Archive for February, 2014

The Return of Linkorama

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Linkoramas are getting rarer these days mostly because I tweet most articles. But I will still be occasionally posting something more long-form.

To wit:

  • A fascinating article about how Vermeer used a camera obscura to enable his paintings. Yet another example about how people were pretty damn clever in the supposedly unenlightened past.
  • This is a couple of months late, but someone posted up Truman Capote’s christmas story. The recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this little gem.
  • This is the second and by far the largest study yet to show that routine mammography is basically a gigantic waste of money, being just as likely to precipitate unnecessary treatment as to discover a tumor that a breast exam wouldn’t. Do you think our “evidence-based” government will embrace this? No way. They already mandated mammogram coverage when the first study showed it to be a waste.
  • I don’t know even know if this counts as mathematical malpractice. There’s no math at all. It’s just “Marijuana! RUN!”. Simply appalling reporting by the MSM.
  • This on the other hand, does count as mathematical malpractice. The gun control advocates are hyping a Missouri study that shows a rise in murder rate after a change in the gun control laws. However, in doing so they are ignoring data from 17 other states, data on all other forms of violent crime and data from Missouri that showed a steep rise in the murder rate before the laws were changed. They are picking a tiny slice of data to make a huge claim. Disgraceful. And completely expected from the gun-grabbers.
  • I love color photos from history. Just love them.
  • This is old but worth reposting: one of the biggest feminists texts out there is loaded with garbage data, easily checked facts that are completely wrong. This was a big reason I distanced myself from third-wave feminism in college: it had been taken over by crackpots who would believe any statistic as long as it was bad. In college, we were told that one in three women are raped (they aren’t) that abuse is the leading cause of admission to ER’s (it isn’t), that violence erupts very Superbowl (it doesn’t). I even had one radical tell me — with no apparent self-awareness, that murder was the second leading cause of death among women (it’s not even close). As I seem to say about everything: reality is bad enough; we don’t need to invent stuff.
  • Five Favorites – “Five Favorite Films We Saw in 2013″

    Monday, February 17th, 2014

    I’m cross-posting this from my friend Donna’s wonderful From the Rental Queue blog. When I joined Twitter, I noticed that Donna was posting quick tweet reviews of movies she watched. I immediately liked the idea of posting 140 reviews of the movies I saw and began doing so. Donna graciously invited me to put up a joint post on the five best movies we saw in 2013. Here it is, hopefully the first of a series.

    Welcome to what will hopefully become a regular feature here on “From the Rental Queue” – “Five Favorites”!

    Fellow blogger and all-around gentleman Michael Siegel of “Mike’s Meandering Mind” also posts regular #FTRQ potted movie reviews both on his Twitter feed and on his blog. I’ve always been a great admirer of his taste in film so I asked Mike to join me in creating review columns based on the idea of “Five Favorites”. The idea is to pick a topic – action thriller, 80′s comedies, found-footage films, anything at all – and discuss what our Five Favorite films in that category are and why. To start off the new year we decided to create our first list – our “Five Best Films We Saw in 2013″. This isn’t a list of the best films of 2013, but rather the best films we each saw *for the first time* in 2013. For a film to be included in our list we would have to have seen it for the first time during 2013.

    I made an additional caveat for my list – I excluded all “Best Picture” nominees/winners from 2012 and 2013 from my inventory. I wanted my list to be more focused on lesser-known films so personal favorites “Amour”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Cloud Atlas” – all of which were among the best films I saw last year – are excluded from my list. Of the 312 movies I reviewed last year 19 made my short list, and, after much rumination, I whittled it down to these five favorites of mine that I saw for the first time in 2013.

    Mike: I obeyed this caveat. I agree, however, that “Amour”, “Beasts…” and “Cloud Atlas” were three of the best movies I saw last year.

    I saw about 55 movies this year; mostly on Netflix, two in the theater. About 10 of those made my preliminary cut. I should give an honorable mention to “Frozen” which was my daughter’s favorite movie and is probably the best thing Disney’s main studio has done in about twenty years.

