Category: Film

What would people do if they had superpowers?

At the very least we can ask what they say they would do, and it is not entirely encouraging:

Drawing from literature associating superheroes with altruism, this study examined whether ordinary individuals engaged in altruistic or selfish behavior when they were hypothetically given superpowers. Participants were presented with six superpowers—three positive (healing, invulnerability, and flight) and three negative (fear inducement, psychic persuasion, and poison generation). They indicated their desirability for each power, what they would use it for (social benefit, personal gain, social harm), and listed examples of such uses. Quantitative analyses (n = 285) revealed that 94% of participants wished to possess a superpower, and majority indicated using powers for benefitting themselves than for altruistic purposes. Furthermore, while men wanted positive and negative powers more, women were more likely than men to use such powers for personal and social gain. Qualitative analyses of the uses of the powers (n = 524) resulted in 16 themes of altruistic and selfish behavior. Results were analyzed within Pearce and Amato’s model of helping behavior, which was used to classify altruistic behavior, and adapted to classify selfish behavior. In contrast to how superheroes behave, both sets of analyses revealed that participants would hypothetically use superpowers for selfish rather than altruistic purposes. Limitations and suggestions for future research are outlined.

That is from a new paper by Das-Friebel, et.al., and the pointer is from Rolf Degen. Here is an earlier MR post about what an altruistic and incorruptible Superman should do; I found the question wasn’t so easy to answer.

*Colossal*, the movie (full of spoilers)

I’ll have to put this under the fold, because I can’t say anything without giving away everything…OK, people, this is one strange movie.  The movie is mostly about U.S.-Korean relations, and U.S. foreign policy more broadly, albeit in cloaked form.  To cut to the chase, Anne Hathaway from NYC (but born in a rural area) symbolizes Hillary Clinton, and the character of “Oscar,” who loves his trashy red state, is Donald Trump.  The two engage in a series of pitched personal battles, and, through an obscure mechanism, this translates into two giant monsters fighting in the streets of Seoul, and destroying parts of the city through their wanton carelessness (yes, really).  So the movie is about how disputes in domestic American politics can wreck other parts of the world and Americans don’t really give a damn.  Oscar even uses Seoul as a hostage, repeatedly, to get his way in town, and later he takes joy in trashing parts of Seoul.  Oscar also loves to blow things up, if only to signal his irresponsibility, and he will blow up his own property too, just so he can push others around, because he feels so small in life.  He obtains his explosives through illegal trade with Mexico, which he decries but engages in nonetheless.  The red state trashers stand with Oscar no matter what.

The movie indicates that a much-younger “Hillary” made her first appearance in Seoul 25 years ago (1992!), but at the time no one noticed her import.  Recently she has come back, in the form of the giant monster, and the city grows to realize that she will save them from Oscar, the evil robot.

There are numerous references to Godzilla, which of course is a movie about (among other things) America destroying parts of Japan.

The movie’s ending has Hillary saving them from Trump, and Koreans crying with joy, but of course it didn’t work out that way.  And to watch this movie right after the Syria and Afghanistan bombings…

That all said, I wish it were a better film.  It is more interesting than masterful.

I read quite a few reviews of this one, but only Vogue has any clue at all.  I’m glad I saw it, but unsure whether I should recommend it to you.

Excerpt from my chat with Ezra

Here is one bit, from the rapid fire back-and-forth:

Ezra Klein

The rationality community.

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.

There is much more at the link, entertaining throughout, with links to the full podcast as well.

My favorite things Ireland

The last time I was in Ireland I wasn’t blogging yet.  What riches lie here, let’s give it a start:

1. Poetry: I pick Joyce’s Ulysses, then Yeats and also Seamus Heaney, especially if the word “bog” appears in the poem.  A good collection is The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty.  Beyond the ranks of the super-famous, you might try Louis MacNeice, from the Auden Group, or perhaps Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who writes in Gaelic but has been translated by other superb Irish poets into English..

