Time Chasers

I recently came across a fascinating interview with David Giancola, director of the movie Time Chasers. A cult classic after it was aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Time Chasers is connected in my mind to Hobgoblins which was also an early movie from an independent director which became far more famous and made vastly more money than anyone expected once it was featured on MST3K. They’re also two of my favorite MST3K episodes.

About a year ago I started doing some research into Hobgoblins. Like all low-budget films, it made extensive use of a few locations. Then when re-watching Time Chasers, I realized how much bigger a film Time Chasers was. It had far more locations, more props, flying planes, a crashed car. The thing which really made me notice, though, was the fight scene on the wing of a flying airplane. It’s not brilliant, but all things considered it actually looks decent.

That’s hard. And not cheap.

That’s when I looked up the budgets for the movies. Hobgoblins had a budget of $15,000 while Time Chasers had a budget ten times that—exactly; it’s budget was $150,000. Though I discovered reading the interview that that’s not entirely accurate. Time Chasers originally had a $40,000 budget but then secured additional funding as it was going over budget (it took three years between the beginning of the project and the end of post-production). Still, a budget ten times as large shows.

In the interview David Giancola mentions that they get compared to movies where the catering budget was larger than the entire budget for Time Chasers. I think it’s worth noting that the reason it gets compared to big budget movies is that while it’s not nearly as good as a big budget movie, it’s comparable. Hobgoblins is not. And I think it’s impressive that David Giancola managed to accomplish that at the age of twenty (to twenty three) on such a small budget.

I’ve said before (though I forget whether I said it on this blog) that the biggest fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are probably people who would love to be part of making a movie. There’s a magic to movies. We enjoy MST3K so much because we know that we’d happily make a cheesy movie if that’s all we had the budget for. We’re really laughing at ourselves.

Though we also enjoy thinking about what we’d do better. For example, I wouldn’t name the main villain Generic Corporation. (It took me something like ten viewings to realize that’s what Gen Corp. stood for.)

But ultimately I think this is why Time Chasers works so well for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It feels like it’s within reach, but it’s pretty good for something that’s within reach. So, hat’s off to David Giancola. He made a much better movie than most people would have on such a small budget.

And watching it with Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo has given me many hours of enjoyment.

Breathless

If you’re not familiar with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, he’s probably best known for songs about murder (Where the Wild Roses Go, Stagger Lee, Henry Lee) or apocalyptic situations (Red Right Hand). The murder is often related to sex, by the way. Which makes it especially interesting that Nick Cave also wrote this song:

It sounds like a love song and is, but it’s a love song to God.

Nick Cave isn’t much of a believer—according to his wikipedia page he said in an interview:

I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian, but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a god. It’s kind of defending the indefensible, though; I’m critical of what religions are becoming, the more destructive they’re becoming. But I think as an artist, particularly, it’s a necessary part of what I do, that there is some divine element going on within my songs.

Oh, those nasty religions which insist that people should be good instead of just giving into every impulse that they have, and that they have a nature and can’t be anything that they want. They’re so mean with the way that they get in the way of everyone’s fun. But Nick Cave has a career in entertainment to think of and most entertainers are degenerates of one kind or another and degenerates crave little as much as they do affirmation. But when it comes to a songwriter, look to his songs, not to his interviews.

And in his songs we find a love song to God.

Blackmail Spam

I’ve periodically seen (and heard about) spam emails which attempt to blackmail the recipient. They’re an interesting phenomenon, and tend to use the form of starting out with “you’ve been hacked and your password is [common password]”. I’ve seen some variations, like “password”, “a1b2c3”. I forget the name for that but it’s an interesting technique where by being specific you throw out most of your potential audience but seem to have information you shouldn’t to the small bit that remains.

One such story I’ve heard was about a con artist who selected 4096 names and addresses from the phone book, then sent each of them a letter introducing himself and giving a free tip. He picked a stock and to half said that it was going to go up, to the other half that it was going to go down. The stock then went up or down, and he threw out the half for whom his prediction was wrong. He then did the same thing to the remaining 2048 people, dividing them in two again. Finally he was down to only 4 people but from their perspective he had made 10 accurate predictions in a row! It couldn’t be chance!

Obviously this is less sophisticated, but it’s interesting for other reasons, too, so I’m going to go through it and point them out.

Subject: Frauders known your old passwrd (a1b2c3). Password mut be changed.

