Murder She Wrote: Deadpan

On the first day of May in the year of our Lord 1988, the episode Deadpan aired. It was the second to last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. (Last week’s episode was Showdown in Saskatchewan.)

We’re in New York for the opening of a play based on Jessica’s book. The play is called Mainely Murder, based on Jessica’s book Murder Comes to Maine.

We then meet our first character.

His name is Elliot Easterbrook and he’s a TV theater critic, and has an impressively negative tone. His first line is, “It has been said that the theater is a temple. If so, it is a temple which has often worshiped false gods. Only time and astute critical judgment will tell if Mainely Murder, which opens here tomorrow night, will honor the gods or, yet again, profane them.”

He goes on to interview some of the major cast members—the cast of the episode, not the cast of the play.

The first is Shayna, the producer of the play.

Elliot says that she has brought the theater such notable works as the musical biography of King Louis XVI titled Heads You Lose. He says it as if the play was terrible, but Shayna points out that it ran for 524 performances.

Jessica is also here. The Elliot remarks in his acid tones that Jessica looks just like one would picture a mystery writer from Maine to look.

Then we meet another character:

The young man is new to writing for the theater, but is the person who adapted Jessica’s book into a play. His name is Walter Knapf. Elliot asks how it was that Jessica, an experienced writer, allowed a neophyte to adapt her play. Jessica answers that Walter was a very talented student of hers. Being a protegé of Jessica’s makes it very likely that the police will suspect him for the murder that will happen this episode, if not outright arrest him for it, poor kid.

Elliot is confrontational, trying to pin Jessica down about predicting the play’s success. She says, “Isn’t it true that the only thing you can predict about the theater is that it is unpredictable?” Elliot replies, “Oh bravo, Mrs. Fletcher. You must have stayed up all night thinking that one up.” Jessica answers, “No, actually. Molière did it for me about 200 years ago.”

It’s a good zinger, but there are a few issues with it. Molière was, if you don’t know, a French playwrite and actor (I had to look it up to find out that he was also an actor). Googling, I can’t find that Molière ever said anything like this; quotes of this episode are the only things that turn up when you search for it. That’s not dispositive but what are the odds that no one has ever talked about this quote other than this episode of Murder, She Wrote? Especially since you can find pages of Molière quotes? Also, and this is a smaller thing, Molière lived from 1622 to 1673. At the time of this episode, the most recently Molière could have said this was 315 years ago. So Jessica’s zinger was made up and off by at least a century. Now the question is: was that intentional? Was Jessica meant to be better educated than Elliot and the writers used fake facts to portray that, or was she meant to be just to be a good actress who could pull off the authority to convince Elliot that he didn’t know a fake quote which he probably should have known? Both would work for their intended purpose, with the former just being a short-cut over real research to come up with a legitimate zinger. It would be interesting to know.

Anyway, the last part of this happens as we watch it on TV:

The camera pulls back to reveal two new characters. I’m going to get to them in a moment, but I find this very interesting. Why would the people who edit Elliot’s show leave this in? There’s no way that something as unimportant and likely to involve downtime that should be edited out as a pre-show interview would be broadcast live, so the presence of this exchange had to be a deliberate decision on the part of the editor. I don’t think that there’s really any way of defending it and it’s just a cute way of segwaying into introducing the new characters—a rival theater critic and his assistant. So, about them:

I find her tiny shoulder pads disappointing. I guess all the size went into her hair.

The theater critic—his name is Danny O’Mara—is the guy in the blue sweater vest. His assistant—Denise Quinlan—is the woman sitting in the chair. He writes a column in a newspaper (“The Chronicle”). Evidently he has a strong antipathy for Elliot. The scene began with him celebrating Jessica’s put-down (“Pow! Right in the kisser!”) and ended with him saying that everyone forgets what Elliot said by the time the woman is on to give the weather. The only reviews anyone remembers are Danny’s.

The scene shifts to a restaurant where Jessica, Walter, and someone we haven’t met before but whose name turns out to be Barney Mapost and whose job is publicist are having lunch. As they discuss how much Jessica doesn’t want to do more interviews Danny comes in and introduces himself. He professes himself to be an admirer of her work, by which he means her putting down of Elliot. When he hears that she will see a dress rehearsal of the play right after lunch, he suggests that—from what he’s heard—it would be advisable to make it a light lunch, his tone implying that the play is quite bad. He leaves, but his assistant reassures them that he’ll give them a fair shot. She then says she’ll see them tonight at the party. After she leaves, Jessica expresses surprise at inviting critics to the opening night party. Barny says that it’s Shayna’s idea, then says that they need to rush over to get to the dress rehearsal. I suppose it was a very light lunch indeed, since they never ordered.

Then we go to the dress rehearsal.

The scene of the play we come into has a farm set, and on it a witch casts a spell.

The still image doesn’t convey how much she was chewing the scenery.

Double
Trouble,
Spoil the bubble!
Make the haystack
Turn to
Rubble!

The lights flash, and a pyrotechnic special effect at the top of the haystack fails.

It seems that Danny O’Mara heard correctly.

There is some humorous dialog where various people ask Jessica what she thinks and she tries her best to be diplomatic.

Then we skip to opening night. Walter is nervous and Jessica tries to calm his nerves. Danny O’Mara finds his seat as an announcer says that the part of the woodsman, normally played by Tony Jasper, will be played by Craig Donner. I must confess that I’ve never actually been to a broadway play (once, in middle school, I attended a school trip to a dress rehearsal of a broadway play, but I don’t think that’s the same thing). That said, do they really announce cast substitutions?

Elliot arrives late and Shayna personally ushers him into the play. He remarks to her, “I hope you don’t think by inviting me to your postprandial party you’ll color my reaction to your little play.” Shayna graciously replies, “No, but missing the first scene might,” and opens the door into the theater for him.

I wonder if the misuse of “postprandial” is intentional. “Postprandial” means “after a meal,” and usually refers to something happening right after a meal since human beings eat several times per day and so everything a person does, except in a famine, is normally not many hours after some meal. The opening night party of a play is going to be right after the play, not right after a meal. If anything, it’s likely to have food served at it because it’s been a while since anyone has eaten. “Postprandial” is not the word to use to describe an after-play party.

This reminds me of a joke my oldest son told me recently: “I use big words I don’t understand in order to seem more photosynthesis.”

So, is Elliot Easterbrook the sort of man who would use ten dollar words he doesn’t know the meaning of in order to impress people, or did the writers of the episode just get it wrong? Or did they just not care? In television in the 1980s writers tended to rate accuracy below everything else—it would be easy to imagine them mis-using a word because they figured that 99% of the viewers wouldn’t know what the word meant and would assume it was used correctly. This is actually a bit frustrating as it would shed more light on the character to know the answer. On the other hand, he probably won’t be alive for much longer, so it may not matter much.

We skip to the intermission, where we follow Walter on his way to the bar and pass various people who are complaining about how bad their day was. Walter takes it as a bad sign that no one is talking about the play. Danny O’Mara then walks up to Elliot Easterbrook and tells him, “all you TV blowhards know about theater is makeup and hair.” They trade insults for a while until Elliot leaves. Walter tells Jessica that he needs many more drinks that he just had (he brought Jessica white wine and had ordered, for himself, a “double anything”). He leaves, telling her that he’ll see her at the party.

The scene then fades to the party.

There’s some small talk, then a broadcast of Elliot Easterbrook’s review of the play. I question how influential his reviews can be if they’re are broadcast close to midnight, but in any event I think it’s worth quoting the review in its entirety:

It is always difficult to review a mystery without giving away the plot. This unpalatable witch’s brew is such a muddle of clichés and troll dialogue that it is impossible to figure out the plot. Neophyte playwright Walter Knapf at least has the excuse of inexperience. As for the cast, Vivian Cassell brings her usual long-in-the-tooth charm to the lead. And Barbara Blair shines briefly as a witch. Tony Jasper as the woodsman is appropriately wooden. If you’re looking for a good thriller, walk right by the Woolcott Theater. The only mystery about this one, folks, is how it ever got to Broadway in the first place.

The scene fades to later on with Jessica putting her coat on to leave. Shayna asks her to stay until the early newspaper reviews are out but Jessica protests that it’s after 1am. They then notice that Elliot Easterbrook has accepted the invitation to join the party, which everyone finds surprising. Walter then staggers in, drunk, holding an early editing of the next day’s newspaper. He proclaims that the play will run forever: Danny O’Mara wrote them a glowing review.

Mainely Murder is mainly magnificent, the one must-see of the season. This is a real audience-pleaser, just the kind of show a certain low-caliber, high ego TV critic is sure to hate. You know who I’m talking about. That Live at Five guy who thinks he’s smarter than you. If he hates this show, maybe you should let his TV station know you’ve had enough of his condescending crap.

