Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Hurricanes

June 2nd, 2014

There’s a new paper out that claims that hurricanes with female names tend to be deadlier than ones with male names based on hurricane data going back to 1950. They attribute this to gender bias, the idea that people don’t take hurricanes with female-names seriously.

No, this is not the onion.

I immediately suspected a bias. For one thing, even with their database, we’re talking about 92 events, many of which killed zero people. More important, all hurricanes had female names until 1979. What else was true before 1979? We had a lot less advanced warning of hurricanes. In fact, if you look up the deadliest hurricanes in history, they are all either from times before we named them or when hurricanes all had female names. In other words, they may just be measuring the decline in hurricane deadliness.

Now it’s possible that the authors use some sophisticated model that also account for hurricane strength. If so, that might mitigate my analysis. But I’m dubious. I downloaded their spreadsheet, which is available for the journal website. Here is what I found:

Hurricanes before 1979 averaged 27 people killed.

Hurricanes since 1979 average 16 people killed.

Hurricanes since 1979 with male names average … 16 people killed.

Hurricanes since 1979 with female names averaged … 16 people killed.

Maybe I’m missing something. How did this get past a referee?

Update: Ed Yong raises similar points here. The authors say that cutting the sample at 1979 made the numbers too small and so therefore use an index of how feminine or masculine the names were. I find that dubious when a plain and simple average will give you an answer. Moreover, they try this qualifier in the comments:

What’s more, looking only at severe hurricanes that hit in 1979 and afterwards (those above $1.65B median damage), 16 male-named hurricane each caused 23 deaths on average whereas 14 female-named hurricanes each caused 29 deaths on average. This is looking at male/female as a simple binary category in the years since the names started alternating. So even in that shorter time window since 1979, severe female-named storms killed more people than did severe male-named storms.

You be the judge. I average 54 post-1978 storms totally 1200 deaths and get even numbers. They narrow it to 30 totally 800 deaths and claim a bias based on 84 excess deaths. That really crosses as stretching to make a point.

Update: My friend Peter Yoachim did a K-S test of the data and found a 97% chance that the male- and female-named hurricanes were drawn from the same distribution. This is a standard test of the null hypothesis and wasn’t done at all. Ridiculous.

Absolutely Nothing Happened in Sector 83 by 9 by 12 Today

May 28th, 2014

Last night, the science social media sphere exploded with the news of a potential … something … in our nearest cosmic neighbor, M31. The Swift mission, which I am privileged to work for, reported the discovery of a potential bright X-ray transient in M31, a sign of a high-energy event. For a while, we had very little to go on — Goddard had an unfortunately timed power outage. Some thought (and some blogs actually reported) that we’d seen a truly extraordinary event — perhaps even a nearby gamma-ray burst. But it turned out to be something more mundane. My friend and colleague Phil Evans has a great explanation:

It started with the Burst Alert Telescope, or BAT, on board Swift. This is designed to look for GRBs, but will ‘trigger’ on any burst of high-energy radiation that comes from an area of the sky not known to emit such rays. But working out if you’ve had such a burst is not straightforward, because of noise in the detector, background radiation etc. So Swift normally only triggers if it’s really sure the burst of radiation is real; for the statisticians among you, we have a 6.5-σ threshold. Even then, we occasionally get false alarms. But we also have a program to try to spot faint GRBs in nearby galaxies. For this we accept lower significance triggers from BAT if they are near a known, nearby galaxy. But these lower significance triggers are much more likely to be spurious. Normally, we can tell that they are spurious because GRBs (almost always) have a glow of X-rays detectable for some time after the initial burst, an ‘afterglow’. The spurious triggers don’t have this, of course.

In this case, it was a bit more complicated There was an X-ray source consistent with the BAT position. The image to the right shows the early X-ray data. The yellow circle shows the BAT error box – that is, the BAT told us it thought it had seen something in that circle. The orange box shows what the XRT could see at the time, and they grey dots are detected X-rays. The little red circle marks where the X-ray source is.

