America’s Sweethearts

I’ve written before about the movie America’s Sweethearts. I would like to add to those thoughts, since I’ve watched it a few more times since then. (It’s one of a handful of movies I watch while debugging code because it helps to keep me from getting distracted while I wait for compiles, and because I know it so well it doesn’t distract me from doing the work because I always know what happens next.)

One of the very curious things about the movie America’s Sweethearts is that all of its characters are bad. (For those who are not familiar with it, America’s Sweethearts is a romantic comedy.) The show opens with the information that the titular couple of Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison has split. During the filming of their most recent and now last movie together, Time Over Time, Gwen took up with a Spanish actor and left Eddie. Eddie went crazy and tried to kill them, then retreated to a sort of faux-hindu wellness center and stayed there.

This is recapped fairly early on; the plot of America’s Sweethearts begins with the director of Time Over Time refusing to show the movie to the head of the studio until the press junket, when the press would see it at the same time as everyone else. This causes the head of the studio to panic and re-hire Lee, the studio’s publicist who he had fired as a cost-saving measure, to put together the junket because his talents really do match his salary. The only other major character is Kiki, Gwen’s sister (it’s unspecified who is older; they might even be fraternal twins, which would help to explain shared high school experiences). She’s a mousy creature whose life is mostly taken up pleasing the whims of her famous sister, but she’s played by Julia Roberts so you know that won’t last through the end of the movie.

We now have all of the major characters: an adulterer, a lunatic, an unscrupulous businessman, a wimpy woman who lets herself by tyrannized by her awful sister, a publicist who follows the line which Hercule Poirot’s friends said of him: he would never tell the truth if a lie would suffice.

And what’s really weird is that they’re a loveable cast, and it’s a really enjoyable movie, even though it is not a redemption arc for most of them.

I think that part of what makes it work—apart from the massive charisma of all of the actors, which cannot be understated as a causal element—is that the characters’ vices, while not repented of, are not excused, either.

The movie has something like a happy ending for about half of the characters in it, but it is very fitting because it’s a very small happy ending. The head of the studio gets a movie which has a lot of legal liabilities but which might make enough money to cover them. The publicist has what is probably going to be a successful movie. The adulterer is embarrassed, but she stays with her Spaniard for whatever that is worth. Eddie and Kiki wind up together, but shortly before they decide to give it a try, Kiki prognosticates that it’s never going to work, and she might well be right.

I think that ultimately what makes the movie work is the subconsciously stoic theme that vice is its own punishment, and so successful vice is still punished vice. America’s Sweethearts is all about people who do not deserve their natural virtues—beauty, fame, wealth, power—who are punished by getting to keep them. But—and this is an important but—the movie is so short that one is left with the hope that the punishment may serve its purpose and the people may in time learn to repent.

This may be the formula for all successful movies about vicious people (that is, people who practice vice). At least where they do not repent. Redemption stories are probably better. But if a story about vicious people is not going to be about their redemption, I think the story of how they are punished by success may be the only other option for a good story.

Because good stories need to be true to life.

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

On a twitter thread, I proposed the idea that the main distinction between Science Fiction and fantasy is whether people prefer spandex uniforms or robes:

I did mean this in a tongue-in-cheek way. Obviously the only difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is not the wardrobe. It is curiously harder to define than one would first suspect, though.

Before proceeding, I’d like to make a note that genres are not, or at least are not best considered as, normative things which dictate which books should be. Rather, they are descriptions of books for the sake of potential readers. The purpose of a genre is “if you like books that have X in it, you might like this book”. (The normative aspect comes primarily from the idea of not deceiving readers, but that runs into problems.)

Science Fiction is often described as extrapolating the present. The problem is that this is simply not true in almost all cases. It is very rare for Science Fiction to include only technology which is known to be workable within the laws of nature which we currently know. This is doable, and from what I’ve heard The Martian does an excellent job of this. At least by reputation, the only thing it projects into the future which is not presently known to be possible is funding. This is highly atypical, though.

The most obvious example is faster-than-light travel. This utterly breaks the laws of nature as we know them. Any Science Fiction story with faster-than-light travel is as realistic a projection of the future as is one in which people discover magic and the typical mode of transportation is flying unicorns.

I have seen attempts to characterize science fiction based on quantitative measures of how much of the science is fictional. This fails in general because fantasy typically requires only the addition of one extra energy field (a “mana” field, if you will) to presently known physics. And except for stories in which time travel is possible, the addition of a mana field is far more compatible with what we know of the laws of nature than faster-than-light travel is.

Now, one possibility (which I dislike) is that Science Fiction is inherently atheistic fantasy. This take, which I am not committed to, is that Science Fiction is fantasy without the numinous. Probably an alternative is Science Fiction is fantasy where there is no limit to the power which any random human being can acquire.

What I think might be the better distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy is that Science Fiction is fantasy in which the author can convince the reader that the story is plausibly a possible future of the present. What matters is not whether, on strict examination, the possible future is actually possible. What matters is whether the reader doesn’t notice. And for a great many readers of Science Fiction, I suspect that they don’t want to notice.

In many ways, the work of a Science Fiction writer might be like that of an illusionist: to fool someone who wants to be fooled.

