Long Form Review: Predestination

December 31st, 2015

Another clearing the decks post. This is a hint of a big Heinlein post to come. I hope..

Heinlein adaptations have been somewhat thin on the ground. I don’t know if this an aversion to his perceived right wing beliefs or what. But if you look at the movies based on Heinlein’s prolific work, it boils down to:

  • Destination Moon: an OK hard sci-fi film that Heinlein was directly involved with. Decent but not exceptional. More educational than anything else. I’d give it a 6 or 7/10.
  • Project Moon Base: Disowned by Heinlein. Very poorly regarded.
  • The Brain Eaters: A bad movie basically stolen from “The Puppet Masters”. I have not seen it.
  • The Puppet Masters: Suffered from ditching the nudity aspects of the original story, which would have given it an edge since, by the time this story reached the silver screen, almost all of its elements had been stolen by other lesser films. It’s decent though and has some genuinely creepy moments. 7/10
  • Starship Troopers: I really a need a long-form review of this one. It’s OK. But its determination make Heinlein’s world seem fascist, the removal of the mech suits and its dependence on stars with lots of looks and few acting chops (and entirely white) made for a mediocre film. Heinlein would have been fine with the mixed gender military. That wouldn’t have flown in 1959. 6 or 7/10.
  • That’s pretty much it. There’s a supposed coming adaptation of The Moon is Harsh Mistress — one of my favorite Heinlein novels. But for some reason, Heinlein’s extremely filmable works have been largely ignored.

    Well, until last year, when we got Predestination, an adaptation of Heinlein’s mind-bending time travel short, All You Zombies.

    Predestination is basically everything a Heinlein fan could ask for. It takes the plot of the story more or less verbatim, with an added loop that doesn’t add much but doesn’t hurt the movie either. The directing is solid and the look of the film perfectly aligned with Heinlein’s mid-century sensibilities. And the acting of the small cast is excellent. Hawke is the headline grabber. And he’s good. But the real star is Sarah Snook, who is just dynamite in an extremely-challenging role. She simply makes the movie, switching without apparent effort through the various iterations of Jane.

    This is the first adaptation of a Heinlein work that I would say makes the grade. It got very little attention but it was easily one of the better films of 2014. I highly recommend it, especially for fans of sci-fi or Heinlein. But, really, you’ll like it if you just like good movies.

    8/10.

    The Double Revisisted

    December 31st, 2015

    Dammit. It’s almost the end of December and I haven’t put up a post this month. I have — I kid you not — 37 posts in various draft forms. So I’ll be trying to kick a bunch out.

    A few years ago, I suggested that baseball borrow “the double” from English football as a way of bringing back some meaning to the long regular season. In this scheme, the league champion would be the team that won the most games. A team that won both the most games in its league and the World Series would be recognized as having won a “double” just like winning the League and FA Cups in English Football. Here is an updated list of the teams that would have been national champions under this system. Bold lettering is a team that won the double.

    1994 – New York (70), Montreal (74)
    1995 – Cleveland (100), Atlanta (90)
    1996 – Cleveland (99), Atlanta (96)
    1997 – Baltimore (98), Atlanta (101)
    1998 – New York (114), Atlanta (106)
    1999 – New York (98), Atlanta (99)
    2000 – Chicago (95), San Francisco (97)
    2001 – Seattle (116), St. Louis/Houston (93)
    2002 – New York/Oakland (103), Atlanta (101)
    2003 – New York (101), Atlanta (101)
    2004 – New York (101), St. Louis (105)
    2005 – Chicago (99), St. Louis (100)
    2006 – New York (97), New York (97)
    2007 – Boston (96), Colorado/Arizona (90)
    2008 – Anaheim (100), Chicago (97)
    2009 – New York (103), Los Angeles (95)
    2010 – Tampa Bay (96), Philadelphia (97)
    2011 – New York (97), Philadelphia (102)
    2012 – New York (95), Washington (98)
    2013 – Boston (97), St. Louis (97)
    2014 – Anaheim (98), Washington (96)
    2015 – Kansas City (95), St. Louis (100)

    Again, I think recognizing the national champions this way gives a much clearer view of which teams are dominating baseball. Since I wrote that post, Washington and St. Louis have dominated the National League while the American League has been in flux with Kansas City emerging as a double team this year.

    A Long Way Down

    November 30th, 2015

    When I was a graduate student at UVa, George Welsh was the head coach of the football team. Welsh had taken one of the worst football programs in the ACC and turned it into a good one. In his 19 years at the helm, UVa had 15 winning seasons, made 12 bowl games and won the ACC twice (including the dramatic 1995 victory over Florida State). They continually had great players like the Barber twins, Thomas Jones, Aaron Brooks, Patrick Kerney and Anthony Poindexter. And they did it while maintaining a reasonable commitment to education.

    But there was a vocal faction of fans who were unhappy with this. Welsh, they said, was over-rated. He couldn’t beat Florida State consistently. He won “only” two ACC titles. He couldn’t get them into the national title picture. He couldn’t beat Virginia Tech enough. Thankfully, they were a small faction, despite their dominating presence on local talk radio. And even more thankfully, the University ignored them. But eventually Welsh retired and the anti-Welsh brigade sighed with relief.

