Archive for January, 2022

Scotties (First Weekend)

January 31, 2022

The Scotties — the Canadian Women’s Curling Championships — started this weekend, and there are a couple of points I wanted to make instead of waiting until the end of the week to comment on them.  And they really revolve around teams that are being skipped by someone who the team isn’t named for.

Let me clarify that:  teams are generally named for their skips, even in this case where they are officially named by their province or as one of the three wild card teams.  But in general in curling if the skip can’t attend a tournament — which doesn’t happen all that often but has happened a bit more the past couple of years — in general the team is still named after them because the team is still “theirs”, but someone else steps in or steps up to skip the team.  So even though the team is being skipped by someone else you would still refer to the team by the name of their regular skip and then simply reference the temporary skip as calling the shots and throwing the fourth stones.

Now, we already knew that we’d have a Team Homan skipped by Emma Miskew, since Rachel Homan is playing mixed doubles in the Olympics and can’t be here.  I had posited after a very minimal amount of research that they would use Allison Flaxey as an alternative and put Lynn Kreviazuk — that I accidentally called “Cheryl” — in as a regular player, but what they are doing is putting Flaxey in at second, moving Sarah Wilkes to third, but having Flaxey take on what is normally the third’s role and “hold the broom” for the skip stones, meaning that she does the call from the rings on the very important last rocks that Emma Miskew is throwing.  This was done to maintain the sweeping duo of Wilkes and Joanne Courtney, who are excellent sweepers that have obviously worked together and gotten to know each other quite well.  So their team looks like, well, something that I would have come up with:  what looks like a lot of changes that could have been done simpler but which follows from a number of very simple facts that, ultimately, shows that that is really the best solution.

The other team was a bit of a surprise, as Tracy Fleury’s team had to start, at least, without her as Tracy Fleury tested positive for Covid before leaving for the event.  They made less changes, as I think they simply bumped everyone up in the throwing order — so Selena Njegovin, the third, becomes the skip — and added Robyn Njegovin to fill in the last spot.  They hope to get Fleury back sometime mid-week, the last I heard.

Now, I pretty much figured that Miskew wouldn’t have too much trouble taking on the skip role because in the past she’d been doing a lot of the talking and strategizing and so would be able to, well, just keep doing that.  But Njegovin didn’t seem to be someone who had done that very much and who instead relied on Fleury to make most of the calls, and so there was some doubt in my mind that she’d be able to step into the strategizing role (I wasn’t too worried about either of their shot-making, although again Miskew seemed more calm and able to do that than Njegovin might have been).  And so far, after three games, the teams are … an identical 2 – 1.  Both of them lost to a somewhat upstart New Brunswick team, that has been to the Scotties a number of times but isn’t well known.  Miskew beat Newfoundland and Labrador — who is another relatively unknown team — and then beat perennial playoff contender Northern Ontario — which is also the home rink, even though there are no fans in the stands here — that was a 2 – 0 team until that point.  Njegovin beat again relative unknown Saskatechewan before beating another less well-known but perennial contender in PEI.

So despite being missing their skips and not replacing them with another skip — as Fleury’s team did last year for some events by bringing in Chelsea Carey — the teams are doing pretty well.  I also like the teams, so I’m happy about that.

EDIT:  And the two teams played each other this morning.  I was wrong about where Robyn Njegovin slotted in, as she slotted in at third.  And Team Fleury beat Team Homan in a game that feature a 5, a 4, and a couple of 3s, and so was a very offensively oriented game (and Team Fleury probably won based on a couple of steals).

Final Thoughts on “Tales From the Darkside”

January 29, 2022

Let me give a few final thoughts on “Tales From the Darkside”.

I’ll start from what’s normally the last thing I talk about, which is whether I’ll rewatch this series or not.  If you’ve been following my posts on the series, you already know the answer to that:  a resounding “No”.  I set out to write posts about each individual disk covering each individual episode precisely because I didn’t care for the series at all, and while there were episodes here and there that were good and in the later seasons the dialogue and performances were pretty good the series itself never got good.  When the best episodes were all right at best that’s not a series that I want to watch again.  So it goes into the box of DVDs to sell if I get a chance.