Jessica’s reaction while Walter reads this aloud is interesting:

This review is indeed quite surprising. It doesn’t square with what O’mara’s warning to Jessica, nor with common sense.

Anyway, Elliot Easterbrook expresses outrage at this review and declares that “someone has to silence this undereducated, ill-informed windbag… permanently.” He then storms off.

The police get a call reporting that shots were fired and dispatch units to the location of the call. Two uniformed officers break down a door, then see the corpse of Danny O’Mara lying on the floor with Elliot Easterbrook standing over the corpse holding a gun pointing at the corpse. They never show the whole thing in a single shot, but I think that the most interesting part is how the gun is being held:

Very poor trigger discipline. Never put your finger on the trigger of a gun unless you intend to shoot!

After the camera pans up to Elliot’s face, which registers minor confusion and surprise, we fade to black and go to commercial.

It turns out I was wrong about who was going to get murdered. It’s easy to imagine a lot of people wanting to kill Elliot. Who would want to kill Danny?

When we come back from commercial break, Danny’s assistant, accompanied by Jessica for some reason, show up at the scene of the crime. The detective for the case, Lieutenant Jarvis, is interviewing Elliot.

Elliot claims that he arrived only moments before the uniformed police officers and picked up the gun because he was worried that the assailant was still present. Jarvis isn’t buying it, so Jessica pulls him aside and points out that Mr. Easterbrook left the restaurant only moments before they did and they came straight here, so Elliot wouldn’t have had time to kill Danny. Further, if the shots were just fired, wouldn’t there be a smell of gunpowder and furthermore, why does Danny’s skin have a bluish tint?

Jarvis, who is at the end of a double-shift and exhausted, doesn’t have time to think about these things and directs that Elliot be arrested. As Elliot is being escorted to the police station, he rudely tells Mrs. Fletcher to mind her own business and to leave his defense to more capable hands.

The next scene is back at the theater, where Shayna and the director talk about how wonderful things are, largely thanks to Danny O’Mara’s positive review. There is also some discussion of a positive review by another critic. When Barny is asked if he’d read it, he replies that he wrote it. Writing columns for reviewers in their voice makes their lives so much easier they’re much more likely to give you positive coverage in exchange for saving them the time of doing the writing themselves. Not too much is made of this but it’s clearly foreshadowing of the only possible explanation for why Danny O’Mara wrote such a glowing review of such an awful play.

There’s also some discussion of Shayna wanting Walter to make more changes, and then he privately talks to Jessica to ask for help. She just wants to get back to Cabot Cove, but he reminds her of the theme in her book upon which this play is based—not walking away from injustice. So Jessica resolves to stay and figure out who killed Danny.

This scene is quite weird. I get that Jessica wants to get away from the play as soon as possible but this is the first time I can remember that she ever wanted to desert a place more than to solve a murder, even for a moment. Usually someone is trying to get her to leave and she’s refusing. It feels out of character.

The first stop in Jessica’s quest to satisfy justice is to go to the office at his newspaper. The scene at the newspaper opens with an interesting joke about the former theater critic that Danny replaced. He was a very gentlemanly reviewer and the best theater critic that the paper ever had, but after his stroke he couldn’t handle broadway anymore and so is reviewing television programs. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t often go in for self-referential humor, but this is certainly not the first time. In Steal Me A Story, a producer suggests to Jessica doing a show called The Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour, about the real-life exploits of a famous mystery author solving crimes. Jessica replies that she doesn’t write fist fights, bedroom scenes, or car chases, so who would watch it?

Like in that case, I think that this joke relates to the Murder, She Wrote theme of old things still being valuable. It’s a bit tangentially; the theater being so much more important than television isn’t going to be deeply relatable. Not many people born in the 1910s or 1920s (and hence be in their 60s and 70s in the 1980s) will have gone to shows on broadway, or even off-broadway. They might, as youngsters, have attended local plays before movies largely replaced them, but I doubt that they’d have remembered those as high art since they probably weren’t high art. People born in the 1930s and after almost certainly would not have gone to any meaningful number of plays.

The gentlemanliness of the former critic is also interesting. Supposing that he was seventy at the time of his stroke, and that this was five years ago, he’d have been born in 1913. The 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s were not a time people were gentlemanly—being modern was the big craze then. So his formative years would not have valued gentlemanliness. People might have tried to be gentlemanly in the 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps into the 1960s, so maybe he adopted it, but that was not a big thing in the 1970s. On balance, I’d guess that this aspect of him having been gentlemanly was pure wistfulness, without any direct reference in reality. That is, it was mere, abstract, “things were better back then”. (Of course, it can be simply explained as individual quirkiness, and need not be taken symbolicly.)

Anyway, Jessica pretends to be doing research for a new book, and pumps the editor for information. It turns out, though, that Danny didn’t come into the newspaper to write his column. He wrote from home. There’s an interesting bit where Jessica asks if it was picked up by courier, and the editor laughs and says that they’re all using computers, these days. O’Mara wrote it on his home computer and send it in via modem. The computers time stamp everything, so he can say that the review came in at 11:15pm.

Jessica next goes to visit Denise at Danny’s apartment. It’s a little odd that she should be cleaning up his effects at his apartment rather than a family member doing that, but it saves on time and casting, and Murder, She Wrote generally fits a ton into a fairly short time, to say nothing of having a cast so large they rarely get to develop a character in more than a few lines.

Denise shows Jessica Danny’s program from the night before, on which he took notes. Jessica looks it over and remarks that it’s odd that the notes are nothing like Danny’s review. Denise says that she didn’t have a chance to look at it, does so now, and remarks, “Well, this is weird. Why would his review be so favorable?”

This is a very strange question for Denise to make, seeing as how she was Danny’s assistant. Barney Mapost introduced her as “Danny’s right hand, his left hand, and entire brain.” She said that this was inaccurate and she was more like the guy who walks behind the elephant in the parade. Either way, it’s weird that she had no idea what he thought of the play since she sat next to him at the opening performance.

At Jessica’s request, Denise then shows her the original review which was on a 5 1/4″ floppy disk.

Murder.rev is a weird filename for a review of “Mainely Murder”.

This is the same thing as what Walter read out loud the night before. Curiously, it contains no reference to Jessica, despite the director remarking in the banter I summarized above that Danny had given Mrs. Fletcher “quite a nice mention.” But there’s plenty of space on the screen below the text, and nothing there. Be that as it may, Jessica looks it over and remarks that it doesn’t square with Danny’s notes.

Denise replies, “I gather you don’t write on a computer, Mrs. Fletcher.” This makes no sense as a reply; writing on a computer doesn’t make people radically change their opinions of the quality of fiction. Instead of pointing that out, Jessica merely replies that she doesn’t, and far prefers her bucket-of-bolts typewriter. It’s noisy, but comfortable. Denise then says that she should consider switching, but Jessica refuses, saying that she’s heard too many stories of people pressing the wrong button and losing everything. Denise then demonstrates that it’s not quite that easy. She deletes the review from the disk, then undeletes it to show that things are recoverable.

I wonder where the people who used computers in the 1980s got their HollywoodOS that used such TV-friendly commands.

Jessica, eagle-eyed as always, remarks on there being two files that were undeleted. They then look at the file which had been deleted before they started:

Denise is perplexed at the existence of this review, so different from the one that published. Why did he change his mind so drastically, she asks in a way that suggests she doesn’t have two brain cells to rub toghter? Jessica theorizes that whoever killed Danny O’Mara also killed his review.

The scene shifts to Police headquarters where Jessica gives his information to Lt. Jarvis. Jarvis says that the substitution of the review doesn’t rule out Easterbrook, but Jessica says that he was on the air giving his review of Mainely Murder at 11:15pm and she checked—it was a live broadcast. I find that more than a bit odd—who would watch a theater review at 11:15pm at night? And why bother broadcasting it live? That first part is probably more germane to the episode as a whole—how influential can a TV theater critic be if his reviews are broadcast live at 11:15pm at night? Granted, New York City is the city that never sleeps, but even so.

Anyway, in the conversation some weird details come out. The police got an anonymous call saying that shots were fired, but O’Mara was killed with only one bullet and no other bullets were found in the apartment. None of the other tenants ever heard any bullets being fired. And the coroner’s report indicates that O’Mara might have died earlier than he was found.

Jessica suggests that the killer must have been someone from the play, but Jarvis says that it’s likely that everyone can alibi each other at the party, and asks her to try to recall who showed up late. (Answer: Walter, but Jessica only realizes what she’s done as she walks out.) Jessica calls Walter from a pay phone at the police station but only gets his answering machine, and leaves a message saying that it’s urgent that she talk to him.

She then goes to see Elliot, who has quite an office.

