LA Noire

Fingerprints? We don't need no stinking fingerprints.

Despite being an all-round Rockstar fan, LA Noire and Bully are two of the more interesting Rockstar titles I never got around to playing. (I did play a bit of Red Dead Redemption, without really getting into it — I’m thinking of revisiting it once I finish LA Noire.)

This isn’t a review, and LA Noire has been out for quite some time (two years or so) so this is hardly timely, instead this is a discussion of a very interesting piece of game design that was built on top of Rockstar’s GTA Engine. As such I’m not going to discuss the content of the game (there’s a serial killer mystery which is pretty disturbing, although cleverly tucked into history) — I’m discussing LA Noire gameplay design, specifically the way mysteries are solved.

The signature feature of LA Noire is the very impressive facial capture / animation and the interrogation system built on top of it. It somewhat resembles what I considered one of the most brilliant game mechanics I’ve ever seen — unfortunately, not in a game but in a very expensive piece of multimedia computer-based training Andersen Consulting created for GE Capital back in the 90s — but I’d say the training product actually had a better thought out mechanic (more on this later).

Here’s how LA Noire works in a nutshell:

You visit a crime scene or other place of interest (e.g. the dwelling of a suspect or victim) and walk around. When you’re close to a piece of evidence, the controller vibrates. If you press “x” (often after walking around to try to get the vibration to recur) you’ll discover either one or several pieces of evidence. If one, you can pick it up, rotate it (sometimes), zoom in on it (sometimes), and it will sometimes cause a piece of evidence to appear in your notebook. There’s a subtle mechanic to tell you when you’ve found all the evidence at a crime scene (a musical swell).

Somewhat oddly, you manhandle every piece of evidence you see, despite the fact that fingerprints were used to obtain a conviction in the US as early as 1902, and you’re investigating very high profile murders (“red ball whodunnits” in Homicide terms). Perhaps the typical LAPD detective in 1947 was lax with evidence (although in LA Confidential and its sister novels, set in the 50s, the LAPD is surprisingly high-tech), but the character you’re playing is educated, ambitious, and a stickler for procedure.

This is, in essence, an even more annoying variation of the Fallout / Bioware “cursor as a white stick” mechanic for finding loot in 2d adventure games and I despise it, but it’s not so annoying that I won’t play the game.

You also interview / interrogate POIs (persons of interest). Usually you gather evidence first, but the game steers you towards interviewing a witness before — for example — gather evidence at another scene.

Once you start an interview, your character will say something (over which you have zero control) then the POI will say something, then you’ll look at your notebook and some questions will be there. You select a question and the subject responds, at which point you have to pick one of three options: Truth, Doubt, or Lie. You’re told that “Truth” means you believe them, “Doubt” means you think they’re lying, but have no specific evidence, and “Lie” means you think you’re lying and can provide evidence to demonstrate it. Before deciding you can examine their face and body-language (the facial expressions are pretty amazing, although almost everyone looks like they’re lying, and the few people with direct gazes are often lying in one or two of their responses and I for one have no clue how to tell which one).

Truth, Doubt, or Lie? Or would you like a life line?

You can examine your notes before choosing one of the three options, but once you pick an option you can’t go back. (E.g. you can’t decide you doubt them after having decided they were telling the truth, or change your mind and decide they were truthful after assuming they were lying. Even if you later find evidence contradicting a previous piece of testimony, you can’t go and put the question to the POI a second time. It’s quite infuriating. And you absolutely can’t do what detectives actually do, and that is ask open-ended questions. (If I recall correctly, in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon says the most powerful question in a detective’s arsenal is “And…?”)

Sometimes a response will cause a follow-up question to appear.

When you’ve exhausted all your questions the interview is over and you’re told (usually) how many times you picked the “correct” response. You don’t know which specific responses were correct (which is especially infuriating when, for example, you’ve picked “lie” and gotten a highly unsatisfactory response despite having what looked like perfectly good evidence that you were being lied to, so were you wrong? Or was some other response wrong?)

Finally — worst of all — at the end of an investigation you don’t really get to pick your suspect (indeed, based on what I’ve read, you can apparently pretty much screw up every aspect of an investigation and the same person will be charged at the end). This may be necessary for some of the story arcs to work, but if so it’s a case of the need for story arc defeating the core gameplay.


"sadness" expression from Lie to Me

Perhaps the most egregious problem with the execution of all this comes to a single point I came across in this article on GameRant (which I found while googling for ideas on how to interrogate better, without resorting to a walkthrough):

A lot of people say that Aaron [Staton, who played Phelps] goes a little bit psycho with some of the questions you ask in the game. When we originally wrote it, the questions you asked were Coax, Force and Lie. So Force was a more aggressive answer, and that’s where we actually recorded it…But when the game came out, it was Truth, Doubt and Lie, so everyone says that Aaron on the second question goes psycho, but that’s just the way we wrote it from before.

This  is from Brendan McNamara (described as a former member of Team Bondi, the original development team of LA Noire).

Update: in the remastered version of LA Noire that came out for PS4 (and I’m assuming XBox One) Truth, Doubt, and Lie have become Good Cop, Bad Cop, and Accuse. The first two are better than Truth and Doubt (or Coax and Force) since they match the actors’ instructions, but Accuse is terrible because you’re often just challenging their testimony (see below), not necessarily accusing anyone of anything.

