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New/old traditions

January 31, 2021

Just because I listen to the excellent podcast THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY WITHOUT ANY GAPS which provides an introduction to the full breadth of the topic in bursts of twenty to forty minutes at a time, I know about a thing the nice chap who does it calls ‘the commentary tradition’. That is to say books produced in the medieval period which were commentaries on the Greek and Latin texts inherited from the past. Explaining the little difficulties or the huge great controversies. Sometimes the commentaries were in the forms of seperate books but sometimes they were annotations in the corner of the manuscripts, in the wide and generous margins that had been left, often for just this purpose.

And then, because books were expensive and people are people you got people write more commentary further out. Commentary on the commentary. There were some iterations that got beyond even that level of recursion but margins are limited and you have to stop somewhere. Perhaps the commentaries on Biblical texts had the most time to get complex and deepen.

Not that there was just one ‘commentary tradition’: there were lots and lots, in different countries, in different languages, on different texts. And then there was a wave of technological change and you got printing and eventually you got philosophical journals in which people could scribble instead and have it count to advance their career.

Also you got librarians who imposed things like the oath which I swore in my youth to discourage people from scrawling things in margins.

Which is interesting if you have specialised interests but it occurred to me yesterday that we are living in a new age of commentary traditions. It may be that this should have occurred to me before because I’ve been seeing the way first newsgroup and then web forums produce reams and reams of chat and people quoting the things further up the thread have said as the basis of their comments. And getting them wrongly attributed and monsterously misinterpretting them too.

Most of this is as epheral as the wind and won’t last. Occsionally you get something kept for posterity by a friend or admirer such as my friend Phil Masters preserving the widely famed (in my tiny circle of acquaintance anyway) argument by the late Alison Brooks about why Hitler could never have invaded Britain. And so fame can last a little longer on the Internet. But I suspect never forever and almost certainly not for centuries.

The parallels should have been obvious to me, as I say but it never really struck me until yesterday I came across a YouTube posting which was a commentary on another YouTube posting! I don’t know why I’m so astonished but I came across an American who was reposting someone else’s material and pausing it every so often commenting. He did just about nothing to improve the content other than to overlay the original with his own inane babble (“Wow, I didn’t know that…”) and then restarting the orginal which while not wonderful had not been improved by more or less random pauses to break up the flow.

The commentator had the nerve to ask people to ‘like’ what he had done. I think he also mentioned a Patreon…

We do have a tip jar over at me and Roger’s wonderful podcast but we are not, as far as I can tell, pure parasites on other people’s creativity. We may often serve as critics but we’re trying to be helpful. Mostly. (New episode every first of the month!)

I could get very depressed about the incestuous nature of the vast majority of all this ‘commentary’ except that I remember that ought of all those impoverished bachelors and masters of arts, in their cold rooms lit by candlelight, desperately trying to make some sense of what Plato or Aristotle or Augustine were saying eventually we got the Renaissance.

Maybe this time it will come faster. Certainly I sometimes think the early 21st Century is a Dark Age. We’ve got a long way to go before we get the moonbases and expeditions to Mars Gerry Anderson promised us. Though as Dr Bob pointed out to me today at our monthly game of the WEREWOLF rpg, at least we avoid the Fireflash atomic powered airliner which absolutely had to land on time or its reactor would devastate everything in sight. In the first epipisode of THUNDERBIRDS they were trying to get it to land at Heathrow. Health and Safety and environmental concerns were not a thing in Gerry Anderson’s bright future.


I’ve been binging on YouTube videos in the last week. Mostly cookery and especially historical cookery shows (TASTING HISTORY with Max Miller has given me several ideas for Far Isles events: I wonder if anyone has yet shown him the famous Max Miller?) but Binging/Basics with Babish is fun too.

One of the non-catering based bits of the Internet that is the content provided by a chap called Tom Scott. He is big on doing silly amateur game and quiz shows. I think he perhaps hopes to produces the next MASTERMIND or WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? Good luck Tom. I think your LATERAL is the nearest thing you’ve got to something people might want to buy: you need slightly more time elastic rounds and slightly better curating of the questions. CITATION NEEDED relies on having contributors who are on the fine edge of being well educated and being excellently educated. And they need also to be very funny people and young. I think it’s too much in the space of QI to succeed on it’s own. Some of the stuff in GAME GARAGE is interesting but none of it quite jumps out at me. (Criticism, which is fair use…)

But he also does a thing called THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW, some lectures on ‘the Basics’ in computing and a lot of rants. Here’s one of them in which told me more about the topic of my main post. I hope he’s all right with me putting this link in place…

I don’t agree with his conclusions though. But then I still get the occasional bit of money from copyright fees on my ancient acting career which wouldn’t be there if his proposals went through. (I think, Tom, if you ever read this, that you should have asked Equity and the Performing Rights Society how many of their members are still making money at the end of their lives from work done at the start of their careers.)

  1. I’m sure Fireflash was inspired by Project PLUTO/SLAM. Could have been worse, could have been Project Orion. (Only one additional death per launch. Probably. At 1960s levels of atmospheric nuclear testing.)

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind that the idea of keeping a book in the form in which it was produced only really happened when they got cheap enough to be mass-market items. If you’d had all the writings of SomeoneClassical bound in your preferred binding for your personal library, you would certainly feel free to annotate them. (More on this in Shady Characters, a review of the history of various punctuation marks, many of which originated in such annotations.)

    You might also note that in the desperate quest to find something original to say a lot of modern English Literature theses are about critics of critics of critics, because if you’re not a genius you may well find that all the things that you can say actually about Shakespeare have already been said by someone else.

    • Well, the Wikipedia entry for TRAPPED IN THE SKY (see link above) says that Gerry Anderson got the idea from the two times while serving in the RAF he saw aircraft coming in with unlowered undercarriage. One ended well, one badly.

      The idea of atomic powered everything was certainly around at the time and there was a wide spread assumption even among some sf writers (who should have known better) that everything in the future would be driven by atoms. Asimov might have had some excuse when he made the far future of the FOUNDATION series have atom powered personal weapons. Other people not so much.

      (“Atomic Batteries to power! Turbines to speed!” Yeah, right Batman.)

      I certainly feel entitled to annotate my personal mass-produced copies of classical works with my handwritten notes. I always do it in pencil though out of consideration for later users and almost always find it illegible if I ever come across it later.

  2. Indeed, in GURPS Disasters: Meltdown & Fallout (buy a copy for each room in the house) I dug quite hard into some of those projects – it’ll tell you just how many Bq you’ll spill if you have a crash in your Studebaker-Packard Astral or Ford Nucleon.

    A rejected quote for that book:
    “Why don’t you use the nuclear-powered cooker, Mrs. Tracy? It’s much faster.”
    “Well, I’ll tell you, Kyrano. I never did get the hang of those rods.”

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