Tuesday, March 28, 2017

When Scientists Get Bored

I love stories about what scientists do when they find themselves in an inescapable situation - they collect data. The scientists involved in Rosenhan's On Being Sane in Insane Places gathered amazing observational data from inside mental institutions, when the original purpose of the study had simply been to get committed and see how long it takes to get released. Today, FiveThirtyEight shares another story about the crew of the USS Jeanette, who got stuck in sheets of ice and spent two years collecting detailed data about their surroundings.

Those data are now available on OldWeather, a repository of 150 years of weather, ocean, and sea-ice observations:
Old Weather is a gathering place for more than 4,500 citizen-sleuths who are helping climate scientists map our planet’s ancient weather patterns, for free, one logbook at a time. These volunteers read and transcribe notes from sailors, hoping to map the mostly unknown history of our planet’s weather patterns.

According to Kevin Wood, an Old Weather co-founder, examining the past in this way is key to understanding the earth’s future. As Arctic ice begins to melt at faster and faster rates, scientists need to quickly gain a better understanding of climate change and the impact it could have on humans. By looking at past weather events recorded in old ship logbooks, Wood hopes that he and his fellow scientists can learn more about our planet’s traditional weather patterns, which will help them predict extreme weather events like tsunamis and hurricanes.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Blogging A to Z: What Can You Expect?

Saturday, it begins. I have big plans for this year's Blogging A to Z, where I tackle the topic, Statistics in Action.

For instance, what do statisticians mean when they talk about "power"?

Is bigger really better?

And how did the Guinness Brewing Company make a major contribution to the field of statistics?

All these answers and more!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Shocking Experiment, Unshocking Results

A group of Polish researchers have replicated the famous Milgram obedience study, and unsurprisingly, found the same results:
“Upon learning about Milgram's experiments, a vast majority of people claim that ‘I would never behave in such a manner,’ says Tomasz Grzyb, a social psychologist involved in the research. “Our study has, yet again, illustrated the tremendous power of the situation the subjects are confronted with and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant.”

While ethical considerations prevented a full replication of the experiments, researchers created a similar set-up with lower “shock” levels to test the level of obedience of participants.

The researchers recruited 80 participants (40 men and 40 women), with an age range from 18 to 69, for the study. Participants had up to 10 buttons to press, each a higher “shock” level. The results show that the level of participants’ obedience towards instructions is similarly high to that of the original Milgram studies.

They found that 90% of the people were willing to go to the highest level in the experiment. In terms of differences between peoples willingness to deliver shock to a man versus a woman, “It is worth remarking,” write the authors, “that although the number of people refusing to carry out the commands of the experimenter was three times greater when the student [the person receiving the "shock"] was a woman, the small sample size does not allow us to draw strong conclusions.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

Last night, I finally went to see the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. I've heard mostly good things, though many of my friends complained that Emma Watson is clearly not a singer, and since most of my friends are singers, it's not too surprising that they were hoping for better singing from the lead. While I agree that Emma's voice was thin and over-produced, I was expecting it to sound much worse than it did based on the descriptions.

No, this wasn't top-quality singing, nor was it Hugh Jackman butchering "Bring Him Home." Other than that, Emma was perfectly cast as Belle and played the character perfectly. While I know the trend now in Hollywood is that we want our lead actors to do their own singing, I would have been fine if they had gone back to the old way of doing things - casting a big name in the lead role and having a professional singer provide vocals.

Perhaps by having an actual singer in the lead role or at least on the lead vocals would have counteracted my complaint about the film: I would have liked more music, especially from the lead and drawing from the great music from the Broadway version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. In fact, the movie annoyingly teased me with the melody to one of my favorite songs from the Broadway version, which Belle sings to the Beast after she agrees to take her father's place:

They actually used this melody a couple times in the movie. So disappointing when it never went anywhere, because it so easily could have been sung when Belle first enters her new bedroom (the first time the theme was played).

The casting in general was perfect, and I was pleasantly surprised at how good Luke Evan's vocals as Gaston were. I would love to see more musicals with him. Audra McDonald is a freaking gift to humanity and I wished she'd had a little more singing. Josh Gad was perfect as LeFou, and the additional element they added to his character (a gay man with a raging crush on Gaston) really just expanded a subtext that was, in my opinion, already there in the animated version; in fact, I loved the characterization of LeFou, his discomfort with Gaston's cruelty, and his opportunity at redemption that in general made him a much more relatable character. Dan Stephens was great as the Beast, but I have to admit, overshadowed by the amazing actors surrounding him.