Are we really to believe that a TV theater critic whose reviews are broadcast at 11:15pm at night has a corner office? Anyway, Elliot has his unpleasantness dialed up to 11, as usual. Jessica asks him if it doesn’t get tiresome being so tiresome, but he just replies in a tiresome way. They hit something of a detente and discuss the case.

Jessica wonders who wrote the fake O’Mara review, and Elliot suggests the director, since O’Mara had panned his last five plays. Jessica goes to talk to him.

The directory, though, is only interested in blaming Jessica for finding the real review of Mainely Murder, saying that now the play is doomed. I have trouble believing that a glowing review could do much to save a play as bad as Mainely Murder is supposed to be, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. The only thing that really comes up is that everyone was at the party, the whole night, except for Walter.

Jessica tries to find Walter at his apartment, but he’s not there. Jessica runs into Barney, taking down the quote from the O’Mara review. She all but accuses him of having written the fake review, but he replies that he never tried to imitate O’Mara because O’Mara wasn’t the kind of critic who appreciated being sent plugs. Walter is in the back of the theater working on rewrites. (I wonder why this theater would have office space for writers, but again this probably just a time-saving thing.)

Walter is saying that he put a lot of the original stuff back in and Shayna actually likes it. With all of the changes that went on, she doesn’t remember what she cut anymore! He thinks this will save the play. Jessica tells him to nevermind the play and to tell her where he was during the cast party. Lt. Jarvis walks in and says that the way he figures it, Walter was busy murdering O’Mara. He arrests Walter, and we go to commercial.

When we come back, Jessica and Jarvis are interrogating Walter in Jarvis’ office. Before anyone can say anything of substance, though, Jarvis sends for Mrs. Rizzo, who after some complaining says that she saw Walter in the hallway. She lives on the first floor of the building where O’Mara lived on the third. It was 11pm—she knows because the news just came on—and Walter banged on her door saying that he needed to speak to Mr. O’Mara. She told him that O’Mara lived upstairs, and Walter went away.

As a side note, I’m really curious how Walter was supposed to know what building O’Mara lived in. For that matter, why on earth did Mrs. Rizzo know that Danny O’Mara lived in her building, two floors up? A lot of people live in her building, and NYC is not a place where people get to know their neighbors, especially not their neighbors who live on a different floor.

Anyway, she leaves and Walter gives his version. He was hoping to find O’Mara and beg for mercy. When he couldn’t find O’Mara’s apartment he realized he was so drunk he couldn’t think straight, so he gave up and went out to get even more drunk. There is some general bickering, and a reference to a different casting for a part gives Jessica an idea.

She visits Martha Blair, who played the witch who, in the play, cast a spell to reduce a haystack to rubble. It turns out that she was romantically involved with Elliot Easterbrook in a very minor way. She had dinner with him, which consisted of four hours of him talking about himself. This was at Shayna’s instigation, so Jessica goes to talk to Shayna.

The conversation with Shayna doesn’t reveal much, but when she is previewing a tape of Elliot Easterbrook’s review in order to pull a few words out of context to seem favorable, it repeats the part where he said that Tony, as the woodsman, was appropriately wooden. This gives Jessica the clue she needs.

Not your typical clue-face for Murder, She Wrote.

Jessica excuses herself to Shayna, saying that she needs to see a man about a play.

It’s interesting how Murder, She Wrote has a visual language all its own. The next scene has Jessica sitting (apparently) alone, on stage. We hear a door close, which means that Jessica has invited the murderer to her impromptu accusing parlor.

She calls out to him. It’s Elliot Easterbrook. She thanks him for coming, and he assures her that it is nothing more than curiosity.

Jessica explains how Elliot did it, though she frames it in a proposal for the plot of a new book. The setting is the theater, and the killer plans his crime meticulously. After the play he kills the victim, then two hours later puts in a fake call about gun shots in order to have the police arrive with him standing over the body and frame himself. Once the time of death is established to have been two hours earlier, he’ll be exonerated and it will be extremely unlikely anyone will look his way again. He created an alibi for himself by transmitting the fake review he’d planted to the newspaper from his own office, rather than from the victim’s apartment.

Elliot says that it sounds far fetched, but like a perfect crime. Jessica said that it would be, except that Molière was right—the theater is unpredictable. There was a last-minute cast change which Elliot didn’t know about because he came late. Thus he got it wrong in his TV review, but, critically, also in the fake review.

Elliot points out that even a fictional jury wouldn’t be likely to accept this as conclusive proof. Jessica agrees, but says that they would be willing to accept his TV station’s phone log. It shows a five minute call to the Chronicle at 11:15pm.

Elliot, crestfallen, says,”Even the finest works of art have their flaws. Congratulations, Mrs. Fletcher. The only thing missing is a motive.”

Jessica says that she’s wondered about that.

Elliot decides to tell her. It’s fascinating, so I’m going to quote it in full:

Imagine a young and impressionable writer who has his first play produced off-off-off Broadway. It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start. And imagine a critic from a second-rate newspaper trying to make a name for himself. His review of the play is devastating. So devastating the young playwright never writes another play. No, instead, he becomes a critic himself and vows to best his destroyer at his own game. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to eradicate the pain. Only one thing can do that.

At this point Lt. Jarvis walks in from the wings (Elliot had moved onto the stage, with Jessica) and announces his presence.

Elliot looks at Jessica in surprise.

The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.

The uniformed officers escort Elliot away. Jarvis remains and talks to Mrs. Fletcher. He asks how she knew that the TV station logged its phone calls. Jessica replies, “Well, if they don’t, they ought to.”

And on that note we go to credits.

This was an ambitious episode, so I think its many plot holes can be at least partially forgiven. That said, it has a lot of them. I think, for me, the biggest is that the key evidence—the evidence by which Jessica knew who the murderer was and the only evidence she didn’t make up when she confronted him—never appeared in the episode. At no point when the fake review was read or put on screen did it mention the actor who played the woodsman. This is unusual for Murder, She Wrote. They’re normally better about showing us all of the evidence (that Jessica doesn’t lie about—they could hardly show us that). It’s not like there was any other evidence to lose track of and no excuse can be made on account of time. They put up the text of the review a second time, so they could have put up the relevant section of the review instead of just repeating the part that Walter read aloud at the party.

There’s also the issue that the fake review failing to mention the cast change hardly proves that Easterbrook was the culprit. Anyone who wrote the fake review earlier in the day would have used the name of the actor who had been cast in the role, as would anyone who just didn’t pay close attention to the announcement, was in the bathroom, etc. Since the purpose of the fake review was to be discovered and cast suspicion on someone who would benefit from the play getting a good review it didn’t deserve, it’s not like there was a motive to get the fake review right. Mistakes in the fake review would draw attention to its inauthenticity, and thus help it serve the murderer’s purpose. So, not only did they not show us this evidence, it doesn’t really point to Elliot as the murderer anyway.

The part about Elliot Easterbrook framing himself is hard to know what to make of. On the one hand, framing himself with a fake time of death that will be disproved has some merit as a way of leading suspicion away from himself, but it only really makes sense if suspicion was at all likely to go his way. There was no real connection between him and Danny O’Mara, so there’s no reason why it would have. If anything, O’Mara seemed to hate him far more than he seemed to hate O’Mara. All clumsily framing himself did was connect him to the murder more than he would have been otherwise. That said, he was a narcissist with an obsession. It’s not entirely unbelievable that he loomed much larger in his own imagination than he did in anyone else’s and so he might assume he would be suspected because he assumed that everyone thought about him all the time.

That said, his approach to framing himself was riskier than the episode made it out. Estimating the time of death is not an exact science and it was so close to when he framed himself for that there was no guarantee that he would be exonerated. Indeed, all the autopsy report showed was that the time of death could have been hours earlier. “Could have been earlier” is not a slam-dunk acquittal. The transmitting of the review at 11:15pm would be a stronger alibi, but only if the falsity of the review was discovered. That only happened by accident, and Elliot was in no position to do it himself if no one else did it for him, so this instance of framing himself is particularly weak.

To be fair, though, given that it would have taken the police several minutes, at minimum, to arrive at Danny O’Mara’s apartment after getting a report of “shots fired,” holding that Elliot had just shot Danny would entail him standing over the body, gun in hand, for several minutes. That would be quite strange, to say the least. I suspect that a defense attorney could make a lot of that.

