Setting for Book 4?

I’ve only written about 1 paragraph of the Third Chronicle of Brother Thomas (edits are finished on the Second Chronicle of Brother Thomas and Silver Empire has it slated for publication in March). And it’s got a great setting: a remote vacation resort in the Adirondack mountains where there isn’t internet, cell service, or even electricity. I’m really looking forward to writing that one. (The very tentative title for the book is “He Didn’t Drown in the Lake”.) But I thought of a great setting for Book 4.

A renaissance fair.

I was thinking that the fair grounds could be next to a benedictine abbey, and the fair itself could be named after the abbey next to it. So the book could be titled, for example, Saint Paul’s Fair. Or Saint Anselm’s Fair (that one has a ring to it). Or Saint Benedict’s Fair. (All three are real Abbey names in the US.)

An especially fun coincidence would be that my favorite Brother Cadfael mystery, Saint Peter’s Fair, happens to be the fourth chronicle of Brother Cadfael.

I have no idea who the victim or the murderer will be. For stuff like that I probably should get a lot further in book 3, first.

The Evolution To a Parody

If you missed it, back in 2012, Gotye released the brilliant song Somebody That I Used To Know:

As a side note, it’s so good I made a video about the ideas in it:

What’s important to the moment, however, is that it was covered by a band called “Walk Off The Earth,” playing in an unusual and resourceful style:

Then, finally, The Key of Awesome parodied this version of it:

I think my favorite line from the parody is “Tony is addicted to a wide array of narcotics. He says they help him write, but we’re a cover band.”

Frozen is a Surprisingly Christian Movie

My four year old daughter was lent a DVD of the Disney movie Frozen, and in consequence I’ve seen it about a dozen times (so far). It really surprised me just how Christian the movie actually is, especially because it’s almost certain that was not intentional.

I’m going to run through the main plot elements to show what I mean.

The plot begins with two princesses, Anna and her older sister Elsa, playing at night. Elsa has the magic power to create ice is various forms, both solid and snow. Right away, there is an interesting sort of contradiction contained in this power, since on the one hand cold is negative—the absence of heat—and on the other hand she is able to create water, though frozen, from nothing. She has the power to create, but in a very limited way.

Now, normally when a female character has some sort of power, it tends to be a symbol for that great feminine power—fertility. You can generally see this because in the typical case everyone loves her for it (except for other women who are jealous, of course). That is not the case, here. Her ice powers work much better as a symbol of intellectual power and as we will see later, like intellectual powers her ice power isolates her from people.

As the children are playing with the snow Elsa creates, she slips and accidentally hits her sister in the head with a blast of ice, freezing her head. Anna lays comatose and cold as ice, and Elsa calls out to her parents for help. They come and take the children to the trolls, who as magical creatures can deal with magic. The chief troll tells the King that it is fortunate that she was not hit in her heart:

You are lucky it wasn’t her heart. The heart is not so easily changed. But the head can be persuaded.

Here, we really see the symbolism of Elsa’s power almost explicitly. She has the ability to affect the heart and the head. Of the two, it is more fortunate to be injured in the head, because the head can be more easily changed. This is quite correct. Purely intellectual errors can be fixed relatively easily, and even somewhat adversarially. By forcing a man who holds an idea merely as an idea to defend it, one can force him to realize that it is indefensible. Rarely, it is true, will he admit it in the heat of argument, but if it was purely an intellectual attachment to the idea, it will happen soon afterwards, when he has had time to think it through. To change his heart, he must repent.

The chief troll gives Elsa a warning:

Listen to me, Elsa. Your power will only grow. There is beauty in it but also great danger. You must learn to control it. Fear will be your enemy.

While giving this warning he conjures up a vision of people turning on her because of her power, and she’s scared. Her father, not she, responds:

We’ll protect her. She can learn to control it, I’m sure. Until then, we’ll lock the gates. We’ll reduce the staff. We will limit her contact with people, and keep her powers hidden from everyone. Including Anna.

There are several things wrong with this. The biggest problem is that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what control is. Control is the ability to use force precisely—to accomplish one’s intentions without causing other effects. Control is what allows an adult that can snap a tree branch in half to make a crib for a baby then caress it while it’s lying down to go to sleep. What the King intends is for Elsa to suppress her power.

The difference between those two is stark. Elsa’s power is natural to her—this was made explicit when the troll chief asked if she was born with the power or cursed, and her father answered “born with it”. To control her power is to become fully herself, that is, to act in full accord with her nature. To suppress her power is to act against her nature and to be less than herself.

The other major problem is that the King is entirely passive in this, despite being Anna’s father. He uses the passive voice, “She can learn,” not “We will teach her.” He wants the problem to just go away—he wants Elsa to raise herself.

Indeed, his only real contribution to helping Elsa even to suppress her powers as she grows is to give her gloves and the extremely unhelpful advice:

Conceal it. Don’t feel it. Don’t let it show.

A person can direct their attention, to some degree at least, but cannot control what they feel. What they can do is control how they act in spite of their feelings. Control requires some positive goal, however, that can be focused on in spite of whatever feelings the world may thrust upon one. This, Elsa is not given. (We’ll come back to this, because the movie does.)

We then fast-forward in time, and the King and Queen die in a storm at sea, leaving the two girls orphans. Some time later, it is “Coronation Day” when Elsa is old enough to be crowned queen. (How the government of Arandel works is not explained, and even the technology is a weird mismash of the mid-1800s, the late middle ages, and everything inbetween.)

