Archive for September, 2012

Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Guns

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

A few weeks ago, Mother Jones did a timeline of mass shootings in response to the spate of summer shootings. The defined their criteria, listed 61 incidents and pointed out, correctly, that most of them were committed with legal firearms.

The highlight is a map of mass shootings over the last thirty years. The map has some resemblance to Radley Balko’s famous map of botched law enforcement raids. But the use of a map and dots is where the resemblance ends. Balko was very clear that his list of incidents was not, in any way, definitive. And he did not try to parse his incomplete data to draw sketchy conclusions.

Mother Jones felt under no such compulsion.

This week, they’ve published an “analysis” of their data and drawn the conclusion that our society has more guns than ever and, perhaps related, more mass shootings. Below, I’ll detail why I think their “analysis” — and yes, I will keep using quotation marks for this — is useless, uninformative and flat-out wrong.

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Toys. In. Spaaaaace.

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

I love this:

The coolness and wow factors are there, yes. So is the idea that this sort of thing can be done so cheaply and easily. But the real gem is the look on that kid’s face. This is something he will never forget. I have to steal this idea for my kid one day.

The Shakespeare Project: Pericles and a Comedy Overview

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Scholars suggest that the first two acts of this play were written by George Wilkins while the last three were written by Shakespeare. I have to say this sound imminently plausible. The first two acts are boring, running through several locations and a cast of characters with little flavor, drama or humor. You could cut them out of the play entirely with almost no loss.

The last three acts work much better and have more of the plot twists and court shenanigans that we know and love. It’s still not one of the Bard’s best efforts. But there’s some humor in how Marina fends off her potential clients and the reunion scene between Pericles and Marina is genuinely moving. But I’ve really not much to say about this play because there’s very little to it. It lacks the fire, humor or insight of the other comedies. It’s not really a problem play or one that flirts with tragedy. It’s just … kind of … there.

So I’m not going to waste much time digging into Pericles. Nor, for now, will I read Two Noble Kinsmen, which is supposedly even worse and is in neither my Kindle nor my bound edition. Instead, I’ll give a quick overview of what I thought of the comedies.

Reading through all the comedies was an illustration of just how important performance is for comedy. The best comedies do work on the page. But I found that the bulk of the comedies occasionally dragged on the page. Comedy — even just light drama or fantasy — is highly dependent on subtlety and on an actor bringing you in. There are a number of passages where the lines read almost like an instruction manual — setting up the actors to carry the show. The combination of language and lack of stage direction often made the action difficult to follow.

If I were to rate them, I would say the best were A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest, although the latter is poorly described as a comedy. Three of those I was familiar with but Twelfth Night was a genuine surprise and a pure delight. It’s no accident that these are the most familiar comedies as they stand head and shoulders above the others. Not a phrase is wasted, not a humorous opportunity lost. The dialogue, especially, is so crisp, one is easily drawn into the plays. You don’t need a dictionary and stage directions to follow along and grin with every clever line or plot twist.

The remainder are eminently readable and have some fine moments. And having seen one or two in performance, I can say that are enjoyable on stage, when the actors can add their own flourishes. But they all have some slow passages, some pointless characters or some flaw that denies them the pinnacle of the top four: Merchant‘s absurd idea of justice, Two Gentlemen‘s tedium, Labours slow pace and sudden ending. I am very glad that I have now read them. And if I get an opportunity to see them in performance, I will. But I can’t see myself reading through them again.

Well, it’s on to the histories. And we’ll dive right in with King John.

Changing Opinion

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

While I find this study, in which people are fooled into arguing against previously-held opinions, interesting, I think many bloggers/tweeters are missing the critical point. On almost all issues, people are of two minds. It is rare that someone encounters an issue where they can not see the other side at all (we call those people “fanatics”). Even people who have a very strong opinion can usually see where the other side is coming from. And, on many issues, we’re kind of on the fence.

The gripping hand is that, unless someone is really passionate about an issue, they haven’t really thought through their arguments very well. They’ve mostly reacted, usually by agreeing with whomever they perceive to be their “side”. And when they do think about the issue, they tend to argue toward whatever side they have already picked.

As I say so often: human being are OK at thinking; but we’re dead awesome at rationalizing.

What the exercise does is not shift their moral compass. What it forces them to do is what we used to do in debate club and what I still try to do while writing blog posts: try to argue the other side. By trying to think of the arguments the opposition might raise, you strengthen your own arguments. And sometimes, you realize that the other side was right to begin with.

So, no, the results are not terribly surprising. But they are interesting.

