Was She Pretty?

In the novel The A.B.C. Murders, Hercule Poirot asks an interesting question about a murder victim. There are two versions of it I’m aware of; one is the version that Agatha Christie wrote and the other the version in the ITV version starring David Suchet. I’m going to quote both versions because they’re interesting to compare.

First, the original:

“Pas ga. I wondered — if she were pretty?”

“As to that I’ve no information ,” said Inspector Crome with a hint of withdrawal. His manner said: “Really — these foreigners! All the same!”

A final look of amusement came into Poirot’s eyes.

“It does not seem to you important, that? Yet, pour une femme, it is of the first importance. Often it decides her destiny!”

Then, the ITV version (which replaced Inspector Crome with Chief Inspector Japp):

Poirot: Was she pretty?
Inspector Japp: There he goes again.
Poirot: That does not seem to be important? Mais pour un femme, it is of the first importance. It often decides her destiny.

Curiously, that’s rather different than how I remembered it, and much closer to the book. I remembered the exchange in the ITV version as something like:

Poirot: Was she pretty?
Japp: What does that matter?
Poirot: Poor girl, it mattered a great deal to her. It decided the whole course of her life.

It is interesting to me that I misremembered the ITV version so much, though to be fair to me I like my version better. Since you, dear reader, are not me, I presume that Agatha Christie’s version is the most interesting, here, and quite rightly so.

A great deal of detective fiction might be written by a male or female author, but occasionally one comes across a passage that seems like it could only have been written by one or the other. This is one such passage. I can only imagine a woman writing this. It’s not that only a woman would know it; we all know that physical beauty affects the lives of both sexes. Perhaps the best way I can describe what I mean is another example of this, from the Hamish MacBeth story Death of a Gossip.

I had mentioned to a female friend of mine that the story was very markedly written by a woman and she jokingly asked, “what, did it have no descriptions of women’s breasts?”

“Oh, no, it’s got plenty of descriptions of women’s breasts,” I replied. “Just never in admiration.”

In the exchange above, whether the woman was pretty was quite relevant to the detection. She was strangled with her own belt and it takes an unusual kind of man to charm the belt off of a pretty woman for the simple reason that she will be used to getting attention from men and so to charm her he will need to be above average. Or as Poirot puts it:

Betty Barnard was a flirt. She liked attention from a personable male. Therefore A.B.C., to persuade her to come out with him, must have had a certain amount of attraction — of le sex appeal! He must be able, as you English say, to ‘get off.’ He must be capable of the click!

Since it is directly relevant to the solving of the murder, any author might have thought of it or mentioned it. There is just something about how it was mentioned which seems distinctly feminine to me, even though it is put in the mouth of a male character. It’s hard to articulate what, since it’s subtle.

I think it’s the sympathy involved.

Males are tempted to treat beautiful women better than plain women and so it is a mark of virtue to a male to treat plain women as well as he treats beautiful women. A male recognizes the temptation otherwise, but (a virtuous one) regrets it as the effect of a fallen world. Since women are affected by this temptation but are not actually tempted by it, their primary concern is on its effects, not on avoiding it. When Poirot says that whether a woman is pretty many decide her whole destiny, it only speaks to concern with the effect.

However that goes, it is a relatively subtle point that Agatha Christie handled very deftly. Her writing tended toward the plain side, but her psychology and her plots were masterful. This may well be why she is one of the best selling authors of all time; the plain style of her writing makes it extremely accessible, while at the same time the brilliance of the plot is easy to see.

The Man Born Blind vs. Pontius Pilate

Last Sunday’s reading at Mass was from the Gospel of John, and was the story about Jesus giving sight to the man born blind. Towards the end of the story, after the man born blind is questioned by the pharisees, he runs into Jesus, who asks the man whether he believes in the Son of Man. The man born blind asks a very interesting question: “Who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him?” (emphasis mine.)

It is interesting to contrast this with Pontius Pilate when Jesus said, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. And those who are of the truth hear my voice.” Pilate’s response was, “Truth? What is truth?”

Jesus answered only one of these men, though they were, in a sense, asking the same question.

It’s interesting to contemplate why.

They were asking essentially the same question, but for opposite reasons. The man born blind was asking so that he may believe. A man cannot believe in something he does not know; faith is not the opposite of knowledge, but actually impossible without knowledge. The man who was born blind was willing to have faith, but he did not yet have the knowledge which would let him have faith, so he asked for it.

Pontius Pilate asked for knowledge in order to avoid believing in it. His question was not the seeking of truth but rather the denial of the possibility of attaining truth.

Despite what internet trolls will tell you, questions are not neutral things. We do not encounter questions floating in a vacuum. Questions always come from questioners, and questioners always have a goal in asking their questions.

As G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, motives matter:

But there is an anti-patriot who honestly angers honest men, and the explanation of him is, I think, what I have suggested: he is the uncandid candid friend; the man who says, “I am sorry to say we are ruined,” and is not sorry at all. And he may be said, without rhetoric, to be a traitor; for he is using that ugly knowledge which was allowed him to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it. Because he is allowed to be pessimistic as a military adviser he is being pessimistic as a recruiting sergeant. Just in the same way the pessimist (who is the cosmic anti-patriot) uses the freedom that life allows to her counsellors to lure away the people from her flag. Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive. It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help the men.

Looking at USA All-Cause Mortality

Back during the pandemic I did a number of posts looking at all-cause mortality in the USA. As a reminder, all-cause mortality is worth looking at because of the clarity of its definition. To give an example, if somebody has COPD and gets COVID-19 and dies, but probably wouldn’t have died if they only had one (then; COPD is eventually fatal), do you classify that as a COVID-19 death or a COPD death? Or as both? Different medical systems will reasonably differ on this question. (Then there are far less reasonable diagnostic criteria, like recording all deaths where a person had COVID-19 regardless of the cause of death.) This stuff can vary from hospital to hospital and state to state.

All-cause mortality data gets around these problems because, while it can be hard to agree on why a person died, it’s easy to agree on whether they died. Eventually. There is still the problem that it can take months for a death to actually be reported to the CDC. So much so that the CDC doesn’t even bother publishing all-cause mortality data for the most recently two weeks, and there’s very little point in looking at the last 3-6 weeks of data that they do publish. (They have algorithms that try to predict how many deaths will be reported eventually based on the data that has been reported so far, but it has a tendency to under-count what eventually gets reported.)

As I said, I put up several posts looking at this during the pandemic, and I recently became curious to look at it again now that the pandemic is in retrospect. So, here’s the data from the CDC as of February 20, 2023:

Let’s look at it a bit closer. To make the time frame of the data a little easier to follow, I’ve marked the approximate location of January 1 with yellow lines and the approximate location of July 1 with green lines:

If you’re curious, the Pfizer vaccine received emergency use authorization in December of 2020. The more infectious Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 was named in March of 2021. The Delta variant had mutations in the spike protein which is how the virus enters cells as well as the thing that the vaccine gives the immune system to detect. This simultaneously made it better at entering cells, and also reduced the efficacy of the immune response acquired through vaccination or infection with the original variant.

Because I sometimes would look at Sweden’s data, here’s their COVID-19 deaths/day as reported by the Swedish government:

I’m told by a Swedish friend that “avlidna” literally means something like “release from suffering.”

This data is in no way directly comparable to the all-cause mortality data above, but it is none-the-less interesting to note how, with the exception of Summer 2020, the spikes like up pretty well. It is widely theorized that the US’s summer spikes correspond to air-conditioning season in the southern united states, when people stay indoors during waking hours. To the best of my knowledge, Swedish summers are far more mild than are the summers in the American south, so one would expect them to be absent.

That hypothesis brings up an interesting question looking at the USA data, though: why was there no summer spike in 2021? There was a spike in deaths in the fall of 2021, not the summer. One explanation is that COVID-19 deaths started taking longer since the onset of infection to kill people (or at least to contribute to their death). If that is the case we would expect all subsequent spikes in deaths to also come later and, indeed, they do. The winter spike in deaths (in early 2022) also came later than the spike in the winter of 2020/ 2021.

If that is the case, why should it be? One hypothesis which covers these facts—though is in no way certain—is that later mutations of SARS-CoV-2 took much longer to kill people than the original ones did. Another hypothesis which would explain the delay is that the most vulnerable people were killed off in the first waves, and everyone who is left are less susceptible. (Though they are less susceptible, it can still contribute to their deaths when they are weakened by other diseases.) These are just two hypotheses; the truth could involve some version of either, both, or neither.

Of course, another explanation which covers this data is that the response to the increases in prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, or very technically, the response to increasing numbers of positive SARS-CoV-2 tests, was responsible for the increase in deaths. This will, of course, vary among the states as they had very different responses to COVID; some states like California were known for draconian measures, while other states imposed very few restrictions, and many were inbetween. It is reasonable to suppose that the extra stress of lockdowns, closure of businesses, etc. would have some negative effect. There are no actions without consequences and it would be absurd to suppose that drastic actions like the ones taken in response to COVID-19 are free.

For reasons relating to other data I’ve looked into but don’t have time to get into here, I am skeptical that this explains all of the increase in mortality over the years before COVID, but I haven’t seen any data to conclusively rule that possibility out. I am also a bit resistant to this explanation because it would be too convenient; I think that the responses to COVID-19, after the first few months, were wildly overblown and a massive overreach of government power. Lockdowns could be justified in the face of a pandemic of the magnitude of the Black Death—something that could kill off a third of the population in a short time. During the very early rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 there were reasons to believe that SARS-CoV-2 was an escaped bio-weapon that could have been that kind of threat—the kind of threat which could potentially justify temporarily suspending all of the normal rules of society. After a few months it was obvious that SARS-CoV-2, escaped bio-weapon or not, was in no way another Black Death. Since I think that what ensued as an unjustified massive overreaction, it would be very convenient if SARS-CoV-2 was barely worse than a normal flu and most of the bad consequences of it were actually due to what I consider to be an overreaction.

I like to be careful of convenient conclusions, especially when conclusive evidence is intrinsically hard to come by.

Whatever the cause and whatever exactly happened, it does seem very clear that it’s over. A few people still wear masks, but few enough that they might all be immuno-compromised people for whom trying to filter the air that they breathe in public places makes sense anyway. We still have some lingering excess mortality, though only slightly. It was never all that high—this is more clear when you look on a multi-year timescale rather than zooming in—and it is very possible that the last few years were a perfect example of Alexander Pope’s line, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”

We had tests to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but we didn’t know how it spread, how bad it was, or how bad it would be. Thirty years before, without the tests to detect the virus, the entire experience might have been radically different. The absolute worst weeks had increases in mortality of about 40%, but a 40% increase in a small number is still small. Throughout everything, there were only a few cases of hospitals becoming so over-full that they had to send patients elsewhere and there were no (or at least statistically no) instances of people dying because of a lack of treatment because the hospitals were full. Without the PCR tests that could detect the virus without symptoms (or with symptoms that could be a cold or the flu), and thus allow us to map out its spread, we might not have done much more than think that there was a nasty flu for a few years.

