Archive for October, 2012

What the Judges Criticized Colleen For …

October 31, 2012

Well, now that Colleen has been eliminated, and since I’ve seen some comments about Danielle’s latest performance claiming that she was out of tune (and I think I read that about Cassandra once in similar circumstances), I thought I might make an attempt to explain what the judges were criticizing Colleen constantly for in simpler terms. Because I’m pretty sure I know what they were talking about but they put it in technical terms.

It all comes down to something that I’ve been talking about a lot, which is acting. There’s a difference between singing and acting through song. When you do musical theatre, obviously your primary purpose is to act through song, and not to sing. If you’re giving a concert, the opposite is true; you want to sing, and don’t really have to act. Colleen, for the most part, sang in her performances. She sang very, very well, but the comments about her being too perfect and having to be able to let it slide a bit were basically comments that she tried so hard to hit every note right and sing every word clearly and with absolute perfect projection, to make it a memorable vocal performance. But when you’re acting, that sort of perfection isn’t always what you want. That sort of perfection is stale and devoid of emotion and passion, and without that it’s hard to make people feel like they’re actually watching the story. You have to express, for example, that you are feeling what you should feel in that situation, and sometimes that means sacrificing vocal perfection for emotion.

The best analogy for this might be just regular acting. You can, in regular acting (especially on stage) learn how to do perfect projection and enunciation, and how to keep nerves and quavers from your voice. All good actors learn most of these things. However, these are just a means to an end, which is of making it so that people understand what you’re saying and believe it, and so get into the story that you’re presenting. But if your character is supposed to be someone who is shy and mumbles, a good actor will deliberately mumble. If it’s a case where they’re supposed to be nervous, they will deliberately stutter and speak nervously. If they’re supposed to be half-crying, they’ll half-cry. The very best actors can incorporate all of these things that make their speech less clear artfully into their performances while still having what they’re saying be perfectly and completely understandable. Except when it’s not supposed to be, of course. Thus, you end up with a less perfect performance, but one that captures the emotion of the situation better.

The same thing applies to the songs in musical theatre. The catch in Danielle’s voice when she was singing was artfully done to express the emotion. For the most part, when it was complained that they were “out of tune” I will say that I didn’t notice, but it likely was artfully being out of tune, sacrificing the perfect tone and clarity of the music in order to better express the emotion of their songs. And what Colleen didn’t do was that, was sacrifice the singing for the sake of the emotion. And if you’re going to star in musical theatre, you really do have to do that. If you can pull off the emotions properly, most of the audience won’t notice if you slip a little in the singing because they will be so wrapped up in the moment, if those slips don’t enhance it themselves. The same thing applied to Stephanie’s missing of a line in her song. Not knowing the song, I didn’t notice … but if she’d acted like she’d slipped, I would have. But when all you offer is the song, then if you miss, I’ll notice because that’s all I’m paying attention to. The more you give me to think about, the more you can get away with … and likely the more I’ll enjoy it.

This is why I’d like to see Colleen go more the Charlotte Church route than the musical theatre route; her natural attributes are simply perfect for listening to her on CD or watching her in concert, and they work against her when she tries to act.

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Over the Rainbow Results Oct 29

October 30, 2012

Well, I was, again, 1 for 2 in choosing who would be in the bottom two, and correctly predicted that Colleen would be going home. Because the judges weren’t going to let the opportunity to send Colleen home pass them by when given the chance.

But AJ being in the bottom two was very surprising to me. Last week, I was 1 for 2 in predicting who would go home by following the algorithm that the person in the bottom two last week would be in it again. This week, I ran the same algorithm, but Stephanie didn’t end up in the bottom two. I can only think of three reasons why that might be the case, and all of them have implications for the final showdown where Canada will choose Dorothy:

1) She picked up a significantly larger number of votes from Cassandra’s fans than the other girls.

2) Her dedicated fans are lazy, and needed the prod of her almost going home to actually vote for her en mass.

3) There is a significant number of voters who vote based on the performances and not on their overall favourite. To put it in election terms, there is a significant “swing vote”.

If 1) is true, then picking up Colleen’s fans will be a critical factor in determining who wins. If 2) is true, Stephanie needs them to show up again if she wants to win, and AJ will not win the competition (Stephanie’s breaking of the “bottom two” algorithm was a specific case and not general). If 3) is true, then each girl will have to nail it to win it all, which would make for the most interesting finish.

On the sing-off itself, both AJ and Colleen improved, but didn’t quite solve their problems. AJ runs the risk of being the musical theatre equivalent of a ham, because her gestures and facial expressions are so forceful that they become obvious, even when she might want to be more subtle. Colleen, however, still has a problem expressing what the song is trying to convey, although she sings beautifully.

Out of the final three, then, the main issues they have are:

1) Danielle … well, she doesn’t have any serious problems. Maybe her age will make it hard for her to play a young role.

2) Stephanie needs to sing to the audience in the slow, dramatic songs, and not the rafters. It gives an angelic, hopeful look to her, but that’s not always appropriate.

3) AJ needs to demonstrate subtlety.

That being said, they’re all wonderful singers and all of them can act, so it will be interesting to see who finally wins.

Over the Rainbow Performance Oct 28.

