Thoughts on “The Bionic Woman”

January 25, 2022

After my vacation, I was ready to dive back into watching things from my stack of shows that I hadn’t watched.  Like when I watched “Scream Queens”, I found that I had a short series to watch and wanted to start with it to be able to get through something quickly and so to have accomplished something pretty much right off the bat.  A number of years ago, I was browsing in Best Buy and came across the first two seasons — there are three — of “The Bionic Woman” for a low price, and decided to pick it up.  And then, as is my wont, never watched it.  This was a great opportunity to get through something early in the year and also to finally watch it.

This show was a spin-off from “The Six Million Dollar Man”, and in the pack I have they started from those episodes.  The overall premise of both shows is that the main characters were in a terrible accident and had their lives saved by an experimental procedure to make them bionic (adding mechanical parts to them to keep them alive and functional).  They then use those powers in the service of the U.S. government to stop various threats and perform various missions.  For Jaime Summers — the “bionic woman” — specifically, the plot was that Steve Austen had returned to where he grew up to visit his mother and stepfather and buy and fix up a ranch as a somewhat permanent place for him to life, and ends up meeting his old somewhat high school flame again (Jaime).  She is at least somewhat dating someone else, but he of course falls in love with her and her with him, and so they decide to get married.  While planning the wedding, they of course decide like most people would to build their bond by going skydiving.  Jaime’s parachute fails, and she crashes to the ground, gravely injured, but Steve prevails on the guy who runs the agency — Oscar Goldman — to make her bionic like they did for him.  It succeeds, but soon her system is shown to be rejecting her bionics which is causing her great pain and is damaging her brain.  She then dies.

Before you think, “Huh, that was a short series!”, I guess the character and idea was popular enough that the powers-that-be decided to bring her back, and so retconned that into her appearing to die but being revived afterwards by an experimental procedure by someone else.  She remembers her bionics but has forgotten a lot of things, including her love for and engagement to Steve, and the issue is that while not having her memory is bothering her they worry that if she gets her memory back that part of the brain that was causing problems will cause problems for her again.  And, of course, the doctor who saved her life is a potential love interest for her and a rival for Steve, although they have a very friendly rivalry.  Eventually, she regains her memory and risks having problems again, but a new procedure allows them to tweak her bionics so that she won’t reject them, and so she becomes “The Bionic Woman”.

From the episodes I saw and how the premise worked, “The Bionic Woman” provides a contrast to “The Six Million Dollar Man” by having Jaime be more of an ordinary person who occasionally is pressed into service rather than as someone who is military whose main job is performing these missions.  Jaime works as a teacher on the nearby military base and has a number of scenes where she just acts normally, and throughout the series she is a bit awkward and often uncertain about performing the missions.  Ultimately, her personality tends towards the ordinary girl-next-door pressed into service, which is an interesting take.  The one problem I have with this is that in a number of episodes they go on about how beautiful she is, which works against the personality and the appearance of the character which is more the pretty girl-next-door than an absolute stunner.  Still, for the most part they manage to stick consistently to that personality.

Another issue with the show is that originally I thought that they didn’t have enough content to cover off their runtime, but later concluded that they would drag things out in an attempt to build tension and drama, but they ended up dragging things out too much.  Jaime would be running towards or away from something and they’d flip between the scenes and take an awfully long time to resolve it, which ended up with me thinking that they should just end the scene already.  The reason this happens, I think, is that when you slow things down in a show you run the risk of people remembering that this is a TV show and so break the fourth wall.  So the secret to good drama is to move slowly enough to build tension but not so slowly that we realize that the show will not actually go through with the terrible things that they are hinting could happen in the scene.  Here, the problem was that I found myself thinking that Jaime was obviously going to stop the bomb/escape the bomb/rescue the people in time and so they should just get around to showing that instead of dragging it out.  Thus, it broke the fourth wall and broke the illusion, and so I was treating it as a show — and losing patience with it — instead of being immersed in the show and hoping that she would succeed while in the back of my mind knowing that she was going to succeed.  Here, it was in the front of my mind that she was going to succeed which meant that the purportedly dramatic scenes were not at all tense and dramatic.

Still, the show has its charm.  One of the things that shows from that era have is that they come across as being incredibly genuine.  Even when they are campy or overly dramatic, they don’t present that way but instead as almost an idea of “Please, please just overlook that and go along with us!  It’ll be fun!”.  In the “Six Million Dollar Man” episodes, Lee Majors sings during it and while the songs are terrible — especially the lyrics — it doesn’t come across as all of them thinking that they are wonderful singers and wanting you to experience that along with them but instead as them really thinking that this would make the show more entertaining, even as it fails.  So even when they fail we don’t chastise them for overreaching but instead understand that they were really, really trying, and just couldn’t make it.

And while it’s been oft-parodied, their approach to the special effects for the bionics is actually pretty brilliant.  If you’ve ever seen a parody of something happening in slow-motion with a “du-du-du-du-du-da” sound in the background, you’ve seen that approach, and yeah it can seem awfully corny, but it allowed them to simulate bionic powers in a way that was clear that the powers were being used without having to use a lot of special effects to do it.  Sure, maybe even at the time they could have used better effects, but they didn’t need better special effects.  What they did got across what they needed to get across without adding too much to the show, and adds to the charm of a show that really says that they really want to focus on the fun and not on the incidentals.

So, yes, the show has its charm, and I didn’t hate watching it, and wouldn’t mind watching it again.  But at the same time, I’m not particularly anxious to try to find the third season or to pick up “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  The show was fine, often entertaining, but also often stupid and, as I already said, a bit draggy in places, ruining its own drama.  Given that, if I saw the third season or “The Six Million Dollar Man” I’d probably pick them up and put them in the stack to watch, but won’t be in a hurry to get them or, thus, to rewatch this.  Thus, these will go in the box of shows to maybe rewatch at some point and not in the closet to rewatch on a somewhat regular basis.

Divergent Strategies in “Sale of the Century”

January 24, 2022

One of the best sources of background televised noise for me is a game show, and it’s fortunate that I actually like game shows as well.  So I have two game show networks in my cable package, and one of them runs retro game shows every afternoon, and they recently revamped the shows they show then to include “Sale of the Century” (if you’re looking it up, it’s the later version with Jim Perry).  And in watching it, I noticed two differing strategies that are interesting to compare to each other.

Let me outline how the game show works first.  In the first round, three contestants compete against each other to answer questions that are worthy five dollars — and note that that is indeed dollars, not points — each to see who can get the highest amount of dollars by the end of the game.  At the end of the game, that player will get a chance to buy a progression of prizes for specific (and increasing) dollar amounts.  Now, since gaining five dollars a question over a single game is not likely to leave you with a lot of money — the higher amounts tend to be about a hundred dollars or so — you would think that they wouldn’t be able to buy very much, but the show is called “Sale of the Century” for a reason:  the prices the players pay is incredibly marked down from their real value.  So, for example, you could end up buying a new car for maybe four hundred dollars or so … but there’s no way you can do that in one attempt.  So the player will have the option of buying the most expensive prize that they can afford with what they have won up to that point, or putting that money “in the bank” to carry over to the next game, and if they win again they can combine their winnings to buy a better prize.  If they manage to win enough days and accumulate enough in the bank, they can buy all the prizes and take a cash bonus that starts at about seventy thousand dollars and has one thousand dollars added every time someone doesn’t leave/doesn’t win it, so it can get up into the hundred thousand dollar mark.  But wait, there’s more!  During the game, the host will offer smaller deals, where for a portion of their current winnings they can purchase a prize.  This is only offered to the person in the lead, and the host loves to find ways to encourage them to buy the prize, offering them a few hundred extra dollars.  In one of them there’s also a secret cash bonus that the player can get if they buy it.  The prizes themselves are sometimes pretty nice, and so something that the players might want.

So, the first strategic consideration here is when those extra prizes are offered do you want to take it and risk your position in the game.  The host loves to arrange it so that the game stays close and so won’t impede the player in the lead too much, but does have to increase the cost of the prizes for the later and better prizes.  So the first prize is usually priced at about the price of one question, and it goes up from there.  While it may only be the cost of one question, if a player lost by one question it might not be worth it to take the deal.  On the other hand, if the prize is something you like you might want to take it, especially since if you end up losing the game regardless you’d walk away with nothing.

Which then leads to the second strategic consideration, which is that any money you spend during the game is that much less money you have to buy things at the end of the game if you happen to win.  What this means is that even if you win if you don’t want to take one of the lesser prizes you are extending the number of games you have to win to get the top prize.  The more games you have to play, the more likely it is that you’ll either have a bad game or hit a really tough competitor and lose.  And since the amount of money you can win in one game is rather limited, that means that you could play several games and walk away with a couple of hundred dollars in winnings (there are some other prizes on a Fame Game board as well that you’d probably pick up as well in that many games).  So you don’t want to extend the number of games you play out that far at the risk of putting in a lot of effort for a limited gain.  However, buying the in-game deals can mitigate that, by giving you cash and prizes that value in the thousands so that you’d be guaranteed to walk away with a decent haul, even as it puts you more at risk for not winning the big prize.