The movie also changed the prologue just enough to make it much more acceptable. In the animated version, the Prince is only a child when the Enchantress visits him and tries to exchange a flower for a night's stay. We know he has to be young because the flower blooms until his 21st birthday. Can you really blame an orphaned child for not wanting a flower or to have some strange woman stay the night in his place? The curse seems unbelievably cruel. In this version, he is either a teenager or adult, and he has a reputation for being shallow. His house is full of (only beautiful) people when the Enchantress asks for a night's stay, and he responds to her with laughter and derision. The curse is still pretty cruel, but far more acceptable in this scenario.

I also liked that they included the detail that the villagers' memories of the Prince and his castle were wiped as part of the spell, which makes a lot more sense than, "Oh yeah, we have a Prince overseeing us somewhere but haven't seen him. And wait, there's a castle over there with a beast in it? No, that's where the mystery Prince's castle is. You know, the one no one visits and we haven't really thought about for years?"

The visuals of the movie are absolutely stunning. The staging kept the fun of the animated movie while bringing something new. And even though I knew exactly how it was going to turn out, I still cried - seriously, Emma Watson is an amazing actress and brought a lot to the character. I know as a singer I should be more disappointed with her singing, but her acting and characterization made it a non-issue for me. Not to mention, for anyone who saw and loved La La Land, you should know that we have Beauty and the Beast to thank for having Emma Stone in the lead role, as Watson was originally offered the role but turned it down because of her commitments with Beauty and the Beast.

So readers, have you seen the movie? What were your thoughts?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Age Peaks

IFLScience just posted this infographic showing the ages at which you peak at various skills, experiences, and characteristics:

I'm experiencing both fascination and slight existential crisis. Thankfully, today is my Friday.

Carmen at the Lyric

Last night, I went to see Bizet's Carmen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The production was set in 1930's Spain, and contained a lot of dance, including some interesting choreography involving a dancer in a bull mask. The bull became a recurring theme throughout the show, showing up in scenes and following Carmen around or dancing off to the side. (BTW, John von Rhein of the Trib found the dance additions distracting and hated the bull.)

If you're not familiar with the story: The opera takes place in Spain. Carmen is a Gypsy, working in a cigarette factory. A group of soldiers, including Corporal Don José, are hanging around outside as the girls come out of the factory for their break. Everyone is enthralled by Carmen, except Don José, who sits to the side ignoring her. She chooses him as the object of her affection, throwing him a rose. Later, when she is arrested for attacking a fellow factory worker, she seduces Don José, who lets her go and is instead imprisoned for dereliction of duty. Later, Carmen talks Don José into running away from his duties and joining the revolutionaries in the mountain.

Carmen and Don José are not well-matched - Carmen is free-spirited while he is jealous and controlling. They continue to clash in the mountains. She urges him to leave and go back to his mother and childhood sweetheart. He refuses, though ultimately does leave when he learns his mother is dying. Carmen runs away with Escamillo, a toreador (bull fighter). Don José finds Carmen at a bull fight, confronts her for leaving him, and murders her.

The bull is meant to symbolize fate, something Carmen cannot escape, as she learns when she reads her fortune and finds that no matter how many cards she draws, the outcome is always her death. Don José is portrayed as a naive man seduced by the Gypsy, who ultimately brings about his downfall.

Honestly, what I got from the story was not that Don José was naive - he struck me as an authoritarian. He has very specific expectations about how men and women should behave. He is enthralled by the free-spirited Carmen, who forces him to break the rules, something he finds very uncomfortable. But I think the main reason he is so enthralled by her is that he sees her as a creature he seeks to tame and change. In some ways, she is the bull and he is the toreador. So perhaps his naivety is his belief that he can simply tame the bull. But the toreador's goal is to kill the bull. In that way, the bull appearing throughout the production is not simply fate, but a symbol of Carmen herself. The show is choreographed such that Carmen and Don José are encircling each other, center stage, while to the side the bull dancer and toreador dancer are similarly facing off. In fact, Carmen as the bull is one more reason that the outcome, Carmen's death, is inevitable - it's what the toreador must do or else die himself.

The show is closing this weekend, though it appears the remaining performances are sold out, so if you'd like to see it, hopefully you've already purchased tickets!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

More Evidence for Why We Should Care About Climate Change

A new study has found a potential connection between climate change and type 2 diabetes:
Diabetes data were collected from the CDC. The team also did a worldwide analysis based on rising rates of glucose intolerance and mean annual temperature.

The analysis showed that, on average, for every 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature, age-adjusted diabetes incidence rose 0.314%. A country-by-country analysis of glucose intolerance found an association of 0.170% for every 1-degree rise in temperature. These rates held up after an adjustment for obesity.

[T]he researchers concluded, “This association between temperature and raised fasting blood glucose cannot merely be due to international differences in age, sex, income, or obesity prevalence, as our analyses adjusted for these variables.”