This puts Star Wars in a very curious place, I should note, since Star Wars is very explicitly not a possible future. But Star Wars has always been very dubiously Science Fiction. Yes, people who like Science Fiction often like Star Wars, but this doesn’t really run the other way. People who like Star Wars are not not highly likely to like other(?) science fiction. I personally know plenty of people who like space wizards with fire swords who do not, as a rule, read Science Fiction.

Anyway, even this is a tentative distinction between the two genres. It’s not an easy thing to get a handle on because it’s impossible to know hundreds of thousands of readers to identify the commonalities between their preferences. Even the classification of books into genres by publishers and books stores are only guesses as to what will get people to buy books, made by fallible people.

Murder For Revenge

In broad strokes, there are only a few reasons to murder someone:

  1. Gaining money or other forms of power
  2. To pave the way for love
  3. Revenge
  4. To gain status that properly belongs to the victim
  5. To protect one’s status

These correspond, roughly, to the deadly sins:

  1. Greed
  2. Lust
  3. Wrath
  4. Envy
  5. Vanity

Today I want to consider murder for revenge. It further subdivides into two possible situations:

  1. The murderer is fine with being destroyed in the process
  2. The murderer wishes to suffer no repercussions

The former can make an interesting story (such as the sub-plot in Chesterton’s The Sins of Prince Saradine), but it’s not easy for it to sustain a mystery. The main problem is that the murderer should, by hypothesis, confess. This can, however, be handled.

The first way to handle this is to have the murderer leave. This is hard to work unless he thinks the crime won’t be discovered and so no explanation is necessary. That can be done, though, especially for historical crimes being discovered and investigated only years later.

The second way to handle this is to have the murderer leave a confession before leaving but to have the confession intercepted by someone who wants to use the occasion to murder someone by framing him for murder. This is a very workable sort of plot, though it will be complicated.

The third major way is to kill the murderer before he can confess. This may be the most interesting option, especially if he is killed by the victim. Of course, if the murderer is murdered by his victim, this will not be mysterious unless at least one of them uses a scheme for which he does not need to be present, which is where the interesting part comes from. It is very hard to suspect a dead man of murder. If there is anyone one will leave off suspecting of a crime, it’s a dead man.

In a Cadfael story (Saint Peter’s Fair) Hugh Beringar remarks that babes and drunks are the world’s only innocents. But this is not an exhaustive list. Who is so incapable of harm as a man already dead?

What’s specially interesting about two people who have murdered each other is that with any conniving at all, the author can contrive to have everyone suspect them of being murdered by the same person, and this will be a very strange person indeed to have two enemies with so little in common. It also means that the murder will seem to have been done very craftily when it was in fact done very simply. Or at least one of them will be like that. There are absolutely wonderful possibilities for misdirection, here.

(I really want to write a story like this some day. I probably should first write a story with at least two victims at the start who were killed by the same person, so it’s not obvious, though.)

The other major option, and which is more common because it can far more easily sustain a mystery, is for the one seeking revenge to wish to avoid repercussions for his crime. This provides a simple reason for why he does not confess. It can sustain a mystery with little difficulty at all.

It can, of course, be made far more complex than the simple case. The variation that I suspect is most interesting, or at least that I personally find most interesting, is of introducing the complication of the passage of time. This can either be put between the original offense and the present, or between both the original offense and the revenge, and the present.

Of the two, my favorite is probably the ones where the revenge is recent but the offense in the past. This is probably most classically done with the child who grows up to avenge a parent, but this possibly should be avoided because it is common enough that, these days, the average reader might count the years since the crime in the past and guess the killer simply based on his age.

It comes to mind that an interesting way around that problem might be to give the murderer some scruple in his revenge, such as waiting for the 18th birthday of the vicitm’s youngest child, on the theory that his children should not be punished for the crime of their father. Something like that would throw a wrench into figuring out the culprit by simple calculations, at least.

There are more variations on murder for revenge, but this post is getting long enough that I think I’ll leave them for later. Enjoy writing your murder mysteries about revenge, and God bless you.

Pretty Good Advice

In this view, JP Sears gives some pretty good advice on how become depressed:

It should be noted that he concentrates on the things within one’s control. The death of loved ones, loss of a job, etc. would all work too, but they’re outside of one’s control.

Oddly, fixating on the possibility of them would probably help to get further depressed, then, but he forgets to give the advice of focusing only on what one cannot control.

No one’s perfect, I suppose.

(NOTE, SINCE INTERNET: this is all humor.)

Dragnet

Something I find interesting on occasion is to look up the history of television shows. Television is a very young medium. Though the device itself was invented in the 1930s, the Great Depression and the second World War and its attendant economic privations meant that televisions were not widely owned until the late 1940s. Without an audience, not much was made to broadcast to it. It was, therefore, really the early 1950s in which television got its start.

This makes it easy to research, but also makes the chain of influences fairly short.

Dragnet actually started as a radio drama, starring Jack Webb as Detective Joe Friday. In 1951, it became a television show, with much the same cast as the radio drama, though his partner had to be changed out part way through. This show lasted until 1959. It was later revived in 1967, this time in color. This is the version which I think most people are familiar with, that stars Harry Morgon as Detective Bill Gannon alongside Jack Webb reprising his role as Joe Friday. Certainly it’s the version I’m most familiar with. It lasted until 1970.

