June 9, 2012


Some good stuff in this science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), especially Michael Fassbender as the evil gay robot who studiously models his accent and hairstyle on Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. But the movie is not terribly scary, and the screenplay (co-written by one of the Lost writers) is a mess. 

My guess is that there is about an hour of plot left on the cutting room floor. Scott is at his best as a slow-paced, moody director, so it doesn't work to hand him a complex screenplay that is supposed to tie together the Alien series and maybe Blade Runner too, and launch a new series.Thus, about two-thirds of the way through Prometheus, Idris Elba, as the starship captain, suddenly explains for us a whole bunch of stuff about the origin of the unknown planet that his character couldn't possibly have figured out  by that point. 

It would have been just as effective to have Elba face the camera and hold up 60 pages of torn-up screenplay in his left hand while reading from a 4x6 index card in his right hand: "After a night of far-ranging and frank discussions among the studio executives, the producers, Sir Ridley, and the accountants, the decision has been made to skip over pp. 93 to 152 of the screenplay and have one character just tell the audience the unsettling discoveries that would have required at least $57.5 million in incremental expenditures to show. Of course, since all characters in Alien spaceship crews notoriously have their own agendas, this raised the issue of whom audience members would find most trustworthy. Since I'm the black guy in the movie and therefore could be assumed not to have a complicated corporate agenda, I was chosen. So, to summarize, this planet is not actually the ..."

Also, the screenplay is aimed way down the IQ scale. For example, when the ship arrives at the unexplored Earth-like planet in a distant solar system in 2093, it immediately descends through clouds to the surface, not picking out a landing spot until they are 3,000 feet up. Have they never heard of orbiting for awhile?

Scott's last movie, 2010's Robin Hood, was kind of a mess, too. (Scott isn't a writer, and it's silly of studios to keep trying to have him launch trilogies, for which he lacks the kind of large-scale plot-architect skills that Joss Whedon brought to the Avengers.) But, Robin Hood was at least a pretty smart mess (Tom Stoppard did the last round of script doctoring), with lots of interesting historical analogies comprising an attack on Blair-Brown New Labour. But, it didn't do that well at the American box office, unsurprisingly, so maybe they decided to dumb down Prometheus to avoid alienating American ticket-buyers.

Mission accomplished!

Casey Martin, Slippery Slopes, and Boiling Frogs

Three years ago, I blogged about how the culture of the bond rating companies, such as Warren Buffett's Moody's, had been very slowly corrupted by the logic of the conflict of interest that went back to the 1970s by which they stopped being paid by buyers of securities and started being paid by issuers. This logical problem didn't become a terrible real world problem until the 2000s with the mortgage-backed securities disaster. I drew an example from golf:
Casey Martin, who was born with a terrible birth defect that crippled one of his legs, leaving him in recurrent pain, starred on Stanford's famous mid-1990s college golf team along with the full-blooded Navajo Notah Begay, who went on to win four times on the PGA tour before alcohol brought him down, and with Eldrick Woods Jr., who, last time I heard, remains employed in a golfing capacity. 
Despite his disability, Martin enjoyed enough success on the minor league Nike tour to qualify for the PGA tour in 2000. His lawsuit under the Americans with Disability Act to be allowed to use a golf cart on the PGA tour went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won in 2001. 
Martin's was not a popular victory with players, with both Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer protesting that it would open the door to other players getting a note from their doctor to be chauffeured about the course. 
It was easy to imagine a player with a bad back like Fred Couples trying to get permission for a cart, and then the whole thing descending into carts everywhere.
And yet, eight years later, the PGA Tour hasn't slid down the slippery slope. So far, as far as I can tell, a cart has only been used once by somebody other than the severely unlucky Martin: Erik Compton rode in one tournament last fall because he had gotten his second heart transplant only a few months before. 
Essentially, golf has a fairly healthy culture of sportsmanship where top players don't want to be seen as abusing loopholes. So, it hasn't been hard so far to restrict cart-riding to rare human-interest stories like Martin and Compton.

As dearieme commented at the time:
This accords with my observation that conservatives are very shrewd at seeing the direction of social change but prone to overestimating its speed. That's because they overlook how conservative people can be, which is pleasingly paradoxical.

Golf has a highly conservative culture, basically one of "What would Old Tom Morris do?" 

It was fortunate that its origin culture was Scottish rather than English because it avoided most of the hypocrisy and cheating over amateurism that plagued tennis up to 1968 (when Wimbledon finally admitted professionals) and the Olympics even later. The Scots had a somewhat less classbound society than the English, so if a man wanted to make his living from golf, as Morris did at St. Andrews in the mid-19th Century, that was honorable. It was more honorable to be an amateur, like Bobby Jones in the 1920s, and they had their own Amateur tournaments, but the amateurs did not see themselves as tainted by striving against the professionals in the Open tournaments. 

By the way, the partially crippled Casey Martin, unsurprisingly, couldn't play well enough to stay on the PGA tour. Six years ago, he retired and became the golf coach at the U. of Oregon. A week ago, at age 40, he qualified for next week's U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco.

June 8, 2012


Blogger "Those Who Can See" offers a global introduction to differing rates of corruption.

Audacious Epigone calculates a moderate 0.44 correlation coefficient between perceived levels of corruption by country and cousin marriage rates.

U. of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales has a new book coming out, A Capitalism for the People, about growth of Italian-style corruption in America and what a pro-market populism can do about it. He even points out that economists may not be immune to the workings of self-interest!

