Does Defense Win Championships?

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.

    SEC Forever

    January 6th, 2014

    A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

    My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

    This year, it isn’t really close. The Pac 12 did well, with 9 points (6 bowl wins). The ACC could vault into third with six points if Florida State wins their Bowl, despite their losing record. How? Their conference is top heavy with most of their teams struggling but Clemson and FSU having a chance to win two BCS bowls and a national title.

    But first this year is the SEC, currently riding on 12 points thanks to their 7-2 record and with a chance to break their own 2007 record with 15 points if Auburn pulls off the upset.

    This actually surprised me as I expected the SEC to tumble. For all the hype, the SEC dominance peaked in 2008. Moreover, the SEC has shown a lamentable lack of defense this year. Their dominance — and the Big 10′s dominance a decade ago and the Big 12′s dominance in the early 00′s — was the result of having powerhouse defenses that could stop the much-hyped offenses of Oklahoma, Oregon and USC as well as spectacular offensive lines. This year was a poor year for SEC defense and I expected them to tumble.

    In retrospect, however, I think the SEC’s dominance (and to some extent, the Pac 12′s, which is second only to the SEC) is structural. The SEC has been one of the big winners in conference realignment, picking up powerhouse programs Missouri and Texas A&M while the Big 12 and Pac 12 are patching things with West Virginia, TCU, Utah and Colorado — all schools in a down cycle. The American Conference (formerly Big East) is basically a mid-major at this point and the Big 12 is on their way to being Texas, Oklahoma and the Texas-Oklahoma-ettes.

    We are clearly headed to an era when four conferences — SEC, ACC, Pac 12 and Big 10 — will dominate college football. We might even be heading for two conferences dominating the league. The Pac 12 and SEC, which went 1-2 in my system this year, have extraordinary depth: according to Sagarin, ten of the Pac 12′s teams are in the top 50 teams, ten of the SEC’s 14 teams are in the top 50 (and the two out are Florida and Tennessee in down cycles). No conference can match that kind of depth. None is even close. The ACC has the best team in the country, but FSU and Clemson are the only ones ranked in the top 30 and and only seven of their 14 are in the top 50. The Big Ten has three great programs, but only six of their 12 programs are in the top 50. Only six of the Big 12′s 10 teams are in the top 50. Only three of the American’s ten teams are in the top 50.

    I really don’t like re-alignment because of the way it throws out old rivalries in favor of dollars and has created the superconference situation we find ourselves in. When I invented this system, it was kind of fun because you could see more-or-less equal conferences rise and fall. Now it seems to be tracking which conferences are rising in falling in terms of wooing members out of other conferences. If the NCAA really cared, they’d have done something about it long ago. But they don’t. And so my points system will probably go the way of the Championship Cup. Because what’s the point of tracking this thing if it’s going to be the SEC and Pac 12 every year? You don’t need a points system to figure that out.

    Hobbit II: The Desolation of Editing

    December 28th, 2013

    My review of The Desolation of Smaug will necessarily be spoiler-y. To protect those who have not seen the movie yet, I will warn of the worst spoilers with bold text and put those sections in white text so you have to swipe to read (note this may not work in RSS. Hell, it may not work in HTML. One of my goals in life is learn the minimum amount of hypertext I have to).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Star Trek, Prometheus and the Death of Sci-Fi Storytelling

    December 26th, 2013

    Note: this article contains major spoilers for the Star Trek movies and minor spoilers for Prometheus. You might thank me, but just in case you want to discover them for yourselves, read carefully.

    Ulysses is the worst book ever written.

    There, that got your attention didn’t it? In saying that, I don’t mean that Ulysses is a bad book or even not a great one. What I mean is that it is one of the worst books every written because it is opaque, difficult and complex. It is unapproachable for most readers. This would be fine as far as Ulysses goes but its difficult style has persuaded many writers — and many critics — that being opaque, difficult and complex constitutes genius. So truly awful works like Gravity’s Rainbow are assumed to be brilliant because they are incomprehensible. The logic seems to be that a book that bad must be brilliant.

    The Problem of the Mystery Box

    In the last few years, I have noticed this aesthetic bleeding into science fiction. There are and more science fiction films and TV programs, including mainstream ones, that make no damn sense at all. Defenders of these movies and TV shows see their incomprehensibility as a sign of their brilliance. But I see them as a sign of lazy writing.

    Take Lost, for example. I never watched it, but many people vented frustration because its plot wasn’t understandable. In fact, JJ Abrams has boasted about this with his routine about how wondering what’s in a mystery box is better than finding out what’s in the box. Battlestar Galactica, which I did watch, followed the same pattern. In the end, a shaky arc emerged but there were tons of red herrings and contradictions on the way.

    Both series were proclaimed as brilliant. But I think this has less to do with actual brilliance than in mistaking incoherence and lack of planning for brilliance. Contrast them against, say, Babylon 5, which had a lot of mystery and intrigue but, in the end, holds together pretty well. Having watched the series multiple times, I can see how ideas are put in place years in advance, how everything is relevant to the plot and how, ultimately, it all makes sense. The reason it does is because Stracyzinski, unlike creators of Lost and BSG, was not just throwing random mystery events on the screen and then, toward the end, trying desperately to reconcile them. He had written out the plot in advance on 3×5 cards. He knew exactly what was going to happen so that events in Season 1 were directly related to revelations in Season 4.

    And that’s the key difference. One series had a complex labyrinthine plot that was in view from the start. The others were put together by writers doing random things and pretending like it made them smart. In BSG, for example, the writers didn’t know who the Final Five Cylons were until Series 3 and practically drew names out of a hat. The Lost writers admitted they didn’t have a series bible and that the early days especially had random bits thrown out that they eventually dropped.

    I’ve heard, but can not confirm, that several recent sci-fi series like Fringe, Terra Nova, Under the Dome and Revolution are even worse. In these cases, however, it seems more like plain bad writing than ham-fisted attempts at “mystery”. According to the online criticisms I’ve read, the series’ contradict themselves routinely even when the plot is straight-forward. However, this may be an offshoot of the aesthetic built by Lost, BSG and later seasons of 24 of doing a series with a running arc but no bible or advanced planning.

    It’s fine to have a mystery box. It’s even fine to not necessarily reveal what’s in it. What is not OK is for the writers to not have an idea of what’s in the mystery box. Because instead of having plot developments that hint consistently at what’s in there, you end up with a maddening collection of red herrings that lead nowhere. You end up with a muddled plot that contradicts itself and punishes rather than rewards the attentive viewer.

    Moving to film, a recent example of this trend toward incoherence is Prometheus. The early scripts made sense. But the version on the screen doesn’t. To cite Franklin Harris again:

    Unfortunately, it isn’t just that “Prometheus” is ambiguous, which can be a virtue, but that it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going with any of its ideas. And when it comes down to the basic stuff, it fails miserably.

    Can anyone tell me what the plot of Prometheus was? Can anyone say, for certain, that there actually was something in the mystery box?

