Category: Television

How rational was Spock?

[Julia] Galef was curious to see exactly how often these predictions pan out. “I went through all of the Star Trek episodes and movies—all of the transcripts that I could find—and searched for any instance in which Spock is using the words ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ ‘chance,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘probably,’ etc.,” she says. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

The results, which appear in Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset, are devastating. Not only does Spock have a terrible track record—events he describes as “impossible” happen 83 percent of the time—but his confidence level is actually anti-correlated with reality. “The more confident he says he is that something will happen—that the ship will crash, or that they will find survivors—the less likely it is to happen, and the less confident he is in something, the more likely it is to happen,” Galef says.

Spock’s biggest weakness is his failure to understand that other people don’t always behave “logically.” He also makes no attempt to update his approach, even when his mistakes get his crewmates killed.

Here is the full Wired story, and here you can buy Julia’s new book.  I wonder if he is more rational in the Star Trek movies than in the TV shows, or how about in the fan fiction?  Exactly where is the demand for dramatic irrationality highest, and why?

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

LBRY in NYTimes

Last week I wrote about Elrond, yesterday another one of the blockchain firms that I advise, LBRY, made the NYTimes. LBRY is YouTube on the blockchain and it’s not just a White Paper but a working product and potentially serious competitor to YouTube. The piece by Nathaniel Popper, however, is swarmy with a lot of bullshit innuendo like this:

Minds, a blockchain-based replacement for Facebook founded in 2015, also became an online home to some of the right-wing personalities and neo-Nazis who were booted from mainstream social networks, along with fringe groups, in other countries, that have been targeted by their governments. Minds and other similar start-ups are funded by prominent venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.

Get it? Without exactly lying, Popper associates venture capital with supporting neo-Nazis. Garbage reporting. It’s like saying last year 75% of neo-Nazis ate at McDonald’s, their favorite all-American restaurant. Or, neo-Nazis have been known to use Apple phones to arrange their rallies. Or neo-Nazis often pay for their purchases using a private, untraceable means of payment marked by strange symbols and widely used to illegally purchase drugs, guns, and prostitutes.

Surprisingly, the real story is in the sub-head, “companies inspired by cryptocurrency are creating social networks, storing online content and hosting websites without any central authority.”

And do check out LBRY, a platform from which you cannot be deplatformed.

*The Shield Penetrators” — some further Star Trek viewing

Not many people know this obscure episode, because it was shot during the third season as an “extra,” to be used in a fourth season that never materialized.  But here is the basic plot line.  Kirk and the Enterprise visit a planet that, by mistake, received errant TV transmissions of “The Beverly Hillbillies” centuries ago.  The inhabitants of that planet, being highly impressionable, have since organized their society along those principles and with Appalachian clothing, albeit with less couth manners.  These creatures are mostly backward, but they have two special powers.  First, neither Vulcan neck pinches nor phasers “set on stun” affect them, and second they have the ability to just walk through the otherwise protective shields of the Starship Enterprise.

In the episode, these “Penetrators,” upset at the backward state of affairs on their own planet, and encouraged by a nearby Klingon commander, attempt to take over the bridge of the Enterprise, using pipe bombs, chemical irritants, and Molotov cocktails, throwing one of the latter at Chekhov.  Their motives are varied, but their manner is undeniably hostile and they arrive in a great swarm.  Kirk issues orders to respond vigorously, and the intruders are stopped.  This is, after all, the bridge of the Enterprise.

It is protected by a single, sliding door.

One member of Starfleet Command, an enemy of Kirk’s since they were classmates together at the Academy, attempts to have Kirk tried on charges of authorizing excess force against the Penetrators.  But neither the Starfleet admirals nor the television audience side against Kirk.  It was, after all, the bridge of the Enterprise that was being stormed.  The Command also issues a statement recognizing the red-shirted Enterprise security guards for their (usual) valor in such extreme and perilous circumstances.

The Klingon commander escapes unscathed, though a well-aimed phaser shot cripples the communications ability of the Klingon ship.

