Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class is a book that, in many respects, is about me. Hanley was born on a working class housing estate in Northern England in 1976, which makes her three years younger than me, and unlike most of her peers she left her working class origins to become middle class, by dint of getting a university education and a middle class job – just like me. In this book, Hanley describes the challenges of getting from there (the working class housing estate in 1980s Britain) to here (her current middle class position and lifestyle), and the challenges of living middle class when your upbringing was working class. Both aspects of this story are very important to me: escaping the bonds of working class life is a kind of cultural version of getting into orbit, requiring a huge personal effort and risk to get a single shot at hitting escape velocity, but the journey doesn’t end there. Getting into a new class, whether stolid middle class or some internationalist transcendental state, is not necessarily enough to free you from the old bonds of working class culture, and you can spend a long time – for me, perhaps a decade or more – feeling like a stranger in a new land, and even after you become to some extent familiar with the rules of your new world, you still feel like a fraud, and you still are stalked by this fear that it can all be taken away from you in an instant, that you’re just there on sufferance.

Hanley describes the social, cultural and spiritual challenges of both stages of this journey in rich and stunning detail in this book. She does not just describe the general challenges, though, but pinpoints specific, stunningly accurate details about the process that speak so powerfully to me of my own experience that it feels as if she has reached out from the pages into my own memory, and crafted an explanation for feelings and memories that I couldn’t pin down and understand until she shaped them. In both the general issues and in these details, she captures the essence of Britain’s class problems brilliantly.

On generalities, she describes the social and cultural barriers to a proper education for working class people in Britain, both those imposed on the class from outside (such as sub-standard schooling, economic barriers to progress, the difficulty of getting into grammar school for working class people) and those imposed on the working class by the working class – things like the way that working class children punish any of their own who show too much interest in school, the way that working class families don’t push their children to achieve or don’t consider the possibility of sending them to better educational opportunities (like grammar school) outside of their own experience, and the punishing assumptions they have about their own limited futures. For example, in describing the general atmosphere of working class culture in Britain in the 1980s, Hanley writes

Casual violence – symbolic, domestic and public – was endemic in the place and times in which I grew up. Casual racism was part of the fabric of daily conversation. Casual cynicism pervaded: a consequence of casual exploitation and casual displacement, which fed into people’s souls and manifested in their treating everything like one great frigging joke, because that’s how they felt they’d been treated their entire lives.

She follows this with a discussion of one of the motivating factors underlying this atmosphere, loss:

You may wonder what led to this collective conviction that there was no point. It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss. Loss is everywhere: the loss of optimism as experience victory-laps hope; the loss of loved ones too soon to war, workplace accidents or to ill-health; the loss of a sense of home, going back generations as families move repeatedly in search of relief from poverty; the loss of close ties as families are broken up in a similar way by moves down south, to America, Canada, Australia; and the loss of a sense of place as families attempt to remain rooted in a changing environment, such as when a local works that once employed just about everyone in the area closes down.

This really struck at my own understanding of growing up poor in Britain – we were always moving looking for a better job or opportunities, then our family ties were broken by moving to New Zealand (and then Australia), and finally my older brother was taken from us by the state because of his continued involvement in crime, no doubt partly because his constant sense of dislocation stopped him having any sense of responsibility to the community he was victimizing. Hanley’s description of the economic, cultural and educational environment of England in the 1980s is exactly how I remember it, and her piercing insight into working class culture of that era really closely mirrors my own.

On the details, Hanley has a remarkable ability to isolate small incidents and moments that bring to life the challenges of trying to grow out of working class culture, and trying to get an education that will matter in an environment that is so inimically opposed to anyone standing out, as well as so committed to its own failings. For example, she describes a simple moment in her day like this:

While working in the library I go downstairs to Greggs to get a cup of tea … In the time takes to reach the bottom of the staircase I overhear a total of two sentences: one, by a woman speaking into a phone, is ‘FUCK OFF about your rizlas, I don’t wanna hear it,’ and the other, from a young man to a young woman, is ‘I can’t hear a FUCKing thing you’re saying with you walking ahead of me.’ My bones turn to glass again and I remember that often things do seem terrible just because of where you are. I’m thrown back into a world of ignorance and everyday violence – and if that sounds extreme, you needed to hear the way in which those ‘fucks’ were said: the desperation and life-fatigue of the first and the casual aggression of the second.

This is such a perfect, crystal clear description of an ordinary moment in the working class world that it might have been grabbed straight from my own everyday life. And it’s a reminder of how hard it is to operate in a different world – a world where people only swear when they’re surprised or angry, and never with the same venom – that you didn’t grow up in and have no familiarity with. Somehow you have to negotiate an entirely new set of manners and norms you don’t know anything about, at the same time as you’re still traumatized by and accustomed to an entirely different set of behavior that marks you out as trouble to everyone else.