Note that Coax and Force are tactics, not assessments of the preceding response (and Lie would actually be better described as Challenge). Also note that the actors were quite possibly not told that they were lying, but that they were holding back. If you’re a fan of Lie to Me (or a social psychologist) you might know that the micro-expressions of a liar are very different from those of someone holding back. Good actors (and many of the actors in the game are excellent) will also know this. So when I take a glance up and to the right to indicate fabrication and pick “Doubt” I am picking the “Force” tactic instead. This is just awful, and combined with the terrible feedback system it’s near-fatal. Given that L.A. Noire places almost all its eggs in the “read the NPCs’ facial expressions” basket, this is an utter disaster.

Update: despite having played through the game before and solved every mystery, on my recent replay, despite studying the actors (at better resolution) I still do little better than chance in my interrogations.

Even so, the real problem with the mechanics is that it gives the player detailed control over stuff that often doesn’t matter (e.g. the order in which bits of evidence are discovered) but not over the actual outcome of most cases (correction: you do get to pick whom to frame for several cases where you know that you’re pursuing the wrong suspect). This is pretty much like those games where all the important stuff is in the cut scenes. “Hey player, go do a bunch of legwork so that the game engine can tell you whom to arrest.” Surely the basic task of a detective ought to be (a) gather evidence, (b) form a theory of the crime based on (a), (c) accuse your suspect. The way I would suggest it work is something like, every time you accuse a suspect with insufficient evidence your potential score drops (and possibly your ultimate score suffers if you successfully convict the wrong person).

Given the whole Dragnet/Untouchables visual feel of the game, having something like a voice description of the outcome: “Frederick Ronald Bloggs was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death in the gas chamber.” or “Frederick Ronald Bloggs pleaded to manslaughter in the second degree and with a good behavior bond.” depending on how well you conducted the investigation, along with a game breakdown of how well you did would be much better than telling you stuff like how many times you guessed which response to use over the course of the investigation.

I have left one thing out of my description of the game mechanics: “intuition”. This is basically a “lifeline” mechanism (you get a fixed number of intuition points — I’m not sure when your pool is restored, it’s possible that it’s simply buggy — and each point lets you “ask the audience” or “50/50” one response to one interview response: it’s a near useless bandaid on a broken mechanic).

Making Allowances

Now, I believe what happened with LA Noire is that Team Bondi worked on it for a long time and went way over-time and way over-budget. Rockstar assigned some kind of A-team to rescue the production and basically triage the content and get something out the door. (So, think So, a lot of the problems with the game are at least in part a consequence of an overly ambitious design being cut down to a (barely) functional core in sudden death overtime, but it seems to me that the overall structure of the game is actually as intended, and changing Truth, Doubt, Lie to Coax, Force, Challenge wouldn’t really help significantly because it’s a fundamentally flawed design.

The basic problem is the structure of the detective game.

(It’s pretty clear that the designers were aware of the shortcomings of the mystery content, because most of the mysteries and incidental street crimes devolve into gratuitous car chases and shootouts. So you get half-assed mysteries mixed with half-assed action. The worst examples are the linear chases with sudden death mini-games that are so horrible there’s a “skip” option for them.)

How to do it right

Here’s how the training program I mentioned earlier worked.

You (an investment banker) are asked to assess a company as an investment opportunity. You wander around gathering evidence (by walking around the company’s premises, making observations, interviewing its employees and customers, and reviewing documents) and then make a decision (“yes — loan money to the company” or “no — deny loan”). You need to cite evidence for and against whatever decision you make (compile a list of pros and cons) because your goal is to make a thorough assessment, including a  realistic risk assessment.

Is this not obviously a superior mechanic to the LA Noire game design I’ve described? You could even easily add mechanics for concealing evidence from the defense (i.e. concealing evidence that weakens your case), framing suspects, and so forth. Of course, that would be less Dragnet and more L.A. Confidential or Chinatown. I don’t want to go into the content of LA Noire — I haven’t finished it yet; so far it’s not terribly good — but it seems to me that L.A. Confidential was the obvious touchstone for this project. Unfortunately, the actual game seems instead to draw more from The Untouchables (both the movie and TV series) and Dragnet.

Update: despite all its flaws, I really ended up enjoying LA Noire because it’s pretty well written and very well acted, and I simply wanted to see how it turned out. As I write this, I’m replaying the remastered version.


There’s clearly a market for mystery-solving games: there are games based on all kinds of TV mystery shows — my wife bought me an unplayable Law & Order game for Christmas some years back; I would love a good game based on Law & Order. It’s sad to see Rockstar, which I believe has the all-round best adventure game engine on the market, try and conspicuously fail to tackle this genre, because I doubt there will be another serious foray into the genre for some time to come.

Sherlock, Reloaded

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes — still the best faithful adaptation of the original stories

I’m a big fan of the new(ish) Sherlock made by the BBC. I was also a big fan of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the very faithful 80/90s adaptations, but when I tried to watch them again with my wife I found the production quality, the audio quality in particular, to be dreadful, and the pacing to verge on glacial. (This is not a universal flaw in British productions of the era — All Creatures Great and Small holds up beautifully.)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson
Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock. Witty, well-paced, clever visual effects, and very stylish.

