Blue’s Clues 25th Anniversary Message And Parasocial Relationships

Recently, whoever it is that makes the show Blue’s Clues hired the original actor to deliver a message to fans. It’s quite curious:

I was too old to watch Blue’s Clues and my children didn’t come along until after Steve (the character in this message) left, and they’ve never watched Blue’s Clues anyway, so I don’t have an emotional attachment to the show, or to the character. I think I randomly found an episode of Blue’s Clues once, for a few seconds, while flipping to the channel I actually wanted to watch. That’s enough to make me aware of the show and so to recognize the actor, though (like me) he’s now much older.

From what very little I know of Blue’s Clues, it was always a highly parasocial show. The host would talk to the viewer as if they were there, so this is in keeping the format of the original show. I have my doubts that this is a good idea in a children’s show, but it is downright creepy in something aimed at adults.

Parasocial relationships supplanting real relationships is, I think, one of the great dangers of the modern world. There’s also a great temptation to it on the part of creators because there are so many lonely people who will cling to the feeling of having another person with them even though they know that it’s just a recording of someone who doesn’t even know that they exist. Even worse, many creators feel a parasocial relationship to the people they don’t know and don’t interact with except as a view/like/star/thumbs up/etc. statistic, which encourages them to participate in that parasocial relationship, inviting their viewers further into it. They will talk about highly private moments in their life, saying (I think, truthfully) that they want to bring their friends, that is, their viewers, along with them. As I mentioned in The Fundamental Principle of Science, the problem isn’t the liars, but the sincere but deluded people that an environment selects for. They sell the lie all the better for believing it themselves.

After all, the actor on Blue’s Clues left after a few years.

Awful Scientific Paper: Cognitive Bias in Forensic Pathology Decisions

I came across a rather bad paper recently titled Cognitive Bias in Forensic Pathology Decisions. It’s impressively bad in a number of ways. Here’s the abstract:

Forensic pathologists’ decisions are critical in police investigations and court proceedings as they determine whether an unnatural death of a young child was an accident or homicide. Does cognitive bias affect forensic pathologists’ decision-making? To address this question, we examined all death certificates issued during a 10-year period in the State of Nevada in the United States for children under the age of six. We also conducted an experiment with 133 forensic pathologists in which we tested whether knowledge of irrelevant non-medical information that should have no bearing on forensic pathologists’ decisions influenced their manner of death determinations. The dataset of death certificates indicated that forensic pathologists were more likely to rule “homicide” rather than “accident” for deaths of Black children relative to White children. This may arise because the base-rate expectation creates an a priori cognitive bias to rule that Black children died as a result of homicide, which then perpetuates itself. Corroborating this explanation, the experimental data with the 133 forensic pathologists exhibited biased decisions when given identical medical information but different irrelevant non-medical information about the race of the child and who was the caregiver who brought them to the hospital. These findings together demonstrate how extraneous information can result in cognitive bias in forensic pathology decision-making.

OK, let’s take a look at the actual study. First, it notes that black children’s deaths were more likely to be ruled homicides (instead of accidents) than white children’s deaths, in the state of Nevada, between 2009 and 2019. More accurately, of those deaths of children under 6 which were given some form of unnatural death ruling, the deaths of black children were significantly more likely to be rated a homicide rather than an accident than were the deaths of white children.

It’s worth looking at the actual numbers, though. Of all of the deaths of children under 6 in Nevada between 2009 and 2019, 8.5% of the deaths of black children were ruled a homicide by forensic pathologists while 5.6% of the deaths of white children were ruled a homicide. That’s not a huge difference. They use some statistics to make it look much larger, of course, because they need to justify why they did an experiment on this.

In fairness to the authors, they do correctly note that these statistics don’t really mean much on its own, since black children might have been murdered statistically more often than white children, during those time periods in Nevada. It doesn’t reveal cognitive biases if the pathologists were simply correct about real discrepancies.

So now we come to the experiment: They got 133 forensic pathologists to participate. They took a medical vignette about a child below six who was discovered motionless on the living room floor by their caretaker, brought the ER, and died shortly afterwards. “Postmortem examination determined that the toddler had a skull fracture and subarachnoid hemorrhage of the brain.”

The participants were broken up into two groups, which I will call A and B. 65 people were assigned to A and 68 to B. All participants were given the same vignette, except that, to be consistent with typical medical information, the race of the child was specified. Group A’s information stated that the child was black, while group B’s information stated that the child was white. OK, so they then asked the pathologists to give a ruling on the child’s death as they normally would, right?

No. They included information about the caretaker. This is part of the experiment to determine bias, because information about the caretaker is not medically relevant.

OK, so they said that the caretaker had the same race as the child?

Heh. No. Nothing that would make sense like that.

