Tom Pittman's WebLog

2010 April 5 -- Sky Wars

Last week I drove by the local (Salvation Army) thrift store and decided to try to replace my dead VCR player. Providentially I chose the opportune day to arrive: they had a player (different brand, but) very similar to mine that died, for $25, just ready to put on the shelf. The first movie from the library I tried watching had a terrible problem maintaining tracking, and I wondered if I'd paid for a dud. Fortunately it was the tape at fault, not the player.

Today I also picked up a couple of documentary DVDs. The library limits me to 5 tapes and 2 DVDs in a week; I'd already seen all their DVD movies, but they had a substantial collection of documentaries -- several Scientology puff pieces, and some "Bible" stuff produced by BBC and others not known for their theological orthodoxy (I passed on them). Sky Wars was 52 minutes without commentary of fighter jets flying around to ethereal music, dropping bombs or shooting missiles. For the first half I tried in vain to see any national markings on either the planes or their very real targets. Finally I made out a tiny black 6-point star on a couple of planes, probably Israeli. Then nothing again. One 5-second shot of four clearly marked USAF jets doing nothing interesting, then back to no markings. About 5 minutes before the end they showed one minute of a huge ballistic missiles being carried on truck-back in a military parade, with an Arabic caption on the corner of the screen, evidently from a TV broadcast. I don't read Arabic, so I don't know what it said, but the label on the side of the truck clearly said in English block capitals "ISRAEL WOULD BE WIPED OUT FROM THE MAP" next to an Iran flag. That was followed by a graphic showing missiles all around the state of Israel pointing into it, followed by a demonstration of their anti-missile missile in action. So this was evidently an Israeli propaganda piece. The only explanation in the whole flic, besides Jewish names in the credits, were the brief section headings like "Air to Surface Missiles". The sound track was entirely music with sound effects of jets and missiles flying and things getting blown up.

Now I happen to more pro- than anti-Israel, but I prefer a little more truth in labelling. sigh At least it was different.

2010 April 3 -- Censored

One of the things that makes the old films more enjoyable than the modern fare is the absence of vulgar language. Apparently the people who made those movies were not so constrained personally. I downloaded a series of Warner Brothers out-takes, and the most common feature was the use of cusswords to express the fact that they forgot their lines. Modern movies often tack the out-takes onto the end of the flick for everybody to laugh at, but I guess they couldn't do that in the 30s and 40s. Progress is not always an improvement.

2010 April 2 -- Sherlock, part 2

Not quite six months ago, I watched a faux Sherlock Holmes play and commented here about the title hero's rudeness, which the professor claimed was in Arthur Conan Doyle's character. I resolved to re-read my "complete" Sherlock volume to see if my memory correctly asserted otherwise. Social graces obliged me to take time out to read other books, but I finally finished. My memory was correct about that.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly thought Sherlock Holmes to be polite. In "A Case of Identity" he has Dr.Watson tell us, "Sherlock Holmes welcomed her with the easy courtesy for which he was remarkable" [page 291 in the Heritage Press edition]. In "The Beryl Coronet" he tells us, "Sherlock Holmes ... patted his hand, and chatted with him in the easy, soothing tones he knew so well how to employ" [page 466]. Perhaps our critic (like the counterfeit playwright) "was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend's singular character" [page 489]. It was not mere egotism that repelled me in the play last year, it was just plain rudeness.

It turns out that the volume I have, however, is less than complete. It ends with the death of Sherlock Holmes, but as I later discovered in the editor's introduction, there is more. I found a couple more volumes in the library, but none of the three volumes have "The Woman in Green," the 1945 Basil Rathbone movie I downloaded from; perhaps there are other collections, possibly checked out at the time I looked in the library.

So I'm reading some more. Perhaps in his later writings Conan Doyle has Sherlock becoming more of a jerk, like some of the villains he describes, who started out good but turned evil later in life. Do real people do that? I don't know of any.

