The Best Laid Schemes O’ Mice an’ Men Gang Aft Agley

This weekmonthsummer has really not been going the way I hoped it would. I’m going to talk about why that’s OK, but first I want to quote the stanza from which the title comes, because the original poem, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785, is not quoted often enough:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

So, the reason for the strike-through up above is that I began this post in, if my memory serves me, July, and I am now finishing it in August. Between various things, mostly family related, as well as an annual trip to visit my parents, and most things have gotten pushed to the side. About the only thing I’ve managed to do which is creative is work on the second chronicle of Brother Thomas, Wedding Flowers Will Do For a Funeral.

On the plus side, I’ve finished the first draft and, as of the time of this writing, have edited the first 100 pages (actually, 99¼, but the word processor is on page 100). It’s going slower than I would like, of course, but that’s something of a theme, lately.

And just to make life more crowded, I’m finally going back to the gym to lift weights 3 times a week. In the long run, it’s very good that I’m doing it, but it means even less time.

And that’s OK.

I’d really like to be a lot more productive on this blog and on my YouTube channel. I’ve got a notepad of videos to do which is up to about 10 items now. It’s a backlog. And I’ve got tons of blog posts to write. I want to finish reviewing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, I want to review all of the Cadfael novels, and after that, probably the Poirot novels. I want to talk more about mystery writing, I’ve got lots of things to write about theology and philosophy, too.

And, God willing, some day I will.

But it’s that first part that’s really important to keep in mind. It’s our job to do our best; it’s God’s job to figure out whether—and how—we should succeed. Running the world is a big and complex task, and God doesn’t ask of us that we do it. All He asks of us is that we do our best to do what he’s given us to do in the moment.

So, the world frequently doesn’t turn out like we expect. But we can trust that it does turn out for the best.

That’s really all we can ever do: do our best and trust God.

Interesting Video On Why Germany Lost World War II

In an interesting video, TIK talks about Germany’s access to oil and oil supplies and why these dictated its actions during World War II, and why they made its downfall all but certain:

It is said that when it comes to war, amateurs think in terms of tactics and professionals in terms of logistics. This is related to the saying that an army fights on its belly, that is, if it’s not fed, it doesn’t fight.

Feeding and watering an army—both men and horses—has been the concern of generals for thousands of years. (Horses were often relatively self-sustaining, since they eat grass, but they do better on grain if you want them to be constantly working.) Thus tactics like burning crop fields during retreat, so as to starve an invading army.

World War II was in many ways the first truly mechanized war, and thus the problem of logistics expanded into the economic sphere. Machines are produced only by a thriving economy, and machines run only on oil. In order to fight an effective mechanized war, one must have a strong economy and lots of fuel.

This, by the way, has strong social implications outside of war. In order to remain in peace, one must have the strength to defeat attackers. In order to do this in the modern context of mechanized warfare, one must have a high-production modern economy. One doesn’t need to be able to produce the weapons of war oneself, but one must be able to buy them. That requires a modern economy, which requires at least much of modern social organization.

Those who want to bring back the good parts of traditional social organization need to understand this well. Whatever form modern society takes, it must be one that powers a modern economy which can power a modern army. If it’s not, it will be short-lived.

Studies That Test Diets And Compliance

I’ve had good results from using an extremely low-carb (i.e. low carbohydrate) diet to lose weight, so I’m highly skeptical whenever a study shows that they don’t do that. There are studies that show that they do, too, in addition to my experience, so something is going on when one has highly conflicting studies. The only thing to do is to actually dig into the studies.

And the thing one finds with many of the “low carb” diets in such studies is that they are frequently quite high carb. “Low carb” will often be defined as less than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day. People who have success eat well under 50 and frequently less than 20 grams of carbohydrate per day. A diet with 5-10 times as much carbohydrate being tested as a “low carb” diet simply doesn’t tell anyone anything useful.

But another big problem one sees is studies which test compliance at the same time they test efficacy. That is, the study breaks people up into groups and tells them what to do, but then records what they do as part of the group that they were assigned to. So if someone in the low carb group eats nothing but pasta, his weight performance will count to the low carb diet average in that study.

There are legitimate reasons for this, but they’re all for medical practitioners. Basically, such studies are useful to know how likely, if you prescribe a diet to all of one’s patients, is one to see results. Great for doctors, useless for the rest of us.

The other problem is that we largely already know what compliance with any behavioral change is in human beings: very low. It doesn’t much matter what you’re talking about, people don’t, typically, change for the better.

Where this is really egregious is where people look at these studies and don’t distinguish between the efficacy of the behavioral change and the degree to which the study told us what we already know about human beings: they don’t comply.

Hell, the compliance rates on taking a single pill a day are far from perfect; just look at all the people one knows who forget the pill from time to time. The compliance rate on 2x, 3x, and 4x pills per day is progressively worse, just from simple observation. Who, who has been proscribed taking a pill 3x per day, actually manages to take it 3x per day for all the days of the prescription?

When this comes to bigger stuff like diet and exercise, a simple and only somewhat inaccurate model is that people don’t comply. So a study which measures compliance + some change will mostly show no effect. But that’s uninteresting for people who will actually change.

Consider other areas of life: lifting weights or running. If you did a study to find out if lifting weights makes you stronger in which you also measured compliance, you’d find out that lifting weights doesn’t make you stronger. If you did a studying measuring whether running makes you a better runner, which also measures compliance, you’d find out that running doesn’t make you better at running. Hell, as long as the study is also measuring compliance, you’d find out that practicing piano doesn’t make you play piano better and taking dance lessons doesn’t teach you how to dance. Because in all these studies, the fact that most people stopped lifting weights, running, practicing piano, and never went to the dance lessons would dominate the results.

Or to put it simply, doing something only has an effect if you actually do it. No kidding.