Samsung Cameras And the Moon

I recently came across this interesting video on a quasi-scandal involving Samsung smartphone cameras taking better pictures of the moon than the physical camera elements actually allows:

The video brings up an interesting question about what the pictures that smartphones take actually are. In the video Marques proposes that the images that the smartphone generates are something along the lines of an image which is what the smartphone “thinks” you want the slice of reality you were trying to capture to look like.

It’s no secret that smartphones these days do massive amounts of processing on the photos that they take and that this goes way beyond removing noise and compensating for camera shake; for years now they’ve been actively recognizing the subject in front of them and adjusting focus, faking bokeh (the way in which subjects behind the focal plane are blurred), punching up colors, adjusting contrast in only some parts of the picture, etc. etc. etc.

There is a problem with this when it comes to taking pictures of the moon, though, because there is only one moon, we only ever see one part of it because it’s tidally locked to the earth, and we’re so far away from it that there is effectively only one angle to take the pictures from. In short, except for haze in the atmosphere or objects in front, there’s only one picture you can take of the moon.

Using AI to improve pictures of the moon is thus not easily distinguished from just replacing your picture with a better picture of the moon. It is different; the approach Samsung uses preserves whatever color in the moon you see due to haze in the atmosphere (a honey moon, a red moon, etc) and won’t override a cloud or bird in front of the moon when you take the picture. But if you’re not capturing weird lighting or something in front of the moon, a cleared-up version of your picture of the moon isn’t really different from just using a better picture instead.

Smartphones have been clearing up the pictures that they take for a long time now, and for the most part people don’t really object. (Every now and then when posting pictures of my superdwarf reticulated python to Instagram I have to note that the camera punched up the color, though it’s not a big deal because it’s what he looks like outdoors in sunlight, so it’s only a slight inaccuracy.)

It’s just weird that there happens to be a subject where you can only take one picture and so the AI image enhancement doesn’t need your original photo to present a clearer version of the photo you took. From what we can tell it does use your photo and doesn’t improve every photo of the moon to a pixel-perfect photo of the moon, but in some sense that’s just an implementation detail and imperfect photo enhancement, respectively.

Of course, the same thing that makes this a problem makes it purely academic; there’s no important reason to take photos of the moon because at best they look exactly like photos you can easily look up. And if you’re doing it for fun, you’re going to use a real camera not a smartphone camera.

It is an interesting academic problem, though.

Mysteries and Changing Society

During the golden age of mysteries, a great many of the stories were (of necessity) set against the backdrop of drastic changes in society. These changes often provided motives as well as opportunities for the murders. Motives would often be the desire for money to be used on something other than maintaining the vestiges of an old way of life that the new generation is not interested in. The opportunity provided is often along the lines of a large house with few people in them. It’s that latter part that really interests me at the moment.

Large, derelict houses make great settings for mysteries, and I think that this is especially the case in mysteries for children. Scooby Doo was very frequently set in large houses with few people in them, isolated from their neighbors by large plots of land. These are things that most easily happen when societal changes make things that had been popular, or at least populous, less so. When things get abandoned, or even just partially abandoned, there become the remnants of things that people used to do without there being the people around to explain what they were. This makes such a setting is intrinsically mysterious. Whatever crimes a villain is currently committing, there are many things that need an explanation but without the people present who know what they are to give the explanation. Figuring them out, then figuring out which of these is innocuous and which nefarious can provide a wealth of things for the detective to use his intellect on.

This scope for investigation provided by the former scene of a bustling community now in some state of abandonment can be amplified by the intertwining of the current mystery with previous events. This can take the form of treasure which can be discovered or inherited, but it can also take the form of the deeds or misdeeds of the past influencing revenge in the present. It can take the form of both, separately or intertwining.

So how do we make use of this in contemporary murder mysteries? (I mean, murder mysteries set in at least approximately the time of their writing, as opposed to historical murder mysteries.) Many of the social changes which formed fertile ground for Golden Age murder mysteries are, in the twenty first century, over. The remnants of the medieval system are now pretty much entirely gone in England and, to the degree that the southern plantations and robber barons of the United States formed some counterpart, they’re gone too. We still have billionaires, of course, but for a variety of reasons they have fewer servants. (Part of this is technology, part of it is a more efficient economic system where things like cleaning and landscaping are more efficiently done by companies with specialized equipment who service multiple clients.) Even where a billionaire has something potentially interesting like a hundred million dollar yacht, the things are all new. An American billionaire’s household was assembled fairly recently. The odds are pretty good that his house was built fairly recently. The odds of a billionaire’s parents being billionaires is… not high. There are wealthy families, of course, and some of them even have history. I think these can work for this kind of murder mystery—the wealth of wealthy families tends to substantially diminish with each generation. There are exceptions, of course, but children are so frequently different from their parents that it’s rare for the grandchildren of someone who built up a fortune to have even a quarter of their grandfather’s talent for making money, and even less of his being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that talent.

I suspect that there is more, in the contemporary United States, that can be made of institutions falling on hard times. That happens in all ages, but especially in our contemporary industrial times. Businesses, schools, hospitals, and more go out of business all the time; plenty come close to it or shrink before they’re bought out by competitors. Not every business would be ripe for this kind of setting, but I suspect a lot would. If one couples this with the advisability of Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery, there’s a lot of fertile ground, here.

How To Get a Girlfriend

This is, admittedly, very similar to a previous video, but this one is one hour long instead of two! And it covers how to keep an acquaintanceship ambiguous in order to create space for the two people to get to know each other without having to make rush judgements.

Some day I will break this into several videos by specific subjects, and with God’s grace they’ll be like 15 minutes each…

Three Act Tragedy

Published in 1935, Three Act Tragedy was the eighth novel by Agatha Christie to feature Hercule Poirot. It is unusual among (early) Poirot novels in that Poirot is not the main detective in the story.

The basic setup is that Famed Actor Sir Charles Cartwright is hosting a dinner party at which Poirot is attending (I can’t recall why Poirot was in the neighborhood; he might have been retired at this point) and one of the attendees of the party—a charming older vicar—keels over dead with no obvious cause. A few months later, one of the other attendees at the party, a psychiatrist by the name of Sir Bartholomew Strange, keels over dead at a party at his own house in the same way. This time instead of attributing it to heart trouble, it is discovered that he died of nicotine poisoning. Sir Charles and another of the guests, Mr. Satterthwaite, investigate, along with a precocious young woman who goes by the nickname Egg. The three occasionally consult with Poirot during their investigation, which is his involvement until he reveals the murderer at the end.

NOTE: there are spoilers after this point.

This book was very much about the theater, or at least about theatrics. It begins and ends with theatrics, and much of it is taken up with the theatrical personality of Sir Charles Cartwright. It is even divided into three acts which are titled, in theatrical terms, Suspicion, Certainty, and Discovery. It’s a bit hard to relate to this; stage actors are a different breed from movie actors. By 1935 movies were well on their way to replacing the theater as the dominant form of acting-based entertainment, but this novel was not really about 1935. Sir Charles had retired from the stage by now; Three Act Tragedy was about the aftermath of things that had been, not things that are currently.

The most memorable scene, to me, was Sir Charles employing his acting skill to reconstruct what the butler Ellis had done based on clues and to find the sheets of paper which no other detective had found. It’s a vivid scene, but it is diminished in the recollection by the fact that Sir Charles had planted the papers there himself, and Ellis had not, in fact, been interrupted.

The story is well constructed and like most Christies, the plot is original and clever. The murder of the vicar being a dress rehearsal for the murder of Dr. Strange was certainly an original motive for murder and yet a plausible one. Not so plausible when described as Sir Charles following his actor’s instincts and doing a dress rehearsal, but if it’s not presented so theatrically, testing out a type of poisoning which is supposed to go undetected on a victim to whom one has no motive to kill him is reasonable, if diabolical. But demons still have their reason, and it makes sense.

It’s also curious that this book ends with an explanation that was probably much inquired about Poirot:

“You’ll excuse me—” said Mr. Satterthwaite.

“Yes, there is some point you wanted explained to you?”

“There is one thing I want to know.”

“Ask then.”

“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”

Poirot laughed.

“Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say—a foreigner—he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people—instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added. “it has become a habit.”

That is not the actual ending, though. A little after this comes the true ending:

Mr. Satterthwaite looked cheerful.

Suddenly an idea struck him. His jaw fell.

“My goodness,” he cried, “I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoning cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me.”

“There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered,” said Poirot.


“It might have been ME,” said Hercule Poirot.

Never Show a Good Movie in the Middle of Your Bad Movie

In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Overdrawn At the Memory Bank, one of the call-outs, when they play a few seconds of Casablanca on a computer screen, is “never show a good movie in the middle of your bad movie” (or words to that effect). It’s funny, especially in the moment, but I wonder if it’s actually good advice. It can be applied with very little modification to having characters discuss a good book in what one may hope is a good book but what may not be as good a book as one hopes.

The intention behind the comment, during the episode, is that showing a good movie reminds the audience of how good movies can be, and thus makes it more difficult to enjoy whatever little good there is in the bad movie that they’re watching. And, indeed, this is possible. Reminding someone that they could be having a better time is not always a great strategy for an entertainer.


The fact is, if someone is watching your movie or reading your book, they’re not watching that better movie or reading that good book, and in the modern world it’s unlikely that it’s because they would rather be doing it, but can’t. I’m a big re-reader and re-watcher, but you can’t watch Casablanca and read Pride & Prejudice every day.

If the viewer has chosen to not watch Casablanca today, then reminding him of Casablanca will not cause him to stop your movie and go watch Casablanca instead. In fact, it may have the opposite effect—it may make him happy with the reminiscence of a movie that he likes. Further, it may create the parasocial feeling in the viewer of being with people who like the same movie he likes.

Parasocial engagement is one of the great problems of our day, but that does not make it intrinsically bad. Like so many things, much of whether it’s healthy or harmful is in how it is managed and presented. A great deal of the parasocial engagement that exists on the internet is exploitative parasocial engagement; it is designed to encourage the mistake that it is not parasocial, but social. It is designed to be addictive. Movies and books have an end; they are a fantasy that comes to a definite conclusion and thus makes it easy to get back to the real world and remember that one needs to live in it.

By Vectron

Mitchell and Webb have a really funny sketch about mannerisms in a galactic empire:

I love the overall work that they put into the aesthetic—nice touches like the space station behind them and the guards standing in the hallway, motionless.

I also find it funny that there are gullible atheists of the dim-witted but aggressive sort who will think that this is an accurate description of why people believe in God, and how traditions came to be more generally. They’ll think this sketch is funny because, “see, that’s just how religion got formed!”

Whereas I think it funny because it’s obviously not how religion came to be, and such ideas are absolutely absurd when you put them into practical form.