The more interesting question, then, is why did this series fail?  They had some established writers and used some established stories, and managed to get an impressive roster of actors to play parts in the episodes.  As already stated, from a production values perspective they were quite good for a half hour TV series from that era.  And it isn’t that I don’t like that sort of show because I did enjoy and would watch again “Friday the 13th:  The Series”, and that show had poor production values when compared to this one.  However,  “Friday the 13th” had some advantages that “Tales From the Darkside” didn’t have.  The first is that as an hour long show it had more time to develop its plots and stories in each episode, which helped make them more interesting.  The second is that as a continuing show they could use the characters and character development to make things interesting, and we always had more of a connection to the main characters than possible in “Tales From the Darkside”.  And the third is that as a continuing show they had a universe with rules so we could easily understand what was going on, while every cursed item could still work differently and so provide different plots.

Because it wasn’t a continuing show, “Tales From the Darkside” didn’t have recurring characters or a set universe to rely on, and so it had to rely on the characters that it introduced in each episode and the stories that it developed in those episodes.  But it also didn’t have a lot of time to develop those episodes, and so each episode had to set out the plot and characters and then try to resolve all of that in a half hour.  And ultimately, that’s where it failed, because for the most part the stories and episodes were just … unsatisfying.  Some of the ideas seemed good, but the episodes never really seemed to pay them off properly.  Some of the ideas seemed to be too big to properly do in a half hour, and some of them seemed to be too small which meant that there was a lot of padding which dragged the episodes down.  And the episodes that managed to find a plot that could be fit in there often seemed to pad things out which meant that the episodes still didn’t manage to pay things off properly.  So again for the most part none of the stories were satisfying or developed and paid off properly.

It would be easy to blame this on the format itself, and say that if they had been an hour long show things would have been better.  And, to be fair, it likely would have been, as long as they didn’t see that as a reason to add even more padding.  But we’ve had shows like “The Twilight Zone”, “The Outer Limits” and “Tales From the Crypt” that were the same length and seem to be much better (although I haven’t watched any of them and so can’t really compare them).  One thing that at least “The Twilight Zone” had, however, was an episode-specific intro and outro which could be used to set up the episode and summarize what we were supposed to take from the episode, in contrast to the generic one that was featured in “Tales From the Darkside”.  That could give us more context and so allow us to get a better idea of what we were supposed to be taking away from that episode.

And that was also one of the issues with the show, which is that the “Darkside” itself was prominently featured and yet never really explained or placed into a context.  The narration implies that it’s some kind of separate world that people can fall into, but the episodes were never really consistent as to whether it was something that innocent people could fall into — and so we were supposed to come away afraid that that or similar things could happen to us — or whether it was a vehicle for karmic retribution.  Sure, “The Twilight Zone” wasn’t all that consistent about that either, but again the intro and outro could establish for us what they were going for while adding to the episode in terms of exposition, which wasn’t possible with “Tales From the Darkside”.  I think the series would have benefited from a more connected universe where we could have had repeated themes and rules that we could have understood which would give us a context coming into each episode.  But then again I only think that because each individual episode struggled to provide that and anything that could have helped the episodes do that would have greatly improved the series.

So, that ends this series of posts on this show.  I don’t expect to keep doing this, but I found this series both bad enough and disappointing enough that writing about it in detail was something I really wanted to do.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Women

January 28, 2022

The last thing I’m going to directly talk about in Pearce’s examination of the Resurrection is the story of the women who came to the tomb and saw the risen Jesus.  Pearce explicitly calls out the differences in the women who came to the tomb as being impossible to reconcile:

Theists like to dismiss the contradictions here as being harmonisable or not at all important.  Personally, I don’t see them as harmonisable.  John is very clear in stating one woman and you would have to really want to achieve an agenda to translate that as “at least one woman, Mary”…

Pearce also relies heavily on the idea that this sort of numbering is a crucial contradiction that you cannot reconcile by saying that focusing on one out of the entire number doesn’t preclude there being more people that are not mentioned.  In talking about the angels at the tomb, he says:

Imagine going through life thinking like this:  That every time you gave a numerical answer, you could actually be referring to any number above the actual quantity referenced.  This was one of the first, simple contradiction arguments I got into when I first started arguing about Christianity and the Bible.  It was precisely this sort of rationalisation that opened to my eyes to what I saw as people being dishonest with themselves.  If you are the sort of person who can convince yourself with this type of argument, then we probably shouldn’t be talking.  You are probably convincing yourself of an awful lot of other nonsense that you really shouldn’t believe (Young Earth Creationism is a prime example).

