Thursday, August 21, 2014

Paul Muad'Dib Does Some Charity Work

Edit: I realize that "ice water of life" probably would have been more clever, but I'm assuming that barely anyone is going to get this as is, let alone using a more obscure term.

The Nero Wolfe Project: The SIlent Speaker to The Second Confession

This is the third installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, reviewing each of the books as they were published.

This time, we're going to look at The Silent Speaker, Too Many Women, And Be A Villain, Trouble in Triplicate, and The Second Confession

By this point in the series, Stout has everything down to a reasonable formula. Not that the series is formulaic--far from it--but the characters have all established their traits, the reputations of all the major and minor characters are set, and readers more or less know what to expect.

The Silent Speaker: When a representative from the government is killed right before a major speech to a hostile, industrial association, it's up to Wolfe to find out who the murderer is. The search for a missing dictaphone cylinder which likely holds the key evidence starts a race between Wolfe and the police.

An average mystery is made exceptional with the injection of a few points: the "race" to find the evidence is a nice deviation from previous books, the dismissal of Inspector Cramer (and Wolfe's genuinely compassionate opposition to this action) and Wolfe's politics inject some needed amusement, especially after the fact.

Too Many Women: Wolfe and Archie are starting to get on each other's nerves. A large company had one of its employees killed by an accident; but in the course of filing the paperwork, a manager declares it an "unresolved murder" instead Internal strife (and huge egos with lots of money) lead one of the managers to hire Wolfe to get to the bottom of it; as a result, it gives Archie a good opportunity to be "hired" by the company undercover (and away from Wolfe for a while). When the manager who initially approached them is killed in the same manner as the original victim, it's clear that it was murder...and Wolfe tries to see it to the end.

Again, this breaks from the formula in a refreshing way--we, through Archie, get away from the brownstone for a while. Most of the tactics rely on injecting false gossip into the steno pool (the "Too Many Women" of the title) and watching the dominoes play out. (To be fair to Stout, the men are seen as just as much gossips as the women; it's just the concentration of them in the steno pool that enhances it.) It also solidifies Archie's luck with the ladeeeeez...and the tacit acceptance of those skills by Wolfe in pursuit of the investigation.

And Be A Villain: When the guest on a popular radio show is killed on air from drinking the sponsor's product, the hosts, producers, and sponsors of the show approach Wolfe to find out who did it...since the police haven't figured it out and Wolfe can be discreet (and, incidentally, protect the sponsor's name). Just gathering all of the suspects is a trial in and of itself--one, a minor, ran away with her mother to get away from the publicity and required trickery to bring back--but when the attention focuses on the victim himself, things get much more interesting than lousy-flavored soda.

This is the first book in what is known as the "Zeck Trilogy," one of the few multi-book plot lines in the entire series. To be fair, this merely introduces Zeck as a character--a shady criminal overlord who warns Wolfe not to dig too deep. While it's not a major plot point, it's clear that it's set up for future stories. Otherwise, this is a good mystery with a lot of bright, engaging characters.

Trouble In Triplicate:This book has three short stories: Before I Die, Help Wanted, Male and Instead of Evidence.

In Before I Die, a notorious gangster approaches Wolfe with an unusual problem: he has a daughter who doesn't know who he is, and her existence was found out by rival gangsters. So to divert their attention, he hired someone to pretend to be his daughter, who was starting to extort him for the work. Normally Wolfe wouldn't take the case from such a high-profile criminal, but there is a meat shortage and the allure of black-market meat makes him take the case.

In Help Wanted, Male, a client who receives a death threat turns to Wolfe for protection; advising he doesn't really do that sort of work, declines. Of course, he ends up murdered--and since Wolfe had previously done work for him in the past, the investigation involves Wolfe. Wolfe then receives a similar death threat, and undertakes a body double to suss out the murder.

Instead of Evidence: A client, a wealthy novelty manufacturer who believes he is going to be murdered by his partner, comes to Wolfe, pre-paying the investigation into his murder. When he, of course, ends up dead, Wolfe had to take on the case posthumously.

Before I Die is an interesting mystery, but both Help Wanted, Male and Instead of Evidence capitalize off of the formula of the series. Both are hilarious in parts--watching an imposter have to act like Wolfe in character is something to behold, and the novelty-maker who attempts to sway Wolfe with the ridiculous notion of a talking flower ("Orchids to you!") which prompts him to leave his own office in disgust--show humorous writing that loyal readers can truly appreciate.

