The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face is a short story featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. According to this book it was originally published in 1924. (Incidentally, in googling for the original publication date I discovered this interesting chronology of Lord Peter’s life. Also curious is that it appears to have been republished in Great Detective volume 1. So far as I know it was first collected in Lord Peter Views the Body in 1928. Short stories, at the time, seem to have lived interesting lives.) As usual with short stories, this post about it will contain spoilers. Go read it now if you haven’t yet, it’s not the best story but it’s worth the time.

As with some of the other Lord Peter short stories, The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face is fairly long. In my copy which isn’t small it takes up 30 pages. Like The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention it almost verges into being a novella, and it feels like it. As I’ve said the classic murder mystery short story involves a complicated setup, the sleuth announcing that he’s solved it (letting the reader know he’s gotten all the clues he’s going to get) followed by the sleuth explaining the solution. This has been endlessly varied, of course, but it does generally hold. There’s far more story and characterization in The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, and it takes its time to allow one to enjoy them. In many ways this story could easily have been written as a full-length novel; it would have taken fairly little re-jiggering to add in some additional characters as well as false trails and smaller mysteries to solve—without fundamentally altering the structure. As it stands it is somewhat reminiscent of Have His Carcase, though only in the setting of the murder—a lonely beach near a seaside resort with a body discovered with only one set of footprints. Have His Carcase was considerably more mysterious, since there was the lingering question of whether the death was suicide which was not a concern here, but I can’t help but wonder if Sayers liked the setting enough to do it over again.

The story also features her odd fascination with artists and their single-minded devotion to the truth of their art. I’d call it a theme except it’s really just taken as a fact that is relied upon but doesn’t mean anything. I’m mostly ignorant of art history, but the inter-war period was I think the last time when such an idea might have been tenable. I don’t think that it was long afterwards that art transcended beauty, then meaning, and when meaning left so of necessity did truth. I believe technique has also been left behind, though of course one can always find people painting in older styles which aim for things like beauty using disciplined techniques. In my very limited experience, however, these people don’t tend to be as pretentious as artists are reputed to have been in the early 1900s. I think part of it is that the early 1900s saw artists trying to replace religion in the fashion of the superman which Nietzsche had identified as necessary for mankind to continue after the death of God. Those artists who seek beauty these days tend, I think, to be religious, and consequently see no need to try to replace God.

Be that as it may, the most interesting part of the story, from the perspective of considering all of Sayers’ work, is that Lord Peter lets the murderer get away with the murder because of some combination of the victim being a bad man and the artist being a great artist. Now, I’m often fond of endings where the detective solves the case but does not bring people to punishment because that would not be the best balance. This is perhaps best epitomized when Sherlock Holmes lets a thief go because he has already suffered enough, and explains to Watson, “Scottland Yard does not retain me to supply their deficiencies.” I may write such a story myself, some day. This ending is very unsatisfying, though, because the man being a good painter seems rather the reverse of a reason to let him get away with murder. That said, much of my reaction is a reaction to the odd sort of idolatry shown towards art in much of what I’ve read from the early 1900s, so I may perhaps not be judging it fairly. On the other hand, when Lord Peter says:

“What is Truth?” said Jesting Pilate. No wonder, since it is so completely unbelievable….I could prove it…if I liked…but the main had a villainous face, and there are few good painters in the world.

I actually rather doubt the “I could prove it” part. It’s true that he could prove parts of his story—with some detective work he could probably prove that the painter was in the same seaside area as the murder, and he could probably prove from the painter’s painting several years ago of the beach where the murder took place that the painter had been there years before. But beyond that, I don’t think that Wimsey could prove much. There was no hard evidence linking the painter to the murder scene on the day of the murder; the best he could do is hope that the owner of the garage where the murderer dropped off the victim’s car could recognize the painter, but at best that would be difficult in an era when photographs are hard to come by. And though it wasn’t something talked about much in Wimsey stories, witness identification of people who the witness doesn’t know is notoriously unreliable. So, while Wimsey could probably put together a case, it would be a very circumstantial one at best.

Though re-reading the lines I do suspect that Wimsey was primarily motivated by how the victim had it coming, and less that the artist was a great artist; it was established that the victim was a bad man, though not a criminal. It is, none the less, very unsatisfying. A detective letting a murderer go should not be done lightly, and here it almost feels like Sayers simply took the easy way out after painting herself into the corner of not having any really hard evidence. That said, real-life jurious are notoriously willing to convict people based upon relatively flimsy evidence. Then again, fiction is supposed to be more believable than real life.

In short, it’s worth a read, but I doubt I’ll be re-reading it much.

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention

I was recently given a complete collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. Some of the Lord Peter novels are among my favorite detective fiction—especially those involving Harriet Vane—but oddly I hadn’t really enjoyed the few Lord Peter short stories I had read. My mother—who introduced me to Lord Peter—gave me the collection saying that it was a mixed bag and I had the bad luck of picking the worst of them.