I find it very interesting that it starts out as if it’s from someone in a position of authority, which I suspect is just for the obvious reason of getting someone to read it. I’ve also heard that spammers don’t spend much time on plausibility because only very gullible people will fall for the scams anyway. Curious start, though.

Hello!

I have bad news for you. 19/09/2018 – on this day I hacked your OS and got full access to your account [redacted]. On this day your account [redacted] has password: a1b2c3

The friendliness is interesting, given that this is an attempt at blackmail. Anyway, we see the use of the common password which will be right for only some people.

So, you can change the password, yes.. But my malware intercepts it every time.

How I made it: In the software of the router, through which you went online, was a vulnerability. I just hacked this router and placed my malicious code on it. When you went online, my trojan was installed on the OS of your device.

This starts off plausible, but after that (mostly) only works in movies. Hacking a router is a start, but you can’t just “install a trojan”. Trojans are programs which do something real but also have a malicious payload. Routers don’t automatically install software onto client machines every time those machines go online.

Worse, it’s been a while since almost all web traffic has switched to SSL, which, granted, a router can try doing a man-in-the-middle attack on, but that’s not easy since these days browsers make it hard to trust self-signed certificates. Again, we see a surface veneer of plausibility. Much like science fiction.

After that, I made a full dump of your disk (I have all your address book, history of viewing sites, all files, phone numbers and addresses of all your contacts).

This is pretty boiler-plate for these sorts of emails. Kind of a standard “I have power over you”. Now is when it gets interesting:

A month ago, I wanted to lock your device and ask for a not big amount of btc to unlock.

It’s interesting that it’s using the generic “device”. The English in this one is fairly good; enough that I wonder if the occasional “foreign speaker” mistakes are a put-on in order to disguise where this stays generic.

But I looked at the sites that you regularly visit, and I was shocked by what I saw!!! I’m talk you about sites for adults. I want to say – you are a BIG pervert. Your fantasy is shifted far away from the normal course!

I’ve got to say that I love the idea that the criminal who was planning to break your computer and ransom your data was utterly shocked by pornography. I think it makes a certain amount of sense in terms of trying to set the tone, since the blackmail that is to follow depends upon a sense of shame in the victim.

And I got an idea….
I made a screenshot of the adult sites where you have fun (do you understand what it is about, huh?). After that, I made a screenshot of your joys (using the camera of your device) and glued them together.
Turned out amazing! You are so spectacular!

The faux-friendly tone is quite interesting, especially when coupled with a sort of flattery. I wonder if the idea behind the flattery is to pretend to knowledge that the story would have be true to have, or something else. Possibly it’s just to try to amplify the sense of shame in the victim.

I’m know that you would not like to show these screenshots to your friends, relatives or colleagues. I think $719 is a very, very small amount for my silence.

And here we finally get to the blackmail. (Incidentally, “I’m know” is an odd mistake. And someone who doesn’t speak English natively seems unlikely to use “huh?” so correctly in the preceding paragraph. And they got the second sentence correct including punctuation.)

Also curious that there’s no reference to having looked at the victim’s online banking and saw that he can easily afford this.

Besides, I have been spying on you for so long, having spent a lot of time!

This may be the part I find most interesting—the blackmailer is basically appealing to a living wage theory of the time-value of work. He’s put so much time in, he deserves a lot of money!

Pay ONLY in Bitcoins!
My BTC wallet: 1J5SXcupgaq2tUas5S7wVtf7evJp6YC3LJ
You do not know how to use bitcoins? Enter a query in any search engine: “how to replenish btc wallet”. It’s extremely easy

Curious that they include instructions to search rather than actual instructions. On the other hand, writing good instructions is hard work and the willingness to do hard work is not why criminals get into crime, by and large. (note: I didn’t redact or change the bitcoin wallet because, well, why should I?)

For this payment I give you two days (48 hours). As soon as this letter is opened, the timer will work.

Now we’re basically in the realm of complete fantasy. Email clients don’t send read-receipts any more and haven’t for a long time. Granted, the blackmailer has (in theory) installed a trojan on the victim’s computer, but in that case why not say that he’s watching via the webcam? Of course, that might prompt the victim to take immediate action which would make him find out it’s a hoax.

It’s also curious that it’s 48 hours. It’s short enough one can’t put it off indefinitely, but it’s also plenty long enough to do some basic searching and find out that this is a common hoax. And to install anti-virus software and find out that there are no trojans. (Though there’s some mention of this later.)

