Archive for August, 2010

To all the PS2 games I’ve ditched before …

August 26, 2010

To all the games I’ve ditched before,
That now sit on my closet floor,
Was sad to move along,
I dedicate this song,
To all the games I’ve ditched before.

So, my time with the PS2 has left a string of ignored games behind me.  Some of them, I never even started.  Some of them I started, liked, and then dropped for some reason.   Allow me, then, to walk down memory lane and detail my biggest regrets:

Ah, Fatal Frame 2.  I played your older sibling and, well, was in love.  We went all the way.  And that should have happened with you, too, as you were so much like your sibling and yet had even more.  We had good times, you and I.  But, then, you decided to test me.  You took the camera away and made me run through your ghost infested halls armed with only my wits.  And that frightened me, both in the fun sense that you crafted so well and in the unfun sense of “I’m going to die repeatedly doing this and have to backtrack from an older save point many, many times.”  And I just couldn’t face that, even when I managed to replace my wits with a walkthrough so that I was no longer unarmed.  So, I had to move on.  Someday, I may return when I gain courage or knowledge, but for now, you sit on my closet self.

Fatal Frame 3, you linked back to both of your siblings, and promised to tie it all up into a neat package.  I should have liked you.  I should have played you more.  But you didn’t grab me out of the box and, well, my wandering eye kicked in and you were left behind.  That I had to turn to the Internet to understand you in the first sequence didn’t help either; I’d rather not have to keep my computer running to play a PS2 game.  But that might be just that I couldn’t see the obvious.  Anyway, you’re still on my mind, but you aren’t in my PS2.

Ever Grace, you were the first.  I bought you with the console just to see what it could do, and you were fun.  I had the time to play you, and you’ve been around longer than anything else.  And yet, I think I only explored a small part of who you were.  Maybe I was confused about where to go and what to do, and maybe I could have saved you if I’d had a walkthrough to follow.  But, my eye wandered and you were left behind.

.hack, .hack, .hack.  Were you one game with four episodes, or four games?  However it stacks up, I think I might have gotten through the third game, or at least part way through it, before simply stopping.  There’s no real reason for why I just stopped; I did enjoy the game and think I wasn’t stuck.  Maybe I’d just seen it all too many times before; maybe I needed something fresh and new that you couldn’t provide.  Anyway, I thank you for the extra anime disks and for getting me into .hack//Sign, and hope that we can both move on.

Suikoden V, in terms of characters and personalities, you’re a game that I should have wanted to finish, in the same vein as I did finish Suikoden III.  While you didn’t have the tri-view system that drew me to S3, you also had one of my favourite characters in pretty much anything I’ve ever played.  And then my normal walkthrough reading revealed what happens to that character if I didn’t get all the stars.  And then I found out how hard getting all the stars was going to be.  And I didn’t want you to depress me but I didn’t want you to make me have to play the game reading a FAQ the whole way.  I should finish you … but, well, that might never happen.

Silent Hill 2 … you had the potential to be delightfully creepy, and I got a fair ways in you, but at the end of it all just dropped you.  And that meant that I strung along Silent Hill 3, and never actually played it.  I hope the same doesn’t happen to Shattered Memories, but it’s looking that way.

Yu-gi-oh, Duelists of the Roses … I didn’t finish Forbidden Memories because, while it was fun, it focused too much on fusions and so I would have had to play with a massive text file open just to remember them all.  You kept that and added in special abilities and moving around.  Being more complicated than a fun game that I quit because it was a bit too complicated for casual gaming can never win my heart.  I still yearn for the simple fun you and your sibling can provide, but don’t have enough ink to print all that out.

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks … you never made it out of the shrink wrap.  Even if supposedly you messed up the lore, I had to have thought that you might have been fun to buy you, so why did I never open you up and take you out for a spin?

Final Fantasy X and Shadow Hearts: Covenant, you got dropped for the same reason:  I really enjoyed you, but you had a long, in-depth story.  This is good; I like long and in-depth stories.  But it just gave me too much time for my wandering eye to kick in, and for me to get distracted by a new shiny.  And by the time I worked my way back to you, I’d forgotten what I was doing.  And when I restarted, new shinies dragged me away again, and you seemed more irritating than I remembered.  You’re on my call-up list, but that list is pretty long.

And here are some of the rest that I regret not playing: Disgaea 2, Suikoden Tactics, Haunting Ground, Clocktower 3, Mana Khemia, Growlanser Generations, Summoner, Obscure.  And there are a number of others.

Next up, my apology to the PC games that I’ve loved and left without proper closure.

To all the games I’ve ditched before …

August 26, 2010

To all the games I’ve ditched before,
That now sit on my closet floor,
Was sad to move along,
I dedicate this song,
To all the games I’ve ditched before.

Sadly, there’ve been a number of games over the years that I simply never finished.  Well, actually, most of the games I’ve played I’ve never finished.  I’m going to make a series of posts talking about the biggest ones, the ones that stand out either because I never even started them, or I really did want to finish them and never did, or I really do think they deserved better from me.

I’ll divide it into three parts: the PS2 (up first), the PC, and everything else.  Yes, Virginia, there were games and gaming systems other than and before the PS2 and PC, and I’ve played some of them.

The PS2 is actually the only system where I don’t just have to rely on my memory; I have every game for that stuck into my closet and so can just drag ’em out and say “Wish I’d actually played that game”.  And, of course, I can find the ones that are still in shrink wrap.  For the PC, I have some of that but those games are all over the place, so my memory will be the main driver.  And, of course, for older systems — some of which I don’t have anymore — my memory is all I have.

Note that there may still be a happy ending for some of the games I’ll talk about.  I bought Persona 3 when it came out and never bothered to load the game, until several months later when I had an exceptionally long Christmas vacation and decided to give it a try.  It became one of my favourite games ever and probably a game that I’ve put the most time into.  So, someday, I may play some of these again, might finish them, and give them the attention they deserve.

