The Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Bryan Caplan is a fan of dystopian fiction, but he had overlooked Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (subsequently republished as Time Will Run Back) until last December, because he had feared a long-winded, clunky version of Economics in One Lesson — but he gave it a chance, and his gamble paid off:

I read the whole thing (almost 400 pages) on a red-eye flight – feeling wide awake the whole way.

The book’s premise: Centuries hence, mankind groans under a world Communist government centered in Moscow. People live in Stalinist fear and penury. Censorship is so extreme that virtually all pre-revolutionary writings have been destroyed; even Marx has been censored, to prevent anyone from reverse engineering whatever “capitalism” was. However, due to a marital dispute, Peter Uldanov, the dictator’s son, was raised in an island paradise, free of both the horrors and the rationalizations of his dystopian society. When the dictator nears death, he brings Peter to Moscow and appoints him his heir. The well-meaning but naive Peter is instantly horrified by Communism, and sets out to fix it. In time, he rediscovers free-market economics, and sets the world to right.

Yes, this sounds trite to me, too. But Hazlitt is a master of pacing. It takes almost 200 pages before any of Peter’s reforms start to work. Until then, it’s one false start after another, because so many of the seemingly dysfunctional policies of the Stalinist society are remedies for other dysfunctional policies.

[...]

In most literary dialogues, at least one of the characters has the answers. (“Yes, Socrates, you are quite right!”) What’s novel about Hazlitt’s dialogues is that all the characters are deeply confused. Even when they sound reasonable, the Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them.

The Great Idea was originally published in 1951. Stalin was still alive.

The one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature

Monday, January 28th, 2019

One of the best-named TV Tropes is the load-bearing boss — the big bad guy whose death causes his whole evil lair to collapse, for rather ambiguous reasons.

What I didn’t realize was that the original Dracula had just such an ending, but it was edited out:

As we looked there came a terrible convulsion of the earth so that we seemed to rock to and fro and fell to our knees. At the same moment with a roar which seemed to shake the very heavens the whole castle and the rock and even the hill on which it stood seemed to rise into the air and scatter in fragments while a mighty cloud of black and yellow smoke volume on volume in rolling grandeur was shot upwards with inconceivable rapidity.

Then there was a stillness in nature as the echoes of that thunderous report seemed to come as with the hollow boom of a thunder-clap – the long reverberating roll which seems as though the floors of heaven shook. Then down in a mighty ruin falling whence they rose came the fragments that had been tossed skywards in the cataclysm.

From where we stood it seemed as though the one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature and that the castle and the structure of the hill had sunk again into the void. We were so appalled with the suddenness and the grandeur that we forgot to think of ourselves.

This leaves no evidence of there ever having been a vampire.

Les Gentils, les Méchants

Saturday, January 12th, 2019

Voilà! Les Gentils, les Méchants:

(With a tip of the chapeau to a certain ami.)

45.3 million of Netflix’s 137 million accounts watched Bird Box

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

Netflix rarely releases data on viewership of its content:

But in the case of “Bird Box,” a tale about a resourceful mother protecting her children from a homicidal force, the company said a record-setting 45.3 million of its 137 million accounts watched at least 70% of the movie in the first week of its release.

[...]

The movie’s budget is modest by Hollywood’s standards: about $30 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. Controlling costs while delivering content that lures in subscribers could become more important for Netflix. Its content spending has ballooned rapidly and reached an estimated $12 billion last year, according to industry analysts. Netflix hasn’t disclosed its 2019 programming budget yet.

Fake it until you make it

Saturday, December 29th, 2018

So many people want to be social media “influencers” that they’re now faking brand deals to look sponsored and thus successful:

A decade ago, shilling products to your fans may have been seen as selling out. Now it’s a sign of success. “People know how much influencers charge now, and that payday is nothing to shake a stick at,” said Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor in chief of Fashionista, a fashion-news website. “If someone who is 20 years old watching YouTube or Instagram sees these people traveling with brands, promoting brands, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do everything they could to get in on that.”