    Character as the Source of Drama

    A good plot emerges naturally from the responses of characters to a situation. A bad plot emerges when you decide in advance what you want to do and twist the characters to follow those points. Lost and BSG, despite their narrative problems, at least had reasonable characters. But there is an even lower tier of sci-fi these days that combines an incoherent plot with idiotic or inconsistent characters.

    Back to Prometheus. The characters in the movie frequently do nonsensical things because the plot, such as it is, requires them to. A character previously scared of the situation takes off his helmet and approaches a menacing tentacle. Why? So it can attack him. A pilot who could care less for one of the characters effectively commits suicide at her urging. Why? So the ship can be destroyed. Hell, the Star Wars prequels had more consistent characterization than this.

    Kurt Vonnegut said that in a good story every character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water. In Prometheus, what do people want? What are their motivations? What drives them? A few of the characters have clear motivations, but the plot turns on characters whose motives are opaque if they exist at all. Say what you want about Abrams’ mystery box, at least he wasn’t putting the characters in there.

    It’s fine to make a character morally ambiguous or to make his motivations somewhat opaque. One of the best characters in TV science fiction was Kerr Avon of Blake’s 7. Avon claims to be entirely motivated by self-interest, wanting to be safe, rich and secure. But over the course of the series, his actions often betray his self-proclaimed motives. He risks himself, even sacrifices himself for others. In my opinion, his cynical self-interest is who he wishes he were. He sees the idealism in others and finds it childish and even, in the case of Blake, fanatical. But he can’t quite be that selfish person he wishes he were.

    But the thing about Avon is that he remains a compelling character even though his motives are unclear. Unlike the characters in Prometheus, he actually has motives besides advancing the plot. There is something he wants. There are reasons behind the things he does. He is consistent in his actions, even if his actions are not always consistent with his words. He doesn’t abandon the crew to death in one episode and then take on a full squad of Federation troops in the next because the plot says so. If Avon is a mystery box at least there’s something inside it, even if we never find out what it is.

    The motivations of Hal 9000 in 2001 are opaque. But there is clearly some reason behind them, even if it is not explained until the next movie (or in the book). If 2001 were made today, Hal would kill some people, spare others, pilot the ship to Mars, send laser beams down the hallway and no explanation for any of it would be given or even possible. Defenders would say, “well, he was a crazy computer”. He was, but even crazy computers act in certain ways. And once we find out what drove Hal mad, his actions make sense.

    In a recent post, I talked about conspiracy theories. I noted that the difference between a real conspiracy theory and bogus one is that real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight forward (“let’s kill Hitler”), even if the mechanics of them sometimes become complex. Fake conspiracy theories are like Rube Goldberg engines because they are not built up from ideas (“let’s assassinate JFK”) but from perceived holes in the conventional explanations (“a magic bullet”).

    The problem with some of the worst science fiction plots these days is that they tend to devolve into Rube Goldberg engines for the same reason. No one lays out the plot in advance and thinks about how Character X would accomplish Goal Y given situation Z. They decide they want to have events A, B, C and D happen and so wrap the characters around that. They then proclaim that we’re too simple to understand the complex plot. Maybe this is the result of our paranoid times: the X-Files‘ absurd plot was born from Watergate paranoia. It was never intended to make sense but to reflect vague conspiracy theories. But for most science fiction, it makes no damn sense. (And the X-Files has well-developed characters with clear motives even if the overall plot was nonsense.)

    Star Trek: Spoiler Warning

    What brought this post up — and perhaps it’s because I care about it so much — was the recent Trek films. While I liked them, I was ultimately disappointed because it seemed like they were built less around character than around set pieces and action sequences. This is a big letdown for a series that was always built around character.

    For example: in the first movie, one of the most problematic sequences occurs after the destruction of Vulcan. Spock throws Kirk off the ship, Kirk runs into Spoke Prime on Delta Vega, they then run into Scotty and then transwarp beam back to the Enterprise.

    The number of coincidences and plot contrivances in that portion are staggering. That’s because the script isn’t trying to make sense or be consistent with anyone’s character; it’s trying to gin up a bogus conflict between Kirk and Spock, get the action beat of the monster on the moon, get a meeting with Spock Prime and drag Scotty in. It is entirely a plot contrivance that emerges from the bizarre decision of Spock to not put Kirk in the brig but to abandon him on a dangerous icy planet (I’m thinking that would be called attempted murder in Star Fleet regs).

    Here’s an alternative off the top of my head that would have accomplished the same thing. While the Enterprise is being repaired, Spock works on rescuing survivors. Among the survivors is a young engineer’s mate Montgomery Scott, who is put to work since Enterprise lost so many engineers in the battle. Spock prioritizes restoring subspace communications to warn Star Fleet while Scotty is given the lesser task of repairing the warp engines. Hearing that the Nerada visited Vulcan’s moon, he sends Kirk to investigate. Kirk finds Spock Prime, who advises him that Spock II is compromised and can not properly command the Enterprise. He also advises him to promote promising young Enterprise personnel such as Ensign Chekov. Returning to the Enterprise, Kirk relieves Spock. When Scotty works a miracle and restores the engines, he sets off in pursuit of the Nerada and also to get close enough to Earth to warn them by normal communications.

    Yeah, that’s not a great plot either. But it’s built around the characters taking logical actions to deal with the situation. I didn’t start out with “we want to put in a cool CGI monster because it’s been ten minutes since we had an action beat.” But you could still put a CGI monster in there if that’s your kink.

    Star Trek has other problems: the complete lack of any planetary defense on Earth or Vulcan, Nero’s failure to warn Romulus of the coming supernova (something their astrophysicists could check out), the movie not being entirely clear on the distance scales of star systems and planets. But, overall, it holds together OK. Most of the characters are reasonably defined. I was hoping that in movie 2, Abrams would iron out those problems.

    I was wrong. Star Trek: Into Darkness is worse when it comes to storytelling. In STID, Admiral Marcus decides he wants to militarize the federation, start a war with the Klingons and conquer the Galaxy. This sort of thing has historical precedent. The path that most warmongers have chosen would be to ramp up paranoia and militarism through propaganda and staged Reichstag fire incidents. Once the buildup is ready, they stage a full-blown military incident on the border of Klingon space to start the war. One way this could play out in film: the Enterprise crew, stationed on the border of Klingon space, finds the lies behind the propaganda thanks to their Klingon-speaking communications officer. This could lead to a huge battle between militaristic forces on both sides and those who want peace (sort of like Star Trek VI did). You could even end it on a cliffhanger, if you wanted, with the Enterprise crew and a few peace-wanting allies as renegades as the two empires move toward war, then resolve that in movie 3. And how beautifully ironic it would be if the ultimate upshot of Nero’s interference in Movie 1 was to bring about peace and understanding between humans and Klingons decades sooner.

    Something like that might have been a great Trek movie. Indeed, you can see the outlines of it in the actual film. Or they could have gone in a different direction. They could have left the Klingons out, kept Khan in and made it about eugenics. Or we could have had a totally unrelated adventure. Or we could have had Gary Mitchell.

