General Archive

Friday, April 15, 2016

Answering Quora - What are the plot devices you would like to see less of?

Film ReelI answered a Quora question a few weeks ago on What are the plot devices you would like to see less of?. Although the questioner originally asked for only three plot devices per answer, I couldn't help myself and added two more. This has actually become one of my most viewed answers on Quora. Anyway, below are the plot devices that drive me up the wall (slightly edited from my Quora answer). Note that nearly all the links take you to the appropriate entry on TVTropes.org


Out-of-Context Eavesdropping, Not What It Looks Like and other related tropes.

Someone overhears only a small part of a conversation, pieces together what they think the conversation is about, and come to a conclusion wildly different from what was actually being said (I'm going to kill him tomorrow ... at basketball). Similar examples are seeing the characters do something that looked suspicious when viewed from only one particular angle or at just the right moment. These are so unlikely to occur at all in real life (most people would simply assume they overheard something out of context), and the problem could usually be resolved with a simple question that never gets asked.


Idiot Ball

This is when characters seemingly go out of their way to act stupid. The worst example of this I can think of is Dracula. *Spoiler Alert*. Even though one character had already succumbed to Dracula, and all the lead characters knew this and believed in vampires, when another character began displaying the same symptoms, it never dawned on them that maybe Dracula was working on her, too. (In fact, Dracula has so many bad horrible plot devices I could on at length on how much I disliked that book, and have - Book Review - Dracula.)


Arbitrary Skepticism, Flat Earth Atheist, Stupid Scientist, Agent Scully, etc.

This is the tendency of so many writers to treat skeptics and scientists simply as cynics or denialists. It's especially bad in stories where in that fictional universe, evidence for the supernatural/monster/alien is all over the place, but the skeptics still refuse to believe. Perhaps the worst example of this in a story I've read is in the Left Behind series (I only got a couple books into it). After all these events that just scream Rapture and that the fundamentalists were right all along (billions of people disappearing in an instant, Israel being miraculously saved from an invasion, fire breathing prophets), all the religious skeptics go on continuing to dismiss religion out of hand for some reason (more info - Some Early Thoughts on Left Behind, More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book, and Book Review - Tribulation Force).


Alien Invasions (Planet Looters, Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion)

Alien Invasion movies are almost universally awful if you apply any type of rational thinking to them. First, the motivation is almost always ludicrous. This is a civilization with the technology and resources for interstellar space travel. What could they possible need from Earth that wasn't more easily attained elsewhere? Even if for some reason they wanted to come to our solar system, there are all the objects in the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt that would provide huge amounts of water, metals, or minerals, without the cost of removing them from Earth's gravity well. And when they do actually attack, in so many action movies, it's like the aliens have no concept of strategy or tactics. They send in a bunch of small fighters or foot soldiers to shoot up civilians (e.g. The Avengers or Cowboys vs. Aliens), when they could just drop bombs from orbit without ever exposing themselves to our military. Or, considering their level of technology, they'd probably have weapons even more effective than plain old bombs that they could utilize. It's just ludicrous to imagine that their invasion strategy would be to send a bunch of their alien soldiers into Manhattan.


Santa Claus Movies Where Kids Should 'Just Believe'

These movies irritate me to no end. In fact, I've written about it this blog before in the entry, Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars. Why do so many movies make it a virtue to accept something on blind faith without evidence, when we should be teaching our children critical thinking skills. Skepticism is what keeps people from buying timeshares, giving their credit card numbers to Nigerian princesses, or believing they've won the Internet lottery. It's a skill that should be fostered, not made to seem like a character flaw. And the Santa Claus movies are especially irritating because every sane adult knows the truth about Santa. We're not just telling kids to have faith, we're telling them to have faith in a known lie.


Image Source: Wikimedia

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Science and Engineering Indicators 2016

NSB LogoThe NSF has released their Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2016. It's a great report put out every two years documenting many aspects of Americans' relationship to science and engineering. For the past several reports (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, & 2014), I've made it a habit to examine one specific aspect - public understanding of science. In particular, I've examined the data on how many questions people can correctly answer on a short quiz of basic scientific questions, how that has changed over the years, and how the U.S. fares against other countries on those (mostly the) same questions.

