Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the category “Fun Articles”

Misleading packaging: why reviews matter

FarCry

There is nothing worse than picking up a book, movie, whatever, expecting to be entertained based on the cover. The above example is the movie Far Cry, starring Til Schweiger, in what looks like a cool action flick. The description even makes you look past the fact that this is a video game adaptation, promising a slick action-eer:

An ex-special forces soldier turned boatman is hired by a journalist to investigate a top-secret military base on a nearby island.

The problem with this packaging is that this is a film by Uwe Boll. Til Schweiger is a fantastic actor and a major box office draw card, especially in his home country of Germany. He was also the driver behind one of my favourite films of all time, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Yet not even Til can save us from the worst director of all time.

One of the things that amazes me about Uwe Boll is not so much the fact that he is still making films (petition to stop him making films) but the fact that he is able to attract the money and star power to his movies. You would think that actors would be keen to avoid working with Uwe so that they don’t sign a career death note. But Til, Ron Perlman, Burt Reynolds, Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Eric Roberts, Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff, Claire Forlani, Leelee Sobieski, John ‘Gimli’ Rys-Davies, and Ben Kingsley (although, Kingsley may be an Oscar winner, but he has appeared in some truly awful films), have all lined up to appear in a Uwe Boll production. Why!?! Rys-Davis has implied that the money is good and Uwe is easy to work for. No mention of exactly how good Uwe is to work with; I’m going to assume running hot and cold hookers and blow.

This speaks to the underlying problem with picking good entertainment. We can be easily mislead with a cool blurb, impressive trailer, a spot at the front of the store, a stand that tackles you to the ground and forces you to buy the movie/book. It is why movie stars are paid big money, because they have a brand that audiences recognise, and that can guarantee box office sales. In publishing you have name brand authors like James Patterson occupying the front of the store because they are reliable bestsellers. And Lee Child was recently shown to have the strongest brand in publishing, with fans following him from book to book more than any other author, because of his reliably entertaining books. Uwe Boll is the opposite of this brand of success and reliability.

Essentially media consumers like us are less likely to try a new author, or watch a film by a new director, or one that stars actors we haven’t heard of, because of the Uwe Boll’s of this world. We want our entertainment to be entertaining – I know, not much to ask really – and we hate being mislead by slick tricks. We see a cool poster or cover, we see a big name actor attached, or read a cool blurb, only to be sorely disappointed. So instead of trying something new, we stick with what we know and trust.

I guess that is why I promote books I’ve read and liked on this site. That is why we need people to review books, movies, TV shows and music. That is why we need to find people with similar tastes to make recommendations to us. If we can’t stop Uwe Boll making films, at least we can tell people about the films that are worth watching.

Exercise articles by non-exercisers

I’ve lifted weights for a couple of decades now. The challenge of lifting heavy stuff is cool and the added side effects of being stronger, fitter, healthier and sexier are awesome.

Fitness is sexy

Fitness is sexy

After being around gyms and fellow fitness junkies this long you start to realise that articles on how to get in shape are as numerous as new programs claiming to be the best program ever. There is nothing wrong with different programs with different ideals, they allow you to have some variety, or at least someone to laugh at.
functional-stupidThe biggest belly laughs come from the articles that are written by people who clearly don’t lift. They make statements that are naïve or ridiculous, they don’t understand what fit or strong are, and they don’t really remember past the last hot fitness fad. One article that caught my eye recently was this one on the “new” and “better than Crossfit” program that is all the rage. By all the rage, I’m sure it will be after enough of these promotional articles are paid for written.

The first thing that struck me about this exercise article written by a non-exerciser was just how many times this particular wheel has been reinvented. In the few decades I’ve been going to gyms I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a circuit class on offer, well, except for the powerlifting gyms whose idea of cardio is walking from the car to the gym. I don’t know what is so revolutionary about another circuit class, which is essentially what this new program is. Circuit classes just have you move from one exercise to the next at timed intervals with little rest in between, so variations on this are not new, so they can’t be revolutionary. But you have to love a good celebrity endorsement!

Okay, I’ll admit that the article is a promotional piece on a new exercise program, so I shouldn’t hate on it too much. Instead I’ll get to the statements that I wish would disappear from fitness articles, preferably by having authors who know something about exercise write the articles.

Derp 1: “This isn’t about lifting 90kg weights…..” You mean, a warm-up?
Many fitness articles, especially those with a female audience in mind, pick an arbitrary number and decide that this weight is heavy. In this article it is 90kg, which is not actually that heavy depending on which exercise that weight is being used with. This just shows how little lifting experience the author has, or how lame they are at it.

Derp 2: “New scientific research…..HIIT…..” 2005 is calling, they want to tell you about this new thing called Facebook.
The article is trying to lend some credibility to the new program by citing science and by pretending this is all brand new. The problem is that HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) has been around as a method since the 1970s and modern science since the 1990s. So unless you are a time displaced quantum physicist, you can’t call this stuff new.

Derp 3: “Holistic, functional fitness….” So doing more than one exercise?
Advertising slogans are always funny. Holistic is all new-age-y and sounds comprehensive-y. Functional fitness is straight out of the Crossfit advertising material, so somebody thinks this term is meaningful. What the statement actually means is doing a bunch of things, but that isn’t as sexy or likely to impress the marketing department.

Derp 4: “We focus on strength, respiratory and flexibility….” By focus we mean unfocussed.
This sort of meaningless nonsense is rife in an industry represented by people who failed high school; you know, athletes. You either focus on one thing, or you aren’t focussing at all. The fact that using the term focus at the same time as holistic and functional fitness just shows how little the author understands exercise or writing a logical article.

Derp 5: “Chiropractors warn about…..” How chiropractic is pretty much a scam?
The fitness industry isn’t just filled with nonsense, it also likes to promote medical nonsense. Many of these fitness articles lend credence to quack medicine or use quack medicine to support their claims. The advantage of using quack claims is that it doesn’t require real evidence, which makes it easy to sell people on the new fitness fad.

Essentially there is nothing amazing or new about how you can get in shape, get stronger, or become sexier. Exercising in a progressive way (i.e. getting better) and eating healthily in amounts that match your energy needs/expenditure is how its done. So be wary of these marketing claims and articles written by non-exercisers.

How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

This latest video from the Ideas Channel raises an interesting point about how there appears to be more complex narratives in TV shows now.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving a demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows have a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which is turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

Is science broken?

With the rebirth of Cosmos on TV, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the team have brought science back into the mainstream. No longer is science confined to the latest puff piece on cancer research that is only in the media because a) cancer and b) the researchers are pressuring the funding bodies to give them money. The terms geek and nerd have stopped being quite the derogatory terms they once were. We even have science memes becoming as popular as Sean Bean “brace yourself” memes.

Sean dies

This attention has also cast a light on the scientific process itself with many non-scientists and scientists passing comment on the reliability of science. Nature has recently published several articles discussing the reliability of study’s findings. One article shows why the hard sciences laugh at the soft sciences, with the article talking about statistical errors. I mean, have these “scientists” never heard of selection and sample bias? Yes, there is a nerd pecking order, and it is maintained through pure snobbishness, complicated looking equations, and how clean the lab-coat remains.

purity

As a science nerd, I feel the need to weigh in on this attack on science. So I’m going to tear apart, limb by limb, a heavy hitting article: Cracked.com’s 6 Shocking Studies That Prove Science Is Totally Broken.

To say that science is broken or somehow unreliable is nonsense. To say that peer review or statistical analysis is unreliable is also nonsense. There are exceptions to this: sometimes entire fields of study are utter crap, sometimes entire journals are just crap, sometimes scientists and reviewers suck at maths/stats. But in most instances these things are not-science, just stuff pretending to be science. Which is why I’m going to discuss this article.

A Shocking Amount of Medical Research Is Complete Bullshit
#6 – Kinda true. There are two problems here: media reporting of medical science and actual medical science. The biggest issue is the media reporting of medical science, hell, science in general. Just look at how the media have messed up the reporting of climate science for the past 40 years.

Of course most of what is reported as medical studies are often preliminary studies. You know: “we’ve found a cure for cancer, in a petri dish, just need another 20 years of research and development, and a boatload of money, and we might have something worth getting excited about.” The other kind that get attention aren’t proper medical studies but are spurious claims by someone trying to pedal a new supplement. So this issue is more about the media being scientifically illiterate than anything.

Another issue is the part of medical science that Ben Goldacre has addressed in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Essentially you have a bias toward positive results being reported. This isn’t good enough. Ben goes into more detail on this topic and it is worth reading his books on this topic and the Nature articles I previously referred to.

