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:

https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

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.

*SEARS, OK? WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SEARS.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Fer-de-Lance through Too Many Cooks

This is part of the Nero Wolfe Project, where I take a look at all of the books in the Nero Wolfe series.

In this installment, we're looking at the first five novels written by Rex Stout: Fer-de-Lance, The League of Frightened Men, The Rubber Band, The Red Box, and Too Many Cooks.

Fer-de-Lance: The first novel featuring Nero Wolfe, so it's got pretty much all of the establishing character moments that one expects. Archie is introduced as the wise-cracking sidekick, the gang of extra detectives is introduced (Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather, and notably Fred Durkin) although none are really fleshed out yet. Inspector Cramer makes an appearance (smoking a pipe, no less!) And, of course, Nero Wolfe himself, as Stout seamlessly integrates his "eccentricities" into the story itself. (Notable in that Wolfe lampshades his quirks, all but saying that they exist purely to build his reputation as an eccentric genius.)

As far as the mystery itself is concerned, it's a little on the clumsy side (there's a few too many leaps of logic) but it does establish Wolfe as using the usual tactics to solve the case: notably, faking an event to "scare" a suspect (or, in this case, an unwilling witness) into providing key information. Bascially, a friend of Durkin's comes up missing after coming into money, and the suspicious death of a highly regarded university president. Wolfe quickly finds out that the president, despite his stature, was not the target, but rather one of the businessmen in the foursome. By using some pressure (and a fake mugging to get a witness to talk), Wolfe is able to force the murderer's hand and collect his fee.

The League of Frightened Men: This novel is unique in that it used to be difficult to find; in each of the reprinting runs, this is the novel that was most often overlooked, and so there are very few reprinted editions circulating. In this novel, a group of college men, one of whom was tragically permanently injured in a prank, come to Wolfe because several of their members are being killed off. Most suspect the injured party (who comes across as a sociopath, including laying claim to previous murders to drum up publicity for his novels and writing scary poetry to toy with them), but Wolfe casts doubt on his culpability. 

Compared to the first novel, the personalities are smoother and more distinct, and confirms that despite the sedimentary nature of Wolfe he can easily mix some action in with the mystery. While the end reveal is a little disappointing (most of the novel is spent ruling out people rather than finding evidence for someone, and it all seems a little rushed) the road getting there is pretty fun.

The Rubber Band: Two clients are booked for an afternoon. One client is the boss of someone who is unjustly accused of theft, a case Wolfe is not keen on taking; a second group of clients that day gets complicated as one of them is murdered. It turns out the two cases are intertwined. A gang of men from the old west were once promised a hefty reward for (effectively) helping one escape from jail; the original gang (and their descendants) are trying to press the claim, now worth millions. Tracking down the escaped convict, the leader of the gang, and clearing the name of the original client becomes a priority, and it's clear that one person has turned on the others in the gang.

While the previous novels had some amusing moments, The Rubber Band managed to integrate humor into the storyline wonderfully. At one point, Wolfe is trying to hide his client from the police, and the police raid his brownstone, including the orchid rooms. He ends up hiding her underneath a row of potted plants, which he causally waters down as the police search high and low for her. Later, given Wolfe's dislike of women, Archie finds it amusing how he's taken to the client:
"I don't believe it. He always hated women until he saw how nicely they packed in osmundine."
It's also amazing how testy Wolfe can get when he can't crack a case and is being "hounded" by the people not cracking the case:
Archie: ...He says that the publisher of the Gazette told the Secretary of State to go to hell over long distance. He wants to know if we've seen the morning papers.
Wolfe (later): I am sacrificing my hours of pleasure in an effort to straighten out the only tangle that remains in this knot, and you harass me with these futilities. Did the Secretary of State go to hell? If so, tell the others to join him there.
Of course, the entire book starts off with the most ridiculous setup ever: Wolfe, in a valiant effort to get in shape, has taken up exercise in the form of...darts. Which he insists on called "javelins." Wolfe's complete seriousness in that this is a great idea, and Archie's frequent reactions to this clear absurdity throughout the book, form a solid balance of humor, character building, and good old fashioned mystery-solving.

