Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Friday, October 26, 2007

propaganda in American TV

So, I've got an episode of NCIS on in the background, and I realize that the plot centers around something quite bizarre. Apparently there are Iranian secret service agents trying to buy weapons in the United States and are willing to commit murder to do so.

Wow. Just wow.

This is what passes for plausible plotting at CBS these days. I'm not going to bother to explain what's wrong with this.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


In discussing the "fine-tuned universe" argument at PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula, I tackle the usual fallacy regarding unlikelihood. In many arguments advanced by so-called Intelligent Design theorists, it is argued that the very low likelihood of some physical state forces the observer to concede the point that design has been involved.

Indeed, this argument-by-unlikelihood is the foundation of intelligent design.

It's crap. This is what I say
(original typos included for posterity's sake)

As a final note, this "fine-tuning" argument, like many arguments involving probability advanced by IDers, (not that I'm accusing steve of being one) is based on the implicit notion that events that are highly improbable could not possibly have happened by chance.

Whenever this kind of argument occurs, I have to ask: just what is the minimum p value for which something with probability p can happen by chance? People who make these kinds of arguments misunderstand the relationship of probability and statistics with science. All that probability and statistics can do is assign relative value to competing, well-form scientific hypotheses. Statistics alone cannot be used as a justification for an argument or theory. Even if somebody were to say "the probability of the universal constants being exactly what they are is 10^-425665327" I would say: "so what?" Setting aside for the moment the dubious premise that this probability can be well-defined and meaningful, it still doesn't mean a damned thing to describe the probability of an event when we already know that the event has happened.

Since we know the event has happened, and we know that there is no lower bound p_min which forms the mathematical boundary of chance, telling me that p[X] is really, really low for some event X for an event X that I observe does not imply, by itself, that the event X did not happen by chance.

As a demonstration of this principle: get a bag full of, say, 100 20-sided dice. Roll them in order, noting the number rolled on each. Whatever result you get, the odds of it having happened by chance is 20^-100. And that's a really, really small number! And yet, to all apperances, that result just happened by chance.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

good morning!

Somebody planted a camera in my bedroom!

Hat tip to Grrlscientist at ScienceBlogs.

Buffy is very much like this in mornings, though she is more likely to simply be loud and attack me with headbutts than to resort to more drastic measures.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

where oh where is my camera?

OK, so when I moved out of Harrow in August, I packed everything up and hit the road. I am certain that I had the camera before packing up, and I am nearly certain I packed it somewhere.

I thought it was in my suitcase or backpack that I was bringing to the States, but when I got to the US, it wasn't there. Then I thought "well, I must have left it in the bag in the office or in my desk", since I had stored some things there to pick up in September when I was to pick up the cats. So I wasn't too worried, until I got to London in September, and the camera was not in the office.

At this point, I'm wondering if it was posssible that I left it in the flat when I left. But I really don't think I did. I was throwing everything of value in bags, and leaving the camera out? Doesn't seem possible.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm fairly certain I threw the camera in the suitcase that was going with me to the States.

So now my theory is that it was stolen from my suitcase. But maybe it was stolen from the office?

Or maybe I was absent-minded and left it on the Tube? Nah - I never carried the camera around outside of the backpack.

So, if anybody has seen my camera, let me know. It's fairly obsolete as digital cameras go, seeing as it was made in 2000 and features a whopping 2.3 megapixels! I am pretty sure I could get a more powerful camera these days for $100 or possibly less.

I would include a photo of the camera, so you would be able to recognize it, but curiously, I do not have a photo of my camera.

(Yes, that last little bit was my entire motivation for this boring post.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

taxi to the dark side

Rather than watch the Cold Case marathon on France 1 or 2, I decided to watch a documentary on Arte TV, a French-German network. It's a documentary by Alex Gibney discussing the torture policy implemented at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo.

I don't want to say much about it because it's so depressing. But one thing that has struck me is how the "techniques" involved simply amounted to rationalized sadism. A person who has resisted interrogation for 8 months is not going to suddenly "crack" because the sadistic, perverse side of the interrogators has been given free reign.

