Friday, February 23, 2007

Negative Space

rodin_thinkerA friend of mine posted a piece that leads up to a question for which I will give an answer in due course... but first, a thought experiment.

I want you to think of two movies made in the last ten years. Pick any movies, A and B, that you want, with the following restrictions on your choice: Movie A must have a villain who is a billionaire industrialist. Either he is rich because he was evil to start with and his wealth came from unscrupulous business practices, or he was not bad initially but has been corrupted by his wealth. For movie B, on the other hand, you must pick one with a hero who is a billionaire industrialist. He must be admirable both personally and in his business dealings. He must be sane and sensible and, while he may be a bit eccentric, he must be respected by others in his industry.

I'll give you a minute...

[Jeopardy theme plays three times... de de dee de dee de dum...]

Got them? No? Why not?

Let me guess. Picking movie B is hard, isn't it? There are hundreds of choices for movie A. Almost any thriller will do. But finding movie B is tough. I can think of two, right off hand, that seem to meet the requirements: The Edge, 1997, and Meet Joe Black, 1998. Interestingly, both billionaires were played by the same actor -- Anthony Hopkins. I don't know why he has cornered the market on admirable billionaires, but there you go.

So the point of my thought experiment is to suggest that the portrayals of the very rich in popular films are almost always negative, and unless we believe that almost all real-life billionaires are evil geniuses it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are looking at some sort of bias, at least from a statistical point of view. But many phenomena that are exceedingly clear at the macro level become very difficult to see when one looks at the individual instances and it is very difficult to find a film that, all by itself, is demonstrably unfair to the rich. It is perfectly fair to write a screenplay in which the villain is very rich. There are many real-life examples of evil billionaires (George Soros comes to mind for me but you can substitute your favorite rich SOB) and it is perfectly fair to write such people into a work of fiction.

Bollywood features from India deliberately attempt to have equal portions of everything in each film -- equal amounts of comedy, drama, action, romance, music, etc. -- and with that one possible exception there is no requirement that every movie should portray every possible type of character. This means that one can never criticize any single film for a negative portrayal of the super rich. The filmmaker can always say "Yes, I could do a story about a heroic rich guy, but that is not the story I am doing right now." It's not his job to correct the balance of the industry. He is supposed to give the public a film they will enjoy and to give the production company a film that will make them money. It is not the fault of film A that film B never seems to get made. One will never find proof of Hollywood's anti-industrial biases by looking at individual films or filmmakers. The bias is altogether obvious in the large but it disappears in the particular.

Which brings me to my friend, Calvin, and his posting (also here) about the female Pakistani minister shot dead for 'breaking Islamic dress code.' It has to do with Zilla Huma Usman, the minister for social welfare in Punjab province of Pakistan who was shot dead for not wearing what her killer considered to be proper Islamic head wear. Calvin wonders why her story doesn't get more play.
So far I have not seen any outrage expressed about this. You'd think that someone, some human rights organization somewhere, could put out a press release or something. And given that the fanatic committed this murder in the name of Islam, wouldn't you think that someone in a position of authority in the Islamic faith would speak out against what's being done in Islam's name? So far, I haven't seen any. At least no statements have made it into Google's search engine yet. In the land of free speech, has Keith Ellison, the Islamic member of the House of Representatives spoken out? Nothing on his official U.S. House web site. No press release. No statement. No nothing.
So, why doesn't her story have more legs? Why do you have to read about it here, or in some random LiveJournal page, instead of in the Associated Press? [To be fair, it did make the AP wire but very few outlets picked it up. here is a story from Fox News.]

The news outlets might point out that thousands of people are killed every day, most of them for reasons fully as stupid as not wearing a head scarf, and they can't all be worldwide news. The front pages just aren't big enough and the news media have to pick and choose what they think will interest their customers. One can easily criticize news organizations when they write stories that aren't fair -- but it's harder to criticize them when it isn't fair that they didn't write a story.

In general, if your perspective differs from that of the editors of a news outlet you will find the negative shapes formed by missing stories easier to discern. If you mostly agree with the editor's world-view, this "selection" bias becomes hard to see. And since editors agree with themselves 100 percent of the time, and since they agree with one-another nearly as often, they are genuinely mystified by charges of bias.

I, for one, can't even argue honestly that the story really is that interesting. Pakistan is a long way away, after all, and the guy who shot her was clearly a crank. There is no particular reason why the story should get a lot of play. Its lack of coverage only stands out against the bright background of other stories of even less import that are covered 24/7 for weeks. No one was killed or injured in the scandal at Abu Grahib, for instance, but we heard quite a bit about that... yes, quite a bit... too much, in fact. Please forget I brought it up.

