Our man-made disasters: are the risk management models wrong or do people feed in overly optimistic information?

A common element in some recent man-made or man-assisted disasters has been the failure of risk models to predict the disaster.  The subject of risk models is a bit complicated, so let’s start with a simple definition.

Many events are caused by not one thing, but by a bunch of things.  For example, position of the earth, humidity, wind, levels of CO2 and air particulates, conditions on the ground and a host of other factors that can affect whether it’s going to rain, or how much it’s going to rain. 

Essentially, a risk model tells you how likely something is going to happen.  You set up your model as a set of mathematical equations that define measurable factors.  You then do little thought experiments:  What if we raise the temperature?  What if we assume that local factories and cars are spewing out more CO2?  What if we assume that it doesn’t rain for five years?  Changing each of those factors would give us a different answer.

Engineers, insurance companies, economists, businesses and scientists all use risk models to predict how likely something is going to happen based on the most likely or common numbers for each factor.  They then predict future behavior by changing these variables:  How many sales will we lose if we raise the price of this new product?  What will happen to traffic patterns if we double the size of the store we’re building?  How will putting a tax on sweetened drinks affect consumption and tax revenues?  What is the likelihood that Iran will have an atom bomb by 2015?  Will it cost more to fix the very minor flaw in this piece of equipment or to defend the small number of lawsuits we can expect if we don’t fix it?

But here are some recent huge risk model failures:

  • A risk model was used to measure the likelihood of an oil spill occurring when using the technologies, equipment and maintenance schedule BP used on its oil rig that is currently spilling about 19,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico on a daily basis.  That risk model said that such an accident was highly unlikely.
  • Risk models were used to package, sell and buy the sophisticated synthetic investments that sent the economy into the toilet two years ago.  These models said that it was almost impossible for certain combinations of investments to fail, and when they did, large banks failed or almost failed. 
  • Risk models helped state and federal budgeters for years decide they could put off fixing the New Orleans levies for yet another year.  Other risk models said that the levies were safe enough to handle even the rarest of storms.  These risk models proved wrong when the rarest of storms, Ms. Katrina, paid a visit to the Gulf coast.

Why did these risk models fail?  We of course have to entertain the possibility that some situations are just too complicated for prediction, but in many cases, it’s not the model, it’s the numbers that people crunch into the model.  If you put overly optimistic predictions in, you will get an overly optimistic result.  We saw an example of optimistic prediction in western Pennsylvania a few years back when a local university put its name on a study that concluded that passage of a funding referendum that included building new football and baseball stadiums would lead to the creation of thousands of jobs.  But when you dug deep into the study, the conclusions were based on assumptions that every new industrial park funded by the referendum would fill up to capacity in townships which had seen population and business losses for more than 20 years.  The assumptions were optimistic, so the prediction of the model was bound to fail.

There are plenty of indications that in the three examples of recent man-made or man-assisted disasters that I gave, people involved were too optimistic in their predictions.  And why?  Because by doing so, they were able to make money or save money on a short term basis.  Every day engineers, economists and other people working with risk models get pressure from their clients to come up with the results the clients want.  So they fudge on their estimates.

There’s nothing wrong with risk models, but there are many old expressions that cover what can happen when they are misused.  The acronym GIGO comes to mind—“garbage in, garbage out.”  And Mark Twain once said, “Figures never lie, but liars figure.”

Tea party positions show either the inconsistency or hypocrisy of Tea Party leaders, and perhaps also followers.

Over the past week, the news media has given some publicity to two Tea Party stands that seem wildly inconsistent with its basic principles.

Let’s start with those principles, as I understand them.  I’m listing the core beliefs of its leaders and members, the few statements that come to mind as soon as you think of the Tea Party; its brand, if you will:

  • Grass roots movement of the people
  • Wants lower taxes
  • Wants smaller government that does what the people want
  • Wants more dependence on the free market

Yet in several states, Tea Party members are pushing for repeal of the 17th amendment, which mandates election of Senators instead of appointment by state legislatures, which was what the Constitution called for and was the practice in the U.S. until well into the 20th century.  There have been a number of articles on the Tea Party move to end democratic election of U.S. Senators, including two in the New York Times “Tea Party’s Push on Senate Election Exposes Limits” and “So You Still Want to Choose Your Senator?.”  A brief search also yielded articles in local newspapers like the Anniston Star in Alabama, plus U.S. News & World Report, Huffington Post and Atlantic.  One of the New York Times articles reminds us that George Will, the raving right-wing ideologue disguised as a mild-mannered intellectual, and Alan Keyes, perpetual “longshot“ values candidate,  both have proposed repeal of the 17th amendment.

