What a First Date Should Cost

On Twitter, I recently saw the following question:

I saw a post saying “Men should spend at least $1000 on a first date.” What ya’ll think?

The answer is, obviously, “no”. At least if that’s denominated in US dollars. But that’s not the interesting part. The correct answer to what a man should spend on a first date is: the price of admission to a museum, zoo, art gallery, or similar. And, as far as possible, during the day.

There are several reasons for this, mostly related to the function of courtship, but some of them are practical, too.

To get the practical reasons out of the way, one wants to make a good first impression on a person in a first date, and people are at their best when they have something to do. Even an excellent conversationalist does better with material to hand, and most people are not excellent conversationalists.

The other practical reason is that museums, zoos, etc. tend to make people comfortable. First dates can be awkward and a setting that will put both people at ease is helpful.

When it comes to courtship, the benefits are several fold. The first is that it is a demonstration of patience on the part of both parties. Marriage requires large amounts of patience; being willing to demonstrate small amounts of patience by being among people, and with a purpose, on a date, helps both to show this to the other. (Also frequently one has to wait for the people in front of one.)

Going to a museum, or to a zoo, or some such place will also inevitably involve some amount of minor inconvenience. How people bear up under minor inconvenience is extremely useful to know in marriage. How people bear up under great inconvenience may be more important, but most days involve minor inconvenience, and if a person handles it badly, that will add up to a lot of problems, over the years.

Zoos, museums, and the like also involve some amount of making joint decisions. If one wants to see the polar bears and the other wants to see the orangutans, the couple will need to work out which to actually go see, or at least the order to see them in. How good people are at making joint decisions—actually working them out and not merely something unsustainable like one always deferring to the other—is extremely valuable in marriage. (I would hope it would go without saying that if a person shows themselves to be selfish and demands to always have their way, this is a huge red flag; in case it doesn’t go without saying—it is.)

A final benefit is that most zoos, museums, etc. are physically large, and large amounts of walking will slightly tire people out. What people are like when mildly fatigued is also very useful to know, as much of marriage will be spent when one, the other, or both are a little tired. When they have young children, it will be spent when both are very tired.

When you sum these benefits up, a first date at a zoo, museum, or the like will work well to show both people whether a second date is worthwhile. It will teach both people a great deal about the other, but under conditions which are pleasant and favorable.

Oh, and while it is cheap in terms of money, going with someone to a zoo, museum, or the like is a significant investment in terms of time and effort. How much a person appreciates that is also useful to know in a marriage, both because effort is more important than money (especially above a certain minimum), and because in any case it is (very frequently) more available in marriage, too.

Family in Star Wars

There’s an interesting complaint about what might be the most famous plot twists of all time: Luke and Leia being brother and sister, and both being the children of Darth Vader. The complaint, which is not entirely illegitimate, is that, though interesting, this also takes a galactic adventure story and turns it into a family feud.

There is, of course, an element of truth to this, but in another way it is actually a mistake. It is not true that everyone is related to everyone else, and by the time of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader, Luke, and Leia are actually somewhat minor characters, with regard to the fate of the galaxy.

This is not as true in A New Hope, though even there, it’s mostly because Leia had been entrusted with the plans to the death star and Luke takes the critical shot which blows up the death star. If one doesn’t pay attention, it’s possible to get the idea that Leia is in charge of the rebellion, but it’s really not the case. Even Vader says as much; he objects to Leia saying that she was on a diplomatic mission for Alderaan by saying “You are part of the rebel alliance, and a traitor” (emphasis mine). She’s not the head of it.

Luke does take a critical role in blowing up the death star, and there’s no getting around that. However, his role fades after this. He spends much of The Empire Strikes Back training on Dagoba, then gets his ass handed to him by his father. (Not literally; it’s actually his hand which gets handed to him, except he doesn’t catch it.) His major contribution to the rebel alliance is to blow up a couple of AT-ATs, which doesn’t accomplish much as the AT-ATs destroy the shield generator anyway. In terms of his importance to the galaxy in this movie, he has none. In Return of the Jedi, it might be argued that Luke trying to save Vader distracted the Emperor, which is why the Rebels were able to destroy the second death star and kill the Emperor, but that’s actually quite unclear. The emperor was not omniscient, and everything had been proceeding as he had foreseen right up until it didn’t. The only thing we really know for sure is that Luke saved his father’s soul. (I will grant that he did help to save the team sent to blow up the shield generator from the ewoks, but for the most part all he did was levitate C3PO so that the ewoks would take his anger seriously; there probably was another way to get them to take C3PO seriously.)

Vader has a very interesting roll in the Star Wars trilogy. On the one hand, he is the apprentice of the Emperor and his right hand man. On the other hand, he only sort-of is even in the military hierarchy of the Empire. In A New Hope he takes orders from Grand Moff Tarkin (“Enough of this pointless bickering. Vader, release him.” “As you wish.”). Even Leia remarks on this, “I should have known I’d find you holding Vader’s leash.”

In The Empire Strikes Back, we are told that Vader is intent on pursuing the rebels as a sort of monomania because he is obsessed with finding young Skywalker. He is free to direct some imperial star destroyers, but not that many. He’s even forced to employ bounty hunters. He is a major character in this movie and a major driver of its events, but The Empire Strikes Back is, on a galactic scale, a very small movie. The rebels seem to be able to fit on a single planet, and not very much in the way of imperial resources have been dedicated to hunting them down at this point.

In Return of the Jedi, Vader has an even smaller role. He shows up at the new Death Star to oversee its construction. Other than that, he’s present when Luke surrenders and the Emperor tries to tempt Luke to the dark side. In galactic terms, he basically does nothing.

Leia’s ark is somewhat similar to Luke’s, though in a different direction. She starts out smuggling plans to the death star in A New Hope. In The Empire Strikes Back she’s clearly important, but at the same time doesn’t seem to be in charge in a highly practical sense. She spends most of the movie being chased aboard the Millennium Falcon. On a galactic scale, big whoop. In Return of the Jedi, she joins the special ops team led by (now general) Han Solo. The team does important work, but Leia is only a small part of that work, and not really critical to it.

So, when we really consider it, yes three major characters from the first movie turn out to be closely related to each other, but the curious thing about this is that while they loom large in the story, it’s because the story zoomed in and wasn’t so big. After A New Hope, no one in the Skywalker bloodline did anything of any real galactic importance, at least that would not likely have happened without them, and shortly afterwards.

