Riding through Georgia

Why Is The Golden Age of Television So Dark?

Megan McArdle asks a question I am singularly unqualified to answer, as with one exception I don't watch television (and I watch it only on Amazon Prime), and haven't seen any of the shows she's talking about. I'm going to pose an answer anyway, one that has nothing to do with the specifics of the shows, but has instead to do with the history of the cinema that these shows are replacing.

Gangster movies do indeed date to the beginnings of the cinema, but there was a moment about a generation ago when they became extremely popular. It would be easy to say that this was simply because they were particularly excellent -- The Godfather and The Godfather II routinely top the lists of great movies in Hollywood history.

But they were excellent for a reason, and the reason has to do with a function they were serving. There was a famous essay -- I wish I could remember the title or author, and perhaps one of you will remind me -- that held that the gangster film was uniquely poised to permit Hollywood to explore tragedy. At this point the Cold War was deeply established, and American audiences were enforcing on Hollywood its duty to demonstrate that the American way was finally a story of happy endings. The counterculture that produced Easy Rider was still the counter- and not the leading culture; generally, comedies and action films and romantic comedies and even dramas all usually ended on an up-note. American audiences wanted to believe that, if you were a good person and lived according to your own virtues, things would work out.

The one genre where that wasn't required was the gangster film. Here, the essential evils to which the gangster had to commit were enough that even the most sympathetic gangster could be punished by fate without the audience rejecting the film. It was a way of re-enabling the tragic function, which Aristotle talks about in the Poetics. It's an important and very high function of drama, and the gangster film allowed you to explore it in the context of the day.

It also allowed -- because the ending would be tragic -- characters who could offer a strict critique of the American way. Read the analysis of the scene which precedes these words:
This is the very first scene in the movie (though the dialogue is truncated for the big screen) for a reason. Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo understood the need to show the alternate moral universe of the mafia. Rahe points out that it’s no coincidence that the undertaker’s name is Amerigo Bonasera, which translates into “Goodnight America.”

Paul Rahe brilliantly explores the question of whether someone can be “armed” with “true friends” and still be a “good American.”
The only television show I've watched in the last five years is Sons of Anarchy. Its second season explores the positive aspects of that ideal. Its subsequent seasons explore, so far, the negative. It also seems to be a tragedy, based loosely on Hamlet.

But it also seems to be exploring the idea of the old view of friendship versus the American rule of law. And it does it in the context of an America in which the rule of law seems to be of a different character than a generation ago. Don Corleone complained that judges 'sell themselves,' and the process was slow to boot: in the new shows, the agents of the Federal government particularly are baleful, not just corrupt but wicked. Yet when -- spoilers, as they say -- the CIA proves to be behind the effort to smuggle guns to one of the Mexican drug cartels wreaking havoc in California, the show is not leading but following the news.

It may be the reason gangster 'films' are so pervasive on the new television are the two old reasons: that it as a genre permits a genuine tragedy, and that it permits a clear-eyed critique of the American system. But it may also be that the American system isn't as healthy as it used to be, and the critique is therefore more persuasive. At some point, the tragedy will fall away, and people will simply accept these gangsters as heroes, full stop.

McArdle's alternate theory asks, "What will you do for an encore?" But the encore follows naturally, if I am right.

Thoughts on Some Possible Solutions to the Knowledge / Information Problem

Grim and Cass have brought up some partial solutions, or at least ideas of places to look, and I ran across another today.

In the comments to The Knowledge Problem, Grim brings up the following:

1) Time is short, but art is long. One of the ways in which we approach this problem is to learn what those before us knew. This not only helps us by teaching us how to recognize where they went wrong, but it provides us with a platform from which to criticize our own paradigms. Without an alternative, as you said, we cannot.

2) We have vital decisions to make, but urgency and importance are two different axes. Some decisions are really more vital, but there is time to consider more carefully; others are really more urgent, but not so important. One way of approaching the problem is to make sure we are making this distinction, so we focus the short time on problems that are both urgent and important; then problems that are urgent but somewhat important; and then on problems that are important but not urgent, leaving the unimportant problems generally to slide.

3) All you say in principle 3 is true, but we must still decide and act. One way to act is to learn to recognize areas in which the best available information is more likely to be wrong -- or, areas where being wrong is more likely to be disastrous. I am thinking here of Taleb's "The Fourth Quadrant," which is a typology of problems that lets you know that you can proceed without too much fear in some areas, but need to be very cautious about taking risks in others. So that is an aspect of your problem: developing similar typologies of kinds of problems, and also of kinds of "knowledge" that are more likely to be wrong.