Many Scientists Still Don’t Understand Math
#5 – Kinda true. Math is hard. It has all of those funny symbols and not nearly enough pie charts. Mmmm, pie! If a reviewer in the peer review process doesn’t understand maths, they will often reject papers, calling the results blackbox. Other times the reviewers will fail to pick up the mistakes made, usually because they aren’t getting paid and that funding application won’t write itself. And that’s just the reviewers. Many researchers don’t do proper trial design and often pass off analysis to specialists who have to try and make the data work despite massive failings. And the harsh reality is that experiments are always a compromise: there is no such thing as the perfect experiment.

Essentially, scientists are fallible human beings like everyone else. Which is why science itself is iterative and includes a methods section, so that results are independently confirmed before being accepted.

And They Don’t Understand Statistics, Either
#4 – Kinda true, but misleading. How many people understand the difference between statistically significant and significance? Here’s a quick example:

This illustrates that when you test for something at the 95% confidence interval you still have a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive or natural variability arising in the test. Some “science” has been published that uses this false positive by doing a statistical fishing trip (e.g. anti-GM paper). But there is another aspect, if you get enough samples, and enough data, you can actually get a statistically significant result but not have a significant result. An example would be testing new fertiliser X and finding that there is a p value of 0.05 (i.e. significant) that the grain yield is 50kg higher in a 3 tonne per hectare crop. Wow, statistically significant, but at 50kg/ha, who cares?!

But these results will be reported, published, and talked about. It is easy for people who haven’t read and understood the work to get over excited by these results. It is also easy for researchers to get over excited too, they are only human. But this is why we have the methods and results sections in science papers, so that calmer, more rational heads prevail. Usually after wine. Wine really helps.

Scientists Have Nearly Unlimited Room to Manipulate Data
#3 – True but misleading. Any scientist *could* make up anything that they wanted. They could generate a bunch of numbers to prove that, for an example of bullshit science, the world is only 6000 years old. But because scientists are a skeptical bunch, they’d want some confirming evidence. They’d want that iterative scientific process to come into play. And the bigger that claim, the more evidence they’d want. Hence why scientists generally ignore creationists, or just pat them on the head when they show up at events: aren’t they cute, they’re trying to science!

But there is a serious issue here. The Nature article I referred to was a social sciences study, a field that is rife with sampling and selection bias. Ever wonder why you hear “scientists say X is bad for you” then a year later it is “scientists say X is good for you”? Well, that is because two groups were sampled and correlated for X, and as much as we’d like it, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I wish someone would tell the media this little fact, especially since organic food causes autism.

Other fields have other issues. Take a look at health and fitness studies and spot who the participants were: generally they are university students who need the money to buy tinned beans and beer. Not the most representative group of people and often they are mates with one of the researchers, all 4 of them. Not enough participants and a biased sample: not the way to do science. The harder sciences are better, but that isn’t to say that there isn’t limitations. Again, *this is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.*

The Science Community Still Won’t Listen to Women
#2 – I disagree (but I’m a guy, so I’d love to hear from someone without a penis on this one). There is still a heavy bias toward men in senior positions at universities and research institutes, just like all other aspects of society. This is gradually changing, but you have to remember what age those senior people are and what that generation required of women (quit when they got married, etc). That old guard may have influence, but I doubt it is as large as implied, and they’ll all be dead or retired soon where their influence will be confined to the letters to the editor in the newspaper. And I’d question how much this influence has on “listening” to women in science, because if there is a field that encourages knowledge and evidence over other aspects, then science is it.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t an issue with equality still to be dealt with. That old guard isn’t dead yet and their influence will hang around like old people smell for a while to come. But this issue isn’t confined to science and I think science is better placed than many other fields. I won’t go into the preferred areas of study issue, as maths, engineering, science, social science, humanities, etc, all have massive differences in their sex ratios that would need an entire uninformed rant on.

It’s All About the Money
#1 – D’uh and misleading. Research costs money. *This is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.* Money may bring in bias, but it doesn’t have to, nor does that bias have to be bad or wrong. Remember how I said above that science is an iterative process? Well, there is only so big a house of cards that can be built under a pile of bullshit before it falls down in a stinky mess. Money might fool a few people for a while (e.g. climate change denial) but science will ultimately win.

Ultimately, science is the best tool we have for finding out about our reality, making cool stuff, and blowing things up. Without it we wouldn’t be, this article wouldn’t be possible, we wouldn’t know what a Bill Nye smack down looks like. Sure, there is room for improvement, especially in the peer review process and funding arrangements, and science is flawed because it is done by humans, but science is bringing the awesome every day: we have to remember that fact.

Other rebuttals:

http://www.reddit.com/r/badscience/comments/1veyhu/cracked_again_6_shocking_studies_that_prove/cero5qj

http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/is-science-broken/

I think you’re Mythtaken: Guns #2 – The second armour-piercing round

After a recent discussion about gun myths, I realised that my last blog post hadn’t covered anywhere near enough of the myths that are floating around (this article will mainly be about US guns, but parallels from the resources and science cited can be drawn to other countries). This is obviously because stuff is much easier to make up than to research, just ask Bill “tides go in, tides go out” O’Reilly. One of the big problems with research in the US on guns is that the National Rifle Association has effectively lobbied to cut off federal funding for research and stymieing data collection and sharing on gun violence. As a result there are a lack of hard numbers and research often tends to be limited in scope. Scope: get it? So like a lost rabbit wandering onto a shooting range, or a teenager wearing a hoody, it’s time to play dodge with some of these claims.

Myth: Guns make you safer, just like drinking a bit of alcohol makes you a better driver.

The myth I hear the most often is that guns make you safer;  just like the death penalty is a great deterrent, surveillance cameras stop crime, and the internet is a good source of medical advice. The problem with this myth is that people like having a safety blanket to snuggle. What they don’t realise is that guns don’t make you safer, they make you 4.5-5.5 times more likely to do something stupid to someone you know and love than be used for protection.

I want to be clear here: there’s nothing wrong with going shooting at the range, or hunting vermin. The problem is thinking that you can use a gun for self-defence, when it actually makes the violence problem worse. That gun escalates the violence because people have it there: why not use it? To wit the criminals enter into an arms race and a shoot first policy.

Owning a gun has been linked to higher risks of homicidesuicide, and accidental death by gun. For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home. 43% of homes with guns and kids have at least one unlocked firearm, and in one experiment it was found that one third of 8-to-12-year-old boys who found a handgun pulled the trigger, which is just plain unsafe.

As for carrying around a gun for self-defence, well, in 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime. In one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property. However, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument. A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if they carried a gun. Their odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

It is even worse for women. In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than murdered by male strangers. A woman’s chances of being killed by her abuser increase more than 7 times if he has access to a gun, and that access could be the woman keeping one around just in case her attacker needs it. One US study found that women in states with higher gun ownership rates were 4.9 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than women in states with lower gun ownership rates; funny that.

There is also the action hero delusion that often gets trotted out when talking about guns for self-defence. The idea is that everyone is a good guy, so give them a gun and you have a bunch of action heroes ready to fight off the forces of evil. This has worked so well that all governments are thinking of getting rid of the military….

The reality is that the average person is not an action hero and would fail miserably in a high stress situation with actual bad guys. You only have to look at the statistics:

  • Mass shootings stopped by armed civilians in the past 30 years: 0
  • Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5

I’ve seen several examples cited of “citizens” shooting someone who looked intent on killing everyone they could (with a gun…). But in every instance the “citizen” was actually an off-duty police officer, or a person in law enforcement, or someone in the military. In other words, the people who stop mass shootings or bad-guys with guns, are trained professionals.

There have also been a few studies done that claim X million lawful crime preventions, therefore guns must be good; notably by researchers Lott and Kleck. To say that their research is flawed is like saying Stephen King has sold a few books. Lott’s work has been refuted for extrapolating flawed data. Kleck’s research has similarly been refuted by many peer reviewed articles:

Myth: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, quite often with a gun, because punching someone to death is hard work.

If this myth were true we wouldn’t send troops to war with weapons. I get where people are coming from with this myth, because the gun itself is an inanimate object and is only as good or bad as the person using it. Yes, I did just quote the movie Shane: thanks for noticing. But here is the thing, in a society we are more than just a bunch of individuals, we are a great big bell-curve of complexity. So when you actually study the entire population you find that people with more guns tend to kill more people—with guns. In the US, states with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. Gun death rates are generally lower in states with restrictions such as firearm type restrictions or safe-storage requirements.

ownership-death630
Sources: 
PediatricsCenters for Disease Control and Prevention

Gun deaths graph: The three states with the highest rate of gun ownership (MT, AK, WY) have a gun death rate of 17.8 per 100,000, over 4 times that of the three lowest-ownership states (HI, NJ, MA; 4.0 gun deaths per 100,000).

