Possessed hand ushers in the Apocalypse: Thanks OBAMA!

Norfolk, VA. In an effort to raise the cost of U.S. health care so that His will can be done and Obamacare repealed, the Lord has forsaken hospitals and given them over to the Devil himself.

The Devil was first introduced to the health care system when his son on earth, Obama, filed down his horns and ran for president on a health care platform. Through a yearlong campaign deceiving the weak of faith, despite Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s warnings and a chain email sent out by God, the Devil managed to fool Americans into thinking Obamacare would be a good idea.

Now he has struck. The Devil recently possessed a Virginia man’s hand and caused him to sin. So, in accordance with the OT, Thomas Passmore cut off his hand. Foolishly, he rushed not only himself bodily to the hospital, but also brought his possessed hand, thereby allowing the Devil to enter the hospital.


The ancient Greeks’ hands were frequent targets of demonic possession, which we see reflected in their sculptures. Their civilization collapsed into Godlessness.

Due to recent advances in medicine, hospitals are normally protected from demonic intrusion through a series of rituals and other scientific things. However, due to a weakness in the system, which for obvious security reasons cannot be revealed, the possessed hand was allowed into the hospital, where it quickly wreaked havoc.

The doctors attempted to reattach Passmore’s possessed hand, but as he was then free from his possession, he vehemently resisted. He explained that the hand was possessed by the Devil.

Dr. Tad Grenga, who was in charge of the ordeal, claimed, “we ran a few differential diagnostics on both the patient and the disembodied hand. The most likely explanation, according to my medical education at Liberty University, was that indeed the hand was possessed, and we would be violating the Hippocratic oath by reattaching it. We therefore gave the patient a silver hook, which he could use to fight off future evil forces, like werewolves. Obamacare encourages that kind of preventative care, so we met all standard of care criteria.”

The hand, now running free throughout the hospital, disagrees: “Haec allegata sunt flagitia! Ut filii lucis estis, et filii serpentis; Quid tandem te nocebunt? Nolumus autem vos suffocare!” The hand then hissed and scampered off toward Pediatrics.

However, the Devil’s work was not finished, according to Dr. Grenga: “Now fully possessed by The Great Deceiver, the patient claims to have been suffering from psychosis while protesting his hand’s reattachment. He is suing me for three million dollars. I pray to God that this will go away.”

God’s heavenly messengers issued a press release this morning via a trumpeted fanfare announcing that God had no intention of intervening on Dr. Grenga’s behalf, stating, “With baseball season ramping up after the All-Star Break, His Majesty must devote full attention to matters more important than hospitals. Grenga would do better to make a large bet on the Royals and pray to Him for their victory.”

Passmore maintains that it was all a psychotic episode, which the medical staff should have detected. He maintains that, while in his psychotic state, he was unable to make any decisions concerning his medical treatment. But, that’s just what a possessed liar would say.

According to Dr. Emory Taylor, Chair of Demonology at Harvard, we can expect more of these incidents in the near future, as Satan and his children dismantle the forsaken health care institution, like they did with education due to the teaching of evolution.

[http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970904&slug=2558454, story actually from 1997.]



If you want to be a rational agent, you have to become a master of brinkmanship. In short, brinkmanship is a game in which players increase the risk of everyone involved until someone blinks. It is a dangerous art, but without it in your toolkit, you will lose many utility payoffs.

In “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life,” the authors describe brinkmanship as the process of “taking an adversary to the brink of disaster in order to get him to blink first.” The key is not to make a simple threat, “do this or else,” but to start with a small risk and gradually increase the risk of the threat happening, until they blink.

We see a funny example of this in The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Attempting to get information out of a suspect, the two dangle him upside down over the edge of a third story fire escape. The risk starts relatively small, because their arms are not yet tired and they could easily pull him back up if he were to give in. However, as time goes by, the risk of their arms giving out increases, putting more pressure on him to talk. Unfortunately, they miscalculate how quickly this brink will approach, and even after he talks, they drop the suspect onto a car below.

