Friday, February 15, 2013

Looking for love advice? Why not ask some Disney princes?

Prince Charming?” I asked. 

Several heads turned. “Right, there are several Prince Charmings, aren't there?”

One dressed in blue stepped forward to resolve my confusion. He was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite place him.

Well, really, it's Princes Charming, properly speaking. Charming is ...” He fumbled for a moment, at a loss for the word he needed. “It's like an extra part of the title. An adjective, not really a name. We've had real proper names from time to time,” he said. Then he paused again.

Sorry. Had trouble remembering what my name is right now. I've been called Florian, Frederick, David, and James. It's not like our names matter; it's the what we are that matters, not the who. We're all pretty interchangeable on the personal level – one prince is as good as another.”

Interchangeable. Another word for disposable. I wondered if even their wives could tell them apart if they swapped clothes and traded places for the day. Neither Florian nor any of his other names sounded familiar, and I honestly couldn't recognize him from his looks, so I had to ask: “Er. Which one are you, again?”

I'm Snow White's,” he said.

How did you court her?” I asked.

Well, first I started singing with her when she thought she was alone and singing to herself,” he said. He looked at me hopefully.

Did she like that?” I asked. I couldn't remember that part of the movie.

No, actually, she found it terrifying and creepy, and she ran away from me.” He sighed. “She didn't return my affections until after I woke her up from that enchanted sleep. I was lucky the witch did that, I don't think I would have gotten her to hold still long enough otherwise.”

It was the same for both of us,” chipped in a prince wearing red. “Kissing her awake from an enchanted sleep. Plant one on her while she's asleep and she knows she's yours when she wakes up.”

Sleeping Beauty's prince. In the old French fairy tale, the prince visited the sleeping maiden, and she woke up nine months later. With twins. I wanted sound advice, not a prescription for magical roofies. “Ah. Well, uh, nice meeting you.” I turned to another prince, wearing what looked like an old-fashioned military uniform, yellow with gold trim.

How about you, Prince?”

The next prince paused. “I don't say I really did anything. The ladies came to me, and I picked out the one with the smallest feet. Had the devil of a time finding her, but that's what servants are for. You just need to be yourself - rich, powerful, tall, and handsome, that is - and the ladies will come to you. You'll have your pick of the litter.”

A fourth prince nodded in agreement. “I thought I'd go with a good singer, but then I changed my mind to go with a mute girl who was much cuter and really eager to do anything for me. And I mean, like, anything,” he said with a smile. “Turns out she was also a good singer, just had really bad laryngitis, so that was totally the right choice. Just stand around, be rich, powerful, tall, and handsome, and then pick one out, man. Nothing to it.”

I looked around the room, and indeed, they almost all were tall and handsome, and wore their rich clothes with the assurance of old money. But there was one - a small and slightly darker-complexioned fellow - who was scratching at his sleeves with the discomfort of the newly rich.

Aladdin?” I said. He'd gotten some real face time in his Disney feature, so it was easy enough to tell who it was. “What if you aren't rich, handsome, tall, and powerful?”

Then cheat,” he said. “Lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top.” He paused. “Hey, I may be shorter than the rest of those clowns, but I looked tall to her in comparison to her dad. So I got the tall. And I'm handsome.”

He puffed himself up to his full height. “So. If you ain't rich and powerful, claw your way up and you can make her yours. Show your rivals no mercy, show her a good time, and all the lies won't matter so long as you pull through.”

Having a genie at your disposal probably helped, too, but I didn't have any magic lamps at my disposal. I'm not the sort of fellow inclined to skirt moral, legal, and physical laws, either; this was going in the same file with the prescription for magical roofies.

The next fellow looked totally unfamiliar. “Who are you?” I said. Sorting through faceless vaguely princes was hard, but I really couldn't remember this one. Not at all.

Well, you might know me better wearing my old face. They called me Beast.” His eyes gleamed. “I'm the smart one of this lot, here.”

Beast I could remember. He'd been nearly as prominent in his movie as Aladdin had been in his. “Tall, but not handsome. Rich, but outcast. You had a tough time of it, didn't you?” I said.“Tell me, how on Earth did you hook Belle? How did you get her to fall in love with you?”

Beast paused, considering for a moment. “Stockholm syndrome,” he said.

