Christmas Traditions

There’s an XKCD that a lot of people have seen which plots most-played Christmas songs by decade of release:

The conclusion it presents, “every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods,” is true in a sense, but mostly wrong.

The biggest problem with it is that it’s using radio songs. There are several problems with this; they are largely technologically constrained to not have been recorded prior to the 1940s because sound recording was awful back then. Having done a fair amount of swing dancing, if you ever heard a recording made from the 1930s or worse the 1920s it’s barely listenable. You simply need to get a modern band to play those songs now in order for them to not hurt your ears. On the flip side, there just haven’t been any good popular christmas songs composed since the 1960s because of cultural shifts, but that’s a different story that I’ll get to later. The really big issue, though, is that the radio doesn’t play the really popular Christmas carols, they only play things recorded by popular recording artists. Even where popular recording artists record traditional carols, the radio will play versions by all sorts of different people, so a song which gets a lot of play time will not get it all on the same recording. To have this sort of concentration, we need the songs to still be in copyright so there’s only one or a very few versions of it available for the radio to play.

To really see the point, consider the popular Christmas carols—the ones that people actually sing—and when they were composed:

Jingle Bells: 1857
Heark! The Herald Angel Sings: 1739 (current musical arrangement: 1840)
Joy To the World: 1719 (current musical arrangement: 1848)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: traditional; at least the 16th century
O Holy Night: 1847 in french; English version by a guy who died in 1893, so before then
Silent Night: 1818 in German, English translation in 1859
O Come, All Ye Faithful: 1751
What Child Is This: 1871
Away in a Manger: 1897
The First Noel: 1833
We Three Kings: 1857

So yeah, the first problem is that if you consider stuff that can’t really have been done prior to when the baby boomers were born, you won’t find it. In a sense we’re done; the only thing which is trying to recreate the boomers’ childhood was a thing that barely pre-existed the baby boomers (commercial radio in the modern format).

Christmas songs after the 1960s tended to be either novelty songs or songs that really aren’t family friendly. As people got less religious and more sex-obsessed and so sang about having sex on Christmas with various degrees of veiling their meaning. That’s not actually going to be very interesting when it’s competing with songs about having sex five times a day, so it’s not shocking that these haven’t been popular. (In short: religious people won’t like them and irreligious people can get better).

There’s another aspect, which is that there was a short time period, as popular culture was becoming hardcore secular, where the newly secular people could enjoy the religion of their parents without participating. That’s the sort of thing that only lasts a decade or two; after that the energy just goes out of it.

Here in 2021 I think that the secular energy for Christmas is fading fast; one of the more popular things for adults to do is to agree with other adults to not exchange Christmas presents because it’s just a pain in the neck. No one really likes getting together with family to eat dry turkey and too many store-bought pies—that’s why they only do it when it’s an obligation they can’t get out of—and the concept of universal good will just doesn’t make any secular sense and has been long-since abandoned.

The grain of truth to the XKCD is that there is an attempt to LARP the most recent sincere Christmas celebration anyone can remember, which happens to be the baby boomers’ childhood Christmases. That’s mostly a coincidence, though, and in any event it includes many things which pre-dated the baby boomers. Twas the Night Before Christmas was first published in 1823 and the general depiction of Santa Claus as dressed in red and white originated at the latest with Puck magazine in the early 1900s and was set in popular imagination by the 1930s with widespread soft drink advertising campaigns (most notably Coca Cola).

So yes, the baby boomers were influential. The world did exist before them, though, and they don’t explain most of it.

The Tuskegee Experiment Was Weird

I recently read up on the Tuskegee Experiment, and it was really weird. (If you’re not familiar, it was an experiment run from 1932 to 1972 to study the effects of untreated syphilis on African Americans in which they pretended to treat 600 poor, male, African American share croppers for decades, resulting in over 100 of them dying from an entirely treatable disease.) What’s weird about it was not that it was cruel. Human beings are very frequently cruel. What’s weird about it was that it was both cruel and scientifically pointless. It’s not surprising when people do unethical things for some sort of benefit they could not get otherwise. It is very surprising when people do unethical things for no possible benefit to themselves or anyone else.

