Category: Film

*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.

My advice for a Paris visit

This is for another friend, here are my pointers:

1. Find a very good food street/corner and take many of your meals there.  I’ve used Rue Daguerre and around Rue des Arts (Left Bank) for this purpose, but there are many others.  Spend most of your money in the cheese shop, asking them to choose for you, but supplement with bread, fruit, and of course chocolate.  This beats most restaurant meals, noting it won’t be cheap either.  And yes it is worth paying $8 for a bar of chocolate there.

2. Do track down medieval Paris, most of all the cathedrals.  This will bring you by other delights as well.

3. Especially on the Left Bank, Paris is one of the very best walking cities.  Avoid Champs-Élysées and environs, a broad-avenued, chain store-intense corruption of what Paris ought to be.  Avoid Jardin Luxembourg and the surrounding parts as well, they are urban deserts.

4. Get a peek of the major bridges over the Seine, if only by traversing them.

5. You don’t in fact have to stand in line to see the Mona Lisa.  It’s a lovely painting, but at this point in human civilization it is OK to skip it.  You don’t need to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” again either.  But you should go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  And in the Louvre, don’t neglect the Poussin room, the Michelangelo sculptures, or the Flemish and 17th century works.

6. The Louvre, d’Orsay, Cluny, and Branly (ethnographic) are the essential museums in town.  Check out Grand Palais and Petit Palais for possible exhibits.  When walking around, keep your eye out for posters (yes, posters) advertising exhibits and concerts.

7. If you want to spend forty euros for a very good but not revelatory lunch, find a “cool” area with lots of restaurants and poke your head in at their opening, at 12:30, to ask for a table.  By 12:45 it is too late and you are screwed and back to your favorite cheese shop.  By the way, I don’t think Paris is the best city in which to spend $200 on a meal.

8. In most of the parts of Paris you are likely to frequent, do not try to eat any Asian or “ethnic” foods.  The best restaurants of those kinds are in north Paris, on the way to the airport, but no one visits there.  Couscous in Paris is boring.

9. Belleville is the gentrifying Brooklyn of Paris, with relatively few tourists, if that is what you are looking for.  Avoid Montmartre.  For practical reasons, I’ve spent a lot of my Paris time near Unesco, in a neighborhood that is a bit sterile but very beautiful and it gives you a decent sense of well-to-do residential Paris life.  Develop your mini-Paris residential life somewhere, and make your time there more than just a tourist visit.  The site I should not enjoy but do is Le Dôme des Invalides, also the tomb of Napoleon.

10. The essential Paris movies are lots of Godard (Breathless, Band of Outsiders, others), Jules and Jim, and Triplets of Belleville.  Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 for those with an experimental bent.  Eric Rohmer for something light-hearted.  Amélie and Before Sunset are both rewarding, though at the margin Godard usually is what Americans are lacking.

11. Carry along Hugo and Balzac to read.  Flaubert and Proust are wonderful, but they are more “interior” authors and thus you can imbibe them anywhere.  Do not forget Houllebecq’s Submission.  I do not love most of the well-known non-fiction books on Paris; perhaps they become corrupted through the chance of being truly popular.  Do read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France and try to dig up a useful architectural guide to the city.  I’m also a big fan of Hazel Rowley’s Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

12. Don’t go expecting Parisians to be rude, I have never (well, once) found that to be the case in more than six months spent in the city.

13. My overall take is this: Paris today is fairly sterile in terms of overall creativity, or for that matter business dynamism.  But Parisians have perfected the art of taste along a number of notable dimensions, like nowhere else in the world.  If your trip allows you to free ride upon those efforts in a meaningful way, it will go very well.

Titus Levi on *Black Panther*

Titus emails to me:

I had an atypical reaction: I left the theatre feeling very, very sad.

First, for the reasons enumerated here.

Second, because everything good and noble turned out to be incredibly fragile. All it took was an alternate vision of how to use power and Paradise degenerated into civil conflict. Mind you, this is a civil war that lasted only a few hours, but still.

Third, it’s heartbreaking to look up to a place… that doesn’t exist. The whole “what if Africa (or some part of it) hadn’t been colonized?” question unsettled me. We lost so much.

Fourth, T’Challa never told Killmonger, “My father was wrong to abandon you.” Never. And he felt it strongly. Strongly enough to challenge his father in a vision. Why did he say nothing about this?

Fifth, after the civil conflict everything goes… right back to normal. No reconciliation process. No sense for how to address the resentments lingering in the shadows. Nada. That struck me as facile.

Anyway, leave it to me to be a killjoy in response to a feel-good movie.

Agh.