    But no. We didn’t get anything like that. Abrams decided we need to have Khan and we needed to kill Pike and we needed to involve the Klingons and we needed to have the Enterprise badly damaged in an attack. And so we get a Rube Goldberg engine: the Admiral revives Khan (and only Khan), puts him to work building new weapons (because there are no geniuses in the 23rd century), has Khan stage a couple of attacks (maybe; it’s not clear if Khan is still following his orders) then retreat to Klingon space. He then wants the Enterprise to fire 72 torpedoes filled with Khan’s people to wipe them all out (because simply firing them into the Sun or turning off their cyro units would be conspicuous?) and then sabotages the Enterprise so it will be destroyed by the Klingons. Then he shows up in the Vengeance to destroy the Enterprise and claim the Klingons did it (there being no black boxes in the 23rd century).

    None of those complications were necessary. None of them make any sense. He doesn’t need Khan to build advanced weapons; Star Fleet has massive troves of engineers, many of whom might be sympathetic to his cause. He doesn’t need Khan to blow up buildings AND flee to Klingon space AND have the Enterprise get destroyed by the Klingons AND send the Vengeance to destroy it. Marcus has a transwarp beaming device. He could transport a bomb to Khan’s location, transport Khan’s people into the Sun and then stage a military incident on any ship near Klingon space. His Rube Goldberg plan doesn’t make him look like a chessmaster; it make him look like an idiot. Pick one conspiracy and stick with it.

    And what are Khan’s motivations in all this? Is he helping Marcus? If so, why does he try to kill him? If not, why does he flee to Kronos? Because he was hoping that Kirk would show up with the 72 torpedoes with his people in them and drag the Vengeance along for the ride? That’s not Khan being a genius; that’s Khan being a plot device.

    In the climax, the Enterprise and the Vengeance are duking it out over Earth. Does no one notice? Does no one say, “Hey, the flagship of the fleet is getting the shit kicked out of it by a mystery ship. Should we, you know, ask them what’s going on?”

    There were moments when I thought this movie was going to go to interesting places. One, pointed out by my brother, was when Kirk asks why anyone would blow up Star Fleet’s records. But instead of following on that, we get an attack by Khan in a helicopter (Starfleet security is apparently terrible). Another was when Uhura confronts the Klingons on their planet. In a previous Trek iteration, she would have talked them into helping. It would have been a shining moment for her. But no, she needs to fail so we can get a stupid action sequence of Khan taking out an entire fleet with a cannon.

    I liked Abrams’ Trek movies but that was mainly in spite of themselves. When the movies focus on character and intrigue, they are good. But that doesn’t happen nearly often enough (especially in the second movie). For all Abrams’ talk about character building, intrigue, mystery boxes and how you don’t don’t need the best special effects for a good scene, STID is just another bang-up film in a Star Trek template. It has its moments; but not enough. I liked it; I wanted to love it.

    All is not lost, of course. We are in an unfortunate era dominated by people who savor “mystery” over coherence and plot contrivances over character. If you look past the glamor franchises, you will see better things: Inception, Gravity, Children of Men, WALL-E, Moon, District 9, Cloud Atlas. Hell, even The Hunger Games and Avatar are better than some of the recent crap. Her looks intriguing.

    So there is hope. You just have to look past the shadowy remnant calling itself Star Trek.

    The New Franchises

    December 21st, 2013

    About a month ago, Franklin Harris wrote an intriguing post on the subject of the new movie franchises:

    Marvel Comics didn’t invent serialized storytelling, but it may have perfected it.

    During the publisher’s formative years, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel “bullpen” created a unified world, in which characters from one comic book might pop up in another, if only for a cameo, with little or no fanfare. Just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by to say hello.

    Fifty years later, the comics publisher-turned-Disney-owned entertainment juggernaut looks to revolutionize serialized storytelling in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

    Franklin goes on to describe the way a movie-TV Marvelverse is being built brick by brick. The movies are no longer movies in the traditional sense; they are stories told in a self-contained universe. And he goes on to argue that Star Wars is about to go down the same path, with the spate of new movies Disney has authorized.

    I think it’s an interesting point. Spinoffs are nothing new, of course. Television has been a particular proving ground for spinoffs (Happy Days, All the Family, the X-files). Movies have done it before as well. But what Marvel is doing is something very different. It’s far more cohesive, far more thought out. They clearly started out from the beginning with this sort of multi-media multi-movie universe in mind, laying down the first Avengers movies as prequels toward 2012′s epic.

    My only disagreement is that I think he has the order reversed. Star Wars got there first, at least as far as movies go.

    Back in the 90′s and early 00′s, the LucasArts studio produced a series of absolutely incredible video games. Set in the Star Wars universe, these ranged from flight simulators that allowed you to refight the battles of the movies (X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, X-Wing Alliance) to first-person shooters that allowed you to be a Jedi in the New Republic (Dark Forces, Jedi Knight) to a first-person role-playing game set thousands of years earlier (Knight of the Old Republic). The video games not only reproduced the movies, they expanded the material there into a larger context. For example, X-Wing covered the rebellion’s desperate flight from Yavin to Hoth. X-Wing Alliance had the plot of Return of the Jedi as only a portion of the larger story of a smuggler family. And characters from the movies — Luke, Lando, C3PO — would pop in for the occasional cameo. This expanded universe included television as well. General Grievous — one of the villains of Revenge of the Sith — was actually introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon. In fact, in 2006, Neal Stephenson wrote that one of the problems with the prequels was that much of the narrative heft had been moved to the video games and cartoons leaving the movies as pure spectacle, the climax to a saga that had been set up on small screens.

    Science fiction has spawned this sort of expanded universe for a long time, of course. Besides Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek had lots of novels, spin-offs, etc. But even there, we are now seeing more cohesion. Doctor Who, in particular, has incorporated K-9 and Company, Torchwood and the audio dramas. What Marvel has done is taken this to the next step: create an interlaced franchise of movies, TV shows and comics.

    Star Wars is now following Marvel to this next step. But I suspect other franchises are going to as well. The Hobbit could have been made as one movie but has been expanded to three with enormous amounts of extra narrative added, so that Bilbo’s journey is just part of a bigger saga, complete with cameos from the first trilogy. And I suspect Peter Jackson is not done with Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world is especially ripe for a Marvel-esque multi-media approach since he created the world first and the stories second. The Tolkienverse is already fully formed. I suspect a few movies will come out of the Silmarillion in the mid-future. Or maybe a television series.

    We really are moving into a different era of entertainment. The rise of the home theater has had a much more profound effect on television and movies than anyone could have foreseen. You’re now expected to watch every episode of a TV series and expected to break out your Iron Man DVD to see some foreshadowing you missed. Thirty years ago, Star Wars was unique in spreading a saga over three movies. Now many franchises are doing it. Twenty years ago, Babylon 5 was unique in telling a television story over a 5-year arc. Now almost every drama is doing it (although usually not as well). One of the most popular shows — Game of Thrones — is unspooling a ridiculously complicated story and HBO is banking millions on the idea that George Martin will give them an ending. Binge watching of TV series and movies is now the norm.

