, especially from writers they don’t know.

More common, and much easier to pitch, are one-off stories that promise topicality or controversy.

Consequent to being burgled in December 1999 I sold an opinion piece (op-ed) to The Age, using the experience to build an argument for decriminalising narcotics. A controversial subject then (and now) judging from some of the hate mail forwarded to me in the following weeks.

My initial pitch: I’ve just been burgled, the police think it was drug addicts. I’ve got 900 words on the experience that argue this burglary (and others like it) is exactly why narcotics should be de-criminalised.

Back in 1990, just after the long-planned but mostly non-existent Adelaide Football Club was hurriedly pushed into gear to pre-empt Port Adelaide’s efforts to join the then VFL, I sold a what-if piece in which I mapped the history of professional gridiron leagues in the United States onto an imaginary future for Australian football. The future of football was in the news at the time and my article was timely and topical.

My initial pitch: What if football was to split into two professional leagues here in Australia just as gridiron did in the US in the 1960s? I can do 1500 words on what that might mean, and it doesn’t paint the VFL/AFL as the winners. (This latter likely helped, by the way, since I was pitching to The Advertiser, a parochial South Australian morning daily then and now.)

In 1991 the editors of Mean Streets, a then-new magazine (now long-defunct), accepted a pitch from my writing partner and I. Mean Streets was a specialist magazine covering crime fiction and they bought our article on two detectives from the comics, a medium generally ignored by readers of crime fiction.

Our initial pitch: we can introduce your readers to two entertaining fictional detectives they’ve likely never heard of.

Notice, despite the difference in form, medium and purpose, the article pitches are not unlike Max Adams’s imaginary pitch for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The pitches don’t tease. They tell the whole story in a sentence or two, making the case for why the editor should want to hear more by being 1) germane to the publication’s purpose and 2) topical, timely and/or controversial.

No matter who you’re pitching to, or what you’re pitching, you are presenting yourself and your material as the solution to a problem they have. They need to buy words to stay in business. You have words to sell.

With that said, don’t forget the other side of this shiny opportunity. Editors and producers have too much to read. And they have too much to read all the time.

It’s only human for such folk to look for ways of reducing their workload. And one of the best ways of doing that is to dismiss you and your work out-of-hand. So don’t come across badly. Sound professional and together and don’t be a time-waster.

Match your material to your market. There was little point trying to sell my what-if piece regarding Australian football to The Age (a Melbourne paper: its readers likely wouldn’t like the slant I took) or The Sydney Morning Herald (at the time football was seen as a Victorian game by most Sydney-siders). And ‘A Mouse with Spirit’ is of no interest to a gardening magazine. It’s even too specialised for a general literary journal.

Match your material to the moment. My Australian football piece wouldn’t be sellable in its current form today. And my op-ed depended on immediacy for much of its initial impact.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, don’t pitch anything but the story. To quote Adams again:

The purpose of pitches is to sell, and what you’re selling is either you, the writer, and the [story] you’ve written; or you, the writer, and the story you want [someone] to buy and hire you to write. So both pitches are about selling you, the writer; however, even though in both instances you are selling you, you are not the subject of the pitch. The story is the subject of the pitch. Always.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 5 ‘What a Pitch Is, and Isn’t’

Never forget this. When making your pitch tell the story you want to sell, not your life-story. A buyer will probably ask about your experience and credits, but they won’t ask about them until after you’ve piqued their interest.

And this is good news for beginning freelancers. It means not having any credits isn’t a deal-breaker. Get them interested in your tale and you’re a long way closer to your first sale.

Of course interest isn’t a sale, and anyone looking at work from a new writer is going to be more cautious than they are with material from old hands. But that just means you have to write the story well, and you were going to do that anyway.

As for specifics, in the magazine and newspaper worlds an editor is unlikely to offer a formal commission (ie an agreement to pay for an article not-yet-written) to a new writer. Instead they’ll ask you to write the story in advance or ‘on spec,’ the standard shorthand for ‘on the speculation someone will buy it.’ (Actually, in mid-2003 publishing is in the advertising doldrums. Even a lot of old hands are writing material on spec.)

In film and fiction, it’s even worse. You’ll need to write the screenplay or book before you even make the pitch. Why? If your pitch sells the story well enough someone wants to read it, that someone will expect the finished tale on their desk in the next day or so.

To sum up:

  • Sincerity, desire and ambition count for almost nothing.
  • Good stories, well told and delivered by the deadline count for everything.
  • You have about half-a-minute to convince a buyer you aren’t a complete idiot.
  • Understand why the story is interesting to other people and concentrate on that when making your pitch.
  • Work out what problem it solves for the buyer and make that part of the pitch.
  • Remember, remember, remember: you are not the story.