A Great Map Projection Joke

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

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

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

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

Weird Al's CNR

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

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

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

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

Chuck Norris Facts

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

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

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

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

Another great Chuck Norris fact is:

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

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

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

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

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

Starting a Cast List

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

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

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

Fun times.

Forgotten Literary Influences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question for Readers

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

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

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

A Modern Inventor At Work

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

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

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

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

One of the Great Mystery Endings

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is hope for us all.

The Early Days of the Detective Story

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story. The first chapter deals with the question of whether the detective story is literature, and if so, whether it is good literature. There are two things that particularly caught my attention: the enormous popularity of the detective story, and the basic morality of the detective story.

The first is very interesting because I’ve seen it in detective fiction from the era, but I never knew what to make of that. The example which most leaps out at me is Harriet Vane’s reception by the dons in Gaudy Night. A great many of them had read her books and were fans. It almost has the same feeling as the near-universal name recognition of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. In Jessica’s case, however, we know this to be a tremendous exaggeration. It was more plausible in the case of Harriet Vane, though, because television had not yet been invented and talkies (movies with recorded dialog) were only in their infancy. It is, therefore, interesting to see a description, if, granted, from an interested party, of how widespread was the interest in detective stories around the time of 1930. It was popular with educated people, with common people, with respectable people—in short, there was no notable group of people not reading detective stories at this time.

The other interesting thing which leapt out at me was the critique of the detective story as dangerous to morals, and the response that the detective story was, fundamentally, a moral story. That is, the detective story takes as given the ordinary moral framework of right and wrong and man’s duty to do right and to refrain from doing wrong. This interests me so much, not because it is a revelation—it is, after all, obviously true—but because I’ve seen it used as an explanation for why the detective story is so enduringly popular even until our own times (I write this at the end of the year of our Lord 2019).

It has been argued (possibly even by me) that the detective story and its modern television cousin, the police procedural, is the only modern story in which basic morality is taken for granted. It is curious to see that this was to some degree true even in the early days of detective stories.

An example given as contrast was An American Tragedy, which was the only assigned reading in highschool I never finished. I just couldn’t stand the book; I made it about halfway through and gave up, reading the Cliff’s Notes instead of finishing the wretched thing. The short short version of it is that a young man makes all sorts of awful life choices during the great depression and is eventually executed for murdering a woman he seduced (in order to be available to marry a rich woman). The main character is a bad man who learns nothing, and the book does not even appreciate the justice of him paying for his crime.

It was published in 1925.

Bad books have been around for quite a long time.

Talking of the Past in the Past

A few years ago a dear friend of mine gave me the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story, and I’ve finally started reading it. I’ll be writing about what it says about the detective story in another post; here I want to talk about something interesting in the timing of the book, and of the introduction which came later, as the copy I was given is actually a reprint.

Masters of Mystery was written by H. Douglas Thomson and originally published in 1931. The reprint and its foreward were made in 1978, three years short of the book’s fiftieth anniversary.

The book itself was written at an interesting time, given that 1931 was only the middle of the golden age of detective fiction and had yet to see most of the work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, to name just two giants of the genre.

Further making it an interesting time, detective fiction was not that old. Granted, the first detective stories are generally reckoned to be Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin stories, the first of which, Murders in the Rue Morgue, being published in 1841. There seems to be fairly little—in English—before Conan Doyle published Sherlock Holmes in 1887. 1931 was a scant 44 years later. That is enough time for much to have happened, but it was still early days.

We come, now, to the foreward which interests me, being written a slightly longer time in the future, and taking a historical look at how Masters of Mystery held up. It was written by a E.F. Bleiler, who according to Wikipedia was “an American editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature.” He worked as an editor at the American publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons at the time of the reprint, but as he only left Dover in 1977 and it was Dover that did the reprint, it is possible that he wrote it while an editor at the publisher. He may have been, therefore, less an expert sought out for his opinion and more a man who happened to be around.