    It’s no longer enough to just watch; these days you have to immerse.

    The Scourge of Action Movie Bloat

    December 21st, 2013

    (I was going to write a review of The Desolation of Smaug but it occurred to me that there were several relevant movie-related posts that I needed to get off my chest first. And if I did them in my Smaug review it would just get ridiculously bloated and go off on tangents. So here are a few backlogged posts on various subjects related to movies. They don’t need to be read to follow the Smaug review. I just need them around for reference.)

    One of the most common complaints about the first Hobbit movie was its length. But Hobbit I was not unusual in having an overlong running time. Almost all movies these days are bloated well beyond any reasonable running length. It’s become unusual to find a movie under two hours in length. This trend has many parents, but one of the most egregious is the explosion of long long action scenes that frequently end with nothing resolved or changed, advance the plot at a snail’s pace (if at all) and frequently exist only for their own sake (or because they are part of pre-programmed action beats).

    I became aware of this in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It was good, but the climactic swordfight had me shifting in my chair. It’s not just that it went on and on. It was that nothing was resolved and nothing could be resolved because the enemy pirates were undead anyway. So the climax consisted of minute after minute of boring, poorly shot, pointless sword-fighting. This tendency toward long, pointless, inconclusive action scenes would blow up badly in the next two movies.

    I’ve since noticed this pattern recurring over and over again and getting even worse. Every fight goes on forever, every character has to have his signature moment, every “amazing” stunt they can think of has to be in there. And it has frequently hurt the scenes themselves, which often make no sense. Both sides use nonsensical tactics because these are no longer battles either side is trying to win; they are a series of stunts and gimmicks that the director has decided to string together. And it gets absurd. By the time they’re halfway through, the characters have effectively run a marathon but they’re still able to jump impossibly high, kill bad guys without looking and hurl one-liners. There’s no sense that fighting is stressful on mind, spirit or body.

    Quentin Tarantino has become one of the worst at this. Kill Bill I had an endless fight with the Crazy 88′s that just had to include every possible stunt. Nothing could be left on the floor. In Django Unchained, probably the worst victim of movie bloat last year, the climactic gunfight goes on and on and ends with … nothing. Django is captured instead of shot dead on the spot, as he would almost certainly be in any sensible movie.

    Hobbit I suffered from this. A lot of criticism of the movie’s length focused on the dinner scene. But while that drags out a bit, it’s mostly humor and character-building, which is fine by me. The Rivendell sequence drags on as well (Weaving and Blanchett, in particular, speak verrrry slowly). But I think that’s also a minor problem.

    No, I think people misidentified the primary culprit. To my mind, the movie’s deeper problem is the long action scenes, which go on and on. The climactic fight in the Misty Mountains is particularly egregious, with every character having to get their moment to kick butt, every possible permutation of enemies having to face off and every stunt having to be included. It’s not enough to get Azog fighting Thorin. He has to fight Bilbo, too. He has to fight the other dwarves. He has to fight the eagles. It’s like Peter Jackson couldn’t make up his mind which kick-ass moment he wanted to end on, so he threw them all in. And, in the end, nothing is resolved. No named character is even wounded.

    I’ll have a rant about Star Trek: Into Darkness in another post but it suffers from an awful case of action movie bloat as well. It ends with a chase through space, a chase through the streets, a chase through the air. And, in the end, they couldn’t make up their mind about whether Uhura or Spock should kick Kahn’s ass, so they both do. And no one of name is killed (well, Kirk briefly is). You can contrast that against Star Trek II, a massively superior movie that was 20 minutes shorter and had maybe a quarter of the action scenes. The first battle between Reliant and Enterprise is tense, thrilling and brilliant. The strategies are plain. It’s clear why everyone is doing what he’s doing and what they’re trying to accomplish. Although it ends with neither party destroyed, both ships are damaged, a named character is killed and the repercussions are felt throughout the rest of the film, informing the strategy for the second battle. And it takes about ten minutes of total screen time. In a modern movie, Kirk would have pulled his shield trick. Then Scotty would have pulled another trick. Then another ship would have shown up. Then Kirk would have been knocked out and Spock would have used the Corbomite maneuver. It would take 45 minutes and my eyes would be rolling up into my skull.

    There is a severe dearth of good editing in Hollywood. Maybe it’s the video era; movies are rarely watched in one full sitting. Maybe it’s that no one cares or has the power. Maybe it’s the international market (action is the same in every language). But no one is willing to cut movies down to an appropriate length. And this is especially obvious with the long bloated action scenes that every movie seems to require. I swear, one of these days we’re going to get a version of Sense and Sensibility with a pointless and inconclusive gun battle in the middle.

    The Shakespeare Project: Richard III

    December 13th, 2013

    Richard III is the polar opposite of Henry V. Whereas Henry is one of the few full-throated heroes in Shakespeare, Richard is a completely unrepentant villain. And Shakespeare is clearly fascinated with both. He earlier explored the heights of Henry’s character; now he plumbs the depth of Richard’s.

    And what a plumbing it is. Richard is a fantastic anti-hero: crafty, amoral, and completely unprincipled. His soliloquies allow him to take the audience into his depravity. The first three acts are a whirlwind of intrigue, verbal sparring and conniving. The funny thing is that, once Richard has power, he gets kind of boring. In the first three acts, he had an underdog thing going for him. But in the fourth act, his actions are just cruel and arbitrary. And Shakespeare seems to tire of him. It’s quickly onto Bosworth field and the dramatic finale.

    This is Shakespeare’s second longest play, but it felt shorter than some of the less approachable tragedies and comedies. Despite the many machinations (I read the play on my iPad while having a book open to the beginning to make sure I knew the characters were), I was rarely lost.

    Next Up: Henry VIII

    The Authentic Games Metric

    December 5th, 2013

    In Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s most recent column, he suggested picking post-season favorites based on what he calls Authentic Games:

    Power rankings, strength-of-schedule, likes on Facebook — there are many ways to assess NFL teams. As the home stretch approaches, Tuesday Morning Quarterback makes his annual contribution: the Authentic Games metric.

    Authentic Games are those against other potent teams. The regular season is a smorgasbord of strong and weak; in the postseason, only strong opponents trot onto the field. That makes how a team performs against equal-caliber opposition the gauge TMQ likes.

    The Authentic metric values most W’s over best percentage. Thus I rank the Denver Broncos at 4-2 ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts at 3-1. The reasoning is that the more wins a team has versus power opponents, the better prepared the team is for the postseason.

    In principle, the Authentic Games Metric makes sense. A great team should be able to beat other great teams rather than pounding on cupcakes. But I was immediately suspicious because it plugs into what I call the Grand Championship Delusion: the belief that the team that wins the championship is always or even usually the best team. We want desperately to believe that the team that wins the title is not a team that had a good season and then got hot. Or a team that had a good season and then had a few breaks go their way. We want to believe that they possess some ineffable quality — clutchiness, manliness, moxie — that makes them win. And the idea that their record in “Authentic Games” is tempting as a way to measure their supposed manliness.

