Movie Review: The Martian

October 20th, 2015

I rarely get to see movies in theaters anymore, thanks to a combination of work and two young children. But I am occasionally able to make an exception and the rave reviews for The Martian quickly moved it to the top of the “If I get a chance” list. A three hour break between the arrival of my plane and the arrival of my student’s plane gave me the chance to sneak out and catch it.

I’ll just assume you know the basic plot and tuck in.

The Martian is probably not the best film of the year but it is very good. The plot is clear, well-explained and, refreshing, doesn’t hinge on idiots doing idiotic things or Evil Bureaucrats stopping the good guys. Everyone in the movie is smart and, in principal, on the same page. There are some conflicts but they are over how precisely to rescue Watney, rather than whether to rescue him. And the disagreements are portrayed fairly and intelligently. This is exactly how I would expect things to go down if this happened in real life.

Weir made tremendous efforts to make his book as realistic as possible and it shows. Almost everything they do in the movie is reasonable and realistic. I’m used to, during a sci-fi movie, that NASA part of brain going “yeah, right!” That didn’t happen once. Afterward, there were a few nits I could pick. And I think the last 15 minutes dragged a bit with “oh, here’s another thing”. But overall, the plot is solid.

The movie’s characters are well-defined and the acting is uniformly solid. One thing that has been noticed is that the movie eschews the usual approach of making everyone an old white man. I’m no SJW, obviously, but it was nice to see a movie reflect what things are really like at NASA and what things are likely to like in the future: tons of smart people, from all backgrounds, who are competent and hard-working. It’s so well done, I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me.

The humor is frequent but low-key, mostly dark humor revolving around Watney’s attempts to keep himself alive. It uses a video diary device to develop Watney’s character, drive the narrative and explain, in very clear terms, the often sophisticated technological concepts.

And the movie just looks gorgeous. Mars is portrayed in stunning detail. All the spacecraft look beautiful. Ridley Scott knows what to do with a camera.

I’ve praised it a lot, but my current rating is 8 out of 10. It does drag a little bit at times and, as I said, the ending has a little too much of “and another thing” going. But I could see myself raising that to 9 in the future.

As I’ve noted many times, we have moved into a mini golden age of good sci-fi. If you look at the best sci-fi movies of the last ten years, you find things like Interstellar, Her, District 9, Moon, Gravity, Ex Machina, Looper, Predestination. These are good movies, yes. But they’re also serious about having good science, being reasonably realistic, presenting sophisticated concepts and having smart characters instead of dumb ones.

It’s a good time.

Ehrlich-Simon Round Two

October 3rd, 2015

In 1980, doom-monger and perennial wrong person Paul Ehrlich made a wager with Julian Simon. Simon bet that the price of any commodities Ehrlich cared to nominate would go down over the next ten years due to increasing productivity. Ehrlich bet that they would go up because of the global pandemics and starvation that were supposed to happen but never did. At the end of the ten years, Ehrlich had to write Simon a check of $576.07.

Since the day the wager was concluded, Ehrlich and his fellow doom-sayers have been trying to weasel out of the result. You can see this on the Wikipedia page on the wager:

The prices of all five metals increased between 1950 and 1975, but Ehrlich believes three of the five went down during the 1980s because of the price of oil doubling in 1979, and because of a world-wide recession in the early 1980s.

Ehrlich might have a point if the entire motivation for the bet weren’t his prediction of a global catastrophe by the end of the 80′s.

Ehrlich would likely have won if the bet had been for a different ten-year period. Asset manager Jeremy Grantham wrote that if the Simon–Ehrlich wager had been for a longer period (from 1980 to 2011), then Simon would have lost on four of the five metals. He also noted that if the wager had been expanded to “all of the most important commodities,” instead of just five metals, over that longer period of 1980 to 2011, then Simon would have lost “by a lot.”

This doesn’t mean much. In 2011, we were in the middle of a precious metal crunch that sent prices skyrocketing. Since then, prices have tumbled. All five metals are down since 2011 and all but chromium are down around 50%. I can’t find good historical records, but copper, at least, is cheaper than it was in 1989, in inflation-adjusted terms. I’m also not clear by what Grantham means by “all of the most important commodities”. Oil is about the same as it was in 1980 in inflation adjusted terms. Wheat is cheaper.

Moreover, even if the commodities prices were higher, it’s still because Ehrlich was wrong. Ehrlich was predicting prices would go higher because we would run out of things. But when prices did go higher, they did because of increased global demand. They went higher because of the post-Cold War economic growth and development that has, so far, lifted two billion people out of poverty. This is growth that Ehrlich insisted (and still insists) was impossible.

(To be honest, I’m not sure why the Grantham quote is even on Wikipedia. Grantham is an investor, not an economist, and this quote was an off-hand remark in a quarterly newsletter about sound investment strategies, not a detailed analysis. The quote is so obscure and oblique to the larger issues that its inclusion crosses me as a desperate effort to defend Ehrlich’s honor.)

What really amuses me about the Ehrlich-Simon bet, however, was that he proposed a second wager. The second wager was not like the first. It was far more specific, far narrower and far more tailored to things that were not really in dispute. Simon rejected the second wager for the following reasons:

Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don’t want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure.

Exactly. The two-and-a-half decades since the second wager have been the best in human history. We have had fewer wars than at any period. Fewer murders. Less disease. Less starvation. More wealth. Ehrlich’s second wager didn’t care about any of that. It was about details like global temperature and arable land and wild fish catches, not the big picture of human prosperity. Below, I will go through the specifics of the second wager and you will see, over and over again, how narrow Ehrlich’s points were. In many cases, he would have “won” on issues where he really lost — correctly predicting trivial details of a trend that contradicted everything he was saying.