Even so, I felt a bit skeptical of the new Sherlock at first simply out of loyalty to the Jeremy Brett version (I guess I hate having to update entries in my brain’s database — I already knew the answer to “best TV Sherlock Holmes adaptation”), but I was almost instantly won over by the very clever adaptation of the Victorian tropes of the original books to the present day. Holmes is festooned with nicotine patches, is virtuoso with cell phone texting, and he and Watson are assumed by almost everyone to be homosexuals owing to their lifestyle.

Lucy Liu as Watson, Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes
Lucy Liu as Watson, Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes from CBS’s Elementary — clever original stories in a decent but inferior package

Shortly after watching the second season of Sherlock (purchased on iTunes) I saw the free pilot for Elementary and felt obliged to watch it, despise it, and perhaps write a vitriolic negative review (or maybe just a nasty tweet). Unfortunately my plans came to nought as I quite enjoyed the pilot, although I wondered if it would be sustainable. Eight episodes in that and the answer is a definite yes. In general, the show has gotten stronger with each episode. Indeed, it’s a nice counterpoint to Sherlock, but it makes me wish we might perhaps combine the merits of the two shows.

The main flaw of the BBC’s Sherlock is that it inherits a bit of the breathless incoherence of Dr. Who (which has lately been controlled by the same key people). Almost everything about the show is great except for the actual plots which often don’t make much sense. and this leads to the virtues which are many — acting, dialog, presentation are all perfect, and I particularly like the deft use of visual effects. I loved the fact that all the Victorian tropes got mapped to modern equivalents except Watson’s health having been ruined in Afghanistan, which was perfect as is.

Elementary, in contrast, is inferior in almost all respects to Sherlock except for the actual mysteries, which are both original rather than adapted, more coherent, cleverer, and finally represent a better mapping of the original mysteries to the present day. And I should say that while inferior in many other respects, Elementary is still well cast, well acted, and looks good. It’s just very unusual for a US network show to be less polished than its BBC counterpart. Lucy Liu works out surprisingly well as Watson and is a stronger — if less entertaining — Watson than her counterpart in Sherlock. (Both are more interesting characters than the actual Watson, who in turn is not the gormless prat of the Basil Rathbone movies.) And indeed while Sherlock‘s nicotine patches are funnier, Sherlock’s heroin addiction in Elementary is truer to the books (nicotine patches aren’t as risque as Cocaine addiction).

Luckily, we don’t need to pick one over the other. Both are good, I just hope Elementary gets renewed and Sherlock can squeeze out more than four episodes per year.

Skyfallen: Home Alone with James Bond

Obviously, this isn’t a movie blog and I’m not a movie reviewer, but since most professional movie reviewers are clearly idiots (and then there are the prominent fans who ought to know better) I feel it necessary, while this steaming turd is still fresh in my memory, to have my say. OK, it’s not that bad. It’s not Quantum of Solace bad (to begin with, it’s not named “Quantum of Solace”). It’s not late Roger Moore bad. But it’s bad. It’s “if they don’t make any more Bond movies after this, fair enough” bad. (But Skyfall has gotten good reviews and decent Box Office so I expect we’re going to get more of this crap.)

Warning: spoilers.

Skyfall is too long, has too many false endings, has possibly the stupidest plot of any Bond movie I can remember the plot of (and that’s no mean feat — when I was into the James Bond 007 RPG I committed most of the canon to memory), and it’s lazily written.

The movie does start out quite promisingly. We have a chase through Istanbul which is really quite good (despite Bond allowing several opportunities to kill the guy he’s chasing to go begging — Bourne would have killed the guy five times before he got to the train). Then Bond gets shot by Moneypenny (on orders) who is so stunned by this that she neglects to shoot the bad guy.

After a terrorist attack on M.I.6, Bond returns from the dead.

There’s a sequence in Shanghai where Bond is sent to intercept a hit man and find out who hired him, which is generally well-done (the elevator sequence is cute, albeit horribly contrived), visually spectacular, and makes no sense at all at the time, and less in hindsight. Bérénice Marlohe (playing femme fatale Sévérine) is gorgeous and way too good an actress to play a Bond girl, and the whole damsel in distress setup is quite good, but exactly why she’s in the story at all is never explained. Note that I will make no effort to explain the plot — you’ve either seen the movie and have some idea of what’s supposed to be going on, or you haven’t. Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any sense either way.

The ferocious man-eating Komodo dragons are a hint of the awfulness to come (as is the one-trick-pony gun Bond is issued by the new Q) but then Silva (Javier Bardem with a spectacularly bad dye job) appears and starts out seeming to be a genuinely interesting villain — his cause has some justice, and he could almost be making Bond a tempting offer — until he starts leaking crazy all over the place, and then gratuitously kills Sévérine for good measure. (It’s a testament to fragments of good acting and writing that I still felt quite a bit of sympathy for Silva.)

Aside: do American talk show hosts feel tempted to call Mr. Bardem “X Javier”? Perhaps “J Javier”. How confusing it must be for them.

Silva gets captured, but it’s too soon for it to be the ending — which is sad because the good part of the movie is now over. Instead he is placed in a smaller version of Magneto’s cage (does anyone who makes these movies think that making interrogation and holding rooms look like the sets of science fiction movies is in any way a positive?). It’s at this point we discover that, actually, M is the Major Villain in this movie. Silva was betrayed by her and seeks revenge, she’s captured him, announces he will be prosecuted and forgotten, his name stricken from the list of fallen M.I.6 heroes, and then she leaves him behind in — effectively — a slow motion death trap.