But transitioning from an average Instagram or YouTube user to a professional “influencer” — that is, someone who leverages a social-media following to influence others and make money — is not easy. After archiving old photos, redefining your aesthetic, and growing your follower base to at least the quadruple digits, you’ll want to approach brands. But the hardest deal to land is your first, several influencers say; companies want to see your promotional abilities and past campaign work. So many have adopted a new strategy: Fake it until you make it.

Sydney Pugh, a lifestyle influencer in Los Angeles, recently staged a fake ad for a local cafe, purchasing her own mug of coffee, photographing it, and adding a promotional caption carefully written in that particular style of ad speak anyone who spends a lot of time on Instagram will recognize. “Instead of [captioning] ‘I need coffee to get through the day,’ mine will say ‘I love Alfred’s coffee because of A, B, C,’” Pugh told me. “You see the same things over and over on actual sponsored posts, so it becomes really easy to emulate, even if you’re not getting paid.”

Let the best woman win!

Sunday, December 23rd, 2018

Don’t deny girls the evolutionary wisdom of fairy-tales:

Ironically, far from contaminating young female minds, these Disney princess stories — and their fairy-tale-fic precursors — provide vitally helpful messages that parents could be discussing with their girls.

Cinderella, for example, revolves around the perniciousness of what researchers call “female intrasexual competition” — the often-underhanded ways women compete with each other. While men evolved to be openly competitive, jockeying for position verbally or physically, female competition tends to be covert — indirect and sneaky — and often involves sabotaging another woman into being less appealing to men. Accordingly, in Cinderella, when the king throws a ball to find the prince a wife, the nasty stepsisters aren’t at all “let the best woman win!” They assign Cinderella extra chores so she won’t have time to pull together something to wear. (Mean Girls, the cartoon version, anyone?)

[...]

Understanding this evolutionary mismatch helps women get why it’s sometimes hard for them to speak up for themselves — to be direct and assertive. And identifying this as a problem handed them by evolution can help them override their reluctance — assert themselves, despite what feels “natural.” Additionally, an evolutionary understanding of female competition can help women find other women’s cruelty to them less mystifying. This, in turn, allows them to take such abuse less personally than if they buy into the myth of female society as one big supportive sisterhood.

[...]

In other words, the allure of “princess culture” was created by evolution, not Disney. Over countless generations, our female ancestors most likely to have children who survived to pass on their genes were those whose emotions pushed them to hold out for commitment from a high status man — the hunter-gatherer version of that rich, hunky prince. A prince is a man who could have any woman, but — very importantly — he’s bewitched by our girl, the modest but beautiful scullery maid. A man “bewitched” (or, in contemporary terms, “in love”) is a man less likely to stray — so the princess story is actually a commitment fantasy.

RIP Laverne De Fazio

Wednesday, December 19th, 2018

Penny Marshall has died, at age 75, “due to complications from diabetes” — after having been diagnosed with lung and brain cancer in 2009 and then making a full recovery.

I didn’t know much about her early life and career:

Carole Penny Marshall was born in the Bronx. Her mother taught tap dancing, while her father directed industrial films. She attended the University of New Mexico for 2½ years. While there, Marshall got pregnant at 19, and soon thereafter married the father, a football player.

Marshall made her screen debut in 1968 with small roles in Richard Rush’s “The Savage Seven” and Jerry Paris’ “How Sweet It Is!,” on which her brother Garry was a writer. She also had small roles in Paris’ 1970 film “The Grasshopper,” but she found much more work on television, guesting on series including “That Girl,” “Love, American Style” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”

From 1972-74 she recurred on “The Odd Couple,” a show developed for TV by brother Garry, as Myrna, the schlumpy secretary employed by Jack Klugman’s Oscar Madison. (Marshall reprised the role for the 1993 reunion movie, “The Odd Couple: Together Again”).

She was a series regular on the critically acclaimed but short-lived CBS sitcom “Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers,” in which she played Janice, who frequently mocked her brother-in-law, played by Sand, for his romantic failures.

