Best movies of 2015

by on November 27, 2015 at 11:40 am in Film | Permalink

I thought this was the worst year for movies since I have been watching them.  In fact I think you could multiply this year’s good films by two and still have the worst year for movies in a long, long time.  Maybe by three.  But here are the ones I liked, in many cases with my reviews behind the links:

American Sniper

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem

Ex Machina, visually nice and fun to watch, but conceptually not that sharp or original.

Inside Out, seemed splendid at the time, but hasn’t stuck with me.

Red Army, a documentary about the hockey team of the Soviet Red Army, its rise and fall.  Chock full of social science and public choice, I loved this movie, philosophical too, even though I am not especially interested in hockey.  One of my favorite documentaries.

Meru, documentary about climbing very high mountains and human motivation.  Should win a Cass Sunstein award.

A Brilliant Young Mind [X + Y is the title of the original UK release], one of the better autism movies, nice scenes of Taipei too.

Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin, give it the Girardian/Straussian take on what can really bring a dysfunctional, squabbling family together.

The Martian, and Alex’s contrasting review is here.

About Elly, first released in 2009, not available to most American viewers until this year.  From the Iranian director of A Separation.  You don’t realize how good it is until about forty-five minutes have passed.

Of those, Red Army is my clear first choice, and it is only 70 minutes long.

What would you add to this list?

Here is the full transcript, video, and podcast of the chat.  Cliff was great from beginning to end.  The first thirty minutes or so were an overview of “momentum” and “value” trading strategies, and to what extent they violate an efficient markets hypothesis.  Much of the rest covered:

…disagreeing with Eugene Fama, Marvel vs. DC, the inscrutability of risk, high frequency trading, the economics of Ayn Rand, bubble logic, and why never to share a gym with Cirque du Soleil.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I think of you as doing a kind of metaphysics of human nature. On one side, there’s behavioral economics. They put people in the lab, one-off situations, untrained people. But here it’s repeated data, it’s over long periods of time, it’s out of sample. There’s real money on the line, and this still seems to work.

When you back out, what’s the actual vision of human nature? What’s the underlying human imperfection that allows it to be the case, that trading on momentum across say a 3 to 12 month time window, sorry, investing on momentum, will work? What’s with us as people? What’s the core human imperfection?

ASNESS: This is going to be embarrassing because we don’t have a problem of no explanation. We have a problem with too many explanations. Of course, we can observe the data. The explanations you have to fight over and argue over. I will give you the two most prominent explanations for the efficacy of momentum.

The first is called underreaction. Simple idea that comes from behavioral psychology, the phenomenon there called anchoring and adjustment. News comes out. Price moves but not all the way. People update their priors but not fully efficiently. Therefore, just observing the price move is not going to move the same amount again but there’s some statistical tendency to continue.

Take a wild guess what our second best, in my opinion, explanation for momentum’s efficacy is? It’s called overreaction. When your two best explanations are over- and underreaction, you have somewhat of an issue, I admit. Overreaction is much more of a positive feedback. It works over time because people in fact do chase prices. So if you do it somewhat systematically and before them you make some money.

One of the hard things you find out in many fields but I found out in empirical finance is those might be the right explanations but they’re not mutually exclusive.

And here is from the overrated/underrated part of the chat:

COWEN: …In science fiction, the author Robert Heinlein.

ASNESS: Early stuff, underrated. Later stuff, overrated.

COWEN: What’s your favorite?

ASNESS: That is a really — Methuselah’s Children.

COWEN: Ah, good pick.

ASNESS: I could have gone with the obvious. I’m a bit of a libertarian. I could have gone with, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It’s his most famously libertarian book.

COWEN: But it doesn’t age so well.

ASNESS: No, no. I like Methuselah’s Children.

This was the funniest segment:

ASNESS: I live in Greenwich, Connecticut. In some parts of the world, if you said, “my daddy runs a hedge fund,” I’d say, “what’s a hedge fund?” In Greenwich, Connecticut, the kids say, “what kind of hedge fund is your daddy running? Is he event arbitrage? Trend following? What does dad do?”