This switch in background and norms is hard to adjust to, but it’s made even harder by the discovery of how much you were being held back from, and how much your own class is despised. Early in the book Hanley observes

The interesting thing about entering the middle class is that everything you have known is turned on its head. You go from being invisible to society, and yet at the same time the object of constant scrutiny and mistrust, to being at once anonymous and in possession of a voice. You are trusted to get on with things, and encouraged to go on endlessly about the way in which you do them

Everything about this sentence speaks so clearly to my own experience of growing up a working class boy and then stepping out to middle class life, and the different assumptions and expectations that are made about and of you when you are in one group compared to another. These changes can be like a slap in the face sometimes, in those moments when you realize just how much you were being denied. For example, when I first attended university – my big chance to step out of my class, though I didn’t realize it then – I was surrounded primarily by the children of the wealthy middle class in Adelaide, and I was shocked at the casual wealth of their lives and their casual assumptions about their rights and what they could and couldn’t do in public. These same middle class children refused to believe my achievements in high school, which were far superior to any of theirs, simply because my presentation as a poor kid from the country did not match their stereotypes. These children who had sailed through high school to an assumed berth in university, with the minimum of effort because their high quality schools ensured they got a good education and they had been groomed for progression from birth, were unable to comprehend that in my struggle to escape a terrible school I had worked hard every day and as a result got vastly better marks than them and won coveted awards – simply because of where I was from and what the signifiers of social class attached to me said about my potential. Eventually, of course, as I became more comfortable with the middle class world, I stopped wearing my working class history on my sleeve – changed my clothes, moderated my accent, dropped the swearing and rough language – and people stopped assuming limits to my achievement based on where I was from. Once I became more comfortable navigating the particular landscape of middle class life, people started assuming I was one of them, and a new world of opportunities and possibilities opened up to me.

But as comfortable as you become, you never truly forget or overcome that upbringing, and in discussing this Hanley brings up a recurring image that I think very well describes the crippling limitations the working class places on itself: the wall in the head. This is the barrier you build inside your own soul that stops you properly appreciating, and properly navigating, the middle class world you have entered. It can manifest in little ways, like an unwillingness to spend more than a certain amount of money on certain things, or in big ways like a fear of debt or an inability to manage money the way rich people do. It can also stop you grabbing opportunities that your peers take for granted, because it holds back your confidence and makes you timid about your own possibilities, and I think (Hanley doesn’t say this) in some ways it acts as a kind of PTSD, making you subject to a kind of existential fight-or-flight syndrome that makes you fearful of change and easily cowed into not taking risks. This is also part of the second trait of people who have moved up, which Hanley identifies: a fear that it will all be taken away from you in a moment and that you are living in your new, freer world on borrowed time. I think I still carry this fear inside me now, and I think most who have risen out of poverty to the middle class carry this feeling inside them. It can be a positive reminder of how far you have come, but it can also be a whip that strikes to stop you taking risks, or doing things that other middle class people do, because of a fear that you might be pushing your luck. This, for example, is why I did not travel in most of my 20s, even though most of my middle class peers had. Too risky!

Hanley manages to combine this political and economic analysis of the conditions facing the working class with an almost anthropological understanding of how these conditions manifest at a personal level to give a really engaging and powerful description of the process of social mobility, and its consequences for those who are able to climb the ladder. She combines her own insights and stories with the work of a wide array of sociologists who have studied class, in particular a book by Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, that describes the same phenomena in an earlier age, from a similar standpoint. In updating this book for the modern era she incorporates more pop culture, and I guess tells stories that are more relevant to people like me. But in weaving all this together she tells a story that is almost perfectly about me, and I guess about people like me. It is the first time I have ever seen anything about the experience of poor people taking advantage of social mobility, that combines a sensitive and genuine respect for the class she has left with a scathing criticism of that class, without blame or sneering. For that alone, this book was like an awakening for me, the first time I ever thought that my experience of fighting so hard to become a scientist was unusual or challenging or rare, and exactly what forces I had to overcome to do what I unthinkingly did when I was just 17 years old. There are, of course, some differences – she grew up in the industrial north while I grew up in the rural southwest, and she never had the good fortune to migrate to Australia, a country that determinedly set out to make sure that the economic and political barriers to social mobility were lowered considerably (at least for my generation). Australia doesn’t have the same class structure or the same rigid divisions as Britain, and it’s possible that for people who were born and raised in Australia this book has nothing to say. But for someone like me, with an experience grounded strongly in British class barriers, this book was a powerful and eye-opening attempt to describe my own life story – an amazing experience for anyone who sees their story told by someone else, in a sympathetic and detailed account of their own life that mirrors yours. It’s the first time it has ever happened to me, and I will always be grateful for it.

The book does have some flaws, and for me the main one is its poor structuring. The book as a whole and the chapters within it don’t really have a strong introduction/body/conclusion structure, so that at times it comes across more as a rambling series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story. Some chapters end abruptly without anything resembling a review or conclusion, leaving you wondering exactly what Hanley was trying to say, and then the next chapter doesn’t really flow from the previous one, starting almost on a completely separate topic without any coherent structure. For me this was not a problem, since I was reveling just in having my story told, but for someone reading from a more dispassionate or disinterested perspective it might render the book far less readable than it might otherwise have been. Also, for someone reading from outside the class – i.e from the perspective of a middle class person who might influence policy – the lack of coherence might conspire to hide any possible conclusions that can be drawn about what needs to be done. This is particularly problematic when combined with the book’s other main flaw – its lack of recommendations. I would have loved to have seen a conclusion that gives concrete ideas about what needs to be done to make social mobility easier, political and economic recommendations on the one hand for weakening the stultifying grip of Britain’s class culture , and on the other hand a kind of self-help guide for those of us who have managed to climb the ladder. I don’t know how we can climb that wall in our head (or break it down) or how to escape that cloying fear of failure that haunts us, and I wonder if Hanley does either – but if she does, I’d love for her to have shared it with me. These flaws mean that while the book may be a powerful explainer for those coming from inside the experience, and potentially a powerful guide to understanding barriers to social mobility for those in other classes who are trying to break them down, it may only provide a limited guide to what can be done, and may turn off others who aren’t already approaching the problem with a sympathetic ear. Coming from inside the story, I can’t really say how much damage these two flaws do to the book’s overall mission, and I hope that they aren’t too overwhelming for other readers.

