Why is early Christmas so annoying?

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Christmas riding an annoyed goat. By Robert Seymour (1798 – 1836) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing about Christmas getting earlier every year gets earlier ever year. Complaining about shops putting out their Christmas items when the Easter items are still egging up the shelves, howling in pain when I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday starts playing on Groundhog Day, and grumbling as your appointment card for your annual infusion of Will Ferrell’s Elf arrives in July has almost become a festive tradition. So called, ‘Christmas Creep’, the aforementioned phenomenon whereby retailers introduce their Christmas-based merchandise or decorations in advance of what would traditionally be viewed as the start of the Christmas period is widely considered to be pretty annoying. Almost as annoying as mince pies being on sale so early that their best before date is well before December. Although, not as annoying as the fact they didn’t call Christmas Creep ‘Premature Elf Adulation’. Overall it wouldn’t seem to be too much of stretch to say that early Christmas is considered to be a source of annoyance, but what are the reasons for this?

Annoyance is relatively poorly researched in psychology compared to emotions such as happiness, anger or disgust with Piers Morgan. As is often the case in psychology, there isn’t even a clear consensus as to what annoyance actually is. Therefore, which theory regarding the cause of annoyance we use will depend on how we define annoyance itself. Some have chosen to define annoyance as a type of stress, some as a mild form of anger, and some as a distinct cognitive process or emotion in its own right, which nonetheless is very similar to slight anger. This is ironically irritating.

Briefly, a common definition of stress is when resources (physical or psychological) are exceeded by the demands on those resources. Lazarus, and Launier stated that psychological stress is the consequence of an individual’s inability to cope effectively with environmental demands. For example, experiments from 1971 demonstrated that people who knew that they could eventually stop a stressful noise or knew when a stressful noise would stop experienced fewer stressful effects than people who didn’t have this knowledge. If you were forced to watch The X Factor and didn’t know when the Cowelly cacophony would end, then a stress response would result. In terms of early Christmas, stress and annoyance could be related to uncertainty as to when holiday demands (shopping, social obligations to family and friends, pressure to enjoy Home Alone) will start and finish, and whether those demands can be met. While the stress of Christmas is undoubtedly a real phenomenon and we could see how a prolonged state of Christmas could increase this stress, intuitively this emotional response seems difference to annoyance.

Anger in general has been more widely studied than annoyance and has been described across most cultures and multiple species. The recalibration theory of anger argues that the function (in evolutionary terms) of anger is to promote the resolution or recalibration of undesirable situations in favour of the individual experiencing anger. Anger occurs when something is wrong and needs to be changed. You are between me and some food/ a potential mate/not having my opinion unchallenged on social media and anger mobilises psychological and physical resources for me to try to correct that. Whether that thing can be changed or not is another story entirely. Early Christmas may be viewed by some as an out-of-place environmental stimulus, resulting in anger and a desire to change or avoid this misplaced jolliness. Someone shouts ‘bah’ at you, and you respond with a ‘humbug’.

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A load of Christmas balls. By Calle Eklund/V-wolf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with the view of anger as evolved survival mechanism, which is now being applied to novel social and cultural situations, researchers such as Garrity and Cunningham have argued that annoyance is the emotional version of a withdrawal reflex. In the same way that a fly responds to a noxious stimulus by trying to avoid or move away from it, humans experience an emotion in response to a potentially ‘damaging’ situation, with this annoyance acting as a motivation or signal to withdraw from or stop the experience. This hints that for something to be annoying, some aspect of it must defy expectations. A large part of what the human brain does is to identify and seek predictable patterns. In fact, it (you) often recognises patterns where none exist. Where an environmental stimulus does not fit a pattern (I’m not normally covered in bees), it demands attention and depending on the nature of the stimulus should be avoided or stopped. As such, for a situation or behaviour to be considered annoying, it likely has three qualities: unpredictability, of uncertain duration, and experienced as unpleasant.

Moreover, behaviours that could potentially cause annoyance have been categorised into four groups of ‘social allergens’ based on how intentional they are and how specifically they are aimed at the person experiencing annoyance. These don’t necessarily explain why behaviours are annoying, but do allow some more precise description of annoying situations. The four groups of social allergens include:

  • Uncouth actions/impolite personal habits (unintentional and undirected) – the person on the bus picking their nose and sticking the nasal treasure to the window
  • Inconsiderate activities (unintentional and directed) – the person who was supposed to meet you on the bus, but is late
  • Rule breaking (intentional and undirected) – the person smoking on the bus
  • Intrusive behaviours (intentional and directed) – Katie Hopkins telling you her opinions on the bus

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Look, glitter! Buy stuff! By Iamraincrystal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Which social allergen could an early Christmas be categorised as? There are several reasons people give for finding the early celebration of Christmas annoying. Many feel that the extended displays of Christmas behaviour are a sign of increasing commercialisation of the holiday, which is annoying in itself, and argue that this encroaches on family- and religious-based reasons for festivity. Additionally, a reasonable proportion of complaints against earlier Christmas relate to a dislike of emotional manipulation that they feel is being directed towards them by companies, organisations and saccharine relatives. In related reasons, some people argue that having the Christmas period start earlier and take place over a longer period of time dilutes and removes the specialness. Others state that having Christmas ‘start’ earlier is against the traditions associated with Christmas. The behaviours can be considered intentional in that retailers mean to be putting out their stock and decorations (they didn’t sneeze and accidentally spray tinsel everywhere). The level of direction is debatable. Christmas stock is basically aimed at everyone without being targeted at individuals and as such is fairly undirected. However, Christmas advertisements and items tend to have demographics they are aimed at giving them a modicum of direction. Overall we can classify the annoyance of early Christmas as an example of rule breaking and as an intrusive behaviour.

