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Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

dead planet

always sure of life on Mars
reading into lines carved into red face
messages of friendliness and welcome
tracing them, a wavering pen,
the intelligence that made them
flooding, mimesis, through me,
gladly constructed
the capsule
that would
take me
there

and
bang
oh
how
it
flew

now, amid the sands
water’s distant memory a noise in the wind
life but shadows cast by Phobos and Deimos
slowly dry to become sand, become wind,
pondering the mistake
wondering who made it
and wondering why

wandering sands
digging fresh canals
scratching red death
fading like those
whose long abandoned craft
litter the sand
about mine

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Fanboy

He is one of the Clueless, an ancient family of mysteriously inept entities that think they rule the multiverse. When his sister Futility goes missing during her summer project to square the circles of hell, the distraught Fanboy assembles an imaginary team of his greatest heroes, and leads this Fellowship on the quest to try and save Futility from, like, whatever.

Fanboy starts the quest in a bar, planning to make friends and thus collect information about Futility. Things seem to be going comparatively well, until Fanboy’s younger twin brothers Fart and Fondle show up unexpectedly, and the evening quickly deteriorates.

The following morning, when Fanboy wakes up in an unfamiliar apartment clearly belonging to a female, he knows he really is in trouble. Then strange noises are coming from the kitchen.

And so it begins.

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Cheap Dreams

Inception blatantly invites comparisons. The zero-g simulation and the center room of the dream heist evoke the mystery of 2001, the cityscape of Limbo wants to look like Brazil, and the gimmicky plot screams “this is what Matrix 2 and 3 should have been like”. Failed ambition.

If I were in want of stunning visuals lacking in emotional and logical depth, Avatar would be a much better fit than this and do the job much more nicely and honestly, without leaving the tinny taste of being taken for a sucker in the mouth. For all its technical glory, Inception makes almost no sense as story or metaphor, and it’s sad to imagine the movie this could have been, in the hands of a writer/director taking the mind seriously. Diving down into somebodies subconscious ought to be unsettling and intense, but instead there is just stuff being blown up and secret agents shooting blanks: mind as submachine gun. Yawn.

Additionally, the only way Inception can keep you from falling through the cracks in the plot is by keeping everything in frenzied motion. But once the action stops, everything crumbles. The crumbling is pretty to look at, no doubt, but what remains in the end is still only technorubble.

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

What is that shit?

Hard to say what the source of the particular power of Rebney’s rant is. Somehow, the mixture of frustrated anger and self deprecation, contrasting with the mindless task of praising a Winnebago – itself the perfect image of a thwarted desire to escape, of resistance domesticated – rises above the heat, the flies and the adversities of the daily grind, and manages to inspire.

Rebney’s story, which the documentary Winnebago Man set out to find and tell, is one of media transition, first from the austere news machine of the middle of the 20th century into the entertainment complex of its end, then on into the fragmented world of me-media. Rebney, a veteran of CBS, does Winnebago spots to escape the Stahlbad of entertainment, and then finds himself being the viral harbinger of the next wave, before the term viral has even been coined. He finally understands that he is not used as a distraction, when he first faces his audience in San Francisco, in a sequence that is both tense and moving.

The movie’s premiere last Friday was supported by the presence of Michael Moore and Jeff Garlin, who threw the audience a bone by claiming that Curb Your Enthusiasm’s very concept was inspired by Rebney’s outbreaks. But the biggest thrill was seeing the man himself, pushing 80, kneeling down in the hope for a publishing deal, increasing the punishment on Bush Jr. from a hot poker up his ass to “being hanged like Goering”, flirting with the ladies, and just being a complete fucking delight.

A little earlier, during the movie, my mood was dampened a little, when Rebney and Steinbauer walk into Golden Gate park, and a sudden wave of melancholy sadness washed over me: I used to live there. I don’t any more. In fact, most of the things I love are in the past and far away. I’m old. Boo hoo. But then that made me angry, and I gave myself a clue from Jack’s book: I don’t want any more sentimental bullshit anytime during this post, from anyone, and that includes me.

There. Now go, see the movie.

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

answered

the matter is
what the mind
is fighting
against

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

my thoughts exactly

the thoughts
I think I think
are really just
thoughts thought
by the cat
thought
the cat

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Shermer’s Folly

Figure 6: Some nonsense (not to scale)This plot is from chapter 4 of Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things”, and it’s quite amusing.