    Donna’s #5) “Antiviral” – This is the first feature from Brandon Cronenberg, which he both wrote and directed, and in one film I feel he has surpassed the best things his father ever did. It is, quite simply, one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long while and, along with “Upstream Color”, one the most innovative ones in years. The writing was marvelous, engaging, sinister, and disturbing, without ever breaking its own rules. The star of the film, an unknown to me Caleb Landry Jones, was sheer
    perfection. Most everything about this film was just that – sheer perfection – and I feel sorry for the many on Netflix who gave this poor reviews after just not grasping the plot. This is the type of film ardent movie fans should be supporting, which is why I immediately bought it on DVD. I encourage anyone who likes visually stunning, dark, cerebral sci-fi films to watch this with haste – you will thank me.

    Mike’s #5) – “All Quiet on the Western Front” Yeah, I’ll go old school with my first choice.  I’ve been slowly catching up on old Oscar winners.  “All Quiet” has aged very well and is still one of the most devastating portraits of war ever committed to film.  I did a long series on the Academy Awards on my site and this was one of the first ones the Academy absolutely nailed.

    Donna’s #4) “Oslo, August 31st” – This dark drama marks the second collaboration of Norwegian director Joachim Trier and actor Anders Danielsen Lie – the first being the powerful drama “Reprise”. Lie is simply marvelous as a struggling addict searching for forgiveness and redemption on one fateful day in his life. This is a powerful, tragic film made all the better by Trier’s poetic direction. I remember feeling punched in the gut when it ended, and it’s not easy for a film to take me in as this one did. A darkly lovely film that should get more attention in this country.

    Mike’s #4) “High Noon” -Yep, another classic.  Well, there’s a reason they are called classics, isn’t there?  High Noon broke the mold for westerns, establishing tension and pacing above action and violence.  Gary Cooper underplays his role perfectly; Grace Kelly is luminous.  All Hollywood movie directors should be forced to watch High Noon as an example of how to build the kind of tension that makes an action scene thrilling instead of boring.

    Donna’s #3) “Monsters” – When Gareth Edwards was revealed as the person to helm the reboot of “Godzilla”, the sumptuously directed “Monsters” was touted as the main reason he got the job. The pacing and storyline are far more like a cerebral drama than a monster movie, which I think tends to throw people off. It is, however, the very definition of ominous, with an ending that hit me like a lightning bolt. The revelation of the end jolted me so hard I restarted the film, searching for a particular moment in a particular scene just to see if I had gotten all the implications of it right. When I realized I had I was struck by equal parts tragedy and awe at the repercussions of it all. I’m so glad Gareth Edwards is remaking “Godzilla” – if this is anything to stand by it will be amazing.

    Mike’s #3) “Before Midnight” – I am a big fan of the “Before …” movies.  I’ve always liked Linklater’s work and while I’m neutral on Ethan Hawke, I like Julie Delpy quite a bit.  But with these three (and hopefully more) movies, they have broken new ground in chronicling a relationship between two characters.  “Before Sunrise” might be one the most romantic movies ever. “Before Sunset” was a wonderful and unexpected return.  This one is much harder than the others, chronicling what amounts to a mid-life crisis in Celine and Jesse’s relationship. For married couples, the barbs and slings during the climactic scene will feel all too painful.  But the script, hashed out between the director and the two leads, rings true and has the wonderful dialogue of the first two films.  Hawke and Delpy don’t act; they inhabit roles they’ve known for 18 years.  Linklater’s low-key directing is perfect, once again using long unbroken takes to let the actors relish the dialogue.  This was easily one of the best films released in 2013.

    Donna’s # 2) “Frances Ha” – I’m a huge Noah Baumbach fan so I was looking quite forward to this film, and it didn’t disappoint in the least. Greta Gertwig was masterful as Frances, who is a delightfully well-rounded character about whom I genuinely cared. Baumbach’s subtlety and minimalist style worked wonderfully in black and white and gave the film a charm I didn’t expect. This is a real, heartwarming portrayal of a young woman in flux and I loved every moment of it.

    Mike’s #2) “Looper” – The banner franchises of science fiction are rubbish, for reasons I’ve detailed on my own blog.  However, if you look past them, there are a number of sci-fi gems out there and Looper is one of them.  The time travel plot holds together reasonably well (which is not always the case for time travel plots) and turns on a profound moral quandary.  Willis and Gordon-Levitt are fantastic, with the latter having developed into a capable leading man. The technology is integrated naturally into the fabric of the setting, not shown off for its own sake. Nick Meyer said that great cinema is born from limitations and Looper exemplifies this: eschewing big special effects and long insane action scenes.  Instead, it builds itself on character, plot and ideas. Even the supporting cast is strong. This was probably the best film of 2012.