For all of the tables I'm about to publish, note that I copied the data and notes from the NSF report, but I've formatted the tables to fit onto this blog. I made the graphs myself to help visualize the data, as these particular graphs weren't in the report.

First, here's the table showing how Americans fared on a question by question basis on some basic scientific facts. The table includes data from 1988 on up to the most recent poll in 2014.

sei_2016_trend.png

Those results aren't particularly encouraging. I point this out nearly every time I cover this report, but around 1 in 4 Americans don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and around half of Americans don't know that electrons are smaller than atoms! Those are simple, basic, scientific facts.

To help visualize that data, especially the trends on how it changes over time, here it is plotted on a graph by year.

sei_2016_trend-graph.png

Americans' knowledge has remained largely steady over the past decade and a half, though there were a few changes. Americans' knowledge on antibiotics improved the most, but has kind of plateaued since around 2006. There does appear to be a recent trend of improvement on the questions concerning the Big Bang and human evolution. Hopefully that trend is real and continues on into the future.

Next, here's the table showing how the U.S. compared to other countries.

sei_2016_comparison.png

I played around with different ways of plotting that data, but there's just so much that it's too confusing to put it all on one graph. If you're interested in seeing a graph for each individual question, you can click on the thumbnail below to embiggen* the graphs.

sei_2016_comparison-graph.png
Click to embiggen

However, I did come up with a way to do a comparison of sorts - I took an average of the percentage of people that correctly answered questions. As an example, if it was only two questions, and 100% of people answered the first question correctly, while only 50% answered the second question correctly, the average would by 75%. I did this average three ways - overall, the physical science questions, and the biological science questions. If a country didn't pose a certain question, it wasn't included in that country's average. I admit that this is a very rough way to do a comparison, but here's how each country fared.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg.png

The U.S. actually does rather well in this comparison. It's not number 1, but it's not too far off.

I also suspected that America's over-religiosity might be affecting those questions that contradict a literal young earth creationism interpretation of the Bible, so I redid all those averages exluding the Big Bang and evolution questions.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg_no_yec.png

As suspected, this did improve America's performance. This is heartening, that creationism hasn't caused huge damage to Americans' scientific understanding overall.

One lesson from this that I've pointed out before, is to keep these results in mind every time you see a poll showing people's attitudes towards anything scientific. For example, every time you see a poll showing that the majority or plurality favor teaching creationism in public schools, or a poll showing high levels of skepticism towards global warming, remember that this is the same public where a quarter of all people think the Sun orbits the Earth, and where half of all people don't realize electrons are subatomic particles. How informed can they be on scientific issues when they don't even know such simple facts?

The other major lesson is that we need to do a lot better job of teaching science. When you live in a democracy and everyone has a say in the government (at least by way of voting for representatives), you really need a well educated populace for it to work effectively. This is especially true of science in the modern age, when so many pressing issues require accurate understanding of science.

I suppose that on the plus side, as much as alarmists decry the falling quality of American education, at least in this one area, the data shows that Americans' knowledge has stayed largely the same. There's definitely room for improvement, but at least we haven't gone backwards.


*'Embiggen' is a perfectly cromulent word.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

White House Petition to End Criminal Occupation in Malheur Wildlife Refuge

White House LogoIf you're anything like me, you're probably tired of seeing a bunched of armed insurrectionists occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge up in Oregon. It's criminal, anti-American treason, bordering on terrorism. These thugs have taken over public land that belongs to all of us, recently vandalized portions of it, and there are even reports that they've been following local citizens to their homes and sitting outside their houses in cars to watch them. And they have the gall to call themselves Patriots. Granted, they're out in the middle of nowhere, and haven't yet done anything to endanger to the public, so escalating this into an armed conflict is probably taking it too far. But currently, these criminals can come and go with impunity, and the authorities haven't even cut their electricity, yet (source - NPR). If you'd like to send a message to the feds that it's time to do something about this, click on the link below to view and sign the petition:

Arrest Ammon Bundy and the armed occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

For reference, here's the text of the petition:

President Obama,

We respectfully request that you end the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge immediately. At the very least, you owe the American people an explanation as to why the area has not been isolated. Members of their organization can come and go as they please, members of the community can visit the occupied facility, and other right-wing extremist groups such as the Idaho III% can show their support.