Just because the X-ray object was already known about, and was not something likely to go GRB doesn’t mean it’s boring. If the X-ray object was much brighter than normal, then it is almost certainly what triggered the BAT and is scientifically interesting. Any energetic outburst near to Earth is well worth studying. Normally when the Swift X-ray telescope observes a new source, we get various limited data products sent straight to Earth, and normally some software (written by me!) analyses those data. In this case, there was a problem analysing those data products, specifically the product from which we normally estimate the brightness. So the scientists who were online at the time were forced to use rougher data, and from those it looked like the X-ray object was much brighter than normal. And so, of course, that was announced.

The event occurred at about 6:15 EDT last night. I was feeding kids and putting them to bed but got to work on it after a couple of hours. At about 9:30, my wife asked what I was up to and I told her about a potential event in M31, but was cautious. I said something like: “This might be nothing; but if it is real, it would be huge.” I wish I could say I had some prescience about what the later analysis would show, but this was more my natural pessimism. That skeptical part of my mind kept going on about how unlikely a truly amazing event was (see here).

My role would turn out to be a small one. It turned out that Swift had observed the region before. And while Goddard and its HEASARC data archive were down, friend and fellow UVOT team member Caryl Gronwall reminded me that the MAST archive was not. We had not observed the suspect region of M31 in the same filters that Swift uses for its initial observations. But we knew there was a globular cluster near the position of the even and, by coincidence, I had just finished a proposal on M31′s globular clusters. I could see that the archival measures and the new measure were consistent with a typical globular cluster. Then we got a report from the GTC. Their spectrum only showed the globular cluster.

This didn’t disprove the idea of a transient, of course. Many X-ray transients don’t show a signature in the optical and it might not have been the globular cluster anyway. But it did rule out some of the more exotic explanations. Then the other shoe dropped this morning when the XRT team raced to their computers, probably still in their bathrobes. Their more detailed analysis showed that the bright X-ray source was a known source and had not brightened. So … no gamma-ray burst. No explosive event.

Phil again:

I imagine that, from the outside, this looks rather chaotic and disorganised. And the fact that this got publicity across the web and Twitter certainly adds to that! But in fact this highlights the challenges facing professional astronomers. Transient events are, by their nature, well, transient. Some are long lived, but others not. Indeed, this is why Swift exists, to enable us to respond very quickly to the detection of a GRB and gather X-ray, UV and optical data within minutes of the trigger. And Swift is programmed to send what it can of that data straight to the ground (limited bandwidth stops us from sending everything), and to alert the people on duty immediately. The whole reason for this is to allow us to quickly make some statements about the object in question so people can decide whether to observe it with other facilities. This ability has led to many fascinating discoveries, such as the fact that short GRBs are caused by two neutron stars merging, the detection of a supernova shock breaking out of a star and the most distant star even seen by humans, to name just 3. But it’s tough. We have limited data, limited time and need to say something quick, while the object is still bright. People with access to large telescopes need to make a rapid decision, do they sink some of their limited observing time into this object? This is the challenge that we, as time-domain astronomers, face on a daily basis. Most of this is normally hidden from the world at large because of course we only publish and announce the final results from the cases where the correct decisions were made. In this case, thanks to the power of social media, one of those cases where what proved to be the wrong decision has been brought into the public eye. You’ve been given a brief insight into the decisions and challenges we have to face daily. So while it’s a bit embarrassing to have to show you one of the times where we got it wrong, it’s also good to show you the reality of science. For every exciting news-worthy discovery, there’s a lot of hard graft, effort, false alarms, mistakes, excitement and disappointment. It’s what we live off. It’s science.


People sometimes ask me why I get so passionate about issues like global warming or vaccination or evolution. While the political aspects of these issues are debatable, I get aggravated when people slag the science, especially when it is laced with dark implications of “follow the money” or claims that scientists are putting out “theories” without supporting evidence. Skeptics claims, for example, that scientists only support global warming theory or vaccinations because they would not get grant money for claiming otherwise.

