Interstellar

InterstellarFinally, a movie that supports technological progress! (As opposed to condemning it, like every other movie.)

This is just a great movie to exist right now. Granted, some of the messages, as critics have pointed out, are not very deep, but at least it has such messages that no other feature film dares to voice. Messages like nurturing a long-long-term solution, i.e. going into space, rather than plowing through the next harvest. Or messages about scientific tools being more valuable than the next dollar bill, as in the following dialogue:

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?
Ms. Kelly: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…
Cooper: Useless machines?
Ms. Kelly: And if we don’t want to repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this Planet, not tales of leaving it.
Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI…

This MRI, as Cooper goes on to say, would have saved his wife.

And then, of course, you have the more obvious ones: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” There is something simple yet infinitely dramatic to these lines.

Interstellar can be viewed in many ways, including as a space- and time-bending love story or as a “negative productivity shock hits the global economy.” I see it, perhaps over-optimistically, as a statement about what humanity can and will accomplish. More strongly, it is about what we must do if we wish to thrive as a species, let alone survive.

Is It Offensive?

the-interview

North Korea’s recent reaction to American mockery, a trailer for “The Interview,” is overwhelmingly regarded as comical and immature. Our freedom of speech clearly includes the freedom of mockery, and NK’s reaction shows just how insane their leaders are. (There are a very few of those “But what if Seth Rogen actually starts World War III?” people, but it’s hard to tell whether they are trolling or serious.)

In 2012, we put up a trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” and after international bloodshed and attacks on our embassies, we blamed the victims and told them they should have known better than to create works that offended such people. (Related are the 2006 Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons, or Salman Rushdie, for a couple more famous examples.)

So in one case, parody is considered a completely harmless comedy, and in the other, it is considered such words as “offensive” or “disrespectful” or “Islamophobic.” Why are we so hypocritical at choosing what is offensive and what is not? Why do we support one tyranny (i.e., by denouncing those who criticize it) while condemning another?

Are First World Problems Justified?

first-world-problems

One thing that often happens in debates I’ve seen is when someone points out a problem with the world, another answers that there is something worse.

Depending on its context, this is the fallacy of relative privation:

A well-known example of this fallacy is the response “but there are children starving in Africa,” with the implication that any issue less serious than that is not worthy of discussion; or the common saying “I used to lament having no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

On one hand, you’re giving attention to a bigger problem, but on the other, you’re derailing the discussion from the current one. To one extreme, we should only be concerned with the absolute core problems of humanity such as poverty, and to the other, we could be perfectly content with giving significant attention to first world problems. How much moral obligation must you have to problems outside your circle?

I’m interested in what people’s opinions are on this problem.

One Second Left

I really enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow (an 8 on my movie list), but one plot detail really bugged me. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not going to spoil anything directly.

countdown-timer

(Image link—pretty funny.)

It’s part of a larger category that happens in most action movies actually. This particular example doesn’t happen in Edge of Tomorrow: every time there is a countdown timer where something really, really bad will happen (typically an explosion), the protagonist will save the day with one second left til destruction, whether the timer was originally set to five minutes or five hours. In every action movie there are several of these “just in time” moments. And yes, I understand, this is what makes the movies suspenseful.

That really annoys me.

Did the aliens annoy me? Nope. Time travel loops? Nope. But impeccable luck and timing? Yes.

Is there any deeper meaning behind this? People have said that I over-criticize movie meanings, but I think this does have some harmful effects. The “protagonist always gets the girl” cliché is the worst in terms of social damage for obvious reasons, but “one second left” has its own issues. It distorts our views of luck and chance, thereby affecting our risk judgment, and it turns the extremely improbable into the probable.

A bigger issue still is that the “protagonist wins” cliché, which is in 99% of movies, may warp our sense of justice. There is a known cognitive bias called the just-world bias, where we falsely expect justice to be served (we unconsciously believe in karma), and movies can really take advantage of this. How do you explain why the good side was able to defuse the bomb at the last second? Easy, the good side deserved it. (How might this translate into real life? We feel that we deserve something great, so instead of trying for it, we wait for the universe to give it to us.)

Of course, I still enjoy action movies and TV that use “one second left.” But it just gets difficult to keep up suspension of disbelief when the most absurd chance events happen over and over again.

The Revenge of Geography

the-revenge-of-geography

This book was very tough to slog through, but the ideas were superb, even if most of them came from thinkers from before the 20th century.

Pros:

  • Well organized. There are three distinct sections: (1) an overview of several theories of geography (most of which are old and not politically correct today); (2) case studies of the most important zones in the current world; and (3) a short prophecy of America’s own destiny.
  • Good synthesis of ideas. Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are the most referenced.
  • Focuses on relevant regions: Europe, Russia, China, India, Persia/Iran, and Ottoman Empire/Turkey.
  • Makes substantive predictions based on geography. For example, the book (2012) forewarned the recent Ukraine-Crimea-Russia situation.
  • Gives a nuanced view of the role of geography. Kaplan carefully says the determinism is only partial. (I originally had the wrong impression from the title & subtitle that it was going to be more deterministic.)
  • The third section, on America’s fate, is particularly solid. If you could only read 50 pages of the book, it should be the last part.

Cons:

  • Often, the writing is neither clear nor concise.
  • Not that much original content, though still valuable as synthesis. (The exception is the last section, which has a lot more content.)

Not sure that this book replaces Diamond or Huntington, but it is an excellent addition.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012).The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.

