November 25th, 2010

[DM] "Five demography links" and "A coda for Statistics Canada"

I've two posts up at Demography Matters.

  • The first one is a compendium of links, everything from the return of mass emigration to Ireland to the movements of soccer players as modelling global migration.

  • The second one lets everyone know that the disappearance of the long-form census will hurt Canadians, not least by biasing upwards averages (the poor and marginalized will not be adequately covered).

  • Go, read.

    [LINK] "Natural Boundary / Political Boundary"

    Strange Maps recently featured an alternate set of state boundaries in the United States, based on John Wesley Powell's watershed-based approach to defining political boundaries in his 1890 'Map of the Arid Region of the United States'.  "The concept reframes the Jeffersonian national grid, using drainage districts as "the essential units of government, either as states or as watershed commonwealths". Landscape+Urbanism expanded on the suggestion, contributing a few maps of which two are presented below.

    John Wesley Powell, States as River Basins

    This is the proposed 1890 set of boundaries.

    Colorado River Basin

    This shows the actual state boundaries dividing the Colorado River's drainage basin. These divisions have caused significant problems, quite apart the serious ecological degradation caused by the unlimited use of water from the Colorado River, and an ongoing dispute with a Mexico that gets hardly any water. The American states in the drinage basin in full or in part, all arid, all with rapidly growing populations, all dependent on Colorado River water, have found themselves still bound by the 1922 Colorado River Compact that many states, particularly California, see as providing insufficient water for growth. Conceivably, if the Colorado River basin was a single jurisdiction it would be better able to handle the distribution of water. Conceivably. As things stand, the inevitable straight lines--inevitable since simple--prevail, in the western United States as elsewhere. Almost all of the borders of western Canada are marked by straight lines, with the exception of the British Columbia-Alberta border that follows the Rocky Mountains for its southern extent.

    [MUSIC] Radiohead, "Just"

    I think I own Radiohead's second album The Bends. I think: if I do, I haven't taken it with me to Ontario. The single "Just" feels so familiar to me, almost background, and yet if a friend hadn't suggested I listen to Radiohead again I wouldn't have picked up the song again. Maybe I didn't because it was so thoroughly integrated into my background.

    We'll have to start with the remarkable video. Wikipedia's description is below.

    It was shot near Liverpool Street Station in London, and intersperses footage of Radiohead playing the song inside an apartment with scenes of a middle-aged man who lies down in the middle of the pavement just outside of the apartment building. People start to gather, thinking that something must be wrong with the man, and the band are shown looking out the window at the events below. A heated (subtitled) conversation between the man and the crowd develops, as the people start demanding to know what the man is doing and why he is lying there. In subtitles, the man finally gives in and says, "Yes I'll tell you, I'll tell you why I'm lying here... but God forgive me... and God help us all... because you don't know what you ask of me." The camera zooms in on his mouth as the man finally gives the answer, but the subtitles have suddenly stopped, so the reason is not revealed to the viewer. As the camera zooms back out, it shows the pavement covered with the crowd of people, all lying down just like the man.

    The official video is here, another similar version below.

    I'm curious to learn the great horrible secret shared by the middle-aged man, but I doubt I'll be able to; I've learned that everyone involved in the creation of the video was executed for humanity's sake.

    The song itself is great. It is multi-layered and complex, dense with guitars--the fantastic screeching guitar solo by Jonny Greenwood has to have been sampled at some point--and anchored by Thom Yorke's odd tenor, fairly high and with a near-whine that's so muhc better than anything Johnny Rotten (say) coiuld have done. And then, there are the lyrics.

    Can't get the stink off
    He's been hanging round for days
    Comes like a comet
    Suckered you but not your friends
    One day he'll get to you
    And teach you how to be a holy cow

    [. . .]

    Don't get my sympathy
    Hanging out the 15th floor
    changed the locks three times
    He still comes reeling through the door
    one day i'll get to you
    And teach you how to get to purest hell

    Yorke has apparently gone on the record as saying that this song is about a narcissistic friend who kept driving people away with his self-regard. The verses support this; so does the refrain, repeated at the end of the song.