It is true: scientists like to get paid, just like everyone else. We don’t do this for free (mostly). But money won’t drag you out of bed at 4 in the morning to discover a monster gamma-ray burst. Money doesn’t keep you up until the wee hours pounding on a keyboard to figure out what you’ve just seen. Money didn’t bounce my Leicester colleagues out of bed at the crack of dawn to figure out what we were seeing. Money doesn’t sustain you through the years of grad school and the many years of soft-money itinerancy. Hell, most scientists could make more money if they left science. One of the best comments I ever read on this was on an old slash-dot forum: “Doing science for the money is like having sex for the exercise.”

What really motivates scientists is the answer. What really motivates them is finding out something that wasn’t known before. I have been fortunate in my life to have experienced that joy of discovery a few times. There have been moments when I realized that I was literally the only person on Earth to know something, even if that something was comparatively trivial, like the properties of a new dwarf galaxy. That’s the thrill. And despite last night’s excitement being in vain, it was still thrilling to hope that we’d seen something amazing. And hell, finding out it was not an amazing event was still thrilling. It’s amazing to watch the corrective mechanisms of the scientific method in action, especially over the time span of a few hours.

Last night, science was asked a question: did something strange happen in M31? By this morning, we had the answer: no. That’s not a bad day for science. That’s a great one.

One final thought: one day, something amazing is going to happen in the Local Universe. Some star will explode, some neutron stars will collide or something we haven’t even imagined will happen. It is inevitable. The question is not whether it will happen. The question is: will we still be looking?

Long Form Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

April 29th, 2014

Purely considered as a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street is another excellent film from Scorsese. Although it is too long by about an hour, it is engaging and never really boring (just repetitive — I mean how many shots of people snorting coke off of call girls’ asses do we need?). It has a tremendous amount of energy in some sequences. It’s difficult to call the acting “good” since everyone involved gets into the spirit of things and chews the scenery with relentless abandon. Dicaprio is fine, Hill is fine and newcomer Margot Robbie is great as Naomi.

On its merits, I would probably give the movie an 8 out of 10.

But …

The Wolf of Wall Street is not a fictional tale (at least not completely). Jordan Belfort is a real life person who went to real life prison for bilking real life investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars with penny stocks and pump-and-dump schemes. The movie barely touches on this. In fact, in a condescending fourth wall scene, the movie Belfort simply waves off the details by saying the audience isn’t interested. The vast majority of the movie simply revels in the excesses of drugs, booze and sex that Belfort’s millions created (although I suspect some of that is exaggerated). Large parts of the movie play like a high-power rave.

Dicaprio and Scorsese, perhaps having realized the danger of glorifying the hedonistic lifestyle of a stock swindler in the current economy, have claimed it is a cautionary tale. I didn’t see any caution. I never saw that Belfort suffered for his crimes or was ever really undone by his lifestyle. The movie portrays his life as a non-stop party and even serious problems are cast in a darkly comic light. The only time the movie turns even a little bit grim is when his second marriage breaks up. I doubt even Belfort thinks his life was that awesome.

Frankly, I’m tired of movies that glorify Wall Street brokers. I’m tired of the glorification of Wall Street, full stop. I do not regard the high-powered end of the financial industry as something worth celebrating. There’s an early scene — probably the best in the movie — where Matthew McConaughey, in another great performance, explains how the stock broker industry works. The goal is not to make money for the clients. The goal is to keep them trading and paying commissions. No stock broker ever beats the markets consistently. This has been obvious for thirty years. Michael Lewis wrote a book about his time on Wall Street (Liar’s Poker) and speculated that the industry could not possibly last because people would eventually figure out that it was all a sham — that the brokers making massive commissions weren’t any more clued in than the clients. In fact, 20/20 (I think) once did a bit where they had a stock broker pick stocks, had a kindergarten class pick them and had a monkey pulls cards out of a rollodex. The broker came in last place and not by a little. Why is this an industry worth glorifying? Is it because it is a shadowy parallel of the equally empty and vainglorious entertainment industry?