So I looked a little further, and like so many things that don’t make sense, it was the way it was because of a strange set of historical events which changed it repeatedly until it kept going because it was already going, but wasn’t something anyone would ever have started on purpose. Even more curiously, it was kept up for forty years in large part because no one would ever do another study like it again (since it was utterly pointless).

Let me explain.

(Note: I’m just using the Wikipedia page on the Tusgekee study as my source for this; take it with a grain of salt but it’s good enough for my purpose here.)

The Tuskegee experiment was motivated by a 1928 retrospective study in Oslo, Norway, called the “Oslo Study of Untreated Syphilis.” It looked at several hundred white males in various stages of untreated syphilis and documented their symptoms. This is medically important in a disease which can present differently over time (syphilis takes a long time to kill you, if it does)—if a doctor is looking at a patient and only is aware of the symptoms at one stage of the disease while the patient is at a different stage, the doctor could easily mis-diagnose the patient as not having the disease.

So, doctors had this very useful information for treating white patients, but is it also applicable to black patients? Perhaps they present differently (i.e. have different symptoms, or at least different severity of symptoms). There are some diseases more prevalent in white people than in black people, and vice versa; there isn’t really a good reason to assume that the two populations are identical. To do a good job treating black people who have the disease, doctors really would benefit from evidence that they present the same way as the white patients in the Oslo study do. (There are issues with lumping all people of European descent together as one homogeneous “white” population, just as there are with lumping all people of African descent together as “black”, though in the latter case most black Americans in the 1920s came from a small region of Africa so it wasn’t quite as bad.)

So far, this is fairly reasonable given the state of medical science in the 1920s. Now it starts to get a little iffy: the researchers at the US Public Health Service at Tusgekee decided to conduct a prospective study in order to complement the retrospective study from Oslo. This is not at all, ethically, the same thing, since not treating people and finding out the symptoms they had before you treated them are very different. Their reasoning was that the study participants, being poor share croppers, were unlikely to ever get treatment otherwise; thus it was a trade of six months of not treating them (during which time they would not have gotten treated otherwise), and after which they would give the participants treatment. Not great, but in a slow-moving disease, this could be defensible if informed consent was obtained (it wasn’t).

Something else to consider, here, is that the treatments of the time were mostly ineffective. They consisted of things like arsenic-based treatments like arsphenamine and mercury-based ointments. Penicillin, the actually effective treatment for syphilis, would only be discovered in 1928 and the technology to refine the compound into a medicine was only developed in 1940. (The first proof that it could cure a disease was an eye disease in 1930 in a laboratory setting.) So part of what needs to be considered was that in 1928, the treatments that they were temporarily withholding weren’t actually all that effective, anyway.

Somehow or other this became six months to one year, which was still in the realm of defensible if informed consent had been obtained (which, again, it hadn’t). However, this is where things really start going off the rails. Before the conclusion of the study when they were planning to administer the standard treatments they lost their funding and could not afford to treat the patients. At this point Taliaferro Clark, head of the USPHS, decided to extend the study without treatment (which involved pretending to treat the participants). He resigned before the study was actually extended, however. It’s a bit unclear (just from the Wikipedia page) who took over extending the study; various people contributed.

With the advent of penicillin as a safe and reliable treatment for penicillin, the entire study became even more pointless than it was at the start, but continued for much the same reason: it would never be possible to get this data again. It would never be possible because there was absolutely no point in getting the data and it was horribly unethical to get it, but that was beside the point. The fact that something was going on that could never be restarted made the people involved feel like they needed to keep it going, since once lost, it was lost forever. True, it had no apparent value, but I suspect they figured that perhaps one day someone would find the value in it that they couldn’t see right now.

In the baptismal vows a catechumen makes (or their parent makes for them at infant baptism), there are the questions: “Do you reject Satan? And all his empty promises?”

It’s interesting how good an example the Tuskegee study was of an empty promise.

Proofs for God’s Intelligence and Why Atheists Won’t Accept Them

Answering a question I’ve been asked, because there are a fair number of atheists who hear the argument from motion or the argument from contingency and necessity and then ask, “why would the uncaused cause or the unmoved mover need to be intelligent?” In this video I look into the answers to that, and why atheists won’t accept them.