The thing is that despite guns being inanimate objects, they affect the user/owner’s psyche. It’s like waking up one morning with a larger penis or bigger boobs: you not only want to show them off, you act differently as a result. Studies confirm this change in behaviour. Drivers who carry guns are 44% more likely than unarmed drivers to make obscene gestures at other motorists, and 77% more likely to follow them aggressively. Among Texans convicted of serious crimes, those with concealed-handgun licenses were sentenced for threatening someone with a firearm 4.8 times more than those without. In US states with Stand Your Ground and other laws making it easier to shoot in self-defence, those policies have been linked to a 7 to 10% increase in homicides.

Now people also like to try and red herring the argument against guns by pretending that video games or mental health is the problem. The NRA tried to claim video games were to blame after the Newtown shootings. Of course we’d be able to see this relationship by looking at gun ownership versus video game playing, like by comparing the USA to Japan.

United States Japan
Per capita spendingon video games $44 $55
Civilian firearmsper 100 people 88 0.6
Gun homicidesin 2008 11,030 11

Sources: PricewaterhouseCoopersSmall Arms Survey (PDF), UN Office on Drugs and Crime

The thing is controlling guns has been shown to work, although there are other factors in play, and policing is still key. But when gun control has been shown to reduce firearm deaths by 1-6 per 100,000 then the case is pretty much closed.

Myth: They’re coming for your guns to stop our freedom and tyranny and democide and Alex Jones said so and aliens made me do it!

As I stated above, the statistics on guns and gun violence is hazy. No one knows the exact number of guns in America, but it’s clear there’s no practical way to round them all up (never mind that no one in Washington is proposing this). Those “freedom” loving gun owners – all 80 million of them – have the evil government out-gunned by a factor of around 79 to 1. If government were coming for the guns, you’d think they’d have done so before being this grossly out-gunned.

guns-owned630Sources: Congressional Research Service (PDF), Small Arms Survey

Yes, 80 million gun owners is a minority! I find it interesting that from 1989 to 2000 there was a decline in gun ownership of 46% to 32%. Now the decline in ownership rebounds to hover between 34 and 43% for 2000-2011 (notably the high point in 2007 was after the Virginia Tech shooting which the NRA did a lot of campaigning around), which shows why the decline didn’t continue. Now compare those rates of ownership to the recent report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics sums up the rates of gun violence. You can clearly see a decline in gun violence from 1993 to 2000 before a plateau that has pretty much held since. This is confirmed by other studies. This is an important take home point: all the research shows violence and gun violence is on the decline. The idea that people need a gun for protection is becoming more and more ridiculous. This is despite the global decline in violence, and trends seen in countries like Australia (more Aussie stats here). On a side note, in the last lot of statistics you see that the more female, educated, non-white, and liberal you are, the less likely you are to own a gun. 

So scare campaigns may work to boost sales of guns for a while, but overall, most people don’t want or need a gun. The long term trend has nothing to do with the government coming for the guns and everything to do with people realising they don’t need one and prefer to read a good book, or watch a movie, instead of going to the range.

The simple fact is that more guns in society is the best predictor of death, thus it is time to rethink the reasons for owning a gun, especially if that reason is in case you have to John McClane a situation:

http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(13)00444-0/abstract
http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301409?journalCode=ajph
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447364/pdf/0921988.pdf
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/
http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/dranove/htm/Dranove/coursepages/Mgmt%20469/guns.pdf
http://www.theatlantic.com/national/print/2011/01/the-geography-of-gun-deaths/69354/
http://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/30/opinion/frum-guns-safer/
http://www.crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/mythsofmurder.htm
http://islandia.law.yale.edu/ayers/ayres_donohue_article.pdf
http://islandia.law.yale.edu/ayres/Ayres_Donohue_comment.pdf
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2003/10/double-barreled-double-standards

We think we’re smart

0109xkcd

XKCD nails it again.

Within science fiction and the wider society there is this idea that we’ll find aliens. I always find it funny when humans talk about discovering “other” intelligent life in the universe. Just a wee bit arrogant to consider ourselves intelligent. Yes, I do realise that I’m arguing that point using technology based on quantum mechanics, probably being read on a device that weighs less than 200g and fits in your pocket, linked by a distributed network, connected by orbital satellites. Science: it works….. bitches.

But I would continue my argument by saying that to some people that amazing interface of technology, that is allowing this blog post to be read around the world, might as well be explained as “magic, magic, magic, magic, magic, god did it.” I certainly couldn’t explain how quantum mechanics works, nor how it applies to communications technologies, let alone how it manages to stream all of my favourite porn media to my phone. Thus Arthur C Clarke’s third law – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – holds true for the vast majority of people on this planet.

Now the argument against Clarke’s third law is that technology isn’t magic. In fact, in the entire history of human civilisation, with all the things that have been attributed to magic, all the great mysteries of the universe, once investigated, have turned out to be not magic. But I’m talking about the knowledge gap between the average person and the specialist in the field who develops all this cutting edge stuff that allows other specialists to do cool stuff; like making a hoverboard. We are surrounded by everyday items that most of us would struggle to explain the concept of how they work – magnets, how do they work? – let alone understand the complexities involved – magnets, this is how they work.

Douglas Adams brilliantly satirised this idea in his novel Mostly Harmless. Arthur Dent crash lands on an alien planet where the local humanoid populace are rather backward in comparison to us humans. Arthur comes from a planet of television, cars, planes, computers: all sorts of neat stuff. But he doesn’t know how any of it works, nor how to go about reverse engineering any or it. So he becomes the sandwich maker.

Essentially, we point to all of our human achievements to show how smart we are, but in reality most of us haven’t the first clue about any of those achievements. We just aren’t as smart as we would like to think.

Now compare this to aliens. Humans are pretty proud of having gone to the moon, cashing in on all 12 of us who have done so, but to be visited by aliens requires interstellar travel. That requires technology we probably haven’t even dreamed of yet (possibly not, e.g. warp). An alien race that can do that is so far beyond human achievement and intelligence. Thus,  I’m suggesting that even at our best, we would be babbling morons in comparison to an intelligent life-form that has managed interstellar travel.

Sure, the aliens that decide to cross interstellar space may be the Cleatus of their species. Their technology may actually have reached the point of sentience and doesn’t require anything of its “makers”. But think of how advanced such a species would be, not to mention how arrogant (rightly or wrongly). There is no reason for them to look upon Earth and see humans as intelligent (e.g. climate change and reality TV). There is also no reason to believe that we’d even notice these aliens. An intelligent life-form travels between star systems, has the technology for that not to have taken billions and billions of years, and some dude with an out of focus camera is going to be the only person to see them?

So I think that humans are rather egotistical to think of ourselves as intelligent life in the universe. I also think that it is arrogant to believe that an alien species would regard us as intelligent. I also think that we’d have little chance of encountering intelligent alien life unless they wanted to be encountered. This is just my view, but the main thing is, Neil DeGrasse Tyson agrees with me (or is that I agree with him?):

sagan on tech

New Ultra Thin Diet

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In the tradition of nutritionists – the toothyologists of dietary advice – I have developed a new free diet plan to help people lose weight. Just like all other fad diets, my diet promises to help you lose weight or your money back. And just like other fad diets, I have come up with an overly simple way of losing weight that is guaranteed to not work in the long term.

Introducing the Dodgy Kebab Diet™

The relationship between an alcoholic binge-fest and a stop for a dodgy kebab before heading home has long been known. But have you ever wondered why it is that people don’t gain pudgy spare tires around their middle from their night of drunken debauchery? Well, thanks to not-science and pure speculation, I have discovered that it is the dodgy kebab that keeps people thin and ready for another night of drinking your paycheck.

You see, the dodgy kebab contains a quantum field of dietary entanglement. This means that the dodgy kebab sneaks up on all of that alcohol and redefines its aura, changing it from calories to vomit, which I call the Gastro™ effect.

Now this may work for the overindulgence evenings, but a diet has to be every day for 10 days or 1 dress size, so how can the Dodgy Kebab Diet™ work without the need to get plastered every day? Well, the dodgy kebab’s quantum field of dietary entanglement works just as well on your stomach lining as it does on alcohol.

The diet is very simple: eat one dodgy kebab per day for 10 days and I guarantee you will lose weight.* That’s it! You will feel better ** and look better ***.