And, finally, there's the three-fold meaning of the title: the rubber band refers to the packet of money (as emphasized on the cover illustration); the name of the gang in the Old West ("The Rubber Band") and it plays a pivotal role in the final clue to solve the mystery.

The Red Box: After a young model is poisoned by a piece of candy, Wolfe takes the extremely rare step of actually visiting the crime scene--prompted by a letter from the orchid grower's association. After catching one of the other girls present at the time of the poisoning in a lie, the client tries to have Wolfe back off, never suspecting to get the girl in trouble. When Wolfe refuses (and will sue for the money--he left his apartment, after all) and more investigation proceeds, it is apparent that the original girl wasn't the intended victim. The uncle of the girl visits the office to give him additional information, but is poisoned in Wolfe's own office--right at the moment that the uncle declares that a leather "red box" would answer who murdered the girl. Of course, he dies before the location of the box can be found, and it is a race between Wolfe, the police, and several other interested parties to find the box. In the end Wolfe is able to solve the mystery sans box.

While this is another solid mystery, it bears a lot of similarities to the previous stories; there's a case of mistaken identity; long-lost relatives suddenly appearing; Wolfe faking evidence to prompt a confession; and so on. While it's not bad, once could note at the time of publication that Stout should come up with some more tricks in his bag or the longevity of the series may be in doubt.

Similar to the previous book, the title has two meanings: the "red box" of candy, and the leather red box left to Wolfe with the evidence.

Too Many Cooks:Wolfe has been invited as a guest of honor with a gathering of some of the world's finest cooks, meeting at a resort in West Virginia. Poor Wolfe starts the book riding uncomfortably in a train, and begins his adventure talking to some old friends (and unsuccessfully trying to pry a sausage recipe out of one of them). It is, of course, established that there is a lot of bad blood amongst many of the world's most egotistical chefs, including stolen wives, stolen recipes, and drama fit for a three-year-old. During a taste testing contest, one of their members is found dead. After one of his dear friend is arrested for the murder (an arrest unwittingly prompted by Wolfe himself) Wolfe must then solve the murder before the return trip in less than a day or be held against his will (and away from the brownstone).

This is the book where Stout really hits his stride. The characters have all been established, and so we, as readers, are familiar with the setup. The mystery itself is pretty solid. Archie's banter with everyone--the girl he's hitting on at the beginning of the book, the clients that insists on seeing Wolfe, and with the irritable Wolfe himself--are natural, humorous, and are clearly effective.
"Of course, Wolfe's declaration that he wouldn't try any tricks because he didn't know any, was the same as a giraffe saying it couldn't reach up for a bite on account of its short neck."

This novel is also an efficient use of characterization, and presents a completely plausible artificial constraint. The entire situation shows Wolfe completely out of his element--none of the novel takes place in his beloved brownstone--and yet completely comfortable in his element--solving a murder and talking about food. Wolfe's interest is only piqued when he realizes that 1) he can use this to get a beloved recipe from his old friend, who otherwise refuses to give it up, and 2) solving the mystery is the only way he will get home anytime soon. It's an exciting, relatively realistic situation compressed into a short time frame and made better by the dialogue and writing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Genius Of Nero Wolfe

I wish more people knew about Nero Wolfe.

Nero Wolfe is the creation of Rex Stout, a writer of mystery novels. By far his most popular character, he wrote over 50 books over the course of several decades, starting in 1934 and stretching through the mid-70s. He's attached to many different types of media, most recently an A&E series starring Timothy Hutton and the near-perfect Maury Chaykin. There was also a well-regarded CBC radio series. That said, the Nero Wolfe franchise has largely disappeared from the cultural consciousness, although the books are often very popular in the out-of-print marketplace.



Stout himself is a fairly impressive character, having made a small fortune in finance before retiring in his 40s to start writing novels. (If you are doing the math on this, yes, he was in his 40s when he wrote the first book Fer-de-Lance in 1934 and was still writing them in the 1970s.) He was briefly tagged as a communist (he unknowingly became the editor for a communist-front magazine, resigning as soon as he found out) and was active in anti-nuclear protests; that said, some of his other opinions were more conservative. Most importantly, very little of this seeped into the writing itself, with just a few broad generations and some clever subtlety.

