Expelled – Tanking, redux.

June 30, 2008

Well, since the shock of finding out on Friday that Expelled was going to be fouling up my country with its ridiculous nonsense, the weekend numbers on its performance here have come in.  Box office figures for Canada are often lumped in with those of the US so finding good information is hard, but the best number I have states that Expelled pulled in $24,374 across Canada for the whole weekend.

Sorry, I just have to take a minute.  Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha! I mean, what a shame.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any official numbers which break down the gross per theatre or even how many theatres are showing the damn thing.  So, I did some ball-parking on my own.  Here’s a haphazard list of major cities in Canada (the provincial capitals with Vancouver, Calgary, and Ottawa thrown in) and the number of theatres showing Expelled, culled from online movie listings:

  • Vancouver: 5
  • Victoria: 1
  • Edmonton: 1
  • Calgary: 2
  • Regina: 1
  • Winnipeg: 1
  • Toronto: 10
  • Ottawa: 2
  • Montréal:  1
  • Québec City: 0
  • Fredericton: 0
  • Charlottetown: 0
  • Halifax: 2
  • St. John’s: 1

That makes 27 theatres playing the movie (at least) in Canada.  There are at least three showings at every theatre (a couple have only two showings, but the average is well above three so I’m estimating conservatively here). So for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, we have 27 * 3 * 3 or 243 showings of the movie.  That would make for just over $100 per showing.  Average ticket price is somewhere around $10 per ticket , so we have about 10 people per theater per showing.  That’s pretty pathetic for the “big opening weekend”.  And my estimate is undoubtably conservative, since all ten theatres showing the movie in Toronto are showing it at least 4 and sometimes 5 times per day, as are several of the other markets.

Let’s get this straight:  they didn’t just plunk this turd down in one or two theatres up here in the Great White North.  No, they opened in almost every major Canadian city and the resulting numbers show that they failed miserably.  I would pretend to be sympathetic, but I’m not.  Ben Stein is a lying jackass, and frankly I’m happy that his movie is tankingAgain.

Wait!  There’s more!

Following up, I took a look at the Expelled website.  There’s a theatre locator which I paged through to get a theatre total.  Something is clearly whacky, because their locator only lists 4 theatres playing the movie in Vancouver where I count 5 (for some reason they left out Burnaby entirely), but putting that aside their total is still higher than mine at 36.  36 movie theatres, at an average of three showings per day for three days would make for 324 total showings, or no more than $24,374 / 324 = $75 per theatre, or about 7-8 people per showing. Again, a conservatively high estimate.

This, despite the “group release” extravaganzas available from the Expelled distributors!  Wow, I can’t imagine why people haven’t been snapping up those opportunities.

You may think that I’m being snarky here, and you’d be right.  Ben Stein is an IDiot, and he doesn’t deserve any attention that rises above the level of pure mocking.  So I refuse to do more than laugh at this tool who thinks that science makes murders and that evolution caused the Holocaust, while engaging in some wholesome schadenfreude.  Join me, won’t you?

Canadian iPhone: awww, phooey.

June 27, 2008

iPhone 3G comes to Canada [image]

Well, via The Unofficial Apple Weblog, word has reached me that the iPhone 3G plans have been released by Rogers, and word is that they’re … less than spectacular.  I mean, really?  No unlimited data, caps ranging from 400 MB to 2 GB (which seems ample until some of the apps get installed and start suckin’ down the bytes), a piddling amount of text messages, etc.  Given Rogers’ track record I’m hardly surprised, but I can’t help feeling that they missed an opportunity to do something cool here.  (Full disclosure:  I used to be a Rogers customer until we got tired of being jerked around and moved to Bell, where we’re just been jerked around in new and interesting ways).

Ah, who am I kidding anyways?  It’s not like I have the cash lying around to splash out on one anyways, and I’m stuck with Bell for another God-knows how many years at this point.  By the time I get around to being able to buy an iPhone, the bloody things will be fully autonomous robots that run your life for you.

The stupid – it’s coming!

