Efficiency vs. Robustness

Efficiency and robustness are enemies. The more you have of the one, the less you have of the other.

Intrinsically.

Efficiency means that every part is producing an effect. Robustness means that damage can happen and the effect can still be produced. The only way that it is possible to take damage and keep productivity up is if there was some spare capacity which was activated to take the place of what was damaged. That spare capacity was, by definition, inefficiency.

(The subject is sometimes confused by there being standards of robustness, and efficiency being contextually defined to be having no more spare capacity than that standard; this context-specific usage is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about efficiency and robustness as such.)

You can see this trade-off very well in birds. Birds, in order to fly, must be extremely efficient. The price that they pay is that they are very fragile. Their bones are famous for being hollow, which is awesome, but their bones are also extremely easy to break with blunt-force impact. Birds are very muscular with little fat, but the cost of that is that they need to eat frequently and can starve to death quickly.

This same thing applies to large organizations. Young people are often astonished at the inefficiency of large organizations. They are right that large organizations tend to inefficient. What they don’t realize—because they’ve never experienced it—is how much inefficiency is required for the organization to survive when things go bad. And things can go very bad.

Probably the most frustrating example of this is the small amount of trust typically placed in employees and in consequence the difficulty they have actually getting work done. This must be understood in the context of how many problems a single employee can create.

It is not merely a rogue employee who intends to do evil which is the problem. They can cause truly enormous amounts of damage, but they are also vanishingly rare. Far more common are things like:

  • Taking vacation
  • Getting sick
  • Personal problems
  • Leaving for another job
  • Incompetence

All of these things create problems, and some of them are so predictable as to be reliable (like taking vacation and getting sick). The result is that organizations which have protections against these things tend to be far more robust and thus last longer.

These protections will tend to look like:

  • Having multiple people who can do the same job and are sufficiently involved with the particular job that they can take over while the other person is away or otherwise not doing his job.
  • Requiring non-trivial decisions to be filtered through at least one other employee, so that there is a sanity-check in place.
  • Requiring extensive documentation of what’s going on so that others can take over
  • Using tools which, while not the best suited to the task, are wildly used, so that replacing a person who uses them is easier
  • Having a corporate culture, created by things like too many meetings, so that people tend to solve similar problems in similar ways, so that people are more replaceable

All of these things are inefficient, but they do create robustness.

It should be noted that there is something of a catch-22 here, too. These practices are not pleasant to work under, so they tend to create a culture of zero loyalty to the organization, and in many cases encourage people to leave to find something better elsewhere. In more extreme cases, they actually create a selective pressure for only awful people who couldn’t get hired elsewhere to remain, which is a vicious cycle since they make the workplace worse for competent people.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that these things are actually good, or a good way to run a business. I’m only saying that we should understand that they do exist for a reason, and it is important to know what that reason is if one wants to try to prevent smaller companies that are growing from falling into the same traps.

I also want to note that not all behaviors of large companies are ascribable to this cause. In some cases, I think that there are behaviors which are analogous to cancers and autoimmune disorders.

An example of the former would be divisions which pursue growth over profitability and suck resources away from profitable divisions, often to cause enormous damage when they fail and have to downsize.

An example of the latter would be an accounting department becoming so hyper-active in combating waste that they make it nearly impossible for employees on trips to get reimbursements for anything, resulting in lost opportunities and costly workarounds.

Setting for Book 4?

I’ve only written about 1 paragraph of the Third Chronicle of Brother Thomas (edits are finished on the Second Chronicle of Brother Thomas and Silver Empire has it slated for publication in March). And it’s got a great setting: a remote vacation resort in the Adirondack mountains where there isn’t internet, cell service, or even electricity. I’m really looking forward to writing that one. (The very tentative title for the book is “He Didn’t Drown in the Lake”.) But I thought of a great setting for Book 4.

A renaissance fair.

I was thinking that the fair grounds could be next to a benedictine abbey, and the fair itself could be named after the abbey next to it. So the book could be titled, for example, Saint Paul’s Fair. Or Saint Anselm’s Fair (that one has a ring to it). Or Saint Benedict’s Fair. (All three are real Abbey names in the US.)

An especially fun coincidence would be that my favorite Brother Cadfael mystery, Saint Peter’s Fair, happens to be the fourth chronicle of Brother Cadfael.

I have no idea who the victim or the murderer will be. For stuff like that I probably should get a lot further in book 3, first.

The Evolution To a Parody

If you missed it, back in 2012, Gotye released the brilliant song Somebody That I Used To Know:

As a side note, it’s so good I made a video about the ideas in it:

What’s important to the moment, however, is that it was covered by a band called “Walk Off The Earth,” playing in an unusual and resourceful style:

Then, finally, The Key of Awesome parodied this version of it:

I think my favorite line from the parody is “Tony is addicted to a wide array of narcotics. He says they help him write, but we’re a cover band.”

