Why I'm Voting for Hillary Clinton

October 18th, 2016

I’ve spent the last several months torn on whom to vote for in next month’s presidential election. Donald Trump is a non-starter for a hundred different reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain. Though I consider myself a liberal, I have decidedly mixed feelings about Hillary Clinton. The many criticism we hear from the right-wing propaganda machine, which has gone into overdrive this election cycle, are mostly baseless. They still won’t let up about Benghazi, despite Clinton being cleared by one of the lengthiest, costliets congressional investigations in history. But there are real reasons for progressives to be wary of a Clinton presidency, namely her proven record of hawkishness during her tenure as Secretary of State.

As a former libertarian, I’ve had a certain fondness for Gary Johnson throughout his campaign. Yes, I disagree with him on many issues, some of them important. But Johnson appears to be forthright and intellectually honest, and as governor of New Mexico he demonstrated that he governs pretty much as he promises. And in particular, he’s committed to scaling back–practically eliminating–America’s foreign interventions, something that’s desperately needed at a time when we kill innocent civilians by the thousands via drone strikes in foreign countries.

Gary Johnson

But Johnson’s repeated media gaffes have convinced me that he’s simply not qualified to be President of the United States. When he asked, “What is Aleppo?” it was embarrassing, but I was prepared to overlook it. After all, I consider myself a reasonably informed voter, and I’d never heard of Aleppo before Johnson’s gaffe made the news. And as a Libertarian, non-intervention in foreign nations is a major part of his party’s platform, so it’s not surprising that Johnson would be less focused on foreign affairs than his opponents.

But then, mere days later, Johnson was completely stumped when asked to name a foreign leader he admires. Apparently, the Aleppo incident was not sufficient to make Johnson realize he needed to brush up on foreign policy and international issues.

I understand that Libertarians take an isolationist view of foreign policy, but even if it were a good idea, it’s not like Johnson would be able to bring home all our troops from abroad and close down all of America’s foreign embassies his first day in office. Like it or not, working with other nations and interacting with world leaders is simply an intrinsic part of the job of President, and Johnson has given no indication whatsoever that he’s even minimally qualified to perform that job, or shown the least bit of interest in acquiring the skills or knowledge to do so.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is far from a perfect candidate, but our job as voters isn’t to hold out for the perfect candidate, it’s to select the most qualified from among the available alternatives. And of everyone in contention in this election, Clinton is the most qualified by a mile. It isn’t even close.

New Study Confirms Racial Bias in Use of Force by Police

July 12th, 2016

There are a bunch of articles going around social media about a new study that apparently found no evidence of racial bias in police shootings. These articles are of varying quality, including some that are very good but with wildly misleading headlines. As a public service, here’s the original paper they’re all reporting on.

Since everyone’s big takeaway seems to be “there’s no racial bias in policework, end of story,” these two passages should be of particular interest:

On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police.

Our results have several important caveats. First, all but one dataset was provided by a select group of police departments. It is possible that these departments only supplied the data because they are either enlightened or were not concerned about what the analysis would reveal. In essence, this is equivalent to analyzing labor market discrimination on a set of firms willing to supply a researcher with their Human Resources data!

Also note that the paper has not undergone peer review or other independent vetting.

(This article was originally published on Facebook.)

Some Highlights from Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt

June 29th, 2016

Here are some highlights from Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down Texas’ anti-abortion TRAP laws:

Returning to the District Court record, we note that, in direct testimony, the president of Nova Health Systems, implicitly relying on this general fact, pointed out that it would be difficult for doctors regularly performing abortions at the El Paso clinic to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals because ‘[d]uring the past 10 years, over 17,000 abortion procedures were performed at the El Paso clinic [and n]ot a single one of those patients had to be transferred to a hospital for emergency treatment, much less admitted to the hospital.’ In a word, doctors would be unable to maintain admitting privileges or obtain those privileges for the future, because the fact that abortions are so safe meant that providers were unlikely to have any patients to admit.

