2012 in Review

July 5th, 2013

I’m getting better at this. It’s only July. Last year, my “year in review” came out in September. The year before in December. My review of 2009 didn’t come out until June of 2011. Hey, I got a kid. Maybe when she’s off to college, I’ll post my year-in-review while it’s still winter.

We’ll start in the usual place. Here are the list of films that were nominated for Best Picture:

Argo: I’m liking Affleck more as a movie maker than a movie star. While this was somewhat fictionalized, it was still tense and enjoyable. I’m not sure if it was the best picture of the year, but it was very good. 8/10

Amour: This is not yet out on DVD.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: I really liked this motion picture for its magical realism and excellent low-key acting. I was reminded of the equally excellent Winter’s Bone, which used local actors and a great performance from Jennifer Lawrence to craft a great low-key film. Had I been an Academy voter, I might have picked this one. 8/10

Djanjo Unchained: Django, like Tarantino’s previous picture, is beautifully shot with excellent acting and some great writing. But the ridiculously excessive violence, the great length and the completely unnecessary final half hour dragged this down. Tarantino need an editor badly. 7/10

Les Miserables: OK, maybe I would have tapped this for the Academy. It has its flaws, as I noted in the long-form review, especially an editing style that wastes the visuals. But I love the story, so … 8/10

Life of Pi: Visually excellent with great acting. It just manages to walk the tightrope of not being ridiculously pretentious. 8/10

Lincoln: This has faded a bit but I still found it very enjoyable, mainly for the performance of Lewis and Jones. A movie is doing a good job when you’re tensed up about a conflict where you know the outcome. Apollo 13 was the best at that; but Lincoln does pretty well. What makes this movie good is that it eschewed a “Highlights from Hamlet” approach to Lincoln’s life and focused on one specific event that illuminates everything. Its flaw — the unnecessary coda — is fatal precisely because it departs from that, making us feel we’re watching a History Channel special. (Note to Spielberg: we know that Lincoln died). The movie should have ended with Lincoln walking down the hall. I was reminded of Munich, which was excellent … right up until the unnecessary and uncomfortable closing sex scene, complete with flying sweat beads and Eric Bana’s horrifying orgasm face.

Ugh.

8/10, in any case.

Silver Linings Playbook: I would not have liked this movie, most likely, had it not been for Jennifer Lawrence. I found the script a bit weak and a lot of the acting hammy. But Lawrence is just so damned good in the lead role that she makes the movie worthwhile. 7/10

Zero Dark Thirty: Jessica Chastain is her usual excellent self and the directed is taut. One problem I had with the raid scenes, however, was that they were so dark I could barely see them, even on my plasma. Other than, it was enjoyable. 8/10

Looking at the IMDB rating for movies with over 20,000 votes, we add the following titles.

The Dark Knight Rises: I’ll return to this in a second, but this is why any IMDB rating from the last decade or so needs to be taken with some salt. DKR is the top-rated film of 2012 on IMDB. I liked it, but it was long and not nearly as compelling as the Dark Knight. I give it an 8/10 now, but it probably deserves more of a 7.

The Avengers: One of my favorite movies from 2012. Great action, yes, but leavened with really good writing and acting that is suited to the task. Joss Whedon needs to do more. 8/10

The Hunt: I have not seen this.

The Hobbit I: I wrote a long form review. I’ve now seen it four times and still like it a lot. Again — this seems to be a recurring theme — the movie is too long. But it does a lot right. 8/10

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This movie hit close to home. While I didn’t have the protagonist’s mental health or life issues, I was a very lonely kid in high school. That was an improvement over elementary school, where I was relentlessly teased and bullied. While I did form a few friendships among outcasts, there was nothing like the group depicted in this tale nor did I know a teacher like the one played by Paul Rudd (who’s showing a bit more range these days). The only teacher who got involved with students’ lives was involved in a Christian prayer group. They invited me to things but … you know. Still, the movie surprised me by avoiding the worst cliches and managing to be original. The acting is uniformly good; the kids seems like real kids. The dialogue works. I gave it a 7/10 out of Twitter, but don’t be surprised if I raise that in the future. This might grow on me. (And … seriously? Not one nomination for this movie? Just in case you didn’t already think the Academy Awards were stupid).

Wreck-It Ralph: My daughter loved this movie. I found it clever and appealing, certainly a better film than Brave (which was a fine film). 7/10

Moonrise Kingdom: I’m not a big fan of Wes Anderson, but the two leads made this work well. 7/10

Skyfall: Also in the running for my favorite movie of 2012. The best Bond since Casino Royale. 9/10 (fanboy rating).

Cloud Atlas: I put up a long-form review. I should watch this again. 8/10

End of Watch and Conquest 1453: Have not seen these.

