Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From Nov. 21, 2007: The Oh-So-Unbiased IPCC Report Process

From the original "blog" I used to do regularly back in the day, here's one I did from November 21st, 2007 (at 2:07pm):

The Oh-So-Unbiased IPCC Report Process

Step 1: IPCC Approves Outline

IPCC = politicians in an intergovernmental panel who get to approve the basic idea of what is about to be reported... Before the science is even done.

Rather than the way real science works where you make an observation, come up with some hypotheses, test it, and then offer and only then create an outline to report your findings. Imagine if I were doing a double blind study of a new cancer treatment and I'd written my outline in advance then went on to step two... the cherry-picking stage.

Step 2: Governments, Organizations Nominate Experts

Now that we know what we want to say this is the part where the government officials on the IPCC get to decide which scientists they will be using to make their case. Also... a great opportunity for bias to influence the overall results. We do this all the time as ordinary individuals of course, and I'm fine with that in general, but I don't have the power to force someone else to agree with me whereas the IPCC ultimately will in many ways. So... good times here as well.

Step 3: Bureaucrats pick the specific authors

So - NOW that we've already chosen the group of scientists we'd like to use to support the outline we already wrote for the report, now we should choose the specific scientists we'd like to have author the report itself.

Does anyone else not see a bit of a pattern here? Government officials - non-scientists - have an amazingly large amount of control over the way this report comes out simply by being in control of the level of diversity of opinion represented.

So... Skipping ahead a bit, we find that after one round of purely expert (peer) review - we get a 2nd Draft written by the selected authors...

Step 7: Government & Experts Review Draft

Out of curiosity - why exactly would the governments represented by the IPCC need to verify a scientific report?

Perhaps they need to make sure it conforms to their original outline... Just a thought.

Now, this goes through a few other government review steps, and that's all well and good, but then the government officials on the panel get to write the Policy Summary...

This is what (as I'm sure many have noticed) really chaps my ass. Because at this point, the politicians can monolithically make sweeping recommendations about what new laws to write, new programs to invent and new tariffs & taxes to pay for it.

So, just to review:

1. The policy makers write an outline.
2. The policy makers nominate scientists to write a report based on said outline.
3. The policy makers pick the specific scientists from their pre-selected pool to write the actual text of the sections of the report again based on said outline.
4-5. Draft 1, peer-reviewed (GOOD!)
6-7. Draft 2, government (and peer) reviewed... what!?
8-9. Final draft, government reviewed... what1?X10
10. Panel approves the report and publishes to the world.

And bonus step 11: IPCC gets to make authoritative recommendations of policy.

Anyone ever heard the term "selection bias"? For some strange reason, it keeps popping up in my mind.

Now, to be clear, I don't think the scientists are purposefully doing bad research! I think people who need backing for policy positions are put in a very easy position to generate reports and authority through selecting the people who are likely to represent their views. And just to be sure, they get to write the outline in advance.

Where did I get all this you might ask!?

Oh yes, the IPCC website itself.

Climategate, sure! But... Amazongate!?

Thank you, Ron Bailey, for bringing even more dereliction of scientific duty to my attention today.

I honestly don't know that I really understand why the "climate change" issue is so prone to such extreme dishonesty, but here's where we stand:
  1. Climategate: A series of hacked or whistle-blown emails released to the public showing that East Anglia University Scientist, Phil Jones and his a team of prominent climatologist have a pattern of deliberately obfuscating their data by manipulating models, colluding to block "skeptical" scientists from being peer-reviewed (conveniently allowing the "consensus" scientists to claim that there aren't many peer-reviewed "skeptics"), and, as if that weren't bad enough - there's evidence to suggest that these same scientists were purposefully trying to avoid full compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests to prevent skeptical researchers from obtaining and trying to replicate their results.
  2. Glaciergate: The IPCC used a plagarized quote from a 1999 article in "New Science" magazine to extrapolate that the Himalayan Glaciers would have all melted away by 2035. Turns out that the scientists studying the glaciers have since realized that this isn't actually true and while the glaciers are melting (as one might expect in a long term warming trend that follows an ice age, right?), they aren't going to disappear in 25 years. The IPCC, of course, went for hyperbolic hysteria and left science at the door.
  3. Hurricanegate: In 2007, the IPCC claimed based on little to no evidence that hurricanes & other severe weather anomalies would worsen due to global warming. As a result, the UK and other nations pledged hundreds of billions of dollars to help the 3rd world cope... By which I mean they assuaged their undeserved guilt to the tune of a few hundred billion. Turns out, there's no credible evidence to substantiate that claim. I'll be expecting an apology from Al Gore.
  4. Amazongate(!): Yeah... That's right, Amazongate. The IPCC, in a flagrant display of being entirely brainless as a group, raised the alarm that 40% of the Amazon rainforest would be destroyed by the effects of global warming. Where did they get their figures? From an advocacy paper by a group working within the World Wildlife Fund, of course!
Yeah, that reminds me of a college Biology teacher I had who voiced some obviously ridiculous number of acres of rainforest being destroyed each year in class. At the time I wrote down the number and then Googled (cool thing having laptops in the classroom, huh?) the amount of rainforest that existed in the amazon... Then for fun, I looked up the surface area of the Earth itself.

Know what I found? For my bio professor's figure to have been correct, essentially about 70% of the planet would have had to have been covered in rainforest, and all of it would have had to have been destroyed between about 1965 and 2004. I wish I'd saved my notes on that... I can't remember the figures involved, but believe me, it was massive.

To this day, I don't know if he was being deliberately misleading & alarming or if he just simply made an error and said like "thousand" instead of "hundred" or something to that effect.

(Coming soon to a park bench near you!)

Regardless, there seems to be a pattern, and it's the same pattern religious people follow to get people to believe in their faith much of the time. Hyperbole is immaterial to people who are evangelizing their ideological position because what matters is that people are scared into some kind of action. It doesn't matter if the basis for that action is true or false, it only matters that people just get on board and do what the evangelicals want. I have a ton of "skeptic" (as in Michael Shermer, not related to global warming) friends who I'm regularly disappointed by purely because in reality they aren't consistent skeptics at all!

They suffer some of the worst types of hubris and confirmation bias primarily because they are unwilling to believe that the high priests of their religion - scientists - are capable of being corrupt, greedy or in some cases, just plain wrong. There is a really serious tendency towards believing all kinds of incredulous things simply because that belief is the dogma of the day. Now ironically, named skeptic above Michael Shermer has written books about why people believe stupid things... In his books, he's usually referring to why people believe in woo-woo nonsense like dousing rods, psychics, ghosts and even "god". Then of course there is the "God Delusion" author, Richard Dawkins to come to terms with a well. Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and many other scientists & philosophers of science have all covered this topic at length.

But almost never do they even acknowledge, much less deal with the wide-spread reality, that even scientists and fans of science... Even people who are self-described skeptics, can have major blind spots when the ridiculous belief is something they are emotionally attached to.

And let's be honest, Global Warming has hugely religious and extremely emotional undercurrents, doesn't it?

On the one hand, there's the arrogance of humanity that we have this massive power to alter a 4 Billion year-old planet with just a century of driving cars and using electricity. There's the guilt component because rich westerners so often feel (or claim to feel) bad about being so much wealthier and having so much higher a standard of living than other people around the world - though they almost never recognize *why* that happened, and instead reduce it to either some Marxist polylogism and say that certain groups/classes/races/nations were born poor and exploited, or they'll blame it on "Capitalism". Neither of which are true, of course... But some people just aren't that good at self-analysis. Additionally, there's the emotional issue of being invested in "saving the planet", and doing all sorts of other "good works".

At any rate, I view most of the "save the world" business as primarily religious. It is clothed in religious language, it's a supremely belief-driven issue, it's adherents have unshakable faith - either in their god or in some other "higher power" like government. And like all religions, all those who question its fundamental truths are treated like heretics and heathens, cast out and exiled (in this case, prevented from getting peer-review or tenure), and all evidence that runs contrary to the common dogma should be purged.

I suspect that that is the underlying psychology behind all this, but it is really very bad for everyone. It's bad for science and scientists because the public is rapidly losing faith in their credibility - I actually think this is good though, since I strongly believe people need to spend more time questioning "experts" rather than just sheepishly bleating the party-line. It's bad for the public though, because a lot of scientists aren't in the "save the planet" business, but the "doing good research" business. And those people are going to lose out if people start thinking all scientists are as slimey as the bunch who've been messing about in Climatology.

