Robot Cars and the Law

December 28th, 2012

As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.

However…

The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.

The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:

The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.

As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.

Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:

  • One of the lessons taught in driver’s education is how to avoid accidents or, if unavoidable, minimize the damage (e.g., rear-ending someone instead of swerving into traffic or pedestrians). Robots can be made to optimize this much better than human beings.
  • A robot can not be knocked unconscious and can call for help. Even if its CPU were destroyed, it can be on a network that will recognize the dropout and call for assistance to the last known location.
  • An automated car will maintain an extremely detailed and objective record of the accident, making fault easy to determine.
  • An automated car will not get out and try to help injured passengers, true. But this isn’t always a good thing. It’s not unheard for helpful bystanders to drag people with spinal injuries into para- or quadriplegia because of an irrational fear that the car will burst into flames.
  • Developing safety and reporting methods for automated cars will massively improve the ability of driven cars to avoid accidents, minimize damage and call for help.
  • Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.

    Me and the Ninth

    December 25th, 2012

    So, I finally got a new pair of headphones today. That in itself is a story. When I was in grad school, I bought a pair of heavy earphones that were fantastic. Long cord, covered the ears, good balance. I used the hell out of them. One day someone broke into my UT-Austin office through the ceiling and stole my monitor and my headphones. We recovered the monitor; they’d stashed it for later retrieval and I got it back after the police fingerprinted it. But the headphones were never seen again. Why they would want my old, torn-up, earwax-encrusted headphones mystifies me a bit. But, as Robert Heinlein said, thieves will steal anything that isn’t nailed down whether it’s valuable or not.

    When I get new electronics, one of my little quirks is to figure out the perfect media with which to break them in with. When I got my first DVD player, it was Saving Private Ryan. When I got my blu-ray player, it was Lord of the Rings (DVD). So what do you break a new pair of headphones in with?

    If you’re me, you break them in with the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And since it is Christmas, it becomes doubly apropos.

    Other writers have written more eloquently than I can about the 9th Symphony, which is simply the pinacle of musical achievement. Listened to on its own, it’s powerful, beautiful and overwhelming. But when you think about the circumstances: the most joyous uplifting music in history written by a man who was deaf and had an awful personal life … well, let me just say that I couldn’t get through typing that sentence without choking up.

    As amazing as the 9th is on audio, it’s simply stunning in person. I’ve been privileged to see it live, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And I don’t think any media — digital, analog or telepathic — can convey just how special it is to watch it performed live. There’s something about seeing the hundred pieces of an orchestra and chorus working together that a recording simply can not convey.

    What’s even more amazing is the response. I’ve been to many classical concerts and classical audiences tend to be a bit reserved. For a great performance, you’ll get a standing ovation. But it’s usually just politely attentive applause. When the last note of the 9th fell, however, I heard a sound I’d never heard from a classical audience before. There was a roar as the audience lept to their feet, clapping cheering and whistling. The ASO got five ovations the night I saw them. It was like we didn’t want that glorious music to end.

    Mathematical Malpractice: Spree Killings Again

    December 17th, 2012

    This analysis, which claims that the US has more school spree killings than 36 nations combined, is getting a lot of play. It shouldn’t. It is extremely bad mathematical malpractice.

    The basic reason it is mathematical malpractice is the same reason the Mother Jones study was: it is difficult to analyze extremely rare events. When you narrow your investigation to events that happen maybe once a decade and are compiled haphazardly, you are simply going to be dominated by small number statistics and selection bias. You can therefore use those numbers to say, basically, anything you want.

    Let’s break down just how bad the numbers are being twisted here.

    1) The sample ends in 2009. That excludes the recent spate of knife attacks in Chinese schools that have left 21 dead. If you did this analysis a week ago, you would have had to drop China from the right column.

    2) The sample excludes acts of terror or war. But if Islamists shoot up a school because they don’t want girls to read, are those kids any less dead? If a drone strike misses its targets and kills a classroom, are those kids less dead? Why must we exclude the Beslan attack that left 186 kids dead?