The Second Confession: A client arrives to hire Wolfe to investigate his daughter's boyfriend, who he suspects is a communist. Archie, clandestinely, spends a weekend at the family estate, only to be immediately identified by a scrapbook-keeping fan ("I was seventeen. I had a crush on you for nearly a month.") After some failed attempts to identify him as a commie, Goodwin has to resort to more violent measures--which ultimately end up seeing Wolfe's car used as a weapon (and the unhappy eye of the local DA). When Wolfe gets a phone call from Zeck telling him to back off the suspect, Wolfe does not comply, and Zeck retaliates through violent means of his own. Still, the resolution ends up not interfering with Zeck's affairs, and is then duly compensated. An awkward alliance with the local communist party, the police force, and

This is one of the best novels yet; even though the secondary story of Zeck is fascinating in and of itself, the main mystery is full of interesting characters, innovative plot points, solid action scenes, and some grand characterization.

Of these five books, none of them are bad--in fact, this is where everything just sort of comes together. We now know all the characters, so when they are out of their comfort zone it's all the more enjoyable. Stout has also improved his humor and writing skills; the mysteries themselves are plotted well, and nearly all of these are at least somewhat believable.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: From Some Buried Caesar to Not Quite Dead Enough

This is the second part of the Nero Wolfe Project, where I review each of the books from this classic mystery series.

The next set of books includes Some Buried Caesar, Over My Dead Body, Where There's A Will, Black Orchids, and Not Quite Dead Enough.

Some Buried Caesar: Archie crashes the roadster on the way to an orchid show...with Wolfe in the back seat. Stopping to get help, they encounter a family who owns a prize bull, of which the owner plans on slaughtering for a barbeque out of spite a marketing ploy for his restaurant. When a fellow is murdered (but covered up as being gored) and then the bull is infected and destroyed before evidence can be cleared, it's up to Wolfe to solve the murder.

This is rightly classified as one of the classics of the Nero Wolfe series. It's a good, solid mystery; it introduces Lily Rowan, a long-running companion to Archie; it has some good humor in it (and Archie's wisecracking is second to Wolfe's reactions to being out of his element) and the dialogue and situations flow fairly well. For those being introduced to the series, this is usually a pretty good entry point: at this point, Stout has got the characterizations right and has honed his abilities, it's an easily relatable story, and it introduces everyone in a natural manner. The only drawback for newcomers is a lack of Inspector Cramer.

Over My Dead Body: When Wolfe's long-lost daughter turns up (don't ask) and she seeks help after being falsely accused of stealing diamonds at the fencing school she frequents, Wolfe gets involved after a Archie ends up with the incriminating weapon of a subsequent murder at the school. In a game of international intrigue (and the use of Wolfe's office as an unwitting dead drop for important documents) Wolfe has to disentangle not only the passions of the accused, but his own background, Cramer's insistence of sticking around the office, and the occasional appearance of an FBI agent.

This is one of the more famous Wolfe novels for one main reason, and that is that, during an interrogation with the FBI agent, Wolfe claims to be born in America. This is in direct conflict with all previous evidence, and seemingly was forgotten for the remainder of the series. In real life, the publisher of the stories, The American Magazine, objected that Nero Wolfe--the master of detection!--wasn't a full-blooded American, and demanded the change. Stout complied, and then completely ignored it. It's been effectively retconned by fans as essentially Wolfe acting impudent to the G-man instead of an honest declaration of facts, which is within Wolfe's characterizations (although not really with the tone of that passage).

Likewise, the fact that it delves into some of Wolfe's background--for which we previously knew very little--is a treat for fans of the series.

Where There's A Will: I screwed up and read Black Orchids first. Oh well.

Wolfe, whose back account is dwindling rapidly, hears a case of a famous family of successful sisters who want a will contested. Reluctantly, he undertakes the job--only to have Cramer announce that it was actually a murder. And when Archie goes out to help Fred Durkin with a job, Wolfe has to rush to the sisters' home to deal with the ensuing chaos. Add in the widow, whose face was terribly mangled in an accident and thus wears a veil, and a (presumed) mistress, who is ending up with the bulk of the estate, sets up a crime scene full of mistaken identities, missed opportunities, and yet another murder.

The evidence Wolfe uses on this mystery is a little bit shaky, and isn't one of the best. Yet it's still a fun book to read; especially poor Fred Durkin who somehow manages to screw up not once, not twice, but three times. It's a solid book but not a great one.

