Archive for June, 2008

Obligatory Eulogy Post
or, In Which I Find Myself Standing Up For Christian Fundamentalists

So, George Carlin died yesterday of heart failure at the age of 71. The interwebs have been collectively expressing their remorse at how much this sucks.

I think I was born a couple of decades too late to have grown up idolising him as one of my great heroes, and wasn’t really that aware of him in any more than the vaguest terms as “that guy from the Bill And Ted movies” until a few years ago. But the impact he had on comedy, politics, and the acceptability of religious irreverence, was hard to miss even when people weren’t fondly eulogising him all over the blogosphere.

His routine on “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”, as well as getting him arrested for performing it, led directly to a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that established indecency regulation in American broadcasting. That’s pretty awesome.

So it’s sad he’s gone, but I’ll let those who know him and his work far better than I do to pay tribute in more depth. I will comment on one thing that struck me about one of said tributes, though, made over here on ScienceBlogs. This blogger (who I’m not that familiar with, and who seems fairly anonymous) points out that – as is reliably the case whenever someone passes away who was prominently not a member of a particular religion, or who ever said something just a bit too tolerant for some fundamentalists’ liking – there are people discussing the fact that he’s in hell now for not accepting Jesus.

Now, bullshit though this might be, I think ERV and most of the commenters so far are being kinda harsh. When people who devoutly believe that Jesus is the only path to salvation (any of the billion or so of them on the planet) are discussing a late non-Christian, what should they really be saying about it? They could’ve been celebrating, cheering in triumph, revelling at another damned blasphemous sinner being banished from this world and getting his eternal come-uppance – and I imagine somewhere on the internet there are people excitedly doing just that – but these particular nut-jobs aren’t doing anything that worth getting angry about.

(As a brief aside, is anyone else amused by someone on a fundamentalist Christian message board using an animated icon of Hugh Laurie pulling a face, taken from the show House, in their signature? Both the actor and the character in question are quite outspokenly atheistic.)

One of these Rapture-Ready members says:

“Years ago I was a huge Carlin fan. He could be funny. But over the years he got angrier and angrier and I didn’t think he was funny anymore.”

Which actually sums up my own thoughts to a not insignificant degree. He did seem to get pretty cynical and bitter in later years, and not so much with the funny. (Watch either of those two clips and tell me, if either of those routines wasn’t being performed by just some guy ranting on some obscure stage somewhere, you wouldn’t be rolling your eyes and calling him an ass.)

The religious nuts on that board are all expressing sadness at the loss of this soul; the thread starter optimistically opines that maybe he had “a last moment change of heart” and might have been saved. Given the world-view they’re working from, this strikes me as about the least cynical and most compassionate response they could provide.

But some of Carlin’s fellow blasphemers almost seem to be spoiling for a fight. “The cunts always deliver”, in ERV’s words. And maybe I’m overreacting a little, and this was just a tongue-in-cheek excuse for some fun obscenity in Carlin’s honour. But it’s usually quite a challenge to make me take those cunts’ side on any matter. Maybe it’s encouragingly healthy that I can do that once in a while, but still, I feel icky now.

Ah well. Be excellent to each other. And party on dudes.

(He was in the Bill And Ted movies. That’s some win that doesn’t run out.)

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So, because I’m still keeping up the vain pretense of being some kind of semi-regular current affairs blogger, I’m going to fight through the apathy of the weekend to make a cursory nod to this concept and say: Yay California. Same-sex marriages are being legally recognised there, and yet hetero couplings are not suddenly collapsing across the state in reaction to this marriage-destroying act of letting thousands of people get married. (At least, not significantly more often than they were before.) The first couple to get married were two women who have been together since 1953. That’s a few months shy of being as long as my mother’s been alive. I only thank Xenu that they haven’t been allowed to adopt, because I dread to think how any children would’ve turned out who’d been raised in that kind of environment. You know, the kind that can sustain a relationship between two people for fifty-five years.