By Vectron’s kindly claw.

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and Maruba Fruit

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank may be my favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are a lot of interesting things to talk about in this episode, but I’ll have to do that later. For the moment, I want to share some interesting things I find in researching the episode.

I had a hunch, based on the apparent budget of Overdrawn, that none of the scenes of African animals were filmed for the movie. Most of them were close-cropped enough that they could have been filmed at a zoo, but it just seemed unlikely. I couldn’t find out what movie they came from, though—it’s not credited in the credits and no one seems to list it.

I then tried to find out whether “maruba fruit” is real. It turns out it is, though its actualy name is “marula fruit“. If you scroll down to the “Use by Other Species” section, you find:

In the documentary Animals Are Beautiful People by Jamie Uys, released in 1974, some scenes portray elephants, ostriches, warthogs and baboons allegedly becoming intoxicated from eating fermented marula fruit, as do reports in the popular press. While the fruit is commonly eaten by elephants, the animals would need a huge amount of fermented marulas to have any effect on them, and other animals prefer the ripe fruit.

Now that’s interesting. Jumping over to the wikipedia page for Animals Are Beautiful People, we find:

One scene depicts baboons, elephants, giraffes, warthogs and other African animals eating rotten, fermented fruit of the Marula tree. The animals are then intoxicated, and they stagger around to comic effect, before nightfall comes and they fall asleep. In the morning, we see one baboon wake up, disheveled, next to a warthog, and quietly exit the burrow, as not to wake her.

Well that’s quite promising. So jumping over to YouTube and searching for “Animals Are Beautiful People drunk animals” we find this clip:

And yes, this is definitely where they took the footage from. Some of the scenes are easy to recognize.

Interestingly, Overdrawn changed the order of the scenes. In the documentary, the elephant knocking the tree with the monkey in it happened while the marula fruit was ripe but not yet over-ripe. Later on the fruit over-ripened and started fermenting, and this when we get the drunk animals. (In Overdrawn, the drunk animals come first and the elephant knocks the tree after, which is the precipitating incident for Fingal to demand removal with override priority.)

The Mystery of the Magi with Fr. Dwight Longenecker

A discussion with Fr. Dwight Longenecker about his book The Mystery of the Magi. It’s an interesting book which goes into the historicity of Magi—did they exist, who were they really, where did they actually come from, how did they follow the star, and related questions.

Check out his books The Mystery of the Magi and The Bethlehem Shepherds, or all of his books. You can also check out Fr. Longenecker’s blog, or just visit his website.

Materialists Often Replace God With the Future

When listening to a review by Zarathustra’s Serpent of a David Bowie song whose theme was the announcement by news reporters that we only have five more years until the world ended and the ensuing chaos, I found Arad’s suggestion that moderns had replaced, as the foundation for morality and the reason for living, God with The Future. As soon as I’d heard this, I knew it to be right. It is very interesting.

It has widely been pointed out that if God is dead then all things are permitted. This is so because nothing has a nature and so it cannot be a violation of anything’s nature to change it or even to destroy it. If things are just brute facts and we change them, they are, in their new form, just more brute facts, and there is no real way to choose between them. (This is why Nietzsche saw that humanity needed a superman who could create values and impose them by his will, such that it would become possible to live by something other than sheer will.) The superman has never come, though he has been long waited for. It seems that, while they waited, people can up with an alternative. If they could no longer live for today, they could yet live for the future.

It’s a solution that is not without its problems. It only works if one can keep up a very short shortsightedness; any contemplation of The Future as an idea reveals how empty it is. Whatever future one sacrifices for today will only be a present that must sacrifice for its own yet-to-come. Another fatal flaw is that even a cursory knowledge of history will show how utterly unpredictable the future is and how little one can realize any goal for it. To quote Jane Austen, however, desperate people are not always wise. Further, there is a sort of wisdom in a fool making plans which will only work if he remains a fool—that is what he is most likely to do.

In short, it is not philosophically coherent, but it does explain why it is that so many materialists deny that if God is dead all things are permitted.

Parasocial Relationships Let Social Skills Atrophy

There’s a lot of money to be made in parasocial relationships, which is why, if you look closely, you’ll notice that a huge portion of the internet is engaged in selling or buying parasocial relationships. Some of these are unavoidable—you cannot help but feel some attachment to a person you hear and see, even if they’re just giving a lecture on theology. The more pernicious ones have a built-in vicious cycle, though.

A person who lacks the social skills (and possibly the self-discipline) to form real relationships with the human beings actually around them, or even to do the much less demanding task of forming and maintaining such relationships with people they only know online, will naturally be drawn to parasocial relationships all the more strongly because their social needs are not lower just because they’re incompetent at meeting them. YouTubers and Instagram stars who tell their audience how much they love them are a minor example. On the more dangerous end of the spectrum you will find males who devote themselves to masculinity gurus or, more extreme yet, women with OnlyFans pages. (I think these are sufficiently obvious that they need no further explanation.) This end of the spectrum manifests somewhat differently for women; for example, a great deal of what gets called “feminism” is actually the attempt by lonely women with poor social skills to parasocially bond with other women. Women in real life often bond over what superficially looks like complaining but is actually an exercise in shared (detail-oriented) social analysis. A lot of the “feminism” that you see has at most the bare trappings of any kind of idea, not even of the ideas of the bad kinds of feminism, and really is just complaining gussied up with popular terminology whose only purpose is to feel like the writer and reader and bonding over sharing experiences. Or what they wish were shared experiences. (“Don’t you just hate it when hot guys stare at you instead of doing their own workouts at the gym???”)

These more extreme forms of parasocial bonding involve no actual interactions, or at most perhaps the interaction of leaving a comment and it occasionally being responded to. This requires few social skills on the part of the “content creator” and no social skills of any kind on the part of the content consumer. Especially on the side of the content consumer, that attracts people who have few social skills, and then it leaves them there. Real relationships are hard, but intrinsically teach people to improve their social skills. Even the thick-headed who don’t try much eventually learn to be more cautious after losing a bunch of friends, though they may blame the friends rather than themselves. Even if very imperfectly, they still learn. But people who consume parasocial content learn nothing. In the case of masculinity gurus and “feminist” complaining, they may even learn only bad lessons. Masculinity gurus sometimes advise the people who listen to them to substitute pointless aggression for confidence and to avoid social skills for fear of being mislabeled as a “nice guy”, and “feminist” complaining sometimes is complaining that women have to treat other people—especially male people—like human beings (e.g. articles that talk about “emotional labor”). As a sort of double-whammy, people who have come to this kind of “content” because they lack social skills are particularly poorly equipped to spot what’s wrong and reject it.

Even if people whose social interactions are primarily parasocial consumption don’t learn bad lessons from the people they flock to, they get their needs for social interaction temporarily met without having to engage in any of the social interactions that will build their social skills. Since social skills, like all skills, takes work to maintain, this means that whatever they do have of social skills will atrophy through disuse. And, of course, the more these skills atrophy, the stronger the attraction of purely parasocial content.

It is by no means inevitable, but it is a dangerous trap.

A Bored Chinese Housewife Wrote Fictional Russian History on Chinese Wikipedia

I just came across an interesting article from, of all places, vice, titled, A Bored Chinese Housewife Spent Years Falsifying Russian History on Wikipedia. The tl;dr is that the woman, who had the username Zhemao, pretended to be a scholar of Russian history, which is a thing that Chinese Wikipedia had little of. It apparently began when she tried to understand real scholarly articles but couldn’t, and so started off filling in the missing pieces.

By the time she had written around 10,000 characters, she had gotten attached to it and didn’t want to delete it. Eventually she had a network of sock puppet accounts to boost herself, and had written or contributed to over 200 articles. She got very good at producing scholarly-sounding citations that were extremely difficult to verify. For the most part no one will spend the effort to verify citations to print books that are hard to get, especially on obscure topics that not many people are interested in.

This is, in general, the best way to deceive people—make it easy to believe you and hard to disprove you. The upshot of that is that one should be most careful about things that are easy to believe and hard to disprove—the more that is the case, the more important the trustworthiness of the source is. What can be dangerous is that this sort of thing can bootstrap itself. If you learn of a person through something that’s easy to believe and hard to disprove, and conditionally believe them, the more this goes on the more you will tend to feel like you’ve already trusted them and haven’t been disappointed, so they must be trustworthy.

Incidentally, this applies remarkably well to Science—by which I mean the academic industry of publishing papers. It’s all well and good to say that people’s results can be independently verified—but for the most part no one independently verifies them. When people actually try to, well, there’s a reason that if you Google “reproducibility crisis” you’ll get a lot of results.

Wikipedia gets a lot of criticism because “anyone can edit it,” but that’s not actually all that different from what the industry of scientific paper publication is like. Yes, there is peer review. There’s also peer review on Wikipedia, at least much of the time. In both places, the amount of rigor varies highly. And peer review, in academia, never includes actually running the experiments described in the paper to see if one gets the same results. No one has the money, or even the time, to do that. For some reason a lot of people think that “peer review” in science means “this paper is guaranteed to be good,” when in fact what it means is, “this paper is not guaranteed to be garbage.”

Finite Simple Group of Order Two

Not long after I graduated with my master’s degree in mathematics, I came across the song Finite Simple Group (of Order Two). It’s an a cappella love song that consists almost entirely of puns from graduate-level math.

The number of people who will get all of the jokes is substantially lower than the number of people who have PhDs in math, though getting a master’s degree will allow you to get many of the jokes, at least from having heard other students talking about classes you didn’t take. (For example, some of these come from differential geometry, which I never took, but heard people talking about.)

Even the name is a mathematical pun. A klein bottle is a mathematical manifold somewhat akin to a mobius strip, except you cannot create one in three dimensions without a self-intersection. It can be created without a self-intersection in four dimensional space, hence why four is associated with “klein”. (There appear to be five people in Klein Four, but this is something of an implementation detail.)

This video was uploaded to YouTube 16 years ago (as of the time of writing), which was several years after it was recorded. The website kleinfour.com doesn’t seem to exist anymore. (Last time I checked it, it said that the members of kleinfour had long ago got their PhDs and went on to be professors at different universities, so were not in a position to make more music.)

I find it interesting to look at it now, after so much time has passed. As I recall it came out roughly at the time that I was in grad school, and it felt incredibly relatable. Grad students in math do an enormous amount of work; it’s not even that they’re assigned so much as that they are there because they live and breath math. That creates a lot of pressure of its own, quite apart from grades and assignments (which create their own pressure), and so they sometimes need outlets where they do something else. I can remember late at night taking a break with some other grad students I was working with to do some experiments dropping paper helicopters down the area next to the central stairs and seeing what designs too the longest to reach the bottom. (Of the kinds we tried, it was spirals with a small central weight.)

