Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Superman vs. the Klan.


I downloaded a series of episodes of the old Superman radio serial called "Clan of the Fiery Cross," which Ben and I have started listening to in the car.  These episodes have some historical significance, as told by Wikipedia and this book:


Apparently There was a human rights activist who infiltrated the Klan and documented a bunch of secret meetings.  He went to the producers of Superman with this information, and they turned it into a series of episodes in which Superman battles the Klan as the main villain.  It helped a lot in delegitimizing them.  Naturally, I love stories about using entertainment media to solve real social problems.

It's really funny to listen to old radio shows.  As a kid I owned some cassette tapes with selected episodes of George and Gracie, The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny, and Charlie McCarthy, so I'm familiar with the big-talking style of radio stories, but it's new to Ben and he finds it hilarious.  We've only heard one episode out of 16 so far, so we've only gotten vague hints that Klan members will show up.  What makes it particularly funny is that it's full of slang from the 40's.  I simply have no idea whether the dialogue is well written or sounded natural when, for example, everybody keeps referring to one character (a little league pitcher) as a "sorehead."  "He's such a sorehead!"  "Don't be a sorehead, buddy!"  Over and over again.

It also led to a discussion with Ben about why the production values are so low.  He mentioned that the radio show -- which obviously has one guy playing an organ for all the background music, heroic or sinister -- doesn't sound as good as a movie or TV show.  I pointed out that it costs a lot to compose a professional score and hire a full orchestra, and these guys had to crank out an episode every week, plus the business of radio shows may not have been big enough to justify any kind of serious budget.

What's especially interesting is how thoroughly integrated the advertising is with the show.  One minute the announcer will be breathlessly describing the exploits of Jimmy Olsen, and another minute he'll be saying, "Kids, Kellogg's Pep is delicious.  When your mom brings you Kellogg's Pep, make sure you eat it ALL and don't waste any.  And pass on this important information to your family, so they'll know how to eat Pep properly."  These ads would go on for about two minutes, and Pep was the only product being advertised in the first show.  (I looked it up, Pep was a competitor to Wheaties and contained toy prizes like Cracker Jacks did.)

It was comically transparent, and it made me wonder whether or not advertising has gotten cleverer or more subtle since then.  To be honest, the way I consume media allows me to avoid the most obnoxious commercials.  I don't have a cable subscription, so everything I watch is via Netflix, DVDs, movie theaters, or downloads, and I have ad filters on all my browsers.  When I see a commercial on TV outside my house it tends to make me cringe.  Still, it's probably not as bad as the actors waving products around while doing the show.

You can download the episodes from this archive, or look them up on YouTube.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Election night cheer

Now let's see here... as I write this, Florida, Virginia, and Montana are the only states still considered too close to call, but Obama is ahead in all three.  Absent those results, the electoral votes stand at 290-200.  Obama could lose them all and he still has the election.  If Obama wins them all, that would be 338-200.  That would mean that Obama beat Romney and it wasn't close.

Who could have predicted such an outcome?

...Oh that's right, ME.

The technology of election turnout: My experience as a phone bank volunteer

Happy election day, everybody.  Nate Silver shows Barack Obama with a 91.6% chance of winning today, and a projected electoral college of 315-223 votes.  I look forward to the results at the end, so that I can see whether my "not at all close" prediction from early May will give me gloating rights or make me look foolish.  This guy, of course, still believes that Romney is way ahead and has been the whole time.  We'll see, right?

This week I used up some of my remaining Paid Time Off days.  While I was out of the office, I decided to take a break from the obvious regimen of improving at video games, to visit a local phone bank.  I put in six hours on Saturday, and three on Monday.

[...]

Friday, September 21, 2012

Election thoughts 2: Momentum and winning with intangibles

In my last post I talked about the long term consequences of the Republican strategy and about why Mitt Romney is losing as a result of it.  The question, though, is just how badly he is losing.

I've linked to electoral-vote.com often, since it is a site which breaks down polls state by state and collects them into an overall picture of how the important numbers may shake out in the election.  A similar site, with better analysis, is Five Thirty Eight, a New York Times blog run by Nate Silver, which uses some complicated math formulas to forecast the probabilities of each candidate winning.  (538 is the total number of electoral votes available from all 50 states.)