Or, cognitive dissonance isn’t just an issue for Jesus’ early disciples; it remains equally problematic for his modern-day followers.

Strong words, and since I find these numbers arguments utterly unconvincing and unimportant it would imply that I shouldn’t be talking to Pearce, have a mindset that should convince me of Young Earth Creationism when I’m not one, and that I’m afflicted by cognitive dissonance because I don’t find Pearce’s purported contradiction at all convincing.  I suspect that I could reply directly to his words above as “Them’s fightin’ words” [grin].

Okay, so let me start by saying that he is characterizing the argument or attitude wrong.  The counter is not that whenever you say or come across a statement that gives a number you should assume that it could be any number up to infinity instead of what was said.  Provisionally, you should accept that the number in the account is an accurate one if you have no reason to think that it number might be different.  But Pearce here is not talking about a simple listing of a number, but instead is pointing to different accounts and saying that their use of a different number — either directly or, more commonly, implied — is a contradiction that means that the story cannot be believed, and the response is that especially in the implied cases you can reconcile the two cases by noting that as long as nothing in the account with the lower number is directly contradicted by there being more people then those people might have been there and just not something that the first account focused on or bothered to mention.  So this is what Pearce is opposing and what he says cannot be reconciled in any reasonable way.

Let me demonstrate that that sort of situation is actually reasonable in general by using this discussion:

Defense Attorney:  So, what happened when my client approach your teller window?
Teller:  He pointed a gun at my face and demanded that I give him all the money from my station.
Defense Attorney:  Ah-HA!  But it has been established that he actually pointed two guns at your face!  Your account cannot be reconciled with that clear fact, so therefore you are lying and my client is innocent!

Now, of course, in this case we can easily see that it’s ridiculous to dismiss their testimony or their account or the various accounts because of a difference in numbers.  The important things in the account are not in question, which are that the robber threatened to shoot the teller if they didn’t hand over the money.  Whether the robber was using one or two guns doesn’t change the fact that there was at least one gun which was used to threaten the teller and commit the crime.  And in general this is indeed how we handle numbers.  If I say that my manager was at the meeting and someone else says in a separate telling that another designer was also at the meeting, we don’t conclude that one of us is lying about who was at the meeting but instead conclude that both of them were at the meeting and that I didn’t note the designer’s presence in my telling of the story.  So, in general, in cases where the numbers don’t align we do, in fact, simply expand the total numbers to include the highest number, which is exactly the argument that’s being made and is exactly the argument that Pearce, for some odd reason, thinks we never make and can never make reasonably.

Now, of course, there are cases where we won’t make that expansion, and there are two main ones.  The first case is when there’s a direct contradiction in the two tales.  So if I had said that I had a one-on-one with my manager and someone else said that that designer was there, then one of us would have to be mistaken because a one-on-one meeting only has one designer and one manager except under exceptionally strange circumstances that would have been mentioned in my story.  The second case is where there isn’t a direct contradiction, but where it would seem reasonable that the person with the lower number would have mentioned the other people in their story and so we wouldn’t have had the discrepancy.  So what we need to do to dismiss this argument is not merely point out that the numbers don’t match, but instead point out that either the accounts have a real and direct contradiction in them that means that they can’t all be correct, or else that the other authors would have mentioned the other people if they were really there.