Supreme Court building in Washington, DC

Nationwide, childbirth is 14 times more likely than abortion to result in death, but Texas law allows a midwife to oversee childbirth in the patient’s own home. Colonoscopy, a procedure that typically takes place outside a hospital (or surgical center) setting, has a mortality rate 10 times higher than an abortion. Medical treatment after an incomplete miscarriage often involves a procedure identical to that involved in a nonmedical abortion, but it often takes place outside a hospital or surgical center. And Texas partly or wholly grandfathers (or waives in whole or in part the surgical-center requirement for) about two-thirds of the facilities to which the surgical-center standards apply. But it neither grandfathers nor provides waivers for any of the facilities that perform abortions.

We add that, when directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.

As everyone already knew, these TRAP laws were never about making surgical procedures safer. That was only a pretense for restricting access to abortion. The Supreme Court rightly saw through the ruse.

(This article was originally published on Facebook.)

Unicomp "Spacesaver M" Keyboard Review

May 23rd, 2016

The Unicomp “Spacesaver M” I ordered last week came in today. It’s the Mac version of Unicomp’s buckling-spring keyboard, based on the old IBM Model M and apparently manufactured using some of the original equipment (Unicomp bought the rights from Lexmark, which used to be part of IBM). The Model M is known for its loud “clicky” keys and strong tactile feedback.

Unicomp

This Mac version is actually based on Unicomp’s “Ultra” product line which has a smaller housing than the original Model M. They sell a full-sized PC version as well, but the Mac line is only available in the smaller housing. The actual keys have the same full-size keyboard regardless of the housing.

The original Model M is a big, heavy monster of a keyboard. This Unicomp model is noticeably lighter in comparison, but it still has much more heft than any everyday keyboard manufactured today.

Because of the era in which they were manufactured, most Model M keyboards have a PS/2 connector. The Unicomp uses USB. Unlike the original Model M, the Unicomp’s cord is permanently attached to the keyboard. I consider that a minor downgrade from the Model M’s removable cord. Especially given how standardized USB is, it would be nice if the cord were removable, so that it could easily be replaced if it became frayed or damaged.

Unicomp

The keyboard seemed reasonably well-packed for shipping, but five or six of the keys had popped off by the time I opened the box. They snapped back on easily, so it was not a big deal.

The original Model M had 101 keys, with no “Windows” or “menu” key, and a small gap between the “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys. Unicomp’s PC model has 104 keys, adding a “menu” key and two “Windows” keys, and reducing the size of the space bar to accommodate. The Mac version is based on this 104-key version, but with the slightly different modifier key layout used by Apple.

It has all the same secondary options—brightness, volume, etc.—on the Function keys. However, the actual icons it uses for them are pretty ugly. The delete key—the one that corresponds to a PC keyboard’s delete, not backspace—is especially bad.

Like the Model M, the keycaps on the Unicomp’s keys are removable and replaceable. Unicomp sells a full set of blank keycaps, which I’d like to eventually purchase, as my previous work keyboard was the Das Keyboard with blank keys, and I loved using it, partly for the novelty.

Unicomp

I’m typing this review on the original Model M that I have hooked up to my home desktop PC. It was manufactured in 1991, and is still in perfect working order—that’s how robust these keyboards are. I’m really excited to put the Unicomp through its paces at work tomorrow, and just hope the noise won’t be too bothersome for my coworkers.

(This article was originally published on Facebook.)

In which I review the other four Best Picture Oscar nominees

March 4th, 2016

Last weekend the local AMC hosted the second part of their “Best Picture Showcase,” presenting the remaining four of this year’s eight Best Picture Oscar nominees back-to-back.

The first film was Brooklyn, a charming story about Eilis, a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States on her own in the 1950s. She struggles at first, but eventually manages to build a fulfilling life for herself. But when she returns to Ireland temporarily after a family tragedy, she becomes torn between her homeland and the new life she’s built for herself. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, and her performance was rightly nominated in the Best Actress category. The movie was enjoyable, but somewhat insubstantial compared to several of the other nominees.

Next was Spotlight, which would go on to actually win the Best Picture award. It dramatizes the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of journalists’ brilliant investigation of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s. It follows in the footsteps of other journalism films like All the President’s Men and Zodiac, and it easily stands with the best of them. It was exhilarating and while it would not have been my personal pick for the Best Picture award (I liked Room a little better and I think Bridge of Spies and The Big Short were about on par with it) I think it’s Oscar win was completely justified.

