Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

The pros and cons of owning a toddler

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Pro: They are easy to entertain with just about anything.
Con: They want to turn everything you own into a sticky, finger-mark covered, toy.

Pro: They make charming noises as they play, running around being delighted by any and everything.
Con: They make noise the entire time about any and everything, usually at ear splitting volumes.

Pro: You’ll have so many social events to attend that you’ll be flat out partying.
Con: All of those social events involve other people’s toddlers, usually mashing food into the carpet.

Pro: You will have everyone buying your toddler clothes and toys so you won’t have to spend much on clothes and toys.
Con: Everything costs more with a toddler and you won’t be able to walk through your house without tripping over all of the crap your toddler has been given.

Pro: They spend a lot of the day sleeping, so you get plenty of down-time.
Con: You spend most of the day trying to get them to sleep because they refuse to take a nap despite being so tired they just want to cry.
Con: All that down-time is spent cleaning, cooking and basic personal hygiene that can’t be managed whilst the toddler is awake.

Pro: Someday they’ll be grown up and able to support you as you age.
Con: You’ll probably do a crap job of raising them and they’ll decide to put you in a home with only one staring window.

Book review: Freezing Point by Karen Dionne

Freezing PointFreezing Point by Karen Dionne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For anyone not familiar with the Killer Thrillers group, Karen is one of many great authors who are on the list with Zoe Sharp, Sean Black and Boyd Morrison (to name just 3 off of the top of my head). They have a tag-line: Great reads – guaranteed. I think it holds true.

Anyway, Freezing Point is an eco-thriller that moves along at a cracking pace. Plenty of conspiracies, corporate greed, wacky environmentalists, scientists in the frozen wilds, idealists caught in a mess, and rats that have developed a taste for humans, all competing for the most precious resource: water.

I enjoyed this novel, which I believe is the first in a series of related eco-thrillers by Karen. The only thing I disliked was the abrupt ending. I felt there was more to come, several chapters worth, but it was wrapped up with a few lines in what was essentially an epilogue. Regardless the “great reads” tag-line holds true.

View all my reviews

Book review: The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

The Heist: A Novel (O'Hare and Fox #1)The Heist: A Novel by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit, I haven’t read a Janet Evanovich book in years, despite my wife having most of them on our shelf. I haven’t read a Lee Goldberg book in a least a couple of months. So when I picked up this collaboration between two witty and highly entertaining authors I was playing “try to figure out who wrote which bits” without any success. Unlike some author collaborations, this was an actual collaboration.

I will now try to write a paragraph without using the word ‘collaboration’…… Dammit!

Lee and Janet have written a very entertaining novel and I think this will make for a cool series of adventures. The setup is the standard odd couple device we’ve seen done to death. Fortunately Lee and Janet have the charged paddles of ‘interesting take’ on the odd couple romp. I think it was the stock moments that kept this good novel from being great. Then again, they did manage to include a conman, FBI agent, thief, corrupt lawyer, embezzler, fake drug lord, and real pirates in the same heist novel. Add in ninjas for the next one and it could be perfect.

View all my reviews

To block or not to block: that is the question.

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The internet is a wonderful place to find information on just about any topic you can imagine and few you can’t. From the latest scientific study to the grumpiest cat, from insightful commentary to rule 34: the internet has it all. The problem is that not everyone is rational, logical, nor well informed, and they still have internet connections and the ability to make webpages and comment on social media.

As someone who tries to share science and knowledge with people, I love to engage and discuss topics. If I can help someone understand or learn something about a complex topic, then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. The more science communicators out there doing the same thing, the slightly better the world becomes. This better understanding leads to better decisions, better ideas, better inventions, better cat photos.

The problem is that not everyone appreciates being told that they are mythtaken or wrong. Others are adamant that they aren’t wrong. People will argue against the overwhelming scientific evidence on topics like climate change (real, man-made, we need to do something about it), genetic modification (breeding technique, cool innovation that is more precise and has great potential), modern medicine (seriously!?!), evolution (as solid a theory as gravity), and even the shape of the Earth (yes, flat-Earthers still exist). This anti-science nonsense is thankfully on the losing team, they just aren’t playing with a full deck.