And the Rock Cried Out No Hiding Place

In the third season of Babylon 5, there is the episode And the Rock Cried Out No Hiding Place. As with most Babylon 5 episodes, it’s complicated, but there’s a very interesting section of it which more-or-less explains itself. It’s the intertwining of a scene where one of the main characters, Londo Mollari, finally defeats his nemesis Reefa, with a scene of a preacher and gospel singer visiting the space station Babylon 5 and singing a gospel song:

This is apparently based on an old spiritual song; I’m not sure if they changed the lyrics. The spiritual is probably based on the sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation:

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!

The two scenes meld together well, though Reefa trying to run away is not necessarily realistic. A great many evil people, when they see that their time is up, basically shut down and don’t struggle. That said, many do not. Evil is always based on upon believing an illusion. As such, believing the illusion that escape is still possible fits well. And, more to the point, it’s more symbolically accurate: the evil one is evil because he believes the lies he tells himself to the end. He does not heed the instruction μετάνοιτε (metanoiete), “repent!” He does not change his mind; he does not turn himself around. He sticks to the lie he has chosen and runs as hard as he can from reality towards it.

How Can You Say Someone Is Great…

…who’s never had his picture on a bubblegum card? This is the question posed by Lucy van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas. And before anyone jumps down my throat about it being too early for Christmas stuff, A Charlie Brown Christmas is clearly an advent movie, not a Christmas movie. It is set during the time when people are getting ready for Christmas (hence rehearsing a Christmas play, rather than performing it), and it was first aired on December 9, in the year of our Lord 1965.

So go ahead and jump down my throat for it being too early for advent stuff—to be fair, it is still ordinary time—but be warned that I have sharp teeth and strong jaws.

Anyway, back to the question Lucy poses: how can you say someone is great who’s never had his picture on a bubblegum card? This joke was funny back in 1965, but I think that it’s gained in humor, over the years, because bubblegum cards are no longer something children collect. I believe that they’re technically still made, or at least trading cards are. The Topps company still exists and still makes baseball cards, though I’ve no idea who buys them. I collected baseball cards for about a year, back in the 1980s, and rapidly lost interest. So far as I knew no one else collected them back then, and in the intervening three decades I’ve never heard of anyone collecting them. (There are still trading cards that are popular such as Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, but these are not relevant because they do not feature the pictures of real people.)

This was a childish question when Lucy asked it, but it was also an ephemeral question, which she would have had no way of knowing back then. This works with the theme of the show, though; it’s all about how people were caught up in the ephemeral world and had no idea of what really matters. The way that Lucy’s question works with this theme has only become better with age.


Fun fact: if Lucy was 11 when A Charlie Brown Christmas aired she would be 67 now (in the year of our Lord 2021).

The Old Discovery Channel Ad

For those who haven’t seen it, over a decade ago the Discovery Channel made and ran this ad to promote their television shows:

Now, when it comes to advertising, a great deal of skepticism and even cynicism is warranted. I think that this is expressed nowhere so well as in what might be one of The Last Psychiatrist’s best posts, The Dove Sketches Beauty Scam. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, and gives a good perspective on supposedly wholesome advertisements. Here is possibly my favorite part, though it loses something out of context:

“Oh my God,” you might say, “I know it’s just an ad, but it’s such a positive message.”

If some street hustler challenges you to a game of three card monte you don’t need to bother to play, just hand him the money, not because you’re going to lose but because you owe him for the insight: he selected you.  Whatever he saw in you everyone sees in you, from the dumb blonde at the bar to your elderly father you’ve dismissed as out of touch, the only person who doesn’t see it is you…

I think that TLP is substantially correct.

