It’s Only a Paper Moon

There’s a fun old-timey song called It’s Only A Paper Moon. There’s a version of Erin McKeown which I really like:

According to Wikipedia it’s an old jazz standard which was written for a 1932 play, The Great Magoo. It was about a womanizer who fell hard for a Coney Island dance hall girl. She briefly becomes famous when a recording of her singing It’s Only A Paper Moon becomes famous on the radio. According to an L.A. Times review of the play, “both lovers are Olympic-caliber boozers who swan dive into the gutter at the least hint of a romantic reversal.” Apparently it only ran for eleven performances.

The song featured the next year in a movie called Take A Chance, then waned in popularity until it was covered by popular singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole in the WW2 era.

Here, by the way, is a 1933 recording of it:

I like Erin’s version better.

It’s got a very interesting theme, which is, roughly, levels of reality. This was something that came up in a discussion between Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau, Bishop Barron, and a professor whose name escapes me at the moment. They were discussing religious experiences, and how everyone who has them (however they do) describes them as more real than everyday experience. It stands to reason that if a person truly encounters the divine, they will feel the world something of a shadow in comparison. What this song gets at, though, is that the same thing applies even within creation. Some things are just more real than others.

The particular that it discusses is romantic love, of course; that is, after all, the subject of about 99.8% of all popular songs. Still, it’s true as far as it goes, even if it doesn’t go very far. It goes quite a lot farther than the people who believe that sub-atomic particles are the ultimate reality go, though, and that’s the era that this song was written for.

The Evil Overlord List

If you’ve never encountered it, there is a very funny list of movie tropes which goes by the name Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Were Evil Overlord. If you’d like to read all 235 things on the list, it’s here.

Some of my favorites include:

The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.

Another great one, though now dated:

Any data file of crucial importance will be padded to 1.45MB in size.

For those too young to get the joke, floppy disks were often used in movies of a certain era (before the internet) to transport crucial information in movies, such as the plans to a super-weapon or the evidence that a villain committed crimes. In the sorts of movies we’re talking about from this era, it was common for heroes to secretly get access to the villain’s computer and copy this information onto a floppy disk. The hard-cased 3.5″ floppy disks which were the most common for this purpose had a capacity of 1.44MB.

Another great is:

One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

Though I think that my all-time favorite is:

I will not waste time making my enemy’s death look like an accident — I’m not accountable to anyone and my other enemies wouldn’t believe it.

I tend to paraphrase this one when quoting, though, to “I will not waste time making the hero’s death look like an accident. My friends won’t care and my enemies will not believe it anyway.”

This came to mind because twenty some-odd years ago I wrote a script that randomly picks one of the quotes to be the “evil overlord quote of the day” in my email signature, and yesterday someone else recognized it and commented on it, reminding me that I did it.

Jordan Peterson & Jonathan Pageau on The Problem of Perception

I came across a very interesting video which is a conversation between Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson where they discuss the problem of perception—how it is possible to perceive objects.

After listening to it for the second time, I realized that they are discussing from a different angle a problem that I’ve presented to atheists and they’ve never understood. Instead of the problem of perceiving objects I tended to refer to it as the problem of defining human beings within a materialist framework, and the consequent problem that this has for morality.

The basic problem I would present is: how do you define a human being in terms of subatomic particles in such a way that it’s distinct from a corpse? If you can’t—and you certainly can’t—you can’t define what murder is, and if you can’t define what murder is, you can’t say why murder is wrong. The same problem applies to all other moral aspects; good luck defining fraud or theft or arson or trespassing with the intent to commit a crime with a firearm in terms of sub-atomic particles. It’s not just that if God is dead all things are permitted. If God is dead, no things are definable and consequently nothing can be forbidden.

What Jonathan and Jordan are discussing is the same thing, but from a more epistemological perspective. They actually started, more-or-less, with why there is no such thing as a general-purpose robot. There is no such thing as a general-purpose robot because in order to interact with things you need to be able to perceive things and distinguish them from their environment, and though it comes naturally to us when you look at what we’re doing in order to be able to build a robot to do it, it turns out that the perception of objects is inextricably linked with purpose. (E.g. whether it matters that the right hand side of the table is separable from the left-hand side depends on whether you want to put something on it or use it for firewood.) People tended to be so used to their purposes that they couldn’t imagine not having the same purposes, and thus assumed these purposes were fundamental and therefore universal, but when examined it turns out that this is just a failure of imagination. (In part, this is why it takes so many years to produce an adult human being, behaviorally speaking.)

