My First Weightlifting Competition

This weekend I took part in my first Weightlifting competition. More commonly known as “Olympic Weightlifting,” it’s the sport which is comprised of the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. I made all six of my attempts, below are my best snatch, then clean-and-jerk:

The obvious question to ask is how did I do, and that’s a rather interesting question because there are so many different ways of taking it.

One question to ask is how I did relative to other people, but even that requires clarification. How did I do relative to other people in my weight class? I was in the 109kg weight class (it’s from 102-109), and I totaled more than 100kg behind the next 109 and less than half of what the top 109 lifted. That said, I’ve only been doing Olympic Weightlifting for about two months while they’ve almost certainly been doing it quite a bit longer, so that’s not a very interesting comparison.

I lifted more than the other people in my session (the sessions are broken up by entry total, the session I was in being the one for people with small totals), but that mostly means that I lifted more than some children and a 64 year old man who weighed about three fourths of what I did.

How did I do for someone my size and age who has only been Olympic Weightlifting for two months? I don’t know. I haven’t seen any statistics on weightlifters in the 109kg, 40-45 age group who have only been lifting for two months. And I’ve done powerlifting for years, so I started with a decent (but not amazing) strength base. Are there any statistics for males in my exact situation, or even one similar? Who knows? Who cares?

The problem with trying to answer this question is that when you really dig into it, it either doesn’t matter, or matters but is known to God alone. (That latter one being the moral question of did I apply myself appropriately, given the gifts I have and the relative importance of this task compared to other tasks I’ve been given.)

Some people deal with this issue by saying that in a weightlifting meet like this, when you’re not one of the people who (speaking realistically) might win the cash prize1, you are just competing against yourself. In which case I established a baseline, which is all that I could have done. So, on this metric, I did as well as I could have.

That doesn’t seem quite right to me, though.

It does seem to me that those of us who were never going to win the cash prize were still competing, but not against other people or ourselves. The feeling I got at the meet was that we were all on the same team competing against the weights. When a lifter made a lift, he scored a victory against our common foe.

We didn’t merely cheer for each other and try to encourage each other; that might be mere good sportsmanship. When someone made an attempt, we knew what he was going through and it felt good when he made it, and bad when he missed. The weights he is struggling against are the same weights we struggled against, or would soon struggle against.

We were competing, but it was against the weights. Our opponents were not flesh and blood, but rubber and steel.

  1. There actually was a cash prize in this meet, btw, computed on the basis of Sinclair Score, which is the weightlifting equivalent of the Wilks Coefficient.

How Did YouTube Atheists Get So Stupid?

Something that’s been on my mind for a while since my YouTube channel was found by a few atheist channels for low-intelligence atheists is how it’s possible for people to be as stupid as many of the commenters who showed up are. I don’t mean low-intelligence. Most of them aren’t very bright, but I’ve met plenty of people who aren’t very bright who aren’t stupid. What I mean by stupid is something like, aggressively unable to understand anything. And I don’t mean that they’re stupid because they’ve failed to see that I’m correct—that just makes them wrong—I mean that they don’t even have any idea what I or anyone else is saying. And they’re aggressive about how much they don’t understand it. And I don’t just mean on the subject of contention—I’ve run into idiots who don’t understand what you mean when you say that the sky is blue.

This perplexes me. How is it possible for a human being to get into this condition?

One possibility, of course, is that they’re just trolling me. On the internet where we only have text and not the clues of facial expression, etc.—which are much harder to fake consistently—it’s much easier to troll people. And where the interactions are one-offs, I’m pretty willing to believe that they’re just trolls. But I’ve also had consistent interactions with people over time where this seems less plausible.

In some cases it seems like they’ve imprinted on the Christopher Hitchens debates, where they want someone to try to prove something to them so they can feel smart saying variations of, “I don’t believe you.” It’s curious to watch how often these people don’t even know what they’re saying when they imitate the atheist-Christian debates that they’ve watched. For example, they’ve imprinted on the idea that the atheist position is one of pure negation (the unthinking man’s version of Anthony Flew’s The Presumption of Atheism), and so they always deny that they have made any claims, even right after they’ve made claims. They do this so often it is obvious that they don’t know what a claim is.

I think it’s related that they are also, generally, raging narcissists. They will intrude into discussions of the nature of reality to tell you all about themselves, then demand that you do things for them such as try to convince them of things even when you clearly state you don’t care what they believe.

It’s very strange because their use of language—which is intrinsically rational; it’s no accident that logos meant both “word” and “rationality” and “argument”—makes them seem rational even when everything they say is irrational.

One thing which comes to mind is that perhaps they’re some sort of weird birth defect that never received a human soul; not really human but merely some form of highly clever simian. While theoretically not impossible, this is a dangerous idea and probably should be considered last.

Another possibility is that they are human, but very damaged by anger. Anger is well known for making it difficult for people to think and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that these idiots always seem angry. This isn’t really a better possibility, though, because it does not leave open any greater possibility for helping them than if they’re merely a clever simian. People can choose to be less than human; that is one of the meanings of Hell. You can’t make a person think, if he wills to not think. So what can we do?

I suppose that this is one of those cases where there is nothing to do but be patient and pray. Perhaps, for the people who seem this way, helping them is given to someone else and not to me, and all I can do is pray to strengthen the person to whom helping them has been given.

Dorothy L. Sayers and Clever Murders

Dorothy L. Sayers, with her famous detective Lord Peter Wimsey, is best known for writing literary detective novels, while Agatha Christie is known for writing clever detective novels. Until we come to Gaudy Night, however, Dorothy L. Sayers writing more literary than clever novels was not really for lack of trying. As she said in her chapter of Titles To Fame:

When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the forst “lord Peter” book, it was with the avowed intention of producing something “less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.” Re-reading Whose Body? at this distance of time I observe, with regret, that it is conventional to the last degree…

Whose Body? was conventional not merely in the form of its dialog and the actions of its hero—the best example that comes to mind is that Lord Peter took measurements and examined all manner of things carefully with a magnifying glass. Whose Body? was also conventional in that the mystery had, at its heart, a clever twist. As I alluded to before, she would keep this up for most of the Lord Peter novels until she got to Gaudy Night. The thing I find curious is that, unlike Agatha Christie, the twists mostly wouldn’t have worked. (If it’s not obvious, spoilers will follow.)

Whose Body? Is the main exception to the twists not actually working, because I think it would have worked. A surgeon with access to cadavers for dissection could probably have made the switch and done the relevant dissection work well enough to get the head to look like it fit on the wrong body.

In Unnatural Death, the murder weapon—injecting air into the veins—would not be much of a problem at all unless the syringe was comically large. One estimate I saw was that it would need to be the size of a bicycle pump. Since the victim was drugged at the time of the injection, this is not an entirely insurmountable problem as the murderer had time to pump air in with many strokes, but that would be exceedingly difficult to do without making the injection site obvious, which it needed to not be.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club put the twist in the domain of human relations rather than in the method of murder itself, which meant that the murder would have worked. That said, I am dubious that forensic science in 1928 could measure the amount of digitalis in a person’s blood post-mortem, especially since according to Wikipedia digitalis was first isolated in 1930.

Strong Poison relied on the murderer being able to develop a tolerance to lethal doses of arsenic and thus to give himself a lethal dose at the same time as his victim, by poisoning a shared meal. While this was believed to be possible in the 1920s and 1930s, it turns out to not be possible at all. (The evidence that had been used at the time was the “arsenic eaters” who would eat large lumps of arsenic. It turns out that the thing that saved them was not tolerance but rather the lack of bio-availability of arsenic eaten in lump form. While they were consuming large doses of arsenic, they were also excreting virtually all of it in their solid waste. This does not apply to arsenic dissolved into liquid and put in an omelette, which would have been as fatal to them as to anyone else.)

The Five Red Herrings has as its twist the forging of a railway ticket which, in some strange way, provided an alibi. This one might work out, for all I know; it depends upon the details of the working of the Scottish railway system in 1929 or 1930, which is a thing I doubt is knowable with certainty in the year of our Lord 2023. I couldn’t stand anything about this book, and I still don’t know how I feel about the twist ending making the unbearable time-tables pointless. That said, “he forged the railway ticket” isn’t really a clever twist. Anyone could do it. It’s just in the category of “This obvious thing was surprising because I thought it was against the rules.”

Have His Carcase is a brilliant book and quite possibly my third favorite Lord Peter novel (after Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon.) The twists and turns are done extremely well, with evidence of suicide and evidence of murder alternating masterfully. The solution of hemophilia is both not-obvious and well-laid. The problem, though, is that I don’t think that blood behaves the way that it was described in the book. Granted, I’ve never slashed a healthy man’s throat on a hot rock in the sun but I’ve butchered deer and not cleaned up until the next day and the blood looked liquid enough. Even if human blood behaves differently, the timing doesn’t work out. Harriet took about twenty minutes to take pictures and collect things from the body such as a shoe. It was stated that for the blood to be in the condition described the man could have been killed ten minutes before at the outside. Thus either Harriet should have noticed the blood clotting as expected before she left twenty minutes after finding the body, or else blood doesn’t actually clot that way, or else Harriet mistook what clotted blood looked like, or else something was wrong with the blood. Whichever alternative you prefer, the characters should really have known that the timing was not as tight as they thought. That said, it was great to watch the characters deal with the problem of contradictory evidence and persevere.

Murder Must Advertise doesn’t really have a twist, so it’s an exception to the rule. It does have a massive drug-gang and action which is almost more in the realm of the spy-thriller than the detective story, which I suspect take the place of the twist. That said, using a slingshot to hit someone in the head with a stone scarab in order to knock them unconscious so they die by falling down the stairs is… an uncertain way to commit murder. It could certainly work—blows to the head can be surprisingly fatal. That said, if I wanted to commit murder, hitting a moving target in the head with an irregularly shaped rock using someone else’s slingshot would not be high on my list of methods. It would be too easy to miss the vital few square inches and then there would be a lot of explaining to do.

The Nine Tailors is, perhaps, my second-least favorite of the Lord Peter stories, so I’m probably not the best person to do it justice. That said, the twist in it was that the death was accidental, not intentional. The victim had been left tied-up in a belltower and couldn’t be retreived before an hours-long bellringing event and the loud noise killed him. The problem is that a bell, even close by, isn’t nearly loud enough to kill. To rupture the eardrums, maybe. To cause long-term hearing loss, sure. But to kill with sound requires sound energy approximately on par with explosions—or being way too close to a jet engine. (Sounds with this enormous amount of energy cause air embolisms in the lungs; it does not kill through the ears.)

Then we come to Gaudy Night, which had no twist at all, and I think was also the greatest of the Lord Peter novels. It’s not perfect, but it is a masterpiece.

In fairness, I should mention that Busman’s Honeymoon did have a twist, or at least a very clever trap used to commit the murder. While it would have worked to kill the victim, I am a bit dubious that it could have been set up quite as described without the victim noticing, despite his age and it being dark. This is a minor quibble, though, since the basic premise was sound, and it would not have been too hard to have made the trap less obtrusive.

I don’t really know what to make of all of this, other than the clever mystery seems to have been been very much in the water during the golden age, so much so that even writers who set out to not write them still ended up including elements of them. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the clever mystery, either—Agatha Christie did them brilliantly. To some degree I’m just “thinking out loud” as I find it curious that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote them even though it was not really her thing.

What If Jessica Killed All Those People!

I don’t know why there are so many people who think that suggesting that it would somehow be clever if Murder, She Wrote ended by revealing that Jessica actually killed all of the people and framed all of the people who supposedly did it in each episode. Not only is this an obvious joke, it would be a truly terrible ending.

It is a comparatively minor objection, but this would require contradicting many of the episodes; it’s probably more than half in which the murderer confesses in the end. I suppose you could get around that by making it a science fiction show and giving Jessica mind control powers.

Which brings me to the real problem with this: it’s completely wrong for the genre. If the writers did this, it would just make Murder, She Wrote a comedy, or perhaps some sort of psychological horror show or something. What it would not be is a mystery show.

In this spirit, I’d like to propose a few similarly terrible final episodes for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

  • Picard wakes up from surgery after being stabbed by the Tuskan Raider Nausicaan. He’s still a young ensign. He goes back to the bar and all of the main cast are patrons or servers. (Guinan is a dance hall girl wearing mostly huge pink feathers.)
  • Picard wakes up from taking magic mushrooms in a native american ceremony and the rest of the cast are his fellow shamans. All of the dialog is in Navajo, with subtitles.
  • Instead of the poker game, we then flash to a bunch of kids playing in the back yard of a late 1960s house, with the suggestion that they just watched an episode of the original and TNG has all been them playing pretend. One of the kids is named Beaver. Another is named Dennis.
  • It is revealed that the entire show was actually the Star Trek fanfic of a prematurely balding teenager who looks kind of like Patrick Stewart, which he just finished reading to a hot girl who then flat-out rejects him the moment he’s done, and he commits suicide by drinking a mixture of crushed glass and wine.
  • In the final episode, it is revealed that the main cast are all patients in a lunatic asylum in the 1980s, and Q is actually one of the nurses.
  • We pull back from the final episode to see Lee Harvey Oswald in a chair with one of those things on his face holding his eyes open. It turns out that TNG was actually a torture device people wearing grey robes used to break down his will and make him complacent. We hear him saying, over and over, “I will kill President Kennedy.” This fades to black and Leonard Nemoy walks out and says, “And perhaps this was how the Illuminati killed JFK.”