The arguments for repeal are weak and include the idea that 30-second sound bites have turned elections into circuses and that with direct election of Senators, state legislations lost all their influence over Congress.  These arguments mask the basically anti-democratic nature of appointing legislators instead of having all the people elect them.  As the approximately 125-year history of appointing Senators showed, Senators tend to support the special interest groups that support their candidacy, whether the voters are all the people or just the 50-200 members of a typical state legislature. 

Why would a grass roots movement of the people want to take power away from the people and give it to government?  The Tea Party movement doesn’t like any government, so why do its leaders suddenly want to put their faith in state government?

But now for the really weird: Last weekend there were a number of rallies in the state of Arizona in favor of and against the new Arizona anti-illegal immigrant law that allows the police to stop anyone for suspicion of being an illegal alien and ask them for their papers proving they are U.S. citizens. (Do you carry your passport around all the time?  I don’t, but I guess I don’t have to since I don’t look Hispanic or Muslim.) 

It turns out that Tea Party groups from Dallas and St. Louis sponsored one of the rallies in favor of the new law.  Tea Party members were at the rallies supporting the Arizona law and not at the rallies against this carte blanche invitation to racial profiling. 

And why does the Tea Party say it’s supporting the new Arizona law.  From the New York Times  “We are doing this to crush any boycott against the free market,” said Tina Loudon, a Tea Party member from St. Louis who helped organize the rally.

It seems to me that someone in favor of a free market would not only support accommodation of illegal aliens but want to open up our borders completely.  Free means free, without encumbrance or regulation, and yet the Tea Party wants police to intervene in the free passage of people.  Furthermore, someone who doesn’t like government butting its nose into private business should not be happy with any law that puts the government into the business or regulating labor markets, and a law policing immigration certainly does that.

But these are only apparent contradictions because as a study released today by the University of Washington shows, “opposition and frustration with government is going hand in hand with a frustration and opposition to racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians.”  There are about 40 stories showing on Google about the survey.  For example, the Seattle Times reported that the director of the study said, “The tea party movement is not just about small government or frustration. It’s (also) about a very specific frustration with government resources being used on minorities and gays and lesbians and people who are more diverse.“

At heart, while the Tea Party throws around concepts such as “free market,” “lower taxes” and “small government,” what the members really are concerned with is maintaining and gaining power for their concept of what constitutes what Sarah Palin calls “the real America”—in other words: white, rural/suburban and Christian.

Tell National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility members to make federal government pay what it owes Social Security.

Reading William Greider’s article titled “Whacking the Old Folks” in the most recent Nation reminded me that I wanted to list on this blog the contact information for every member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the independent bipartisan commission that President Obama set up to address the budget deficit.

As William Greider and Nation and seemingly few others have been saying for many months, the hidden agenda of this commission may be to address the enormous federal budget deficit by gutting Social Security. This move would be disastrous because it would destroy faith in the United States’ ability and willingness to pay its debts. I can’t see how an economic system built on faith in credit can survive if the largest economic player is seen as untrustworthy, and that’s how our country will be seen if we make substantial cuts to Social Security benefits.

That’s because Social Security has plenty of money, but it’s loaned all its surplus to the federal government, a practice started in the Reagan Administration. If we assume that loan will be repaid, we have enough money in the Social Security Trust fund to last a long time, some estimates say until the 2040’s. With that loan repaid, we can pretty much make Social Security permanently solvent by some quick fixes, mainly raising the cap on income for which Social Security is collected and raising the retirement age a little. In other words, while the U.S. faces a severe deficit crisis, brought on by too many tax cuts and too much war-making, Social Security does not have a problem.

But virtually all the people like Pete Peterson who are wringing their hands that Social Security is in trouble act under the assumption that the federal government will not repay this loan. As opposed to raising income, corporate and capital gains taxes to close the deficit, Peterson and his ilk want to raid the Social Security fund and then make massive cuts to Social Security benefits, thus effecting perhaps the greatest mass transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in U.S. history and completing the political agenda laid out by Ronald Reagan in the late 70’s.

This thinking is very short-sighted for many reasons. Even rich people who want the tax breaks and don’t need Social Security are not immune to the upheaval that will be caused when worldwide financial markets catch on to the fact that raiding Social Security is nothing more than defaulting on a loan. No one likes to do business with countries that default on loans. We saw how the recent possibility of the default of the small nation of Greece rocked financial markets. Imagine what would happen when the financial community wakes up and realizes that the United States government has walked away from a loan made by its own citizens.