    You do it to yourself, you do
    and that's what really hurts
    You do it to yourself, just you
    you and no-one else
    You do it to yourself
    You do it to yourself

    Elsewhere, listeners have point out--at the lyrics site above, and in a discussion at this could relate to others sorts of issues, to a depression that forces its way in, or people who try to postpone or avoid recognition of their sins which keep coming back regardless.

    The one thing that bothers me about the song is that there doesn't seem to be any possibility of the subject's redemption. That might not fit the song's theme, or I might be missing something, but this bothers me. Could the protagonist stop doing it to himself? Is that what the refrain's about? I wonder.

    [REVIEW] The Dark Knight

    The Dark Knight--directed by Christopher Nolen, starring Christian Bale as Batman and Heath Ledger as the Joker--is the second theatrical treatment of the Batman franchise featuring the Joker that I've seen, the first being the 1989 Batman feature film directed by Tim Burton and starring Christian Bale as the Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. I wonder if I'm overinterpreting the films when I suggest that the 1989 film stands between the two films, not only chronologically but in terms of the relative proportions of camp and seriousness of the 1960s television series and the Christian Nolen reboot films of the 21st century. The original Batman's still a great film, Michael Keaton playing a psychologically complex Bruce Wayne/Batman and Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale and Jack Nicholson basically playing himself, with the sensitively off-kilter and whimsical vision of Tim Burton holding the characters and the dystopian retro-futuristic setting together. The Dark Knight is much more serious, in mostly good ways but with troubling undertones.

    The Gotham City of 1989 is fantastical, a city that never was and never could be, architecturally and technologically and cinematically, a city of Gaudiesque styles, with old-style lightbulb flash photograph co-existing alongside high-end computers, and somehow, a sense that things didn't matter so much in the grand scheme of things, that pleasure untainted by the urban environment could still be found in moments here and there. The Gotham City of Nolen's 2008 film is a city that belongs to our world, a certain fantastical information technology aside (you who've seen the film, you know what I mean). The towers are all Bauhaus; the criminal and non-criminal economies are internationalized; homes like penthouses and walk-up apartment complexes are detailed; mobile telephony keeps everyone in contact; Bruce Wayne has so many scars. Gotham City wouldn't be wildly out of place in the actually existing United States. "Is this what Americans think about their cities?" I asked my fellow (mostly American) watchers. Did The Dark Knight do so well among American and non-American audiences because they thought that this was relevant to their lives?

    The plot was well-constructed, a standard story of the hero undone by his good intentions, in the context of his personal relationships and in the context of the wider world. Here, the Joker emerged as a highly distinctive personality, a criminal anarchist devoted to bloody gaming with the man whose own Batman persona made crime a matter of personalities in the first place. The acting's of very high quality, with Christian Bale's withdrawn and fragmented persona, Maggie Gyllenhaal's quietly assertive Rachel Dawes and (let's be quite honest) her beauty, Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of a man who really believes in his office and the righteousness of his cause, and, obviously, Heath Ledger's wonderful portrayal of the Joker as an intense nihilist who's both easily bored and quite imaginative. Christopher Nolen, meanwhile, does a great job of directing.

    What's the troubling undertone? It's all about the politics. I'm certainly not the first person to mention this, as the previous Google search will tell you, but the willingness of almost everyone in Gotham City to accept a vigilante as the city's guard against crime, not the criminal justice system--and then, rejecting the vigilante not on moral principles but for the pragmatic reason that his personality is inspiring not just crime but actual terrorism--is disturbing. It's somewhat ironic given her country's history that it's a Russian ballerina, Bruce Wayne's date sharing a table with Wayne and Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent, who says how disturbed she is that Gotham City is protected no longer by laws but by people; it's even more ironic that it's Harvey Dent, Gotham City's attorney-general, who justifies the Batman as a necessary and legitimate feature and goes on to support him fully. Dent even accepts Batman's extraordinary rendition of Lau from Hong Kong (a Hong Kong, it should be noted, where the police are as thoroughly penetrated by organized crime as Gotham City's) since it gives him the information necessary to prosecute the various mafias.

