The Tragedy of Typhoid Mary

'Typhoid' Mary MallonOn this day in 1869, Mary Mallon was born. She is better known as Typhoid Mary, because she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever who infected many people in New York.

She was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States when she was 15 years old. I don’t know what she did for the first 15 years in the States other than live with her Aunt and Uncle. But at the age of 30, she began working as a cook for a number of wealthy families in New York. She must have known somewhere in her mind that there was something wrong. She would start a new job, people would get sick. She would move to a new job and the same thing would happen again. During the first years of the twentieth century, she worked for seven different families. Eventually, one of the families hired the sanitation engineer George Soper and he figured out that it had to be Mallon.

This led to Mallon’s being quarantined (jailed) for three years at North Brother Island. After that time, she was released under the condition that she not work with food. She was given a job working in a laundry, but it paid very poorly. So she changed her name and went back to cooking. She always maintained that she was not a carrier of typhoid fever. And indeed, asymptomatic carriers of the disease were unheard of. I’m sure there was a lot of cognitive dissonance. After infecting a whole lot of people over the course of five years, she was arrested and sent back to North Brother Island, where she lived for the remaining 23 years of her life.

There are a few interesting things about her case. One is that other asymptomatic carriers of the disease had been discovered, but the state did not lock them up. Specifically, there were three men who were all responsible for as many or more cases of the disease. Was it sexism or racism or just that she was the first discovered? I don’t know. Clearly, something needed to be done. But it needed to be done for all the cases, not just this one.

What’s more, this is one of those cases where I just don’t understand government policy. Here was Mallon who didn’t want to be confined to hospital/prison all her life. She had been okay working as a laundress but found she couldn’t make it on the salary. This is clearly a problem you could throw money at. And indeed, the government did. She had to be cared for on North Brother Island. Why not instead set her up in a dress shop and give her a guaranteed salary? But no. We have the same problem today. We are more than willing to spend $50,000 per year to lock up drug users, but spending $20,000 per year to send them to school is just unacceptable.

Regardless of all the damage that Mary Mallon did in her life, she is still a tragic figure. And the great crime is not hers, but the government’s. And in terms of how people are treated, things really haven’t changed in the century since she lived. We have certainly gotten much better at the science and at treating the disease. But in terms of humanity, we are still as primitive as ever.

Happy birthday Mary Mallon!

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It’s Not the Rich, Stupid; Cons Just Hate the Poor

Rich Uncle PennybagsThere was a time when the Census Bureau just released figures on poverty as in, “How much money are people making?” But as conservatives saw that poverty rates remained high, they balked. “What about all those fist fulls of sweaty cash we are giving them?!” they screamed. That is: what about the aid the poor get from the federal government? And so the Census Bureau came out with another measure, the Supplemental Poverty Measure or SPM. And it showed something really interesting: since the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, SPM is actually higher than the old way of measuring poverty. Right now the old way indicates that we have 15% poverty and the SPM indicates we have 16% poverty.

Of course, you know how it goes. If poverty were down, they would declare “Mission Accomplished!” and call for eliminating poverty programs. And if poverty were not down, they would declare that the poverty programs don’t work and call for eliminating poverty programs. But if you look at the actual data, you will see something that is really interesting. From 1967, the poverty rate went down — and fast. It went from roughly 26% to less than 18% in that great inflection point year: 1980. Things changed under the great economic stewardship of Ronald Reagan and his war against the “welfare queens” on behalf of the poor beleaguered rich. The poverty rate shot back up to the low 20% level.

Luckily, a man of the people came to town in 1992. And by “man” I mean Bill Clinton. And by “the people” I mean, of course, “the rich.” The bubble-based boom that he was president during allowed more people to get jobs and so the poverty rate again went down. Over the course of six years, it went down from 21% to 15%. But during those years when poverty was being reduced, Clinton kept his word that he did not come to praise the poor but to bury them: he did indeed “end welfare as we know it.” And look how well it worked! Poverty rates were going down! It had absolutely nothing to do with his welfare policies (or any of his other policies, for that matter), but there was a correlation. And who cared?! He would be out of office by the time all the pain came back!