There were other versions made, but none with Jack Webb since he died in 1982 (at the age of 62). In 1987 there was a comedic movie starring Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks. It’s almost a parody of the original, though it is not a mean-spirited parody and I can testify that it is a lot of fun. In 1989 there was a short-lived series called The New Dragnet, and in 2003 there was an even shorter-lived revival series called LA Dragnet.

Though Dragnet was not able to survive in the modern world of police procedurals, or possibly just it was not able to outlive its star, Jack Webb, it did have an enormous impact on television. Counterfactuals are impossible to state with certainty, but it seems likely that police procedurals would not have the form they have today if Dragnet had never happened.

Episodes of Dragnet, which are (surprisingly) easily found on YouTube, are interesting to watch. The detectives are in the homicide division, so in a very technical sense the cases are murder mysteries. However, they are not detective stories in the sense of Poirot or Agatha Christie. The detectives do a lot of work, of course, but they don’t really do anything particularly clever. They just keep talking to people until they get enough facts to convict the murderer.

What I find curious—given that I’m a huge fan of detective fiction with genius detectives and write some of it myself—is that, bare-bones as Dragnet is, it still satisfies the impulse to see a mystery solved. This is true of modern police procedurals as well. In both cases, they feel somewhat like empty calories—enjoyable while watching but they don’t really have any substance which sticks with one.

This is not true of the great detective stories. Murder on the Orient Express, Have His Carcase, Saint Peter’s Fair—these stories really stick with one. There are interesting ideas in them to chew on long after one’s read them.

But it’s a testament to the human craving for the solving of mysteries that even Dragnet, which was told in an almost deliberately un-entertaining style, still makes you want to watch to the end to find out what happens, if you watch the beginning. This may partially be a testament to the power of charisma, though. I can watch Harry Morgan in just about anything.

Calories In vs. Calories Out

When it comes to the subject of losing weight—more specifically, reducing excess fat stores in the body—it’s fairly common to come across somebody who puts it like this:

It’s just calories in versus calories out. Thermodynamics says that if you take in more calories than you burn, you’ll store them as fat. If you take in fewer, you’ll burn fat. So weight loss is very simple: just burn more calories than you take in. That’s it. Anything else is just people trying to kid themselves that here’s a magic bullet.

This represents a confusion one sees in many fields: making no distinction between the cause of something and the mechanism of how the cause makes it happen. It is quite true that when somebody stores fat in their body they require energy to make the fat and they can’t also burn that energy and therefore the amount of energy they took in was higher than the amount of energy which they burned. No one, anywhere, disputes this. It’s also entirely uninteresting to the subject of fat gain or loss in people with excess fat.

(NOTE: when talking about healthy people—typically lean athletes—regulating what little fat they have, this simplification is probably accurate. This post is not talking about how a body builder can force his body to levels of fat which are dangerously low, or how an athlete can cut to a lower weight class. Those will almost certainly have to be achieved by simple calorie restriction because they are manipulating a healthy body into going outside of the homeostasis it wants to maintain for optimal health).

The question which is actually interesting to the subject of fat gain or loss is why the body stores energy as fat. And this is where the people who love to talk about calories-in-calories-out show their reductionist colors. Tthey will tell you that since fat cells are energy storage, if you take in more calories than you burn, you will necessarily store them as fat. But they give no reason for this, while there are excellent reasons to doubt it.

The reason to doubt that extra calories eaten can only go to fat is that the human metabolism is a highly variable thing. Though I should clarify what I mean here because by “metabolism” some people mean “resting metabolism”, while I mean “total metabolism”. Our bodies spend calories on a lot of things—walking, talking, maintaining our temperature, repairing our bodies, and other things. Very few of these things are fixed costs. One possible reaction to being in a cold environment is moving more or just burning energy for heat. Another is feeling cold and putting on a sweater. Those do not use the same number of calories over the course of an hour.

Let’s consider a very analogous system: finances.

If a person makes an additional $1000 per month, it is possible that his bank account will grow by $1000/month. It is also possible that he will start eating at expensive restaurants, and his bank account won’t change at all. On the flip side, a person whose income doesn’t change can decide to stop eating out and can grow his bank account with no additional income, merely by cutting expenses. And could do both: he could decide his bank account isn’t nearly large enough, work a second job to bring in an extra $1000, move to a tiny, unheated apartment, and eat nothing but porridge for his meals so that his bank account swells rapidly.

It’s that last part that’s most interesting to the moment, because it’s what seems to be the case in people who are, shall we say, famine resistant. Because there’s a really fascinating question about people carrying excess fat which is rarely asked: why do they get hungry?

Seriously, why is it that a person with excess fat feels hungry when he has plenty of energy at his ready disposal? That’s not how the body normally works. The human body, when working correctly, tries to maintain a homeostasis. Granted, it’s a homeostasis with more fat than a bodybuilder would like, but the body tends to regulate hunger on the basis of energy availability. Or in other words, normal people usually stop being hungry when their calories in is roughly equal to their calories out.

At this point, a word is necessary about what we might call the balloon theory of hunger. Basically, it is the model of hunger where the stomach is a balloon with pressure sensors and hunger is merely the pressure sensors detecting whether there’s still room in the stomach to fit something without literally bursting it.