Which is, actually, fine. The truth is that it’s people who matter, not nations or empires or republics or even rebellions.

I think that it was a mark of brilliance on the part of George Lucas that it was Lando Calrissian who fired the shot that destroyed the second death star, and with it, the Emperor. He wasn’t even in the first movie. This is, indeed, what life is often like. Most of the time, people only make one big contribution, and after that they tend to only help the next guy who makes the huge accomplishment. And Lando wasn’t even a major character in the second or third movies. He wasn’t in the movie poster for The Empire Strikes Back and barely made it into the poster for Return of the Jedi. And yet, he’s the guy who destroyed the second death star.

Life is often like that.

Empire Strikes Back Changed Star Wars

On Twitter I recently saw Misha Burnett say that The Empire Strikes Back was probably the movie which ruined sequels for him.

In isolation, Star Wars had a triumphant ending. The kid from the boondocks rose to the occasion and became a hero. He showed himself worthy in the eyes of the tough kid and the pretty girl and the wise old man, and he did something that would have made his father proud. Empire took all that away from us. As the first film in a trilogy (or film number whatever in a series) the story of Luke Skywalker goes from being a boy becoming a hero to a naive recruit becoming just another soldier. The final scene of Star Wars is a recognition of a hero who has saved the galaxy and won the admiration of the beautiful space princess. The final scene of A New Hope is just a bureaucrat entering a commendation into a personnel file. And that is why I don’t like series fiction. In a series, there are no happy endings because in a series nothing ever ends.

This is a very interesting perspective, and in one sense I think that he’s right. What’s really curious is that the reason that he is correct is also why anyone remembers Star Wars well enough to make this observation.

If you just consider Star Wars (later retitled to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) on its own, it’s a fun popcorn flick and possibly the second summer blockbuster after Jaws. It’s the basic Campbellian “hero’s journey,” which is fun but not very interesting. It’s not very interesting because it’s only a very narrow slice of life.

What happens in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is that Luke has to deal with the fact that life isn’t over until you die, even if you accomplish something big. At the end of A New Hope, they defeated the Empire’s super-weapon, but didn’t defeat the Empire. And it’s true that there is always more work to be done. It’s in The Empire Strikes Back where we find out whether the seed fell on rich soil and will yield one hundred fold or whether it fell on rocky soil and sprung up quickly but then withered quickly when the sun came out because it had no root.

In A New Hope, there is a sense in which Luke got the girl. In Empire Strikes Back, we see the much more interesting action of Luke giving up the girl for a higher calling. Then in Return of the Jedi we see, after Luke’s rigorous monastic training, his self-sacrificing love saves his father’s soul. Luke went from a kid who wanted to grow up to an actual adult who had adult adventures.

Another way of looking at it is that look progressed from natural goods to supernatural goods. At the end of A New Hope, we see Luke bathed in glory. At the end of Return of the Jedi, we see Luke alone, burying his father who he alone knew the fate of, then joining the others but even there apart, having a religious vision which showed him the deeper reality that makes the celebration good, but only a small good.

If Star Wars had remained Star Wars instead of becoming A New Hope, it would have been forgotten as one among many stories of someone getting started in life. This is the adventure movie equivalent of the romantic comedy which ends with the couple getting married. (Or, if anyone told such stories, of a man becoming a priest ending with him being ordained.) The Star Wars trilogy is the far more difficult and thus far more unique story of describing adults. We see a working marriage in Han and Leia—fighting together through suffering and pain for the sake of something besides themselves—and we see a living priesthood in Luke.

Ultimately, in life, it’s cool to see the seed germinate, but all sorts of seeds germinate. It’s the seeds which turn into fruitful plants which stay with us.

(This, by the way, is why most sequels suck—instead of telling the different story of a seedling turning into a plant, they just reset everything and try to tell the story of a seed germinating again. That’s really when all of the progress of the original story is lost.)

Oh, and even considered in the trilogy, the end of A New Hope is a whole lot of people celebrating the two men and a wookie who just saved their lives. Princess Leia doesn’t become a bureaucrat just because she eventually stops clapping and gets back to the rebellion she was leading at the beginning of the movie and which clearly wasn’t over at the end of it.

Video Conference Call Parody

From the same people who brought us Hotel Inn, we have a video conference call in real life:

Amusingly, despite having worked from home for over 10 years, I’ve never done a video call for work. It’s funny because in theory they should be superior, but I can count on a single hand the times I’ve been on a conference call at work and wished that we had video to go with the audio.

One tip I can give about conference calls over the phone for anyone new to them is to invest in a high quality set of headphones that puts sound into both ears. It was way easier to understand people when both ears are hearing the same thing and your brain can process what it hears in the way it’s used to. The quality is important, too, because if there is no distortion on the audio, it’s much easier to tell what people are saying. This applies not just to the fundamental frequency which their vocal cords are producing, but also to the higher frequencies produces by the mouth (called “formants”) which help to distinguish sounds like “ba” “ta” and “da” or “eh” and “ee”. A high quality speakerphone (which can do full duplex) will work, too. Cheap speakerphones are almost worse than nothing, though.

Plastics, Then and Now

I recently heard a song from the very late 1970s in which plastic was used as a synonym for “phony”. This made me remember how in my early youth, plastic was generally (though not exclusively) used as a cheap replacement for better quality materials. While at the time of this writing (2020) it is possible to find cheap things made of plastic, it is by no means the case that plastic is merely a cheap alternative. Often, these days, plastics are a superior alternative. PeX pipes are better and longer-lasting than copper pipes. Plastic pipes are strongly preferred to metal pipes for gas lines buried beneath the ground. I’ve got more than a few glass-reinforced nylon gardening tools and prefer them to metal ones. What is commonly called “carbon fiber” is commonly an epoxy plastic reinforced with carbon fibers, and it may be the pre-eminent high-tech material of our day.

It’s interesting to trace the factors which went into plastics becoming frequently superior materials, because it wasn’t just one thing. The introduction of new plastics, such as more advanced epoxies, clear polycarbonates (possibly better know as Lexan), and PeX had a significant impact. They enabled all sorts of new uses for plastics that hadn’t been possible before, and in some cases enabled new sorts of things. Bulletproof glass, for example, is frequently made as a laminate of glass and polycarbonate, the glass giving hardness and the plastic shatter-resistance. That’s very hard to do, in an optically clear way, without plastics.