Under Bush the Younger, the poverty rate stayed pretty much where it had been. It went up a percentage point during the his first term in response to the recession. And then it went down a percentage point during his second term during the recovery. But when the crisis came, it went up starkly and continues to stay high. There are two great conservative heroes of the 20th century, although most conservatives aren’t aware of this. The first was Ronald Reagan, but he could only do so much. In much the same way that it was true that only Nixon could go to China, it required New Democrat Bill Clinton to solidify those conservative gains and really stick it to the poor long term.

And where are we today? Well, it depends upon where you are in the pecking order. Michael Hiltzik laid out the situation very well today, Census Data on Poverty Show Results of Economic Policy Gone Wrong:

The data show that Social Security is the single most powerful anti-poverty program in America — if its benefits were eliminated, the rate would have risen in 2012 from the SPM’s 16% to 24.5%. Among those 65 and older, in a world without Social Security the SPM poverty rate would have risen from 14.8% to a Depression-level 54.7%.

Of course, one reason that Social Security is such a powerful anti-poverty program is that it is the only one that hasn’t been savaged over the last four decades. But the conservatives would love to savage it! It’s the one remaining poverty plan that they could destroy and create huge numbers of 70-somethings out in the labor market keeping wages down at McDonald’s!

This is one small bit of good news, though, “Also striking is the effect of relieving the poor of the burden of medical expenses.” So Obamacare is likely to work to reduce poverty in the years ahead. Or at least, it will work in those states that have accepted the free money of the Medicaid expansion. But it also shows why Obamacare is such a big target for conservatives: it helps the poor!

I used to be of the opinion that conservatives didn’t hate the poor; they just didn’t care. They loved the rich and wanted to do everything they could to help them. That often involved harming the poor. But harming the poor wasn’t the point. I’ve come to think that I’ve been wrong about that. The truth is that harming the poor is usually bad for the rich — or at least not helpful. The money the poor get will jut get spent and circulate to the rich anyway. So helping the poor really helps the rich. See my article, I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid.

So it would seem that harming the poor is an end in and of itself for conservatives. The only doubt I have is the thought that conservatives can’t be that mean and spiteful. But that’s just silly. Conservatives in red states all over the nation are rejecting free money from the federal government that would provide healthcare to the working poor. This is free money that would help everyone in their states. They aren’t taking the money out of pure spite. So of course they would hurt the poor just for the sake of it.

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Some Serious Advice About G-Spots and Scrotum

G-Spot

Men, have you been embarrassed that you couldn’t find your woman’s G-spot? Women, have you been embarrassed about having such a clueless man? Fear not! Yet another study has come out that shows that the G-Spot is a myth. You see, ever since German gynecologist Ernst Gräfenberg “discovered” the human equivalent of El Dorado, scientists have had as hard a time finding it as conscientious husbands have.

It isn’t that there is nothing to the old G-spot. Anna Pulley provides all the details in a very funny article at Salon, The Truth About the “G-spot”: Why it’s Time to Put This Sex Myth to Bed. But the news is not all good. For those of you who still have a hard time pronouncing the word “clitoris,” we have an even worse phrase: “clitourethrovaginal complex.”

I know what you’re thinking, “Holy lady parts, Batman!” Indeed. I share the awe that is the complexity of the female sexy sex thingity thing. And it isn’t just sex. Women are generally complex. Boys realize this at a very young age, although I must admit that it probably doesn’t speak so much to the complexity of girls as the simplicity of boys. Regardless, it is not at all surprising that women would have a “complex” down there and men would just have a penis.

KuatoSpeaking of that, let’s talk about the scrotum for a moment. Much of the human body is ugly, but nothing is as ugly as the scrotum. Now you would have thought after all this time, evolution would have produced a more attractive scrotum. Women would have seen a man naked, noticed his hideous scrotum and run away. This would have put evolutionary pressure on the scrotum, allowing men with slightly less disgusting scrotum to have produced sons with slightly less disgusting scrotum until it looks at least slightly more attractive than Kuato.