In summary, it would seem that psychologically, early Christmas can be classified as an intrusive behaviour and as an example of rule breaking. People experience this as an unpleasant collection of environmental stimuli that they weren’t predicting to occur yet and don’t know how long will last. Annoyance is then experienced as a mild form of anger to mobilise physiological and psychological resources for the avoidance of these stimuli.

The cingulate cortex is a part of the limbic system which has generally been associated with the formation and processing of emotions, learning and memories. MRI studies suggest that the cingulate cortex is involved with annoyance, noting a positive correlation between blood flow to this area of the brain and the level of irritation. Other brain areas implicated in the feeling of annoyance are the hippocampus (consolidating memories of annoyance with early Christmas from short- to long-term) and the amygdala (forming and retaining emotional memories of how annoying early Christmas is). However, the list of emotions and functions these brain areas have been associated with isn’t getting any shorter (I checked it twice), so any understanding of a neurological basis for annoyance with early Christmas is basically non-existent. While it can be helpful to know that theories can be applied to a wider range of relevant phenomenon, there’s no evidence for any of this with regards to why early Christmas is annoying and research probably isn’t forthcoming. This means this entire article is basically a Just So story (or Just Ho Ho Ho story if you prefer). How annoying.

How much wood WOULD a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

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Wooducks are sometimes known as , “whistle pigs”. Why are they even occasionally known as woodchucks? WHISTLE PIGS! Picture by D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

She sells seashells by the seashore? Does she? You wouldn’t think there would be demand for that in a place which is essentially a continuous supply of abandoned bivalve property. Or is that the warning? I suppose you never hear, “She sold shed-loads so she scandalously stowed some offshore, scheming sneakily and salvaging a steady supply of surreptitious savings. The sod.” Although, you do hear about how she (Mary Anning) was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London despite her several important paleontological finds and expertise on account of being a woman. The sods. Seventy seven benevolent elephants. Sounds like quite a specific zoo. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Sounds like a question that can actually be answered. And as sure as someone who knows that the sign language equivalent of a tongue twister is called a finger-fumbler will try to shoehorn that fact into a barely-related conversation, a question that can actually be answered will eventually get answered.

A quick search finds that three potential answers to the woodchuck conundrum are already in existence. One traditional reply holds that, “A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”. While clever, tjis doesn’t really answer the question that is being asked. It’s specific in what it’s saying, but vague in how it’s of any use in the real world; like a George Osborne budget. The second potential answer is that a woodchuck can’t chuck wood. This too is not good enough in that it essentially denies the existence of a problem that it should be trying to solve. Like a George Osborne budget. The third potential answer is much better. In 1988, Richard Thomas (a wildlife technician, which is probably a thing) calculated that if a typical woodchuck burrow is 7.6 to 9.1 metres long, and the volume of dirt the woodchuck had to move to dig that burrow was translated into an equivalent volume of wood, then the woodchuck could move approximately 323 kg of wood. Much better; or at least it would be if we were asking, how much wood could a woodchuck move if the ground was made of wood? As it is, we’re left with some unsubstantiated numbers which nobody can really explain the relevance of. Which reminds me of something.

So let’s start by defining our terms. To “chuck” can mean several things, although we can safely discount most of them. It’s unlikely that the rhyme is about a woodchuck ending a relationship with some wood. Even if it were, I couldn’t find anything about paraphilia in rodents or if they could choose to abandon the object of their paraphilia, so it’s unlikely I could get an answer to that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to have my computer destroyed. Similarly, we can assume that we’re not trying to work out how much tree a woodchuck can vomit, as like rats and indeed most rodents, woodchucks can’t vomit (although there is one report of them vomiting due to red squill poisoning). Top tip: sit behind the woodchuck if you go on a rollercoaster. Overall, it’s likely that we want to know how much wood a woodchuck could throw if it was able to.

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Some tosser. Photo by Cory Hughes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was unable to find any reports of woodchucks throwing anything, never mind wood, so decided take the data from human wood chuckers and extrapolate. Arguably, the best example of humans throwing large amounts of wood in an environment where this bark flinging is measured can be seen with the Scottish athletic feat of tossing the caber. Here the tosser (the definite proper technical term, so shut up) attempts to throw a large wooden pole (typically made from larch wood) so that it turns end over end in a straight line. The straightest end over end toss scores the most points. It’s essentially extreme timber filing. A typical caber is 5.94 metres tall and weighs 79 kg. According to the Guinness Book of World records, the largest caber ever tossed was 7.62 metres long and weighed 127 kg. This is pretty impressive, but I would argue that for “how much wood” we need a large amount of wood to be chucked several times in a set period.

The most caber tosses in three minutes is 14 and was achieved by Kevin Fast (a strong reverend) in Canada in 2013. Kevin used two 5.02 metre long cabers, each weighing 41.73 kg. Unsurprisingly, Kevin is famous as a multiple Guinness World Records title holder. Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are famous for other things. Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are famous for other things.

Using a fairly basic equation for Power (Work/Time, where Work = Force x Distance), we can work out that in completing his one caber’s worth of his magnificent feat of tossing, Kevin transferred 55.29 Watts.