I was recommended this book on the left wing blog Crooked Timber, in a post by Chris Bertram, who turned to it as part of his attempt to understand Brexit. I don’t know how much it would help with this but I think it definitely provides a strong insight into how people in the working class experience class, and how hard it is to escape. I have written before on this blog about how I think social mobility is not the solution to inequality that many people hope, and have instead suggested we need to make all work rewarding and dignified. Hanley seems to have absorbed the same lessons from her own experience of changing class, writing in the conclusion of the book

I hope that by using elements of my own experience I have illustrated some of the shortcomings of a political narrative that places the onus for social mobility – for ‘getting out’ of the working class and into the middle class – on to individuals, rather than making it possible for everyone, regardless of occupation, to live comfortably.

I agree with her on the importance of this, and I hope that in reading this book others – especially from those classes that actually influence policy – will see how challenging it is to be ‘socially mobile’, both in taking the chances offered and in living with the consequences, and will rethink the way British society is organized to stop people at the bottom living comfortably, and to force them to climb so high and so hard to get out of the class they’re in. It’s not exactly a manifesto for revolution or social change, but I hope if more people read this book they will come to understand through its eloquence and insight just how hard they make things when they demand that everyone in the working class be respectable, and the impossibility of making Britain a better place by social mobility alone.

Someone has been reading the Star Wars RPG opening adventure

Laser from space!

Rogue One is a great movie. But more importantly, it’s a movie that brings the original Star Wars feeling back to life. It is a lively, intense romp through the Star Wars universe, replete with all the things that made the original movies so enjoyable: characters you really want to win, a plot that unfolds at the speed of light and keeps you on the edge of your seat to the end, stunning settings, space battles, and valiant heroism and sacrifice. The main characters are constructed quickly and smoothly at the beginning in broad brush strokes, which waste no time establishing who they are but get you engaged with them early on. The plot is driven by the same tense, demanding deadlines that we are used to from the original movies: an impending doom, a crucial space battle that depends on a small insurgent team to rescue it from catastrophic failure, and a taut race against all the resources of the Empire to snatch victory from them against impossible odds. The story unfolds over several planets, all presenting very different settings and ending in a beautiful archipelago that offers great views for the astounding slaughter unfolding in and above it. The fundamental driver of the plot – the need to get the plans to the Death Star – demands valiant action, heroism and sacrifice from a band of people thrown together by a mixture of desperation and idealism.

Still, we know from bitter experience that it’s possible for a Star Wars movie to appear to have all these elements, but to submerge them in plots designed by the marketing department, a sea of CGI, and limpid acting that makes you forget whole scenes. We don’t see any of that in Rogue One – the plot isn’t just tight and well worked, it makes sense within itself and does not demand that we regularly suspend our sense of disbelief or our understanding of what makes stories work in order to accept the sequences of events unfolding before us, and although there are several points in the movie where disparate forces come together to create chaos, the mechanism of their having been brought together makes sense and doesn’t stretch our credulity. There’s plenty of CGI but it’s used sparingly, giving us what we need and no more – none of those classic sci-fi disasters of filling the screen with spaceships because you can – and the CGI doesn’t ever serve to distract us from bad dialogue or bad acting. The dialogue is, apart from one bad joke, very well crafted, and just as in the original movies a droid plays an essential role in establishing the best repartee. And the acting is great.

Of course there was a time when these would have been considered baseline standards for a good movie, but in modern science fiction movies you’re lucky if you get to see all these basic conditions met, so we must remark on them as if they were unlocked achievements. Rogue One goes further than just unlocking these achievements, however. It also presents us a moody feeling of loss and threat throughout, it gives us fine cinematography and some stunning set pieces to make us marvel, and it is picture perfect to the original movies. If you watch Star Wars Episode 4 immediately after this movie (as I essentially did) you will see a seamless flow from Rogue One to A New Hope. Better still, Rogue One’s story offers an explanation for a core problem many people have with the fundamental plot of Episode 4, effectively saving that movie from itself and improving the original offering. It also is about more than just stealing the plans for the Death Star – it is the entire first two sentences of the opening text of Episode 4, fleshed out and with a rollicking ending that explains everything and leads you straight to A New Hope. As a result this movie, much more than anything that was made since Return of the Jedi, deserves to be considered canon, even if Disney are trying to present it as a sideshow. This movie is a genuine improvement on the Star Wars universe, a real core offering, and has much more to add to the story we grew up with than any of the flaccid bloatware that has been released in the past 20 years.

The movie does have its flaws, of course, but they’re not serious. At one stage near the end the heroes are presented with a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieving their task, which of course they overcome, but this turns a small section of the movie into an action platformer, or some kind of sci-fi version of that Ninja Warrior game show. That lets it down a bit and I think this part could have run more smoothly without pushing our heroes to be super-human to no particular plot purpose. Also this movie suffers the same problem as Episode 7, where hyperspace travel now happens at the speed of plot rather than any coherent actual time frame – we no longer do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, we do it in however long it takes to get our spaceship to the next scene on time and in position. Of course there’s no reason not to have hyperspace travel be near-instantaneous, since it’s hyperspace, but in the original story they at least had time for a highly fraught game of chess and some jedi training before they rocked up into a meteor shower. Now it appears we can get an entire fleet of battleships from quiescent to the other side of the galaxy, in battle formation, in the blink of an eye.