2. Novel/literature: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels.  One of the very very best books for social science too, and one of my favorite books period.  After Joyce, there is also Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Lord Dunsany, John Banville (The Untouchable), William Trevor, and Elizabeth Bowen.  Iris Murdoch was born in Ireland, but does she count?  More recently I have enjoyed Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Eimear McBride, Claire Louise-Bennett, with Mike McCormack in my pile to read soon.  Roddy Doyle is probably good, but I don’t find him so readable.  Colum McCann somehow isn’t Irish enough for me, but many enjoy his work.  Can the Anglo-Irish Oliver Goldsmith count?  His Citizen of the World remains a neglected work.  The recently published volumes of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence have received rave reviews and I hope to read through them this summer.  Whew!  And for a country of such a small population.

3. Classical music: Hmm…we hit a roadblock here.  I don’t love John Field, so I have to call this category a fail.  I can’t offhand think of many first-rate Irish classical performers, can you?  James Galway?

4. Popular music: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless.  Certainly my favorite album post-1970s, and possibly my favorite of all time.  When the Irish do something well, they do it really really well.  Then there is Van Morrison, Them, Bono and U2, Rory Gallagher, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, The Pogues, The Cranberries, and Sinead O’Connor, among others.  I confess to having an inordinate weakness for Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Traditional Irish music would need a post of its own, but it has never commanded much of my attention.

5. Painter: Francis Bacon is the obvious and probably correct choice, but I am no longer excited to see his work.  I don’t find myself seeing new things in it.  Sean Scully wins runner-up.  This is a slightly weak category, at least relative to some of the others.

6. Political philosopher: Edmund Burke, who looks better all the time, I am sorry to say.

7. Philosopher: Bishop Berkeley.  He is also interesting on monetary theory, anticipating some later ideas of Fischer Black on money as an abstract unit of account.

8. Classical economist: Mountifort Longfield and Isaac Butt both had better understandings of supply and demand and marginalism, before the marginal revolution, than almost any other economists except for a few of the French.

9. Theologian: C.S. Lewis, you could list him under fiction as well.  Here is a debate over whether he is British or Irish.  Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia covers Lewis, one of my favorite books from the last decade.

10. Silicon Valley entrepreneur: Patrick Collison (duh), of Stripe and Atlas, here is his superb podcast with Ezra Klein.  Here is further information on the pathbreaking Stripe Atlas project.

11. Movie: There are plenty I don’t like so much, such as My Left Foot, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Waking Ned, and The Commitments.  Most people consider those pretty good.  I think I’ll opt for The Crying Game and also In the Name of the Father.

12: Movie, set in: Other than the movies listed above, there is Odd Man Out (quite good), The Quiet Man, and The Secret of Roan Inish, but my clear first choice is the still-underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon.

The bottom line: The strengths are quite amazing, and that’s without adjusting for population.

American sexual frequency estimates of the day

American adults had sex about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the late 1990s in data from the nationally representative General Social Survey, N = 26,620, 1989–2014. This was partially due to the higher percentage of unpartnered individuals, who have sex less frequently on average. Sexual frequency declined among the partnered (married or living together) but stayed steady among the unpartnered, reducing the marital/partnered advantage for sexual frequency. Declines in sexual frequency were similar across gender, race, region, educational level, and work status and were largest among those in their 50s, those with school-age children, and those who did not watch pornography. In analyses separating the effects of age, time period, and cohort, the decline was primarily due to birth cohort (year of birth, also known as generation). With age and time period controlled, those born in the 1930s (Silent generation) had sex the most often, whereas those born in the 1990s (Millennials and iGen) had sex the least often. The decline was not linked to longer working hours or increased pornography use. Age had a strong effect on sexual frequency: Americans in their 20s had sex an average of about 80 times per year, compared to about 20 times per year for those in their 60s. The results suggest that Americans are having sex less frequently due to two primary factors: An increasing number of individuals without a steady or marital partner and a decline in sexual frequency among those with partners.

