Thursday, 21 December 2017

Baby Driver (2017): A Review

The Prologue

We saw this trailer for Baby Driver a while ago and at the time we thought it looked really cool. Today before we watched the film we rewatched the trailer and agreed with our past selves. Right now I am writing a review... of the movie, not the trailer.

The Review

(Or, I needed a way of pointing out I was going to start off with a pretty massive spoiler and couldn't think of a better way of doing this).

Having watched Baby Driver I have to say that I greatly preferred the movie the trailer seemed to promise me.

The Trailer's Movie hits a lot of common beats. There's a reason for that: they're great beats. Baby's set up as a get away driver who's being coerced into the business and not allowed out, at pain of his girlfriend's safety. He and his girlfriend conspire to try and get out of the business, and intend to hijack the "first job back even after he was meant to be out" in order to do this. Doc (Kevin Spacey's character) is bad guy that Baby's trying to get away from.

The Movie's Movie is a much less manic and humour-filled film than that of the trailer, but the bigger issue is why this is so. Had the film been Layer Cake to the trailer's Snatch that would have been one thing. Indeed, Layer Cake is just better than Snatch no matter how much I like both films. But it's not. The issue is that the subtle plot differences and omitted facets combine to create a less interesting storyline.

Where in the trailer the movie's progression seems to follow the standard "last job", "threat" and "escape" formula that seems so familiar in the actual film it's more "job", "meet girl/the last job", "aren't you still working with us, Baby?" and "manic ending". This sounds like essentially the same film but it's all the difference in the world.

The trailer positions Baby as a protagonist who does questionable things but is ultimately someone we can get behind. He's a young man forced into a situation we'll watch him escape. In the movie we essentially watch a series of vignettes. There's the "Griff job", there's the "last job", there's "Debbie", there's "working with Bats" and then there's "the ending". The net effect is that the ending just seems to happen because that's what happens in a movie.

Baby for no particular reason decides that rather than grabbing Debbie and driving off, he should go ahead with the planned heist. This let's us have an apparent ending to the film. But only because Doc makes the really dumb decision to have Baby go in and case the post office a bit earlier. It has a great meta explanation but "in-universe" it just lets us meet Sam. There were other ways of doing this.

Let's talk about Bats.

Bats is an interesting character. To return to Layer Cake, he's Michael Gambon's Eddie Temple. But instead of the "Layer Cake" speech at the end, Bats gives us a couple of different "insights" to the nature of the criminal game. The trailer would have us believe he's a loose cannon but the truth is the film depicts him as more or less a very ruthless and extremely decisive operator.

With the way the plot plays out, Baby needed to have been depicted as an individual who wasn't at arms length and thus to stand in contrast as a different and competing way of playing the same game. You could almost see Baby as XXXX and Bats as a Duke-Morty hybrid. That would have worked.

As it happens, Doc's aforementioned stupidity makes Baby worn the teller, who gets the security guard, who gets killed by Bats, which makes Baby space out, which makes Bats threaten Baby, which leads to Baby killing Bats with some car fu, which means they all go on the run and just so happen to meet back together in order that Darling can die, so that Buddy can chase Baby around for the last bit of the film. It's kind of enjoyable, but it's not the Zorba the Greek sequence from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and it's not the closing voice over of Layer Cake either.

If you want Baby to be at arm's length he needs to be like Lock Stock's group of four friends. He and Debbie come up with a ploy which just so happens to fold into the happenings of Doc. Even better you can have Buddy and Darling's "feelings" cause them to conspire with the guy Buddy knows.

If you want Baby to be a spanner in the works, you've got to put him in the works. You have to let him be a real part of the operation. You've got to let the Bats/Baby personal friction play out as a philosophical/operational contest.

Baby Driver tries to half arse the material it has. I think this why it makes its characters do arbitrary dumb things for no real reason. It's not clever enough to be about an accidental and purposeless universe, and it's not set up right for me to just swallow the ending as the logical extension of the start. And it sure as hell isn't anywhere near as good as its trailer.

Yes, I'm aware XXXX was in some sense at arm's length seeing as how he executed the vision of James Lionel Price but he was management, and the plot of his film is driven by his actions and reactions.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Disney Buys Fox

I've seen quite a bit of attention about this but it's almost all been focussed on the MCU. That's a totally reasonable thing. I've vastly read more about this specifically to find its implications for the MCU.

When I've turned to sources which aren't likely to care about the MCU do you know what I discover? Business interpretations. Considerations of the strategies involved.. why Disney wants to buy, why Fox wants to be bought. A little on the regulatory side of things.

And on Twitter I have found people complaining about why no one is talking about the monopoly angle. Well, I'm here to explain that.

You might be thinking, "Well, this better be a pretty epic explanation because it is obvious that this creates a monopoly and that's bad." This is my interpretation of the tweets I saw.

Let me be very, very blunt. Offensive even. I hope you're not thinking like this because the truth is that this is a very ignorant position to be taking. And it is with every fibre of my being that I hope you haven't been publicising this view if you hold it.

Please don't mistake my meaning. Absolutely I believe in getting things wrong. I believe in the mistake. What I don't find okay is writing about something without even the modicum of research. And that's what all you need to do to understand why people aren't really talking about monopoly here... when you're not reading MCU sites talking about the MCU.

Disney isn't going to become a monopoly if it buys Fox. It just isn't.

A monopoly is a single dominant firm. Strictly speaking it's a sole firm situation. Neither this weak monopoly or pure monopoly concept describes what Disney's potential acquisition will be. Rather, Disney will become a larger firm in an already oligopolistic market.

Look, Disney's being an oligopolist is not ideal. Oligopolistic markets are failed markets. They're also really, really common (practically all markets are failed). And I'm not convinced that Disney's getting bigger is actually really going to change anything. But it might.

And, look, the regulatory bodies are going to go over this deal with a fine tooth comb. They are going to be really interested in whether or not Disney's expansion in this fashion will be anti-competitive. And what they're looking for and interested in is complex. It's beyond me. And if anything I've written here has surprised you it's beyond you too (especially if you're a lawyer because you're going to have the added disadvantage of recognising the legal concepts whilst lacking the economics to comment on what's going on).

Something that I'd consider if I was whatever equivalents of the Commerce Commission will be looking at is what exactly the market that Disney is involved in is. It's not obvious at all.

Disney is an entertainment firm. That's clear. And we might understand an entertainment industry that involves sports (ESPN), television (ABC), comics (Marvel), theme-parks (Disneyworld etc.) and movies (a variety of brands, e.g. Marvel Studios, Disney, Pixar). And regulators will, I assume, be looking into the deal from this perspective. But I think they might be considering the evolving dynamics of the market and who exactly the participants are.

One of the general ways of thinking about the entertainment industry is that it is a market in a transitionary period. The big thing these days is "streaming". And the streamers look to have a competitive advantage. In other words, in 20 years if you weren't streaming within the next three you might not be in business any more. And what regulators might be thinking here is that this means a duopolistic market of the future... Netflix and Amazon (the current market leader and a giant poised to be able to capture a substantial market).

The strategic paradigm responses to Disney' "buying" of Fox like to talk about the role of scale. Their thinking is that Disney has to get big to make Hulu or its own completely separate (perhaps even Disney only) streaming service a viable product: it needs the content. That's a reasonable position, and it makes Disney sound a hell of a lot less like a monopolist, right? It makes Disney sound like Kodak.

I should also mention that even if Disney were a monopoly, scale is one of the reasons why it might be better to keep it. The reality is that in some situations a monopoly can be coerced into pricing in a fashion that it can (a) afford and (b) is cheaper than what a bunch of small actors could offer (because they're unable to spread their fixed costs over as many units as the much larger monopoly).

Also, monopolies are the reason NZ doesn't have and doesn't need net neutrality laws. Chorus is a state owned monopoly that owns all the infrastructure. Each ISP then uses Chorus' network, and Chorus isn't allowed to operate in the way that Spark or Vodafone do. Yet another illustration of why every economics text ever is at pains to explain why monopolies aren't inherently bad.

But this is far from the only way to think about things in a non-MCU way. That article's fellow suggests that one consider the sheer scale of the oligopoly's power. That is, the firm doesn't have to be a monopoly to be a big problem.