An important point is that the dominant Who? Whom? media reflexes get in the way of noticing corruption. Simple concepts such as "conflict of interest" are much less often applied to those claiming to represent favored groups, such as self-appointed Hispanic activists threatening electoral ruin for any statesman unenthusiastic about more immigration.

For example, we have a persistent problem of gay corruption in some of our institutions, where homosexual harassers of boys and young men are shielded by other homosexuals in power. But the concept of "gay corruption" has largely been purged from 21st Century consciousness. Gays are Good, homophobes are Bad, that is all you need to know. So it's very hard for people to notice patterns. And pattern recognition is bad, too.

Are the English better at English?

Greg Cochran brings up a topic that seems like it has disappeared over the last generation: reading speed. In the old days, the immense velocity at which Democratic Presidents like JFK and Jimmy Carter could read was part of political lore. Skeptics like Woody Allen joked that he had speed-read War and Peace: "It was about Russia." 

Has reading faster simply failed? Or has America just lost interest?

Cochran also asks whether different languages are read faster and slower: e.g., Mandarin versus Spanish? When I was a kid there was still some remnant of interest in the early 20th Century movement to reform the English language to make it more efficient. A century ago, for example, George Bernard Shaw, the dominant cultural intellectual of the time, campaigned hard for radical spelling reform. (Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady reflects some of GBS's numerous concerns about the English language and social equality.) The first time I ever won a prize in a Speech tournament was around 1970 for an original oratory making fun of the complexities of English grammar. Is anybody still amused by that kind of thing?

In a comment, Education Realist brings up an interesting point: based on SAT and GRE scores, 21st Century, white Americans appear to be better at Math than at Verbal relative to mid-20th Century white Americans. When the SAT was started before WWII, it was normalized based on Eastern Seaboard preppies with 500 as average for both the Verbal and the Math tests. As it expanded to a broader market of students, average Math SAT scores dropped dropped only slightly, but Verbal scores fell substantially. In 1995, the SAT was renormed to make 500 the means again, but the same process is visible again, with Math scores now notably higher than Verbal scores. (The Asian impact obviously affects this gap, but this trend is visible just among whites.)

The Graduate Record Exam has never been renormed, and today white men average 593 on the quantitative part and 508 on the verbal part of the GRE. Education Realist, who is a teacher and test tutor, then raises a number of interesting points:
Why do we appear to have fewer high verbal achievers than math achievers? I think Murray and Herrnstein were correct when they wrote that “a politically compromised curriculum is less likely to sharpen the verbal skills of students than one that hews to standards of intellectual rigor and quality” annd that “when parents demanded higher standards, their schools introduced higher standards in the math curriculum that really were higher, and higher standards in the humanities and social sciences that really were not”. (Bell Curve, page 432-433) Without question, we have lost a couple generations of cognitively able students who weren’t given the opportunity to really achieve to their fullest capability, and we stand to lose a few more. 
But I also wonder if verbal intelligence is less understood and consequently less valued. If one is “good at math”, there’s a logical progression of courses to take, problems to solve (or spend a lifetime trying to), and increasingly difficult subjects to tackle–and plenty of careers that want them. But if one has a high verbal intelligence without good spatial aptitude (which seems to be necessary for higher math) it is often described as “good at reading”, a woefully inaccurate characterization of high verbal intelligence—and then what? Apart from law, there aren’t nearly as many clearly defined career paths with a wide range of opportunities for all temperaments and interests. Most of the ones I can think of involve luck and driving ambition just to get started (journalism, tenured academia, political consultant). 
For a good twenty years or so, people with high verbal skills who were indifferent at high-level math went into technology. It’s hard to remember now in the age of Google and after the heyday of corporate computing, but IBM and mainframe shops were filled with bright people who had degrees in history and English and humanities who just “didn’t like math” but were excellent programmers. I routinely worked in shops where all the expert techies making six figures came from non-STEM majors. But that time appears to be over. 
Of course, doing anything about this lack of clearly defined career paths for smart folks with less spatial aptitude would involve acknowledging it’s a problem, and I might be the only one who thinks it’s a problem.

As Education Realist points out, we have lots of prestigious national science and math fairs for high school students (which are now dominated by Asians), but little of the same fame for the reading and writing set. Everybody who is anybody in America seems far more obsessed with cultivating Math and Science than with raising our verbal ability. Yet, a native command of English would appear to be a prime asset of Americans in a future globalized (and, thus, English-speaking) economy.

Presumably, it's easier to raise math test scores in school than reading test scores, since reading scores depend heavily on how much reading the students do out of school. Still, nobody seems all that interested in trying to figure out how to improve our children's advantages in English. It's almost like we think it's unfair to the rest of the world that we speak English, so we should have our children bash their heads in to compete with Asians on the culturally level playing field of math. That strikes me as a noble but stupid response.

But I want to go in a different direction with this topic and ask if there is any objective test evidence to support this idea I've had ever since I took American Literature in high school: historically, Americans are not as good with words on average as the British. Somehow, the Brits seem to inculcate better command of English than we Americans do. Perhaps that's not true up and down the social scale, but it would seem to me that, traditionally, Oxbridge graduates, say, had better vocabularies and better prose styles than Ivy League grads.

This notion first dawned on me in the 1980s when I noticed a London-based firm called WPP, run by a former Saatchi & Saatchi executive named Martin Sorrell, started buying up advertising agencies and other marketing services firms. While Britain seemed economically down and out back then, it struck me that they still were better at English than we were, and that had to be worth something in an increasingly English-speaking world.. Today, WPP employs 158,000 white collar workers around the world and even owns a large fraction of all the lobbying firms in Washington D.C., Democrat and Republican.

