Chemical Composition, or, Substance and Accidents

The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation means that in the Eucharist, when the priest speaks Christ’s words of consecration (“this is my body”, “this is my blood”) over the bread and wine on the alter, the power of Christ is invoked, by the authority he gave to his apostles and they delegated to their successors and they delegated to the priests whom they consecrate, and it changes the bread and wine on the alter to become the body and blood of Christ. (This is sometimes called the “real presence.”) Much difficulty arises over exactly what is meant because the bread doesn’t turn into muscle tissue and the wine doesn’t develop red blood cells.

The Eastern Orthodox basically just say “it’s a mystery” and leave it at that. (I liked the styling I saw someplace, “eeeet’sss aaaaa myyyysssterrrryyyyy”.) The Catholic Church says that it’s a mystery, but it gives a few helpful details. You can actually see this in the word “transubstantiation.”

“Transubstantiation” is derived from two words: “trans” and “substance”. “Trans” meaning “change” and “substance” being that part of being which is not the accidents. Accidents, in this case, not meaning “something unintended” but rather the properties a thing has which, if they were changed or removed, would not make the thing something else. A chair might be made out of wood, but if you made it out of plastic it would still be a chair. The ability to hold up someone sitting is the substance of a chair, the material it is made out of is an accident (again, not in the colloquial sense of accident but in a technical sense). You can also do the reverse. You can take the wood a chair is made out of and rearrange it into a collection of splintery spikes protruding up. It has the same accidents (the wood), but the substance has changed. “Transubstantiation” just means that the accidents (the gluten, starch, etc. in the bread and the water, sugar, alcohol, etc. in the wine) remain the same but the substance—what it is—is what has changed.

Or, to put this more simply: in the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ has the same chemical composition as bread and wine. Something to consider, when trying to understand this, is that a living human being has exactly the same chemical composition as a human corpse.

Cabin Assignments

My progress on The Corpse in Crystal Lake has been slow, but at least I’m up to chapter 4. Then I suddenly realized that, while I have a guest list of the people staying at Crystal Lake, and I have a map, I haven’t actually put the two things together and assigned people to cabins. Argh.

It matters, too. Which cabin someone is in will influence what they see, who they’re likely to run into on their way someplace else, etc. It will even tend to influence the order in which the brothers talk to them. So, officially, argh. The amount of background work required for murder mysteries can be really frustrating sometimes.

Oh, and I need to figure out if I have to put the assignments on the map somehow. I do have the cabins numbered, so maybe I don’t have to. That would certainly be more convenient.

Playing pretend as a grownup sure is a lot of work.

If Real Socialism Has Never Been Tried

One sometimes hears the claim that real socialism has never been tried. The many things that have claimed to be socialism—German National Socialism (Nazism), Italian Fascism, Soviet Communism, Chinese Communism, East German Communism, North Korean Communism, Vietnamese Communism, etc. etc. etc.—were not socialism, they were authoritarianism. I’m not, here, interested in debating the point, though I can’t help but note that defining socialism to be, roughly, “a system where people voluntarily share things rather than selling them” makes it not a political system but just a free market with impressively effective preachers of the gospel and extraordinarily receptive listeners to it (since it would be pretty much exactly how the early christian community operated in the pagan world, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, before the church expanded much outside of Jerusalem).

No, what I propose to do in this post is to just grant the proposition that no one has actually tried real socialism and see what follows from it. If we grant this premise, we come to some pretty strange conclusions. Well, perhaps not so strange.

The first question we must ask ourselves, if no one has ever tried real socialism, is: why did all of the people who set out to try real socialism fail to try it?

This is a very important question. We have had many people in many places throughout the last 100 or so years who have tried to set up socialism. People like Vladimir Lenin, Adoplh Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung and Hồ Chí Minh, were not joking. They thought that capitalism was evil and that the government and the economy should exist to benefit the people, not a rich minority or the well-born or an elite of any kind. There are plenty of others who thought the same thing, too. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg formed the Communist Party of Germany, which merged with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (itself a merger of other, earlier parties) to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which was the ruling communist party of East Germany. They weren’t kidding. Hugo Chavez formed the Movimiento V República, which went on to join with other socialist parties to become the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. He wasn’t kidding. Does anyone think that Fidel Castro was joking?

By hypothesis, all of these people—and others—failed to try real socialism. They tried to try real socialism but just couldn’t succeed enough to actually give it a try. So what is so difficult about trying socialism that, so far in human history, every single one of the many people who have tried to try it have all failed? And they didn’t just fail a little bit, either. They have generally produced the worst hell-holes that the world has ever seen. Some of that is, undoubtedly, owing to the more advanced state of technology in the world when all of these people tried to try socialism and failed to try it. Still, they didn’t try to try socialism and end up trying multi-party democracies with thriving free-market economies. A bit like trying to catch a bullet someone shot at you with your teeth or riding a unicycle over a rope stretched across the grand canyon, failure has a pretty high cost.

So we must ask the person suggesting that we give real socialism a try because it’s never been tried before—how does he know that he’ll actually be able to try it, unlike all of the other people who have tried to try it and plunged their nations into misery when they accidentally tried something else instead? Has the world simply been waiting around for someone as great as this kindly intentioned person, that finally the human race has produced the pinnacle of evolution, with all of the multitude of powers required to actually try real socialism?

Now, supposing that the answer is yes, a further question arises—and I don’t mean how can we find out if this lovely soul is correct that they can do what so many others failed to without giving them the power necessary to try to try real socialism—supposing this wonderful fellow is right and has that rare combination of qualities necessary to try real socialsm, what happens if trying real socialism doesn’t work? The human race has finally produced a member great enough to succeed at trying real socialism—what if he really tries it, but fails to achieve it? I can really try to throw a three-point shot in basketball, but most of the time this very real attempt fails to succeed in actually putting the ball in the net. What if really trying socialism and failing is even worse than trying to try real socialism and failing to try it?

Let us, however, assume that this greatest human being ever is sufficiently great not only to try real socialism, but even to succeed at real socialism. What if real socialism is awful? Remember that, by hypothesis, real socialism is completely untested. What happens to the millions of souls who would live under the result if it turns out that, say, real socialism is even worse in practice than fake socialism, or whatever you get when you try to try real socialism but fail? No one’s ever tried real socialism, so how on earth do we know what will happen if that attempt were to actually take place?

Another curious problem is introduced by the fact that it requires the pinnacle of human evolution to succeed in trying to try real socialism—in order for this attempt at an attempt to work, we’re going to have to put this most magnificent achievement of our species in charge. If they shared responsibility with anyone, they, being inferior, would drag them down, and then how would we possible succeed at trying to try real socialism? I suppose that the magnificent one could be so great that even as one among a large group of his inferiors he would lift them up to the heights required to succeed at trying to try real socialism. That seems like asking a lot of evolution, though. We so far haven’t produced one human who can bring about real socialism and all of a sudden we have one that can turn a group of people who can’t try real socialism into a group that can? How could that much incomparable magnificence possibly be achieved in just one generation?

There is a further problem, though, even if we just assume for some reason that real socialism, if attempted, will be good instead of even worse than fake socialism—and I, for one, would much rather drink fake poison than real poison—and that this pinnacle of evolution is so magnificent he doesn’t need to be a dictator but can, by his magnificence, make an entire parliament of people who cannot, on their own, succeed even at trying to try real socialism not only succeed at trying to try real socialism but actually achieve real socialism, too. If we assume all this, what happens when this pinnacle of evolution comes to die? It happens to all of the descendants of men, after all. How are we to replace the greatest human being the world has ever produced? And if we can’t, what will happen to this real socialism now that it is run by people who, left to themselves as they now are, could not succeed even in trying to try it? Are we to suppose that this thing which is so difficult that no one has hitherto succeeded even in trying to try it will go along merrily when run by ordinary people who, in the whole course of history, have never gotten anything right until now?

And, if so—if we are to suppose that real socialism is so difficult to get going that no one has yet succeeded in trying to try it but so easy to keep going that anyone can do it—can I interest the person claiming this in buying a bridge? It’s a real nice bridge. Very popular. Tons of people drive over it. I hate to part with it.

He doesn’t even need to keep the tolls for himself. He can use the money he’ll get from it in order to fund his local socialist party.