Frozen is a Surprisingly Christian Movie

My four year old daughter was lent a DVD of the Disney movie Frozen, and in consequence I’ve seen it about a dozen times (so far). It really surprised me just how Christian the movie actually is, especially because it’s almost certain that was not intentional.

I’m going to run through the main plot elements to show what I mean.

The plot begins with two princesses, Anna and her older sister Elsa, playing at night. Elsa has the magic power to create ice is various forms, both solid and snow. Right away, there is an interesting sort of contradiction contained in this power, since on the one hand cold is negative—the absence of heat—and on the other hand she is able to create water, though frozen, from nothing. She has the power to create, but in a very limited way.

Now, normally when a female character has some sort of power, it tends to be a symbol for that great feminine power—fertility. You can generally see this because in the typical case everyone loves her for it (except for other women who are jealous, of course). That is not the case, here. Her ice powers work much better as a symbol of intellectual power and as we will see later, like intellectual powers her ice power isolates her from people.

As the children are playing with the snow Elsa creates, she slips and accidentally hits her sister in the head with a blast of ice, freezing her head. Anna lays comatose and cold as ice, and Elsa calls out to her parents for help. They come and take the children to the trolls, who as magical creatures can deal with magic. The chief troll tells the King that it is fortunate that she was not hit in her heart:

You are lucky it wasn’t her heart. The heart is not so easily changed. But the head can be persuaded.

Here, we really see the symbolism of Elsa’s power almost explicitly. She has the ability to affect the heart and the head. Of the two, it is more fortunate to be injured in the head, because the head can be more easily changed. This is quite correct. Purely intellectual errors can be fixed relatively easily, and even somewhat adversarially. By forcing a man who holds an idea merely as an idea to defend it, one can force him to realize that it is indefensible. Rarely, it is true, will he admit it in the heat of argument, but if it was purely an intellectual attachment to the idea, it will happen soon afterwards, when he has had time to think it through. To change his heart, he must repent.

The chief troll gives Elsa a warning:

Listen to me, Elsa. Your power will only grow. There is beauty in it but also great danger. You must learn to control it. Fear will be your enemy.

While giving this warning he conjures up a vision of people turning on her because of her power, and she’s scared. Her father, not she, responds:

We’ll protect her. She can learn to control it, I’m sure. Until then, we’ll lock the gates. We’ll reduce the staff. We will limit her contact with people, and keep her powers hidden from everyone. Including Anna.

There are several things wrong with this. The biggest problem is that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what control is. Control is the ability to use force precisely—to accomplish one’s intentions without causing other effects. Control is what allows an adult that can snap a tree branch in half to make a crib for a baby then caress it while it’s lying down to go to sleep. What the King intends is for Elsa to suppress her power.

The difference between those two is stark. Elsa’s power is natural to her—this was made explicit when the troll chief asked if she was born with the power or cursed, and her father answered “born with it”. To control her power is to become fully herself, that is, to act in full accord with her nature. To suppress her power is to act against her nature and to be less than herself.

The other major problem is that the King is entirely passive in this, despite being Anna’s father. He uses the passive voice, “She can learn,” not “We will teach her.” He wants the problem to just go away—he wants Elsa to raise herself.

Indeed, his only real contribution to helping Elsa even to suppress her powers as she grows is to give her gloves and the extremely unhelpful advice:

Conceal it. Don’t feel it. Don’t let it show.

A person can direct their attention, to some degree at least, but cannot control what they feel. What they can do is control how they act in spite of their feelings. Control requires some positive goal, however, that can be focused on in spite of whatever feelings the world may thrust upon one. This, Elsa is not given. (We’ll come back to this, because the movie does.)

We then fast-forward in time, and the King and Queen die in a storm at sea, leaving the two girls orphans. Some time later, it is “Coronation Day” when Elsa is old enough to be crowned queen. (How the government of Arandel works is not explained, and even the technology is a weird mismash of the mid-1800s, the late middle ages, and everything inbetween.)

At the coronation party, Anna spends time getting to know a man she met earlier that day when he bumped into her. His name is Prince Hans, of the Southern Isles. They have a whirlwind romance in the space of an hour or two, culminating in Prince Hans proposing marriage and Anna accepting. When they ask the new Queen for her blessing, she refuses, and getting angry in response to Anna’s anger, she impulsively creates a large wall of ice as a barrier to keep Anna way. Her powers revealed to everyone, she runs away into the mountains, where we get the most famous song of the movie:

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation
And it looks like I’m the queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand and here I stay
Let the storm rage on
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back, the past is in the past
Let it go
The cold never bothered me anyway
Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on
the cold never bothered me anyway

The music and Idina Mendel’s singing sound great, but if you pay attention to the lyrics, they are basically the lyrics of a villain. And, in fact, Elsa is the villain of this movie. She is a realistic villain, though, not a cartoon villain. I think the reason that has confused so many people is that this movie is a cartoon. Still, it is what it is; Elsa is a realistic villain, who is scared and afraid and wrong and doesn’t really mean anyone any harm even though she causes them harm she is culpable for.

