Thursday, November 06, 2014

Why everyone should have assumed Jian Ghomeshi was lying (courtesy of math)

You've probably seen some form of this critical thinking exercise. There's this description of a person. You're asked to choose their likely profession. The description usually looks something like this:
A person is neat and orderly. An introvert, the person is shy and does not easily make friends. In spite of near-sightedness, which requires him or her to wear glasses, the person also loves books and is an avid reader. Is this person a librarian or a teacher?

I probably don't need to ask what you picked: it was "librarian". Because that sounds like the stereotype of a librarian. If I had allowed you to attach percentages or probabilities, you might have allowed for the chance that this describes a teacher. You might have even said 50/50, which seems like a safe answer. And now that I've suggested it, you're probably thinking "that sounds reasonable", right? Right.

But, in fact, no. It isn't. You're wrong. You are so, so wrong.

That is to say, you're probably wrong. And you're probably wrong because you've likely paid attention to the wrong details. Rather than asking yourself "does this person sound like a librarian? or a teacher?" you needed to be asking "just how many people work in these professions, anyway?"

That being the real question, you probably already have some idea of the answer. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were about 15,000 librarians employed in that country in 2012. But teachers? Well, if we restrict the category to only people who teach JK through Grade 12 classes, there were about 3,000,000, give or take 100,000. That's about 200 teachers for every librarian.

So, for every shy, near-sighted librarian - and even if we assume that every librarian fits this description - do we really think that we can't find more people who fit the description among a random sample of 200 teachers? And not just more but even 10 or 20 or 100 more of them for every 1 librarian? Yep, there's at least one, maybe even two magnitudes more teachers who fit this description than librarians. There's no reason for hesitation, here. There's maybe a 1% chance that "librarian" was right. You should have guessed "teacher".

There's a name for this kind of reasoning: Bayesian inference. A Bayesian inference refers to decision-making based on probabilities. We know - or at least we should know - that there are many more teachers than there are librarians. Google then confirms this and allows us to attach a factor to it. Those details about being orderly and loving books? It's really neither here nor there, since it's a decision-making process that's based on a feeling or stereotype about what a librarian is like, rather on anything we can measure or prove.

Thus, our basic assumption - our a priori assumption, given that we know little else that is useful - should be that "teacher" is the more probable correct answer.

So, where is this blog heading? I'll cut to the chase.

Last week, I started to write a blog about the Jian Ghomeshi sex scandal. I'm not going to rehash the details. If you're reading this, you're probably familiar with the allegations against the former CBC radio host. If not, here's the Wikipedia summary.

At the time I started writing, three women had accused Ghomeshi of sexual abuse and assault and each of them had been interviewed by Jesse Brown, though none allowed for their quotes to be attributed. Another women that Brown interviewed accused Ghomeshi of sexually harassing her at work. And some of Ghomeshi's own friends - mostly famously Owen Pallett - said that they believe the accusers. Also, depending on where you live and whether you shared any mutual friends or friends-of-friends with Ghomeshi, there was plenty of rumor and innuendo that supported the accusers.

Still, there were no irrefutable "facts", as such, like videos or pictures. A lot of people on the internets made comments like these:
K*** M***: Nobody knows "the whole story" except for him and the women. I am not taking anyones side on this matter. 
@pothen: Why is anyone (aside from the parties involved & personal friends) mouthing off about #JianGhomeshi? We know *nothing* so far. 

Which seems reasonable, right? We don't "know" anything, do we? It's a 'he said'/'she said' and the allegations are as likely to be true as they are false. The probability is 50/50 and we just shouldn't choose sides.

If you've been following along this whole time, you can probably guess where I'm headed with this.

As a matter of fact, we do know something. We know that women almost never lie about sexual assault. And that knowledge should inform whether we think these women are telling the truth.

So, what exactly do we know. Here are a couple details that aren't perfectly matched to the Ghomeshi case, but indicate a pattern:

Granted, these refer to court proceedings and not unnamed accusers in newspapers, but the trend seems clear - women tell the truth more often than not. Even the most pessimistic guess would have to start with the assumption that the likelihood an accusation is true is >50%.

But we're not dealing with an accusation, are we? We also know that there were three people alleging particularly heinous sexually violence, not just one. That increases the likelihood that he did these things to at least one of them by a significant margin: that >50% becomes something more like 90+%.

Let me connect this process more explicitly with my opening example. At first, you might have asked yourself "do I think Jian Ghomeshi did this?" And so you might have made a decision based, to some extent, on what you think of him. But that was the wrong question, and it might have led you to commit the same representativeness fallacy that you fell prey to, above, if you chose "librarian". A better question would have been something more like "someone has been accused of sexually assaulting three women - how likely is it that these women are telling the truth?"

