January 13, 2014

Nostalgia in Inside Llewyn Davis



David Edelstein writes about Inside Llewyn Davis:

The world is lovingly evoked, transcendently soundtracked (under the direction of T Bone Burnett). But it’s also the stage for a definitively downbeat story of an asshole folksinger who pays the piper for his bad personality. The film might be the ultimate proof that the Coens can find hopelessness in the darndest places.

It’s a positive review and I mostly agree with what Edelstein says, but the Greenwich Village of Inside Llewyn Davis is not lovingly evoked. It’s a cold, empty and superficial landscape where poseurs do their best to pretend to be folk musicians. This becomes especially apparent in the scene after Llewyn returns from Chicago, when a quartet of four be-sweatered vocalists sing an Irish folk song to the former’s chagrin. The scene doesn’t celebrate the group’s homage to folk music, but lampoons it. They’re supposed to look ridiculous.

As are many of the characters in Greenwich who aren’t Llewyn Davis. They’re a bunch of bohemians acting as if they’ve spent a lot of time outside of the West Side.

When I was in a rock band we used to play shows at a few different venues around Southern California. A couple times we played at Chain Reaction. We put on more than a couple shows at DiPiazza’s in Long Beach. Before it closed we opened for Days Away and Mayday Parade (don’t ask) at The Alley in Fullerton. Any given night you could have gone to one of these three venues and seen a band playing music that was virtually indistinguishable from the group they followed. You would either hear hardcore, ska, emo or pop punk. It was gross.


So it goes with the Greenwich Village of
Inside Llewyn Davis, which idealizes that setting in the same way that Mad Men is nostalgic about the 1960s: only if you miss the point. These stories aren’t supposed to make you long for a bygone era, but make you wonder why we only remember the good parts, and none of the flaws.

April 27, 2013

Notes on the IFFBoston


I've been catching some of the flicks at Independent Film Festival Boston this weekend and these are a few of the things I felt warranted mentioning.
  • The animated shorts featured two piece I liked particularly, out of five. Feral was about a feral boy adopted by a hunter and reintroduced into society. Daniel Sousa created a painterly look for characters by scanning painted textures and using hand-drawn masks (see the trailer here) and the effect gives characters this energy even when they're not moving or speaking.
  • Last night I caught a screening of A Hijacking, which was terrific. Tobias Lindholm's thriller about a shipping vessel that is hijacked by Somalian pirates gives you the experience of the crew as well as the guys back at the office of the shipping company, but still maintains suspense. At times you wonder why the guys in Denmark don't give more of a shit, and other times you wonder what's happening to the crew. It's a really well-executed story about people being pushed to their psychological limits and how these situations are traumatic not just for the crew, but for the pirates and the suits as well.

April 20, 2013

How Long Until The Boston Marathon Bombings Become A Movie?

My girlfriend's roommate and another friend joked that Ben Affleck was probably already writing a screenplay depicting the events of the last 48 hours, but I almost didn't laugh at the joke because it's not all that absurd of a notion. It didn't take long for Kathryn Bigelow to begin work on a film about the Osama Bin Laden assassination, and the details that event would arguably have been more difficult to obtain from the people who knew what happened. In fact, the way that Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal acquired the rights and information about the killing attracted a considerable degree of controversy from people like Glenn Greenwald, who thought the film was supposed to glorify the intelligence community's toughness while being a jingoistic tribute to our foreign military adventures.

I can't say I've ever agreed with the "it's too soon" sentiment that is oft-repeated whenever a film about topical events is made so soon after they occurred. The only problem I see with such productions is that we often don't know as much about an event so soon after it takes place, and in the case of something like Zero Dark Thirty (which I haven't seen) that's an incredibly important point to make. A lot of people are going to watch that movie thinking it's the "definitive" version of events, which is dumb, but it's true. It would be very easy for such a high-profile project to spread falsehoods that would eventually be interpreted as history by people who don't do their homework.

Whatever happens with the Boston Marathon movie that will inevitably be made, I hope who ever makes it has an appreciation for context and accuracy. There's already a lot of idiots who think the Tsarnaev brothers were animated by their Chechen heritage and the violent decades that country and Russia have experienced. I find that pretty hard to believe. But I can see someone speculating about that, even if it were to become clear that it wasn't the principle motive.