Grim also proposed:

The justification step is disposable, if the relationship to the truth is really there. And that means that knowledge isn't JTB, but (as the externalists say) a relationship with the truth. [1]

Cass also brought intuition into the discussion, and I think intuition might be an important part of the solution.

Then, this morning I ran into the Wikipedia article on bounded rationality, which seems to be addressing the same, or at least similar, ideas.

Bounded rationality is the idea that in decision-making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision. It was proposed by Herbert A. Simon as an alternative basis for the mathematical modeling of decision making, as used in economics and related disciplines; it complements rationality as optimization, which views decision-making as a fully rational process of finding an optimal choice given the information available. Another way to look at bounded rationality is that, because decision-makers lack the ability and resources to arrive at the optimal solution, they instead apply their rationality only after having greatly simplified the choices available. Thus the decision-maker is a satisficer, one seeking a satisfactory solution rather than the optimal one. Simon used the analogy of a pair of scissors, where one blade is the "cognitive limitations" of actual humans and the other the "structures of the environment"; minds with limited cognitive resources can thus be successful by exploiting pre-existing structure and regularity in the environment.

I will certainly be reading more about this idea.


1. It seems a bit unfair to only post this much. This was the conclusion to an extended argument Grim made in the comments to the earlier post, and to get the full implications I think the whole argument should be read.

Defining the Problem, Part 2: Knowledge, or Information?

Plato discussed the idea that knowledge is justified true belief (JTB), and historically a lot of philosophers have accepted this definition. With JTB, we only know something if  it is true, we believe it, and we have good reasons for believing it. There are some serious challenges to this idea of knowledge, but generally philosophers agree that a belief must be true to be considered knowledge; there is no such thing as false knowledge.

Information, on the other hand, can be simply a collection of data, whether true or not. Knowledge, then, is information that is true, justified, and believed.

The most recent (though probably not final) formulation of what I have called The Knowledge Problem goes like this:

1. Time is really short.
2. We have vital decisions to make.
3. It is impossible to get enough verified information out of an ocean of unverified data to make the best possible decisions, and sometimes the information we need just isn't available.
4. We need sufficient information that is good enough to allow us to generally make good decisions and to minimize the harm when we make bad decisions.

But is that really a knowledge problem? Or is it an information problem? After discussing the issue in that previous post, I'm beginning to think it's more of an information problem. Building up a body of knowledge is probably one of the answers to the problem.

What do you think? Knowledge Problem, or Information Problem? Naturally, feel free to help refine my four points or bring up related issues.

Completing an Entirely Frivolous Day in the Hall

I am doing some important things today, just not here.

UPDATE: Ok, now we're really finished for the day.

The German Quiz

I'm officially 80% German, according to the very lustig "how German am I" test from Hipstery.com. The average is just 65%. I’m as German as Pfand, Apfelsaftschorle and shouting at people who commit minor legal infractions. Unglaublich! Don’t even try and beat my score.

A Striking Image

Here's an image I'm sure I'll have use for from time to time.

40 maps

Maps that sort things in an unusual way.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Another story from Georgia, one well worth reading, is the story of Antoinette Tuff. She stopped a school shooting in DeKalb County the other day by talking the shooter down -- buying time for the children to be evacuated.

It's nice when that works. Of course, it depends on the shooter being willing to be talked down, which isn't always reliable. Nevertheless, it worked this time. Her heroic courage may have saved many lives.

Rambling Wreck

Allahpundit says, "This guy’s either going to be president, the next Jim Carrey, or institutionalized."

Or else he'll just flunk out. The four-year graduation rate at Georgia Tech is about thirty-one percent. It's one of those schools where they tell you at orientation, "Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of the three of you will make it."

The ones who do, though...

R.I.P. Sam

This is our neighbor's beautiful daughter Michelle and her son, Sam, 14 years old.  Sam was killed Sunday afternoon in a head-on collision on the undivided two-lane highway a few miles north of here, on his way down from his home in Austin with family friends.  A car in the oncoming lane suddenly crossed the line for unknown reasons; the wreck was instantaneous.

