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Queen Elizabeth's Funeral Ushers in the Era of the Hobbit King

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The Queen is dead. Long live the King. How strange this process, how archaic and theatrical, moving and melancholy, mixing the worlds of King Arthur and Netflix. We are often told that it is this connection to the deep past that gives monarchy its meaning. But as the world prepares for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London tomorrow, the unchanging continuity is less significant than the subtle evolution of the nation that it conceals.

In burying its longest-serving monarch, Britain buries a part of itself too: the country it once was but is no more. And this is how it should be. When the Queen’s father, King George VI, was laid to rest in 1952, Britain said goodbye to its last imperial monarch, the man who had been the emperor of India. With his death—followed 13 years later by Winston Churchill’s—passed the imperial age. Elizabeth’s inheritance in 1952—despite much of the U.S. commentary over the past week—was the first postimperial crown in British history. Elizabeth was the monarch not of an empire but of a loose, global commonwealth sitting awkwardly in a distinctly American imperium. And yet hers was still a global role. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen, was a totem of this global Britain, erected at the very moment that the tide of British power began its long turn toward the shore.

Tomorrow’s ceremony in London, then, marks not just the end of a reign, but the passing of an age. It is hard to imagine that London will ever witness such a gathering of world leaders again. In 1952, after all, President Harry Truman did not feel it necessary to turn up at King George VI’s funeral, despite the connection forged during the Second World War. Today, the American Caesar himself will arrive, alongside the emperor of Japan, the president of France, the king of Spain, and countless other royals, dignitaries, and prime ministers. Like the Japanese maple tree that filled Clive James’s imagination at the end of his life, the funeral of Elizabeth offers “a vision of a world that shone so brightly at the last, and then was gone.”

Read: The queen of the world

The Queen leaves behind an altogether different crown than the one that she inherited: not global, but national. Charles is the head of the Commonwealth, like his mother, and the King of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as well as the United Kingdom. But in 1952, when Elizabeth was crowned, the Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies, felt no shame declaring himself British. That world has gone.

Some will see only shame in this shrinking of Britain’s horizons. To them, perhaps, Charles is an embarrassing emblem of Brexit Britain, of a country that has turned in on itself—no longer the country of Elizabeth, but that of a drab new provincialism made all the more absurd by Britain’s apparent desire to cling to lost grandeur. I’m afraid I see almost the exact opposite.

Far from resisting such royal parochialism, Britain should embrace Charles as the emblem of its new normal age. Very few people in the world know the names of the Dutch, Danish, or Norwegian monarchs, but their citizens are much more prosperous and their kingdoms more settled. If Charles joins them in comparative anonymity, that should be celebrated.

In 1962, a decade into Britain’s second Elizabethan age, the American grandee Dean Acheson caused real hurt and anger in London by declaring that Britain had lost an empire but had yet to find a role. The entire reign of Elizabeth was filled with her chief ministers searching for the answer to this challenge. But with her passing, Britain can cease its search. Not playing a central role in the great game is a perfectly noble aspiration, a liberating opportunity—and one that King Charles is well suited to symbolize.

There is a poignant image of the young Queen Elizabeth arriving home from Kenya following the sudden death of her father in 1952, of the stiff, somber backs of Britain’s greatest generation of leaders waiting on the tarmac at Heathrow to greet their new sovereign. From right to left, we see Winston Churchill, the Labour leader Clement Attlee, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, each an ardent monarchist committed to maintaining Britain’s power and influence in the world. By 1956, none was in power. Harold Macmillan was prime minister following Britain’s humiliation at Suez, the lion’s last roar.

From the December 1943 issue: The education of a queen

Macmillan was the first of Britain’s prime ministers who concluded that the answer to Acheson’s famous question was Europe. If Britain could only force its way into the grand new federal project under way on the continent, it would be able to protect its global influence. From the very beginning, then, joining Europe was motivated not by some Damascene realization that decline was inevitable—an acceptance of postimperial reality—but by the belief that such decline could be averted. It was the same belief that led Charles de Gaulle to block British entry, for he, too, saw Europe as the means to protect national grandeur. If Europe has been the means for any country’s resurrection, though, that country is Germany, not Britain or France.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Europe was seen as the answer to Britain’s problems, the spur for economic reform and the solution to its lost role in the world. Every prime minister who followed Macmillan shared that conclusion—until Boris Johnson. Each placed the maintenance of British influence at the center of their foreign policy, just as Churchill, Attlee, and Eden had. Even today, Liz Truss’s government, like Johnson’s, promises to create a new Global Britain.

