Category: Television

“Mirror, Mirror” (Star Trek classic, spoilers in this post)

I haven’t seen most Star Trek episodes since I was a young teen, so I tried rewatching this one, you know, with the alternate universe and the evil Spock.  It was good!

I took away from it the main lesson that our moral behavior — or lack thereof — is one of the most contingent and fragile features of our universe.  The possibly happy ending for the bad universe drives this point home, as does the opening speech from the indigenous folk (the Halkans) who won’t sell their dilithium crystals, reminding Kirk that the Federation too might turn bad.  Add to that the utter implausibility of their “highly moral” behavior in the bad universe, as the absurdity and unlikelihood of their invited destruction reminds us that virtually everyone is pliable in response to strong enough incentives.

If you think through the plot, to the extent the “good” people are more powerful and effective than the “bad” people, that is because the “good” people are better at deceit.  Though the good people can teach deceit to the bad people, as the good Kirk does at the end to the evil Spock, who perhaps will reform.  Another embedded lesson is that both the “good” and the “bad” men will sexually harass (both the good and bad) women, with the major differences being those of style not substance.  And the “good” men seem to prefer the “bad” women.

If the “bad” universe were safer, would the powerful people find it better or worse to live in?  What if you had a Ring of Gyges to help you along?

Overall you can read the whole episode as “the spirits” (God?) sending a Shakespearean-like dream to Kirk, so that he can better understand the perspective of the Halkans, which otherwise he finds baffling.  Might the Halkans have sent the dream themselves?

Recommended, it was better and more idea-rich than expected.  I will try another episode soon.

My podcast with Darren Lipomi

He is a well-known chemist (and more) at UC San Diego. We started with classic Star Trek and then moved into textiles, chemistry, music vs. sound, nanobots against Covid, how to interview, traveling during a pandemic, art collecting and voodoo flags, the importance of materials science, and much more.  Mostly he interviewed me, though it went a bit both ways.

Almost 100% fresh material and topics, and here is the Spotify link.

*Queen’s Gambit* (no real spoilers in this post)

I’ve now seen a few episodes, and I have a few comments on the chess:

1. No player, including Magnus Carlsen, can become that good that quickly, without a lot of learning and losing along the way.

2. They show the players moving too fast, though for dramatic reasons this is easy enough to understand.

3. The Sicilian was indeed very popular in 1963, but not quite that popular.

4. It captures the feel of earlier U.S. chess tournaments very well, noting that my own participation came later but things didn’t change much.

5. At the time the Rossolimo was in fact an unusual response to the Sicilian, though it is not now.  The show got this right (the protagonist claims she was very surprised by 3.Bb5) — don’t be fooled by the subsequent evolution of the game.

Dramatically, I would say it is “decent and watchable,” and the clothes and hotel scenes are good.  The characterization of the mother does not feel entirely consistent.  There is an underlying autism theme, mostly handled well, though mainstream reviewers seem to be thrown off the scent by the woman’s charm and good looks.  I will let you know if I have further observations.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:

Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…

Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.

That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.

And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either.  It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.

From the comments, comedy vs. drama

I would say that many, if not most, comedies are “conservative” in their underlying messages or themes. Look at romantic comedies: the whole point is for characters to establish a committed relationship and either explicitly or presumably get married. The comedy is in watching characters who are notoriously bad at following tradition and institution find themselves desperate to follow tradition and institution. That’s a very conservative theme: happiness comes from family and a serious, formal commitment to family.

An American Pickle isn’t a romantic comedy, but it follows the same structure and offers the same lesson. That makes it a fairly typical comedy.

Dramas, by comparison, tend to be more “liberal” and “radical,” because they often show a character breaking from tradition or from institutional boundaries to find happiness or to resolve a serious problem. The messages of dramas are often the polar opposite of those of comedies.

That is a remark by WB on An American Pickle.  One striking feature of the creativity of Shakespeare, of course, is that he does not follow this usual pattern.

My Conversation with Annie Duke

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the opening summary:

Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more.

Here is one bit from Annie:

DUKE: So when I went on my first date with my husband, my brother and brother-in-law immediately decided to make a market, and it was whether we were going to get married. Now to be fair, my husband and I — before we went on our first date, we’d been friends. Both my brother and my brother-in-law knew my eventual husband, but this is when we’re going on our first date. They make a market. I think that my brother-in-law ended up bidding 23.

