Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pet Philosophers (Script from 2008)

This is a mockumentary I wrote in 2008 for a Grade 12 Directing and Scriptwriting class. It takes place in a world where people keep philosophers as pets.

1: Jennifer Fontaine interview


Tell us who you are, and a little bit about yourself.

I’m Jennifer Fontaine, and I own two philosophers.  My children have gone off to college and my husband has passed on, so it’s nice to have something around to take care of.

Tell us a little bit about your philosophers.

The older one is Nietzsche… is that right?  I’ve never been able to pronounce it correctly, so we just call him Nee-Nee.  My younger one is called Sartre.  He and Nee-Nee get along fine, but you know, Nee-Nee’s getting on in years, and I think he’s had a good life, so I think it’s time to put him to sleep.

How has the “Cognitive Critters” phenomenon affected your life, postively or negatively?

It’s always nice to have around something to take care of.  Ever since my children have gone off to college and Harold passed away, I guess you could say having these little guys around has filled a part of that… void, in my life.  I know it sounds a bit silly, I’m sorry.

Now, you say that one of your philosophers is getting old and you want to put it to sleep.  What is the process for putting a philosopher to sleep?

The book is upstairs, but I’ll see if I can paraphrase it.  Basically, you feed the philosopher until it’s so full and satisfied that it’s too stuffed to care about anything.  Then, I will take Nee-Nee into a quiet spot outdoors, and shoot him.

Now that you’re putting your philosopher to sleep, how do you feel about it?

I sometimes get a bit choked up about it… you may need to excuse me a moment… but I’ve come to terms with it.  I think it’s time.  I mean, Nee-Nee’s getting old and senile.  To be honest, I don’t really understand what he says anymore.  Yes, it’s definitely time to let him go.

What do you have to say to people who think of putting a philosopher to sleep as “cruel”?

To be honest, I’m not sure it’s up to me to decide what’s right and wrong.  But the Cognitive Critters handbook says it’s okay, and let’s be honest, it’s better to be dead than to live in misery, in a senile, unwanted state.

2: Dr. Mark Hoffman Interview


Before we go on, would you please tell the audience a little bit about yourself and your business, in summary?

I’m Dr. Mark Hoffman, PhD, and I founded the company, “Cognitive Critters”.  I breed philosophers and see them adopted into loving families.

How did this whole idea start?

I’d just gotten my degree as a veterinarian, and, of course, I had to write papers, so I dealt a lot with the academics at my university.  I noticed that there were a lot of philosophers running around, unable to fend for themselves in this difficult world, and I decided that if someone wasn’t going to try to give them a home, they just wouldn’t survive.  So, I took a few into, and kept them.  Over the next few months, I’d gotten quite a few, and obviously, I couldn’t keep them all, so I got some of my friends and family members to take them off my hands.  And that’s how this whole phenomenon got started.

At what point did you know your idea was going to be a success?

I’d have to say it was my first appearance on “The Susan Show”.  You know, it’s a show that I’ve always respected for keeping with the times, while also maintaining its social messages.  I went on the show, with my book, of course, and it was at that point that I realized that the phenomenon had become a nationwide, uh, thing.

How do you respond to critics like Roger LaMarche, who describe your success as being just a passing fad?

Ah, yes, Mr. LaMarche.  I’ve read his articles.  I think it’s more than just a fad, and I think Mr. LaMarche should see the faces on the people who take the philosophers into their homes.  It’s just a beautiful thing.  You can’t put a price on that.

Do you have any advice for people thinking of getting a philosopher for themselves or a family member?

All I can say is, buy my book.  No, seriously.  It’s a good book, it tells you all you need to know about caring for a philosopher.  You know, feeding, sleeping, that sort of thing.  And you have to keep in mind, a philosopher is a living creature, so it’s important to remember that it’s a big responsibility to take care of one.

Would you show us a philosopher in his natural habitat?

Okay, well, I have two philosophers of my own.  One’s named Kant, the other’s named Hegel.  This is Kant here.  Say hello, Kant.  Okay, he’s a bit shy, isn’t he adorable?  Well, not all philosophers are alike.  Some of them don’t get along with each other.  Kant and Hegel sometimes get into little scraps, occasionally.  It’s just a matter of tearing them apart before it gets too out of hand.