Brexit, like Queen Elizabeth, is often explained away as an artifact of latent British imperialism. While there are no doubt some Brexiteers who yearn for a lost age of British greatness, Brexit is far less an expression of imperial nostalgia than a reflection of the desire not to have a global role: to return to the hobbit hole and be left alone to conserve the Shire. It was those who favored Britain remaining in Europe who feared the loss of British prestige, power, and influence on the continent, and who spoke of disappointing the Americans and the country finding itself isolated.

“This was Frodo and Sam’s own country,” wrote J. R. R. Tolkien in the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings. “And they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.” He was talking about his own feelings, but also the deep feeling of old England.

In Tolkien’s epic, the Shire had been monstrously transformed while the hobbits were away on their adventure. “The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds,” Tolkien wrote. “And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.”

This sort of localism is, I think, far closer to the animating impulse of Brexit than a longing for a return to global power is. It is the impulse that saw Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, opposed to any and all British interventions abroad and committed to rebuilding the Britain that briefly existed in his postwar youth, come close to power in 2017. It is the impulse behind the desire to “take back control” in order to spend less money on the European Union and more on the national health service. It is the desire to conserve what exists at home, not the desire to conserve British power abroad.

Read: How Britain falls apart

Today, regardless of the rights and wrongs of Brexit, the instinct to return to the Shire seems entirely reasonable. Britain, like the Shire, has no shortage of problems requiring repair. Much of the country is poor by European standards. The nation itself seems to have lost the sense of collective identity required for any country to hold together for very long, and breakaway nationalists govern in two parts of the kingdom.

Returning to the hobbit hole does not mean that Britain must stop caring about the world beyond the Shire. It can carry on arming and training Ukrainians, using its voice at the United Nations Security Council and NATO. But it does mean making decisions free from the incessant desire to protect influence.

“When things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them,” Frodo declares after deciding that he must leave the Shire. Perhaps the same is true with Elizabeth.

In many respects Charles is remarkably well suited to the role of Hobbit King that now lies open to him. Like George III, the man who famously lost America and embraced his image as “Farmer George,” there is something of the bluff country squire to Charles. He is far more interested in the benefits of traditional English hedgerows than the great, global glory of Britain. His orientation seems more national than international.

Today, Charles is more obviously the inheritor of British Tolkienism than of his mother’s Elizabethan globalism. Like Tolkien, Charles’s conservationism is both romantic and confounding, so Tory in its instinct that it ends up having far more in common with modern left-wing environmentalism than the free-market ideology of today’s right. The growth-at-all-costs Liz Truss yearns for more tall chimneys, not fewer.

In Charles’s first few days on the job, he gave an indication of the national role he clearly feels he must embody by visiting England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The very fact that Charles’s first act was to visit each of the four home nations of his kingdom is an indication of that kingdom’s fragility. Even in his speeches, when he talks of his “realms” abroad, he is speaking not as a monarch who is equally Australian, but as one who is primarily British.

Helen Lewis: The second Elizabethan age has ended

Ultimately, it will not be Charles who defines his age. His crown sits atop a nation constantly being built and rebuilt by others. Britain’s voters and leaders will decide what sort of country Britain wants to be. Does it wish to be global, European, or national? Perhaps a bit of each. Does it wish to be British, though, or English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish? With the passing of the age of Elizabeth, Britain seems unclear as to the answer.

Should we find ourselves back here in 20 years, burying Charles, the age that takes his name will not be judged in reference to his reputation in the world or the number of presidents who turn up to pay their respects. Whether or not Australia has become a republic will be largely irrelevant. If the kingdom itself remains united, the Shire settled and prosperous, and the hedgerows well tended, the Caroline age will be judged a success.

For one more day, London is the center of the world; then Britain should embrace the beauty of its autumn days.

The Queen of the World is dead; long live the Hobbit King.

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5 days ago
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The Tennis Ball Toss: Breaking Down this Critical Aspect of the Serve

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Even seasoned watchers of the U.S. Open, which starts on Monday, may be surprised to know that there is no limit on how many times a tennis player may toss the ball when initiating their serve. Yet, players swing at nearly every toss they make, the good and the mediocre, even though it is such a critical element in determining who wins each point.

