Archive for September, 2013

The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part I

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Wikipedia tells me that Henry VI, Part I was one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories. It shows. It lacks the verbal fireworks and beauty of his later works and there is little, if any comedy. It’s workmanlike and bases a lot more on action and more direct drama than his later works.

Of particular note is the character assassination Shakespeare renders on Joan of Arc. She starts out reasonable enough but then tries to sell her soul to demons for help, begs for her life and tries to lie and deceive her way out of the stake. Given what we know of Joan of Arc — even after hefty English rewriting of the historical record — this is pretty far from the truth. By all accounts, Joan was a smart woman who met her accusers effectively and died bravely. Had the French listened to her and protected her, the Hundred Years War might actually have finished in a hundred years. This one of the rare times when the Tudor propaganda aspects of the histories really jumps out (and possibly a bit of misogyny as well). I’m told that in some performances, Joan is more of a comic character, as are most of the French. I didn’t find them particularly funny.

Still, the play has its good parts. The action is easy to follow and the conflicts well-described. Henry VI is effectively portrayed as a bit too innocent, inadvertently dooming his house when he chooses to wear a red rose. It’s a tiny moment that is one of the most important moments in the Henry VI tetralogy. Talbot is the most developed character and the scene where he and his son beg each other to leave the doomed field of battle is one of the highlights of the play. And the theme of the histories — that England is weak when divided — shows most strongly in this play when the rivalries between the English lords destroys England’s occupation of France.

So definitely a worthwhile read. Hopefully, I’ll finish part II on a time scale of less than six months.

Next Up: Um, Henry the VI, Part II, of course.

Rush is Wrong on Religion

Friday, September 20th, 2013

I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.

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The Language of Cinema

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Yesterday, I stumbled across the video contrasting the scenes of Medusa in the 1980 Ray Harryhausen Clash of the Titans against the 2010 remake.

I love this YouTube video because, to me, it illustrates precisely how Hollywood has gone so very wrong in the last few years. The original Clash is not a classic, although I am very fond of it. But the scene in the Harryhausen version is so much better in so many ways. Let’s enumerate them:

  • In the original, the scene in Hades takes place underground and is darkly lit. Yet, it is always clear exactly what’s going on. The layout of Medusa’s lair, the location of the two Greeks, the way the action plays out, the strategy employed by Perseus — these are all apparent. By contrast, the remake is completely incoherent. Where are they? What is the layout of Medusa’s lair? There’s a brief moment of “strategy” where Perseus gets Medusa to chase him so one of his men can attack her. But it’s not clear how this is accomplished because he appear to be moving away from his men only to have one jump out randomly. It’s hard to follow, sloppily executed and ends with all three of Perseus’ men dead. Moreover, the scene is simply incoherent. Medusa flashes around the pillars like the CGI creation she is with little rhyme or reason. She smashes through pillars that should injure her instead of snaking around them. It’s like a trailer for a better and more coherent scene.
  • There’s one shot in the original I just love, right before Medusa is killed. The camera pulls back to a medium shot to show Perseus behind the pillar and Medusa slowly moving between the rows of pillars, looking for him. That one shot instantly lays out the terrain so we know what’s going on and where everyone is. No such shot is seen in the remake.
  • The original has a palpable sense of fear. Perseus and his men are scared of Medusa and try to avoid her. By contrast, the men in the remake treat Medusa like the boss in a video game. One of them deliberately looks right at her. The other fails to turn to stone but blows himself up (maybe this makes sense if you’ve seen the whole movie).
  • The blood leaking out of Medusa’s body in the Harryhausen version is a bit unrealistic. But in the remake, Medusa’s body falls into a crevice and explodes. Just ‘cuz.
  • In the original, the appearance of Medusa is clear. If I were capable of drawing, I could sketch her out. In the remake, she’s a murky CGI mess. You can see the beautiful face of Natalia Vodianova, the model playing the role. But around her is just waving CGI bracken, snakes moving at light speed, rather than in anything resembling a believable monster. The emphasis modern action movies place on CGI-enhanced speed of movement has taken away any sense of realism.
  • (And please don’t come at me with “Realism? It’s a movie about gorgons and krakens!” Even a fantasy movie has to play by its own rules and be realistic enough that the creatures, the danger and the action draw the viewer in.)
  • Notice the Kraken at the end. In the Harryhausen version, the Kraken is plainly seen and looks like a mythical creature. I could draw him. The Kraken in the remake is a CGI blob, an indistinct mass of flesh and teeth.
  • I want to be clear about something: CGI isn’t the problem here. The way it is being used is the problem. Contrast the Kraken and Medusa against the CGI creatures of Lord of the Rings. The Nazgul and the trolls have a definite appearance. They look like a real mythical creature might look (in part because they are based on sketches by artists who have been drawing Tolkien’s world for decades). I expect Smaug to be the same. Gollum was so well-rendered that people wanted to nominate Andy Serkis for an academy award (although in that case, Serkis was on set to give Gollum a physical reference).