So, even before you heard any of the details, you should have thought it at least 90% likely that the accusations were correct. That's your starting point: not 50/50, but 90/10. Because while we might not know the whole story - just as we didn't know the entire life story of the person who wears glasses and loves books - we know a lot about probabilities, and that has to inform our decision-making.

And that's before you factor in the other story of sexual harassment. The letter from Owen Pallett. The stories from former co-workers or whispers from women in bars. The other six women who would come forward to the Toronto Star in the next week, two of whom were willing to be identified by name. The internal communications from the CBC that complaints had been made. The letters from journalism schools that declared his show off-limits to students because of his past behavior. The recollections of university dons that they had to keep an eye out for him. The woman who recalled a creepy encounter with him on XOJane, last year. The woman who accused him of sexual assault via an anonymous Twitter account, this spring. Or the fact that believing the accusers requires that only Ghomeshi is lying, while believing Ghomeshi requires that a dozen women and at least one journalist have orchestrated an elaborate and long-running conspiracy...

Sunday, October 05, 2014

"Anita Sarkeesian Was Right"

Amazingly, I don't think I've ever blogged about video games and sexism. I suppose that I don't say much about video games because I really don't play many of them. (I mean, I've owned every Nintendo console but the Wii U, but I wouldn't call myself a gamer and I don't think that would qualify me, regardless.) But it's still a bit odd, isn't it? Anyway.

You've probably heard about Anita Sarkeesian, or are at least familiar with her Tropes Vs. Women series of videos. (And if not that, you've probably noticed that the heroes and villains in most video games are men, and that women are often reduced to the role of victim, prize, or simply eye candy. Right? Right.) For her effort, Sarkeesian has been threatened with rape and murder by dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of male video game fans, who perceive the criticism of their games as personal attacks. There have been apps that simulate beating her up, attempted hacks of her Twitter and Google accounts, threats against her family, and bomb threats preceding her speaking engagements. She's had to call the police, had a case referred to the FBI for further investigation, and briefly went into hiding, recently.

Let me spell out the irony, if it isn't already painfully obvious: Sarkeesian points out that video games are dominated by narratives of masculine violence and feminine submission; her critics, who deny the veracity of her claims, demand her submission and threaten her with violence. No, really. You can't make this shit up.

Anyway, a month ago, my brothers and I attended Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. It's a geek convention - comic books, anime, and video games, mostly - and one of my brothers wore this:

A lot of people are confused by the use of the past tense.
In true geek culture mash-up fashion, the shirt is simultaneously
an homage to Magneto, whose teenaged supporters have been
known to wear "Magneto was right" t-shirts.
So, it's a thing, not a mistake.

Needless to say, I think, this shirt is about as controversial as it gets at a geek convention. A lot of people feel strongly that Sarkeesian is right or that she's wrong. And when these people who strongly feel she's right speak up and say so? They're also sometimes threatened with rape and death.

Well, some of them are threatened, at least. When an activist named Stephanie Guthrie spoke out against the 'Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian' game, she was also threatened, repeatedly and by multiple people. And so, as my brother walked around this convention with a shirt that practically begged people to threaten him with rape and death - and almost immediately posted pictures of it to Twitter and Facebook, increasing the likelihood that the right/wrong people would see it - I wondered... would this muscular, tattooed white dude get even a fraction of the same response?

So, I gave it a month. Five weeks to see whether anyone would bat an eye, whether the guys claiming that Sarkeesian was the real sexist would prove themselves equal opportunity harassers. And our friends were curious, too. Here are the first two responses to the picture on Facebook:

The finally tally on Twitter? 419 Retweets, 1264 Favorites. Two jokes that he should ask for a refund. (Though these responses were made in response to me, not him.) One accusation that he was being a "white knight". And one threat of a "shanking". That's it - and the tweet seems to have since disappeared.

My brother also told people that he received nothing but compliments - most notably from Sex Criminals artist Chip Zdarsky, aka Steve Murray - but this isn't entirely true. Sure, everyone who spoke to him complimented the shirt. What he didn't see, though, were the sideways glares and glowers, which usually only happened after he had passed by and which I noticed because I was sometimes walking behind him. I only saw a half-dozen or so of these, but I wasn't paying exceptionally close attention. It was clear that the shirt surprised, annoyed, and/or upset some people. It just didn't surprise, annoy, or upset them enough to say or do anything to the guy who was wearing it. (I won't explicitly speculate as to why that is. I'll leave that part up entirely up to you. Give it a try. It's just as easy as it seems!)

