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).

There Was a Casablanca TV Series

Looking up the credits of an actress in a Murder, She Wrote episode, I discovered that there was a Casablanca TV series made in 1983 (she guest starred in an episode). It only ran for five episodes, though the reviews for the DVD on Amazon say that this was a pity because it was actually good.

I’m skeptical.

There is a clip of the title sequence on YouTube, which uses the song As Time Goes By as the theme song for the show:

I’ll admit that it looks better than I expected, though it still doesn’t fill me with confidence. At the time of writing, the DVD is out of production and used copies are going for $80 and up, so I’m not likely to find out for myself what it was really like. This sort of thing is the reason why copyright should have a relatively short initial term (like 20 years) and require active renewal in order to be extended, if extensions are really necessary. It would be really interesting to find out what the heck this show was, and I really doubt that anybody is seeing royalty checks from it these days anyway.

Supposedly this was a prequel show to the movie, focusing on the small, local adventures of Rick. It’s kind of crazy that this got as far as having one episode made, let alone five!

Knight Rider and Driverless Cars

I was recently passed this interesting tweet which embeds a few seconds of video where you can see how the special effects department of the old 1980s TV show Knight Rider pulled off KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand, a super-advanced car, voiced by William Daniels) doing his super-high-tech driverless driving.

This sort of thing happened a lot in special effects, in the days before everything was done with CGI. Special effects people tended to be ruthlessly practical and also to have an excellent sense of exactly what would show up on the televisions of the day. And the televisions of the day were not great.

The actual technical specifications are complex, but, approximately (in America), televisions had about 640×480 pixels, and only drew half of them at any given time (even rows were drawn in one frame, odd rows in the next frame, alternating, so that any given row was drawn 30 times per second). Then when you combined the various aspects of transmission and manufacturing, colors weren’t as precise so the whole image would be fuzzier. You got a decent image, but you didn’t see details. Special effects people knew this very well.

The result is that high-definition blu-ray editions of early special-effects-heavy TV shows actually do something of a disservice to the show. In Knight Rider, you can see the guy driving the car when it was supposedly driving itself. In Star Trek you can see that the rubber texture on the gorn’s suit. These really don’t enhance one’s enjoyment of the show.

I’m not sure what the solution is, or if there even is one. Not that many shows from the age of special effects are really worth watching, these days, so it’s not too big a problem.

One thing that helps a bit when I watch the bluray of Star Trek with my eleven year old son is that we watch it on my computer monitor while we sit on a couch twelve feet away. You can’t see the textures on the gorn suit quite as well on a 28″ monitor when you’re that far away.

Normal People Doing Average Things

From the comedians Tripp and Tyler, we have Regular People Stunts:

It’s funny, but there’s an interesting point to it, too, which is that with a combination of great camera work, good editing, good acting, and intense music, they make very ordinary things look amazing. It’s a lesson about what one sees on television and in movies, and how much of it is really what you’re seeing versus how it’s presented.

The Symbolism of Conspiracy Theories

In his YouTube channel The Symbolic World, Jonathan Pageau has an interesting video about the symbolism of conspiracy theories:

It’s a very interesting video and very much worth watching. He talks about how conspiracy theories have a tendency to be symbolically true (at least from the vantage point of the conspiracy theorists) even though they tend to be factually wacko.

For example, consider the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. Actually executing such a conspiracy in a way that would usefully fool the Russians (who were the primary audience for the moon landing) would be absurdly difficult. This Mitchell & Webb sketch isn’t terribly accurate, but it will suffice for my present purpose, and as a bonus it’s funny:

The idea that the moon landing was faked on a sound stage is ridiculous if you try to think it through, but it’s interesting what it means if you take it symbolically. Doing the moon landing on a sound stage symbolizes that going to the moon was not a real capability. Not in the literal sense that we couldn’t do it, but that we couldn’t keep it up. And, indeed, we couldn’t. Going to the moon was a cold-war flex on the Russians designed to try to win that war without resorting to nuclear weapons. If you want to know why, in 48 years, we haven’t been back to the moon, the real reason is obvious if you just look at a picture of NASA’s budget over time (moon landings took place from 1969-1972):

Going to the moon is extremely expensive. Absent dunking on the Russians, it’s really hard to justify spending a ton of money on it. Following the few years where we did it to dunk on the Russians, we in fact haven’t spent a ton of money on it. So, was the whole “We can go to the moon! We can do anything!” thing a lie? Yes. In a sense, it was.

There are an awful lot of things that we, as a society, could do if we decide to allocate a large fraction of our national resources to it. We could bell every cat to protect the song birds. We could build high speed trains connecting every city with at least ten thousand people in the country. We could give every person their own pet robot elephant, if we wanted to. However, none of these things—and many others—are worth the trouble. There is some technical sense in which we could do these things, but we can’t do them in the very practical sense that we won’t do them. We don’t want to do them. We might airily daydream that they would be nice. Especially the robot elephants. But when it comes to the actual things rather than merely a passing thought about them—we don’t want them if we’d have to actually do them in order to get them.