I’ve seen two main approaches to this.  Some people — and, admittedly, generally the ones that win the bigger prizes, even though they are still rare — pretty much refuse to buy any of the smaller deals, hoarding their money to reduce the number of games they need to win to get the bigger prizes.  This is much to the chagrin of Jim Perry, who constantly implores them to take one of the deals and offers extra money to get them to take it.  Some people, on the other hand, take a fair amount of those deals and so don’t get too far in winning the biggest prizes, but usually walk away with a decent haul even if they only win one or two games.

The upside to not taking any deals, even if you like the prize, is that you increase your chances of winning and of not being beaten before you can buy one of the big end game prizes.  The downside is that if you happen to get beaten in any of the games you will walk away with very little compared to what you could have had if you buy the deals, and you have to pass on things that you would have liked to hope to get something that you really like.  Being obsessed with getting the big prize can stop you from getting the things you would like right now, but since you aren’t guaranteed getting any of those prizes you may end up passing up the bird in the hand for the two in the bush.

The ironic thing is that the better players would have a better chance of winning the game they are in and winning enough games to get the bigger prizes, but from what I’ve seen so far tend to be the ones who are laser-focused on the big prize.  Thus, the players who end up with enormous victories and so who had plenty of room to buy some things and seem unbeatable are the ones who end up limiting the risk of losing out, while the weaker players tend to buy more things earlier and so walk away with something even if they lose.  Perhaps that only makes sense, as the stronger players are confident that they will get far enough in the game to get something good while the weaker players want to ensure that they walk away with something if they encounter a stronger player.

Still, it’s an interesting dynamic, and an interesting dilemma:  do you want to maximize your chances at the big prizes at the risk of giving up things that you wanted and not winning the big prize, or take the small prizes at the risk of not getting a big prize?  What choice you make may say a lot about what you value.

Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”: Disk 12

January 22, 2022

This is it.  This is the last disk, and so the last seven episodes of the last season.  It’s been a long ride for me and an even longer one for you (since these posts, as they are currently scheduling, are stretching into February), but I hope that reading the posts were more interesting than watching the episodes were for me.

This disk again raised the specter of my, at this point, wanting to find issues with the episodes and so possibly overlooking good episodes because I’m being and feeling overly critical.  There are at least a couple of episodes that I was at least moderately entertained while watching, which meant that I wasn’t distracted and wishing that the episode was over, and yet I still wouldn’t have called the episode a good one.  But in pondering it, I think the thoughts I have on the show are really still valid.  They manage to get a number of recognizable names, and so the performances tend to be fairly good.  The writing itself isn’t bad, so the dialogue in the better episodes mostly works, and again in the episodes that most vex me the pacing is pretty good (although, again, it’s hard to fail at that in a half-hour show).  But ultimately, it’s the stories that let me down, and leave me feeling disappointed and unsatisfied.  The episodes that I wonder about are the precise episodes where the acting and writing are good and, often, that the idea has promise but how the story works out just falls flat for me.

Onto the final episodes!

The first episode is “The Cutty Black Sow”, where right before Hallowe’en the great-grandmother of the family is dying, and as she is dying she relates a Scottish folktale about the Cutty Black Sow that comes and steals the souls of people if they don’t perform a certain ritual on Hallowe’en to the young son of the family.  He researches it and thinks that this is all real, and prepares to perform the ritual.  His parents are out at the funeral home and so he and his younger sister — who looks older, to tell you the truth — perform the ritual which involves putting stones marked with the names of the people in the family in the fire.  He then takes his sister trick-or-treating, and when they return one of the stones has been tossed out of the fire, which is the sign that the Cutty Black Sow will take that soul, which freaks him out.  A number of scary things happen over the night, but at the end right about midnight his father comes in to console him and tell him that he is now safe … but then when he steps into the light it turns out to be the Cutty Black Sow who presumably takes the boy’s soul.

Episodes with young children tend to be the better ones, and again this one gets a good performance from the kids (although the sister is a bit annoying as she seems unreasonably obsessed with trick-or-treating right after her great-grandmother died).  But the story is the only thing it has, and it’s nonsensical.  There’s no indication that she performed this ritual before this — surely if she was doing it every year someone would have known about it — and no one’s soul was lost.  There’s also no reason why, all of a sudden, his soul is at risk.  It also makes no sense that the Cutty Black Sow would take the form of the father, and so it at first implied that there might have been a twist where the father’s name looked like the son’s name from a different angle and so the Cutty Black Sow was really going to take the father’s soul, but that’s not what they do.  Also — and this is a minor one but it bugged me throughout the episode — the Cutty Black Sow takes souls.  There’s no indication that it kills people, and that’s all that it is implied, at least, happens to the boy.  There are so many better plots you can do here — starting from the boy trying to save the great-grandmother’s soul to again a mistake over which soul is taken to it being a pure physical threat — that it’s really disappointing that this confusing mess is what they came up with.

The second episode is “Do Not Open This Box”, where a henpecked elderly man who is an inventor and fixer of junk receives a box in the mail that says “Do not open this box” on it, and so he puts it aside and goes on with his life.  His wife comes down to continue berating him as she had been doing from upstairs the whole time, and eventually finds the box and tries to open it, and it turns out that it is empty.  Soon after, a man comes to the door asking for the box and noting that he needs it back, unopened.  The inventor would give it back, but his wife smells opportunity and says that they don’t know where it is right now but if the man pays them they might be able to find it.  She keeps trying to get more and more from the man, but the man notes that he needs to have it back by Friday or else it’s useless.  She tries to call his bluff, and he takes away all the magically created things he gave them, like furs, jewels, and a redo of rooms in the upstairs.  She then gives him the box back and asks him to restore what he’d given them, but he notes that the box has been opened and refuses, and also says that it held a human soul and so one of them must give up their soul to pay him back for the loss.  When he comes back, the woman tries to get her husband to kill the man, but the inventor refuses, so she stabs him herself only to find that the man is really some kind of devil who then declares that he was wrong and the mistake wasn’t a delivery of a soul, but was instead a pick-up of a soul … hers.  Later, the inventor uses his invention that keeps everything completely closed to seal the box permanently, which the devil appreciates, and earlier when the wife was asking for things the inventor said that the only thing he wanted was for his invention to be useful for someone.  After that, the woman the wife considered her main social rival arrives with a devil’s food cake and finds the basement and inventions interesting, which implies that the two of them will get along a lot better and form a connection the same day the wife either dies or disappears.

The wife is really annoying, and while that was intentional since she does most of the talking that makes the episode hard to watch.  She’s also an idiot as she ignores the time deadline which had to be the only reason the delivery man was willing to pay them a lot to get the box back.  Also, the only introduction we have to the other elderly woman is the wife’s discussions about competing with her, which is usually code for the two of them being catty rivals, and so it’s a bit disconcerting to have her be nicer, even if it is consistent with the wife’s personality.  I also find the elderly man a bit too cavalier about her death and her soul being taken by the devil, especially since he’s supposed to be the nice guy in the story.  So, again, ultimately a disappointing episode from an interesting idea, about the box you shouldn’t open and what might be inside.

The third episode is “Family Reunion”, where a man is keeping his son locked in a room because he’s a werewolf while his wife desperately tries to find him.  She tracks them down and calls in Social Services to help, but the man still refuses to let the son out and chases them away with a gun.  They then go to the police who plan on serving notice, and the two of them go there at night to pick up the son for some reason.  The police aren’t there, but when they get inside the room the son changes into a werewolf and attacks the worker, and when the father comes back to save her it turns out that the mother was also a werewolf — earlier it was stated that they were both attacked while in Ireland — and she seemingly kills both the worker and the father, and then has a loving reunion with her son.

That she was also a werewolf was pretty obvious, even as it was also obvious that the father didn’t know that.  Also, most of the story talks about how brutal werewolves are and talks about them killing people, and the son talks about starting to enjoy the primal urges, but the episode ends with both brutal murders and then being a loving mother and son.  This is an interesting idea, but it should have been followed through with a bit more, or else the brutality should have been toned down and the son should have at least started to believe that being a werewolf wasn’t as much of a curse as the father believed.  As it is, we don’t really want to see the two of them let loose on the world to do the killing that they seemingly have been doing, and so can’t be happy about the
“happy ending”, but wouldn’t find it disturbing either since it’s perfectly reasonable that they’d still love each other as werewolves.

The fourth episode is “Going Native”, which involves a woman who talks from the beginning as if she is an alien saying that she should never have gone to some kind of therapy group because the fact that she isn’t as emotional as humans means that they can figure out that she isn’t right, putting her mission at risk.  As things progress, she starts to explore emotions a bit more, and ends up having sex with one man and then a date and sex with a philandering man from the group.  When she discovers that he’s having sex with another woman from group — that he said he was done with — she attacks the woman and then in the next group session rants about how she can’t go home now because she has the emotions of humans and so has to stay here.

The idea isn’t a bad one, but is too big for a half-hour episode.  We needed a much slower progression of emotions to make this work.  Also, the ranting at the end is problematic, as it’s more angry.  We really needed her to be accepting of it at the end, showing that she has really changed.  It’s an interesting twist to stories like that which normally end with them being happy at having what they were missing, but we would have needed to understand her alien species more to really get that, and again there just isn’t enough time to do that in a half-hour episode.

