Archive for October, 2012

The Force Will Be With Disney

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

So, I was busy yesterday when Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree over the news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Reaction has been strong, if mixed. Someone on FB said the news was dominated by two events: a huge disaster and Hurricane Sandy.

I’m not seeing it that way.

Regardless of what one thinks about the Disney Empire, they provide great entertainment. Their Pixar division has produced some of the finest movies of the last decade (WALL-E, The Incredibles, etc.) Miramax has pumped out numerous Oscar nominees. Their main division has produced solid entertainment in Narnia (first film at least), Pirates of the Caribbean (first film at least) and Tangled. They’ve turned Marvel into a relentless film mill which has pumped out films that are decent (Thor), good (Iron Man) and great (The Avengers). And for all the criticism John Carter got, it was a not a bad film by any means.

Really, the whole anti-Disney thing kind of puzzles me. Yes, they are relentless in protecting their copyright and making a ton of money with endless merchandising. I have a daughter who is into princesses, so my wallet is very familiar with them. But … is that really such an evil thing? America isn’t a hippy commune.

Sleeping on it, I’m more convinced that this could be a good thing. “Could” being the operative word. And the reason I think this could be a good thing is that the franchise is now out of Lucas’ hands.

I don’t mean to slam Lucas. He’s a visual genius who revolutionized film-making. I have a higher opinion of the prequel trilogy than most. And the expanded universe of Star Wars has been excellent, especially from their video game division, which has produced engrossing, well-made, entertaining games that advance the story (and, notably, are not ridiculous resource hogs).

But I also think Lucas’ success produced some problems that manifested in the prequel trilogy. As I argued before, there were great movies buried within those pretty good movies. The thing that made them almost great movies was Lucas’ vision. But the thing that kept them from being great movies was Lucas himself. His flaws — a tin ear for dialogue, a tendency to overcomplicate plots, a push for the cute, an inability to direct actors — were on display and I think his success and his stature prevented anyone from gainsaying him, from saying, “George, come on … let’s cast Annakin as a teenager, not a kid.” And the expanded universe of video games and books actually hurt the films because much of plot — Annakin’s fall from grace, in particular — had taken place off screen.

Disney now has the ability to get anyone they want to work on Stars Wars VII. There are directors out there — great directors — who would pay them for the privilege. They can, if they want, get Peter Jackson to write and direct, Kevin Smith to script doctor and the entire cast of Harry Potter to act. And by keeping Lucas on as a “creative consultant”, they can be sure that he brings a bit of vision to the project. If Disney works this right — finds a great crew and gives them the freedom to create a great film — we could be dazzled.

Ah, but that’s the rub … if. I could just as easily see the studio thinking they have to get something out that’s generic and endlessly marketable to start paying off their $4 billion investment.

We’ll see. I am often too optimistic about these things. But the Star Wars universe is very rich and deep. It’s still possible for great film-makers to make great films in it. Hopefully they now have a chance. That chance did not exist 24 hours ago.

Nate Silver, Polls and the RCP 2000 Fiasco

Monday, October 29th, 2012

I can’t recall an election cycle when so much attention was paid to polls. We do, of course, have more polling than ever. And the election is likely to be very close, so everyone is riveted on the polls. But it’s not just the attention to the polls: it’s the loud debate over them. I can’t recall seeing so many articles analyzing the polls, adjusting the polls, arguing the polls and selectively quoting polls. This has been especially strong from the Republican side, which has claimed that 1) the polls are skewed; 2) Nate Silver is a gay Obama supporter and can’t be trusted; 3) the polls are skewed; 4) Rasmussen is the only reliable pollster; 5) boy, are those polls skewed.

I don’t think this is a unique function of Republican hysteria or reality denial, incidentally. It is a result of a few models and analyses favoring Obama right now. If they favored Romney, I’m sure we’d be hearing conspiracy theories from the Left.

(The reporting on polls is enough to drive you mad. The bias and misunderstanding of how polls and statistics work would be stunning if I didn’t think it was deliberate. To illustrate how this goes, imagine that Romney and Obama are tied for the purple state of New Ubekibekistanstan. On one day, five polls come out that read like so:

Poll Palace: Tied
We R Polls: Tied
Polls R Us: Romney +1
Republican Poll Man: Romney +2
Liberal Poll Dudes: Obama +3

That’s a tie. But guess which ones the liberal blogs will talk about? Guess which ones the conservative ones will? This is how alternative realities are created.

