If you’re impressed with AI

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

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

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

Another way to put characters above suspicion

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marketing Problem of Fake Meat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except occasionally in comments on the internet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Grain of Sand

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

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

Lately I’ve been thinking about these lyrics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technicolor Has An Interesting History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of a Gossip

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

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

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

Note: spoilers follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path of Least Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake Up, Little Susie

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

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

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

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

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

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

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

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

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

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

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

Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie

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

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

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

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

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

The Far Side Really Likes Westerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Weird What You Can Be Nostalgic For

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

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


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

The 4:50 From Paddington

I recently finished Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel, The 4:50 From Paddington. Published in 1957, it was the seventh Miss Marple novel which Agatha Christie wrote, though I’ve been reading them out of order so it’s the ninth that I’ve read. It’s an interesting story with an interesting premise. It moves quickly, with a lot of twists and turns. The odd thing is that it ends quite abruptly. In order to explain what I mean, I’m going to give a brief synopsis of, approximately, the first half of the book. If you don’t want spoilers, go read it now. (You’ve had more than 60 years to do it, so I’m going to go ahead.)

Miss Marple’s friend, Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, was travelling on a train from London a few days before Christmas when another train ran next to it on a parallel track. Suddenly the curtain in one of the private compartments flew open and Mrs. McGillicuddy saw a man strangling a woman. The tracks then separated and the other train went out of view. She told the porter, who clearly thought she was dreaming, so she did the only sensible thing: she went to her friend Jane Marple and told her. Miss Marple then did the sensible thing and waited a day or so for the body to be discovered, as it probably would be. When that didn’t happen, she took the investigation on, telling Mrs. McGillicuddy that she (Mrs. McGillicuddy) has done her duty and there’s nothing more she can do.

Miss Marple then enlists the help of the Vicar’s son (grown up from the end of the first Miss Marple novel, Murder At the Vicarage, published back in 1930), who is interested in cartography. He gets for her the necessary maps where she can look at where the murder might have actually taken place and where the body could have been thrown off from the train without being found. This plus a trip on the train that had to be the one Mrs. McGillicuddy saw lead her to conclude that the only plausible place for the body to have been thrown from the moving train (without being seen) was next to the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Not up to doing the investigation herself, she hires Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who is a professional domestic and a very interesting character (more on her later) to take a post at Rutherford Hall and try to find the body. This, Lucy does (including finding the body in a rarely used spot on the Rutherford Hall grounds).

The quest becomes one of trying to identify who the corpse was, since no one recognizes it. Lucy stays on because she’s become interested, and various clues turn up. The clothes on the corpse are mainly French, so it is a working hypothesis that the victim was French or had at least lived in France until recently. One possibility that various investigations the police do turn up is a french ballerina. Another is a French woman by the name of Martine who the eldest brother in the family had said in a letter to his sister that he was going to marry shortly before he was killed in World War 2. They never heard from her until about a month ago, when she wrote a letter asking for help for her son who was the child of the dead brother, but then she wrote a telegram saying that she unexpectedly had to return to France and they never heard from her again.

There are many twists and turns, with interesting clues, and a few of the characters turn into corpses before the end, too. Right as the identification of the corpse is nearly certain, it falls to peaces. With the mystery at an extremely high pitch, Miss Marple summons Mrs. McGillicuddy who was on vacation, and when she arrives plays a trick at Rutherford Hall that catches the murderer and gets him to confess. We then get a four-page final chapter with some explanation and a little wrap-up, and we’re done.

Now, while it is abrupt, it is not unfair. The wikipedia page for the book quotes a critic by the name of Robert Barnard who says, “Miss Marple apparently solves the crime by divine guidance, for there is very little in the way of clues or logical deduction.” This is unfair. There are sufficient clues and, while Miss Marple doesn’t show her logical deduction, I was able to guess the solution before it was revealed because it was possible to logically deduce it.

My objection isn’t really to the pacing of events in the book, but to the pacing of the book, specifically, the pacing of the last few chapters. After the murderer is revealed he tries to defend himself asking why he’d kill a woman he’d never met, and Inspector Craddock reveals his motive. What we’re never told is how on earth Craddock knew the motive, since the last we had heard of him was somewhere between hours and a day before (the exact time is not specified) and he was completely bewildered about every aspect of the case when he left Miss Marple.

It just feels rushed, like the last two chapters were written in a tremendous hurry because it was a day before the deadline and she had to finish it somehow.

In one sense, this is plausible. On the other hand, by 1957 Agatha Christie was enormously popular and sold extremely well, so if she told her publisher she needed an extra week or do, I doubt the publisher was in a position to tell her, “no.”

Lucy Eyelesbarrow was an interesting character. The premise of a highly competent person who did menial labor because she could do all of it well and deal with everything, and who charged enormously high prices for it because there was so little competition, is interesting. It would be difficult to call it realistic, but then consulting detectives are not realistic, so that’s a difficult complaint to make in a murder mystery. She has the plausibility of internal consistency, which is what we can ask for.

The other curious thing about it is that its instability makes sense in context. She is a young woman who is interested in marriage and can probably make a match where she will not need to work for pay. She enjoys domesticity, too, so probably will not want to work for entertainment. She’s not a marxist, so doesn’t believe that the worth of a human being is his economic output. In short, while she is not on the lookout for a husband as soon as she can get one, the long-term viability of her profession was probably not high in her list of considerations. (To put things in perspective, if she was in her early twenties in 1957, she would be in her mid fifties in 1990.) And I must say that Lucy does make an interesting detective, at least until Miss Marple comes on the scene and takes the more prominent role.

The method of disposing of the corpse is, I think, very interesting. It’s very strongly English, since it relies upon a very specific kind of change in circumstances to produce a stone sarcophagus in a barely-used barn on a lonely estate that’s falling apart. It would not be easy to come up with that in America. You can find abandoned buildings, of course—abandoned factories come to mind—but they don’t have the aspect of people regularly using them. It’s the people inhabiting the grounds which tends to make one not think of it as a place to hide a body. It would be possible, of course, to hide a body in a rarely-used shed on the grounds of some building one has access to in a modern American story, but there is the issue of how to avoid the stench of decomposition giving away the body’s location. One solution I’ve seen is sealing the body in plastic, which I suppose would work. That lacks the style of the sarcophagus, though.

How easily one could do it in a modern story aside, it is interesting that Miss Marple really has two triumphs, the second being the uncovering of the murderer. The first is the discovery of the body, and of the two it is the most satisfying. While part of that is the abrupt way in which the murderer is discovered, I think it makes for a very interesting story that the detective has a brilliant victory early on, that victory only producing more work for the detective to do.

Overall, while I don’t think that it’s the best Miss Marple novel, I do think it was quite a good one, aside from the abruptness of the ending. It has some very interesting ideas that, I suspect, could be used profitably.

Poirot’s Broken English

At the end of Three Act Tragedy, after the murderer has been revealed and some after-discussion is happening, a character asks Poirot an interesting question:

“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 despite 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.”

Three Act Tragedy was published in 1935, after Murder On the Orient Express and before Death in the Clouds. It is set quite late in Poirot’s life; he was, at this time, retired.

This habit of Poirot’s solves a problem that all detective writers face: a lot of people don’t like to talk to detectives. There are different solutions to this problem; Poirot in general likes to set people at ease and make them think that the easiest way to deal with him is just to humor him. This was taken even further by Columbo, many years later, but it certainly makes sense as an approach.

It also makes sense that Poirot decided to turn his disadvantage—the famous dislike of the English for foreigners, especially for French-speaking ones—into an advantage.