Wednesday, October 29, 2014

First Confession

Here is a scary story for your Halloween. Follow the tribulations of young Jackie, who is about to make his first confession. If he makes a bad confession, he risks an eternity of hellfire! But he does not want to confess at all ...because he wants to kill his granny.
This short film is based on the fantastically good short story First Confession by Frank O'Connor [PDF]. If you haven't read the story yet, you may want to give it a quick read beforehandjust to see how much the filmmakers got right. This is richly entertaining.

Friday, July 25, 2014


The best way to view this video for the first time is to know nothing about iteven better to watch it with someone else who hasn't seen it.
So here are some vague recommendations:
  • It starts off pleasantly enough, but there are some surprises along the way
  • It is less than 30 minutes
  • If the McComb Home had had this VHS in 1987, it would have had a lot of viewings

Q: Pat, do you recommend I watch it with my young child?
A: Mmmm, actually no. Not on the first viewing. You'll see why.
No spoilers please. Pop some popcorn and I do hope you enjoy this. I'll have a follow up in the coming days.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mocha Says Maria

Mocha commission a song from me for Mariah's birthday. 
Here is me springing the song on the unsuspecting Mariah:

Here are the lyrics and chords:

Mocha Says Mariah
by McLir and Mocha Jean Herrup

       C                       Em
You’re Texas academics and you both were single
    F                               G    F    Em  G6
And how you both stood out from the Christian mingle
C                   Em                F      G5
Code name “Buddhist War Power” on the phone

As you two drew near, it grew increasingly clear
That both of you are quite enthusiastically queer
And your Yin-Yang complimentary styles do flow

     A                       Amaj7
And “Mocha,” says Mariah, “I love her so much!”
    Em6                    D
And Mocha says, “Mariah, I love her so much!”
         Dm         Faug       F         G       
The most beautiful, wonderful, in my life.”

So this birthday song is a tender celebration
Of a Founding Gender Bender of the Supper Nation
You build community with food and art

You can do the hardcore academic demands
You can also do the crunchy, hippie catch-as-catch-can
Intelligent and generous of heart

And “Mocha,” says Mariah, “I love her so much!”
And Mocha says, “Mariah, I love her so much!
The most beautiful, wonderful, in my life.”

Mocha loves your stripes, your strapping elongations
And she loves your scientifically astute fascinations
Wonders of the universe in store

Your view is deep, your view is wide
You’re defying false dichotomies in leisurely stride
And you make each other happy, what is more

     A                       Amaj7
And “Mocha,” says Mariah, “I love her so much!”
    Em6                    D
And Mocha says, “Mariah, I love her so much!”
     A                       Amaj7
And “Mocha,” says Mariah, “I love her so much!”
    Em6                    D    Dm6 Fdim A
And Mocha says, “Mariah, I love her so   much!”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Make it Stop! Alan Turing, the Tea Party, and the Government’s Halting Problem

I’m subscribed to udiprod, a YouTube channel which presents clever animations explaining concepts from computer science. They recently posted this very clear explanation of Alan Turing’s proof on the halting problem.

When you give a computer an input, it will either give a result or get stuck in a loop. Now imagine a computer, let's call it "H," that reads the blueprints of any computer, test its inputs, and always correctly determines whether it will finish or get stuck. Is the H computer possible?

Turing proved the answer is no. This shows how one such machine, fed its own blueprint, will self-contradict.

One of the key components of this machine is the negator.

A reasonable question might be, “Why would anyone build such a pathological, self-contradicting machine?” This wouldn’t have any bearing on the proof, mind you. For the proof, Turing only needed to show such a machine could be made to self-contradict, not whether the design is desirable. I mean really! Who in their right mind would assemble such a thing?

And then it hit me. Our government has become such a machine.

Just install some Tea Party anarchists to act as the negator, feed the government budget into the top, and voila!


The Tea Party sees a smiley face, the rest of us see the thing shake and wobble around the floor—halting problem indeed.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When The Figurative Becomes Literal in Movies

Hey lovers of words and movies, I have a question. One of my favorite film devices is when a figure of speech is depicted literally. Is there a name for this technique?

