The Real Shrek

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

One might say that old-time pro-wrestler Maurice Tillet was The Real Shrek.

Triumph Of The Vile

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

In Triumph Of The Vile, “war nerd” Gary Brecher describes 300 as the “Hoo-ah” version of Thermopylae:

Fact: Sparta was about as romantic as North Korea. Give or take a little egalitarianism, Sparta WAS North Korea. Spartan laws did everything they could to break down the family. Sparta was more anti-nuclear family than any Hollywood liberal could ever be.

Wanna know what a Spartan wedding night was really like? It’s pretty hilarious, in an insane way. As soon as a Spartan girl got her first period, they grabbed her, shaved her head, dressed her as a boy, threw her down on her new husband’s bed, and then, well, he had his way with her. What way was that? Since hubby had been in an all-male dorm since age seven, I’m betting that that night of lovin’ was more like a skinny white boy’s introduction to San Quentin after lights-out than it was like a chick flick. So when this movie shows the Spartan hero saying to his wife, “Goodbye, my love,” I just had to laugh.

No Spartan ever told his wife he loved her. That would’ve been like treason, because the Spartan rulers wanted family ties snapped, so the only bond left was to the state. They left room for folks’ natural urges by letting the women drink, which they did non-stop, and the men form what you might call close comradely bonds with their fellow soldiers.

In the ancient world, gay was a matter of who was on top. If you were a topper, that was fine; if you were the one getting in the ass, not so cool. In other words, prison rules. Sparta’s leather-bar ways were a running joke to the ancient Greeks. The Spartans were stone killers — but they also preened like teenage girls before a battle. They grew their hair long, and before a fight they’d comb it, oil it, try out fetching new styles, put little baubles in their ears, anything to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

None of that in this movie. Just the opposite.

He notes that the true heroes of the war against Persia were the Athenians, who understood combined-arms operations involving both army and navy:

Sparta understood only one kind of fighting: land battle, the hoplite shield-wall — a Big Ten offense from the old school, “three yards and a cloud of dust.” In any shield-wall vs. shield wall battle, the bigger offensive line will break the opposing team’s wall, leaving them open to massed spear thrusts. Once the opposition’s wall was broken, the citizen-soldiers would scatter to fight another day — a totally sensible reaction, since the alternative was annihilation. In battles like that, psycho varsity offensive-line types like the ones Sparta bred did just fine. But vary the conditions of battle in any way, and they were as helpless as Woody Hayes’ Ohio State teams were against a team that could stop the run.

From the first time I saw a trailer where a Spartan (Leonidas) kicks an envoy down an apparently bottomless pit, I was bothered:

Every time someone wants to argue with the war party in this movie, he’s evil. Everybody who talks in a normal tone of voice is evil. Miller shows two scenes where the Spartans murder Persian envoys arriving under a flag of truce. And both times, you’re supposed to cheer.

Since when do Americans cheer when truce parties are murdered? Well, that’s pretty easy to answer, actually: since Iraq.

Abolishing the Middlemen Won’t Make Health Care a Free Lunch

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

Tyler Cowen notes that Abolishing the Middlemen Won’t Make Health Care a Free Lunch:

Medical insurance, whether private or government, is always going to be faced with a fundamental problem: patients and doctors will try to get the most out of any system. When they aren’t paying directly, patients will seek extra care and doctors will be happy to oblige. To deal with that problem, health care systems can offer services indiscriminately and write off the resulting losses, spend money on monitoring, or limit services and prices. An analogous problem is faced by retail stores: they must either put up with theft, hire security to limit theft, or carry lower-value items.

Just as some items are harder to shoplift than others, so some medical services are less prone to overuse. European systems are relatively good at providing prenatal care or mending someone hit by a car. Few people would try to get these services unless they were really needed. No one but an expectant mother, for instance, will show up for a prenatal checkup; nor would excess prenatal checkups cost a great deal. The unwillingness of European systems to spend on overhead means they will do best specializing in these kinds of services.

Health insurers cannot just offer expensive tests, technologies, hospital rooms and surgeries for older patients for the taking. Doctors will too often recommend these services and receive reimbursement, even to the point of financial abuse. Medicare has this problem to some extent.