There’s a tendency — and the movie encourages this — to say that the primary victims of Wall Street are rich and can afford to lose their money. There’s some truth to that. Some time ago, I got into a debate over Bernie Madoff’s victims. Some people insisted they had to know that his returns were ridiculous and there was something fishy going on. I agreed but pointed out that they probably didn’t know it was fraud. My basic take on human nature is that we are good but we are easily tempted. It was just so easy, with so much money being made, to persuade themselves that it was legit.

But the thing is, rich people aren’t the only victims of guys like Madoff and Belfort. Financial schemes like pump and dump affect an open market that is invested in by hundreds of millions of people, including mutual funds and pensions. Swindles undermine confidence in the entire system. Maybe you could argue that some of the victims deserved what they got. But they weren’t the only ones.

The movie doesn’t even hint at this. There’s a phone call, possibly fictitious, where Belfort persuades some middle class guy to sink his life savings into a penny stock, but even that is portrayed as triumphant.

No, I’m sorry. The context matters in this case. The movie itself I give an 8/10. But for glorifying a convicted financial criminal and, more importantly, the environment of recklessness that has sent our economy on a three-decade-long roller coaster ride while Wall Streeters made billions, I have to knock at least a point off.

Blocked by LOLGOP

April 15th, 2014

I recently discovered that I have been blocked on Twitter by LOLGOP. I’m going to guess it’s because of one of two tweets, since I’ve only tweeted at them twice.

Once was when they were slamming home-schooling. I replied:

.@LOLGOP Half the home schoolers I know are liberal hippy types. You have no idea what you’re babbling about.

The second was when they published an article detailing a bunch of lies about Obamacare. I deconstructed their claims here and posted:

A few of these “lies” from @LOLGOP aren’t. Obamcare unfavorability ratings almost always higher than approval.

Neither of those crosses me as a blocking offense. The first one’s a bit snippy but not anything particularly egregious. But I did a bit of googling and found that LOLGOP tends to block quite, um, liberally.

My policy on blocking people on Twitter is that I don’t unless they are spammers. Granted, I only have about 250 followers right now. But I’ve gotten some feedback a lot harsher than what I wrote above and a couple of week ago, an anti-vax type wouldn’t shut up on the subject. But I’ve never blocked because of this. On one or two occasions, I actually followed someone because we got into a debate and they made some interesting points.

Twitter doesn’t tell you who has blocked you but I know Neal Boortz did, as I mentioned before, also for very lame tweets. I discovered this one because LOLGOP actually said something funny (it does happen, occasionally). Maybe someone with a big Twitter account is going to have to block more people or be deluged but I’m extremely dubious of that. I’ve tweeted harsher things to people with more followers than LOLGOP and haven’t been blocked.

Seems someone with a satirical Twitter account also has a thin skin.

Low Class Cleavage

March 31st, 2014

It’s the end of the month, so time to put up a few posts I’ve been tinkering with.

No, just give the Great Unwashed a pair of oversized breasts and a happy ending, and they’ll oink for more every time.

– Charles Montgomery Burns

A few months ago, this study was brought to my attention:

It has been suggested human female breast size may act as signal of fat reserves, which in turn indicates access to resources. Based on this perspective, two studies were conducted to test the hypothesis that men experiencing relative resource insecurity should perceive larger breast size as more physically attractive than men experiencing resource security. In Study 1, 266 men from three sites in Malaysia varying in relative socioeconomic status (high to low) rated a series of animated figures varying in breast size for physical attractiveness. Results showed that men from the low socioeconomic context rated larger breasts as more attractive than did men from the medium socioeconomic context, who in turn perceived larger breasts as attractive than men from a high socioeconomic context. Study 2 compared the breast size judgements of 66 hungry versus 58 satiated men within the same environmental context in Britain. Results showed that hungry men rated larger breasts as significantly more attractive than satiated men. Taken together, these studies provide evidence that resource security impacts upon men’s attractiveness ratings based on women’s breast size.

Sigh. It seems I am condemned to writing endlessly about mammary glands. I don’t have an objection to the subject but I do wish someone else would approach these “studies” with any degree of skepticism.