It is these science deniers that are the most frustrating to deal with on social media and the internet. There is no evidence you can show them that won’t be dismissed – often as a conspiracy – and there is no rationality to their arguments. But they can also be very convincing to people who don’t know enough about a topic, which is how myths get started. And that is dangerous, once myths are started they are very hard to get rid of. So it is actually important to make sure that the science deniers aren’t existing in an echo chamber, which the internet has facilitated to some extent – I’m looking at you Alex Jones, Mike Adams and Joseph Mercola!

These science deniers can be a menacing drain of time, effort and inner calm. The easiest way to deal with them would be to block them, excise the wound, possibly burn the evidence of their existence. But then the science deniers have won. Their echo chamber is just that little bit more echo-y. But the echo chamber is going to keep echoing regardless, as discussed above. But won’t somebody think of the children!

I really hate blocking people on social media. The science denier drivel may pollute my newsfeeds, but blocking them also leaves me open to my own echo chamber. Sure, I might think I’m good at picking good information from bad, but if my thinking is never challenged, how can I be confident I’m not falling for confirmation bias? I guess this is the Catch 22 of the modern age, but with more cats.

The decline of cinema

theater management

There is only really one thing I miss about living in the city and that is going to the cinema. Of course, I’d miss that even more if there were movies worth shelling out this month’s mortgage repayments to see. The idea of paying big bucks to sit in a seat that has probably been used for sex by strangers, eating snacks that have a 2000% markup, after forgetting your earplugs and going partially deaf, which is a blessing after the pre-movie ads, is just not that appealing. Now Australian cinemas have decided they aren’t charging movie goers enough money and have decided to blame an easy target to justify their cash grab.

Cinema executives have blamed piracy on the recent price rises of ticket prices in Australia. Because of course it is piracy that is to blame, and not the marginalising of the customer base with exorbitant pricing regimes. Nor could it possibly be that people have more alternate entertainment options, including waiting a few months to watch the latest “blockbuster” in their own home cinema. Nor could it be the rubbish that so many movie studios are turning out.

Let’s dissect this nonsense like the original reports in the media should have done. There are many factors at play in the decline of cinema. The first real problem is that there hasn’t really been a change in the proportion of the population that go to the cinema in 40 years, but the number of times per year they go has been steadily declining since the 90’s.

ATTENDANCE
(% BEEN TO THE CINEMA IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS)

FREQUENCY
(AVERAGE NO. VISITS PER YEAR)

Graph: Cinema audiences attendance rate, 1974-2012  The tables following provide the data.
Graph: Cinema audiences attendance frequency, average number of visits, 1974-2012. The table following provides the data.

 

So rather than keeping audiences entertained regularly, audiences are clearly becoming more occasional customers. Underneath that general trend are some interesting changes in the demographics of cinema attendance. It is no secret that Hollywood movies are made for teenagers. Teens are a huge chunk of the cinema audience. But, the biggest change in the repeat attendees is in the teen market, which has been in steady general decline since the 70’s. Which part of the market is going to be most impacted by price rises? Go on: guess!

ATTENDANCE RATE
(% BEEN TO THE CINEMA IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS)

FREQUENCY
(AVERAGE NO. VISITS PER YEAR)

Graph: Cinema audiences attendance rate by age, 1974-2012. The table following provides the data.
Graph: Cinema audiences frequency of visits by age, 1974-2012. The table following provides the data.

 

Another way to look at this is in the proportion of the population going to cinemas in the age demographics. Below you can see the 14-17 and 18-24 age groups are overrepresented as cinema goers, this starts to even out in the 25-34 group (also known as the settling down and going out less demographic), is at parity in the 35-49 group (also known as the parenthood has stolen my social life demographic), and people over 50 clearly don’t like all the loud noises.

AGE PROFILE OF CINEMA-GOERS COMPARED TO THE AUSTRALIAN POPULATION
OVER THE AGE OF 14, 2012

Graph: Age profile of cinema-goers compared to Australian population, 2012. The table following provides the data.