I think the idea is that there’s supposed to be a relatively short timer which will cause the victim to panic and act before thinking, but why two whole days rather than, say, 60 minutes or 4 hours or something short enough that there isn’t much time for non-compliance?

After payment, my virus and dirty screenshots with your enjoys will be self-destruct automatically. If I do not receive from you the specified amount, then your device will be locked, and all your contacts will receive a screenshots with your “enjoys”

I think that the automatic self-destruction of the evidence is a nice touch. It suggests that one doesn’t need to trust the villain to obtain the desired result, though about a quarter of a second of thinking about it would make such assurance worthless (if for no other reason than the villain could be lying about the automatic self-destruct). Presumably, though, they’ve discarded the quick witted as potential victims anyway.

I hope you understand your situation.
– Do not try to find and destroy my virus! (All your data, files and screenshots is already uploaded to a remote server)
– Do not try to contact me (you yourself will see that this is impossible, the sender address is automatically generated)
– Various security services will not help you; formatting a disk or destroying a device will not help, since your data is already on a remote server.

This is an interesting attempt to head off common responses. Of course, since this is a hoax, the real intent is to prevent the victim from finding out that there’s no virus. Still, it’s curious that it suggests alternative courses of action. I suppose they will arise anyway since everyone’s first thought will be how to get out of this situation without paying, so shaping the thoughts in a direction that’s unlikely to work is to the blackmailer’s benefit.

P.S. You are not my single victim. so, I guarantee you that I will not disturb you again after payment!

Interesting that the blackmailer takes thought for the possibility that he’s lying, or will be back for more, and tries to head this off. I wonder if it’s partially the result of blackmailers never stopping being such a common idea in murder mysteries? Could that popular form of entertainment have made life slightly harder for real-life blackmailers? It’s an interesting idea.

This is the word of honor hacker
I also ask you to regularly update your antiviruses in the future. This way you will no longer fall into a similar situation.
Do not hold evil! I just do my job.
Good luck.

This sign-off is very curious. Presumably the blackmailer doesn’t actually care what the victim thinks of him—and has no hope of the victim thinking of him in a friendly way, anyway—so it must serve some other purpose. Making the hoax seem more real? I remember reading C.S. Lewis commenting on how the art of including irrelevant details to make a narration seem more real was part of what distinguished the modern novel from more ancient tales; could this art be used in hoaxing in this manner? Or possibly it’s akin to the stage magician’s art of redirection? If the blackmailer can get his victim to focus on whether or not the blackmailer has a black heart he will forget to ask whether the blackmailer actually has the evidence he claims? It would, after all, be very easy to include a screenshot from the claimed video as proof, were the blackmailer actually telling the truth.

Of course, it’s easy to read too much into such a scam. There’s no proof that I know of that anyone has actually fallen for it. The victims of such a scam are not likely to come forth and tell the world they’ve been scammed since it would be admitting exactly what they wish to conceal, and for no gain since the odds of recovering money sent to an anonymous bitcoin wallet are not high. And without knowing how successful the scam is, there’s little we can tell from it besides what a scammer—who possibly has no experience—thinks is likely to be a good scam.

That said, I still find it interesting from the perspective of someone who writes murder mysteries since those tend to be stories that involve at least one amateur—the murderer. But there are often more; red herrings are almost always, by definition, people who are not practiced. After all, if they were skilled, they’d be the murderer, not a red herring.

Secular Celebrations Have to Suck in the Modern World

I’ve occasionally seen atheists who crow about how Christmas is a secular holiday as well as a religious one. This has always struck me as odd because the secular celebration of Christmas is awful and has been for a while. C.S. Lewis has an essay about it, and he died in 1963. Why (some) atheists are proud about something that people start complaining about in late November, I don’t know.

But thinking about it, it occurred to me that in the modern world, or at least the modern (rich) west, secular celebrations have to suck. This is because they literally can’t be about anything. Let me explain.

Traditionally, festivities were used to make real (by experience of pleasure) the hidden reality being celebrated. Whether it’s the glory of something in the past, the glory of something recurrent, or the goodness of God, people would eat foods they couldn’t always eat and play games they couldn’t always play to feel the reality of the goodness being celebrated.