    3) The sample excludes single homicides, which amount to 302 deaths in the United States over the time involved and God knows how many in other countries. So you are literally excluding 90% of the problem and focusing just on a tiny subset of killings.

    4) Comparing us to 36 other countries is ridiculous when some of those countries are places like Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 4 million). We have more population, period, then 30 of the countries on that list combined. Also included in that list of countries are England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are, technically speaking, not countries.

    5) The problem of small number statistics can be best illustrated by playing with the data a bit. If I include the knife attacks and move China into the left column, suddenly China has more violent deaths than 30 other countries. If I move Germany onto the left side, suddenly they have more spree killings than a bunch of other countries. If I define the sample in the 1990′s, suddenly Australia dominates the statistics. You simple can not draw conclusions from samples that are that sensitive to single events.

    6) Combining points 4 and 5, if you look at spree killing rates rather than the deliberate mathematical malpractice of comparing absolute numbers, the situation is very different. In 2009, the Winnenden shooting killed 15. Scaled up to the population of the United States, that would be the equivalent of 60 people dead, more than the worst year the United States has ever had. In 1996, 35 people were kill in Port Arthur, Australia. Scaled up to the US population, that would almost equal 500 dead. It is an event that is seared into the memories of Australians. My point is not that these countries are worse than we are. My point is that these are rare and horrible events and you can manipulate the numbers to prove anything you want.

    7) The biggest thing missing here is a sense of time. Is the rate of school killings going up or down? The answer, of course, is down. Check out chart one at Ezra Klein’s blog that shows that the rate of assault death has fallen by over half since 1970. Check out the NCES page I link above which shows a significant decline in on-campus homicides, from 40/year in the 90′s to 30/year in the 00′s. That decline is a hundred more kids running in the sunshine. The NCES data, based on a complete sample of over 600 incidents, is useful. This …. isn’t.

    I’m not trying to downplay the horror that unfolded on Friday. However, I don’t think any debate can proceed unless we have a good grasp of the problem we are trying to solve. Far too many children are murdered in school in this country — that was as true on Thursday as it is today. But to be useful, the debate needs to be on honest terms. Committing mathematical malpractrice by deceptively comparing the United States to 36 other countries as though there something to be learned from that is not an honest debate and is likely to produce a panicky and ill-considered response.

    The Hobbit Part I

    December 15th, 2012

    The Hobbit is not the Phantom Menace.

    I feel like I have to say that leading in, even though I liked the Star Wars prequels. But since that is the gold standard of disappointing sequels, I’ll just use it as a marker. The Hobbit will not disappoint. Casual fans may find it a bit boring in parts. Tolkien enthusiasts, however, will probably love it despite the liberties it takes with the text. Jackson has fleshed out the book with so much detail and backstory, that you can’t help but get swept up in the labor of love this clearly is.

    As I said on Twitter, the movie is good. Sometimes it is very good. But it if were a half an hour shorter, it would be awesome.

    Let me unpack that a bit. The biggest problem the movie has — in fact, I would almost say its only problem — is that it’s too long. If you’ve got me checking my watch during a Middle Earth movie and continually wondering, “OK, is this where they’re going to end it?”, you’ve got a problem with running time.

    It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie bogs down because there is simply so much new material. New stuff has been larded in everywhere — the battle with the goblins, the chase to Rivendell, the “out of the frying pan” scene. This is not all bad: Jackson has put a much more tangible villain in the piece who works very well. And, as noted above, the backstory fleshes out the movie to be much more epic than the book.