    Donna’s #1) “The Imposter” – When I first saw this film I wrote that it was “hands down the single greatest and best documentary I’ve ever seen – absolutely masterful and gripping.” I stand by those words as “The Imposter” truly breaks new ground in the world of documentaries. The style is utterly unique – I have never seen or heard of anything like it, and it was done so expertly I’m still amazed at how well it all came together. The subject itself is utterly fascinating as well – I still think of the story and all the questions it raises. This is a marvel of a film and one not to be missed. Easily the best film I saw all year save for perhaps “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

    Mike’s #1) “The Up Series” – There are documentaries, and then there is the “Up” series, which chronicles the lives of 14 British children from the 1960’s on every seven years.  What is odd is that what started as a social commentary in the end becomes about itself.  We become fascinated by the people in the film and it is inspiring and uplifting to watch their lives and see how many were able to make happy lives for themselves, how many were able to overcome adversity, how many went in unexpected directions.  This is truly one of the most remarkable achievements not just in documentary, but in all of cinema.

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: A Trilogy of Error

    Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

    Three rather ugly instances of mathematical malpractice have caught my attention in the last month. Let’s check them out.

    The Death of Facebook or How to Have Fun With Out of Sample Data

    Last month, Princeton researchers came out with the rather spectacular claim that the social network Facebook would be basically dead within a few years. The quick version is that they fit an epidemiological model to the rise and fall of MySpace. They then used that same model, varying the parameters, to fit Google trends on searches for Facebook. They concluded that Facebook would lose 80% of its customers by 2017.

    This was obviously nonsese as detailed here and here. It suffered from many flaws, notably assuming that the rise and fall of MySpace was necessarily a model for all social networks and the dubious method of using Google searches instead of publicly available traffic data as their metric.

    But there was a deeper flaw. The authors fit a model of a sharp rise and fall. They then proclaim that this model works because Facebook’s google data follows the first half of that trend and a little bit of the second. But while the decline in Facebook Google searches is consistent with their model, it is also consistent with hundreds of others. It would be perfectly consistent with a model that predicts a sharp rise and then a leveling off as the social network saturates. Their data are consistent with but not discriminating against just about any model.

    The critical part of the data — the predicted sharp fall in Facebook traffic — is out of sample (meaning it hasn’t happened yet). But based on a tiny sliver of data, they have drawn a gigantic conclusion. It’s Mark Twain and the length of the Mississippi River all over again.

    We see this a lot in science, unfortunately. Global warming models often predict very sharp rises in temperature — out of sample. Models of the stock market predict crashes or runs — out of sample. Sports twerps put together models that predict Derek Jeter will get 4000 hits — out of sample.

    Anyone who does data fitting for a living knows this danger. The other day, I fit a light curve to a variable star. Because of an odd intersection of Fourier parameters, the model predicted a huge rise in brightness in the middle of its decay phase because there were no data to constrain it there. So it fit a small uptick in the decay phase as though it were the small beginning of a massive re-brightening.

    The more complicated the model, the more danger there is of drawing massive conclusions from tiny amounts of data or small trends. If the model is anything other than a straight line, be very very wary at out-of-sample predictions, especially when they are predicting order-of-magnitude changes.

    A Rape Epidemic or How to Reframe Data:

    The CDC recently released a study that claimed that 1.3 million women were raped and 12.6 million more were subject to sexual violence in 2010. This is six or more times the estimates of the FBI’s extremely rigorous NCVS estimate. Christina Hoff Summers has a breakdown of why the number is so massive:

    It found them by defining sexual violence in impossibly elastic ways and then letting the surveyors, rather than subjects, determine what counted as an assault. Consider: In a telephone survey with a 30 percent response rate, interviewers did not ask participants whether they had been raped. Instead of such straightforward questions, the CDC researchers described a series of sexual encounters and then they determined whether the responses indicated sexual violation. A sample of 9,086 women was asked, for example, “When you were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent, how many people ever had vaginal sex with you?” A majority of the 1.3 million women (61.5 percent) the CDC projected as rape victims in 2010 experienced this sort of “alcohol or drug facilitated penetration.”

    What does that mean? If a woman was unconscious or severely incapacitated, everyone would call it rape. But what about sex while inebriated? Few people would say that intoxicated sex alone constitutes rape — indeed, a nontrivial percentage of all customary sexual intercourse, including marital intercourse, probably falls under that definition (and is therefore criminal according to the CDC).

