May 26, 2016

Prove it!


My previous review of Houdini & Doyle segues nicely into a discussion of apologetics vs. empiricism, or religious belief vs. the scientific method. In Houdini & Doyle, Doyle is the apologist (as is Mulder in The X-Files), while Houdini (Scully) is the questioning empiricist.

The apologist begins with a desired conclusion unalterably in mind. Religious apologists are honestly unapologetic about their faith not being open to question. They "want to believe" and seek out proof for their beliefs, rationalizing any convincing evidence to the contrary.

Most of us fancy ourselves cool, objective empiricists. The truth is, we're all—including scientists—unrepentant apologists.

In a 1953 address at General Electric (my father was in attendance), Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize, Chemistry) recounted several examples of scientists going astray (details here) and observed,

These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions.

Everyone wants to believe his own version of the truth, and digs in his heels the more it is challenged. For the scientist and explorer, that conviction is absolutely necessary in order to soldier on in the face of almost certain failure. And in the face of being flat wrong.

Columbus had to fervently believe in his version of world geography to sail off into the unknown.

The Portuguese dismissed Columbus's grant proposal because they knew his calculations for the circumference of the planet were wrong. Luckily (luck being a big part of the equation), Columbus ran into the Americas. He'd never have made it to India with the ships and supplies he had on hand.

It took another thirty years for Magellan to accomplish what Columbus set out to do (and Magellan didn't make it home alive).

After predicting the existence of radium, it took four years of arduous, dangerous work for Pierre and Marie Curie to isolate one-tenth of a gram of radium from a ton of pitchblende. Marie later died from radiation poisoning and her lab notes from the period are sealed inside lead boxes.

Nobody climbs a Mt. Everest like that doubting she will reach the top. The problem is becoming so converted to a particular outcome that we grow incapable of critical self-examination. It is a very human trait.

Turning to another historical mystery series, the pilot episode of Murdoch Mysteries accurately fictionalizes the efforts of Harold Brown to discredit the alternating current power transmission system developed by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

With the backing of Thomas Edison (who was marketing a competing direct current system), Brown electrocuted dogs in public to demonstrate the dangers of AC. Brown later took these demonstration a gruesome step further, constructing an electric chair to execute a condemned criminal.


The execution went so badly that Westinghouse commented, "They would have done better using an axe." But science be damned, this was a high-stakes economic battle that turned into a religious war, the infamous "War of Currents."

In the end, all the PR stunts in the world couldn't change the fact that Edison's direct current system simply didn't scale. Edison eventually tired of the conflict, quit the electricity generating and transmission business, and left the company that became General Electric.

(Ironically, thanks to modern technology, direct current has since become the preferred long-distance transmission standard, though at the very high voltages Edison railed against.)

Edison had vested interests and investments, and didn't understand polyphase alternating current. He wasn't alone. Tesla was one of the few who did. How might have science advanced in the late 19th century had Edison been willing to form a partnership with Tesla, who was once in his employ?

Edison discovered the vacuum tube in 1880 without realizing what he'd invented. It took another quarter century for British physicist John Ambrose Fleming to figure out what was going on and create the first vacuum tube rectifier.

The late-19th century marked the end of an era when innovative tinkerers like Edison and the great British experimentalist Michael Faraday could produce breakthrough inventions with a scant understanding of higher math or physics.

Faraday had intuitively deduced the existence of electromagnetic fields, what he called "lines of force." But he lacked a way to systematically explain his intuition. Unlike Edison, Faraday wasn't above turning to another genius, mathematician James Clerk Maxwell.
Kepler's Platonic solar system.
The result was "Maxwell's equations," the mathematical foundation of the modern world of electricity and electronics.

Empirical science cannot fall back on gut feelings or a reigning consensus. If science were up to a democratic vote, the Sun would still revolve around the Earth. Even as he proved it wrong, Kepler could not bring himself to reject the consensus Platonic model of the universe.

The consensus was not happy with his findings either, despite how much he qualified them. Kepler's conclusions—that orbiting objects move in ellipses, not in neat Platonic circles—did not find widespread acceptance until after his death.

Science is called a "discipline" because it takes a great deal of discipline to question our most deeply-held convictions. The apologist begins every investigation with no doubt that he is right, the true scientist with the sure knowledge that he is very likely wrong.

Related posts

Houdini & Doyle
"Pathological" and real science
The God complex

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May 19, 2016

Houdini & Doyle


Two contemporary Sherlock Holmes adaptations are currently in production. A third installment of the James Bond steampunk interpretation with Robert Downey Jr. may be in the works. Reruns of the definitive Jeremy Brett version can be found on a local PBS station.

