Sunday, February 6, 2011

Movies

And now, a rant about movies and Hollywood....

Over the years I have grown more and more frustrated with "new" movies coming out.  It seems that most new flicks fit into just a few categories:  Animated kid's films, undercover spy James Bond/Mission Impossible type movies, horror flicks, and romantic comedies, about which I am reserving comment.

  1. Animated kid's films - almost always 90 minutes in length.  Featuring a hero and heroine, with one or two minor "comic relief" characters that you'd have to be crazy not to find cute.  They ALWAYS have a happy ending, because we can't have children believing that life isn't always perfect can we?
  2. Action movies...  These are possibly the worst kind of movie.  They're always the same format:  guns, explosions, and half naked women.  Guy gets the girl, bad guy is destroyed with fast action scenes that feature lots of kicking punching and gunfire.  All this is fine, but when it's in nearly every movie produced, it get insanely boring.  How many ways can a person see a car explode?  I've become desensitized to the constant explosions, car chases, and gunfire that is present in modern day movies.  Just another ridiculous attempt to make 16-30 year old males go "hell yeah" when they see a rocket launcher take down a helicopter.  How many times can you see the same thing movie after movie before you get bored and wanting something new?  Is the average American satisfied with seeing an undercover agent expose a secret government cover up time and time again?  When oh when will we see an end to this long worn out formula that hypnotizes our society from the big screen?  Superhero movies also fall into this category, and I loath them as well.  Mostly because... they're all the freaking same thing!  Just throw a different spandex costume on some guy, give him a new superpower and BOOM you've got another blockbuster Hollywood hit. 
  3. Horror movies had their day.  But really... Saw 6? Scary movies aren't scary anymore, but rather just gore filled blood baths, which are fine, if done properly. House of 1,000 Corpses, is an excellent example of a horror film with gratuitous violence well done.  Human Centipede... is not. But it seems as though the most frightening horror movies are those which show less, rather than more.  They don't really show what's going on or what is doing the terrorizing, but rather, imply it and leave it to the viewer's imagination to figure out what is going on.  It's this open ended and left to interpretation aspect that makes the movie experience dynamic and different for every viewer.  It even causes and often necessitates multiple viewings to ensure that the viewer didn't miss anything while making his/her decision on what the outcome is.
Okay, time to go watch a documentary about lizard people or the 9/11 "cover up"... 

    Friday, July 9, 2010

    Networks

    The worlds of politics and computer science theory cross paths in many ways and when we consider the topic of networks, we can immediately see the relationship to graph theory. In computer science, graphs are a data structure consisting of a set of nodes and edges connecting those nodes. In politics such structures are used to consider things like terrorist networks or mafia families who all have ties to other terrorists or families. Taking this one step further, we can assign weight values for each edge that could represent something like the strength of tie between terrorist ‘A’ and terrorist ‘B’. Using sophisticated algorithms like Kruskal’s and Prim’s algorithm we can find what’s known as a “minimum spanning tree” for the graph.

    A minimum spanning tree (MST) for the graph is a graph that connects every node but also uses the minimum amount of weight on each edge. Why is this valuable for our terrorist situation? It allows us to find the most efficient way to take down the weakest terrorist ties in the network. We can sever the least amount of ties while taking down the entire network.

    The actual implementation of this uses Kruskal’s algorithm and is as follows:

    1. Consider all the weighted edges and mark the shortest (lightest) edge with a color, breaking ties arbitrarily.
    2. Mark the next shortest edge that does not form a cycle in the graph.
         a. A cycle is a set of edges that “loops” on itself.
    3. Continue this process, also marking (with a different color) those edges that form cycles, until there are no unmarked edges.
    4. The minimum spanning tree is the set of edges and nodes marked with the first color.

    Using this, and other algorithms, society can save money and lives because it will not waste valuable resources cutting multiple difficult ties, when it could have just cut one easy tie with the same result. The proof of correctness for this algorithm involves the principal of induction and can easily be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kruskal's_algorithm#Proof_of_correctness
    These algorithms have applications beyond terrorist networks. They can be applied to things like a cable company wanting to provide cable television access to all houses in a block using the least amount of cable wiring. This algorithm can also be used to approximate the Traveling Salesman problem which, at this time, is not able to be solved efficiently.

    Collective Action

    There is a common misconception (especially in politics) that if many small groups or individuals have the same interest then they will act together to further that interest. Time and time again this is shown to be incorrect. Many times (and possibly most of the time) it is the Hobsian Leviathan that can provide what is best for a group of individuals with common interests. If a group simply follows the policy of the overarching authority, the most benefit will be extended to all involved. There are many algorithms in computer science in which it would be easiest to just give all available resources (processor time, time at the keyboard, etc…) to just one greedy individual, but in the grand scheme of things that is not ideal. Each person wants equal time and sometimes tasks are given an importance level where tasks of higher importance must be completed before others.