    No, I don’t think the new material is the problem. The problem is that some scenes just drag on. People are complaining about the party at Bilbo’s house, but I didn’t find that to be much of a problem. I kind of liked it actually as it did a good job of introducing and defining the characters (Balin, in particular, does well). But the part of the prologue with Frodo just drags on. Gandalf’s introduction is almost verbatim from the book. The consultation in Rivendell really drags with Blanchett and Weaving intoning each syllable verrryy slowly. And a number of the battle scenes just go on for far too long (a growing problem in modern action films). In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like it has an arc; it feels like a series of incidents that just … at some point … kinda ends.

    Personally, I would have ditched all the stuff with Radagast (although it does produce one extremely chilling scene). But I actually think that sharper editing could have kept everything in the movie that’s there and still cut half an hour off the running time. The result would be a great two hour movie that would leave the audience breathless.

    And that’s the rub. The reason I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the running time is because Jackson does so much in the film that’s just so right. The prologue about Erebor is excellent. Thorin’s backstory is great. The new villain is excellent and deepens the significance of Thorin’s return to Erebor. The “riddles in the dark scene” is the highlight of the film. Bilbo’s journey from timid Hobbit to hero is done better than Tolkein did. Middle Earth itself is, once again, rendered with such beautiful, loving and fiddling detail. And there are images in the film — the appearance of the necromancer, the “into the fire” scene, the eagles — that just work really really well.

    The actors are all well-chosen and do jobs ranging from good to excellent. And Jackson shows the talent he’s shown before for letting actors act.

    So, yeah, I liked it, despite its running time. I will probably see it again because, as with the second two LOTR films, my anticipation and worry impinged my enjoyment. But it’s definitely worth $8. Especially on a big 2-D 24 fps screen.

    I’ve rated it 8/10, which is provisional. The reason it’s provisional is that a) I’m a fan; b) I rarely rate films higher than 8 on initial viewing; and c) I have to see the other two films (and I really don’t want to wait two years for them). I initially rated the LOTR movies as 9′s but elevated all three to 10′s as they were one long epic rather than three films. So Hobbit I’s legacy will depend on how Hobbit II and Hobbit III go.

    Texas Linkorama

    December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • Something Like a War

    December 9th, 2012

    This website hit its tenth anniversary on December 6. I mistakenly referred to that on Twitter as my anniversary as a blogger. But I actually started blogging here in the fall of 2005. I didn’t start blogging to get famous or to get a big readership (and indeed, neither of those has happened). I mainly started blogging to rid my head of the thoughts that were cluttering it so I could think about more important stuff.

    (This hasn’t worked very well because writing things down just makes me think more. And having readers makes me write more carefully than i would if I were just writing a manifesto in a cabin.)

    Now you might wonder why, if I started blogging in 2005, the archive only goes back to 2007. So I thought I’d detail the Spam Event Horizon.

    The blog was pretty low key in the early days, just as it is now. I had a few friends who read and commented and would occasionally get a link from someone in response to an e-mail. Sullivan linked me once, RTFLC linked me a couple of times when Lee was still the only writer. But there wasn’t much going on to speak of.

    Because I was such a low-level blog, I didn’t know that the blogging software we had — I can’t remember its name right now — was terrible at protecting the blog from spam. I had to manage the problem manually by deleting comments. At first, the spam attacks were a trickle – a few a week. It was such a non-issue, I would occasionally fall behind in cleaning them, which may have precipitated the later events.

    In January of 2007, the blog suddenly started getting hit hard. First a few hits a day, then tens, then hundreds of spam comments. I shut off comments and backtracks. But we still kept getting hit by spammers who had us down as a site that was not protected. You know those documentaries about how bees find a source of food, go back to the nest and do a little dance to tell the other bees where to go? Spambots do the same thing, apparently, because we started getting thousands of hits per day. Then hundreds of thousands. The traffic trend was exponential.

    We weren’t set up for that kind of traffic. My brother, who hosts the site, was seeing all his other websites become unavailable. In the end, the only thing we could do was shut down the website completely.