    However, once my skepticism was aroused, I came up with numerous problems with the Authentic Games Metric:

  • There is a great deal of parity in the NFL. If you opened up the playoffs to all 32 teams, we would doubtless see the occasional one seed upset by the occasional 16 seed. And the likelihood of upsets only increases as the teams become closer in quality. A team’s record in a 16-game season is subject to enough random variation, chance plays, tipped passed and blown calls. When you narrow it down to 2-6 “Authentic Games” between teams of near-equal quality, you’re basically just looking at noise.
  • This is born out by research that Football Outsiders has done: great teams are usually defined by their ability to dominate lesser teams not win close games. A great team puts games out of reach; a lucky team wins the nail-biters.
  • Even if Authentic Games gave you some read on who is really the best team in the NFL, applying those to playoffs results invokes even more uncertainty. You’re now dealing with an even smaller sample of 11 games involving teams that are nearly equal in quality.
  • Basically, I think this is yet another attempt to find the “special sauce” that would enable us to know why some some #5 seeds win the Super Bowl while #1 seeds fail. Because, to our simian brains, “football happens” isn’t enough. We don’t want to believe that the winner is a result of team quality convolved with a lot of luck and random chance. We don’t want to believe that a team wins the Super Bowl because they just happen to have three or four good games in a row. No, there has to be a reason behind the madness.

    Anyway, here’s what I did to test the Authentic Games Metric:

    I took all 60 playoffs teams from the last five years. I then went through their schedules and kept track of how they did against other playoff contenders. I then tracked how well this predicted playoff results. In the case of a tie, I went with the team that had more Authentic Games. Since we are subject to noise, I did a second test just looking at strong predictions — where one team was two or more games over or under .500 against fellow playoff teams during the regular season and their opponent was not.

    As a control, I then checked predictions made based purely on their regular season record (with a tie going to the higher seeded team) or which team had home-field advantage. I then checked against predictions based on Football Outsider’s team rankings.

    The result? It really isn’t even close. Teams that won the most Authentic Games were 25-25 in their matchups. For strong predictions, teams were 17-18. Essentially, the Authentic Games Metric is the same as flipping a coin. Of course, using the regular season records was 27-28, which bears out TMQ’s criticism that seeding and the regular season don’t tell you nearly enough about the relative quality of the best team.

    However, I did find two predictors that were useful. One was homefield advantage. Home teams were 30-20 in the playoffs. Even if you discount home teams in the divisional round, who have had a bye while their opponent was playing, home teams still win 60% of the time (I’m obviously excluding the Super Bowl here).

    Of similar quality was Football Outsider’s team efficiency ratings, which went 32-23. Not great, but pretty decent all things considered. FO would be the first to admit that predicting the winner in a football game is a fool’s business. Not only do you have the problem of random luck and chance, you have the problem that football is about matchups. A team may be, by some metric, the best. But if they have a weak secondary, they can get torched by a “lesser” team.

    Breaking it down by year reveals just how random the Authentic Game metric is:

  • In 2008, Arizona went 1-4 in authentic games and came within a hair of winning the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Indianapolis (5-1) died in the first round against San Diego (0-5). Philly (4-2) made the conference final but only because they played New York, also 4-2.
  • In 2009, Indianapolis and New Orleans were both 3-1 in Authentic Games, which would seem to give the metric some credence. But Minnesota (4-1) died in the conference final while Baltimore (1-6) made the divisional round. This was actually the best year for the Authentic Games Metric.
  • In 2010, Pittsburgh (2-4) made the Super Bowl while New England (6-1) died in the first round. The AFC final matches two 2-4 teams in Pittsburgh and New York.
  • In 2011, Baltimore and Green Bay went 6-0 in Authentic Games. Only Baltimore even made the conference final. The New York Giants went 1-3 and won the Super Bowl. Detroit went 1-5 and lost in the first round. New Orleans went 5-1 and lost in the division round. Atlanta went 1-4 and lost in the first round. San Francisco went 4-1 and lost the conference title game. Instead of a matchup of Baltimore (6-0) and Green Bay (6-0) we got New England (1-2) against New York (1-3).
  • In 2012, Seattle was 4-1 in Authentic Games and lost in the divisional round. Green Bay went 2-4 and lost in the division round; Baltimore went 2-4 and won the Super Bowl. Instead of Seattle (4-1) against Indianapolis (3-2), we got Baltimore (2-4) against San Francisco (3-2).
  • You see? You can occasionally pick out a team that did well in both Authentic Games and the playoffs but it’s mostly random. Part of this is, again, the vicissitudes of football. But FO’s rankings don’t do too badly. I think it’s more of a flaw in the Authentic Games metric itself. Because a metric based on 2-6 games is going to be worse, not better, than one based on 16.

    If you want to predict how the NFL post-season will go, here’s my system:

    1) When in doubt, pick the home team or the team with better FO ranking.
    2) Have a lot of doubt.

    JFK and Conspiracy Theories

    November 22nd, 2013

    I am not a conspiracy theorist. I was when I was younger and more impressionable. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned two immutable facts of life. First, people in power aren’t that bright. Oh, they can be book smart and even cunning. They can be crafty. But inevitably they are not smart enough to outwit everyone. The mad genius who outsmarts the world is a Hollywood creation. And even if he did exist, conspiracies involve a lot of people. The more people they involve, the more likely it is that they will involve someone stupid who blows the whole thing.

    Second, human beings are defined by their inability to shut up. People are simply terrible at keeping secrets. They want to talk; they need to talk. So if a conspiracy actually existed, we’d have constant leaks and first-hand information. And the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely it would involve someone who just kept his trap shut. Think about how difficult it is to keep a surprise baby shower quiet; now imagine trying to keep people from talking about alien bodies at Roswell.

    (The latter was partially informed by Dave Barry who said he knew the Roswell conspiracy was garbage because, were it true, we’d have constant leaks and Congressional arguments about whose district the dead alien storage facility would be built in.)

    But conspiracies actually do exist, sometimes. Cracked has run two articles on real-life conspiracies. So there could be something to all this conspiracy mongering, right?

    Right?

    No. Cracked calls them “conspiracy theories that turned out to be true” but they were actually conspiracies that wound up being discovered. First hand evidence surfaced, people admitted what was done and no one really questions the conspiracies. But you will not find a conspiracy that was kept quiet for decades and cracked by some nut peering at photographs and spinning yarns. In each case, they were discovered either by devoted investigation that uncovered first-hand evidence or an admission by the parties involved.

    So how do we know real conspiracy theories from bogus ones? When it comes to conspiracy theories, I evaluate them by three criteria. I’ll list them below and then illustrate them with some examples of conspiracy theories that are garbage (9/11 was an inside job, the moon landing was faked) and conspiracy theories that were actually true (Tuskegee experiments, the streetcar conspiracy). And in the end, I’ll apply these to the most common JFK conspiracy theories to show why I don’t believe them.