Another advance in plastics was the development of economical composite plastics. The most famous composite is, of course, fiberglass, though not far behind it is carbon fiber. Another great one that’s been in common use for 10-20 years now is glass-reinforced nylon. Almost as strong as low-grade steel, it is far more rigid and doesn’t rust—it’s great for gardening tools. More generally, composite materials have made for all sorts of things both strong and light. Ladders, camera tripods, bicycles, shovels—anything where one wants weight and strength, it is usually the case that the cheap one uses metal and the good one uses composite plastics. (To be fair, there are some very advanced aluminum alloys, these days, though.)

Another improvement to plastics was simple experience with the making of things out of plastic. The making of things out of plastic is as much an art as a science. The exact temperatures used in injection-molding plastics has an enormous impact on the quality of the resulting part. In the 1970s and 1980s, widespread injection molding of plastics was near its infancy. Worse, since all it was fit for was making the cheapest stuff possible, there was not much money or incentive to make the stuff better. Eventually, however, people learned how to do it. How to design stuff made of injection-molded plastics was another area of improvement, with the right thicknesses, reinforcements, etc. being learned through experience as well.

To my mind the most interesting advancement in plastics, however, has been learning how to make them in ways that go beyond the chemical formula. A good example of this is how polyester went from being an awful but cheap replacement for silk in the 1970s that felt akin to wearing a garbage bag to a vastly superior fabric for athletic clothes. These days, if you’re going to do something that will make you sweat, you will be far more comfortable in a wicking fabric, which are mostly made of polyester. The trick is that when making the polyester strands, instead of making them thick, so that one is almost making the cloth out of fishing line, one makes the plastic strands incredibly thin. These are then spun together much like natural fibers, and produce a fabric which is light weight, breathes well, and tends to pull moisture away from the body and allow it to evaporate on the surface. On the flip side, making polyester in very thick sheets has created its use for things like unbreakable drinking glasses. Admittedly more prone to scratching than glass is, they never shatter when you drop them and they are much better insulators, helping to keep the drink at whatever temperature it started at.

Probably the best example, however, is Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene, sometimes sold under the brands Dyneema or Spectra. As a super-quick background, if you don’t know it, plastics are polymers, which means that they are a chain of simpler molecules known as monomers. These monomers are frequently liquids. The way plastics are synthesized is from a monomer stock, with a chemical reaction catalyzed by a catalyst that combines the monomers into chains, which form solids. Polyethylene comes in varieties, based on how many monomers are in the (typical) polymer chain. Low density polyethylene has a few hundred, and they tend to be in branched chains that don’t stick together well. This is the sort of plastic one finds commonly in grocery store bags. High density polyethylene has (typically) 700-1800 monomers in a polymer molecule, and arranged in much straighter lines, which stick together better. This is the plastic one finds in things like soda bottles. Ultra high molecular weight polyethylene has anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 monomers in a polymer molecule. It has greater tensile strength than steel (by weight), similar abrasion resistance, similar friction to Teflon, and is highly chemically resistant to corrosion from acids and alkalies. It’s truly amazing stuff. And what’s really interesting is that (one of the more common forms) is made with a metal spinneret, in a matter not entirely unlike the way a spider spins its silk from its spinnerets.

In the early and mid 1900s, chemistry got most of the glory when it came to advances in technology, bringing us wonderful new materials. In the later half of that century, it turned out that chemical formulae were only a small part of the story. How you put things together is at least as important as what you put together. It’s an interesting lesson, not in the least because metals were often seen as so superior to biological materials, but it turns out that our best materials are often made by imitating biological materials.

Why Dorothy L. Sayers Stopped Writing Lord Peter

I’ve never seen a coherent account written down of why Dorothy L. Sayers stopped writing Lord Peter when she did. There are plenty of bits and pieces, of course, but I’ve not seen them organized into a coherent account, so I will endeavor to do so here.

The last piece of hard evidence that I know of was an essay she wrote about Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame, first published in October of 1937. Presumably Ms. Sayer’s chapter in it was written not long before, as she quotes from Busman’s Honeymoon, also published in 1937. Though, to be fair, Busman’s Honeymoon was originally a play which came out in 1936. In this chapter she says that she is often asked if Peter’s career will end with marriage, and she says (with some regret) that she does not foresee Peter’s career ever ending while she is still alive. How is it, then, that no more Lord Peter was forthcoming?

Actually, it’s not quite true that none was. After Busman’s Honeymoon, three Lord Peter short stories were written. Striding Folly and The Haunted Policeman were published in something called Detection Medley (I do not know whether that is a magazine or a book, though I would guess a magazine) in 1939. The short story Tallboys was written in 1942, though only discovered and published in 1972. But why were there no more novels?

There was supposed to be. In 1936, she began work on the novel Thrones, Dominations, which was to explore the married life of Harriet and Lord Peter, in part by contrasting it with other marriages. She never got more than about six chapters into it. One theory, which I find compelling, is that the abdication of King Edward VIII so that he could marry a devorcée threw a wrench into Ms. Sayer’s plans because this new environment would cause the book to be read very differently than she had intended. It is very believable to me that she would find the whole thing a mess and need some time to sort it out, and the more she tried to sort it out, the more of a mess it became while she was still trying to salvage the original form. And unfortunately, she didn’t have all that much time to sort it out.

England entered World War II in September of 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. This was three years after she had begun Thrones, Dominations, but with Gaudy Night having been such a turning point in adding depth to her characters and Busman’s Honeymoon having been a strong continuation of that, it’s believable to me that she got bogged down by the more difficult task of making drama with a working marriage that needs to remain a working marriage at the end and thus cannot materially alter. The thing is doable, but it is far from easy, which is why most people don’t attempt it. Once World War II came, Ms. Sayers put down Lord Peter, except from some wartime propaganda to bolster morale (letters ostensibly from the Wimsey family about wartime conditions) and the short story Tallboys which wasn’t even published until after her death.

I should note, in passing, that Tallboys is not a bad story, though it’s really not much of a mystery. It explores, though briefly, Lord Peter and Harriet as parents, by contrast with a prig staying with them for the summer who is vocally against disciplining children, especially physically. The mystery is simply who stole Mr. Puffet’s peaches off of the peach tree in his garden, which Lord Peter does with some investigation and a clue furnished by his 8 year old son about another child’s missing fishing apparatus. It is worth reading, especially for a few more glimpses into Harriet and Lord Peter, though the two barely interact with each other in the story. Unlike The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, it’s not really a story that one would read merely for itself. Basically, it’s not entirely shocking that the story remained unpublished until after the authoress’ death.