Aside from those small flaws though, this movie was brilliant from start to finish, and for me at least it restored my faith in this once-great series. If we’re lucky the producers and directors of Episode 8 will learn from this and try to get the whole carnival back on track – or we will see more spin-off movies that add more to the Star Wars mythology than the core movies ever do. Or, ideally, both. But just in case this is the last good thing ever to come out of Star Wars, I recommend seeing it as soon as you can – the ending of this movie is absolutely ruined if you hear any spoilers, so get down to the cinema and see it as early as you can, before the best thing to happen to Star Wars in 30 years is ruined by its own success!

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

On the weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new offering from JK Rowling. This movie is set in the Harry Potter world before the events of the Potter books, and I guess is intended to flesh out that world for a new generation of audiences. The movie itself is great and I strongly recommend seeing it, but the implications of some of its content for the broader world that Rowling has built, and for the viability of her vision of the world outside of the Potter stories, are dire. This movie raises some serious problems both about the structure of the world as it appears to have been envisaged, and also about the nature of the “good guys” in this world, and it rubs up against some of my complaints about the lack of imagination in modern fantasy. I’d like to talk a little about that and in doing so I’ll throw in a couple of minor spoilers, but first the movie itself.

This movie is set in New York in 1926, in the same world as the Harry Potter books. The main character, Newt Scamander, turns up just as a series of magical terrorist attacks are happening across Europe, blamed on some dude called Grindelwald. Scamander is carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected for study, and by dint of a major series of accidents he ends up embroiled in a battle to save New York and a single child from a monster. In the process he gets caught up with a muggle (in America, a “no-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and two witches (sisters) called Tina and Queenie. he has to simultaneously protect his monsters from the US law that forbids all magical creatures (on pain of death apparently) and protect himself from the machinations of a sinister senior wizard called Graves. The result is a classic Rowlingesque rollicking adventure which in my opinion is in many ways superior to the Potter movies, primarily because it doesn’t involve children and doesn’t have the same weight of world-ending seriousness. It also lacks the stuffy public school atmosphere of those books, instead having a louche American roaring twenties atmosphere that makes it much more relaxed and fun. The setting, although completely different from the Potter stories, is seamless with them, and the movie manages to evoke the exoticism with which America was viewed by Brits back in the 1920s without deviating at all from the sense of the setting. In particular, the two women, Tina and Queenie, were genuinely exotic, in a very 1920s American way, and in my opinion Queenie in particular worked really well to separate the American setting from stuffy British Potter without in any way undermining the context of the original stories or this movie. The monsters were brilliant, either awe-inspiring (the Thunderbird, the Obscurus) or engagingly cute (the Niffler) and were true to the design principles and style of the original movies. Some of the interactions with them, especially the Niffler and the Thunderbird, were vintage Potter, and even if the movie had been in other ways second rate the rich scenes with the monsters would have saved it. But this movie is far from second rate: the action scenes are excellent, the pace is good, and the plot is a simple, coherent and believable story that comes to a quite well executed finale. It is internally consistent and doesn’t depend on the audience forgiving mistakes or suspending their disbelief, and has that feeling of a plot pared back to its essentials to make sure the viewer doesn’t have to do double takes or try to hold together a bunch of leaky ideas at once to accept the conclusion. It’s a big story but a tight, believable arc that holds the action together and keeps you engaged and enjoying it without thinking. It’s one of those movies which you know you would still have enjoyed even if the monsters were second rate – but they most definitely are not. The main characters are also great – Scamander, Queenie, Tina, the Niffler, and Graves are all excellent characters well acted. Scamander really comes across as the gentle well-meaning misfit that he is, as does Queenie, and Tina the slightly tragic investigator who hasn’t quite got it together. The only let down is the brief appearance of Johnny Depp at the end – I’m completely over Johnny Depp’s acting, though I used to like him, and I don’t want to see another one of his supposedly fresh and original but actually completely cookie-cutter eccentric performances outside of a Tim Burton makeover (which I won’t watch). I certainly don’t want to see it spoiling an actual decent movie. But besides his brief annoying cameo, everyone else was great. The movie has minor flaws, as most movies do, but they’re not worth even documenting. It’s great. See it. You will love it.