So while the proportion of the population that have been going to the cinema each year has been pretty steady across the entire population, it is the number of times people go that is making the difference, especially in that much coveted teen “I want to see explosions and car chases” market. (Interesting aside: when you look at the age group breakdowns you do see that the over 25 audience since the 70’s have generally increased in their likelihood to attend the cinema, but this has been static for most demographic groups since the mid 90’s.) To put some hard numbers on that difference in the number of times a teen goes to the cinema each year, in 1974 the 14-24 demographic averaged 16.4 visits to the cinema, in 2012 that had dropped to 6.6 visits.

Obviously there are a lot of changes in the marketplace that have occurred over this time. TV has expanded, cable TV is a thing now, home rental or ownership of movies is a thing (VHS succeeded by DVD, now being superseded by Streaming, which will probably be superseded by actors coming to your house to perform on demand), computer games have grown in leaps and bounds, the internet, all vying for our attention and wallets. Just look at the change in households with various alternatives to cinema (NB: the game consoles data doesn’t tell the full gaming story, see this for more about that market):

Graph: Proportion of households with computer, Internet, mobile phone, games console and DVD player. The following table provides the data.

I alluded to this above, but one big change has been the home cinema. Some people will remember a time when some cinema screens were actually not much bigger than the ones installed in many homes now. Sound systems have improved greatly over the crappy little speaker that was the drive-in experience. Now we have high quality TVs and projection units that rival anything you can get in a cinema complex, and these come with a pause function, easy access to food that doesn’t kill your wallet nor beat your heart with belly flab, and sound settings lower than jackhammer. Then you have all the other possible entertainment options available, suddenly the list of movies (not) to see just isn’t as appealing.

The one thing cinemas still have going for them is windowing. For the first few months after opening, there is no other (legal) way to watch the film, you have to watch it in the cinema or wait for the DVD release. Although it seems clear people are more willing to wait, let the dust settle after opening weekend, and figure out what is worth watching, whether that be at the cinema, on DVD, when it makes it to TV, or at all. And now I’m going to contradict myself and say that piracy proves people aren’t willing to wait for those other options, preferring simultaneous releases. Both arguments still point out that people just aren’t as interested in paying big(ger) bucks to see movies in the cinema. Of course movie studios and distributors don’t like that idea, since windowing is great for their bottom line, especially opening weekend.

Now the reason for the price rise could be something to do with this chart, showing that 21% of the market is in the highest income households. Cinemas are obviously betting that their price elasticity is low and will take the price increase in their stride. What this ignores is the age demographic data above, which shows a sizeable chunk of the audience may be from affluent households, but that doesn’t mean their teenage bank account is bulging with lots of cash.

Equivalised gross household income quintiles No. cinema-goers (‘000) Share of cinema-goers (%) Attendance rate (%)
Lowest quintile 1,010.6 9.7% 47.2%
Second quintile 1,305.6 12.5% 50.8%
Third quintile 1,879.1 18.0% 66.6%
Fourth quintile 2,106.4 20.2% 75.3%
Highest quintile 2,199.2 21.1% 80.0%
Unknown 1,930.5 18.5% 65.8%
Total 10,431.4 100% 65.2%

So we see that cinema audiences are becoming more occasional consumers, the trip to the movies is a special event, not a regular event. Teens are a big chunk of the cinema market and they aren’t the repeat customers they used to be. This is what happens when you price customers out of the market, you bite the hand that feeds. You also have them turn to other entertainment mediums. Blaming piracy for what is demonstrably a long term trend is a pretty big reach. I’d also argue that piracy is a reaction to consumer demand for lower pricing and simultaneous releasing, so that audiences can consume the movies in the way they want to, not the way they are being forced to, at a price that is commensurate with the utility received (e.g. people pay as much or more for a DVD – less if you consider it a couple or family purchase). If cinemas have anyone to blame it is themselves and their suppliers (distributors and studios). Using piracy to justify a price increase is clearly unfounded.

Of course, what needs to be mentioned is that films are essentially a loss leader for cinemas so that they can make money selling snacks and beverages. This ticket price increase is probably driven through the supply chain rather than by the cinemas themselves. But this also shows how cinemas have to adapt in order to survive. Going out to a movie is an experience. People are more willing to pay for experiences rather than stuff (DVDs). So if cinemas can get serious about screening experience at a fair price, they might get the audience back, or at least stop the decline.

