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Millennials and Comic Books: Chill Out, Haters

| Sun Dec. 28, 2014 1:44 PM EST

Saul DeGrew surveys the various complaints people have about the Millennial generation. Here's one:

Another part of the Millennial complaint brigade is complaining about how they are still into videogames, comic books, and other activities from their childhood....I admit that I find this aspect of the Millennials staying Kids debate to be a bit troublesome but that is probably my own snobbery and cultural elitism coming in more than anything else. I don’t quite understand how explosion and bang wow movies are still big among a good chunk of the over-30 set.

Forget videogames: that's a huge industry that spans all generations these days. Their popularity says nothing about arrested adulthood. But I was curious: just how many Millennials are still reading comic books? Not just "interested" in comics or willing to see the latest X-Men movie. DeGrew may not like "bang wow" movies, but they've been a pretty standard part of Hollywood's product mix forever, and the current fad for superhero bang wow movies doesn't say much of anything about Millennial culture in particular.

So: how many actual readers of comic books are there among Millennials? I don't know, but here's a guess:

  1. Diamond Comic Distributors sold about 84 million comics in 2013. Diamond is damn near a monopoly, but it's not a total monopoly, and that number is only for the top 300 titles anyway. So let's round up to 100 million.
  2. That's about 8 million per month. Some comic fans buy two or three titles a month, others buy 20 or 30. A horseback guess suggests that the average fan buys 5-10 per month.
  3. That's maybe 1.5 million regular fans, give or take. If we figure that two-thirds are Millennials, that's a million readers.
  4. The total size of the Millennial generation is 70 million. But let's be generous and assume that no one cares if teenagers and college kids are still reading comics. Counting only those over 22, the adult Millennial population is about 48 million.
  5. So that means about 2 percent of adult Millennials are regular comic book readers. (If you just browse through your roomie's stash sporadically without actually buying comics, you don't count.)

I dunno. I'd say that 2 percent really isn't much. Sure, superheroes pervade popular culture in a way they haven't before, though they've always been popular. Adults watched Superman on TV in the 50s, Batman on TV in 60s, and Superman again on the big screen in the 80s. But the rise of superhero movies in the 90s and aughts has as much to do with the evolution of special effects as with superheroes themselves. Older productions couldn't help but look cheesy. Modern movies actually make superheroes looks believable. Science fiction movies have benefited in the same way.

In any case, superheroes may be a cultural phenomenon of the moment—just ask anyone who tries to brave the San Diego Comic-Con these days—but even if you accept the argument that reading comics is ipso facto a marker of delayed adulthood1, the actual number of Millennials who do this is pretty small. So chill out on the comics, Millennial haters.

1I don't. I'm just saying that even if you do, there aren't really a huge number of Millennial-aged comic fans anyway.

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Cuomo and Christie Veto Port Authority Reform Bill. But Is It Permanent?

| Sun Dec. 28, 2014 10:57 AM EST

I'm as distant from the politics of New York and New Jersey as it's possible to get, but I'm puzzled about today's news that the governors of both states have vetoed legislation that would have reformed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Here's a typical piece from the New York Daily News:

Rather than sign the bill supporters say would have opened the bi-state agency to much needed transparency and accountability, the two governors crossed party lines to announce they would push a reform package recommended Saturday by a panel they had created earlier this year.

....The bill's Assembly sponsor James Brennan (D-Brooklyn) and other critics argued there was no justification for the veto of legislation passed unanimously by the legislatures in both states.

Some, like former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who in 2009 sponsored a public authorities reform bill that did not cover the Port Authority, suggested Cuomo, a Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, were more interested in protecting their own power than actually reforming the agency. "It's shameful," Brodsky said. "They ripped the heart out of real reform in order to maintain their control and power."

....New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said the vetoes were a slap in the face to commuters who "rightly expected more from the governors after the revelations at the Port Authority over the last year."...Cuomo and Christie say the reforms they are recommending embrace "the spirit and intent" of the legislation....But critics suggest the recommendations were meant as a smokescreen to distract from the vetoes. "Power trumped good government," Brodsky said.