Law enforcement inaction up to this point is an egregious violation of public safety and emboldens their erroneous assertions that the US Government has no Constitutional Authority.

Please end the siege of the refuge and arraign Ammon Bundy as soon as possible.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Answering Quora - If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it?

A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the PromiseWell, I spent some time on Quora again this week, taking away my normal blog writing time, so I'm going to recycle a Quora answer here. The question someone asked this time is the title of this entry, If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it? They went on to add just a tiny bit of clarification, "How would you structure its government, economy, culture, etc.?" I put a little bit of thought into an answer, which I've copied below.

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First off, I wouldn't want to optimize civilization for 'economic and technological progress and growth'. I'd want to optimize it for the maximum welfare of the people. And while economic and technological progress and growth are certainly part of that, they're a means to an end, not the goal itself, and shouldn't take precedence over the ultimate goal of maximum well-being.

And to be honest, while I have plenty of gripes over specific issues with government, I'd still follow the general pattern of the U.S. and the world's other prosperous democracies. First off, it would be a democracy (or more accurately, a representative democracy or republic) to ensure that laws were based on the will of the people. And even though individuals don't always know best, the Wisdom of the crowd phenomenon shows that group decisions are often very good. But, to protect against the tyranny of the majority, I'd have something like the Bill of Rights to ensure that basic rights for everybody are encoded right into the structure of government. I'd also want separate branches of government, all with equal power, to provide oversight to keep any one branch from becoming too strong.

As far as the economy, it should be a mix of a well-regulated free market and public institutions. Free markets are great at optimizing a good many things, but unregulated free markets lead to situations like a Charles Dickens novel or the robber barons of the 19th century U.S. Even well regulated free markets don't always produce the results we want for society at large, so robust public funding for basic research is also essential for long term progress. Just consider the current failure of the free market economy to produce new antibiotics. We, as a society, would really like those medicines to combat disease, but they're just not profitable enough for drug companies, so there's very little private research into new antibiotics. This is where public funding through the government should come into play, either funding research directly, or providing strong incentives for the private sector. As another example of the interaction between the public and private sector, consider GPS. The required satellite system was a huge investment, and probably wouldn't have been undertaken by any private company. But now that the satellites are in place, private industry and the free market have found many, many innovative ways to use that system.

To promote technological progress in the private sector, a patent system is essential. It's the best way to reward innovation, giving the incentive for people to come up with new ideas, knowing how much they could profit from it, and that the idea can't just by copied by anybody.

Education is critical, both for citizens to make well informed decisions when voting, and also if you want a work force of intellectuals who can drive your economic and technological progress and growth. I would structure education slightly differently that it's currently done in the U.S., mainly on funding (but not so different from other nations). I'd fund schools on the national level, not the local level as is currently done, since the current system puts the most money into rich areas where many students are already advantaged, and the least money into poor areas where many students are already disadvantaged. At the least, spending per pupil should be equal for all students, but it should probably even be skewed to put more funding into poor areas to help overcome disadvantages and get them on a more equal footing with rich areas. How much untapped potential is there in the current system?

For higher ed, I'd make it at least cheap enough to where a person could work to pay their way through school, without incurring a huge debt in the process. Even better would be free university education. It's an investment in the future intellectual workforce of the country.

So, I guess the short answer is that I'd go with pretty much what already exists in the prosperous democracies.

Image Source: A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the Promise, downloaded from ImagineeringDisney.com

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Merry Secular Christmas - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Society, 2015

As has become my tradition to celebrate Christmas on this blog, and as I've said nearly verbatim for a few years now, every year around this time I post Tim Minchin's song, White Wine in the Sun. As described on Minchin's site, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed."

Tim Minchin has his own tradition - donating all the proceeds from the sale of the song from around Christmas time to the National Autistic Society, a tradition that he's keeping again this year, including all sales from November, December, and January. So if you don't already own your own copy of the song, go buy it and help support a good cause.

As something new this year, here's a link to the lyrics, even though they're mostly easy enough to understand just listening to the song.

And now finally, here it is (but don't let the fact that you can listen to it from YouTube stop you from buying your own copy).

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