Don’t just take my word for it: here is one of my satisfied victims customers.

Shane: I started the Dodgy Kebab Diet™, caught Gastro™ and lost 5kg.

With the Dodgy Kebab Diet™ you pay no money for access to my fully unqualified nutritionists (we’d have to be dieticians to be qualified). You only pay $59.95 per month for access to our extensive database of Dodgy Kebab Diet™ endorsed vendors. No need to spend every Saturday night wandering around to find the one with Gastro™. I’ve done all the research for you, compiling all the dodgy kebab vendors from the Food Safety Authority. All you have to do is send me $59.95 and I will send you the mobile phone app and simple instructions on how to get the most out of your bout of Gastro™.

What if kebabs aren’t my thing?
For an extra $9.95 I can include Chinese, Thai, and all of the least cooked chicken restaurants in your area.

Order now to avoid disappointment at eating well cooked food and gaining weight like a mug.

* We don’t guarantee weight loss on this diet.

** You will only feel better if you make it to the hospital emergency room on time.

*** Looking better is determinant upon surviving the food poisoning and proper application of makeup.

Thanks to Shane Nixon for helping inspire this diet.

Talent, ability and being awesome

born writer

Born to write? Born to be an athlete? Born to be a rocket scientist? People love to talk about “natural” ability or talent as the be all and end all of achievement. Since I actually own a genetics text book – it props up my DVD collection on the shelf – and once watched someone do manual labour, I feel qualified to comment on the talent vs. work debate.

Genetics is a big, complicated, topic, so I’m going to provide a facile overview of it. Genetics is that thing that means some people have higher baselines, are higher responders to training/learning, and are likely to achieve more (see this and read this for sports examples). For some the opposite is true, they have low baselines, don’t respond well to training/learning, and are likely to suck no matter what they do. There isn’t much you can do about your genetics, unless you happen to have a time machine and can play matchmaker to get better parents.

But that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to get good at stuff. Until you are tested and start training, you don’t really know what your “ability” is. And just because you might continue to suck, you will suck less than you did before, which means you will be better than those around you who didn’t even try. Take an example from sports – because people actually do science on athletes, the arts talk about their feelings too much – athletes tend to live longer than normal because they are more likely to be fitter, which lowers cardiovascular mortality. You don’t get fit sitting on a couch, watching TV, snacking on corn chips, in your underwear: you have to train.

So let’s take this into the writing field. You may have been born with a massive brain, nimble fingers, and an imagination that rivals college students tripping on acid, but that doesn’t mean much if you never learn to read, or write, or are too poor to have access to materials for writing, or the persistence to share that writing with the world. All that talent and ability counts for nothing if you don’t do something with it. You have to train. The difference between the talented individual and the untalented individual can often just be a lot of hard work by the untalented. I mean, who has sold more books: James Paterson or any of the Booker Prize winners?*

But let’s not get carried away. We have to acknowledge that any “talent” is a GxE interaction (genetics by environment interaction). Genetics, or that innate ability, is still a factor that we can’t dismiss, but so is the environment. So all of that skill development and training will come more easily, more quickly, and possibly progress further for some, but that isn’t an excuse for not doing the hard work.


See also: http://emilyjeanroche.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/WritingSkills.html

* Not that I’m insinuating that winning a Booker Prize actually makes you a talented or good writer. I actually use those prize lists to figure out what not to read.

TV shows airing in order

almost human

Recently I wrote about the TV shows that have been keeping me entertained, or at least giving my eyeballs some much-needed exercise. One of the TV shows I’d failed to get into was a little sci-fi on Fox called Almost Human. It appears that the reason I’d had trouble appreciating this new show is that Fox is up to its old tricks.

That’s right, Fox is airing the episodes of Almost Human out of order. And before you ask, I did check to see if Joss Whedon was in any way involved in the show: apparently not. So Fox can’t use the “we have to dick Joss’ show around” excuse, like they did with Firefly, Dollhouse, etc.

Obviously I’m not a highly paid TV executive, so my opinion on this topic is really inconsequential. Unless, of course, viewers of TV shows – that reason TV shows are made, aside from selling ad-space – are regarded as important in any way. Sure, I don’t have a degree in TV programming, but I would have thought airing a TV show in order would be the sensible thing to do. I’m not sure if the degree at MITV, the TV university located next to MIT, can be done online yet, but I would like to see their syllabus to get some idea of the inner workings of TV networks.

I know when I write a story I always like to start with the fifth chapter, then come back to the second chapter after I’ve written six or so chapters. I especially like to do this in a story which has a lot of new stuff in it, like sci-fi, and where there is any sort of story arc. This way you can really do your best to alienate readers and confuse them.

Not being privy to the inner workings of TV networks, it is hard to say exactly why they would do this, or how often they do this. With some TV shows you just wouldn’t notice. Take a formulaic story capsule like CSI Wherever. There isn’t usually an episode or season spanning story line; dead bodies show up, someone puts on glasses after making a pun, someone wears a lab coat near some magic ‘science’ boxes, they get the bad guy to confess during a flashback. So you would never know if they were aired out-of-order – which also raises the idea of them actually having an order to begin with. This is the sort of show you could just chop and change around to suit whatever excuse is used for butchering a show. But you can’t do this to a serialised TV show.

This isn’t just about annoying and confusing viewers. This isn’t about the disdain the TV executives are showing toward the show’s fanbase, you know, those people they need to sell stuff to. This is about a lack of respect for the creators of the show, especially the writers. Someone has gone to the trouble of crafting a story, an episodic story that needs to build upon previous instalments in order to continue to attract fans. Almost Human has enough of a “stand-alone” nature to the show to not be damaged too much by the lack of continuity (WTF is ‘the wall’??) but plenty of shows have been damaged or destroyed by these sorts of airing decisions.

Bring back Firefly!

Other articles on this:

http://seriable.com/almost-human-episodes-airing-order/

http://sciencefiction.com/2013/12/13/almost-human-airs-order-sign-cancellation/

Total Recall: the movie, the movie, or the book?

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At the moment there is a lot of talk about Paul Verhoeven’s ‘trilogy’ of sci-fi movies being remade. I think the terms used to discuss the remakes are stupid, banal, and facile. Verhoeven made three fantastic social satires, that were also science fiction action films: Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers*. Okay, only two were fantastic, Starship Troopers was stupid. They were also all made at a time when you could make a grossly violent film and not be shunned by cinemas and TV in favour of PG13 violence – you know, the violence that is heavy on explosions and pew-pew noises, but light on the consequences of that violence, which raises kids to believe that violence doesn’t hurt anyone.

Robocop: The Reboot has just hit the cinemas, spurring people the internet over to complain about a movie they haven’t seen (new Robocop), a movie that hasn’t been made yet (new Starship Troopers – not to be confused with Super Troopers), and how terrible the recent Total Recall movie was. Anyone would think that Colin Farrell had personally shagged Arnie’s housekeeper the way they talk about the Total Recall remake.

So I did something unthinkable: I rewatched the remake, the Verhoeven/Schwarzenhamneggnburger version, and read the Phillip K Dick short story (or is it a novella?). The reason for doing so? Because these remakes were being derided so heavily. Nothing inspires people to touch wet paint like putting a wet paint sign on it.

Let’s start with the Total Recall remake. It is an action film: good start. It is a sci-fi: in that it doesn’t have a talking dragon in it, thus it can’t be fantasy, despite the lack of ‘science’ in the science fiction, making it closer to fantasy. It has half decent actors in it: I’d watch just about anything with Kate Beckinsale in it since seeing Shooting Fish, as long as the movie doesn’t have Ben Affleck in it – yes that one, let us not speak it’s name. It also appears to have a plot: I could be mistaken.

As a film the Total Recall remake is fine. All the right things explode, all the good guys live, all the bad guys die horribly, most of the needless violence is against robots so we don’t get caught up in the mass genocide that the hero performs. As an adaptation of the short story, you could be forgiven for thinking the film makers only read the first few pages; much like the original movie. As compared to the original Total Recall, it is a pale, facile shadow.

The Arnie version worked as both a straight up action movie, but also had a much better secondary plot about whether it was all happening or all in his head. This part is what makes the original movie closer to a Phillip K Dick adaptation than the new movie. Although the original movie being closer to the source material is probably because the screenwriter and Verhoeven had read the dust jacket of the story, whereas Len Wiseman and his screenwriter just took Verhoeven’s word for it that there was an original story to base the movie upon.

