Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

The Camera Lies

According to a widely followed dictum enunciated by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “[i]f in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” As a principle of drama this is, of course, quite sensible. But it leads to the odd effect that, unless you have had personal experience with firearms, chances are you have never seen a gun without soon seeing it used to shoot someone. And even taking into account the fictional nature of most of these “shootings,” it is not surprising that a person who knew about guns only through film and television might have an exaggerated sense of the dangerousness of firearms, or of their association with murder and violence.

Many people are rightly wary of negative depictions of members of various minority groups, on the grounds that they may serve to re-enforce stereotypes about those groups, particularly among those whose main experience of those groups is from film and television. In each case the basic principle is the same. When you lack much personal experience of a group, object, or environment, and encounter fictional depictions of it, you are liable to accept those depictions as accurate, even if they are not a true reflection of reality. Continue reading

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November 24, 2008 Posted by | Capitalism, Culture, Family, Film, Guns, Literature, Media | Leave a comment

Blame It on the Fed

A week or two ago, the Wall Street Journal had an interview with Anna Schwartz in which she blamed the current financial situation on the artificially low interest rates created by the Federal Reserve in the early years of the new millennium:

How did we get into this mess in the first place? As in the 1920s, the current “disturbance” started with a “mania.” But manias always have a cause. “If you investigate individually the manias that the market has so dubbed over the years, in every case, it was expansive monetary policy that generated the boom in an asset.

“The particular asset varied from one boom to another. But the basic underlying propagator was too-easy monetary policy and too-low interest rates that induced ordinary people to say, well, it’s so cheap to acquire whatever is the object of desire in an asset boom, and go ahead and acquire that object. And then of course if monetary policy tightens, the boom collapses.”

The house-price boom began with the very low interest rates in the early years of this decade under former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Schwartz is the co-author of one of the most respected and influential works on the causes of the Great Depression, a work whose thesis has been endorsed by now Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (money quote: “Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”) Her opinion on the matter thus cannot be dismissed out of hand. And, for what it’s worth, Alan Greenspan’s recent repudiation of capitalism makes more sense on the assumption that he was trying to deflect blame from himself. Continue reading

October 30, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Economy, Media, Politics | Leave a comment

Palin with Child

Morning’s Minion asks, apropos of Governor Palin’s son Trig, who has Down Syndrome, which of the candidates “has the better policies to facilitate a family raising a child with special needs?” He says the answer is clearly Senator Obama. I confess that I have not read Senator Obama’s proposals specifically regarding children with Down Syndrome. Presumably he favors more than being left for dead in a soiled utility closet, which was the practice for children with Down Syndrome that he defended while in the Illinois State Senate. The sad fact, though, is that more than 90% of women who learn that their unborn child may have Down Syndrome have that child aborted. Whether having a smart, successful woman who choose not to abort her child just because he had Down Syndrome in the public eye for the next several years would have an impact on the rate women opt for abortion in such circumstances is an open question. But it is possible that a Vice President Palin would save more lives just through her personal witness, even if she is not able to advance her pro-life agenda legislatively, than would Senator Obama’s proposals. Continue reading

September 2, 2008 Posted by | Abortion, Children, Election, Family, Health Care, Media, Politics | 1 Comment

Boys are Better (and Worse) at Math Than Girls

Girls and boys have roughly the same average scores on state math tests, but boys more often excelled or failed, researchers reported.

The fresh research adds to the debate about gender difference in aptitude for mathematics, including efforts to explain the relative scarcity of women among professors of science, math and engineering.

In the 1970s and 1980s, studies regularly found that high- school boys tended to outperform girls. But a number of recent studies have found little difference.

The latest study, in this week’s journal Science, examined scores from seven million students who took statewide mathematics tests from grades two through 11 in 10 states between 2005 and 2007.

The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, didn’t find a significant overall difference between girls’ and boys’ scores. But the study also found that boys’ scores were more variable than those of girls. More boys scored extremely well — or extremely poorly — than girls, who were more likely to earn scores closer to the average for all students.

Continue reading

July 30, 2008 Posted by | Education, Equality, Media, Statistics | Leave a comment

McCain Wants to Start WWIII, Re-Institute Draft

Okay, so not really. But given the way some of McCain’s prior statements have been twisted, I can almost imagine the DNC running an attack ad based on that premise:

Only World War III would prompt Republican presidential candidate John McCain to bring back the military draft, McCain said on Tuesday.

Many Americans are fearful the U.S. government will be forced to reinstitute the draft given the prolonged Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Asked about that possibility by a potential voter in Florida during a telephone “town hall meeting,” McCain said: “I don’t know what would make a draft happen unless we were in an all-out World War III.”

June 26, 2008 Posted by | Election, Media, War and Peace | Leave a comment

Negative Ads

I’ve long suspected that a significant chunk of the support for things like campaign finance reform derives simply from annoyance with negative political ads. To a certain extent I think this annoyance is overblown. Negative ads tend to be fairly substantive, whereas their “positive” counter-parts are often nearly content-free (“I care about the environment; that’s why I’m standing in front of this river”). But even I have to admit that they can often be grating (whether the proper response is to scrap the First Amendment rather than, say, pressing the mute button, is another issue).

What I find curious, though, is the fact that while negative advertisements play a role in just about every close political campaign, they are almost totally absent from commercial advertising. Occasionally a company will mention a competitor in its ads in a less than favorable way (see here), but even this tends to be rare and relatively mild compared to standard political ads. The grainy black and white ads with the distorted photos and ominous sounding announcers, so common in politics, are just unheard of. What explains the difference? Here are some possibilities: Continue reading

May 16, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Election, Media | Leave a comment

Beware of “Gotcha” Politics

Whenever I see some outrageous statement attributed to a politician or other political figure, I tend to be skeptical. It’s not that I think people can’t have outrageous views, or make outrageous statements. But it’s been my experience that nine times out of ten the quote in question has been taken out of context or otherwise distorted, and that when viewed fairly and in context, the quote is almost always not nearly as outrageous as it might seem standing alone, and in many cases is perfectly defensible. Even when it seems as if there is just no way that a given quote could be defensible no matter the context, I tend to balk. After all, I’ve seen quotes in the past where I thought there was no way adding context would make them not outrageous, yet once I saw the context they seemed perfectly fine. I would almost go so far as to say that the worse a given quote appears standing alone, the more likely it is that it will turn out, upon inspection, to be no big deal. Politicians are not idiots, after all (well, some of them are, but they tend to hide it well).

I saw a particularly egregious example of this today. According to ABC news, Bill Clinton said at a recent campaign rally that to fight global warming “we just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions.” Here’s the video. Continue reading

January 31, 2008 Posted by | Election, Global Warming, Media | Leave a comment