All of this would be deliciously ironic if the script had any wit to it, but the only laughs for the audience are when Bardem turns the camp up two or three notches too far (the audience of which I was a part laughed loudly in many inappropriate places, and always at Bardem’s performance). Indeed, at some points the movie seems to be intentionally satirizing the Bond genre; in one case — when Q ridicules gadgets from earlier movies — it clearly is; but mostly it comes across as half-arsed, a violation of the fourth wall, and not funny.

Anyway, getting captured at exactly this time and then placed in Magneto’s cell turns out to have been all part of Silva’s diabolical plot. Let’s simply leave aside the ridiculousness of this plot and accept it.

So there’s a not very good chase through tunnels and then — detonating a bomb he had no time to set — Bardem is able to escape by the barest of margins and is picked up by two well-armed henchmen posing as police so they can get to their true plot — assassinating M while she is being grilled by some kind of ministerial oversight panel. Oh, did I leave out the fact that the entire sequence of events was largely initiated by Bardem using his mad hacking skillz to blow up M’s office at M.I.6 while M was pointedly not there? Well I guess he wanted to humiliate her and then kill her. Fair enough.

Even so, his plan could have consisted of: (a) blow up M.I.6; (b) wait a while; (c) go with his henchmen to the meeting and kill everyone. Magneto’s cell, killing special forces guys while armed only with false teeth, remote controlled bombs presciently planted in just the right spot, perfectly scheduled commuter trains falling out of holes left by said bombs, gratuitously killing pretty girls you’re quite fond of — all this stuff wasn’t necessary or helpful. But hey, it’s a Bond movie, so we can let all this slide too.

Now, if three guys with pistols could shoot their way into a British government meeting on security following a massive terrorist attack against M.I.6 then the IRA would have wiped out the British government decades ago. (It’s not like they didn’t try.) I suppose Silva was badass enough to kill two heavily-armed special forces guys while armed only with false teeth, and of course, Bond winked at the Ralph Fiennes character — before shooting some fire extinguishers (apparently to help Silva escape, since it served no other apparent purpose).

So, Bond — having facilitated Silva’s escape — abducts M, ditches her car in favor of his Aston Martin DB5 (yes, that one), and then conspires with Q to leave a trail so cunning that only two weasels or Silva would be clever enough to figure it out. The cleverness of this plot will dazzle you: he takes M to his family home in Scotland. Bear in mind that Bond’s name isn’t a cover, he has never troubled to conceal it, his family appears to have been moderately prominent, and his parents are buried in tombs with the surname “Bond” carved into them. As I said, as cunning as two weasels.

They get to the family property and are greeted by — wait for it — Albert Finney, their old American gamekeeper. Yes, they picked a crusty old American actor who couldn’t be bothered to even half-assedly fake a Scots accent to play a gamekeeper in Scotland. What. The. Fuck. Of course, Albert Finney is a huge enormous star, a teen heart throb, and a box office draw of considerable magnitude. Oh wait, no he isn’t. But he was in the Bourne movies — maybe some of the magic will rub off.

Next we have a “fortifying the house” montage — think Home Alone meets Straw Dogs only without the humor of the former or the ingenuity of the latter. But hey, Dustin Hoffman was playing a mathematician in Straw Dogs. Everyone knows how badass mathematicians are. (Perhaps a Chaos Theorist might have spotted the flaw in the whole “let’s keep uber hacker Silva in a big glass box controlled by computers” plan.)

(Note that I nowhere mention the wall-to-wall crap that passed for any discussion of computers, hard disks, networks, hacking, or encryption in the story. I’m not trying to hold this movie up to impossibly high standards, I’d just like something vaguely coherent with the right tone that’s fun to watch and has good action scenes.)

Silva’s hired fanatics eventually show up, presumably after Silva paused to scan Bond’s personnel file or Google him or something (as only genius hackers can do). I call them fanatics because they’re willing to fight to the death for a giggling campy lunatic. I guess that competent fanatic mercenaries are hard to come by because these idiots elect to attack Bond’s fortress by — get this — walking through the front gate and fanning out. (Clearly Bond didn’t anticipate just how incompetent Silva’s men would be or he could probably have popped half of them with his dad’s hunting rifle rather than taking out a couple using a far riskier trick involving the DB5.)

I guess the first wave of fanatics lacked radios — they show no signs of coordinating their attack, and presumably Silva’s other hirelings would be demoralized hearing them all die over the air.

I should also mention that the action scenes around the old stone house are a shapeless mess. You don’t know where anyone is or why they’re doing what they’re doing. E.g. the house clearly has an entire upper level which is never put to any tactical purpose; during the fortification montage they build perfectly sized wooden frames to cover the windows (something of a feat of carpentry I thought at the time — wondering why they didn’t spend the time driving down to the nearest village and buying guns and ammo), and the only role they serve is that Bond smashes one of the frames to shoot out of a window later.

Never mind. Silva then arrives in a helicopter with more rent-a-fanatics and ineffectually strafes the place. Bond sends the geriatrics out the secret exit, and they proceed to walk from the sally port to the family chapel while using a flashlight. (Despite the fact that the entire area is quite well lit by a burning house.) Silva sees the flashlight. Anyway, there’s more pursuit, the last two rent-a-fanatics die, everyone ends up in the chapel, Bond kills Silva with a thrown knife (and Bardem manages more hilarious antics while dying), and M dies in Bond’s arms.