As I’ve mentioned before, in detective fiction short stories have a very different structure than novels do, not merely because the normal differences between the two media, but because a completely different sort of story is possible in a short story. Specifically: the puzzle. A short story permits a complex setup which is then unraveled in the end to the (possible) astonishment of the reader but a novel simply doesn’t permit of that sort of story. The thread can’t be stretched that far without breaking; there is no possible excuse for the detective spending so long without revealing what he knows. (TV shows have this problem, though TV episodes are more similar to short stories, and solve it by having the detective suddenly remember or realize something, in order to give the viewer time to figure the solution out.)

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention is interesting in that it’s almost a very short novela rather than a long short story; certainly it lingers on the characters and atmosphere in a way that is more the domain of novels. The characters and atmosphere being one of the strengths of Lord Peter this is a point in its favor, but it never really fleshes the characters out enough for any of them to be really likable. I know that likability can be overrated; perhaps it’s better to say that we never really learn enough about the characters for any of their concerns to matter. Lord Peter views his surroundings with a sort of detached air and nothing counterbalances this. This is true of almost all of the Lord Peter stories, but in the good ones he has some other character to counter-balance this with attachment. Even where that isn’t Harriet Vane, as in, for example, Clouds of Witness, there is still the fact that people Wimsey cares about care whether Wimsey’s brother will be hanged for murder. Here, Wimsey doesn’t want to be involved and gets dragged in by others who don’t want to be involved either. This doesn’t ruin the story, but it certainly doesn’t help.

The mystery itself is really several (related) mysteries, but they’re not at first obviously related to each other. Even that would be fairly normal, except that there is no particular reason to solve the first mystery except for the sheer curiosity of Lord Peter. Granted, a ghostly coach passing in the night would arouse curiosity, but at the same time the solution simply drops when Lord Peter discovers it. It has no significance at the time. In fact that’s probably my real complaint: the story never sets up the mystery properly; everything happens and then we’re presented with the mystery and its solution in rapid succession. On the other hand, I will say that I appreciated Lord Peter ruling out a supernatural explanation of the ghostly coach no on a priori grounds since that would be unsound, but because the apparition didn’t bother his horse at all, as one would expect a ghost to. It was a nice touch of rationality in a character who does not believe in the supernatural (Sayers famously said that Lord Peter would consider it an impertinence to believe he had a soul).

Overall I enjoyed reading the The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention, but it’s hard for it not to be marred by comparison to Sayers’ best work. I recommend reading it, but I doubt that I will reread it often.

MST3K: Werewolf

As an avid Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan (I own nearly 30 of the boxed sets of DVDs), Werewolf is one of my favorites. I saw some references in online material to the episode being a bit edited—which was fairly common for MST3K—and I noticed that I could get the original on DVD inexpensively so I decided to go for it and see what the differences were. Of special concern to me was whether any of the jokes depended on the edits, because that would seem a bit like cheating.

First, I’m happy to report that none of the jokes were cheated. Well, that’s not quite true; there was one joke which had a little bit of context which was edited out, though of course one never knows whether it was the MST3K editors who removed it for the edited-for-TV editors who removed it. That joke was when Natalie tells Paul, “you may just be our last hope” and (IIRC) crow says, “maybe some day they’ll tell us what he’s their last hope for“. Earlier in the film there’s a scene in the original in which Natalie tells Paul that they’re running out of research funding and their efforts to secure more have failed, and Paul offers to use his writer’s talents to try to help them write better grant proposals in order to secure funding. Or maybe to use his connections. It’s not made explicit, as I recall. However, there is also a scene left in the MST3K version where Natalie tells Yuri that Paul is going to try to help them get more research funding, so the editing wasn’t exactly unfair to the movie here, though it certainly wasn’t helpful.

Some of the editing tightened the movie up and made it better; in the original there are some endless driving through the desert scenes a bit reminiscent of the credit-scene-without-the-credits in Manos: The Hands of Fate (though not as long as in Manos). Most of what was cut out were some sub-plots which did make the movie overall better though weren’t related anything Mike and the bots said. For example, there’s a sub-plot where the real estate agent is into Paul and he (gently) rejects her advances and so she tells him to walk home and leaves. This explains why Paul is at the party alone and in a position to meet Natalie. It also somewhat explains what the real estate agent is doing back at Paul’s house later to be brutalized by Paul-as-werewolf.

Overall, my impression was that while the original movie was more complete, it was also more sloppily edited; so, basically, something of a wash. I do recommend watching the original if you get a chance, if for no other reason that you see the raw materials that went into making such a good episode of MST3K. It’s not a high priority item, though, as it’s about 90%-95% the same movie, and certainly the main plot is 99%+ the same. It still doesn’t explain why Natalie became a werewolf at the end of the movie, though. (I’ve never understood why the crew makes fun of how obvious it is that she was a werewolf; the setup as we slowly pan in was a bit telegraphed, perhaps, but nothing in the movie really led up to her being a werewolf.)

Review: The Rage Against God

I just finished reading Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God. It’s an interesting book—and I do recommend it—but it’s very much not what I expected. For one thing, it’s a far more personal book than I expected. Which may well speak more to my expectations than to the book; the subtitle is “how atheism led me to faith.” But what I think I was more legitimately surprised about was how much the book was about culture.