Anna goes after her sister to try to bring Elsa back. (Along the way she finds Christoff, who agrees to help her in exchange for carrots for his reindeer.) When she finds Elsa, Elsa tells her to go away, that she’ll be safe as long as Elsa is alone. Anna tells Elsa that in fact Elsa has created a perpetual winter of Arandel, and no one is safe. Elsa is distraught, partially at what she’s done, but mostly that it means that she can’t be free. During a musical number when Anna is singing that they can solve the problem together and Elsa is complaining that she can’t be free, she lets out a blast of her power that hits Anna in the heart. She tells Anna to leave, then when Anna refuses to abandon Elsa, she creates a snow monster to force Anna to leave.

Here we see Elsa more-or-less explicitly choosing to be a villain when confronted with the choice between selfishness and love. She does, after this, try to stop the snow on Arandel by repeating to herself, over and over, “Don’t feel. Don’t feel,” as if that could somehow do some good. It’s not that she doesn’t care about Arandel at all; the problem is that she will only care about it on her terms. Even if she couldn’t stop the eternal winter, her power, used in Arandel, could do much to alleviate the suffering the eternal winter is causing. She doesn’t even consider this, because she lets her fear control her.

Anna begins to feel the effects of Elsa’s blast, and Christoff takes her to the trolls to get her help. There the troll chief tells her:

Anna, your life is in danger. There is ice in your heart, put there by your sister. If not removed, to solid ice will you freeze, forever.

Christoff asks if the troll chief can remove it.

I cannot. I’m sorry, Christoff. If it was her head, that would be easy, but only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.

One of the trolls suggests that a “true love’s kiss” might be such an act of love, and Christoff takes Anna to Prince Hans. He leaves her in Arandel, trusting that she will be taken care of. Anna is brought by the servants to Prince Hans, and there left alone with him. He reveals that he never loved Anna but only sought power, and her desperation to be loved made her easy prey. He douses the fire and leaves her to die while he goes off to kill the queen and usurp the throne.

However, Elsa escapes from the dungeon and creates a raging storm that obscures most things. Christoff sees the storm and comes back to help Anna. She sees him riding his reindeer toward her and stumbles out of the castle In the climax of the movie, just as Christoff and Anna almost find each other Anna sees Prince Hans about to kill Elsa. Anna rushes in and protects her sister with her body. She turns to solid ice a moment before the sword hits her, and in a magic blast from her turning to ice the sword is shattered and Prince Hans is knocked back, unconscious.

Elsa, seeing her sister turned into an ice statue, weeps over her, but a moment later Anna begins to thaw. Elsa asks Anna why she sacrificed herself for Elsa, and Anna replies, “because I love you.” Elsa, enlightened, realizes that love can end the raging storm, and she thaws Arandel, ending the permanent winter.

It is tempting to take all this as a mere reversal of the common trope; instead of the man saving Anna she saves herself. It is entirely possible that was how this plot came to be. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the writer was trying to do, what she did was to write a very Christian story.

Anna was saved, not by another creature’s romantic love for her, but by her generous love for another. “Greater love hath no man,” says Christ, “than to lay down his life for a friend.”

Anna was not, however, alone. Had Christoff not first loved her (in the sense of generous love) enough to take her to Prince Hans, what followed would not have happened. Had he not loved her enough to come back for her when he saw that Arandel was in danger, she would not have left the castle where she was huddling next to the fire for warmth, and would not have been near Elsa when Prince Hans moved to strike her down. In short, she was only able to make her sacrifice for her sister because of the love she was shown.

And then we get to the fascinating metaphor of there being ice in her heart put there by her sister. Here we have a recognition that a person can, if they let themselves, become twisted by another. Eve Keneinan has pointed out, more than once, that in the modern world we like to believe that victims are, by virtue of their victimhood, virtuous. Quite the contrary, victims often become vicious. And here we have that acknowledgement—Anna will die, if she cannot love, because of her sister’s hurting her.

We also, in all this, see how well Elsa’s power works as a metaphor for intellectual power. When she merely, through her power, gave her sister a wrong idea, the troll chief could fix that. But when, through her selfishness, she hurt her sister’s heart, fixing that could not be done by another. It’s an excellent metaphor for Modern Philosophy and things like Classical Liberalism (a la Voltaire). Where someone is merely wrong about these things as an idea, he can be set right by another through simple argumentation. When people act on these bad ideas, they injure themselves and others in ways that mere argumentation cannot fix. Having put theory into practice, it no longer suffices to change the theory. They must now repent. The Greek for “repent” is μετάνοια (metanoia). More literally, to turn around. Ideas are dangerous, but practice is more dangerous. Ideas have consequences.