Perhaps oddly, I actually find the motive in this episode to be on the more believable side. Superficially, of course, it’s ridiculous. Who could want to kill a person because they wrote a scathing review of his play twenty years before? And yet, Elliot Easterbrook comes off as a man consumed by hatred. Especially as Dean Stockwell plays him, he is an Ahab character. He cares for nobody and nothing because he’s obsessed with his white whale. Indeed, the part about him dating the young woman who played the witch didn’t add anything to the plot but it did add some very interesting characterization of Elliot—he spent four hours talking about himself. A man who can spend four hours with a beautiful woman talking about himself is the sort of man who can resent a scathing review of his play to the point of murder, and hang onto this resentment for decades. Also, the time frame works well. A man like Elliot wouldn’t go for murder immediately. He would brood for a long time before going there. Having spent decades wrapped up in his hatred, trying and failing to destroy Danny O’Mara through lesser means—that might might work him up to the point of murder. Especially considering how, in his early fifties, he might be starting to reflect on how his quest for revenge deprived him of a wife and children. He would blame O’Mara for that, too. Most people would not react this way, but this sort of hatred is the kind of mistake a human being can make. There’s no such thing as a good reason to make a bad decision, so motives for murder cannot be evaluated on the basis of whether there was a good reason to commit the murder. They can only be evaluated on the basis of there being a human reason to commit the murder. Offended pride, nursed for a long time—that is a human reason.

There’s an interesting question about how this episode falsifies all sorts of details in order to fit things in. For example, there’s no way that a TV theater critic is going to do a live broadcast of his review of a new play at 11:15pm at night. Similarly, there is such a thing as the morning edition of a newspaper, but it doesn’t come out on the streets for purchase before 2:00 am. Mrs. Rizzo knowing where Danny O’Mara lived when she lived on the first floor of her building and Danny on the third is beyond improbably. In NYC people are extremely outgoing if they know who lives in the apartments right next to them. They have no idea who lives on other floors of their building. If Elliot brought the fake review on his own floppy disk, he would have either had to write the “real” review which accorded with Danny’s notes on his program or else he would have had to copy his fake review onto the floppy disk that Danny saved his review on. This would have involved copying it to the hard drive, then removing his disk and inserting Danny’s disk. Further, the name he gave the file relied on Danny misspelling his version of it. Or else he did some weird file renaming. None of which is impossible, but is oddly convoluted and I’m pretty sure was not intended by the writers since Jessica didn’t mention it.

Many of these things were important to the plot, and in fairly irreplaceable ways. On the other hand, many of them were just shortcuts. I think that it’s important to cut Murder, She Wrote slack on these sorts of things because it’s hard to cram so much into 48 minutes as it is. This is something that may apply to a short story, but does not really carry over into novels. Shortcuts are nowhere near as forgivable when time is not so precious. (A big part of what I seek to do in my reviews of Murder, She Wrote episodes is to see what can be learned from them to bring over to my novels; Murder, She Wrote was great in spite of most episodes having fairly large plot holes, so if we can figure out what made it great in spite of them, perhaps we can borrow some of that and have something even better when our novels don’t have plot holes.)

The way that Jessica and Denise find the deleted file may possibly be classed under the heading of “shortcut,” but I can’t help but think it could have been done much better. They segway from the review being irreconcilable with Danny’s notes on his program (to say nothing of common sense) to a demonstration of undeleting files without any kind of natural hook for the change of subject. It’s not even a single change of subject, either. Jessica complains about pressing the wrong button and losing everything, not about how easy it is to accidentally delete a file. Back in the 1980s it was common for computer programs to crash and far too many people didn’t save their work until they were done. File corruption on disk was also a not-uncommon problem. Undeleting a file doesn’t address either. The issue is not that they didn’t take the time to address all possible failure modes on a computer, but that they could have written what they meant in the same time. Instead of “pressing the wrong button and losing everything” Jessica could have said “accidentally deleting the wrong file”. And instead of the business with the program, Jessica could have just asked if Denise really liked working on a computer. I’m not sure Denise being caught completely off guard by Danny’s not liking the show is fixable, though. She sat through the play with him. How could she be under the impression that it was possible he liked it? Even if he didn’t talk about it and she never noticed a single one of his reactions, shouldn’t she have picked up on what he likes and doesn’t like in plays?

Overall, and despite the many plot holes, I think that this episode was a lot of fun. As I mentioned at the start, this was an ambitious episode. It contained a play, drama about the production of a play, and even a layer about criticism of the play. Also, while the story has plenty of plot holes, it also has things which stick together. For example, it actually makes sense that Elliot chose the play that he did to use for his murder. He needed a bad play, but it would help if it had a lot of money riding on it, as, presumably, Mainely Murder did because of J.B. Fletcher’s name would attract investors. I think that what really makes it, though, is the ending. Elliot’s explanation of why he murdered Danny was poignant. Some of this is up to the skill of the actor, of course, but the writing rings true. “It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start.” That is how an awful lot of writers starting out feel. And I think his ending, which probably should have been the actual ending, was great.

“The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.”

There is a sense in which this is Murder, She Wrote poking fun at itself, but there is another level to it. Elliot is just a man, and not, in truth, a special man. It is fitting that when he is caught, he is caught as other men are. The essence of sin, in a sense, is the refusal to recognize that one is man. But Elliot should, indeed, have known that.

Next week’s episode, which is the final episode of season four, is The Body Politic.

Christianity vs. Hippies on Sex (Copulation)

I was recently listening to an interesting and generally good history of the psychedelic movement when I came up to a part about the summer of love and how Christianity viewed the body and therefore sex as evil, while the hippies viewed sex as good. This is quite remarkably wrong.

Before I begin, I should note that generalizations about Christianity are effectively impossible if one includes the various Christian heresies within the category of “Christianity”. The problem is that since Christianity contains the totality of truth and a heresy consists of taking some things and rejecting others from a religion, there have been Christian heresies which cover literally every possible belief system (with regard to beliefs which are not about history). You can find Christian heresies in which the body is evil, just as you can find Christian heresies in which the body is the only good. There is, therefore, no point in talking about “Christianity” and including all of the Christian heresies since there are no generalities that hold to all of them.

Christianity, by which I mean orthodox Christianity, views neither the body nor sex as evil. In fact, Christianity views the body as unspeakably good since God Himself deigned to take on human flesh. Christianity is an incarnational religion. Further, sex (by which I mean copulation) is something created by God in order to allow human beings to take part with God in the act of creation, and in the genesis account we were specifically told to be fruitful and multiply. Throughout the bible, both old and new testament, children are described as a blessing from God, and there’s only one way human beings make children.

On the flip side, Hippies do not regard sex as good. What Hippies regard as good is not the sexual act itself but rather the pleasure attendant to it. Hippies have so little regard for sex that they want to do their best to frustrate the sexual act from its fulfillment—creating new people. What Hippies really want is not the sexual act, but team masturbation. The bare truth is that a hippy’s look for sex is drug-seeking behavior, with varying degrees of gussying it up as something more. True, the drugs in this case are endogenously produced, rather than being made by a plant or a mushroom or a chemical laboratory, but all they want is a feeling without any attendant reality.

That Christianity holds that sex is good is why Christianity puts so many rules around it—valuable things need to be protected. Christianity has no prohibitions I’ve ever heard of on smearing oneself with dog feces, or on mixing dog feces with cat feces, or really with doing anything with it other than intentionally trying to hurt people with it, and that only under the general prohibition of trying to hurt people for no reason. This is because Christianity holds dog feces in very low regard. (If you really pressed a Christian philosopher they’d admit that dog feces do have some value—since everything God created does—it’s just very low on the hierarchy of being.)

Perhaps the least appealing thing about the Hippies is that they didn’t hold anything in high regard, which is why they never tried to protect anything. Nothing mattered to a Hippy except that he, personally, felt good.

Ironically, by the way, the Hippy was basically a Christian heretic who only held onto Christ’s teaching that we should live in the moment and not worry about the future (a combination of always keeping in mind one’s soul may be required of one at any moment with how the lilies of the field neither sew nor reap but are more splendid than Solomon ever was) in reaction to the heretics before them who only held onto the teaching that Christ would come again to judge the world and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (Those heretics were materialists who held that they had to create heaven on earth, but they didn’t get their fundamentally eschatological orientation from nowhere.)

If you’re impressed with AI

Ask Alexa, or Google Assistant, or whichever AI you’re impressed with:

How much would could a wood chuck chuck if a would chuck could not chuck wood?

Unlike the more common phrase which asks how much wood the beast in question could chuck under the hypothetical that it was capable of chucking it, this question has a very simple, obvious answer. An answer that, in the year of our Lord 2022, none of the AIs I tested gave.

Another way to put characters above suspicion

A while ago I wrote about the problem of how to put characters above suspicion in a murder mystery so that readers could become fond of them. The problem, as I mentioned, is that golden age mysteries loved to try to put the murderer as far above suspicion as possible. However, we need some characters to be actually above suspicion so that we can have an enjoyable story. So, how do we put them above suspicion in a way that the reader can believe? I gave one answer before, but another recently occurred to me.