I don’t have much to say about this. If you support it, then you already know how awesome it is, and have probably read plenty of news reports and blog posts describing the awesomeness far more eloquently than I feel up to. If you don’t, then nothing I say here is likely to be original and earth-shaking enough to persuade you, if you haven’t been swayed up till now by all the reason and logic and basic human compassion. (Mind you, if your politics are so far removed from mine that you don’t support gay marriage, there’s probably very little chance of you reading this blog.)

So yeah. There’s my acerbic social commentary for the day.

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So I saw a headline over someone’s shoulder on the train the other day, and later on grabbed a copy of the paper from a bin to give it a closer look. My initial conclusion was that The Metro sucks, but further consideration seems to reveal that, depressingly, this is just what journalism looks like.

These are the only accounts I could find of this story, and it’s inane credulity from start to finish. The possibility, however remote, that the psychic in question might be using the slightly more mundane tactic of “making shit up” – something with a lot more corroborative evidence to support its existence in the real world – gets no consideration. The oh-so-slim sliver of a chance that, in fact, this guy is being unbelievably irresponsible in claiming a position of authority and knowledge based on no evidence, and then making pronouncements about people in the audience having been molested as children, doesn’t get a look-in.

The level of his involvement is unclear from the slightly differing reports, but it seems he just threw out the idea of someone in the audience having been abused at some inspecific time in the past, and managed to score a scattergun hit. It’s not clear whether he picked the girl out specifically in the first place, or waited to see who responded to the suggestion – “a message… from the grandmother of a woman in the audience” is the phrase The Metro uses, and it could be that he was no more specific than that himself at the time.

But it makes for a much more exciting article by playing him up as the crucial starting point of the chain of events that brought this terrible monster to justice. And don’t get me wrong, it does sound like a scum-bag’s been put away and some good has been done. Again, you can’t really tell from the level of journalism happening here, but it seems like this went through the court process properly, and actual, y’know, evidence was considered before a decision was made, and this guy really had done some horrible things, and wasn’t condemned solely on the second-hand testimony of someone who nobody can see or hear and whose name might begin with D, or maybe M. But still, it annoyed me.

And as Skepchick points out, it could be a lot worse.

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Quick question to anyone who knows me well enough to have heard me talk: Am I really inarticulate? Do you often find yourself wondering why I don’t spit that gobstopper out of my mouth before talking, or whether I’m taking antihistamines to control the swelling in my cheeks that’s turning my attempts at speech into a garbled mess?

Whenever I’m on the phone to someone at work and they ask who I am, because they want to know who to blame when they screw things up, I always seem to have to tell them my name several times before they get it right. And… my name’s James. In the year I was born, it was the most common forename in the country. But apparently it still sounds very exotic and unfamiliar to some people when I say it. “Jess? Jed? Graham?”

Seriously. And I swear, Bola never seems to have any trouble at all.

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Spoilers, but it’ll save you having to see the movie, so you’ll thank me.

I can’t decide whether there are two (or arguably more) distinct reasons why this film sucked, or whether really there was just one major issue that fucked up the whole thing.

One thing I’m sure of is that Night’s philosophy sucks. There is such a stream of vaguely mystical anti-science bullshit that pervades this whole thing, I’m honestly not sure I can tell whether the actual tension and drama were all just as terribly handled, or whether it might have been reasonably gripping had I not been so annoyed at the idiotic preachiness. I’m fairly sure he’s just lame on multiple counts, but when there’s such a correlation in his movies between credibility of philosophical themes, and effectiveness with which the individual scenes draw me in, I can’t be sure that my irritation at one isn’t skewing my feelings on the other. Maybe next time he’ll stop trying to teach us something important, and actually just make an exciting movie. Or maybe he’s totally lost it.

I tend to find Mark Wahlberg pretty watchable, and in theory he could’ve been quite a screen presence throughout this movie too. The trouble is, his character, a science teacher, is used a soap-box for such asinine nonsense that I was provoked to shout my initial review of the film at him minutes into his first scene. (I wasn’t really shouting anything, obviously. I was in a movie theatre, after all. I don’t want to go to the special hell.)