ALSO... In general, it's really not the scientists at fault here, but rather the "intergovernmental" politicians who write these so-called IPCC Reports.

Funny isn't it, that the minute government people get involved with things like this "science" is thrown out the window in favor of propaganda that gets the most hyperbolic, alarmist sentiments out to the public. I wonder what incentive they might have for alarming people... Couldn't possibly be used to drum up support for people giving even more power and money to politicians, now could it?


[Bonus "I told you so" Blog: The Oh-So-Unbiased IPCC Report Process from Nov. 21st, 2007]

Monday, January 25, 2010

Welcome to the Age of Keynes!

Hayek & Keynes duke it out with a classic rapper battle to the death...

Honestly though, why does anyone - anywhere - believe that John Maynard Keynes was anything but a fool who couldn't come up with a decent theory so he filled in all the holes with inexplicably stupid ideas like "animal spirits"? Worse, how is it that all the "smart" people seem to think that's an acceptable explanation!? To me it's just as insane as blaming a 300 year old "pact with the devil" for the Haitian earthquakes.

Hayek FTW.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Censorship & Propaganda

Here's some general inanity for ya.... 

Today, someone I know just finished editing (and is now uploading) a video requested by the State Department designed to combat Internet censorship in China, Iran and other members of the current Axis (of Evil!) powers.  In one of many ironic twists however, I just learned that the US government is paying some guy at this very moment to blog about how awesome the TSA is, and how it's really no big deal that an 8-year-old cub scout is on an anti-terrorist watch list.

Blogger "Bob", working for the US of A, writes:

"Anything involving kids or cats gets tons of mileage and everybody starts tweeting and retweeting that there’s an 8 year old on the no fly list.

There are no children on the No Fly or Selectee lists.

What happens is the child’s name is a match or similar match to an actual individual on the No Fly or Selectee Watch List."

Really Bob?  Cause it seems like you're splitting hairs here, aren't you?  Sure the kid isn't "really" on the No Fly list, but when it's taken 7 years and he's still not off your lists, and he (and his parents) still can't make it through an airport without being harassed because his name is a "similar match" to someone who might actually be a terrorist, it amounts to the same thing, now doesn't it?

If I'm arrested because you have a list of supposed criminals and one happens to have the name the name "Sean Malone" (and rest assured, there's quite a few of us out there!), and especially if this happens repeatedly and the matter is not resolved, then in reality, it is me who is on your list.

I'm getting away from the point though... Or maybe there's multiple points.  First is: The TSA is retarded.  Check.

The second, and perhaps more important is: The US Government is actively meddling in the affairs of Iran & China at the moment, while willfully ignoring the censorship in "friendly" nations like the UK, Canada, Pakistan, or Australia (to name a few), and while US government officials are coming out against outright censorship, other agents of the US government are paid to propagandize, ameliorating their own misdeeds.  Even the video my roommate worked on is itself propaganda, and not only that, but censored propaganda!  

All this gets me thinking on where we start drawing lines, and if line-drawing is entirely possible on this issue anyway.

In principle as I understand it, we view censorship as wrong because it abridges the people's right to form and disseminate their own ideas independent of the people in power (and by power... I mean, those people with the most powerful and greatest number of guns sanctioned by fancy titles and sometimes fine hats & sashes).  Censorship is wrong because it prohibits individuals from expressing their own ideas, no?  Well... I start to wonder about state propaganda because I believe that in general it has the same (and perhaps an even more insidious) effect.

The same, because it's the government using the people's own money & resources to buy or demand airtime and multimedia production, in order to influence individual thinking on an array of topics.  More insidious because it is much less direct, and therefore more effective at actually influencing people's beliefs.  American politicians are particularly good at this - especially insofar as they are much more professional and subtle much of the time.  But they are using the taxpayers money to fund projects which are designed to influence the very same taxpayer to, generally speaking, give them more money and give up more liberty.  It's a hell of a system, isn't it?  Imagine if Sears or Best Buy could forcibly take your money each year, and then turn around and use it to make TV commercials in order to get you to buy more of their products.  

Ridiculous, right?

Definitely... But, unfortunately, in the case of General Motors, the Armed Forces and the rest of the US government, that's precisely what they do.  Is this censorship?  No, I suppose not, since we are still free to express other ideas, or at least more free than most places.

Does it violate the essence of why censorship is wrong?  I suspect that it does.  And I think most people might be able to think back over Joseph Goebbels in World War II or any of the Russian communist propaganda and conclude that what they were doing was designed to eliminate individual thought and replace it with the will of those in power.  The US government is engaged in these activities constantly.  I've asked around and cannot find any official figures on this account, but the US Military spends an inordinate amount of taxpayers' money injecting themselves into movies and creating really spectacular recruitment advertising.

As of 2007, the total recruitment & advertising budget was in the realm of $1.4 Billion (PDF).

With that money - again, taken from the American people - they created countless nationally-aired television commercials like this one:

Looks awesome to be in the Marines, right?

So yeah... Fortunately, I'm not being censored, so unlike what I might experience in China - I can actually write about all this.  But it does seem that if I'm right that the essence of censorship is manipulating & controlling the ideas and beliefs of the public, propaganda winds up being in the same category.  Doesn't it?

If we're stuck having a government at all, I think that I would have to support a rule such that one of its (many) limitations should be that politicians cannot advertise to the general public with the publics' money.  It's just really bad form.

Speaking of bad form, bad ideas, and government propaganda, I have one more video for you:

Ultimately, I really don't see how the US has all that much righteous authority to be giving lectures to the Chinese on censorship.  Fortunately, few people are put in jail here for politically sensitive ideas, but in 2004 Viacom was made to pay a $3.5 Million fine simply because Janet Jackson had the gall to "accidentally" expose one breast on national television for approximately 0.357 seconds.  If anything, the US' only thing to teach the Chinese is how to be better at censorship.  The Chinese labor under the silly delusion that an effective way to control the public is with threats of jail and punishment, and trying to ban everything.  Politicians in the US suffer from some of that dementia as well, but mostly, they've developed a neat trick of using propaganda and more subtle threats instead.

One of the United States' favorites is the, "Regulate yourselves or we'll have to do it for you" style approach that was responsible for creating everything from the Comic Code Authority to the MPAA's ratings system.  Technically it's still not "censorship" because it's not actually against the law to watch an X-rated film or read an "unapproved" comic book.  Technically it very much is censorship to crack down on Viacom - just as it is the worst kind of censorship to create "hate speech" legislation, which we have also done.  The US censorship operation is much slicker than China's, and the principle of manipulating the public to do and think what the government wants is on display endlessly here.  Fortunately we do have enough liberty left that most of it doesn't work, but the State Department giving a lecture to the Chinese about controlling speech is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard just for sheer irony.

Any questions?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Late Night Madness...

Alright, here's the thing.

No one watches Jay Leno. And by no one, I mean women over 50 and other people who are going to be going to bed long before 11:30 in the very near future.

I am not a huge patron of late night talk shows as a point of fact, but I do understand my industry, and more than that, I understand scheduling and programming entertainment.  It's one of the things that comes the most naturally to me, and I've had the opportunity in several jobs I've held (especially the 2008 music manager gig) to test my mettle.  I say this, because at the very least, it should lend some added weight to what I'm about to point out here - assuming the logic isn't enough by itself.

NBC made a monumental mistake (old news, right?) by putting Jay Leno at 10pm earlier this year, and it's got nothing what-so-ever to do with the quality of show being produced by Conan O'Brien and his team.  And it's got nothing to do with the affiliates losing 25+% of their 10pm ratings (though that has proven to be a disastrous side-effect).

The mistake was actually, in my opinion, an extremely simple one which I'm frankly shocked that any upper level entertainment executive could make.  Or perhaps... I would be shocked, had I not had the displeasure of encountering and being effected by these types of useless executives in the past.  At any rate, people talk about ratings, and they talk about all these other factors, and I haven't really heard people saying what I'm about to say, so here it is.

The mistake is this:  

NBC put a long-running headlining act as the opener for a younger, less mainstream brand.