A reliable way to put a character above suspicion, for the reader, is to tell the reader the character’s thoughts. Obviously this relies on the story seeming to adhere to the spirit of Fr. Knox’s detective decalogue, or otherwise just that the author is honest. An author who would purport to tell us what a character is thinking but leave out the most important things that they’re thinking is just being dishonest, even if they don’t outright lie. So as long as you have the reader’s trust, telling them a character’s thoughts, which are not about the murder at a time when they would be about the murder if the character was the murderer, will enable the reader to trust the character.

This doesn’t need to be done in such a way as to turn the character into a main character, either. Perhaps an extreme example of this might be Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.

Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected.

We are not, that I can recall, ever told Caroline’s thoughts before or after (except in the final chapter, which gives a summary of the next few years).

Like all techniques it must be used judiciously, but I think that it could be used well.

The Marketing Problem of Fake Meat

I recently came across an article about plant-based fake meat (“beyond burger”, “impossible burger” etc) titled After Billions in Investment, Plant-Based Meat is a Branding Catastrophe. It makes some fair points about how the fake-meat companies thought that merely having reasonably plausible fake meat was enough and have utterly failed to market it. However, it strikes me that it misses a bigger problem with regard to marketing fake meat: their target market is mostly into natural food.

When it comes to people who have extra money to spend on food, they don’t generally think that the big problem we have in our food these days is that it’s too real.

There’s a further issue that fake meat doesn’t solve any actual problems. Well, that’s not quite true. It does make it easier for burger places to have a vegetarian option when mostly meat eaters and a vegetarian want to go to a burger restaurant. But that’s about it.

Now, I say this as someone who is about halfway to being carnivorous (on an average day meat makes up half to three quarters of what I eat): if you want to eat vegetarian food, there are plenty of tasty ways of doing that which don’t taste like meat.

The big problem with eating vegetarian food, though, is its nutrient content. I know that there have been endless decades of propaganda about how many vitamins there are in vegetables, but it’s way easier to get most of the nutrients you need, and without absurd amounts of starch, by eating meat. It’s best, of course, to eat a varied diet because that will ensure that one doesn’t miss out on anything for too long, but especially in terms of macro-nutrients, getting a large amount of protein which has a good balance of amino acids without getting a ton of carbohydrates at the same time is just a ton of work. If your diet isn’t going to be primarily composed of nuts (tree nuts and peanuts) you’re going to have to rely quite heavily on processed proteins. In practice, that means eating a ton of soybean-based foods. It’s not hard for that to get old, fast.

Fake hamburgers don’t actually solve this problem. While they do taste a fair amount like meat, they don’t have the nutrients of meat, and while our bodies can be fooled some of the time—especially by sugar—our bodies are actually really good at figuring out what nutrients and micro-nutrients are in foods and making us want them or not want them according to what we need. Soy protein and coconut oil don’t acquire all of the other stuff that’s in animal muscle just because one adds in some plant-based heme which is normally one of the easiest ways to detect that we’re eating red meat.

Which brings me back to the marketing issue: the sort of people who would normally form the market for fake meat are the sort of people who shop at whole foods. But fake meat is not a whole food. Fake meat is a heavily processed laboratory product. It’s not a healthier way to eat soybeans and coconut oil, and if you really want to base your diet on soybeans, you’re probably better off learning how to do it with tofu, which as a fermented food has all sorts of nutrients in it that the original soybeans don’t.

(Fun fact: in the cultures that tofu originates in, it’s not a replacement for meat but often a complement to it, being put in the same dishes at the same time.)

The Meaning Behind “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles

According to this article, it turns out that the song is not about LSD but about a child’s drawing. From the article:

Thus the meaning of this song is rather abstract, but Lennon was adamant about the meaning of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” during his life. Lennon repeatedly expressed that this song was about a drawing that his young son, Julian, created while in school. Julian had drawn one of his schoolmates and friends, Lucy O’Donnell, among a smattering of stars. And when he showed his father the picture after school, he told the elder Lennon that it was “Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”

Inspired by his son, Lennon got to work creating a sonic picture of his son’s drawing. Lennon gave Lucy a story and animated her in a fantastical, whimsical story.

It goes on to say:

Soon after its release, there was a widely held belief that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a song about the hallucinogenic drug LSD… Lennon, however, adamantly disagreed with his fans. “It never was [about LSD] and nobody believes me,” he said in a 1971 interview.

I’ve run into the sort of person who will shout with adamantine certainty that the song most certainly is about drugs. To this sort of person everything that they like is really about drugs, probably because drugs are nearly the only thing that they like. It goes deeper than this, though; this sort of person desperately wants to affirm that society—or at least the good parts of society—agrees with them.

These sort of people never actually need the song to say anything about their idol, merely mentioning it is enough for them. (This is often necessary in order to make their drug-interpretation fit the song they’re talking about; since they are imputing the drug interpretation there’s no substance there.) It makes sense, though, that these sort of people don’t require that a song actually say anything about the drugs. They are intellectually dead, which is the easiest step to take on the path to their goal—to leave this world. They’re not suicidal (for the most part) in the traditional sense of the word, but they fundamentally don’t want to be here.

There are two things that human beings are given to do in this world, and one of them will persist in heaven. The one that will persist is to love God and enjoy His goodness. The other thing, the temporary thing, is to take part with God in His act of creation. These are what are often called doing good or “good works”, and in our fallen state people often think that they are incompatible with enjoying God’s goodness. (It is hardest to do both at the same time when one misunderstands the cooperation with God in the act of creation as some sort of requirement, rather than a privilege, or worse as the price of getting something good.)

People who really like drugs want to avoid that second thing we’re given to do in this world. They don’t want to take part in creation, they just want to skip straight to heaven. Drugs are, in general, a chemical lie which allow us to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re already in heaven. This is why (with exceptions) people on drugs don’t accomplish anything (while they’re on drugs). This is also why people who regularly take drugs rarely accomplish much when they’re not taking the drugs. At a fundamental level, they don’t want to be here.

It would be bad enough if these people killed themselves slowly, as G.K. Chesterton put it “using the tools of pleasure, not the tools of pain”, but it is worse than that. Like all idol worshipers, they are not content to privately worship their idol. They want everyone else to worship with them. So they go around insisting that everyone interpret art as badly as they do, that is, they go around trying to ruin it for everyone else. They try to talk others out of wanting to be here, too. Their saving grace is that they’re horribly unattractive. After high school, one pretty much never has to interact with them again.

Except occasionally in comments on the internet.

Astronomers Find a Waterworld Planet With Deep Oceans in the Habitable Zone – Universe Today

I recently came across an article titled “Astronomers Find a Waterworld Planet With Deep Oceans in the Habitable Zone“. Curious what they actually found, I clicked through to the article. It was about what I expected.

The entire subject of discovering exoplanets is one that does not fill me with confidence. I get the basic approach used, which is looking for regular dimming of stars caused by the transit of a planet in front of the star as it orbits the star. And, indeed, you would expect a planet orbiting a star to (slightly) dim the light coming from that star if you’re lucky enough for the planet to pass right in front of it relative to us. That said, when I say slight, I mean slight. To put it into perspective, our sun has a diameter 109 times larger than the diameter of the earth. In terms of cross-sectional area, that means that the earth’s shadow is about 1/10,000th that of the sun’s. It will block out a little more of the sun than that, since it’s a few million miles in front of the sun rather than directly in front of it, but since we’re observing stars that are light-years away, it won’t be that much more. Jupiter, which is nearly as large as planets can get (as a gas giant’s mass goes up much past Jupiter’s, its gravity causes it to contract), would block out about 1/100th of the sun. So what astronomers are looking for is somewhere between a 1% dimming and a 0.01% dimming.

Even less confidence inspiring, when you look into the actual data, the stars in question are generally around 1pixel big in the images that they’re using. This isn’t always the case, of course, but the stars are never more than a few pixels. In the article in question, when the researchers turned to a much higher resolution telescope, they were able to distinguish the two stars of the binary system where the “waterworld” orbits the larger of the two within the habitable zone. (If you’re not familiar, the habitable zone of a star is the distance away where the heat from the star would result in liquid surface water, as we have here on earth. Too close and the planet will be too hot and the oceans will boil off, too far and they will freeze.) Oh, and these two stars are orbiting each other from roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the sun. And the high resolution telescope was able to make them out as two distinct source of light.

No one has ever seen this supposed “Water world”. What we have is a periodic dimming of the host star. From the magnitude of that dimming we can calculate the size of the thing crossing in front of it. From the period of the dimming and the time between the dimming we can calculate the orbital period and thus the distance from the star. From the size and orbital period we can calculate the mass, and hence the density.