Finally there’s a completely unnecessary series of scenes apparently targeted at mentally impaired members of the audience who can’t figure out for themselves (or wait for the next movie to discover) that M will be replaced by Ralph Fiennes (we get several lines of wooden dialog establishing that he is M now, got it?), and that the gorgeous but incompetent* agent who shot Bond is retiring from field work to become M’s secretary and that her name is Moneypenny. That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

Note: * Bond says she’s incompetent, repeatedly — it’s a kind of abusive running joke. This is despite the fact that the only thing she did wrong was freeze after accidentally shooting Bond on M’s direct order. Aside from that she appears to be by far the most capable M.I.6 agent we’ve ever seen in any movie other than Bond. For starters, she survived to the end of the movie.

Did I mention that for significant stretches this overlong movie is deadly boring? I noticed Rosanna checking her email during one of the early scenes in Scotland.

It’s pretty clear that the James Bond franchise has entered crisis mode as a consequence of the Bourne movies. (Ghost Protocol probably didn’t help either, and in fact if the Bond franchise wants to imitate better movies, Ghost Protocol and not the Bourne movies should be its touchstone.) Casino Royale was good in part because it abandoned almost all of the typical Bond tropes (except Baccarat) in favor of a personal story of gritty survival and frustrated vengeance. You know, like the Bourne movies. The problem was that it wasn’t really a Bond movie, and it was seen — and treated by its producers — as a reboot of the franchise which then promptly returned to those worn-out tropes, only with a little bit of Bourne garnish.

It’s not like Bond was ever gritty before. Ever seen the Alec Guiness as Le Carré’s George Smiley? Nor even the last word in action movies. Ronin has far better chases in it than any Bond movie (before or since), and Where Eagles Dare is pretty much a better military spy story across the board than any Bond story. Bond movies at their best are a law unto themselves — as a villain you can spend unlimited money on a plot with no chance of making a profit, as a hero you can be badass and never ruin your tuxedo. If the girl you slept with last night gets brutally murdered it makes you really mad, but the next girl will help you forget. You can’t just slather “gritty” fairy dust on stories this ridiculous and make gritty movies — you just get a stupid movie with horribly inconsistent tone.

And that’s what Skyfall is.

Effectively the Same Nonsense

There is no god and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

Penn Gillette in God No! Signs You May Already Be An Atheist via Daringfireball

Far be it from me to dismiss a pithy argument against all religions, but this is actually a very bad argument. So, since Christmas is approaching, here’s an argument showing that Religion actually represents an underlying truth just as Science does. What that truth actually is remains open to debate, of course.

Math: What Exactly Do We Mean By “Exactly The Same”?

Please note: I was a lousy student, and all of this was a long time ago, so beware!

One of the more mind-blowing Math courses I did back in college was on Universal Algebra which turns out to be, in essence, a reformulation of Category Theory, itself kind of pretty much the same thing as Topos Theory. Are you getting my drift?

Universal Algebra is mathematics applied to mathematics, all done with diagrams. (Proofs in Universal Algebra tend to consist of turning one diagram into another diagram by erasing or adding an element at a time using set rules.) But the underlying principle is that there are equivalences between mathematical concepts that are exact. For example, you can demonstrate equivalences (isomorphisms) between objects in different theoretical frameworks (e.g. a fundamental shape in Topology turns out to be equivalent to a certain kind of group in Group Theory), and once you demonstrate these kind of equivalences, other equivalences fall out. E.g. the fundamental theorem of groups (which defines every possible type of group) impacts Topology (what possible shapes might there be?).

Demonstrating these equivalences is actually not as horribly complicated as you might think; it’s a bit like Object Oriented Programming, where the complexity lives below the level of abstraction you deal with — that’s the whole point of it. It’s something that makes perfect sense to advanced undergraduate students of Math. And it is this “metamathematics” that allowed, for example, Fermat’s Last Theorem to finally be proven. You have an intractable problem, but you realize it’s similar to another more tractable problem in another field, so instead of solving the first problem, you carefully determine if the problem you think you can solve is in fact, fundamentally, the same problem. And then you solve that problem.

Now, Mathematical Principles are pretty damn immutable. In support of Penn’s statement, we have some pretty compelling real world examples of multiple researchers solving a problem independently and reaching effectively the same solution (modulo the kinds of mathematical equivalences discussed above). Newton and Leibnitz, for example, both invented (discovered?) Calculus independently using different approaches. But to accept that two theories are “exactly the same” you need to understand and accept the fairly abstruse arguments that are used to demonstrate these equivalences.

To put this a completely different way, we could rebuild math from scratch and come out with something that looks very different from what we’ve got, but which is exactly the same using these arguments. For a simple, concrete example – most of the math you know is probably built on top of counting, i.e. measuring quantity. But you can replace the axioms that give us counting numbers with different (looking) axioms that are about order or containment and end up with a functionally identical but very different looking bunch of “knowledge”. In fact the ancient Greeks built their math on top of geometry (length and area) and proved things entirely using geometry rather than algebra. We can prove their results are equivalent to results in algebra, but it’s kind of complicated. And we can prove there is some degree of infinity number of different ways we could represent the same theory, so the chances that two independent formulations of math would end up looking “exactly” the same in the naive sense is zero.

