An Interesting Covert WW2 Assassination Pistol

In this video Ian of Forgotten Weapons describes the Welrod Mk IIA covert assassination pistol developed during World War 2 by British Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) to outfit special operations units as well as resistance units in German-occupied countries.

Its strange appearance is partially intentional, because without the magazine (which doubles as the grip) it looks somewhat like a bicycle pump and, more importantly, not like a gun. As Ian says in the video, if you’re stopped by German soldiers, you really don’t want them realizing that you have in your possession an assassination pistol.

Possibly the most interesting thing about it, from a mystery writer’s perspective, is that it actually achieves the sort of quietness that one sees in Hollywood depictions of silencers. (Normal sound suppressors, aka “silencers,” only reduce the unimaginably loud bang of the gun to an imaginably but very loud bang that, however, is not going to cause instant hearing damage.)

Ian says that about 14,000 were made. Further, they are still in occasional use by special forces, though special forces don’t particularly admit to it so this is slightly speculative. From the perspective of someone wanting to use a silenced gun in a murder mystery, these are sufficient numbers that one could reasonably find itself into the hands of an ordinary person.

Something else I find curious is that the manual for them says that their effective range is about 25 yards during the day and 7-8 yards at night. This is partially explained by the poor ergonomics and partially by having to use a slow bullet—a bullet traveling faster than the speed of sound will produce a supersonic boom when it hits the air and there’s nothing a silencer can do about that.

Now, nighttime shooting without special optics is always difficult, but I find it curious that in the daytime 25 yards is an easy shot with a bow and arrow, especially for a modern compound bow with carbon fiber arrows. A pistol is, of course, far easier to conceal than a bow and arrows are—to say nothing of being easier to carry—so I’m not trying to suggest that a bow and arrows would be better for the purpose than this gun. I merely find it interesting.

Tonight On Murder, She Wrote

Every episode of Murder, She Wrote began, before the theme song and title credit, with some clips from the upcoming episode. A moment into these clips, Angela Lansbury would say, “Tonight, on Murder, She Wrote.” The clips invariably made the episode seem more exciting than it was, and frequently misdirected as to the villain and just as often made the episode seem like it was a very different episode.

I find it curious that this was a part of every episode. It was by no means standard on TV shows of the time. Morever, Murder, She Wrote episodes were packed very full so it’s not like they needed to pad the episode out.

I suspect that the main reason for the clipjob of the episode we’re about to watch is that Murder, She Wrote normally starts out a bit slow. It’s quite uncommon to have a body in the first sixty seconds and only about half of the episodes have a body by fifteen minutes in. This isn’t a problem for regular viewers, since we know what we’re getting into and in any event murder mysteries are meant to be considered, not action-packed. Murder, She Wrote was distributed via broadcast (and later cable) television, however, which had some peculiar quirks to it, relative to how people watch TV shows now.

In particular, if one changed the channel something else would be instantly on. This differs from modern streaming in that no choice is necessary prior to viewing something else; one simply would start seeing a different show and could evaluate without any decision-paralysis whether it was better. If one is watching a show on a streaming service, or via DVDs, or what-have-you, switching from the current show involves some amount of time spent evaluating options while not watching anything, and the new things may not be a replacement of the same length. This meant if you didn’t grab someone, they might easily decide to change the channel to see if something better was on.

This phenomenon was exacerbated by the way one got a decent fraction of one’s viewership: they were watching whatever was on in the timeslot before you. Of the ones who didn’t come in this way, some decent fraction had been watching something else and flipped channels to see what else was on. They might not even be intending to check out the channel on which your show is playing, so you have only a moment or two to grab them before they follow their original intention and flip away.

The longer one watches this on-demand, and thus intentionally, the stranger this seems. I stopped watching linear TV about twenty years ago. In college I would catch Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the shared TV in the dorm lounge, but when I moved into my own apartment for grad school not paying for cable TV was a very easy savings and I was not tempted to get an antenna for broadcast TV, either. And I’ve never been tempted to get TV service since then, either, despite the internet company all but throwing it in for free with my internet service.

(Incidentally, I’ll never forget the look of horror on my oldest son’s face when I explained to him how broadcast TV worked, where if you missed it when it broadcast you simply didn’t get to see it until re-run season.)

I have no idea if “Tonight, on Murder, She Wrote” served its intended purpose. If you had any experience of the show you know that at best it was irrelevant to the episode and most of the time it was misleading; thus it was just annoying. On the plus side, though I only realized it later in life, you didn’t need to bother avoiding it because it never contained any spoilers. It’s curious to see it now, watching the episodes on DVD. It’s an odd connection to when I was a child and watched it over broadcast (we didn’t have cable back then), in spite of it being a bad memory.

It’s curious how one can become nostalgic for things one didn’t like; perhaps it is in some way connected to the improved powers of enjoyment one gains as one ages, providing one doesn’t waste the time.

Murder Mysteries and Cursed Gemstones

An interesting theme that gets brought up on rare occasion in murder mysteries is gemstones said to be cursed. Often this takes the form of a murderer trying to cover his murder with the legend of the curse. Something I think more interesting, that does not get explored nearly so often, is the idea that the curse is fulfilled even when it a man fulfills the curse accidentally.

Let us say that there is some great sapphire, the size of a man’s fist, which was dug up from the ground in India in some ground supposed to be sacred to someone or other, and a curse attaches to whoever defiles the sacred ground by keeping the sapphire for himself. Let us say that it was dug up by three men, and shortly afterwards one, in a fit of greed, murders the other two in order to keep the sapphire for himself. On his way back to England, a fellow passenger discovers the sapphire and murders the last of the gang and steals the stone. Back in England the thief is himself murdered while trying to fence the stone. Unfortunately for the fence who killed the thief, the unscrupulous nobleman to whom he showed the sapphire became obsessed with it despite his inability to pay for it. The nobleman hired some thugs to kill the fence and steal his jewels, then killed them after they delivered the stolen property to him.

Here the sapphire remained until the nobleman died of old age, as he would not show it to anyone out of jealousy, but when he came to die and his nephew inherited the dilapidating estate, the sapphire was found as were the old man’s writings about his beloved stone, including the history of it and the curse that follows it. In these writings the old man attributes his miserable, lonely life to the curse of the stone, but cannot bring himself to get rid of it. This gets widely known and the nephew’s heir murders him to inherit the sapphire, but tries to pin the murder on the curse, perhaps by attempting to disguise the murder as a fake suicide.

When the case is closed and the sidekick says to the detective, “so the curse wasn’t real after all?” the detective can reply, “I wonder, my friend. Does the sapphire need its own hands to enforce its curse? Is its curse less a curse because it uses men’s hands to do its evil?”

It’s a good question. To some degree we’re straying into the territory of Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson, describing the curse as a pattern that follows because of how men react to the gemstone and ascribing agency to it is true at least insofar as people reliably react to it in a particular way.

This did more-or-less come up in a Poirot short story, btw. It was one of the Labours of Hercules, specifically, the Apples of Hesperides. In it there was a chalice which was stolen from an art collector and he hired Poirot to get it back. Deaths had followed it; it had originally been used to poison people with a secret compartment that can hide the poison and release it into the drink, and later people would kill to have the chalice. At the end of the story, when Poirot returns the cup, he begs the art dealer to give it back to the cloister where it had found its way, as there people only used it as a chalice and it was in this way purified by their innocence and deaths would no longer follow it.

This is an interesting theme to explore in detective fiction. I wish it were explored more often.

Murder She Wrote: Curse of the Daanav

In the latter half of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Curse of the Daanav. This episode is set in the mansion of Seth Hazlitt’s estranged brother, Robert. As settings go, mansions are one of the best.

The episode actually begins in India, though, some unspecified amount of time before the episode begins. It begins, specifically, with two guys in a cave using an oil lamp.

The non-Indian guy looks like he’s wearing a suspiciously modern style of clothing, but the oil lamp makes this likely to be quite some time ago. Flashlights with tungsten filament bulbs were invented in 1904 and had sold millions by 1922 in the United States. They are here to steal a ruby from a golden cobra.