Black Orchids: At this point, Stout was beginning to writer shorter stories, and from this point on there are just as many "collections" as there are full-length novels. This book has Black Orchids, in which a public flower display unwittingly hosts a murder--of which Archie ends up (accidentally) pulling the trigger. Wolfe uncovers a plot to intentionally infect rivals' flowers and other plants with a horticultural disease, and when confronted in Wolfe's plant rooms, attempts to murder everyone with fumigation.

In Cordially Invited To Meet Death, a party planner wants Wolfe to investigate who is sending reputation-destroying letters to people. While Archie investigates, he arrives at a house full of highly trained animals as well as people. When a chimp smashes a tray, the party planner cuts her foot, and applies iodine. Her death a few days later ends up being because the iodine was replaced with a poison. A failed attempt by the murderer to "replicate" the poison (and thus put her above suspicion) fails, and Wolfe catches the murderer.

The short stories operate a little differently than the full-length novels (we'll see the same in the next book). In the novels, it's a spiraling confluence of evidence that eventually gets the murderer to crack; but with the short stories, there's only enough time for one, maybe two pieces of evidence to introduce. While in and of itself it's not a bad thing, they can sometimes feel rushed and implausible, and yet one gets the feeling that fleshing it out to a full story wouldn't add too much to the plot. Still, both of these stories are solid if not groundbreaking, although the fact that Wolfe deliberately causes the suspect to unknowlingly murder himself seems...weird and out of character. (And also probably a crime!)

Not Quite Dead Enough: This book includes Not Quite Dead Enough and Booby Trap. This is unique in that it was the only book set (and written during) World War II, and Archie is actually a Major in the army's counter-intelligence division and not in the employ of Wolfe (although, for all practical purposes, he is.)

Not Quite Dead Enough involves Archie coming back to New York, in Army uniform, to find that Wolfe and Fritz have decided to join the infantry to help out in the war. ("I am going to kill some Germans. I didn't kill enough in 1918.") It's up to Archie--with orders from the Army--to convince Wolfe he's more useful in counter-intelligence than on the front lines. A modest little murder is enough to whet his appetite again, and agrees to help out the Army.

Booby Trap involves some good old-fashioned espionage; letters accusing some commanders of profiting off of the war (at least potentially) sparks an investigation into a death that previous was ruled a suicide. When Archie, who had a prototype grenade in his possession from a previous mission, returns it (Wolfe not wanting it in the house), it becomes the instrument in yet another murder. It's up to Wolfe to find out who did it.

This is probably one of the few misfires of the lot so far. At least for Not Quite Dead Enough, which is a shame, because it has one of the funniest chapters written yet (Archie, coming home to find Wolfe not only eating nothing but non-black-market food, but has actually tried to lose weight and is wearing one of Archie's sweaters). It fails for two main reasons: one, Archie implicates himself in a murder to get Wolfe's attention, which is out-and-out batshit crazy even in the fictional world of Nero Wolfe. Secondly, it re-introduces Lily Rowan, who in the past was presented as a reasonably non-stereotypical (for the time) independent woman, is sadly reduced to hysteria, and the main piece of evidence hinges on her acting like a hormonal mess. It's an uncharacteristic step backwards for the usually culturally progressive Stout.

Booby Trap is better, although the ending (letting the murderer kill himself in a rather gruesome manner) is also a bit odd; the evidence is pretty skimpy to begin with and Wolfe's prodding him into suicide seems almost cruel.

One thing to note so far, after ten books: although one of the main gimmicks of the series is that Wolfe never leaves his house, he leaves an awful lot so far--in fact, I think in only two of the stories he spends the entire time at home.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Fallacy Fallacy

I've known about this site for a while, but I decided to go ahead and share it with people now. I think it's...time It's a convenient little web site that provides details for several popular logical fallacies that many people commit:

Social media (and--let's face it--the internet in general) doesn't do a real good job with logic. People in general really aren't good with logic, to be honest. It's not necessarily a fault of our education system or our society; it's just that so much is counter-intuitive and contradicts what we see in our everyday lives that it's often difficult to wrap your head around.

But when it comes to, say, arguing about volatile issues on Facebook or Twitter, things can get...complicated. It's difficult to sound out a logical claim in 140 characters or less, so "debates" on social media tend to be complete messes, reduced down to the bare minimum and sexed up for dramatic effect. Generally speaking, if the entirety of your debate can fit on a bumper sticker (or a tweet, for that matter), chances are you're wrong about something.