[...]

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Election thoughts 1: Divide, conquer, and lose

This election season has been great for making me feel overconfident.  Back in early May, I predicted thaObama is going to beat Romney, and it's not going to be very close.  With less than two months to go, I see no reason to revise that estimate.  When I made my prediction the score was 290-215 electoral votes.  As of today, it is now 319-206; the lead that was overwhelming before has increased by 38 EVs.

And talking about overconfidence, lately I've been leaning towards a theory that the Republican party is even more screwed than they appear to be.  It all has to do with a strategy proposed to Richard Nixon, which has worked very well for Republicans but seems to be backfiring now.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Early election prognostication

I'm going to go ahead and make my presidential election prediction right now, subject to wild swings as new evidence comes in: Obama is going to beat Romney, and it's not going to be very close.

I'm basing this on largely on the status of http://www.electoral-vote.com/, a site I followed obsessively in 2008, and they wound up being a pretty good indicator of the race.

Electoral map as of 5/2/2012

Since Romney secured the nomination, nationwide polling on Obama vs. Romney has been close enough to be called a dead heat in some cases.  This one, for example.  Despite this, right now on a state by state basis, the election numbers look really, really good for the incumbent.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Classical music ringtones

I'd like to get some suggestions for a few new classical music ringtones.

Since I got my first Android a year and a half ago, I've made a minor hobby of cutting music clips together into new MP3's that make good ringtones. My all-purpose ringtone up till now has been Vivaldi's Concerto for 2 trumpets in C. (Click the link for a recording on YouTube.) Now that I've replaced my phone, and I'm a bit sick of hearing that all the time, I'm looking for more suggestions.

My dad's got his own personal ringtone: "Jupiter" from Holst's The Planets.

My sister, being a muppets geek, gets some theme music from Labyrinth.

Lynnea's ringtone revolves around a fact about her: Every girl's crazy about a sharp dressed man.

So anyway, I'm looking for more suggestions about music to cut into other ringtones. The clip in question needs to be loud and attention getting, and preferably upbeat so I'll be in a good mood to get the call. It also should be only instrumental. Classical is preferred but obviously some rock fits the bill.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Sloppy statistics failing to show racism

This is a bit silly, but it's a good illustration of a bad statistical understanding coloring the perception of a problem that doesn't actually exist.

Cracked.com is running an article today called "4 Famous Pop Culture Moments Everyone Remembers Incorrectly." Sometimes I enjoy their articles and sometimes not so much. But in this case, example #2 is a little weird and random.

Will Smith Never Says "Welcome to Earf" in Independence Day

Wait, what? He doesn't say Welcome to Earth? I swear I remember him saying that. Look, it's right here in convenient video format.

Oh wait, no! The author of the article actually was trying to emphasize the word "Earf," because apparently "everyone" misremembers the quote as being delivered in some kind of comical ebonics lingo, when it actually wasn't. Everyone, huh? First I ever heard of that.

As proof, he googles up the words "Welcome to earf" and boggles at the awe inspiring 40,000 hits. Come on though, if you are going to prove something with a google search, don't you think a little direct comparison is in order?
  • "will smith welcome to earf"
    About 14,300 results
  • "will smith welcome to earth"
    About 18,100,000 results
So... when you say "everyone," I guess you mean "Less than 0.1% of everyone," eh?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Am I the only one who finds Ron Paul's strategy creepy?



First the TL;DR version of this video: The Paul campaign dismisses elections as "beauty contests" and is extremely proud and smug about their ability to game the system. They hope to score the nomination, not by convincing a majority of people that Ron Paul is the best man for the job, but by taking advantage of loopholes in the way the election is organized. They envision a scenario where they can "win" a lot of states even while technically losing badly in the elections of those same states.

Longer version: This dude, who enters the video at around the 6:30 mark, is Doug Wead, senior adviser to the Ron Paul campaign. You may have noticed that Ron Paul is still in the race despite the fact that he hasn't won an election in a single state, and polls don't show him as the likely winner of any future state.

In this and a previous interview with Maddow, Wead proudly explains their strategy, which somehow involves "winning" in delegate states despite not actually winning the popular vote in any single state. Now the mechanics of electoral politics are complicated and honestly kind of boring, so I'm probably going to explain this wrong in some way. But the gist of it seems to be something like this. In some states, delegates are awarded proportionally to the number of votes they get, rather than "winner take all" for the state's popular election.