A golden cobra statue, I mean.

The non-Indian guy tries to lift the statue, but it’s too heavy, so instead he uses a knfie to pry the gem loose. The camera goes wonky, the Indian guy screams and collapses, and then the non-Indian guy grabs at his throat and collapses. Then the Indian guy wakes up in a bed, screaming.

So perhaps it was all a dream? Or perhaps he was just remembering something that happened. Given that he seems to be in the present day, I assume it’s just a dream because the guy hasn’t aged at all from when he was in the cave with the oil lamp.

We then cut to Seth’s brother, Richard, giving the ruby to his young wife, Alice.

He says that it’s not half as beautiful as the woman wearing, but that it will turn a few eyes at the party tonight. Alice is distressed by this. She says that his friends will take one look at it and think that she married him for his money. Also, it puts the gift she gave him to shame. He laughs this off, but she protests that being swept off her feet and honeymooning all over Europe, and the jewels and the parties are nice and all, but they’re also overwhelming.

He tells her that she’ll get used to it.

They’re interrupted by Richard’s daughter from his first marriage, Carolyn:

She comes in with the cattiness turned up to 11. About the necklace, she remarks, “It doesn’t surprise me at all. But then he’s always been very generous. Haven’t you, Daddy?”

He replies, “To a fault, in some cases.”

She then says, “Aww, come now, Daddy. What’s the point of having money if you don’t spend it? Besides, all I want is a measily thou. You can call it an advance on my inheritance.”

Richard sighs and, as he picks up his checkbook, says, “Carolyn, honey. These advances are becoming an all-out major assault.”

He tells her that money is not unlimited and he works hard for it. He then says that she has to learn that she can’t buy everything she wants.

She asks, “Why not? You have.”

She grabs the check from him and leaves. He remarks, “that’s a chip off the old block.”

That last part is interesting, because it acknowledges that her patterns of behavior had to come from somewhere, and that’s probably mostly her parents. You usually don’t see that in murder mysteries; spoiled children are typically treated as if they sprang fully formed from their parents and went wholly wrong entirely on their own.

Which is not to say that people do not have free will and do not make their own choices. They do. Bad people can make themselves that way despite being raised well, just as saints can overcome having been raised badly. These are not the norm, though. It’s far more common that if people don’t have principles, it’s because they were raised without them. And this makes the rich old man with the awful children not nearly so much an object of pity as he’s typically made out to be. There is something sad about a man reaping what he has sewn, but that is tempered by the fact that it’s only justice.

We then meet the spoiled brat’s brother, Mark:

She’s walking down the stairs quickly and he asks her what the rush is—is she afraid that some trendy new fashion will start without her?

I get that Murder, She Wrote needs to be time-efficient in its characterizations, but this level of casual antagonism is dysfunctional. I suppose it’s meant to help make him a suspect—Carolyn suggests that if their father and her young wife have a son together, Alice will ensure that her own issue takes over the bank when their father dies, not Mark.

This is basically just taking aristocratic primogeniture from golden-age detective mysteries and pretending that it applies to American businessmen. Even there, Mark would have to be a nephew with Richard having no male issue, so far. As the oldest son, his position under primogeniture would be assured.

In the actual circumstance, this is absurd. Richard Bradford, the actor who plays Richard Hazlitt, was born in 1934 and was thus 54 years old in 1988 when this episode aired. I suspect he was playing older, though, since his children are clearly in their thirties and Richard Hazlitt was unlikely to have fathered them in his early twenties. But heck, let’s suppose the character was supposed to be the same as as the actor—and it’s weird for a thirty year old to talk of a fifty year old as being “old”—this means that in twenty years he’ll be 74. Even if he survived this long, he’ll probably retire, and the oldest his son with his new wife could be is nineteen years old. Are we really to expect a bank to be run by a nineteen year old with no experience in preference to a fifty year old who’s worked in the bank for the last thirty years? Primogeniture will pass a title and estate to a child. American corporations don’t work that way.

This is one weakness that Murder, She Wrote sometimes runs into when it tries to pay tribute to golden age mysteries—some of them simply don’t work in modern America. (See The Lady in the Lake.)

In the next scene Seth and Jessica are in a car with glorious rear-projection of Washington DC behind them.

I can’t help but wonder what it was like shooting rear-projection scenes. Did they feel as silly as they looked, or was it just a part of the business? My mother likes to say that people were more innocent and accepting back then, but I have dim childhood memories of my father making fun of rear projection even back then.

They were in Washington D.C. to confer with their congressman, and that done, Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting an invitation to a polo match from his estranged brother (Richard). With effort, she talks him into it, but he makes it conditional on Jessica coming with him, which she reluctantly agrees to.

The scene shifts to the polo match. Richard and Alice are watching, while Mark is playing. The game ends moments after red team (Mark is on blue team) scores a winning point. Richard upbraids Mark for bad playing.

I find it interesting that Richard is not a sympathetic character. Earlier, it was a bit more ambiguous, where he was pulling in the reigns on a spoiled child; it’s possible to not notice who it must have been who spoiled the child. Here, he’s just being pointlessly critical and cruel. I wonder if this is to help make Seth more sympathetic for being estranged from his brother for so many years.

Mark asks his father why he doesn’t get off his (Mark’s) back, and Richard asks Mark why the hell he doesn’t learn to play the game. He then says, “and there’s someone who could teach you,” and calls out to Vikram Singh, and congratulates him on a good match.

It’s the same guy as in the dream!

Jessica and Seth come up and Jessica observes that they seem to have missed the entire match. “So much for that driver’s short-cuts.” This is a cute way to get them there at the right time, story-wise. It’s not a big deal, but saves a bit of time.

We then meet Alice’s father as the two of them walk up to Jessica and Seth.

Seth guesses that she’s Caroline, but she clarifies that she’s Richard’s wife. She introduces her father, whose name is Burt Davis

Richard then notices Seth, and the two of them stare at each other warily.

It then comes up that Richard was not the one who invited Seth, it was Alice who took the liberty. She then tells Seth and Jessica to come stay at the house, and Richard can’t say no to her so it is arranged. She has a forceful personality, but also means well, which is unusual in a murder mystery.

The scene shifts to the party that evening, where we see Burt eating and drinking off of the plates that servants (or catering staff) are carrying. I think this may be meant to establish his character as low class and unused to the events, or else just someone who really enjoys eating and drinking. He wanders into Seth, and then Jessica walks up with Vikram Singh, and it turns out that they’re standing next to Caroline and Mark.

The children complain, as is their habit. Jessica tells them that she was just saying to Singh that she was sorry they missed the polo match. Mark says that she didn’t miss anything but Vikram begs to differ; prior to his fall Mark scored three goals, which Singh considers most impressive.

Richard and Alice join the group, and Vikram Singh notices the ruby she’s wearing (the one from the dream which Richard gave to Alice at the beginning of the episode). Singh identifies it as “The Eye of the Daanav” and tells them about its curse. The ruby, he explains, is the all-seeing eye of a powerful demon called “The Daanav”. It’s a golden-headed cobra which controls all that is dark and evil in this world.

I’m kind of curious what religion this legend is from, because it doesn’t really match up with Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, the three major religions you’ll find in India. (I wonder if this is like the episode where there was a Sheik with thirty six wives.) Anyway, the Daanav was angered by the theft of its all-seeing eye (more than a century ago), and laid a curse on it that would rob the breath of life itself from one whose heart is less than pure, killing them most horribly.

Richard thinks that this is merely a scare tactic, though, as Singh has already, on behalf of his government, offered Richard twice what he paid for the jewel. Richard, however, is adamant that he won’t sell it. Why, is not stated. It’s hard to see how he could have a strong attachment to it, but as we will see the plot requires him to not be willing to give it up. Perhaps this is why he was shown to be such a selfish, inconsiderate bastard earlier.