What YouTube Subscriber Numbers Actually Mean

I recently made a video called Why I Keep Going Even Though My Channel is Small. I’ve run into a few people who objected to the description because I have almost 3,000 subscribers. There’s a sense in which this is true, and I actually address that in the video. The video was answering a question that someone asked me about why people with small channels like mine keep going. I started with describing the proper perspective and moved on to the point is to give to others knowledge and understanding that I’ve been given and there’s a division of labor here: it’s my job to make the videos and tell people about them as best I can, and God’s job to figure out who should actually see them and arrange the world such that they do. However many or few people that is God knows, not me.

That said, the number of subscribers to a channel like mine that’s been around for years can be misleading. You might think that this is the number of people who want to watch my videos, but it’s actually the number of people who, at some point over the last several years, thought for at least a moment that they would like to see more videos like the one that they just saw. Thus if you look at the view counts for my recent several months of videos, you can see what I mean:

The view numbers tend to range from 100 to 300 views. In round numbers, that’s around 4%-10% of the number of subscribers. But this is not telling the full story, because the view numbers are of people who watched the video at all, not of people who watched the whole thing. Here’s the audience retention graph for the video on why I keep going even though my channel is small:

I can get specific numbers by highlighting the graph with my mouse, which is why there are no y-ticks. Giving approximate numbers, only 75% of the audience is still there by about 15 seconds in. The audience is down to 50% about about 1:35 in. After that the audience leaves more slowly and 22% watch to the end. So of the 2969 subscribers my channel had at the time of this writing, only 1.8% actually watched the video in its entirety. But wait, there’s more!

Viewership of a video is not entirely from subscribers. Here’s the numbers on where traffic came from:

“YouTube recommendations” is a bit ambiguous, since YouTube often recommends videos from channels one is subscribed to, but that’s not going to be all of the recommendations. So we know that at least 37% of views came from subscribers, but adding it together it looks like maybe 70% did. So that 1.8% of subscribers who watched the video may be more like 1.3%.

Here, by the way, is a list of the videos that my video was recommended after, that people actually clicked through for (or autoplayed from):

Of those, 3 are my own videos, though one of those has no view time on the video it referred to (I’m not sure why the ones with 0 impressions are on this list). Frankly, I don’t think this list tells one anything, but it does, at least, give a sense of how little control one has as there’s nothing actionable here. I don’t know whether YouTube is more likely to recommend videos from channels one subscribes to, but just looking at the recommendations it gives me, it doesn’t seem big on that. (On the other hand, channels that one found from recommendations are more likely to have other videos show up in recommendations, I think because many of its videos seem recommendable for roughly the same reasons. Which, if true, makes subscriptions that much less important.)

There’s also the weird problem that subscribing to a channel doesn’t actually get you notified about all of the videos from the channel, which is contrary to what most people expect. Instead, one has to “ring the bell” i.e. click the bell icon next to the subscribe button and set the notification preferences to “all”. This goes some of the way to explaining why so (relatively) few subscribers actually watch a channel’s videos.

Please bear in mind that none of this is meant as a complaint. As I said in my video, it would be worth it to make a video for 1 person if I couldn’t just talk to him in person and it’s God’s job to figure out how successful I should be. That my videos reach dozens of people who watch to the end and often a hundred or more who watch halfway is a bonus. My only purpose to this post is to illustrate how misleading the numbers YouTube presents to the public can be if you don’t understand them. Like most things in life, the reality is not as impressive as the surface glitz, but reality is what it is and, taken properly, being realistic should not be discouraging. In a sense, that’s what the video about why I keep going with a small channel is all about.


If you haven’t seen it and are interested:

The “Fake” Moon Landing

I was about to write a blog post about the symbolic interpretation of the conspiracy theory on the moon landings being faked when I remembered that I already wrote it. Sigh. It’s even a pretty good post. You probably should read it instead of this post. Or perhaps read it then read this post.

That said, the one thing that I have to add is that I suspect that most everyone into the “fake moon landings” conspiracy theory is probably a fan of science fiction, as they are the people who would feel most betrayed by us never going back to the moon. Science fiction, especially in its heyday, was largely bound up with the idea of the progress of technology. This was by no means its only theme and it often has just been “fantasy in spandex,” but it arose during the era when technology was constantly changing the world and people could not predict how the world would be but it was fun to guess. For various reasons, some of them historical contingency, science fiction—and especially hopeful, non-dystopian science fiction—been about space travel. We would, in the words of the Star Trek opening narration, “explore strange new worlds… seek out new life and new civilizations… boldly go where no man has gone before!”

With the Apollo missions culminating in landing a man on the moon, it looked, to science fiction fans, like the future they’d read so much about was finally here. We went to the moon! We explored a strange new world! Granted, there was no life and no civilization on it, but we had boldly gone where no man has gone before!

Then we stopped.

It turned out that the future they’d read so much about was not here. It was still in the future.

So, in a sense, the moon landing was a hoax. It may not have actually been filmed on a sound stage, but it has no more practical significance to the life of someone who dreamed about serving on a star ship than all of the TV shows filmed on sound stages. That is, to these people, it might as well have been filmed on a sound stage for all the good it did them. It was, to the science fiction fan, just one more dream that will never come true (for them).

I suspect that this state of affairs has gotten even more galling as time has progressed. Fifty years later our technology has advanced significantly and yet here we still are, no more able to be captain of a star ship than people were fifty years ago. That glorious and shining future of exploring strange new worlds is no closer, which means that it’s fifty years further away than it was (that is, seemed) back when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. His most famous words, “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” were wrong. It wasn’t even a step for mankind. Mankind gingerly tested the ground, then pulled its foot back and stayed put.


Addendum: I think that when companies like SpaceX end up making moon missions again because they’ve brought the price down far enough that it’s worth it as something other than a flex on the Russians, this conspiracy theory will probably die out because its symbolic value will go away. So hey, it’s a falsifiable prediction!

Vegetarian Propaganda Is Impressively Dishonest

I recently came across a video about the Impossible burger and the Beyond burger. As so often happens with vegetarian propaganda it starts out with reasonable things that are probably true before it gets into really weird, obviously dishonest things.

The documentary begins with looking at how the burgers are made. I really liked the one with the presentation of only 6 bowls of ingredients, and one of them is water! Of course, one of them is potato protein, one of them is soybean protein, one of them is plant-based heme, and one of them is cellulose-based binder. Just for fun, here’s how Wikipedia describes how plant-based heme is made:

Impossible Foods, producers of plant-based meat substitute, use an accelerated heme synthesis process involving soybean root leghemoglobin and yeast, adding the resulting heme to items such as meatless (vegan) Impossible burger patties. The DNA for leghemoglobin production was extracted from the soybean root nodules and expressed in yeast cells to overproduce heme for use in the meatless burgers.[30] This process claims to create a meaty flavor in the resulting products.

So natural!

In terms of the reasonable things that are probably true, I believe that the fake-meat burgers do actually taste and feel like ground beef, once cooked. That’s impressive, but I’ve heard it from enough sources that it seems plausible. They are massively engineered foods and modern engineering methods can accomplish a lot, especially when it comes to color, texture, and taste.

The video does, of course, then go downhill rapidly when it gets to why on earth you would want to eat such a thing. (Note: if one is vegetarian for religious reasons, including some monastic traditions for a vegetarian diet as a penitential exercise, this is unrelated to the video and my criticisms of that video.)

They start with some mention of how this is healthier for you, as for example it has no cholesterol in it. This doesn’t actually make the food healthier as it turns out that (1) cholesterol isn’t bad for you and (2) dietary cholesterol has, outside of rare exceptions, no effect on serum cholesterol. (There are various kinds of lipoproteins found in the blood which use cholesterol as one component in them, so for historical reasons blood panels which measure lipoprotein content of the blood are sometimes called “cholesterol” though they in fact are not.) The idea that cholesterol is bad for you is junk science from 70 years ago.

Later on, when they get to impact on the planet, it goes downhill rapidly. For example, they claim that it’s inefficient to feed plants to animals then eat the animals because we could just eat the plants. If we fed cows avocados, coconuts, peanuts, beans, etc. this would be true. We don’t. Better meat comes from cows raised on fields where they eat grass, worse meat comes from cows fed grain not fit for human consumption. (There’s often a hybrid where cows are raised on grasslands then “grain finished” because grains promote more intramuscular fat making the meat more tender.) Human beings can’t live on grass. As an acquaintance of mine who was a vet student put it: a cow is an extremely efficient way to turn grass into food.