Disney's scale, at the moment, is such that if it threatened a movie theatre with blacklisting that theatre would be screwed. And that's as a seller. It is as a purchaser or producer (in the entertainment not economics sense) that Disney+Fox might well be at its most problematic. Problematically, Disney does seem to do stuff like this now. That is something that bodes extremely ill.

A big as Disney is likely to be I feel like it will continue to play the game as much as it always had. I think a price war will be unlikely because its rivals are big boys too. I think the concern is that Disney might coerce more desirable contracts by pointing out that if Disney doesn't buy your script or whatever you have far less options to sell it too instead. That's a big deal. But maybe it's a feature of the current market too (I don't know). If so, I'm not sure if Disney's getting bigger matters.

So, there you have it... no-one's talking about the monopoly because there isn't one. And no-one's talking about the oligopoly because unless you are as into speculation as I am there isn't much more to say than "regulators are looking into it". But I suspect the reason you're saying the coverage is all about the MCU is simply because you're not reading the business pages.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Idiot Fails to Win Dux, Complains

In New Zealand the centrepiece of end of year prizegivings is, theoretically anyway, who gets to become Dux. The Dux is the best performing pupil in year thirteen (and also year eight) and how exactly schools determine this is unclear. Sometimes you get situations where it seems obvious that some "wuz robbed" but probably most of the time you nod your head along.* In fact, basically never does sour grapes ranting make the news.** But that's what has happened today. And good God the dude who wrote it is duummb. It's a bit mean to be insulting a 17 year old, but what one does is on one's head... and his steaming pile of crap ought to be placed there rapidly, with much fanfare.

What I'm going to do is the whole paragraph by paragraph response to the Filip Vachuda's vacuous drivel that you might remember from such classic posts as "Listen to the Axe Grind", "Blind Faith" or "Victoria or Victorian?". Vachuda's work belong in a similar context, i.e. as part of a wider discourse that people have been having for years. Indeed, I remember on an NCEA Memes page someone doing a "what really grinds my gears" post that was on pretty much this subject. But it is important to note that Vachuda doesn't situate anything he talks about within these older discussions. And his age isn't an excuse. I wrote the latter two of those posts I just linked to when I was in the same place as Vachuda. I feel that I placed things in their appropriate contexts just after I finished school and I think it is a key flaw with Vacuda's argument. But, before I begin looking at that, from NCEA memes 2013 (also, what happened to the NCEA memes industry? seemed to die quite rapidly after my cohort finished):

More generally, what Vachuda and these memes are part of is a discourse on hard versus soft subjects. To be honest, it's one of the ways people like to attack NCEA... because the whole point of NCEA was to bring everything under the same umbrella you have technical, academic and artistic subjects being evaluated against the same, as it were, measuring stick... and because NZQA is also broader than just school you also find seemingly random stuff like driving a car being incorporated. That everything is accommodated doesn't actually mean much. But Vachuda doesn't actually criticise NCEA, I include this because I take all opportunities to slag off NCEA's many critics. Reading Vachuda's piece suggests that he lacks an awareness of his position's lack of novelty. Anyway, enough with the ado, onto the problem...
I was Proxime Accessit this year at an NCEA school in Central Auckland.
Losing out on Dux was never really important to me. After all, winning would only result in my name being put up in the hall for kids to emptily stare at.
This is a mistake. I'm sure people would have complained if Vachuda presented himself as someone without a vested interest but by frontloading this stuff all he's really achieved is making us think, "So, why are you talking about this?" It would have been better, I think, to have used a disclaimer approach.
But while I had completed Level 3 English and a Scholarship exam in Year 12, and studied difficult subjects like physics or calculus, the Dux recipient had exempted herself from any math [sic], science, or indeed, scholarship exams and extra subjects.
This is just outright showing off. It's not relevant to the erstwhile point but it is useful information if you're trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the actual winner's victory... In other words, including this just reinforces the impression that it is sour grapes. Vachuda is meant to be defending academic subjects, not suggesting that the Dux ought to be the person who does the best whilst undertaking the most. Looking at this post on Onehunga High School's website, the winner of the Dux was one Rosie Hayden. Her decision to not take on any scholarship subjects, while not something I'd have advised back when I was there age (we got three for free) because they are intellectually rewarding, could come down to a great many different reasons. Ultimately Hayden has to do what was best for her, and it's not on for Vachuda to be attacking her for doing that... especially when it's irrelevant to the task at hand.
Our quantity and quality of attainment, all subjects being equal, were near-identical, but my minuscule credit deficit was all that mattered.
I couldn't help but wonder: why did my school not consider my more demanding curriculum?
Vachuda is kind of using this irrelevant information to introduce the subject at hand but even if we assume Vachuda actually knows how his school determines who is and is not to be Dux what he's really achieving is focussing the reader's attention on his personal story rather than the abstract point he's meant to be illustrating.
 Was it even appropriate, to begin with, saying certain courses were more rigorous than others?
My school's administration dismissed the concept of subject difficulty as merely an "artificial construct", and claimed such an attitude was "consistent" among the vast majority of NCEA schools.
The first paragraph means I was somewhat wrong before... Vachuda is alluding to a wider discourse, but his treatment of the notion of rigour is deeply flawed. For instance, notice the choice of language in the second paragraph. "Dismissed" is a dismissive word... the connotation is that the school's decision is based on whim rather than reason. What Vachuda takes "artificial construct" to mean (or, more importantly, the school's view of this) is not to be considered in this defence. What you have just read is all the effort Vachuda dedicates to the opposing view. All of it.

But subject hierarchies are by no means unprecedented. In the United States, rigour of coursework is a standard factor universities look at, and students have "weighted" grade point averages to reflect the difficulty of their classes.
Some New Zealand schools, such as King's College, also weight their courses in ranking students' performances.
What Vachuda isn't telling us here is that in the USA there is no national curriculum and even within states there is an enormous amount of variety. In New Zealand, in contrast, things are more centralised with more what we'd call quality controls across the entire country. In administrative terms or even on the level of what specifically is taught our schools are very independent, but they're all under the same, somewhat watchful, umbrella in terms of what they do.
I had thus initially thought, upon almost sparking "DuxGate", that my school's priorities were all warped, but I was wrong. The vast majority of our schools do not weight subjects; simply because New Zealand's university acceptance framework doesn't.
Nearly all high school subjects, whether calculus, printmaking, media or home economics, are "university approved", and in the vast majority our universities' admission cycles (excluding for engineering and certain University of Auckland courses), "university approved" subjects all have equal weight.
Firstly, this is all very misleading. The universities are not the drivers of the system and nor should they be. I personally hold that everyone should be able to go to uni but this doesn't mean that everyone should go to uni. Unis should be able to uni, and the Dux award is not made with them in mind.

Secondly, knowing what a subject is doesn't really tell you much about what the subject is about. For example, describing English as English is terribly misleading. Knowing that Drama involves acting doesn't mean that you can label the subject as acting. Even P.E. is more than just sport. The reason a great many subjects are approved for university entrance (and not necessarily all of the standards within it at that) is because they all require thinking about what you're doing. Either that or the way subjects are taught in year nine and ten doesn't provide any indications whatsoever for the way those subjects are in year eleven and so on exclusively for the ones I didn't continue with. That I can't believe.
Therefore, schools promote studying anything at all as an identical means to success, and the Dux, or "most successful", reflects this mindset.
It is easy to see why the NZQA and universities have adopted this approach. Everyone has different strengths and skill sets that contribute to a complete world. More "university approved" subjects enable further study in more fields.
But assigning acting, cooking or painting a similar academic status as calculus, science or history completely misses the mark. You can be illiterate and innumerate, yet an outstanding painter or actor, and excel in a multitude of relevant standards.
Yes, that is kind of true. However, you will never ever pass a single NCEA internal or external if you are illiterate. That's just completely wrong.
Moreover, in countries like the UK, where exams, unlike here, aren't graded on a curve, math [sic] and science students, for example, regularly underperform due to tougher tests.
NCEA exams aren't "graded on a curve". Our friend here is presumably misunderstanding the profiles of expected performance. These basically show how hard a given standard is meant to be. That's it. And it's why they are made public.
There will always be exceptions, but the overall trends in student achievement suggest that subject difficulty is not at all an "artificial construct" irrelevant to said achievement.
The reason why it is artificial is because it depends entirely on the perception of the observer. As I have said many times, the easiest NCEA internals I ever did were for level three calculus. For other people those internals might have been difficult. It might be true that a given standard trends to the difficult side (consider the PEPs) but we can't really understand this as indicating that the subject is actually harder than another. What it says is that more pupils find the subject harder, and that might simply be because they're taught it poorly... or it maybe it's because the subject is more difficult. But here's the kicker... when you're dealing with subjects like drama or calculus at level three people select themselves out... those who are left (generally) want to be there and have (usually) done well enough to be allowed to be there. How would Vachuda respond to this?