Greider suggests that President Obama has filled the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with those hostile to Social Security. The Commission website proposes a very fast timetable for action:

“The Commission will vote on a final report containing a set of recommendations to achieve its mission no later than December 1, 2010. The final report will require the approval of at least 14 of the Commission’s 18 members.”

That means we don’t have much time to act. Below is a list of every member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, including email and/or snail mail contact. I am asking that all my readers contact every member of the commission and tell them some version of the following message:

Please make sure that the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommends that the federal government repay the Social Security Trust Fund every penny it owes so that Social Security can remain solvent without major changes and the federal government can work on its real challenge, which is lowering the federal debt.

Don’t just send your note to one member, send to all. And ask your friends and neighbors to do the same. If you have a blog, post it on your blog, with all the contact information. We can’t just sit around and let politicians representing the very wealthy steal our Social Security money.

Here are the Commission members:

Sen. Alan Simpson, former Republican Senator from Wyoming
Hon. Alan K. Simpson
Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh Jardine, P.C.
1135 14th Street
P.O. Box 490
Cody, WY 82414

Erskine Bowles, chief of staff to President Clinton
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
910 Raleigh Rd
Campus Box 9000
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Executive Director:
Bruce Reed, chief domestic policy adviser to President Clinton and chief executive officer, Democratic Leadership Council
600 Pennsylvania Ave., SE
Suite 400
Washington, DC 20003

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)
511 Hart Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA 31)
1119 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI 4)
341 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
172 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND)
530 Hart Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510-3403

David Cote, chairman and chief executive officer, Honeywell International
Honeywell International Inc.
101 Columbia Road
Morristown, NJ 07962

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID)
239 Dirksen Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL)
309 Hart Senate Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Ann Fudge, former chief executive officer, Young & Rubicam Brands
2400 Beacon St, Ph 601
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH)
201 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX 5)
129 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Alice Rivlin, senior fellow, Brookings Institute and former director, Office of Management & Budget
Brookings Institute
1775 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI 1)
1113 Longworth HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL 9)
2367 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Rep. John Spratt (D-SC 5)
1401 Longworth Building
Washington, DC 20515

Mary Kay Henry, president, Service Employees International Union
1800 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20036

What is missing in the new movie version of Robin Hood other than the original myth and lead character?

I won’t be seeing the new Robin Hood until I can get it on Netflix, but people are talking about it now and I do want to get my three cents worth in.  I will refrain from comment on the quality of this new Robin Hood, except to note that for my money, the Errol Flynn version is the greatest adventure film of all time.  But I do want to comment on its historical place, and I mean beyond movies but in the history of myths.

Before anything else, Robin Hood is a myth.

Generations and societies reanimate specific myths when the myth reflects its current ideology and concerns.  Some myths are so powerful that all societies expropriate them, sometimes changing them completely.  The longer a myth is around the more likely it will mutate beyond recognition. 

But every myth will have a classic retelling.  For example, the classic retelling of the Trojan War is Homer.  In the variation by Stesichorus of Sicily, the gods secretly transfer Helen to Egypt and send a dream version to Paris at Troy.  But in every version, a woman causes a war.  

Let’s enumerate the central elements of the Robin Hood myth:

  • Steals from the rich and gives to the poor
  • Revolt against oppression
  • Loyal to the King, but not to the King’s ministers  
  • Involves an interesting group of fighters, each of whom represents a different class in society, and in most retellings, different archetypal caricatures, e.g., the strong man or the man of the cloth who takes to action  

Before moving on, I want to note that in one way or another, this enumeration of themes reveals how myths borrow from each other.  These four elements are central to the Chinese classic novel—and my nominee as the greatest novel of all time—Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as The Water Margin, Marsh Chronicles and All Men are Brothers.  In it, there are 108 finely etched Robin, Little John and Friar Tuck type characters.  Under their charismatic leader, Song Jiang, this ragtag gang remains loyal always to the Emperor while waging ruthless (and brilliant) war against his armies, which are controlled by corrupt and oppressing ministers.  Remember that Robin Hood and his men never waiver in their loyalty to King Richard the Lion Hearted.  The myths of Song Jiang and his bandits and of Robin Hood and his merry men emerged roughly around the same time, 1,000-1,400 of the common era. 