Ah.” That made a certain amount of sense. I decided not to ask him about his feelings for Belle, reflecting instead on the lengthy prison sentences associated with kidnapping cases.

Half a dozen princes, and what had I learned?

Well, I should simply be a namelessly bland tall, handsome, wealthy, and influential fellow, and pick one of the easily-impressed girls flinging themselves at me. If the girls weren't flinging themselves at me quickly enough, I should get someone to apply magical roofies to one of them, and have my way with her in her sleep - then she'd be mine when she woke up.

If I wasn't rich and famous enough for that, I should lie, cheat, and steal; kidnapping my chosen bride by force if necessary. Then I should play head games with her until she ended up loving me in spite of – or because of – the way I'd abused and deceived her.

What princely advice that was.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Arizona shooting: A depressing lack of surprise

I know that Saturday, there was a politically motivated shooting that made the news. A congresswoman, a sitting district court judge, and many other people were shot. Part of the "news" running through the mainstream media outlets is that this is shocking. Which means unexpected.

To me, it was not a surprise, and I don't think that reporters who make news their business have any right to claim surprise. Could I have predicted this specific time and target? No. Does it fit right in to the political environment? Yes.

There has been lately, and particularly in the last two election cycles, with Obama taking center stage, a dramatic upswing in indicators of political violence and domestic terrorism from the political fringe. The rhetoric of a number of talking heads has been a constant drumbeat of fear and terror.

There have been a number of incidents of attempted or successful acts of political violence just during this past election season; probably the most publicized being the videotaped stomping of a young woman at a rally in Kentucky days before the election (a fortunately non-lethal happening; but one which I found alarming nonetheless).

The only thing particularly special about this attack is how successful it appears to have been. I imagine there will be many public debates over the precise ideology of the gunman. There will be backlash against the way some media figures have been inciting violence. And if we're especially lucky, maybe we'll see lasting change in the infotainment arenas.

The shooter himself has every reason to lie through his teeth about his ideology for maximum impact at this point, if he is even capable of presenting his views in a coherent and understandable fashion. I can't afford to trust what he says about his own purposes. He's on the political fringe and almost certainly mentally ill, and his views won't line up perfectly with any mainstream figure anyway, however much the pundits try to fit him neatly into the box of their favored ideological opponents.

The problem is how neatly this fits in a pattern of rising violence, a tide whose leading edge can retroactively be seen starting in when he was still in high school and Giffords wasn't a US congresswoman, and a tide which reached full froth when Obama was elected president.

That's a fact. We've been watching a rising tide of political violence targeted very specifically at the left and the Democratic party. So. That's a plain statement of fact. Could I add anything - anything at all - from my own personal experience?

One thing, maybe.

I see a steady movement of white nationalists into the mainstream right wing. I suppose this could be both a symptom and a cause of the rise of violence. I can't claim to be an expert on the sociology of violence.

A long time ago, back in January of 2003 - almost exactly 8 years ago - I was a college freshman out to see the online world who joined NationStates. I fell in love with the community immediately. Just the year before I had been an ideologically extreme high school student fond of describing myself as "left of Lenin;" and NationStates had a large and diverse community from all ends of the political spectrum.

There were Democrats. There were Republicans. There were anarcho-capitalists. There were communists - authoritarian and anarchist varieties both. There were Islamic socialists. And perhaps most visibly of all, there were neo-Nazis - a host of white nationalists had come to NationStates from Stormfront.

The political debates were fierce and multi-faceted. I came to be familiar with the types of rhetoric frequently employed by white nationalists. The dangerous ones could make themselves sound more or less reasonable.

In the past few years, it's been remarkable to me to see just how much more widely distributed, how much more mainstream that rhetoric is. One of the most famous of the Republican primary candidates of 2008, Ron Paul, was remarkably skilled at speaking in ways that sounded perfectly reasonable, and to white nationalists, sounded like he was agreeing with them.

The things the more reasonable sounding white nationalists would say in 2003, I might hear today on talk radio or Fox News. And back on NationStates, I'm wondering where all the neo-Nazis went. I'm wondering why we mysteriously have so many more Republicans now, and why so many of them sound so familiar.

