Category: Film

My Conversation with John Nye, what should I ask him?

Soon I will be having a Conversation with my esteemed colleague John V. Nye, one of the smartest people I know.  John is an economic historian but also a polymath with broad-ranging interests, including travel, classical music, chess, education, “institutions,” Asian food, the Philippines (his home country), and much more.

So what should I ask him?

*First Man* and the great stagnation

I enjoyed this movie, although I would not describe it as a must-see.  It is best for showing the rickety and claustrophobic nature of the moon landing program.

Three points struck me in particular, both concerning progress.  First, the space shots in this movie are not better than those of Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There are even several Kubrick homage shots, and they don’t look any better than the originals, and arguably somewhat worse.  Perhaps most cinematic progress has come in shooting or better yet constructing dense scenes, but that does not apply to space.

Second, I walked to my (non-fancy) car and turned on the ignition right after watching the movie.  It was immediately striking how much better and more reliable was the software in my car than in the whole well-funded moon program.  In this sense technological progress has been immense.  That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely.  Improving car manufacture is not that hard, but improving the usefulness of cars in our daily lives is where the problem lies.  So this supports the “the consumer space is already filled out” interpretation of the great stagnation.

Third, perhaps it is the very absence of the internet and advanced information technology that made the moon program possible.  When Armstrong arrives at the moon, you realize it is pretty boring and it has not so much to offer, either in 1969 or today.  Would they have gone to such trouble if there had been better problems to work on?  Well before the end of the movie, I found myself wanting to check my email and refresh my Twitter feed.

By the way, this movie has bombed at the box office, perhaps not a good sign for the revival of adventure in contemporary culture.

Raising the status of Chow Yun Fat

He is one of my favorite actors, so I was pleased to read this:

Chow Yun Fat plans to give his entire net worth of $714m to charity.

As reported by Jayne Stars, Hong Kong movie legend Chow Yun Fat will give his entire net worth of $5.6 billion HKD ($714m USD) to charity.

Despite his gargantuan wealth, Fat remains rather frugal. Only spending $800 HKD ($1o2 USD) per month, Fat is often seen taking public transport and doing charity work.

He used his first Nokia phone for over 17 years, only switching to a smartphone two years ago. Fat is known for shopping at discount stores. “I don’t wear clothes for other people. As long as I think it’s comfortable, then it’s good enough for me,” he said.

Fat often spends his free time hiking and jogging, instead of splashing out.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Benjamin Copan.  And if you don’t know his performances in The Killer, a John Woo film, now is the time to check it out.

My Conversation with Paul Krugman

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Tyler sat down with Krugman at his office in New York to discuss what’s grabbing him at the moment, including antitrust, Supreme Court term limits, the best ways to fight inequality, why he’s a YIMBY, inflation targets, congestion taxes, trade (both global and interstellar), his favorite living science fiction writer, immigration policy, how to write well for a smart audience, new directions for economic research, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your view, how well run is New York City as an entity?

KRUGMAN: Not very. Compared to what? Actually, I like de Blasio. I actually think he’s done some really good things. What he’s done on education, and even on affordable housing, is actually quite substantial. But the city is so big and the problems are so large that people may not get it.

I will say, it is crazy that you have a city that is so dependent on public transportation, and yet the public transportation is not actually under the city’s control and has clearly been massively neglected. I don’t suffer the full woes of the subway, but I suffer some of them, even myself.

The city could be run better than it is, but it’s certainly not among the worst-managed political entities in the United States, let alone in the world.


COWEN: Will there ever be interstellar trade in intellectual property? You send your technology to a planet far away. It arrives much later, of course. Or you trade Beethoven to the aliens in return for a transporter beam? Can this work? You’ve written a paper that seems to indicate it can work.

KRUGMAN: I wrote a paper on the theory of interstellar trade when I was an unhappy assistant professor. Are there any happy assistant professors? [laughs] I was just blowing off steam. But it’s an interesting question.

COWEN: It could become your most important paper, right? [laughs]

KRUGMAN: We could imagine that there would be some way. We’d have to find somebody to trade with, although it’s the kind of thing — if you try to imagine interstellar trade for real in intellectual property — it’s probably the kind of thing that would be more like government-to-government exchanges.

