Counting the uncountable

“Not all things worth counting are countable and not all things that count are worth counting.” — Albert Einstein

(Or was it?)

Chris Dillow reviews The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a book about “how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government.”

The Tyranny of Metrics: a review
Muller provides lots of examples of this, mostly from the US. But you’ll all have examples of your own. In universities the Research Assessment Exercise (now the REF) contributed to increased administration costs and perhaps to the replicability crisis by incentivizing the publication of mediocre research. In schools, targets can encourage teaching to the test, endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets might distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students and lead to the harassment of people who have lived here for decades. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books, or increase risk by encouraging “liars’ loans. And so on.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s just a question of balancing the quantitative with the qualitative.

The Tyranny of Metrics is not, however, a diatribe against targets. Muller points to the experience of some US hospitals to show that metrics can work. They do so, he says, when they are “based on collaboration and peer review”:

Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

In other words, metrics can succeed when they are complements to knowledge: when they organize the tacit and dispersed professional judgements of people who know ground truth.

Literary pejoratives

Shakespearean insults for every situation
In addition to appreciating his literary contributions, Shakespeare enthusiasts understand and enjoy the snarky humor that is embedded in his work. His writing shows the power of language for its ability to make a statement and pack a punch. To celebrate the 402nd anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, we’ve compiled the best insults from some of his most famous works into a Shakespearean insult generator.

As well as providing us with an infographic for us to generate our own insults, there’s a comprehensive list of his best put-downs, barbs and slurs, including:

“You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.”
Much Ado About Nothing

“Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile.”
Cymbeline

“I do desire that we may be better strangers.”
As You Like It

(Via At the BookShelf)

2001 was 50 years ago already?

It’s hard to believe this film is 50 years old. The Guardian marks the occasion with a piece that describes how the first audiences were baffled and walked out of the premiere, and how the critics of the day rubbished it: “trash masquerading as art”. I wonder what its own initial review was like. The article starts with news about mountains on a tiny moon orbiting Pluto.

Kubrick’s 2001: the film that haunts our dreams of space
As a result Kubrick Mons and Clarke Montes are now two of Charon’s major mountains. It is a fitting honour – and timely. The two men’s great collaborative work, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released 50 years ago this month. By putting its creators’ names on the map of Charon, at the edge of the solar system, astronomers are repaying a debt to two visionaries who reshaped our thinking about the cosmos and created a film rated by some as the greatest ever made.

As well as being a major influence on a range of film-makers, its depiction of futuristic technology caught the eye of astronomers and designers alike.

Equally intrigued were young scientists desperate to witness technology that was credible and imaginative, something that had been entirely absent from feature films until then. “The film set new standards for ‘realistic’ portrayal of life in space, overcoming decades of Flash Gordon space-westerns,” says a former teenage astronomer, Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck, University of London. “It also created a new soundtrack for cosmic spectacle – through the use of the opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and the music of Ligeti.”

One thing I love about the film is the unflinching slowness in the editing. It’s as is the whole film, and not just HAL, is trying to stare you out. Pinter would be proud of these pauses. This clip shows that beautifully, I think.

HAL 9000: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”

And that voice. Would the film be the same without Douglas Rain? Here he is eight years before.

Universe (1960 film)
After this work, co-director Colin Low worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His work on this short may have influenced Kubrick to begin his project. Kubrick chose Universe narrator Douglas Rain as the voice of the HAL 9000 computer and also hired Wally Gentleman, who did optical effects for the NFB documentary, to work on 2001.

‘Universe’ – 1960 – science/ astronomy animation

That film starts off with a fascinating artistic impression of the moon. Here’s a slightly more up-to-date representation, care of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

Tour of the Moon in 4K

Diminishing returns of an expanding universe

Everyone‘s getting excited for the next big Avengers film, and I expect I’ll be taking the kids to see it. I’m sure it’ll be entertaining but I am starting to tire a little of this shiny soap opera genre now. And I don’t think I’m the only one; I found myself nodding along in agreement with this review of Black Panther.

Movies Watched, February 2018
And while I was impressed by the cultural significance of “Black Panther”—it’s a total triumph on that front—I found that, narratively, it was as messy, as poorly paced, and as unconvincing as any other Marvel film.

