Mitchell & Webb on Princess Diana

As long as I’ve been posting some of the best Mitchell & Webb sketches, there’s this classic on how MI6 plotted to kill her:

I have the feeling that many of the things they’re referring to are pastiches of conspiracy theories people proposed from time to time, but being American, I never heard many of them, so I can only infer from the sketch itself. They’re mostly self-describing, though.

I also love the plotting around a circular blue-light table.

Stupid Things Atheists Say: It’s Someone Else’s Fault

This one is about the whole, “I’m not Christian because some Christian is a sinner” excuse. You also see it from Christians, usually in the form “how can you expect people to be Christian if there are Christians who sin?” Of course Christians should be perfect, but the existence of bad Christians is a terrible excuse for ignoring the truth of Christianity.

Never Show a Good Movie in the Middle of Your Bad Movie

In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Overdrawn At the Memory Bank, one of the call-outs, when they play a few seconds of Casablanca on a computer screen, is “never show a good movie in the middle of your bad movie” (or words to that effect). It’s funny, especially in the moment, but I wonder if it’s actually good advice. It can be applied with very little modification to having characters discuss a good book in what one may hope is a good book but what may not be as good a book as one hopes.

The intention behind the comment, during the episode, is that showing a good movie reminds the audience of how good movies can be, and thus makes it more difficult to enjoy whatever little good there is in the bad movie that they’re watching. And, indeed, this is possible. Reminding someone that they could be having a better time is not always a great strategy for an entertainer.


The fact is, if someone is watching your movie or reading your book, they’re not watching that better movie or reading that good book, and in the modern world it’s unlikely that it’s because they would rather be doing it, but can’t. I’m a big re-reader and re-watcher, but you can’t watch Casablanca and read Pride & Prejudice every day.

If the viewer has chosen to not watch Casablanca today, then reminding him of Casablanca will not cause him to stop your movie and go watch Casablanca instead. In fact, it may have the opposite effect—it may make him happy with the reminiscence of a movie that he likes. Further, it may create the parasocial feeling in the viewer of being with people who like the same movie he likes.

Parasocial engagement is one of the great problems of our day, but that does not make it intrinsically bad. Like so many things, much of whether it’s healthy or harmful is in how it is managed and presented. A great deal of the parasocial engagement that exists on the internet is exploitative parasocial engagement; it is designed to encourage the mistake that it is not parasocial, but social. It is designed to be addictive. Movies and books have an end; they are a fantasy that comes to a definite conclusion and thus makes it easy to get back to the real world and remember that one needs to live in it.

By Vectron

Mitchell and Webb have a really funny sketch about mannerisms in a galactic empire:

I love the overall work that they put into the aesthetic—nice touches like the space station behind them and the guards standing in the hallway, motionless.

I also find it funny that there are gullible atheists of the dim-witted but aggressive sort who will think that this is an accurate description of why people believe in God, and how traditions came to be more generally. They’ll think this sketch is funny because, “see, that’s just how religion got formed!”

Whereas I think it funny because it’s obviously not how religion came to be, and such ideas are absolutely absurd when you put them into practical form.

By Vectron’s kindly claw.

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and Maruba Fruit

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank may be my favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are a lot of interesting things to talk about in this episode, but I’ll have to do that later. For the moment, I want to share some interesting things I find in researching the episode.

I had a hunch, based on the apparent budget of Overdrawn, that none of the scenes of African animals were filmed for the movie. Most of them were close-cropped enough that they could have been filmed at a zoo, but it just seemed unlikely. I couldn’t find out what movie they came from, though—it’s not credited in the credits and no one seems to list it.

I then tried to find out whether “maruba fruit” is real. It turns out it is, though its actualy name is “marula fruit“. If you scroll down to the “Use by Other Species” section, you find:

In the documentary Animals Are Beautiful People by Jamie Uys, released in 1974, some scenes portray elephants, ostriches, warthogs and baboons allegedly becoming intoxicated from eating fermented marula fruit, as do reports in the popular press. While the fruit is commonly eaten by elephants, the animals would need a huge amount of fermented marulas to have any effect on them, and other animals prefer the ripe fruit.