At the coronation party, Anna spends time getting to know a man she met earlier that day when he bumped into her. His name is Prince Hans, of the Southern Isles. They have a whirlwind romance in the space of an hour or two, culminating in Prince Hans proposing marriage and Anna accepting. When they ask the new Queen for her blessing, she refuses, and getting angry in response to Anna’s anger, she impulsively creates a large wall of ice as a barrier to keep Anna way. Her powers revealed to everyone, she runs away into the mountains, where we get the most famous song of the movie:

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation
And it looks like I’m the queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand and here I stay
Let the storm rage on
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back, the past is in the past
Let it go
The cold never bothered me anyway
Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on
the cold never bothered me anyway

The music and Idina Mendel’s singing sound great, but if you pay attention to the lyrics, they are basically the lyrics of a villain. And, in fact, Elsa is the villain of this movie. She is a realistic villain, though, not a cartoon villain. I think the reason that has confused so many people is that this movie is a cartoon. Still, it is what it is; Elsa is a realistic villain, who is scared and afraid and wrong and doesn’t really mean anyone any harm even though she causes them harm she is culpable for.

Anna goes after her sister to try to bring Elsa back. (Along the way she finds Christoff, who agrees to help her in exchange for carrots for his reindeer.) When she finds Elsa, Elsa tells her to go away, that she’ll be safe as long as Elsa is alone. Anna tells Elsa that in fact Elsa has created a perpetual winter of Arandel, and no one is safe. Elsa is distraught, partially at what she’s done, but mostly that it means that she can’t be free. During a musical number when Anna is singing that they can solve the problem together and Elsa is complaining that she can’t be free, she lets out a blast of her power that hits Anna in the heart. She tells Anna to leave, then when Anna refuses to abandon Elsa, she creates a snow monster to force Anna to leave.

Here we see Elsa more-or-less explicitly choosing to be a villain when confronted with the choice between selfishness and love. She does, after this, try to stop the snow on Arandel by repeating to herself, over and over, “Don’t feel. Don’t feel,” as if that could somehow do some good. It’s not that she doesn’t care about Arandel at all; the problem is that she will only care about it on her terms. Even if she couldn’t stop the eternal winter, her power, used in Arandel, could do much to alleviate the suffering the eternal winter is causing. She doesn’t even consider this, because she lets her fear control her.

Anna begins to feel the effects of Elsa’s blast, and Christoff takes her to the trolls to get her help. There the troll chief tells her:

Anna, your life is in danger. There is ice in your heart, put there by your sister. If not removed, to solid ice will you freeze, forever.

Christoff asks if the troll chief can remove it.

I cannot. I’m sorry, Christoff. If it was her head, that would be easy, but only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.

One of the trolls suggests that a “true love’s kiss” might be such an act of love, and Christoff takes Anna to Prince Hans. He leaves her in Arandel, trusting that she will be taken care of. Anna is brought by the servants to Prince Hans, and there left alone with him. He reveals that he never loved Anna but only sought power, and her desperation to be loved made her easy prey. He douses the fire and leaves her to die while he goes off to kill the queen and usurp the throne.

However, Elsa escapes from the dungeon and creates a raging storm that obscures most things. Christoff sees the storm and comes back to help Anna. She sees him riding his reindeer toward her and stumbles out of the castle In the climax of the movie, just as Christoff and Anna almost find each other Anna sees Prince Hans about to kill Elsa. Anna rushes in and protects her sister with her body. She turns to solid ice a moment before the sword hits her, and in a magic blast from her turning to ice the sword is shattered and Prince Hans is knocked back, unconscious.

Elsa, seeing her sister turned into an ice statue, weeps over her, but a moment later Anna begins to thaw. Elsa asks Anna why she sacrificed herself for Elsa, and Anna replies, “because I love you.” Elsa, enlightened, realizes that love can end the raging storm, and she thaws Arandel, ending the permanent winter.

It is tempting to take all this as a mere reversal of the common trope; instead of the man saving Anna she saves herself. It is entirely possible that was how this plot came to be. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the writer was trying to do, what she did was to write a very Christian story.

Anna was saved, not by another creature’s romantic love for her, but by her generous love for another. “Greater love hath no man,” says Christ, “than to lay down his life for a friend.”

Anna was not, however, alone. Had Christoff not first loved her (in the sense of generous love) enough to take her to Prince Hans, what followed would not have happened. Had he not loved her enough to come back for her when he saw that Arandel was in danger, she would not have left the castle where she was huddling next to the fire for warmth, and would not have been near Elsa when Prince Hans moved to strike her down. In short, she was only able to make her sacrifice for her sister because of the love she was shown.

And then we get to the fascinating metaphor of there being ice in her heart put there by her sister. Here we have a recognition that a person can, if they let themselves, become twisted by another. Eve Keneinan has pointed out, more than once, that in the modern world we like to believe that victims are, by virtue of their victimhood, virtuous. Quite the contrary, victims often become vicious. And here we have that acknowledgement—Anna will die, if she cannot love, because of her sister’s hurting her.