So the idea is: let's say for the sake of argument, Maine is allowed 13 delegates to the national Republican Convention. But the state election yields a pool of more than 13 delegates -- let's say 200 -- and they will then choose from among those delegates. So let's say maybe Rick Santorum won the election and gets 100 delegates, Romney comes in second with 80 delegates, and Ron Paul gets just 15 because he's not actually that popular among Republicans. The other 5 can be Stephen Colbert write-ins, I guess.

But in the Paul camp's mind, rather than wasting time on actually winning the vote, their best plan is to somehow badger the state party into letting only Ron Paul delegates go to the convention. That means that, in this example, Maine picks 13 delegates, and all of them are Ron Paul delegates even though they won only a small fraction of the vote, and all 185 not-Paul delegates are left out in the cold.

In the video, Doug Wead constantly grins and chortles over the pure genius of this plan, while Rachel looks sort of goggle-eyed and asks questions along the lines of, "Isn't that sort of ignoring who the people actually want to elect?" Wead repeatedly, over and over again, dismisses the actual voting process as "A beauty contest."

Now maybe he's right, that the system the Republican party uses is hopelessly corrupt, and that makes it possible to game the system in this way, and the Paul campaign is perfectly within their rights to take advantage of this and maybe even win.

But what I'm hearing from Wead is total contempt for elections as a means of picking a candidate. Look, I personally think the entire slate of Republican candidates is abysmal and would hate to have any of them win the presidency, Paul included. But this sort of blanket dismissal of elections as a beauty contest indicates what sounds like a much deeper hostility towards democracy as a whole.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Birther fail... again

It seems that last week a "birther" case, brought by professional loony and Zsa-Zsa Gabor impersonator Orly Taitz, was legally dumped. In the ruling (see PDF), Judge Malihi stated, yet again, that Barack Obama is in fact a U.S. citizen. The birther case was so bad that they lost even though neither Obama nor a lawyer representing Obama wasted their time showing up.

Needless to say, the right wing blogosphere is going nuts over this, to the point where searching Google News for "Malihi" will mostly bring up hysteria-laden headlines like "Georgia Judge Michael Malihi is a cowardly traitor."

Though much more low key, this article by "the Conservative voice of Arizona" manages to hit all the silly points after starting off with a reasonable summary of the facts.

"Using Malihi’s analysis, anyone born in the United States is a natural born citizen. In other words, according to Malihi, children born within the United States to illegal aliens, tourists and/or terrorists are natural born citizens and are, therefore, eligible to become President of the United States."

Well, um, yes. It's kind of established legal precedent already, I thought. Hey, you know what I could do? I could look it up!

All the original Constitution said about the birth issue was, "No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

The Fourteenth Amendment, though, says: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

And then the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 1898, that a man born in the United States to two citizens of China, was a legal citizen of the United States, based on the Fourteenth amendment. Stupid old activist judges in the 19th century.

In other words, this isn't controversial law, and hasn't been for well over a hundred years.

But hey, nothing our friends at the right wing rag can't obfuscate with an analogy to a faulty syllogism.

"Malihi’s conclusion is more analogous to saying: All dogs are mammals and all cats are mammals and therefore, all cats are dogs."

Noooooo... What Malihi said was:

  1. All people born in the United States are citizens.
  2. Obama is a person born in the United States.
  3. Therefore Obama is a citizen.
  4. Dumbass.

I'm paraphrasing a bit, but as far as I can remember my logic classes, that is a valid Modus Ponens. Especially the last part.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Netflix, giving context to my childhood

As a kid I read a lot of MAD magazine. I believe that the first issue I ever bought had a parody of Superman III, which Wikipedia tells me would date it to December 1983, when I was 9. Following the same list forward and remembering the issues as well as I can, I probably retained the subscription for about ten years and dropped it when I went to college. I still have a box with some of those back issues, although they're not exactly in mint condition and hence worthless.