He praises the book, but also notes some weaknesses. Some may be fair, such as noting that Thomson leaves off much about the early days of detective fiction—for the understandable reason that not much was known, especially then and even now, of it.

He makes the somewhat odd claim that Detective mysteries were at the time Thomson wrote predominantly “house party” crimes. This is odd in that it’s simply false if predicated of the famous stories of the time. It was a common enough setting, but among the detective stories which have come to us at the time of my writing, it certainly did not predominate. How common it was amongst the stories which have long since been forgotten, I cannot say.

The really interesting claim, though, is rooted firmly in its time:

Thomson’s critical standards were often a function of his day, but two more personal flaws in his work must be mentioned. His worst gaffe, of course, is his failure to estimate Hammett’s work adequately. While Hammett-worship may be excessive at the moment, it is still perplexing that Thomson could have missed Hammett’s imagination, powerful writing, and ability to convey a social or moral message. Related to this lacuna is Thomson’s lack of awareness of the other better American writers of his day, men who stood just as high as the better English writers that he praises. It was inexcusable to be unaware of the work of Melville D. Post, F.I. Anderson and T.S. Stribling. It is also surprising, since all three men were writers of world reputation at this time.

To deal with the last, first: I’ve never heard of Post, Anderson, or Stribling. F.I. Anderson does not even have a wikipedia page. Such is the short duration of fame, I suppose, that a man can be castigated for not talking about famous men 48 years after his book that, 44 years later, are generally unknown.

Dashiell Hammett, I do of course know of. That said, it is funny to me to speak of Hammett as some sort of master that everyone must talk about. I’ve met exactly one person who seriously likes Dashiell Hammett’s writing, and I don’t even know his name—I struck up a conversation with him while waiting to pick up Chinese food one night.

I suspect that Hammett’s reputation in the 1970s was a product of the success of the movies based upon his books. The casting for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man were excellent, and anyone having seem them—as an editor working for Dover in 1977 almost certainly would have—cannot help but read the tremendous performances of the actors into the words on the page. If one does not picture Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, much of the magic is lost.

Again, I should note that in the main Blieler’s foreward is positive and mostly about how Masters of Mystery is worth reading. I was merely struck by how much the retrospective criticisms of it were a product of their time, but were phrased as if they were now timeless.

Especially the Lies

There was a very interesting character in Star Trek: Deep Space 9 who was a deeply enigmatic character that was basically a spy and/or secret police officer who had possibly defected. More or less he was in the position of possibly being a gestapo agent who fled from Nazi Germany prior to the Nazis losing WWII. Instead of the Nazis, it was the Cardassians, and instead of the Gestapo, it was the Obsidian Order, but the basic structure holds.

This is an interesting character because one doesn’t know whether he left as a matter of principle, or if he was driven out merely by political considerations, or if he never left at all and his job as a tailor and status as a refugee is merely a cover. He is, of course, charming and charismatic, and denies ever having been of any importance, or a member of the Obsidian Order, and always claims that he’s “Just plain simple Garak.”

There’s an episode (or possibly a few episodes) in which his past is explored. I should note, in passing, that my suspicion is that in usual TV fashion, I don’t think that the writers ever did decide on a backstory. TV writers are much better at hints than worked-out ideas. Be that as it may, it was interesting, and there were a number of highly conflicting stories that surfaced about Garak’s past. When the episode (or arc) ended, Garak spoke with his friend, Dr. Bashir, who asked him about the stories.

Bashir: You know, I still have a lot of questions to ask you about your past.
Garak: I’ve given you all the answers I’m capable of.
Bashir: You’ve given me answers all right, but they were all different. What I want to know is: out of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren’t?
Garak: My dear doctor, they’re all true.
Bashir: Even the lies?
Garak: Especially the lies.