The fifth episode is “Hush”, where a woman whose husband is an inventor and is out of town hires a teenage girl to babysit her son who has coughing fits but always recovers.  The son shows her a number of inventions including one that will seek out and shut down anything that makes noise, but is controlled by a remote control.  As things progress, the boy leaves the room to talk to the girl and accidentally turns the machine on, and it then shuts down the remote control, which is the only way to shut it down.  It then starts trying to shut down everything that makes noise, including the two of them.  They dodge it and distract it and do all sorts of things, while it shuts down all sorts of things including the phone, a parrot, a dog, and the mother when she rushes home because she couldn’t reach them on the phone.  The girl finally shuts it down by stabbing it in a place that has it make noise, and so it shuts itself down.

There have been a lot of movies and TV shows that at least had episodes that required people to stay quiet or made them be quiet (like “Hush” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“) because having to make no noise is indeed tension-building and scary.  However, here the monster looks like a vacuum cleaner, kills humans by clamping the hose over their mouth and nose which it seems like it would be easy to dodge, and the two leads aren’t all that quiet so the tension is lost.  Also, it really does look like taking a baseball bat to it would deal with it well-enough and be quiet enough to avoid at least immediate retribution.  So it’s an episode about being quiet where the threat is ridiculous and no one really stays quiet.  The performances and pacing are good, but the episode itself and its story aren’t.

The sixth episode is “Barter”, which features a family that is an obvious parody of “I Love Lucy”, with “Nicky”, “Ruthie”, and “Little Nicky” made up to look like the characters from that show.  The wife wants to win a household tips contest, and the boy’s drum playing is distracting her.  A strange man — who is clearly an alien — shows up wanting ammonia, and wanting to trade with her for it, so he trades her a device that can turn people and things off and on so that she can turn the boy’s practicing off while she does her work.  Of course, when she shows it to her husband and tries to turn it off it breaks, so she can’t.  They lure the man back with more ammonia, and he offers to trade them the cure if they let the boy come with him for the next three years.  They take the device instead, but it only turns him back on but won’t let him stop.  They eventually let the boy go with the man for his three year mission to Earth, and the two fade out of sight.

This is clearly meant to be a comedy episode, but other than the “I Love Lucy” references it’s not all that funny.  The ending where the boy has to go with the alien is also a bit disturbing for a comedic episode.  But because of the comedic elements we don’t find out anything about the alien and so to understand what he wants, or if he’s hostile or not trustworthy or trustworthy or whatever.  It raises too many questions to be a simple comedy, but focuses too much on the comedy to work as any sort of serious episode.

The seventh and very last episode is “Basher Malone, which features a wrestler who has his mother at ringside who gives cookies and milk and things like that to everyone.  The wrestler has a hard match against the wrestler of a shady promoter, but wins in the end when his mother gives him a cookie.  The promoter then gets a call from his “boss” and demands a better wrestler, and challenges the wrestler to a big match, where if the promoter’s wrestler wins the wrestler — named “Basher Malone” — has to retire, but if Basher Malone wins then the promoter will get out of the business.  It is also revealed that the promoter is an agent for the devil who was trying to get kids to want to emulate the nasty wrestler’s he’s promoted, but Basher Malone is a wrestler precisely to be a good influence for kids and so is ruining that.  The wrestler that the promoter gets is one whose weight goes up the more sinful his opponent is.  So when Basher Malone is too prideful and ignores his mother, he loses, but when he is humble and acknowledges his mother, he wins.  At the end, the promoter is trying to get the mother’s interference out of the picture — the evil wrestler had a sexy woman at ringside who tried to interfere but was stopped by the mother — and wants to toss her purse into a portal to Hell (and possibly the mother as well) — and since he’s threatening the mother Basher Malone regains all his virtue and goes to rescue his mother, which makes the evil wrestler have no weight.  He still tries to jump at Basher Malone, but he gets out of the way and the evil wrestler ends up attacking the promoter, which rockets his weight through the roof and ends up with both of them going through the portal to Hell.  Basher Malone and his mother then go out to dinner to celebrate.

This could have worked as a Virtue Horror story, but the sinning is too contrived to work for that.  It also could have worked as a parody of wrestling tropes — with faces and heels — but it doesn’t really make that obvious either.  The pacing and performances are fairly good, but while the ending fits the story overall is a bit underwhelming.  So it’s a perfect ending to the series, basically an interesting idea whose overall execution of the story disappoints.

I’ll make one more post summarizing the whole thing, and then I’ll be able to move on from this.

Illusionism as the default theory of consciousness

January 21, 2022

As I’ve already noted, Tom asked me in a comment to look at this post by Richard Carrier on what it means to say that consciousness is an illusion.  I’m going to do that, but first I want to talk about this paper by Daniel C. Dennett that Carrier references that is arguing that the default theory of consciousness should be illusionism about it, and in fact the title says that it’s the obvious default theory.  As it happens, I had a long discussion on Jonathan MS Pearce’s blog with a commenter called im-skeptical where in the midst of that long discussion I also talked about the issues with calling consciousness an illusion, and so I’ll repeat some of those arguments here.

Anyway, Dennett’s main argument centers around an analogy with stage magicians.  With them, they do a lot of things that look strange and impressive, but ultimately they are all tricks and at least currently we automatically accept that they are performing illusions and are tricking us into thinking that things are not the way they really are.  So the woman, for example, is not really sawed in half and stuck back together.  There’s a trick that the magician forms to make us think that that’s the way things are, but it isn’t.  The same thing, then, not only can but should be applied to consciousness:  we should think that what phenomenality is telling us about what consciousness is all an illusion, and moreover that should be the default position that anyone takes wrt consciousness.  As Dennett says:

In short, when it comes to stage magic we assume, until positively shown otherwise, that the effects are achieved by some hard-to-imagine concoction of everyday physical causes and effects. Here is where anybody, philosopher or scientist or visionary, is apt to suffer a failure of imagination and mistake it for an insight into necessity. As the noted illusionist Jamy Ian Swiss has said, ‘No one would ever think that we would ever work this hard to fool you. That’s a secret, and a method of magic’ (2007, the e.g.conference, videos/how-magic-works). This is not just an interesting observation. It draws attention to a fact that puts all philosophers on notice: nobody would, or should, take seriously a would-be explainer of stage magic who declared that it was just undeniably, intuitively obvious that no possible sequence of ordinary physical events could account for the feat just observed. We philosophical illusionists say that before you run off half cocked with theories about consciousness as one sort or another of ‘real magic’, you should try to explain it all as an illusion engendered by nature.

Now, the first problem here is that in order to adopt an illusionist approach, what you have to accept first is that our phenomenal view of consciousness — which, incidentally, is the only direct view we have to even think this “consciousness” thing actually exists — when taken at face value really, really seems to indicate that consciousness really is all those things that Dennett doesn’t think it actually is, which means that it’s separate from the brain and immaterial and so on and so forth.  But if our experience of consciousness really seems that way, then how can the default position be that it actually isn’t that way, but only appears to be that way?  I ran into the same sort of discussion with im-skeptical, and used the example of the branch bending in water to argue against that sort of presumption.  If I stick a branch in water and it looks like it bends, someone else observing that could not reasonably insist that because of what we know about sticks and what we know about water it has to be an illusion, and so the person who says that it is doing exactly what it looks like it is doing must prove that it’s actually doing that or else we assume that it’s an illusion with an explanation to be provided later.  At a minimum, this runs the risk of, well, doing what a lot of naturalists do and effectively making it impossible to ever prove that the branch bends in water, because any empirical evidence that we could muster towards showing that is dismissed on the basis that the branch simply can’t bend in water and so any observations must be considered illusory.  But even if the opponent does not go that far, it seems very odd to place the burden of proof on the person who is saying that things are really as they appear without providing sufficient evidence that it is indeed an illusion and so not what it looks like.  Surely before we consider something an illusion we would want to have an explanation for why it looks the way it does even though things aren’t that way, or at least have some sort of strong contradictory evidence for it being the way it appears.  For the branch, we can test it by creating a case where, say, if it bent it would touch something that it wouldn’t if it didn’t bend, and that would be sufficient to show that the branch does not actually bend in water.  And, of course, we have fill theories of optics to show that it isn’t the branch that bends, but the light that bends, which is why it looks like it bends even though it doesn’t.

When we apply that example to Dennett’s argument, it can make the situation look better for Dennett than it really is.  Someone could argue that we know the properties of branches and we know the properties of water and so today if someone sees a branch bend in water we could argue that such a thing is impossible based on the detailed scientific information we have for those things and so the most reasonable explanation is that it indeed really is an illusion.  While I’d disagree that we could assume that — since science has to be open to revision by empirical evidence and so really would have to take this new evidence seriously, more seriously than it could by Dennett’s argument — this isn’t an unreasonable argument.  But this is not the case for consciousness.  We don’t have fully fleshed out theories about the brain and how it produces consciousness to appeal to so that we can consider holding to those theories the default and treat violations of those theories as dubious events that we probably could explain away.  What we have are loose correlations between brain states and phenomenal states, and an argument that so far all the things that we know have phenomenal states and so even rudimentary consciousness have brains.  That’s nowhere near enough to make the brain state and naturalist/materialist model the default, given that a) all immaterialists who think that consciousness is not epiphenomenal will accept those brain correlations and b) to be an illusionist Dennett already has to accept that the primary — if arguably not the best, as Dennett would counter — evidence we have for consciousness really indicates that the naturalist/materialist theory doesn’t work.

