In the novel The A.B.C. Murders, Hercule Poirot asks an interesting question about a murder victim. There are two versions of it I’m aware of; one is the version that Agatha Christie wrote and the other the version in the ITV version starring David Suchet. I’m going to quote both versions because they’re interesting to compare.
First, the original:
“Pas ga. I wondered — if she were pretty?”
“As to that I’ve no information ,” said Inspector Crome with a hint of withdrawal. His manner said: “Really — these foreigners! All the same!”
A final look of amusement came into Poirot’s eyes.
“It does not seem to you important, that? Yet, pour une femme, it is of the first importance. Often it decides her destiny!”
Then, the ITV version (which replaced Inspector Crome with Chief Inspector Japp):
Poirot: Was she pretty? Inspector Japp: There he goes again. Poirot: That does not seem to be important? Mais pour un femme, it is of the first importance. It often decides her destiny.
Curiously, that’s rather different than how I remembered it, and much closer to the book. I remembered the exchange in the ITV version as something like:
Poirot: Was she pretty? Japp: What does that matter? Poirot: Poor girl, it mattered a great deal to her. It decided the whole course of her life.
It is interesting to me that I misremembered the ITV version so much, though to be fair to me I like my version better. Since you, dear reader, are not me, I presume that Agatha Christie’s version is the most interesting, here, and quite rightly so.
A great deal of detective fiction might be written by a male or female author, but occasionally one comes across a passage that seems like it could only have been written by one or the other. This is one such passage. I can only imagine a woman writing this. It’s not that only a woman would know it; we all know that physical beauty affects the lives of both sexes. Perhaps the best way I can describe what I mean is another example of this, from the Hamish MacBeth story Death of a Gossip.
I had mentioned to a female friend of mine that the story was very markedly written by a woman and she jokingly asked, “what, did it have no descriptions of women’s breasts?”
“Oh, no, it’s got plenty of descriptions of women’s breasts,” I replied. “Just never in admiration.”
In the exchange above, whether the woman was pretty was quite relevant to the detection. She was strangled with her own belt and it takes an unusual kind of man to charm the belt off of a pretty woman for the simple reason that she will be used to getting attention from men and so to charm her he will need to be above average. Or as Poirot puts it:
Betty Barnard was a flirt. She liked attention from a personable male. Therefore A.B.C., to persuade her to come out with him, must have had a certain amount of attraction — of le sex appeal! He must be able, as you English say, to ‘get off.’ He must be capable of the click!
Since it is directly relevant to the solving of the murder, any author might have thought of it or mentioned it. There is just something about how it was mentioned which seems distinctly feminine to me, even though it is put in the mouth of a male character. It’s hard to articulate what, since it’s subtle.
I think it’s the sympathy involved.
Males are tempted to treat beautiful women better than plain women and so it is a mark of virtue to a male to treat plain women as well as he treats beautiful women. A male recognizes the temptation otherwise, but (a virtuous one) regrets it as the effect of a fallen world. Since women are affected by this temptation but are not actually tempted by it, their primary concern is on its effects, not on avoiding it. When Poirot says that whether a woman is pretty many decide her whole destiny, it only speaks to concern with the effect.
However that goes, it is a relatively subtle point that Agatha Christie handled very deftly. Her writing tended toward the plain side, but her psychology and her plots were masterful. This may well be why she is one of the best selling authors of all time; the plain style of her writing makes it extremely accessible, while at the same time the brilliance of the plot is easy to see.
Last Sunday’s reading at Mass was from the Gospel of John, and was the story about Jesus giving sight to the man born blind. Towards the end of the story, after the man born blind is questioned by the pharisees, he runs into Jesus, who asks the man whether he believes in the Son of Man. The man born blind asks a very interesting question: “Who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him?” (emphasis mine.)
It is interesting to contrast this with Pontius Pilate when Jesus said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. And those who are of the truth hear my voice.” Pilate’s response was, “Truth? What is truth?”
Jesus answered only one of these men, though they were, in a sense, asking the same question.
It’s interesting to contemplate why.
They were asking essentially the same question, but for opposite reasons. The man born blind was asking so that he may believe. A man cannot believe in something he does not know; faith is not the opposite of knowledge, but actually impossible without knowledge. The man who was born blind was willing to have faith, but he did not yet have the knowledge which would let him have faith, so he asked for it.
Pontius Pilate asked for knowledge in order to avoid believing in it. His question was not the seeking of truth but rather the denial of the possibility of attaining truth.
Despite what internet trolls will tell you, questions are not neutral things. We do not encounter questions floating in a vacuum. Questions always come from questioners, and questioners always have a goal in asking their questions.
As G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, motives matter:
But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men, and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested: he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, “I am sorry to say we are ruined,” and is not sorry at all. And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it. Because he is allowed to be pessimistic as a military adviser he is being pessimistic as a recruiting sergeant. Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot) uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away the people from her flag. Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive. It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help the men.
Back during the pandemic I did a number of posts looking at all-cause mortality in the USA. As a reminder, all-cause mortality is worth looking at because of the clarity of its definition. To give an example, if somebody has COPD and gets COVID-19 and dies, but probably wouldn’t have died if they only had one (then; COPD is eventually fatal), do you classify that as a COVID-19 death or a COPD death? Or as both? Different medical systems will reasonably differ on this question. (Then there are far less reasonable diagnostic criteria, like recording all deaths where a person had COVID-19 regardless of the cause of death.) This stuff can vary from hospital to hospital and state to state.
All-cause mortality data gets around these problems because, while it can be hard to agree on why a person died, it’s easy to agree on whether they died. Eventually. There is still the problem that it can take months for a death to actually be reported to the CDC. So much so that the CDC doesn’t even bother publishing all-cause mortality data for the most recently two weeks, and there’s very little point in looking at the last 3-6 weeks of data that they do publish. (They have algorithms that try to predict how many deaths will be reported eventually based on the data that has been reported so far, but it has a tendency to under-count what eventually gets reported.)
As I said, I put up several posts looking at this during the pandemic, and I recently became curious to look at it again now that the pandemic is in retrospect. So, here’s the data from the CDC as of February 20, 2023:
Let’s look at it a bit closer. To make the time frame of the data a little easier to follow, I’ve marked the approximate location of January 1 with yellow lines and the approximate location of July 1 with green lines:
If you’re curious, the Pfizer vaccine received emergency use authorization in December of 2020. The more infectious Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 was named in March of 2021. The Delta variant had mutations in the spike protein which is how the virus enters cells as well as the thing that the vaccine gives the immune system to detect. This simultaneously made it better at entering cells, and also reduced the efficacy of the immune response acquired through vaccination or infection with the original variant.
Because I sometimes would look at Sweden’s data, here’s their COVID-19 deaths/day as reported by the Swedish government:
This data is in no way directly comparable to the all-cause mortality data above, but it is none-the-less interesting to note how, with the exception of Summer 2020, the spikes like up pretty well. It is widely theorized that the US’s summer spikes correspond to air-conditioning season in the southern united states, when people stay indoors during waking hours. To the best of my knowledge, Swedish summers are far more mild than are the summers in the American south, so one would expect them to be absent.
That hypothesis brings up an interesting question looking at the USA data, though: why was there no summer spike in 2021? There was a spike in deaths in the fall of 2021, not the summer. One explanation is that COVID-19 deaths started taking longer since the onset of infection to kill people (or at least to contribute to their death). If that is the case we would expect all subsequent spikes in deaths to also come later and, indeed, they do. The winter spike in deaths (in early 2022) also came later than the spike in the winter of 2020/ 2021.
If that is the case, why should it be? One hypothesis which covers these facts—though is in no way certain—is that later mutations of SARS-CoV-2 took much longer to kill people than the original ones did. Another hypothesis which would explain the delay is that the most vulnerable people were killed off in the first waves, and everyone who is left are less susceptible. (Though they are less susceptible, it can still contribute to their deaths when they are weakened by other diseases.) These are just two hypotheses; the truth could involve some version of either, both, or neither.
Of course, another explanation which covers this data is that the response to the increases in prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, or very technically, the response to increasing numbers of positive SARS-CoV-2 tests, was responsible for the increase in deaths. This will, of course, vary among the states as they had very different responses to COVID; some states like California were known for draconian measures, while other states imposed very few restrictions, and many were inbetween. It is reasonable to suppose that the extra stress of lockdowns, closure of businesses, etc. would have some negative effect. There are no actions without consequences and it would be absurd to suppose that drastic actions like the ones taken in response to COVID-19 are free.
For reasons relating to other data I’ve looked into but don’t have time to get into here, I am skeptical that this explains all of the increase in mortality over the years before COVID, but I haven’t seen any data to conclusively rule that possibility out. I am also a bit resistant to this explanation because it would be too convenient; I think that the responses to COVID-19, after the first few months, were wildly overblown and a massive overreach of government power. Lockdowns could be justified in the face of a pandemic of the magnitude of the Black Death—something that could kill off a third of the population in a short time. During the very early rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 there were reasons to believe that SARS-CoV-2 was an escaped bio-weapon that could have been that kind of threat—the kind of threat which could potentially justify temporarily suspending all of the normal rules of society. After a few months it was obvious that SARS-CoV-2, escaped bio-weapon or not, was in no way another Black Death. Since I think that what ensued as an unjustified massive overreaction, it would be very convenient if SARS-CoV-2 was barely worse than a normal flu and most of the bad consequences of it were actually due to what I consider to be an overreaction.
I like to be careful of convenient conclusions, especially when conclusive evidence is intrinsically hard to come by.