Height lifted (Kevin’s height) = 1.75 metres
Force (Mass [41.73 kg] x Gravity [9.80665 metres per second2) = 409.23 Newtons
Time (180 seconds/14 tosses) = 12.86 seconds

Power = (409.23 x 1.75)/12.86
Power = 55.69 Watts.

In woodchucks, the forelimb (their woodchuck arms for woodchucking) contain 44 muscles, with two groups, the lattissimus dorsi and pectoralis superficialis being the largest. Apparently, woodchucks have great pecs. In being specialised for digging, the highest individual power available from woodchuck forelimb muscles is 4.0 Watts. The height of a woodchuck is 0.8 metres and we’ll give our marmot friend the same amount of time to chuck his wood as we gave Kevin.

So, if Power = (Force x Distance)/Time

Then, 4.0 = (Force x 0.8)/12.86

And Force = (4.0 x 12.86)/0.8 = 64.3 Newtons = 6.56 kg.

Adjusting for scale, this means the best woodchuck woodchucker can throw a 6.56 kg of 1.99 metres length 14 times in three minutes. This is both an answer and an adorable image.

To check our calculations, we can work out maximum woodchuckage in another way. We know that Kevin Fast weighs 136.078 kg and can therefore estimate his lean body mass to be 74.57 kg. I used the Hume Formula for this. Other formulae are available, although all are just estimates and in fact, none of them are probably suitable for a man such as Kevin who is likely more muscular than the average pastor. Since skeletal muscle is, on average, 54% of lean body mass, we can estimate that Kevin has 40.72kg of muscle.

For woodchucks, their body mass is typically about 3.13 kg in the Spring and 4.20 kg in the Summer. a woodchuck definitely wouldn’t stand for a ludicrous “beach body” advertising campaign. Given that in Spring, adipose tissue is 40.31% of a woodchuck’s body mass (56.10% in Summer) and skeletal muscle is 52.41% of lean body mass (56.10% in Summer), then a woodchuck will typically have 0.98 kg of muscle (1.00 kg in Summer).

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Trying to chuck a whole tree might be a bit hopeful. By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

So in the Spring, Kevin has 41.09 times the muscle mass of a woodchuck, and 40.27 times the muscle mass of a woodchuck in the Summer. This is assuming that as non-hibernating mammal, Kevin’s weight and adipose proportions don’t fluctuate as wildly as woodchuck’s do. Muscle strength is proportional to cross sectional area, so it is perhaps more relevant to state that woodchucks have 6.41 times and 6.35 times smaller cross sectional area of muscle than Kevin in Spring and Summer, respectively. Correspondingly, this means that a muscular woodchuck vicar could toss a 6.51 kg caber of 1.98 metres in length in the Spring and a 6.57kg caber of 1.99 metres length in the Summer. In the Winter, it would probably be asleep. You’ll note that this is satisfyingly similar to our original estimate.

So in conclusion, depending on the season, a very strong woodchuck member of the clergy could chuck a 6.6 kg stick of wood that was nearly 2 metres long 14 times in three minutes. In addition, if on that occasion it saw its shadow, it would mean six more weeks of maths.

How tall was Princess Jasmine’s mother?

Disney's Festival of Fantasy Parade at Magic Kingdom, Princess Garden Unit

For who could ever learn to love… metrology. Photo by Jennifer Lynn (www.flickr.com/people/129451096@No8)

 

We can learn a lot of important lessons about genetics from Disney. For example, from The Muppet Christmas Carol (released in 1992 by Walt Disney Pictures) we learn that the being a frog genes are on Kermit’s Y chromosome. Thus when Kermit and Piggy have children, the boys are all frogs and the girls are all pigs. We also learn that Muppet frogs and pigs are close enough as species to interbreed, although we can’t comment how close without observing the fertility of their offspring. These are slightly more confusing lessons. I also assume that the reason that Muppet Tiny Tim couldn’t walk well, was that he was actually still a tadpole and just had pushy parents. After all there’s only one more sleep until metamorphosis.

The biological processes behind Beauty and the Beast are slightly more difficult to work out. Mrs Potts is a teapot and her son, Chip, is a cup. We know that the curse that transformed the servants of the castle into theatrical IKEA stock had been in place for 10 years. Chip seems younger than this. It should be hoped that from the moment they were transformed, the staff didn’t age and that young Chip was one of those who the witch literally made a mug of when she cast her spell. Otherwise we have to consider the idea that a teapot got pregnant and gave birth to a cup. A tale as old as time.

The biological variation within that happy crockery family is far from unique within the world of Beauty and the Beast. A person conducting a preliminary comparison of Belle and her father, Maurice, would be hard-pressed to find much of a family resemblance. Belle is tall and slim, while Maurice more closely resembles an owl that rolled itself in pastry and finished the disguise with a moustache it fashioned from leftover rodent hair. I’m not judging. I have a similar body type. The same could be said of Aladdin’s the Sultan and his daughter, Princess Jasmine. Again Jasmine is tall, with barely enough abdomen to contain her colourful Disney internal organs, while the Sultan is practically spherical and would struggle to see over a crouching slug while he was wearing platform shoes. For this to work, Jasmine and Belle’s mothers must have been 10 feet tall and essentially boneless. Either that, or Disney fathers are constructed entirely from recessive genes.