In fact, even if Simon had taken up Ehrlich on his useless hideously biased bet, Ehrlich might have lost the bet anyway, depending on the criteria they agreed on. Let’s go through the bet Eherlich proposed, point by point:

  • The three years 2002–2004 will on average be warmer than 1992–1994. This would have been a win for Ehrlich, exaggerated by the Mt. Pinatubo cooling in 1993. So, 1-0 Ehrlich.
  • There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 2-0. Neither of these was really in dispute, however.
  • There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 3-0. Again, this wasn’t really in dispute. Note, however, that this is basically three bets about the same thing: global warming. It would be as if Simon counted Tungsten three times in the original bet.
  • The concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) will be greater than in 1994. This took a lot of digging and I am happy to be corrected if I’m reading the literature wrong. But from what I can tell, tropospheric ozone has actually decreased or leveled off since 1994. At the very least, this pollutant has gotten under much firmer control. So, 3-1 Ehrlich.
  • Emissions of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994. This is what I mean about how narrowly tailored the second wager was. Global SO2 emissions are down. In North America and Europe, they fell off a cliff. Only in Asia, did they go up. In fact, it’s really only in China. If it weren’t for China, global SO2 emissions would have been down by 20% over the span of the bet. It’s hard to call this a win for Ehrlich. 3-2.
  • There will be less fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994. and There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich really wanted to stack the deck in his favor, didn’t he? We’ll give him both of these as wins, but they really aren’t. There’s a reason we’re using less land for growing crops and it’s not because of environmental catastrophe. Its because …
  • There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002–2004 than in 1992–1994. Boom. Not only is there not less rice and wheat per person being grown, there’s a hell of a lot more being grown. Thanks to improved farming methods and genetic engineering, today’s crops are hardier and more productive than ever. The reason Ehrlich “won” on the last two is because we don’t need as much land to feed people. So we’re at 5-3, but it’s a very cheap five for Ehrlich. So far, the only thing he was right on was that global warming would get worse.
  • In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994. I’m going to play Ehrlich’s game here. The key word here is “available”. From what I can tell, per capita firewood consumption is down in developing countries. But that’s not because of a crushing environmental crisis. It’s because fossil fuel consumption is way up. There’s plenty of firewood available. There’s a lot less need for it. This is once again Ehrlich focusing on trivia — how much firewood is available — rather than the big picture. Lots of firewood being burned is a bad thing. It means forests being gutted. It means indoor pollution. It means poverty. Fossil fuels aren’t exactly a panacea, obviously. But they’re way better than firewood. The people of the developing world are going to need natural gas if they’re ever going to get to solar power. 5-4.
  • The remaining area of virgin tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994. Once again, a very narrow criterion. I can’t find a source that is that specific. Tropical rainforest destruction has leveled off recently, thanks to prosperity. But I have little doubt Ehrlich would have won this. 6-4.
  • The oceanic fishery harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994. Again, note how harrow the criterion is. The amount of fish per person is actually up. But that’s because of a huge surge in farm fishing. Ehrlich only counts wild fish, which has not decreased, but is less on a per capita basis. How do we call that? I wouldn’t give him SO2, so I’ll give him wild fish. 7-4.
  • There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994. Sure. 8-4
  • More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich would have won this one. But it’s a narrow win. AIDS deaths peaked in 2005. Since then, they have fallen by a third. 9-4
  • Between 1994 and 2004, sperm cell counts of human males will continue to decline and reproductive disorders will continue to increase. Nope. People aren’t even sure the original research is correct. At the very least, the picture is mixed. Reproductive disorders are probably increasing but that’s because of people waiting longer to have children because of … wait for it … increasing prosperity. 9-5.
  • The gap in wealth between the richest 10% of humanity and the poorest 10% will be greater in 2004 than in 1994. Nope. There’s concern about wealth inequality in developed countries. But, on global scale, wealth inequality has been in a decades-long decline. 9-6.
  • So … with Ehrlich counting global warming three times … with Ehrlich tailoring the questions incredibly narrowly … with Ehrlich betting twice on global farmland … Ehrlich wins the bet. But it’s a hollow victory. Ehrlich wins on nine of the bets, but only two or three of the larger issues. Had Simon taken him up on it and tweaked a few questions — going to global SO2 emissions or global fishing catches or one measure for global warming — Ehrlich would have lost and lost badly.

    That’s the point here. If you put aside the details, the second wager amounted to Ehrlich betting that the disaster that failed to happen in the 80′s would happen in the 90′s. He was wrong. Again. And if you “extended the bet” the way his defenders do for the initial bet, he was even wronger.

    And yet … he’s still a hero to the environmental movement. It just goes to show you that there’s no path to fame easier than being wrong with authority.

    Jupiter Ascending Review

    September 26th, 2015

    The Wachowski’s have had an … interesting career. They had a dynamite blockbuster in The Matrix, a movie which is still enjoyable a decade and a half later (wait, seriously? OK, then). But they’ve followed it up with unimpressive results. The first Matrix sequel did well, mainly because of the name, but got mediocre reviews. I enjoyed parts of it, but it was a bit long-winded. The third was lambasted and deservedly so. I haven’t watched it since my first viewing in the theater and don’t really feel a pressing need to see it again.