This song is well done; it is composed well and the singer sings well. The puns were generally not strained. I had hoped that they would go on to do other things, but it was not to be. I have no idea whether the members of the group ever think about the Klein Four anymore; sometimes it’s easier to forget work that one has done than it is to forget art by someone else that one really appreciated. (Sometimes not.) The fact that no one has bothered to keep up the Klein Four website makes me suspect that all of its members have moved on.

If they have, though, there is still this video up on YouTube. Video has the curious property that it never changes. If you watch it a hundred times, it is the same moment in history, every time. You change as you watch it, of course, but I think that, properly considered, this gives a bit of insight into that strange aspect of how this life works. The past is real, but we cannot get at it, and yet it still matters. I believe it was Saint Augustine who first proposed the image of our existence being shattered over the moments of time and God, at the end of time, gathering up those shattered fragments and putting them together into a coherent whole.

Ironically, it is the past mattering that is why one should not dwell on the past. Because we will, after the end of days, be reunited with the past, we need to put our efforts into the present—because it will become part of that past that will eventually become an eternal present. That is, of course, harder to see when the goodness of the moment is less clear than it was at some of its clearest moments in the past, but that’s only a defect in our sight.

Mitchell & Webb: The Confident Forger

Another great Mitchell & Webb sketch:

I really love the confidence that this forger has. It reminds me of what Chesterton remarked on Orthodoxy:

Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true. Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has `Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.”

By the way, here’s Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, for comparison:

I think that the ten pund note was closer to the original.

Trading Cards

I was recently reminded of the existence of trading cards, which of course calls to mind the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy asks whether Beethoven ever had his picture on a bubble gum card. This prompted me to look into the history of trading cards a little (i.e. on Wikipedia).

Trading cards as we know them today seem to have begun with cigarette manufacturers including trade cards in the packages of cigarettes. Trade cards were the business counterpart to calling cards—things you would give someone with your name and some information about you, including how to contact you, which you might leave if you called on someone and they weren’t home, or else as a means of introduction. Tradesmen would have cards for themselves in their professional capacity, and these might include instructions on how to find them (in the days before standardized addressing schemes). Businesses would also have similar cards for similar reasons, and cigarette companies started including theirs in the packages of cigarettes both to help protect the cigarettes (by stiffening the package) and also to help advertise their brand.

In 1875, the American tobacco company Allen & Ginter began to print pictures of more interesting things on the cards. According to Wikipedia these pictures were of, “actresses, baseball players, Native American chiefs, boxers, national flags, or wild animals.” In the UK, John Player & Sons introduced a series of cigarette cards called, “Castles and Abbeys.” People began to collect these cards and trade them to build up their collections, and the phenomenon quickly spread, with candy makers taking it up before long.

At approximately the same time, baseball cards were getting printed as trade cards. In the late 1800s baseball teams and players were posing for photographs, and these became available to things like sporting goods stores who used them as trade cards (interesting picture on one side, information about the store on the other). It would not be too long before these sorts of trade cards began to be included in cigarette packs and confectionery, and have information about the player rather than about a business on the obverse side.

If we distinguish trading cards from the broader set of collectible cards by whether or not there’s anything one can do with the cards such as play a game that the cards were designed for—the latter category including standard playing cards with 52 cards in 4 suits, Pokémon, Magic the Gathering, etc—trading cards had mostly disappeared from popular consciousness by the time I was a kid in the 1980s. I remember a brief fad for Garbage Pail Kids, but they were a joke and lasted about as long as one would expect a joke to last. (I don’t know if anyone collected them for even two years.)

I had a very minor baseball card collection, for about a year, almost entirely because I’d heard about how much money old baseball cards were worth and figured I might as well try in case they’d be worth anything in thirty years. That’s not much of a reason to pay money for things and then store them, though, which is why I quickly gave it up. I had never heard of anyone else collecting baseball cards even for that reason, and certainly not with any interest in the things for themselves.

Thinking about this made me wonder why anyone ever collected trading cards. The best that I can come up with is that it mostly makes sense as a pre-television and pre-color-magazine phenomenon.

Magazines began being printed in color in the late 1930s, so I expect that they were (approximately) all printed in color by the late 1940s. This would provide a common source of pictures that people could cut out and look at any time they wanted. Television only turned to color in the 1960s, but even black-and-white television provided many opportunities to see celebrities and sports stars for free. Prior to these things, though, how would a kid know what his favorite baseball players looked like? There were pictures in newspapers, of course, but that was a bit more haphazard and only turned to color in the late 1970s and I’m not sure when the quality of the photographs actually became decent.

To put it very simply, in the era when color photographs were not common, it makes sense that color photographs printed on cards might have been valuable. I don’t mean in the monetary sense that rare cards from people’s youths eventually were bought for large amounts of money, but rather in the simpler sense that people would actually want the things and spend some effort to collect them or trade them.

Of course, like most things that built up cultural inertia they would have continued to be made and collected for a while after they really made sense. If I’m right that trading cards stopped making sense in the late 1940s, then it seems possible that people might still be collecting them (in earnest) and talking about them into the 1960s, for Lucy to ask, in 1965, how can you say that someone is great who’s never had his picture on a bubblegum card?

Of course, this question of Lucy’s was written by adults, and moreover written as a joke. If it was an instance of adults thinking that kids still did what they themselves did when they were kids—it would not have been the first.

G.K. Chesterton on Marriage

I was recently trying to find a quote from G.K. Chesterton on how the point of a wedding is the marriage vow, and the point of the marriage vow is that it’s daring. I wasn’t able to find the original, what I did find was a newspaper called The Holy Name Journal which seems to have been from Michigan. In the August 1921 edition, someone quotes Chesterton’s article almost in full. Since it was only available as a photograph (though, thanks to Google, a text-searchable photograph), I transcribed it for easier quoting:

A writer of the Westminster Gazett recently made the proposal to alter the marriage formula: “As to the vow at the altar, it seems conceivable that under other conditions the form of words ordained by the Prayer Book might be revised.” And the writer adds that may have omitted the words “to obey”, others might omit the words “til death do us part.” The following is Mr. G.K. Chesterton’s rejoined to The New Witness:

It never seems to occur to him that others might omit the wedding. What is the point of the ceremony except that it involves the vow? What is the point of the vow except that it involves vowing something dramatic and final? Why walk all the way to a church in order to say that you will retain a connection as long as you find it convenient? Why stand in front of an altar to announce that you will enjoy somebody’s society as long as you find it enjoyable? The writer talks of the reason for omitting some of the words, without realizing that it is an even better reason for omitting all the words. In fact, the proof that the vow is what I describe, and what Mr. Hocking apparently cannot even manage, a unique thing not to be confounded with a contract, can be found in the very form and terminology of the vow itself. It can be found in the very fact that the vow becomes verbally ridiculous when it is thus verbally amended. The daring dogmatic terms of the promise become ludicrous in face of the timidity and triviality, of the thing promised. To say “I swear to God, in the face of this congregation as I shall answer at the dreadful day of judgment, that Maria and I will be friends until we quarrel” is a thing of which the very diction implies the derision. It is like saying, “In the name of the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, I think I prefer Turkish to Egyptian cigarettes,” or “Crying aloud on the everlasting mercy, I confess I have grave doubts about whether sardines are good for me.” Obviously nobody would ever have invented such a ceremony, or invented any ceremony, to celebrate such a promise. Men would merely have done what they liked, as millions of healthy men have done, without any ceremony at all.

Divorce and re-marriage are simply a heavy and hypocritical masquerade for free love and no marriage; and I have far more respect for the revolutionists who from the first have described their free love as free. But of the marriage service obviously refers to a totally different order of ideas; the rather unfashionable [stuff?] that may be called heroic ideas. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the fatigued fatalist of this school and period to understand these ideas; and I only ask here that they should understand their own ideas. Every one of their own arguments leads direct to promiscuity; and leaves no kind of use or meaning in marriage of any kind. But the idea of the vow is perhaps a little too bold and bracing for them at present, and is too strong for their heads, like sea air.

How One Treats People

I was recently in a conversation discussing how people treat each other, and it came up that the big problem, these days, is that there is substantial disagreement as to what a human being even is. Ideally, the first question that a person should ask after “how should I treat this thing” is “what is it?” A person should treat a human being, a dog, and a cell phone differently because they are different things. So what, then, is a human being.

The Christian answer, from which one kind of answer about how to treat people follows, is that human beings are contingent beings created out of love by God so that he can give us more, and he put us in the same time and space so that we could take part in the act of creating each other (every time one gives food or knowledge or whatever to another, that is added to his being, and so one is becoming part of God’s act of creating him). Hence we should love other human beings, i.e. will their good for their sake.

The atheistic answer to “what is a human being?” is very different. The more accurate but less common answer is, “A joke with no punchline that no one has told.” or “A pointless illusion that no one is seeing.” More common, however, is to go with the creation myth of evolution (as distinct from the scientific theory of evolution, which doesn’t get enough attention): DNA wants to reproduce itself as much as possible and so it created us to do it. All that we call pleasure and happiness are just carrots that our blind and stupid master dangles in front of our faces to try to get us to do its idiot bidding. He were designed badly and will fall apart into nothing after a while. Fortunately for us, our master is blind, and we can sometimes trick him into giving us the carrots when we only pretend to pull his cart. Contraception is probably the best example of this; we can get the pleasure of reproduction without having to pay the price of reproducing.

So how should one treat human beings, if that’s what they are, and what happiness consists of? Being a human being oneself, obviously everyone else will either be a fool (in which case they are easy pickings) or will be trying to trick one into giving them pleasure without paying for it. So look out for the fools and try to trick them, while at the same time do your best to avoid being tricked by the people more clever than you.

And there you have modern dating in a nutshell.

There’s So Much Bad Science And Worse Reporting

I recently ran into an article on a study which compared the “Green Mediterranean Diet” with the Mediterranean diet and a “healthy diet”. The article begins

The green Mediterranean diet was pitted against the Mediterranean diet and a healthy diet in a large-scale clinical interventional trial- the DIRECT PLUS. Subsequent analysis found that the green Med diet reduced visceral fat by 14%, the Med diet by 7% and the healthy diet by 4.5%.

A bit later, we find out what the heck they mean by “green Mediterranean diet”:

The DIRECT-PLUS trial research team was the first to introduce the concept of the green-Mediterranean diet. This modified MED diet is further enriched with dietary polyphenols and lower in red/processed meat than the traditional healthy MED diet. On top of a daily intake of walnuts (28 grams), the participants consumed 3-4 cups of green tea/day and 100 grams (frozen cubes) of duckweed green shake/day. 

The first thing that jumps to mind is that the Mediterranean diet is popular among diet researchers because it is very low in red meat. How much lower could one make it? It is not plausible that a tiny amount of red meat causes enormous deleterious health effects since there’s obviously no corresponding dose-response to higher doses (people who eat a pound of red meat a day don’t die off at 15).