    The One Tooth Fairy Rule: One of my professors at UVa used what he called the “One Tooth Fairy Rule” when it came to theoretical astrophysics. The idea was that a theory was allowed to have one aspect that was, at the moment, unexplained. It was allowed one ad-hoc “well, if you assume X, then our theory works”. But once you needed two tooth fairies, your theory could no longer be considered worthwhile. It might be an interesting speculation, but it wasn’t really a viable theory at that point.

    As applied to conspiracy theories, this means that the theorists are allowed one “we can’t really explain X” but no more. Going beyond that means the theory isn’t worth thinking about. If you have numerous holes in your theory, that’s probably a sign that the theory is garbage.

    What you quickly find is that almost all garbage conspiracy theories are a veritable Tooth Fairy convention. 9/11 conspiracy theorists, for example, have no real explanation for what happened to the hundreds of passengers on the planes that supposedly didn’t hit the Pentagon, they have no explanation for why remote-control planes were used in one attack and missiles in another, they have no explanation for the frantic phone calls from passengers on the planes. They make wild conjectures about these things, but you pretty much have to assume, for example, that passengers were disappeared with zero evidence to support it or dozens of phones calls were faked well enough to fool family members (or that all the family members were in on it).

    The moon landing fails this test as well. They don’t really have an explanation of why NASA would go the trouble of building all the pieces of a moon shot without actually doing it. They have no explanation for the moon rocks that had different chemistry than Earth rocks. Oh, they have wild-eyed theories. But in the end, you just have to assume that NASA was just an ounce shy of a moon shot and faked the analysis of dozens of scientists who investigated the lunar rocks.

    By contrast, the streetcar conspiracy and the the Tuskegee Experiment theory have no tooth fairies and never did even before they were proven. The first is a straight-forward conspiracy to buy up trolleys and trash them in favor of highways and buses. The streetcars were bought, the streetcars were trashed and the companies that did it turned out to be shells for automotive interests. Had you been hypothesizing about this before the government’s investigation, the only tooth fairy would have been the financial records.

    As for Tuskegee, that is also a straight-forward. You had black men supposedly treated for “bad blood” dying of syphilis and they all saw the same group of doctors. The only tooth fairy was the actual medical records. And it was broken because one of the men who knew about it went public.

    Basically, garbage conspiracy theories tend to be Rube Goldberg contraptions involving a lot of assumptions, a lot of bizarre decisions by the conspirators and a hosts of completely silent participants. This is because they are not built from the ground up by primary evidence but from snaking around the primary evidence to fit holes (or perceived holes) in the conventional explanation. By contrast, real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight-forward. Look at Cracked’s conspiracies that turned out to be real. All of them are straight-forward and simple. Contrast “we’re not going to give penicillin to black men and see what happens” or “we’re going to blow up Parliament” with the paragraph after paragraph needed to explain your typical Truther theory.

    No Bullshit: A conspiracy theory can not have elements that are complete garbage. It is common for conspiracy theorists, when called on one piece of bullshit, to say, “well, yeah, but you can’t explain the rest of it!” Even though that is not usually true, the fact is that the conspiracy theory was rested on a foundation of lies and misunderstandings. Once you pull out one card, the rest collapse. Finding multiple pieces of bullshit in a conspiracy theory is an indicator that the theorists haven’t done their homework. It’s a sign that they have built their conspiracy from the top down (assume a conspiracy, look for evidence of it) than from the bottom up (gather evidence, find a conspiracy).

    Truther conspiracy theory rests heavily on a series of falsehoods: false claims that plane debris was not found at the Pentagon, false claims that steel doesn’t warp at high temperatures, false claims that no plane was seen hitting the Pentagon. Moon hoaxers claim that movie props are labelled with letters, that flags flutter, that stars should be seen on the moon. These are easily verifiable claims that are easily proven to be false. A theory can’t possible be considered reasonable if multiple elements of it are completely bogus. And they indicate a casual disregard for systematic approaches to information as opposed to simply grasping at straws.

    By contrast, nothing the Tuskegee Theory contradicts known science or facts. People get syphilis. The symptoms can be a bit unclear. It can go untreated and be spread or kill people. Black men were treated by Tuskegee doctors and they actually died. The theory was never implausible nor contained any implausible elements. The same thing is true of the streetcar conspiracy: trolleys were bought up, trolleys were destroyed and highways were built. Even before the clinching proof was found, nothing in the conspiracy theory was a lie.

    Again, real conspiracies tend to be straight forward involving a small set of easily testable facts. Bogus ones tend to be complex involving a host of often incorrect assumptions. The evidence of a real conspiracy is like a house made of stone, built brick by brick with irrefutable evidence; the evidence for a bogus one like a house made out of cards, laid delicately once against the other.

    Some Positive Evidence: To be reasonable, a conspiracy theory has to have some positive evidence. Not speculation, not re-interpretation. It has to have some piece of evidence that supports that theory and only that theory. It can not be based on taking the same evidence and simply re-interpreting it in a counter-intuitive way.

    What original evidence to the Truthers present that isn’t complete garbage? What facts do they dig out that distinguish it from the conventional explanation? For moon hoaxers, what original evidence do they produce that isn’t garbage?

    Tuskegee had positive evidence — a series of black men who had been signed up for a treatment of “bad blood” and had died of syphilis or its complications. The trolley conspiracy had streetcars purchased by new companies and immediately junked. These facts were primary evidence that supported the idea of a conspiracy and belied claims that nothing funny was going on.

    ——-

    You’ll notice that my criteria are heavily influence by my background in science: theories of any type need to be consistent, simple and, above all, testable. Real conspiracies meet these criteria; crackpot ones don’t come close.

    That brings us around to today’s 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Polls show that most people do not believe that Oswald acted alone. So conspiracy theories about this straight-forward murder abound.

    The first type are the Grand Conspiracy Theories — that JFK was killed by his own government, the mafia, the Freemasons, whatever, in an ambush by multiple shooters. We should be immediately suspicious of such theories because they are not built from the ground up by primary evidence. They snake around supposed “holes” in the single-shooter theory.

    These Grand Theories easily flunk the conspiracy test. You can look for some detail here. They involve numerous tooth fairies — extra shooters that were never seen, a conspiracy of silence involving hundreds of people, including the dozens needed to create Oswald’s “fake” background. They involve tons and tons of bullshit: the “magic bullet” which wasn’t magic at all, the jerking of his head toward the shot. And they present no positive evidence: no original discovery ignored by the initial investigators that proves their theory and no other.

    A subset of this propounded by a number of people, including some I have a lot of respect for like Bill James, is that Oswald tried to kill the President but the fatal shot was actually delivered by Secret Service agent George Hickey, who stumbled while reacting to the shots and accidentally discharge his AR-15, killing the President.