    The University went out and hired Al Groh. And UVA started to stink. In 9 years, Groh only had five winning seasons. He lost to Virginia Tech every year but one. He couldn’t beat Florida State. So they ditched him for Mike London, who has managed one winning season in six and and couldn’t beat anyone. And he just resigned.

    We see this over and over again. And not just in college football. It’s Braves fans bitching about Bobby Cox only to see the team struggle once he leaves. It’s NFL teams like the Redskins and Browns going through coach after coach. It’s Bills fans grousing because Levy lost four superbowls, then watching the team struggle after he retires.

    The problem here is that people often think that, when a team is this close to winning something big — a conference title, a championship — that they are a coaching change away from grabbing it. But they are wrong. It’s because of the coach that they are that close in the first place. People used to joke that you had to be a great team to lose four Super Bowls, but it was true. A team that is almost but not quite good enough is still one of the best in the country. And when you’re at that kind of elite level of performance, there is a lot more room to fall than there is to rise. Changes to your team are way more likely to make things worse, not better. This is doubly true in college football, where you have over a hundred teams vying for glory and it’s very easy for an elite program to fall back into the horde of mediocre ones.

    I bring this up because the University of Georgia just fired Mark Richt. In 15 seasons, Richt had won 75% of his games, seven division titles and two conference titles. He never won fewer than eight games, never failed to make Bowl and never finished lower than third in one of the most competitive conference in the nation. As recently as 2012, he brought Georgia to within a few yards of a third conference title and a shot at a national title. The last three years were disappointing, but were heavily affected by injuries to star players like Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Aaron Murray. But finishing the season 9-3 and second in the SEC East is no mean feat.

    Still, the media clamored for his head. The fans clamored for his head. And this week, the University gave it to them.

    This will not help. The Bulldogs are almost certain, no matter who they hire, to go into a decline. To be one of the top 25 football teams in the country, you have to be really good. Very few coaches are that good. A coach who “can’t take you to the next level” is still among the top 5% of college football coaches. What are the odds that you will get a better coach if you change? Probably a bit less than 5%. And the odds that you’ll get someone who can give you Alabama-like dominance? Less than 1%.

    What are the chances that a coach of Richt’s quality will eventually luck into a championship? Probably a lot better than the chances that Georgia will luck into a coach who can “take them to the next level.”

    Georgia has an advantage in prestige and recruiting, of course. But a lot of programs have those advantages and some to an even greater extent. A coach who can take you to division titles in half his seasons is a valuable commodity. Georgia just threw that away. And they’re going to deserve the inevitable slide.

    Movie Review: The Martian

    October 20th, 2015

    I rarely get to see movies in theaters anymore, thanks to a combination of work and two young children. But I am occasionally able to make an exception and the rave reviews for The Martian quickly moved it to the top of the “If I get a chance” list. A three hour break between the arrival of my plane and the arrival of my student’s plane gave me the chance to sneak out and catch it.

    I’ll just assume you know the basic plot and tuck in.

    The Martian is probably not the best film of the year but it is very good. The plot is clear, well-explained and, refreshing, doesn’t hinge on idiots doing idiotic things or Evil Bureaucrats stopping the good guys. Everyone in the movie is smart and, in principal, on the same page. There are some conflicts but they are over how precisely to rescue Watney, rather than whether to rescue him. And the disagreements are portrayed fairly and intelligently. This is exactly how I would expect things to go down if this happened in real life.

    Weir made tremendous efforts to make his book as realistic as possible and it shows. Almost everything they do in the movie is reasonable and realistic. I’m used to, during a sci-fi movie, that NASA part of brain going “yeah, right!” That didn’t happen once. Afterward, there were a few nits I could pick. And I think the last 15 minutes dragged a bit with “oh, here’s another thing”. But overall, the plot is solid.

    The movie’s characters are well-defined and the acting is uniformly solid. One thing that has been noticed is that the movie eschews the usual approach of making everyone an old white man. I’m no SJW, obviously, but it was nice to see a movie reflect what things are really like at NASA and what things are likely to like in the future: tons of smart people, from all backgrounds, who are competent and hard-working. It’s so well done, I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me.

    The humor is frequent but low-key, mostly dark humor revolving around Watney’s attempts to keep himself alive. It uses a video diary device to develop Watney’s character, drive the narrative and explain, in very clear terms, the often sophisticated technological concepts.

    And the movie just looks gorgeous. Mars is portrayed in stunning detail. All the spacecraft look beautiful. Ridley Scott knows what to do with a camera.

    I’ve praised it a lot, but my current rating is 8 out of 10. It does drag a little bit at times and, as I said, the ending has a little too much of “and another thing” going. But I could see myself raising that to 9 in the future.

    As I’ve noted many times, we have moved into a mini golden age of good sci-fi. If you look at the best sci-fi movies of the last ten years, you find things like Interstellar, Her, District 9, Moon, Gravity, Ex Machina, Looper, Predestination. These are good movies, yes. But they’re also serious about having good science, being reasonably realistic, presenting sophisticated concepts and having smart characters instead of dumb ones.