So let’s look at what they say (as per Pearce’s summary on page 210).  Luke’s account cannot contradict any of the other accounts, because all he says is that the women who came with him went.  Pearce translates this as being at least four, but since Luke isn’t specific about who it was it is indeed possible that some of the women who came with Jesus out of Galilee didn’t go, or that they did in fact all go and the others didn’t mention them (like saying that the group from work went to a pizza party at the park does not mean that I necessarily attended or that someone from another group who had left the group a short time before didn’t go).  Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.  Matthew leaves out Salome, but again he might just have left out Salome — or, rather, the stories that he followed didn’t mention her — since she isn’t a key character in the story.  This actually has interesting implications, since if Matthew used Mark as a source as most claim then it seems quite likely that Matthew would have seen Mark’s reference to Salome and yet still deliberately left it out, which would suggest that the traditions he was following suggested to him that Mark’s adding of her wasn’t credible or wasn’t important.  And if this taken to be an actual difference in the accounts, a minor difference like this, as I’ve argued before, is not an important enough contradiction to worry about, as Mark could be wrong that she was there or Matthew could be wrong to have excluded her and no matter which of these we chose nothing important would change.

So that leaves John, who only includes Mary Magdalene.  But from the stories, Mary Magdalene was closer to the apostles and it is reasonable that she was the one who went and told them about the empty tomb.  Mark’s claim that none of them told anyone about it is obviously not correct, and is likely him following traditions that didn’t come up with a credible idea for who went and told the apostles, so he left it out.  John, being seen as an account of a specific disciple, is obviously focused more on their experiences, and so it is entirely reasonable that it would only have mentioned the one who went to the disciples and told them about the empty tomb.  So Mark may well be correct that some of the women didn’t tell anyone but misses that one of them did — which, again, must be true for the story to be known — and from John’s account that doesn’t mention that anyone didn’t tell the disciples but only mentions Mary Magdalene she was probably the one who went to tell them.

(As an aside, the comment about them wondering who will help them move the boulder is probably an addition in Mark but not something he made up.  In the oral histories, someone would have likely asked at some point how they expected to move the boulder on their own and that is a lampshade of the issue, which then would have stayed in the story for its dramatic effect.  But it is likely the case that they would have made arrangements to get the boulder moved or had a plan for it).

Anyway, from this it seems like we have a pretty easy way to reconcile all the stories.  Even just using the specific texts there’s no interesting contradiction there and it’s easy to reconcile them, even before a deeper analysis of what each author was doing in their accounts.  So, again, I don’t see why this is something that is at all worth worrying about.  But Pearce thinks this can’t be harmonized, and thinks that arguments that expand the numbers to the largest one that makes sense and doesn’t cause a contradiction are obviously bad arguments that cannot be at all countenanced.  And I admit that I absolutely cannot see why, and would need more than an accusation of “Cognitive Dissonance!” to accept that he’s right and I’m wrong.

Thoughts on “Cult of Chucky”

January 27, 2022

This is an example of a movie that I know mostly through its influence on popular culture, because I know a fair bit about the series even though I might have watched parts of one or two here and there.  Yes, this is indeed a “Child’s Play” movie, starring Chucky, and it seems to be a movie that is trying to reference lots of things in the previous movies, which risks it alienating someone like me who doesn’t get the references.  I’ll talk more about that later.

Anyway, the basic idea is that a woman who was blamed for Chucky’s last murderous run has been seemingly doing really well in therapy and so gets moved to a less secure insane asylum to continue her treatment.  She’s also paralyzed from the waist down, and from what the movie says about her she was that way from birth, so it wasn’t done by Chucky (although how she could have been the murderer while paralyzed is something that I am mildly curious about).  Anyway, as part of the therapy the doctor brings out a Chucky doll to prove to her that it’s just a doll, and then another one is mailed to him, and at that point murders start happening again and we know — although they don’t — that Chucky is responsible.  At the same time, Chucky’s girlfriend Tiffany is back as a human — they lampshade a joke about not being able to tell her apart from Jennifer Tilly, who plays her — to torment the main heroine and enact some plan of Chucky’s.  It is eventually revealed that he learned the ability to bring other Chucky dolls to life and so any time he sees one we end up with another murderous doll on the loose.  At the same time, someone else who was associated with Chucky’s rampages starts from having trouble getting a date, through torturing a disembodied Chucky head, to rushing to the asylum to save the day.  At the end, though, Chucky’s plan succeeds and he puts himself in the heroine’s body — to make out with Jennifer Tilly at one point — that he heals up, and they drive off into the snow.