The day’s third film was The Martian, Ridley Scott’s tale of a stranded astronaut, based on the popular book. I had read the book, loved it, and already seen the movie once before. The movie is very faithful to the book, and holds up to repeated viewings. I enjoyed every moment of it and recommend seeing it, but like it’s fellow nominee Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s pretty lighthearted and I’m not sure it belongs in the same category as some of the year’s harder-hitting dramas. Still, it’s a worthwhile, eminently enjoyable picture.

Closing out the day was The Revenant, the film that would finally see Leonard DiCaprio receive a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. It’s a brutal, harrowing tale of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century frontiersman left for dead by a fellow trapper after he is mauled by a bear. But Glass survives the attack, and attempts to make his way back to civilization and enact revenge on the man who left him to die. I understand all the accolades this film has received, but it was not my cup of tea.

I would actually have predicted The Revenant to win Best Picture, but was happily surprised on Sunday to see it go to the more-deserving-in-my-opinion Spotlight, one of several nominees I would have been perfectly happy to see take home the prize.

With The Revenant being the least satisfying of the films to my personal taste, this year was nevertheless a very good one for films overall, with an unusual number of films that stood out above the competition. As usual, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to view so many of the year’s best in one go and can’t wait to do the same next year.

In which I review four of the Best Picture Oscar nominees

February 22nd, 2016

This past Saturday was first day of AMC’s “Best Picture Showcase,” a two-part marathon of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

First up was Bridge of Spies, a Steven Spielberg film in which Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an American lawyer defending accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel during the Cold War. The justice system treats Abel’s guilt as a foregone conclusion, and Donovan is initially assigned to the case only to give the appearance that Abel is given a fair trial. But Donovan takes his duty seriously and serves his client to the best of his abilities, sparing him the death penalty. Later, the CIA attempts to exchange Abel for a captured American pilot, and Donovan travels to Berlin to facilitate the exchange.

I felt that the first part of the story, about Abel’s trial and Donovan’s defense of his civil liberties, was more compelling that the second, about the exchange. But the entire movie was enjoyable and everything came together strongly in the end. The best scene was one in which we see the American pilot being sentenced in a Soviet court following his capture. After many scenes of intense debate in Abel’s American trial, this single shot conveyed a lot of information in a very brief, powerful moment, as the audience realizes that the pilot must have gone through a parallel experience.

The second film was Room, a drama about Joy, a young woman who was kidnapped and held prisoner in a single room for seven years. Imprisoned with her is Jack, her five-year-old son, whom her captor fathered. Like Bridge, Room is divided into two distinct parts. The first shows what life is like for Joy and Jack, culminating in their escape. In the second, they attempt to adjust to everyday life after such a traumatic experience.

I thought both parts of the film were equally compelling, and they seemed to present a realistic picture of what this kind of horrific experience must be like. It was especially moving to see the ways in which Joy shielded Jack from the worst of the horrors, and the film had several surprisingly lighthearted moments as a result. Joy’s escape plan seemed a bit far-fetched and too reliant on their captor’s incompetence, but it played out in a believable way and was only a minor flaw in an otherwise outstanding film.

Next was Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in George Miller’s series, coming thirty years after the third installment and with a new actor (Tom Hardy) in the title role. This film received a surprising amount of critical acclaim upon its initial release last summer, focusing mainly on its strong female characters and feminist themes. I saw it at the time and while I enjoyed it, I felt that it did not live up to its hype. While there were a lot of strong women in the film, it was nevertheless mostly mindless action with little story or character development. Watching it again this weekend with a better idea of what to expect, I enjoyed the film a lot more. It might not have the most compelling story of the bunch, but it paints a fascinating picture of the future with outlandish makeup, costumes, and landscapes. It was fun to watch, though I still think it’s of a distinctly lesser caliber than its fellow nominees.

Finally was The Big Short, the more-or-less true story of the financial crisis of 2007–2008. It followed several real-life investors who apparently foresaw the whole thing and followed their mounting incredulity as Wall Street continued to let things get out of hand. The film did an amazing job of presenting the details of the housing market in an easily-understandable way, with characters explaining things to the audience directly in short, funny vignettes. The whole film was much more hilarious than I expected, but while underscoring the seriousness of the economic crisis it chronicles.

