Friday, February 26, 2010

Pigeons and Probability and Rationality

Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a prize; behind the others, nothing.  The rules are that you pick one of the doors, and then the host opens one of the other doors and shows that nothing is behind it.  You may then switch your choice if you want.  Should you switch?

Think about that for a little bit while I discuss some recent research*.  They tested to see how pigeons responded to this problem, with food as a reward.  They put the pigeons in a box and had them peck one of three lit buttons.  Just like in the game show, one of the buttons was associated with a food reward and the others had nothing.  After the pigeons pecked a button, the buttons would go dark and then two buttons would light up, with the button that stayed dark being one that had no food and that was not chosen first.  The pigeon then chose which lit button to peck.  It either pecked the same one it had before, or switched.

They found that

... birds adjusted their probability of switching and staying to approximate the optimal strategy.

They then claim that
Replication of the procedure with human participants showed that humans failed to adopt optimal strategies, even with extensive training.

But I read the paper closely, and found that this statement is not true.  There were two important differences.  First, the human subjects had far fewer trials, 200 versus over 2500 for the birds.  The birds did not choose optimally on the first day; it took days and days of 100 trials each before they learned the right strategy.

Second, and most importantly, the humans did not receive any actual reward for choosing right.  They were given course credit for showing up and participating, and told to try to win as many points as possible, but there was zero incentive for actually doing so aside from seeing the word 'Win' on the computer screen.  I imagine that the humans (undergraduate psychology students) just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, and kept hitting the same button until the experiment was over.

This illustrates a very important point about learning and efficient behavior.  All organisms, including people, are fairly bad at reasoning and predicting but fairly good at learning through trial and error.  After many rounds of trial and error, behavior starts to approach the optimal, efficient, and rational behavior that economists and statisticians and game theory experts calculate.  But you have to give them repeated trials, and the feedback has to be immediate and relevant.  Learning the efficient behavior pattern will only happen when the subject is immediately given a real reward for doing the right thing.

Now for the solution.  You should always switch doors.  Your chances of winning are one in three if you stay and two in three if you switch.  This is because there was a two in three chance that you picked a door with nothing.  If your door has nothing, then the host must open the other door with nothing and you will always win by switching.  Pigeons who switched were twice as likely to get food as pigeons who did not switch, and they learned this fact after a few days and adjusted their behavior.

* Are birds smarter than mathematicians? Pigeons (Columba livia) perform optimally on a version of the Monty Hall Dilemma
Walter Herbranson & Julia Schroeder
Journal of Comparative Psychology, February 2010, Pages 1-13

I could not find any free copy of the article online

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bad Public Speaking

I just walked out of a speech.  I did not walk out of the speech because I disagreed with the speaker.  I think that she is a decent writer and thinker and agree with what she says.  I walked out because the speaker was fundamentally incompetent at verbal communication, so unpracticed and unprepared as to be rude to every member of the audience.  It was, simply, an utter waste of my time, and so frustrating that I could not stand any more of it.  The speech was like watching a nervous incompetent freshman try to give an unpracticed talk in a public speaking class.  And she probably would have failed, even with a generous teacher.  It was that bad.

Her speech was full of vocalized pauses, with at least one long loud 'um' every two sentences.  She would constantly veer off on tangents.  There was almost no structure to the talk at all.  It was incredibly bad at conveying information.  The speech would have been far, far superior if she had simply opened one of her articles and read from it in a dry boring monotone.  I learned more in one or two minutes of reading her work than I did in the entirety of the talk, up to the point when I left.

I know that someone paid a lot of money to bring her here to talk.  The money was completely wasted.  I don't care how good her books are, how many good articles she has written, how smart she is, how good her reputation is, or how many people like her.  She was a horrifically bad speaker, so bad that she probably turned people away from her ideas by conflating them with time-wasting incompetence.

I do not mind people who have no natural talent at speaking, if they put some effort into practicing a speech and avoiding basic errors.  And it does not take much effort.  Public speaking is one of those skills that is very easy to improve.  Obviously it is really hard to be a superstar, but it takes only a small amount of time and effort to achieve minimal competence.  If you want to be a public intellectual, then you must do this.  If you are going to go around giving talks, you must at least bring your public speaking skills to the level of the median college professor.  That is not a high standard.  Failing to meet it is simply rude, and marks you as someone who should never be invited to speak. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Arrogance Versus Charisma

Arrogance means implying "I am awesome and you are not."
Charisma means implying "I am awesome, and so are you."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Education Experiment

This is big.  I approve.

