With all those fools going to bars and concerts, or running marathons, it is evident we still need to solve the problem of entertainment, as I argue in my new Bloomberg column.
It is instructive to look back to the days of World War II. The U.S. government played a critical role in encouraging Hollywood to make cheery movies, and it helped by not trying to force every actor into the armed services. Major league baseball, the national pastime of the era, continued to hold a regular season and a World Series, again to distract people from wartime worries. Many top players, such as Ted Williams, were away fighting, but there were adequate replacements. The government knew that wartime drama could not be the only drama on tap.
With Covid-19, the goal is to keep people at home, at least if they are not essential workers. But if staying at home is too boring, cabin fever will take over and people will run out to social gatherings when they ought to be staying put. So solving the entertainment problem is one very real piece of the puzzle for minimizing the effects of the coronavirus and keeping Americans not just in good spirits but healthy.
The very worst scenario is that the coronavirus itself — how it is playing out, how officials and celebrities and neighbors are reacting — becomes our main entertainment. It could become an ongoing horror show that drives us crazy and makes people even more cynical about politics.
To avoid such a mix of frustration and terror, I have a modest proposal: We should restructure a few of our traditional entertainments to be safe from the coronavirus.
As suggested on Twitter, how about inducing a few of the cable providers to offer free streaming for a few months? The Met has announced a big increase in opera streaming. And:
Or how about proceeding with some version of the NBA Finals? Take a subset of the best qualifying teams, test every player for coronavirus, isolate them in a remote area with a college gymnasium, and have them proceed with a shortened version of the real thing in front of only a TV crew. With so many other public events closed down, television viewership would probably reach an all-time high, and the sense of drama would be incredible. It would be one NBA Finals we would never forget, and the quality of play would respond to the very high psychological stakes.
Ben Golliver serves up a concrete NBA proposal. You’ll have to click through to get to the Browning and Bergman parts, the latter being Easter egg. At least the Candidate’s Tournament still seems to be on in chess, you can all watch that for the next few weeks, starts Tuesday I believe, try www.chessbomb.com.
Lecturing alone won’t work: we really do need to make it more fun for people to stay at home!
We watched this movie the night before, and it struck me as very different this time around, perhaps because it is set during the time of the Crusades with the plague as a major theme. I no longer think the death character is real, and I now view the film as about how much we flirt with the idea of death, and apparitions of death, in order to make life tolerable and to feel in control. Don’t take the opening scene “as is,” but rather contrast it with all the other ways humans use the death theme for their own theatrical purposes (theatrical, both literally and figuratively) over the next 30-40 minutes of the movie, and then later throughout. Perhaps the key line is “All the damn ranting about death. Is that sustenance for modern people?”
Recommended, especially the new Blu-Ray edition of Bergman’s complete works.
It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:
Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?
TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.
TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.
AS: What about co-determination?
TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.
AS: John Maynard Keynes.
TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.
AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.
TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.
Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.
There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:
This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.
COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.
ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?
COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.
I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”
Via Bloomberg, here is one bit:
Consider the 10 best-selling books of the decade. All have female protagonists, and the top seven are authored by women. (“Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels take the top three spots, with three others having the word “Girl” in the title.)
The feminization of our culture is for me trend number one. Next in line is screens:
They simply convey more interesting narratives than most of the other spaces in our lives.
There is much more at the link.
MacGuffins! That said, contrary to many reviews, the plot made perfect sense to me, many scenes were excellent, and the whole thing had a sweep and grandeur that episodes seven and eight completely lacked. It had many of the strengths and flaws (and plot devices) of Return of the Jedi, but after forty-two years of waiting for the series to conclude mostly I went away happy. Believe it or not.
I am happy to recommend these selections, the links going to my earlier remarks about them:
Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse (animated)
Campernaum (Ethiopian refugee in Beirut)
Ash is Purest White (Chinese, obscure)
High Life (best science fiction movie of the year?)