Someday …

I’m sorry, BG II …

August 25, 2010

So, on June 30, I said that despite disliking Baldur’s Gate, I was going to give Baldur’s Gate II a try.  I planned out my party so that I could create a pair of my own characters with an interlinked history, and still take the characters I wanted later, after running through all the histories in the FAQs on Gamefaqs.  I was prepared.

So, I started the game, played part of the first dungeon … and actually liked it.  I was enjoying myself.  I stopped playing for the night …

… And haven’t loaded it since.  For about two months.

Baldur’s Gate II, I apologize.  You deserve better than that.  You’re not Baldur’s Gate which at its best left me with “It’s okay” and at it’s worst frustrated me to no end.  No, at your best I was at least having fun and at your worst I was “Meh”.  You don’t deserve the silent treatment for 2 months.  Or, at least, you haven’t so far.  It’s not your fault that I decided to take a run at the two X-Men Legends games and the first MUA instead.  It’s not you, it’s me.

Unfortunately, I’m not sorry enough to, you know, actually play you.  I’ll probably download the full Sam and Max from Telltale Games and play that instead.

But I’m still thinking of you.


What Darwin Got Wrong … conceptually.

August 24, 2010

So, I finished the book last night (I skipped the Appendix of quotes by evolutionists as it wasn’t interesting to me).  I still plan to do a more in-depth review, but let me comment on some key issues in this section.

First, F & P-P really do, at times, write as if they’re arguing that in order to work, natural selection would have to, itself, be aware of counter-factuals and selecting between them.  Since it can’t, that would obviously cause big problems for natural selection.  Unfortunately, this line of argumentation is flat-out wrong.  Natural selection has no need to know whether the trait T or the trait T’ directly increases fitness and whether one of them is a free-rider.  If natural selection ever selects, it selects what it selects.   It might be true that both T and T’ can be claimed to correlate with fitness, but in the example they gave T actually correlates with fitness directly, and T’ only correlates with fitness by correlating with T.  What does natural selection select, T or T’?  It clearly selects T; T’ is not visible to an environment selecting for survival/reproduction since it doesn’t actually increase that.

Where their objections are stronger is where they make it clear that they are talking about natural selection as an explanatory theory.  And they do talk about that a lot, continually referencing an argument that natural selection — as a theory — is empty.  And through the above example we can start to see why that might be the case.  In that example, you can’t claim that T’ was selected due to its correlation with fitness, because as I just pointed out that correlation with fitness is the wrong kind of correlation for natural selection to select on.  It actually selected T, which is the trait that actually directly correlates with fitness.  Since T’ is invisible to natural selection, it was not selected by natural selection.  Thus, it doesn’t exist because it increases or even impacts the fitness of the organism, but mostly because it got lucky enough to get attached to a trait that did.  Thus, in all such cases, T’ cannot be explained by natural selection.

Okay, that’s not all that monumental, but imagine this case: we have a set of traits T1 through T5.  All of them increase the fitness of the organism.  Which one did natural selection select?  You might be tempted to say “All of them”, but you run into huge issues when you consider that natural selection does not, in fact, select for the fitness of traits, but only for the fitness of organisms.  The problem that arises here can be seen from being reminded of the joke (that I first heard from Scott Falconbridge) of the people being chased by a bear and one person saying “I don’t have to out-run the bear; I just have to out-run you.”  Natural selection is the ultimate bear chase; an organism doesn’t have to survive by being the best possible exemplar of its species in that environment, but only by surviving/reproducing better than the alternatives.  Thus, out of these 5 traits, it’s quite possible that the benefit from any one of them would be sufficient to make it spread faster than any other competing organism.  It just happens to have 5 of these.

So, which trait was selected for?  Saying that all 5 were selected for seems odd, since you can indeed run a counter-factual that any one — or possibly more than one — of these could be removed and the organism still would have been selected.  But it’s hard to come up with a way of saying that one of them was selected and the others were extraneous.  You could pick the one that seemed to give the most benefit, but even that is problematic since you’d be left with 4 completely superfluous beneficial traits that weren’t selected for, leaving them as, essentially, free-riders.

This leads us to probably the underlying issue, and the one best served by the agency examples of the architect and Granny:   what, at the theoretical level, can allow us to determine which traits were really selected by natural selection and which weren’t? How can we, a priori, before looking in detail at the natural history of the organism, decide which traits it seems likely were selected and which weren’t?  How can we determine what are the most probable explanations for the benefit that a trait gives that determines that it was selected, and why?

Now, most people here might be thinking that this is obvious, and this is where the architect and Granny examples come into play.  In those cases, there are always two traits that based on external evidence alone we have no real reason to decide which of them was the trait that was selected for.  The spandrels and the arches, in theory, could both have been selected for, and the long roots or the saleability could both have been selected for.  But in those cases, we have an out: we appeal to the intentional agents choosing, apply the intentional stance and psychology, and determine that based on that and our experiences with other cases which one is more likely and which one is less likely.  So, while we accept that we could be wrong , it’s more likely based on what we know of architects that the arches were what the architect wanted and the spandrels were side effects, and it’s likely that Granny neither knew nor cared about the long roots and that sale price was what she was after.

This option, as F & P-P point out, is not available to natural selection.  It literally doesn’t care, one way or the other.  It has no intentions, nor needs any.  It just selects.  So, if we have two traits — say, blood pumping and noise-making in the heart — how do we determine which is the most likely to have been selected for without having to check?  The above determinations with Granny and the architect can be done without ever checking; we don’t need to ask them what they actually selected for to determine those likelihoods.  Can we do that for natural selection?