We also, in all this, see how well Elsa’s power works as a metaphor for intellectual power. When she merely, through her power, gave her sister a wrong idea, the troll chief could fix that. But when, through her selfishness, she hurt her sister’s heart, fixing that could not be done by another. It’s an excellent metaphor for Modern Philosophy and things like Classical Liberalism (a la Voltaire). Where someone is merely wrong about these things as an idea, he can be set right by another through simple argumentation. When people act on these bad ideas, they injure themselves and others in ways that mere argumentation cannot fix. Having put theory into practice, it no longer suffices to change the theory. They must now repent. The Greek for “repent” is μετάνοια (metanoia). More literally, to turn around. Ideas are dangerous, but practice is more dangerous. Ideas have consequences.

There is another fascinating bit, when Christoff brings Anna to the trolls to heal her, they misunderstand at first and think that he brought Anna as a potential wife. When they find out that she’s reluctant, they sing a song asking her why. In this song they say that he’s a bit of a fixer-upper, and talk about some of his superficial flaws, but point out (obliquely) that these are merely superficial. There is, however, a very curious caveat that they put into the song:

We’re not saying you can change him, ’cause people don’t really change
We’re only saying that love’s a force that’s powerful and strange
People make bad choices if they’re mad, or scared, or stressed
Throw a little love their way (throw a little love their way) and you’ll bring out their best
True love brings out their best!

The first thing to note is that this caveat, though important, is (as stated) wrong. People do change. People can also change each other. Heck, the main plot point of the movie is that Elsa changed her sister (“put ice in her heart”).

What is true is that people can very rarely change other people according to their intentions. Most of the time the effect we have on others is not the effect we intend to have. The other important thing to note is that we can only change others when they are ready to change. You can’t take a drunkard and make him sober. You can, possibly, help him to become sober when he’s ready to become sober. And you probably won’t know when that is.

This is especially true with romantic partners, because (God willing) romantic partners are soon to become parents. They will soon have a ton of work to do in raising new people to be human beings. This means that they will both be under a lot of stress, rely on each other constantly, and will have very little in the way of energy left to try to change each other anyway. In short, the last people who can intentionally change each other are romantic partners.

Except about superficial stuff. Then they’re really good at it.

A husband and wife, if they’re even quarter-way decent human beings, want to get along with each other. They need to be tolerant of each other’s failings, but in general they will be pretty willing to load the dishwasher differently or accommodate themselves to toilet paper being put on the roll incorrectly, or what-have-you. Superficial similarities are worthless, because the superficial stuff does change pretty readily.

The big problem, in mate selection, is mistaking something important like character or honesty for something superficial like how one prefers the toilet paper to be on the roll. Unrefined people can become refined fairly readily, and if they don’t, it doesn’t actually matter all that much. People can compromise that muddy clothes can come into the basement, but they have to stay there. By contrast, vicious people can become virtuous, but it’s a terrible bet to make with one’s children’s future.

Plus, vicious people becoming virtuous often requires something dramatic, like sacrificing one’s life for them.

Christianity is Not a Cuckold Religion

In a very interesting video, Jonathan Pageau (of The Symbolic World) discussed the question of whether Christianity is a Cuckold religion:

He did an excellent job discussing cuckolding in human society and patterns related to it one sees in human society (such as war rape and sexual taxes to a chief/lord). He also did a good job talking about how Christianity got rid of those patterns.

What’s really weird is that he didn’t talk about the symbolic structure, either of cuckolding, or of Christianity. That sort of thing is usually his bread and butter.

So let’s do that.

In order to see the structure of cuckolding and why Christianity is not a cuckold religion, it will be helpful to start with etymology. The word “cuckold” comes from the Cuckoo bird.

The common Cuckoo

The Cuckoo is a nest parasite. It looks for the nests of certain other species of birds and when it is unguarded, it throws an egg from the nest out and lays one of its own in its place. When the baby Cuckoo hatches, it generally throws the rest of the eggs, or if it didn’t hatch first, the other baby birds, out of the nest, too. The parents of the nest then feed the baby Cuckoo until it is old enough to care for itself.

The much larger bird, sitting on the nest, is the baby Cuckoo.

(Both images are from the Wikipedia page on Cuckoos.)

The symbolic structure of the Cuckoo’s nest parasitism is replacement. The Cuckoo replaces the offspring of another bird with its own offspring; its line continues at the expense of the line of the other birds. They do the work of raising it and get nothing out of it.

In humans, by analogy, cuckolding is when a woman is unfaithful to her husband, and another man fathers a child with her that her husband raises as if it were his. Here, too, we see replacement, but in humans it is an incomplete replacement. Human beings, when we raise children, do a heck of a lot more than just feed them. We raise our young; we teach them and shape them. An extremely large fraction of who they are as an adult is given to them not by genetics, but by their upbringing. An adopted son is not a biological son, but he is still a son. When his adopted father and his biological father are old, he will care for his adopted father, not his biological father. This does not make cuckolding OK, but it is important to note that the replacement is incomplete. This will be relevant later.

So now we come to the part of Christianity which some describe as Cuckolding: the virgin birth, and Joseph raising the child as his own.

In order to see whether the virgin birth of Jesus was cuckolding, we need to look at the structure of what happened. Recall, cuckolding is replacement. Was there replacement? The answer is: no.

In a normal birth, God creates a new human being, giving a portion of the creation of his body to a father and a mother who come together to make it. The technical term for what the parents do is secondary causation. God could create a new human being entirely on his own, but instead he gives it to human beings to be part of his act of creation. In the case of Jesus, only one human being was given the privilege of secondary causation—Mary, his mother. What’s important to notice is that this does not change God’s role in the creation of the Jesus’ human nature. God is not more active, as if he somehow normally depends on a human father and without his help he had to do more work.