    Those were creatures. They were rendered to act, move and look like creatures. Medusa looks like someone got at their computer and said “more snakes! Make ‘em move faster! Faster! This is so cool!”. The Kracken looks like it’s not finished rendering. It’s the creature equivalent of the spiny spikey CGI spaceships that have begun to clutter sci-fi movies. It’s indistinguishable from any number of other CGI blobs with teeth like Cloverfield. But at least Cloverfield‘s murk made sense in context, since it was found footage. Show me Harryhausen’s Kraken and I’ll recognize it. Show me this one and I’ll have to guess: the Kraken? Cloverfield? Cave troll? Last night’s Mexican dinner?

    Harryhausen’s movie uses the language of cinema effectively. It establishes the scene and the stakes. It gives us a clear idea of where Medusa is, what she’s doing and what she looks like. It treats her like a real monster enraged by her curse and determined to hunt down and kill those invading her lair. Perseus and his men are scared of her and trying to think of a way to kill this dangerous creature. The scene is 90% tension and about 10% effects.

    By contrast, the remake is a video game. Perseus’ men don’t value their lives and don’t act in a realistic way. And why should they? There’s no sense that this is a real monster. She’s a creation that pops out of the shadows at random moments.

    I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: a generation of move-goers are growing up not knowing what a coherent movie looks like. This isn’t a style thing or an old-man “get off my lawn” thing. Frequently, when they see movies that are well-made and composed, they notice how much better they are without really knowing why. They are being drowned in a sea of dreck.

    For more on this, you should check out Jim Emerson’s two videos contrasting The Dark Knight and SALT to show how differently they use (or fail to use) the language of cinema. I love The Dark Knight but he does have a point about the way some of its action scenes are laid out.

    The most hilarious part of that, however, is the response from the Dark Knight defenders, which essentially amounts to misquoting Emerson or falling back on the “hey, it’s a movie about a billionaire in a bat suit. You expect realism?!” I referenced above.

    That is is why I love this video. Both movies are about mythical creatures and heroes. But one has tension, clarity and excitement. The other has noise and chaos. The defenders of modern film — not batting an eye from there “hey, it’s fantasy” line — will then claim that, in real life, action is often chaotic and noisy. True enough. But it also follows certain rules (like gravity) and people value their lives and sell them dearly.

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Cherry-Picking

    Sunday, September 15th, 2013

    Probably one of the most frustrating mathematical practices is the tendency of politicos to cherry-pick data: only take the data points that are favorable to their point of view and ignore all the others. I’ve talked about this before but two stories circling the drain of the blogosphere illustrated this practice perfectly.

    The first is on the subject of global warming. Global warming skeptics have recently been crowing about two pieces of data that supposedly contradict the theory of global warming: a slow-down in temperature rise over the last decade and a “60% recovery” in Arctic sea ice.