This is yet another iteration of the breast size study I lambasted last year and it runs into the same problems: the use of CG figures instead of real women, the underlying inbuilt assumptions and, most importantly, ignoring the role that social convention plays in this kind of analysis. To put it simply: men may feel a social pressure to choose less busty CG images, a point I’ll get to in a moment. I don’t see that this study sheds any new light on the subject. Men of low socioeconomic status might still feel less pressure to conform to social expectations, something this study does not seem to address at all. Like most studies of human sexuality, it makes the fundamental mistake of assuming that what people say is necessary reflective of what they think or do and not what is expected of them.

The authors think that men’s preference for bustier women when they are hungry supports their thesis that the breast fetish is connected to feeding young (even though is zero evidence that large breasts nurse better than small ones). I actually think their result has no bearing on their assumption. Why would hungrier men want fatter women? Because they want to eat them? To nurse off them? I can think of good reasons why hungry men would feel less bound by social convention, invest a little less thought in a silly social experiment and just press the button for the biggest boobs. I think that hungry men are more likely to give you an honest opinion and not care that preferring the bustier woman is frowned upon. Hunger is known to significantly alter people’s behavior in many subtle ways but these authors narrow it to one dimension, a dimension that may not even exist.

And why not run a parallel test on women? If bigger breasts somehow provoke a primal hunger response, might that preference be built into anyone who nursed in the first few years of life?

No, this is another garbage study that amounts to saying that “low-class” men like big boobs while “high-class” men are more immune to the lure of the decolletage and so … something. I don’t find that to be useful or insightful or meaningful. I find that it simply reinforces an existing preconception.

There is a cultural bias in some of the upper echelons of society against large breasts and men’s attraction to them. That may sound crazy in a society that made Pamela Anderson a star. But large breasts and the breast fetish are often seen, by elites, as a “low class” thing. Busty women in high-end professions sometimes have problems being taken seriously. Many busty women, including my wife, wear minimizer bras so they’ll be taken more seriously (or look less matronly). I’ve noticed that in the teen shows my daughter sometimes watches, girls with curves are either ditzy or femme fatales. In adult comedies, busty women are frequently portrayed as ditzy airheads. Men who are attracted to buxom women are often depicted as low-class, unintelligent and uneducated. Think Al Bundy.

This is, of course, a subset of a mentality that sees physical attraction itself as a low-class animalistic thing. Being attracted to a woman because she’s a Ph.D. is obviously more cultured, sophisticated and enlightened than being attracted to a woman because she’s a DD. I don’t think attraction is monopolar like that. As I noted before, a man’s attraction to a woman is affected by many factors — her personality, her intelligence, her looks. Breast size is just one slider on the circuit board that it is men’s sexuality and probably not even the most important. But it’s absurd to pretend the slider doesn’t exist or that it is somehow less legitimate than the others. We are animals, whatever our pretensions.

Last year, a story exploded on the blogosphere about a naive physics professor who was duped into becoming a drug mule by the promise that he would marry Denise Milani, an extremely buxom non-nude model. What stunned me in reading about the story was the complete lack of any sympathy for him. Granted, he is an arrogant man who isn’t particularly sympathetic. But a huge amount of abuse was heaped on him, much of it focusing on his fascination with a model and particularly a model with extremely large and likely artificial breasts. The tone was that there must be something idiotic and crude about the man to fall for such a ruse and for such a woman.

The reaction to the story not only illuminated a cultural bias but how that bias can become particularly potent when the breasts in question are implants. The expression “big fake boobs” is a pejorative that men and women love to hurl at women they consider low class or inferior. Take Jenny McCarthy. There are very good reasons to criticize McCarthy for her advocacy of anti-vaccine hysteria (although I think the McCarthy criticism is a bit overblown since most people are getting this information elsewhere and McCarthy wasn’t the one who committed research fraud). But no discussion of McCarthy is complete until someone has insulted her for having implants and the existence of those implants has been touted as a sign of her obvious stupidity and the stupidity of those who follow her.