When it comes to these discretionary benefits, European systems are more likely to make people wait for them, more likely to make the service inconvenient or uncomfortable, or simply not make the services available in the first place. All of these features discourage those who don’t really need care, and, of course, some people simply go elsewhere and pay out of their own pockets. Either way, the overhead costs have been shifted onto patients and their families.

On average, European systems are relatively good for the young, who are generally healthy and need treatment for obvious accidents and emergencies, with transparent remedies. European systems are less effective for the elderly, the primary demanders of discretionary medical benefits. American society has the reputation of paying less heed to the elderly than Europe does, but when it comes to medical care it is the other way around.

BrickArms Weapons

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

The Net has definitely made some shockingly niche goods available to the narrow markets that want them, like these BrickArms Weapons, realistic weapons for your Lego army:

BrickArms are designed using the latest Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools to allow for precise details, and yet still retain an artistic sculptural feel of the action weapons.

Injection molded to the highest of tolerances, all 21 BrickArms Weapons are made of durable ABS plastic — the same plastic that Lego uses in their own toys, to mesh perfectly with the Lego system you already own.

If you have any doubt who their market is, note that the rifle pictured above is an X41A “Xeno” Pulse Rifle“Hicks tested, Ripley approved.”

Autism: It’s Not Just in the Head

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

Autism: It’s Not Just in the Head notes that “the devastating derangements of autism also show up in the gut and in the immune system” — and that may point to new treatment options:

“I no longer see autism as a disorder of the brain but as a disorder that affects the brain,” Herbert says. “It also affects the immune system and the gut. One very striking piece of evidence many of us have noticed is that when autistic children go in for certain diagnostic tests and are told not to eat or drink anything ahead of time, parents often report their child’s symptoms improve — until they start eating again after the procedure. If symptoms can improve in such a short time frame simply by avoiding exposure to foods, then we’re looking at some kind of chemically driven ‘software’ — perhaps immune system signals — that can change fast. This means that at least some of autism probably comes from a kind of metabolic encephalopathy — a systemwide process that affects the brain, just like cirrhosis of the liver affects the brain.”
“What I believe is happening is that genes and environment interact, either in a fetus or young child, changing cellular function all over the body, which then affects tissue and metabolism in many vulnerable organs. And it’s the interaction of this collection of troubles that leads to altered sensory processing and impaired coordination in the brain. A brain with these kinds of problems produces the abnormal behaviors that we call autism.”

The Arbiter with the Golden Scepter: A Theory of Government

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

In The Arbiter with the Golden Scepter: A Theory of Government, Arnold Kling builds up to the following conclusion:

People on the Left tend to see society as consisting of individuals (often weak or poorly informed), markets (efficient but uncaring), and government (looking out for the collective good). Instead, what I see are many layers of institutions that can solve collective problems. These institutions of civil society are — unlike government — flexible, creative, and capable of downsizing or disappearing as they lose relevance or effectiveness.

The Left’s view, static and impaired, is that when a social problem arises, any solution requires government. The Left’s approach of referring every possible problem to the Arbiter would, if it were embedded in a corporate setting, be considered micromanagement and over-reaching of the worst sort.

The alternative view, dynamic and entrepreneurial, is that solutions to social problems can emerge in many ways from the institutions of civil society. Government should function as an Arbiter only when necessary. It should not use its Golden Scepter to force its way into decision-making processes that are working peacefully. People who want to improve society should be encouraged to form associations that produce constructive solutions, rather than to root for politicians.

Top US Marginal Income Tax Rates, 1913-2003

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

If you study the Top US Marginal Income Tax Rates, 1913–2003, you may find some surprises.

For instance, the top marginal tax rate in 1963 — not that long ago, really — was 91 percent, on all income over $400,000 (for a married couple).

Your Mom Was Wrong: Horseplay Is An Important Part Of Development

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

From the Journal of Duh — pardon, Current Directions in Psychological Science — new evidence that Your Mom Was Wrong: Horseplay Is An Important Part Of Development:

For example, adult rats deprived of peer interaction, (and thus rough and tumble play), reveal an inability to comprehend the hierarchy of social structures. In the rat kingdom, when a young male attempts to establish residency in a colony, he is promptly targeted for attack by the dominant male rat. Rats that have been reared with peers quickly learn to remain crouched and motionless in such an instance in order to avoid the dominant male’s attention. Play deprived rats, on the other hand, continue to scurry about which ultimately invites further serious attacks.