There is some minor truth to this, in that the stomach does in fact have sensors in it which detect the degree to which it is stretched, but a few years of living as a human being should be sufficient to show this model as the rubbish that it is. Consider a few counter-examples:

  1. Desert. A person can eat until “they’re so stuffed they can’t eat another bite” then the moment desert comes out they can somehow fit enough additional food to fill a grapefruit.
  2. Exercise makes people hungry. Starting a new exercise routine can make one feel ravenously hungry for days. Exercise does not drastically increase the size of someone’s stomach in the first few days.
  3. Teenage boys can out-eat their parents combined. I did it often as a teenage boy. (I was on the rowing team in high school and relatively lean, too.) Teenage boys do not have stomachs which are larger than their mother’s and father’s stomach’s combined.
  4. Tests show that a stomach can stretch to around the size of an entire human torso before bursting from pressure. They’re incredibly expandable.
  5. People who win hot-dog eating contests do not ordinarily eat that much food to feel full.

In short, the theory that being hungry is entirely, or even primarily, about whether your stomach is full is nonsense.

There is also the always-hungry model, which tends to involve some pretend evolutionary biology about humans having evolved in circumstances of constant famine and so we are always hungry in order to pack on as much fat as possible for the next famine which we know is right around the corner.

The main problem with this is that it directly contradicts experience. Americans live in an environment with truly enormous food surpluses always available, and there are plenty of not-fat people who eat until they are not hungry and who nevertheless do not eat the 10,000+ calories that they easily could and this model predicts.

In short, a little bit of experience shows that human beings are not normally ravenous eating machines consuming every calorie that they can get their mouths on.

With these models of human hunger out of the way, the question then comes up and is very pressing: why do fat people get hungry?

It is not the purpose of this post to give the answer to this question. Chief among the reasons why is that there are almost certainly many answers to this question; people’s energy regulation can get screwed up for a variety of unrelated reasons. It is only the purpose to highlight how important finding an answer to this question is for a person who wants to lose excess fat.

(So as to not completely shirk the question, I think that one of the most common is excessive fructose consumption causing insulin insensitivity in the liver, which cascades into general insulin insensitivity, which then disrupts energy regulation, though even that is probably an over-simplification since in general nothing in biology involves just a single hormone. This model, however, at least corresponds well to my own experience of when I gain and lose weight.)

There’s a really good metaphor for the issue in Tom Naughton’s post Toilet Humor: The How vs. Why of Getting Fat. I’m going to give a variant of this metaphor to keep things more pleasant: the kitchen sink.

Suppose that your sink is clogged and filling up with water and about to overflow. It is entirely true that the problem, in an acute sense, is that there is more water going into the sink than coming out of it. If one applied the standard dietary advice to a clogged sink, you would just drastically reduce the flow of water into the sink until the sink was empty.

And it will work if you do that. Cut off the water, and the sink will eventually not be full of water. Evaporation, if nothing else, will see to that.

There’s just one problem: you have the sink for a reason, and that reason is not merely to keep it empty. You want the sink to do work. And the water-in-water-out approach of just cutting off the water in means that your sink can’t do its job. The correct solution to a clogged sink is not to stop washing your dishes. It’s to find out why it’s clogged and clear the clog. Maybe the drain strainer is full. Maybe the pipe is clogged later on. Fixing the problem depends on what the problem is, and there isn’t one problem. But whatever the obstruction in the drain, that’s what you need to fix so that the sink can do its job.

Similarly, a human being almost certainly has things to do besides sitting around not being fat. Many of us are parents. Some of us have jobs. A few of us have friends. Whatever it is, we have more to do than just sitting around not being fat. Just cutting off our food without fixing why we’re hungry when we’ve got excess fat is like just cutting off the water to the sink. Whatever you’ve got to get done in life, you’re going to do a bad job.

Further, people who are constantly hungry tend to be irritable, short-tempered, and lethargic. Even if they manage to fulfill their primary responsibilities well (and they’re probably only doing it passably), they’re going to make life less pleasant for everyone around them. I once had a housemate who was doing a calorie-restricted cut, and I was nearly at the point of begging him to stop because he was just so unpleasant to be around during it.

Interestingly, you can see the same sort of indifference-to-function in sports-medicine vs. regular medicine. If an athlete has a problem where something really hurts when he uses it, the conventional medicine approach is to just stop playing the sport and (I’m exaggerating) get months of bed rest. People into sports medicine know that this is hyper-focusing on a mechanism—in this case, rest—while ignoring that the person is a human being with a life. Sports medicine tries very hard to figure out how to restore athletes to normal function in the context of still living life as an athlete and not considering being wheelchair-bound-but-alive to be an equivalent outcome.

So, in conclusion, the real question when it comes to someone who wants to lose excess fat is not how to get rid of excess fat. It’s how to fix the fact that they’re hungry when they shouldn’t be. If you fix that, then the person will certainly lose excess fat—people who aren’t hungry don’t eat as many calories. But they’ll do it while still being a functional human being.

In short: one should treat the problem, not the symptom. To do that, one must first identify the problem.