At this awkward juncture Alice excuses herself as having a ton of people to meet, then remembers that she hasn’t given Richard his gift yet and tells him to wait in the study while she goes to get it. It turns out that she left it in her car in the garage. When she gets there an engine is running. She leaves the door slightly ajar and goes to investigate, but the car’s doors are locked. Then the door she left ajar is slowly and quietly closed. She bangs against the door, calling for help, as she coughs from the carbon monoxide. She eventually falls to the ground, unconscious and we fade to commercial.

When we come back from commercial, Burt and Mark are walking to the garage because Burt had thought he’d lost his pipe then remembered he’d left it in the car in the afternoon. Mark tries the door to the garage and remarks that it’s locked, which is unusual. He thinks he’s left his keys “upstairs” (this is a detached garage so “back in the house” would have been more accurate, but Mark appears to be drunk). Burt holds up the key to the garage and asks, “what’s this?” Mark replies, “Oh, what do you know?” They then hear the sound of the car engine and rush in to investigate and find Alice.

They rush her back into the house, Mark carrying her, and Seth takes charge while he instructs Richard to call the paramedics. This done, Richard comes to tell Seth that the paramedics are on their way and he tells her that it’s OK, Alice is coming around. Burt then insists on calling the police as he thinks that someone tried to kill Alice. Richard thinks this is ridiculous, but the next scene shows a police car so someone called the police.

Jessica meets Lt. Ames in the garage, looking at the scene of the crime.

Lt. Ames is played by Larry Linville, best known for playing Frank Burns in M*A*S*H.

Lt. Ames tells Jessica that this is probably a failed suicide attempt. Jessica finds this ridiculous because who commits suicide by turning on a car and closing the garage door so the garage will fill up with fumes and then going off to a party only to leave in the middle to kill themselves, since it must have taken longer than the fifteen minutes that Alice was gone for the garage to have filled up with fumes (It’s an enormous, many-car garage).

Larry looks at her with new interest, closes the door, and asks who she is. She lets it slip that she had been in Washington to meet with Congressman Hale. Ames recognizes the name; Hale is the head of the House Committee on Secret Intelligence. He concludes that Jessica is some sort of secret agent who cannot reveal her identity. He then gives Jessica all of the evidence he has.

The entirety of his evidence amounts to Alice’s key having been in the ignition of the car with the doors locked. Alice admits that it’s her key, but protests that she always kept it on a hook in the garage and anyone could have taken it. Under questioning, she said that she pushed the button that should have opened the garage a few times and it didn’t work, then she tried to go out the side door but found it locked.

Ames notes that when he tried the electric garage door opener, it worked fine. Seth interrupts and suggests that she might have been confused. Inhaling that much carbon dioxide was bound to cause a certain amount of confusion.

Alice then interjects that the paramedics said it could have caused far worse than that, had Seth not been there. Seth acknowledges this with an smug nod.

This is a thing that the writers try to develop during the episode—Seth’s medical prowess. The only real problem is that so far as I can see, he didn’t do anything at all. The only thing we know he did was listen to some part of her with a stethoscope and say that it was going to be OK because she was coming round. He didn’t even do as much as Dr. Watson often did (give the patient brandy). Nor do I see what he could have done, given that he didn’t have an oxygen canister on hand to administer oxygen with—the main treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning. There isn’t really a way to administer higher levels of oxygen without an O2 tank (that I’m ware of), and some searching that I did didn’t turn up anything besides administering O2 that will help (in the short term).

A bit of debate happens in which Richard suggests that the carbon monoxide confused Alice and she locked the door herself, while Jessica points out that carbon monoxide confusion still doesn’t explain who started the car. Richard declares that it was an accident, and Lt. Ames accepts that and leaves.

On his way out Lt. Ames tells Jessica, sotto voce, that if she needs his help on this she has it, on the record or not.

Alice goes back to her room and Jessica comes with her and helps her undo her hairdo. As she does so, Alice tells Jessica that she’s confident that she didn’t lock the door herself. Jessica asks who knew where the gift was and Alice says that Caroline was the one who suggested the garage. Burt, who was getting Alice an aspirin, reminds her that Mark knew as well, since he drove up just as Burt and Alice were hiding the present.

After this Jessica and Richard are talking and Richard said that it had to be an accident and it was just luck that Alice wasn’t killed. Jessica replies, “Luck, and your brother.” Richard admits that Seth was impressive and he didn’t realize that Seth had it in him to be so cool under pressure.

Again, I don’t get what Seth is supposed to have done. He didn’t have oxygen or any medicines with him. Is he supposed to have elevated her head in a way that made her breath twice as well, or something? There is an experimental technique where administering a small amount of carbon dioxide can speed the person’s breathing and help them to expel the carbon monoxide faster. He didn’t have any canisters of carbon dioxide on hand either, though.

Structurally speaking, it makes a lot of sense that the writers want Seth to have shown off his medical prowess and to have saved his estranged brother’s beloved wife, but I don’t see any legitimate way to have that here. Had there been an older person on oxygen whose tank could have been borrowed for a few minutes at a critical moment, this could have made sense. As it was, though, how impressive is it supposed to be that he laid her down on a couch and then listened to her lungs? I think that the lack of doing anything really hurt the emotional effect, because all of this talk about Seth saving Alice has the effect, not of drawing one’s attention to the brothers, but of making the viewer wonder what the heck Seth was supposed to have done.

This might not be an issue in a romantic comedy, but this is a mystery show. The viewers are self-selected for being interested in poisons, medical details, and exactly what happened. This is the worst genre to hand-wave away crucial details.

They then run into Vikram Singh, who is still in the house for some reason. He expresses his personal condolences. Richard thanks Singh then excuses himself. Singh interrupts him leaving, though, and says, “Mr. Hazlitt, but for the grace of a god we cannot hope to understand, your wife could very well be dead. Now will you trust that the curse of the ruby is true?”

Richard responds to this about as well as can be expected, but he catches himself at “Listen, you son of a-” and then moderates his language because a lady (Jessica) is present. He informs Singh that the ruby is not for sale, now or ever.

Again, why he has such an attachment to the ruby is never explained or even hinted at. It’s a bit hard to imagine why; so far as we know it’s just a pretty stone he bought as a present for his wife on a lark.

He adds that if he finds out that Singh was responsible for Alice’s almost dying, he will kill him. Singh finally departs.

Richard puts the ruby away in the safe in his study and runs into Seth, who was sitting in a chair in the study. Richard invites him to share a drink and Seth accepts. They begin reminiscing, then talk over what drove them apart—a woman named Molly. It seems that Seth was romantically involved with her, or at least interested in her, but she and Richard eloped. When they got back Seth had already left for Portland, and Richard couldn’t find the words. Then his business took off, and the kids came, and then Molly got sick and died very quickly.

Richard apologize, but Seth says that he should be the one to apologize, since his blindness was what drove Richard and Molly to have to run away. Then Seth did his own running away, and even after he married Ruth he couldn’t bring himself to make the first move toward reconciliation. “And now, Ruth’s gone too. And here we sit. Two of the biggest fools that ever drew breath.” (They then formally reconcile.)

It’s a very well done scene. I think it lacks a little punch because as a TV show it’s hard to take seriously since Seth is an ongoing character and Richard didn’t exist in anyone’s imagination before this episode and won’t exist in anyone’s imagination after it, either, not even in impact on Seth’s character. If this were a one-off story such that both characters existed equally, I’d say it was a superb scene. Both actors are really excellent, though that’s a thing specific to television and not really generalizable to writing mysteries in print form. I think that there’s a lesson, here, though: scenes of large emotional impact should generally be between equal characters.

Actually, a second lesson is that if you’re writing anything episodic or otherwise can’t live with the consequences, make sure to have the big stuff happen to non-major characters who will not be around in the future. We can then give them, in our imaginations, the consequences of their actions and the character changes of their significant improvements. Giving it to characters you will have to take it away from is simply wasting the character development.

General lessons aside, there is another problem, which is that it’s not entirely in character for Seth. He’s a cranky curmudgeon who never thinks deep thoughts. Also, what he said was too eloquent for him. I wouldn’t normally complain about improvements, but this gets back to the part about knowing that it won’t last.