It sounds like it would be really, really hard, although some science fiction writers are imagining that something like Bitcoin would make it possible to do these long-range . . . I don’t think something like Bitcoin is even going to work here.

Krugman also gives his opinions on Star Wars and Star Trek and Big Tech and many other matters.  Interesting throughout…

*Crazy Rich Asians*

While traveling in Eurasia, I read so many articles about how finally “there was an Asian movie for Asians,” or something like that, and none of them rang true.  Upon seeing the movie I was impressed, though it was not what I was expecting.  It is mostly a dystopia cloaked as a homage (just to be clear, personally I love Singapore, and its people, and have been numerous times).  The underlying message seems to be “Singaporeans are mostly greedy, superficial, uncultured, too brand-conscious, and somewhat unpleasant, unless redeemed by contact with America or Chinese-Americans.”  And their supposed pathologies are presented as very directly and specifically Asian and also Singaporean.  With only a slightly different framing, this film could have been dismissed as unacceptably racist.  And where are those Malays anyway?  And the only two Indian characters are the caricatured Sikh guards?  Really?

Nonetheless as cinema this works, and it is a thrill for me to see Singapore on the big screen and in a #1 movie at that.  On top of that, the female lead is an economics professor at NYU who does game theory.  Here is my earlier review of the book, which I also enjoyed.  For balance, however, you might wish to see Ilo Ilo as well, though that is not a representative sample of Singapore either.

My Conversation with Claire Lehmann of Quillette

Here is the transcript and audio, definitely recommended.  Here is part of the summary:

She and Tyler explore her ideas about the stifling effect of political correctness and more, including why its dominant form may come from the political right, how higher education got screwed up, strands of thought favored by the Internet and Youtube, overrated and underrated Australian cities, Aussie blokes, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: When did political correctness become a major issue, or become a major issue again? And why do you think it happened exactly then?

LEHMANN: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I know that there were lots of debates around political correctness in the early ’90s, for example.

COWEN: Yes, and it seems to fade away and then come back.

LEHMANN: Yeah. That’s when Camille Paglia was talking about PC, and Robert Hughes had a book, The Culture of Complaint.

I’ve noticed in my own life that I started noticing political correctness around 2007. At the time, I thought it had something to do with the business model of Internet publishing.

That was when Gawker and the blog Jezebel was really popular. It was established in 2007, and then it got very popular over the next couple of years. I thought that there were a lot of clickbait kind of articles promoting these really simplistic black-and-white narratives of oppression.

Unless one had reasonable critical thinking skills, I could see how young people could be influenced by that kind of content coming out. I think there’s something to do with the Internet and the way the media has had to adapt to this new business model where you have to drive . . . You have to get lots of views, lots of hits, millions more than you would with the newspapers.

I think it’s something to do with that, but that’s probably just one variable in many other factors.

COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that political correctness is a kind of virus that’s hijacked the left? It’s figured out some kind of weak entry point, and it’s come in and taken over parts of it, and it will bring down many victims with it, but actually, it’s crippling the left.

LEHMANN: Yep, yeah.

COWEN: True or false?

LEHMANN: Probably true.

COWEN: If one objects to that argument, we should in a sense encourage more of it, at least if we’re being pure utilitarians, or not?


COWEN: Probably in the media? In general, intellectual life, but if you take, say, the United States as a whole, do you think it’s left-wing or right-wing political correctness that’s stronger and more destructive?

LEHMANN: Yeah, it’s probably right-wing political correctness.

A question from me:

COWEN: I’ve been speaking about the right in aggregate terms, but if you think of the effect of the Internet, which strands of the right do you think are favored, and which do you think are falling away because of Internet discourse? Because it shouldn’t favor it all equally, correct?

We also cover Australia vs. New Zealand, the masculine ethos of Australia and its origins, why PC is different in Australia, the movie Lantana (which we both strongly recommend), and yes Australian fashion.

Milton Friedman in *Death Wish*

Dan Klein writes to me:

Yes, a movie character (young woman student) was reading it aloud to her friend in a coma, Bruce Willis’s daughter, who had been attacked and shot. Willis comes in and asks what she’s been reading. The young woman replies that she had to read it anyway, for summer reading in anticipation of NYU, and figured good for coma victim to hear voice. Willis makes a joke about “I don’t think that will wake her up” or “Do you think that will wake her?”