    One cannot help but ask the question “Why then, doesn’t everyone submit to the Leviathan who surely knows what is best for us?” The answer is quite simple. People are self interested, greedy, and egoistic. Ultimately, people want what is best for them instead of society as a whole. This can be seen through the lens of unfettered capitalism. Without regulation, people WILL do what is in their interest without regard to the common good. This can be seen in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In it, we are thrown into the world of the packing plant workers’ life before regulation of industry. Workers are paid very little, subject to horrid working conditions and forced to work long, irregular hours with little to no time off. All of this is for the selfish profit of those in charge. Why pay unskilled, uneducated packing plant workers $7.25 an hour when you can pay them $0.50 an hour without penalty? What incentive is there? All of the incentive lies in the almighty dollar and giving others as little as possible.

    The alternative, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t communism, but a delicate balance and careful regulation so as not to limit the rights of those in charge, but also to make sure that the people they are in charge of don’t live in a state of oppression. Everyone’s rights must be respected without taking away the rights of anyone. Sadly, in the current political climate, it seems as though any regulation no matter how small is considered to be communistic or a “government takeover”. Perhaps these people should read Hobbs and consider how important a Leviathan can be in a society. Not an all powerful, unchecked, deregulated Leviathan, but one who is also subject to the laws and regulations of the people it rules over.

    Monday, June 28, 2010

    Credible Threats

    Pascal's Wager is an argument often used in Christianity as a reason for believing in God. Informally the argument goes like this: There either is a god or there is not and I can choose to believe in god or not. When I die, if I have believed in god and he does exist, the rewards are infinite. If I have believed in god and he does not exist, there is no reward or punishment, however if I have not believed in god and he does exist, there is infinite punishment. Likewise if I have not believed and there is no god, no punishment or reward ensues. We can summarize this argument in table form:

    God ExistsGod Doesn't Exist
    Believe in God
    When Die
    Infinity0
    Not Believe in God
    When Die
    Negative
    Infinity
    0

    As we can see from the “Believe in god” row, the worst that could happen is get a zero (no reward and no punishment). However in the “not believe in god” row is potential for negative infinity reward (infinite punishment [hell]). Thus we see that it is always better to believe in god to avoid the negative infinity cell.


    On some level, it seems to be primarily Christians who enjoy this argument, but nothing in the argument says anything about the Christian God. Following the logic of Pascal’s Wager, it makes the most sense to pick the religion with the highest reward and worst punishment since it’s just a numbers game and makes no claim about the truth of the religion that uses it. It seems as though Pascal’s Wager could be used for almost anything. This is because the wager ignores all sense of a successful and credible threat.
     If we don’t consider credibility, this appears to be a perfectly reasonable argument; just follow the numbers and it makes sense to always believe in god. In a way, the concept of hell is a threat. Whether or not it is a credible threat is what needs to be considered in order for this argument to hold. And what would we need to know in order to judge if the threat of hell is a credible one? There are numerous things one has to assume in order to consider the Christian hell credible. Here are a few:


    1. The existence of a soul that persists and somehow feels pain after we die. This implies that we have to know what happens to us after death. An impossible task?
    2. The concept of an all knowing, all powerful, all everything god that judges us
      and sends us to the fiery inferno if we don’t believe in him. Not only must god exist, but a very specific one.
    3. The actual existence of a place called hell.  A nonphysical place that exists is rather puzzling.
    Without digressing into an epistemological discourse and ignoring the difficulty of talking about the idea of faith, we can rightly say that all of the above are not known and perhaps even impossible to know. If the conditions for a threat to be credible are not even possible to be known then how can we say that the threat of hell is at all credible? Many people accept this argument as credible however, because of the extreme nature of the punishment and it is above all, fear that keeps them secure in believing. However, as we all know from fearing the monster in the closet as children, fear can be more often than not, irrational. Is irrational fear a good enough reason for accepting an argument? This writer thinks not.

    Monday, June 21, 2010

    Do My Dirty Work

         When Machiavelli says that we should get underlings to do the dirty work of the ruler, we see that, while the well-being of the people is important, it is the integrity of the ruler that should be protected.