It’s a very interesting conversation (despite being called a lecture for some reason), and I recommend watching it in full, more than once. They really get into some of the interesting consequences of how perception and purpose are inextricably linked from each other.

Chaos on the Bridge?

I recently came across an interesting-looking documentary movie made by William Shatner called Chaos on the Bridge. (It’s only available on YouTube so I can’t embed it.) It is about how Star Trek: The Next Generation got started and all of the trouble that was involved during its first season when it had no idea what it should be. I’ve gotten a little bit of the way into it and it does seem interesting, though not gripping. Has anyone watched it? Is it worth watching the whole thing?

As a side note, I find it curious that I have never learned anything about Gene Roddenberry which made me think better of him. I suppose that that may be related to him starting off, for me, as a great genius visionary who created Star Trek, so the only direction he could go was down. But boy, did he go in that direction. This is a thing to be careful about, of course, because it’s all too easy to be interested in things about a person that are none of one’s business; calumny and detraction are real problems. At the same time, there is a practical value in knowing some things about a creator because they forearm you against dangers in their work. I do not mean, by the way, that drug abuse and sexual licentiousness will be simply championed, but rather that there is a world view which goes with approving of those things, and one must be careful of that world view, especially when its unsavory conclusions are not displayed. When their bad consequences are not obvious are when bad world views are most seductive.

Great Light Saber Parodies

The movies which came out after Star Wars: Return of the Jedi did what sequel movies inevitably do—try different things. Some of these worked, some were a bit silly. Fortunately, the silly parts resulted in some really entertaining parodies, so they weren’t a complete loss. Below are a few of my favorites, in case you haven’t seen them yet:

In the “George Lucas Special Edition” of The Force Awakens trailer, there was this great parody of Kylo Ren’s silly cross-guard saber:

I put that one at the time stamp where it happens, but the whole thing is funny and worth watching.

My son recently showed me this parody of General Grievous with his many light sabers:

And perhaps my all-time favorite is Rey’s Swiss Army light saber:

A Working Coil Gun!

On the show Forgotten Weapons, which at this point should be renamed Interesting Guns, Ian interviews one of the founders of a company selling a prototype but working coil gun:

It’s not very powerful right now; it shoots projectiles about as heavy as the arrows I shoot from my 90# compound bow at about the same speed that I shoot them from my 90# compound bow. But it’s a genuine portable coil gun, which means that we’re living in the future.

(For those that don’t know, coil guns use magnetic coils to accelerate steel projectiles.)

Bishop Barron And Jonathan Pageau

There are a lot of conversations which happen on YouTube, and by and they can range rather widely in quality, though most aren’t nearly as good as individual videos are. This conversation between Bishop Barron and Jonathan Pageau was on the very high end of quality:

I watched it about four times, if I recall correctly. There are a great many interesting things that they bring up. The theme, fairly later on, that the main purpose of humanity before the fall was priestly—to lead all of creation in the right praise of God—was quite fascinating. Also the detail thrown out which I had never considered before that Eden had to be an elevated place because several rivers flowed from it in different directions, and of course it is on mountains where God is so often worshiped and encountered.

I also liked Jonathan’s observation that the people who want to make the Church worldly will inevitably fall away because they will, at some point, realize that they don’t need to go to Church to be worldly, and will stop going. This may be described as a particular instance of how the meek will inherit, but it is something we are seeing. On may, in particularly strict times, attract followers by promising laxity, but it does not work at all in lax times. You can see that in how many of the largest women’s religious orders which modernized and wear frumpy clothes from k-mart are collapsing but the traditionalist religious orders who are more cloistered and habited are flourishing.

Earlier on there was an interesting discussion of atheism, and how it can have something of a cleansing quality when catechesis has gotten too bad. I think that there is something to this; atheism can serve as a fire to burn away dead wood. Though I think that much of the new atheism was really about being anti-Islamic in the aftermath of 9/11, you can see that to some degree this has happened anyway. You don’t find many unthinking Christians these days, nor are there nearly so many merely cultural Christians. This is to the good; Christianity must be entered into as a whole person, mind with the rest. And merely cultural Christianity is a desecration.

It’s a really fascinating conversation that very much rewards listening to. Both men are quite sharp, in addition to being quite knowledgeable, and I very strongly recommend it.

A Fascinating Video on the Historical Context of National Socialism

TIK recently put out a very interesting video on the history of the German revolution of 1918 and the context of how the socialists gained power then split into multiple groups during the power struggle in the aftermath. This leads directly to how Hitler conceived of National Socialism, and by putting things in this context it makes a lot of World War 2 make more sense. It is very much worth watching. (And don’t be put off that its title mentions the Weimar hyperinflation or that it’s episode 2, it’s not really about either and stands very much on its own.)