However that goes, worse is that this modification introduces three additional foods. This is the very opposite of controlling variables. Granted, the scientists in question probably think of it only as “introducing polyphenols”, but there’s a lot more in the foods they introduce than just polyphenols. Even worse, in terms of controlling variables, is that they are almost certainly not increasing the calories of the people on the diet, so they’re also going to be removing something or some things, introducing even more variables. You can tell that this is the case from the quote that they have from one of the professors who conducted the study (emphasis mine):

A healthy lifestyle is a strong basis for any weight loss program. We learned from the results of our experiment that the quality of food is no less important than the number of calories consumed and the goal today is to understand the mechanisms of various nutrients, for example, positive ones such as the polyphenols, and negative ones such as empty carbohydrates and processed red meat, on the pace of fat cell differentiation and their aggregation in the viscera

This strongly suggests that specific kinds of foods were removed from the diet at the same time that the polyphenols were added. That is really lousy variable control.

To be fair, it is possible to test many variables at once as a preliminary study to further, actually controlled studies, except that this isn’t a great way to do that unless you’re looking for something like an acute poison. If you design a study where on the one hand you test increasing protein intake and smoking cigarettes, and on the other hand reducing dietary trans-fats and moderate cocaine usage, who knows which group you’ll end up following up with, but either way you’re going to miss out on some important stuff.

Yet another variable in these kinds of studies is that they’re almost never free-feeding studies. By “free-feeding, I mean, “eat however much seems appropriate to you, of whatever food you’re hungry for/seems appropriate to you, whenever you’re hungry.” That is, free feeding is what normal people do. The number of people who actually weigh out all of their meals and eat according to some macro nutrient plan, every day of their lives, is approximately the number of bodybuilders there are. So we have yet another variable going on, which is that people who are watching their macro nutrient intake eat differently than people who don’t.

The reporting on this is also extremely lacking. For example, the summary at the top indicated a reduction in “red/processed meat”, while the professor who did the study referred to “processed red meat”. These are not the same things, and the top one is a much larger category. It includes fresh red meat and processed chicken, while the latter includes nothing that the former doesn’t too.

There’s also no mention of the limitations of the type of study performed. It’s an intervention study on 294 people (no indication if that was the starting or ending number) over 18 months. There’s no way that they had the money to keep the test subjects in a laboratory or hospital for all 18 months and strictly control all food given to them—not to mention, who would be willing to spend 18 months of their life under these conditions—so this had to have been an at-home study with self-reporting of compliance. Compliance rates for those are usually pretty bad, especially after the first month or two, and actual compliance as opposed to self-reported compliance is especially bad.

I’ve seen it argued that how difficult a diet (or other intervention) is to comply with is important, and this is certainly true. However, one of the things that affects compliance is the participant’s belief that compliance will reliably achieve something. Someone who wants to build muscle is far more likely to comply with a regimen of weight lifting because he is certain that if he complies, he will get the results he wants. An experimental method of muscle gain, where no one has any idea if it works, is far more psychologically difficult to comply with. Suppose one were to test out building muscle through twenty minutes a day of staring into the mirror and visualizing oneself with more muscle. Compliance with that will get difficult after the first day or two because there’s no obvious reason to keep going. (The flip side of this is that studies where one keeps participants in a lab and feeds them 100% of the food that they eat have phenomenal compliance, though higher drop-out rates, but they’re so expensive that in general they can only be run for 4-8 weeks and there’s very little of significance that one can find out in that short a span of time.)

The funding section is interesting, too:

This work was funded by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – Project number 209933838- SFB 1052; the Rosetrees trust (grant A2623); Israel Ministry of Health grant 87472511; Israel Ministry of Science and Technology grant 3-13604; and the California Walnuts Commission.

None of the funding providers was involved in any stage of the design, conduct, or analysis of the study and they had no access to the study results before publication.

The California Walnuts Commission being one of the funders will, of course, sound alarms in the heads of the cynical or the conspiratorially minded. And, to be sure, the disclaimer that the funders of the study didn’t get to design it (etc) is no guarantee that the funders had no influence, because of course this isn’t the last study that the researchers are going to do and they will need funding again. By that same token, though, people who didn’t give a dime to this study may still have influenced the study by the researchers hoping to get funding from them next time. There is, as yet, no disclosure of funders who the researchers hope to get funding from in the future. All that said, it’s quite possible that the funding from the California Walnut Growers wasn’t that significant; they might well throw money at anyone who is trying to prove that walnuts are good for one’s health without overmuch worrying about the results of any one study. If you do fund enough studies looking into the health benefits of your product you’ll eventually get the favorable results you want by random chance, if nothing else, and this way your hands will be clean. It might even be cheaper, as it may potentially cost more to get someone with a decent reputation to falsify their results on purpose. But everyone makes mistakes.

Angel of the Morning

There’s a very interesting song called Angel of the Morning. Originally recorded by Evie Sands in 1967, the best known version is a 1981 cover by Juice Newton.

It’s a very pretty song in Newton’s version, though it does have the problem that it is entirely about fornication and is mostly positive about it. It’s not entirely positive, though, and that sad strain in it is where I think it might be possible to rescue it in interpretation.

Most people think of marriage as something done by a priest or some officiant, but marriage is actually a sacrament confected by the people who are marrying. Historically this led to all sorts of problems where a man and woman would dispute whether they were married, quite possibly because one lied to the other in order to convince them that they were not fornicating but rather consummating their marriage. This led to the Catholic Church creating an impediment to marriage that the marriage had to be witnessed by the Church, which at least put an end to disputes about whether the marriage happened at all.

Juice Newton is probably not Catholic, and in any event the main character in the song is almost certainly not Catholic. As such, the impediment does not apply to them and the main character and the man she’s with could morally, if not legally, marry each other in the privacy of an apartment, then consummate their marriage. The song could, then, be a lament that the singer (in character) thought that she was doing that but realizes in retrospect that she was wrong, is taking responsibility for her mistake, and is not trying to guilt him into marrying her. “There’ll be no strings to bind your hands/ Not if my love can’t bind your heart/ There’s no need to take a stand/ For it was I who chose to start”

This is a tenuous interpretation. The lyric, “If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned” are consonant with the interpretation that she thought she was marrying him earlier, but it’s now seeming like it was not the case. However, the second part of the sentence, “Well it was what I wanted now” is dangerously close to trying to make out the sin as good. I do think it’s just possible to interpret it as meaning that she’s taking responsibility for the sin rather than blaming the man, as opposed to saying that she prefers the sin to having been virtuous. (Note: there’s absolutely no way to exculpate him from fornication.)

In support of that, there’s the metaphor about facing the light. From the first verse, “I see no need to take me home/ I’m old enough to face the dawn” and then, in the second verse, right after the lyrics about “if morning’s echo says we’ve sinned,” there are the lines, “And if we’re victims of the night/ I won’t be blinded by the light” — both of these metaphors about facing the light work quite well as meaning that she will not be destroyed by facing the truth that she screwed up big time. The last two verses also support this interpretation:

Just call me angel of the morning, angel
Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby
Just call me angel of the morning, angel
Then slowly turn away
I won’t beg you to stay with me

Through the tears
Of the day
Of the years

In short, it does work if you take it to be a lamentation of sin and the intention to repent rather than to try guilt her partner in the sin into covering it over so that she appears guiltless to the world.

Of course, all of this is predicated upon her not getting pregnant from the actions of the night (fertilization of the egg does not happen immediately, and once fertilized it takes a few days to implant if it doesn’t die from genetic incompatibility, as seems to happen surprisingly often). If she does, there’s a new person who has entered the world and it has a natural right to be raised by its father, and her intention to not try to cover up her sin would then be irrelevant in the face of the child’s rights.

So, yeah. I think it’s possible to save the song, and it’s only a bit of a stretch, and not to the breaking point.

The Value In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

Over on his blog Mr. John C. Wright has an interesting post, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is Bunk. As always, Mr. Wright writes well, and the post is worth reading. That said, it struck me that the moment one hears about Campbell’s theory that all stories are some form of a primordial mono-myth it’s obviously bunk. This gets especially obvious when some fool tries to describe both Christianity and the Odyssey as at some fundamental level the same story. Obviously, this can be done if one is willing to make the mono-myth “stuff happened,” but at any meaningful level of detail this is idiotic. Not all ideas are the same and not everyone agrees on what life is, so they cannot all, even in principle, tell the same stories. Further, even within a single worldview there is more than one story it’s possible to tell, and even more than one story that people can think it important to tell.

This gets even worse if you just look at what the Hero’s Journey, the one tale that everyone tells, is supposed to be:

I’m sure that there’s some story that this describes, but if you actually know any stories, it’s just obvious that there’s many that don’t fit this pattern unless you’re willing to use interpretations so tortured that they’re probably banned by the Geneva conventions.

So, is this thing worthless? It clearly is worthless in the field of comparative religion. However, Campbell’s myth of the mono-myth influenced George Lucas when he was writing Star Wars, and given what the prequels were like, we can only assume for the better. There must, therefore, be something in it which can help someone.

It strikes me that the fundamental thing which Campbell does get right, which a great many people—secular people, that is—miss, is the value of domesticity. In the cycle above, the call to adventure and the return both reference the domestic life. What the cycle does not explicitly show, but what is none the less referenced by it, is that all of the other stuff in the cycle exists for the sake of the domestic. The point of the adventure is not the adventure, but in protecting or restoring or supporting the domestic that the hero left.

The main work of life consists in the details. This is related to how God loves beetles. Most of creation are moments we would not write books about; it is good to remember that the stuff that we do write books about are only really interesting because of how they affect (or would affect) the more important stuff we don’t write books about.

(As a side note, this is why gender-swapped female heroes always ring false—as distinct from heroes which were written as female, which ring true according to the skill of the author. It’s not merely that males and females tend to relate to other people differently. When it comes to exigent circumstances like an adventure, this tends to be more in the details than in the main actions (assuming the same abilities; characters with different abilities will naturally meet challenges differently). A big problem with gender-swapped heroes is that the domesticity to which they will return is not the same for males and females. Some aspects of domesticity are the same, some are complementary, some are just different—but the whole thing is not identical. The same adventure will tend to impact the characters differently because of how it impacts their ability to return to domesticity at the end of it. Becoming the greatest sword fighter in the land, who has killed dozens of other warriors in hand-to-hand combat, will affect things like marriage prospects differently for a male and a female. Adventures which don’t involve combat at all will still have different impacts because males and females will return differently, since they’re returning to different things. An adventure to return a magic item somewhere, which is done all by cunning and making alliances, may well be more satisfying for a female character because she was important and rose to the occasion, while it might be disappointing to a male character because it didn’t prove a damn thing about his worth as a warrior. He might need to learn lessons about service having to be what is needed, not what you want to do, that she probably wouldn’t. Both are only probable, of course; you can write approximately any story about a male or a female, the issue is that you have to write it for them, you can’t just write an androgynous story then pick the character afterwards, or worse, write it for the one then swap to the other without changing anything else. For a story to ring true, it needs to be written for the actual characters who are in it.)