Do you have any final words for the audience?

Having a philosopher around is something that can enrich your life.  It’s not just a pet.  It’s like having a friend around.

3: Roger LaMarche Interview


Before the interview, tell the audience a little bit about yourself.

Okay.  I’m Roger LaMarche, critic for the Enlightener magazine.  My job is to look at culture, and tell people exactly why it’s wrong.  I’ve been working at the magazine for fifteen years or so.

You’ve been keeping up with this fad since the beginning.  How have philosophers as pets swept the nation?

It’s your classic story. Mark Hoffman, he’s the alleged “doctor” behind Cognitive Critters.  He noticed that there were a lot of philosophers around, basically serving no purpose in nature.  But he wants to make a quick buck, so he figures he takes a few, breeds them, and sells them as pets.  Next thing you know, he’s on “Susan”.  Well, you know how it works, a guy goes onto this show, promotes his book and his business, everyone buys it even though they don’t understand it.

Although I’m sure your readers already know the answer to this question, would you mind telling the audience your opinion of the “Cognitive Critters” fad.

The “Cognitive Critters” fad?  Well, that’s all it is, just a fad.  It’ll pass, just you wait.  People will move on to the next big thing.  The “Cognitive Critters” phenomenon is a perfect example of idiotic, illogical, blind consumerism among the proletariat.

May I ask, why do you think so poorly of the fad?

Well, think about it.  People adopt these poor, dumb animals from their local Cognitive Critters center, and feed them and take care of them and whatever for a few years, no problem there.  But sooner or later, the creatures aren’t cute anymore.  People might as well just be flushing them down the toilet like baby turtles and alligators.  They either put the philosophers to sleep, or worse, just let them go and have them roaming the streets.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want these creatures in my backyard.  It seems kinder to just kill them, put them out of their misery.

Do you have any final words for the audience?

Don’t buy into propoganda.  Don’t think that you suddenly have to take care of a philosopher just because everyone else is doing it.  They’re useless animals.  I know people don’t like to hear it, but that’s what they are, and you’re not helping anyone by trying to prove any other possibility.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

More Mathematical Cranks

(Crossposted from my Facebook page)

I am now 200 pages into Mathematical Cranks. Neat book. I have a few more comments:

(1) So far, only one woman has been mentioned. The author doesn't use the people's real names, but she was a teacher with a PhD in Mathematics who tried and failed to give a short, simple proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.

(2) Speaking of Fermat's Last Theorem: One interesting fact is that this book was published in 1992, before Andrew Wiles came up with an actual proof.

Other fun fact: Fermat's Last Theorem was, until 1993, neither a theorem nor Fermat's last anything. He wrote it early on in his career, famously saying that he had a marvelous proof that wouldn't fit in the margins of the book he was writing in. But there's good reason to believe that, whatever Fermat's proof was, it was wrong and Fermat himself knew it, because apparently there is evidence that he worked on proving the theorem for n = 4 and 5 later in life life (which would be redundant if he already had a proof for the general case).

(3) You might have heard about the Indiana Pi Bill, and how legislators allegedly tried to legally change the value of Pi. This is a misrepresentation of the story. It wasn't a story about a scientifically ignorant government trying to change reality to their liking: it was the story of one crazy guy who claimed that he had found a set of exact algebraic solutions for Pi (I think this was known to be impossible even at the time) and convinced his representative (no doubt desperate for votes) to bring a bill to the senate proposing that these solutions be made freely available to public schools.

Although, it is still pretty absurd that the bill managed to get to the senate before the other senators laughed it out of existence. It's come up again and again in the book: apparently, it's surprisingly easy to get your bad ideas noticed if you can find a politician desperate enough for your votes.

(4) Most of the stories of these cranks start with, "Person X wrote up their theory, and sent it to over 100 universities across the continent." Apparently, if you just mail your dumb theory to a random university's math department, you'll sometimes get a response.