The toss is that graceful lift of the ball into the hitting zone. It is the always crucial, sometimes overlooked, barely decipherable ingredient in the game’s most important shot.

Photographs by, clockwise from top left: Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images; Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Alastair Grant/Associated Press; Tertius Pickard/Associated Press; Andy Brownbill/Associated Press; Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press; Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Photographs by, clockwise from top left: Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Andy Brownbill/Associated Press; Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Mark Kovacs, a sports scientist who has worked on the serves of John Isner, Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe, said a surprising number of players on tour don’t pay enough attention to the toss, its location and its effect on their serving. “It’s an important detail that’s frequently overlooked,” Kovacs said. “An inconsistently placed toss not only makes the serve less reliable, it also throws off the biomechanics and can lead to injury.”

Tiafoe, 24, a rising American who’s ranked 24th on the men’s tour, allowed The Times to examine his toss at a park in the Wimbledon section of London. Here’s what we learned about this component of elite serving.

Placing the Toss

A fine-tuned serving technique can be thrown off by having to adjust to a poorly placed toss. “With the razor-thin margins in today’s game, an inconsistent toss placement could be the barely discernible reason why a player loses serve at a critical point in the match,” said Warren Pretorius, whose company, Tennis Analytics, works with tour players.

Pretorius uses Roger Federer’s toss as the gold standard. His tosses are so consistently accurate that they usually form a pattern barely larger than the tennis ball itself. Pretorius also named Serena Williams and Nick Kyrgios as great servers with impeccable toss placement.

Tiafoe’s tosses, below, vary by nearly 10 inches. This variation isn’t uncommon, even among some of the best pros.

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Pretorius found a wide variety in the distribution of tosses among the players he’s worked with. (He does not work with Tiafoe.)

One player, a Grand Slam tournament winner Pretorius chose not to name publicly, had a cluster of tosses about the size of Tiafoe’s. Another Slam winner had placements that were even larger, about 12 to 14 inches.

Pretorius said inconsistencies in the toss placements can cause the serve to be an inch or two or more off line, the difference between an ace and a fault.

Holding the Ball

When it comes to proper toss technique, there are some widely held beliefs and then there are some personal preferences. One rule of thumb is that the ball should be held in the fingertips, not in the palm, which would cause the ball to roll off the fingers at the release point, making the toss harder to control.

In the matter of how to raise the ball, there are two popular options: the palm-to-the-sky version favored by Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal, and the one used by Federer, with the palm facing toward the back of the court and the ball lifted as if raising a glass in a toast.

Tiafoe’s toss arm hangs, relaxed. His left shoulder is forward of his right, ready to initiate a powerful shoulder rotation.

He starts Federer-style, with his left palm facing toward the back of the court.

The ball is held toward the fingertips, not deep in the palm, for better control.

He lifts the ball as if raising a glass. His straight arm helps make a consistent toss.

The ball rolls a bit off his fingertips here, adding spin to the ball — something his coach, Wayne Ferreira, would like to eliminate.

Into the Air

The precision of the toss can be dictated by how the ball leaves the hand. A ball that rolls too much off the fingertips — even more than Tiafoe’s — can be more difficult to control. Even after the ball is airborne, the work of the toss arm is far from complete: there are angles to be made and power to be unleashed.

Tiafoe, like the game’s best servers, releases the ball about even with the top of his forehead.

The toss arm continues upward, until it points to the sky.

This can create a powerful angle between a higher left shoulder and a lower right one, called the shoulder tilt. Tiafoe’s tilt is less pronounced than many other top servers.

Here, Tiafoe does something unusual. He folds his left arm backward, a quirk he developed by mimicking the Croatian player Ivo Karlovic.

Keeping his arm straight could create an even more powerful shoulder tilt.

“I watched Ivo serve and saw his arm bend back and I began to do it just joking around with friends,” Tiafoe said. “And now it’s a habit that’s hard to break.”

“Frances has worked really hard to improve his serve,” Ferreira said. “He has his idiosyncrasies, but overall his toss is quite consistent.”

How a Rule Change
Complicated the Toss

The modern serve has grown more powerful and more complex over the years, in large part because of a change in the foot-fault rule in the 1950s. Before the rule change, the player’s lead foot had to stay in contact with the ground behind the baseline until the ball was struck. Otherwise the player was called for a fault. This rule made the ball toss a fairly simple and straightforward affair.