The cinematic culture that is Mexico

If Mr. del Toro wins the best director award at the Oscars, it will be the fourth time a filmmaker from Mexico has taken the prize in five years, all with unconventional films. Alejandro G. Iñárritu won in 2015 for “Birdman,” the bizarrely hilarious tale of an aging superhero actor trying to get serious on Broadway, and he did it again in 2016 with “The Revenant,” a radically different western focused on a quest for revenge in subzero temperatures. Alfonso Cuarón triumphed in 2014 with “Gravity,” a sci-fi story that many said was impossible to make, before it made over $723 million at the worldwide box office.

Referred to as “The Three Amigos,” the title of a book about their transnational cinema, these directors are not the only Mexican filmmakers who have won recent accolades in Hollywood. There is also the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has three Oscars; Rodrigo Prieto, who shot “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Argo” and “Brokeback Mountain”; and another Oscar winner, the production designer Eugenio Caballero.

The Amigos’ success shows the strength of an artistic circle; they are longtime friends who have encouraged one another to take risks.

Here is the NYT piece by Ioan Grillo, referred to me by Kevin Lewis.  Also from the NYT here is Veronique de Rugy on Trump and protectionism.

My Conversation with Robin Hanson

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”

And:

COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

The political economy of Black Panther’s Wakanda

Black Panther is the hereditary leader of the African nation of Wakanda, a small, natural resource rich country, which lacks access to the sea. Historically the political leadership has tried to hide Wakanda‘s existence from other countries which has limited its economic integration with the rest of the world. In spite of its geographic endowments, notably the incredibly rare ore vibranium, Wakanda has attained unprecedented technological development. This chapter explores the political economy of Wakanda and its leader, Black Panther. After explaining the origins of Black Panther, the chapter turns to the economic puzzle of Wakanda by exploring the geographic and economic implications of isolation. This is followed by an investigation into the way Wakanda has avoided the resource curse that has plagued so many other countries. Next, a comparison is made between Wakanda and the nation of Botswana. While there are some telling similarities, the lack of democracy in Wakanda is a glaring difference. It will discuss how it has developed high levels of technology that help advance the Black Panther’s dictatorship. Finally, it will address the potential for democracy to emerge in Wakanda. Black Panther offers an opportunity to understand the role of political institutions in affecting the long-run economic, political, and technological development of a country.

That is a new paper from J. Robert Subrick.

The further influence of China on Hollywood

Abstract

In various cultural and behavioral respects, emerging market consumers differ significantly from their counterparts of developed markets. They may thus derive consumption utility from different aspects of product meaning and functionality. Based on this premise, we investigate whether the economic rise of emerging markets may have begun to impact the typical “one-size-fits-all” design of many international product categories. Focusing on Hollywood films, and exploiting a recent relaxation of China’s foreign film importation policy, we provide evidence suggesting that these impacts may exist and be non-negligible. In particular, we show that the Chinese society’s aesthetic preference for lighter skin can be linked to the more frequent casting of pale-skinned stars in films targeting the Chinese market. Implications for the design of international products are drawn.

That is from a new paper by Manuel Hermosilla, Fernanda Gutierrez-Navratil, and Juan Prieto-Rodriguez.

*Black Panther* (evaluations, only minor spoilers)

As a besotted worshiper of Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, and Afro-Futurism more generally, I have been anticipating this one for many months.  Since I wish that one-fifth of all movies had an Afro-Futurist background, and so few do, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.  Still, I was disappointed by just about everything except some of the visuals.

The male characters were weak and most of the scenes dull, and worst of all most of the humor is mediocre.  Furthermore, I found the movie uncomfortably prejudiced.  There is such a thing as racism directed mainly at Africans (as opposed to blacks), and it seems to me this was it.

So many spears and wild animals?  How about holding a referendum every now and then?  And there were so many “Africanist” tropes.  De facto, I thought the actual message was strongly pro-segregation, although wimpiness on that finally kicks in.  The visual references to Narnia and to various Star Wars installments were fine, but was it necessary to cite the colonialist Zulu?  The contrast with the resource-poor city of Busan, South Korea was almost Straussian in intent.  Is wealth based on human capital so impossible in Africa?

I would say the more you know about actual African cinema, the less you will appreciate this one.

Christopher Lebron in Boston Review has written the best review (via Hollis Robbins).

Should we censor porn?

In 1971 Irving Kristol said yes, today Ross Douthat says yes.  I am sympathetic with the notion that porn in the “I know it when I see it sense” is a net negative bad for society, even if it helps some people revitalize their sex lives (Alex differs).  That said, I cannot find an attractive way of censoring it.

Ross tweeted:

I think you start with the rules we have, and think about how they might be applied to ISPs.

Yet playing whack-a-mole with ISPs does not always go well, a truth to which a number of emotionally well-balanced MR commentators can attest.  And porn users and suppliers I think would be especially willing to find workarounds, including VPNs.  So I don’t think porn would end up all that ghettoized.  My fear is that the American internet would evolve rather rapidly toward Chinese-style institutions of control (though they would not used right now), without stopping porn very much, but leading to increasing calls to censor many other things too.