Don't believe anyone who tells you that scientists are in an elitist conspiracy to keep out people with unconventional ideas: the responses from the mathematicians who deal with these cranks are surprisingly polite for the most part, often more polite than warranted (the cranks themselves usually take criticism personally and immediately start hurling insults at anyone who points out their errors). One guy, who claimed to have come up with a short proof of the Four Colour Theorem, got offended when a professional mathematician said that there would be room for other mathematicians to "build on" what he had done -- as if his work wasn't perfect already!

(5) One more thing: A lot of people have tried to "disprove" non-Euclidean geometry, claiming that Euclid was divinely inspired and anyone who dares question his wisdom is engaging in blasphemy.

But then they try to show that non-Euclidean geometry is invalid by trying to derive Euclid's fifth postulate from the first four. (This is known to be impossible. Euclidean Geometry starts with 5 postulates, and non-Euclidean geometry looks at what happens when you change the fifth postulate.) But if they think Euclid was so perfect, why would they think that Euclid was so stupid as to add a redundant postulate to his system if he only needed the first four?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mathematical Cranks

(Crossposted from my Facebook page)

I'm reading a book called "Mathematical Cranks". It's an anthology summarizing a sample of different people, ranging from the mildly eccentric to the downright insane, who have tried to put forward their bad ideas as legitimate mathematical research.

A couple examples: A guy who claims that the number 57 is intimately linked with every major event in US history; numerous people claiming to have found fault in existing theorems; and a bunch of people who claim to have a Grand Unified Theory of Mathematics, which will change the world and will solve every problem in existence, provided that you purchase their book for 29.99. A modern example would be the Time Cube guy, or roughly half the people listed in the Wikipedia article about Usenet celebrities.

I'm about 56 pages in, and so far, all the cranks mentioned in this book have been male. Further evidence that we need to do more to remove the stigma around women entering the field of fake mathematics.

I get the sense that the author is being as generous as possible to the people he talks about, which I like -- I was worried the book would just be a series of "Hey, let's all point and laugh at this idiot for being bad at math!" but that hasn't been the case.

For example, there's a chapter on the Dozenal Society, a group of people who want everyone to switch to a Base 12 number system instead of Base 10, with the reasoning that Base 12 makes a lot of calculations easier. The author admits that these people aren't *wrong*, per se, but it's still never gonna happen. There are other cases where the crank in question has found something mildly interesting, but it's in the middle of a series of grandiose claims.

Part of the reason I was interested in reading this book is because I'm always interested in figuring out ways I hadn't considered in which my thinking could be wrong. In my last Facebook post, I mentioned that my high school math teacher made a joke about how, if I didn't keep my thinking under control, I would end up like Howard Hughes. I'd like to avoid that fate, if I can (the part where his mental illness drove him to become a paranoid recluse, not the part about being a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist).

And of course, there are a lot of mathematicians who end up losing their sanity obsessing over something or other. The best example that comes to mind is Georg Cantor, who spent his later years alternating between staying in mental hospitals and obsessing over the theory that Francis Bacon is the actual author of all the Shakespeare plays. But the subject of mathematicians and mental illness is a topic for another day.

But a recurring theme I've noticed among the cranks is that the most grandiose claims seem to come from the people who do the least actual mathematics. They spend most of their time talking about how great and powerful their theory is, how it makes all other mathematics obsolete, but then their "theory" turns out to be a couple of equations that aren't really that impressive, without elaborating on how to use these findings.

In other cases, the crank will make a grandiose claim, but fail to actually prove it formally. This is kind of a no-no in mathematics -- not that every finding always requires a formal proof, but if you don't have a proof, at least have the decency to call your finding a "conjecture" rather than a "Grand Unifying Theory that will Change the World". I can't find the quote, but I remember a mathematics blogger saying "The worst kind of mathematics is no mathematics at all" and that seems to be the case here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Phil Robertson, Conformity and You

Phil Robertson (don't stop reading yet, I swear this will be interesting) said something stupid recently. It is something that I don't think anybody I know actually agrees with or takes seriously. There might be a few contrarians among my friends who are interested in taking Phil Robertson's views to their logical conclusion as a purely academic exercise (I'm a bit of a contrarian myself sometimes), but that's not the same thing as sincerely believing it.