With the lead foot no longer required to stay on the ground before contact, modern players jump toward the toss.

This opened the door to much more powerful serves.

But these dynamic serves have more moving parts, increasing the room for error.

These extra movements, including the explosive thrust of the legs, make the timing and placement of the toss more challenging.

Point of Contact

The approach to how high to toss the ball varies among the game’s top servers. Kyrgios hits the ball very close to the top of his toss. Many others, including Tiafoe, toss the ball higher, sometimes four to six inches or more above the top of the racket and then let it fall into the hitting zone, the area where the racket is when the arm is extended overhead.

Tiafoe tosses the ball higher than where he plans to hit it, then lets it fall.

This gives him extra time to complete his serve mechanics so the ball and his racket meet at just the right moment and just the right height.

This combination of the toss height and the timing of the racket through the contact zone is what produces powerful, accurate serves.

With players now jumping up into their serves, their tosses must be placed to account for that, like when a quarterback throws to a spot ahead of a moving receiver. The prime target for the server’s toss is what you see below in Tiafoe’s — aligned above his serving shoulder and just in front of his head. This position allows him to get a full, powerful extension at contact.

Players’ most powerful serves, called the flat serve, are most often used as first serves. They are fast and straight, and Tiafoe hits his at more than 130 miles per hour.

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But there are other serves too, like the kick serve and the slice, which add spin to the ball and can require players to change the location of their tosses, adding more complexity to an already elaborate task.

Tiafoe can hit his flat serve and slice with the same toss, making it difficult for his opponent to read his intentions. But he has to change it for the kick (which most players use as their second serve). Returners can read the kick toss and anticipate the serve, but the tremendous spin on the ball makes it hard to attack.

The Pressure to Hit Every Toss

The serve is the one shot in tennis that a player has complete control over. While the shot clock rule compels the player to begin the service motion within 25 seconds from the end of the previous point, a player can begin to serve, then choose not to hit an errant toss. But this rarely happens for a variety of reasons.

“Players feel a social pressure to not stop the service motion even if the toss is slightly off,” said Meike Babel, a former top-30 player on the women’s tour. Letting the ball drop without hitting it can sometimes cause a stir.

In the 1998 U.S. Open, the Slovak player Karol Kucera was struggling mightily with his toss, letting it fall to the ground repeatedly. When it was time for his opponent, the American Andre Agassi, to serve, Agassi mocked Kucera by feigning difficulty with his own toss and letting several drop to the court. Perhaps in a bit of tennis karma, Agassi lost the match.

Letting the toss fall can also send the wrong message. “I struggled with my toss, especially if I was feeling the pressure,” Babel said, “but I didn’t want my opponent to see that I was nervous. So I hit it anyway.”

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19 days ago
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Rings of Power brings Galadriel’s lost Lord of the Rings story to life


“All“All shall love me and despair.” The line from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is the apex of Cate Blanchett’s striking turn as the elven sorceress Galadriel. In an instant, all hell seems to break loose. “In place of a Dark Lord you would have a queen!” she cries, as the colors of the film seem to invert, her clothes billow around her, and she shakes as if possessed by a force beyond mortal reckoning. But a moment later all is well, leaving millions of movie viewers to wonder, “What the heck was that all about?”

There’s a story behind Galadriel’s triumph over temptation, and her journey to this pivotal moment in Frodo’s journey to Mordor. Morfydd Clark, the 33-year-old Welsh actress who most recently soldiered through the supernatural gauntlet of A24’s horror drama Saint Maud, was eager to explore the rich potential of the character in Amazon Studios’ The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Before stepping into Galadriel’s shoes for the production, Clark told Polygon earlier this month, she knew Galadriel “as the very serene and wise lady of Lothlórien.” But now?

“The elves of [The Lord of the Rings], they’ve gone through a lot to achieve that serenity and wisdom, it’s been hard-earned. They’ve been very messy throughout many of the ages of Middle-earth,” Clark said, putting it mildly.

“She’s a rich and iconic character, but a flawed one,” showrunner Patrick McKay agreed.

To Frodo, Galadriel is a helping hand. But in Tolkien’s legendarium, Galadriel had a life of ambition and adventure, in which she spurned the gifts of the gods to seek power, justice, and a realm of her own to rule. To Tolkien, the elf was among the most exemplary figures of his opus — and she may be the only character he ever wrote who nakedly desired power but didn’t turn evil. He also never finished writing her story.