Coordinated movements appear to suffer in the absence of rough and tumble play as well. Rats, as most other mammals, rely heavily on coordinated movement for both cooperative (e.g. sex) and competitive (e.g. defending a piece of food) situations. Rats that are reared in isolation have impaired ability to coordinate their movements appropriately with opponents. This coordination, say the authors, can be learned through the constantly shifting body motions that take place during playfighting.

Deprivation from peer interaction appears to have neurological consequences as well. Juvenile play fighting has been found to stimulate the release of certain chemical growth factors in the cerebral cortex, an area the authors describe as the “social brain.” Among the structures in the social brain is the orbitofrontal cortex, an area known to be involved in social discrimination and decision. As logic would tell us, the less growth is promoted in this area, the greater the likelihood of impaired movement coordination, perception of social cues, and the like.

Once Again, Debt Is Miscast as the Villain

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

David Leonhardt says, Once Again, Debt Is Miscast as the Villain:

But whatever happens, it’s important to remember that the mortgage market is following a classic cycle that nearly every other form of consumer credit has also followed. When somebody comes up with an innovation, be it consumer loans, credit cards or creative mortgages, it inevitably leads to an explosion of borrowing that includes a good amount of excess and downright abuse. After the abuse is cleaned up, though, most families end up better off.
But think about what life was like before easy money. Think about how hard it would be to buy a house or pay for college if a 42 percent interest rate still seemed normal.

Some of the changes are surprisingly recent. Just a generation ago, a temporary setback, like illness, divorce or job loss, was much more likely to force a family to take drastic measures than it is today. That’s in large measure because of debt, which allows families to smooth out the rough edges of their financial lives.

You can see this change in the national statistics on consumer spending. Since the early 1990s, the peaks in spending growth rates haven’t been as high as they were in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but the valleys haven’t been as low, either. Not coincidentally, recessions have come less often over the last two decades and they have been fairly mild.

Mortgages are a big part of this story. Thanks to the enormous amount of foreign capital that has flowed into the market over the last decade — the same influx of capital, yes, that helped cause the boom to get out of hand — the mortgage business has become bigger, more competitive and more innovative.

If you take out a mortgage today, you’ll pay thousands of dollars less in upfront fees than you would have in the mid-80s. (Those fees have fallen by 80 percent in just two decades.) Home buyers who know they’re going to live in their house for only a few years now also have the ability to get an interest rate that reflects their situation. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage isn’t the only game in town.

Enemies of the State

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

In Enemies of the State, Daniel McCarthy reviews Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement and ends with these words:

It used to be that a libertarian who grew up became a Republican. Now it might be the other way around.

’300′ a triumph of technology

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Anne Thompson of Variety calls ’300′ a triumph of technology:

Beyond turning Gerard Butler into an action star and revitalizing the R rating, “300″ is going to have a big impact, because it has proved the effectiveness of a moviemaking technique that blends stylized graphic and live-action elements seamlessly — and at $64 million, relatively inexpensively.

It’s the birth of a new hybrid cinema, says genre marketing consultant Jeff Conner (“The Animatrix”). “Call it live-action anime. It’s like doing a high school play on a stage with digital backdrops. It’s a new visual language with a different reality.”

You Snooze, You Lose

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

According to You Snooze, You Lose, if you’re drinking coffee, “You might as well be commuting by buggy”:

Old-school stimulants like caffeine, amphetamines and the drug Ritalin are about to be marginalized by eugeroics. This emerging breed of “wakefulness” pills promises to keep the workers of tomorrow not just awake, but alert, on-task and feeling fine through the night and well into the next day. Remember these names, because they’re your future: Modafinil, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 for the treatment of narcolepsy and marketed in the U.S. as Provigil, is already giving a competitive edge to everyone from Air Force pilots on 40-hour missions to (less legally) college students cramming for exams. The drug’s maker, Cephalon in Frazer, Pennsylvania, is awaiting FDA approval for armodafinil, which promises even longer periods of wakefulness on a single dose, and Irvine, California–based Cortex is working on its own drug, code-named CX717 and developed with funding from the military. The drugs are targeted at sleep disorders like narcolepsy, but it’s their dramatic potential influence on the workplace that has researchers and efficiency experts buzzing.