Of course, the character of Nero Wolfe is the most fascinating of all. Like most private detectives, he's an insufferable genius, albeit a totally self-aware one. And what makes him unique is his eccentricities. He's a huge man (a seventh of a ton!) who refuses to leave his brownstone apartment under any circumstances. (Well, some exceptions must be made, of course.) He loves gourmet food and employs a cook (the ever-suffering and quite proud Swiss cook Fritz) and he is formal in dress, dialogue, and sensibilities. (That said, he's extraordinarily blunt to the point of deconstructing the entire niceties of psychology.) He's disdainful of women (although he certainly respects them). He also has a greenhouse on the top floor of this apartment filled with orchids, with which he tends to them four hours a day (with another employee, the rarely-heard Horstmann). Thus, he leaves hiss office from 9 to 11 and 4 to 6 every day, regardless of who is in the room--clients, cops, or friends--including poor Inspector Cramer, ever the sufferer of Wolfe's personality quirks.

That's not to say the sidekick (and the first person narrator writing the stories) isn't fascinating as well. Archie Goodwin--the eyes, ears, feet, and everything else of Nero Wolfe--is pretty remarkable in his own right, and since he's writing the accounts we sometimes get some additional insight into his personality. Like most good pairings Archie Goodwin was everything Nero Wolfe was not--full of action, good with men and women, but lacked Wolfe's authority and gravitas. (One gets the feeling that Goodwin is just as much a genius as Wolfe is, though Wolfe often withholds facts or thoughts from Goodwin to keep him acting impartial. Or to be an ass.) Goodwin is also a lot rougher around the edges and, at least in the early books, has no problem throwing about some unfortunate language concerning ethnicity. (To be fair, this was 1920's New York, and Stout made a point of Wolfe calling him out on it frequently. But we'll get into that later.)

The mysteries were usually resolved in the same manner: Wolfe would have either Goodwin or Inspector Cramer gather a group of suspects in his apartment, and he would go over the explanation of how he acquired the evidence, his reasoning, and then proof of the murder. (It was almost always murder, although cases may have started out with other crimes, like blackmail or theft.) Usually he would work with the police (letting the police do what they are good at best) while also antagonizing them (by withholding evidence until he collected his fee; Cramer let him get away with it because he knew that having Wolfe on his side was better than not.)

The series isn't perfect. Some of the leaps of logic were pretty weak, and there seemed to be an unrealistic interaction between the cops and Wolfe. (It made a little more sense given the time frame and the personalities of both Wolfe and Cramer, but sometimes it was stretched to incredulity.) Sometimes the writing is a little flaky, with Wolfe simply refusing to divulge information to Goodwin simply because doing so would ruin the mystery (Goodwin being the narrator, after all) when it would make zero sense for him to withhold it. And I won't lie--while the names of the earlier stories were solid and understated ("Some Buried Caesar," "The Silent Speaker") some of the later ones were horrifyingly pulpy even by mystery standards ("Please Pass The Guilt," "If Death Ever Slept"). Still, these are minor issues, and certainly nothing that other writers of the era didn't do a lot worse.

One of the more fascinating things is the fact that--unlike some of the more tired mystery writers of that era--while the characters have a routine and all of their quirks are known and displayed, there's a remarkable level of self-awareness involved. Plus, Stout was keen on subverting these quirks often; some of the best stories involve taking Wolfe out of his element and forcing him to act like a normal person. His genius goes into overdrive as he just wants to get back to the comforts of his office and his orchids as soon as possible.

Now that that is out of the way--about ten years ago or so I tried to collect and read as many Nero Wolfe books as I could. There's over fifty of them, so it was no easy task; and, even though the series had been printed for over half a century, few print runs would include each book. (In addition, about a quarter of the "books" are three short stories lumped together, so it wasn't unusual to find even these stories split up and included in compilations. Since print runs weren't done in order of publishing, and most editions stopped after a while, there was a glorious mess of print runs that made finding all of the novels a challenge. I raided used book stores for years trying to build up the collection (I tried to avoid "cheating" by going on eBay). I managed to get all but a few, and these were harder-to-find books that slipped through the cracks and didn't get included in many of the print runs.