Dick’s story actually has a really funny and interesting twist ending, which neither movie used because the movies and story diverge at about the time when Doug Quaid (Quail in the book) arrives home after visiting Rekall. In fact, We Can Remember If For You Wholesale bears so little resemblance to the movies that you’d more call it an inspiration for them rather than source material. I don’t have a problem with this, as long as they handed Dick a great big check, maybe a signed picture of Arnie to go with it, maybe some Planet Hollywood shares as well.

The movies are both good fun, both are entertaining, both are well made, both had dubious understandings of physics. There is nothing wrong with the new movie as a piece of entertainment. But it won’t last the way the original movie has. This comes down to Verhoeven’s handling of the secondary plot, which might as well not exist in the remake. I certainly look forward to the even more facile Total Recall movie that will come out in another 20 years, which will probably not even have a three boobed woman in it.

* I could write an entire essay on how Heinlein’s original novel differed from the movie and how its social comment was far deeper and insightful than the movie.

Sony exits ebook biz

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are these things called electronic books now, e-books for short. Now these are brand new (invented 1971, possibly as early as 1949) and understandably the devices to read them are even newer (first e-reader released 1998). So it may come as a shock to many of you that quite a few people read e-books on e-readers now instead of paper books. It will come as even more of a shock to you that the Sony e-reader has become a thing of the past.

That’s right my fellow book lovers – lovers in the adoration sense, not in the brace yourself, oh yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh, chikka bow-wow, sense – it appears that Sony has decided it doesn’t want a dedicated e-reader, in fact it doesn’t even want an e-book store. They have announced that they are pulling out and customers are being transferred to the Kobo store.

Of course, I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised by this decision. Raise your hand if you’ve ever actually seen a Sony e-reader. Now keep it up if you’ve actually owned one. If you can see anyone with their hand still raised, I’d question how you manage to turn people’s web cams on. Sony has been playing at the bottom end of the market for e-readers and e-books for quite a while now. The chart below from Goodreads shows Sony were picking up Kobo’s scraps in the market.

So what does this mean for us readers? Well, it means the big dedicated e-readers remain, the Kindle and Nook. It also means Kobo could pick up a bit more of the e-reader and e-book market. But that isn’t particularly interesting to me, I’ll discuss why in a moment. What is interesting is the Sony e-reader is probably the victim of the modern device market.

I read an interesting tech article that was discussing mobile phones. They pointed out that the companies making money on phones weren’t actually making money on the phone sales, especially at the mid to lower price points, but instead cashing in on the app stores and downloads. The phone is a loss leader for the software business they run. Nokia and their deal with Microsoft is a classic example of this, with Nokia battling to compete for market share and profits.

Translate that to e-readers and the same thing applies. It was even worse for Sony, as the other competitors were/are selling their Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc, as a loss leader to get people using their store or affiliates. This meant that the big stores attract the users, who buy the associated tech, which locks them to the stores (to some extent at least), leading to e-book sales profits. Terrific! As long as you don’t think too hard about the slave labour making the devices.

The reason I don’t find the market positioning of the e-reader devices of much interest is down to a few things. The first is a little statistic that has been showing up in surveys from Goodreads and The Pew Institute; namely that 29-37% of people read books on their phone (23% on a tablet). A dedicated reading device is only really in the book space now because the e-reader screen has less eye fatigue. At the moment! Watch this bubble burst as phones and tablets eat away at the readability technology, such that e-reader screens become redundant. Mobile devices also don’t have to be linked to any one e-book store, so interesting times are on the horizon.

Another view on e-readers future: http://techland.time.com/2013/01/04/dont-call-the-e-reader-doomed/

Isabel Allende’s scorn for genre fiction

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Literature vs Genre: jetpack wins!

There is a storm brewing. In the latest of the long line of insults by literary fiction against genre fiction, Isabel Allende has taken a pot shot at crime fiction. Now apparently she hates crime fiction because:

It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people.

But that didn’t stop her writing a crime mystery. It also didn’t stop her saying that the book was a joke and ironic. I think the word she was actually looking for was hypocrite.

I’ve never really understood the people who read or write stuff they don’t enjoy. Sure, I read some really boring science journal articles, but that’s because I enjoy knowing stuff. If I’m going to sit down and read a book, I want that 10-20 hours of entertainment to be, well, entertaining. If I’m writing, which is a much longer and more involved process, why would I invest that much time in something I’m not enjoying doing?

So to some extent, I understand why Isabel decided that her mystery had to be a joke and ironic. But that is also the crux of the problem, she doesn’t seem to understand that she is also insulting readers and fans of genre fiction. I think the book store in Houston, Murder by the Book, that had ordered 20 signed copies of her novel, did the right thing in sending them back.

Now you can write a satirical or ironic take on a particular genre or sub-genre of fiction. But when you do so it has to be because of your love of all those little things you’re taking the piss out of. If you do it out of hate then you can’t turn around and try to sell it to the audience you are taking a pot shot at. I think this stuff is stupid, you’re stupid for reading it, but I still want you to pay me for insulting you.

I get a little sick of snobbishness toward genre readers and writers. Do genre readers and writers take pot shots at literary authors for their lack of plots, characters who have to own a cat and be suffering, and writing that is there to fill pages with words and not actually tell a story? No. We’re too busy reading something exciting.

It would be great if people just enjoyed what they enjoyed and stopped criticising others for enjoying what they enjoy. Enjoy.

See also:

http://www.fictorians.com/2013/03/04/literary-vs-genre-fiction-whats-all-the-fuss-about/

Music that lasts

I was recently having a discussion about Zeitgeist. No, not the concept of a spirit of the age or spirit of the time, I mean the 2007 album from the (not) Smashing Pumpkins. I’ve been a massive fan of the Smashing Pumpkins’ music since about 1994 (wow, 20 years!) but have to say that Zeitgeist was the last of their albums I bought and I don’t listen to it, Ava Adore (1998), nor Machina (2000). Essentially, I’m no longer a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, I’m a fan of their early work only.

What amazes me is you can listen to Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993), Mellon Collie (1995), even their b-sides album Pieces Iscariot (1994), and they still hold up really well. With the exception of the song Untitled (from their retrospective Rotten Apples, 2001) and maybe Tarantula (from Zeitgeist), the Smashing Pumpkins haven’t released a song or album that compares to any of the material on those early albums. With the more recent material the songs sound unfinished. When old b-sides sound better than your new a-sides, you really have to question what you’re doing.

But this isn’t just about the Smashing Pumpkins, name a Rolling Stones song released in the last 30 years (i.e. everything post Dirty Work from 1983). Can’t, can you!? They’ve released 5 studio albums and countless – well you can count them, but who cares to – live and collection albums in that time. Fans everywhere dread this announcement at a Rolling Stones concert, “And here’s a song from our new album.”

There are a few factors at play here: the idea of talent and inspiration meeting, the idea that even great artists can’t continue at that elite level indefinitely, and the idea that some art is transitory whilst some is timeless. I’ll leave the first two points for another day, the latter point gives me an opportunity to insult pop music.

Some art, music, TV, movies, books, etc, rise through the charts, become hugely popular, and dominate the media. Then a few years later everyone is embarrassed to talk about those artists and art, digging a deep pit of denial to throw those pieces of crap where they will never be found again. I’ve discussed this before in my article on Good versus Popular, suggesting that popular music/art/things aren’t necessarily good and that time and perspective sort the wheat out from the chaff. Some of the music we enjoy is just because it is played everywhere we go. Some music just filled a hole in the age bracket or life journey, such as Limp Bizkit for all the angry teens, or Placebo with their dark depressing (teen) angst music. A decade on and you’d battle to find anyone who would admit to having bought a Limp Bizkit album, and when I recently relistened to those albums I wondered how I ever listened to that junk.

So what music (or art) lasts? Is it immediately obvious? What lasts isn’t easy to define, because I would never have picked Yellow Submarine to last in the same way that Get Back has. A kid’s song versus a satire of attitudes to immigration in the UK. Would we even listen to Yellow Submarine now if it hadn’t been a Beatles song or bland and inoffensive enough be played to us as kids in primary school? I digress. I think the answer to what will last is often, but not always, immediately obvious. And what lasts is rarely categorised by the prefix* pop.

Take for example everyone’s current objects of pop music derision: Justin Bieber (or Miley Cyrus, whichever you prefer to hate more). Bieber’s music is popular, he’s famous as a result, and I don’t think anyone would argue that his music will be forgotten in 5 years time and laughed at in 10, much like The Spice Girls. Remember them? Me neither. We** already know his music won’t last. And how about an example of something that will stand the test of time…. Wow, this is the part where I admit I’m a metal fan and haven’t listened to ‘commercial’ music in over a decade. I’d say Daft Punk’s most recent work will last, but they have been around for over a decade now, so hard to call them a new artist.