The Rage Against God is divided into three parts:

  1. A Personal Journey Through Atheism
  2. Addressing the Three Failed Arguments of Atheism
  3. The League of the Militant Godless

Chapters 1-5 are about England’s (I suppose technically I should say Brittain’s, but I’m not sure) declining society, and how much Christianity was woven into England’s culture so that as people became disillusioned with their culture they threw Christianity out as well. In many ways in these chapters the eponymous rage against God seems to be primarily a displaced rage against parents. In fact Mr. Hitchens mentions something I’ve seen noted by many other rebels born in the generation he was: they never expected to get away with it. And they seem to carry with them a deep sense of betrayal that the adults let them get away with their rebellion. In essence, they are angry at the authority figures in their young lives for being so small. This is very specific to England, but while America did not suffer the decline of its status as a once-great power, it did suffer from the realization of how awful racism is that had a very similar effect in undermining authority, and at approximately the same time. And I’m told that other european countries had their own losses in confidence because of the authority figures who led them into devastating wars.

None of this is something I can relate to; having grown up in the 1980s there was no longer anyone left to respect so it was not possible to lose my respect for them, and I think that this is true of others of my generation as well. It is an interesting window into the atheism of an older generation, though.

Interestingly the three arguments which Hitchens addresses in part 2 are largely cultural ones:

  • “Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?”
  • “Is it possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God?”
  • “Are atheist states not actually atheist?”

The second question need not be cultural, but his answer is largely cultural, in that he draws the answers from failed societies. Which is, of a course, a legitimate and persuasive answer, but it is a social answer rather than a personal one.

The third part is a more in-depth look at what the viciously atheist regime of the Soviet Union was like, and the degree to which modern atheists seem to be calling for exactly what was done there, though without being willing to admit that it’s what they’re calling for. This is a problem I’ve encountered with atheists myself. They’re generally quite unwilling to think through their ideas and more infuriatingly often pat themselves on the back for being unwilling to do so, though usually with some sort of positive spin. But Mr. Hitchens brings up, if obliquely, a very pressing problem in a democracy, or really anywhere with changing demographics: how people behave when a minority may have no predictive value whatsoever as to how they will behave if they are in the majority. And as any even casual student of history knows, every regime requires an executive branch—whatever it is named—and that executive branch will be staffed not by the general population but by people who desire power. The question, therefore, is not what the average person will do if given power, but what they will tolerate a co-believer with power doing.

Review: A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto

In a sense this is a companion review to my review of How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead.(check it out for disclaimers/full disclosure). You can get Ed Latimore’s A Not So Friendly Guide to The Ghetto in a bundle with How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead for $9.97 (at the time of this writing) here.

A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is an interesting book. Of course, I suspect I would find anything Ed writes interesting, so that’s not really saying anything which distinguishes it from his other books. However, unlike Ed’s other books, I’m not sure how to review this one. It seems to be one part travel guide, one part ethnography, and eight parts social commentary. The social commentary is about a community I’m not now, nor have ever been, a part of, so I don’t really have anything to say about it. It’s interesting to read because Ed is a thoughtful guy, but that’s about it, for me specifically.

The travel guide aspect of the book can be summarized very briefly: don’t go there. That’s also nearly a direct quote.

The ethnography aspect of A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is probably the most interesting part to an outsider like me, or at the very least the most accessible part. And it does not paint a pretty picture. The most noticeable characteristics described in the ghetto is the presence of extremely violent people who make life difficult and dangerous for everyone else. They are violent on a very high level precisely because they don’t lead long-term sustainable lives. Ed mentions that many of these violent people have a life expectancy of about 23. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but one gets the sense it’s that long in part because such people spend most of their time after the age of about 16 in prison where they don’t get to shoot or stab each other (nearly so often).

This reminds me of the Coolio song, Gangsta’s Paradise. All of it is an interesting song, but I’m especially reminded of the lyric, “I’m 23 now will I live to see 24 the way things is going I don’t know.”

Where this hyper-violence comes from is an interesting question. Ed doesn’t give answers, but he seems to (implicitly) reject the cycle-of-violence answer which a lot of people like. I don’t mean that he suggests it’s causeless, but rather he doesn’t seem—and this is my read of him, not anything he said explicitly—to believe that the violence is an unavoidable trap that those trapped by it can do nothing to escape. Some of the social critique may be relevant here, and can be more broadly applicable than just to the specific community being directly discussed by considering what behaviors and trends in the reader’s community—whatever community that might be—might lead to similar encouragements to violence in the least stable members of that community.

And while the book is certainly an interesting one, it is not without flaws. In the copy I bought the typography changed in chapter 7 and from then on the chapters had two numbers, both their correct number and a number starting over from 1. I asked Ed and he said that he would probably fix this going forward. It also feels like chapter eight might have originally been meant as the first chapter, in that it reads like an introduction that was not re-written when it was moved. I found that a bit jarring. It is also a short book—distributed in PDF format it has 35 pages, and would have fewer if the last third wasn’t double-spaced. And while I’ve certainly read enough business books to be appreciative of  an author not padding them out in order to justify a higher price, there were things I wish that Ed had covered. For example, he discussed in some detail how little money many of the bad-decision-makers he talks about come into possession of each year, but he never explains how they make it work. A person who takes in $5000 per year and has to pay $250 per month in rent has only $166 per month left over to afford food. If they make further bad decisions such as buying $2000 rims for their aged lexus, it’s unclear how they can survive since they now have $-0.67 per month for food and can’t photosynthesize. (Further, even if they could photosynthesize, the year-round uniform of sweatshirt, jeans, and timberland boots Ed describes would prevent sufficient light from reaching their skin.) Some explanation of how this actually works out in practice would have been very interesting.