    It’s a good time.

    Ehrlich-Simon Round Two

    October 3rd, 2015

    In 1980, doom-monger and perennial wrong person Paul Ehrlich made a wager with Julian Simon. Simon bet that the price of any commodities Ehrlich cared to nominate would go down over the next ten years due to increasing productivity. Ehrlich bet that they would go up because of the global pandemics and starvation that were supposed to happen but never did. At the end of the ten years, Ehrlich had to write Simon a check of $576.07.

    Since the day the wager was concluded, Ehrlich and his fellow doom-sayers have been trying to weasel out of the result. You can see this on the Wikipedia page on the wager:

    The prices of all five metals increased between 1950 and 1975, but Ehrlich believes three of the five went down during the 1980s because of the price of oil doubling in 1979, and because of a world-wide recession in the early 1980s.

    Ehrlich might have a point if the entire motivation for the bet weren’t his prediction of a global catastrophe by the end of the 80’s.

    Ehrlich would likely have won if the bet had been for a different ten-year period. Asset manager Jeremy Grantham wrote that if the Simon–Ehrlich wager had been for a longer period (from 1980 to 2011), then Simon would have lost on four of the five metals. He also noted that if the wager had been expanded to “all of the most important commodities,” instead of just five metals, over that longer period of 1980 to 2011, then Simon would have lost “by a lot.”

    This doesn’t mean much. In 2011, we were in the middle of a precious metal crunch that sent prices skyrocketing. Since then, prices have tumbled. All five metals are down since 2011 and all but chromium are down around 50%. I can’t find good historical records, but copper, at least, is cheaper than it was in 1989, in inflation-adjusted terms. I’m also not clear by what Grantham means by “all of the most important commodities”. Oil is about the same as it was in 1980 in inflation adjusted terms. Wheat is cheaper.

    Moreover, even if the commodities prices were higher, it’s still because Ehrlich was wrong. Ehrlich was predicting prices would go higher because we would run out of things. But when prices did go higher, they did because of increased global demand. They went higher because of the post-Cold War economic growth and development that has, so far, lifted two billion people out of poverty. This is growth that Ehrlich insisted (and still insists) was impossible.

    (To be honest, I’m not sure why the Grantham quote is even on Wikipedia. Grantham is an investor, not an economist, and this quote was an off-hand remark in a quarterly newsletter about sound investment strategies, not a detailed analysis. The quote is so obscure and oblique to the larger issues that its inclusion crosses me as a desperate effort to defend Ehrlich’s honor.)

    What really amuses me about the Ehrlich-Simon bet, however, was that he proposed a second wager. The second wager was not like the first. It was far more specific, far narrower and far more tailored to things that were not really in dispute. Simon rejected the second wager for the following reasons:

    Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don’t want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure.

    Exactly. The two-and-a-half decades since the second wager have been the best in human history. We have had fewer wars than at any period. Fewer murders. Less disease. Less starvation. More wealth. Ehrlich’s second wager didn’t care about any of that. It was about details like global temperature and arable land and wild fish catches, not the big picture of human prosperity. Below, I will go through the specifics of the second wager and you will see, over and over again, how narrow Ehrlich’s points were. In many cases, he would have “won” on issues where he really lost — correctly predicting trivial details of a trend that contradicted everything he was saying.

    In fact, even if Simon had taken up Ehrlich on his useless hideously biased bet, Ehrlich might have lost the bet anyway, depending on the criteria they agreed on. Let’s go through the bet Eherlich proposed, point by point:

