Serial Murder, and Me

February 23, 2015

Another Odd Couple

I don’t watch TV, an admission that usually meets with startled surprise from people I meet.  “You mean, you don’t have a TV?!”  I do have a TV, or what passes for one these days, i.e., a large flat-screen on which I watch Netflix mostly, generally on DVDs, but sometimes streaming.  I also admit to watching old Hawaii Five-0 shows while I exercise.  But television shows, TV series, no.

I have tried to watch a few series that have a lot of buzz around them:  I made it through three episodes of “Breaking Bad,” tried, Treme, and a few others. I just don’t like the form – it makes me think of The Sims.  Create a world, people it with characters, disturb it, watch what happens…  I prefer to have the sense of watching a story.  Something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a dramatic arc.  So, I tried True Detective, and I like it!  It’s only eight episodes long (half the length of The Prisoner!)  Maybe the fact that it’s written by a novelist helps.  The whole point to a regular series is just to keep you watching, to keep the show going…for years, if you can.

I rather like Rust Cohle, and his worldview.  I’m down with his philosophy of mind, his dismissal of the fantasy of personhood.  Maybe he’s a David Hume fan too?  For some reason, his cogitations get him down, instead of bringing him joy.  Perhaps he needs to read Fontenelle:

“All this immense space which holds our sun and our planets will be merely a small piece of the universe? As many spaces as there are fixed stars? This confounds me — troubles me — terrifies me.”

“And as for me,” I answered, “this puts me at my ease.”

There are two sex-scenes in the first three episodes (as far as I’ve gotten to-date) that set me thinking.  The first shows Marty getting it on with his hottie from the DA’s office.  She’s naked, he’s not.  The second shows him doing the same with his wife; she’s naked, he’s not.  How come women get naked but not men, I asked my wife?  “Sexism,” she replied.  Not acceptable to show naked men on TV.  (I avoid the word “nude,” which I associate with art history.)  “Not that I want to see those guys with their clothes off, anyway,” she said.  Point taken.  But it emphasizes that it’s a man’s world we are seeing on the screen.

And what is the point of these scenes?  The first was to deepen Marty’s character: it was supposed to be a bit of a shock after hearing him go on about family values so much to anyone within hearing, and there was only a brief hint earlier of his philandering.  The second..?  My wife again:  “It was supposed to show that he was a tortured soul.”  To me, he just seems like a guy with a lot of deeply held and self-serving ideas.  But then, I’m partial to the philosopher of the pair who questions all…  And I guess the fact that his deeply held ideas aren’t helping him so much is part of the drama after all.

Overall, a higher order of television than I’m used to!

New Age Prophet

January 4, 2015


I rouse myself from my leisured sloth to comment on the latest pronouncement by the prophet of doom, Naomi Oreskes.  Today the New York Times, that newspaper “of record,” has seen fit to give her a lot of space to continue her attack on the scientific method:  Playing Dumb on Climate Change.

Ms. Oreskes has a Ph.D., and is a professor at Harvard, so she is instantly given credence as a reliable expert, but her work, on which I have commented extensively, is pretty much at the level of hack polemic as far as I am concerned.  From her sylvan altars – doesn’t she just look the part of the serious, concerned, and not to be trifled with Mother Nature? – she makes some of the most outrageous pronouncements to be heard from the academic realm on the topic of global warming.  Okay…let’s see what she said this time.

Her gripe is that scientists are too conservative about the risks of global warming – they should be ringing alarm bells, as she does, warning us of the horrors to come and pushing for the solutions that she supports.  Note that there is significant scientific controversy about many of the claims that Ms. Oreske makes, e.g. that recent extreme weather events are clear evidence of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels, and that her argument is, therefore, neatly circular.  It amounts to this:  scientists who are not screaming about the coming End of Days are too conservative, period!

She goes on to discuss a central notion of the scientific method:

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence.

This is typical of her method.  She doesn’t say that correlations always indicate a clear causal chain, but she doesn’t want to rule it out, either. Who would?  But she wants to make it seem that scientists that won’t jump on the bandwagon of this or that theory simply because they are not more than 95% sure that the correlation is not chance are missing essential risks.  But how do you decide when to jump on, and when not to?  When she thinks you should?  When you’re scared enough to ignore evidence and jump to conclusions?