Aren’t those all brilliant? Wouldn’t it have been so cool if they’d done those instead of what they actually did? Can there be a better way to end a long-running TV show than with a giant out-of-genre F.U. to the fans?

Yes, actually. There can be.

Admittedly, though, this still isn’t as bad as the people who blame superheroes for the actions of supervillains.

GPT4 And Movie Scripts

I asked a friend to have GPT4 (the successor to chatGPT) write a prompt for itself to write a movie script. Here’s the prompt it came up with:

Craft an engaging and original movie script that revolves around an enigmatic object with mysterious powers. The story should include a diverse and dynamic ensemble of characters, each with their own unique backstory, who must come together to uncover the truth behind the object. The plot should feature unexpected twists and turns, with a focus on character development and emotional depth, while incorporating elements of suspense, action, and heartwarming moments. Please provide a complete script, including character dialogues, scene descriptions, and visual details.

I love how generic this description is. To a great degree that’s what chatGPT/GPT4 specializes in; it’s an engine for generating the most probable text that the people who wrote what it was trained on would say. That is, it is a cliché engine.

I should also note, in fairness, that chatGPT/GPT4 is woefully underpowered to generate a full movie script. Those are usually about 100 pages long (the rule of thumb is 1 minute per page for a competently written script), while chatGPT/GPT4 is limited to 4096 “words” (where “word” is defined a bit weirdly, almost more like “syllable”, though not quite). That said, it’s interesting to take a look at what little it can do.

So, here’s the script generated from the prompt:

Title: The Enigma of the Eon Orb


A dimly lit room is filled with ancient artifacts. We focus on a particular exhibit: a small, glowing ORB, encased in glass. This is the EON ORB.

Right off the bat, this is not right for a movie script. A movie script describes what the audience sees and hears, it does not give exposition to the reader as if it’s a narrator in a novel. Movie scripts are essentially the blueprints for creating a movie; you can’t do anything with “This is the EON ORB.” You could probably get away with “The camera focuses in on the exhibit with the EON ORB, though it’s only labeled ‘mysterious artifact'” That lets the prop department know which prop to use.


Establishing shot of the museum. A heist is taking place; masked THIEVES break in and steal the Eon Orb.

Again, this is not how movie scripts work. In a movie script you have to say things like how many people we see, vaguely what they look like, and it needs to describe in detail what they do. This is more like the prompt you might give to an improv group.

Further, how are we supposed to see that they steal the EON ORB from outside the museum? There is a lot of detail available in HD movies these days, especially if you spring for the 4K version, but showing a heist inside a museum from the outside of the museum is asking a lot even of 4K.



AGENT JAMES PARKER (40s, experienced, determined) is briefed about the theft. He learns about the Eon Orb’s mysterious powers and its ability to manipulate time.

Again, not how movie scripts work.

Also, if people knew about the Eon Orb’s mysterious powers and its ability to manipulate time, why was it just left in a museum, rather than in a securely guarded vault?

We need to assemble a team to retrieve this artifact before it falls into the wrong hands.

Who is he talking to? Why does he believe that it has not already fallen into the wrong hands?



That’s not how movie scripts work! You can’t cut to several different places. Or is this meant to be split-screened like the Ang Lee hulk movie which I never saw but I heard was unwatchable because he show several scenes simultaneously in split-screen?

Parker recruits a diverse group of experts for his team:

This is more like a summary than a script, and barely even that.

DR. OLIVIA MARTINEZ (30s, intelligent, strong-willed), an archaeologist with knowledge about the Eon Orb
LENA JONES (late 20s, athletic, tech-savvy), a skilled thief with a troubled past
RAYMOND “RAY” SMITH (40s, charismatic, mysterious), a history professor with expertise in ancient artifacts
RUBY ZHANG (early 20s, quiet, empathetic), a gifted artist who can recreate any object she sees

OK, the archaeologist with knowledge about the Eon Orb I get. A history professor expertise in ancient artifacts… I guess is defensible. Why is the CIA recruiting a tech-savvy skilled thief with a troubled past? Don’t they have tech-savvy people with thief-like skills but without the troubled past in the CIA already? And what on earth could the point be of recruiting an artist who can recreate any object she sees? Is she supposed to make commemorative figurines to help them remember their adventures once it’s over?


The team gathers, and Parker briefs them on the mission.

Yeah, this isn’t how you write a movie script, but it’s also pointless because it’s summarizing one of the few lines of dialog that comes immediately after.

We have intel that a powerful criminal organization is behind the theft. Our mission is to retrieve the Eon Orb before they discover its true power.

The team agrees to work together, despite their differences.

GPT4 really believes in “tell, don’t show.” That said, why does having different jobs mean that they have to agree to work together “despite their differences”? Also, isn’t that what they did when they were recruited? Were they only recruited to hear the briefing and then they’d decide on what they were committing to?


The team travels to different parts of the world, following clues and leads. Along the way, they encounter dangerous situations and form strong bonds.

This is impressively generic, even by chatGPT standards. Also, it’s not a movie script. I need a macro for that…


The team discovers the ORGANIZATION’s hideout. They devise a plan to retrieve the Eon Orb.

The place where they discover the hideout of the ORGANIZATION (what a creative name for a criminal organization!) is outside of an abandoned warehouse? This is also where they devise their plan? They walked up to it planless and only when they were sitting around outside did they devise a plan???

Also, why is the team who is going to infiltrate a hideout in an abandoned warehouse a CIA agent, an archaeologist, a history professor, a thief with a troubled past, and an artist? Remember, these weren’t thrown together by coincidence, they were recruited by the CIA agent. When it comes to sneaking into a criminal organization’s hideout, there’s no one he’d rather have by his side than these people with (possibly aside from the thief) no relevant skills?


The team infiltrates the hideout in an intense action sequence. They succeed in retrieving the Orb, but they accidentally activate its powers.



The team is transported back in time to an ancient civilization, where they meet the original GUARDIANS of the Eon Orb. They learn about the Orb’s true purpose: to maintain balance between the past, present, and future.

You must return the Orb to its rightful place in your time. The balance of the world depends on it.

Wow. What a plot. So the Eon Orb’s purpose is to maintain the balance of past, present, and future. It does this by being in the time where it’s supposed to be. So why does it have a user interface which you can accidentally trigger that sends it to the wrong time? Seriously. The thing’s function is best accomplished by not doing anything with it. Why does it have the ability to allow people to screw that up when literally nothing good can come of it. That would be like putting a self destruct button on a sandbag used for holding floodwaters back. That’s not helpful.

The team faces moral dilemmas and confronts their personal pasts. They grow and learn from their experiences.

Man did this follow the prompt to “feature twists and turns with an emphasis on character development”.


They return to the present, but are discovered by the Organization. A thrilling chase ensues.

I guess we’re supposed to take the script’s word for it that the chase was thrilling.


The team is cornered, but they use their individual skills to outsmart the Organization and escape.

I really want to know which skill the history professor used to outsmart the Organization and escape. No, scratch that, I want to know which object the soft-spoken artist copied perfectly during a thrilling chase which allowed her to escape.


The team returns the Eon Orb to its rightful place, restoring balance to the world.

The script never actually mentioned anything bad happening because the Eon Orb was gone, but OK.


The team says their goodbyes, having formed lifelong bonds.

We’ve come a long way. I’m proud to call you all my friends.

Our paths crossed for a reason. I’ll never forget our journey together.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll cross paths again someday.

I hope so.

Until then

Oh wow is that dialog original!

GPT4 suggests that the title of the movie should be “The Enigma of the Eon Orb,” but I suspect “Action Team Cliché: Origins” would be a better title.

I guess this wasn’t an entirely fair request. It’s not easy to write an original, engaging, heart-warming movie that focuses on character development. Let’s give it something easier.

Here’s GPT4’s attempt at a script for a sequel to Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens:

Title: Star Wars Episode VIII: Shadows of the Past


Commander POE DAMERON is briefing a group of pilots, including REY and FINN.

We’ve discovered an old Imperial outpost on the distant planet, Tython. Our intel indicates that there might be valuable information on the whereabouts of other potential Force-sensitive individuals.

We can’t let the First Order get their hands on that information.

Agreed. We have to get there first.


The Millennium Falcon and several X-wing fighters blast off towards Tython.


The Resistance team arrives on Tython and enters the ancient outpost.


The team explores the outpost, uncovering hidden rooms and ancient artifacts.

(sensing something)
There’s a strong presence of the Force here.

Let’s find that information and get out of here.
[4:26 PM]
As they continue to search, they discover a holocron with the data they need. However, they also awaken an ancient DARK SIDE ENTITY, which attacks them.


The team fights the dark side entity. Rey’s powers are tested as she struggles to protect her friends.


The team escapes the outpost, but the entity follows them. A massive battle ensues between the Resistance and the dark side entity.

We can’t defeat it alone. We need help.

Rey, you have the power within you. Trust the Force.

Rey takes a deep breath and focuses her energy. She harnesses the power of the Force and defeats the entity.


The team returns with the information and is greeted by General Leia Organa.

Well done. With this information, we can find and train others like you, Rey.

The First Order won’t know what hit them.

We’ll be ready.

The movie ends with the promise of a new generation of Jedi and the hope of defeating the First Order once and for all.

Yup. It was better than the one Rian Johnson wrote. (If you’re curious, here’s my twenty seven thousand word review of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Least Jedi.)

Of course, that’s a very low bar to clear. You have to dig in order to find it.

Agatha Christie and Miss Marple

I’m going out on a limb a little, but, Miss Marple is perhaps as iconic a character as Hercule Poirot is. At least most of everyone who has heard of Poirot will have heard of Miss Marple. And while I think Poirot has been adapted into movies more often, Miss Marple might have been more influential. I can’t think of any other detectives who exist because of Poirot, but Murder, She Wrote would not have happened without Miss Marple.

Having said that, there can be no question of which one Agatha Christie wrote more of. There are something like three times as many Poirot stories as Miss Marple stories. Part of this, of course, is that Poirot had a seven year head-start. Those were seven very productive years for Agatha Christie, too—in addition to several Poirot novels, she wrote a great many short stories.

The subject of short stories is interesting, here, for while Poirot first appeared in a novel, Miss Marple first appeared in a short story. Most of the Miss Marple short stories were gathered together into the book The Thirteen Problems, and in the introduction to it—written years after most of the short stories themselves—Agatha Christie opines that Miss Marple is at her best in short stories, while Poirot demands novels. This is curious because she only wrote a few more Miss Marple short stories, while she had yet to write eleven of the twelve Miss Marple novels that she would ever write. This may, perhaps, be attributed to the changing economics of fiction. In the twenties and thirties the real money was in short stories; this was much less the case in the 1950s and 1960s. (I’m not sure how things were in the 1940s; television had not yet taken over from short stories as popular short entertainment but magazines and newspapers were hit hard by the war, especially since paper was in short supply.)

She also remarked in that introduction that Miss Marple was as popular as Poirot—she got about an equal number of letters requesting that she drop Poirot in favor of Miss Marple as requested that she drop Miss Marple in favor of Poirot. And here we come to one of the things that intrigues me about Miss Marple: it was twelve years between the first Miss Marple novel (The Body in the Vicarage, 1930) and the second (The Body in the Library, 1942). While the stories themselves were written (and published) between 1927 and 1930, the foreward to The Thirteen Problems was written in 1932. After declaring Miss Marple to be as popular as Poirot, it would be ten more years before she published another Miss Marple novel. And so far as I can tell looking at original publication dates, she only wrote three Miss Marple short stories in that time, one in 1939 (commissioned by the BBC as a radio play) and two in 1941. Two more would appear in 1942 after the publication of The Body in the Library, another in 1954, and the final Miss Marple short story in 1956.

I can’t help but wonder why it is that Agatha Christie thought that Miss Marple was better in short stories but after the first collection wrote her mostly in novels, and thought her as popular as Poirot but waited twelve years to write more of her.

That said, the wait did her no great harm. Miss Marple was always a creature from a previous age so she did not suffer greatly from how the world changed during and after the second world war—if anything, she felt less out of place after the war than before it. Young people in the 1920s and 1930s were concerned with being Modern in a way that only the hippies of the 1960s came close to. By the 1950s, people simply didn’t look down on their elders as they once did and Miss Marple’s Victorian girlhood was not the object of (indulgent) ridicule that it once was.