Dozens of public high schools in eight states will introduce a program next year allowing 10th graders who pass a battery of tests to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college.

"We've been tied to seat time for 100 years. This would allow an approach based on subject mastery — a system based around move-on-when-ready."

The new system aims to provide students with a clear outline of what they need to study to succeed, said Phil Daro, a Berkeley-based consultant who is a member of an advisory committee for the effort.

I benefited from something similar but far more selective.   I spent two years in my (high-quality) local high school, then spent my junior and senior years of high school in a residential magnet school that was basically like a small liberal arts college.  After taking those courses, I passed enough AP tests to enter college with 59 credit hours, or one less than the number of credits to be considered a junior.

Onion Money

There is a lot of good commentary buried in this Onion article.  It is also hilarious.  I have printed it and taped it to my office door.

If You Think the Middle East is Simple...

Al-Ahram, an Egyptian newspaper that tends to echo the government, ran a glowing front-page story calling Meir Dagan, head of Mossad, Israel's spy service, the "Superman of the Jewish state". But for him, it said, "Iran's nuclear programme would long ago have been completed."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Film Review: Blade Runner

I saw the final director's cut of Blade Runner last weekend.  I was not impressed.  Perhaps it was because I had been expecting too much.  Old things that have been heavily praised, hyped, and/or copied rarely live up to their billing and are very unlikely to connect with the newer generation.

The entire intellectual content of the movie was "It is a bad thing to make artificial people and then enslave and murder them."  I already knew that.  The movie spends over two hours attempting, and largely failing, to drive this point home with imagery and emotional manipulation.

The setting, plot, and characters were so flawed and illogical that I could not take the movie seriously.  This does not happen because they got the technology and trends wrong, although there is plenty of that.  It just fails basic storytelling.  For example, in the Dark Evil Future, it is always raining and there are always random piles of trash burning in the streets and gutters.  I exaggerate a little, but the fact remains that nothing makes sense.

Despite the fact that the Replicants are completely artificial, with a scratch-built genome and eyeballs grown in lab tanks, the only way to tell them from humans is with psychological questioning.  Apparently there is no physical, chemical, or genetic evidence at all that someone was grown in a tank less than 4 years ago instead of living for 40 years.  This is ridiculous and inexcusable.  Carbon-14 dating, a common analytical technology for decades before that movie came out, could tell the difference in the age of cells, even if they looked identical to humans in every way.  And they would not.  There would be hundreds of ways to tell them apart with simple tests, even if someone tried to make them as human-like as possible.

The artificial snakes, on the other hand, have serial numbers on every scale that you can see under a microscope.

And why do they make them so human-like?  They are banned on Earth and only used in space, where they have very little contact with people.  There is no need to make them look so much like normal humans.  It would take very little effort to make them with distinguishing marks, like being bald with a massive birthmark on their face.  It would also take very little effort to implant each one with a tracking device.

The method of policing is also ridiculous.  How does the government react to the presence of four dangerous terrorists in a major metropolitan area?  They send one guy after them, one guy with no body armor, no backup, no radio or other communication devices, one handgun, and no discernible combat skills.  They do not broadcast the faces of the replicants and ask the citizens to turn them in.  They do not do any kind of roadblocks or checks.  They do not let the local cops know that there is a problem, or even inform them that a Blade Runner has a mission in the area.  They do not give him any support.

And he needs the support.  Harrison Ford's character is amazingly incompetent.  He may be good at interviewing and investigating, but he does not know the first thing about fighting.  Every single one of the replicants beats him up, even the dumb ones that are not trained as fighters.  Watching him go after the replicants is like watching one of the lab techs from CSI trying to act like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

The scene where he chases down a replicant with a gun through a crowded street is ridiculous.  Nobody reacts to him at all, despite the fact that he is waving a gun around and occasionally firing it.  Not even the cops react.  They just stand around.  If they knew who he was, they would be helping him.  If they did not know who he was, they would be telling him to stop and drop the gun, or just shooting him for being a madman with a gun.

Now, let me list some of the things that they got wrong about the future.  This might be excusable, but the trends were already in place in 1982 if you cared to think about them.  There are flying cars and space exploration and advanced genetic engineering and bioengineering and buildings that would be impossible with today's structural materials, but there is no evidence of computers or mobile phones aside from a couple bits of specialized gear.  The methods of forensic investigation are shockingly primitive, with cops handling the evidence with bare hands and not bothering to take pictures of the scene.  The head of a major corporation has huge ugly glasses instead of contact lenses.