The Best Laid Schemes O’ Mice an’ Men Gang Aft Agley

This weekmonthsummer has really not been going the way I hoped it would. I’m going to talk about why that’s OK, but first I want to quote the stanza from which the title comes, because the original poem, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785, is not quoted often enough:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

So, the reason for the strike-through up above is that I began this post in, if my memory serves me, July, and I am now finishing it in August. Between various things, mostly family related, as well as an annual trip to visit my parents, and most things have gotten pushed to the side. About the only thing I’ve managed to do which is creative is work on the second chronicle of Brother Thomas, Wedding Flowers Will Do For a Funeral.

On the plus side, I’ve finished the first draft and, as of the time of this writing, have edited the first 100 pages (actually, 99¼, but the word processor is on page 100). It’s going slower than I would like, of course, but that’s something of a theme, lately.

And just to make life more crowded, I’m finally going back to the gym to lift weights 3 times a week. In the long run, it’s very good that I’m doing it, but it means even less time.

And that’s OK.

I’d really like to be a lot more productive on this blog and on my YouTube channel. I’ve got a notepad of videos to do which is up to about 10 items now. It’s a backlog. And I’ve got tons of blog posts to write. I want to finish reviewing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, I want to review all of the Cadfael novels, and after that, probably the Poirot novels. I want to talk more about mystery writing, I’ve got lots of things to write about theology and philosophy, too.

And, God willing, some day I will.

But it’s that first part that’s really important to keep in mind. It’s our job to do our best; it’s God’s job to figure out whether—and how—we should succeed. Running the world is a big and complex task, and God doesn’t ask of us that we do it. All He asks of us is that we do our best to do what he’s given us to do in the moment.

So, the world frequently doesn’t turn out like we expect. But we can trust that it does turn out for the best.

That’s really all we can ever do: do our best and trust God.

The Two Kinds of Evidence in Murder Mysteries

In murder mysteries, there are two kinds of evidence: evidence which tells the detective what happened, and evidence which can get a practical result from society. The practical result is often a criminal conviction, but it need not be; a wedding being called off, the payment of an insurance policy, or the settling of a will all require similar sorts of evidence.

Of the two, it is the former type of evidence, not the latter type, which is of interest to the reader.

The main distinction between the two types of evidence is not really one of the strength of the evidence, that is, of the level of certainty which it conveys. In fact, one of the common features of murder mysteries is the early presence of highly convincing evidence which will convict an innocent person unless the detective uncovers the truth. No, the distinction is not in certainty. The distinction is, rather, what is required knowledge and understanding is required to apprehend the true meaning of the evidence.

Convenient names for the sorts of evidence of which we are speaking might be complex evidence and simple evidence. Complex evidence requires extensive background knowledge and understanding of human nature. Simple evidence does not; it tells its story plainly. (Using this terminology, we can say that it is common for murder mysteries to, early on, have complex evidence which appears to be simple evidence.)

In order to achieve societal action, such as convicting the murderer in a court of law or getting some other legal effect, one must have simple evidence. However, simple evidence is, in murder mysteries, hard to come by. This is, of course, a selective effect. In the case where the murderer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and the murderer was seen killing the victim by multiple witnesses who know the murderer personally, and the murderer was caught immediately afterwards—these are not the stuff of murder mysteries.

Detective stories have the structure of story-within-a-story: the murder is the interior story while its detection is the outer story. Within the outer story, it is frequently the detective’s main purpose in his investigation to try to uncover simple evidence about the inner story. This makes it curious that his success or failure at achieving this goal is (almost) irrelevant to whether the story is a good story.

An excellent example of this is the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. In it, the daughter of a woman who was hanged for murdering her father, seventeen years ago, comes to Poirot asking him to uncover the truth. She just received a letter from her mother, written immediately prior to her execution but entrusted by lawyers to be delivered on her daughter’s 25th birthday, telling her that her mother was innocent.

Poirot undertakes the investigation and interviews all of the people principally concerned. At the end, he explains how all of the evidence which had pointed to the guilt of the woman’s mother actually pointed to the guilt of someone else. That person speaks alone with Poirot, afterwards, and asks him what he intends to do. Poirot says that he will give his conclusions to the authorities, but that it is unlikely that they will pursue it and very unlikely that they will get a conviction. And that’s fine. It’s a very satisfying ending to the story.

But why?

I suspect that the answer (which may be obvious) is that complex evidence is fun, while simple evidence is not fun. It takes brainwork to understand complex evidence, while simple evidence is too easy to be interesting. What matters in a murder mystery is being interesting, not achieving results. Achieving results is, really, the domain of an action story, or possibly a drama. This is why detectives tend to hand their cases off to the police at the end of the story. It’s best if the tedious work happens off-screen.

But there’s an interesting complication to this.

It is not a good story if the detective (and hence the reader) merely finds out what happens without anyone else learning it. Why this is so relates to the detective’s role within the story. As I’ve said before, the detective is Christ figure: the world has been corrupted by the misuse of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore order to the world through the proper use of reason. So while society need not act, something must be put right. That is, someone beside the detective must learn the truth and be better off for it.

A good example of this is the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle*. It begins with a curious set of coincidences which place the key evidence in front of Sherlock Holmes, and with some investigation he discovers who it was who stole the gemtsone. He invites the man to his room, and he comes. After Holmes confronts him with the evidence, he falls apart and confesses, sobbing. I’ll quote just the last part:

“Get out!” said he.