Another fascinating question which gets no treatment here is why the normal human tendency in chaotic situations towards organization by a warlord doesn’t operate here. This of course is the problem with anarcho-capitalism, or really any form of anarchism. The moment you have anarchy, you will get government emerging in the form of weak people supporting the best warlord around, making him strong enough to subdue the other war-lords or keep them at bay so that the important parts of life which require stability (growing food, raising children) can happen. After a generation or two, the warlords will provide enough functions of government as to be indistinguishable from government. After a few more generations, they will simply be government.

The suggestion that no one in the hood has a job (which I take to be painting with a very broad brush) may account for not needing peace to grow food, but however critical Ed is of the parenting which goes on in the hood, parenting does go on, which means that a fair number of people have a huge incentive to support whoever will bring enough peace to let that parenting happen. So why doesn’t this work? Does the presence of police from outside the hood remove the preferable warlords inside the hood? Do the skills required to be such a warlord also enable one to just ditch the whole problem, leaving behind only those incapable of such organization? This last possibility has some resonance with Ed’s advice on how to deal with loud bad-decision-makers in a movie theater: go to a different movie theater. I think it would be grossly unfair to demand Ed have all the answers to why things are they way they are, but some speculation on the subject would have been very welcome since he’d probably have come at the problem from an interesting angle.

It would also have been interesting had there been a section on how people who don’t make exclusively bad decisions but who nevertheless grow up in the hood—people like Ed himself—navigate the violent environment they can’t escape from until later in their lives.

Before I conclude, the modern world being what it is, there is a warning I should probably give about A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. A good introduction to that warning is the disclaimer found at the beginning of the book:

Please note that the use of the term “nigga”, “nigger”, and other close synonyms are in reference to uneducated, unemployed, unmotivated, ignorant black individuals, not the African American race as a whole.

On the plus side, if this bothers you, I can report that according to my calculations the word “nigga” only makes up 2.5% of the words used (by contrast, 3.8% are “the”). That’s slightly misleading in that I didn’t count usages of variants such as “niggernomics” or “nig worth”, but it gives you a rough idea, I think. Basically, this is not a book for people with delicate eyes. (Nor delicate ears, if you tend to sound words out to yourself, I suppose, but in that case you could probably put your fingers in your ears when you see the words you dislike coming up.)

And all joking aside, it did make me uncomfortable. I’m not used to language like this and it is jarring to hear it used frequently. If you can’t guess, I’m a white guy who grew up in the suburbs where most everyone over the age of 14 got along with each other well enough that for the most part that the only thing the police did was give people traffic tickets. This fortunate circumstance does come with some limitations of experience, and in my relatively sheltered youth it would have been less shocking to hear someone declare their fealty to their lord Satan than it would have been to hear somebody sincerely use racial epithets as a criticism. However incomplete—or if you prefer, unrealistic—a view of the world this gave me as a child, it should speak to how weird it felt to me to read a book where at least 2.5% of the words were some variant of “nigger”. On the other hand I’m confident that Ed is not a racist and I was willing to trust him that there were good reasons for his choices. And having finished the book, I think that there were. I’d say it kept it real, but I don’t know if that would be using the phrase correctly. So instead let me quote the movie A Man for All Seasons, where Will Roper asked Sir Thomas More for permission to marry More’s daughter:

More: Roper, the answer is no and will be no as long as you’re a heretic.

Roper: Now that’s a word I don’t like, sir Thomas.

More: It’s not a likable word; it’s not a likable thing.

Ultimately, so long as people know what words mean, unlikable things will be described by unlikable words. So there’s some value in using unlikable words; it keeps one from getting too complacent in the mere sound of speech and forgetting what is really meant. Ed is describing the sort of people who have attacked him throughout his childhood and nearly killed him more than once. That’s not something one should be comfortable with. Plus, as Ed said later in his disclaimer:

Besides, I’m black. I think that means I can get away with it.

In summary, though it is a book with some production issues which is ultimately disappointing in its brevity, I recommend A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. Half of $9.97 is not much money to get a perspective on a part of America which (statistically) most of us have never experienced, written by someone who’s read Aristotle extensively. Unless you’re a superhero of thrift, you will probably have often spent more money to get less value. If you’re interested in following my advice and buying the bundle, instructions are here.

Review: How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead

Ed Latimore’s book How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead is an interesting book. Currently it’s only available as an ebook bundle with A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto, which I haven’t read yet. (As of this writing the bundle costs $9.97, available at the link above.)

To give context to my review, like many people, I’ve become familiar with Ed through Twitter. He largely tweets about what you might call self-improvement, if you can get past the hackneyed phrase. But to put this in context, I once asked him if he had a favorite Greek philosopher and he replied that he’s only read Aristotle and Seneca extensively. In my reading of him, he’s about achieving excellence (ἀρετή) by dominating one’s passions through reason, not blowing sunshine up people’s asses in the form of “motivation.” I rather like that. Also, he did an interview with me about making wisdom intelligible. So, if you can’t guess, I’m a fan of his. If you want to call that a bias, I won’t object to the term. I am, in general, biased in favor of anyone with wisdom to share.