So, imagine that someone spins the story about blood pumping being the main purpose of the heart, and the noise-making being a free-rider.  They argue this because they say that blood pumping, at this point, is necessary for the heart to function, but the noise-making is not.  Fair enough.  But let me spin this counter-story: imagine that at some point in the developmental history blood pumping wasn’t particularly useful, either due to a very small organism (not far to go) or because there were other procedures for circulation.  But imagine that the noise could often scare away a predator (say, by causing vibrations that caused it pain).  So, having the noise was selective where the blood pumping wasn’t.  As it detected and fled that predator, the heart rate increasing was beneficial since it was more likely to scare the predator away.  This also has the side effect of increasing blood flow.  Over time, things changed so that noise making wasn’t required; there were better ways of avoiding that predator than that.  And the things that made blood flow less important went away, so the heart does, in fact, need to pump blood.  The benefits flip 100%, and that’s why we can say that blood pumping is the main purpose of the heart and the noise-making is secondary.

But the key here is that the initial selection was for the noise, not for the blood pumping.

Now, you can argue that my little story here isn’t all that plausible.  And I concede that.  But I’ll counter with this: natural selection does not know and does not care about plausible.  It cares about what happened.  It’s hard to use plausibility to us, at this time, to make any sort of credible argument about what happened millions of years ago in a radically different environment.  To settle this, we’d need to go through the natural history of the organism, and see what actually happened.  I’d wager that things that seemed implausible from the purposes things have now will turn out to be what happened a significant amount of the time … and when they don’t, it’ll be because natural history was imported into that determination before we started.

The same issue applies to generalizations.  You can’t solve the 1/6 versus 1/5 problem for wings by looking at one bird and saying “This is how it got it, so it’s reasonable to think that that’s how most birds got it”.  Again, natural selection cares not one whit for generalization; it only cares for what actually happened.  There’s no theoretical reason to think that generalizing actually occurs; if it does, it’s an accident of history, not a theoretical commitment.  You can’t, at the theoretical level, ever say that generalization is to be expected even if it happens a lot of the time.  That’s what’s happened in those cases, but there’s nothing in natural selection that says that it must, should or even should be expected to happen that way.

So, the charge that natural selection, as a theory, is empty seems reasonable.  Because of what we know, it really does boil down to a claim that the organisms that survive are, well, the ones that survive.  We can’t apply natural selection to traits because it doesn’t work on traits; it only works on organisms.  We can generalize methods for even identical gene expressions because the historical paths may be quite different.  We can’t determine which traits were really selected for before looking at the history of the organism because it really is that history that determines what was selected for.  What does natural selection, then, tell us as a theory?  For the most part, nothing more than: to determine why an organism has what it has, go find out its natural history.

So, the biggest consequence is that any story that starts at the theoretical level is nothing more than a just-so theory.  It could be right, but there’s no principled way to even assess the likelihood of that or of that relative to other theories by appealing to the theory of natural selection.  For all such instances, you really do have to get into the natural history and come up with your explanations post hoc.  You can only see what happened, but can’t generalize from that or use generalizations to make predictions about what you’ll see that are anything more than guesses.  The theory does not help you predict; only facts about the organism help you predict.

Is this, then, a big problem for natural selection?  I’m not sure.  It does strike against it as a good theoretical model, since a good theoretical model should allow for good predictions before you go and look, and should be able to clearly delineate what cases would be exceptions.  Then again, selection does occur and it doesn’t look like any better theoretical models are available.  If endogenous concerns really are the rule and not the exception, we might be able to build a better model, but natural selection is the best thing we have if that isn’t the case.

So, about the most radical change would be how this impacts research projects.  We’d know — either way — that looking at an organism as it is today and making guesses about what benefit the traits have and so why they were selected is, essentially, the equivalent of blind guessing.  So, we should stop doing it, and instead treat it like history where we go back and look at what happened instead of guessing.  If we can’t trace it back, then we don’t know what was selected, what wasn’t, or if any individual trait was actually selected.  We might, then, end up with a lot more areas where we simply have to say “We don’t know”.  Is that good or bad?

I don’t know.

I finally got “What Darwin Got Wrong”.

August 23, 2010

I have in my grubby little hands (okay, not literally, since I have to type) a copy of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.  After browsing for it half-heartedly in various Chapters stores, I was on campus and looked for it in the campus bookstore, and found a copy.  Having two hours to kill before traffic would relent enough to make going home something that wouldn’t drive me insane, I started reading it.  And I got through the first part, on the biology.   My intention is to eventually post a more in-depth review of it, as well as re-examine Jerry Coyne’s review to see if anything changes in my impression of it after actually reading the book.  But I’d like to say something about the biology section now, before I forget.

To me, reading the biology section, the only differences between F & P-P and Coyne that both fit what they say and what they can support on the biology front revolves around this question: When explaining the existence and prevalence of traits, is a primarily selective story like the peppered moth the rule, or the exception?

F & P-P: Stories like the peppered moth are the exception, not the rule.

Coyne: Stories like the peppered moth are the rule, not the exception.

(And yes, I do realize that F & P-P don’t like the peppered moth, so I’m not really saying that they consider it a useful selective story.  I see no reason not to accept it as such, though, and since that’s Coyne’s favourite example it’s a useful example to highlight the issues).

I don’t think that F & P-P really think that there are no instances of traits that were selected by the environment for benefit to the organism, and even if they do their biological data doesn’t support it since in some instances it requires selection on something to work, just not on the trait that they’re pointing to.  And I really don’t think that Coyne thinks that there aren’t any traits that free-rode or existed due to things other than selection benefit.  The question, then, is going to be what is the general case and what is the exceptional case … or, of course, if it makes any sense to talk about general and exception cases for these phenomena.