But through often contradictory notes and his son’s recollections, some published posthumously in volumes like The Silmarillion, those deep in the weeds of Tolkien lore know more about the woman than movie-watchers or even dedicated book purists. But any way you slice it, Tolkien had intended to make Galadriel superlatively wise and skilled. In the version of The Silmarillion he didn’t live to write, she was a ruler of elves, a rider in great hosts of war, a survivor of immense hardships, a scion of virtue, and a legendary beauty. And she was a character who walked the most difficult of mythological tightropes: defying the gods and living to tell the tale.

‘Dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own’

ToTo put it simply: Galadriel was born in paradise. Her home town of Valinor, the capital city of Middle-earth’s far realm of Aman, was crafted by the gods as the elven promised land. But even for a woman raised in elven Valhalla, she was exceptional. Years before she actually left Valinor, she considered the place too small for her ambitions.

As Christopher Tolkien summarized in Unfinished Tales, based on one of his father’s “partially illegible” notes, Galadriel “did indeed wish to depart from Valinor and to go into the wide world of Middle-earth for the exercise of her talents; for ‘being brilliant in mind and swift in action she had early absorbed all of what she was capable of the teaching which the Valar thought fit to give the Eldar,’ and she felt confined in the tutelage of Aman.”

Tolkien also wrote about Galadriel in an essay that was otherwise about Middle-earth linguistics, saying “Galadriel was the greatest of the Noldor, except Fëanor maybe, though she was wiser than he, and her wisdom increased with the long years.” That is: Galadriel is the greatest of her tribe, which contained many, many heroes of the war against the dark god Morgoth, except perhaps for her kinsman Fëanor, the greatest craftsman and worst elf in history, the guy who started that war in the first place. Anyone who assumed a warrior Galadriel was an invention of modern, “liberal” sensibilities might be surprised, or disappointed, but hopefully well pleased, that Tolkien got there first.

The war against Morgoth offered Galadriel her chance to leave Valinor and journey to Middle-earth to find her own dominion. When Fëanor swore vengeance against Morgoth and rallied the Noldor to sail from Aman to destroy him, Galadriel joined him. Tolkien wrote (as compiled from his drafts and notes by his son in The Silmarillion) that she was “the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes. [...] No oaths she swore, but the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.”

Galadriel and her older brother Finrod joined up with the Noldor but opposed and abstained from the historically significant crimes the rest of their tribe committed to leave Aman. In response, Fëanor gave them a pretty tough time of it, stranding them and their people in the arctic without ships. They survived and made it to Middle-earth’s main continent via a grueling overland march that Tolkien described in superlative terms. “Few of the deeds of the Noldor thereafter surpassed that desperate crossing in hardihood or woe,” he wrote.

In some of his notes, Tolkien showed intention to establish that Galadriel had never been very impressed by Fëanor in the first place, but in all versions of her story, she arrived in Middle-earth with very little desire to rejoin his forces — but also no desire to return to Valinor. In the aforementioned philological essay, Tolkien chalks this up to pride (not wanting to beg the gods for forgiveness) and revenge. “She burned with desire to follow Fëanor with her anger to whatever lands he might come, and to thwart him in all ways that she could.”

And so, while Galadriel stood against Morgoth, she also very much distanced herself from what I’m going to call Several Centuries of Awful Fëanorian Drama. Her brother was not so lucky, perishing in the dungeons of Sauron, even as he killed his opponent (a werewolf) with his bare hands. (The Silmarillion is… rawer than most folks realize). Still, the gods banned Galadriel from returning to Aman along with all the other Noldor who’d followed Fëanor, and when that ban was lifted for all who helped defeat Morgoth, Galadriel declined to return home. From his notes, it seems Tolkien explored several reasons for this over time, including her own pride, her desire to remain with her husband, or that she was handed a specific ban from returning to Aman for reasons unrelated to Fëanor.