So, all that said, I think that there is something of value in this ad, despite it being an ad. The value is two-fold, and I say this as someone who hasn’t watched TV, and hence hasn’t watched the Discovery Channel, in close to two decades now. Actually, before I get to those, let me quote the main conclusion (which is in the penultimate section) of TLP’s post:

That Dove wants you to think of it as the authority on beauty so it can sell you stuff makes sense, there’s nothing underhanded about it and hardly worth the exposition.  The question is, why do they think this will work?  What do they know about us that makes them think we want an authority on beauty– especially in an age where we loudly proclaim that we don’t want an authority on beauty, we don’t like authorities of any kind, we resist and resent being told what’s beautiful (or good or moral or worthwhile) and what’s not?…

“But I hated the ad!”  Oh, I know, for all the middlebrow acceptable reasons you think you came up with yourself.  Not relevant.  The con artists at Dove didn’t select these women to represent you because you are beautiful or ugly, any more than the street hustler selected you for your nice smile.   They were selected because they represent a psychological type that transcends age/race/class, it is characterized by a kind of psychological laziness: on the one hand, they don’t want to have to conform to society’s impossible standards, but on the other hand they don’t want the existential terror of NOT conforming to some kind of standard.  They want an objective bar to be changed to fit them– they want “some other omnipotent entity” to change it so that it remains both entirely valid yet still true for them, so that others have to accept it, and if you have no idea what I’m talking about look at your GPA: you know, and I know, that if college graded you based on the actual number of correct answers you generated, no curve, then you would have gotten an R…

“Everybody gets something out of every transaction,” said Joe, explaining why people want to be conned.  That’s what ads do for you.  They’ll let you complain that they are telling you what to want, as long as you let them tell you how to want.

Again, TLP is substantially correct. (I, personally, tended to get almost every answer on every test right, and teachers tended to ignore me as an outlier when setting curves, but that’s irrelevant to the point.) So how does the Discovery Channel ad have value when it is substantially similar to the Dove Beauty Sketches ad?

It does because of the description of human beings implicit by contrast in my favorite description of God: He who accomplishes all things according to the intentions of His will. The effects of human actions are mostly accidents, because we don’t know enough to know most of what we’re actually doing.

The Discovery Channel was trying to establish itself as the source of awesome, as being on team love-reality; much like Dove it’s trying to establish itself as an authority on what is interesting and awesome, and also as the source for these things. Yes, they’re doing these things, but that’s not all that they’re doing, because they’re human and so most of what they do they did not intend.

The goal was to present themselves as being the gateway to the awesomeness of the world, as well as having the brand identity of being on team awesome. The key distinction between this ad and the dove beauty sketches is that the latter used entirely artificial things—descriptions and a drawing—while the Discovery Channel ad uses real things—a picture of the earth from a satellite (the astronauts were, admittedly, obviously fake), real video of a great white shark flying out of the water as it tries to catch a seal, a picture of a real mummy, real video of lava and spiders, etc. While Dove was trying to sell a fiction as reality, the Discovery Channel ad has some reality in it.

The other key difference is that the Dove ad sets Dove up as the expert, while the Discovery Channel ad is largely supplicating itself to the grandeur of something else which existed before and will exist after the Discovery Channel.

Maybe the Discovery Channel is on Team The World is Awesome and maybe they’re just pretending, but if they are, then it is a case of hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Either way, there is tribute being paid to virtue. And you don’t need to watch the Discovery Channel to appreciate that tribute to virtue.

I don’t watch it.

Monty Python is Very Uneven

Having recently watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my eleven year old son, I was reminded of how extremely uneven Monty Python was. They had quite a few absolutely brilliant sketches. They had some mediocre sketches. They had a fair number of really bad sketches. This extends to their movies, too, which are basically just loose collections of skits with a common theme. (In the case of Holy Grail, their theme was “medievalish”.)

Despite this extraordinary unevenness, Monty Python movies and sketches are held up as some of the heights of comedy. There’s a lesson, here, for writers: overall quality is good, but when it comes to being memorable, the heights you reach are more important than the average.

There is an asterisk on that, which is that it probably matters significantly what your competition is. Mitchell and Webb, for example, had a similar number of brilliant sketches, but they had far fewer really bad sketches (their snooker commentator sketches are the only ones that come to mind) and not many bad sketches either. Overall, their quality was higher, though the peaks were no higher. Had they been competing at the same time, Monty Python probably would have fared worse.

(Of course, there are other things that make the two not directly comparable. All comedy is a product of its time, and Monty Python especially so. The 1970s, in its post-world-war-2 context was a time when people hungered for different more than they hungered for quality, and many of Monty Python’s sketches reflect that. While Monty Python wouldn’t fare nearly as well against Mitchell and Webb in the 2010s, Mitchell and Webb wouldn’t fare nearly as well against Monty Python in the 1970s—the audience just would not have been in the mood for most of it.)