There is another fascinating bit, when Christoff brings Anna to the trolls to heal her, they misunderstand at first and think that he brought Anna as a potential wife. When they find out that she’s reluctant, they sing a song asking her why. In this song they say that he’s a bit of a fixer-upper, and talk about some of his superficial flaws, but point out (obliquely) that these are merely superficial. There is, however, a very curious caveat that they put into the song:

We’re not saying you can change him, ’cause people don’t really change
We’re only saying that love’s a force that’s powerful and strange
People make bad choices if they’re mad, or scared, or stressed
Throw a little love their way (throw a little love their way) and you’ll bring out their best
True love brings out their best!

The first thing to note is that this caveat, though important, is (as stated) wrong. People do change. People can also change each other. Heck, the main plot point of the movie is that Elsa changed her sister (“put ice in her heart”).

What is true is that people can very rarely change other people according to their intentions. Most of the time the effect we have on others is not the effect we intend to have. The other important thing to note is that we can only change others when they are ready to change. You can’t take a drunkard and make him sober. You can, possibly, help him to become sober when he’s ready to become sober. And you probably won’t know when that is.

This is especially true with romantic partners, because (God willing) romantic partners are soon to become parents. They will soon have a ton of work to do in raising new people to be human beings. This means that they will both be under a lot of stress, rely on each other constantly, and will have very little in the way of energy left to try to change each other anyway. In short, the last people who can intentionally change each other are romantic partners.

Except about superficial stuff. Then they’re really good at it.

A husband and wife, if they’re even quarter-way decent human beings, want to get along with each other. They need to be tolerant of each other’s failings, but in general they will be pretty willing to load the dishwasher differently or accommodate themselves to toilet paper being put on the roll incorrectly, or what-have-you. Superficial similarities are worthless, because the superficial stuff does change pretty readily.

The big problem, in mate selection, is mistaking something important like character or honesty for something superficial like how one prefers the toilet paper to be on the roll. Unrefined people can become refined fairly readily, and if they don’t, it doesn’t actually matter all that much. People can compromise that muddy clothes can come into the basement, but they have to stay there. By contrast, vicious people can become virtuous, but it’s a terrible bet to make with one’s children’s future.

Plus, vicious people becoming virtuous often requires something dramatic, like sacrificing one’s life for them.

Christianity is Not a Cuckold Religion

In a very interesting video, Jonathan Pageau (of The Symbolic World) discussed the question of whether Christianity is a Cuckold religion:

He did an excellent job discussing cuckolding in human society and patterns related to it one sees in human society (such as war rape and sexual taxes to a chief/lord). He also did a good job talking about how Christianity got rid of those patterns.

What’s really weird is that he didn’t talk about the symbolic structure, either of cuckolding, or of Christianity. That sort of thing is usually his bread and butter.

So let’s do that.

In order to see the structure of cuckolding and why Christianity is not a cuckold religion, it will be helpful to start with etymology. The word “cuckold” comes from the Cuckoo bird.

The common Cuckoo

The Cuckoo is a nest parasite. It looks for the nests of certain other species of birds and when it is unguarded, it throws an egg from the nest out and lays one of its own in its place. When the baby Cuckoo hatches, it generally throws the rest of the eggs, or if it didn’t hatch first, the other baby birds, out of the nest, too. The parents of the nest then feed the baby Cuckoo until it is old enough to care for itself.

The much larger bird, sitting on the nest, is the baby Cuckoo.

(Both images are from the Wikipedia page on Cuckoos.)

The symbolic structure of the Cuckoo’s nest parasitism is replacement. The Cuckoo replaces the offspring of another bird with its own offspring; its line continues at the expense of the line of the other birds. They do the work of raising it and get nothing out of it.

In humans, by analogy, cuckolding is when a woman is unfaithful to her husband, and another man fathers a child with her that her husband raises as if it were his. Here, too, we see replacement, but in humans it is an incomplete replacement. Human beings, when we raise children, do a heck of a lot more than just feed them. We raise our young; we teach them and shape them. An extremely large fraction of who they are as an adult is given to them not by genetics, but by their upbringing. An adopted son is not a biological son, but he is still a son. When his adopted father and his biological father are old, he will care for his adopted father, not his biological father. This does not make cuckolding OK, but it is important to note that the replacement is incomplete. This will be relevant later.

So now we come to the part of Christianity which some describe as Cuckolding: the virgin birth, and Joseph raising the child as his own.

In order to see whether the virgin birth of Jesus was cuckolding, we need to look at the structure of what happened. Recall, cuckolding is replacement. Was there replacement? The answer is: no.

In a normal birth, God creates a new human being, giving a portion of the creation of his body to a father and a mother who come together to make it. The technical term for what the parents do is secondary causation. God could create a new human being entirely on his own, but instead he gives it to human beings to be part of his act of creation. In the case of Jesus, only one human being was given the privilege of secondary causation—Mary, his mother. What’s important to notice is that this does not change God’s role in the creation of the Jesus’ human nature. God is not more active, as if he somehow normally depends on a human father and without his help he had to do more work.