That's right... the vaunted academic subject is thought to be easier by NCEA. They expect more Excellences and fewer Not Achieveds! Now, it's probably fair to say that really this is just a case of variance. After all, NZQA can also be said to expect fewer NAs and more Es with the drama standard. But that's why you compare it to the history external (again level three). Notice that again drama trends "harder" in terms of the number of failures, although it's easier when you look at the range for Es. (Recall, percentages outside these bands are thought to be weird.)
As well as that, chances are more "difficult" subjects will get you further in life - the five highest-paying college majors in the US were all some form of engineering, while among the lowest-paying were social work, theology and ECE - subjects where emotional, not academic intelligence, is the key to success.
Um, why is he looking at US data? And why is this something that the Dux award should be considering?
In New Zealand, performing arts has been the lowest-paid college [sic] degree for years.
By no coincidence, disparities of difficulty and future success, between classically academic subjects (sciences, law) and other fields correlate significantly.
We've just demonstrated that "performing arts" at school is not on the easy side... by the logic that Vachuda believes in.
Knowing this, it is great that we value everyone's potential, but shouldn't we, in determining our top academic performers, recognise certain pathways as more challenging and likely to be rewarding?
"Rewarding" being framed entirely in terms of financial return. Here's something prospective law students pass around among themselves for a more measured perspective on what rewarding really means. You have to do, what's right for you.
We should be encouraging our young people to embark on the most fulfilling, but
also fruitful, careers possible, but NCEA's system, which seems to have rubbed off on to universities, does not encourage that at all. Students studying easier and tougher subjects compete on a forcibly equal footing, and the latter are unjustly rendered inferior.
We have seen that the case isn't data driven, indeed it's contradicted by some data. So the logic here really collapses and never gets going. And we see, again, the screwball idea of reward being perpetuated through.
Furthermore, even if all data supporting disparities is negated, surely any school that bills its Dux as the "top academic achiever" has a duty to emphasise, well, academic subjects - subjects that, by common consensus, are ones that can be constantly improved upon through further study.
I am inclined to agree... except with that definition of academic. That definition of academic? Well, it... I'm not sure what it would exclude from the club.
An additional major shortcoming of our system is that according to university criteria, only your best five subjects are ever relevant. I lost Dux despite studying six subjects, one more than my competition, because not all were counted. My Scholarship exam was also completely ignored.
Which matters why? Why is it a bad thing that only five subjects are counted? And, of course, it'd be your best five that are counted too... Obviously it seems perverse to have a system that you can game by doing more work at a typically lower standard and be categorised as "better" for it. Work smarter, not harder, right?
Most perplexedly, at that same awards ceremony, a Year 12 girl who had decided to study all Level 3 subjects, yet still performed to an outstanding standard, lost the Year 12 Merit Cup to someone with a marginally higher grade point average, but with all his credits at Level 2 - a full curriculum level lower.
This is harder to call. On one hand, that girl chose to study at level three. And yeah she's been assessed at that standard, but she's also been taught at that standard. Should we punish someone for doing better at the standard they've been taught at by ranking someone who did slightly worse at the standard they were taught at ahead? That's not really fair. And if you did it the other way round, because level three is definitely harder, at which point does 100% Es at L2 stop being better than some level of performance at L3? I sympathise with the girl but there's no reward without risk, and the situation is really rather impossible when you stop to think about it for a moment. If you want to acknowledge individuality, you have to acknowledge it and this can and does lead to contradictory outcomes.
This all begs another question: why is it ever appropriate to outright ignore certain student achievement, as my school did? Accomplishments beyond the needed or expected framework, though less relevant to university admissions, are no less impressive or valuable to one's intellectual growth, and should not be any less worthy of recognition.
Firstly, no way does this guy know whether or not he passed however many scholarship papers he did. Secondly, yes, as it were, formative work is just as personally meaningful as summative work. Thirdly, Vachuda is ignoring how this would actually work in practice. Fourthly, the logic that is being used here not only doesn't differentiate between hard and soft subjects but outright rejects that paradigm.
We must be careful we aren't failing our next generation by teaching them to only value the bare minimum for success (what happened to "the sky's the limit"?). It almost seems like we don't have faith in our education system if we encourage students to put in as little effort as necessary.
Let's use a though experiment here. That Vachuda decides to clean his sister's bedroom as well as his own, doesn't say anything about the amount of effort that Hayden put into cleaning her (but only her) bedroom. I mean, they could both have bedrooms that consist of literally nothing a bed and a floor with papers two centimetres deep covering up all of that floor. These rooms would be considered tidy if all those papers were put in magazine files or recycled or whatever. That's minimum effort stuff. But what we're really saying is that Hayden went through and tidied up properly. She sorted out one class of paper from another, decided what was worth keeping and what wasn't and then went out and put in a proper filing system with an Excel document telling her where what was. Vachuda does all this too except that last bit with the Excel document. He's done more, yeah, but Hayden's effort is still way above the minimum... it was actually better than his, just spread over less stuff.
Now, you could undoubtedly call me a bad sport. Though I feel one aspect of good
sportsmanship almost never mentioned is questioning decisions you perceive as incorrect.
Challenging dubious outcomes, after all, is simply in pursuit of fair play.
This is a grey area. I think he's probably wrong, though. The good sport rejects a system that benefits them and if they choose to criticise a system that harms them, doesn't then go on to say...
I have realised from this (albeit non-sporting) exercise that I cannot assign my award legitimacy. The young woman who beat me was spectacular at what she did. She rightfully deserved all her prizes in drama, media, sustainability - and I must mention, as I outperformed her in English, she outperformed me in history.
Vachuda has declared the outcome fake. The good sport accepts that they lost by the rules at the time, and separates that loss out from any advocacy for new rules.***
But forgoing math [sic], science and extension beyond the base curriculum in favour of less academic subjects should not add up to being declared the best, all-round, academic achiever.
The base curriculum? What is that? Well, it's probably similar to what you get at year nine... which for me was (generalised) science, maths, English, (generalised) social studies, an additional language and finally two technology and two arts subjects (each for two terms). Oh, bother, I guess art has more claim to the base curriculum than biology and physics do. And the importance of different arts is only going to be more emphasised the younger we look.
There are no benchmarks in NCEA beyond achievement at your chosen level - and
we have become so reluctant to assign greater value to certain endeavours that performing an entire curriculum level above expectations won't impact one's relative success.
I'm not suggesting that the state immediately starts ranking subjects, but we need to consider whether this egalitarian narrative is misleading our students.
The US model of "weighted" classes and grade point averages is determined by schools - who may very well get their calculations wrong. But instituting a similar culture in New Zealand will at least address that not all achievement is, and I stress, in the world of academics and future opportunities, created equal.
Yes, clearly, all the evidence we have seen by Vachuda's logic suggests that the gap between art-phobic Vachuda (in the blue corner, taking the easier subjects) should have fallen further behind Hayden (in the red corner, taking the harder subjects). Not that I very exhaustive search of PEPs and not that I think doing so really adds much to this discussion seeing as how I disagree with Vachuda's logic.
Different course choices may lead to unequal outcomes in life, but all need not be turned on its head. NCEA's sentiment towards absolute subject equality is as unrealistic as it is a heart-warming gesture, and something needs to change.
Until then, I shall advise my sister, who has just finished Year 11 with the Girls' Merit Cup under her belt, to load up on her photography, P.E. and Polynesian dance if she wishes to continue being a top scholar.
Vachuda clearly has no idea what these subjects actually involve so if you're reading this Vachuda's sister (presumably your name is Karolina Vachudova) please don't listen to your older brother's advice. He would have you spend months working on projects and enormous hours explaining what exactly your projects mean and are doing. A full load of arts subjects is the best way of ensuring 0 free time.