It makes sense that in England in World War II, Miss Sayers found it impossible to write Lord Peter. The war was not a universal block to writing—Agatha Christie kept writing mysteries throughout it—but it makes sense that to Ms. Sayers, who had chafed under the constraints of writing detective fiction which was not also significant, in a literary sense, the pressures of World War II were overwhelming. How could she write a Lord Peter story during World War II without it being about what’s going on, but at the same time with things being uncertain and always changing, how could she write a Lord Peter story in that time period and be sure conditions would be the same when it was published as when it was written? She had already been bitten by this once with Thrones, Dominations and the abdication of the King.

So much for Lord Peter during the war, but what about after it? Dorothy L. Sayers lived for twelve years after the resumption of peace in England. From what I’ve read, though I can’t at present remember where in order to cite it, post-war England was just a very different place than inter-war England, and Lord Peter was a creature of the inter-war period. This was so in a number of ways; his defining characteristics were largely from the first world war, in 1946 he was now fifty six years old, and as the parent of several children and (with the plan to have Lord Saint-George die in the war and Gerald to peg out as well) with heavy responsibilities, his time would not be his own to run around investigating crimes in the same way as it used to.

This last part would not be so much of a problem if the goal was merely to preserve the character’s function in the story, but it would be a rather large problem with the humanization of Lord Peter that happened in the last few novels. In the end, I suspect that it was precisely the determination to make Lord Peter a fully human character that made Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon such great books which also made them the last books. The main concerns of the prime of Lord Peter’s life—his mid fifties—would be at odds with him being a detective, and moreover are not the sort of thing which lend themselves well to novels. Novels are a concentration of life; they are about moments which symbolize much larger patches of life. Simply put, novel-worthy events really should not happen to a successful man in his mid-fifties. They may happen to those around him, drawing him in to such a novel. He should have his life sufficiently well figured out at this point that he has fairly little personal growth to do.

That last point would not be generally fatal; it was not fatal to any of Agatha Christie’s detectives. Poirot kept detecting his whole life, and Miss Marple started detecting in her old age. Both were stable people who were swept into the troubles of others. Lord Peter got into detection because it was one of the few things which drew him out of the shell he grew in the shock of the first world war. I do not mean that this could not have been overcome, but it would have been difficult to overcome. Lord Peter novels almost entirely consisted in Lord Peter sticking his nose into other people’s business. The one major exception to this is Clouds of Witness, and even there it was, technically, his brothers’ business. People came to Poirot because it was his job; he hung out a detective shingle, as it were. To write Lord Peter mysteries in his fifties and beyond would require people to come to Lord Peter, since Lord Peter should no longer be seeking these problems out. I can say from experience that stories in which people seek out a detective are very different stories from ones in which a detective seeks out the problem; the structure of them is different. Someone must already have suspicions; something grave must be at stake to bring in a stranger. In short, to have kept writing Lord Peter stories after the second world war would have required significantly changing what a Lord Peter story was. I do not say that Ms. Sayers could not have done it. All I am saying is that it makes sense why she did not, in fact, do it.

When 2+2=5

There has been a really weird… phenomenon, I think mostly on Twitter, where some people referred to 2+2=4 as a basic, incontrovertible fact, and some other people have been invoking higher mathematics to say that sometimes 2+2=5. Since I’ve got a master’s degree in math, I thought I might as well explain what’s going on, and when 2+2=5.

To get an obvious point out of the way so as to avoid misunderstanding, in normal conversation, when people talk about 2+2=4, they are clearly referring to the natural numbers under one of the the ordinary definitions of addition (such as under the peano axioms, where addition is combined succession). Given that set and that operation, 2+2 equals 4, always, no exceptions.

Where higher level mathematics comes in is that a mathematician is free to consider any set whatsoever, and to define any operations on it that he wants. Most of these sets and operations won’t be interesting, but they will be valid. Let me give you an example of such a set with such an operation, so you can see what I mean.

Let us define the set F, such that F={2,5} (that is, F has two elements, one called “2” and the other called “5”). Let us define an operation on F×F→F (the cross product of F, mapping to F), called +. It is defined such that + of any two elements in F is the element “5” in F. Thus, 2+2=5. Under this definition, it is also the case that 2+5=5 and 5+5=5.

OK, so we now have a set F and an operation + such that in F under + as we’ve defined it, 2+2=5. Whoohoo. This is obviously a completely uninteresting set and operation. There’s nothing to say about it. There’s no reason one would ever want to actually define it, other than as a joke. (There is a certain similarity, here, to the classic set of outcomes to a coin flip, “heads I win, tails you lose”, if that is of any interest.)

But this is it. It’s not some great truth of higher mathematics, it’s a trivial side-effect of what is doable in higher mathematics which has generalized the more common mathematics.

I should note that there are very interesting sets and operations to define. For example, given a prime number m, the set of non-negative integers less than m, with addition defined to be addition modulo m, is quite interesting. (For those not familiar, modular arithmetic is basically doing arithmetic and if the result is larger than the modulus, you keep subtracting the modulus until it isn’t. Thus (2+6) % 7 = 1, since 2+6=8, but 8 is bigger than 7, so we subtract 7, and 8-7=1. You can also define modulus in terms of remainder after division.) These are quite interesting because the operation we’ve defined as + is closed, so every number has an additive inverse. It would take too long to explain why that’s interesting, but the short short version is that it’s the basis of many cryptographic algorithms, including some of the most widely used public key cryptographic algorithms like RSA which underly most encrypted web traffic.

Thus I hope it’s clear that it is not the case that higher mathematics is all uninteresting. It is only that the abstractions which are used in higher mathematics have boring side-effects. This is no different from the oddity of “Buffalo” meaning (1) an animal, (2) a city in NY and (3) to confuse someone allowing one to claim that “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo” (meaning that buffalo from the city of Buffalo confuse buffalo from the city of Buffalo) is a perfectly valid English sentence. It is, but this is, at most, an amusing accident. It doesn’t mean that English is stupid, nor that people who study language are stupid. It’s just that complex things occasionally have odd quirks. What is true of the English language is also true of higher mathematics.

And none of this means that the people who say, “well, actually, sometimes 2+2=5…” aren’t intentionally missing the point.

In closing, let’s never forget the point in this XKCD comic:

The Problem of Thor Bridge

The Problem of Thor Bridge was first published in 1922, making it one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine and towards the last of the Holmes stories published anywhere. (Only ten Holmes stories were published after, the last in March of 1927.)