Whatever the cause and whatever exactly happened, it does seem very clear that it’s over. A few people still wear masks, but few enough that they might all be immuno-compromised people for whom trying to filter the air that they breathe in public places makes sense anyway. We still have some lingering excess mortality, though only slightly. It was never all that high—this is more clear when you look on a multi-year timescale rather than zooming in—and it is very possible that the last few years were a perfect example of Alexander Pope’s line, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”
We had tests to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but we didn’t know how it spread, how bad it was, or how bad it would be. Thirty years before, without the tests to detect the virus, the entire experience might have been radically different. The absolute worst weeks had increases in mortality of about 40%, but a 40% increase in a small number is still small. Throughout everything, there were only a few cases of hospitals becoming so over-full that they had to send patients elsewhere and there were no (or at least statistically no) instances of people dying because of a lack of treatment because the hospitals were full. Without the PCR tests that could detect the virus without symptoms (or with symptoms that could be a cold or the flu), and thus allow us to map out its spread, we might not have done much more than think that there was a nasty flu for a few years.
I recently came across this interesting video on a quasi-scandal involving Samsung smartphone cameras taking better pictures of the moon than the physical camera elements actually allows:
The video brings up an interesting question about what the pictures that smartphones take actually are. In the video Marques proposes that the images that the smartphone generates are something along the lines of an image which is what the smartphone “thinks” you want the slice of reality you were trying to capture to look like.
It’s no secret that smartphones these days do massive amounts of processing on the photos that they take and that this goes way beyond removing noise and compensating for camera shake; for years now they’ve been actively recognizing the subject in front of them and adjusting focus, faking bokeh (the way in which subjects behind the focal plane are blurred), punching up colors, adjusting contrast in only some parts of the picture, etc. etc. etc.
There is a problem with this when it comes to taking pictures of the moon, though, because there is only one moon, we only ever see one part of it because it’s tidally locked to the earth, and we’re so far away from it that there is effectively only one angle to take the pictures from. In short, except for haze in the atmosphere or objects in front, there’s only one picture you can take of the moon.
Using AI to improve pictures of the moon is thus not easily distinguished from just replacing your picture with a better picture of the moon. It is different; the approach Samsung uses preserves whatever color in the moon you see due to haze in the atmosphere (a honey moon, a red moon, etc) and won’t override a cloud or bird in front of the moon when you take the picture. But if you’re not capturing weird lighting or something in front of the moon, a cleared-up version of your picture of the moon isn’t really different from just using a better picture instead.
Smartphones have been clearing up the pictures that they take for a long time now, and for the most part people don’t really object. (Every now and then when posting pictures of my superdwarf reticulated python to Instagram I have to note that the camera punched up the color, though it’s not a big deal because it’s what he looks like outdoors in sunlight, so it’s only a slight inaccuracy.)
It’s just weird that there happens to be a subject where you can only take one picture and so the AI image enhancement doesn’t need your original photo to present a clearer version of the photo you took. From what we can tell it does use your photo and doesn’t improve every photo of the moon to a pixel-perfect photo of the moon, but in some sense that’s just an implementation detail and imperfect photo enhancement, respectively.
Of course, the same thing that makes this a problem makes it purely academic; there’s no important reason to take photos of the moon because at best they look exactly like photos you can easily look up. And if you’re doing it for fun, you’re going to use a real camera not a smartphone camera.
During the golden age of mysteries, a great many of the stories were (of necessity) set against the backdrop of drastic changes in society. These changes often provided motives as well as opportunities for the murders. Motives would often be the desire for money to be used on something other than maintaining the vestiges of an old way of life that the new generation is not interested in. The opportunity provided is often along the lines of a large house with few people in them. It’s that latter part that really interests me at the moment.
Large, derelict houses make great settings for mysteries, and I think that this is especially the case in mysteries for children. Scooby Doo was very frequently set in large houses with few people in them, isolated from their neighbors by large plots of land. These are things that most easily happen when societal changes make things that had been popular, or at least populous, less so. When things get abandoned, or even just partially abandoned, there become the remnants of things that people used to do without there being the people around to explain what they were. This makes such a setting is intrinsically mysterious. Whatever crimes a villain is currently committing, there are many things that need an explanation but without the people present who know what they are to give the explanation. Figuring them out, then figuring out which of these is innocuous and which nefarious can provide a wealth of things for the detective to use his intellect on.
This scope for investigation provided by the former scene of a bustling community now in some state of abandonment can be amplified by the intertwining of the current mystery with previous events. This can take the form of treasure which can be discovered or inherited, but it can also take the form of the deeds or misdeeds of the past influencing revenge in the present. It can take the form of both, separately or intertwining.
So how do we make use of this in contemporary murder mysteries? (I mean, murder mysteries set in at least approximately the time of their writing, as opposed to historical murder mysteries.) Many of the social changes which formed fertile ground for Golden Age murder mysteries are, in the twenty first century, over. The remnants of the medieval system are now pretty much entirely gone in England and, to the degree that the southern plantations and robber barons of the United States formed some counterpart, they’re gone too. We still have billionaires, of course, but for a variety of reasons they have fewer servants. (Part of this is technology, part of it is a more efficient economic system where things like cleaning and landscaping are more efficiently done by companies with specialized equipment who service multiple clients.) Even where a billionaire has something potentially interesting like a hundred million dollar yacht, the things are all new. An American billionaire’s household was assembled fairly recently. The odds are pretty good that his house was built fairly recently. The odds of a billionaire’s parents being billionaires is… not high. There are wealthy families, of course, and some of them even have history. I think these can work for this kind of murder mystery—the wealth of wealthy families tends to substantially diminish with each generation. There are exceptions, of course, but children are so frequently different from their parents that it’s rare for the grandchildren of someone who built up a fortune to have even a quarter of their grandfather’s talent for making money, and even less of his being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that talent.
I suspect that there is more, in the contemporary United States, that can be made of institutions falling on hard times. That happens in all ages, but especially in our contemporary industrial times. Businesses, schools, hospitals, and more go out of business all the time; plenty come close to it or shrink before they’re bought out by competitors. Not every business would be ripe for this kind of setting, but I suspect a lot would. If one couples this with the advisability of Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery, there’s a lot of fertile ground, here.
This is, admittedly, very similar to a previous video, but this one is one hour long instead of two! And it covers how to keep an acquaintanceship ambiguous in order to create space for the two people to get to know each other without having to make rush judgements.
Some day I will break this into several videos by specific subjects, and with God’s grace they’ll be like 15 minutes each…
Published in 1935, Three Act Tragedy was the eighth novel by Agatha Christie to feature Hercule Poirot. It is unusual among (early) Poirot novels in that Poirot is not the main detective in the story.
The basic setup is that Famed Actor Sir Charles Cartwright is hosting a dinner party at which Poirot is attending (I can’t recall why Poirot was in the neighborhood; he might have been retired at this point) and one of the attendees of the party—a charming older vicar—keels over dead with no obvious cause. A few months later, one of the other attendees at the party, a psychiatrist by the name of Sir Bartholomew Strange, keels over dead at a party at his own house in the same way. This time instead of attributing it to heart trouble, it is discovered that he died of nicotine poisoning. Sir Charles and another of the guests, Mr. Satterthwaite, investigate, along with a precocious young woman who goes by the nickname Egg. The three occasionally consult with Poirot during their investigation, which is his involvement until he reveals the murderer at the end.
NOTE: there are spoilers after this point.
This book was very much about the theater, or at least about theatrics. It begins and ends with theatrics, and much of it is taken up with the theatrical personality of Sir Charles Cartwright. It is even divided into three acts which are titled, in theatrical terms, Suspicion, Certainty, and Discovery. It’s a bit hard to relate to this; stage actors are a different breed from movie actors. By 1935 movies were well on their way to replacing the theater as the dominant form of acting-based entertainment, but this novel was not really about 1935. Sir Charles had retired from the stage by now; Three Act Tragedy was about the aftermath of things that had been, not things that are currently.
The most memorable scene, to me, was Sir Charles employing his acting skill to reconstruct what the butler Ellis had done based on clues and to find the sheets of paper which no other detective had found. It’s a vivid scene, but it is diminished in the recollection by the fact that Sir Charles had planted the papers there himself, and Ellis had not, in fact, been interrupted.
The story is well constructed and like most Christies, the plot is original and clever. The murder of the vicar being a dress rehearsal for the murder of Dr. Strange was certainly an original motive for murder and yet a plausible one. Not so plausible when described as Sir Charles following his actor’s instincts and doing a dress rehearsal, but if it’s not presented so theatrically, testing out a type of poisoning which is supposed to go undetected on a victim to whom one has no motive to kill him is reasonable, if diabolical. But demons still have their reason, and it makes sense.
It’s also curious that this book ends with an explanation that was probably much inquired about Poirot:
“You’ll excuse me—” said Mr. Satterthwaite.
“Yes, there is some point you wanted explained to you?”
“There is one thing I want to know.”
“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”
“Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say—a foreigner—he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people—instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added. “it has become a habit.”
That is not the actual ending, though. A little after this comes the true ending:
Mr. Satterthwaite looked cheerful.
Suddenly an idea struck him. His jaw fell.
“My goodness,” he cried, “I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoning cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me.”
“There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered,” said Poirot.
On the thirtieth day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the second episode of the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote aired. Titled A Little Night Work and set in New York City, it features the introduction of the recurring character Dennis Stanton, though he may not have been intended as a recurring character in this episode. (Last week’s episode was J.B. As In Jailbird.)
The scene opens at a party in a hotel. (The party has something to do with celebrating the candidacy for the senate of business magnate Axel Weingard.) Here is Axel and his wife Marta:
They make it clear in a few short sentences that they are both loathesome people, the sort that make one regret that Murder, She Wrote almost never has a double-murder in it.
A couple who they know come over and the woman gushes over Marta’s necklace. The man asks if it’s wise for Marta to actually wear the necklace, especially in New York City. Axel says that normally he would agree, but in this case they live in the hotel (top floor), so Marta won’t be wearing it on the streets.
As Axel walks off, a busboy named Andy looks at him ominously:
I think this puts the probability of one of Axel or Marta being killed at about 99%, and the odds that Andy did it at about 0.1% but the odds that he’s suspected of it at at least 80%.
Next Theo Wexler, played by Klinger Jamie Farr, comes up and introduces himself to Axel.