How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead is, if the title didn’t give it away, not a serious book. It is properly called farce, I believe. Certainly much of its humor is intentionally absurd, which I enjoyed because I delight in absurdity. Ed also delivers it in a deadpan style somewhat reminiscent of British comedy like Monty Python. I happen to be very fond of deadpan humor, as well, so I laughed out loud while reading it more than a few times. In fact he pulled this dead-pan tone off so well that it took me a little while to figure out that it wasn’t merely an attention-getting mechanism prior to getting down to the serious part. Once I figured that out I started thoroughly enjoying myself.

The basic conceit of the book (stated nearly on the first page) is that crackheads are not mere drug addicts, but in fact an alternative sort of vampire. He takes this premise completely seriously throughout the book, describing the crackhead’s powers of flight and sleeping upside-down by their feet, and how to deal with the problems that can cause when one is in areas they inhabit. The  later part of the book is for aspiring vampire crackhead hunters, giving tips on required equipment as well as the ideal party to assemble for battling vampires crackheads.

There are amusing references to pop culture as well as role playing games, comic books, and literature, generally used to good effect, though I missed some of the pop culture references. A few of them are also dated; I asked Ed and he wrote his circa 2007. That also means that he wrote the book in his very early 20s, which does show occasionally in the humor. That is to say, the jokes are occasionally a little juvenile, though mostly I think in cases where Ed couldn’t resist the joke rather than as a crutch, which makes them less cringey since there’s a sort of innocence to them. (At he time of this writing I’m in my late thirties, so naturally I only have limited appreciation for jokes which speak most to late teenagers. We all have our weaknesses.) That said, this is a small minority of the jokes and I think the humor will appeal to most everyone with a sense of humor.

Some of the humor also seems to rely on some familiarity with what Ed calls—in this book—the ghetto. I can only say it seems that way since utterly lacking this familiarity I can only guess that such familiarity would help (that is, it would require knowledge I don’t have in order for me to know for sure). However, this is also a minority of the jokes, and though I sometimes felt like I was just missing something, the book was mostly accessible without this background. Certainly, it would be hard to speak English and have less familiarity than I do with “the hood,” so if you also lack such familiarity,  I wouldn’t let it deter you from giving the book a read. It might be better for someone with such familiarity, but it was still quite good without it.

The times being what they are, I probably should mention that there are some jokes which reference what might be called statistical observations about ethno-linguistic groups of people (both people of color and people of transparency). If you use a sensible definition of racism like “regarding an individual not primarily as an individual but primarily as a member of a group”, then there is nothing racist in this book, because Ed is far too sensible a person to make that sort of stupid, elementary mistake. On the other hand, if you use a definition of racism which is basically anything that professional tut-tutters would tut-tut one for, this might not be the book for you. On the third hand, if you use a definition of racism which involves formulas, then the fact that Ed identifies as black might be significant in your calculations, which I will leave to you to work out.

In summary, this is a unique and funny book which I recommend giving a try if you like absurdist humor with the occasional nerdy reference delivered with a straight face that wouldn’t be out of place in a poker tournament.

Admitting One’s Weird

In an interesting essay I suggest reading, Ed Latimore gave, “5 Lessons From Growing Up in the Hood.” One of them in particular caught my eye:

1. Good manners go a long way.

I fought a lot as a kid. That’s just par for the course growing up in the hood. I would have fought a lot more if it wasn’t for one simple phrase: “My bad.” For those of you that don’t speak hood, “My bad” is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry.”

You bump somebody in a crowd? ‘My bad’ goes a long way. Step on someone’s foot on a crowded bus? Dude might get mad, but you can cool it quick by just saying ‘My bad.’ Say something a little too offensive that gets guys in the mood to fight? Just say ‘My bad’ and dial it down. It’s amazing what an apology can do to cool tempers in the hood.

I didn’t grow up in the hood, nor even particularly close to it, but I found the same thing applies to situations with much lower stakes: being willing to admit error where one can truthfully do so goes a long way to smoothing out human interactions. And the curious thing is that where one is telling the truth in admitting error, most people are very willing to accept that and move on. People, by and large, don’t tolerate affronts to their dignity, but they are very willing to tolerate other people’s human imperfection where it is acknowledged as such and where a person is willing to put in the work to make things right afterwards.

This applies quite a lot in the context of business. If one makes a mistake in a professional setting, simply admitting it in a straight-forward way tends to turn such mistakes into a non-issue. Professionals are there to earn money, which they do by solving problems. Co-workers’ mistakes are just one more problem to solve. This can of course become excessive to the point where you are causing more problems than you are solving, but if that’s the case you’re probably a bad fit for your job and should move on for everyone’s sake. But where you are competent at your job, people just don’t really care deeply about the occasional mistake, and if you own up to it, there’s nothing left to talk about so people just move on.