Here are a few examples. (I will have a spoilers for the movie To Die For. If you haven't seen it yet, To Die For is an unusually smart and well made film. Highly recommended.) So what is it called when a figure of speech is depicted literally in a movie?

Tracy Flick has blood on her hands in Election.
In Electionüber-driven student president candidate Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) throws a tantrum and rips down the posters of her competitors. The "blood on her hands" from paper cuts works both as a realization for her character and in the larger satirical story.

A lot of the gags in Airplane! are based on this technique. The most obvious and gratuitous one (I think) is this:

The shit's about to hit the fan in Airplane!
A prof from an old film class I took, discussing Un Chien Andelou, said "ants in the hand" (or "ants in the palm"?) was a French phrase for when a hand "falls asleep" for lack of circulation. I tried to verify this but only found a few references saying "ants in the palm" means "eager for sex." But I couldn't really substantiate that one either. It might just be that Salvador Dali likes depicting ants.

"Ants in the palm" may be a French phrase. It is definitely an image in Un Chien Andalou.

My favorite example is the closing credits of To Die For. [Spoiler alert.]

Janice Maretto dances on the grave of Suzanne Stone in To Die For.
Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) seduces a high school moron, convincing him and his moron friend to kill her husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon). The scandal and speculation over the case brings Suzanne the fame she's always craved. And she is savvy enough to manipulate the press, the investigation, and the high school kids, to where it looks like she'll get away with it.

The Maretto family sees through these pretensions and reluctantly turns to the mob. (By the way, the mob guy who greets Suzanne in that remote location--that mob guy could have been payed by just about any adult male. They cast David Cronenberg as the man who kills the evil media darling. How cool is that?) Suzanne Stone is literally iced. And Janice Maretto (Ileana Douglas), a professional figure skater in the story, literally dances on Suzanne's grave to the tune of "Season of the Witch" by Donovan.

Why do I love this so much? First, To Die For, is a very tightly crafted movie--every moment is there for a reason. And the economy of having this performance behind the closing credits speaks to the whole film. While all the performances are great, Ileana Douglas in particular does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting. After everything her character has gone through, the movie concludes depicting her in poise and grace. And "Season of the Witch" is a perfect song for the movie. There are lots of short clues and odd moments in the movie that might not be clear on one viewing. So the line, "you have to pick up every stitch" also speaks to the film as a whole. Here's the scene:

So is there a word for this technique? And can you think of other examples?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Making Meaning (as Opposed to the “Ultimate” Rhetorical Device)

A Catholic friend asked:
Pat (and whomever else), I wonder if you would indulge me and give me a response to this blog post. I am trying to come to terms and understand more with the mind of an atheist. Can you help me?
He provided to this link. It's an excerpt from a book of Christian apologetics.

Here's my response:

Making Meaning (as Opposed to the “Ultimate” Rhetorical Device)

I don’t want my life’s meaning determined by an invisible, unaccountable, mythical, supernatural authority figure who allegedly “works in mysterious ways.”* Handing off my sense of meaning to such a vague character would deprive me of creating meaning for my own life.

To Christian ears this often sounds like arrogance, but it isn’t. It sounds as though I’m putting myself above the Almighty, but that’s impossible. I can’t put myself above something that I don’t believe exists. If someone asked you your appraisal of the mightiness of Zeus, would your denial of Zeus’ existence be arrogance? No. Your disbelief in Zeus is probably identical to my disbelief in God.

I do understand the emotional appeal of believing one is part of a grand story that will go on forever. There was a time I shared that belief.
When I realized my cherished beliefs were flawed, the loss of my prospective afterlife was the most difficult part to accept. I was really looking forward to an afterlife, provided it didn’t get too boring.

However, within a couple weeks of my loss of faith, while walking on Michigan Ave. near Greenfield, I was struck by a powerful realization. As I neared the K-Mart parking lot I had an epiphany:

This life and my present awareness became vastly more precious. When I was a believer, I had been in the Augustine and Kierkegaard funk of life—this “test for the afterlife,” this “vale of tears,” this “mortal coil.” Suddenly I shed all that dreariness and began to appreciate the fact that I’m here at all. Life became more valuable and my ability to create meaning became a part of what freedom means to me today, decades later.