A useful analogy to consider is an author writing a story. If the author normally has two characters have sex and this gets the woman pregnant, the author does not do any less work than if he writes the woman getting pregnant without a man. (If anything, he does slightly more work, in that it would take more words to set up and describe, but this may just be the analogy breaking down.)

So in the conception of Jesus, there is no replacement of Joseph, he simply is not given a part in it. There is no other creature who has taken his part. There is just no father at all. Importantly, God did not take the part of the human father, he took the part he always takes in giving existence to all of creation at every moment of time. He simply didn’t give a portion of that work to a creature to be part of.

So the conception of Jesus was not cuckolding, because there was no replacement. What of the other aspect—of raising a child as one’s own?

This Joseph does with Jesus. However, this is the same raising of a child as one’s own that happens in any case of adoption. And, indeed, Joseph raising Jesus is clearly a case of adoption:

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel,” a name which means “God-is-with-us”. When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took is wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.

God clearly asks Joseph to be a father to Jesus, and Joseph accepts. And this is the key: in so doing, Jesus becomes a son of Joseph. Joseph gives Jesus his name. Not only his first name, but his family name—Jesus is in the line of David through Joseph.

So if you want to say that Christianity is a religion of adoption, you won’t be wrong. In fact, adoption is one of the main themes of Christianity. You might almost say that God was adopted by man so that man might be adopted by God.

This is why—among other reasons—Christianity had the effects which Jonathan described. God is not merely the highest, but unlike human beings. As Bishop Barron might say, God cannot cuckold a human being because God is not in competition with human beings. The milkman can cuckold a human being. Ghengis Khan did. Zeus could have, if he was real. God simply can’t. All things have their limits, even omnipotence. In particular, omnipotence can’t be limited.

Well, except for the incarnation. But when he could compete with people, Christ didn’t.

Jesus never cuckolded anyone.

And a servant is not greater than his master.

Watching On-Demand TV

Occasionally my ten-year-old son and I will watch an episode of Murder, She Wrote together. I received the DVD complete box set for Christmas last year, which means that we can watch an episode whenever we want. Curiously, the result has been that we don’t watch all that often.

When I was a kid my parents and I would watch Murder, She Wrote with absolute regularity. We never missed an episode. So I got to thinking about why it is that my Son and I watch it so irregularly.

Part of it, of course, is that he likes it, but doesn’t love it as much as I do. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but it’s natural enough, since I love it quite a lot—most people will tend to be less extreme than that. But there is another reason.

When I was a kid, you had to watch the episode when it came on or you missed it. It would eventually be available as a re-run, but that would be in months, and without great predictability, as the TV stations didn’t do something simple (so far as I can recall, anyway) like air re-runs in the same order they ran in. Plus, you could never be certain you would catch the episode when it re-ran, which meant a longer and still less predictable time till you could watch it.

All of this produced an urgency to watching the episode when it aired that was both a good excuse for making it happen but also helped to make it happen. When one can watch an episode whenever one wants, one needs a good reason to watch now, as opposed to tomorrow. And tomorrow can easily turn into the day after. And the day after can easily turn into next week. And next week can easily turn into next month.

In some sense, this is just removing an artificial limitation which made the episodes seem more important than they were. It is, in a real sense, regarding TV episodes with their actual value. Because, truth be told, TV episodes just aren’t that great. They were made in a hurry. Regularity was more important than quality. Getting people to sit through commercials and come back was more important than quality, too.

In spite of that some TV shows really were special; there were TV shows with genuinely good episodes. Murder, She Wrote did have some well constructed mysteries. They couldn’t really compare to a good mystery novel, though, and when one can watch the episode any time, it quite frequently seems like a better use of time to read the novel. The episode will always be there tomorrow, if one really wants to watch it.

There is something lost in all this, which I think is no small part of the fondness which people like me who grew up with broadcast television feel the loss of. Broadcast television gave a rhythm to life. When favorite shows were on Monday at 6:00, Tuesday at 6:30, and Thursday at 7:00, these made Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays feel like Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Even if one went into another room and read a book because one didn’t like a show, one went into that other room and read a book every Monday. There was not only a rhythm, but a shared rhythm.

There are much better places to get shared rhythms for life than from entertainment paid for by copious commercials. I am not here saying that the death of broadcast television is not for the best. It is. I’m only saying why it doesn’t entirely feel like it.

(And yes, this phenomenon still applies in its entirety to the practice of watching live sports, and may explain a portion of that activity’s ongoing popularity.)

Poirot's Voice

In Masters of Mystery, by H. Douglas Thomson, there’s a chapter called The Orthodox Detective (as opposed to “the realistic detective story,” “the domestic detective story,” “the thriller,” etc). Curiously, it is entirely about Agatha Christie. I suppose that this is almost fitting, as in 1930 she was something of a genre unto herself.