He’s a literary agent, and, as it turns out, he’s Jessica’s new agent. He calls Jessica over as she walks into the room and introduces her to Axel (one of the businesses he’s in charge of is Windsong House, which is, presumably, a publisher). Axel is delighted to meet her, but when Theo tries to talk business he is very stern that he conducts business during business hours. I’m not sure if the idea is that he is rigorous about enforcing a work/life balance or that he’s trying to get elected to the senate right now and this is not time to discuss other kinds of business, or just that he deals with shlubs like Theo only when he has to.
After Axel excuses himself, Jessica is rather annoyed with Theo because he is not, in fact, her new agent. Her long-time agent just retired and Theo merely bought out his agency. Jessica has not signed with Theo and isn’t sure that she will. I guess that a man who tried to get out of the Korean war by wearing a dress doesn’t seem to be Jessica’s type of agent.
The star of this episode then walks in.
It’s interesting to pause a moment and think of the extras in a scene like this. The woman in green and the man whose arm she’s holding didn’t have speaking parts so they weren’t credited and there’s no way (for me, at least) to find out who they were. It must be an odd experience to go to Hollywood and try very hard to be an actor and to get a part that involves being on screen for all of about two seconds, and that in the background as a character with lines walks in. They act well; it’s as easy as anything to forget that they’re not actually a well-to-do couple coming to this party for whatever reason a well-to-do couple would come here. They do a good job of looking like they know each other and like each other and have the concerns of a couple at a party. The actors may well have just met this day; they could have been assigned together as a couple no more than an hour before. Each may well have taken acting classes and this was the pinnacle of getting to use those skills that they developed. I don’t know whether anyone would consider it worthwhile to go to Hollywood to be an extra in an episode of Murder, She Wrote, but it is important work, relative to the importance of any acting work. We watch for the main characters, but without the extras it would very difficult to suspend our disbelief and enter into the pretend reality of the story.
There is a useful analogy, I think, to the minor characters in novels. Characters with only three or four lines can still be very important to get right.
Back to the story, a man who was standing by himself and looking glum notices Dennis Stanton and walks over, greeting him.
He remembers Dennis from a party at South Hampton over the summer. His name is Miles Hatcher and he’s in real estate. After some banter, Dennis walks off. We then see Miles talking with Theo and Jessica. He tries to push some luxury apartments he’s developing. They’re called Shinnecock Park. Theo says that he’ll run it past his business manager, and they arrange to meet later.
Theo notices someone he wants to try to get as a client and excuses himself. Noticing the opportunity, the busboy, Andy, comes over and offers Jessica some more coffee, then tells her that he’s an admirer of her work, and that he’s writing a novel, and he’d be just so gosh darn golly gosh grateful if she’d take a look at it. He then notices that his boss sees him bothering one of the guests and says he has to go.
This is another actor who wasn’t credited. His one scene was far more expressive than the line of some of the actors who only got one line and are thus in the credits, but we have no way of knowing who he was. Perhaps he, too, took years of acting classes and this was his biggest role. If that’s true, I have no way of knowing whether he considered them worthwhile, but at least he did a good job here. (Or perhaps he went on to be a famous actor I just don’t recognize and this was an important stepping stone in his career.)
Jessica is now alone at her table, but only for a moment. Dennis Stanton walks up, introduces himself, and asks for the honor of this dance. They flirt with each other a bit; he says that it speaks poorly of Theo’s intelligence and upbringing that he’s left the most attractive woman in the room totally alone. Jessica replies that it’s been a long time since she’s been picked up by a tall, handsome stranger. They talk as they dance, and he professes to be a fan of her work. The song ends and a more energetic one begins, and he galantly leads her through it; people on the dance floor begin making space for them.
We then fade to later that evening with Jessica alone in her room. It’s a bit past midnight but the time probably doesn’t matter much because the camera doesn’t stay on the clock long enough for us to see it clearly. As Jessica is getting ready for bed, Dennis Stanton drops down onto her balcony. Well, I say drops down, but he’s actually climbing up over the railing:
He explains that he had been outside on his balcony getting some night air when he discovered that he’d locked himself out. So he dropped down onto her balcony because it was either that or jump, and he’d misplaced his parachute. He goes to leave but before he can get out the door he suddenly comes back in (we hear some commotion outside). He asks Jessica if he can stay longer, which she is not happy about. He then explains that he was actually in the room of a married woman and her husband just returned, though he describes this in very delicate terms. For some reason Jessica is extremely understanding of this. He then checks the door again and the coast is clear, so he takes his leave of her. He says that meeting her has been a delight that he will cherish forever, kisses her on the cheek, and leaves. Jessica just laughs and goes to bed. He really is delightfully charming, and everything he does is done well.
At the bottom of the hotel, as people are leaving the party and being photographed by the press for some reason, we hear the sound of police sirens. We then see Dennis Stanton coming out of the hotel’s underground parking garage. He, too, hears the sirens and looks around the corner, then abruptly pulls back when he sees the police cars coming.
After observing where the police cars went to, he sneaks off in the other direction. Clearly Dennis has been up to something, though equally clearly (because of Murder, She Wrote conventions) it wasn’t murder.
We fade to black and go to commercial break.
When we come back it’s the morning and Andy brings Mrs. Fletcher the room service she ordered. Jessica is surprised to see him and remarks that they seem to work him twenty four hours a day. Andy laughs and says that he bribed the head waiter to let him take her food up. He hopes that she doesn’t mind and Jessica says not at all. When he starts to tell her about his novel, though, she’s distracted by the morning’s newspaper. It has an article with the headline, “Thief makes Off With Million Dollar Necklace.”
Actually, I can’t help but pause here and look at the newspaper.
I doubt that one would have been able to make out the type in the original TV broadcast, it’s quite difficult to do in this still. But here’s the left hand column:
There was a jewel robbery here at the hotel last night. And it was stolen some time between midnight and twelve thirty from Mr. Axel Weingard’s penthouse suite. Craig reside in a facility we could use for [bringing] a wide cross-section of people closer to the museum,” Attiyah said. “The type of individuals who are really able to help us are individuals who appre-ciate the personal touch of being in the director’s home.”
Black’s housing allowance is considered taxable income, and
The columns to the right, also under the headline, are also about the purchase of a house by a museum, and how this probably doesn’t violate applicable regulations. If you look closely, the part about the jewel robbery isn’t even in the same typeface as the rest of the article and isn’t properly formatted with it; this was just pasted on top of some real newspaper article. Thanks to google, I found out it’s an article from the December 29, 1987 edition of the LA Times. I suppose that in 1988 it would have been harder to print off a newspaper page with random text than it would be today. The image was only on screen for a few seconds and there was no real danger of anyone reading the text.
Back to the story, the time of the robbery gets Jessica to thinking. She asks if Axel Weingard’s penthouse would be on this side of the building. Andy thinks about it for a bit and answers that yes, in fact it’s right above her room. Andy then tries to talk to her about his book but she is preoccupied with the theft. She gathers her things, tells him that she’ll talk to him later, and leaves.
As Jessica comes out of the elevator she sees some uniformed police offers walking with purpose, so she follows them. Axel Weingard’s body has just been found in a laundry cart (the body rolled out after the cart was dumped).
The police officer stooping over him is Lt. Bert Alfano. He says that there are bruises all over the corpse’s neck, so he must have been strangled. In another shot we can see that his right hand is bloody, though Alfano does not remark on it.
Jessica comes up and says that she may know something relevant, though she begins by asking questions. Alfano gets her back on track and she tells him about Dennis Stanton’s midnight visit to her hotel room balcony.
The scene shifts to Theo’s office, where Miles Hatcher is trying to get him to invest in the luxury apartments Miles is developing.
Miles tries to convince Theo to invest, but Theo says that he talked to his business manager and he said “better I should invest in igloos in Saudi Arabia.” Miles offers to show him financial reports and Theo says that the word on the street is that Axel Weingard is in for 40% of the apartments but is about to pull out. Miles admits that he’s having trouble with Weingard, but that’s all the more reason for Theo to join in. “For God’s sake, Theo, you hate him worse than I do.” Jessica walks in right as Miles says this.
Theo, spotting Jessica, ushers Miles out. As he ushers Jessica into his office, he tells his secretary to hold all calls, “and if Norman Mailer calls, tell him I’m in conference with Rupert Murdoch.”
Rupert Murdoch, at the time, was the owner of a collection of newspapers, mostly in Australia and the UK, though in 1985 he had bought Twentieth Century Fox (a movie studio). Norman Mailer was an novelist, journalist, actor, director, playwright, etc. etc. who seems to be the sort of Extremely Important Author who doesn’t actually matter at all. As far as I can tell, he wrote two kinds of stuff: “important” (read: bad) that no one read, and sexual-when-it-wasn’t-everywhere that sold well. He’s the sort of person that Jessica should have heartily disapproved of but actually respected because he had cultural cache with the sort of people that Angela Lansbury hung out with, though not with the kind of people that Jessica Fletcher hung out with.
Be that as it may, this lie is quite interesting for several reasons. The first is that he’s telling it to impress Jessica, which is a weird kind of miscalculation. You don’t want to impress your potential clients with your dishonesty. The second reason is that it doesn’t even make sense for its primary purpose. Telling Norman Mailer that he’s in conference with Rupert Murdoch suggests that Jessica is not as important as Rupert Murdoch, while his ostensible goal (apart from the pretense that Norman Mailer might call) is to show Jessica that he thinks that she is extremely important. This certainly does not do that. It actually contains a strange insult to Jessica, because it implies that telling Norman Mailer that Theo is unavailable because he’s talking with Jessica Fletcher would be completely unacceptable.
I also find his secretary interesting.
She doesn’t have any lines, she just gives him this look, so she’s not credited. She communicates quite a bit of disdain, though, which is interesting. Why does he keep her around? You’d expect a man like Theo to have a secretary who’s—at a guess—thirty years younger, and a lot more eager to please.