Which is why what we need are studies which also measure compliance and separate people into groups based on compliance. This does introduce problems. Probably the biggest problem is that it will cost a lot of money because it will require really large groups of people. With 90%+ of people non-complying, you need a ten times larger group of people to study, and that costs a lot of money.

The second problem is that this switches out measuring the efficacy of the diet (or whatever) together with compliance for measuring the efficacy of the diet together with whatever preconditions (genetics, preferences, etc) make one likely to actually stick with it.

However, this is clearly a much more useful thing for an individual to measure. If I’m considering lifting weights, I want to know how much stronger I might get if I can stick with it. If I find I can’t stick with it, I don’t really care what it would do, anyway. And I don’t much care why I can stick with it, either.

If it turns out that only 10% of the population can stick with some diet, then I will consider taking my chances on finding out if I’m in the lucky 10%. Weight lifting works that way, to a limited degree. Everyone can get somewhat stronger, but only a fraction of the population can get hugely strong.

But there’s another issue at play, which has to do with motivation: knowing that something will work if I stick to it makes it vastly more likely that I will stick to it. If I actually believe that there is a causal connection between an action and a benefit, it is much easier to keep doing the action until I get the benefit.

Which is yet another reason that studies which measure compliance as well as an effect are worthless: the study participants didn’t know whether sticking to the plan even had any potential benefit.

So, in short, when it comes to studies showing no benefit to something, always check to see whether it’s a study that’s just telling you that human beings rarely change. It’s not completely worthless, but it’s only telling you what you already know.

The First Mary Sue

The first Mary Sue was a character in a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, published in the fanzine Menagerie in 1973. (Fanzines were magazines, often distributed by photocopying them and handing out the results but always made cheaply and without advertiser sponsorship, typically given away for free or a nominal charge to cover the cost of printing.) The parody was called A Trekkie’s Tale. It’s only a few paragraphs long, so I’ll quote it in full:

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?” “Captain! I am not that kind of girl!” “You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.” Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?” “The Captain told me to.” “Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

The story was originally attributed to “Anonymous” but is known to be the word of the editor, Paula Smith. The basic story was a common submission; as such it’s a collection of common features, exaggerated. It’s very interesting to look at those features.

  1. Main character is a teenage girl.
  2. She’s beautiful and wonderful.
  3. Everyone loves her.
  4. She dies and everyone laments her death.

The standard meaning of “Mary Sue,” used as a criticism of a character in a work of fiction, is to impute that a character is an authorial stand-in for the purpose of wish fulfillment. And while the original Mary Sue is an author stand-in, the story is actually more of a Greek tragedy. Mary Sue is initially blessed by the gods, but when she tries to climb Mount Olympus she is cast down and destroyed.

Among the criticisms heaped on the Mary Sue character is that her excellence is always unearned. She appears out of nowhere in fully formed perfection and everyone loves her just for being her. This is generally derided as being horribly unrealistic.

And it is.

For men.

It should not be glossed over that Mary Sue stories are written by teenage girls about themselves. If Mary Sue is realistic to teenage girls, it would be utterly unsurprising that she would be unrealistic to adult men. So, is she realistic to teenage girls?

And here I think that the answer is: yes, actually.

The onset of puberty in a girl does come from nowhere, and transforms her into something beautiful and wonderful, that is, an adult woman capable of bearing children. And everyone loves her, at least if by “everyone”, you mean males, and by “love,” you mean “is interested in”.

A newly adult female is bursting with potential and, as such, everyone is (suddenly) very interested in her and what she does with this potential. It’s not always as benign and comfortable as in the Mary Sue story, of course, but life rarely is as comfortable as fiction.

And if we look further at the inspiration for Mary Sue, we also see why she had to die. Potential cannot last forever in this world. If Mary Sue does not choose a mate, she will eventually hit menopause and cease to have any potential (in the relevant sense; she might still have potential in a thousand other ways, of course, but an allegory only ever describes one aspect of life). If she does choose a mate, she will have children and her potential will be reduced by turning into actuality. But actuality is, in a fallen world, never as interesting as potential; Mary Sue with children does not excite the universal interest which Mary Sue without children did. (In a healthy society she excites respect, instead, but that’s a topic for another day.)

And so it must be that, not long after Mary Sue is blessed by the gods, she is cast down by them, too; Mary Sue cannot remain universally loved for long.

The story of Mary Sue leaves off at the most important part, since after all it was a parody, but it is worth mentioning the fact. That the first flower of youth cannot last is something all people must come to terms with. For some, they will foreswear actuality for some other actuality, as in the case of nuns, who cover themselves to hide their potential so people may forget it. For others, they will give up their potential by trading it for actuality; an actuality which is flawed because we live in a flawed world, but still a real actuality that’s better than the nothingness of pure potentiality.

They both require faith, but all good things require faith. Trying to remain in potentiality is trying to eat one’s cake and still have it afterwards. It promises happiness that it will never deliver.

I think it’s well to remember that the story of Mary Sue is only a bad story if it’s the story of a man, or an adult woman. Though that remains true even if a young woman is cast in the part.

Real Lawyer Reacts to My Cousin Vinny—And Likes It!

I ran across a really curious video on YouTube where a (putatively real) lawyer examined the movie My Cousin Vinny and talked about how accurate it was. To my great surprise he said that—allowing for parts that were obviously just comedic—it was actually very well done and parts of it could be used for teaching lawyers!

If you’ve never seen it, by the way, I highly recommend the movie My Cousin Vinny. It’s a ton of fun and has a lot of quotable lines.

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

The common phrase, that something is like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” is often taken to mean “putting one’s effort where it won’t do good”, but it has another, slightly more subtle meaning: futility. (I’m writing this post because a friend was so used to the first meaning he hadn’t thought about the second, and what one man has done, another might do.)