    The Guardian, with two really nice animated gifs, show clearly why these claims are lacking. Sea ice levels vary from year to year. The long-term trend, however, has been a dramatic fall with current sea ice levels being a third of what they were a few decades ago (and that’s just area: in terms of volume it’s much worse with sea ice levels being a fifth of what they were). The 60% uptick is mainly because ice levels were so absurdly low last year that the natural year-to-year variation is equal to almost half the total area of ice. In other words, the variation in yearly sea levels has not changed — the baseline has shrunk so dramatically that the variations look big in comparison. This could easily — and likely will — be matched by a 60% decline. Of course, that decline will be ignored by the very people hyping the “recovery”.

    Temperature does the same thing. If you look at the second gif, you’ll see the steady rise in temperature over the last 40 years. But, like sea ice levels, planetary temperatures vary from year to year. The rise is not perfect. But each time it levels or even falls a little, the skeptics ignore forty years worth of data.

    (That having been said, temperatures have been rising much slower for the last decade than they were for the previous three. A number of climate scientists now think we have overestimated climate sensitivity).

    But lest you think this sort of thing is only confined to the Right …

    Many people are tweeting and linking this article which claims that Louis Gohmert spouted 12 lies about Obamacare in two minutes. Some of the things Gohmert said were not true. But other were and still others can not really be assessed at this stage. To take on the lies one-by-one:

    Was Obamacare passed against the will of the people?

    Nope. It was passed by a president who won the largest landslide in two decades and a Democratic House and Senate with huge majorities. It was passed with more support than the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D, both of which were entirely unfunded. And the law had a mostly favorable perception in 2010 before Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars spreading misinformation about it.

    The first bits of that are true but somewhat irrelevant: the Iraq War had massive support at first, but became very unpopular. The second is cherry-picked. Here is the Kaiser Foundation’s tracking poll on Obamacare (panel 6). Obamacare barely crested 50% support for a brief period, well within the noise. Since then, it has had higher unfavorables. If anything, those unfavorables have actually fallen slightly, not risen in response to “Republican lies”.

    Supporters of the law have devised a catch-22 on the PPACA: if support falls, it’s because of Republican money; if it rises it’s because people are learning to love the law. But the idea that there could be opposition to it? Perish the thought!

    Is Obamacare still against the will of American people?

    Actually, most Americans want it implemented. Only 6 percent said they wanted to defund or delay it in a recent poll.

    That is extremely deceptive. Here is the poll. Only 6% want to delay or defund the law because 30% want it completely repealed. Another 31% think it needs to be improved. Only 33% think the law should be allowed to take effect or be expanded.

    (That 6% should really jump out at you since it’s completely at variance with any political reality. The second I saw it, I knew it was garbage. Maybe they should have focus-group-tested it first to come up with some piece of bullshit that was at least believable.)

    Of the remaining questions, many are judgement calls on things that have yet to happen. National Memo asserts that Obamacare does not take away your decisions about health care, does not put the government between you and your doctor and will not keep seniors from getting the services they need. All of these are judgement calls about things that have yet to happen. There are numerous people — people who are not batshit crazy like Gohmert — who think that Obamacare and especially the IPAB will eventually create government interference in healthcare. Gohmert might be wrong about this. But to call it a lie when someone makes a prediction about what will happen is absurd. Let’s imagine this playing out in 2002:

    We rate Senator Liberal’s claim that we will be in Iraq for a decade and it will cost 5000 lives and $800 billion to be a lie. The Bush Administration has claimed that US troops will be on the ground for only a few years and expect less than a thousand casualties and about $2 billion per month. In fact, some experts predict it will pay for itself.

    See what I did there?

    Obamacare is a big law with a lot of moving parts. There are claims about how it is going to work but we won’t really know for a long time. Maybe the government won’t interfere with your health care. But that’s a big maybe to bet trillions of dollars on.

    The article correctly notes that the government will not have access to medical records. But then it is asserts that any information will be safe. This point was overtaken by events this week when an Obamacare site leaked 2400 Social Security numbers.

    See what I mean about “fact-checking” things that have yet to happen?

    Then there’s this:

    Under Obamacare, will young people be saddled with the cost of everybody else?

    No. Thanks to the coverage for students, tax credits, Medicaid expansion and the fact that most young people don’t earn that much, most young people won’t be paying anything or very much for health care. And nearly everyone in their twenties will see premiums far less than people in their 40s and 50s. If you’re young, out of school and earning more than 400 percent of the poverty level, you may be paying a bit more, but for better insurance.