October 29, 2012

My comments on last night’s Over the Rainbow performance episode:

First up was Stephanie. And she had a tremendous performance, akin to her “Hello, Buenos Aries” performance but even better. She did “Cabaret”, and really stepped up to the plate, putting in a well-acted and performed performance. The key here is that she lost her “little girl” type of style, that shyness that the judges talked about, and did something that was completely unlike her, and did it well. While this wasn’t as deep an acting performance as some other songs would have been, it stood out for being in a style that you didn’t normally see from her, which was well-done.

Next up was Colleen, who did “Somewhere”. And her acting problems hit again, where she simply couldn’t convey the emotion that would draw you into the narrative of the song and make it seem like you were watching a story as opposed to just listening to someone song. She’s an excellent singer and has a great voice, and can do performances well, but she hasn’t proven that she can act yet, and every time she tries she seems to stumble on it. I think that instead of musical theatre I’d like to see her do something more like Charlottle Church did; start by singing where her performance skills and elegance can carry the day and then maybe move on from there to other things. If she put out a CD of various classical and folk songs, I’d almost certainly buy it, which I can’t say is the case for all the other Dorothys.

Next came AJ, doing “All that Jazz”. She’s also a strong performer. She’s really just fun to watch and she slips facial expressions and little moves in to highlight it. I could watch her for hours, honestly. And yet … the performance left me a little cold, a bit “Meh”. Technically, her performance was at least as strong as Stephanie’s, and yet I liked Stephanie’s a lot better. I think it’s because Stephanie gave us something new for her, while for AJ it was just that same old bold and brassy performance that she always does. And it wasn’t that strong an acting piece either, leaving doubts that she can act given what I thought was a weak and at times inappropriate — for the song — performance last week. Which is where I think the judges’ comments about her being too — forceful, shall we say? — come into play. She tends to go for dramatic gestures, both vocally and in her mannerisms, and while sometimes that’s really good there are times when you need to be subtle, and just do the small things. I’m not sure she can just do that, and that’s what you need to keep me interested when I’m not there to watch you perform, but am instead there to watch a story that you’re supposed to be taking me through.

Finally, we had Danielle, doing “I Dreamed a Dream”. And in terms of her performance … she nailed it, as usual. It was the best acting performance I’ve seen from her and from any of the Dorothys. Her voice and mannerisms all worked together to produce the actual feeling and draw me into the moment, feeling that I was part of the narrative and the story and getting a view into the personal life of this woman who had all of her hopes and dreams dashed. Even the little sprint away, and then stop and return added to it, even though it’s a pretty standard move in theatre and acting … but it’s important to do those little standard things. They’re classics for a reason.

So, my ranking of the performances, based only on my own personal views:

1) Danielle
2) Stephanie
3) AJ
4) Colleen

My prediction for the bottom two remains Colleen and Stephanie. And if Colleen ends up in the bottom two, she will not be in the final three, so then my final three prediction is Danielle, Stephanie and AJ.

A few final notes on this performance:

1) While I think Danielle is the best actress who has put in the best acting performances, one thing that became clear last night is that she’s the least physically attractive of the final four. She’s pretty enough and easy enough to look at, but she doesn’t have Colleen’s ethereal and elegant looks (that she made the most of last night, leaving me thinking “Wow”) or AJ’s effervescent and sensual looks (again, that were prominently on display last night) or Stephanie’s cuteness that she can parlay into a more attractive look when she needs it. But musical theatre is not about your looks, at least not completely. Danielle seems to me to be the best not because she’s the best looking — because she isn’t — but because she carries the narrative with her. All you need is to be attractive enough that people can watch you, and then the rest is in how you act … which is something that, I think, Hollywood and television has lost somewhere along the way.

2) There’s a difference between being a good musical performer and being a good musical actor, although they are related. Colleen and AJ are great performers and I could watch them perform for hours, but I’m leery about them as actresses. On the other hand, Danielle isn’t as strong a pure performer as they are but is a far better actress. Musical theatre is primarily about acting, not performance, which is again why I put Danielle on top as the best so far. Now, this is not to say that they are unrelated. If you are acting, being a strong performer is very good because it makes it easier to get people to watch you, and so makes it easiser for you to draw them into your narrative with your acting. And if you’re performing, being able to act is very good because it can make your performance more interesting by changing things up a bit and giving a different flow or emotion. But if you are not a strong performer, then you won’t be great at doing things that are just performance (like concerts), and if you are not a strong actor you won’t be great at doing musical theatre, which focuses on acting. AJ is an excellent performer, able to bring a concert act to life. Colleen’s voice and presence also make her an excellent performer. Danielle, on the other hand, is an excellent actress. Stephanie, it seems to me, is still finding her niche. But this is why they can all have good performances and yet not quite fit what you’d be looking for in the star of a major musical theatre production.

Was She Even in This Show?

October 26, 2012

So, I sometimes read the “Over the Rainbow” blog now, especially to see who did what on Sunday night before Monday’s results show. And I also get to see the posts saying goodbye to the latest eliminated Dorothy, and so saw Cassandra’s. And what’s interesting about it is that normally in the comments you get a significant amount of them that talk about how sorry they are to see that Dorothy go home and how good a job she did. And for Cassandra … there’s one of those. Beyond that, there are people wondering how Stephanie could be in the bottom two, why Colleen isn’t, about the dresses, and about AJ’s makeover.