Wait a second. The bills were passed unanimously in both legislatures. It should be a snap to override the vetoes, right? And yet, none of the stories I read so much as mentioned the possibility. The best I could find was the last sentence of an AP dispatch:

New Jersey Sen. Loretta Weinberg said the decision was a "cop-out," and Assemblyman John Wisniewski said he's disappointed the bill didn't become law.....Both Weinberg and Wisniewski predicted that overturning a veto would be difficult.

Can someone fill me in on the inner workings of New York and New Jersey politics? Do legislators' loyalties to their governors really carry that much weight? I mean, everyone knew Cuomo and Christie were opposed to the bill from the start. So if the legislatures passed it unanimously to begin with, why can't they now muster a two-thirds vote to override? What am I missing here?

How About If We All Get Back to Protecting and Serving?

| Sat Dec. 27, 2014 7:39 PM EST

My neighboring city of Costa Mesa may be thousands of miles from New York and much, much smaller (population: 112,000), but they have something in common: police unions that don't seem to know when to quit. Check this out:

An Orange County Superior Court judge on Wednesday ordered a private investigator to stay away from two Costa Mesa councilmen he allegedly helped surveil in the run-up to local 2012 elections.

....The false-imprisonment charge relates to the filing of a police report that caused Councilman Jim Righeimer to be detained briefly when an officer responded to his home to perform a sobriety test, according to prosecutors....[Scott Impola 's firm] was retained by the Costa Mesa Police Assn. to surveil and research local councilmen who were trying to cut pension costs and reduce jobs at City Hall, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.

As part of their work, Impola and private investigator Chris Lanzillo allegedly put a GPS tracker on Councilman Steve Mensinger's car and later called in a false DUI report on Righeimer as he was leaving Skosh Monahan's, a restaurant owned by fellow Councilman Gary Monahan.

....Prosecutors say they have no evidence that the police union knew of any illegal activity beforehand.

Well, yeah. No evidence. But there is this:

Costa Mesa police officers mocked members of the City Council and suggested ways to catch them in compromising positions in the run-up to the 2012 municipal election, according to emails contained in court documents reviewed Monday by the Daily Pilot.

.... In one message, the association's then-treasurer, Mitch Johnson, suggested telling the union's lawyer about two of the councilmen's upcoming city-sponsored trip to Las Vegas...."I'm sure they will be dealing with other 'developer' friends, maybe a Brown Act [violation] or two, and I think [Steve Mensinger is] a doper and has moral issues," Johnson wrote in an email from a private account. "I could totally see him sniffing coke [off] a prostitute. Just a thought."

Yes. "Just a thought." I have a feeling that maybe the GPS and DUI revelations didn't come as a big shock or anything when the union was confronted with them. There's also this:

The association's president at the time, Jason Chamness, told the grand jury that he asked the law firm to dig up dirt on certain City Council members because he believed they were corrupt. Shortly after the DUI report involving Righeimer, the union fired the law firm, although the affidavit notes the union continued to pay a retainer until as recently as January 2013.

During his testimony, Chamness also said he deleted emails from his private account, which he used to contact the law firm about union business.

And why did the police union hire these two goons? Because the city councilmen in question were trying to cut pension costs and reduce jobs at City Hall. How dare they?

Quote of the Day: Hooray For Nerdy Details!

| Sat Dec. 27, 2014 2:22 PM EST

From Ben Goldacre, author of I Think You'll Find it's a Bit More Complicated Than That, a physician and author who debunks health fads and can be thought of as sort of an anti-Dr. Oz:

I think the public want nerdy details more than many in the media realize.

Preach it brother! Interviewer Julia Belluz asked Goldacre if he'd seen any progress over the past decade, and I found his answer pretty interesting:

I think the really big change has been the Internet. What was really frustrating when I first started writing [in the Guardian in 2003] was you would see mainstream media journalists and dodgy doctors and scientists speaking with great authority and hopelessly distorting research in a way that was dangerous and scaremongering. There was no way to talk back.