She’s very worried about Type 2 errors:   being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there.  I would ask, too conservative for whom or what?  Here we are moving from the realm of science to that of policy and politics.  It is certainly true that when one creates policy, the scientific standard is too strict – policy makers cannot always wait for better information.  But then, one must make a case for the preponderance of risk warranting action now, rather than later.  Ms. Oreskes won’t do that:  she simply avoids having to make the case by attacking the scientific method.  Circularity again.

The dilemma that this opinion piece presents us with is obliquely indicated by Ms. Oreskes here:

When applied to evaluating environmental hazards, the fear of gullibility can lead us to understate threats.

Clearly, we can make the converse argument that lack of caution can lead to overestimating threats, wasting money, disrupting lives, ordering medical tests with high likelihood of false-positives…all sorts of bad stuff.  She doesn’t consider this.  When we face this obvious fact, we are back at Square One:  Ms. Oreskes, prove your case with facts!  This is exactly the discussion she seeks to short-circuit.  Because she knows she’s right.  She sees.  She is a Prophet.

Designing Savants: Paley, Volta, and Galvani

May 29, 2014


A few days ago, there was a good piece in the Science Times on the influence of William Paley on Charles Darwin that got me reading Paley’s refutation of the “blind watchmaker” idea.  Paley wrote the best-selling book,  Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) in which he supported his arguments for what is now called “Intelligent Design” by using the analogy of a walker stumbling upon a watch in an open field: Would he not assume that the watch had an “artificer?”  The marvelous forms of the natural world are similarly ‘designed’ by the divine artificer.  The argument was not original with Paley, but he made it more eloquently than ever before.  It even impressed the young Darwin, who was initially destined for a career as a parson.

The author of the column, George Johnson, also has a book out called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments which is a nice read.  I was very pleased with the chapter on Galvani’s experiments with electricity and frog’s legs, and his subsequent disputes with Volta.  Volta was wrong in his objections, but he was also right.  Galvani was mostly right, but a little bit wrong.  After the dust settled, science was advanced, but they got a bit nasty about it.  It’s a great example to explode the crude myth that science advances with regular and logical steps all in the “right” direction.

Here are two shots of Volta’s residence in Belaggio – I can’t imagine any other reason to go there! 🙂 – and an illustration from Galvani’s published experiment.


Here are some excerpts from the beginning of Paley’s work in which he almost seems to state Darwin’s thesis.  (My emphasis and comments added.)

There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance which answer would persuade us to believe that the eye the animal to which it belongs every other animal every plant indeed every organized body which we see are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence that the present world is the relict of that variety millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished being by the defect of their constitution incapable ot preservation or of continuance by generation. Now there is no foundation whatever for this conjecture in any thing which we observe in the works of nature no such experiments are going on at present no such energy operates as that which is here supposed and which should be constantly pushing into existence new varieties of beings Nor are there any appearances to support an opinion that every possible combination of vegetable or animal structure has formerly been tried. [Not a bad argument here.  It isn’t easy to catch natural selection at work!] Multitudes of conformations both of vegetables and animals may be conceived capable of existence and succession which yet do not exist. Perhaps almost as many forms of plants might have been found in the fields as figures of plants can be delineated upon paper A countless variety of animals might have existed which do not exist. Upon the supposition here stated we should see unicorns and mermaids sylphs and centaurs the fancies of painters and the fables of poets realized by examples Or if it be alleged that these may transgress the limits of possible life and propagation we might at least have nations of human beings without nails upon their fingers with more or fewer fingers and toes than ten some with one eye others with one ear with one nostril or without the sense of smelling at all.  All these and a thousand other imaginable varieties might live and propagate We may modify any one species many different ways all consistent with life and with the actions necessary to preservation although affording different degrees of conveniency and enjoyment to the animal And if we carry these modifications through the different species which are known to subsist their number would be incalculable No reason can be given why if these deperdits ever existed they have now disappeared Vet if all possible existences have been tried they must have formed part of the catalogue


But moreover the division of organized substances into animals and vegetables and the distribution and sub distribution of each into genera and species which distribution is not an arbitrary act of the mind but founded in the order which prevails in external nature appear to me to contradict the supposition of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of existences of a variety which rejects all plan. The hypothesis teaches that every possible variety of being hath at one time or other found its way into existence by what cause or in what manner is not said and that those which were badly formed perished but how or why those which survived should be cast as we see that plants and animals are cast into regular classes the hypothesis does not explain or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this phenomenon.  [Here he makes the argument that monkeys typing in a room for eons and producing Shakespeare is absurd, but he adds the part that is usually left out of the jibe.  He acknowledges that an “editor” exists, i.e. the ones that are badly formed die.]