Which reminds me: I wonder if Agatha Christie, in writing Miss Marple, was at all inspired by G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Certainly not entirely; she mentions inspiration from her own grandmother who had a sheltered Victorian upbringing and thought the worst of everyone. That said, the indulgent way that people assumed that Miss Marple knew nothing of the world is very reminiscent of the indulgent way that people assumed that Father Brown knew nothing of the world—and they had been assuming that of Father Brown for seventeen years by the time Miss Marple came on the scene. If so, she was inspired well.

But getting back to my main question, I wonder if it was merely that it was harder to come up with plots for Miss Marple stories than it was for Poirot stories. Miss Marple was a very different kind of sleuth and her stories (almost) always involved a great deal more investigation by people other than Miss Marple herself. It would be an exaggeration, but not too much of an exaggeration, to say that until the last few novels Miss Marple didn’t appear in the novels more than she did in the short stories, there was just a lot more of other people in the novels padding them out to full length. This means that the stories for Miss Marple require a setting in which amateurs (or ordinary policemen) can do the investigating and find the clues, but not understand them. This is not so easy to do. It is much more convenient for the author, especially of a novel, to have a detective who can look for clues that most people would not. Often this is unraveling the mystery of a red herring so that it can be set aside and further clues looked for, but it in any event helps.

This is also, I think, why Agatha Christie said that Miss Marple is at her best in short stories. Short stories allow there to be a summarizing of the evidence without much time to think about it, then Miss Marple can give her brilliant interpretation. If this is to be done in a novel, it’s trickier both to come up with a mystery which will last without anyone figuring it out, and also to come up with red herrings that don’t need to be cleared away for the right evidence to be discovered.

This is only speculation and I have little confidence that this is correct. Unfortunately, Agatha Christie says nothing on the subject in her autobiography, so I doubt that I’ll be able to advance much beyond speculation.

The Golden Age and Theories of Detection

One of the characteristics I’ve noticed quite a bit in detective stories from the golden age of mysteries (roughly, From 1890 until the start of World War 2) is how many detectives had a theory of detection which they discussed.

In the very early days, the detectives differentiated themselves from the police through their use of forensic investigation. In the 1890s, Sherlock Holmes performed chemical analysis to prove a stain was blood and wrote a monograph on how to identify cigar ash. In the early 1900s, Dr. Thorndyke looked at everything he could under a microscope, and what he couldn’t he would look at with enlarged photographs.

Sherlock Holmes did not long predate real forensics, though. By 1901 Scotland Yard was using fingerprints to identify people and in 1902 the first conviction was obtained with the use of fingerprint evidence. (See Fingerprints And Forensic Evidence.) It did not take the police long to make use of this kind of forensic evidence, and private detectives began to shift their methods. G.K. Chesterton would revolutionize the field of private detection in 1910 with Father Brown’s psychological approach to solving crimes, and to varying degrees this has been the primary tool of detectives ever since, so no advances in forensic technology can make psychology obsolete.

Through all of these changes, there remained an air of novelty. The brilliant detective during the golden age was not merely brilliant; he had a method. He got his results because he brilliantly followed his method while others either followed the wrong method or else had no method.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this as well as the unjustly neglected second Poirot novel, Murder On the Links. Poirot’s method is contrasted very strongly with that of the indomitably forensic M. Giraud. Giraud examines the crime scene with the utmost care and uncovers impressively small clues. Yet Giraud dismisses a section of pipe as being of no importance because it’s not the kind of clue he’s looking for. As Poirot remarks to Hastings, “Mon Ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres! But it is the romantic idea that all important clues must be infinitesimal!”

Poirot considers all clues because his method is to adjust his theory until nothing is out of place; Giraud’s method is to ignore whatever does not fit his preferred kind of evidence. The point, here, is not the specifics of the contrast, but that the contrast is so important.

Another, though less important, example that comes to mind is in The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. In it the detective, Malcolm Sage, delivers a lecture on how the Police misunderstand the evidentiary value of photographs and fingerprints. They think that photographs are for identification while fingerprints are evidence; in reality fingerprints are for identification and photographs are evidence. He took a series of photographs of the crime scene and announces that they will be the principle evidence at trial, and then uses fingerprint evidence to show that the butler is actually a wanted criminal. I don’t know that the police ever ignored the identificative value of fingerprints or the evidentiary value of photographs, but that’s not the point. In a short story written for entertainment value, the writer and editor thought that the audience of the newspaper would be entertained by a lecture on how the police don’t understand the proper use of evidence.

I’m not sure exactly when this aspect of detective fiction died off. Certainly you can’t find it in the Cadfael series, which started in the 1970s. I can’t think of any detective fiction I’ve read from the 1940s through the 1960s except for Miss Marple. I haven’t read any of the Poirot stories written after 1947 (yet). I don’t remember this in the Miss Marple stories from that time period, but then I don’t recall it in the Miss Marple stories from the golden age, either. (To be fair, that’s only one novel, though it is also most of the short stories.) Miss Marple was never really a detective, though. People told her things and then she would give them the solution. With the exception of Nemesis, and to a lesser extent A Caribbean Mystery, she never went looking for clues of any kind. On the other hand, there were her typical reminiscences of people who committed similar sins in Saint Mary Meade, which was certainly a unique style of detection.

By the time we get to television detectives like Columbo in 1971, the aspect of a unique method is missing. While it might be objected that Columbo is a policeman and therefore cannot contrast with policemen, he is still a contrast with the other officers who do not get nearly the same results.

There is similarly no trace of in the 1980s’ Murder, She Wrote.

So, what happened?

Alternatively, what was special about the golden age?

I’m really not sure which of these questions we should be asking. It is tempting to think that there was something special about the time that the golden age happened. To some degree it was the first time police forces were getting organized and police detectives were becoming a real thing. Advances in technology also made various kinds of detection newly possible, or at least newly practical, and so the whole thing had an air of novelty to it.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that there was simply a fundamental split in the mystery genre, with mysteries taking the psychological and logical aspects of detection and police procedurals taking the forensic aspects of detection.

On the third hand, it may just be that all of the possible theories of detection have been expostulated and all that remains is to do one of them well.

Perhaps it’s a bit of all three.

A Weird Take on the Thief on the Cross

Somehow Instagram (a social media site for looking at pictures of reptiles, though I believe some people look at it for photos of other things) recommended a video to me of a guy who was talking about the thief on the cross. Specifically, the one that upbraided the one who was abusing Jesus, and who asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom, and Jesus said, “this night you will be with me in paradise.” The guy asked, “how does this square with your theology? He wasn’t baptised, didn’t receive communion or confirmation, didn’t give anything to the poor, Jesus didn’t take away his suffering, he didn’t speak in tongues, etc.”

It’s a fairly obvious point, though one worth making from time to time that the ordinary ways that God gives to us to live are not the only ways he gives to people, and while he works through his sacraments he is not bound by them, etc. etc. etc. This is certainly a doctrine of orthodox theology, and you can see it in things like the baptism of blood, the baptism of desire, and so forth. But this guy is making a really big deal of it like he’s the first one to think of it, and also like it’s revolutionary. Somehow he doesn’t seem to take into account that the good thief was nailed to a cross. People tend to focus on the death in excruciating agony part of dying on a cross—reasonably enough—but it’s also a feature of the cross that a person nailed to it can’t do anything. The good thief didn’t do anything for the poor, but he also couldn’t. You can’t extrapolate from that to people who can do things for the poor. It’s just possible that Jesus’ words about the importance of caring for the poor might have some applicability. In short, just because it’s possible to be saved while nailed to a cross doesn’t mean that no one should bother with anything other than what a person nailed to a cross can do.

Then he went full-heretic (never go full-heretic). He said that the only thing that the thief had to offer Jesus was his belief.

This is dead wrong.

It is true that people can’t buy salvation with their good works. It is equally true that people can’t buy salvation with their belief. People simply can’t buy salvation.

Salvation is a gift from God freely given to us. The thing is, we have to accept it. And this is where we come to the part where Jesus said, “It is not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ who enters the kingdom of heaven but he who does the will of my Father.” Good works are the content of faith. It is possible for one to have faith without works where those works are prevented, but for most of us this is academic. Most of us are not nailed to a cross. Most of us have the opportunity to live according to the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection.

I find it really weird that there are people who are still trying to peddle the idea that salvation is a matter of pledging allegiance to Team God or having some sort of emotional experience of “belief”. I get why Martin Luther tried to redefine faith so as try to get rid of the need to trust God without having to get out of having the word; it made sense in the context in which he found himself. These days, there are much easier ways of not being Christian.

Just Imagine What It Will Be Able To Do!

Something I hear a lot when it comes to the recent AI stuff like Stable Diffusion, Dall-E, chatGPT, etc. etc. etc. is some version of “this technology is just in its infancy, imagine what it will be able to do in a few years!” I’m not saying that these AI technologies won’t improve, but the thing is, it’s just not true that these technologies are in their infancy. These technologies are all developments of technologies which have been worked on for decades.

At their core, these approaches are various ways of doing massive quantities of massive matrix multiplications in order to encode the relationships between data. The T in chatGPT stands for “Transformer,” which is a variant of the previous types which had generally had some form of “neural” in the their name, such as Convolutional Neural Networks or Recurrent Neural Networks. In particular, Transformers (which were first mentioned publicly by a team at Google in 2017) replaced RNNs as the model of choice in natural language processing by being simpler and having the feature of being able to do the pre-training in parallel, which made vastly larger training data sets feasible.

Transformers were not a radically new idea that created a field which didn’t exist before; they were a new approach which was created because a large number of well funded smart people had been working in the field for a long time on relatively similar approaches. It’s an innovation which yielded noticeably better results, it might even be a breakthrough. What it’s not is the first dipping of humanity’s toe into something no one had ever done before. It may be the first supersonic flight; it is not the first flight at Kitty Hawk.

Moreover, the hardware to execute these things has been under development for a very long time. A huge breakthrough in performance came when the AI algorithms were adapted to run on GPUs (graphics processing units, the things that do all of the calculations for 3D graphics). This provided a relatively inexpensive source of incredibly high performance in number crunching that made the massive amount of processing involved in AI far more accessible. The thing is, this was like a decade ago. Since then special-purpose GPUs have been created to do the work even more cost-effectively (One I know of in the current generation of them is the nVidia A100 which costs around $10,000). But wait, there’s more!

Cerebras developed the Wafer Scale Engine—an AI processing chip the size of an entire silicon wafer—back in 2019. It’s an impressive piece of technology; it consumes about 22kW of electricity in a silicon wafer that’s 300mm in diameter (basically, 1 foot wide). It’s quite a technical achievement, but it went on sale back in 2019. There will be newer and better ones, to be sure, but it’s not a new idea with completely untapped potential.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this is the end of technological development, or that AI won’t get any better. It would be outright shocking if there were no further improvements. My point is that the improvements that we’re going to see are most likely to be much slower than the people who don’t know anything about the history of AI development think it will be. We’re not at the very beginning of an exponential curve.

I do strongly suspect that generative AI is going to be useful, just as classificational AI has proven useful. The thing is, classificational AI has been with us for a while—it’s things like face unlock on phones and de-noising of video and audio and actually usable speech-to-text. It’s gotten better, and it continues to get better, but speaking as someone who develops technology: a technology becomes viable when it works all of the times for a use, not merely when it can do an impressive demo under favorable circumstances. And in the real world, edge cases are often 99% of the work and not being able to handle them often means that a tool is more work than it saves. The result is frequently a limited-use tool for cases which the new technology is good at, and it’s one more tool in the toolbox of a human being who can handle all the edge cases.

That’s why the result of all of the labor-saving devices is people being so busy all the time.

Poirot, ITV, and the 1920s

Something curious about the ITV version of Poirot is that (with the exception of The Mysterious Affair at Styles) all of its episodes were set in the 1920s. Not literally the 1920s, per se; I’m sure that plenty of the technology or fashions were from the 1930s, but neither the Great Depression nor the looming war due to the military buildup of Germany ever feature.

This is not true at all of the novels.

The Poirot novels are always set contemporaneously to when they were written and current events, or at least current conditions, play into the plot. The only anachronism is Poirot himself; when Agatha Christie first wrote him, she presented him as being at least in his sixties. In her autobiography she mentioned that this was an unfortunate choice on her part, but she had no idea how popular he would be or how long he would last, and as of the time of her writing about it he had to have been over 100 by then. She simply ignored this problem and made Poirot always an old man of unspecified age.

When ITV made its version of the stories with David Suchet, they chose to set all of the stories in the same few years, though rarely with anything that would date them. There were practical reasons for this, of course. For example, it would be difficult to age the actors appropriately by decades in order to follow the real stories. Wardrobe and set decoration would be far more difficult if they kept track of the changing styles. Moreover, a series of episodes (or short movies) would be far more jarring if they skipped forward by years every few weeks or months, while the books always skipped ahead by however long it had been since the last one.

