Archive for November, 2012

Tuesday Linkorama

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012
  • An interesting article on how child abuse panic is keeping men out of the childcare industry. My daughter had a male teacher at her school for a while. She really liked him and it was good to see her having a male role model in her life beyond me. But I also admired the man’s courage; I would not put myself in such a vulnerable position.
  • One of my favorite things to do as a grad student was to look up heavily referenced papers to see if they said what people said they said. At least a quarter of the time, they didn’t. Maggie McNeill just dug up a 30-year-old bit of Mathematical Malpractice that’s been cited incorrectly in support of innumerable bad laws.
  • A frustrating story about why we can’t watch WKRP in its original format. We really have to do something about fair use. The Republicans indicated that they might; then ran away from that position.
  • This video, of a hilarious bug in the FIFA 2012 video game, had me giggling.
  • I have to disagree with almost everything in this article claiming the alcohol industry is trying to make us drunks. It assumes alcoholism is entirely a function of government policy. And it mainly reads like a press release from the powerful forces trying to overturn the SCOTUS decision on out-of-state liquor importation, an issue of particular relevance to Pennsylvania.
  • Is airport security taking more lives than it is saving? Seems like.
  • I’ve been sitting on this story, about how doctor witheld information about a child’s medical future from the parents, for a while, trying to think of a way to approach it. Might still write a long form post. But I default to thinking people have a right to know. To presume to make that decision for them is arrogance. As our diagnostic tools get better, we need to give people the legal option: do you want know if we find anything bad? What happens if a cure is invented and this kid doesn’t know that he needs one?
  • The Girl Who Set the Dragon’s Nest on Fire

    Friday, November 23rd, 2012

    My thoughts on watching the movies of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are too long for a tweet, so I’ll spell them out in a few hundred words.

    I read all three books of the Millenium Trilogy last year. They are quite good: Larsson was a talented writer. His characters are believable (up to a point) and he is a master at building suspense and mystery. The three books are compelling page turners and featuring a plethora of strong female characters. And Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the better literary characters to emerge in recent years.

    However, there were a number of things that bothered me about them. There is the Gary Stuish protagonist who seems not far removed from Larsson himself and spends much of the books sleeping with a series of great women. There is the stark moral color-coding, where all the antagonists are sexually abusive misogynistic dinosaurs. But what bothered me most was the way the books almost seemed to revel in their sexual depravity and trafficking hysteria. There is a strong “rescuer fantasy” undercurrent to the books that is subverted in Dragon Tattoo but keeps poking its head out in the next two books.

    The books were a giant hit and have since been turned into a Swedish television miniseries and a Big Hollywood Film. I have now watched the Hollywood version (albeit a bowdlerized version on a transatlantic fight) and the first two parts of the Swedish miniseries.

    On balance, I like the Swedish version better. I do need to see the American version in full at home to be completely sure about that, but I think my judgement is unlikely to change. The American version has definite advantages — a more filmic look, sharper direction, an even darker atmosphere. But the Swedish version is a little more complete and a little less slick, which I think are advantages.

    One striking thing about the two movies is that the American version features much more handsome actors. I think this is actually to the film’s disadvantage. The Swedish actors look more real, more worn down, more in keeping with how I envisioned them (and, uh, more Swedish). It made them easier to identify with and easier to believe. To put it bluntly, Daniel Craig is way to handsome and way too British for Mikael Bloomquist. He does a great job, no question. If I didn’t know the Swedish version existed, I’d think he was definitive. But Michael Nyqvist is just a bit more suited to the role. The same goes for the lead role: Rooney Mara is excellent; but Noomi Rapace is just a bit better.

    However, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are good. Both are suspenseful. Both do the book justice. Both come with my recommendation. They are both somewhere between 7/10 and 8/10, with the Swedish version a little higher. Was the remake, strictly speaking, necessary? I think it was. Because there a lot of people who simply will not watch a Swedish miniseries, no matter how good it is. The Craig film, by being slicker, more filmic and in English is more approachable and therefore allows more people to enjoy the story. I really don’t have a problem with that. The American film is utterly worthy of its Swedish predecessor.