Interesting throughout, as they are known to say…

Ayn Rand and The Martian

by on October 5, 2015 at 7:25 am in Books, Film, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

The Martian is the most Randian movie in years, perhaps in decades. Ayn Rand is best known for her defense of capitalism but her defense of reason was even more fundamental to her thought. The Martian has no bearing on politics but it reminded me of Rand’s essay on Apollo 11 and the moon landing, the launch of which she witnessed Apollo 11 - 2from Kennedy Space Center.

Rand wrote that the Apollo 11 mission “conveyed the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art – a play dramatizing a single theme: the efficacy of man’s mind.” The  efficacy of man’s mind and the power of reason is exactly the theme of The Martian.

As Rand continued:

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt…And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being–an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.

The difference is that Apollo 11 gave the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art but it was real. While the Martian gives the sense that we are watching something real but it is a magnificent work of art. Have we not been diminished? Nevertheless, the sense of life of the event and the movie are the same and the movie is gripping, thrilling and uplifting, a triumph for Ridley Scott and the author, Andy Weir.

Addendum: See Tyler’s review as well.

*The Martian*

by on October 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm in Film, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The way the movie is good is almost the opposite of the way the book is good, so re-gear your expectations.  It is the most convincing portrayal of a planet I have seen in cinema.  (Planets, by the way, create erotic bonds stronger than those of actual marriages.)  I enjoyed the homage shots to Bruce Dern and Silent Running, Brian De Palma’s underrated Mars film too.  The horizon images of earth toward the end come as an ecstatic jarring relief.  They are, by the way, aiming for the China market with a plot twist that almost seems satirical except in Beijing it is dead serious.  That this film is sometimes dramatically inert is beside the point, recommended.

The next Conversations with Tyler comes next Thursday, six days from now, and it is with Dani Rodrik.  Of course you should show up, or watch the LiveStream (see the link).  But in the meantime, what should I ask him?

Again, here is the previous session with Luigi Zingales.

The transcript is here, with a podcast version, and there is also a YouTube version at the link, with cleaned-up audio compared to any earlier link you may have come across.  Luigi was wonderful, and also fantastically witty.  The topics included Italy, Donald Trump, Antonio Gramsci, Google and conglomeration, Luchino Visconti, Starbucks, and the surprisingly high productivity of Italian cafés.

Here is one excerpt:

I don’t understand why in the United States the only thing that is really noncompetitive is sports. In Europe, the only thing that is really competitive is sports.

And another:

COWEN: …Angela Merkel, overrated or underrated?

ZINGALES: I think she’s probably underrated. I’m impressed by her ability to, number one, run Europe for the interest of Germans in a very effective way.

The longest bit from me is where I compare and contrast Luigi with Gramsci, another theorist of hegemony, and try to sum up Luigi’s work; you can find that on the video or in the transcript.

And again from Luigi there is this:

…when I arrived in this country 27 years ago, you were not really drinking coffee. You were drinking a dark thing that tastes like I don’t say what because we’re online. The culture of coffee did not exist here.

The culture of coffee and a café where you seat and drink, et cetera, what Starbucks is, is an Italian or at most French culture. Why were you unable to export this? This is my little explanation. By the way, the only country in the world where Starbucks has not arrived is Italy.

Luigi then considers when Italian coffee is better tasting and better run at the artisan level, yet without the same possibilities for corporate expansion.  I liked this sentence from Luigi:

The extreme agency problems of Italy make it difficult to scale firms.

And finally:

One thing I can predict fairly confidently is that we are not going to pay the debt.

This is also a worthwhile observation:

When you’re down to one or two kids, the chance that one is an idiot is pretty large.

His favorite film is Visconti’s The Leopard, a good pick.  And he was the public choice scholar who forecast the rise of Donald Trump, as we discuss in the chat.  Self-recommending.

