Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Giving Blockbusters a Good Name

I’m not normally greatly impressed by fx. Give me a good script and cheesy fx over the reverse any day -- any day but yesterday when I caught Avatar.

Avatar’s cgi animation achievement (in 3D) is so over-the-top that it deserves to seen just as a spectacle. See it in the theater no matter how big your plasma or LCD screen may be. This needs a really big screen. The script? Well, there is a certain irony to a film that relies so heavily on advanced industrial technology carrying an anti-high-tech-industry message. The whole Noble Savage thing may be a bit overdone (in the way that a Caterpillar D10 is a trifle large for a tractor). For all that, it is well-plotted, well-written, and well-paced – so much so that the 162 minutes passed quickly. In this it is unlike Cameron’s earlier film Titanic which seemed to me interminable – I know it was a hit, but by an hour into it I was rooting heartily for the iceberg. The villains in Avatar are villainous, the heroes heroic, and their clash makes for a rousing drama. This kind of thing could give blockbusters a good name.

Now if I only could get my hands on some Un-obtainium. I'm guessing that’s the stuff that makes the mountains float in the air on the moon Pandora.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rebel without a Van

I was stopped by a patrol car a couple weeks ago, ostensibly for not using my turn signal. (I did signal: I had spotted the police vehicle while approaching the traffic light and made a point of signaling.) The real reason was that it was Saturday night and there are lots of bars along the road off of which I just had turned. It was obvious to the officer that I had not been drinking (I haven’t been buzzed, much less drunk, in about 25 years), so after the customary license and registration check, I was let off with a warning. That’s OK. I’d put the odds at about 25% that a random driver turning off that road at that hour on that night had good reason to fear a breathalyzer, so I don’t mind the dubious basis for the stop. Hazardous drivers really were out and about, and I suspect the officer got to meet one or more of them before the night ended.

Draconian laws against drinking and driving haven’t ended the practice of mixing the two, though they influence the rates. This is a violation, however, which most people understand puts others at serious risk. Hence, even people who might get caught themselves (what percentage of drinkers – who are more than 80% of the total population – at some time or other drive when they shouldn’t?) by and large favor tough laws and enforcement.

The situation is different with laws and regulations that simply seem bothersome – at least for us. (Hey, other people may not be able to talk on a cell phone and drive at the same time, for example, but you and I can do it safely, right?) There is a sometimes dangerous but very human tendency for people to ignore such rules that are difficult or irksome to obey. So, they leave safety doors jammed open in factories rather than fumble with locks twenty times a day. They remove batteries from smoke detectors that go off from shower steam. They mix their 2 and 4 plastics together. They drive 9 mph over the speed limit hoping police really live by the rhyme, "9 you're fine, 10 you're mine." (Don't count on this one.) What these kinds of rules have in common is that they seem arbitrary. Thus, they are not really a matter of ethics, in the way that theft and assault are ethical violations. A sign that says "one hour parking" is an arbitrary regulation that just as easily could have said “two hour parking” if some municipal bureaucrat had felt so inclined, so few people feel they have done anything inherently wrong if they leave a car parked under it for 80 minutes.

Oddly, it seems there is one class of people especially likely to violate petty and arbitrary rules of all sorts: female drivers of soccer vans. Huh? Yes, really. Dr. Wiseman in his book Quirkology refers to various studies by Professor John Trinkhaus of CUNY, who stumbled on the pattern by accident. Trinkhaus and his student aides studied express checkout counters in supermarkets in 1993 and again in 2002. For demographic information, they checked the cars in the parking lot of those customers who took more than the prescribed 10 items through the express lane. They were surprised to discover fully 80% were female van drivers. Intrigued, they counted cars that parked illegally in the supermarket fire zones; 35% were put there by female van drivers, far more than their proportion of drivers in the lot. They went on to record violators of the speed limit in school zones. All groups of drivers were bad at this – 86% of men violated it, for example – but the female van drivers were the worst: 96% violated the limit. Next, Trinkhaus’ team spent 32 hours at boxed intersections recording which vehicles failed to keep clear of the box during red lights. 40% of all violators, a very disproportionate amount, were female van drivers. Stop signs yielded similar results. The least compliant drivers were female van drivers, 99% of whom failed to stop at stop signs.

I mentioned this curiosity to my friend Ken and said I could see no reason why female van drivers should be such a particular menace, at least with regard to arbitrary rules. Unlike myself, Ken has raised a family. He said, "I understand it. Drive around with a van full of kids for a week, and you’ll understand it, too. They drive you crazy." I'll take his word for it.