In some ways, she still is.

Anyway, there’s a section where Thomson talks about Poirot’s voice, in the sense of how he speaks, and he translates a small section from the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze into how it would read as a Poirot story. I think he does a excellent job of it, so I wanted to quote it here as it’s very interesting to compare and contrast.

In Silver Blaze:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing int he night-time.”
“That was the curious incident.”

In translation:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“There is the dog,” he said. “Always I think of that dog in the night. Always it perplexes, that one. It is of a mystery the most profound.”
“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Précisément,” he replied softly. “That is the mystery, mon ami.”

Thomson goes on to note that when Poirot is in the thick of things, his language becomes more direct and even “mon ami” gets softened to “my friend”.

This is intentional on the part of Christie, she talked about it outside of the stories and even Poirot occasionally talked about it within his stories. Poirot tended to speak in Frenglish in one of two circumstances:

  1. When he wanted to disarm people. A man who has difficulty speaking the language will presumably have difficulty understanding the language and so he can’t be much of a threat.
  2. When he was dealing with people who disliked foreigners. He found that with such people the best way forward was to be very frankly a foreigner and so to give them the opportunity of forgiving him for it.

To some degree Poirot’s being a Belgian refuge from “The War” (i.e. World War I) served to explain why he was a private detective rather than a police officer—he had been a police officer in his native country but could hardly become a police detective in England.

His being a Belgian refuge also helped to make him interesting, and moreover, exotic enough to feel realistic in the unrealistic genre of the murder mystery. Unfortunately—or fortunately, as one sees it—crimes are rarely plotted out with brilliant intricacy and still less often are they unraveled by a brilliant detective who puts together the clues which other people miss. Whether this is because of the rarity of the brilliant crime or simply the rarity of catching the brilliant criminal, we cannot say for we do not know. It may be that brilliant people never commit carefully planned out murders. It may be that carefully planned murders happen all the time and people either do not suspect that the deaths are murders or the patsy who was framed is framed successfully and pays for the crime he didn’t commit, or perhaps these are just unsolved crimes where we know the crime was committed but have no leads.

Be that as it may, the brilliant detective solving a murder simply does not happen in real life (or at least nowhere near often enough for a man to build up a reputation, to say nothing of supporting himself on the proceeds of investigating such crimes). This creates a sort of tension in detective fiction because the fun comes from most of the story being realistic.

The solution generally seems to be to make the detective eccentric in some fashion. Not just any eccentricity will do, however. It has to be an eccentricity which pervades his interactions with his fellow creatures. If the reader’s normal experience of the detective is outside of the reader’s normal experience of real life, then the unreality of him being a detective at all is much easier to forget.

A Great Map Projection Joke

Today’s XKCD on the South America map projection is pretty funny:

The thing is, you have to read the alt text to really get the joke. It is:

The projection does a good job preserving both distance and azimuth, at the cost of really exaggerating how many South Americas there are.

(If you aren’t familiar with the debates over map projections, the fundamental problem a map has is that it’s impossible to correctly project the surface of a sphere onto a flat (uniform) 2-dimensional surface like a piece of paper. Something must be distorted in order to do it; the typical Mercator map greatly exaggerates the size of things at extreme latitudes. Other projections, such as the orange peel projection, tend to get relative sizes more correct at the expense of not being able to measure distances accurately. There are other kinds of map projection with other tradeoffs, too, each with those who strongly favor them while criticizing the rest.)

Weird Al's CNR

My post yesterday about Chuck Norris Facts reminded me of a song by Weird Al about Charles Neson Reilly:

The song is a bit hit or miss, and I’d never heard of Charles Nelson Reilly prior to the Weird Al song and so have grave doubts that the man lives up to the legend nearly as much as Chuck Norris lives up to his. Still, I do like one of CNR’s achievements mentioned in the song:

Charles Nelson Reilly won the tour de france with two flat tires and a missing chain.

(If you don’t know, the tour de france is a bicycle race, possibly the premier bicycle race in the world.)

Chuck Norris Facts

I recently introduced my children to the style of humor called Chuck Norris “facts”. If you don’t know who Chuck Norris is, here’s him as a young man fighting Bruce Lee:

And here is an older Chuck Norris playing Walker, Texas Ranger:

Since he (that is, his character) eventually loses in the fight with Bruce Lee, I presume that Walker, Texas Ranger has more to do with Chuck Norris’s reputation. Be that as it may, there is a popular style of humor which is a list of facts about Chuck Norris that describes how tough and good at fighting he is. For example

A cobra once bit Chuck Norris on the leg. After five agonizing days, the cobra finally died.

Another great Chuck Norris fact is:

Chuck Norris’s periodic table only has one element on it: the element of surprise.