The threat was not simply “give us the information or we’ll drop you.” The threat was, “the longer you stay quiet, the longer we hold you over the railing and the weaker our arms get.” This is the essence of brinkmanship. The brink is disastrous, and both parties are uncertain of when exactly it will happen. The uncertainty creates risk, and the risk “should be sufficiently intolerable to your opponent to induce him to eliminate the risk by following your wishes.” (Dixit and Nalebuff, 2010)

In order to succeed in brinkmanship, you must be able to make credible threats. This means that your opponent must believe that you are just reckless enough to allow the disaster to happen. Making a threat with words alone is just cheap talk. It takes focus and discipline to demonstrate to one’s opponent that you are a little bit crazy.

If everyone knows that you are a responsible and reliable agent, then you will never be able to make a credible threat. So, when it comes to brinkmanship, people like you are especially disadvantaged.

People like me, on the other hand, have a history of chaos and self-destructive behavior. I like to break things. I can make credible threats. Of course, I can’t claim that my particular reputation results from focus and discipline on my part: I am just naturally a reckless person.

The authors of “The Art of Strategy” give the following eight principles to guide you toward a better brinkmanship game:

1. Write contracts to back up your resolve.

2. Establish and use a reputation.

The above two principles change the game’s payoffs so that it is in your interest to follow through with the threat. The worst part about threats is when you have to follow through with them, so it is important to put structures in place that make it costly for you to wimp out, more costly than following through.

3. Cut off communication.

4. Burn bridges behind you.

5. Leave the outcome beyond your control, or even to chance.

Principles three, four and five make it harder for you to wimp out, not by changing the payoffs, but by removing available actions. If your opponent sees that you are unable to wimp out, the risk will be more pressing.

6. Move in small steps.

Principle six combines the above strategies by changing both the payoffs and the available actions. As the steps increase, so does the risk, until it reaches your opponent’s equilibrium, which is hopefully well within your own threshold.

7. Develop credibility through teamwork.

8. Employ mandated agents.

Principles seven and eight help you make credible threats by working with others. If you are part of a team, then you can do things that an individual alone cannot. Similarly, it is more difficult for a single individual to change the behavior of a group. Taking this idea a step further. By hiring people to carry out your threats, you remove both your ability and their ability to wimp out. Of course, you need to have structures in place to ensure that your agent cannot be bought with a higher offer from your opponent.

Of course, risk is an essential element of brinkmanship, so falling off the edge is always a possibility. However, as these games are ubiquitous in business and life, it is better to be prepared for them than to simply get steamrolled by your opponents.

When Good Proofs Go Bad

I am at a conference about formal methods in computer security. In formal methods, they use math talk to make proofs about systems. For example, cryptography is really important for computer security, and it would be nice if we could formally prove that a cryptographic system is secure. But the strangest thing always seems to happen. Some intrepid formal methods researcher will publish a proof about a cryptosystem’s being secure, and then in a year or so some other intrepid researcher will publish a successful attack strategy on the system. So, what is going on here? How could the proof turn out to be wrong? That’s been a big issue at the conference.

There was a cryptography symposium out in Oakland this year where some researchers presented a proof verifying cryptosystem TLS secure at 9:30 AM. At 1:30 PM at the same symposium, someone presented a successful attack. This is clearly a problem. Do only computer security formal methods people have this problem, or is it something else?

The consensus we’re moving towards is that the trouble comes from two parts of the reasoning process. The big picture reasoning process looks like this:

1. Create a formal model of the real world system you want to prove stuff about.

2. Use a formal language to prove stuff about the model.

3. Take the stuff you proved about the model, and say that it is true about the real world system.

Clearly, you can only make a mistake in step 2 if you make some logically incorrect move. This is not an interesting way to mess up a proof, although it does happen. But that’s not the type of error we care about, because it doesn’t cause the type of trouble we’re interested in. We are interested in cases where we have a rock solid legitimate proof with no logical errors and then later on it turns out not to be true.

