Archive for February, 2013

The Shakespeare Project: Henry V

Monday, February 25th, 2013

I said below that Shakespeare had a fascination with fallen characters and villains. Henry V is an exception. He is presented a full-throated heroic figure — a military genius, a just and wise ruler, a man with a touch for the common folk. Of course, this comes after his redemption over the course of Henry IV. But Henry is the rare memorable Shakespeare character is pure hero.

I’ve said before that I don’t think Shakespeare is as subtle as some people like to pretend he is. There’s a school of thought that claims that Henry V is actually an anti-war play, especially given some of the vivid descriptions Henry gives of the horrors of war. I don’t think this is the case. Shakespeare can acknowledge the horrors of war while still making it out to be glorious. There’s a common refrain out there that war-mongers are necessarily “chicken-hawks” who do not understand the horror they contemplate. I find that attitude amusing. Some of the most aggressive warlike leaders in history were themselves veterans. They knew how awful war was. It either didn’t bother them or it pleased them.

There are a few interesting issues with some of the scenes in the play. Branagh’s film version played the comedy bit straight, which was an interesting choice. I like them better as comedy myself to balanced out Henry’s seriousness. But the final scene — in which Henry “woos” Katherine — is a bit problematic. It is played straight in Branagh’s film but I read that many consider it comical or satirical. I must admit I lean a little bit toward the latter as the scene doesn’t really work as romance for me.

Next Up: Henry VI Part 1. Probably be a while before I get to it.

As I Predicted: EMR

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

I thought I’d put these three links into a separate post. Long ago, when electronic medical records were being cited as the way we could save money in our healthcare system, I was skeptical. I pointed out that these innovations might save lives and might make things easier on patients. But they were unlikely to save money. I based that on my dad’s experience with EMR, in which he found them to be very expensive, amazingly disorganized and somewhat bewildered by HIPPA requirements.

Well, I was right. Here you can read about how EMR’s have encourage the use of boilerplate descriptions which leave critical information out of patient’s record. Here you can read about how it makes doctoring difficult. I’ve experience this personally, finding that doctors spend all their time screwing around with the EMR system rather than interacting with me (although this has improved in the last couple of years as doctors learn from their mistakes and save EMR maintenance until after the appointment). And here you can read about how the system are not saving money and don’t interact with each other.

Some of these problems will eventually be solved. I expect that a uniform standard will eventually be created (probably by law). Improvements in computer transcription will probably restore dictation over boilerplate for making notes. And, as I noted, doctors are quickly improving their ability to use EMR without sabotaging their interaction with the patient. In the long run, I think this will improve healthcare.

But easy-to-use systems that have a uniform standard, protect patient privacy and can correctly spell esophagogastroduodenoscopy (as I just did on the first try) are not cheap and are never going to be. This is not the solution to our healthcare woes. There is no silver bullet that is.

Caloundra Linkorama

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

I just noticed I have about five Linkoramas lingering in my queue. So I’ll take out whole bunch here.

  • DARPA is looking into recycling satellites. This makes a huge amount of sense if it can be done. Space debris is a big problem. And the launch is one of the biggest expense of any mission. If you could put something up there cheap that could rove around and repair satellites, it would be worth a fortune.
  • Cracked has a nice article about how poverty isn’t the cliche we like to think it is.
  • An interview with James Alan Fox disputing Mother Jones on mass shootings.
  • This is an amazing story about how a family was cut off from civilization for 40 years. A modern-day Swiss Family Robinson.
  • I love this depiction of what Mars would look like with water. In actuality, it wouldn’t look quite like that, since erosion would wear down the extreme features.
  • I also love this depiction of what Cambrian creatures might have looked like.
  • When you make a little girl in a wheelchair cry that she doesn’t want to go to Disney World, you are slime.
  • Nine hilarious NYT corrections. I mean, even I knew the My Little Pony one.
  • Anatomy of a drug panic.
  • Anatomy of a female orgasm.
  • The Shakespeare Project: Henry IV, Part 2

    Friday, February 22nd, 2013

    It’s amazing how fast I can go through these things when I’m on vacation.

