This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,234) on Friday, July 8, 2022.
The headline in the New York Times read “Columbia won’t participate in the next U.S. News ranking.” My heart leapt up, as the poet has said. It’s time we did away with all of these bogus numbers that essentially tell us nothing. “College rankings” are as much of a scam as the folks who call to tell you that your Amazon account is about to be charged some exorbitant amount—unless, of course, you hit one of the buttons and give them your credit card.
My hopes were dashed when I actually read the story, however. It turns out that a math professor at Columbia has raised questions about the numbers that Columbia University has submitted in its ranking questionnaire. Columbia officials have decided to review those numbers, not to drop the rankings scam altogether. That’s too bad.
The college ranking system is one that I have railed against for many years. It purports to take numbers and “data” to evaluate the kind of education that you or your children might receive from a particular institution. To me, this is absurdity writ large, but the marketing schemes that drive enrollment for colleges and universities in the United States demand it.
My hope was that finally, finally a major Ivy League university would declare that the Rankings Emperor has no clothes. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Have a great weekend.
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This is your brain on true crime
True crime fans are a ferocious bunch.
They watch the documentaries on TV. They listen to the podcasts. They read the books and the magazine articles. Hours and hours of available time that could be devoted to otherwise productive activity are spent absorbing the misdeeds of others and the misery of their victims.
The more they get of the genre, the less satisfied they are. They look forward to the next documentary or the next podcast, always looking for a new twist, a new angle, a new way in which essentially to make themselves miserable.
I am not referring, of course, to myself or to the few sensible true crime fans who take our books, documentaries, and podcasts in moderation.
But Emma Berquist, author of Devils Unto Dust and Missing, Presumed Dead, would probably include me in her latest missive about what true crime is doing to us. She tells us, in a recent article on Gawker.com, that true crime is “rotting in our brains” and giving us a distorted view of the world.
With the exception of a spike in murders in 2020 that coincided with Covid, major crime has been steadily decreasing for 18 years. Even with the spike, murder rates are a third of what they were in the ’90s. You are more likely to die from heart disease or a car crash than you are from being murdered. And in the U.S., men are far likelier to be homicide victims than women. But listening to true crime podcasts, you would never suspect this. Most of the audience and the hosts themselves are female, and most cases covered by true crime podcasts are about women. It’s making women paranoid.
Berquist is herself a crime victim and takes crime very seriously. But, she writes, she would rather be attacked again than have someone do a true crime podcast about what happened to her.
I’ve written and spoken extensively about my own attack, when I was stabbed multiple times by a stranger while walking my dog. But anecdotes aren’t data, and the fact remains that statistically, what happened to me is incredibly rare. That didn’t stop multiple tabloid magazines from emailing me after it happened, asking for interviews. When I looked them up I found articles devoted almost exclusively to crimes against white women with titles such as “My Boyfriend Killed and Ate His Secret Lover” and “My Hubby’s Killer was Hiding in the Wardrobe.” The covers are splashy, sensational, the message clear: danger is all around you.
The result, she says, is a hyper-vigilance that can be like PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome). It isn’t healthy.
The article delves into other issues and problems without paying too much attention to true crime. She doesn’t advocate going cold turkey. Rather, just pay attention and don’t lose your perspective.
Berquist was recently the guest on Caroline Crampton’s Shedunnit podcast, which you can listen to at this link.
William Playfair and the visualization of numbers
William Playfair was a Scotsman, born in 1759, who took part in the famous storming of the Bastille in Paris on the 14th of July in 1789.
Playfair was sympathetic to the French Revolution and remained in Paris to see where it was headed. As a loyal citizen of the British empire, he saw it heading in the wrong way. Consequently, he served as a spy in Paris for the British government, sending them information on the general political situation and the people who were in charge. At one point, the French Revolution took such a bad turn that Playfair helped bring down the government by flooding the economy with counterfeit currency, devaluing just about everything the French owned.
Interesting as these deeds are, they are not why we remember William Playfair today. If you pay any attention to almost any news website or read almost any non-fiction book about the state of society, you have seen the work of William Playfair. You have seen so much of it, in fact, that you don’t pay too much attention to it.
Playfair invented what we commonly refer to today as the line chart, the bar chart, and the pie chart. These are the simple tools that make statistical information understandable with more than a glance. They are the basis for an entire section of journalism called informational graphics, something I devoted more than a decade of my academic career to researching and teaching.
