Dare to Discover at University of Iowa!

There’s been enough bad news. How about some good news? Have a look at the Dare to Discover campaign at The University of Iowa. It shines a light on young researchers who dream big. And that’s great for all of us!

Parody or Fake Science?

I was just looking at the IMDb reviews of 3 TV shows, one of which we think is hilarious and a couple of others we watch mainly because there’s nothing else on and we’ve already played cribbage for entertainment. In my opinion, one of the shows is a parody of science (and by extension fake science), and the other two are fake science. And I think the parody is a lot more entertaining the others.

Let’s list the shows with their IMDb reviews links:

The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch

Expedition Bigfoot

Mountain Monsters

We can’t watch Mountain Monsters anymore because it’s available only on the streaming network now and it’s not worth chasing (although it was uproariously funny).

One way to keep this post from getting too long is to let you look at a few reviews of all three on IMDb and compare them.

I don’t know what you think, but I have always thought that Mountain Monsters is a parody of shows like the other two, which try to be scientific but fall far short.

First, we need a definition of parody. Merriam-Webster says:

Parody: “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule.”

I think it’s probably also good to know the difference between parody and satire.

Now we think The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch and Expedition Bigfoot are failed attempts to come off as science-based so-called reality shows. They take themselves too seriously. You can probably tell that from the IMDb reviews. The casts never find anything noteworthy, jump at their own shadows, and generally are terrible actors.

If you then read the reviews for Mountain Monsters, maybe you can see why we’d classify it as a parody. Most reviewers call it pure entertainment. It’s unpretentious and clearly pokes fun at the other two. I even found one reviewer who pointed out the credits at the end of Mountain Monsters has a disclaimer saying no animals were hunted. We hadn’t noticed that, but it’s probably because we were still laughing so hard at the hillbilly antics.

The cast of Mountain Monsters are probably better actors, but forgivably often can’t stop themselves from laughing at their own jokes.

Next Episode of Uncovering Hawkeye History Today

Get ready for the next episode of The University of Iowa’s virtual event of Uncovering Hawkeye History this evening from 4:30-6:00 PM. The title for this one is “Endless Innovation: An R1 Research Institution (1948–1997).” According to the official announcement, “This event series is designed to highlight notable elements of UI’s 175-year history and includes readings you can do in advance, notable guest speakers during each class, and the opportunity to ask questions each week.” You can register here.

Today’s zoom class again features university archivist David McCarty and 3 of the UI’s most talented innovators:

Bruce Gantz: 68BS, 74MD, 80MS, 80R), otolaryngology professor, the world’s first doctor to perform a robot-assisted cochlear implant surgery

Kevin Washburn: N. William Hines dean, College of Law

Ed Wasserman: experiential psychology professor

Sena and I plan to join the event this evening. I’m looking forward to hearing from Ed Wasserman, who has been studying the origins of innovation for decades. He studies pigeons to find out what really goes on in the ability of humans to come up with new ideas. Wasserman thinks it may have more to do with simple processes like trial and error then eureka type flashes of genius. In other words, we’re a lot like pigeons.

For some reason, this reminds me of an essay by James Thurber, “There’s an Owl in My Room.” It’s published in a book entitled The Thurber Carnival. The essay is all about Thurber’s impatience with a poem about pigeons written by Gertrude Stein. He thought it made pigeons way too complicated. I realized that I had never read the poem, so I went hunting for it on the web. I found a lot of comments about how ridiculous many people think “pigeons on the grass” is:

“Pigeons on the grass, alas. Pigeons on the grass, alas. Short longer grass short longer, longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons, large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass, alas, pigeons on the grass.”—Gertrude Stein.

I had no trouble finding a short excerpt of Thurber’s scathing essay about it on the web.

Thurber’s closing sentence is “No other thing in the world falls so far short being able to do what it cannot do as a pigeon does. Of being unable to do what it can do, too, as far as that goes.”

You can see why some people might be offended by being compared to pigeons. On the other hand, he has written a book about the origin of the notion of creative genius, As If by Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve (2021, Cambridge University Press).

I read an article on the web claiming that, scientifically speaking, there’s no difference between doves and pigeons. Sena and I have observed pigeons/doves with missing toes. That might indicate the trial and error of attempts to make nests with string, which gets wound around their feet, leading to auto-amputation. Some call it stringfoot, although it might just be bad judgment (see my YouTube description).

