Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Santa Apologetics

At this time of year, we are reminded that there's a war on Christmas. Belief in Santa, although prevalent in children, is seen as something irrational for an adult to believe in. Lots of effort goes into maintaining the belief for children, but there's marginalisation and persecution of adults who believe in the Jolly Fatman.

So I'm here to defend belief in Santa.

A rational enterprise?
People call a belief in Santa irrational, but they are missing the point of what a belief in Santa is. Santa is a nonrational proposition, so it would be making a category error to assess belief in Santa by rational grounds.

Reasons to believe?
Yet there are reasons to believe that Santa exists. The first argument is the moral argument for the existence of Santa, as concepts like naughty and nice wouldn't make sense without Santa to be able to determine what naughty and nice are. A materialist worldview can give subjective definitions of naughty and nice, but Santa is needed to make the enterprise objective - as they clearly are.

Personal testimony is another reason to believe. There are numerous sightings of Santa from all around the world. Legends are written about him, and those stories match the experiences individuals have. Of all the descriptions that could be given of Santa, they fit the same pattern.

Children around the world see Santa's hand when presents are left. Each year on Christmas, children wake up to presents that were not there the night before. The idea that parents are doing this violates occam's razor as only one entity is needed if Santa really does deliver presents.

But most of all, Santa is a properly basic belief. That is, if one experiences Santa, they have acquired knowledge of Santa. If we were to dismiss this, we would dismiss the grounds we have to experience the external world.

But how does Santa visit all the houses in the world in one night? Flying reindeer are absurd!
This question assumes that Santa is a natural being, yet Santa is supernatural. So applying naturalist assumptions is a sign of being closed-minded. No-one believes that natural reindeer fly, so of course they have to be supernatural! Flying reindeer aren't a species of reindeer, but analogous to reindeer.

Is it naughty because Santa deems it naughty, or because it is naughty?
Santa deems it naughty, but because Santa's nature by definition is the judge of naughty / nice, Santa's decisions are necessarily right. If Santa says it's naughty, it's naughty, as Santa cannot violate his own nature.

Why doesn't Santa fairly distribute gifts?
Santa's decisions may seem arbitrary and capricious, but we only make that judgement because we are finite beings incapable of seeing the reasons behind Santa's perfect judgements. We don't expect a dog to comprehend Moby Dick, let alone what a book is, so why should we expect our imperfect assessment of fairness impugn Santa's perfect fairness capacity?

But I saw my presents in my parent's closet!
Santa works in mysterious ways. There's nothing to say that Santa cannot work through natural means to achieve his ends. Who are you to limit how Santa does his work?

If Santa is real, then why doesn't he show himself?
But Santa does show himself, as many can attest to. Are you suggesting that all those sightings around the world, all on Christmas eve and of the same thing, could be mistaken? Even if some were genuinely mistaken, you cannot prove that all are. The weight of testimony weighs in favour of belief.

The personal testimonies differ!
Of course they will differ in fine details. Each person has their own fallible view, shaped by their personal experiences and cultures. But there is a core of the story that is common enough among all Santa sightings to see a common thread. That common thread is Santa. If there was no Santa to give those shared commonalities, then the accounts would vary more than they do. Santa testimony has just the right amount of variation.

Why is the belief lost in adulthood?
There's a concerted campaign among aSantaists to discredit belief in Santa, as part of their War on Christmas. They hate Santa and want to see Santa purged from our society, and they brainwash people into not believing in Santa through their so-called education system. Children start believing in Santa, go to school, then come out as a Santaists. Children also have an innocence about them where their belief is pure, and untainted by cultural forces. They are the only effective judges in a society that has taught itself to reason Santa out of existence.

If Santa is a perfect judge, then it makes no difference whether I believe.
A belief in Santa won't affect Santa's assessment, but it will affect on how you look at your behaviour. If you take Santa into your heart, you'll be more mindful of being nice and avoiding being naughty. Hence a belief where naughtiness isn't punished will lead to more people being naughty, so it is better for society to have the belief. Without a belief in Santa, we are personally and societally worse off.

A matter of faith?
While there are reasons to believe in Santa, and in my view they are better than the reasons not to believe, it still takes a leap of faith. Seeking the reasons to believe in Santa is reasonable so long as it accords with the faith. But when reason fails, that's where faith takes over. But I contend it's a much smaller leap of faith to believe in Santa than not, because the aSantaists have to explain how all of it happens by accident without the intervention of supernatural beings. Christmas without Santa would be a bigger miracle than Christmas with Santa.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

World War 2 Didn't Happen!

I used to think that one should do history by facts. Much of history as I was taught it featured the worst in human cruelty, of bloodshed and warfare. This narrative didn't fit into my view of human nature, of politics, of our species' place in a grander historical narrative.

That Germany could seek to eradicate the Jewish peoples, or Russia would send soldiers over the front lines without weapons, or that people would do anything to harm the beautiful countryside of Europe is just awful. That Japan would seek to invade Australia, or that the US would built nuclear weapons - these are the facts I resented but thought I had to believe on the basis of them being fact.

But no more! Thanks to Virginia Heffernan, I am free from those pesky facts, and can choose the narrative of my liking. As she explains:
All the while, the first books of the Bible are still hanging around. I guess I don’t “believe” that the world was created in a few days, but what do I know? Seems as plausible (to me) as theoretical astrophysics, and it’s certainly a livelier tale. As “Life of Pi” author Yann Martel once put it, summarizing his page-turner novel: “1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.”
Now it seems as plausible to me that world war is just a propaganda vehicle of modern day nationalists, who use fictional imagery to distract from the issue at hand. The idea that nations would actually go to war, sacrifice millions of people for pointless ends, and unleash devastating weapons that could potentially destroy the world - that's just not as compelling as one where this is merely a fiction on our society.

It's simply a matter of aesthetics that I choose to believe that war is a fiction. Life is a story, I can choose my own story, and a story without war / genocide is the better story. I'm not bound at all to pesky things like evidence and reason, or have to believe on the basis of fact and theory. Belief is an aesthetic, and believing a story that doesn't involve the slaughter of Jews, the building of the atomic bomb, and my own grandfather signing up as a teenager to help protect Australia is my choice.

It's also how I'm a billionaire, and president of Earth.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Why Aren't There More Deists?

Imagine an argument that went as follows:
How could you not consider that there may be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? There's no reason to think that it's impossible since life appeared on earth. With there being 10^23 stars in the universe, with planets being found everywhere we look, it wouldn't be absurd to think that the conditions that allowed for intelligence life on this planet may exist elsewhere. And that's only taking into consideration intelligent life as we know it. Although more speculative, we don't have reason to exclude other paths to intelligent life under very different conditions. The range of possibilities and the vastness of the universe are strong indicators that we are not alone as intelligent life in this universe.
And then followed up with:
So UFO sightings ought to be taken as being caused by extra-terrestrial intelligence, crop circles being marks of these extra terrestrial intelligences, and alien abductions being authentic experience of these aliens.
If you weren't already convinced of the reality of alien interference on this planet, would you find the argument convincing? I'd wager not, as the original argument does little to establish the reality of interfering aliens. In other words, there's a gap between the premise and the conclusion.

This might sound like a contrived example, but it's the kind of argument I see all too often from theists. Just substitute in the cosmological or design argument on the premise, and the conclusion being the interventionist deity they happen to already believe in.

It's not just that the arguments don't validate their particular theism, it's that they don't validate any form of theism! There's a huge gap between the arguments and the conclusion, with much left resting on assumptions that are snuck in with the individual's prior belief.

What strikes me as curious is that there aren't more deists around. If one were to follow the arguments, deism would be the most parsimonious conclusion, yet deism isn't the view defended with such arguments.