    I would have to say that 2 Henry IV is a bit of a letdown after Part 1. Oh, it’s still very good. But it suffers a bit from “middle chapter syndrome” between the outstanding Part 1 and the epic Henry V. Some plot threads from Part 1 are wrapped up too quickly and not much groundwork is laid for the next installment.

    Part 1 struck an excellent balance with the low comedy of the Falstaff scenes and the high drama of the politics. It featured an fantastic counterpart to Prince Harry in Hotspur and built to an exciting battle. Part 2 doesn’t quite balance as well, with the low comedy being a bit much and the high drama not working as well. Northumberland’s waffling and selling out of allies is dropped too early. York is never made into a great villain. The conflict is resolved hastily (and, to my mind, dishonorably). It only reaches a real high point when Henry IV is dying and immediately thereafter, as Harry assumed the mantle of leadership.

    Falstaff is wonderful, although I feel he played better off Prince Hal, who was his equal in verbal gymnastics, than he does off Lively or Doll. Henry’s rejection of him is heart-breaking, although not milked the way it should be (and indeed many, including Branagh, add this missing touch in their productions of Henry V).

    In any case, I’m loving the histories. Maybe it’s because Shakespeare was bound by actual events, which makes the plot more linear and less dependent on twists. Maybe it’s because it combines the best elements of comedy and tragedy instead of being hamstrung by the conventions of either. Maybe it’s just because I love history. Whatever, the case, don’t expect a long wait before my next update.

    Next Up: Henry V, of course. One of my favorites.

    The Shakespeare Project: Henry IV, Part I

    Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

    So that’s what everyone was on about.

    One of the reasons I started this project was the realization that my only encounter with Falstaff was his brief (but poignant) cameo in Branagh’s Henry V. And until two days ago, my only real experience was from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is fun in Wives, but nothing like what he is in this one. Whenever the action moved to Hotspur or Henry IV, I found myself wondering when they were going to get back to Falstaff. As noted by many, his recounting of the attack by the robbers, the way he turns the conversation when Hal reveals his own involvement, his verbal outfoxing of Quickly … all of it is pure joy. And the counterpoint of his relatively harmless shenanigans to the devastating wars of the honorable characters is unmissable.

    Would this play be as good without Falstaff? Yeah, I guess. Prince Harry and Prince Hostpsur are good characters and I’m fascinated by the history. I suspect without Falstaff, we would get more of the sub rosa politics of Richard II. But it’s clearly Falstaff and Harry who elevate this play to great.

    Next up: Well, I guess it’s Henry IV, Part 2. My goal is to complete the Henry tetralogy by the time I head back to the states.

    The Shakespeare Project: Richard II

    Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

    LIke many authors, Shakespeare seems much more fascinated with fallen characters and villains than with heroes. Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Prospero, Prince Hal before he becomes Henry V, etc. Just as his comedy centers around common people, his tragedy and drama center around those who have fallen from grace in some way, whether it is Hal’s antics or Iago’s treachery or Prospero’s vengeance.

    Richard II, as a character, is one of the better examples of this. When the play starts out, he is king and not terribly interesting. But as he loses power (and possibly his mind) his character becomes stronger and stronger, getting some of the bet speeches in the play. His melancholy dialogues in Act III are a highlight and he dominates Act IV, talking rings around everyone else.

    The thing I liked most about Richard II was that so much was sub rosa. The past conspiracy to kill Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s gradual rebellion even as he proclaims his loyalty, his evident relief at Richard’s death — these all are belied by the words that come out of the character’s mouths. Very rarely in Richard II does anyone say what they really mean; they always dance around it. And it is a demonstration of Shakespeare’s skill that I, five centuries later and having to read about the War of the Roses on Wikipedia, can grasp this, even incompletely.

    Next Up: Henry IV, Part I

    Mother Jones Hacks Again

    Monday, February 18th, 2013

    A few weeks ago Mother Jones, having not learned the lesson of their absurd article claiming mass shootings are on the rise, published a list of 10 Myths about guns and gun control from Dave Gilson. And I’m going to debunk their debunking again because the article represents what I believe is one of the worst sins in the field of Mathematical Malpractice: cherry-picking. As I went through this, it became obvious that MJ was not interested in the facts, really. What was motivating them was the argument. And so they picked any study — no matter how small, how biased or how old — to support their point. They frequently ignore obvious objections and biases. And they sometimes ignore larger more detailed studies in favor of the smaller ones if it will support their contention.

