Monday, June 30, 2014

Frozen Revisited, With An Autism Twist

I got to see this movie a second time over the weekend, a natural hazard of having granddaughters.  Interestingly, after an enormous flurry of Frozen obsession, they haven't watched as much recently.  It will be interesting where this goes.

It has a repeated flaw which surprised me, as it is the sort of thing Disney has traditionally paid attention to.  When watching the first time, I was surprised when Hans suddenly turned and became cruel to Anna.  It was clear that he wasn't going to end up with her (the movie rule is whatever male the heroine is spending the most time with gets the girl, however unlikely that looks at various points in the story), but how it all played out seemed abrupt.  I just figured I had missed the clues, paying attention to other things. Surely, there were odd lines and facial expressions that revealed to the attentive viewer that Hans was really a rotter and would betray her in the end. Disney may have its faults, but we expect them to get this myth thing down pretty well.  They like to add modern lessons on to the old myths - rather drearily, I think at times - but they ride the waves of power from all those archetypes pretty well.

On second viewing, nope.  Not a whisker.  In fact, there were two places where there were subtle opposite clues that Hans was going to be a good sort in the end.  The change has no foreshadowings, even moments before.  This is literarily and mythically a bad thing.  Disney usually oversells these items, if anything, telegraphing character with costumes, eyebrows, music, and kitchen sink.  To observe it entirely absent is startling.  Wondering if they got anything else wrong, I immediately settled on Elsa's girl-to-woman change.  That is also abrupt, and the first images are not Snow Queen, but Babe Headed For A Club.  That settles down a bit, and the snow queen character asserts itself, but the message is mixed.  The Elsa artwork fits the song, not the story.

Well, maybe that's how the game is played now.  Myth takes a back seat to merchandise. But it seems a more superficial fantasy, and I wonder if it's going to have quite the staying power of earlier works.  I suppose if you make that much money the first time out, staying power doesn't matter much.

Continuing on with Frozen. Kristoff doesn't have anything that connects him with trolls.  They just seem brought on to illustrate some romance and do an American Musical Theater number. An excuse was needed, so they became Kristoff's family in the plot.  This is fine, and could have added some richness of either comic or serious troll-traits that he showed.  There are none.  He's a regular human, announces his family are trolls, does a song-and-dance with them, talks to their leader, and resumes being a normal human again.

Those are the main ones, no need to multiply examples.  As Tolkien said, it is permissible to have a world with a green sun.  But once established, that must fit consistently with the rest of the world.  It can't just be tacked on for no reason.

This got more interesting when my son forwarded the NYTimes article by Ron Suskind, Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney. I don't know if the story is well-known in the autism community, but it is fascinating, based on his book that came out this spring, Life, Animated. The autistic boy learns to weave an entire set of connections to the neurotypical world, thread by thread, through the characters and dialogue of Disney movies.  Part of the point is that the characters and dialogue are not some arbitrary corpus, but constitute a large range of actual human emotions, values, and experiences.  Disney is hardly perfect in that, having inserted fashionable values in every decade.  But they got a lot of this myth thing down pat, as I noted.

It makes me wonder - and I am entirely serious in this - how much of the enormous draw of Frozen comes from the big eyes.  The eyes of Disney Princesses have been growing bigger and spacing wider over the years, and these are the biggest yet.

Pitching and Gambling

Yesterday I saw an ESPN video about a highschool girl pitching batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays, and a NYTimes article about gambling companies structuring some of their gaming in order to better extract money from the poor.

Allow me to tie these two together for you.

Gamblers fall into only a few types.  Some hope to make a few bucks in an entertaining way, enjoying the adrenaline and the small victory of having put one over on the universe.  This can go bad as one sends more and more small amounts chasing the adventure.  Another group treats it as a business, hoping to make a living by using information in a cleverer way than others. This can go bad because large amounts of money are changing hands, and this is where most of the chicanery and corruption comes in. A third group hopes to become rich on a wild throw of fate.  These last have the somewhat contradictory view that they would indeed be very lucky to win a great deal of money, but also a sense of entitlement that the world owes them this at some level.  Other people have nice things, why not me?  They don’t particularly deserve it more than I do.  I have had suffering, injustice, and unfairness uncompensated.  It would set things right in the balance of the world for me to win.  This is not often articulated, but it is present in the minds of many.

I take the view that anything which encourages this last type of thinking increases the net misery in the world.

Watching the throwing motion of the young woman in Florida, it didn’t look like quite enough velocity to qualify for batting practice.  One of the players commented that she had a good knuckleball.  Ah, so that’s it.  Apparently true as well, as players were occasionally missing it.