The reason we can accept, by default, that a stage magician is tricking us instead of performing a “real” illusion is because we have proven that there is indeed a trick to all of those and that those tricks obviously get performed in those contexts.  We therefore are not assuming that stage magician tricks are illusions by default, but are instead making a reasoned conclusion that they are based on the context we have and all the investigations we’ve done we have pretty solid evidence that that is what they actually are.  The same thing applies to branches bending in water:  we did the work and the illusionists manage to indeed meet the burden of proof and show that that was indeed an illusion.  Illusionists about consciousness are nowhere near being able to do that yet.

So when Dennett says this:

Illusionism, I am saying, should not be seen as a lame attempt to deny the obvious, but as the leading contender, the default view that should be assumed true until proven otherwise. (I grant that my whimsical title, ‘Quining Qualia’, lent unintended support to the perception that illusionism is a desperate and incredible dodge, and for that little joke I now repent.)

It actually really does seem to be an attempt to dodge the issue by putting the burden of proof on the simple position that says that things really are as they appear.  It may indeed be wrong and those who deny Dennett’s illusionism may end up looking like someone who insists that the woman really was sawed in half, but Dennett hasn’t done enough to show that that’s the case and so no one should be overly concerned that they didn’t adopt his mere asserted case before the evidence had come in supporting it.  How Dennett talks about the failings of the non-illusionist position only highlights that issue:

I put ‘theories’ in scare quotes because most philosophical theories are just definitions defended, with no aspiration to make novel predictions but rather just to assign the phenomena covered by the ‘theory’ to some category or other. They at best clarify and articulate the implications of the everyday concepts involved. A weakness of such ‘theories’ is that, since they are largely driven by shared folk intuitions, they are always playing catch-up, seeing if they can accommodate newly discovered but unanticipated scientific discoveries, instead of pioneering perspectives from which new empirical questions can be asked and answered.

But can Dennett’s illusionism do any better?  It doesn’t seem like we can get any great empirical predictions from it either, or else he could use those empirical predictions as test experiments to prove his theory correct over all of these other “philosophical” theories.  The only advantage Dennett’s position seems to have, as far as I can tell, is that by insisting that it’s all done by the brain any new thing we discover in the brain technically fits into this theory, but any interactionist theory is going to be able to accommodate pretty much all of that.  If he hasn’t accrued enough evidence that the brain has to be doing these things and that there can’t be some kind of separate immaterial entity doing it by now, what makes him think that his theory will even tell us where to look for that, let alone find it?  And that’s on top of the fact that he has flat-out admitted that he doesn’t have the evidence and so wants to push the burden of proof on his opponents.  He’s not someone who has demonstrated that branches don’t bend in water and so in exasperation is telling those who still insist that they do that they need to prove that in light of all the existing evidence, but is instead someone who is coming over and insisting that branches don’t really bend in water because he strongly believes that they don’t (and, arguably, doesn’t want them to).

The only reason to accept the illusionist theory as the default is if you buy that consciousness just is what the brain does … and that’s precisely what the phenomenal ideas of consciousness and how they appear is challenging.  Dennett cannot assume his position as the default in order to “refute” his opponents and put the burden of proof on them.

This is especially the case when he tosses out his idea of how things could go under his model:

How might this go? When you seem to see a red horizontal stripe (as a complementary-colour after-image of a black, green, and yellow American flag), there is no red stripe in the world, no red stripe on your retina or in your brain. There is no red stripe anywhere. There is a ‘representation’ of a red stripe in your cortex and this cortical state is the source, the cause, of your heartfelt conviction that you are in the presence of a red stripe. You have no privileged access to how this causation works. We have a good theory of how colour perception works, with its opponent processes and refractory periods, so you can probably explain the early or distal links in the causal chain from eyeball to conviction, but you simply don’t know what the proximal or immediate causes are that put you into a state of subjective conviction and the attendant further sequelae (‘and then what happens?’). (And this is true of your access to normal, not illusory, vision as well, of course.) The red stripe you seem to see is not the cause or source of your convictions but the intentional object of your convictions. In normal perception and belief, the intentional objects of our beliefs are none other than the distal causes of them. I believe I am holding a blue coffee mug, and am caused to believe in the existence of that mug by the mug itself. The whole point of perception and belief fixation is to accomplish this tight coalescence of causes and intentional objects.

Now, this isn’t all that clear (and I’ll say more on Dennett’s clarity when I look at Carrier’s post, since Carrier talks a lot about it) but the issue here is that it founds like Dennett is saying that the experience is not the cause of our beliefs, but that our beliefs cause the experiences.  So I don’t come to believe in the mug because I see or feel the mug, but the mug itself somehow makes me come to believe in it which then seems to produce that experience of the mug.  This … is a very, very odd theory.  I’d have to delve deeper into Dennett to really determine if it’s at all credible but the only thing it has in its favour is the idea that, yes, for it to be true all of our ideas about our phenomenal experiences would have to be illusions, and lots of things would go away at that point.  In fact, it would seem like he’d demonstrate that Chalmers’ phenomenal zombies are possible and could be walking around even now, which is probably not what he’d want.  Given how greatly it violates our intuitions and the philosophical problems it creates, I feel perfectly reasonable in saying that he had better have some really strong evidence in favour of this idea before I’ll consider it a contender, let alone the default or most reasonable theory.  And the entire rest of the essay is built around insisting that he doesn’t need to provide evidence.

Let me end with Dennett with this:

We illusionists advise would-be consciousness theorists not to be so confident that they couldn’t be caused to have the beliefs they find arising in them by mere neural representations lacking all ‘phenomenal’ properties. Of course they could; just ask stage magicians — illusionists in the everyday sense — who specialize in provoking false but passionately held beliefs in things that they seemed to see but didn’t see.

I actually in fact hold that we could indeed be caused to have our beliefs by mere neural representations lacking phenomenal properties.  So does Chalmers.  I just don’t think that our beliefs are in general produced by neural representations that don’t have or produce phenomenal experiences, and so think that when I come to believe that the mug exists that it’s because I see it or touch it and that experience causes the representations which then cause the beliefs.  I actually argued this for a graduate course in Cognitive Science once, arguing that the normal procedure is that we have a phenomenal experience which produces a representation that doesn’t have (or have to have) phenomenal content which then produces or can be broken down into specific beliefs that we can act on, but we can get the representations and beliefs in other ways, through reasoning and the like.  What I would argue, then, is that the phenomenal experience portion is consciousness and the representation part isn’t.  But if Dennett wants to insist that that is consciousness, I can oblige.  And if Dennett wants to go along with that move, then any sort of illusionism goes away because we would separate what Dennett considers to be “consciousness” into one bucket and the phenomenal experiences into another, and so everything can indeed be what it appears to be without stepping on each other’s toes.  But he needs to be clear about what he thinks of as consciousness, and all of the people he’s arguing with are not going to accept tossing aside phenomenal experience in order to explain consciousness.

Thoughts on “Oculus”

January 20, 2022

When I started watching this movie, it somehow seemed familiar.  I had heard of this story before, but couldn’t recall ever watching it.  Then, it hit me:  a while back I had been going through the list of horror movies on TV Tropes to pick out ones that sounded interesting, and had read about this one.  So it seemed familiar because I had indeed read about a number of the plot points before.  Fortunately, I didn’t remember that well enough to spoil the plot, or to spoil the twist in the ending.  Of course, in talking about it I’m going to go ahead and spoil all of that, so if you think you might want to watch this movie you should probably stop reading now (although by now if you’ve been reading these posts you really should already know that).

Anyway, the basic story is that a young man is being let out of an insane asylum because he killed his father when he was just a child and according to the doctor made up some kind of story about it that no one believed.  The movie hints at a potential problem with his sister over this and we are led to believe that she was upset with him for killing their father, but it turns out that the warning from the doctor that she didn’t have the help he had to deal with it was not about her having hard feelings towards him for the killings, but instead that she has stuck to and still believes the purportedly crazy story that they told at the time of the murder.  And the story is this:  the family had bought an antique mirror that had a history of people around it dying in strange and often violent and crazy ways, and they claim that it drove the father to torture and kill the mother and then try to kill them, so the son killed the father in self-defense.  The sister wants to document the supernatural things the mirror does to prove that the mirror was responsible and not her father and brother, and then destroy it — using an automated and timed mechanism — so that it can’t do these things again.

So, why is the mechanism automated?  Because the mirror has the ability to cloud the perceptions of people and make them think that they are seeing and hearing things that they aren’t, which is how it manipulates people into doing terrible things and how it protects itself.  It seems like if you watch it in a camera you see things as they really are — this is formally revealed later in the movie — and so the cameras would capture things as they really are.  It also seems to feed off of the life force of various things — planets, animals, and ultimately people — to get its power, and so to get it to act as appropriate so she can document it she has to kick start it with some plants and a dog that gets set free.  So, essentially, instead of simply destroying it she has to actually reactivate it and give it power before she can destroy it, which really seems like a recipe for disaster.  And it ultimately is.