Now that’s interesting. Jumping over to the wikipedia page for Animals Are Beautiful People, we find:

One scene depicts baboons, elephants, giraffes, warthogs and other African animals eating rotten, fermented fruit of the Marula tree. The animals are then intoxicated, and they stagger around to comic effect, before nightfall comes and they fall asleep. In the morning, we see one baboon wake up, disheveled, next to a warthog, and quietly exit the burrow, as not to wake her.

Well that’s quite promising. So jumping over to YouTube and searching for “Animals Are Beautiful People drunk animals” we find this clip:

And yes, this is definitely where they took the footage from. Some of the scenes are easy to recognize.

Interestingly, Overdrawn changed the order of the scenes. In the documentary, the elephant knocking the tree with the monkey in it happened while the marula fruit was ripe but not yet over-ripe. Later on the fruit over-ripened and started fermenting, and this when we get the drunk animals. (In Overdrawn, the drunk animals come first and the elephant knocks the tree after, which is the precipitating incident for Fingal to demand removal with override priority.)

The Mystery of the Magi with Fr. Dwight Longenecker

A discussion with Fr. Dwight Longenecker about his book The Mystery of the Magi. It’s an interesting book which goes into the historicity of Magi—did they exist, who were they really, where did they actually come from, how did they follow the star, and related questions.

Check out his books The Mystery of the Magi and The Bethlehem Shepherds, or all of his books. You can also check out Fr. Longenecker’s blog, or just visit his website.

Materialists Often Replace God With the Future

When listening to a review by Zarathustra’s Serpent of a David Bowie song whose theme was the announcement by news reporters that we only have five more years until the world ended and the ensuing chaos, I found Arad’s suggestion that moderns had replaced, as the foundation for morality and the reason for living, God with The Future. As soon as I’d heard this, I knew it to be right. It is very interesting.

It has widely been pointed out that if God is dead then all things are permitted. This is so because nothing has a nature and so it cannot be a violation of anything’s nature to change it or even to destroy it. If things are just brute facts and we change them, they are, in their new form, just more brute facts, and there is no real way to choose between them. (This is why Nietzsche saw that humanity needed a superman who could create values and impose them by his will, such that it would become possible to live by something other than sheer will.) The superman has never come, though he has been long waited for. It seems that, while they waited, people can up with an alternative. If they could no longer live for today, they could yet live for the future.

It’s a solution that is not without its problems. It only works if one can keep up a very short shortsightedness; any contemplation of The Future as an idea reveals how empty it is. Whatever future one sacrifices for today will only be a present that must sacrifice for its own yet-to-come. Another fatal flaw is that even a cursory knowledge of history will show how utterly unpredictable the future is and how little one can realize any goal for it. To quote Jane Austen, however, desperate people are not always wise. Further, there is a sort of wisdom in a fool making plans which will only work if he remains a fool—that is what he is most likely to do.

In short, it is not philosophically coherent, but it does explain why it is that so many materialists deny that if God is dead all things are permitted.

Parasocial Relationships Let Social Skills Atrophy

There’s a lot of money to be made in parasocial relationships, which is why, if you look closely, you’ll notice that a huge portion of the internet is engaged in selling or buying parasocial relationships. Some of these are unavoidable—you cannot help but feel some attachment to a person you hear and see, even if they’re just giving a lecture on theology. The more pernicious ones have a built-in vicious cycle, though.