This carries on from the other posts as well. You usually saw a lot of support for the various Dorothys in the comments … but nary a comment for Cassandra. She tended to not get mentioned by the commenters on the blog, even if she was mentioned in the post. And for a Dorothy that I thought did stand out, this seems a bit strange.

There was one comment about Cassandra that she would be either loved or hated, in that people would either think that a Dorothy with glasses and red hair was unique, new and fresh or terrible and not really Dorothy. But then you’d think that she’d get a lot of comments that would average out to a moderate or middle-of-the-pack overall voter rating. But that polarization didn’t really seem to happen. Instead, the people seemed to react to Cassandra mostly with “Meh”; not known enough to be in the top of the ratings, but until the last couple of weeks not notably weak enough to be in the bottom two. Only when she was placed against people that people had strong feelings over did she slip into the bottom two, and ultimately it seems that even the judges, at the end of the day, reacting to her as nothing especially strong or especially weak.

For a Dorothy that people were supposed to find unique. That’s surprising.

Anyway, even if she wasn’t really noticed by anyone else, she was noticed by me, which was one of the reasons I started watching the show. So there’s that, even if it’s cold comfort.

(I promise to stop talking about Cassandra by the end of Sunday’s episode [grin]).

Leaving Out Stef McGraw … and Other “Elisions”.

October 26, 2012

So, Rebecca Watson has a new article on Slate talking about all of the Elevatorgate issues and what happened before and after that, which is making the rounds of all of the usual sites. And, of course, this coming out again leads to a number of extra hits on the post that is my number one most read post, my comments on the whole mess, which has received almost 2500 reads over the year and a quarter since it was published. This also comes in a week when I was thrilled that my post on the Over the Rainbow results show had done smashingly well in terms of hits. It’s picked up 72 hits, while just this week so far that post on Elevatorgate has picked up 99 hits. I’d much rather be talking about musical theatre involving attractive young women with voices like angels than this again … but, since everyone’s talking about it again, I guess I should look at the Slate article.

Now, Stephanie Zvan, some time back, talked about a hundred dollar word — so hundred dollar that even philosophers don’t use it — “elisions” in the context of Elevatorgate, pointing out what those who criticized Watson usually left out. Which makes what Watson leaves out here all the more illuminating. Here is her description of the incident:

In June of 2011, I was on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin. The topic was “Communicating Atheism,” and I was excited to join Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous atheists in the world, with several documentaries and bestselling books to his name. Dawkins used his time to criticize Phil Plait, an astronomer who the year prior had given a talk in which he argued for skeptics to be kinder. I used my time to talk about what it’s like for me to communicate atheism online, and how being a woman might affect the response I receive, as in rape threats and other sexual comments.

The audience was receptive, and afterward I spent many hours in the hotel bar discussing issues of gender, objectification, and misogyny with other thoughtful atheists. At around 4 a.m., I excused myself, announcing that I was exhausted and heading to bed in preparation for another day of talks.

As I got to the elevator, a man who I had not yet spoken with directly broke away from the group and joined me. As the doors closed, he said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to come back to my hotel room for coffee?” I politely declined and got off the elevator when it hit my floor.

A few days later, I was making a video about the trip and I decided to use that as an example of how not to behave at conferences if you want to make women feel safe and comfortable. After all, it seemed rather obvious to me that if your goal is to get sex or even just companionship, the very worst way to go about attaining that goal is to attend a conference, listen to a woman speak for 12 hours about how uncomfortable she is being sexualized at conferences, wait for her to express a desire to go to sleep, follow her into an isolated space, and then suggest she go back to your hotel room for “coffee,” which, by the way, is available at the hotel bar you just left.

What I said in my video, exactly, was, “Guys, don’t do that,” with a bit of a laugh and a shrug. What legions of angry atheists apparently heard was, “Guys, I won’t stop hating men until I get 2 million YouTube comments calling me a ‘cunt.’ ” The skeptics boldly rose to the imagined challenge.

Even Dawkins weighed in. He hadn’t said anything while sitting next to me in Dublin as I described the treatment I got, but a month later he left this sarcastic comment on a friend’s blog:

In the quote, there was a video … and then a reaction to it. That’s it. Now, note what was left out, which was the reply to her video from Stef McGraw, and Watson calling her out in this rather strong fashion:

But those are unimportant details in comparison to the first quoted sentence, which demonstrates an ignorance of Feminism 101 – in this case, the difference between sexual attraction and sexual objectification. The former is great – be attracted to people! Flirt, have fun, make friends, have sex, meet the love of your life, whatever floats your boat. But the latter involves dismissing a person’s feelings, desires, and identity, with a complete disinterest in how one’s actions will affect the “object” in question. That’s what we shouldn’t be doing. No, we feminists are not outlawing sexuality.

I hear a lot of misogyny from skeptics and atheists, but when ancient anti-woman rhetoric like the above is repeated verbatim by a young woman online, it validates that misogyny in a way that goes above and beyond the validation those men get from one another. It also negatively affects the women who are nervous about being in similar situations. Some of them have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and some just don’t want to be put in that position. And they read these posts and watch these videos and they think, “If something were to happen to me and these women won’t stand up for me, who will?”