The ghost in the machine

by on August 7, 2015 at 7:30 am in Film, Science, Travel | Permalink

I visited two wonderful churches in Barcelona. The first, of course, was La Sagrada Familia. Ramez Naam put it best, this is “the kind of church that Elves from the 22nd Century would build.” I can’t add to that, however, so let me turn to the second church.

The Chapel Torre Girona at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona is home to the MareNostrum, not the world’s fastest but certainly the world’s most beautiful supercomputer.


Although off the usual tourist path, it’s possible to get a tour if you arrange in advance. As you walk around the nave, the hum of the supercomputer mixes with Gregorian chants. What is this computer thinking you wonder? Appropriately enough the MareNostrum is thinking about the secrets of life and the universe.

In this picture, I managed to capture within the cooling apparatus a saintly apparition from a stained glass window.

The ghost in the machine.


Hat tip: Atlas Obscura.

Good sentences about Godzilla

by on August 5, 2015 at 3:17 pm in Film, History, Law | Permalink

In movie after movie, people merely ran away from the stampeding monster, and no one tried to face up to the issue of accountability, he said.

Those are the words of the new director for the series.

Let’s stick with the living, here are a few who come to mind:

Adam Minter

Charles C. Mann

Laura Miller (formerly of, now of Slate)

Ted and Dana Gioia

Christopher Balding

Fuchsia Dunlop

Stephen King

Arnold Kling

Kendrick Lamar

Viktor Zhadanov

Chow Yun Fat

To be clear, I am not suggesting these people are deficient or lacking in status, rather that it should be higher yet.  Or maybe it is the list of people who should decline in status which interests you more


1. Painter: Marko Čelebonović.  Plus lots of the art in the monasteries.

2. Performance art: Marina Abramović.  I still love this video of the staring game.

3. Author: Danilo Kiš, the Serbian Borges.  Or how about Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars, which somehow seems to have fallen through the cracks since the time of its publication.  Ivan “Ivo” Andrić is the Serbian Nobel Laureate, sort of, he espoused a Serbian identity but actually was Bosnian.

4. Actor and director: Emir Kusturica.  Recently he has disappointed, and taken flak, for having supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  He is still an impressive creator, however, and is also an accomplished musician and author.  Did I mention that he espouses a Serbian national identity, and has converted to Orthodox Christianity, but originally was a Bosnian Muslim?

5. Actress: Milla Jovovich, most of all in Fifth Element and also Resident Evil, she is part Serbian.

6. Economist and blogger: Branko Milanović.

7. Sports: Lots of tennis players, plus Pete Maravich was of Serbian descent.

Other: Tesla was ethnic Serbian though born in Croatia.  American poet Charles Simic was born in Serbia, though he moved to the United States at a young age.


1. Novelist: Help!  I do own a copy of Sarah Nović’s Girl at War, but haven’t yet read it.

2. Basketball player: Toni Kukoc, the “Croatian sensation.”

3. Painting: There was an active school of Naive painting in Croatia, from Hlebine near the Hungarian border.  Perhaps my favorite from the group was Ivan Generalic, but Mirko Virius was very good too.

4. Inventor: Nikola Tesla.  Before you go crazy in the comments section, however, here is a long Wikipedia page on to what extent we can justly claim that Tesla was Croatian.  Here are further debates, Croat or Serb?  Or both?

5. Pianist: How about Ivo Pogorelić?  Here is his Petrushka.

6. Economist: Branko Horvat, the market-oriented market socialist, is the only one I can think of, here is an overview of his contributions (pdf).  Am I forgetting someone?

7. City: Split, not Dubrovnik.  I am here for two days right now, then on to Belgrade for a conference/salon.

I cannot name a Croatian movie or composer or pop star.  I have the feeling they have many more famous athletes.  Don’t they have a lot of beautiful models?  Aren’t they the world’s most beautiful people?  Has anyone set a movie here?

The bottom line: It would be worse without Tesla.