Later on, they do a comparison of water usage. They present twenty hamburger patties and say that the equivalent water can produce far more loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter. None of this is cited, of course, so they could just be making it up. Moreover, water consumption is, within reason, unimportant in much of the country. It’s a weird metric to use when it’s very important in New Mexico and meaningless in New York.

Worse, though, it’s very little beyond red flags. They include:

  1. No one except those on low-carb diets eat just burger patties, and peanut butter sandwiches are not low-carb so not comparable. Presumably, if they included buns, lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc. the comparison would not be nearly so favorable.
  2. They don’t specify whether the water for 20 burgers is for the entire cow or just that fraction of the cow that the burgers would come from. Also no mention of leather, bone meal, etc. that you also get from the cow.
  3. Why on earth are they talking about peanut butter sandwiches rather than the fake meat burgers that the video is actually about? This shift in what they’re comparing to without extensive justification suggests they’re trying to pull something over on us. If I tell you that walking is better than driving then compare a diesel truck to riding a bicycle, you know something is up.
  4. If they can shift from a fake burger to peanut butter sandwiches, why not switch to chicken instead of burger patties? Chickens grow much faster than cows and almost certainly need far less water.
  5. Almost no one eats peanut butter sandwiches. Far more common is a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. The numbers for that wouldn’t be nearly as good, however, and also have more sugar and less protein. That they went for the unrealistic option that gives better numbers is a bad sign.
  6. If water consumption is so important, wild fish uses even less (fresh) water than peanuts do. Why isn’t the conclusion, “therefore ditch plants and land-animals and eat mainly wild-caught fish”?

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising how often vegetarian propaganda is dishonest. The vegetarian’s fundamental problem is that human beings are not herbivores, we merely can get by on a herbivorous diet (with enough supplementation). None of this is important if one is vegetarian for religious reasons, of course, especially if those reasons are penitential. It’s just trying to sell an impractical idea as being more practical that isn’t compatible with honesty.

The Benefit of a Food Door in the Snake Enclosure

In this (short) video I show what happens when I open the front door and stick my hand in without using a snake hook. (Spoiler: nothing. He’s mildly interested in me. He knows that food never comes from the front door, only from the food door in the side, so he’s only mildly curious what I’m up to this time, since he recognizes me and I’m not exactly a novelty anymore.)

Murder, She Spoke

The final episode of the third season of Murder, She Wrote is titled Murder, She Spoke and for some odd reason is one of the episodes that stands out in my memory most from when I saw it as a kid (explaining why will involve spoilers, so I’m leaving that to later in this discussion of the episode).

The episode opens with a band recording a country song.

They sing for a bit about a fellow named Lucky who has a silver dollar in his pocket but doesn’t have a woman to his name. As a side note, having a silver dollar in his pocket is pretty unusual for any recent historical time. The last silver dollar coins that were in general circulation were minted in 1935.

The singer’s name is Stony Carmichael, and he’s played by Charlie Daniels, perhaps most famous for his song The Devil Went Down to Georgia. If you’ve never heard it, here’s Charlie and his band playing it in a concert:

I’ve no idea how they got Charlie Daniels to do this but he’s great in the part and it explains why Stony’s band sounds so good. Anyway, we then discover why we’re here. In another booth in the studio, Jessica is recording an audio book version of one of her books.

The body was discovered by Edie Babbage on November 2nd, at 3:30 in the afternoon. She knew it was 3:30 because she was late returning from her marketing. She checked her watch in the elevator, bothered the dinner wouldn’t be ready. Nothing fancy, just her husband’s favorite stuffed cabbage. But it took at least four hours. She was equally certain about the location of the body—the man’s throat had been slit and he was making a dreadful mess all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor. It had not been Edie’s day…

The sound engineer interrupts and asks her to take two steps back because her voice is too authoritative. She does, but then can’t read the manuscript. The woman who seems to be directing her from within the recording studio, where her breathing and every moment would be caught on the microphone, moves the stand for her and calls that “emergency procedure number 483.” The sound engineer says that they’re ready to roll, but she says that she wants to give someone another minute, he should have been here by now. I’ve no idea why it was OK to roll before, but not now, or why they didn’t figure out where Jessica was supposed to stand before recording.

The scene moves back to Stony, who just finishes up. The sound engineer says that it’s pure gold, but Stony says that Al would say that the partridge family was platinum if it would get them out of the recording studio. This, by the way, is Al:

Stony wants him to play the recording back. Al is reluctant, but Stony insists and Al acquiesces. We then go back to the studio with Jessica, where the woman has finally given up on the man coming and tells the sound engineer to start recording, then instructs Jessica to forget that there’s a microphone in front of her. Just then the man she was waiting for walks in. He introduces himself as Greg Dalton. He’s the producer of the audio book.

He doesn’t wear sunglasses indoors because he’s cool, though. It turns out he’s blind. We find this out by him bumping into the music stand that Jessica’s manuscript is on. Somebody, he concludes, must have moved the stand. The camera pans over to show his cane. He doesn’t need it in places that he’s familiar with, except when people move things on him. They kind of got this wrong because he went to where Jessica was now, rather than where she would have been had the music stand not been moved. And it would have been a bit weird for him to try to walk between where the music stand had been and Jessica, standing (what he thought was) several feet behind it. It would have made more sense to walk around it.

The woman turns out to be Greg’s wife, by the way. There’s then a weird joke where he reaches out to take his wife’s hand and she takes his, then he kisses the music stand as if he didn’t have her hand in his. He then makes a joke about it. I’m not sure why, but they’re really doing a bad job with setting up the blind jokes. (These are actually a setup for character development later, they’re not here to make fun of him for being blind. It would probably be more accurate to call them blindness-related mistakes.)

We then get a few more characters introduced.

The guy in the white jacket walked in from an outside door and just ran into the woman in denim. Her name is Cheryl and she seems to be the executive assistant to the head of the studio, which seems to be him. She relays several messages he missed while he was at dinner.

We then get a bit of character development on the young woman with the band. She turns out to be Stony’s niece. She tells him to stop treating her like a kid, but replies, “Honey, you are a kid.” He then tells her that the first rule of being a musician is to take care of your band and orders her to go get them some sodas.

Stony walks into the sound engineering room where the head of the studio stopped in to listen. He shows them a bootleg cassette tape which he found at a “swap meet” for $20. They’re even using the official cover.

Granted, covers aren’t always complicated, but this cover is just some words on white over a picture of Stony (from what I can only assume is a long time ago). That’s actually about the quality I would expect of a bootleg-original cassette cover. The only thing even slightly difficult about it in 1987 would be the lettering. I’m so used to doing that sort of thing on a computer that I’m not even sure how one would have done it back then. Other than that, it could easily be made on the photocopy machine at the library by having two strips of paper with the words on them over the photo of Stony.

The studio head says that he told Stony that there was a risk in pushing back the release date, and that he’s equally mad about them since it’s money out of his pocket, too. Stony replies that he talked to a fancy uptown lawyer who said that if he can prove that the bootleg cassettes are coming out of the studio, it will nullify his contract with them. The studio head says that he’s Stony’s friend and if Stony wants out of the contract, all he has to do is say so. Stony points out that according to the contract he signed if he does that he’ll be liable for all expenses the studio incurred, plus fifty percent of any future contract he comes up with. The studio head replies that no one held a gun to Stony’s head to sign the contract when he found him “in that dive in Waco”. Stony replies maybe not, but somebody got him mighty drunk. “I guess I’ll even be billed for the liquor, too, huh?”

It’s pretty well established that these two are not on good terms. Odds are pretty good that one of them will be a corpse before the episode is over.

The studio head then asks Al what he knows about it and Al replies that the place used to be very loose before security was beefed up—anybody could have come in and dubbed the masters. Something not said is how all of this happened while the album is still being recorded. Even lax security won’t let people dub master tapes that weren’t recorded yet.

The studio head then notices a monitor of a different room in which Jessica is recording and remarks that no one would mistake her for a rhythm and blues girl. “That’s the last book for the bleeding blind you’re gonna catch outa here.”

In the next scene the studio head is in the recording studio telling Jessica, “Thanks for being here, Mrs. Fletcher. This is such an important series.” He then ignores Jessica’s reply as he talks to the sound engineer.