So what’s wrong with this movie? The first big flaw was the fact that this movie comes straight to the point about the magical administration ruling the parallel universe of witches and wizards in the Rowling setting: it’s straight-up fascist. Now I missed some of the Harry Potter books and movies (skipped the middle 77 and saw the underwhelming final two), but my impression was that in the modern era the magical administration is overtaken by a kind of military coup near the end and turns kind of nasty, but based on Fantastic Beasts it appears that the administration that was taken over by this supposedly nasty military emergency government was actually – well, not really any different to a military emergency government. Particularly striking was the ability of senior figures in the administration to summarily execute other wizards for minor crimes, without evidence or trial, to confiscate property and to invade people’s minds. Indeed, the person who gets the execution order is then put to death by one of her good friends in the administration, who seems to think the whole idea is fine, which suggests that there is a level of brainwashing going on in this organization that is up there with North Korea. Meanwhile this Grindelwald dude is running around the world trying to undermine the administration and blow the wizards’ cover and get them noticed by muggles – but when I see people being executed without trial by the wizard’s rulers I am not inclined to think he’s wrong. If it’s Rowling’s intention to flesh out the world of Harry Potter, she needs to be careful that she doesn’t flesh it out in a way that makes Voldemort seem like the good guy, because I was only a few minutes into this movie before I thought the forces of wizarding administration were the bad guys, and certainly halfway through I was assured of it. I should add that this seems to be a trend in movies recently, that the administrations of the “good guys” are way too evil to be good – I saw this also in the Bourne Legacy (awful movie, don’t bother) and pretty much any of the Avengers-type movies that I have been able to stir myself to watching. It’s really hard to convince myself to appreciate the good guys when the people they’re working for are, well, dictators and war criminals.

The other aspect of the movie that bothered me – and that dovetails with this fascist administration – is the callous difference between the wealth of wizards and the poverty of muggles. The movie starts with the no-maj, Kowalsky, going to a bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He needs a loan because he has no money, but the bank won’t give him one because he lacks collateral, and they don’t have infinite resources so they don’t want to risk some of their finite stock of cash on this dude with no money. This is classic scarcity economy stuff: nobody has enough resources. The bank dude points out to Kowalsky that there are machines that can produce a hundred doughnuts a minute, and Kowalsky replies by pointing out that his doughnuts are better because they’re hand made. Then halfway through the movie, Queenie bakes him a strudel that is better than anything he can make – and she does it in a moment, without touching it. Then at the end some wizards wave their wands and repair shattered and crushed buildings across New York[1] in a matter of minutes. We are repeatedly told that the wizards can’t allow their secret world to be discovered by muggles because this would spark a war – and you can see why. These wizards are sitting on power so great that they can rebuild shattered city blocks in a moment, and they’re hiding this power from their fellow citizens in a society that took years to build a single skyscraper. At the end of the movie Scamander leaves Kowalsky a suitcase full of silver eggs from one of his monsters, as collateral for his bakery loan – Scamander’s rubbish is worth more than anything Kowalsky owns. Yet these wizards and their fascist society refuse to reveal themselves to the normal people struggling all around them, for fear of starting a war.

They’re not the best people, are they? They could lower the veil, reveal themselves, have access to the institutions of a society of 3 billion people, and the cost for them would be that they might have to donate an afternoon a week repairing inequality and solving world hunger – but they are desperate to hide themselves from this society. It’s a deeply cynical view of who these people are – but these people are the people we’re meant to be sympathizing with. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t. The only wizard who has anything good to say about this is Grindelwald, who wants to reveal the existence of wizards and make them deal with the human world. I think he kind of has a point, though he probably advocates slavery or something.

I don’t know where Rowling is going with this new series of stories – based on the first movie, it appears she’s going somewhere fun, which will be spoiled only by the presence of Johnny Depp – but if she doesn’t fix this little issue I can see it becoming increasingly difficult to paper over as she explores the context and social structures of Harry Potter’s world. I’m not convinced she can – Harry Potter, remember, is fundamentally a story about a boy who is born rich and receives everything he needs for nothing while those born poor struggle to get half of his benefits, even though they’re way better at what they do and work way harder – and although she’s probably a good enough story teller to get around it, for me this huge and glaring problem at the heart of the Potter world is going to only grow bigger as we see more of it. Harry Potter was a movie about the triumph of inherited wealth, in a class-based society (of the haves – mages – and the have nots – muggles – in the classically classist setting of England and public schools) and this movie is a story about the 1% – people so rich they can ignore the law of conservation of energy, and so idle and feckless that they refuse to share this power with the rest of society in case they might have to do a day’s work putting their powers to the service of those beneath them. But I am expected to side with the 1% in these movies. I don’t think I can do it for long.

But I could for this movie, which was fun. So watch it, enjoy the chaos and the sadness, and try not to think about the huge inequality at the heart of this fun and extravagant world.


fn1: Why do American movies love destroying their own cities? Is it a deep psychological scar?



On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.

And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.

In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.

As you would be.

But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.

Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.

Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:

  • I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
  • The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??

This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.

Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.


Today I saw Independence Day: Resurgence, because I wanted to watch something stupid with big explosions and I have forgotten enough of the original to make it feel like I was doing something novel. Of course it was fun – big things got blown up, there were tidal waves and monstrous destruction, heroic fighter pilots taking on the behemoth, etc. But it was also, pretty much from the start, a showcase for everything that is wrong with modern action movies. Except that it’s fun to watch shit blow up, this movie was a completely execrable effort.

It had the usual problems one learns to live with in modern action movies: speeches that are meant to be stirring end-of-the-world heroic efforts but are actually just kind of lame; random shifts in timing that mean that a 4 minute countdown to human extinction takes an hour, but a day-long trip to the moon happens at the speed of plot; American triumphalism that is so common and boring now that it might as well be part of the scenery; and military dialogue that is meant to be snappy and jocular but just comes across as wooden (everyone wants their soldiers to be like Aliens or Dog Soldiers but they just come across as macho try-hards). This movie struggled under the additional burden of occasionally being a bit top-gun like, and having a bunch of relationships between male leads that were way too closet-homosexual (a problem since Top Gun, I guess). I’m pretty sure that two scientists were meant to be gay (one gets killed of course because that’s the rule for same sex relationships) but I don’t want to impugn the actors – they may just have been terrible actors whose ineptitude came across as camp.