The modern west, however, so totally indulges all of its senses that this is no longer possible. Even the few people who don’t eat a diet which is primarily candy (mostly in the form of candied foods), they have access to a rich variety of delicious foods. It’s very common that special meals are things like Turkey, Ham, and other stuff which was once sumptuous but is not generally the worst meal you’ll have all month.

People would decorate to please the eyes, but with modern printing, TV, phones, etc. we look at bright colors and pretty images all day long. Looking at the same decorations for a few hours is a sensory downgrade from normal.

People used to use expensive perfumes to stimulate the senses, but perfumes have become so cheap that they’re everywhere. Scented candles would be a dime a dozen except for inflation.

People would sing songs and play music to stimulate the ears; we listen to music so much it fades into the background. I literally had to stop and listen to discover that the grocery store was playing “Christmas” songs. (The scare quotes are because most of them are really winter songs.) Most of the time I don’t notice that music is even playing.

The modern west is so saturated in sensory stimulation that we ignore most of it as noise. This leaves us unable to use sensory stimulation for celebration. (This is probably why drinking to excess is so popular—most people spend most of most days sober, so being drunk is at least is a change, if not exactly a good change.)

This is not a problem for religious holidays, because we still have something we’re actually celebrating. On Christmas I will go to mass and be happy. Even the pointless sensory stimulation that we will carry on because it’s tradition can remind me of “the reason for the season”, and that is good.

But a purely secular holiday has no such advantage. There is no secular reason for secular Christmas, and none of it works. It’s a bunch of bother to have a worse time than normal. (Atheists will also say it’s nice to spend time with family, but if they actually liked it they’d do it more than once or twice a year.)

This is a real problem for atheists and will only get worse as technology gets better. This is going to have an effect on our culture, though I’m not sure what that effect is. Perhaps atheists will be bred out of the population before it has much of an effect. Still, I think that this is going to be influential. (Another possibility is that secular celebrations will become purely traditional not because anyone likes them but for the satisfaction of a connection to the past.) It will be interesting to see.

80s Movie Ending

For many people, and especially those who grew up in the 1980s, there was a type of movie that’s very recognizable. The example which most stands out in my mind is The Goonies, but there were a ton in a similar style. Which is why I found this short film so funny:

As a fun side-note, the movie Roller Boogie seems to be the first 80s movie made, which is very curious because it was made in 1979 and includes the clothes and hair typical of the (late) 1970s, making it quite a curiosity. (The basic plot of the plucky kids who have to save the thing from the businessmen who want to foreclose on it in order to build something else probably pre-dated Roller Boogie, I just haven’t seen an example of it earlier.)

The Magic of Lighting in Photography

This video, which is apparently a trailer for a music video rather than a documentary about the power of lighting in photography, is absolutely fascinating:

If you take pictures, or even just look at pictures, it is worth watching this video in full because it shows you just how powerful the effect of lighting is.

Part of where lighting gains its power, by the way, is that our brain does an enormous amount of processing on the images it gets from the eyes. Not only does it remove the blood vessels and the blind spot in front of our optic nerve from what we perceive based on its knowledge of what it is that it’s looking at (the origin of many optical illusions), it also does color correction.

We’re used to thinking of an object as having a color based on what light it reflects but this is only partially true. A red ball does, in fact, absorb green and blue (etc) and only reflect red, but the light which reaches our eyes is dependent on what light hits the ball. In white light, the standard description of color more-or-less applies. But in, for example, blue light, no light comes back from the ball and it looks black. In red light, the same amount of red light comes back from a red ball as comes back from a white ball, so the white ball looks red. Or, depending on how our brain decides to interpret it, the red ball looks white. That’s the basis of those secret messages which were printed in blue against a red squiggly background. In white light the squiggles dominate our ability to see images, but in red light (usually achieved by using red cellophane as a filter) the red squiggles look no different than the white paper and so disappear, while the blue text which was the same brightness (in white light) as the red squiggles now show up as black.

There’s all sorts of interesting tricks which can be pulled off with light, too, because the red, green, and blue photo-receptors in our eyes are not equally sensitive. Green seems the brightest to us, so you can make the colors of, for example, tropical fish pop more by illuminating them with lights that have a lot of red and blue but not much green; thus the amount of red and blue which reflects off the fish compared to the overall brightness is higher and they look more colorful (this is why they always look better in the pet store unless you invest in the special lights for your home aquarium—on the plus side those lights are better for aquarium pants, too).

There are similar considerations when lighting people with little pigment in their skin. Light which has too much red in it can easily make their skin look very reddish.