  • The three years 2002–2004 will on average be warmer than 1992–1994. This would have been a win for Ehrlich, exaggerated by the Mt. Pinatubo cooling in 1993. So, 1-0 Ehrlich.
  • There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 2-0. Neither of these was really in dispute, however.
  • There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 3-0. Again, this wasn’t really in dispute. Note, however, that this is basically three bets about the same thing: global warming. It would be as if Simon counted Tungsten three times in the original bet.
  • The concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) will be greater than in 1994. This took a lot of digging and I am happy to be corrected if I’m reading the literature wrong. But from what I can tell, tropospheric ozone has actually decreased or leveled off since 1994. At the very least, this pollutant has gotten under much firmer control. So, 3-1 Ehrlich.
  • Emissions of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994. This is what I mean about how narrowly tailored the second wager was. Global SO2 emissions are down. In North America and Europe, they fell off a cliff. Only in Asia, did they go up. In fact, it’s really only in China. If it weren’t for China, global SO2 emissions would have been down by 20% over the span of the bet. It’s hard to call this a win for Ehrlich. 3-2.
  • There will be less fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994. and There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich really wanted to stack the deck in his favor, didn’t he? We’ll give him both of these as wins, but they really aren’t. There’s a reason we’re using less land for growing crops and it’s not because of environmental catastrophe. Its because …
  • There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002–2004 than in 1992–1994. Boom. Not only is there not less rice and wheat per person being grown, there’s a hell of a lot more being grown. Thanks to improved farming methods and genetic engineering, today’s crops are hardier and more productive than ever. The reason Ehrlich “won” on the last two is because we don’t need as much land to feed people. So we’re at 5-3, but it’s a very cheap five for Ehrlich. So far, the only thing he was right on was that global warming would get worse.
  • In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994. I’m going to play Ehrlich’s game here. The key word here is “available”. From what I can tell, per capita firewood consumption is down in developing countries. But that’s not because of a crushing environmental crisis. It’s because fossil fuel consumption is way up. There’s plenty of firewood available. There’s a lot less need for it. This is once again Ehrlich focusing on trivia — how much firewood is available — rather than the big picture. Lots of firewood being burned is a bad thing. It means forests being gutted. It means indoor pollution. It means poverty. Fossil fuels aren’t exactly a panacea, obviously. But they’re way better than firewood. The people of the developing world are going to need natural gas if they’re ever going to get to solar power. 5-4.
  • The remaining area of virgin tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994. Once again, a very narrow criterion. I can’t find a source that is that specific. Tropical rainforest destruction has leveled off recently, thanks to prosperity. But I have little doubt Ehrlich would have won this. 6-4.
  • The oceanic fishery harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994. Again, note how harrow the criterion is. The amount of fish per person is actually up. But that’s because of a huge surge in farm fishing. Ehrlich only counts wild fish, which has not decreased, but is less on a per capita basis. How do we call that? I wouldn’t give him SO2, so I’ll give him wild fish. 7-4.
  • There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994. Sure. 8-4
  • More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich would have won this one. But it’s a narrow win. AIDS deaths peaked in 2005. Since then, they have fallen by a third. 9-4
  • Between 1994 and 2004, sperm cell counts of human males will continue to decline and reproductive disorders will continue to increase. Nope. People aren’t even sure the original research is correct. At the very least, the picture is mixed. Reproductive disorders are probably increasing but that’s because of people waiting longer to have children because of … wait for it … increasing prosperity. 9-5.
  • The gap in wealth between the richest 10% of humanity and the poorest 10% will be greater in 2004 than in 1994. Nope. There’s concern about wealth inequality in developed countries. But, on global scale, wealth inequality has been in a decades-long decline. 9-6.
  • So … with Ehrlich counting global warming three times … with Ehrlich tailoring the questions incredibly narrowly … with Ehrlich betting twice on global farmland … Ehrlich wins the bet. But it’s a hollow victory. Ehrlich wins on nine of the bets, but only two or three of the larger issues. Had Simon taken him up on it and tweaked a few questions — going to global SO2 emissions or global fishing catches or one measure for global warming — Ehrlich would have lost and lost badly.

    That’s the point here. If you put aside the details, the second wager amounted to Ehrlich betting that the disaster that failed to happen in the 80’s would happen in the 90’s. He was wrong. Again. And if you “extended the bet” the way his defenders do for the initial bet, he was even wronger.

    And yet … he’s still a hero to the environmental movement. It just goes to show you that there’s no path to fame easier than being wrong with authority.

    Jupiter Ascending Review

    September 26th, 2015

    The Wachowski’s have had an … interesting career. They had a dynamite blockbuster in The Matrix, a movie which is still enjoyable a decade and a half later (wait, seriously? OK, then). But they’ve followed it up with unimpressive results. The first Matrix sequel did well, mainly because of the name, but got mediocre reviews. I enjoyed parts of it, but it was a bit long-winded. The third was lambasted and deservedly so. I haven’t watched it since my first viewing in the theater and don’t really feel a pressing need to see it again.

    Speed Racer has its defenders but is generally poorly regarded. I have not seen it. Cloud Atlas did not do well even though, in my opinion, it was an excellent movie (my opinion has improved since that review with a second and third viewing).

    Which brings us to Jupiter Ascending, one of this year’s biggest flops. Jupiter was flogged by critics and it’s not hard to see why. It spends enormous amounts of time on exposition. The dialogue is frequently poor. The plot is complex and confusing and turns on two nearly identical threads. And it ends on a weird note, with Spoiler Warning Jupiter returning to her grungy job while massive crimes against humanity continue across the Galaxy.

    However, despite all this and despite the negative reviews, I did actually find a lot to enjoy about the movie. The visuals are simply gorgeous. It’s not just that the effects are great, it’s that they are used well. This feels like a real fleshed out universe. The actors do their best with the material (with the exception of Redmayne). The ideas driving the plot are original and the plot unfolds like a poor man’s Dune, with plenty of intricate politics and personal strife. There’s a really nice sequence where Jupiter goes through the Galactic bureaucracy that gives you a feel for how ancient and complex the Universe is.

    In fact, the universe Jupiter creates is so interesting, I find myself agreeing with what James Berardinelli says in his review:

    One of the key aspects of any science fiction or fantasy saga is world (or universe) building. This process refers to the creation and development of the reality in which the story transpires. More than mere background, it informs plot development, character motivation, and nearly everything that transpires during the course of the narrative. Jupiter Ascending, the latest eye-popping stepchild of the Wachowskis, excels at universe building. The problem is that the backstory is too large to contain what appears on screen during the course of a 127-minute motion picture. Put another way, Jupiter Ascending feels like a truncated, Cliffs Notes version of something that might have worked a lot better as a mini-series. Two hours is too short for this tale and the end result suffers greatly because of that restriction.