    We waited a month before bringing things back. This time we went with WordPress, which has, for over five years, done an outstanding job of protecting the site. Even when I get links from more-trafficked blogs and a surge of a couple of thousand legitimate hits, the spam spikes but Askimet catches all of it. The spammers quickly figure out that We Are defended and go on to ruin someone else’s day. To date, some 22000 attacks have been thwarted.

    The one downside of our “shoot the hostage” response was that all my posts before February 2007 are lost. The MySQL database that had all my old posts was so mangled we never had time to unpack it and recover the lost posts. This is why I refer to the events of January 2007 as the “spam event horizon” as no information escaped from it. That saddens me a bit as it includes some good posts, including my transition on the death penalty.

    One of the things people don’t appreciate is that there is a constant war going on underneath the internet. Not a terror cyberwar, which does happen but is a bit overblown. No, this is more like the constant war our bodies wage against infection. Every day, our physical bodies are exposed to bacteria, viruses and fungi that would wreck merry havoc were it not for the constant vigilance of our immune system. And every day, every web site on the planet is attacked by hordes of spammers who could destroy a blog — as they destroyed mine — without the constant vigilance of programs like Askimet.

    Tuesday Linkorama

    November 28th, 2012
  • An interesting article on how child abuse panic is keeping men out of the childcare industry. My daughter had a male teacher at her school for a while. She really liked him and it was good to see her having a male role model in her life beyond me. But I also admired the man’s courage; I would not put myself in such a vulnerable position.
  • One of my favorite things to do as a grad student was to look up heavily referenced papers to see if they said what people said they said. At least a quarter of the time, they didn’t. Maggie McNeill just dug up a 30-year-old bit of Mathematical Malpractice that’s been cited incorrectly in support of innumerable bad laws.
  • A frustrating story about why we can’t watch WKRP in its original format. We really have to do something about fair use. The Republicans indicated that they might; then ran away from that position.
  • This video, of a hilarious bug in the FIFA 2012 video game, had me giggling.
  • I have to disagree with almost everything in this article claiming the alcohol industry is trying to make us drunks. It assumes alcoholism is entirely a function of government policy. And it mainly reads like a press release from the powerful forces trying to overturn the SCOTUS decision on out-of-state liquor importation, an issue of particular relevance to Pennsylvania.
  • Is airport security taking more lives than it is saving? Seems like.
  • I’ve been sitting on this story, about how doctor witheld information about a child’s medical future from the parents, for a while, trying to think of a way to approach it. Might still write a long form post. But I default to thinking people have a right to know. To presume to make that decision for them is arrogance. As our diagnostic tools get better, we need to give people the legal option: do you want know if we find anything bad? What happens if a cure is invented and this kid doesn’t know that he needs one?
  • The Girl Who Set the Dragon’s Nest on Fire

    November 23rd, 2012

    My thoughts on watching the movies of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are too long for a tweet, so I’ll spell them out in a few hundred words.

    I read all three books of the Millenium Trilogy last year. They are quite good: Larsson was a talented writer. His characters are believable (up to a point) and he is a master at building suspense and mystery. The three books are compelling page turners and featuring a plethora of strong female characters. And Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the better literary characters to emerge in recent years.

    However, there were a number of things that bothered me about them. There is the Gary Stuish protagonist who seems not far removed from Larsson himself and spends much of the books sleeping with a series of great women. There is the stark moral color-coding, where all the antagonists are sexually abusive misogynistic dinosaurs. But what bothered me most was the way the books almost seemed to revel in their sexual depravity and trafficking hysteria. There is a strong “rescuer fantasy” undercurrent to the books that is subverted in Dragon Tattoo but keeps poking its head out in the next two books.

    The books were a giant hit and have since been turned into a Swedish television miniseries and a Big Hollywood Film. I have now watched the Hollywood version (albeit a bowdlerized version on a transatlantic fight) and the first two parts of the Swedish miniseries.

    On balance, I like the Swedish version better. I do need to see the American version in full at home to be completely sure about that, but I think my judgement is unlikely to change. The American version has definite advantages — a more filmic look, sharper direction, an even darker atmosphere. But the Swedish version is a little more complete and a little less slick, which I think are advantages.