    Speed Racer has its defenders but is generally poorly regarded. I have not seen it. Cloud Atlas did not do well even though, in my opinion, it was an excellent movie (my opinion has improved since that review with a second and third viewing).

    Which brings us to Jupiter Ascending, one of this year’s biggest flops. Jupiter was flogged by critics and it’s not hard to see why. It spends enormous amounts of time on exposition. The dialogue is frequently poor. The plot is complex and confusing and turns on two nearly identical threads. And it ends on a weird note, with Spoiler Warning Jupiter returning to her grungy job while massive crimes against humanity continue across the Galaxy.

    However, despite all this and despite the negative reviews, I did actually find a lot to enjoy about the movie. The visuals are simply gorgeous. It’s not just that the effects are great, it’s that they are used well. This feels like a real fleshed out universe. The actors do their best with the material (with the exception of Redmayne). The ideas driving the plot are original and the plot unfolds like a poor man’s Dune, with plenty of intricate politics and personal strife. There’s a really nice sequence where Jupiter goes through the Galactic bureaucracy that gives you a feel for how ancient and complex the Universe is.

    In fact, the universe Jupiter creates is so interesting, I find myself agreeing with what James Berardinelli says in his review:

    One of the key aspects of any science fiction or fantasy saga is world (or universe) building. This process refers to the creation and development of the reality in which the story transpires. More than mere background, it informs plot development, character motivation, and nearly everything that transpires during the course of the narrative. Jupiter Ascending, the latest eye-popping stepchild of the Wachowskis, excels at universe building. The problem is that the backstory is too large to contain what appears on screen during the course of a 127-minute motion picture. Put another way, Jupiter Ascending feels like a truncated, Cliffs Notes version of something that might have worked a lot better as a mini-series. Two hours is too short for this tale and the end result suffers greatly because of that restriction.

    The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think James is onto something. Jupiter Ascending is an OK movie. But I think it would have made a great TV series. In a TV series, the narrative would have had time to sprawl. The characters could develop more naturally. The complex politics would have room to ebb and flow instead of being introduced with the subtlety of a bazooka and resolved with a repetitive series of last-minute rescues. Jupiter could have been introduced to the Galactic civilization gradually, with the layers peeling away bit by bit rather than being ripped off every 15 minutes.

    Most importantly, a TV series would have solved the huge problem with the ending. There’s no way to talk about this without spoilers so don’t read this until after you’ve watched the movie or if you have no plans to.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Of Miracles, Men and Red Armies

    September 16th, 2015

    By sheer coincidence, I happened to recently watch two documentaries about the Soviet Union’s hockey team. The first, Red Army, is good. It focuses mostly on the team after the Miracle on Ice and how they entered the NHL.

    The second, Of Miracles and Men, revolves around the Miracle on Ice as seen from the Soviet point of view. It interviews most of the Soviet principals with a particular focus on Viacheslav Fetisov as he returns to Lake Placid with his daughter. It is simply excellent, describing the rise of Soviet hockey, the way they reinvented the game and going blow-by-blow through the Miracle on Ice. Even for someone who is not a particularly avid fan of hockey, I found it fascinating.

    Joe Posnanski has a great review of it, particularly one of the most important moments:

    For instance, almost in passing, the documentary shows Bobby Clarke’s famous slashing of Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series putting the Soviet Red Army against Canada’s best player. Now I’ve always had just one perspective on that slash, and it comes from a friend, a big hockey fan, who often refers to it as one of his favorite ever hockey moments. From his viewpoint, Clarke’s slash — which broke Kharlamov’s ankle and was apparently ordered by assistant coach John Ferguson — was something close to heroic. The Soviets were on the verge of winning the series, they were embarrassing the Canadians in their own sport, something had to be done. Bobby Clarke did it. He knocked Kharlamov out of the series, and Canada came back to win. “Hockey’s a rough game,” my friend likes to say. “And Bobby Clarke did what had to be done.”

    The doc shows the slash, instead, through the eyes of the Soviet players. The way they saw it was like this: The Soviet Union was playing a new kind of hockey, a beautiful brand hockey, one of passes and angles and teamwork, a huge contrast in style from the rough-and-tumble, drop-the-gloves game the Canadians played. The irony of this contrast is rich, of course. It was the Soviet Union that had a reputation of steel and tanks, and Canada with a reputation as the nicest country on earth. But seeing Clark purposely crack Kharlamov’s ankle, seeing the way the Canadian’s bullied and punched, seeing the gorgeous passing of the Soviets … well, let’s just say you can almost hear a tender hurt in the voice of Kharlamov’s great friend and teammate Boris Mikhailov when he says, “Yes, Kharlamov plays better than you, but why injure him? Why hurt a person so brutally?

    One of the many reasons to be glad the Cold War is over (and hope Putin doesn’t start it up again) is that you can appreciate just how amazing the Soviet hockey team was. They were playing a game that was a level beyond what anyone else was doing. They were beating teams — good teams — by football scores. In the 1980 Olympics, they won games by scores of 16-0, 17-4, 8-1 and 9-2. Their average margin of victory was eight goals, which is insane. The year before, they defeated an NHL all-star team that included 20 future Hall of Famers. Sports rarely see that kind of utter total dominance.

    The beauty of the documentary is that by showing how dominant the Soviet team was, it shows just how miraculous the Miracle on Ice really was. The US team played well, yes. They played much better than they had earlier when they got stomped 10-3. But even with that improvement, the Soviets totally outplayed them, dominating possession and peppering Jim Craig with 39 shots (to the US’s 16). An unlikely goal at the end of the 1st period and two great goals in the second gave the US one of the most unlikely wins in sports history. On such things does history turn.