    The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think James is onto something. Jupiter Ascending is an OK movie. But I think it would have made a great TV series. In a TV series, the narrative would have had time to sprawl. The characters could develop more naturally. The complex politics would have room to ebb and flow instead of being introduced with the subtlety of a bazooka and resolved with a repetitive series of last-minute rescues. Jupiter could have been introduced to the Galactic civilization gradually, with the layers peeling away bit by bit rather than being ripped off every 15 minutes.

    Most importantly, a TV series would have solved the huge problem with the ending. There’s no way to talk about this without spoilers so don’t read this until after you’ve watched the movie or if you have no plans to.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Of Miracles, Men and Red Armies

    September 16th, 2015

    By sheer coincidence, I happened to recently watch two documentaries about the Soviet Union’s hockey team. The first, Red Army, is good. It focuses mostly on the team after the Miracle on Ice and how they entered the NHL.

    The second, Of Miracles and Men, revolves around the Miracle on Ice as seen from the Soviet point of view. It interviews most of the Soviet principals with a particular focus on Viacheslav Fetisov as he returns to Lake Placid with his daughter. It is simply excellent, describing the rise of Soviet hockey, the way they reinvented the game and going blow-by-blow through the Miracle on Ice. Even for someone who is not a particularly avid fan of hockey, I found it fascinating.

    Joe Posnanski has a great review of it, particularly one of the most important moments:

    For instance, almost in passing, the documentary shows Bobby Clarke’s famous slashing of Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series putting the Soviet Red Army against Canada’s best player. Now I’ve always had just one perspective on that slash, and it comes from a friend, a big hockey fan, who often refers to it as one of his favorite ever hockey moments. From his viewpoint, Clarke’s slash — which broke Kharlamov’s ankle and was apparently ordered by assistant coach John Ferguson — was something close to heroic. The Soviets were on the verge of winning the series, they were embarrassing the Canadians in their own sport, something had to be done. Bobby Clarke did it. He knocked Kharlamov out of the series, and Canada came back to win. “Hockey’s a rough game,” my friend likes to say. “And Bobby Clarke did what had to be done.”

    The doc shows the slash, instead, through the eyes of the Soviet players. The way they saw it was like this: The Soviet Union was playing a new kind of hockey, a beautiful brand hockey, one of passes and angles and teamwork, a huge contrast in style from the rough-and-tumble, drop-the-gloves game the Canadians played. The irony of this contrast is rich, of course. It was the Soviet Union that had a reputation of steel and tanks, and Canada with a reputation as the nicest country on earth. But seeing Clark purposely crack Kharlamov’s ankle, seeing the way the Canadian’s bullied and punched, seeing the gorgeous passing of the Soviets … well, let’s just say you can almost hear a tender hurt in the voice of Kharlamov’s great friend and teammate Boris Mikhailov when he says, “Yes, Kharlamov plays better than you, but why injure him? Why hurt a person so brutally?

    One of the many reasons to be glad the Cold War is over (and hope Putin doesn’t start it up again) is that you can appreciate just how amazing the Soviet hockey team was. They were playing a game that was a level beyond what anyone else was doing. They were beating teams — good teams — by football scores. In the 1980 Olympics, they won games by scores of 16-0, 17-4, 8-1 and 9-2. Their average margin of victory was eight goals, which is insane. The year before, they defeated an NHL all-star team that included 20 future Hall of Famers. Sports rarely see that kind of utter total dominance.

    The beauty of the documentary is that by showing how dominant the Soviet team was, it shows just how miraculous the Miracle on Ice really was. The US team played well, yes. They played much better than they had earlier when they got stomped 10-3. But even with that improvement, the Soviets totally outplayed them, dominating possession and peppering Jim Craig with 39 shots (to the US’s 16). An unlikely goal at the end of the 1st period and two great goals in the second gave the US one of the most unlikely wins in sports history. On such things does history turn.

    Granted, the Soviet juggernaut was only possible in a totalitarian country where hockey players could be ordered to train incessantly (Louis CK has a routine where he talks about how countries can achieve great things if they just don’t give a crap about people). And for the Soviet team, which did nothing but practice 11 months of the year, to be called “amateurs” was ridiculous. But there was beauty in that terribleness. Which, of course, made it all the sweeter when the US beat them. And “Of Miracles and Men” does a really good job of driving home both of those points.

    Inside Out and Pixar

    August 31st, 2015

    So it seemed like, in the wake of Pixar releasing their latest feature film, everyone and their grandmother was ranking Pixar movies.

    Hey, I like movies.

    And I like Pixar.

    And I like lists.

    So … I wrote this about two months ago, then forget it and now I’m finally posting it. Stop looking at me like that.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Inequality

    July 7th, 2015

    Politico has a silly article up from Michael Lind, claiming that the South skews all the statistics for the country and that, without the South, our country would be in awesome shape. A typical example:

    Economic inequality? Apart from California and New York, where statistics reflect the wealth of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the South is the region with the greatest income inequality. Southern exceptionalism has helped to ensure that the American Dream is more likely to be realized in the Old World than in the New.