My brother then called me up, cracking up, that my brother-in-law had bid 23 when we hadn’t been on a first date yet. And I then started laughing at my brother, said, “Well, that means you had to bid 22. Why are you laughing at him? You somehow bid 22. It’s our first date.” Now, that’s because we’re all people who sort of think this way. And so this sort of becomes the fun of the friendship, but there are other people . . .

And this from Annie:

DUKE: My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases — where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?” I feel like the top 500 players would definitely be thinking in that way more.

You will have to read or hear the dialogue to take in my many good questions.

What sports I’ve been watching

Game 2, Celtics vs. Bulls, 1986, the one where Michael Jordan scored 63 points.  Watching it over a number of days on the exercise bike, I was struck by the following:

1. The Chicago Bulls, to a remarkable degree, decided to run their offense through Orlando Woolridge, and not for the better.

2. The camera did not follow MJ around obsessively, nor do the announcers seem to realize how great he will become — this was his second season, and he spent much of it injured and not playing.  And he was not yet able to make his teammates better (see #1).

3. One announcer remarks that Charles Oakley is not big and strong enough to play center.  Admittedly Robert Parrish was taller, but Oakley was one of the strongest men ever to play in the NBA.

4. The game comes across as remarkably slow, and the Celtics as molasses slow and bad at defense.  A swarming contemporary defense would shut down Kevin McHale.  Ainge and Dennis Johnson are heralded as one of the best backcourts ever, but I believe Damian Lillard or a few other current peers would cut them to ribbons.  Note that the Celtics were 40-1 at home that season, still a record, so they were a remarkable team for their time.

5. Michael Jordan scores most of his points on shots — the long 2 — that coaches strongly discourage players from taking these days because of their low expected value.

6. Few of them look good taking a three-pointer.

7. MJ aside, Bill Walton is the one who comes across as the world-class player on the court, despite his age of 33, a long history of foot and other injuries, and limited mobility.

8. 63 points is a lot, but the Bulls lost the game and Jordan was far from his later peak.  It is nonetheless striking how much better was his conditioning than that of any other player on the court, and that is why he was able to score so much in the fourth quarter and take over the game.

Movies to watch under lockdown

I/we have been watching the following:

The Wedding Plan, Israeli movie about a religious woman who precommits to her future wedding, yet without having a particular groom in mind.  Full of subtlety, motivated by behavioral economics and game theory, poignant, recommended.  Israeli cinema and TV remain an underexploited profit opportunity.

Teorema, directed by Pasolini, this one makes no sense but is utterly captivating.  I say it is the devil rather than Christ, but you could argue it either way.  Don’t expect any scene to cohere, but this one is from the golden age of cinema and it shows.

The Lady from Shanghai.  Could this be my favorite Welles movie, as he had not yet started to take himself too seriously?  It spans sailing life, New York, Acapulco and Mexico’s Pacific coast, noir, and San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The look at 1947 SF is enough to scare some YIMBY into the most desperate protectionist.  This was a rewatch for me, and it seemed even better the second time around.

Rhapsody in August, late Kurosawa from 1991.  Not for neophytes but the frankest cinematic treatment of Nagasaki you are likely to find.  The best 2/3 of this film are very moving and indeed unforgettable.  It is sufficiently subtle that most of the reviews are suitably bad.

Beforeigners, a Norwegian television show with a unique twist on the usual immigration story.  Due to a time warp, migrants from earlier periods of history, such as medieval times and also the Stone Age, climb into current-day Oslo.  You are not allowed to call them “Vikings,” rather they are “people of Norse descent.”  And they cannot assimilate to a very foreign culture, though at least one of them ends up working in the Oslo police department.  Clever and original, I hope they make more than just the first six episodes.

Robert Browning and Ingmar Bergman in a Bloomberg column

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!

Spock’s Brain

The Santa Monica Observer noted the death of soap opera actress Marj Dusay who also appeared as the alien thief in the classic Start Trek episode “Spock’s Brain”:

…The episode is generally regarded by most fans, and those who took part in its production, as the worst episode of the series. William Shatner called this one of the series’ worst episodes, calling the episode’s plot a “tribute” to NBC executives who slashed the show’s budget and placed it in a bad time slot.

Leonard Nimoy wrote: “Frankly, during the entire shooting of that episode, I was embarrassed – a feeling that overcame me many times during the final season of Star Trek.”

…In his book What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, author David Hofstede ranked the episode at #71 on the list.

The rock band Phish performs a song entitled “Spock’s Brain”

So what? Well here is the part that caught my attention:

The episode was referenced in Modern Principles: Microeconomics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University as an example of how it is virtually impossible to have a command economy; in that not even Spock’s brain could run an economy.