It was a vision of the future based on a 1960's novel, and this vision was already obsolete when the film came out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Historical Perspective

People always fear new information technology:
Socrates famously warned against writing because it would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories." ...

A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner ... described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. ... he died in 1565.

... in the 18th century, when newspapers became more common. The French statesman Malesherbes railed against the fashion for getting news from the printed page, arguing that it socially isolated readers and detracted from the spiritually uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit.

... as literacy became essential and schools were widely introduced, the curmudgeons turned against education for being unnatural and a risk to mental health. An 1883 article in the weekly medical journal the Sanitarian argued that schools "exhaust the children's brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment."

... When radio arrived, we discovered yet another scourge of the young: The wireless was accused of distracting children from reading and diminishing performance in school, both of which were now considered to be appropriate and wholesome.

The human brain is amazingly bad at accurate information storage.  Our memories are incredibly fallible, prone to both cognitive biases and simple forgetfulness.  The human brain is also really bad at simple math.  However, our brains can, if well trained, be very good at making inferences, seeing patterns, and generating analysis and professional judgment.  Any technology that reduces the amount of time we have to spend on mundane memorization and calculation can enable us to make better and better use of our brains, by focusing on the things we are best at.

Responsibility and Blame

In my mind, there is a fundamental difference between responsibility and blame:

'You are responsible' means that 'you could have prevented it if you had acted differently'.  In free societies, people are responsible for almost everything that happens in their lives.  By taking the proper precautions, you can dramatically reduce the odds of being affected by accidents and violent crimes.  With a little bit of intelligence and foresight, you can arrange things to protect yourself from almost all of the hazards of life.  For example, you can reduce the chances of your house burning down to almost zero by keeping things clean, eliminating fire hazards, and keeping working smoke detectors and a fire extinguisher.  Most house fires result when people fail to do these things, so we can say that the homeowners are responsible for the conditions that let the fire happen.

By contrast, 'You are to blame' is a much stronger and more loaded word that means 'you actively did something morally wrong'.  We should only 'blame' people for a fire if they deliberately set the fire.  'Blame' implies 'premeditated crime' and it implies judgment and condemnation.  If I walk alone through a bad part of town at night, and I get mugged, then I share responsibility for what happened even though all of the blame belongs to the criminal.  I should recognize that my actions were not smart and that I should change my behavior, and everyone else should blame, judge, and condemn the mugger, and only the mugger, for his actions.

I do not know how other people use these words.  Some people seem to have the same connotations that I do, but others seem to use them as synonyms.  I believe that the latter usage is a mistake.  When discussing questions of crime and causality, you should be very careful to respect the distinction between 'failing to act wisely' and 'actively doing something wrong'.  Your language should be precise and not sloppy. Theologians do discuss 'sins of omission' versus 'sins of commission' but the state of common language and even legal language on this issue can be dangerously imprecise at times.

For example, consider this news article headlined Women say some rape victims should take blame - survey  The headline uses the word 'blame' but the actual article says:

Almost three quarters of the women who believed this said if a victim got into bed with the assailant before an attack they should accept some responsibility.

One-third blamed victims who had dressed provocatively or gone back to the attacker's house for a drink.

These are two fundamentally different concepts, and they should not be conflated.  It is undoubtedly true that women can dramatically alter their chances of being raped by changing their behavior, and it is also (to me at least) unquestionably true that the man and only the man should be blamed for the rape.  Women can be partially responsible but they should never be blamed.

I would like to see the actual wording of the survey but the BBC, like all legacy news organizations, consistently fails to cite their sources and provide links to the actual research.  Therefore, I have no way of knowing the language that was actually used in the questioning and what kind of views that the people surveyed held.  I suspect that a survey asking about 'responsibility' would get very different results than a survey asking about 'blame'

The sloppy use of words has poisoned the discussion about crimes, and especially rape.  We need to find ways of teaching people to take responsibility for their lives and protect themselves by altering their behavior, while still making it clear that all crimes should be blamed only on the criminal.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Movie Review: Superman 4