Here is the article, by Twenge, Sherman, and Wells, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Derek Thompson’s *The Hit Makers*

What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not?  Derek’s new book is probably the very best exploration of this question.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency: people want something that appears a bit different, but actually is deeply conservative and keeps them running in place (my take, not exactly his).  In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?

HITmakers

Here is one good review of the book.  You can buy it here.

*Exception Taken: How France Defied Hollywood’s New World Order*

That is the new and excellent book by Jonathan Buchsbaum, offering the first comprehensive history of the debates over free trade and the “cultural exception,” as it has been called.  It is thorough, readable, and goes well beyond the other sources on this topic.

To be sure, I disagree with Buchsbaum’s basic stance.  He views “advertising dollars” as something attached to Hollywood movies like glue, giving them an unassailable competitive advantage, rather than an endogenous response to what viewers might wish to watch.  The notion that French or other movie-makers could possibly thrive by innovating and exploring new quality dimensions seems too far from his thought.  And he writes sentences such as: “France sought quickly to regulate multiplex development,” yet without wincing.

Perhaps his best sentence is the uncharacteristic: “Other commentators during the 1980s observed wryly that the only real European films were U.S. films, for only U.S. films succeeded in crossing borders in Europe.”

He spends a fair amount of time criticizing me, usually a positive feature in a book.  Furthermore, he delivers very strongly on the basic history and narrative, and draws upon a wide variety of sources.  So this one is definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in these topics.

A Price is a Signal Wrapped Up in an Incentive

The world’s largest exporter of roses is an Indian firm, Karuturi Global, which has leased 3,000 square kilometers of land in Ethiopia.

I talked today about globalization and the price system using Valentine’s Day and the rose market as a jumping off point. I spoke at the Sarla Anil Modi School of Economics at NMIMS in Mumbai. The students were excellent. Lots of well informed, enthusiastic questions, and debate.

Here is a bit of what I said:

*Toni Erdmann*, misunderstood masterpiece (full of spoilers)

Since no major English-language critic has made my major novel observation, can a flat-out wrong claim be considered a spoiler?  I say the optimal time to read this post is in the middle of the movie, not before, not after.  I’ll put the rest of under the fold…

First, Toni Erdmann is one of the most stimulating and multi-faceted movies I’ve seen in years, “utterly unique and wholly indefinable.”  My non-spoiler plot summary is that an elite female German management consultant is called in to advise on outsourcing to Bucharest, and during the course of the movie she discovers she cannot get away from her father so easily.

Most of the core action unfolds after the woman’s father comes to visit her in Bucharest, and subjects her to an escalating series of escapades, mostly with co-workers.  At least on the surface, the woman is efficient and worldly but emotionally stunted.  Her father is rude and genuine and comic and self-destructive with his blundering interventions, unable to stop offending people, grabbing the attention, and repeatedly undercutting his daughter’s self-confidence.  Everything has to be about him.  As the movie progresses, however, the daughter learns she and her father are not so different after all.

What is this movie so good at?

Humor and comic set pieces.  Staging a scene and subverting your expectations.  Creating its own world, spread across a large and sprawling canvas (it’s almost three hours long).  Expat life.  The new German nationalism.  Showing the multiple ways that women are condescended to or debased in the corporate world.  Toadying.  Rebelling by joining the establishment.  The relationship between Germany and the economically colonized parts of Eastern Europe.  The new principles of sex (and food).  The emotionally unrewarding nature of contemporary cosmopolitan life, but also the limits of rootedness.  And of course father-daughter dynamics and their persistence.

One rewarding way to watch the film is simply to track how many ways the German protagonist — in terms of her groveling, her rhetoric, and finally her complete nudity — is reduced to the status of her obsequious Romanian assistant.  That’s factor price equalization with a vengeance.