He’s talking to a bored class of kids about how hundreds of thousands of bees are apparently going missing all over the country, leaving no trace, very mysteriously. (This may or may not really be going on, to some extent or other – my policy on doing research is the same as ever.) He asks for some suggestions as to what might have caused this. A few of his students pipe up with ideas about global warming, pollution, or whatever – sensible enough hypotheses to begin thinking about, and he comments briefly on their possible explanatory power, and likely limitations. So far, so good, so passably rigorous science.

Then some dickhead pipes up that the answer might be that it’s “an act of nature, which we’ll never truly understand”. (All my quotes from the movie I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist.) This, Marky Mark declares, is the best answer we’ve heard yet, and it launches him into a spiel about how much we don’t know, and how we will no doubt “find an answer to put in the science books, but it’ll only be a theory”.

Even if the word “theory” did fit the typical creationist definition of “any crazy drunken idea ever postulated”, rather than referring to a solid and reliable model that’s been developed in line with all available evidence and has already withstood a great deal of testing and shown significant predictive power, this would still be bullshit. Obviously it’s true that there are many things we don’t know, possibly orders of magnitude more than what we do know, in every field. This is not something that anyone with a brain is likely to dispute. But there’s a spectrum of ways you can choose to progress from that assumption.

At one end, you have a skeptical outlook on the world, and a scientific method. We observe what we can, try to come up with ideas about what’s happening, see how well those ideas continue to fit what we observe, and so forth. The vast ocean of our ignorance is an exciting prospect, because it means there’s so much to explore, so much we might learn, so much that might surprise us, so much left for us to study and try to understand. This is science, and it rocks.

At the other end, you have M Night Shyamalan. In this case, in any area of study in which we don’t have a complete understanding of all the processes involved (like botany, or evolutionary biology, or, y’know, all of them), the gaps can be filled by any random shit he wants to make up. This is an utter cop-out, and the people who do fill in these gaps with their own pet ideas of what could be possible (because “science doesn’t know everything”) never seem to come up with anything nearly so interesting as reality itself. The supposed awe felt for the universe at this end of the spectrum is so much less sincere, because it’s never really about what could be out there, or what we might learn. It’s about making a point by pushing forward this one particular idea, and defending it by vehemently asserting everyone else’s ignorance.

This is what’s so infuriating about this approach. He takes the utterly fascinating fact that the mysteries of our universe are practically infinite, and right there for us to explore if we put a little creativity and dedication toward it, and instead of actually learning something enchanting and wonderful, he uses it as an excuse to fantasise about whatever “possible” version of reality suits him, and then acts as if he’s being profound and saying something about the real world.

It’s this last bit that’s the real issue, I think. Simple fantasy I don’t have any problem with. Want to make up a story about plants attacking people and the human race getting the shit kicked out of it? Rock on. But when you’re explaining these plants’ ability to detect the presence of humans as a potential threat, release chemicals that cause, with devastating efficacy, absolutely every human in the area to commit suicide, and coordinate a series of attacks across the globe with military precision, don’t tell me that these abilities came from “evolving really fast”, or that nature has powers we can’t possibly hope to understand. I’ll think you’re an idiot with no idea what evolution is and no respect for my intellectual curiosity. Tell me it’s fucking magic, or something. Magic I can get behind, if it’s done right. Far preferable to trying to dress it up as pseudo-science.

There was a lot more to bitch about too, but I think I’m done reliving it now. To end on a lighter note, after I came home from enduring The Happening, I put on a DVD of Unbreakable, to cleanse myself. Now that is how you make a fucking movie. I’m even starting to notice various visual themes and symbolic elements, that had passed me by the first five or six times I saw it. I can’t be mad at the guy for too long when I remember how great that was.

I’m not paying money to see whatever he does next, though.

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This is my major hang-up with being srs blogger, I think. It’s the same reason why reading David Baddiel‘s book is putting me off my stride with writing my own novel, but remembering Kathy Lette spurs me on with great enthusiasm. My confidence does tend to be very easily shaken by other people doing what I’m trying to do, only better than I could ever imagine myself doing it. And often, when I first read a news story worth ranting about, it’s because someone like Scalzi’s already fisked it right proper. One of my highlights:

And that’s why, you see, it won’t be a problem for Bill O’Reilly to refer to Barack Obama as “my nigga” on the next O’Reilly Factor.