Shortly after they reconcile.

A few hours later we see Alice in a nightgown coming down the stairs and looking for Richard. She seems to believe that he’s in the study. She knocks increasingly loudly and calls to him, but the door is locked. This brings Jessica and Caroline to the top of the stairs.

Jessica asks if something is wrong and Alice says that she thinks Richard must be hurt. This general commotion brings the rest of the house out of bed. Seth says that he left Richard in the study not half an hour ago. Unfortunately there is no key; the latch is an old-fashioned hinge-latch that can only be opened from the inside.

They break the door down and find Richard on the floor, dead.

Caroline then says, “Oh my God. The ruby. It’s gone.” And we get a closeup of Richard.

I think that this is supposed to illustrate that the ruby is gone. Since the ruby was never on any part of Richard that we can see, I’m not sure how it does that. So far as anyone knew, he had put it in the safe. (In fact, he hadn’t, since he was interrupted in that by Seth, but no one else could have known this, and we’ve no reason to suppose he didn’t put the ruby back after his conversation with Seth was over.) The scene then fades to black; I suspect that this would be to the mid-point commercial break. We come back to someone from the police pulling a sheet over the corpse.

Jessica talks to Seth and he tells her about the reconciliation, then goes to get fresh air. Lt. Ames is talking to the rest of the family, asking about secret passages, but Mark assures him that the only way in or out was through the door or windows, all of which were locked.

So, we have a locked room mystery.

I really should be more excited about them than I am but my experience with locked room mysteries is that they’re always disappointing. I’m beginning to think that they have to be. The problem is that a murderer can only get out of a locked room by some trick, and tricks are not very satisfying. Latches can be lowered after a door is closed, for example. In The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side, for example, the latch on the door would close if it was propped up and the door banged shut. A lot of play has been made about the breaking down of the door removing the evidence of how it was locked, too. So, for example, the deadbolt can be broken open and only the catch used to lock the door, and when the innocent people break the door open they will see both the deadbolt and catch broken and so assume that they broke both. (Another approach which I associate more with pre-1930s mysteries, though examples can be found afterwards, are the use of devices to kill the victim such that they were actually killed in a locked room, and the device is disguised or removed later.)

The other issue here is that locked rooms only matter in a mystery when there is the suspicion of suicide that the locked room strengthens. Oddly, we’re never told what the cause of death was, but there is no suspicion of suicide ever brought up.

Pausing for a moment to talk about the cause of death, since it’s very strange that we’re not told: in the establishing shot there was no knife sticking out of the corpse and in the shot above we can see no ligature marks on the neck. There are also no pools of blood, so we can rule out stabbing and strangulation, but beyond this we’re given no information about how he came to be an ex-Richard. We’re not even given the proximate cause of death, such as heart failure, stroke, asphyxiation, etc. My guess is that he was struck from behind on the head with a blunt instrument. The half-hour window since Seth left him until when he was found dead leaves very little time for poisoning and the body wasn’t contorted, the lips not blue, etc. There is also the possibility of being shot since the dark clothes might not show a small bloodstain and if he was shot in the chest and fell backwards, and if the bullet didn’t exit the body (as they frequently don’t), there would not be obvious blood. Still, my money is on a blow to the head from behind.

Assuming, of course, the writers ever figured out a cause of death. I actually suspect that they didn’t.

The one thing we do know is that Lt. Ames treats this as a murder investigation from the beginning and everyone seems to agree with that. So this brings up the question of the locked room: what purpose did it serve? If everyone agrees that Richard was murdered, figuring out how the murderer locked the room after leaving is just a detail. The room being locked from inside only helps the murderer if there is some plausible alternative to “well, you must have done it somehow, as clearly somebody did it somehow”.

Anyway, at this point Caroline brings up the curse of the ruby . This brings Vikram Singh to Lt. Ames’ attention. It’s interesting, btw, how the writers dance around him being Indian. When Ames asks who Singh is, Jessica replies, “He’s the cultural attaché at his country’s embassy in Washington.” Also curious is that Ames tells one of the police extras to check on Singh and see if he was connected to the muslim protests a few weeks ago. Jessica tells Ames that Singh said he had attended a Divali festival last year, which would make him Hindu, not Muslim. Also possible is that he’s in some wierd made-up-for-TV Indian religion and happened to go to a Divali. (Divali is a festival of lights that is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs; it thus seems to be largely a secular festival to which people attach various religious meanings as they care to.) This impresses Ames, anyway.

It’s getting late so Jessica suggests that Ames wrap up and he does so. He then asks her which federal service she’s with, but Jessica again protests she’s just a mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine. Ames takes this to mean that she’ll reveal her real identity when he needs to know and not before then, which he is content with.

This running joke serves the larger purpose of securing police cooperation for Jessica, and is an enjoyable way to do it. Every Murder, She Wrote episode needs to handle the question of how Jessica relates to the police; the episodes run the gambit from complete hostility to fawning admiration. This one is more on the fawning admiration side, but does so with a touch of dignity. Just a touch, but at least he’s clever about his mistake.

The next morning Ames runs into Jessica examining the outside of the room. After some further protestations that she isn’t a government agent, to which Ames enthusiastically (though insincerely) agrees, he asks what she has for him and she replies, “unfortunately, nothing.” The windows were not tampered with and except for their own footprints there are no marks in the flower beds outside the windows. Jessica concludes that the murderer wants them to believe in the curse.

They walk on and the camera pans up to Caroline, who had been watching them from a second floor window.

I believe that this is supposed to make us think Caroline is a suspect. She was the one who drew everyone’s attention to the ruby being missing. She was the one who told Lt. Ames about the curse. Of course, in a Murder, She Wrote, a suspicious close-up like this rules her out as a suspect.

The next scene of Mark, Mark is on the phone with, presumably, the family lawyer and angrily demands a copy of his father’s will today. Ames walks in on the tail end of this and finds it suspicious. There is some interesting word-play, though. “In a pretty big rush to see the will, aren’t you, considering your father is lardy cold?” He replies, “Lieutenant, my father was never anything but cold.”

In the ensuing conversation Seth protests and Mark points out that Seth is in no position to say what Richard was like. The long estrangement makes Ames suspicious until Jessica tells him that Seth can be trusted, which Ames takes to mean that Seth is also a government agent.

Jessica and Ames then go to investigate the study. Jessica figured out how the locked room was accomplished—a lit cigarette that propped up the latch while the door was closed.

As I said, it’s always some sort of trick. Oddly, no one raises the question of what the purpose of this trick was. Ames asks who would go to all this trouble for a ruby, and the scene cuts to interrogating Vikram Singh in the lounge. When Jessica says that Seth was killed by a man, not a curse, Singh leaves. As he goes he puts on black leather gloves, but then pauses as he puts the second one on, then takes it off again, looking quizzically at the glove.

Jessica, eagle-eyed as ever, spots his perplexity about what’s inside his glove. She calls him on it and it turns out to be the Eye of the Daanav.

Back at police headquarters, Jessica doubts that Singh is guilty. For one thing, he couldn’t have known that Alice was going to get Richard’s present from the garage, making it very hard for him to have tried to kill her that way. Also, he’s far too intelligent to have brought the ruby he stole the night before back to the victim’s house to hide it in his own glove without knowing it and then all but show it to Jessica and Lt. Ames. OK, Jessica only says, “Well, frankly, I doubt that an intelligent man like Mr. Singh would have deliberately hidden the ruby in the glove and then put it on in front of us.” She forgets to mention that this is the next day and Mr. Singh did not sleep at the house—it’s never explained why he was questioned there—and so he would have had to bring the ruby back to the house after stealing it the night before in order for it to be at the house.

I think that the writers wanted to write an isolated English country house murder with its closed set of suspects, but forgot that they didn’t actually do that. There’s kind of a lot of stuff that they forgot to do, when you get down to it.