    Granted, the Soviet juggernaut was only possible in a totalitarian country where hockey players could be ordered to train incessantly (Louis CK has a routine where he talks about how countries can achieve great things if they just don’t give a crap about people). And for the Soviet team, which did nothing but practice 11 months of the year, to be called “amateurs” was ridiculous. But there was beauty in that terribleness. Which, of course, made it all the sweeter when the US beat them. And “Of Miracles and Men” does a really good job of driving home both of those points.

    Inside Out and Pixar

    August 31st, 2015

    So it seemed like, in the wake of Pixar releasing their latest feature film, everyone and their grandmother was ranking Pixar movies.

    Hey, I like movies.

    And I like Pixar.

    And I like lists.

    So … I wrote this about two months ago, then forget it and now I’m finally posting it. Stop looking at me like that.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Inequality

    July 7th, 2015

    Politico has a silly article up from Michael Lind, claiming that the South skews all the statistics for the country and that, without the South, our country would be in awesome shape. A typical example:

    Economic inequality? Apart from California and New York, where statistics reflect the wealth of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the South is the region with the greatest income inequality. Southern exceptionalism has helped to ensure that the American Dream is more likely to be realized in the Old World than in the New.

    Yes … when we eliminate 60 million people from consideration, the statistics look good for our side! And let’s just ignore that whole Texas oil thing.

    The thing is, the difference in inequality is something that you can measure. I looked at a population-weighted mean gini index for various subsets of states. States that voted for Romney in 2012 have a weighted gini index of .460. States that voted for Obama are way more equal at uh … um, actually, they’re higher at .464.

    If you restrict that analysis to Southern States, you do get a higher index of .467. But then again, if you restrict that analysis to coastal blue states, you get .469.

    God damn those coastal elites, ruining the country!

    Crime is a little different, being higher in the red states (384 per 100,000 vs. 359 per 100,000) and higher in the South specifically (402), but the difference is not that dramatic and even the blue state crime rates would be very high (although both would be lower than violent crime rates in the UK). And all regions have seen a huge drop in violent crime rates over the last two decades.

    He goes on to point out that the South is much more religious (which … is bad thing?) and has a higher rate of gun ownership (although even the North would still have one of the highest rates in the world. And again … gun ownership is not ipso facto a bad thing). He is right that the South has more executions but then fumbles the ball again, arguing that Obama’s poor showing in Southern states (except Virginia and North Carolina and Florida and strong showings in Missouri and Georgia) proves racial animus and not that the South vote Republican no matter who is running.

    He also ignores basically anything that might that favor the South, such as 40% of our military hailing from the South. Or that most of the job growth in Obama’s presidency has been in the South (specifically in Texas). Or the fact that, over the last few decades, the American people have been voting with their feet, moving South by the millions.

    South-bashing is in these days, I guess, so I can’t blame Lind for trying. Better luck next time.


    June 18th, 2015

    Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, one of the most important events in European history. The Telegraph did a “live blog” of the battle, starting at dawn and updating in real time as the historical battle progressed. It’s a great read, though probably less amazing to read now that it’s done than it was as it progressed.

    There are two things I took from it:

    First, starting early this morning and going in real time until late in the evening emphasizes just how long and grueling the battle was. We’re used to battles wrapping up in about 45 minutes of screen time. In reality, they can go on for days, weeks or months. Soldiers can spend hours waiting to fight, then more hours in hell. I first started following around 9:00 am, when the Battle was several hours old. And even then, there was most of a day left and the battle was still uncertain. I did work, had lunch, processed data, made phone calls, came home, cooked dinner. And many of the soldiers were fighting the entire time. It really impressed me with just how a war becomes the soldier’s reality. There in no respite or commercial break or closing credits. It goes on and on and on until one side is simply too exhausted or dead to continue.

    Second, I was reminded somewhat of the Battle of Gettysburg. In both cases, a battle was lost because a great general — Napoleon in one case, Lee in the other — was undone by the very qualities that made him great. Both men won battles because they were bold, decisive and intelligent. And it served them well … up to a point. In Lee’s case, he decided on the disaster that was Pickett’s Charge. In Napoleon’s case, he committed everything to the middle of Wellington’s line once Wellington’s right had fallen and the Prussians arrived. Much like Pickett’s charge, it would have won the battle had it worked. And unlike Pickett’s charge, it wasn’t a completely terrible idea. But it turned out to be the turning point of the battle … for the Allies. Once the Imperial Guard was in retreat, the entire French center collapsed.

    Anyway, it was great idea from the Telegraph and I really hope someone does something like it again for another battle.

    More on Vaccination

    May 15th, 2015


    One issue that I am fairly militant about is vaccination. Vaccines are arguably the greatest invention in human history. Vaccines made smallpox, a disease that slaughtered billions, extinct. Polio, which used to maim and kill millions, is on the brink of extinction. A couple of weeks ago, Rubella became extinct in the Americas:

    After 15 years of a widespread vaccination campaign with the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization announced yesterday that rubella no longer circulates in the Americas. The only way a person could catch it is if they are visiting another country or if it is imported into a North, Central or South American country.

    Rubella, also known as German measles, was previously among a pregnant woman’s greatest fears. Although it’s generally a mild disease in children and young adults, the virus wreaks the most damage when a pregnant woman catches it because the virus can cross the placenta to the fetus, increasing the risk for congenital rubella syndrome.

    Congenital rubella syndrome can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, but even the infants who survive are likely to have birth defects, heart problems, blindness, deafness, brain damage, bone and growth problems, intellectual disability or damage to the liver and spleen.