*There was a minor upset in year thirteen at my school... the prize was shared. I'm not sure how that happened when the favourite was so very obviously so but it did. In year eight the Dux went to someone other than who I'd thought it would go to. That call never made any sense to me. At least my "robbed" friend went on to get Dux at his college, but still.

**Hell, you don't even hear me going on about how I never got the top drama prize in year eleven even though I know for a fact I had the best marks (er, until now). I think they decided that the formative assessment where I got a merit and the winner got an excellence mattered more but I had excellences in both mock exams and all the other standards I remember having the same marks for but whatever. Having checked, there was one performance internal where I got Merit but this is the response I had at the time. The point is that I am not attacking the validity of the apparent system.

***I should point out that I am very keen on challenging things I disagree with... this should be clear from this post, but it's also true in sporting contexts. Playing handball at college was always a very interesting experience because, damn, you argue everything. 

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Auckland's Train Strike

Unions get a bad rap from all sorts of people. Sometimes that's deserved. The union guys in GBH are pretty terrible people. I mean, they might not know the whole story but they still terrorise little kids because they can't set up a strike properly. That's not defensible. And, yeah, you do get actual strikes that do terrible things. For example, beating up "scabs" or those who break picket lines and go to work anyway. But unions do good things: they fight the power imbalance of the labour market.

Transport strikes get really interesting. A lot of people depend on public transport to get to their jobs, and the increased traffic theoretically repeats on everyone in general. This is the whole point of a strike. The idea is to make the bosses realise that the little guy actually matters. Usually this is by hitting the bosses' commercial interests, but public sector strikes are more about inconvenience. And let me tell you that the rigmarole I went through yesterday was inconvenient. Although, the cop car's blocking the entrance to the bus station was surely not a sign of solidarity. Naturally, there are people who are stopping just short of having the union involved lined up against the wall and shot.

The basic issue at the heart of Friday's strike is the forthcoming demise of the train managers (conductor, guard type people) and ticket inspectors. Or, in other words, driver only operation. I don't think this is a good idea. Let's put it this way... if you can agree that having single-staff operated trains is desirable, who would you rather get rid of? the train manager? or the driver? (driverless trains are a thing). I think the majority of people are lying to themselves if they say the conductors.

I'm not entirely convinced that the Union involved is taking the right tack here. A lot of people are framing the issue as a question of safety. I think that's a poor argument. Firstly, because Auckland's trains are safe. I can think of a grand total of two news stories this year about incidents on the train. I know people who will change station at night out of safety concerns but here's the thing... they are still catching the train itself. Secondly, because the main "safety" thing the train managers do is something that is criticised a lot... they manage the doors. Auckland has a station dwell time problem. There are a bunch of causes and one of the ones that gets singled out is that train managers sometimes hold trains up to let people on. You see this quite a lot. And the train managers are also responsible for introducing lag when they check no-one's in the way of the doors. That's managed in other ways at present.

The reason why having conductors is preferable to drivers is because they are customer facing. Sure, there's no real contact if you're in a six carriage train and the manager is in the other set of three, but that's a third problem with the safety argument. When you frame the train manager as a manager you set up lower stakes and emphasise the human element of what it is they do. Maybe the train managers ought to know more about the transport network as a whole. Maybe critics of the strike are right about that. But the train managers are the person to talk to if someone is mucking around with the doors. If they've got feet on chairs. If they're playing music loudly. And the train manager is who you'd talk to if something happened. They're who you can train to make a decision about what to do if, say, a medical issue occurred. The driver is completely useless in all these situations. The people, if any are present, on the platforms are useless.

The reality, though, is that Auckland's trains are a lifetime away from being driverless. But this logic is worth considering. It reveals that the reason the managers are being ditched isn't something to do with their redundancy, an argument which (as discussed) is more tenable when you argue from safety grounds. Rather, the managers are being ditched because of the arbitrary fare recovery ratio imposed on AT by faceless bureaucrats. It's quite disgusting that Greater Auckland believes (a) that the ratio is arbitrary but is (b) pro-mass lay offs. It's a position they're able to sustain because they have only engaged with the single narrative of safety.

Now, we ought to say some things in AT's defence. It is possible that they're incoming new role will be able to resolve some of these issues but everyone I've heard suggests that the new transport officers are just going to be jacked up ticket inspectors. Yeah, there is going to be more of them, and yeah they'll mean that the network has more on-board staff in the system but they're not going to be on every service. They're not being sold based on people skills. They are being sold based on their ability to kick people off trains. They are, in short, another reason to choose something other than safety to argue on. And they're not a role that everyone will be able to transition to, either.

Thinking about what it is the train managers do reveals the spurious nature of the for and against arguments, because everyone is an idiot (quelle surprise) and safety just misses the point. Maybe the transport officers are going to be trained so that they do it all. Maybe AT are going to handle things so that they transition as many current staff into the new role as possible. Maybe AT are going to manage the lay offs well. I don't know. But making sure AT do these sorts of things is exactly why unions exist. And it is exactly why there should be strikes if it looks like these kinds of thing aren't going to happen. And sure this strike probably had the wrong logic to achieve such outcomes, and it's distracted from the big picture (the arbitrary ratio, fare recovery issues with the New Network, a broke Council and a decade of neglect from central government) but the abstract strike doesn't justify the rhetoric it's received. Especially when dealing with an organisation as poor at customer contact as AT.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Winning Elections and Asking Questions

National's been getting an earful lately from a couple of quarters. Firstly, people were outraged by their "spam" or "DDOS" approach to opposition... people drew parallels with the behaviour of the Republicans in the US, although I'm not convinced it makes sense to speak of "the Opposition" there. Secondly, Nick Smith re-invigorated the whole "National won the election" trope, which also drew parallels with Republicans.... although I personally thought of Clinton and that's the better reference.

National's behaviour with the questions are infantile. I can understand that maybe they're being denied information they should have access to. I understand that there are mumblings about transparency already viz the current government. I can definitely see the appeal of trying to make tu quoque defences. I definitely think that the sort of information should be available to anyone without asking. That is, if you're a Minister, your diary should be retroactively published at the end of each week... there needs to be some kind of analogue for Hansard for this information. But what National is doing is still infantile:

  • Firstly, the tu quoque argument is fallacious.
  • Previous instances like Winston Peters' similar questions or Trevor Mallard's thousands, were made to well established governments. They were not launched at a time that could disrupt the changing of the guard.
  • When you look at the questions that Trevor Mallard once asked they were quite different. The information is less trivial and look a lot like Mallard was trying to access data that, again, should have been available. They might be problematic if it turns out he's asked questions that were duplicates in the way that...
  • National has literally asked ministers what events they attended in [month] by asking one question per day. Compare Winston Peters' formulation:
    • "What is the list of people and organisations, if any, with whom the Minister has held meetings in September 2016; for each person/organisation listed, where was the meeting or meetings held and what were the topics of discussion?" (October 2016)
    • Yes, you could argue that this is a fishing expedition. But here we have one question, one month, same information as dozens asked by National.
  • National's response to this "sort" of question is dismissive, here's what Phil Heatley wrote in response to Mallard's questions:
    • "I refer the Member to the attached tables. The first table shows the number of properties owned and leased by the Housing New Zealand Corporation for each of its neighbourhood units for each quarter since 31 December 2008. The second table shows the number of tenanted Corporation properties owned and leased by the number of bedrooms for each neighbourhood unit for each quarter since 31 December 2008. This also answers the Member’s parliamentary questions between numbers 19827 and 23559. While I have provided a full answer on this occasion, it was not without considerable time and effort by the Housing New Zealand Corporation for little public benefit. In the future, I will consider closely whether the time and effort spent on the responses are in the public interest."
    • While the tu quoque argument is fallacious, it is indeed infantile to do something which you don't like and don't think is worth it just because you can.
I will conclude my thoughts on this matter by quoting the Spinoff's comment:
This doesn’t mean National is powerless in opposition. It just means it’s probably best to forget the gimmicks, as National almost certainly will. The tried and true ways to hold up a government’s programme are still the most effective: applying careful targeted scrutiny, embarrassing ministers and winning over the public, not playing at student politics with arcane points of order and becoming obsessed with four-dimensional procedural chess.