But this hasn’t happened for a very good reason. Most women, despite their complexity, are not interested in getting anywhere near the scrotum. But for those women who are, I have some news for you: men are not interested in you getting anywhere near their scrotum. The scrotum is not an erogenous zone. It is just this very awkward evolutionary solution to keeping sperm cool enough that they don’t die. And the price we pay for this is having a couple of fragile testicles hanging off our bodies. Don’t touch them or lick them or whatever. For God’s sake don’t suck on them! But if we are trying to rape or otherwise harm you, kick them or squeeze them every hard. If we are being nice, however, just stay the hell away and don’t mention how hideous they are!

Anyway, because no one is interested in learning to say “clitourethrovaginal complex,” there is a handy acronym: CUV. In consists of the “vagina, clitoris, and urethra.” This new work comes to us from Emmanuele Jannini, an endocrinologist from Italy. But isn’t that just like a man to reduce sex to nerve endings and body parts? The truth is that sex isn’t really about that. At least in my experience. It’s primarily a brain thing — like vomiting. (Ever wonder why you continue to vomit even when there is nothing to vomit?) In fact, it is well established that many men can bring a woman to orgasm just by leaving the house and never coming back.

The sad thing about this G-spot myth is that apparently, a lot of women have gone into therapy because they couldn’t have one of those crushing G-spot orgasms that they were reading about in the “Pictures Not Making You Feel Inadequate Enough?” column in Cosmopolitan. But it turns out most women just don’t have enough sensation in that part of the body to get much out of it. Anna Pulley humorously refers to the act as “attempting sign language in our partner’s vaginas.” The same thing has to do with the vaginal orgasm. The 25% of woman who can have them have “thicker tissue between the vagina and urethra.” People are built differently.

Thus, once again, I would like to give a plug for masturbation. Don’t get me wrong: sex is great. Interacting with another human being in a very intimate way is wonderful and necessary. But it is not the best way to generate orgasms. I’m for uncoupling sex from orgasms. No woman can ever come close to pleasing me in that way as much as I can myself. And I think that’s true of everyone. When we worry about other people’s orgasms, we get lost in this nonsense about how the orgasm is produced. And we already know the best way to produce an orgasm for ourselves. And we will never know the best way to do it for someone else — regardless of how much we study the CUV.

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Education “Reform”: Looking for Cheap Answers the Rich Want

Jesse RothsteinI am a generalist by nature. This is part of why I am no longer a scientist. It just isn’t in me to dig really deep into what are usually esoteric subjects. I’m fascinated by zoology, but the idea of spending a lifetime studying evolutionary changes in the jawbone of the cougar strikes me as rather dull — even though I fully admit that for the right kind of person, there could hardly be a more fascinating subject. This is true of politics too. I know more about economics than most political bloggers, but I certainly am nothing close to an expert. The same is true of political science.

But I have a trick that allows me to see what is going on in politics without being an expert: I look at the incentives of people who push particular policies. That’s especially true in the education “reform” movement. I see that there are many things wrong with our educational system. And there are some things that are too obvious for anyone to miss. The biggest one is the inequality in education funding. We accept a system where the most resources and the best teachers are given to the students who need them the least. Yet this is not an issue that the mainstream education “reform” movement is interested in. In fact, they seem to have this idea that teachers should teach just for the love of it and shouldn’t have the same needs and desires that all workers have.

As a result of this observation, I’ve always been right on top of the con that is the attack on teacher “tenure.” I put the word in scare quotes because it isn’t the kind of tenure that most people think. Basically, it just means that schools have to have reasons for firing teachers. They can’t, for example, fire a black teacher just because the mostly white parents are unhappy about integration. Regardless, how could it possibly be that giving teachers the right to due process is really the A Number One reason that our schools under perform?

Well obviously, that isn’t the A Number One reason. And all you have to do is look at who is funding the education “reform” movement. The poster children of the movement are Billie and Mindy: the billionaires who so care about the kids their primary concern is destroying teachers’ unions. Providing educational equality is something that might take money away from Billie and Mindy. But the more unions can be crushed, the more money the economy funnels to capital owners like themselves.

