Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas is a very recent release, which I saw last weekend; a collaborative effort by the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy) and Tom Tykwer. The Wachowski siblings famously gave us the Matrix trilogy (shot in Australia) and Twyker gave us Run Zola Run (made in Germany) a brilliant film that played with different media (like anime) and time (not unlike Ground Hog Day, only different). Cloud Atlas was shot in Scotland, Germany and Majorca, and, considering all its different scenarios shot with conscientious realism, it must have been very expensive.

It has to be said straight away that this film, with its 6 overlapping stories, all in different periods, and only tenuous connections, won’t appeal to everyone, yet I liked it a lot. A bloke sitting a couple of seats away from me kept looking at his iphone; a sure indication of boredom. I suspect the only thing that kept him in his seat (other than the outlay for his ticket) were the action scenes and any storyline was irrelevant to his need for entertainment. Without actually talking to him, this may be a harsh judgement, but I suspect he simply gave up trying to keep track of the 6 interlocking stories; so, for many, this may be a flawed film. Even David Stratton (arguably, Australia’s most respected film reviewer) who gave it 3.5 stars (his co-host, Margaret Pomeranz, gave it 4) said he’d like to see it again.

I think what saved the film, for me, was that all 6 stories were good stories in their own right and they all followed the classic narrative arc of setup, conflict and resolution. I thought the editing between stories (especially at the beginning) was too frequent, but that’s a personal prejudice. Once I got past the setup for each story (some took longer than others) I had no trouble following them. I made no attempt to follow any links between them (more on that below) and they all had the same theme, which was human rights and oppression, and how it hasn’t changed historically, except in its focus, and how it will continue into the future of our evolutionary development.

One story was set in the 19th Century, 2 in the 20th Century, 1 in the present, and 2 in the future. At almost 3 hours duration each story really only took up half an hour, therefore it didn’t drag, at least for me. As a writer I like to have 2 or 3 subplots happening at once – that’s how I write – so multiple storylines are not a problem in themselves. The popular series, Game of Thrones, has multiple storylines of 4 or more, yet I’ve never heard anyone say it was too difficult to follow.

Only one character, as far as I could tell, traversed 2 of the stories (in the 20th Century) and there was a very clever link between the 2 future stories, which was only revealed towards the end, and I won’t give it away, except to say (spoiler alert) that it reveals how a mortal from the past can be seen as Godlike in the future. In other words, they gain an iconic status as a result of their personal sacrifice. I thought this was the singularly most germane insight of the entire movie.

To call it ambitious is an understatement. Even within individual stories, they play with time, using every storytelling device that film allows, with flashbacks, flash-forwards and voiceovers. At least once, I observed that the voiceover from one story continued into another story; to emphasise a common theme rather than any continuity in content. The trailer emphasises the common thread in a mystical sense, yet, for me, that is not what the movie is about. I thought the 2 future stories were the most powerful, especially the near-future one. My advice to anyone viewing this is just go with the flow; don’t try to analyse it while you’re watching it but just treat each story on its merit.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Correlation of gun deaths to gun numbers world wide


Just over a week ago I got into a discussion with someone on Facebook (no names, no pack drill) about gun control in the USA, or lack of it. My interlocutor was an obviously intelligent bloke and claimed his argument was objective and emotion-free, based on mathematics. To this end he produced a graph demonstrating that there was no correlation between gun murders (homicides) and gun ownership across the 50 states of America. After the debate I found another graph that disputes his findings, but that’s not what my argument is about.

In truth, I think he was just as emotive about this issue as me, perhaps more so, but believed he could take refuge in the safe haven of statistical analysis. In fact, he made the extraordinary statement (from my perspective) that violence in the US is ‘cultural ….but there's no evidence it has anything to do with guns’. In other words, he acknowledges that America is a violent country but it has ‘nothing to do with guns’, because there is no correlation between gun ownership and homicides between states. The point I want to make is that one can make an illogical non-syllogism if one can back it up with statistics. He effectively argued that yes, there are a lot of gun-related deaths in America (over 10 per 100k of people; arguably the highest in the developed world) and America has a lot of guns (9 for every 10 people; the absolute highest apparently) but there is no connection between the 2 stats.

So I pulled out an old psychology text book on statistics and did some analysis of my own. There is a well-worn formula called the Pearson Correlation that exploits standard deviation of both sets of data and delivers a figure between -1 and +1 that is easy to interpret. 1 is obviously a perfect correlation and 0 is no correlation, with -1 an inverse correlation.

Using data on Wikipedia I did a correlation for all 74 countries that Wiki lists for total firearm-related death rate (the list of gun numbers is considerably longer). The Pearson Correlation was -0.07, which is marginally negative and seems to support my Facebook antagonist. But a handful of countries have huge death rates in the 30s and 40s per 100k, which wipes out any correlation that the majority may reveal.

So if one removes all African countries, all Central and South American countries, Caribbean countries and all Middle Eastern countries (except Israel) we are left with all of Europe (both West and East, where we have figures) and most of Asia (except Philippines; refer below) and North America; 46 countries out of the 74. Now we get a Pearson’s Correlation of 0.83 which is quite high. However, if one adds just one anomalous country like the Philippines, which has a gun death rate of 9.5 (almost the same as US) but with gun ownership less than 5 per 100 people (20% of US gun ownership) the correlation drops to 0.6, a considerable difference made by one country out of 47. On the other hand, if one drops the US from the list, the correlation also drops to 0.67, so it’s a significant weighty statistic in its own right.

If one just takes England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and United States (countries most culturally similar to the US) one gets a Pearson’s Correlation of 0.95 (almost exact). But taking US out of this smaller list of 6 English-speaking countries the correlation only drops to 0.86, which suggests that the US is not an anomaly in the same way that the Philippines is.

So much for statistics. Mass shootings that grab global media headlines, apparently make up only 1% of gun-related deaths in the US (according to my Facebook opponent) therefore from a statistical point of view they shouldn’t influence the debate at all, but that’s just nonsense. The point is that they should be 0% as they tend to be in other developed countries. The obvious question to ask is what is the difference between the US and the other handful of similar countries (like England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) that provide the strongest correlation? I would suggest it’s gun control. If the US has the largest number of guns per people of anywhere in the world and the highest gun-death rate in the Western world, then it’s screaming out for gun control.

I argued on Facebook that gun-deaths in America drive up gun ownership, indicated by the fact that there is a spike in gun purchases following mass shootings. America appears to have the most liberal gun laws in the developed world – a legacy of the NRA, one of the strongest political lobbies in America. It’s unlikely that Obama will be able to do any more than previous administrations, despite his history-challenging rhetoric. Every tragic shooting reopens this debate, but nothing changes, and every incident only reinforces the belief held by many Americans that they need to be armed.