A useful analogy to consider is an author writing a story. If the author normally has two characters have sex and this gets the woman pregnant, the author does not do any less work than if he writes the woman getting pregnant without a man. (If anything, he does slightly more work, in that it would take more words to set up and describe, but this may just be the analogy breaking down.)

So in the conception of Jesus, there is no replacement of Joseph, he simply is not given a part in it. There is no other creature who has taken his part. There is just no father at all. Importantly, God did not take the part of the human father, he took the part he always takes in giving existence to all of creation at every moment of time. He simply didn’t give a portion of that work to a creature to be part of.

So the conception of Jesus was not cuckolding, because there was no replacement. What of the other aspect—of raising a child as one’s own?

This Joseph does with Jesus. However, this is the same raising of a child as one’s own that happens in any case of adoption. And, indeed, Joseph raising Jesus is clearly a case of adoption:

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel,” a name which means “God-is-with-us”. When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took is wife to his home; he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.

God clearly asks Joseph to be a father to Jesus, and Joseph accepts. And this is the key: in so doing, Jesus becomes a son of Joseph. Joseph gives Jesus his name. Not only his first name, but his family name—Jesus is in the line of David through Joseph.

So if you want to say that Christianity is a religion of adoption, you won’t be wrong. In fact, adoption is one of the main themes of Christianity. You might almost say that God was adopted by man so that man might be adopted by God.

This is why—among other reasons—Christianity had the effects which Jonathan described. God is not merely the highest, but unlike human beings. As Bishop Barron might say, God cannot cuckold a human being because God is not in competition with human beings. The milkman can cuckold a human being. Ghengis Khan did. Zeus could have, if he was real. God simply can’t. All things have their limits, even omnipotence. In particular, omnipotence can’t be limited.

Well, except for the incarnation. But when he could compete with people, Christ didn’t.

Jesus never cuckolded anyone.

And a servant is not greater than his master.

Watching On-Demand TV

Occasionally my ten-year-old son and I will watch an episode of Murder, She Wrote together. I received the DVD complete box set for Christmas last year, which means that we can watch an episode whenever we want. Curiously, the result has been that we don’t watch all that often.

When I was a kid my parents and I would watch Murder, She Wrote with absolute regularity. We never missed an episode. So I got to thinking about why it is that my Son and I watch it so irregularly.

Part of it, of course, is that he likes it, but doesn’t love it as much as I do. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but it’s natural enough, since I love it quite a lot—most people will tend to be less extreme than that. But there is another reason.

When I was a kid, you had to watch the episode when it came on or you missed it. It would eventually be available as a re-run, but that would be in months, and without great predictability, as the TV stations didn’t do something simple (so far as I can recall, anyway) like air re-runs in the same order they ran in. Plus, you could never be certain you would catch the episode when it re-ran, which meant a longer and still less predictable time till you could watch it.

All of this produced an urgency to watching the episode when it aired that was both a good excuse for making it happen but also helped to make it happen. When one can watch an episode whenever one wants, one needs a good reason to watch now, as opposed to tomorrow. And tomorrow can easily turn into the day after. And the day after can easily turn into next week. And next week can easily turn into next month.

In some sense, this is just removing an artificial limitation which made the episodes seem more important than they were. It is, in a real sense, regarding TV episodes with their actual value. Because, truth be told, TV episodes just aren’t that great. They were made in a hurry. Regularity was more important than quality. Getting people to sit through commercials and come back was more important than quality, too.

In spite of that some TV shows really were special; there were TV shows with genuinely good episodes. Murder, She Wrote did have some well constructed mysteries. They couldn’t really compare to a good mystery novel, though, and when one can watch the episode any time, it quite frequently seems like a better use of time to read the novel. The episode will always be there tomorrow, if one really wants to watch it.

There is something lost in all this, which I think is no small part of the fondness which people like me who grew up with broadcast television feel the loss of. Broadcast television gave a rhythm to life. When favorite shows were on Monday at 6:00, Tuesday at 6:30, and Thursday at 7:00, these made Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays feel like Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Even if one went into another room and read a book because one didn’t like a show, one went into that other room and read a book every Monday. There was not only a rhythm, but a shared rhythm.

There are much better places to get shared rhythms for life than from entertainment paid for by copious commercials. I am not here saying that the death of broadcast television is not for the best. It is. I’m only saying why it doesn’t entirely feel like it.

(And yes, this phenomenon still applies in its entirety to the practice of watching live sports, and may explain a portion of that activity’s ongoing popularity.)

A Great Map Projection Joke

Today’s XKCD on the South America map projection is pretty funny:

The thing is, you have to read the alt text to really get the joke. It is:

The projection does a good job preserving both distance and azimuth, at the cost of really exaggerating how many South Americas there are.

(If you aren’t familiar with the debates over map projections, the fundamental problem a map has is that it’s impossible to correctly project the surface of a sphere onto a flat (uniform) 2-dimensional surface like a piece of paper. Something must be distorted in order to do it; the typical Mercator map greatly exaggerates the size of things at extreme latitudes. Other projections, such as the orange peel projection, tend to get relative sizes more correct at the expense of not being able to measure distances accurately. There are other kinds of map projection with other tradeoffs, too, each with those who strongly favor them while criticizing the rest.)