I can almost believe it, too. Jesus fucking Christ, Fox News.

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I started writing this entry ages ago, back when the subject was vaguely topical again amongst a few of the ScienceBloggers, but because I still suck at blogging, it’s taken this long to get around to finishing it. But I wanted to put something coherent together about this, because although I’ve made several off-the-cuff attempts to explain it during various conversations before, I’ve never yet organised my own thoughts on the Monty Hall problem into an actual blog post. So, here goes. Fretter ye not: there will be as little actual maths here as possible, although there is a lot of head-bendy number-wrangling to get to grips with in the problem itself, and it is interesting whatever any of you say.

What’s the dealio?

Imagine that you’ve used all your wit and cunning to make it through to the final round of a game show, eliminating the competition mercilessly with your infallible knowledge of pointless trivia and/or ability to press a button really fast. The rewards for your victory so far are numerous and many, but pale in comparison to the grand prize… A very, very shiny thing. Oh, such glorious dreams that might finally be realised this night.

And the path to true delightenment is so very simple. There are three doors. Behind one of them is your shiny thing, garnished with an elegant silk ribbon and all ready to go. Behind each of the other two is a small tuna sandwich, as a rather sad and pathetic consolation prize. You’re not that hungry, but you do like shiny things, so it is vital that your final reserves of tactical brilliance are brought into play now.

Your first task in this deadly game is to pick one of the doors. This door will not be opened, but held provisionally as your first, tentative choice. You’re not committed to anything yet.

Next, I, your charismatic and photogenic host, will show you where one of the sandwiches is to be found, by opening up one of the other two doors. Your initially chosen door will not be opened, and the grand prize will not yet be revealed.

Then, you simply get to open one of the two doors that remain closed; whatever lies behind is yours to keep, whatever remains hidden behind the third door is lost to you forever.

Your choice, of course, is between resolutely and firmly sticking to your convictions and opening the door you chose in the first place, or flip-flopping indecisively and picking the other one. So, which is it to be?

Well, if you let my ever-so-subtly inflammatory language sway you, then bad luck. If you stick with your original choice, you’ve got a 1-in-3 chance of winning. You can double those odds, to a much more friendly 2-in-3 (I know I said there wouldn’t be much maths, but I really hope you’re not struggling already) if you switch your choice, and open the other door.

Curse you, logic!

So, what’s up with that? After that first sandwich is out in the open, it looks like a fairly simple case of 2 doors, 1 cup shiny thing1. Your prize is either behind one door or the other, so it’s just a 50/50 decision, right? It shouldn’t make any difference which of the two doors you pick, because you’ve got a 50% chance of picking the one with the prize in each case, right? So it doesn’t make any difference whether you switch or not… right?

No. Not right. The opposite of right. (There should be a word for that.) Hence the controversy. There’s some great stuff on the wikipedia page about the thousands of people who wrote to Marilyn vos Savant to tell her she was wrong, “including several hundred mathematics professors”, and a great deal of debate still rages on, as evidenced by the discussion page for that article. Some of this active disagreement is to do with important semantic details of how the game works, but a lot of it comes from people thinking they’ve managed to outsmart hordes of mathematicians by saying “but it’s obvious!!

So although you can embugger about with the precise wording and turn it into a different problem with a different solution, the way I’ve phrased it above is the best-known form, as well as probably the most counter-intuitive and perhaps the most interesting. So, let’s see if I can persuade you that you’re wrong in time for tea, when I will proceed to use the Banach–Tarski paradox to prove that my slice of cake is actually equivalent in size to yours, even though it appears to have twice the volume.

… or door number three?

The semantics are important here, and it’s worth thinking about where that “1-in-3” number even comes from. What is it describing? Obviously it relates to the probability of a shiny thing being behind a door, but it’s not strictly true to simply say “The probability of the prize being behind this door is 1-in-3”. Whichever door you happen to be pointing at, the odds of the prize being behind it, actually, are either 100%, or 0%.