    One striking thing about the two movies is that the American version features much more handsome actors. I think this is actually to the film’s disadvantage. The Swedish actors look more real, more worn down, more in keeping with how I envisioned them (and, uh, more Swedish). It made them easier to identify with and easier to believe. To put it bluntly, Daniel Craig is way to handsome and way too British for Mikael Bloomquist. He does a great job, no question. If I didn’t know the Swedish version existed, I’d think he was definitive. But Michael Nyqvist is just a bit more suited to the role. The same goes for the lead role: Rooney Mara is excellent; but Noomi Rapace is just a bit better.

    However, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are good. Both are suspenseful. Both do the book justice. Both come with my recommendation. They are both somewhere between 7/10 and 8/10, with the Swedish version a little higher. Was the remake, strictly speaking, necessary? I think it was. Because there a lot of people who simply will not watch a Swedish miniseries, no matter how good it is. The Craig film, by being slicker, more filmic and in English is more approachable and therefore allows more people to enjoy the story. I really don’t have a problem with that. The American film is utterly worthy of its Swedish predecessor.

    Important note: the Swedish movie versions are cut by about half an hour from the full television miniseries versions. Netflix now has both available for streaming and I strongly recommend the miniseries version, which fleshes out the story and includes a number of small details and subplots that, in my opinion, make for a fuller viewing experience. This review is based on the full version.

    (Really Serious Spoiler Warning: I’m about to reveal the end of the story, so please don’t read if you have not seen/read the story and want to maintain suspense.

    There is one thing that I hated about the book: that Lisbeth destroys the evidence of Martin’s crimes. The reason it bothers me is that the families of all the girls he murdered deserve closure — not to mention the cops who investigated those crimes. I realize that Lisbeth would not appreciate this, but Mikael would. This is one sense in which the Swedish TV series was better than the novel: Mikael agrees to keep the murders out of the press but he and the Vangers agree to notify the families. I found that much more satisfying than the books “we’ll destroy all the evidence if you donate money to women’s causes” social engineering resolution.)

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Marginal Taxes

    November 21st, 2012

    I’ve noticed a little flaw in commentary lately. The Left Wing, in their push to raise taxes, are citing work like this, which claims the Laffer Curve peaks at 50-70% and therefore we could massively raise taxes on the wealthy.

    Let’s put aside that you never want government taxation rates to be at the peak of the Laffer Curve (it leaves you zero fiscal room for emergencies and means you’re crippling the economy but not quite enough to depress tax revenue). The problem is that we already pretty close to that peak. For the very wealthy, the marginal income tax rate is 35%. Medicare tax is another 2.9% (employer+employee). We’ll ignore Social Security tax under the assumption we’re just dealing with millionaires. Then you have state income taxes, which range from 0% in states like Texas to a top marginal rate of 11% in Oregon and Hawaii. So marginal tax rates are currently at 38-49%, which is pretty much the lower bound of what the rather optimistic Diamond and Saez say is the peak of the Laffer Curve. And since it’s a Laffer Curve, not the Laffer Triangle, it starts bending before it rolls over, so we’re probably getting within shouting distance of peak revenue already.

    I’m not saying whether we should or should not raise taxes (I’ve come out on the other blog in favor of raising them on everyone since I see little alternative given our present circumstances). But let’s at least debate honestly about where we are on marginal rates, huh?

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Weather Fatalities

    November 20th, 2012

    This came to my attention a month ago. I drafted a post, forgot about it in the election/migraine event horizon but now want to get it out my drafts section. I think it’s worth posting because we are likely to hear more of this from the more hysterical environmental wing.

    The chart, from Ezra Klein’s usually excellent Wonkblog, purports to show a steep rise in weather-related fatalities in recent years.

    It doesn’t show anything of the kind.