Keep in mind also that porn has been a major driver of innovation, not just for the VCR but for the internet too, including for means of payment, methods of streaming, and anti-piracy.  Might porn drive the demand to build networks of virtual reality?  So I’m not ready to ban it just yet.

My favorite things Poland

No, I am not there now, but Adam D. emails me and requests this, so here goes:

1. Novel: Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, all about identity and erotic guilt.  Next in line would be any number of Isaac Singer novels, I don’t have a favorite offhand.  Soon I will try The Family Moskat.  Gombrowicz is probably wonderful, but I don’t find that it works for me in translation.  Quo Vadis left me cold.

2. Chopin works: The Preludes, there are many fine versions, and then the Ballades.  The Etudes excite me the most, the Mazurkas and piano sonatas #2 and #3 are most likely to surprise me at current margins of listening.  I find it remarkable how I never tire of Chopin, in spite of his relatively slight output.

3. Painter: This one isn’t as easy as it ought to be.

4. Architect: Daniel Libeskind was born in Poland.  But more generally one can cite Krakow, and I suspect the older versions of Gdansk.

The wooden churches and folk art of southern Poland also deserve mention.

5. Political thinker: Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, about the capitulations of artists to communism, though subtler than just an anti-state polemic.  He once stated: ” I have never been a political writer and I worked hard to destroy this image of myself.”  I do not feel I can judge his poetry, though last year’s biography of him was a good book.

6. Astronomer and originator of the quantity theory of money: Copernicus.

7. Television show: The Decalogue, perhaps #4 is my favorite.  Here is good NPR coverage.

8. Movie: Any of the Andrzej Wajda classics would do, maybe start with Kanal or Ashes and Diamonds.  More recently I would opt for Ida.  I like Kieślowski’s TV more than his films, and prefer Hollywood Polanski to Polish Polanski.

9. Classical pianist: There are many, but I will cite Kristian Zimerman over Artur Rubinstein.  The former plays the piano better.  Josef Hofmann deserves mention, but there are dozens of picks here.

10. Jazz musician: Trumpeter Tomasz Stańko.

11. Economists: There is Kalecki, Hurwicz, the now-underrated Oskar Lange (doesn’t Singaporean health care work fine?), and Victor Zarnowitz. I had thought Mises was born in Poland, but upon checking it turned out to be Ukraine.

Overall the big puzzle is why there isn’t more prominence in painting, given Poland’s centrality in European history.

The return of Nigeria’s kidnapped girls

Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw at the WSJ follow up on what was a super dramatic story that turned into a neglected and under-reported tale.  What is life like for the Boko Harum kidnap victims after their liberation?

The women had acclimated to the forest camps where Boko Haram insurgents threatened them at gunpoint to either convert to Islam and marry a fighter or be a slave.

About half chose slavery, which cost them access to food and shelter.

Here is another bit:

Psychologists who specialize in kidnap victims say they are unsure about the best way to simultaneously treat and educate such a large group of women—ages 18 to 27—after years of collective captivity and abuse.

The spelling bee contests, one healing piece of the curriculum, arrived as something of a surprise. It was the Chibok girls who came up with the idea.

And:

One night, plopped on couches, they watched “Akeelah and the Bee,” a movie about an 11-year-old African-American girl in Los Angeles who finds her confidence after her father’s death by winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The students watched the movie again and again over bowls of popcorn. They went to their teachers with a demand: They wanted to hold their own spelling bees. The teachers agreed.

The young women began memorizing vocabulary lists and testing each others’ lexicographic skills. Their wordplay escalated into late-night spelling battles. “It was unbelievably competitive,” Mr. Braggs said.

Spelling employs a skill many of the women honed while captive: mnemonic memory. Some spent much of their time memorizing lengthy prayers and hymns. Others composed diary entries in their heads—their thoughts, injustices they suffered—they would later log in journals they kept hidden. In secret, they retold the story of Job, the biblical figure who was punished in a test of his faith.

By the way, 112 girls remain missing and 13 are presumed dead.

NYT sentences to ponder

Kaia Gerber’s Dad Was a Model, Too

 

Rande Gerber is married to Cindy Crawford, is a father to the teenage supermodels Kaia and Presley Gerber, and is a tequila baron (with his pal George Clooney).

That is the front-page header for this NYT piece, you will note it is not a critique of the wealthy or famous.  Recommended, interesting throughout, and don’t forget to check out the photos…

Oh, and here is the closer:

The Gerbers can sound a little corny, and that’s because they are. Nothing confounds a celebrity profile like a happy family. They are four golden figures that, even viewed up close, seem to be constantly dissolving into a Malibu sunset.

“When I meet people from my past, they’re not really shocked where my life has taken me,” Mr. Gerber said, clinking his Casamigos and ice, flanked by his wife and equally symmetrical daughter.

“Most people just figured I would have been successful,” he said, and shrugged.