So, that whole part and that whole interaction? Forgotten (although, perhaps, McGraw will not thank me for reminding people of it). Watson wants to present it like she was simply saying “Guys, don’t do that” and rather conveniently forget that here, right here, quoted and accessible, is her likening at least part of that to all-out, full-fledged, actual misogyny. And calling out another feminist — presumably — in harsh tones for simply not agreeing with her. Here, for completeness, is what McGraw wrote that Watson took umbrage to:

My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her. What’s wrong with that? How on earth does that justify him as creepy? Are we not sexual beings? Let’s review, it’s not as if he touched her or made an unsolicited sexual comment; he merely asked if she’d like to come back to his room. She easily could have said (and I’m assuming did say), “No thanks, I’m tired and would like to go to my room to sleep.”

How is that “ancient, anti-woman rhetoric”? There may be a disagreement here on many levels — and later, a much bigger deal was made over his doing so even though he should have known that she wasn’t interested — but the lashing out was over-the-top, and is what got many people involved. Russell Blackford, for example, started his criticism of this, for the most part, from there, that her comments were not appropriate for various reasons. The post where Dawkins’ comment was made? A post entitled Always name names, which talks specifically about the McGraw controversy. It is my fervent belief that if Watson had not decided to call out Stef McGraw how she did and where and when she did, most of the fuss wouldn’t have occurred and it would have simply faded away as a minor dispute. But rather conveniently Watson and her supporters tend to completely ignore that side of it, and try to present it as simply “She said ‘Guys don’t do that’ and people’s heads exploded”. But she didn’t. From the start, she classed it as “sexualization”, which is what McGraw called her out on, and McGraw’s criticism was branded as misogyny in the worst possible sense despite it actually reflecting a long-standing debate in feminist theory, something that Watson continually demonstrates that she knows little about.

If Watson had not called out McGraw, and in a manner that tied the Elevatorgate incident to deep, entrenched misogyny, Dawkins would almost certainly have never made his comment because there wouldn’t have been a post or discussion for him to attach it to.

The next thing she talks about is Dawkins’ comment itself, quoted through an image because the migration of Scienceblogs has lost old comments:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so …

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Richard

What’s left out is his actual attempt to clarify that comment, that I happened to have saved in my post on the subject:

“Did you just make the argument that, since worse things are happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix things closer to home?”

No I wasn’t making that argument. Here’s the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn’t physically touch her, didn’t attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn’t even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics’ privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn’t physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they’d have had good reason to complain.

His argument? This isn’t really misogyny. It was a proposition, perhaps, nothing more. Not sexualization, not treating her as nothing but an object, but just a proposition. Just “polite words”. Now, there’s a lot you can criticize in that comment. You can criticize, as I did, the idea that it being creepy was just her interpretation — and quite possibly unreasonable — because it wasn’t all that unreasonable. He did later, at least, get the actual threat of rape in an elevator wrong. But, for the most part, the worst you can say about Dawkins here is … he was wrong. Not that he was misogynistic, or sexist. Just that he was wrong. And somehow, his being wrong on this is enough to brand him as an out-of-date sexist and possibly a misogynist who’s giving support to those who would make rape or death threats to Watson. Colour me unconvinced.

Ultimately, if I wasn’t already a realist, I think this would drive me to become a cynic, as I note that everyone who claims to be speaking from the moral high ground seems determined to run right into the gutter the first chance they get, while still speaking as if their suit is pristine clean despite it being covered in raw sewage. But, being a realist, I know that this is just how people are, and that it’s really hard for people to see this sorts of inconsistencies in themselves. This is why it’s hard to take the log out of our own eyes in order to better see the splinter in our neighbours’ eyes, and I’m absolutely not immune to this. But this should be a lesson to everyone who, for example, rants on and on about the “elisions” of their opponents to stop and look carefully at what they themselves are eliding.

Another One Bites … er, Falls Into the Dust.

October 23, 2012

Skyrim is no longer one of the current games on my list of games to play, leaving TOR as the only currently active game.

I was hoping to finish Skyrim by my Christmas vacation, so how did it fall off my list entirely? Well, to start with, right now I haven’t been playing games as much at all. Even TOR. In the evenings, I’m pretty much just poking around with a few things, going for a walk, updating board games, and then watching the DC Animated Universe cartoons on DVD (I’m well, well ahead of schedule on those, BTW [grin]). And I’ve also been fairly busy on the weekends, more so than expected. So I haven’t really had the time I thought I’d have to play games. But it’s also because I’m not as interested in Skyrim as I was in Oblivion, once I got around to playing it. Skyrim is almost too pretty; the pretty graphics makes things hard to see, I made the initial choice in the game without even knowing that I was making a choice due to the chaos of the opening scene, and the critical kill scenes just slow things down for me at times. I’m also not as invested in the story or what is going on in the world in Skyrim, partly because there’s less initial freedom than there was in Oblivion. I seem to, right now, mostly only be able to follow the main plot and a few other quests, and the main plot isn’t all that interesting to me.

What I did like was in one area where I finished a quest before they asked me for it (it’s also referenced from the “starting town”) and was able to say “You mean this thing?” when asked to retrieve the item. That was cool.