Looper: This was a really good science fiction movie and really should have gotten a lot more respect. This is the sort of classic sci-fi that is slowly emerging from the rubble of the Action Movie Era: a movie about ideas and people more than it is about action and CGI. 8/10

One thing you may have noticed: the movies of 2012 were ridiculously bloated. Almost every movie on that list ran a bit long and some ran long by more than half an hour. I don’t mind a long movie when it earns that length; Cloud Atlas earned it because of its complexity. But several movies — The Hobbit, Dark Knight Rises and Django in particular — could have been hoved down with no real loss. The biggest villain here is endless action scenes. It’s no longer enough to have a good action scene; now every possibly stunt you can think of has to be included; everyone has to get his moment to kick ass, everyone has to get their one liner. Writers used to make up their mind about how they wanted a movie to be resolved. Now they don’t; they just resolve it both ways by some ridiculous plot twist.

But here’s the big thing. Of the movie on that list, the only ones I currently own on DVD are Hobbit, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises — all fan purchases. If money were no object, I might add Les Mis, Looper and Cloud Atlas to that. But none of those movies screams for me to buy them.

I noted before that the Dark Knight Rises is the top-rated picture of 2012. That’s fan-bloated; it will sink. But right below that is Django, which is also fan-bloated. You have to get down to Life of Pi before you find a genuinely well-regarded movie.

In short, while 2012 was a good year for movies, it was not a great year. I don’t believe any of those films above are destined to be classics. I would frankly rate Before Midnight, which I saw two weeks ago, over any of them.

Now it’s tough to guess the judgement of history. But I’m not seeing the kind of classic that people watch for generations coming out of Hollywood these days. Look at IMDB’s top films since 2000. Almost all of them are action movies. Now Lord of the Rings may be destined for classic status, but is The Dark Knight? Inception? City of God?

OK, OK, IMDB is bloated by fan boys. Fine. But even if we strip those out, we have Memento, Spirited Away, The Pianist, The Lives of Others … Look at Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and narrow it down to the last decade. Not a lot there and not a lot that I think he’s absolutely right about.

Look, it’s Friday, I’m tired, I have a summer cold. I’m 1200 words in. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. But I’ve been thinking this for a long time. I see a lot entertainment. A lot of solid popcorn movies. But the only time in recent memory I’ve watched a film and said, “Wow, they’ll be watching this for the next fifty years” was when I saw Lord of the Rings. OK, maybe a couple of Miyazaki or Pixar titles, too. But I have no inclination to rewatch Argo or The Artist or The King’s Speech or The Hurt Locker. Slumdog Millionaire maybe.

Well, as I said, it takes a long time for history to judge. No one thought 2001 was a classic when it came out and the Academy once awarded Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. Ask me in a decade and maybe I’ll be saying that one of those films above was truly great. But at my desk at 11:35 at night? Doesn’t seem like it.

Update: Yes, I’m aware that people have been saying the above since movies became talkies. Maybe I’m in a “get off my lawn” mood. But it honestly does feel like the great artists are moving away from film and more toward other media.

Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Et Tu, Reason?

June 30th, 2013

Oh, no, not you, Best Magazine on the Planet:

The growth of federal regulations over the past six decades has cut U.S. economic growth by an average of 2 percentage points per year, according to a new study in the Journal of Economic Growth. As a result, the average American household receives about $277,000 less annually than it would have gotten in the absence of six decades of accumulated regulations—a median household income of $330,000 instead of the $53,000 we get now.

You know, I hate it when people play games with numbers and I won’t put up with it from my side. I agree with Reason’s general point that we are over-regulated and badly regulated and that it is hurting our economy. Even the most conservative estimates indicate that bad regulation is sucking hundreds of billions out of the economy — and that’s accounting for the positive effects of regulation.

But the claim that we would be four times richer if it weren’t for regulation is garbage. As Bailey notes in the article, the growth in the US economy over the last half century has been about 3.2 percent. Without regulation, according to this study, it would have been 5.2, which is far higher than the US has ever had over any extended period of time, even before the progressive era. And because that wild over-estimate is exponential, it results in an economy that would be four times what we have now; four times what any large country would have now. The hypothetical US would be as wealthy, relative the real US, as the real US is to Serbia. Does anyone really think that without regulation we would be producing four times as much goods and services?

Even if we assume that we could produce an ideally regulated society, regulation is not the only limit on the economy. Other factors — birth rate, immigration, war, business cycles, education, technological progress, social unrest and the economic success of other countries — play a factor. A perfectly regulated society would most likely move from a position where its growth was limited by regulation to a position where its growth was limited by other factors (assuming this is not already the case)

The paper is very long and complicated so I can’t dissect where their economic model goes wrong. But I will point out that no country in history, including the United States, has ever had half a century of 5% economic growth. Even countries with far less regulation and far more economic freedom than we have do not show the kind of explosive growth they project. In the absence of any real-life example showing that regulatory restraint can produce this kind of growth, we can’t accept numbers that are so ridiculous.

Other studies, as Reason notes, estimate the impact of regulation as being something like 10-20% of our economy. That would require that regulation knock down our economic growth by 0.3% per year, which seems much more reasonable.

(H/T: Maggie McNeill, although she might not like where I went with this one.)