Long Day’s Journey into Night (big screen only, Chinese obscure)
Woman at War (Icelandic, wacky)
Booksmart (full of energy on the screen)
Echo in the Canyon (L.A. music scene in the 1960s and beyond)
The Farewell (American-Chinese, about a dying relative)
Honeyland (Macedonian, about bee keepers)
Inside Bill’s Brain (Bill Gates, short documentary)
Parasite (Korean, the Straussian reading is anti-egalitarian)
JoJo Rabbit (modern-day anti-Nazi comedy, mostly they pull it off)
The Rise of Skywalker
A Hidden Life
From those my top picks would be Marriage Story — the American redo of Scenes from a Marriage, and then Honeyland. Overall it was a much better year for movies than last year.
As for marginal choices, Ad Astra and Knives Out were two movies I liked, and came close to making this list, but didn’t.
As for historic cinema, I am very glad I purchased the complete Blu-Ray set of Ingmar Bergman movies, spectacular transfers and the American viewer can watch the true, complete version of Persona for the first time.
As for the rest of the year, I have high hopes for The Souvenir, Little Women and also the new Adam Sandler movie, but I have not yet seen them. The documentary For Sama has potential too.
What am I forgetting?
It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:
I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06. After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.
The Holberg people put on a great event.
I almost didn’t see this one, first because I didn’t like the preview (at all), second because in this post-Hogan’s Heroes era I am not sure another Nazi comedy (is that what it is?) is exactly what we need. And yet…this is an excellent film and it expresses the power of cinema in a way one is no longer used to seeing from a Hollywood movie. For the first half hour I wasn’t sure I liked it, though it improves steadily. Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, and Ernst Lubitsch references abound, and the soundtrack starts with the Beatles singing in German (“Komm’ Gib Mir Deine Hand”). Excellent cast and visuals too, so who cares if it ends up being known as “the Nazi rabbit movie”?
How did this one ever get made? Always go see movies by directors you like, in this case Taika Waititi, who also did the super-subtle Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Here is the audio and transcript, the chat centered around music, including Ted’s new and fascinating book Music: A Subversive History. We talk about music and tech, the Beatles, which songs and performers we are embarrassed to like, whether jazz still can be cool, Ted’s family background, why restaurants are noisier, why the blues are disappearing, Elton John, which countries are underrated for their musics, whether anyone loves the opera, whether musical innovation is still possible, and much much more. Here are some excerpts:
GIOIA: …Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.
Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.
That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music subeconomy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.
The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.
COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince…
GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?
Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.
People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.
COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?
GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.
COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?
GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.
I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.
There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, and again here is Ted’s new book.
From Alex X.:
With the decade coming to a close, I would be curious on everyone’s favorite of the decade [gives list of categories]:
Without too much pondering, here is what comes to mind right away:
Film: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or A Touch of Sin. Might Winter Sleep by next? It was probably the best decade ever for foreign movies, the worst decade ever for Hollywood movies (NYT).
Blockbuster/action film: Transformers 4? Big screen only, live or die by CGI!
Album: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Single: I don’t see an obvious, non-derivative pick here that really stands out. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” probably is the mainstream choice, but do I ever go over to the stereo to put it on? Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” is another option, but is it such a big step beyond Prince? Lorde or Beyonce? LCD Soundsystem seems more about the entire album, same for Frank Ocean. Something from Kanye’s Yeezus? To pull a dark horse option out of the hat, how about Gillian Welch, “The Way It Goes“? Or Death Grips “Giving Bad People Good Ideas“? I’ve spent enough time on Twitter that I have to opt for that one.
TV Show: Srugim, Borgen, The Americans.
Single Season: Selections from same, you know which seasons.
Book Fiction: The Ferrante quadrology and Houllebecq’s Submission.
Book Non Fiction: Knausgaard, volumes I and II.
Athlete of the Decade: Stephen Curry or Lebron James.
What are your picks?
Much of the movie is set in Mexico, to excellent effect, and arguably the main lines of the plot mirror some themes from Nahua culture and history:
“…the Aztec saw themselves as “the People of the Sun,” whose divine duty was to wage cosmic war in order to provide the sun with his tlaxcaltiliztli (“nourishment”). Without it, the sun would disappear from the heavens.” Link here.
Quetzalcoatl descending into the land of the dead, and the breaking of the bones.
“…a sibling rivalry grew between Quetzalcoatl and his brother the mighty sun, who Quetzalcoatl knocked from the sky with a stone club.”
“…When the Aztecs sacrificed people to Huitzilopochtli (the god with warlike aspects) the victim would be placed on a sacrificial stone. The priest would then cut through the abdomen with an obsidian or flint blade.” Link here.