April 19, 2013

The Beginning of the Jackie Robinson Story

I would have to be dishonest to say that 42 was a great movie. It's a good movie, with some storytelling flaws. But I think the sepia-toned approach was a good choice; it makes the Brooklyn Dodger blues standout from the rest of the frame, and serves to underline the basic point that Jackie Robinson couldn't just blend in with the surroundings the way he probably wanted to.

A lot of critics get queasy when movies like 42 and The Help are released. I haven't seen The Help, but it's a familiar argument that these movies often simplify their black subjects, while also:

a) whitewashing (no pun intended) black history, and
b) stereotyping blacks as mystical, heroic, mythical figures with an uncanny ability to not take shit seriously and find their zen.

I wonder sometimes whether these films serve as their own form of racial justice in the sense that white often make movies about mystical, heroic, mythical white people without raising serious questions about white culpability for the world's problems. George Lucas has stated that he wanted Red Tails to be a sensational, ridiculous action movie in the same way that old WWII movies were sensational and ridiculous, but rarely featured black people. To him, having a sensational, ridiculous mythology is a right that no racial group should be denied. I think there's something to that.

None of this is to say that 42 is a sensational, ridiculous movie, but given how many movies there are about white people who do good things and no bad things, I don't see that it's some great injustice that movies featuring black main characters who are somewhat simplified in their goodness come out every now and then.


March 17, 2013

Star Wars and the Benefits of Piracy

Last night, out of curiosity, and because my girlfriend wanted to watch the Empire Strikes Back, I searched for and downloaded a copy of the original Empire Strikes Back without the Special Edition or 2004 DVD changes. The picture quality was decent and the sound was fine. And it took all of 3 minutes to search for, download, and begin viewing the movie.

The fact that I essentially "stole" this movie (which I already own on DVD and VHS anyway) doesn't mitigate the benefits of it being so accessible. For years, it has been a fear of most Star Wars fans that the original versions of the movies would disappear completely and be replaced by George Lucas' "preferred" versions, but sites like The Pirate Bay and bit torrent technology have made accessibility almost irrelevant. It's still dumb that I have to break the law to get a hold of them, but I care a lot less about whether Lucas continues to alter the original trilogy so long as I can obtain a digital copy easily.

I've also been able to locate and download copies of movies that are even more rare and even more unavailable through normal distribution channels; I have copies of Chimes at Midnight and The Magnificent Ambersons, both of which are fairly rare (especially the former). Sure, someone, somewhere, wasn't compensated because of this, but two very important films from one of the most influential directors are now available at my fingertips, rather than in a vault somewhere, inaccessible to all except film scholars and heirs with tenuous financial connections to the work.

March 13, 2013

The Eye of the World and the Progress of Robert Jordan

I started reading Eye of the World a few weeks ago and have been enjoying it so far. Something that's been on my mind on and off over the years has been the politics of fantasy literature and movies; it's no secret that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings are distinctly conservative while Rowling's Harry Potter and GRRM'S Song of Ice and Fire have what I would consider a more post-modern, liberal approach to the genre. Eye of the World seems to fall somewhere in between those two camps, which make sense given that it predates the latter two series but came many years after LOTR. You can see the development of a more subtle approach to character development in Jordan than Tolkien, but women (so far) still basically take a backseat role while the men do most of the heavy fighting. I'm curious to see if the approach to women characters changes over time as Jordan wrote from the mid-80's into the mid 2000's; that's a good deal of change in pop culture and, more importantly, gave him a chance to read GRRM and see how women can be given more vital and interesting roles than had previously been the case in that genre (I haven't read GRRM, only watched the show).

I think it's important to analyze the politics of fantasy literature because you can get a sense of how much the zeitgeist has penetrated what has often been a fairly insular community. If the genre community begins to feel the pressure to produce more feminist, inclusive and subtle literature then it means the influence of the larger progressive movement is working and its work has been effective.

March 8, 2013

The Orson Welles Truth

My dad recently purchased (and then gave to me) the excellent Citizen Kane 70th anniversary Blu-Ray package, which comes with commentaries from Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich. The Ebert commentary is excellent and I enjoyed it almost as much as I enjoy the movie itself. Some DVD commentators do very little preparation and it shows, as they meander through random thoughts and anecdotes that are typically uninteresting. Or, in some cases, they just screw around and joke about that time that Ang Lee came to the set dressed in drag. Presumably, Ebert has given talks about Kane for years and so I'd imagine he can speak quite fluently about it without any rehearsal or notes, but whether that was the case, or if he actually did prepare, he delivers a wealth of information, stories, and analysis.