Once the Titanic has been hit by the iceberg, there are two reasons why it doesn’t matter how the deck chairs are arranged:

  1. No one is going to sit on them while the boat is sinking.
  2. Once the boat sicks, their arrangement will be destroyed by the water washing the deck chairs away from the deck.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic, therefore, suggests an activity is not only secondary to one’s primary concern but moreover one doomed to have no effect whatever.

You can see this by contrasting the Titanic, which sank, to a ship lost at sea where the rations have run out and the crew is starving. Rearranging the deck chairs will not give them food, but they might still take comfort sitting on them in a better arrangement, and whoever eventually finds the empty ship could take advantage of a particularly well thought out arrangement of the deck chairs which has remained after its first crew can no longer use them. (In theory, though admittedly not likely in practice.)

Nerf Gun as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Here’s an interesting post about some creative cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s not that long but out of courtesy I don’t want to quote the whole thing. Here’s the key setup:

i say, are you gonna shoot me with a nerf gun in this professional setting.
he happily informs me that that’s really up to me, isn’t it. and sits back down. and gestures, like, go ahead, what were you saying?
and i squint suspiciously and start back up about how i’m having too much anxiety to leave the house to run errands, like it was a miracle to even get here, like i’ve forgone getting groceries for the past week and that’s so stupid, what a stupid issue, i’m an idiot, how could i–
a foam dart hits me in the leg.


There’s a curious issue brought up in the specifics of the example linked. Self-criticism is a very important ability. People who can’t diagnose their own faults can’t improve, and worse tend to blame everyone but themselves which as a strong alienating effect. Yet, in the example in the link (and partially quoted above), what’s being done is not really self-criticism. It looks like it because the language is negative, but it’s, to use modern cant, disempowering. That is, it makes the one being criticized helpless.

It does this by attributing the failing, not to the will, but to the intellect. That is, it places the defect in the origin, not in the execution. By placing the defect in the origin, nothing can be done about it. A bad tree can’t produce good fruit, or perhaps more aptly, you can’t get blood from a stone.

The problem, in short, is that every time the person complains about himself, he’s giving up. He’s saying, not how he can do better, but that he can’t do better. And this is, indeed, the exact opposite of doing better. What he rephrases his complaints to illustrates the point nicely:

i say, slowly, it’s– not a stupid issue, i’m not stupid, but it’s frustrating me and i don’t want it to be a problem i’m having.

This has reframed it from despair to frustrating, i.e. from having given up to facing one’s problems. Giving up may look like facing problems, but in reality it’s the exact opposite. It’s burying one’s head in the ground so that one doesn’t have to face one’s problems. It is the false hope that one can fix problems without facing them, pretending to be facing them.

You see this a lot with problems; non-solutions love to pretend that they’re actually solutions.

This is related to why my favorite of the baptismal vows is, “Do you reject Satan? And all his empty promises?”

Supporting Indie Writers

Over at Amatopia, Alex writes about an interesting problem: supporting indie writers. Specifically, from the perspective of supporting indie writers who are on the conservative side of the culture war, relating to the goal of trying to rehabilitate our culture into a healthy one.

It starts with a comment which Alex found on another blog, which I think encapsulates some of the problems inherent in the issue:

Given that I have limited means, and thus cannot simply give donations but can buy only for my personal consumption, what exactly is my OBLIGATION here? The simple fact is that I have never liked the culture I live in, and the older I get the stronger that is. I know it speaks ill of my character, but I find myself ever more drawn to Evelyn Waugh as a kindred spirit. I started rejecting Boomer culture in the 60s, and I’ve seen nothing to tempt me to change. So, why should I, when I’d rather read older books, have to read the stuff they come out with now? This is especially so given that a lot of the energy seems to be in sci-fi, which is not my thing, and from what I have tried, I find mysteries are just worse.

Alex essentially proposes two solutions, though I’m paraphrasing heavily:

  1. Doing something is better than nothing, and it may be worth occasionally making the sacrifice of reading something which is not really to your taste in order to help fight the good fight.
  2. If the books aren’t really your cup of tea, they might be the cup of tea of someone you know, and social media makes it really easy to tell them about it these days.

I agree wholeheartedly with Alex on the second point, and do my best to let people know about the works of other authors who think that good is better than evil. There is a proviso here, though, in that a person’s ability to do this is limited before his passing on of the word about books becomes like the advertisements in a magazine—annoying and ignored—but all things done by men have their limitations. What each of us is given to do is finite and often less than we might like. To quote the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, we must take it as God sends it.

On the former point, I must, however, give a qualified disagreement. For two reasons: one particular to the man and one more general.

The particular reason is that the man who left the comment is almost certainly in his sixties and quite possibly in his seventies. It’s easy to forget, but as I write this in 2019, 1960 was 59 years ago—and presumably he didn’t start disagreeing with boomer culture while still in diapers. Fighting the culture war, like fighting all wars, is really the province of younger men like, for the time being, Alex and me. The commenter has, presumably, put in many decades fighting the culture war when he was a younger man, and I think is entitled, at long last, to some rest. Fighting for too long is bad for a man’s soul. It may well be time for him to devote most of his attention to those immediately around him, and save his strength for them.

The more general objection is a highly practical one. In my experience as an indie author, people who don’t normally read the sort of book you wrote don’t really do you any good by buying it. (This will, of course, not be true of famous people with large audiences; Oprah finding your book boring and not worth reading would probably still be good for selling 1,000 copies.)

The problem is two-fold. First, they have all the wrong graphs in big-data sites like Amazon; either because they’re not normally a reader or because they are but not of the books that you buy. In the first case, their lack of reading means that the Amazon algorithms have no one to recommend your book to. In the second case, your book just looks like noise to the algorithm.