Look at this whole situation from a non-TV perspective for one moment... Look at it in terms of scheduling a music concert.  The typical format puts the biggest name at the end of the show, and one or more smaller, lesser-known bands just ahead of that big name under the assumption that people will stay until the end to hear the headliner, and in the process will be warmed up by the opening acts.  It's really win-win all the way around because concert-goers get more music for their buck, the headlining acts don't have to walk out to a cold audience, and the opening acts get some exposure that they wouldn't have otherwise have had.  Comedians, plays, all-weekend music festivals, and even movie theatres all use this format in one way or another.  

Television does too, although the rules are changed a little bit (i.e. it's a 24 hour cycle, so there's a cut off point where people are eventually going to shut off the TV no matter what).  Notice what any network does with their primetime line up.  Since we're talking about NBC, look at NBC's Thursday night primetime schedule - the top rated show, "30 Rock", is at the end of the 2 hour block.  Newcomers "Community" and "Parks & Rec", and the slightly less popular "The Office" precede Tina Fey's hilarious show.  Since most people actually don't change channels all that much during primetime hours, what this does is basically ensure that anyone who wants to watch "30 Rock" will end up watching some or all of the lead-in shows as well.  Same idea with music.

Now... Back to the concert analogy:

Jay Leno represents a really huge, mainstream act like, lets say, Paul McCartney, or even The Beatles themselves.  Conan, in this scenario represents a slightly lesser known, newer, but almost equally famous name like Justin Timberlake.  Quibble with my artist choices if you want, but my point is this: These are both headlining acts in their own right, they are both famous within their respective demographics, and they are both excellent entertainers.  So if you put them up against each other, the result is several specific - and very large - problems.

  1. The demographic isn't unified: Some people want to watch Paul McCartney, and a totally different set of people want to watch Justin Timberlake - so you have to either convince disparate sets of individuals to come to the same show, or accept that some will come for the first half and some only for the second half.
  2. Major performers are forced to share the spotlight: This denigrates both performers, because in stead of supporting each other, they wind up competing against each other on the same bill.
  3. The "true" headliner (i.e., the performer who is onstage last and in the most prominent place during the show - in this analogy, this means Justin Timberlake/Conan) is undercut by his opening act, thus hurting audience expectations for the headliner's performance

And look - exactly this has happened with Leno & Conan.  Now, when Conan & Leno both had top rated shows, now neither one do. The demographics were all screwed up, because while Jay's audience is mostly older people Conan's audience is the 18-35 (male) crowd, so Leno makes no sense as a lead-in or opening act anyway.  And the consequence was that Conan's show was undermined from the very beginning.

That's what I knew would happen when I heard that NBC was planning on putting Leno on at 10pm before Conan... It surprised me, and struck me as one of the dumbest and most destructive ideas possible. I commented to friends about it at the time, but what can you do?  I'm not an employee of NBC and I don't really care in either case. No one's asking me to fix anything, so mostly I'm just talking to the ether.

The thing that annoys me though, is that from my perspective the mistakes made in scheduling by the upper management are really fundamental, basic no-nos of entertainment programming.  You don't put a long-running, well-loved, and relatively strong show as the opener to a program that's new, developing and in its infancy.  I can honestly think of no better way to kill the new show.  So Leno, like Johnny Carson before him, really should have gracefully left the Tonight Show, offered his well-wishes and friendly support for Conan and then just disappeared from the public view - giving Conan and the new show as much space as possible to win over the Leno demographic and find their new artistic aims.

All around, I'm just irritated with how extremely huge a debacle this all is, and it's one of those things that frustrates the hell out of me about the entertainment industry in general. Kevin Smith probably said it best when he pointed out that people in this business seem to "fail upward".  That is, they make spectacularly bad movies, TV shows and extremely poor business decisions, and yet as a result they merely get rewarded, promoted and eventually become Jeff Zucker.

Programming isn't actually that complicated, or at least... It shouldn't be.

Now, to make matters worse, after Zucker created this debacle to begin with, his handling of the current situation is terrible as well.  I suspect things have gone way past the breaking point for Conan to stay where he is, and this makes me sad. For my age group, Conan has always been the top choice.  Who's his competition?  Craig Fergusen?  Psh.  Letterman's not going to be around forever, and the torch will be passed to someone else over at CBS too, and when that happens NBC could have had an established, extremely talented guy to scoop up all the remaining market share - but now that won't happen.

It's just idiotic.  But at this point, I hardly care - it would surprise me immensely if in 5 years the studio system isn't collapsing on itself entirely.  They are not the future, and Jeff Zucker's decisions for the entire year have been a perfect example of why.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lessons from another Blog.

I just discovered a great little tumblr blog called "Clients from Hell".  There are some really great stories on that site, and some of them remind me so much of things I've dealt with in the past... Everyone I know who freelances as a creative producer of any kind has tons of these experiences.

Most of my favorites start with someone claiming that if only the freelancer would be willing to work for equity, when X start-up "company" has it's IPO, they'll make millions!  Millions! That or they think you should work for "experience", or for "exposure".

"Well, I was hoping you wouldn’t just be interested in making money. I wanted you to understand how much you could learn from me, and how valuable that would be. That’s why I think $12/hr is a fair rate for you to produce the website. If you can’t work for this rate than you miss out."

But a lot of times crazy clients don't understand that what freelancers do - when done well - simply isn't something their nephews can do.

 "Oh my, that is more than what we want to pay. My nephew is in Vo-Tech and I can get him to do it for $100."

When you work in a creative field, no matter whether that's graphic & webdesign or film & music production, a lot of people simply don't understand what kind of time and knowledge freelance jobs actually take.  Take this one:

"Well, I have worked with a lot of designers in my day and I am of the opinion that if you are confident in your abilities to meet my expectations then being paid at the end would be fine with you. Ultimately you are paid for the end result, right? I shouldn’t have to pay you for ‘making the effort’." 

Everyone has a finite amount of time with which to work, and a lot of times clients will mistakenly believe that it's ok not to pay you for that time, believing that they're only paying you for whatever final result they eventually decide is correct.  It's important to recognize that the final result is usually the culmination of a long and difficult process.

"I briefed you yesterday, and you guys haven’t still given me the first cut? atleast e-mail me the copy. How much time does it take to write copy? 10 minutes to think + 10 minutes to write + 10 minutes to verify. I am expecting atleast 15-20 copy options for the time you’ve taken."

Take composing, for instance. It takes a great deal of knowledge and skill just to be able to run the technical equipment from recording technology like the gear shown in the previous post to professional software like ProTools, Nuendo, or any number of programs that synthesize the sound of instruments.   Beyond that, composers must understand the limitations of different instruments, be knowledgeable about music theory & arranging and understand a wide range of cultural musical styles - and that's all before we even talk about the skills needed to do the creative idea-work well.

(Yes... I do know what all this stuff means... And yes, it is complicated.)

Creating music that fits film & multimedia is hard work and has to take a lot of factors into account.  What's the mood of the scene?  What is the audience supposed to know about this character at this point in the movie? What energy level is appropriate? What's happening in the next scene?  What key did we come from and in which key do we want to arrive at the end of the sequence? What instrumentation and orchestration reflects the best choice? How should the themes sound, what instrument should have the lead lines?

All these questions are something that a pro will ask that a novice won't even understand.  Writing good film music simply isn't a job that can be done by incompetent people.  Unfortunately, like a lot of the design work that Clients from Hell discusses, a lot of people looking for music (and any multimedia production) aren't really very sure what they're looking for. 

"I want it to be small enough to not be too noticeable but bright enough to draw the eye."

It's sadly very common for people to not really know what they want out of a graphic of a piece of music.  So if you're a client of anyone in the creative services fields, here are the keys:

  1. Be as clear as possible about what you want to accomplish.  It doesn't matter that much if you don't know what you want something to sound like or look like - that's what we're here for - but it is crucial that you know what you want your audience or customers to experience.
  2. Don't undervalue the services you're getting - A mid-range price for just one of the software programs I use on an almost daily basis is $1500, the hardware I have is significantly more valuable and a Masters from NYU doesn't come cheaply either... A great deal of time, cost, knowledge and skill goes into what we do and haggling over a few hundred dollars is depressing. Getting told that our services are worth next to nothing (or nothing at all!) is just insulting.
  3. Don't try to act like you know more than you do.  Web 2.0 isn't the new release from Microsoft, audio engineering software doesn't have a generic "enhance" button like in CSI and no, in all likelihood, the violins shouldn't come in there.  It's ok to have ideas and opinions about the work, but like a good mechanic, we'll always know when you're just trying to make us think you're knowledgeable so we won't try to cheat you. We're not going to cheat you (in general)... Like most people, we just want to earn a living and do good work so we can feed ourselves and our families and feel good about ourselves at the end of the day.