The section of the book this is from concerns ESP experiments. Participants in these experiments have to predict one of five symbols on an unseen card, and the plot is meant to show the chance of a participant getting x of the answers right when being asked 25 times. Predictably, getting 5 right out of 25 is the most likely, but higher numbers of hits are entirely expected, and their occurence alone does not mean much. Shermer stops with the negative statement – high performance doesn’t mean ESP – and doesn’t spell out what a correct analysis would look like – not looking at a single result, but comparing a distribution of results to that predicted from chance – but this unfortunate focus on gleeful debunking rather than the education of the reader isn’t my concern. It’s the plot itself. Look at it.

Its x axis runs from -2.5 to 12.5. Bars of unit width indicate the probabilities of getting a certain number of answers right, and a Gaussian curve (Shermer calls it a Bell curve in the legend, and a normal distribution in the chapter text) to fit the bar data. Pretty much all of this is awful. First of all, fractions of x make no sense. The number of correct answers can only be a whole number, therefore probabilities should be plotted for whole numbers alone. If you want to use bars, make them discontinuous to emphasize their discrete character. Additionally, both the Gaussian and the leftmost bar extend into negative values, which also do not make sense for x. Negative values shouldn’t be on this plot at all. All this could be simply due to sloppy graphical design, of course, but the Gaussian extending into the negative is in fact a hint of the biggest error here: this distribution is not a normal distribution at all. To show a Gaussian here is a blatant statistical and conceptual error.

Random answering in a task like this in fact follows a binomial distribution. Interestingly, the numbers on the bars are from the correct binomial (except for 0.0238, which should have read 0.0236), meaning that whoever prepared the data knew what they were doing. But Shermer, fitting a Bell curve to them, clearly does not. You can even see it’s a bad fit. The bars don’t look symmetrical at all. Furthermore, the claim in the legend that “in a group of 25 several scores [above 7] will always occur purely by chance” is also quite false. He himself provides the probability for scoring below 8, which is 89.1%. Thus, in a group of 25, the chance of everybody scoring below 8 is 89.9% to the 25th power, or 5.56%. In other words, roughly one in eighteen such groups will have nobody scoring 8 or higher. There are lies, damn lies, and statistics done by fools.

Claims of the paranormal are emotionally and spiritually appealing, and it is important to counter them both on their own grounds by providing equally appealing stories about the world, and also by clearly showing where their purported proofs are untenable. Michael Shermer is the founder of the Skeptics Society, who claims this as their task, and he adopts a smug tone of intellectual superiority over the misled and uneducated foolish masses throughout this book. Yet apparently he doesn’t know what he’s talking about himself. He even told me so at the end of his foreword: “why should [you] believe anything [I] say? […] You shouldn’t.”

In the end, the whole thing is probably just a clever lesson in scepticisim. Or is it?

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

on scapegoating

There is something odd, I feel, about the outrage over BP’s role in the current monstrosity unfolding in the gulf, and it’s this: in a situation where enormous profits were to be made by retrieving a natural resource and selling it back to the public who rightfully ought to own it, and where there is no real oversight or control of the way this business is conducted and risks are handled, what in the world did we expect this company to do? It’s all good and well to get irate about these people, for being disgustingly disconnected rich fools, but to punish them because they cut corners and neglected enormous risks, is a bit like leaving a little kid alone in a candy store and then punishing him for taking candy and breaking the jar. Yes, it’s wrong, but how could they possibly not have done it? And who in his right mind leaves a kid alone in a candy store?

The basic capitalist assumption, that providing monetary incentives will make companies do what’s best for everybody, is probably fundamentally flawed, but it very clearly is in areas where companies can reap profits while deferring risks and costs to the general public, or where there is an intrinsic conflict of interest. Take the pharmaceutical industry, which is selling products meant to cure people, and who has a clear interest in both new treatable conditions being invented, and ambiguous ones being solidified (cholesterol, anyone? Or do you have too much ADHD to focus on it?) and existing ones not being eradicated or improved. They are reaping astronomical profits on this flawed process through a monopoly enforced by our own governments, claiming that they need such protection in order to be able to operate and innovate in the public good. This from one of the most profitable industries on the planet. It completely baffles me that this is allowed to continue basically unchallenged. But I digress.