I'd rather just blame Beck or Palin or Fox News in general. Domestic terrorism, though, isn't new. Timothy McVeigh didn't need Beck or Palin to make his decisions. People on the fringes of politics and society don't necessarily listen too closely to mainstream media figures (though sometimes they do).

And I wonder: Is the important thing that ties McVeigh and Loughner together the former's KKK connection and the latter's love of Mein Kampf? Or is it media-fueled anti-government paranoia, running off the fires of a hostile Republican reaction to a Democratic president?

The more connections I try to explore, the more know that I don't know about the cause and effect. But I am pretty sure that something's rotten in Denmark. There just isn't enough room in the world of statistics for me to be able to pretend to be surprised by Saturday's attack.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Economics and economists

For a very long time, I've held a dim view of economics as a "science" and economists in general. It's funny, because I had never taken an economics course. Not in five years as an undergraduate; nor the two extra years I stayed at my alma mater picking up my MA in math. This, in spite of the fact that I had become quite interested in voting theory1.

Not only had I never taken any econ courses, I knew precious few economics majors and almost never talked to them about economics. Off the top of my head, I can remember only one - a fellow who shared a first name, a fencing hobby, and for the first half of his freshman year, an intended physics major with me. He was doing badly in physics and so dropped down into economics because it was easier.

What I did know is what I read about economics and economists. I was familiar that the justification for right-wing economic policies - including a number that seemed to fly in the face of countervailing empirical evidence, such as the old Reaganomic rattle about tax cuts stimulating growth2.

I read biting critiques of economists by philosophers and Richard Feynman. I even read articles by economists trying to demand more respect for their field, but remained totally unimpressed. I did not study economics, and from what I saw, economics was not even a science.

I also thought that economics education seemed to be all about learning how to agree with standard doctrines3. The handful of different approaches to economics, Wikipedia and other sources informed me, were hostile to each other as schools of thought and mainly differentiated by choosing the appropriate sorts of assumptions to back up a particular political faction4.

I knew there was actually some pretty cool stuff in economics - some neat results here and there - but I dismissed economics. I've been frequently heard to declare that economists aren't scientists, but bad mathematicians attempting to do philosophy.

And now?

So instead of trying for a doctorate in physics or pure mathematics (I had funded offers for both), I decided to go California and get a doctorate in a cross-disciplinary institution. I'm still a math man at heart, but my funding comes through the school of social sciences, and in the last year and a half, I've had more interaction with economics, economists, and econ majors than in the rest of my life put together.

I TAed an econ course my first quarter here. I'm taking my first econ course this quarter. At least half the students in my research group come from an econ background.

So here's what I know now. There are economists who are scientists, good ones who believe in the scientific method every bit as much as Feynman did. They seem not to be a majority of the field, but they're actually testing theories of economics. The good ones are studying and applying psychology to understand why people act as they do and then explaining the collective irrationalities we seem to engage in.

Many economists are critical of economics and other economists. Econ graduate students and economists themselves are usually fairly bright. There are a lot of smart economists out there doing a lot of good work trying to figure things out.

While some econ majors are surely the immediate predecessors of the bright, smart, and motivated grad students I meet with on a weekly basis, most of them aren't. If anything, econ majors seem to be wholly different creatures on an entirely different plane of competence. They're terrified of the math that is necessary to get anywhere interesting, and seem to have relatively little understanding of the scientific method.

I'm not sure that my oft-repeated claim about bad mathematicians trying to do philosophy isn't true of the bulk of economists, or economics viewed as an academic field in practical terms. But now that I know some people with economics degrees sitting beside their names who don't fit neatly in that pigeonhole, the fun's gone out of saying it. It just seems like a cheap shot now.

1. It started when I as an undergraduate got to participate in a seminar field-testing this book. It's a field that's been largely populated with economists for the last half-century.
2. That one is a very hard sell for someone who started following the news in the early 90s, watched economic growth follow the Clinton tax hikes, and then watched the economy flatline during the Bush years after being "stimulated" by tax cuts.

3. I actually didn't get that notion from reading articles like that one. I got it from reading between the lines in articles written by economists trying to defend their field, and also from students who'd found economics courses disagreeable.
4. To this day, I believe this is how people who don't make a living in economics decide what school of economic thought is best - take the conclusions that they like and work backwards to justify the assumptions that school swears by. I suppose this may also be true of some economists.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chess variations: The life of the party

For those of you who know me personally, you know that I like chess.