So that's that... If you're a creative freelancer - I have no doubt that you'll find the blog to be hilarious and hopefully cathartic.  If you're going to hire a freelancer, like me, for example - I hope you'll learn from it (and also laugh). 

Check it out. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Paul Krugman's Appeal to Mediocrity

As readers of my blog should probably be aware, I hate Paul Krugman.

He is a god awful economist (make no mistake, the Nobel Prize he won is for some derivative work he did in the 1970s on new trade theory - which basically just glorifies Mercantilism - and he hasn't done anything remotely useful since).  Not only god-awful, but positively one of the worst ever released on the unsuspecting public.  His critical thinking skills are lowest-common-denominator at best.  And worse than that, he attracts the dumbest people of all time to his weekly New York Times column.  Did I mention that he's also the textbook definition of "Backpfeifengesicht"?  Yeah, that too.

He is also the modern embodiment of Ayn Rand's character, Ellsworth Toohey... For those who aren't familiar with this particular literary villain, Toohey appears in the book, "The Fountainhead", and is a thoroughly mediocre Architecture Critic modeled off of Harold Laski (a British "economist" & Fabian Socialist/Marxist, primarily responsible for India's spectacularly miserable economy from basically 1950 until market liberalization began in 1990).  Toohey is a man of mediocre intellect who is largely motivated by jealousy and bitterness, combined with a constant need for the approval of those men of actual genius who's work he typically pans.  The famous quote is: 

"Don’t set out to raze all shrines—you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity, and the shrines are razed."

I'm not sure anything sums up Paul Krugman better than this, and his recent NY Times article, "Learning from Europe", and the resultant reader comments perfectly illustrate the point.

In this article, Krugman uses anecdotal evidence, bad logic and weak data to pretend that Europe's economy is thriving, proving that "social democracy" (otherwise known as socialism-lite) works!  Here's Krugman's basic thesis:

"But the story you hear all the time — of a stagnant economy in which high taxes and generous social benefits have undermined incentives, stalling growth and innovation — bears little resemblance to the surprisingly positive facts. The real lesson from Europe is actually the opposite of what conservatives claim: Europe is an economic success, and that success shows that social democracy works."

Europe is an economic success! 

Well, thank goodness... That proves it.  But in case you're looking for evidence, apart from Krugman's appeal to the anecdotal experience of wealthy US travelers to Paris & London, that's a commodity in very short supply.

"For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London?"

Fortunately, I am one of those Americans!  What's more, unlike most Americans who've traveled for business or pleasure, I'm actually a rather curious sort who likes to leave the central tourist hubs, hop on a local bus or train and occasionally go on the all-day walk to "nowhere" to discover what the rest of these cities look like.  For instance, Copenhagen is a lovely city... Provided that you stay downtown, and visit the major sights, like the Little Mermaid Sculpture (although that is apparently regularly defaced and often decapitated by vandals, as a point of fact).  However, if you leave the city center, you find a very different picture... Even in the bright spots of Europe, you see people living in what (to me) are actually pretty poor and run-down conditions in comparatively middle class areas.

This is all relative, of course. I've also been to the home of a bus-driver in San Jose, Costa Rica (who was pretty well to do by local standards) who lived in the neighborhood next to one filled with houses made primarily of corrugated steel salvaged or stolen from previously demolished buildings.  Plus I have friends from Indonesia and Sri Lanka who's local living conditions are substantially worse than that.

But this isn't about anecdotes.  I'm merely trying to point out that while Krugman is correct that;

"when the question is which to believe — official economic statistics or your own lying eyes — the eyes have it."

He's just way off base if he thinks that most American travelers (or ex-patriate workers for that matter) actually do "see" the real Europe.  Most Americans find their way to the prescribed places when they travel - to the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Louvre, the Guggenheim... Etc.  What they almost never do (and believe me, I've spent a great deal of time specifically around American tourists, while running instrumental music for 4 of Holland America's cruise ships) is leave those areas and go look at the conditions of the average people.

It's like people going to Aspen, Colorado and thinking that most people living in that part of the world are wine-swilling, sweater-wearing ski bunnies who spend their evenings eating $50 steaks and hanging out at the lodge.

But that cluster of bad reasoning and anecdote pales in comparison to the hilarity that follows it though!  Krugman goes on to claim that the statistics back up the fact that Europe's economy is just as good (if not better) than that of the United States.  He then provides almost NO hard numbers at all...  Here's what you get:

  • "It’s true that the U.S. economy has grown faster than that of Europe for the past generation. Since 1980... America’s real G.D.P. has grown, on average, 3 percent per year. Meanwhile, the E.U. 15 — the bloc of 15 countries that were members of the European Union before it was enlarged to include a number of former Communist nations — has grown only 2.2 percent a year."

Note that Europe has grown at a rate about 1/3rd less than the United States over the past 30 years, and that's pretty substantial in any case - if you start with $100 and add 3% to it for 30 years you get $242.73, whereas you get $192.10 with a 2.2% growth rate... Now, multiply that by trillions and you can see how big a deal a little thing like .8% is.  But that's also a handicapped figure!!  Krugman discounts all those formerly communist nations for no reason except it skews his numbers south and hurts his already weak point.  But are those nations not also part of the EU?  Oh, I think they are.

Krugman is just trying to eliminate the evidence that doesn't fit his thesis, or tweak the existing numbers so that his point looks better than it is.  Lame.

He goes on to claim that this is just a reflection of differences in populations growth:

  • "Since 1980, per capita real G.D.P. — which is what matters for living standards — has risen at about the same rate in America and in the E.U. 15: 1.95 percent a year here; 1.83 percent there."

Ok... But the rates of population growth are very similar, compared to the GDP growth numbers.  Also, I should probably note that there's a pretty severe problem with GDP as a measurement anyway, since it includes government spending.  If government spending balloons by some large number, but isn't actually funded by anything but borrowing or printing money - as has happened in the US and all throughout Europe then it looks like the economy is growing when it isn't.  It's all just fictional numbers pulled out of thin air, and in the process devaluing everyone's standard of living via the time-honored method of coin-clipping.

Krugman's other "statistics" are just as pitiful... He tries to make the case that Europe is doing just as well, yet everything he says makes exactly the opposite point - and here he scrupulously avoids giving any real numbers (emphasis added): 

  • "In the late 1990s you could argue that the revolution in information technology was passing Europe by. But Europe has since caught up in many ways. Broadband, in particular, is just about as widespread in Europe as it is in the United States, and it’s much faster and cheaper." 

Here's the thing... Europe's internet systems are newer, built on the innovation of the technology in the US... Krugman clearly admits this.  It's pretty typical of Europe though: Let Americans invent something hugely beneficial, take all the risks, make all the mistakes, fix all the bugs - then adopt the technology in its developed form for a fraction of the cost.  Then idiots incapable of logical reasoning like Krugman forget all the important stuff and just comment on how much cooler it is to be in free-riding Europe.

  • "And what about jobs? Here America arguably does better: European unemployment rates are usually substantially higher than the rate here, and the employed fraction of the population lower."

At least he admits it.  But of course, Krugman re-frames this as being totally cool, because teenagers and old people really don't need jobs anyway.  Naturally he forgets to mention the connection between Minimum Wage laws and the under 25 unemployment rate here in the US and abroad and that perhaps those of us in our mid-20s  trying to develop our careers, start families and make our fortunes might actually want a decent job market.

  • "And Europeans are quite productive, too: they work fewer hours, but output per hour in France and Germany is close to U.S. levels."

Why limit ourselves to France & Germany?  

This is just another trick to help Krugman skate over reality.  The productive output of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Latvia, Slovakia, and the rest of Europe isn't even remotely comparable to that of the US, and last I checked they're all part of the EU as well.  

Krugman does this repeatedly though.  When the facts don't fit the story, he just narrows his view to only cover the couple nations that make his point... And even then, the best he can do is say that the productivity is "close to" that of the United States.