There are some movies that are bad because of offensive content.  Some movies are simply unwatchable because they are filled with the obscene, scatological, pornographic, or offensive.  Superman 4: The Quest for Peace has none of these problems.  It has nothing that is obnoxious in that manner.  And yet it manages to be the worst movie I have ever seen.  It may well be the worst movie that you could possibly make that did not include such things.
The movie was not the 'this is boring, just turn it off' kind of bad.  It was the 'Golden Turkey' kind of bad, where you cannot stop watching because you cannot believe just how horribly bad it is, and you wonder if the spectacle of awfulness can possibly continue at this rate.  This movie is amazingly bad in part because it always finds new and inventive ways to get worse.  There will be at least half a dozen points in the movie when you think 'It cannot possibly get any worse than this' and then it does.
My friends warned me about this, before they had me watch the movie.  We watched the movie specifically to gaze in awe upon its train-wreck horror.  They told me that it would be the worst movie I ever saw.  It did not disappoint.  In some ways, It provided more entertainment value than most good movies.
Superman 4 is such an inept superhero movie that it makes the worst episode of the 1960's Batman TV show look like Batman Begins.  It is so horribly cheesy and cartoony that it makes Dragonball Z look like Saving Private Ryan.  It is, and I did not think this would be possible, worse than SciFi channel original movies.
Most of the horror came from the fact that I have never seen anything that showed such amazing disregard for the laws of science.  The people who produced this showed a hitherto unimaginable ignorance of the basic facts of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics.  The list of crimes against science starts with Superman's cape billowing in the hard vaccuum of outer space, and then gets worse and worse.
The disregard for a sensible plot and for characters that do things for a reason is just as bad.  Things simply happen at random for no reason.
All of these things could be excused, at least partially, if the film was obviously intended to deliver mindless fun action sequences a la Michael Bay.  It is not.  The true horror is that it is really trying to take itself seriously, and be counted aside films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a tale of how an individual can improve the world.  It is infested with sad, pitiful, clumsy attempts to generate Image and Message.
Some of the problems in this film are, unfortunately, endemic to Superman films in general.  They work very hard to portray Kal-El as some kind of messianic savior of mankind, a god walking among men who will save us from our own follies and sin.  The title character ceases to be a character and instead becomes something to be worshiped rather than identified with.
I could describe in detail some of the scenes that make it bad, but that would take far too much time and would spoil the movie for those who have not seen it.  If you have the chance, see the movie with a group of people, and be prepared to react in slack-jawed horror at the awfulness of it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


The snowfall here has been just about perfect: enough to play in and look nice, but not enough to mess up the roads or cause much damage.

The gym closed early last night as a result of the snow, cutting off our martial arts class.  So we went outside and had a big snowball fight.  The snow was the perfect consistency for snowballs, and we had a great time.

One of the one-green-stripe students says that he always likes to take his shirt off an yell like Tarzan whenever there is snow.  He did this, and then we all started pelting him with snowballs and chasing him around.  Another one had either aim or luck that was ridiculously good; she scored four direct hits to my face.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Medical Care and Mortality

I have mentioned before that our medical system is shockingly primitive.  Our respect and trust in doctors and medicine is, in many cases, based more on superstition and hope than hard evidence.

Here is an article that discusses some of the evidence.  A new study has shown that, after properly controlling for conditions in the lives of people, health insurance does nothing to your chances of dying.  Health insurance should be seen as a symptom of being a healthy person with a good job.  It is correlated with good health, but it does nothing to actually prevent you form dying.

An earlier experiment, run by the Rand corporation, was the only actual experiment anyone has done on the effects of health insurance.  It found that more generous health insurance made people consume more health care, but did nothing to make them healthier.

We also observe that there is no change in population mortality rates when people reach age 65 and get Medicare.  There are millions of people who lack insurance but gain it at age 65.  Medicare is at least as generous as most private plans, so even the people who had insurance before end up getting more if it.  If health insurance were saving lives, then people who are 66 should die less often then people who are 64.  It is true that death rates increase as people get older, but if Medicare did anything to save lives a statistical analysis would show some kind of change.

And yet, we see zero effect on mortality rates as a result of people getting enrolled in Medicare.  The conclusion from the evidence is that it does nothing to save lives.  The only thing it does is make people feel better.  They value the attention of the medical professionals, even though nothing is being changed that can be detected by any study.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Campus Hawk

I spent about 30 minutes today watching a juvenile red-tailed hawk eat a squirrel.  I am pretty sure that it was the same one that I saw eating a squirrel two years ago in a different part of campus, and one of my friends saw a hawk eating a squirrel in roughly the same spot last year.  If it is the same bird, it should be getting its adult coloration soon.