I thought that all four films were enjoyable, and that Bridge of Spies, Room, and The Big Short were truly excellent. I’d probably give the edge to Room of the four of them for telling a unique story unlike any I’ve seen before, but there are four more nominees coming up next week in part two of the marathon. I plan to review them as well, though my schedule will probably preclude me from doing so before the Oscars on Sunday.

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 2

March 2nd, 2014

Yesterday was day 2 of AMC’s best picture showcase, a marathon screening of the remaining five of this year’s nominees for the Best Picture Oscar: Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity.

Nebraska was a funny, quirky movie about an elderly man, played by Bruce Dern, who believes he has won a million dollars in a mail-in sweepstakes and has his son take him on a road trip to collect his prize from the sweepstakes headquarters. It was very funny, and the acting was excellent, particularly Bruce Dern, who is rightly nominated for Best Actor. It was shoot in black-and-white, which gives the picture a quaint feeling that suits the material.

Captain Phillips, which tells the true story of the captain of an American cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, was very thrilling and suspenseful. Is especially impressed by the way the ending shows the aftermath of such an episode. Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks was superb in his role as the title character.

Her takes place in the near future, and is about a man who falls on love with his computer’s artificially-intelligent operating system. It creates a plausible vision of the future, and tells a thoughtful story of how people interact with technology. The characters were relatable and the plot believable, given the premise. It is my personal pick for best movie of the year.

American Hustle is about a con man and his female partner helping an FBI agent in a sting operation after he busts them. It’s plot was actually somewhat difficult to follow. The ’70s aesthetic was charming, and the music was great, but I didn’t think the movie was anything special otherwise. It also uses that annoying technique I complained about last week, opening with a scene from the middle of the story before flashing back to the beginning. At least in this case, the filmmakers used the opportunity to dive the Christian Bale character a memorable introduction.

Finally, Gravity, about two astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is destroyed by debris, was as thrilling as they say, and was technically very well-made. It was also filled with a lot of very typical Hollywood-style nonsense science, at least some of which would be obvious to any viewer, regardless of their level of scientific literacy or familiarity with spaceflight and physics in particular. I don’t always find this sort of thing distracting in a mindless action picture, but it should preclude a film from being considered one of the years best and so I’m a bit puzzled that Gravity was even nominated.

Overall, I enjoyed all nine of this year’s best picture nominees, several of them a great deal. I think this was one of the better years in recent memory in that respect, and as always I’m glad to have seen all the nominees.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

February 26th, 2014

Though it was not nominated for Best Picture, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine was up for several other Oscars and so I decided to watch it recently. Despite the lack of a Best Picture nomination, Blue Jasmine has been highly praised as one of the year’s best movies, a view of the movie which completely eludes me.

The characters were mostly unpleasant, were mired in unhappy situations, and made bad decisions. The story was dull, and I was totally uninvolved in anything that happened to anyone on screen. I have not seen very many Woody Allen movies, but I did see Midnight in Paris, which was nominated for Best Picture two years ago, and I really enjoyed it. In contrast, Blue Jasmine was just difficult to sit through.

Even the acting seemed uninspired. Cate Blanchett, who plays the main character, is nominated for Best Actress, and while she was good in the role, nothing about her performance really stood out to me in a way that says, “this is possibly the best performance in the movies this year.”

If anyone who really enjoyed Blue Jasmine wants to share what they enjoyed about it, I’d love to hear it. My personal recommendation is to pass on it.

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 1

February 24th, 2014

This past weekend, I watched four of the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, as part of AMC Theater’s annual “Best Picture Showcase,” in which all the nominees are screened during two consecutive Saturdays. The four movies featured during this first day of the marathone were Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a slave.

All four were excellent. Interestingly, all were based on true stories. The first two, Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, I knew virtually nothing about before watching. Philomena in particular was excellent. It tells the story of an elderly lady, played by Judi Dench, trying to track down her long-lost son with the help of a journalist who wants to write a story about her experience. Judi Dench was funny and charming, and the story was affecting and sad without seeming overtly manipulative. I even cried a bit during some especially moving scenes.

Dallas Buyers Club was also very good, telling the story of an HIV-positive man fighting the medical establishment for medicine he believes could save his life. It turns out to have been filmed locally (in the New Orleans area), and I recognized a lot of places onscreen. The story was interesting, but I was somewhat uncomfortable with what I think was an unfair demonization of the medical indistry in general, with a seeming contempt for the practice of science as it pertains to the controlled study of the efficacy of drugs.