If a person can get the importance of the domestic out of Campbell’s mythology, he will write a vastly better story than a person who does not realize that the adventure is in service of the mundane, not the other way around. Even if he only gets it at a subconscious level.

This is why, by the way, the scene of Luke Skywalker before the funeral pyre of Darth Vader was, perhaps, the best scene of the whole trilogy:

The two great domestic activities of life are birth and death. Birth brings us into this temporary world, and death brings us out of it. People on an adventure do not have time to do either properly, but they’re especially well known for not having time to ceremoniously bury their dead. Here, Luke has finished his adventure and has returned to the domestic. He is performing the ultimate domestic duty for his father: he is burying him. The death of the Emperor and the destruction of the Empire have wider ranging consequences than this, but this stands symbolically for them. It would never have been possible if the emperor had still lived. It’s also quite important to the emotional impact of the scene that Luke is alone while he does it. Families are small things and the domestic is most naturally private. Domestic things are worth doing even if no one knows about them.

That’s how you know that they’re more important than the stuff we write about.

A Great Black Friday Book Sale

Radio scientist, engineer, author, and interesting guy Hans Schantz has put together his annual black friday book sale which is comprised of hundreds of books from a variety of independent authors. The sale includes my own book Ordinary Superheroes. (Before Silver Empire publishing shut down, my other books would be included too, but I haven’t gotten the time to sit down and self-publish those so I couldn’t include them. Next year, though!)

Hans describes it as the Based book sale, which means that the stories that might be fantastic but are related to reality, so they’re about having fun exploring some aspect of the human condition and don’t involve lengthy lectures about how up is down, right is left, short is long, or communism is good. (I need to write about it; until then I did do a video on the nature of symbolism and how it’s about reflecting the structure of reality, not using a secret decoder ring.)

The sale runs through November 29, so if you’re in the market for trying new fiction from authors who write out of love rather than hate, this is a very cost-effective way of doing that.

Existentialists Must Be Bad Parents To Be Good Existentialists

Existentialism is the philosophical position that “existence precedes essence,” i.e. that a thing exists and only afterwards determines what it is. Mostly they only apply this to human beings, and basically it’s a fancy way of saying that human beings are not given a human nature, they create a human nature for themselves. It doesn’t withstand scrutiny if you think about it for even a few seconds, but it is none the less quite popular, especially in somewhat limited forms that are selectively applied.

One interesting consequence of existentialism is that, to be a good existentialist, a person must be a bad parent. The actual job of parents is to raise children, i.e. to teach them how to be adult human beings. This presupposes that the child has a nature which they can grow into. The existentialist believes that the child can be absolutely anything it wants to be. The existentialist, therefore, can only help the child if the child happens to choose to be the sort of thing that the existentialist knows how to be. Of course, what are the odds of that? Worse, the existentialist parent can only answer questions about how to achieve specific goals, and those only very conditionally because all goals actually entail a multitude of sub-goals which no one has time to specify. Worse still, it often takes a fair amount of experience to even know what these possible sub-goals are. If a kid wants to paint a picture of a dragon, does he want to do it in pastels or crayons or colored pencils or oil paints? How is the kid even supposed to know?

Existentialism does not, in reality, work for anyone, but to the degree that it works, it works much better for adults than for children, like pretty much everything else that came out of the Enlightenment.

I think I’ll end with a G.K. Chesterton quote from What’s Wrong With the World:

I know that certain crazy pedants have attempted to counter this difficulty by maintaining that education is not instruction at all, does not teach by authority at all. They present the process as coming, not from the outside, from the teacher, but entirely from inside the boy. Education, they say, is the Latin for leading out or drawing out the dormant faculties of each person. Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division; only leads out the child’s slightly veiled preference for milk pudding to tarts. I am not sure that I believe in the derivation; I have heard the disgraceful suggestion that “educator,” if applied to a Roman schoolmaster, did not mean leading our young functions into freedom; but only meant taking out little boys for a walk. But I am much more certain that I do not agree with the doctrine; I think it would be about as sane to say that the baby’s milk comes from the baby as to say that the baby’s educational merits do. There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all. Speaking is the most practical instance of the whole situation. You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.

But the important point here is only that you cannot anyhow get rid of authority in education; it is not so much (as poor Conservatives say) that parental authority ought to be preserved, as that it cannot be destroyed. Mr. Bernard Shaw once said that he hated the idea of forming a child’s mind. In that case Mr. Bernard Shaw had better hang himself; for he hates something inseparable from human life. I only mentioned educere and the drawing out of the faculties in order to point out that even this mental trick does not avoid the inevitable idea of parental or scholastic authority. The educator drawing out is just as arbitrary and coercive as the instructor pouring in; for he draws out what he chooses. He decides what in the child shall be developed and what shall not be developed. He does not (I suppose) draw out the neglected faculty of forgery. He does not (so far at least) lead out, with timid steps, a shy talent for torture. The only result of all this pompous and precise distinction between the educator and the instructor is that the instructor pokes where he likes and the educator pulls where he likes. Exactly the same intellectual violence is done to the creature who is poked and pulled. Now we must all accept the responsibility of this intellectual violence. Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth. After that it is a trifling and even a jocular question whether we say of this tremendous tormentor, the artist Man, that he puts things into us like an apothecary, or draws things out of us, like a dentist.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Looking up something about the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still, I accidentally discovered that the movie was based on a short story by a writer named Harry Bates called Farewell To the Master. It was originally published in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and its plot is rather different from the movie.

There’s a detailed summary on the Wikipedia page, but the short short version is that a man and robot emerge from a space ship, Klaatu and Gnut, a lunatic shoots Klaatu who dies and is buried in a mausoleum, the robot stands still for a few days, then eventually retrieves Klaatu’s body and leaves, intending to make a new Klaatu.

As the robot prepares to depart, Sutherland impresses upon it the need to tell its master, the Klaatu yet to come, that his death was a terrible accident. Gnut replies, “You misunderstand, I am the master.”

In the movie, the robot Gort is very much a servant, if an autonomous servant. It was created by the peoples of the galaxy to ensure peace (by wiping out anyone sufficiently warlike). I wonder how it was the movie came to be based upon the short story. It only has a few things in common.

The Peacefulness of Pastoral Life

In a curious chain of thoughts which started with snow that the tribal witch doctor weather service didn’t predict earlier in the day and moved on to Pride & Prejudice, specifically the part that takes place over the winter, it occurred to me that the peacefulness of pastoral life is real, but often mischaracterized. It’s not that farmers don’t have any worries. Like everyone else, they’ve got plenty. It’s that they don’t have a particular kind of worry that’s particularly pressing on a great many non-farmers.

Non-farmers, by and large, are doing things that have contextual value in an ever-changing context. The software that I write today has value today, and almost certainly will next year, but probably won’t in twenty years. As a result, we’re always going somewhere. Then there is looking for promotions and new opportunities… When you put it all together, we don’t really know what success ten years from now will even look like. This also makes it very difficult to raise children, since we have no good way of knowing what future to prepare them for.

Of the various worries of a farmer, this is not one of them. The future is as uncertain for a farmer as it is for anyone else, but he does, at least, know what he will be doing next year: farming. He knows what he will teach his children how to do: farm.

The modern world has, of course, complicated this like it has everything else. Life with modern GPS-guided self-driving tractors is not the same as leading a team of horses to pull a plow, to be sure. Raising cows using sonigram machines to tell how good their meat is and inseminating them all using frozen sperm bought from one of the top bulls in the country is certainly not an identical skillset to what cow farming was a hundred years ago, either. I’m not trying to over-sell the reliable character of pastoral life.

I’m just noting that it does have this character, and especially that prior to the steam tractor it very much had this character. Even now, though, it has far more of this kind of stability that most of the rest of life has. I suspect this is why so many hallmark movies (I’m told) involve the fantasy of leaving the rat race and becoming some kind of farmer, though often with the twist of bringing some skill gained from the rat race to make farming pay better than it often does. It’s a fantasy, but fantasies have to connect with reality at some point, and I strongly suspect this is the point at which this kind of fantasy connects with reality.

Fitness Standards

I recently saw the following on Twitter:

I don’t know what percentage men can do the following, but I know they’re good markers to aim for:

-<7-min mile
-50 push-ups
-15 pull-ups
-Bench bodyweight
-Squat 1.25x bodyweight
-24 inch+ standing vertical jump
-< 5-sec 40-yd dash

If you can do all of these, you’re golden

The first thing that comes to mind is that these criteria are all things that favor small people, because they’re all based on bodyweight, except for the 7 minute mile and the 24+ inch vertical jump which select for tall scrawny people. I’m not concerned with that being unfair (I’m 6′ tall)—life isn’t fair. What actually strikes me about this is that it’s opposite to what most people want for most tasks in the modern world. If you want something carried, you don’t look around for the smallest guy. If you want something pushed, you don’t look around for the smallest guy. If you need something bent, you don’t look around for the smallest guy. About the only time you’d look around for the smallest guy is if you need someone to climb a tree because your snake is up in it and won’t come down.

To be clear, this is not meant as a slight against small guys. They can still do extremely useful things, especially if they’re physically fit, and you’d be a fool to turn down their help if they’re offering it. My only point is that it’s weird that the fitness criteria given is most easily met by the people who have the hardest time doing the tasks one actually wants strong people for in the modern world.

A cynical person might suspect that this is because the person who posted it is a fitness trainer and thus wants to appeal to a broad market—men who don’t weigh much are rare. A cynical person might also suggest that by tying this to body weight rather than absolute measurements (other than the 24+ inch vertical and the race times) it broadens the appeal because everyone (thinks they) can do things measured relative to their own body. And, of course, a cynical person might well be right.

It would be interesting to put together a more realistic set of criteria. I think that they would include things like being able to deadlift at least 300 pounds, overhead press at least 120 pounds, walk a mile on uneven terrain carrying 50 pounds, and do at least 2 pullups. A man who can do those things won’t necessarily impress anyone, and perhaps that was the point of the original, but such a man won’t let anyone down in the modern world.

I’m not suggesting that a man should aim no higher than this—that’s not the purpose of minimums. For example, my best deadlift is 425# and I’m working on improving it. it can be very good to aim higher than the minimum. What I’m really suggesting is that standards should clearly indicate what their goal is. The list of standards at the top of this post would be excellent as the qualification for entering an intermediate class on doing obstacle courses like the ninja warrior competitions.

It probably wouldn’t be bad as a way to ensure that other men wonder why a single man has a hard time getting a girlfriend.

Butternut Venison Stew

Recently I made up a recipe for deer stew, and it came out quite well. To be fair, it was based on a recipe I worked out for lamb stew a decade or so ago, but I’m counting this as making it up because I went from memory. I got the idea to try this kind of stew when I made a roasted venison shank in the same way I would roast a lamb shank and it came out very well.