The caretaker of the black child was described as the mother’s boyfriend, while the caretaker of the white child was the child’s grandmother. Their race was not specified, though for the caretaker of the white child it can be (somewhat) inferred from the blood relation, depending on what drop-of-blood rule one assumes the investigators are using to determine the child is white. Someone who is 1/4 black, where the caretaker grandmother was the black grandparent, might well be identified as white, or perhaps the 1 drop of blood rule is applied at the grandmother could be at most 1/8 black for her grandchild to qualify to the racist experimenters as white. Why do they leave out the race of the caretaker despite clearly wanting to draw conclusions about it? Why, indeed.

More to the point, these are not at all comparable things. It is basic human psychology that people are far less likely to murder their descendants than they are to murder people not related to them. Moreover, males are more likely to commit violent crimes than females are (with some asterisks; there is some evidence to suggest that women are possibly even more likely to hit children than men are but just get away with it more because people prefer to look away when women are violent, but in any event the general expectation is that a male is more likely to be violent than a female is). Finally, young people are significantly more likely to be violent than older people are.

In short, in the vignette given to group A, the dead child is black and the caretaker who brought them in is given 3 characteristics, each of which, on its own, makes violence more statistically likely. In group B, the dead child is white and the caretaker who brought them in is given 3 characteristics, each of which, on its own, makes violence more statistically unlikely. For Pete’s sake, culturally, we use grandmothers as the epitome of non-violence and gentleness! At this point, why didn’t they just give the caretaker of the black child multiple prior convictions for murdering children? Heck, why not have him give such medically extraneous information as repeatedly saying, “I didn’t hit him with the hammer that hard. I don’t get why he’s not moving.” I suppose that would have been too on-the-nose.

Now, given that we’re comparing a child in the care of mom’s boyfriend to a child in the care of the child’s grandmother, what do they call group A? Boyfriend Condition? Nope. Black Condition. Do they call group B Grandma Condition? Nope. White Condition.

OK, so now that we have a setup clearly designed to achieve a result, what are the results?

None of the pathologists rated the death “natural” or “suicide.” 78 of the 133 pathologists ruled the child’s death “undetermined” (38 from group A, 40 from group B). That is, 58.6% of pathologists rules it “undetermined”. Of the minority who ruled conclusively, 23 ruled it homicide and 32 ruled it homicide. (That is, 17.2% of all pathologists ruled it accident and 24% of all pathologists ruled it homicide.)

In group A, 23 pathologists ruled the case homicide, 4 ruled it accident, and 38 ruled it undetermined. In group B, 9 ruled it homicide, 19 ruled it accident, and 40 ruled it undetermined.

This is off from an exactly equal outcome by approximately 15 out of 133 pathologists. I.e. if about 7 pathologists in group A had ruled accident instead of homicide, and 7 pathologists in group B ruled homicide instead of accident, the results would have been equal between both groups. As it was, this is a big enough difference to get statistical significance, which is just a measure of whether the random chance you see 95% of the time is sufficient to entirely explain the results. What it doesn’t do is show a pervasive trend. If 11% of the participants had reversed their ruling, the experiment would have shown that the 18.6% of forensic pathologists on an email list of board-certified pathologists who responded to the study were paragons of impartiality.

There’s an especially interesting aspect to the last paragraph of the conclusion:

Most important is the phenomenon identified in this study, namely demonstrating that biases by medically irrelevant contextual information do affect the conclusions reached by medical examiners. The degree and the detailed nature of these biasing effects require further research, but establishing biases in forensic pathology decision-making—the first study to do so—is not diminished by the potential limitation of not knowing which specific irrelevant information biased them (the race of the child, or/and the nature of the caretaker). Also, one must remember that the experimental study is complemented and corroborated by the data from the death certificates.

The first part is making a fair point, which is that the study does demonstrate that it is possible to bias the forensic pathologist by providing medically irrelevant information, such as the caretaker being far more likely to have intentionally hurt the child. Why didn’t they make all of the children white and just have half of the vignettes including the caretaker with multiple previous felony convictions, who was inebriated, repeatedly state, “I only hit the little brat with a hammer four times”? If we’re only trying to see whether medically irrelevant information can bias the medical examiner, that would do it too. But what’s up with varying the race of the child?

While it’s probably just to be sensationalist because race-based results are currently hot, it may also be a tie-in to that last sentence: “Also, one must remember that the experimental study is complemented and corroborated by the data from the death certificates.” This sentence shows a massive problem with the researcher’s understanding of the nature of research. Two bad data sources which corroborate each other do not improve each other.