When Willis asks her what she’s reading she says “Essays in Positive Economics, by Milton Friedman”. And then explains that it is on the NYU summer reading list.

The text quoted was: “Normative economics and the art of economics, on the other hand, cannot be independent of positive economics. Any policy conclusion necessarily rests on a prediction about the consequences of doing one thing rather than another…”

Has anyone else seen this movie?

My favorite things Ukraine

I am just arriving, and for the first time  Here are my favorites:

1. Pianist: Emil Gilels, most of all for Beethoven and Chopin.  Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, he was often best in unusual pieces, such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, and John Philip Sousa.  But there is also Cherkassy, Pachmann, Moiseiwitsch, Lhevinne, and others.  Simon Barere was one of the greatest Liszt pianists.  So we are into A++ territory here.  But wait…Richter was born in Ukraine!  My head is exploding now.

1b. Violinists: You’ve got Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, the Oistrakhs, among others, with Milstein’s Bach recordings as my favorite.

2. Composer: Prokofiev was born in eastern Ukraine (or is it now Russia again?), but somehow I don’t feel he counts.  Valentin Sylvestrov would be an alternative.

3. Novelist: One choice would be Nikolai Gogol, then Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kiev but ethnically Russian.  But I can’t say I love Master and Margarita; it is probably much better and funnier in the original Russian.  His The White Guard is a more directly Ukrainian novel, and it should be better known.  A Country Doctor’s Notebook is perhaps my favorite by him.  For short stories there is Isaac Babel.  Joseph Conrad was born in modern-day Ukraine, though I don’t feel he counts as Ukrainian, same with Stanislaw Lem.  Vassily Grossman is a toss-up in terms of origin.  The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, now very much in fashion, was born in Ukraine.

4. Movie: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a 1930 take on agricultural collectivization.  With Dovshenko as my favorite director.

5. Movie, set in: Man With a Movie Camera.  It is remarkable how fresh and innovative this 1929 silent film still is.

6. Painter: David Burliuk, leader of the Ukrainian avant-garde and later member of the Blue Rider group.  Ilya Repin was born in modern-day Ukraine, though he feels “Russian” to me in the historical sense.

7. Sculptor: Alexander Archipenko was born in Ukraine, though he ended up in America.

8. Economist: Ludwig von Mises.  He was born on territory near current-day Lviv, part of Ukraine.

9. Actress: Milla Jovovich is pretty good in The Fifth Element and Resident Evil.

10. Tech entrepreneur: Max Levchin.

11. Israeli: There is Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.

12. Legal scholar, blogger, and First Amendment advocate: Eugene Volokh.  And don’t forget Sasha!

Other: Wilhelm Reich deserves mention, though I’m not really a fan.  The region produced a few good chess players too.

Overall, this is a stunningly impressive list, though there are legitimate questions as to who and what exactly counts as Ukrainian.  They’re still trying to sort that one out, which is part of the problem.

Those new service sector jobs (Star Wars markets in everything)

Darth Vader Is in Demand at Summer Weddings

Forget flower girls. Couples want stormtroopers throwing petals, and Vader leading the congo line.

There is, however, a shortage.  Note this:

Disney forbids the garrisons from participating in certain events without approval, such as gatherings that promote a local business or professional sporting events. Weddings are allowed because they’re considered “community service.”

The 501st has had to adopt an unofficial list of rules to narrow the number of wedding requests. That includes sufficient space to get dressed in costume and having drinking water available on hot days. The plastic and rubber costumes offer no ventilation. “They’re basically death traps,” said Mr. Johnson, who recently returned from a Star Wars event in Singapore where three people dressed as stormtroopers passed out from the heat.

Here is the full WSJ story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

*Three Identical Strangers*

Few movies serve up more social science.  Imagine three identical triplets, separated at a young age, and then reared separately in a poor family, in a middle class family, and in a well-off family.  I can’t say much more without spoiling it all, but I’ll offer these points: listen closely, don’t take the apparent conclusion at face value, ponder the Pareto principle throughout, read up on “the control premium,” solve for how niche strategies change with the comparative statics (don’t forget Girard), and are they still guinea pigs?  Excellent NYC cameos from the 1980s, and see Project Nim once you are done.