I also became a much happier person—this too was a surprise.

There is a kind of “optical illusion” quality to differences of belief. When I believed in God, my faith was linked to very basic concepts—particularly my sense of value. I was surprised to discover that changing my answer on the God question resulted in almost no changes in my sense of value.

So where do I find meaning? Are there people I love? Yes. Are there creatures that are capable of pleasure and suffering? Yes. There’s plenty of meaning in all that already.

Let’s get to the blog post.

The link title suggests that the post is about hope. Actually, the post is about meaning. The two concepts do overlap but they are different. I’ll stick to the (familiar) argument in the post regarding whether atheists can have meaning in their lives. (Inhale, exhale.)

Just so you know, Christians can sound extremely condescending when this argument is presented. We give this a pass because of the “optical illusion” problem mentioned above. You’re probably not trying to condescend. It’s forgiven. But please consider this: Christians do not have a monopoly on living a meaningful life.

OK, let’s get into this. The book excerpt by Dr. William Lane Craig has a lot of problems but I’ll stick with the most important ones.

Dr. Craig’s argument uses the “ultimate” rhetorical device:
If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life?

Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all?

It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this only shows a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance.
I thought gluttony was supposed to be a sin—how much significance does a guy need? The word “ultimate” appears 14 times in the blog post and his argument depends upon the word. Well, any amount is insignificant when compared to the eternal and infinite. The comparison is a rhetorical device. It dismisses the temporary and the finite—what Craig calls “relative”—as meaningless.

By analogy, the number one-million is greater than eleven. “Ah, but they are both equally insignificant when compared to infinity!” No mathematician would find this infinity gambit interesting. One-million is still more than eleven, relative claim though it is.

The Craig excerpt concludes with some very brief summaries of literature, cherry-picked from existentialists. I’d gone through my own existentialism phase and Craig gets some of this stuff wrong, but that’s beside the point. Existentialists do not speak for most atheists (at least not ones outside of France).

In my experience, most atheists in the English-speaking world are rationalists. Very few are nihilists (which is what Craig’s argument suggests). There are plenty of atheists who are more eloquent on this subject than I—if you want, I can provide plenty of links. For now, I’ll refer you to Julia Sweeney’s excellent story on This American Life:

The full audio is available at the link. Her story is very similar to mine, including her similar epiphany on life. It’s heartfelt, funny, and more representative of the naturalism shared by most of the atheists I know.

*This is leaving aside the horrible personage depicted in a famous collection of ancient Jewish folk literature.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to Design the Rice Experiment

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."

– Richard Feynman

The rice experiment, as popularized by businessman Masaru Emoto, is a good example of how not to design a scientific experiment. I will explain why at the end. First, I will explain how I would design a rice experiment. I am not a scientist, but I try to stay scientifically literate. If anyone has suggestions on how to improve this design, let me know.

To be clear, I am not planning on doing this experiment, as I will explain afterward.

My Hypothetical Rice Experiment:

1: Prepare good words and bad words on opaque adhesive labels. The labels need to be opaque enough so that they cannot be read through the back of glass jars.

2: For a control, I would prepare labels with no words. I would also prepare labels with neutral words. I would also prepare good, bad, and neutral words in a foreign language that I don't understand. All the labels would be prepared under the same hygienic conditions and cut in identical shapes.

3: Have all the words recorded separately in a ledger.

4: Sterilize dozens of jars, seals, and lids. This will zero out the bacteria count. Let them dry.

5: Have someone other than me apply the labels to the jars.

6: Have that person cover the labels with identical strips of lightly adhesive opaque paper. At the end of the experiments these covers will be removed. This will double-blind the experiment.

7: Have a third person rearrange the jars before delivering them to me. This will randomize the experiment.

8: The ledger from step 2 records what words are used, though I don't know which ones are on which jars. The words should be categorized at the outset: good, bad, neutral, or blank. Words should also be categorized as English or foreign. The word categories have to be established at the outset to prevent fudging afterward.

9: Set the labeled empty jars in a relatively non-hygienic place so they can attain similar levels of light contamination. Totally sterilized jars may preserve rice indefinitely.

10: Cook some rice and put the same amount in each jar. A few ounces on the bottom will do. All we want is to be able to look inside the jar without the labels and their covers blocking the view.

11: Set the jars in an array that I can check every day. The jars would be numbered so I can track the progress of each jar individually.

12: See which jars get moldy first. Keep watching as other succumb. I would set a deadline of maybe 60 days.

13: The reveal. After the 60 days, look at the jars and their corresponding labels. Compare with the ledger and mark each jar as good, bad, or neutral. If the results are:

  • 12 good English words and 12 good foreign words = all pristine
  • 12 neutral English words, 12 neutral foreign words, and 12 blank = all somewhat moldy
  • 12 bad English words and 12 bad foreign words = all very moldy

This, or something close, would be an extremely significant result. But I expect the onset of mold will be random and will not track with any good word or bad word labels in any statistically significant way. Mold will slightly favor one category of words over another, just as a matter of statistical noise. The math for this is well worked out. The more jars I use for each category, the smaller this statistical noise becomes. If I do the experiment with 30 jars for each category, I would get very high resolution, low noise results.

14: Submit for peer review. I would explain the process described above. My test would satisfy the basics of what we want from a well designed experiment: it's double-blinded, randomized, controlled, and uses an OK sample size. Negative results would be expected and not terribly interesting. (Sometimes negative results are groundbreaking, like the Michelson-Morley experiment that set the stage for Einstein's Relativity.) In the rice experiment, a positive result would be extremely surprising. The way this is designed, a positive result would have a rock solid foundation. Just one more step would be needed:

15: See if anyone reproduces the results under similar experimental conditions. If no one can reproduce my results, there's a good chance I falsified my data or was just plain sloppy.

16: If the results are positive, conduct the experiment for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). If it does show evidence of paranormal activity that can be verified under scientific controls, I will win $1,000,000. And that's a lot of money! I would like to have that prize! But it's been available for decades and no one has won it yet.

How to Backpedal:

Let's say I was invested (monetarily or emotionally) in the results coming out positive—but they came out negative. There are some tricks, fallacies of special pleading, I can play on myself. These might help me to dismiss my own results or fudge them in my favor:

Anomaly hunting: Maybe some seals were red and some were beige. Maybe the red ones were moldier to a slightly higher degree that statistical noise would predict. Maybe the vibrations inherent in color caused the differences in moldiness. Of course, that's not what we were testing, that's a patterns identified after the fact. If you want to test for color, put that in the ledger at the outset. Don't shoehorn an identified pattern after the fact.

For some real adventures in anomaly hunting, look at the number juggling people apply to the Egyptian pyramids. You can take a rich batch of numbers and combine them into all sorts of flukes that match physical constants or astronomical distances. James Randi shows how you can do the same anomaly hunting with the Washington Monument in his great book Flim-Flam.

Blame science or Western thinking: This is the common tack of accusing the skeptical mindset of spoiling the results. The experiment above is designed without appealing to any particular cultural heritage. The design is based on me preventing myself from introducing bias. If scientific thinking is such a party-pooper, how has it been so successful in shaping every little bit of technology we use?

Science, skepticism, critical thinking—these have produced plenty of reliable results, like cars and air travel. Telekinesis, for example, has not delivered comparable goods for human transport.

Those YouTube Videos and Why I Will Not Conduct My Own Experiment Design:

The rice experiment, as popularized online, has no controls, no blind (let alone double-blind), and operates on the smallest possible sample size. It is a race to see which rice gets moldy first. If the bad word rice gets moldy first (it's a 50-50 shot) a naïve person might claim confirmation. If the good word rice gets moldy first, a naïve person might think, "I must have done something wrong," or "I got so impatient waiting for mold, maybe my impatience threw it off." Such a person may be less likely to post their results on YouTube.

Now, I have no plans to conduct my hypothetical experiment. It's a lot of work putting together a well-controlled study. And I'm very confident the results would be uninteresting. You might say, "Put your money where your mouth is. Do the experiment!" In a sense I am putting my money where my mouth is. If I'm wrong, I am giving away, for free, a great way to win a cool million from the JREF. Have at it.