My boys (at the time of writing, 10 and 7) have really taken to these facts, and even tried inventing their own. The seven year old understands the element of exaggeration, but he (unsurprisingly) has difficulty with the element of setting up an expectation. So his versions tend to be things like:

Chuck Norris can punch a black hole and blow it up.

I’m not normally one for puns, but it lacks punch. Anyway, there are a lot of great Chuck Norris facts. I’m not going to reprint an entire archive of them (many of which can be found with a simple google search), but here is a selection of my favorites:

  • On a math test, Chuck Norris answered “violence” for every problem and got an A+, because Chuck Norris can solve every problem with violence.
  • Chuck Norris can speak French, in Russian.
  • Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird.
  • Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.
  • Chuck Norris can pick apples from an orange tree and make the best lemonade you’ve ever tasted.
  • Chuck Norris tells Simon what to do.
  • When the Bogeyman goes to sleep at night, he checks under his bed for Chuck Norris.
  • Chuck Norris doesn’t cheat death. He wins fair and square.
  • Bigfoot claims he once saw Chuck Norris.
  • Superman owns a pair of Chuck Norris pajamas.
  • Chuck Norris once won a staring context with the sun.
  • Fear of spiders is called arachnophobia, fear of confined spaces is called claustrophobia, and fear of Chuck Norris is called common sense.

Starting a Cast List

So despite the fact that I’m supposed to be taking a break, I’ve begun work on the characters and plot of the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake.

The murder takes place at a rustic resort in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York where there is no internet, no cell reception, and not even any electricity. I’ve worked out who the victim is, who the murderer is, and why it was done. I’ve still to figure out how it was done, but I’m working on the other characters, first, since that may well impact how it was done.

So now I’m working out a list of who will be vacationing at the mountain resort. There are a lot of possibilities. So far, I’m considering having two novelists on a writing retreat, one in his twenties and the other in his forties.

Fun times.

Forgotten Literary Influences

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, written by H. Douglas Thomson in 1931. One of the things which I’ve been getting out of it is an idea of what the popular mystery novels were at the time, which I’ve never heard of.

For full disclosure, the mystery authors I’ve actually read something by, from the early days and the golden age of mystery, are, in no particular order: Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, S.S. Van Dine, and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

It’s not a long list, and not all of them have been by recommendation. I read Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue because it was the first detective story. I read S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case out of curiosity since Van Dine had written up a set of rules of detective fiction I’ve seen referenced numerous times on Wikipedia. I read The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart because it was supposed to be the origin of the phrase, “The Butler Did It”. (See my series on that phrase, if you haven’t read it yet.) And I’ve read most of Fr. Knox’s mysteries, but I started because he was a friend of G.K. Chesterton and because he wrote a famous ten commandments of detective fiction.

So if we subtract those, the mystery writers from that era which I’ve actually read because someone recommended them to me are: Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie. In my youth, that was my impression of the time period.

As I grew older, I realized that there must be other mystery writers of the time period that I was just unfamiliar with, but it was only in recent years that I came to appreciate just how popular a genre mystery was in those days, both to read and to write.

The thing which really drove it home to me was a short story entitled What, No Butler? about the accidental detective, Broadway. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

Incidentally, I looked up the two works cited. “What, No Butler?” seems to be a short story by Damon Runyon. I can’t find much information about it; according to Wikipedia it was in a book called Runyon on Broadway. It was performed on radio in 1946 and that performance is available on youtube. I don’t know when it was originally published. The story does have humor in it, but to call it satire seems like quite a stretch. Early in the story, the character Broadway (who I believe is a theater critic) says authoritatively upon finding out that a man was murdered that the butler did it. When he’s told that the victim didn’t have a butler, he insists that they have to find the butler, because in every play he sees with a murder in it, the butler did it.

What caught my attention was the reference, not to novels or even to magazine stories, but to plays. I know of literally one detective play, The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie, which I only know about only because I was reading the wikipedia article about Ms. Christie. (Incidentally, it is the longest running play ever put on, being continually put on since 1952. Its 25,000th performance was in 2012.) There is evidence, though, that detective plays were fairly common.

This escaped me in no small part because plays have largely gone away as a form of common entertainment. Aside from high schools and community theater, plays are mostly a broadway affair for wealthy people and tourists in NYC. (This is not quite true, as there are actually plays elsewhere, but it is approximately true.) Back in the day, however, they seem to have had more of the role of television, these days, with plays being frequently written and performed for only a short time to be replaced by others. Television is a superior medium for this sort of fast-paced churn of mediocre writing, so it is natural that it would have eliminated it. But in that vane, we might take all of the episodes of a show like Murder, She Wrote to be somewhat representative of what plays of the era might have been like. Here today, gone tomorrow, and only meant for an evening’s entertainment.

Another blind spot in my knowledge of the time were short stories printed in magazines. Because novels are the dominant form of written fiction in our day, I tend think primarily of the novels written during the early days of detective fiction, or of collections of short stories. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, magazines had enormous circulations and were apparently where the real money was in writing fiction. Even novels which we read today as novels, from the time period, were frequently originally published as serializations in a magazine. But of course short stories were extremely popular.