There’s another curious effect which is that the overall quantity of light will change things because every photo-receptor (whether in a camera or an eye) has a maximum amount of stimulation. If you can use so much light that you can exceed the maximum amount of stimulation, you can “wash” the colors out as everything tends towards white since the relative balance of colors changes. You can use tricks like this to lighten or darken someone’s skin in a photo shoot, for example.

Cameras don’t like by commission, but they lie by omission all the time.

The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown

If you haven’t read The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown by TOF, you really, really should. It’s the history of the overthrow of the ptolemaic theory of the solar system to the present heliocentric theory of the solar system. Gallileo is involved, but is not the primary subject. It’s really quite fascinating and more than worth the time to read it. Two tidbits, to wet your appetite:

TOF once wrote an article entitled “The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown and Down ‘n Dirty Mud-Wrassle” which described the century-long progress from the first seriously-worked out heliocentric mathematical model to the final overthrow of geocentrism.  A century, more-or-less, is generally what it takes for quantum mechanics, general relativity, and sundry other theories to progress from “wild hypothesis overthrowing the wisdom of the ages” to “standard model,” so there was nothing unusual in the resistance to heliocentrism from the scientific establishment of the day.  As Max Planck once put it, a new scientific theory gradually gets accepted by scientists because “all the old scientists have died.”  

and slightly later:

Before you laugh at your ancestors, TOF invites you to prove that the earth is, contrary to your senses, in wild and careening double motion: spinning like a top and whipping around the sun without (somehow) leaving the Moon and Air behind, and without everyone stumbling around like dunkards.  You are not allowed to appeal to authority or to the success of NASA, or suchlike things.  You’ve got eyeballs and armillaries, and that’s pretty much it.  Go. TOF will wait here.

Astonishingly, Late Moderns, who hold heliocentrism as a sort of holy doctrine, are generally unaware of the empirical evidences that would justify it; while Early Moderns, who thought geocentrism dough-face obvious, were well aware of the evidences that falsified heliocentrism. These evidences, plucked variously from Aristotle, Oresme, and Riccoli follow; but be it noted that both Oresme and Riccoli also supplied rebuttals for most of them and Aristotle cautioned against taking his cosmology as more certain than he himself did…

It really is an excellent history of the time, and you really, really should read the whole thing. It explores why the scientific establishment of the time was set against heliocentrism—for example, they didn’t much care whether the earth was at the center or the sun was at the center, but the idea that the earth was moving contradicted all available evidence both on the earth and of astronomical observations. Go read it. You’ll be glad that you did.

Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

My favorite novel is Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Among my favorite mysteries is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I don’t know how often they are connected in other people’s minds but they are connected strongly in mine, and in case this is not universal, I’d like to explain why. (Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read both, go do that now.)

Both novels are, fundamentally, stories of reconciliation. Pride & Prejudice includes the incidents which separate Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the real story is that of them coming together. Gaudy Night does include a bit of the strange and strained relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter—and, if one wants to be tedious, a mystery—but it too is a tale of the fixing of a relationship.

But these are not merely reconciliations. Reconciliation can be done in many ways, such as the revelation of information which fixes a mistake, as in the movie Top Hat or the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. But both Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night are reconciliations in which the characters reconcile with each other by improving themselves.

Also curious about both is that this improvement is effected both through the help of the other, as well as by the help of someone else acting viciously. The improvement thus becomes a push-pull. The protagonists are both pulled toward virtue but also pushed toward it by the bad example of the witness of vice.

It only takes a few sentences but I think it is a very important part of Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth hears her sister say that Wickham didn’t care two farthings for Miss King—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing, and that though incapable of such coarseness of expression, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal. This was one of the first moments of true self-knowledge for Elizabeth, though it was led up to, certainly, by previous realizations.

It reminds me very greatly of how Harriet saw a picture of herself in Violet Cattermole’s desire to bite the hand of her friend toward whom she was always having to be grateful. Harriet’s advice in this case was quite interesting and also a piece of self-insight; she advised Violet that if she disliked being grateful she should stop doing things that would require her to be grateful to others.

Harriet’s being tried for murder was in a sense bad luck, but it was bad luck that she had let herself in for by living with the poet on terms other than marriage. Had she done what she ought, she’d never have been tried for murder. Had Violet Cattermole not went out without leave and gotten drunk, she’d not have had to be grateful to her friend for helping her into her room and nursing her. Though Harriet didn’t say it, I think she realized in the moment of giving advice that her own bitterness at gratitude was not, in fact, bitterness at being grateful. It was bitterness at her own misbehavior. Genuine gratitude is a pleasure; what Harriet disliked so much was having to acknowledge her own bad judgment.