Throughout the 18th and 19th Century, American writing just wasn't very good compared to what the Brits were doing at the same time. Compare, say, The Federalist Papers or the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Life of Johnson, or even The Wealth of Nations. Compare American stinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson to his British contemporaries. Granted, we had people who were geniuses in their own way, like Poe and Lincoln and Twain, but they didn't come from a culture that was as good with words as the Brits. 

Even in the 20th Century, when Americans were catching up, the home team still seemed awkward compared to the visitors. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is a fine book, but compared to the seemingly effortless clarity and fluency of Evelyn Waugh's early novels of just a few years later, its prose seems provincial and striving. 

I recently re-read Great Contemporaries, a collection of articles for Sunday newspapers that Winston Churchill wrote (or, to be precise, dictated) in the 1930s about celebrities he’d known. Allow me to express in my own crude, tongue-tied American way my reaction to the command of the English language exhibited in Churchill's commercial journalism: Holy cow! For mastery of English, for vast and precise vocabulary, I can’t imagine any major American politician of the last century coming close. Teddy Roosevelt had comparable mental energy, but few read his books for fun these days. Henry Kissinger is a very smart man who writes well in his second language, but he is more functional in style. 

Churchill was recognized as exceptional in his own day, but, still, other British politicians were pretty handy with words, too. In Britain, Churchill was the champ but compared to American politicians, he's in a league of his own. (By the way, I have a vague hunch that, from the perspective of the 21st Century, the 1930s was the peak era for English prose: it's not so far in the past that it's difficult to decipher, but it's far enough away that its superiority is noticeable.)

Another anecdote about the superiority of the English: A number of years ago, I dropped in on John Derbyshire and family in Long Island. We went to a Blockbuster to pick out a movie for everybody to watch that evening, so I suggested the documentary about the Scripps-Howard national spelling bee, Spellbound, which had been a big hit in my household. 

Now, I'd always figured that while John is obviously my superior in math and computer programming, we're fairly equal in verbal skills. But, when I watched Spellbound for the second time (with the closed captions off), I discovered that John could not only outspell me on words I'd already seen the first time I watched the movie, but he also knew the definitions of almost all the absurd words in the competition. 

I attribute this to his having the unfair advantage of being born English.

June 7, 2012

Don't worry, studies show test prep doesn't work!

From the New York Times, an article on the annual Chinese college admissions test madness, the gao kao, and how Chinese test culture is spilling over to the U.S.:
With more and more Chinese students applying to foreign universities, the emphasis on the rote memorization required for the gao kao has come under criticism from some U.S. educators. Another cause for concern, they say, are the methods being used to study for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl, which most U.S. schools require for admission. 
In a story done jointly by The Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Patricia J. Parker, assistant director of admissions at Iowa State University, which enrolls more than 1,200 Chinese undergraduates, said “students have proudly told her about memorizing thousands of vocabulary words, studying scripted responses to verbal questions and learning shortcuts that help them guess correct answers.” 
The story’s reporters, Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer, wrote that Ms. Parker “has seen conditionally admitted students increase their Toefl scores by 30 or 40 points, out of a possible 120, after a summer break, despite no significant improvement in their ability to speak English. Her students, she says, don’t see this intense test-prepping as problematic: ‘They think the goal is to pass the test. They’re studying for the test, not studying English.’ ” 
Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American colleges and universities about China, published a report last year that found cheating on college applications to be “pervasive in China, driven by hyper-competitive parents and aggressive agents.’’ 
An excerpt from the Zinch report: 
The result? Fake achievements, often concocted by agents. Based on our interviews, this happens on about 10 percent of applications. Sometimes a student’s silver medal is turned to gold, and sometimes a student lists an award for an activity he or she never completed. At a top Beijing high school this year, ten students claimed to be Class President!
Most Chinese parents now understand that American schools are looking for “well-rounded” students who combine strong test scores, transcripts, and extra-curricular achievement. The problem is that most Chinese students don’t have time to participate in many extra-curricular activities — they are too busy studying for and taking tests. In fact, many Chinese parents see extra-curricular activities as a dangerous distraction from studying.

How much was Tolkien's "Rings" influenced by Wagner's "Ring?"

Richard Wagner's four opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung was even more influential in the later 1800s and early 1900s than J.R.R. Tolkien's three volume The Lord of the Rings and its tremendous film adaptation were a century later. 

But, Tolkien always pooh-poohed Wagner's influence on him: “Both rings are round and there the resemblance ceases.” Tolkien also argued that he read the medieval sagas in the original Icelandic, while Wagner read them in translations. 

Still, consider the autobiography of Tolkien's close friend C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, which includes a chapter on the vast impact Wagner had on young people of his generation. I found a talk given by a professor of German literature, Edward Haymes, that argues the case for substantial influence of The Ring on The Rings. One excerpt:
German nationalists of the early nineteenth century saw a Germanic equivalent of ancient Greek and Roman mythology in the so-called Nibelung legend. It was common at that time to refer to the Nibelungenlied as the “German Iliad.” Mendelssohn and others were urged by nationalist thinkers to write an opera on the Nibelung subject. The goal was to establish a cultural past that was equal to, if not superior to the Greek and Roman literature they had all grown up on and to make it a part of the popular consciousness. Wagner hoped that his use of Germanic myth would somehow tap into this racial memory and speak directly to the soul of the German people.  
Parenthetically I might mention that Tolkien envisioned a very similar goal for his work. In a letter to a prospective publisher of the Silmarillion he wrote: “I was from the early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me) but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.” Tolkien shared with Wagner the desire of providing a mythology for his own people. Where Wagner found medieval sources for his myths, Tolkien had to invent his. 