And Basil Rathbone, doing a blend of both the traditional and the sort-of mid-20th century contemporary thing, is all over Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.

So it's not like the world has been clamoring for yet another Holmes and Watson police procedural with-a-twist. Instead, Fox went biographical and came up with Houdini & Doyle (with a fictional addition: Rebecca Liddiard as pioneering policewoman Adelaide Stratton).


That's right. The two men really did know each other. But this is less about Holmes and Watson than it is about that other recently resuscitated Fox crime-fighting duo, Mulder and Scully. Doyle wanted to believe—in the supernatural. His pal Houdini thought it was a big con.

Doyle (6'1") and Houdini (5'6").

The Fox series takes place at the turn of the 20th century in London. Doyle has killed off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls (1893) and not yet resurrected him (1901). In the meantime, he's produced a monograph about the Boer War (published in 1900).

Marconi's upcoming 1901/1902 transatlantic radio transmissions are mentioned in the first episode.

To be sure, Houdini's career as a debunker of spiritualists took off in the 1920s, which led to an irreconcilable rift between the two men. That was after Doyle lost his first wife in 1906 and a son in 1918 (WWI). In 1900, his interest would have been more of an abstract curiosity.

Of course, Houdini immediately raises the same objections as have critics ever since. But as Kate points out,

Sherlock Holmes would not have found [his creator's] interest in spiritualism odd. Not a Sherlock of the nineteenth century anyway. Spiritualism—at least initially—was greeted by the scientific community as a possible scientific advance. If humans could create a telegraph that communicated around the world, why couldn't humans create a device that communicated beyond this world? Scientific American offered an award to the first person to prove the existence of the afterlife.

Modernity hasn't changed things all that much. Galileo is a contemporary police procedural similar to Numbers, though featuring a physicist instead of a mathematician. The "supernatural" events in episode 3 have exactly the same cause as in episode 1 of Houdini & Doyle.

And the bystanders in both, a century apart, react pretty much the same too. Observed G.K. Chesterton, "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything." Like Mulder, we all want to believe.

So Doyle and Houdini started out in pursuit of the same goal. As Kate explains,

From the beginning, Conan Doyle was admittedly more optimistic and Houdini was miles more skeptical, but their mandate, at first, was the same: to uncover hoaxes and find the real thing. They split when Conan Doyle thought they had found the real thing and Houdini continued to maintain that all spiritualists were frauds and hucksters.

Setting the series well before the relationship crumbled allows their characters to approach the subject, as I've noted, in Mulder/Scully terms, with firm convictions but minds fairly open to change. It's a good way to go.

So far, the Doyle/Houdini/Stratton trio works well enough and doesn't unduly disturb the demands of verisimilitude. Stephen Mangan's Arthur Conan Doyle has his beliefs, a family, and a dying wife. Michael Weston's Harry Houdini, in contrast, has doubts and a brash American attitude.

There's not a whole lot of there there. However good he is at the attitude thing, he needs more material to work with, starting with more locked rooms to literally break into.

It appears he's being kept single to make room for a relationship with Rebecca Liddiard's Stratton, which may work as long as it doesn't get soapy. Miller and Liu deserve a lot of credit in Elementary for creating romantic tension without creating any demand for actual romance.

But when it comes to developing a secondary character arc, Martin Freeman's Watson on Sherlock sets the high watermark. He not only becomes more interesting as a person the more we learn about him, but becomes more interesting—and valuable—as Sherlock's partner.

Coincidentally, Michael Weston previously crossed paths with Sherlock Holmes on Elementary as a sociopathic addict trying to drag Sherlock back to his dissolute life. The question is whether they can make him that interesting again without making him that much of a human disaster.

In episode four (season 1) of Murdoch Mysteries, Doyle similarly pairs up with Detective Murdoch. But while Murdoch is an almost stoic empiricist, he is also (like Scully) Catholic, which lends a nuance, depth, and ambiguity to their debates that Houdini & Doyle has yet to achieve.


In story terms, once the convoluted backstories got pushed aside, I've found Miller's Sherlock in Elementary to be closer to canon, Cumberbatch's Sherlock being too Moriarty-centric, more wrapped up in grand conspiracies than cozy mysteries.

Only a puzzling secret in Houdini & Doyle so far, and that's enough. Making faith vs. doubt a weekly theme risks turning the series into a James Randi seminar. Forget the old artsy cliché of "taking chances." Shows like this more often need the courage to rely on the "simple and believable."

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May 12, 2016

The Adams Method


John Quincy Adams has been in the news recently. In Japan.