Update: Brent Bozell has a piece on bias via story selection that echoes some of my points.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

China Syndrome vs Global Warming

ChinaSyndrome5Say what you want about celebrity activists, they do have an impact on public opinion, especially when concurrent events reinforce their message. These days, aside from the always-popular anti-war activism, the trendy issue is clearly global warming, and that is where the movers and shakers among the trendy beautiful people are to be found.

But a generation ago, in the late 1970s, the computer models that predict global warming hadn't been writter yet and other pressing issues lay heavy on the public mind. Actually, quite a few people were worried back then about global cooling caused by particulate pollution in the atmospherere. When combined with the then-also-trendy worries about nuclear weapons you got Nuclear Winter -- a particularly alarming scenario that, as I recall came in second in a poll of issues that the public rated as "most worrisome." To keep this fact in perspective it helps to note that the number one concern was genetal herpes (and, yes, come to think of it that poll might have been taken on college campuses.)

Jane Fonda, one of the most prominent celebrity activists of that era, was looking for a new issue. Her famous and infamous career as an anti-war activist was winding down. The Vietnam war had been over for several years and she was looking for new opportunities. She found her opening in a chance to play a reporter who witnesses an accident at a nuclear plant in Colubmia Picture's film, The China Syndrome. According to a rather nice short history of the film that a Google Search turned up in the University of San Diego History Department, Fonda was attracted to the part because she was interested in doing a film on anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood (a role that later went to Meryl Streep). Fonda replaced Richard Dreyfuss in the China Syndrome, who had been cast but had subsequently priced himself out of the role.

The China Syndrome was released on March 17th, 1979 and eleven days later the number two reactor at Three Mile Island had a catestrophic cooling failure, leading to the meltdown of part of the core (see the Wikipedia entry). This came at a time when the US nuclear power industry was slacking off slightly from its peak a few years earlier because of concerns about the rising costs of Uranium fuel. The combination of the publicity for the film -- which had raised public concern about the risks of nuclear power -- and the accident at Three Mile Island, was a perfect storm of bad PR for the US nuclear industry -- a disaster from which the industry still has not recovered. No nuclear plants ordered after the release of The China Syndrome were ever finished. A few projects that were already in the pipeline were completed and commisioned but others were abandoned.

It is difficult to say for sure how much of the impact of Three Mile Island on the nuclear industry can be attributed to the multiplier effect of The China Syndrome. My opinion is that most of the damage to the industry could have been avoided. Without the heightened public concern about nuclear power, the incident could probably have been portrayed as a steam explosion that was successfully contained with no injuries and a minimal release of radiation, mostly in the form of short-lived and quickly dispersed isotopes of noble gasses. The reactor itself was irrecoverably damaged but a whole industry cannot be destroyed by the breakdown of a single machine.

What destroyed the nuclear power construction industry for over a generation in this country was the expense of building and operating a nuclear plant in the post-Three Mile Island environment. Exaggerated public concerns about the safety of nuclear plants allowed the anti-nuclear groups to dictate the regulatory environment in which the nuclear industry operated. The costs of construction doubled and tripled. The compliance costs skyrocketed. Because of these new expenses, nuclear power became expensive compared to generating power from fossil fuels -- a fact that anti-nuclear groups delighted in stressing (while generally omitting their own role in creating the expense). I think much of that increase in expense can fairly be attributed to The China Syndrome. Arguably, hundreds of fossil fuel powered electric plants built in the US in the last quarter century would have been nuclear plants if not for the film.

France gets 80 percent of their electric power from nuclear sources, the US only gets 20 percent. It's not reasonable to expect that, if not for the irrational anti-nuclear policies of the last quarter-century we would be at 80 percent like France. (France is a fossil-fuel poor country.) So, for sake of argument we can split the difference and assume that anti-nuke hysteria explains half the difference. By that reasoning we can thank The China Syndrome for the fact that only 20 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear power, instead of 50 percent.

Let's do a little math. Electrical power plants in the US emit something like 500 million tons of carbon into the air as CO2 each year. None of that carbon comes from the 20 percent that is currently nuclear so 500 million tons divided by 80 percent non-nuclear gives us 6.25 million tons of carbon to generate one percent of the power we use in the US. If we assume that we would be generating an additional 30 percent from nuclear power then we would emit 187.5 fewer millions of tons of carbon each year. It has been 28 years since The China Syndrome/Three Mile Island so we can approximate the cumulative effect by multiplying the yearly emission difference by 28 and then dividing by two. That way we assign one twenty-eighth of the yearly emissions in the first year, two twenty-eighths in the second year, and so forth. So let's see... 187.5 million tons times 28 years is 5.25 billion tons divided by two to allow for our approximation of linear growth gives us 2.625 billion tons of carbon. Assuming each ton is 2000 pounds and bearing in mind that each pound of carbon combines with 2.7 pounds of oxygen to form CO2, we get, lets see... 2.625 billion tons of carbon is 5.25 trillion pounds of carbon -- which is enough to make 19.425 trillion pounds of CO2. Since we are approximating here lets round that to twenty trillion pounds. That's 20,000,000,000,000 lbs of CO2.