Cloud Atlas

June 29th, 2013

Cloud Atlas is, if nothing else, ambitious. Clocking in at just under three hours, it actually earns that length (unlike a lot of recent bloated movies) because it tells six related stories spanning a time of half a millenium, ranging from a 19th century slaving ship to a 24th century post-apocalyptic tale. It uses a small group of actors to play multiple roles in the various stories and the tagline is that all these stories are connected.

I liked Cloud Atlas quite a bit and intend to watch it again. In time, I may grow to love it. But, for right now, I admire it more than like it. I feel it falls just a bit short of its lofty ambitions.

The biggest problem is that the connections between the six stories seem kind of weak. My understanding is that the book has nested stories, where each one is being read or watched by those in the next story, so that it becomes a story within a story within, etc. six times. The movie seems to be trying to do something grander and more imaginative: have the stories play off of each other or feed each other in a karmic sense so that we feel we are seeing the same souls interact as they try to reach a glimmering future. But … and maybe I need to watch it again … I felt the connections were between the stories were tenuous at best. Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess are lovers in three of the stories, but this isn’t really revealed until the end. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry only interact in two of the stories and their connection seems tenuous. The birthmark seems to link the six protaganists — Adam, Robert, Luisa, Timothy, Sonmi and Zachry. But their stories are different and the six actors who play them don’t seem to be playing reincarnations of the same character. The over-arching plot doesn’t seem to have the resolution and catharsis that the eloquent voice-overs promise. So, in the end, this seems less like six interconnected stories spanning 500 years than six stories juxtaposed together. I felt like one more pass through the script might have tightened those connections and made a much more emotionally deep picture.

However, although the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, it’s still a very good movie and at least it’s reaching. All six of the stories are compelling in some way. Reading through the reviews, I’ve noticed that the critics always napalm or praise different segments, never the same ones. That’s probably because all six works pretty well. Even when the script is a bit weak (the Luisa Rey sequence), the acting and directing carry it. And when the story is strong — Sonmi 451, the Pacific Crossing and Sloosha’s Crossing were my favorites — it’s very good.

All three directors do a fine job: the film is always visually and narratively compelling. The acting is strong, even if the makeup that allows the actors to change races and genders isn’t always up to par. But it is rarely outstanding. It’s fun to watch the actors slip in and out of roles (although that muddies the supposed karmic connections between the stories). And watching Hugh Grant and Hugo Waving slither through six villains is a treat. But no performance in the film really grabbed me as particularly inspired.

As has become par for the Wachowskis, there are many striking visual images: Luisa’s dizzying plunge into the river, the Abbess’s eyes changing color, the chase of Sonmi and Hae-Joo. Thankfully, the visuals are mated to good stories and good acting, so they never grow tiresome.

So, overall, a good film. Maybe, in time, a very good one. But it falls just short of greatness for me, so I have to give it an 8/10. It will probably rank as one of my Best of 2012 in the post I’ll cook up over the next few days.

You know what excited me most about Cloud Atlas, though? It hints that the Wachowskis have at least one more great film in them. The Matrix is a great film, of course. Its sequels are a bit disappointing but have their moments. V for Vendetta is a visually excellent film and has a strong narrative. Speed Racer was a commercial and critical flop that I have yet to see. But Atlas hints that they have something great in them, that their talent for visual flair an imaginative ideas is going to come together into something really jaw-dropping in the near future. Maybe it will be Jupiter Ascending. Or maybe Jupiter will stink and we’ll have to wait ten years for it. But I think there’s greatness there. And perhaps Cloud Atlas is where we’ll say we first saw it.

Saturday Linkorama

June 23rd, 2013
  • This visualization of the Right of Spring is seriously seriously cool. Seeing the music like that, you start hearing the subtleties that elude you when you just hear it. This is one of the reasons I like to see classical music in performance. There is so much more going on than the ear can take in.
  • This map of linguistic divides in the United States, is something I could spend an entire post on. I match most of the pronunciations from Georgia except for “lawyer” and “pajamas”.
  • This story, about charities that just exist to raise money, should be getting national attention. It’s a disgrace.
  • I’ve used some of these.
  • Roman concrete was apparently better than the shit we’re using.
  • I think this is more or less true: the financial industry has stopped being about enabling economic progress and more about itself. When engineers can make more moving piles of money around than inventing things, we’ve got a problem.
  • Teenage boys killed the sex scene.
  • There’s Vitamins and then There’s Vitamins

    June 13th, 2013

    Note from Mike: I recently tweeted an NYT story that claims deleterious health effects from consuming too many vitamins with the note that I thought it likely people were gobbling too many pills. My wife decided the article merited a response.

    This NYT article on vitamins contained a few scientific issues that I feel the need to respond to. Unfortunately, the NYT didn’t allow opinions to be expressed so you will have to endure my ranting and raving.

    The article provides details about published studies, two of which are published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that claim deleterious effects from excessive vitamin consumption. These studies show that those that took Vitamin A or beta carotene (Vitamin K) supplements were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease compared to those who didn’t. The article also lists other studies showing a correlation between taking Vitamin A, E, beta carotene (Vitamin K), Vitamin C and selenium supplements and mortality. The author then goes on the say the link between mortality and the vitamins ingested are antioxidants.