By this time, other detective stories were well underway. Dr. Thorndyke had been solving cases for fifteen years, Father Brown had been solving cases for twelve years and Poirot for two. I don’t know whether Sir Arthur ever read any of these stories, or to what degree they influenced him. It seems possible, though, as this is one of the only Holmes stories in which there is a ingenious murder device, that is, with a clever and unusual method of committing murder. Far more common in Holmes stories are fairly ordinary means of committing murder that only left a few clues behind. (As well, there are plenty of non-murder cases entirely. Possibly the majority—I haven’t counted.)

Technically all the villain got away with, in the story, was self-murder, and merely attempted to murder the woman she hated by setting the scene to look like murder and framing her rival. It was still a very clever and original technique for murder.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Mrs. Maria Gibson was jealous of miss Grace Dunbar, the governess of her children, because her husband had fallen in love with Miss Dunbar. Mrs. Gibson made an appointment with Miss Dunbar for a certain time in the evening and had Miss Dunbar confirm it with a note. After Miss Dunbar came, Mrs. Gibson insulted her until she ran away. Once Miss Dunbar was safely out of earshot, she tied a heavy rock, with a long piece of twine, to a gun, and shot herself, with the note clutched in her other hand. When she fell dead, the rock pulled the gun over the edge of the bridge and into the water below. The final piece of evidence against Miss Dunbar was a duplicate gun, planted in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe.

The absence of the gun was very strong evidence against suicide, and the timing selected gave most people, except for Miss Dunbar, an alibi for the time of death. It’s quite clever.

I find it curious that this means of murder has been copied so little. I couldn’t think of any examples, and the Wikipedia page mentions only two TV shows which have borrowed the idea, one CSI in an episode titled Who Shot Sherlock? The other is a Murder, She Wrote episode from the eighth season titled To The Last Will I Grapple With Thee.

I watched that episode of Murder, She Wrote, as I didn’t remember it. It’s a good episode, though a bit strange because most of the cast are Irish immigrants; most of the cast except for Jessica Fletcher and the Police Lieutenant speak with an Irish brogue. It’s one of the episodes set in New York City when Jessica is teaching classes as some university. There’s an Irish ex-policeman who moved to America to start a new life, with his adult daughter, and he’s pursued by a career criminal from Ireland, with whom he had a long history including having tried to win the hand of the same woman, who tries to frame the ex-policeman for his murder. He uses a weight on a string tied to a heavy weight to hide the gun in the open cavity of an unfinished wall, but Jessica spots the marks the gun made on the wall and deduces what happened. It turned out that the career criminal had an inoperable brain tumor, and since he had so little time left, he decided to make one last attempt to get back at his old enemy.

He is explicitly likened to Ahab in Moby Dick, and a part of Ahab’s final speech is quoted. It’s worth quoting in full (if you haven’t read Moby Dick, Ahab had dedicated his life to veangeance against the white whale, who has just rammed Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, and the ship is sinking).

I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

The most famous of the lines is, of course, “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”. (It was also quoted very well by the dying Khan, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Khan self-destructed his ship to try to kill Kirk. Ricardo Montalbán was a good actor.) You wouldn’t think that Murder, She Wrote could pull this sort of true drama off, but somehow it did.

I’ve never seen CSI and have no intention of seeing it, so I can’t comment on it, but I find it curious that the only place this murder device has been used was in long-running TV shows, which have a huge demand for material, and only after many years. And in the Murder, She Wrote episode they played somewhat fast and loose with the wall having an open cavity in it. They never really showed us that it had that feature.

I wonder why this is. Is it just that copying the greats feels cheap? But copying the greats is usually the best strategy for a writer, at least while making it one’s own. Mediocrity borrows, genius steals, and all that.

Perhaps it’s just that the disguised suicide of The Problem of Thor’s Bridge is so recognizable? If a body was found on a bridge with a chip in the stonework, a modern audience might scream if the detective does not immediately dredge the lake or stream for the gun. Yet, I have not seen even variants of this—murdering someone and then dropping the gun over a bridge with a rock on a rope to disguise the murder as suicide-disguised-as-murder. With modern materials one need not even use a rock a a counterweight. Elastics, springs, and other things would expand the range of hiding places for a murder weapon. It is, at least, an interesting direction to explore.

What Bad Guys Get Right

Recently, I wrote about Writing Villains and Satanic Banality and Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys. In the latter, I mentioned an annoying habit some writers have where they mangle bad guys thinking that they’re good guys into bad guys actually being good guys. This leaves them with the problem of coming up with who the real bad guy is, and they usually do a bad job at this since the real bad guy’s motivations and actions are (typically) an afterthought. The way I put it, when explaining how the good guy was convinced that another good guy was actually a bad guy, was:

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

I want to go into a bit more depth on why the bad guy killing three fourths of the world to drive a stock price up by fifteen percent makes no sense despite the thing making a bad guy a bad guy being a fundamental error about what is good. Or, in other words, I want to discuss what it is that bad guys get right. Having them get the things wrong that they would get right is as bad as having them get nothing wrong.

The key to knowing what mistakes a villain will necessarily make and those he would never make comes from knowing which other beliefs about the world the villain will hold at the same time as he is considering his fundamental mistake. I probably need to pause here to explain what I mean.

When a person makes a mistake about the world, they will inevitably believe something else which contradicts that mistake. That is because there is only one completely consistent set of beliefs about the world—the correct ones. But a person who makes a mistake is unlikely to make all of the mistakes required to be completely consistent with that mistake; in general that would involve believing all sorts of weird things, like dogs not existing or trees being a figment of one’s imagination. For those who have not studied logic, there is a problem that immediately arises: anything follows from a contradiction. What this means is that if you believe two contradictory things, you can logically derive, through entirely valid logic, any conclusion that you want. You can, but the thing is: people don’t actually do that.

There are various ways to work around the problem that anything follows from a contradiction (I discuss one of the more common ways in my post Kant’s Version of Knowledge), but they all have the basic feature that the world becomes fractured to the person who believes the contradiction. The fracture lines are the contradictions. On one side of the contradiction, the person believes a fairly consistent set of beliefs which they only apply when that truth value of the contradiction is relevant. On the other side is another fairly consistent set of beliefs, many of which contradict the first one, which are only applied when the other side of the truth value is relevant. It is the selective application of universal worldviews which is how the person avoids having to deal with the contradiction.