What this means more directly is that Coyne citing examples of specific cases that seem to be clear examples of natural selection is not going to address the issue.  F & P-P either will or at least should accept that some examples exist.  The question is going to be how frequent it is.

In the biology section, it seems to me — with, admittedly, a limit background in biology — that F & P-P have, at least, potential arguments to show their side, as they describe systemic influences where the specific examples really just are examples of that systemic influence.  I’m not sure if the same can be advanced for the opposing view.

Watching the Watchmen …

August 23, 2010

So, as already stated, I watched “Watchmen” yesterday.  I was browsing in the store when a comment from a young woman about it reminded me that people said it was good and that I hadn’t watched it yet.  Unfortunately, the comment was basically that she couldn’t take the movie and had to walk out in the middle of it, and so was being told that she actually had to watch it at some point.

That shouldn’t fill one with confidence, and it would have bothered me if I cared about what other people think.  My tastes in everything are odd, so relying on other people’s opinions is quite likely to get me watching things I don’t like and not watching things I would.

So, I’m going to comment on Watchmen here.  I’m not going to spoiler anything, so be prepared for massive spoilers.

So, first, I’ll give my overall opinion of the movie: meh.  It was okay, but it’s not a movie that I’d buy on DVD and not one that I’d watch again.  I don’t regret renting it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone either.  So, here are the reasons why:

1) Watchmen is a long movie.  No, not as long the “Lord of the Rings” movies, and I can’t even really tell you how long it actually is (I was watching it while doing laundry and so had to stop about every hour or so to take things out of the washer and put them in the dryer or put things away.  That being said, I’d started washing before I went to get the movie and only had 15 minutes left on my third load when the movie ended, and each load takes about an hour, so you can do some math from that).  The problem is that it isn’t long because great things of plot are happening.  It’s long because great things of backstory are happening, but things that didn’t really need to be said.  Take the subplot about Silk Spectre II being the child of The Comedian, who tried to rape Silk Spectre and then, it seems, she slept with him anyway.  This gets revealed in the scene with Dr. Manhattan, but it’s hinted at earlier.  Through a lot of backstory reveals that seem to have nothing to do with the main plot.  And, ultimately, it doesn’t really.  Sure, I guess this is why Dr. Manhattan says that she’ll be crying at the end of the discussion, but so what?  Who cares?  That whole part of it could have been left out and it wouldn’t affect the story one bit.

The same thing applies to the backstory of The Comedian.  Other than his having figured the plot out first, he’s irrelevant to the story.  We don’t really need to know that he was a jerk, tried to rape Silk Spectre, or that Dr. Manhattan didn’t stop him from shooting that Vietnamese woman.  We didn’t need to see him shooting at the protestors and commenting about it to Nite Owl.  He’s mostly irrelevant.  So why do we know so much about him?

The retrospective on Dr. Manhattan on Mars, I guess? is also pointless.  Up to that point, we’ve pretty much figured it out; he’s becoming more and more distant from humanity, probably because of his powers, and he’s afraid that he gave cancer to the people closest to him.  Okay, got it.  So I don’t need to see his origin scene.  It adds nothing to the plot of the movie.

The same can be said of the romance and sex scenes between Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl.  And the scene where she engages the flamethrower on Archimedes.  I thought that that might have been a set-up for her betraying them … but she didn’t.  It just … happened.  Was it because she was some sort of pyromaniac?  Was that supposed to indicate that she’s an adrenaline junkie, like Nite Owl?  Who knows?

And there’s a lot of this in the movie.  Now, let me anticipate the first objection to this: this is, in fact, character development, building backstory, letting us get inside the characters, letting us know who they are and why they’re the way they are.  And, sure, that does make some sense.  But it highlights the differences in different media.  Those scenes built a cool and interesting backstory and worked well … in a comic book.  Or, at least I’m presuming they worked well in the comic because people liked the comic and do cite those scenes on TV Tropes.  But in a comic, taking some small scenes to build backstory or reinforce what we already know works well, and can be done without getting in the way of the plot.  In movies, that’s harder because you have less time to get everything in.  It starts to get annoying in a movie when people get beaten over the head with things they already get, when they’re waiting for the plot to advance.

Compare this to, say, the X-Men movie.  The X-Men movie brought in some similar issues, like Wolverine’s rivalry with Cyclops over Jean Grey.  But it did it while advancing the plot, basically as a side effect of the plot.  Watchmen seems to put the plot on hold while it does this, in a ham-handed and heavy-fisted manner.  That drags the movie out and often made me think “Just get on with it.”

Now, I suspect that a lot of these things made it in because those were parts of the story that people really, really liked.  But making a good movie adaptation is knowing what to keep to keep fans happy and what to drop so that you don’t bore or irritate non-fans.  I know that’s not always easy, and that people who try will get criticized no matter how it’s done, but as a non-Watchmen fan, I can only say: the way it was done here made me not care about your movie.  That can’t be what you wanted.

2) It was a very brutal movie.  Even the fights with the less insane characters involved some fairly brutal moves, like a close-up of the breaking of an opponent’s arm.  So a lot of people will find the gore a bit off-putting.  But even worse than that is that it often seemed like the brutality was done for the sake of the brutality.  Again, scenes were there that didn’t need to be just to show people getting the stuffing beaten out of them, and brutality was over the top just to show over-the-top brutality.  The most egregious example of both is the scene where Rorshach is in prison and the midget comes to kill him during the riot.  Rorshach ties one of the thugs’ hands to the door, and the midget orders his other thug to cut  his arms off so that he can get at Rorshach.   We didn’t need this scene at all; these were minor characters that added nothing to the movie except maybe to give Rorshach more bad-ass cred, which he doesn’t need.  So, we didn’t need the scene, and we didn’t need the arm-slicing either.  But this sort of scene will turn people off the movie.