And it doesn’t work to say “but if lots of people did this” because they won’t have the same reading graphs and so you’ll just get lots of noise. If you don’t believe me, take a look at “the Castalia ghetto”. That is, go to one of the Castalia House books on amazon and start looking at the recommended books. They’re all Castalia house books. But good luck finding links to Castalia books from other, non-Castalia books (books with sales ranks in the hundreds of thousands or worse don’t count, since basically that means that they don’t sell). You basically won’t find them, and the reason is that outside of books published by Castalia House, the readers of Castalia House books don’t really have tastes in common. So their dedication to Castalia House is good for Castalia house, because there are clearly a lot of these people (relative to the number of people who bought my self-published books, say), but it doesn’t attract attention past the money that they give.

Amazon is the clearest case of this, but you get similar things on less important social platforms, too. People acting atypically simple don’t produce results with algorithms that work off of statistical trends.

And this is a reflection of how human social interaction works. A few oddballs simply don’t have enough influence to move anything.

Unless they’re rich.

This is where things are highly asymmetric between conservative and liberal. Rich degenerates have an enormous motivation to spend their money trying to wreck the culture, but rich decent people have a thousand worthy causes to spend their money on. Culture is important, but so is supporting the Church, so is supporting orphans, so is feeding the hungry, and on and on.

And, come to think of it, there is another problem with the scheme of supporting “conservatives”. There are a lot of different things that people want to conserve, and many of them aren’t worth conserving. As is sometimes noted, a great many conservatives are just liberals from 30 years ago. But it’s not really that much better when they’re liberals from 300 years ago.

The destruction of American culture, so widely noted, is not a recent thing. In truth, it’s the necessary outcome of the protestant reformation.

There is an asterisk I should put here, which is that there are really two types of protestants. One, which makes up probably the majority of individuals, is protestant because of historical reasons. Historically, most protestants were made not by protesting anything but by their prince seizing on a great excuse for stealing Church lands. (One of the great problems of the middle ages was that the Church owned about a third of Europe and could prevent princes from going to war whenever they wanted by permitting serfs to live on Church lands. This check on their rapacity and eagerness for war was not tolerable to a great many European princes, especially German ones. And then there were the princes who couldn’t abide restrictions on divorce…) These are people doing their best to follow the teachings of Christ, bereft of sacred tradition. My heart goes out to these people for the predicament that they’re in, and many of them are quite admirable.

The other kind of protestant wants to admire his own reflection on the glossy cover of his bible. This was the sort of protestant Martin Luther was; the origin of the protestant reformation was, basically, the cry ,”nolo servire!”

“I will not serve!”

You might have heard that before in one of the characters in a play by Dante.

This attempt to turn Christianity from a religion in which reason plays a key role—Christ is the word, that is, the logos, of God, not the feelings of God—into a religion of emotion is doomed to end in the Modern world. Or more properly in the Post-Modern world; Nietzsche is the inevitable outcome of Kant. It’s really not a coincidence that neither of the great fathers of the protestant reformation—Martin Luther and John Calvin—believed in free will. They disbelieved in it for different reasons, but both for bad reasons, and the results are equally bad. Lady Gaga’s song Born This Way is, fundamentally, a protestant song.

So it doesn’t really do any good to talk about supporting conservatives without talking about what they want to conserve. To they want to return to the living vine, or do they want to go back to the moment after the branch was severed from the vine but before the sap still in it gave out and it began to whither? It makes quite a difference.

And when you get specific enough about this, I think what you will find is that (fundamentally) protestant authors will find support among (fundamentally) protestant readers, Catholic and Orthodox authors among Catholic and Orthodox readers (Catholics and Orthodox are both orthodox, just not in communion), and so on. Not because we’re bigots, but because these identities describe our fundamental goals and beliefs about the world.

And I think that what Alex will find is that if you confine the idea of helping authors because they’re on the right side of the culture war to these groups who actually have consonant goals, people will be far more willing to support authors because of that. Or in other words, posting on a Greek Orthodox forum about supporting Greek Orthodox authors isn’t going to be met with the same sort of reticence. I know from experience that it’s not in Catholic fora.

This is a disappointing conclusion because it necessarily means shrinking one’s support base. The problem is that a “big tent” only works in politics where all of the goals are short-term, imprecise, and desirable for many different reasons. One can be in favor of free speech because one is a libertine, or because one does not trust men with power, or because one simply doesn’t have the power to be the censor. When it comes to votes for particular laws, the motivation doesn’t matter.

You can’t really build a big tent in the culture war because the culture war is long term, precise, and about principles rather than specific actions. There’s only one reason to consider divorce a sin—because one holds it to be sinful. There’s only one reason to consider charity a virtue—because one holds it to be virtuous. When it comes to ideals, it’s not enough to do the right thing—one must also do it for the right reason. A book which celebrates a man who, in the ancient tradition, is a hero only because he wants glory, is not a book I want my children to read. At the end of the day, it’s not really better than a book about a man who isn’t a hero because he prefers heroin.

They’re just two different ways to go to hell.

William Gillette: The First To Play Sherlock Holmes

Thanks to frequent commenter Mary, I recently learned about the existence of William Gillette, the first man to play Sherlock Holmes, mostly on the stage but also in a silent film.

Born in 1853, in Connecticut, William Gillette was a stage director, writer, and actor in America. In 1897, his play, Secret Service, was sufficiently successful in America that his producer took it to England. There, a Sherlock Holmes play written by Conan Doyle—who wrote it because he needed money after killing Holmes off but before he brought him back—was not having success at getting produced. It happened to come to Gillette’s producer, who recommended Gillette for extensive re-writes. The deal was made and Gillette began the rewrites.

