Film

I don’t like most Tarantino movies, except for Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill, vol.I.; I usually find his style too mannered and self-conscious.  And I read so many negative or lukewarm reviews in the American press.  But more positive evaluations started to trickle in, as the British Guardian, Telegraph, and FT all gave it five stars, and some of my friends seemed to like it.  One of my canonical views is that when critics have split views on a talented director, you should go see the movie.  I am very glad I did.

Think of the film as a retelling of John Locke’s social compact story, except the individuals are not tabula rasa in terms of history, but rather they bring ineradicable racial and historical backgrounds to the table, epistemically uncertain backgrounds as well.  The game-theoretic solution concepts unfold accordingly.  The setting and details of the story are then set up to spoof Agatha Christie and the British haunted house tradition, except with snow, guns, and the American West as props.

Recommended, even for skeptics, Straussian throughout.

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Albert Camus, The Stranger

Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation

Janet Malcolm, The Crime of Sheila McGough

Njal’s Saga (on-line version is fine)

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line

Year’s Best SF 9, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, used or Kindle edition is recommended

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

Sherlock Holmes, The Complete Novels and Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, volume 1, also on-line

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

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

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

We also will see some films and cover some very short on-line readings, as I will distribute at the appropriate times; your papers may draw on these as well.

This was the year when it became clear that much of Eastern Europe probably won’t end up as free societies.  It’s not just semi-fascism in Hungary.  Poland and Slovakia, arguably the two most successful economies and societies in Eastern Europe, took big steps backward toward illiberal governance.  How can one be optimistic about the Balkans?  I imagine a future where African and North African refugees are bottled up there, and Balkan politics becomes slowly worse.  As for Ukraine, a mix of Russia and an “own goal” has made the place ungovernable.  Where is the bright spot in this part of the world?

Nothing good happened in China’s economy, although more fingers have been inserted into more dikes.  I am not hopeful on the cyclical side, though longer term I remain optimistic, due to their investments in human capital and the growing importance of scale.

I have grown accustomed to the idea that Asian mega-cities represent the future of the world — have you?

Syria won’t recover.

This was the year of the rise of Ted Cruz.

It was an awful year for movies, decent but unpredictable for books.  The idea that Facebook and social media rob the rest of our culture of its centrality, or its ability to find traction, is the default status quo.  Not even that idea has gained much traction.  Cable TV started to receive its financial comeuppance.  Yet on the aesthetic side, television is at an all-time peak, with lots of experimentation and independent content provision, all for the better.  I suspect this is one reason why movies are worse, namely brain drain, but I am hoping for longer-run elasticities of adjustment into the broader talent pool.

Against all odds, Homeland was excellent in its fifth season.

I became even more afraid to move my cursor around a web page, and in terms of content, more MSM sites became worse than better.  Banning photos would solve twenty percent of this problem.

Stephen Curry and Magnus Carlsen were the two (public) individuals I thought about the most and followed the most closely.  Each has a unique talent which no one had come close to before.  For Curry it is three point shooting at great range and with little warning; for Carlsen it is a deep understanding of the endgame as the true tactical phase of chess, and how to use the middlegame as prep to get there.  It wasn’t long ago Curry’s weapons were “trick” shots, perhaps suitable for the Harlem Globetrotters; similarly, players such as Aronian thought Carlsen’s “grind ’em down” style could not succeed at a top five level.  Everyone was wrong.

But here’s what I am wondering.  Standard theory claims that with a thicker market, the #2 talents, or for that matter the #5s, will move ever closer to the #1s.  That is not what we are seeing in basketball or chess.  So what feature of the problem is the standard model missing?  And how general is this phenomenon of a truly special #1 who breaks some of the old rules?  Does Mark Zuckerberg count too?

I realized Western China is the best part of the world to visit right now.  The food trends where I live were Filipino and Yemeni, which I found welcome.  Virginia now has a Uighur restaurant in Crystal City, and the aging San Antonio Spurs continue to defy all expectations.  Kobe Bryant, who “ranks among the league’s top 5 percent of shot-takers and its bottom 5 percent of shot-makers,” has redefined the retirement announcement, among other things.

Top curling teams say they won’t use high-tech brooms.  Just wait.

AnandCarlsen

*The Big Short*

by on December 22, 2015 at 12:02 am in Economics, Education, Film | Permalink

I liked it much more than I expected to, and was pleased to have been invited to yesterday’s special screening.  (By the way, there are no real spoilers in this review.)  The most noteworthy features of this movie, from my admittedly skewed perspective, are these:

1. The story is told through the medium of changing market prices.  Really.  Reported prices convey the action and its significance, repeatedly, and the audience is expected to “get” this.