But I will give you another prediction, Pearl Jam will be my generation’s Rolling Stones. They will be still touring long after anyone has realised they still record new albums. And people will go to see them live because of those first few albums that everyone loved and still loves.

Essentially I think that lasting comes down to quality. I’m not talking about the recording studio, production values, or hair gel and dance routines. I’m talking about the quality that arises from talent and inspiration meeting. Bob Dylan’s songs had terrible production and his voice sounds like someone gargling gravel, whilst strangling a cat as their foot is fed into a wood chipper. Yet he had talent and inspiration, subsequently capturing the zeitgeist and lasting (see what I did there). But that music/art has to find a fanbase, whether immediately, or growing it over time as Led Zeppelin did. Now the only question remains: which is better, to last or to grab the headlines for 15 minutes?***

* Yeah, I know, not actually a prefix, more of a noun or adjective dependant upon the context.
** Having not ever heard any of Justin Bieber’s music and only accidentally heard part of a Miley Cyrus song at the gym, I can’t actually judge how good or bad their music is and how long it will last. I’m basing my judgement upon what has happened with previous pop stars.
*** The answer is easy: to last. If everyone forgets your 15 minutes did you even have those 15 minutes?

Entertaining TV of 2013

With many of my favourite shows now back on air for 2014, except the ones that were cancelled, I thought it was a good time to recap what kept me entertained on the small screen in 2013.

Many people have noted the rise of decent TV, leaving behind the days of formulaic plots (e.g. CSI whatever), sit coms that lack the comedy (e.g. Two and A Half Men), dramas that lack plot (e.g. Lost), lame reality TV shows (e.g. Duck Dynasty), and the cancellation of a Joss Whedon show before it got a chance to be awesome (e.g. every show he’s ever made). This is at the same time as movies have failed to produce anything particularly memorable or interesting in quite some time.

I actually have a theory (by theory I mean hypothesis) about why there are fewer and fewer decent movies. It comes down to this little figure:
gender-inequality-in-filmLet’s leave aside the gross disparity between the highest paid actor vs. actress discussion, instead let’s focus on those paychecks. You stick just one of those stars in a movie, just one, and you are going to have a really expensive movie that is going to battle make its money back at the box office. Movie studios know this, so they spend up big on special effects, production values, promotion, etc, to lure people into the cinema. But in an effort to attract as large an audience as possible to make up for this huge spend, they make the movies as bland as possible in order to accommodate a wide audience from around the world. The reason that movie sucks isn’t because it is aimed at 12 year olds, its aimed at 12 year olds who probably don’t understand idioms due to being in a different country/culture.

And this is why we get a list of gems on the small screen, because the writers, directors, and quite a few actors, have realised that in order to tell good stories, they can’t spend huge dollars (unless it is on prime time crap).

Justified

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Possibly my favourite show of the past few years. This is not only well written, the entire cast and crew seem to have this knack for creating great TV. Plus, last season featured Patton Oswalt.

Sherlock

I love this show for its wit, humour, modernising of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories, and the casting. Some have accused it of being smug, but I see that as central to Sherlock’s character, thus welcome in the show.

Luther

I read the prequel novel by series writer Neil Cross and it was every bit as good as the TV show. Idris Elba took a break from fighting monsters in giant robot suits in order to make another season of this fantastic crime drama.

Banshee

When I describe this show to friends, they always come away thinking that I’ve described a violent, b-grade, action movie with plenty of nudity. Just another throw back to the pulp novel trash that I also have occasion to read. Well, yes. The problem being? The best new show on TV in 2013, hands down!

Person of Interest

I really enjoyed the first season of Person of Interest. The second season was more of the same but brought more of the very interesting character portrayed by Amy Acker. Season 3 was off to a good start before the non-ratings break. Now that I’ve raised that point, why do we even have a non-ratings period any more? TV watching habits have changed, the networks better change with the times or lose out to the internet… oh wait, they are.

Continuum

I discovered this sci-fi gem by accident. One of the problems I’ve always had with time travel in books, TV and movies is that they don’t deal with the paradox very well. Even in Back to the Future it is almost played for a joke. This series is well written and actually has the paradox central to its story structure. It also helps that Rachel Nichols does a good job of holding the series together.

Revolution

Another post-apocalyptic story, ho-hum. This series has an interesting take on what would be society’s downfall and what would subsequently happen. There is a lot to like about this show, especially Billy Burke as a bad-ass. Although, after the first season, I didn’t see much point in having a second season and won’t be following it.

Arrow

This is one of the few mainstream shows I find watchable. It is pretty much down to the fact that they have some good fights, an interesting premise culled from the source material, and that the actors have done the hard yards physically for the show (especially Stephen Amell and Manu Bennett). Makes me want to build a salmon ladder in my backyard.

H+

Not often that a web series could attract a big name director like Bryan Singer (of the decent X-Men movies fame) to make a series of short scene sci-fi. I’d characterise the series as essentially 48 vignettes with overlapped characters and story, as most episodes can stand alone to some extent, despite being part of a larger narrative.

Archer

Quite simply, this show is the funniest thing on TV. In the proud tradition of cartoon comedies, it is able to do things that other TV shows and comedies can’t, due to financial, legal or ethical constraints. This series is also one of the few with DVD extras that you would actually want to watch. One of the best is when Archer has an accident and is transformed into a character much more like his voice actor, with ensuing gags around this.

Rake

This Aussie comedy-drama has been a consistently witty and interesting tale about a self-destructive Sydney barrister. Normally Aussie humour doesn’t translate well to other parts of the world, but Rake has been adapted for the USA, with Greg Kinnear replacing Richard Roxburgh.

Tried but lost interest:

Almost Human – promising sci-fi that didn’t really capture my attention

The Walking Dead – so sick of that fucking farm!

Marvel’s Agents of Shield – this should have been good, but was meh.

The Booth At The End – interesting premise but didn’t grab me.

The Following – I can honestly say that this series squandered such a great premise with derivative and clichéd story.

The Blacklist – this was interesting only because of James Spader. Needed more than that.

Vikings – interesting but too slow moving.

Hannibal – this was fantastic. I don’t know why I haven’t watched more, but I just haven’t.

What!?! You don’t watch….

The Game of Thrones – after watching the first season I had had enough. You only have to watch this far to see Sean Bean die, so game over.

Breaking Bad – I’ve dropped in and out on this series, watching episodes throughout. I’ve really enjoyed it, but not something I’ve made time to watch all of.

Arrested Development – yeah, I know. I should be a rabid fan.

The Killing – both the US and the Danish Forbrydelsen are slow boil crime shows that I’ve started watching and not continued. No particular reason for stopping, just haven’t gotten to the rest of the episodes yet.

Borgen – have heard great things, but just haven’t gotten to it yet.

Mythtaken: Shark Attack Deaths

Ever since Spielberg made us scared of seeing any more Indiana Jones films, people have felt better about blaming him for the hysteria around sharks.

shark tears

Recently in my home state of Western Australia there has been a decision made to cull sharks because some people have been killed by them. Clearly we should blame sharks for just wanting a hug and not humans for dressing up like shark food. This is a stupid decision and I’m about to outline why we can’t even tell if there have been more shark deaths, let alone whether a cull would actually work, let alone whether you’d know if the cull does anything. It all comes down to statistics. Well, that and media beat-ups to sell advertising space.

You’d honestly think that there had been a change in the number of people dying in Australia from shark attacks in order to justify a shark cull. Well, the official stats show there hasn’t been an increase in deaths from shark attacks. In fact the deaths are so low the noise around the long term average of 1.38 deaths per annum (2000-2012), that any increase or decrease in deaths are impossible to assign any significance to (see chart below). Three deaths in a year (2000): could be an anomaly. Zero deaths the year after (2001): likely to be regression to the mean. Number of deaths from the most ferocious animal on the planet: bees; 10 per year.

Graph of Aussie shark attacks 2000-2012. Blue is total encounters, yellow is non-fatal, red is fatal. Trend lines for total and fatal.

Graph of Aussie shark attacks 2000-2012. Blue is total encounters, yellow is non-fatal, red is fatal. Trend lines for total and fatal.