You also know I'm not actually that good at chess (granted, I did go undefeated in Martian chess in high school, for the handful of matches that we played) - but I like to have some fun with it. And I also like to spice it up so that all those people who usually don't have much fun with chess will be having a blast.

There are several major variations and hybridizations of chess. One that's good for all ages is Bughouse - partner the best player with the worst player and see how the middle team does. For the athletic crowd, there's chess boxing, which we could use as a template for any martial sport hybridized with chess, but I'm not a big fan of that one.

For the 18+ crowd, there's also strip chess, and for the 21+ crowd, shot glass chess. House rules on how to play these two games vary and are, on the whole, poorly documented, so I'll explain how to do them correctly. And by correctly, I mean this is going to be a fun game that can get played several times in a night without people complaining it's unfair.

Shot Glass Chess

To the right, you can see a shot glass chess game in progress. The author (cream, right-hand side) has just finished capturing a rook (empty 2.5 oz tumbler on the side of the board) from his opponent (green, left-hand side) with his queen (miniature hurricane glass, 4.5 fl. oz). The result of this move is that the author was obliged to drain a 2.5 oz tumbler of Midori sour.

That's the simple rule of shot glass chess: All the pieces are drinks, and when you take a piece, you take the drink. At the end of the match, the loser drinks his or her own king, as the penalty for losing. In the event of a draw, both players face the ignominious result of draining their own kings.

The only tricky part of shot glass chess is setting up the match. There are two types of shot glass chess sets. The type that's easy to find has glasses all of the same size with pictures of the pieces stamped on them. The other type has different sizes and types of glasses for the different pieces, like the one above. Although they're harder to find, you can put one together yourself.

If you want to play great games of shot glass chess, and you don't have a good set, the important thing to know are the piece point values. If you're using the same size glasses, you can either fill the lesser pieces partway up (this works very well with tall, narrow glasses, but not so well with wider glasses), or use drinks of varying strength. Here are the recommended point values.
  • Pawns are 1 point each
    0.5 oz, 4.5% ABV, 1 part liquor to 8 parts mixer, or just a little splash in the bottom of the glass
  • The "minors," knights and bishops, are worth 3 points
    1.5 oz, 13% ABV, 1 part liquor to 2 parts mixer, or fill to one third
  • The "majors," the rooks, are worth 5 points
    2.5 oz, 22% ABV, 1 part liquor to 1 part mixer, or fill to a half
  • The queen is worth 9 points
    4.5 oz, 40% ABV, straight liquor, or filled to full)
  • The king does not have a point value, but should match the queen in size and contents.
If a player manages to graduate a pawn, don't add more liquor - just pour the pawn into the replacement piece. If you're using the listed volumes, the whole chess set is 48 ounces of liquid. 1 oz shot glasses with the mixtures listed above will give about 5 ounces of liquor on each side of the board. Fortunately, the entire board is rarely cleared in a chess game, but it often gets close. Consider using weaker mixtures for smaller opponents, or when playing repeated games.

Strip Chess

Strip chess, unlike shot glass chess, doesn't have a very good set of existing rules. To be fair, it has been marginalized in favor of strip poker, a more psychological and less intellectual game. There are numerous existing variations of strip chess, some of which have actually been played. They generally involve setting up a correspondence between capturing the pieces on the board and removing clothing. One such codification can be found here. Oddly, few of them take the obvious step of simply setting a ratio of points per article of clothing (I would say 5 is about right).

I think, however, this misses how we can add additional depth to the game. In shot glass chess, this depth is provided by automatic handicapping. I propose, instead of assigning point values to clothing, these three rules, which add to ordinary chess the dimension of embarrassment:
  1. If a player loses the match, he or she must remove one article of clothing - chosen by his or her opponent.
  2. At any time, a player may remove an article of clothing - of his or her own choice - in order to return the board to where it was before his or her previous move.
  3. If a player is offered bad advice by one or more bystanders, which results in removal of clothing under rules #1 or #2, the bystanders must each also remove a corresponding article of clothing.
I think it is subtle enough and simple enough to be played as a party game - and amenable to the addition of drinking and the atmosphere of poor decisions at parties. Play chess at a party and you'll be distracted, often wishing you could take back a move.