    Other survey questions were equally ambiguous. Participants were asked if they had ever had sex because someone pressured them by “telling you lies, making promises about the future they knew were untrue?” All affirmative answers were counted as “sexual violence.” Anyone who consented to sex because a suitor wore her or him down by “repeatedly asking” or “showing they were unhappy” was similarly classified as a victim of violence. The CDC effectively set a stage where each step of physical intimacy required a notarized testament of sober consent.

    In short, they did what is called “reframing”. They took someone’s experiences, threw away that person’s definition of them and substituted their own definition.

    This isn’t the first time this has happened with rape stats nor the first time Summers had uncovered this sort of reframing. Here is an account of how researchers decided that women who didn’t think they had been raped were, in fact, raped, so they could claim a victimization rate of one in four.

    Scientists have to classify things all the time based on a variety of criteria. The universe is a messy continuum; to understand it, we have to sort things into boxes. I classify stars for a living based on certain characteristics. The problem with doing that here is that women are not inanimate objects. Nor are they lab animals. They can have opinions of their own about what happened to them.

    I understand that some victims may reframe their experiences to try to lessen the trauma of what happened to them. I understand that a woman can be raped but convince herself it was a misunderstanding or that it was somehow her fault. But to a priori reframe any woman’s experience is to treat them like lab rats, not human beings capable of making judgements of their own.

    But it also illustrates a mathematical malpractice problem: changing definitions. This is how 10,000 underage prostitutes in the United States becomes 200,000 girls “at risk”. This is how small changes in drug use stats become an “epidemic”. If you dig deep into the studies, you will find the truth. But the banner headline — the one the media talk about — is hopelessly and deliberately muddled.

    Sometimes you have to change definitions. The FBI changed their NCVS methodology a few years ago on rape statistics and saw a significant increase in their estimates. But it’s one thing to hone; it’s another to completely redefine.

    (The CDC, as my friend Kevin Wilson pointed out, mostly does outstanding work. But they have a tendency to jump with both feet into moral panics. In this case, it’s the current debate about rape culture. Ten years ago, it was obesity. They put out a deeply flawed study that overestimated obesity deaths by a factor of 14. They quickly admitted their screwup but … guess which number has been quoted for the last decade on obesity policy?)

    You might ask why I’m on about this. Surely any number of rapes is too many. The reason I wanted to talk about this, apart from my hatred of bogus studies, is that data influences policy. If you claim that 1.3 million women are being raped every year, that’s going to result in a set of policy decisions that are likely to be very damaging and do very little to address the real problem.

    If you want a stat that means something, try this one: the incidence of sexual violence has fallen 85% over the last 30 years. That is from the FBI’s NCVS data so even if they are over- or under-estimating the amount of sexual violence, the differential is meaningful. That data tells you something useful: that whatever we are doing to fight rape culture, it is working. Greater awareness, pushing back against blaming the victim, changes to federal and state laws, changes to the emphasis of attorneys general’s offices and the rise of internet pornography have all been cited as contributors to this trend.

    That’s why it’s important to push back against bogus stats on rape. Because they conceal the most important stat; the one that is the most useful guide for future policy and points the way toward ending rape culture.

    The Pending Crash or How to Play with Scales:

    Yesterday morning, I saw a chart claiming that the recent stock market trends are an eerie parallel of the run-up to the 1929 crash. I was immediately suspicious because, even if the data were accurate, we see this sort of crap all the time. There are a million people who have made a million bucks on Wall Street claiming to pattern match trends in the stock market. They make huge predictions, just like the Facebook study above. And those predictions are always wrong. Because, again, the out of sample data contains the real leverage.

    This graph is even worse than that, though. As Quartz points out, the graph makers used two different y-axes. In one, the the 1928-29 rise of the stock market was a near doubling. In the other, the 2013-4 rise was an increase of about 25%. When you scale them appropriately, the similarity vanishes. Or, alternatively, the pending “crash” would be just an erasure of that 25% gain.

    I’ve seen this quite a bit and it’s beginning to annoy me. Zoomed-in graphs of narrow ranges of the y-axis are used to draw dramatic conclusions about … whatever you want. This week, it’s the stock market. Next week, it’s global warming skeptics looking at little spikes on a 10-year temperature plot instead of big trends on a 150-year one. The week after, it will be inequality data. Here is one from Piketty and Saez, which tracks wealth gains for the rich against everyone else. Their conclusion might be accurate but the plot is useless because it is scaled to intervals of $5 million. So even if the bottom 90% were doing better, even if their income was doubling, it wouldn’t show up on the graph.

