February 20, 2013

Rare praise for obscure movie director of the 1970′s

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:30

He apparently goes by the same name as one of the most reviled movie figures of the last 20 years:

It’s hard to imagine now, but the original Star Wars movie was more than just a star-spanning, kid-pleasing action flick. It was also a rule-breaking, expectation-thwarting one-film rebel alliance.

For instance, remember how the movie starts with a blare of trumpets and the title, followed the text crawl, followed by the actual movie? Notice how there aren’t three minutes of “Doopdy Doo Pictures and Skippity-Skip Entertainment Present … A Furfty Fur/Yonker Boo Production … A Glarpton Spitcake Film … Elwee Groodicle … Robbles Pancake … Spankster Carmont … and Bliss Underham … Casting by Arhop Maser, C.S.A … Music by Hambone Jury … Cheese Table Relocation by Hollywood Dairy Movement L.L.C.” and so forth? Lucas was fined $250,000 for that. Specifically, he was fined by the Director’s Guild for not having an opening director credit. That’s right, he was fined for not giving himself credit before the film even starts.

Or take the fact that there are two main characters who not only don’t speak English, but whose growlings and bleepings aren’t even translated into subtitles.

Oh, and one more thing. It’s science fiction. These days you can’t swing a large popcorn without hitting a science-fiction blockbuster right in the hyperdrive, but at the time there hadn’t been a really successful science fiction movie in nearly a decade. Just by setting his film in a galaxy far, far away — not to mention long, long ago — Lucas was defying the conventional movie-making wisdom of the time.

The point is that while Star Wars is the spaceship that launched a thousand clichés, it achieved its success by being something profoundly original. So here’s my unsolicited advice to Abrams, and moreover to the hundreds of entertainment bureaucrats who are going to want to have their meddling incorporated into the upcoming Star Wars VII: Action of the Noun: Don’t give into the Dark Side. Don’t incorporate the following clichés that have increasingly infested sequels for the past 35 years.

It’s a valid concern, you have to admit

Filed under: Government, Humour, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:49

Frank Fleming has a minor, niggling concern that we should pay some attention to:

I believe I have noticed a problem with President Obama’s declaring that he can blow up Americans with drone strikes without due process.

Stick with me here; this is a bit of an esoteric argument. Now, like most people, I celebrate every time Obama obtains more power. Now he can do whatever he feels needs to be done for the country and not be burdened with getting the approval of his lessers first. So the more powerful the presidency, the better for us all. But I had a terrible thought: What if one day we get a bad president?

For instance, take this power to kill Americans with drones. No one worries that Obama will abuse such a power — I mean, we’re talking about a man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just for existing. It’s not like he’s ever going to use that power to blow us up (though, according to his lawyers, he legally could… and if he did, we’d just have to assume he had really, really good reasons). But just imagine if that power wound up in the hands of a president like George W. Bush. He’d probably blow up people with the drone all day, thinking he was playing a video game (“I’m gettin’ me a high score!”). Or worse yet, think of handing Dick Cheney that power. He’d most likely declare a unilateral war on kittens and puppies, blowing them up from the sky and then collecting the tears of children for some evil Halliburton project.

And the power to incinerate people isn’t the only power I fear could fall into the wrong hands. Like, what about the new authority the government has under President Obama to force people to buy things? That’s great for Obama to have, because he can force people to buy things they really do need to buy, like health care (and maybe in the future other things we all should really have, like hybrids or his memoirs). But think of what could happen if a president not as enlightened as Obama wielded such a power, backed by a Congress full of Republican troglodytes? They could make us all buy AR-15s or Big Gulps or Bibles or other dangerous, awful things.

“People are terrible judges of randomness. That is why we invented statistics”

Filed under: Gaming, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:51

One of the gaming blogs I’m quite fond of had this rather neat explanation of why humans are so bad at detecting true random distribution (the rest of the post discusses this in a Guild Wars 2 context):

The other thing that may be a factor here is that people are terrible judges of true randomness. As an example take the following two images. Which do you think was generated by the most random process?


It turns out that the image on the left was generated by simply placing 100 random stars with in the fixed area using a random number generator. The image on the right was generated by first dividing the entire area into 100 squares and then randomly placing a star inside each of those squares. See for yourself in the image below. No two stars are in the same box.


It is hard for a lot of people to accept that the image with the black stars is in fact generated by a more random process than the image with the blue stars. This has a lot to do with how the human brain is constantly looking for patterns. When the brain sees these patterns it attempts to correlate them to a cause even if a cause does not exist. Essentially, this is the illusion of luck. It is why people can believe that they are on a “hot streak” or why they might believe an object gives them an increased chance at success. Some call this the Gambler’s fallacy. In the end it is all the same thing. People are terrible judges of randomness. That is why we invented statistics.

