Film

Gabriel Axel, RIP

by on February 13, 2014 at 12:34 am in Film, Food and Drink, Philosophy | Permalink

He was the director of Babette’s Feast and he just passed away at age 95.  What stuck with me most from that movie, and what is one of my favorite sentences ever, Axel himself cited upon receiving an Oscar:

Mr. Axel was a week shy of his 70th birthday when he took the podium in Los Angeles in April 1988 to accept the award. After saying his thank-yous, he quoted a line from his film: “Because of this evening, I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”

The obituary is here.

Law and Literature syllabus 2014

by on January 8, 2014 at 12:34 am in Books, Education, Film, History, Law | Permalink

The first class is today!  Here is my reading list:

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

Billy Budd and Other Tales, by Hermann Melville.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Conrad Black, A Matter of Principle.

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Moby Dick, by Hermann Melville, excerpts, chapters 89 and 90, available on-line.

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Haruki Murakami, Underground.

Honore de Balzac, Colonel Chabert.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49.

M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath.

Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.

Some additions to this list will be made as we proceed.  We also will view a few movies on legal themes, I will be back in touch on these.

I am likely to use A Separation and Memories of Murder as two of the movies, along with a new release depending on schedule.

*Her*

by on December 29, 2013 at 7:55 am in Film, Web/Tech | Permalink

As I tend to find Jonze’s work contrived I didn’t expect much, but I was bowled over by what is a must-see movie for anyone interested in tech or the social sciences or for that matter cinema.  Two of its starting premises are a) we as humans now face shadow prices which lead us to deemphasize the physical world of things and live in a world of information, and b) if we are going to have AI, which consumes real resources, which Darwinian principles will govern what kinds of personal assistants survive or do not?  Will they enslave us, will they be our dogs, our friends, our trading partners, or something else altogether?  This movie is the single best place to start on that question.

The rest is, as they say, solve for the equilibrium.  I found the dialogue, performances, and cinematography very strong.  The skyline blends Los Angeles and Shanghai.  The movie toys with the viewer in a clever manner as to whether it is about the future, the present, or both.  Several of the scenes (reluctance to spoil prevents further specificity) were some of the best and most creative and most conceptual movie-making I have seen, ever.

The “sources” for this movie, whether Spike Jonze is aware of them all or not, include Cyrano de Bergerac, various Mermaid legends, Blade Runner, Spielberg’s AI, 2001, Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, Philip Pullman, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, Pinocchio, Girard and indeed Shakespeare on the triangulation and intermediation of desire, Electric Dreams, Battlestar Galactica, Annie Hall, and even the Mormon doctrine of the Holy Ghost, as well as Jonze’s previous movies.  This is perhaps the most accurate review (some spoilers) I have seen.  This too is an insightful review, but the spoilers there are massive.  Best is not to read either but just to go see it.

Definitely recommended, for me this was one of the cultural events of the year.

Best movies of 2013

by on November 23, 2013 at 5:35 am in Film | Permalink

This has been an excellent year for movies, in fact I can’t remember a period so good.  Here is what I liked, noting that foreign films are classified by “what year did I have a chance to see them?” and not by their initial years of release, which are usually pre-2013.  Here goes, more or less in the order I saw them:

Amour, by Michael Haneke.

The Chilean movie NO, which is an account of how, even in the strangest of circumstances, democracies filter policy outcomes, as indeed autocracies do too (in different ways).

Spring Breakers

The Gatekeepers, I taught that one in Law and Literature class last year.

Room 237, an excellent mock on Straussians, through the medium of the fandom cult for Kubrick’s The Shining.

Oblivion

Stories We Tell

Before Midnight, completes the trilogy realistically, with charm and bite.

In a World…, “a subtle and entertaining movie with much economics in it, most of all the economics of superstars in the “voiceover” sector.”

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceacescu, “is mesmerizing, like watching one of the great silent films of the past, and the scenes where the Chinese communists praise the Romanian communists are some of the best ever filmed.”

Pieta, brutal Korean brutal tale involving money lenders and non-price compensation schemes.

Fill the Void

World War Z

In Another Country, Korean and French juxtaposed.

The Attack, possibly my favorite of the year, if I had to pick.  Lebanese and Israeli in its sources.

The Act of Killing, mostly set in Sumatra, brutal, has lots of social science.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, don’t tell Stevenson and Wolfers.  Directed by Werner Herzog.

Gravity

Captain Phillips — treat the two embedded stories as implicit commentary on each other.

12 Years a Slave

Hollywood redeemed itself with those last three, after what was otherwise a dismal year for mainstream releases.

I loved the documentary In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, although perhaps it is for fans only.

The crop of Christmas movies isn’t even out yet.

Companies, academics and individual software developers will be able to use it at a small fraction of the previous cost, drawing on IBM’s specialists in fields like computational linguistics to build machines that can interpret complex data and better interact with humans.