“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”

“No more words. Get out!”

And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”

Here there are two aspects to the world which Sherlock Holmes has put right, even though he has produced no evidence for a jury. In the first, the man wrongly accused of the crime will not be convicted of it because the principle witness against him has fled. The second is less certain, but the true criminal may well repent of his crime since he’s seen what evil he’s capable of and still has a chance to make his way in society honestly.

This satisfies the role of the detective as Christ figure. In fact, it even has a curious echo (perhaps intentionally) of the story of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, and how he releases her from the punishment for her crime on the condition that she sins no more. Neither is, strictly speaking, a satisfying story, but they have something else to them—the idea that there is something better than justice. That’s a very tricky notion, because mercy should never be unjust—but at least in the story of the Blue Carbuncle, what was stolen is returned, and so justice is at least mostly satisfied in restitution.

Be that as it may, the primary point under discussion is satisfied. Holmes collects complex evidence which tells him (and thus the reader) the tale, and this is the interesting part. Achieving a practical effect from society is of minor concern.

(I suspect that part of the reason why The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle ends as it does is that, though it predates Fr. Knox’s decalogue, it violates rule #6 (“no accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right”). The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is predicated upon a series of accidents, all of which help the detective. If he achieved a practical societal effect, his reputation would benefit by pure chance. By letting the criminal go, he remains in anonymity and so the accidents which help him produce only an interesting set of circumstances.)


*A carbuncle is a red gemstone, most often a garnet, so a blue carbuncle is something of a contradiction in terms. The story suggests it is a blue diamond, though it could be a blue garnet or even a blue sapphire.

Interesting Video On Why Germany Lost World War II

In an interesting video, TIK talks about Germany’s access to oil and oil supplies and why these dictated its actions during World War II, and why they made its downfall all but certain:

It is said that when it comes to war, amateurs think in terms of tactics and professionals in terms of logistics. This is related to the saying that an army fights on its belly, that is, if it’s not fed, it doesn’t fight.

Feeding and watering an army—both men and horses—has been the concern of generals for thousands of years. (Horses were often relatively self-sustaining, since they eat grass, but they do better on grain if you want them to be constantly working.) Thus tactics like burning crop fields during retreat, so as to starve an invading army.

World War II was in many ways the first truly mechanized war, and thus the problem of logistics expanded into the economic sphere. Machines are produced only by a thriving economy, and machines run only on oil. In order to fight an effective mechanized war, one must have a strong economy and lots of fuel.

This, by the way, has strong social implications outside of war. In order to remain in peace, one must have the strength to defeat attackers. In order to do this in the modern context of mechanized warfare, one must have a high-production modern economy. One doesn’t need to be able to produce the weapons of war oneself, but one must be able to buy them. That requires a modern economy, which requires at least much of modern social organization.

Those who want to bring back the good parts of traditional social organization need to understand this well. Whatever form modern society takes, it must be one that powers a modern economy which can power a modern army. If it’s not, it will be short-lived.

Studies That Test Diets And Compliance

I’ve had good results from using an extremely low-carb (i.e. low carbohydrate) diet to lose weight, so I’m highly skeptical whenever a study shows that they don’t do that. There are studies that show that they do, too, in addition to my experience, so something is going on when one has highly conflicting studies. The only thing to do is to actually dig into the studies.

And the thing one finds with many of the “low carb” diets in such studies is that they are frequently quite high carb. “Low carb” will often be defined as less than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day. People who have success eat well under 50 and frequently less than 20 grams of carbohydrate per day. A diet with 5-10 times as much carbohydrate being tested as a “low carb” diet simply doesn’t tell anyone anything useful.

But another big problem one sees is studies which test compliance at the same time they test efficacy. That is, the study breaks people up into groups and tells them what to do, but then records what they do as part of the group that they were assigned to. So if someone in the low carb group eats nothing but pasta, his weight performance will count to the low carb diet average in that study.

There are legitimate reasons for this, but they’re all for medical practitioners. Basically, such studies are useful to know how likely, if you prescribe a diet to all of one’s patients, is one to see results. Great for doctors, useless for the rest of us.

The other problem is that we largely already know what compliance with any behavioral change is in human beings: very low. It doesn’t much matter what you’re talking about, people don’t, typically, change for the better.

Where this is really egregious is where people look at these studies and don’t distinguish between the efficacy of the behavioral change and the degree to which the study told us what we already know about human beings: they don’t comply.

Hell, the compliance rates on taking a single pill a day are far from perfect; just look at all the people one knows who forget the pill from time to time. The compliance rate on 2x, 3x, and 4x pills per day is progressively worse, just from simple observation. Who, who has been proscribed taking a pill 3x per day, actually manages to take it 3x per day for all the days of the prescription?

When this comes to bigger stuff like diet and exercise, a simple and only somewhat inaccurate model is that people don’t comply. So a study which measures compliance + some change will mostly show no effect. But that’s uninteresting for people who will actually change.

Consider other areas of life: lifting weights or running. If you did a study to find out if lifting weights makes you stronger in which you also measured compliance, you’d find out that lifting weights doesn’t make you stronger. If you did a studying measuring whether running makes you a better runner, which also measures compliance, you’d find out that running doesn’t make you better at running. Hell, as long as the study is also measuring compliance, you’d find out that practicing piano doesn’t make you play piano better and taking dance lessons doesn’t teach you how to dance. Because in all these studies, the fact that most people stopped lifting weights, running, practicing piano, and never went to the dance lessons would dominate the results.