The structure of the movie is that it splits its time between the events of their childhood and the events of the present, showing us what happened back then and what is happened now.  This is actually not a bad set-up, but it suffers from the issue that the past events run pretty much right up to the end of the movie but don’t really have much of a purpose at that point.  What I mean is that in most cases the point of showing the past would be to set up a mystery for the present — are things how they believe them to be or are they delusional, for example — and then by viewing the past events we can see that mystery played out and solved.  As noted, here the main mystery would be whether the mirror really was supernatural or whether they were delusional, and that mystery is played with in the early parts of the movie, with the brother trying to stick to the story he adopted from his therapy and the sister sticking to the original story but seeming rather irrational and so not trustworthy.  This would work well, then, except that we don’t find out that the mirror is really supernatural in the past until the events at the end, pretty much, and by that point the present portion of the movie has already made it clear that, yeah, the mirror really is supernatural.  And while the events in the past do fill in the gaps in the history that the main characters tell us, there’s no real twist there or real revelation that justifies interrupting the life and death struggle of the main characters in the present part.  So it seems to go just a wee bit wrong.

Now, the thing here is that there is indeed quite a few things that we could consider wrong about this movie.  The backstory and history and powers and goals of the mirror are never explained.  At the ending, the brother is being manipulated by the mirror and breaks free to trigger the destruction mechanism … only to have it stopped by the sister’s body that the mirror manipulated into being there (and so he kills her), which raises questions like why he didn’t check the cameras first and why she didn’t rig a mechanism that would destroy it even if it did something like that.  And there are a number of other minor issues.  But for the most part, none of them matter.  The plan isn’t all that great and all that well-thought out, the brother is panicking and so wouldn’t think to check the cameras, and so on and so forth, but the movie does seem to know what it wants to do and focuses on that, leaving the other issues unexplained or handwaved to get at the key things you need to know.

Given that, what I have to say about the movie is this:  I’ve been griping for a while now about the lack of horror movies that know what they want to do and set out to do it, and manage to do that with even basic competence.  For all of its flaws, “Oculus” strikes me as a movie that knows what it wanted to do and set out to do it, and managed to mostly pull it off.  Yes, it would be nice to know more about the mirror and its history and its goals and it would probably even make the movie better, but ultimately we don’t need to know any of that and it doesn’t really get in the way of anything that we don’t.  It could probably be improved, but it does work on its own.

In that way, it reminds me of “Happy Death Day”.  And as such, it gets the honour of going into my closet of movies to rewatch again at some point.  Proving that, really, all these movies need to do is decide what they want to do and do it with basic competence, meaning that it’s kinda sad that so many of them can’t manage it.

Persona 5 Royal: Maruki

January 19, 2022

So in this post I’m going to talk about the other new S-link and story important character, the school counselor Maruki.  Again, I’m going to talk about how he fits as an addition to the original story and about his specific story, and so again I’ll be spoiling his story (and Yoshizawa’s as well) and so again if you don’t want to be spoiled don’t read past this point.

Read the rest of this entry »

Time and the Casual Gamer

January 18, 2022

So in the new schedule I have set aside dedicated time Saturday mornings to play The Old Republic, before getting into doing the other things I need to do on a Saturday.  This past Saturday, due to weather conditions — incredibly cold — I found myself able to start playing it earlier in the day than normal, which gave me more time to play than I normally had.  Also, I tend to like to do a planet in one session, but also to try to do the chapter interludes in that same session so that the next time I come back to a game I can just start at a planet and do it.  Basically, I always want to be starting a planet at the start of a session if at all possible.

So I finished Alderaan and decided to do the chapter interlude, which involved running back to Dromund Kaas and meeting with intelligence and then running a mission on a dreadnought, and then returning to Dromund Kaas and finally getting some time off, which immediately leaps to the next chapter — well, you have to access the holocomm, I think — with a new set of missions.  The main quest asks you to go back to Dromund Kaas and get new instructions, which I would have been able to do and almost certainly would have led to the next planet.  However, at the same time, companion Kaliyo — whom I strongly dislike — sets up another quest to deal with the problems from her past that were caused because she ticked too many people off and is somewhat cavalier about dealing with them by killing them off (which is one of the main reasons I really dislike her).  But I always do want to finish all the companion quests and bonus quests if I can, and so could have settled in to finish them off to start clean in the next session … but I was already over an hour over what my end time would be and didn’t really know how long all of that would take, and I actually did need that time to do other things.  So I quit for the day.

But this got me thinking.  When we talk about casual gamers, we tend to talk about them only having time to play in short, stolen blocks of time around other things.  Which is indeed common to a lot of them.  But as a Not-So-Casual Gamer, I share some traits with casual gamers, and what I find is that, for me, it’s actually easier at times to carve out one long block of time to play something instead of a bunch of small gaming sessions.  And it’s easy to see that this could apply to other casual gamers as well.  Someone who works long hours might be able to carve a long session out on Sunday afternoon and not have any time to play during the week.  Someone who is married with children — go Bundy! — might find some time some evening or some weekend when the kids and the wife have run off to activities that they don’t need to go to and don’t need to take them to.  And so on and so forth.  So to make a game casual friendly for them, you’d need to think about how to make a game that can be played in one long session a week instead of in a bunch of small sessions a day.

This hit me with Dragon Age:  Inquisition and the War Table.  At first glance, the idea seemed really good:  send agents to complete missions — some of which are necessary to advance and some of which produce resources that are needed to advance — but the missions are completed in real-time, and so if you start a session and only play for two hours, you can kick off a bunch of these missions and they will be completed by the time you start the game up the next day.  Sounds great!  Except that I ended up carving out my long play session and noted that playing longer didn’t mean that I could complete more missions a lot of the time, because they were just long enough to carry over to the next session.  And if I needed the mission to complete before doing something else I wanted or needed to do, that meant that I had to fill that one session with less important or interesting things — or quit for the day — and come back next week.  This was a mechanism that worked well if you could play for a couple of hours every day or for long sessions almost every day, but poorly when you could only play one long session every week.

What this and my The Old Republic experience showed me is that for the casual gamer the actual amount of time something takes is less important than making it clear just how long something is going to take before they commit to it.  In DAI, if someone cleaned up all the small quests figuring that they’d then run the mission to open up the next area in their next session, discovering that that mission would take longer than they had could ruin that play session, as they’d have nothing left to do until the mission completed but not enough time to see that mission finish and be able to do anything interesting.  For TOR, if I had known how many quests there were and roughly how long they’d take I could adjust for that accordingly by, for example, quitting after Alderaan and running all the interludes in one session instead of trying to finish it all.  And that’s not even mentioning my getting suckered into a marathon play session of Persona 5 Royal that I could have avoided if it had been more clear what the epilogue involved before I started it.

If a game is in general divided into segments that can be completed in one to two hours, that will of course benefit all casual games because those who work on one longer play a week instead of a bunch of smaller ones can just concatenate segments together until they hit their play time for the week and will definitely feel like they’ve accomplished something.  But what is more important for all casual gamers is knowing how long something will take.  If one of those segments suddenly leaps to four hours, knowing that can prepare those who can only get in short sessions for having to take two or more sessions to get through it, and can allow those with longer sessions to schedule that segment in one session instead of trying to start it halfway or almost all the way through one and then having to abandon it.  This sort of scheduling is important because one of the reasons causal gamers are casual gamers is because they always have something else they could or should be doing, and so even if they have to stop early it’s not like they’ll be left with nothing to do, although they might chafe at having their precious gaming time taken away, but if it’s from their own choice they are more likely to accept it than if the game itself forces them with no warning to do that, like in the DAI case.

Video games are in general pretty bad at doing stuff like this.  Sometimes it’s for good reasons:  the time it will take to finish something very much depends on the skill of the player and so it will depend on how often you have to retry sections or bosses.  It’s also difficult to do that for story beats without spoiling the story bits by telegraphing that things are going to be more complicated than they were before.  I will say, however, that other than for the endings and epilogues the Persona series is pretty good at it, since for the most part dungeons and the social aspects take roughly the same amount of time all through the game making it easy to plan for (my plan with Persona 3 was to take one night to do a dungeon and then one night to do all the S-link and school stuff, and keep alternating that until the boss, which worked really well for me).  TOR is pretty good at this as well since planets all tend to take in the 4 hour range if you do the story quests and the planet quests, but the interludes and endings, again, can be a problem.  DAI, on the other hand, was terrible for that because clearing an area varied wildly between areas, player skill sets, and resources the player had.  I wonder if that’s another reason that I’ve played Persona 5 four times now (counting my Royal run) and have only played DAI once …

The plot thickens

January 17, 2022

Okay, it’s odd for me to talk about curling this much when there aren’t games happening (the last time I was even close to this also involved Rachel Homan when she parted ways with Lisa Weagle, along with a number of other changes to a number of teams), but I really have to follow-up on what I talked about last week.  The story so far is due to the normal playdowns being cancelled, Rachel Homan’s team was selected to represent Ontario at the Scotties, but there was a wrinkle:  Homan herself was up for selection to go to the Olympics as part of the mixed doubles team, and if she did then she wouldn’t be able to attend the Scotties, and so the Ontario curling powers-that-be decided that if that was the case her team wouldn’t go and that they’d send Hollie Duncan’s team instead.  I wasn’t really sure what to think about that move, but it did cause a fair bit of consternation in the curling community over whether that made sense since Homan’s team could just play with a substitute, which had already happened a number of times in the past, including during the pandemic.

