Friday, September 28, 2012

Hollywood's demand curve slopes downward

When it sets sail in the coming film "Noah," a massive 148-foot wooden ark will carry not only a slew of zoo animals, but one of Hollywood's biggest wagers in years.

"Noah," a $125 million epic from Viacom's Paramount Pictures, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is one of a boatload of religious films in the works from major movie studios.

There are compelling economic reasons for Hollywood to embrace the Good Book. The studios are increasingly reliant on source material with a built-in audience, something the Bible—the best-selling book in history—certainly has. And like the comic-book superheroes that movie companies have relied on for the past decade, biblical stories are easily recognizable to both domestic and the all-important foreign audiences. What's more, they're free: Studios don't need to pay expensive licensing fees to adapt stories and characters already in the public domain. ...

Walt Disney's Marvel Entertainment, for instance, licenses its Spider-Man property to Sony and its X-Men to Fox. Marvel receives a percentage of the film's gross, estimated by analysts to be as high as 5%. Licensing also opens the door to legal skirmishes, such as Warner Bros.' protracted copyright battle over the rights to the Superman franchise.
--Erica Orden, WSJ, on what Hollywood can believe in

Thursday, September 20, 2012

When did animals start tasting like chicken?

A consensus has emerged in the scientific community that chickens and other birds are probably the direct descendants of dinosaurs. I have lost many good nights of sleep wondering what various species of dinosaurs tasted like, but the fact is that we don’t have any left to eat. Other than birds, the closest living relatives that we have to eat are the crocodilians, which date back to at least 250 million years ago.

I have eaten alligators on several occasions and have found that they can have a lot in common with chicken. ... The best alligator meat I have ever eaten was in a bar on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the bartender brought out a tray of “gator wings.” These alligator limbs had been prepared identically to conventional Buffalo wings, and they tasted exactly like enormous Buffalo wings, with the most noticeable difference being that the bones were less delicate. I figure this similarity dates the taste of chicken back at least 250 million years right there.

Looking back even further on the evolutionary tree, modern reptiles are related to chickens through a group of animals known as diapsids, which originated around 300 million years ago. Modern snakes and lizards are both descended from the diapsids—and as it happens, I have had the pleasure of eating a nice assortment of them: black spiny-tailed iguanas, green iguanas, and various snakes. What all of them had in common was a taste and a color after cooking that was like chicken, coupled with a texture reminiscent of crab meat. You wouldn’t mistake the texture of snake for chicken, but run it through a meat-grinder, and you wouldn’t know the difference.

Another group of animals related to diapsids are the testudines: turtles and tortoises. Their exact evolutionary origins are murky, but what’s clear is that they taste like chicken. Raw snapping turtle meat is multicolored, with individual chunks mottled either red or white. But cooked, snapping turtle is indistinguishable from chicken to most palates. My 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son have enjoyed battered, deep-fried “turtle tenders,” and they have deemed the meat identical to chicken. (I agree.) If it passes the taste test of a fussy 8-year-old, it probably really does taste like chicken. (Maybe the ranch dressing helped.)

What chicken-reminiscent beasts existed before the diapsids? Now we must go way back in time to the first vertebrates that lived on land: the early amphibians. ...

Frogs, the prototypical modern-day amphibian, taste definitively like chicken. Their texture is even like chicken. In a blind taste test, I couldn’t tell the difference. ... This, along with the taste of snakes, lizards, and turtles, implies that tasting like chicken has been around for at least 300 million years.

Looking further back in time to before the amphibians, we arrive at the fish. I’ve been told that many kinds of fish taste like chicken, but in practice I have never found this to be the case unless the meat is disguised in some way. ...

So roughly 350 million years ago is probably when life began to taste like chicken, right when some lobed fishes had fully transformed into the first terrestrial amphibians, like P. finneyae.
--Jackson Landers, Slate, on an enduring flavor experience

The competition for class enrollments

The [Harvard] Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations did more this semester to attract students than just host office hours, distribute appealing syllabi, or even tack up posters. It paid for Facebook ads.

The department advertised introductory language courses in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese as well as three other undergraduate courses, according to Gustavo Espada, the financial and IT coordinator of the department.