I would add to Prof. Haymes' well-informed analysis my own idle speculation that English v. German nationalist rivalries might have played a role in Tolkien's denigrating the impact of Wagner on him. Tolkien's hyper-Englishness might have something to do with having a German name. From Wikipedia:
The Tolkien family had their roots in Lower Saxony – the homeland of the original Anglo-Saxons – but had been living in England since the 18th century, becoming "quickly intensely English."

Moreover, Tolkien personally fought the German Empire in the Great War. The Battle of the Somme is the kind of thing that might leave a mark on a man's feelings.

June 6, 2012

Horace Mann School: Pedophilia or Homosexual Harassment?

From the New York Times Magazine, a long article about male teachers getting all inappropriate with boy students at an expensive NYC school a generation ago:
Prep-School Predators 
The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual Abuse

Horace Mann is a coed K-12 school, but virtually all the examples in the article involve boys in grades 7-12. For example, this NYT article has an account of how Horace Mann's gay headmaster and his middle-aged teacher boyfriend plied the author, then a 17-year-old senior on Horace Mann's baseball squad, and his 17-year-old friend Eric with drinks, while apparently ignoring the author's 12-year-old brother:
At the end of dinner, Eric and I uttered some prearranged exit line, thanked our hosts, grabbed my brother and drove off drunk into the night, leaving the two grown men to pay the bill and finish out the evening as they might.

Were these middle-aged men motivated by pedophilia or by garden-variety homosexuality? To me that sounds like asking whether Barack Obama Sr. was motivated by pedophilia when he impregnated the President's 17-year-old mother, or by heterosexuality.

If you look up "pedophilia" in Wikipedia, it says:
This article is about the sexual interest in prepubescent children. For the sexual act, see Child sexual abuse. For the primary sexual interest in 11–14 year old pubescents, see Hebephilia. For mid-to-late adolescents (15-19), see Ephebophilia. 
As a medical diagnosis, pedophilia, or paedophilia, is defined as a psychiatric disorder in adults or late adolescents (persons age 16 or older) typically characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children (generally age 13 years or younger, though onset of puberty may vary). 

I'm fascinated by how the human mind has terrible trouble with having mixed opinions about anybody. This leads to bizarre dichotomizations in the conventional wisdom. For example, in my lifetime, Charles Darwin has been promoted past sainthood to near divine status, while his half-cousin and successor Francis Galton has been demonized as the scapegoat for all the unfortunate consequences of the Darwinian revolution.

Similarly, over the last generation we've been instructed over and over that Gay Is Good, while at the same time going through frenzies of loathing about pedophiles. Therefore, anything bad can't be homosexuality, it has to be pedophilia. 

You'll notice that the concept of "homosexual harassment" barely exists in our culture at present. Neither is the useful notion of a "gay mafia" a popular way to think about these kind of cover-ups, where some offenders are allowed to go on for years, and others are quietly eased out with a good letter of recommendation.

In 1948, George Orwell pointed out the political advantages of the nonexistence of terms.

Gay marriage v. gay mafia: The best defense is a good offense

"The best defense is a good offense" may explain much of the otherwise puzzling gay marriage project. Gay Liberation unleashed a number of Big Gay Screw-Ups, such as AIDS and the Catholic Church scandals. But rather than admit that, it was much easier emotionally to just go on the offensive over some random issue like gay marriage. 

There are big advantages to having the press constantly up in arms about how you  are a victim of discrimination. For example, it can help cover up your own discriminating. Many industries appear to have, as Marc Ambinder admitted yesterday about Washington D.C., gay mafias discriminating against non-gays. That's usually laughed off, as Ambinder and Robert Wright did, with the assumption that the victims of discrimination are straight men, so that's A-okay. 

But what happens when the victims are members of a Designated Victim Group? For example, most of the competition in the fashion business is between gay men and women, and that industry's powerful gay mafia notoriously treats aspiring female designers badly. The New York Times acknowledged this in 2005:
In Fashion, Who Really Gets Ahead?