Let’s get back to our hypothetical bad guy who would do anything to raise the price of his company’s stock. His fundamental error is that he takes the price of his company’s stock to be a much greater good than it is. When he is worshiping at the altar of the stock market, he sets the value of human life at zero, or close enough to that. So why is killing three fourths of the population off not something this villain would do? Because it would cause the price of his company’s stock to plummet in the long term. When thinking about the exaggerated value of a stock price, the villain would certainly include those things which are consistent with valuing a stock price, and knowledge of what raises and lowers a stock price most certainly are compatible with exaggerating the value of the stock price. No one would worship the price of stock but ignore what actually affects the price of stock. In fact, his worship of stock prices would lead him to know better than most men what makes stock prices go up and what makes them go down.

There are two things that affect the value of stock more than the performance of the individual company. They are, roughly in order of importance:

  1. General demand for stock
  2. Market stability

If three fourths of the population die off, markets will be horrifically unstable. This will push what investors remain away from the stock market and into things with more stability, like gold. But in our apocalyptic scenario, and more to the point, if three fourths of the population of the world die off, there won’t be many people left to buy the stock and most of them will be putting all of their money into surviving the post-apocalypse hellscape, not into stocks, if the stock market were even to survive.

If you were to ask anyone, “would killing three fourths of the population of the world off be good for the price of a stock, any stock?” If they were at all knowledgeable about stocks, they would answer “no”. The more knowledgeable, the faster and more emphatic the answer would come. If you found a man so twisted by over-valuing the price of the stock of a company for which he works, he will answer your question before you’ve even finished asking it, since you are causing him to think about the thing which is to him the most painful in the world—the price of his company’s stock dropping like a rock.

None of this in any way contradicts that, at least when he’s thinking about his true love—stock prices—he would set the value of human life near zero. He might not care whether men live or die, but he would care very much what those worthless men would pay for his stock. Something that kills off a few people, he would not mind at all. Something that kills off enough people to affect the markets, he would not give a hearing to.

Now, to fully consider the nature of the fractured mind that results from moral error, none of this means that the villain would not care about the lives of people he interacts with in ways that do not affect stock prices. When that beloved subject is sufficiently far from his mind—and no one can concentrate on one thing forever—he will, mentally, live in a very different world. He will live in a world in which people have value apart from what they will pay for a stock. He might be quite fond of the person who makes the best smoothies at his favorite juicery. He might be quite fond of his wife, or children, when he is home and not working; he might be a dog lover when he is on vacation. He might be strongly in favor of welfare for the poor, when he gives them a thought, at a party.

None of these things are required, but they are all entirely realistic. I nearly said “consistent,” which they would not be. They would be a highly realistic inconsistency, though.

The final thing required, to understand this mentality, is to understand what happens when conflicts do arise between the two worldviews. What happens is that one will win, but it will very rarely win completely. The victory will look like a subordination of the less dominant worldview to the more dominant worldview. But to understand what this subordination will look like, it’s important to bear in mind that the mistake is real and thus the thing which is regarded with exaggerated value really is regarded as having that value. In our example, the villain really does believe that his company’s stock price is of truly enormous importance, far beyond individual human life. When the world view where the person who makes his favorite smoothie contradicts, such as the person being put out of work by a corporate merger, his love for the smoothie maker will subordinate to the value of the share price. That is, he will make out some way that this suffering has value, and that value given by the increase in share price.

Here, if one was writing this character, some knowledge of how corporations actually work would be quite valuable. Unfortunately, writers (especially Hollywood writers) seem to live in an almost perfect ignorance of the stock market, apart from having heard a few terms and know that stocks are bought and sold. There are only two ways in which the price of a company’s shares actually benefit the company, and only of them actually benefits the company. The first is that the company can raise money by creating new shares to sell (diluting the value of the existing shares, but in theory it being worth it to existing shareholders because the value created exceeds the dilution incurred). The other is that shareholders vote for the board of directors, who pick the CEO and determine his salary, and they have a strong tendency to reward CEOs who drive up stock prices and punish CEOs who let share prices fall. That affects behavior, but it doesn’t actually do the company any good. (There is also the fact that a sufficiently high share price protects a company against a hostile takeover, since no one would have the money to buy the company, but this is not typically very relevant.)

The person who worships the stock price will know that this allows the company to gain funds to expand the business, so he would probably rationalize the smoothie guy’s suffering as being for the greater good by pointing to how the increased efficiency makes more capital available to the corporation to grow and provide its services. The mere fact that growth and increased services are secondary goods to the stock-price-worshiper does not mean that he is unaware of them, and this knowledge will be very useful to him when trying to reconcile his love for the smoothie maker with his greater love for the stock price which was increased by the merger.

In short, when faced with this, he will not say that the smoothie maker’s doesn’t matter, but that his (involuntary) sacrifice is for the greater good, and so the smoothie maker, in accepting his fate, is noble and should be praised. He might even try to help the smoothie maker out, so long as there’s a way he can do it which won’t hurt his company’s share price.

A person worshiping a stock price is a somewhat silly example, though not so silly that it has not been done before in fiction. However that goes, it does serve to show how the villain’s thought process works. And if you ever wondered how Hitler could be a vegetarian who loved dogs and also a mass murderer, this is how. Rest assured, he had theories as to how his mass murder was really, truly, in the end, humanitarian. Villains always do.

These explanations that the villain has of how his villainy is really virtuous will always seem convoluted, but only to outsiders. They will not appear convoluted to the villain himself. They seem natural to the villain because he has learned to live with a fractured mind; to reconcile contradictory worldviews. It only seems convoluted to outsiders because they have not learned this mental agility.

Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys

This post is a followup to my post on Satanic Banality And Writing Villains. In it, I said:

These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors.

This phenomenon is why it feels realistic when the bad guy thinks that he’s the good guy. Unfortunately, that trope in stories is very often misunderstood by people who do not understand what evil really is. It is quite true that bad guys will often think that they are the good guys. What isn’t true is that they seem like the good guys to anyone but themselves.

This mistake has resulted in a great deal of bad storytelling, where the bad guys are shown to actually have a point. Instead of them having mistaken evil for good and thus be pursuing evil as good, they have, in fact, correctly having identified a good and are legitimately pursuing it. But if that’s the case, why on earth is the good guy in the story fighting these other good guys? There needs to be some explanation for why the good guy thought that the other good guy was actually a bad guy.