I'm not sure I agree with their earlier remark that "If, for example, proactive publication of ministerial diaries is to become the norm, it shouldn’t be as a result of what’s essentially trolling" because I value the 'win' a lot. But I definitely agree with the author's argument that we're not going to really see a headline like this again. Hell, as you can see my issues here stem mostly from the fact I don't see why more than one question per minister was required.

The question of who wins elections here is more interesting.

In both the US and in NZ the current head of government (their president, our Prime Minister) comes from a party that didn't win the most votes. In fact, in both elections no-one won the most votes either (it is actually the norm for American presidents to not beat 50% of their pathetic turnouts... no Clinton has ever managed it, for instance). The difference is that in the US an election does have a winner as such. And in both countries the parties that best understood the system are the ones in power now.

Look, I definitely think that the American system is screwball. I also think that Clinton lost because of Comey. But the reality is that I'm a "sports fan" and in sport there's the saying, "You can only beat the guy in front of you." There are obviously lots of variations in words, but the point is that you make your performances in the face of conditions outside your control. You might get an easy run to the final, but if your opponents have been tougher, your task would have been the same. That's what the phrase means. And the truth is that Donald Trump did this. It wouldn't have worked if Obama had been allowed another go. It wouldn't have worked if the Democrats hadn't been choosing between Sanders and Clinton (Sanders is not electable). But the moves Trump made reflected both Clinton's weaknesses (adapting to the opposition, e.g. focussing on the email narrative) and the realities of the system (playing to the whistle, e.g. the Electoral College). The rules might have been dumb, but Trump played the game according to them better than anyone else. He had lots of luck and help but I'm not going to take that win away from him... he might nuke me.

In NZ elections aren't won because MMP makes the reality of the parliamentary system clearer. That is, it's not the share of vote that matters, but whether or not you have a majority of the seats. The only way to win an election in a parliamentary system is if you're able to form a government. The easiest way to do this is by having a majority of seats. In the UK about 20% of the vote can achieve this due to FPP. But because the big parties are so big (and you require a perfect storm to do that) British Labour and the Conservatives believe they can reach 50% by getting something more like 40-50% of all votes. And they can and do. In NZ, because we have MMP the only way to reach a majority solely is by winning more than 50% of the votes. That's really, really hard to do. And in 2017 National didn't manage it. Thus, winning the election became a question of coalition building.

National's abilities to build a coalition ultimately failed. We can see why Clinton didn't win much more easily. She suffered from Comey's letter. She suffered from not talking to her presumed constituents. But she also had the bad luck that when she talked to Trump's presumed constituents they proved more faithful than her own (somewhat contrary to what I said above both campaigns were very error rich). All this stuff happened in public: everyone saw it happening. Here what mattered in the coalition building process was a mix of public and private happenings. We knew NZ First could swing both ways, but we also saw that policy-wise Labour was a better fit. We knew that National and Labour could offer better deals and that Labour also required the Greens, but what exactly these sorts of deals were we couldn't tell. We knew that NZ First had a bad history with coalitions and National in particular, but we also saw it condemning this kind of thinking. So, can we really say that National didn't understand the process as well as Labour or, indeed, NZ First? I think so.

National's post election behaviour was pretty stupid. They spent all their time playing up their moral mandate or their moral majority as the winners, because they had the most votes. Firstly, as we have seen, that doesn't reflect the reality of parliamentary democracy, especially with MMP. (No, it's not MMP that creates winnerless elections.) Secondly, trying to use public pressure to strong-arm a group you're trying to co-operate with in the future is... dumb. So, yeah, the winner was the coalition we got and, yeah, comparing the Democrats and National makes sense. Both can claim a "moral victory" but if you piss around beforehand, you really shouldn't feel hard done by. Although, the Americans can at least point out that in a sane world they'd have won... National are just being complete pricks because they're advocating for a screwball world of the sort that would have let them win.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

So, Are You Kiwi?

I don't like using Kiwi as an identifier.

I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. I think a large part of the issue is that it's not a particularly cosmopolitan means of parsing the question of nationality or, hell, even of ethnicity. Yet I also believe that foreigners associate NZ with kiwi more than they do with silver ferns. That means Kiwi has the same meaning within and without our borders. There is something of a resolution to this apparent contradiction.

When you look at Kiwi what it does is tie an individual very specifically to the land through the proxy of an endemic native bird uniquely found here. That the kiwi is flightless means this sense of "land" is evoked very strongly. Compare and contrast the message of the Thor films, i.e. that "Asgard is a people, not a place". New Zealander and demonyms like it do evoke the place but through the idea of the place. That's different. That's not blood of the earth stuff. It's dangerous to start talking about nationality and identity in this way. This is nativism:

An Homologous American Discourse
Look, if NZ were to become a nativist dystopia I'd be absolutely fine. My family, at least on one side, has been in this country since the 1860s... this is quite a long time in the context of NZ. But basically every generation, if not every generation, has married more recent immigrants. My mother's father is English... from Islington (you know, where Arsenal are from)... and my father came here in his twenties too. Some of my mother's cousins have a Danish father and they married immigrants too. My mother's mother qualified for an Irish passport... and so on. This is the story of New Zealand. As the ACT party says immigration is in our DNA (alongside DIY). My family is not at all unusual in this respect... even if I suspect the 1860s bit is rarer. But I do think the normalcy of this is threatened by using Kiwi as a demonym.

The above is the context that I use to read this incident from two months ago (it has taken some time to articulate my thoughts):
"So are you a Kiwi, or what? You don't say much so we can't judge the accent," said Heather from Christchurch, to a round of hearty guffaws from the dinner table.
I think this question is encouraged by using Kiwi instead of New Zealander. I don't think people are thinking of passports when they hear Kiwi but I do think they think of them when they hear New Zealander. This is really important. Anecdotally, people seem happy to think of citizens as New Zealanders but not permanent residents, even though NZ is home to both. Even though so many NZ citizens spend their entire lives waiting for the moment to permanently bugger off.

I just have to know where accents are from when I hear them. I think that's true of a lot of people. I think that's fair. Yet, consider that I spent five years of college being Britishised by, at times it seemed, basically everyone. That was weird, annoying and somewhat hurtful. What made it so unusual was that at primary my "accent" seemed entirely non-notable but 3km up the road and suddenly it's different? Accents and identity are tricky. But it's so easy to treat think of them in terms of "sounds foreign = is foreign". Despite my experiences at school, I sometimes catch myself thinking like this.

One of the things you have to deliberately work on at uni is at making friends, and talking to people in lectures is one of the ways of doing this. Now, there are always a lot of different potential friends in a lecture theatre and choosing someone to make contact with can be difficult. I think in this anecdote it was simply based on the idea that Sarah (not her real name) was the closest person to where I wanted to sit. So I introduced myself to Sarah, who looks Asian. Then I catch myself being surprised that she has a fairly thick NZ accent. Probably thicker than mine, to be honest given the above. Most Asian people my age that I know have NZ accents.. and I know quite a lot. Some of them were even born overseas. My surprise was not justifiable. In that moment I was Phil Twyford. I was Paul Henry. I was Duncan Garner. And we were all a lot more Enoch Powell than anyone is comfortable admitting. And if that sounds an extreme comparison it is, but that's how you've got to be thinking about it... especially when you remember there were people who tried to qualify Twyford but the Herald ran the story anyway.

Intersection in Central Auckland
New Zealand (and Auckland especially) is a multicultural society. There are quite a few people who look "different" to the normative image of the Kiwi (who is NZ European or maybe, but probably not, Maori). Accents may be deeply flawed means of assessing an individual's place in society but if we could get over this surprise that some of us experience we'd be doing ourselves a massive solid. As many have pointed out, the rhetoric around housing and immigration in NZ has been way too yellow. I think that's encouraged by using Kiwi as a demonym. As far as word choices go, I think people choose it consciously if they want to make someone seem more authentically NZ, if they want to lay claim to some kind of national bona fides. But even if I am wrong about the way it's used (and the implications attached, whether consciously or not)... and I don't think I am, look at that headline with the Paul Henry link... we've got to wake up and recognise that the only change in our society over the last couple of years is that we've got more xenophobic. I really don't think using Kiwi helps us reach that kind of emotional maturity.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

English Literature is English Literature?