Bogdanovich, on the other hand, is the faithful stenographer of the Orson Welles mythology who has very little insight to contribute. He's known for being a "Welles Historian" but from what I can tell, the only history he knows appears to originate with Welles and no one else. It's well known and obvious that Susan Alexander Kane was influenced at least in part by Marion Davies, but Bogdanovich insults our intelligence by reiterating Welles' assertion that he was friends with Davies and the similarities between her and Susan Kane were purely coincidental.

In the grand scheme of things, the fact that Bogdanovich is the Sean Hannity to Orson Welles' Dick Cheney has little importance except in the way it offends a vague sense of cosmic justice, but Welles was a colorful, complicated person with as many flaws as the rest of us. I'm glad that Warner Brothers included the Ebert commentary along with Bogdanovich, because it gives the Welles legacy the depth and complexity it deserves.

March 2, 2013

Downton Abbey and the Consequences of Recklessness

One of the most annoying habits of Julian Fellowes as a writer is that he rarely forces his characters to face long term consequences for their actions, and that came to a head for the 3rd season of Downton Abbey, which saw Matthew Crawley inheriting a fortune just in time to save the day for Lord Grantham, whose imbecility went relatively unpunished. In the meantime, Matthew and Mary, who both think, at least momentarily, that they'll be unable to bear children, are suddenly saved by some good news that, in fact, they can be fertile after all.

But it's not just the Crawley's who are given a way out. Ethel Parks, whose story has the potential to be compelling (what a fascinating story it would be to show a working class woman coping with complete separation from her child and at the same time, trying to get her life back together), is told at the end of the season that, in fact, not only will she be able to see her child on a regular basis, but she won't even have to do it secretly, because the grandmother of her child will see that the evil grandpa will be neutralized in ways that aren't entirely clear. What will Thomas Barrow do without a good reference and with rumors about his sexuality? We'll never know, because the benevolent Lord Grantham and Mr. Carson found a way to make sure that neither their nor Thomas' lives will be affected by the whole ordeal.

I'm not really sure what any of this says about 1920's Britain. It would seem that Julian Fellowes wants to study history by making Downton Abbey; in every interview I've read he talks about paying homage to the past and studying social change. If that's the case then I'm wondering when change will actually occur at Downton in any substantial way. The characters who die, die by means that have almost nothing to do with their era (with the exception of Lavinia Swire, who dies of Spanish Flu, and William, who dies from wounds sustained in the first World War). It's disappointing, given how interesting the show could be if Fellowes had enough courage to permanently alter the trajectory of his characters' lives.

February 27, 2013

VFX Not Immune to Outsourcing

Last Sunday, the winner of the Oscar for Visual Effects had begun to talk about the bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues, a major VFX studio, before he was awkwardly cutoff by the orchestra. Slash Film has a primer on the problems facing studios like Rhythm and Hues. The biggest problem, in my eyes, is the following:

  • Outsourcing jobs to countries such as China and India, who will do the work more cheaply.
We tend to think of this as being a problem for people in low-skill jobs like manufacturing and call centers. But visual effects work is technically complex and difficult. This is supposed to be the kind of job that remains in this country because it requires educational and technological resources that are more readily available in this country than in others. Obviously this is no longer the case. If Visual Effects work is no longer shielded from being outsourced, it's unclear why other technical industries like programming and engineering won't experience the same issue.