However many practical reasons to set Poirot in the span of a few years, though, I suspect that the biggest reason was that the 1920s are simply far more interesting, and far prettier, than later decades. This isn’t the totality of the 1920s, of course. Poirot was a celebrity and tended to deal with clients of means. Accordingly, the stories are set largely among the prettier parts of the 1920s. This is as it should be. Detective stories are stories for the common man, and so they should deal with things that he will not normally come across. Fiction about the lower classes is the domain of the upper classes, who need to read about drudgery and difficulty to find variety from their lives.

There are complex reasons why this should be, but the one thing I think it isn’t is rose-colored glasses from anyone’s past. By the 1990s when ITV was making the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, the 1920s were seventy years before. No one remembered them. Instead, if we look to the specifics, we will find a decent answer. The 1930s were an interesting time but heavily influenced by the world-wide Great Depression and in the later portion by the looming war on the European continent. The 1940s were dominated by the second World War, to the point where no one ever talks about the events of 1946-1950. The 1950s had a primarily industrial aesthetic, as people took refuge in the post-war plenty which was so different from the great depression and the war years. In more rarified circles, architects and designers were greatly attracted to anything which was not beautiful. This was the era of the Helvetica font and the beginning of the era of buildings which no one likes. The 1960s spiraled off into kaleidescopic colors that meant nothing but were fun and new. The 1970s were, of course, varied, but let us leave it with two words: shag carpet. That takes us to the end of when Poirot stories were written, but for completeness: the 1980s were the era of big shoulder pads and bigger hair with leather jackets and denim jackets, while the 1990s… I wonder what the style of the 1990s even was? T-shirts and jeans or shorts? It’s been thirty years since 1993, and has anyone figured out anything to be nostalgic for? Classic video games are the only thing that I can think of.

Anyway, I think that I’ve made the point. The 1920s are an era with a fascinating aesthetic that’s pleasing to look at, and it was the last time to have that for quite some time. (Portions of the 1930s were more-or-less continuous with the 1920s, but I’m counting them as part of it since they were, aesthetically, a continuation of them.) There will be others, of course. At some point our fascination with trying to see how little clothing people can wear will be over, and people will try to make their clothing interesting rather than revealing, again.

This is not the same thing as nostalgia for the 1920s, by the way. I don’t think that it being fun for Poirot to be set in the 1920s is nearly the same thing as wishing to live in the 1920s. It’s merely a recognition that the interesting parts of the 1920s were very interesting, while the interesting parts of later decades weren’t nearly so interesting.

There is also the argument to be made that the 1920s (and 30s) were the last real era of the private detective. After World War 2 we live much more in the era of the spy thriller. In the spy thriller people kill and are killed for governments and large organizations; we don’t care nearly so much for the concerns of the individual. There may be some truth to this, though for all that people still go on murdering people for their own reasons even in the 2020s, and people even still care when people are murdered. It may be fewer than in former times, but detective stories were always about unusual people.

Lord, Have Mercy on Me, A Sinner

In which I discuss that referring to myself as a sinner is simply true and not rhetorical, as well as draw some lessons to when others (such as Bishop Barron) refer to themselves as sinners and how that should be taken seriously (but without speculating as to the specifics).

The title of the video is a reference to one of my favorite prayers, the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (This prayer is, itself, a reference to the publican in the story of the pharisee and the publican.)

ChatGPT is Frequently Misunderstood

A while back I looked into a paper that described the actual mathematics/programming behind chatGPT (really, behind GPT3, which is basically the same thing but with a less sophisticated front-end). I find it interesting how often the thing is misunderstood.

ChatGPT is, as it will candidly tell you, a Large Language Model. That language part is very important. It does not model facts, or concepts; it has no understanding of anything. It does not try to have an understanding of anything. What it does is model language, but not in the way that grammarians model language. It models how language is used in practice. That is, it is a model of the sort of things that people actually say.

Without getting into the details of how the model works, it is enough to know that it was trained by taking in the appearance and order of words within approximately everything that the people at openAI were able to scrape off of the internet about two years before going public with chatGPT.

(This, btw, is the big improvement in chatGPT over previous large language models; the T stands for “transformer” and is a particular kind of use of matrices which allows the model to be “trained” in parallel, which allows for massively larger training sets than had previously been used in large language models. That said, its interesting to note that you can’t increase the training size to much larger than “approximately all of the text that has ever been written”, so on this basis alone we’d expect to see improvements in large language models slowing down after chatGPT because improved training is no longer an option. By contrast, this is not a problem for image-generating AI training. Generating massively larger numbers of images is quite straight forward.)

The output of chatGPT can loosely but accurately be described as “the words that the people who wrote the text chatGPT was trained on would probably say following whatever you said to it.” It doesn’t understand subjects and has no concept of what it is saying or the truth or falsity of what it is saying, it only has a concept of the probability of words appearing in an order on the basis of what words came earlier.

Like all modern “AI” stuff, the “AI” part takes input and produces output that a human being would not recognize as related to what the AI is being used for. Translating from a use case into the input of the AI model, and translating from its output back to the use case, is the work of programs written in normal programming languages that the programmers understand quite well. This front-end software is responsible for things like chatGPT being able to use references to previous subjects, or handle special cases like refusing to tell people how to commit crimes or adding a disclaimer to everything it says that is fitness-related that you should consult a doctor. They seem to be constantly adding more to this front-end, such as the ability to take instructions like, “write a sentence that ends in the word apple.” A language model only produces a set of words in order that are probable based on its training set; following directions is not related to this. Thus any amount of following directions is entirely in the front-end and consists of programmers looking at what kinds of instructions it’s been given and writing front-end code to handle those cases.

I’ve heard people say things like, “if they add the ability for it to check whether the things it is saying are true,” but no one has developed an AI which can identify what parts of a sentence constitute facts that could be checked. Consider a simple sentence like, “Mary, Queen of Scotts, once placed a bet on a game of tennis.”

What even are the facts that the sentence asserts? Let’s list them:

  • A person named Mary exists (or perhaps is a fictional character in a published work)
  • She was queen of the Scotts
  • The Scotts are a people, specially who live in Scottland
  • Scottland exists (or existed)
  • There was at least one event at which this Mary made a bet
  • That bet was on a game of tennis (anywhere)
  • A game of tennis was played during the lifetime of Mary, Queen of Scotts

Some of these facts do imply others. For example: if Mary did in fact bet on a game of tennis, then it must be the case that a game of tennis was played during Mary’s lifetime. That is not necessarily the order you want to check them, though; it is common when fact checking to start with the easy-to-check facts.

There are complications, though. When we say “tennis” do we mean the medieval game played in an indoor court in which the walls (and some roofs) were in play, or do we mean “lawn tennis” which is the modern use of “tennis.” Is the sentence asserting something about Mary relating to the modern game of tennis, or only to the game which was more popularly played in her day and from which the modern game called “tennis” (more properly, “lawn tennis”) is derived?

ChatGPT doesn’t even begin to have anything within its model relevant to answering any of these questions.

Was She Pretty?

In the novel The A.B.C. Murders, Hercule Poirot asks an interesting question about a murder victim. There are two versions of it I’m aware of; one is the version that Agatha Christie wrote and the other the version in the ITV version starring David Suchet. I’m going to quote both versions because they’re interesting to compare.

First, the original:

“Pas ga. I wondered — if she were pretty?”

“As to that I’ve no information ,” said Inspector Crome with a hint of withdrawal. His manner said: “Really — these foreigners! All the same!”

A final look of amusement came into Poirot’s eyes.

“It does not seem to you important, that? Yet, pour une femme, it is of the first importance. Often it decides her destiny!”

Then, the ITV version (which replaced Inspector Crome with Chief Inspector Japp):

Poirot: Was she pretty?
Inspector Japp: There he goes again.
Poirot: That does not seem to be important? Mais pour un femme, it is of the first importance. It often decides her destiny.

Curiously, that’s rather different than how I remembered it, and much closer to the book. I remembered the exchange in the ITV version as something like:

Poirot: Was she pretty?
Japp: What does that matter?
Poirot: Poor girl, it mattered a great deal to her. It decided the whole course of her life.

It is interesting to me that I misremembered the ITV version so much, though to be fair to me I like my version better. Since you, dear reader, are not me, I presume that Agatha Christie’s version is the most interesting, here, and quite rightly so.

A great deal of detective fiction might be written by a male or female author, but occasionally one comes across a passage that seems like it could only have been written by one or the other. This is one such passage. I can only imagine a woman writing this. It’s not that only a woman would know it; we all know that physical beauty affects the lives of both sexes. Perhaps the best way I can describe what I mean is another example of this, from the Hamish MacBeth story Death of a Gossip.

I had mentioned to a female friend of mine that the story was very markedly written by a woman and she jokingly asked, “what, did it have no descriptions of women’s breasts?”

“Oh, no, it’s got plenty of descriptions of women’s breasts,” I replied. “Just never in admiration.”

In the exchange above, whether the woman was pretty was quite relevant to the detection. She was strangled with her own belt and it takes an unusual kind of man to charm the belt off of a pretty woman for the simple reason that she will be used to getting attention from men and so to charm her he will need to be above average. Or as Poirot puts it:

Betty Barnard was a flirt. She liked attention from a personable male. Therefore A.B.C., to persuade her to come out with him, must have had a certain amount of attraction — of le sex appeal! He must be able, as you English say, to ‘get off.’ He must be capable of the click!

Since it is directly relevant to the solving of the murder, any author might have thought of it or mentioned it. There is just something about how it was mentioned which seems distinctly feminine to me, even though it is put in the mouth of a male character. It’s hard to articulate what, since it’s subtle.

I think it’s the sympathy involved.

Males are tempted to treat beautiful women better than plain women and so it is a mark of virtue to a male to treat plain women as well as he treats beautiful women. A male recognizes the temptation otherwise, but (a virtuous one) regrets it as the effect of a fallen world. Since women are affected by this temptation but are not actually tempted by it, their primary concern is on its effects, not on avoiding it. When Poirot says that whether a woman is pretty many decide her whole destiny, it only speaks to concern with the effect.

However that goes, it is a relatively subtle point that Agatha Christie handled very deftly. Her writing tended toward the plain side, but her psychology and her plots were masterful. This may well be why she is one of the best selling authors of all time; the plain style of her writing makes it extremely accessible, while at the same time the brilliance of the plot is easy to see.

The Man Born Blind vs. Pontius Pilate

Last Sunday’s reading at Mass was from the Gospel of John, and was the story about Jesus giving sight to the man born blind. Towards the end of the story, after the man born blind is questioned by the pharisees, he runs into Jesus, who asks the man whether he believes in the Son of Man. The man born blind asks a very interesting question: “Who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him?” (emphasis mine.)

It is interesting to contrast this with Pontius Pilate when Jesus said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. And those who are of the truth hear my voice.” Pilate’s response was, “Truth? What is truth?”

Jesus answered only one of these men, though they were, in a sense, asking the same question.

It’s interesting to contemplate why.

They were asking essentially the same question, but for opposite reasons. The man born blind was asking so that he may believe. A man cannot believe in something he does not know; faith is not the opposite of knowledge, but actually impossible without knowledge. The man who was born blind was willing to have faith, but he did not yet have the knowledge which would let him have faith, so he asked for it.

Pontius Pilate asked for knowledge in order to avoid believing in it. His question was not the seeking of truth but rather the denial of the possibility of attaining truth.

Despite what internet trolls will tell you, questions are not neutral things. We do not encounter questions floating in a vacuum. Questions always come from questioners, and questioners always have a goal in asking their questions.

As G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, motives matter:

But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men, and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested: he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, “I am sorry to say we are ruined,” and is not sorry at all. And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it. Because he is allowed to be pessimistic as a military adviser he is being pessimistic as a recruiting sergeant. Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot) uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away the people from her flag. Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive. It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help the men.

Looking at USA All-Cause Mortality

Back during the pandemic I did a number of posts looking at all-cause mortality in the USA. As a reminder, all-cause mortality is worth looking at because of the clarity of its definition. To give an example, if somebody has COPD and gets COVID-19 and dies, but probably wouldn’t have died if they only had one (then; COPD is eventually fatal), do you classify that as a COVID-19 death or a COPD death? Or as both? Different medical systems will reasonably differ on this question. (Then there are far less reasonable diagnostic criteria, like recording all deaths where a person had COVID-19 regardless of the cause of death.) This stuff can vary from hospital to hospital and state to state.

All-cause mortality data gets around these problems because, while it can be hard to agree on why a person died, it’s easy to agree on whether they died. Eventually. There is still the problem that it can take months for a death to actually be reported to the CDC. So much so that the CDC doesn’t even bother publishing all-cause mortality data for the most recently two weeks, and there’s very little point in looking at the last 3-6 weeks of data that they do publish. (They have algorithms that try to predict how many deaths will be reported eventually based on the data that has been reported so far, but it has a tendency to under-count what eventually gets reported.)