Weird Al's CNR

My post yesterday about Chuck Norris Facts reminded me of a song by Weird Al about Charles Neson Reilly:

The song is a bit hit or miss, and I’d never heard of Charles Nelson Reilly prior to the Weird Al song and so have grave doubts that the man lives up to the legend nearly as much as Chuck Norris lives up to his. Still, I do like one of CNR’s achievements mentioned in the song:

Charles Nelson Reilly won the tour de france with two flat tires and a missing chain.

(If you don’t know, the tour de france is a bicycle race, possibly the premier bicycle race in the world.)

Chuck Norris Facts

I recently introduced my children to the style of humor called Chuck Norris “facts”. If you don’t know who Chuck Norris is, here’s him as a young man fighting Bruce Lee:

And here is an older Chuck Norris playing Walker, Texas Ranger:

Since he (that is, his character) eventually loses in the fight with Bruce Lee, I presume that Walker, Texas Ranger has more to do with Chuck Norris’s reputation. Be that as it may, there is a popular style of humor which is a list of facts about Chuck Norris that describes how tough and good at fighting he is. For example

A cobra once bit Chuck Norris on the leg. After five agonizing days, the cobra finally died.

Another great Chuck Norris fact is:

Chuck Norris’s periodic table only has one element on it: the element of surprise.

My boys (at the time of writing, 10 and 7) have really taken to these facts, and even tried inventing their own. The seven year old understands the element of exaggeration, but he (unsurprisingly) has difficulty with the element of setting up an expectation. So his versions tend to be things like:

Chuck Norris can punch a black hole and blow it up.

I’m not normally one for puns, but it lacks punch. Anyway, there are a lot of great Chuck Norris facts. I’m not going to reprint an entire archive of them (many of which can be found with a simple google search), but here is a selection of my favorites:

  • On a math test, Chuck Norris answered “violence” for every problem and got an A+, because Chuck Norris can solve every problem with violence.
  • Chuck Norris can speak French, in Russian.
  • Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird.
  • Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.
  • Chuck Norris can pick apples from an orange tree and make the best lemonade you’ve ever tasted.
  • Chuck Norris tells Simon what to do.
  • When the Bogeyman goes to sleep at night, he checks under his bed for Chuck Norris.
  • Chuck Norris doesn’t cheat death. He wins fair and square.
  • Bigfoot claims he once saw Chuck Norris.
  • Superman owns a pair of Chuck Norris pajamas.
  • Chuck Norris once won a staring context with the sun.
  • Fear of spiders is called arachnophobia, fear of confined spaces is called claustrophobia, and fear of Chuck Norris is called common sense.

Starting a Cast List

So despite the fact that I’m supposed to be taking a break, I’ve begun work on the characters and plot of the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake.

The murder takes place at a rustic resort in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York where there is no internet, no cell reception, and not even any electricity. I’ve worked out who the victim is, who the murderer is, and why it was done. I’ve still to figure out how it was done, but I’m working on the other characters, first, since that may well impact how it was done.

So now I’m working out a list of who will be vacationing at the mountain resort. There are a lot of possibilities. So far, I’m considering having two novelists on a writing retreat, one in his twenties and the other in his forties.

Fun times.

Forgotten Literary Influences

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, written by H. Douglas Thomson in 1931. One of the things which I’ve been getting out of it is an idea of what the popular mystery novels were at the time, which I’ve never heard of.

For full disclosure, the mystery authors I’ve actually read something by, from the early days and the golden age of mystery, are, in no particular order: Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, S.S. Van Dine, and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

It’s not a long list, and not all of them have been by recommendation. I read Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue because it was the first detective story. I read S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case out of curiosity since Van Dine had written up a set of rules of detective fiction I’ve seen referenced numerous times on Wikipedia. I read The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart because it was supposed to be the origin of the phrase, “The Butler Did It”. (See my series on that phrase, if you haven’t read it yet.) And I’ve read most of Fr. Knox’s mysteries, but I started because he was a friend of G.K. Chesterton and because he wrote a famous ten commandments of detective fiction.

So if we subtract those, the mystery writers from that era which I’ve actually read because someone recommended them to me are: Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie. In my youth, that was my impression of the time period.

As I grew older, I realized that there must be other mystery writers of the time period that I was just unfamiliar with, but it was only in recent years that I came to appreciate just how popular a genre mystery was in those days, both to read and to write.

The thing which really drove it home to me was a short story entitled What, No Butler? about the accidental detective, Broadway. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

Incidentally, I looked up the two works cited. “What, No Butler?” seems to be a short story by Damon Runyon. I can’t find much information about it; according to Wikipedia it was in a book called Runyon on Broadway. It was performed on radio in 1946 and that performance is available on youtube. I don’t know when it was originally published. The story does have humor in it, but to call it satire seems like quite a stretch. Early in the story, the character Broadway (who I believe is a theater critic) says authoritatively upon finding out that a man was murdered that the butler did it. When he’s told that the victim didn’t have a butler, he insists that they have to find the butler, because in every play he sees with a murder in it, the butler did it.

What caught my attention was the reference, not to novels or even to magazine stories, but to plays. I know of literally one detective play, The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie, which I only know about only because I was reading the wikipedia article about Ms. Christie. (Incidentally, it is the longest running play ever put on, being continually put on since 1952. Its 25,000th performance was in 2012.) There is evidence, though, that detective plays were fairly common.