    I cannot agree with this conclusion as this conflates fat soluble vitamins and water soluble vitamins and minerals. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble meaning any excess taken in the diet is stored in the fat of an individual and the body can’t regulate these nearly as well as the water soluble ones. Selenium is water soluble, as are the Vitamins B and C. An excess of a water soluble vitamin or mineral is removed in the urine by the body. I can therefore see the disease and mortality states arising from fat soluble vitamins. But I am concerned that the studies showing consuming the water soluble vitamins plus Vitamin C and selenium came to the wrong conclusion. It may be a case of guilt by association with the fat soluble vitamins. Have any studies looked at water soluble vitamins in isolation?

    I worry about this because there are benefits to high vitamin levels for certain conditions. The third paragraph claims:

    Nutrition experts argue that people need only the recommended daily allowance — the amount of vitamins found in a routine diet. Vitamin manufacturers argue that a regular diet doesn’t contain enough vitamins, and that more is better.

    Up until I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I would have subscribed to the nutrition experts’ opinion as well. But after turning my research interests towards the genetic underpinnings of MS (I am a medical geneticist), I quickly uncovered how vital Vitamin D is in the management of the relapse-remitting disease. I even tried getting out in the sun in the summer and turned to tanning beds in the winter to maximize my body producing enough Vitamin D to manage my MS without resorting to Vitamin D supplements. After many flare ups over a two to three year period, the last of which put me in a wheelchair in the summer time, my Vitamin D level came back each time as below optimal levels. For this reason, I now take four times the FDA recommended level of Vitamin D in a supplement form to help manage my MS. Over the past year of doing this, I can report, my MS is well managed without any flare ups. For this reason, I think that the levels listed on the recommended daily allowance are not adequate for people with medical conditions needing additional supplements.

    I consume a prescription strength dose of folate, vitamin B12 and Vitamin B6 for overcoming the chance of a miscarriage while I carry my second child. After three miscarriages, I was recently diagnosed as being a carrier of a gene known to be involved with miscarriages as well as migraines, cardiovascular disease and other disorders. To overcome this reduced gene function, more Vitamin B is needed to reduce homocysteine levels in the body. Since Vitamin B is a water soluble vitamin, I am also supplementing it with the consumption of spinach, which does not contain much Vitamin B12 or Vitamin B6, just folic acid (folate). Since my taste for spinach is waning, I rely on the supplement strength pill for these additional vitamins as I know my body can self regulate the concentration of these vitamins without much harm to the baby. Similarly, my husband also has the same genetic abnormality and suffers from migraines. To treat this disease, we buy an over the counter Vitamin B supplement for his symptom management at not much cost to us versus the prescription strength pill that I take.

    This is why calling on the FDA to better regulate vitamin supplement sales makes me a bit nervous. If the FDA becomes involved in this fight, I worry that the ability to self regulate symptom management for diseases and disorders may be impaired. Tighter regulation of the fat soluble vitamins may be justified. But it is not obvious that tighter regulation of water soluble vitamins is.

    Les Miserables Review

    May 28th, 2013

    I have never seen the musical Les Miserables. I’ve never actually seen any film or stage representation before. I have however read, and deeply loved, the book by Victor Hugo.*

    (*I recently discovered, to my horror, that the version I read so long ago was, in fact, abridged. So I may have to read it again when I have a month to spare.)

    So my expectations were medium to high going into the recent Les Miserables film. I can say that while I didn’t love it, I liked it quite a bit. There are times when it creaks. It has a very serious editing problem, with lots of rapid cuts that distract from the sumptuous visuals, the serviceable singing and the excellent acting.

    But this is compensated for by the things the films gets right. The art direction is fantastic; 19th century Paris is recreated so well I felt like I needed antibiotics. The music is fine. I’m not as enamored of the score as most fan but it gets good when there is polyphony. The story, while stripped to its bare bones, retains the most important parts including the emotional wallop at the end. And the acting is uniformly good. Les Miserables has a great ensemble cast. One particular performance of note is that of Sacha Baron Cohen. His singing is OK, but his acting is a lot of fun. Between this and Hugo, he’s showing the makings of an excellent and versatile supporting actor. The more he does this and the less he does his characters, the happier I’ll be.

    The thing I kept thinking as I watched it, however, was that I wished it weren’t a musical. I’m not slamming the music or anything. As I said, it works great sometimes. And Les Miserables is such a massive sprawling tale that perhaps musical numbers are the only way to advance the plot and the emotional threads fast enough to squeeze it into three hours. But I think the spectacle and the singing sort of take away from the excellent actors that populate the film. Many of the film’s flaws — Hooper’s preference for quick cuts and extreme closeups — are the result of doing it as pure musical rather than pure drama or drama punctuated by the occasional song. A distillation of this problem can be found in Russell Crowe. Many critics napalmed his singing. I found that he lacked dynamic range but was perfectly adequate. His flaws as a singer only stand out because the rest of the cast are better. But the complaints about his perfectly serviceable singing distract from his excellent acting. A little less singing and a little more acting and he would really have nailed Javert. The same can be said for many of the cast. Only Redmayne, Barks and perhaps Jackman are really able to pull off the singing and acting simultaneously.