We don’t have to guess at the heights of Jasmine and Belle’s mothers. These can be calculated from the heights of the princesses and their fathers. Within medicine, a person’s adult height can be estimated from their parents’ heights, using an estimation called the mid-parental height. The calculation is as follows:

Mid-parental height = Mother’s height plus Father’s height (plus 13 for boys, -13 for girls) and divide by two.

NB: Heights are in centimetres (cm).

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Filth!

This method isn’t perfect. For example, it doesn’t allow for extremes of parental height. Very short or very tall parents tend to have offspring of a less extreme height through simple regression to the mean. This wouldn’t be predicted by the mid-parental height estimation. However, it is a useful tool to help assess an individual child’s growth and to calculate the height of fictional princesses’ mothers. By rearranging the equation, we find that

Disney Mother Height = (Disney Daughter Height x2) plus 13, minus Disney Father Height

This idea can be tested in cases where we see both of the parents and the daughter e.g. Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel in Tangled.

Unfortunately, Disney doesn’t provide us with the vital statistics of the characters. Which is pretty thoughtless of them. As a result, we’re going to have to make some crude estimates. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora’s father can be seen holding a wine bottle. Given that he ended up sleeping for 100 years, it must have been some pretty strong stuff. Or a witch did it. A standard wine bottle is approximately 30.5 cm and from a couple of stills from the film, Aurora’s father looks to be about 5.8 wine bottles tall. As a side note, if you start to measure you’re height in wine bottles, it might be time to take out the recycling. This may not be the least of your problems. We can therefore estimate Aurora’s father to be 176.9 cm (5 ft 10 inches) tall. From more stills, Aurora’s mother looks to be the equivalent of Aurora’s father’s head shorter than Aurora’s father. A human is roughly 7.5 heads tall so Aurora’s father’s head must be 23.6 cm, which makes Aurora’s Mum 153.3 cm (5 ft 1 inches) tall.

From the film, Aurora comes up to her father’s shoulders and so appears to be about 153 cm (5ft) tall; similar to her mother. Using the mid-parental height equation, Aurora’s height is estimated at 158.6 cm (5ft 2 inches). So we’re about 5 cm off. However, in Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is 16 years old. A woman’s final adult height can be reached at around 18 years of age, so perhaps it’s not impossible for her to grow those last 5 cm, especially if she manages to eat well and get plenty of sleep. This probably isn’t a problem.

We can test our height prediction in a similar fashion with Rapunzel from the film Tangled. In one scene, Rapunzel’s mother is observed holding a book. If we assume the book to be one octavo (a unit of measurement which should be familiar to Terry Pratchett fans, and is approximately 15.3 cm) and we can see that Rapunzel’s mother is about 10.5 books tall. We can guess Rapunzel’s mother is 160.7 cm (5ft 3 inches) tall and that her librarian is messy. Rapunzel’s father is roughly another book taller than Rapunzel’s mother, making his height 176.0 cm (5ft 10 inches).

From pictures, Rapunzel is about one third of her mother’s head shorter than her mother. If we estimate her mother’s head to be 21.4 cm long, this gives Rapunzel’s height as 153.6 cm (5ft). The mid-parental height calculation predicts Rapunzel’s height as 161.9 cm, so we’re about 7 cm off. As with Aurora, Rapunzel may still grow a bit more (although she’s 18 years old in the film) and we might argue that she is shorter due to being mistreated and held captive in a tower. Perhaps the weight of all that hair is compressing her spinal column and making her shorter. Overall, our height estimates using mid-parental height are within 10% of what we see on screen, so should be adequate for estimating the heights of Jasmine and Belle’s mothers.

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Quite a bitey tape measure. Photo by Tony Hisgett (www.commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27317596)

In Aladdin, at some stage, both Jasmine and the Sultan are shown next to their pet tiger. A male tiger can be 110 cm from the ground to the shoulder. Judging by where the tiger comes up to on Jasmine, we can estimate her to be 170 cm (5 ft 7 inches) tall. Similarly, we can estimate the Sultan to be 130 cm (4 ft 3 inches) tall. The tiger method for measuring height is an exciting one, but probably won’t catch on with parents. It’s difficult to see the pen where you’ve marked-off your child’s height on the side of a tiger. Also, it’s a tiger. Using the Disney Mother Height Calculator, Princess Jasmine’s Mum’s height is estimated to be 223 cm (7ft 4 inches).

 

To put this height into context, the World’s tallest living woman, Siddiqa Parveen is estimated to be 7ft 8 inches tall (2.1 tigers, 15.3 books or 7.7 bottles of wine). Although of course she isn’t animated. Or fictional. And we cannot work out Siddiqa Parveen’s mother’s height using the Disney Mother Height calculator. That would be a ridiculous waste of time. There are other reasons.

Now it’s Belle’s turn. Luckily, in Beauty and the Beast, both Belle and her father get attacked by wolves. Luckily for us anyway. Like most wolf attacks, it’s shown as a bad thing in the story. An adult wolf is approximately 83 cm from ground to shoulder. In terms of height, Belle looks to be a double wolfer, coming in at 166 cm (5 ft 5 inches) tall. Belle’s father, Maurice, is approximately 1.67 wolves tall and therefore has a height of about 138.6 cm (4 ft 7 inches). Using the Disney Mother Height Calculator, Belle’s Mum’s height is estimated to be 206.4 cm (6ft 9 inches).