To show this, consider a randomly generated data source. Instead of giving a vignette, just have another set of pathologists randomly answer “A”, “B,” or “C”. Then decide that A corresponds to undetermined, B to homicide, and C to accident. There’s a good chance that people won’t pick these evenly, so you’ll get a disparity. If it happens to be the same, it doesn’t bolster the study to say “the results, it must be remembered, also agreed with the completely-blinded study in which pathologists picked a ruling at random, without knowing what ruling they picked”.

Meaningless data does not acquire meaning by being combined with other meaningless data.

The conclusion of the study is, curiously, entirely reasonable. It basically amounts to the observation that if you want a medical examiner making a ruling based strictly on the medical evidence, you should hide all other evidence but the medical evidence from them. This, as the British like to say, no fool ever doubted. If you want someone to make a decision based only on some information, it is a wise course of action to present them only that information. Giving them information that you don’t want them to use is merely asking for trouble. It doesn’t require a badly designed and interpreted study to make this point.

Copied Little Accidents

Back in the 1980s and 1990s there was a painter by the name of Bob Ross who ran a delightful television show on PBS called The Joy of Painting. Bob Ross used an extremely fast wet-on-wet technique of oil painting in which he would paint a beautiful landscape painting in realtime during his half-hour show. He would talk to the audience in one of the most calm voices a human being has ever been given, and talk about how we’re making whatever world we want and that there are no mistakes here, just happy little accidents.

What I discovered recently was that not only did Bob Ross not invent the quick painting technique he used, he didn’t even invent the happy little accidents. Now, to be clear, this was not something that Bob Ross tried to hide. In fact, he credited his mentor. He mentioned that he got the technique from Bill Alexander in the first episode of the first least, and he dedicated the first episode of the second season to Bill Alexander:

Bill Alexander didn’t invent the concept of painting wet-on-wet with oil paint; that dates back hundreds of years. What Bill Alexander did was to create the technique of making landscapes using wet-on-wet techniques involving large brushes and a strong pallet knife so as to be able to paint a landscape in half an hour.

But Bill Alexander didn’t just invent the technique. He also taught it on his own PBS show. It was called The Magic of Oil Painting and ran from 1974 to 1982. (The Joy of Painting started in 1983, so Bob Ross was continuing what his teacher did, he wasn’t competing with him.)

It’s interesting to watch an episode of Bill Alexander’s show, as you can see that Bob Ross did copy quite a lot of it:

Bill Alexander was born Wilhem Alexander in 1915, in Germany. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in World War 2 but was captured by the Allies and, after painting portraits of officers’ wives, made his way to the United States where he took up residence after the war was over.

He had the same positive attitude, looking at mistakes as things you just roll with and learn how to use. He was not as soft-spoken, and his German accent makes things sound more harsh than they were, which brings us to an interesting point: it is very rare that an innovator becomes famous for his innovations.

This is a pattern that ones sees the world over, and throughout history. The peculiarities and genius needed to come up with an idea that no one has had before—or at least no one in one’s culture has had before—is rarely compatible with that common touch which really helps to make it intelligible to the public at large. It is extremely common, then, that the innovator’s invention is made famous by someone who is just strange enough to understand the new idea but not strange enough to have come up with it on his own, but his not being strange enough to come up with the idea is what makes him able to communicate it to people who aren’t at all strange.

Multiple Murderers

An interesting plot element in a detective story is having multiple murderers. This can really complicate the life of the detective because each murderer may have a truly unbreakable alibi for the murder he didn’t commit. While the detective (and everyone else) labors under the assumption that one person committed both murders, the only viable suspects will probably have no motive.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the really interesting ways of doing this is to have the two murderers murder each other, though one with some sort of time-delay mechanism such that he’s already dead by the time it goes off and kills the other fellow. (Poison is an excellent murder weapon for this case.)

Another scenario for multiple murderers occurred to me: a primary murderer and an after-the-fact accomplice who kills the original murderer to hide his after-the-fact involvement in the first murder. For convenience, let’s name our murderers: John and Steve.

John murders someone, let’s say his wife, Alice. John didn’t plan it out, though, and needs help disposing of the body and erasing the evidence, so he goes to his friend, Steve. Steve reluctantly helps John because he doesn’t want to turn him away, but on the other hand really wishes that John had left him out of it.

The detective begins to investigate and starts coming up with clues that point to John, but also to John having an accomplice, at least after the fact. This alarms Steve, who never wanted to be involved, who got nothing out of the murder, and who doesn’t want to see his life go up in smoke because of John’s bad decisions. Steve begins to think of how to get out of this, and the one solution he comes up with is murdering John. Only John knows it was Steve who helped him, and Steve does have an excellent alibi for when Alice was murdered. If Steve can make it look like John was killed by the same person who killed Alice, he’ll be home free.

This would make for a good mystery, I think, because the detective would first have to disentangle the two murders as not done by the same person, then figure out what happened in the first murder, and from there figure out who the second murderer was. It gives a nice progression of realizations and reveals without everything coming at once, which is the key to a really good mystery novel. (Short stories do better with a single denouement.)