That is a big deal, obviously.  The story is here.

Maybe not.  In a new paper, “Who’s Naughty? Who’s Nice? Experiments on Whether Pro-Social Workers are Selected Out of Cutthroat Business Environments,” Mitchell Hoffman and John Morgan report:

Levitt and List (2007) conjecture that selection pressures among business people will reduce or eliminate pro-social choices. While recent work comparing students with various adult populations often fails to find that adults are less pro-social, this evidence is not necessarily at odds with the selection hypothesis, which may be most relevant for behavior in cutthroat competitive industries. To examine the selection hypothesis, we compare students with two adult populations deliberately selected from two cutthroat internet industries — domain trading and adult entertainment (pornography). Across a range of indicators, business people in these industries are more pro-social than students: they are more altruistic, trusting, trustworthy, and lying averse. They also respond differently to shame-based incentives. We offer a theory of reverse selection that can rationalize these findings.

Hat tip goes to Kevin Lewis.

The subtitle is Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion.  I believe this is her best and most compelling book.  It is wonderfully researched, very well written, the topic is understudied yet of universal import, and the accompanying visuals are striking.

Here is Virginia’s list of personas to help us distinguish glamour and charisma:

Glamour: Barack Obama, Che, Thomas Jefferson, Jackie Kennedy, Michael Jordan, John Lennon, Leonardo, Spock, Tupac Shakur, Joan of Arc dead, and Early Princess Diana.

Charisma: Bill Clinton, Castro, Andrew Jackson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Janice Joplin, Raphael, Kirk, Snoop Dogg, Joan of Arc alive, and Late Princess Diana.

Except she does it in a nice vertical table which I cannot replicate.

She lists Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, and Steve Jobs as having had both qualities.  The book is definitely recommended, and it is out in early November.

Here is her TED talk on the power of glamour.

Advertising uses repetition to increase consumers’ preference for brands. Initially, novel brands gain in popularity due to repetition, which increases the likelihood that consumers later buy the brands. Particularly for novel brands, excessive exposure and repetition is necessary to establish the brand name in the first place. Remember your initial irritation upon encountering the names YAHOO, GOOGLE and WIKIPEDIA for the first time; now they are imprinted in your brain.

Basic psychological research has already shown that the psychological mechanism behind this repetition effect is the easiness with which we perceive information. Repeatedly perceived information is easier to process for the brain, which saves capacity, and thus feels positive.

Concerning brand names, recent research by Sascha Topolinski and Fritz Strack has shown that this feeling of easiness and ensuing repetition effects actually stem from the mouth. Each time we encounter a person’s or product name, the lips and the tongue automatically simulate the pronunciation of that name. This happens covertly, that is, without our awareness and without actual mouth movements. During inner speech, the brain attempts to utter the novel name. When names are presented repeatedly, this articulation simulation is trained and thus runs more easily for repeated compared to novel names. Crucially, if this inner speech is disturbed, for instance during chewing gum or whispering another word, the articulation of words cannot be trained and the repetition effect vanishes. People who are chewing something are immune to word repetition, they do not prefer familiar words over novel ones.

The present study applied this to the real-world scenario of advertising in movie theaters. There, people usually consume popcorn and other snacks during watching commercials, which disturbs the inner articulation of brand names.

There is more here, hat tip to Michael Rosenwald.  Here is related coverage from Drake Bennett.

The number of successful pirate hijackings has dropped since November 2011 when over 40 successful attacks were recorded for that month alone.  In comparison, in 2012 there were only 15 successful attacks off the East African coast, according to UN figures.  The drop has been attributed to increased private armed security on the part of commercial vessels and anti-piracy task forces from foreign governments, which have been supported by enforced prosecution of hijackers.  Maritime law before 2011 did not allow armed security on commercial vessels, but the International Maritime Organization has since added it to itsguidance on best management practices for piracy for high risk areas.  Although the situation has seen improvement, some pirate groups have turned to inland hostage taking and hijacking attempts still continue.

There is much more here.  By the way, I enjoyed Captain Phillips, which I took to be quite critical of the U.S. military and which is best understood as seeing the two stories as running parallel commentary on each other.

The markets in everything angle is this:

Not all of the crew cooperated with the movie, and those who did were paid as little as $5,000 for their life rights by Sony and made to sign nondisclosure agreements — meaning they can never speak publicly about what really happened on that ship.

It’s the film’s version of events — and Hanks’ version of Phillips — that will be immortalized.

There is more here.

Nobel Offices

by on October 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm in Film, Games, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is a panoramic peek inside the offices of a number of Nobel prize winners, including Al Roth for economics. More interesting than it sounds with lots of Easter eggs.

Hat tip: Justin Wolfers.