    One thing Hooper did right, however, was record the singing during filming. There is verisimilitude to the singing that is unique. Sometimes it’s distracting — Jackman in particular has a tendency to sing with a very open mouth. But I’m hoping the technique can be refined in the future because it really works much better than lip-synching.

    Overall, I would probably give it a 8/10. I have to think about it a little bit. I love the story so dearly that the film redeems its sins with the occasional great moment.

    Late May Linkorama

    May 28th, 2013
  • A brief bit of mathematical malpractice, although not a deliberate one. The usually smart Sarah Kliff cites a study that of an ER that showed employees spent nearly 5000 minutes on Facebook. Of course, over 68 computers and 15 days, that works out to about 4 minutes per day per computer which … really isn’t that much.
  • What’s interesting about the Netflix purge is that many of the studios are pulling movies to start their own streaming services. This is idiotic. I’m pretty tech savvy and I have no desire to have 74 apps on my iPad, one for each studio. If I want to watch a movie, I’m going to Netflix or Amazon or iTunes, not a studio app (that I have to pay another subscription fee for). In fact, many days my streaming is defined by opening up the Netflix app and seeing what intrigues me.
  • We go into this on Twitter. The NYT ran an article about how little nutrition our food has. Of course, they have defined “nutritional content” as the amount of pigment which has dubious nutritional value (aside from anti-oxidant value; so, no nutritional value). As Kevin Wilson said according to the graph, the value of blue corn is that it is blue and not yellow.
  • While we’re on the subject of nutrition, it turns out that low sodium intake may not only not be beneficial, it may even be harmful. I’m slowly learning that almost everything we think we know about nutrition is shaky at best.
  • Ultra-conserved words. I am fascinated by language.
  • Wine tasting is bullshit.
  • How the peaceful loving people-friendly Soviet Union tried to militarize space.
  • The most remote places in each state.
  • Porn is not the problem. You are. More on how “sex addiction” is a made up disorder.
  • Meet the coins that could rewrite history. Every time we learn more about the past, we find out that our ancestors were smarter and more adventurous than we thought they were. And some people think they needed aliens to build the pyramids.
  • Mother Jones Again. Actually Texas State

    May 22nd, 2013

    Mother Jones, not content with having running one of the more bogus studies on mass shootings (for which they boast about winning an award from Ithaca College), is crowing again about a new study out of Texas State. They claim that the study shows that mass shooting are rising, that available guns are the reason and that civilians never stop shootings.

    It’s too bad they didn’t read the paper too carefully. Because it supports none of those conclusions.

  • The Texas State study covers only 84 incidents. Their “trend” is that about half of these incident happened in the last two years of the study. That is, again, an awfully small number to be drawing conclusions from.
  • The data are based on Lexis/Nexus searches. That is not nearly as thorough as James Alan Fox‘s use of FBI crime stats and may measure media coverage more than actual events. They seem to have been reasonably thorough but they confirm their data from … other compilations.
  • Their analysis only covers the years 2000-2010. This conveniently leaves out 2011 (which had few incidents) and the entirety of the 80′s and 90′s, when crime rates were nearly twice what they are now. The word for this is “cherry picking”. Consider what their narrow year range means. If the next decade has fewer incidents, the “trend” becomes a spike. Had you done a similar study covering the years 1990-2000, using MJ’s graph, you would have concluded that mass shootings were rising then. But this would have been followed by five years with very few active shooter events. Look at Mother Jones’ graph again. You can see that mass shootings fell dramatically in the early 2000′s, then spiked up again. That looks like noise in a flat trend over a 30-year baseline. But when you analyze it the way the Blair study does, it looks like a trend. You know what this reminds me of? The bad version of global warming skepticism. Global warming “skeptics” will often show temperature graphs that start in 1998 (an unusually warm year) and go the present to claim that there is no global warming. But if you look at the data for the last century, the long-term trend becomes readily apparent. As James Alan Fox has show, the long-term trend is flat. What Mother Jones has done is jump on a study that really wasn’t intended to look at long-term trends and claim it confirms long-term trends.
  • Mother Jones’ says: “The unprecedented spike in these shootings came during the same four-year period, from 2009-12, that saw a wave of nearly 100 state laws making it easier to obtain, carry, and conceal firearms.” They ignore that the wave of gun law liberalization began in the 90′s, before the time span of this study.
  • MJ also notes that only three of the 84 attacks were stopped by the victims using guns. Ignored in their smugness is that a) that’s three times what Mother Jones earlier claimed over a much longer time baseline; b) the number of incidents stopped by the victims was actually 16. Only three used guns.; c) at least 1/3 of the incident happened in schools, were guns are forbidden.
  • So, yeah. They’re still playing with tiny numbers and tiny ranges of data to draw unsupportable conclusions. To be fair, the authors of the study are a bit more circumspect in their analysis, which is focused on training for law enforcement in dealing with active shooter situations. But Mother Jones never feels under any compulsion to question their conclusions.

