Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Cost of Fear

Come, friends, and lose faith in humanity with me. Earlier today, a friend of mine shared this link with me: Yes, it's exactly as dumb as the title suggests. What the hell, America? Seriously, what the hell?

Once I was done raging, I started thinking, and then I started researching. The same friend pointed me to a fantastic comment made on by a user called Xai. Here is a the most interesting part: "Whenever you say that it is to protect yourselves from whoever then again ask yourselves is it worth it? America spends well over $300billion/year on anti-terrorism measures, and while to most people a sum that large has little meaning, if you assume that you have prevented an atrocity as large as 9/11 every single year for the last 10 years then the cost would be $100,000,000 per american life saved. I am willing to bet that if you spent even $10million/year on policing, safety improvements or simply healthcare you would save many american lives."

I hadn't really considered the financial cost/benefit approach to combating terror, but this post got me thinking about it. Let's do some math:

The attacks on September 11, 2001 killed 3000 and wounded 6000. (Source: Wikipedia) Common home fires kill 3500 and wound 20000 Americans every year. (Source: US Fire Administration) A 5 person fire department takes about $900,000 per year to operate. ( So for $100,000,000, the theoretical cost of saving one life in the above example (which is quite generous, as it assumes an attack on the scale of the WTC attack every year), you could operate 111 fire departments, each of which would surely save more than 1 life per year. After all, with 3500 per year killed in fires, we could certainly use more fire fighters.

But no, fires aren't scary. We have to keep pouring money into the possibility of future terrorism, rather than deal with the ever present and very real threats of crime, fires, natural disasters (anyone remember Katrina?), poor education, injury and disease. I haven't done the research yet, but I bet $300 billion would pay for a lot of police departments, hospitals and schools.

tl;dr wtf America, wake up

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Giant Panda Attack

The nice thing about having hardly any readers is I don't have to worry about alienating tons of people when I post something really inflammatory. For example, in a few sentences I'm going to say "the current system of assigning grade point averages and the value we place in them is stupid," and when I do, I won't have to worry about driving off tons of people who love and swear by GPA. It's convenient!

So. GPA is dumb. Now, this is not merely the bitter ranting of somebody who got crappy grades. (Should I have said shitty instead of crappy? I'm kind of contradicting what I wrote in my blank post.) I was comfortably in the high 3's. I had to be, or I'd have lost my scholarship, and in turn not been able to afford DePaul, and would have had to drop out and go somewhere else. Not the end of the world maybe but would have been somewhat unpleasant.

A lot of people like GPA. As I already mentioned, my big fancy scholarship was contingent upon keeping my college GPA high. When applying to colleges, every single one of them wanted my high school GPA. When filling out job applications online, the majority of them want my college GPA. When I talk to recruiters on the phone, the second question they ask (the first being my degree) is about my GPA. It's a big deal.

The problem with GPA is that it's an attempt to quickly summarize everything about someone's academic abilities. When a college is looking at high school applicants, or an employer looking at people finishing up or done with college, they often have mountains of applications, and hardly have the time to review in great detail an applicant's course history, how they did in their classes or what their teachers thought of them. So, the solution is a single number which quickly measures someone's academic performance.

It's sound in theory, I guess, but in practice it falls apart, as it would only be an unbiased measure of academic performance if everyone took exactly the same classes under the same conditions with the same teachers. The problem is, given two equally intelligent students, the one who takes easier classes will end up with a higher GPA, but will probably end up learning less due to not challenging him or herself. For example, at my university, I pursued a degree in computer game development. Though my emphasis was on programming, for my elective slots I took a few classes in related fields, such as 3D art. My hope was that by learning about the other fields of game development, I'd become a better developer overall. Learning how programs like Maya and Motion Builder worked would make it easier to work with artists and understand what they were doing.

I might have been wrong, but I think I made the right choice. In my senior capstone project, I was able to incorporate what I knew of Motion Builder from my Advanced Motion Capture class into the development of our content pipeline. I was also able to teach my team's animator how to use Motion Builder to place multiple takes into an fbx file, allowing us to use a single file per character rather than having a different file for every single animation, which would have made me a sad panda. Also, knowing my way around Maya allows me to quickly make place holder art when I need to put something on screen to help me test my work, rather than having to pester an artist to make me a cube or something silly, wait for him or her to make it (as they might be busy with something else, and I'll have to wait), then put it on version control where I can get it, when I can instead just do it myself.

