Archive for May, 2010

The Bechdel of Doctor Who

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

I mentioned the Bechdel test below (and mis-spelled it). I noticed tonight that the recent iteration of Doctor Who tends to do well on that test. Moreover, the best writer on the show — Steven Moffat — writes episodes that pass it with flying colors. It’s a perfect illustration of what I was talking about. Moffat isn’t trying to meet some politically-correct quota on female characters. He’s just writing good TV.

COMPETES

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Congress recently passed the America COMPETES Act, a massive science and technology spending bill. Phil Plait has been beating the drum on this for some time. The bill has a lot of supporters in political and scientific circles.

However, I’m going to be ornery here. I’m opposed to passing the Act as written. The COMPETES Act and the justifications for it are an encapsulation of everything that has gone wrong in our government and in the way people think about government.

To be specific, my problems with the bill are:

1) It mistakes spending for progress; and

2) It adds to our massive deficit.

First, the spending. COMPETES claims to support American science and technology. Supposedly, without this injection of funds, America is “eating its seed corn” and destroying its competitiveness.

The problem is that this claim is made about every bill that comes through Congress, even when it involves boondoggles like bioethanol fuel, farm subsidies and highway funding. Every spending bill that ever sifts through Congress is covered with the most glowing prose imaginable about its supposed benefits. Even the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” was touted as an economic stimulus to the region.

While the bill (which I’ve skimmed) seems relatively pork free, the list of those who endorse the bill (see Phil’s post) is a who’s-who of special interest spending. Are we to believe that these pork leaches are suddenly principled and noble when it comes to science?

Moreover, when the government funds something, that creates a crowd-out effect. Technology and science wind up getting funded for political reasons, not economic or scientific ones. This tends to be a net negative on the economy. Don’t believe me? A recent study at Harvard, designed to prove how wonderful government spending was, found the exact opposite:

The average state experiences a 40 to 50 percent increase in earmark spending if its senator becomes chair of one of the top-three committees. In the House, the average is around 20 percent. For broader measures of spending, such as discretionary state-level federal transfers, the increase from being represented by a powerful senator is around 10 percent.

It was an enormous surprise, at least to us, to learn that the average firm in the chairman’s state did not benefit at all from the increase in spending. Indeed, the firms significantly cut physical and R&D spending, reduce employment, and experience lower sales.

I’m actually stunned myself to see how clearly they detected this. Libertarians have been saying this for so long, we’re actually slack-jawed to see that we were right.

Most of COMPETES funding seems to be generalized. However, billions are targeted for government agencies whose function seems to be subsidizing big business. The fact is that much seems to have been attached to this bill that has little to do with advancing science.

Now if that were the only problem with COMPETES, I wouldn’t object. That’s the way Washington works. A dollar in legitimate science funding usually comes with a dollar of bullshit. We accept that. But then there’s the second problem — the debt this bill creates.

Some months ago, Congress passed PAYGO to much fanfare. This was supposed to get control of our exploding debt. Since then, Congress has completely ignored the bill, passing spending measure after spending measure without even paying lip service to PAYGO.

This bill, whatever its merits may be, does not cut spending or raise taxes to pay for itself. If the bill is so wonderful, why not make sacrifices to pay for it? No pain, no gain appears to apply everywhere except Washington.

We are on the brink of fiscal crisis. It will do no good to pass big spending bills now if we have a debt crisis later. All that spending will be paid for several times with economic ill. It’s no good to plant “seed corn” if a debt crisis burns out the field.

Phil justifies this deficit spending by pointing out how much money we are spending in Iraq. But this is precisely the kind of bad thinking that has gotten us into this situation. It’s as if a family in debt went out to eat at an expensive restaurant and justified it because it was less than the car they spent a fortune on. It’s faulty logic because:

1) two wrong don’t make a right;

2) there is no moral equivalence store where we can trade the Iraq War for a big NASA program;

3) PRECISELY this argument is used all the time to slash science funding, Apollo especially, and will be used in the future;

4) saying we can cut war spending is not the same thing as actually cutting spending. There are no points in this game for hypotheticals.

The last is perhaps the part that offends me the most. It’s like a morbidly obese man gobbling down a cupcake because he COULD get on the treadmill. We have not stopped the Iraq War and the Administration shows no inclination to do so. So we don’t have that money to spend. It is pure dishonesty to ramp up spending on one item and then pretend you could cut another when you have no intention of doing so.

COMPETES is a paradigm of what’s wrong with politics. People want their goodies (more spending on science) without paying the price (more taxes; less spending on other things). It is an embodiment of the view that government is a great golden god, dispensing free goodies that never have to be paid for.

