Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Human Computers and the Space Race

     Hidden Figures (2016) [D: Theodore Melfi. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, et al.] Three black women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) working at the Langley Research Centre  as computers (human calculating machines) figure prominently in the calculation of the  numbers needed to plan and fly the first US manned flights into space. This history was until recently known to very few people.
     The movie does a good job of telling their story. Sensibly, I think, it focuses on the work they did, with enough backstory about their families, and references to the racial tensions that a few years later erupted into the civil rights movement, to give some sense of them as real people.
     The movie shows us what it’s like to do a good job. Like Sully, it’s about people doing their best, managing to achieve their goals despite the social and psychological constraints that burden us all. The movie makers knew how to convey the tension of actual and incipient failure, and the relief and joy of success. The human interactions are touched on lightly. One thing that comes across very well is the awareness that small errors (inevitable when calculating results based on numbers with built-in measurement uncertainty) could kill. We also see that professional pride and competitiveness may endanger the people who rely on those calculations to keep them safe. A rocket is a slow-burning bomb. Riding one into near-Earth orbit is always dangerous.
     I liked the movie. It’s depiction of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary is perhaps a tad too self-congratulating (I think the sheer grind of being black in a segregated Sate was glossed over), but on the whole the movie had the ring of truth. Above all, it's a movie about work. The "hidden figures" faced obstacles that many, perhaps most of us, would not have even tried to oevrcome, But they did. They did so because they wanted to do the job right. Their greatness lies in their refusal to let anything get in the way. The greatness of thw white characters (especially Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) the team leader, is that they shared that passion for getting it right.
     It’s a feel-good movie for sure. It takes us back to the days when America tried to be the best it could be, and when we formed the memories that make us pine for the days of greatness. ***½

Monday, February 06, 2017

Mystic Landscapes

[At the Art Gallery of Ontario, extended to February 12 2017]
     An educational show, arranged to lead the viewer through a contemplation of how landscape and landscape painting may satisfy spiritual longings. As such, it works, but I was far more interested in the pictures themselves than in the curator’s notions mysticism and spirituality. So I did not listen to the audio guide (free), and avoided reading the introductory comments in each room.
     So then, as a collection landscape pictures, how well does it work? Variable. You will see Canadian and other impressionists, Harris of course,  some modern emulators of medieval and renaissance painting, abstract and realistic pictures, expressionists, in short a pretty good survey of styles. I was especially impressed by the large paintings of Eugène Jansson (here’s one), and a dark landscape by Schiele, which was not easy to read, but had a powerful effect on me. The disfigured landscapes painted by war artists also moved me. There were two Monet haystacks, they look like cupcakes.
      Besides Jansson, a number of other painters were new to me. The last room, about “cosmic forces” or something like that, showed brightly lit pictures mounted on dark walls. It felt gimmicky to me, but two small Georgia O’Keeffes and a couple by Arthur Dove (new to me also) were satisfying.
      The show is worth seeing. The thesis of the show is a good excuse to bring together a wide range of styles. The opportunity to see artists that most of us would otherwise ignore, tyrannised as we are by the concept of importance, is a bonus. Some pictures ****, most ** or ***, the show as a whole **½

Sunday, February 05, 2017

King Donald

Wow! It looks like Trump and I agree on one thing, anyhow: The US President is an elected monarchy. That perception isn't mine, but I agree it's the best way to understand a head of government who is also a head of state.

But Trump is a but fuzzy on the concept, to put it politely. His claim that the President has a "sovereign prerogative" shows he thinks a King has absolute power. No mere judge may criticise, let alone set aside, an executive order.

I doubt very much that Trump came up with phrase by himself. So who's the power behind the throne, pulling the strings?

Friday, February 03, 2017

Politics 101: Proportional voting

Right now, there’s a kerfuffle about Justin Trudeau’s backtracking on changing Canada’s electoral system. He promised that 2016 would be the last election using first-past-the-post or  plurality voting. Some form of proportional representation would replace it.

A lot of people don’t like plurality voting. We have three strong parties: Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic, each with regional strengths and weaknesses. The Green Party regularly gains 3 to 5% across all ridings (1), and wins in one. In addition we have the Bloc Quebecois, a purely local party, but which has won large numbers of Quebec seats in the past. Each major party wins majorities in some seats, and all have widely varying regional support. The Liberals tend to win in the East, and the Conservatives in the West. The NDP is mostly urban.