Greg then gives them the news that this is the last of the Mystery Books For the Blind series that will be recorded in this studio. That was why the studio head had taken him out to dinner—to tell him.

Both his wife and Jessica are aghast. Jessica says, “but can’t you take the series to another company?” He replies, “That’ll be tough. This isn’t exactly a money-making proposition. I can’t say I blame him.”

At this point we can be pretty confident that it’s the studio head who’s going to end up dead, given how many people have been established to have motives to hate him. This one is a bit weird, though. By 1987, audio books were being regularly made. The Sony Walkman—which helped in no small part to create demand for audiobooks because of the many places they could now be played such as when going for walks, commuting to and from work, etc.—had been released in 1979. Eight years later, there was a real and growing market for audio books. Moreover, mysteries are popular and Jessica’s mysteries, which were best sellers, would almost certainly have been financially worthwhile to any company to do. This feels like someone had taken a plot for a different show, written about ten years before, and just recycled it to Murder, She Wrote. It’s the plot we’ve got, though, so we’re going to have to run with it.

As they discuss what to do, Jessica notices the studio head having an argument with the sound engineer. (“Perhaps this isn’t the best time to approach Mr. Witworth.”) The studio head, whose name turns out to be Randy Witworth, then goes back to his office. It turns out his wife is waiting for him there:

Her name is Margaret Witworth, and if you’re wondering about the apparent age disparity, she’s rich. That said, the actors are only six years apart. Constance Towers, who played Margret, was born in 1933 while Patrick Wayne (second son of the legendary John Wayne) was born in 1939. This would have made them fifty-four and forty-eight, respectively. It’s atypical, but not a huge gap at their ages. They were recently married, by the way.

She expresses some jealousy over how late his secretary works and he assures her that she has nothing to worry about. She drops her purse while they kiss and he picks it up for her (odds are good that something will have fallen out of her purse that will be a clue, later). He tells her to go home and start one of her special bubble baths and he’ll join her at 10 O’Clock. He’s got a business appointment with a “Carl” in a few minutes.

We next go to Jessica continuing her reading.

But what really bothered Mrs. Babage was, the body was dressed in her only fromal gown…

They then laugh over the typo and Greg excuses himself to go get a drink. I really don’t get why both and he his wife are in the recording studio with Jessica. The only things they can add are unwanted noises. That’s why there’s a room that can see in and talk over microphones to the sound room, but normally is isolated from it, where the sound engineer sits.

We move over to the other recording studio, with Stony, and Al places a call to Randy. Then we cut to outside where the businessman that Randy is waiting for arrives.

If audio books not being profitable was an anachronism, that car is a straight-up antique. Lord Peter Wimsey might have owned it at one point.

The lights on the recording studio go off just as he’s walking up to the door. The scene cuts to complete blackness and we hear Al complaining to Randy that this is the third time this month and that he and “Carl” have to get some people in who know what they’re doing. Randy replies that the electricians were just in. Curiously, during this conversation, Al doesn’t let Randy interrupt him and just keeps on talking.

Various people talk to each other. Greg’s wife tells Jessica that this has happened before and she knows her way around so she’s going to go look for the circuit breaker. The businessman who came up walks in and asks what happened to the lights. Then the lights come back up.

Al, on the phone, asks Randy if he’s OK, and Randy replies that he’s hurt. Somebody…

Sally Ann starts screaming, and the camera moves over to her. It pans out as the Texan businessman comes in and holds her to comfort her and Al is just getting to the room.

Randy, it turns out, has been stabbed to death. Actually, that’s not quite right, since he isn’t dead yet. He’s able to say “help me,” “stabbed me,” and “somebody stabbed me. in the dark.” He’s rushed off in an ambulance. He doesn’t make it, though, so it’s close enough.

The police arrive, including Lieutenant Farady, played by G.W. Bailey. He had, only three short years before, played Lieutenant Harris in the slapstick comedy, Police Academy.

Bailey played a straight man in Police Academy, and seems to play a different sort of straight-man here. In Police Academy he was a rigid disciplinarian. Here is is a rigid misogynist. That’s not quite the right word; he doesn’t hate women, he merely regards them as children. He has a Kinder, Küche, Kirche attitude, except without any respect for these things. Why he was written this way, I have no idea. I imagine that it’s supposed to be funny, except it isn’t.

In the old vaudeville days they said if you have a funny man you have a bit, if you have a straight man, you have an act. There is some truth to this because the funny man does much better when he has a straight man to play off of. Humor is related to contrasts and the straight man sets up a stream of contrasts for the funny man to play off of. What somebody seemed to have missed in this episode is that the act does, in fact, also require the funny man. If all you have is the straight man, you don’t even have a bit.

This strange shtick comes up in every scene that the Lieutenant is in but it serves no identifiable purpose. It’s not funny, it doesn’t advance the plot, it doesn’t hinder Jessica—it doesn’t do anything but annoy the viewer. It continues throughout the rest of the episode, but I’m going to ignore it from here on out.

Jessica points out to the Lieutenant that if someone had been in the office with Randy when he was stabbed that person could easily have left and no one would have seen since it was dark. While true, this is of dubious relevance because Randy probably would have mentioned the person with him if there had been anyone. It’s also just unlikely that someone would be with Randy, with a knife at the ready, and just luck out that a blackout happened right then.

The Lieutenant is in Randy’s office speculating with his deputy when Jessica brings Greg in. He was taking a pill at the water fountain—he has a circulation problem in his leg—when he heard someone run past him and something drop. The Lt. asks if this was when the lights were out and Greg says that he doesn’t know, since he’s blind.

Jessica sees something on the floor.

The Lt. says that the cleaning lady will get that in the morning, and he noticed it too. It’s a splash of paint. How there was supposed to be a splash of wet paint on the carpet in the middle of an office in which no painting is going on, he doesn’t explain. Apparently he didn’t notice the bottle of nail polish that’s pretty obvious. Jessica asks to borrow his pocket handkerchief and use it to pick the bottle up, then screw the lid on, though I can’t imagine that any fingerprints survived the vigorous wiping she gave the bottle while she screwed the lid on. Before moving on, I really would like to know how on earth the nail polish was supposed to splash like that then bounce 8″ over without leaving any nail polish, then lay on its side not dripping at all.

The Lieutenant suggests that Jessica take the bottle of nail polish home with her as a souvenir. At this point I’m going to refer to him as Lt. Idiot, and also reference my previous statements about how a straight man without a funny man isn’t even a bit.

Jessica identifies the nail polish as “Moné Mauve,” an extremely expensive brand of nail polish. It’s still wet, which means that it must have been dropped very recently. So recently that I really doubt that it would be still damp, given the time it took for the police to come and begin their investigation. It really should have stank to high heaven, though, given how man VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) nail polish gives off while it dries. Oddly, no one comments on that.

Jessica recommends that Lt. Idiot find out who it belongs too but he seems reluctant to follow up on clues. A phone call comes in on the phone in Randy’s office, which Lt. Idiot picks up. Randy Witworth was dead on arrival at the hospital, making this a murder investigation. How on earth the hospital had Randy’s office phone number or why on earth they called it is not explained.

Shortly afterwards, they find the murder weapon behind a soda machine.

Jessica says that it must be what Greg heard drop. Jessica notices that Greg’s wife recognizes it.

It was the sharp intake of breath that Alerted Jessica.

The scene moves to the next day, where Greg and Jessica are taking a morning run. Jessica tells Greg, as they run, that she admires how he doesn’t let anything stop him. They get home and Greg’s wife is making breakfast. Greg does basically everything himself, barely letting her do anything. Then he gets a call from Carl, who I believe was the Texan businessman, who cancels Mystery Books for the Blind. “Does he have the power to do that?” Jessica asks. “Guess he must have,” Greg replies. I’m not so sure, Jessica says. So they visit Carl at his house.

In the conversation, it comes up that the Stony Carmichael tape that Jessica saw on Randy’s desk was a bootleg. Jessica pursues the subject of ownership of the company, because the previous night she saw a sizable cashier’s check attached to a contract transferring Carl’s ownership to Randy. Carl replies that a lot has changed since last night.

When they get back from this meeting, Lt. Idiot is waiting at Greg’s house. Lt. Idiot has a warrant to search the house. It turns out that they had a barbeque at their house a few days ago and most everyone from the studio attended. Jessica goes to help Greg’s wife with the coffee, and finds her reaching into the dryer.