The Wolf of Wall Street was outrageous and fun, but it was also rather shallow. It’s certainly one of those films to have benefited from the recent increase in the maximum number of nominees from five to ten. It was enjoyable, but I didn’t really think it was anything special and I don’t think it was quite on the same level as the other movies in contention.

Finally, 12 Years a Slave was extremely good. It could have been the best of the day if not for a couple of confusing narrative points. Notably, it indulges in a pet peeve of mine, which is to begin the movie with an out-of-context scene from the middle of the narrative, then flash back to the beginning of the story. This is a fairly common technique, but it feels lazy and unnecesarry to me. I can think of a few movies that use this specific structure (including The Wolf of Wall Street), but none whose story benefitted from it. I’m not opposed to non-linear or otherwise unusual narratives, but this just seems like a lazy way to give a movie an attention-grabbing opening with no real effort. But maybe I’m making too big a deal out of what was honestly a relatively minor criticism in an otherwise excellent film.

Of the four movies I saw on Saturday, Philomena is my pick for the best so far, though there are five more (Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity) to come next week. I’ve already seen two (Her and Gravity), but I’ll save my thoughts on them until I re-watch them with the other nominees on Saturday.

Carroll vs. Craig on God and Cosmology

February 22nd, 2014

I attended a debate between physicist (and atheist) Sean Carroll and Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig on “The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology” last night at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

I thought it was a pretty good debate. The main issue I had was that both speakers, but Craig in particular, spoke in highly technical language about physics and cosmology, to an audience that I don’t think was quite that familiar with either subject. The most egregious example is when Craig invoked something called the “Boltzmann brain” in defense of the fine-tuning argument, without really explaining what it is. Carroll gave a cursory explanation during his turn, but it was brought up repeatedly throughout the debate, and while I eventually came to a basic understanding of the argument, it was still too far over my head for me to meaningfully consider the argument. The moderator even joked about this, suggesting that the audience Google it during intermission.

But there was still plenty that I did understand, and I thought Carroll did an excellent job holding his own, and possibly even besting, someone who is easily among the strongest debaters that Christian apologetics as to offer.

Something that stood out to me was when Craig characterized Carroll’s model of the multiverse as entailing that the universe simply “pop into existence.” Craig continued to use that phrase in subsequent rounds, with barely any recognition that Carroll has specifically repudiated that characterization. It emphasizes something that’s been clear to me from listening to past Craig debates, that he has a script and he tends to stick to it.

Another thing that impressed me about the debate was the quality of the audience questions during the question-and-answer session at the end. They were almost all thoughtful questions that elicited meaningful and interesting responses. There was also very little rambling or lecturing from the audience, which I find can often be a problem at events like this. The moderator had explicitly warned the audience beforehand that they would not be permitted to lecture, but I find that even that sort of warning is usually ineffective. But it turned out not to be an issue here.

Overall, it was a fun if sometimes frustrating debate, and I am very glad to have attended.

Richard Linklater's Bernie

June 14th, 2012

Last night, I saw Richard Linklater’s film, Bernie, featuring Jack Black in the title role as the assistant director of a funeral home in a small Texas town. Bernie is eccentric but well-loved, especially by the little old ladies whose late husbands’ funerals Bernie organizes. This eventually develops into an odd relationship with one particular widow, a wealthy but mean old lady like by apparently no one else in town.

Bernie is an strange mix of comedy and drama, and based on a true story, though I knew nothing about the actual events, and was taken quite by surprise by a turn of events about halfway through the film. The advertisements and reviews describe it plainly, indicating that it is not considered a “spoiler,” but I shall not reveal it here, because I enjoyed discovering these events as they unfolded, and hope that someone else might derive the same enjoyment by going into the movie blind.

What I will describe is Jack Black’s incredible performance, which is like nothing else he’s ever done. He has created a unique character in Bernie, and utterly disappears into the role. Bernie is loved by his neighbors, and viewers will have no trouble understanding why. He is kind, gentle, and sympathetic. Jack Black is really a joy to watch in this movie.

Bernie also stars Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. The latter plays one of many townspeople who talk about Bernie directly to the camera in a series of interviews. I believe, however, that most or all off the other interviewees are actual townspeople. It strikes me as odd to juxtapose real townspeople’s recollection of events with those of an actor playing a role, but it works well within the movie.

