Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Myth of the Popular Vote

The latest sign that Hillary Clinton's campaign has officially reached the "Desperately Flailing" stage: claiming that if Hillary receives a larger share of the popular vote she should be the Democratic nominee, regardless of delegate counts, the official process, or other such minor issues.

There's just one teeny tiny problem, though: Hillary doesn't have a larger share of the popular vote.

And neither does Obama.

Neither candidate has a greater share of the popular vote for the simple reason that nobody has competed in a contest to see who can attract the larger share of the popular vote.

If this were a contest for the popular vote, both candidates would have conducted themselves quite differently. They would have spent more time and money in more populous states rather than small ones with disproportionate delegate counts; appeared on TV at different times and places; courted different endorsements; and probably even championed different issues. The voters too would have behaved differently, perhaps abandoning other candidates in favor of Hillary or Obama to make their vote count. There is simply no way of knowing how the popular vote would have broken down in a contest that never took place.

Any claim about the popular vote by either candidate makes as much sense as saying that the New England Patriots should be the Superbowl champs because they held the ball for more time than the New Jersey Giants of New York.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Best Ever Songs About Gender Confusion

3. Walk on the Wild Side, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground

2. Get Back, the Beatles

1. Lola, The Kinks

Did I miss any?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Truly Wireless Networking

It's always bothered me that home networking requires so much wiring. If I want to install a switch or a router or a wireless access point, I need to connect to both an ethernet port and a power socket. This is especially annoying for wireless access points: I want them to be as high as possible, and for some reason all of the power sockets in my house are near the floor. (Is it just me, or is "wireless access point" a bit of a misleading name? Mine has both power and ethernet cables attached to it, and that doesn't seem right.)

For a while I've been toying with ways to get rid of all the wires. My first idea was to try to combine Power over Ethernet -- which eliminates the need for a power socket -- with Ethernet over Powerline -- which eliminates the need for network cabling -- and somehow eliminate both the power and the ethernet cables. Unfortunately, neither Power over Ethernet over Powerline nor Ethernet over Powerline over Ethernet works, it turns out.

But then I had an even better idea: what if I could combine a Power over Ethernet adapter with a wireless network adapter? Then I could have a truly wireless access point! Genius! If anybody wants me, I'll be down at the Patent Office...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Idiotic Design

Advocates of so-called Intelligent Design claim that some biological systems are too complex to have evolved, so they must have been designed by some external intelligence (about which they, oddly, refuse to hold any testable theory...). What they really mean by this, of course, is "I don't understand how this could have evolved, so it must have happened by magic." There are so many things wrong with Intelligent Design it's hard to know where to start -- it's not just bad science, it's bad religion (but that's a topic for another, much longer post).

Personally, I'm an advocate of Idiotic Design. It's clear to me that some biological systems are too complex to have been designed, so they must have evolved without any external intelligence. Interestingly, most of the best examples for Idiotic Design are the same ones invoked by Intelligent Design advocates (at least, up until science proves them wrong, and then they start casting around for another example). For instance, consider the human eye: a horrendously complex sack of components with a blind spot in the middle of an upside-down projection of the world that's channeled to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, which then has to sort the whole mess out. And look around you at the number of people who are near-sighted, long-sighted, astigmatic, have glaucoma or cataracts or any number of other eye diseases. Who could possibly have designed such a bad solution to a straightforward problem?

The evidence, then, admits of only two possible conclusions: Either the eye emerged slowly through small random steps combined with selection pressure (i.e. evolution). Or it was Designed by an Idiot.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How not to run a social networking site

With so many social networking sites launching themselves these days (and by the way, am I the only person who thinks that companies jumping on this bandwagon in 2008 are about 2 years too late unless they have something really different to offer?), you'd think they'd try to avoid stunningly obvious, stupid mistakes. Not so, it turns out. I lasted all of 24 hours on a new business-centric networking site (no names, no lawsuits...) because their business plan turned out to be:

1. Get your friends to email you to sign up.
2. Silently sign you up for for daily mass mailings including passing your name onto "trusted third-party affiliates".
3. Don't profit.

To their credit, at least they are smart enough to realize that nobody would opt in to the third-party mailings given the choice. But that's more than offset by being too dumb to realize that when I said that a late-to-the-party social networking site needs to be different, I actually meant better.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Iron Man movie is no clanker

I finally saw the Iron Man movie at the weekend and loved it. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the things that makes this movie work for me is that Iron Man remains within the bounds of the possible and the credible (even as it stretches the limits of the plausible). However, there were three things that were so implausible they surpassed my willingness to believe, if only for a few moments:

1. The "arc generator" power source. How long had Stark known how to make one so small, so that he could knock one up in the cave when he needed it, yet kept this world-changing invention to himself?

2. The Audi. Stark is a billionaire, he loves beautiful cars, and out of every possible car on the planet he chooses to drive an Audi? My friend Dave, who I saw the movie with, drove to the theater in a nicer car than Stark.