Caroline is summoned to Lt. Ames’ office and questioned about her spending habits. She denies murdering her father for money—he had refused to pay her debts to a collection agency a few weeks ago. She suggests that if they want a financial motive, they should look to Alice, who will receive millions because of an outrageous insurance policy which she forced Richard to take out during their honeymoon.

In the denouement, Lt. Ames, Jessica, Seth, Alice, and Burt are in the accusing parler. They accuse Alice of murdering her husband (and faking the attempt on her own life), but it turns out to be a ruse to force Burt to confess. Well, not so much to confess as to make a slip. Lt. Ames suggests that Alice used one of her cigarettes in the latch and Burt points out that she smokes English cigarettes, not Turkish. Of course, he could only have known that it was a Turkish cigarette used to prop up the latch if he was the murderer.

Burt asks if Jessica is accusing him of trying to kill his own daughter and she says no, it was not meant to be fatal and only meant to raise the specter of the curse.

There’s a problem, here. People—and especially Burt—only learn about the curse moments before Alice goes to the garage to get her present to Richard. As Jessica established, the car had to have been running for a while before this. If Singh couldn’t have known that Alice was going to go to the garage to get her present to Richard, Burt couldn’t have known about the curse in order to make it look like Alice was nearly a victim to it. I think that this is just a plot hole.

Jessica tells Burt she had wondered at how lucky it was that Burt “just happened” to go to the garage and find Alice. When he protests that he had forgotten his pipe in the garage, Jessica reminds him that he had his pipe at the party and put it in his pocket in order to shake hands. There’s also a bit earlier where Burt had told Alice that the ruby was found in Singh’s glove, when Burt couldn’t have known that if he didn’t plant it there himself.

Any one of these is sufficient (in a Murder, She Wrote) to prove Burt is the murderer on its own, so all three together clinches it. Alice is astonished and asks her father why he locked her in the garage—he nearly killed her. He tells her that he had it planned down to the second. He had the key in his pocket and if Mark hadn’t found his key, Burt would have blown it there and then and opened the door and got her out.

He then explains why he killed Richard—he saw the kind of man Richard was: cold, possessive, king of the bloody world. And now he owned Alice, and would show her off to make people think more of him. What kind of a life could she have with a man like that?

Then we get to the real reason: But without Richard, she’d inherit. Oh, they could have been so happy, Burt and Alice. Going first class, never needing a by-your-leave from anybody. It would have been grand.

When this fails to get the reaction he was hoping for, he asks Alice, “You do see, don’t you? I was thinking of you.”

Since he very obviously wasn’t and she may be innocent but she’s not an idiot, she doesn’t say anything and tearfully hugs him. The scene ends and that’s all we get of her character.

The final scene is of Lt. Ames helping Jessica and Seth with their bags. He tells Jessica that it was a privilege to work with someone of her security clearance. She tries one last time to convince him that she’s not a secret agent by showing him her social security card, library card, and voter’s registration card. (Why she’s carrying the social security card and voter’s registration card in her wallet, she does not say.) He looks at them but then Seth calls to Jessica, “You’d better hurry if you want to meet with that agent before he goes to Moscow.”

This is a callback to a line from the scene in the car where Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting his brother’s invitation and he’s trying not to: “You’ve got to see that real estate agent about your vacant lot before he runs off to that family reunion of his up in Moscow, Idaho.” Without that context, which of course he doesn’t know, Ames takes it to have its more plain meaning. He looks at her cards again and remarks, “Best phony ID I’ve ever seen.”

Jessica only stares in disbelief, and we go to closing credits.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable episode. It was clearly inspired by the classic English manor house murder, which is always very fun. The theme of the reunion of brothers was well done and well acted, even if Seth was the wrong choice for the part. Alice, the young wife, was also a real asset to the episode. Her innocence and universal good will was really touching.

This was not an episode that stands up to scrutiny, though. You can see the amount that the writers paid attention to detail in things like the cause of death never being mentioned. For that matter, how was the murder supposed to have happened? Did Burt wait up until Seth left the study to creep in and kill Richard? Did he sneak in without Richard noticing him, or did he talk with Richard and wait for him to be standing there with his back turned?

However he did that—and neither options seems very practical—why steal the ruby if the idea was to try to blame the curse? If the ruby could steal itself, presumably it would have done so a long time ago and be back in the golden cobra’s head. If, on the other hand, the idea was to frame Vikram Singh, why wait for a time when Singh almost certainly couldn’t have been in the house? And what was the purpose of the locked room except to use a Turkish cigarette to frame Singh? But why bother using it to lock the door? It would have done as well to leave it in an ash tray.

Less of a fundamental problem, but still showing how little detail mattered, is the way that Burt started the car for the plot to pretend to have the curse try to kill Alice before he learned about the curse. To be fair, this would not have been easy to fix, since the episode started on the day of the party and Murder, She Wrote is generally so packed that the episodes are on a tight deadline. Even so, it’s still a mistake.

I’m also not sure what to make of Richard having been a lousy man and a terrible father to his Children. They did touch on the interesting theme of Alice’s goodness, with the aid of her beauty, reforming him. I wish that they could have done more with it but having the victim alive until the halfway mark is already pushing it in a murder mystery.

Which brings me to the abrupt ending.

One flaw in Murder, She Wrote is that the amount that they cram into less than 47 minutes doesn’t permit them to give characters a real farewell. They tend to just disappear. We never see Mark again after his telephone conversation with his lawyer. We never see Vikram Singh again after he’s arrested for having the ruby in his glove. We last see Caroline in the police station where she tells the police about Alice’s large inheritance. These aren’t well developed characters, though, so it’s not much of a loss to see them go without any closure. It’s far more of a pity that we don’t learn about what Alice will do. If this weren’t an episodic TV show where nothing that happens in it will affect future episodes, she might even lean on Seth for support which he would provide in his recently reconciled dead brother’s stead. Your father murdering your husband and your step children (who are older than you) hating you is a position in which you will want a friend, wealth or no. Alice would be a very interesting character to meet again, though unfortunately that won’t happen. They could at least have cut the opening sequence with the dollar-store Indiana Jones stealing the ruby in exchange for an extra minute in which to give Alice some closure.

The relationship between Jessica and Lt. Ames was also an interesting part of this episode. As I said, Murder, She Wrote has to establish some kind of relationship between Jessica and the police, and if they’re friendly, some sort of reason for them to be friendly. The more usual reason for them to be friendly is that they’ve been impressed by Jessica’s books. Mistaking Jessica for a high ranking secret agent accomplished this in a more fun manner. It’s also nice that while Ames wasn’t brilliant, he wasn’t an idiot, either. He merely had a mistaken premise that he stuck to. It also played, to some degree, on the fact that as the main character in the show Jessica was, in fact, as special as Ames assumed, just in a different way. It’s interesting as an example of how far one can go with taking a bit of comedy seriously without damaging the seriousness. It would have hurt had Jessica required Ames’ belief in order to succeed, but he was initially friendly anyway, so it remains plausible that Jessica could have secured his cooperation without the mistake, and this permits us to enjoy it.

Overall I would rate this in the top half of Murder, She Wrote episodes. It has many flaws but I think that they’re all forgivable in light of its good qualities.

Next week’s episode is Mourning Among the Wisteries. Jessica is off to the south to visit a playwrite friend of hers.

Miles Bredon was a Strange Detective

F.r Ronald Knox (of Detective Decalogue fame) wrote a number of detective stories. His first, The Viaduct Murder, might best be described as a serious satire on detective fiction. It was interesting, in a way, but not, frankly, satisfying. To some degree it was really more of a very long-winded attack on the Historical-Critical method than a detective story. After that he wrote a far more conventional detective story, The Three Taps.

Even there, while it was a more conventional story, it featured an unconventional detective, Miles Bredon. The first unusual thing was that the detective worked for an insurance company. Humorously, it was called The Indescribable Insurance Company (i.e. “The Indescribable,” for short). Here’s some of the initial description of him:

…[T]he Indescribable retained its own private detective. This fact was not advertised; nor was he ever referred to in the official communications of the Company except as ‘our representative’. He carried neither a lens nor a forceps—not even a revolver; he took no injections; he had no stupid confidential friend, but a private detective he was for all that. An amateur detective I will not call him, for the Company paid him, as you would expect, quite handsomely; but he had nothing whatever to do with Scotland Yard, where the umbrellas go to.