Jessica chides her that Lt. Idiot isn’t stupid and will look in the dryer, too. Given that he told Jessica to take a bottle of nail polish from the crime scene home as a souvenir, I find this highly doubtful. Anyway, Nancy (Greg’s wife) had hid their knives in the dryer because one is missing—the murder weapon. Jessica tells Nancy that she can’t withhold evidence, and the knife may clear Greg.

In the next scene they’re standing in the living room and Jessica is exasperatedly telling Lt. Idiot that anyone could have stolen the knife at the barbecue, as the prints were wiped off the murder weapon. Lt. Idiot replies that Greg was standing next to the master switch when the lights went off. Apparently they put the master switch to the electricity in the building not in a locked service closet on an exterior wall where the electrical service comes in, like it normally is in commercial buildings, but on the wall next to a drinking fountain in the hallway.

Lt. Idiot’s main case is that the person most capable of operating in a blackout is a blind man, hence Greg must be guilty. He does have a motive, though. Randy said that he was cancelling books for the blind and Greg got angry. He said that Randy owed him.

Greg then elaborates. “A man owes something to somebody he blinds in a car accident. But not his life. A job, maybe. But not his life.”

This eloquence falls on deaf ears, as the next scene is in the police station with Greg under arrest. For some reason Jessica is interrogating Greg and no police are present.

She asks Greg if he can identify anything about the person who ran past him. Greg replies that sometimes he can tell the difference between a man or a woman, but not when they’re wearing soft-soled shoes. Jessica asks if he can say anything about it, such as “but did they sound heavy or light, did they move fast, were they young?” Given that they were running, I’d say he already answered the question of whether they were moving fast.

Nancy tartly tells Jessica that he’s not an eyewitness, he’s blind. When Greg objects, Nancy yells at him that he’s not superman and can’t do everything by himself, and it will never be the same as it was before the accident. Greg objects that he’s happy, with a good life, and she asks why he has to be so damn happy.

Basically, she complains that he’s dealing with his problems like a man, by dealing with them directly, and not like a woman, by talking about them with other women (note: generalization with exceptions). She also complains that he doesn’t confide in her anymore. This is the character development I said that the earlier issues with him stumbling into things were leading towards. I didn’t like this sub-plot, but it was intentional and worked for its intention.

After Jessica finished interrogating Greg, she and Nancy left and Jessica asked her about the previous power outages. Nancy asks if she thinks that they were related and Jessica says that if she were going to pull a murder in total darkness and frame a blind man, she’d want a few dress rehearsals under her belt.

Jessica then goes back in to talk to Lt. Idiot.

He’s checking out a “night scope” on his hunting rifle. “This night scope is great! The deer don’t even see you coming.”

Aside from this being obviously related to the plot, night vision scopes, before the advent of digital ones, did not work during the day. In fact for many of them it would damage them to be used during the day with bright light going into them.

Lt. Idiot then gets a call from someone or other and he has the last piece of evidence he needs—the blood on the knife matches the victims. As if a knife covered in fresh blood could have been dropped behind the vending machine from some other stabbing and be unrelated to this case! Anyway, now that the blood type matches (they weren’t doing DNA ID in 1987), the case against Greg is complete, so Lt. Idiot orders the studio unsealed. Jessica goes to the studio just as the police are removing the tape from it.

Jessica walks in and we get a shot of the main power switch:

Actually, this is the second shot of it. We got another shot of it ealier, for a moment, when people were running past Greg:

You can see the sign saying “DO NOT TOUCH! THIS MEANS YOU!” on it better in the shot with Greg in it.

It’s really convenient that they have a master switch for the electricity for the entire building here, where if you’re doing electrical work you’ll be plunged into complete darkness and then have to grope your way over to wherever they have the switch breaker panel, since installing new electrical lines or changing out switch breakers is the only reason to shut off the power to the entire building, rather than to shut off just one circuit. I wonder why they didn’t go whole hog and have it be an old time two-pole knife switch.

As Jessica examines this weird plot device attached to the wall, Stony and his neice arrive, as does Al on his motorcycle, not wearing a helmet.

As he goes into his office Jessica walks up to him. He asks if there’s anything she can do for him and she says says. As he comes in and puts his leather jacket next to his motorcycle helmet on the coat rack…

…Al says that Greg used to invite them over for barbecues, so he can’t believe Greg did it. He then excuses himself because he has a ton of work to do.

Jessica mosies on over to the other sound engineer’s recording booth, where she asks him some questions. The most important of which is whether it’s possible to tell the difference between a power outage due to electrical failure and one due to the master switch being thrown. The recording engineer says that they look the same, but he knows that it wasn’t the master switch because during other blackouts he checked the master switch and it was in the on position. The lights just come back on when they want to. The electricians can’t figure it out and it always happens during a recording session. Jessica asks if it’s during a recording session of mystery books for the blind, and he says, “come to think of it, during Stony Carmichael’s sessions too, as I recall”.

Jessica then asks the engineer about his fight with Randy. Randy accused him of selling the bootleg Stony tapes and he took exception to that. But he never saw anyone mad like Stony was about them. If Stony wasn’t in the recording studio at the time Randy was stabbed…

Jessica then goes out and runs into Sally Ann trying to work a vending machine. Under cover of helping her with the vending machine, she asks Sally Ann where she was in the blackout and is surprised that Sally Ann said she waited until the lights went on to leave because Sally Ann was the first to discover Randy. Sally Ann takes offense at this clumsy attempt to pump her for information because it looked like she was being accused of murdering Randy. Why Jessica sometimes does these clumsy interviews when she’s capable of tact, I don’t know. Perhaps Sally Ann’s angry reaction is meant to make us suspect her?

Jessica goes into Randy’s office and looks around. Margret Witworth (the widow) walks into the office with Carl. He leaves to get Jessica’s tape from the sound engineer. Jessica notices Margaret’s nail polish. When Margaret claims she last saw her husband in the morning, Jessica calls her on it. That goes nowhere, she just does and the scene ends. The end is coming so we need some suspicion to be sprinkled around, I guess.

After Carl escorts Jessica out to a Taxi, Stony accosts him and tells him to stay away from his neice.

Apparently she came to him to help her with her singing career. “Yeah, she came onto Randy too and I straightened him out just I’m going to straighten you out right now. What you got in mind for my neice sure ain’t no singing career. She’s got a tin ear and a voice like a screech owl which means that she’s only good for one thing.”

As a side note, Charlie Daniels turns in a good performance here. I’m surprised he didn’t do more acting than this (at least, I didn’t see on IMDB that he did any other fiction work).

This scene ends with Carl looking embarrassed as Jessica stops peeping and gives the taxi driver directions.

The next scene is that night at Greg and Nancy’s house. Jessica says that something has been bothering her, which is that how did the person who ran past Greg run in the dark? Greg replies, “maybe he had a flashlight?” Nancy says that she didn’t see one, but I don’t know that she would have.

Greg then plays the tape of Jessica, which he is eager to do because all he can think of is trying to salvage the mystery-books-for-the-blind program with some other company. That he needs this tape that has Jessica reading a few paragraphs—when it is made clear by earlier dialog that they have already produced completed audio books—makes no sense. It’s a ploy to have the tape playing, but it would have been just as natural to play the tape for fun. This is the part of the book Jessica was reading on the tape. It seems to have come right after what he had heard before:

…only ten minutes before Lt. Garfield arrived. Garfield took in the scene quickly. It wasn’t a pretty picture but he’d seen worse. He noted the swarthy man with the hideous bloody grin cut into his throat, noted the gown he was wearing, and dryly observed that he appeared to be wearing a size 12. It seemed bizarre that he was wearing a dress belonging to the lady of the house, but as Garfield said, we’re lucky at least the corpse wasn’t wearing makeup. Even more bizarre was the fact that there were no bloodstains on the dress.

During this reading Lt. Idiot calls on the phone to talk to Jessica. He hears the tape playing and asks what all this is about the corpse wearing makeup. Jessica replies that it wasn’t her, well, it was, but not her on the phone…

Jessica then realizes who did it and how it was done. As I’ve mentioned before, Jessica having to be given an idea by someone accidentally, which allows her to solve the mystery, is primarily there not because it makes for a good story but because it gives the audience time to process the clues and make a guess as to who did it. This isn’t necessary in a book, though you sometimes see it there just to distance the final clue from the realization that it’s the final clue and thus not draw excessive attention to it. In broadcast television, though, one cannot set the episode down for a minute to think about the story so far so the writers have to consciously give the audience time.