And that doesn't address the question of just what kind of information can be obtained from a person who has already been detained for 8 months. Surely we're well beyond any "ticking time bomb" scenario at that time. Indeed, given the disconnect between the prisoner and Al Qaeda at that point, it's hard to imagine any valuable operational intel would be unearthed at that point.

OTOH, if you were engaged in the practice of trying to get people to confess to crimes to justify the detainment, I can see the desire to continue pressing with harder and harder techniques. This is, of course, the problem of moving backwards from the conclusion to the evidence. But if there is any common thread to the madness that has consumed a certain part of the US in recent years, it's the tendency to conflate "knowing" with feeling a strong prejudgment.

Oh, and when all is said and done, a good number of the people detained have yet to charged with anything and would presumably be considered innocent. And that leads to the title of the film, which concerns a taxi driver taken, tortured, and killed by American troops.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

goddamn Blogger

first it insists on giving me everything in French, and then it diches my edits to the review I was writing.


Now to finish the review for the THIRD TIME.

(message to be deleted when I'm less annoyed with Blogger)

an antidote to the glorification of crime in cinema

In the distant past, back when the Rat Pack was walking the street, there was made a film called Ocean's Eleven. The film was basically an excuse for Sinatra and his buddies to be in Las Vegas for a few weeks and get paid while they were partying all night. The film is somewhat forgettable, and is only noteworthy today for the remake which was made a few years ago.

In the original Ocean's Eleven, the bad guys lose all the money at the end of the film. That ending was in line with the dominant moral philosophy of the time, which said that crime must not be shown to be lucrative in film. After all, every film must demonstrate the truth of the notion that crime doesn't pay.

The remake with Clooney, Pitt and the gang had a much different ending, as I'm sure everybody reading this knows. Indeed, in recent years films like the Oceans' Eleven series, Entrapment, the Italian Job remake, The Score, etc. Indeed, the fantasy theft caper is a booming genre in Hollywood these days.

So, I decided to see an English-language film in Montpellier, after sitting through Shoot 'Em Up in French a couple weekends past. (Oh, I'm sure I missed the subtleties of that film because of the language barrier!) This evening I saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei.

I really liked this film. I recommend it highly to everybody. It is an antidote to the trend of glamorizing crime in films of recent years.

(minor spoilers follow)

This film concerns a robbery planned by a man named Andy, played by Hoffman, and his brother named Hank, played by Hawke. Andy and Hank are both short on cash, so they decide to rob a small jewelry store in a suburban strip mall, a "Mom and Pop" place. The film starts with the robbery, which goes horribly wrong when the robber, who is a third man, is shot by the old woman alone in the store. In retaliation he shoots her back, critically injuring her, before she shoots him again and he flies through the glass door of the store, startling Hank, who has been waiting outside in a car in a curious moustache, wig, hat and glasses disguise. Hank drives off, swearing.

The film is told from three points of view, those of Hank, Andy, and their father, Charles. The magnitude of the fiasco is slowly revealed.

First, we find out that the store was not just any "Mom and Pop" store. It turns out that the Mom and Pop were Charles and his wife, Nannette. The plan was to hit the store when the place was manned by a nearsighted employee, Doris.

Then it's revealed that it wasn't Doris there after all.

As even more secrets become revealed, the fiasco slowly crushes all of the people involved. Decisions that seem initially innocuous ultimately turn out to have drastic implications.

I am a fan of realism in films, and the crime genre has been in need of a jolt of reality to the fantasy fare that audience have been gobbling up in recent years. What this film underscores is that crime is borne of selfishness and hatred, and the path taken can have severe consequences. Thankfully, this film does not fall into the opposite trap common in serial killer films (and much of TV crime), namely viewing life through a "good guys vs. bad guys" filter, where there are a certain number of "crazy" or "evil" people out there just waiting to prey on the weak and innocent. This other genre feeds the police state mentality, while the caper genre feeds the guilt-free capitalist mentality.