What you do see in the data is a slight increase in the number of attacks. If you look at the number of attacks and fatalities since 1900, there has been a general increase in the number of shark attacks, but a decrease in the fatalities from shark attacks. It’s almost as though there are more people in the world and more of them bobbing up and down in the ocean in seal costumes, possibly on a tasty cracker.

graph 2 shark attacks since 1900 by decade

International Shark Attack File data, Florida Museum of Natural History

Now this is interesting for the world and Australia, as it appears that despite our best efforts as humans, sharks aren’t taking revenge for the 100 million of them we kill each year. But this is about a shark cull in Western Australia: what’s happening there? Well, these tables say it all really:

Unprovoked Cases Since 1791:

State # Cases Fatal Injured Uninjured Last Fatality
NSW 243 68 (27.9%) 120 55 2013 Coffs Harbour
QLD 251 82 (32.7%) 151 18 2011 Fantome Island
WA 92 20 (21.7%) 57 15 2013 Gracetown
SA 48 18 (37.5%) 23 7 2011 Coffin Bay
VIC 45 9 (20%) 27 9 1987 Mornington Peninsula
TAS 15 3 (20%) 8 4 1993 Tenth Is, Georgetown
NT 10 2 (Duh) 6 2 1938 Bathurst Island
Total 704 202 (28.7%) 392 110 (Revised  28/1/2014)

Provoked Cases Since 1832:

# Cases Fatal Injured Uninjured
Total 190 15 129 46

Western Australia accounts for ~13% of shark attack deaths. When we look at 2012 data we see that WA is having a greater proportion of the Australian attacks and accounts for all the fatalities in Australia. The terms “bigger population”, “longer coastline”, “more cashed up bogans come to mind.

Australian Shark Encounter Statistics for 2012:

State Cases Recorded Fatal Injured Uninjured
NSW 5 0 3 2
QLD 1 0 1 0
SA 1 0 1 0
WA 5 2 2 1
VIC 1 0 1 0
TAS 1 0 1 0
NT 0 0 0 0
TOTAL – Unprovoked 14 2 9 3
TOTAL – Provoked 8 0 5 3
All Cases 22 2 14 6

So there is no actual proof that there are any more deaths occurring from shark attacks, definitely no trend toward more deaths, but a significant increase in the number of media reports on those deaths (citation needed). Even on a state by state basis there isn’t any death trend. But there is a trend towards more shark incidents. What we are actually seeing is an increase in the number of people dressing up like seals/shark food (scuba divers and surfers).

Circumstances affecting shark / human interactions:
The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year correlates with human population increases and the amount of time humans spend in the shark’s environment. As Australia’s population continues to increase and interest in aquatic recreation rises, it would realistically be expected that there will be an increase in the number of shark encounters.

Let’s put that in perspective, Australians have a 1 in 3,362 chance of drowning at the beach and a 1 in 292,525 chance of being killed by a shark in one’s entire lifetime. In Australia there are 1.38 deaths per year from sharks, 121 deaths per year from drowning at the beach, and 1,193 deaths per year from driving. We’re more likely to die from all the stupid shit we do, than from sharks. So why have a shark cull?

There is no real reason to have a shark cull. We already kill 100 million of the things annually anyway. What we actually need to do is look at where the sharks are looking for food, has their food moved, if so due to what, and are we seeing less shark food available such that sharks are looking for alternate foods. The shark cull with drum lines and nets is actually likely to kill off dolphins, turtles, rays, and endangered shark species, which is why fisheries researchers don’t support the cull.

Update: I neglected to mention that other states in Australia have been using baiting and nets, in the case of Queensland, since 1962, and since 1937 in New South Wales. Reports are not complimentary of the Queensland nor New South Wales programs. To quote:

…the Fisheries Scientific Committee is of the opinion that the current shark meshing program in New South Wales waters’ adversely affects two or more threatened species, populations or ecological communities and could cause species, populations or ecological communities that are not threatened to become threatened.

And (okay, I’ve cherry picked this a bit, read the whole report on how we are overfishing, killing shitloads of sharks, destroying the fisheries and adding baiting on top of this):

The main pressures on grey nurse sharks appear to be fishing activities and shark control programs……. The biological susceptibility of sharks to over fishing, evidence for increasing fishing pressure and lack of information have given rise to increasing concern about the sharks and rays of the Reef.

Essentially shark baiting, whilst paling in comparison to the 100 million sharks killed for their fins annually, is another pressure that endangered species don’t need. Especially when the baiting is still killing other endangered animals, not just sharks.

For more, read these articles:

https://theconversation.com/wa-shark-frenzy-how-to-stop-a-runaway-train-22669

http://www.nature.com/news/australian-shark-cull-plan-draws-scientists-ire-1.14373

http://www.taasfa.com/No-Shark-Nets.html

https://theconversation.com/western-australias-shark-culls-lack-bite-and-science-21371

https://theconversation.com/cull-or-be-killed-is-this-really-the-solution-to-stop-shark-attacks-3961

http://tysonadams.com/2013/10/16/mythtaken-shark-attacks/

http://tysonadams.com/2011/10/24/shark-attack/

4 Reasons to Make Your Email Public

I read a blog post recently that suggested it is a good idea to make your email address publicly available on your webpage (and elsewhere). This is a great idea. The blog author listed 4 reasons, so I’ll list another 4.

Because everyone needs an extra couple of inches on their penis.
Even if you are a woman. Maybe especially if you are a woman.

How will SEO marketers contact you without your email?
Except via the comments and domain registry information.

Nigerian Royalty could be trying to contact you.
I hear they need to give away money to people they don’t know.

From See Mike Draw. Become a fan NOW!

From See Mike Draw. Become a fan NOW!

Because there is no such thing as social media and direct messaging.
I mean, who even has a Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+, etc, account these days? And there are definitely no features that allow you to privately contact the person via those mediums.

Will individuals respond differently to homeopathic remedies prepared with unboiled vs. boiled water?

I recently watched a debate between Ben Goldacre and Peter Fischer on homeopathy. During the course of the debate, an audience member asked, “If water has a memory, how come you’re not sick every time you drink water out of the tap?.

A homeopathic practitioner answered (paraphrased) that boiling the water resets the memory and that homeopathic remedies are only effective when using boiled water. He makes another comment implying that if a remedy were prepared with tap water, it wouldn’t be effective.

I realize the above related question (“Does water have a memory…?”) is nearly identical. I’m trying to ask it another way as it’s possible to persist with the water memory concept despite the other question’s answer. One could simply say (my hypothetical response),

“Well, we don’t know how it works and perhaps it isn’t by the known mechanism of how water behaves… but trials indicate that it works, nonetheless and that’s all I need.”

Since the audience member in the video indicated tangible predictions, I’m interested if they’ve ever been put to the test. Thus, my question is:

Has a trial ever been conducted in which homeopathic remedies prepared from both unboiled and boiled water were compared against one another in terms of patient response?

If there is another way to answer this question please go for it.

Answer:

It really doesn’t make any difference if the water is boiled or not, homeopathy doesn’t work.

The Minimum Dose and Avagadro’s Number The second and most controversial tenet in homeopathy is that remedies retain biological activity if they are diluted in a series (usually in a 1:10 or 1:100 diluent–volume ratio) and agitated or shaken between each dilution. Hahnemann began this process to reduce toxicity, but later he claimed that this “potenization” process extracted the “vital” or “spirit-like” nature of these substances (2). The limit of molecular dilution (Avagadro’s number) was not discovered until the later part of Hahnemann’s life; by then homeopaths all over the world were reporting that even very high potencies (dilutions lower than Avagadro’s number) produced clinical effects. The implausibility of such claims has led many to dismiss any evidence of homeopathy’s effectiveness as artifact or delusion (3). http://www.annals.org/content/138/5/393.full

But lets pretend for a moment that water does have memory. The aspect of boiling has not been researched. A search of Google Scholar nets no results for boiling and homeopathy. When referring to “how-to” guides of preparations it becomes obvious that homeopaths are merely after clean or unpolluted water to make their preparations in.

Ingredients … 1/2 or 1 litre of boiled water (distilled water may be bought at pharmacies in some countries, if you want that, and bottled, rinsed water is commonly sold in groceries too)

Another example:

Preparing your own bottle: Boil the glass bottle and dropper in filtered water for 15 min. and let it cool completely. Fill it just to the neck with filtered or distilled water.

So clearly the idea that boiling is the only way to reset the water is not backed up by the practices employed by homeopaths themselves. This combined with the fraudulent claim that water retains memory shows that this is another misdirection to allow justification.

Is GM corn toxic?

According to Vendomois et al, 2009:

these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn.

Monsanto, the manufacturer of two of the studied strains of GM corn, responded, dismissing the article, particularly by criticizing the statistical methods used. Is Monsanto’s criticism valid?

Have their been additional studies done that either support or refute the claim that genetically-modified corn has toxic effects?

Answer:

The simple answer is no.