Thinking back on the experience, I find myself realizing for the first time that a nine year old is not the intended target audience. It had heavy political content which, like The Daily Show, educated while entertaining me, and probably shaped a lot of my political views. (There was quite a lot of mockery of the religious right, which is no friend to satire.) Also, the movie satires were often based on R-rated material, and the artists didn't shy away from drawing semi-nude characters. From the back, or using creative scenery covering, but as a teenager you take what you can get, ha ha.

So MAD sits in an odd place for me, because I remember it as kid's entertainment but it apparently was not. And I enjoyed a plenty of satires of TV and movies that I couldn't or wouldn't see, because of the rating or because the subject matter was a kind of adult that wasn't interesting to me. I never cared to watch watch Dukes of Hazzard or The A*Team, but I did read the fake versions. I remember loving their parody of "The Shining," and yet not seeing the movie until years later.

Netflix is providing an interesting service these days which has really altered my entertainment habits. Ten years ago you rented a movie from Blockbuster, and you paid for each movie you rented, so if you wanted to watch something then it had better be worth at least $4 to watch that particular movie, or you wouldn't bother. Five years ago, Netflix was mostly replacing Blockbuster, but you still had a limited number of discs available at any given time, so you had to carefully choose what you might really want to watch.

That's all changed now. Netflix's live streaming capability covers a good half of their total content, and therefore renting a movie is a lot more like highly interactive television. Pay the monthly fee, and watch whatever you want. With TV, you might be fine leaving a crummy show on as background noise that you only partly pay attention to. Likewise with Netflix, you can watch half a movie and then quit if you don't like it. Run a movie in a computer window and only pay partial attention to it while you do something else in a different window -- that's my preferred viewing method. Also, here in Austin there is very good high speed satellite wifi coverage to support my Android, and the Netflix app works pretty well. If I run out of podcasts and don't feel like listening to books, I can always turn on a TV series, stream the sound through my car speakers, and turn the screen face down to avoid the temptation of peeking when I drive.

As a result, I've got a lot of TV series and movies to catch up on that may not have been quite good enough to rent, but are still interesting for historical purposes. Which really helps for me to understand what those MAD satires were all about.

For example, I recently finished a movie called Jumpin' Jack Flash. Has anybody even heard of this one? It's a 1986 comedy/thriller starring Whoopi Goldberg as a hapless computer genius (in 1986 terms, that means she knows how to replace broken parts and use this arcane program that resembles a chat room). She starts getting mysterious messages from a British spy who is trapped in Soviet Union somewhere -- the Soviet Union being a convenient omnipresent villain in Reagan's America.

What's weird is that this movie has not left a significant mark on the cultural world in any sense, but I remember the satirical version pretty well. It was called "Jumbled Joke Flash."

The main running joke throughout the comic was about the fact that Whoopi Goldberg swears all the time. Nearly every single panel contained some variation of ASCII swear symbols, e.g., "@!#$". I even remember asking my mom how all these symbols should be read for maximum humorous effect, and she says "Why don't you just insert 'gawl dang' everywhere?"

Now I think it's kind of odd, though. Having watched the movie, there is quite a bit of casual swearing, although not much more than most people I know would do when in a stressful situation. Why draw so much attention to this? Was it very novel to have lots of swearing in an R-Rated movie? And doesn't the idea that swearing is silly and embarrassing enough to hang such an obvious lampshade on, support the notion that MAD really is targeted at young kids after all? I dunno, maybe I really was the intended audience.

Anyway, the movie was pretty unremarkable on the whole, and I see that Ebert hated it even though he thought Whoopi Goldberg made a valiant effort to save it through charisma. What surprised me the most was the complete lack of any particular twist that would make the sequence of events a surprise. Sure, there's a double agent who tries to kill her after appearing trustworthy, but that barely counts as a twist at all. I was wondering if "Jack" the mysterious chat room agent, would turn out to be entirely fictional, or right in her office the whole time. Except, nope, at the end of the movie he shows up, and he is indeed a British agent, and they appear to have a potential romance there, and that's the happy ending.

So, yeah. There's a movie I wouldn't have seen without free streaming. On the flip side, Lynnea and I have gotten heavily into Arrested Development, which is a delight.

I guess all I'm trying to say here is that new technologies keep on subtly changing our habits to the point where the old ways of doing things start seeming quaint very quickly now.

It's been a few years since I broke out that box of magazines. I should go search it for more movie recommendations.