7 Quick Takes (9/28/12)

— 1 —

If you read no other Quick Take today, read this one and do me a tremendous favor. My housemate Alex (co-creator of those philosophy t-shirts) has been nominated for “Best Viral Song/Video about DC” by Express Night Out.  Can you all pop over and vote for his “The Ballad of Pepco” under the DC Life tab?

Here’s the background: Pepco is the utility company for the DC area, and it’s terrible.  We had a lot of blackouts this summer, some of which went on for days with few progress updates.  So Alex wrote new lyrics to “The Ballad of Joe Hill” to comfort us in our time of literal darkness.  Here’s an excerpt:

I dreamed I saw Pepco last night
Driving down my street.
“Thank God!” said I, “Our power’s down.”
“It never died,” said he…
“It never died,” said he.

Says I “No, you don’t understand
The lights have all gone out!
The food’s now bad. We’re going mad
From heat without a doubt…
From heat without a doubt.”

Says he “You’re not upon our map;
The grid shows you’re just fine.”
Says I “But look out on our street.
There’s a down-ed power line…
There’s a down-ed power line.”

“You can’t just leave us stranded here
With no good end in sight!
Didn’t you prep and plan for this –
For setting things a-right…
For setting things a-right?”

“Well there’s your fatal flaw,” said he,
“Now let me put you wise.
We’re such a bad utility, yet
You assume we’re organized…
You assume we’re organized?”


— 2 —

I’d feel really bad for the Quick Take that had to follow that, but, luckily, The Atlantic has an interview up with Randal Monroe (the creator of xkcd).  They end up talking about his new “What if?” project, where every Tuesday he gives an illustrated answer to a weird physics problem (What if you pitched a baseball at close to the speed of light?  What if all the rain in a storm fell in one giant drop? etc).

Pardon me while I melt into a puddle of squee.

“What I like doing is finding the places in those questions where normal people — or, people who have less spare time than I do — think, “This is stupid,” and stop. I think the really cool and compelling thing about math and physics is that it opens up entry to all these hypotheticals — or at least, it gives you the language to talk about them. But at the same time, if a scenario is completely disconnected from reality, it’s not all that interesting. So I like the questions that come back around to something in real life.

And the great thing with this is that once someone asks me something good, I can’t not figure out the answer, you know? I get really serious, and I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and work on that. One of the questions I recently answered was, “What if, when it rains, the rain came down in one drop?” And I was like, “Well, how big would that drop be?” I know a little bit about meteorology, and then, before I knew it, I had spent four hours working out the answer.”

Shortly after I started my freshman year, I made three good friends when we all agreed to dress up a ninjas and attack Richard Stallman when he came to speak on campus.  In the picture on Wikipedia, I’m the ninja with upraised arms.

UPDATE: Nick drew my attention to another delightful Monroe interview.

— 3 —

I feel obliged to let you know about all interesting Turing Test related stories I come across, so here’s a heads up that a group of programmers managed to write NPCs for a video game that were as likely as real humans to be judged as humans.

The complex gameplay and 3-D environments of “Unreal Tournament 2004” require that bots mimic humans in a number of ways, including moving around in 3-D space, engaging in chaotic combat against multiple opponents and reasoning about the best strategy at any given point in the game. Even displays of distinctively human irrational behavior can, in some cases, be emulated.

“People tend to tenaciously pursue specific opponents without regard for optimality,” said Schrum. “When humans have a grudge, they’ll chase after an enemy even when it’s not in their interests. We can mimic that behavior.”

— 4 —

Remember when I was blogging about Hanna Rosin and her “thank goodness hookup culture saves women from the constraints of affection” article?  Well, Cowbirds in Love seems to have taken her argument delightfully far past it’s natural conclusion.

— 5 —

Alyssa Rosenberg has an excellent post up comparing Ms Magazine’s original cover with this week’s 40th anniversary cover (both of which feature Wonder Woman).  Here’s her read on the original:

The billboard calls for “Peace & Justice In ’72,” rather than making specific feminist demands. She’s in a landscape where the war in Vietnam and the blasted landscape it’s produced are in danger of intruding on the American main street, and Wonder Woman rushes to catch a war plane before it crashes, perhaps into that schoolbus. In this reading, feminism is part of a much larger left movement, but the implication is also that it has a larger role to play. The cover lines may be about paid housework and body hair, but Wonder Woman, as the personification of feminism, is solving not just any problems she might have as a super-powered lady, but the problems of everyone else. This was a time when people still talked about misogyny as a root cause of war, something that seems awfully distant from our mainstream political discourse now.