And so it is with going to the moon. It is possible that in another decade or two SpaceX and its competitors will have brought down the cost of massive rockets enough that someone will consider the few hundred million dollars it will probably cost worth it. If so, it will not really change things; going to the moon was supposed to usher in the space age. Instead, we’ve stayed firmly on the ground because, quite literally, there’s nothing in space and therefore no reason to go there.

In short, there were people who hoped that the moon missions meant that we’d soon be building these:

The conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked basically means that we aren’t. And that part—the practical part—is right. We’re not building a Stanford torus anytime soon.

There’s no earthly reason to.

Video Conference Call Parody

From the same people who brought us Hotel Inn, we have a video conference call in real life:

Amusingly, despite having worked from home for over 10 years, I’ve never done a video call for work. It’s funny because in theory they should be superior, but I can count on a single hand the times I’ve been on a conference call at work and wished that we had video to go with the audio.

One tip I can give about conference calls over the phone for anyone new to them is to invest in a high quality set of headphones that puts sound into both ears. It was way easier to understand people when both ears are hearing the same thing and your brain can process what it hears in the way it’s used to. The quality is important, too, because if there is no distortion on the audio, it’s much easier to tell what people are saying. This applies not just to the fundamental frequency which their vocal cords are producing, but also to the higher frequencies produces by the mouth (called “formants”) which help to distinguish sounds like “ba” “ta” and “da” or “eh” and “ee”. A high quality speakerphone (which can do full duplex) will work, too. Cheap speakerphones are almost worse than nothing, though.

The People That You’ll Meet

I recently met an oddly aggressive person on Twitter (a shock, I know, please pardon me, dear reader, for not having warned you to sit down first) and that made me think of a line from the delightful song, I’ll See Your Six.

The line I’m thinking of is

The things you will run into
the people that you meet
Walking all alone along
a New York City Street.

Twitter can be much like New York City streets. You meet the strangest people there. For much the same reason; just as in NY during the time the song is referring to crime was rampant and largely not prosecuted, there are very few repercussions for being unnecessarily aggressive with people on Twitter. I don’t mean that as a call for greater policing of Twitter, mind. Just an observation on the relationship between inducements and behavior in our fallen world.

And possibly also the observation that, like in the song, it is well to travel armed—as is appropriate to the circumstances—in such places.

Still Gonna Die

I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned this before, but this is a really great song:

There’s a slow intro that takes about 50 seconds before it gets to the song, which is upbeat and fun. The basic theme is it doesn’t matter what you do or how healthy you get, you’re still gonna die. The whole song is fun, but I’ve got two favorite lyrics:

You can search for UFOs, up in the sky.
They might fly you to Mars, where you’re still gonna die.

The other is in reference to the idea, popular for a while, of cheating death by disease by using cryogenics to become frozen and being thawed out at a later date when the disease is finally curable, to be able to live out the rest of one’s natural life then.

You can have yourself frozen, suspended in time.
But when they do thaw you out, hehehe, you’re still gonna die.

My third favorite lyric is probably:

You can get rid of stress, get a lot of rest, get an AIDs test, enroll in Est, move out west, where it’s sunny and dry,
and you’ll live to be 100 but you’re still gonna die.

It’s not a perfect song; the ending, in particular, where the moral they draw is that you should have some fun before you say bye bye, is so much less than it could have been. Still, the song is so well constructed you don’t need them to draw better conclusions for you; that’s easy enough to do for oneself.

The Man Who Gave Up Swimming

If you’ve been around a while, you will probably have encountered some form of this man, who gave up swimming:

There are obvious religious parallels to a certain sort of atheist, but you’ll find this sort of thing in hobbies, in friend groups, even the occasional person who keeps hopping from girlfriend to girlfriend or boyfriend to boyfriend or even marriage to marriage. It’s a pretty universal phenomenon.

The Evolution To a Parody

If you missed it, back in 2012, Gotye released the brilliant song Somebody That I Used To Know:

As a side note, it’s so good I made a video about the ideas in it:

What’s important to the moment, however, is that it was covered by a band called “Walk Off The Earth,” playing in an unusual and resourceful style:

Then, finally, The Key of Awesome parodied this version of it:

I think my favorite line from the parody is “Tony is addicted to a wide array of narcotics. He says they help him write, but we’re a cover band.”

A Great Map Projection Joke

Today’s XKCD on the South America map projection is pretty funny:

The thing is, you have to read the alt text to really get the joke. It is:

The projection does a good job preserving both distance and azimuth, at the cost of really exaggerating how many South Americas there are.

(If you aren’t familiar with the debates over map projections, the fundamental problem a map has is that it’s impossible to correctly project the surface of a sphere onto a flat (uniform) 2-dimensional surface like a piece of paper. Something must be distorted in order to do it; the typical Mercator map greatly exaggerates the size of things at extreme latitudes. Other projections, such as the orange peel projection, tend to get relative sizes more correct at the expense of not being able to measure distances accurately. There are other kinds of map projection with other tradeoffs, too, each with those who strongly favor them while criticizing the rest.)