    Yes … when we eliminate 60 million people from consideration, the statistics look good for our side! And let’s just ignore that whole Texas oil thing.

    The thing is, the difference in inequality is something that you can measure. I looked at a population-weighted mean gini index for various subsets of states. States that voted for Romney in 2012 have a weighted gini index of .460. States that voted for Obama are way more equal at uh … um, actually, they’re higher at .464.

    If you restrict that analysis to Southern States, you do get a higher index of .467. But then again, if you restrict that analysis to coastal blue states, you get .469.

    God damn those coastal elites, ruining the country!

    Crime is a little different, being higher in the red states (384 per 100,000 vs. 359 per 100,000) and higher in the South specifically (402), but the difference is not that dramatic and even the blue state crime rates would be very high (although both would be lower than violent crime rates in the UK). And all regions have seen a huge drop in violent crime rates over the last two decades.

    He goes on to point out that the South is much more religious (which … is bad thing?) and has a higher rate of gun ownership (although even the North would still have one of the highest rates in the world. And again … gun ownership is not ipso facto a bad thing). He is right that the South has more executions but then fumbles the ball again, arguing that Obama’s poor showing in Southern states (except Virginia and North Carolina and Florida and strong showings in Missouri and Georgia) proves racial animus and not that the South vote Republican no matter who is running.

    He also ignores basically anything that might that favor the South, such as 40% of our military hailing from the South. Or that most of the job growth in Obama’s presidency has been in the South (specifically in Texas). Or the fact that, over the last few decades, the American people have been voting with their feet, moving South by the millions.

    South-bashing is in these days, I guess, so I can’t blame Lind for trying. Better luck next time.

    Waterloo

    June 18th, 2015

    Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, one of the most important events in European history. The Telegraph did a “live blog” of the battle, starting at dawn and updating in real time as the historical battle progressed. It’s a great read, though probably less amazing to read now that it’s done than it was as it progressed.

    There are two things I took from it:

    First, starting early this morning and going in real time until late in the evening emphasizes just how long and grueling the battle was. We’re used to battles wrapping up in about 45 minutes of screen time. In reality, they can go on for days, weeks or months. Soldiers can spend hours waiting to fight, then more hours in hell. I first started following around 9:00 am, when the Battle was several hours old. And even then, there was most of a day left and the battle was still uncertain. I did work, had lunch, processed data, made phone calls, came home, cooked dinner. And many of the soldiers were fighting the entire time. It really impressed me with just how a war becomes the soldier’s reality. There in no respite or commercial break or closing credits. It goes on and on and on until one side is simply too exhausted or dead to continue.

    Second, I was reminded somewhat of the Battle of Gettysburg. In both cases, a battle was lost because a great general — Napoleon in one case, Lee in the other — was undone by the very qualities that made him great. Both men won battles because they were bold, decisive and intelligent. And it served them well … up to a point. In Lee’s case, he decided on the disaster that was Pickett’s Charge. In Napoleon’s case, he committed everything to the middle of Wellington’s line once Wellington’s right had fallen and the Prussians arrived. Much like Pickett’s charge, it would have won the battle had it worked. And unlike Pickett’s charge, it wasn’t a completely terrible idea. But it turned out to be the turning point of the battle … for the Allies. Once the Imperial Guard was in retreat, the entire French center collapsed.

    Anyway, it was great idea from the Telegraph and I really hope someone does something like it again for another battle.

    More on Vaccination

    May 15th, 2015

    Cross-posted.

    One issue that I am fairly militant about is vaccination. Vaccines are arguably the greatest invention in human history. Vaccines made smallpox, a disease that slaughtered billions, extinct. Polio, which used to maim and kill millions, is on the brink of extinction. A couple of weeks ago, Rubella became extinct in the Americas:

    After 15 years of a widespread vaccination campaign with the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization announced yesterday that rubella no longer circulates in the Americas. The only way a person could catch it is if they are visiting another country or if it is imported into a North, Central or South American country.

    Rubella, also known as German measles, was previously among a pregnant woman’s greatest fears. Although it’s generally a mild disease in children and young adults, the virus wreaks the most damage when a pregnant woman catches it because the virus can cross the placenta to the fetus, increasing the risk for congenital rubella syndrome.

    Congenital rubella syndrome can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, but even the infants who survive are likely to have birth defects, heart problems, blindness, deafness, brain damage, bone and growth problems, intellectual disability or damage to the liver and spleen.

    Rubella used to cause tens of thousands of miscarriages and birth defects every year. Now it too could be pushed to extinction.

    Of course, many deadly diseases are now coming back thanks to people refusing to vaccinate their kids. There is an effort to blame this on “anti-government” sentiment. But while that plays role, the bigger role is by liberal parents who think vaccines cause autism (you’ll notice we’re getting outbreaks in California, not Alabama). As I’ve noted before, the original research that showed a link between vaccines and autism is now known to have been a fraud. Recently, we got another even more proof:

    On the heels of a measles outbreak in California fueled by vaccination fears that scientists call unfounded, another large study has shown no link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism.