    (H/T: Christopher Mason)

    Update: You might wonder why I’m on about this subject. The reason is that I think almost any analysis of mass shootings is deliberately misleading. Over the last twenty years, gun homicides have declined 40% (PDF) and gun violence by 70%. This is the real data. This is what we should be paying attention to. By diverting our attention to these horrific mass killings, Mother Jones and their ilk are focusing on about one one thousandth of the problem of gun violence because that’s the only way they can make it seem that we are in imminent danger.

    The thing is, Mother Jones does acknowledge the decline in violence in other contexts, such as claiming that the crackdown on lead has been responsible for the decline in violence. So when it suits them, they’ll freely acknowledge that violent crime has plunged. But when it comes to gun control, they pick a tiny sliver of gun violence to try to pretend that it’s not. And the tell, as I noted before, is that in their gun-control articles, they do not acknowledge the overall decline of violence.

    Using a fact when it suits your purposes and ignoring it when it doesn’t is pretty much the definition of hackery.

    Trekkie Thoughts

    May 16th, 2013

    We’re getting a new Star Trek film tomorrow. I’ve been trying to avoid any expectations, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember, since watching reruns of the original series on Channel 17.

    Given tomorrow’s launch, I thought I’d finally publish my blog post on the Trek movies.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    The Law of BS

    May 1st, 2013

    Some time ago, I talked about my Rule of Expertise. I’m in the process of catching up on old posts from Bill James’ website. The article I refer to is behind a firewall. It’s about the Jeffrey MacDonald case. But in the course of it, Bill says something utterly brilliant:

    There are certain characteristics of bullshit, and there are certain characteristics of the truth. The truth tends to be specific; bullshit tends to be vague and imprecise. The truth tends to involve facts that can be checked out; bullshit is always built around things that you have no way of checking out. The truth tends to be told consistently, the same from one day to the next; bullshit changes every time it is told. Stable, responsible honest people tend to tell the truth; unstable, dishonest, unreliable people tend to bullshit. The truth is coherent and logical; bullshit is incoherent and illogical.

    Almost everything I said in my Law of Expertise post could be considered a subset of that general rule. When an “expert” tells you what a great expert he is, he’s spewing vague bullshit. Real experts tend to be specific, consistent and verifiable.

    However…

    I think the equation has changed a bit in the Information Age. The internet has a long memory and this has forced the bullshitters to be more consistent and more specific. The result is that BS now gets debunked faster than ever. However, it has also allowed BS to assume a facade of truth that fools some people.

    Think about vaccine hysteria. The lies are specific, consistent and seem to involve facts. That makes people believe it, even after thorough and unremitting debunking.

    (I should note, in passing, that the MacDonald case is of particular interest to me. My dad was — and still is, as far as I know — convinced that MacDonald was an innocent man railroaded by a biased judge, a vindictive prosecutor, a slimy writer and a vengeful father-in-law. I was convinced of that myself until I read Weingarten’s post, which pointed out that there is almost no evidence to prove MacDonald’s contention that his family was murdered by a bunch of hippies and that all the extant evidence — including recently tested tissue under the wife’s fingernails — supports the prosecution case. It’s kind of rare that I disagree with my dad on something like this, but … I do. The prosecution was able to put together a scenario consistent with the evidence (although I don’t buy the amphetamines angle). The defense wasn’t.

    However, while I am mostly convinced that MacDonald probably did murder his family, I’m not as sure that he should have been convicted. The crime scene was not properly secured, for one and exculpatory evidence might have been destroyed. The judge did seem biased against MacDonald. And I do think Bill James (and Megan McArdle) make a good point about prosecutions — once they focus on a suspect, they develop a tunnel vision which sees everything in light of that suspicion. James’ makes what I think is the most important point: the prosecution’s case fits together extremely well … if you assume that MacDonald was the killer.

    It’s an awful case and probably one of the reasons it fascinates so many people. On the one hand, you could have an innocent man convicted of one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit. On the other hand, you have a man committing one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit, including the deliberate murder of a sleeping toddler.

    In any case, you should subscribe to James’ site if you have even a mild interest in baseball. Baseball analysis is only part of what he offers.)

    Tebow Out of NYC

    April 29th, 2013

    Tim Tebow was released by the Jets today, ending one of the most baffling sports acquisitions I have ever witnessed.

    When Tebow was with the Broncos, he crossed me as a poor man’s Doug Flutie — a QB who lacked some essential tool (height in Flutie’s case; passing ability in Tebow’s) but nevertheless found ways to win. I was dubious that it could be sustained. But it seemed like he’d found a niche — a team with a great running game and offensive line — where his skills were useful.

    When the Jets took him, I hoped they would find some creative ways to use him and Sanchez. Two QB sets, especially at the goal line; wildcat formations; using Tebow as running back who could sometimes pass. Instead, the nailed him to the bench and used him as an alternative to Sanchez. But, without the Bronco’s running game, that wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t. It’s obvious now that Tebow can never be a feature QB.