Summary: we can demonstrate, via many “natural experiments”, that science will come out “exactly” the same way, for a complicated mathematical definition of “exactly” that will make most people’s eyes glaze over. But, in common sense terms, no two scientific descriptions of the same underlying truth arrived at independently will be “exactly” the same for definitions of “exactly” that “average” people understand. (Actually, the best definition would probably be “makes exactly the same predictions”, but that’s pretty complex just on its own.)

Anthropology: The Punchline

The “founding fathers of modern Anthropology” (Claude Levi-Strauss and James George Frazer) both made their reputations in large part by finding equivalences between religions. You know, like the “guy who died and came back to life” myth. Or the “guy born of a virgin mother” myth. Or the “great flood that killed everyone except that guy” myth. Or how about the “bearded guy in the sky who throws lightning bolts” myth? Or the “dead people live forever in the sky” myth. Or the “dead people live in the underworld” myth. And the “there are spirits in the woods” myth. And on and on. In fact, there’s almost no human religious belief which, upon analysis, doesn’t turn out to be equivalent to a whole lot of other independently derived human religious beliefs. This includes the religious beliefs of previously uncontacted tribes with no written records living in the Papua New Guinea highlands — clearly a better “natural experiment” of Penn’s thesis than, say, Newton and Leibnitz.

Summary: we can demonstrate, via many — even better — “natural experiments”, that religions will come out “exactly” the same way, for a not very complicated definition of “exactly” that most people would understand. (It’s probably worth noting that many religious people are deluded into thinking their religion is unique and original, and are hostile to this line of argument. E.g. Many Christians definitely do not like to be told that the “born of a virgin” myth was all the rage in religions predating Christ’s purported birth.)

Conclusion: You Can’t Prove a Negative and Trying To is Perilous

It should not be a surprise to discover that different religious beliefs have the same kinds of equivalences as scientific theories or bodies of math. All are human behaviors, after all. It’s the underlying reasons that are in question. Are religions, like science, an approximate representation of an underlying truth, or are they, as atheists might argue, simply a reflection of human beings coming to terms with pretty much universal experiences of being human (birth, death, love, loss, hunger, uncertainty, and so on)?

But, in the end, the argument that Penn is making is actually an argument that religion points to an underlying truth. Oops.

  • We [tacitly] assume that if, starting from nothing, if a body of “knowledge” derived from world comes out “exactly” the same, it’s based on “truth”. If not, not.
  • Starting from nothing, science will come out “exactly” the same — therefore it’s true.
  • Starting from nothing, religion will come out “different” — therefore it’s not true.
  • But, arguing from natural experiment, I demonstrate that, starting from nothing, religion actually comes out “exactly” the same.
  • Ergo: religion is true.
  • And we can go further and argue that the mathematical definition of “exactly” is really weird and no-one, least of all religious people, will accept it.
  • Ergo: science is false.

Because Penn’s argument relies on the initial, unspoken, assumption, it’s a very bad argument because it actually enables the opposing argument. Luckily, I don’t accept his premise. And with that, I’ll go back to being my kind of atheist — someone who thinks of Religion and, say, Astrology, in much the same light.


The Walking Stupid


Spoilers everywhere!

A couple of my wife’s grad students put me onto The Walking Dead, an AMC TV show* about a small town sheriff’s deputy who is badly wounded in a shootout, falls into a coma, and then wakes up in a world overrun with zombies. Eventually, he joins and quickly assumes leadership of a rag-tag, ethnically diverse band of survivors — although as of the end of season one, I think they’re all out of black and brown people.

This rant is based on watching the first season on Netflix. Let me just say, from the outset, that I found this show utterly compelling despite all the complaints that follow. It’s very well-made, well-cast, well-acted, and the story works well (too well sometimes) at an emotional level. It’s also possibly most intensely gory thing I have ever seen (and I’m a Cronenberg fan), but hey, it’s a zombie story.

Note: right now AMC is responsible for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead which, by my count, puts it ahead of HBO in terms of compelling original content for the moment.

What is it with zombies?

The world of The Walking Dead is, as far as we can tell at the end of season one, pretty much completely overrun. In the course of the first season the survivors have never picked up a radio transmission from anyone else. The thing that bugs me more and more as the series progresses is just how stupid absolutely everyone had to have been in order for the characters to: (a) have gotten into their predicament, (b) be in their predicament, and (c) remain in their predicament. It particularly bugs me because I find the story so compelling and like many of the characters so much and I feel sad when they die, and yet their problems could so easily have been avoided, mitigated, or solved.

The zombies in The Walking Dead, like zombies in general, defy the laws of physics. As far as we can tell, they can operate on virtually no sustenance for ridiculously long periods of time, and have superhuman strength. (The former fact prevents the human race from taking the obvious approach of waiting them out.) But zombies are slow, unperceptive, and stupid. (They can’t operate vehicles or heavy machinery or use weapons — they can, however, turn doorknobs. Ominously.) It seems that zombies are created by humans being “infected”, generally by being bitten by another zombie. (Reading ahead in the Wikipedia article on the graphic novels on which the series is based, this seems to be at least slightly incorrect, but the actual vector has not been revealed.) Whatever the cause of the zombie plague, it doesn’t appear to be terribly contagious, and it’s not like someone is going to transform from healthy human to zombie fast enough to catch anyone by surprise (a corpse can come back to life in as little as three minutes, we discover in the final episode the end of season one).

So, how the heck did this get out of hand?