    This is incorrect. Many young people are being coerced into buying insurance that they wouldn’t have before. As Avik Roy has pointed out, cheap high-deductible plans have been effectively outlawed. Many college and universities are seeing astronomical rises in health insurance premiums, including my own. The explosion of invasive wellness programs, like UVAs, has been explicitly tied to the PPACA. Gohmert is absolutely right on this one.

    The entire point of Obamacare was to get healthy people to buy insurance so that sick people could get more affordable insurance. That is how this whole thing works. It’s too late to back away from that reality now.

    Does Obamacare prevent the free exercise of your religious beliefs?

    No. But it does stop you from forcing your beliefs on others. Employers that provide insurance have to offer policies that provide birth control to women. Religious organizations have been exempted from paying for this coverage but no one will ever be required to take birth control if their religion restricts it — they just can’t keep people from having access to this crucial, cost-saving medication for free.

    This is a matter of philosophy. Many liberals think that if an employer will not provide birth control coverage to his employees, he is “forcing” his religious views upon them (these liberals being under the impression that free birth control pills are a right). I, like many libertarians and conservatives (and independents), see it differently: that forcing someone to pay for something with which they have a moral qualm is violating their religious freedom. The Courts have yet to decide on this.

    I am reluctant to call something a “lie” when it’s a difference of opinion. Our government has made numerous allowance for religious beliefs in the past, including exemptions from vaccinations, the draft, taxes and anti-discrimination laws. We are still having a debate over how this applies to healthcare. Sorry, National Memo, that debate isn’t over yet.

    So let’s review. Of Gohmert’s 12 “lies”, the breakdown is like so:

    Lies: 4
    Debatable or TBD: 5
    Correct: 3
    Redundant: 1

    (You’ll note that’s 13 “lies”; apparently National Memo can’t count).

    So 4 only out of 13 are lies. Hey, even Ty Cobb only hit .366

    Mathematical Malpractice: Focus Tested Numbers

    Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

    One of the things I keep encountering in news, culture and politics are numbers that appear to be pulled out of thin air. Concrete numbers, based on actual data, are dangerous enough in the wrong hands. But when data get scarce, this doesn’t seem to intimidate advocates and some social scientists. They will simply commission a “study” that produces, in essence, any number they want.

    What is striking is that the numbers seem to be selected with the diligent care and skill that the methods lack.

    The first time I became aware of this was with Bill Clinton. According to his critics — and I can’t find a link on this so it’s possibly apocryphal — when Bill Clinton initiated competency tests for Arkansas teachers, a massive fraction failed. He knew the union would blow their stack if the true numbers were released so he had focus groups convened to figure out what percentage of failures was expected, then had the test curved so that the results met the expectation.

    As I said, I can’t find a reference for that. I seem to remember hearing it from Limbaugh, so it may be a garbled version (I can find lawsuits about race discrimination with the testing, so it’s possible a mangled version of that). But the story struck me to the point where I remember it twenty years later. And the reason it struck is because:

  • It sounds like the sort of thing politicians and political activists would do.
  • It would be amazingly easy to do.
  • Our media are so lazy that you could probably get away with it.
  • Since then, I’ve seen other numbers which I call “focus tested numbers” even tough they may not have been run by focus groups. But they cross me as numbers derived by someone coming up with the number first and then devising the methodology second. They first part is the critical one. Whatever the issue is, you have to come with a number that is plausible and alarming without being ridiculous. Then you figure out the methods to get the number.

    Let’s just take an example. The first time I became aware of the work of Maggie McNeill was her thorough debunking of the claim that 200,000 underage girls are trafficked for sex in the United States. You should read that article, which comes to an estimate of about 15,000 total underage prostitutes (most which are 16 or 17) and only a few hundred to a few thousand that are trafficked in any meaningful sense of that word. That does not make the problem less important, but it does make it less panic-inducing.