June 27, 2008

I don’t know how I managed to miss this: via Pharyngula, I’ve learned that Expelled, Ben Stein’s vile dribbling of a movie, has slimed its way across the U.S. border and into my country.  I’ve written about Expelled’s implosion in the States, but now he comes up here?  The same man who thinks that being a scientist makes you a murderer?  I feel like I should be rousing the alarm about this stealth attack on evolution like a modern day (male, obviously!) Laura Secord.  Thankfully, I’m not the only one who feels this way:  check out the Macleans review of the movie, which is gratifyingly harsh.

If you want to get an overview of Stein’s ridiculous claims, check out his interview on CBC’s The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos (the second time that I’ve linked to Stroumboulopoulos interviewing a nutjob – this is becoming a bit of a pattern, here).  In less than ten minutes, he manages to imply that evolutionary biology is responsible for the Nazis, eugenics, and the mass eviction of harmless ID proponents who just want a fair shake from the academic community;  this, while telling everyone that evolutionary biology somehow has to explain gravity, thermodynamics, and the beginning of life (the province of physics, physics / chemistry, and abiogenesis respectively). This last bit is a serious misunderstanding that even otherwise well-informed people are subject to.  To complain that evolutionary biology doesn’t provide an explanation for the beginning of life is ludicrous, because the field has never tackled that question and has no need to.  Quoting from ExpelledExposed:

Darwin wasn’t trying to explain the origin of life; you could just as easily complain that the theory of island biogeography doesn’t explain the origin of islands. Darwin himself says, in the Origin of Species, “It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life” (Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. 6th edition, 1882. p. 421).

I’ll also refer you to the talk.origins FAQ on the subject of evolution and abiogenesis.  The fact that many of the people who have speculated on the beginning of life (or who have proposed theories of their own) have been connected with evolutionary biology is just because of the natural connection between the two fields, not because abiogenesis is a necessary question that evolutionary biology has to answer.

Then, after you’ve washed your hands, head over to ExpelledExposed.com and watch real science rip apart the trash that Stein spews from his ignorant word-hole.

Update:  After clicking through at Pharyngula, I came upon the Canadian Cynic blog, which smacks the issue around a bit more in an appealing way (I just added this blog to my RSS feeds).  I particularly like the National Post review that is linked to from CC, with its plum rating of “1” for the movie.

Update 2: Can you believe that I forgot to link to Stein’s interview?  Fixed that…

Have I seen this before?

June 26, 2008

Over at Uncertain Principles (one of my favourite of the ScienceBlogs), Chad Orzel writes about a question that resonates with me in a strong way:

So, a poll for those readers who are still around:

If somebody is explaining something, and says “You’ve seen this before, right?,” what do you say?

Do you say “No, explain it again,” even if you’ve seen it, or do you say “Sure, keep going,” even though you haven’t?

I feel this question keenly because I am routinely in over my head due to my special circumstances:  I’ve jumped fields several times in my academic career, and I am continually relying on my wits to get me through academic situations rather than a deep knowledge of the field I’m currently floundering about in.  Don’t get me wrong:  I believe that a deep knowledge of the field is absolutely essential to produce good science, but it’s something that I’m always chasing rather than something I can just assume without question.

My answer to his question would have to be more nuanced than a simple yes or no, though.  (Surprise!)  It depends heavily on context.  If the matter I’m discussing is trivial and something sails over my head, I’ll usually just nod and smile;  if I’m still interested in the matter, I’ll go look it up after the conversation is done. If the matter is a more serious affair, though, I will stop and ask every time, no matter how stupid I look doing so.  It can save a surprising amount of time to front-load your questions in situations of importance, rather than having to figure out how to go back later and ask the question you should have asked in the first place.

Of course, there’s also a difference between being asked if I know something and if I can do something.  In the latter case, I usually follow the words of Teddy Roosevelt:

When you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.

This policy has (many times) landed me in hot water and been responsible for my best achievements, usually simultaneously.

I’m back!