    Does Defense Win Championships?

    Monday, February 3rd, 2014

    So Super Bowl XVIII went exactly as expected. Opening safety. Broncos shut down. Seattle dominating.

    Well, it wasn’t as expected, obviously. But if you listen to the Sports Media Twerps, we should have foreseen it because “defense wins championships”. If you put a great defense against a great offense, especially in the playoffs, the defense will win. Right?

    Right?

    Well, Joe Posnanski threw a little bit of cold water on this:

    The ultimate sports cliche was trotted out again and again on Sunday: Defense wins championships. I don’t believe that’s actually true. Great defense certainly CAN win championships but great offense can too. For every dominant defense like Seattle, I can point to a dominant offense like Kurt Warner’s Rams team; you talk about the great defense of the 2008 Steelers, I point to the great offense of the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

    But I think there is SOMETHING to the cliche, and it’s this: We do often forget the power of great defense. Great offense is easier to see, easier to understand, easier to build up in our imaginations. I think it was easier to imagine the Broncos scoring a lot of points against Seattle because we saw them score so many points all year; those touchdowns are vibrant in our minds. So then we watch a great defense dominate the way the Seahawks’ did, and it’s jolting, it’s visually gripping, and we think: “Great defense is better than great offense. Great defense wins championships.”

    And the next time a great offense comes along, we start the whole process over.

    I would rephrase that a little bit. Great offenses capture our attention. So when they flop in the playoffs, we notice. Great defenses, unless they are historically great, tend to be missed. So when they flop in the playoffs, we don’t notice.

    This tendency has been exacerbated the last few years because of the changes in the game. Every year, records are being set for scoring so whichever offense happens to be the best is hailed as the greatest offense of all time. This is clearly insane. If Jerry Rice’s 49ers — who led the league in scoring six times and won two Super Bowls in those years — were around today, they would be putting up similar numbers. The game has changed. And that tends to warp our perception. So when we see record-setting offenses stopped in the Super Bowl, we immediately jump to the conclusion that defense wins championships. After all, if Manning’s record-shattering offense can’t win the big game, that must mean offense is over-rated, right?

    I wanted to look at this systematically and without a bias toward recent years. So I went through all 48 NFL post-seasons and tracked the records of the league’s best offenses and best defenses. I kept it simple, just looking at total points. Doubtless, someone like Football Outsiders can use a more sophisticated metric, but I wanted to do this in a couple of hours with a web browser and a spreadsheet.

    So does defense win championships?

  • The league’s best offenses were 65-33 in the post-season. The league’s best defenses were 66-33. So, defense doesn’t win championships.
  • Or maybe it does. Top offenses were 10-12 in the Super Bowl while top defenses were 14-5. When the two have faced off, the top defenses were 4-1.
  • Or maybe not. Overall, top defenses were more likely to fall in the divisional and wild card rounds. Outside of the Super Bowl, top offenses were 3-3.
  • Or maybe it does. There have been some great offenses — Fouts’ Chargers, Marino’s Dolphins, Kelly’s Bills, the Patriots of the last seven years — that have failed to win championships.
  • Or not. Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters didn’t win a title. Atlanta’s great ’78 defense didn’t even make the playoffs. The early 80′s Eagles couldn’t win one. Chicago won the Super Bowl in ’86, but that year they also had a great offense. They didn’t make the Super Bowl again despite having the best defense in two of the next three years. New Orleans had a great defense in the early 90′s that went nowhere.
  • Or maybe it does. In the last 15 years, the top defense has won five Super Bowls while the top offense has won one.
  • or maybe not. During the 90′s, the top offense won five Super Bowls in nine years while the top defense won twice. And one of those years, the top offense and defense was the same team.
  • My point is that you can cherry-pick these data all you want to make any point you want. But based on looking at all the data, I would say that Joe is right. Defense doesn’t win championships; but it can. So can offense. You could make a slight case that when defense is at a premium, having a great defense can give a team an advantage (as it has for the last decade). And when offense is at a premium, having a great offense can give a team an advantage. But in the end, there are many ways to win a Super Bowl. The best way is to be good at everything.