So, the negative reactions were there. They just weren't particularly loud or threatening or... anything, really. Just deafening silence.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man 2: Yes, You Can Reasonably Make an Electric Boogaloo Joke

But TL;DR? ASM2 wasn't very good. Looked pretty, though.

And that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are so good on screen together? They should hook up in real life, or something. And that's all the good, right there.

Seriously, this is an unerringly dank and depressingly film. And in the moments where it's not? It's just wrong. Having Peter bound up to the stage, with all this attitude and swagger, and then kiss Gwen in front of everyone? You can call that guy Peter Parker, but that's not Peter Parker.

I mean, it's also about responsibility and doing the right thing because you're screwed either way. Or, at least, that's what it's about when Peter Parker is recognizably Peter Parker. Which he wasn't. So it really wasn't about those things. It was about "hope". Except, like I said in that tweet, it wasn't really about that, either. Even though it claimed to be.

Arrgh. Sooooo miserable. Who did they make this for? People who thought that The Dark Knight was too much fun? Who wished that Spider-Man's battles should probably be as needlessly destructive as Superman's in Man of Steel?

Electro is up there with Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face for Absolute Worst Super-Villain in a Film. Remember this?:

Electro is a clownish, unbelievable character (is he some kind of thinly veiled shot at Spider-man fanboys? could it actually be any more mean-spirited?) with an equally unlikely transformation into Spider-man's biggest enemy.

And Harry? The less said, the better. There's just nothing there. He gets an intro, a meeting, a conversation with Peter, a conversation with Spider-man, and then he turns evil. And that sounds like a lot, but it's pretty much 5 minutes in total. And do we even have the chance to care? No, no we don't. Because the Peter and Harry relationship is built on their memories of stuff that we never saw and comes as a complete surprise. But we're still supposed to feel something when Peter refuses to help him and Harry gets really, really, unreasonably angry?

Who's the real star of this franchise? Sally Field. I mean, Garfield and Stone are good when they're given very little to work with - the story is awful, and Peter is just awful, so it works best when they aren't trying to advance the story - but Sally Field is great and Aunt May is great.


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Why Rob Ford's rehab - if it's even occurring - will fail

I've recently decided to embrace the uncommonly-used genre of the tweet-essay. Here's an effort from earlier today. It may work as something that I can translate to the blog, it may not. (The latter would be unfortunate, though, since I otherwise can't find time to work on my blog.)

Anyway, the context here is that Rob Ford took leave from his job as Mayor of Toronto and hopped on a plane, ostensibly to report to rehab. But then he was turned back at the border. His lawyer and brother claim that he's in rehab, somewhere, but we really don't know. And have no reason to believe them, frankly.

Where's Rob Ford? Find him!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Daryl Dixon and the phantom menace of his turn to the dark side

Eventually, I'll stop beating up on AMC's The Walking Dead. Eventually. Probably when it's over.

In the meantime, I want to use the last episode to pick out one of the things that show routinely does wrong. And my example is Daryl's most recent character arc. (arrrr! thar be spoilers ahead.)

So, in the season's penultimate episode, we see Daryl slowly (though unintentionally) ingratiating himself to "the marauders" and warming up to their leader, Joe. For the majority of the story, he struggles against their medieval philosophy of discipline and punishment, refuses to participate in their ethic of "claiming" ownership of property, and tells them that he's only traveling with them temporarily. That is, until Joe kills Len, the marauder who had been giving Daryl a hard time. Daryl resists the urge to cover Len's body with a tarp (oh, he's so cold!) and, later, symbolically joins the marauders by claiming a strawberry bush. The ostensible pay-off for this story is that, simultaneous Daryl's act of assimilation, we realize that the marauders are tracking a man who killed their friend. Dramatic irony alert: that man is Rick.

Now, I'm not going to complain at length about how clich├ęd the marauders are. Because, of course: grizzled, bearded murderers who exist in a state of nature, looking like the stock end-of-the-world bad guys that populate every narrative in this genre. (see: WaterworldThe RoadChildren of Men, etc.) And Jeff Kober, as Joe, has been type-cast with hilarious predictability. So, I'll complain that it's unimaginative, but, yes, not at length.

What I want to complain about is how hilariously unconvincing I find this ham-fisted attempt to create drama and tension. We're supposed to believe that Daryl is already falling-in with this new group, both socially and, I guess, emotionally. That's he's reverting to type. That he might not be loyal to his previous group. That the way he cared for Beth (as well as the rest) is, I suppose, easily forgotten. And, most importantly for the season finale, that he might turn on Rick.