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

There’s rarely a satisfying explanation—in the sense of an explanation where the villains actions could plausibly be connected to his goals, even according to the mistakes he is making. To use the example of killing off most of the world driving the share price of his company up by fifteen percent, the fundamental mistake the villain is making, that is, the evil he is mistaking for good, is the share price of his company being all-important. This is a dubious mistake for someone to make, but it is possible. One can become idolatrous about almost anything. But given this mistake, it is not plausible that the villain would think that killing off three fourths of the world (say, with a bio-engineered plauge of super-locusts) would actually be good for the price of his company’s stock in a way that’s useful to his goal. Sure, in the extremely short term the stock would go up, but it would shortly thereafter crash when no one has the money to buy shares any more since they’re busy eating the rats which died of starvation. His mistake is about the good of his company’s share price, not about how markets work. In fact, his idolatry of his company’s share price would make him the last person who would misunderstand how markets respond to major events. The problem—apart from many writers not understanding how markets work themselves—is often due to the real villain’s character and motivation being an afterthought, because it’s all revealed in the last few pages (or last few minutes).

(It should be noted that this goodguy-as-badguy plotline is largely driven by misunderstanding why a badguy thinks that he’s a goodguy, but once this mistake was made it appealed to writers who want to personally rebel against goodness in order to indulge in some evil of their own, and so to make the world more comfortable for their evil they want to make readers (or viewers) distrustful of the institutions which exist to guard against the sort of evil they wish to indulge in. I think that they merely stumbled on this from the structure, rather than set out to undermine these organizations and incidentally got—partially—closer to a better plot.)

None of this sort of the-good-guys-are-actually-bad-guys would seem necessary if the writer recognized that evil is fundamentally a perversion of good. In grasping at the shadow rather than the substance casting the shadow, the one doing evil does not plausibly think that he’s doing good. He merely thinks that he’s doing good anyway.

The villain will have reasons for his evil deeds, but they will be bad reasons. This is necessarily so. It is not possible to have a good reason for a bad decision.

Writing Villains and Satanic Banality

One of the best videos on my YouTube channel is called Satanic Banality. It’s only tangentially about what is commonly called “the banality of evil”. It is really about the concept of “satanic grandeur” and how evil always looks small from the outside, it only looks impressive from the inside. If you haven’t watched it, I’ll embed the video in case you’re interested:

The applicability to writing is in making realistic villains, and especially in showing that they’re evil in realistic ways. In daytime cartoons for children, villains are shown to be evil by just choosing to be evil for the sake of Evil, then laughing about it. This works well in cartoons for children because children need things intelligible more than they need them realistic. Children only pick up on the broadest strokes, like that evil should be opposed. For children, at the level they understand them, cartoons are actually highly realistic.

In fiction for adults, who understand the narrative in much greater detail, we need it to be realistic on all of the levels that the adult reader understands it. This is the real reason for the addage “show, don’t tell”. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with telling the reader something, it’s just that if you do that in place of showing, you will have a contradictory character. If you tell the reader that the man is evil but then show him being humble, gentle, courteous, kind, thoughtful, brave, reverent, etc.—this is bad writing because he isn’t actually evil.

This brings me to satanic banality as a writing tool. Something important to remember about evil people is that they are always vastly more impressed with themselves than everyone else is. This does not mean that they are vain. They may or may not be vain—vanity consists in wanting others to recognize their greatness. But whether they are vain, they are quite impressed with themselves. They think that their vices are actually virtues. This comes from the nature of evil.

Evil is not a positive thing, but a privation of good. It is like a shadow cast by being; it looks like it has a shape, but it has no actual substance. A person who is evil is trying to act like the shadow is real—as if it can be touched and picked up and used. Thus, to them, what they do when they are evil looks magnificent. It must, or they would not try to do it. To those who see the shadow for what it is, they look banal. To somewhat mix a metaphor, imagine someone shadow boxing who thinks he’s beating the shadow that he’s hitting, and is therefore a great warrior. In his mind, he’s magnificent. To those watching, he cannot be impressive, because they can see that he’s not hitting anything.

This does not mean that the villain is bad at everything he does, of course. It means that the villain is going to think himself grandiose precisely where he is evil. He may not care whether others think he is great—that is, he may or may not be vain—but he will at least expect that they will think him great, or will expect that the smart ones will. This will be one of his weaknesses, since he will be wrong. (If he’s not wrong, here, it will be because he thinks that there are no smart ones, which will be a different sort of weakness.)

The other thing is that the villain will do things that just seem absurd. He will make statues to himself for things that he didn’t do, but thinks that he did. The Kim family in North Korea is a good example of this; you can find monuments they’ve built to themselves about how much of a champion of the people they are, what great movies they’ve made, etc. They are an extreme example, but it’s not hard to dial this back if one wants a less evil sort of villain. A warlord who wants to take over the world will think that he is bringing peace, and may well build statues to himself as a protector of the people. A cheater at sports who has not been caught will think of himself as as great role model for children. A thief will think of himself as enforcing justice, being a Robin Hood who robs from the rich and gives to the poor (in this case, himself). (They never consider that Robin Hood actually robbed from a rapacious government to give to those who were overly heavily taxed.)

These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors. Working these sorts of systemic errors into the villains actions will make him far more realistic, as well as adding a great deal of depth and insight into the story.

Lord Peter Short Stories: The Necklace of Pearls

The Necklace of Pearls is a short story about a pearl necklace given by Sir Septimus Shale by his daughter, its theft, and Lord Peter Wimsey’s finding of the necklace and catching of the criminal. It follows the general structure of a detective short story, giving us the setup, the crime, the production of clues, and then on the last page the solution, and as a puzzle, it is enjoyable.