In the age after Morgoth’s defeat, where The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power picks up, Galadriel finally got her dominion. After befriending the dwarves of Khazad-dûm (Moria), she and her followers settled in the forest near its eastern entrance, which became known as Lothlórien. And following Sauron’s betrayal, she was given possession of one of the three Elven Rings for safekeeping, in recognition of her incorruptibility. In the Third Age, she was instrumental in the formation of the White Council, which united the wisest elves, Gandalf, and Saruman, against the growing threat of Mordor, and during the events of The Hobbit, she assisted when the members of the council drove Sauron himself from southern Mirkwood. As Aragorn et al. battled orc armies at Minas Tirith in The Return of the King, Galadriel’s power drove several waves of Sauron’s forces from Lothlórien, and upon his final defeat she tore the dark fortress of Dol Guldur to the ground with her magic.

But none of those dangers compared to the Fellowship’s visit to her realm. Not knowing anything about her story, but in awe of how immensely her power and wisdom overshadowed his own, Frodo offered Galadriel the One Ring. All she had to do was ask, and she could make all of Middle-earth into a dominion that might be her own. The proposal provokes her darkest (and to some, bewildering) moment. Depending on which scraps of Tolkien’s notes you look at, this was either the final test she had to pass for her pardon, or the moment she realized that she had finally faced every challenge worthy of her might, and had no reason not to return to Aman.

‘I pass the test, and remain Galadriel’

GaladrielGaladriel walked out of heaven because she was tired of being a baby and wanted power. She is the only character Tolkien ever created for Middle-earth who desired power simply for the sake of enacting her own will, and yet never became corrupted. According to Morfydd Clark, accessing that unbruised self-confidence was the hardest part of the job.

“The elves in particular,” she told Polygon, “are so physically powerful. A big part of me [...] is that I feel quite physically weak, no matter how fit I become. And so shaking off what that would mean, to be a being that has never felt that they are weak, never felt that they could be overcome. That was a big journey, which at times is quite emotional to imagine, What if I’d never felt any of those things? What comes with that is a fearlessness and a type of arrogance.”

And Clark doesn’t just mean a physical confidence, the kind that makes it to the screen in graceful fight scenes and feats of endurance — although she says that her favorite physical challenge of the production was getting to ride horses for the first time. The actress says she puzzled over how to portray a younger version of an immortal. An elf could be “young” and still centuries upon centuries old — they wouldn’t exactly be more naive than their older selves.

The answer Clark found was: “If they were going to be naive, it would be arrogance. That’s how it would manifest. At some point [Galadriel] talks about how with gaining wisdom, there’s a loss of innocence. So there’s an innocence to her arrogance, which I don’t think is particularly something that I associate with women in our world.”

In Tolkien’s lore, Galadriel has plenty of reason for innocent arrogance. The writer often underscored that she clocked the secret dark hearts of some of Middle-earth’s greatest betrayers — like Fëanor and Saruman — years before their betrayals. And one of the only things we know about the extremely secretive production of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is that Galadriel’s penchant for being right all along is powering her characterization. Rings of Power begins with Galadriel zealously hunting the scattered remnants of Morgoth’s armies, her brother’s death still in the forefront of her mind. She believes that despite the end of the war, there’s still evil lurking out in the world.

But is Galadriel’s hunch correct? Or has she been blinded by centuries of war? Morgoth’s most powerful servant, Sauron, is alive and scheming — most viewers will know that that’s the narrative backbone of the Second Age, and instrumental to Sauron being around for The Lord of the Rings. And when I posed this quandary to showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, they knew exactly what I was getting after. She might be right about Sauron, but this younger Galadriel still has lessons to learn.

“I think she’s incredibly heroic. I love her. I admire her. She’s also making a mistake, left and right [laughs],” said McKay. “And we reckon it’s good to pack a character with that level of fragility and vulnerability and pride.”

“One thing that we like to try to do in storytelling, especially in Middle-earth, is that a lot of times people are collectively right. You have dyads where people are both right and both wrong, and they will sort of share a truth between them,” said Payne. “Both of them are speaking a truth, but they’re speaking one facet of a truth. And by listening to each other, and by working together, they’re going to be able to get to the whole truth. So Galadriel can be both right, but also not perfect. And still be flawed and still have things within her that are incomplete. And by single-mindedly pursuing a goal and tuning out the warnings of, you know, her colleagues and her friends and her king, there may be mistakes that she might make. We’re interested in exploring both her rightness and the things that she has yet to learn.”