It is still amazing to me that these tools sprang from the mind of one man.
William Playfair was born near the city of Dundee in Scotland and came from a family of scholars and academics. His brother became a well-known university professor and mathematician. He was particularly interested in the area of mechanics and was apprenticed to a millwright who was the inventor of the threshing machine.
During his adulthood, William Playfair served as a millwright, engineer, draftsman, accountant, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, surveyor, and inventor. These are just a few of the roles that he played for himself during his eventful lifetime.
In 1765, he saw the possibilities of an innovation begun by scientist Joseph Priestley, who had conceived of timeline charts. Priestley used only text for his charts. But these charts spurred Playfair to create something simple, the bar chart, for representing numerical data. The first bar chart appeared in his book Commercial and Political Atlas, published in 1786. In 1801, he published Playfair’s Statistical Breviary, which contained a circle divided into sections. It was the first pie chart.
After his adventures in France and a stint in Fleet Street prison for debt, Playfair turned to genealogy and from 1809 to 1811 published British Family Antiquity, Illustrative of the Origin and Progress of the Rank, Honours and Personal Merit of the Nobility of the United Kingdom. Accompanied with an Elegant Set of Chronological Charts. This project was a massive 9-volume work that was influential to British genealogy in its time.
Playfair continued scheming and reinventing himself until his lonely death in London in 1823.
Playfair was in many ways flawed and disreputable. He never stayed with anything for very long. But his simple idea for representing statistical information has changed the way that we see the world.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
From the archives: Shakespeare’s appearance remains a mystery—but we have lots of clues
Much of what we would like to know about William Shakespeare, the greatest writer in the history of the English language, remains beyond our grasp. We simply do not know much about the man—what he read, how he worked, when he wrote, who his friends were, etc.
One of the things we do not know about Shakespeare is what he looked like.
Shakespeare was a man of some standing and wealth, and most men in his position would have commissioned a portrait of some kind during his lifetime. We have no record of Shakespeare having done this, and no such portrait survives. So, we have no first-hand evidence of his visage.
But, like many other things about his life, we do have some clues. The search for Shakespeare’s likeness is not without evidence.
First, there is the bust of Shakespeare that rests in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. This is a half-length plaster cast of Shakespeare that was commissioned most likely by a family member and placed in a few years after his death in 1616. Because it would be viewed by many people who had known the man, we can assume that it was a reasonably satisfactory likeness. Indeed, the characteristics we have come to associate with the writer’s appearance are all there: high, receding hairline, hair that flares out from the ears and neck, mustache, and goatee or beard.
In this rendering, Shakespeare is slim-faced and broad-shouldered. His eyes bulge a bit, and there is little hint of an expression.
The second likeness that comes close to being contemporary and authentic is the engraving found in the frontispiece of the First Folio, the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays. This one is known as the Droeshout portrait because it comes from an engraving by Martin Droeshout. A poem in the introduction by Ben Jonson implies that this is a good likeness of the man.
The engraving is a competent rendering of a man with Shakespearean features, but it lacks much depth and expression. The head is actually slightly larger than it should be in proportion to the body on which it sits. Though it may present the general characteristics of the subject accurately, its sterile quality leaves the viewer wishing for more. Much more.
And that leads us to six other portraits that have, at one time or another in the last 400 years, made the claim to being authentic portraits of William Shakespeare.
Chief among those is the Chandos portrait, so named because it was once in the possession of the Duke of Chandos. This portrait was done during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but we have no direct evidence that the subject was Shakespeare himself. Scholars have studied this portrait closely for many decades and have never been able to satisfactorily answer important questions about it or produce any convincing documentation that it shows us William Shakespeare.
The portrait, unlike the bust and the engraving, shows a somewhat dark-skinned man whose appearance is strong and comfortable. The fact that he is wearing an earring is a bit jarring to modern eyes, but such an accouterment was not unknown in portraits of the time.
The Chandos portrait is as close as we have come so far to a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare.
The Grafton portrait is a painting of a young man of 24 years, painted in 1588. Shakespeare was 24 in 1588, but otherwise, there is no evidence or reason to believe that this is a painting of William Shakespeare. The young man in the painting has some features that resemble other likenesses of the writer, but these are not enough to convince any discerning viewer of its authenticity. Even at that, the Grafton portrait had many adherents during the 20th century, and scholars went to great lengths to authenticate it. Their efforts were not successful.