Also killed was the driver of Sam's car, the mother of his two young traveling companions.  She was 45 years old.  In the other car were a 43-year-old man, his girlfriend, his young son and daughter, and a friend of the daughter's.  All survived, but only the 11-year-old boy came through without terrible injuries.  The boy pulled his 9-year-old sister to safety, put compresses on her wounds, and flagged down help on the highway, then went back to pull his sister's friend to safety. He must have realized his father and the girlfriend were too large and too badly injured for him to try to help.  Luckily there was no fire.

I find that I can't stop thinking about the 11-year-old boy's little dog, who was in the car with him.  One of the firemen at the scene said she saw someone take the dog away wrapped in a towel.  She wasn't sure if it had lived.  She tried all the vets in town, but none had seen the dog come in.  Because the wreck was about half-way to the nearest small community to the north, it's just possible it was taken somewhere else.  In the comments section of the online newspaper for a nearby city, the boy's grandmother is asking about the dog for her grandson's sake.  I've told her everything I've been able to find out.  I'd like the little boy to know at least that someone tried to take care of his dog.  Maybe against all odds they'll be reunited; at least he'll know that the dog wasn't simply overlooked and that someone tried very hard to help.  The boy's father was in surgery all night long.  His grandmother reports that his sister's lungs are "not responding well."  Some good news would be welcome.

It's easier to worry about the dog, I guess, than to imagine the grief and horror of my neighbors and their daughter.  Sam was her only child and my neighbors' only grandchild.  He often visited next-door.  He was a fine young man with a family who adored him.  He had recently returned from the trip of a lifetime with his father, deep-sea diving near Bali.

Here's one of the last pictures of him, showing what a beautiful young man he was turning into.

The Knowledge Problem (Part 1)

If you've waded through How Do You Splint a Broken Paradigm? and Let's Shift That Paradigm a Bit More (God bless you), then I hope you've understood my situation as a specific example of a generalizable and, I believe, common problem. Broadly, I've begun to regard most sources of knowledge as highly questionable.

While I am far, far more skeptical than I used to be, I wouldn't say I've become a true Skeptic. I do believe there are some demonstrable scientific truths. I believe journalists and historians and social scientists get some things right. I believe my lying eyes (ears, nose, etc.), most of the time. I don't believe there's a Big Conspiracy to keep The Truth from us, though there are probably lots of small, unconnected conspiracies to keep certain bits of information from certain people.

In other words, I believe knowledge is possible, and that we can fairly easily get our brains around some of it. The real problem is a bit more treacherous. We are deluged with information from a great variety of sources, but in most cases we don't know which bits of it are to be trusted and which aren't. Worse, we're mortal, and we have many requirements on our  meager allotment of time in this world besides the sifting and sorting of information.

And yet, we must make decisions based on information. Not only the big things like who to support for president, but what to eat for breakfast (low-fat? low-carb? anything -- just hot and now?), whether to take up or remain in a religion, how to know when to devote time and money (and how much) to social or political causes, what to say to our co-workers at lunch when they ask what we think about current events, what advice to give to children and people we mentor, these sorts of things.

The knowledge problem, then, as best as I've been able to define it, goes like this: Time is really short; we have vital decisions to make; we need to get verified information out of an ocean of unverified data; that's very hard.

Are there any changes or refinements to the problem you would like to offer?

UPDATE 8/24/13: Due to the discussion in the comments, I've revised my formulation of the problem. I've given the new formulation in the post, Defining the Problem, Part 2: Knowledge, or Information?

Manufactured Problems, Death Row Edition

The decision by the Missouri Supreme Court to allow propofol, the same powerful anesthetic that caused the death of Michael Jackson, to be used in executions — coming at a time when Texas, Ohio, Arkansas and other states are scrambling to come up with a new drug for their own lethal injections — is raising new questions about how the death penalty will be carried out.
If all else fails, I hear hemp works.

A Tale of Two SAs

Two men, one aware of his situation and one oblivious.

This event happened a couple of seasons ago.  Despite having his back (mostly) to the event, he's still able to…interfere…with the ball and prevent a painful, if not serious, injury.  Albeit trained, his situation awareness was present, even in the distraction of an interview.

This event happened last night.  This time, the "gentleman" was facing the entire incident and lifted not a finger to interfere.  It's not that he didn't care, it's that he was completely oblivious.  Fortunately, the lady wasn't injured beyond a momentary embarrassment to her dignity.

Two men, one who was heads up, and one who simply had his head up.

Of course, I'm eliding the wisdom of conducting an interview so close to the sideline of an active playing field—that's sometimes unavoidable in the business—and I'm eliding the ladies' own lack of SA.  Ms Oliver should have known better and been more aware herself.  I don't know the baseball lady, but she seemed (based on no information at all) to be more inexperienced.  Still, she should have known better, too, especially with an active batter.  None of which detracts from the one man or absolves the other.