    Important note: the Swedish movie versions are cut by about half an hour from the full television miniseries versions. Netflix now has both available for streaming and I strongly recommend the miniseries version, which fleshes out the story and includes a number of small details and subplots that, in my opinion, make for a fuller viewing experience. This review is based on the full version.

    (Really Serious Spoiler Warning: I’m about to reveal the end of the story, so please don’t read if you have not seen/read the story and want to maintain suspense.

    There is one thing that I hated about the book: that Lisbeth destroys the evidence of Martin’s crimes. The reason it bothers me is that the families of all the girls he murdered deserve closure — not to mention the cops who investigated those crimes. I realize that Lisbeth would not appreciate this, but Mikael would. This is one sense in which the Swedish TV series was better than the novel: Mikael agrees to keep the murders out of the press but he and the Vangers agree to notify the families. I found that much more satisfying than the books “we’ll destroy all the evidence if you donate money to women’s causes” social engineering resolution.)

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Marginal Taxes

    Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

    I’ve noticed a little flaw in commentary lately. The Left Wing, in their push to raise taxes, are citing work like this, which claims the Laffer Curve peaks at 50-70% and therefore we could massively raise taxes on the wealthy.

    Let’s put aside that you never want government taxation rates to be at the peak of the Laffer Curve (it leaves you zero fiscal room for emergencies and means you’re crippling the economy but not quite enough to depress tax revenue). The problem is that we already pretty close to that peak. For the very wealthy, the marginal income tax rate is 35%. Medicare tax is another 2.9% (employer+employee). We’ll ignore Social Security tax under the assumption we’re just dealing with millionaires. Then you have state income taxes, which range from 0% in states like Texas to a top marginal rate of 11% in Oregon and Hawaii. So marginal tax rates are currently at 38-49%, which is pretty much the lower bound of what the rather optimistic Diamond and Saez say is the peak of the Laffer Curve. And since it’s a Laffer Curve, not the Laffer Triangle, it starts bending before it rolls over, so we’re probably getting within shouting distance of peak revenue already.

    I’m not saying whether we should or should not raise taxes (I’ve come out on the other blog in favor of raising them on everyone since I see little alternative given our present circumstances). But let’s at least debate honestly about where we are on marginal rates, huh?

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Weather Fatalities

    Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

    This came to my attention a month ago. I drafted a post, forgot about it in the election/migraine event horizon but now want to get it out my drafts section. I think it’s worth posting because we are likely to hear more of this from the more hysterical environmental wing.

    The chart, from Ezra Klein’s usually excellent Wonkblog, purports to show a steep rise in weather-related fatalities in recent years.

    It doesn’t show anything of the kind.

    First of all, what it shows is a slight decline or flat trend with a few recent spikes caused by a 90′s heat wave, Hurricane Katrina and last year’s tornados. Now maybe you can argue that we should pay more attention to these in the era of global warming because they may be related (or may not). I agree. However, the long term trend in almost all categories is down — way down. Deaths from lightning strikes are down by over two-thirds over the last 70 years. That’s real progress.

    But the progress is even better than the graph shows. The graph makes a huge blindingly obvious error; one that Klein’s readers jumped on immediately: it does not account for population growth. The first data point is from a sample of 140 million people while the last if from a sample of 310 million. To compare raw figures is simply ridiculous (and, indeed, Klein’s co-blogger later tweeted a version with death rates that was far less dire and showed dramatic declines in weather-related fatalities).

    The third problem is less obvious but potentially the worst one. The plot includes deaths from heat, cold, “winter fatalities”, rip currents and wind. Heat deaths are particularly important to the point Wonkblog is making since, presumably, global warming will result in more deaths from heat waves and drought.