And yet, clearly there are people who take Phil Robertson seriously. I guarantee you that swarms of people will jump to his defense, for everything stupid he's said in the past or will say in the future. I'm not talking about defending freedom of speech for views you hate (I don't think he should be arrested, I just think it's sad that he's probably going to live the rest of his life and die as a hate-filled idiot -- an entire human life wasted). I'm talking about people who actively defend his views and believe that people should agree with him.

So, my first question is, why have I never met one? With Duck Dynasty being as big an empire as it is, I would have to think that, even in a place like BC, there must be a non-trivial percentage of people who totally agree with Phil Robertson's worldview. Statistically, I must have walked past a few of them in the street at some point. These people clearly exist. I've just never had the pleasure of having a conversation with one.

I have about 300 Facebook friends. As far as I know, none of these people share Phil Robertson's worldview.

I don't know what percentage of the population of BC shares something similar to Phil Robertson's worldview -- archetypical, old-fashioned, bigoted, religious extremism. Let's say BC is 1% "Robertsonians" to make up a word (I'm just making up a number here, but as they say, if something's worth doing, it's worth doing with fake statistics. I doubt it's as high as 10% or as low as 0.1%).

Then if my friends were selected for me randomly, the odds that a randomly chosen friend is a Robertsonian is 0.01, which means that the odds they are not a Robertsonian is 0.99. Then the odds that all 300 of my friends are not Robertsonians is 0.99^300, which is close to 0.05. Not impossible, but still pretty unlikely, IF we assume that it occurred randomly.

Obviously, it didn't occur randomly. One huge factor is that I've spent the last 6 years in post-secondary education, so I've been spending my time around educated people. But it would be dishonest to ignore the possibility that, like it or not, I'm most likely to find myself gravitating towards people who, for the most part, share my values. If nothing else, I typically don't actively seek out people whose values clash with mine (look up The Parable of the Polygons to see the problem with that).

So: Consciously or unconsciously, I have excluded people from my life because they don't share my values.

On the one hand, I don't expect any of you will think less of me for not wanting to be buddies with Phil Robertson. On the other hand, when you phrase it like that ("excluding people from my life because they don't share my values") I sound like a bit of a jerk. Isn't it supposed to be a good thing to spend time with people who have different values than you have so you can be open-minded and learn from them?

In spite of people like Phil Robertson, I think the answer *might* be yes. It's just not easy to do. You know that anger you feel when someone like Phil Robertson comes along and says something you think is bigoted and ignorant? That's how it feels when you come across a person whose values ACTUALLY clash with yours.

Remember my last long post, where I made fun of people who say "I'm open-minded, but only to good ideas"? Its close cousin is "I'm tolerant of other people's values, unless I think they're going too far" -- if that's all it takes to be tolerant, then Phil Robertson is tolerant too. In fact, so is pretty much every person in the world.

You might wonder why I'm so obsessed with being open-minded to stupid ideas. I'm obsessed with it because it would be so easy to imagine a world where the roles are switched: 99% of the people in BC are the clean, decent, God-fearing Phil Roberts followers, and the other 1% are the frightening, militant, liberal secular humanists who everyone hates. In such a society, would you stick with what you know is right, or would you find yourself convinced by the Robertsonians?

Bear in mind, they have all the cool and powerful people, not to mention all their good columnists are writing thinkpieces about how secular humanists are Problematic. Plus, there are people on the internet who, upon finding a tweet you made expressing your heathen views, will do their best to report it to your employer so you lose your job. What if the people who agree with you are only 0.1% of the population, or 0.001%? What if it was just you?

And -- here's the Twilight Zone twist -- whatever mode of thinking you would apply in this alternate universe, are you applying the same mode of thinking in this universe?

(Take a moment to look up the Asch experiments on conformity if you haven't already heard of them.)