That last part is the basis of the claim for a “water world” came from, by the way. The density of the planet that was detected is too low to be a rocky planet like earth, and too high to be a gaseous planet. Since it’s in the habitable zone of its star, it’s unlikely to be icy, and so it is a good candidate for being a water world. This in no way justifies calling it a water world, nor does it justify the artist’s rendition of what the surface of it might look like that’s in the article (which is just a picture of the sun setting over the ocean here on earth). It also doesn’t justify the Star Trek like artist’s rendition of the planet near to a sun-like star. The star that the planet is orbiting is a red dwarf. They’re called red dwarves because they don’t put out white light like our sun does. If you look up TOI-1452A (the red dwarf star; TOI-1452 b is the planet) it has a surface temperature of 3185k. It’s not that it puts out literally no blue light, but it puts out very little. This is the dingy yellow-orange light of a low wattage “warm white” incandescent bulb. Oh, and the star only puts out 0.7% of the light that our sun does.

These sort of articles really annoy me because they pretend to have an enormous amount of certainty that we don’t have. What’s actually going on is a little bit of data and a whole lot of calculations. This is interesting, but it does a great disservice to people to pretend that what we have is a lot of data. We don’t.

Moreover, these are all unverified calculations. No one alive today is ever going to set eyes on a photograph of one of these planets to get an independent source of data about their size or composition, or even their existence. It took nine years for the New Horizons probe to fly out to Pluto. Here’s the best picture Wikipedia has of Haumea, a dwarf planet in our solar system:

Haumea is only about 10 AU further away from the sun that Pluto is. (An AU is the distance from the earth to the sun.) Here’s Eris, which is more massive than Pluto, though not quite as large, and which is much further away:

Eris is, at its farthest, about twice as far away from the sun as Pluto. And this is the best picture that we have of it. (Or at least it’s the best picture that Wikipedia has.)

If this is the best that we have of dwarf planets in our own solar system, it suggests that a bit of humility is warranted when it comes to conclusions about planets orbiting other stars. Our galaxy is a big place. There’s no reason to suppose that there is nothing besides exoplanets which will regularly result in the slight dimming of a star’s light. That’s not to say that there’s something wrong with going with what we know—that is, with saying that if the slight regular dimming is caused by an exoplanet, then the exoplanet would have such and such properties. If people are going to get tired and drop the “if”, then perhaps it would be better to stop talking about the subject at all.

Every Grain of Sand

Bob Dylan’s song Every Grain of Sand is almost shockingly profound.

I had mentioned a little bit about this in my post on Bishop Barron’s Tribute to Bob Dylan.

Lately I’ve been thinking about these lyrics:

I have gone from rags to riches
In the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream
In the chill of a wintry night

In the bitter dance of loneliness
Fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence
Of each forgotten face

I hear the aging footsteps
Like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there
At times, it’s only me.

I’m hanging in the balance,
Of a perfect, finished plan.
Like every sparrow fallen.
Like every grain of sand.

It’s that last verse, especially, which really captures me. I love the line “I’m hanging in the balance of a perfect, finished plan.” Part of what I like so much about this is that finished and perfect mean the same thing, at least as one of each of their meanings. Perfect, meaning without flaw, is related to finished, in the sense of complete, lacking nothing. Capping it with the line, “like every sparrow fallen” is a phenomenal reference to when Christ made vivid to God’s knowledge of all things, “Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why, every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

This also touches on the Catholic sense of the doctrine of predestination, which is very, very different from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. the Catholic doctrine in no way denies or diminishes free will. I’ve always liked how Saint Augustine put it, in a letter to some monks who were disputing free will and grace: if God knows the choices that men make before they make them, it is not nothing that God knows. We men, in our finitude and temporality can only imagine that if a choice can be known before it is made, there cannot have actually been a choice. As far as we can see, if it can be known beforehand, it was merely the working out of causal necessity. This is true, so far as it goes, because it is only the working out of causal necessity which we can see before it happens. This is because we are temporal beings; our being comes into existence moment by moment, and we can only know what has already been unfolded. God is not in time. He is eternally in the fullness of his being. He does not need to wait for us to make our choices because to Him we are always and eternally making all of our choices. By knowing our choices, God does not prevent Himself from also giving us freedom.

This also touches very much on the Christian idea that we are in the end times. Salvation history began with man’s sin, but in a real sense ended with God performing the sacrifice of Himself to atone for our sins. It is a basic truth of life that a dirty cloth cannot clean anything; if you want to clean something you must use a clean cloth. In like manner, there is no sacrifice we can make of anything in this fallen world which will wash away our own sin. Only God, who is not stained by sin, can wash it away. (In more technical language, we cannot give what we haven’t got and therefore cannot fill up the privation which is sin; only God who can create ex nihilo can fill the gap caused by our sin through an extra act of creation.) This sacrifice by God of Himself to wash away our sin completes salvation history. For the last 2000 years we have been merely in the epilogue of this story.

We are, all of us, hanging in the balance of a perfect, finished plan. Like every sparrow fallen. Like every grain of sand.

Technicolor Has An Interesting History

As a result of a conversation I looked up the history of Technicolor, and it turned out to be more complex than I thought. For those who don’t know: technicolor was the first technology which was used to create full color motion pictures that were widely distributed. That last part—widely distributed—is where the complexity lies; there were a whole bunch of technologies which came before the technicolor we know and love, but which never became popular. Technicolor was not the first color process, it was the first color process that won. It was expensive and difficult to work with, which was why the black-and-white era didn’t come to a close until (roughly) the 1970s, when Eastman Kodak’s much single-film color process brought the price of color film down so far black-and-white was no longer cheaper. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Technicolor corporation was founded in 1914 by Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Frost Comstock, two recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT. The first process used two strips of film and only captured red and green. The basic technology, would persist until Eastman Kodak’s single-film process, was to use a prism to split the spectra of light coming into the camera into different physical locations, which would be used to expose different negatives. Thus there would be a negative which only captured the red light and another that only captured the green light. These would be developed into films with only the respective colors of light on them, which would then be shown onto the same theater screen, superimposed, and so we’d see both red and green.

For those who don’t know, this works surprisingly well because our eyes only have three types of color-sensitive photosensitive nerve cells in our eyes. One is sensitive to green, one to red, and the third to blue. (There are some people, mostly women, who have a fourth, which is a slight variation of one of them, and gives them better color discrimination.) They’re not point-sensitive, they have fall-offs in how much light of different wavelenths stimulates each one. We can see the wide spectrum of colors that we can because for any given photon it stimulates all three to differing amounts, and we can thus reconstruct from how much the three types of nerve cells are stimulated what the original color was. However, it is possible to fool this system by manipulating the light to be made up of just the right amount of red, green, and blue in order to reproduce the other colors; this is what using multiple film strips projecting different colors does.

The original process went with red and green because our eyes are most sensitive to these colors, and so we see most of the brightness of an object from these. It further turns out that since looking at objects is not passive but actually a highly active process, our brains, which have trained for many years on the real world, are good at reconstructing missing information based on what’s available. A film made up of only red and green doesn’t look right, but it looks surprisingly good. Not really good enough, though, and neither this process nor the two that followed it—which were two-color processes that just improved the practicality of capturing and showing movies using them—really took off.

It was the three-color process, which produced a full range of lifelike colors, that would become popular. Technicolor had developed it to the point of it being usable by studios by 1931, and Walt Disney was the first to use it commercially. It was an 8 minute long short film, released in 1932. This three-color process used the same prismatic separation to expose multiple negatives, but this time it was onto three black-and-white negative strips, one for red, one for green, and one for blue. These would then undergo a complicated process that turned them into a single, color, strip of film which could be shown in the same projectors used for showing black-and-white films. This was a huge competitive advantage for Technicolor over its competitors, because they relied on specialized color-only projectors which were expensive and movie theaters didn’t already own.

The other half of this story, though, is why movie studios were willing to invest a large amount of money in making full-color movies. It cost more for the equipment, more for the film, the cameras were huge and bulky, there needed to be a “Technicolor Director” on set to make sure that the color was being captured properly (who had to be paid), and providing enough light to properly capture the color required enormous, powerful, and very hot lights. The heat from these lights was so intense actors needed more breaks, slowing down production. In short, Technicolor might have been the best color process available at the time, but it was way more difficult and expensive than black-and-white. Obviously, color would be the future, but the question is not why did movie studios switch to color at all, but why did they switch to color when it was so new and expensive?

Of course, one part of that answer is that they largely didn’t. Most films would be shot in black-and-white with color films only being a select few big-budget movies until the 1950s, with the introduction of the Eastman Kodak process. That said, another part of the answer is that in the 1930s the Great Depression was going on and movie-viewing was being hit by it. A new and exciting technology seemed like just the thing to get audiences excited to come to movie theaters again. (Always left unsaid, new technologies are much easier to introduce than making good movies is.)

I find it interesting how often I’ve heard that explanation for the adoption of new technologies. It seems that technological progress is often as dependent on someone desperate enough to give it a try as it is on someone clever enough to invent it.