    However, I have to disagree with those, like ESPN, who are saying this is the end of the road for Tebow. He’s still young, still well-liked and still has some skills that will make your jaw drop. Some team is going to sign him for publicity if nothing else.

    But what I would really like to see is Tebow fall into the hands of a Belichick-like unconventional guru; someone who could use what Tebow does well (run, lead, use his instincts) without exposing what he does poorly (pass). Someone who would put in a two-QB set at the line to give defenses fits.

    In an odd way, I’m reminded of Reggie Bush. This is a bit of a stretch, since Bush was heavily touted coming out of college (although, in a post that disappeared in the event horizon, I was skeptical). But he never became the stud that everyone thought he would. Oh, he was good. But until 2011, he’d never a thousand yard season. What the Dolphins seemed to figure out was that he wasn’t an MVP type who could pound out 350 carries a year and gain 2000 yards from scrimmage. But there was nothing wrong with that. He was a guy who could run 200 times, catch 40-50 passes and get 1500 yards from scrimmage. And that guy was very very useful.

    Whoever picks up Tebow needs to stop squeezing him into a pocket passer hole. Tebow is not that guy and never will be. But he is a guy who could throw 50-100 passes a year, run for a thousand yards, score few touchdowns and drive opposing defenses crazy. And he’s only 25 years old.

    Sunday Linkorama

    April 28th, 2013
  • A fascinating look at how dollar bills move, courtesy of the Where’s George website. I find it fascinating the Pennsylvania is divided in half.
  • This is what I mean by Sports Media Twerp. They are never wrong and everybody else is just an idiot.
  • Really interesting blog on the least visited countries in the world. The writer is trying to visit every country at least once. Wish I had the resources for that.
  • I wish climate scientists would not overstate their conclusions. It makes it so much easier for people to pretend global warming is a hoax.
  • John McWhorter has a great article disputing the notion that texting is destroying the English language.
  • The contention that FDR was anti-semitic does not really surprise me. Years ago I read a book called While Six Million Died that detailed, point by point, how FDR did almost nothing to stop or prevent the Holocaust. It was only when members of his own Administration confronted him over foot-dragging on the issue of saving Romanian Jews that he did anything. He defeated Hitler, of course, which was why he became a hero to my grandparents’ generation. But the idea that he was immune from the anti-semitism that gripped much of the country and the world is absurd.
  • Fascinating and kind of frightening photo essay of high-density living. Think of all the stories you see in each picture.
  • Arguments Against the Paleo Diet

    April 22nd, 2013

    This video makes some fantastic points about the so-called “paleo diet”:

    This post, which I wrote months ago, was originally much longer and incorporated many of the points Dr. Zuk makes, in particular my belief that evolution proceeds in a haphazard random way and does not necessarily lead to some supreme state.

    She also puts some science behind the principle objection I have always had: that there is unlikely to be some idyllic point X at which our diet was perfectly suited to our physiology then and forever more. We have evolved with our diet. Our diet has been evolving since we were primordial slime. Claiming that our ancestors’ diet at some time X — even making the huge assumption that we know what our ancestors ate at point X — is arbitrary. Why go back to that point? Why not go back to the time when we were primordial slime eating protozoans?

    Moreover, how do we know that our ancestors were eating the right foods in the first place? That’s a gigantic assumption to make based on what we know about evolution. Isn’t it possible that their paleo diet was actually bad for them? That they only ate it because they had no choice in the matter? That our technology and diet has evolved toward something better suited to us?

    All that having been said, I’m not slamming the paleo diet, per se. Some people seem to have improved their health with it and I’ve found that cutting carbs benefits me. I do think the current received wisdom of cutting fat and protein and emphasizing carbs is not nearly as supported by the science as our government likes to pretend it is. But let’s not swing the pendulum too far back and pretend that the paleo diet has more science behind it. Or that any one-size-fits-all diet is appropriate. I think the point to take away is that diet is a lot more complex and a lot less well understood than we would like.

    Baseball Player Salaries

    April 15th, 2013

    You know, I thought these articles had gone out of fashion:

    In 1972, the year I became aware of baseball, its highest-paid player, Hank Aaron, earned $200,000 per season—the equivalent of around $1 million today. Aaron’s salary was 18 times the median household income in the United States. This year’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, stands to earn $29 million, which is 580 times the median income. (In fairness, Verlander may be a more egregious example of inequality than Rodriguez, since he pitches in the nation’s poorest big city. In the first year of his new contract, Verlander will earn $20 million—around 800 times as much as Detroit’s median household income.)
    Advertisement

    Over the past 40 years—the period of rising economic inequality that former Slate columnist Timothy Noah called “The Great Divergence”—Americans’ incomes have not grown at all, in real dollars. But baseball players’ incomes have increased twentyfold in real dollars: the average major-league salary in 2012 was $3,213,479. The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1.