Ugh. Really?

No, really? This is how you elevate the stakes for the end of the season, by having us wonder whether one of the most fiercely loyal characters in the series will turn? Remember, this was the guy who defended his asshole brother in spite of his asshole-ishness, who diverted a horde of zombies from Beth's direction by pinning himself in the basement with almost no weapons, and who has made a habit of saving pretty much everyone with little regard for his own safety. This was a guy who, at the beginning of the season, found purpose as the community's provider and protector. And this is a guy who is, at this point, so unquestioningly one of the good guys that we ask questions like 'will he hook up with Carol or Beth?', not 'will he turn out like his brother?'

Sure, he's also surly and reactionary, but he's also one of those rogues with a heart of gold. (Which the series has seen fit to establish again and again. And again. And again.) And we're supposed to believe, even for a second, that he'd forget all of that so easily?

The only tension here is whether the show's own bad writing might turn an otherwise implausible (or nigh-impossible?) storyline into a groan-inducing reality.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

AMC's The Walking Dead and the many ways in which it *ahem* bites

With the return of AMC's The Walking Dead, this week, here are my much-delayed but eagerly-awaited (or not!) reflections on why the show is terrible, and how it manages to screw up everything that the the comic does right. (Be warned! I will probably end up spoiling stuff.)

[A quick note: This is not to suggest that the comic is perfect, by any means. The prison arc drags and, more recently, characters have a habit of monologue-ing in such a way that I have to think Robert Kirkman is hoping to make some sort of serious social commentary that's well beyond his ability. But still, it's much better]

1) The Walking Dead are supposed to be the people, not the zombies

The show's biggest failing is that it thinks the zombies are the stars. It can't go an episode without a zombie sneak-attack, and it makes a zombie encounter part of every story. To pull some examples from this season:
  • The story about the flu, while ostensibly serving as some sort of banal contrast and reminder of the dangers of the everyday, devolved into just another surprise zombie rampage.
  • The visit to the grocery store was interrupted by bunches of zombies falling inexplicably from the ceiling. (I say 'inexplicably' not because it doesn't make sense that the roof is sagging, but because it appears they had been there for months, and somehow none of them had previously managed to fall through the roof)
  • Though it was understated, even Rick and Carol's half-decent foraging episode was interrupted by  zombies who carried away and ate the new people. (But even I'll admit that this was done with impressive restraint.)
  • In the latest episode, Carl is nearly bitten not just once but twice by zombies who either snuck up or sprang out from behind a door, both of which are lazy tropes that the show relies on with alarming regularity.
In the comic, the zombies have been largely reduced to background pieces that do little to move the plot forward. When they gather en masse, it's to serve some sort of symbolic purpose.
  • The zombies flood the prison as an after-effect of the battle with The Governor, not because he deploys them as a weapon. 
  • When a zombie herd pushes through the walls that surround Alexandria, it follows a gun-fight with outside bandits and parallels an internal struggle for the right to lead the town. When Rick is finally installed as leader, the town finally learns how to keep the zombies out.

It's not that the zombies disappear or are rendered harmless, but nor are they aggressors or malevolent. Rather, the zombies of the comic appear as a consequence of human folly - the wrath of god, a force of nature, a critique of social relations given undead form, or however you choose to explain it. And so there's a subtle moral element to it, too, at least in the past few years. Not that any particularly person deserves to be attacked by a zombie, mind you, but that we, more generally, have brought this upon our selves - and we're running out of chances.

2) Pacing

A friend of mine defended the story arc in the first half of this season by way of claiming that it was about the difficulty of re-establishing society. Which, if it were true, would've been great. Instead, having only just established the prison community in the previous year's season finale, this year's season premiere immediately introduced a mystery illness to destroy it. Number of full episodes spent showing that it's not all about the zombie attacks: 0

By contrast, the comic book spent dozens of issues in the prison and plenty of time showing that inter-personal conflict and power struggles were far more deadly than anything outside the walls. What my friend claimed/hoped the show was doing? That's what the comic book actually did. If you're going to make a show about humanity after the apocalypse, it probably behooves you to slow down and establish that they can still interact with other human beings.

3) Choreography that would make a pro wrestler blush

Again, the lazy tropes. There's a difference between the effective use of horror conventions and the poor use of them. While I expect the disorienting close-up or extreme that shields our view from a surprise, I expect what follows to be an actual surprise. When Hershel stepped slowly past a body in a dark prison corridor, I knew it would bite him. When, in the second season, Lori went after Rick in a car, I was reasonably sure that she would crash. When she held up a map and took her eyes off the road, I knew there would be a zombie in the way when she looked up. And that she would swerve. And that she would crash.