When I started writing the column I felt like I was talking back on behalf of this enormous crowd of disenfranchised nerds and nerdy doctors. Now with blogs, Twitter, and comments under articles, what you can see is everybody can talk back. On top of that, not only can people more easily find a platform to put things right when they’re wrong and also explain how they’re wrong and how to understand science better, but also anybody who is interested in something, who is sufficiently motivated and clueful, can go out and find out about it online. That’s an amazing thing. It wasn’t the case ten to 15 years ago. People now are now much more empowered to fight back against stupid stuff, and to read about interesting stuff.

Given that Dr. Oz and his ilk seem to be at least as popular as ever, I guess I'm not quite as optimistic as Goldacre. The problem is that the internet does help people who are "sufficiently motivated and clueful," but that's never been a big part of the population. And sadly, the internet is probably as bad or worse than Dr. Oz for all the people who don't know how to do even basic searches and don't have either the background or the savvy to distinguish between good advice and hogwash. Regular readers will recognize this as a version of my theory that "the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality." Or in simpler terms, "the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter."

In fairness, the rest of the interview suggests that Goldacre is pretty well aware that the impact of his writing is fairly limited ("I don’t think you can reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into"), and he shows a nuanced appreciation of exactly when his writing might influence a conversation here and there. The whole thing is a good read.

Boxing Day Cat Blogging - 26 December 2014

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 3:00 PM EST

Traditionally, Boxing Day is when the upper classes present the help with Christmas boxes full of money or gifts. As you might guess, this tradition has been corrupted a bit on its way to California. Here, it's the day that the help presents the upper classes with a box. Empty is preferred, actually. This one is big enough for two cats, but Hopper isn't interested in lounging inside the box. She leaves that to Hilbert. She prefers to sit on the outside and gnaw on the box instead. Her motto: If it's cellulose-based, it's meant to be ripped to shreds.

Does America Need More Startups? Fine. How Do We Get Them?

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 2:31 PM EST

Over at Foreign Affairs, Robert Litan has a piece lamenting the decline in entrepreneurship in America. I'm not entirely persuaded that this is a major problem—a fair amount of it is just the result of big national retailers replacing local diners and small shops, which are hardly big engines of economic growth—but I'm still willing to accept that some of it is probably real and deserves attention. The problem is what to do about it. James Pethokoukis, addressing skeptics like me, summarizes Litan's suggestions:

Of course one can quibble with these numbers and what they mean....But here is the thing: Pretty much all the policy steps you might take to respond to this startup wind-down — and the decline in innovation and good jobs it implies — are pretty smart ideas in their own right. Among Litan’s suggestions:

  1. Attract more immigrant entrepreneurs and keep more foreign students who earn graduate degrees in the STEM fields.
  2. Make it easier to attract investment capital through crowdfunding platforms.
  3. Constantly evaluate regulations to see if they raise entry barriers to new firms or give an edge to incumbents.
  4. Don’t let future changes to Obamacare create a disincentive for workers to leave their firms.
  5. Reform k-12 education to better teach technological literacy — but also don’t skip humanities and the arts.

Well....OK. But how far would this get us? #1 is something we already do better than anyone in the world. I suppose we could improve even further, and I'd be in favor of immigration legislation that does just that. Still, I guess I'm dubious that lack of smart immigrants is really a huge headwind in the US. Ditto for #2. Is lack of access to venture capital really a serious problem in this country? #3 is fine. I don't know for sure just how hard it really is to start a business in America, but the World Bank ranks us 46th in the world, and I imagine we could do better. #4 is odd: Litan himself says the news here is "mostly good." Obamacare makes it easier to change your job or start up a new business, and that's inherent in its very nature. It will stay that way unless it's completely repealed. Finally, #5 suggests that we do a better job teaching science, humanities, and the arts. Since that's pretty much everything K-12 education does, this is just a way of saying we should keep trying to improve primary education. I don't think anyone argues with that.