Dozens of Major Cancer Studies Can’t Be Replicated

I recently came across an interesting article in Science News on widespread replication failure in cancer studies. It’s interesting, though not particularly shocking, that the Replication Crisis has claimed one more field.

If you’re not familiar with the Replication Crisis, it has to do with how it was widely assumed that scientific experiments described in peer-reviewed journals were reproducible—that is, if someone else performed the experiment, they would get the same result. Reproducibility of experiments is the foundation of trust in the sciences. The theory is that once somebody has done the hard work of designing an experiment which produces a useful result, others can merely follow the experimental method to verify that the result really happens and that after an experiment has been widely reproduced, people can be very confident in the result because so many people have seen it for themselves and we have widespread testimony of it. Or, indeed, people can perform these experiments as they work their way through their scientific education.

That’s the theory.

Practice is a bit different.

The problem is that science became a well-funded profession. The consequence is that experiments became extraordinarily expensive and time-intensive to perform. The most obvious example would cloud-chamber experiments in super-colliders. The Large Hadron Collider cost somewhere around $9,000,000,000 to build and requires teams of people to operate. Good luck verifying the experiments it performs for yourself.

Even when you’re on radically smaller scales and don’t require expensive apparatus—say you want to assess the health effects of people cutting out coffee from their diet—putting together as study is enormously time-intensive. And it costs money to recruit people; you generally have to pay them for their participation, and you need someone skilled in periodically assessing whatever health metrics you want to assess. Blood doesn’t draw itself and run lipid panels, after all.

OK, so amateurs don’t replicate experiments anymore. But what about other professionals?

Here we come to one of the problems introduced by “Publish Or Perish”. Academics only get status and money for achieving new results. For the most part people don’t get grants to do experiments that other people have already done and get the same results that they got. This should be a massive monkey wrench in the scientific machine, but for a long time people ignored the problem and papered over it by saying that experiments will get verified when other people try to build on the results of previous experiments and fail.

It turns out that doesn’t work, at least not nearly well enough.

The first field in which people got serious funding to try to actual replicate results to see if they replicate was in psychology, and it turned out that most wouldn’t replicate. To be fair, in many cases this was because the experiment was not well-described enough that one could even set up the same experiment again, though this is, to some degree, defending oneself against a charge of negligence by claiming incompetence. Of those studies which were described well enough that it was possible to try to replicate them, something like less than half replicated. They tended to fail to replicate in one of two ways:

  1. The effect didn’t happen often enough to be statistically significant
  2. The effect was statistically significant but so small as to be practically insignificant

To give a made-up example of the first, if you deprive people of coffee for a few months and one out of a few hundred see a positive result, then it may well be you just chanced onto someone who improved for some other reason while you were trying to study coffee. To give an example of the second, you might get a result like everyone’s systolic blood pressure went down by one tenth of a millimeter of mercury. There’s virtually no way you got a result that common in the group by chance, but it’s utterly irrelevant to any reasonable goal a human being can have.

Psychology does tend to be a particularly bad field when it comes to experimental design and execution, but other fields took note and wanted to make sure that they were as much better than the psychologists as they assumed.

And it turned out that many fields were not.

I find it interesting, though not very surprising, that oncology turns out to be another field in which experiments are failing to replicate. After all, in a field which isn’t completely new, it’s easier to get interesting results that don’t replicate than it is to get interesting results that do.

The Reason for Post WW1 Revolutions

TIK has a very interesting video about HItler’s Socialism:

I’m only about 1 hour into this nearly 5 hour video, and it covers (as you might imagine) a wide range of topics, but something TIK mentioned almost casually as an aside really struck me: the reason for the revolutions after World War 1 was that the nations that took part in it took an enormous amount of wealth from its people and destroyed it. This immense destruction of wealth impoverished the people, who grew sick of it and revolted.

Something very important to understand about war is that it is bad for business. There are some select businesses that it is good for; gun makers and canon makers and the like benefit from war, though in practice only so much because they have a tendency to get very squeezed for profits since making a profit during a war is generally seen as unpatriotic, and the governments buying the weapons have far more negotiating power than the weapon-makers do, since only one gets to send the police to put the other in prison.

Apart from these extremely limited cases, most business suffers greatly from war. Raw materials get diverted from industrial uses to war-time uses, labor gets taken away, demand for goods shrinks because heavy taxation removes the money with which people would buy products, and in the 1900s there was like a 90% chance that goods would be rationed so people can’t buy as many of your products as they want to even if they had the money and weren’t off fighting in a war.