I have an odd criticism about this movie:  it seemed to me to lack substance.  Now, I can imagine you all rolling your eyes at that and asking “What’s he going to complain about next:  that Jason from Friday the 13th isn’t expressive enough?”.  And yeah, the “Child’s Play” movies are typical 80s and 90s slasher movies where the main point is to watch a strange child’s doll kill people in bloody and hopefully creative way, and so you can’t really expect complicated plots and social commentary and the like.  I get that.  But I don’t mean that it lacks substance in that way.  I mean that it lacks substance in a way similar to the old joke about Chinese food, where you feel full right after you eat it but an hour after eating you want to eat again.  At the end of the movie, as they planned to ride off into the snow, I realized that there was nothing at all to this movie.  Chucky had a plan that he supposedly completed, but that plan wasn’t really a key component of the rest of the movie.  It just kinda happened at the end.  The guy rushing in to save the day fails, but there’s nothing to that failure.  He shows up, does something that does little, and fails at the end just ’cause.  The heroine loses and ends up locked inside her own head, crowded out by Chucky, but it’s not any kind of culmination of what happened earlier in the movie.  She just loses.  Things just happen, it seems, to happen and not as part of any kind of whole.

Okay, this is comedic horror and again maybe I’m asking too much from it (although the best Freddy or Jason movies manage to at least seem cohesive).  But even the killings aren’t all that creative or all that gory.  One of the first ones is Chucky redirecting a suicide attempt as a warning that he’s back, but that doesn’t really matter to, well, anything and on its own isn’t all that creative.  The most creative one is using an oxygen canister to break a skylight to decapitate someone, and my reaction to that was pretty much literally “Meh, it’s all right, I guess”.  Chucky fires off the one liners but again while they are in character they aren’t really funny and don’t build on or lead to anything.  All the jokes and all the scenes, at the end of the movie, are things that happened to happen, and that’s it.

This leaves this movie as basically a movie of references.  It strikes me as being a movie where they wanted to cram in as many references to the rest of the series as they possibly could.  This isn’t a bad thing and could have worked, and they are actually pretty good at structuring things that even if you don’t get the references you understand what’s going on.  The problem is that it’s all references and nothing else.  That’s why on the surface it seems good — and may even be good for “Child’s Play” fans — but at the end it left me with a hollow feeling, like I had watched a movie for about an hour and a half and now that it was done it left no impression on me.  It was like watching a movie made up entirely of the highlights from the rest of the series:  the references themselves had their moments, but at the end of it all the movie itself seemed to, well, have no substance to it.

Then again, the fact that the references and the things that just happen are themselves entertaining puts it ahead of a lot of the other horror movies I’ve watched.  Still, it has to go into the box of movies to maybe rewatch at some point.  The Chucky parts are well done and generally entertaining, but that there’s nothing else to the movie other than those specific and mostly disconnected scenes hurts my desire to watch it again.

Thoughts on “Repo Men”

January 26, 2022

I actually finished that ten pack of science fiction movies I had a while go — it ends with “Waterworld”, to give a preview of things to come — but obviously had other things to write about and so couldn’t fit talking about them into my schedule.  But I don’t have Persona 5 Royal or an MMO to talk about this week, so I’m going to talk about the next one in the pack, which is “Repo Men”.

The basic premise here is that in some indeterminate future there will be an industry built up around providing artificial organs to people — it isn’t clear at the outset that these are not donated organs but it is revealed later that for the most part, at least, they are artificial — at enormous prices.  When some people can’t afford to pay, the company sends the Repo Men to repossess the artificial organs, which of course ends up killing the patients most of the time.  The main character is one of these Repo Men, whose wife wants him to get out of the business and into something more ethical, like selling the things to people, while his partner wants him to stay.  After an accident puts the main character in the same position as the people whose organs he has been harvesting, he has to flee for his life while his own partner is trying to bring him — or his organs — back.

I’m going to talk in a lot of detail about the premise and about the twist, so if you don’t want to be spoiled you should probably stop reading now.


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.