If you want to watch the exchange, here’s a clip of it on YouTube:

This was a great exchange, and, in a different context, it would have been a brilliant conclusion. The problem, of course, is that it gets its power by hinting at a cohesive story behind the fragments Bashir (and hence, the viewer) are allowed to see. This is a problem because there was no cohesive story behind the fragments; they were just fragments thrown out in order to contradict previous fragments.

I don’t mean that they had literally no ideas; it was clearly established that Garak was in fact, at least at one point, a high ranking member of the Obsidian Order. What was not established was what principles he actually had.

Nebulous hints are only interesting if there is something good at the back of them. If a man simply lies because he is so warped and twisted that he doesn’t know the truth, this is not interesting. This gets back to something I’ve said more than a few times: it is a man’s virtues, not his flaws, which are interesting. Flaws are, at most, a crutch to make it easy to show off a man’s virtues.

What would have made this great is if there was some principle—that was not just loose consequentialism plus a goal—which was being served, and, therefore, all of the lies actually conveyed a truth, if properly understood. That is, this would be great if all of the lies were actually cyphers, and at some time later the key would be given which would decypher the lies into truths.

You can see an example of this, though not a great example, in the retcon of how Obi Wan Kanobi explained why he said that Anakin Skywalker was killed by Darth Vader. When he said it, he meant that the good man who called himself Anakin Skywalker was gone forever, replaced by the evil man who called himself Darth Vader. It wasn’t great, but the lie does make sense as containing a truth, when interpreted under that rubric.

That’s what enigmatic characters should all be, though in general it works best if the writers create the cypher key before encrypting things with it. When the writers do that, they do have the potential to create something great.

For it is good, indeed, when it turns out that the lies are all true.

Throwing Is Not Automatic

I’m a fan of Tom Naughton, and his movie Fathead helped me out a lot. But recently he had something of a headscratcher of a blog post. Mostly he just mistake coaching cues that happen to work for him with the One True Way to swing a golf club—which is a very understandable mistake when in the grips of the euphoria of finally figuring out a physical skill one has been working on for years—but there was this really odd bit that I thought worth of commenting on:

If you ask someone to throw a rock or a spear or a frisbee towards a target, he’ll always do the same thing, without fail: take the arm back, cock the wrist, plant the lead foot, rotate the hips, sling the arm toward the target, then release. Ask him exactly when he cocked his wrist, or planted his foot, or turned his hips, he’ll have no idea – but he’ll do it correctly every time. That’s because humans have been throwing things at predators and prey forever, and the kinematic sequence to make that happen is hard-coded into our DNA. We don’t have to learn it. Our bodies and brains already know it.

The basic problem is: throwing is not automatic. It’s learned.

I can say this with certainty because I’ve spent time, recently, trying to teach children to throw a frisbee. They do not, in fact, instinctively do it correctly. Humans have very few actual instincts, at least when it comes to voluntary activities. We instinctively breath, and we will instinctively withdraw our hand from pain, but that’s about it. Oh, and we can instinctively nurse from our mother, though even their we need to learn better technique than we come equipped with pretty quickly or Mom will not be happy.

Now, what we do, in fact, come with naturally is the predisposition to learn activities like throwing. This is like walking: we aren’t born knowing how to walk, but we are born with a predisposition to learn to walk. We’re good at learning how to walk and we want to do the sorts of things that make us learn how to walk. Language is the same way—we’re not born speaking or understanding language, but we are predisposed to learn it.

Another odd thing is the “he’ll do it correctly every time”—no he won’t. Even people who know how to throw things pretty well occasionally just screw up and do it wrong. When teaching my boys to throw a frisbee, occasionally I just make a garbage throw. It’s not just when my conscious thoughts get in the way of my muscle memory—muscle memory needs to be correctly activated, and not paying sufficient attention is a great way to do that wrong.

Finally, the evolutionary biology part is just odd: “That’s because humans have been throwing things at predators and prey forever, and the kinematic sequence to make that happen is hard-coded into our DNA.”

There’s an element of truth to this, in that we can find evidence of spear use in humans going back hundreds of thousands of years. The problem is that the kinematic sequence to throw a spear and the kinematic sequence to hit a golf ball is not the same thing at all.