Of course, all of this assumes that Maurice was Belle’s biological father and that the Sultan was Jasmine’s. It’s likely that they were. Belle had a whole library at her disposal, so you’d think she’d have the necessary information to hand to work out if her father wasn’t related to her. Although she may have been to busy buying new furniture. All of hers recently turned into people after all.

 

How bad is Stormtrooper aim exactly?

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A Stormtrooper gun. It’s possible they don’t know what these are for. Photo by Roy Kabanlit.

For some unknown reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars recently. Going forward, I’ll assume you’ll be familiar with the events and characters of at least the first six films. If not, what have you been doing? Living in a recent, recent time in a galaxy that’s very close to here? Broadly speaking, this post inevitably contains minor spoilers for Episodes II−VI of the Star Wars films. If you haven’t seen them, inexplicably want to find out about Stormtrooper aim and don’t mind knowing some plot details, then feel free to read on.

There are some characteristics of characters or groups of characters within the Star Wars register that are widely held to be fact. This may be despite them not being explicitly stated within the films. Red lightsabers are for the evil, Jar Jar Binks is rubbish and Stormtroopers have worse aim than a urinating drunk man in a vibrating chair trying to hit a toilet located on The A-Team van.

Can Stormtroopers really be that bad at shooting? There is an assumption that the Empire want effective troops to maintain their evil hold of the galaxy. Surely they get some training in marksmanship rather than signing up, being given armour that doesn’t even protect against Ewoks (weirdly, the autocorrect on my phone turns ‘Ewoks’ to ‘useless’) and told to, “go forth and do bad stuff.” In fact, Obi Wan Kenobi in Episode IV: A New Hope comments, “only Imperial Stormtroopers are this precise” when examining some blast marks on a massive used droid dealership tank. So Stormtroopers have a reputation in the Star Wars galaxy for good aim. There are a number of explanations for this:

  • Stormtroopers have good aim compared to everyone else, who is really awful (maybe the Star Wars galaxy is windy, wobbly or makes everyone slightly drunk for reasons)
  • Stormtroopers do have rubbish aim, but are good at marketing (history may contain examples where propaganda has been used by states with less than altruistic intentions)
  • Stormtroopers do have rubbish aim, but everyone is concerned about their self-esteem and tells them otherwise
  • Stormtroopers normally have good aim, but during the events of the Star Wars films develop bad aim; almost as if the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy has informed its troops that they should imagine themselves as antagonists in a series of films that won’t progress very far if the protagonists keep getting shot
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Seems about right. Photo by The Conmunity – Pop Culture Geek from Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Why would Stormtroopers’ aim be so bad? Is it their tools? This seems unlikely given that non-Stormtroopers steal Stormtrooper weapons and seem to have no issue with shot accuracy or a gaining a reputation for terrible aim. Perhaps their helmets obscure their vision and make aiming difficult. Possibly, but the Stormtrooper helmet eye holes don’t appear to be any smaller than human spectacles, which can’t be said to obscure vision. Not if they’re doing their job. They are tinted though, which may make aiming difficult when in badly lit conditions and make Stormtroopers look like posers when wearing their helmets indoors.

Perhaps Stormtroopers are just human. In spite of the impression given to us by world events, it is actually quite difficult to get one person to actively shoot to kill another person. During World War I, British Lieutenant George Roupell reported that the only way he could get his soldiers to stop firing above their enemies’ heads was to beat them with his sword while ordering them to aim lower. Later reports of Lieutenant Roupell winning a medal for being a slightly charming human being may have been an exaggeration. Similarly in World War II, US Brigadier and army analyst S.L.A. Marshall reported that during battle, only 15−20% of soldiers would actually fire their weapons. This should perhaps be considered sceptically, as later analysis hints that Marshall may have fabricated at least some of his results. A 1986 study by the British Defense Operational Analysis Establishment’s field studies division found that in over 100 19th- and 20th-century battles, the rate of killing was actually much lower than potentially should have been the case given the weapons involved. Some reports from the Vietnam War state that the average US solder fired approximately 50,000 rounds before they hit their target.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman claims that psychologically this is a result of soldiers choosing to posture (falsely display active combat to attempt to intimidate or deter the enemy) rather than fight, flee or submit to the enemy. In this regard, posturing is chosen as the least costly (psychologically, socially and physically) of the four possible options available to a soldier in combat. In terms of Star Wars, we know that the Empire is not adverse to a bit of posturing with their giant shooty snow dinosaurs, Nazi-chic uniforms and ‘tis no moon space stations. Perhaps the legendary terrible aim of the Stormtroopers is simply due to a human tendency to try and look scary rather than murder another individual. Should they be renamed as ScaryLookingHugtroopers?

To even start to get an answer to this we need to at least get some idea of the accuracy of Stormtrooper aim. Luckily, counting exists and can be used get numbers for percentage purposes. In order to calculate the Stormtrooper hit rate, the number of shots fired by Stormtroopers in Star Wars Episodes II-VI (the ones with Stormtroopers and that aren’t currently in cinemas) was counted. The number of times that the Stormtroopers hit what they were aiming at was also counted.