Now I am fully aware that the human mind isn't completely logical, and that arguments are more justifications of an existing position than something followed to their logical ends. Even so, it does surprise me that there isn't more of a spread among believers. The range seems to be from externalising to internalising the personal god, rather than from a personal to an impersonal one.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The List So Far

  • Duck Soup
  • Taxi Driver
  • Scarface (1983)
  • Network
  • Dr Strangelove
  • Chinatown
  • To Kill A Mockingbird
  • The Seventh Seal
  • City Lights
  • Grave Of The Fireflies
  • On The Waterfront
  • The Godfather
  • Django
  • Ikiru
  • The Godfather Part II
  • Solaris
  • The Bicycle Thief
  • The Rules Of The Game
  • Breathless
  • Stalker
  • Persona
  • Seven Samurai

What The Film Challenge Has Taught Me

Writing reviews is hard work, and writing reviews with the added burden of the alleged significance of the work in question is even harder. How can I understand or appreciate the historical, cultural, and aesthetic milestones retrospectively without the requisite knowledge to do so? Even being cognisant of my own ignorance, the task was too monumental.

The film that tripped me up what Chaplin's alleged masterpiece City Lights. I say alleged because while I enjoyed the film, I really cannot place it in a historical context. The shift from black & white to colour makes for more visually spectacular films, but going from silent to spoken films is a major change in how films are presented. 2 weeks of failing to get my thoughts together led me to abandon writing reviews.

But I haven't given up watching the classics, only trying to assemble my thoughts about them into some coherent structure. There's a difference between the challenge of interpreting a symbolic film like The Seventh Seal, and the challenge of contextualising a film made for a different time. The Battleship Potemkin may be a historic achievement in filmmaking, but I'm at a loss to comprehend it.

The retrospective glance at the history of cinema isn't helped by the derivation of what came after it. Breathless was meant to be a big leap forward in the feel of cinema, but what it (allegedly) contributed is now overdone that it's barely noticable looking back retrospectively. If I didn't have Roger Ebert's review, I'd be utterly lost. Watching Persona, I was immediately struck by how Lynchian it felt - of course, I have that backwards...

On The Waterfront felt a little too one-dimensional for me, while The Godfather shone as much as its reputation would suggest. The Godfather Part II didn't quite have the punch the original had. Solaris made for patient viewing, yet gave more than enough to contemplate. Stalker felt confused and then deeply unsettling. Django didn't sell me on westerns, even of the spaghetti variety.

The Bicycle Thief was downright depressing (and touching in moments), while The Rules Of The Game was very clever (though I wonder what was lost in translation) - though I felt I was missing most of the context. Ikiru was frustrating to watch in parts, but affected me more than any film I can remember. Grave Of The Fireflies was sad beyond words, made even worse by the fact the original story was partly autobiographical. Seven Samurai was epic storytelling done expertly.

The whole problem with these films is by virtue of them being labelled classics, it sets a lofty expectation. Many of the films have been enjoyable, yet very few have blown me away. City Lights had some of the funniest moments on film I've seen (the boxing scene), yet other parts felt forced (the attempted suicide). I'm not able to grasp whether particular aspects of the film (like the speed of the sequences) were due to technical limitations or Chaplin's vision. Viewing it 82 years after it was released makes for a very anachronistic experience.

One lesson I've learnt from this so far is that films and technology have gone hand in hand, and this notion that special effects has somehow cheapened cinema is nonsense. Directors have always used tools they have to the best effect in order to tell the best story.

Monday, 10 June 2013


"A single belly-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms" - H.L. Mencken

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Great Zombie Uprising Of 30CE

No matter how much I learn about psychology, and the tendency to rationalise that people have, I'm still floored by some of the things people claim to believe. Like, for example, someone claiming that Matthew 27:53 was a legitimate historical account. The position was defended in a wider defence of the historicity of the Matthew gospel. It's historical, ergo, the claims within it happened.

Here's what the gospel of Matthew says:
27:51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
27:52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
27:53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
27:54 Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
It shouldn't need to be pointed out why this isn't a historical account - let alone a plausible one. So why is it defended as one? To say it's motivated reasoning would be an understatement! There's simply no reason to defend it as an historical account.

It's not a historical account that's at stake though, it's a theological one. For someone who already knows what they want the gospels to show, then trying to use whatever tactics they can to keep that interpretation up. This tactic would be bad enough on its own without it being pretended that this is doing history.

Apologists have put the cart before the horse, first presenting the narrative they wish to be historical, then mustering a defence for the document really being true. The mistake is highlighted with claims like claiming that places and characters in the narratives have a historical basis. Yet those facts are very weak evidence for anything other than that the gospels reference them. Or to put it another way, how much support does an engraved message about Pontius Pilate give to the idea that the dead rose from their graves and wandered around Jerusalem?

Now one could point out that the author of the gospel of Matthew is unknown, how the author got the information is unknown, and when the gospel was written is unknown. One could also point out that it was written in Greek of events that would have been passed through oral tradition. That there's good reason to think that the account of Matthew derived from two earlier sources, one being the gospel of Mark, as well as using the old testament as a guide. Not to mention that the accounts don't even read like history, that they make unhistorical claims, or even that the best of historical accounts are imprecise and prejudiced. But this would be missing the point; the problem is with the theology demanding a historical interpretation.

That's not to say that the gospel of Matthew is of no historical value and contains nothing concerning factual history. Rather that the history needs to be done in the absence of any theological narrative because of the ease at which motivated reasoning works. Whatever the methodologies of history yield, they can only be of value if the exercise is not done aiming for a desirable target.

The "Miracles" Apologetic

Does belief in a miracle account depend on the prior acceptance of the possibility of miracles? I'm often subjected to arguments that that seem to think the answer is yes. The argument goes as follows:
The only reason that you can't accept a miracle account is that you hold to a worldview that excludes the possibility of miracles. So of course you're going to find miracle accounts absurd, you've written them off in advance.
At first glance, there appears to be something there. If one takes a naturalistic worldview, it's hard to see how miracles will fit into such a view. If one, however, took a theistic view, there's no problem understanding miracles - they are God intervening in the natural order.

But this can't be the case, for the simple reason that miracle accounts don't cut it even if one does accept their possibility. If one claimed that God teleported them halfway around the world, even if one believed in God and God's infinite power, the account doesn't become plausible.

The apologetic is rendered vacuous under scrutiny. It's nothing more than a mere deflection of the epistemological problem that miracle accounts have. Whether or not a worldview can possibly encompass miracles, there's no worldview that's going to plausibly encompass miracles. The reason being that miracles by their very nature are implausible events - events that are outside of the natural order - so appealing to miracles is by definition appealing to unlikely accounts.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Tom Waterhouse Is Not Your Friend

When it comes to advertising, I'm of the firm opinion that a fool and his money are soon parted (it certainly happens to me more often than not). It's not that I'm unaware of the pernicious power of advertising, but that influence is not the same as determination, and I fully endorse putting more responsibility on individuals to make up their own minds. In other words, banning is merely a cover-up for a failure in education.

I really don't have strong feelings towards live odds being part of a broadcast. And as far as targeting problem gamblers, to me it would make more sense to fight for sensible poker machine legislation. Unfortunately, there's not enough political will to overcome the clubs, but there does seem to be enough political will to overcome Tom Waterhouse.

Since Aussie rules is my winter sport of choice, my exposure to Tom Waterhouse has been limited to ads and news stories. But it is the ads I want to talk about, because I think they warrant the heuristic of the title - "Tom Waterhouse is not your friend".