If you’re interested (it should work just as well with lamb, which will probably be more accessible), here’s the recipe:


  • 2lbs venison, cubed
  • 4oz bacon, chopped
  • 1 small butternut squash, cubed
  • 1 large orange sweet potato (“yam”), cut like for mashed potatoes
  • 2 sweet onions, quartered and sliced
  • 2tbsp thyme
  • 1tbsp basil
  • 2tsp salt

Cook the bacon on low in a large stock pot. Once the fat has been rendered but before the bacon turns crispy, add the venison. Turn up the heat slightly and stir frequently, so as to brown the meat a little. Once at some of the meat has been browned (you don’t want to thoroughly cook it at this stage), add in the onions, sweet potato, and butternut squash. I like to add them in that order, and a bit at a time, stirring so as to thoroughly mix things, though that’s probably not essential. If you don’t stir as you put the ingredients in, at least stir to make sure there are no air pockets. Add the smallest amount of water necessary to barely cover the ingredients, preferably with a few bits just poking out of the water. Add the spices (adjust to taste), then stir to mix the spices in and cover.

Cook on low for about an hour, stirring occasionally. The ideal heat will produce the occasional bubble coming to the top after the stew has been covered for a few minutes, but you do not want a full-on boil. The stew will be done when the sweet potato has dissolved into mush and the butternut chunks break apart with slight pressure from a wooden spoon. Depending on the amount of water you added in the beginning, you’ll probably want to uncover it and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring frequently, to concentrate the stew.

Once the vegetables have the right consistency the stew is ready to serve, though for the sake of the skin on the inside of people’s mouths, it’s a good idea to let it cool a little.

NOTE: if you cook the stew on too high a heat (which isn’t very high), it will burn on the stew on the bottom of the pot. You can tell that this has happened because you will feel resistance when you draw a wooden spoon across the bottom, rather than the normal feeling of the spoon sliding across flat metal. If this happens, turn the heat down and don’t try to scrape the bottom up. That part of the stew is lost, but if you leave it on the bottom, the burnt flavor won’t get into the rest of the stew. Be careful when ladling the stew out to leave that on the bottom.

Murder She Wrote: J.B. As In Jailbird

On the twenty third day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote opened with the episode J.B. As In Jailbird. (Last season ended with The Body Politic.)

The episode begins with Michael Hagarty (an MI6 agent) walking through the shadows in a dingy apartment building. He cocks his revolver, then knocks on a door and claims to be the maintenance man, here to fix a bad pipe. A sweaty man (“the Bulgarian”) sitting on the bed tells him to come back later.

There’s a bit of arguing and he tries a passphrase on Michael.

It may snow in the Sierras before the weekend.

This is proper spy stuff. Unfortunately, Michael doesn’t know the countersign, so he just keeps up with the maintenance man act. The sweaty man exits out the window as Michael kicks the door open. The man fires some bullets at the door, then goes down the fire escape. Just outside the fire escape is Jessica getting out of a car.

He man demands the keys from Jessica, but she doesn’t have the keys. When he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give him the keys, Michael shoots him dead.

Moments later, as James Bond-inspired music plays, a police car drives up. Michael, hearing the sirens, runs away. The cops see Jessica standing over the corpse and arrest her.

The camera moves over to a front business where a British man named Lancaster berates Michael.

It turns out, though, that it wasn’t Michael who shot the sweaty man, it was “The Cobra”. No one knows who he is, and even this time Michael never saw him. His theory is that The Cobra doesn’t like loose ends, and the sweaty man was a loose end, so The Cobra tied him up when he panicked.

The subject then turns to Jessica. Michael ran into her at the airport and thought that she would be good cover for him leaving the airport, so he offered her a ride to his hotel. When Lancaster called him on his car-phone and told him about the meeting, he had no choice but to leave her in the car while he went in to try to fix the Bulgarian’s plumbing. Lancaster is worried that Jessica will talk to the press but Michael says that he’s taken care of that, temporarily.

The scene then goes to the police station where Jessica is waiting to be processed. Jessica talks to a Sergeant, who asks her who she really is. The real Jessica Fletcher reported her purse and luggage stolen at the airport. They book Jessica as “Jane Doe”. Jessica says that her nephew, Grady, will vouch for her.

The scene then goes back to the place with Lancaster and Michael. They are reviewing the case “from a damage control perspective.” In two days, Leonard Matoso will give a speech at Berkeley.

He’s an opponent of his African nation’s government, but he’s too popular for them to assassinate him at home. For some reason that isn’t specified, they can do it in America, however, “with clean hands”. I guess in America any number of people might want to kill him, whereas at home only the government would? Seems a bit backwards, but I’m not a spy. Anyway, this is why there are Bulgarians in this episode—to provide the hitman. Michael suggests that Matoso’s own people might be the ones who have hired the Bulgarians, in order to be the match which sets off the powder keg back home.

Be that as it may, the word from the Bulgarian embassy is that Cobra has accepted the contract. The Americans doubt the British information, and their official position is that their security is adequate for Matoso to come give his speech ad Berkley.

There’s another British agent in the room who’s somehow involved, though it’s not at all clear how. His name is Roger Travis.

He and Michael don’t get along. He implies that Michael killed the Bulgarian contact, while Michael says something about how he (the other agent) was supposed to be guarding someone that The Cobra killed, vaguely implying (I think) that maybe this agent is actually the Cobra. Michael ends up grabbing Roger by the lapels, and Lancaster threatens them both with disciplinary action to calm things down.

The scene shifts to the police station where Grady comes in to identify Jessica, but says that he’s never seen her before in his life. We fade to black and go to commercial break.

We come back to Jessica begging Grady to identify her, and he overdoes it on the denials. After he leaves, he talks with the Sergeant, who explains that she “iced a commie agent” and they have her figured for being an enemy agent.

The Sergeant, whose name is Nash, goes back to his office, where he meets another Sergeant, Joe Santiago, from the Miami PD. He’s here to extradite someone. While he was waiting in the office, he was looking over the file about the Bulgarian. It reminded him of another case that was like this, with a Greek national iced in an alleyway and a woman who looked a bit like their Jane Doe spotted at the scene. He asks to speak to her and Nash says that’s fine.

The scene shifts to Michael and Grady walking along a street and Michael asks how it went. Grady is upset and Michael explains that it’s for Jessica’s protection. He tells Grady a bit about how there’s an assassination attempt in the works and tells Grady to go home and call him if anyone comes nosing around about Jessica.

The scene shifts back to police headquarters where the two Sergeants are interrogating Jessica. Eventually she demands to call her lawyer. They inform her that her lawyer is here now and she can talk to him. Her lawyer is, of course, Michael Hagarty, under cover as a southern lawyer Derek Dawson. I wonder if he showed up and said, “Hi, I’m Jane Doe’s lawyer. We put tracking devices on all of our clients, which is why I’m here without having been called” and instead of blinking an eye they put him in a conference room and asked him if he wouldn’t mind waiting for a few minutes while they interrogate his client without him present.

Anyway, they’re talking, and after a bit Michael drops the act and fills Jessica in on the Cobra.

When Grady goes back to his apartment a strange looking woman is knocking on his door.

Her name is Glenda Morrison, she’s a reporter from “The Chronicle”. She had an appointment to do an interview with Jessica. When Grady indicates some recognition, she says that he might have heard of her from a series she did on the Afghanistan war, or the assassination of a Nicaraguan general. Glenda leaves her number asking for Jessica to call her immediately.

Back at the British spy warehouse, Lancaster and Michael are talking about Cobra. Michael says that the Cobra is too good, like he’s working with inside information. Lancaster mentions that The Cobra made a fool of him before in Kenya. The Cobra managed to blow up a bus full of police. Lancaster wonders whether that was the reason he was exiled to California. He intends to retire in three months, though, and the Cobra will be somebody else’s problem.

They’re doing a good job of spreading around suspicion of who The Cobra is, I’ll give them that. So far it could be any of Joe Santiago, Glenda Morrison, Lancaster, or Roger Travis.

Lancaster then gives Michael a message that Roger took from Grady. Michael goes off to get lunch.

Roger Travis then walks in and talks to Lancaster, saying that his source at the Bulgarian embassy said that the sweaty man definitely took the payment with him. Yet no money was found on the body. Travis says that this is a troubling contradiction if one believes Michael’s version of events. Lancaster warns Travis not to make accusations without hard evidence. They then discuss Jessica, but don’t really say anything of substance.

Michael meets Grady. Grady tells him about Glenda Morrison. Michael is dismissive at first, but then Grady says that he phoned the chronicle and they’ve never even heard of a Glenda Morrison. Michael asks to see the phone number she gave him. While Grady is fishing it out of his pocket, a car pulls up, a tinted window lowers, and a gun with a silencer sticks out of the slit at the top.

Michael notices the gun, grabs Grady, and dives to the ground. The gun fires but doesn’t hit anything and the car speeds away. We see that Grady and Michael are fine, then fade to black and we’re off to commercial.

So far, they’ve done a pretty good job with the spy thriller elements. Suspicion is everywhere and the tension is high.

When we get back we’re at the police station. Kevin Styles, special attorney with the State Department shows up and introduces himself to Lt. Nash. He’s there unofficially, and is asking about the situation. He says that they’ve told the Bulgarians that it was a non-political robbery gone bad. He’s also certain that he’s seen Joe Santiago before. He wonders if it was in Paris last year. Joe says that he was in Paris last year on some liaison work with Interpol, but he didn’t attend any parties, and he says that if they’d met, he’d have remembered. Styles asks Lt. Nash to get him a copy of the file, and not to tell anything to the press without running it by him, first.

Back in the jail cell, Jessica is examining the book she had been holding when she was arrested—she asked if she could have it back and Sergeant Nash was indulgent. She finds a postcard in it.

She’s interrupted in her investigations by Roger Travis, who’s dressed as a uniformed policeman. He talks to Jessica, identifies himself as British counter-intelligence, and asks her to testify against Michael, but she protests that she wasn’t working with him and didn’t see him do anything. Travis tells her that she’ll never see a penny of the half million dollars, but she has no idea what half million dollars he’s talking about. She threatens to call Sgt. Nash to talk this over with him and Travis sneaks away.

The next scene is back at the hotel where Jessica is supposed to be. Glenda Morrison comes to the door, knocks, calls out Mrs. Fletcher’s name, and enters. Michael then tackles her and pins her to the couch. She admits that she exaggerated her resume and she’s just a freelance reporter who was hoping to score an interview with Jessica Fletcher which she hoped to sell to Rolling Stone, but people usually aren’t interested in talking to freelance reporters writing on spec.

Back at the station, Jessica meets with Michael (posing as her lawyer) again, where she tells him about Roger Travis’ visit. There’s some speculation, but the big piece of info is that the money would not have been passed as cash, that would be too bulky. It would have been something like a claim ticket or a swiss bank account number.

Back in her cell, Jessica looks at the post card again, this time taking a close look at the stamp.