As I said, I put up several posts looking at this during the pandemic, and I recently became curious to look at it again now that the pandemic is in retrospect. So, here’s the data from the CDC as of February 20, 2023:

Let’s look at it a bit closer. To make the time frame of the data a little easier to follow, I’ve marked the approximate location of January 1 with yellow lines and the approximate location of July 1 with green lines:

If you’re curious, the Pfizer vaccine received emergency use authorization in December of 2020. The more infectious Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 was named in March of 2021. The Delta variant had mutations in the spike protein which is how the virus enters cells as well as the thing that the vaccine gives the immune system to detect. This simultaneously made it better at entering cells, and also reduced the efficacy of the immune response acquired through vaccination or infection with the original variant.

Because I sometimes would look at Sweden’s data, here’s their COVID-19 deaths/day as reported by the Swedish government:

I’m told by a Swedish friend that “avlidna” literally means something like “release from suffering.”

This data is in no way directly comparable to the all-cause mortality data above, but it is none-the-less interesting to note how, with the exception of Summer 2020, the spikes like up pretty well. It is widely theorized that the US’s summer spikes correspond to air-conditioning season in the southern united states, when people stay indoors during waking hours. To the best of my knowledge, Swedish summers are far more mild than are the summers in the American south, so one would expect them to be absent.

That hypothesis brings up an interesting question looking at the USA data, though: why was there no summer spike in 2021? There was a spike in deaths in the fall of 2021, not the summer. One explanation is that COVID-19 deaths started taking longer since the onset of infection to kill people (or at least to contribute to their death). If that is the case we would expect all subsequent spikes in deaths to also come later and, indeed, they do. The winter spike in deaths (in early 2022) also came later than the spike in the winter of 2020/ 2021.

If that is the case, why should it be? One hypothesis which covers these facts—though is in no way certain—is that later mutations of SARS-CoV-2 took much longer to kill people than the original ones did. Another hypothesis which would explain the delay is that the most vulnerable people were killed off in the first waves, and everyone who is left are less susceptible. (Though they are less susceptible, it can still contribute to their deaths when they are weakened by other diseases.) These are just two hypotheses; the truth could involve some version of either, both, or neither.

Of course, another explanation which covers this data is that the response to the increases in prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, or very technically, the response to increasing numbers of positive SARS-CoV-2 tests, was responsible for the increase in deaths. This will, of course, vary among the states as they had very different responses to COVID; some states like California were known for draconian measures, while other states imposed very few restrictions, and many were inbetween. It is reasonable to suppose that the extra stress of lockdowns, closure of businesses, etc. would have some negative effect. There are no actions without consequences and it would be absurd to suppose that drastic actions like the ones taken in response to COVID-19 are free.

For reasons relating to other data I’ve looked into but don’t have time to get into here, I am skeptical that this explains all of the increase in mortality over the years before COVID, but I haven’t seen any data to conclusively rule that possibility out. I am also a bit resistant to this explanation because it would be too convenient; I think that the responses to COVID-19, after the first few months, were wildly overblown and a massive overreach of government power. Lockdowns could be justified in the face of a pandemic of the magnitude of the Black Death—something that could kill off a third of the population in a short time. During the very early rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 there were reasons to believe that SARS-CoV-2 was an escaped bio-weapon that could have been that kind of threat—the kind of threat which could potentially justify temporarily suspending all of the normal rules of society. After a few months it was obvious that SARS-CoV-2, escaped bio-weapon or not, was in no way another Black Death. Since I think that what ensued as an unjustified massive overreaction, it would be very convenient if SARS-CoV-2 was barely worse than a normal flu and most of the bad consequences of it were actually due to what I consider to be an overreaction.

I like to be careful of convenient conclusions, especially when conclusive evidence is intrinsically hard to come by.

Whatever the cause and whatever exactly happened, it does seem very clear that it’s over. A few people still wear masks, but few enough that they might all be immuno-compromised people for whom trying to filter the air that they breathe in public places makes sense anyway. We still have some lingering excess mortality, though only slightly. It was never all that high—this is more clear when you look on a multi-year timescale rather than zooming in—and it is very possible that the last few years were a perfect example of Alexander Pope’s line, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”

We had tests to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but we didn’t know how it spread, how bad it was, or how bad it would be. Thirty years before, without the tests to detect the virus, the entire experience might have been radically different. The absolute worst weeks had increases in mortality of about 40%, but a 40% increase in a small number is still small. Throughout everything, there were only a few cases of hospitals becoming so over-full that they had to send patients elsewhere and there were no (or at least statistically no) instances of people dying because of a lack of treatment because the hospitals were full. Without the PCR tests that could detect the virus without symptoms (or with symptoms that could be a cold or the flu), and thus allow us to map out its spread, we might not have done much more than think that there was a nasty flu for a few years.

Samsung Cameras And the Moon

I recently came across this interesting video on a quasi-scandal involving Samsung smartphone cameras taking better pictures of the moon than the physical camera elements actually allows:

The video brings up an interesting question about what the pictures that smartphones take actually are. In the video Marques proposes that the images that the smartphone generates are something along the lines of an image which is what the smartphone “thinks” you want the slice of reality you were trying to capture to look like.

It’s no secret that smartphones these days do massive amounts of processing on the photos that they take and that this goes way beyond removing noise and compensating for camera shake; for years now they’ve been actively recognizing the subject in front of them and adjusting focus, faking bokeh (the way in which subjects behind the focal plane are blurred), punching up colors, adjusting contrast in only some parts of the picture, etc. etc. etc.

There is a problem with this when it comes to taking pictures of the moon, though, because there is only one moon, we only ever see one part of it because it’s tidally locked to the earth, and we’re so far away from it that there is effectively only one angle to take the pictures from. In short, except for haze in the atmosphere or objects in front, there’s only one picture you can take of the moon.

Using AI to improve pictures of the moon is thus not easily distinguished from just replacing your picture with a better picture of the moon. It is different; the approach Samsung uses preserves whatever color in the moon you see due to haze in the atmosphere (a honey moon, a red moon, etc) and won’t override a cloud or bird in front of the moon when you take the picture. But if you’re not capturing weird lighting or something in front of the moon, a cleared-up version of your picture of the moon isn’t really different from just using a better picture instead.

Smartphones have been clearing up the pictures that they take for a long time now, and for the most part people don’t really object. (Every now and then when posting pictures of my superdwarf reticulated python to Instagram I have to note that the camera punched up the color, though it’s not a big deal because it’s what he looks like outdoors in sunlight, so it’s only a slight inaccuracy.)

It’s just weird that there happens to be a subject where you can only take one picture and so the AI image enhancement doesn’t need your original photo to present a clearer version of the photo you took. From what we can tell it does use your photo and doesn’t improve every photo of the moon to a pixel-perfect photo of the moon, but in some sense that’s just an implementation detail and imperfect photo enhancement, respectively.

Of course, the same thing that makes this a problem makes it purely academic; there’s no important reason to take photos of the moon because at best they look exactly like photos you can easily look up. And if you’re doing it for fun, you’re going to use a real camera not a smartphone camera.

It is an interesting academic problem, though.

Mysteries and Changing Society

During the golden age of mysteries, a great many of the stories were (of necessity) set against the backdrop of drastic changes in society. These changes often provided motives as well as opportunities for the murders. Motives would often be the desire for money to be used on something other than maintaining the vestiges of an old way of life that the new generation is not interested in. The opportunity provided is often along the lines of a large house with few people in them. It’s that latter part that really interests me at the moment.

Large, derelict houses make great settings for mysteries, and I think that this is especially the case in mysteries for children. Scooby Doo was very frequently set in large houses with few people in them, isolated from their neighbors by large plots of land. These are things that most easily happen when societal changes make things that had been popular, or at least populous, less so. When things get abandoned, or even just partially abandoned, there become the remnants of things that people used to do without there being the people around to explain what they were. This makes such a setting is intrinsically mysterious. Whatever crimes a villain is currently committing, there are many things that need an explanation but without the people present who know what they are to give the explanation. Figuring them out, then figuring out which of these is innocuous and which nefarious can provide a wealth of things for the detective to use his intellect on.

This scope for investigation provided by the former scene of a bustling community now in some state of abandonment can be amplified by the intertwining of the current mystery with previous events. This can take the form of treasure which can be discovered or inherited, but it can also take the form of the deeds or misdeeds of the past influencing revenge in the present. It can take the form of both, separately or intertwining.

So how do we make use of this in contemporary murder mysteries? (I mean, murder mysteries set in at least approximately the time of their writing, as opposed to historical murder mysteries.) Many of the social changes which formed fertile ground for Golden Age murder mysteries are, in the twenty first century, over. The remnants of the medieval system are now pretty much entirely gone in England and, to the degree that the southern plantations and robber barons of the United States formed some counterpart, they’re gone too. We still have billionaires, of course, but for a variety of reasons they have fewer servants. (Part of this is technology, part of it is a more efficient economic system where things like cleaning and landscaping are more efficiently done by companies with specialized equipment who service multiple clients.) Even where a billionaire has something potentially interesting like a hundred million dollar yacht, the things are all new. An American billionaire’s household was assembled fairly recently. The odds are pretty good that his house was built fairly recently. The odds of a billionaire’s parents being billionaires is… not high. There are wealthy families, of course, and some of them even have history. I think these can work for this kind of murder mystery—the wealth of wealthy families tends to substantially diminish with each generation. There are exceptions, of course, but children are so frequently different from their parents that it’s rare for the grandchildren of someone who built up a fortune to have even a quarter of their grandfather’s talent for making money, and even less of his being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that talent.

I suspect that there is more, in the contemporary United States, that can be made of institutions falling on hard times. That happens in all ages, but especially in our contemporary industrial times. Businesses, schools, hospitals, and more go out of business all the time; plenty come close to it or shrink before they’re bought out by competitors. Not every business would be ripe for this kind of setting, but I suspect a lot would. If one couples this with the advisability of Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery, there’s a lot of fertile ground, here.

How To Get a Girlfriend

This is, admittedly, very similar to a previous video, but this one is one hour long instead of two! And it covers how to keep an acquaintanceship ambiguous in order to create space for the two people to get to know each other without having to make rush judgements.

Some day I will break this into several videos by specific subjects, and with God’s grace they’ll be like 15 minutes each…

Three Act Tragedy

Published in 1935, Three Act Tragedy was the eighth novel by Agatha Christie to feature Hercule Poirot. It is unusual among (early) Poirot novels in that Poirot is not the main detective in the story.

The basic setup is that Famed Actor Sir Charles Cartwright is hosting a dinner party at which Poirot is attending (I can’t recall why Poirot was in the neighborhood; he might have been retired at this point) and one of the attendees of the party—a charming older vicar—keels over dead with no obvious cause. A few months later, one of the other attendees at the party, a psychiatrist by the name of Sir Bartholomew Strange, keels over dead at a party at his own house in the same way. This time instead of attributing it to heart trouble, it is discovered that he died of nicotine poisoning. Sir Charles and another of the guests, Mr. Satterthwaite, investigate, along with a precocious young woman who goes by the nickname Egg. The three occasionally consult with Poirot during their investigation, which is his involvement until he reveals the murderer at the end.

NOTE: there are spoilers after this point.

This book was very much about the theater, or at least about theatrics. It begins and ends with theatrics, and much of it is taken up with the theatrical personality of Sir Charles Cartwright. It is even divided into three acts which are titled, in theatrical terms, Suspicion, Certainty, and Discovery. It’s a bit hard to relate to this; stage actors are a different breed from movie actors. By 1935 movies were well on their way to replacing the theater as the dominant form of acting-based entertainment, but this novel was not really about 1935. Sir Charles had retired from the stage by now; Three Act Tragedy was about the aftermath of things that had been, not things that are currently.

The most memorable scene, to me, was Sir Charles employing his acting skill to reconstruct what the butler Ellis had done based on clues and to find the sheets of paper which no other detective had found. It’s a vivid scene, but it is diminished in the recollection by the fact that Sir Charles had planted the papers there himself, and Ellis had not, in fact, been interrupted.

The story is well constructed and like most Christies, the plot is original and clever. The murder of the vicar being a dress rehearsal for the murder of Dr. Strange was certainly an original motive for murder and yet a plausible one. Not so plausible when described as Sir Charles following his actor’s instincts and doing a dress rehearsal, but if it’s not presented so theatrically, testing out a type of poisoning which is supposed to go undetected on a victim to whom one has no motive to kill him is reasonable, if diabolical. But demons still have their reason, and it makes sense.

It’s also curious that this book ends with an explanation that was probably much inquired about Poirot:

“You’ll excuse me—” said Mr. Satterthwaite.

“Yes, there is some point you wanted explained to you?”

“There is one thing I want to know.”

“Ask then.”

“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”

Poirot laughed.

“Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say—a foreigner—he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people—instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added. “it has become a habit.”

That is not the actual ending, though. A little after this comes the true ending:

Mr. Satterthwaite looked cheerful.

Suddenly an idea struck him. His jaw fell.

“My goodness,” he cried, “I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoning cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me.”

“There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered,” said Poirot.


“It might have been ME,” said Hercule Poirot.