ClarkClark had her own take. “I think that Galadriel is not in tune with a community, not just her community of the elves, but community in general. What I love about Tolkien is his obsession and respect for how nobody is an island, and actually any character that is going solo in The Lord of the Rings — there’s a tragedy to it. [Galadriel is] inflicting that on herself at this point. So she’s not going to be getting things right, because everybody’s part of a web in Middle-earth. And she’s trying to extract yourself from it in a way — she’s behaving unnaturally. And I think that that’s when you’re most likely to make mistakes, is when you’re losing yourself.”

But the actress also stubbornly defended her character. “What [other characters have] got wrong is you can’t ever sit back on your laurels with peace, and you can’t ever think that you’ve achieved it.” She referred to a quote from activist Mariame Kaba, “Hope is a discipline,” by way of explaining. “I think Galadriel senses that everyone’s sitting back and relaxing, and even if Sauron wasn’t coming, you have to protect peace constantly. And hope. They’re not things that survive through being inert.”

When readers and viewers meet Galadriel for the first time, it’s in a story where the burden of practicing hope and protecting peace lies most heavily on the shoulders of others, an era when the wise lady of Lothlórien’s role is to maintain her bright borders against encroaching darkness, not to take the fight to darkness itself. For some, the first photos from the set of Rings of Power, featuring Galadriel in full armor and carrying a sword nearly as long as she is tall, surely seemed like a misapprehension of her character.

But as Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel put it in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring, “The world is changed [...] and some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” The Galadriel of Tolkien’s heart, pieced together by his son and others, was a fair and terrible adventurer, a reader of mortal souls, a prideful and learned leader who considered the gods no more or less fallible than her. And a woman who knew exactly who she was, even in the face of the ultimate evil.

“I was playing someone that if they chose a path of evil, the destruction they could cause would be so immense,” Clark mused. “And I think about that a lot. I think that lots of female pop stars, for example, with huge followings. I’m a bit like, Yeah, and you’re lucky that they’re nice, because they literally have an army behind them. And I think there’s something so wonderful about Galadriel that she rejects a type of power that most — well, we know that all the human men of Middle-earth would grab and use to destroy instead of build.”

“Morfydd is the real deal,” McKay told Polygon, with plain confidence. And knowing I’ve only seen the first two episodes, added, “Just wait, she’s just getting started.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will premiere on Amazon Prime with two episodes on Sept. 1 at 9 p.m. EDT/ 6 p.m. PDT. New episodes release each week at 12 a.m. EDT on Fridays/9 p.m. PDT on Thursdays.

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25 days ago
Boston, MA
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The wins, losses and comebacks of Serena Williams’s career

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At age 35, Williams defeated her older sister, Venus, to win her seventh Australian Open title. She later revealed she competed while two months pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter in September 2017. After her maternity leave, Serena climbed back into the top 10. In 2018 and 2019 she lost in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

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27 days ago
Boston, MA
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Stable Diffusion is a really big deal

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If you haven't been paying attention to what's going on with Stable Diffusion, you really should be.

Stable Diffusion is a new "text-to-image diffusion model" that was released to the public by six days ago, on August 22nd.

It's similar to models like Open AI's DALL-E, but with one crucial difference: they released the whole thing.

You can try it out online at (currently for free). Type in a text prompt and the model will generate an image.

You can download and run the model on your own computer (if you have a powerful enough graphics card). Here's an FAQ on how to do that.

You can use it for commercial and non-commercial purposes, under the terms of the Creative ML OpenRAIL-M license - which lists some usage restrictions that include avoiding using it to break applicable laws, generate false information, discriminate against individuals or provide medical advice.

In just a few days, there has been an explosion of innovation around it. The things people are building are absolutely astonishing.

I've been tracking the r/StableDiffusion subreddit and following founder Emad Mostaque on Twitter.


Generating images from text is one thing, but generating images from other images is a whole new ballgame.

My favourite example so far comes from Reddit user argaman123. They created this image:

A simple looking Microsoft Paint style image made of flat colours: a sky blue background, a rough yellow desert in the foreground, a semi-circle black line representing a half dome over five shapes in two shades of grey representing buildings inside the dome. A yellow circle represents the sun in the top right of the image, above the dome.

And added this prompt (or "something along those lines"):

A distant futuristic city full of tall buildings inside a huge transparent glass dome, In the middle of a barren desert full of large dunes, Sun rays, Artstation, Dark sky full of stars with a shiny sun, Massive scale, Fog, Highly detailed, Cinematic, Colorful

The model produced the following two images:

A gorgeous image of a futuristic city under a glass domb, in front of a wind-swept desert. The composition matches the Microsoft Paint input, but everything is rendered in great detail.