Did I mention: all men are evil!

42-17984473 The Australian media have a few targets they rely upon to generate readers: dole bludgers, terrorists, boat people, terrorist boat people, dole bludging terrorist boat people. Today Tracey Spicer decided to add men to that list with her article: I don’t want my kids sitting next to a man on a plane.

Now clearly, whilst men are to blame for most wars, most economic problems, most political problems…. Okay, men are shit. But it is just a little bit sexist to declare all men are pedophiles. It is even more misleading of Spicer to make arguments justifying the myths and misconceptions about child sexual abuse. She starts her article by insisting that despite 90% of abuse being perpetrated by someone the child knows, that a stranger on the plane better not be male and sitting next to her kids. Let’s just ignore that entire issue of proximity of people on a plane not changing that much by moving one seat away.

Spicer is very concerned about the “more and more” unaccompanied minors flying and how airlines should be making kids as safe as possible on flights. First of all: “more and more”, seriously? I did a search for some statistics on unaccompanied minors flying and came up as empty as the “more and more” statement. Secondly, the safest possible option would be for a suitable guardian to travel with the kids when flying. Preferably this person accompanying the child would be unrelated to the child, over the age of 40 and Tasmanian. But I guess it is too much to ask for concerned parents like Spicer to travel with their kids.

The big problem with the article is that it buys into the common myths and misconceptions associated with child sex offenders. The Australian Institute of Criminology study listed the top five:

  • not all child sex offenders are ‘pedophiles’. That is, child sex offenders are a heterogeneous group with varying offender profiles;
  • children are usually abused by someone they know, although data suggest that strangers comprise nearly one in five perpetrators of child sexual abuse against males;
  • not all child sex offenders have been victims of sexual abuse themselves and there are complex relationships between being a victim of child sexual abuse and becoming a perpetrator, which require further research. It is important to recognise that while many offenders report a history of being sexually abused, most victims of child sexual abuse do not become perpetrators later in life;
  • while not all child sex offenders have high rates of recidivism, a specific subset—those who target extrafamilial male children—do frequently reoffend; and
  • although it is difficult to accurately determine how many children a child sex offender has already offended against by the time he is detected for an offence, this number varies according to offending profiles and is unlikely to be as high as is commonly assumed. There is, however, a subset of extrafamilial male offenders who abuse high numbers of victims.

Now it is true that child sex offenders are mostly men in a father – child relationship with the victim. But let’s also remember that not all men are rapists, only about 0.012% of us (rate of 12.6 per 100,000 Aussies*). It should also be noted that sexual assault has been decreasing, whilst reporting of assault has improved (probably linked, in my opinion), although sexual assault is still a big problem. So trying to say that kids are in danger of sexual assault from an unknown male in the next seat whilst flying on a plane is nothing more than fear mongering.

The reason Spicer wrote the article is because there have been a few instances on Australian airlines of male passengers being asked to change seats. Most people would be glad to not be sitting next to someone else’s unaccompanied brat, but branding all men as pedos is not really justified, unless it gets the individual blokes a free upgrade to first class, then it’s okay. But articles like this aren’t just pedaling myths and misconceptions, they are ingraining the idea that all men are evil, and that kids aren’t safe around men.

For another indication of how this is impacting society, take a look at some of the gender ratios of teachers: the rate of men teaching in primary and secondary schools is declining, and the younger the student, the less male teachers there are. How can you encourage men to become teachers when people like Spicer are essentially saying that all men are pedos? Spicer admits she is being sexist, but doesn’t realise she is also pedaling myths and misconceptions that hurt more than her sexism.

Of course, since all men are evil, it probably doesn’t matter. Maybe we should just kill all men at birth and save ourselves the trouble.

Another view: http://allsignificantbattles.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/sometimes-people-punish-you-by-giving-you-what-you-want/

* Yes, that figure is misleading because the figure is only for currently incarcerated offenders, and it is an old figure.

Happy Birthday Shakespeare

Here is some Epic Rap Battles to honour the occassion.