If the people who support COMPETES love it so much, they should be willing to pay the price for it. They should be campaigning to cut spending or raise taxes and identify specific tax hikes and spending cuts. They should refuse to accept the funding from COMPETES until it is paid for. Until that point, we (and as a grant-funded scientist, I’m not exempt) are no better than the other 300 million children we have in this country demanding more and more government for no additional price.

When I was in the UK last week, the new coalition government proposed over six billion pounds in spending cuts, with a warning that this was just the tip of the iceberg. The British are taking their debt seriously and taking steps to fix it. They are not passing massive unfunded programs to add to the problem. But here, everyone still thinks we’re in a free candy store and can spend whatever we like without ever paying the piper. And to even suggest that we should pay for what we spend is to be a Right Wing extremist and to suggest we eat our seed corn.

Of course, these words are in vain. Both of the people who read this blog are likely supportive of COMPETES. But … at least these thoughts are out of my head now. I can go back to work.

The Bechdel Test

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I found this to be very illuminating:

This is one of those things that is so fucking obvious that you spend a few minutes slapping yourself in the head for not thinking of it first.

It’s difficult to assess how films do on this test off the top of my head. But after thinking about it for a while, I’m somewhat stunned at just how many films fail it. For example, of the 25 top-rated films on IMDB, going by memory:

Three of the movies — Shawshank Redemption, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and 12 Angry Men have no significant female characters at all.

Eight films — Stars Wars, Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Night, Casablanca, Fight Club, Once Upon a Time in the West, the Usual Suspects and Seven Samurai — have only one significant female character. Same goes, incidentally, for the Star Wars prequels. To be fair, the female characters in several of those films are strong. But they fail the test. My recollection is that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and City of God also fall into this category.

The LOTR movies and Pulp Fiction have several women, but they do not interact.

Goodfellas and both The Godfather films have several female character who interact. But my recall is that they only discuss the men in their lives. Raiders of the Lost Ark has a brief exchange between Marion and Sala’s wife about monkey, but I don’t think that counts. I’m not sure about The Matrix but I don’t recall a female conversation. There’s a reference to an offscreen conversation between Trinity and the Oracle. But that was about Neo.

Only four of the top 25 films meet this test:

Schindler’s List, despite being dominated by its male characters, has numerous scenes of Jewish women discussing the situation.

Rear Window passes the test. Despite Hitch’s icy blonde reputation, he always had interesting female characters. Psycho fails the test, but mostly because of the way the film is structured.

Silence of the Lambs has some interaction between Clarice and one of her friends at the academy.

But even those four are marginal passes.

So is this indicative of extensive sexism in Hollywood? Yes and no. One problem is that a number of those films deal with subjects — war, crime, prison — which have historically been male-dominated. Others take place in circumstances where there few women — 12 Angry Men, for example, was written when juries were usually all-male.

In addition, IMDB’s top 25 movies among women is little different. Most of the women-favored movies are identical to the male-favored list and the new ones aren’t exactly breaking the mold. Amelie and Forest Gump I don’t recall well enough but think they fail. Gone With the Wind passes (more on that in a second). I’ve not seen American History X but doubt that it passes. To Kill a Mockingbird and Beauty and the Beast pass, I think. Up fails, as does WALL-E. So one could argue that women aren’t exactly demanding movies that pass the Bechdel test. Even the conventional “chick flick”, if I can use the term, is mostly about romance.

However, that misses the point, in my opinion. The problem is that our movies have, for the most part, been heavily divided between “chick flicks” about romance and “guy movies” about everything else. This doesn’t have to be the case; it simply represents a blind spot in the mostly male writers, producers and directors of movies and TV. Almost all of the top 25 movies could have passed the Bechdel test if writers gave two shits about creating more than one interesting woman character. The movies that do pass the test didn’t exactly go out their way to do it. They just rounded the movies out a bit, made them fuller and more realistic.

In the end, this trend may be less of symptom of sexism than sexism convolved with writers attempting to economize on character development. One thing I’ve noticed in movies and TV is the startling number of characters who are single children, have deceased parents or have no children of their own. This is mainly because it gets so complicated to write about real people with real families and real circles of friends. Writers also tend to write exclusively male characters since it’s so easy to write your own gender and “Gary Stu” the damned thing. (As an unpublished writer myself, I used to be that way. But I eventually started writing female characters and found them far more interesting.)

As an example of how things could be different, you can contrast Star Trek: The Next Generation against Babylon 5. The latter had interesting female characters who frequently talked about something other than men. The former, however, danced on the blade quite a bit, never seeming to know what to do with its female characters (although it still usually passed the test). This was a principle reason why, in my opinion, B5 was the better show.