Kindles and Current Reading List

My Kindle Paperwhite arrived today, and after using it for only an hour, I wonder how I managed to get by without one. It would have made the last 7 years a much more reading-conducive experience. At home, I have bookshelves full of books and I end up not even reading many of them, partly because I don’t have a great non-expensive way of transporting books from Texas to New York. And the physical books I do have in NY can get weighty. For practicality, I should have used the library system more. But there’s a certain irreplaceable feeling of having your own books that you can read at your own pace. Anyway, I think a Kindle solves all my reading problems and perhaps I can reassign my old books to other uses.

BookHatFamilyGuy

In this link is the past reading list. And currently on the summer plate:

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty
  • The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz
  • An Appetite for Wonder – Richard Dawkins
  • The Big Short – Michael Lewis
  • Drift – Rachel Maddow
  • The Virtual Executive – Debra Benton
  • Nudge – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
  • Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

On the Video Games and Violence Discussion

With three recent deadly shootings (one in Isla Vista and the second in Seattle; a third in Las Vegas as I was writing this post), I’ve once again heard many ignorant statements thrown around regarding video games and violence. Much of the ignorance comes from making blanket statements completely lacking in nuance, from both sides.

huffpost-videogames-vs-guns

Here is what’s wrong with the current discussion:

1. The anti-video game side ignores the actual crime statistics.

Whether you look at the past decade or past two decades (when video games arose and flourished), you see that general crime, violent crime, and juvenile crime are all down significantly.

video-games-crimes

Violent juvenile crime in the United States has been declining as violent video game popularity has increased. The arrest rate for juvenile murders has fallen 71.9% between 1995 and 2008. The arrest rate for all juvenile violent crimes has declined 49.3%. [1]

Of course, this does not mean that (violent) video games are causing the reduction in violence. Here is a graph that goes forward by several more years [2]:

video-game-sales

The point is that even if a study comes out demonstrating a link between video games and aggression, it is another step to go from aggression to actual violent crime, which is hard to measure because we can’t just run experiments on violent crime. To show that video games have a strengthening effect on the crime rate, you must show that in the absence of video games, the crime rate would be decreasing faster than it already is (or something equivalent to that).

2. Both sides have a wrong assumption about overall crime.

Because our media gives plentiful attention to violent crimes—the more deaths, the better—we get a sense that the nation is becoming more violent, and we desperately look for any changes that could have caused this increase in violence.

In fact, the violence rate was fairly constant until 1994, when it began dropping steadily [3]:

gallup-violent-crime-rate-graph

The public does not see it this way. According to the same Gallup poll [3]:

Despite a sharp decline in the United States’ violent crime rate since the mid-1990s, the majority of Americans continue to believe the nation’s crime problem is getting worse, as they have for most of the past decade. Currently, 68% say there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago, 17% say less, and 8% volunteer that crime is unchanged.

Not as relevantly, but shockingly, even our long-term historical assessment is wrong. A poll was done in the UK on perceptions of violence [4]:

When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.

This flawed assumption significantly changes the way we approach the video games and violence discussion. Instead of asking, “What is responsible for the recent rise in crime rates?” and noting that video games exist now whereas they didn’t exist before and then drawing the facile conclusion, we should ask, “Do video games hold back an even greater decline in violence?”

3. The pro-video game side ignores the link between video games and aggression.

Just like ignoring crime statistics, one can also ignore psychological effects of violent video games.

In a meta-analysis of the psychological literature, Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman, violent video games were generally found to be associated with aggression [5].

One concern of violent video games is that violence is often rewarded. A study [6,7] shows a difference in player aggression between a game where violence is rewarded and one where violence is punished.

videogames-aggression

It would be nice if psychological results were not ignored by the pro-video game side. On the other hand, psychological results are often tenuous and likely to be wrong. So it would also be nice if the anti-video game side took these results with a bit more caution. After all, some studies are skeptical of the video game-aggression link [8,9].

Finally, even if we assume that violent video games definitely lead to increased aggression, this is one step removed from deducing that video games actually lead to violent crimes such as shootings.

4. Mechanisms are argued instead of statistics.

I wrote about this topic before in my blog post “Mechanisms vs Statistics,” which incidentally used video games and violence as the example.

The gist is, if you don’t use statistics or real evidence, then you can argue anything you want. If you are anti-video games, you could argue that gamers imitate the characters they play, hence they become more prone to going on shooting rampages. If you are pro-video games, you could argue that someone who otherwise would have committed a violent crime satisfied their aggression in video games instead of in real life, thus decreasing crime. Without data, it’s hard to say which of these stories is more correct, or correct at all. (And you could come up with dozens of such plausible-sounding stories for either side.)

Even with statistics, we have to make sure to interpret the data carefully. Being relaxed with statistics will lead us to believe the wrong things.

[1] http://videogames.procon.org/

[2] http://marketshadows.com/2013/04/23/dear-america-heres-why-everyone-thinks-you-have-a-problem-with-guns/

[3] http://www.gallup.com/poll/150464/americans-believe-crime-worsening.aspx

[4] http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature

[5] Anderson, C.A. & Bushman, B.J. (2001). Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature Psychological Science September 2001 12: 353-359.http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/VideoGames1.pdf

[6] Carnagey, N.L., & Anderson, C.A. (2005). The effects of reward and punishment in violent video games on aggressive affect, cognition, and behavior. Psychological Science, 16(11), 882-889. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/16/11/882.abstract

[7] http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2005/11/23/punishing-video-game-violence/

[8] Williams, D. & Skoric, M. (2005). Internet fantasy violence: A test of aggression in an online game. Communication Monographs, 72, 217-233. http://dmitriwilliams.com/CMWilliamsSkoric.pdf

[9] http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2005/08/31/more-on-video-game-violence/

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