At any rate, Rachel Homan and John Morris were selected to go to the Olympics for mixed doubles.  Now, I actually thought that they probably won’t going to be selected, because they were sitting fifth in the points rankings for mixed doubles, which is a fair ways down the list to be selected.  The top two teams were ruled out because they were already on the four person team that was going to the Olympics and Canada does not allow someone to go to the Olympics and play on both the four person team and the mixed doubles team, but that still left two teams ahead of them.  The third place team was Nancy Martin and Tyrel Griffith, who are mixed doubles specialists and from what I am given to understand don’t play four person at all, and the fourth place team was Lisa Weagle and John Epping.  Weagle is actually on the four person team that’s going to the Olympics, but she’s an alternate and so is technically able to play.  So I expected that they’d choose one of the other two teams, and was surprised that they chose them to go.  The articles I read didn’t give reasons, but I was thinking about it a bit and have thoughts on why the choice wasn’t just made by rankings.  For Lisa Weagle, from what I’ve heard the alternate actually does quite a bit for the team even when not required to play, such as doing things like organization and tracking shots and ice conditions and strategies during the game, and so having her distracted by that might hurt Jones’ team, or might hurt the mixed doubles chances.  And then if she needed to step in due to injury or illness they’d have exactly what they didn’t want to have:  someone playing in both competitions.  So given that the difference in the points used to rank the teams probably wasn’t that great, it would be pretty easy to decide that it would be better all around to send a team that could focus entirely on mixed doubles.

The more puzzling case to me is Martin and Griffith, who were the highest on the list and, again, were pretty much mixed doubles specialists.  They didn’t have the international experience of Homan and Morris, but Homan’s international experience was in four person and although she went to the Olympics last time around she didn’t do all that well.  So one consideration likely was that they didn’t have the experience of the other teams, but I don’t think that should have counted enough to go two places down the rankings to replace them.  The other consideration that I thought of was that as mixed doubles specialists they would obviously play in more mixed doubles events than the ones who didn’t.  While this could count in their favour for going to a mixed doubles tournament, the issue is that it would skew the points gained and therefore the rankings.  Their team would have an advantage over the teams that consisted of players who normally played four person not because they were better teams but simply because they could play events while the others were playing in four person tournaments.  Normally, the trials would sort this all out, but they didn’t have that option this year (their trials were cancelled) and so they had to take that into consideration.

Given that, it was probably a relatively easy decision to decide to send the team that won the gold medal last time around.  Both of them had decided to play with different teams — Morris was originally playing with Homan and played with Kaitlyn Lawes instead when Homan had to bow out to play on the four person team — and Lawes couldn’t play mixed doubles because she was on the four person team.  So sending John Morris with his regular partner to defend his medal, given the circumstances, seemed pretty reasonable, although it had to be pretty disappointing for Martin and Griffith … about as disappointing as them not really being considered favourites to go from the beginning.

So, Rachel Homan was selected to go to the Olympics, which then triggered the Ontario curling powers-that-be to send Hollie Duncan’s team instead of Homan’s team.

But it doesn’t end there.  Last year, the Scotties organizers increased the number of teams that they enter because of the pandemic, adding three wild card teams to the normal teams per province and territory — and Northern Ontario, for historical reasons — to bring the field to 18 teams.  They normally only have one team in the competition as a wild card team and pick two teams to play off the Friday night before the event to decide which one gets in.  Due to the number of provincial playdowns that were cancelled, they decided to do the same thing this year as well.  So they added three teams to the main draw according to points accrued:  Tracey Fleury’s team, Chelsea Carey’s team and … Rachel Homan’s team, who are adding Alli Flaxey as a fifth player and, from their Facebook page — that I can’t really see because it wants me to log in and I am not on Facebook and don’t want to be — are shifting everyone up a position, which means that I think that Cheryl Kreviazuk was their original fifth and so will be playing lead for the team.  Which I thought is what they could have easily done when this whole thing blew up, given that Emma Miskew for a while seemed to be making a lot of the calls, Sarah Wilkes used to play third, and Joanne Courtney used to play second.

So, Rachel Homan’s team still gets to go to the Scotties … but not as Ontario, because their skip is going to the Olympics.  It will be interesting to see how the teams do and probably interesting to see what happens when the teams play against each other.

Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”: Disk 11

January 15, 2022

The second disk of the last season picks up some impressive writing credits in Clive Barker and Stephen King, but unfortunately the episodes don’t end up being any better.

Let me take a brief moment here to talk about the structure of each episode, which really is constant across all of the episodes and has an impact on how I watch it, if for no other reason than that it gives me major clues as to what is going to happen or is going to have to happen in the next little while.  The episode starts with what would normally be called a teaser, as it sets the scene, hints at the supernatural horror, and usually ends on some kind of shock to lead into the rest of the episode.  However, this is not your usually couple of minutes at most teaser, but instead is usually about five to ten minutes.  Then there’s the middle section, where a lot of the plot development happens, which then leads into the last 5 minutes or so which is wrapping it all up to what is usually a twist conclusion.  So when I see the second “fade-to-black” scene, I know that things are going to be coming to a head which will usually get me thinking about what kind of ending we can get from what has happened before.  Also, if I don’t care for the episode, it also gets me thinking that the episode is thankfully almost over, which happens far more often than I’d like.

Anyway, on to the episodes!

The first episode is “The Yattering and Jack”.  This is the episode by Clive Barker, and it features a man coming home to his house on Christmas Eve, and as he does so strange things start happening, like strange noises and things getting tossed around and so on and so forth.  The man continually blames it on the foundation settling and things like that and for the most part seems to be in complete denial that this is anything strange at all, despite the fact that we know that this is supernatural because a) of how the events are happening, b) because this is “Tales from the Darkside” and in this series these things are always supernatural and c) because we see a little demon doing the things and being annoyed by the man’s cheerful nature.  The man’s daughter shows up unexpectedly and notices the strange events and is convinced that something is wrong, but the man still denies it.  When some carolers come by, the man and his daughter go out to hear them, the demon pleads with the devil for release, and the devil shows up to explain the plot.  The forces of Hell really, really want to damn this guy, and this minor demon has been charged with doing that, and he can do anything he needs to expect that he can’t actually touch the guy, or else he’ll become the guy’s slave.  The demon ups his antics and at times gets the daughter into harm’s way, which finally ruffles the guy’s cool, but he calms down and says that he’s going to go for a walk and asks his daughter to come with him.  The demon is still frustrated but is willing to wait for another chance, but the devil pops in to say that the guy is planning to reconcile with his wife — whom the demon pushed into an affair to cause her to leave him — and so the demon has to stop the guy from doing that.  He tries to lock them in the house, but they trick him by having the daughter run the back door and when he goes to keep that one locked the guy opens the front door and they start to run out, but then the demon grabs him by the arm and becomes his slave.  It turns out that the guy knew that a demon was working against him all the time and seemingly went along with it in order to get a demon slave, and when confronted with the fact that he won’t get into heaven with a demon slave resorts to his sunnier personality and repeats the common refrain of “Que sera sera”.

I give this episode credit for being one of the few to really explain the supernatural aspects well, or at least taking the time to do so, especially with the explanation from the devil in the middle of the episode.  However, this comes apart at the end because the ending still tries to explain things but they don’t make a lot of sense.  The guy mentions that his mother — the daughter’s grandmother — was a witch which would explain why he knows all the rules, but he mentions it as an explanation for why they wanted to damn him so much, which doesn’t make sense and is never explained.  This, then, undercuts the two interesting character points, which is of him being aware of what was going on and that they really, really wanted to damn him.  If he had been a witch’s son who was indeed a very saintly person that would work, but the ending presents this as him going along with it not in order to trick the demon into leaving him alone — or frustrating them enough to give up — but in order to get a demon slave, which isn’t exactly something a good person would do.  I also think this idea is a bit too big for a half-hour episode, because for it to really work we needed to see this building over time and then marvel at how he maintains his composure in light of that, but here he really looks like someone in denial because the events are too big and too supernatural to ignore.  That does work a bit with the episode but that he seems delusional doesn’t make us as sympathetic towards him as he should be.  That being said, this is a better than average episode (which isn’t saying all that much, admittedly).

The second episode is “Seymourlama”, where a bickering family on a windy winter’s night is suddenly visited by two members to a religion that have a religious leader like the Dali Lama and their leader has just died, and so they’re looking for the new one and their signs point to the snarky son.  They get the parents to sign him over by promising them riches and the like, and then the son’s soon-to-be-power goes to his head and he starts making ludicrous demands.  Eventually, the head religious guy mentions the address, and it turns out that they went to the wrong address by mistake and so they take everything back and run off next door.  The parents then seemingly aim to beat the son up for being the wrong person (and a jerk).

This has to be a comedy episode, but as usual with the comedy episodes here it really isn’t all that funny.  None of the characters are sympathetic and none of them are interesting, and other than people acting weirdly none of them are in any way funny either.  There’s no serious plot to work with, but no real comedy either.