So, interesting errors can happen in steps 1 and 3. And they do. All the time. Those are the non-logical aspects of the reasoning process. By “non-logical”, I mean there is no step by step deductive method for translating the real world system into the formal system, and then back again.

At step 1, a human being has to make decisions about which parts of the real world system to focus on. You simply can’t accurately model the entire system. That would defeat the purpose of having a model. You might as well just use the real world system. So, every model is missing some details. Sometimes, humans leave out details that turn out to be important. Or they might abstract a little too much, and make vague a concept that needs to be more exact.

In step 3, when we transfer the proof results from the formal model to the real world system, we forget about those details we ignored earlier. So, we take our proof and say, “hey look at this proof. It’s basically the highest level of confidence you can achieve. So, yeah, *nerd snicker*, I guess you could say your system is secure…” But those details we ignored will haunt us.

Even with a legitimate proof, we cannot be sure that the proof applies to the real world system we developed it for. Yes, it is still a proof, but its truth is only guaranteed about the FORMAL MODEL, not about the real world.

Is this problem unique to computer science? I don’t think so. I think it is a troll that lurks beneath every non-purely-mathematical discipline’s mathematical bridges. Engineering. Physics. Economics. Philosophy. In each of these disciplines we see the transfer of judgments from the deductively safe formal realm to the messy realm of nature. So while the equations themselves may be sound, their application to reality is always subject to error.

So if someone presents you with a proof and tries to force you to conclude something about concrete reality, it is okay to remain skeptical, and probe their methods in steps 1 and 3 of the reasoning process above.

You can always ask:

1. Did you do a good job formalizing the real world system?

2. Are you applying the formal stuff to the real stuff correctly?


These are thorny questions, and the proof advocate might double down and try to dismiss them. Don’t let this happen. Really probe for the processes of formalization and application and look for potential mistakes.

Rationality Jack Donaghy Style

What if someone is actively trying to mislead you about their goals? What’s a rationalist to do? Nature may be tricky and weird, but none of us thinks that nature is actively trying to deceive us. We are social creatures whose goals often depend on what other people are doing, and people are not always forthcoming about these things. This requires an additional level of rationality, one that accounts for deceptive observations.

Suppose you are playing Poker with someone whose behavior seems like evidence that they have a strong hand. Should you accept that they have a strong hand, and act accordingly? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? They might know that you’ll take their behavior as evidence of a strong hand, and merely be pretending to have a strong hand. In that case, if you have a strong hand, you should bet. But then again, maybe they know you’ll reason that way, too, and anticipate your betting… maybe they are only pretending to pretend to have a strong hand, and they really do have a strong hand! What does Bayes’ Theorem tell us to do?

Bayes’ Theorem is the gold standard of rationality when one is dealing with empirical observations. You want to know if the player has a strong hand, given their behavior (written Pr. (Strong Hand | Behavior)). You calculate this with the following formula:

Pr. (Strong Hand | Behavior) = Pr. (Strong Hand) x Pr. (Behavior | Strong Hand) / Pr. (Behavior).

How do we even start to get a handle on this?

We need to stop trying to reason about their hand, and start reasoning about their brain. We need to start reasoning about the epistemic situation: who knows what about whom. We need to think about things like, “they know that I know that they’ve been caught bluffing in the past,” and “I know that they know that I know this.” We need to figure out how many times “I know that they know that…” repeats itself.

We need to think about these types of things because whoever has the information advantage is in a position to win. The information advantage is when you are one “knows that” step ahead of the other player. When you know something, and they don’t know that you know it, you can win. The trick is figuring out who has the information advantage.