Well, not the sixth president of the United States specifically, but the apportionment method he devised back in 1822. Ever wonder how congressional representatives get divvied up? Well, it's proportional to population, but the actual process can get complicated, a subject for lovers of word problems in algebra.

The Mathematical Association of American explains the different methods and provides the applicable equations.

The underlying math problem is that, using only whole numbers (the population of a state), the end product has to be a whole and fixed number (the total number of representatives). The wrong formula can result in an "apportionment paradox," that has a state gaining population but losing representatives.

The United States uses the Huntington-Hill Method. The Webster Method (named after Daniel) was adopted by the Congress in 1842, then replaced by the Hamilton Method (named after Alexander) in 1852. And again in 1901. And again in 1911. Finally, the current Huntington-Hill Method was adopted in 1941.

The Adams Method (アダムズ方式) was never adopted in the United States. But Japan seems to have taken a shine to it, perhaps because of its built-in bias toward small prefectures. The problem right now is that small prefectures are hugely--unconstitutionally, according to Japan's Supreme Court--overweighted.


As the population shifted to the cities, the hard-coded apportionments in the 1947 constitution drifted out of whack. Piecemeal fixes were made without repairing the underlying system. And then a string of elections, most recently the 2010 House of Councillors election, were ruled unconstitutional.

The elections themselves were not invalidated, as that would have caused chaos. Rather, the Supreme Court admonished the Diet to enact a permanent fix to adjust representational disparities between the smallest and largest prefectures to below 2:1.

Like the GOP, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoys substantial support in rural districts and has been dragging its feet. In March, the LDP grudgingly approved the adoption of the Adams Method for distributing House of Representatives seats, with full implementation to come following the 2020 census.

Meanwhile, minority parties (which have the most to gain from increased urban representation) continue to campaign for earlier implementation using the 2010 census.

In the United States, population growth favors conservatives, Utah being a case in point. In 2000, Utah missed out on a 4th congressional district by the number of Mormon missionaries serving out of state. Utah would have benefited from the Adams Method then. By 2010, Utah got its 4th district with room to spare.

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May 05, 2016

The Japanese Trump


Donald Trump is the American Shintaro Ishihara, the main difference being that Ishihara has a higher-brow resume. An award-winning writer, director, and all-around raconteur, Ishihara got into national politics in the 1960s and was governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2012.

Which proves that intelligence and literary talent are not obstacles to becoming a motor-mouthed blowhard.

Ishihara's monumental ego is only the first of their many shared similarities. He told Playboy in 1990, "If I had remained a movie director, I can assure you that I would have at least become a better one than Akira Kurosawa."

Although attached to far right causes and called "Japan's Le Pen,"
Ishihara, like Trump, is really a "Know Nothing" nativist. Trump's most outrageous remarks about immigrants differ only in geographical terms from those of Shintaro Ishihara.

If you think Trump is a bull in a china shop, in April 2012 Ishihara offered to purchase (out of his own pocket) the contested Senkaku Islands and lit off an utterly unnecessary and dangerous international incident with China.

Recall as well that Ishihara was co-author with Sony chairman Akio Morita of the nationalistic screed, The Japan That Can Say No. Ishihara just wants to make Japan "great again."

Believe it or not, Trump is not nearly as impolitic in his public statements as Ishihara. It's hard to imagine Trump describing women past a certain age as "useless" (though his marital choices suggest so). And unlike Ishihara, Trump has yet to insult the French.

At the time, Ishihara's outrageous declarations never seemed to cost him in the polls. Nevertheless, the political factions he headed steadily lost ground and he left politics in 2014.

It's easy to argue that a more circumspect Ishihara could have become prime minister. But a more circumspect Ishihara would never have attracted such a brilliant spotlight.

The same goes for Donald J. Trump. A subdued Trump would have turned into Michael Bloomberg, get elected mayor of New York, and slowly fade away. Fourteen years Ishihara's junior, at the age of 69, this is Trump's last shot at seizing the brass ring.

The possibility doesn't worry me in the slightest. Unless it's 1861 or 1941 or you're living in Syria right now, spare me visions of the impending Apocalypse. The British burned down the White House and most of Washington in 1814. We got over it.

Among the Republican candidates (and Hillary), Trump's "Prime Directive" approach to foreign policy is the only one that makes sense. Not that much else of what he says makes sense (especially trade policy), but, hey, you take what you can get.

If Trump does get elected president, we're going to see the checks and balances of the American Constitution put into action, which makes it possible for Congress to accomplish a great deal by doing nothing (which it should do more of).

And if he manages to blow up the GOP in the process, all the power to him. Perhaps Trump is just the man to convince the political left as well that a less powerful federal government, and especially a less powerful chief executive, is a good thing.

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