Here’s a golf swing:

By contrast, here’s someone throwing a javelin:

And just for fun, here are some Masai warriors throwing spears:

Something you’ll notice about the Masai, who throw actual weapons meant to kill, is that the thing is heavy, and they throw it very close. Alignment is incredibly important, since a weak throw that hits point-on is vastly more effective than a strong throw that hits side-on. The other thing is that the ability to actually throw quickly without a big wind-up matters, since they’re practicing to hit moving targets. They don’t have time for a huge wind-up. Also, they tend to face their target, rather than be at a 90 degree angle to it—when your target has teeth and claws, you need to be able to protect yourself if the target starts coming for you.

Anyway, if you look at these three activities, they’re just very kinematically different. Being good at one of those things will not transfer to being good at the others. The Masai warrior needs accuracy, timing, and power on a heavy projectile. The javelin thrower needs to whip his arm over his body as fast as possible, from a sprint. His arm is straight and his shoulder hyper-extended. The golfer needs to whip the head of a long stick as fast as possible, below his body, from a standing position. His arms are bent and his elbows are kept in to generate more force than arm-velocity, since the greater force translates to greater velocity on the end of the stick. The golf swing probably has more in common with low sword-strikes using a two-handed sword than it does with swinging a spear.

Anyway, I don’t have a major point. I just think it’s interesting what we will tell ourselves in order to try to figure out motion patterns.

On The Seventh Day God Rested

On the seventh day, God rested.

This is an interesting thing to contemplate since as a American Northerner, I don’t really understand the concept of rest.

Granted, every now and again I take breaks, and every night I sleep. The thing is, I can’t help but think of these as weaknesses, as concessions to a fallen world. Chesterton described this attitude toward work and rest very well in Utoptia of Userers, though he was talking about employers and not individuals:

The special emblematic Employer of to-day, especially the Model Employer (who is the worst sort) has in his starved and evil heart a sincere hatred of holidays. I do not mean that he necessarily wants all his workmen to work until they drop; that only occurs when he happens to be stupid as well as wicked. I do not mean to say that he is necessarily unwilling to grant what he would call “decent hours of labour.” He may treat men like dirt; but if you want to make money, even out of dirt, you must let it lie fallow by some rotation of rest. He may treat men as dogs, but unless he is a lunatic he will for certain periods let sleeping dogs lie.

But humane and reasonable hours for labour have nothing whatever to do with the idea of holidays. It is not even a question of ten hours day and eight-hours day; it is not a question of cutting down leisure to the space necessary for food, sleep and exercise. If the modern employer came to the conclusion, for some reason or other, that he could get most out of his men by working them hard for only two hours a day, his whole mental attitude would still be foreign and hostile to holidays. For his whole mental attitude is that the passive time and the active time are alike useful for him and his business. All is, indeed, grist that comes to his mill, including the millers. His slaves still serve him in unconsciousness, as dogs still hunt in slumber. His grist is ground not only by the sounding wheels of iron, but by the soundless wheel of blood and brain. His sacks are still filling silently when the doors are shut on the streets and the sound of the grinding is low.

Again, Chesterton is talking about employers, but this also encompasses an American attitude toward the self which need have nothing to do with money. Chesterton goes on:

Now a holiday has no connection with using a man either by beating or feeding him. When you give a man a holiday you give him back his body and soul. It is quite possible you may be doing him an injury (though he seldom thinks so), but that does not affect the question for those to whom a holiday is holy. Immortality is the great holiday; and a holiday, like the immortality in the old theologies, is a double-edged privilege. But wherever it is genuine it is simply the restoration and completion of the man. If people ever looked at the printed word under their eye, the word “recreation” would be like the word “resurrection,” the blast of a trumpet.

And here we come back to where I started—that on the seventh day, God rested. We are not to suppose, of course, that God was tired. Nor are we even to suppose that God stopped creating creation—for if he were to do that, there would not be another moment, and creation would be at an end. Creation has no independent existence that could go on without God.