Lt. Idiot doesn’t see this look on Jessica’s face, though, so he proceeds to tell her what he called to tell her: he really wishes that she hadn’t accused Margret Witworth, because Mrs. Witworth has been talking his head off for the last hour about it. All rich people have the privilege of talking the heads of police detectives off, it seems, even though there’s no indication that this is a small town or that Mrs. Witworth is rich enough to get everyone on the city council elected and thus be owed favors. American rich people are basically just the English aristocracy from the early 1900s, I guess.

Jessica tells the chief to never mind Margret Witworth, she didn’t do it. Jessica knows who did it, and how, but she doesn’t know how to prove it. (This means that an elaborate stunt is going to be required to make the killer confess.) Greg shouts, “Who did it? Who?” and Jessica wheels around. I suspect that this was the out to a commercial break. The next scene is at the recording studio as the members of a rock band pack up their van. (Their band name appears to be Larry & The Lashers.)

We then cut to inside the recording studio where Al and the other sound engineer are talking. Al thanks him for the help and suggests that he go home for the night. The other sound engineer thinks that’s a good idea and leaves. Al then takes a screwdriver out of his pocket, turns toward his sound board, and the lights go out.

The door to the recording room—in desperate need of oiling—loudly creeks. Al asks who’s there. It’s Greg. He asks Al why he wanted to frame him (that is, to frame Greg). “You knew I could move around in the dark, Al. And I can. I’m getting closer.” Al then shouts at him that he’s crazy and to stay away, then hits a switch on the bottom of his sound board, which turns the lights back on.

Apparently Al has a switch on the bottom of his sound board which can turn on the lights to the building even if it wasn’t the switch used to turn them off. I’ll get to this more in a bit, but I guess when he installed the switch it was a 3-way switch with whatever switch Jessica & friends used to turn the lights off. That was very forward thinking of Al, assuming that he wanted to get caught.

Al then looks up and sees an unwelcome sight.

Somehow all four of these people, none of whom were familiar with the room and only one of whom was blind, managed to walk in and surround Al without bumping into anything. At this point they proved that anyone could have pulled off Randy’s murder, but no one remarks on this.

Al says, “What do you know, the lights came back on.” Jessica replies, “No, Al, you switched them on. Just as you switched them on the night you killed Randy Witworth.” When Al says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lt. Idiot reaches down to a different place on the sound board than Al had used and flicks the lights off, then flicks them back on again.

You can very clearly see that Randy used his right hand, to the right of his leg, to hit the switch. Lt. Idiot is equally clearly reaching to the left of Randy’s left leg. I really should check the credits to see if there was a continuity person… I just checked. No, there was no continuity person in the credits. That might explain a lot.

Anyway, Jessica tells Al that she realized he had to have rigged a way to turn the studio power on and off and he wouldn’t have had time to dismantle it with the studio being sealed and then recording sessions all day from the backlog. Al replies, “Just because I have a master switch here doesn’t prove anything. How could I see in the dark?”

Not exactly the greatest comeback of all time.

Lt. Idiot replies, “With this! We figure.” and picks up Al’s motorcycle helmet. Jessica points out that he didn’t wear it into work that morning but when she went into his office it was already there, which means that it had to have been left in the studio since the night of the murder. That seems odd. Was it because he figured he would be searched and in being searched the police would discover that the motorcycle helmet has an infrared visor?

They go over some other details, then we get a shot of infrared motorcyle helmet vision:

Curiously, this is why this episode stuck with me all those years. Here’s another shot of infrared motorcycle helmet vision:

I’m going to include one more shot of infrafred motorcycle helmet vision because it shows a few major problems with the plot, taken together with the previous one:

That door on the left is the door to recording studio A, which is Al’s studio and where he returns in a moment. You can’t see her clearly in this picture because of motion blur, but standing perhaps 8 feet away from the door to Studio A is Nancy, Greg’s wife. In other words, in order for Al’s brilliant plan to work, he had to somehow open the door to the studio, slip in, and close the door, all with neither Greg nor Nancy hearing the door move. The plausibility of this is… low.

And then we come to infrared motorcycle helmet vision.

While it is true that there is such a thing as night vision which can use illumination from an infrared light source to see in the dark, it’s a system of optics that tends to give a narrow field of view, it’s not a thin sheet of plastic with a wide field of view. It also requires an infrared flashlight to do that illumination. They’re also horribly blinded by daylight, so Al would have had to have brought a regular visor for his motorcycle helmet if he was going to wear the thing into work while driving anyway. In the 1980s infrared scopes were analog and those processes tended to make the night vision tinted green, not red. What they’ve actually done—and this is related to why it stuck in my head, so bear with me—is to just put a red filter on top of the camera and shoot in regular light. Probably the easiest way to tell is that things do not reflect infrared light the same way they reflect visible light. They do to a surprising degree; white things tend to reflect infrared well and black not nearly so well, so black letters on a white background is often readable. Where you really see the difference is in colors. Some blues and greens reflect infrared well and look white under infrared. The greens of plants, in particular reflect fairly well. Under a red filter, greens and blues tend to look black—like in the images above—rather than white, as in real infrared vision.

All of this went together to make me think that Al just had a red-tinted visor. I must have misheard “infrared visor” as “red visor”, which was then confirmed by the shots of what Al saw which were, clearly, just using an ordinary red filter. I puzzled over this at the time because it doesn’t make sense that removing light helps you to see in the dark, but I recall that I chalked it up to not quite understanding it. I may have even tried turning off the lights and looking through red cellophane, and been disappointed. I vaguely recall that I did.

All this while, it turns out that the episode just got it wrong. A motorcyle helmet could be tinted red, but it can’t give you infrared night vision. Infrared night vision doesn’t look like daylight filtered through red plastic. Oh, and you’re not going to have a simple toggle switch to the master power for the building hidden in a sound board.

The more direct way of doing this would be to run the main power lines to the building through Al’s sound board, but they’re probably about 2″ thick and he’d have no way of running them over or of hiding them in a sound board. Only slightly more plausible, then, would be for the switch in Al’s sound board to run over thin wires that remotely control a battery-powered switch that interrupts the electrical feed to the building. He’d still have to run these wires from the bottom of his sound board over to the ceiling and through the ceiling over to someplace he has access to the electric feed to the building. Oh, and he’d have to shut off the power to the building while he was installing this switch. All without anyone noticing what he was doing.

I suppose he could have stayed late, past when everyone else went home, then waited out the cleaning staff, then in the wee hours of the morning shut off the building’s power and installed a remote-operated cutoff switch. A cutoff switch that the electricians who had been called in to diagnose the blackouts missed.

So it turns out that several decades of me wondering how it’s possible to use a thin piece of red plastic to see in the dark is just the writer of this episode having no idea how technology works and the film crew being lazy.

Back to the episode, Al says that Jessica is crazy, that anyone could have rigged up the board, and that his lawyer will make sushi out of them. Lt. Idiot tells Jessica not to feel bad, he’ll find a way to make Al confess. Jessica points out that since they searched Al the night of the murder, and didn’t find a cassette tape on him—why would anyone have taken note if they did find a cassette tape on him?—it must still be there, in the recording studio. Unless Al wasn’t an idiot and erased the tape or recorded over it while he was there all day, of course. Probably not a big worry in this episode.

The next day Jessica is packing her bags into a taxi at Greg and Nancy’s house when Lt. Idiot drives up. He got Al to confess—he was the bootlegger. Jessica asks if he found the tape, then, and Lt. Idiot replies, “after 10 hours”. I guess Al was an idiot, after all. Lt. Idiot sees her into her taxi, and thanks her for her help in wrapping up the case. His final words are, “as long as I live, I will never again underestimate the power of women’s intuition. Jessica laughs and we go to credits.

It’s interesting how often Murder, She Wrote ends on Jessica laughing. This is something I forgot to comment on in my analysis of Mourning Among the Wisterias. Probably three out of four episodes end with Jessica laughing, about one out of four on a more somber note. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why some end on a somber note—it may just be timing as much as anything else. Part of the ending-on-laughing is probably just that it’s a good note to end on. As it says in the old song, always leave them laughing when you say goodbye.

