Monday 28 July 2014

A film review from 32,000 feet: Noah

I don't do long haul flights much. They wreck my frontal lobe function and leave me not only with a headache, but with a sense of befuddlement that can take a few days to abate. I also find that if I try to while away the time with work, or read a book, it just makes matters worse, so I am reduced to watching the films. And now at 32,000 feet en rpute to New York, I can think of nothing better to pass the time than to write a review of the film I have just seen, Noah.

I grew up enjoying epics such as the Ten Commandments (with memorable plague of frogs and parting of Red Sea), Samson and Delilah (where, according to one review "Victor Mature fits neatly into the role of the handsome but dumb hulk of muscle")  and the Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (this trailer tells you all you need to know). I expected something similar – an attempt at telling a Biblical story through film, but with use of CGI to create better special effects.  But this was more like a bizarre mix of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, with a touch of Eastenders thrown in. Although I jotted down occasional notes as I viewed it, this is my reconstruction from memory and so accuracy is not guaranteed, especially given the befuddled state in which I watched.

So at the start we have Noah's father wandering around a barren landscape with his son. We know he is a goodie because a wounded beast comes scampering into view, and although it is of ferocious appearance, Noah's dad approaches it and speaks gently to it and attempts to deal with its wounds. However, a band of evil men then appear. We know they are evil because they have shot the animal and explain that they intend to eat it, on the grounds that 'The Creator' (the word 'God' is never used, interestingly) has not provided adequately for them, and so they need to eat meat. Noah's dad disapproves and so they bump him off, while Noah looks on in horror. Flash forward, then to the next generation, where Noah and his wife and children are wandering the same dismal landscape. It's not clear what they live on, since they disapprove of eating animals, and there's no vegetation to be seen. They also have quite respectable, if drab, clothes, and one wonders how these were achieved, if animal skins are verboten.

However, one really does not need to worry too much about plausibility because it becomes clear that supernatural forces are at play. Noah communicates with the Creator through dreams in which he is under water surrounded by drowning creatures. He decides to consult his grandad, Methusalah (Anthony Hopkins as a cross between Sauron, Obi Wan Kenobe and a hobo), who lives alone in a quarry, apparently not doing much but just waiting to be consulted.

On the way there (or possibly the way back) the family find a place littered with bodies, from which they rescue a small girl who is wounded. Marauding hordes, very reminiscent of Orcs or whatever the marauding things in Lord of the Rings are, attack them and they seem doomed, but escape into an area that everyone fears to enter. This is because it is controlled by a group of giant monsters who look like cookie monsters  that have spent too long in the microwave. These quell the marauding hordes, but spare Noah and his family. Here the plot goes a bit awry. The cookie monsters are 'the Watchers' and seem to be angels who were cast out of Heaven at the time of the Fall. If I got it right (the drinks trolley turned up around this time and I was a bit distracted) they were cast out because they wanted to protect humanity, incurring the wrath of the Creator who was utterly disaffected with humanity after Eve chomped at the forbidden fruit. Nevertheless, they approve of Noah because he wants to do the bidding of the Creator. Slight logical disconnect there, I think, but hey, they're only cookie monsters.

Fast forward a few more years, and Emma Watson pops up. This was very confusing, because her behaviour and reactions were exactly as in the Harry Potter movies, in that she spent a lot of time chasing after the boys trying to get them to behave sensibly. One of them, Shem, looks like the one in Pirates of the Caribbean who isn't Jack Sparrow (rather a shame that Jack Sparrow himself didn't feature, especially once the ark got waterborne, when he could have come in handy). He fancies Hermione, which is hardly surprising, as she is the only female around apart from his mother. However, there is a problem. Hermione is barren because of the injuries she suffered as a child. Everyone seems to know this as a given fact, though one might have thought that a bit of tentative exploratory sex would have been worth a try. Brother number two, who, perhaps as a joke in this vegetarian family, is named Ham, is jealous that he hasn't got a woman.

Somewhere along the way Noah has another consultation with Methuselah and decides that the earth is going to be destroyed by the Creator because of man's wickedness, and that what is needed is an ark. He doesn't have much of a clue about design, because what he ends up with is a giant wooden portakabin which doesn't seem to have a hull. This could be a consequence of enlisting the help of the cookie monsters, whose intellectual powers seem quite limited. But the birds are impressed, and start flocking in. The previous evening I'd watched a documentary about penguins, and so the thought uppermost in my mind was that the ark would have had a massive problem with poo – certainly even a pair of penguins would be capable of creating a substantial problem if the documentary was to be believed. However, here the script-writer had a moment of genius – Noah's wife fumigated the ark with a substance that sent all animals to sleep – except humans.