2010 March 27 -- Temptations

It's easy to blame somebody else for one's own moral lapses, as in "The Devil made me do it," but it's also easy to overlook the moral dimension in offering temptation to a weaker brother. Jesus said,
"Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin." Luke 17:1,2
Fifteen years ago I had the poor judgment to go into business with a person about whose character I knew less than I thought. I did not help things. I had been negotiating for a compiler contract, and shortly before I landed it my programmer found greener pastures. "Sam" was looking for work, so I asked him if he knew about compilers. He hesitated like he was running some sort of calculation, then said "Yes." Maybe he was only trying to figure out if he understood the question. In fact he was clueless. On another occasion (different context) he told me that his father taught him to read the instructions only if he got stuck. Compiler design cannot be not self-taught, and our business venture ended in disaster.

I blame myself. I should not have put him to the test with his income on the line. Most people can't resist that temptation. But I didn't know. If I had it to do over, I would have asked him technical questions rather than trusting his simple "yes." Better: not to put him in a position where he is tempted to answer less than candidly. I lost far more than he did. "Woe to that person [in this case, me]..."

2010 March 25 -- Destroying Health Care

My friend Paul T, the former hospital administrator, pointed out to me another little-known catastrophic consequence of ObamaCare: it will stop the advance of medical science worldwide. Sounds fantastic? Consider:

Medical research is largely paid for by pharmaceutical giants from the profits of their patented medicines, spurred on by the anticipation of even more profits from new inventions and discoveries. You get the same effect from medical equipment manufacturers. When those profits stop, the motivation to invest in medical research will stop.

So what does ObamaCare have to do with that? One of his stated objectives is to bring down health care costs. He intends to do this by further restricting what MediCare -- and now ObamaCare -- pays for services. Recall that MediCare only pays a small fraction of the actual cost of services; the rest is born by the health insurance companies, who pass the additional costs on to their customers in the form of higher rates. What happens when ObamaCare puts a federally imposed cap on health insurance premiums? They stop paying for services. They stop paying for expensive drugs and expensive machinery. Or else they go out of business and the "public option" kicks in, which like MediCare, pays even less.

When the insurance companies -- and when they are gone, the Federal government screw-ups pretending to take their place -- pay less than a fair wage to the doctors and medical researchers, they will stop working and go on the dole. Or maybe do something else, where the Feds have not yet stuck their grimy hands to mess things up. But they won't be contributing to improve health care. Then we will be like Canada, where people know that their local version of ObamaCare is inferior to the best health care in the world, which up until last week was the USA. Now that we have the kind of government bungling that Mr.Williams was escaping, the better place to go for services will no longer exist, not here, not anywhere.

"I'm old enough so it won't affect me," Paul told me, "but I'm worried about my grandchildren."

For a different reason, it's also not my problem.

2010 March 23 -- Peering through the Gloom

My sister called yesterday to tell me that ObamaCare had passed. Normally I don't learn of such news until two weeks later when the last of the weekly newsmagazines arrives with scant reporting of it, or maybe at church the following Sunday if everybody is talking about it. I guess my sister knew that I don't watch the left-wing news bias on TV.

Although she admitted that ObamaCare would raise the cost of living for almost everybody, she still has high hopes of being a beneficiary. She is among the "poor, uneducated, and easily led" minority who helped put our President-Trainee in office. She's actually pretty smart, but declines to do the math -- she says she's no good at it, which is nonsense. I know because she calls from time to time for me to help with her son's math homework. I talk her through the problems and am continually amazed at her understanding. When she wants to.

What she doesn't seem to understand is that no "insurance" company is going to pay hundreds of dollars each month for the prescription drug habit she has her son on without charging somebody more than that each month to cover it. I'm not a doctor, and I don't know the details of his medications, but I do know math.

Insurance is based on the premise that the cost of rare catastrophes can be spread among a large population at risk to prevent the few victims from being bankrupt by such events. There are such catastrophes in health care, such as heart transplants and surgical repairs after a major accident, but that's not what people expect from modern health insurance. Instead, they want the everyday medical expenses that befall everybody during their lifetime to be paid by somebody else at minimal cost to the beneficiaries. Either Obama and his cronies in Congress are lying through their teeth, or else they are idiots, because there is no "somebody else" who wants to pick up the tab. I think they are hoping to "tax the rich" but in fact the bill they just passed is retrogressive. Besides being based on failed Marxist economic theory.