In 1975 she guested on “Mary Tyler Moore” but, more importantly, on “Happy Days,” where Marshall’s Laverne De Fazio and Cindy Williams’ Shirley Feeney first appeared on an episode where Fonzie chooses two girls from his little black book for a double date with Ron Howard’s Richie. (“Happy Days” was, like “The Odd Couple,” co-created by Penny’s brother Garry Marshall); letters to the show revealed that viewers liked the Laverne and Shirley characters, and when Garry Marshall was asked by then ABC programming exec Fred Silverman to come up with an idea for another sitcom with which to build a Tuesday night comedy block, he devised “Laverne & Shirley.”

Outsiders apart from conventional society and untroubled by its disapproval

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

While thinking about where hippies come from, I revisited Bohemianism, which seems like an odd name for a similar phenomenon:

Literary “Bohemians” were associated in the French imagination with roving Romani people (called Bohémiens because they were believed to have arrived from Bohemia), outsiders apart from conventional society and untroubled by its disapproval. The term carries a connotation of arcane enlightenment (the opposite of Philistines), and carries a less frequently intended, pejorative connotation of carelessness about personal hygiene and marital fidelity.

The title character in Carmen (1876), a French opera set in the Spanish city of Seville, is referred to as a “bohémienne” in Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto. Her signature aria declares love itself to be a “gypsy child” (enfant de Bohême), going where it pleases and obeying no laws.

Where did hippies come from?

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Where did hippies come from?

Were they a totally novel development, as they were portrayed at the time?

In 1948, jazz crooner Nat King Cole was on Top of the Pops for eight straight weeks with the single “Nature Boy.” The song became a standard and was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee. (Much later, director Baz Luhrmann had a haggard Ewan McGregor type out the chorus at the end of his 2001 film Moulin Rouge.)

The record set off a brief journalistic frenzy in 1948 over its hitherto unknown lyricist eden ahbez, who had long hair and a beard, dressed in a robe and sandals, ate only fruits and nuts, had given himself a Book of Genesis first name and cosmic A-to-Z last name, and lived in a tent under the first “L” in the “Hollywood” sign.

In other words, years before the word was coined in the 1960s, this guy was a hippie. He and the dozen or so other robe-wearing proto-hippies who hung around a German couple’s health-food store in Laurel Canyon called themselves “Nature Boys.” Hence the song’s odd title.

Trying to figure out the story behind this weird anomaly led me to a 2003 article entitled “Hippie Roots & The Perennial Subculture” by Gordon Kennedy and Kody Ryan. They make the case for the origins of the hippie phenomenon in late-19th-century Germany: nudism, hiking (Wandervogel), health food, and the whole back to nature “life reform” business. It’s all more or less German.

This helps explain an odd phenomenon I noticed while hiking with my father in the Hollywood Hills above Laurel Canyon in the 1960s-1980s: About one out of four people we’d pass on the trails would reply to “Good day” with “Guten tag” or a Nordic equivalent. (Then during the early 1990s recession, hiking became fashionable in LA and the Teutonic flavor was quickly swamped.)

I’m a bit surprised the Sailer’s surprised by this. German Romanticism led to both hippies and Nazis. Many New Age ideas go back to Rudolph Steiner and the Theosophists — including pursuit of the almighty Vril.

Mass society fragmented and thereby stabilized

Monday, December 10th, 2018

In high school, Steve Sailer and his classmates were assigned Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller Future Shock, about how the ever-accelerating waves of change would soon overwhelm us — but it didn’t happen:

Instead, mass society fragmented and thereby stabilized. My cousin, for example, remains a hippie, and he’s recently talked his mother into wanting to go to Burning Man. Today, nobody much cares: Burning Man seems less shocking than funny.

Yet when I was a small boy, virtually every male in America, except perhaps violin soloists, had short hair.