Now, let me compare it to Sin City.  Sin City, at times, is just as brutal if not more so.  But, again, it — at least usually — doesn’t feel forced.  It feels like a logical consequence of what’s going on and what the story is saying.  For example, the scene with the amputations matters because, well, that’s what the guy is doing.  We’re supposed to be shocked by that, and by some of the murders.  In Watchmen, it seems gratuitous.

Ultimately, overall, that’s the problem with Watchmen.  Too much of it seems to be done just to do it, and not to tie it into the story or plot.  That might fly with fans who want to see their favourite scenes, but it isn’t good for the average movie-goer who might have heard of Watchmen but never read it.  If you aren’t a fan of Watchmen, I’d recommend that you be very wary about this movie.

Get Smart, Johnny English …

August 23, 2010

So this weekend I went out and rented a couple of movies, due to the very good deal at the video store down the block (literally) where from Sunday to Thursday if you rent a new release you get an older release for free.  Since I don’t generally catch movies when they first come out, this lets me watch older movies that I missed the first time around and get a recent one that I thought might be interesting.  Basically, it’s a win-win for me, even if I don’t find an older movie that I haven’t seen, since I can just rent one of my older favourites and watch it.

Like this weekend.  It was a rainy afternoon, and I had nothing left to do but laundry, and so thought that renting a couple of movies would be good.  There’s not a lot on the new shelf that interests me, but I hadn’t seen Watchmen yet and heard it was good, so I picked it up.  And then after only browsing for a short while I decided to pick up Johnny English and watch it again.  I’ll say a lot more about Watchmen in another post, but I want to focus on Johnny English here, and relate it to a more recent movie that greatly disappointed me: Get Smart.

Now, I’m a huge fan of the Get Smart TV series.  I have the entire series on DVD, and have watched it a few times.   And that doesn’t count when it was on CBC weekday afternoons after school.  So when they announced the movie, I was interested, and even tempted to actually go to see it in the theatre, an honour reserved for movies that I know I’m interested in like X-Men or The Lord of the Rings.  But, it passed out of theatres before I could get around to seeing it, and so I anxiously awaited it coming out on DVD, and made sure to make one of my Sunday afternoon DVD renting sprees aimed at it.

And … I wasn’t loving it.

The problem I had with the Get Smart movie was that it wasn’t Get Smart.  There were key elements missing.  Sure, they had a slew of references to the TV series, but the tone and the entire movie were just completely different from the series, and completely left out what made the series so much fun.  In the series, Maxwell Smart was, in fact, Secret Agent 86.  He was established.  He had a reputation.  He thought he was an excellent spy, and most of his enemies thought the same thing.  And yet, he was a complete and utter klutz.  Watching the show, you always had in the back of your mind the question: “How did this yahoo get to be one of Control’s top agents?”  And Maxwell Smart got lucky and got help … a lot.  But the fundamental fun premise was that you were wondering how in the world he got to be considered such a super agent.  And Don Adams made sure that, on occasion, you DID get reminded of why he might be able to carry it off, when on occasion he really, really did foil the plot.  He was a clumsy, arrogant idiot, but sometimes he really did carry the ball.

But in the movie, you didn’t have that.  Maxwell Smart in the movie was nothing more than a clerk with the dream of being an agent, and being as good as the top agent.  And so, when he’s incompetent, there isn’t the background thought of “How in the world did this guy get to be such a respected agent?”.  We expect him to screw up, since he isn’t experienced.  When 99 rolls her eyes at his incompetence, it’s a little unfair since he isn’t experienced.  He doesn’t quite have the original Smart’s arrogance and we can all see that it’s unjustified.  And so the main character trait that, for me, makes Get Smart is lost.

This disconnect carried over to the other characters.  99 was a cynical, careworn, experienced agent in the movie, where she was quietly competent — and, basically, on our side — in the series.  Someone recently asked me about whether or not Anne Hathaway made a good 99 and my reply was that I’m sure she would make a good 99 and I hope she gets the chance to be one someday.  But the main villain, Sigfried, is an even worse example.  While you could see 99 as a not unreasonable update or evolution of the character that doesn’t impact the movie as badly as Smart’s shift, Sigfried loses what made him a fan favourite.  In the series, Sigfried was a wonderfully and hilariously menacing villain.  He was mean, but his meanness was tempered by his being, at times, utterly ridiculous.  For example, in one scene where Smart and Sigfried are trying to bribe the Kaos men into imprisoning the other, Sigfried reminds them of the Kaos dance that’s coming up.  When they shift to cover Smart, Smart offers them more money.  They keep their guns pointed at Smart, and Sigfried quips “What can I say?  My men love dancing.”

But in the movie, Sigfried is just brutal and mean.  There’s no humour in him.  He doesn’t screw up at all (no putting his hand into a water pitcher, like what happened once in the TV series).  He insults for the sake of insulting.  He’s, basically, no fun at all.  Brutal villains are a dime a dozen, but goofy ones that can still portray a sense of menace are rare.  That was what made Smart vs Sigfried so great.  And Get Smart, the movie, misses that completely.  Which really sums up the problem with the movie: it was all about the form, but had none of the substance of what made Get Smart great.  It’s Get Smart in name only.

Okay, so after all of that, what about Johnny English?  To me, Johnny English was closer to a Get Smart movie than the Get Smart movie was.  English was a lower level MI7 agent … but he was an agent.  He was asked to do important things, like handle security for the funeral.  And they all go hilariously wrong.  Sure, to really be Smart he’d have to have the reputation, but since at least some people claimed that the Get Smart movie was a prequel this would have worked well: a minor agent — but an agent nonetheless — trying to get to the top gets his chance, screws up, but eventually does solve the case and foil the plot, leaving him the most experienced and so top agent, able to build his reputation.  English was competent at times and demonstrated that, yeah, he knew stuff; we had reason both to think that he should be better than he is and to not be surprised when he pulls off an intelligent plan.