A person who lacks the social skills (and possibly the self-discipline) to form real relationships with the human beings actually around them, or even to do the much less demanding task of forming and maintaining such relationships with people they only know online, will naturally be drawn to parasocial relationships all the more strongly because their social needs are not lower just because they’re incompetent at meeting them. YouTubers and Instagram stars who tell their audience how much they love them are a minor example. On the more dangerous end of the spectrum you will find males who devote themselves to masculinity gurus or, more extreme yet, women with OnlyFans pages. (I think these are sufficiently obvious that they need no further explanation.) This end of the spectrum manifests somewhat differently for women; for example, a great deal of what gets called “feminism” is actually the attempt by lonely women with poor social skills to parasocially bond with other women. Women in real life often bond over what superficially looks like complaining but is actually an exercise in shared (detail-oriented) social analysis. A lot of the “feminism” that you see has at most the bare trappings of any kind of idea, not even of the ideas of the bad kinds of feminism, and really is just complaining gussied up with popular terminology whose only purpose is to feel like the writer and reader and bonding over sharing experiences. Or what they wish were shared experiences. (“Don’t you just hate it when hot guys stare at you instead of doing their own workouts at the gym???”)

These more extreme forms of parasocial bonding involve no actual interactions, or at most perhaps the interaction of leaving a comment and it occasionally being responded to. This requires few social skills on the part of the “content creator” and no social skills of any kind on the part of the content consumer. Especially on the side of the content consumer, that attracts people who have few social skills, and then it leaves them there. Real relationships are hard, but intrinsically teach people to improve their social skills. Even the thick-headed who don’t try much eventually learn to be more cautious after losing a bunch of friends, though they may blame the friends rather than themselves. Even if very imperfectly, they still learn. But people who consume parasocial content learn nothing. In the case of masculinity gurus and “feminist” complaining, they may even learn only bad lessons. Masculinity gurus sometimes advise the people who listen to them to substitute pointless aggression for confidence and to avoid social skills for fear of being mislabeled as a “nice guy”, and “feminist” complaining sometimes is complaining that women have to treat other people—especially male people—like human beings (e.g. articles that talk about “emotional labor”). As a sort of double-whammy, people who have come to this kind of “content” because they lack social skills are particularly poorly equipped to spot what’s wrong and reject it.

Even if people whose social interactions are primarily parasocial consumption don’t learn bad lessons from the people they flock to, they get their needs for social interaction temporarily met without having to engage in any of the social interactions that will build their social skills. Since social skills, like all skills, takes work to maintain, this means that whatever they do have of social skills will atrophy through disuse. And, of course, the more these skills atrophy, the stronger the attraction of purely parasocial content.

It is by no means inevitable, but it is a dangerous trap.

A Bored Chinese Housewife Wrote Fictional Russian History on Chinese Wikipedia

I just came across an interesting article from, of all places, vice, titled, A Bored Chinese Housewife Spent Years Falsifying Russian History on Wikipedia. The tl;dr is that the woman, who had the username Zhemao, pretended to be a scholar of Russian history, which is a thing that Chinese Wikipedia had little of. It apparently began when she tried to understand real scholarly articles but couldn’t, and so started off filling in the missing pieces.

By the time she had written around 10,000 characters, she had gotten attached to it and didn’t want to delete it. Eventually she had a network of sock puppet accounts to boost herself, and had written or contributed to over 200 articles. She got very good at producing scholarly-sounding citations that were extremely difficult to verify. For the most part no one will spend the effort to verify citations to print books that are hard to get, especially on obscure topics that not many people are interested in.

This is, in general, the best way to deceive people—make it easy to believe you and hard to disprove you. The upshot of that is that one should be most careful about things that are easy to believe and hard to disprove—the more that is the case, the more important the trustworthiness of the source is. What can be dangerous is that this sort of thing can bootstrap itself. If you learn of a person through something that’s easy to believe and hard to disprove, and conditionally believe them, the more this goes on the more you will tend to feel like you’ve already trusted them and haven’t been disappointed, so they must be trustworthy.

Incidentally, this applies remarkably well to Science—by which I mean the academic industry of publishing papers. It’s all well and good to say that people’s results can be independently verified—but for the most part no one independently verifies them. When people actually try to, well, there’s a reason that if you Google “reproducibility crisis” you’ll get a lot of results.