Right now no insurance company wants to take on my sister and her son for premiums less than she is paying in health care costs. That's good business, as it should be. I guess she is hoping that ObamaCare will be different. I don't think so. Money doesn't grow on trees for the insurance companies to pluck off and pay our doctors and pharmacists. They have to get it from their premiums, or else cut the benefits. Either my sister will be compelled to pay in premiums more than her fee-based medical costs are today, or else they won't pay her drug bill, and she will have to pay it out of her pocket in addition to the compulsory insurance premiums. Or do without. But she has that choice today. Next year it won't be a choice.

My college major was math. I know ObamaCare cannot possibly help anybody except the insurance companies -- but not even them for long. So it's cheaper for me to pay the penalty tax, and morally preferable. I'm hoping somebody will go to court and prove that it's an unConstitutional excise tax on products you are not buying, or else an unfair income tax that denies the taxpayer equal protection under the law. But fighting it in court costs money, which I don't have. If I were rich, the tax would be a nothing, because it is retrogressive. So rich people are disinclined to fight it out in court. This one raises the tax disproportionately on the poor, who don't have the resources to fight it. Score one for the political party whose party name is a lie.

The USA income tax was designed to be progressive. That's good social policy, somewhat along the lines of the mindless slogan "tax the rich" but better thought out. Rich people pay at a higher tax rate than poor people, but not so high as to destroy their incentive to become rich (which generally raises the wealth of everybody). Social Security taxes are retrogressive: the rich people pay a much lower percentage of their income than the poor. The Schedule-A medical deduction is also in effect a retrogressive tax on income: rich people get no deduction but also pay no tax on it, while low-income people like myself end up with a marginal tax rate of 17.5% on every dollar we earn if we have large medical expenses. That's a higher rate than the middle-income people pay on their income. The new ObamaCare penalty tax is retrogressive like Social Security: rich people will pay a flat tax equal to the national average for approved health insurance premiums, which is a much smaller proportion of their income than us low-income people, who are stuck with a full 2.5% penalty on every dollar we earn. The original Senate version of ObamaCare exempted people like myself earning less than the Federal Poverty Level, but that was removed from the bill they passed this week.

There is one possible loophole I noticed in the new law they passed this week. I didn't see it before, but the new law is twice as big as the original I downloaded last year. Section 102 "Protecting the choice to keep current coverage" defines "Grandfathered Health Insurance Coverage" as "individual health insurance coverage that is offered and in force and effect before the first day of Y1..." Maybe I can successfully argue that my self-insurance counts as "individual health insurance coverage" and it was "offered and in force and effect before the first day of Y1." Since they give no other relevant definitions nor restrictions, they have no basis for arguing otherwise. Except of course the intent of (half of) Congress, which apparently is to tax the poor.

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Other links:

Essay "Health Insurance Is the Problem, Not the Solution"
Blog post, hospital administrator admits "I'm responsible"
My letter to President Obama
A Physician's perspective
A better solution, without raising taxes

2010 March 20 -- The Nature of Education

A criticism I often hear is the accusation that I must always be right. Although not so intended, I take it as praise. Yes, being Right is better than being Wrong. Sometimes I err and take the wrong side of a question, but as soon as I learn my mistake, I switch sides. The Bible calls that "repentance" and it's a virtue. The Bible never teaches being Wrong (also known as vulnerability) as a virtue. One consequence of needing to be Right is that I review every conflict to see if in fact I might have been Wrong. I do make mistakes, so I need to do this carefully. It takes time. I'm still thinking about Edutainment.

I can now categorically say that education is inherently disaffirming. By nature the process involves the rejection of Wrong ideas and replacing them with Right ones. Learning that your ideas are Wrong is disaffirming. This is an important quality, because affirmation is the chief value of Feelers in the MBTI model. Truth, which calls for replacing wrong ideas with right ones, is the chief value of Thinkers. Needless to say, I am not a Feeler.

So how is it that Feelers seem to make better teachers than Thinkers? Nobody wants to be disaffirmed, least of all the Feelers. So if we are going to educate all people without regard to whether they are Thinkers or Feelers, we need to do it in a way that is not overly disaffirming. Did you notice the qualification? It's not education at all if it's not disaffirming. We have a lot of that kind of "education" in the USA, where we rank dead last in quality of education among the industrial nations of the world, but first in self-esteem. Apparently Feelers only seem to make better teachers.