One does not really read a Lord Peter story for a mere puzzle, and The Necklace of Pearls does provide some comedy of manners. The main point of comedy is the Christmas traditions of Sir Septimus. A brief quotation from the beginning of the story will make this clear:

Sir Septimus Shale was accustomed to assert his authority once in the year and once only. He allowed his young and fashionable wife to fill his house with diagrammatic furniture made of steel; to collected advanced artists and anti-grammatical poets; to believe in cocktails and relativity and to dress as extravagantly as she please;d but he did insist on an old-fashioned Christmas. He was a simple-hearted man, who really liked plum-pudding and cracker mottoes, and he count not get it out of his head that other people, ‘at bottom’, enjoyed these things also. At Christmas, therefore, he firmly retired to his country house in Essex, called in the servants to hang holly and mistletoe upon the cubist electric fittings; loaded the steel sideboard with delicacies from Fortnum & Mason; hung up stocking at the heads of the polished walnut bedsteads; and even, on this occasion only, had the electric radiators removed from the modernist grates and installed wood fires and a yule log. He then gathered his family and friends about him, filled them with as much Dickensian good fare as he could persuade them to swallow, and, after their Christmas dinner, set them down to play ‘Charades’ and ‘Clumps’ and ‘Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral’ in the drawing-room , concluding these diversions by ‘Hide-and-Seek’ in the dark all over the house. Because Sir Steptimus was a very rich man, his guests fell in with his invariable programme, and if they were bored, they did not tell him so.

This juxtoposition of modernist furniture in steel with an old-fashioned English Christmas is very hard to appreciate for an American in 2020. The traditional English Christmas is not my tradition, even in mutated form, and steel furniture seems almost the height of stupidity. We have some steel in our kitchen; an aesthetic whose aim is to suggest the appliances are fit for a commercial kitchen, where stainless steel is used because it is easy to clean and no one really cares whether employees have anything pleasing to look at while they work in oppressive heat. Other than that, steel is rarely seen in an American household, so it seems, rather than modern, merely in bad taste.

There is the further remove that people don’t really want to be modern any more. Even extremely modern things, like smart watches, almost go out of their way to at least partially disguise themselves in inconspicuous colors. In the 1930s, new technology was promising. In the 2020s, it’s commonplace and best known for its frustration, addictive properties, and general propensity for making people less social and less happy. (This is actually somewhat unfair, as technology does enable all sorts of great conversations to happen, but general regard is not always fair.)

The mystery itself is the disappearance of the necklace, and there are really two parts to this mystery:

  1. Where did the pearl necklace go?
  2. Who stole the pearl necklace?

The short story only concerns the first question. Lord Peter searches carefully, with Sir Septimus following him as witness. This turns up a small, fine pin, of the sort that an entomologist might use to pin a butterfly to a display board. Lord Peter asks if anyone has a hobby of collecting beetles, and when Sir Septimus says that they don’t, Lord Peter knows where the pearls are, and how they were hidden there.

This is where we come to the weakness of a comedy of manners in a short story—we have too many characters and with many of their interactions being governed by their rigid manners, we can’t really get to know any of them well enough to guess who stole the necklace, or why. To be fair to the reader, neither does Lord Peter, so instead he sets a trap. I think that the game here turns into who can spot the person falling into the trap first. The only real downside is that, since we don’t know anything about the culprit—just the name of the guy who shows up in the trap—it’s not very satisfying.

The real payoff is the way in which the pearls were hidden. The villain cut them from the necklace and used the pins to hide the separated pearls among the mistletoe. At this point, I should note that European mistletoe has white berries, unlike the holly which is commonly used in the place of mistletoe in America, and is sometimes confused for it because of that. It’s an interesting technique for stealing pearls in a house so completely made of smooth, hard surfaces that there is nowhere to hide things.

Odd Short Stories

Having recently read through the collected Lord Peter short stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, I can’t help but notice that a few of them are fairly odd. The one which comes to mind as an example of this is the story where Lord Peter is driven in a car to a castle (or perhaps it was a mansion) to pick up some secrets from the scientist who lives there and upon entering meets another Lord Peter, whereupon the scientist proposes a wine identification contest to determine which Lord Peter is the real Lord Peter. (The real Lord Peter turns out to be the chauffeur. ) This is rather far off of the beaten track of Lord Peter stories. Granted, his expertise in wines does sometimes come up, but never before (or after) has it been critical.

Then it occurred to me: I have no idea where this story was published.

For all I know, Ms. Sayers wrote the story for a friend who ran a magazine called Wine Tasting Monthly. If that were the case, it would make perfect sense why she wrote such an unusual Lord Peter story. It would be fun for the (hypothetical) readers of Wine Tasting Monthly and would be very unlikely to confuse anyone who was merely an ordinary reader of Lord Peter Wimsey stories since they would be unlikely to ever see it.

I am, of course, just speculating. In fact, I doubt that I got it right; I think it more likely that not that this story was not written for Wine Tasting Monthly. It’s a good illustration, though, that there may have been context which makes oddities make perfect sense. Just to come up with another, to illustrate, perhaps there was an “adventure issue” of Detective Stories Weekly where the theme was seeing all of one’s favorite detectives but in an adventure story. The point is that with the right expectations, this story would be fun (and possibly funny) rather than just weird.

There’s a lesson in there…

Amatopia on Nihilism

Over at Amatopia, Alexander Hellene discusses nihilism, primarily in art. It’s a good post, worth reading. There’s one segment of it that I want to discuss, though, because I think that it somewhat misses the bigger picture:

But endless moping about the meaninglessness of everything isn’t a harmless amusement. It’s a dangerous idea that spreads despair and brutalizes people into looking into the sewer, metaphorical or otherwise, for meaning when they should be looking to something higher, whatever that may be. Instead of aspiring to lofty heights, those at the top would rather wallow in filth, and they want to drag you down with them.

There are two ways in which this misses the bigger picture.

The first is that, unless you believe in God, nihilism is true. That is, based upon one’s worldview, if there is no God, then nihilism is the correct conclusion. Atheists, as so much of the elites of American culture are, are either nihilists or lying to themselves.

This brings me to the second way in which it misses the bigger picture: if an atheist comes up with a meaning for his life, it will necessarily be an idol. You can see this in progressives/wokesters. They have decided that the meaning of their life is helping the downtrodden and oppressed. They would do far less harm, even to the downtrodden and oppressed, if they just wallowed in filth in the gutter. Everyone would be better off if atheists do not make up secular meaning in their life. That’s how people get to guillotines and death camps.

The biggest reason, though, that I think that it’s actually healthy to encourage atheists (who are the only people who can be nihilists) to take nihilism seriously is that it is here that they face their own beliefs directly and without disguise. It’s a commonplace observation that people rarely get out of self-destructive habits before they hit rock-bottom. Nihilism is atheists hitting rock bottom. The longer they go on pretending that everything is fine, the more entrenched in this mistake they will get.

In short, nihilism is a symptom, and it is a mistake to treat symptoms rather than the diseases that create them.

Just don’t let your kids watch the product of nihilistic artists until you’ve prepared them to see through it. But, you know, prepare them at an early age.