June 26, 2008

The conference went well, plenty of energizing new ideas;  actually, I got back on Saturday, but it has taken me a few days to sort myself out and get going again, so blogging was put on hold temporarily.  But now I’m back on the warpath!  Or, rather, the mildly opinionated trail…

Off to a conference!

June 15, 2008

I’m off to Ohio to the Mathematical Biosciences Institute workshop on Systems Biology of Decision Making; this was a last minute arrangement by my supervisor, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for it. I’ll be gone for a week, meaning that posting will probably be thin or non-existent until I get back.

Split infinitives? Of course you can.

June 12, 2008

I subscribed to the The Inverse Square Blog by Thomas Levenson some time ago, and I haven’t regretted it since. It’s a great blog on a whole range of matters, with science as a theme running through everything. Thomas is also unabashedly political, which I enjoy reading even though I’m not American, but I think this might possibly have had something to do with the only post of his that I’ve ever strongly disagreed with, which came through my RSS feeds yesterday: Your Fourth Grade Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeve: John McCain Edition.

In the post, Thomas has a kick at McCain’s can:

In the Eschaton-posted ad, McCain asks his advertising audience a simple question. It begins

“Is it OK to unconditionally meet with….”

I can boldly go with the anyone, but leaving aside kitsch nostaligia, splitting the infinitive … that’s just not right. (Sorry for reposting this, but a few months is aeons in blog years, and besides, it’s funny. See about 5:23 into the clip for the reference.)

Really, Senator, would it have killed you to say “Is it OK to meet unconditionally..?” Not only is it correct, it sounds better (which is partly why it is correct; placing the modifier in the middle of the verb usually weakens the action being described — boldly going, as always, excepted).

Even better, how about getting rid of the adverb, always a tricky form (I use ‘em…but I’m a professional)? You could have said something like this:

“Is it OK to meet anti-American foreign leaders without conditions?”

That of course, loses the spin (what in pool you could call the English) — the attempt to tie Senator Obama to unconditional misdeeds of other sorts. Sometimes clarity and simplicity get in the way of attempts to use emotion to deceive. Which is the point, of course. But even if you were unwilling to sacrifice the propaganda opportunity, still there was no need to put asunder what generations of English teachers have tried to join together.

This is one of those odd little issues that really bugs me. My irritation possibly arises out of embarassment, because I used to be one of those people who used my supposedly superior grammatical knowledge to mock those who had dared to split an infinitive in my presence. At least, until I actually began to think about the issue one day and realized that I couldn’t come up with a single good reason why I was right besides vague hand-wavings about traditional, proper English which I had swallowed hook, line and sinker at some point in the past. Uneasy about my status as a defender of the One True English™, I put away my condemnation of those poor slobs who didn’t use English as well as I did and left the matter to stew in the back of my mind.

And then, I read a book which changed my opinion entirely on the subject: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, who is a well-known cognitive and evolutionary psychologist. I’ll quote at length from the book now (p. 386-7), where he discusses the Defenders of English, whom he calls “language mavens”:

[ Referring to the prescriptive rules of grammar and those who purport to enforce them… ] But this raises a question. Someone, somewhere, must be making decisions about “correct English” for the rest of us. Who? There is no English Language Academy, and this is just as well; the purpose of the Académie Française is to amuse journalists from other countries with bitterly argued decisions that the French gaily ignore. Nor were there any Founding Fathers at some English Language Constitutional Conference at the beginning of time. The legislators of “correct English”, in fact, are an informal network of copy-editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual and handbook writers, English teachers, essayists, columnists, and pundits. Their authority, they claim, comes from their dedication to implementing standards that have served the language well in the past, especially in the prose of its finest writers, and that maximize its clarity, logic, consistency, conciseness, elegance, continuity, precision, stability, integrity, and expressive range. (Some of them go further and say that they are actually safeguarding the ability to *think* clearly and logically. This radical Whorfianism is common among language pundits, not surprisingly; who would settle for being a schoolmarm when one can be an upholder of rationality itself?) William Safire, who writes the weekly column “On Language” for The New York Times Magazine, calls himself a “language maven”, from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group.