Then there’s the issues of “margin of error”. If a poll comes out showing Romney is leading New GOPland by three points with a three point margin of error, the liberal blogs will say it is essentially tied. But it’s not. 3+-3 means that it’s about 70% likely that Romney leads and it’s as statistically likely that Romney leads by 6 as it is tied.

Then you compound the two. Imagine New GOPland has three polls released:

Polls R Us: Romney +2 +- 3
We R Polls: Romney +5 +- 2
Poll Palace: Romney +8 +- 3

Assuming there are no biases, Romney actually has a solid lead: five points, give or take two. But the news media will say it’s tied.)

I should note that a big reason for the attention to polls is the null difference between the two candidates. If they really had major policy differences, we’d be talking about those. Romney supporters would be talking about how awesome his economic plan is and Obama supporters would be talking about how awesome the economy is. But because they are essentially the same man, we’re talking about polls.

And if we’re talking polls, we’re really talking about Nate Silver. Silver is one of several people who understand statistics and tries to incorporate all of the available data into an electoral projection. As of right now, Silver’s model projects Obama as a likely winner, although it is very close. Close enough that one week could shift it either way.

This has prompted a massive response from Romney supporters. Some of the criticism is legitimate. A lot of it is bullshit.

But his critics being full of crap doesn’t make Silver right. Silver came to fame with a dead-on projection of 2008. But 2008 was not a close election. It was, all things considered, a landslide for Obama. Only three states — North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana — were within 1% and Silver missed on Indiana (to be fair, Silver gives probabilities not certainties and getting two out of three coin flips right is just fine). 2012 is going to much closer. And I dare say this will be the real test of Silver’s abilities. Is he going to be proven dead on again? Or will his model be spectacularly wrong?

This year is reminding me an awful lot of Election 2000. It’s not just because of the closeness and the likelihood of an electoral college-popular vote split; it’s because that was the first time an attempt to model the electoral outcome was done. And, as the Wayback machine reminds us, it failed spectacularly. Real Clear Politics predicted Bush would win by 10 points in the popular vote and with an electoral landslide of 446-92. That … didn’t happen.

I remember the events very clearly. My advisor tipped me to the RCP site as evidence that the media were ignoring Bush’s pending win. But I also remember being highly skeptical. because it seemed to me they were going overboard to try to make Bush win, constantly putting states in “definite Bush” but very few in “definite Gore”.

(Of course, that may have been my natural pessimism: I was a Bush supporter and RCP’s projection seemed too good to be true. If I were supporting Obama this year, I’m sure I would have convinced myself that Silver is wrong in his analysis.)

Here’s a breakdown of how RCP went wrong:

States Bush Would Win: Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Indiana, Arizona, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina. They also had Nevada as a probably win. Bush did win all of these and most of them were not close. Ohio, now a swing state, went to Bush by 170,000 votes. That was not really the problem. The problem was:

States Gore Would Win: DC, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island with Connecticut as a probable win. These were the only states they had as definite Gore. California, Maryland, Washington — these were not seen as definite Gore states. And it was this bias that I was subconsciously picking up: not that they overestimated Bush’ performance, but they under-estimated Gore’s, refusing to accept that people would vote for him. They seriously had Gore polling at 42% nationally. Given the popularity of Clinton and the state of the economy, that was absurd.

Leans Bush: They correctly called Missouri, New Hampshire, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia. They also had New Mexico and Oregon, which went to Gore but were cose. But Washington? Michigan? Pennsylvania? Maine? Gore won them all by 5 or 6 points.

Leans Gore: Maryland and Vermont. Again, we see a reluctance to put things in Gore’s column. Gore won both by double digits. The idea that Maryland “leaned” was laughable.

Slight Bush: Delaware, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, California All were easy wins for Gore. Only Minnesota was within shouting distance.

Slight Gore: New Jersey Another huge win for Gore.

We can see that it wasn’t just that RCP was wrong; they were wrong everywhere, systematically and massively underestimating Gore’s support.

So what happened? And does this mean we should point and laugh at projections for this year?

Well, first of all, RCP way over-estimated Ralph Nader’s influence. This may sound strange to Democrats still bitter about 2000, but RCP estimated Nader at 5.7%, over twice as well as he actually performed. And almost all of his supposed voters went to Gore. This not only skewed the popular vote, it massively skewed the vote in blue states like California.