GM corn has the BT gene that allows lower use of pesticides due to increased or the RR gene that allows the use of glyphosate for weed control. Neither of these alterations have any impacts upon the production of sugars or proteins in the plant. http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef130.asp

The problem that can arise is from the pesticides that are now used on the crops and the timing of their application. These pesticides are known to harm mammals and if the dose is high enough can cause problems. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793308/

Generally though, because you are removing pests and weeds the plants tend to be healthier so they are less impacted by pathogens, thus better for consumption. http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.962/news_detail.asp

There is an issue with using corn as a feed supplement in animals though. Corn is not a complete food source and is generally low in protein, especially tryptophan. This means that a feed mix is required, not just straight corn meal. http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/ansci/beef/as1238w.htm

Another issue is that corn can cause Pellagra. This is due to the niacin and B12 being bound in the corn starches and not being released in normal digestion. Tryptophan is also low in corn and can cause Pellagra.

So the problems often cited with GM corn are actually just problems with corn itself. Neither are harmful, if used correctly in a balanced diet, but pesticide residues are of concern. For more see this: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.0960-7412.2002.001607.x/full

Another point that should be made is that the paper cited is from a notorious “research” group who produce shoddy science in order to further their biased agenda against GM technology. The big problem with the paper is that it uses the wrong sort of analysis and the data has already been analysed by two other papers and found to say the opposite of what this paper says. Essentially, if you do a statistical test with a 95% confidence margin, you are saying that you have one chance in twenty of being wrong because of natural variability. So if you measure 20 variables with separate tests, you are likely to have one be a false positive result. Measure 40 with separate tests, 2 false positives. This is what the research group did, set up the stats to generate lots of false positives, instead of analysing the data correctly with tests that account for this problem. It should be noted that this is a common problem/tactic with anti-GM research papers.

Additional question: The ACSH source claims Studies Indicate GM Crops Are Safer and Healthier, but last time ACSH reported their funding, they were co-funded by what are now GMO companies. Currently they are not open about their funding at all. Therefore, their independence cannot be established. Can you back up the claim by research where all funding sources are open and independent? – gerrit

Reply: Of course there is plenty of independent data. gmopundit.blogspot.com/ has an entire series devoted to the safety studies of GM crops. The highly respected journal Nature had an entire edition devoted to the topic. But that is beside the point, the underlying mechanism of the Bt is not one that works on humans (it is even sprayed on organic farms). We don’t have an alkaline stomach to activate the chemical (ditto some insects it doesn’t impact either) which means it can’t do anything. So the concerns are completely misplaced.

Is EPA-approved insecticide (clothianidin) responsible for killing off bees?

recent article in NaturalNews claims that last year there were leaked documents exposing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) illegitimately approved toxic pesticide clothianidin for use, while being aware it might kill bees.

Now, the article says, there’s a new study by Purdue University that confirms that clothianidin is actually killing off bees, and that it’s spread has become systematic in the entire food chain.

The entire report is available online via PubMed: Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields

The article goes on to warn about the consequenses of all this:

Without bees, which are now dying off at an alarming rate due to exposure to clothianidin and various other insecticides and fungicides, one third or more of the food supply will be destroyed, including at least 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables that rely on bees for pollination.

The claim is that if people in US don’t do something to stop the bees from dying, at least one third of the food supply (in the US) will be destroyed. Because bees are dying. Which is the caused mainly by clothianidin. Which is in use because of EPA’s failure or corruption.

Is this information accurate? Or does the article misrepresent the situation somehow? Is the study legitimate?

Related: Are Bees Disappearing and Why

Answer:

Clothianidin is similar to imidacloprid, being of the same chemical group of insecticides and both being linked to bee population decline (Colony Collapse Disorder – CCD).

There is controversy over the role of neonicotinoids in relation to pesticide toxicity to bees and imidacloprid effects on bee population. Neonicotinoid use has been strictly limited in France since the 1990s, when neonicotinoids were implicated in a mass die-off of the bee population. It is believed by some to account for worker bees’ neglecting to provide food for eggs and larvae, and for a breakdown of the bees’ navigational abilities, possibly leading to what has become generally known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Low concentrations of imidicloprid and clothianidin have impacts upon bees’ ability to forage and return to the hive.

The results show that almost all the control honey bees returned to the hive, and started again visiting the feeder between 2 to 5 hours after the release. Honey bees fed with the concentration of 100 ppb also returned to the hive, but they returned to visit the feeder only 24 hours after the release. Honey bees fed with 500 ppb and 1000 ppb completely disappeared after the release, and they were not seen during the following 24 hours, neither at the hive nor at the feeding site.

But neonicotinoid insecticides are only one of of many things impacting upon bees, and most research indicates that it is a combination of factors that is behind CCD.

The most recent report (USDA – 2010) states that “based on an initial analysis of collected bee samples (CCD- and non-CCD affected), reports have noted the high number of viruses and other pathogens, pesticides, and parasites present in CCD colonies, and lower levels in non-CCD colonies. This work suggests that a combination of environmental stressors may set off a cascade of events and contribute to a colony where weakened worker bees are more susceptible to pests and pathogens.”[20] Applying proteomics-based pathogen screening tools in 2010, researchers announced they had identified a co-infection of invertebrate iridescent virus type 6 (IIV-6) and the fungus Nosema ceranae in all CCD colonies sampled. (Quoted from Wiki, original USDA report linked above)

So this issue is much larger than any one chemical group and is about environmental management and pesticide usage in general. Most insecticides will kill bees, especially with direct contact. Bees are only one of several pollination vectors in the world, so while they are important, this scare campaign is misguided. What is actually needed is further understanding of CCD, bee breeding programs and management strategies that will actually deal with this issue.

Also, as a general rule of thumb, just about anything that appears on Natural News is likely to be wrong.

Update: A paper published in the middle of last year has some interesting results that could indicate a/the driver of CCD in horticulture. Essentially the article shows that bees don’t just forage on one farm, instead collecting pollen from the surrounding area as they see fit. As such, they come back with all sorts of pollens and all sorts of pesticides and fungicides. It is this combination of pesticides and fungicides in the bees’ found that appears to make the bees a bit sick, so they are more likely to get lost whilst foraging or get infected with mites and fungi. Note the lack of worry about clothianidin and other neonicotinoids, but rather the fungicides being the big problem. To quote:

Our results show that beekeepers need to consider not only pesticide regimens of the fields in which they are placing their bees, but also spray programs near those fields that may contribute to pesticide drift onto weeds. The bees in our study collected pollen from diverse sources, often failing to collect any pollen from the target crop (Fig. 1). All of the non-target pollen that we were able to identify to genus or species was from wildflowers (Table S1), suggesting the honey bees were collecting significant amounts of pollen from weeds surrounding our focal fields.

This indicates that beekeepers and horticultural farmers don’t appear to be respecting withholding periods for agricultural sprays the way they should. Partly because the bees are foraging where they don’t expect them to and partly because they haven’t correctly planned sprays and pollination. It will be interesting to see if these results are backed up by more causative work, although I’m not sure it will apply to broadacre farming (does that mean CCD is mainly a horticulture and small hectare farming issue?).

Global warming and mild winters

Does global warming make for milder winters? What about specifically North America?

(You often hear people extol global warming for giving us mild winters. Is there evidence of a causal link?)

Two examples claims of global warming causing mild winters in New York, and Tibet are linked in the comments. However, my question is whether this is a global phenomenon.

Answer:

This is a tricky question to answer because weather, what you experience at your house right now, is not really that same thing as climate, the patterns of global air and sea movements that bring weather.

So milder winters can be a possibility in certain locations, as they will be exposed to an overall warming of the entire atmosphere. But colder winters can be experienced.

Since the mid 1970s, global temperatures have been warming at around 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. However, weather imposes its own dramatic ups and downs over the long term trend. We expect to see record cold temperatures even during global warming. Nevertheless over the last decade, daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows. This tendency towards hotter days is expected to increase as global warming continues into the 21st Century.

Vladimir Petoukhov, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has recently completed a study on the effect of climate change on winter. According to Petoukhov,

These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia. Recent severe winters like last year’s or the one of 2005-06 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it.

Weather being a local response to climatic conditions means that you have to understand what has changed in the climatic patterns in your region. What are your local weather drivers? How have they changed since the 1970s?

Thus, you could end up with some areas experiencing colder winters; due to greater moisture levels in the air, more precipitation of snow, greater heat loss at night due to clear skies, etc. Or you could have an area that will experience milder temps in winter due to warmer air currents, warmer oceans, localised heat island impacts, etc.

For further information you should investigate the weather and climate agencies publications for your area.

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