What distinguishes Tom's ads from other ads is how personal me makes it. When I first saw his ads last year, he used his insider knowledge as a credential to be the best source for gambling. This struck me as odd as I wasn't sure just how that insider knowledge would help the punter (the fallacy of the dubious advantage), but now I've come to realise it's part of making Tom Waterhouse seem personal. It's not a business, it's his business - a very important psychological distinction.

It's a clever strategy, but a psychologically misleading one. There's no meaningful difference between Samuel L Jackson being a celebrity spokesperson for bet365 (their slogan should be "Gambling motherfucker, do you do it?"), nor is there any meaningful distinction between Tom Waterhouse and a mouthpiece. So when Tom advertises that he's willing to give money back when the scores are within a goal, how good this deal is depends solely on the odds are relative to other gambling companies.

On one level, all this is fairly obvious. We know that it's another business, and that it's appearances. But the thing to remember about cognitive biases is how they distort our thinking. Even with conscious knowledge, our biases are still present in our cognition. It's why it helps to remember that Tom Waterhouse is not your friend, as the presentation of the company is geared around the personality behind it.

If one is still sceptical, just remember that the whole reason you see Tom Waterhouse on TV is that he's able to buy advertising space with the profits he makes from you. Would a friend do that?

That's Not Religion!

According to the research discussed in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast And Slow, our cognition is geared towards stereotyping. The main example from the literature was a description of a woman who was given a short profile, and participants were asked to rate how likely each statement was. It was highly likely that she would be active in the feminist movement, not likely that she was a bank teller, but more likely that she was a bank teller who was active in the feminist movement.

The fallacy is that there's a smaller set of bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement than there are bank tellers in total. So it stands to reason that it's more likely that she is a bank teller than both a bank teller and being active in the feminist movement. The mistake is that although there are less feminist bank tellers than there are feminists, being a feminist fits better with the profile than bank teller does.

This cognitive tendency seems to me a good explanation for a persistent apologetic - the cry that whenever anything bad happens under the name of religion of "that's not religion". (Or the slightly more sophisticated version - "that's not true religion".)

This apologetic is hardly limited to anti-atheist apologetics, but has served a useful purpose throughout history of branding other religious people who disagree as atheists. I used to think of this move as nothing more than a rhetorical ploy, but now I've come to accept that it's (mostly) uttered in full sincerity.

The fallacy was made explicit by Antony Flew with the No True Scotsman fallacy, but making the fallacy is not the same as the reasons why the fallacy is made. And because it's an informal fallacy, it might not be at all obvious why it's fallacious to distinguish between the two cases. Is the critic arguing engaging in equivocation, or is there some special pleading going on by the proponent? A deeper examination is almost always needed.

One of the things that's prominent in the critics of religion when faced with the apologetic is to ask what the difference is. This seems the right question to ask. While it might just be obvious to someone that two concepts don't share a resemblance, illustrating that difference is another matter.

The importance of being able to correctly identify where the criticism lies is the only way to make sense of the criticism. Even if the criticism is misguided, it's important to identify where the thinking has led astray - there's no reason to think that critics are any less biased in this respect than proponents. The important point is to recognise the need for rational exploration because our biases, make it all too easy to shrug off what seems like misguided criticism.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Fodor vs ID

A few months ago, I was on a facebook group where an ID proponent kept posting numerous links to pro-ID articles, coupled with grandiose points about the death of Darwinism. One thing that struck me about the links was link linking to Jerry Fodor, a philosopher who made a big splash a few years ago as the coauthor of a book called What Darwin Got Wrong. I took this opportunity to go back over what Fodor was (and wasn't) saying, to see how well Fodor's view sits with Intelligent Design. Long story short: it doesn't.

The sources are linked below for anyone who is interested. Listening to his discussions, Fodor said nothing that would even indicate that an intelligent designer was needed. He seemed quite content with accounts of biology involving the classic examples of enhanced survival value. His main contention was that the examples followed from the biologist's understanding of nature and not from the theory itself. His charge against Darwin was that Natural Selection is empty, and isn't a theory that can predict anything without biologists using the theory as a ventriloquist dummy.

Yet this account doesn't give any credence for ID, nor does it cast doubt on existing processes to be the organising principles that biologists demand. The charge is simply that it's not Darwin's theory that describes how this happens. Biologists and philosophers of scientists have argued back as to why Fodor is mistaken on this account, but it doesn't change that Fodor's view isn't pro-ID.

So why are pro-ID advocates using Fodor to promote their view? My guess is for the same reason as they promote Thomas Nagel's recent attack on evolutionary theory - ID amounts to little more than Darwinian criticism. Even Behe's main argument (Irreducible Complexity) is that certain structures cannot evolve by a Darwinian process. Even if that were true (it isn't), it doesn't follow that a designer did it.

Fodor's arguments against Darwinism don't even begin to support ID. Any ID proponent who uses Fodor is using his views like a ventriloquist dummy.
A discussion between Fodor and scientist-turned-philosopher Massimo Pigliucci:

A discussion between Fodor and the philosopher Elliott Sober:

Grayling On Fine Tuning

Previously I mentioned how I had some suspicions of AC Grayling's analogy on fine-tuning, and now that I've gotten past the point in his book where he discusses design arguments, I can discuss those suspicions.

The fine-tuning argument, as far as I can tell, tries to make the case that the universe being the way it is demands an explanation. Or to be more specific, the configuration of the universe has the appearance of design for harbouring life. Of all the possible configurations of the universe, a very tiny fraction could even have life. So the best explanation for the fact that the universe has the appearance of design for life is that it was made by an agency who wanted life.

My suspicions about Grayling's analogy were due to the seeming disconnect between an improbability of a contingent history and the improbability of something with a design-like appearance. In other words, we wouldn't be able to appeal to a contingent history to explain away the design of a watch even if contingent history is a factor in watch-design. So when he says on page 80:
The 'Goldilocks dilemma' of my personal existence, and that of the universe's parameters and laws, is exactly the same thing.
I think that Peter S Williams had a fair reason to take exception with it. It doesn't obviously seem like the same thing at all, and requires further justification.

Grayling, however, hits the nail on the head with the final paragraph of the chapter:
We exist because the parameters are as they are; had they been different, we would not be here to know it. The fact that we exist because of how things happen to be with the universe's structure and properties entails nothing about design or purpose. Depending on your point of view, it is just a lucky or unlucky result of how things happen to be. The universe's parameters are not tuned on purpose for us to exist. It is the other way round: we exist because the laws happen to be as they are.
It's an important point to make. We necessarily live in a universe that can support us, so if any appeals to fine-tuning are to hold, they would have to show something more - that the universe was made for us. Of course we are going to be a product of whatever the universe can permit, and if the universe was any other way we wouldn't be here, but the same can be said of everything else that exists in a universe of the same configuration. Just as we exist, so do ants, and asteroids, and galaxies, and gamma ray bursts. All of it is a consequence of how the universe is. The fine-tuning view would be that everything else in the universe is a by-product of a universe designed for our purpose - a completely anthropic and unjustified assumption - rather than of us being a consequence of things being as they are.

This is what bothers me about fine-tuning arguments: any reality in which we exist is necessarily able to hold us. If we were made of a different material under a different configuration, the same argument would apply equally well. The reason being is that we are complex entities, dependent on things being as they are for that complexity to emerge. In between the two quotes from the book above was an illustration of this absurdity involving Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire's Candide:
"Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles."
We can see the absurdity right there. That the nose holds spectacles doesn't mean the nose is formed for the purpose of wearing spectacles. That the universe harbours human life doesn't mean the universe is formed for the purpose of human life. Even if the universe was purposefully designed so that 13.8 billion years later our species would emerge and God would show himself in Jesus form, the apparent design of the universe doesn't warrant that conclusion. Grayling's book explains why.