And it’s that last part that I want to talk about in another context. Most people are weird but hide it; and most people are made very uncomfortable by other people being different (which is just another way of saying that they’re weird). At its root this comes from a tribal instinct; it is not good for man to be alone—and we know it. Differences make us fear rejection, though a little bit of life experience and sense teaches us which differences matter and which don’t. But sense is surprisingly uncommon and learning from life experiences is—for quite possibly related reasons—similarly rare. So a great many people fear whatever is different from them. This can be people who look different but I think it’s far more common to be afraid of people who act differently. And one thing people do when they’re uncomfortable is talk about it.

And this is where admitting that one is weird can be a very useful strategy. To give a concrete example, I shoot an 80# bow. (For a long time it was actually 82# but string creep eventually set it and for some reason they couldn’t get it back up.) That’s pretty uncommon, these days, especially for someone with a 30″ draw length. Most men shoot a bow somewhere in the range of 55#-70# (women tend to shoot in the 35#-50# range). You’d think that an 80# bow wouldn’t seem that odd to people shooting a 70# bow, but for reasons relating to how many reps you can do in weight-lighting being a function of how close you are to your one-rep max, it actually is a pretty big jump for a lot of people. They could draw the bow, but only a few times an hour. I’m not that strong, but I’m a relatively big guy (6′ tall, over 200lbs) and so I can comfortably shoot my bow for an hour or two at a stretch without losing more accuracy than if I was shooting a 70# or a 60# bow (really the main thing affecting accuracy is that your shoulders get tired of holding the bow up at arm’s length). So it’s a very reasonable thing for me, personally, to do, but it’s pretty odd among people at the archery shop I go to. And moreover it’s not really necessary. Where I live the only common big game is whitetail deer and you can reliably kill a whitetail with a 40# bow if you’ve got a good broadhead/arrow setup and are a good shot. I do it because I like it, and because it acts like insurance. With the double-edge single-bevel broadheads I use on top of 0.175″ deflection tapered carbon fiber arrows, the whole thing weighing 715 grains, shot from an 80# bow, if I make a bad shot and hit the large bones my arrow will most likely go right through and kill the animal anyway. And I could use the same setup for hunting moose or buffalo without modification, should I ever get the opportunity. (That would fill the freezer with meat in one shot!)

So, as you can see, from my perspective this is a reasonable thing to do. But from most everyone else’s perspective, it’s weird. And moreover, it’s more than most men at the archery shop I go to can do. Some people there can’t even draw my bow, and many who could would find the strain too much to do more than a few times. It would be easy for people to suspect that I look down on them as lesser because of it, and to reject me in self-defense. If someone you respect looks down on you,  it’s painful. If someone you reject as mentally deranged looks down on you, it’s irrelevant.

So when people make jokes about me/my bow being atypical, I go along with it. I will cheerfully admit that I’m engaging is massive over-kill; I will joke along with them about the way deer are wearing bullet-proof vests these days. (My setup could probably go through a lighter bullet-proof vest since broadheads are razor sharp and can cut through kevlar. It has zero chance against the sort of vest with ceramic plates in it.) If someone characterizes me as crazy, I smile and say, “nuts, but I like it.” And in general the joking lasts for a minute then is forgotten about and things are normal. This is, I think, for two reasons:

  1. I have signaled that I know I am abnormal and am happy with the status of being abnormal. I am clearly indicating that I am not the standard against which others should be measured so I am no threat to anyone’s social standing or sense of self.
  2. It smothers the impulse to joke about me, in the sense of taking the air away from a flame. If you say that someone’s crazy and he smiles and says, “certifiable,” you just don’t have anywhere to go. Joking/teasing requires a difference of opinion. If someone agrees with you, there’s nothing left to say since a man looks like an ass if all he does is repeat himself.

Of course, this does depend on the content of what’s being said about me being something which I can agree with. In this example, “crazy” just means “abnormal,” which is quite true. If someone were to accuse me of being a criminal I would defend myself, not agree with them. The point is not to be a carpet for people to walk on but rather to learn how to pick one’s battles and only fight the ones that need to be fought. That’s a general principle of skill, by the way; skill consists in applying the right amount of force to the right place to generate the best results. A lack of skill wastes force first in applying it to the wrong place and so needing far more force to achieve the desired result, and then in needing to apply more force to correct the problems caused by having applied force to the wrong place. That’s as true of picking one’s battles as it is of swing dancing or balancing in ice skating. Or, for that matter, archery; missing the target in archery often means that you have to spend a lot of effort to pull your arrow out of a tree.

God’s Blessings on March 1, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the first day of March in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

The popularity of videos is an interesting subject, especially for someone who runs a youtube channel. Here are my last few with their views, from most recent to oldest:

Christian Asceticism: 87
Thoughts about Bishop Barron prayer: 132
Believing the Incomprehensible: 248
Why I Don’t Debate Atheists: 948
Just for Fun: A Debate Challenge from Deconverted Man: 491
Channel Update & Thoughts on Disagreement: 171
The Value of Debate: 171
To Err is Human: 214
What the Burden of Proof is: 179
The Burden of Proof Isn’t a Logical Fallacy: 375
Good and Evil are Asymmetric: 249
Discussing Social Media w/ Russell Newquist: 142
Logic Lesson for Atheists: 528
Why Atheists Can’t Logic: Answering Deflated Atheism: 1,527
The Burden of Proof: A Few Quick Thoughts: 293
Sci-Fi Author Brian Niemeier, A Conversation: 139
Chesterton’s Post: 183
Occam’s Razor: 459

(I should note that the way that youtube works is that there is a big bump in views in the first day or two for a video as subscribers notice it and it goes through whatever recommendation process is used for recommending new videos, then things tend to settle down to a steady state of getting a few new views most days. Thus a video with the same number of views as one which came out before it is more popular.)