Eric Hines

Let's Shift That Paradigm a Bit More

I introduced one line of thought in my previous post, How Do You Splint a Broken Paradigm?, that needs a bit more filling out.

While I wrote almost exclusively about the fall of my anti-religious world view in that post, that event coincided with a number of other worldview issues.

My faith in the academic world was taken down several notches by a list of things: The discoveries that I talked about in my earlier post that historians had repeatedly affirmed falsehoods for more than a century, my increasing awareness of just how politically uniform Western historians and academics in general are, and my occasional run-ins with histories and other academic work written with what seemed to be ideologically-driven (instead of fact-driven) methods.

My faith in journalism, never particularly high, was lowered further by the abysmal coverage of the war during the Bush presidency and increasing evidence that the field of journalism was as politically monolithic as the academy.

Finally, once I realized that the realm of information, both the academy and journalism, were almost completely in the sway of a single ideology, I understood the course of events in America differently. America has flirted with technocracy from the mid-nineteenth century, at least, and we may have finally reached it. Whether we have or not, the university is the high ground; whoever holds it determines the direction of American culture.

The combination of blows to what I thought I knew and the sources that before had seemed more trustworthy really produced severe doubts about what could be known about anything going on in the world. The political domination of the academy and, through it, other institutions, made me doubt that there were very many who would even try to tell the truth if it conflicted with their socio-political goals. (It's quite possible they couldn't see it as the truth; paradigms guide us, but they also give us blind spots.)

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, wrote that a group of people, such as the members of a scientific community, cannot discard a paradigm, no matter how flawed, until they have a new one to replace it with. Without a guiding paradigm there is no way to accomplish anything, and we can always say we're working out the flaws, even if what we're really doing is changing paradigms entirely.

I'm not sure what new paradigm is shaping up here, but it is one that is far more politically aware, and one that views things through the lens of progressive domination of the university and all of the institutions that rely on it. It is obviously far more skeptical.

Something it isn't is belief in a conspiracy, or a belief that all or most journalists or academics are bad. I believe most of them are just people doing their best in a flawed world. In some ways that makes things easier, but in others harder. But, that is a post for another day.

Another Historian Discovers Aristotle

One reason I decided I had to study Aristotle was that he kept popping up in my research in early US history. Hence, it was a happy surprise to see that the author of a couple of excellent books on US history made a similar discovery.

I'm slowly reading my way through Walter A. McDougall's Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1828-1877 and, in an endnote on American political rhetoric, ran across the acknowledgement: "I am indebted to David Eisenhower for steering me, at this late date in life, to Aristotle" (p. 620, note 19).

Although McDougall doesn't say much more about it, the history of ancient Greece and Rome were familiar to many in the early American colonies and early republic, and a lot of social and political rhetoric not only followed Aristotle's Rhetoric, but used allusions to those two cultures to make their points.

The Glories of the Freed Market

A few weeks ago Tex and I were discussing the question of whether it is correct to talk about libertarians on the left. Tonight I came across two groups that describe themselves as just that: the Center for a Stateless Society, and the Distro of the Libertarian Left.

It makes for interesting reading. Sometimes they really do sound just like Tex, except for an odd tic of using the term "freed" market instead of "free" market. (Apparently this has to do with a distinction they want to make between markets, which they think are good for just the reasons Tex does, and capitalism, by which they mean something like government/corporate cronyism. A "freed" market is a market restored to the glories of which it is capable before all the rent-seekers and bureaucrats got involved in carving out sinecures for themselves.)

Here, though, is a good example of them sounding much like our friend and companion:
Most people take it for granted — because they’ve heard it so many times from politicians and pundits — that they must trade some privacy for security in this dangerous world. The challenge, we’re told, is to find the right “balance.” Let’s examine this.

On its face the idea seems reasonable. I can imagine hiring a firm to look after some aspect of my security. To do its job the firm may need some information about me that I don’t readily give out. It’s up to me to decide if I like the trade-off. Nothing wrong there. In a freed market, firms would compete for my business, and competition would pressure firms to ask only for information required for their services. As a result, a minimum amount of information would be requested. If I thought even that was too much, I would be free to choose to look after my security myself. If I did business with a firm that violated the terms of our contract, I would have recourse. At the very least I could terminate the relationship and strike up another or none at all.