In his office, Jessica tells Theo that she’s had a long and very comfortable working relationship with her former agent, which makes me wonder if the writers forgot that Jessica is a retired school teacher from Maine who only started writing after her husband died. Jessica is speaking as if he had been her agent for almost half a century, when in reality he couldn’t have been her agent for even a decade. At her age, that’s almost the blink of an eye. I’m only forty three years old and I think of people I’ve worked with for seven or eight years as recent acquaintances.
Theo begs her to not leave him as his business is hanging on by a thread. Axel Weingard recently dropped four of his clients out of personal spite for Theo. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Jessica corrects this to “was” and explains that Axel Weingard is dead. Theo practically jumps for joy, then immediately calls his business manager and instructs him to sell shares of Weingard’s company short. (For those unfamiliar: this means to sell shares in the future which he does not have now but will then; if the market price of the shares is lower at the time of sale than the agreed on price, the short seller makes money.) “I’ll get back everything that S.O.B. has cost me, and then some!”
Jessica is not enthused by this attitude toward murder, and in any event Theo is busy, so she departs. On her way out she runs into Dennis Stanton, who explains his presence by her having mentioned that she had a morning appointment with Theo, so he decided to take a chance. He invites her to lunch, and won’t take “no” for an answer.
Jessica insists on some straight answers, which Dennis does not give. He does mention that he has an alibi for the time Jessica identified him, which is that he was playing gin rummy from 11pm until 2pm on the night in question with his brother-in-law, who is a city counselman. Dennis shifts the subject to lunch, which he observes Jessica is not enjoying, so he invites her to come have dinner at his place where he can cook something really good for her. She declines, citing that she has a 5:00pm flight home. She promises to have a date with him the next time she comes to town.
Later on, as Jessica is packing her clothes, someone drops down from the floor above.
Jessica locks the door, but the person takes off her hat revealing that she’s a pretty young woman and thus safe because pretty young women always have someone else do the violent stuff for them, and then shows her identification.
Her name is Shannon MacBride and she works for the Susquehanna Fire & Casualty insurance company as a special investigator. They insured the diamond necklace which was stolen. She’s sure it was Dennis Stanton who stole it—she’s been on his trail for years, but she’s never been able to catch him. She gives Mrs. Fletcher her card and asks her to tell Dennis that there’s a one hundred thousand dollar reward for the return of the necklace, no questions asked. When Jessica voices her disinterest in passing on the message or ever seeing Dennis Stanton again, Shannon offers Jessica fifty thousand dollars (personally) if Dennis returns the necklace.
Jessica coldly wishes her a good day as the phone rings. It’s Lt. Alfonso. He just wants Jessica to know that he’s arrested Andy for the murder and, he doesn’t want a lawyer, he wants to talk to Jessica. She looks shocked as we fade to black and go to commercial.
When we come back, Jessica is in the police station talking to Lt. Alfonso. When she asks what evidence he has against Andy, Alfonso explains that Andy wrote a book and sent it to Weingard about a year ago. He has since accused Weingard of ripping off his book. To that end, he sent Weingard a threatening letter.
Dear Mr. Weingard,
As you steal my work so you steal my name, my very soul. I beg of you, take your fingers from my throat. I am neither rash nor vengeful but there is something in me, dangerous, which you would be wise to fear.
Jessica then goes to see Andy.
Jessica begins by asking Andy why he threatened Weingard with Shakespeare. I haven’t read every Shakespearean play, so my not recognizing the lines isn’t dispositive, but if this is actually Shakespeare and I just don’t recognize it, I find it weird that if you google any of the sentences in the letter all you come up with is a transcript of this episode. I found it strange that the writers would fake a Molière quote in Deadpan. I find it very strange to fake a Shakespeare quote, since Shakespeare is far better known.
Be that as it may, Andy explains that every time he put his thoughts in his own words it just sounded dumb.
Andy then launches into telling Jessica about his book. It’s set on an asteroid in the year 3001. It’s about a tyrannical father and his four sons. The oldest is is a fortune hunter. He and his father fall in love with the same woman. The old man dies accidentally, but since the oldest son had threatened to kill the father, he’s arrested and put on trial.
Jessica remarks that this seems very familiar.
Andy brushes this aside and says that three months ago Weingard came out with a book, set in the Canadian Yukon, about a logging family which has all of the same characters and plot points. To his impassioned cry that they stole his book, Jessica points out that Andy stole his book from Dostoevsky’s book, The Brothers Karamazov. Andy protests that he didn’t steal from The Brothers Karamazov, he adapted it, and he thought of adapting it first. Jessica’s reaction is apt:
She leaves Andy and goes back to talking with Lt. Alfonso. She asks about how the thief managed to steel the jewels from around Marta Weingard’s neck. Alfonso then narrates a flashback of what happened. Around 11:30pm, Marta Weingard was feeling the effects of way too much champagne.
She wants to go outside. She and her husband argue, then Axel demands that if she goes outside she must at least give him the necklace. She pulls it from around her neck and throws it to him, then goes outside. Axel goes back to his hotel room. When Marta comes back to their suite at 12:30, she finds the safe open and the necklace missing, so she called the police.
Jessica points out that if Andy killed Weingard—which she thinks is unthinkable for some reason she doesn’t explain—the motive would have been revenge, not theft. Alfonso doesn’t even bother to point out that a person can steal after committing murder in order to try to disguise the motive of the crime, and Jessica drops the point in favor of arguing about Dennis Stanton being in her room at 12:30. I find it curious that neither of them brings up that Axel Weingard’s body was hidden in a laundry cart and, as a result, only discovered in the morning. Moving the body through the hotel involved a not-inconsiderable risk of being seen doing it. The killer had to have a motive for that. It’s hard to see a jewel thief having such a motive; his best bet would be to simply get away.
Anyway, Jessica argues with Alfonso about Dennis Stanton—Alfonso doesn’t want to upset city hall by calling the Counselman a liar—but Jessica bullies him into looking into Dennis Stanton as a suspect. Jessica suggests that she accept Stanton’s dinner invitation while wearing a listening device, and Alfonso goes along with this. Jessica calls Dennis on the phone to make the arrangements.
The scene of Dennis receiving the call is fascinating. Here’s Dennis before the phone rings:
There is taste and class, here. The gold-and-ivory telephone with separate mouth piece and ear piece is elegant and has a curious sort of timelessness to it. It looks to be of modern construction. It’s got a vinyl-covered coil cord, which as far as I can tell was first made in the 1940s, but by then phones had moved to smaller and more integrated handles. This may even have been the era when the telephone company owned the telephone and they were all black plastic and nearly indestructible. Dennis’ phone is a callback to the early mouth piece and ear cup designs, though with modern conveniences, and fits very much into Murder, She Wrote‘s theme of appreciating old things.
Also fitting into this theme, as well as into the character of Dennis, is that his leisure is spent reading a leather bound book. The camera panned over it closely enough, for a moment, that it was possible to see the gold letters on the spine proclaiming it to be The Return of the Native. It’s a novel from the late 1800s, written by Thomas Hardy. From reading the description of the plot I’m not sure that it’s a good book—it seems to be, for the most part, a bunch of people doing bad things and then suffering the miserable consequences of their iniquity. According to Wikipedia:
Because of the novel’s controversial themes, Hardy had some difficulty finding a publisher; reviews, however, though somewhat mixed, were generally positive. In the twentieth century, The Return of the Native became one of Hardy’s most popular and highly regarded novels.
The point is that Dennis is reading a classic and highly regarded novel in his leisure time when no one is watching (we don’t count). His erudite manner is no pose; he really is highly cultured.
Jessica tells Dennis that her plans have changed, and they make dinner plans for her to come over to his apartment.
On her way over, Lt. Alfonso goes over the plan, including the listening device Jessica will keep in her purse.
It’s funny now times change. Jessica asks if the transmitter is powerful enough since it’s so small. Looking at it in 2023, it looks huge. Alfonso says that she has guts and it’s not too late to back off. Jessica muses that the murder is the one thing that doesn’t fit (she doesn’t explain why).
She then double-checks about some things in the reports. In particular, a petal from a red carnation was found on the floor with minute drops of blood on it. The victim was wearing a white carnation, so the petal must have come from the murderer’s flower. There were also lacerations on the victim’s right hand. (They had showed us this in a closeup when his body was found; that they’re bringing it up again here shows that it must be a very important clue.)
At dinner, Dennis is charming as always. He asks about the change in her plans, and Jessica replies that she came on business—she conveys Shannon’s offer. Dennis laughs and says that Shannon MacBride is a persistent little terrier with the instincts of a bloodhound. He goes on, “for several years now, she’s deluded herself that I’m sort of modern-day Raffles, the gentleman jewel thief.”
This is rather interesting because, if you look up “gentleman thief” on Wikipedia, Raffles seems to be the first example (in literature). I’ve only skimmed the first of the Raffles stories, and I can’t say that I’m likely to read more. They were written by the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, apparently for money, and to some degree in imitation of Sherlock Holmes but in, as it were, photographic negative. The reference to Raffles is interesting because it serves to ground Dennis in a tradition, though I don’t know that it’s really important to do so. The “gentleman jewel thief” is a fairly self-defining thing. He must be charming to be able to gain the access he needs to rich high-class people, and he must steal from them because, as Willie Sutton was supposed to have said when asked why he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. A gentleman thief could never support his life style stealing rags and broken cooking pots from the poor.
A gentleman thief must, then, steal from the rich. If he steals from the rich, he must, then, be charming. If he steals from people he knows socially and manages to not be caught for some time, he must also be patient, clever, an observer of human beings, and a decent judge of character. From this it follows that he will almost certainly be well read and cultured, as his intellect will need something to feed upon when he is not stealing.
There are many gentlemen thieves possible, of course, but the point is that we don’t really need a prototype; the moment one hears that a person is a gentleman thief, one knows all this. It doesn’t matter, therefore, that most people will have no idea who Raffles is.