Like the Grafton portrait, the Sanders portrait dates from the time that Shakespeare was alive. It presents a young man, who might have looked like Shakespeare at a young age. It is named for John Sanders, a painter at the time who was thought to have had some connection with Shakespeare’s theater company. No such connection has been documented, and there just is not any evidence that this is a picture of William Shakespeare.
The Janssen portrait also dates from the time Shakespeare lived, and its likeness is so close to what we know about Shakespeare that many believed—for a time—that this was an authentic likeness. The uninterrupted curve of the head mirrored that of the Droeshout portrait, and yet this gentleman looked more like the proprietor of a theater than one of its actors. There was a problem, however. There had always been doubts about this painting, and in 1988 those doubts were confirmed. The forehead had been overpainted to look like Shakespeare. The original showed a man with no receding hairline at all. The painting was undoubtedly of somebody, possibly Thomas Overbury, but it wasn’t Shakespeare.
The Soest portrait was executed in 1667, about 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, and is the most subtle and artistic of all of the paintings discussed here. It was produced as a memorial to Shakespeare by Gilbert Soest and is clearly Shakespearean in its features. Shakespeare is shown as an intelligent, serious young man, possibly in his thirties, and his clothing is simple and unadorned. Again, however, there is no real evidence that this is a portrait of Shakespeare based on any authentic source.
The Flower portrait was a painting based on the Droeshout engraving but signed and dated 1609. It is a fraud. The painting was probably executed some time in the first part of the 19th century, and doubts about its authenticity have always existed. Those doubts were confirmed in 2005 when it was x-rayed and examined extensively and found that it could not have been painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
The source for much of this information is Searching for Shakespeare by Tarnya Cooper and others; the book is the companion to an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London from 2006.
Group giveaways for July
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
It helps me a great deal if you use these links to take a look at the offerings even if you don’t select any of these books. Many thanks.
Eric S.: I really like your painting of the woman in the hat. The other thing in your latest edition that caught my eye was the research about ambition’s importance to romance. After 46 years with my bride, I must humbly agree! She’s always looked beautiful in big hats, too. Thanks, professor.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: 1940 Plymouth
Best quote of the week:
The happiest is the person who suffers the least pain; the most miserable who enjoys the least pleasure. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher and author (1712-1778)
If you are interested in reading scripture, either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, you might be interested in the videos, commentary, and podcast of the BibleProject.com. The people who work on this site have done some deep and thoughtful reading of the Bible, and the videos they have produced (generally shorter than 10 minutes) are both entertaining and enlightening. They view the Bible as a single entity with a single purpose, and their approach is both delightful and refreshing.
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Battle of Midway, the making of the dictionary, new giveaways for July: newsletter, July 1, 2022
Murder Most Criminous (Volume 1): resurrecting the father of true crime writing
William Roughead, the Scottish barrister who attended and reported on every major British murder trial for nearly six decades and wrote about each of them in detailed and yet interesting accounts, is returning from obscurity. Roughead died in 1952 but not before he built a huge following for his work both in America and Great Britain.
His name and work, unfortunately, have fallen into obscurity. First Inning Press is bringing him back to life.
Murder Most Criminous: The Cases of William Roughead, Father of Modern True Crime Literature (Volume 1) has just been published. It is the first of several anticipated volumes of Roughead’s work. The editors, Jim Stovall and Ed Caudill, have worked not only to reproduce this great writer’s work but also to give it new life for modern audiences.
The first volume of this series includes four of Roughead’s cases, all from a time before he was able to attend their trials. They include
- Mackcoull and the Begbie Mystery
- The Secret of Ireland’s Eye: A Detective Story
- The Ghost of Sergeant Davies
- The Parson of Spott
Each case has unique features that Roughead interprets with his unique and fascinating writing style. The links above will take you to a JPROF page that contain
We have done a lot of work with editing these cases and trying to make them presentable to modern readers.
We have introduced some typographical innovations that include footnotes, more readable paragraphing, and subheads—all of which we believe will aid the reader. The essential Roughead is still there, and we believe the reader will be captured by his exquisite phrasing and point of view.
During March and April, the first volume of this series is being offered to readers at a special ebook price of $1.99. It can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other ebook platforms. Paperback and hardback editions of this work are also available.
Volume 2 in this series, which will include the Oscar Slater case, is due out later this spring.
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