A Calorie is a Calorie Doesn’t Even Work for Cars

I recently saw a discussion online about lab-grown meat (cultured muscle cells in a growth medium), in which someone was describing the potential problems with it—which boil down to it probably has a different nutrient profile and the assumption that it is equivalent to meat from a living animal is completely unjustified. Animals are phenomenally, astonishingly complex and respond in a myriad of ways to their environment. Meat grown from cells cultured in a lab would be grown under radically different conditions from meat on an actual animal, so we know that it will be different. There will be different quantities of micro-nutrients and probably of macro-nutrients, too. (Protein is a catch-all term; there are actually nine essential amino acids which we have to get from our diet, and different proteins have very different quantities of the 26 amino acids which make up proteins.) He complained that people (scientists) often regard the human body as if it was something simple, like a car, with food being a simple fuel, like gasoline, where you just put in gasoline into the car and it goes, instead of the astonishingly complex thing that it is with significant second- and third-order effects from the complexities of the food that we eat.

It struck me as funny that this overly simplistic model of cars doesn’t even work for cars. You will not get the same gas mileage from low, medium, and high octane fuels, despite them having the same energy. (The octane rating refers to the average length of the hydrocarbon chains; high octane gasoline has longer average hydrocarbon chains.) You also will not get the same acceleration from the different fuels; an engine designed for high octane gasoline will produce less power with low-octane gasoline; the reverse can be true as well. (The reason for high-octane gasoline is that it can tolerate higher compression ratios than low-octane gasoline can and so more powerful engines can take advantage of this to produce more power. In an engine with a lower compression ratio, it doesn’t matter that the higher octane gasoline can tolerate more compression because it won’t get it.)

And heaven help you if you put diesel fuel into your gasoline engine, despite it also being a long-chain liquid hydrocarbon with only slightly more energy per gallon than gasoline.

In other words, “a calorie is a calorie” doesn’t even work with cars and the fuels you can buy at the gas station.

It should be noted that there is a domain where “a calorie is a calorie,” assuming that one limits this to the sensible macronutrients such as glucose, protein, and plant and animal fats. In very minor cases does it work to consume large quantities of ethanol, despite it technically containing calories that we can extract. In no cases does it work to drink gasoline or diesel fuel despite them having plenty of calories in them. Those (I hope, obvious) caveats aside, a calorie is a calorie when you are trying to fuel hard labor.

Suppose you have a person who you want to swim for eight hours a day. Swimming can consume around 900 Calories per hours (depending very much on body size, etc), so that will take 7,200 Calories per day in addition to base metabolic needs. If we assume that the base caloric requirement is 2,000 Calories per day, then the swimmer will be consuming 9,200 Calories per day. That is, if we feed the swimmer fewer than 9,200 Calories, the swimmer will be in a Caloric deficit and will eventually starve to death. (More realistically, their ability to do work will go down and we won’t get the full 8 hours a day of swimming out of them.) When it comes to “will this person have enough energy to do the work we want them to do,” it is indeed true that “a calorie is a calorie.” They may or may not be productive of overall health, but when it comes to the question of energy balance for work performed, this is pretty accurate. This doesn’t come up much in life (unless you’re running a sports team or prison chain gang), but this is the context where it’s true.

Determinism, Free Will, and Predestination

In this video I answer a question about (atheistic, materialistic) determinism, free will, and Calvinism-style predestination.

That last part is important to point out because there is a Catholic doctrine of predestination, but it only means that God has a plan (being outside of time) and in no way contradicts human free will. I also talk about how Martin Luther denied free will as well as John Calvin, though I don’t go into great depth.

Bicep Curls are Practical, Actually

Curls and other exercises that primarily work the biceps (brachii) have something of a bad reputation; they’re frequently regarded as being non-functional exercises for insecure gym bros whose only purpose is to look good in the mirror when flexing. I’m not sure why this is the case, though, because bicep curls (with a curl bar or with dumb bells) are actually quite functional.

So, when in normal life does one pick up something a bit below one’s hips and bring it up to one’s shoulder? One does exactly that thing when picking up a child who is old enough to walk. Admittedly, sometimes one has to bend over a little because their armpits are closer to knee height than to waist height, but it becomes a bicep curl once you stand up.

The most common way to pick up a child who can walk is when they stand in front of you and lift their arms up to indicate that they want to be picked up, in which case you tend to use two hands, one under each armpit. Sometimes you’re already holding something, though, and so you need to pick then up with only one arm. This is when the bicep curls really come in handy, since all of the child’s weight is being lifted like a dumb bell. (Pro tip: have the child lift it’s leg so you’re picking them up by their femur while they hold onto your upper arm with both of their arms. If you try to do it under just one armpit it will probably hurt them unless they’re very little or can pull down with that arm hard enough that their latissimus dorsii flexes hard enough to bear the weight.)