    First of all, what it shows is a slight decline or flat trend with a few recent spikes caused by a 90′s heat wave, Hurricane Katrina and last year’s tornados. Now maybe you can argue that we should pay more attention to these in the era of global warming because they may be related (or may not). I agree. However, the long term trend in almost all categories is down — way down. Deaths from lightning strikes are down by over two-thirds over the last 70 years. That’s real progress.

    But the progress is even better than the graph shows. The graph makes a huge blindingly obvious error; one that Klein’s readers jumped on immediately: it does not account for population growth. The first data point is from a sample of 140 million people while the last if from a sample of 310 million. To compare raw figures is simply ridiculous (and, indeed, Klein’s co-blogger later tweeted a version with death rates that was far less dire and showed dramatic declines in weather-related fatalities).

    The third problem is less obvious but potentially the worst one. The plot includes deaths from heat, cold, “winter fatalities”, rip currents and wind. Heat deaths are particularly important to the point Wonkblog is making since, presumably, global warming will result in more deaths from heat waves and drought.

    The problem is that the NOAA, from whose data the graph is taken, did not track heat deaths until 1986. The same goes for many deaths in the “other” category. Cold fatalities were not tracked until 1988. Winter fatalities until 1986. Rip currents until 2002. Wind deaths until 1995. No correction, none whatsover, is made for the incomplete data that spans the first five or six decades of NOAA’s sample.

    It is simply not sensible to treat the data as though there were zero deaths from heat and other categories before the mid-1980′s. In fact, there are many reasons — the spread of air-conditioning for example — to suspect that heat-related deaths were much much higher in the past. It would defy common sense for the sharp reductions in fatalities from tornados, hurricanes and lightning (not to mention earthquakes) to not reflected in the statistics for other weather-related deaths.

    But let’s not assume. Let’s go to the record. The data start in 1940, which usefully omits one of the greatest environmental calamities in American history: the Dust Bowl. Thousands died; at least 5000 in one 1936 heat wave alone. Another massive drought hit in the 1950′s. A 1972 heat wave killed 900 people. A 1980 heat wave killed 1700 people. All of those happened before the NOAA tracked the number of heat-related deaths. None are in the sample.

    To be completely honest, the NOAA data seems a poor resource for this kind of study. It apparently does not include the 1988 drought, recording only 47 heat-related deaths in that two-year period. But it does include the 1995 and 1999 heat waves. I have no idea what their criteria are. I suspect they are counting deaths from specific short-term heat waves rather than broad massive events like the 88-89 drought. That’s fine as far as it goes. But if your attempt to quantify long-term trends in weather-related deaths ignores droughts; if it ignores the God-damned Dust Bowl, I would submit that you are looking at the wrong data.

    So, in the end, the claim that we are getting more weather-related fatalities than ever is, at least in this case, based on a heavily biased poorly understood sample that barely supports the conclusion

    Red Dawn

    November 18th, 2012

    This week will see the release of a remake of Red Dawn. The movie seems destined for the rubbish bin and several “worst of 2012″ lists but I thought I’d spare a few thoughts on it, since the original Red Dawn was quite a moment in my early teen years. And not just because it was the first PG-13 movie.

    Red Dawn is not a great movie, but it is an iconic one. Apart from the zeitgeist it tapped into, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, it was simply a good film. That characters were reasonably well-defined, their actions not outlandish and it delivered a tremendous amount of action professionally and effectively (today’s audiences are unlikely to understand just how violent this movie was for 1984). I’ll let on that it has a “boy’s fantasy” aspect to it: the idea of teenagers successfully resisting a evil and powerful foe. But it twisted that formula a bit as it became steadily grimmer and grimmer until its inevitable end. I have watched it a couple of times since the theaters and always found myself intrigued. I would probably rate it a 7/10, acknowledge I’ve added a point for personal reasons.