There is a curious aspect to repentance: it is difficult not because one must do something differently, but because one must admit that one was formerly wrong. The meaning of hell is that it can be so painful to admit that one was wrong that people can cling to it instead of letting themselves be happy. Curiously, the feeling which attends admitting that one was wrong is a freeing feeling. It’s also, interestingly, freeing in social circumstances. If one announces a mistake oneself, most people don’t care past whatever trouble is now involved in fixing it. It can be amazing how much, if one takes all of the blame one is due, no one else bothers to give it to one. There’s probably something in here related to, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not that the lower should serve the higher, but the higher should also stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a completely triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

Break a Leg

Through a chain of coincidences not worth mentioning I came across the wikipedia page for the phrase break a leg. It’s got a little actual history, which is interesting. The phrase (used among theater people to wish each other good luck) seems to be fairly recent:

Urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article, “A Defence of Superstition”, in the 1 October 1921 edition of the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine. Lynd regarded the theatre as the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”[ Lynd did not attribute the phrase in any way to theatre people, though he was familiar with many of them and frequently mingled with actors backstage. Break a leg is most commonly used to wish an actor in audition to be part of the cast; hence the term “break a leg”.
The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber‘s 1939 A Peculiar Treasure in which she writes about the fascination of the theater, “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”.[7] In Bernard Sobel‘s 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays, he writes about theatrical superstitions: “…before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say ‘I hope you break a leg.'” There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.

The reason I’m writing about it, though, is that it describes a collection of purported origin stories of the sort that, twenty years ago, used to go around as email forwards. They include:

  • There was a line on the stage, called “the leg”, past which one was visible, and far more actors would show up than would perform and were only paid if they performed. Thus “break the leg” was a wish that they’d get paid.
  • Bowing “broke the leg” in the sense of breaking the line of the leg, and was a wish that the audience would applaud.
  • The mechanical crank for the curtain was called “the leg” and it was a wish that they’d be called back by applause so much the crank would break.
  • In Greek times people stomped their feet instead of clapping and the idea was to wish a performance so good that members of the audience would break their legs stomping so hard.
  • Some ridiculous thing about a yiddish phrase being take to be a german phrase that doesn’t sound all that close but means “neck and leg fracture”, which was used by German WWI pilots to each other.
  • John Wilks Booth broke his leg leaping to the stage in Ford’s Theater after killing Abraham Lincoln, which was his most memorable performance.
  • 18th Century British actor David Garrick became so engrossed in his role as Richard III that he didn’t notice his leg fracture.

They all have a sort of historical plausibility, though my experience of these things is if you try to track them down they often turn out to simply be false. The thing about these explanations I find fascinating is how unpoetic they all are.  Wishing someone, not success, but failure, is obviously a recognition of how often our wishes don’t come true and thus is trying to trick fate by wishing for the opposite of what’s hoped for. School children of my day might respond to someone prophesying their success by saying, “don’t jinx me”, as if the expectation of success would produce failure.

There’s a psychological component behind this, of course; overconfidence tends to lead to under-performance. But much more significant, I think, is the universal human fear of Nemesis. She was the Greek god whose task it was to ensure that mortals who thought too much of themselves were brought low.

All of the explanations proffered on the wikipedia page have in common that they are some form of positive wish. That is, they explain the phrase away. They purport to show that the phrase is not in fact a negative one but a positive one.

I can’t help but see a curious similarity here to internet atheism. There seems to be the appeal of being in the club of those in the know—to be distinguished as superior from the unwashed masses. There is also the appeal of taking a phrase which required a poetic understanding and turning it into something prosaic and insignificant. It makes the world at once easy to understand and not worth understanding.

Where it really fails, of course, is that it’s more significant to understand why a thing has persisted than it is to know where it started. There are phrases which had the origin in misunderstanding or mispronouncing a different phrase, but most of these die out, just as most of everything dies out. When things last, it’s because they tap into something lasting. And that’s the part that’s worth knowing.