The story of when Gillette and Conan Doyle met for the first time is quite interesting:

Conan Doyle’s shock was understandable… when the train carrying Gillette came to a halt and Sherlock Holmes himself stepped onto the platform instead of the actor, complete with deerstalker cap and gray ulster. Sitting in his landau, Conan Doyle contemplated the apparition with open-mouthed awe until the actor whipped out a magnifying lens, examined Doyle’s face closely, and declared (precisely as Holmes himself might have done), “Unquestionably an author!” Conan Doyle broke into a hearty laugh and the partnership was sealed with the mirth and hospitality of a weekend at Undershaw. The two men became lifelong friends.

(Undershaw was the name of Conan Doyle’s home.)

The play which Gillette wrote, or rather, rewrote, was enormously successful, both in America and in England. In total, Gillette performed it approximately 1,300 times, while it was put on under license—and not infrequently, without license—by actors in other countries.

Perhaps most interesting is the effect which Gillette had on the image of Sherlock Holmes. It was Gillette who introduced the curved briar pipe—prior to Gillette, the famous illustration in Strand magazine had depicted Holmes with a straight pipe. He also performed in the deerstalker hat and ulster coat, which seem likely to have had a strong impact on depictions of Holmes in those particular clothes. His use of a magnifying glass as a stage prop also likely helped to cement the iconography of the magnifying glass with the detective.

Also curious is that Gillette, as a writer, may have had an influence on the classic phrase, never to be found in the actual Holmes stories, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette’s Holmes never said the exact phrase, but he did say, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” This line, which would have been well known in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the first Sherlock Holmes talkies were made (starring Clive Brook), may well have led to the final version, which appeared in a Sherlock Holmes talkie starring Clive Brook. (At least according to Wikipedia; I haven’t watched any of the Clive Brook Holmes movies, though apparently at least parts of them are available on YouTube. A task for another time, perhaps. The first few minutes of part 1 of 6 weren’t encouraging.)

Mystery Commandment #10: Disguises

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The tenth commandment of Detective fiction is:

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable. I would add as a rider, that no criminal should be credited with exceptional powers of disguise unless we have had fair warning that he or she was accustomed to making up for the stage. How admirably is this indicated, for example, in Trent’s Last Case!

A few of these commandments have, over the years, become less applicable simply because people have developed the good sense to not violate them. I think that this commandment may be the one for which that is most the case. I can’t think of a story I’ve read—good or bad—in which twins and other doubles appear.

Well, that’s not quite true. There’s an episode of Scooby Doo where a woman was being framed as a witch by her (unknown) twin sister. And there was a Poirot where a murderer established her alibi by having a famous impersonator pretend to be her at a dinner party—but that certainly follows the commandment since the main thing we know about the impersonator is that she was extraordinarily skilled at pretending to be other people. But those are the only two examples which come to mind.

I should note that I’m thinking about really skillful disguises, where a person can interact with others, in person, for quite some time, and be taken to be someone else who wasn’t really there. Minor disguise, by contrast, is a fairly common device in mysteries. It’s a time-honored tradition to have the murderer pretend to be the victim so as to fake the time of death to a later time for which the murderer has an alibi. So much so that these days if a person overhears a conversation the victim was having through a closed door, or saw the victim doing something but at a great distance and with his face obscured but you could tell it was him because of the bright red scarf he always wore, one’s first thought is that it was the murderer pretending to be the victim. In such a case, woe to anyone who has an alibi for the time the murder is supposed to have happened.

With regard to twins, Fr. Knox’s commentary is interesting: “The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable.” These are two different objections, and not particularly related to each other, though I think the conjunction is important here.

The first objection—that the dodge is too easy—is interesting because it is in a sense the essence of a twist that it is something which explains a lot once you know it. But this is not an intellectual twist; it is, rather, a natural twist. It is an oddity of nature that there should be such things as identical twins. And it is the essence of a mystery that the thing unraveled should have been twisted by the hand of man, not of God. It is legitimate to try to understand the mysteries of God, but it is a very different book in which that is done.

The second objection—the supposition is too improbable—is also interesting because it is the heart and soul of a mystery that the obvious solution is not the correct solution. And twins are not that uncommon. According to the statistics I found when googling, about 1 in 250 births is of identical twins. It’s possible that it’s a little less common in England, but this is not so uncommon that no one would think of it. It’s not nearly as esoteric as, say, a poison which hasn’t been discovered by science yet.

I think it’s the combination of being uncommon and explaining everything which makes it unfair. It’s not the sort of thing so likely that anyone in the story will do anything to rule it out, and it certainly will explain away just about anything inconvenient in the story. As such it’s a perennial possibility that the reader has no good way to rule out. That being the case, it should be ruled out as a matter of course and positive hints as to its possibility included if one is going to go down that route.

Mystery Commandment #9: The Watson

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The ninth commandment of Detective fiction is:

The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

This is a rule of perfection; it is not of the esse of the detective story to have a Watson at all. But if he does exist, he exists for the purpose of letting the reader have a sparring partner, as it were, against whom he can pit his brains. ‘I may have been a fool,’ he says to himself as he puts the book down, ‘but at least I wasn’t such a doddering fool as poor old Watson.’

This is an interesting commandment because, as Fr. Knox notes in his commentary, a Watson is entirely optional. Plenty of good detective stories have no Watson. In fact, thinking over my favorite detective series, the only one which has a Watson is Sherlock Holmes—that is, the only Watson in my favorite detective stories is the original.

Occasionally Poirot had Captain Hastings, but he’s much rarer in the actual Poirot stories than he is in the David Suchet TV series. In the Lord Peter Wimsey stories Charles Parker was more of a co-detective than a Watson and Harriet Vane certainly was a co-detective. Hugh Berringar was a co-detective with Cadfael. Jessica Fletcher usually didn’t have anyone investigating with her and the gang in Scooby Doo was a team.