And when, earlier this season, Rick was outside the prison and got pinned against the fence, the camera angle suggested that someone was going to sneak up, unseen, from behind to save him. So, Daryl did just that:

It's one thing to anticipate a surprise, but to know exactly what that surprise will be? That's not a surprise at all. It reduces the anticipation to an expectation, and robs the scene of tension or excitement entirely.

4) The physics of sound

When they're off-screen, the zombies are remarkably quiet. Like, sooo quiet. But when they're on screen, they're incredibly noisy - gnashing and moaning and gurgling and growling.

But, you're saying, it's just that they're quiet when there are no humans around - obviously, they get noisy when there's meat in their presence.

Except, that's not what I'm saying at all. I literally mean that it's a matter of whether the camera can see them or not.
  • When, in the season premiere, the group arrives at a grocery store, the scene is totally silent. But, as the camera pans up, we see and hear dozens of zombies on the roof. (Which puts that whole 'the zombies are normally quiet' theory to bed.) Now, I'm not at all certain whether the humans would've heard the zombies, but it's pretty silly that the zombies fail to hear the humans approach - especially since their hearing is acute enough to hear a crash from within the building.
  • When Meghan is attacked in the Governor's RV camp, it is doubly ridiculous. Not only is it shot from directly in front, which immediately gives away the eventual zombie attack, but the zombie that she finds is standing totally stationary behind a bed sheet, of all things. A bed sheet that could, ostensibly, block both the sound of the zombie from ours and Meghan's ears, as well as the sound of the community from the zombie, who was turned in the wrong direction and thus oblivious to their presence. Dumb.
  • And the most egregious example, from the end of the second season, is when Dale is standing in an empty field - which we know to be empty because the establishing shot was from a distance. Yet, somehow, a zombie swiftly and totally silently sneaks up from behind him. Which is even more impressive because the field is, itself, totally silent. Until, of course, Dale turns around and the zombie appears on camera, its mouth all frothy and gurgling. Because, of course.

5) Rick

In AMC's version, everyone hates Rick. He's a reluctant leader who's largely incapable of making decisions, wracked by self-doubt and guilt. This might be a fine archetype to employ in literary fiction, but in the hands of lesser writers, Rick is simply annoying.

The problem is, the TV version of Rick is only a small fraction of a full character. Like AMC's Rick, the comic book version of Rick also has a period of self-doubt where he's paralyzed by guilt. But that's not how he begins, and that's not where he's been for a long time.

In the first few years of stories, Rick is instead characterized by a survive-at-all-costs ethos, an angry-at-the-world recklessness, and is intensely protective of his family. Just like TV's Shane. (The comic's Shane died after only a few issues - killed by Carl, rather than Rick.) And, in the comic, he finds some solace in rejecting his responsibility to others and disappearing for days at a time, setting out alone on his motorcycle like some sort of post-apocalyptic cowboy. Like TV's Daryl. (The comic has no Daryl.)

6) Didn't we see all this before? This is what passes for character development?

When the previous season ended, The Governor wanted the prison and was willing to destroy it if he couldn't have it, bringing with him a small army to demand its surrender and knocking its gates down. When The Governor returned at the midpoint of his season, he wanted the prison and was willing to destroy it if he couldn't have it, bringing with him a small army to demand its surrender and knocking its gates down.


In between, we were given two episodes that demonstrated how a shattered Governor rebuilt himself in order to become the exact same person he had been before, with a more or less identical purpose - he replaced his old community with a new one, regained his leadership role, even managed to find a new daughter. And this all served what point, exactly?

7) How gender influences your chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse

I haven't fully developed this point in my head, and it deserves a longer, fuller discussion. But regardless, it's something that needs to be covered. (That I've put it number last on my list isn't an indication of priority. Instead, it's an indication that it's the least rigorously formulated.)

One of the interesting tropes in The Walking Dead comic is the clash of male egos and its catastrophic consequences. Shane nearly kills Rick before the first story arc is complete; Rick and Tyreese nearly kill each other; Rick and The Governor destroy one another's homes; a group of cannibals become a particularly unsubtle metaphor for the direction that this is all heading in. The group's most brazen and direct actions also tend toward disaster: Shane pulls a gun on Rick and Carl shoots Shane in the neck; Rick's first confrontation with the Governor is memorable for Rick getting his hand chopped off; Tyreese's pre-emptive strike against Woodbury results in his capture and execution; Rick's first encounter with Negan ends with Glenn's murder.