But one learns to live with this kind of thing. This movie was weighed down by bigger problems than these – the kind of problems that are too common in modern action movies, and really ruin them. Here are some of these problems, with spoilers (which I hardly think you need to care about – if you go into this movie thinking any of the non-gay heroes are going to die, or that the human race was ever under any real threat, you really do deserve a medal for your naivete).

The pointless alarms: I think there were at least three points in the movie where a major character has a breakthrough of some kind – usually, in this movie, because they have some deep connection to the alien mind – that enables them to realize that there is a big problem coming up, such as a major attack or a trap. Their discovery/revelation of this big issue is a major scene in the movie, and they rush to tell everyone, but in every instance they’re too late. Everyone finds out at exactly the point that the character reveals the issue, because the issue happens right then. There’s a whole subplot of this movie about how some humans were affected by contact with the alien hive-mind and they get insights into the alien’s plans from this contact, but every single time they rush into the control room to yell “it’s a trap!” or appear on the podium to say “they’re coming!” or whatever, it’s irrelevant – the trap springs a moment later, or the shadow of the spaceship is already overhead, or the top secret weapon is activated by someone else who has no connection with the aliens whatsoever. But of course none of our heroes (except the gay one) are allowed to die, so then we are treated to this ridiculous series of complications and implausible events that enable the heroes to escape the trap, or survive the sudden arrival of the alien spaceship, or whatever. The movie would be so much simpler and less irritating and more coherent if these realizations – and all the backstory necessary to support them – were stripped away; or, so much more tense and self-consistent if the warnings came in time to change the course of the story. Instead, since the story writers are complete idiots, the plot is constantly annoying you with this irrelevant backstory to justify urgent warnings that make no difference.

The bad guy’s plans are just dumb: All too often this kind of movie has a bad guy who could win everything by sticking to a simple plan that works, like flying a 3000 km long spaceship over the Atlantic Ocean, blowing up everything in your way, and then sucking all the molten metal out of the earth’s core. Instead, the bad guy does stupid shit that doesn’t make any sense, either from a practical planning point of view or within the framework of the particular form of implacable evil that the bad guy represents. Sometimes the problem is just that the bad guy’s overall plan for world domination is such obvious bullshit that it should be comedy, like when the Joker (or was it the Penguin?) planned to put hallucinogens in the Gotham City water supply and then rule the world (?!). In this movie though it’s the more common problem that the evil bad guy has a simple plan that doesn’t require any embellishment, and so the embellishments don’t make any sense; and then at the end the bad guy does something completely irrational that obviously is high-risk and doesn’t match the bad guy’s personality at all. In this case, having proven that the 3000km long spaceship can destroy every orbital defense in a second, control gravity sufficient to tear entire cities into the sky, and drill a hole to the earth’s core in a day, the bad guy has to lay some kind of trap to lure a few of earth’s bombers inside its 3000km long spaceship and then blow them up. Why? Why doesn’t it just wipe them all out in a millisecond and keep on about its business? And how does this trap in any way relate to its subsequent ability to destroy all the earth’s satellite communications? (The movie suggests that they are linked somehow). This is just incoherent. Of course then subsequently, having proven that it has a spaceship capable of destroying any opposition and protecting it from any harm, the evil bad guy decides to depart in a much smaller ship and attack the main human base, which is heavily defended, rather than just sending minions. Suddenly the bad guy goes from being an implacable insect mind of infinite evil and cruelty to a vengeful viking with no common sense. This kind of sudden change in behavior really obviously was just done to make the plot work, and when the writers betray the principles of the characters so that they can make a story, you just find yourself thinking they’re arseholes with no respect for their audience.

The pointless sacrifices that don’t matter: It’s apparently impossible to send a guided missile through a hole the size of a large crater in this super-technological future, so instead a bunch of brave dudes have to commit to a suicidal run to get that weapon in there, and then of course it doesn’t work anyway because the whole thing was a trap. This might make sense except that moments earlier we’ve been told that the air force will use drones to break down the 3000km long spaceship’s (previously impervious!) shields. I’m sorry, but if you want me to place some value on a person’s self-sacrifice, you actually have to give me a reason why they should kill themselves.

Being a dickhead idiot jock never has consequences: Apparently when you work on a top-secret high-value moon base that holds a weapon so powerful it can destroy massive alien spaceships, that is the prize of earth’s fleet, you can just steal a spaceship, go to earth, pick up a couple of guys you think you might need (who incidentally never told you where they were) then return to the moon and be given no punishment. You can also nearly destroy that weapon by your own stupidity, then do something really reckless to stop it being destroyed, and be grounded for a day. Even though it’s your third offense, and your first offense involved destroying an experimental jet and nearly getting your buddy killed. Here’s the thing, idiot hollywood writers: jocks aren’t cool. They’re bullies and dickheads. You don’t make them cooler by making their bullying, reckless, stupid behavior consequence-free. When you do that you just make most of the audience like them less, and wonder why they’re cheering these people on.