    The problem is that the NOAA, from whose data the graph is taken, did not track heat deaths until 1986. The same goes for many deaths in the “other” category. Cold fatalities were not tracked until 1988. Winter fatalities until 1986. Rip currents until 2002. Wind deaths until 1995. No correction, none whatsover, is made for the incomplete data that spans the first five or six decades of NOAA’s sample.

    It is simply not sensible to treat the data as though there were zero deaths from heat and other categories before the mid-1980′s. In fact, there are many reasons — the spread of air-conditioning for example — to suspect that heat-related deaths were much much higher in the past. It would defy common sense for the sharp reductions in fatalities from tornados, hurricanes and lightning (not to mention earthquakes) to not reflected in the statistics for other weather-related deaths.

    But let’s not assume. Let’s go to the record. The data start in 1940, which usefully omits one of the greatest environmental calamities in American history: the Dust Bowl. Thousands died; at least 5000 in one 1936 heat wave alone. Another massive drought hit in the 1950′s. A 1972 heat wave killed 900 people. A 1980 heat wave killed 1700 people. All of those happened before the NOAA tracked the number of heat-related deaths. None are in the sample.

    To be completely honest, the NOAA data seems a poor resource for this kind of study. It apparently does not include the 1988 drought, recording only 47 heat-related deaths in that two-year period. But it does include the 1995 and 1999 heat waves. I have no idea what their criteria are. I suspect they are counting deaths from specific short-term heat waves rather than broad massive events like the 88-89 drought. That’s fine as far as it goes. But if your attempt to quantify long-term trends in weather-related deaths ignores droughts; if it ignores the God-damned Dust Bowl, I would submit that you are looking at the wrong data.

    So, in the end, the claim that we are getting more weather-related fatalities than ever is, at least in this case, based on a heavily biased poorly understood sample that barely supports the conclusion

    Red Dawn

    Sunday, November 18th, 2012

    This week will see the release of a remake of Red Dawn. The movie seems destined for the rubbish bin and several “worst of 2012″ lists but I thought I’d spare a few thoughts on it, since the original Red Dawn was quite a moment in my early teen years. And not just because it was the first PG-13 movie.

    Red Dawn is not a great movie, but it is an iconic one. Apart from the zeitgeist it tapped into, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, it was simply a good film. That characters were reasonably well-defined, their actions not outlandish and it delivered a tremendous amount of action professionally and effectively (today’s audiences are unlikely to understand just how violent this movie was for 1984). I’ll let on that it has a “boy’s fantasy” aspect to it: the idea of teenagers successfully resisting a evil and powerful foe. But it twisted that formula a bit as it became steadily grimmer and grimmer until its inevitable end. I have watched it a couple of times since the theaters and always found myself intrigued. I would probably rate it a 7/10, acknowledge I’ve added a point for personal reasons.

    However, the remake, even it is well-made and well-directed, is unlikely to succeed the way the first film did for many reasons that have nothing to do with film-making. The most obvious and commented upon is that, to avoid tanking the Chinese market, the enemy is North Korea. It is unlikely that North Korea could successfully invade itself, least of all the United States. Maybe they’ll come up with some explanation for NK’s sudden military might. But the absurdity of this is sure to drive audiences away. Even if the enemy were China, the idea is still implausible. The United States has more military might than the next twenty nations combined. And that’s not even counting the millions of Americans who hunt and would, if we were ever invaded, comprise the largest standing army in the world. Hell, Pennsylvania could probably outgun most nations.

    When you get down to it, the essential thing about Red Dawn is that it was a film whose making was only possible during the Cold War, when we had an enemy superpower of significant military might and the very real fear that entire regions of the world — central America in particular — would turn against us. It struck a chord with many people — especially my generation — because it played on the patriotism and paranoia that was so strong during the Andropov-Chernenko years. Unlike the new film, the basic premise of the older film was not completely ludicrous, even if it was far-fetched. Hell, my friend Adam and I used to constantly play at resisting the Russian occupation.