Yet Krugman concludes;

"But taking the longer view, the European economy works; it grows; it’s as dynamic, all in all, as our own."


Every single piece of evidence he presents - even the anecdotal bits - do not remotely promote that conclusion.  They promote the conclusion that Europe is substantially worse off economically than the United States.  And as readers of Logicology should know, I'm *not* remotely a fan of US economic policy... We are far too close in reality to how Europe's economy is structured... Like Europe, we have a central bank controlling our money supply & interest rates (from my vantage, one of the worst ideas in the history of man kind), we have ever increasing regulations on what people are allowed to trade for, and from where... We have import tariffs on goods from other nations, like the recent trade war started with China, for no reason except that some companies don't like the competition and have buddies in Washington.

There's very little I'm happy with with regards to Economic policy, but the one saving grace for me is often "It could be worse... I could live in Europe".

Ironically, this is all prelude to Krugman's real - and extremely twisted - point that vastly higher tax rates and leviathan-sized social programs are oh-so-good for us.

"After all, while reports of Europe’s economic demise are greatly exaggerated, reports of its high taxes and generous benefits aren’t. Taxes in major European nations range from 36 to 44 percent of G.D.P., compared with 28 in the United States. Universal health care is, well, universal. Social expenditure is vastly higher than it is here."

Of course, Krugman also totally ignores the free-rider issues.  He doesn't admit that the US produces the vast majority of technological innovation for the rest of the world in everything from communications and electronics to medicine.  He doesn't acknowledge that when he talks about "Universal Health Care", what he's really talking about is "universal" health insurance.  This is actually a pretty important distinction as there is an ever-increasing amount of "medical tourism" out of Europe to places like India in order to get life-saving and other treatments which people need and are either not covered by the government insurance plans or are needed in a timely manner and can't simply be delayed for the 6 months one might spend on a waiting list.

But the big elephant in the room is the massive amount of spending the US provides in the form of military protection.  Europe spends a tiny fraction of what we spend, and as a result has had 70+ years of being a freeloader, never really having to worry about protecting themselves from any of the aggressors from Hitler & Stalin to Kim Jong Il and Al Qaeda.

Of course, discounting all that (i.e. ignoring about 50% of reality - all the parts that don't "fit")... Sure, Europe's economy is functioning perfectly well.

What happens if the US (as it absolutely should, for a million reasons) actually stops being a military superpower?  What happens when European countries actually have to put up for their own military protection?  What happens when they have to put up for their own medical technology?  I'm guessing, very bad things.  

And don't get me wrong, I actually like a lot of Europe. There are aspects of certain countries like Spain or France which are more free than the US - particularly in terms of what people are allowed to eat, so that's definitely a good thing.  The thousands of years of history, art & architecture and ancient cultures shouldn't be discounted either.  Additionally, the US is in just as bad or even worse shape in the long term - precisely because we have been following the model of creeping socialism for about a century.  Everyone with any sense of history realizes that the US economy was radically restructured in the early 20th Century, and then again during the Great Depression.  What guided that restructuring was not a rekindling of economic liberty, but a great admiration for socialists & fascists.

Almost no honest historian or economist would deny this...  FDR was a huge admirer of socialism & socialists like Mussolini (note that fascism is just one variant of socialism), and most of the intellectuals in the US absolutely loved socialists of all stripes - even if they were mass-murderers.

W.E.B. DuBois once said;

"Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous."

These are the people who shaped American society and economic policy throughout the 20th Century, and yet thanks to a tradition of individual liberty and a Constitution that frowns on an all-powerful state, the US has adopted socialist policies much slower than Europe, and in general we are much better off for it!

But the assault on sound economics and liberty haven't ever really ceased, though the fall of the Soviet Union (something almost no public intellectuals except the likes of F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises predicted) at least produced a lull for a little while.

Krugman's whole point is ludicrous, and I suspect that deep down - much like Ellsworth Toohey - he knows it.  He's mangled all of the evidence to fit his argument, and even then, since he stops short of actually lying, the actual "substance" of his article leans completely the other direction, showing that in fact Europe is doing much worse from a statistical point of view.  Krugman, as usual, pulls a completely nonsensical conclusion out of thin air - and what a surprise, it does nothing but support higher taxes, less freedom and a panacea for central government to take even more control of people's lives.

Fortunately for the good doctor, the comments section are filled with people who are even worse at basic reasoning and understanding reality than he is... Take Mike Harry of Boston, MA:

"I could not agree more on this, Mr. Krugman. Social democracy not only works but also reduces the income gap between the rich and the poor and ensures a better living standard. Europe (EU 15) had to face two World War scenarios and the threat of Communism but still the growth and economic propsperity prevailed. USA faced the Great Depression and caused the recent Financial Crisis which devastated most of the dveloped economies in the world- all as a result of capitalist democracy. USA has a great deal to learn from Europe."

I guess the US had nothing to do with World War II or "facing" the threat of Communism.

There is no shortage of similarly sycophantic comments.  It's a struggle even reading most of them, and even worse because the NY Times moderators have this lovely open way of sending the most obsequious right to the front of the line, presumably designed specifically to drive me insane.  

I just don't know what to say about Paul Krugman anymore.  The guy is one of the best examples I've ever seen of someone who has had praise and publicity heaped on him throughout his life for completely inexplicable reasons.  He is the quintessential "intellectual".  As he looks down from his ivory tower and writes utter piffle that appears intelligent to his weak-minded audience, he manages to influence public discourse, and thus public opinion and public-policy.  But look at what he's advocating?  Throughout this entire article he is literally trying to convince his readers that Europe's perpetual economic mediocrity is a good thing.

Interestingly though, he doesn't ever seem to set out to raze the shrines of greatness... Krugman perfectly fits Ayn Rand's observation of Harold Laski;

"He [is] very subtle and gracious, he rambled on a great deal about nothing in particular--and then he made crucial, vicious points once in a while..."

With a soft voice, an arrogant tone, the appearance of real intellect and absolutely no substance what-so-ever, Paul Krugman merely enshrines mediocrity.  Sadly, he seems to have a mindless audience always at the ready to cling to his every word.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Learn Math Today!

Here's the thing... Math is important. Also, most people are horrendous at it.

I've always been a little bit insecure about my math skills, owing in part due to having some remarkably mediocre math teachers all throughout school (including in college). That said, I still took AP Calculus in High School and unnecessarily tried to take a full-on Calculus course in college. Admittedly, I ended up dropping the college calculus halfway into the semester as it was not required and I was already in 11 classes/ensembles, including marching - which monopolized my time from 7am-10am every morning, and from 7pm-10pm on Wednesday nights for extra drumline rehearsals - and the math class only met on Mondays... No good.

Plus, my brother's an engineer, so his advanced math skills put mine to shame. And one of my best friends has dual Physics & Math degrees... I'm way out-gunned by a lot of my friends in that department. So I've never thought I was a math-whiz by any stretch of the imagination.

But apparently, by the standards of the entertainment industry, I'm John Nash.

I've been debating whether or not to write out the full tale on the blog here, and I think I will not out of respect for those involved, however let me just note that the other night I found myself in a production meeting being the only one of 10 individuals with satisfactory multiplication skills. As a result, when estimating the amount of revenue to be generated per month by ad sales on an online music web-magazine, an error of approximately $20,000 was made... By which I mean, the revenue based on even the most pie-in-the-sky projections would not top $2,000 and the projections (based on faulty math) were 10 times that amount per month. What's more, the "goal" is for 40 times that amount at $80,000 a month. Said error has lead about 20 people into believing that they will (eventually) get paid for devoting a significant chunk of their lives to producing a weekly web-TV show.

Hopefully, with my help, they've been dispelled of that particular illusion, but I am rather concerned even still. My friend is arranging his life around a series of projects which have absolutely no chance of becoming profitable. As a result, he's either going to throw money into the black hole perpetually (that is, until he runs out of money and creditors willing to loan him money) or he's just going to become homeless waiting for impossible revenue to start materializing.