It’s difficult to make clear just how big a deal hair length was in the 1960s. When I was six in 1965, my family went to England. We were sitting around at Heathrow waiting for our flight back to the US when a young man with collar-length hair walked into the waiting room. “It’s a Beatle!” screamed a girl. The excited crowd surged toward John, Paul, George, or, possibly, Ringo. I dispatched my mother to get the Beatle’s autograph. She returned bearing the signature “Peter Noone,” the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits.

The point of this anecdote is that in 1965 so few males had hair covering two-thirds of their ears that transatlantic travelers assumed that anybody who did must be a rock star. (And we were right.)

“Perhaps Ecclesiastes got it right.”

I can pin down when rock fans started to let their hair grow. Buffalo Springfield’s remarkable single “For What It’s Worth” (“Stop, children, what’s that sound?”) is usually thought of as an early Vietnam War protest song, but it was actually inspired by the Sunset Strip curfew riots over the planned demolition of the Pandora’s Box nightclub. Even in November 1966, however, a mob of protesting Los Angeles rock fans looked clean-cut.

That must have been the last time they got their hair cut. In the summer of 1967, some visitors wanted to “go see the hippies,” so my parents drove us over Laurel Canyon to Sunset. The Strip was jammed with us tourists agog over the longhairs.

After a while, though, you got used to odd new social phenomena like this sweeping the world. In fact, soon everybody expected it. A decade after 1967’s Summer of Love, for instance, the media were all primed for punks to take over. After all, an entire ten years had gone by! (That was 35 years ago.) In 1979, everybody was told to dress in 2 Tone black-and-white clothes and listen to ska, but diminishing returns were visibly encroaching.

The one about the rabbits is one of the classics of fantasy

Saturday, December 8th, 2018

The new Watership Down trailer doesn’t look good, I’m afraid:

The book — yes, the one about the rabbits — is one of the classics of fantasy.

Richard Adams passed away two years ago, but a couple years before that he did an ask-me-anything, where he explained that Hazel was based on someone he knew in real life:

Yes! I had the good luck to get accepted for service in airborne forces during world war 2. Not everybody who put their name forward was accepted for it. I felt tremendously proud. I went as an officer to 250 light company RASC airborne. The commanding officer was a Major called John Gifford. I admired him tremendously. He was very quiet — in fact one of the quietest I’ve ever known. Regardless all of his commanding officers respected him and obeyed him without question. All his officers were parachutists whether they were commanders or not. My point is that everyone in 250 light company respected and admired him, and he certainly influenced Hazel. He was so sensible. Not all commanders are sensible! I would even say his officers loved him.

It is the end of an era

Friday, December 7th, 2018

In 1975, Christopher Tolkien left his fellowship at New College, Oxford, to edit his late father’s massive legendarium:

The prospect was daunting. The 50-year-old medievalist found himself confronted with 70 boxes of unpublished work. Thousands of pages of notes and fragments and poems, some dating back more than six decades, were stuffed haphazardly into the boxes. Handwritten texts were hurriedly scrawled in pencil and annotated with a jumble of notes and corrections. One early story was drafted in a high school exercise book.

A large portion of the archive concerned the history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world, Middle-earth. The notes contained a broader picture of a universe only hinted at in Tolkien’s two bestselling novels, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Tolkien had intended to bring that picture to light in a lengthy, solemn history going back to creation itself, but he died before completing a final, coherent version.

Christopher took it upon himself to edit that book, which was published in 1977 as The Silmarillion. He then turned to another project drawn from his father’s papers, then another—ultimately publishing poetry, academic works, fiction, and a 12-volume history of the creation of Middle-earth. The Fall of Gondolin, published in August, is the 25th posthumous book Christopher Tolkien has produced from his father’s archives.

Now, after more than 40 years, at the age of 94, Christopher Tolkien has laid down his editor’s pen, having completed a great labor of quiet, scholastic commitment to his father’s vision. It is the concluding public act of a gentleman and scholar, the last member of a club that became a pivotal part of 20th-century literature: the Inklings.

[...]