This disaster is at it’s heart not a failure of BP, for all the ways BP has failed, as much as it is a failure of a system of letting third parties with particular interests be responsible for the general and public good. Add the inability of humans to properly assess and weigh risks and to handle large numbers, especially under personal incentives, and you get an explosive mix, where corporation executives are asked to do two opposing and very disparate things – maximizing profit and minimizing a detrimental impact that is very difficult to properly assess, with asymmetrical payouts. Like in the banking industry, being successful nets you vast personal gains, but failure gets spread over the whole of society and only affects you personally if it is so humongous as to be inconceivable. And even then, you might be fine, as we are seeing in the recent banking debacle’s profit and bonus fallout. Do we truly expect somebody given the chance of vast personal enrichment under a widely distributed risk to not take that chance? Are we, then, the very idiots we must think that person to be?

Yes, we can rail against factory farmers polluting entire watersheds with runoff urine, and BP destroying entire marine ecosystems, for their unconscionable behavior, and there definitely should be punishment fitting the crime. But more importantly, I feel, we should think about the changes necessary to prevent massively powerful and dangerous industries from shitting golden bricks all over the public good, and figure out how to not allow corporations to sell the welfare of others to their own profit.

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

MADDness

Reasons to keep the drinking age at 21: Since the drinking age in New Jersey was raised to 21, the number of young people killed in drunk driving crashes has dropped nearly 78%. Need we say more…

I’ve stared at this claim numerous times, while being carried hither and tither by PATH. In it, MADD, the non-profit that took its name from Alhazred’s infamous Acronomicon (A Complete Reference Of Nerdy Or Maximally Impossibly Convoluted Organization Names) is trying to rally support for their cause, and they’re doing it in a way that makes my number sense go off. To the Mathcave!

First: they don’t tell us what they base their numbers, excuse me, what they base their number on. 78% of what, taken from which source, and calculated how? I realize it’s just a small subway ad, but it does manage to mimic a statistical claim quite well. Which it frankly isn’t. It’s an unfounded and barely even meaningful assertion.

Second, they don’t mention when exactly this raising of the drinking age happened, do they? It happened way back in 1982. In the 28 years since, the number of fatal accidents overall might have dropped considerably. Given the safety advances since then, it’s a fair bet it has. If it had dropped by as much as 80%, the number MADD gives us for drunksters would be merely the average drop. The same were true if just the number of young people on the road, or the number of young involved in any kind of crash, had dropped by 80%. In fact, there is a whole host of variables that a claim like this one needs to be controlled against for it to have meaning.

Third, the drop is in “young people killed in drunk driving crashes”. Sounds like that also includes crashes caused by drunk adults. Which are irrelevant to the question of drinking age.

And fourth, how many saved lives do those 78% actually correspond to, and what fraction are they of the total number of young people killed in traffic accidents? If both were small numbers, would the good of the few really outweigh the good of the many here? While this argument assumes there is a net benefit from getting drunk, which itself may seem debatable, there is no foregone conclusion either way. Not allowing people under 21 to drive at all would make their fatalities drop even further, yet I don’t envision that implemented any time soon. The cost would be too high.

Just to be clear: I think drunk driving is irresponsible and stupid at any age, and young people, especially males, are much more likely than the average to do it. They can’t help it, their frontal lobes are hormonal mush. But whether or not raising the drinking age lowers the risk is an empirical question that deserves proper treatment. Mothers, do not mislead us! It makes us SADD (Scientists Against Data Distortion).

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

A story about Fodor

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Says Jerry Fodor, in his review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works. I am fascinated whenever clever people say stupid things, and this certainly looks like a prime specimen. Can Fodor really think that the above constitutes a valid argument of any kind? That stories, if they are useful as mental sandboxes, must be literal mental sandboxes? That rings must be rings, dwarves must be dwarves and immortals must never die? That, in other words, there is a naively naturalistic mapping for everything mentioned in a story to the identical thing in the world, and allegory and metaphor do not even exist, nor usually carry intentional and ofter moral arguments? Surely that would be ludicrous, but just as surely, the above “argument” seems founded on such ludicrosity.

There certainly are interesting things one could learn from this, about how one’s pet theories bias the mind, or how being too immersed in the dreamy Language of Thought will make one ignore reality. It’s called cognitive dissonance and quite a fascinating phenomenon itself. But I think what I’ll take away is not to read book reviews by people I heartily disagree with and listen to Das Rheingold instead. Wagala weia.