February 26, 2013

Working with Textures in Cinema 4D

One aspect of 3D modeling that is both interesting and challenging is deconstructing a texture so that it can be replicated within a program like Cinema 4D or Maya. When you look at a piece of glass you don't see its texture for the separate elements it is comprised of. For example, there is the transparency of the glass, which includes the refraction of light passing through it, the reflection of the glass, the "displacement" (as it's called in C4D; basically, it means the bumpiness of the surface of the glass), etc. As an example, here is a glass I modeled and rendered without refraction:

Cinema 4D martini glass w/o refraction

It's barely visible. So really, when looking at a piece of glass, what you really gives it a visible shape is the refraction of light passing through it. Here is the same glass with refraction turned on:

Cinema 4d martini glass with refraction

I bring this up to demonstrate an overlapping theme between 3D modeling and just about any creative endeavor that involves working with either a machine or a human being. Even when directing actors, who have the same reasoning faculties as anyone else, there is a process of deconstruction one has to go through in order to bring a scene from inside your head into the real world. One might think an instruction as simple as "open the door and say this line" is easy enough, but in fact it usually isn't. Likewise, telling the computer to make my martini glass look real isn't very easy and it took me a while to get it to look realistic.

This should provide a sense of how much work it must take for a studio like Pixar to make a movie. Every surface you see in every frame had to be constructed from several elements, each of which has many parameters (i.e. how much reflection, how much transparency, how much refraction, etc.) that need to be minutely adjusted in order to imitate real world textures. 

February 23, 2013

Learning, Creativity, and... After Effects

I've been spending a lot of time over the past few months absorbing as much information as possible about video technology and applications, 3D applications, and design for the following reasons:

1. I don't have a full time job, so I have time.
2. I want to have a full time job in a field related to these topics.
3. I like it.

Part of this learning process has been frequenting a few different websites and blogs where video and motion design professionals post tutorials, reels and lectures about their work and what can be done with packages like Cinema 4D, Adobe CS and similar applications. One of the more interesting and enjoyable examples of these websites is Greyscalegorilla, where Nick Campbell, a designer and app developer living in Chicago, blogs and posts tutorials relating to Cinema 4D and After Effects. He recently posted a talk he did for Creative Mornings about his career, which I found interesting and relatable:



One of the points I thought made the most sense was the notion that teaching wasn't purely about imparting knowledge, but that it also motivated him to learn in the first place. I find that once I'm able to actually demonstrate for someone how I completed a task or activity, or my decision-making process in an articulate way, is when the process is actually embedded in my mind permanently.

This was true even when working in insurance underwriting, where I ended up coaching fellow coworkers how to do this or that procedure; I felt a lot more knowledgable about my position and field when I could do a better job explaining it to someone else. The physical act of speaking and explaining to someone did to train me than repeating a task several times by myself.

As far as Cinema 4D goes, it's been difficult, but fun and rewarding. My newest project is to model an electric guitar, including hardware and strings. This is what I have so far:


I titled the jpeg file "guitar blob" for a reason. It doesn't look like much but that took me a few hours and one complete do-over. Just like Stanley Kubrick had to make Fear and Desire before he made Dr. Strangelove, I have to make Guitar Blob before I can make something like this:

February 19, 2013

Episode VII

Not a day passes that SlashFilm and other similar sites don't post news and rumors about the new installment of Star Wars. We know very little about it other than who is directing, who is writing, and who wants to be in it (hint: everyone in the industry who has been asked the question by a journalist). It seemed like the general reaction to Lucasfilm hiring JJ Abrams to direct was positive, but I think more people should have had a reaction similar to Alyssa Rosenberg:
But really, the profound disappointment I felt on hearing this news is less about my specific feelings about Abrams as a director. It’s more that franchises like The AvengersStar TrekJustice League, and Star Wars are opportunities for writers and directors to exert enormous cultural influence, and to accrue the kind of capital and credibility that can become enormous springboards for their more personal projects. The Avengers, for example, gave Joss Whedon an opportunity to bring his unique spin on female characters to Black Widow, who’d been poorly served in Iron Man 2. And its success won him a long-running and one assumes extraordinarily lucrative position overseeing the franchise: his ideas about superheroism will play a major role in American moviegoing for as much as a decade to come, and the money he makes from it gives him the opportunity to pursue more passion projects like his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. That is an extraordinarily precious thing, and it makes me terribly sad to see that power concentrated in one person, rather than spread out to a number of people with different interests and perspectives on the kinds of questions raised by our biggest franchises.
What makes the unimaginative choice of Abrams even more disappointing was the fact that it was made by Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas, both advocates of progressive politics and the opening the doors of mainstream cinema to unestablished voices. George Lucas' most recent creative endeavor was Red Tails, which he said he produced in part because he wanted African Americans to have a more visible and important role in a successful action franchise.