Ideally, education should be tailored to the particular needs of the student, a Socratic log with the teacher at one end and (one) student at the other. But that is very expensive. Failing that, we can smother the educational disaffirmations in a heap of affirming praise. I try to do that, but high-quality Feelers can pick out or invent disaffirmations even where none were intended. As the joke puts it, "If there are two ways to understand something I said, and one of them is negative, I meant the other one. If there is only one way to understand what I said, and it is negative, I still meant the other one."

Case in point: I was invited to submit a "lecture" on the topic of my choosing, with a discussion question. I chose BibleTrans, and developed first a survey of the state of the art, followed by how and why BibleTrans is different, starting about the middle. Both "students" read through the summary at the front, but bogged down in the particulars (basically ignored it). That's understandable. They had no interest in the topic, and I had no foreknowledge about the student demographics. There was also a time pressure: everything had to be completed by the third day. When I give this lecture before a live audience, they are there by choice and have a prior interest in the topic, plus they are forced to sit through the whole presentation. You cannot "skim" a verbal lecture. At best you can doodle or text a friend or answer your email, which is qualitatively different from skimming.

My discussion question asked them to offer a title and explain why. It seemed to me that this would encourage them to understand what they were reading, and one student explicitly said so. The other had skimmed the front part, saw a reference to machine understanding (which BibleTrans recognizes as exceedingly difficult and explicitly leaves instead to humans), and built his title around how conventional machine translation research implements that idea; he resisted my effort to dislodge it from his thinking and focus instead on what I had said about it. The conflict which prompted my post today was with the student who made a greater effort to learn something new. She admitted that she had bogged down in the second half, and I tried to encourage her to reconsider. Alas, it was too much to ask, and she told me that my response was "a bit aggresive and quite belittling." I agree that it was aggressive. I was there to "teach" a topic, and both students were resisting any learning. But "belittling"? I don't know where that came from, except that education is inherently disaffirming. She was responding as a Feeler.

A different case in point: Earlier this month I finished reading Grossman's book On Killing, where he makes the case that modern video games train our youth -- against their natural inclination -- to commit violent crimes. This is a (very effective) form of education, embedded in an entertainment medium. The disaffirmation is still there, but surrounded by vast quantities of affirmation. Game developers (I have done this kind of software, so I know how it works) need to make sure the player wins easily and often -- but not too easy. Game difficulty is automatically scaled up to make sure the disaffirmations (losing) happen less often than the affirmations (winning). There are still far too many disaffirmations for Feelers, which is why the twitch shootem-up games are almost exclusively a guys' market.

Could I teach in a largely affirming environment? Yes, sort of. Nobody can do a credible job of it, and I'm unwilling to do less. When the department chair criticized my teaching methods as being insufficiently entertaining six years ago, I disagreed. That's not what I was there for. It was fundamentally dishonest, and I was not about to do things that way.

No apologies. No regrets.


2010 March 19 -- Edutainment

Six years ago I was employed by an institution whose public "Mission Statement" called for "preparing students to be servant leaders in a global society." It sounded good -- it was a good mission statement -- and I endorsed it wholeheartedly. I did not know that every part of the statement was a lie. I started to figure it out when the department chairman called me into his office to begin what I later learned was the first step in involuntary termination. I was not a good fit at the university, and they and I both knew it. We could have worked out an amicable parting, but they preferred to take the advice of their lawyers.

That's past, but the conditions extend to other institutions. That university's primary mission was not preparing students to be anything at all; instead it was, as the president reminded us at every faculty meeting with his "tuition driven" homily, to get and retain tuition-paying students. Institutions tend to focus on financial survival over any other mission. People do that too: today a friend sent me a link to somebody's blog post decrying the dishonesty of atheist ministers who don't have the integrity to tell their churches that they don't believe. They admittedly are unwilling to give up their salary. The love of money, we are told elsewhere, is the root of every form of evil. I got fired for being too honest. Most people are smarter than that.