Now that I’m following Escher Girls, the first thing I thought when I saw the new drawing was “Wonder Woman’s breasts are larger, her hair is straightened, and her expression is more blankly pretty.  Grump!”

— 6 —

But if you want to kvetch about media representation of comic book heroes that sell everyone short, you’ll probably like David Denby’s “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies” in The New Republic.

[S]patial integrity is just about gone from big movies. What Wyler and his editors did—matching body movement from one shot to the next—is rarely attempted now. Hardly anyone thinks it important. The most common method of editing in big movies now is to lay one furiously active shot on top of another, and often with only a general relation in space or body movement between the two. The continuous whirl of movement distracts us from noticing the uncertain or slovenly fit between shots. The camera moves, the actors move: in Moulin Rouge, the camera swings wildly over masses of men in the nightclub, Nicole Kidman flings herself around her boudoir like a rag doll. The digital fight at the end of The Avengers takes place in a completely artificial environment, a vacuum in which gravity has been abandoned; continuity is not even an issue. If the constant buffoonishness of action in all sorts of big movies leaves one both over-stimulated and unsatisfied—cheated without knowing why—then part of the reason is that the terrain hasn’t been sewn together. You have been deprived of that loving inner possession of the movie that causes you to play it over and over in your head.

Auughh! This! I hate seeing an action movie and not being able to understand the logic of fights.  I couldn’t see what Batman was doing better the second time he fought Bane and Denby’s right that there was no sense of how well the Avengers were doing strategically for most of the battle, just a bunch of set pieces.

This is why I’m really worried for the Ender’s Game movie.  Those fight’s are fast in the books, but the narration means they don’t enfold in real time and we get a chance to understand how clever Ender and Bean are.  I’m really worried the movie won’t be able to give us that sense of awe.

For all that the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes movies are awful, they did a nice job with the fight scenes.


To paraphrase Peggy Noonan: the most moving part of a fight is its logic.


— 7 —

So since we were talking about Ender’s Game, let’s close out the week with a link about gifted children and problematic ways of assessing them.   Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke, inspired by the Stuyvesant cheating scandal, set out three possible solutions to the problem he defines as follows:

The NYT article suggests that skilled, systematic cheaters often rationalize their behavior by arguing either that everyone does it (which Hayes would argue is a structural inevitability in social hierarchies that justify stratification via meritocratic distinction) or that cheating is the only way to temporarily distinguish oneself amid uniform excellence, and when you’re done with the test, the class, the moment, you will have earned your place in a college or a job and can prove your genuine merit. As Hayes notes, that moment never comes, the cheater is never at rest, at home, able to show their true quality independent of silly tests and bullshit obstacles. The whole of life becomes a bullshit obstacle, and the search for the edge, the advantage, the trick becomes perpetual. Which doesn’t just hollow out the person, it contributes to the entire socioeconomic system dropping into an ever-accelerating pursuit of short-term gain at the cost of long-term sustainability.

The first problem with narrowly setting out to foil cheaters is that if students or employees no longer believe that tests measure anything important, simple anti-cheating techniques become another petty annoyance–particularly if they think that the testers or bosses are using tests as a crude rationing device or screening mechanism, a way to avoid grappling with difficult or nuanced evaluations. Simple tricks are equally simply defeated, and each one of them just increases the sense that testing is a sadistic and cynical exercise.

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  • Dang, that’s actually the second Randall Munroe interview I’ve read this week.

  • You have some of the most interesting Quick Takes – this one took me 45 minutes to work through. 🙂

  • what? Ender’s Game movie! rock on. Also, Breslin to play Valentine Wiggins was a great choice I think. The cast in general looks pretty good so we can be hopeful right?

    But yeah, the 3D space battles are going to be tough to duplicate well (the enemy gate is down vs. the enemy assuming their gate is behind them).

  • Dwayne

    Regarding Batman’s fight with Bane:
    In the first fight, Bane has every conceivable advantage over Batman. Batman has been out of practice for eight years, his body is weakened from his time being Batman, he hasn’t had time to study Bane, he can’t hide in the shadows and strike, he can’t use his gadgets to stun him, and he certainly can’t overpower him. Bane is also on high grade painkillers, which means Batman can’t stop him unless he actually starts breaking bones and impeding movement.

    During the second fight, Batman has had several months of training, he knows that absolutely everything is riding on this fight, and most importantly, he damages the mask. Bane can now feel his attacks, as well as his previous injury that was so severe he had to be on painkillers 24/7. Frequently, when a fighter loses his greatest weapon, his game will fall apart, even though he knows all the other techniques and can theoretically use them perfectly well.

    But if logic in fights bothers you that much, I actually suggest you take up watching professional wrestling. What makes a great match great is the logic that holds it together, called ring or match or wrestling psychology. Great matches always tell a story (e.g. Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania III, Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIII, CM Punk vs. John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011) N.B. If you do decide to watch them, learn about the story that came before them and don’t spoil the ending for yourself.

    • leahlibresco

      Several months of training? More like several months of physical therapy to recover from a life threatening injury in a dumpy prison. The mask seemed like the big gamechanger, and I was baffled the World’s Greatest Detective didn’t take an experimental swing there in the first fight.

      • Dwayne

        It was sort of both, it seems to me. He had to repair the damage to his back, yes, but he also had to make up for his eight years out of the game. And as to the second point, it’s probably hard to think straight on your second mission back after eight years, and one in which you’re getting your behind handed to you in a sewer.

        But the mask still answers your question, because the mask targeting is rather plainly what Batman did better.

  • Anything that sounds like a cross between Pepsi and Coke is bound to be sleazy.

  • Steve

    Couldn’t disagree more with Avengers. I thought the final battle sequence over NY was very clear geographically of who was doing what and where they were doing it. There’s a long ‘unbroken’ (obviously broken as its mostly CG) shot following the characters showing where there are in relation to each other. The ‘human’ characters (Captain America, Hawkeye & Black Widow) are essentially based at the grand central, the guys who can fly (or jump far enough) are shooting/punching the bad guys out of the sky. There is a lot going on on the screen, but there’s never really a point where I’m not aware of whats going on and where we are. I’m not sure where there is any notable gap of continuity (like the bad day/night continuity in the dark knight rises motorcycle sequence).

    During the battle at the end of the film, Captain America states who should be doing what and where they should be. Their goal: hold off the alien army until they figure out how to close the portal. Their strategy: the ‘human’ characters help minimize the civilian casualities and fight the alien troopers while the ‘super-human’ characters fight the giant ships. How much clearer could they have made that??

    Going into a comic book movie there is a certain suspension of disbelief required. Make no mistake, this isn’t to give a pass to a weak narrative or 1-2 dimensional characters, just an acceptance that giant green rage monsters, thunder gods and flying metal men are acceptable in that particular universe. ‘The Dark Knight’ is a great film while ‘Batman & Robin’ is horrible. ‘Spiderman 2’ is terrific while ‘Spiderman 3’ is awful. And so on. Implying that the Avengers is ‘buffonish’ simply because the frame is crowded with explosions seems inconsistent with a reasonable expectation of the movie they’re there to see.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m still disturbed by the philosophy that post-suicide Dr. Banner’s secret in staying calm, is that he is always angry.

      • Steve

        I’m not sure that the attempted suicide has anything to do with his always being angry, at least not insofar as it’s related to his ability to ‘change’ at will by always being angry. At the end of the Ed Norton Hulk movie, it shows him willing himself to be the Hulk, rather than it being the product of him being attacked or stressed. As a timeline isn’t really made clear between the two films, I took the attempted suicide anecdote as from a period before that.

        It was pretty rad though when he punched that giant flying alien monster ship in the face.

        • Ted Seeber

          I think it is because I tried to commit suicide myself, that I read this differently. There is a special form of anger that comes from failing to commit suicide, and having experienced that, I am wondering if that is what gives him the psychological control.

  • Ted Seeber

    On #7: But testing is generally, a sadistic and cynical exercise. 16 years into my career, I find NOBODY asks me what my GPA was in grade school or high school, and only two employers out of the last 10 wanted to know what my GPA was in college.

