Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let There Not Be Light

An Associated Press article today, “It’s lights out for the incandescent bulb in Calif,” is a good example of how not to use numbers. It’s about the government-mandated transition from incandescent light bulbs to more energy-efficient alternatives.

On one hand...

“These standards will help cut our nation’s electric bill by over $10 billion a year and will save the equivalent electricity as 30 large power plants,” said Noah Horowitz a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

...and on the other hand...

Nick Reynoza, manager at Royal Lighting in Los Angeles, said it’s a shame the transition comes at a time when alternatives are so much more expensive.

“It’s not really an option — you have this or you don’t get anything,” he said. “The options are more expensive. Four incandescents are $1.00, the halogens are $5.99 and the LED are like $20.”

In other words, one guy has numbers that say the transition will save a lot of money. Another guy has different numbers that say it will cost a lot of money. Is that the end of the story?

The newer bulbs are more expensive than incandescents, but supporters of the technology say they last so much longer that there is a financial savings in the end. For example, while incandescents provide as much as 2,000 hours of light, compact fluorescents can provide light for six times longer.

The article is trying to do the right thing, explaining how consumers will pay more for alternative bulbs, but the alternative bulbs will last longer. However, having already specified the extra costs of halogen and LED bulbs, the article manages to not tell us how much longer these types of bulbs will last. Instead, we get that figure for compact fluorescent bulbs, which were not mentioned in the cost differences.

So, the chance was missed to let readers understand whether the new light bulbs are a better or worse deal in terms of a bulb’s cost per hour of light.

Stranger, the article did not even try to factor-in the additional savings to consumers from lower electrical bills, even though that is the point of the transition in the first place.

If this was breaking news, the slapdash numeracy might be understandable, as would the mention of a congressman who “could not immediately be reached for comment.” But are those really the standards for a three-weeks-after-the-fact article?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Decision-Making in the American Revolutionary War

Last time, I reviewed Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. One theme from the book deserves extra mention: the contrast of George Washington’s decision-making style versus that of the British military leaders.

The British leaders were traditional military commanders, elite and absolute in their leadership. At several junctures they failed because they ignored correct but contrary perspectives from lower-ranking officers. Equally bad, they put too much faith in immediate subordinates whose primary skill was to tell the leaders what they wanted to hear.

By contrast, Washington was “functioning more as a leader than a commander: always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing.” He acted this way partly by necessity. His forces were a potluck of regiments and militias donated by the various states. Many unit leaders had their own ideas and agendas, which over time Washington learned to solicit and guide rather than push against.

Although Washington was running an army, not a town-hall democracy, he realized the two were not mutually exclusive. He could encourage debate and still be in charge. He could boost morale by making it clear his men were heard. These techniques often inspired the Americans to fight smarter and harder than their adversaries.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing is not for everyone. But with more than one hundred reviews on Amazon, averaging five out of five stars, it is finding the right audience.

The book is a military history of the American Revolutionary War from late 1776 to early 1777. It starts with the British rout of George Washington and his American forces at New York. This loss could have ended the war if not for a miraculous American escape by cover of night and fog. The Americans retreated across New Jersey to Pennsylvania, ceding Princeton and Trenton, among other towns, to the pursuing British forces.

The British expected to hold their gains as winter set in, then finish off the Americans in the spring. However, on Christmas night 1776 Washington crossed the Delaware River to surprise and defeat the enemy, mostly Hessian mercenaries allied with the British, at Trenton.

A week later British reinforcements attacked Washington at Trenton. He again escaped under darkness, but instead of retreating, his forces went around the British to take Princeton, which had been left lightly defended.

Reeling from these counterpunches, the British withdrew from most of New Jersey. The outposts that remained were subject to harassment by American militias. Exploiting their knowledge and control of the countryside, the militias would ambush British foraging parties, further demoralizing the British effort.

By the spring of 1777, the British were no longer expecting a quick end to the war—a fact that amounted to the beginning of the end for public and political support back in Great Britain.

If that summary is a view of the forest, Washington’s Crossing is a tree-by-tree examination. It combines meticulous pursuit of the facts, several interpretive themes that were new to me, and a highly readable narrative.

While I would not classify the book as light reading, it has the feel of a great college course. So if you’re into history, especially military history, I agree with the Amazon user reviewers in recommending Washington’s Crossing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Banksy Breaks the Frame

“Breaking the frame” is a social-science term that means changing people’s preconceptions so they see something differently. On the question “What is art?” street artist Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop breaks the frame, then folds, spindles, and mutilates it.

Start with the film’s topic, street art. Banksy and other street artists use public spaces as canvases—spray-painting, stenciling, and postering over walls and billboards. They don’t tend to ask permission. Art or vandalism?

It can be both. Here is a Banksy stencil on Israel’s West Bank barrier:

Or perhaps you’ve seen these around your city?

The guy in the picture is Shepard Fairey, one of the featured artists in the film. He has a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. Here he is in front of another one of his works:

The film shows various street artists in action. By cover of night, they paint and paste like nervy joyriders. Capturing it all is amateur filmmaker Thierry Guetta, whose immersion in the street-art underground eventually leads him to Banksy.

Banksy allies with Guetta to document Banksy’s activities, including the proper art world’s discovery of Banksy. Pieces that previously would have been left in the street until authorities removed them start fetching $25,000 or more at auction.

Noticing this, Guetta seizes on Banksy’s suggestion that Guetta make and exhibit his own art—a suggestion meant to distract Guetta from the film project, which Banksy decides to finish himself after realizing Guetta has no idea what to do with all the footage.

However, instead of finishing the original film, Banksy ends up documenting the meteoric rise of Guetta’s art persona, MBW (Mister Brainwash). MBW hires assistants to quickly render hundreds of works highly derivative of Banksy and other street artists. Riding the media and art-world hype around Banksy, MBW stages a massive exhibition. He sells more than one million dollars worth of art in the first week. MBW’s work later appears in museums and on a Madonna album cover.

Having graduated from maker to subject of Exit Through the Gift Shop, MBW dismisses his critics, saying time will tell if he is a real artist or not. The film ends with Banksy, Fairey, and others expressing confusion about how it all turned out.

Although the film gets more farcical as it goes, the line between fact and fiction is never clear. Post-film Internet searching shows that MBW’s exhibition was real, as was the Madonna album cover. And despite wide suspicion that Guetta/MBW is a fictional character created by Banksy, MBW continues to create and sell art in the real world.

So, to review: The next time you see a defaced wall, it might be art. Whoever made it thought it was art, but that’s just one vandal’s opinion, unless the vandal’s work is deemed important enough to be in galleries and auctions, in which case it is officially art. If it is officially art, instead of being powerwashed into soap scum, it will be auctioned for $42,500. This may be true whether the artist is an actual artist or an actor playing a filmmaker-cum-artist, especially if the latter is part of a hoax perpetrated by the former.

If your head is spinning, Exit Through the Gift Shop—and the larger culture-jamming project it is apparently part of—has done its job.

You can find the film on Netflix and (as of January 2, 2011) Comcast On Demand under “All Movies.”