Published: December 8, 2005 
AT a cocktail party at Chelsea Piers on Sunday night, an annual Toys for Tots charity drive that draws a crowd of mostly gay men, the designer Peter Som wryly observed that there were so many designers, retail executives and publicists present that if the pier collapsed, "there would be no fashion industry tomorrow." 
Two months earlier, Tara Subkoff, the agent provocateur behind the label Imitation of Christ, had remarked during a public forum, with a great deal of irritation, that fashion "is a gay man's profession." 
Ms. Subkoff was annoyed; Mr. Som was amused. 
The difference between their attitudes toward the gay male dominance of the fashion industry, a peculiar and widely acknowledged circumstance, illustrates a growing tension between those who feel they are discriminated against and those who feel somewhat favored by a perception, largely unexamined, that men are better designers than women, and gay men are the best designers of all.
Ms. Subkoff's remarks, made during a panel discussion of "Generation X Fashion" at the New Yorker Festival in late September, landed like an incendiary device in the fashion world - she also accused Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, of supporting only "young, gay men." A debate has continued ever since on Seventh Avenue over who is most likely to succeed in fashion and also on whether women, who make up most of the customers for this industry, face institutional barriers that limit their advancement on the creative side. 
Many female designers perceive that their male counterparts have won more industry honors and are featured more prominently in magazines. On television, they note, advice on style and design is almost invariably sought from a vibrantly gay man - witness "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the new "Isaac" talk show with Isaac Mizrahi on the Style channel and "Project Runway" on Bravo, which began its second season on Wednesday night. Its cast of 16 includes 8 male contestants, 7 of them gay, a spokesman for Bravo said. … 
But circumstantial evidence is making some designers wonder about the disparities. Of the young American designers most embraced by retailers and celebrated in the fashion press in recent years, the roll call is almost exclusively male: Zac Posen, Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez and Mr. Som as well as Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. Their female contemporaries have had a harder time breaking through, among them Behnaz Sarafpour, Alice Roi and Ms. Subkoff. 
"Gay men stick together like a band of brothers," Ms. Subkoff said in an interview. "It's more common for a man to bring up a younger assistant" who is male "and be proud of that," she added, "whereas a woman would be threatened" to promote another woman. 

But, you haven't heard much about this since, in part because -- Hey! Look over there! -- the most important issue of all time, gay marriage, has taken up so much time and energy.

Yeah, sure, theoretically, some group could be both victims and victimizers, but that's not how it works in 21st Century America. We don't do nuance. You are either Good or Bad. 

Americans love a winner and, obviously, only rubes don't recognize that gay marriage is going to be a winner in the long run. So, Gay is Good. 

The more interesting question is: What comes next?

"Melancholia:" The Music of the Spheres

My column in Taki's Magazine attempts to put the extraordinary opening overture of Lars von Trier's 2011 End of the World movie Melancholia in its aesthetic and philosophical setting stretching from Pythagoras to Stanley Kubrick. What do outer space and musical harmony have to do with each other?

There are a lot of amusing ironies about von Trier, the Mel Gibson of the art house, which I'll try to get to in the future. First, though, it's worth examining one specific example of how rich the Western cultural tradition is.

Also, Melancholia has a lot of golf course settings.

Read the whole thing there.

"Snow White and the Huntsman"

The hugely profitable Twilight series has left Hollywood scratching its collective heads. In theory, the discovery that there's a vast audience out of there of girls who don't mind cheap-looking crud churned out fast sounds financially exciting. So, let's take what's her name, the star of Twilight, Kristen Stewart, and slap her in some public domain fairy tale and maximize ROI! 

The funny thing, however, is that filmmakers have a hard time getting motivated by these blatant opportunities. So, rather than make a cheap "Snow White," they decided to try to bring in the boy audience, too, by promoting The Huntsman up to titular equality with Snow White. He's played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor in The Avengers) as a fairy tale version of True Grit's drunken marshall Rooster Cogburn. 

That marketing plan in turn justified a $170 million budget -- and it's all up there on the screen -- to make a lavish, scary, serious version of the old story with impressive levels of craftsmanship but not that much entertainment value. (For instance, the screenplay can't come up with a single laugh for Bob Hoskins to get as the eldest dwarf.)

The real star is Charlize Theron as the wicked stepmother / queen. Theron has been on a hot streak lately (e.g., last year's funny Young Adult) playing beauties who aren't as young as they used to be and aren't at all happy about it. 

A major problem for "Snow White and the Huntsman" is that Theron is a star, but Stewart is not. I thought Stewart was the best thing in the one Twilight movie I saw, but that says more about the slapdash quality of those movies. All the ingenue has to do in the Twilight movies is smell nice (literally -- that's the engine of the plot), but here she is supposed to be an extraordinary beauty, the embodiment of purity, and then turn into a charismatic political leader and buttkicking Joan of Arc. It would be an implausible role for any actress, and it's a massive stretch for a tomboyish actress not gifted with feminine charm.

Snow White and the Huntsman is set in mythic medieval England (and perhaps Wales), but we've seen a lot of Tolkienish fantasy-medieval England since Lord of the Rings. Snow White meets a giant stag, for example, much like in Narnia. The battle on the beach at the end is indistinguishable from the battle on the beach at the end of Ridley Scott's 2010 Robin Hood. Ye Olde British Isles have been well-served in movies lately (for example, the upcoming Pixar movie Brave looks like Braveheart with a buttkicking princess), so it's time to do some other European cultures. This famous Brothers Grimm story could have been an opportunity for a German setting.  

Obviously, there's not a lot of sense in comparing Snow White and the Huntsman to Walt Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which are extremely different movies. But I do want to make one observation: household chores seem to have been a much larger theme in old kids' movies. (For example, Whistle While You Work from Disney's Snow White, Cinderella scrubbing the floor, the Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia, and so forth). Maybe I've just missed out on the last decade of children's movies other than Pixar's, but this does seem like it could be a big cultural shift. Perhaps children don't respond to fantasies of getting out of chores as much anymore because they don't have to do as many?

