Archive for November, 2009

The One That Isn’t There

Posted in GIGO on November, 2009 by melendwyr

Q: What’s the most important leg of a three-legged stool?
A: The one that isn’t there.
– traditional joke-riddle

A specific neurological lesion can sometimes damage or impair specific neurological functions without touching others. In the condition famously known as “Ondine’s Curse”, for example, automatic control of breathing is destroyed while conscious control remains, so that without modern medical intervention nerve-damaged patients can survive only as long as they can remain awake. Such conditions are nevertheless unusual exceptions to the more general principle that complex, recently-developed, and ‘meta’-functions (those that monitor and control others) are first to be impaired and lost when the nervous system is stressed, damaged, or altered.

Demonstrations of this principle can be found by examining such phenomena as reversion under stress, oxygen deprivation, sleep deprivation, and various sorts of poisoning – most especially drugs with a gradual effect on nervous function. The primary reason it is considered necessary to have designated drivers who refrain from consumption of alcohol is that drinkers frequently underestimate the degree to which they’re affected by alcohol. Long before slowed reflexes and grossly impaired judgment become evident, the cognitive functions responsible for self-evaluation are dulled, and self-control diminished. A drinker who believes that they’re capable of driving safely may or may not be correct, even if their judgments would normally be trustworthy. Similar effects are found with other types of intoxication – people who say that they drive better after smoking marijuana have been shown to in fact drive more poorly. The more demanding and complicated the mental task is, the more likely it will be disrupted by any interfering factor, leading to poor performance.

The natural human’s an animal without logic. Your projections of logic onto all affairs is unnatural, but suffered to continue for its usefulness. You’re the embodiment of logic–a Mentat. Yet, your problem solutions are concepts that, in a very real sense, are projected outside yourself, there to be studied and rolled around, examined from all sides.”
“You think now to teach me my trade?” he asked, and he did not try to hide the disdain in his voice.
“The finest Mentats have a healthy respect for the error factor in their computations,” she said.

– exchange between the Lady Jessica and Thufir Hawat; Frank Herbert, Dune

Once a certain level of intelligence has been reached, any cognitive process can be emulated by any mind – it’s merely a question of available storage space and speed. The amount of processing capacity rapidly becomes immaterial. What’s important is not how powerful a mind is, but how well it detects, compensates for, and corrects its own errors.

It would be convenient if this capacity, which is difficult to gauge, were clearly associated with general intelligence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. We know that the self-regulatory functions of cognition can be completely destroyed without affecting such things as IQ scores. Thus, high IQ does not serve as a reliable guide to the presence of higher cognitive functions. Furthermore, my experience with smart people strongly suggests that they are less likely to develop that capacity. Being cleverer than the people around them, they are more likely to be able to craft invalid yet convincing arguments that others can’t counter or respond to. They have no need to develop stringent self-evaluation to accomplish social goals, and it’s very easy to convince themselves that they’ve chosen the correct course of action. What’s worse, they’re more likely to be able to craft clever arguments which convince themselves – and then, secure in the knowledge of their cleverness, they become less likely to check and re-check their reasoning. Average people have more experience of being shown to be wrong, and often have developed a greater willingness to lack confidence in their conclusions. This is both a strength and a weakness, but the strength cannot be acquired otherwise while the vulnerability can be compensated for.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard P. Feynman

Rationality, like reading or arithmetic, is a skill alien to the human mind. Useful, certainly, but not natural. Development of the capacity for rationality requires strict adherence to a set of formal principles, and such adherence requires advanced self-evaluation to be maintained. Otherwise practitioners will quickly convince themselves that short-circuited thinking really is valid. If it’s a terrible thing to believe your own propaganda, it’s even worse to never realize you’re issuing propaganda in the first place.

The principles of rationality aren’t difficult. What’s hard is to implement them consistently and completely; our older, better-developed tendencies to associate our way through a problem and accept or reject statements on the palatability of their consequences, tend to override our better judgment.

How, then, can we develop the ability to put rational thought into practice?

Show, not Tell

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction with tags on November, 2009 by melendwyr

Thoughts on the SGU episode “Time”:

Why are the actors telling us how hot and sticky the jungle is, while at the same time they’re wearing multiple layers of clothing? Actions speak so much louder than words – when a character supposedly in a jungle says it’s hot, but his shirt isn’t soaked in sweat and he’s wearing visible layers of clothing over an extended period of time, what we see and what we’re told don’t match. And that does a lot to ruin immersion.

And I’m sorry to see Chloe losing her lunch over seeing an alternate self die on camera – by itself it is in no way objectionable, but in the larger context of the show it’s Chloe being emotionally fragile and weak *again*. Why couldn’t she have been the one to survive to throw the Kino into the portal, for example. Just to change things up a bit.