The third episode is “Sorry, Right Number” which is Stephen King’s contribution.  The family of a writer is having a normal night at home, when the mother who is talking on the phone picks up the other line and hears sobbing from someone whose voice she recognizes.  She desperately calls around trying to find out who it might have been and can’t find anyone, but one of her sisters isn’t answering the phone, so she and her husband rush out there, but it turns out that her young son is teething and she fell asleep listening to a Walkman for some relief.  So they can’t figure out how might have called, but the voice still seemed familiar.  The wife goes to sleep and the husband stays up for a bit to tape a movie for his son, but never comes back to bed and the wife discovers that he died of a heart attack while watching the movie.  Ten years later, it’s the wedding of the oldest daughter and the wife finds the tape, is reminded of that night, and for some reason picks up the phone and, sobbing, calls their old number trying to get out a warning … but she fails, and it is revealed that it was her voice on the phone all along.

The problem here is that the main thread of the episode is the strange phone call, but it is never used, resolved, or properly developed.  For a “call from the future” sort of storyline, what you want to do is have the phone call either be causitive or destined.  In the first case, you’d do something like have the stress from her worry and even the events in the sister’s house be what ultimately causes the heart attack, but they don’t do that here.  For the latter, you could have her discover that the phone could call back in time and then try to warn herself, but she doesn’t discover that until she’s already made the call.  You could also have her do it completely by accident, but if you were going to do that you’d need to make the phone call a bigger concern throughout the episode, and it’s pretty much perfunctory, and they also ruin this by having her try to get a warning out and not just be sobbing over missing him on her daughter’s birthday.  So the only interesting plot thread is the phone call, and that is never developed and isn’t resolved.  The family drama is fine, but is itself a bit pointless and makes the phone call itself pointless.

The fourth episode is “Payment Overdue”, which focuses on a woman who later reveals that she clawed her way out of poverty and is now working as a collections agent browbeating people by any means necessary into paying their debts, and is quite successful at it.  She starts getting calls from a former “client” of hers, and then someone called Michael shows up with a payment and a religious card depicting Archangel Michael in order to clear all the debts, as the debtor is now dead.  It turns out that the debtor was very religious and superstitious.  Anyway, the woman is freaked out by all of this and for some reason invites Michael to stay for dinner and stay the night.  The debtor’s voice starts coming through anything with a speaker, and the woman is freaked out by this, and then Michael wakes up and reveals to her that the debtor was afraid of the court system because she came from a place where the courts were corrupt, and the woman’s threat to take her to court caused her to kill herself, and now Michael is here to settle accounts, which he does by essentially turning the woman into the debtor and leaving her there, like that.

This episode raises more questions than it answers, not the least of which being why the Archangel Michael would get involved in this at all, and whether the woman deserved the treatment she got, especially considering that she seemed to have clawed herself out of that sort of situation already.  The woman is not nice, but this doesn’t seem like justice, especially since she claims — and it is reasonable to believe her here — that she didn’t know how scared the debtor was of the courts and even Michael notes that her failure was merely a failure to try to understand them.  I guess that this would be a crash course in understanding them, but then she was in a far more similar situation to them already and it didn’t seem to help.  This strikes me as an episode that sounded good in someone’s head — vengeance for a lack of empathy — but it really doesn’t come off in this episode.

The fifth episode is “Love Hungry”, which features a heavyset woman who tends plants and loves to eat, who gets a call out of the blue from someone she used to know who effectively asks her out on a date.  She is aware of how heavy she is and also receives a strange package promising a foolproof weight-loss plan, where she has to put something in her ear.  On the date, she tries it, and what happens is that she hears all the food screaming in pain, and then she eventually faints.  This does not put off her suitor — despite how she thinks it should — and she tries out the next thing she gets from the diet company, a pair of glasses that lets her interact with all the food in her house as if it was alive and sentient, which guilts her into not eating.  She doesn’t contact her suitor in two months, and so he prevails on the landlady to let him in, and we discover that the woman has starved to death.

This is another nonsensical episode.  We never find out who sent her the diet aids or why someone would create that as a way to lose weight.  Also, that cooked food is sentient and can scream is patently ridiculous, and the episodes where she talks to food are more goofy than scary.  But it’s way too serious to be a comedy.  Frankly, I would have preferred they have her as a nice person get converted through this into eating the food even though she sees them as sentient and thus imply that she was now going to be a more psychopathic and evil person than what we got here.

The sixth episode is “The Deal”, where a struggling writer talks to his diabolic neighbour about his problems, and his neighbour offers to make some contacts and get him a deal.  He gets the writer a deal, but when things aren’t being done the way the writer wants the writer complains to the neighbour about it, who reveals that he’s really the devil and will give the writer control as long as the writer gives the devil his soul.  The writer eventually accepts and is given control of the studio, but then things aren’t going the way he wanted anyway, as he cannot give a woman he knows and might have been dating a part that he wrote for her, and with all the work he’s had to do he wants out of the deal, and the devil says that he can if he can find someone to take over the deal.  The writer recruits the woman by convincing her it’s a tryout for a role, and when the devil is convinced he accepts her in the writer’s stead and the writer seems to regret it before disappearing in a puff of smoke, and the devil wants to work out the details of the deal with the woman.

The ending makes no sense.  It strains credulity that the devil wouldn’t know that the woman was acting, and the episode does not make clear that her rant about her thinking he loved her was true and that she wanted revenge on him was a real thing.  And the fact that it seems like the devil is going to negotiate with her suggests that he didn’t really think she took the deal, so it’s ultimately confusing.  There is an interesting idea that comes out of this is the idea that the devil doesn’t really care if things work out better for the people who make the deals in this world as long as he gets the soul in the end, and so if people make deals thinking that they want something but not realizing what it really entails that’s no skin off the devil’s nose, but he also has no reason to arrange that either (since people coming out ahead with his deals gives people a reason to take it).  This, then, could have been the classic “Be careful what you wish for” story if it wasn’t for the ending.  And I have to note that the actor playing the devil plays multiple roles that are nevertheless still recognizably the devil and does a good job with it.

The seventh episode is “The Apprentice”, where a young woman who wants a job at a heritage park sort of thing ends up being taken through a strange closet and ends up in what definitely seems like a medieval town, and meets the daughter of the strict magistrate and owner of the park and finds that her ideas are completely out of whack with modern ones, which she thinks is sad but thinks is the result of living in the in-character town.  Eventually she lights a cigarette and the husband-to-be of the daughter accuses her of being a witch, and the daughter then tries to get the woman out of there, but she fails and the woman is locked up.  At this point, it’s clear that the woman is really in the past.  The daughter eventually returns to free her, but before they can flee through the closet — it’s locked and they can’t figure out how to open it — the magistrate returns and says that he has been bringing young women from the future to accuse of being witches to keep the community from splintering, and then strikes his daughter when she would protect the woman and then struggles with the woman, which runs up against the wheel that opens the closet.  The daughter runs through at the urging of the woman but before she can go through the mechanism is destroyed.  The daughter wakes up confused in the modern world but acts the part of someone who would be an actor in that park, and the woman is put on trial for witchcraft in what is revealed to be Salem.

The big problem here is that while the idea of manufacturing witch accusations for the greater good is an interesting one, the magistrate’s plan makes no sense.  Salem would have been a small community, and his finding complete strangers to accuse of being witches wouldn’t really play well with the people, who would be aware that complete strangers keep showing up to be witches.  Also, since this has happened before it is unlikely that none of the others would have befriended the daughter and figured it out and tried to go home.  Also, they discover that she’s a witch in a surprisingly short amount of time — like a day — which makes little sense, but it’s difficult to imagine that they could have kept up the pretense for much longer.  We really needed a better twist here, like it being the case that the daughter was the villain making these arrangements or setting them up for something.  Also, this idea is a bit too big for a half-hour episode, as we would have wanted more time to develop and build the mystery and set up a much better ending to the episode.

You may have noticed that some of the episode descriptions are really short and some of them are quite a bit longer.  The reason is that I try to summarize everything that matters to understanding the episode, and some of them are structured so that almost everything does matter and some of them have large parts of the episode that don’t really matter (except maybe for atmosphere).  That being said, I don’t think there’s any correlation between the details mattering and the quality of the episode.

The last disk is coming up next, so let’s see if it manages to go out with a bang.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Guards!

January 14, 2022

Let me return to looking at Jonathan MS Pearce’s criticisms of the Resurrection, this time looking at a chapter where he talks about guards on Jesus’ tomb, that only appear in Matthew.  Surprisingly — or, I guess, not so surprisingly given that there’s enough content there to talk about it — the argument that it only appears in Matthew is only a minor argument given against it, and so a lot of time is spent on other arguments.  I’m actually going to have to quote from a book directly here, which frequent leaders will recall that I rarely do.  However, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that those arguments are particularly good, because obviously I could summarize good arguments but would need to directly quote poor arguments to make sure that everyone can see what I’m replying to in order to make sure that I’m treating the arguments fairly.  So the arguments that I will quote are not all that great.