3. The burger. After weeks in captivity, Stark returns home and he wants a cheeseburger. Fair enough. But he goes to Burger King for it? Let's get real. He's rich. He's powerful. He's in California. He's going to get his burger at In-and-Out.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Yet Another Disturbing Thought

OK, so Donald Duck doesn't wear pants. But last night I was watching an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with my son where Donald Duck goes in a swimming pool, and he does wear swimming trunks. Pants in public: no; swimming trunks in pool: yes. The only rational explanation I can come up with is that he's worried about embarrassing "shrinkage". Is it just me, or does this get more disturbing the longer you watch?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Another reason most comic books insult your intelligence

Why do superheroes always insist on going head-to-head with the one villain who has the power to defeat them? For instance, when The Melter (yes, there really is a villain called the Melter) shows up in town, Iron Man just has to go out and face him and act all surprised when his armor melts (the clue is in the name, Tony).

If he had any sense he'd just get on the phone to one of his buddies: "Human Torch? Hey, since you're immune to heat and flame, could you take down this Melter guy for me? And in return, you give me a call the next time Human Firehose Man gives you trouble." (no, there really isn't a villain called Human Firehose Man.)

In fact, it seems there is only one force in the Marvel universe that is powerful enough to get a superhero to acknowledge that other heroes exist, and to call on them for help: declining circulation figures.

"Ahh! Look out! It's Declining Circulation Man! His Ray of Repetition has shrunk our readership! Only one thing can restore our audience to it's previous size!"
"No! You can't be thinking..."
"Yes! A crossover story arc!"
"Nooooo! It's too dangerous! It could kill all of us!"

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On mythic heroes and modern heroes, gods and mortals

For once, a serious rather than sarcastic post, on the question of why the Iron Man and Batman Begins movies succeed, and Hulk and Thor will fail horribly.

And yes, the best thing I can get serious about is superhero movies. But this isn't really about superhero movies, it's about the changing nature of the Hero archetype in folk narrative, and its about gods and men. No, it really is. But I'm going to get there the long way.

The reviews are in and "Iron Man" is a resounding critical and popular success. The same was true of Batman Begins. I have a thought as to why these two movies worked, and it's this: both Iron Man and Batman exist on a human scale, albeit at the far end of that scale. Hulk and Thor are so superhuman, they are beyond interesting.

That means two things. First, we find their exploits to be credible, just bordering on incredible. Second, while their powers are impressive, their limits are well-defined. So Batman is a better martial artist than any real fighter who has ever lived -- but not so much better that you can't believe its possible. And when he takes on a dozen skilled fighters you believe that he can get hurt, and could even lose. You can believe that what he does might, barely, be possible; and you care because you believe that he is actually at risk.

Similarly, the tech in Iron Man's armor is beyond any reality today but (with a couple of exceptions, like where is the power source?) not beyond things we can imagine today. What is even more impressive is how little the concept has changed since it was created back in the 1960s (the main change has been the technobabble explanations of how it works: back then, it was all down to "transistors"). And like Batman, he has limits. Can he survive a confrontation with a main battle tank? Probably. A fighter jet? Maybe. A surface-to-air missile? Maybe not. A guy in a bigger, stronger Iron Man suit? This I gotta see...

Now think about Hulk, Thor, Superman, and similar heroes. Hulk is... there's no two ways about this... invulnerable. Indestructible. Nothing can harm him. You can't even restrain him for long because, as the comic books tell us, "the angrier Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets". So he can't be hurt, and there's no limit to his strength. Hmmm, I wonder who's going to win, Hulk or the other guy? The centerpiece of this summer's Hulk movie, apparently, is an extended fight between Hulk and an enemy from the comic books called the Abomination, who is just as strong and invulnerable as Hulk, only uglier. Two guys who can't be hurt going at it for twenty minutes? Wake me up when it's over. The audience for this movie is presumably people who enjoy seeing things blown up or knocked down. Adolescent males, in other words.

Thor, for those unfamiliar with this Marvel character, is an immortal Norse god come to Earth. He is, according to canon, about as strong as Hulk, plus he has an indestructible magic hammer that commands the lightning. How are they going to make us care what happens to him? You could drop a nuclear bomb on him and it might, at worst, singe his hair. In order to put Thor or Superman in any real peril, you basically have to temporarily strip their powers (e.g. with Kryptonite, in Superman's case, or by hiding his hammer for 60 minutes in the case of Thor -- no, really), and that gets pretty tedious after a while. It's also self-defeating: the best way to make these characters more interesting is to take away the powers that define them!

Of course, having a protagonist we can actually invest ourselves in doesn't guarantee success. You still have to get the tone right and have a good story with a meaningful character arc. Look at Batman and Robin and the other franchise-killing Batman sequels, for example. Character arc is the hardest part to get right in a sequel: when you look at the transformations of Wayne and Stark by the ends of their respective movies, you have to wonder what they can do next other than beat up more people and blow up more things and save the city again. (Incidentally, this is why none of the Star Wars movies after the first are very interesting. By the end of the first movie, all of the major characters have completed their Campbellian heroic journey.)