Finally, about a month or so ago, I decided to bite the bullet, drag my box out of the attic, and find out what books I needed and go ahead and buy them. To my surprise, I ended up having all but one--The League of Frightened Men--and the only reason is that I thought I had it but it turns out I had an abridged Reader's Digest version and not the full story. So I bought that copy and decided to start from the beginning. Enough time has passed that even the stories I did read ten years ago will be new enough for me.

And, so, I introduce the Nero Wolfe Project: I'm going to post a short review of the books as I read them. I'm not going to do them each individually (there's fifty of them!) so I'll probably do five at a time or so. Thankfully, this will take a while, so for those uninterested you'll only have to put up with it sporadically.


Friday, June 27, 2014

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other


Party In The USA

So I'm a sucker for political quizzes. Like, the sort where you answer a bunch of clearly leading questions and then they drop you into one of four or possibly six poorly determined categorizations that don't match what you believe at all.

OK, actually, I'm not that much of a sucker for them, specifically for the reasons listed above. There is rarely ever only two answers to a question; motives mean just as much as outcomes when determining political philosophies; and, most importantly, I don't think that there's a binary spectrum of political thought. At the very least there are three axis (economics, social, and military) and you could just as easily probably add three more--and even these axis can be split up even more.

Still, every once in a while I'll look one over and take it. The Pew Research Center has one here. I'm not a real big fan of it--the questions are worded oddly, are somewhat repetitive, and don't even come close to plumping the depths of the nuances of ideology. However, they did at least make a pretty decent effort of splitting up the outcomes into eight different categories, from Solid Liberals to Steadfast Conservatives. They've included alternate names for what are traditionally classified as Libertarians ("Business Conservatives") and Populists ("Faith and Family Left") along with the traditional Liberal and Conservative. They've added in "Next Generation Left," "Hard-Pressed Skeptics," and "Young Outsiders," each with their own slight variation of degree on the spectrum. They also set up the "Bystanders" for those who don't engage the process or otherwise can't vote.

Thing is, you can re-calibrate this every few years, plugging in a different set of criteria each time and be a little accurate. I remember (mumble mumble) years ago, taking Poli Sci classes in college and learning about another similar octo-ideology system. Just as the Pew one above slightly favors liberals, back then it sliced conservatives up slightly more. While it can be fun and informative, I'm not sure how useful it is if you have to keep changing the outcomes every so many years.

And, really, I'm not sure it matters all that much. Most people are all over the place on various issues--and that's OK. And many people identify with a party that does not really line up with their opinions--and that is also OK. For me, a few fundamental questions should tell you where you land, and then take each issue as they come. There aren't two positions (Liberal and Conservative) or even four (add Libertarian and Populist); most people take a nuanced look at politics, as they should. And there's also absolutely nothing wrong with surrendering judgement to a collection of people (i.e., a political party) with whom you generally agree--there's no way everyone can know all the details and tradeoffs of every single issue, and anyone who claims that everyone should is naive.

Still, maybe I'll have to make a Crank Ideology Quiz myself just to see where all of you land. Might be interesting.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Supply And Demand

As should be not much of a surprise, my social media feeds are occasionally peppered with economic news (between a picture of a new Pumpkin-Peanut Butter Bliss Bar Explosion recipe, some poorly-thought-out political opinions represented in graphic meme form, and a bunch of gross Tough Mudder pictures). Someone recently linked this article about the different schools of thought, and I thought it deserves some thought.

Here's the thing: the chart the writer provides is actually pretty good. It does a simple outlining of the different schools within the science of economics. While I don't necessarily like setting up categories like this (you could just as easily make 4 categories as you could 20 with roughly the same degree of legitimacy) it's a decent enough summary of those popular disciplines that are different enough to be notable but not so overwhelmingly detailed about each one's nuance.

What I had an issue with is his introduction to the piece, adapted from a book by Ha-Joon Chang:

Despite what the experts want you to believe, there is more than one way of ‘doing’ economics
People have been led to believe that, like physics or chemistry, economics is a ‘science’, in which there is only one correct answer to everything; thus non-experts should simply accept the ‘professional consensus’ and stop thinking about it.