The Three Debates

I've been reading through AC Grayling's The God Argument recently. One of the things the book stresses is that there are actually three debates instead of one going on between atheists and theists. It's a point well worth making, especially as those issues can become muddled in the process of any discussion. They are:
  • Epistemological - theism vs atheism
  • Political - theocracy vs secularism
  • Ethical - religious vs humanism
The discussions can sometimes overlap, but it's a good thing in general to try to separate out the discussions. One can be a believer, while still supporting secularism in politics, or see merit in adhering to a religious ethical system while still being an atheist. It's also important to note that the justifications of the political / ethical debates are often grounded in epistemological claims. However, I'd question what value there is in arguing over the role of religion in politics by getting into the justification for biblical literalism (for example).

The debates also have sub-debates, such as science vs creationism in the case of the epistemological, or what role religious voices have under a separation of church and state. Even when it comes to ethical considerations, there's a strong overlap between humanism and any religious ethic, which would allow for debates on particular issues.

It's for that reason that I think that there's a lot of things would agree on if the debate wasn't so holistic and adversarial. I think that's why I get so disappointed when discussion is framed in terms of worldviews; it's a tactic that needlessly polarises, as well as obfuscating issues that don't demand it. Secular and ethical discussions aren't helped by getting people entrenched in their existing worldviews, which is perhaps why the move is so appealing (see: wedge strategy). But is unnecessarily divisive, and since there is so much that we already do agree on, I don't see the point of trying this strategy. The three debates are all interesting and important in certain respects, but become problematic when carelessly mixed.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord - A Review Of Safety Not Guaranteed

WARNING: contains spoilers

CS Lewis' gambit for how to approach the divinity of Jesus is probably the best fit for how Safety Not Guaranteed is played out. The idea is simple: a man takes out an ad for a companion to travel back in time with, and a journalist takes two interns to investigate it.

Here's where the apologetics comes into play. The first thing to see is whether or not he's a liar. Is he a real person making a real claim? Turns out he is, so liar is ruled out. What about lunatic? Well, the film certainly indicates that way. He's a crank who argues with physicists online, stalks government laboratories, talks up his own intelligence, and has delusional thoughts about a dead "ex" who is both not dead and was never his girlfriend.

If the movie left it at that, it wouldn't be so bad. It could have made a point about delusions and how they rule our lives. Indeed, for most of the film it appeared that was what they were doing. In parallel with the crank, the journalist chases down an old girlfriend whom he had idealised beyond all recognition. His moment of realisation comes in the film, yet the film vindicates the delusions of the would-be time-traveller.

To put in nicely, it's incredibly lazy storytelling. It's effectively a "miracles happen" ending, with no regard for establishing plausibility or keeping with the spirit of the rest of the film. Why do this? My hunch it's that it's for the same reason as people are drawn to the Lord part of the trilemma - prior plausibility doesn't fit well into intuitive thought. The most likely scenario is that people are simply mistaken.

Perpetual motion machines are impossible, yet people still build machines that they claim work. People of excessive intelligence and personality can harbour incorrect and even delusional beliefs. Indeed, given the range of things that people can believe, it should be the expectation that extraordinary beliefs even among the most extraordinary of individuals is still the norm.

For Safety Not Guaranteed, taking the Lord path of the trilemma meant quite the elaborate special effect sequence. I cannot help but think that money would have been better spent on a rewrite, but then again, I'm the sucker who paid to rent the film.

Big-c Cake

Cake, n. (1) A piece of cake that can be both kept and eaten.
(2) A solution to the problem of having one's cake and eating it too achieved through the use of capitalisation.

Caking, v. A rhetorical misdirection in order to rescue a concept from fatal objections via capitalisation. His argument relies on Caking the concept of good.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Pin Analogy

I was listening to the Unbelievable podcast today, which consisted of a discussion between AC Grayling and Peter S Williams on the topic of Grayling's new book: The God Argument. The book, incidentally, is sitting on my shelves waiting for me to find the time to read it. The discussion centred around Grayling's portrayal of the arguments for God, with Williams and the host highlighting what they saw as the problems with Grayling's thinking on the arguments.

It might be worth getting into the discussion around the moral argument another time, but for now I want to focus on an analogy that Peter Williams gave for the fine-tuning argument. The analogy goes something like this: lets suppose I've taken your bank card and I've tried to withdraw money from an ATM, but I did not know your pin. Yet despite this limitation, I was able to guess the pin and withdraw the money. It seems really improbable that I was able to do so, and you'd be sceptical that I was able to do so without that knowledge. For a four-digit pin, that's ~1/10000 chance. Yet when we look at all the ways the universe could exist, the fraction that allows for something even remotely like life is near infinitesimal. It follows that just like we see someone guessing as an unlikely explanation, that to say the universe happened by chance for our benefit is an unlikely explanation.

The next step, as far as theism is concerned, is to use design as a way of providing an explanation. This analogy is contrasted with Grayling's own analogy of trying to think about all the unlikely circumstances that would lead to his existence - that things had to happen for his parents to meet and for them to reproduce when they did, and so on back through the ages, whereby the chain of events is incredibly improbable, yet that fact doesn't require any other explanation.

While I do have suspicions about Grayling's argument in the way it was presented, I'll reserve judgement until I've read his book. Prima facie, Williams looks to have a point about the inadequacy of such a statement, but I think that Williams analogy is a step in the wrong direction. The reason has nothing to do with how to calculate the probabilities of life and how universes come about - as I lack the sufficient knowledge of physics to even begin to ponder the meaning of the question - but that in what we do know about the history of life in this universe, Williams' analogy seems utterly nonsensical.

Contingency already plays a huge role in the world as it is now. If the non-avian dinosaurs weren't wiped out by catastrophic events 65 million years ago, then there wouldn't have been the rise of mammals, the evolution of hominids, and even analogies like the ATM machine one. Yet the extreme unlikelihood of those events for our existence don't suggest that we should think of the plate tectonics and killer asteroids as being guided by a purposive designer for our benefit.

Even if the universe could be argued to be improbable on its own, it seems apparent that we cannot tell the story of our own existence without invoking chance and contingency in a sufficient and explanatory way. For the analogy, it's worth reflecting on just how lucky we are to be here with no other explanation beyond the happenings of how life evolved on this planet given the circumstances of the planet. The pin analogy makes it seem like the idea of fine-tuning means that we're the product of this fine-tuning. Yet there's no reasonable reason to think this is so.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

An Unbridgeable Gap?

In recent months I've largely withdrawn from commenting on sites where people already largely agree with me, and I've tried my hand at commenting at more neutral or even hostile venues. My hope was (at least how I consciously rationalise it) that the conversation would improve because one factor contributing to hostility - venturing into a place where people disagree - would be removed. Needless to say, it was a fool's hope.

I'm not trying to say it's everyone else who is the problem; I see no reason to think that my attitudes and biases weren't a factor in my failure to have meaningful dialogues. The cynic in me would write it off as: one's desire to have an interfaith dialogue is inversely proportional to their ability to engage in one, though that is probably a skewed view from encountering too many Jesus-bots*.

Perhaps a more charitable interpretation is that there is a gap between the language of the scientific and the language of the spiritual. To be more precise, there's a focus on private experience at the heart of many spiritual claims that are shielded and privileged beyond anything the sciences can say.

The general argument is that there are certain things that we can hold as self-evidentially true simply by our experience of them. In the case of near-death experiences, we'd have to take at face value the accounts of people sensing themselves leaving their bodies and experiencing that environment without the sensory organs nor the brain to process it. In the case of private revelation, we'd have to take it at face value that the experience of God is a divine one.