    Rubella used to cause tens of thousands of miscarriages and birth defects every year. Now it too could be pushed to extinction.

    Of course, many deadly diseases are now coming back thanks to people refusing to vaccinate their kids. There is an effort to blame this on “anti-government” sentiment. But while that plays role, the bigger role is by liberal parents who think vaccines cause autism (you’ll notice we’re getting outbreaks in California, not Alabama). As I’ve noted before, the original research that showed a link between vaccines and autism is now known to have been a fraud. Recently, we got another even more proof:

    On the heels of a measles outbreak in California fueled by vaccination fears that scientists call unfounded, another large study has shown no link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

    The study examined insurance claims for 96,000 U.S. children born between 2001 and 2007, and found that those who received MMR vaccine didn’t develop autism at a higher rate than unvaccinated children, according to results published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA. Even children who had older siblings with autism—a group considered at high risk for the disorder—didn’t have increased odds of developing autism after receiving the vaccine, compared with unvaccinated children with autistic older siblings.

    96,000 kids — literally 8000 times the size of the sample Wakefield had. No study has ever reproduced Wakefield’s results. That’s because no study has been a complete fraud.

    There’s something else, though. This issue became somewhat personal for me recently. My son Ben came down with a bad cough, a high fever and vomiting. He was eventually admitted to the hospital for a couple of days with pneumonia, mainly to get rehydrated. He’s fine now and playing in the next room as I write this. But it was scary.

    I mention this because one of the first questions the nurses and doctors asked us was, “Has he been vaccinated?”

    My father, the surgeon, likes to say that medicine is as much art as science. You can know the textbooks by heart. But the early symptoms of serious diseases and not-so-serious one are often similar. An inflamed appendix can look like benign belly pain. Pneumonia can look like a cold. “Flu-like symptoms” can be the early phase of anything from a bad cold to ebola. But they mostly get it right because experience with sick people has honed their instincts. They might not be able to tell you why they know it’s not just a cold, but they can tell you (with Ben, the doctor’s instinct told him it wasn’t croup and he ordered a chest X-ray that spotted the pneumonia).

    Most doctors today have never seen measles. Or mumps. Or rubella. Or polio. Or anything else we routinely vaccinate for. Thus, they haven’t built up the experience to recognize these conditions. Orac, the writer of the Respectful Insolence blog, told me of a sick child who had Hib. It was only recognized because an older doctor had seen it before.

    When I told the doctors Ben had been vaccinated, their faces filled with relief. Because it meant that they didn’t have to think about a vast and unfamiliar terrain of diseases that are mostly eradicated. It wasn’t impossible that he would have a disease he was vaccinated against — vaccines aren’t 100%. But it was far less likely. They could narrow their focus on a much smaller array of possibilities.

    Medicine is difficult. The human body doesn’t work like it does in a textbook. You don’t punch symptoms into a computer and come up with a diagnosis. Doctors and nurses are often struggling to figure out what’s wrong with a patient let alone how to treat it. Don’t cloud the waters even further by making them have to worry about diseases they’ve never seen before.

    Vaccinate. Take part in the greatest triumph in human history. Not just to finally rid ourselves of these hideous diseases but to make life much easier when someone does get sick.

    Movie Review: Interstellar

    May 9th, 2015

    So far, I have seen five of last year’s Best Picture nominees — Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and Whiplash. I’ve also seen a few other 2014 films — Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Edge of Tomorrow — that rank well on IMDB. I’ll have a post at some point about all of them when I look at 2014 in film. But right now, they would all be running behind Interstellar, which I watched last night.

    I try very hard to mute my hopes for movies but I was anticipating Interstellar since the first teaser came out. I’m glad to report that it’s yet another triumph for Nolan. The film is simply excellent. The visuals are spectacular and clear, the characters well-developed, the minimalist score is one of Zimmer’s best so far. The ending and the resolution of the plot could be argued with but it’s unusual for me to watch a three-hour movie in one sitting unless it’s Lord of the Rings. I definitely recommend it, especially to those are fans of 2001 or Tree of Life.

    That’s not the reason I’m writing about it though.

    One of the remarkable things about Interstellar is that it works very hard to get the science right. There are a few missteps, usually for dramatic reasons. For example, the blight affecting Earth works far faster than it would in real life. The spacecraft seem to have enormous amounts of fuel for planetary landings. The astronauts don’t use probes and unmanned landers to investigate planets before landing. And, as I mentioned, the resolution of the plot ventures well into the realm of science fiction and pretty much into fantasy.

    But, most of the film is beautifully accurate. The plan to save Earth (and the backup plan) is a realistic approach. Trips through the stellar systems take months or years. Spacecraft have to rotate to create gravity (including a wonderful O’Neill Cylinder). Space is silent — an aesthetic I notice is catching on in sci-fi films as directors figure out how eerie silence is. General and special relativity play huge roles in the plot. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne insisted on being as scientifically accurate as possible and it shows.

    And the result is a better film. The emotional thrust of Cooper’s character arc is entirely built on the cruel tricks relativity plays on him. The resolution of Dr. Mann’s arc is built entirely on rock solid physics including the daring stunt Coop uses to save the day. The incredible sequences near the black hole could be taken right of a physics textbook, including a decision that recalls The Cold Equations.

    We’re seeing this idea trickle into more and more of science fiction. Battlestar Galactica had muted sounds in space. Moon has reasonably accurate scientific ideas. Her had a sound approach to AI. Serenity has a silent combat scene in space, as did, for a moment, Star Trek. Gravity has some serious issues with orbital dynamics, but much of the rest was rock solid.