This brings us to a very interesting interview of Jesse Rothstein by Max Ehrenfreund over at Wonk Blog, Teacher Tenure Has Little to Do With Student Achievement, Economist Says. But before discussing it: of course! I would think differently if the education “reform” movement said, “We have to do something about unequal education funding and get rid of teacher tenure that is protecting bad teachers.” But they aren’t. It is always, “Well, unequal education funding is a problem, but it is politically impossible to do anything about it.” Why? A recent poll found that 77% of Americans have confidence in public school teachers. It isn’t that it is politically impossible. It is that the funders of the education “reform” movement aren’t interested in funding such work. Because they don’t care about improving education; they have other priorities that they are simply using “the kids” to facilitate.

Let’s consider incentives for teachers, shall we? Getting rid of teacher tenure makes being a teacher less appealing. Ask yourself: would I rather have a job where I have some security or where I can be fired for any reason at any time? Not only would you rather have the former, you would probably even be willing to take a job that paid less for that. Yet the education “reform” movement claims getting rid of tenure would be great for the kids. This isn’t totally loony. Getting rid of teacher tenure would doubtless allow more bad teachers to be more easily fired. But it would also cause fewer good people to go into teaching in the first place. It would also allow administrations to fire good teachers for frivolous and political reasons. So would the elimination of teacher tenure really improve the education of our children? Let’s say that it is a contention that is at best controversial. But it is taken as gospel by those in the education “reform” movement.

Consider the most ridiculous argument for getting rid of teacher tenure: young people love risk! Here’s Jesse Rothstein:

The argument that anti-tenure people make is, “Look, there are all these excellent Harvard graduates and Yale graduates or whatever that are now going into finance because it’s risky. They like risk, and those people are being repelled from teaching by the lack of risk.” The people who are going into finance are not just taking on more risk, but are also getting a lot of reward for that risk. That was in some ways the thrust of my research. You can’t think about the risk in isolation. You’ve got to think about the combination of the pay package and the risk. If you adopt a policy that increases the risk, you’re going to have to pay people more to offset that. Maybe that’s a good deal, and maybe it’s not.

Spoken like a true economist! No wonder no one listens. He makes too much sense. Of course, the very idea that people go into finance because of the risk is ridiculous. If they were looking at the same reward with less risk, even more “excellent Harvard graduates and Yale graduates” would be going into finance. And we have to ask ourselves, “Do we really want the kind of people who are going into finance to be teaching our children?” When I was in college, I knew guys like that and they were, not to be too fine a point on it, the worst people in the world.

Rothstein points out another aspect of education “reform” that is toxic: student testing. As is entirely typical of us Americans, we don’t even care about doing it well. What we care about:

I think there’s been a tendency in thinking about methods to prioritize cheap methods over methods that might be more expensive. In particular, there’s been a tendency to prioritize statistical computations based on student test scores, because all you need is one statistician and the test score data. Classroom observation requires having lots of people to sit in the back of lots and lots of classrooms and make judgments.

In the interview, Max Ehrenfreund makes a stupid statement, “Everyone agrees that the goal should be to make teaching a respected profession, a profession that talented and able people want to enter.” How can he even say this? The education “reform” movement wants to make the lives of teachers harder. It wants to destroy unions and it wants to make employment more risky. This does not say, “We respect you!” But Rothstein provides an excellent answer to Enhrenfreund’s ultimate question about what could be done to make teaching a more respected profession:

We could double teachers’ salaries. I’m not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn’t even enter the conversation tells you something about what’s wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it’s just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They’re looking for easy answers, not hard answers.

He’s actually a lot more positive toward the education “reform” movement than I am. I agree with everything he said. They are looking for easy answers — easy for their funders, that is. But above all, the funders have particular policies they want to push that have little to do with educating children. And the people in the movement itself are only interested in perusing policies that the funders will pay for. In the end, the rich will get what they paid for: fewer worker rights and a more compliant workforce. What we won’t get is better education.