But instead of being ballsy and picking a new voice from a demographic lacking in voices, instead of making a risky choice and giving the Star Wars franchise a new, unique and refreshed aesthetic, we're going to get the least offensive, most formulaic action movie (with lens flares) that can possibly be made. Obviously that's what you want if you want to ensure big box office receipts, but this movie and its sequels and spinoffs were already going to make billions, and since this was clearly a decision left up to Lucas and Kennedy, why not hand the keys over to GASP!!! a woman?

February 15, 2013

TGIMFF

The snows of Boston
Will collect on the concrete
Less tonic, more gin.

September 9, 2012

Continuation Course for Pundits

Much of the commentary surrounding the 2012 election focuses on a showdown of "ideas", which I understand to mean an impending decision by the electorate between charting a course toward the fiscal austerity of the Republican agenda or the spending priorities of the Democratic agenda. David Brooks is obsessed with this showdown. It remains unclear to me why anyone thinks this election will be significantly different from past elections, in the sense that the supposed big ideas we're to decide between become less big and audacious once a filter of Congressional compromise has been applied. The fact is that Paul Ryan's budget will look very different by the time it has accumulated enough votes in the Senate and House, even if Republicans win a majority in the former and maintain a majority in the latter. Furthermore, Barack Obama's big idea is essentially staying the course with slight reforms to the tax structure, plus his healthcare mandate and almost no substantive changes to the Pentagon budget.

It's a mistake to take too seriously the punditocracy's tendency to project, but I find it amusing this time because the narrative of a showdown between big ideas is typically advanced by supposed "conservatives" and "moderates" who claim to favor a more careful, nuanced approach to governance. I'm not sure what is careful or nuanced about the desire for enormous changes to governing approaches and spending priorities within a relatively short time frame of four years. I'm also not sure why people think one election will change the electorate's priorities in future elections. Why is it that they think the mandate for big changes in 2012 won't be thrown out the window in 2014? or in 2016? or in 2018? Barack Obama won a landslide election in 2008, seeming to indicate the country's desire for some major changes to the way it is governed, only to see a conservative revival just two years later. People thought 2008 would lead to a more social-democratic agenda for the U.S. government. That sounds absurd now, and it seems just as absurd for conservatives to be hailing the nomination of Paul Ryan for VP as a sign that the country will finally be able to foist upon itself the ham-fisted, mindless austerity that we all deserve as punishment for our profligacy.

July 15, 2012

Reprise

I've semi-retired from blogging because it's mostly a waste of time, but I feel the need to articulate my thoughts on Romney's involvement with Bain Capital from 1999 to 2002. The controversy surrounding this story is caked in several layers of absurdity, starting with the assumption that jobs moving offshore is inherently bad. Actually, jobs moving offshore is something that lots of companies do, both in this country and in other countries, because it lowers the cost of running the business and thus maximizes profits. Since it is a perfectly legal thing to do (and short-term economic calamity and immiseration notwithstanding, a beneficial trend for the reallocation of human capital), it seems absurd for Romney to deny his involvement as though he ever actually had objections to it, and equally absurd for Obama to attack him for it, given that Barack Obama is generally in favor of the reallocation of human capital.

But then there are other absurdities, such as the suggestion that Romney being the CEO/owner/overlord on paper doesn't necessarily mean he's responsible for those decisions. Of course he would be. If Bain had decided to invest in sex trafficking between 1999 and 2002, something Romney would find objectionable, would he have been able to put the kibosh on it? Yes. So the notion that he has no responsibility for other investments that he fake-objects to is ludicrous.

April 10, 2012

Mystery Solved

One of my favorite novels, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, features a character named Homer Simpson who is a putz. I'd never seen any proof other than the fact that it would be too much of a coincidence for Matt Groening's character to share such a unique name with a character in an old novel, but here we go:
Back in high school I wrote a novel about a character named Bart Simpson. I thought it was a very unusual name for a kid at the time. I had this idea of an angry father yelling “Bart,” and Bart sounds kind of like bark—like a barking dog. I thought it would sound funny. In my novel, Bart was the son of Homer Simpson. I took that name from a minor character in the novel The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West. Since Homer was my father’s name, and I thought Simpson was a funny name in that it had the word “simp” in it, which is short for “simpleton”—I just went with it.
In Day of the Locust, Homer Simpson tries desperately to seem cool and suave when, in fact, he's just clumsy and has homoerotic tendencies. The former is an obvious quality of Groening's Homer but I've never detected the latter in The Simpsons.