    However, the remake, even it is well-made and well-directed, is unlikely to succeed the way the first film did for many reasons that have nothing to do with film-making. The most obvious and commented upon is that, to avoid tanking the Chinese market, the enemy is North Korea. It is unlikely that North Korea could successfully invade itself, least of all the United States. Maybe they’ll come up with some explanation for NK’s sudden military might. But the absurdity of this is sure to drive audiences away. Even if the enemy were China, the idea is still implausible. The United States has more military might than the next twenty nations combined. And that’s not even counting the millions of Americans who hunt and would, if we were ever invaded, comprise the largest standing army in the world. Hell, Pennsylvania could probably outgun most nations.

    When you get down to it, the essential thing about Red Dawn is that it was a film whose making was only possible during the Cold War, when we had an enemy superpower of significant military might and the very real fear that entire regions of the world — central America in particular — would turn against us. It struck a chord with many people — especially my generation — because it played on the patriotism and paranoia that was so strong during the Andropov-Chernenko years. Unlike the new film, the basic premise of the older film was not completely ludicrous, even if it was far-fetched. Hell, my friend Adam and I used to constantly play at resisting the Russian occupation.

    Red Dawn came with a ready-made audience: tens of millions of Americans who lived under the Soviet threat every day. Critics complained that it seemed like a commercial for the Reagan Administration. These critics apparently missed that Reagan was re-elected in a massive landslide at least in part because of his fierce opposition to Communism.

    Today’s young people are simply unlikely to identify with that. They’ve grown up in a world where America’s military might is taken for granted; where wars are rare things fought in distant countries. They’ve grown up in a world where true totalitarianism — the gulags and secret police type — is in retreat. They’ve grown up in a world where our own country is the one becoming a police state. The zeitgeist that made Red Dawn a cult classic simply doesn’t exist anymore. And so it will just be another loud dumb action film.

    The Kindergartner and the Bear

    November 3rd, 2012

    I think one of the biggest reasons people choose to reproduce is so that they can relive their childhoods. Scratch that. I think it’s the biggest reason. I’ve blogged before about rediscovering cartoons and musicals with my daughter. And she’s now gotten old enough for me to slowly rediscover the thrill of Halloween. She’s still young enough that I escort her on her trip through the neighborhood. This has the benefit that I get to see the sheer delight as she runs up to a house, is given candy and runs back, buzzing with the sense of adventure.

    (And I have to agree with Cracked on the “trunk-or-treat” thing. That and other attempts to move trick-or-treating to a “safe” environment are insane, stupid and, frankly, cruel. It’s depriving children of one of the few real adventures they get to have.)

    Anyway, the other night, my daughter stopped at a house where they were offering a choice: candy or a stuffed animal. I talked to a neighbor later and found out the owner, whose children were older, had more stuffed animals than she knew what to do with and wanted to get rid of some. Abby spied a small pink teddy bear and fell in love. I don’t mean she liked it. I mean she showed it to me in a giddy haze, introduced it to her beloved koalas in bed and slept with it in her arms that night. The next morning, she took him to the bus-stop and I brought him out later when I picked her up. I don’t know if this will last: she inevitably returns back to her koalas. But for now, she’s got a new man in her heart.

    It’a amazing to see the sheer joy that something like that can bring out. It’s amazing to think of this thing being knocked out an assembly line with thousands of teddies, not knowing that it would become so beloved so quickly.

    I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for soft animals. I still have a stuffed turtle I was raised on as well as some dinosaurs, a tiger and a unicorn that have special meaning for me (the unicorn, for example, I won at the Wisconsin State Fair when I was about 8 or 9. It was one of the best moments of my childhood). But the soft spot isn’t really for the animals themselves. I mean, I’m 40. No, it’s for the meaning behind them, the effect the have and the love and happiness they can provoke in a five year old. It’s a Velveteen Rabbit kind of thing.