Bernie is funny and a joy to watch, not least of all because of Jack Black’s performance. I greatly enjoyed it and would recommend it to almost anyone.

A Tempest in a Pepsi Can

July 22nd, 2010

Science Blogs is “the largest online community dedicated to science.” Created by the Seed Media Group, it serves as the host for dozens of quality blogs dedicated to science and related topics. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula and Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, especially.

Recently, Seed attempted to welcome a new member to the Science Blogs family, as they were to become the new home of PepsiCo’s Food Frontiers blog. Personally, I thought it was a great idea. I’ve recently become interested in Food Science, since my girlfriend is currently working towards her PhD in the field. I also thought it would be interesting to hear from scientists who are actually working in private industry; most writers on Science Blogs work in academia, which is perfectly fine, but wouldn’t it be nice to add a different kind of voice to the conversation?

Pepsi

Apparently, it wouldn’t, at least not according to a surprising number of Science Bloggers who jumped ship immediately after the announcement was made, concerned that Science Blogs was selling out to a greedy, faceless corporation. Bora Zivkovic, one of the most popular writers on the site, hastily departed, as did Peter A. Lipson, “Abel Pharmboy,” Suzanne E. Franks, Mike Dunford, “GrrlScientist,” and others. “Orac,” another of the site’s most popular writers, is currently “dithering over [his] future” at Science Blogs, while the aforementioned P.Z. Myers is on strike.

Is it just me, or is this a huge overreaction on the part of the Science Blogs community? The plan was for PepsiCo to sponsor Science Blogs in exchange for the hosting, and I understand the concern about allowing corporate interests overtake pure science, but Food Frontiers was pulled from Science Blogs before a single real post was made (an introductory “hey, we’re happy to be here at Science Blogs” message was the only thing that got posted), and looking at the existing Food Frontiers blog, one is struck by just how innocuous their posts actually are. Yes, there’s a fair bit of self-congratulatory, PR-heavy corporate-speak, but there are also substantive posts about science and nutrition, which I believe would have added real value to Science Blogs.

Hans Schantz has a great response to the whole kerfuffle, which I recommend reading. I agree with him wholeheartedly, particularly his lamentation of “the obvious and utter contempt that some of the ScienceBlog bloggers have for scientists employed in industry.”

Bullshit! Bullshit

June 9th, 2010

I’ve gushed about comedian-magician duo Penn & Teller before. And I usually list atheism, libertarianism, and skepticism as my three primary interests. So it’s no surprise that one of my favorite televisions shows is the one Penn & Teller host that’s about atheism, libertarianism, and skepticism: Penn & Teller: Bullshit! It’s a documentary series championing freedom, liberty, science, and rationality in a fun, light-hearted fashion It’s that focus on freedom and liberty that makes all the more disappointing the recent DVD release of the show’s seventh season, which is missing a controversial episode.

The episode in question is “The Vatican,” the season finale in which Penn & Teller berate the Catholic Church for its anti-homosexuality activism, condemnation of condom use, and cover-up of the priest sex abuse scandal. It also highlights Sabina Guzzanti, a comedian who was threatened with criminal charges for criticizing the Pope. It tackles some important issues, and it’s one of the series’ better episodes.

The Vatican

Unfortunately, no longer can viewers see that for themselves, as the episode has not appeared in Apple’s iTunes store (all other episodes are available), and is omitted from last month’s DVD release. In fact, the episode is no longer listed on Showtime’s official Bullshit! website. To be fair, the DVD’s packaging notes that the episode is not included (it’s also advertised as containing “The Seventh Season,” rather than as “The Complete Seventh Season,” as it was referred to in an earlier version of the packaging), and the remaining episodes retain their original opening titles, which list on-screen the subjects covered during the season, including “The Vatican.” So it’s not as if Showtime is trying to completely erase all evidence that the episode ever existed. Nevertheless, it’s extremely disappointing that the episode is unavailable.

