Category: Film

*Syndromes and a Century* (with spoilers, but the movie is not about suspense)

By Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, this film pushes the idea that modernity is the truly strange phenomenon, not ancient religion or what we like to call pre-modern times.  The pre-modern is represented by the two monks in their orange robes, and their direct, down-to-earth manner.  The supposedly modern is represented by various doctors in their white suit coats, which look suspiciously like the robes of the monks.  Only that the orange is much more pleasant.  The monks are repeatedly puzzled by their interactions with the modernized Thai medical establishment, which, as it turns out, has taken ritual to new and unprecedentedly baroque and artificial heights.

The contemporary world is shown in ever stranger terms, from a variety of perspectives, whether the subject be power plants or artificial limbs, monks flying a toy spaceship, or a pipe sucking in steam, shaped suspiciously like an elephant’s trunk, albeit without the dignity.  The ritual dance closing the film — held in park with a boom box and people in shorts — seems senseless and without meaning.

And yes, the contemporary world is more rationalistic in a variety of ways, but why not look at the true human fundamentals — life and death — as represented by the world of medicine, to see if that rationalism holds up?  Alas.

Is there any director better at making you rethink the modern world and see its fundamental strangeness than Apichatpong Weerasethakul?  You need to try Uncle Boonmee too.

I saw this one with Nabeel!  And on the big screen (we rented out a theater).  And he sent me this interesting review of the movie.

*Sweat*

One of the better movies of this year, Sweat (or this review, spoilers in both) focuses on a female Polish Instagram star, and what she has to go through to produce fresh content each day, and how she gets hooked on the income and status of her privileged position.  At first it seems like a standard “costs of fame” production, but it quickly deepens with subtle and hitherto unexplored looks into family, friends, potential romantic relationships, and media interactions.

And are those other lives really better anyway?

“If you’re not going to share it, then what does it mean?’  Or something like that.

The Effect of Adult Entertainment Establishments on Sex Crime

This paper studies how the presence of adult entertainment establishments affects the incidence of sex crimes, including sexual abuse and rape. We build a high frequency daily and weekly panel that combines the exact location of not-self-reported sex crimes with the day of opening and exact location of adult entertainment establishments in New York City. We find that these businesses decrease sex crime by 13% per police precinct one week after the opening, and have no effect on other types of crimes. The results imply that the reduction is mostly driven by potential sex offenders frequenting these establishments rather than committing crimes. We also rule out the possibility that other mechanisms are driving our results, such as an increase in the number of police officers, a reduction in the number of street prostitutes and a possible reduction in the number of potential victims in areas where these businesses opened. The effects are robust to using alternative measures of sex crimes.

That is from a new paper by Ciacci and Sviatschi, via Jennifer Doleac.  We find this clash of values repeatedly in public policy.  Do you wish to side with the interests of the actual victims — the people who might end up abused and raped? — or do you wish to side with landlords and homeowners who might find their property values reduced by sex establishments?  “Export the bad stuff!”, this is a NIMBy dilemma yet again.

My Conversation with Mark Carney

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, definitely recommended.  Here is part of his closing statement:

COWEN: Last question. You wake up each morning. Surely you still think about central banking. What for you is the open question about central banking, where you don’t know the answer, that you think about the most?

CARNEY: I gave a speech at Jackson Hole on this issue, and I started — which is the future of the international monetary system and how we adjust the international monetary system.

I’ll say parenthetically that we’re potentially headed to another example of where the structure of the system is going to cause big problems for the global economy. Because it’s quite realistic, sadly, that we’re going to have a fairly divergent recovery with a number of emerging, developing economies really lagging because of COVID — not vaccinated, limited policy space, and the knock-on effects, while major advanced economies move forward. That’s a world where rates rise and the US dollar strengthens and you get this asymmetry, and the challenge of the way our system works bears down on these economies. I think about that a lot.

And this:

COWEN: If you’re speaking in a meeting as the central bank president, do you prefer to speak first or speak last?

CARNEY: I prefer — I tend to speak early. Yes, I tend to speak early. I’m not sure that’s always the best strategy, but I tend to speak early. I will say, one thing that’s happened over the years at places like the G20, I noticed, is the prevalence of social media and devices. The audience drifts away over time, even at the G20, even on a discussion of the global economy.

And from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, do note this:

CARNEY: …I think you’re absolutely right on that, there wasn’t. It is revealed that there wasn’t a liquidity trap.

Rooftops!  Finally, on more important matters:

COWEN: Are the Toronto Raptors doomed to be, on average, a subpar NBA team due to higher taxes?

And:

COWEN: What’s the best Clash album?

CARNEY: Fantastic question. London Calling, and one of my best memories — I was very fortunate; they came to Edmonton when I was in 12th grade in high school. I went to the concert and that was fantastic, yes.

COWEN: I also saw them, I think in what would have been 12th grade had I been in school that year. But London Calling is too commercial for me. I much prefer the Green album, like “Career Opportunities,” “Janie Jones.”

CARNEY: Well, “I Fought the Law” was the best song at the concert. I have to say, they had got to Combat Rock by this time, which was relative — [laughs] Combat Rock was more commercial, I thought, than London Calling, although they threw it all out the door with Sandinista!

Again, here is Mark’s new book Value(s): Building a Better World For All.

*New Order* (this movie review is full of spoilers)

I found this Mexican movie unpleasant to watch, quite a few reviews are negative, and very few of you ought to see it.  Yet at least it is fundamentally interesting, and it does show off some skills of movie-making, such as good cinematography and creation of tension and communicating a sense of Mexico City.