Another Spinoff article... again not wholly the point of this exercise, more the prompt.
In 2017, it’s pretty hard to mount a defence of whitewashing English literature studies. The novel itself isn’t even a European-born artform – the Indian Sanskrit writers, Arabic writers, Japanese writers and Chinese writers were expanding the scope of the novel centuries before the first major European novel, Don Quixote, came along at the start of the 16th century. If we’re willing to accept that English is the lingua franca of the world while acknowledging the role of colonialism in spreading it, then it’s even harder to dismiss the artistic outputs of non-white peoples.
Brannavan Gnanalingam is just plain wrong here. The task is piss easy. And the reason for this is that Gnanalingam is insistent about talking about English literature studies. I can understand the notion that what is called "English" is really just Literature. It doesn't accurately describe my experience of it as a subject but I can understand it. I can understand that we can use Literature broadly and therefore not include works from the "canon" because, well, what is the point of studying words if you can't use them differently to everyone else? Sure the man on the street thinks, "Ah, Literature, pretentious crap" but that doesn't make him right. Or, more to the point, he is not who defines Literature. What I can't understand is combining the two into English Literature and then suggesting that people read some stuff in translation. I mean, why is that English Literature? It isn't from England.* It isn't even in English if we want to take English Literature broadly. Thus, the defence is piss easy... the vast majority of writers of English Literature were "white".

Now, we might say that Gnanalingam addresses this argument even though being apparently blind to it with that stuff about globalisation. The problem here is that if you stop to think about it for a moment you realise it doesn't change anything. English has only been a lingua franca for 300 years tops. And to be honest I'd put it more like 150 years. The reality is that the British Empire might have been the biggest for longer than that but it wasn't really the undisputable top dog except for a brief period in the second half of the nineteenth century until close to WWI. Certainly not scientifically... ever noticed how German sounding a lot of those famous scientific names are? Well, that is because they spoke German and there's a bit of a correspondence. Of course, this does mean that there would be substantial output in English from non-white authors, right? Well, no.

It's all very well to talk about the recency of the novel in Europe. It's not so hot to talk about this without recognising the significance... when did the novel become a mainstream Thing in the English speaking world? How much education in English did colonised peoples get? How culturally influential was the metropole? And from what points in time? The reality is that there is a reason all of the famous English novelists were born after 1750... it's that the English novel reached its ascendancy in the Victorian era. Except not as we'd know it. These novels were generally serialised. Or, in other words, the graphic novel is more like Dickens than The Luminaries. Which is probably making you wonder how exactly Gnanalingam defines novel. I don't know. Probably weirdly, by which I mean "not a book containing a single fictional(ised) narrative of a substantial length". The first novel is far less clear cut than that quotation above suggests... or Wikipedia is being mangled. The point is that this argument ultimately reduces to the same point as above... the pool of writers in English* is overwhelmingly "white".

To deliberately seek out non-white English literature is to miss the point. It is not a survey of English literature. It is a shopping expedition aimed at finding particular items. It is "blackwashing" or "colourwashing". It is presenting a subject as being of a different broader character than it is/was. At least in the broad case. Naturally in specific areas such as "post-colonial writing" the demographics differ. (Although how post-colonial a text written in a coloniser's language can be is a question I can't comment on.)

There is nothing wrong with Gnanalingam's erstwhile purpose. If you're into pretentious reading lists you might as well explore a whole bunch of options. The trouble is this fixation on English Literature. If it appears at first glance that the English profession is the best qualified to speak on such matters this evidence forces me to dispute this. If Gnanalingam has a coherent preamble** it is only accessible to those who have similarly fallen so far down the rabbit hole. His article is completely incomprehensible or really, truly moronic. I don't believe it's the latter. I think it's just that Gnanalingam has written for a lay audience without making the slightest adjustment for our benefit.

*Where does this leave Thomas More, I wonder?

**In the url you will find "seven-easy-ways-to-make-your-own-reading-a-little-less-white". That is coherent. And with the popularity of listicles, entirely sufficient. It's everything that Gnanalingam includes before the list begins that is written for some other (and despicable) audience.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

How an Article about Hairstyles is about Data

I don't like the Spinoff very much but they'd make for a serviceable magazine in print so I treat them as such. My big issue with them is that there is no real reason (and certainly not their specious reasons) for a website to not have a comments section. Comments sections are important for all sorts of reasons. Yet somehow they're the most loathed thing on the internet these days. I mean, damn, Redditors tell each other not to read the comments section. How did that happen? Reddit is a comments section. It's not even a good one.* But anyway, here's their article and now my response...

The first thing to note about "What does your hair say about you?" is that it's a completely clickbait title. The article has next to nothing to do with that. You can tell that something is going on because it's in their ĀTEA section. That doesn't mean "lifestyle". What that is presumably translated to is "forum," and they use the te reo because what the Spinoff files in there is a bunch of articles on or about indigenous issues. This particular article is talking about a set of traditional Maori beliefs about hair. Its real point is inform people of those notions and validate their place in society. That article is activism, no two ways about it. But I said it was about data!?

Well, yes, it's both. One's hairstyle says sweet FA about one. Here's a "spoiler" for the Punisher (the recently released Netflix series). Frank rocks for a couple of episodes a long hair thick hair combo that makes everyone call him a hipster. I'm sure some hipsters are into judge, jury and executioner, gun-borne revenge fantasies. Some probably even have military training. But Frank's hairstyle says none of that. That ain't what being a hipster is being about. Being a hipster is about criticising conformity by conforming. I don't like hipsters. Frank doesn't like hipsters. What exactly a hipster is is less clear than I am pretending. The truth is, Frank says he's hiding his identity (hey, he is wanted for three dozen murders he did actually commit). Every hairstyle on every single person is this. No exceptions.

Now, I'm not saying that hair can't tell you anything. One of the ways Sherlock Holmes is described is as a Bayesian. Basically, Holmes makes one observation. Say it's about the state of a hat band. He then has a good idea about the likelihood a given characteristic of the wearer leads to that observation. He weights that likelihood by the prior probability of the characteristic (there's a whole set of these) and divides it all by the probability of the observation. This gives the posterior probability of the characteristic. Holmes then makes another observation, say, about the price of the hat. This works in the same way... except now he uses the posterior where he used the prior last time. And he does this for everything that he sees. And the point of Holmes is that he sees a lot. This is a long sequence of Bayes' Box calculations so I'm calling the fundamental idea Bayesian. And having an observation about someone's hair and putting it together with all the other stuff could actually say something about somebody. For instance, notice that our knowing Frank was Frank is an observation.

What headlines like "What your hair says about you" normally talk about is reverse causality. Say someone sees the author of the article and notices his hair. The hair is hipsterish so what do they do? They conclude he is a hipster. Hipsters have hipster hair, he's got hipster hair, therefore he's a hipster. It's bad logic but the term is reverse causality. Or, at least, that's what I'm using. (If you know some better terminology please tell me.) People have a set of expectations which they then read in the hair. It's pretty simple and seems to suggest that "what you say someone's hair means says a lot about you"... or something, anyway.
Unfortunately, the opinions and views of the society that we live in continues to shape the way that others perceive me. Despite the cultural beliefs and ideas that I have about what my hairstyle means to me, the tikitiki that I now wear has been caught up in some hipster trend that categorises me into something that I don’t identify with. Both my Pākehā and Māori friends will take a stab at my ‘man-bun’, but people are yet to understand the tikanga that underpins it. Those moments are a great opportunity for me to teach people about how our tūpuna respected their head and hair, and who knows, maybe I will develop that super-power after all.
Te Miri Rangi is finding personal meaning in his hair. He's writing an article which validates that act. It does do that, although as I reject the meaningness of hair I was always going to agree with this bit. I'm not sold on the superpower thing but even to the extent that wasn't a joke, how is that any more ridiculous than praying, lighting candles, fasting or whatever other crazy religious crap people do? It's just a thing. They can do it but they should shut up about it... religion is exclusively personal. What made me write this is that Rangi is stumbling around on the edge of the true insight, i.e. that hairstyles lack meaning inherently and are given it externally. In this context, you are external to your own hair. If anything, I see the validating material as promulgating the false truth of meaningness. On the other hand, validating isn't meant to do that.