New research in modal logic is addressing these very issues. In a mathematical model of a situation, if you stipulate who has the information advantage, you can prove that they’ll win. This is how we know that reasoning about other players’ knowledge is important. But when the game is actually being played, this type of information is very difficult to come by. Rarely are you certain that you have the information advantage.

But we know that it’s what you should be thinking about. Strategic reasoning is all about getting the information advantage and exploiting it.

Jack Donaghy is an expert strategist in these types of situations.

We see a great example of the information advantage at work in the recent episode of 30 Rock entitled “Game Over.” http://www.hulu.com/watch/444048#i0,p0,d0

Jack Donaghy and Devon Banks, usually steeped in rivalry, team up to defeat Kaylee. However, things are not as they seem, and deception is afoot. Watch the information advantage play out in all its glory.


To summarize, if you are in an adversarial epistemic environment, do the following:

  1. Assess the epistemic situation by figuring out what the other agents know, and what you know.

  2. Figure out who has the information advantage. If it’s you, figure out how to keep it. If it’s someone else, figure out how to get it.

  3. Win.

Failing the Bechdel Test at a Feminist Film Festival

[Author’s Note: I wrote this for the CFI On Campus blog last week, but the decision was made not to publish it. But I’m quite fond of it, so here it is.]

Several weeks ago the Independent Films Channel (IFC) opened its much anticipated second annual Women’s Independent Films Festival with a questionable choice. The opening film featured a prominently male cast, and its message was one of condescension rather than contribution to the ideals of the Festival. The film left many wondering how a Women’s Film Festival could open with a film that utterly fails the Bechdel Test. Surely it wasn’t an intentional slap in the face, but it was still a slap. The independent film world eagerly awaited acknowledgment and an apology from IFC’s Board of Directors. They were failed by the Board’s statement.

Within the community of feminist film critics, the Bechdel Test is a well-known heuristic for evaluating a film’s inclusion of women. Traditionally, the film industry has been dominated by male producers, who hire male directors to direct movies about topics that appeal primarily to males, while most of the strong, complex characters who do things are males, played by male actors, with female roles relegated to flat, static static characters who have things happen to them. These standards lead to the majority of films lacking named female characters with speaking parts who speak to each other about something other than a man. That’s the Bechdel Test: Are there (1) more than one named female characters who (2) speak to each other (3) about something other than a man?

The opening film of the Festival not only failed the Bechdel Test, in having only one named female character, Becky, but the story itself stultified Becky, treating her as if she were not a person with the full decision-making capacity of an adult. The male characters frequently admonished Becky for her feeble attempts at becoming a dynamic character in the plot, reminding her that this is a man’s world, where we do things the Man Way: beardedly, professorially, and with a slight but noticeably upturned nose. To the male characters, Becky was cute, a novelty, who needed their guidance if she was to make something of herself and affect the plot.

Many members of the audience were understandably upset. To open the Festival with such a film demonstrated a profound insensitivity to the audience, who had spent much of their time experiencing the consequences of actively resisting the structural inequalities of the film institution: lack of mainstream exposure, hate mail and mockery, and other attempts to silence them to protect the status quo. By insisting that films pass the Bechdel Test, feminist film critics are merely insisting that the film industry make equal time for their voices to be heard, which indeed requires relatively fewer predominantly male-heavy films to be made.

Some males take offense to this, experiencing it as an insult: “Why should we have to shut up and make fewer films?” Well, the capital investments that go toward making films are finite, so if the silver screen is to be shared equally, there must be fewer of the dominant films. It creates space for the pro-feminist films to be made and seen. The Festival was ostensibly a space dedicated solely to films that at the very least pass the Bechdel Test, but that ideally make robust advances toward changing the status quo. The opening film planted a flag of the status quo firmly on the screen, for all to see.

We in this small community of film critics eagerly awaited an apology from the IFC Board. We were disappointed by what we received: yet another dismissive hand wave tacitly endorsing the status quo,

“We at IFC care very much about advancing pro-feminist films. That’s why we put on the Women’s Independent Films Festival. We wish to express unhappiness about all the hubbub surrounding the opening film at the Festival.