Anyway, ever since then I have been sending out resumes to every college and university that is hiring computer science faculty. Last month one of those went to an online "university", and this week they invited me to present a "lecture" on the topic of my choice, and then to facilitate a discussion on it. That should have been a clue as to their real agenda (you don't learn by sharing your collective ignorance in a group setting, you learn by guided experience), but I gave it due diligence. Were the other two people in my "class" competing for the same position? I don't know for sure, but neither of them had the academic credentials I would expect for an "Associate Professor of Advancing Computer Science" and one of them later sent me a generic email that sounded like what a group facilitator might say (contentless affirmation); our outside email addresses were not exposed in the class environment, so I assume she got mine through some official capacity. This staff-posing-as-applicant also posted numerous remarks critical of my participation: like the department chair six years ago, she was building a basis for saying I don't fit their criteria.

That's OK, I understand. An "online" school gets its revenue entirely from student tuitions. Like my former employer, their true mission is not education, but entertainment. They need to attract and hold attention in a competitive field of leisure time activities. People don't really want to learn, they want to be entertained. "Group" discussions (there was actually no cross-thread discussion, just a little token give and take between the instructor and each "student") give people the opportunity to hear the sound of their own voice (or, as in this case, see their own words on the screen) and be affirmed. True education comes with disaffirmation, learning that your previous views are incorrect and replacing them with better facts. It's not a pleasant process. The students don't like it -- but they tend to praise me ten years later. That may inform their subsequent choice as parents on where to send their kids to college, but it does nothing immediate for student retention.

I'm an educator, not an entertainer. I'm also too honest for most people. When the institutional mission is a lie, I don't fit. I know that, and they know it. That's probably why I'm still without long-term gainful employment.

2010 March 11 -- 24/7

As he handed me the box, my friend told me he thought it disappointing. I didn't know until the last episode what was so disappointing, but I agree. Not surprised, given the moral ambiguity these TV show writers operate under, but as a Christian, disappointed. Nobody -- least of all Jack Bauer -- will find spiritual peace in their soul hearing a 1-minute emasculated Christian homily, and no self-respecting Muslim imam would deliver it.

But then accurate, true to life realism is not what you come to escape video for. Let's face it, computer hacking is a man's world, but Chloe O'Brian is the best of the best. This season goes to great lengths to say so. A few seasons earlier, David Palmer was a fine, credible, oreo black President of the USA, not unlike Barack Obama (except blacker and more competent). His brother as President was less credible. This season's woman President is even less so.

President Taylor, we are told, was elected on a platform of non-negotiation with terrorists (which is a good idea) -- and then she goes right out there and negotiates with the terrorists. The writers simply got that one wrong. If the head of some rogue African state is doing damage on USA soil, that is an act of war, and any President worth his salt would say so, not negotiate. However much the left-wing bigot half of this country hated President Bush, everybody was behind him on September 11. And if she is less competent than Obama, at least she can listen to her military advisors, who would not hesitate to tell her the facts of life. But this is fiction.

I spent a large part of my technical career in computerized security. Like MacGyver, the 24 writers either don't know what they are showing, or else they are deliberately misrepresenting the security issues. OK, it's not as hokey as the later MacGyver, but hey, this is national security, not the burglar alarm on some rinky-dink mom-and-pop store. Despite that obvious flaw, I came away from the first four episodes with a clear feeling that We don't want nationalized central control over security, it's too easy to compromise too much -- even if it is harder to get in than the fiction represents, when you are in, you shouldn't be able to access so much.

24's trademark conflict is between family (relationships) and duty, and they played that to the hilt with a woman President. As anybody in the security business knows (and the TV writers are apparently in denial over), there is a significant gender difference in this tension. While the earlier 24 Presidents had to face that crisis, this season's Madam President wilted as almost any woman (and TV writer, Feelers all of them) would. She ended the season with more backbone than could be expected, and her conniving, power-hungry daughter was hauled off to jail before her eyes.