It’s also quite fascinating how F.r Knox described Miles Bredon being married (some paragraphs down, after talking about how he was lazy but very capable when his interest was roused):

He was well thought of, in fact, by everyone except himself. For himself, he bitterly regretted the necessity that had made him become a spy—he would use no other word for it, and constantly alarmed his friends by announcing his intention of going into the publishing trade, or doing something relatively honest. The influence which saved him on these occasions was that of—how shall I say it?—his wife. I know—I know it is quite wrong to have your detective married until the last chapter. But it is not my fault. It is the fault of two mocking eyes and two very capable hands that were employed in driving brass-hats to and fro in London at the end of the war. Bredon surrendered to these, and made a hasty but singularly fortunate marriage. Angela Bredon was under no illusions about the splendid figure in khaki that stood beside her at the altar. Wiser than her generation, she realized that marriages were not ‘for the duration’; that she would have to spend the rest of her life with a large, untidy, absent-minded man who would frequently forget that she was in the room. She saw that he needed above all things a nurse and a chauffeur, and she knew that she could supply both these deficiencies admirably. She took him as a husband, with all a husband’s failings, and the Indescribable itself could not have guaranteed her more surely against the future.

It’s interesting that the detective is married, and especially interesting that Fr. Knox actually addresses this in a way that breaks the fourth wall. “I know—I know it is quite wrong to have your detective married until the last chapter. But it is not my fault.”

Fr. Knox wrote The Three Taps in 1927 (or, more accurately, it was published then). This was fairly late in the golden age of detective fiction, though as I’ve noted this was a thing almost from the beginning. In A Study In Scarlet, Holmes comments on C. Auguste Dupin, as well as Monsieur Lecoq. (Lecoq was a fictional french detective published in France in the 1860s, though available in English translation.)

I really don’t know what to make off all this; none of Fr. Knox’s stories were really great, and his detective is not an exception. Miles Bredon is clever and does the deduction which the plot requires. He figures out the story in a flash of brilliance after playing a complicated game of solitaire (“patience”). But he feels almost as if his author was careful not to make him great. There seems to have been a convention in the golden age that detectives must have as many drawbacks as they have traits to their credit; in consequence they were often ugly, rude, or clumsy. The only real exception I can think of is Fr. Brown, who was a really great character and whose only balancing handicaps were being short, a roman catholic priest, and bad at remembering where his umbrella was.

Fr. Knox seems to have thought that if his detective was brilliant and capable of keeping a wife he couldn’t also be interesting or it would be too much.

I can only say that I once made a similar mistake in a novel I never published (or, strictly speaking, finished). Afraid of having the character called an author self-insert I made him completely unlike me. This meant, among other things, that he had no interests that I found even remotely interesting. The consequence, once I put it like this, is not surprising: I found him extraordinarily boring. This is not a good way for the author to relate to the main character of the book.

Perhaps a detective who is brilliant and capable of keeping a wife and also an interesting person is too much for this world, but for all that he’d be much more interesting to read about.

It may be that Fr. Knox didn’t really want to write detective fiction. That his first novel was a satire on detective fiction with only one joke in it does suggest this. However, unlike G.K. Chesterton—who did not write conventional detective stories either—Fr. Knox did not go off in his own direction. In writing Fr. Brown Chesterton had a positive vision for what he wanted to write, and wrote that. He did put it within the detective genre of his time, if only barely, but he pursued his own ends. Fr. Knox seems to be pursuing neither his own ends nor anyone else’s, and only sticks to convention, if in general he tries to stick to the edge of it rather than the center.

Fr. Knox was a man of no small accomplishments, and given that he took the trouble of writing up his detective decalogue and of being a member of the Detection Club, I can’t help but wonder why he went this way.

Causes of the Great Depression

An overlooked cause of the Great Depression is the move from agriculture to industry as a source of employment. In the USA, something like 25% of the population transitioned from being farmers to being factory workers in a decade or so, and the great depression was, in part, the working out of the readjustment of the economy to so large a fraction of the population changing occupations.

Something that was just pointed out in a TIK video (BankWars Episode 1) was that during World War 1 governments created a massive quantity of weapons and in order to do so paid large wages for factory workers (in arms industries) while hurting the price of farm goods. This was a significant stimulus to people moving off of farms and into factories during this time. I’m not sure—I need to do more research—that this happened as much in the USA as in Europe, but this is an intriguing piece of the puzzle to fit in.

I had mainly attributed this move to falling prices for farm goods due to an increase in efficiency due to mechanization (things like large, powerful diesel powered tractors, for example). I’ve no doubt that this is a significant part of the move, as further mechanization of farming has resulted in even more people moving out of the farming sector while more food is being produced in the US than ever. (It’s been more than a few years since I last looked it up, but I believe that only about 5% of the population of the US works in agriculture.)

However, this transition being massively speeded up by government interference would certainly help to explain it happening so quickly as to cause a great depression (which had, at its peak, something like 25% unemployment). The timing is a little iffy for this; the great depression began in the late 1920s while the great depression ended in 1918. I really need to do more research to see if this actually fits in. (Another place I need to look is how things were going in Europe because the Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon with interlocking problems caused by international trade collapsing.)

Interesting Voicemail Message

Most calls from strange numbers don’t leave messages, and of those that do, few begin by saying anything other than my car’s extended warranty is about to expire. Today was an exception.

Hi Christopher, good afternoon, this is [name] calling from Reader’s Magnet. Chris, your book has the potential to become the next best-seller. Because of that [long pause while she finds her place in the script] we plan pick you and your book to be featured in the special edition of Publisher’s Weeklies [unintelligible] Anniversaries featured authors, this coming April 19 issue. We are in lookout for books with great stories to tell. As Publisher’s Weeklies special edition highlights on uplifting and edgy stories. And your book has also been selected to be displayed in the Tucson Festival of Books and Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. These are also especial events as these two book fairs are the first to reopen since pandemic started which means the fairgoers to these events will likely be doubled. So do not waste this chance to be part of this momentous affairs as this comes limited to a few chosen. To join and for more details, call me at 619-514-[redacted] extension 3119. You can reach me before 7pm Eastern Time Mondays through Fridays. Bye for now and stay safe always.

I presume that they’re trying to sell me author services, though it could be a credit card scam. The woman’s first language was clearly not English and in the age of voice-over-IP she could easily have been in a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the US despite having a US phone number. (I assume the 4 digit extension is to seem more legitimate.) That said, since predatory author services are perfectly legal while credit card fraud is not, I’m more inclined to guess the former.

I think it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t even mention which of my books is poised to become the next best-seller.

Marxism: Factory Workers vs. Farmers

Something interesting I learned from several videos by TIK History on the Soviet Union before, during, and after WW2: Marxism in the Soviet Union was largely factory workers vs. farmers. This got me thinking about Marxism more generally, and the implications of class conflict being central to Marxist theory.

On a surface-level reading, Marxism is about pitting workers against owners. This is evil since all people should love each other, of course, but more relevant here (because it’s not so obvious) is that the owner-worker distinction fails to capture a large fraction of humanity. A great many people are neither the owners of someplace other people work, nor workers in a business owned by someone else. There are, of course, children, which Marxism utterly fails to deal with (except by, in effect, putting them into childcare/indoctrination factories). There are people (mostly women) whose primary work is raising their children and doing other domestic work. And there are people who own their own means of production.

In this latter group are—during the time of much of the soviet union—farmers. Family-owned farms are still common even today, despite the predominance of large factory farms, but they were extremely common in the Soviet Union for various reasons relating to the state of technology. It is true that there was a major push to collectivize the farms, but this only got so far, especially since the collective farms so often failed miserably. Part of the problem is that farms are intrinsically large and so people simply have to be spaced out enough that they exercise their own judgement. Farms also are not factories—you need knowledge (both general and local) and to exercise judgement to farm successfully.