OK, so what is the catch and major spoiler?  I say this film uses a Fight Club-like trick, though unlike Hollywood it doesn’t feel the need to tell its viewers outright.

Most of the father’s Bucharest visit to his daughter never actually takes place (some of it probably does, though we cannot quite be sure).  The father leaves Bucharest, and when the daughter supposedly runs into him again at a city bar, in his disguise, while she is talking about him to her friends, he isn’t really there.  The coincidence of the encounter is too extreme and no attempt is made to explain it.  And, after the conversation, when he leaves and climbs into the largest limousine you ever have seen (he’s a music teacher back home, not a CEO), that too is a sign this isn’t really happening.  The unreality of his continuing visit also explains the succeeding odd medley of coincidences, and that she simply doesn’t tell him to cut it out and stop ruining her career.  He is haunting her imagination, and no simple physical remedy will do.

If you do not understand this point, much of the movie will seem obnoxious and overstated, or even nonsensical.  In fact a few reviewers have made this complaint (some reviews here); if your critic is employing the word “preposterous,” beware!

In my reading of the film, the handcuffs sequence is the key scene.  The father comes along and handcuffs himself to the daughter, without having a key to open them up.  That’s how she feels about her station in life.  Eventually they find someone to pick the lock, but if you’re wondering why she tolerates this behavior, and immediately afterwards takes him to a bunch of work meetings and interviews…well, think Fight Club.  She truly does carry him with her, no matter where she goes.

Also, for further clues, listen to the lyrics of the Whitney Houston song she sings at the Romanian party.

The now-famous nude party scene reflects how the daughter feels exposed and naked out in her job, much as she feels she never can escape her father.  The appearance of the “furry creature” at the party then shows that her father — as a figment — will keep on coming back, in whatever extreme manifestations might be required.

Recall in the opening scene how the father is hiring/installing an imaginary daughter?  She is mirroring this same behavior — also in a destructive way — by installing an imaginary father.  The movie’s title, Toni Erdmann, of course refers to the father’s (supposed) alter ego, not to the father himself; that should be another clue.

People, no one gets this movie.  It does have very positive reviews, but the American and British critics are missing the boat.

Toni-Erdmann

Faux Quebec village markets in everything

Canadiana Village, about an hour north of Montreal near Rawdon, Que., has been on the market since the fall. The nearly 60 hectares of land and 45 buildings are going for $2.8 million.

The village is designed to resemble a pioneer settlement from the 19th century, and includes a church, a general store, a mill, a cemetery, a saloon and 22 houses.

However, most of the buildings are just for show.

…”There’s only one livable home.”

Kaija said most of the buildings were shipped to the village over the years.

In its heyday, the village welcomed close to 30,000 tourists per year and was a popular destination for school field trips.

It was also featured in more than 110 film and TV productions, including Radio-Canada’s Pays d’en haut and I’m Not There, a Bob Dylan biographical drama.

Here is the full story, with photos, and for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is a great documentary about art, the power of heroes, and the end of communism in Romania. After the communist regime was established in 1948, travel was restricted, the media were censored and the secret police watched everyone. Romania was cut off from the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, however, smuggled VHS tapes of American movies began to circulate. Underground groups would gather together to watch samizdat movies like Rocky and Lone Wolf McQuade.

lonewolfmcquade_quadFor many of the young boys (now men) featured in the documentary the West’s action heroes became role models of endurance, independence and fortitude. I too remember running home filled with enthusiasm after seeing Rocky but in Romania the message was all the more powerful because there was so little else to compete with Hollywood’s images and watching was itself a kind of heroic snubbing of the regime.

The action was exciting but perhaps even more revealing were the ordinary scenes of supermarkets stocked with food, at a time when Romania was racked with severe rationing. City lights, beautiful cars, and the ordinary freedoms of worship and belief casually portrayed, all impressed on the Romanian viewers the starkness of their own situation.

Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles. Few people knew her name but her voice became entwined with that of the heroes she translated and she became a national symbol of freedom. Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free.