And due to privileging the private experience, the lack of having a private experience is taken as lacking the knowledge to make an informed decision. One claim was that Richard Dawkins is deluded to deny the supernatural because he hasn't taken any magic mushrooms - a nonsensical proposition until it is factored in that private experience trumps all. The same factor makes sense of those who define faith as God-given. It may seem to the outsider that it's an irrationality, but that's because they haven't been touched by God.

Because of all this, I'm coming around to the opinion that interfaith dialogues aren't just hindered by our personal biases and convictions, but that the nature of beliefs act as a barrier to exploring the issue at all. While one can discuss and share publicly-accessible knowledge, private knowledge is off limits to all but the one who has the experience. Any belief that ultimately roots itself in a private experience means that the conversation hinges around accepting such an experience at face value.

If one side is approaching the question through reason / evidence, while the other is relying on personal experience, what's left to discuss? Perhaps all that's left is the argument over whether private experience can really have the epistemic power that is assigned to it, but that approach is fraught with motivated reasoning, and really not the domain of anyone outside of the relevant scientific and philosophical disciplines. For the rest of us, the gap between what's publicly debatable and what's privately held prohibits any meaningful dialogue.

*To be fair, it wasn't just aspiring apologists. There were plenty of people of various backgrounds all believing they were right, and spoke only to that effect. One of the saddest cases was someone whose interactions with others was to call them "word slaves" ad nauseum. A more facile case was someone who claimed to be the world's foremost expert on religion as well as a branch of quantum mechanics (nowhere to be found on Google Scholar), then got offended when asked to present his qualifications. In any case, it wasn't the ideal circumstances for reasoned conversation. Perhaps I was just in the wrong place.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Driving Analogy

Consider the following three scenarios:
  1. A driver refuses to wear a seatbelt
  2. A parent fails to secure their young child's seatbelt
  3. Someone drives drunk
In each of these scenarios, it reflects the choice of an individual. Yet these three scenarios aren't equivalent. In the first, the person is taking a personal safety risk. If they end up in a car accident, the chances of injuring themselves are much greater. In the second, their own choice puts at risk someone who couldn't make that choice for themselves. In the third, their choice is putting at risk other people since roads are a shared resource.

When I think of health claims, I don't care so much if a person chooses to treat themselves with whatever they think were work. If they have cancer and want to cure it by homoeopathy, it's their funeral. Think that magnets or shark cartlidge will cure a bad knee? A fool and their money are soon parted. This is the equivalent of someone not wearing their seatbelt. While there might be other factors to consider (such as individuals organising together to claim that seatbelts are a propaganda device of Big Auto that cost countless lives), it's their freedom to make that choice.

The child case is a bit more tricky. After all, parents do have responsibility for their children, but it's also recognised that a child has rights beyond the parent's dominion. A parent using prayer to cure a sick child while there's actual medical intervention that could help the child a gross violation of that child's liberty. Not strapping a child in securely may be harmless in most trips, but seatbelts aren't there for most cases - they are there for when things go horribly wrong.

Many diseases are communicable. Someone infected with the flu deciding to come to work because they're "taking echinacea" is shirking their social responsibility and putting others at risk. Like the drunk driving scenario, there are potential consequences for people who didn't make that choice. Vaccines are a good example of this, as not only is it putting the individual at risk, but it also puts others at risk (as recent epidemics have sadly shown).

The idea that it's one's personal freedom to choose what "treatments" they wish to undergo only works when that ailment/treatment is only putting themselves at risk. For the latter two cases, it should be uncontroversial that it's not just their own freedom at play. It is uncontroversial in the seatbelt case because people agree that seatbelts save lives. Yet if someone believed that seatbelts not only have no effect, but actually caused harm, how do you separate out that they should be forced to use a seatbelt with their child? Or if they believed that they were a good driver no matter how much they drank, would it be seen as anything other than intrusion that they would not be allowed on the road in that condition?

The difference between driving and alt-med is that people don't dispute the facts in driving. Alt-med is filled with science-denial and paranoid conspiracies in order to justify the harm that they cause. The personal freedom many argue for harms the personal freedom of others, so they just deny the facts instead.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Am I A Dishonest Atheist?

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
The above quote is taken from a review of A.C. Grayling's The God Argument written by Damon Linker. I've heard this sentiment expressed often enough, yet I've never really understood what it means. Perhaps I am only paying lip service when I affirm all those points, but haven't truely internalised it. And while I could nitpick that humanity is not entirely the product of random events (natural selection is a non-random process), it's hard to see just how all these things are meant to be so terrible.

I'd like to dismiss it at rhetoric (can one be a fair critic of the arguments for a position if they find the consequences for that position so dire?), but since the point comes up often perhaps I am missing something. Why do we need to worry about being alone in the universe? There are 7 billion of us after all - and our brains don't need more than about 150 of them at any given time. Why do we need someone to hear our prayers? We can communicate with others here and not. Why do we need humans to be wanted into existence? I'm here because my parents wanted me. Why do we need to have intrinsic dignity? We decide the dignity for ourselves. Why should our certain annihilation worry us? It's life we care about, and that comes before death. Why does ultimate suffering matter? We live contingently. Why does it not matter that our lives matter in a larger sense? Our lives matter now. Why does it matter that there's no ultimate punishment for crimes? Again, we don't live in the ultimate.

Now perhaps I'm being dishonest with myself. This blog entry won't matter in any ultimate sense, nor will it make much of a difference to anything other than satisfying a personal psychological disposition. Yet I'm not deluding myself (at least I don't think I am) into thinking that there's some ultimate sense in which this is ultimately meaningful and enriching.

God, it seems, solves a problem that is of the believer's own creation. Are these really universal problems, or problems that come from a belief to begin with? And even if they are universal, would we be doing anything other than appeasing our psychological dispositions? It's hard to see that even if these are real problems for us, that they are real in any sense other than a projection onto the universe.

It does seem odd that religious people keep telling atheists how terrible it is to be an atheist to the point that they have to tell happy atheists that they're doing it wrong. I can only conclude that divine hiddenness is only a problem if you believe that there's really a God.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Classic Films: The Seventh Seal

"You're lucky to have such a fluid tongue that you believe your own twaddle." - Blacksmith Plog
I worry that I'm not qualified enough to deal with literature heavy in symbolism. I always wonder whether or not I'm taking the right messages away, or whether I'm simply projecting, or even if I'm too dumb to get it. Or perhaps I am meant to inject myself into art, in which case I worry any such interpretation will come off as primitive and shallow.

Det sjunde inseglet is a film about a man having an existential crisis in the face of his imminent demise. More specifically, he wants to overcome the problem of divine hiddenness, for he foolishly seeks meaning in God. If there is no God "Then life is a preposterous horror" the knight Antonious Block laments. This quest for God manifests itself mainly in conversations with a personification of death, which no doubt carries far more symbolic significance than I can project onto it. It's a Faustian bargain sans bargain, though the cynic in me writes this off as a way of sparing us (the audience) an internal monologue.

Setting the film during the plague - and having the protagonist serve in the crusades - adds a sense of authenticity to the struggle. While Woody Allen might craft out meaning through opining into a camera in modern-day Manhattan, a conversation with death while surrounded by plague victims and repenters engaging in self-flaggelation really hits home. It's a cruel and vicious world; a world normally far removed from what modernity has given us, but the great existential questions are still the same.

It felt more like reading philosophy than watching a film; with characters and events merely serving as vehicle for exploring underlying themes. The dialogue was clever in a profound way, giving much for the willing viewer to contemplate. In the week or so since I watched the film, I've found myself going back over certain scenes in my mind; and rereading the "memorable quotes" that people put on the Internet. Yet it feels like I've only scratched the surface.