Actually, I was dividing my time between watching the hawk and watching the other people around me.  About half the people I saw just walked by, oblivious.  About half of the people who did see it did not seem to care, and the rest stopped and watched it for varying amounts of time.  I was there the longest; few people were interested enough to watch it for more than a few minutes.

Almost everyone who saw it took a picture with a mobile phone.  I assume that some of these pictures should be on Facebook by now, but I was unable to find any of them.  Facebook's search functions are incredibly bad at searching for content in the posts of people in your network.  There should be a way to hunt for things like that.  But all of the search functions are for finding people, not finding the things that they are saying or posting.

The hawk started eating the squirrel's head and worked down the body.  I learned that a hawk will swallow a squirrel foreleg whole.  I assume that it will regurgitate the bones later.  I thought only owls did that.

The most interesting part was when it got to the intestines.  It took over a minute for it to slurp up the small intestine, like a single giant strand of spaghetti.  It would consume some of it, then look around with the intestine stretching from its beak to the body cavity of the squirrel, then swallow some more, than wait, until it finally got to the large intestine, at which point it severed the intestine and ate something else.

After a while, the bird grabbed what was left of the squirrel's body and flew up to the top of a lamp post to finish eating it.  I went over to see what was left.  There was the stomach, split open so I could see that it was full of yellow chewed acorns, the large intestine, and a very long, thin liver.  It makes sense that the squirrel would need a lot of liver to break down the tannins in the acorns.

Some of the comments I overheard:

"Well, that is one way to deal with the squirrel problem."
"Dude, it would claw your face off."

French feminist challenges greens

This BBC article is a very nice illustration of a lot of things economists keep saying about the world.

Attacking the green movement's support for washable reusable nappies, she told French media the disposable nappy was an aspect of women's liberation.

 A well-functioning market economy produces countless products and services that improve peoples' lives.  This will usually lead to increases in freedom and quality of life for everyone, especially people who have traditionally faced lives of toil and drudgery.

Detecting a creeping return to conservative values, Mrs Badinter said a lot of European women were not prepared to accept this "regression".

Economic freedom is inextricably tied to personal freedom in general.

The feminist solution, said Mrs Badinter, was to manufacture biodegradable disposable nappies.

Technological improvement and continued economic progress are the solution to current problems.  Going back to the past is not a solution.

The article does not mention this, but washable diapers are just as bad for the environment as disposable ones.  The chemicals required to wash them generate a lot of toxic waste, and the energy required to wash them is substantial and generates pollution and greenhouse gases.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Think Young

This article on how thinking younger makes you act younger is old news to me, but it is still good.  It describes how a researcher produced real and measurable improvements in physical and cognitive abilities in older men, by placing in an environment that simulated one from their youth.

There is a lot of good evidence that manipulation of people's mind, aka the placebo effect, can be very powerful and helpful.

Taliban and Air Strikes

Read this BBC article.

In Pakistan an account of life with the Taliban has emerged from a 13-year-old girl called Meena, who says her own family tried to turn her into a suicide bomber.

If I copied and quoted all of the important parts and quotes, I would end up copying the whole thing.  You really need to read this.  It is an amazing inside look at the senseless brutality and warped thinking of radical Islamic terrorists.

I would like to comment of several things.  First, note that this is Pakistan, not Afghanistan.  I missed that at first.

My main point of discussion is the air strike that killed the militants. Except for a chance of fate, the person being interviewed would have been killed as well.  It seems that the attack was by helicopter gunship, which means that it was a Pakistani army operation and not an American drone strike.  But this scenario has surely been repeated many times with an American finger on the trigger. 

We have killed hundreds of innocent civilians, just like Meena, in our attacks on Taliban militants.  This is an undisputed fact.  The question we need to be asking is: "Is it worth the cost?"  I think that it is, but I also think that we do not need to be the ones doing the shooting.  Instead of launching the drones ourselves, we should be lending them to Pakistan and then giving the Pakistani government whatever intel we manage to collect.  Then they can be the ones who make the choice about how many Meenas to kill in order to stop the suicide bombings.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mexican Dance

Last night a friend and I went to a performance of the 'Ballet Folklorico de Mexico' here on campus.  I have no idea what kind of artistic merit the show had, or what effect it might have had on the feelings of an average person.  I spent most of the time watching and analyzing the way that they moved and produced the show.