The secondary characters fit as well.  It would take a little work, but only a little work to replace English’s boss with the Chief, even down to him taking him off the case (“Max, I have no choice! You spilled a drink all over the foreign minister!  And broke into Sauvage’s office despite my direct orders not to!”).  Campbell fits an updated 99 far better than the 99 in the movie did.  She’s attractive and competent, and not only can express frustration with English’s foibles but can also believe that, yes, he’s capable of being great.  There’s no real rivalry between them at all, like there is between 99 and Smart in the movie.

But the key, ah, the key is Sauvage.  Sauvage captures the essence of the great Get Smart villains: he’s menacing, but delightfully goofy.  You know he’s evil and willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants … but he’s also goofy enough to screw around with English while putting him down, and ultimately gets undone by shooting his mouth off with a string of insults to the English.  He screws up, but we have a laugh watching him work.  Just like we did with Sigfried.

It’s an incredible shame that the most worthy movie to the series Get Smart isn’t the Get Smart movie, but Johnny English.  It wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere someone said that they were inspired by it, like how David Morgan-Mar says that his parodies of the Bond movies are harder to do because Get Smart did it first.  The movie Get Smart isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t Get Smart.

I have to remember to buy a DVD copy of Johnny English at some point …

Battleground God …

August 6, 2010

So, I tried the Battleground God game referenced at Pharyngula, and I made it through with only one direct hit.  According to their analysis of my performance:



You have been awarded the TPM medal of distinction! This is our second highest award for outstanding service on the intellectual battleground.

The fact that you progressed through this activity being hit only once and biting no bullets suggests that your beliefs about God are well thought out and almost entirely internally consistent.

The direct hit you suffered occurred because one set of your answers implied a logical contradiction. At the bottom of this page, we have reproduced the analysis of your direct hit. You would have bitten bullets had you responded in ways that required that you held views that most people would have found strange, incredible or unpalatable. However, this did not occur which means that despite the direct hit you qualify for our second highest award. A good achievement!”


So, what was the one contradiction?


Direct Hit 1

You answered True to questions 10 and 14.

These answers generated the following response:

You’ve just taken a direct hit! Earlier you agreed that it is rational to believe that the Loch Ness monster does not exist if there is an absence of strong evidence or argument that it does. No strong evidence or argument was required to show that the monster does not exist – absence of evidence or argument was enough. But now you claim that the atheist needs to be able to provide strong arguments or evidence if their belief in the non-existence of God is to be rational rather than a matter of faith.

The contradiction is that on the first ocassion (Loch Ness monster) you agreed that the absence of evidence or argument is enough to rationally justify belief in the non-existence of the Loch Ness monster, but on this occasion (God), you do not.”


Well, I concede this … but it was a semantic distinction.  See, I think that it is rational to believe that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist due to lack of evidence, but also that it is not irrational to believe that it does.  So, when I got to the second question, I essentially answered that the same way: there’s nothing rationally compelling about believing in the non-existence of the th — God, in that case — but nothing wrong with it either.  Looking at it now, that’s not how they were using the terms “faith” and “rational”, and so it triggered a contradiction even though that’s not how I meant it.

But, hey, it confirms that I’m a rational theist with well-thought out ideas.  Yay!

If you want to play, the game is here:

A semi-permanent link to my results is, I guess, here?

Something’s rotten in the discourse …

August 5, 2010

So, Jason Rosenhouse is commenting, with some specific examples, about a new debate about the tone of scienceblogs:

My title refers to the last paragraph of his post:


“Don’t like P.Z.? Or Dawkins? Then don’t read them. It’s OK, really. Just spare me the lectures about how they’re symbolic of some rot in the discourse …”


Actually, I’m going to argue that, yes, at least P.Z. is symbolic of some rot in the discourse, and that his entire post flat-out proves my point.

So, while I could comment on how he addresses Dreher and Heffernan, I’m going to leave that out to focus on the precise arguments he makes that prove my point.  And I’ll start with an outlining of my specific point:

Rosenhouse. Myers, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Coyne et al all want to claim that we should, in fact, employ critical thinking about all propositions, and should always be strictly and properly rational in our dealings.  This, then, should include how they approach “converting” people to their point of view and how people do, in fact, get so converted.  If incivility can be shown to work against that and provide mechanisms for discussion that are not rational, and if that incivility can then be shown to be aimed at influencing people in an irrational way to come to their point of view, then they have a big problem … in that they are trying to convince people to follow only rational methods using an irrational methodology.

So, let’s look at some quotes from the post:


“Incivility is a tool in the arsenal. It is very good for calling attention to an issue and to a point of view. If the incivility is backed up by a good argument it can be very powerful.”


But isn’t a good argument, on its own, very powerful?  Here, at least he seems to be saying that you can use incivility to draw people to the issue, where hopefully good discussions ensue.  But counter-intuitive or really good arguments do that, too — or, at least, they should.  And, in fact, the whole underlying point from the New Rationalists (no, don’t go looking it up; I just grabbed it off the top of my head) is that we’re supposed to pay attention to good arguments, and use that to decide what to pay attention to.  It’s a little bit worrisome to find Rosenhouse seemingly advocating not doing that.  But it gets worse later on, so we’ll pick this up again after a short digression into …


“Or consider The God Delusion. Can anyone argue with a straight face that Dawkins would have been a more effective advocate for his view had he written a stodgy academic treatment of his material?”


Wait … are you saying that Dawkins didn’t write a stodgy, academic treatment of his material?

(Badoom chish).