Or to put it simply, doing something only has an effect if you actually do it. No kidding.

Which is why what we need are studies which also measure compliance and separate people into groups based on compliance. This does introduce problems. Probably the biggest problem is that it will cost a lot of money because it will require really large groups of people. With 90%+ of people non-complying, you need a ten times larger group of people to study, and that costs a lot of money.

The second problem is that this switches out measuring the efficacy of the diet (or whatever) together with compliance for measuring the efficacy of the diet together with whatever preconditions (genetics, preferences, etc) make one likely to actually stick with it.

However, this is clearly a much more useful thing for an individual to measure. If I’m considering lifting weights, I want to know how much stronger I might get if I can stick with it. If I find I can’t stick with it, I don’t really care what it would do, anyway. And I don’t much care why I can stick with it, either.

If it turns out that only 10% of the population can stick with some diet, then I will consider taking my chances on finding out if I’m in the lucky 10%. Weight lifting works that way, to a limited degree. Everyone can get somewhat stronger, but only a fraction of the population can get hugely strong.

But there’s another issue at play, which has to do with motivation: knowing that something will work if I stick to it makes it vastly more likely that I will stick to it. If I actually believe that there is a causal connection between an action and a benefit, it is much easier to keep doing the action until I get the benefit.

Which is yet another reason that studies which measure compliance as well as an effect are worthless: the study participants didn’t know whether sticking to the plan even had any potential benefit.

So, in short, when it comes to studies showing no benefit to something, always check to see whether it’s a study that’s just telling you that human beings rarely change. It’s not completely worthless, but it’s only telling you what you already know.

Phone vs. DSLR Competition

Over at Linus Tech Tips, they had an absolutely hilarious video where they gave Linus (who is a tech geek) a high end DSLR in a series of challenges, while they gave Brandon (who is a professional photographer and videographer) a pixel 3 phone. It was interesting to see how it turned out, but the main thing is that it was just hilarious all the way through:

The origin of this challenge was Brandon complaining about phone companies saying that one doesn’t need a DSLR any more because their phones are such excellent cameras. He was, apparently, the one who came up with the format of the challenge because of course someone who isn’t a good photographer with a phone will have inferior pictures to someone who is a professional photographer using high end equipment. But there’s another problem, which is people who want to become photographers buying high end cameras instead of learning the craft of photography. So swapping them tested both things at once!

Which is, of course, a horrible way to test things if you’re interested in a controlled experiment, but it is a fascinating way to test them if one is more broad-minded than that. (Having background knowledge of photography really helped to interpret the results.)

Anyway, I strongly recommend watching it if you can find the time, because it’s both enormously entertaining and quite interesting. I just wish that they had showed us more of the pictures taken.

Young Scientist, Old Scientist

There’s a very interesting Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic about a scientist as a young woman and an old woman:

This is remarkably correct, and one sees it all the time. Science is, by its nature, the examination of things which is productive to examine in the way that science examines things.

Speaking broadly, this means that science is the study of things which are easily classified, or can easily be experimented upon in controlled experiments, or the relationships between things which can be measured in standardized units. By limiting inquiry to these things, the scientist can use a set of tools which has been developed over the centuries to analyze such things.

I meant that metaphorically, but it’s actually as often true literally as metaphorically. Scientists frequently use tools which were developed for other scientists; accurate scales, measurements of distance, radio trackers, microscopes, telescopes, etc.—all these things the modern scientist buys ready-made. (This is an oft neglected aspect of how what has been studied before determines what is studied now, but that’s a subject for another day.)

This limitation of investigation to such subjects as lend themselves to such investigation is very narrowing; most interesting questions in life do not lend themselves to being studied in this way. Most answers that scientists come up with are not interesting to most people. In fact, outside of science, the almost only people who study real science with any rigor are engineers. Even the degree to which they study the results of science can be exaggerated; the good old 80/20 rule applies where 80% of utility comes from 20% of science. But, still, it’s very limiting.

This is part of why scientists are so often stereotyped as hyper-focused nerds uninterested and incompetent at the ordinary business of living. The stereotype is actually quite often not true, but this is in no small part because science has become an institutional career in which the science itself is only one part of a scientist’s day-to-day life.

That said, the stereotype exists for a reason: science is just not normal.

There are two ways of dealing with this fact. One of them is to engage in the hyper-focus of science during the day and then to hang up one’s lab coat and focus on being a full human being at night. This is not really any different than a carpenter or a plumber putting away his tools at the end of the day and focusing on all the things in life which are not carpenting or plumbing.

The other way of dealing with this is to shrink the world until one’s narrow focus encompasses it. This is what the comic I linked to at the start of this article captures so very well.

The cobbler should stick to his last as an authority, but it is a tragedy of he sticks to his last as a man.

The Onion: Breaking News

Originally made almost ten years ago, this video of a generic news story still applies as if it were made today (note: rough language not suitable for young children):

It’s a spot-on parody of news stories and their utter vacuity. The basic problem with news as a business is that the world produces important news at whatever rate it feels like, while new publications must publish on whatever schedule they’ve chosen; these days often hourly.