    The debate over whether or not this film is a neoconservative one is fundamentally misplaced, and reflects a basic misunderstanding of the fears which drive this film. People are afraid of the terrifying cities which actually exist; people are willing to accept whatever measures are necessary to protect themselves; people fear impersonal crime but fear personalizations of anarchy and nihilism even more; people don't care about the rules. That's the universe of the film; that, I'd argue, is the universe that we live in. Quite apart from its considerable artistic value, The Dark Knight documents quite well the zeitgeist of our post-9/11 moment.

    [LINK] "Analysing data is the future for journalists, says Tim Berners-Lee"

    Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist whose 1989 suggestion to to merge hypertext's allusiveness with established the hierarchic domain name system and the Transmission Control Protocol led to the creation of the World Wide Web, argued recently that the future of journalism lies in journalists' analysis of publicly available data, discovering facts and patterns that would otherwise be hidden.

    Sir Tim Berners-Lee reckons he's glimpsed the future of journalism – and given he's the person who invented the world wide web, you might not want to bet against him.

    In his view, it lies with journalists who know their CSV from their RDF, can throw together some quick MySQL queries for a PHP or Python output … and discover the story lurking in datasets released by governments, local authorities, agencies, or any combination of them – even across national borders.

    That's because he thinks the future lies in analysing data. Lots of data. Speaking on Friday at the launch of the first government datasets for spending by departments of more than £25,000, he was asked who will analyse them once the geeks have moved on. What's the point? Who's really going to hold government, or anyone else, accountable?

    "The responsibility needs to be with the press," Berners-Lee responded firmly. "Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you'll do it that way some times.

    "But now it's also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what's interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what's going on in the country."

    If that sounds like a daunting prospect, then it's worth considering that hardly any of the journalism courses today teach any sort of data analysis – not even its simplest form, statistics.

    But that might be changing. Earlier this month City University launched its MA in interactive journalism, led by Jonathan Hewett and Paul Bradshaw, which will teach "data journalism" as part of its curriculum – "sourcing, reporting and presenting stories through data-driven journalism, and visualising and presenting data (including databases, mapping and other interactive graphics)."

    [. . .]

    But it is probably only the beginning – and it is likely that journalists won't be the first who really dig into the data with most effect. Although the Guardian, Telegraph and Times all have data teams who aim to find stories in big datasets, such as the Guardian's geotagged coverage of the Wikileaks documents from Afghanistan and Iraq, or the Telegraph's analysis of the London Bike Hire scheme, "Most of the innovation is happening outside news organisations," Bradshaw says. "Sites like Openly Local, Charities Direct, Who's Lobbying?, Where Does My Money Go? and Scraperwiki. They're all hiding their light under a bushel. All doing great things."

    But how long will it take for the methods of data journalism – where CSV (comma-separated value files, a form that any database or spreadsheet program) and RDF (Resource Description Framework, a way of linking different data sets) and MySQL (a free, open source database program able to cope with tiny or huge datasets) and PHP (a programming language widely used to write web pages) and Python (another web programming language) are part of the landscape – to filter through to everyday use in journalism? As William Gibson observed of the future, it's here already, just not very evenly distributed. Bradshaw says that the Press Association is "definitely interested" and magazine publishers also want to adopt data journalism techniques.

    Tony Blair, it should be noted, denounced the United Kingdom's Freedom of Information Act in his memoirs, denouncing it as something that allowed outsiders (not the people at large) access to sensitive information which, if leaked, could harm policy-making. Britain's expense scandal is a case in point. I wonder if that particular denunciation but that particular person is justification for Berners-Lee's arguments.

    [H&F] "On how we are coming to accept that we are alone"

    I've a post up at History and Futility remarking how the late 19th/early 20th century expectation that Venus and Mars would be fertile Earth-like worlds has been dashed, how life in the solar system is almost certainly bacterial or similarly simple, and that the dreams of the rich fertile community of planets of old are likely to be unfulfilled for a long time.

    Go, read.