McCarthy actually doesn’t cross me as that stupid; she crosses me as badly misinformed. And it’s not like there aren’t hordes of very smart people who haven’t bought into the anti-vaccine nonsense even sans McCarthy. But putting that aside, I don’t know what McCarthy’s breasts have to do with anything. Do people honestly think it would make a difference is she was an A-cup?

To return to this study and the one I lambasted last year: what I see is not only bad science but a subtle attempt by science to reinforce the stereotype that large breasts and an attraction to them are animalistic, low-class and uneducated. Bullshit speculation claims that men’s attraction to breasts is some primitive instinct. And more bullshit research claims that wealthy educated men can resist this primitive instinct but poorer less-educated men wallow in their animalistic desires. And when these garbage studies come out, blogs are all too eager to hype them, saying, “See! We told you those guys who liked big boobs were ignorant brutes!”

I think this is just garbage. The most “enlightened” academic is just as likely to ogle a busty woman when she walks by. He might be better trained at not being a jerk about it because he walks in social circles where wolf-whistles and come-ons are unacceptable. And he lives in a society where, if a bunch of social scientists are leering over you, you pretend to like the less busty woman. But all men live secret erotic lives in their heads. It’s extremely difficult to tease that information out and certainly not possible with an experiment as crude and obvious as this.

Once again, we see the biggest failing in sex research: asking people what they want instead of getting some objective measure. There are better approaches, some of which I mentioned in my previous article. If I were to approach this topic, I would look at the google search database used in A Billion Wicked Thoughts to see if areas of high education (e.g., college towns) were less likely to look at porn in general and porn involving busty women in particular. That might give you some useful information. But there’s a danger that it wouldn’t enforce the bias we’ve built up against big breasts and the men who love them.

Five Favorite’s: Best Action Films Since 2000

March 30th, 2014

It’s time for another Five Favorites post with Donna of From the Rental Queue!

Donna: Welcome to the newest addition of “Five Favorites” with Michael Siegel! This month we decided to take on our “Five Favorite Action Films released since 2000″. For this list we wanted to focus as much as possible on pure action films. For that reason we decided to exclude the vast majority of superhero, sci-fi, or martial arts films, as we were really trying to focus on pure action. However, if we felt that
the action in a excluded movie was just too good we agreed that we would allow its inclusion. We capped the release date for this at 2000 – anything released before that year was also excluded. We wanted to focus on what the genre looks like today and not be tempted to fill our lists with old favorites.

We pooled our thoughts and came up with a short list of 30 films. Narrowing that down to just five was tough for me and I found myself unable to not pick one sci-fi film for my final list. Honorable mentions for me go out to “Valhalla Rising”, “Machete”, “Unstoppable”, and “Kick Ass”.

Mike: This was tough for me, as most of the action movies I watch slide into science fiction or superhero categories. Maybe it’s my perception, but we don’t seem to be getting the kind of pure action movies we did twenty years ago when Schwarzeneggar and Stallone ruled the box office. Almost everything these days is part of genre franchise.

Nevertheless, here is my list, with only a little bit of rule-bending. I do want to make an honorable mention of “Kill Bill”.  Kill Bill is a great action movie.  Unfortunately, that great movie is wrapped up a bloated 2-volume package.  If you edited them down to one movie and cut the total run time by about 40 minutes, it would probably be near the top of this list. Its action scenes are excellent, the acting is great and the dialogue solid. But it is a prime example of what I’ve disparaged as action movie bloat.  I also decided, at the last moment, to drop “Master and Commander” from my list because it is as much drama as action and I’ll hold it back for a post on criminally-underrated films.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dune … Desert Planet … Arrakis

March 2nd, 2014

I’ve been intending to write this article for some time but Cracked’s recent article about five dream film projects that turned into nightmares provoked my digital pen. The five films they cite as having been nightmares for their producers are: Battlefield Earth, Dune, Toys, Pirates and Howard the Duck.

One of these things is not like the others.