June 5, 2012

In defense of Elizabeth Warren

Here are excerpts from a review I published in VDARE.com in 2003 of a book written by Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and her daughter:
Huge numbers of mothers entered the labor force over the last few decades. And the inflation-adjusted price of food, clothing, appliances, electronics etc. dropped sharply. So how come we don't feel like we've got a lot more discretionary income than our single-income parents had? 
A wise and readable new public policy book called The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke provides a simple answer: 
We don't have more discretionary income than our single-income parents had. 
The mother and daughter team of Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren and former McKinsey consultant Amelia Warren Tyagi explain: "The average two-income family earns far more today than did the single-breadwinner family of a generation ago. And yet, once they have paid the mortgage, the car payments, the taxes, the health insurance, and the day-care bills, today's dual-income families have less discretionary—and less money to put away for a rainy day—than the single-income family of a generation ago." 
The two authors note: "The brunt of the price increases has fallen on families with children. Data from the Federal Reserve show that the median home value for the average childless individual increased by 23 percent between 1983 and 1998 … (adjusted for inflation). For married couples with children, however, housing prices shot up 79 percent—more than three times faster." 
For example, in August, the median price of a single-family home in pleasant, suburban Ventura County west of Los Angeles was $480,000. 
Many economists shrug that this vast rise in prices increases Americans' net worth. "But that net worth isn't worth anything," the two women point out, "unless a family plans to sell its home and live in a cave, because the next house the family buys would carry a similarly outrageous price tag." 
... The biggest single cause of this growing financial stress on middle-income parents: the breakdown of much of the public education system. As Warren and Tyagi note, "Even as millions of mothers marched into the workforce, savings declined, and not, as we will show, because families were frittering away their paychecks on toys for themselves or their children. Instead, families were swept up in a bidding war, competing furiously with one another for their most important possession: a house in a decent school district… " ...
But what causes "bad schools"? 
Here the authors play it coy. I can hardly blame them. Almost everybody uses "bad schools" as a euphemism. Who wants to become a pariah for telling the truth?   
And for a book about the economics and law of personal bankruptcy, The Two-Income Trap is full of well-crafted zingers. I came away just plain liking these two ladies and their down-to-earth approach based on both formal data and the realities of daily life. 

"But is it good for the Americans?"

Peter Beinart, former editor of Marty Peretz's New Republic, is puzzled by a new poll of Jewish voters:
They’re a lot less enthusiastic about immigration. A slight plurality opposes “the U.S. government making it possible for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.” On immigration, in fact, American Jews are slightly to the American Jewish leadership’s right. I think Steven M. Cohen, who conducted the poll with Samuel Abrams, has noticed this waning Jewish support for immigration before. It’s intriguing, and depressing, given that many Jews still valorize their Ellis Island roots. 
Not quite sure what explains this. I’d suspect that anti-immigrant sentiment is highest near the border and among the Anglo working class, since such populations most often compete with immigrants for services and jobs. But Jews aren’t well represented in either cohort. If you can crack the mystery of Jewish nativism, email us at info@openzion.com, and we’ll post your answer.

My wacko nutjob guess is that American Jews tend to be fairly patriotic, certainly more so than Jewish media figures and leaders of Jewish organizations. Thus, average Jews are more likely to ask "But is it good for the Americans?" instead of only concerning themselves with "Is it good for the Jews?" as their spokesmen assume they should. In particular, Ellis Island Kitsch, while still going strong in the press, has to be getting a little old in real life.

June 4, 2012

"It's kind of like being a Mormon or something!"

From Slate, via Gucci Little Piggy:
Marc Ambinder: How Washington's Gay Mafia Helped My Career 
By Robert Wright | Posted Monday, June 4, 2012, at 7:34 PM ET 
Veteran journalist Marc Ambinder has left Washington after years of political reporting and is ready to share some of the city's secrets. Here he explains why DC is a place where being gay can bring significant career advantages:

Ambinder describes the advantages of being a gay media figure in Washington D.C. as "tribal."

I don't have time to transcribe what the gay reporter says about the advantages he enjoyed in his career as part of the D.C. gay mafia, but it would be nice to have it in text as part of the searchable permanent record.

As a long time fan of what Artie told Phil on The Larry Sanders Show, I particularly like how Wright responds to Ambinder's confessions: "It's kind of like being a Mormon or something!"

By the way, the generally accepted storyline is that the war over gay marriage is between a powerless, marginalized, oppressed minority and the well-organized, oppressive majority. An alternative conception is that converts to the cause of gay marriage tend to be the folks who know which way the wind is blowing and sense it is prudent to pay tribute to the rise of gay power by aligning themselves with the better organized side, while the opponents of gay marriage tend to be yokels who don't have a clue about how things really work.

The pseudoscience of eugenics in action

From the New York Times:
Andrew Huxley, Nobel-Winning Physiologist, Dies at 94 
by Denise Gellene 
Sir Andrew Huxley, a British scientist from an illustrious family whose boyhood mechanical skills led to a career in physiology — “the mechanical engineering of living things,” he called it — and a Nobel Prize for explaining the electrical basis of bodily movement, died on Wednesday. He was 94. 
His death was announced by Cambridge University’s Trinity College, where he had served as master from 1984 to 1990. 
Professor Huxley, a half brother of the novelist Aldous Huxley, shared the 1963 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine with his collaborator and former teacher, Sir Alan Hodgkin of Britain, and Sir John Eccles of Australia for explaining how nerve cells transmit electrical signals to control every bodily action and sensation. 
Professor Huxley and Professor Hodgkin’s work further explained how anesthesia works, laid the groundwork for devices that operate prosthetic limbs, and led to the identification of certain genetic diseases. 
The two specifically explained how electricity travels the length of a single nerve cell, while Dr. Eccles described how the impulse jumps from one nerve cell to the next.
Their research solved a mystery dating from 1771, when the Italian physicist Luigi Galvani zapped the leg of a dead frog with electricity, making it twitch. Movement required electricity, but how did electrical current pulse through living things?
... “It did for the cell biology of neurons what the structure of DNA did for the rest of biology,” Dr. Eric R. Kandel, a Nobel laureate, wrote in his 2006 memoir, “In Search of Memory,” about his career in brain science. 