The cataclysms that don’t: This 3000km long spaceship settled over the Atlantic and created a tidal wave so great that it washed away Florida, and hurled cargo ships around like matchsticks; but a tiny salvage ship full of dodgy dudes out in the middle of the Atlantic, a mere kilometre away from the source of the ship’s death ray, was completely untouched and not even rocked by a wave. In case you’re thinking “oh but that was just the eye of the hurricane, right?” the writers are sure to make it clear that this is the only ship left in the area. Similarly we see these ordered refugee columns fleeing the destruction and leaving a lane of the road open for people to pass them by, and we see a rain of destruction in which one city is dropped on another city but our heroes’ valiant spaceship is completely undamaged by being in the middle of it all. This kind of thing is really annoying because it tells you immediately that all the death and destruction you’re going to see is not a threat to your heroes – they’re immune to everything and anything, and the story will make this clear repeatedly, so that by the end you’re bored of the supposed “challenges” they get caught in. Why should I invest any energy into supporting the struggle of a bunch of dudes who I know are going to make it out no matter what, because they’re jocks?

Once, just once, I would like to see one of these movies go through all these stupid errors and then in the last 20 minutes wipe out the earth and kill all the heroes because they’re reckless fools. That, of course, is never going to happen. So instead I have to sit through these movies full of shlock in order to see a few things blown up. I guess if writing these kinds of stories were difficult this might be okay, but I’m a GM and I know how to make a simple plot that involves lots of violence for a good purpose; plus I’ve seen movies like Die Hard, Aliens, Starship Troopers and Dog Soldiers which are able to make a simple story hang together in a believable way, even though every aspect of every one of those movies is completely unrealistic.

This shit is really not difficult to get right. Why is it so hard for modern Hollywood blockbusters to make a decent action movie?

Hot on the heels of a (probably wrong) paper on ivory poaching that I criticized a few days ago, Vox reports on a paper that claims schools that give away condoms have higher teen pregnancy rates. Ooh look, a counter-intuitive finding! Economists love that stuff, right? This is a bit unfortunate for Vox since the same author has multiple articles from 2014 about rapidly falling birth rates that are easily explained by the fact that teenagers are really good at using contraceptives. So which Vox is correct, 2014 Teens-are-pregnancy-bulletproof Vox that cites national pregnancy and abortion stats, or 2016 give-em-condoms-and-they-breed-like-rabbits Vox that relies on a non-peer-reviewed article by economists at NBER? Let’s investigate this new paper …

The paper can be obtained here. Basically the authors have found data on school districts that did or didn’t introduce free condom programs between 1989 and 1993, and linked this with county-level information on teen birth rates over the same period. They then used a regression model to identify whether counties with a school district that introduced condom programs had different teen pregnancy outcomes to those that didn’t. They used secondary data, and obtained the data on condom distribution programs from other journal articles, but because population information is not available for school districts they used some workarounds to make the condom program data work with the county population data. They modeled everything using ordinary least squares (OLS) regression. The major problems with this article are:

  • They modeled the log of the birth rate using OLS rather than directly modeling the birth rate using Poisson regression
  • Their tests based on ratios of teen to adult births obscures trends
  • They didn’t use a difference in difference model

I’m going to go through these three problems of the model, and explain why I think it doesn’t present the evidence they claim. But first I want to just make a few points about some frustrating weaknesses in this article that make me think these NBER articles really need to be peer-reviewed before they’re published.

A few petty complaints about this article

My first complaint is that the authors refer to “fighting AIDS” and “AIDS/HIV”. This indicates a general lack of familiarity with the topic: in HIV research we always refer to the general epidemic as the HIV/AIDS epidemic (so we “fight HIV/AIDS”) and we only refer to AIDS specifically when we are referring to that specific stage of progression of the disease. This isn’t just idle political correctness: patterns of HIV and AIDS differ widely depending on the quality of notification and the use of treatment (which delays progress to AIDS), and you can’t talk about AIDS by itself because the relationship of AIDS and HIV prevalence depends highly on the nature of the health system in which the disease occurs. The way the authors describe the HIV epidemic and reponses to it suggests a lack of familiarity with the literature on HIV/AIDS.

This sloppiness continues in their description of the statistical methods. They introduce their model as follows:

Condom model

But on page 10 they say that the thetas represent “county and year dummies” and that the Tc represents “county-specific trends”. These are not dummies. A “dummy” is a variable, not a parameter, and “dummies” for these effects should be represented by an X multiplied by a theta. In fact the theta and Tc are parameters, and in any kind of rational description of a statistical model this model is written wrong. It should be written with something like ThetacXc where Xc is the dummy[1].

This kind of sloppiness really offends me about the way economists describe their models. This is a simple OLS regression of the relationship between the log of birth rate and some covariates. In epidemiology we wouldn’t even write the equation, we would just list the covariates on the right hand side. If anyone cares about the equation, it’s always the same and it’s in any first year textbook. You don’t make yourself look smart by writing out a first year sociology equation and then getting it wrong. Just say what you did!

So, with that bit of venting out of the way, let’s move on to the real problems with the article.

Another model without Poisson regression

The absolute gold standard correct method for modeling birth rates is a Poisson regression. In this type of equation we model counts of births directly, and incorporate the population as an offset. This is a special case of a generalized linear model, and it has a special property that OLS regression does not have: the variance of the response is directly related to the magnitude of the response. This is important because it means that the uncertainty associated with counties with small numbers of births is not affected by the counties with large numbers of births – this doesn’t happen with OLS regression. Another important aspect of Poisson regression is that it allows us to incorporate data points with zero births – zero rates are possible.