None of these people (including myself) will get paid. Gobs of resources will be blown on a losing proposition, and many people will persist in the delusion that it's possible to earn a living on this project. So what will happen - as happens regularly - is that these 20 people (including myself, though only for personal reasons) will work on the first installment of the WebTV series. Then they will realize that it's taken up 50% of their available time. Then, they will realize that they have to keep working full time on other projects to make a living, in order to pay their bills, and the remainder of their available non-sleeping time they are going to want to put into more personally fulfilling pursuits - such as dating girls or playing X-Box. At that point (and I give it about 1 month total), everyone will be asking why they aren't getting paid.

Then things will implode, and one by one, each person involved will drop out of any further projects. The order that this will happen will be based on a relatively simple formula expressing the ratio of time spent working, with respect to their affection for the man running the show. Since this is a math blog, I'll use math to show this formula now:
T=Time (hours per week)
F=Friendship (measured subjectively on a scale of 1-10)

Formula: N = T/F
Where those with the highest "N" drop out of the project first...

For example, I am not very close friends with the person in question, but my roommate is. I'll put myself at F=3, and my roommate at F=8, let's say.

Likewise, I won't spend too much time on the project, as a sound recordist, but my roommate - as a producer/director & eventually editor will spend quite a bit of time. So let's say that I'll spend 14 hours per week (one production meeting + 1 full day recording audio + quick audio edit/mixing), whereas my roommate could easily find himself spending 30 hours per week (multiple production meetings + 1 full day of being on-set, filming + editing). Now we just plug these figures into my simple, hypothetical formula...
N(me) = 14/3, or 4.66

N(roommate) = 30/8, or 3.75
Now, on the other hand, let's take one of the unpaid "writers", who might very likely be looking at spending 30-35 hours per week, between multiple 5-8 hour writing sessions, hanging around on-set, being called and nagged all the time, and meeting deadlines... And who don't really know the guy they're working for all that well or care too much about him. In that instance, you might get...
N(writer) = 35/2, or 17.5
So if my ridiculous little formula is right (and yes, it's highly over simplified, but it is close enough for my point), the order of drop-out will be as follows:
  1. Writers
  2. Me
  3. Roommate
And guess what... Some writers have already bailed. More will be soon enough... And as long as my time doesn't get monopolized, I will do about 1 more of these things for free. Though, naturally, there's a piece of the formula missing which is "personal benefit" for which I can't necessarily account. In my case I'll get to play around with my brand new Tascam DR-100 field recorder... Which I'm excited about and was looking for a real test opportunity in any case - this project is as good as any for me (but once I've performed my requisite tests, the utility of this work as a vehicle for that end is gone, and so am I).

So ok, enough of the fictitious formulas. Subjective valuations of friendship and personal utility aren't measurable in a sense that's actually meaningful, but it does work as far as a predictive estimate is concerned. Point is, as usual, opportunity cost....

Problem is, when people can't do math and have poor reasoning skills, opportunities (eg: "Make $1500 a week, working from home!") seem better than they really are.

Bad math on the part of the leadership of this project has lead them to put out a completely fabricated "carrot" which is dangling in front of everyone on this project right now. This particular carrot is a running gag in the entertainment industry, and it's called, "Do this for me, and I promise, on the next one you'll get paid cause we'll be famous and have made a billion dollars by then!" It works so well that about 90% of the people "employed" in the entertainment industry appear to be unpaid "interns" getting "college credit" or DVD copies for their "reel".

In this case, everyone's eyes have got dollar signs in them because people don't realize that the carrot is an illusion. Not even a 10th of the $20,000 projected in the first month is even remotely possible to achieve (and I'd be surprised if they broke even a couple hundred dollars in ad sales for this project), and there is no business plan. So....... These poor saps are giving up their time and intellectual & physical resources for nothing.

(The joke is that the bag seen above is filled with rocks... Sucker!)

MAYBE, at the end, they'll have one example of a product to show for themselves... But knowing how these plans usually go (i.e. nowhere), we may not even wind up with that.

It's depressingly common within this industry. People's reasoning skills tend to be grossly sub-par, and as a result they fail at economics & frequently have no basic business acumen. Unfortunately, it seems that there's little to be done about this. So I'm more or less stuck in an industry full of people who are completely incompetent at evaluating reality - perhaps this is a good thing from an artistic point of view, but it's absolutely useless if you're hoping to make a living working with anyone in the entertainment industry.

So seriously people, it's time to learn how to do math. It's pretty easy. It's just logic, and logic is actually pretty easy, and the only real way to train your mind to function properly... Which is a good thing! Anyway, my brain is continually fried by my interactions with people in my industry, and it positively explodes whenever I have the occasion to watch actors, directors and musicians wax philosophical about their various pet causes. From Bono to Gwyneth Paltrow, to James Cameron, and a thousand people in between, most people in Hollywood are complete idiots. They tend to be uneducated in the true sense of the word - high school drop outs who've never managed to even become autodidacts. And why shouldn't they be? Their job, by and large is to make stuff up!! So no one should be surprised that most of the nonsense that fills their brains is whatever happens to make a good story - not whatever happens to be the truth.

But all this is frustrating as all hell, when I watch ordinary people taking their social and intellectual cues from these very same people. What's ridiculous is that you can always get people to admit, rationally, that most people in the entertainment industry are buffoons who haven't a functioning synapse in their brains - and I've got hundreds of personal, real-world examples of exactly this... This mathematics fail from the other night is just a representative sample. Yet, people still watch CSI and think it's real science, and watch movies like Avatar and think it's actually espousing some deep truth about technology & commerce.

Personally, I'm just sick of being surrounded by intellectual failure. I need to escape to a secluded mountain somewhere... Hopefully, I will do exactly that once I have determined exactly how to keep my income steady purely by remote work.

Anyway... Where's my Field's Medal?


As of about 2 days after the original posting, the project has fallen apart partially as a result of my pointing out the math fail. I guess that's good? What would be way better is if people actually figured out how to come up with profitable projects to begin with, so that we all don't spin our wheels forever.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

But what does the rock *DO*??

I've put this off a bit in part due to my holiday travel schedule, and in part because of the absurdity of it all, but I think it's time we sat down and had a little chat about the movie, Avatar.

The film has already been reviewed by a couple prominent libertarians already, each holding decidedly different views.  I want to talk about them in a moment, but right up front, I want everyone to know that this article isn't meant to be a review per se and it might just contain some spoilers... But mostly, I want to discuss a topic few people are likely to cover:  The Economics of interplanetary conquest in Science Fiction. 

If you're planning on seeing the movie and are going to be bothered by me giving away key plot elements, I'd recommend putting an end to your reading at this point.

* * * * *

With all that in mind, let me touch on the views of Peter Suderman and Stephen Kinsella on this movie and its relationship to political philosophy.  The fact that Avatar is a deliberately political movie isn't exactly a secret, especially with a few choice jabs (obviously directed at the Bush administration) regarding preemptive strikes coming from the stereotypical military commander.  As Roger Ebert notes, it is anti-war - which of course libertarians of all stripes will appreciate - but it's also got the sort of Fern Gully style environmentalism attached, which is what I want to discuss as the main flaw in the film, undercutting any sense the rest of it might have made otherwise.  

So what do the libertarian reviewers have to say?  Well... In his article Blue Man Group, Peter Suderman - who mostly gets it right - writes:

"...the Na'vi, the movie's marble-skinned alien natives, are easily the most convincing humanoids ever to leap forth from a Hollywood effects house's CGI server-farm — that is, at least in terms of the way they look and move. The realism stops, however, every time they open their mouths and reveal themselves to be crude, one-dimensional native stereotypes: instinctive and animalistic purveyors of cheap mysticism and nature worship...

That Avatar's melodramatic attacks on corporate interests and its defense of simple, natural living come packaged as one of the most expensive, and probably the most technically advanced, corporate films in history would seem to indicate that only quality bigger than the movie's stupidity is its head-in-the-clouds hypocrisy. Cameron's made a movie that he intends to be epic and awesome, but the only thing that's awesome here is his total lack of self-awareness."

All true, though I think it's worth noting that Roger Ebert and, perhaps more importantly, my roommates don't mention the corporate interests at all and primarily see the villain as the military.  This makes some sense, considering that the corporate executive (played by one of my favorite character actors, Giovanni Ribisi) is mostly comic relief playing mini-golf in an office, and the facially-scarred military commander is the one calling most of the brutal shots as he barrels through his little revenge story.