New Year Linkorama

Monday, September 17th, 2012
  • I fear that Megan McArdle is right and that we are facing an awful bust in higher education. I recently that Emory is cutting whole departments. And we’ve been squeezed. At some point, the massive amounts of money poring into higher ed have to reach their asymptote, no? This is going to be ugly.
  • A fascinating article about why the atheist movement is so male-dominated. I won’t pretend I have an answer to this. I have to think about it quite a bit.
  • Was Obama elected by hordes of welfare recipients? Nope. This is, I think, a big reason many conservatives oppose efforts for mandatory voting. I oppose it myself, but for different reasons.
  • A great article on the state of science writing, the tendency of poor research to grab headlines (because poor research produces surprising bogus results) and the beauty of debunking. A must read.
  • A truly horrible story of isolation and psychological abuse being used to “discipline” kids. Honestly, we were better off with paddelings.
  • Why Science?

    Friday, September 14th, 2012

    As an astronomer, I’m always hit with the “what’s the practical use of this” question. My general response is, “Well, what’s the practical use of the Sistine Chapel?” Life can’t all be about practical down to earth things. There has to be beauty and art and discovery and awe. All our practicality has to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.

    But there’s also this. Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.

    It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.

    2011 in Film

    Sunday, September 9th, 2012

    Yeah, it’s mid-September. And I still haven’t watched all the 2011 movies that I want to. But do you know how many films I saw in a theater in 2011? Two? Maybe three? Almost everything I watch is on DVD and one of the more praised movie of 2011 just came out. And I’m glad I delayed this post until I could watch it. But I’ll stick a fork in 2011 for now.

    According to Metacritic, the most well-reviewed films of 2011 were:

    Tree of Life: You can read my long review for my detailed thoughts on what is, without question, the most controversial picture of the year. Many people whose opinions I respect hated it. On IMDB, it is rated at the 58th best movie of 2011, indicating that audiences didn’t like it that much (although the vote is very polarized). But having now seen it a second time, I still think it’s wonderful. I still think, in the fullness of time, it will be appreciated. And I would still rate it as the best film of the year. 9/10

    The Artist: While I enjoyed this film, I did not love it the way many people did. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fine film and well-qualified as Best Picture. But I wonder how much of its appeal is wrapped up in its gimmick. 8/10

    Melancholia: As I said on Twitter, this is the reason we put with Lars von Trier’s bullshit. Melancholia is a little slow at the beginning, but builds toward a shattering finale. Kirsten Dunst is excellent and it a visually and aurally stunning film. 8/10

    Drive: I have not seen this yet but expect to like it.

    The Descendants: I found this to be a little over-rated. It wasn’t bad mind you. It’s well-written and well-acted. I cared about the people in it. But it didn’t grab me the way some of the other best pictures did. It’s my nominee for the “kafeeklatch” movie of the year: appealing mainly to Hollywood insiders. But it’s a step above, say, The Kids are All Right. 7/10

    Hugo: As I said on Twitter, I’m so glad that Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar. It has freed him up to make the pictures he wants to make, rather than aiming so hard for an Oscar (although this was stil nominated). Shutter Island was good; this was great, carried by its strong actors. I told you to keep an eye on Chloe Moretz. 8/10

    A Separation: I just watched this a couple of nights ago and am still taking it in. As with several other of the top-rated films, it starts slow as it makes the characters compelling and then tightens down. I was, in an odd way, reminded of Winter’s Bone. It may seem odd to compare a picture set in American meth country to one set in Iran. But both pictures deal with good people trying to live in trying circumstances and both feature acting that is so low-key and so real, I didn’t even realize I was watching actors: I only saw the characters. A must see as it provides one of the first glimpses we’ve gotten of real Iranian society. On IMDB, it is the top-rated movie of 2011. It’s rare for a movie with so few explosions to be so well-liked on IMDB. 8/10 (provisional)

    Certified Copy and Take Shelter: I have not seen these. Both are in my queue.

    Moneyball: While I am a fan of baseball, a fan of the book and a fan of the new management in the game, I only liked this one, didn’t love it. 7/10

    So that’s what the critics thought. We can feather that out with the Best Picture nominees, representing the thoughts of an entirely different group of old white men. The nominees this eyar were The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Tree of Life and War Horse. I have seen all of them. Several I mentioned above, but I’ll go through the other ones.