And this brings me back to my original point. Modern movie making offers us two kinds of hero. One is the Unchanging Hero, who is the same person at the end of his story that he was at the beginning. He is called to action, he responds, he succeeds, and he returns in glory (or, if the writer is feeling creative, in irony). John Wayne's heroes fit this mold, as does Indiana Jones, James Bond, and many others. You can trace the lineage of this story back as far as records exist. It's Achilles and Hector and Hercules and Beowulf and Gilgamesh. It's the story of gods and demigods and superhumans all the way back to the most ancient legends we know of.

The second kind of hero is the Unwilling Hero, popularized among screenwriters by Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey". In Campbell's framework, the hero starts out as an ordinary person, then follows a well-defined arc involving a call, a refusal, a second call, a cast of mystical helpers, and so on. Think of just about any folk tale where the peasant slays the dragon after all the princes have failed. Or think of Luke Skywalker, the highly-publicised example that launched a thousand second-rate imitations. By most standards this tradition is also ancient, but it may be only half as old as the Unchanging Hero: say, 5000 years.

The Unchanging Hero is the product of a human psyche that was, in some fundamental way, timeless. The stories of Greek gods and demigods all take place in a timeless "now", there is no way that one can sequence them into a narrative. They are ahistorical. The stories of the Old Testament and the founding mythology of the Romans and the dynastic records of the Egyptians by contrast are chronological and purport to be historical and -- in an astonishing conceptual shift -- depict change over time. This is about as fundamental a shift as mankind has ever gone through.

And intriguingly, both of these ideas exist in modern storytelling. Hulk, Thor and Superman are like unchanging gods and demigods -- and I don't think it's a coincidence that they have godlike powers of strength and invulnerability. (Heck, Superman can even turn back time to bring the dead back to life!). So is Bond: you can watch pretty much the entire canon (with one important exception...) in any order, because the character does not change through the course of his adventures.

Iron Man and Batman on the other hand are like the human heroes of the founding of Rome or the Biblical conquest of Palestine. They do change over time and their narrative has a definite order to it. And again, it's no coincidence that their powers are recognizably human, not godlike.

Even more interestingly, we seem to be in an era of Hollywood movie-making at least where the Unchanging Hero is declining in favor of the Unwilling Hero. The most recent James Bond, for example, depicts the arc of a moral man becoming an efficient killer-for-duty. The Bourne Identity depicts the reverse arc.

So based on all of the above, here's my predictions for the blockbuster movies for the next few years:

Hulk, Thor, Superman Returns sequel (Superman Returns Returns?): Epic fails. May make a lot of money on opening weekend, but will leave a lot of disappointed fans.

Batman Begins sequel (Batman Begins Again?), Iron Man sequel: all depends on finding some new character arc for Wayne and Stark. If, like many other sequels, begins with an already-heroic character who does some heroic stuff then stops, it will disappoint.

Captain America: Potentially as good as Batman Begins, if they get the tone right.

Indiana Jones 4: This is the trickiest one. I don't know anything about the plot, but I predict that if it's just another episode in the Old Indiana Jones Chronicles with an Unchanging Hero, it will be the surprise flop of the summer. I think that the time for such heroes has passed by. But if it does something new with the character, it will be a surprise critical success rather than just a popcorn movie.

Personally, I prefer my movie heroes to be men, not gods.

Bush approval ratings at new low (no, this is not a repeat)

What the...? Haven't we been reading this headline every month for the past two years? I didn't think it was logically possible for it to get any lower. Before this is all over, they're going to have to start outsourcing Bush Disapproval to India because they'll have run out of Americans available to do the job.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Opposites Attack

Why are so many things in modern life named the very opposite of what they actually mean? Do modern PR flacks think we are all stupid, or do they just not even try anymore?

There's a long tradition of countries, for example, doing this: if a country renamed itself "The People's Popular and Democratic Republic of Wherever", it was pretty much equivalent to putting a sign over the door saying "Tin Pot Third World Military Dictatorship/Police State". Countries that are *actually* democratic republics with popularly-elected governments don't actually need to tell you that. Nor do they need to force-feed preschoolers with oaths of allegiance, or sing their national anthem three times a day, or put up flags on every post office, bank, and used car lot. Oh, wait...

Another political example that is more overtly cynical is pressure groups calling themselves "Citizens for XYZ" or, in local elections, "Residents for ABC". Anytime you see a name like, you can pretty much guarantee that the "Citizens" or "Residents" in question are actually a faceless company or industry lobby with a vested financial interest.

On a smaller scale, I noticed that my son's Disney DVDs have a "feature" that will automatically plod through minutes and minutes of previews and trailers before showing the main feature, taking far longer than just pressing "Menu" and "Play". I guess it's a good feature for parents that want to just be able to put the disk in and walk away... but it takes a disturbingly cynical mind to call that feature "FastPlay".

But what got me started on all this was a friend who called me up because he had an "ethical dilemma". After listening to him it struck me that whenever somebody uses that expression, its never about a choice between two ethical options, or even an ethical and an unethical option. What he really had was an "unethical dilemma"...