Wikipedia gets a lot of criticism because “anyone can edit it,” but that’s not actually all that different from what the industry of scientific paper publication is like. Yes, there is peer review. There’s also peer review on Wikipedia, at least much of the time. In both places, the amount of rigor varies highly. And peer review, in academia, never includes actually running the experiments described in the paper to see if one gets the same results. No one has the money, or even the time, to do that. For some reason a lot of people think that “peer review” in science means “this paper is guaranteed to be good,” when in fact what it means is, “this paper is not guaranteed to be garbage.”

Sussex Carol

There was a Christmas Carol which I had first heard in the George C. Scott version of Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol. I didn’t hear the whole thing, only the first lines, and because this was in the 1980s I had no real way to find out what it was. It finally occurred to me to google the line I remembered, “On Christmas night all Christians sing to hear the news the angels bring,” and discovered that it’s the first line of the Sussex Carol. Armed with the name, I threw it into YouTube and there are quite a few versions of it. Here’s a version with several ages of boys to make up the various registers:

By the way, the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol is, to my mind, still the best movie version of the story ever made. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the time to watch it.

Finite Simple Group of Order Two

Not long after I graduated with my master’s degree in mathematics, I came across the song Finite Simple Group (of Order Two). It’s an a cappella love song that consists almost entirely of puns from graduate-level math.

The number of people who will get all of the jokes is substantially lower than the number of people who have PhDs in math, though getting a master’s degree will allow you to get many of the jokes, at least from having heard other students talking about classes you didn’t take. (For example, some of these come from differential geometry, which I never took, but heard people talking about.)

Even the name is a mathematical pun. A klein bottle is a mathematical manifold somewhat akin to a mobius strip, except you cannot create one in three dimensions without a self-intersection. It can be created without a self-intersection in four dimensional space, hence why four is associated with “klein”. (There appear to be five people in Klein Four, but this is something of an implementation detail.)

This video was uploaded to YouTube 16 years ago (as of the time of writing), which was several years after it was recorded. The website doesn’t seem to exist anymore. (Last time I checked it, it said that the members of kleinfour had long ago got their PhDs and went on to be professors at different universities, so were not in a position to make more music.)

I find it interesting to look at it now, after so much time has passed. As I recall it came out roughly at the time that I was in grad school, and it felt incredibly relatable. Grad students in math do an enormous amount of work; it’s not even that they’re assigned so much as that they are there because they live and breath math. That creates a lot of pressure of its own, quite apart from grades and assignments (which create their own pressure), and so they sometimes need outlets where they do something else. I can remember late at night taking a break with some other grad students I was working with to do some experiments dropping paper helicopters down the area next to the central stairs and seeing what designs too the longest to reach the bottom. (Of the kinds we tried, it was spirals with a small central weight.)

This song is well done; it is composed well and the singer sings well. The puns were generally not strained. I had hoped that they would go on to do other things, but it was not to be. I have no idea whether the members of the group ever think about the Klein Four anymore; sometimes it’s easier to forget work that one has done than it is to forget art by someone else that one really appreciated. (Sometimes not.) The fact that no one has bothered to keep up the Klein Four website makes me suspect that all of its members have moved on.

If they have, though, there is still this video up on YouTube. Video has the curious property that it never changes. If you watch it a hundred times, it is the same moment in history, every time. You change as you watch it, of course, but I think that, properly considered, this gives a bit of insight into that strange aspect of how this life works. The past is real, but we cannot get at it, and yet it still matters. I believe it was Saint Augustine who first proposed the image of our existence being shattered over the moments of time and God, at the end of time, gathering up those shattered fragments and putting them together into a coherent whole.

Ironically, it is the past mattering that is why one should not dwell on the past. Because we will, after the end of days, be reunited with the past, we need to put our efforts into the present—because it will become part of that past that will eventually become an eternal present. That is, of course, harder to see when the goodness of the moment is less clear than it was at some of its clearest moments in the past, but that’s only a defect in our sight.