The dancers were obviously professionals.  They were very good at what they were doing.  It is actually quite rare nowadays to see an act that has been polished to such perfection.  Most of the things we see live on stage are rehearsed for several weeks and then played for a few days, before the performers finish the act and start working on something else.  But the group was dedicated to this one performance.  It is all they do, and they had been doing it for decades.  I spoke to a woman after the show who said that she had seen this in the 1950's in New York, and she remembered several most of the dances.  The show had seen only minor changes in five decades.  The dancers change, rotating in and out, but the show keeps going, perpetuating itself in roughly the same form.

During the show, I remained aware of the people behind the masks and costumes, and the way that the production flowed.  I tried to keep track of individual performers, to time their disappearances and costume changes.  I thought about the work that was going on backstage, and how everything must be coordinated.  This lack of immersion was not their fault; it is incredibly difficult to make me 'spellbound' and only look at what is presented.  I am the kind of person who always thinks about what is beneath the surface.  It also helped that we had a front upper box seat, so we could see in to the wings of the stage where people were getting things ready. 

We also had a better view of the dancers in the back, and the floor of the stage.  Sitting 'front and center' might be the best place to see a play, but you really want to be sitting in an upper level when watching a dance performance.  That way you have a good view of the whole stage, not just the dancers in the front.

I think that a lot of people forget that performers are human beings.  What they do is so far removed from the life of an average person that it is easy to mentally classify them as 'other' and see them as a kind of entertainment robot.  The best way to escape from that, and really appreciate their skill, is to imagine yourself up there and think of what would happen if you tried to do what they are doing.

It is very rare that I see people do something, outside of a high-level sports contest, that I would simply not be able to do.  There are a lot of things people do that I cannot currently do, but that I would be able to do if I put enough time and effort into practicing and training for it.  This dance did not quite hit the level of 'I would not be able to do this at all', but it came close.

All of the dancers had amazing stamina and dexterity.  Aside from martial arts demonstrations, I had never seen anything like it in real life.  But the things they did were not so alien to me that I could not really appreciate it.  I recognized most of their movements and footwork; there are only a limited number of ways to make the human body go from Point A to Point B while maintaining poise, and a good martial artist is familiar with all of them.

The dancers really know how to move.  Their speed and acceleration was amazing.  It was sometimes hard to realize this, until I forced myself to think of how large the stage was.  They would routinely float from one end of the stage to the other in seconds, then turn and be running in a completely different direction in the blink of an eye.  The fact that I am capable of doing similar things made it more impressive, not less.

I would not want to get put in a boxing ring with any one of those people, even if he or she had no clue how to throw a punch.  I would have serious trouble landing a hit on them.  They could probably spend the whole match just running away from me, and by the end of it I would be too exhausted to do anything.

Some of the dances were done barefoot.  I liked those the best, partly because they made less noise and partly because it was easier to analyze their steps and movement.  But most of the dancing was done in shoes.  They all slammed the stage with these shoes, making a lot of noise and making my feet wince in sympathetic pain.  The stress on their feet and legs must be intense.  At the end of the show, when people were clapping uproariously and the performers kept coming back for more and more bows, my thoughts were "Stop that clapping already so they can all get away from the hot stage lights, take off those costumes, and soak their feet in something soothing."

Most of the dances apparently had to be performed while smiling.  Some of the people were good at this, others less so.  A few of the women had forced and unnerving rictus grins the while time.  I don't blame them for this; it is incredibly difficult to force yourself to keep smiling while doing an intense physical workout and they should not have been asked to try.  The frightfulness of their faces was not helped by the stage makeup.  I know that all stage makeup has to be thick and bold to counteract the effect of stage lighting, but these women still looked way too painted up.

Also, you would think that they could get costumes that did not have pieces falling off every so often.  By the end of the show, the stage floor was festooned with feathers, bits of fabric, and even some rhinestones.  Maintaining the costumes probably takes a lot of work.  Perhaps this wearing out is unavoidable, given the way they were moving.  I can't help thinking that if the dancing made the costumes were fall apart like that, it must be doing something similar to the bodies of the dancers.  I really hope for their sakes that they only do this once a week at most.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Petty Dictator

Spartanburg County deputies say a child at Fairforest Elementary School stuck several of her classmates with a syringe.  A school resource officer says the student brought the syringe to school and throughout the day stuck several classmates with the needle end.  The principal says she could not see any powder or liquid in the syringe.  The student told the principal she had gotten the syringe from home.  The child's mother told the principal that no one in the family used syringes but they lived in a trailer park with a lot of traffic.  The supervisor for the School Resource Officers Division contacted the 7th Circuit Solicitor's Office about this case. They felt that due to the child's age and lack of any indication her actions were malicious the appropriate course of action would be to let the school handle the incident under their discipline guidelines.