It should be noted that this introduces selection pressures which cause evolutionary changes in the people who present news as a business.

Possibly more interesting, however, is surprise that a ten year old piece of humor should still apply today. Why wouldn’t it? It’s making fun of something human beings do, and human beings do not change very much. There is the minor technological dependency on the particular thing being done, in the firehose of news depends upon technology which permits instant publishing. True, several hundred years ago one couldn’t say “in a desperate attempt to fill 24 hours of programming”.

But even several hundred years ago newspapers had a regular publishing schedule because men become hungry on a regular schedule and must therefore have money with which to buy food on a regular schedule. And several hundred years ago, as today, the world produces important news on whatever schedule it wishes, without regard to the bellies of newspapermen.

To wit, this advice of Thomas Jefferson to a fellow about how to run a newspaper is as true today as it was in 1807, when it was written, and can be adapted with only the slightest changes to television and internet news:

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on. I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The 2d would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The 3d & 4th should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.

14 June 1807 Works 10:417–18

Writing Murder Mystery Endings is Hard

There is no part of writing a story which is truly easy. That said, different sorts of stories have easier and harder endings. This comes from the nature of the story; in some stories the meat of the story is in the main part of the story—or, rather, the reader eats the meat during the main part of the story. Action stories are like this; the meat of the story is the action. When you come to the end, the reader is full and only needs a light desert to finish the meal. That is, one just needs a happy ending which fits.

Murder mysteries, by contrast, delay the meat of the story for the end. There is considerable variation in how murder mysteries are structured—not all of them collect clues in the beginning then gather the suspects together into the accusing parlor for the detective to explain the solution. Many mysteries—often my favorites—make deductions along the way. The mystery unfolds as the story progresses, though often with a final clue that solves the final piece of the puzzle in the end.

But even if the deductions are made throughout the story, they are provisional; what a clue means is rarely certain. All the more so because a clue can generally mean many things. That is, a single clue can be explained by many actions. That one has a plausible interpretation for a clue, considered in isolation, does not mean that it fits with the rest of the story.

It is possible to have various clues which require the murderer to be tall one moment and short the next, striking out in blind rage one moment and coldly calculating the next, trying to disguise the murder as a suicide one moment and trying to frame somebody else the next.

There is, therefore, the moment when all of the deductions, though made earlier, must be put together into one cohesive whole to see if the deductions are compatible with each other.

There’s a good example of this in the Lord Peter Wimsey story Have His Carcass, toward the end of the book. The story told by the clues assembled so far was that of a long-laid conspiracy which involved almost split second timing for the murderer to get from the moment one witness left him to ride hell-for-leather on a horse over the surf, leap upon a rock, slash a man’s throat, leap back upon the horse, and ride hell-for-leather back to his campground with only moments to spare before another witness he could never have predicted would see him. They had timed the actions and it would be, technically, possible. Any given supposition fit the facts immediately next to it, but when told from beginning to end, it simply made no sense. People don’t lay in intricate plots to have to madly dash about for no reason that they could have foreseen. (For those who haven’t read the story, this isn’t the end; there is a twist left to discover that reveals the real story, which does make sense. The detectives find it because they reject the story I just described as too implausible and keep searching.)

Every action is made up of complex parts and simple parts. A story—in this case, the story of the murder (that is revealed within the story of the detection)—can fail either by being complex where it should be simple, or by being simple where it should be complex. It is only by telling the story all the way through that we can see if it has the proper proportions.

Of course, one way this can be difficult in a murder mystery is for the solution to simply make no sense. This can be a problem for some authors, from what I’ve read, but simply can’t be for me because of the way I write murder mysteries. I start, not with the detective story, but with the story of the murder. I write that out as a simple prose story; the motivations, the plan (if there is one), what the murderer did write and what mistakes he made that left clues—all of this gets written out. (To give a sense of detail, so far it has tended to be between 5,000-10,000 words.) Since I start with the story of the murder as one that makes sense, when I finally re-tell it within the detective story it does hold together at least at the factual level and with regard to consistency of character motivations, skill level, height, strength, etc.

But though the way I write mysteries guarantees (as human affairs go) that the solution is free from plot holes, none the less it can still have imperfections as a story. A motive may be insufficient, a killer too cold blooded or not cold blooded enough, the risks taken might be too daring or too safe—my way guarantees that it is at least a coherent story, but it cannot guarantee that it is a good story. Nothing a human being can do in this world can guarantee that one writes a good story.

And here we come to why it is hard to write the endings to murder mysteries. One must, perforce, hold the story of the murder up for examination. But when any work of art is held up for examination, a gap between the perfect thing the author imagined far off and the real thing which he actually wrote becomes apparent. The gap can be bigger or smaller, but it cannot be entirely closed by a fallible human being. To finish a mystery is thus to face this gap, which is painful.

There is no cure for it, one must simply slog through it. As in all things, one must do one’s best and trust God. The only viable alternative is giving up.

(Though, as a note of explanation for many works of art, drugs and hubris can numb this pain enough for an artist to publish. They’re not as good as trusting God, of course, but in this limited respect they will get the job done. This explains why one sees so much of the one, the other, or both, on the part of artists.)