Rule #3 is optional, but allows for an intermediate level of group participation between team matches (where moves are resolved by committee) and individual matches (where spectators have little to do, but will probably be offering advice - some good, and some bad). One final footnote: You may want to treat "paired" items, such as shoes, as a single item - both in this, and in other strip games.

Strip Shot Glass Chess

It's possible to combine the above games. Why not? Capturing pieces leads to inebriation. Inebriation leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead, in turn, to removing clothing. Chess then becomes your guide to the complete classic party experience. The game you play then has the following additional rules from ordinary chess:
  1. Capturing pieces: If you take a piece, you drink the piece.
  2. Penalty for losing: If a player loses the match, he or she must drain his or her king and then remove one article of clothing - chosen by his or her opponent.
  3. Taking back moves: At any time, a player may remove an article of clothing of his or her choice in order to return the board to where it was before his or her previous move.
  4. Bad advice: If a player is offered bad advice by one or more bystanders, which results in removal of clothing under rules #1 or #2, the bystanders must each also remove a corresponding article of clothing.
There arises a natural question on rule #3: Should taken pieces be refilled with the same alcoholic beverage when the move of their capture is undone? I recommend refilling them with water or juice of the appropriate color to remind players of their mistakes without putting them over their originally intended alcohol consumption. However, if you are using a weak set, you might be able to get away with playing it the other way.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: A good year for movies

I've seen several movies this year in first-run theaters. I know, unusual, right? I've even been positively impressed. I saw Star Trek, Up!, District 9, The Hurt Locker, and Avatar.

And I'm definitely thinking that District 9 and Avatar are good science fiction movies, of the sort we haven't seen too many of lately. They were good, they were serious, and they were original. It's not really a combination we see too often, but the similarity doesn't stop there. Both films were exploring alienation, race, and loyalty, edgy topics that simply were not fashionable when Bush was president.

Both have a human plunged into the society of the aliens, experience the oppression humans place upon them first hand, turn against the human military apparatus, and become physically transformed into aliens themselves. Both films make exceptional use of aesthetics - the Prawn are revoltingly ugly, and the gritty documentary style makes the ugliness of the slum life very real. The Na'vi, on the other hand, are strikingly beautiful, and the film is visually gorgeous.

Both make intense use of historical metaphor to talk about the times in which some humans - and yes, ladies and gentlemen, white Western European industrial English-speaking humans, if we're to be specific - have decided to treat other humans as subhuman. District 9 uses apartheid. Avatar uses the american indian wars. I even noticed Colonel Quaritch, the military leader in Avatar, making what seemed like a deliberate reference to the Ghost Dance.

Now that Obama is in office, those who found it fashionable to be not only patriotic, but nationalistic and jingoistic are becoming rabidly anti-American, cheering when Chicago lost its bid for the Olympics, jeering when a sitting president is handed a Nobel prize. The Democrats haven't picked up the slack; nationalistic fervor has tapered. If The Hurt Locker had the temerity to suggest that some soldiers get hooked on the rush of putting it all on the line in Iraq back in 2004, would it have been labelled anti-American and bad for soldiers' morale?

And heaven forbid that a film show ex-US Marines as ruthless mercenaries engaging in massacring civilians. But that nationalistic fervor has faded, enough that it's no longer fashionable. Suddenly, it's fashionable to talk about race, to examine the question of social identity.

I suppose the bombing of the Home Tree plays a little more like My Lai than any of the battles of the Indian Wars we're familiar with, complete with the soldier who says they didn't sign up for this and decides they've had enough, but I don't think the Vietnam War is a much more comfortable piece of history than the systematic destruction of the american indian nations.

I've heard a few people complain that Avatar has no plot. I count several - a conflict between science and short-term ignorant greed, a romance, a unification story, a sequence of alienation, initiation, and adoption. It's not even badly written, and I didn't spot so many of the egregious hard-to-ignore physics errors so common in flashy big-budget SFX movies. Spiderman 2, I'm looking right at you. That was painful. Anyway, back on topic:

Good science fiction tries to push a little bit beyond our comfort zone. When I see some people reacting in a very visceral way to the "race traitors" of District 9 and Avatar, I see it as a sign those movies are doing something right. Aside from making half their critics look like white supremacist nutjobs, they're prodding hard enough to make some very meaningful statements and ask people questions they might not ask themselves enough.