The troubling part was in the interview after.  She was clear this was not just about the dream of a young person pitching to major leaguers.  She wanted the experience to be an inspiration to girls everywhere, that they could accomplish whatever they wanted.

Hmm.  Well, no, actually. That’s an interesting, but fairly minor accomplishment. Nor does it look as if it’s going to go much farther down this street.  She’s not going on to pitch in the minor leagues, or on to college baseball.  Hardly anyone does anyway, but having insufficient velocity to mix in another pitch means that any pitcher, male or female, is going to have to rely on that knuckleball alone.  There’s not much of a track record of anyone doing that over the last hundred years.  There are a few women who have pitched in minor leagues…theoretically, if one had a knuckler it might improve her chances…

Enough.  It is few enough males who can accomplish the task, even after devoting many hours to it.  Physiology alone makes the number of females who could even come within shouting distance even smaller.  If any grains get through that hourglass, they will be very few.  People can’t accomplish whatever they want to. There is a cruelty in this encouragement. The world is littered with miserable people whose dreams got crushed. 

I do take the point.  It’s good to have aspirations, bad to have artificial obstacles.  Encouraging words from others on the journey can “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done,” as Garrison Keillor might say.  There is a real upside to this kind of positive talk.  It has carryover, certainly – it’s not all about baseball. But there is something disquieting about the fortunate few saying “you can do it if you just dream hard enough and try hard enough.”  It’s a way of congratulating themselves.

They partly deserve it.  They know, and we know, people who had a shot at it but gave up too easily.  No one wants more of that in the world.  Getting the most effort out of each other is a nice communal way to move forward.  Yet ultimately it isn’t true.  Even among those who have dreams and work very, very hard, not all make it.  The not-making-it has a secondary potential for other good things – people become excellent coaches or musical producers or writers because of what they couldn’t quite get to.  There is also whatever character development comes from the humility of learning that other people are just better at things than you are.

Monday, June 23, 2014

May We Believe Our Thoughts

I had many posts on this topic in 2011, collected here.  It occurs to me that there is a simpler argument in favor of free will, despite all the current discussion that we are all quite automatic and unmovable in our views.

We can imagine alternative courses of action.  We might vary greatly in how objectively we view the alternatives.  We might at times only be pretending to consider Actions B or C; we might be weighted far more strongly to a particular course than we are aware.  Yet with a very little effort, we can play out the consequences in our minds, and change our minds.  We can "think better of it." We can seek advice and modify. It is so obvious in our daily interactions as to be invisible.

But most of all, the mere fact of imagining creates real choice.  Even an inconsistency, a randomness, a Dungeons&Dragons die-roll sort of freedom comes in.  It might only apply to 1% of our decisions.  I think it is a great deal more, but let us look to the minimum, just for argument. Once there are a dozen doors, more than one will be entered.  We might be the sort that enters Door #8 a ridiculous percentage of the time.  But not 100%.  That never happens with 12 doors.


In reading about Blues Hall Of Fame* inductees, I went off on several rabbit-trails.  Easy to do on Wikipedia and its related links.  Josh White’s entry included some political discussion, including in particular that he had been interrogated often by the House Un-American Activities Committee despite being a friend of the Roosevelts.  The writer went out of his way to deplore this, noting that he wasn’t a communist and had merely been involved in many social justice causes, especially desegregation.  There was a short section in particular in which Eleanor Roosevelt was reported to have told him that her intervention, even though she was FDR’s widow, would do him more harm than good because she herself was being regarded as a “pinko” by the Right Wing media.

Yes, “Right Wing” was capitalised, and I had to make sure there wasn’t some formal organisation in the 1940's by clicking the link.  It lead to Wikipedia’s general page on right-wing politics, not a specific group, as one might have thought from Wiki.  So this tells you a bit about Wikipedia’s author right there, I suppose.  A bit fevered.

Yet it is true that HUAC did a lot of bad stuff, connecting a lot of dots across long distances in order to draw their inferences about who was supposedly sympathetic to whom.  But in the case of White in specific, I was left with the impression that they could have been accurate.  Just because people say they aren’t associated with Group X doesn’t mean it’s true.  It used to be joke in conversations about Latin America in the 60’s.  “No communists, Senor.  No one here but us agrarian reformers.” Think also the Mafia, another group no one belongs to.

I’m not saying we should have been interrogating people because of their political beliefs – that was ultimately the issue that Americans recoiled at and slowly put a stop to in that era.  However much we deplored communists and worried about them, we eventually decided that freedom of speech trumped our fears.  

I am also not presently interested in the discussion that there were indeed important governmental and entertainment figures, including a vice president, who were indeed communist sympathisers (he later apologised and sort of recanted); nor that the folks they supported abroad were much more dangerous than many are willing to admit even today.  Horowitz and Radosh could tell you much more than I could anyway.