Let me start, though, by quoting the relevant section, Matthew 27: 62 – 66 from the New International Version (which differs from Pearce’s, but I’ll get into that later):

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

The first thing to talk about is an argument that was given by the Alethian Worldview that Pearce thinks is a really good argument.  I’ll quote the argument as Pearce quotes it (pg 184):

They’re too late!  Jesus’ body has already been unguarded all night.  Considering that one of the things that Jesus was executed for was his relaxed attitude towards Sabbath prohibitions, there has been ample opportunity for some small group of unnamed disciples to get to the unguarded tomb, remove the body, and get away before the Sanhedrin even asked for a guard.  Even if they had posted a belated guard, once the body was gone their excuse would be “disciples took it before we got there” not “disciples took it while we were sleeping on the job”.  Matthew screwed up again.

It’s just not a plausible story.  We know it’s intended to deny that disciples took the body, because that’s what Matthew tells us it “proves”.  And as a form of denial, it’s psychologically effective for believers.

As reliable history, though, it really sucks.

I will say that I had a temptation to be really snarky that I was indeed going to resist but that also has been tamped down by the fact that the quote does actually manage to in some way catch the really simple counter to their argument, but not in a way that recognizes how devastating a claim that is:  the idea that the Sanhedrin would, in fact, obviously check to see if the body was in the tomb before posting a guard there.  So let me posit this sequence:  they didn’t think of this the night before, but the next morning either remembered or, more likely, heard people talking about the possibility that Jesus’ words might be taken to suggest that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead after three days and they decided that they wanted to preclude that from happening.  So they’d go to arrange for guards and as part of that check to see if the tomb was empty.  For the first part of the quote, that’s not considered, but the article does hint at that by saying that if the tomb was empty they would have said that it was empty then instead of saying that their guards fell asleep while it was stolen.  But even this is prompting a temptation to snark because there’s an obvious answer to this:  the tomb wasn’t empty then.  Because if it was empty then surely they wouldn’t have posted a guard for the next couple of days, but would have immediately said that the tomb was empty and accused the disciples of stealing the body.  Remember, as stated what they are worried about is the claim that Jesus rose from the dead after three days, and if the body is missing on Day 1 then it couldn’t have been raised after three days, and an accusation that the disciples stole the body would have much more force on Day 1 when it a) could have been checked by people and b) when it being missing there would not fulfill the prophecy than on Day 3 when even people who would verify it would have to wonder if it was really stolen or if the authorities were lying and saying it was stolen just to try to hide the fact that this miracle occurred.  Which, in fact, is exactly what Matthew accuses them of:  bribing the guards and promoting the idea that the disciples stole the body.  Which, of course, they wouldn’t have to do if they could produce the body.

The next thing to talk about is Pearce’s attempt to discuss how the argument about the guards likely entered the debate in the first place, using this invented dialogue:

Christian:  Jesus resurrected from his tomb.
Jew:  No, he didn’t.  Anyway, how do you know his body didn’t get stolen — this is a more probable explanation.
C: … Um, aah, because there were guards outside the tomb on the insistence of the Pharisees.
J:  Okay, but what if the guards were asleep?
C:  The guards were not asleep.
J:  How do you know?
C:  We know because they saw it.
J:  But why didn’t they tell anyone?  Why is this not known everywhere since this is the Resurrection of the Messiah?
C:  Because the guards told their superiors and were bribed to keep silent and then disappeared.
J:  That’s … suspiciously convenient.

The thing I noticed on writing all of this down was that J really, really seems to be trying desperately to come up with any reason to reject the idea.  I mean, when it is raised that there were guards their reply is to say, without any reason, that the guards might have been sleeping and so were not, in fact, actually doing the one job that they were to do and that they were trained to do.  Pearce later talks about how guards who fell asleep on the job were harshly punished as a reason to claim that the guards wouldn’t have accepted a bribe to say that they fell asleep, so it’s also not that likely that they actually would have fallen asleep.  So no one could just toss that out as a reply to an argument that there were guards.

Which reveals the flaw in this entire chain:  each step in the dialogue assumes that J actually accepts the arguments presented by C before moving on to the next one.  But why would J do that if it was just being asserted at the time the criticism was being made?  If the idea of an empty tomb was just being raised to head off a comment that C doesn’t know if Jesus was really raised from the dead and that his body might indeed still exist, then the dialogue should have stopped at J’s first line with “No, he didn’t”.  So what this means, then, is that if the response of “The body was stolen” was being commonly raised, it had to be the case that the empty tomb was already a part of the Christian narrative.  Thus, if J was simply saying “No, it wasn’t” C would be replying with “Then how do you explain the empty tomb?  That’s been a part of the histories since the beginning!”, forcing the move to “It was stolen!”.

But there’s another interesting wrinkle here, which is about the guards themselves, because the same reasoning applies.  Why wouldn’t the critic simply say in response to “There were guards!” that C has no reason to think that there ever were any kind of guards on the tomb?  By the same reasoning as above, then, it could be implied that there already was a narrative in many of the histories that there were guards and they were sleeping on the job, justifying a claim that the body was stolen by the disciples.  This, in fact, is what Matthew asserts:  there was an empty tomb and the Sanhedrin spread a story that the disciples had stolen the body while the guards they had posted there were asleep.  The chain of arguments that Pearce himself outlines makes far more sense if this narrative was already part of Christian lore — although perhaps not universal — and so the critic can only appeal to the “asleep” narrative to counter it instead of simply rejecting it wholesale.

Pearce raises the issue that this is only mentioned in Matthew and not in the other accounts.  However, there is an explanation for that:  it’s not that important to the other accounts and so they don’t bother to mention it.  As per my assessment, Mark is minimalist and so won’t talk about things that are not universal, and this account may not be (as it might only be mostly referenced in debates between Christians and Jews), John is disciple-focused and so wouldn’t find these details that necessary, and Luke is appealing to non-Jews and so again doesn’t have to care that much about a story about the specific Jewish politics here.  Moreover, none of the ones who talk about Jesus appearing after being resurrected — Mark is left out here by Pearce’s previous notes that Mark in his original work, at least, doesn’t have such events — actually need to address the “body was stolen” argument, because they can say that the appearances prove that Jesus was resurrected and so get from there to “and so the tomb must be empty”.  Matthew, noted as writing for a Jewish audience, is the only one who would need to address that and relate that story if that was a common counter among Jewish skeptics.

Another minor point that Pearce raises is that if the guards were paid off to claim that they were sleeping, how can we know about it?  This is a rather poor argument, as anyone who knows anything knows that if you pay someone off that really doesn’t mean that they won’t mention it to anyone else ever again.  It’s entirely plausible that one of them was talking to a Christian at some point, or got drunk one night, and happened to spill the real story.  The official — and their sworn — testimony would be that they were sleeping, and so if rumours get out that something miraculous happened it can still be rebutted with the official testimony — if the Sanhedrin were considered reliable.  This is another reason why the “It’s too late!” argument fails, because the Sanhedrin’s account would be less trustworthy if it came after the three days and so as a weak rebuttal to “He is risen!” than if it came on the first day with a “Don’t let them fool you!” rebuttal.

But there is a point that is more of a concern, and I was originally relying on my memory — which is really quite good — and thought it a very poor argument until I tried to gather up the quotes and found that things are a lot more complicated than I thought.  The point is:  given that being asleep on the job is a terrible crime for a soldier, if these were Roman soldiers why in the world would they being willing to accept even a bribe from the Sanhedrin to make a public statement that they were?  The Sanhedrin couldn’t forgive them their crime, and the Romans were known to punish that harshly.  What in the world could the Sanhedrin offer to make that in any way appealing to them?

Now, why I thought this was a very poor argument is that in my recollections from Sunday Mass — and I was a voracious reader so I would in general take the complete edition and read all the Gospels for all masses week over week — was that the guards weren’t Roman.  My impression was that the Sanhedrin came to Pilate and asked for a guard, and Pilate told them that they had their own guards and so if they wanted the body guarded to do it themselves.  In the quote I gave above, it really sounds more like Pilate did say for them to take one of his guards, making the guard Roman.  In Pearce’s quote, it says this “”You have a guard”, which is a lot more vague, at least in English (it could mean that you have a guard already and to use it, or a really, really awkward way to say “Take my guards”).  In the Revised Standard Version, it says this  “You have a guard of soldiers”, which is equally vague.  In looking up the issue, I came across this site, which assumes that the guards were Roman and argues that Pilate was as concerned about the possibility as they were.

Given what I’ve talked about earlier, I don’t find the idea that Pilate was overly concerned about the potential for fraud here all that compelling, and it doesn’t seem to line up well with the other accounts with Pilate not thinking that Jesus had done anything wrong.  So if Pilate gave guards to guard the tomb, it likely was just to get them out of his hair.  This is why I also find it far more probable that the Sanhedrin used their own guards rather than Roman guards, which would make Pearce’s objections moot (as Sanhedrin guards have a lot of reasons to go along with what their superiors have said).  I do agree that it’s an issue that Roman guards would claim that they were asleep at the time unless their superiors put them up to it, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the Romans to do that and care at all about this minor religious spat.  So I will agree with Pearce that there is a bit of an issue here.  Again, I prefer the idea that the guards were Sanhedrin guards since it seems to fit with almost everything except the specific words used there, which could be distorted.  But because of that I can’t claim my explanation is the better sourced.

That being said, it’s not a big issue for Christians because of what I said above:  if Jesus made bodily apparitions, then He was resurrected and the idea that the body was stolen cannot get off the ground.  So we could indeed drop that story without impacting how reasonable a Christian is in believing that Jesus was resurrected.