    I’m hoping this will continue, especially if the rumors of a Forever War movie are true. A science fiction movie doesn’t need accurate science to be good. In fact, it can throw science out the window and be great (e.g., Stars Wars). But I hope that Interstellar blazes a path for more science fiction movies that are grounded, however shakily at times, in real science. This could breath new life into a genre that’s been growing staler with every passing year.

    I don’t say this as an astrophysicist (one available for consultation for any aspiring filmmakers). I say this as a movie buff. I say this as someone who loves good movies and think great movies can be made that show science in all its beautiful, glorious and heart-stopping accuracy.

    Post Scriptum: Many of my fellow astronomers disagree with me on Interstellar, both on the quality of the film and its scientific accuracy. You can check out fellow UVa alum Phil Plait here, although note that in saying it got the science wrong, he actually got the science wrong. Pro Tip: if you’re going to say Kip Thorne got the science wrong, be sure to do your homework.

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: IUDs and Teens

    May 7th, 2015

    Right now, the liberal blogosphere is erupting over Republican plans to not fund a program to give free IUDs to low income women:

    Republican legislators in Colorado will not authorize funding for a program that gives free IUDs to low-income women — an effort that many believe was responsible for hugely driving down teen births.

    Colorado has recently experienced a stunning decline in its teen birth rate. Between 2007 and 2012, federal data shows that births declined 40 percent — faster than any other state in the country.

    State officials attributed part of this success to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, which provided free IUDs to low-income women seen at 68 family planning clinics across the state. Last year, state officials estimated that young women served by those family planning clinics accounted for about three-fourths of the overall decline in Colorado’s teen birth rate.

    I disagree with the Republicans on this. But the idea that free IUD program cut Colorado’s teen birth rate by 40% or 3/4 of 40% or anywhere close to 40% is high-test nonsense.

    Here is the data from the CDC on teen brith rates. From the first graph, you’ll see that teen birth rates have been steadily falling for seventy years. Like most positive social trends, it has many, um, parents, each of which are flogged by whomever supports that particular issue. Availability of contraception has certainly played a role. The legalization of abortion played a role (although abortion rates peaked in the early 80′s). As social and professional barrier have fallen, many more women are delaying pregnancy for college and jobs. And there is some evidence that teenagers are waiting longer to have sex (that would be the dreaded “abstinence”).

    Since 2007, however, the teen birth rate has fallen off a cliff. But not just in Colorado. It’s fallen everywhere, by an average of 30%. If anything, it’s fallen faster in red states than in blue ones (see Figure 9 of the CDC’s report). Colorado has seen the steepest decline (39%), but just behind it are the red states of Arizona (37%), Georgia (37%), North Carolina (34%), Utah (34%) and Virginia (33%).

    Is Colorado’s IUD program so awesome that it dropped the teen birth rate for the entire country?

    Given the extent of the program and Colorado having the largest reduction, it’s very probable that the IUD program did play a role here. But I would ballpark it at maybe 10% at the most.1 That’s not nothing and it’s probably worth continuing the program. But let’s not pretend the reduction is due only to that.

    So what is causing the large reduction? Availability of contraception is playing a role, yes, but there’s something else going on. Birth rates have fallen for all women since 2007, not just teenagers. I don’t think it’s coincidence (and neither does the CDC) that the teen birth rate plunged when we hit the worst recession since the Great Depression. If you look at historical birth rates, you’ll see a similar plunge in during the 1930′s. And that was long before almost the entirety of modern birth control, least of all free birth control.

    I think that’s the story here. Colorado’s program was fortuitously timed in that regard and there is likely some synergy between the economic downturn and the IUD program (i.e., the program kicked in right when a bunch of women were more eager for birth control).

    One of the difficult things about Mathematical Malpractice Watch is that I frequently end up attacking people I fundamentally agree with. I think Colorado should extend their IUD program (although I’m old enough to remember, in the 90′s, when Republican governors offering incentives for low-income women to use Norplant was denounced as eugenics). But the claim that it has produced a “huge” reduction in the teen birth rate is just not true.

    Actually, there is a chance that the effect is 0%. Colorado had the sharpest reduction in teen pregnancy rates. It’s easy to go in, post facto, and identify a pet policy to pin it on while ignoring the thousand other factors occurring in fifty states. It’s called the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Colorado might just be a statistical outlier and we’re crediting a policy for that outlierness because we like the policy. Colorado’s barely two standard deviations from the mean. I think it’s likely the IUD fund had an effect, but I’d be pressed to prove it statistically.

    Disney Post

    April 30th, 2015

    I don’t watch a lot of TV. This is not from any hippy-dippy hatred of TV; I just don’t have a lot of time for it. Apart from Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and sports, I’d rather spend my limited spare time reading or watching movies. And this is particularly true of sitcoms, which I’ve slowly grown less tolerant of.

    But there is one exception: my daughter has gotten heavily into Disney channel TV shows. They are always on when she’s in the room (and we allow the TV to be on). So I’ve become very familiar with their shows and I thought I’d write a few words about them. Because reasons.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    The Imitation Game

    April 16th, 2015

    When I went through my year-by-year breakdown of the Oscars, I said this:

    Here’s the thing that strikes me about the last 35 years of film history. Over that span, the IMDB ratings for individual years have become populated by a much broader variety of films than ever before. Surprisingly, traditional Oscar fare does well. For all the lashing IMDB gets, great films are popular there. IMDB loves Scorsese, loves Kubrik and loves good film. The difference is the variety — IMDB also loves foreign films, actions films, art films and animated films. These are things the Academy tends to ignore as they pick the same shit every year. Oscar bait has pretty much become its own genre. In other words, the problem is not so much that the Academy has regressed, it’s that they haven’t kept up.