    This conspiracy sounds reasonable until you realize that it is just Grand Conspiracy Lite. It still involves a massive cover-up involving dozens if not hundreds of people. It still violates my rules above, many of which are covered in this debunking. It has tooth fairies — the spectacularly unlikely one in a million accidental shot itself, the conspiracy of silence from the Secret Service and any direct evidence that Hickey even fired his weapon. It fails the bullshit test because it relies heavily on conjectures about bullet trajectories and misinformation about bullet wound sizes. And it fails the no positive evidence test. The bullet-hole is not inconsistent with Oswald’s rifle and the trajectory only fingers Hickey with certain assumptions. There is no record of a missing bullet, no record of a discharged firearm, no witnesses that ever claimed that a shot came from the Secret Service detail. What you have is the image of a stumbling agent, the difficulty of Oswald’s shot and highly conjectural speculation about bullet trajectories.

    Howard Donahue came up with this theory because of the difficulty marksmen had in recreating Oswald’s shot (although other have found it not so difficult). But he ignores the difficult of recreating Hickey’s one-in-a-million shot. Which is more likely? That Oswald got “lucky” and hit the target he was aiming at on the third try? Or that Hickey had the most spectacularly unlucky firearm accident ever?

    The No True Scotsman Fallacy Fallacy

    November 3rd, 2013

    Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
    Person B: “I am Scottish, and put sugar on my porridge.”
    Person A: “Then you are not a true Scotsman.”

    I first encountered the No True Scotsman fallacy when I was in college. This was in the early 90′s, right after the collapse of communism. Most people accepted that 70 years of failure had disproved communist ideology. But a few holdout professors insisted that the Soviet Union didn’t really practice communism … real communism had never been tried.

    It’s a tempting argument because it allows people to maintain allegiance to a dogma while ignoring its problems. And it is more pervasive than you think. The War on Drugs is an extension of the NTS fallacy because its defenders will always tell you that it hasn’t succeeded only because we haven’t tried hard enough. We haven’t had a true War on Drugs. Problems in public education … or any public program for that matter … are always attributed to underfunding (“we haven’t really funded our public education system”). And Republican stalwarts insist that they haven’t won an election recently because they aren’t nominating “real conservatives” for President.

    It is also tempting because it allows soi-disant movement “leaders” to apply ideological purity tests to their own causes and purge views that they don’t like. It allows them to stifle debate on subject that sometimes need it. So “no true conservative” believes in raising taxes. “No true liberal” believes in restricting abortion. “No true libertarian” supports the War on Terror.

    The thing is that the No True Scotsman Fallacy, like most fallacies, is a twisted version of a legitimate argument. That argument is, to extend the metaphor, “don’t tell me what Scotsmen are like”. Or, if you prefer, “don’t pretend that Welshman is actually a Scotsman”.

    The metaphor is getting away from me, isn’t it? Let’s be more detailed.

    People often apply completely inappropriate labels to views they don’t like. As a libertarian-conservative, I find that the libertarian movement is one of the most common victims of these attacks because, to lazy commentators, libertarianism is defined as “whatever it is I don’t like”. Here, for example, a Guardian writer tries to describe the UK Independence Party as “libertarian” despite their anti-immigrant, anti-gay and pro-police stances. These are stances that few knowledgable people would ascribe to the libertarian movement in this country, which specifically calls for ending the War on Drugs, not jailing people for nonviolent crime, open borders and marriage freedom. Last month, the government shutdown was blamed on libertarianism. To be fair, some libertarians supported it. But the chief architect of the shutdown — Ted Cruz — is not a libertarian and would not describe himself as one, being a staunch culture conservative and supporter of the surveillance state.

    Balloon Juice has frequently been one of the worst at ascribing bizarre views to libertarians, hilariously bashing Libertarians for ignoring the problems of mass incarceration while Reason was running a full issue on the subject (in fact, libertarians and some conservatives are pretty much the only ones talking about the problems of mass incarceration). Salon has now taken up the hardcore anti-libertarian meme, recently describing libertarianism as

    a right-wing political party that opposes all gun control laws and public healthcare, supported the government shutdown, dismisses public education, opposes organized labor, favors the end of Social Security as we know it, and argues in its formal political manifesto that “we should eliminate the entire social welfare system” while supporting “unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types.

    Libertarianism is a broad movement. But that description is a cartoon version that isn’t even close to what most libertarians believe. Many support some gun control laws, many opposed the shutdown, most oppose the public education monopoly not the existence of public schools. Libertarians don’t oppose unions; they oppose the political empowerment that has left governments hundreds of billions in debt. Unrestricted competition among banks mainly means ending bailouts and special dispensations (and many think unrestricted competition may mean breaking up the big banks). And there are many libertarians — including me — who do not oppose the existence of basic social safety net. In fact, many libertarians — most notably Milton Friedman — support replacing the existing welfare system with a negative income tax or guaranteed basic income. The highly successful welfare reform and EITC of the Clinton Era came from these ideas.

    We’re not the only victims of this, of course. It has unfortunately become de rigueur in political discourse to take the most extreme views of a movement (or the most extreme views one feels they can lump into a movement) and claim they represent the whole. So when Todd Akin says something stupid about rape, that represents the secret views of a hundred million conservatives. If Rick Santorum opposes birth control, that means all conservatives do. If Cynthia McKinney or Van Jones is a truther, that means a hundred million liberals think Bush conspired to create 9/11. And if you disagree with this assessment and point out that these guys don’t represent the bulk of the movement, “No True Scotsman” is trotted out.

    One of the most common subjects about which I get into this is … wait for it … climate change. My feeling is that, while we can debate our response to global warming, conservatives should not pretend that AGW is a hoax. Conservatism is rooted in prudence and basic prudence says we should address a potential global problem even if we’re not 100% sure it’s real. But I’m frequently told that “no true conservative” would believe in climate change because of Algore or Climategate. This, of course, reflects a deeper problem in the conservative movement which is splitting between conservatism — defined as a prudent suspicion of powerful government — and radicalism — defined as an intense opposition to almost all government. This became very visible during the recent shutdown as conservatives called for the shutdown to end while the radicals wanted to keep it going (keep in mind that I don’t regard “radical” as a slur; our Founders were pretty damned radical).

    In any case, when one tries to defend a movement from the more marginal views incorrectly attributed to it, the NTS fallacy is frequently thrown down. In short, the “no true Scotsman” fallacy is in danger of becoming a duck blind for making inaccurate ad hominem attacks on political philosophies. It is itself becoming a fallacy.

    My professors were wrong about communism. They were not wrong because of the NTS Fallacy. They were wrong because the Communist countries did pursue the policies advocated by Marx and Lenin. They were wrong because Communism did require Gulags and thought control, as Lenin stated. They were wrong because George Orwell — himself a socialist — recognized Communism for what it was and warned us about what it was and what it would do. They were wrong because the policies they were advocating were those that had been pursued in communist countries. And they were wrong because many of them either ignored or sugarcoated the horrific abuses of the Communists (and many still do).