Interestingly, I’ve also read all but one of Fr. Knox’s Miles Bredon mysteries and there is no Watson character in those, either. His wife is sometimes his foil, but she is generally a co-detective, using very complementary skills to his.

As something of an aside, but also somewhat on point, police characters who occupy an in-between state as a sort-of Watson and a sort-of co-detective don’t seem to last. I’m basing this on an admittedly small sample size, but in Lord Peter Wimsey Charles Parker was a major character in the first two books, a fairly prominent character in the third, then progressively dwindled in significance until he becomes just a minor footnote in the last few (he married Lord Peter’s sister before his slide into irrelevance).

In the Miles Bredon stories, Inspector Leyland is a major character in the first two novels, then a mostly ancillary character in the third, and absent entirely from the fourth and fifth novels.

By contrast, the at first under-sheriff and later sheriff Hugh Beringar is absent from only a few Cadfael stories—The Summer of the Danes and Brother Cadfael’s Penance come to mind—which are, admittedly, later on, but The Holy Thief is between them and Hugh is a significant character in it.

It’s interesting to contrast the character of Hugh Beringar with Charles Parker and Inspector Leyland because it gets somewhat to the problems with a partial-Watson. By contrast to the other two, Hugh Beringar was intelligent and quick-witted. A scene which particularly stands out in my memory was from Saint Peter’s Faire, where after telling Cadfael that he too had deduced something Cadfael did, he said, “I may not pick up on all the subtleties but since knowing you’ve I’ve had to keep my wits about me” (or words to that effect). Since he was intelligent he was allowed to have a personality.

Charles Parker and Inspector Leyland, by contrast, partially serving the function of a Watson, couldn’t really have much in the way of personality. An everyman simply can’t be very distinctive or he ceases to be an everyman. It’s not, of course, strictly true that Charles Parker had no personality—we did learn that he read theology in his off hours to relax from his official duties. But we never found out that he learned anything from it; this passtime never informed anything he said.

Leyland didn’t even have any hobbies that I can recall reading about.

What makes these police inspectors different from Watson was, I think, the nature of their attachment to the detective—happenstance. Watson, by contrast, was attached to Holmes by friendship. Oh, granted, Charles Parker was in theory a friend of Wimsey, but we never saw any of it and Wimsey wasn’t really the sort of man to have friends. Holmes and Watson, by contrast, really loved each other and were comrades. Watson accompanied Holmes purely because he was devoted to him and Holmes brought him because Watson was his friend.

Cadfael and Hugh form an interesting comparison to both; Hugh was an officer of the law but also a close friend of Cadfael. In fact, Hugh and Cadfael were close enough that Cadfael was godfather to Hugh’s first son. Even when Hugh had no part in an investigation he might show up to spend Cadfael merely for the pleasure of company. And therein we see what’s necessary for a police friend to stay a character—his office must be his secondary connection to the detective, even if it was his original connection.

It is not viable, long-term, to have the same police inspector working with the same detective on every case. (Though I will grant that Monk made it work to some degree, since Monk was a consultant. Ditto for Sean Spencer in Psyche. That said, police consultants come with their own problems since they need to operate under police rules, and there’s an inherent tension with the police constantly hiring someone to do their job for them. Psych got around this by being a comedy and playing this tension for laughs.)

So coming back to the Watson in a story—I think that Fr. Knox is mostly correct, but a true Watson is the exception rather than the rule. It is common for detectives to not act entirely on their own—it is not good for man to be alone—but co-detectives are far more common and I think generally a better choice. And co-detectives should be intelligent; they are characters on their own, but they are also somewhat of a stand-in for the reader helping the detective and who would prefer to think himself incompetent?

Either way, it works much better for the detective and his associates to have a genuine affection for each other.

America’s Sweethearts

One of my favorite movies to watch when I’m in the mood for something comfortable is a mostly forgotten film starring John Cusak, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Roberts, and Billy Crystal called America’s Sweethearts.

The premise is that Eddie Thomas (Cusak) and Gwen Harrison (Zeta Jones) were an incredibly popular hollywood couple until Gwen cheated on Eddie with another actor in a movie they were in, Hector. The movie, Time Over Time, during the filming of which those events happened is about to be released but the eccentric director, Hal Weidmann, won’t show anyone the movie until the press junket. So the publicist for the film (Crystal) must put together the press junket with the two stars of the movies not being on speaking terms and there being no film to show the press. Hilarity ensues.

And hilarity does ensue; it’s a very funny movie. It pokes a lot of fun at Hollywood and the selfishness and complete dishonesty that characterizes the movie industry. Which brings me to the modern difficulty in watching movies of knowing how awful the people who makes movies are.

I think this may be best summarized by sci-fi author Rob Kroese, a few years ago, in response to some idiocy out of Hollywood in the wake of some disaster or other:

Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer.

(As a side note, there seems to be law of human behavior that a person’s private virtue is inversely proportional to the number of public statements he makes condemning vice in others. Or, more briefly: virtue signaling is often camouflage.)

So, the question come up, unavoidably: does one go on watching movies in spite of their deeply flawed origins?

I think that the answer is yes, but it’s not a question which can simply be dismissed; people who simply say “who cares?” about this are just people who don’t know enough—they’ve never looked in the kitchen to see how the sausage is made.

(I should note that I’m talking about things which do not enrich Hollywood further or do so very minimally. I already own the DVD of America’s Sweethearts so watching it again puts no more money in the hands of the Hollywood. And even buying DVDs of older movies does little to support the current degeneracy of Hollywood, though strictly speaking more than zero. But for older movies, much of the money goes to people who are no longer working in the industry or their descendants because they’re dead. Life is more complicated when you’re talking about watching a new movie in a Theater.)

There are two reasons why the answer is yes—that we should still enjoy the movies made by the wretches of Hollywood. The first is practical (and probably more accessible), the second is philosophical (and more conclusive).