Dennis goes on to reveal his backstory, though in the guise of being hypothetical. Years ago his wife died of a catastrophic illness and the Susquehanna Fire & Casualty insurance company found a loophole and avoided paying anything, leaving him with a quarter million dollars in medical debt (in 2023 dollars, this would be about $630k). He decided to get out of debt by stealing things insured by Susquehanna Fire & Casualty. He did have a code, which is that he would never steal anything that the victim couldn’t afford to lose (which would be most anything insured) and he would never steal anything of sentimental value.
Jessica asks about the murder of Axel Wineguard. Dennis says that not only did he not kill Axel, but, “I fact, I hate to admit it, I didn’t even steal the necklace.” He then recounts what happened. He went to the roof of the hotel and lowered himself onto the balcony. He jimmied the lock and let himself in, when he heard voices. Axel and a woman’s voice he couldn’t identify. They were arguing and at one point Axel shouted, “Put that gun away. Are you out of your mind?” He started toward the bedroom door so Dennis went back out onto the balcony. Axel came in, but then went back out. Dennis waited for twenty minutes, but as he heard nothing he went to investigate. He listened at the bedroom door and didn’t hear anything, so he chanced it and opened the door. There was no one there and the wall safe was open. Just then, Marta Weinguard entered and noticed the open safe.
She ran to the phone and asked the desk to call the police. At this point there was nothing more to be gained by staying, so he left.
Jessica clarifies that he never actually went into the living room, and Dennis responds that he hadn’t. This doesn’t make sense to Jessica because the police report said that a petal from a red carnation was found in the living room. At the mention of the police report, Dennis figures out what’s going on.
“Oh. And are you in the habit of reading police reports?” he asks. For some reason she initially denies it, which I find weird because not only is she in the habit of reading police reports, it’s an extremely natural habit for her to be in. Her reticence tells Dennis what he needs to know, though. He snatches up her purse and pulls the transmitter out, saying, “Forgive me. This isn’t gentlemanly, I know, but this isn’t exactly ladylike.”
He steps to his balcony and observes a surprisingly high number of unmarked black cars. The police start to bang on the door. After telling Jessica, “You’ll understand if I don’t buy your next book,” Dennis leaves by the balcony. Jessica gets up and lets the police in, but it’s too late. Dennis has escaped. Then we fade to black and go to commercial.
When we come back from commercial we’re at police headquarters where Lt. Alfonso and Jessica play the tape from the recording device for Shannon MacBride, for some reason. It’s a meeting that makes no sense—at least one of Jessica and Shannon are out of place here. I think Shannon is here, as much as anything, to express disbelief at Dennis’ story. They wanted someone to do it, and if they use Shannon, that’s one less person to cast. After she leaves, Jessica and Lt. Alfonso talk a bit more. It comes up that he’s put a tap on the phone of Dennis’s brother-in-law. Jessica points out that it looks like Andy wasn’t involved, and Alfonso tells Jessica to “get the kid outta here before I get myself into a lousy mood.” I suppose Jessica has been officially deputized, by this point, so that the lower ranking police officers will take instructions for Andy’s release from her.
In the next scene Jessica is at her hotel and Alfonso calls her. The wire tap on the city councilman’s phone line paid off. Dennis called and said, “I have to leave town, but as soon as I dispose of the merchandise, I’ll send you a piece of the action.”
Jessica then looks at a red flower petal that fell from the rose in her room, considers it, then goes and looks at the newspaper on her desk.
This is from outside the hotel as a press team photographed the guests as they left. I still have no idea why the press photographed people as they left this party. The headline seems to be something like “PROMISES 2.1 MILLION POLITICAL I.O.U.’S.” So I suppose that the picture was supposed to be an illustration of a major campaign event? It all seems more than a little unlikely, especially since this was the sort of party at which pretty unimportant people like Jessica’s agent and a guy trying to peddle luxury condominiums showed up.
Be that as it may, after looking at the photograph in the newspaper, Jessica then figures out who killed Wineguard and picks up the phone as we cut to a bus station.
After a bit of sinister music and some showing to us of someone walking in only by his feet, we then discover that Miles is meeting Dennis.
Dennis complains that Miles is late and Miles says that he got stuck in traffic. “A couple of young hoods tried to rob a liquor store.” Dennis replies, “Crime runs rampant.”
Miles then gives Dennis the diamond necklace and says that this is where it ends. The necklace buys Dennis’s silence. If he ever tries to shake Miles down again, Miles will kill him. The announcement comes on for Dennis’ bus, and he bids Miles adieu with, “I’d wish you good luck, but the fact is, I hope they catch you.”
As he walks off, Lt. Alfonso gets in his way. As Miles tries to inconspicuously leave, the police stop him too.
The scene changes to Miles Hatcher being interrogated in the police station by Lt. Alfonso, Jessica, and Shannon MacBride. Miles protests his innocence but Alfonso tells him to not waste his effort. They have the whole picture thanks to Mrs. Fletcher.
Jessica then explains the evidence against Miles. It’s not just Dennis’ testimony, it’s also the missing carnation. If you look in the newspaper picture, the carnation is missing from Miles’ tuxedo. It was destroyed when Axel Wineguard grabbed out as he was being strangled.
They then give us a flashback to Jessica’s supposition about how Axel’s hand got mangled as he grabbed out in desperation.
Alfonso suggests that if they test Miles’ tuxedo around the lapel, they’ll probably find traces of Wineguard’s blood. This does it. Miles sighs and says that they probably will.
After a recounting of the murder from his perspective, we cut to outside. Dennis walks out of a room with a tall, solemn man. He congratulates Shannon that her tenacity has paid off and his days of larceny are over. She replies, “for ten years, at least” and walks off. Dennis then remarks to Jessica that Shannon will be so disappointed when she finds out. When Jessica asks what, Dennis explains that he is to receive a suspended sentence and a few years probation because of his cooperation in prosecuting Miles.
He then changes the subject. “The thought of pursuing steady employment is absolutely terrifying and it occurred to me that there might be some profit to be made out of lending my name to a book, or a series of books, about a roguish jewel thief. A wonderful idea, isn’t it? I’ve already been contacted by an agent who wants to represent me. In fact, I think you know him—a fellow called Wexler. Says he’s been your agent for years.”
We get Jessica’s reaction, then go to credits.
This was a fun episode. Having said that, my enjoyment of this episode may be colored by how much I enjoyed Dennis Stanton when he was a detective (technically, insurance investigator) in later seasons. I find it impossible to watch this episode except through the lens of it being an introduction to an interesting character. Which brings up the question of how much Dennis Stanton was intended to be a detective in the show. He wouldn’t appear again until the eighth episode of season 6—more than a full season into the future. He wouldn’t investigate a crime on his own until the nineteenth episode of season 6, meaning that if they were setting that up now, they were playing a long game.
Trying to consider this episode without knowing that Dennis would be back, as one certainly would not when this episode first aired: it’s still good. Jessica does very little actual detecting in it but she spends most of the episode chasing a very charming red herring. The murder itself holds together well enough. Miles had a motive, and approximately everyone had the opportunity. Miles’ motive was sufficiently pressing. In fact he was nearly the only person who did have a motive, if we discount the attempt to make Theo a suspect.
I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair to discount Theo as a suspect, but he was never very plausible. His motive would have been either revenge for Weingard dropping his clients, or else to make money off of Weingard’s death. The former doesn’t really work since he now has a new, shiny client (Jessica) that Weingard won’t be able to help but want. Theo is clearly an opportunist who would not hold a grudge where he has the power to get what he wants. The latter motive would have been incredibly risky. Short-selling Weingard’s company would have been excellent evidence that he knew about Weingard’s death, and waiting for Jessica to tell him about Weingard’s death—when it was pure luck that Jessica found out about it before the newspapers did—would have been a ludicrously risky way to make money. When you put it together, he’s just not much of a suspect.
This murder does suffer from what a lot of Murder, She Wrote murders suffer from—the means of inducing decease probably wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as the murderer needed it to. In this case, strangling a taller man from the front with your bare hands is not an easy thing to do. This is not helped by Miles Hatcher being a middle-aged businessman in the 1980s when a businessman playing squash once a week was in the top 10% of athletic shape for businessmen, and Miles probably wasn’t in the top 10%. It’s not impossible to kill someone this way, it’s just very difficult. The person being strangled is close in and at a mechanical advantage, compared to the person doing the strangling who is reaching further away. (This is why effective strangulation is usually from behind.) Also, with Axel being taller than his attacker, he could out-reach him and just push him away—assuming he was being gentlemanly and didn’t attack Miles’ eyes.
All that said, there was nothing about this murder that required strangulation from the front. Axel could have turned his back and Miles surprised him, or else stabbing would have been entirely viable as well. I think, in consequence, this sort of slip-up is easy to forgive.
There are a few parts of the story that don’t hold together well, though in general they’re inconsequential. When Denis was about to leave Jessica’s room, there was no reason for him to suddenly come back in just because he heard some people talking. No one had seem him in the Weingard suite and there was no one it could have been trouble to run into in the hallway. It also was not in Denis’ interest to do this, as it just annoyed Jessica. It doesn’t really matter, but it is a little bit irksome that there is no payoff to it.
It’s also a bit annoying that the joke at the end of the episode, where Denis says that he was approached by Theo Wexler, who claims to have been her agent for years, contradicts Denis’ suave approach to Jessica at the beginning of the episode where he tells her that it speaks ill of Theo’s intelligence and breeding that he left the most attractive woman at the party totally alone. It doesn’t matter, but again, it’s irksome.
That’s about it, though, and for Murder, She Wrote that’s very tight writing.
It’s interesting to consider how the episode handled Andy, the bus boy. He was introduced in a slightly sinister way, then he was a likable youngster, then he was a plagiarizing idiot, then we heard no more about him. He wasn’t any of these things for very long; I suspect that he was just an excuse to keep Jessica in town when she would rather have gone home. But if that’s the case, why have her want to go home? I suppose it does add a little bit of drama—at least a reversal of intention or two—but the episode would have been fine without Andy at all and with Jessica in town for a few more days rather than changing her plans. It’s interesting to consider whether the unnecessary complication added anything.
Another consideration is that every moment Andy was on screen, Denis wasn’t.