Fun fact: little children enjoy when you do reps of bicep curls with them, though in my experience they tend to max out at around 5 reps before they want you to just hold them like normal.

Eating Carbs To Lose Weight Is Strange

(I probably should append “part 2” or “part 3” or something to the title, but I don’t recall what the number should be and I don’t think anyone will really care if I don’t look it up.)

The advice to eat carbohydrates and as little fat as possible in order to lose weight is very strange advice. I’ve talked about this before, and for people who have the dysfunction of insulin resistance (or worse) it’s downright insane advice. (I don’t use the term as hyperbole, but rather than a person who recommends people who have trouble processing carbohydrates, or worse, outright diabetics, eat primarily carbohydrates for energy is not meaningfully connected to reality. It is possible to be insane only when some subjects come up, rather than completely insane, i.e. insane about all subjects, such as the man who thinks he’s a poached egg and tries to sit, motionless, in an egg cup all day.)

(Before I proceed, I should note that there are a few caveats to what I’m saying, here, which primarily apply to athletes. If you need to maintain maximal athletic performance for competition while losing weight, you are in a specialized situation and specialized strategies will apply.)

The argument for eating primarily carbohydrates for energy when losing weight mostly come down to the observation that carbohydrates are less energy-dense than fats are. Carbs contain 4 calories per gram while fat contains 9 calories per gram. So carbs fill you up more than fat does, so you won’t be as hungry and want to eat more for the same calories!

First, this is a stupid satiety model which is entirely ignorant of how human satiety works. Anyone who has ever been to a large meal such as Christmas dinner is familiar with eating the main course until feeling complete stuffed and unable to eat another bite, then suddenly having plenty of room for desert a few minutes later, knows this. This sort of ignorance is entirely inexcusable; it would be like giving people gardening advice without knowing the plants need sunlight.

The second problem is that, even if one ignores the bad satiety model, it’s not even the right inputs. Stomach expansion is a matter of volume, not mass. Looking it up, olive oil has a density of .92 grams per cubic centimetre, while granulated sugar has a density of 1.59 grams per cubic centimetre. Thus 1 cubic centimetre of olive oil will have 8.2 Calories, while 1 cubic centimetre of granulated sugar will have 6.36 Calories. If you eat the same number of calories in olive oil and granulated sugar, the sugar will only take up 30.2% more space. (Granulated sugar, by the way, is not as dense as sugar can get, since the granules are not tightly packed.) It’s more space, but not by a lot.

A bigger problem is that it’s extremely doable to add bulk to food while adding minimal calories. 100g of butter plus 100g of baby spinach will have only a few more calories than 100g of butter (and mostly in protein, curiously), but will take up way more room in the stomach than 103g of sugar will.

The general defense of telling people to eat carbs not fat is that most people can’t handle the complexity of actual food-volume calculations. In an abstract way, this is true, but again a person is straight-up delusional if they think the average person can’t handle, “eat a certain number of calories and try to make them take up as much room in your stomach as possible.”

And then we come up to the issue of satiety-over-time. If you want to make your stomach full on few calories without concern for how long this lasts, just drink a glass of water.

The moment that we care about satiety over time, though, the fact that the human stomach takes many more hours to process fats than it does to process carbohydrates becomes relevant, even on a garbage model of satiety like pure-stomach-pressure.

When one takes a moment to consider all of the false assumptions required to make the carbs-not-fat recommendation work, it’s really quite astonishing that anyone ever had the temerity to propose it in public.

Fingerprints And Forensic Evidence

My oldest son and I recently watched The A.B.C. Murders, and at the end there was a part, as Poirot was detailing the evidence against the murderer, where he added that a fingerprint of the man Poirot was accusing was found on the typewriter that the murderer used. Later, Hasting commented that the fingerprint produced a strong effect (the suspect tried to commit suicide).

That fingerprint clinched things, Poirot,” I said thoughtfully, “He went all to pieces when you mentioned that.”
“Yes, they are useful—fingerprints.”
he added thoughtfully:
“I put that in to please you, my friend.”
“But, Poirot,” I cried, “wasn’t it true?”
“Not in the least, mon ami,” said Hercule Poirot.

One of the curious things about detective fiction is that it comes on the scene almost contemporaneously with the advent of forensics, the use of technology to catch crimes, and police forces organized in the modern manner. Francis Galton only published his statistical analysis that established fingerprints as a viable means of unique identification by the police in 1892. The first arrest and conviction of someone on the basis of fingerprint evidence was ten years later, in 1902. The golden age of detective fiction, if we include Sherlock Holmes in it (which we should), begins before the use of fingerprints as evidence in crimes.