Somewhere about this point, Russell Crowe confused us all acquiring a number one clipper and trimming his hair and beard. I initially thought he was a new villain, and only recognised him when he put his hoodie back on. Ham also seemed to have access to the clipper and remained clean shaven with a short haircut throughout, whereas Shem had flowing locks and a beard, albeit a tidy one. The state of the men's grooming was a dead giveaway to their ethical status in the film, as became apparent when, in a genius piece of casting, Ray Winstone suddenly cropped up as Cain, with very unkempt hair and beard, a band of evil followers, and a cockney accent.  For reasons hard to fathom, Cain wanted to enlist Ham, but Noah wasn't having any of that, so Cain settled for establishing a camp near to the ark. This was rather spectacularly filmed to resemble a scene of hell by Hieronymous Bosch, but without the giant ears, with was much screeching and wailing, indicative of the sorry state of social mores. Cain did however groom his beard into two birfurcated points, perhaps suggesting some attempt to reform.

Noah's wife realises that the ark plan has a fatal flaw, which is a shortage of fertile women. Off she goes to consult Methuselah, who emerges from his quarry to track down Hermione, and perform an instant gynaecological miracle with his magic touch. This is followed almost immediately by her indulging in wild passionate sex with Shem (hinted at, as this is a film suitable for children). Ham, meanwhile, has gone into Cain's encampment to find a woman.  However, no sooner has he done so when Cain instigates an uprising to attack and take over the ark, and in the course of this, Ham's woman is killed. Somehow, Cain has invented a form of bazooka gun, which proves effective against the cookie monsters, who die in a spectacular blaze of fireworks before ascending to heaven, apparently now forgiven by the Creator.

I was rather disappointed by the rain. I had expected lots of it, but what was shown seemed rather pathetic when compared to the floods in the UK earlier this year. Instead, though, we had great geysers of water shooting up out of the ground – a bit like a supercharged version of the fountains at Heathrow's terminal  5 – plus the odd tsunami.  In any case, the Creator achieved his aim of drowning everyone except those on the ark, which remarkably, floated upright despite its unpromising design. Unbeknown to Noah, however, Cain had managed to stow away on the ark, where he proceeded to demonstrate how utterly evil he was by eating the odd animal. He enlisted the help of Ham, who was especially cross with Noah for failing to rescue the woman he had found in a ditch.

Meanwhile, Noah was becoming increasingly deranged. He had decided that the whole point of the exercise was to save the animals but rid the world of man, because man would only despoil the planet again if allowed to live. It was therefore imperative that no new humans should be born. This was problematic because Hermione was pregnant. Now, if your father had just told you that he was enacting God's will to exterminate the human race, and you found that your wife was pregnant, what would you do? Well, Shem thought it a good idea to go and ask for his blessing. Bad move. Noah isn't having any of it: "If you bear a girl, in the moment of her birth I will cut her down" (Yup, this is verbatim dialogue). In fact, Hermione, as one might have anticipated, outperforms and delivers twin girls. Shem has decided to kill Noah to save his babies, around the same time that Cain has decided to kill him, saying "Your ark, your beasts and your women are all mine. I will build a new world in my image." Cain has also enlisted Ham as backup assassin. You would have thought that with these odds, Noah's fate would be sealed, but somehow in a confusing fight scene in which everyone dived in, Cain ended up dead and Noah very much alive and still hell-bent on killing the twins. But, guess what, when it came to it, he was unable to carry out the act. And at that point a dove landed on the ark with a twig in its beak, and everyone cheered up.

That was about it. They landed somewhere that looked like Scotland and settled down, and after a brief period of depression and drunkenness, Noah re-established good relations with his family, except for Ham, who wandered off into the wilderness, perhaps hoping to find a female survivor of the flood.

The weirdest part of all this was that although I found the whole thing hilarious, I felt offended by the film on behalf of religious people. It is a little known fact about me that in my teenage years I was a Sunday School teacher - and so I have an extensive if rusty knowledge of the Bible.  I found myself getting especially cross about the cookie monsters, thinking that it was a travesty of the Bible story to introduce all this supernatural stuff. And then I realised what a ridiculous thought that was. 