The result is that national support between 35 and 40% is enough to form a government. (2) If enough people vote their support rather than their opposition, we tend to get minority governments, in which no Party holds a majority of the seats.

People give various reasons for thinking this is an unfair system. Chief of these is this observation: with roughly 40% support and a roughly 60% voter turnout, about 25% of voters voted for the government, while 75% voted against it. It seems manifestly unfair that only one in four voters determine who governs. Worse, the distribution of seats does not reflect popular support. What about the values and views of those whose vote was cast differently? They will not be heard, it seems. What about people who voted for a losing party? Their vote doesn’t count, it seems. So why vote?

Let’s dispose of the unfairness argument immediately. There is in fact no fair voting system. Several mathematical proofs and demonstrations show that all systems can (and therefore sooner or later will) produce results that most voters do not like. Some will do so most of the time.

Plurality with three or more strong parties magnifies the difference between popular support and distribution of seats, which practically guarantees voter dissatisfaction.

Ranked voting tends to favour second and third choices, practically guaranteeing weak support for the government. Weak support translates into dissatisfaction very quickly.

Runoff voting, like plurality, magnifies the difference between popular support and seats won, since it masks low support for the eventual winner.  Like ranked voting, it guarantees weak support for the government.

Proportional voting almost always results in minority governments, which usually require formal or informal coalitions. Coalitions magnify the power of minority views and values, and of single-issue parties, which tend to be extreme. (3)

In short, all voting systems will skew the vote one way or another. They all cause different kinds of mismatch between what people want and what they get.

So the question becomes not, What kind of voting system do you want? but rather, What kind of skewed voting or unfairness can you accept, and why? And the complementary one, What kind of unfairness can you not tolerate, and why?

I do not like “proportional representation”, as its supporters usually term it. I have two reasons, the magnification of extreme views, and the magnification of the power of the Party.

Proportional representation with three or more strong parties results in minority government. That forces collaboration and even coalition. That’s a good thing, and if politics were on the whole a process for reasonable people to figure out what they want to do and how to do it, I’d have no qualms. But politics is about power, and in the pursuit of power people are not reasonable. The government may have to act on extreme views from one or more small parties to ensure the votes it needs. If it can’t do that, there’s instability. (4)

I don’t like extreme views. They are always held by a minority, thus do not reflect the majority. Holders of extreme views are incapable of admitting the validity of different ones, not even those that are similar. That’s a recipe for trouble, of political and civil divisions, and, too often, bloodshed. Any voting system that gives extreme views more effective power than their numbers warrant is bad. (5) Proportional representation encourages people with extreme views to form Parties, knowing that the odds are that they will get at least a seat or two, and with luck may be that those few seats can exert influence on the coalition.

Proportional representation always means slates of candidates, one way or another. (6) Slates are determined by Parties. This means that the power of the Party machine becomes stronger. The Party machine does not like local control of candidate selection, since that makes it easier for a group of  determined local voters to frustrate the will of the Party. Slates make it easier for the machine to prevent that.

I prefer the plurality system, despite its flaws, because it magnifies local control, and it forces all parties to appeal as best they can to the average voter, the so-called mushy middle. There we find a variety of political views and values, ideas that often contradict each other, the human inconsistency that makes collaboration not only possible but necessary. Parties that have to appeal to that mushy middle don’t drift too far to the left or right. When they begin to do so, they are replaced by the other party.

Bottom line: I don’t mind that Trudeau backtracked on his promise. If I had to choose another system, I’d go with runoffs. Ranked voting does not predict run-off voting, which forces the voter to think twice, which tends to change people’s minds.

(1) A riding is an electoral district. We elect “Members of Parliament” who sit in the House of Commons. We do not elect Senators.
(2) The Party that wins the most seats forms the government. If it has less than half the seats, it’s a “minority government”.
(3) Neither the Bolsheviks nor the Nazis won a majority of seats before they came to power.
(4) See Italy, which changes its government about every 18 months.
(5) See Israel. Most Israelis want peace with the Palestinians, but the government is hamstrung by extreme right-wing nationalist parties whose votes it needs.
(6) Slates are ranked by the Party. If your Party wins 10 seats, you’ve voted for the top 10 members of the Party list, whether you want them all or not.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Early Cary Grant vehicle