As I mentioned in Fingerprints in Detective Stories, it’s not difficult to see why fingerprints are almost never used as real evidence in detective stories. We want detective stories to be interesting and the detective to be brilliant. “There was a fingerprint on the dagger in the victim’s back, we checked it against everyone’s fingerprints, it turns out to belong to his brother, therefore the brother is the murderer, the end” isn’t much of a story, and doesn’t require a brilliant detective.

Which actually brings me to the relationship between forensic science and fingerprints, because it is interesting to consider that while fingerprints were rarely used in detective stories, plenty of golden age detective stories were primarily about forensic science. Sherlock Holmes was often conducting scientific experiments to prove a case, though to my recollection rarely as the main story. This may have reached its apotheosis in Dr. Thorndyke. I’ve read that when the short stories were published they would include photographs of what the good doctor would have seen through his microscope as described in the story, and other such things. Thorndyke also made extensive use of enlarging photography and other forensic technologies. The stories have faded, considerably, in the public’s memory—to some degree the fate of everything whose main attraction was being on the cutting edge of science or technology. They were, so I read, immensely popular at the time. Their role is probably taken, these days, by police procedural television shows, whose stock and trade is often the cutting edge of forensic science.

I can’t help but wonder if it was G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown that helped to move detective fiction from a focus on forensics to include psychology. Chesterton first wrote Father Brown in 1910, which was still early on in the golden age. To be sure, more than half of Sherlock Holmes had been written by then and Holmes was no slave to forensics nor was he ignorant of human psychology. Still, he was an expert. He could identify over one hundred brands of cigar by their ash and could tell where a patch of mud on the trousers was picked up in london by its composition, just from looking at it.

Father Brown was not an expert—at physical details. We was an expert in the human being, which proved far more interesting.

This move to psychological mysteries brought with it what has, I think, made the murder mystery so enduring: the puzzle. Once forensics were established as a norm, murderers began to use their cunning to fake the forensic evidence and lead the forensic detectives astray. The psychological detective was necessary to combat this newer breed of criminal. It was at once more interesting and also more accessible. It is not really worth anyone’s time to minutely study cigar ash, but anyone can (if sufficiently clever) figure out the meaning of a particular kind of cigar ash being found in a particular place.

Poirot very much represents this transition. He said many times that he does not get on his hands and knees to find the clues, as anyone can do that. His job is to understand what the clues mean. The A.B.C. Murders was published in 1935, when the fascination with forensic detection was still fresh. It’s curious to see traces of this in the Poirot stories.

Trust and Trustworthiness

A few years ago I read an article about how awesome the Sweden was because it’s such a high trust society that all sorts of things are easy and convenient and efficient. He gave as an example that there were not turnstiles on the entrance to a train, there was merely a place where you’re supposed to scan your ticket but it didn’t get in the way of the flow people. He gave other examples of how much better life was because citizens were just trusted to do the right thing without any enforcement, and wondered how we can get people in the United States to be more trusting. I thought it very telling that he never once asked how to get people in the United States to be more trustworthy.

What I find especially interesting about this is that it’s an inversion from, approximately, ever serious classical view of virtue and its effects that you can find in any culture, at any time. Trust is a choice that other people make, and therefore you cannot control it. Trustworthiness, however, is entirely within your control, and therefore is the only thing to worry about. A man should strive, always, to be trustworthy. At the same time, he should never demand that people trust him, for how can anyone but him know that he is trustworthy? Thus the trustworthy man should always be willing to give guarantees, to give proofs of what he says, and in general to require as little trust from others as possible. To not require trust from others in no way diminishes his trustworthiness, so he is in no way the loser. A trustworthy man may accept when other decline to take his collateral, or to look up his proofs, because they trust him. A trustworthy man would not demand it, though.

This is especially true when the trustworthy man is dealing with a stranger. Since the trustworthy man goes to the trouble of being worthy of trust, he knows what signs there are that he is trustworthy, and therefore knows that the stranger has not seen any evidence of his trustworthiness.

This modern obsession with being trusted without first being trustworthy is indicative, I think, of how utterly childish moderns tend to be. It arises from wanting benefits without having put in the work. It wants benefits without putting in the work because it fails to consider things from anyone else’s perspective. It doesn’t really take the existence of the rest of the world seriously. This is excusable in a child because they simply don’t know enough about the world to take it seriously, in the sense of being able to consider how it works in their absence. An adult, however, should know that there are real consequences if the people who ride a train do not pay for tickets to ride it.

Perhaps the great problem of our time is that so few people grow up, not even late.

The one good thing to say about that is that people who have not grown up when they should have still have the ability to grow up. It’s not as good as doing it when they should have, of course, but they do still have the ability. Which means that the trick is figuring out how to help them actually do it.