Not having a strict religious upbringing, I felt that a lot of the symbolism of the film was lost on me. I found myself confused at the knight's dilemma; nodding along to the squire, laughing at the fools whipping themselves, pitying the plight of the blacksmith, and (like the knight) finding comfort in the familial. And if I were to draw a conclusion of what the film-maker wanted the audience to come away with, it was the most important move the knight made in his game. It was that same lesson that Ridley Scott masterfully portrayed at the climax of Blade Runner. The Danse Macabre is our eventual fate, and there's no escaping that. Until then there's life.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Classic Films: To Kill A Mockingbird

"I swore never to read again after 'To Kill a Mockingbird' gave me no useful advice on killing mockingbirds. It did teach me not to judge a man based on the colour of his skin, but what good does that do me?" - Homer Simpson
I've never seen a Hollywood film, or any other film for that matter, that makes the case for racism. Perhaps they exist, but I do not know of them. It's not to say that films have no racist elements to them, or at the very least don't help the case against racism by their (ab)use of stereotypes; but as far as films go, the anti-racism message is one of those things one can explicitly preach without it being derided as propaganda.

It doesn't (shouldn't?) need to be said that the message of such films is a very socially important one. And as far as films go in the genre, To Kill A Mockingbird is the most powerful I have seen. It was, I think, because of it telling the story through the eyes of innocent children. The simple plea for empathy combined with Gregory Peck's excellent articulation of the cultural norms, were points well made.

I'm used to modern courtroom dramas where there's always doubt put on the circumstances. There can never be a clear-cut case anymore, probably because it feels contrived. This being a clear case of injustice wouldn't make for good TV today, but it was important for the message about the prejudices of the time. It struck me as really odd that only one side of the closing arguments was presented, but given what the film was trying to say, it was the right decision to do so.

While later films directly addressing race like Mississippi Burning or American History X tried their hand at realism, To Kill A Mockingbird was fantasy. By telling the story the way it did, it seemed to represent a hope for the future - a future in which people would look beyond their own prejudices and those of their society and towards what makes each of us valuable as humans. Maybe it was a naive hope (certainly a hope that looks hopelessly anachronistic from my 21st century perspective), but it's hard not to feel moved by that hope.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Informed Consumerism

I remember a news article a few years ago about a butcher in Perth who started selling horse meat, despite receiving death threats for doing so. It's one of those interesting cases where differences in cultural sensibilities come to light. With the recent horse meat scandal in Europe, it seems that the British share that Australian revulsion to the thought of eating horse meat, while the rest of Europe is instead outraged over the mislabelling of the meat.

I can sympathise with people having a taboo violated without their consent, though that problem stems from the underlying problem of not having informed consent. If they were correctly identified as horse meat burgers, it existing might have been a source of revulsion to some, but at least then they could have avoided the product. The incorrect labelling is the problem here.

One of the things that hit me strongest in Food Inc. was the corporate reluctance to properly label food items. Their reasoning: the consumer is too ill-informed to be able to be given accurate information. Of all the things in that movie that could have outraged me, that outraged me the most. I'm pro-science and not in any way opposed to bringing science to our food, but it's vitally important that I as a consumer is not being misled about what I'm eating.

In the case of the horse meat, the companies involved violated that most basic and important of societal agreements - a transaction in good faith. As consumers, we aren't in a position to trace back the source of our food to its exact origin, nor do we have DNA testing equipment that can be taken with us to the supermarket. The labels are all we really have in order to make an informed choice. Obfuscation and dishonesty violate that social contract.

We can't be informed consumers unless we know what it is we are consuming. I'd contend leaked exposé videos of parts of the process with varying degrees of truth are a symptom of this lost understanding. I'd also contend those paranoid chain emails and websites about deadly products are too. Though it's understandable, if something so innocuous as what meat is being used in a product cannot be correctly conveyed, just what can we trust about a secretive and arcane industry?

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Classic Films: Chinatown

"You're a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. Huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses." - Thug
I'm in two minds about Chinatown. In its favour, the film was well made, had great performances, interesting characters, and kept up the tension and mystery. On the other hand, the red herring twist was reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst. The movie begins innocuously as a murder mystery, gradually building into a political conspiracy. But with 20 minutes to go, the film reveals that the real dirty truth was an incestuous relationship. After that, it was hard to concentrate on anything other than my disappointment with the film.

Yet over the last few days, I've had a chance to digest the film. And as I thought about it more, the more that grievance seemed insignificant. After all, the reveal is not the journey, and the journey was (otherwise) masterfully done. The whole film being told from a single perspective, including occasionally jumping into the first-person, made for captivating viewing. We saw the events unfold as they appeared to the private eye, where Jack Nicholson's performance as J.J. Gittes made every scene. It was captivating, it was mysterious, and it was very unexpected that LA in the middle of a drought could make for a good location for film noir.

Some of the choices in cinematography surprised me in a good way. One thing that really impressed me was how unchoreographed the fight scenes were. It was ugly to the point of being almost humorous, and very refreshing to see a leading role with someone who hasn't spent his nights secretly training for hand-to-hand combat.

Beyond that, I really don't have much to say. The film was intriguing enough that the incest twist angered me rather than made me pity the film (like I did with The Village), so that to me suggests the story really captivated me up until that point. And I have no complaints about the dark ending, especially after what difference removing the feel-good ending did to Blade Runner.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Classic Films: Network

"We're talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television." - Frank Hackett
When I first heard that quote uttered, my mind immediately leapt to Glenn Beck. Of course that name could be filled by any number of pundits on TV today, and my mind jumped to the conclusion that this was going to be a smart drama about the effects of commercialism on news networks. And that message may have been in there, for all I know, but it was lost among heavy and relentless preaching about the evils of television and its effect on last generation. Paranoid preaching that grossly exaggerates the problem, leaving this film not as a smart look at the way ratings drive news and content, but as a blanket condemnation of television on us as individuals.

Perhaps I have Network to thank (blame) for the widespread condemnation of television as a medium. The message was something that's been distributed for as long as I can remember, yet I think the film missed the mark by contrasting the frivolous with the former respectability of the newsroom, instead of going after the pernicious masquerade that the News is. Yes I know this is meant to be a satire, and I know I'm judging the film from a post-FOX era, but the exaggerated news-as-entertainment isn't much of an issue. The moment Peter Finch went to being a newsroom preacher was the moment I lost interest.

But it wasn't enough to have a preacher on TV preaching its ills, but the second half of the film was largely devoted to an old man telling off his mistress with far too many speeches of "back in my day..." It's made worse by the virtue of assuming that TV has taken the humanity out of humans, where now everything is merely acting out a script, and there's no true feeling any more. One scene where the woman's sexual climax comes from listing off ratings was just painful to watch.

The film started with such promise - a fired anchor promises to kill himself on air. While the actual ending could have been a lot worse, the film could have redeemed itself by fulfilling that promise made at the beginning. By that time, the character had shifted from depressed, through outraged, onto borderline insane, then finally into a puppet. Was I meant to care that he was killed for ratings by that stage? He was taken out of all believability long before then. When he implored us to turn off our televisions, I nearly did.

Ironically, it's a TV show that has best captured the ideal of TV news. HBO's The Newsroom does a much better job of it. It too is preachy, but is on the mark. Likewise, the satire that The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or Australia's CNNNN all hit the mark with brilliant satire. Compared to those, Network comes of as elitist and condescending.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Classic Films: Dr Strangelove

"Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent for reasons which at this moment must be all too obvious." - Dr Strangelove
One of the most memorable passages out of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stared At Goats was his description of a military general who reasoned himself into his ability to walk through walls. The book, full of wacky antics of men in uniform, loses its hilarity when I stop and reflect on the destructive capacity they have at their disposal.