Furthermore a principle of order acting and without choice is negatived by observation that order is not universal it would be if it issued from a constant and necessary principle nor indiscriminate which it would be if it issued from unintelligent principle. Where order is there we find it where order is not i e where if it prevailed it would useless there we do not find it. In the of the eye for we adhere to our in the figure and position of its parts the most exact order is maintained. In the forms of rocks and mountains the lines which bound the coasts of continents and islands in the shape of bays and no order whatever is perceived it would have been superfluous. [At that time, geology was quite popular, so I wonder if this argument went over well.] No purpose would have arisen from rocks and mountains into regular bounding the channel of the ocean by curves or from the map of the resembling a table of diagrams in Euclid’s Elements or Simpson’s Conic Sections.

R.I.P. A Real Brainiac!

May 23, 2014


Gerald M. Edelman, Nobel Laureate and ‘Neural Darwinist,’ Dies at 84

“There isn’t going to be any kind of theory of the brain that doesn’t involve elements of his ideas. The brain is never — never has been or ever will be — in the same state twice, and will never encounter the same environmental cues twice. What’s attractive about his model is that it tries to address that reality.”

From earlier posts:

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of Zen ideas or Edelman’s here, but one remark is cogent: He suggests that consciousness has no causal consequences – it does nothing!

 Edelman makes the important and emphatic point that the brain is not a computer. He is dismissive of artificial intelligence as it is practiced today, although he expects, eventually, that an artificial mind will be created…it just won’t be a machine!

The Breath

January 25, 2014

A precious thing, breath...
From Raw Deal:

I always said I like talking to a sharp guy.  You don’t waste breath.  Precious thing, breath.

When people think of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, they think of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but the soundtrack is suffused with the sound of breathing, which is what I think of.  The breathing in the space suits, in the space pod, as Dave decommissions HAL9000, and in the final scene, as the old man Dave meets his end.

Problem of Theory and Practice

September 17, 2013

In the news today:

An argument over the teachings of the philosopher Immanuel Kant between two men standing in line for beer at an outdoor festival in southern Russia ended when one man shot the other in the head with gun loaded with rubber bullets, the state RIA news agency reported on Monday, citing the police. Though the wound was not critical, the attacker faces up to a decade in prison if convicted on assault charges.

BTW, the images of the bandit are from the final sequence (or the first, in some releases) of The Great Train Robbery (1904), a seminal work in the history of film.  It’s pretty darn good, and you can watch it on Youtube.

Sorry, Dave, but you get an F.

April 5, 2013

There was a report in the paper today about a joint project by MIT and Harvard that has produced new freeware to grade written answers to exams.  This will, they say, free up professors for other tasks.  Hmm…

Years ago, I entered a contest sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the topic of whether or not Ethics and Professionalism could be usefully measured as part of the engineering licensing exam process.  I suggested that an essay be required, not an obvious answer for those in the engineering profession.  I won the contest – I think there was one other entry in the entire USA – and I got a paid trip to Denver to present my essay to an ASCE conference:  pretty fun for a student with no money at the time.  Now that engineering-numeracy model is come back to bite me, or us!

Why yes!  Why shouldn’t a machine be able to grade short essays and written answers?  Everyone with a school-age child knows about ‘rubrics,’ those itemized lists of things to be accomplished and presented in the student’s submission to receive a decent grade on the project.  Perfect for programming. 

I wonder if the machine will grade philosophy exams?  Or creative writing too?  Easily done if we reduce education to teaching for a test, not to mention a test that a machine can grade, but then, we’re halfway there already what with the reign of the SAT and standardized testing in grade school. 

Here we confront the central tension in education:  for most people, in and out of the power elite, it’s simply a production process to enhance economic output, employability, etc. etc.  Okay, nothing wrong with that.  It also helps to solidify the status quo while you’re at it.  But then, there’s always that other  element of education that favors questions, critical thought, play, humor, imagination and wit, and all sorts of  un-measurable things.  And no use pining for the good old days when higher education was restricted to an elite few:  reading accounts of it in memoirs makes clear that there is no need for machines to produce a completely stultifying, mechanical education system!