Maybe the real problem is that the Elder Scrolls games are, in my opinion, single player MMORPGs, and I’m already playing one of those, and I’m enjoying that one a lot more than Skyrim. That means that if I have the time and inclination to play a game, TOR will win out, and it’d only be dedication that would make me play Skyrim. And I’m not THAT dedicated about my gaming [grin].

Right now, I’ve loosely decided to pick Skyrim up again sometime in February.

Over the Rainbow Results Oct 22 …

October 23, 2012

So, my favourite went home, and I was 1 for 2 in predicting who went home.

I had thought that AJ’s singing a familiar song — which will always invite comparisons to what you’ve heard before — and losing her extra votes might push her into the bottom two, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Stephanie ended up there for the second time. Now, this to me seemed to be a rare case where the Sunday performance wasn’t what would settle it, and so the sing-off was actually going to be the deciding factor, although the judges commented a lot about Stephanie exactly the same way they commented on her on Sunday, so maybe that wasn’t the case.

When the song started, I at first noticed that Stephanie had her normal “happy, hopeful” face on, which wasn’t good when the judges explicitly asked for pain. However, she pulled it off as the song went on. However, Stephanie has a tendency to sing to the rafters as opposed to the audience, which is a bit of an issue if for these songs she always does that, even when it isn’t appropriate. Cassandra, on the other hand, often seemed more angry than hurt, but had an excellent performance and really did manage to live the moment.

So, it seems the biggest difference was voice. The judges liked Stephanie’s voice better than Cassandra’s. I disagreed. I liked Cassandra’s better because it seemed very, very real, which is probably the biggest advantage Cassandra had: the ability to make the songs and acting seem real. Stephanie’s voice was less real. And don’t just take my word for it; when the judges talk about her voice being “ethereal”, that translates to “other-worldly” and “less real”. Ethereal voices, in my opinion, are great for performers, for people who are singing to the audience. They aren’t as good for leads in musical theatre, because there you don’t want people thinking of it as a performance, but as part of an overarching story, and ethereal voices risk taking you out of the moment into another — enjoyable — moment, a moment of performance as opposed to plot. More real voices and presentations suck you into the story and leave you there, and for me in musical theatre the performance is supposed to just be something that enhances my enjoyment of the story, but isn’t the main focus itself.

Anyway, expect to see Stephanie in the bottom two next week as well. Sure, Cassandra would have had enough support that it could easily swing the votes, but for the most part people have decided who their second choice is, and so it may either move roughly equally to all the girls, or to the front-runners. AJ might benefit from this because she is different from the other girls in terms of looks and presentation which is also what Cassandra brought to the table, but Danielle is also likely to benefit just because of her talent level. We’re likely to see Stephanie and Colleen in the bottom two — so, sure, I’ll make that my next prediction — which is about the only chance Stephanie has to make it to the final three. The judges are not going to save her a third time against a Dorothy who has never been in the bottom two unless she’s up against one who simply can’t cut it, and we can see that the judges have some doubts about Colleen.

Anyway, it is disappointing that Cassandra has gone home, as she was the girl who made the show interesting to watch. But as the judges said, all of the girls who made the final five will have strong careers, and careers in part facilitated by their being on this show. I expect that there are a number of producers of shows that are looking to get Cassandra’s number to plunk her into the lead of their shows because of her talent and the moderate fame she got from being on the show.

My comments on the Oct 21 Over the Rainbow …

October 22, 2012

Well, since I’m watching it anyway, I might as well comment more on what’s happening on the show, starting with the performance episode that was on last night.

I think Danielle did an excellent job. Her song switched between an acting piece and a performance piece, but when she was acting … she acted. She’s clearly the one to beat, although she’s not the one I want to win.

Stephanie pretty much, as I recall, did a performance piece. She can sing. But overall, it wasn’t impressive, and seemed a bit lackluster, and I still don’t know if she can act. She also doesn’t move a lot in her performances, which is different from most of the other girls. For the most part, other than the “Hello, Buenos Aires” song from a couple of weeks back — that landed her in the bottom two, oddly enough — I always have a really hard time remembering what she actually did in her Sunday performance.

AJ did a song that I know quite well, because I have a CD of the title themes from James Bond. Her performance seemed off from that, but you have to make some allowances for personal style. However, it took me until the end of the song to figure out what the scene was aiming at — partly because the actual literal lyrics of the song didn’t match the scene choreographed — which is not a sign of good acting (that was the same problem Colleen had the week before). Also, during part of it — the line “Why’d you have to be so good?!?” — she seemed too happy when the line was aiming at a more exasperated idea, a notion that it wasn’t good for her that he was so good, but since he really was that good she simply couldn’t resist him. AJ, it seemed to me, played it as her being giddy over that. It didn’t match the song. But that was a fairly odd song choice anyway, especially with the choreography. It’s also the worst possible advice anyone can get to tone their performance down, as AJ at times seemed far too subdued.

Colleen sounded a bit too breathy in her song, and it was a performance piece, so she didn’t act at all. And I agreed with the judges on the lack of emotion in the piece.