So, what then, is the problem? The problem is these classes were hard, and I sucked at them. I consider myself an artist sometimes, but my art is words, stories and games. I cannot do visual art. I can visualize what I want in my head, and I know how the tools in 2D or 3D art programs technically work, I guess I just have difficulty knowing what tools to use to get what I want, which some people seem to be able to figure out intuitively. Maybe I'd have gotten better with practice? Who knows. Either way, though I learned a good bit, and feel like it made me a better developer, my projects were somewhat pale in comparison to those of more experienced modelers and animators, and my grades reflected that, so I'd usually earn a B in such a class (or a C+ in one case, but damn was that class hard) rather than an A.

I'm not complaining about that, the grades were fair. What I'm complaining about is that instead, I could have taken some "Easy A" 100 level liberal arts class, learned nothing I didn't already know (or nothing of practical use in my chosen field), and ended up with a higher GPA, but, in my opinion, I'd have been a worse game developer. I'm not trying to brag, or spin some "woe is me" tail to earn sympathy. I just want my example to illustrate the primary flaw in GPA: It actually discourages students from challenging themselves. The way for them to look best is to take only the hard classes they absolutely must, and fill the rest of their schedule with the easiest classes possible, whether or not they are relevant. Sure, there will be students who ignore GPA and take only classes they are interested in or will benefit from, but the sad truth is their transcripts will look worse for it unless they manage to get straight A's in those classes as well. A system meant as an innocent measure of academic achievement instead makes people want to play the game of college on easy mode.

tl;dr GPA sucks because you can pad it with easy classes and it gets worse if you take hard classes

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oil Problems

So the other day I was out with a friend, and as we drove past a BP gas station, it occurred to me: I feel really bad for BP store managers and employees. British Petroleum has earned quite a bit of ire for itself, and as oft happens in such cases, a number of people are now boycotting them and refusing to buy BP fuel. For obvious reasons, this sucks for BP employees. It's easy to label the big ugly corporation as this evil entity for fucking up (if that offends you, see my previous post) our environment and taking so long to do something about it, but what some people seem to overlook is that not every single person associated with BP is a greedy, negligent bastard (well, any more than humans in general normally are). A lot of BP employees, good honest people just trying to earn a living, are quite possibly going to end up losing their jobs over something that is no fault of their own, but they share the blame for.

Of course, I'm not trying to talk anyone out of boycotting BP, not that I expect I could even if I wanted to. It's just something to think about.

If you got oil problems, I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems but a spill ain't one.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blank your blanking blank

So while exploring the Facebooks the other day, I saw a post by someone to the effect of "Freedom of Speech doesn't mean you have the right to say 'Fuck' in front of small children." The point I believe he was trying to make was that many people misunderstand "freedom of speech," thinking it means they can say anything they want anytime they want, but that's somewhat inaccurate. See the oft used "Fire in a crowded theater" example.

Anyway, rather than a debate about free speech and its implications, the comment thread revolved around the particular example he used, one person even going to so far as to say "[Fuck] is the #1 worst thing you can say in front of a child." Personally, I think there are a few things worse. "I'm going to rip out your eyes with rusty spoons and eat them," "It's perfectly acceptable to discriminate against people based on race, religion, sex or sexual orientation," or a friend's suggestion: "I raped your mother and you're the result" being among them. The list could go on and on, really.

After that, a few others proudly posted about how the will use "fake" swear words when swearing around children, such as "God bless it" instead of "God damn it" and patting themselves on the back for being such upstanding paragons of righteousness. However, are euphemisms really any less bad than the word they replace? (Protip: They're not.) Language is used to convey meaning and intent. Words are a series of letters and sounds that we use to represent that meaning, but the words themselves are neither benign nor evil. When I hit my thumb with a hammer and exclaim "Fudge!" any child present will know exactly what I mean, as surely as if I'd said "Fuck." Fuck is only bad because of the meanings we associate it with. When fudge, fugg, screw, eff or any other of the dozens of replacements fill the same role, they adopt the same meaning and are not really any different. It's silly to think we're somehow doing children some favor by swearing in front of them, but replacing certain words arbitrarily deemed "bad" with other words arbitrarily considered acceptable.

Even more ridiculous is how people censor so called "swear" words in type. F*ck, sh*t and so on, as if there's anyone who speaks English who won't know exactly what you're actually saying. I guess asterisks are just really magical, or something.

tl;dr Your fucking euphemisms don't make a fudging difference.

Edit: This video emphasizes the point better than anything else I could say, I think.