Well, that was fun... a blogpost mostly about a headline for an article that didn't exit. Such is the muse. Rangi provides a frame, not a reference. But also, this is the reverse-clickbait headline. My post is what the title says its about. It's just that what it's about isn't about what it is about.

*After years of trying to develop a comments section here I've given up and now pursue part of my mission statement under a username I'm not going to tell you.

Monday, 20 November 2017

EPL Take Three : Arsenal Beat Spurs

I don't really care about these derbies. I said as much the first time I wrote one of these. So what's going on with this title? Well, simply, it's a comment on expectations.

I think most people probably would have picked Spurs to beat Arsenal or, at least, walk away with a draw. A lot of that thinking would have reflected Arsenal's previous game... their fourth loss of the season which looked pretty decisive at 3-1. That was a "fake" result.

The only real way to judge the feel of a game, i.e. which team is winning, is actually to watch the game. Goals are just proxy representations. Goals For approximates the quality of your attacking and Goals Against approximates the quality of the defending. To be clear, I don't have a problem with using goals to determine the outcomes of games. But sometimes it happens the only reason a goal was conceded was because someone slipped. That's not part of the game. Sometimes a goal is scored because it was offside. That's not part of the game. And, of course, Goals Against doesn't represent the quality of the opposition's defending (and vice versa) which also makes the goal tallies approximate representations of "winningness in the moment".

Naturally you can't watch every game. And a lot of the important things about games, such as whether or not a goal was offside, is quasi-subjective. There are judgemental calls involved. Admittedly off-sides are about the clearest cut sort of foul that regularly leads to a goal but anyone with the faintest knowledge of soccer knows how difficult it is to determine whether or not a penalty should have been given. Winningness is also a pretty subjective quality and it's difficult to use objective measures to try and assess it.

In RTS games it is possible to win a game by turtling. That means using a very defensive strategy, usually accomplished through defensive builds. The way I turtle also involves counter-attacking. Obviously this makes it harder to tell what is going on. I might not have map control but that was a conscience choice: is the opponent's control of the map providing as much information about their winningness as "usual"? Not really. This is why possession doesn't work as a measure of winningness in soccer. Apart from difficulty in converting it into goals or goal potential, plenty of teams sacrifice possession to play in a particular way. There isn't really even a clear link between possession and shots (on target).

I'm sure if you plotted it, on average the greater the possession the greater the shots taken. But every single game is unique. If we wanted to predict the number of shots taken you'd need to take into account formations, the teams playing, which players they've got and whether the team is at home as well. At least, I'd be very surprised to find these features don't help... I have not attempted such a model. After all, there's a reason why people talk about side-ways passing and the boringness of tiki taka. And taking shots doesn't really translate into shots on target properly either. Those are what really grinds an opponent down. And how to engage with different kinds of shot?

I pay a lot of attention to corners when I do watch soccer matches. This is because my mother does when she watches soccer. And this quite reasonable. In NZ following international sport is normative in a way that doesn't seem to be true anywhere else in the world (hyperbole?) and international soccer is reputed to be defensive. That is, corners are surely more likely than in domestic games... and plenty of goals come from corners in domestic games too. But corners are really just a product of possession and shots. That's an improvement on either individually. After all, to get a corner you need to use possession to make the defence do something they don't want to do. Typically the intermediate step is some kind of shot or doing something that will lead to a dangerous shooting opportunity. The problem is that certain styles of play and player can be chosen which disfavour corners. And having a lot of corners may indicate a propensity to shoot at defenders rather than the goal.

Of the usually reported statistics, the one my gut says best assesses winningness is fouls. That's a bit stupid when you think about it, right? After all, I started off talking about the difficulty in discerning fouls. And some fouls mean more than others... think about penalties and the placement of free kicks. But soccer is so into gamesmanship that "professional fouls" are a Thing. As a result, a certain number of fouls in a game are committed based on the players' perceptions of winningness, i.e. the very thing we're trying to measure. I think this is why my gut impression is tenable. Time to put this altogether.

BBC Match Report

  • Based on possession we'd be thinking City 1.5-1 Arsenal not 3-1 (so, perhaps, 3-2 or 2-1).
  • Based on shots we'd be thinking City 1.5-1 Arsenal not 3-1 (so, perhaps, 3-2 or 2-1) as well.
  • Based on shots on target we'd be thinking City 1.7-1 (so definitely 2-1 as we'd believe in at least two saved attempts each).
  • Based on corners we'd expect a draw.
  • Based on fouls we'd expect a draw too.
So what to think? Based on all this information we'd expect a tight scoreline like 2-1 or 1-0, more like 2-1 because 60% possession is quite good and these are the premier league's most possession happy sides. The point is, we would not expect a final score of 3-1. Especially remembering my beliefs about corners and fouls we'd actually prefer to believe in a 2-2 or 1-1 game. So how did the scoreline turn out to be 3-1?

Very simply this game finished at 3-1 for two reasons. Firstly, there was a penalty. I haven't seen it again (at least, I remember watching a clip of it) but all the pundits I remember reading broadly agreed with it. Secondly, there was an offside goal. In the Bundesliga it wouldn't have counted. Why? Video Ref. So, what could we expect a game without the offside to finish as? Surely there are more refined measures of performance than my gut driven inferences? Perhaps even some that take into account what I said? Well, there are expected goals. Which, as I understand them, weights all shots by the chance of it going in.

From Here.
Ah, so Manchester City were outperforming themselves by this measure as well. But one of those large circles was the offside.

What this shows is that if you disinclude the offside Manchester City look quite a lot worse than a 3 goal team. In fact, if you remove the penalty we have City 0.79 - 0.34 Arsenal. Or, 1-0. Which is consistent with our impressions from before. 2-0 isn't, however. And while it makes sense to exclude penalties as measures of winningness in an expected goals formulation as they're so likely to lead to an actual goal,* I've already talked about why penalties/fouls make sense. On to the Spurs game!

The way I have tried to get you to read the Manchester City game is that Arsenal didn't put on a bad show... and that was away from home where everyone agrees they've been poor this season. Spurs may be a very good side and easily the most consistently good team in the EPL over the past two seasons, but their record at Arsenal is a bit suspect. So why this? one saw that coming, did they? A resolute and determined Arsenal outplaying Tottenham in all departments and securing a fully deserved victory? 
If they can do it against it Spurs when no one gave them a prayer, they should be able to do it against Burnley and Huddersfield in the next 10 days, shouldn't they? But we've been here before...
And by no-one he means his colleagues.

Based on what we've seen above, Arsenal should have been given a fighting chance. They went to clearly the best side in the division and came away with a misleading result. If we're thinking that a worse team can beat them easily when Arsenal is at home and this team usually doesn't do well away to Arsenal we should probably re-check what we're using to calibrate our expectations. Speaking of which...

2.19 to 0.59
Which suggests it should have been 2-1. But also...

  • Based on possession we'd be thinking Arsenal 1 - 1.5 Spursnot 2-0 (so, perhaps,1-2 or 3-2).
  • Based on shots we'd be thinking a draw.
  • Based on shots on target we'd be thinking Arsenal 1.25 - 1 Spurs (1-1?) or maybe 2-1 (the three shots saved thing).
  • Based on corners we'd expect Arsenal 1.75 - 1 Spurs.
  • Based on fouls we'd expect an Arsenal win... or perhaps Arsenal 1.45 - 1 Spurs (1-1?).
And Arsenal apparently had an offside goal which doesn't actually change the Expected Goals conclusion because it was a very unlikely goal (unusual, I think). But you can see why I like fouls, right?