Identifying the Problem

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction with tags , on November, 2009 by melendwyr

Joseph Mallozzi responded to the question I asked in both a previous post and a comment on his blog.

Melendwyr writes: “What were the most important scenes from the first six episodes of SGU?”

Answer: That’s a matter of opinion. The examples you gave from other shows are not moments I would consider “important” in comparison to others.

I’m starting to gain a greater insight into why I’m not connecting the with crew of the Destiny. The moments I mentioned from previous shows are both widely recognized and generally beloved character moments – and more importantly, I suspect they’re the things that helped “hook” audiences into caring about the events in the shows. No such moments, no hooked audience.

On SGU, Greer, Eli, Young, Rush, and possibly TJ have had such moments. 2nd Lt. James had a minor such moment. Even “Salieri” astrophysicist guy has had his moment to shine. Chloe has not. And that may have a lot to do with why I’m not very sympathetic to Chloe.


Posted in Science Fiction with tags , , on November, 2009 by melendwyr

When we first met O’Neill, we were exposed to the idea of his having a tragedy in his past – and his doing things that made us root for the character – long before we found out he was supposed to destroy the mission if things went south. We were exposed to the heroic side of the character before we encountered the villainous side – and he promptly redeemed himself. He did some dumb things later on – like shooting the humaniform Replicator – but only after we’d already gotten to like him.

The most important scene in the first episode of Babylon 5 was when Garibaldi points out to Londo that the Centauri first claimed Earth was a lost colony of theirs, and Londo sarcastically asks if he wants blood and tells him to open his wrists. “Centauri don’t have major arteries in their wrists.” “Of course not! Do you think I’m stupid?”

The most important two scenes in the opening episodes of Firefly were when Wash was playing with his dinosaurs, and Mal kicked the thug into the engine intake. “Curse your sudden yet inevitable betrayal!”

Long stories tend to start with a few characters that we are meant to like – they make us smile, or laugh, or do something awesome that induces us to clear brainspace to keep track of them and their circumstances. They’re the hooks that draw us into the story. Once we care about one character, it becomes easier to care about the others.

What were the most important scenes from the first six episodes of SGU? The ones that made us like the characters before we were exposed to their unlikeable flaws?

Stargate: Universe

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction with tags , , on November, 2009 by melendwyr

As you may have gathered by now, I’m a great fan of the Stargate franchise. Its mixture of tongue-in-cheek action, applied ethics, and heroic adventure is fantastically fun, as long as it’s not taken too seriously.

I’m not a fan of SG-1’s successor series, Stargate: Atlantis, for a variety of reasons and despite its having some truly entertaining characters. Its writing team just couldn’t manage to create a balanced ensemble cast and properly integrate the discovery of Ancient technology into their plots; they had no long-term planning, and their primary villains were just silly. (The Wraith are the worst thing to happen to the franchise in a very long time, IMO.) Several cast members were reduced to secondary support roles, and more obnoxiously, their character concepts were never developed to any real degree or even discarded altogether.

But I had high hopes that things would turn around with SGU, and the first episode (especially the third part of it) had enough meat to it that I was encouraged. Since then, the show has basically failed to deliver. It’s been far too much like a soap opera for my tastes – character flaws are fine, but the constant harping on sex and fan-service-for-guys is annoying. There really are no strong, well-developed female characters despite having lots of interesting guys. And Chloe still doesn’t seem to have a purpose either in her own person or as a character on the Destiny – in every episode, she’s either moped or gotten weepy, and the one time she was ever useful was briefly assisting with first-aid in the middle of a montage.

Now, the first seasons of science-fiction shows are often very rough. SG-1 in particular had a difficult first season, with the writers and characters eventually finding their voices as time passed. I’m hoping that the first six episodes were an extended pilot of sorts for SGU and that things will pick up. But if it doesn’t, and the show becomes another Atlantis, I’m going to leave. I never hated SGA – I just cared less and less about the show until it wasn’t worth the bother to tune in. But there are elements in SGU that I’m beginning to actively dislike.

Telford’s Query

Posted in Science Fiction with tags on November, 2009 by melendwyr

Stargate: Universe fan-spec ahead. Regular readers might not want to bother.

Everyone is rushing to hate on Col. Telford, with the last scene of the previous episode vaguely implying that he’s either going to seduce Young’s wife while pretending to be him, or blackmailing her somehow.

But there are other possible alternatives. For example:

“Mrs. Young, were you aware that I’m HIV-positive?”


Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags , on November, 2009 by melendwyr

The Elder Sign

Posted in Doom on November, 2009 by melendwyr

Presented without comment:

Elder Sign Ad

Useful Aphorisms

Posted in Useful Aphorisms with tags , on November, 2009 by melendwyr

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”
– Joseph Stalin

“If you don’t control your mind, someone else will.”
– John Allston