From local news

This kind of chicken$#!7 is getting more and more common.  What kind of idiot refers childhood misconduct to the DA?

I can actually answer that rhetorical question.  It is the kind of idiot who thinks that the government has a right and a duty to make everyone's life safe and perfect.  Thankfully our actual court system has more sense.  Imagine how nasty the world would be if that school administrator had power unconstrained by legal process.

A Tale of Two Movies (and seven books)

In the past month I saw two Disney movies, The Sword in the Stone (1963) and Treasure Planet (2002).  Treasure Planet has always been my favorite Disney movie.  I had seen bits of The Sword in the Stone before, and probably saw it when very young, but I had never seen and remembered enough of it to form an opinion of it.  I still prefer Treasure Planet but I realize that a lot of the reasons I like it are idiosyncratic.  I like the setting and the language and the overall environment and feel of it.  I also realize that Treasure Planet benefits from four decades of improvement in the technology of animation.  So I will not talk about those things much.  My main analysis here is philosophical, not artistic.

There are a lot of things we can learn from society by looking at the differences between these two movies.  Both of them are coming of age movies, showing how a boy grows up and experiences life.  But the things that happen, and the lessons learned, are very different.

The protagonist of The Sword in the Stone, Wart, is an amazingly passive character.  He never actually does anything except blunder around, get into accidents, and try not to get eaten by predators.  I had no sympathy for him; he was a non-entity.*  Everything good that happens to him happens as a result of a mistake or the actions of others.  He has greatness thrust onto him and is utterly incapable of dealing with it without help.

By contrast, the protagonist of Treasure Planet, Jim, makes things happen.  He is a well-developed character, with a history and motivation for his actions.  He masters the technology of his world, reacts intelligently to various crises and obstacles, and uses his skills to save the day at the end of the movie.  And at the end, he does not get any unearned money or glory; he has simply restored what was lost and put himself on track for a better future.

Part of this is due to the age differences; Wart was 12 and Jim was 15.  Treasure Planet is clearly intended for an older audience and is therefore more mature.  But I also think that some of the differences are due to a change in what society expects of its young people.

Merlin is presented as the ideal tutor for Wart.  Yet his training consists entirely of encouraging Wart to read books, teaching him songs with meaningless homilies, and turning him into various small prey animals and putting him in situations where his life is at risk.  Merlin never teaches Wart any useful skills, and he never does anything that would teach Wart anything about responsibility or the wise use of power.  Merlin does not know at the start that Wart will be a king, but he knows that he will be someone important.  Yet all of the object lessons are experiences in powerlessness that match the reality of his daily life as an orphan and page.  They teach him to use his wits to run away from problems, and then beg the wizard to help him out, which is not how you want a king to act.

The overall lesson in The Sword in the Stone is that you should simply do what you are told, keep your head down, and wait for something good to happen.  It is a lesson in passivity and resignation, just like the Cinderella story.  Good things just happen to the characters; they do nothing to alter their fate or take care of themselves.  Someone else makes all the magic happen.

Jim, on the other hand, learns a lot of lessons about hard work, responsibility, and the complexity of life.  He learns how to advance his natural ability to manipulate and master the technology that makes his world function.  He learns about how to deal with people and how to advance his own goals in the face of determined opposition.  Most importantly, he learns that he has to take the initiative if he wants good things to happen.  He does get lucky in the sense that an opportunity is presented to him at random, but turning that opportunity into good things requires time, effort, determined activity, and ingenuity.

The overall lesson in Treasure Planet is that you are responsible for your own fate.  Your actions have consequences, you have to take care of yourself, and you have to understand how the world works.  You are the one who makes the magic happen.

Jim really is the magician in Treasure Planet.  He is the master of the arcane technology, the one who pulls a miracle out of his mind to save the day.  In The Sword in the Stone, there is never a hint that Wart can, will, or should learn how to work magic for himself.