I don't follow the media, so I was unaware of the furor that Jack Bauer's hardball tactics caused in Season 6 (one of the added features discussed it), but this season went to great lengths to make the case for milque-toast "rule of law" rejection of torture. Then they let Jack do it anyway, even apparently making a convert of his FBI colleague Renee. I don't have a high opinion of the effectiveness of torture -- it probably wouldn't work with me, but fortunately I'm not in a postion to test it -- nevertheless, bad people do bad things, and God sometimes uses bad people doing bad things to effect His Good and perfect end. I'm not sure exactly how to slice that one cleanly. Fortunately, I don't have to.

2010 February 17 -- Darwinism Impedes Research

The Darwinists are fond of crowing that creationism impedes scientific research, while their dogma facilitates it. Today I learned otherwise from somebody who is in a position to know. My niece does genetic research for a large state university lab. I didn't write down the specifics, but it appears that Darwinistic dogma actually impeded one of their research projects. Normally her work involves searching the genetic code for the same genetic marker among family members exhibiting a hypothesized hereditary disorder (full disclosure: I wrote some of the software she uses). In this case they decided to search the general population for the co-occurrance of a pair of markers they were interested in. It turned out, as I recall, that the markers were far more prevalent than their hypothesis predicted. So then they set out to search for enabling genes somewhere else in the genome, but failed to find any -- until they looked in the "junk DNA" which Darwinistic theory deems to be evolutionary mistakes. Her conclusion: There is no such thing as "junk DNA", only DNA that we have not yet figured out what it does. The Creationists have been saying that ever since "junk DNA" was first reported. Without that pseudo-science Darwinist baggage, a Creationist in that lab would have found the related genes much more quickly.

2010 January 25 -- Downside of Democracy

Tucked away in an obscure endnote in a book I've been reading is a curious 1850 quote from then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. For reasons I cannot entirely fathom, it is also quoted by modern "conservatives":
If you establish a democracy, you must in due time reap the fruits of a democracy. You will in due season have great impatience of public burdens, combined in due season with great increase of public expenditure. You will in due season have wars entered into from passion and not from reason; and you will in due season submit to peace ignominiously sought and ignominiously obtained, which will diminish your authority and perhaps endanger your independence. You will in due season find your property is less valuable, and your freedom less complete.
None of these "conservatives" bother to tell us why they so enthusiastically cite a remark disparaging the form of government they would have us believe they wish to conserve. It is notable that less than a century later, Disraeli's successor Winston Churchill gave similar faint praise, calling democracy the worst of all possible governments, except for everything else that has been tried.

2010 January 13 -- Fake Religion

Despite my constant whine about their deficiencies, DVD players have one advantage over tape: fewer moving parts to break. My VCR player died last week, so I'm back to watching movies downloaded off the internet. This week it's an old silent serial, Tarzan the Tiger.

Older movies often have better underlying morality than the modern trash, but Tarzan isn't one of them. There is a consistent -- and often incredible -- theme of revenge that would do 24 proud. Get real: animals do not seek revenge, it's a human depravity. But what struck me is the total ignorance the writer shows concerning religion. Obviously the screenwriters 80 years ago were just as irreligious (and clueless) as their modern counterparts. Maybe more so.

Religion is the most important aspect of any person's life -- and that includes atheistic screen writers. Of course their religion is that there is no God to answer to, so they try to ridicule people who know otherwise. Modern screen writers have learned that they are in a minority, that the American people pay more to see movies where God is given honor than when God is trashed, so they tend to be somewhat more respectful despite their own belief system. This respect is nowhere evident in Tarzan. A recurring subplot in the story is this "priestess of the flame" who is trying to appease her god by human sacrifice.

The moral problem with this system is not the idea of sacrifice so much as how they go about to obtain their sacrificial victims. If a person really believes in God or gods, and really believes in the efficacy of sacrifice, then they recognize the importance of offering to their deity the sacrifice of the highest value possible. Otherwise their god will be displeased and do them harm instead of the desired good. Pagans who offer human sacrifice understand that. That's why they offer humans, because everybody knows that humans are infinitely more valuable than mere animals. But by the same reasoning, the human sacrifice must be willing. Otherwise it's merely murder. If the priestess is trying to get rid of a person she doesn't want around, she obviously does not consider that person very valuable; how much more will the gods be offended?