Now some might say that another element of the Robin Hood myth (again shared with the myth of the Chinese outlaws of the marsh) are the episodes that define its episodic quality—it is told as a series of “set pieces,” each one elaborating a different lesson or personality: Robin meets the Friar; Robin meets Little John; Robin wins the archery competition in disguise; Robin feeds the poor; Robin demonstrates allegiance to the King.  Another aside: demonstration of allegiance to the King is what makes the story palatable to the ruling elites: it’s not the system that’s corrupt, just a couple of bad apples.

I’m not sure if these set pieces are inherent to the myth or not.  What after all do we remember about Oedipus except that he killed his father and slept with his mother? What do we remember about Prometheus or Sisyphus other than their punishments?  Over time, most myths lose the messy details of the first or classic tellings and reduce, like a fine sauce, to one or a few symbolic themes.  The fact that any given retelling of Robin Hood does not hew to the episodes of the classic Errol Flynn version doesn’t  mean that the creators are not being true to the myth.

But it does do a great violence to the original myth by turning Robin Hood from proto-socialist to libertarian as the current Russell Crowe version does according to virtually every review (New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews).  It makes you wonder why they bother to deface the Robin Hood myth instead of selecting another myth more in keeping with the ideology of the creators and financial backers?  Or why not create a brand new story of a rag-tag group of citizens rebelling against steep taxation? 

I think the answer is in the commercial need to keep cranking out new narrative art that can serve as a platform for selling a multitude of ancillary products.  The economics of the entertainment system return more to investors through creating a new Robin Hood—even one in which the character does not resemble the myth—than in rereleasing the Errol Flynn version.

The myth machine in our post-Industrial leisure society is voracious and takes everything, but remakes it into its own image.  The myth is sent through the Hollywood homogenization machine which involves:

  • Updating the ideology, which in this case Reaganizing it—the demons are not corrupt officials of the King who steal from the poor but an unfair taxation system
  • Expanding the market by using techniques of other genres, e.g., adding a strong woman warrior
  • Showing more explicit violence
  • Creating sequences that resemble video games.

The reviews tell us that the new version of Robin Hood has gone through this homogenization process.  The result of course is that the details of all these contemporary sci fi and adventure movies tend to resemble each other, just as the menus at Outback, Damon’s, Chili’s and other casual upscale dining chains tend to look alike despite the fact that one is vaguely Australian in its visual presentation, one Mexican, one “classic ribs,” etc.  The brand is nothing more than a name that conjures weak associations with myths that people associate with one sentence or one theme, or in the case of the restaurants, an ethnic cuisine.

How to use facts and logical thinking to create the big lie

In an opinion piece that filled half of the New York Times’ Op/Ed page on New Year’s Day, Denis Dutton demonstrates how you can use a logical presentation of accurate facts to create, or in this case, support a lie.  

The premise of “It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It,” is that mankind has always fabricated potential or probable holocausts and apocalypses.  He begins with an extended history of Y2K, which as many will remember, was the fear of an informational meltdown when masses of computers malfunctioned on January 1, 2000 because the original code built into them only accommodated two digits for the year, not the four that are required to distinguish 2010 from 1910.

Dutton does a credible job, first of demonstrating that reality did not bear out the Y2K hypothesis, and then of connecting it to the apocalyptic visions of various religions.  He jaunts nicely and logically through a quick analysis of why people love to fear disasters, with but one small mention warning of his true goal, which is to disprove the theory of global warming.

(Note to my fellow detail freaks: That small mention fits well into the context of his argument, which at the point of the mention is quite accurate and appropriate.  Here is that little mention: “Religions from Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity to U.F.O. cults have been built around notions of sin and the world’s end.  The Y2K threat resonated with those ideas. Human beings have constructed an enormous, wasteful, unnatural civilization, filled with sin — or, worse in some minds, pollution and environmental waste.  Suppose it turned out that a couple of zeros inadvertently left off old computer codes brought crashing down the very civilization computers helped to create.  Cosmic justice!”)

So after 700 reasoned words on how Y2K exemplified the propensity of humans to create imaginary threats of imminent mass destruction, Dutton comes out of his climate change denying closet in the very last paragraph:

“This applies, in my view, to the towering seas, storms, droughts and mass extinctions of popular climate catastrophism.  Such entertaining visions owe less to scientific climatology than to eschatology, and that familiar sense that modernity and its wasteful comforts are bringing us closer to a biblical day of judgment.  As that headline put it for Y2K, predictions of the end of the world are often intertwined with condemnations of human “folly, greed and denial.”  Repent and recycle!”