I don't mean to come off too cynical here. There are two good ideas here that we could plausibly do something about: Being friendlier to highly-educated immigrants and making it easier to start a business. (A third idea—improving our schools—is also good, but it's basically like endorsing motherhood and apple pie.) And a good idea is a good idea. But if entrepreneurship really is in decline in America—and if it's truly a far-reaching problem—I'd be interested in hearing more about root causes and what we might be able to do about them. It seems like it will take a lot more than this list to seriously address it.

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The Best Corrections of 2014

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 1:22 PM EST

In 2014, journalists produced a number of solid blunders and fails. That's bad news for industry esteem, but great news for lovers of hilarious corrections. Here are some of our favorites from the past year:

 

The Economist, Drug Legalization: The magazine's collective memory gets hazy when attempting to recall the finer details of their push for drug legalization.

 

New York Times, Dick Cheney: An amazing error that speaks volumes about the Bush years.

 

New York Times, Kimye Butts: In a story titled "Fear of Kim Kardashian's Derriere," the Grey Lady cites a fake interview where Kanye West compares his butt to the infamous butt of his wife.

 

Mumbai Mirror, Narendra Modi: Sarcasm!

 

NPR, Cow Farts: In a story about gassy cows and climate change, NPR "ended up on the wrong end of cows."

 

New York Times, "Good Burger": In which the Times made it embarrassingly obvious their newsroom is unfamiliar with the 1997 film classic, "Good Burger." (Plus, a bonus #teen error!)

 

Vox, Barry Manilow:  While cataloging the slew of celebrities who appeared on Stephen Colbert's final show, Vox confuses old white man Barry Manilow for old white man Rod Stewart.

 

New York Times, Gershwin grammar gaffe: Gershwin 101.

 

Courier-Mail, Birth Announcement "Retraction": Let's end on a heartwarmer. Well done, Bogert clan!

In Police-Civilian Encounters, Your Eyes May Be Your Worst Enemy

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 12:14 PM EST

Dan Kahan flags a recent bit of research about cognitive biases as a "run-away winner" in the contest for coolest study of the year. That might be a stretch, but it is pretty interesting.

Basically, it's about whether police bodycams will help resolve disputes about what really happened in encounters between cops and civilians. There are reasons to think their effectiveness will be limited because even with video evidence, we tend to interpret ambiguous events to fit our preconceived biases. This is similar to the way sports fans interpret instant replays of penalties in ways that favor their home team, and it goes under the generic name of "motivated reasoning."

So far, so boring. But conventional wisdom and common sense tells us that the way motivated reasoning works is simple: we view the events, and then we interpret them in light of our biases. That turns out not to be the case. The researchers performed a couple of studies based on video clips, one a citizen-police encounter and the other a brawl between two private citizens who wore different colored-shirts. In each case, the test subjects sympathized with one actor vs the other (police officer or suspect in study 1, green-shirt or blue-shirt in study 2). And it turns that motivated reasoning happens way earlier and is even more unconscious than we thought:

The super cool part of the study was that the researchers used an eye-tracking instrument to assess the predicted influence of motivated reasoning on the perceptions of the subjects. Collected without the subjects’ awareness, the eye-tracking data showed that subjects fixed their attention disproportionately on the actor they were motivated to see as the wrongdoer—e.g., the police officer in the case of subjects predisposed to distrust the police in study 1, or the citizen identified as an “out-group” member in study 2.

Wow!

Before reading this study, I would have assumed the effect of cultural cognition was generated in the process of recollection....But GBST's findings suggest the dynamic that generates opposing perceptions in these cases commences much earlier, before the subjects even take in the visual images.

The identity-protective impressions people form originate in a kind of biased sampling: by training their attention on the actor who they have the greatest stake in identifying as the wrongdoer, people are—without giving it a conscious thought, of course—prospecting in that portion of the visual landscape most likely to contain veins of data that fit their preconceptions.