    But the 200,000 number jumped out at me. Here’s my very first comment on Maggie’s blog and her response:

    Me: Does anyone know where the 100,000 estimate comes from? What research it’s based on?

    It’s so close to 1% [of total underage girls] that I suspect it may be as simple as that. We saw a similar thing in the 1980′s when Mitch Snyder claimed (and the media mindlessly repeated) that three million Americans were homeless (5-10 times the estimates from people who’d done their homework). It turned out the entire basis of that claim was that three million was 1% of the population.

    This is typical of the media. The most hysterical claim gets the most attention. If ten researchers estimates there are maybe 20,000 underage prostitutes and one big-mouth estimates there are 300,000, guess who gets a guest spot on CNN?

    —–

    Maggie: Honestly, I think 100,000 is just a good large number which sounds impressive and is too large for most people to really comprehend as a whole. The 300,000 figure appears to be a modification of a figure from a government report which claimed that something like 287,000 minors were “at risk” from “sexual exploitation” (though neither term was clearly defined and no study was produced to justify the wild-ass guess). It’s like that game “gossip” we played as children; 287,000 becomes 300,000, “at risk” becomes “currently involved” and “sexual exploitation” becomes “sex trafficking”. :-(

    The study claimed that 100-300,000 girls were “at risk” of exploitation but defined “at risk” so loosely that simply living near a border put someone at risk. With such methods, the authors could basically claim any number they wanted. After reading that analysis and picking my jaw up off of the floor, I wondered why anyone would do it that way.

    And then it struck me: because the method wasn’t the point; the result was. Even the result wasn’t the point; the issue they wanted to advocate was. The care was not in the method: it was in the number. If they had said that there were a couple of thousand underage children in danger, people would have said, “Oh, OK. That sounds like something we can deal with using existing policies and smarter policing.” Or even worse, they might have said, “Well, why don’t we legalize sex work for adults and concentrate on saving these children?” If they had claimed a million children were in danger, people would have laughed. But claim 100-300,000? That’s enough to alarm people into action without making them laugh. It’s in the sweet spot between the “Oh, is that all?” number of a couple thousand and the “Oh, that’s bullshit” number of a million.

    Another great example was the number SOPA supporters bruted about to support their vile legislation. Julian Sanchez details the mathematical malpractice here. At first, they claimed that $250 billion was lost to piracy every year. That number — based on complete garbage — was so ridiculous they had to revise it down to $58 billion. Again, notice how well-picked that number is. At $250 billion, people laughed. If they had gone with a more realistic estimate — a few billion, most likely — no one would have supported such draconian legislation. But $58 billion? That’s enough to alarm people, not enough to make them laugh and — most importantly — not enough to make the media do their damn job and check it out.

    I encountered it again today. The EU is proposing to put speed limiters on cars. Their claim is this will cut traffic deaths by a third. Now, we actually do have some data on this. When the national speed limit was introduced in America, traffic fatalities initially fell about 20%, but then slowly returned to normal. They began falling again, bumped up a bit when Congress loosened the law, then leveled out in the 90′s and early 00′s after Congress completely repealed the national speed limit. The fatality rate has plunged over the last few years and is currently 40% below the 1970′s peak — without a speed limit.

    That’s just raw numbers, of course. In real terms — per million vehicle miles driven — fatalities have plunged almost 75% of the last forty years, with no effect of the speed limit law. Of course, more cars contain single drivers than ever before. But even on a per capita basis, car fatalities are half of what they once were.

    That’s real measurable progress. Unfortunately for the speed limiters, it’s result of improved technology and better enforcement of drunk driving laws.

    So the claim that deaths from road accidents will plunge by a third because of speed limits is simply not supported by data in the United States. They might plunge as technology, better roads and laws against drunk driving spread to Eastern Europe. And I’m sure one of the reasons they are pushing for speed limits is that they can claim credit for that inevitable improvement. But a one-third decline is just not realistic.

    No, I suspect that this is a focus tested number. If they claimed fatalities would plunge by half, people would laugh. If they claimed 1-2%, no one would care. But one-third? That’s in the sweet spot.