If you’re not reading carefully, as most of us don’t, you could easily let this quiet slide from reason to deception go by unnoticed and find yourself agreeing with his conclusion, which expresses after all, our fondest dream, that global warming does not lead to worldwide suffering.

But if we analyze the article for a minute, we can see two big problems with his logic:

  1. Just because the reasoning leading up to the conclusion is correct does not mean the conclusion is correct. 
  2. He compares Y2K, which was a hypothesis, with global warming/climate change, which is a scientific theory.  A hypothesis is an idea of what could be true but maybe not, a kind of starting point for running controlled experiments. But when scientists start calling something a theory, they pretty much have gathered a preponderance of evidence to substantiate the idea.

The real question perhaps is why the New York Times decided to publish Dutton’s piece.  Would it publish a piece of philosophical rhetoric that concluded that the earth was flat or that the sun revolved around the earth?  Would it print an article on sociology that suddenly at the end proposed that flies regenerated spontaneously from dung?

Sometimes the public stature of the writer compels a newspaper or magazine to publish an article.  But the Times mini-bio describes Dutton as a professor of philosophy at a university in New Zealand.  His Wikipedia biography describes him as “an academic, web entrepreneur and libertarian media commentator/activist. “  In other words, he is neither Henry Kissinger, who might get a free pass onto virtually any publication’s Op/Ed page, or the chair of a Fortune 500 company who might be allowed to give her distorted view of a business news story which directly concerned her company.

By accepting the validity of the climate change deniers on this level of discourse — an Op/Ed column by a little known expert in another field — the Times does as much of a disservice to the U.S. public and our public discourse as it did by publishing the misleading evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq without first substantiating it.

What do Pleistocene hunters have to do with poker anyway? Absolutely nothing, Mr. McManus.

I wanted a light read for a few days, so I picked up James McManus’ Cowboys Full expecting a history of poker.  But little did I know that first I would have to submit to a painfully twisted Darwinian fairy tale in which the writer attempts to show how his version of standard modern behavior in complex society began in prehistoric days and/or our genetic code. 

Let’s let McManus speak for himself:

Our urge to compete and take chances developed along the following lines.  Pleistocene hunters risked life and limb for the best opportunities to slaughter ferocious but protein-rich animals.  The closer they got with a chipped-stone spearhead to a scared, angry buffalo, the more likely they were to be trampled or gored, but the better chance they had of actually killing the beast.  Courage and aggressiveness counted.  Hanging back from the fray may have helped a risk-averse male survive the day’s hunt, but it wouldn’t have served him well otherwise.  Hunters who took down fresh meat were lionized within the tribe.  They received larger portions of protein and more opportunities to mate with nubile females.  Meanwhile, the females were competing among themselves-painting their faces, displaying their breasts and genitalia-for the chance to mate with the best food providers.  Once copulation took place, protection became even more vital to the families who might become pregnant, so the sexual bounty was even more lavish for the hunters-turned-warriors who killed the most enemy tribesmen.  By this means and others, a taste for bold risk taking was efficiently bred into our species.  Perhaps the most obvious example today occurs when the prettiest cheerleader dates the star of the varsity team.

When constructing these Darwinian fantasies or fairy tales, in virtually every case the behavior that the writer wants to validate is part of the package of traditional Victorian values.  In the past few months I’ve pointed a number of examples of Darwinian fairy tales, all of which uphold traditional ideas about men and women; for example, see the blogs for November 17 and September 1.

In the McManus book, he is trying to connect good hunters getting the best women in the caveman days with varsity stars getting the prettiest cheerleaders today. 

But it’s all made up out of the very thinnest of air; maybe it’s made of phlogiston, that imaginary stuff in the air that Lavoisier proved did not exist.  It does not even exist in popular mythology much:  The classic movie plot is for the cheerleader to start with the star and then mature to the point that she ends up with the dancer, singer, political activist or hood.  And as I remember reality, the prettiest cheerleader usually dated a college man. 

My point is that McManus is trying to impose a personal observation on us as social reality and uses a fairy tale he either mistakenly or cynically calls scientific to do so.  The fact that this excursion into Darwinian fairy-telling was extraneous to the rest of the book, which is supposed to be about poker, makes it all the more irritating.   Let’s hope he takes it out of the paperback edition.

Every time I critique a Darwinian fairy tale, I make sure I write that I believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, I just don’t buy into these elaborate explanations based on little or no evidence.