To whom I say: Maven, schmaven! Kibbitzers and nudniks is more like it. For here are the remarkable facts. Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. All the best writers in English at all periods, including Shakespeare and most of the mavens themselves, have been among the flagrant flouters. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, wordy, ambiguous, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all. Indeed, most of the “ignorant errors” these rules are supposed to correct display an elegant logic and an acute sensitivity to the grammatical texture of the language, to which the mavens are oblivious.

The scandal of the language mavens began in the eighteenth century. London had become the political and financial center of England, and England had become the center of a powerful empire. The London dialect was suddenly an important world language. Scholars began to criticize it as they would any artistic or civil institution, in part to question the customs, hence authority, of court and aristocracy. Latin was still considered the language of enlightenment and learning (not to mention the language of a comparably vast empire), and it was offered as an ideal of precision and logic to which English should aspire. The period also saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who desired education and self improvement and who wanted to distinguish himself as cultivated had to master the best version of English. These trends created a market demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were soon shaped by market forces. Casting English grammar into the mold of Latin grammar made the books useful as a way of helping young students learn Latin. And as the competition became cutthroat, the manuals tried to outdo one another by including greater numbers of increasingly fastidious rules that no refined person could afford to ignore. Most of the hobgoblins of a contemporary prescriptive grammar (don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads.

Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not — whoops, not to split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word like facere or dicere, a syntactic atom. English is a different kind of language. It is an “isolating” language, building sentences around many simple words instead of a few complicated ones. The infinitive is composed of two words – a complementizer, *to*, and a verb, like *go*. Words, by definition, are rearrangeable units, and there is no conceivable reason why an adverb should not come between them.

Space — the final frontier . . . These are the voyages of the starship *Enterprise*. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

To *go boldly* where no man has gone before? Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here. As for outlawing sentences that end with a preposition (impossible in Latin for good reasons having to do with its case-marking system, reasons that are irrelevant in case-poor English) — as Winston Churchill would have said, it is a rule up with which we should not put.

Pinker puts the case so well that I feel little need to elaborate on it. There isn’t a reputable style guide that I’ve seen which would care about split infinitives (though apparently The Columbia Guide to Standard American English suggests not using them because it will contravene the myth of the Bad Split Infinitive, while at the same time acknowledging that there’s no good reason for this to be the case).

On a side note, the rest of the book is fantastic, and I heartily recommend it; the remainder of the chapter on the language mavens is a treat, as Pinker systematically demolishes most of the prescriptive grammar rules that have been foisted on us by well-meaning amateur linguists.

Perhaps one of my favourite examples of the completely nonsensical nature of the “don’t split” rule is this argument I had bookmarked from a great web page on the subject:

Problems Caused by Trying to Avoid the Split Infinitive

Stylistically, the careful placement of another word between “to” and the bare infinitive sometimes avoids ambiguity or ugliness. The old prohibition on split infinitives is particularly surprising when one observes that there are a number of expressions in English that are weakened considerably by avoiding the split infinitive.

R.L. Trask uses this example:

She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

Clearly, what is implied here is she took a decision to get rid of her teddy bears, and the disposal would happen over time. ‘Gradually’ splits the infinite “to get.” But if we were to move it, where would it go? Consider the following:

She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

This implies that the decision was gradual.

She decided to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected gradually.

This implies that the collecting process was gradual.

She decided to get gradually rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

This is just bad English.

She decided to get rid gradually of the teddy bears she had collected.

This is almost as awkward as its immediate predecessor.

Not only does the original example sound right to a native speaker, it is also the only semantically sound possibility.

And there you have it. Many of us who consider ourselves “educated” have been victims of the language mavens (and possibly our own desire to mark ourselves as educated) at one point or another. There is no good reason to avoid splitting the infinitive, and there never really has been. Having said that, I look forward to reading more of Thomas’s blog and if you’re reading this, I suggest that you head on over there and take a look – it’s good stuff.