[…]

People do seem to adore this movie though and so maybe I ought to watch it again. But it used to be that the only time I’d want to rewatch a movie was when it was so good that I felt compelled to experience that excellence over and over. But with these movies that hail from heavily sequelized cinematic universes, the sensation is closer to feeling duty bound to watch so as to be sure that they’re not bad. Partly that comes from the sunk cost fallacy; I’ve invested so much into these franchises that I want to find something worthwhile in them, if for no other reason than to be able to properly consume and appraise the next sequel. That is a bad way to watch movies.

Facts and beliefs

Have we always had this ‘post-truth’ menace in our societies? Whilst the name might be new, the concept isn’t. There have always been spurious beliefs and conspiracy theories, but they seem more prevalent now. Can’t think why.

The conspiracy theory that says Trump is a genius
From these clues, a sprawling community on message boards, YouTube videos and Twitter accounts has elaborated an enormous, ever-mutating fantasy narrative about the Trump presidency. In the QAnon reality, Trump only
pretended to collude with Russia in order to create a pretext for the hiring of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, who is actually working with Trump to take down an inconceivably evil and powerful network of coup-plotters and child sex traffickers that includes Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros.

Diana Popescu at Aeon explains why we can’t always expect people to agree with us and share our beliefs just because we’ve explained some ‘facts’. As ever, it’s much more complicated than that.

What we talk about when we talk about post-truth
Objective facts and sound verification procedures are not what post-truth groups deplore but, specifically, what drives their dissent. What post-truth groups do deplore are established facts and agreed-upon truths. The issue is one of trust, not verification.

And as well as providing another explanation of how we ended up here, this post from Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry, University of Hull, offers some practical advice on how we might get out of this mess.

Why people believe in conspiracy theories – and how to change their minds
The simple answer is that facts and rational arguments really aren’t very good at altering people’s beliefs. That’s because our rational brains are fitted with not-so-evolved evolutionary hard wiring. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world and incredible ability to recognise patterns.

[…]

To make matters worse, presenting corrective information to a group with firmly held beliefs can actually strengthen their view, despite the new information undermining it. New evidence creates inconsistencies in our beliefs and an associated emotional discomfort. But instead of modifying our belief we tend to invoke self-justification and even stronger dislike of opposing theories, which can make us more entrenched in our views. This has become known as the as the “boomerang effect” – and it is a huge problem when trying to nudge people towards better behaviours.

It seems strange to think that we can’t rely on the facts of each case to get people to bin their conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, to avoid the backfire effect, ignore the myths. Don’t even mention or acknowledge them. Just make the key points: vaccines are safe and reduce the chances of getting flu by between 50% and 60%, full stop. Don’t mention the misconceptions, as they tend to be better remembered.

Also, don’t get the opponents gander up by challenging their worldview. Instead offer explanations that chime with their preexisting beliefs. For example, conservative climate-change deniers are much more likely to shift their views if they are also presented with the pro-environment business opportunities.

What a mad world we find ourselves in.

Contented

Maria Popova, the driving force behind Brain Pickings, shares her thoughts on how we relate to ideas, culture and philosophy.

Maria Popova on evergreen ideas and rethinking the meaning of content
I loathe the term “content” as applied to cultural material — it was foisted upon us by a commercially driven media industry that treats human beings as mindless eyeballs counted in statistics like views and likes, as currency to be traded against advertising revenue. Somehow people have been sold on the idea that the relationship between ads and “content” is a symbiotic one, but it is a parasitic one.

We are flooded with mediocre “content” produced for the sole purpose of transmits the ads — this type of “content,” which is now predominant online, is the reason for the epidemic of clickbait, the carrier for the highly contagious impoverishment of thought and feeling we are undergoing as a civilization.

[…]

Brain Pickings is the record of my looking, my trying to see. What I write about is simply what I think about as I read what I read, what I feel as one human being moving through this world — a kind of elaborate marginalia, my private discourse with the literature and art and ideas with which I engage. It may be the contents of my heart and mind, but it is not “content” in the sense this term has come to take on.

I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time now, she finds such great ideas.

Thoughtfully curated words

It’s so satisfying when you come across a piece of writing that expresses so eloquently something that you’ve been struggling to set down in words and rationally consider for a long time. This is just a part of it.