While it's easy to get moralistic and preachy about nuclear weaponry, I'm glad that Dr Strangelove went the black comedy path. Anything less wouldn't capture the insanity of the proposition at hand. Perhaps the screwball moments were a little too light, but the satirical comedy shone like a nuclear blast.

The real humour, though, was the same humour that Kurt Vonnegut captured so well in Cat's Cradle. The utter disbelief that these events could possibly transpire, not for its implausibility but precisely the opposite. The strive for power, the dehumanisation of the enemy, and the fear that the opponent will do the same - it all seems jaw-droppingly real. Indeed, that's where my jaw was for the final 20 minutes of the film.

The film is soon to turn 50, and I have never known what it's like to live in cold war conditions. The Soviet Union dissolved when I was 7. The nuclear threat, for me, has been what a terrorist network or state hopes to acquire, or (even worse) a proposed solution in the war on terrorism. We're meant to be frightened that North Korea and Iran have nuclear ambitions, but it's odd that we're at 5 minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock now, while this film was released at 12 minutes to midnight.

The anti-communist rhetoric of the film (especially Jack D Ripper's speech on base) is something that sounds like the anti-Muslim rhetoric of today. Likewise, the paranoid conspiracy ranting of General Ripper sounds quite normal compared to the insane conspiracies of today. The Orwellian message on the military billboard "Peace is our business" was a nice touch.

The imagery of a cowboy riding a nuclear weapon to Armageddon is perfect. If it were an argument, it's the ultimate reductio ad absurdum to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. Rational self-interest is a dangerous thing to gamble on, and with countries still harbouring nuclear ambitions, is there anything to do other than laugh at the insanity? If we didn't laugh, that would be grounds for insanity.

So, yes, I enjoyed Dr Strangelove. Though given I was already a fan of Kubrick, I expected to enjoy it.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Classic Films: Scarface (1983)

"[Y]ou asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." - Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Recently I was watching the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, where I learned a lot about Howard Hughes - including the fact that he was responsible for the original Scarface. As much as I tried to look for the original, I was not able to find it on DVD. So I settled for the 80s remake; though given it was also on the AFI's list of top gangster films, settled might be underselling it.

The first thing that struck me about the movie was how 80s it was, even down to a montage set to pop music. For better or worse, the film definitely lets you know where it sits. It's an ambitious film, as such a story demands, though the runtime made the film feel like it had slightly overstayed its welcome. Did it really need to be near 3 hours to tell that story?

The film centres around the anti-hero Tony Montana (brilliantly played by Al Pacino); a character that through sheer determination drives the world to change around him. A ruthless despicable man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, which was both his path to glory and to his eventual downfall.

This leads to what feels to me as cliché. We cannot root for the anti-hero, we cannot condone what he has done. His downfall is set by his moral trajectory. Otherwise we are rooting for a monster. Here I feel the film did something interesting; it recast the character into a somewhat sympathetic light. He needed to die, but he was broken long before his final breath.

But what lesson are we meant to take from a film where the downfall of a monster was one last shred of humanity? Perhaps its a statement of the inhumanity of the drug trade, and that what we are meant to understand is how ruthless the drug trade is. Indeed, this is what I read the filmmaker argued to avoid censorship, and something entirely understandable by looking at what's happening in Mexico today.

While the film is violence and full of profanities, the film doesn't seem in any way shocking because of them. Maybe in 1983 it was one film that raised the bar, but doesn't stand out today. It's a reminder of how desensitised I've become.

I want to say I enjoyed the film, but I'm not sure how accurate that would be. While it was epic in ambition, and the portrayal by Pacino was mesmerising, it was let done by excessive length, a simplistic plot, and very little in the way of character development. When Walter White explains on Breaking Bad that he's in the empire business, we have taken the journey with him and can see and understand why he's done what he's done. Scarface by contrast was quite hollow - an immigrant who wanted the world, but miscalculated what that actually meant.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Shift To Digital Sales

I was disappointed to read that Green Man Gaming - a digital games website - has decided to join the list of online retailers that support the Australian publishing industry's price-gauging of Australian consumers. It did so, it claims, because the publisher was put under pressure by an Australian retailer.
Hi - we have had a number of enquiries about price increases on Borderlands 2 and XCOM Enemy Unknown in Australia and New Zealand. This was done at the request of the publisher based on local retailer feedback. We would rather not have had to do this but we really value the relationship with our publishing partner.
I'm not faulting Green Man Gaming for this (though it will mean that I won't be getting BioShock Infinite from them given it's a 2K title), but it is disappointing that once again the Australian consumer is being punished for choosing an alternative option to physical product. Especially, too, that the move is in response to a physical distributor putting pressure on the publishing company.

The thing is, the more that I see the possibilities of digital distribution, the more I wonder what the need for physical distribution is any more. It seems that I'm not the only one wondering this, and that its enough of a concern for the physical distribution chain to manipulate the market to justify its own existence.

There are two different ways in which this practice seems unfair. The first is that we as consumers are being punished for choosing differently to the status quo. The retail chain cannot compete in the retail market as it stands, so instead of shifting to cater for the new demand, it is manipulating the market to make it the least unattractive option for buying an attractive product. The second is that by doing this, it perpetuates the high prices that Australians are forced to pay for games.

I want to support gaming, and as a consumer my way of doing this is to pay for products. If I want to see more games being made, I need to pay for existing games. Yet local publishing rights and retail chains are relics of a pre-Internet era; I no more need them than I need Australian book publishers if its going to be cheaper to get books sent from the UK than to buy locally. They are just a price-gauger between me and my gaming.

A long article was recently published on why it is game prices won't go lower for Australians. It's a good read, but what struck me was this line from an anonymous source:
"People complain so much [about game prices in Australia] but they still go out and buy the games. It's a lot of noise but very little action. If consumers got fed up with paying so much for games in this country, they'd stop buying them altogether, both at retail and digitally. But that hasn't happened on a mass scale yet."
There's no question that games are an in-demand product. Yet stores like Green Man Gaming are a way for people to have their displeasure recorded as more than just noise. If it weren't that people were looking for cheaper online alternatives, then why would retail chains and publishers be worried about the online presence? Otherwise voicing our displeasure is all we can do. And as one who has stopped buying games when they are being price-gauged*, it's disappointing that an alternative to abstaining altogether is being taken away.

I'm happy to pay for games, I'm not happy to be ripped-off because I need to support an outdated distribution model. People using Green Man Gaming (as opposed to acquiring the games illegally) was a legitimate way of expressing displeasure at the current state of retail in Australia. For me, the hunt is on for another GMG equivalent until the eventual (yet sadly prolonged) death of those archaic retail chains. I'm just glad that I was able to pick up XCOM Enemy Unknown when I did off GMG, as its a great game and well worth supporting.

*Fallout New Vegas, Civilization V, RAGE, Diablo III, Max Payne 3, and Farcry 3 are all AAA titles that have been lost sales due to price-gauging. I've been happy to wait until they're bargain bin and on massive discount before purchasing.

Dishonored Hornets' Nest Achievement

This isn't really much of anything, but since this blog is my online dumping ground, I thought this is as good a place as any to link to a brief instructional video I made on how to get a particular achievement in the excellent game Dishonored.

Still playing through the game (nearly finished), and still very much enjoying the experience.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Lance Armstrong Is The Victim Of A Conspiracy!!!

Lance Armstrong was to go down in history as the greatest athlete in the history of humanity. If he were born in another age, we'd learn about the demigod he would no doubt have been come to be recognised as. Instead, in our cynical sensationalistic time, driven by a corrupt media and the insatiable desire to destroy all that is good, his name has been driven through the mud.