The practical reason is that this is a fallen world and everything is made by wretches. Some are worse than others, but even the best men will inevitably have their work tainted by their imperfections. Worse still, from a practical perspective, many men (rightly) keep their vices secret (so as not to encourage others in vice), and so one will not know what vices secretly infect their work. When it comes to the near-devil-worshippers of Hollywood, one is at least forewarned (and thus fore-armed) against their messages of lust, sloth, and pride. This does not remove the danger, and certainly doesn’t make their work preferable to people who aren’t consciously trying to promote evils, but it does put it in the realm of what can be done safely—or at least as safely as anything can be done in this fallen world.

The philosophical reason is more complicated, but at its heart is the philosophical insight that evil is a negative, not a positive, thing. Evil is the (partial) absence of being—it is a thing being only partially itself. This partial being warps and twists things, but it is impossible to be purely evil—a thing which is pure evil would completely not exist. There’s a sense in which Nothing (with a capital N) is pure evil, but that’s not really different from saying that nothing is pure evil.

This means that in all things which exist, there is good. Evil does not, properly speaking, taint the good in a thing. What it does do is disguise the good. This is not, however, an insurmountable problem. A tainted thing can be safely consumed, since the taint has a positive existence—you can’t drink a poisoned glass of wine and drink only the wine but not the poison. But a disguise can be seen through.

Seeing through disguised good is a skill and thus a person can be good or bad at it; this is highly contextual to the person, the good, and the disguise. What one person may watch safely another may be misled by; it requires wisdom to tell the difference.

And there is no substitute for wisdom.

Detective Commandment #8: Clues

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The eighth commandment of Detective fiction is:

The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

In his 1939 commentary on his commandments, Fr. Knox said:

Any writer can make a mystery by telling us that at this point the great Picklock Holes suddenly bent down and picked up from the ground an object which he refused to let his friend see. He whispers ‘Ha!’ and his face grows grave – all that is illegitimate mystery – making. The skill of the detective author consists in being able to produce his clues and flourish them defiantly in our faces: ‘There!’ he says, ‘what do you make of that?’ and we make nothing.

I agree with this commandment, though with some reservations.

Before I get into that, I want to mention a fun fact about where the word “clue” comes from: it was originally “clew,” which meant a ball of yarn or thread. It came to have its current meaning from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, when Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of yarn—a clew—which enabled him to get out of the maze in which the Minotaur lived. A clew was thus, by metaphor, something which enabled someone to get out of a maze of confusion by following it. (The spelling “clue” came about in the 16th century.)

To begin with my agreement: something I’ve talked about before in my discussion of these commandments is the difference between mystery and mere obscurantism. A mystery is a thing which internal consistency. This internal consistency makes it is possible, through learning some of the pieces, to figure out the rest. Mere obscurantism is just a form of “I’m thinking of a number, try to guess which. It was 7.73792555161789434!” There’s no skill involved in defying someone else to read your mind.

This, along with Commandment #6 (accidents), may be one of the most often broken commandments. Writing mysteries is hard, and resorting to cheap tricks is a perennial temptation. That said, there are ways to break this commandment which are not cheating.

The one which comes to mind first is where the clue is mere confirmation of the detective’s theory. It does have to be a theory which is not only supported by the evidence but the only theory which is—otherwise it violates Commandment #6—but as long as the clue is merely confirmation of what the reader should have guessed, its being withheld is only a way of being playful and signaling to the reader that all of the requisite clues have now been shown.

This does (basically) require a Watson character that the detective is encouraging to guess the solution; if the story is told from an omniscient perspective rather than the perspective of the Watson, this is harder to pull off. The author may have to resort to speaking directly to the reader, as Sayers did in my least favorite of her books (The Five Red Herrings), “Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.”

The other way to violate this commandment—fairly—which I can think of is not very significant, but is probably worth mentioning. There is nothing wrong with the detective withholding clues for a short time. If the detective finds several things and refuses to reveal them in the presence of witnesses but waits until he’s alone with his confidant, there is no harm in this. There is no great benefit either, of course, but it can be used to create some drama because of suspicion falling on whoever it was the detective did not want to see the clue.

It is also possible to separate the finding of a clue and the realization that it was a clue as long as the detective is also in the dark at the time it was found. Supposing that there was a penny on a night stand which was a clue, and it was hidden among some other coins, the detective could pick them all up and put them into a bag without noticing the penny, only to realize that the penny might be significant and then to look into the bag to look at the dates on all the coins present. In a technical sense the clue would have been discovered earlier, but only revealed later. This is fair enough in a mystery novel, so long as the detective reveals the clue when he finally looks closely enough at it to notice its significance.

Can a Pundit Keep His Soul?

By an odd chain of thoughts not worth repeating because of the extensive, uninteresting context required to make it intelligible, I’ve begun to wonder about the nature of punditry itself, especially in the Internet age. Can a man continually comment on current events and keep his soul?

I should qualify the above question with a pundit who wishes to remain popular; obviously one can keep an equilibrium of one’s comments on today’s outrage are effectively a reprint of one’s comments on yesterday’s outrage; repeating the same thing endlessly poses, I think, little danger, but it also comes with almost no prospects of being frequently read or listened to.

It’s rather the necessity which people who wish to be frequently read or listened to, to be always saying something new, which seems to me to pose the problem, for the simple reason that most outrages of the day don’t matter. It’s a simple thing to verify; just pick a year in the last 20 and without looking try to give an exhaustive list of the extremely important things which happened in that year. If you’ve got an especially good memory, your list might have a half dozen things on it.

Yet during that year, there was a new outrage which everyone was talking about (on the internet) every day or two. These things clearly matter very little, and the danger to one’s soul comes, I think, from having to constantly pretend that they’re important.