Bad Self Defense & Captain Krav Maga

Ramsey Dewey (and friends) can be quite funny when they put their mind to it. This video compares and tries to replicate two self defense videos which teach one how to defend against multiple opponents with guns:

I will say, though, that while the humor is entirely correct, and moreover that fighting multiple opponents with guns is probably not going to end well, there was an interesting point that wasn’t highlighted here. In Ramsey’s reproduction, the gunmen kept a safe distance from Ramsey. There was a curious self-defense video I saw which made the interesting point that while trained people will indeed keep a safe distance when they have guns, trained people rarely rob people with guns. They can make money honestly.

The sort of people who rob others on the street with guns don’t have training, and moreover use the gun primarily to assert their dominance and only secondarily as a weapon. And indeed, security footage does show that criminals often do wave guns right in people’s faces rather than keeping a safe distance. This doesn’t change the right thing to do when threatened with a gun (since the smallest mistake can result in being killed) but it is an interesting point of human psychology.

A Traitor To Dreams

Alex over at Amatopia has just published his first novel, A Traitor To Dreams:

I had the pleasure of reading a draft of the novel. It’s not necessarily easy to characterize; in a way it’s a coming of age story for someone who is also coming to terms with how she should have grown up a long time ago. It blends into this a beautiful and interesting setting and memorable characters.

Check out the book, but to make it easier, here’s the back cover text:

Ideomatic, Inc. has perfected humanity. Their Dream Trashcan can create the ideal you.

Elpida Kallistos has everything she wants . . . almost. There is one unfulfilled dream, one desire standing between her and happiness. Enter the Dream Trashcan from Ideomatic, Inc., guaranteed to eliminate unwanted desires while you sleep. All it takes is the click of a button and the desire is gone, permanently.

And it works! But when Elpida has second thoughts and opens up her Dream Trashcan, she finds more inside than circuitry and wires. She finds a whole other world . . . the Dreamscape, a realm where angelic, winged beings called Stewards hunt down desires made flesh. But her presence makes the Dreamscape unstable, and Ideomatic will do anything to get her out.

Chased by Ideomatic’s minions, Elpida must discover her Steward’s true identity, learn the secrets of the Dream Trashcan, and unravel Ideomatic’s plans . . . before she’s devoured by her own desires.

Elpida’s journey through the Dreamscape begins as The Matrix meets Alice in Wonderland as fantasy and reality collide in A Traitor to Dreams.

The Last Psychiatrist on The Dove Beauty Sketches

If you haven’t read the blog (which, alas, hasn’t been updated in years) of The Last Psychiatrist, you’ve been missing out. I’m going to highlight one of my favorite posts of his: The Dove Beauty Sketches Scam. Just go read it.

But if you want to know something about it first, it starts by showing this clip from a movie about a con artist who was approached by a psychologist and is teaching her about con artistry at her request:

Then The Last Psychiatrist asks this question:

Quick test for a con: what questions does it not occur to you to ask?  While you were memorizing the language and the pacing of the scam, you didn’t ask yourself, why didn’t Mantegna take that guy’s money at the end?  Why did he let him off the hook?  “He was just doing it as an example.” Oh, like when a guy says he’ll put in just the tip, “I want to see if it fits”?   It’s not like the psychiatrist doesn’t know he’s a thief– that’s why they were there in the first place.   So he purposely didn’t steal the money to make the psychiatrist feel at ease, feel closer to him.  To earn her confidence by first giving her his.  She’s the mark.  The aborted short con is part of an unseen long con.

The Last Psychiatrist has a very blunt and provocative style, but he uses it to deliver a lot of insight.

Justice and Generosity, Hierarchy and Equality

I recently said, on Twitter:

If you wish to understand how society always organizes itself:

Equals can get along if they have nothing to do with each other or both are generous to each other.

Superior/sub-ordinate can get along if both will be merely just to each other.

There was some interest in this so I’ll explain what I mean and why it is the case.

There are and have been many forms of social organization—democracy, republics monarchies, dictatorships, bureaucracies, clubs, churches, friends, families, neighbors, villages, cities, etc.—but they all share some basic traits because they are organizations of human beings and human nature imposes restrictions upon how human beings can be organized.

In a fallen world, one of the biggest problems which needs to be handled in human relationships is how to handle when two people’s wills diverge. There are only three possible outcomes: both get their way, one gets their way and the other doesn’t, and neither gets their way. I’m going to count compromise as a sub-set of both getting their way so we can disregard the last outcome—neither gets their way—because a situation in which no one ever gets what he wants will not last long.