Addendum: You won’t find this episode in the Star Trek DVD box, or on streaming, but recently they have put parts of it on TV.  And here are my previous Star Trek posts.

The Best Movies and Television Shows about Invention

Anton Howes, author of the excellent Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, asked on twitter about the best movies and televisions shows about invention. Here’s the collated list.

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Anton started watching Pad Man, which is on Netflix and loved it. It’s based on the true story of a man who invented a cheap way of making sanitary pads for women in India which I was familiar with, from the TED talk, but I didn’t know about the movie. It is excellent! Great story, especially strong on the costs of innovating when the inventor must overcome social ostracism and ridicule as well as the difficulties with creating the invention itself. Also some great shots of Maheshwar India.

*The Trouble with Tribbles*

Yes, another Star Trek episode.  This one was striking for its explicit Malthusianism (!).  The tribbles increase “arithmetically,” to use Malthus’s term — Spock notes that one tribble (bisexually) breeds on average ten tribbles a mere twelve hours later.  And what is it that the tribbles end up doing?  Trying to eat away a fixed supply of grain.  Yes, grain.  Might the tribbles exercise Malthusian moral restraint by opting for a later age of marriage and reproduction?  No, they are born pregnant.  Again, as Malthus suggests, a plague (poisoning) intervenes.

Classic Star Trek and rape (with spoilers)

With so few significant new movie releases to follow, I have taken to some strange pasttimes, including the viewing of old classic Star Trek episodes.  I was struck by two obscure episodes in particular.  One is Who Mourns for Adonais?, and the other is Metamorphosis, both from early in the second (and best) season.

In Adonais, a crazed being, who is in fact the ancient Greek God Apollo, seizes control of the ship and of a landing party, consisting of Kirk and a few others, including a beautiful Lieutenant Carolyn Palamas.  In due time Apollo “takes” her, with her degree of actual compliance being highly uncertain (the whole ship and landing party are under constant threat of death).  Kirk and the others encourage her to court him further, and then to reject him, to weaken his spirits, which leads to his eventual loss of control.  It is Carolyn’s cleverness that saves them, she has been through emotional hell, and then they spurn and forget her while returning to the ship.

I am very familiar with “Golden age” science fiction and how badly it treated women, not to mention classic Star Trek’s own reputation.  Nonetheless watching this episode it struck me, as a 2020 viewer, that the main message is how unaware high-achieving men are of the sexual travails of coerced women, most of all the coerced women they so often rely upon.  Really.

In Metamorphosis, Kirk is carrying a lovely female ambassador on a trip, and they are waylaid by a strange being on a strange planet.  I’ll spare you the whole story, but the ambassador ends up meeting a male castaway she dislikes, an alien takes over the body and partly the mind of the ambassador, and the combined alien/ambassador decides to marry the castaway so they can live happily ever after on the strange planet (really).  The ambassador never would have chosen any of that on her own, and it seems to me this counts as a lifetime of rape for her, not to mention imprisonment, exile, and having to share one’s life and thoughts with a deeply alien being.

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are just fine with this!  Admittedly, given the powers of the alien, they didn’t have much choice, but they are downright jolly — from Wikipedia: “When McCoy asks who will complete Nancy Hedford’s [ambassadorial] mission, Kirk shrugs and says, “I’m sure the Federation can find another woman, somewhere, who’ll stop that war.””

Brutal!  The collateral damage on the distaff side deserves not a single mention or act of mourning, though otherwise Kirk will risk the whole ship to save the life of Bones or Spock or Scottie.

Again, I went away from the whole episode feeling this was a progressive rather than repugnant take on the whole narrative.

Perhaps it is I who am crazy, but I am beginning to think that “The Revisionist Sexual History of Classic Star Trek” remains to be written.

And maybe you prefer TNG, or some other later Star Trek version, but I tell you the 1967-69 version is far less “censored” and for that reason much more interesting to rewatch.