Oh well, next week we’re back in Cabot Cove for Mr. Penroy’s Vacation.
As long as I’ve been posting some of the best Mitchell & Webb sketches, there’s this classic on how MI6 plotted to kill her:
I have the feeling that many of the things they’re referring to are pastiches of conspiracy theories people proposed from time to time, but being American, I never heard many of them, so I can only infer from the sketch itself. They’re mostly self-describing, though.
I also love the plotting around a circular blue-light table.
This one is about the whole, “I’m not Christian because some Christian is a sinner” excuse. You also see it from Christians, usually in the form “how can you expect people to be Christian if there are Christians who sin?” Of course Christians should be perfect, but the existence of bad Christians is a terrible excuse for ignoring the truth of Christianity.
In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Overdrawn At the Memory Bank, one of the call-outs, when they play a few seconds of Casablanca on a computer screen, is “never show a good movie in the middle of your bad movie” (or words to that effect). It’s funny, especially in the moment, but I wonder if it’s actually good advice. It can be applied with very little modification to having characters discuss a good book in what one may hope is a good book but what may not be as good a book as one hopes.
The intention behind the comment, during the episode, is that showing a good movie reminds the audience of how good movies can be, and thus makes it more difficult to enjoy whatever little good there is in the bad movie that they’re watching. And, indeed, this is possible. Reminding someone that they could be having a better time is not always a great strategy for an entertainer.
The fact is, if someone is watching your movie or reading your book, they’re not watching that better movie or reading that good book, and in the modern world it’s unlikely that it’s because they would rather be doing it, but can’t. I’m a big re-reader and re-watcher, but you can’t watch Casablanca and read Pride & Prejudice every day.
If the viewer has chosen to not watch Casablanca today, then reminding him of Casablanca will not cause him to stop your movie and go watch Casablanca instead. In fact, it may have the opposite effect—it may make him happy with the reminiscence of a movie that he likes. Further, it may create the parasocial feeling in the viewer of being with people who like the same movie he likes.
Parasocial engagement is one of the great problems of our day, but that does not make it intrinsically bad. Like so many things, much of whether it’s healthy or harmful is in how it is managed and presented. A great deal of the parasocial engagement that exists on the internet is exploitative parasocial engagement; it is designed to encourage the mistake that it is not parasocial, but social. It is designed to be addictive. Movies and books have an end; they are a fantasy that comes to a definite conclusion and thus makes it easy to get back to the real world and remember that one needs to live in it.
Mitchell and Webb have a really funny sketch about mannerisms in a galactic empire:
I love the overall work that they put into the aesthetic—nice touches like the space station behind them and the guards standing in the hallway, motionless.
I also find it funny that there are gullible atheists of the dim-witted but aggressive sort who will think that this is an accurate description of why people believe in God, and how traditions came to be more generally. They’ll think this sketch is funny because, “see, that’s just how religion got formed!”
Whereas I think it funny because it’s obviously not how religion came to be, and such ideas are absolutely absurd when you put them into practical form.
Overdrawn at the Memory Bank may be my favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are a lot of interesting things to talk about in this episode, but I’ll have to do that later. For the moment, I want to share some interesting things I find in researching the episode.
I had a hunch, based on the apparent budget of Overdrawn, that none of the scenes of African animals were filmed for the movie. Most of them were close-cropped enough that they could have been filmed at a zoo, but it just seemed unlikely. I couldn’t find out what movie they came from, though—it’s not credited in the credits and no one seems to list it.
I then tried to find out whether “maruba fruit” is real. It turns out it is, though its actualy name is “marula fruit“. If you scroll down to the “Use by Other Species” section, you find:
In the documentary Animals Are Beautiful People by Jamie Uys, released in 1974, some scenes portray elephants, ostriches, warthogs and baboons allegedly becoming intoxicated from eating fermented marula fruit, as do reports in the popular press. While the fruit is commonly eaten by elephants, the animals would need a huge amount of fermented marulas to have any effect on them, and other animals prefer the ripe fruit.
One scene depicts baboons, elephants, giraffes, warthogs and other African animals eating rotten, fermented fruit of the Marula tree. The animals are then intoxicated, and they stagger around to comic effect, before nightfall comes and they fall asleep. In the morning, we see one baboon wake up, disheveled, next to a warthog, and quietly exit the burrow, as not to wake her.
Well that’s quite promising. So jumping over to YouTube and searching for “Animals Are Beautiful People drunk animals” we find this clip:
And yes, this is definitely where they took the footage from. Some of the scenes are easy to recognize.
Interestingly, Overdrawn changed the order of the scenes. In the documentary, the elephant knocking the tree with the monkey in it happened while the marula fruit was ripe but not yet over-ripe. Later on the fruit over-ripened and started fermenting, and this when we get the drunk animals. (In Overdrawn, the drunk animals come first and the elephant knocks the tree after, which is the precipitating incident for Fingal to demand removal with override priority.)
A discussion with Fr. Dwight Longenecker about his book The Mystery of the Magi. It’s an interesting book which goes into the historicity of Magi—did they exist, who were they really, where did they actually come from, how did they follow the star, and related questions.
When listening to a review by Zarathustra’s Serpent of a David Bowie song whose theme was the announcement by news reporters that we only have five more years until the world ended and the ensuing chaos, I found Arad’s suggestion that moderns had replaced, as the foundation for morality and the reason for living, God with The Future. As soon as I’d heard this, I knew it to be right. It is very interesting.
It has widely been pointed out that if God is dead then all things are permitted. This is so because nothing has a nature and so it cannot be a violation of anything’s nature to change it or even to destroy it. If things are just brute facts and we change them, they are, in their new form, just more brute facts, and there is no real way to choose between them. (This is why Nietzsche saw that humanity needed a superman who could create values and impose them by his will, such that it would become possible to live by something other than sheer will.) The superman has never come, though he has been long waited for. It seems that, while they waited, people can up with an alternative. If they could no longer live for today, they could yet live for the future.
It’s a solution that is not without its problems. It only works if one can keep up a very short shortsightedness; any contemplation of The Future as an idea reveals how empty it is. Whatever future one sacrifices for today will only be a present that must sacrifice for its own yet-to-come. Another fatal flaw is that even a cursory knowledge of history will show how utterly unpredictable the future is and how little one can realize any goal for it. To quote Jane Austen, however, desperate people are not always wise. Further, there is a sort of wisdom in a fool making plans which will only work if he remains a fool—that is what he is most likely to do.
In short, it is not philosophically coherent, but it does explain why it is that so many materialists deny that if God is dead all things are permitted.
There’s a lot of money to be made in parasocial relationships, which is why, if you look closely, you’ll notice that a huge portion of the internet is engaged in selling or buying parasocial relationships. Some of these are unavoidable—you cannot help but feel some attachment to a person you hear and see, even if they’re just giving a lecture on theology. The more pernicious ones have a built-in vicious cycle, though.
A person who lacks the social skills (and possibly the self-discipline) to form real relationships with the human beings actually around them, or even to do the much less demanding task of forming and maintaining such relationships with people they only know online, will naturally be drawn to parasocial relationships all the more strongly because their social needs are not lower just because they’re incompetent at meeting them. YouTubers and Instagram stars who tell their audience how much they love them are a minor example. On the more dangerous end of the spectrum you will find males who devote themselves to masculinity gurus or, more extreme yet, women with OnlyFans pages. (I think these are sufficiently obvious that they need no further explanation.) This end of the spectrum manifests somewhat differently for women; for example, a great deal of what gets called “feminism” is actually the attempt by lonely women with poor social skills to parasocially bond with other women. Women in real life often bond over what superficially looks like complaining but is actually an exercise in shared (detail-oriented) social analysis. A lot of the “feminism” that you see has at most the bare trappings of any kind of idea, not even of the ideas of the bad kinds of feminism, and really is just complaining gussied up with popular terminology whose only purpose is to feel like the writer and reader and bonding over sharing experiences. Or what they wish were shared experiences. (“Don’t you just hate it when hot guys stare at you instead of doing their own workouts at the gym???”)
These more extreme forms of parasocial bonding involve no actual interactions, or at most perhaps the interaction of leaving a comment and it occasionally being responded to. This requires few social skills on the part of the “content creator” and no social skills of any kind on the part of the content consumer. Especially on the side of the content consumer, that attracts people who have few social skills, and then it leaves them there. Real relationships are hard, but intrinsically teach people to improve their social skills. Even the thick-headed who don’t try much eventually learn to be more cautious after losing a bunch of friends, though they may blame the friends rather than themselves. Even if very imperfectly, they still learn. But people who consume parasocial content learn nothing. In the case of masculinity gurus and “feminist” complaining, they may even learn only bad lessons. Masculinity gurus sometimes advise the people who listen to them to substitute pointless aggression for confidence and to avoid social skills for fear of being mislabeled as a “nice guy”, and “feminist” complaining sometimes is complaining that women have to treat other people—especially male people—like human beings (e.g. articles that talk about “emotional labor”). As a sort of double-whammy, people who have come to this kind of “content” because they lack social skills are particularly poorly equipped to spot what’s wrong and reject it.
Even if people whose social interactions are primarily parasocial consumption don’t learn bad lessons from the people they flock to, they get their needs for social interaction temporarily met without having to engage in any of the social interactions that will build their social skills. Since social skills, like all skills, takes work to maintain, this means that whatever they do have of social skills will atrophy through disuse. And, of course, the more these skills atrophy, the stronger the attraction of purely parasocial content.
It is by no means inevitable, but it is a dangerous trap.
I just came across an interesting article from, of all places, vice, titled, A Bored Chinese Housewife Spent Years Falsifying Russian History on Wikipedia. The tl;dr is that the woman, who had the username Zhemao, pretended to be a scholar of Russian history, which is a thing that Chinese Wikipedia had little of. It apparently began when she tried to understand real scholarly articles but couldn’t, and so started off filling in the missing pieces.