So Suderman may take it a little far towards the anti-corporate side, but Stephen Kinsella misses the point entirely...  In the Mises Institute blog, Kinsella wrote a piece entitled; Avatar is Great and Libertarian in which he claims that:

" its core it was very libertarian: it was about a group of people (the Na'vi) defending their property rights on the world Pandora from aggressors (the human invaders), and about one of the humans (a soldier named Jake Sully) deciding to join and help the right side. Sure, the movie has some stilted dialogue in parts, and a few cliched scenes (I liked how the evil military commander referred to their outrageous assaults on the Na'vi as "shock and awe," but his telling the troops that they would "fight terror with terror"--when the Na'vi had not really been shown to have done anything characterizable as terrorism--was a bit of a stretch in its attempt to dig at the current American "war on terror"), but overall it was great and fun, and libertarian."

Oi.  No...

No, let's just be clear on this point: Avatar is not libertarian.  At least it most certainly won't be viewed that way by any audience not looking for confirmations of their already refined libertarian principles.

Kinsella does what a lot of us do (especially the more optimistic among us) and finds only what he was looking for in the movie's message.  So I'm not sure I blame him, but the point he makes is completely nonsensical...  There's a grand total of one mention of property and it's in the form of a battle cry by the human infiltrator and it merely comes in the form of a generic "This is our land!" rally.  If you squint your eyes really hard and you twist your brain around all the ridiculousness, you can drag a morality lesson about the non-aggression axiom and property rights out of this film.  But, like Mr. Kinsella, you really need to be searching for it.

That said... I always try to understand what most people are going to get from a film and what the director intends to convey - not only what I personally want to take from a story.

As any film composer would tell you, a big aspect of the job description is being able to effectively get to the emotional subtext being conveyed to the audience.  In Avatar, the audience is meant to care about the Na'vi for their "peaceful", mystical, and harmonious connection to nature... And we're meant to hate the humans for their violence, rapaciousness and excessive consumption.

So we do.  

No one walks out of the theatre thinking, "Gosh, those Na'vi had clearly homesteaded that planet by using it and living there, and the human aggression can be stopped by careful defense of private property rights."  If we're lucky, they'll walk away with the general sense that war sucks and we should stop doing that all the time... But in reality, they're going to walk away thinking; "If only we could be more like the Na'vi, communing with nature and stop ruining the planet by cutting down trees, polluting and strip-mining... The world would be so much better!"

The fact is, we've seen this story for the last 30+ years in cinema.  And this story has had a profound affect on the attitudes and beliefs of people in my generation, since it's been told and re-told repeatedly, instilling a stupid set of poorly-reasoned, quasi-luddite beliefs in hundreds of millions of people around the world.  It's bad enough that the whole idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the most technically advanced movie ever is paradoxical to that film telling the story of abandoning technology and communing with nature, but the foundation of the entire plot and thus its message is horrendously flawed primarily because the portrayal of basic human economic behavior is completely insane...  

So with that in mind... Let's talk about the exciting hobby of rock-collecting!

* * * * *

Like all the other movies of its kind, Avatar spins a wonderful tale that makes perfect sense once we completely gloss over the first premise.  We ignore that, pretend it doesn't matter and can care about all the characters and just let the events unfold as they do... I'm patently incapable of doing such a thing, so while I was watching Avatar, one thought kept popping up in my mind again and again:

"But what does the rock DO!?"

You see, the entire premise upon which all of the action in Avatar rests is that the humans simply MUST have this wonderful rock, unimaginatively called "Unobtainium".  Yes.  That's right... I said Unobtainium.

For those of you who suspect that this might be some kind of inside joke.  It is.  In the sense that every writer on the planet uses words like that as a placeholder until they use their creative imagination to come up with a better name.  Simply put, what James Cameron wrote was just about as lazy as you could get (also approaching this level of laziness was calling the planet "Pandora" and the natives "Na'vi").  But so fine, the rock has an idiotic name.  What's it's purpose?

As near as I can tell... Nothing.

Well ok, not quite "nothing", the rock is a MacGuffin.  It's the reason d'e'tra for the humans to be cool with killing thousands of the sentient native inhabitants of planet Pandora.  It's also, according to the film, worth $20 Million per kilogram (and $40 Million once it's been refined, according to other sources).  As Alfred Hitchcock noted upon coining the term "MacGuffin", the audience could care less what the object is - and in the case of Avatar, that concept could not be better illustrated.  For most people, it doesn't matter why there's a war between the humans and the Na'vi, just like it doesn't matter why they're on the planet to begin with - not really.  Completely generic "greed" is the only answer Cameron gives, and for most people, that's more than enough...  After all, we all know that human beings just do stuff like this cause they're evil!

I actually do care, not only because the fate of an entire fictional species was affected by it, but more importantly because these things actually play a role in how real, live human beings think about humanity, human nature and unfortunately, economics.  It's the continual reinforcement of bad ideas that results in a world where the mass public unwittingly clamors for their own destruction.

This is where a perfunctory knowledge of basic economics (and some science) comes into play in virtually all Sci-Fi of this type and could potentially save generations of people from sinking back down into the dark ages...  Let me lay out some facts & deduce some premises:

  1. High price is always a reflection of limited supply compared to high demand.  Thus, we know that Unobtainium is immensely valued by (at least some of) humanity.
  2. The humans in the Avatar future have enough energy & other physical resources to travel interstellar distances, cure spinal injuries, create super-human half-alien bodies from scratch that can be inhabited via wireless mindmeld, and to build an endless array of massive war machines, forest-levelers, guns, spaceships and colony-bases.  Thus we might assume that they have essentially conquered the energy crisis... In other words, we can deductively rule out Unobtainium as a mineral used in energy production. (Note that for energy to be as abundant in the human world as it would need to be to accomplish the massive levels of production seen on display in Avatar, the raw materials used in energy production simply cannot be tens of millions of dollars per kilogram.)
  3. Unobtainium is a mineral.  Thus it is not useful for any of the other basic needs of mankind like food, clothing, shelter, etc.
  4. Unobtainium as depicted & explained in the movie is available on other planets and asteroids, and is found all over Pandora - though we are told it is most concentrated where the Na'vi live.  Thus, fighting a war is unnecessary to acquire the desired raw material.
  5. The Na'vi have no interest in letting humans dig up Unobtainium from underneath their big treehouse.  Thus, obtaining the mineral from that area will require a war.
  6. The acquisition of Unobtainium is being handled by some variety of "corporation", with the backing of the Marines or Marine-like mercenaries, for profit....  Thus it is reasonable to assume that, in general, the corporate interests' goal is to acquire as much Unobtainium as possible at the lowest cost possible.
  7. Wars cost a lot.

So that's some of what we know.  Since the movie never actually explains what the use is, the best or most plausible explanation I can come up with is that the rock is used in manufacturing or perhaps computer technology... 

As for the exorbitantly high price tag, there are two ways to approach that issue.

First, we might assume that demand is simply immense on earth, and suppliers cannot possibly meet production schedules.  Highly demanded goods in this sense are typically that of the products desired by a massive numbers of people.  Examples of this would include iPods, shoes, medication and other items that millions of people want or need but of which less than millions have been or are capable of being produced.  These must be, by definition, what economists call "final goods" - goods which are ultimately bought and consumed by consumers.

Unobtainium doesn't really fit that model at all - first of all, because it's a raw material which you're as likely to see being purchased at WalMart as a lump of coal.  And at $20 Million a kilo, it's not remotely affordable for the masses anyway...  

So the second option is to assume that the high price is due to an intrinsic limitation of supply.  This would more aptly fit the platinum or other precious metal model.  Platinum is one of the most expensive metals on Earth currently priced at about $48,000 per kilogram, and is the best analog I can think of for the fictitious metal in Avatar.  This suggests that Unobtainium is either purely a luxury item (i.e. made into engagement rings for the ├╝ber-rich), or is used only in tiny quantities, perhaps as plating for microchips or on exceedingly expensive pieces of specialized capital equipment.  It's hard to say since Cameron gives us only one meaningful line of dialog on the premise, but it is decidedly more likely to believe that the mineral is physically scarce, but incredibly useful in some production capacity rather than something millions of people need to survive back home.  In spite of that deduction, the metal appears to be so useful that it is apparently worth killing thousands of people over... Really??