April 1, 2012

Dodgers Season Preview

I suppose now is a good time to offer a few thoughts on the 2012 Dodgers season, their first under the new ownership team of Magic Johnson and the Guggenheim Partners.

Most people predict the Dodgers will be mediocre again. That's probably true. But Loney and Ethier have had brilliant stretches in their careers that just never seemed to coincide. If you got a solid .290/.370/.500 from both of them (numbers they're both capable of), I don't see why they can't compete in a division that features three perennially overrated teams plus the San Diego Padres. When San Francisco won the World Series two years ago, it convinced many baseball writers that they were some kind of power house on the verge of building a dynasty. Yes, they were good, and their pitching staff is terrific, but last year they finished at the bottom of the league in slugging percentage and on base percentage. This team doesn't get on base, and when they do, it's usually first base. Obviously, a healthy Buster Posey will fix that, but I don't see any 35 home run seasons from their current roster; they'll need Posey and Pablo Sandoval to carry the load, both of whom are unproven.

I don't care about Arizona.

Colorado has the potential to be a good team, but Carlos Gonzalez has had one good season sandwiched between three mediocre seasons (for someone who plays in Colorado). If he has a comeback and Tulo does what he's been doing, you still have the traditional Colorado rotation that underperforms.

As for the Dodgers, it's hard to predict what their own rotation will do. I'm pretty confident that Billingsley is a bust. All signs point to another great year from Kershaw. I thought Chris Capuano retired 4 years ago but I guess he's the Dodgers #5 starter, which makes their rotation only slightly worse than the Yankees.

To conclude the worst season preview you've ever read, the Dodgers have a few reasons to be hopeful about this season, but only a few. This could be another year in which we marvel at Kemp and Kershaw and count down until Ethier gets traded.

Cutting Edge

wikimedia
I know it's just an April Fool's joke, but Darren Murph's review of the Texas Instruments TI-83 is spot on. High schools still require students to buy one, and they still cost more than the the Kindle, which is a much more advanced piece of technology even with its monochrome screen. It's amazing that this device hasn't been redesign at all, and even more amazing that another tech firm hasn't designed a competitor at a third of the price. I don't think graphing calculators are a huge market, but someone who designed one with even a slightly higher resolution screen, color graphics and differentiation capabilities could easily put a dent in TI's market share.

One point that I think Murph misses is that an internet-connected device would be a problem for test-taking. I have a graphing application on my iPhone that works even better than a TI, but I assume it wouldn't be allowed for an exam.

However, it remains true that the TI is a criminally-expensive dinosaur that needs to go extinct.

March 30, 2012

Popping the Romney Balloon

I'm at least somewhat persuaded by the theory that, politically, it would be a bad thing for the Republican candidates, especially Mitt Romney, if PPACA is ruled unconstitutional but the Supreme Court. Romney's problem right now is that the economy is improving without his help. So he has to lean on his opposition to Obamacare. But if Obamacare is overturned then it's a moot point whether or not he would have repealed it. So that leaves... foreign policy? But Barack Obama is actually polling quite well when it comes to foreign policy. No one cares about the stimulus anymore, or Dodd-Frank. The bailouts were a Republican idea.

But all of this is a little silly to discuss. Of course it would be a bad thing for this bill to be overturned, since presumably Obama ran for president to pass legislation and fix problems. The only comfort right now is that people grossly exaggerate the importance of oral arguments. Up until they were delivered, most people were fairly confident the Court would rule in favor of the mandate.

March 27, 2012

The Supreme Court's Vanity Problem

There's something ironic about the fact that extra time was allotted for oral arguments in one of the most high-profile Supreme Court cases in years, given that there is nothing the Justices heard today that they haven't heard or read in three years of studying this legislation and the countless articles and columns written about it. The Justices don't live in a bubble where the only outside information the receive is divined through oral arguments. They read the newspaper. They watch TV. They probably listen to NPR. And knowing, from the day it was passed, that the fate of Obamacare would be decided in their court room, they've long had their minds made up about how they'll rule on it. So the notion that they need extra time to here lawyers justify their arguments, rather than less time, is patently ridiculous. The circus surrounding this case serves the purpose of making them feel important and serious. Most Supreme Court cases get very little attention, the occasional Citizens United notwithstanding, so the only other time the Justices appear at the top of the news cycle is at their confirmation hearings. The coverage of this case gives them a chance to have their egos stroked by obsequious SCOTUS correspondents who are just floored by Scalia's intellect.