Contrary to what most economists would have you believe, there isn’t just one kind of economics – Neoclassical economics. In fact there are no less than nine different kinds, or schools, as they are often known. And none of these schools can claim superiority over others and still less monopoly over truth.

Contrary to his "what most economists would have you believe" line, I think he's dead wrong. Or, well, maybe not that wrong, in as much as I think he misses the point.

Economics is a science--but, no, it's not a science like chemistry or biology. There's a baseline level of technical "laws" that are no more or less valid than the laws of gravity. For example, the laws of supply and demand are absolute--they will not be violated without some sort of outside factor that economists routinely account for. Same thing with concepts like opportunity cost, comparative advantage, and diminishing returns. These things happen. They happen whether or not you want them to. You can't make the government, or institutions, or anything wish them away. 

It's hard for many people to accept this, mostly because the science of economics is tied so closely to human nature, and human nature is fickle. An atom is always going to behave like an atom, while Dolores down the street is willing to go against any form of rationality or taste and pay $2000 extra dollars to make sure her new car is hot pink. And yet the study of economics can, indeed, account for the preferences and decision-making that goes into each transaction, like Dolores's ugly new car. It's an emotional issue for a lot of people because they engage in economics every single minute of their lives, and it's sometimes hard to disassociate that with the nuclei that spin around in your body without so much as them asking you permission to do so. It's perhaps more accurate to equate the study of economics with, say, psychology; that's a science, too, even though it's made up of a wildly fluctuating and often unpredictable input/outcome situations.


Of course, where economists differ (and where the above schools of thought come into play legitimately) is when we get into the massive transactions that make up a global economy. Of course, it's a tenet of most classical economists that there is no way to track all of this (nor would we necessarily want to), and so the best thing to do is let the invisible hand (or, according to the chart above, eight other different theoretical things) sort the whole thing out. The degrees in which various institutions and macro-level decisions are made make up the differences in how the various schools of thought view the economy.

Really, however, any economic "school" that rejects the fundamental, nuts-and-bolts foundation of economic thought (like, say, supply and demand) really can't be thought of as economic systems, but (as my experience has seen) should be considered political ones. (Or, if you prefer, "social.") That's why I don't consider the sort of surface-level Marxism that most so-called modern-day socialists and communists adhere to really isn't an economic system at all, but rather a way to use brute force to change the laws of economics to fit political ends. (I say surface-level because, throughout its development the last century or so, many intellectual Marxists have made legitimate (if, in my opinion, erroneous) attempts at reconciling Marxism with the commonly accepted laws of economics.)

Why point all this out? It's a disturbing (albeit in no way new) trend to see people reject blatantly obvious economic rules to fit some sort of agenda. You can't simply say "Oh, the cost of health care/minimum wage/etc shouldn't go up because, well, it shouldn't" and completely ignore the fact that there's quite a few centuries' worth of evidence to state that we can't simply ignore the side effect we know full well is going to occur simply because it "shouldn't."

We wouldn't expect a glass jar to not fall off the table and shatter because it "shouldn't" have been dropped, so why would we expect the price of something not to rise if we artificially restrict its supply, simply because we think it "shouldn't"?  Perhaps it should be the role of the government to "fix" it--in fact, there's quite a few reasons why we might want to do just that-- but let's not pretend it's not going to happen in the first place, and we need to acknowledge that adjusting the economy to fit political needs is going to have a hard cost involved.

So Chang is kind of right in the sense that there is "more than one way of ‘doing’ economics." However, I reject that the foundations of economics are any less solid than the foundations of chemistry or physics or biology. Sadly, many people do.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Plan Accordingly

As all good and proper individuals do, I was wasting some time reading random entries in TV Tropes. In case you haven't started, TV Tropes is a web site where they take all of the old, tired tropes from pop culture and index them. It's a fascinating read, and one of those things where you don't realize that you've been reading the alarmingly numerous amount of examples of how the two-way radio getting disconnected is vital to moving the plot along.