Penn & Teller:  Bullshit!  Season Seven DVD

What’s especially bothersome is that, as far as I can tell, nobody actually knows why the episode is unavailable in the first place! The popular assumption seems to be that Showtime or Paramount (who distributes Bullshit! on DVD) caved to pressure from the Catholic Church. That’s quite cowardly of them, if true, and especially ironic considering how strongly the show champions free speech (it even touts “The Right to Free Speech” right there on the DVD cover!). But no one affiliated with the show has actually commented on the issue. I even posed the question to executive producer Star Price via Twitter, to no avail (he’d previously answered a different question I’d asked about the series, so he’s at least willing to respond to fans online). Without any answers about the episode’s omission, I’m reluctant to call anyone out for it. A lot of fans have been quick to trash Penn & Teller themselves over the issue, but it’s not like Penn & Teller personally authored the DVDs—I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even know that the episode was omitted. And even if they did know, we still don’t know the reason for the omission; it could even be that Penn & Teller were dissatisfied with the episode in some way and didn’t feel it worthy of inclusion alongside the others. That seems unlikely, I admit, but the point is that without knowing why the episode was omitted, I don’t feel comfortable chiding anyone for the omission. And yet, it’s frustrating to have no answers after the DVD has been out for a month. I wish someone would give viewers an explanation. Even if that explanation was just, “Yeah, the Church pressured us to remove the episode and we complied,” then we’d at least have the comfort of knowing.

Surely someone out there must have some information about the missing “Vatican” episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!?

Secret Messages in The Boy Detective Fails

May 26th, 2010

Though I enjoy reading, I don’t typically make a point of keeping up with the latest releases in fiction. That’s why I only just got around to reading Joe Meno’s 2006 novel The Boy Detective Fails, a grown-up take on the “child sleuth” subgenre of detective fiction. I grew up reading the Encyclopedia Brown books, so I am rather familiar with the genre and appreciate the spin Meno gives it. The Boy Detective Fails is a good read, and it has something to say. I liked it and recommend it.

The Boy Detective Fails

Meno does one thing in the novel that is especially interesting: several times throughout the story, protagonist Billy Argo receives notes containing mysterious coded messages, which the reader is invited to “help Billy solve” using the “Boy Detective Decoder Ring” included on the inside flap of the book’s back cover. It’s a fun, novel idea, and it can help draw the reader into the world of the Boy Detective. However, it can also be an annoyance to have to go through the hassle of decoding parts of the book letter-by-letter when one just wants to get on with the story, so I simply searched online for the solutions to these messages. I was surprised to discover that, even after the book’s been available for four years, it appears that no enterprising reader has shared its secrets. The closest thing I was able to find is a page of hints from Fuzzy Gerdes. So, late though it may be, I’m happy to provide the solutions for anyone who is reading the book, and wants the contents of the messages but not the tedium of decoding them.

The three notes that Billy receives are on pages 113, 202, and 265 (at least in the edition that I have). The messages on those pages decrypt to:

  • “Billy, why have you forgotten me?”
  • “Billy, please, I need your help.”
  • “Billy, Abracadabra!”

There’s also a series of diary entries that Billy reads; on pages 306-307 he discovers a hidden message in one by reading the first letter of every other line. Messages are hidden the same way in the previous diary entries on pages 19, 59, and 185. The four messages are:

  • “Abracadabra”
  • “Hi, Billy”
  • “I found Daisy”
  • “Miller’s Cave”

Joe Meno

Another coded message appears throughout the book, each word printed at the bottom of a page. This message uses a simple ROT-13 cipher, and it decodes to:

Derek’s secret adventure

Through the cloudy ends of his binoculars, Midshipman Derek Argo, on watch, caught sight of a shape amidst the unchanging spectacle of the high sea. A ghost ship! With its grinning Jolly Roger and its main sail flapping like a howl, Derek quickly signaled the call to alarm. But in a flash, the glowing vessel had already drawn aft and inhuman hands were upon him quick. Before Derek could warn his shipmates, he was bound to the invisible main mast of the dastardly vessel, kidnapped! The ghouls gathered around, ready to plunder the unsuspecting ship, their sabers and gold teeth looking fearsome. Derek, brave and true, closed his eyes and began to whistle a daring melody, which broke the curse of each of their ghostly imprisoned hearts. The pirates, now like doves, fell to their knees, and together, with Derek happy at the helm, the ship disappeared into the charming fog of the sea. And thus ends our hidden adventure—astute reader, if you have made it this far, please send an e-mail to derek@punkplanetbooks.com for a secret surprise!