As another example — the most successful movie of all time — Gone With the Wind — is a vast war epic that has numerous interactions with women that are not just about men (just mostly about men … Oh, Ashley!) Titanic and Avatar dominated the box office and, I think, both pass the test or at least dance on the blade.

I’m not saying that people should rewrite movies to make sure they pass this test. If nothing else, I don’t want to watch a movie and hear my brain shriek “Bechdel scene” when some pointless all-women conversation is shoe-horned in. The Bechdel test is a thought experiment, not a recipe. Some movies and genres are simply unsuited to having multiple dynamic women characters — Lawrence of Arabia or Master and Commander, for example. “Bechdelling up” books like LOTR would be misguided and smack of tokenism.

No, I think the lesson here is that Hollywood still has a blind spot. Not about women, but about life.

Midweek Linkorama

Thursday, May 27th, 2010
  • Smart stuff like this on the family happiness link is why I’ve added Jonah Lehrer to my RSS feed.
  • More media hysteria on drugs.
  • It’s stuff like this that is driving people berzerk.
  • Inspiring stuff from a Holocaust survivor.
  • Now we’re applying zero tolerance to teachers. At what point did we stop allowing people to occasionally mess up?
  • Reason #61A to love the internet: it empowers consumers, even against lawsuit-happy companies.
  • Reason #44A I sometimes hate being a dad: stories like this, about a smoking baby, make me physically ill. However, I should note I suspect this story is bogus since it comes from the British press. They are not exactly known for their accuracy.
  • The Cartel

    Thursday, May 27th, 2010

    A great interview with the director of The Cartel, a documentary on our broken public school systems:

    In a similar vein, there’s this story looking into NYC’s school system.

    When I rage against the school system and the unions, I’m often misunderstood. I’m not anti-union, per se, and I’m certainly not anti-education. I’m not even anti-government-paying-for-education. I just think the government monopoly on education — and the unholy nepotistic relationship between teachers unions and the Democratic party — are destroying the futures of millions of young children.

    The failure of inner city schools, of course, is not “just” a social problem. It’s an economic one as well. We are spending billions of dollars to destroy trillions of dollars in future productivity from a well-educated citizenry. Having seen some of these things first hand, I can tell you that they system is the problem. There’s no question in my mind.

    I used to tow to the Democrat line on this — that the solution to our education woes is more money, bigger salaries, smaller classrooms. Granted, that was partially because that line was spoon-fed to me by my own public school teachers.

    But the evidence is now overwhelming that the “more money recipe” simply does not work. The turning point for me was an argument made by Walter Williams, which runs approximately so: poor people have decent cars. They’re not Rolls Royces, but they move. Poor people have decent clothes. It’s nor Armani, but it’s wearable. Poor people tend to have livable homes. It’s not suburbia, but it’s a roof and walls. Poor people tend to have decent food. In fact, obesity is higher among the poor than the rich. However, they have terrible educations. As bad as the poor’s choice in clothing, cars, food and housing might be, they’re choice in education is far worse. If they ate, drove and slept like they learn, they would be driving broken cars, living on sewer grates and eating rotten food.

    What’s the difference between those things? Education is provided by a monopoly; the rest by the market. We have long decided that having the government actually make people’s food, sew their clothes, build their homes and assemble their cars was a recipe for disaster. So, instead, we give poor people money to acquire those thing from the market, to level the playing field as it were. Education is the exception. And it’s not a shining one.

    Prior ranting on this subject here.

    More UK Linkorama

    Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

    Some genuine posts coming up soon, I promise. It’s just hard to concentrate when I’m not sure what time zone I’m in.

  • Sarah Palin (and the Right Wing) continue to just make shit up. This kind of thing makes being a conservative so draining.
  • I am really starting to warm up to the Tory Lib Dem coalition. I think we could see a really nice balance come out of the unlikely alliance.
  • Here’s the thing about Rand Paul saying he would oppose the Civil Rights Act. I think he’s wrong, for reasons stated here and here. But I also think his statement had the potential to open up some interesting discussions. Too bad it’s opening up demagoguery and dumbass cries of racism. And people wonder why politicians never say anything.
  • 2010 is shaping up to be the warmest year on record. Do you think will stop the Right from claiming there has been no warming for the last ten years?
  • Reason and others on denialism. The problem is that the term is so loaded that people get defensive.
  • UK Linkorama