By the time she had written around 10,000 characters, she had gotten attached to it and didn’t want to delete it. Eventually she had a network of sock puppet accounts to boost herself, and had written or contributed to over 200 articles. She got very good at producing scholarly-sounding citations that were extremely difficult to verify. For the most part no one will spend the effort to verify citations to print books that are hard to get, especially on obscure topics that not many people are interested in.
This is, in general, the best way to deceive people—make it easy to believe you and hard to disprove you. The upshot of that is that one should be most careful about things that are easy to believe and hard to disprove—the more that is the case, the more important the trustworthiness of the source is. What can be dangerous is that this sort of thing can bootstrap itself. If you learn of a person through something that’s easy to believe and hard to disprove, and conditionally believe them, the more this goes on the more you will tend to feel like you’ve already trusted them and haven’t been disappointed, so they must be trustworthy.
Incidentally, this applies remarkably well to Science—by which I mean the academic industry of publishing papers. It’s all well and good to say that people’s results can be independently verified—but for the most part no one independently verifies them. When people actually try to, well, there’s a reason that if you Google “reproducibility crisis” you’ll get a lot of results.
Wikipedia gets a lot of criticism because “anyone can edit it,” but that’s not actually all that different from what the industry of scientific paper publication is like. Yes, there is peer review. There’s also peer review on Wikipedia, at least much of the time. In both places, the amount of rigor varies highly. And peer review, in academia, never includes actually running the experiments described in the paper to see if one gets the same results. No one has the money, or even the time, to do that. For some reason a lot of people think that “peer review” in science means “this paper is guaranteed to be good,” when in fact what it means is, “this paper is not guaranteed to be garbage.”
There was a Christmas Carol which I had first heard in the George C. Scott version of Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol. I didn’t hear the whole thing, only the first lines, and because this was in the 1980s I had no real way to find out what it was. It finally occurred to me to google the line I remembered, “On Christmas night all Christians sing to hear the news the angels bring,” and discovered that it’s the first line of the Sussex Carol. Armed with the name, I threw it into YouTube and there are quite a few versions of it. Here’s a version with several ages of boys to make up the various registers:
By the way, the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol is, to my mind, still the best movie version of the story ever made. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the time to watch it.
Not long after I graduated with my master’s degree in mathematics, I came across the song Finite Simple Group (of Order Two). It’s an a cappella love song that consists almost entirely of puns from graduate-level math.
The number of people who will get all of the jokes is substantially lower than the number of people who have PhDs in math, though getting a master’s degree will allow you to get many of the jokes, at least from having heard other students talking about classes you didn’t take. (For example, some of these come from differential geometry, which I never took, but heard people talking about.)
Even the name is a mathematical pun. A klein bottle is a mathematical manifold somewhat akin to a mobius strip, except you cannot create one in three dimensions without a self-intersection. It can be created without a self-intersection in four dimensional space, hence why four is associated with “klein”. (There appear to be five people in Klein Four, but this is something of an implementation detail.)
This video was uploaded to YouTube 16 years ago (as of the time of writing), which was several years after it was recorded. The website kleinfour.com doesn’t seem to exist anymore. (Last time I checked it, it said that the members of kleinfour had long ago got their PhDs and went on to be professors at different universities, so were not in a position to make more music.)
I find it interesting to look at it now, after so much time has passed. As I recall it came out roughly at the time that I was in grad school, and it felt incredibly relatable. Grad students in math do an enormous amount of work; it’s not even that they’re assigned so much as that they are there because they live and breath math. That creates a lot of pressure of its own, quite apart from grades and assignments (which create their own pressure), and so they sometimes need outlets where they do something else. I can remember late at night taking a break with some other grad students I was working with to do some experiments dropping paper helicopters down the area next to the central stairs and seeing what designs too the longest to reach the bottom. (Of the kinds we tried, it was spirals with a small central weight.)
This song is well done; it is composed well and the singer sings well. The puns were generally not strained. I had hoped that they would go on to do other things, but it was not to be. I have no idea whether the members of the group ever think about the Klein Four anymore; sometimes it’s easier to forget work that one has done than it is to forget art by someone else that one really appreciated. (Sometimes not.) The fact that no one has bothered to keep up the Klein Four website makes me suspect that all of its members have moved on.
If they have, though, there is still this video up on YouTube. Video has the curious property that it never changes. If you watch it a hundred times, it is the same moment in history, every time. You change as you watch it, of course, but I think that, properly considered, this gives a bit of insight into that strange aspect of how this life works. The past is real, but we cannot get at it, and yet it still matters. I believe it was Saint Augustine who first proposed the image of our existence being shattered over the moments of time and God, at the end of time, gathering up those shattered fragments and putting them together into a coherent whole.
Ironically, it is the past mattering that is why one should not dwell on the past. Because we will, after the end of days, be reunited with the past, we need to put our efforts into the present—because it will become part of that past that will eventually become an eternal present. That is, of course, harder to see when the goodness of the moment is less clear than it was at some of its clearest moments in the past, but that’s only a defect in our sight.
Another great sketch from Mitchell & Webb is this fake advert for a football TV network. An extra layer of humor, for me at least, is that absolutely nothing in the words would need to be changed to make it about American football instead of what Americans call soccer:
I really love the confidence that this forger has. It reminds me of what Chesterton remarked on Orthodoxy:
Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has `Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.”
By the way, here’s Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, for comparison:
I think that the ten pund note was closer to the original.
I was recently reminded of the existence of trading cards, which of course calls to mind the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy asks whether Beethoven ever had his picture on a bubble gum card. This prompted me to look into the history of trading cards a little (i.e. on Wikipedia).
Trading cards as we know them today seem to have begun with cigarette manufacturers including trade cards in the packages of cigarettes. Trade cards were the business counterpart to calling cards—things you would give someone with your name and some information about you, including how to contact you, which you might leave if you called on someone and they weren’t home, or else as a means of introduction. Tradesmen would have cards for themselves in their professional capacity, and these might include instructions on how to find them (in the days before standardized addressing schemes). Businesses would also have similar cards for similar reasons, and cigarette companies started including theirs in the packages of cigarettes both to help protect the cigarettes (by stiffening the package) and also to help advertise their brand.
In 1875, the American tobacco company Allen & Ginter began to print pictures of more interesting things on the cards. According to Wikipedia these pictures were of, “actresses, baseball players, Native American chiefs, boxers, national flags, or wild animals.” In the UK, John Player & Sons introduced a series of cigarette cards called, “Castles and Abbeys.” People began to collect these cards and trade them to build up their collections, and the phenomenon quickly spread, with candy makers taking it up before long.
At approximately the same time, baseball cards were getting printed as trade cards. In the late 1800s baseball teams and players were posing for photographs, and these became available to things like sporting goods stores who used them as trade cards (interesting picture on one side, information about the store on the other). It would not be too long before these sorts of trade cards began to be included in cigarette packs and confectionery, and have information about the player rather than about a business on the obverse side.
If we distinguish trading cards from the broader set of collectible cards by whether or not there’s anything one can do with the cards such as play a game that the cards were designed for—the latter category including standard playing cards with 52 cards in 4 suits, Pokémon, Magic the Gathering, etc—trading cards had mostly disappeared from popular consciousness by the time I was a kid in the 1980s. I remember a brief fad for Garbage Pail Kids, but they were a joke and lasted about as long as one would expect a joke to last. (I don’t know if anyone collected them for even two years.)
I had a very minor baseball card collection, for about a year, almost entirely because I’d heard about how much money old baseball cards were worth and figured I might as well try in case they’d be worth anything in thirty years. That’s not much of a reason to pay money for things and then store them, though, which is why I quickly gave it up. I had never heard of anyone else collecting baseball cards even for that reason, and certainly not with any interest in the things for themselves.
Thinking about this made me wonder why anyone ever collected trading cards. The best that I can come up with is that it mostly makes sense as a pre-television and pre-color-magazine phenomenon.
Magazines began being printed in color in the late 1930s, so I expect that they were (approximately) all printed in color by the late 1940s. This would provide a common source of pictures that people could cut out and look at any time they wanted. Television only turned to color in the 1960s, but even black-and-white television provided many opportunities to see celebrities and sports stars for free. Prior to these things, though, how would a kid know what his favorite baseball players looked like? There were pictures in newspapers, of course, but that was a bit more haphazard and only turned to color in the late 1970s and I’m not sure when the quality of the photographs actually became decent.
To put it very simply, in the era when color photographs were not common, it makes sense that color photographs printed on cards might have been valuable. I don’t mean in the monetary sense that rare cards from people’s youths eventually were bought for large amounts of money, but rather in the simpler sense that people would actually want the things and spend some effort to collect them or trade them.
Of course, like most things that built up cultural inertia they would have continued to be made and collected for a while after they really made sense. If I’m right that trading cards stopped making sense in the late 1940s, then it seems possible that people might still be collecting them (in earnest) and talking about them into the 1960s, for Lucy to ask, in 1965, how can you say that someone is great who’s never had his picture on a bubblegum card?
Of course, this question of Lucy’s was written by adults, and moreover written as a joke. If it was an instance of adults thinking that kids still did what they themselves did when they were kids—it would not have been the first.
I just discovered this amazing Mitchell & Webb sketch:
It’s really funny (you need to stick with it to the halfway point to figure out what the joke is about).
It also brings up the very interesting question of why it is that people do useless things as a kind of symbolic sacrifice. It’s a curious instinct; probably born out of simple desperation, though I think that, at the same time, it’s often the case that it’s done because it’s preferable to real sacrifices.