Kahan suggests that this study "comes at the cost of intensified despair over the prospects for resolving societal conflicts over the appropriateness of the use of violent force by the police." Perhaps so. Certainly facts and evidence have a poor track record of changing minds, especially when it comes to emotionally charged events that affect our essential worldview. Still, I suspect that if bodycams become widespread, they'll change minds slowly but steadily. In the same way that years of exposure to TV and movies have turned us into more sophisticated consumers of narrative video, years of regular exposure to bodycam footage may turn us into more sophisticated viewers of police-civilian encounters. We'll probably know sometime around 2030 or so.

Jeb Bush Has an Obamacare Problem

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 10:52 AM EST

From Politico:

Jeb Bush is stepping down from the board of a health care company that has reportedly profited from Obamacare, a move that comes as the Republican explores a run for the presidency.

According to various media reports, Tenet backed President Barack Obama’s health reform act and has seen its revenues rise from it. Bush’s involvement with Tenet could give ammunition to conservatives in the GOP who view him as too moderate — particularly those who despise the Affordable Care Act.

I can't help but get a chuckle out of this. In normal times, Bush would have left Tenet because it's a big, soulless corporation that's paid fines for Medicare fraud and been criticized for dodgy tax practices at the same time it was beefing up executive pay. A man of the people who aspires to the Oval Office can't afford to be associated with this kind of dirty money.

But no. At least if Politico is to be believed, this isn't really an issue in the GOP primary. What is an issue is that Tenet might have profited from Obamacare, which in turn means that Jeb may have profited from Obamacare. Even if it's a double bank shot, that's dirty money in tea party land.

Of course, Jeb also has some of the more conventional plutocratic image problems:

Soon after his tenure as governor ended, Bush became an adviser to Lehman Brothers and, later, Barclays....In May 2013, Bush set up Britton Hill Holdings and dove into the private equity business....Bush’s first fund invested in Inflection Energy....His next one, BH Logistics, raised $26 million this spring from investors including China’s HNA Group....Bush’s newest fund, [U.K.-based] BH Global ­Aviation, is his largest and most complicated. It deepens his financial ties to China and Hainan....“In many deals, the U.K. ­effectively serves the same function as the Cayman Islands or Bermuda,” Needham says. “It’s like a tax haven, except it’s the U.K.”

Plus there's the fact that Jeb stayed on as an advisor to Barclays for years after it was fined for illegally trading with various blacklisted countries, notably including Cuba and Iran. If being on the board of a company that profited from Obamacare is a problem, surely this is at least equally bad. The attack ads write themselves, don't they?

Anyway, apparently Jeb is now in cleanup mode:

“These are all growth investments that the governor has worked on,” said Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell....Campbell said the 61-year-old former governor is “reviewing all his engagements and his business commitments” now that he’s begun to focus on a potential race. “That’s a natural next step,” she said.

Indeed it is. On the other hand, Mitt Romney severed most of his ties with Bain Capital a full decade before he ran for president, and just look at how much good that did him. Jeb probably isn't out of the woods yet.

The NSA Is Surprisingly Open-Minded About Analysts Spying on Their Spouses

| Fri Dec. 26, 2014 9:35 AM EST

Via Bloomberg, we learn that the NSA chose Christmas Eve to release its latest set of reports on violations of surveillance rules by its analysts. Nice work, NSA! For the most part, the reports don't appear to contain anything especially new, but I was struck by this particular violation:

The OIG's Office of Investigation initiated an investigation of an allegation than an NSA analyst had conducted an unauthorized intelligence activity. In an interview conducted by the NSA/CSS Office of Security and Counterintelligence, the analyst reported that, during the past two or three years, she had searched her spouse's personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting....Although the investigation is ongoing, the analyst has been advised to cease her activities.

Wait a second. She was caught using NSA surveillance facilities to spy on her husband and was merely told to cease her activities? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to, say, fire her instantly and bar her from possessing any kind of security clearance ever again in her life? What am I missing here?