That is a 2013 paper by Adilov, Alexander, and Cunningham, here is the abstract:

Space debris, an externality generated by expended launch vehicles and damaged satellites, reduces the expected value of space activities by increasing the probability of damaging existing satellites or other space vehicles. Unlike terrestrial pollution, debris created in the production process interacts with firms’ final products, and is, moreover, self-propagating. Collisions between debris or extant satellites creates additional debris. We construct an economic model to explore private incentives to launch satellites and to mitigate space debris. The model predicts that, relative to the social optimum, firms launch too many satellites and under-invest in debris mitigation technologies. We discuss remediation strategies and policies, and calculate a socially optimal Pigovian tax.

While we are on this topic, I very much liked the movie Gravity, which although it has some dialogue hearkens back to the silent classics of the past.  It has spectacular visuals, a “great stagnation” element, a don’t try to be Icarus, live in the mud, and be reborn and baptized in the water element, a reinterpretation of The Book of Job, and a “who builds the best infrastructure anyway?” theme.  On top of all that, it is subtle running commentary on the 1969 film *Marooned* and how much the world has, and hasn’t, changed since then.

My interview with Eric John Barker

by on September 29, 2013 at 10:48 am in Books, Economics, Film, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

It is here in excerpts, mostly about Average is Over, but with some twists, here is one part:

TC:…That’s right, and Obi-Wan also tells Luke, “Finish your training in the Dagobah system,” right? How many times did he tell him? Yoda tells him. Yoda. What does Luke do? He tells Yoda to get lost. So I think as humans we’re somewhat programmed to be a bit rebellious and to not want to be controlled, which is perfectly understandable given that others are trying to control us as often as they are. But that’s going to mean in those new settings, which we’ve never biologically evolved to handle, we’re going to screw up an awful lot. Just like Luke did not finish his training in the Dagobah system.

Eric’s very interesting blog you will find here.

Book and movie splat

by on September 28, 2013 at 8:03 am in Books, Film | Permalink

1. Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.  From my colleague at GMU Law, I have not yet read this one.

2. Damien Ma and William Adams, In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China’s Ascent in the Next Decade.  How often does a book have both a good title and subtitle these days?  The authors are more pessimistic about China long-term than I am, but nonetheless this is a very interesting take on The Middle Kingdom.

3. Clare Jacobson, New Museums in China.  Good text but mostly a picture book, I loved this one.  Stunning architecture, no art, full of lessons in multiple areas, think of it as a Straussian picture book with beauty on its side too.

4. John Durant, The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health.  A useful overview of its topic, with an influence from Art DeVany, but you will not find recipes for either “grubs” nor “worms” here.

5. John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election.  Good, sane tome on how the fundamentals matter and lots of campaigning ends up being cancelled out by the campaign of the other candidate.

From another direction, In a World… is a subtle and entertaining movie with much economics in it, most of all the economics of superstars in the “voiceover” sector.  The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceacescu is mesmerizing, like watching one of the great silent films of the past, and the scenes where the Chinese communists praise the Romanian communists are some of the best ever filmed.

Two movies about killing

by on August 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm in Film | Permalink

The first is “The Attack,” directed by a Lebanese-American and set mostly in Tel Aviv and Nablus.  It has reportedly been banned in at least 22 Arab countries and in the Middle East it can be seen only in Israel.  The plot line is that a prominent Arab Israeli surgeon, living in Tel Aviv, discovers that his deceased wife was in fact the perpetrator of a suicide bombing.

Here is a New York Times review, but the movie admits of multiple interpretations more than most of its Western press lets on.  Because of a few nude scenes, the director could not find a Palestinian woman to play the lead female role and so he chose a Moroccan.

The second is “The Act of Killing,” which consists of interviews with Indonesian gangsters and murderers from the 1965 pogroms.  The perpetrators are given a chance to stage, reenact, and ponder their deeds, all captured on camera.  This is the most remarkable Hobbesian “document” I have experienced and the ways in which it is compelling go so far beyond other movies that there is no relevant point of comparison and I mean that in a way which is flattering to this movie.  Perhaps imagine the petty tyrant scenes of The Sopranos or Donnie Brasco multiplied fifty or one hundred times in intensity.  Werner Herzog nailed it: “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.”  It is also a compelling meditation on the human need for narrative and how we do not know what we have done until we start telling it, and even then the process of telling keeps us from the real truth.

Both movies are rich in social science and you should make every attempt to see them.

The new economics of Hollywood

by on August 2, 2013 at 9:29 am in Film | Permalink

Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro‘s robots v monsters action movie, is likely to get a sequel after its $9m (£5.9m) record-breaking opening in China, according to Deadline.

The film, which has performed poorly at the US box office, is currently at the top spot internationally. It is yet to be released in over half of global territories including Spain, Brazil and Japan.

The story is here, and here is a good geopolitical analysis of the film.  I actually preferred the often unheralded Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, and no sequels are not always worse.  Just ask Cervantes.