         As an example, we can consider the popular television show, The Office. Office manager Michael Scott has been given the task of finding a new health insurance policy for his employees. The company is downsizing so Michael must choose a plan that minimizes the cost of the company while sacrificing many benefits of the workers. Obviously this is bad news and the staff is going to be angry when they hear the news. Luckily for Michael, he has a second in command Dwight Schrutte who is eager to tackle any task that appears to put him in some position of power. What a great scenario. Michael doesn’t want to lose the respect of his employees and Dwight aims to please his boss. Dwight chooses a ridiculously poultry plan and the workers are livid. They go to Michael, who claims to have no knowledge of what has happened and pretends to be upset with Dwight.
         What does all of this show? It demonstrates a fundamental need and desire for humans to appear in a positive light even if it comes at the expense of others. It shows that we will step on and deceive and generally do whatever we need to do in order to maintain our integrity… or at least appear to maintain it. This ties in to something mentioned in class. If caught cheating, would a student rather get kicked out of the university, having the rest of his academic career and reputation ruined, or take a severe beating and just be done with it? I highly suspect that people would choose to take the physical pain over the mental and emotional.
         But perhaps the real question is “why?” Why do people so highly value their reputation? We can look to Machiavelli for possible answers to this matter. With a respectable reputation comes power and it seems as though power is ultimately what it takes to successfully rule a country. According to Machiavelli, it is important that rulers avoid the hatred of their people and a bad reputation can only foster such hatred.
         And so we have seen why it is the best interest of the ruler and hence the nation to get underlings to do the dirty work of the nation. The blame will be moved from the ruler to someone else, thus protecting his integrity and strengthening the society.

    Personal Jesus

         What subject can be as seemingly unpredictable and as individual and emotional as religious experience? Often times when one speaks to someone who is religious or has a conversion story, they will often give highly personal stories which seem to random and accidental. When we look at the evidence, however, it appears as though religious conversion is not as uncommon as individual stories would have you believe. According to The Pew Forum on 27 Apr 2009 almost half of the United States population has left the faith of its childhood behind in pursuit of a new or no faith.
         Even more interesting is the consideration of youth in the faith conversion process. Many youth go through highly emotional experiences when they attend religious services with their friends, go to religious concerts or are trying to find their true identity and place in society. According to the same source mentioned earlier, the vast majority of conversions happen under the age of 24. The reasons for this could be many however, typically at this age we think of the rebellious teenager who wants to be independent of their parents. Rather than accept what was spoon fed to them during their younger years, young people want to figure things out on their own and draw their own conclusions based on influence from their friends, teachers, and religious authorities.
         The years leading up to age 24 also happen to be the college years for most Americans. With public universities that are (rightly) stereotyped as being liberal and nonreligious it is no wonder that many students are compelled to leave their faith altogether. Leaving one’s faith can seem like a huge deal to each and every individual who chooses to divorce him/herself from the religion of their childhood, but many (almost half) go through this process and isn’t as uncommon as it may seem.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010

    Condorcet Jury Theorem

    There are several applications and practical uses of the Condorcet Jury Theorem.  This very important theorem can bring about some fairly straightforward results if one applies it to a subject such as the general intelligence of a population.  Now obviously it is in the best interest of a nation to have the highest level of intelligence of its population as possible and the Condorcet Jury Theorem explains why this is the case and why the notion of democracy follows necessarily from it.

    By the definition of the theorem, if individuals in a population are more than 50% certain on any given statement or issue, then the majority of the society is more likely to come up with the right answer to the said statement or issue.  Also, the more people that participate, the more likely it is that the right answer will be chosen.  This implies that the individuals in a society must be educated in as wide array of subjects as possible so that they can achieve a higher percentage of certainty on any topic.  Since more individuals are more educated on more subjects, when voting on questions where there is either a right or wrong answer, each person (and hence the majority of the society) will be likely to vote correctly.

    We can also easily see how the concept of democracy far outperforms the notion of a dictatorship or monarchy.  Let one person have complete authority over any and all decision making of a given country.  Say this person has 60% certainty that his position on policy x is the right one.  Now, under this dictatorship, the total certainty is only 60%.  But now let us consider the possibility that the country has five million people living in it.  Say that each person only has 51% certainty that their position on policy x is correct.  A first (incorrect) conclusion would be to say “See, the people are stupid.  It is their fearless leader that really knows what is best for the country.  Let him decide what to do.”  Not so says the Condorcet Jury Theorem.  According to this (proven) theorem, the people are really who should be deciding whether or not to adopt policy x.  The probability that the majority gets the right answer will approach 1, thus far surpassing the certainty of the dictator.  This is even truer when we take into consideration the first part of this essay so that the peoples’ certainty will be even higher than 51% with a proper and rigorous education.

    One practical issue that follows from this theorem is the population size of a nation.  Since the more people that participate in the decision making, the higher the probability the correct answer arises, one must ask where to draw the line.  It is terribly impractical to just pack as many people as possible in your country just so they’re more likely to make correct decisions.  There must be a critical value such that as many people as possible participate without overcrowding a population.

    Thus we have seen that when the power resides within an educated people, the probability to make right decisions far surpasses the probability to make right decisions when power rests in the hands of one person.  When a country values education of its people above all else, it will only prosper from excellent decision making in the long run.