When I see someone like Phil Robertson, I don't think "Hah, what an idiot" -- not because I don't think he's an idiot, but because it's not very productive. My questions are more along the lines of "How does a human brain come to have those beliefs? Heck, how did I come to believe the things I believe? And, in some hypothetical universe where I was wrong and the Phil Robertson and Fred Phelps' of the world are right, what evidence would it take to convince me of it?"

If I have a point here, it's that Phil Robertson's brain is not fundamentally different from yours or mine, and that should terrify you, or at least motivate you to consider how much of your own thinking is in error.

Friday, March 6, 2015


I occasionally hear someone say "I'm open-minded, but only to good ideas." This implies that, as soon as they're exposed to an idea, they *immediately* know whether it's a good idea or not even without taking any time to consider it.

This is an amazing and miraculous talent to have -- the ability to instantly recognize an idea as good or bad. I, for one, usually have to *think* for at least a couple seconds before I know with any certainty whether an idea is good or not (hell, even when I *know* an idea is bad, I usually try to think out its consequences anyway just to make sure I'm not missing anything).

So, the next time I meet someone who says that, I'm going to tie them up in front of a computer screen and force them to watch a program that generates every series of English words in increasing lexicographic order. By their own claim, whenever the series of words describes a good idea, their response will be open-mindedness, which has a somatic feeling which I suspect would lend itself to being detected by an existing scan, possibly fMRI.

The principle is this: you show this person a sentence describing an idea, e.g. "Increase funding of space exploration by X dollars". If the person is open-minded to it, then it's a good idea. If not, reject it. Move on to next sentence.

I know this sounds extreme, but consider all the potential good ideas that nobody has detected yet. Cold fusion, feasible quantum computing, cures for all known diseases -- it would be an extreme act of stupidity NOT to at least try it. Think of the billions of lives that could be saved or improved, compared to the miniscule cost of this one person's freedom and wellbeing.

The human visual system can quite comfortably process visual information at 10 "frames per second" for lack of a better term. Provided we feed the person while they're staring at the screen, and allow them to sleep about a third of the time, I figure we can have them looking at ideas for about 16 hours a day, and we could probably keep the person alive for about 50 years if we had to (and we DO have to -- we can't let an opportunity like this go to waste).

So, at 10 ideas per second, 16 hours a day for 50 years, that adds up to them being exposed to about 10 billion ideas in a lifetime. One issue is the sheer number of possible English sentences. It is estimated that each letter in English represents about 0.6 to 1.2 bits of information (I'll round it to 1 bit). So, with a little cleverness, we would be guaranteed to expose this person to every 33-character English sentence if we wanted to. If we restrict it even more to get rid of obviously nonsensical phrases or restrict ourselves to vocabulary in the fields of ideas we want evaluated (e.g. medicine, engineering, economics) we could probably get even more value out of them.

I mean, unless they're lying about being open-minded, or about being open-minded only to good ideas. But I'm pretty sure nobody would do that.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Darn Anti-Vaxxers, Takin' our Jobs/Women

Currently, I'm seeing a lot of my Facebook friends making posts about how terrible anti-vaxxers are -- basically, that they're idiotic child-abusers who should have their children taken away from them and be given the death penalty (all of those are taken from actual posts I've seen).

My first thought: I think this might be a little extreme.

RE: Idiotic. I'm not an immunologist. I'm guessing most of you aren't either. I don't even know whether an immunologist is the right person to ask questions about vaccines (like how a linguist is not necessarily a person who knows a lot of languages).

But the thing is: science is hard. No matter what your hypothesis about the world is, I guarantee you can find at least one honestly designed study that presents evidence for it and another that presents evidence against it. The problem is that, when people get into camps on one side or another, each side will say that their preferred study "refutes" (or, if you want to be more clickbaity, "destroys" or "demolishes" or "eviscerates") the other side.

There's a reason people spend years in university learning the basics about this stuff, and then spend the rest of their lives doing research. When, for example, you hear that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans, bear in mind that the remaining 3% still know way more about climate science than you do, and if they're wrong, their wrongness is probably based in more information than you have.

So, naturally, when someone's response to anti-vaxxers is to shout "HERD IMMUNITY! HERD IMMUNITY!" or some other word they just heard that day, over and over again, without knowing what it means, I'm not convinced that that person really knows what they're talking about any more than the anti-vaxxers do -- if they're right, they're right by accident.

If being a rational person were easy, everybody in the world would already be doing it. When people make fun of anti-vaxxers, they're saying "Ha ha, look at how stupid those OTHER people are!" without really reflecting on how those other people came to arrive at the stupid beliefs they have. Unless you're an omniscient being, chances are there's some belief you currently have that's just as stupid as being anti-vaccination -- it's just that *your* stupid belief happens not to be in the news just yet.

RE: Child abusers. This is using the term "child abuse" in a kind of nebulous way. Cognitive scientists sometimes talk about prototypes of concepts -- for example, when I say "bird", you're more likely to picture a robin or a sparrow than, for example, a penguin or a potoo (if you've never seen a picture of a potoo, please look it up, for your own amusement). And when I say "child abuse", you're likely to picture a prototypical example like a parent physically beating up a child.

Not having your children vaccinated is bad. But I'm not sure if it constitutes child abuse. And if it is technically child abuse ("the BEST kind of child abuse"?) I'm even less sure that it merits the same connotations as beating up your kids every day.

I don't like arguing semantics. If you think something is really, really bad, then you should be able to explain why it's really, really bad without relying heavily on specific words. If you have to pull out a dictionary and say "X fits definition Y, and Y has connotation Z, so you should associate X with connotation Z!" then you haven't really made an argument, you've just fit a word to a definition and relied on the listener's brain to fill in the connotation.

RE: Children taken away. There is precedent for this kind of thing. When parents try to prevent their children from having a blood transfusion (usually for religious reasons) sometimes the government steps in and decides that the children's lives matter more than the parents' beliefs. I think that's usually fair for blood transfusions, but it seems a tad extreme for vaccinations. Not vaccinating a child doesn't usually put the child in *immediate* danger, at least not in the same way that *not having blood* puts the child in immediate danger.

(Side question that just occurred to me: are there any diseases for which it is possible to immunize children, but NOT adults, i.e. when they grow up, it's too late to be immunized? I know that in the olden days (i.e. until the 90's) it used to be the case that parents would intentionally give their children chicken pox so they would develop an immunity and not get shingles later in life, before the varicella vaccination existed. But are there any vaccinations that need to be given to people when they're children?)

RE: Death Penalty. I've had this feeling for a while that, if you're not mad enough to get off of Facebook, buy a gun and kill someone, then you must not really want that person to die. Usually, I see this in a thread of comments of people saying increasingly mean things about the person/group of people they happen to be mad at at the moment, in a kind of "Who can be the most conspicuously indignant?" contest -- same with the above comment about how their children should be taken away.


My second, much shorter thought, was this:

If I am right, and people are more angry at anti-vaxxers than they should be, then we have an opportunity here.

I think that slander sometimes works like the stock market -- I've heard the stock market referred to as "anti-inductive", in the sense that, if you notice a pattern, then you can profit from it, but as you do so, and as more people find out about this pattern, the pattern will disappear. A belief that follows this pattern is sometimes called a "reverse Tinkerbell" belief, i.e. a belief that becomes less true the more it is believed.

Similarly: If everyone is inordinately mad at a certain group of people who have the label X, then calling a random person X will damage that person's reputation, but as more people realize this and start calling each other X, the word will start to lose its sting and everyone will have to go back to actually presenting arguments for their positions for a while. Overuse of the word would, for lack of a better term, "correct the inefficiency in the market". The classic example would be "communist". There might have been a time when accusing someone of being a communist had some sting, but if I called someone a communist today with the intent of ruining their reputation without any evidence and without explaining why it's bad, I'd be more likely to ruin my own credibility than theirs.

Right now, if I really hated someone and quickly wanted to ruin their reputation, at least within my circle of friends and acquaintances, I would say (or heavily imply) that they are an anti-vaxxer. I'd probably cherry-pick some weak evidence to try to prove my point. I'd do it as soon as possible, though -- when word gets out, it'll stop working.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ishmael #82: Dream Psychology #4

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It Seemed Funny at the Time by Ben Buckley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.