Cassandra, as you should all know by now, is my favourite, and looking at the profiles and the performance last night, it’s clear why: she has a personality and it shines through. None of the other girls seem to do that (Danielle is more of a chameleon than showing an actual personality of her own). Which means that I think it was a mistake for Cassandra to lose the glasses, as that’s a big part of that personality. But when it comes to acting, she has the mannerisms down pat; she seems to actually move through the part and her movements seem to match it. I don’t agree with the judges on her performance; I think it covered the song off quite well.

So, overall, my ranking of the performances is:

1) Danielle
2) Cassandra
3) Stephanie
4) Colleen
5) AJ

My prediction for the bottom two:

1) AJ
2) Cassandra

Jerry Coyne and the “Postivist Petard”

October 21, 2012

If I can get the term “Positivist Petard” popularized anywhere near as much as “The Courtier’s Reply” is, I think I’d be fairly happy. Or, I suppose, content. For a while.

Jerry Coyne has recently written a post about Ian Hutchinson’s recent arguments about scientism, and unfortunately seems to end up right in the Positivist Petard, yet again. There are two absolutely key arguments that he needs to make his case against Hutchinson:

He claims that “there is real knowledge is history, philosophy, economics, and jurisprudence,” and that knowledge is acquired by methods different from those used by the natural sciences. He’s wrong: the knowledge is acquired by empirical observation and testing, unless he’s claiming that moral dicta or legal principles are ‘knowledge’, in which case he’s not talking about knowledge but opinions.

and:

Well, if the existence of God is not a scientific question, at least in the broad sense of “science” as “seeing if something really exists using the methodology of repeatable observation and verified prediction,” then it’s not a question that can be answered one way or another.

Now, the question that Coyne really, really needs to try to answer at some point is … how does he know that these two crucial points are true? How does he know that moral dicta are just opinions? It doesn’t look like you can settle that by empirical observation and testing, for two really, really important reasons:

1) Moral dicta are not about what people think are dicated morally, but are about what really are dicated morally regardless of people’s opinions. As such, we aren’t interested in what people currently think are dicated morally, or if people currently think that moral dicta are really just opinions, but instead on whether there is an actual objective answer to question like “Is slavery morally right?”. No one would deny that you can find out what people think is the case empirically, but the question is not that one, but is whether they are right to think that. Thus, in much the same manner as appealing to the fact that most people think that God exists does not in any way provide justification for claiming that we can therefore know that God exists, you cannot argue that what most people think about whether or not morals are opinions means that that is justification for claiming that we know that morals just are (or are not) opinions.

2) That sort of empirical evidence is contradictory; at times, people behave as if they believe that morals are just opinions, but at other times they behave as if they believe that morals are objective facts. So the current empirical evidence wouldn’t even justify that statement if it could justify it.

So, it doesn’t look like you can use empirical data to settle it, let alone “the methodology of repeatable observation and verified prediction”, which is a bit above naive empiricism. And on that question, again we have to ask how he knows that if a question cannot be settled using that methodology that it can’t be answered. In particular, we have to ask what repeatable observations and verified predictions could possibly settle that question without being circular or assuming the conclusion. You can’t use the common cop-out of arguing that you haven’t seen any examples of other ways of answering questions because a) that wouldn’t justify thinking it true (that’s the inductive fallacy) and b) you run the risk of simply claiming that anything that wasn’t produced that way wasn’t really knowledge, as Coyne seems to think.

Now, if we can’t know whether these claims are true or false using the standards that they set-up, what reason do we have for accepting the claims? If I’m right that we can’t, then either Coyne does not know them to be true — at which point I can happily ignore them — or else he knows them by means other than the ones he’s using to ground his questions in, at which point we can get knowledge by other sources and his base principles, then, are obviously false. This is the Positivist Petard: defining your standard for knowledge such that you cannot know that your standards for knowledge really are the standards for knowledge using those same standards, which means that you end up either not knowing that your standards are the standards or you end up justifying them by means other than those covered by your standards, proving them wrong.

So, Coyne really, really needs to justify those standards above by his standards. I am utterly convinced that he can’t.

Coyne also engages in equivocation, of the sort that he normally does when dealing with science. Hutchinson, from Coyne’s own quote of him, defines what he means when he says that science can’t answer religious questions quite clearly:

And really, in a sense it’s a remarkable idea—that the idea of the existence of God would be a scientific question, in the sense of a natural-sciences question, because if one can think of almost any question, of all the questions we could ask ourselves that might not be a scientific question, it seems to me that a metaphysical question about the existence of God is a prime example of a question that is not a scientific question.

Coyne, in replying, clearly defines science this way:

Well, if the existence of God is not a scientific question, at least in the broad sense of “science” as “seeing if something really exists using the methodology of repeatable observation and verified prediction,” …

But Coyne’s broader definition, it seems, is not the definition that Hutchinson is using. Hutchinson is clearly attempting to talk about whether or not it can be found by the methods of the natural sciences, and argues that it can’t. Coyne claims to be using a “broad sense of science”, which would seem then to go beyond that definition. Thus, if Coyne is going to object to Hutchinson’s claim that science cannot answer those religious questions, he’s going to have to deal with how Hutchinson defines science, and not simply slip into his own personal definition. If Coyne defines “science” broadly enough, Hutchinson will certainly agree that if science is defined that way then of course science can answer those sorts of questions, but that’s not what he’s arguing. A lot of Coyne’s arguments against scientism are based around making exactly this sort of equivocation, and it boggles my mind that he can’t see that.