Second, Bush eventually underperformed the polls by three points. Ted Frank makes the case that this was because of the November Surprise of Bush’s drunk driving arrest. While that’s possible — I thought so at the time — I’m less convinced now. When you get into the last days of the election, most people have decided. I really doubt this shifted the national polls by three points in three days, which is a *very* large and *very* rapid shift so late in the game.

In the end, I think it was all of the above: they overestimated Nader’s support, the polls shifted late and RCP had a bit of a bias. But I also think RCP was simply ahead of its time. In 2000, we simply did not have the relentless national and state level polls we have now. And we did not have the kind of information that can tease out the subtle biases and nuances that Nate Silver can.

Ah, Nate Silver. We keep circling back to him. So what do I think? Is Silver going to be sitting pretty on November 7 or will he have egg on his face?

I don’t know.

I think he’s doing the best job he can, given the difficulty of the data. But when the election is this close, you’re straining the ability of even the most careful analyst to predict the future. I think it’s possible that he will miss. But it’s not because he’s biased or stupid. It’s simply because close elections are difficult to forecast. Even the smallest error — a 1% national offset in the popular vote — could have big implications for the final result. I simply find it hard to believe that any model can predict an election likely to be within the noise.

I will note that if Silver does miss badly, this does not make his critics right. We should never confused the process with the result. If Silver misses but some guy throwing darts an electoral college map gets it right, this does not mean dart-throwing is superior. It means that one guy got lucky and the other missed something.

My prediction? I don’t know. This feels like an electoral-popular split since Romney’s red-state support is stronger than Obama’s blue-state support. That may be my own bias playing up: I would love to watch the pundits argue 180 degrees from where they were in 2000 and I would love to see the President, whoever he is, weakened to the point where Congress takes the lead on solving our budget woes.

But right now, no result would surprise me. There’s nine days left. There’s a massive hurricane bearing down (natural disasters can hurt incumbents and I expect the GOP to say Obama’s response is incompetent no matter what). Job numbers have yet to come out. Some football teams have yet to play.

To be honest: I just want it to be over, one way or the other. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of one side or the other quoting whichever poll most favors them. I’m tired of the bullshit gotchyas. I’m tired of being bashed from one side as an Obama bootlicker and the other as a secret Romney supporter. I’m tired of everything having a political implication.

Hopefully, in a little over a week, we can start getting back to policy and ideas and things that really matter.

Plot Hole Fun and Frustration

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Warning: Movie Nerd Post Ahead

I, like most geeks, have an affection for finding goofs in movies: visible boom mics, plot holes, etc. I’ve made kind of a hobby of it, detailing almost all of the goofs that are currently in TV.com’s Doctor Who Classic section. Finding goofs is a bit of stupid nerdy fun, a bit of a wink that reminds us that this is just entertainment, not real life. It’s especially fun with Doctor Who because the wobbly sets and lousy special effects were part of the fun in the early series.

But you do run into annoyances when you play around in this particular geek pen.

First of all, you have those who try to explain a goof; who desperately scrounge around for some explanation — any explanation — for why an obvious goof is not really a goof at all; how the license plate on the car changed because it was a clever disguise.

The worst are Star Trek fans, who are constantly coming up with some quantum tunneling or space warp effect to explain ST’s wild inconsistencies. And sometimes they resort to being flat-out wrong. An example occurs in Star Trek: Generations. When Soren destroys a star, the gravitational field changes instantly. However, according to General Relatively, the change in gravitational field should propagate out at the speed of light: distant objects will still be responding to the initial gravitational field. Yet, ST fans will continue to insist that Trek is right and Einstein is wrong. Over at Movie Mistakes, which is one of the worst-run of the goof sites, you get this nonsense:

I agree that it should take time for the light from the destruction of the star to reach the planet but not the gravitational effects. Things like planets orbit stars not because there is some kind of particle or energy being exchanged between them but because the gravitational field has warped the space they are travelling through. As a result of this when the gravitational field was changed space would have snapped instantly to its new position producing instant gravitational effects. (see Stephen Hawkins:- A Brief History of Time if you don’t believe me).

This is … uh … not true.

But what’s far worse is people who site goofs that don’t exist. The submitters often rely on faulty memory or someone else’s faulty compilation (I’ve purged dozens of these from the Doctor Who pages). Or, frequently, they haven’t paid close attention to the movie and heard someone explain a plot hole they think exists. Gregg Easterbook, oddly, is one of the worst at this. But Cracked has had a series of articles in this vein that are often badly informed, incomplete and just wrong. Here is the most recent, where they list off eight movies made possible only by incompetent characters.