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Let the Wookie in. Photo by William Tung from USA (SWCA – A Stormtrooper and Chewie) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Stormtroopers were identified as such by their armour. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were not counted as Stormtroopers when they were wearing said armour as a disguise. The Stormtroopers wearing the special armour in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (the ones dress as Arctic pepper pots) and in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (the ones with helmets like sad bulldogs) were counted as Stormtroopers. A hit was counted as such when a Stormtrooper launched or fired a projectile that hit what the Stormtrooper was judged to be aiming at. A miss was defined as when that stuff happened but the projectile didn’t hit the target. When the final resting place of a projectile was not seen on screen, it was presumed to be a miss, unless there was some kind of sound effect that hinted otherwise (like a character saying, “Ouch, this laser wound is relatively painful”). Only shots fired from hand weapons were counted. Shots fired from vehicles were not counted as some sort of computer-aided guidance may have been used. We know they have that and that’s it’s not as good as trusting your feelings when you’re a bit forcey.

It should be noted that the resulting Stormtrooper accuracy ratings will be rough estimates only. It’s quite difficult to count shots fired in the reasonably frenetic action scenes of these films and it is likely that the number of shots fired here is an underestimate. Also it’s not real and this may be a waste of time.

Table 1 illustrates the accuracy of Stormtrooper aim for each of the films and the overall Stormtrooper shot accuracy rate across all of the films. Stormtrooper aim appears to be most accurate (37.4%) in Episode III and least accurate in Episode IV. Otherwise Stormtrooper accuracy is reasonably consistent at around 7% across the other episodes with an overall accuracy of 9.8% calculated across all of the films. Of note is that Episode III is the only film where Stormtroopers can feasibly be argued to be on the side of good. It would seem that it’s being evil that’s bad for your shooting accuracy.

Table 1: Stormtrooper shot accuracy in the Star Wars films.

Table 1

However, many have noted that during the events on the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the plan was to let Princess Leia and company escape so that the Empire could locate the Rebels’ headquarters and blow it up along with the planet they were on. The Empire is apparently not that concerned about conservation. Or about killing lots of people. As such, it is likely that the Stormtroopers firing on the protagonists had been ordered not to kill their escaping prisoners. This may change the accuracy rate for this film as we suddenly have to count every miss in these sequences as a hit. So the space abacus (calculator) was broken out again and the Stormtrooper shot accuracy rate for Episode IV and the overall Stormtrooper shot accuracy was recalculated. Table 2 shows these new figures.

Table 2: Stormtrooper shot accuracy in the Star Wars films (assuming they were aiming to miss during those bits on the Death Star in Episode IV).

Table 2

Suddenly, the accuracy of Stormtroopers doesn’t look so bad. In order to determine if this is the case, it is necessary to compare these rates with others. Ideally, this would be with other accuracy rates from the Star Wars films (probably not Greedo’s) in order to remove any confounding windy, wobbly drunken influences that the Star Wars galaxy might have. I didn’t do this for reasons of time, illness, difficulty and laziness. However, we do have some shot accuracy rates from our galaxy. These are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Comparison of Stormtrooper shot accuracy with real-world examples.

We can see here that Stormtroopers don’t fair too terribly, with greater shot accuracy than archerfish and the average US soldier (aiming at a human-sized target) at 300 metres, but lower shot accuracy than a US sniper at 600 metres. So Stormtrooper aim suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. In terms of accuracy. Their aim is obviously “bad”. They tried to shoot Chewbacca!

If we discount the US sniper (unfair to compare to a trained specialist with more time and calibrated equipment) and the archerfish (a fish which spits water at land-insects in order to eat them and which is rarely found in conditions of modern warfare) the Stormtrooper is four-times more accurate than our only remaining comparator, the average US soldier aiming at a human-sized target from 300 metres. If we accept that reduced soldier accuracy is due to posturing in favour of other combat choices, it suddenly seems that Stormtroopers are choosing to fight rather than flee, posture or submit. This makes Stormtroopers seem less human and more terrifying. Fitting soldiers for the Dark Side indeed and certainly not deserving of their reputation for inaccuracy! Unless they didn’t read the Death Star memo. Then, they’re just average.

 

 

Shocking evidence of stereotyping in Mr Men and Little Miss

UntitledI have very occasionally been asked the question, “Why are all Mr Men good and all Little Miss bad?” I’m sure this was meant to be rhetorical, with the underlying assumption that all Mr Men are good and all Little Miss are bad, but my admittedly limited recall was not in agreement with this statement. I was sure Little Miss Sunshine existed for start and unless exposure to her was the cause of skin disease, I didn’t remember her being bad as such. I also remembered Mr Uppity, a wealthy character who was rude to everyone and could potentially run for parliament as a member of the Conservative party. I don’t think he could be considered good per se.

For those who are unaware, the Mr Men and Little Miss are a series of semi-popular children books, originally written by Roger Hargreaves, which took shapes, gave them faces and one bit of a personality and asked us to enjoy ourselves by judging their actions. Luckily, their popularity meant other people had heard of these Euclidian protagonists. When I asked others about the Mr Men/Little Miss morality divide, the general response was not that Mr Men were good and Little Miss were bad, but that the characters as a group were sexist. It was generally felt that the characters conformed to harmful gender stereotypes. This is certainly understandable. For a start they all live in Misterland. The place they live in is actually named just after the males of the population. It’s like if the countries were called Manada, Mance or Oman. Which is obviously ridiculous. Secondly, the female characters’, the Little Miss’, creation began in 1981, much later than the Mr Men, whose creation began in 1971. I don’t know the actual reasoning behind this, but it does somewhat make the Little Miss seem like an afterthought. Finally (for this list, by no means for all reasons why Mr Men/Little Miss might be sexist) why don’t the Little Miss follow the same naming convention as the Mr Men? Why aren’t they the Ms Women? Or something better? “Little Miss” seems a little demeaning, like describing something that’s demeaning as “a little demeaning.”