“Mirror, Mirror” (Star Trek classic, spoilers in this post)

I haven’t seen most Star Trek episodes since I was a young teen, so I tried rewatching this one, you know, with the alternate universe and the evil Spock.  It was good!

I took away from it the main lesson that our moral behavior — or lack thereof — is one of the most contingent and fragile features of our universe.  The possibly happy ending for the bad universe drives this point home, as does the opening speech from the indigenous folk (the Halkans) who won’t sell their dilithium crystals, reminding Kirk that the Federation too might turn bad.  Add to that the utter implausibility of their “highly moral” behavior in the bad universe, as the absurdity and unlikelihood of their invited destruction reminds us that virtually everyone is pliable in response to strong enough incentives.

If you think through the plot, to the extent the “good” people are more powerful and effective than the “bad” people, that is because the “good” people are better at deceit.  Though the good people can teach deceit to the bad people, as the good Kirk does at the end to the evil Spock, who perhaps will reform.  Another embedded lesson is that both the “good” and the “bad” men will sexually harass (both the good and bad) women, with the major differences being those of style not substance.  And the “good” men seem to prefer the “bad” women.

If the “bad” universe were safer, would the powerful people find it better or worse to live in?  What if you had a Ring of Gyges to help you along?

Overall you can read the whole episode as “the spirits” (God?) sending a Shakespearean-like dream to Kirk, so that he can better understand the perspective of the Halkans, which otherwise he finds baffling.  Might the Halkans have sent the dream themselves?

Recommended, it was better and more idea-rich than expected.  I will try another episode soon.

My podcast with Darren Lipomi

He is a well-known chemist (and more) at UC San Diego. We started with classic Star Trek and then moved into textiles, chemistry, music vs. sound, nanobots against Covid, how to interview, traveling during a pandemic, art collecting and voodoo flags, the importance of materials science, and much more.  Mostly he interviewed me, though it went a bit both ways.

Almost 100% fresh material and topics, and here is the Spotify link.

*Queen’s Gambit* (no real spoilers in this post)

I’ve now seen a few episodes, and I have a few comments on the chess:

1. No player, including Magnus Carlsen, can become that good that quickly, without a lot of learning and losing along the way.

2. They show the players moving too fast, though for dramatic reasons this is easy enough to understand.

3. The Sicilian was indeed very popular in 1963, but not quite that popular.

4. It captures the feel of earlier U.S. chess tournaments very well, noting that my own participation came later but things didn’t change much.

5. At the time the Rossolimo was in fact an unusual response to the Sicilian, though it is not now.  The show got this right (the protagonist claims she was very surprised by 3.Bb5) — don’t be fooled by the subsequent evolution of the game.

Dramatically, I would say it is “decent and watchable,” and the clothes and hotel scenes are good.  The characterization of the mother does not feel entirely consistent.  There is an underlying autism theme, mostly handled well, though mainstream reviewers seem to be thrown off the scent by the woman’s charm and good looks.  I will let you know if I have further observations.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:

Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…

Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.

That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.

And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either.  It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.

From the comments, comedy vs. drama

I would say that many, if not most, comedies are “conservative” in their underlying messages or themes. Look at romantic comedies: the whole point is for characters to establish a committed relationship and either explicitly or presumably get married. The comedy is in watching characters who are notoriously bad at following tradition and institution find themselves desperate to follow tradition and institution. That’s a very conservative theme: happiness comes from family and a serious, formal commitment to family.

An American Pickle isn’t a romantic comedy, but it follows the same structure and offers the same lesson. That makes it a fairly typical comedy.

Dramas, by comparison, tend to be more “liberal” and “radical,” because they often show a character breaking from tradition or from institutional boundaries to find happiness or to resolve a serious problem. The messages of dramas are often the polar opposite of those of comedies.

That is a remark by WB on An American Pickle.  One striking feature of the creativity of Shakespeare, of course, is that he does not follow this usual pattern.

My Conversation with Annie Duke

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the opening summary:

Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more.