(I would note that characters acting stupidly, as Movie Mistakes notes, isn’t really a goof. A goof is something that reminds you you’re just watching a movie. Stupidity doesn’t meet that requirement. People sometimes act stupidly. That’s how history is made.)

Some of the mistakes in the Cracked article are valid: the idiocy of Die Hard 2 scarcely needs commenting on. But several are simply wrong. For example, they criticize Men in Black for not sending backup to deal with the stellar cockroach. But the conceit of that movie is that Earth is constantly under threat and the MiB’s are always busy dealing with it. Then they criticize Mission Impossible for network security, ignoring the elaborate plan the MI team use to get access to a secure computer. The most egregious is bashing Star Wars because the Empire doesn’t scan the Millenium Falcon after they capture it (they do, and it’s stated several times).

It’s unusual for Cracked to be so lazy.

The Hormone Vote

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

CNN has an article up that is … kinda dumb:

While the campaigns eagerly pursue female voters, there’s something that may raise the chances for both presidential candidates that’s totally out of their control: women’s ovulation cycles.

You read that right. New research suggests that hormones may influence female voting choices differently, depending on whether a woman is single or in a committed relationship.

Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.

Basically, this new study claims — actually, rediscovers — that women in relationships favor Romney by 19 points and single women favor Obama by 33. Their new claim is that when those women are ovulating, those percentages jump by as many as 20 points.

This has, for obvious reasons, caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and Twitter. Unfortunately, the primary reaction is for people to clutch their copies of McKinnon and scream at some Texas professor for daring to suggest that women are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, even though the professor in question says nothing of the kind. And that reaction is kind of unfortunate. Because in their zeal to proclaim that women are completely unaffected by their hormones, people are missing the real reason why the article is dumb and should just be snickered at and then ignored.

First, the number of women we are dealing with is small. I don’t have access to the study and their exact numbers but they studied 502 women total. If by “change of 20 points*” they mean that women in relationships went from 59-41 Romney to 69-31 Romney, that’s a total of about 25 women changing their minds. And a similar number among single women. That … really doesn’t strike me as a statistically significant sample, especially given how volatile polls are known to be anyway and how uncertain the date of ovulation can be.

(*A critical point that is missing from the article is whether that jump is 20 points in differential or absolute (i.e, from 59-41 to 69-31 or 79-21). It’s the difference between 25 women changing their minds — a small number — and 50, a more interesting number. I also note the phrase “as much as 20 points”, which suggests that 20 points is at the outer edge of a very large statistical uncertainty and the actual difference is much smaller. This is why I would like to see the actual study.)

Second, it’s difficult to pin down an a priori reason why a woman’s menstrual cycle might affect her voting. In the absence of clear information, we can only speculate. And this is where CNN and the researchers really flounder badly:

Here’s how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.

“I think they’re overcompensating for the increase of the hormones motivating them to have sex with other men,” she said. It’s a way of convincing themselves that they’re not the type to give in to such sexual urges, she said.

It’s true enough that women feel “sexier” when ovulating and are known to change their behavior (more likely to have sex, more likely to wear skimpy clothing, etc.). That’s all well-established biology. How this translates into political behavior isn’t clear at all. It seems that the researchers came up with one half of a dubious idea (“women feel sexier so they want abortion to be legal”) and then had to scramble to find the other half (“um, so married women are … repressing?”). That’s nice spit-balling but it’s no more valid than saying that when women are menstruating, they get mad and say, “Screw that guy, I ain’t voting for him any more!” You can basically shove anything you want into that information vacuum and call it “science”.

Something important jumped out at me on a second reading: no one quoted in the article is a biologist or any other kind of scientist. The study author is a Professor of Marketing. They also quote Professors of Political “Science” and Women’s and Gender Studies. I would hazard that maybe the Professor of Marketing knows something about statistics. But this whole things reeks of the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly done studies are the ones most likely to get attention because their flaws produced amazing results.

Here’s $0.02 from someone as equally unqualified to look into this as anyone quoted in the article. I suspect this effect, such as it is, is small, even smaller than the 10% they are claiming. I also suspect that this study was conducted some time ago when a lot of the voters were undecided and might have been a little torn between the two candidates. Undecided voters have a tendency to sway with every breeze that blows. Under those circumstances, it’s possible that the hormone kick at ovulation and the resulting surge in self-confidence might make women a little firmer in their political convictions one way or the other. Or, conversely, that the effects of PMS and/or menstruation make women a little less confident in their choices. One test you could do? See if “ovulation effect” diminishes as we get closer to the election and more people learn about the candidates and make up their minds.