So as you can see, it’s all over the place. There are some definite themes; things which are explicitly about atheism tend to do better than things which aren’t. In particular I find it interesting that Why I Don’t Debate Atheists is about 5.5 times more popular than The Value of Debate, despite being more recent, and despite it being basically just an application of The Value of Debate. I actually suggest watching The Value of Debate instead for a more positive take on it in the description of Why I Don’t Debate Atheists.

Now, in fairness, there is a three minute section in the beginning of Why I Don’t Debate Atheists in which I sarcastically summarize it as:

  1. I’m too scared to. If I ever heard an atheist say, “where’s your evidence” or “that’s not evidence” my faith would shatter.
  2. I’m too arrogant to. I already know everything.
  3. This makes me a bad Christian because Christians should always treat public blasphemy with the utmost respect.

I think a lot of Christians have been accused of all this many times, so I suspect that my sarcastic “executive summary” in the beginning was cathartic for more than just myself. So it might have gotten shared or recommended more often. Still, it’s interesting to consider what relationship the subject matter and title have on viewership. And I hope it should be obvious that I don’t blame anybody for watching only what they think is likely to be of direct interest to them and their lives; we all have very limited time and a great deal of things clamoring for our attention. Anyhow, it’s interesting to observe and consider.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 27, 2017

God’s blessings on this the twenty seventh day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

So, I’m clearly not very good at keeping up the daily blogging. I did get a video out over the weekend, though:

It’s some commentary on Bishop Barron’s video on prayer, which is much better:

Still, he didn’t say it, so it might be worth saying.

I also put up a few videos recently about a debate challenge which I got from Deconverted Man and why I don’t debate atheists. Both drew a fair number of comments from people who, shall we say, do not appear to be rocket surgeons. (I like mixing metaphors to spice things up.) The most noticeable sort are from people who can’t seem to get that I am not trying to debate anyone in those videos. The first is me making fun of a ridiculous debate challenge (which was absurdly specific about things which needed no specificity and absurdly under-specified in the things which did). Specifically, making fun of a debate challenge from a fellow who criticized a previous video of mine as being irrational. The other is an explanation of why I, personally, don’t debate atheists at this point in my life. Very explicitly so; I say that in the first minute. And yet I got comments from people critiquing it as if it were one side of a debate.

I also got a tweet from “Mr Oz Atheist” snarking,

Wouldn’t have thought it takes a video 32 minutes long to say ‘Because I have no valid arguments’

I’ve dealt with him before and he’s not exactly the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket, if you know what I mean. But the really curious thing is that I then got a comment on my video:

Let me help you out and shorten your video. You don’t, because you can’t provide good evidence, just logical leaps and fallacies.

Now, I have no proof that he’s one of Mr. Oz Atheist’s followers, but the timing and the phrasing is suggestive. Which raises an interesting question, even if it didn’t happen in this particular case: why do people go to following links in order to leave comments on things they haven’t watched? Unless the comments are original thoughts derived from the title (and hence won’t be very original since most everyone sees the same possibilities in titles), they have to be just parroting whatever it was they read about the video. Why would a human being think that’s valuable? Is it that their Dear Leader’s thoughts are so wonderful they must be shared, and Dear Leader has too little time to leave comments on every video he comes across? Are they hoping that they’ll be noticed by Dear Leader and get praised? Is this purely a pack instinct to attack anything perceived as an enemy? There must be some explanation, but at present I’m at a loss to understand it.

Incidentally, what is this odd obsession atheists have with valid arguments? There are valid arguments for everything. They’re the easiest things in the world to construct. Just take modus ponens:

∴ q

Where q is the conclusion you want and put anything at all for p. Here, with p being 2+2=5 and q being God exists:

If 2+2 = 5, then God exists.
2+2 = 5
Therefore, God exists.

It’s perfectly valid, as an argument. If the premises are true, the conclusion certainly follows from them. What it’s not is a sound argument. (A sound argument is a valid argument with true premises.) More colloquially, what it is not is a good argument.

Sometimes I’m tempted to thank these atheists for making atheism look so bad. But the thing is, all this idiocy doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. These poor creatures should be taken care of by people more able to think than they are; the strong should protect the weak. But these poor people have fallen into the clutches of atheists who are typically only a little bit smarter than they are and not really any better educated (as opposed to schooled) and they’re suffering from it. Pray for them with me, if you will.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 22, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the twenty second day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

My recent video where I made fun of the debate challenge I was given sparked a lot of comments. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s here:

Now, straight up, that was not a nice thing to do. This is making fun of Deconverted Man. But, it should be noted, niceness is not a virtue. To put it bluntly, Deconverted Man is an idiot who presumes to lecture people about how they’re wrong when he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. This is something he should be corrected on, and equally importantly, since his errors are proclaimed publicly, it is right that he should be corrected publicly. The public good is disturbed when ignorance is proclaimed as knowledge and that goes unchecked.