A Useful Recipe: Greek Yogurt with Whey Protein Powder

For those trying to get more protein into their diet, whey powder (or any protein powder) can be a great way to do it. The downside to whey powder, though is how to actually eat the stuff—it’s not exactly appetizing to eat the dry powder with a spoon. The common solution is to dissolve it into a liquid. Water is probably the most common, which is why whey powders often have a lot of sugar and flavoring in them. I strongly prefer to get plain whey powder which has only the protein and no added sugars or artificial flavors.

I have made protein shakes using some milk, a little heavy cream, whey powder, and vanilla. They work, and if served very cold can be a little like a milkshake, as long as you generally eat so little sugar that your taste buds have reset their idea of sweet so that plain milk tastes sweet to you. The problem, though, is that it’s very easy to make a lot of air bubbles in the shake during the mixing, which produces an unpleasant texture. You can get around this by mixing with a stick blender in a tall container so that the surface can’t get down to the blades, but this is a lot of work and leaves you with a stick blender to clean when you’re done with it.

Enter Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is an unsweetened yogurt which is strained after fermentation so it’s higher in protein than normal yogurt and has very little in the way of even natural milk sugars. (Normal grocery-store yogurt has so much sugar added that it’s very nearly got the same amount of sugar per unit volume as ice cream.) You can mix whey powder into Greek yogurt at a ratio of about 1 scoop of whey powder to 1 cup of Greek yogurt. You can mix it with a spoon. As my wife described it when she was telling me about the recipe, “at first it looks like there’s no way this is going to work, then it does”. After about 30-60 seconds of mixing, the whey powder dissolves into the yogurt and you get a very thick, creamy result. I like to add about a teaspoon and a half of vanilla per cup of yogurt because the flavor complements very well.

One tip I’ve found is that it tastes better when very cold, so I put the bowl with the whey powder in it into the freezer for a few minutes before adding the yogurt, so I’m adding all cold ingredients. If you want to do something kind of like making homemade frozen yogurt, put the mixed yogurt/whey back into the freezer. Take out and stir every 60 seconds or so. Keep this up until it’s the consistency you want. It will freeze against the sides of the bowl, so make sure to scrape them clean and mix the result into the middle. This would be very labor-intensive to make true fro-yo, but even getting a quarter of the way there can be pleasant.

NOTE: this also works best if you’ve avoided sugar enough that your taste buds have reset to the point where you can eat unsweetened Greek yogurt. (The whey powder makes the acidity a little more mild, but not much more mild.) If that’s not true, then you’re probably not as concerned with avoiding sugar anyway, and so you can add as much sweetener as needed to make this taste the way you want it. When it comes to flavors, sweet tends to cover over bitterness and sourness (that is, alkali and acidity), hence milk chocolate and lemonade.

Anyway, this has a lot of protein and is easier with less cleanup than protein shakes, so I mention it in case it helps anyone else, too.

My Least Favorite Kind of Internet Atheist

Of all of the various kinds of internet atheist (see Taxonomy of Atheists), my least favorite are the cult atheists who pretend to be polite and open minded. They’re very recognizable because they always introduce themselves with something like, “I haven’t seen any evidence for God, but if I did I would become a theist. Do you know of any evidence for God?” They’ll tend to start out polite, often saying things like, “perhaps I’m mistaken, can you show me where?” It sounds great.

Then when you give them what they’ve asked for, such as presenting them or directing them to one of the arguments which shows that literally all being is evidence for God (e.g. the argument from motion, or the argument from contingency and necessity), their true colors come out. They’re still gentle of speech, but they say things like, “this is an argument from ignorance,” (they love to pretend that logic is an argument from ignorance) or accuse it of some other error which it obviously doesn’t have. They’ll typically throw in some insults, at this point, though gently phrased insults. “I think you might be engaging in wishful thinking” is no less an insult for being said in tea-time language.