In other words, we also thought it was one of the worst episodes ever because of the bad economics. Econ instructors should use our textbook! Where else can you learn about Spock’s Brain and the command economy?

By the way, I’m pretty sure the obit was AI generated but heh the AI did a good job! I am aware of the irony.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

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

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.

HARFORD: A hat?

COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.

And:

COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

*Seven Worlds, One Planet*

That is the new David Attenborough BBC nature show, available on streaming or buy the discs from the UK.  Believe it or not it has better footage than the earlier BBC nature shows, while remaining inside the basic template of what such shows attempt to accomplish.  Here is a very good Guardian review.  Here is a somewhat snotty NYT review, bemoaning Attenborough’s tone of “polite optimism.”  Strongly recommended.

Dracula on Gratitude

I enjoyed the Dracula mini-series on Netflix–it’s smart, stylish and a fresh take. Also, at just three episodes, it’s satisfying without requiring a huge time investment.

Dracula has some pointed commentary on contemporary mores, including economics. After sleeping for a hundred years he finds himself in an ordinary home and speaks to the owner, Kathleen:

D: You’re clearly very wealthy.

K: Wealthy?

D: Yes. Well, look at all this stuff. All this food. The moving picture box. And that thing outside, Bob calls it um, a car. And this treasure trove is your house!

K: It’s a dump.

D: Kathleen, I’ve been a nobleman for 400 years. I’ve lived in castes and palaces among the richest people of any age. Never….never! Have I stood in greater luxury than surrounds me now. This is a chamber of marvels. There isn’t a king, or queen or emperor that I have ever known or eaten who would step into this room and ever agree to leave it again.

I knew the future would bring wonders. I did not know it would make them ordinary.

Who were the two most powerful and effective orators of the decade?

My picks and Trump and Greta Thunberg, in that order, as explained in my latest Bloomberg column. Excerpt:

My choice for second place is Greta Thunberg. In little more than a year, Thunberg has moved from being an unheard-of 16-year-old Swedish girl to Time’s Person of the Year. While she is now a social media phenomenon, her initial ascent was driven by her public speaking. Communication is quite simply what she does.

As a public speaker, Thunberg is memorable. The unusual prosody of autistic voices is sometimes considered a disadvantage, but she has turned her voice and her extreme directness into an unforgettably bracing style. She communicates urgency and moral seriousness on climate change at a time when the world is not taking decisive action. She mixes anger and condemnation with the look of a quite innocent young girl. Her Swedish version of a British accent is immediately recognizable. There is usually no one else in the room who looks or acts like her.

Her core speech she can give in about five minutes, perfect for an age of limited attention spans. She speaks in short, clipped phrases, each one perfect word-for-word. It is easy to excerpt discrete sentences on social media or on television.

As for memorable phrases, how about these: “I don’t want your hope.” “Did you hear what I just said?” “I want you to panic.” And of course: “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

These days, you can simply say the name “Greta” in many parts of the world, and people will know who you are referring to.

You will note that under the formal DSM definition of autism, deficits in communication are a fundamental feature of the condition — perhaps that should be changed?  Greta uses the term “selective mutism” in describing herself, but clearly the actual reality is more than just a simple deficit, rather an uneven pattern with very high peaks.  As I wrote in the column, communicating is what she does.

One other point — I frequently hear or read people charge that Greta is being manipulated by her parents.  I have no real knowledge of the Thunberg family, but in the research literature on prodigies it is clear that virtually all of those who have achieved something early had quite extreme self-motivation, a common feature of autism I might add.

Tuvalu fact of the day

Nearly 25 years later, the internet’s full power remains relatively unknown to many people on the island, but its evolution has made Tuvalu’s .tv domain one of its most valuable resources. Thanks to the rise of livestreamed programming and competitive video gaming, Tuvalu earns about 1/12th of its annual gross national income (GNI) from licensing its domain to tech giants like Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch through the Virginia-based company Verisign. And in 2021, when Tuvalu’s contract with Verisign expires, that percentage figures to push significantly higher…

As sites utilizing .tv grow in prominence, Tuvalu’s domain on the web may eventually supersede that of its seas.

Few Tuvaluans are able to access the streaming services powered by .tv. The nation’s Internet, though widely accessible, is limited to a satellite connection with reduced streaming capacity. However, with more than 140 million people around the world consuming content via Twitch.tv and other streaming platforms, the monetary benefits have helped Tuvalu in more tangible ways than entertainment.

Here is the full story, there are about 11,000 Tuvaluns.  For the pointer I thank Shaffin.