In other words, in the freed market I would find the right “balance” for myself, and you would do the same. One size wouldn’t be deemed to fit all. The market would cater to people with a range of security/privacy concerns, striking the “balance” differently for different people. That’s as it should be.

Actually, we can say that there would be no trade-off between privacy and security at all, because the information would be voluntarily disclosed by each individual on mutually acceptable terms. Under those circumstances, it wouldn’t be right to call what the firm does an “intrusion.”

But that sort of situation is not what Barack Obama, Mike Rogers, Peter King, and their ilk mean when they tell us that “we” need to find the right balance between security and privacy. They mean they will dictate to us what the alleged balance will be. We will have no real say in the matter, and they can be counted on to find the balance on the “security” side of the spectrum as suits their interests. That’s how these things work. (See “NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds.”) Unlike in a freed market, what the government does is intrusive, because it is done without our consent and often without our knowledge.
So there really are left-libertarians! Although they sometimes seem to prefer to call themselves "anarchists," they also use the identification.

Gathering up Some Threads

I had to go searching for these today for the next Aristotle post, so I thought I'd put the links all in one convenient spot.

Formal Logic, Part I

Formal Logic, Part II

Formal Logic, Part III

Aristotle's Categories

Negative Capability

More on Negative Capability

Although at this point it may not seem related: Rick Santorum on Art

Because it looks like an interesting tool: Quora.com

Anything else I should add on Aristotle or The Knowledge Problem?

How Do You Splint a Broken Paradigm?

Stories are powerful delivery systems for ways of looking at and interpreting the world. A while ago, Grim posted Terry Jones's explanation that the medievals never believed the earth was flat and that Columbus never proved it was round. What a powerful story that had been; many still believe it. Jones drew heavily on the work of Prof. Jeffrey Burton Russell, whose book Inventing the Flat Earth shattered that myth for me. But Russell went beyond a simple explanation of how the story got started and why we shouldn't believe it today. His real question was why, even though the flat earth myth was repeatedly debunked by a number of historians, it persisted for a century and a half.

Part of the answer is that it was too good a story; it fit too well with what many Americans wanted to believe. There are two aspects to that, religion and progress. From the beginning, the English colonists in the Americas were staunchly anti-Catholic. The flat earth myth catered to this by portraying the Catholic hierarchy as idiots. Similarly, from the beginning the colonists believed in progress, expansion, making things better, what some call "the improvement ethic". From that standpoint, the flat earth myth powerfully differentiated the modern man from the medieval one, not just in knowledge (we know more), but in attitude (we are open to discovery, so we can make progress; they were not, so they couldn't).  For many, of course, both of these aspects were useful in maintaining their world view. Now we know that it was all a big lie.

I was in graduate school in history when I discovered this. I started looking into other anti-religion, anti-faith stories from the past. Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial quickly fell; the details of both support very different conclusions than the common anti-religious stories tell. Religion vs. reason? One of the chief charges of the Renaissance humanists against the Roman Catholic Church was that it relied too much on logic. Aristotelian logic was one of the chief epistemological tools of the medieval Church for centuries. Any university-educated medieval bishop could out-logic most modern scientists, I believe. Additionally, most of the famous scientists up into the 19th century were sincerely religious: Kepler, Newton, and many others went so far as to believe science a way of learning about God and saw their scientific discoveries as evidence for God. For them, the practice of science was a religious exercise.

Learning all this initiated a paradigmatic crisis for me. The world obviously did not work the way I thought it did -- religion TOO reasoning? Science and faith supporting each other? All the stories that carried my belief in the science-religion dichotomies clearly lies? I had made some important decisions based on those myths.

It was a kind of insanity, but the evidence was all there. At some point, my world view fell off its shelf and fractured. So far, all of the king's horses and all of the king's men haven't been able to put it together again, not in any coherent form.

I tried out philosophy, but no matter what epistemology I found, it was always flawed. There are some very good systems out there, but at some point you have to step out on faith. In logic, there is that first unreasoned premise. In science, the unprovable premises of ubiquity and parsimony (not to mention scientific naturalism), and of course many scientists reject logic as a method of discovering knowledge. In religion, well, it starts for me with metaphysics.

So here I am, pondering the pieces, nursing my psychological fractures and a Bushmills, neat, wondering, what now?

I hope to flesh out the problem some more as well as make way toward some answers in future posts. Maybe you've had a similar experience, or know something that would help?


H/t Maggie's Farm.