This assumption is common to all old stuff, so pervasive and ingrained that you do not even question it.  Merlin never teaches Arthur or any knights how to do magic.  Gandalf never teaches the hobbits how to do magic.  Aslan never teaches the children how to do magic, or even defend against it.  Magic, the mastery of the fundamental forces of the world, is never something done by the protagonists.  Magic is something that happens to you, not something that you do.  Heroism and initiative are always portrayed as the ability to run around and beat other people with heavy things or poke them with sharp things.

This is a slight exaggeration, but most old fantasy basically follows the mindset of primitive savages who cannot hope to master the forces of their world.  People are caught in the grip of incomprehensible forces that they cannot hope to master, and their only hope is to do what the shaman says while attacking the enemies of the tribe.

It was only recently that the protagonists of fantasy started to be the magicians.  It started sometime in the 60s with a few random books, and then slowly spread along with the role-playing games and video games that put people in the shoes of magicians.

I think that the first mainstream entertainment that had magic-wielding protagonists was the Harry Potter series, and I think that this fact explains a lot of the popularity of the books.  Here was a story about children mastering the forces that control the world, and slowly learning how to beat the adults at their own game.  Magic became something you do, not just something that happens to you.  And more importantly, you become something that happens to life, rather than life being something that happens to you.  You may start off by taking advice and direction from a mentor, but by the end you are the equal or even the better of the mentor, just as qualified to direct things, and certainly more qualified to direct your own life.

I certainly applaud this trend.  Jim, and Harry Potter and his friends, are far better role models for young adults than the heroes of previous generations of fantasy.  We need to show children that they have the right and responsibility to be the magicians, the ones who understand and shape the world and its future.

* In fact, the only character in the movie that I felt any sympathy for was the young female squirrel.  She risks her life to save him from a wolf and then he just walks off and abandons her.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


This is a good post on attitudes toward gays.  The relevant quote:

There is one thing that I'd like to address, though. When I've seen people ... advocating for a return flat-out to a total ban on gay soldiers- they are almost always men, and they very frequently cite some variant on a common theme. Apparently, it would be just horrible if they had to think about other men being attracted to them, and worry about being ogled, and maybe even worry about being raped, because there's always the one creepy guy that's willing to cross that line, and we just can't do that to our soldiers. ...

To these men, I have the following reply: welcome to what every single human female on the ****ing planet deals with from puberty onward. You don't like the idea that some man you're not attracted to might be fantasizing about having sex with you, might be eyeing your fun bits, that there's even a remote but existing chance he might rape you? Harden. The ****. Up. Fifty percent of the population has to cope with this every day as a fact of life, and we're called paranoid deranged feminazi man-haters if we even bring it up outside a feminist consciousness-raising session. ...

Be glad you only have to cope with 5% of the male population instead of 95%, that you're much more likely to be able to fend off a real assault with your bare hands than we are, and STOP WHINING about the bad nasty men that might want sex with people that might not be interested. When "cry like a little girl" becomes an inappropriate expression because the little girls are handling it better than you are, you know you really do need to put on your big-boy britches.

By coincidence, this blog post deals with something that happened to me today.  I had a conversation with a classmate who thought that a gay guy was flirting with him.  He was freaking out over this and making a huge deal about it.  He actually said 'I am never going to go out to a bar again.' 

I then said something like 'What's the big deal?  Women deal with unwanted attention all the time.' 

Then he said, repeatedly 'But I am not like that.  I am not attracted to men.'

This was telling.  I suspect that a big reason for homophobia is some subconscious voice saying "If he is attracted to you, that means he thinks you are gay.  And if he thinks you are gay, then maybe other people also think you are gay.  Hey, maybe you are gay." 

And he couldn't deal with that.  For some reason, a lot of guys are really afraid that people might think that they are gay.  They just do not want to think about the issue at all.

I have actually been propositioned by gay men.  It did not bother me or offend me or make me doubt anything about myself.  I just said 'No, I am straight' and went on with my life.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Changing the World

The only way to change the world is to invent something that a lot of people like.

The item you invent can be anything from a paper clip to a philosophy, but it must fulfill this criterion.

In the past, it was possible to change the world by inheriting a crown and exercising its power.  But today, the only way to obtain political power is to invent a persona and/or platform that a lot of people like.

If you think that you can change the world without inventing something, then you will probably end up becoming a disposable tool for an ideology or organization that someone else invented.