Facebook friend qualifications

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Do you have demonstrated experience in clicking Like on inane/interesting newsfeed items and well developed procrastination skills? This is an opportunity to faff about on the internet and justify Facebook’s share price. I am currently seeking applicants for an exciting opportunity to become my Facebook friend. This role could be expanded in the future to include other social media, such as Twitter and Google+, based upon the relevant qualifications and performance in the primary role.

In this newly established position, you will be joining an international team responsible for strategic reposting and Liking of science articles, social interest pieces and pictures of my children and pets.

Utilising recommended and innovative social media interaction you will play an integral role in supporting my ego, stupid social campaigns I signed and forwarded, and clickbait articles from around the internet.

Key responsibilities include:
1) Clicking Like on everything I post;
2) Sharing everything I post with your other hapless friends;
3) Establishing and maintaining relationships with people you only know via the comments on my posts;
4) Contributing to regional and internet-wide best practice outcomes for social media activities.

The successful applicant will contribute to further my social media organisational strategic goals by taking a broader view of my posts and their future directions and reassess how the delivery of social media sycophantry contributes towards that.

Preferential consideration will be given to candidates who:
1) Have met me before;
2) Whose company I actually enjoy;
3) Can write a sentence that makes sense;
4) Understand and respect restraining order guidelines.

Benefits of being my Facebook friend: In addition to the warm glow of my aura offered, other benefits include your posts being Liked, someone who will actually appreciate the distraction of your posts as a means of procrastination, and access to some of my more shady friends who can arrange body disposal. I am a progressive and innovative Facebook friend that offers family-friendly flexible Liking conditions and where personal and professional development is continuously Liked and received with “congratulations” posts.

Take advantage of this opportunity to Friend a Facebook profile that is committed to achieving a progressive, innovative and procrastinated online presence.

 

Also see The Bermuda Triangle of Productivity (thanks Angela!).

Happy Easter

Originally posted on Tyson Adams:

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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.

Being a writer is like…

being a writer

Book review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book for my wife when it first came on sale. When she finished reading the book she was immediately asking me when the sequel was being released – a year later, of course. So considering that this trilogy has been finished and the movie has already been released, it shows just how long my TBR list is that I’ve only gotten to this one now (even then, only as the audiobook).

There is something refreshing about a young author writing young adult novels. And it is enjoyable to have a good mix of action, introspection, character development, and social commentary. Some have criticised the five factions, that are the basis of the story’s society, as unrealistic…. Because wars over fuel would never happen in reality – the criticism levelled at Mad Max. What I’m saying is that people making this criticism have kinda missed the point being made.

Definitely worth a read, even for non-YA fans.

NB: This cool cover art was the reason I originally bought the book. I knew nothing about it, except that the cover looked cool and the blurb sounding like it would appeal to my wife. Cover art is really important (for me at least).

View all my reviews

Reading isn’t boring

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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.

Book review: The Persona Protocol by Andy McDermott

The Persona ProtocolThe Persona Protocol by Andy McDermott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something a little bit different from Andy McDermott with Persona Protocol; different in that Nina and Eddie aren’t being shot at in this one. But there is still plenty to enjoy about this techno-spy-thriller, not starring Nina and Eddie, but instead Adam and Bianca take over the being shot at duties.

Andy again delivers his mix of breakneck pacing and humour that are the reason I enjoy his books so much. I think this departure from the Nina and Eddie series of archaeological adventures (is it still archaeology if they destroy most of the stuff they find?) is every bit as good, and I hope to see more of these departures from Andy.

View all my reviews

Books on structure

books_a-public-flogging-100202

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 – When I first wrote this I disagreed, but now I agree, see video below (I’d still 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. After seeing the video below, especially the way the question was asked, I think it is clear that the expectations for women create barriers into and through careers in science (the racism is similar and is one I see as a big issue). So it starts long before people get into science, then it continues through attrition.

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.


Fast forward to 1:01:31 for the question and NGT’s answer (sorry, embed doesn’t allow time codes).

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/

The damage from reading

reading cures ignorance

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.

Another mythbusting gun article: http://thinkprogress.org/gun-debate-guide/#moreguns

More science:

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

http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-gun-policy-and-research/publications/WhitePaper020514_CaseforGunPolicyReforms.pdf

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