(I should note that there’s a sense in which all things are important—God loves beetles, after all—but in that sense the weather today, what a child did at school, and how a sports team did in their match yesterday are also important and not obviously less deserving of attention.)

Mystery Commandment #7: Detective Murderers

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The seventh commandment of detective fiction is:

The detective must not himself commit the crime.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

This applies only where the author personally vouches for the statement that the detective is a detective; a criminal may legitimately dress up as a detective, as in The Secret of Chimneys, and delude the other actors in the story with forged references.

In many ways this is a counterpart to the first commandment, specifically the part about “but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know”, so some of that analysis will apply here.

Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder what Fr. Knox would have thought of the final Poirot novel, Curtain. (Technically, it should be noted, the detective in the novel is Captain Hastings, not Poirot, and there is more than one murderer in the story.) It seems like Agatha Christie made a habit of violating Fr. Knox’s ten commandments and doing it in a way that worked.

Be that as it may, I agree whole-heartedly with this commandment. Having the detective commit the crime destroys the basic structure of a detective story and turns it into a weird mockery of itself; a detective who merely investigates himself becomes nothing but an empty puzzle with no meaning or value.

Having said that, this commandment is one of the least transgressed commandments in detective fiction. There’s a highly practical element to this: most people write series of detective stories featuring the same detective. Having the detective be the murderer once will ruin the enjoyment for the readers of any subsequent stories; having him be the murderer more than once will ruin even the surprise. Who would read a story in which the central mystery was the foregone conclusion of a twist which can be relied upon? So the mere fact that mysteries are written as series tends to safeguard writers from this bad decision. It is true that sometimes self-interest will do the work of virtue.

Mystery Commandment #5: Chinamen

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The fifth commandment of mystery fiction is:

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind—there are probably others—is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth.

This is a rule that, in its specifics, is really only about a time and place in which most of us do not live (England in the 1920s and 1930s). But I think we can both generalize it and answer the question of why it was so at the same time.

Let’s start by looking at the phrase which Fr. Knox suggests is a sufficient warning-sign of a bad book: “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo”.

The first thing to notice about this phrase is that it’s simply wrong. The epicanthic fold typical of the Chinese (and others) looks different than the eyes of those who don’t have them, but it really does not make the eye look like a slit. Eyes look like slits when the eyelid is mostly closed, and this is true of all human beings. Saying that the Chinese were “slit-eyed” was a sort of cant, not an actual description.

One of the curious things about literary traditions (whether in the printed word or in movies and television) is how much it is possible for storytelling to reference other stories, rather than real life. It can be a valuable sort of short-hand, but it can also perpetuate entirely fake atmospheres and backstories.

And the slit-eyed Chin Loo is, I suspect, exactly this sort of reference to an evocative but bad story. I have no idea where the unrealistic Chinaman first appeared in English fiction, but I strongly suspect that it was in a very vividly told story, all the more vivid for being new. This will have impressed people, who borrow elements of the story for themselves, and among those whose experience of the world—or at least of the Chinese—comes primarily from books rather than from people, this becomes its own sort of reality.

So we have the first element of why a book which references “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a bad book—it is a book which is fictionalizing, not real life, but another book. This is fine for satires, of course, since that’s what a satire is—but a satire is all about the distance between another book and reality. As we have a copy of a copy of a copy, the distance to reality will get further and further without the author realizing it.

(There is, also, the simple correlation that lazy authors rarely write good books, but I pass that observation as uninteresting.)

The other thing we can see in the phrase “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a cheap form of exoticism which, in detective stories, is often a means of obscurantism. By obscurantism, I mean making the story appear mysterious, not by creating a tangle, but simply by referring to knowledge not commonly held, but if known, makes the entire thing clear from the beginning. For example, if you knew at the outset of a story that the Mexican mocking tarantula leaves a bite that looks exactly like the byte of the (east Asian) king cobra and moreover that it is driven into a fury whenever a red-headed woman sings “hush little baby” at night, the death of a red-headed woman whose window was open and who bears what looks like the bite of a king cobra, and who moreover was in the habit of singing “hush little baby” each night for some reason, would not be a mystery at all. No more than a person who died of a dog bite where there is a vicious dog nearby would be.

A mystery requires an apparent contradiction, at least of the evidence to a probably innocent person, but better yet an apparent contradiction to telling us who the murderer is. In extreme cases it can be an apparent contradiction to there being a murder at all. It should not be, simply, the ignorance of the reader to the obvious solution.

The worst form of obscurantism, it should be noted, is the obscurantism of purely fictitious knowledge. It is bad enough when a man looks to have died of natural causes but was actually poised by a rare but real poison that, had the reader known of it, would have been obvious from the start. It’s simply intolerable when the poison doesn’t really exist. (But about poisons specifically, that’s rule #4.) And this goes equally well for motives. The specifics of the motive will, necessarily, be fictitious. This is owing to the fact that all the people in the story are fictitious. But the type of motive must be real. If the victim transgressed a point of honor which is not a point of honor among any real people, this is simply cheating.

And here we come to Mr. Loo, who, in being so exotic, can be made to be anything the author needs in the moment. He can kill because he’s a member of a sect whose dark god demands it, or because of some arcane business deal back in China, or because of some strange rule in the triad in which Mr. Loo is an agent. He has easy access to poisons we don’t know about, ways of killing use hair-thin needles or even just properly applied pressure, and all sorts of other means of killing about which the reader can know nothing because they are made up, but which the author does not necessarily feel is cheating because they were first made up in other books. He may interfere with evidence for arcane reasons of Chinese superstition. In short, being completely fake, he may be anything and the reader has no way of guessing what.

So I think that the other generalization of this rule is also a generalization of rule #4—the people must be fake but the motivations, tools, reactions, etc. of those fake people must all be real.