Murder She Wrote: A Little Night Work

On the thirtieth day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the second episode of the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote aired. Titled A Little Night Work and set in New York City, it features the introduction of the recurring character Dennis Stanton, though he may not have been intended as a recurring character in this episode. (Last week’s episode was J.B. As In Jailbird.)

The scene opens at a party in a hotel. (The party has something to do with celebrating the candidacy for the senate of business magnate Axel Weingard.) Here is Axel and his wife Marta:

Is it just me or does it look like Axel is wearing a tuxedo-printed t-shirt under his jacket?

They make it clear in a few short sentences that they are both loathesome people, the sort that make one regret that Murder, She Wrote almost never has a double-murder in it.

A couple who they know come over and the woman gushes over Marta’s necklace. The man asks if it’s wise for Marta to actually wear the necklace, especially in New York City. Axel says that normally he would agree, but in this case they live in the hotel (top floor), so Marta won’t be wearing it on the streets.

As Axel walks off, a busboy named Andy looks at him ominously:

If looks could… mildly insult people.

I think this puts the probability of one of Axel or Marta being killed at about 99%, and the odds that Andy did it at about 0.1% but the odds that he’s suspected of it at at least 80%.

Next Theo Wexler, played by Klinger Jamie Farr, comes up and introduces himself to Axel.

I don’t like to type-cast actors, but it’s weird seeing Jamie Farr in a suit.

He’s a literary agent, and, as it turns out, he’s Jessica’s new agent. He calls Jessica over as she walks into the room and introduces her to Axel (one of the businesses he’s in charge of is Windsong House, which is, presumably, a publisher). Axel is delighted to meet her, but when Theo tries to talk business he is very stern that he conducts business during business hours. I’m not sure if the idea is that he is rigorous about enforcing a work/life balance or that he’s trying to get elected to the senate right now and this is not time to discuss other kinds of business, or just that he deals with shlubs like Theo only when he has to.

After Axel excuses himself, Jessica is rather annoyed with Theo because he is not, in fact, her new agent. Her long-time agent just retired and Theo merely bought out his agency. Jessica has not signed with Theo and isn’t sure that she will. I guess that a man who tried to get out of the Korean war by wearing a dress doesn’t seem to be Jessica’s type of agent.

The star of this episode then walks in.

Even in this still shot you can feel the charisma waft off of him.

It’s interesting to pause a moment and think of the extras in a scene like this. The woman in green and the man whose arm she’s holding didn’t have speaking parts so they weren’t credited and there’s no way (for me, at least) to find out who they were. It must be an odd experience to go to Hollywood and try very hard to be an actor and to get a part that involves being on screen for all of about two seconds, and that in the background as a character with lines walks in. They act well; it’s as easy as anything to forget that they’re not actually a well-to-do couple coming to this party for whatever reason a well-to-do couple would come here. They do a good job of looking like they know each other and like each other and have the concerns of a couple at a party. The actors may well have just met this day; they could have been assigned together as a couple no more than an hour before. Each may well have taken acting classes and this was the pinnacle of getting to use those skills that they developed. I don’t know whether anyone would consider it worthwhile to go to Hollywood to be an extra in an episode of Murder, She Wrote, but it is important work, relative to the importance of any acting work. We watch for the main characters, but without the extras it would very difficult to suspend our disbelief and enter into the pretend reality of the story.

There is a useful analogy, I think, to the minor characters in novels. Characters with only three or four lines can still be very important to get right.

Back to the story, a man who was standing by himself and looking glum notices Dennis Stanton and walks over, greeting him.

By contrast, this guy sucks charisma in from nearby.

He remembers Dennis from a party at South Hampton over the summer. His name is Miles Hatcher and he’s in real estate. After some banter, Dennis walks off. We then see Miles talking with Theo and Jessica. He tries to push some luxury apartments he’s developing. They’re called Shinnecock Park. Theo says that he’ll run it past his business manager, and they arrange to meet later.

Theo notices someone he wants to try to get as a client and excuses himself. Noticing the opportunity, the busboy, Andy, comes over and offers Jessica some more coffee, then tells her that he’s an admirer of her work, and that he’s writing a novel, and he’d be just so gosh darn golly gosh grateful if she’d take a look at it. He then notices that his boss sees him bothering one of the guests and says he has to go.

If looks could fire.

This is another actor who wasn’t credited. His one scene was far more expressive than the line of some of the actors who only got one line and are thus in the credits, but we have no way of knowing who he was. Perhaps he, too, took years of acting classes and this was his biggest role. If that’s true, I have no way of knowing whether he considered them worthwhile, but at least he did a good job here. (Or perhaps he went on to be a famous actor I just don’t recognize and this was an important stepping stone in his career.)

Jessica is now alone at her table, but only for a moment. Dennis Stanton walks up, introduces himself, and asks for the honor of this dance. They flirt with each other a bit; he says that it speaks poorly of Theo’s intelligence and upbringing that he’s left the most attractive woman in the room totally alone. Jessica replies that it’s been a long time since she’s been picked up by a tall, handsome stranger. They talk as they dance, and he professes to be a fan of her work. The song ends and a more energetic one begins, and he galantly leads her through it; people on the dance floor begin making space for them.

We then fade to later that evening with Jessica alone in her room. It’s a bit past midnight but the time probably doesn’t matter much because the camera doesn’t stay on the clock long enough for us to see it clearly. As Jessica is getting ready for bed, Dennis Stanton drops down onto her balcony. Well, I say drops down, but he’s actually climbing up over the railing:

He explains that he had been outside on his balcony getting some night air when he discovered that he’d locked himself out. So he dropped down onto her balcony because it was either that or jump, and he’d misplaced his parachute. He goes to leave but before he can get out the door he suddenly comes back in (we hear some commotion outside). He asks Jessica if he can stay longer, which she is not happy about. He then explains that he was actually in the room of a married woman and her husband just returned, though he describes this in very delicate terms. For some reason Jessica is extremely understanding of this. He then checks the door again and the coast is clear, so he takes his leave of her. He says that meeting her has been a delight that he will cherish forever, kisses her on the cheek, and leaves. Jessica just laughs and goes to bed. He really is delightfully charming, and everything he does is done well.

At the bottom of the hotel, as people are leaving the party and being photographed by the press for some reason, we hear the sound of police sirens. We then see Dennis Stanton coming out of the hotel’s underground parking garage. He, too, hears the sirens and looks around the corner, then abruptly pulls back when he sees the police cars coming.

After observing where the police cars went to, he sneaks off in the other direction. Clearly Dennis has been up to something, though equally clearly (because of Murder, She Wrote conventions) it wasn’t murder.

We fade to black and go to commercial break.

When we come back it’s the morning and Andy brings Mrs. Fletcher the room service she ordered. Jessica is surprised to see him and remarks that they seem to work him twenty four hours a day. Andy laughs and says that he bribed the head waiter to let him take her food up. He hopes that she doesn’t mind and Jessica says not at all. When he starts to tell her about his novel, though, she’s distracted by the morning’s newspaper. It has an article with the headline, “Thief makes Off With Million Dollar Necklace.”

Actually, I can’t help but pause here and look at the newspaper.

I doubt that one would have been able to make out the type in the original TV broadcast, it’s quite difficult to do in this still. But here’s the left hand column:

There was a jewel robbery here at the hotel last night. And it was stolen some time between midnight and twelve thirty from Mr. Axel Weingard’s penthouse suite.
Craig reside in a facility we could use for [bringing] a wide cross-section of people closer to the museum,” Attiyah said. “The type of individuals who are really able to help us are individuals who appre-ciate the personal touch of being in the director’s home.”

Black’s housing allowance is considered taxable income, and

The columns to the right, also under the headline, are also about the purchase of a house by a museum, and how this probably doesn’t violate applicable regulations. If you look closely, the part about the jewel robbery isn’t even in the same typeface as the rest of the article and isn’t properly formatted with it; this was just pasted on top of some real newspaper article. Thanks to google, I found out it’s an article from the December 29, 1987 edition of the LA Times. I suppose that in 1988 it would have been harder to print off a newspaper page with random text than it would be today. The image was only on screen for a few seconds and there was no real danger of anyone reading the text.

Back to the story, the time of the robbery gets Jessica to thinking. She asks if Axel Weingard’s penthouse would be on this side of the building. Andy thinks about it for a bit and answers that yes, in fact it’s right above her room. Andy then tries to talk to her about his book but she is preoccupied with the theft. She gathers her things, tells him that she’ll talk to him later, and leaves.

As Jessica comes out of the elevator she sees some uniformed police offers walking with purpose, so she follows them. Axel Weingard’s body has just been found in a laundry cart (the body rolled out after the cart was dumped).

The police officer stooping over him is Lt. Bert Alfano. He says that there are bruises all over the corpse’s neck, so he must have been strangled. In another shot we can see that his right hand is bloody, though Alfano does not remark on it.

Jessica comes up and says that she may know something relevant, though she begins by asking questions. Alfano gets her back on track and she tells him about Dennis Stanton’s midnight visit to her hotel room balcony.

The scene shifts to Theo’s office, where Miles Hatcher is trying to get him to invest in the luxury apartments Miles is developing.

White leather and wood paneling are a striking contrast. The Portrait of Mark Twain is a nice touch for a literary agent.

Miles tries to convince Theo to invest, but Theo says that he talked to his business manager and he said “better I should invest in igloos in Saudi Arabia.” Miles offers to show him financial reports and Theo says that the word on the street is that Axel Weingard is in for 40% of the apartments but is about to pull out. Miles admits that he’s having trouble with Weingard, but that’s all the more reason for Theo to join in. “For God’s sake, Theo, you hate him worse than I do.” Jessica walks in right as Miles says this.

Theo, spotting Jessica, ushers Miles out. As he ushers Jessica into his office, he tells his secretary to hold all calls, “and if Norman Mailer calls, tell him I’m in conference with Rupert Murdoch.”

Rupert Murdoch, at the time, was the owner of a collection of newspapers, mostly in Australia and the UK, though in 1985 he had bought Twentieth Century Fox (a movie studio). Norman Mailer was an novelist, journalist, actor, director, playwright, etc. etc. who seems to be the sort of Extremely Important Author who doesn’t actually matter at all. As far as I can tell, he wrote two kinds of stuff: “important” (read: bad) that no one read, and sexual-when-it-wasn’t-everywhere that sold well. He’s the sort of person that Jessica should have heartily disapproved of but actually respected because he had cultural cache with the sort of people that Angela Lansbury hung out with, though not with the kind of people that Jessica Fletcher hung out with.

Be that as it may, this lie is quite interesting for several reasons. The first is that he’s telling it to impress Jessica, which is a weird kind of miscalculation. You don’t want to impress your potential clients with your dishonesty. The second reason is that it doesn’t even make sense for its primary purpose. Telling Norman Mailer that he’s in conference with Rupert Murdoch suggests that Jessica is not as important as Rupert Murdoch, while his ostensible goal (apart from the pretense that Norman Mailer might call) is to show Jessica that he thinks that she is extremely important. This certainly does not do that. It actually contains a strange insult to Jessica, because it implies that telling Norman Mailer that Theo is unavailable because he’s talking with Jessica Fletcher would be completely unacceptable.

I also find his secretary interesting.

She doesn’t have any lines, she just gives him this look, so she’s not credited. She communicates quite a bit of disdain, though, which is interesting. Why does he keep her around? You’d expect a man like Theo to have a secretary who’s—at a guess—thirty years younger, and a lot more eager to please.

In his office, Jessica tells Theo that she’s had a long and very comfortable working relationship with her former agent, which makes me wonder if the writers forgot that Jessica is a retired school teacher from Maine who only started writing after her husband died. Jessica is speaking as if he had been her agent for almost half a century, when in reality he couldn’t have been her agent for even a decade. At her age, that’s almost the blink of an eye. I’m only forty three years old and I think of people I’ve worked with for seven or eight years as recent acquaintances.

Theo begs her to not leave him as his business is hanging on by a thread. Axel Weingard recently dropped four of his clients out of personal spite for Theo. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Jessica corrects this to “was” and explains that Axel Weingard is dead. Theo practically jumps for joy, then immediately calls his business manager and instructs him to sell shares of Weingard’s company short. (For those unfamiliar: this means to sell shares in the future which he does not have now but will then; if the market price of the shares is lower at the time of sale than the agreed on price, the short seller makes money.) “I’ll get back everything that S.O.B. has cost me, and then some!”

Jessica is not enthused by this attitude toward murder, and in any event Theo is busy, so she departs. On her way out she runs into Dennis Stanton, who explains his presence by her having mentioned that she had a morning appointment with Theo, so he decided to take a chance. He invites her to lunch, and won’t take “no” for an answer.

Jessica insists on some straight answers, which Dennis does not give. He does mention that he has an alibi for the time Jessica identified him, which is that he was playing gin rummy from 11pm until 2pm on the night in question with his brother-in-law, who is a city counselman. Dennis shifts the subject to lunch, which he observes Jessica is not enjoying, so he invites her to come have dinner at his place where he can cook something really good for her. She declines, citing that she has a 5:00pm flight home. She promises to have a date with him the next time she comes to town.