Overall the movie reminded me of Rogue One. Rogue One did not have the freshness or originality of the core Star Wars movies, but it was a member of the actual franchise in a way that some of the later sequels were not, and thus a refreshing reminder of what the whole thing was all about in the first place.
An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript. We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?
If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?
FARRELL: It depends on what you value.
COWEN: But what you value.
FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.
If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.
COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?
FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —
COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.
FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.
So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.
But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.
I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.
FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.
And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.
I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.
And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.
Truly an excellent episode, Ben is an author and journalist. Here is the audio and transcript, covering most of all the opioid epidemic and rap music, but not only.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: But if so much fentanyl comes from China, and you can just send it through the mail, why doesn’t it spread automatically wherever it’s going to go? Is it some kind of recommender network? It wouldn’t seem that it’s a supply constraint. It’s more like someone told you about a restaurant they ate at last night.
WESTHOFF: It’s because the Mexican cartels are still really strongly in the trade. Even though it’s all made in China, much of it is trafficked through the cartels, who buy the precursors, the fentanyl ingredients, from China, make it the rest of the way. Then they send it through the border into the US.
You can get fentanyl in the mail from China, and many people do. It comes right to your door through the US Postal Service. But it takes a certain level of sophistication with the drug dealers to pull that off.
COWEN: It’s such a big life decision, and it’s shaped by this very small cost of getting a package from New Hampshire to Florida. What should we infer about human nature as a result of that? What’s your model of the human beings doing this stuff if those geographic differences really make the difference for whether or not you do this and destroy your life?
WESTHOFF: Well, everything is local, right? Not just politics. You’re influenced by the people around you and the relative costs. In St. Louis, it’s so incredibly cheap, like $5 to get some heroin, some fentanyl. I don’t know how it works in, say, New Hampshire, but I know in places like West Virginia, it’s still a primarily pill market. People don’t use powdered heroin, for example. For whatever reason, they prefer Oxycontin. So that has affected the market, too.
COWEN: Did New Zealand do the right thing, legalizing so many synthetic drugs in 2013?
WESTHOFF: I absolutely think they did. It was an unprecedented thing. Now drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, all the drugs you’ve heard of, are internationally banned. But what New Zealand did was it legalized these forms of synthetic marijuana. So synthetic marijuana has a really bad reputation. It goes by names like K2 and Spice, and it’s big in homeless populations. It’s causing huge problems in places like DC.
But if you make synthetic marijuana right, as this character in my book named Matt Bowden was doing in New Zealand, you can actually make it so it’s less toxic, so it’s somewhat safe. That’s what he did. They legalized these safer forms of it, and the overdose rate plummeted. Very shortly thereafter, however, they banned them again, and now deaths from synthetic marijuana in New Zealand have gone way up.
COWEN: And what about Portugal and Slovenia — their experiments in decriminalization? How have those gone?
WESTHOFF: By all accounts, they’ve been massive successes. Portugal had this huge problem with heroin, talking like one out of every 100 members of the population was touched by it, or something like that. And now those rates have gone way down.
In Slovenia, they have no fentanyl problem. They barely have an opioid problem. Their rates of AIDS and other diseases passed through needles have gone way down.
And on rap music:
COWEN: This question is maybe a little difficult to explain, but wherein lies the musical talent of hip-hop? If we look at Mozart, there’s melody, there’s harmony. If you listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, it’s something very specifically rhythmic, and the textures, and the organization of the blocks of sound. The poetry aside, what is it musically that accounts for the talent in rap music?
WESTHOFF: First of all, riding a beat, rapping, if you will, is extremely hard, and anyone who’s ever tried to do it will tell you. You have to have the right cadence. You have to have the right breath control, and it’s a talent. There’s also — this might sound trivial, but picking the right music to rap over.
So hip-hop, of course, is a genre that’s made up of other genres. In the beginning, it was disco records that people used. And then jazz, and then on and on. Rock records have been rapped over, even. But what song are you going to pick to use? And if someone has a good ear for a sound that goes with their style, that’s something you can’t teach.
And yes on overrated vs. underrated, you get Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood, and Seinfeld, among others. I highly recommend all of Ben’s books, but most of all his latest one Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.