(Curiously, though it does not bear on the main point, a Swedish friend said that not checking the validity of your ticket is only in Stockholm, the rest of Sweden verifies your ticket.)

nVidia’s Faked Presentation

There are various news articles around about during a presentation, a few seconds of the presentation was not of the CEO, Jensen Huang, but of a computer-generated fake of him instead. What I’d like to discuss is how misleading the initial articles reporting this were. The first one was from Tech Radar, and reported on a blog post from nVidia, and had the headline, “Jensen’s Kitchen Was a Lie.”

In fact, only a second or two of Jensen Huang’s kitchen was CGI; the CGI portion (which included a digitally generated Jensen) was only in the digital kitchen for a second, then it transitioned to a nearly black, obviously computer generated set. The computer generated set and CEO only lasted for fourteen seconds and the computer generated figure was actually very small in the frame. Here’s a screenshot from that section of the video:

In context, and if you’re familiar with the state of the art in this sort of thing and how much work it normally takes, this was still an impressive demonstration of computer technology. That said, the reports of it made it sound wildly more impressive than it actually was. Which brings me to why.

First, I’m 99.9% certain that this was an honest mistake. nVidia’s blog post was written from a very tech-centered point of view. It was very detail-oriented in terms of what nVidia technologies did what. Basically, it’s how engineers tend to write, because engineers can only do what they do because of tunnel vision. But that tunnel vision also tends to make them bad at communicating with non-engineers unless they conscious frame-shift.

Then we come to the tech reporters who took the nVidia post in the most sweeping way possible. Again, I think that they did this honestly. I think it highly likely that the writer believed every word he wrote.

So, what happened?

I strongly suspect it’s just selection bias at work. Tech reporters are tech reporters because they love technology. They want technology to be amazing. If tech reporters want technology to be amazing, tech readers want that tenfold. A hundredfold. This creates a selection bias; reporters who report on technology being amazing get more readers, because they provide the thrill that the readers seek. Ordinarily, this will mean that they report the same things as others, but do so in a more thrilling way. Tech reporting benefits tremendously from the world producing news on, approximately, a schedule. The ever-increasing performance of computers on roughly a yearly schedule means that there is a steady-state supply of genuine news. (If, granted, news that only tech-enthusiasts find interesting. But, we do find it interesting.) This is one massive advantage that tech news has over regular news, who only get newsworthy events rarely and haphazardly, and so have to make up most of what they report in order to fit their schedule (they make it up mostly in the sense of inflating the importance of insignificant events more than outright fabrication, but the spirit and effect are the same).

The issue comes in when the tech news to be reported is ambiguous. The enthusiastic, optimistic reporters who readers select for will tend to interpret the ambiguities in the most optimistic, impressive way, because that’s how they are and they’re the popular ones because readers like that.

Another advantage of tech news is that it doesn’t really matter. No one is going to do anything of any lasting effect because they believed for a few days that nVidia was able to fake their CEO for longer than they did, or more convincingly than they did. Tech news also tends to be fast to correct in part because real news will come along quickly to replace any mistakes. General news may go months or even years without anything that people need to pay attention to on a daily basis.

Beware of news.

New Religions Don’t Look Like Christianity Either

To those familiar with religions throughout the world, new religions like environmentalism, veganism, wokism, marxism, etc. are pretty obviously religions and are causing a lot of damage because that’s what bad religions do. People who are not familiar with any world religions beside Christianity frequently miss this because they think that all (real) religions look like Christianity but with different names and vestments.

I suspect that the idea that all religions look like Christianity was partially due to the many protestant sects which superficially looked similar, since even the ones that did away with priests and sacraments still met in a building on Sundays for some reason. I suspect the other major part is that there is a tendency to describe other religions in (inaccurate) Christian terms in order to make them easier to understand. Thus, for example, Shaolin “monks”. There are enough similarities that if you don’t plan to learn about the thing, it works. It’s misleading, though.

You can see the same sort of thing in working out a Greek pantheon where each god had specific roles and relationships and presenting this to children in school. It’s easy to learn, because it’s somewhat familiar, but it’s not very accurate to how paganism actually worked.

All of this occurred to me when I was talking with a friend who said that the primary feature of a religion, it seemed to him, was belief in the supernatural. The thing is, the nature/supernature distinction was a Christian distinction, largely worked out as we understand it today in the middle ages. Pagans didn’t have a nature/grace distinction, and if you asked them if Poseidon was supernatural they wouldn’t have known what you meant.

Would the ancient pagans have said that there things that operated beyond human power and understanding? Absolutely, they would. Were they concerned about whether a physics textbook entirely described these things? No, not at all. For one thing, they didn’t have a physics textbook. For another, they didn’t care.