The God of the Bible accepted a human sacrifice, but only of the highest value possible: His own Son, and only because Jesus went to his death willingly. Otherwise his sacrifice would have been worthless, not a "sacrifice" at all, and as immoral as the screen writers depicted it in Tarzan. Fortunately, the title hero rescued all the captives from time to time, so nobody was burned in the story (not even the villains, who died by other means), and everybody lived happily ever after.

I subsequently learned (10 May 28) that the Aztecs actually did sacrifice their enemies, but explained it in non-religious terms as a way of disposing of unwanted criminals and POWs.

2010 January 8 -- Heroes

The fundamental difference between fantasy and science fiction is in the nature of the science. Sci-Fi may posit physics beyond what we now know -- for example, travel faster than the speed of light by means not (presumably yet) known to us -- but never in obvious violation of physics; fantasy is not so constrained. Super-heroes like Superman and Spiderman and the even more bizarre collection of their successors all do things that physics cannot allow. Take Superman's famous X-ray vision: if his eyes generated x-rays, they would overwhelm any reflected radiation, thus preventing him from seeing through things. Maybe he might be strong enough to "leap tall buildings in a single bound," but that would likely leave quite a depression in the ground (every action has a reaction) where he pushed off; flying horizontally or turning in mid-air would be impossible without some means of propulsion (none is ever shown nor alleged).

Heroes is all about super-heroes with powers totally contrary to physics. Essentially each person has some unique fictional power that we all wish we had, superman-style flying and strength (above and beyond the ability of the physical properties of flesh and bone), instant healing, telekinesis, mind-reading and coercion, radioactive heat, going invisible or stopping time at will, even reprogramming computers by mental effort in ways that the actual programmer if he were plugged into the system could not. One of the characters has the unique ability to absorb the powers of the other heroes just by being near them.

I suppose it makes for interesting fiction to explore how the existence of such fantastical powers might impact society, and the interview with the creator suggests this as one of his objectives, but we need to recognize that their very existence has taken leave of science. The creator and writer of this TV series does not understand science enough to say so. Instead, he keeps inserting all this "evolution" mumbo-jumbo as if that explains what is going on. Of course it does not. Darwinistic evolution is about the gradual accumulation of minor but beneficial changes over many generations, until the result is a new organism that still obeys the laws of physics in its metabolism and behavior. It doesn't happen in the real world, but their excuse is that it takes millions of years, not a single generation as in Heroes.

There were, however, a couple of these "evolution" lines that were memorable in their own right:

Evolution comes down to one thing: survive or perish.
What you have done is not evolution, it's murder.
These two lines betray a total ignorance of the central theme of Darwinism. The first is a tautology, true without regard to the real world or any explanation of it. Everything either survives or perishes, even in a Creationist world it's still true. Classic Darwinism is about the survival of the fittest, specifically the mutations that lead to better survival rates.

The second line is much more subtle. Evolution can only work if these mutations give the organism a competitive edge over the other organisms, so it is more likely that they to live and pass on its (modified) genes to the next generation. One of the characters in this show is helping that along by actively getting rid of the less-fit competitors. That is morally offensive, and the writer recognizes as such -- without realizing that the idea is central to Darwinism. Morality, however, came to us from the Creator God, the contradiction of Darwinism. We recognize murder as Wrong because Darwinism is a lie.

Good fiction helps us grow morally by encouraging us to ask ourselves, "What would I do in that situation?" And then to answer it in morally acceptable ways. Several of the heroes in this program vocalize their duty to do Good and not Evil. This is good. There is a villain -- you need one with super-powers to act as a credible foil to the Good Guys -- and he does Bad Things. That's one of the things that makes this show watchable. The problem is that we humans have limitations determined in part by the laws of physics; in a fantasy story there are also limitations, but they are invented on the fly by the writer, so it's much harder to internalize them in seeing ourselves in a character's position. That's why I don't read fantasy novels.

My sister loaned me the DVDs from Season 1. I probably would not have bothered to watch more than the first episode otherwise. It wasn't until disc 6 (out of 7) that I began to see the somewhat limited virtues of the story line. If she buys Season 2 and loans it to me, I'll probably watch it, but not otherwise. The suspension of disbelief is just too much effort.

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