A second image, similar to the first but this time the domb is composed of triangle sheets of glass. The composition remains the same.

These are amazing. In my previous experiments with DALL-E I've tried to recreate photographs I have taken, but getting the exact composition I wanted has always proved impossible using just text. With this new capability I feel like I could get the AI to do pretty much exactly what I have in my mind.

Imagine having an on-demand concept artist that can generate anything you can imagine, and can iterate with you towards your ideal result. For free (or at least for very-cheap).

You can run this today on your own computer, if you can figure out how to set it up. This capability is apparently coming to the free web interface next week.

There's so much more going on.

stable-diffusion-webui is an open source UI you can run on your own machine providing a powerful interface to the model. Here's a Twitter thread showing what it can do.

Reddit user alpacaAI shared a video demo of a Photoshop plugin they are developing which has to be seen to be believed. They have a registration form up on for people who want to try it out once it's ready.

A screenshot of Photoshop - a complex image on multiple layers is shown in the background. The user has open a dialog where they have entered the prompt "a dog seating on a path going up in a hill" - with modifiers of "studio ghibli::3", "highly detailed::1", "mang anime::1", "cel-shading::1" and "game characters::1".

Reddit user Hoppss ran a 2D animated clip from Disney's Aladdin through img2img frame-by frame, using the following parameters:

--prompt "3D render" --strength 0.15 --seed 82345912 --n_samples 1 --ddim_steps 100 --n_iter 1 --scale 30.0 --skip_grid

The result was a 3D animated video. Not a great quality one, but pretty stunning for a shell script and a two word prompt!

And there's so much more to come

All of this happened in just six days since the model release. Emad Mostaque on Twitter:

We use as much compute as stable diffusion used every 36 hours for our upcoming open source models

This made me think of Google's Parti paper, which included a demonstration that showed that once the model was trained to 200bn parameters it could generate images with correctly spelled text!

Four images of a kangaroo holding a sign generated by Parti. In the 350M and 750M parameter images the text on the sign is garbage symbols. At 3B parameters it does at least look like words, but is still not correct. At 20B parametecs the sign reads "Welcome friends".

Ethics: will you be AI vegan?

I'm finding the ethics of all of this extremely difficult.

Stable Diffusion has been trained on millions of copyrighted images scraped from the web.

The Stable Diffusion v1 Model Card has the full details, but the short version is that it uses LAION-5B (5.85 billion image-text pairs) and its laion-aesthetics v2 5+ subset (which I think is ~600M pairs filtered for aesthetics). These images were scraped from the web.

I'm not qualified to speak to the legality of this. I'm personally more concerned with the morality.

The final model is I believe around 9GB of data - a binary blob of floating point numbers. The fact that it can compress such an enormous quantity of visual information into such a small space is itself a fascinating detail.

As such, each image in the training set contributes only a tiny amount of information - a few tweaks to some numeric weights spread across the entire network.

But... the people who created these images did not give their consent. And the model can be seen as a direct threat to their livelihoods. No-one expected creative AIs to come for the artist jobs first, but here we are!

I'm still thinking through this, and I'm eager to consume more commentary about it. But my current mental model is to think about this in terms of veganism.

I know many vegans. They have access to the same information as I do about the treatment of animals, and they have made informed decisions about their lifestyle, which I fully respect.

I myself remain a meat-eater.

There will be many people who will decide that the AI models trained on copyrighted images are incompatible with their values. I understand and respect that decision.

But when I look at that img2img example of the futuristic city on the dome, I can't resist imagining what I could do with that capability.

If someone were to create a vegan model, trained entirely on out-of-copyright images, I would be delighted to promote it and try it out. If its results were good enough, I might even switch to it entirely.

Indistinguishable from magic

Just a few months ago, if I'd seen someone on a fictional TV show using an interface like that Photoshop plugin I'd have grumbled about how that was a step too far even by the standards of American network TV dramas.

Science fiction is real now. Machine learning generative models are here, and the rate with which they are improving is unreal. It's worth paying real attention to what they can do and how they are developing.

I'm tweeting about this stuff a lot these days. Follow @simonw on Twitter for more.

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27 days ago
Boston, MA
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NJ real estate: How investors are driving up home prices, rents

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32 days ago
Boston, MA
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