    She’ll grow up soon, much faster than I want. And the day will come when these things will not provoke such rapture (indeed, that’s one of the reasons we are so desperate to have another child, an enterprise that has only burned money and produced heartache so far). But for now, I can walk into her room, see her sleeping with her little “Teddy Sparkle” and enjoy the moment.

    Saturday Linkorama

    November 3rd, 2012
  • A great letter on the situation at Penn State, from the former Paterno Chair.
  • This article, sent to me by several, argues that China will be a benevolent world power. I found it ludicrous. not only do I not think China will become a dominant world power (there are still massive areas of abject poverty and they are aging too fast); I find the historical analysis from this sinophile to be absurdly optimistic about what they would do with power.
  • Color photos of Nazi-occupied Poland.
  • Heart-rending notes pinned to abandoned babies.
  • This article, about Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen, came out this summer. But I found it amusing and kind of touching.
  • This story, about the explosion of solitary confinement in this country, is a must-read.
  • I knew that music has sucked since the 1980′s (#1). #5 is one we explore in Music Theory class.
  • The Force Will Be With Disney

    October 31st, 2012

    So, I was busy yesterday when Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree over the news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Reaction has been strong, if mixed. Someone on FB said the news was dominated by two events: a huge disaster and Hurricane Sandy.

    I’m not seeing it that way.

    Regardless of what one thinks about the Disney Empire, they provide great entertainment. Their Pixar division has produced some of the finest movies of the last decade (WALL-E, The Incredibles, etc.) Miramax has pumped out numerous Oscar nominees. Their main division has produced solid entertainment in Narnia (first film at least), Pirates of the Caribbean (first film at least) and Tangled. They’ve turned Marvel into a relentless film mill which has pumped out films that are decent (Thor), good (Iron Man) and great (The Avengers). And for all the criticism John Carter got, it was a not a bad film by any means.

    Really, the whole anti-Disney thing kind of puzzles me. Yes, they are relentless in protecting their copyright and making a ton of money with endless merchandising. I have a daughter who is into princesses, so my wallet is very familiar with them. But … is that really such an evil thing? America isn’t a hippy commune.

    Sleeping on it, I’m more convinced that this could be a good thing. “Could” being the operative word. And the reason I think this could be a good thing is that the franchise is now out of Lucas’ hands.

    I don’t mean to slam Lucas. He’s a visual genius who revolutionized film-making. I have a higher opinion of the prequel trilogy than most. And the expanded universe of Star Wars has been excellent, especially from their video game division, which has produced engrossing, well-made, entertaining games that advance the story (and, notably, are not ridiculous resource hogs).

    But I also think Lucas’ success produced some problems that manifested in the prequel trilogy. As I argued before, there were great movies buried within those pretty good movies. The thing that made them almost great movies was Lucas’ vision. But the thing that kept them from being great movies was Lucas himself. His flaws — a tin ear for dialogue, a tendency to overcomplicate plots, a push for the cute, an inability to direct actors — were on display and I think his success and his stature prevented anyone from gainsaying him, from saying, “George, come on … let’s cast Annakin as a teenager, not a kid.” And the expanded universe of video games and books actually hurt the films because much of plot — Annakin’s fall from grace, in particular — had taken place off screen.

    Disney now has the ability to get anyone they want to work on Stars Wars VII. There are directors out there — great directors — who would pay them for the privilege. They can, if they want, get Peter Jackson to write and direct, Kevin Smith to script doctor and the entire cast of Harry Potter to act. And by keeping Lucas on as a “creative consultant”, they can be sure that he brings a bit of vision to the project. If Disney works this right — finds a great crew and gives them the freedom to create a great film — we could be dazzled.

    Ah, but that’s the rub … if. I could just as easily see the studio thinking they have to get something out that’s generic and endlessly marketable to start paying off their $4 billion investment.

    We’ll see. I am often too optimistic about these things. But the Star Wars universe is very rich and deep. It’s still possible for great film-makers to make great films in it. Hopefully they now have a chance. That chance did not exist 24 hours ago.