The Inklings (and such of their forebears as Chesterton) sought to explain that there was nothing absurd in the secular and the sacred living cheek by jowl. In fact, it’s quite likely that one may find oneself, in Woolf’s phrase, “sitting by the fire” alongside a wizard who witnessed the singing of creation into being — as indeed Bilbo Baggins does.

This is not to say that the Inklings simply fled into a nostalgic past. They rather sought to apply its lessons to a violent and difficult present. If the Bagginses resemble throwback Victorian gentlemen and the other hobbits suggest plain English country folk of ages past, much else in The Lord of the Rings, from Saruman’s terrible machines to the mangled bodies on the Pelennor Fields, resembles the 20th century. The story ends with the Shire, which Tolkien described as “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee,” ravaged by war. Frodo, experiencing a sort of spiritual shell shock, can find no peace even when the war is long over.

The Inklings weren’t escapists. They were, Flieger writes, “a response to a response, and thus a continuation of the dialogue…. If the period surrounding the Great War gave birth to modernism, it also engendered the reaction against it, the effort to ensure that ‘before’ was not wholly lost in ‘after.’”

How to resolve the so-called “paradoxes” of quantum mechanics?

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

Neovictorian reviews The Brave and the Bold, Volume 3 of The Hidden Truth, which I also enjoyed, but this quick aside is what most caught my eye:

Meanwhile, I understand that Dr. Schantz is working on a popular physics book with some ideas about how to resolve the so-called “paradoxes” of quantum mechanics.

Yes, please.

Yes, please, indeed.

Not every lesson can be taught explicitly

Friday, November 30th, 2018

Not every lesson can be taught explicitly:

Fairy Tales are written to speak to the emotional language of children — to present a problem that is both vague and foreign on the surface, but highly relatable to the child’s subconscious fears, and then to provide the child with practical, cautionary advice for problems yet to come or coping strategies for problems which have no solution.

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Horror movies can give a child space to deal with their fears in the realm of fantasy while they subconsciously work on bringing the eventual reality of those fears to manageable terms.

[...]

Life without story could be broken down into a series of bullet point instructions, which may seem efficient but would prove ineffective. People need the space and distance that that fantasy can provide. That same space and distance can afford someone the time to mentally process the fears, anxieties, and grief which are overwhelming and incomprehensible. Stories for children need to be more than losers winning despite being losers. Stories for children need to begin helping them develop their emotional tool-kit, or else there will one day be a world of adults unable to cope with everything that is inevitable.

Inconceivable!

Friday, November 16th, 2018

William Goldman has died at age 87:

He was born in Chicago, went to Oberlin College in Ohio, served briefly in the military and got a master’s in English from Columbia University in New York.

He launched a successful literary career immediately after graduating from Columbia with his first novel, The Temple of Gold. A series of well-received and sometimes bestselling novels followed.

Then, in 1965, Goldman started to shift into movie territory. He helped on the script for Masquerade (1965) and adapted Harper (1966). Then he wrote his first-ever original screenplay.

That beginner’s stab at screenwriting was none other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It sold for the then-record sum of $400,000 (some $3 million in 2018 dollars) and won Goldman an Oscar in 1970 for best original screenplay.

That was just the start. Goldman went on to adapt The Stepford Wives, adapt All the President’s Men — another Oscar-winning screenplay — and turn his own novels Marathon Man and Magic into films.

Ten screenplays later, Goldman still didn’t see himself as a Hollywood man. “I’m not a screenwriter,” he told The New York Times in 1979. “I’m a novelist who writes screenplays.”

But he knew enough to write the definitive guide to screenwriting. Adventures in the Screen Trade was published in 1983 and became a bestseller. Screenwriting professor George Huang tells NPR’s Neda Ulaby the book “was like the Bible in the industry” — and that the advice in it still holds up today.

And then there was The Princess Bride.

The 1987 film, which Goldman adapted from his own novel, performed modestly at the box office upon its initial release. But as the years passed, it found a passionate following. Lines from the movie have woven their way into the fabric of pop culture — “Inconceivable!” “Aaaaas youuuuu wiiiiiish.” “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”