But there’s an important point here: I don’t consider Dawkins all that uncivil, throughout most of it.  There are times when he mocks instead of argues, and he engages in rhetoric far more than he should, but overall it’s relatively, um, polite.  I find the arguments quite lacking, but that’s my biggest reaction to reading The God Delusion, as evidenced by the partial critique I have up; I don’t think I really comment on tone at all, but do comment on content.  About the only time I can think of that I critiqued tone was when I commented that he spent a half a page translating the Ontological Argument into a schoolyard argument … and then only did that to lament that he spent that long doing that and so little time actually examining the best arguments against the Ontological Argument.

So, no, Dawkins isn’t that uncivil, and his book is one that strikes me more as being wrong than as being nasty or rude.  So, perhaps, we need to settle on what counts as rude and what doesn’t.  Overall, Dawkins doesn’t strike me as rude, and neither does Sam Harris and neither does Dan Dennett.  Hitchens and P.Z. Myers do strike me as rude.  Jerry Coyne has his moments of jerkiness, but I don’t generally call him out on tone either, except when he takes a long running rant at something about his opponents … and then does it himself (see this post of mine for an example: ).  And that’s more about, again, the irrationality than the tone itself.

So, what counts as rude?  I’m not sure anyone knows, which might be something we want to settle first.  But, at least Rosenhouse and I can agree that Myers can be a bit rude, and go on from there.


“As for P.Z., I get it that some people do not care for his style. The cure for that is to not read him. I would point out, though, that he routinely provides some of the very best biology posts you will find anywhere. Some of us come for the contempt for religion, and then stay for the science.”


Well, see, that first point is kinda what Chad Orzel complains about below: you tick some people off, and they don’t stay.  So they don’t get the science.  And that would be … bad, don’t you think?

But the key point is that Rosenhouse says that some of them come for the contempt of religion — explicitly, then, the rudeness — and then stay for the science.  And I have to ask: why do you come for the contempt of religion?  Why is that appealing to you?  Why is someone ranting rudely and insulting religion and, at times, religious people appealing to you?  I, personally, don’t even like reading blogs that agree with me, let alone blogs that do so rudely.  I don’t learn anything from blogs that agree with me, and certainly don’t learn anything from blogs that are basically rude about the topics so that some people who disagree with me get driven off before being able to argue about why I’m wrong.


“On the more general question, I think Chad is concluding too much from Heffernan’s piece. She visited the site, found it rude and left. Oh well. But how many other people visit the site precisely because they see a lively conversation going on? How many other people like the passion and the politics and would simply find it boring if everyone wrote in staid, academic terms?”


There are two big conflations here:

1) Read Myers’ blog, and read the comments, and ask yourself how many people who, in fact, disagree with Myers on religion post there regularly.  I’ve skimmed comments and haven’t found all that many, and those that do tend to, in fact, be those that I would consider kooks.  The same thing can be seen at Coyne’s site, and at any number of specific topic sites (I’d list religious ones, but, again, don’t read ’em as per the previous paragraph).  How can you have a lively conversation or discussion on a topic without having the other side willing, able, and welcome to get into the conversation, too?  People who are on the other side of the topic might be less willing to post in a rude atmosphere, and people who do are likely to start angry and irrational and more on the defensive and less open to being convinced.  That’s not the hallmarks of a rational discussion, to me.

2) Passionate and rude are not, in fact, synonyms.  My writing tends to be stodgy, but my speaking is not, because I use tone of voice and other things to indicate that I, in fact, care about the topic.  Yes, that’s harder to do in text, but note that at no time does passion require insult or, in fact, even anger.  You don’t have to hate your opponents to be passionate about a topic.  You don’t have to insult them.  And you certainly shouldn’t call them idiots for the grand crime of disagreeing with you.

But, onto a deeper point: why does he — and why do others — like passion?  Well, passionate argument engages the emotions, and doing that makes almost anything more entertaining.  And it has been proven time and time again that engaging the emotions is dangerous.  It can make you believe things that are ridiculous, or hold those beliefs more strongly than you should.  In fact, this is precisely what a lot of the New Rationalists argue against in terms of religion or other “woo”: the emotions of people are being used to get them to suspend their rationality and believe irrationally.  So, then, what other purpose can the passion that Rosenhouse admires so much be achieving?

(BTW, being Stoic-leaning, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m suspicious of passion.  But also note that far too often I’ve seen people say weak arguments passionately and have the people who are on their side say that it was a devastating rebuttal.  No, the argument’s not that strong, but the insults make people cheer, and that’s good enough for rationality, right?)


“And that’s precisely the problem with all the hand-wringing about tone, the worries about driving people away for excessive nastiness, and the fretting about what is and is not convincing to people. The same features that some people find offputting are precisely the ones that others find attractive. Discourse that drives some people away form your cause draws other people to it.”


The problem is that Rosenhouse never bothers to ask: is it a good thing that tone alone can draw people to your cause?  What does tone have to do with the rationality of your arguments?


It’s like profanity in comedy. I think George Carlin and Robin Williams are two of the best comedians in the history of the business. But I know a lot of people who find them crude and offensive. No problem. For them we have people like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby. Profanity is one tool in the comedian’s arsenal. Used properly it can increase the effectiveness of a routine. But it can also turn people off. Different strokes for different folks.

Why do people find it so complicated that different styles of writing are appropriate in different contexts? Or that different people respond to different things? Polemicism and incivility are tools in the arsenal. Used properly they can achieve things that are near impossible to achieve in any other way. Used improperly they are just obnoxious and unpleasant. Many of us are attracted to writing with a clear viewpoint and a strong opinion. Others do not like that. That is why we need many different people doing many different things. We need both warriors and diplomats as the saying goes.”