    We see this a lot in the punditocracy, unfortunately. As Bill James said, most people use studies the way a drunk uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination. In any sufficiently advanced but difficult field of study, you will find multiple studies examining an issue. Let’s say it’s a supposed connection between watching Glee and having a heart attack. If there is, in reality, no connection between the two, you might find eight studies that show no connection, one that shows an anti-correlation and one that shows a correlation. This is fine. This is science. There are always outlier studies even if all the researchers are completely ethical and honest. The outliers fall away when your interest is the question and you look at all the evidence. But the outliers dominate the discussion from those who have an agenda.

    This happens a lot in the gun debate. On both sides, really. But Mother Jones’ article is a particularly putrid example of this because that’s basically all it does: collect the cherry-picked nonsensical studies that support their anti-gun agenda. It’s quite remarkable actually; almost a clinic in how not to do research.

    But here’s the one thing that really tips you off. There is one myth that Mother Jones does not debunk. It’s a myth that’s really independent of what you think of gun ownership … unless you’ve already staked part of your reputation and agenda on the myth that gun violence is increasing. In fact, all forms of violent crime have been falling for twenty years. This is, in my mind, the single most important fact in debates over crime and violence and the single most important myth to debunk.

    MJ does not address this myth. They don’t even talk about it. That is a huge tell.

    (more…)

    Mike’s Rule of Expertise

    Sunday, February 17th, 2013

    Shortly after I graduated from college, I was on a kick to try to get healthy and lose weight. It still hasn’t worked, 19 years la- … holy crap, 19 years?! … let me see … 1994 .. good God, I’m old … anyway, it still hasn’t worked 19 year later.

    At one point, I tried Herbalife. This was not something I came to of my own accord. A friend’s husband was into it on the lowest tier of their multi-level marketing. I was too young and stupid to know just how idiotic herbal supplements were, so I figured “what the hell” and jumped.

    It was a big mistake. The compound contained ephedra and it caused my first incident of Premature Ventricular Contractions — a common harmless arrhythmia that nevertheless is scary as hell. Some time later I tried a prescription weight loss pill that also caused PVC’s. They went away after I stopped, mostly. I still get them occasionally, most notably right after my wedding and when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I had a full cardio workup six years ago and everything looks fine. But I still wonder if the ephedra did any permanent damage.

    The thing is that I’m not normally into that sort of thing. But it was sold to me because I wasn’t terribly familiar with high-pressure marketing techniques and certainly didn’t expect them from a friend’s husband. I’ve since … well not wised up, exactly. I’ve gotten confident enough to tell people to fuck off. In fact, high pressure sales pitches are the surest way to drive me away. When we bought our first home, I literally walked out on people who tried to get me to buy right then with “if you buy right now” incentives. The home we bought was sold in a low-pressure way. We felt — correctly as it happened — that this reflected the salesman’s confidence in his product.

    I’m rambling. Let me get to the point. Part of the sales pitch I got for Herbalife went like this:

    Mike, I’m telling you, I’ve investigated all kinds of supplements. I’ve looked into everything. And I’ve researched this product really thoroughly. I wouldn’t take anything I didn’t know everything about. So trust me: this is the real deal.

    Standard stuff, right? But hidden within that is something I’ve come to recognize as the mark of a shyster. If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.

    This instinct has served me well. When Neal Boortz began flogging the Fair Tax, he talked about how much research had been done and how he’d looked at every plan out there (really? every plan?). That pinged my radar and I did some research and found out that the Fair Tax had giant gaping problems (documented here). When a contractor came by and gave me a pitch about how he’d tried everything and he was the best expert, I went with someone else.

    And you see this constantly in the alternative medicine crowd. Sellers and promoters will constantly tell you how extensively they’ve surveyed things, how much research they’ve done, how much experience they have and, inevitably, it turns out not to be the case.