This escaped me in no small part because plays have largely gone away as a form of common entertainment. Aside from high schools and community theater, plays are mostly a broadway affair for wealthy people and tourists in NYC. (This is not quite true, as there are actually plays elsewhere, but it is approximately true.) Back in the day, however, they seem to have had more of the role of television, these days, with plays being frequently written and performed for only a short time to be replaced by others. Television is a superior medium for this sort of fast-paced churn of mediocre writing, so it is natural that it would have eliminated it. But in that vane, we might take all of the episodes of a show like Murder, She Wrote to be somewhat representative of what plays of the era might have been like. Here today, gone tomorrow, and only meant for an evening’s entertainment.

Another blind spot in my knowledge of the time were short stories printed in magazines. Because novels are the dominant form of written fiction in our day, I tend think primarily of the novels written during the early days of detective fiction, or of collections of short stories. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, magazines had enormous circulations and were apparently where the real money was in writing fiction. Even novels which we read today as novels, from the time period, were frequently originally published as serializations in a magazine. But of course short stories were extremely popular.

Of these blind spots, I was to some degree cognizant. What Masters of Mystery really drove home to me was the great number of popular detectives even available in novels which I had never heard of.

I had seen a few references to Dr. Thorndyke in the Lord Peter Wimsey stories—it turns out that he was a character in Dr. Austin Freeman’s popular detective stories. There were many others I had not heard of, though, and the push and pull of what constitutes the ideal detective story, as each writers takes in his turn to write his own detective, is quite interesting to see.

Possibly the most interesting to me at the moment is Mr. A.E.W. Mason’s Inspector Hanaud. First appearing in a story published in 1910, he is thought to have had some influence on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, especially when it comes to physical description, but also to brilliant intuition and a psychological approach. Interestingly, in looking this up to confirm some points on Wikipedia, I ran into this:

Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.

So it seems that perhaps the second most famous detective of all time (the most famous being Sherlock Holmes) drew very heavy inspiration from a number of sources, most of which (aside from Holmes) have been long forgotten.

It is yet more evidence that it is not originality which matters, but the quality of execution.

That said, Agatha Christie was a very original writer. Not, precisely, in her subject matter, but in her approach to it. She managed to pull off things which others could not. Perhaps the greatest example of this is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Prior to this, Fr. Knox, in his decalogue, had given two rules which are here relevant:

  1. (1) The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. (7) The detective himself must not commit the crime.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke both, and did so not only well, but even fairly. So well and so fairly that in a 1938 commentary on his rules, Fr. Knox said:

The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.

One such ingenious story would be enough for everyone, but Mrs. Christie pulled off at least a second, with her Murder on the Orient Express. This one did not break one of the rules of the decalogue, but it did break the generally unstated rule that there should be one or two murderers. Instead, Mrs. Christie pulled off a story in which everyone (with a few minor exceptions) did it. Every suspect (and several non-suspects) turned out to be guilty. Her originality consisted not in the idea—”everyone did it” is the sort of thing anyone might think of—but in figuring out how to make it work.

This is something those of us writing today should take to heart. In English class in high school we hear much about originality and genius. The reality of writing novels is that what really matters is doing a good job.

Question for Readers

One of the downsides to blog statistics is that one gets relatively little information about what people are reading. (Except in the archives, but that’s +/- more about search engine results than anything else.) So I have a question for you, gentle reader.

Of the various things that I write about, is there anything you’d like to see me write more about? Or, somewhat equivalently, when do you think this blog is at its best?

I thank you in advance for any answers you might give.

The Early Days of the Detective Story

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story. The first chapter deals with the question of whether the detective story is literature, and if so, whether it is good literature. There are two things that particularly caught my attention: the enormous popularity of the detective story, and the basic morality of the detective story.

The first is very interesting because I’ve seen it in detective fiction from the era, but I never knew what to make of that. The example which most leaps out at me is Harriet Vane’s reception by the dons in Gaudy Night. A great many of them had read her books and were fans. It almost has the same feeling as the near-universal name recognition of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. In Jessica’s case, however, we know this to be a tremendous exaggeration. It was more plausible in the case of Harriet Vane, though, because television had not yet been invented and talkies (movies with recorded dialog) were only in their infancy. It is, therefore, interesting to see a description, if, granted, from an interested party, of how widespread was the interest in detective stories around the time of 1930. It was popular with educated people, with common people, with respectable people—in short, there was no notable group of people not reading detective stories at this time.

The other interesting thing which leapt out at me was the critique of the detective story as dangerous to morals, and the response that the detective story was, fundamentally, a moral story. That is, the detective story takes as given the ordinary moral framework of right and wrong and man’s duty to do right and to refrain from doing wrong. This interests me so much, not because it is a revelation—it is, after all, obviously true—but because I’ve seen it used as an explanation for why the detective story is so enduringly popular even until our own times (I write this at the end of the year of our Lord 2019).

It has been argued (possibly even by me) that the detective story and its modern television cousin, the police procedural, is the only modern story in which basic morality is taken for granted. It is curious to see that this was to some degree true even in the early days of detective stories.

An example given as contrast was An American Tragedy, which was the only assigned reading in highschool I never finished. I just couldn’t stand the book; I made it about halfway through and gave up, reading the Cliff’s Notes instead of finishing the wretched thing. The short short version of it is that a young man makes all sorts of awful life choices during the great depression and is eventually executed for murdering a woman he seduced (in order to be available to marry a rich woman). The main character is a bad man who learns nothing, and the book does not even appreciate the justice of him paying for his crime.