Definitely recommended, and I say don’t read any other reviews before going (they are mostly strongly positive).

Technology in Kubrick’s *2001: A Space Odyssey*

This post serves up some spoilers of detail, though no major spoilers of plot until the penultimate “you must go see it” paragraph.  Upon a re-viewing of this movie, I found the following striking:

1. There is a Skype-like service for phone calls, but it never occurs to anyone that something like sending an email might be possible or even desirable.  A lot of major and even apparently simple technological advances just aren’t that self-evident.  The cameras in the movie also remained quite primitive and clunky, even by pre-smart phone standards.  Maybe people expected a great stagnation in cameras back then.

2. At the time, Kubrick apparently thought it plausible that the audience would buy into common, widespread and indeed commercially viable space travel by 1992.  The film was released in 1968.

3. Pan American flies people into outer space, and apparently used this new market to avoid total bankruptcy.  Their stewardesses still have silly hats and costumes, and they act in a vaguely self-demeaning manner.

4. The film shows some signs of recognizing that Moore’s Law might happen.  Hal for instance is advanced AI, but he is not huge in size.  And the portrait of voice recognition technology is quite realistic.

5. Stars do not twinkle in outer space, however.

6. Hal 9000 would be less creepy with a female voice, and indeed Apple and Amazon figured that out some while ago.  Note to my tech friends: do not program your personal assistant bots with a resentful, quivering, paranoid, passive-aggressive male voice.

7. The movie seems to suggest that chess-playing computers are a major achievement, when in fact this was mastered relatively easily, compared to many other AI problems.  The movie shows this chess game, with Hal as Black.  It is the kind of game you might expect a strong computer to play against a human, namely with a finish based on visually counterintuitive tactics.

8. It is a truly dystopic vision to think that Howard Johnson’s will be serving us food in space.

9. The first time I saw the movie, which I believe was in the mid-1970s, I was more stunned by seeing Americans talking to Russians “as if they were normal people” than by any of the technology.

Here is a good Wikipedia page on technologies in the movie.  Now a few spoilers:

The movie, which I had not seen in many years, I found quite stunning.  It took so many chances, and with so much self-confidence that the originality could be pulled off.  Imagine opening a film with minutes of discordant Gyorgy Ligeti music, played against a dark screen, with no signal that this is even part of the movie.  Then you see a long scene with apes, no dialogue to speak of, and no explanation of how this might fit into a commercially viable product.  Finally the Solow residual is explained!  There is not only no love story, the film arguably has no characters, Hal aside.  Kubrick often expects ballet music to keep you interested, and various movements in space are stretched out to interminable length, yet almost always with striking aesthetic success.  You could generously describe the ending as “underexplained.”  Hardly anything happens in the movie, and yet at the same time it encapsulates the entire history of humanity with extra material on both sides, beginning and end, and a nod in the Hegelian direction.

Go see it on the large screen if you can — I can’t think of any film that is so much worse (or simply different) on TV as this one.  It is one of the better movies ever made, and it dates from a time near Hollywood’s peak.  It is sad that nearly two generations of Americans now do not know this creation as it was intended to be seen, and indeed must be seen.  On 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the theatre had no more than twenty people in attendance.  When it comes to culture, salience usually matters more than you might think.

*Won’t You Be My Neighbor?*

That is the title of the new documentary on the life and career of Mister Rogers.  Are there better movies on?:

1. The roots of American greatness.

2. The importance of “will” in building a succcessful career.

3. Toleration and individualism and respect for children.

This has to go down as one of the better documentaries, and it seems Mister Rogers was a better and more important thinker than many of the intellectuals of his time.  I had not known that Rogers had been trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

On top of all that, the film is Straussian throughout.  Definitely recommended.  By the way, the documentary doesn’t mention this, but the show actually had its origins in Toronto on CBC.

Michael Nielsen, standing on one foot

A highly sophisticated MR reader demanded a dose of Michael Nielsen.  I wrote to Michael, and he was kind enough to oblige.  Everything that follows is from Michael, here goes:

I started with the question “What might amuse Tyler?”, and it became very easy.

Three opinions that may amuse MR readers:

1. Peter Thiel has said: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 (280) characters.” Thiel is wrong: 280 characters are much, much better than flying cars. Twitter is misunderstood as being an online service; it’s merely the online component of a much improved offline experience. Twitter DM’s are a superpower, one of the most valuable ways of connecting people ever invented. More on one way of using Twitter here.