    Red Dawn came with a ready-made audience: tens of millions of Americans who lived under the Soviet threat every day. Critics complained that it seemed like a commercial for the Reagan Administration. These critics apparently missed that Reagan was re-elected in a massive landslide at least in part because of his fierce opposition to Communism.

    Today’s young people are simply unlikely to identify with that. They’ve grown up in a world where America’s military might is taken for granted; where wars are rare things fought in distant countries. They’ve grown up in a world where true totalitarianism — the gulags and secret police type — is in retreat. They’ve grown up in a world where our own country is the one becoming a police state. The zeitgeist that made Red Dawn a cult classic simply doesn’t exist anymore. And so it will just be another loud dumb action film.

    The Kindergartner and the Bear

    Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

    I think one of the biggest reasons people choose to reproduce is so that they can relive their childhoods. Scratch that. I think it’s the biggest reason. I’ve blogged before about rediscovering cartoons and musicals with my daughter. And she’s now gotten old enough for me to slowly rediscover the thrill of Halloween. She’s still young enough that I escort her on her trip through the neighborhood. This has the benefit that I get to see the sheer delight as she runs up to a house, is given candy and runs back, buzzing with the sense of adventure.

    (And I have to agree with Cracked on the “trunk-or-treat” thing. That and other attempts to move trick-or-treating to a “safe” environment are insane, stupid and, frankly, cruel. It’s depriving children of one of the few real adventures they get to have.)

    Anyway, the other night, my daughter stopped at a house where they were offering a choice: candy or a stuffed animal. I talked to a neighbor later and found out the owner, whose children were older, had more stuffed animals than she knew what to do with and wanted to get rid of some. Abby spied a small pink teddy bear and fell in love. I don’t mean she liked it. I mean she showed it to me in a giddy haze, introduced it to her beloved koalas in bed and slept with it in her arms that night. The next morning, she took him to the bus-stop and I brought him out later when I picked her up. I don’t know if this will last: she inevitably returns back to her koalas. But for now, she’s got a new man in her heart.

    It’a amazing to see the sheer joy that something like that can bring out. It’s amazing to think of this thing being knocked out an assembly line with thousands of teddies, not knowing that it would become so beloved so quickly.

    I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for soft animals. I still have a stuffed turtle I was raised on as well as some dinosaurs, a tiger and a unicorn that have special meaning for me (the unicorn, for example, I won at the Wisconsin State Fair when I was about 8 or 9. It was one of the best moments of my childhood). But the soft spot isn’t really for the animals themselves. I mean, I’m 40. No, it’s for the meaning behind them, the effect the have and the love and happiness they can provoke in a five year old. It’s a Velveteen Rabbit kind of thing.

    She’ll grow up soon, much faster than I want. And the day will come when these things will not provoke such rapture (indeed, that’s one of the reasons we are so desperate to have another child, an enterprise that has only burned money and produced heartache so far). But for now, I can walk into her room, see her sleeping with her little “Teddy Sparkle” and enjoy the moment.

    Saturday Linkorama

    Saturday, November 3rd, 2012
  • A great letter on the situation at Penn State, from the former Paterno Chair.
  • This article, sent to me by several, argues that China will be a benevolent world power. I found it ludicrous. not only do I not think China will become a dominant world power (there are still massive areas of abject poverty and they are aging too fast); I find the historical analysis from this sinophile to be absurdly optimistic about what they would do with power.
  • Color photos of Nazi-occupied Poland.
  • Heart-rending notes pinned to abandoned babies.
  • This article, about Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen, came out this summer. But I found it amusing and kind of touching.
  • This story, about the explosion of solitary confinement in this country, is a must-read.
  • I knew that music has sucked since the 1980′s (#1). #5 is one we explore in Music Theory class.