I think it does have a greater artistic significance than this, though. As I’ve described in my post Detectives as Christ Figures in Mystery Stories, the detective story is a suspension of normal. With the crime the world has been broken by the misuse of reason and the detective, through the right use of reason, steps in and fixes it. During the investigation the detective takes on many attitudes and passes as many different characters. When the investigation is over, laughter serves to indicate that things are back to normal. It’s not the only way for a mystery to end, of course, that serves this purpose. It’s merely a very succinct way to achieve the purpose.

So, watching this episode again, thirty four years later, I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that one of the most (to me) memorable episodes was not one of the best. It had its charms, of course. Charlie Daniels was great as Stony Carmichael, though it’s a pity that he and Jessica never got to interact. The title was great. Really, that’s about it, though.

The plot was a mess. It depended entirely on technology which was completely misunderstood at every level. This isn’t like the murder weapon in Unnatural Death being an empty syringe whereas in reality it would have to be an extremely large empty syringe. At no point was the size of the syringe of any great consequence to the plot. How the killer would have gotten a syringe of sufficient size might pose some difficulties, but not insuperable difficulties. In the worst case they had bicycle pumps and needles hooked up to tubing in the 1920s. Dorothy L. Sayers got the details wrong, but not in a way that mattered much to the plot.

By contrast, night vision equipment and how it could be concealed and detected was central to the plot of Murder, She Spoke. Had Al been given a realistic night vision scope, if he didn’t hide it like a moron Jessica would have had no reason to suspect he had it at all, and that’s what led her to him. There was no realistic way for Al to have switched off the electricity to the building from his sound board. Without that, he could not have carried his plan out. There was no way for him to get into and out of his office without making any sound and his plan required a blind man—someone they go out of their way to point out has extra keen hearing—only a half dozen paces from the door. Moreover, his plan involved running past that blind man and into his own office and following a trail of sound is easier than locating an isolated noise.

The other major problem I have with the plotting of this episode is that the solution to the central problem is just the obvious technology for it. How could anyone see in the dark? It can be an intriguing question, but not if the answer is, “by using the technology specifically designed to do that.” It would be like having the reveal to, “how did the killer manage to reach such a high place?” be, “he used a ladder to climb up to it.” Or “how did the killer manage to separate the paper into two pieces so cleanly?” be “he used scissors.” It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that the killer did the thing in the obvious way when there was no misdirection away from the obvious way. Al’s plan only came close to working because Lt. Idiot didn’t bother searching the recording studio for clues.

I’m not saying anything about the weird sub-plot of Mystery Books for the Blind being unprofitable making no sense in 1987 because, though they spend a bunch of time on it, it really has no effect on the plot. It sort-of gives Greg a motive for killing Randy, but since Randy was established to be responsible for Greg’s blindness and bum leg, it’s superfluous. (Frankly, it’s actually slightly a problem because it’s pretty ridiculous to suppose that Greg had brought a steak knife from his house to dinner just in case Randy should cancel the mystery books for the blind program that night.)

Oh, and the motive for the murder doesn’t make any sense, either. Al made bootleg tapes of Stony Carmichael’s comeback album, which Randy didn’t know, so he murdered Randy and framed Greg. He had been rehearsing the murder for weeks prior to Stony discovering the bootleg tapes in a “swap meet”. Worse, Randy had no evidence that Al was behind the bootlegging and didn’t even suspect him. In fact, he suspected the other sound engineer, not Al. Moreover, killing Randy didn’t solve any problem for Al. Stony still knew about the bootleg tapes and was still boiling mad about them. Whoever inherited the studio would still try to investigate to find out who was responsible for the bootleg tapes.

Killing Randy didn’t even get rid of any evidence. The way to track the bootlegger down would be by asking the person selling the tape at the swap-meet where he got it from and tracing this back. As far as I can see, killing Randy would have achieved exactly nothing for Al. He might as well have killed the other recording engineer or even the janitor. At least, then, he could have planted evidence on their corpses that they were the bootlegger. As it was, Al had precisely no motive.

I’ve got nothing more to say about the episode as a mystery, but I want to take a moment to put together all of the text of Jessica’s book as we heard it:

The body was discovered by Edie Babbage on November 2nd, at 3:30 in the afternoon. She knew it was 3:30 because she was late returning from her marketing. She checked her watch in the elevator, bothered the dinner wouldn’t be ready. Nothing fancy, just her husband’s favorite stuffed cabbage, but it took at least four hours. She was equally certain about the location of the body—the man’s throat had been slit and he was making a dreadful mess all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor. It had not been Edie’s day… But what really bothered Mrs. Babage was, the body was dressed in her only fromal gown… only ten minutes before Lt. Garfield arrived. Garfield took in the scene quickly. It wasn’t a pretty picture but he’d seen worse. He noted the swarthy man with the hideous bloody grin cut into his throat, noted the gown he was wearing, and dryly observed that he appeared to be wearing a size 12. It seemed bizarre that he was wearing a dress belonging to the lady of the house, but as Garfield said, we’re lucky at least the corpse wasn’t wearing makeup. Even more bizarre was the fact that there were no bloodstains on the dress.

I suspect that snippets like these are as much jokes as anything, but it is curious to see what J.B. Fletcher’s best sellers are supposed to be like. I do find it curious that they don’t give Jessica a detective that appears in more than one of her novels. Ariadne Oliver had Sven Hjerson and Harriet Vane had Robert Templeton. I suppose that the less continuity they had the easier it was to farm scripts out to non-staff writers. It’s a pity, though. It would have been fun for people to ask her what her fictional detective would do in various circumstances.

There Will Be Math, or, Choices Have Implications

Over at her blog, Mary wrote an interesting post (which I’m quoting with permission):

Typing innocently along and abruptly realizing: there will be math.

Given that our heroine is a member of a class of five students — admittedly, the girls’ class, and a specialized course of study, and I can make make it a small one, but not astoundingly so — how large is the town they are in?

If this much of the population does the work that this course trains them for, and they are half of one year, the percentage should be feasible to work out. Though I might consider having more than one school in the town. And I still have to work out how many do it. (Not enough to make it easy!)

And then I have to break it down because the town also is divided in several populations, which I have already shown as rather large. Or perhaps they were supplemented by visitors? Still, a non-trivial number must live in the town. . . .

I’ve run into similar things, especially in writing mysteries. What may seem like a simple choice has all sorts of implications to it which you need to think out in order to avoid plot holes. I also hit this sort of thing all the time when I was designing the space ship for A Stitch in Space.

Part of what caught my eye about Mary’s post is that typically when people say “there will not be math” they mean “this won’t be hard” which is partly about math being exacting and partly about math generally being taught badly. I have a background in Math—I got a master’s degree in mathematics for fun—so I tend to think of “there will be math” differently than most do, but in this case I think that the symbolism is actually quite helpful.

The case that Mary is considering involves math because the relationships involved are well defined. A child has two parents. That simple fact imposes a great many restrictions on a storyteller. The moment you have a character you have two parents and (unless they’re very inbred) four grandparents and eight great-grandparents. The novel writer can kill or otherwise get rid of as many of these off as he pleases, of course, but on some level the mere presence of a single character obliges him to do something with this much larger cast. Even in Young Adult fiction where the parents are nowhere to be seen, achieving that limits the possible settings. You can’t set a ten year old and an eleven year old as neighbors in London each owning his own house. You can’t have two eight-year-olds with adjoining estates in the country. You can do either, of course, if you permit the parents to be present, even if you get them out of the way by being very busy. Within society, somebody must be in loco parentis. (You can, of course, come up with nearly anything you want if the children are the last survivors of a doomed ship on a desert island. But then, you are stuck with the ship and the island.)

Mary’s example shows these restrictions on the author even further. If there are parents and this isn’t Little House on the Prairie, there will probably be a butcher and a baker and possibly even a candlestick maker. Somebody will do the carpentry and somebody will have to sell the carpenter the lumber to do it with. People will have to have some way to earn money in order to pay for whatever they can’t pick up locally, too.

Of course, to do this properly one would have to be God. The best a human author can do is some believable approximations. That said, I find it very helpful to figure this stuff out ahead of time. Having thought it through, at least once, tends to make one’s later decisions much easier to reconcile with one’s earlier decisions, which cuts down quite considerably on plot holes.