There’s also a mystery that the documentary discusses but does not fully answer. How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it? At least some of the authorities had some idea of what he was doing but perhaps due to bribery, perhaps because there were no longer any true believers, perhaps because the authorities thought the movies would provide an escape valve from the harshness of Romanian life, they allowed the operation to continue. Zamfir also appears to have had immense personal charisma, so much so that he somehow turned an undercover operative to his side. It’s a remarkable story.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is available on Netflix.

Hat tip: Dan Klein and also Emily Skarbek’s excellent post.

Why is there dynamic surge pricing *for rides*?

“Surge Pricing Solves the Wild Goose Chase” is the title of the new paper by Juan Camillo Castillo and E. Glen Weyl, here is the abstract:

Why is dynamic pricing more prevalent in ride-hailing apps than movies and restaurants? Arnott (1996) observed that an over-burdened taxi dispatch system may be forced to send cars on a wild goose chase to pick up distant customers when few taxis are free. These chases occupy taxis and reduce earnings, effectively removing cars from the road and exacerbating the problem. While Arnott dismissed this outcome as a Pareto-dominated equilibrium, we show that when prices are too low relative to demand it is the unique equilibrium of a system that uses a first-dispatch protocol (as many ride-hailing services have committed to). This effect dominates more traditional price theoretic considerations and implies that welfare and profits fall dramatically as price falls below a certain threshold and then decline only gradually move in price above this point. A platform forced to charge uniform prices over time will therefore have to set very high prices to avoid catastrophic chases. Dynamic “surge pricing” can avoid these high prices while maintaining system functioning when demand is high. We show that pooling can complicate and exacerbate these problems.

Perhaps it is an analogy to suggest movie theaters might use more surge pricing if a low valuation buyer took up the seat for several showings of the movie rather than just one.

Dan Klein reviews *Rogue One* (with spoilers)

He emails to me:

I thought it great. It brings something strikingly new to the Star Wars universe – new in a number of ways, good ways:

1. It’s a self-contained heroic tragedy. You know the new characters are doomed. A useful comparison is the Obi Wan-Anakin battle in III: The Rogue One feeling of tragedy is less powerful but more comprehensive.

2. The plot and the character development are based on dissension, conflict on the rebellion side. Even the “extremist” plays a vital role in the success.

3. The dedication of rebels to the rebellion is depicted as the best of bad options for making one’s life meaningful, and as something that one gets locked-in to.

4. Rebel activity appears brutal, as though the conventional IV-VI image of the rebellion is but the fanciful illusion of those caught in the day-to-day misery of prosecuting the rebellion. But still that illusion is sustained – in Rogue One we have the drama behind a piece of that larger story, a tragic, engrossing aside.

5. On the rebel side, the Force persuasion appears, not the sage wisdom of Alec Guinness, but more the religion of deplorables, a resort of desperation. Some of the rebels come across as fanatics.

Darth is sparse but still the heavy, more chilling than ever.

BTW, the “Pappa, pappa” scene was, I think, a tribute to the 1995 Cuarón masterpiece A Little Princess.

Here is a good piece on Star Wars and geopolitics.

My favorite things Nigeria

Yup, I’m here.  I made this list before setting off:

1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones.  Most of them!  On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela.  On streaming, you can probably just let it rip.  And rip.  And rip.  Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti.  You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here.  Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.

There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid.  It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.

2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time.  My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.

3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.  Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila.  There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.

4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already.  It’s kinetic.  The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background.  As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank.  “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.

5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.

6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.

7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki.  He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.

prince_twins_seven-seven_1

8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!

The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.

Law and Literature, syllabus for Spring 2017

The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Petinal Gappah, The Book of Memory

Glaspell’s Trifles, available on-line.

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

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott.

Primo Levi, If This is a Man

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

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.

Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Reputations

Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project

The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

 

Movies: Difret, Court, The Chinese Mayor, A Separation