Worse for the economy, this isn’t even a temporary re-allocation of resources than can be shifted back afterwards. Tanks and battleships and the like can be scrapped for iron, but it’s a difficult and costly process and they have no value other than as scrap (or as museum pieces). Bombs and bullets simply blow up when they’re used, so they get expended in use and all of the resources and labor that went into making them literally goes up in a puff of smoke. Going to war is taking a nation’s resources and burning them (in many cases literally).

And all of this assumes that the war isn’t on your soil, so that your factories are getting demolished in the fighting. If that’s happening, it’s even more economically destructive.

War is always a waste of labor and resources (even a just war; it may simply be a necessary waste), but World War 1 was an especially wasteful war, and moreover was perceived to be an especially wasteful war. Enormous amounts of men and materiel were ground up in order to do basically nothing. For everyone but France and Germany, this largely consisted of taking one’s men and resources and sending them to far away lands to be ground up to accomplish nothing for other people.

This really helps to explain why the Russian Revolution happened. I had always wondered why a mostly agriculatural society would undergo a marxist revolution. Marxist revolutions never make sense, but they didn’t have the mass of factory workers necessary to have a worker’s revolution. And farmers don’t revolt, for the most part, unless you try to heavily tax them.

Well, there’s my answer.

You pay for wars with taxes. You pay for big wars with heavy taxes. And heavy taxes that aren’t perceived to bring massive benefits tend to produce revolutions.

Obviously this is painting the cause of a complex historical event with a ludicrously broad brush, and I’m not describing it very well. But this does make a lot more sense of the Russian Revolution than I had understood up til now.

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.

Daniel Dennett On Determinism

If you are not familiar with Daniel Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, he is a good friend of Richard Dawkins and an atheist “philosopher”. (I use the scare quotes advisedly.) As an atheist he is, almost as a matter of course, a determinist. However, he’s also a proponent of “compatibalism,” the “idea” that free will and determinism are compatible. (The trick is to redefine “free will” to mean, not something freely chosen, but something deterministically done without outside force being applied at the time.) There is a wonderful video that Dennett made in which he chides neuroscientsts who tell people that they don’t have free will for being irresponsible in doing so, because if people don’t believe that they are responsible for their actions they make less morally responsible choices:

You read that correctly. A determinist is telling other determinists that if they tell people who have no free will that they don’t have free will, the people without free will will then make morally worse choices because they now know the truth that they’re not making any choices and are thus not culpable for the choices that they’re not making.

He even cites a scientific study showing that people more frequently choose to cheat if they’ve recently read an article telling them that neuroscience proves that people don’t have free will and thus are not culpable for their actions.

Of course, Dennett is a determinist, so therefore doesn’t believe that the neuroscientists can choose to be more responsible and lie to people that they have free will in order to get them to make better choices in their lives. But determinism means never having to say you’re sorry (unless you have to): Dennett himself believes that he has no free will and so he had no choice but to make this video. So it’s all OK. He’s not actually an idiot.

He’s just a puppet being made to look like an idiot by the forces pulling his strings.

It’s never Too Late at Amatopia

Over at Amatopia Alexander Hellene has an interesting post about repentance with the fascinating (if long) story of Saint Mary. It’s worth a read.

I must confess that the intellectual problem of repentance has never really bothered me; I can’t conceive of a sin being stronger than God’s ability to fix it. But, for that reason, I do really like stories of repentance, because they demonstrate the mighty power of God.

The Big Chill

Because of an odd set of coincidences, I’ve discovered that there exists a movie called The Big Chill. Released in 1983, it stars Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, and Glenn Close. (I think that Tom Beringer might be equally famous but I just don’t know him.) In the words of Wikipedia, “the plot focuses on a group of baby boomers who attended the University of Michigan, reuniting after 15 years when their friend Alex commits suicide.”

The plot summary on Wikipedia is long but contains very little but angst, fornication, and adultery during several days while the old friends stay at the house of two of them for the funeral and a little after it. Without recapitulating the sordid details, this review by Richard Corliss in Time will suffice to get at why I find interesting the existence of this film that I never want to watch and you shouldn’t either:

These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin’. For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the ’60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs, and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B. The armies of the night marched to Washington, but they boogied to Liverpool and Motown. Now, in 1983, Harold & Sarah & Sam & Karen & Michael & Meg & Nick–classmates all from the University of Michigan at the end of our last interesting decade–have come to the funeral of a friend who has slashed his wrists. Alex was a charismatic prodigy of science and friendship and progressive hell raising who opted out of academe to try social work, then manual labor, then suicide. He is presented as a victim of terminal decompression from the orbital flight of his college years: a worst-case scenario his friends must ponder, probing themselves for symptoms of the disease.