So what are we to make of God’s resting on the seventh day, for it must be very unlike human rest?

One thing I’ve heard is that the ancient Jewish idea of rest is a much more active one than our modern concept of falling down in exhaustion. It involves, so I’ve heard, the contemplation of what was done. Contemplation involves the enjoyment of what is done. What we seem to have is a more extended version of “and God looked on all that he had made and saw that it was good”.

There is another aspect, I think, too, which is that God’s creative action can be characterized into two types, according to our human ability to understand it—change and maintenance. In the first six days we have change, as human beings easily understand it. There are arising new forms of being different enough that we can have words to describe them. We can, in general, so reliably tell the difference between a fish and a bush that we give them different names. But we cannot so reliably tell the difference between a fish at noon and that same fish ten minutes later, even though it has changed; we just call them both “fish” and let that suffice because we cannot do better. Thus God’s rest can also been as the completion of the large changes, which we easily notice, and the transition to the smaller changes, which we have a harder time noticing or describing.

I’m thinking about this because I recently sent the manuscript of Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral off to the publisher. It’s not done, because there will be edits from the editor, but for the moment there is nothing for me to do on it. I finally have time—if still very limited time owing to having three young children—to do other projects, but I’m having a hard time turning to them.

My suspicion is that I need to spend some time resting, which is what put me in mind of this.

Wedding Flowers Is Off to the Editor

For anyone who is interested my my novels: a few days ago I sent the manuscript of Wedding Flowers Will Do For a Funeral (the second chronicle of Brother Thomas) off to Silver Empire publishing (they published the first Chronicle of Brother Thomas). Next comes edits, and if all goes well it will be published in the first half of 2020. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m really looking forward to finally having it published.

Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys?

(Note: if you’re not familiar Modern spelled with a capital ‘M’, please read Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories.)

When Moderns tell a heroic story—or more often a story which is supposed to be heroic—they almost invariably write morally ambiguous good guys. Probably the most common form of this is placing the moral ambiguity in the allies who the hero protagonist trusts. It turns out that they did horrible things in the past, they’ve been lying to the protagonist (often by omission), and their motives are selfish now.

Typically this is revealed in an unresolved battle partway through the story, where the main villain has a chance to talk with the protagonist, and tells him about the awful things that the protagonist’s allies did, or are trying to do. Then the battle ends, and the protagonist confronts his allies with the allegations.

At this point two things can happen, but almost invariably the path taken is that the ally admits it, the hero gets angry and won’t let the ally explain, then eventually the ally gets a chance to explain (or someone else explains for him), and the protagonist concludes that the ally was justified.

In general this is deeply unsatisfying. So, why do Moderns do it so much?

It has its root in the modern predicament, of course. As you will recall, in the face of radical doubt, the only certainty left is will. To the Modern, therefore, good is that which is an extension of the will, and evil is the will being restricted. It’s not that he wants this; it’s that in his cramped philosophy, nothing else is possible. In general, Moderns tend to believe it but try hard to pretend that it’s not the case. Admitting it tends to make one go mad and grow one’s mustache very long:

(If you don’t recognize him, that’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who lamented the death of God—a poetic way of saying that people had come to stop believing in God—as the greatest tragedy to befall humanity. However, he concluded that since it happened, we must pick up the pieces as best we may, and that without God to give us meaning, the best we could do is to try to take his place, that is, to use our will to create values. Trying to be happy in the face of how awful life without God is drove him mad. That’s probably why atheists since him have rarely been even half as honest about what atheism means.)

The problem with good being the will and evil being the will denied is that there’s no interesting story to tell within that framework.

A Christian can tell the story of a man knowing what good is and doing the very hard work of trying to be good in spite of temptation, and this is an interesting story, because temptation is hard to overcome and so it’s interesting to see someone do it.