Be that as it may, while this expensive and difficult process got color films off the ground, it was not what would make color the norm. To give a feel for this, there were twelve Technicolor films produced in 1940 and sixteen in 1941. 1942 saw a dip down to eleven Technicolor films. Granted, America officially entered World War in December of 1941, but if we fast forward to 1946, only twenty seven films were made in Technicolor. 1947 bumped that up to twenty nine. Color films being the norm would only come about in the 1950s because of the Eastman Kodak single-film color process.

This was not merely an effect of the Eastman Kodak process being cheaper, it was also vastly easier to work with. It didn’t need nearly so much light, the cameras were much less bulky, film developing could be done in-house—in short, it was significantly better in every way. Also interesting was that in the 1950s television viewing significantly cut into movie attendance, or at least that was the generally accepted explanation for the decrease in movie viewership the industry was experiencing. One of the approaches to combat this and bring people back to the theaters was changing the aspect ratio from the 4:3 which both movies and TV shared to Cinemascope, which was an anamorphic lens technique for recording and displaying movies in an aspect ratio close to the modern 2.35:1. Other approaches soon followed which had similar aspect ratios, as well as compromise widescreen aspect ratios such as 1.85:1 (which is pretty close to the modern 16:9 aspect ratio that TVs and monitors use). These shifts, which were not hard on a single-film camera, would have been very difficult on a prismatically separated three-film camera, and this helped to end the age of Technicolor.

Film would, of course, eventually come to be replaced by digital recording which was another big leap in being cheaper and more convenient, but that’s a story for another time.

Death of a Gossip

I recently read the first Hamish MacBeth murder mystery, Death of a Gossip. It has a certain charm to it, but I must say that it was not in the least surprising that the author got her start in romance novels. I looked at the blurb on Amazon for her first novel, My Dear Duchess, written under the name Ann Fairfax. It ran:

Sloe-eyed, winsome Frederica Sayers, fresh from the schoolroom, married the Duke of Westerland–and set the Ten-thousand a-twitter! All because her social climbing stepsister, Clarissa, missed her chance to snare him, never guessing he would soon claim a coronet. Now the beautiful Clarissa again casts her shimmering nets for his lordship. And jet-haired little Frederica, wed in haste, must win her young Lord’s love…before he succumbs to Clarissa’s golden charms.

(I had to look up “sloe”. “Sloe” is another name for blackthorn, which has deep blue berries. “Sloe-eyed”, I take it, means having deep blue eyes.)

Note: spoilers follow.

While Death of a Gossip is, technically, a murder mystery, it’s really more of a romance novel in which a murder eventually happens and then a murder investigation forms the backdrop for the romance novel plot in the foreground. Except that every romance in the novel ends in disappointment. I haven’t read enough romance novels to know whether that’s common—I’ve only read one—but it’s very disappointing in a murder mystery. Romance, in a murder mystery, is best when it is a counterpoint to the murder. When the romance makes the murder look cheery by comparison, it’s just kind of a downer.

The novel, as a mystery, certainly doesn’t operate on play-fair rules. The investigation happens primarily off-screen, mostly through Hamish making telephone calls. This is a weird thing about the book being set in the early 1980s, by the way—telephone calls are common, but expensive. You will find telephone calls being expensive in mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s, but phone calls are (relatively) uncommon. Also, the 1930s does not feel modern. The setting in the 1980s feels modern, but it’s been a while since the price of phone calls mattered. This is not anything against the novel, it’s just a curious experience while reading the story.

Anyway, back to the play-fair aspect: there’s one clue we’re given, which is a torn photograph found near where the corpse was found that had a picture of a woman’s head with a tiara on it and the letters “BUY BRIT” (they ended at the tear).

For some reason Hamish gathers the suspects together, goes over everyone’s motives for committing the crime, then he reveals who did it. It turns out—Hamish learned this from a phone call—that the letters were not “BUY BRITISH” referring to a campaign in Brittain in the 1960s, but rather were “BUY BRITTELS BEER” which was a local beer made in a suburb of a city that one of the suspects came from. This beer only exists within the novel, of course, but that doesn’t matter because we only learn of the existence of “Brittels beer” during the reveal of who the murderer is.

The amount of luck involved in Hamish gathering his evidence was a bit extraordinary, but in a sense this barely matters because it was also so flimsy that Hamish just made a guess at who the murderer was, accused them, tossed in a fabricated witness, and got a confession.

As I noted in my post about play-fair rules, they don’t really work for their intended purpose of giving the reader an equal footing with the detective for solving the case, but adhering to them does a lot to make the story better because it forces the author to structure the story in a way that holds together relative to the mystery being investigated. Part of this is that, having time to think over the clues, there will be a greater urgency on the part of the author for them to make sense.

For example, in the reveal Lady Jane was murdered where she was because she had decided to torment one of the fishing students with proof of the fishing student’s past—the photograph with “BUY BRITTELS BEER”—in private. But this was at a location over a mile from the hotel, up steep terrain that had everyone exhausted when they went there as a group to fish and discovered the body. This is hardly the place one would go to have a private conversation. With all of the evidence explaining what had happened coming out in just a page or two with the suspects gathered, and Hamish managing to obtain a confession, there wasn’t time to think about that.

Then there are some basic problems with having the murderer be American. How is an American supposed to care what a British gossip columnist writes about an obscure American, in the 1980s? If the gossip columnist had gotten something really juicy about an extremely famous American, I can see this making its way over to America, mostly because someone in England would think to tell someone in America. There was no internet and no google. The London Evening Star (a newspaper which only exists within this book) was not likely to be an international newspaper; when I was a boy in the 1980s my father read a lot of newspapers and I don’t recall ever seeing a British newspaper available for sale in the US. So the odds of some secret about Americans no one in America has ever heard of passing over to the US to influence local elections in the NY metro area is… pretty much zero.

Indeed, it was so far fetched that even the author didn’t quite go there. There’s a line where Hamish says that this wasn’t really the motive, and the murderer admits it, saying, “She messed with me, that’s all. I don’t like no one messing with me.”

Somehow this led to strangling Lady Jane with a fly fishing leader—a strange thing to have on hand during a clandestine evening meeting. I suppose we are to assume the murderer had a fly fishing leader in a pocket even though this was after dinner and everyone had changed out of their fishing clothes. Granted, Lady Jane was found in the pool in her usual fishing clothes, and I suppose that would make some sense to change into in order to go walking into the woods, but why on earth did she go walking into the woods with a person to reveal their deep dark past? All she really needed was a table in the hotel restaurant where she wouldn’t be overheard if she didn’t speak loudly. Some explanation for this would have been nice. Especially since both the murderer and victim were unfamiliar with the area and had no way of knowing where the river pool was. Hiking a mile through unknown mountain wilderness just to tell someone you knew what they did for a living a decade ago is… weird.

A fly fishing leader is also a really weird thing to strangle a person with. It’s a very narrow cord. Very narrow. Looking it up, we’re talking about the thick end of the leader being less than 1/32 of an inch (that’s around .6mm, for people who like their measurements to be power-of-ten multiples of the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second). That’s a little thicker than dental floss, but not by a whole lot. This would cut into the hands of anyone trying to use it to strangle someone else. And I don’t just mean cause pain—unless a person had stout leather gloves on, this would cut the skin, leaving clear marks to be seen the next day.

There’s also the issue of the thin nylon cord being strong enough to do the strangling. Fly fishing leaders can hold a small animal like a trout or a salmon, but the forces involved in trying to strangle a struggling human being who’s well over 100 pounds would snap it. (The force of a struggling salmon snaps fishing lines unless the angler has skill in playing out the line when the fish is pulling, then retracting the line when the fish is tired and resting.)

And once all these problems are dealt with, how did the murder get behind Lady Jane? They’re alone in the wilderness so that Lady Jane could torment the murderer with the murderer’s past. It’s hard to picture Lady Jane turning her back and letting the murderer slip up behind her.

And then, Lady Jane somehow having been killed, the murderer wrapped chains around Lady Jane’s legs and tossed her into the river pool. The motive is straight forward enough but the means make no sense. Where on earth did the chains come from? Are we to suppose that the murderer also just happened to have them in another pocket? It’s not like there was some sort of house or building nearby from which they could have been scrounged. Again, this was a long and difficult hike away from the hotel.

Now, I’m not saying that had the author stuck to play-fair rules that she would have done all this better. I merely think it’s likely that, had she doled out the evidence to the reader at the same time as she gave it to the detective, she’d have thought about it a bit more. If nothing else, Hamish would probably have been forced to talk about it at least a little bit with someone, and one of the characters might have pointed out the problem, forcing the author to notice. (Characters have an annoying way of doing what they want to do regardless of what the author wants them to do.)

I could say more, but I suspect I’ve gone on long enough on that subject.