One ad that appeared on the side of Harvard students’ Facebook news feeds read: “Is Vietnamese Too Hard? Unlike many other Asian languages, it uses Western characters! Study it at Harvard.”

When students clicked on the ad, it directed them to the iSite page for the introductory class Vietnamese Ba.

Binh Ngo, who teaches the course, which meets five days a week at 9 a.m., said that the class jumped from 8 students last year to 11 this year. He did not ask his students whether they learned about the course from Facebook, but he guessed that the ads had been effective.
--Omnia Chen, Harvard Crimson, on the possible beginning of an on-campus advertising arms race

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Obama and Romney's shared views on the lower class

As many people have pointed out, Romney’s comments [on the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax] are a right-wing echo to what was previously the most famous leak from a fundraising event: Barack Obama’s remarks in San Francisco in April 2008, when he characterized working class voters who were resistant to his charms as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion” and scapegoat immigrants because the economy has let them down.

In both cases, a presidential candidate was speaking about poorer people to a room full of rich people; in both cases, he was pandering to those rich people’s fearful stereotypes about a way of life that they don’t understand or share.

For rich Republicans, the stereotype is all about the money: They have it, other Americans don’t, and those resentful, entitled others might just have enough votes to wage class warfare and redistribute the donors’ hard-earned millions to the indolent and irresponsible.

For rich Democrats, the stereotype is all about the culture wars: They think they’ve built an enlightened society, liberated from archaic beliefs and antique hang-ups, and yet these Jesus freaks in flyover country are mobilizing to restore the patriarchy.

Both groups of donors seem to be haunted by dystopian scenarios in which the masses rise up and tear down everything the upper class has built. ...

What does it say that our politicians, in settings where they’re at least pretending to open up and reveal their true perspective, feel comfortable embracing the most self-serving elite stereotypes about ordinary citizens who vote for the other party?
--Ross Douthat, NYT, on shared condescension. HT: ACT and ML

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How classical music audiences became silent

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause. Mozart's famous letter to his father in 1778:
Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures — there was a big applaudißement; — and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement — and sure enough there they were: the shouts of Da capo. The Andante was well received as well, but the final Allegro pleased especially... I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars — then suddenly comes a forte — but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte — well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royale — bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged — and went home.
Brahms lamented the absence of applause at the failed premiere of his First Piano Concerto in 1859. ...

The great change in audience behavior began, I believe, at the premiere performances of Wagner's Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882. From Cosima Wagner's diary: "When, after the second act, there is much noise and calling, R. comes to the balustrade, says that though the applause is very welcome to his artists and to himself, they had agreed, in order not to impinge on the impression, not to take a bow, so that there would be no 'curtain calls'. ... At the end R. is vexed by the silent audience, which has misunderstood him..." ...

By around 1900, a portion of the public had embraced the idea that certain works should be heard in rapt silence... "but even in Germany this is felt to be in advance of public opinion." ...

So who is the culprit? Barney Sherman came forward with the apparent answer: [conductor] Leopold Stokowski... [A]t the end of the nineteen twenties, he convinced himself that applause during symphonies intruded on the divinity of the concert experience, and he began trying to convince audiences to stop. ...

The no-applause rule was slow to spread. It was not in force in Vienna, in 1938, when Bruno Walter conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in one of the last concerts before the Anschluss. ... Here is one of the most “serious” audiences that ever existed. Many of those in the hall had attended Mahler’s legendary Viennese performances. Some had known Mahler personally. Yet they applauded during this most searching and death-haunted of Mahler’s works. ... You can also hear intermittent applause on American orchestral broadcasts into the nineteen fifties. ...

Emanuel Ax, for one, says that the absence of applause sometimes makes him uncomfortable. As a listener, I don’t need total silence to help me to understand the music, even less to register its emotional impact. To the contrary, I find this ponderous silence forced, unsettling, and in places absolutely anti-musical, as after the big movements of concertos. It’s crazy for three thousand people to sit in Carnegie Hall contemplating Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if it were some Buddhist monument, rather than a rousing, passionate entertainment.
--New Yorker music critic Alex Ross on the shushing of the concert hall

We like classical music, just not in the concert hall

Although I loved the music I heard that evening, I was struck at the time by how matter-of-factly my guide dismissed my observation that [classical music] concerts might not be easy to figure out for a first-timer. And he took it for granted that I would find the impressive edifice and music itself a satisfactory recompense for my troubles. And he might have been right, I suppose, had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a dance or a hip-hop concert -- if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn't contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like?

But this was classical music. And there are a great many "clap here, not there" cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied -- as I believe are many classical concert goers -- by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer. ...

Joseph Horowitz in his wonderful new book, Moral Fire, describes audiences "screaming" and "standing on chairs" during classical concerts in the 1890s. The New York Times records an audience that "wept and shouted, strung banners across the orchestra pit over the heads of the audience and flapped unrestrainedly" when listening to their favorite opera singer at the Met in the 1920s. ...

Indeed, even the venerable Beethoven, I am quite certain, would be dismayed to find his music performed the way it is today. Not to applaud between his movements? Unthinkable! Not to call out during the performance and react to the music he'd written? Preposterous! ...

Here are the two most shattering facts about classical music today: First, Americans are writing, playing, recording and listening to more orchestra music today than they ever have before in history -- mostly in the form of film music and video game soundtracks. So we know they like the general sound.

They just don't like listening to it with us, at concert halls. And that is the second fact.
--Richard Dare, CEO and Managing Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, on breaking free of the "necrocracy" of "packaged greatness"

Friday, September 14, 2012

The gender gap in throwing ability

There’s no way around it. I throw like a girl. ...

As much as the expression grates, girls do, in general, throw like girls.

Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied the gender gap across a broad spectrum of skills. She believes that men and women aren’t as different as they are often portrayed, and she has mined data on social, psychological, communication and physical traits, skills and behaviors to quantify the gap. After looking at 46 meta-analyses, Hyde found what she defined as a “very large” difference in only two skills: throwing velocity and throwing distance.

The throwing gap has been researched for more than half a century, and the results have been consistent. According to Jerry Thomas, dean of the College of Education at the University of North Texas in Denton, who did the throwing research Hyde cites in her paper, “The overhand throwing gap, beginning at 4 years of age, is three times the difference of any other motor task, and it just gets bigger across age. By 18, there’s hardly any overlap in the distribution: Nearly every boy by age 15 throws better than the best girl.”

Around the world, at all ages, boys throw better — a lot better — than girls. ...

To try to distinguish nature from nurture, Thomas studied aboriginal Australian children, who grow up in a culture where both men and women hunt, and both sexes throw from childhood. ...

Aboriginal girls threw tennis balls at 78.3 percent of the velocity of boys — closer to boys than in most other cultures, but still significantly slower.

Size and strength undoubtedly also play a role, but girls and boys are about the same size as children, when there is a significant gap in overhand throwing skill. The gap widens at puberty, when the advantages of size and strength kick in. ...

The difference, [Thomas] suspects, isn’t in the arm or the torso or the shoulder. “I’d bet my bottom dollar there’s something neurological. It’s the nervous system.” ...

[Jenny Allard, coach of the Harvard women's softball team,] sees the problem even at the elite level. “I saw a potential recruit who was fast as lightning, and a great hitter. But she throws . . . ” Allard shrugs. “Like a girl.” She uses the expression without apology.
--Tamar Haspel, Washington Post, on the reality behind childhood taunts

Monday, September 10, 2012

Varsity athletes and the Harvard cheating scandal

Days before Saturday’s season opener against the University of San Diego, the Harvard football team is grappling with the ramifications of the Government 1310 cheating scandal.

“With the whole investigation going on, we realize that there are possibilities that our team is going to miss a few players,” said one member of the football team, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson since he said he feared punishment from his coaches. ...

More than half of the government class played varsity sports, estimated a member of the Class of 2012 accused of cheating in the course.
--Alexander Koenig and Robert Samuels, Harvard Crimson, on an unfortunate living down to a stereotype

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The wet bias in weather forecasting

Unfortunately, this cautious message can be undercut by private-sector forecasters. Catering to the demands of viewers can mean intentionally running the risk of making [weather] forecasts less accurate. For many years, the Weather Channel avoided forecasting an exact 50 percent chance of rain, which might seem wishy-washy to consumers. Instead, it rounded up to 60 or down to 40. In what may be the worst-kept secret in the business, numerous commercial weather forecasts are also biased toward forecasting more precipitation than will actually occur. (In the business, this is known as the wet bias.) For years, when the Weather Channel said there was a 20 percent chance of rain, it actually rained only about 5 percent of the time.