    The study examined insurance claims for 96,000 U.S. children born between 2001 and 2007, and found that those who received MMR vaccine didn’t develop autism at a higher rate than unvaccinated children, according to results published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA. Even children who had older siblings with autism—a group considered at high risk for the disorder—didn’t have increased odds of developing autism after receiving the vaccine, compared with unvaccinated children with autistic older siblings.

    96,000 kids — literally 8000 times the size of the sample Wakefield had. No study has ever reproduced Wakefield’s results. That’s because no study has been a complete fraud.

    There’s something else, though. This issue became somewhat personal for me recently. My son Ben came down with a bad cough, a high fever and vomiting. He was eventually admitted to the hospital for a couple of days with pneumonia, mainly to get rehydrated. He’s fine now and playing in the next room as I write this. But it was scary.

    I mention this because one of the first questions the nurses and doctors asked us was, “Has he been vaccinated?”

    My father, the surgeon, likes to say that medicine is as much art as science. You can know the textbooks by heart. But the early symptoms of serious diseases and not-so-serious one are often similar. An inflamed appendix can look like benign belly pain. Pneumonia can look like a cold. “Flu-like symptoms” can be the early phase of anything from a bad cold to ebola. But they mostly get it right because experience with sick people has honed their instincts. They might not be able to tell you why they know it’s not just a cold, but they can tell you (with Ben, the doctor’s instinct told him it wasn’t croup and he ordered a chest X-ray that spotted the pneumonia).

    Most doctors today have never seen measles. Or mumps. Or rubella. Or polio. Or anything else we routinely vaccinate for. Thus, they haven’t built up the experience to recognize these conditions. Orac, the writer of the Respectful Insolence blog, told me of a sick child who had Hib. It was only recognized because an older doctor had seen it before.

    When I told the doctors Ben had been vaccinated, their faces filled with relief. Because it meant that they didn’t have to think about a vast and unfamiliar terrain of diseases that are mostly eradicated. It wasn’t impossible that he would have a disease he was vaccinated against — vaccines aren’t 100%. But it was far less likely. They could narrow their focus on a much smaller array of possibilities.

    Medicine is difficult. The human body doesn’t work like it does in a textbook. You don’t punch symptoms into a computer and come up with a diagnosis. Doctors and nurses are often struggling to figure out what’s wrong with a patient let alone how to treat it. Don’t cloud the waters even further by making them have to worry about diseases they’ve never seen before.

    Vaccinate. Take part in the greatest triumph in human history. Not just to finally rid ourselves of these hideous diseases but to make life much easier when someone does get sick.

    Movie Review: Interstellar

    May 9th, 2015

    So far, I have seen five of last year’s Best Picture nominees — Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game and Whiplash. I’ve also seen a few other 2014 films — Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Edge of Tomorrow — that rank well on IMDB. I’ll have a post at some point about all of them when I look at 2014 in film. But right now, they would all be running behind Interstellar, which I watched last night.

    I try very hard to mute my hopes for movies but I was anticipating Interstellar since the first teaser came out. I’m glad to report that it’s yet another triumph for Nolan. The film is simply excellent. The visuals are spectacular and clear, the characters well-developed, the minimalist score is one of Zimmer’s best so far. The ending and the resolution of the plot could be argued with but it’s unusual for me to watch a three-hour movie in one sitting unless it’s Lord of the Rings. I definitely recommend it, especially to those are fans of 2001 or Tree of Life.

    That’s not the reason I’m writing about it though.

    One of the remarkable things about Interstellar is that it works very hard to get the science right. There are a few missteps, usually for dramatic reasons. For example, the blight affecting Earth works far faster than it would in real life. The spacecraft seem to have enormous amounts of fuel for planetary landings. The astronauts don’t use probes and unmanned landers to investigate planets before landing. And, as I mentioned, the resolution of the plot ventures well into the realm of science fiction and pretty much into fantasy.

    But, most of the film is beautifully accurate. The plan to save Earth (and the backup plan) is a realistic approach. Trips through the stellar systems take months or years. Spacecraft have to rotate to create gravity (including a wonderful O’Neill Cylinder). Space is silent — an aesthetic I notice is catching on in sci-fi films as directors figure out how eerie silence is. General and special relativity play huge roles in the plot. Astrophysicist Kip Thorne insisted on being as scientifically accurate as possible and it shows.

    And the result is a better film. The emotional thrust of Cooper’s character arc is entirely built on the cruel tricks relativity plays on him. The resolution of Dr. Mann’s arc is built entirely on rock solid physics including the daring stunt Coop uses to save the day. The incredible sequences near the black hole could be taken right of a physics textbook, including a decision that recalls The Cold Equations.

    We’re seeing this idea trickle into more and more of science fiction. Battlestar Galactica had muted sounds in space. Moon has reasonably accurate scientific ideas. Her had a sound approach to AI. Serenity has a silent combat scene in space, as did, for a moment, Star Trek. Gravity has some serious issues with orbital dynamics, but much of the rest was rock solid.