As you proceed, the veneer of politeness tends to drop, with accusations becoming much more direct, and everything you’ve explained to them—at their request—rejected out of hand. The more you talk to them, the clearer it becomes that they don’t believe any of their principles, and when you have finally cornered them on something, they just ignore it and tend to claim that they’ve shown something that they didn’t, a few steps back in the conversation. Sometimes they declare victory and accuse you of just not being willing to admit it, sometimes they just claim to have shown you’re irrational or whatnot. They’re an enormous waste of time, and I think that’s their goal.

I’ve dealt with more than a few of them, over the years, and I’ve learned that they all have a tell—their act like they’re new to the subject. They pretend to be fair-minded, but also completely ignorant of the subject. If pressed, they will admit that they’ve heard things about it before, but this gives the lie to their presentation of fair-mindedness. A reasonable person, on asking for evidence of something, will save the other person time by explaining what they’ve already encountered and what their problems with it are. They don’t do this because wasting someone else’s time is their goal.

The other part of this tell is that they are pretending to be the new to the subject. The only people who are completely new to the subject of whether God exists are young children and (possibly) people raised by wolves who have barely learned English. Well, that’s not quite true, since I left off the qualifier of “reasonable.” Reasonable people investigate important questions, they don’t merely ignore them until someone decides to spoon-feed them information about them. If for some strange reason a reasonable person has come across no convincing source of information on the subject of God in real life, he would not merely go onto social media and ask complete strangers for evidence that God exists. A reasonable person (in this odd circumstance) would do some online searching and find sources that seem to be high quality. Or he might even read a book or two on the subject. (And then, as I noted above, if he’s asking randos on social media, he’ll give them some idea of where he’s starting from and what he already knows.)

The Putative Arrival of Self-Driving Cars

A friend of mine was talking about how self-driving car technology is almost ready for general use and gave as evidence that this is likely to be the case that Waymo is already operating an autonomous ride-sharing service in Phoenix, Arizona, and has recently expanded to San Francisco.

So I looked into this.

It is true that Waymo is operating a driverless ride-sharing service, called Waymo One, in Phoenix Arizona, and has been doing so since 2018 (with a several month pause due to COVID-19, back in 2020). However, this is slightly misleading. According to Waymo One’s FAQ, “Our Waymo One fully autonomous ride-hailing service operates within parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.”

Here’s a map of Phoenix, Arizona, which Wikipedia linked to, and I’ve circled Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. (Approximately; there might be a bit of these places outside of the purple circle—I’m not familiar with Arizona geography and couldn’t find similar interactive maps for Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler.)

Waymo chose Phoenix because (being in the desert and pretty far south) it’s basically a place with no weather. So in this best-case scenario for the Waymo self-driving car, three years into running their autonomous service they’re still not running in most of the Phoenix metro area. Heck, they’re still not even running in Phoenix (proper).

At this rate… I’m not even sure that there is a rate of expansion. Extrapolating their progress in the last 3 years, it might be another 100 years before they offer rides in all of the Phoenix metro area.

But they’ve expanded to San Francisco!

Yeah, they have. Except that in San Francisco the Waymo One cars have an “autonomous specialists riding in the driver’s seat.” Also, the ride-sharing program is only open to people in the “trusted tester program,” which is “a confidential research program within Waymo One, where select riders will have access to our service and can share their experiences directly with our team to help shape the future of autonomous driving”. (I’m quoting from their FAQ.)

So “expanded to San Francisco” means that they are now running some number of tests, using safety drivers, and with passengers who have signed NDAs and can’t tell anyone how badly it’s going.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that self-driving cars are impossible. I doubt that Waymo’s hyper-detailed maps approach is really the way forward, but as the saying goes, of all things the future is the hardest to predict.

I think it’s important to be realistic, though. There is no reason to believe that self-driving cars are just a few years away from being a standard option on cars at the dealership.

Why Talk About the Downsides of Atheism

In this video I talk about why it’s good to talk about the downsides of atheism, despite it generally being more attractive to be positive rather than negative; to make the case for something and not to merely make the case against one of its alternatives. That reason is that people often take the “cheese pizza” approach. If they think that there’s a common denominator, they will pick that to avoid conflict. By talking about the problems with atheism, it can help people to realize that there is no plain cheese pizza; that there is no common denominator.

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.)