And I've been guilty of this, as well. You'll notice that I don't really write too much about actual opinions anymore (aside from the scorched-earth defense I make for capitalism now and then). There's a reason for that--people don't care. There have been a few recent social media firestorms that have erupted over the past few months that basically forced me to stay away. I'm not wading into *that* particularly blood-filled pool, but suffice it to say several recent trending (and highly emotionally charged) hashtags were filled with so much faulty logic and bad statistics that it was like walking into a war zone with no armor and a bulleye. Which sucks, because there's a lot of legitimate discussion that gets drowned out by sensationalistic bullshit.

Anyway, I highly recommend perusing the link above. While it doesn't cover everything, it at least gives decent examples. At the very least, it's hopefully eye-opening for a lot of people to re-examine their thought processes. The highlights that I often see are:

  • Slippery Slope: It's tempting, because in our heads allowing A will also allow B, C, D, and E, and yet that ignores that there are obstacles and logical tests against each one, and while the increment between, say, A and B or B and C isn't great, it often is between A and E.
  • Anecdotal: Again, this is tempting because we believe what we see with our own eyes, but find it harder to believe stats on a cold sheet of paper. It completely ignores the fact that most likely our sample size is skewed--we only observe people in our immediate location, doing our job, and roughly with our same set of background and interests. There's an old quote that gets repeated every election: "I can't believe Romney/McGovern/McCain/Kerry lost! Everyone I know voted for him!" Well, yeah; you generally hang around with people who agree with you or at least have the same demographic background.
  • Strawman: An old favorite: you take an argument, change it, and then argue against that. I see that a lot, everywhere, especially in politics. There are plenty of current examples, none of which I will point out because I like having friends and readers. 
  • Black or White: I find this most often with the...more opinionated individuals I know. You're either with us or against us, as they say, and there's nowhere in the middle for people like me to say "maybe X is right, but it's not unreasonable to keep Y's interests in mind while we work for a solution." This is generally the fallacy where I can divide the "reasonable individuals to work with" and "people who will never get anything done because they're too difficult to reason with, and so I won't even try." Keep in mind that it's difficult to find the balance between this and Middle Ground, although they aren't necessarily diametrically opposed.
  • Appeal to Emotion: To me, this one is the most dangerous. There seems to be a trend (which I'm sure has been happening for 4000+ years now) where people stop caring about facts and figures and reality and base all of their decisions on emotions. There's certainly nothing wrong with compassion and sympathy, but it's very, very difficult to base sound policy on sadness and despair. The fact that many, perhaps most, human beings are (shall we say) selectively less than honest who have no problem playing up appeals to emotion to get things without working for them makes this all the more difficult to tolerate. Sadly, it makes people like me come across as emotionless robots, which to be fair is pretty much a required core class when getting a degree in economics.
As a reminder, just because something falls under one of these logical fallacies doesn't necessarily mean that the end result is wrong...but in order to be useful, it has to not fall under these problems. If you're trying to dissect the reasons why something happens, or what can be done to solve it, you need a valid, working plan as to how to get to that end point, and avoiding logical fallacies is a requirement.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Sad, Lonely Death Of The American Mall

The American Mall is an iconic symbol of...well, it's up to your particular viewpoint of the world. It could be the culmination of the consolidation of marketplace efficiency, expansive land use, and consumer-driven convenience; or, it can represent the blight of creativity and mass-market banality in postwar America.

In either case, the mall has been important for generations of kids in this country...and it may all be coming to an end.

Well, not anytime soon, really. While a new enclosed mall hasn't been built in this country since about 2006 or so, there's still plenty of thriving malls in varying climates throughout the nation. Trends and demographics change over time, of course, but the death of the mall has probably been proclaimed too soon. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up to shoppers, I suppose.

Personally, there's something charming about having an effective self-sustaining consumer complex like an indoor mall. I know "charming" is an odd word to use to describe what is easily the epitome of crass consumerism, but I'll stick to it. If you're not going on a Saturday night or during that four-week hellstorm in December, malls can actually be a remarkably calming place to be.

Still, I'm willing to admit that a lot of this is probably rank nostalgia. If someone told me today they were going to bulldoze a few dozen farms, suck all the water and electricity from neighboring towns, and screw up local traffic so there can be one place where people can go to buy overpriced ill-fitting clothes for teenagers and sell stale pretzels and out-of-date CDs, I'd think you were crazy.

Still, every mall has a certain allure to it.