March 26, 2012

Dick Whitman Returns

I was underwhelmed by the season premiere of Mad Men last night, in part because I felt like we learned almost nothing about any of the characters, and what we did learn seemed to contradict what we thought we knew.

Two examples come to mind, the most poignant being Megan's apparent knowledge and endorsement of Don Draper's real identity. At the end of Season 4 it becomes clear that Don Draper wants to postpone the moment at which he'll have to go completely public with his secret, and so he ditches Faye Miller, who would have lost patience with his lies, and hooked up with Megan, who has, like most characters except Faye Miller, internalized the litany of false narratives propagated by Madison Avenue. But her acknowledgment of Don's secret indicates that, rather than being aloof, she is actually well aware that a relationship with Don is a steep descent into bottomless pits of bullshit, and she's okay with that.

It's a bit early to tell and I have a feeling that Megan has some big, haunting secrets of her own, which would explain why she seems unfazed by Don's dual identity, but I found the first narrative in which Megan is a naive idealist more convincing than the second narrative in which she is unaffected by the knowledge that she consented to marry someone she knew nothing about. 

At the same time, Lane displays either subtle bigotry or a random inspiration of compassion when he takes it upon himself to return a wallet he finds in a cab to its owner, rather than trusting the black cab driver to turn it into the lost-and-found. I'm tempted to think it's the former, but of all the characters in the show it seems odd to use the one who previously had a black girlfriend to demonstrate a quieter racism than what was typical of the era.

I'm conflicted about the Lane example because one of my favorite aspects of the show is the floating morality of every character, that they can plausibly move between being likable and being heinous from episode to episode. I'm not suggesting that Lane's having dated a black woman clears him of any prejudice. But I think it points to one of the weaker aspects of the show, that occasionally, big moments  and events that should figure in more episodes are abandoned for concepts that happen to interest the writers at the moment they are scripting an episode. 

March 23, 2012

March 17, 2012

Getting Rid Of Time Zones

When I visited India last year I learned they had only one time zone for the 1500 mile wide country, so that the sun set two hours later in one part than another even though they were on the same hour. Brad Plumer writes that some academics are questioning the usefulness of time zones, as they create "coordination problems" -- financiers in San Francisco need to wake up earlier to listen in on conference calls with their New York-based colleagues.

I don't see how eliminating time zones eliminates the problems he describes in his post. The reason it is an inconvenience for people in San Francisco to wake up at 5:00 AM to make 8:00 AM conference calls in New York is because it's still dark outside and humans like to sleep when it's dark. Putting the globe on the same clock wouldn't change the fact that conference calls held during the afternoon in Tokyo would occur in the middle of the night in Los Angeles. The problem isn't that people in Los Angeles don't like to work when the clock reads 3:00 AM, it's that they don't like to work in the middle of the night, when the clock happens to say 3:00 AM.

March 13, 2012

Time To Panic?

Barack Obama is experiencing a dip in approval rating, for reasons that elude most pundits including Andrew Sullivan:
I just don't think voters really absorb one day's television news clip as emphatically as Jon [Chait] thinks they might. Israel? I don't think that issue moves approval ratings like that, especially given the massive fawning Netanyahu got last week. Gas prices seem much more plausible an explanation. Or maybe the gas prices and the message that "America is back." Mickey wants to believe it's the contraception/religious freedom debate, but Allahpundit rightly notes that the gender gap hasn't budged much at all, and that poll wording can change a lot.
I think it's important to make a distinction between the real increase in gas prices and the perceived increase in gas prices. Republicans have been pretty effective at creating a perception of gas prices soaring when, in fact, they've gone up a couple ticks. I would give them credit for having cultivated a sense that Barack Obama is watching the price at the pump and twiddling his thumbs as it goes up.


Of course, it is a bit silly because if the man had a way of making gas $2.50 a gallon immediately he'd do it.