Blaming the 70s for Child Rape

Conflation is when you confuse or equate two things that are not equal or do not have similar characteristics.   In the article titled “In Polanski Case, ‘70s Culture Collides With Changed World” on the front page of today’s New York Times, Michael Cieply uses conflation to try and demonstrate that back in the 70s, sex with those under 18 was considered okay, not taboo as it is in today’s more righteous times. 

But the only piece of evidence Cieply gives us is that in the 70s there was once a fictional movie in which a 17-year-old girl has consensual sex with a man in his 40s (Manhattan, 1979).

There are two conflations at work here:

  1. The conflation of a fictional plot with an actual event: The two are not the same.  You can cite a number of fictional works to support the assertion of a trend, but you can’t use one fiction as your sole proof.
  2. The conflation of consensual sex with a 17-year-old with the rape of a 13-year-old:  In both the 1970s and today, the attitude of people towards a 17-year-old getting it on with someone older was/is lot different from their attitude towards raping a 13-year-old.  Virtually everyone in the 70s and virtually everyone today agreed/agree that rape of a 13-year-old is wrong and should be punished.  But both in the 70s and today, the range of opinion related to consensual sex with someone a few months under the age of consent has varied, with many wanting to know the specific conditions and circumstances before passing judgment. 

The premise of the article—that people in the 70s were more forgiving of child rape than people today—is wrong, wrong, wrong, which is why it remains unproven in the body of the article.

Cieply fills the article with bits of opinion by some self-proclaimed experts, none of it backed by any facts.  Here’s the most specious example:

Joelle Casteix, the southwest regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, traced the changes in attitude toward sex with minors, among other things, to a change in the movies.

“The kids of the ’70s were raised with films — ‘The Omen,’ ‘The Demon Seed’ — that put adult sensibilities into children,” said Ms. Casteix, whose group last week called for continued pursuit of Mr. Polanski at a demonstration in Los Angeles. “But a lot of changes in the ’80s, the Reagan era, made people look at their kids a little more and realize they were children.”

The expert is saying that the films of the 70s made children more adult-like, until Ronny Reagan rode in wearing a white hat to save the day.  How does that explain “An Education” (2009), “Tadpole” (2002) or “The Opposite of Sex” (1998)?  How does it explain “Wicked Little Things” (2006), “Them” (2006), “The Ring” (2002), “Whisper” (2002) or “Pet Sematary” (1989)?

Goofus and Gallant at the G-20

A few more demonstrations took place at the G-20 conference in Pittsburgh after my post of September 25. Most significantly, there was a peaceful march from Oakland to downtown (where I saw it) and then to the Northside, organized by seven or so groups and drawing from 2,000 to 4,000 people.

The contrast in coverage both locally and nationally between this peaceful display and the September 24 protests, the ones without permit which eventually led to 110 arrests and a dozen or so broken windows, created its own kind of ideological statement. As soon as the peaceful demonstration started to unfold, every news-gathering operation spun a cautionary contrast, a kind of “Goofus and Gallant” moment: Bad demonstrators in the marches without permits; good demonstrators at the large permitted parade. Some reports actually did a point by point comparison of the good and bad behavior, just as writer Garry Cleveland Myers and illustrator would do with Goofus and Gallant in the old Highlights magazine. (I understand that this series, dedicated to teaching social cues to children, still runs, and has graduated from black and white to computer graphics.)

The fly in this ointment, of course, is the fact that the Goofusards of the Pittsburgh G-20 didn’t do that much damage, virtually all of which was caused by one guy, and that the police in fact did arrest a few too many people at the unpermitted protests. Which is not to say I applaud the damage—in fact, I have always been a “gallant” proponent of nonviolent, non-destructive protest.

Some uncatalogued final G-20 thoughts:

  • The people who broke the windows of local operations of national chains are as uneducated to the facts as those who want a “public health insurance option” to compete with commercial insurers. In the case of many of the people who want a public option because they hate the commercial insurers, they don’t realize that it will likely create more business for the commercial insurers, because the government will almost assuredly contract with the commercials to provide the administrative and claims processing services for the public option. In the case of the people breaking windows of local Wendy’s and McDonald’s locations, they don’t realize that the owners of the establishments are not multinational corporations, but franchisees who are typically small business owners.
  • As I said, for the most part law enforcement officials did a good job, but it was definitely not necessary to line Grant Street with muzzled, but vicious-looking police dogs every eight feet or so during the “good” downtown demonstration. It was also a mistake to deploy forces to patrol this demonstration in such a way that it led to a shutdown of all downtown bus service for a period of several hours.