H/T: Jeff Bryant

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Incentivizing “Job Creators” Doesn’t Help Economy

Dean BakerDean Baker wrote an interesting article this morning, Should We Worry About Economic Stagnation Due to Weak Supply? It is primarily a response to work by Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon, who has argued that we are headed for a long period of slow growth. Baker scoffed at the idea, not because it is ridiculous, but just because economists have such a frightfully bad track record for making predictions about economic growth.

Baker also noted that there are two competing theories about growth among economists. First, there is the “robots will take all our jobs” theory. By this theory, soon productivity will go through the roof because McDonald’s won’t even have to employ people to make our McDoubles for us. Second, there is Gordon’s (and many others’) theory that productivity is going to stagnate. Baker, in his usual snarky way noted what this says about the economics profession:

This would be like a person going to a doctor for a check-up, with the doctor concluding that the patient is seriously obese and must immediately begin a strict diet and exercise regimen. The patient then goes to another doctor for a second opinion. This doctor is concerned about the patient being too thin and prescribes a high calorie diet to allow the patient to put on weight. This is the state of economics’ ability to predict productivity.

I want to add one thing to this issue, which Dean Baker is well aware of, but usually doesn’t mention. Productivity really doesn’t matter. At least it hasn’t for about four decades. There was a time when increased productivity led to higher wages. There was a partitioning between profits and wages. When productivity went up, profits went up and wages went up. It was a very equitable system where both capital and labor shared the benefits of productivity increases. No more:

Productivity and Real Wages

What this means is that if productivity doesn’t go up, the real wages of workers will be stagnant. But if productivity does go up, the real wages of workers will be stagnant. Dean Baker talks about this issue a lot in general terms: economic inequality is a policy decision. It isn’t God (or Market) given. So I have a very hard time caring about productivity growth when it means nothing for the average worker.

This too says something about the state of economics today: it is primarily concerned with the interests of the rich. In the late 1970s (and certainly by the 1980s), economists should have stood up and made a very big deal of the fact that productivity had become unmoored from the wages of workers. But as long as productivity led to higher profits, it didn’t matter. Who cares about the plebs? Am I right?!

Baker brought up another interesting point in the article. If productivity is going to be slower, then there is less risk of taking money from the “job creators.” If taxes must be kept low so that they will continue to innovate, and the innovations are going to be slow coming, it doesn’t mean as much to cut down the incentives of them to innovate. But I think the government should look at it differently (and should have been for the last four decades): if productivity increases are going to mean nothing for the vast majority of the population, why are we incentivizing to innovate at all? After all, all we are doing is giving them tax breaks to make more money that they don’t use to help the rest of the economy.

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Nick Cave, There Is No More to Say

Nick CaveListen up folks: Nick Cave is 57 today. I have almost nothing to say about him. His work speaks for itself. I understand that he is a novelist and a screenwriter. And I even remember him acting (so to speak) in Tom DiCillo’s first film, Johnny Suede. But I don’t know much about this side of his life. I just know his music, especially in Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Of course, at this point it is hard to separate him from the band since Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld left the band — the three of them pretty much were the band. Of course, the band is as good as ever. That’s perhaps that greatest thing about Nick Cave: he hasn’t decreased the quality of his work over time.

Here is a whole set from when the original members were all still in the band. There is no more to say:

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Christianity Doesn’t Have Early Sources

Rylands Library Papyrus P52I think the Bible is fascinating. It’s like the Iliad, but it consists of a bunch of short stories rather than one long, gorgeous narrative. And it isn’t nearly as interesting. But I do love the Bible in the same way. Ancient literature is awesome! It’s always interesting to see what stories different peoples tell themselves because of what it says about them. Just look at what postmodern literature says about us! Look at Waiting for Godot, which is a modernist work. It says that we are a people coming to terms with the fact that we have only each other to rely on and there is no God (or anything else) that will save us. Then comes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a postmodernist work. It says that we’ve given up on finding any meaning and we are going to just have fun playing word games and solving Sudoku puzzles.

Of course, not all of us feel this way. In fact, in America, the vast majority of the people have regressed and hang onto ancient religions to provide (mythical) structure and (mythical) certainty. I don’t especially have a problem with this. I know there are nice old people at Unitary churches throughout the nation who have concrete ideas of morality. They are better people than I am and I hope that I can become more like them over time. But they are a small minority. A very large fraction of Americans are people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.