Jared Diamond recently described Huxley and Hodgkins' work as his favorite "deep or beautiful explanation."

By the way, some of the groundwork for Huxley and Hodgkins' breakthrough was done by Cambridge professor Richard Darwin Keynes, a fellow who had to go through life as practically the only man among his family and friends who didn't win the Nobel or have a historic Ism named after him.
Andrew Fielding Huxley was born in London on Nov. 22, 1917, the son of Leonard Huxley, a writer, and the former Rosalind Bruce. 
His grandfather Thomas Huxley was a noted 19th-century biologist and early proponent of evolutionary theory. Julian Huxley, a pioneer in the field of animal behavior, and Aldous Huxley, the author of “Brave New World” and other works, were half brothers from his father’s first marriage. 
Professor Huxley said his famous siblings had little influence on him when he was growing up; in fact, he said, they seemed more like uncles than brothers because of the age differences: Julian was 30 and Aldous was 23 when Andrew was born. He credited his technical gifts to his mother, who encouraged woodworking and was good with her hands.

He was also a direct descendant of educational reformer Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and one of Lytton Strachey's four Eminent Victorians, and a grand-nephew of poet Matthew Arnold, whose 1851 poem "On Dover Beach" provided the mood music for Darwinism.

Correction: The two prominent writers among the three, Aldous and Julian, were related to the writing Arnolds through their mother. Andrew was not.

Here's a long Wikipedia article on the Huxley family, their accomplishments and their psychiatric problems. It concludes:
... but both the talent and the mental problems would have interested Francis Galton: "The direct result of this enquiry is... to prove that the laws of heredity are as applicable to the mental faculties as to the bodily faculties".

If you Google on 

eugenics pseudoscience

you get 115,000 pages. So, obviously, the efforts at good breeding undertaken at least since the 18th century by the friends, family, and forebearers of the original Darwinians were all for nought.

Where will the Sub-Saharans go?

Michael Barone writes:
But the next big immigration source, I think, will be sub-Saharan Africa. We may end up with prominent politicians who actually were born in Kenya. ... 
America is getting to look a lot more like Texas, and that’s one trend that I hope continues.

Since "African-American" is already taken, we need a term for people such as Akeem Olajuwon: Sub-Saharan Americans? Houston, where Olajuwon played in college and the NBA, appears to be the capital of Sub-Saharan America, due to the oil industry's connections to Nigeria, climate, Houston's Lagos-style city planning regulations, and, maybe, Olajuwon himself. 

So far, the U.S. has mostly been skimming the cream off black Africa, so immigration from sub-Saharan Africa hasn't proved to be a huge problem, yet. Still, regression toward the mean in the next generations is always problem, especially when regression is turbocharged by the most attractive set of bad examples in the world to a 13-year-old boy: the rap-industrial complex.

Worse, there isn't much cream in that coffee.

While fertility is low in much of the world, it remains extraordinarily high in Sub-Saharan African. Where all those people will end up is one of the major questions of the 21st Century.

One possibility is that Sub-Saharans will conjure up another new disease to go along with AIDS. A Chinese scholar writing five years before Malthus pointed out that the four horsemen of the apocalypse tend to arrive late but in a hurry: population swells slowly, then falls quickly.

Another possibility is emigration.

The advanced economy most conveniently located by land for many black African emigrants is Israel. Israelis, however, are increasingly aware of this fact, and are, shall we say, less sentimental about immigration than are their American cousins. 

Europe is next closest, but the political mood appears to be unwelcoming there, although not as much as in Israel.

In the U.S., however, sentimentality is increasingly militant, so Barone may be right.

The most extraordinary prediction, however, is Peter Frost's: that the country that will be overrun by surplus sub-Saharans is ... China.

Chinese numerology and world history

The NYT reports:
The broad index of the Shanghai exchange fell 64.89 points on Monday, a figure that recalls the Tiananmen Square events on June 4, 1989. In another unusual development, the index opened on Monday at 2346.98 — a figure that, to some, looked like the date of the crackdown written backward, followed by the 23rd anniversary. 
In a country where numerology is taken very seriously, Chinese censors quickly began blocking searches for “stock market,” “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market,” “index” and other related terms. They also deleted large numbers of microblog postings about the numerical fluke. ...
Chinese culture puts a very strong, sometimes superstitious, emphasis on numbers and dates. The Beijing Olympics started at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2008, a time and date chosen for the many eights, considered an auspicious number. 

In China in World History, the New Zealand historian S.A.M Adshead contrasted the world-historical implications during the last 2000 years of "the preference for theology and science in the West, for magic and technology in the East." Initially, magic and technology worked better than theology and science, propelling China ahead of Europe in the middle ages. Then, the latent powers of theology and science matured and Europe came to dominate.

Among the great questions of this millennium will be whether the Chinese come to accept theology and science as higher values than magic and technology. Or, after a good 600 year run, are theology (e.g., Christian egalitarian altruism) and science (e.g., the post-Copernican conception that we aren't the still point of the turning world and thus that our views and our welfare shouldn't be privileged) now undermining the West? And will the Chinese reject these fundamentals of the West, whether on pragmatic grounds or due to fundamental cultural aversion? Will we be able to talk the Chinese into, say, accepting a few hundred million African refugees to prove their modernity?