    If there is a movie from 2014 that defines “Oscar bait”, it’s The Imitation Game. It’s a good film and I recommend it, especially if you’re over 60. The directing is solid. The acting is superb (although anytime I saw Charles Dance, I thought, ‘don’t help him! It’s Tywin Lannister!’). The script is fine. But it has a a flaw in that it screams “give me an Oscar!” at 100 decibels. At times, it’s like watching a movie by a precocious 16-year-old: “Look how good this movie is! Isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch awesome! Look, Keira Knightly! You love Keira Knightly! Conflict! Homophobia! Sacrifice!”

    The Imitation Game doesn’t have the confidence to be its own movie. Instead, it’s a descendant of A Beautiful Mind. Instead of portraying Alan Turing as the eccentric but perfectly sociable person he was, they make him an autistic savant, not far removed from Russell Crowe’s John Nash. Instead of showing the years-long struggle to break Enigma, we get the sudden breakthrough from picking up girls in a bar, a scene so similar to the breakthrough scene of A Beautiful Mind, it’s almost insulting (and stupid; the technique that “breaks” Enigma in the movie is cryptology 101). It’s got plenty of good dialogue and the characters are well-defined. But the plot is surprisingly weak.

    (Spoiler Warning: The worst part of the film, for me, is when Turing’s team starts holding back information so that the Nazis won’t know the code has been broken. That decision was real but it was made way higher up the chain of command. Portraying it as Turing’s decision was so unrealistic it jarred me out of the film. I think it would have been better for him to see how little of his intelligence was used and get frustrated.)

    As I said, the movie’s fine. I give it a 7/10. It’s worth a rental. I was happy for Graham Moore when he won the Oscar and his acceptance speech was amazing. But like a lot of movies, The Imitation Game is a shadowy reflection of an even better movie: one that tries less hard to win an Oscar and, ironically, would have been a better candidate for one. I hate to go all nerdboy, but I think sticking closer to history: where Enigma was a long struggle, where Turing was the eccentric but brilliant leader of a massive team, where the decision of when to use Enigma decrypts was made by higher up, would have made for a better and more satisfying film.

    As it is, this one will likely be forgotten in a few years. Just another piece of Oscar bait. That’s a pity. Cumberbatch, Tyldum and, to some extent, Moore, deserve better.

    Exploring What Now?

    April 1st, 2015

    This is kind of … odd.

    At a recent conference on sex trafficking in Orlando, Florida, members of a panel warned attendees about the dangers of space exploration, saying it would be a gold mine for future sex traffickers.

    “Space is going to be like a frontier town,” said Nicholas Kristoff, who chaired the panel on Sex Trafficking: the Long Term View. “There will be no law enforcement in space, which means that girls, some as young as 11, could be easily trafficked to colonies on Mars or in the asteroid belt where they would have to service up to 50 men a day in zero gravity.”

    Asked for comment by e-mail, Julie Bindel expressed support for a ban on space exploration, noting that science fiction films have frequently depicted prostitution in space. She derided series like Firefly for presenting an unrealistic and unrepresentative model of future sex work. She noted that the film Total Recall featured numerous prostitutes including one with three breasts. “No little girl grows up wanting to be a triple-breasted Martian prostitute.” She further attributed the recent push for space exploration, particularly the Mars One TV show, as being due to efforts by the “pimp lobby” to create a completely new market for sex outside of the bounds of law enforcement.

    After the panel, the organizers pointed to a recent study by Dominique Roe Sepowitz and the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research which claimed that ads for interplanetary prostitution have increased 200% in the last year alone and presented evidence that shuttle launches are associated with major increases in sex trafficking. “We have good evidence that women and girls were trafficked into Cape Kennedy during the Apollo program as well,” she said. “Everywhere there is a rocket launch, there is sex trafficking.”

    Such opposition is not new. In her seminal book Intercourse, feminist icon Andrea Dworkin noted that rockets have a phallic shape. “The push for more space exploration is clearly an effort to thrust these phallic rockets into the universe’s unconsenting vagina.” She advocated for an “enthusiastic consent” standard from other planets before further human exploration.

    I don’t even know what to say about this. We haven’t even gotten a man to the moon in 40 years and we have people worried about the future of sex in space. Takes all types, I guess.

    Update: This post was part of Maggie’s April Fool.

    The Princess Bride, at 28

    March 27th, 2015

    One of the great pleasures of being a dad is introducing my kids to the things I like, especially movies. About a year ago, I showed Abby Star Wars for the first time1. And just recently I showed her The Princess Bride

    I hadn’t seen Bride for a very long time because I got kind of sick of it for a while. Seeing it after so long, I had a few thoughts on why I would now regard it as a clear classic and easily the best film of 1987.

  • The action scenes in the Princess Bride are few, but they are remarkably well done. There is a clarity and a flow that is missing from a lot of modern action scenes. It’s obvious what’s going on and what’s at stake. This really jumped out at me when I was watching it with Abby. During the duel between Inigo and Westley, she actually gasped when Inigo was backed up toward the cliff. It hit me that she understood the terrain and the danger Inigo was being forced into. Many modern action films have no clarity like that. You wouldn’t see the cliff until he fell over it in slo-motion CGI and then turned around in midair to jump over Westley.
  • The moral difference between Westley and Humperdinck is critical to the resolution of the plot. Westley wins only because he showed mercy in sparing Fezzik and Inigo. By contrast, Humperdinck’s cruelty and cowardice drive Miracle Max to enable his defeat, leave him with few loyal subjects except the unreliable Rugen, and turn Buttercup against him.