    The only thing testing should be used for is to inform instructors what information you need to succeed, and to measure the success of instructor techniques over a single class. Therefore I support the instructors who only do TWO tests in any given class, with both tests being identical. The one given on the first day of class should have a high percentage of failure with granularity into why; the one given on the last day of class should ideally have a 100% success rate on exactly the same set of questions. Anything less, is a sign of instructor-student bad intercommunication that needs to be corrected for the next class.

    • Alex Godofsky

      Yes, of course it is productive and educational to memorize answers to questions so you can write them down by rote on the last day.

      • Ted Seeber

        When that is the whole point of education anyway (otherwise, all education would be structured *very* differently with emphasis on curiosity and individual study and experimentation) and the only variable you can really affect is the instructor’s ability to teach the material (No child left behind had that one brilliant philosophical insight behind it, that all school offers is an instructor’s ability to teach the material) then this is a useful strategy to assess that the goal (which, after all, is merely memorizing the answers to the test anyway) is met.

        If, on the other hand, you’re trying to produce a generation of innovators that actually know how to think, just be aware that in a globally competitive economy that is a sure way to become a “Developing Country”, because all the international corporate masters who are now the real government want is cheap widget makers who follow orders.

        • Alex Godofsky

          When that is the whole point of education anyway

          Yeah, I’m gonna disagree with that one. I seem to recall taking one or two classes where the final exam was “here are three or four propositions you haven’t seen before. Prove them. You have three hours.”. Come to think of it, that describes almost every single course I took. Rote memorization got you nowhere on those.

          I’m not going to address the rest of your comment because it’s serious black helicopter level conspiracy junk.

          • Ted Seeber

            It’s the difference between actual profitable production and academia. And despite the proliferation of for-profit colleges whose tuition is *exactly* equal to the amount one can get guaranteed in federal student loans; I don’t exactly see academia as a growth industry. Or worthwhile.

            If we’re going to compete on a global free market, we need STEM students who come up with *right answers*, not people who can write three pages of bullshit on some proposition they had never seen before. That field is not productive.

          • Alex Godofsky

            You’ve alleged before that you have some kind of actual computing background, but I’m increasingly skeptical that have any idea what you’re talking about at all. Mathematical proofs are verifiably non-bullshit.

          • Ted Seeber

            I have been a software engineer for 16 years and in 10 different companies. I currently earn $45/hr doing what I love.

            What have you done?

          • Ted Seeber

            2nd answer now that I remember what we were talking about:

            Proofs on new propositions aren’t useful in the real world. All the mathematics you need to be a business programmer, you have by the end of Calculus I (or maybe Numerical Methods), and even then, are focused on solving real-world problems largely inspired by economics, Newtonian physics, or quantum mechanics. And even then almost all of them can be solved by boolean algebra at the most complex.

            I’ll take a programmer who can model a workflow on my team before I’ll hire a mathematician. Knowing the interface between human and machine is much more useful than knowing how to integrate the area under a curve.

    • On #7: But testing is generally, a sadistic and cynical exercise. 16 years into my career, I find NOBODY asks me what my GPA was in grade school or high school, and only two employers out of the last 10 wanted to know what my GPA was in college.

      Well of course they didn’t. Just like in a video game, all that matters in leveling up is your performance on THIS level, not the ones three or four levels back. When you’re 35 nobody cares what your high school GPA was because later data is available that’s more current and therefore more accurate in assessing your performance. That doesn’t mean that your high school GPA was always useless information, just that it has a “sell-by” date, if you will, after which it isn’t very meaningful.

      • Ted Seeber

        Yep, exactly what I was trying to get at- and that sell by date is surprisingly short for STEM professionals; I’d say at best two years out of college, how you saved more money than your salary is much better information than a GPA.

  • Mark


    I wanted to thank you for The Flight of the Conchords “Deep Inside” on last weeks 7 quick takes. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time!

  • jenesaispas

    Wow! thankyou! ‘What if?’ is great!
    The lastest one about illuminating the moon is hilarious.:)

  • Andres Riofrio

    I don’t get the Cowbirds in Love comic. Why is she an assassin? Why does that stem from Hasan Rosin’s viewpoint (even hyperbolically)?

    • leahlibresco

      This is the comical extension of Rosin’s argument that hookup culture is great because it lets women have sex without the inconvenience of romance and affection since caring for other people competes with your career for attention.