Well, first, the analogy doesn’t work because all the comedians are trying to do is make me laugh.  What makes people laugh is, in fact, entirely a subjective matter; people all have their own things that they find funny.  For example, I tend to dislike crude humour and dislike profane humor, and adore puns and clever comments — even if those have a sexual undertone.  Others prefer crude humour.  And since that’s a completely subjective matter, that’s all okay.

Things change when you’re trying to convince someone about the facts of the world.  All that should matter, then, is the strength of the argument and the reasoning.  If someone — anyone — is saying that they wouldn’t accept the argument if it was said a certain way, but would if it was said another, that’s kinda a problem, and the whole problem that the New Rationalists are arguing against: we let irrelevant things determine whether or not we’ll accept or reject an argument.

So, I ask this, honestly: what do incivility and polemics add to the strength of any argument?  The answer is: nothing.  Being swayed by incivility, passionate expresion, polemics, and rhetoric are precisely the sorts of things that indicate a lack of critical thinking.  If we employed critical thinking, we certainly wouldn’t need to be entertained or have our emotions engaged to determine what to accept and what to reject.  We wouldn’t be swayed to the side of the most passionate speaker.

So, given that, why is Rosenhouse adovacting this?  At best, he could say that it’s a stop-gap until we can get people thinking critically, but I’d reply that this, in fact, presumes he’s correct and some very smart people don’t think he is.  Thus, applying bullying and polemic and rhetoric and insult and emotional manipulation to convince people to side with something that the arguments may not support is, in fact, dangerous, wrong, and completely opposed to the principles that the New Rationalists say that we should be following.

I’m willing to engage in reasonable debate, even with passionate people.  The rudeness, insults, and mocking, however, serve no purpose in the debate, and if Rosenhouse is really saying that they work, then that should scare the heck out of him, because it means that people are relying on irrational mechanisms to accept the things that they should accept just using reason.  It boggles my mind that this doesn’t scare him.

To fight fundamentalist Islam, buy a hybrid car?

August 4, 2010

Ebonmuse over at Daylight Atheism has an article up about how to stop fundamentalist Islam:

He first says this about moderate versus fundamentalist Islam:

“To answer this question, I think it’s worth asking another one. Why is it that violent Islam has had so much success at spreading itself? How has it made so many converts?

I don’t believe that it’s because militant Islam is intrinsically more appealing than moderate Islam, or because it offers a stronger sense of purpose or identity. Nor is it because, as racists sometimes claim, Muslim people are less intelligent or more prone to violence than Westerners.”

Good start, but here’s his conclusion:

“The spread of radical Islam can be traced directly to the disastrous coincidence that the more severe forms of Islam, like Wahhabism, were born in and came to dominate the same countries that have some of the world’s richest oil reserves. The leaders of these countries, all of which are theocracies, treated this discovery as proof that God favors their beliefs. And they’ve used – they’re still using – their vast oil wealth to fund an evangelistic movement spreading the poison of militant Islam throughout the world.”

So, ultimately, his conclusion is that what we need to do to end fundamentalist Islam is to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels and, therefore, dry up the wells — so to speak — of funding for it.

The first impression of this is that these are mostly unrelated things, and that this is a new and novel way to make an argument for reducing fossil fuels.  Looking a bit deeper, the analysis seems even more suspect.  How many of those rich oil sheiks are, in fact, fundamentalist Islams?  How many of them are more moderate?  How many of them don’t, in fact, care about religion at all?  Recall that Iran, for example, was a very moderate and Westernized state until a fundamentalist religion came in, and that Saudi Arabia is considered to be fairly moderate compared to places like the new Iran.  It’s true that a lot of the funding for Islamic terrorist groups comes from oil money, and that drying that up will make those groups less effective.  But we have to recall that many of these fundamentalists — and most of the people, in fact — are actually very poor; oil money doesn’t seem to be driving their belief, nor would they think that God or Allah favours them because they have so many natural boons.

But this sidesteps, I think, the key question: why is it that fundamentalist Islam is more popular than moderate Islam?  Oil money requires that Arabs interact internationally, and interacting internationally and with different cultures tends to — and should — moderate people.  If the CEO of a major Canadian or American or British distribution company is female, you’d better not demand that she not be present if you want to make a sale, and most of those who do well with oil are, in fact, consummate businessmen.  So why doesn’t it trickle down through governments to the ordinary people?

One answer is this: radical views get so much more attention than moderate ones.  People get drawn into radical views because of the attention and the focus on them, while moderate views have a tendency to get shuffled off into the background and ignored.  After all, there are some people who think that there are no moderate views in Islam; with that kind of attitude, it’s not inconceivable that people will think that either they are radical Islamists or they aren’t Islamists at all.

Another answer is related: fundamentalist sheiks spend their money promoting radical and fundamentalist Islam, while moderate sheiks don’t.  The moderates might support their local shrines or temples or fund pilgrimages or some moderate charities, but they aren’t spending lots of money promoting Islam or their moderate version of it.  They just don’t care enough, and aren’t passionate enough about the topic to do so.   Fundamentalists, however, do care enough to spend lots and lots of money promoting their form of Islam and even sponsoring terrorism.

So, what is the solution?  What needs to be done is find the moderate groups and do two things:

1) Hold them up to the spotlight as something that we’d like to see more of.  Instead of attacking all moderates as supporting the fundamentalists, make a sharp distinction between moderates and fundamentalists and at least be willing to say “If you aren’t going to be an atheist, at least be like this!” 

2) Have all moderates join and work together to work out differences and at least get to a state of “We disagree on this, but I’m willing to agree to disagree and focus on what we all agree on.”

3) Convince the moderates that they need to speak out against the fundamentalists and promote their moderate beliefs as loudly as the fundamentalists promote theirs.

Doing this, I think, will do far more to eradicate fundamentalist Islam that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, which is not something that we can do all that quickly.

And if you have to get oil, buy Canadian [grin].