    I once saw an interview with Matt Parker and Trey Stone where they talked about plot. They said that a bad plot is just a series of events — X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens. A good plot flows from what has happened before: X happens because Y happened, which causes Z to happen. The fates of the characters in The Princess Bride do not turn on strange coincidences and kick-ass karate moves; it turns on their character and the decisions they make.

  • It’s disappeared into the internet, but Joe Posnanski once wrote a great piece about the decline of Rob Reiner’s directorial career. Here are the movies Reiner has directed, with IMDB ratings and my comments:

    This is Spinal Tap (8.0) – Regarded as a classic comedy. And is.

    The Sure Thing (7.0) – I haven’t seen this but have heard good things.

    Stand By Me (8.1) – Good adaptation of King novella.

    The Princess Bride (8.2, #183 on top movies of all time) – Recognized as a classic.

    When Harry Met Sally … (7.6) – Very good romantic comedy.

    Misery (7.8) – Excellent thriller. Made Kathy Bates a household name.

    A Few Good Men (7.6) – Very good film. One of my dad’s favorites.

    North (4.4) – Ouch. This is where it all seemed to go wrong. Roger Ebert famously said he “hated, hated, hated” this movie and said that Reiner would recover from it faster than Ebert would. He was wrong. After making seven straight good to great movies, Reiner would never make another great movie.

    The American President (6.8) – Haven’t seen it; never will.

    Ghost of Mississippi (6.6) – How do you put James Woods in a movie about civil rights and come out mediocre?

    The Story of Us (5.9) – Haven’t seen it; never will. This was the impetus behind Posnanski’s post: he hated The Story of Us, especially as he went in anticipating a good movie.

    Alex and Emma (5.5) – Haven’t seen it; never will.

    Rumor Has It … (5.5) – There was some noise at the time that represented a return to form for Reiner. It didn’t.

    The Bucket List (7.4) – This IMDB rating seems weird to me. It was savaged by critics. But it did make some money and people seemed to like it, despite its bullshit.

    Flipped (7.7) – This must be IMDB’s recency bias.

    The Magic of Belle Isle (7.0) – This is a very low rating for a recent movie starring Morgan Freeman. That’s three straight 7′s. We’re not back to the days when Reiner was producing minor classic. And given IMDB’s bias on recent movies, I would take this with a grain of salt. Still, it suggested he might be recovering.

    And So It Goes (5.5) – Or maybe not.

    No film has returned to Reiner’s early form. No film has even gotten close. No one goes online and says, “Hey, there’s a new Rob Reiner film coming out!” Posnanski likened Reiner’s decline to a great young baseball player that seems headed for the Hall of Fame based on his first few years but suddenly forgets how to play at age 26. Reiner has rebounded a bit but he’s now a utility player and pinch hitter. I don’t think he’ll ever recover the form he had in the his first few films. And that’s a pity, because his early films were great.

  • I’m not overly fond of the Bechdel test, but Robin Wright is almost the only woman in the cast. The Ancient Booer, however, was pretty awesome (the actress died last year the ripe age of 91). As was Carol Kane.
  • Bride is one of the first movies I can remember that became a hit on home video. It got good reviews. It got a few token award nominations (Oscar for Best Song; WGA for Best Screenplay). But it only did OK box office business. I didn’t see it in the theaters. But then it became a big hit on home video and became a cult classic and then a classic, full stop.

    Looking back on it, the lack of attention the film received was kind of embarrassing and a big demonstration of the lacunae award givers have for both comedy and fantasy. Baby Boom, Broadcast News, Dirty Dancing and Moonstruck were the Golden Globe nominees for Best Comedy. Bride was probably better than all four (although News and Moonstruck were and are well-regarded). Best Picture nominees were The Last Emperor, Fatal Attraction, Broadcast News, Hope and Glory and Moonstruck. That’s not an unreasonable slate but Bride has outlasted all of them. Most silly is the lack of a nomination for Best Screenplay: Bride is generally and correctly regarded as having a classic screenplay, certainly better than the five nominees from that year.

  • Roger Ebert defined a “family film” as one that appeals to both kids and adults. Bride is definitely that. It worked for Abby as a straight-up adventure tale with a beautiful princess, a handsome rogue and an evil prince. But for me (and her, as she gets older), the sly comedy is the selling point. It has affection for the material it mocks. That affection is the key difference between making a funny send-up of fairy tales and an unfunny one.
  • It’s been 28 years and I still get goosebumps when Inigo confronts Count Rugen.
  • Anyway, in a few years I’ll get to introduce Ben to the movie, which will allow me to experience it for the first time all over again.

    In keeping with an earlier post, I showed her the movies in the order of IV, V, I, II, III, VI. I was stunned at how well this worked. It massively improves the prequel trilogy, making the parallels to the original trilogy stronger. And it moves the reveal of Lea to Episode III, where it is much better done than in Episode VI. I hesitated on showing Episode III to Abby because of the violence, but she bore it well. The violence didn’t bother her as much as the psychological trauma of seeing Anakin fall to evil. Anyway, I highly recommend this order if you have any good opinion of the prequel trilogies (and maybe even if you don’t).