Later on, as Jessica is packing her clothes, someone drops down from the floor above.

Jessica locks the door, but the person takes off her hat revealing that she’s a pretty young woman and thus safe because pretty young women always have someone else do the violent stuff for them, and then shows her identification.

We’re getting to the late 1980s and her cat burglar suit only has small shoulder pads.

Her name is Shannon MacBride and she works for the Susquehanna Fire & Casualty insurance company as a special investigator. They insured the diamond necklace which was stolen. She’s sure it was Dennis Stanton who stole it—she’s been on his trail for years, but she’s never been able to catch him. She gives Mrs. Fletcher her card and asks her to tell Dennis that there’s a one hundred thousand dollar reward for the return of the necklace, no questions asked. When Jessica voices her disinterest in passing on the message or ever seeing Dennis Stanton again, Shannon offers Jessica fifty thousand dollars (personally) if Dennis returns the necklace.

Jessica coldly wishes her a good day as the phone rings. It’s Lt. Alfonso. He just wants Jessica to know that he’s arrested Andy for the murder and, he doesn’t want a lawyer, he wants to talk to Jessica. She looks shocked as we fade to black and go to commercial.

When we come back, Jessica is in the police station talking to Lt. Alfonso. When she asks what evidence he has against Andy, Alfonso explains that Andy wrote a book and sent it to Weingard about a year ago. He has since accused Weingard of ripping off his book. To that end, he sent Weingard a threatening letter.

Dear Mr. Weingard,

As you steal my work so you steal my name, my very soul. I beg of you, take your fingers from my throat. I am neither rash nor vengeful but there is something in me, dangerous, which you would be wise to fear.

Jessica then goes to see Andy.

Jessica begins by asking Andy why he threatened Weingard with Shakespeare. I haven’t read every Shakespearean play, so my not recognizing the lines isn’t dispositive, but if this is actually Shakespeare and I just don’t recognize it, I find it weird that if you google any of the sentences in the letter all you come up with is a transcript of this episode. I found it strange that the writers would fake a Molière quote in Deadpan. I find it very strange to fake a Shakespeare quote, since Shakespeare is far better known.

Be that as it may, Andy explains that every time he put his thoughts in his own words it just sounded dumb.

Andy then launches into telling Jessica about his book. It’s set on an asteroid in the year 3001. It’s about a tyrannical father and his four sons. The oldest is is a fortune hunter. He and his father fall in love with the same woman. The old man dies accidentally, but since the oldest son had threatened to kill the father, he’s arrested and put on trial.

Jessica remarks that this seems very familiar.

Andy brushes this aside and says that three months ago Weingard came out with a book, set in the Canadian Yukon, about a logging family which has all of the same characters and plot points. To his impassioned cry that they stole his book, Jessica points out that Andy stole his book from Dostoevsky’s book, The Brothers Karamazov. Andy protests that he didn’t steal from The Brothers Karamazov, he adapted it, and he thought of adapting it first. Jessica’s reaction is apt:

She leaves Andy and goes back to talking with Lt. Alfonso. She asks about how the thief managed to steel the jewels from around Marta Weingard’s neck. Alfonso then narrates a flashback of what happened. Around 11:30pm, Marta Weingard was feeling the effects of way too much champagne.

She wants to go outside. She and her husband argue, then Axel demands that if she goes outside she must at least give him the necklace. She pulls it from around her neck and throws it to him, then goes outside. Axel goes back to his hotel room. When Marta comes back to their suite at 12:30, she finds the safe open and the necklace missing, so she called the police.

Jessica points out that if Andy killed Weingard—which she thinks is unthinkable for some reason she doesn’t explain—the motive would have been revenge, not theft. Alfonso doesn’t even bother to point out that a person can steal after committing murder in order to try to disguise the motive of the crime, and Jessica drops the point in favor of arguing about Dennis Stanton being in her room at 12:30. I find it curious that neither of them brings up that Axel Weingard’s body was hidden in a laundry cart and, as a result, only discovered in the morning. Moving the body through the hotel involved a not-inconsiderable risk of being seen doing it. The killer had to have a motive for that. It’s hard to see a jewel thief having such a motive; his best bet would be to simply get away.

Anyway, Jessica argues with Alfonso about Dennis Stanton—Alfonso doesn’t want to upset city hall by calling the Counselman a liar—but Jessica bullies him into looking into Dennis Stanton as a suspect. Jessica suggests that she accept Stanton’s dinner invitation while wearing a listening device, and Alfonso goes along with this. Jessica calls Dennis on the phone to make the arrangements.

The scene of Dennis receiving the call is fascinating. Here’s Dennis before the phone rings:

There is taste and class, here. The gold-and-ivory telephone with separate mouth piece and ear piece is elegant and has a curious sort of timelessness to it. It looks to be of modern construction. It’s got a vinyl-covered coil cord, which as far as I can tell was first made in the 1940s, but by then phones had moved to smaller and more integrated handles. This may even have been the era when the telephone company owned the telephone and they were all black plastic and nearly indestructible. Dennis’ phone is a callback to the early mouth piece and ear cup designs, though with modern conveniences, and fits very much into Murder, She Wrote‘s theme of appreciating old things.

Also fitting into this theme, as well as into the character of Dennis, is that his leisure is spent reading a leather bound book. The camera panned over it closely enough, for a moment, that it was possible to see the gold letters on the spine proclaiming it to be The Return of the Native. It’s a novel from the late 1800s, written by Thomas Hardy. From reading the description of the plot I’m not sure that it’s a good book—it seems to be, for the most part, a bunch of people doing bad things and then suffering the miserable consequences of their iniquity. According to Wikipedia:

Because of the novel’s controversial themes, Hardy had some difficulty finding a publisher; reviews, however, though somewhat mixed, were generally positive. In the twentieth century, The Return of the Native became one of Hardy’s most popular and highly regarded novels.

The point is that Dennis is reading a classic and highly regarded novel in his leisure time when no one is watching (we don’t count). His erudite manner is no pose; he really is highly cultured.

Jessica tells Dennis that her plans have changed, and they make dinner plans for her to come over to his apartment.

On her way over, Lt. Alfonso goes over the plan, including the listening device Jessica will keep in her purse.

It’s funny now times change. Jessica asks if the transmitter is powerful enough since it’s so small. Looking at it in 2023, it looks huge. Alfonso says that she has guts and it’s not too late to back off. Jessica muses that the murder is the one thing that doesn’t fit (she doesn’t explain why).

She then double-checks about some things in the reports. In particular, a petal from a red carnation was found on the floor with minute drops of blood on it. The victim was wearing a white carnation, so the petal must have come from the murderer’s flower. There were also lacerations on the victim’s right hand. (They had showed us this in a closeup when his body was found; that they’re bringing it up again here shows that it must be a very important clue.)

At dinner, Dennis is charming as always. He asks about the change in her plans, and Jessica replies that she came on business—she conveys Shannon’s offer. Dennis laughs and says that Shannon MacBride is a persistent little terrier with the instincts of a bloodhound. He goes on, “for several years now, she’s deluded herself that I’m sort of modern-day Raffles, the gentleman jewel thief.”

This is rather interesting because, if you look up “gentleman thief” on Wikipedia, Raffles seems to be the first example (in literature). I’ve only skimmed the first of the Raffles stories, and I can’t say that I’m likely to read more. They were written by the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, apparently for money, and to some degree in imitation of Sherlock Holmes but in, as it were, photographic negative. The reference to Raffles is interesting because it serves to ground Dennis in a tradition, though I don’t know that it’s really important to do so. The “gentleman jewel thief” is a fairly self-defining thing. He must be charming to be able to gain the access he needs to rich high-class people, and he must steal from them because, as Willie Sutton was supposed to have said when asked why he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. A gentleman thief could never support his life style stealing rags and broken cooking pots from the poor.

A gentleman thief must, then, steal from the rich. If he steals from the rich, he must, then, be charming. If he steals from people he knows socially and manages to not be caught for some time, he must also be patient, clever, an observer of human beings, and a decent judge of character. From this it follows that he will almost certainly be well read and cultured, as his intellect will need something to feed upon when he is not stealing.

There are many gentlemen thieves possible, of course, but the point is that we don’t really need a prototype; the moment one hears that a person is a gentleman thief, one knows all this. It doesn’t matter, therefore, that most people will have no idea who Raffles is.

Dennis goes on to reveal his backstory, though in the guise of being hypothetical. Years ago his wife died of a catastrophic illness and the Susquehanna Fire & Casualty insurance company found a loophole and avoided paying anything, leaving him with a quarter million dollars in medical debt (in 2023 dollars, this would be about $630k). He decided to get out of debt by stealing things insured by Susquehanna Fire & Casualty. He did have a code, which is that he would never steal anything that the victim couldn’t afford to lose (which would be most anything insured) and he would never steal anything of sentimental value.

Jessica asks about the murder of Axel Wineguard. Dennis says that not only did he not kill Axel, but, “I fact, I hate to admit it, I didn’t even steal the necklace.” He then recounts what happened. He went to the roof of the hotel and lowered himself onto the balcony. He jimmied the lock and let himself in, when he heard voices. Axel and a woman’s voice he couldn’t identify. They were arguing and at one point Axel shouted, “Put that gun away. Are you out of your mind?” He started toward the bedroom door so Dennis went back out onto the balcony. Axel came in, but then went back out. Dennis waited for twenty minutes, but as he heard nothing he went to investigate. He listened at the bedroom door and didn’t hear anything, so he chanced it and opened the door. There was no one there and the wall safe was open. Just then, Marta Weinguard entered and noticed the open safe.

If this were a novel, her fingernails would be described as looking like bloody talons.

She ran to the phone and asked the desk to call the police. At this point there was nothing more to be gained by staying, so he left.

Jessica clarifies that he never actually went into the living room, and Dennis responds that he hadn’t. This doesn’t make sense to Jessica because the police report said that a petal from a red carnation was found in the living room. At the mention of the police report, Dennis figures out what’s going on.

“Oh. And are you in the habit of reading police reports?” he asks. For some reason she initially denies it, which I find weird because not only is she in the habit of reading police reports, it’s an extremely natural habit for her to be in. Her reticence tells Dennis what he needs to know, though. He snatches up her purse and pulls the transmitter out, saying, “Forgive me. This isn’t gentlemanly, I know, but this isn’t exactly ladylike.”

He steps to his balcony and observes a surprisingly high number of unmarked black cars. The police start to bang on the door. After telling Jessica, “You’ll understand if I don’t buy your next book,” Dennis leaves by the balcony. Jessica gets up and lets the police in, but it’s too late. Dennis has escaped. Then we fade to black and go to commercial.

When we come back from commercial we’re at police headquarters where Lt. Alfonso and Jessica play the tape from the recording device for Shannon MacBride, for some reason. It’s a meeting that makes no sense—at least one of Jessica and Shannon are out of place here. I think Shannon is here, as much as anything, to express disbelief at Dennis’ story. They wanted someone to do it, and if they use Shannon, that’s one less person to cast. After she leaves, Jessica and Lt. Alfonso talk a bit more. It comes up that he’s put a tap on the phone of Dennis’s brother-in-law. Jessica points out that it looks like Andy wasn’t involved, and Alfonso tells Jessica to “get the kid outta here before I get myself into a lousy mood.” I suppose Jessica has been officially deputized, by this point, so that the lower ranking police officers will take instructions for Andy’s release from her.

In the next scene Jessica is at her hotel and Alfonso calls her. The wire tap on the city councilman’s phone line paid off. Dennis called and said, “I have to leave town, but as soon as I dispose of the merchandise, I’ll send you a piece of the action.”

Jessica then looks at a red flower petal that fell from the rose in her room, considers it, then goes and looks at the newspaper on her desk.

This is from outside the hotel as a press team photographed the guests as they left. I still have no idea why the press photographed people as they left this party. The headline seems to be something like “PROMISES 2.1 MILLION POLITICAL I.O.U.’S.” So I suppose that the picture was supposed to be an illustration of a major campaign event? It all seems more than a little unlikely, especially since this was the sort of party at which pretty unimportant people like Jessica’s agent and a guy trying to peddle luxury condominiums showed up.

Be that as it may, after looking at the photograph in the newspaper, Jessica then figures out who killed Wineguard and picks up the phone as we cut to a bus station.

After a bit of sinister music and some showing to us of someone walking in only by his feet, we then discover that Miles is meeting Dennis.

Even in a incognito disguise, Dennis cuts a dashing figure.

Dennis complains that Miles is late and Miles says that he got stuck in traffic. “A couple of young hoods tried to rob a liquor store.” Dennis replies, “Crime runs rampant.”