There are a very limited number of ways in which society can be organized such two people with divergent desires can both have their way. The simplest is for the people to have nothing to do with each other. Neighbors can both do whatever they want in their own homes since it doesn’t get in the way of the other. This is the “good fences make good neighbors” organization of society.

If separation is not possible then the only alternative is for some form of compromise to occur. This requires one or both to give up something for the sake of the other. That is, this requires generosity.

(There is also the case of bargaining but bargaining is only possible where the wills of the two mostly align. The merchant is willing to sell the item for its value plus a profit, the buyer is willing to buy the item for its value plus a profit; the only divergence is on the the size of the profit and possibly their evaluations of the value. This is very different from the buyer being willing to buy the item but his wife wanting him to buy something quite different instead.)

Where there is not separation or generosity, the only possibility left is for one to force their will on the other. This may be done through warfare or through a proxy for warfare such as lawsuits. That is, it will be done by appealing to someone who is superior within the social hierarchy (the court) or to the superior force of arms. If we leave off warfare as being not a social order but the breakdown of social order, this leaves us only with hierarchy.

The court system, however, is very inefficient. Suing or being sued consumes a lot of time and money. If people can’t leave each other alone and people can’t be generous to each other, then sooner or later they will embed hierarchies into social organization for the sake of efficiency.

Social equalities which do not consist of people leaving each other alone, as neighbors mostly do, are themselves quite a lot of work. It is not easy for fallen humanity to be generous to each other indefinitely. This is why modern marriages so often break up. It’s also why high school is so often remembered as hellish.

Hierarchies may not be perfect but they’re vastly less work because they contain within them the mechanism for resolving the conflicts of will which so often come up between fallen creatures. A feature of living within a hierarchy that’s often missed by those who deride hierarchies is that people naturally adapt to reasonable hierarchies. That a reasonable boss imposes limits may be inconvenient but not particularly more so than that the walls impose limits. One may not do what the boss does not permit; one may not walk through the walls. So long as the boss is as predictable as the wall, the human psyche eventually thinks of the limitations of both in roughly the same way—merely part of reality. Even the boss operates in a manner heavily constrained by limits, if merely different limits than the subordinate.

(Where people really come to hate their bosses is when their bosses are unreasonable. An unreasonable boss is unpredictable; one can’t conform to him and get along because he has no definite shape. What he approves of one minute he disapproves of the next, and one must take constant notice of him. They would have the same frustration at walls that reshuffled themselves three times a day.)

But this is also true of social clubs. Clubs which must carry on some definite business will form hierarchies with elected offices because the alternative is so much more work. Even large groups of friends will form hierarchies because group decisions are so painful to accomplish. Where four or five regularly gather together just to enjoy each other’s company you will still see one or two becoming the leaders of the group and carrying out most of the decision making process while two or three simply go along and one or two are more active but willing to defer.

Monasteries which are founded on the principle that all of the monks are brothers will elect a Father Prior or Father Abbot to lead them and make decisions which the rest obey. Nunneries will elect a Mother Abbess or Mother Prioress. If all the farm animals are equal, some animals will become more equal than others. The alternative is just too much work.

You can even see this in YouTube communities which form; it’s not hard to pick out the leaders who set the tone for their respective communities. They change over time, of course, because nothing in a fallen world is stable. But communities of equal are vastly less stable than are hierarchies.

Human beings are made for more than mere justice, so we have a natural distaste for hierarchies. We chafe under them. And yet, we tend to be happier within a hierarchy because all that’s required of us is mere justice. Our superiors have certain rights over us, so if we discharge our duties to them we need do no more and all is well. We have certain obligations to our inferiors but if we discharge them we need do no more and all is well. Our inferiors owe us certain obligations, but as long as they discharge those obligations to us we are satisfied and all is well. It may not be perfect, but it’s easy.

Unlike electricity human beings do not always take the path of least resistance. We just mostly take the path of least resistance. This is why you will find hierarchies developing everywhere and why social organizations which purport to finally achieve equality are guaranteed to fail.

Now, it should be noted that it’s not necessarily a problem that something is guaranteed to fail. Everything in a fallen world is. The real question that needs to be asked is whether it’s going to fail gracefully or spectacularly. When the social order fails, will it result only in somewhat elevated levels of injustice or will it end in mass executions?

Because nothing in a fallen world ends well.

That’s what the next world is for.