A Modern cannot tell the story of a man wanting something then doing it; that’s just not interesting because it happens all the time. I want a drink of water, so I pick up my cup and drink water. That’s as much an extension of my will as is anything a hero might do on a quest. In fact, it may easily be more of an extension of my will, because I’m probably more thirsty (in the moment) than I care about who, exactly, rules the kingdom. Certainly I achieve the drink more perfectly as an extension of my will than I am likely to change who rules the kingdom, since I might (if I have magical enough sword) pick the man, but I can’t pick what the man does. And what he does is an extension of his will, not mine. (This, btw, is why installing a democracy is so favored as a happy ending—it’s making the government a more direct extension of the will of the people.)

There’s actually a more technical problem which comes in because one can only will what is first perceived in the intellect. In truth, that encompasses nothing, since we do not fully know the consequence of any action in this world, but this is clearer the further into the future an action is and the more people it involves. As such, it is not really possible for the protagonist to really will a complex outcome like restoring the rightful king to the throne of the kingdom. Moderns don’t know this at a conscious level at all, but it is true and so does influence them a bit. Anyway, back to the main problem.

So what is the Modern to do, in order to tell an interesting story? He can’t tell an interesting story about doing good, since to him that’s just doing anything, and if he does something reader is not the protagonist, so it doesn’t do him any good. Granted, the reader might possible identify with the protagonist, but that’s really hard to pull off for large audiences. It requires the protagonist to have all but no characteristics. For whatever reason, this seems to be done successfully more often with female protagonists than with male protagonists, but it can never be done with complete success. The protagonist must have some response to a given stimulus, and this can’t be the same response that every reader will have.

The obvious solution, and for that reason the most common solution, is to tell the story of the protagonist not knowing what he wants. Once he knows what he wants, the only open question is whether he gets it or not, which is to say, is it a fantasy story or a tragedy? When he doesn’t know what he wants, the story can be anything, which means that there is something (potentially) interesting to the reader to find out.

Thus we have the twist, so predictable that I’m not sure it really counts as a twist, that the protagonist, who thought he knew what he wants—if you’re not sitting down for this, you may want to sit now so you don’t fall down from shock—finds out that maybe he doesn’t want what he thought he wanted!

That is, the good guys turn out to be morally ambiguous, and the hero has to figure out if he really wants to help them.

It’s not really that the Moderns think that there are no good guys. Well, OK, they do think that. Oddly, despite Modern philosophy only allowing good and evil to be imputed onto things by the projection of values, Moderns are also consequentialists, and consequentialists only see shades of grey. So, yes, Moderns think that there are no good guys.

But!

But.

Moderns are nothing if not inconsistent. It doesn’t take much talking to a Modern to note that he’s rigidly convinced that he’s a good guy. Heck, he’ll probably tell you that he’s a good person if you give him half a chance.

You’ll notice that in the formula I’ve described above, which we’re all far too familiar with, the protagonist never switches sides. Occasionally, if the show is badly written, he’ll give a speech in which he talks the two sides into compromising. If the show is particularly badly written, he will point out some way of compromising where both sides get what they want and no one has to give up anything that they care about, which neither side thought of because the writers think that the audience is dumb. However this goes, however, you almost never see the protagonist switching sides. (That’s not quite a universal, as you will occasionally see that in spy-thrillers, but there are structural reasons for that which are specific to that genre.) Why is that?

Because the Modern believes that he’s the good guy.

So one can introduce moral ambiguity to make things interesting, but it does need to be resolved so that the Modern, who identifies with the protagonist, can end up as the good guy.

The problem, of course, is that the modern is a consequentialist, so the resolution of the ambiguity almost never involves the ambiguity actually being resolved. The Modern thinks it suffices to make the consequences—or as often, curiously, the intended consequences—good, i.e. desirable to the protagonist. So this ends up ruining the story for those who believe in human nature and consequently natural law, but this really was an accident on the part of the Modern writing it. He was doing his best.

His best just wasn’t good enough.