    Tuesday, May 18th, 2010
  • What don’t those illegal immigrants come into this country legally? Here’s why? I can confirm this from my own experience getting my wife a green card.
  • It seems like every liberal pet peeve is being shoved into the financial reform bill, from swipe card fees to ATM fees. This bill just screams unintended consequences.
  • Yeah. I won’t be moving back to Texas anytime soon.
  • You know what? I don’t care if Elena Kagan’s senior thesis was a paean to socialism. I’d hate to think about essays I wrote as an undergrad resurfacing. What matters is what she thinks now, almost thirty years later.
  • Once sports were pure, untainted by chemicals. Bullshit.
  • Manipulation of crime stats in New York.
  • I keep asking this question: are politicians aware of this whole internet thing? How on Earth can you go around just making shit up?
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Friday, May 14th, 2010
  • Best. Newspaper. Correction. Evah.
  • As much as I fear fire, I’m not sure about the mandate that homes should have sprinkler systems. I can just see myself burning dinner and destroying my expensive television. I do know it’s telling that the biggest advocate for the mandate was … the sprinkler industry.
  • It’s only been two months and healthcare reform is already increasing in cost. We tried to warn people.
  • Tonya Craft was acquitted. Thank goodness.
  • How conspiracy theories are born. I particularly like the “hidden messages” in Moby Dick.
  • A round-up of why Sheriff Joe, hero of many on the Right, is a freaking nut (although the porn ban seems reasonable to me).
  • Balko expands on this disturbing viral video of a drug raid that ends with a a dog dead.
  • Lewis Black puts Glenn Beck in his place.
  • As much as I oppose the Fair Tax, the Democrats are lying through their teeth in their recent ad here in Pennsylvania. It’s disgusting. And expected.
  • The Churchill Problem

    Thursday, May 13th, 2010

    Why do I distrust the social sciences? Stuff like this:

    By 2090 future generations will no longer recognise Winston Churchill, new research revealed today.

    It seems hard to believe amid the current political storm, but research commissioned by the Royal Mint found that, in 80 years’ time, people will not recognise the former Prime Minister.

    As part of the survey, carried out to mark this week’s 70th anniversary of Churchill’s prime ministerial tenure, more than 1,136 people were asked to identify three prominent 20th century PMs including Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

    One in five (19%) adults failed to name Churchill, with the figure rising to 32% of 25 to 34-year-olds and 44% of those aged 16 to 24.

    Following the pattern, researchers projected the rough date when the leaders would no longer be recognised, with Churchill’s demise predicted in 80 years’ time.

    Two reasons this study is likely garbage:

    1) They asked people to identify Churchill from photos. Historical figures are remembered as names, not images. There are many many historical figures I know very well that I wouldn’t recognize in a police line-up.

    2) There is a screaming problem here — age. It’s like that the higher knowledge of adults represents more life experience, more learning and more attention to history. Almost all of the history I have learned — from American History to that of the Roman Empire to my recent efforts in Chinese History — has come long after I turned 24. When I was young, I might have been able to tell you who Mao was. Now, I know precisely who he was and how many millions he murdered. And there are entire historical figures — Septimus Severus, William Tyndale, Cyrus the Great — who I wouldn’t have even known about after I graduated from an expensive liberal arts college.

    Historical knowledge is tricky to track. Much trickier than this kind of survey.

    Bad Parenting?

    Thursday, May 13th, 2010

    A follow-up article chronicles the saga of the Bozeman Bandit, the woman had the temerity to leave her kids at the mall in charge of her 12 y/o daughter. When the daughter left the younger kids alone for a short time, the mall called the cops. Read the rest of the story to see the hell the mother was put through.

    As a devotee of Lenore Skenazy’s blog, you can imagine what I think of this nonsense. Bozeman must be a wonderful place where leaving a kid at the mall is considered the height of possible abuse. I can’t imagine what these people would have done with some of the families I knew growing up, where drunken beatings were routine or kids came home to empty houses.

    What crossed me most as I read the article was the courses this woman was forced to take and the money she or the state were forced to spend on them. Are we seeing another industry spring up that exists entirely because governments force people to use their wares? All for the benefit of the “children” of course?

    I think we may be. It would not surprise me at all if some of these classes were found to be paying kickbacks to judges and lawyers. Think of it as the touchy-feely version the scandal that rocked my state when a judge was taking bribes to send kids to an expensive juvenile detention facility.

    There’s a growing industry of people leaching off of our court system, especially the family and probate courts. Mandatory “anger management” classes, mandatory parenting classes, etc., etc.. I blogged a few weeks ago about the horrific things going on in probate courts when seniors are declared incompetent and their estates are burned to pay for expensive (and unnecessary) senior care.