Sadly, the e-mail address listed no longer exists; I received a “delivery failed” message when I tried sending a message to it. In fact, it looks like the Punk Planet Books website no longer exists at the punkplanetbooks.com domain, which appears to have been taken over by a cybersquatter.

Fortunately, Gerdes was able to furnish the response he got when he tried the address back in 2006:

Ahoy, friend!

To ensure secrecy, I have encoded the following message. It may aide you to remember where my brother is living.

Yours,

Derek

*****

Sekx, Bvjnkp Akdyhpyscyp!

Akjlpsrtfsrnkjq kj qkfunjl ix mtzzfy. Gkp xktp espd vkpc, n vktfd fncy rk qyjd xkt s qisff lngr—s rkcyj kg ix fsqrnjl smmpyansrnkj gkp xktp yggkprq. Nj kpdyp rk dk qk, n jyyd xktp sddpyqq! Mfysqy gtpjnqe nr mkqr-esqry, qk n asj esuy s cnjd mkqrsf yimfkxyy hpnjl ix lngr rk xkt.

Qyy xkt kj rey qysq,

Xktp gpnyjd,

Dypyc Splk

As you can see, the reply contains another coded message, this one encrypted with a substitution cipher (not the simple Caesar cipher of the other messages). I’ve worked out the solution, and (after correcting a typo) the message is:

Ahoy, Junior Codebreaker!

Congratulations on solving my puzzle. For your hard work, I would like to send you a small gift—a token of my lasting appreciation for your efforts. In order to do so, I need your address! Please furnish it post-haste, so I can have a kind postal employee bring my gift to you.

See you on the seas,

Your friend,

Derek Argo

Gerdes reports that he supplied his mailing address, and received “a couple of Punk Planet Books stickers and an owl button” (in the novel, Billy wears an owl tie).

Owl

Finally, The Boy Detective Fails ends with a series of puzzles and games, such as a connect-the-dots activity, and a word-search puzzle. The word-search puzzle has one final secret message in it, which the unused letters spell out after all the words have been found. The message is, “believe in mystery.”

Lost, Finished

May 24th, 2010

Last night, ABC aired the much-hyped final episode of its hit series Lost, which I’ve followed since the first season in 2004-2005. The finale had some pretty overt religious themes, and though I consider myself a man of science, not a man of faith, I think they worked within the context of the show. Unlike some viewers, I don’t have any serious issues with the way Lost wrapped up last night.

Lost, Season 6

However, I am pessimistic about how the series will come to be viewed as a whole. Television series today, much more so than before the days of the Internet and the DVD box set, are judged as a whole. And while there were a lot of great individual episodes of Lost (“The Constant” and “Ab Aeterno” in particular), the series overall seems disjointed to me.

During the early episodes of the show, the writers seemed to be spinning their wheels a lot. There was an early first-season which ends with a character discovering a mysterious hatch buried in the ground. I was pretty excited to see the next episode and discover the contents of said hatch. But the mystery of the hatch was dragged out for more than a dozen episodes, and its contents weren’t revealed until the second-season premier. Many plot points followed the same model, being introduced as intriguing mysteries, then left unresolved for many episodes or even seasons. It was kind of frustrating, but I ultimately came to accept it as simply the way Lost was made.

Lost, Season 1

More recently, though, the show began to wind down, and I presume the writers realized they had to actually wrap up the myriad loose ends they’d been creating, because things moved at an appreciably quicker pace during the last season or two. Plot elements were introduced in the last few episodes which, had they been part of the first season, would surely have spanned the better part of an entire season, but which now had to be resolved in only two or three episodes. I appreciated that Lost was finally being more forthcoming in answering the questions it posed, but it didn’t really feel like the same show I’d been watching back in 2004 and 2005.

Having watched the show week-by-week over the course of six years, it’s hard to say whether that perceived change is due to a real shift in the show itself, or simply a change in the way I’ve come to view it. With the last season still fresh in my mind, it’s difficult to judge it in the same way I do the earlier seasons, with which I’m much more familiar. Now that Lost is a completed work, I’d like to get the whole series on Blu-ray and revisit it in a few years with a fresh perspective. I wonder how it will play out as a whole—will it be a satisfyingly cohesive, or will it be flawed and disjointed?

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