1024px-Clothing_Rack_of_Jeans

They’re jeans! They’re all essentially the same. Just like people. Depth!   “Clothing Rack of Jeans” by Peter Griffin – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There is very little reason to even divide the characters based on binary gender. If they were real people, we could say that they each identify with a gender or different aspects of genders i.e. they all have different traits as people, and that would be fine. Except that these are characters which have been assigned a traditional gender and a specific characteristic. We don’t know how this decision is made other than the gendered title is not based on primary or secondary sexual characteristics. There’s nothing specific about the characters that even make them stereotypically male or female other than their names. They’re all just shapes with personalities. Technically I suppose this is true for most people.

So far these are all opinions based on perceptions. Perceptions, psychologically speaking, are prone to an enormous amount of bias. For example, Distinction Bias, where there is a tendency when considering two things to see them as more dissimilar when evaluating them at the same time than when evaluating them separately. Like when comparing different pairs of jeans in a shop and tiny differences are magnified, but really they’re all incredibly similar because they’re just blue trousers for crying out loud! Or potentially when comparing Mr Men and Little Miss. Or there’s Trait Ascription Bias; where individuals consider themselves to be variable in terms of behaviour and mood, while considering others to be much more consistent and predictable. To be fair, this may be understandable when it comes to the Mr Men and Little Miss. Our judgement on the relative goodness of Mr Men and Little Miss may therefore be influenced by such bias. Can the morality of these shapely (literally) populations be objectively examined?

Each book in the original Mr. Men and Little Miss series introduced a different title character with a single dominant personality to convey a moral lesson. The dominant personality trait was also their name. Luckily this is not how humans or Piers Morgan are named. To examine whether the Mr Men and Little Miss are separated by some sort of weird moral judgement, it should therefore be relatively easy to use their names to observe if there are any trends.

The populations of Mr Men (n=50) and Little Miss (n=37) were examined. Based on their names alone, each character was assigned a moral weighting of good, bad or neutral. For example, Little Miss Brainy was considered good, Mr Greedy was considered bad and Mr Bounce was considered neutral. These decisions were just made by me, which will almost certainly introduce a source of bias towards my own values, determined by upbringing, culture, socialisation and so on, regarding what’s good, bad and neutral. I could have attempted to correct this by hiring a suitably varied team of Hargreaves-trained research assistants and averaging their judgements, but I haven’t the money, time, inclination or money.

The proportion of the total population for each moral assignation was then calculated. No further statistical tests were performed to compare the two populations, as the numbers involved weren’t large enough to make these comparisons meaningful. Any differences observed can therefore be considered trends or as a real statistician might technically call them, “nonsense.”

As Figure 1 illustrates, contrary to what was originally proposed, there were fewer good (18 vs. 24%) and more bad (48% vs. 38%) Mr Men compared with Little Miss. So it would seem that generally Mr Men are (a bit) morally worse than Little Miss.

Figure 1. Moral Proportions of the Populations of Mr Men and Little Miss.

Figure 1

However, we know that what is considered morally good or bad changes over time. For example, it was formerly considered a moral failing to be left handed. This attitude is now agreed to be a bit sinister.  Previously there was a lot of public judgement as to the type of clothing women should wear. Nowadays, this is also done on social media. There may be one or two other examples in history. Perhaps the moral association of the Mr Men and Little Miss has also changed with time. To examine this, the populations of Mr Men and Little Miss were divided into new and old characters based on whether the book featuring them was published before or after 1990. This year was selected as a fairly natural cut-off as in 1988, Roger Hargreaves unfortunately died and his son, Adam, began writing and illustrating new stories and characters.

Figure 2. Moral Proportions of the Populations of Old and New Mr Men and Little Miss.

figure

 

Figure 2 illustrates that there are fewer good (10% vs. 24%) and more bad (56% vs. 48%) old Mr Men compared with old Little Miss. It can also be seen that there were fewer good (18% vs. 25%) and more bad (25% vs. 18%) new Mr Men compared with new Little Miss.

From a slightly different perspective we can also see from these data that (numerically at least) there are more good and fewer bad new Mr Men than old Mr Men and approximately the same number of good, but fewer bad new Little Miss than old Little Miss. So it would seem:

  • Mr Men have been historically morally worse than Little Miss and continue to be so into the present day
  • New Mr Men are morally better than old Mr Men
  • New Little Miss are more morally neutral than old Little Miss

Because we’re humans with prejudices and bias, it is easy to interpret these trends in a number of ways. For example, it may be argued that it displays the prejudice of the the Mr Men and Little Miss book series, with the Mr Men being allowed more complex characters and the Little Miss, where they have moral character at all, being relegated to the old “good, sweet and innocent” stereotype. Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little female polygons are made of. Without looking in greater detail at the actual traits assigned, it is difficult if not impossible to say what this may reveal; if there is any stereotyping present or if these trends are simply random.

It could be argued that rather than morals changing over time, these data show the change in morals between Roger and Adam Hargreaves. I don’t know either of them, so can’t really say anything in that regard, but I do know that books are rarely just produced by one person on their own and the differences will at least reflect the views of two teams.