The Food Court: Oh, sweet Food Court! Sure, you're overpriced, the hygienic qualities are a little suspect, and the meal sizes would barely satisfy a bird, but it's like a brilliant festival of tastes and colors in one awkwardly-shaped semicircle. If you want a slice of Sbarro's pizza and your spouse wants creepy Mexican and your kids want chicken squingets and everybody wants Mr. Pibb and Dippin Dots, you can do that all within a twenty-yard radius. It's like if we took Vladimir Lenin in a time machine to see the greatness of capitalism in a modern-day food court, he'd go back and hitch up in Switzerland and say "Screw all that communist revolution nonsense, I'm gotta have some Panda Express for lunch."

The Arcade: Ah, how the mighty have fallen! Whether it be the classy Aladdin's Castle or the dime-store equivalent called "Arcade," you just can't have as much fun at the mall playing video games now. Sure, back in the 1980s, home systems were ruled by such landmark games as Make That Dot Hit The Other Dot, Stack The Blocky Lines Up, and Beep Boop. Video game aficionados had to hoof it to an actual arcade to play a game that actually made sense and didn't look like someone filling out a sheet of graph paper with a mechanical pencil. As home systems become advanced enough to no longer require profit in 25-cent increments, arcades just gave up and turned into ticket-producing monstrosities like Coin Shuffler Deluxe, Ski Ball Renegade, and Let's Pretend The Claw Game Isn't Rigged. It's the circle of life.

The Trendy Clothing Store That Makes You Feel Old: Malls are easy magnets for teenagers: they can roam freely without parental supervision, they get to hang out with their friends, and they're in a safe, climate-controlled building. (There's also the added bonus of making elderly shopkeepers incredibly nervous, but that's a different discussion for a different day.) So of course a lot of stores cater to this demographic, namely stores like Hot Topic that sell trendy clothes at outrageous prices. And by "trendy" I mean "you are only going to wear that if you are on your way, or just coming back from, auditioning for a part in a high school production of Moulin Rouge, which you're not ever going to do in any circumstances." Which, of course, makes us feel old.

The Anchor Store Everyone Knows Is Gonna Be Dead Soon: Anchor stores are the huge retail outlets  placed in key points in the mall. They're usually big-name stores with lots of recognition and often deal with upscale clothing or big-ticket purchases like appliances or electronics. Of course, with the big box stores effectively stealing a lot of these customers away, these huge stores (with expensive inventories and massive square footage to pay for) make them pretty huge gambles anymore. Store after store has failed, and the loss of an anchor store can often signify the end of a mall's longevity--these places pay huge rents, after all. But as the retail landscape changes, people are going to be more and more comfortable buying lawn mowers sight unseen on Amazon and not have to deal with commission-begging sales associates.

The Novelty Gag Store You're Embarrassed To Go Into: Oh, who are we kidding. We're talking about Spencer's, and you're still going in to look around. You're going to pretend to look at the T-shirts, but you're going to end up "accidentally" looking at the "adult" toys, and then you're going to realize there's like a 12 year old girl standing next to you, and then you're gonna leave and go home and reflect on your life.

The Vacant Storefront: Lots of pressure is forcing many smaller stores out, too, as well as the anchors. Some of these are long-established retailers; some of these are small, independent shops. In any case, when rent can't be paid, you either have to go out of business or uproot your store and move it to a weird mini-mall above a payday loan outfit, or perhaps opposite the shady pizza place that always smells like armpits.
The Weird Social Service That Moved Into A Vacant Storefront: Of course, real estate holders don't want to see vacant storefronts; not only is that rent not being paid, but it devalues a shopper's experience from showing up in the first place. The quickest tenants to sign up, of course, are non-profits and government agencies; whether it be a driver's license place, an army recruitment office, or a fake technical school, it at least fills in the storefront with something other than a big lease sign in an empty window that effectively says "I'm sorry you chose to shop here."

That Weird Exit: We all know it exists. All malls have several different exits. Some are next to movie theaters or by the big fountain or next to the store we all know is going out of business soon*. But there's always one exit that's not next to anything. There aren't any stores down that particular arm of the mall; at best, there's a small, unmarked door that goes to the mall manager's office. There aren't any lights outside; they've long stopped working. Foot traffic is negligible. And it's the polar opposite of where the main entrance from the highway to the entire complex is. On the one hand, it means you'll get a prime parking spot and not have to fight other shoppers; on the other hand, there's a pretty good chance you're going to be assaulted. Although, to be fair, given how malls are going right now, you might just be accosted by the mall manager begging you to spend some money there.

For my tastes, as long as he's offering a cheesesteak sandwich and a Cinnabon, I'm in.