The other thing—which I’ve learned the hard way—is that after you do this sort of planning, write it down. I can say from experience it’s really annoying to have to reread your earlier books to find out how tall a character is, or in what year he joined your order of consulting detectives, or such-like. Because Mary is quite right. If you’re not writing stand-alone short stories, there will be math ahead. The only open question is whether you’re going to take the trouble to do the math (as Mary is), or whether you’re going to get it wrong by making up the answers as you go.

A lot of people go the make-it-up-as-you-go route, but this isn’t being fair to your readers, since it amounts to asking them to forget what you wrote in previous books. Forgetting a book is the opposite of deriving benefit from it. If you’re going to do that, why ask them to read it in the first place?

We’ll all make mistakes, of course. One of the unfortunate things about being a fallen creature is that we will all hurt those we love—I assume all writers love their readers, otherwise, why write at all?—and must act anyway because curling up into a ball and softly weeping for four score and ten years won’t do anyone any good at all. My point in all this is merely that it’s good to be aware of the crosses that you’re going to have to take up before you get to them. When they’re not a surprise, you can settle them on your shoulder better to distribute the weight. They’re still crosses, of course, but this way you have a better chance of carrying them the distance.

The Big Chill

Because of an odd set of coincidences, I’ve discovered that there exists a movie called The Big Chill. Released in 1983, it stars Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, and Glenn Close. (I think that Tom Beringer might be equally famous but I just don’t know him.) In the words of Wikipedia, “the plot focuses on a group of baby boomers who attended the University of Michigan, reuniting after 15 years when their friend Alex commits suicide.”

The plot summary on Wikipedia is long but contains very little but angst, fornication, and adultery during several days while the old friends stay at the house of two of them for the funeral and a little after it. Without recapitulating the sordid details, this review by Richard Corliss in Time will suffice to get at why I find interesting the existence of this film that I never want to watch and you shouldn’t either:

These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin’. For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the ’60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs, and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B. The armies of the night marched to Washington, but they boogied to Liverpool and Motown. Now, in 1983, Harold & Sarah & Sam & Karen & Michael & Meg & Nick–classmates all from the University of Michigan at the end of our last interesting decade–have come to the funeral of a friend who has slashed his wrists. Alex was a charismatic prodigy of science and friendship and progressive hell raising who opted out of academe to try social work, then manual labor, then suicide. He is presented as a victim of terminal decompression from the orbital flight of his college years: a worst-case scenario his friends must ponder, probing themselves for symptoms of the disease.

I suppose what I find interesting is that the problem is immediately obvious but completely unacknowledged: these people have to purpose in life. Without a purpose one thing is as good as the next and suicide no worse an option than living. It takes exceedingly little thinking to recognize this and if it’s too hard on one’s own there’s always Nietzsche available for a few dollars at the local bookstore (back then, when there were local bookstores).

Yet, despite the problem they’re grappling with being exceedingly simple and the sort of thing any thirteen year old should be able to figure out in half an afternoon—the world is not enough—it’s presented as some sort of inexplicable mystery and they’re deep for confronting minor aspects of it.

Given that this movie seems to have been completely forgotten, I’m probably making too much of it. Still, in the early 1980s enough people watched it that it made $56M on an $8M budget. Not earth shattering but it tapped into something.

Also curious is that it reminds me a bit of The Breakfast Club (which came out in 1985). That movie was about teenagers. In some sense, I get the feeling that The Big Chill was, too. Hippies from the 1960s (a subset of baby boomers, it must be remembered) never really grew up. If you look at the people who used to be hippies, many of them still haven’t. (This is a whole topic unto itself, but I think it actually says far more about how “the greatest generation” raised the relevant baby boomers than it says about those baby boomers.)

PSA: Fixing Slow Low-Flow Toilets

We’d been having issues with our toilet for a while that it would not flush properly. The symptom which indicated the problem was that it would fill the bowl very slowly, at which point maybe it would flush, maybe it wouldn’t. It turns out that the problem was not that the drain was clogged but that the siphon jet had become clogged with mineral deposits. For this to make sense, we have to quickly describe how a toilet works (which is interesting, especially considering how old and barely-modified-since-then the design is).

To help with this, I’ve made a crude diagram of the important parts of a toilet (note: nothing is to scale):

The goal of a toilet is to use water to move everything in the bowl into the drain pipe that leads to the sewer system (in a modern toilet, with as little water as possible). Any sort of basic hose arrangement can do this, but for various reasons it is preferable to have standing water in the toilet bowl when not actively flushing. This introduces the problem of how do we pump the water out of the toilet bowl and into the drain pipe?

Obviously, a giant plunger that used enormous amounts of air pressure to force everything in would work, but it would be difficult and if one is not very careful, messy. There is another way to take advantage of air pressure to do this work for us, though: a siphon!

If you don’t remember, here’s a helpful illustration of a siphon from Wikipedia:

User:Tomia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

If you can get the tube to be filled completely with water, the pressure of the air will force all of the water in the higher container to go up through the tube and back down again, transferring the water into the lower container. The key to this siphon action is that the water falling down the tube has the effect of pulling water up the tube, and so the water flow is proportional to the distance between the height of the intake and the height of the output, with the height of the tube in the middle having negligible effect. For anyone who’s tried to use a siphon in practice, the trick is how you get the tube completely filled with liquid.

If you look at a toilet, you’ll notice that the output drain has a siphon shape. The tube goes up, higher than the normal water level in the bowl, and then down again. It is, in fact, a siphon, whose purpose is to pull all of the liquid out of the bowl and drain it into the sewer system. The tube is porcelain rather than rubber, but that doesn’t make a difference to the siphon action.

So, how do we get the siphon started, i.e. how do we fill the tube with water? You’ll notice that the top of the bowl is above the top of the siphon, so one way would be to just pour so much water into the bowl so quickly that the siphon tube can’t help but fill up. This works, but the downside is that it needs a very large amount of water to do it. This isn’t so helpful in places that don’t get much rain, but it’s also annoying in that it just takes a long time to transfer that large a volume of water, especially if done by gravity, and also means it would take a long time between flushes to refill the tank.

Enter the siphon jet. It’s an output port of water from the tank which is directly opposite to the intake port of the siphon. It’s far below the tank, so water pressure is at its highest, and it’s built so as to accelerate the water coming out of it. The result is that it shoves water up the siphon tube much faster that filling the bowl would, causing the siphon to form which then pulls the liquid out of the toilet bowl and into the sewer.

This is better in approximately every way since the toilet flushes faster, uses less water, and refills more quickly. The only problem is that it makes the siphon jet a point of failure. If mineral deposits build up on the siphon jet it can significantly reduce the speed of the water coming out of it. If the water coming out of the siphon jet is slow, it can’t shove the water up the siphon tube and the siphon doesn’t get formed. If the siphon doesn’t get formed, the contents of the toilet bowl will remain in the bowl.

The good news is that cleaning mineral deposits isn’t super difficult. Basically what you need is some sort of acid to bread down the mineral deposits. Common household vinegar is a weak acid but will work if you use enough of it, for long enough. Getting out as much water as possible from the bowl (a good start is to use a plunger to force as much of it up the siphon as possible, then you can use a dixie cup and a buck to remove most of the rest, and small amounts of water don’t matter) then pouring in enough vinegar to cover the siphon jet will do a lot toward removing mineral deposits.

This is as far as I’ve gotten and there’s been a significant improvement in my toilet that is having this problem. The mineral deposits are rather bad, though, so I’m planning to buy some hydrochloric acid (frequently sold as “muriatic acid”) at the hardware store to try. It’s a much stronger acid and also is sold in more concentrated forms, so it should remove the decade of mineral buildup much faster. At the current rate of improvement, I’d probably need a few gallons of vinegar per week to completely clear away the deposits that have built up.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the rim of the toilet also puts some water into the bowl so that all of the sides of the toilet get wet. It is important to make sure that these outlet ports (there are a lot of them) are unobstructed, but their primary purpose is to move everything in the bowl down towards the area in the bottom with the siphon jet so they’re not as critical to whether the toilet flushes.

I hope that this is useful and possibly interesting. Good luck with your toilets.

Update: I was asked if older, non-low-flow toilets also have siphon jets. My understanding is that yes, they do, but they were bigger and didn’t accelerate the water as much so they weren’t as subject to working badly because of mineral deposit buildup. It’s still worth keeping them cleaned off of mineral deposits, it’s just less critical. This is related to how Efficiency and Robustness Are Enemies.