People don’t mind when a forecaster predicts rain and it turns out to be a nice day. But if it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic. “If the forecast was objective, if it has zero bias in precipitation,” Bruce Rose, a former vice president for the Weather Channel, said, “we’d probably be in trouble.”
--Nate Silver, NYT Magazine, on maximizing a different objective function

Monday, September 3, 2012

The other U.S. educational crisis

Back in 1958, Ted Schwarzrock was an 8-year-old third grader when he became one of the “Torrance kids,” a group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who completed a series of creativity tasks newly designed by professor E. Paul Torrance. ...

What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ. ...

With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May [2010], after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”
--Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Newsweek, on prospects for a duller future. HT: J8L

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How pedophilia lost its cool

The reason that the monstrous crime of pedophilia matters is simple: In an increasingly secular age, it is one of the few taboos about which people on both sides of the religious divide can agree. ...

[I]t wasn’t very long ago that some enlightened folk took a considerably more relaxed view of the question of sex with youngsters, and they weren’t afraid to say so. From the 1970s through the 1990s, a number of trial balloons were floated that almost no one in America would dare release now. Some people, including celebrated novelists, asked outright whether sex with minors might be worth a cheer or two. ...

Fourteen years ago, for example, the New Republic published a short piece called “Chickenhawk” (pedophile slang for a young boy) that discussed a short film about the North American Man–Boy Love Association. The piece expressed sympathy for the pederasts and would-be pederasts depicted and echoed them in asking whether the boys weren’t sometimes the predators in man–boy sex. ...

Similarly, seventeen years ago another sophisticated magazine, Vanity Fair, published a whitewashing of a Phillips Exeter Academy teacher who had been caught surreptitiously filming boys in the showers and splicing those images into pornographic movies. The essay not only painted this former teacher as a victim of his accusers but also cast negatively one accuser who had come forward. ...

Back in 1989, The Nation published a short piece called “On Truth and Fiction” by a novelist who said he had lately penned an “entertainment about a San Francisco private eye who wandered into the business of transporting Haitian boys to boy-lovers all over the world.” Apparently in the interest of promoting that book, the novelist wanted to report to The Nation’s readers that he’d lately verified its “factual basis,” thanks in part to a “charming and cultivated American priest [in Haiti] who educated boys for export.” ...

Once again, that kind of nod to pederasty would be far less likely to make the pages of any magazine sold in public today. In fact, if such a piece were to appear, it would excite plenty of comment—including calls for international investigation and prosecution of some of the characters in the tale. ...
--Mary Eberstadt, First Things, on the shifting boundaries of moral condemnation

So what happened to turn yesterday’s “intergenerational sex” into today’s bipartisan demands to hang Roman Polanski and related offenders high? Mainly, it appears, what happened was something unexpected and momentous: the Catholic priest scandals of the early years of this decade...

First, the scandals made clear that one point was no longer in dispute: The sexual abuse of the young leaves real and lasting scars. ...

In a fascinating bit of moral jujitsu, the scandals helped in a second way to repair the preexisting public consensus against sex with minors. Naturally enough, throughout the scandals and beyond, the spectacle of priests committing crimes proved irresistible to the people who already hate the Catholic Church. ...

And since the Church’s harshest critics are, generally speaking, the same sort of enlightened folks from whom pedophilia chic had floated up, there lurked in all of this a contradiction. After all, one could either point to the grave moral wrong of what the offending priests had done—or one could minimize the suffering of the victims, as apologists for pedophilia had been doing before the scandals broke. But one could not plausibly do both any more, at least not in public. And so, in a way that could not have been predicted, but that is obviously all to the good, the priest scandals made it impossible to take that kinder, gentler look at the question of sex with youngsters that some salonistes of a few years back had been venturing.
--Mary Eberstadt, First Things, on one theory of why