Anyway, I was reading the entry on the Indy Ploy. The Indy Ploy is where a character has no idea what they are doing...which is perfect, because then there's no way for the enemy to counter it. Basically, because Indiana Jones (or MacGuyver, or Captain Kirk, or whoever) is making it up as they go along, their enemy at the moment has no way to predict what they are about to do...or if they think they know what he is going to do, it will turn out wrong.

Of course, TV Tropes doesn't just apply to TV. Most entries have a "Real Life" example, and the Indy Ploy has plenty. For example, it can be used in chess, especially against computer opponents; while you do want to use strategy for most of the game, because of an AI's brute-force method of playing it has the ability to counter it fairly easily. By throwing in some random moves, it makes it difficult for the AI to predict exactly what your overall plan is. Of course, you need to be able to back it up. Doctor Who is also a big contributor to this trope, especially during the reboot where The Doctor spends most of his time making stuff up as he goes along.

More importantly (to me, anyway) is the introduction of game theory: in that dismal corner of the science, an inferior "plan" can always be countered by a better one if the plan parts are all well known. The only way to counter it is to take some random moves, effectively "ruining" the best-laid plans of your rival.

And for those who don't know, this trope is more or less how modern football was created: the forward pass was an unplanned decision to get out of a situation, and its appearance was noted by Johnny Heisman. 

Implicit in all this is that you can't simply act randomly and let it play out; you have to have the ability to improvise and use good judgement. "Random" probably isn't the right word; "unpredictable" is probably closer. Basically, making the "right" decisions without planning ahead will always confound the person you are trying to outwit, because they are assuming that you have a plan. Of course, if you want to bump this trope up to iocane powder-levels of meta, if your rival knows you are not planning anything, that in and of itself is a plan...

Anyway, the entire point of this post is that here is something that includes Indiana Jones, game theory, Doctor Who, and football. It's like someone is reading my mind.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

EmojiMania

A few days ago it was announced that some new emoji had been approved and released by the Unicode Consortium (a very nefarious-sounding organization that seems like it should be holding a slimy oligopoly over global typefaces, but in reality is probably, like, six professors on a message board) for use in teenager's cell phones everywhere. Emoji, of course, are the small graphical icons (commonly smiley faces) that small children people use in text messages and forums online. This has been released to apparently sate the pent-up demand for such brand new graphics as "Pocket Calculator," "Card File Box," and the ever-popular "Notched Right Semicircle With Three Dots."

(As an aside, I'd like to officially register my disapproval of the term "emoji." It sounds artificially exotic, especially since we had a perfectly decent term ("emoticons") that covered the exact same thing. Of course, "emoji" is Japanese in origin, so it's actually realistically exotic--but, still, needlessly so.)

Anyway, since they're updating the emoji emoticon database, I don't see why they shouldn't actually provide what is in demand. We all could use some new icons to graphically represent what we're too lazy to type out while we're driving. I propose the following:

  • Obvious Sarcasm
  • Noncommittal Shrug
  • Regular Snark
  • Millennial-Grade Snark
  • Jacking-off motion
  • Passive-Aggressivness
  • I don't have a response for you but I don't want to not respond because you'll freak out like a little kid so I'm sending this confused smiley face instead
  • Spoiler Alert
  • Generic Disney Princess
  • Bacon Cheeseburger
  • Please don't send me pictures of your wiener
  • I don't know why I'm in trouble but whatever it was it's not my fault
  • I forgot to pick up the kid, like, three hours ago
  • What you just said was pants-soilingly stupid
  • I'm not sure if your last message was serious or not so I'm making a ambiguous face
  • The preceding message is mostly bullshit
  • I screwed up and I'm hoping a tiny graphic will make you not so mad
  • I'm being held hostage please send help
  • Tentacle Porn
  • Yay for whatever major sports thing is going on right now!
  • Don't mention menstruation to Brenda right now
  • Holy shit did that just happen on Game of Thrones
  • I could go for a cigarette
  • I don't understand the cultural reference you just made but I don't want to seen stupid so OK that makes sense
  • And, of course, Crank
I expect to either see a certified notice of completion or a dead fish in my mailbox soon for this effort. I, uh, I really don't know how they roll.