    As baseball players accumulate plutocratic riches (Rodriguez will have earned a third of $1 billion by the time his contract expires), I find myself wondering why I’m supposed to cheer for a guy earning $27.5 million a year—he’s already a winner. When I was 11, I hero-worshipped the Tigers’ shortstop because I could imagine growing up to take his place. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now. Since my past two jobs disappeared in the Great Recession, I can’t watch a professional sporting event without thinking, Most of those guys are set for life, while I’ve been buying my own health insurance for 5 1/2 years. Paying to see a baseball game feels like paying to see a tax lawyer argue in federal court or a commodities trader work the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. They’re getting rich out there, but how am I profiting from the experience? I know we’re never going back to the days when Willie Mays lived in Harlem and sold cars in the offseason, but the market forces that have overvalued ballplayers’ skills while devaluing mine have made it impossible for me to just enjoy the damn game.

    McClelland even criticizes the Seitz decision, thinking players would be better off if they were bound for life to one team. Or, actually … I don’t think he cares about the players. What seems to be damaged here is a deranged sense of economic justice.

    I shouldn’t bother but … I’m in a fish-in-barrel kind of mood.

    First, let’s consider the point made by honest liberal Matt Yglesias: owners will price tickets, concessions and TV for as much as they can get. There is a myth the media like to promulgate (and MLB owners like to hear) that high player salaries drive high prices for games. This is baloney. The owners will charge whatever they can. When was the last time a team dumped payroll and then cut prices? I remember when Peter Angelos was on Baltimore radio flogging this myth. Someone called up and asked if he was going to cut prices now that the Orioles had dumped all their expensive players. He didn’t have an answer.

    All that free agency has done is give players a bigger piece of the pie — a pie that they actually baked since no one ever payed a plugged nickel to see an owner (and it’s not like the owners are struggling). Frankly, I wish more businesses were following their example and bumping up salaries.

    A few more things to factor in: athletes are taxed at very high rates; they typically only play for a few years, if that; most of those that do reach the highest levels have pursued it with a single-minded devotion. They will have to live on those earnings for a long time. Frankly, if equity is what you’re worried about, I’d spend more time flogging the low salaries of minor league players compared to their MLB counterparts.

    The Slate readers are actually pretty savvy and make many of these points in the comments. However, you do get the occasional “why do we pay teachers and fireman so little and ball players so much!” This was always my favorite argument against high player salaries because it is so obviously absurd. At any given sporting event, an average of 30,000 people show up, buying tickets and concessions. They put in a significant amount of effort and money to watch someone like Justin Verlander pitch. How many teachers teach to 30,000 students at a time? If a teacher could teach that many 162 times a year, would she not be paid like Justin Verlander? The fact is that the skills needed to teach — patience, intelligence, hard work, empathy — are thankfully common. There are literally a few million people doing it. The skills needed to fight fires or fight wars — self-sacrifice, strength, courage — are also thankfully common. The skills needed to be a Cy Young winner — while having less value in an objective sense — are much more rare.

    Yes, it’s true that Justin Verlander can’t teach a class or fight a fire or do astrophysics for that matter. It’s also true that I can’t hit a curveball. So what?

    But doesn’t the huge amount of money spent on sports show that we have our priorities out of whack? Shouldn’t we spend more on education that we do on baseball? Well … we do. Major league baseball made $7.5 billion last year or about $10 for all 75 million people who went to a game and considerably less for those who watched it on television. We spent approximately $800 billion on education — over $10,000 per child in public schools. The difference is the number of people into whose hands that money is concentrated — three million teachers against a thousand athletes. If our devotion to a cause is judged by the how much we spend, how much we worry, how much we argue and how many people devote decades of their lives to it, education is far, far more valued in this country than all sports combined.

    So, no, I don’t think athletes are paid too much. I think they are paid what they are worth. The market has not “overvalued” ballplayers nor has it “undervalued” writers. There are maybe a few hundred people in the entire world who can play baseball at a professional level. But there are millions who could write poorly reasoned articles that drip with wealth envy.

    A final thought: my enthusiasm for sports bothered me a little bit when I was younger. Surely, I thought, I shouldn’t devote so much thought to such a trivial pursuit. Is not Shakespeare worth ten pennants? I departed from that thought when I realized that one can pursue all interests: Shakespeare, astrophysics, sports and, um, blogging. But it was actually Jonathan Swift who converted me, with his compelling argument that a truly enlightened race (the Houyhnhnms) would, once they had beaten down the necessities of nature, devote themselves to the pursuit of both mental and physical excellence. Whether it is writing, playing piano, measuring stars or hitting baseballs, the pursuit of a craft, the perfection of it the pinnacle of possibility — that is what drives us as a race.

    When I watch a baseball game, I see Justin Verlander throw a ball 100 mph with the right spin to make it move just enough to be almost impossible to hit. I see Albert Pujols, in a split second, decide to swing and launch the bat into the precise position to hit the ball as hard as possible. I see Austin Jackson, at the crack of the bat, take off and pursue it into the gap at just the right angle that he can spear it with his outstretched arm. Every game, I see something that should be impossible but isn’t.

    Isn’t that worth $10 a head?