    I’m hoping this will continue, especially if the rumors of a Forever War movie are true. A science fiction movie doesn’t need accurate science to be good. In fact, it can throw science out the window and be great (e.g., Stars Wars). But I hope that Interstellar blazes a path for more science fiction movies that are grounded, however shakily at times, in real science. This could breath new life into a genre that’s been growing staler with every passing year.

    I don’t say this as an astrophysicist (one available for consultation for any aspiring filmmakers). I say this as a movie buff. I say this as someone who loves good movies and think great movies can be made that show science in all its beautiful, glorious and heart-stopping accuracy.

    Post Scriptum: Many of my fellow astronomers disagree with me on Interstellar, both on the quality of the film and its scientific accuracy. You can check out fellow UVa alum Phil Plait here, although note that in saying it got the science wrong, he actually got the science wrong. Pro Tip: if you’re going to say Kip Thorne got the science wrong, be sure to do your homework.

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: IUDs and Teens

    May 7th, 2015

    Right now, the liberal blogosphere is erupting over Republican plans to not fund a program to give free IUDs to low income women:

    Republican legislators in Colorado will not authorize funding for a program that gives free IUDs to low-income women — an effort that many believe was responsible for hugely driving down teen births.

    Colorado has recently experienced a stunning decline in its teen birth rate. Between 2007 and 2012, federal data shows that births declined 40 percent — faster than any other state in the country.

    State officials attributed part of this success to the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, which provided free IUDs to low-income women seen at 68 family planning clinics across the state. Last year, state officials estimated that young women served by those family planning clinics accounted for about three-fourths of the overall decline in Colorado’s teen birth rate.

    I disagree with the Republicans on this. But the idea that free IUD program cut Colorado’s teen birth rate by 40% or 3/4 of 40% or anywhere close to 40% is high-test nonsense.

    Here is the data from the CDC on teen brith rates. From the first graph, you’ll see that teen birth rates have been steadily falling for seventy years. Like most positive social trends, it has many, um, parents, each of which are flogged by whomever supports that particular issue. Availability of contraception has certainly played a role. The legalization of abortion played a role (although abortion rates peaked in the early 80’s). As social and professional barrier have fallen, many more women are delaying pregnancy for college and jobs. And there is some evidence that teenagers are waiting longer to have sex (that would be the dreaded “abstinence”).

    Since 2007, however, the teen birth rate has fallen off a cliff. But not just in Colorado. It’s fallen everywhere, by an average of 30%. If anything, it’s fallen faster in red states than in blue ones (see Figure 9 of the CDC’s report). Colorado has seen the steepest decline (39%), but just behind it are the red states of Arizona (37%), Georgia (37%), North Carolina (34%), Utah (34%) and Virginia (33%).

    Is Colorado’s IUD program so awesome that it dropped the teen birth rate for the entire country?

    Given the extent of the program and Colorado having the largest reduction, it’s very probable that the IUD program did play a role here. But I would ballpark it at maybe 10% at the most.1 That’s not nothing and it’s probably worth continuing the program. But let’s not pretend the reduction is due only to that.

    So what is causing the large reduction? Availability of contraception is playing a role, yes, but there’s something else going on. Birth rates have fallen for all women since 2007, not just teenagers. I don’t think it’s coincidence (and neither does the CDC) that the teen birth rate plunged when we hit the worst recession since the Great Depression. If you look at historical birth rates, you’ll see a similar plunge in during the 1930’s. And that was long before almost the entirety of modern birth control, least of all free birth control.

    I think that’s the story here. Colorado’s program was fortuitously timed in that regard and there is likely some synergy between the economic downturn and the IUD program (i.e., the program kicked in right when a bunch of women were more eager for birth control).

    One of the difficult things about Mathematical Malpractice Watch is that I frequently end up attacking people I fundamentally agree with. I think Colorado should extend their IUD program (although I’m old enough to remember, in the 90’s, when Republican governors offering incentives for low-income women to use Norplant was denounced as eugenics). But the claim that it has produced a “huge” reduction in the teen birth rate is just not true.

    Actually, there is a chance that the effect is 0%. Colorado had the sharpest reduction in teen pregnancy rates. It’s easy to go in, post facto, and identify a pet policy to pin it on while ignoring the thousand other factors occurring in fifty states. It’s called the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Colorado might just be a statistical outlier and we’re crediting a policy for that outlierness because we like the policy. Colorado’s barely two standard deviations from the mean. I think it’s likely the IUD fund had an effect, but I’d be pressed to prove it statistically.

    Disney Post

    April 30th, 2015

    I don’t watch a lot of TV. This is not from any hippy-dippy hatred of TV; I just don’t have a lot of time for it. Apart from Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and sports, I’d rather spend my limited spare time reading or watching movies. And this is particularly true of sitcoms, which I’ve slowly grown less tolerant of.

    But there is one exception: my daughter has gotten heavily into Disney channel TV shows. They are always on when she’s in the room (and we allow the TV to be on). So I’ve become very familiar with their shows and I thought I’d write a few words about them. Because reasons.

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