At Jessica’s hotel, Glenda Morrison is hanging out in the lobby and Grady is watching her. Lt. Joe Santiago comes in and asks the desk clerk for Jessica’s room. Glenda casually walks up to hear the conversation. He flips his badge and tells the clerk that Mrs. Fletcher reported a robbery at the airport.

Glenda follows him. Grady follows her. Music that’s as close to James Bond music without legally infringing on its copyright plays.

Joe looks around in the room like he’s trying to find something hidden, then notices Glenda and Grady. He pulls out his gun and demands to know who they are. We fade to black and go to commercial.

When we get back there’s a bunch of prevarication but not much that’s interesting, then Joe leaves. Glenda stays and there is some comedic bickering, as well as a scene where Donna (Grady’s wife) calls and hears the voice of another woman in Grady’s room, but of course there’s no chance to explain because Glenda tries to steal the phone to talk (she thinks to Mrs. Fletcher) and accidentally unplugs it. I suppose now that she’s comic relief, we can scratch her off the suspect list.

The next scene is back in Jessica’s jail cell. For some reason Kevin Styles is talking with Jessica.

She explains that she knows a lot of influential people in Washington and needs his help to get out of jail. She points out that if he goes to any bookstore he’ll see her face on the dust cover jacket. He says that he’ll do just that. He asks if there’s anything he can do for her in the meantime, if she wants fruit or anything to read, then notices that she has a book. He proclaims that he, too, is a Zane Grey fan, though he hasn’t read this one.

He examines it very closely with his back to Jessica for some reason, then hands it back to her when Sgt. Nash and a police woman come to the cell door. Styles says that he’ll be in touch and leaves.

The woman in the cell next to Jessica is about to go for her court appearance, so Jessica asks her to make a phone call to Grady. “You might even say it’s a matter of life and death.”

The next scene is back at the spy office, where Lancaster is feeding fish.

The music is about as sinister as the lighting.

Travis explains to Lancaster that he saw Jessica in the police station and it confirms his theory that Michael Hagarty is dirty. Lancaster points out that the interview, based on Travis’ description, provides exactly no support for this theory, but sighs and says that they should get this out in the open. He asks Travis to summon Hagarty, but he’s nowhere to be found.

We then go back to Jessica’s cell, where Kevin Styles returns. His manner is entirely changed. He says that he’s really rather pressed for time and wants the stamp. He pulls a knife out and tells her to give it to him. He adds that “we have your nephew” and if he doesn’t walk out of the cell now, and with the stamp, Grady will die. Jessica says that he’s very persuasive and that it’s in the toe of her shoe. She kicks it off and it lands across the cell.

He picks it up and as he stands up, Michael Hagarty disguised as the woman who used to be in the cell next to Jessica’s reaches through the bars and grabs Styles around the neck, points a gun at his head, and tells him to relax or the next sound he’ll hear is a .38 soft nose crashing through his brain pan.

In the next scene Jessica is being released, and Nash apologizes for the mixup. Jessica is very understanding and tells him that it wasn’t all his fault. Nash asks how she knew that the stamp was the payoff to the hitman. Jessica explains that she didn’t notice it at first but then it struck her that the cancellation marks didn’t run across the stamp, but rather the stamp was on top of the marks. (For those who have never sent a letter, the post office marks stamps that are used to prevent their re-use. The mark not appearing on top of the stamp showed that the stamp was never used to pay for the post-card being used.) So she took off the stamp and replaced it with another one. When Styles came to see Jessica, he was very interested in the book, and after he left, the postcard was missing.

Michael comes up and tells Jessica that all’s well that ends well, to which Jessica enthusiastically agrees. Michael then says that she’ll be at the airport in plenty of time for her flight, and Jessica says that she hates to put Michael to all this trouble. He replies that it’s no trouble at all, but he did promise his chief that he’d pick up some microfilm from an agent in Chinatown, it will only take a minute, and it’s on their way. Jessica then tells Grady to call a cab, and we go to credits.

Well. That was a weird episode to begin the season with. It was, at least, better done than the last episode that tried to be a spy-thriller (Murder Through the Looking Glass). Like a lot of spy thrillers, though, it made a lot of interesting promises and fell apart when it came time for there to be a payoff.

The person who turned out to be the Cobra barely had any screen time and only showed up after the second commercial break. None of the characters doing suspicious things had any payoff, not even a threadbare explanation for the suspicious things that they were doing. I suppose Lancaster is an exception in that (by default) he turned out to just have been embarrassed by The Cobra before and it’s a coincidence that the Cobra showed up here. I suppose that Roger Travis is another exception; we can conclude that he just groundlessly suspected Michael Hagarty because he’s overly suspicious and not concerned with evidence. But what’s the deal with Lt. Joe Santiago?

Did he really just leaf through a report that was on Lt. Nash’s desk to pass the time? Did he really think that a Greek killed in an alleyway in Miami and a Bulgarian killed in an alley in California were actually similar enough to warrant suspicion? Was there really a woman whose description by a cab driver was similar to Jessica’s? Why did he go looking for something in Jessica’s hotel room? So far as he knew it wasn’t Jessica Fletcher who was found with the body. What could he possibly have hoped to find in her hotel room? Why did Glenda Morrison wait in the lobby for Lt. Santiago when she’d never seen him before and had no idea who he was? Why did she listen in to his conversation? How on earth did a freelance reporter working on a spec article on Mrs. Fletcher for Rolling Stone Magazine get a key to Mrs. Fletcher’s room?

None of this is answered, and given the ending, it can’t be answered. It’s all fake mystery.

Not as mysterious, but still something that needs explanation: why did someone (The Cobra?) take a shot at Grady or Michael Hagarty? Which actually was it? If this was The Cobra who shot at one of them, how did he find them? If he followed Grady, how did he know how to do it? This was before Kevin Styles got a copy of the file on the case so he had no way of knowing that the woman in the alley was Jane Doe claiming to be Jessica Fletcher or where she was staying in the city. So how did he follow Grady? Or, if he followed Michael instead, how did he follow Michael? Why did he follow Michael? Why did he take a shot at either of them? How could the death of either benefit the Cobra in any way?

The setup of the episode also bears very little scrutiny. Why did the African nation hire an extremely expensive assassin to take out Leonard Matoso? Why did this involve payment being handled by Bulgarians? Why did the handling of payment by Bulgarians involve sending it through the Bulgarian embassy in America? Why was the Bulgarian embassy in America reporting its handling of funds for assassins to the British intelligence service? Bulgaria was never part of the USSR, but in 1998 it was still within the USSR’s sphere of influence and not exactly on friendly terms with Britain. Or was there supposed to be a British spy within the Bulgarian embassy in America?

For that matter, why did The Cobra shoot the Bulgarian who was supposed to pay him? The Bulgarian had no idea who he was, all he knew was a sign and countersign to recognize the guy he was supposed to deliver payment to. From his perspective, if the Bulgarian got away, he might still get payment when a new location for the handoff was decided on. If he shot the Bulgarian in the alley, it was extremely unlikely he’d ever receive payment because dead men don’t make handoffs. And how did he even know that the guy who just ran out of the fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him the payment? They were using a recognition code to meeting at a hotel room. Was he walking up and just assumed that a guy running out of a fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him payment, and so needed to be shot for some reason? Had he memorized the hotel layout ahead of time so he knew which fire escape window belonged to the hotel room he was meeting his payment at? And why was The Cobra there but didn’t pick up the payment? This may come down to the prop and special effects departments more than the writers, but we can see approximately where The Cobra needed to be:

He flinches as if he was shot in the back.
Not sure how, if the bullet made it out the front, it didn’t hit Jessica.

Based on the angles, The Cobra actually should have been in view directly behind the Bulgarian. We can see that there was no entrance wound on the man’s upper back in this shot before he falls over:

So that rules out a shot from above. It almost rules out a shot from behind, too. But if you look at how close he was to Jessica when he was shot, it would have been very hard to shoot from behind her (behind her would be in front of the Bulgarian). Above and behind her might work, but then he’d be in full view of Michael Hagarty.

And, frankly, whether The Cobra was above and behind Jessica or even higher above Michael and the special effects department just got this wrong, neither place makes any sense for him to be when his purpose is to pick up a payment. Taking a sniper position in case a British agent shows up at the hotel door and the courier flees out of the window seems counter-productive to the goal of getting paid.

My point, in all of this, is not to nitpick. My point is that the air of mystery and intrigue which this episode relied on was formed by the hints that all of these details gave. If you got rid of these details, or changed them into other details that didn’t need an explanation, you wouldn’t have much of an episode.

The ending was also extremely strange. Jessica spent the entire episode angry at Michael for getting her into jail and keeping her there. Then, after catching The Cobra, all is immediately forgiven. So much so that Jessica says that she doesn’t want to put Michael to the trouble of driving her to the airport. Huh? Forgiving this quickly isn’t like Jessica at all. Especially since Michael never expressed contrition or even apologized.

And speaking of Michael, what the heck was the ending where Michael was dressed up as the woman in the cell next to Jessica? How did he get there? Jessica indicated surprised to Kevin Styles that he was back so soon. Given that he was just walking to a bookstore to look at the dust cover of a book by J.B. Fletcher, she could not have reasonably expected him to take long. And Jessica’s message went by way of someone going to a court hearing, to Grady, who got in touch with Michael, who came to the police station and… what? If people can just waltz into the cells, it’s not much of a protection for Jessica. Did Michael confide in Lt. Nash and get his cooperation? Would a California police station really let a British spy into their jail with a gun on his say-so?

Overall, this was not one of the better episodes, but it did have good qualities. They did a good job of pacing the hints in the first half of the episode to create a lot of intrigue. They didn’t have to have the thing completely fall apart; whichever writer pitched “instead of paying off anything we suggested in the first half of the episode, how about we introduce a new character and he’s the bad guy, and once he’s caught we pretend that nothing ever happened?” didn’t need to be listened to. Either of Roger Travis or Lancaster would have been a much better Cobra. So, for that matter, would Joe Santiago. Glenda Morrison as someone working for the Cobra would have been a big improvement, and would also explain her garish makeup as a disguise to make her hard to recognize, like a lone ranger mask. (Lone Ranger masks work shockingly well, since we have a tendency to focus on details that visually distinguish someone from everyone we could confuse them with, and an obvious detail like a lone ranger mask or garish makeup would do that, resulting in not paying attention to any other features that the person has.)

What probably would have been even better would be for several people to be “the Cobra.” It would have explained how “the Cobra” was too good. Roger Travis and Joe Santiago working together as “the cobra”, plus Glenda Morrison as a helper, would have been a vastly more satisfying ending and far more interesting. It might have even allowed Lancaster to have done something useful—say, catching Roger Travis—which would have been a cool arc for that character. Lancaster was an interesting character.

Next week we meet Dennis Stanton, one of the better characters of Murder, She Wrote, in the episode, A Little Night Work.