What I’ve been reading, and viewing

by on July 7, 2015 at 1:37 am in Books, Film | Permalink

1. Stephen Witt, How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy.  Most of all, Learned how much hard work and ingenuity was behind the MP3 standard, in any case a good and useful book.

2. P.W. Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.  More of a speculative exercise than a traditional novel — what if the Chinese could beat the Americans? — but still a fun read and a book that people are talking about at high levels.

3. Vendela Vida, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty: A Novel.  To the point and lots of fun.  A recently divorced woman travels to Morocco and surprises start to happen.  Occupies that intriguing space between “not deep” but also “not superficial.”

4. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend.  This writer has been called a “female Neapolitan Knausgaard,” arguably a deliberate oxymoron.  It took me my second read through to “get it,” which I suppose means I am not the natural target audience.  But I am very glad I gave it that second read, and this is in fact the female Neapolitan Knausgaard, in four volumes by the way.

5. Red Army, a film documentary about the hockey team of the Soviet Red Army, its rise and fall.  Chock full of social science, I loved this movie, philosophical too, even though I am not especially interested in hockey.  One of my favorite documentaries.

*Inside Out*

by on June 21, 2015 at 8:12 pm in Film | Permalink

In what is perhaps the worst year for movies in my life, the new Pixar feature stands out as a welcome relief.  Even by Pixar standards it is more adult than usual, with the main theme being the precariousness of mental health and the ease of slipping into depression.  Voluntarists will object.  Every scene is gorgeous, the inside jokes are rife, and I enjoyed the ongoing pokes at Silicon Valley, most of all the dreams of unicorns.

Thanks to computerized aiming, HEL MD can operate in wholly autonomous mode, which Boeing tested successfully in May 2014 – although the trials uncovered an unexpected challenge. The weapon’s laser beam is silent and invisible, and not all targets explode as they are destroyed, so an automated battle can be over before operators have noticed anything. ‘The engagements happen quickly, and unless you’re staring at a screen 24-7 you’ll never see them,’ Blount says. ‘So we’ve built sound in for whenever we fire the laser. We plan on taking advantage of lots of Star Trek and Star Wars sound bites.’

More generally, fibre-laser weapons may be on their way:

Despite their modest capabilities, Scharre claims that fibre-laser weapons could find a niche in US military defence in 5–10 years. “They may not be as grand and strategic as the Star Wars concept,” he says, “but they could save lives, protect US bases, ships and service members.”

The full article is here, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Most indie films and documentaries don’t get to most markets. It’s hard for a theatre to know which of the many indie films audiences really want to see and without the scale of a NYC it doesn’t make sense for theatres to gamble on a screening that might not make audience.

R.J. Lehmann writes about Tugg, a new service that allows someone who wants to create an event to pull the movie to a local theatre:

With Tugg, a user chooses a film and the date, time and the theatre where he or she would like it to be shown. If the theatre approves the request, Tugg creates a personalized event page for the user through which tickets can be sold. If sales meet a set threshold goal before the set deadline, then the screening is on; if not, it’s cancelled and those who bought tickets are refunded their money. As a bonus that provides ample incentive to promote screenings, users who organize events get to keep 5 percent of the gate.

…Essentially, what Tugg offers is what is known in game theory circles as an assurance contract. (That’s ASsurance, not INsurance.) As my old colleague Alex Tabarrok, who has done some pioneering work on the subject, explains:

In an assurance contract, people pledge to fund a public good if and only if enough others pledge to fund the public good. Assurance contracts were not well-known when I began to write on this topic but have now become common due to organizations like Groupon and Kickstarter, which work on this principle (indeed, I have been credited with the ideas behind Groupon, although sadly for my bank account, I don’t think that claim would stand in a court of law). Since no money is paid unless the total pledges are high enough to fund the public good, assurance contracts remove the fear that your contribution will be wasted if other people fail to contribute.

In essence, Tugg handles the logistics of creating a movie event and the assurance contract assures that the event will be profitable.