2. Movies are primarily a visual form; movie criticism and the popular conversation about movies are primarily a literary form, and informed by literary sensibilities. This is why good movies such as Transformers are so underrated. People who dismiss such movies are mostly revealing their own ignorance.

3. Many corners of the internet have a culture of judgement or argument. Typical subtexts in online conversation are: is this good or bad? What’s wrong with it? But until and unless healthy conversational norms are formed, argument and judgement are mostly useless status-seeking by participants. Much better is a “Yes, and” culture.

Three books or papers which should be better known:

1. Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons.  Ostrom dismantles the market / government dichotomy, sketching out ways common pool resources (and, to some extent, public goods) can be provided using non-market, non-government solutions.

2. Alex Tabarrok’s paper introducing dominant assurance contracts. Cryptocurrencies have huge potential as a way of creating entirely new types of market, using ideas like this. This potential is mostly unrealized to date.

3. Bret Victor on Media for Thinking the Unthinkable.

Blog posts don’t really get going until about 5,000 words in. Here are three favourites of mine:

1. Thought as a Technology, on how imaginative designers invent fundamentally new modes of thought.

2. If correlation doesn’t imply causation, then what does?

3. Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence (with Shan Carter).

Despite the fact I’m well short of 5,000 words, I’ll stop here.

You can follow Michael on Twitter here.

Seeing *Solo* in Addis Ababa

The movie was more or less watchable, in the modest sense of that term.

The subtitles were in Arabic, and the very nice theater was about 1/5 full.  And yes it was in 3-D.  No one seemed to react to the film at all.

The cinematic references were to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Snowpiercer, various James Bond movies, Enter the Dragon, and of course the other Star Wars installments, though never in interesting ways.

One of the characters did not understand subgame perfection.

At one point in the movie they happen across a bunch of people who are dressed like they could be in rural Ethiopia.

Woody Harrelson at times looked like Peter Sellers.

The leader of the rebel alliance was the best character.

By the end of the film, I didn’t seem to mind the whole thing, though I can’t explain why not.

My opinion of George Lucas continues to rise.

The role of ideological change in India’s economic liberalization

In an interesting paper, Nimish Adhia argues that in the 1980s Bollywood films began to shift from emphasizing collectivist duty towards individual happiness.

The injunction of performing one’s duty without regard to outcomes has been the basis of much of the Indian philosophical and religious discourse.

The dilemma is recurrent in Indian films…. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the dilemmas invariably resolve in favor of duty. The mother in Mother India (1956) shoots and kills her wayward son as he attempts to kidnap a woman—an action that would have been shameful for the village. “I am the mother of the entire village,” she says as she picks up the gun. As the son collapses to the ground, she wails and rushes to his side, and is shown to lament his death for the rest of her life, but the film valorizes her as “Mother India.”

But then starting with Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1986) there is a spate of films that celebrate the assertion of one’s desire. The assertion commonly takes the form of falling in love—an audacious act in a society where the sexual mores are conservative and a majority of marriages are arranged on basis of familial and community criteria. The young lovers in the big hit Qayamat se Qayamat tak (Doomsday to Doomsday, 1988) elope and endure enormous hardships on account of their families’ opposition. The families had a falling out in the past when they were neighboring landlords in the country. The demands of familial loyalty, shown to arise in this way from a feudal setup and concluding in the death of the young lovers, are condemned by the film as savage and outdated. “We are not the property of our parents,” the young man once counsels his beloved. “We need not be carriers of their legacy of hate.”

At the same time, the treatment of businessmen becomes more positive, wealth is shown as being earned rather than simply given, and the pursuit and achievement of wealth is shown to lead to happiness and pride rather than misery and spiritual death. Adhia argues that these changes helped to cause the liberalization reform beginning in the 1990s.

the ideological change is visible in the films of the 1980s, preceding the wave of liberalization starting in 1991. It lends support to the notion that the ideological change, reflected in the films as early as 1980, was a cause rather than a consequence of liberalization.

Guru, which I have called the most important free market film ever made, comes after liberalization but can be understood as in many ways the apex of these trends.

Hat tip: Prateek Raj.