What I noticed in the Josh White article, and then in many of the follow-up links both on Wikipedia and off, was that the type and amount of evidence they were using - to claim that HUAC was persecuting decent people - was of the same quality, or less, than what HUAC used to accuse in the 1940's.  It was the same sort of "well, a guy said," and guilt by association they were complaining about.

It is related to a series of ironies that have formed a lot of my political, cultural, and religious beliefs. There were people who were skeptical enough, or wise enough, or merely contrarian enough to question the prevailing American/civil religion/traditional narrative back many decades.  They became influential in some intellectual, artistic, and seminary circles in the 20's and 30's.  They gained steam and became fashionable in the 40's to 60's.  Question Authority, as the bumpersticker used to say.

It was a good thing.  The narrative needed deflating, and even destruction in some places.  Read some primary source material of textbooks, magazines, and popular books (rather than what we think we remember about them now, with favorite anecdotes) if you doubt that. Yet there was the usual human flaw in all this: it turns out that they didn't want so much to question authority as to become the new, unquestioned authority.  The prisoners did not want everyone to be freed - they wanted to become the new jailers.

I oversimplify, of course.  Movements are varied and so are motives.  Even within single individuals motives are mixed.  Yet it is painfully obvious once one is willing to look.  ("You can see a lot just by looking," as Yogi Berra said.)  

I don't think I have an especial brilliance.  Some cleverness and a good memory is half of it.  But the other half is a simple cast of mind that seems to be uncommon.  There are those who question the old narrative.  I also question the new one. At my best, I go a third step and question my own. The union men, the folkies and roots music crowd, the one-worlders questioned whether America really was for the common man after all, as it claimed.  It turns out those were very good questions, and a lot was said publicly and hammered home that made us better.

But then we ask whether the folkies and roots music crowd; the artists and academics, the union activists, and the religious left were really for the common man either.  It seems they put their own tribe in power and are now trying to kick over the ladders of the others.  Because the problems of the last era are not 100% solved - and they aren't - they see no need to consider the problems they themselves have brought in. They cannot even see it or consider it. It is a common story in history, but that doesn't make it right.  

*Not a place.  This exists only as a list. 

Update:  In response to a private question.  Henry Wallace.  Praised the Siberian death camp of Magadan in 1944.  A Soviet spy was one of his speechwriters.  Still, he later said he had gotten it all wrong, which I greatly admire in a public figure.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

All My Road Before Me

Ben had called a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in Lewis's diary, 1922-27, All My Road Before Me.  He was handling it at a used book store outside Houston and wondering. One would hardly think so, as this precedes his conversion by a few years and diaries include more minutiae than one would ordinarily sign on for.  But fanatics know no bounds, and I gave the go-ahead, later receiving it as a present.

Lewis's tone came under criticism recently on this blog and I discussed this.  Even in his diary, I like his phrasing and atmosphere.  I don't get the complaint. Perhaps it would be clearer if I were English.  I am also entirely humbled to encounter someone who reads Kant and Thucydides of a morning and has positive and negative things to say about each.  He can like the translating abilities of a thinker and certain aspects of his philosophy, yet reject others.  Lewis is a larger soul than I am.  I strive for this but tend to muddle them.  It is work and effort for me, seems to come naturally for him.

I am also liking the diary for itself, just getting a greater feel for Lewis and his personality.  There isn't much religion or literary opinion at any depth - just all the discussions together about walks, and weather, and personalities.  what he is reading and what beer he is drinking, and how financial concerns loom over so much of his week. (I noticed this also in Tolkien's letters.  Oxford dons were not prosperous in that day, and fellows even less.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Risk Assessment

Most risk assessment articles in my field show small results.  The studies examine how well a particular "instrument," that is, a structured test or evaluation, predicted recidivism in violent and/or sexual offenders. Here is an example from this spring, "What does it mean when age is related to recidivism among sex offenders?" I chose it because it is in this month's pile and it's pretty good.  There isn't anything earth-shaking here, but it adds to our sum of knowledge a bit.  The takeaway: the age of an offender at first offense or index offense is a better predictor of recidivism than his age at release.  There is this thought that offenses decrease as offenders age, and this is true, However, not that much, and age at first offense tells us more - the younger, the worse.

All this according to a the predictions of a single test. There are dozens of tests.  Why not just one, really good test?  Well, because none of them fit that description.  Some tests are better predictors among adolescents, or among the mentally ill, or the developmentally delayed.  Some predict future sexual offense poorly but future violent offense well.  Some are sensitive to changes, and so can tell us if a treatment is working.  Others are actuarial and the scores don't change much: the number of years you were in school, the amount of abuse you received as a child, how long you lived with a bio parent - these numbers are going to be the same 5 years later.