Film criticism, artistic integrity, culture, enhancing values, or whatever. We support all the good things and we are against the bad things.”

Is it any wonder that people are more upset now? Was it too much to ask for a simple acknowledgment of the mistake, and a sincere apology? Something like,

“We on the IFC Board have done a lot of serious self-reflection about the decision of our leaders to open the Women’s Independent Films Festival with a film that fails the Bechdel Test. This decision was a mistake, and we are ashamed of the oversight. We assure you that IFC did not intentionally commit this offense, but we do understand now that it was wholly inappropriate. We all wish to express our sincere apologies, both personally, and on behalf of IFC as an organization. We hope that you will accept this apology with understanding, and continue your very much appreciated support.

Despite this mistake, we remain committed to the goal of advancing feminist films’ presence in culture, and we acknowledge this unfortunate incident as a painful but necessary learning experience, that many of us still suffer from culturally instilled biases and blind spots. Again, we apologize for this, and will work harder to identify and correct these biases as we move forward, with your much appreciated help.”

The Trinity is like a triangle: A post about God, Jesus, and Strawmen.

Recently a Christian (“C”) tried to explain the Trinity to me. His explanation was a response to my sharing this picture:


I shared the picture because I thought it was funny, and that it made a good point: the concept of the Trinity is incoherent. C accused the picture of committing a straw man fallacy. An argument commits a straw man fallacy when it attacks an unfairly weakened version of a position. I don’t think the picture commits a straw man, so we had a FACEBOOK DEBATE!!!!

C: “The reason I take the image to be a straw man is that it aims to critique the concept of the Trinity, but rather than finding the very best description or argument, it simply takes a common misconception–one that demonstrates ignorance–and says, “Look at how dumb this idea is!””

He tried to give a coherent explanation of the Trinity:

“I’ll take a shot at explanation… The standard doctrine of the trinity holds that the three persons are distinct, while sharing one instance of the divine essence. I admit that it is hard to grasp, and I don’t fully grasp it. But so is a concept like superposition, or the dual nature of photons. This diagram is somewhat helpful: “


We already have a problem: According to C, a better, more fair representation of the Trinity is so hard to grasp that C doesn’t grasp it.

How not to argue that a position is coherent:

‘I don’t fully grasp the position. It is like quantum physics.’ Especially when the position is very different from quantum physics in a very important sense.

Quantum physics is utterly incoherent to our feeble human brains, but we accept it because it makes ridiculously accurate empirical predictions. The same cannot be said for the Trinity. It makes no empirical predictions, and has no evidence supporting it. So, the only similarity it has to quantum physics is its incoherence. This supports the claim made by the picture above.

As far as I can tell, if you don’t fully grasp a position, you are not allowed to assert that the position is coherent. How would you know? The only evidence you have is the experience of not understanding the position. This should support the notion that the position is incoherent, rather than serve as evidence that the position is very complex and profound. The way to argue that a position is coherent is to give a precise formal description that is logically coherent. The triangle picture is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough, because its use of the “is” relation is ambiguous.

If the “is” in the triangle means “is identical to”, then the triangle is flatly contradictory:

1. Son = God

2. God = Father

3. So, Son = Father.

4. But, Son /= Father.


C: “When we say that Jesus is God, it is the ‘is’ of essential predication… “Seth is human” uses the ‘is’ of essential predication.”

Okay, so the Son is God in the same way that Seth is Human. Following this analogy, we must wonder if there is more than one God in the same way that there is more than one Human. A monotheist like C says that there is only one God. But this causes problems:

If only one thing is God, and the Son is God, and the Father is God, then the Son is identical to the Father. But the Doctrine of the Trinity states that the two are not identical. They are distinct persons. “Son” and “Father” are not merely different names for the same person. Thus, either the Trinity is incoherent, or the Trinity is a polytheistic position.