The modern obsession that atheists have with whether all of reality is described in a physics textbook is not really about physics, per se, but about one of two things:

  1. whether everything is (at least potentially) under human control
  2. whether final causality is real, i.e. do things have purposes, or can we fritter our lives away on entertainment without being a failure in life?

The first one is basically an enlightenment-era myth. Anyone with a quarter of a brain knows that human life is not even potentially under human control. That it is, is believable, basically, by rich people while they’re in good health and when they’re distracted by entertainment from considering things like plagues, asteroids, war, etc. Anyone who isn’t all of these things will reject number 1.

Regarding the second: ancient pagans didn’t tend to be strict Aristotelians, so they wouldn’t have been able to describe things in terms of final causality, but they considered people to be under all sorts of burdens, both to the family, to the city, and possibly beyond that.

If you look at the modern religions, you will find the same thing. Admittedly, they don’t tend to talk about gods as much as the ancient pagans did, though even that language is on the rise these days. In what sense the Greeks believed in Poseidon as an actual human-like being vs. Poseidon was the sea is… not well defined. Other than philosophers, who were noted for being unlike common people, I doubt you could have pinned ancient pagans down on what they meant by their gods even if you could first establish the right terminology to ask them.

As for other things, environmentalism doesn’t have a church, but pagans didn’t have churches, either. Buddhists don’t have churches, and Hindus don’t have churches, and Muslims don’t have churches. Heck, even Jews don’t have churches. Churches are a specifically Christian invention. Now, many of these religions had temples. Moderns have a preference for museums. Also, being young religions, their rites and festivals aren’t well established yet. Earth day and pride month and so on are all fairly recent; people haven’t had time to build buildings in order to be able to celebrate them well. (Actually, as a side note, it also takes time to commercialize these things. People under-estimate the degree to which ancient pagan temples were businesses.)

Another stumbling block is that modern environmentalists, vegans, progressives, etc. don’t identify these things as religions—but to some degree this is for the same reason that my atheist friend doesn’t. They, too, think of religions as basically Christianity but maybe with different doctrines and holy symbols. They don’t stop to consider that most pagans in the ancient world were not in official cults. There were cults devoted to individual gods, and they often had to do with the running of temples. Normal people were not in these cults. Normal people worshiped various gods as convenient and as seemed appropriate.

There is a related passage in G.K. Chesterton’s book The Dumb Ox which is related:

The ordinary modern critic, seeing this ascetic ideal in an authoritative Church, and not seeing it in most other inhabitants of Brixton or Brighton, is apt to say, “This is the result of Authority; it would be better to have Religion without Authority.” But in truth, a wider experience outside Brixton or Brighton would reveal the mistake. It is rare to find a fasting alderman or a Trappist politician, but it is still more rare to see nuns suspended in the air on hooks or spikes; it is unusual for a Catholic Evidence Guild orator in Hyde Park to begin his speech by gashing himself all over with knives; a stranger calling at an ordinary presbytery will seldom find the parish priest lying on the floor with a fire lighted on his chest and scorching him while he utters spiritual ejaculations. Yet all these things are done all over Asia, for instance, by voluntary enthusiasts acting solely on the great impulse of Religion; of Religion, in their case, not commonly imposed by any immediate Authority; and certainly not imposed by this particular Authority. In short, a real knowledge of mankind will tell anybody that Religion is a very terrible thing; that it is truly a raging fire, and that Authority is often quite as much needed to restrain it as to impose it. Asceticism, or the war with the appetites, is itself an appetite. It can never be eliminated from among the strange ambitions of Man. But it can be kept in some reasonable control; and it is indulged in much saner proportion under Catholic Authority than in Pagan or Puritan anarchy.

Why Moderns Abhor Violence

One of the most noticeable characteristics of thoroughly modern people is that they have an absolute abhorrence of violence (when they can see it). One of the other most notable characteristics of thoroughly modern people is that their philosophy utterly undermines any moral restraint on violence and also eliminates all possibility of rational reconciliation, leaving power the only relationship between people. This may not be a coincidence.

In particular, it may be that people will only indulge in being modern (Modern philosophy, post-Modern philosophy, etc) when they feel protected from the violence which is its natural consequence. An analogy may be the various stupid ideas children will engage in as long as they’re not the ones paying for things. (Things like payment should be based on the amount of time someone puts into a job rather than the quality of their work.)

In like manner to how being vegan is a luxury good only made possible (to the degree that it even is long-term possible) by advanced technology and massive trade infrastructure, believing that morality is just an evolved set of preferences where none are any better than any others may be a luxury good for people who have an effective security force that does not believe this ready to ensure one’s safety. Or like how having a philosophy that only works for non-reproductive people is a luxury good for people with a steady supply of converts from reproductive people.