Monday 21 July 2014

Percentages, quasi statistics and bad arguments


Percentages have been much in the news lately. First, we have a PLOS One paper by John Ioannidis and his colleagues which noted that less than one per cent of all publishing scientists in the period from 1996 to 2011 published something in each and every year of this 16-year period.

Then there was have a trailer for a wonderfully silly forthcoming film, Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson suffers from a drug overdose that leads her to learn Chinese in an hour and develop an uncanny ability to make men fall over by merely pouting at them. Morgan Freeman plays a top neuroscientist who explains that whereas the rest of us use a mere ten per cent of our brain capacity, Johansson's character has access to a full hundred per cent of her brain.

And today I've just read an opinion piece in Prospect Magazine by the usually clear-thinking philosopher, A. C. Grayling, which states: Neuropsychology tells us that more than ninety per cent of mental computation happens below the level of awareness.

Examples like these can be used to demonstrate just how careful you need to be when interpreting percentages. There are two issues. For a start, a percentage is uninterpretable unless you know the origin of the denominator (i.e., the total number of cases that the percentage is based on).  I'm sure the paper by Ioannidis and colleagues is competently conducted, but the result seems far less surprising when you realise that the 'less than one per cent' figure was obtained using a denominator based on all authors mentioned on all papers during the target period. As Ioannidis et al noted, this will include a miscellaneous bunch of people, including those who are unsuccessful at gaining research funding or in getting papers published, those taking career breaks, people who are trainees or research assistants, those working in disciplines where it is normal to publish infrequently, and those who fit in  research activity around clinical responsibilities. Presumably it also includes those who have died, retired, or left the field in the study period.

So if you are someone who publishes regularly, and are feeling smug at your rarity value, you might want to rethink. In fact, given the heterogeneity of the group on whom the numerator is based, I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from this paper. Ioannidis et al noted that those who publish frequently also get cited more frequently – even after taking into account number of publications and concluded that the stability and continuity of the publishing scientific workforce may have important implications for the efficiency of science. But what one should actually do with this information is unclear. The authors suggest that one option is to give more opportunities to younger scientists so that they can join the elite group who publish regularly. However, I suspect that's not how the study will be interpreted: instead, we'll have university administrators adding 'continuity of publishing record' to their set of metrics for recruiting new staff, leading to even more extreme pressure to publish quickly, rather than taking time to reflect on results. A dismal thought indeed.

The other two examples that I cited are worse still. It's not that they have a misleading denominator: as far as one can tell, they don't have a denominator at all.  In effect, they are quasi-statistics. Since the publication of the Lucy trailer, neuroscientists have stepped up to argue that of course we use much more than ten per cent of our brains, and to note that the origin of this mythical statistic is hard to locate (see, for instance here and here). I'd argue there's an even bigger problem – the statement can't be evaluated as accurate or inaccurate without defining what scale is being adopted to quantify 'brain use'. Does it refer to cells, neural networks, white matter, grey matter, or brain regions? Are we only 'using' these if there is measurable activity? And is that activity measured by neural oscillations, synaptic firing, a haemodynamic response or something else?

In a similar vein, in the absence of any supporting reference for the Grayling quote, it remains opaque to me how you'd measure 'mental computation' and then subdivide it into the conscious and the unconscious. Sure, he's right that our brains carry out many computations of which we have no explicit awareness. Language is a classic case – I assume most readers would have no difficulty turning a sentence like You wanted to eat the apples that she gave you into a negative form (You didn't want to eat the apples that she gave you) or a question (Did you want to eat the apples that she gave you?) but unless you are a linguist, you will have difficulty explaining how you did this. I don't take issue with Grayling's main point, but I am surprised that an expert philosopher should introduce a precise number into the argument, when it can readily be shown to be meaningless.

The main point here is that we are readily impressed by numbers. A percentage seems to imply that there is a body of evidence on which a statement is based. But we need to treat percentages with suspicion; unless we can identify the numerator and denominator from which they are calculated, they are likely to just be fancy ways of trying to persuade us into giving more weight to an argument than it deserves.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Should Vice-Chancellors earn more than the Prime Minister?