Here is one bit from Annie:

DUKE: So when I went on my first date with my husband, my brother and brother-in-law immediately decided to make a market, and it was whether we were going to get married. Now to be fair, my husband and I — before we went on our first date, we’d been friends. Both my brother and my brother-in-law knew my eventual husband, but this is when we’re going on our first date. They make a market. I think that my brother-in-law ended up bidding 23.

My brother then called me up, cracking up, that my brother-in-law had bid 23 when we hadn’t been on a first date yet. And I then started laughing at my brother, said, “Well, that means you had to bid 22. Why are you laughing at him? You somehow bid 22. It’s our first date.” Now, that’s because we’re all people who sort of think this way. And so this sort of becomes the fun of the friendship, but there are other people . . .

And this from Annie:

DUKE: My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases — where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?” I feel like the top 500 players would definitely be thinking in that way more.

You will have to read or hear the dialogue to take in my many good questions.

What sports I’ve been watching

Game 2, Celtics vs. Bulls, 1986, the one where Michael Jordan scored 63 points.  Watching it over a number of days on the exercise bike, I was struck by the following:

1. The Chicago Bulls, to a remarkable degree, decided to run their offense through Orlando Woolridge, and not for the better.

2. The camera did not follow MJ around obsessively, nor do the announcers seem to realize how great he will become — this was his second season, and he spent much of it injured and not playing.  And he was not yet able to make his teammates better (see #1).

3. One announcer remarks that Charles Oakley is not big and strong enough to play center.  Admittedly Robert Parrish was taller, but Oakley was one of the strongest men ever to play in the NBA.

4. The game comes across as remarkably slow, and the Celtics as molasses slow and bad at defense.  A swarming contemporary defense would shut down Kevin McHale.  Ainge and Dennis Johnson are heralded as one of the best backcourts ever, but I believe Damian Lillard or a few other current peers would cut them to ribbons.  Note that the Celtics were 40-1 at home that season, still a record, so they were a remarkable team for their time.

5. Michael Jordan scores most of his points on shots — the long 2 — that coaches strongly discourage players from taking these days because of their low expected value.

6. Few of them look good taking a three-pointer.

7. MJ aside, Bill Walton is the one who comes across as the world-class player on the court, despite his age of 33, a long history of foot and other injuries, and limited mobility.

8. 63 points is a lot, but the Bulls lost the game and Jordan was far from his later peak.  It is nonetheless striking how much better was his conditioning than that of any other player on the court, and that is why he was able to score so much in the fourth quarter and take over the game.

Movies to watch under lockdown

I/we have been watching the following:

The Wedding Plan, Israeli movie about a religious woman who precommits to her future wedding, yet without having a particular groom in mind.  Full of subtlety, motivated by behavioral economics and game theory, poignant, recommended.  Israeli cinema and TV remain an underexploited profit opportunity.

Teorema, directed by Pasolini, this one makes no sense but is utterly captivating.  I say it is the devil rather than Christ, but you could argue it either way.  Don’t expect any scene to cohere, but this one is from the golden age of cinema and it shows.

The Lady from Shanghai.  Could this be my favorite Welles movie, as he had not yet started to take himself too seriously?  It spans sailing life, New York, Acapulco and Mexico’s Pacific coast, noir, and San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The look at 1947 SF is enough to scare some YIMBY into the most desperate protectionist.  This was a rewatch for me, and it seemed even better the second time around.

Rhapsody in August, late Kurosawa from 1991.  Not for neophytes but the frankest cinematic treatment of Nagasaki you are likely to find.  The best 2/3 of this film are very moving and indeed unforgettable.  It is sufficiently subtle that most of the reviews are suitably bad.

Beforeigners, a Norwegian television show with a unique twist on the usual immigration story.  Due to a time warp, migrants from earlier periods of history, such as medieval times and also the Stone Age, climb into current-day Oslo.  You are not allowed to call them “Vikings,” rather they are “people of Norse descent.”  And they cannot assimilate to a very foreign culture, though at least one of them ends up working in the Oslo police department.  Clever and original, I hope they make more than just the first six episodes.