Consciously or not, there is a clear and obvious indictment of hegemonic masculine aggression, ambition, and hubris. But this is also a violent story with characteristically violent consequences, so all of this might seem rather unconvincing and lazy - characters die all time, most of those characters are men, and it's easy to link any one death to any one man's reckless actions.

So, let's try this, instead: apart from the characters who were introduced in the current storyline of the comic, only one man who claimed any kind of leadership role is still alive: Rick.
  • Shane, who led the RV group before Rick arrived, is dead.
  • So is Tyreese, Rick's other early competition for leadership of the original group. 
  • And Hershel, who stepped up when Rick and Tyreese were trying to kill each other.
  • Glenn was also among the group that tried to replace Rick. Also dead.
  • Douglas, who preceded Rick as leader of Alexandria. 
  • Spencer, Douglas' son who plotted to replace Rick, is murdered by Negan. 
  • Gregory, who leads The Hilltop, is also killed by Negan.
  • And the bad guys, too, like The Governor and whoever led The Hunters. It's only a matter of time until Negan dies.

Now, it's not like women don't take risks or don't die. The comic book version of Carol kills herself. (Carol is the one major exception to the general rule that the comic does everything better. But even though it seems inevitable that she'll return to the show, the way they wrote her out was awful. And just reinforces the fact that Rick is a dick.) Lori and Judith are killed in the Governor's attack, which ultimately reduces them to a story function - the cost of Rick's pride.

[Quick aside, though. The female characters on the TV show? Some great steps have been taken to build them up into strong, independent people. But there's a reason that half of the early TWD memes relished in point out how annoying they were.]

But Andrea and Michonne have survived capture and physical abuse, and have grown into leadership roles rather than having taken them by force. Necessity plays a role, too: when Gregory gives his allegiance to Negan, a disgusted Maggie effectively takes command of The Hilltop.

And this is hardly an argument for some wildly different form of feminine leadership. Michonne is no less hot-headed and independent in the comic than she is on the TV show, and Andrea is remarkable for her level-headedness and killer instinct. Maggie probably most closely resembles a recognizable feminine trope, having become something of a mother bear to Carol's daughter.

Rather, it seems to be an argument for leaders who don't aspire to hold power but earn it and will take it when they must; fighters who don't seek fights but will fight when they're backed into a corner. As it happens, these sorts of characters are all women.

Women who, I should again add, have taken very different paths and achieved very different outcomes. It's not as if the book recommends one particular way of surviving the zombie apocalypse, even if it seems to suggest that, yes, that one other particular way leads unavoidably to death.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Michael Sam and the talk about draft value

Yesterday, Michael Sam, a college football player who intends to enter the NFL draft in May, told Sports Illustrated that he's gay. It's being described as "outing", but Sam's sexuality was no surprise to his college team, whom he informed in August, and apparently "only two or three [NFL teams] didn't know" beforehand.

Now, the fact that this is news - that Sam would be the first out player in the history of the NFL - is obviously indicative of heterosexism. That all of the coaches, scouts, and such interviewed by Sports Illustrated confirmed that this would be a problem, that it would be a distraction to the team and hurt his own prospects is also unsurprising, and also an explicit admission of widespread homophobia. But these are not surprising findings in North American sports, even if they're still upsetting.

As recently as a year ago, baseball's Torii Hunter was saying that having a gay teammate would be "difficult and uncomfortable", and the comment - while widely criticized by media-types - was basically a non-issue among people who are actively involved in the sport. Or in all of North America's big four sports, for that matter. The NBA's Jason Collins, a mediocre player nearing the end of his career, came out in spring 2013 and has been unable to find any more work. The NFL's Chris Kluwe, considered more-or-less average among punters, became an outspoken advocate of gay marriage and critic of its enemies and he, too, has been unable to find a job.

That the NBA's only out gay player and pro sports' most vocal straight ally find themselves unemployed is not evidence of a conspiracy, but it's reflective of this fact, at the very least - homophobia is deeply entrenched in the culture of sport.

What makes things more interesting for Sam, though, is that he's not on the verge of retirement, (like Collins) nor does he play a relatively marginal position that's rather easy to replace (like Kluwe). Rather, Sam is the SEC Defensive Player of the Year - not just the best at his own position, but judged the very best among all players on defense among the 14 team, Division I Southeastern Conference.