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: I can see what they were trying to do. And there are moments when it is really good and uplifting. I love the optimistic take it has on New Yorkers, which I think is far closer to the truth than the more popular cynical view. But it had lots of credibility problems and the way the kids’ mind was portrayed – with loud noises and flash cuts – irritated me. 6/10

    The Help: The acting in this is great and I enjoyed it a lot the first time I saw it. But as time has gone on, the appeal has waned. 7/10

    Midnight in Paris: This movie is typical Woody Allen — charming, funny, endearing but not quite great. Marion Cotillard was great in this, as she is in everything. 7/10

    War Horse: Like Extremely Loud, there are moments when this film is very good, particularly the touching ending. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The story is told from the point of view of the horse, but Spielberg tries very hard to tell it from the view of the people. It doesn’t really work that way. I kept feeling like I was watching a highlight reel of the year’s best films rather than one of the year’s best films. 7/10

    So let’s go to the people: looking over the movies at IMDB and narrowing to those with 25,000 or more votes, we find the following list from the users: A Separation, The Intouchables, Warrior, The Artist, Deathly Hallows 2, The Help, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Drive, 50/50 and X-Men First Class. Girl with Dragon Tattoo was good. Not quite as good as the Swedish TV series, but very good. Mind you, I saw an edited version on an airplane, so my opinion might improve later from its current 7/10. Deathly Hallow 2 I rate as a 9, but that’s a fan rating, so a normal rating would be 8/10.

    I do, however, want to comment on Warrior, which was simply excellent. Fantastic acting all the way down to the supporting actors, brilliant directing and a great story. I was surprised by this one. I did not expect a film about mixed martial arts fighting to be one of the best of the year. I love surprises and gave it an 8/10.

    Looking further down the list, there are a few more I have seen or want to see. Sherlock Homes II was even better than the first and I fan-rated it at 8/10. Tin-tin was very enjoyable and I rated it 7/10. The Muppets was a fun tongue-in-check 7/10 that my daughter loved. Super 8 was Spielbergian treat that gives me hope that Adams is improving as a director (8/10). Rango was quite fun at 7/10. And Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was an exquisitely tense spy thriller with a fantastic performance from the great Gary Oldman that I gave 8/10. I would still like to see Mission Impossible IV, Drive, Take Shelter, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau. And I have been talked into seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes at some point.

    Applying the DVD test, the only films I own are Harry Potter 8a and Sherlock Holmes II, both fan purchases, and Tree of Life. But if money were no object, I would probably buy A Separation, Warrior, Tintin, Tinker Tailor, Melancholia. There are a few more I might throw on the pile once I see them.

    Not a bad year, after all is said and done.

    Can Conservatives Be Funny?

    Friday, September 7th, 2012

    That’s the question Andrew Sullivan is asking. Here’s my response to his contention that conservatives no longer have a sense of humor and liberals do:

    While I agree with your point, I think the psychoanalysis claiming that conservative can’t be funny is way off. It used to be the other way around. Ronald Reagan had a fine sense of humor. So did Bush 41. I remember going to Republicans events in the 90′s and finding people who were optimistic, upbeat and humorous. Conservatism has always had its humorists — O’Rourke, Mencken, even Twain* to some extent in his way (although they tended to be more of a libertarian bent). Hell, back in the 90′s, Rush Limbaugh was consistently hilarious. I swear.

    (*I’m sure a lot of people will balk at the idea of Twain as conservative. Certainly he was anti-religion and anti-bigotry. But he was deeply distrustful of people in positions of power. It is, after all, Twain who said that all kings is mostly rapscallions. I wonder what he’d say about our current leaders.)

    A big reason for this was that, until the 90′s, liberals were in power, so conservatives were outsiders. And liberals were just so silly and made for such easy targets. I remember, as I came of political age in the 80′s and 90′s, being surrounded by dim humorless liberals who would occasionally do a painfully unfunny roast for a retiring senator or something. They were all so deadly serious about everything, so *concerned*, so wracked with that aggravating mixture of moroseness and self-righteousness that surrounds true believers.

    I’m not sure when things changed, but I agree with your reader who cited Bill Hicks: it is the rise of fundamentalism that has drained the humor out of the Right. And when the talk shows hosts were invited into the halls of power, they lost their satirical bite. Moreover, the Left has moved away from the absurd sanctimony of the 80′s and 90′s. These days it is the GOP that spends all their time wailing and gnashing their teeth about things no sensible person would bat an eye over (e.g., gay marriage, the various notroversies surrounded the President). These days it is the Right who are so sanctimonious and self-righteous. Nowhere is this more visible than Limbaugh, who has become painfully unfunny, as the Sandra Fluke thing demonstrated. By contrast, the Left is … well, not sensible … uh … maybe a bit less silly … about certain things.

    Maybe a lot of conservatives don’t have a sense of humor now. But it was not always so.

    Labor Day Linkorama

    Monday, September 3rd, 2012
  • The latest population panic. You would think that having been wrong over and over and over and over and over again for the last five decades would teach these guys some humility. You would think wrong.
  • Five other sports cheats.
  • Thanks Cracked. Thanks a ton. Now that you’ve brought this year old story to my attention, I have something in my eye.
  • See this is why I get nervous about digital content. You don’t own digital content. You only borrow it.