It was published in 1925.

Bad books have been around for quite a long time.

Talking of the Past in the Past

A few years ago a dear friend of mine gave me the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story, and I’ve finally started reading it. I’ll be writing about what it says about the detective story in another post; here I want to talk about something interesting in the timing of the book, and of the introduction which came later, as the copy I was given is actually a reprint.

Masters of Mystery was written by H. Douglas Thomson and originally published in 1931. The reprint and its foreward were made in 1978, three years short of the book’s fiftieth anniversary.

The book itself was written at an interesting time, given that 1931 was only the middle of the golden age of detective fiction and had yet to see most of the work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, to name just two giants of the genre.

Further making it an interesting time, detective fiction was not that old. Granted, the first detective stories are generally reckoned to be Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin stories, the first of which, Murders in the Rue Morgue, being published in 1841. There seems to be fairly little—in English—before Conan Doyle published Sherlock Holmes in 1887. 1931 was a scant 44 years later. That is enough time for much to have happened, but it was still early days.

We come, now, to the foreward which interests me, being written a slightly longer time in the future, and taking a historical look at how Masters of Mystery held up. It was written by a E.F. Bleiler, who according to Wikipedia was “an American editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature.” He worked as an editor at the American publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons at the time of the reprint, but as he only left Dover in 1977 and it was Dover that did the reprint, it is possible that he wrote it while an editor at the publisher. He may have been, therefore, less an expert sought out for his opinion and more a man who happened to be around.

He praises the book, but also notes some weaknesses. Some may be fair, such as noting that Thomson leaves off much about the early days of detective fiction—for the understandable reason that not much was known, especially then and even now, of it.

He makes the somewhat odd claim that Detective mysteries were at the time Thomson wrote predominantly “house party” crimes. This is odd in that it’s simply false if predicated of the famous stories of the time. It was a common enough setting, but among the detective stories which have come to us at the time of my writing, it certainly did not predominate. How common it was amongst the stories which have long since been forgotten, I cannot say.

The really interesting claim, though, is rooted firmly in its time:

Thomson’s critical standards were often a function of his day, but two more personal flaws in his work must be mentioned. His worst gaffe, of course, is his failure to estimate Hammett’s work adequately. While Hammett-worship may be excessive at the moment, it is still perplexing that Thomson could have missed Hammett’s imagination, powerful writing, and ability to convey a social or moral message. Related to this lacuna is Thomson’s lack of awareness of the other better American writers of his day, men who stood just as high as the better English writers that he praises. It was inexcusable to be unaware of the work of Melville D. Post, F.I. Anderson and T.S. Stribling. It is also surprising, since all three men were writers of world reputation at this time.

To deal with the last, first: I’ve never heard of Post, Anderson, or Stribling. F.I. Anderson does not even have a wikipedia page. Such is the short duration of fame, I suppose, that a man can be castigated for not talking about famous men 48 years after his book that, 44 years later, are generally unknown.

Dashiell Hammett, I do of course know of. That said, it is funny to me to speak of Hammett as some sort of master that everyone must talk about. I’ve met exactly one person who seriously likes Dashiell Hammett’s writing, and I don’t even know his name—I struck up a conversation with him while waiting to pick up Chinese food one night.

I suspect that Hammett’s reputation in the 1970s was a product of the success of the movies based upon his books. The casting for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man were excellent, and anyone having seem them—as an editor working for Dover in 1977 almost certainly would have—cannot help but read the tremendous performances of the actors into the words on the page. If one does not picture Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, much of the magic is lost.

Again, I should note that in the main Blieler’s foreward is positive and mostly about how Masters of Mystery is worth reading. I was merely struck by how much the retrospective criticisms of it were a product of their time, but were phrased as if they were now timeless.

Especially the Lies

There was a very interesting character in Star Trek: Deep Space 9 who was a deeply enigmatic character that was basically a spy and/or secret police officer who had possibly defected. More or less he was in the position of possibly being a gestapo agent who fled from Nazi Germany prior to the Nazis losing WWII. Instead of the Nazis, it was the Cardassians, and instead of the Gestapo, it was the Obsidian Order, but the basic structure holds.

This is an interesting character because one doesn’t know whether he left as a matter of principle, or if he was driven out merely by political considerations, or if he never left at all and his job as a tailor and status as a refugee is merely a cover. He is, of course, charming and charismatic, and denies ever having been of any importance, or a member of the Obsidian Order, and always claims that he’s “Just plain simple Garak.”

There’s an episode (or possibly a few episodes) in which his past is explored. I should note, in passing, that my suspicion is that in usual TV fashion, I don’t think that the writers ever did decide on a backstory. TV writers are much better at hints than worked-out ideas. Be that as it may, it was interesting, and there were a number of highly conflicting stories that surfaced about Garak’s past. When the episode (or arc) ended, Garak spoke with his friend, Dr. Bashir, who asked him about the stories.

Bashir: You know, I still have a lot of questions to ask you about your past.
Garak: I’ve given you all the answers I’m capable of.
Bashir: You’ve given me answers all right, but they were all different. What I want to know is: out of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren’t?
Garak: My dear doctor, they’re all true.
Bashir: Even the lies?
Garak: Especially the lies.