Miles then gives Dennis the diamond necklace and says that this is where it ends. The necklace buys Dennis’s silence. If he ever tries to shake Miles down again, Miles will kill him. The announcement comes on for Dennis’ bus, and he bids Miles adieu with, “I’d wish you good luck, but the fact is, I hope they catch you.”

As he walks off, Lt. Alfonso gets in his way. As Miles tries to inconspicuously leave, the police stop him too.

The scene changes to Miles Hatcher being interrogated in the police station by Lt. Alfonso, Jessica, and Shannon MacBride. Miles protests his innocence but Alfonso tells him to not waste his effort. They have the whole picture thanks to Mrs. Fletcher.

Jessica then explains the evidence against Miles. It’s not just Dennis’ testimony, it’s also the missing carnation. If you look in the newspaper picture, the carnation is missing from Miles’ tuxedo. It was destroyed when Axel Wineguard grabbed out as he was being strangled.

They then give us a flashback to Jessica’s supposition about how Axel’s hand got mangled as he grabbed out in desperation.

One of the more gentle strangulations depicted on television. I doubt this grip could even reduce blood flow.

Alfonso suggests that if they test Miles’ tuxedo around the lapel, they’ll probably find traces of Wineguard’s blood. This does it. Miles sighs and says that they probably will.

After a recounting of the murder from his perspective, we cut to outside. Dennis walks out of a room with a tall, solemn man. He congratulates Shannon that her tenacity has paid off and his days of larceny are over. She replies, “for ten years, at least” and walks off. Dennis then remarks to Jessica that Shannon will be so disappointed when she finds out. When Jessica asks what, Dennis explains that he is to receive a suspended sentence and a few years probation because of his cooperation in prosecuting Miles.

He then changes the subject. “The thought of pursuing steady employment is absolutely terrifying and it occurred to me that there might be some profit to be made out of lending my name to a book, or a series of books, about a roguish jewel thief. A wonderful idea, isn’t it? I’ve already been contacted by an agent who wants to represent me. In fact, I think you know him—a fellow called Wexler. Says he’s been your agent for years.”

We get Jessica’s reaction, then go to credits.

This was a fun episode. Having said that, my enjoyment of this episode may be colored by how much I enjoyed Dennis Stanton when he was a detective (technically, insurance investigator) in later seasons. I find it impossible to watch this episode except through the lens of it being an introduction to an interesting character. Which brings up the question of how much Dennis Stanton was intended to be a detective in the show. He wouldn’t appear again until the eighth episode of season 6—more than a full season into the future. He wouldn’t investigate a crime on his own until the nineteenth episode of season 6, meaning that if they were setting that up now, they were playing a long game.

Trying to consider this episode without knowing that Dennis would be back, as one certainly would not when this episode first aired: it’s still good. Jessica does very little actual detecting in it but she spends most of the episode chasing a very charming red herring. The murder itself holds together well enough. Miles had a motive, and approximately everyone had the opportunity. Miles’ motive was sufficiently pressing. In fact he was nearly the only person who did have a motive, if we discount the attempt to make Theo a suspect.

I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair to discount Theo as a suspect, but he was never very plausible. His motive would have been either revenge for Weingard dropping his clients, or else to make money off of Weingard’s death. The former doesn’t really work since he now has a new, shiny client (Jessica) that Weingard won’t be able to help but want. Theo is clearly an opportunist who would not hold a grudge where he has the power to get what he wants. The latter motive would have been incredibly risky. Short-selling Weingard’s company would have been excellent evidence that he knew about Weingard’s death, and waiting for Jessica to tell him about Weingard’s death—when it was pure luck that Jessica found out about it before the newspapers did—would have been a ludicrously risky way to make money. When you put it together, he’s just not much of a suspect.

This murder does suffer from what a lot of Murder, She Wrote murders suffer from—the means of inducing decease probably wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as the murderer needed it to. In this case, strangling a taller man from the front with your bare hands is not an easy thing to do. This is not helped by Miles Hatcher being a middle-aged businessman in the 1980s when a businessman playing squash once a week was in the top 10% of athletic shape for businessmen, and Miles probably wasn’t in the top 10%. It’s not impossible to kill someone this way, it’s just very difficult. The person being strangled is close in and at a mechanical advantage, compared to the person doing the strangling who is reaching further away. (This is why effective strangulation is usually from behind.) Also, with Axel being taller than his attacker, he could out-reach him and just push him away—assuming he was being gentlemanly and didn’t attack Miles’ eyes.

All that said, there was nothing about this murder that required strangulation from the front. Axel could have turned his back and Miles surprised him, or else stabbing would have been entirely viable as well. I think, in consequence, this sort of slip-up is easy to forgive.

There are a few parts of the story that don’t hold together well, though in general they’re inconsequential. When Denis was about to leave Jessica’s room, there was no reason for him to suddenly come back in just because he heard some people talking. No one had seem him in the Weingard suite and there was no one it could have been trouble to run into in the hallway. It also was not in Denis’ interest to do this, as it just annoyed Jessica. It doesn’t really matter, but it is a little bit irksome that there is no payoff to it.

It’s also a bit annoying that the joke at the end of the episode, where Denis says that he was approached by Theo Wexler, who claims to have been her agent for years, contradicts Denis’ suave approach to Jessica at the beginning of the episode where he tells her that it speaks ill of Theo’s intelligence and breeding that he left the most attractive woman at the party totally alone. It doesn’t matter, but again, it’s irksome.

That’s about it, though, and for Murder, She Wrote that’s very tight writing.

It’s interesting to consider how the episode handled Andy, the bus boy. He was introduced in a slightly sinister way, then he was a likable youngster, then he was a plagiarizing idiot, then we heard no more about him. He wasn’t any of these things for very long; I suspect that he was just an excuse to keep Jessica in town when she would rather have gone home. But if that’s the case, why have her want to go home? I suppose it does add a little bit of drama—at least a reversal of intention or two—but the episode would have been fine without Andy at all and with Jessica in town for a few more days rather than changing her plans. It’s interesting to consider whether the unnecessary complication added anything.

Another consideration is that every moment Andy was on screen, Denis wasn’t.

Oh well, next week we’re back in Cabot Cove for Mr. Penroy’s Vacation.

Mitchell & Webb on Princess Diana

As long as I’ve been posting some of the best Mitchell & Webb sketches, there’s this classic on how MI6 plotted to kill her:

I have the feeling that many of the things they’re referring to are pastiches of conspiracy theories people proposed from time to time, but being American, I never heard many of them, so I can only infer from the sketch itself. They’re mostly self-describing, though.

I also love the plotting around a circular blue-light table.

Stupid Things Atheists Say: It’s Someone Else’s Fault

This one is about the whole, “I’m not Christian because some Christian is a sinner” excuse. You also see it from Christians, usually in the form “how can you expect people to be Christian if there are Christians who sin?” Of course Christians should be perfect, but the existence of bad Christians is a terrible excuse for ignoring the truth of Christianity.

Never Show a Good Movie in the Middle of Your Bad Movie

In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Overdrawn At the Memory Bank, one of the call-outs, when they play a few seconds of Casablanca on a computer screen, is “never show a good movie in the middle of your bad movie” (or words to that effect). It’s funny, especially in the moment, but I wonder if it’s actually good advice. It can be applied with very little modification to having characters discuss a good book in what one may hope is a good book but what may not be as good a book as one hopes.

The intention behind the comment, during the episode, is that showing a good movie reminds the audience of how good movies can be, and thus makes it more difficult to enjoy whatever little good there is in the bad movie that they’re watching. And, indeed, this is possible. Reminding someone that they could be having a better time is not always a great strategy for an entertainer.


The fact is, if someone is watching your movie or reading your book, they’re not watching that better movie or reading that good book, and in the modern world it’s unlikely that it’s because they would rather be doing it, but can’t. I’m a big re-reader and re-watcher, but you can’t watch Casablanca and read Pride & Prejudice every day.

If the viewer has chosen to not watch Casablanca today, then reminding him of Casablanca will not cause him to stop your movie and go watch Casablanca instead. In fact, it may have the opposite effect—it may make him happy with the reminiscence of a movie that he likes. Further, it may create the parasocial feeling in the viewer of being with people who like the same movie he likes.

Parasocial engagement is one of the great problems of our day, but that does not make it intrinsically bad. Like so many things, much of whether it’s healthy or harmful is in how it is managed and presented. A great deal of the parasocial engagement that exists on the internet is exploitative parasocial engagement; it is designed to encourage the mistake that it is not parasocial, but social. It is designed to be addictive. Movies and books have an end; they are a fantasy that comes to a definite conclusion and thus makes it easy to get back to the real world and remember that one needs to live in it.

By Vectron

Mitchell and Webb have a really funny sketch about mannerisms in a galactic empire:

I love the overall work that they put into the aesthetic—nice touches like the space station behind them and the guards standing in the hallway, motionless.

I also find it funny that there are gullible atheists of the dim-witted but aggressive sort who will think that this is an accurate description of why people believe in God, and how traditions came to be more generally. They’ll think this sketch is funny because, “see, that’s just how religion got formed!”

Whereas I think it funny because it’s obviously not how religion came to be, and such ideas are absolutely absurd when you put them into practical form.

By Vectron’s kindly claw.

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and Maruba Fruit

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank may be my favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are a lot of interesting things to talk about in this episode, but I’ll have to do that later. For the moment, I want to share some interesting things I find in researching the episode.

I had a hunch, based on the apparent budget of Overdrawn, that none of the scenes of African animals were filmed for the movie. Most of them were close-cropped enough that they could have been filmed at a zoo, but it just seemed unlikely. I couldn’t find out what movie they came from, though—it’s not credited in the credits and no one seems to list it.

I then tried to find out whether “maruba fruit” is real. It turns out it is, though its actualy name is “marula fruit“. If you scroll down to the “Use by Other Species” section, you find:

In the documentary Animals Are Beautiful People by Jamie Uys, released in 1974, some scenes portray elephants, ostriches, warthogs and baboons allegedly becoming intoxicated from eating fermented marula fruit, as do reports in the popular press. While the fruit is commonly eaten by elephants, the animals would need a huge amount of fermented marulas to have any effect on them, and other animals prefer the ripe fruit.

Now that’s interesting. Jumping over to the wikipedia page for Animals Are Beautiful People, we find:

One scene depicts baboons, elephants, giraffes, warthogs and other African animals eating rotten, fermented fruit of the Marula tree. The animals are then intoxicated, and they stagger around to comic effect, before nightfall comes and they fall asleep. In the morning, we see one baboon wake up, disheveled, next to a warthog, and quietly exit the burrow, as not to wake her.

Well that’s quite promising. So jumping over to YouTube and searching for “Animals Are Beautiful People drunk animals” we find this clip:

And yes, this is definitely where they took the footage from. Some of the scenes are easy to recognize.

Interestingly, Overdrawn changed the order of the scenes. In the documentary, the elephant knocking the tree with the monkey in it happened while the marula fruit was ripe but not yet over-ripe. Later on the fruit over-ripened and started fermenting, and this when we get the drunk animals. (In Overdrawn, the drunk animals come first and the elephant knocks the tree after, which is the precipitating incident for Fingal to demand removal with override priority.)

The Mystery of the Magi with Fr. Dwight Longenecker

A discussion with Fr. Dwight Longenecker about his book The Mystery of the Magi. It’s an interesting book which goes into the historicity of Magi—did they exist, who were they really, where did they actually come from, how did they follow the star, and related questions.

Check out his books The Mystery of the Magi and The Bethlehem Shepherds, or all of his books. You can also check out Fr. Longenecker’s blog, or just visit his website.

Materialists Often Replace God With the Future

When listening to a review by Zarathustra’s Serpent of a David Bowie song whose theme was the announcement by news reporters that we only have five more years until the world ended and the ensuing chaos, I found Arad’s suggestion that moderns had replaced, as the foundation for morality and the reason for living, God with The Future. As soon as I’d heard this, I knew it to be right. It is very interesting.

It has widely been pointed out that if God is dead then all things are permitted. This is so because nothing has a nature and so it cannot be a violation of anything’s nature to change it or even to destroy it. If things are just brute facts and we change them, they are, in their new form, just more brute facts, and there is no real way to choose between them. (This is why Nietzsche saw that humanity needed a superman who could create values and impose them by his will, such that it would become possible to live by something other than sheer will.) The superman has never come, though he has been long waited for. It seems that, while they waited, people can up with an alternative. If they could no longer live for today, they could yet live for the future.

It’s a solution that is not without its problems. It only works if one can keep up a very short shortsightedness; any contemplation of The Future as an idea reveals how empty it is. Whatever future one sacrifices for today will only be a present that must sacrifice for its own yet-to-come. Another fatal flaw is that even a cursory knowledge of history will show how utterly unpredictable the future is and how little one can realize any goal for it. To quote Jane Austen, however, desperate people are not always wise. Further, there is a sort of wisdom in a fool making plans which will only work if he remains a fool—that is what he is most likely to do.

In short, it is not philosophically coherent, but it does explain why it is that so many materialists deny that if God is dead all things are permitted.