Dune‘s production was famously troubled culminating with David Lynch refusing to lend his credit to the extended cut. But the movie is quite serviceable. And IMDB seems to agree. Here are the IMDB ratings of these five troubled productions:

Howard the Duck: 4.5
Pirates: 6.1
Toys: 4.9
Dune: 6.6
Battlefield Earth: 2.4

You can see that for all its problems, Dune is considered a decent flick. Certainly not in the same category as Battlefield: Earth.

It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of bringing a book like Dune to either the big or the small screen. Much of the novel occurs in the minds of the characters and the action depends heavily on their intellectual and physiological skills. The Dune universe is so intricate and complex, you could spend an entire movie just setting it up. (In fact, the Duniverse is often so abstract and complex that it’s hard to follow on the written page.)

But for all that, I would argue that we have gotten not one but two quite serviceable adaptations. Neither is perfect. Both have flaws. But they are very watchable and do a fine job of bringing out the essentials of the book.

The Lynch/De Laurentis version was absolutely savaged by critics when it was released and is still regarded by many as a gigantic flop. I really don’t understand why. Granted, I’ve read the book so I understand it (a friend who worked at a theater said they had to give out pamphlets explaining all the terms in the movie). But, if memory serves, I had not read the book when I first saw it and still didn’t understand the hatred.

Visually, the movie is a feast. Some of the FX are a bit dated, but the set design, costumes and navigators are wonderful. Toto’s score is very good, even it gets a bit repetitive. And the casting is top-notch. Jurgen Prochnow is outstanding as Leto Atreides. MacLahan, Annis, Stewart, Jones and Dourif are all great. Even at times when the movies is struggling, the actors pull it through.

The script has some issues but the conflicts are perfectly clear and the themes laid out quite plainly. Even on first seeing it, I found the plot intriguing and the idea of winning conflicts through political, religious and psychic power drew me in. And Dune itself is depicted quite well.

I think one reason for the hatred is that the original cut is a lot less comprehensible than the extended cut which I saw on TV the first time and now own on DVD. The extended cut, which Lynch disowned, has a massively superior opening narrative that explains the background and politics. It has a lot more scenes that flesh out the narrative and give the complex script room to breath. Much as I respect David Lynch as a film-maker, I think the long cut is far better than his (even if the special effects are still not quite finished).

(Of course, in later years, the critics would decide that Lynch’s opaque narratives and befuddling plots were a sign of his genius. I guess that stuff just wasn’t acceptable in the science fiction genre. It would be another thirty years before incomprehensible science-fiction films would be hailed as works of genius.)

I also have a high opinion of the sci-fi channel’s miniseries, which I also own on DVD and have also watched multiple times. With six hours to work with, the miniseries is more coherent and adheres better to the book (and doesn’t have the embarrassing weirding modules). The portrayals of Chani, Irulan and the Harkonnens are far superior. Fremen culture — the keystone of the book — receives a far better treatment. I know a lot of people prefer the monstrous baron of the Lynch movie. But I prefer a Baron (and a Feyd and a Raban) who are smarter and deadlier. The Baron is supposed to be a formidable opponent, a skilled tyrant, not a cackling imbecile. Feyd is supposed to be nearly Paul’s equal in a lot of ways. The Sci-Fi miniseries nailed it, making the Harkonnens dangerous and deadly. It also, in my opinion, does far more with the female characters — an important aspect of Herbert’s writing.

The sci-fi channel version has its own flaws, of course. William Hurt is somnambulant as Leto. Alec Newman is good, but not as good as Maclahan. The effects are conspicuously poorer because of the budget.

Still, you really can’t go wrong with either. I would give both 8/10 (fan rating). I suppose I should hold out hope that one day we’ll get a perfect adaptation. But I really don’t see that happening any time soon. In the meantime, both versions of Dune are worth the time of any science fiction fan.

The Return of Linkorama

February 22nd, 2014

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

To wit:

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

    February 17th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: A Trilogy of Error

    February 12th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A Rape Epidemic or How to Reframe Data:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Pending Crash or How to Play with Scales:

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

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

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

    Does Defense Win Championships?

    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?


    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.