We talk a lot about the challenge to the West from Islam, but the Muslims are our cousins in Abrahamic theology: insistent, loud, aggressive in their assumption that if you become a believer you can't also remain an infidel. But Islam appears inseparable from mediocre human capital, and thus the challenge from Islam ought to be more of an annoyance. The Chinese, in contrast, are polite and agreeable, not seeing any problem with being both believer and infidel. They are, to us, inscrutable, but thus require more scrutiny.

Defeat of Obama feared as a Giant Diss to blacks

It's a truism in the study of politics in the Third World that the real test of democracy is not voting a president in but voting him (and his party and/or relatives) out. 

That's true in the First World, too. For example, I was a little surprised in 1981 that The Economist was relatively enthusiastic that in the French election that year the Socialist Mitterand had taken power from the Gaullist Giscard d'Estaing and immediately set about soaking the rich. But, the magazine pointed out, the last time there had been a substantive change of power in France was in 1958 when de Gaulle came to office and that was during the mutiny of the French Army in Algeria, which had seized Corsica and was threatening to seize Paris. So, the defeat of the Gaullists and their good grace in accepting that defeat by, you know, leaving office marked a milestone in the maturation of French politics. 

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first black president of the United States was widely celebrated as marking a step forward in American history. But nobody gave much thought at the time about whether large swathes of American voters and elites are mature enough to accept with good grace another step forward: a black man being voted out of the White House. 

The weird, hypersensitive frenzy that has entered American political life since Mitt Romney wrapped up the GOP nomination and the fall campaign began in earnest suggests that many people on the left of center would perceive Obama losing in 2012 not as just one of those things that happens in a democracy, as George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter can attest, but as a Giant Diss to blacks. This potential Triumph of Racism (as they perceive it in their Who-Whom worldview) would be intolerable, so saying almost anything to ward off Obama's defeat in November is morally justifiable.

June 3, 2012

Jared Diamond wields political incorrectness to outargue Daron Acemoglu

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu has a blog in which he advances his world-shattering insight that the reason some countries are poorer than others is because they have worse institutions bequeathed them by European imperialists. (Personally, I think he can take it a step further and point out that what's even more true of poor countries in general is that they have less money.) On his blog, Acemoglu searches out past examples of people who don't quite agree with him to show them the error of their ways.

For example, in Why Is Haiti So Poor? Acemoglu and James Robinson dismiss all non-institutional reasons for why Haiti is poorer than the adjoining Dominican Republic, such as that Haiti has a more African culture (voodoo, zombies, etc.) than the D.R. (And of course, that almost all the white people in Haiti, men, women, and children, were systematically massacred in 1804 might have something to do with Haiti's subsequent lack of economic dynamism, but that's the wrong kind of institutionalism for Acemoglu to even mention.) 

Acemoglue particularly doesn't like Jared Diamond's more broadbased comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in Diamond's 2005 bestseller Collapse, which includes an explanation of how prevailing winds, topography, rainfall patterns, population density, land ownership patterns and politics, have worked together to make Haiti one of the most deforested and eroded countries on earth while the D.R. still has much forest cover. (The aerial picture above shows Haiti on the left, the Dominican Republic on the right.)

Diamond’s comparison of the differing fates of Haiti and Dominican Republic, both in Collapse and after the Haitian earthquake reads like 40 proof crimethink compared to Acemoglu/Robinson’s embarrassing handling of the same subject. Diamond even mentions that the megalomaniacal mixed race D.R. dictator Trujillo’s policy of whitening the D.R. population by recruiting European immigrants (Trujillo was the only national leader enthusiastic about bringing in German Jewish refugees in the late 1930s), has helped the D.R. relative to Haiti. Acemoglu’s head would explode if that thought ever lodged in his brain!

Here’s what Jared Diamond wrote in The Guardian (of all places) after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 on why the Dominican Republican isn’t as impoverished as Haiti:
“A second social and political factor is that the Dominican Republic – with its Spanish-speaking population of predominantly European ancestry – was both more receptive and more ­attractive to European immigrants and investors than was Haiti with its Creole-speaking population composed overwhelmingly of black former slaves. … Hence European immigration and investment were negligible and restricted by the constitution in Haiti after 1804 but eventually became important in the Dominican Republic. Those Dominican immigrants included many middle-class businesspeople and skilled professionals who contributed to the country’s development.”

Okay, the basic difference between Diamond and Acemoglu is that Diamond is smart enough and well-informed enough that his political correctness is fairly disingenuous. His Guns, Germs, and Steel megaseller was a big step backwards in brilliance of insight from his earlier The Third Chimpanzee; but creating an elaborate rationalization for political correctness in GGS at least made him a rich man. (Here's my my 1997 review of Guns, Germs, & Steel.) He dodged debates with his best-informed critics because he understood the weaknesses in GGS. And, if you read his later stuff carefully, you can notice subtle signs that he’s actually a more heterodox thinker than GGS would suggest (e.g., a close reading of “Collapse’s” complaints about the effects of immigration into America and Australia on the environment shows he's a closet immigration restrictionist).

In contrast,while Acemoglu’s political correctness certainly has promoted his career, as far as I can tell, though, Acemoglu is a True Believer. He comes across as being wholly untainted by the slightest doubts in the conventional wisdom.

It's actually rather amusing to see the newer generation of True Blue dopes turning on the aging cynics who taught them too well.