The moral I see in both films is this. It doesn't matter if they're ten foot tall blue beauties in a neolithic tribal structure or technologically advanced tentacled bugs who get high on cat food, everybody deserves to be treated with a full measure of "human" dignity. If we don't, we are already traitors to our ideals. And that's a radical statement, because we have a devil of a time managing that with other humans.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The length of an elven lifespan

One thing that gets me in fantasy literature: Elves, and how long elves live. Usually, we see elves living incredibly long lifespans "off-screen." Since they don't age, we see elves living thousands and thousands of years. Naturally, in the course of events that happen on-stage, they die off in fairly large numbers due to unnatural causes.

Elves aren't invincible. Some kinds of elves, such as Tolkien's elves, are immune to disease. These elves only die due to violence, lethal accidents, or suicide. Our first order estimate is therefore based on the most recent statistics for that - the WHO 2002 report on mortality. We see that 83 out of every 100,000 people die traumatically violent untimely deaths, and an additional 8 out of 100,000 starve to death.

With humans, this varies with age, but since elves are unaging and unchanging beings, we'll assume the average rate holds for all elves of any age. Thus, each year, 0.091% of all elves die. This means that the elven time of death is drawn from a simple exponential distribution with parameter λ = 0.00091.

The mean of an exponential distribution is simply 1/λ, so the average elven lifespan is 1100 years. The median elven lifespan is shorter - 760 years - and about 40% of elves live past their first millenium.

But 2002 was not that violent of a year. War, genocide, and famines tend to happen in short sharp "spikes." Only 2.8 people per 100,000 died as a result of war in 2002; over the course of the 20th century, about 10 billion people drew breath. 6 billion of those lived to see the end of it, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million died in excessive spikes of "mass death" - famines and wars. That's 2,000 per 100,000 per 100 years; taking the appropriate 1/100th root, we get an average of 40 per 100,000.

If we take out today's war deaths and famine deaths and substitute an averaged value of 40 for "mass death" events, we get about 120 per 100,000. At λ = 0.0012, the average elven lifespan is 830 years, and the typical elf lives a mere 580 years. Only 30% of elves live to see out the end of their first millenium. One out of every 160,000 would live to see their tenth millenium.

Not all fantasy mythos leave elves immune to disease - and infectious disease represented 175 per 100,000 deaths in 2002. Historically, diseases have killed far more than violence and starvation, even among the healthy "young adult" population (smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, malaria, outbreaks of various plagues - these can kill at any age) - so if elves aren't immune to disease, we would probably want to see λ to become substantially larger and the elven lifespan much shorter.

In the limiting case, where we consider lethal accidents, violence, and disease terms more typical to the dark ages? Well, let's just say that two or three centuries doesn't seem like such a short time for an elf to live, after all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Context and quality

The other night, I was talking with a lovely poli sci student and wound up bringing up Jumper, which would appear to be three related things:
  1. A 1992 book I greatly enjoyed reading several times 10-15 years ago and classed as an exemplar of the writing craft (though not necessarily the writing art).
  2. A 2008 movie widely reputed to be bad.
  3. A 2007 book written to tie into the screenplay.
I have yet to experience items number 2 and 3, but I wonder: Would, today, I still enjoy item number 1? Would I enjoy it if I encountered it for the first time now? The terrorist-obsessed vigilante might seem much more heavily worn after living through 8 years of terrorism-obsessed politics; the damaged young man struggling to connect with a normal life and normal relationships might not be nearly as sympathetic a character.

And perhaps my standards for the writing craft have changed. I was impressed not with the plots or characterizations of Jumper, but by what I saw as a remarkably smooth flow of words, a mechanically well-put-together piece of fiction. I read 1-2 other books by the same author not long after, and was unimpressed with them. But today, would I apply the same standard? Do I care more or less about the craftsmanship that went into a book - and do I consider the same things good?

I suppose I should re-read it and see what I think of the book now, but re-reading a book is never the same as encountering it for the very first time.