Scientists understand how the drugs work only broadly. Unlike traditional stimulants, eugeroics don’t simply jazz up the whole body. Instead they tweak specific sleep-related mechanisms in the brain, so users don’t feel jittery or wired, just alert. And in experiments with CX717, sleep-deprived rhesus monkeys on the drug often outperformed their own well-rested but undrugged best efforts on mental-performance tests. Modafinil, too, “is definitely a cognitive enhancer,” says cognitive psychopharmacologist Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge. In her studies of alert human volunteers, the drug improved planning, concentration and impulse-control skills, and even boosted some forms of memory.

An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

In An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head, Virginia Postrel says, “Surviving the 21st century with our sanity and civilization intact will require less Nietzsche and more Hume.”

Which raises another question: is Virginia Postrel an Ant Fan? From Room at the Top:

Made in England born and bred
An eighteenth century brain
In a twenty-first century head

The best unedited fight sequence ever

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

I have not seen The Protector, but some say it includes the best unedited fight sequence ever:

The crew spent over 1 month preparing and choreographing before they were able to get a perfect shot. When it came time to shoot, they could only do 2 takes per day because of the set repairing and prop replacement that needed to be done. It took 5 takes to get it right. A foreign cameraman was needed because the stedicam mount was built for american / european operators who are typically much larger than asian operators.

The foreign operator they hired could only do two flights of stairs at a time and simply gave up. They decided to use a Thai stedicam operator who physically prepared for a month for this job.

The reason the shot is 4 minutes is because reels of 35mm film are only about 4 min in length.

They shot the first take which had a number of problems with stuntmen cues, and even a stuntman bumping into the stedicam operator. After choreographing more dynamic action, an increase of extras and improving the set, the next take they did was 17 days after the first take.

The second take was better but when the stuntman was supposed to be thrown from the 3rd story, the safety mattress was not completely in place yet so Tony Jaa stopped the shot and saved the stuntman’s life.

The third take was just about perfect but just before Tony Jaa was supposed to bust through the last doorway, the film ran out. The director finally decided that instead of simply cutting there, they would try again for perfection.

They thought the fourth take was perfect but after review there were some parts that weren’t as good as the pervious takes. They decided on one more try.

On the fifth try, it was almost perfect. But there were 2 miscues. On the 2nd floor, Tony Jaa slams a door into the head of a stuntman and the small glass window on the door was supposed to break. It failed to do so, so they used CGI to fix this. The 2nd issue was the fight just before the sink gets thrown. The timing was off as planned but the end result looked natural so they decided this was the take to use in the final film. Simply amazing.

A few thoughts:

  • In some cases, the camera definitely becomes a character — for instance, when the camera runs up the stairs.
  • The extended fight has pro-wrestling-style pacing — you can’t coordinate a frenetic, chaotic fight scene with dozens of guys over the course of four minutes.

(Hat tip to John.)

It’s All Geek to Me

Monday, March 19th, 2007

Of 300, Neal Stephenson says, It’s All Geek to Me:

Many reviews made the same points:
  • “300” is not sufficiently ironic. It takes its themes (duty, loyalty, sacrifice, the preservation of Western civilization against enormous odds) too seriously to, well, be taken seriously.
  • “300” is campy — meaning that many things about it can be read as sexual double entendres — yet the filmmakers don’t show sufficient awareness of this.
  • All of the good guys are white people and many of the bad guys are brown. (How this could have been avoided in a film about Spartans versus Persians is never explained; the distinctly non-Greek viewers at my showing seemed to have no trouble placing themselves in the sandals of ancient Spartans.)

But such criticisms aren’t really worth arguing with, because they are not serious in the first place — and that is their whole point. Many critics dislike “300” so intensely that they refused to do it the honor of criticizing it as if it were a real movie. Critics at a festival in Berlin walked out, and accused its director of being on the Bush payroll.