Most gringos won’t understand it.  Most of the time watching you think it is a racist movie about revolt from indigenous Mexicans who stick together from motives of racist solidarity.  By the end of the movie, but only at the end, you realize the paler skinned elites of the Army engineered the whole thing.  What seemed to be the racism of the movie is in fact implicit commentary on the racist paranoia of the Mexican elites.  And then finally you realize that the outrages committed by the indigenous people in the movie are mirroring outrages committed under the Conquest (e.g., rape, kidnapping for ransom), and that in reality the Conquest is being re-committed each and every day by the elites, yet with these somewhat racist paranoid fantasies layered on top that the logic of the Conquest someday will be reversed by the indigenous.  And yet always it will be the elites in charge, who at the same time make their paranoid racist dystopian nightmares the fundamental narrative of society, thereby screwing everybody over double.  The faucets do not in fact produce green water, though kind of they do, as cadmium green is a national color of Mexico.

YMMV, but at least a day later I am still thinking about it.

Who is the best-known, non-political American married couple?

With Bill and Melinda Gates divorcing, and Kanye and Kim doing the same, America now has a paucity of very well-known married couples, at least outside of politics, where Barack and Michelle Obama reign supreme.

Who is the Lucy and Desi of our time?  The George Burns and Gracie Allen?  The Sonny and Cher?

George and Amal Clooney are in the running, but is she so well known to most Americans?  Could they tell you her name from scratch, or cite what she is known for?

Kurt Cobain has passed away, as has Kobe Bryant, Larry and Laurie David split some time ago, and John and Yoko and Paul and Linda (an honorary American couple, for media purposes) are distant memories.  Movie stars barely still exist these days.

Perhaps Elon Musk will marry Grimes, who is a musical star of some renown.

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn have been married for 24 years, and they are pretty well known.

Harry and Meghan maybe are becoming an American couple, at least for media purposes?

Who else?

How to extract information from on-line reviews, or why Star Wars is still a thing

Online reviews promise to provide people with immediate access to the wisdom of the crowds. Yet, half of all reviews on Amazon and Yelp provide the most positive rating possible, despite human behaviour being substantially more varied in nature. We term the challenge of discerning success within this sea of positive ratings the ‘positivity problem’. Positivity, however, is only one facet of individuals’ opinions. We propose that one solution to the positivity problem lies with the emotionality of people’s opinions. Using computational linguistics, we predict the box office revenue of nearly 2,400 movies, sales of 1.6 million books, new brand followers across two years of Super Bowl commercials, and real-world reservations at over 1,000 restaurants. Whereas star ratings are an unreliable predictor of success, emotionality from the very same reviews offers a consistent diagnostic signal. More emotional language was associated with more subsequent success.

Here is more from Matthew D. Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, and Loran F. Nordgren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

In Praise of Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison

Here’s a great video on FastGrants, the fast funding-institution started by Tyler and Patrick Collison to fund COVID research at a speed that could make a difference on the ground. And it did.

Lots of other people stepped in with funding including Arnold Ventures, The Audacious Project, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, John Collison, Crankstart, Jack Dorsey, Kim and Scott Farquhar, Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, Fiona McKean and Tobias Lütke, Yuri and Julia Milner, Elon Musk, Chris and Crystal Sacca, Schmidt Futures, and others.

The list of funded people and projects is long and impressive and while the grants were fast, the payoff is going to last well beyond the pandemic.

Thanks, Tyler and Patrick!

Godzilla vs. Kong (no real spoilers)

In Florida, even when Godzilla attacks, the schools stay open.  It seems the intransitivity of sovereignty is underrated.  There is a case for UBI for very large creatures.  If your country depopulates too much, they no longer feature your cities being destroyed.  The best and most interesting Godzilla movies focus on the Japanese bureaucracy, not the special effects.  Hollywood movie-making continues to become worse, soundtracks all the more so.

The nature of fame

In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin.  They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin.  “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses.  On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”

That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

*The Way We Were* (with broad spoilers)

Oddly, I had never seen this 1973 movie before, and found a number of points noteworthy.  It is a more effective critique of the “white male patriarchy” than today’s performative yelpings, and makes the latter look, if anything, both hysterical and understudied.  And imagine a two hour movie which consists of little more than having two major stars — Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford — talk to each other.  I miss this in more recent Hollywood cinema.  And remember when movies generated hit songs?  By today’s standards, the sexual relationship between the two starts with her raping him while he is drunk (with implicit commentary on the famous bedroom scene from “It Happened One Night.”)  Circa 1973, the main sympathetic character (Streisand) could be shown as a fan of Lenin and Stalin (and Roosevelt) without anyone being too offended.  Nor does anyone mind that she smokes, drinks (more than a sip), and gets into scuffles while pregnant.  The core substantive takeaway from the plot seems to be “Jewish people should marry their own,” which is not the brand of segregationism that has remained popular today.

As stated, this movie for me was a first-time watch rather than a rewatch, but still it felt like a rewatch, as the most interesting elements were all a look into the past.  The more our world moves away from its previous moorings, the more “what to rewatch” will become an important skill.  Or what to reread, or what to listen to again.  This topic and this skill is underdiscussed.  When it comes to the past, increasingly “the uncensored” is more interesting than “high quality” per se.

Overall this movie is more interesting now than it was at the time of its release, so I guess I am glad I waited.  Here is an OK but quite cliched 1973 review of the film.  And here is Ebert from 1973.