I suspect that what makes me (and at least a few other people) uncomfortable with this is that it’s ungentlemanly. A gentleman never draws attention to the failings of another. It is unpleasant, and in polite society unnecessary. When someone is acting intolerably that is best handled by avoiding to invite them to your parties. But polite society is a fiction created by wealth in order to be an ornament (at best). This sort of thing pretends to Christian virtue because it can seem like the idea of not judging others, but it in fact is not that. This sort of politeness has no problem at all judging others; it’s concerned entirely with the enforcement of that judgment.

Now, here’s the problem. Me making fun of Deconverted Man is a bit like a young man beating up an aged grandmother. It’s not a fair fight. But that doesn’t mean that I should therefore let Deconverted Man get away with publicly proclaiming falsehoods. And with thick-skulled idiots like him, gentle criticism from somebody who is an out-group member (since I’m a “theist” and he’s an atheist) will have precisely no effect. Moreover, his idiocy is public. Subtlety does not work for most people. It’s very commonly liked because it’s gentle and doesn’t lead to bad feelings, except that it often does lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings anyway. But subtlety is, I suspect, far more often an act of cowardice than it is an act of love.

And a lot of people really dislike “drama”. That is, they dislike unpleasant feelings. And being around people who are not getting along generates a lot of unpleasant feelings. Which is fair. Human beings are not meant to live in very large groups; we’re much better off with small groups of people we’ve known for many, many years. We work much better in that sort of environment. I suspect that they should be honest with themselves that they just can’t handle the truth, though (which is fine; we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, and can’t handle everything we should—I can’t either).

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 21, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the twenty first day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I missed something like four days in a row now. Argh.

I released a video at lunchtime today about a debate challenge I received. It was ridiculous and I think the British expression is that I took the piss out of it:

I laughed at it, in any event. I’ve got a video about prayer which is coming out soon so I’m looking forward to that.

And I’m going to try to get back to daily posts here.

Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 16, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the seventeenth of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Last night I did a hangout with Max of the Escaping Atheism project on YouTube, if you’re interested you can watch it here:

We spoke about the style of talking with Atheists (primarily what I call kakangelical atheists—atheists who want to spread the bad news), and how there are different styles and a place for Escaping Atheism’s blunt, combative style.

To give a brief summary of why, especially on the internet there are a lot of kakangelical atheists whose approach is to be very confident and very aggressive to believers, asserting in very forceful tones that they’re delusional idiots for believing in a magic sky fairy with no evidence! Etc. And I think that there is value to some people equally forcefully responding, “no, you’re the delusional idiot for thinking God is like a magic sky fairy, for asserting that there is no evidence in plain contradiction of simple fact, and for not having bothered to learn anything before spouting off about it.”

It’s not that this will convince anyone that they’re wrong, but curiously it will sometimes convince people to go do some studying, not because they are inspired to better themselves, but because having done no studying they have no reply, and so may go do some studying just to procure some better rhetorical weapons. Along the way, they may end up learning something. That said, the real important part of this is that it neutralizes what amounts to bullying. Powerfully presented confidence is intimidating; to see it on both sides reduces its effect, giving space for reason to operate. This is especially important for the young; as I mentioned in the video that forceful approach shook me a lot when I was a teenager. Now that I’m getting close to forty I tend to just reply with equal confidence and move on, occasionally amused at the names I get called for doing what the other guy just did (that is, asserting that I was right and the other guy wrong). I don’t think I’ll ever understand thin-skinned people who lead with insults. Thick-skinned people who open with insults make sense to me, but how have the thin-skinned ones not learned to moderate their approach in pure self-defense?

Now, it might be brought up that one catches far more flies with a tablespoon of honey than with a gallon of vinegar. It’s a great saying, and in certain situations very true. I’m not sure of the literal fact behind the metaphor, though; I’ve seen a lot of dead flies in a bowl of apple cider vinegar which was accidentally left open. That being said, if you want to find people who responded with mild language in the face of blasphemy, I suggest you read something other than the bible. As the meme goes:


Glory to God in the highest.

God’s Blessings on February 15, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the fifteenth day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

There are a lot of trials in being a parent, but I think that the hardest is sleep deprivation. At least for me, I find it very difficult to function when I’m underslept. There is an element, I think, in Christian psychology in the modern west where we expect that carrying our crosses will be glamorous. Well, not glamorous, exactly, but the sort of thing people would write stories about. We’re so soaked in fiction that we think about a great deal of life in terms of how it would be summarized in a story. And after all, Jesus carrying his cross was written about in a story. Surely, so our emotions sometimes go, our cross to carry will be similarly story-worthy.

But our crosses to bear are often things like, “sure, Child, I will walk you to the bathroom at 3am then tuck you back into bed; don’t worry, I’ll get back to sleep eventually” and dealing with the exhaustion and headaches the next day.

Some wag apparently said that there were enough putative fragments of the true cross of Christ to make a ship, whereas in reality there are something like four kilograms worth of fragments claimed to be from the true cross, but in any event one night of little rest is not like a splinter from one’s cross. For many of us, I think we carry our crosses one splinter at a time, and over the years they add up to a cross, so we don’t notice and it’s very easy to complain because we don’t think of them the right way.

Glory to God in the highest.