So, if Sam is going to be punished for his admission, it might be useful to look at how former Defensive Players of the Year have been treated by the NFL draft:

2012 - Round 1, Pick 17 - Jarvis Jones, Linebacker
2011 - Round 1, Pick 6 - Morris Claiborne, Cornerback
2010 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Patrick Peterson, CB
2009 - Round 1, Pick 8 - Rolando McClain, LB
2008 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Eric Berry, Safety
2007 - Round 1, Pick 5 - Glenn Dorsey, Nose Tackle
2006 - Round 1, Pick 11 - Patrick Willis, LB
2005 - Round 2, Pick 33 - Demeco Ryans, LB
2004 - Round 1, Pick 17 - David Pollack, LB
2003 - Round 5, Pick 142 - Chad Lavalais, Defensive Tackle
(previous to 2003, a single Player of the Year was named, which included offense and special teams)

Even with the inclusion of 2003's outlier, that's an average of 25th pick. And Sam? The various sources I've looked at were guessing, even before the public announcement, he could go anywhere from 3rd to 7th round - the vicinity of Lavalais, the outlier, rather than the norm. Following the announcement, the consensus seems to be that he'll go even lower. That is, if he's drafted at all.

Now, Sam is considered small for his position, (he's 6'2", while DEs tend to fall in the 6'3"-7" range) which is a criticism that unavoidably, and reasonably, damages his draft value. Doug Flutie, notably, won the Heisman Trophy and was named the best player in college football, only to be drafted in the 11 round and 285th overall. So, these things matter, and it's entirely possible that he'd fall outside the first round, controversy or no. But now we're suggesting that he would likely be the lowest-drafted SEC Defensive Player of the Year, ever? That he could, conceivably, go undrafted unless a team with "a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach" can "make [it] work"? (We could spend hours peeling back the layers of the language that executives have used to describe Sam. Likewise, in discussing how cowardly it is that they've all hidden behind anonymity.)

This makes it sound like we're talking about someone who is intentionally divisive, who makes his sexuality central to his public persona. You'd think we were talking about someone who wears political messages on the field, who makes controversial remarks to media, who very openly and often talks about his sexuality, and whose media profile creates a conscious "distraction." Someone like, say, Tim Tebow.

And for what it's worth? Even with that baggage and similar concerns that his game wouldn't translate to the NFL, Tebow was picked 25th.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Brief thoughts on a Conservative anti-drug radio spot

From a Conservative Party of Canada radio ad:
"There's so much I worry about as a mom. Justin Trudeau's plan to make marijuana legal certainly doesn't help. Imagine, making it available just like alcohol and cigarettes. He's sending the message that recreational drug use is okay."

Simply put, this is a terrible ad. Not just because it's cheesy and melodramatic (there's a minimalist piano backing track) but because it strikes me as both internally contradictory and totally wrong about its facts. To wit:

1) There's an implication, here, that we can/should send the message to kids that alcohol and cigarette use "is okay". I don't know if that was the intention, but it's the effect. Grouping these three "recreational drugs" together only really makes sense if you're suggesting that they should all be treated in the same way. If you aren't, it all looks a bit arbitrary.

2) If pot were available in the same way that booze and smokes are available, it would actually be harder for kids to buy. One of the things that makes pot so readily available - or, at least, made it really accessible when I was a teenager - is that the market is entirely underground. Thus, the only barrier for buyers is knowing someone who's selling. And when you're 18, finding another teenager at your school who's selling is a lot easier than finding someone who can buy stuff at a store.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dangerously early guesses and questions about The Triple Package

Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom author, is back with a new book, co-written by her husband. And it looks like it will be unintentionally racist and blissfully unaware of social theory.

The Triple Package comes out next month, but it's easy enough to get a sense of its argument. Some "cultural groups" are more successful than other cultural groups, and this has to do with three values - a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control - that those successful cultures share. The specific groups, they revealed in an interview with Yahoo, are Mormons, Cuban exiles, Nigerian Americans, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, American Jews, Iranian Americans and Lebanese Americans.