The character of Hamish MacBeth is also a bit weird. On the one hand, he’s a likable character. On the other hand, he’s a bit of a scoundrel. He routinely breaks the law by poaching. He mooches off of people for things like food and coffee when he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He trespasses into people’s homes and places international telephone calls at their expense, without their permission. He only wanted to investigate this murder because the Detective Inspector who took over the case was rude to him. (And that only happened because the Detective Inspector took offense at Hamish not reacting to a complement with even common politeness.)

Having said all this, it is often the case that first murder mysteries are nowhere near as good as later ones. It is quite common for an author to figure out, when the first book is done, what the best parts of the detective were and to do his best to forget about the rest. I will probably read the next one in the series, Death of a Cad, but I found Death of a Gossip to be a bit of a downer and I suspect that I will need some time to get over my trust issues with Marion Chesney (the real name of M.C. Beaton).

The Path of Least Resistance

On Twitter a friend complained about writers new to a franchise ruining existing characters rather than creating their own bad characters. I pointed out that this is like 90% less work. Writers who are moved by writing, rather than by their subject, tend to be like electricity: they take the path that requires the least work to go down.

In both cases, because they’re running away, not toward, anything.

In the case of electricity, electricity is the phenomenon of electrons, having the same charge, repulsing each other, and finding paths to get away from each other. It’s not strictly true that they never go towards anything, of course; there are areas of positive charge which attract them, such as the positive terminal on a battery. Of course, it’s not strictly true that writers who write only for the sake of writing have things which attract them, too, such as sex scenes and main characters making foolish choices.

That said, electrons flow when you have an excess of them and they need to relieve the pressure. If you connect an excess of electrons to the ground, which is neutrally charged, they’ll go there. Writers to write only for the sake of writing are also trying to get away from something—usually themselves, as they tend to describe it. These sorts of authors will happily ruin things if it allows them to write. They don’t really care so long as they have their temporary escape. Thus they will frequently be pulled to ruining the works of others because it is an easier way to do what they want to do.

Good books are written by authors who love their subject, and who write because they love the subject so much it moves them to write. The love of their subject matter will make them willing to do difficult things in order to write about it, because they are pulled towards it.

Writers who write only for the sake of writing will tend to be very good at the technical elements of the craft—things like mood, setting, physical descriptions, the vivid drawing of emotions, etc. What they are usually bad at is the heart of the thing—the plot, characters worth reading about, etc. Any fool can create drama about people who have something to lose making bad decisions. It takes quite a bit more skill to create drama about people who have something to lose making good decisions. This is especially true when the decisions aren’t simple. Hence why it’s so uncommon for authors to write about healthy marriages between wise people. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to meet such people in real life, they’re a thousand times more interesting than fools in a bad marriage. This is just the same as how a really skilled basketball player throwing a nothing-but-net three pointer from the half-court line is a thousand times more interesting than watching someone who can barely dribble miss the backboard from five feet away. (And I don’t watch basketball!) In short, there’s a reason why in sports we pay people who are good at them to be good at them so we can watch. The same is true of things like romance. The problem is that while an author can easily give a character physical skills that he doesn’t, himself, possess, he cannot give them wisdom that he doesn’t, himself, possess.

This is why fools write such bad virtuous characters. Not knowing what virtue is, they suppose it to be only the absence of temptation. They write characters who get along because they don’t want anything, rather than characters who can generously negotiate with each other to do their best to get everyone what they want.

Since these writers (most of whom suffer from impostor syndrome) spend all their lives in the constant fear that they will be caught, the only drama they can conceive of is the fear of getting caught—the fear of not escaping the consequences of one’s bad choices. They’ve never tried to do anything out of love, so they don’t know that there is drama in trying to accomplish something that one can do—because it will affect others if one fails.

In short, bad writers write bad books out of the store of badness in their hearts. It’s just a special case of the more general rule about how one comes out of one’s heart is what’s in one’s heart.

We just notice, here, because this kind of bad writer writes bad books so well.

Wake Up, Little Susie

There’s a very interesting song from 1957, most famously performed by the Everly Brothers, called Wake Up, Little Susie.

The premise of the song is adquately described in the lyrics:

Wake up, little Susie, wake up
Wake up, little Susie, wake up

We’ve both been sound asleep
Wake up, little Susie and weep
The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock
And we’re in trouble deep

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa’?
What are we gonna tell our friends when they say
“Ou la la”?

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

Well, I told your mama that we’d be in by ten
Well, Susie, baby, looks like we goofed again

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie
We gotta go home

Wake up, little Susie, wake up
Wake up, little Susie, wake up

The movie wasn’t so hot
It didn’t have much of a plot
We fell asleep, our goose is cooked
Our reputation is shot

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends when they say
“Ou la la”?

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

Rare, for Rock-n-roll, the song is about people who are actually innocent. The song even acknowledges that this is rare in the reaction of the friends. “Ou la la,” when spoken by an American, conveys something positive. It’s not precisely approbation, but it’s pretty far from disapprobation. This is in contrast to little Susie’s parents, who will very much disapprove. Her parents are, by far, the singer’s major concern, but it’s curiously virtuous that the singer is wondering how to convince their friends that they didn’t do anything wrong.

As one of those amusing twisting paths of history, I only discovered this song because I had bought a DVD of Simon & Garfunkel’s concert in central park in 1982, where they played this song. I’m not sure why they did; I believe that all of the other songs that they played were their own. Still, they played it, and I was quite confident that they didn’t write it as it didn’t sound at all like them (though they did a great job singing it).

I prefer the Everly Brothers version, but only a little.

The Far Side Really Likes Westerns

I recently came across a Far Side cartoon (unfortunately there’s no point linking it because they disappear after a few days and they don’t allow any kind of embedding) which was subitled “Cattle Drive Quartets”. In it four tough-looking cowboys are sitting around a campfire playing stringed instruments. One of them is saying to another:

Gus, what the hell you doin’? This is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” third movement, minueto allegreto, you brainless horned toad!

Part of the humor is, of course, based on familiarity with the tropes of Westerns. These are four tough, grizzled men. They’ve spent many years able to survive on their own or in very small groups, hundreds of miles from civilization. They’ve braved outlaws, desperados, wild animals, and all manner of things. And they’ve endured enormous amounts of solitude.

For a long time, this was standard cultural knowledge. But when I had to explain some of this after showing it to my son, I realized just how much westerns are no longer part of the broader culture. In one sense this is normal enough; trends in entertainment come and go. There are various things that made Westerns especially popular in movies and TV during the 1950s and 1960s—how cheap they were to film near Hollywood, for example. And yet they were no flash in the pan. Something I learned in the biography of William Gillette (“America’s Sherlock Holmes”) was that westerns were popular in plays long before they were popular in movies, and their popularity did not abate before they became popular in movies. They were popular in radio before they became popular in television, as Gunsmoke can attest. Bonanza, which ran from 1959-1973, was commonly available as re-runs on television when I was growing up in the 1980s. For a decent time afterwards, all sorts of shows would feature a western episode, with the characters riding horses in some sort of cowboy getup.

Narrative entertainment hasn’t entirely lost its taste for westerns. In the 1990s you had films like City Slickers and Tombstone. Even as late as 2007 there was 3:10 To Yuma. Though not a western, per se, 2019’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about westerns, if to some degree about their demise.

Though they’re not gone, Westerns are certainly no longer ubiquitous. I can’t help but think that’s in no small part because the sorts of virtues they make it easy to explore, people are no longer interested in. I suspect that, even more than that, Hollywood is no longer interested in them.

It’s Weird What You Can Be Nostalgic For

When I was a kid growing up in the New York metro area I would often see a local commercial for a resort in the Poconos (a mountain range in eastern Pennsylvania) called Mount Airy Lodge. My family never went there. So far as I know I never even wanted to go there. Their commercials were extremely catchy, though, and occasionally I find myself singing their jingle because something will remind me of it. I find it very strange that I can be nostalgic for seeing a commercial for a place I was never interested in going to. Granted, the commercial made the place look like fun, it wasn’t really my kind of fun back then (or now, for the most part). Despite all that, the jingle reminds me of my childhood in a non-specific kind of way that can, for a short time, feel nice. (I am not wistful for my childhood; while I had a good childhood I like being an adult far better.)

Nostalgia is a very strange feeling when it is not connected to some form of escapism. When it is so connected it’s quite easy to understand; longing for a time when one was not subject to the stresses one is currently subject to requires no real explanation. This also is not remembering good times fondly. That too requires no explanation. Nostalgia can be for things that were not good times. Certainly, commercials were not why one watched television back then.


According to Wikipedia, Mount Airy Lodge was built in the 1890s and closed in October of 2001. Not a bad run, as these things go. Here’s the commercial which brought up this blog post: