Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mop On the Run: One-minute Flim written by Jim Davies

I mentioned a while back that I had been selected as a screenwriter for the Digi60 short film festival.
Here is that blog post:

I am proud to present the outcome of that, Mop On the Run. It's only a minute long.

Props to Sarah Argue for directing, and Richard Towns of Parktown productions for producing.

Sarah Argue:

Pictured: The screening of the Digi60 second film festival at St. Bridgid's Centre for the Arts. At the front, speaking, is Kevin Burton of Digi60. 

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Famous Actors vs. Famous (acting) Athletes

Here's a funny clip from Jimmy Kimmel bemoaning athletes taking parts in movies.

It's a funny clip, and I don't want to see anybody on screen who can't do a part well, but I think many actors are hired for the exact same reasons.

Celebrity athletes are hired to act because they're famous. Some major fans of Michael Jordan might go see Space Jam just because he's in it, even if he's not a very good actor. I bet Gary Oldman fans would pay to go see him play basketball.

What I see in film, though, is that actors get hired all the time because they are famous. They are often famous for acting, sure, but I refuse to believe that they are the absolute best people for the part in terms of being able to act it well. Los Angeles is crawling with actors who will work for peanuts, and many of them are very good.

There are very few actors out there who are irreplaceable. What I mean by that is that there are few actors out there that can do parts in a way that nobody else can do them. My list includes people like Robert Downey Jr., Nicholas Cage, Tom Cruise, and Jim Carrey. I don't want to debate about who's on the list-- everyone's list will be different, but let's talk about Jim Carrey for a minute.

Like him or hate him, it's hard to watch a movie like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and think of another actor who would do it so well. In contrast, when I recently watched Jackson's King Kong, I though of how much better the movie would have been if Robert Downey Jr. had been cast in Jack Black's part.

So ignore my list, if you like, and make your own. Outside of your list, though, all the other actors are possibly very good, but also replaceable with some other competent actor. Gary Oldman himself I admire a great deal because he can change completely with every role he takes (unlike Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Spacey, and Jim Carrey). But his versatility makes him a little less distinctive. I often have to be reminded that I'm watching him at all.

So for all of those other actors out there, for a given role you'd think you should hire the best actor for the role. But often, no, they hire someone famous. Why? For the exact same reason they hire athletes.

I've seen films which require a British accent, and it's played by someone who can't even do one. It's played by an actor, not an athlete, but in the face of such incompetence, what does it matter? It's just as egregious.

It's even worse for voice acting for animated films. Famous people are hired to do the voices, and then are given top billing in the marketing. Shrek starring Cameron Diaz! Who cares? Her voice isn't even distinctive.

Just as Gary Oldman complains about athletes in movie rolls, voice actors complain about putting regular actors in voice acting rolls. This is something Oldman has done himself! Maybe a voice actor should make a similar clip for Jimmy Kimmel bemoaning the placement of regular actors in voice actor parts.

Cameron Diaz is attractive and funny. Let's all pay money to see her voice an ogre. 

Why cast Cameron Diaz in Shrek 2, when a hundred super cheap, hungry, trained voice actors could have done it just as well, or probably even better?

For the same reason Shaq gets cast in movies. Star power. On average, stars provide three million dollars in revenues, as the link below shows. The link also shows that it's not worth it.

So, Gary Oldman, if you want to throw athletes out of movies, to be consistent you should throw out the whole star system. And given that Oldman is so good that sometimes you can't even recognize him on screen, that's bad news for him.

Somebody much cheaper could have pulled it off just as well.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What is the best bike helmet?

Ontario is considering a mandatory helmet law, so I thought I’d write a post about bike helmets.

Most bike helmets are designed to protect your head in very specific conditions: when you fall off of your bike and land right on the top of your head. They are not particularly good at protecting you from twisting your head, getting hit on the side, nor, of course, hurting any other part of your body. They are not meant to protect you from getting hit by a car.

So, really, the first question is this: under what conditions should you wear a bike helmet?

To most people, the answer is obvious: whenever you’re riding a bike. Others say you should never wear a helmet when when biking. This is actually a very divisive issue for the cycling community. I’m going to give you my take on it. 

On one side is common sense, and sometimes the law. On the other side is science.

Guess which side I’m on?

Let’s look for the underlying logic of the pro-helmet faction. Why would you wear a helmet when riding a bike? Presumably the answer is because biking is dangerous to your head and it needs to be protected. Well, dangerous is a relative term, but let’s go with this. To be consistent, we would suggest that any activity (e.g., skateboarding, surfing) that is dangerous to your head should be done wearing a helmet. So if you believe that cycling is dangerous enough to warrant wearing a helmet, it follows is that engaging in any activity that is as dangerous as biking should be done wearing a helmet as well.  

Make sense?

What if I told you that driving was just as dangerous than biking? To be consistent with the above reasoning, you’d want to wear a helmet when driving. In fact, some companies have tried to market driving helmets.
Well, you’d feel pretty silly wearing a helmet while you drove your Ford Fiesta to the store, wouldn’t you? Why is this? It’s because helmet wearing is not a part of driving culture, and it is a part of biking culture. 

Well, it turns out that driving is as dangerous as biking. Not only is just as dangerous in the short term (the accidents are more likely and more lethal), but in the long term as well-- when you’re driving you’re not using some other form of transportation that involves exercise. And exercise is good for your health (Some studies show that cycling is safer. Other studies show that it’s just as safe. Others show that it’s more dangerous if you calculate it by the distance, rather than the trip or the hours spent. To play it safe I’m going to treat them as being equally dangerous.) See this web page for references (it’s a great read on its own):

The cultural aspect of wearing a helmet is important to wrap your head around. If one tries to justify wearing a helmet because of cultural reasons, one is basically saying that it’s fashion. In this case, you have no business telling anyone else what to do, any more than you should go up to someone and tell them that they shouldn’t be wearing such and such a color because it’s not in this season.

It gets even sillier. Even walking is as dangerous as cycling (some studies show that it’s more dangerous.)  So perhaps we should continue to wear the helmet when we get out of the fiesta and walk to the store from our car. To be consistent, we’d wear helmets every time we left the house.

Cycling feels more dangerous than walking and driving. Why is this? It’s because we’re not used to it, and cycling accidents are so rare they make the news (if there is a particularly devastating car accident, it might make the news, but the newscasters will never mention that the drivers were not wearing helmets. Just seatbelts.) However, cultures are full of irrational fears, and the fear of cycling is one of them.

Cycling is actually really safe. Given all of the risks, and all of the health benefits of cycling, one study found that cycling’s benefits outweigh the risks twenty to one.
This is incredible. If the benefits outweighed the risks just two to one, that would mean that cycling is twice as good as not cycling. But it’s twenty to one! Amazing. (Get a bicycle.)

You might be saying to yourself that wearing a helmet couldn’t hurt. That's common sense.

You’d be wrong.

How Wearing a Helmet Increases Your Chance of Head Injury

All of the studies cited in favor of helmet use involve findings that your head will be better protected in the case of an accident. When this ignores is the fact that helmets might affect your chances of getting into accidents at all. Part of this is because the helmet effectively increases the size of your head, making you more prone to banging it and twisting it (football helmets have the same problem). However, a larger problem is a fascinating effect called “risk compensation.”

Risk compensation is a psychological effect. Here is how it works: whenever you do anything, the risks you take depend on your perceived safety. For example, when you’re walking on a slick marble floor, you might walk more quickly in rubber-soled shoes than in dress shoes with leather soles. You drive faster when the streets are empty than when there are cars and people everywhere. On a bike it’s the same thing. Every decision you make on a bike--every time you turn left, ride off a curb, determine your speed, think you can make it before that car gets to you, decide you can squeeze between those people, etc., is affected by your perceived safety.

Risk compensation is a problem when the increased perceived safety exceeds the actual increased safety. It looks like bike helmets feel more safe than they actually are. Recall that helmets are made for protecting you from falling off of your bike. But most people wear helmets out of fear of car accidents. Basically, people ride more recklessly when wearing a helmet than when they are not.

I’m sure you’re thinking “not me!” This is all subconscious. You might try to compensate for risk compensation. Maybe, if you are always concentrating on it, that will work. But likely you’re thinking of other things when you cycle. But in any case, you can’t control the behavior of cars.

Cars have a bit of risk compensation with respect to bike helmets too. In fact, one study found that wearing a bike helmet made cars drive frighteningly closer to you.
Given that cars are supposed to stay three feet from you when they pass, six inches closer is a lot. At some level, helmets make you look indestructible to cars, and, to some extent, to yourself.

[Note added in November, 2016: The study above was re-analyzed and concluded to be inaccurate in its conclusions: ]

The effect of risk compensation on biking is increased head injuries. That’s right, as nuts as it might sound, wearing a helmet increases the chance of getting a head injury.  The rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread.
This is true even though the helmet offers protection should you get into an accident-- it’s just that the increase in the chance of getting into one outweighs the protection the helmet offers. If the helmet offered more protection, this might not be the case. But as long as bike helmets are little more than bowl-shaped coffee cups, I suspect the situation won’t change.

Do I think people should wear bike helmets? In general, no. However, risk compensation can be used to your advantage.

When It’s a Good Idea to Wear a Helmet

When I was in high school, I tried to do some skateboarding. This is a sport that requires incredible bravery. I never got good at it, and a part of that was because I was chicken. In a situation like this, where one might want to take more risks, and push oneself further, the helmet might help. If I were a BMX stunt biker, a bike racer, or a downhill mountain biker, I would probably wear one, precisely because it makes you take more risks, and if you're chicken like me, that's the only way to get good.

But if you’re cycling for exercise, fun, or transportation, I don’t recommend it. 

And I wholeheartedly recommend cycling for exercise, fun, and transportation.

I believe that wearing a helmet is bad for another reason that is based on a theory I’ve been developing about the human mind. Before I describe it to you, I should make clear that this theory is still being formed, and has no direct evidence for it yet.

The theory goes like this: when you want to be a certain way, you will do a few things until you feel satisfied that you are being that way. For example, if you want to be good to the environment, there will be some point at which you are doing enough things for the environment (e.g., cycling, recycling, taking shorter showers) so that you are satisfied with yourself. After that point, you feel no need to do anything further.

The consequence of this is that everything you’re doing for the environment takes up a valuable slot. So if one of the things you’re doing for the environment actually does very little good for the environment, there is an opportunity cost: because you’re doing X you’re not doing Y.

I think this is happening with safety. When you wear a helmet, you feel a bit safer, and this is drawing mental resources from other ways to be safer, such as obeying traffic laws. I should mention here that most bike accidents are the fault of the cyclist. Obeying traffic laws is the single best thing you can do to be safe on a bike. But when I mention that I bike, people don’t ask me if I’m obeying traffic laws. They ask me if I wear a helmet.

"Over the past several decades, society has come to equate safety with helmets," said Charles Komanoff, the co-founder of Right of Way, an organization that promotes the rights of cyclists and pedestrians. "But wearing a helmet does not prevent crashes." (from a New York Times Article

Why Helmet Laws Should Not Exist (I'm talking to you, Ottawa)

If bike helmets increase your chance of getting hurt, it seems obvious that helmet laws are a bad idea. Indeed they are. All 50 states in America have some kind of helmet law, and I believe that all of those laws are increasing head injury for the reasons listed above.

However, helmet laws are bad for another important reason: it decreases the amount of cycling that happens.

Cycling is very good for you. Some people will simply not cycle if they have to wear a helmet. Perhaps they don’t like how they look. In this article, 14% of people cited helmets messing up their hair as a reason they don’t bike:
Perhaps they don’t know what to do with the helmet when they lock their bike. Perhaps they don’t want to mess up their hair. Perhaps they don’t want to look like a dork. Perhaps they want to impress me. Perhaps they don’t feel like putting it on. They are inconvenient, expensive, and constitute a threshold that some people won’t want to cross. According to this TED talk by Mikael Colville-Andersen, car companies know that if there were a car helmet law, people would buy fewer cars, and car companies are in favor of bike helmet laws, because the lack of such laws would increase cycling, and reduce car sales.

So reducing cycling is bad because it means the population is getting less exercise. And as I mentioned above, all things considered, cycling is great for you.

Another reason it’s bad is because the more people are cycling, the safer all cyclists are. Why? Because when there are a lot of bicycles on the road, car drivers are used to them, expect them, and take more care not to hit them. This is one of the reasons that when a bike helmet law comes into effect, cycling goes down and head injury goes up. It’s shameful.

Some of you might be thinking that, okay, maybe we can let adults ride without helmets-- they have more motor control, but kids should have to wear helmets, right? Many laws (including in the city I live in, Ottawa) require children to wear them. But it turns out that the risk compensation I mentioned above is stronger for kids than it is for adults! This is also coupled with the fact that kids have a lower center of gravity, and, as a result, falls hurt them less. When I see a parent riding without a helmet with their kid with a helmet, it takes all I have not to say something. But maybe they’re just afraid of getting a ticket. A few kids even get strangled by the helmets (!

Finally, it’s a bad idea because it contributes to our cultural fear of cycling, which is, first of all, irrational (you would have to bike an expected 3000 years to get into a fatal head injury), and second of all, for the reason in the last paragraph, kind of self-fulfilling. I won’t link to websites that promote the idea that cycling is dangerous-- I don’t want google to credit the sites because of my linking to them. Cycling is so safe that if anybody, or any website, mentions danger when cycling comes up is being irresponsible.

Helmets: The Last Two Centimeters of Safety

If you were involved in an accident, or know someone who was involved in an accident, you might think that this is a good reason to wear a helmet. I would urge you to pay attention to studies, not your own personal experience. If you think a helmet saved your life, check out this link:

I’ve talked to nurses who think they know something about helmets because they see cyclists in the ER with and without helmets. But keep in mind that the medical profession sees a biased sample-- they see only those who got into accidents, and only those accidents serious enough to warrant a hospital visit. They also don’t know who many of the head injuries they see would never have happened if the cyclist had not been wearing a helmet.  Ottawa’s coroner is in the same position, with respect to his or her personal experience. This is another example of how you should not use personal experience as a substitute for scientific studies. Scientific studies are rarely biased; your personal experience always is.

Still want a coffee cup on your head? 

If you insist on wearing a helmet, please wear it correctly. See this link.
When I see people wearing helmets way up on their forehead, or unstrapped, it’s very sad, because they are increasing their risk of an accident and at the same time not getting the minimal protection the helmet provides.

When I see people wearing helmets in the grocery store, it's very sad, because they look like idiots. But then again, they are probably at more risk to their head in a grocery store (you could slip on milk!) than on the road, so maybe they're being consistent.
Scientific Evidence
I have written this essay with relatively few references. This is because there are many, many studies out there, and each requires a careful eye to interpret correctly. I could cherry pick papers that support my points, but people who disagree with me could do the same. What I have written here is my impression based on the reading I’ve done on the subject over the course of the last five or six years. If you wish to read more,
has a pretty exhaustive account of the research out there.
This link is also good, in the form of an essay:


So what’s the best bike helmet?

It doesn’t really matter so much which bike helmet you get. The important thing is not wearing it.


Mok D, Gore G, Hagel B, Mok E, Magdalinos H, Pless IB, 2004. Risk compensation in children's activities: A pilot study. Paediatr Child Health 2004;9(5):327-330. (Children ride with more risk and suffer more crashes when wearing a helmet)

adults are more likely to ride on busier roads if helmeted (Gregory, Inwood and Sexton, 2003).
Gregory K, Inwood C, Sexton B, 2003. Cycle helmet wearing in 2002. Transport Research Laboratory Report 578.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Interview on CHUO with Jim Davies: Science of Imagination

Here is an interview with CHUO on a show called "Peer Review Radio."

In it I talk about the science of imagination and my laboratory. In total it's about half an hour long. Enjoy!

Pictured: The brain trust of Peer Review Radio doing their thing.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

A Film I Wrote Will Be Presented Friday, June 15, 2012

Digi60 is an Ottawa film festival.

Here's the way it works. At some event, they present a constraint that all filmmakers must adhere to. They call this a "catch." One time it was that the plot had to involve a passionate kiss. Then the film must be done by a certain deadline.

For this latest festival, Digi60 teamed up with my screenwriter's club, The Writer's Room (we meet every month to comment on each other's screenplays). Four screenwriters were paired with four directors. We got our catch, and we have to make one-minute films.

I was lucky enough to be paired with the fabulous Sarah Argue, who is a puppeteer. She gave me her ideas, and I wrote the screenplay. Our catch was that the film had to happen at Nepean Point. All the catches required filming at some particular Ottawa location. Our film is funny, has puppets, and is called Mop On the Run.

The screening of all of the one-minute films (I think there will be over twenty) will be this coming Friday.

What: Digi60 Spring Screening
Time: 7:30pm, June 15, 2012
Place: St. Bridgid's Centre for the Arts (, 310 St. Patrick Street, Ottawa, ON
Tickets Available at

It might sell out, so if you want to come, the vibe will be great. And if a film isn't any good, hey, in 60 seconds it will be over. On to the next!

Sarah Argue:
Nepean Point:
Writer's Room:

Pictured: The statue of Champlain which stands in Nepean Point. It is a crucial part of our film.

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Monday, June 04, 2012

You Write Funny One Day

Tell me if you think this is a funny story:

David had dogs growing up.
They lived in the country.
The dogs gave birth.
Using the oven, his mother saved one of the litter.
The first parent dog ran away.
Eventually, the other parent died.

Humor writers are one of the joys of this Earth.

One of the funniest I know of is David Sedaris. I know I'm not the only one who thinks this; he's extremely popular. Reading and listening to his stuff, I had this half-baked idea in the back of my mind that he had a really funny life.

Recently, I got to hear a story he read on one of my favorite podcasts, This American Life. The episode, In Dog We Trust, featured the story, which is from his collection Me Talk Pretty Someday. Here's a bit from the transcript:

"In the early 1960s, during what my mother referred to as "the tail end of the Lassie years," my parents were given two collies, which they named Rastus and Duchess. We were living then in New York State, out in the country, and the dogs were free to race through the forest. They napped in meadows and stood knee-deep in frigid streams, costars in their own private dog food commercial.     Late one January evening, while lying on a blanket in the garage, Duchess gave birth to a litter of slick, potato-sized puppies. When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother placed the creature in a casserole dish and popped it into the oven, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.     "Oh, keep your shirts on," she said. "It's only set on 150. I'm not baking anyone. This is just to keep it warm."
     The heat revived the sick puppy and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead. Faced with the responsibilities of fatherhood, Rastus took off. The puppies were given away, and we moved south, where the heat and humidity worked against the best interests of a collie. Duchess's once beautiful coat now hung in ragged patches. When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we reevaluated our mother's healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope. She could only resurrect the cute dead."
Funny, right?

If you want to hear the story, or indeed the whole episode, which is wonderful, check it out here (it's about an hour long). I'll wait:

Sedaris's Story
The Whole Episode:

This time, listening to Sedaris, I tried to really pay attention. Did he have an extraordinarily funny life, or was it just his talent to write in a funny way about things that could happen to everyone?

For the most part it's the latter, and this is good news for you.

Take a look at the bit above. What are the facts?

He had dogs growing up.
They lived in the country.
The dogs gave birth.
Using the oven, his mother saved one of the litter.
The first parent dog ran away.
Eventually, the other parent died.

Not funny at all. In fact, it sounds kind of sad, and a normal person might never think that this might be good fodder for a funny story. But Sedaris makes it hilarious.

This is cause for hope for aspiring writers. Key to writing funny stories (be they in novels, short stories, blog entries, dinner conversations, tweets, or facebook status updates) is finding a funny angle on something that probably felt unfunny when it happened.

Now, if you are a writer or hope to be one, you might start doing things because they will make a good story. I try to do this now too, and I bet Sedaris did as well.

But even without an outrageous life, you can make it funny for your readers. Good luck.

Pictured: English Cocker Spaniel Puppy. From Wikimedia Commons.

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