I didn't see his "confession" on Oprah (obviously you use Oprah because she's not going to ask the tough questions), but I'm sure it wasn't really him. It's obviously a stunt double, and you can tell it's not him because he looks nothing like the real Lance. This is an actor who people see as Lance because they want to see him as Lance. There's some serious schadenfreude going on, stemming from the jealously that they are all too fat, ugly, and stupid to even know how to ride a bike.

And it's that jealousy that has driven those absurd accusations against him. All those other riders, the dopers who couldn't touch Lance even when cheating themselves, have to make up stories about the one clean rider who embarrassed those cheaters time and time again. Are we really meant to take the word of cheating cheats who lied about cheating? They are self-confessed liars and cheaters! Hence their word is worthless.

Since there is no real evidence against Lance, this witch-hunt is wrong. To strip away the greatness from the greatest sportsman in history is the greatest injustice our society has ever done! Lance Armstrong passed all his drug tests - FACT. Lance Armstrong was never caught using or with drugs - FACT. Everyone testifying against him is a self-confessed liar or being threatened by the US Government - FACT. The only FACT we can take away from this is the FACT that the facts don't add up.

The media even admits it themselves. In trying to account for the overwhelming absurdity of their own conspiracy, they admit that this would have to be the most elaborate doping conspiracy in the history of sport. Absurd!!! Might as well allege that Lance was bribing other racers too. Hah! What does the media take us for?

We shouldn't stand for this! Those of us who care about the Truth should stand up for Lance Armstrong. His only crime was being the best, and those who hate that fact have ruined his reputation. They may take away his records, they may take away his Olympic bronze medal, they may his prize-money, but they can NEVER take away his TRUE greatness.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Classic Films: Taxi Driver

"I'm not Bertrand Russell. Well what do ya want. I'm a cabbie you know." - Wizard
One would think that a moralistic misanthrope would not be well-suited to life as a taxi driver; especially not on a night shift in a big city where there are so many triggers. I'm not sure whether moralist or misanthrope are completely accurate descriptions for Travis Bickle, but I do feel it captures something about the character.

Immediately, through narration and fascinating cinematography, I was drawn into the isolation and loneliness of Travis Bickle. The city was alive, yet he was detached. He carted people around whom he despised, took fares that a sane person would turn down for risk to personal safety. While other cabbies prompted him to buy a gun to protect himself, he bought one after a fare insinuated what it would do to a woman's pussy.

The film reminded me in many ways of The King Of Comedy, especially that the main character was driven by his own delusions. De Niro was perfect for the role. Reading up on the film after, the scenes where he nailed aspects of portraying the delusions of the main character were not scripted. Don't know how many takes they did, but the ones there were sublime. The scene in the restaurant trying to justify why the women he was semi-stalking should go out with him was just perfect.

If there's one issue I have with the film, it was the ambiguity of the final act. Why was it that he was going to kill the presidential candidate? Was the ending real or a delusion? Perhaps these questions are better not answered, or perhaps a 2nd viewing is warranted (a 2nd viewing is most definitely on the cards anyway). It was fascinating that Bickle was such an antihero that his effort to rescue a child prostitute is not heroic in the slightest, let alone fully appreciate just what the consequences of his actions were. It was brutal, surreal, and almost sociopathic. But as I think the point was, we were looking at the situation through the eyes of Travis Bickle, as the contrast with the media reaction demonstrated. What a film!

Monday, 7 January 2013

Classic Films: Duck Soup

"He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot." - Groucho Marx
Comedy is something that really doesn't seem suited to the feature length presentation. Looking through the AFI's list of top 100 comedies, of the films I've seen on that list, very few I would consider good because they were funny (that's not to say they weren't good films). Aside from Monty Python's Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, there's very few comedies I'd watch for their comedic value. For me, a stand-up show or TV are better avenues for laughs (I write this as I'm rewatching Seinfeld for the Nth time).

Comedy was at the focus of this film. Jokes were coming as quick as they could be delivered, especially when Groucho was talking. And if one joke fell flat, there was always another on its way. Some of the jokes did indeed fall flat, but there were quite a few hilarious ones too. The delivery of the final confrontation with the ambassador was superb. The visual gags were more hit than miss, including the wonderful mirror scene. I was surprised that they could get away with an implicit reference to bestiality in 1933!

I might blame sitcoms for modern films trying to do comedy with facile attempts for plausibility, and I think they suffer for it. Duck Soup didn't leave us wondering how on earth someone like Mr Firefly could just get put into a position of power, or why two incompetents (including one who turned everything into a visual gag) were given the task of being a spy. Nor were we wondering why that poor vendor needed to have his hat set on fire twice.

I was curious to find out after seeing the movie that the Marx Brothers first began in the Vaudeville and on Broadway before making films. The film, especially early on had that theatrical flavour to it - complete with a musical number or two just for the sake of it. Entertaining, but something that seems largely lost to modern cinema outside of Mel Brooks films. I do wonder if the film's comedy was partly a relic of the silent film era, or that comedy of this style is better suited to stand-up routines. In either case, modern comedies don't resemble this apparent historically significant comedies, and in my opinion that's a pity.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Classic Films - The Challenge

Last year, I was able to work my way through a different album each day. Towards the end of the year, I realised that this was an opportunity to be able to listen to some of the culturally and historically significant albums. While I managed to get a few in, a large portion of the new music I heard were from unsigned or underground metal acts whose music was on Bandcamp.

About 6 months ago, after reading another one of those "greatest films of all times" list of which I had not even heard of most of the films listed - let alone seen any - I decided that for this year, I would watch a classic film each week. I made a list and started watching films on it (Annie Hall, Vertigo, The Maltese Falcon, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Battleship Potemkin, etc.), but this year I've decided to make a regular thing of it.

I use the term classic a bit loosely, so I can incorporate films that are of cult status, or classic for all the wrong reasons. My experience of doing this in the past is I see the things that shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy referenced/ripped-of/paid homage to. In any case, I hope to better understand the magic of cinema as Scorsese brilliantly conveyed in the delightful film Hugo. Week 1: Duck Soup Week 2: Taxi Driver

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Brainstorming Session At Bethesda

"Look what we've done with the Fallout franchise. We've turned an existing franchise into millions of sales. Can we do that again?"
"If we're taking franchises that were big in the late 90s, I wonder if there's a way we can reboot the Thief franchise?"
"Eidos still owns the intellectual property rights to that game."
"Besides, rumour has it that they are working on a new game."
"Still, I really think we could have a go of doing a Thief game well. What if we took the general idea of Thief and changed a few of the mechanics?"
"Like what?"
"Well, instead of slowly sneaking up on people and clobbering them over the head, how about we sneak up on people to stab them?"
"That's a start, but it doesn't sound like enough."
"We could change the focus away from stealing. Stealing would be there, but it wouldn't matter as much."
"So what would the goal be?"
"Remember in Oblivion where we assassinated the Emperor at the beginning? Imagine if the Emperor's guards were in on it and could frame the protagonist."
"And from there, the protagonist seeks revenge... I like it. What else?"
"What if, too, we take away the punishment for not being stealth? We make it so stealth can be there for those gamers who crave stealth, but also allow gamers to play it like an FPS."
"But won't that discourage people from using stealth? Why make a stealth mechanic if it's only optional?"
"I know, we'll reward players who use stealth with a different ending - a good ending. And punish players who just kill everyone by giving them a bad ending."
"That sounds a little like Bioshock."
"Bioshock also did cool magic powers, perhaps we can use them too."
"Oh, and we should include zombies because they're the in-thing right now."
"Yes, this is sounding more and more like a game. Let's get on this quick before Thief 4 comes out."

Perhaps Bethesda weren't going out on a limb conceptually, but what's not to love about a game that combines Thief, Bioshock, and the Elder Scrolls franchise?