The moral of this story:


Atheist Book Club: ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman

This summer the SASHA gang and Columbia Atheists are experimenting with a book club. We wanted more diversity in the types of meetings we offer, and it turns out that most of us like reading and discussing what we read.

We call it Atheist Book Club, because that is nice and ambiguous, and it has alphabetically sensible initials. It is ambiguous because it’s not clear whether we are a club that reads atheist books or a book club composed of atheists. If we were ever listed in the phone book, and if people still used phone books, we would be one of the first book clubs a person would see.


The death of a medium.

We chose Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as our first book. I’ve read the book before, but I’ve been blessed with a terrible long-term memory, so I am experiencing much of the book as if for the first time. So far, I’m really enjoying it.


The main character, Shadow, paroles from prison only to find his wife has died. A guy named Mr. Wednesday comes out of nowhere and offers him a job as a bodyguard of sorts. This kicks off the story.

In prison, Shadow passed the time by teaching himself magic, mainly coin tricks. To me, this is a big red flag that the author will be playing some sort of trick on me with the story. Gaiman even goes so far as to have Shadow explain the importance of misdirection. I’m skeptical of the story now, and looking closely for signs of misdirection. Ironically, this is the surest way to fall victim to misdirection, so I might be screwed anyway. Shamefully, I wasn’t able to see past the misdirection of The Prestige.

Viewer: Oh my gosh he's drowning! Save him, Christian Bale!

Viewer: Oh my gosh he’s drowning! Save him, Christian Bale!


[shink] THE PRESTIGE!!!

The universe of the story is one in which gods are real, so it is fiction. When the Vikings came to America back in the 1000s, they brought their Norse gods with them. Since then, though, things have been pretty shitty for the Norse gods of America. No one really worships them anymore, so they are kind of experiencing rough times. They deal with this by teaching inmates magic tricks and seducing hotel night managers.

Gaiman's pitch to HBO: "Yeah, it's like that. But less Hemsworth vibe, more Kilmer."

Gaiman’s pitch to HBO: “Yeah, it’s like that. But less Hemsworth-y.”

Gaiman: "Yeah, that's more like it."

Gaiman: “Yeah, that’s more like it.”

Noticeably lacking, as of Chapter 5, is Christian God. In fact, I find his absence distracting. Given the premise of the novel, Christian God should be all over the place, running shit, smiting the other gods’ worshipers, etc. But he never shows up. As of yet, there’s been no mention of Christian God or his archangels.

Instead, the dominant gods of the story’s America are what might be called false idols, representing technology, the media, and other such cool things that we more or less worship. I take Gaiman to be making a point about our culture’s obsession with materialistic and evanescent icons. Rather than being a Christian nation, as many take us to be, we are a nation of rampant consumers and gossipers who twist Christianity to meet the needs of our real religion. This is consistent with what we see on The Real Housewives of [American City], most of whom identify as Christian.

The Real Housewives of Orange County.

The Real Housewives of Orange County and their worship of materialism (and Christianity, supposedly).

Along similar lines, the “places of power” dotting the American landscape are not churches, as you might expect, but roadside attractions. Yes, the nexuses of supernatural power lie within the biggest balls of yarn, the biggest wheels of cheese, and houses randomly built on rocks. In England, they have Stonehenge. I’m certain this says something about America, but I can’t quite articulate it.

House on the Rock. A real roadside attraction in Wisconsin.

House on the Rock. A real roadside attraction in Wisconsin.

The religious power of roadside attractions might simply add to the notion that America’s religion really centers around consumerism and cheap novelty, and convey no deeper message. But drawing this conclusion makes me feel like I’ve fallen for some misdirection, and that I’ve missed something important. As I continue reading, I’ll look for clues that suggest a deeper meaning to America’s gods in the story.