I was recently trying to find a quote from G.K. Chesterton on how the point of a wedding is the marriage vow, and the point of the marriage vow is that it’s daring. I wasn’t able to find the original, what I did find was a newspaper called The Holy Name Journal which seems to have been from Michigan. In the August 1921 edition, someone quotes Chesterton’s article almost in full. Since it was only available as a photograph (though, thanks to Google, a text-searchable photograph), I transcribed it for easier quoting:
A writer of the Westminster Gazett recently made the proposal to alter the marriage formula: “As to the vow at the altar, it seems conceivable that under other conditions the form of words ordained by the Prayer Book might be revised.” And the writer adds that may have omitted the words “to obey”, others might omit the words “til death do us part.” The following is Mr. G.K. Chesterton’s rejoined to The New Witness:
It never seems to occur to him that others might omit the wedding. What is the point of the ceremony except that it involves the vow? What is the point of the vow except that it involves vowing something dramatic and final? Why walk all the way to a church in order to say that you will retain a connection as long as you find it convenient? Why stand in front of an altar to announce that you will enjoy somebody’s society as long as you find it enjoyable? The writer talks of the reason for omitting some of the words, without realizing that it is an even better reason for omitting all the words. In fact, the proof that the vow is what I describe, and what Mr. Hocking apparently cannot even manage, a unique thing not to be confounded with a contract, can be found in the very form and terminology of the vow itself. It can be found in the very fact that the vow becomes verbally ridiculous when it is thus verbally amended. The daring dogmatic terms of the promise become ludicrous in face of the timidity and triviality, of the thing promised. To say “I swear to God, in the face of this congregation as I shall answer at the dreadful day of judgment, that Maria and I will be friends until we quarrel” is a thing of which the very diction implies the derision. It is like saying, “In the name of the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, I think I prefer Turkish to Egyptian cigarettes,” or “Crying aloud on the everlasting mercy, I confess I have grave doubts about whether sardines are good for me.” Obviously nobody would ever have invented such a ceremony, or invented any ceremony, to celebrate such a promise. Men would merely have done what they liked, as millions of healthy men have done, without any ceremony at all.
Divorce and re-marriage are simply a heavy and hypocritical masquerade for free love and no marriage; and I have far more respect for the revolutionists who from the first have described their free love as free. But of the marriage service obviously refers to a totally different order of ideas; the rather unfashionable [stuff?] that may be called heroic ideas. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the fatigued fatalist of this school and period to understand these ideas; and I only ask here that they should understand their own ideas. Every one of their own arguments leads direct to promiscuity; and leaves no kind of use or meaning in marriage of any kind. But the idea of the vow is perhaps a little too bold and bracing for them at present, and is too strong for their heads, like sea air.
It has a more modern translation (eg “you” instead of “thee”) and a bunch of verses aren’t my favorite versions of the text, but it’s beautiful and unlike most of what you find has 8 verses instead of 3, and isn’t a choral performance where you can’t really make out the words. In other words: not perfect, but very good.
I was recently in a conversation discussing how people treat each other, and it came up that the big problem, these days, is that there is substantial disagreement as to what a human being even is. Ideally, the first question that a person should ask after “how should I treat this thing” is “what is it?” A person should treat a human being, a dog, and a cell phone differently because they are different things. So what, then, is a human being.
The Christian answer, from which one kind of answer about how to treat people follows, is that human beings are contingent beings created out of love by God so that he can give us more, and he put us in the same time and space so that we could take part in the act of creating each other (every time one gives food or knowledge or whatever to another, that is added to his being, and so one is becoming part of God’s act of creating him). Hence we should love other human beings, i.e. will their good for their sake.
The atheistic answer to “what is a human being?” is very different. The more accurate but less common answer is, “A joke with no punchline that no one has told.” or “A pointless illusion that no one is seeing.” More common, however, is to go with the creation myth of evolution (as distinct from the scientific theory of evolution, which doesn’t get enough attention): DNA wants to reproduce itself as much as possible and so it created us to do it. All that we call pleasure and happiness are just carrots that our blind and stupid master dangles in front of our faces to try to get us to do its idiot bidding. He were designed badly and will fall apart into nothing after a while. Fortunately for us, our master is blind, and we can sometimes trick him into giving us the carrots when we only pretend to pull his cart. Contraception is probably the best example of this; we can get the pleasure of reproduction without having to pay the price of reproducing.
So how should one treat human beings, if that’s what they are, and what happiness consists of? Being a human being oneself, obviously everyone else will either be a fool (in which case they are easy pickings) or will be trying to trick one into giving them pleasure without paying for it. So look out for the fools and try to trick them, while at the same time do your best to avoid being tricked by the people more clever than you.
I recently ran into an article on a study which compared the “Green Mediterranean Diet” with the Mediterranean diet and a “healthy diet”. The article begins
The green Mediterranean diet was pitted against the Mediterranean diet and a healthy diet in a large-scale clinical interventional trial- the DIRECT PLUS. Subsequent analysis found that the green Med diet reduced visceral fat by 14%, the Med diet by 7% and the healthy diet by 4.5%.
A bit later, we find out what the heck they mean by “green Mediterranean diet”:
The DIRECT-PLUS trial research team was the first to introduce the concept of the green-Mediterranean diet. This modified MED diet is further enriched with dietary polyphenols and lower in red/processed meat than the traditional healthy MED diet. On top of a daily intake of walnuts (28 grams), the participants consumed 3-4 cups of green tea/day and 100 grams (frozen cubes) of duckweed green shake/day.
The first thing that jumps to mind is that the Mediterranean diet is popular among diet researchers because it is very low in red meat. How much lower could one make it? It is not plausible that a tiny amount of red meat causes enormous deleterious health effects since there’s obviously no corresponding dose-response to higher doses (people who eat a pound of red meat a day don’t die off at 15).
However that goes, worse is that this modification introduces three additional foods. This is the very opposite of controlling variables. Granted, the scientists in question probably think of it only as “introducing polyphenols”, but there’s a lot more in the foods they introduce than just polyphenols. Even worse, in terms of controlling variables, is that they are almost certainly not increasing the calories of the people on the diet, so they’re also going to be removing something or some things, introducing even more variables. You can tell that this is the case from the quote that they have from one of the professors who conducted the study (emphasis mine):
A healthy lifestyle is a strong basis for any weight loss program. We learned from the results of our experiment that the quality of food is no less important than the number of calories consumed and the goal today is to understand the mechanisms of various nutrients, for example, positive ones such as the polyphenols, and negative ones such as empty carbohydrates and processed red meat, on the pace of fat cell differentiation and their aggregation in the viscera
This strongly suggests that specific kinds of foods were removed from the diet at the same time that the polyphenols were added. That is really lousy variable control.
To be fair, it is possible to test many variables at once as a preliminary study to further, actually controlled studies, except that this isn’t a great way to do that unless you’re looking for something like an acute poison. If you design a study where on the one hand you test increasing protein intake and smoking cigarettes, and on the other hand reducing dietary trans-fats and moderate cocaine usage, who knows which group you’ll end up following up with, but either way you’re going to miss out on some important stuff.
Yet another variable in these kinds of studies is that they’re almost never free-feeding studies. By “free-feeding, I mean, “eat however much seems appropriate to you, of whatever food you’re hungry for/seems appropriate to you, whenever you’re hungry.” That is, free feeding is what normal people do. The number of people who actually weigh out all of their meals and eat according to some macro nutrient plan, every day of their lives, is approximately the number of bodybuilders there are. So we have yet another variable going on, which is that people who are watching their macro nutrient intake eat differently than people who don’t.
The reporting on this is also extremely lacking. For example, the summary at the top indicated a reduction in “red/processed meat”, while the professor who did the study referred to “processed red meat”. These are not the same things, and the top one is a much larger category. It includes fresh red meat and processed chicken, while the latter includes nothing that the former doesn’t too.
There’s also no mention of the limitations of the type of study performed. It’s an intervention study on 294 people (no indication if that was the starting or ending number) over 18 months. There’s no way that they had the money to keep the test subjects in a laboratory or hospital for all 18 months and strictly control all food given to them—not to mention, who would be willing to spend 18 months of their life under these conditions—so this had to have been an at-home study with self-reporting of compliance. Compliance rates for those are usually pretty bad, especially after the first month or two, and actual compliance as opposed to self-reported compliance is especially bad.
I’ve seen it argued that how difficult a diet (or other intervention) is to comply with is important, and this is certainly true. However, one of the things that affects compliance is the participant’s belief that compliance will reliably achieve something. Someone who wants to build muscle is far more likely to comply with a regimen of weight lifting because he is certain that if he complies, he will get the results he wants. An experimental method of muscle gain, where no one has any idea if it works, is far more psychologically difficult to comply with. Suppose one were to test out building muscle through twenty minutes a day of staring into the mirror and visualizing oneself with more muscle. Compliance with that will get difficult after the first day or two because there’s no obvious reason to keep going. (The flip side of this is that studies where one keeps participants in a lab and feeds them 100% of the food that they eat have phenomenal compliance, though higher drop-out rates, but they’re so expensive that in general they can only be run for 4-8 weeks and there’s very little of significance that one can find out in that short a span of time.)
The funding section is interesting, too:
This work was funded by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – Project number 209933838- SFB 1052; the Rosetrees trust (grant A2623); Israel Ministry of Health grant 87472511; Israel Ministry of Science and Technology grant 3-13604; and the California Walnuts Commission.
None of the funding providers was involved in any stage of the design, conduct, or analysis of the study and they had no access to the study results before publication.
The California Walnuts Commission being one of the funders will, of course, sound alarms in the heads of the cynical or the conspiratorially minded. And, to be sure, the disclaimer that the funders of the study didn’t get to design it (etc) is no guarantee that the funders had no influence, because of course this isn’t the last study that the researchers are going to do and they will need funding again. By that same token, though, people who didn’t give a dime to this study may still have influenced the study by the researchers hoping to get funding from them next time. There is, as yet, no disclosure of funders who the researchers hope to get funding from in the future. All that said, it’s quite possible that the funding from the California Walnut Growers wasn’t that significant; they might well throw money at anyone who is trying to prove that walnuts are good for one’s health without overmuch worrying about the results of any one study. If you do fund enough studies looking into the health benefits of your product you’ll eventually get the favorable results you want by random chance, if nothing else, and this way your hands will be clean. It might even be cheaper, as it may potentially cost more to get someone with a decent reputation to falsify their results on purpose. But everyone makes mistakes.
You must be logged in to post a comment.