So what was the damage done by the accident at Three Mile Island? The number two reactor was damaged beyond repair. Enough radioactivity was released to equal a chest X-ray or two for the operators of the plant. And, thanks to the tireless efforts of Jane Fonda, twenty trillion pounds of extra CO2 were released into the atmosphere over the next twenty eight years.

Way to go, Jane! Who says that celebrity activists never have a real effect!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Magic Feather Year One: The Bony Ass Index


Today marks the one year anniversary of my most recent attempt to do something about my weight. On February 4th, 2006 I stepped on the scale and I weighed 304 lbs. That was down about 30 lbs from my all time heaviest (about 335) but still quite an unhealthy weight. At about 6'4" 304 lbs. gives me a Body Mass Index of about 37 which is well into the "Obese" range which starts at a BMI of 30.

I have a large frame and I tend to carry weight well and even at my fattest I didn't tend to strike people so much as a fat man as a big one. But vanity is one thing and health is quite another. Carrying that much weight is not healthy, no matter how stylishly one may carry it, and as I approached middle age I was looking at some real and growing health risks. A little bit more than a year ago, my doctor told me it was time to lose some weight.

While clicking around in a website where I order vitamins online I came across an article that suggested that a particluar fiber supplement might help with weight control. (I'm not sure which article it was, it might have been an earlier revision of this article on obesity from Doing a bit more research I also found this article from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition on using viscous fiber to control Type 2 Diabetes. The JACN article was a twofer: in addition to a study on viscould dietary fiber it also reported some success in using ginseng to control blood sugar. Since Diabetes is one of the things my doctor had told me I could look forward to if I didn't control my weight I decided to add some ginseng to my experiment.

Starting on February 4th of last year I have taken a handfull of pills before each meal with at least ten ounces of water. I have used the supplements to support a fairly traditional weight-reduction diet relying on caloric reduction and moderately low-fat food. Most (perhaps all) of the weight loss is can be attributed to the diet, not the pills, but the pills do keep me from getting hungry between meals and they may help somewhat with fat loss. My handful of pills consists of the following: For breakfast, two capsules (1000mg) of PGX fiber (SlimFast or Welbetx) and one tablet (200mg) of Calcium Citrate; for lunch and dinner, three capsules (1500mg) of PGX, two capsules (1300mg) of Korean (Panax) Ginseng and one tablet (200mg) of Calcium Citrate. I also go to the gym three times a week and try to work fairly hard for an hour and a half each time I go.

Five months into the diet and exercise program, when it seemed clear that it was working unusually well (compared to my dozens of previous failed attempts to reduce my tonnage) I wrote a piece about the diet in The Teleoscope. The Magic Feather Diet reads a bit like a telemarketing spiel -- I was quite excited to finally find something that worked -- but it contains good information, I think, for people looking to lose weight.

Here are the results. I weigh twice a month, usually on the 1st and 15th of the month. Here are the results as a graph of my weight over the last year. I lost weight at a moderate but fairly constant rate of between one and a half to two pounds a week and finally leveled off at just under 235 lbs.


Interestingly, when I reached the vicinity of my target weight I didn't do anything different to level off. I still take the pills and still eat more or less the same food in the same amounts as when I was losing but my weight seems to have stabilized once most of my body fat was gone. If you look at the graph it's a fairly sharp corner. On the other hand it did coincide with the holiday food season...

So, one year in I am declaring victory. I plan to go on taking the pills and eating the same food until I find some reason to stop. I eat what I like, only smaller portions than before, and the pills are neither unhealthy nor expensive. Why mess with success?

If you go back to the Body Mass Index Calculator and put in my current weight, 233 at 6'4", it will tell you that while I am no longer "obese" I am still "overweight". The accompanying text will also tell you that the BMI is only an approximation and that for a more accurate assessment you should evaluate your weight based on your percent body fat. I am a good example of why. The BMI calculation says I should weigh no more than 204 lbs to be in the "normal" weight range but at 233 lbs I am thin enough and I have developed my own personal index -- the Bony Ass index -- which indicates that I am perfect right where I am now.