    Someone needs to put a stop this.

    Why I Left The Right, Part 72

    Wednesday, May 12th, 2010


    The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
    Release the Kagan
    www.thedailyshow.com
    Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

    Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, May 12th, 2010
  • The State of Texas comes to its senses on candy.
  • Blogfight? The President’s Cancer Panel released a report on environmental chemical and cancer. Reason and the American Cancer Society point out that it’s panicky and inaccurate. Orac disputes. This is a rare occasion when I think Orac is wrong. As demonstrated by his criticism of the other MIchael Siegel for having the temerity to point out that the study on Scottish second-hand smoke was bullshit, he has a blind spot when it comes to cancer.
  • Here we go. Restrictions on food advertising. I’ve found a way to completely control the advertising my daughter sees. I don’t let her watch commercial TV.
  • Of all the things I worry about, debt has to the biggest. The West is on a spending orgy which is likely to finally break them the way Communism and Fascism couldn’t. Those trying to fix things — like Christie in New Jersey — are vilified. Those who make the mess worse — George W. Bush, for example — are praised. And the Democrats can’t even go three months without trashing PayGo.
  • Coolness. A way has been found (maybe) to battle a huge environmental catastrophe — coal mine fires.
  • Oops.
  • A big reason why I’m still keeping my distance from the GOP. If they elect Roy Moore to something, I’m outta here.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Saturday, May 8th, 2010
  • There are things I don’t like about Pennsylvania. Alcohol laws are a big one.
  • I once started a blog post called “How to criticize the President” which warned of epistemic closure. I trashed it because it kept coming across as condescending. Saletan’s slate article, however, is a good substitute. The points he makes could be applied to any bandwidth in our political spectrum.
  • There’s currently a scandal over a Harvard law student’s e-mail discussing whether there are genetic differences between the races in intelligence. The e-mail bothers me less than the reaction, which has been to act as though to even entertain the question is to embrace eugenics and racism. Sullivan’s reader get to the heart of the matter. Our colleges and universities tell us to question all conventional wisdom … until it comes to their conventional wisdom. School is the time to explore ideas, even bad ones. Personally, I think the concepts of “race” and “intelligence” are far too slippery for any firm conclusions to be drawn. And whatever racial differences may or may not exist are dwarfed by differences between individuals and difference in circumstance. But why have a fit because someone asks the question?
  • And while we’re on the subject of race, the moral equivalence Norquist is trying to draw between the “tea bagger” epithet and the N-word is, indeed, stupid.
  • Another voucher bill goes down. But the telling this is that inner city Democrats are changing sides. It’s only a matter of time until the education monopoly is broken.
  • Cash for Spelunkers

    Saturday, May 8th, 2010

    One of the things that drove me to my pro-free market values? Stuff like this, in which the Secretary of Transportation declare cash for clunkers a success. His reasoning is that it gave money to the auto industry (which is still underwater to the tune of tens of billions) and benefited the environment (which is dubious: the intrinsic environmental cost of a new car may not be offset by gains in fuel efficiency). So it’s a win-win, at least according to the Secretary.

    Lahood’s claim, however, is a classic illustration of the broken window fallacy. 700,000 cars — a couple of billion dollars in assets — were taken out and destroyed. That is a loss of economic value which can now be seen in the sharp rise in prices on the used car market. That rise is going to take money out of the pockets of people on the margin who can not afford new cars. And the program isn’t old enough to see if we’re going to have a wavelet of car loan defaults from people who Cash for Clunkered themselves beyond their means.

    But it’s frustrating. Because the rhetoric is all on the side of LaHood and our media are too ignorant or too slavish to ask the right question. As I said, it’s the broken window fallacy: the difference between what is seen and what is unseen. What is seen are the new cars flying off of lots. What is unseen are the cars being destroyed, the people being priced out of the used car market and loan defaults in a year or two.

    Update: Another illustration of the point. The Climate Crock of the Week guy has his own crock this week about wind power. While I’m positive about wind power, you simply can not do a video about it and ignore the massive subsidies wind power involves and the net economic loss it has produced for countries heavily invested in it (link). Seen: a big wind industry. Unseen: massive subsidies and job losses. Green jobs have become the ultimate Broken Window. I predict they will be next bubble that will produce an economic crash.

    Again, to be clear — I’m positive on alternative energy and, as I’ve made clear, realistic about global warming. Peter Sinclair is great at knocking down BS anti-AGW arguments. But this video illustrates that everyone has their blind spot. For someone who delights in breaking myths to make a video that is nothing more than a commercial for the politically powerful and heavily subsidized wind industry is appalling.

    And utterly human.