In my previous post about the university as big business, I wrote about the dangers that arise when an institution focuses only on its finances, and fails to foster its key resource - the academic staff. An obsession with the bottom line can lead to staff being treated as disposable commodities, to be hired and fired as convenient. But if a university wants to become renowned for its stellar teaching and research record, it needs to attract and retain academics who have a sense of loyalty to the institution, and will be proud to act as ambassadors for it. The ethos of the institution as a community of scholars requires that there is some continuity, and that members have a sense of common purpose. That's not going to happen if jobs are insecure and people are judged according to grant income rather than academic excellence. As senior management at King's College London (KCL) may be starting to realise, reputation is all-important and should never be compromised in seeking financial solutions. If you lose your reputation as a benign institution that cares for its staff and students, you'll make the financial situation worse rather than better, because you will be shunned by the staff and students you wish to attract.

Of course, universities need money to function, and a good university administration will keep a careful eye on finances. But the troubles start when income becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. There was a great piece by Richard Horton in the Lancet this week that said it all far better than I could, noting the chilling effect of the current obsession with league tables and amounts of grant income.

My focus here, though, is on an additional trend that is symptomatic of all that is wrong: the tendency for top university executives to be paid enormous salaries. The arguments used to justify these sums are similar to those used by bankers defending their bonuses. First, the job is demanding and involves responsibility for complex budgets and large numbers of people. Second, you won't be able to attract the right people unless you pay them this much. Neither point seems valid to me. The job of a vice-chancellor is complicated, but so is the job of the Prime Minister, whose salary is £142K. Unless you have an expensive drug habit or a penchant for yachts, you can live a very comfortable life on such an income - I speak as one who earns a very good salary well below that level.  The point was made forcibly by a group of four academics who put in a joint job application for the post of vice-chancellor at the University of Alberta, noting that the salary of Can$400K was sufficient to divide up and still give each of them a decent income.

There are various reasons why someone would demand more than £142K. Maybe a few of them do have an expensive drug habit or a penchant for yachts. It's more likely, though, that their sense of self-worth is tied up with how much they are paid, and their competitive nature means they need to demonstrate that they are better than their contemporaries. They'd be quite happy with £142K if everyone else earned £130K, but once they hear of someone else earning £150K, the iron enters into the soul. Or, like Scrooge, they may get satisfaction from seeing the money building up, even though they don't actually need it. The point is that none of these characteristics is an attractive personality trait, and I would question whether we should regard them as essential criteria when selecting a vice chancellor.

The arguments against paying vice-chancellors such huge sums are clear. First, the money could be better spent: why give an inflated salary to a vice-chancellor to squirrel away in the stock market, when you could use it to address the university's core mission: e.g., for student welfare, scholarships, fellowships or academic posts? There are also interesting psychological considerations. As discussed in a recent piece by Anne Manne, being ultra-rich alters how you see your fellow human beings. You no longer need to do any of the ordinary things that other mortals do, such as worrying about whether you can pay the mortgage, traveling on public transport, or saving for a holiday. You start to see yourself as a different kind of person with a sense of entitlement. It's a dangerous mindset for someone who has to make decisions that impact large numbers of employees.

The senior management at KCL have completely lost the confidence of their staff and students by their recent actions. They maintain that the redundancies that they plan are tough but essential: the only solution after considering all other options. Well, here's an idea that I first mooted in the Comments section of the Times Higher opinion piece that I wrote on the Kings College debacle.  They could voluntarily settle for lower salaries themselves. According to figures from the Times Higher, Rick Trainor, the Vice Chancellor earned a package worth £321K in 2013, compared to an average salary of £50K for non-professorial academic staff. Cutting the VC salary to £142K could provide funds that could save the jobs of three more junior academics*. We don't know how much the Vice-Principals and other senior academics earn - by coincidence, it emerged this week that someone had put in a freedom-of-information request, and KCL was very reluctant to reveal the figures. It seems likely, though that if they were willing to take a cut, a few more posts could be rescued. Overall, only a small proportion of the planned redundancies would be saved by such a step, but it would be a gesture that would demonstrate to staff that their senior management were sincere in taking every possible measure to save jobs, and that they placed the good of the institution above their own egos. And it might also set a precedent for other Universities, and reverse the trend for Vice-Chancellors to create a wedge between themselves and their academic staff by behaving like bankers when negotiating salary deals.

*In this case, it would show remarkable generosity of spirit if my advice was followed, since Trainor is leaving in a few weeks, and so it would be his successor - who no doubt has already negotiated a substantial salary deal - who would be affected.