Perhaps the answer to both of these common issues for Coyne is that he really does need to learn a little more philosophy.

Negotiation, Pay, and Discrimination …

October 19, 2012

So, Stephanie Zvan is posting old posts because she’s too busy at the moment to write new ones, and she’s reposted one about it seems, someone who is finding another way to blame women for being paid less. The post basically highlights the post of a (male) manager who’s pointing out that he’s noticing that in negotiating salary and raises women constantly low-ball their offers, while men ask for higher salaries and raises. He suggests that women stop low-balling their offers and that that will help reduce the pay gap.

Zvan, of course, is pretty much livid over the suggestion:

Dear manager who is paying his or her female employees less than the males: You’re discriminating against women. Worse than that, you know you’re discriminating, and you’re blaming the people you’re discriminating against.

It doesn’t matter that this is policy. In fact, that makes it both worse and a point of legal weakness in the HR policy at your company. A policy that creates gender disparities in pay that isn’t based on job performance is a big flag that says, “Sue me, ladies!” And nothing about negotiating one’s pay is job-related. Nothing about needing to ask for a raise instead of receiving them as part of regularly conducted job reviews is job-related.

Now, someone in the comments pointed out the big, gaping flaw in this “You’re discriminating” charge aimed at the manager:

So what exactly should the negotiator DO to fix it? I notice you’re just blandly directing him to do something without suggesting anything of substance he can do.

Should he make a starting offer to women that’s 50% higher than the one he makes to men? That would probably alleviate the disparity, but I do not know if that would be legal, let alone ethical, and almost assuredly would not be approved by the company.

Should he go against company policy and bump his second offer far beyond what he is allowed, to a level a man would usually ask for? This would certainly not be approved by the company and would likely have him reprimanded or removed from the position.

You do mention one concrete action that can be taken: “adopting a no-haggle policy can mark you as the place for smart women to be”. However, this policy is not up to the hiring manager, and even if he, specifically, practiced it (and somehow didn’t get sacked), other hiring managers wouldn’t, and there’s little he can do beyond suggesting to HR that they adopt it.

So, again, would exactly would you have the “concerned hiring manager” do? What, that is WITHIN HIS POWER, is he able to do…aside from give advice to women that they shouldn’t accept the shit offers?

What can HE DO to stop discriminating?

The problem here is that while the policy might be discriminatory — and that’s not actually a slam dunk, which I’ll get into later — the manager is not discriminating. The manager is applying the policy equally, regardless of whether the person is male or female. If a man asks for less, the manager isn’t going to bump up his salary because he’s a man and all. He’ll give him less. And if a woman asks for the higher rate, he’ll follow the policy and that to her. The policy as written, in fact, is precisely and completely non-discriminatory. Given the upper limit on salaries, you give the person what they ask for or are willing to settle for. The suggestions that rpjohnston listed are all actual cases of discriminating, treating women differently than men because they’re women and because of an impression of what their tendencies are. So, in those cases, the solution to a policy that does not discriminate is … to implement one that does. Since equality of opportunity does not equal equality of outcome, the fact that a completely gender-blind policy runs into issues because as a rule women don’t do certain things may not really be a concern.

Now, Zvan points out a potential problem, which is that there may be more of a potential penalty involved in women negotiating more aggressively than there is for men, meaning that if women do negotiate more aggressively they’re more at risk for not getting or losing their jobs than men are. I’m not sure that the study she cites has been replicated or that it has identified why that is the case. For me, it seems reasonable that this extra social cost is generated because it’s unusual or unexpected, and that’s always a bit off-putting. Which means that if women don’t negotiate aggressively because they expect it will cost them, all that does it make it even more unusual that they will negotiate aggressively and thus make it so that it will be seen as even more unusual, and so wash/rinse/repeat. Despite this being pretty much the only real argument Zvan makes for this policy being discriminatory, her solutions don’t do anything to address that perception. Instead, her solution is simple: introduce no-haggling policies and remove negotiation entirely. Which she basically defines as paying based on the job description and on your performance. I think, anyway. Here’s a quote from the comments that might outline this:

A woman should get paid the same wages for the same work as a man. Negotiation, as already addressed in the updates at the bottom of the post, doesn’t accomplish that. That’s not a “right”. That’s discrimination.

So, the issue — as has been seen in pay equity disputes — has been to define “same work”. Let me use the example of the software design field to demonstrate how this is a problem. Technically, any two software designers do mostly the same work, as their job descriptions usually tend to be close once you filter out specific areas. The problem is that that’s just valuing what they do, and in general software designers aren’t valued for what they do. They’re valued, instead, for what they know. You can take two software designers at the exact same level, with the exact same performance, even in the same group and discover that one of them is, in fact actually worth more to the company if they know something that no one else does. COBOL programmers, for example, are worth their weight in gold because, well, there aren’t that many of them around and there are a number of very critical software systems that are written in COBOL. If you are hiring in general, you are more likely to value a Java programmer over a COBOL programmer because they already know the technology you are likely to be using and are more “in-date” than the COBOL programmer, but if you really, really need a COBOL programmer you will be willing to pay out the wazoo for them to get one. This is partially market driven and partially internally driven, but may result in COBOL programmers with lower performance ratings and less experience and skill getting far higher salaries than those who are Java programmers. And this, due to circumstances, is totally fair.