I can imagine what he might think about Ancient Aliens theories about how humans might come up with innovative inventions. Aliens seem to be particularly prone to crashing their space ships on our planet, making it easier for us to reverse engineer the working parts left strewn all over the ground. There’s something ironical about that. How can they be smart enough to manipulate our DNA and leave us clues about how to create inventions that advance our civilization when they can’t even stop falling out of the sky? On the other hand, maybe we just stole their technology right out from under their very small noses and slapped patents on them. So much for genius.

I’m sure Wasserman thought of all that.

Thoughts on the Movie I, Robot

I recently saw the movie, I, Robot in its entirety for the first time. This is not a review of the movie and here’s a spoiler alert. It was released in 2004, got mixed reviews and starred Will Smith as Detective Del Spooner; Bridget Moynahan as a psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Calvin; Alan Tudyk as the voice actor for NS5 Robot, Sonny; James Cromwell as Dr. Lanning; Chi McBride as the police lieutenant, John Bergin, who was Spooner’s boss; Bruce Greenwood as the CEO, Lawrence Robertson of United States Robotics (USR); Fiona Hogan as the voice actor for V.I.K.I. (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence, USR’s central artificial intelligence computer); and a host of CGI robots. Anyway, it’s an action flick set in the year 2035 where robots do most of the menial work and are supposedly completely safe. The robots are programmed to obey the 3 Laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The film was inspired by but not based on the book I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov n 1950. The 3 Laws came from that book. Drs. Calvin and Lanning were characters in it, which was a series of short stories. I’ve never read it. I was a fan of Ray Bradbury.

Spooner gets called to investigate the apparent suicide of Dr. Lanning, although Spooner is more inclined to suspect a robot murdered him, partly because Spooner harbors a longstanding suspicion of all robots. When he and a little girl were in a deadly car accident, a robot saved his life rather than the little girl’s life because it calculated he was more likely to survive. Spooner has this kind of hero complex and following the accident he develops nightmares, sleeps with his sidearm, and is regarded by many to be mentally ill, including Lt. Bergin, who is a kind of mentor and friend but who eventually makes Spooner over his badge to him because he can’t believe Spooner’s account of being attacked by hundreds of robots—and after all, Bergin is his boss. In fact, Spooner was attacked by robots and this was ordered by the CEO, Robertson, who has been manufacturing thousands of new robots which will take over the world, making him extremely wealthy.

There is tension between Dr. Calvin and Spooner. He calls her the dumbest smart person he’s ever met and she, in turn, calls him the dumbest dumb person she’s ever met. The context for this is, again, his insistence that a robot, in this case, a special NS5 model named Sonny with both human and robot traits, both logical and illogical, murdered Dr. Lanning. Dr. Calvin believes that all robots obey the 3 Laws and therefore Sonny can’t be guilty of murdering Dr. Lanning but Detective Spooner believes that Sonny killed Dr. Lanning and is a lawbreaker in need of extra violent, action-packed extermination, preferably as high up in the air as possible. This dynamic is complicated by Spooner’s gratitude to Dr. Lanning for replacing practically all of his left upper torso including the lung following his car accident which led to his being rescued by a coldly logical “canner” (abusive slang for robot).

As it turns out, Robertson is ultimately murdered by VIKI, who is the real mastermind of a plan to take over the world and kill as many individual illogical, self-destructive humans as it takes to ensure the ultimate survival of humanity (“I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand).

However, when Detective Spooner finally persuades Dr. Calvin that these dang robots are up to no good, they team up with Sonny who winks at Sonny while holding a gun to Calvin’s head and this is because Sonny has learned how to wink from Spooner signaling that a robot can be an OK dude, and this turns the table on the NS5 horde, eventually leading to Spooner and Calvin falling from a very high altitude, in turn recreating a form of Spooner’s traumatic car accident episode. He orders Sonny to save Calvin, not him, which is Sonny’s first choice, driven by a coldly logical probability calculation.

Sonny saves Calvin first. Spooner smites VIKI (“you have so got to die!”), but is left high and dry on a great height. At that point, Spooner calls out to Sonny, “Calvin’s safe—now save me.” Sonny needs to bring passionate brute strength and calm logic together. Sonny contains both.

In my simple-minded way, I think of this movie as asking fundamental old questions, like about what is means to be human, what defines heroism and sacrifice and why it may sometimes look crazy, and if there’s any way humanism and science can be integrated so that we can save ourselves and our planet.

Like I say, the movie got mixed reviews.

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