  • Only dead people become zombies. Until you’re dead, you’re not turning into a zombie. (I suppose it could have infected some living people originally but everyone still alive is immune. But there’s zero evidence for this.)
  • Zombies are easily identified (e.g. they can’t talk); all the zombies we’ve seen so far look gross, but that may have to do with how they died; perhaps early on some zombies looked OK.
  • Zombies are slow moving (again, their weird gaits may be an artifact of how they died, but they don’t seem to move like living people)
  • Zombies can’t use tools or drive vehicles
  • Zombies are easy to cripple, but it requires a hit on the brainstem to “kill” them; assuming the characters live in a world without zombie fiction they may not have known, initially, that you need to hit the brain stem, but it seems like a pretty obvious thing to try, and zombies are easy targets. So it’s simply implausible to imagine trained soldiers with military gear having any real trouble with them.
  • Zombies appear to be a lot stronger than people (but it’s TV/comics so strength varies with situation) — still let’s assume they’re pretty damn strong

The cliche, of course, is that zombies shuffle around, arms outstretched, rasping the word “Brains!” But in The Walking Dead, the zombies say nothing, and it’s the living who desperately need brains.

What happened to the police?

Over and over we see cases where people supposedly made a heroic last stand against apparently overwhelming numbers of zombies. I don’t get it. As of 2006, according to, there were just under 700,000 police officers in the USA. Assuming the police aren’t immediately turned into zombies that’s 700,000 people sworn to uphold and protect, and carrying around — let’s be conservative — one fully loaded pistol, at least one spare clip of ammo, a shotgun (with extra ammo), and probably a rifle (with extra ammo) each. (Incidentally, I did a little research indicates that when you buy a Glock it comes with four clips each holding 15 rounds, many police in the US are being issued AR-15s, typically with two 30 round magazines.) We can conservatively call this 120 rounds of ammo per police officer. That’s 84,000,000 rounds of ammo being carried around by police officers on a daily basis. Now, zombies move slow and don’t shoot back — they’re basically slow moving target practice. So let’s assume 2-3 rounds per zombie. That’s enough ammo to deal with over 20 million zombies with no advance warning or preparation.

And the well-regulated militia?

Now assuming that the police didn’t have to deal with more than twenty million zombies without any warning, there’s the extra ammo in the trunks of their police cruisers, back at the stations, firing ranges, homes, Wal-marts, sporting goods stores, outdoor centers, and so forth. That’s in addition to the heavily armed populace (especially in the South where the story takes place), national guard, and army (much of which is housed in Southern states). Now, if I heard one whiff of zombie apocalypse news I’m heading to my local sporting goods store and getting some guns and a ton of ammo, and in the US there’s a lot to go around. I might add we have a couple months supply of barely edible emergency rations at home just in case of natural disaster along with, conservatively, another couple of week’s supply of food in the pantry and the house is pretty defensible (good lines of sight all round). So exactly how did the national guard and police protecting the CDC get overwhelmed? And how did it get to that in the first place?

Bear in mind, the zombie apocalypse didn’t come with zero warning. (We know this from flashbacks and discussions of what happened between characters.) Some people were caught unaware, but presumably the majority of the police had some warning and thus some time to get more ammo before “SHTF”. So, again, exactly how did the police and military run out of ammo? Bear in mind that guns are really easy to shoot people with if they’re shuffling slowly towards you and you’re not afraid of them shooting back. (I learned about The Walking Dead when we were at paintball — my first time ever — and from a marksmanship point of view I would have no problem head-shotting zombies from a safe distance with a weapon as woefully inaccurate as a rented paintball gun.)

And something that didn’t really strike me until I lived here, but the South is a freaking disaster area. It is subject to regular tornadoes, hurricanes, horrific thunderstorms (if you’ve never seen “blinding rain” you’ve never lived here), and — in winter — ice storms. (Actually it’s still Autumn and we just had a minor ice storm yesterday.) A lot of people here prepare for the worst as a matter of course. After the tornado hit Tuscaloosa earlier this year and caused lots of power outages, the nearest Costco had diesel generators stacked to the ceiling, and sold them all very quickly.

And the easily fortified buildings?

Then there’s the buildings that can easily be secured against physical assault by non-tool-using zombies, like stadiums, banks, post offices, armories, hospitals, jeweler’s stores, high-end apartment buildings, mansions on private islands. Sucks they all got taken out. Then there’s those facilities that have guards, concrete walls, and barbed wire fences surrounding them. You know, like nuclear reactors, and important military bases. How did the zombies take them out? (Consider air force bases in the middle of deserts — relatively isolated, strong active and passive defenses, excellent communications, on-base medical facilities, and lots of weapons and supplies. Exactly how did all of these get taken out?) And bear in mind many military bases house the families of the soldiers on-base or nearby, so there’s not even the “I’m gonna go get myself killed heroically rescuing my loved ones” excuse.

And the folks with armored vehicles?

How do guys in tanks get turned into zombies? Seriously. If it gets that bad, don’t you close the hatch and shoot yourself? I mean really. But hey, wouldn’t you have kept enough fuel in the tank to drive out of town? Or did you maybe let your buddy siphon off your tank so he could try to find his girlfriend in the worst hit part of town? I guess every tank had some guy with a girlfriend in the worst part of town who needed their emergency reserve gas.