Your prize isn’t hovering behind each door in some misty field of quantum indeterminacy like a half-dead cat in a box, and opening the doors doesn’t collapse any wave-functions to change the probabilities. If you open door number 2 and find a sandwich, the odds of that door hiding the prize don’t then suddenly become zero; you never had a hope with that door, let alone a 1-in-3 hope.

Understanding this might help you get around some of the more awkward sloppy thinking that gets in the way of understanding the paradox. What the 1-in-3 odds refer to is the chance of a randomly chosen door turning out to hide the prize. If you’re about to close your eyes and point, you’ll have a 1-in-3 chance of choosing the right one, because if you repeated the experiment numerous times, you’d get it right one time out of every three.

Similarly, when there’s two boxes left, picking one randomly would give you a 1-in-2 chance of winning. But you’re not doing that. You can do better than just make a random guess, because you have more information available to you, so you can improve your odds. I’ve cut a lot of wordy rambling from the first draft of this article at this point, because I think it’d be more helpful to dive in with a semi-practical example.

In a world of pure imagination

Close your eyes and picture a scene. Wait, don’t go drifting off into your own fantasy-land yet, I’ll describe it to you first. It’s okay, this isn’t an excuse for me to divert your attention while I creep up on you and throw a massive spider onto your face and laugh and laugh. It just helps to have a visual for this, and waving an actual deck of cards at you isn’t really an option from where I’m sitting. (After all, not only am I far away, but from my perspective as I type this, you’re reading it in the future. Spooky.)

Anyway, close your eyes if it helps, and imagine I’m waving a deck of cards in your face. We’re going to play a variation on the classic Monty Hall game, I tell you. (Don’t worry about how I got into your home with these cards in the first place. It’s all fine. Just relax. There is no massive spider.) In this variation, there are cards instead of doors, and fifty-two of them instead of three. The ace of spades represents the prize, the others are less rewarding than a Jo Caulfield stand-up show. (Not witty, hardly scathing, but I haven’t mentioned to anyone lately that Jo Caulfield isn’t funny, so it had to be done.)

Much like in the original, you start off by picking one of the cards. You pull it across the table (yes, there’s a table now, don’t strain your imagination) toward you, keeping it face down and unseen, while I hold the other fifty-one cards. I then look through my cards, and throw fifty of them face-up on the table, all of which are not the ace of spades.

So, do you stick with the one you first chose, or would you rather change your mind and have the one I’m left with from my batch of fifty-one?

Hopefully it’s obvious why I hope this answer is obvious. After you made your initial pick, and before I showed you those fifty cards there, it would have been pretty clear that I was shuffling through looking for the ace of spades, so that I could hold that one back and throw the rest of them down. It’s possible that you happened to pick the exact right card on your first try – your odds were 1 in 52, which isn’t really that remote at all – in which case, when I looked through my 51 cards, I would’ve seen that I could’ve chosen any batch of 50 to show you, and kept any one of them behind, and you’d have been better off sticking.

But it’s far more likely that you grabbed something other than the ace of spades the first time, leaving me with that ace along with fifty other cards, so I had no choice but to show you those fifty. If someone else was brought in to the game at this point, and just saw two cards face-down on a table and tried to pick the ace, they could do no better than to guess at random with 50/50 odds. But you know more than they do about these two cards: you know which one of them you picked at random, and which one I (probably) selected carefully. So you know that sticking with your first choice means that you’re relying on 1-in-52 odds, which you can deliberately choose to avoid, giving yourself a 51-in-52 chance of coming out on top.

Probability is weird. Our brains aren’t wired to be able to naturally handle complex and unnatural likelihood analysis. This is meant to be confusing. Even if you get that several reds in a row doesn’t mean that a roulette wheel is “due” a black on the next spin, this stuff is hard. Don’t sweat it.

1 One of the less successful spin-offs, currently with only 103 views on PornoTube.

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