And while you can massage Zvan’s message to include those sorts of market considerations, you can’t do that to cover cases where someone is more valuable because they happen to know things about your own product that others don’t. If you have a critical piece of your software and you have one main expert on it who knows exactly how to fix anything in it and add new features to it, that person is more valuable to the company than someone who might have higher performance reviews or have more experience elsewhere. As such, you’re willing to pay more to keep them, and so they might have a higher salary than others.

The main criteria in these cases is “replaceability”. Can you live — or how easy is it for you to live — without them? If you really need to hire someone with a specific and rare skill set, you’ll be willing to pay more to hire them than in other areas where the skill set required is not as specific and is not as rare. If you need to keep someone because, again, they have a specific and rare skill set that you need, you’ll be willing to pay more to keep them than someone whose skill set is not as specific and is not as rare. However, any intelligent company doesn’t just want to break open the bank and pay the most they’d be willing to pay (especially when it introduces discrepancies). What they want is to walk the fine line between paying so little that the person they need to keep leaves them and yet not paying more than that person needs in order to stay.

And that’s where negotiation comes in. The company pays its employees based on how replaceable they are combined with how much that employee wants in order to work for that company instead of going somewhere else. The more replaceable you are, the less likely you are to be able to negotiate aggressively can gain big gains on your salary, but the less replaceable you are the more aggressive negotiation will pay off for you. If someone who is irreplaceable points out that they have an offer from another company that’s twice what they’re making now, companies are likely to scramble to match it. If someone who is replaceable does the same thing, they’re likely to get a “We’ll miss you” in reply. And given a free market, people who are irreplaceable are always going to have this option, and only stupid companies would allow these people to get away because of an enforced “no haggling” policy.

So, for your top performers and your irreplaceable workers, this no haggling policy won’t be enforced anyway. They will always be able to open a negotiation to get more of what they want if they want to. So having everyone paid based totally on performance and responsibilities just isn’t going to happen. And remember, it is not a sign of a successful company that it pays all of its workers “fairly”, meaning exactly the same. Doing that doesn’t increase stock price, because it doesn’t do anything to help your bottom line. What is a sign of a successful company is keeping salaries under control and under a reasonable percentage of your revenue, and not overpaying with respect to the market. What this means is that if you can pay an employee less and keep them happy, business-wise that’s what you do. Now, in general, large companies have standardized pay scales for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s just easier on everyone; you can do the math mechanically without having to even get into major details of performance and job. The second is that people tend to get upset if they find out that you are paying other people more than them, and people do find out even if you tell them not to tell. But no matter what, those pay scales are going to have discretionary workarounds built right in for all of the exceptional cases we’ve listed, and that means that it will always be the case that the people who ask for higher salaries are going to have higher salaries than those that don’t. If you are in a field where you are needed and can reasonably negotiate for a higher salary, you will be able to negotiate for that salary by threatening to leave if you don’t get it. Period. And any business that doesn’t have this sort of policy will quickly find that either they lose all of their irreplaceable people or, alternatively, that the only people who stay are those who aren’t interested in aggressively negotiating their salary, which good be either good or bad. Either way, they’ll lose a number of really good people if they stick to this sort of policy, or else they’ll overpay most of their employees.

So, when Zvan says this based on her HR consultancy experience:

What do you think “fixing” salaries entails? I work for an HR consultancy. Our business is understanding this stuff. We don’t do negotiation because it’s a lousy way of paying for performance, which should be how labor is differentially valued if we’re going to value it differentially. Negotiation is differentiating pay based on something completely irrelevant to the work involved, as has already been pointed out.

I wonder if she is really aware of how the world works, and how she’s defining “negotiation”. It is incredibly unlikely that there is no negotiation involved in their offers, even if it’s just for, say, relocation expenses. Has it never been the case that she’s had an offer sent to someone who was ideally suited for the job who came back with a “This company offered me this; I’ll work for you if you beat it”? Has it never been the case that the person they offered the job to looked at the offering salary and said “This isn’t enough to get me to leave my current job/move out there/change my responsibilites, but for more I would”? I find that highly unlikely, which suggests that either her consultancy does negotiate in these cases, they only work in fields where the prospective hirees have absolultely no real power, she works only with unions (where these things are set by union-level contracts and negotiations) or they vastly overpay. Or alternatively, she only works with the formal “pay scale” approaches and remains blissfully ignorant of all the exceptions that sneak into her nice little orderly world.

The really sad thing about this is that Zvan is essentially being sexist to make her case that negotiation should be removed. It’s based basically on the idea that requiring negotiation is discrimination because those poor women just can’t negotiate, and so we have to help them out by eliminating it completely. The immediate intelligent response to that sort of argument is to ask why Zvan thinks that women can’t learn to negotiate; surely they can learn to do anything else required, so why should this be sacrosanct? And then it starts to look like Zvan is more interested in eliminating negotiation than in helping women, and is using this as an excuse to do it, and so as such it really appears like she doesn’t actually want to solve the problems — women asking for less, and having more social punishment if they ask for more — but instead wants to push her own agenda, possibly of legally mandated completely identical pay across the board, without any consideration for business realities. This should make one suspicious.