2. There is no central villain, none whatsoever.  The filmmakers succeed in showing how the collective actions of many, operating together, can give rise to structural problems and systemic risk.  And yet the story remains suspenseful.

3. It is amazing how much jargon they packed into this movie, let’s hope audiences accept it.  They even try to explain what a collateralized debt obligation is, and why its true risk can be higher than its apparent risk.

4. In terms of flow and pacing, it doesn’t feel like a traditional Hollywood movie.  There is no background music (except Led Zeppelin at the close), the density of information is much higher than expected, and it draws inspiration from various souped-up YouTube clips, some where characters occasionally turn and speak to the audience directly.

5. I enjoyed how this movie showed the world of finance as being a menagerie of different kinds and levels of intelligence.  My favorite scenes were at the CDO conference held in Las Vegas, showing the very specific ways in which people of above-average intelligence nonetheless can be intensely stupid.

6. Yes, the movie was “too leftie” on various points, or occasionally not nuanced enough, such as the SEC regulator scene.  But what the movie does well — namely to condense amazing amounts of economics and finance into what is likely to prove a popular and critically acclaimed film — is path breaking, and more important than its shortcomings.

By the way, the preview for this movie is misleading, for one thing Brad Pitt has only a minor role.  The preview is technically well done, but it makes the film look too mainstream.

Addendum: A recent movie I enjoyed on Netflix was Tangerine, which also has a unique feel to it, shot solely on iPhones.  But if you’re allergic to the idea of a movie about transgender prostitutes, skip it.  It’s one of the great LA movies, though.

Race in *Star Wars: The Force Awakens*

by on December 20, 2015 at 7:32 am in Film, History | Permalink

I haven’t seen anyone cover this topic yet.  I’ll put my remarks in the top blog comment, so this way you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to.  My analysis does cover some spoilers — unavoidable — but I don’t think they are any of the main plot spoilers, in case you are wondering.

*Star Wars: The Force Awakens*

by on December 17, 2015 at 10:54 pm in Film | Permalink

I’ll leave my review at the top of the comments section, if you are curious.  I’ll avoid any direct plot spoilers, but I will tell you what I thought.

Netflix has built socks that read your body to understand when you fall asleep, and then automatically pause your Netflix show.

There is more here, via the excellent Samir Varma.

All the major reviews for Star Wars seem to be positive, but no one is calling it an “intense personal vision.”  So it probably isn’t very good.

My father-in-law was watching the debate last night, and so I caught some of it after giving my final exam for the evening.  I ended up being persuaded by Justin Wolfers’s “signaling theory,” not even mainly for Trump but for most of the candidates.  They feel an extreme need to signal to voters that something is deeply, deeply wrong and that they won’t just leap on the establishment bandwagon if elected.  In this sense the Republican candidates have more in common with the Progressive Left than might be evident on first glance.  That they feel induced to go so far out on various limbs is, most of all, a sign that GOP primary voters still do not believe their sincerity.  Fiorina strikes me as the one who is running “straight up,” and giving some semblance of her actual views, and perhaps that is why she has failed to achieve traction after a boost at the very beginning.  She is signaling she will be a female, conservative member of the Republican political establishment, rather than that she will side with the frustration of the voters.  The former is not such a marketable political commodity these days.

The law of one price almost holds:

…most fancy bills trade only slightly above face value. And many of the most sought-after by collectors really have only sentimental or personal value, like their child’s birthday or an anniversary (04072004, say, for April 7, 2004); ZIP Codes (00090210, where the final five digits in this instance represent the postal designation for Beverly Hills, Calif.); tombstones (19182014, here representing the birth and death years of a long life as they might appear on a gravestone; and others known by such names as Fibonaccis after the mathematical sequence and flippers whose digits look the same right-side up or upside down.

One well-known fan in this universe of collectors, Jim Futrell, for a long time focused on bills featuring the number 27 in some fashion—for example, 27000027. “The number 27 is pretty special in my family,” he says. “Not only is it my birthday, but my mom’s, grandfather’s and at least 10 others that I know of.”

The solstice approaches, and I am waking up slightly later than usual.

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.

Macbeth

Carol

Sicario

Mustang

Anomalisa

Blind (Norwegian)

Diary of a Teenage Girl

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.

BSCC

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.

ComputerSaint

Hat tip: Atlas Obscura.