Now, since it isn't out until February, I obviously haven't read it. And I don't know that I will ever read it. Because it sounds plain dumb. But, rather than claim to know what it's done wrong, I'll ask some questions that are prompted by what I have seen:
  1. Who came up with the eight "cultural groups", and how? The categories they've defined throw up some red flags. Some of her "cultural groups" are defined by religion, others by political status or country of origin, but categorical ambiguity isn't, itself, necessarily problematic - it's realistic, because that's how we self-identify. But I wonder whether the members of the groups would identify first as "Mormon" or "Lebanese", or about the particular contexts within which they'd do so. And with this kind of work, it is hilariously easy to create a homogenous group where none exists, to group people together based on your perception of their similarity, rather than on their own perception. Neither of the authors are trained sociologists, so it'd be interesting to see whether their methodology accounts for those sorts or risks.
  2. What role in their success do you attribute to American society? I don't see any indication that they're accounting for American society as a whole, much less the dominant ideologies that define success. Even if we concede, for argument's sake, that the American socio-economic system rewards these three values, the orientation feels wrong - why look at who is successful, rather than those systemic features that enable their success?
  3. That is, what about capitalism and racism? Or, put another way, you can't do this analysis without explicitly addressing the roles that capital and race (that is, whiteness) play. I don't see any mention of either of those things in the blurb on the site. For instance, your proximity to whiteness matters - there's a reason that the two white groups (alright, "Jewish Americans" are a bit more complicated than that, but I'm trying to be concise) aren't defined by their geography or nationality - it's because race matters, and the white groups aren't marked by visual difference from the American norm. Which is to say, I think it's difficult to argue that the same thing is happening to and within these groups.
  4. How is this disproving the existence of the model minority? The blurb on the site says that successful immigrant groups become less successful over time, and this disproves the model minority theory. But this looks like a misunderstanding of what a model minority is and does. The model minority is not a person or people so much as a function within in a society. It describes minority figures or groups whose success legitimates the system ("If a schlub like me can make it, anyone can...") and its unequal treatment of populations within that society ("...which means you just didn't try hard enough, you leech."). And it actually makes sense that a given group would lose their model minority status and another gain it - because that function doesn't belong on any one minority, and it'll shift. Chinese Americans have existed for 200 years; they've only been model minorities for the past few decades.
  5. When looking at immigrant communities, how did you avoid selection bias? I think there's probably a pretty simple explanation for why some of these groups are, on the whole, disproportionately successful. The blurb notes that Nigerian immigrants have a lot of PhDs, which strikes me as pretty common sense, given how immigration works. There's a selection bias at work: only the best are allowed to come to the country, so we'd expect them to do well. (And we'd expect their kids to regress to the mean.)

Ironically, I get the sense that this book, while claiming to disprove the model minority, is actually telling us what a model minority is, and who fits that definition, right now. Which would make it kind of useful, right?

Again, haven't read the book, and probably won't unless someone gives it to me and I'm struck by a mood. But, then, everything I've seen has me thinking that it probably isn't worth my time. Or yours.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

If you're gonna name your team after real people, at least do it right

We live in a world with NFL teams like the Washingtons* and MLB teams like the Clevelands*, that celebrate a tradition of white settler racism. A world where most sports fans lie somewhere on a spectrum from oblivious to indignant, mascots are unrepentantly racist, and owners have dug in their heels in defense of horribly offensive "traditions".

[* That's right. I refuse to use their chosen names. More on that below.]

That being the case, it seems important to celebrate the teams that do it right. Teams like the Spokane Indians. From Rodney Harwood of the Indian Country Today Media Network:
"In 2006, the baseball team’s front office and the tribe collaborated to come up with a team logo not only saying Spokane Indians in English, but developed a team logo printed in the Salish language, which was depicted on the sleeve of its uniforms.

"The Spokane Indians baseball team will take that collaboration one step further, making the logo in the Salish language the main logo on the front of its home uniforms for the 2014 season."

A Salish-language logo? And it's also their primary logo? That's pretty damn cool. It also addresses the obvious concern that this is a team called "the Indians". This is a word that was applied to the Aboriginal people of North America by white settlers, who misidentified them as Asian - and then didn't bother to correct themselves. It's inherently racist.

Impressively, the team is aware of this and shares those concerns - they don't use mascots, they don't have chants, none of that cartoonish crap that the Washingtons or Clevelands use. Says team co-owner Andy Billig, “We have a very positive relationship with the local tribes. We would talk with them from time-to-time to check in and say, ‘How are we doing?’ Even if we weren’t using any imagery, the name of the team was still the Spokane Indians and we knew that could potentially be sensitive. We believe that we are still the only professional sports team to collaborate with local tribes in this way.” 

The difference, with this Spokane team, is all in the collaboration and the new/old language. In making the Salish name the one that goes on their logo, with the help of the Spokane Nation, the name is effectively reclaimed - "Indians" becomes, at best, an English translation of the actual name. And an officially sanctioned nickname for the specific people that they represent. And it will surely decline in use as people familiarize themselves with the pronunciation of the Salish name.

This, by the way, is what that logo looks like:

In the past, I've always come down squarely against every iteration of the people-as-team-mascot kind of sports team. But this one, one that Spokane elders themselves say shows them respect and bring them pride? This is one that I feel pretty good about.