An M3 Bradley — we see a lot of them abandoned near heroic last stands — has an operational range of 250-300 miles (it gets about 1.5 miles per gallon) and carries 1500 rounds of machine-gun ammo (did you know machine-guns can fire single shots?). That’s a lot of zombies you can shoot and run over before driving to safety. (I have this vision of a tank crew circling a gas station and leveling all the buildings and flattening all the zombies before rolling up to a pump to refuel.) Remember they move slow and don’t shoot back. Seriously, how did these guys die?

Oh and there’s the abandoned helicopters. You know where helicopters ran out of fuel during the evacuation of Saigon in 1975? Not in downtown Saigon. So many helicopters were landing on the carriers that they were pushing them overboard to make room for more to land. If you have a helicopter and you know how to fly and you’re not an imbecile, your helicopter is not going to be found in the aftermath of a heroic last stand. But maybe you siphoned off the gas for your buddy whose girlfriend was in the worst hit area. That’s the ticket. (Of course some of those helicopters must have inadvertently carried zombies onto warships. Oops!)

And the navy?

Boy, it sure was tough defending nuclear powered aircraft carriers from the zombies. Those last desperate broadcasts from the bridge of the Nimitz as the surviving crew, equipped only with the pitiful weapons available (you know, assault rifles and stuff), struggled to survive as their zombie shipmates beat through metal hatches — designed to stop seawater sinking the ship in case of a hull breach — using, we assume, their heads was awful. Or maybe they starved to death. Whatever. Let’s not even get into the tragic deaths of nuclear submarine crews. Sad, sad times.

And our plans to deal with global thermonuclear war?

We’ll just ignore all the precautions we took against all-out thermonuclear war, like Cheyenne Mountain, designed to withstand direct hits from hydrogen bombs and keep out radioactive fallout. Somehow, the zombies got in. And don’t think too hard about people living on private islands, motor yachts, say. Sometimes you just need to go shopping, I guess. (Should I mention that the kinds of people most likely to live securely also have the best access to comms and independent sources of fuel and power? Shhhh.)

But, OK, somehow because mistakes were made early, often, repeatedly, and by everyone, the situation got totally out of control and then the police and military became demoralized and — OK I give up. Everyone died! Just accept it.

And our other fortified underground bunkers?

But now, the scientists in France and the US who were in fortified underground class 5 research facilities (where you need to wear a double-layered spacesuit in a negative pressure chamber protected by airlocks to do low risk experiments, and work in a glove box or using robotic arms to do high risk experiments) all died because of … power failures? Of course, they had to run out of diesel eventually (although France gets 80% of its electrical power from nuclear but shhhh.) After just a few months? And remember, this disease is not terribly contagious. You can blow a zombie’s brains out at point-blank range and be splashed with rotting gore, blood, and brain matter and not get infected. They could just have moved to the roof of a building to continue their research safely. But, OK, they’re all dead too.

Having survived all those mistakes, we’re still fucking stupid.

Oh, and the survivors’ communications systems suck. They have a total of two walky-talkies, no spare batteries, and don’t even think about satellite phones. (Did the zombies take out our satellites too? It was sure horrible hearing the screams on the International Space Station when a zombie somehow got onboard. Bastards!) Given that the US is awash in gadgets, including hand-cranked radios, solar battery chargers, batteries of all kinds, generators of all kinds, and cheap and extremely capable portable radios this is plain stupid.

The stupid runs deeper though. The ragtag band of survivors chooses, as its base of operations, a small clearing in a forest that can be approached from almost any direction without being seen. (There’s a guy who hangs out all day on top of his trailer, watching for trouble, but not at night.) Shockingly, zombies sneak up on them at night and kill several. Look guys — your enemy is stupid, slow, and restricted to walking (they’ll chin drag if you shoot off their limbs, but won’t choose to crawl for purposes of stealth). Find a place where you can limit approaches and see anyone coming and you won’t be taken by surprise. It’s not like the zombies know how to sneak or rappel down the sides of buildings. In an early episode, our heroes come across a group of survivors operating out of a nursing home in Atlanta, who have fortified their building with whatever materials came in handy such that it has only one entrance. (They’re doing fine, thanks — despite caring for all of the patients in a nursing home) It’s a shame the military, police, national guard, etc. didn’t try to physically barricade vital facilities and people like that, but who would think of such a clever idea? (Incidentally, standard tactics for urban warfare involves turning buses and trams into barricades to block roads.)

You could explain everything a lot more easily if the zombie contagion is much worse or more insidious than we think. It could be airborne. It could infect healthy people, kill them, and turn them into zombies. Initially, zombies might not look different from people — until they bite you. But if these things are true then either it’s a very low risk or our heroes would all be dead by now. And if it’s a very low risk, then it again doesn’t explain anything. OK, perhaps it’s something some people have a natural resistance to, but when you get bitten that natural resistance is overwhelmed. That means that initially aerosol transmission did happen a lot, but if so some people would (a) have remembered this happening, (b) mentioned it at some point, and (c) still be paranoid about it. Just for example, the underground labs full of scientists who devoted their last months to studying the disease but died having gotten nowhere and left no record of any such discoveries.

Oh well, maybe they’ll eventually bump into a group of survivors riding bicycles along interstates, each carrying a walky-talky, rechargeable batteries, solar cell, flare gun, and plenty of ammunition, and keeping in touch with the US Navy via satellite phone. Maybe everyone in Canada is just fine but they can’t be bothered helping the US.


I’ll try to resist watching season 2.