If you want to watch the exchange, here’s a clip of it on YouTube:

This was a great exchange, and, in a different context, it would have been a brilliant conclusion. The problem, of course, is that it gets its power by hinting at a cohesive story behind the fragments Bashir (and hence, the viewer) are allowed to see. This is a problem because there was no cohesive story behind the fragments; they were just fragments thrown out in order to contradict previous fragments.

I don’t mean that they had literally no ideas; it was clearly established that Garak was in fact, at least at one point, a high ranking member of the Obsidian Order. What was not established was what principles he actually had.

Nebulous hints are only interesting if there is something good at the back of them. If a man simply lies because he is so warped and twisted that he doesn’t know the truth, this is not interesting. This gets back to something I’ve said more than a few times: it is a man’s virtues, not his flaws, which are interesting. Flaws are, at most, a crutch to make it easy to show off a man’s virtues.

What would have made this great is if there was some principle—that was not just loose consequentialism plus a goal—which was being served, and, therefore, all of the lies actually conveyed a truth, if properly understood. That is, this would be great if all of the lies were actually cyphers, and at some time later the key would be given which would decypher the lies into truths.

You can see an example of this, though not a great example, in the retcon of how Obi Wan Kanobi explained why he said that Anakin Skywalker was killed by Darth Vader. When he said it, he meant that the good man who called himself Anakin Skywalker was gone forever, replaced by the evil man who called himself Darth Vader. It wasn’t great, but the lie does make sense as containing a truth, when interpreted under that rubric.

That’s what enigmatic characters should all be, though in general it works best if the writers create the cypher key before encrypting things with it. When the writers do that, they do have the potential to create something great.

For it is good, indeed, when it turns out that the lies are all true.

Throwing Is Not Automatic

I’m a fan of Tom Naughton, and his movie Fathead helped me out a lot. But recently he had something of a headscratcher of a blog post. Mostly he just mistake coaching cues that happen to work for him with the One True Way to swing a golf club—which is a very understandable mistake when in the grips of the euphoria of finally figuring out a physical skill one has been working on for years—but there was this really odd bit that I thought worth of commenting on:

If you ask someone to throw a rock or a spear or a frisbee towards a target, he’ll always do the same thing, without fail: take the arm back, cock the wrist, plant the lead foot, rotate the hips, sling the arm toward the target, then release. Ask him exactly when he cocked his wrist, or planted his foot, or turned his hips, he’ll have no idea – but he’ll do it correctly every time. That’s because humans have been throwing things at predators and prey forever, and the kinematic sequence to make that happen is hard-coded into our DNA. We don’t have to learn it. Our bodies and brains already know it.

The basic problem is: throwing is not automatic. It’s learned.

I can say this with certainty because I’ve spent time, recently, trying to teach children to throw a frisbee. They do not, in fact, instinctively do it correctly. Humans have very few actual instincts, at least when it comes to voluntary activities. We instinctively breath, and we will instinctively withdraw our hand from pain, but that’s about it. Oh, and we can instinctively nurse from our mother, though even their we need to learn better technique than we come equipped with pretty quickly or Mom will not be happy.

Now, what we do, in fact, come with naturally is the predisposition to learn activities like throwing. This is like walking: we aren’t born knowing how to walk, but we are born with a predisposition to learn to walk. We’re good at learning how to walk and we want to do the sorts of things that make us learn how to walk. Language is the same way—we’re not born speaking or understanding language, but we are predisposed to learn it.

Another odd thing is the “he’ll do it correctly every time”—no he won’t. Even people who know how to throw things pretty well occasionally just screw up and do it wrong. When teaching my boys to throw a frisbee, occasionally I just make a garbage throw. It’s not just when my conscious thoughts get in the way of my muscle memory—muscle memory needs to be correctly activated, and not paying sufficient attention is a great way to do that wrong.

Finally, the evolutionary biology part is just odd: “That’s because humans have been throwing things at predators and prey forever, and the kinematic sequence to make that happen is hard-coded into our DNA.”

There’s an element of truth to this, in that we can find evidence of spear use in humans going back hundreds of thousands of years. The problem is that the kinematic sequence to throw a spear and the kinematic sequence to hit a golf ball is not the same thing at all.

Here’s a golf swing:

By contrast, here’s someone throwing a javelin:

And just for fun, here are some Masai warriors throwing spears:

Something you’ll notice about the Masai, who throw actual weapons meant to kill, is that the thing is heavy, and they throw it very close. Alignment is incredibly important, since a weak throw that hits point-on is vastly more effective than a strong throw that hits side-on. The other thing is that the ability to actually throw quickly without a big wind-up matters, since they’re practicing to hit moving targets. They don’t have time for a huge wind-up. Also, they tend to face their target, rather than be at a 90 degree angle to it—when your target has teeth and claws, you need to be able to protect yourself if the target starts coming for you.

Anyway, if you look at these three activities, they’re just very kinematically different. Being good at one of those things will not transfer to being good at the others. The Masai warrior needs accuracy, timing, and power on a heavy projectile. The javelin thrower needs to whip his arm over his body as fast as possible, from a sprint. His arm is straight and his shoulder hyper-extended. The golfer needs to whip the head of a long stick as fast as possible, below his body, from a standing position. His arms are bent and his elbows are kept in to generate more force than arm-velocity, since the greater force translates to greater velocity on the end of the stick. The golf swing probably has more in common with low sword-strikes using a two-handed sword than it does with swinging a spear.

Anyway, I don’t have a major point. I just think it’s interesting what we will tell ourselves in order to try to figure out motion patterns.