The gripping hand here is that this entire thing is pointless trivia as far as elections go. You see, women’s menstrual cycles tend to be random. So the percentage of women who are ovulating at any one moment is a constant. So the net effect of this on the vote?

Zero.

Update: I just slapped myself in the head for not saying this in the main text: where the hell was the group of menopausal women used as a control?

Wednesday Linkorama

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • Emory Apologizes

    Monday, October 15th, 2012

    Growing up in Atlanta, I was, of course, exposed to some degree of anti-semitism. A cross was once burned on the lawn of my synagogue. I was frequently approached by people who wanted to save me. A friend of mine went to a school in rural Georgia and was beaten up frequently and harassed endlessly just for being Jewish.

    The astonishing thing, however, was that this was a gentle breeze compared to what Atlanta had been like just decades before. Most of what I encountered was polite ignorance: people who wondered where we made sacrifices; a Boy Scout troop that had never had a Jew before, classmates who wondered why I was out of school so often in the fall. I never faced the kind of threats and mistreatment that, say, my grandparents did. The Dead Shall Rise is an excellent chronicle of the Leo Frank case, which was a watershed event and not a good one. Not only did an anti-semitic crowd lynch a likely innocent Leo Frank, the despair this produced in the Jewish Community could be felt seven decades later. My grandparents, who were in Atlanta when Frank was murdered, refused to talk about it; refused to talk about any of the treatment they’d endured.

    And, as an academic, I’ve never encountered anything close to what my parents’ generation experienced. This week, Emory University apologized for some of the awful things that went on in their School of Dentistry in the 1950′s. Emory was the worst bastion of academic anti-Semitism but they were not alone. Every doctor of my dad’s generation encountered it: quotas on Jews, professors who would tell them Jews were unsuited to medicine, patients would refuse to see Jewish doctors. It was pervasive.

    I’m glad to see — six decades after the fact — Emory acknowledging this. And I am personally pleased because one of the dentists recognized — Perry Brickman — is a friend of my father’s and my uncle’s, pulled my father’s wisdom teeth and mine and is an all-around good doctor and a good man. To see him vindicated after all this time is wonderful and a reminder that things can change for the better.

    Update: Related — maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’ve never held to the Wagner thing. Wagner was anti-semitic; Hitler liked Wagner; both have been dead for a very long time. Neither invented anti-Semitism. And I do not judge art by the behavior of its maker or the vileness of its admirers.

    2012 League Cups

    Thursday, October 4th, 2012

    Last year, I suggested a way baseball could bring some relevance back to the regular season: by recognizing the team with the best record as the League Champion. This year’s League Champions, under that formulation, would be New York and Washington. I find that a far more useful metric of overall team quality than “made the post-season”.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
  • Paul Ryan and the Republicans appear to be backing down on DADT. About time.
  • Apparently, there is a new blood test that could detect some types of cancer.
  • Yeah, I never thought much of the writing fever approach to teaching writing skills. You learn to play music by learning scales. You learn writing by learning vocabulary, grammar and sentence construction.
  • A fascinating profile of one of the CIA’s operatives. What’s telling is precisely why we provide aide to loathsome regimes.
  • Hmmm. Kids getting their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos.
  • The Shakespeare Project: King John

    Monday, October 1st, 2012

    I think I’m going to like the histories.

    I say this not because King John is a great play. It’s not. It’s narrative is very straight-forward. Many of its character, particularly John himself, are bland. I don’t recall grinning like a baboon at any particularly excellent dialogue.

    However, it has one advantage over the comedies: it’s easy to follow. The comedies rely a great deal on clever dialogue, phrasing and references that often go over the heads of even an educated contemporary reader (Love’s Labours Lost especially). It’s very difficult to get into a play when I’m touching every third word to find out what it means. John, by contrast, and I suspect the histories in general, are less cumbersome to the Brocca’s Area.

    John has some big weaknesses: the seemingly arbitrary shifts in loyalty among the barons (probably reflective of reality, but not very accessible); the shrewish sparring between Lady Constance and Queen Eleanor; and Arthur’s pleading for his life doesn’t really work for me. But things liven up every time the Bastard is on stage. I found myself hoping he would succeed John to the throne.

    Not a bad start, actually, despite its reputation as the weakest of the histories.

    Next Up: Richard II