*To clarify... Expected Goals are still goals. Sure they involve the ideas of winningness that we discussed but they really, really like goals. If we included penalties we would end up inferring teams that were very fortunate to win a penalty were doing well in terms of winningness. That's obviously wrong. You can't have a fortunate penalty if you look like you're winning. Thus penalties have to go because they're something where the goalness comes through so strongly that it crowds out the Expected Goals measure's ability to involve our ideas of winningness. Getting a shot from open play that is as likely to go in as a penalty is guaranteed to reflect a suite of traits associated with winningness. We'd have difficulty reading it over the course of the match, but because the chance isn't 1 we hope it averages out.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Thoughts on Sex Crimes

I'll write about quite a lot of things. You might say that I write about anything that pops into my head until it pops out of my head. Take my last post... Word tells me that clocks in at 4004 words. That's quite a lot. I chuck it on Medium (oh, yeah, I have a Medium account) and it's 16 minutes reading time! Something I don't like talking about is rape. Or related topics like sexual assault (which may or may not be the same thing), sexual harassment and so on. I just don't. It's a heavy topic. And sure I'll happily talk about genocide (not that I have here) but it's just different. The thing is that I do sometimes have opinions about such matters. Here's something I wrote on Medium in response to a post entitled, "What it's like to watch a Harvey Weinstein movie now":
Harvey Weinstein is better known now than he ever was before: that’s how. Producers are nobodies and nothings. They are just more names you don’t really read in the credits.
Of course, in the creation of the film they have a bigger role but this is also true of stunt doubles. The trouble is that producers are much easier to replace than stunt doubles as it doesn’t matter what a producer looks like.
As to the question of what to do when you realise that you know who the “stunt doubles” were in a film? I agree it is difficult to not view the movie as some lasting representation of an event (whether harassment or assault). The film isn’t. Whether or not it is actually possible to convince oneself of this is another question, of course, but it’s a way forwards. Another is to remember that Hitler ate sugar… i.e. a product isn’t bad because of who uses or who made it.
I'm going to briefly touch on the same theme here... how to think about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK's body of work in a post-allegations world.

The Allegations

There's a thing that happens in a certain kind of plot. Usually it involves teachers being accused of paedophilia. In the good ones the teacher didn't actually do anything and all the allegations arise from misinterpreted incidents. Often the children are convinced into believing that harmless acts were otherwise by parents who, understandably, are really just trying to look out for them. I'm not sure how often this really happens, but you can see how it could happen. And this sort of thinking creates a certain amount of uncertainty or even disbelief about allegations of this kind in general. It's even worse when the accused is a wealthy man and the accused are women... there's a certain narrative people have in their heads about rape accusations which is disturbingly similar to gold digging. I don't think it applies with Weinstein, Spacey and that other guy... not least of which because they've kind of confessed (but, hey, so did a certain ex-television host).

What's going on in these school plots is that you're not dealing with independent situations. These plots are about single communities and involve people who know each other, often quite well. Forgetting the other guy for now, with Weinstein and Spacey we're talking about years worth of events and different continents. All these allegations are coming out now for one simple reason: when the first emerges you give confidence to the other victims. And maybe some of them use inappropriate terminology or believe things like sexual assault to be attempted rape but I suspect a lot of the time that's because lawyers don't use normal language. How do you fault them for that? Unfairly. But it is why trial by media is a piss poor process. And it's probably one reason I largely avoid these conversations. The important thing to note, I think, is the amount of independence we can assume on the part of the victims (obviously we may infer behavioural similarity between the accused in one instance and in another).

Also, why I am on the broader subject, I am forever disturbed by the Campus Rape stuff that comes out of the US. Universities are a completely inappropriate forum/entity/medium to investigate rape cases (or other criminal cases). Their staff may make sense as people to whom a crime is reported but the whole system needs to make cases end up in the hands of the professionals as soon as possible, i.e. the police. And if the US is that worried about the integrity of their cops? Well, that's where you bring in the FBI. Similarly, it is disingenuous to suggest that the universities are simply dealing with matters of their codes of conduct. They're not. They are defaming individuals at worst and, at best, are achieving correct outcomes, i.e. societal recognition of a rapist as a rapist, from inappropriate measures. You wouldn't accept it if the universities were teaching physics papers with sociologist PhDs (or vice versa) so you shouldn't accept it when these universities basically ask randoms off the street to determine if rapes occurred.

Interpreting the Work

Firstly, let's mention what prompted this post, i.e. a Spinoff article entitled, "We should have had a problem with Louis CK long before now." The author doesn't like Louis CK. Well, I go further. To me he is an unperson. Louis CK is just a meme from the internet. He's like Bad Luck Brian except Bad Luck Brian has had an actual impact on my life. Louis CK is a nobody. A nothing. I'd piss on his grave, but it wouldn't register as being a name were I to walk by. I will now return to ignoring Louis CK as I have done my entire life up until this point. If you care about Louis CK's work in any way... well, you're doing something wrong with your life.

Harvey Weinstein is, as I indicated on Medium, an interesting question. Obviously, as a producer, there is some pretty well known stuff that he's been involved with... I believe Shakespeare in Love (a film I have seen at least bits of) is one such example. The trouble is, as a producer, I am clearly not convinced the dude was really that well known. And, as a producer, he was never really that important. An invisible presence, I think. But I do know who Jerry Bruckheimer is so maybe I would have recognised the name Harvey Weinstein three months ago. On the other hand, I have literally seen Bruckheimer's name hundreds of times because he is a big producer of television too. That might make a difference in terms of their notability. Anyway, I think it is at least theoretically possible to distance the Weinstein claims from any associated media. I think that is hard, but it is something we ought to do. And maybe it's time "produced by" went the way of "colour by Technicolor"... still there but now literally the last thing in the film's credits.

With Kevin Spacey things get really difficult. Spacey's been quite a few films that I have seen... The Negotiator (very good film), Pay it Forward (apparently under-rated... it's watchable Oscarbait), K-Pax (good) and some other things too (e.g. the House of Cards remake... not a scratch on the original). As someone who is convinced by the allegations (and, hey, what the hell kind of treatment is he receiving anyway?) this poses a difficult question. It is not possible to not see Spacey. People go on about how great he is at acting but to be honest those three films' characters aren't as dissimilar as you'd expect (they're certainly more similar than the Walking Dead and Toy Story and people compare them). I'm not sure if any of Spacey's films are associated with the acts in the same way Weinstein's are, but if they are the representation thing is much harder to ignore. With Spacey (and allegations involving actors in general... especially the good ones*) it's really difficult to actually live up to what you're saying when you tell yourself, "The film is not the act and the actor is just a talking head". So difficult, in fact, that if I were the investors involved in All the Money in the World, I'd want to protect my investment to the extent of having another actor come in... just like what happened (also, Christopher Plummer is brilliant in The Pink Panther Returns).

Concluding Remarks

I personally think that rape cases should work on the basis of blanket immunity. There isn't really a public interest in knowing someone has been accused. As I have indicated I believe that people reinterpret events in light of new information. That is an entirely reasonable thing to do. The loss of publicity breaking down auras of "there is no way I could accuse them" is lost, but it's gained back by knowing that you, as the complainant, have anonymity on your side. A case can go very far like that. Or, anyway, it should be able to.

This idea of anonymity does raise some questions about what I've done here today. And it does beg the question of what happens when a victim comes out in public. I read once a piece where the author described being raped. I know that author. Not that well, but well enough. It is a terrible burden. Particularly because it's really hard to try and alleviate oneself of that burden by complaining. In light of the event it's so trivial and childish. Until now I've resisted the temptation. But I rather suspect that you could see some of the things I have written as being in somewhat the same vein. Especially given my lack of specifics and oscillating focus... is this about sex crimes in general? the cases of Spacey and Weinstein? the artistic questions raised by those cases? have I talked too much about rape and accidentally been reductionist in my treatment? This paragraph exists to tell you that there are problems here at the meta level. It also tells you about the ones I know about.

Awful things happen. I feel a bit bad about them. Life has an unfortunate tendency to go on, but what people tend to miss is that it's never exactly the same again. Weinstein and Spacey might yet make it back, but remember Mel Gibson was only infamous for saying horrible things... I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to learn about the other stuff but even so. Remember Roman Polanski is almost best known for being that rapist director. He might be free. He might still get work. But everyone knows. That's something.

* Although as the Johnny Depp case shows (and note I don't really take those allegations as being the whole truth or, perhaps, even the big truth) how people react when there had been a different kind of backlash is perhaps informative.