In contrast the authors chose to use an OLS regression of the log of the birth rate. This means that there is a single common variance across all the observations, regardless of their actual number of births, which is inconsistent with the behavior of actual events. It also means that any counties with zero births are dropped from the model, since they have no log value. It also means that there is a direct linear relationship between the covariates on the right hand side of the model and the outcome, whereas in the Poisson regression model this relationship is logarithmic. That’s very important for modulating the magnitude of effects.

The model is, in fact, completely inappropriate to the problem. It will give the wrong results wherever there are rare events, like teenage births, or wherever there are big differences in scale in the data – like, say, between US counties.

Obscuring trends with a strange transformation

I mentioned above that the article also uses the ratio of teen to adult births (in age groups 20-24) to explore the effect of condom use. Figure 1 shows the chart they used to depict this.

Figure 1: The weird condom diagram

Figure 1: The weird condom diagram


Note that the time axis is in years before and after implementation of the program. This is a highly deceptive figure, because the schools introduced condom programs over 4 years, from 1989 to 1993. This means that year 0 for one school district is 1989, while for another it is 1992. If teen births are increasing over this period, or adult births are decreasing, then the numbers at year 0 will be rates from four different years merged together. This figure is the mean, so it means that four years’ worth of data are being averaged in a graph that only covers ten years’ worth of data. That step at year 0 should actually occur across four different points in time, within a specific time trend of its own, and can’t be simplified into this one diagram.

Note that the authors only show this chart for the schools that introduced a condom program. Why not put a similar line, perhaps in a different color, for school districts that didn’t? I suspect this is because the graph would contradict the findings of the model – because either the graph is misrepresentative of the true data, or the model is wrong, or both.

This graph also makes clear another problem with this research: the authors obviously don’t know how to handle the natural experiment they’re conducting, since they don’t know how to represent the diverse start points of the intervention, or the control group.

Lack of a difference in difference model

The authors include a term for the effect of introducing condom distribution programs, but they don’t investigate whether there was a common effect across condom distribution and non-condom distribution regions. It’s entirely possible that school districts without condom distribution programs also saw an increase in teen pregnancies (1989 is when MTV came out, after all, and all America went sex crazy. It’s also the year of Like a Prayer, and Prince’s song Cream was introduced in 1991. Big things were happening in teen sexuality in this period, and it’s possible these big things were way bigger than the effect of government programs.

Statistics is equal to any challenge, though[2]. We have a statistical technique for handling the effect of Miss Calendar grooving on a wire fence. A difference-in-difference model would enable us to identify whether there was a common effect during the intervention period, and the additional effect of condom promotion programs during this period. Difference-in-difference models are trivial to fit and interpret, although they involve an interaction term that is annoying for beginners, and they make a huge difference to the interpretation of policy interventions – usually in the direction of deciding the intervention made no difference. Unfortunately the authors didn’t do this, so we see that there was a step change in the intervention group, but we don’t see if there might have been a similar step change in the control group. This effect is exacerbated by having county-specific time trends, since it better enables the model to adapt to the step in the control group through adaptively changing these county-specific trends. This means we don’t know from the model if the effect in the intervention group was really confined to the intervention group, and how big it really was.

The correct model

The correct model for this problem is a Poisson regression modeling teen births directly with population as an offset, to properly capture the way rates change. It would be a difference-in-difference model that enables the effect of the condom programs to be extracted from any general upward or downward steps happening at that time. In this model, figure 1 would be replaced by a spaghetti plot of all the counties, or mean curves for intervention and control not rescaled to ensure that the intervention happens at year 0 for all intervention counties, which is misleading. Without doing this, we simply have no evidence that the condom distribution programs did what the authors claimed. The ideal model would also have a further term identifying whether a condom program did or didn’t include counselling, to ensure that the authors have evidence for their claim that the programs with counselling worked better than those without.

I’m partial to the view expressed that counselling is necessary to make condom programs work, but Vox themselves have presented conflicting evidence that teenagers are perfectly capable of using condoms. Given this, explicitly investigating this would have provided useful policy insights. Instead the authors have piled speculation on top of a weak and poorly-designed statistical model. The result is a controversial finding that they support only through very poor statistical modeling.

The correct model wouldn’t have been hard to implement – it’s a standard part of R, Stata, SPSS and SAS, so it’s unlikely the authors couldn’t have done it. It seems to me that this poor model (and the previous one) are indicative of a poor level of statistics and research design teaching in economics, and a lack of respect for the full diversity of statistical models available to the modern researcher. Indeed, I have a Stata textbook on econometrics that is entirely OLS regression – it doesn’t mention generalized linear models, even though these are a strong point of Stata. I think this indicates a fundamental weakness in economics and econometrics, and leads me to this simple bit of advice about models of health and social behavior prepared by economists: they’re probably wrong, and you shouldn’t trust them.

I hope I’m wrong, and Vox don’t keep vexing me with “explainers” about research that is clearly wrong. I don’t hold out much hope …

fn1: for those digging this far, or who often stumble across this horrible term in papers they read, a “dummy” is just a variable that is either 0 or 1, where 1 corresponds to the event of interest and 0 to not the event of interest. In epidemiology we would just say “we included sex in the model”. In economics they say “we included a dummy for sex.” This is just unnecessary jargon.

fn2: Except the challenge to be fun.


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