Curate
Sprinkle the fairy dust of high-sounding words over the ungainly contours of something quite ordinary, and you may be able to transform it into something special, in the way that a gentle snowfall can turn an ugly tool shed into a dreamy cottage, inhabited by elves. Even if you are running a thrift shop—and yes, it is not hard to find proprietors of thrift shops who identify themselves as “curators” of their establishments—you too can boast that your shop’s contents are “thoughtfully curated.” That sounds a whole lot better than saying “We don’t take used underwear or stuff that has holes in it.” But there is a lot to be said for respecting and loving ordinary things on their own terms, seeing that they are beautiful even without makeup, rather than always trying to tart them up into something grand and gilded.

But to be fair, there is another element folded into the meaning of “curate,” one running deep but not readily visible, that may also explain some of its appeal. The word derives from the Latin curare, to take care, and has in its historical ancestry the notion of a “curate” as one who is charged with the care of souls. This more spiritual meaning survives here and there, as for example in the “curate” of an Anglican parish church; and the faint aura of it surely still remains a part of the word we use to describe the museum professional. The religion of art persists, after all, as witness the flocks of culture-vultures that stream into our galleries on Sundays, standing in long lines to perform their spiritual duties. Perhaps in some instances, such as that of the independent bookstore, it can even be said that the “thoughtful curation” of the inventory reflects an attentiveness to the needs of the soul. One earnestly wants it to be so.

That last point chimes with one of Alain de Botton’s chapters in his handbook on how a future society that has fully dropped a belief in the supernatural might still care for itself. It’s worth looking up.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.

Apes on a stage

One of my favourite books is now a play, and Patrick Marmion’s stage version of Will Self’s Great Apes is getting great reviews.

Young British Apes
Transferred to the present day, complete with mobile phones, Twitter and “the statue of the colonial fascist Rhodes”, the story loses none of its satirical power. There is a hilarious scene in which a celebrated naturalist (Stephen Ventura) talks to Simon about the mating habits of humans in the wild. Office politics are shown in all their fighting, biting, bum-kissing glory. Monkey puns – “the green shoots of recovery”, “the swing of my group house” and suchlike – are good, but the funniest scenes are those that take place among the art mob. Simon, with his asymmetric quiff and endless supplies of drugs, is a composite of all the trendy artists of the past two decades.

Back in the Young British Artist era, Self’s novel was an early prophecy of artists losing their “sense of perspective”. Marmion’s version is cleverly done, playing on our nostalgia for the year when New Labour’s landslide victory was followed by Charles Saatchi’s show Sensation: Young British Artists – a feeling that endures because 1997 was “the future that never happened” (to borrow the title of Richard Power Sayeed’s recent book). Twenty years and Turner Prizes later, we are, in Busner’s words, “not into the woods yet”.

And here’s a section from the author on what he was aiming for with his novel.

Will Self on Great Apes
It became my objective to write the ape satire that would mark our annihilation of our near-conspecific: a prolonged and clamorous howl of approaching species-loneliness. My tactics were simple: to pile detail-upon-detail of chimp/human physical correspondence, until my readers had no option but to accept – in their very guts, muscles and sinews – the reality of their kinship.

Read more about Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre and watch the trailer and behind-the-scenes videos.

A different kind of classical music #2

The extraordinary physical and mental demands of performing Sichuan opera
With origins deep in southern China’s folk storytelling and music customs, Sichuan opera is characterised by traditional instrumentation, a distinctive singing style, elaborate, colourful costumes, changing masks that reflect characters’ emotional states, and daring stunts including martial arts, acrobatics and fire-breathing.

Another video from Noah Sheldon, who made that documentary about the styrofoam collector from Shanghai. Other people’s lives can be extraordinary, can’t they?

See also this post about Indian classical music.

Borges box trees

Because you can never have enough Borges.

The Borges Labyrinth
The Borges Maze: 1 kilometer maze made up of 3,200 box trees, designed by Randall Coate. Look closely and you’ll see it is shaped like a colossal open book, with BORGES spelled out and reflected among his favorite symbols: a stick, an hourglass, a tiger, a question mark, all infoliated in a labyrinth.