Judgement across gender stereotyping is obviously more complicated than a seemingly simple good versus bad dichotomy. The idea of gender as a binary concept is laden with all sorts of complex and subtle stereotypes and comparisons. It may be possible to broadly determine if there are any obvious stereotypical comparisons by matching the names within the Mr. Men and Little Miss populations to see if they conform to any traditional gender roles.

To examine the roles of the Mr Men and Little Miss, the populations were examined to see if their names could be paired with a counterpart with the same meaning e.g. Mr. Birthday and Little Miss Birthday, with a counterpart with the opposite meaning e.g. Mr Messy and Little Miss Tidy, or if there was no counterpart e.g. Mr. Moustache. Where pairs were available, the moral weighting (good or bad) and the meaning of the names themselves were compared. Again, it was just me that was checking, so interpretation is potentially based on any prejudice I may have lurking within my poor tired brain.

Table 1. Matched and Opposing Mr Men and Little Miss Characters

Table 1

From Table 1 we can see that is was relatively more common for Mr Men to be matched with Little Miss than for them to be opposing. We should perhaps be pleased about this meagre hint of equality, although it is perhaps notable that the majority of the matching pairs may be considered bad characteristics.

Where the Mr Men and Little Miss are compared in terms of their opposite character, they seem to be reasonably balanced in terms of which group is good or bad. However, when we look at the actual words associated with the Little Miss (tidy, neat, helpful, scary) and Mr Men (messy, brave, mean) it begins to sound too much like the parents in a sitcom for us to be comfortable about the lack of gender stereotyping. The sitcom where the husband is the silly, humorous idiot and the wife is an attractive, home-based nag. I’m sure you know the one. However, these characters represent only 13% of the total pooled population. This is perhaps too small a proportion with which to judge all of the 2D people.

In summary, we have managed to get a few bits of information by looking at the total population of Mr Men and Little Miss. We know that the population of Mr Men contains more bad characters than the population of Little Miss and this is also the case historically. Pretty much just like with humans. We also know that stereotyping is likely present in this population, but we can’t say more without cooperation between more people. Pretty much just like with humans. Finally, we know that gender and how it can be used to stereotype is a complex issue (even the word gender means different things to different individuals) and that there is a lot of thought needed to advance many issues in this field. Pretty much just like with shapes with personalities.

 

Why Pudsey Bear is awful: An annually pointless grudge.

A bear that isn't Pudsey. I wasn't sure on the copyright and didn't want to give him another reason to come after me. A bear that isn’t Pudsey. I wasn’t sure on the copyright and didn’t want to give him another reason to come after me.

Every year in connection with Children in Need I tell the story of why I don’t like Pudsey Bear. I’m told by my friends (who despite what I’m told by others, do exist) that it wouldn’t be a real Children in Need without this story. They’re humouring me of course, but humouring me is 92% of the work of being my friend, so that’s fine.  I apologise if you started reading this thinking it was a complex critique of the inadequate wealth redistribution of Children in Need or a political discourse on how if society were better we wouldn’t even require Children in Need.  I don’t know if the former is true and while the latter certainly is, there are people far better qualified than I am to discuss it. I’m afraid my story is a short, bitter, pointless grudge against a monocular bear associated with a worthy cause. If you like, at the end, you can tut and say “One night isn’t Children in Need, children are always in need.” Yes.

Are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

As a much younger man, a child even, I was ill and had been to the see a doctor. I can’t remember what the illness was. I imagine it was probably just a virus that had gone on a bit too long or possibly the ongoing inflammation of my pedantry gland.  Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the pedantry gland doesn’t exist. After leaving the clinic, in fact just outside the clinic, I did a manly collapse (fainted). On my trajectory towards the ground, I decided that my head should take a slight detour towards the wall. I broke my glasses. Like most people who wear them, (*narrows eyes at hipsters*) I need my glasses for seeing. As a result, this was almost literally adding insult to injury. Actually, I guess it was just adding inconvenience to injury. As I lay there, bewildered and pathetic, head hurting, glasses broken, I notice a blurry figure approach out of the blurry distance into the slightly less blurry foreground. It was Children in Need at the time and this figure was Pudsey Bear! He was obviously out collecting money for Children in Need. That being the thing that he’s in to. Who better than the mascot of Children In Need to help a child in need outside a healthcare professional’s building? Pudsey stepped over me and carried on walking.

I’m not a fan of Pudsey Bear.

“Perhaps Pudsey didn’t see you, his vision can’t be that good.”

“Why did he step over me and carry on down the street instead of tripping over me and carrying on towards the pavement?”

I’m not a fan of Pudsey Bear.

Another acceptable bear. Another acceptable bear.

It is known from studies into altruism, that the decision to stop and help someone is influenced by a number of factors. If people feel they are short of time, see someone is bleeding, think there are lots of people around so one of them will help (diffusion of responsibility) or simply don’t identify with the person who needs assistance, then they are much less likely to engage in altruistic behaviour (the bystander effect).

Perhaps Pudsey was late for an important bear appointment, was put off when he saw I was losing haemoglobin, thought one of the other people would help me and noticed I wasn’t a bear like him, so didn’t help. Perhaps Pudsey’s just awful.

I’m not a fan of Pudsey Bear.

I am a fan of the work done by Children in Need. They do good work that shouldn’t be necessary. So please give generously. Because Pudsey won’t.

Or there are lots of good charities, so you can pick one. You might as well, otherwise reading this stupid story about my ridiculous grudge against a visually-impaired ursine has been a complete waste of time.