Publicly funded research results should be available to the people who paid for them

Filed under: Government, Media, Science, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:52

At Techdirt, Mike Masnick explains why publishers are losing their collective shit over a new bill that would require almost all government-funded research to be made generally available:

A year ago, we wrote about Rep. Mike Doyle introducing an important bill to provide public access to publicly funded research. As we’ve been discussing for years, the academic journal business is a huge boondoggle. Unlike just about any other publication, the journals don’t pay their writers (and in many subject areas, authors need to pay to submit), they don’t pay the peer reviewers — and then they charge positively insane amounts to university libraries, often knowing that those libraries feel obligated to pay. Oh yeah, and the journals keep the copyright on everything. I’ve heard of researchers having to redo basic experiments because they were worried they couldn’t even reuse data from earlier experiments due to the copyright assignment agreement they had to sign.

Thankfully, for years, there’s been a law on the books for any NIH-funded research to guarantee that 12-months after publication, those works also had to be published openly. While some publishers have tried to game this system (such as by demanding a mandatory fee to “deposit” the work in an open access database), on the whole this has been hugely important in making sure that taxpayer funded research is actually available and can be built upon. Over the years, there have been multiple bills introduced in both directions on this issue. There have been some bills that sought to take away this requirement under NIH funding and there have been bills that have tried to expand it to the rest of the federal government and any of the research they sponsor.

[. . .]

But, of course, the publishers are really not happy about all of this, calling it “different name, same boondoggle.” This is quite incredible, really, since it’s really the publishers who have been getting away with a giant boondoggle for ages. If that gives you an idea about just how ridiculous the publishers’ claims are, read on. Nearly every claim they make in attacking the bill actually applies to the publishers themselves much more than to the bill [. . .]

Basically, the publishers know that their current position with these journals is such a sweet deal that they don’t want anything to mess with it at all. That’s ridiculous. While they’re fighting for ever bigger profits, we’re talking about access to research that was funded with our own dollars. It’s really sad that the publishers would fight such a thing, though it shows what they really think concerning education. To them, it’s not about how best to disseminate information, but how to lock it up and charge insanely high prices for it.

Incentives matter (a lot) — the growth of “Disabled America”

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:40

Colby Cosh discusses the rise and rise of “Disabled America”, the increasing number of adults of working age who are claiming disability support:

Just looking at fiscal and demographic stats from California will cause a cold, invisible hand to clutch at one’s throat, but talking to an endless series of seemingly able-bodied people who casually disclaim any capacity for honest work is even more chilling. When I got home I found out it’s not just California’s problem. In the OECD’s 2010 “Going for Growth” report, the percentage of the working-age labour force (20 to 65 years) receiving any kind of disability benefit or worker’s compensation is estimated at around 5.1 per cent for Canada. For OECD nations as a whole, the figure is 6.7 per cent.

Northern European welfare states, amiright? But for the super-competitive U.S.A., land of the proudly threadbare social safety net, the number was 9.2 per cent.

[. . .]

There is a handful of economists working on the problem without ever gaining much traction in the popular press; the atmosphere of general crisis hasn’t made it any easier for them to be heard. Reading their papers and seeing them plead for the same reforms every few years is almost as depressing as contemplating Disabled America itself. Just as social security for the aged was devised at a time when workers could expect only a few years of life after clearing 65, social security for the disabled was conceived at a time when manual labour was the norm and “disability” denoted identifiable, incapacitating physical injury. No one envisioned a world in which clerical and “knowledge” work had taken over, but the number of people judged totally unable to work had skyrocketed, owing to vague musculoskeletal disorders, unverifiable chronic pain and an astronomical expansion in the definitions of mental illnesses.

If the system is set up to provide more income through disability payments than through a paying job, there will be a tendency for minor ailments to be parlayed into a disability. When the incentives are rigged to encourage a certain kind of behaviour, people will adapt to take advantage of those incentives. If the system will effectively reward you for being “disabled”, it should be no surprise that we get more people applying for disability support.

Even if the economic climate was better, it’s not likely that governments will crack down on those abusing the system for a couple of solid reasons. First, it’s a public relations nightmare waiting to happen and every government worker knows that you never want your name to appear in the media in this kind of context. Second, people on the disability programs don’t count as unemployed and therefore reduce the pressure on the government to “do more” about jobs. And third, it’s easier to just go with the flow and not try to create any ruckus.

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