      Amazing Adventure (1936) [D: Alfred Zeisler. Cary Grant, Mary Brian, Peter Gawthorne] A debilitated rich young man visits doctor who tells him he suffering from money. Takes bet that he can’t last a year on his own, earning his own living. Finds out how the other half lives, also discovers that some people are kind, and some people are cooks. Helps first employer launch his extra-special cook-stove, defeats crooks, finds true love, rewards those who were kind, and fades out on clinch with wife who like him was taking a year off to earn her own money. The movie is barely an hour long, looks and feels like it was cut from a longer version. Pity. **

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two Thomases: Sympathetic Cromwell, Sleazy More

     Wolf Hall (2015; based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, who also worked on the screenplays) [D:Peter Kosminsky  Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy] Six episodes that give us a Thomas Cromwell quite different from the cynical villain of Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, and a sleazier Thomas More, too. The dangers of living in a polity in which personal loyalty to an erratic monarch was paramount, and an careless word or phrase could condemn you to death, are nicely explored. The dircetor wanted a few too many closeups of a silent Cromwell, etc, and the pace is slower than we’ve become used to lately, but it’s an impressive piece of work. Apparently it was filmed with ambient light only, a stunt made possible by recent advances in digital light sensors. Much of the action is set in dark interiors, I suppose to underline the darkness of the human heart.
     I now want to read the novels. Mantel clearly sides with Cromwell rather than More. Henry VIII is shown as self-deluding but respecting Cromwell because Cromwell won’t play the sycophancy game. Anne Boleyn is as much a victim of her own ambitions as of her family’s scheming for power. Wolsey is a wily old man who failed to achieve what his master wanted; Cromwell’s loyalty to him guides his plans, but at the end it’s unclear how much Cromwell wanted Anne’s death as a just punishment for bringing about Wolsey’s downfall. ***

Monday, January 23, 2017

US Trains of the 1940s

     Robert S. McGonigal, ed. Trains of the 1940s (2014) A Classic Trains special edition comprising articles published in the 1940s in Trains magazine as well some about the 1940s published in Classic Trains. A well done sampling of the railroads’ war work and post-war attempts to promote passenger travel. It’s an odd feeling to read about events of 70 years ago in the present tense. A few photographs show troops embarking or disembarking from trains. How many of the men in those pictures made it back home? The founder of Trains, A. C Kalmbach, wrote up some of his train trips. Nostalgia hits for anyone who grew up travelling on trains.
     Obviously a treat for the railfan, but also an excellent source for anyone who wants to know more about the 1940s in America. Well written, well produced. ***

Enemies of the Enlightenment

     Conor Cruise O’Brien. On the Eve of the Millennium (1994) CBC Massey lectures 1994. O’Brien meditates on the fate of the Enlightenment, which he sees as under attack. Agencies like the papacy attack it deliberately, for example by attempting to impose morals and ethics on individual conscience. But there are also those who claim to continue the work of the Enlightenment by bringing down institutions that they suppose to be hindering its advance. O’Brien points to the French revolution and its heirs. He’s especially good on how Burke foresaw the process of that revolution, until it would eventually be replaced by an autocratic regime that restored order if not individual freedoms. Burke predicted that, but didn’t live to see it.
      O’Brien admires Burke, I think because he sees in Burke a powerful intelligence coupled with a deep understanding and respect for the irrational. I haven’t read much Burke (I’ve forgotten what I did read), so I can’t comment further on that part of O’Brien’s discussion. But it's clear that O’Brien himself understands the power of the irrational, and the dangers of reason put in the service of realising irrational aims.
     O’Brien’s predictions of what may happen in the first quarter of the 2000s are more or less off the mark in detail, but his clear-eyed view of  the forces that tend to break the democratic contract is spot on. Time has turned his analysis of democratic elections as popularity contests into a mordant comment on recent elections in all advanced countries, none more so that in the election of Trump and Justin Trudeau. The former is revealing himself as an incompetent governor; the latter as a good deal more competent than his enemies want him to be. Both are well on the way of disappointing their supporters.
      Like Machiavelli, whom he admires, O’Brien tells some unvarnished truths about politics and governance. He reminds us that a polity’s sense of itself as a unified community depends on myths, which serve both to obscure the unpalatable aspects of wielding power and to direct that power into more or less agreed on directions.
      This is not an easy read. O’Brien knows more history than the average bear, even one interested in history. He understands that ideas matter, especially ideas that have been reduced to what we think of as common sense. He has experience in politics and government. He’s a poet as well as an essayist. These lectures are dense in meaning and allusion. O’Brien’s attempts to clarify confusion with quotations and concrete examples go some way to helping the reader (me) understand. Nevertheless, worth reading. Twice at least. ***