    There are Republicans who oppose legal birth control. This does not reflect the majority of the conservative movement. Not because “no true conservative” opposes birth control but because almost all Americans, including vast majorities of conservatives, believe that birth control should be legal. There are libertarians who supported the War on Terror or restrictive immigration laws (Neal Boortz, in particular). But most do not and only a few subscribe to anything close to the racial views promulgated by such as Lew Rockwell.

    Politics needs to be about ideas, not identity. To return to my opening quote: who cares if “no true Scotsman” put sugar in his porridge? What matter is if sugar in porridge is a good idea (note: it is). What matters is that people stop dismissing the ideas of Scotsmen because one happens to put anchovies in his porridge.

    Halloween Linkorama

    November 3rd, 2013

    Three stories today:

  • Bill James once said that, when politics is functioning well, elections should have razor thin margins. The reason is that the parties will align themselves to best exploit divisions in the electorate. If one party is only getting 40% of the vote, they will quickly re-align to get higher vote totals. The other party will respond and they will reach a natural equilibrium near 50% I think that is the missing key to understanding why so many governments are divided. The Information Age has not only given political parties more information to align themselves with the electorate, it has made the electorate more responsive. The South was utterly loyal the Democrats for 120 years. Nowadays, that kind of political loyalty is fading.
  • I love this piece about how an accepted piece of sociology turned out to be complete gobbledygook.
  • Speaking of gobbledygook, here is a review of the article about men ogling women. It sounds like the authors misquoted their own study.
  • Mathematical Questions: Guns Yet Again

    October 28th, 2013

    I’m not going to call this mathematical malpractice because I don’t think it’s been reviewed or published yet. But the way the study is quoted in the press makes me highly dubious of its conclusions:

    There are approximately 7,500 child hospitalizations and 500 in-hospital deaths each year due to injuries sustained from guns. In an abstract presented Oct. 27 at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, researchers also identified a link between the percentage of homes with guns and the prevalence of child gunshot injuries.

    In “United States Gunshot Violence—Disturbing Trends,” researchers reviewed statistics from the Kids’ Inpatient Database (KID) from 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009 (for a total of 36 million pediatric hospital admissions), and estimated state household gun ownership using the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data (2004).

    The study found that approximately 7,500 children are admitted to the hospital for the treatment of injuries sustained from guns each year, and more than 500 children die during hospital admission from these injuries. Between 1997 and 2009, hospitalizations from gunshot wounds increased from 4,270 to 7,730, and in-hospital deaths from 317 to 503.

    Several things that raise alarm bells:

  • The study is of five very specific years rather than of all twelve years.
  • The study using the KID database for hospitalizations. Looking over the details of this database shows that these five years are the only years in the database (which is apparently compiled every three years). However, the number of participating hospitals has increased over time. This could induce a variety of biases, not all of which are obvious. It could also be biased by an increasing tendency to hospitalize gunshot victims. It could also be biased because KID, after 1997, uses a larger age range, adding 18- and 19-year olds who are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity. I’d have to see the paper to see how they have accounted for these. I suspect the biases are very strong compared to the overall signal and the reliability of the result is critically dependent on how they account for the biases.
  • The press release does not specify an age range but KID tracks patients up to age 18 (in 1997) and age 20 (from 2000 on). This isn’t exactly what people think of with “kids” and this age range has been used before to inflate the number of kids who are victims of gun violence.
  • The trend of massively increasing violence is the complete opposite of what every study of criminal violence is showing. Murder is down, assault is down, gun violence is down down down according to crime states, FBI stats and victim surveys.
  • I’m not here to slander anyone’s work. They may already have addressed the points I raise above. My read is that this is an abstract, not a refereed paper. So all I can do is point out the obvious pitfalls that might be causing this abstract to contradict everything else we know about violent crime. The gun control side, as I have documented on this blog, has a history of twisting the stats, sometimes unintentionally. And the media have a tendency to exaggerate the results of tentative early studies when it suits their narrative.

    (The gun control side also has a history of outright fraud but I am very dubious that any fraud is occurring here because it would be too easy to check. They are using a public database, not proprietary data.)

    There’s also the Scientific Peter Principle to consider here. If you hear of a study with startling results, it is most likely to be erroneous. That goes doubly so for unrefereed abstracts presented at conferences. The reason is that errors and biases almost always give you unexpected results. For veteran scientists, that’s often how you spot biases but even the best scientists can be fooled. That this study indicates a massive increase in violence at a time when every other study indicates that violence is falling (as is gun ownership) causes me to be concerned that something is wrong.

    Two things I would place small bets on. Within a few months, this study will be shown to be flawed in some way and its conclusions toned down. And for the next ten years, the initial abstract will be quoted by gun control advocates as proof of their position (e.g., the selective quoting of Mother Jones).

    The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part 3

    October 24th, 2013

    Well, that was a bit of a whirlwind.

    Summing up the complicated War of the Roses in a manner that would be amenable to Shakespeare’s Tudor rulers must not have been an easy task. As a result, Henry VI, Part 3 has a tendency to get confusing, even for the author himself (the character of Montague seems a bit confused as to which side he is on). Just in the span of Act IV, Edward is king, exiled and king again. Nobles change sides seemingly on whims. The few strong moments — the scene in the French King’s court for example or the murder of Rutland and its echoes throughout the play — tend to disappear into the dizzying plot turns and twists. By the time it was over, I really felt that it was this play that suffered from “middle chapter syndrome”, killing off masses of characters from the previous two plays and setting up the epic Richard III, which looms over this play like a thunderhead.

    While I found this play to be one of the lesser of the histories, I have to disagree with the critics as to why. They usually talk about the amount of action on stage, citing classical tendencies to have action off-stage. I actually think the battles work pretty well (I mean, it was the War of the Roses, not the Polite Chat of the Roses). The action also sets up one of the play’s few iconic moments when Henry VI laments the father killing his son and the son killing his father. It also enhances the play’s running them of violence begetting violence and England descending into a chaotic state of barbarism in the absence of a strong king. No, I think the play’s weakness is the one I identify above: trying to squeeze too many historical turns into too short a time.

    That having been said, I still am finding the histories easier to follow than some of the comedies and therefore, as a group, more enjoyable. And I’m so excited about the next one that I’ve already started Richard III, whose opening soliloquy is already one of the best of the canon.

    The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part Two

    October 6th, 2013

    Henry VI, Part Two could never be accused of “middle chapter syndrome”. Starting the end of Part I, it advance the story in leaps and bounds, dispatching character after character and plowing through the early battles to set up Part III and Richard III. By the end, you really feel that England will never be the same.

    I found this play to be a bit of a tough read. It’s very good, keeping the characters sharp and the intrigue furious. It covers a huge amount of ground and takes us a long way through the War of the Roses. The scheming and conniving of the characters, the slow decay of Henry’s rule, the loss of all honor and loyalty — it all works.

    But, Lord, is it depressing. The only worthwhile man in the entire play — Gloucester — sees his wife fooled and shamed and is then murdered. By the time the play ends, the floor is slick with the blood of dispatched rivals and the vile York is in ascendance. I can only imagine things will get darker.

    Next Up: Henry VI, Part Three