I suppose what I find interesting is that the problem is immediately obvious but completely unacknowledged: these people have to purpose in life. Without a purpose one thing is as good as the next and suicide no worse an option than living. It takes exceedingly little thinking to recognize this and if it’s too hard on one’s own there’s always Nietzsche available for a few dollars at the local bookstore (back then, when there were local bookstores).

Yet, despite the problem they’re grappling with being exceedingly simple and the sort of thing any thirteen year old should be able to figure out in half an afternoon—the world is not enough—it’s presented as some sort of inexplicable mystery and they’re deep for confronting minor aspects of it.

Given that this movie seems to have been completely forgotten, I’m probably making too much of it. Still, in the early 1980s enough people watched it that it made $56M on an $8M budget. Not earth shattering but it tapped into something.

Also curious is that it reminds me a bit of The Breakfast Club (which came out in 1985). That movie was about teenagers. In some sense, I get the feeling that The Big Chill was, too. Hippies from the 1960s (a subset of baby boomers, it must be remembered) never really grew up. If you look at the people who used to be hippies, many of them still haven’t. (This is a whole topic unto itself, but I think it actually says far more about how “the greatest generation” raised the relevant baby boomers than it says about those baby boomers.)

Captain Power And the Soldiers of the Future

In one of those curious tangents one comes across when looking up something, I discovered the existence of the 1987 TV show Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. It was a grimdark dystopian live action science fiction show (with then-cutting-edge-now-horribly-dated CGI) with adult themes funded by Mattel in order to sell a line of tie-in toys to children.

(I found it when reading about the costume design for the Borg from Star Trek. There seems to have been some re-use of costume elements from the costume for the villain, Lord Dread, possibly by people who had worked on both.)

YouTube has the first episode:

The show only lasted one season. Apparently, while initial sales of the toys were strong, sales declined quickly. There were action figures, of course, but also a hand-held space ship that you could point at the TV and “shoot” at characters on the screen to score points (much like the Nintendo “light gun” that one could use to play duck hunt). The TV could also shoot back and you had to dodge—if your ship was “hit” too much, your pilot would be ejected, indicating you lost. It sounds like a cool toy, for its day, but it cost $40 in 1987, which an inflation calculator says is about equivalent to $92 in the year of our Lord 2021. That’s a lot of money for a toy that you mostly use when watching a particular TV show (see update below for other ways to use the toy). To put it into perspective, for $99 (1987 dollars) you could get a Nintendo Entertainment System bundled with Super Mario Bros. Two and a half times the money, it’s true, but a much better investment. Since both are probably birthday or Christmas presents, rather than something the kid buys with his allowance or lemonade stand money, I suspect parents were far more likely to go for the nintendo, or to buy the light gun and duck hunt if they already had one.

It’s also not surprising that the show was not very popular. About the only thing that it had in common with kids shows was that it had a fair amount of shooting and explosions. You can’t take a show aimed at adults and make it for children by adding explosions, though, anymore than you can turn a movie like The Predator into a chick flick by giving one of the marines a girlfriend and adding thirty seconds where they talk about their feelings before they’re killed.

It also doesn’t work to make an action show for adults, give it a kids show title, and show it on Saturday mornings between cartoons which actually are for kids. Even if it’s a decent action show for adults.

There really does seem like there was any way that this show could have worked. Even if they somehow managed to create a hit it wouldn’t make any sense for the toy company that was funding it. Adults just don’t buy toys to shoot their television with, especially not in 1987. In some ways I think that all of the creatives involved with the show really just wanted to work on Babylon 5, which many of them, including head writer J. Michael Straczynski, did at the earliest opportunity. (Babylon 5 first aired in 1994.)

I don’t know that this show was influential in any way other than probably contributing to the Borg costumes (Q Who aired in 1989 and it seems that some of the same costume people worked on both, also, just look at the costume for Lord Dread).

UPDATE: A reader who enjoyed the show as a kid mentioned that the space ship toy came with an animated VHS tape so you could use it whenever you wanted, not just when the show was airing. Also, the ships could shoot at each other so you could play a form of laser tag with them. This does make them a better value than they initially sound, though I don’t think it significantly changes the outcome of the value calculation parents were likely to make and, in fact, did make (in the aggregate).