The "Avatar" Wiki describes Unobtainium as follows:

"Unobtanium proved to be the most baffling of scientific discoveries in the area of superconductors as it had an extremely strong magnetic field, reversing prior knowledge that all superconductors repel magnetic fields. Furthermore, unlike the fragile crystals of human-created superconducting compounds, the substance found on Pandora was a stable quasicrystal with its atoms arranged in a never-repeating but orderly pattern with fivefold symmetry. This structure was not only structurally rugged but also has mircoscopic voids in the quasicrytalline structure that contain the magnetic flux lines. Unobtanium has a unique magnetic field and properties of superconductivity, causing it to levitate."

So, James Cameron gives a predictably dumber reason - and as noted above, a ridiculously unlikely one, given the fact that humans are traveling in space and using unlimited energy already - prior to landing on the planet.

None of that explanation makes it into the actual movie, but even if it did, it actually makes no sense anyway, precisely because it is so incredibly expensive to acquire.  So it's one effective means of levitating a vehicle or powering a space ship?  Big deal... Are you actually going to buy a $40+ Million car?  I'm guessing not.  The ridiculously high cost of acquisition of this metal completely precludes it from being "useful" to humanity as anything beyond an oddity - especially since it's established that we have other means of getting across the galaxy.  

Imagine if crude oil was $20 Million per barrel, and if it was $40 Million by the time it was refined into gasoline... Would you be driving very much at $952,380.952 per gallon?  No... I think not.  The only way a material could command that kind of price is if it was insanely scarce, and using insanely scarce minerals is a patently ridiculous means of generating power.  There would never be enough to satisfy the needs of billions of people living in hovels, not to mention sending people on interstellar space missions...  So yeah, that doesn't work as a concept.


And herein lies the conundrum that tanks the entire film before it even gets going.

But just for fun, let's take Cameron's premise as if it would ever happen, and accept that the reason humans expended massive amounts of resources to go to Pandora is purely to acquire this mineral (as opposed to, say, exploring a new world and engaging in legitimate trade and social contact with another intelligent life form).  Further, let's interpret the motivations of the military/industrial complex as purely "profit-driven".  When we do this, the movie makes even less sense!

To maximize profits, most people (and certainly most large business organizations) will try to work out the path of least resistance - as it is inevitably the least costly.  Remember that while 1 kilo of Unobtainium might net a massive amount of revenue, profits are the money/wealth left over after paying overhead costs.  The best way to keep profits high is obviously to keep overhead costs low...

Know what doesn't accomplish that goal at all?  Massive, prolonged battles with locals who kill your personnel and destroy most of your stuff!  You know what does?  Mining all those parts of Pandora (and asteroids and other planets) where the Na'vi aren't living already and won't get in your way at all.  Or... You know... Not going at all.

So just from a basic profit-seeking standpoint, going after the "mother lode" which is well protected and which resides beneath a large and hostile civilization of native peoples makes no sense at all.  Starting a war is, contrary to popular belief, really... REALLY bad for business.  It's only "good" if you're profiting from supplying weapons - but that is quite obviously not the case here since you can only lose money by fighting yourself.  Other people have to be the ones fighting if you want to profit from a war, you must only sell them a continual stream of replacement weapons...  Obviously, a company can't sell *itself* replacement weapons as all that does is hemorrhage resources all the way to bankruptcy.

Furthermore, the costs aren't only monetary.

The decisions the corporate/military interest in Avatar made to get at one highly valued rock cost a tremendous amount of human lives - not only those killed by the Na'vi, but by the wild animals in the forest and the toxic atmosphere of the planet... Many lives are also probably lost to space travel itself and some friendly fire/on-the-job accidents.  Each one of these lives comes at a social cost to the company as well since they are going to have to notify family back home on Earth, and it's reputation becomes increasingly tarnished.

As the reputation grows worse, the cost of compensating employees goes up as well, as finding replacements becomes more and more difficult.  

No, even if you take the whole series of events as given, and you look at the company as a completely amoral or immoral entity, the cost of doing business this way is insane...  The company is just sacrificing profits to engage in a completely unnecessary interaction with an alien species who don't want them around.  Of course, the joke of that is, if the company executives actually behaved like people looking to profit, there would have been no need for them to have committed untold billions in R&D to creating the Avatar program - and then we have no movie at all.

Now.  All this is purely from the standpoint of the worst-case scenario, where not a single person involved and definitely not any of the management in the company or the military have anything approaching reciprocal morality.  Human history has certainly shown a remarkable tendency to justify a lot of atrocities, but there are what appear to be many hundreds, or perhaps several thousand humans living on Pandora.  Not a one of them recognizes that the Na'vi have comparable intelligence and intellectual & communicative faculties to humans?  Not a one of them views the Na'vi as sovereign individuals instead of worthless savages? 


The stupidity just keeps on going though - The corporate CEO says they offered to barter with the Na'vi - obviously showing that they recognize the indigenous people as A. intelligent, and B. rightful owners of the Unobtainium and other natural resources.  He then proceeds to appear to be baffled as to why they wouldn't trade their ancestral home and displace their entire population in exchange for a couple of ESL Schools and unneeded clothing.

Really?  That's surprising?  I'd like to have been there at that negotiation:

CEO of Evil, Inc.: "We've discovered that underneath your 500' tall tree, which we realize is home to thousands of your people, there is a massive deposit of a mineral we would like to acquire."

Na'vi Ruler: "Why do you want the mineral?"

CEO: "It's worth a lot to us."

Na'vi: "Ok, well our home is worth a lot to us...  So what would you offer for us to allow you to take some of this mineral?"

CEO: "Uhh...  How about a school to indoctrinate you with our customs and language?"

Na'vi: "Yeah... Umm... No... That doesn't sound like a good trade."

CEO: "Whaaaaaaaa???  Why not!?"

Na'vi: *Facepalm*

CEO: "I guess we'll just have to have to start a hugely expensive war then"

Seriously though - when you think about it... This is exactly what Cameron wants us to believe.  But this is why understanding the economics and human behavior behind the movie is actually so important.  If you ignore these fundamental problems, the rest of the movie makes absolute sense...  The Na'vi defend their homes, the military tries to destroy them, everybody fights, the infinitesimal group of humans who side with them are heroes, and it's all done because the military is full of jarheads and corporations are greedy.

Perfect.  Greed kills again.  But why? 

If you stop to ask the only question that mattered; "Does the premise make any sense?", the entire plot falls right apart.  If the company were really greedy it wouldn't have wasted it's time dealing with the Na'vi at all, it would have done everything possible to avoid them - and avoid paying for a war or hiring wasteful Marine mercenaries, avoid building the stupid Avatar bodies, avoid creating 15' high mechanical armor suits, and would have picked as much Unobtainium as possible from the easiest places possible.  If none of that were possible, then the cost of acquisition vs. the utility and demand for Unobtanium would skyrocket, and the company would be better of figuring out how to lab-create the damn thing like cubic zirconia.  If you actually understand the economics of all this, one thing is abundantly clear: There is *no* profit in what happened on screen.

The natural response to all of this is of course, "Who cares?  It's just plot-holes in Hollywood movie... Nothing new there, right?" 

True enough.  But I obviously do care, primarily because this is yet another incredibly well-made example of a film that hangs a hugely negative message on a terrible premise.  Avatar shows contempt for humanity in general and for what most people view as "capitalism" (though it is actually just classic corporatism).  That message is conveyed nicely, and in a way that yet again buttresses people's ignorance of economics and further inhibits critical thinking.  I view this as a bad thing in general.

So yeah... I encourage everyone who's seen Avatar to stop for just one moment and ask yourselves one simple question: What does the rock actually do?

Underneath all the fighting, the destruction, and even the whole body transfer concept itself lies one of the flimsiest premises of all time.  Without thinking about this one little thing, the movie - and half of it's political point of view (the part where we glorify living like cavemen in loincloths and trying not to be eaten by monstrous beasts) makes perfect sense - but if you just take a moment or two to look under the surface, the entire story falls to pieces.

* * * * *

[PS: Standard Libertarian Disclaimers all apply... Human activities on Na'vi as written are indefensible.  The planet's inhabitants own the planet, not the humans - thus, using force to take their resources is theft and should not happen.  The point I'm making is not to defend the theft or the aggression, but that based on the story as written, the theft & aggression makes exactly no sense.]