The upshot is that farmers simply aren’t like factory workers. They have different interests. And factory workers desperately need what farmers produce—food. Factory workers—or those concerned with them—are also necessarily removed from farmers, since the factories tend to be located in or near cities. It is easy for factory workers to view farmers simply as a nuisance. The more food costs, the less money factory workers have for other things. And farmers are remote and their concerns unreal to city dwellers with extremely different concerns. Moreover, under any even slightly socialist system factory workers cannot earn more money by working harder or longer. Their income is fixed; only their expenses vary. In consequence, they only benefit (so far as they can see) the more farmers are squeezed.

And factory workers fit the Marxist model far better than farmers do. Farmers will always have independence and some degree of ownership, at least if you don’t want everyone to starve to death. Farmers can very naturally own their own means of production, but also be the laborers. Non-collectivized farms simply break the Marxist model since they are owner-workers. The perennial temptation, then, will be for Marxists to hold that these owner-workers are evil in virtue of being owners and thus are exploiting the workers who buy the food the farmers produce.

Since something like 60% of the people in the Soviet Union worked in agriculture, especially in the first half of its existence, this meant that a minority of the population was oppressing a majority of the population in the name of preventing that majority from oppressing it.

Curiously, if you look at Marxists today, they tend to want to do the exact same thing—to oppress the majority in the name of protecting themselves from oppression, while saying that they’re on the side of everyone.

I suppose a tiger doesn’t change his stripes after all.

Do You Need Money To Be Happy?

I look at the question of whether you need money to be happy, as Aristotle would have said, and as Ed Latimore recently (on a historical scale) suggested. Ed’s tweet:

“Extremism” is a Stupid Word

Something that has been fashionable to complain about in the last few decades is “extremism”. What is actually meant is something that is extremely out of the mainstream, but the problem is that it’s well known that the majority of people can be quite wrong. Indeed, given how recently deep racism was the mainstream in the United States (and analogous things can easily be found elsewhere, such as anti-semitism in Europe), simply accusing people of being a minority is not viable. So this is done under the cover of claiming that the problem isn’t that the person is in a minority position, but that his views are on the extreme of some spectrum, making them wrong, since truth always lies in the middle of all extremes.

The thing is, this is—to put it mildly—extremely stupid.

The truth is not always in the middle. This is very easy to see by just considering cases where no one is a moderate today. Everyone is an extremist about how much slavery should be allowed. Everyone is an extremist on whether the human race should be extinguished (most people hold an extreme ‘no’, some people hold an extreme ‘yes‘, but no one holds a moderate position). You will find exceedingly few moderates on the subject of whether the Jews should be wiped out.

This gets even clearer if you consider cases where no one was ever on the opposing side. Should we build as many nuclear weapons as possible and detonate them over all of the landmasses of the earth? The correct position is not a moderate one between “yes” and “no”. Should we salt all of the farmland on the earth? Should we beat people who go out in public? Should we mandate dragging a 500 pound rock if a person leaves his house? Should rape be legal? Should rape be state-sponsored, with generous bounties paid to rapists?

The correct position on all of these is not moderation.

By the way, I just happened to pick examples where the correct position is an extreme ‘no’. One can easily come up with examples where the correct answer is an extreme ‘yes’: should babies be suffered to live? Should we permit people to breathe air? Should we appreciate beauty? Should we love people? Should we try to be good? Should we be honest?

The correct position on all of these is not moderation, either.

Now, if you point this out to the people who say that the problem is extremism, they will get angry at you because this isn’t what they meant. And, indeed, it’s not. The problem is that it’s what they said. The reason that they’re getting angry is that they don’t like being called out on the fact that they’re lying to you. They are actually complaining about people being outside of the mainstream despite knowing that that isn’t a valid criticism.

Curiously, liars always seem to think it rude to point out that they’re lying.


There is an exception to the above, by the way, and that is what amounts to a heresy. It is always a mistake to take a single virtue (that isn’t the all-encompassing virtue of love, as in agape, the love of God) and to value only it at the expense of all other virtues. Thus courage is good, but not to the exclusion of honesty, mercy, faith, love, etc. Mercy is good, but not to the exclusion of justice, honesty, etc. This is not normally how people use the term “extremism” as a critique, but if they were to, that would be a valid critique. It would be better to criticize this as a heresy, since the idea of a heresy is that it takes one or a few parts of orthodoxy and leaves the rest, and this is what picking a virtue and valuing only it to the exclusion of other virtues is doing. But it is also going to an extreme, and a bad form of doing so, so the word would not be inapplicable.

As I said, that’s not what people normally mean by using “extremism” as a derogative, but if anyone does, my critique above does not apply to them.

Dozens of Major Cancer Studies Can’t Be Replicated

I recently came across an interesting article in Science News on widespread replication failure in cancer studies. It’s interesting, though not particularly shocking, that the Replication Crisis has claimed one more field.

If you’re not familiar with the Replication Crisis, it has to do with how it was widely assumed that scientific experiments described in peer-reviewed journals were reproducible—that is, if someone else performed the experiment, they would get the same result. Reproducibility of experiments is the foundation of trust in the sciences. The theory is that once somebody has done the hard work of designing an experiment which produces a useful result, others can merely follow the experimental method to verify that the result really happens and that after an experiment has been widely reproduced, people can be very confident in the result because so many people have seen it for themselves and we have widespread testimony of it. Or, indeed, people can perform these experiments as they work their way through their scientific education.

That’s the theory.

Practice is a bit different.

The problem is that science became a well-funded profession. The consequence is that experiments became extraordinarily expensive and time-intensive to perform. The most obvious example would cloud-chamber experiments in super-colliders. The Large Hadron Collider cost somewhere around $9,000,000,000 to build and requires teams of people to operate. Good luck verifying the experiments it performs for yourself.

Even when you’re on radically smaller scales and don’t require expensive apparatus—say you want to assess the health effects of people cutting out coffee from their diet—putting together as study is enormously time-intensive. And it costs money to recruit people; you generally have to pay them for their participation, and you need someone skilled in periodically assessing whatever health metrics you want to assess. Blood doesn’t draw itself and run lipid panels, after all.

OK, so amateurs don’t replicate experiments anymore. But what about other professionals?

Here we come to one of the problems introduced by “Publish Or Perish”. Academics only get status and money for achieving new results. For the most part people don’t get grants to do experiments that other people have already done and get the same results that they got. This should be a massive monkey wrench in the scientific machine, but for a long time people ignored the problem and papered over it by saying that experiments will get verified when other people try to build on the results of previous experiments and fail.

It turns out that doesn’t work, at least not nearly well enough.

The first field in which people got serious funding to try to actual replicate results to see if they replicate was in psychology, and it turned out that most wouldn’t replicate. To be fair, in many cases this was because the experiment was not well-described enough that one could even set up the same experiment again, though this is, to some degree, defending oneself against a charge of negligence by claiming incompetence. Of those studies which were described well enough that it was possible to try to replicate them, something like less than half replicated. They tended to fail to replicate in one of two ways:

  1. The effect didn’t happen often enough to be statistically significant
  2. The effect was statistically significant but so small as to be practically insignificant

To give a made-up example of the first, if you deprive people of coffee for a few months and one out of a few hundred see a positive result, then it may well be you just chanced onto someone who improved for some other reason while you were trying to study coffee. To give an example of the second, you might get a result like everyone’s systolic blood pressure went down by one tenth of a millimeter of mercury. There’s virtually no way you got a result that common in the group by chance, but it’s utterly irrelevant to any reasonable goal a human being can have.

Psychology does tend to be a particularly bad field when it comes to experimental design and execution, but other fields took note and wanted to make sure that they were as much better than the psychologists as they assumed.

And it turned out that many fields were not.

I find it interesting, though not very surprising, that oncology turns out to be another field in which experiments are failing to replicate. After all, in a field which isn’t completely new, it’s easier to get interesting results that don’t replicate than it is to get interesting results that do.