    So, in my roundabout way, here is Mike’s Rule of Expertise: Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.

    Let cite some good examples from my blogroll: Radley Balko doesn’t talk about what an expert he is on criminal justice matters; he tells you specifically what he’s learned, seen and read. The Bad Astronomer doesn’t talk about how much experience he has in astrophysics; he points you at research and researchers who’ve done the work. Maggie McNeill doesn’t pontificate about her extensive background in the sex industry; she links every study and opinion piece she can find. Joe Posnanski doesn’t talk about how many athletes he’s interviewed or how much Bill James likes him; he crunches the numbers, gets the quotes and presents the facts.

    I’ve been to hundreds of science talks. Not one has centered around the speaker’s credentials and how they’ve explored every alternate theory. They present hypothesis, data and conclusion. The best ones acknowledge their limitations and possible alternate theories. The kind of dead certainty you will encounter in, say, a homeopathy practitioner, is minimal in any good scientist and absent in the best ones.

    This is how real experts do it. Experts want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.

    (In a related note, I, like most astronomers, rarely affix “Ph.D.” to the end of my name unless I’m applying for a grant where the credential is required. I also only refer to myself as “Dr. Siegel” when yelling at the cable company. And the only time I’m called that at work is either as part of a running gag or when being addressed formally (grant correspondence, for example; and I usually encourage them to call me Mike). This is partially because astronomers are an informal bunch. It is also related to my time at UVa, where everyone except Ed School professors and medical doctors takes the moniker of “Mr.” and “Ms.” as a sign of respect to Mr. Jefferson.

    But I also I think this flows from the same skepticism of over-credentialing. A real scientist wants you to trust the data, not them. The only academics I know who use the Ph.D. suffix or the Doctor prefix are either a) pretentious; b) medical doctors, where I think it’s appropriate, and c) women or minorities in disciplines where they have trouble being taken seriously and it’s hard to begrudge them. And anyone who refers to themselves as “Dr. Smith, Ph.D.” is almost certainly full of it.)

    What brought this to my frontal lobe was a re-eruption (a few months ago now) of controversy over Sex at Dawn. I find the premise of Sex at Dawn — that humans are naturally polyamorous — interesting if flawed. But what has long bothered me is the certainty with which this supposedly scientific premise is discussed. Every time I hear Christopher Ryan speak, I feel like he’s about to sell me herbal supplements. He’s not quite as bad as my friend’s now ex-husband. He actually does know some stuff. But he seems stunningly unaware of what he doesn’t know or of what facts are inconsistent with his thesis. Is he right? Dammit, if this comes down to me reading his book, I give up.

    Anyway, there is some controversy over Christopher Ryan’s credentials. I took a look at his wikipedia page and this is what I found:

    He received a BA in English and American literature in 1984 and an MA and Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, CA twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan’s academic research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural. His doctoral dissertation analyzes the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the psychologist, Stanley Krippner.

    Ryan has guest lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School, consulted at various hospitals, contributed to publications ranging from Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press) to a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America and makes frequent mass media appearances. Ryan contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.[

    I read that and I heard, “I’m telling you, I’ve been all over the world and met all kinds of people and read all the papers. And this polyamory thing; this is the real deal.” Maybe Ryan is right. I’ve got an 80-book backlog right now, but I’m hoping to get to his at some point. But a Wikipedia entry filled with such a wide array of credentials combined with his “I’m such an expert” public statements make me suspect the work has flaws. And what I’ve read indicates this perception is correct. If and when I get to his book, I’ll know for sure.

    (I wrote the above a couple of months ago. When I went to it today, I was reminded of a recent post at Popehat that mocked a legal spammer for doing the same thing: talking himself up as some modern-day renaissance man. Ken has a lot more experience in dealing with shyster lawyers, obviously. His approach to this is different because he gets a lot of legal spamming. But the basic tenet is the same: a real hot shot lawyer doesn’t try to wow you with his credentials.)

    Peak Human

    Sunday, February 17th, 2013

    Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.

    A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:

    That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.

    I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?

    Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:

    This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.

    Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.

    If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.

    You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.

    (There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)

    So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.

    The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.

    Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.

    No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.

    And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.

    But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.