I notice in online discussions that people bring their opinions to the data quite a bit - even the professionals in related disciplines will strongly declare that the presence of a strong father is strongly protective against offending, e.g "I have never treated an offender who was raised in an intact, nonabusive family!"  Really?  I can think of lots, including my own father, and this isn't even my specialty.

One of the difficulties in measuring is that these are events that don't occur often, even among the worst offenders.  If you went to a psychologist and said "I'd like some help in reducing a behavior I only do every few years or so," she would shake her head and say it would be hard to know if treatment were working.  Whether the treatment was behaviorist, insight-oriented, or medical, there just isn't enough data to gauge its effect. Yet we would think that someone raping or murdering every few years was quite a lot.  Therefore, we try to look at large groups of offenders to see if there are clues. But offenders are not all alike, and we don't know what groups to divide them into to measure our predictive ability.  Does this test work on all races? All ages? In different countries?

My personal turnaround in looking for that kind of one-stop shopping for recidivism answers came in the Q & A of a conference in the 1980's.  A woman who was trying to get a non-profit started to do something-or-other about violent pornography - ban it, restrict it, keep it away from inmates, I don't remember - asked the presenter at the end of the day "Do you think exposure to pornography (and here she went into a tangent about tits negative portrayal of women, its availability, etc) contributes to recidivism?"  She clearly wanted only one answer.  The presenter looked down and shook his head. "Well, it might.  Some studies have shown a weak effect. I'll say possibly yes.  But I'll tell you this:  I'd give any of the guys in my program a whole stack of magazines before I let him have even a single can of beer."

Of course. Duh.  What was I thinking?

Among those who have been convicted, brain injury, developmental delay, and substance abuse are the biggest predictors of future offense. Well ahead of the others. However, those populations, taken as a whole, don't show much greater incidence of offense.  It's just that if they are offenders, it's really hard to fix.  Arson and abusing animals are warning signs.  Age of first offense. Parental abuse or neglect are in the mix, but it is hard to sort out whether this is because you received the parent's abuse or their genes.

Anyway, it's not simple.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Historical Linguistics

Okay, half of you just went away.

My brother is a theatrical lighting designer, and has witnessed enormous technology changes in the field over his career.  He mentioned once that a senior designer in an academic setting – which means, even older than us – was distressed about what was not being taught to current students.  She brought out a carefully constructed lighting plot.  They look a bit like this. 

They have been gradually superceded since CAD came in. The pen-and-ink draftings on special paper which I remember from the 1970’s are long gone in most places, but she still liked hers.

“This is also art.” she said emphatically. My brother smiled uncomfortably and moved on to other subjects.  It is easy to see how it comes about.  Not only are lighting plots interestingly patterned, but they take craft and knowledge to create, and to a professional, much that is additional – how this light operates on the stage – is implied as well. The skill is not useless, but it has been transformed to such a degree as to become progressively less useful.  Lighting design has not become useless, but a particular technique, even a central technique, has apparently become so.  (I will check with my brother whether it has entirely lost usefulness or only diminished in usefulness.)

The drawn lighting plot came about to meet a certain need.  It does not have intrinsic value.

I have gotten involved (again) in the controversy about language superfamilies, which most historical linguists believe are still speculative, and likely unprovable.  A minority believe that there remain enough traces to show common ancestry of the Uralic, Altaic, and Indo-European languages in an older Nostratic superfamily, and some believe there is evidence of a single origin of language and ultimate relatedness of all tongues.

The doubters, the majority, believe that such things might be so, but there is not sufficient evidence to sign off on it, nor is there ever likely to be, because the time-depth is beyond what side-by-side language comparisons can show.  Sounds, structure and vocabulary change too quickly – demonstrably so among studied languages in historical timeframes – to give much credence to reconstructions beyond 5,000 years ago.  Oops, I mean 10,000 years ago.  That has changed in my lifetime.

The insistence is “we do comparisons in a particular way, which we have developed over time and provide protection against leaping to faddish conclusions.” The difficulty is that the supposedly speculative theories point to a relatedness among peoples for which genetic evidence is accumulating.  Greenberg proposed three main language groups in the New World (perhaps chief among those which annoy his opponents) correlates with DNA pretty well.  Not perfectly, but enough to lend considerable weight to Greenberg’s classification, even though he made many mistakes in understanding and reporting his data.

I know the argument that one can be led astray by attractive but false theories if one does not adhere to the side-by-side comparison rules of determining linguistic relatedness.  Yes, errors might occur.  But historical linguistics came into being because it looked like it might help answer certain questions about the journey of mankind, and give clues to a history that was not written down.The techniques are not art forms of intrinsic value, even though they might have some use, require skill, and be beloved by practitioners.