Onion Breaking News

From many years ago, back when The Onion was funny (warning: colorful language):

It’s really quite accurate, and possibly even better than Charlie Booker’s version (warning, colorful language):

I can’t help but think that the days of this sort of news broadcast have to be numbered, if for no other reason that the median age of people who still watch TV news is probably 75. The damage that news has done to society and to the people who watch it is incalculable; I hope that it does end soon and that it isn’t replaced by something worse. (Not everything is replaced by something worse, after all. That only happens quite often, not every time.)

How Many Times Must the Cannon Balls Fly Before They’re Forever Banned?

This is a profoundly stupid lyric in an otherwise truly great song. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan. He sang it first, but it was covered by nearly all of the folk singers of the 1960s, and pretty much all of them sang it better than Dylan sung it. My favorite version is by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

I should note that this song is truly great if it’s taken as a lament of sin; if the questions are rhetorical because the poor, we will always have with us. And I do think that this was—not, perhaps with perfect understanding—Bob Dylan’s intention:

There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind — and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away.

The answer to all of the questions is, “when everyone becomes a saint,” and indeed the answer is readily available but people won’t pick it up.

The one question in the song which cannot be taken as anything but an infantile cry for mommy and daddy to make everything better is the line I quoted in the title. The first and most obvious reason it’s just an infantile cry is: who will ban the cannon balls, and how will they enforce this ban? The only way to enforce a ban is by force, so in a direct sense whoever has better weapons than cannon balls can ban them. Nations possessing nuclear weapons could impose a cannon ball ban, for example. This is directly opposite to the intention of the song, but it is in fact the only possible answer.

Except that cannon balls were obsolete long before Blowin’ in the Wind was written. Cannon balls were a military weapon that answered the musket and pike formation which superceded bows on the battlefield. Musketeers were very slow, but a lot of them, shooting in alternation, could be fast. Because they were individually slow they were very vulnerable to cavalry, who could close the distance to musketeers before the latter could get off a second shot. The answer was to keep the musketeers close together and defend them with pikemen. Pikes were, basically, very long spears, which were good at keeping horses at bay.

The answer to the musket-and-pike formation was the cannon ball. An enormous ball of iron traveling at high speed would do enormous damage to a dense formation of men, as it would roll through them injuring or killing everyone in a straight line. This is why it was a cannon all rather than a shell; the rolling was integral to how it was used.

The answer to the cannon ball were the wide lines that were only 3 men deep which characterized infantry battles in the 1700s. With the lines being only 3 men deep, a cannon ball would injure at most only a few men as it rolled on (unless the lines made the grave mistake of maneuvering perpendicular to the enemy’s cannons). Cannon balls were a specialty item, and as military tactics adapted to them, they ceased to be used. Things like exploding shells with shrapnel, “grapeshot” (basically loading cannons with shrapnel rather than a single large projectile) etc displaced the cannon ball because they were better suited to the new military conditions.

Cannon balls were on their way out during the American civil war and were not used during World War 1 or World War 2 or the Korean war. They were most certainly not used during the “police action” in Vietnam with which much of the 1960s protest movement was concerned.

No one knows how many times cannon balls flew in history, but by the time Blowin’ in the Wind was written, the number of times they flew before their use was discontinued was a definite, if uncertainly known, quantity.

But they weren’t banned. They were only put down in favor of better weapons.

As a curious historical side-note, the use of poison gasses on the battlefield was banned. But the ban was enforced by the threat to use chemical weapons too. So, in effect, the use of chemical weapons was banned by the use of even more chemical weapons.

Not the answer that the protest movement wanted, but very much in keeping with the rest of the song.

The answer is blowin’ in the wind, and people don’t stop to pick it up.


UPDATE: Thanks to Paul for pointing out that I used the wrong spelling of “cannon”.

Has Gone With the Wind Went With the Wind?

One of the curious things about being a parent is that it raises a question about movies which really clarifies how good one thinks it is: is it worth showing this movie to my child?

Curiously, despite Gone With the Wind being one of the all-time classics, when I ask myself this the answer is a resounding “no”.

There’s only one scene in it that I can think of which is worth passing on (the first, roughly, 15 seconds of this clip):

Unfortunately, this scene lacks most of its power if you haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know that I’ll even pass this on. It would probably be more effective to just tell the kids about it.

This is not to say that I think Gone With the Wind is not a good movie. It is a good movie. I think that my problem with it is that its main theme is that if a person makes relentlessly bad decisions and suffers misfortune, they will have neither the consolation of virtue nor the consolation of pleasant circumstances.

Which is certainly true.

It’s just one of those things which seems to me obviously true and if you try to orient your life such that your primary concern is to be a saint, you hardly need this symbolically represented for over four hours. It is very true that the wages of sin are death. At the end of the day, I think my reaction is because (using the American generic “you”): if you need a movie like Gone With the Wind to realize that the wages of sin are death, you’ve got bigger problems than (I hope that) my children have. This could, of course, be wishful thinking on my part.

On the other hand, a lot of great art in the last 200 or so years was people rediscovering what, as G.K. Chesterton put it, they could have learnt in their catechism—had they ever read it. Much of the power of it was people asking the question, “but perhaps it is true after all?

Just in a very limited sense.

The Reason for Post WW1 Revolutions

TIK has a very interesting video about HItler’s Socialism:

I’m only about 1 hour into this nearly 5 hour video, and it covers (as you might imagine) a wide range of topics, but something TIK mentioned almost casually as an aside really struck me: the reason for the revolutions after World War 1 was that the nations that took part in it took an enormous amount of wealth from its people and destroyed it. This immense destruction of wealth impoverished the people, who grew sick of it and revolted.

Something very important to understand about war is that it is bad for business. There are some select businesses that it is good for; gun makers and canon makers and the like benefit from war, though in practice only so much because they have a tendency to get very squeezed for profits since making a profit during a war is generally seen as unpatriotic, and the governments buying the weapons have far more negotiating power than the weapon-makers do, since only one gets to send the police to put the other in prison.

Apart from these extremely limited cases, most business suffers greatly from war. Raw materials get diverted from industrial uses to war-time uses, labor gets taken away, demand for goods shrinks because heavy taxation removes the money with which people would buy products, and in the 1900s there was like a 90% chance that goods would be rationed so people can’t buy as many of your products as they want to even if they had the money and weren’t off fighting in a war.

Worse for the economy, this isn’t even a temporary re-allocation of resources than can be shifted back afterwards. Tanks and battleships and the like can be scrapped for iron, but it’s a difficult and costly process and they have no value other than as scrap (or as museum pieces). Bombs and bullets simply blow up when they’re used, so they get expended in use and all of the resources and labor that went into making them literally goes up in a puff of smoke. Going to war is taking a nation’s resources and burning them (in many cases literally).

And all of this assumes that the war isn’t on your soil, so that your factories are getting demolished in the fighting. If that’s happening, it’s even more economically destructive.

War is always a waste of labor and resources (even a just war; it may simply be a necessary waste), but World War 1 was an especially wasteful war, and moreover was perceived to be an especially wasteful war. Enormous amounts of men and materiel were ground up in order to do basically nothing. For everyone but France and Germany, this largely consisted of taking one’s men and resources and sending them to far away lands to be ground up to accomplish nothing for other people.

This really helps to explain why the Russian Revolution happened. I had always wondered why a mostly agriculatural society would undergo a marxist revolution. Marxist revolutions never make sense, but they didn’t have the mass of factory workers necessary to have a worker’s revolution. And farmers don’t revolt, for the most part, unless you try to heavily tax them.

Well, there’s my answer.

You pay for wars with taxes. You pay for big wars with heavy taxes. And heavy taxes that aren’t perceived to bring massive benefits tend to produce revolutions.

Obviously this is painting the cause of a complex historical event with a ludicrously broad brush, and I’m not describing it very well. But this does make a lot more sense of the Russian Revolution than I had understood up til now.