Of these blind spots, I was to some degree cognizant. What Masters of Mystery really drove home to me was the great number of popular detectives even available in novels which I had never heard of.

I had seen a few references to Dr. Thorndyke in the Lord Peter Wimsey stories—it turns out that he was a character in Dr. Austin Freeman’s popular detective stories. There were many others I had not heard of, though, and the push and pull of what constitutes the ideal detective story, as each writers takes in his turn to write his own detective, is quite interesting to see.

Possibly the most interesting to me at the moment is Mr. A.E.W. Mason’s Inspector Hanaud. First appearing in a story published in 1910, he is thought to have had some influence on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, especially when it comes to physical description, but also to brilliant intuition and a psychological approach. Interestingly, in looking this up to confirm some points on Wikipedia, I ran into this:

Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.

So it seems that perhaps the second most famous detective of all time (the most famous being Sherlock Holmes) drew very heavy inspiration from a number of sources, most of which (aside from Holmes) have been long forgotten.

It is yet more evidence that it is not originality which matters, but the quality of execution.

That said, Agatha Christie was a very original writer. Not, precisely, in her subject matter, but in her approach to it. She managed to pull off things which others could not. Perhaps the greatest example of this is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Prior to this, Fr. Knox, in his decalogue, had given two rules which are here relevant:

  1. (1) The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. (7) The detective himself must not commit the crime.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke both, and did so not only well, but even fairly. So well and so fairly that in a 1938 commentary on his rules, Fr. Knox said:

The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.

One such ingenious story would be enough for everyone, but Mrs. Christie pulled off at least a second, with her Murder on the Orient Express. This one did not break one of the rules of the decalogue, but it did break the generally unstated rule that there should be one or two murderers. Instead, Mrs. Christie pulled off a story in which everyone (with a few minor exceptions) did it. Every suspect (and several non-suspects) turned out to be guilty. Her originality consisted not in the idea—”everyone did it” is the sort of thing anyone might think of—but in figuring out how to make it work.

This is something those of us writing today should take to heart. In English class in high school we hear much about originality and genius. The reality of writing novels is that what really matters is doing a good job.

Question for Readers

One of the downsides to blog statistics is that one gets relatively little information about what people are reading. (Except in the archives, but that’s +/- more about search engine results than anything else.) So I have a question for you, gentle reader.

Of the various things that I write about, is there anything you’d like to see me write more about? Or, somewhat equivalently, when do you think this blog is at its best?

I thank you in advance for any answers you might give.

A Modern Inventor At Work

I’m fond of Joerg Sprave’s YouTube Channel, called The Slingshot Channel. He’s a former strongman who is very into slingshots, as well as pretty much any device which stores muscular energy in order to fire a projectile.

He has often made various sorts of slingshots, which he has sold, but recently he’s been getting into bows with magazines to enable rapid fire. From there, he’s recently developed a magazine-fed slingshot. This reminds me a great deal of the sort of inventions one often saw in the 1800s, except he’s developing them right now.

Here is his video where he presents his first prototype of the “instant rufus”:

It’s very interesting indeed to see someone develop a novel machine that can be made from parts one can buy at a hardware store. It’s quite a bit of creativity on display, here.

One of the Great Mystery Endings

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, written by H. Douglas Thomson in 1931. It’s an interesting book that I will share more from soon(-ish), but there was one little snippet which stands on its own and which I just have to share.

The reprint of The Leavenworth Case attracted some attention. A post-prandial pronouncement of Mr. Baldwin was presumably the origin of this venture, for on the jacket we read in bold black type from some continental foundry:

“Mr. Baldwin—speaking at a dinner of the American Society in London on the 29th of November, 1928, said: ‘An American Woman, the successor of Poe, Anna K. Green gave us The Leavenworth Case, which I still think one of the best detective stories ever written.'”

Something must have been wrong with the dinner. The Leavenworth Case is not by any means a first-class detective story. The detection is singularly elementary. The plot is hopelessly drawn out, and the melodrama is a sample of unnatural and stilted writing. It may be unfair to cut out a sentence or two from its context, but the climax cries aloud for glorious isolation:

“A silence ensued which, like the darkness of Egypt, could be felt. Then a great and terrible cry rang through the room, and a man’s form, rushing from I knew not where, shot by me and fell at Mr. Gryce’s feet shrieking out, ‘It is a lie! A lie! Mary Leavenworth is innocent as a babe unborn! I am the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth. I! I! I!”

I know nothing about The Leavenworth Case, and even my deep curiosity about all things will likely not involve me actually reading the thing. It is interesting to contemplate, however, that such a story was not only written, but published, and a room full of people who had just eaten was told that it was one of the finest detective stories ever written.

There is hope for us all.