Let’s start with the language that God speaks: Greek. I still find it interesting that most American Christians never much think about the fact that they only know their religions through a translation. And which translation? That in itself shows you how cultural Christianity is. Protestants tend to like the King James translation. Catholics tend to like the Douay-Rheims translation. I tend to perfer the New American Standard translation because it is said to be the closest to the original Greek. But increasingly, I go with King James, especially when it is a well known passage. But just what does it mean to go back to the original text?

Consider Theseus’ paradox: if you have an ax and over the years you are forced to replace the handle and the head, is it still the same ax? The same issue is discussed in the movie Blow Up. At the end, the main character is left with his final enlargement. But without the sequence of “blow ups” it is meaningless. It only has meaning in context.

Well, the earliest complete Bible we have is the Codex Sinaiticus, which is from roughly 350 CE. That is over three centuries past when old Jesus is supposed to have been killed and rose up and all that stuff. What’s more, it is missing much of the Gospels. Of course, the biggest thing that is missing from it is the end of Mark when Jesus shows himself to everyone. This is because that wasn’t originally in Mark. It is a later interpolation.

But do you see that little fragment there at the top of this article? That little piece of papyrus that measures 9 square inches? That’s the Rylands Library Papyrus P52. It is a fragment from John 18. And it is dated at roughly 125 CE. That’s roughly a century after old Jesus is supposed to have been killed and rose up and all that stuff. This is the oldest New Testament Bible fragment in existence!

In fairness, it’s a pretty damned good fragment. It is from when Pontius Pilate is interrogating Jesus. But the front of it only says:

the Jews, “For us
anyone,” so that the w
oke signifyin
die. En
rium P
and sai
Jews?”

I just think it is odd that Christians think their religion can be traced all the way back to this guy Jesus. I have no problem with people being mystical and thinking that the “feel” Jesus. Who am I to say? But a religion that has only 41 words (several only fragments) a hundred years after the events that are central to the religion? That strikes me as very weak tea indeed.

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2003 The Italian Job Worse Than 1969 Version

The Italian Job (2003)After my recent disappointment with the original, 1969 version of The Italian Job, I figured I would give a try to the 2003 remake of The Italian Job. But I was wrong. It is not a remake. It just uses the title and the Mini Coopers and the traffic jam. The most remarkable thing about it is that the job is not in Italy. Oh sure, there is an “Italian job” at the very beginning of the film that goes bad, and the rest of the film involves a revenge plot stemming from it. But it takes place is exotic Los Angeles.

But okay, it’s a heist film. And Seth Green as the computer hacker actually does computer hacking, although the way he breaks passwords is all wrong, and not even as advanced as in War Games, made two decades earlier. But it still feels a lot more real than watching Benny Hill replace one computer tape with another. And the whole heist seems a whole lot more like something that would work. But that’s true of most modern heist films.

The only thing that really makes a heist film worth watching is that they usually star charismatic people. This is why Ocean’s Eleven worked so well, even though its heist was riddled with holes. The Italian Job is led by Mark Wahlberg, a man so uncharismatic that if Lawrence of Arabia were remade with him, people would mistake it for Koyaanisqatsi. Up next to him is the beautiful and talented Charlize Theron — also without discernible charisma beyond the cleavage she shows when wearing a cami that is two sizes too small.

In order to round out the crew, we have Mos Def as the fairly interesting munitions expert. Characters who are good at blowing things up are always interesting. And then we have to have Jason Statham, who plays Handsome Rob, who seems to be in the movie just because screenwriters are nerds and this is one of the few outlets they have for their sexual fantasies except for the stories they submit to Literotica. But I guess he does provide the same function for female viewers as Charlize Theron does for the males.

In some ways, the movie is less realistic than the original. At least in the original, three professional drivers were brought in to do the getaway. Here we’re supposed to think that when Theron’s character wasn’t studying everything anyone ever knew about cracking safes, she was learning to make Mini Coopers waltz. But okay, whatever. I like watching Charlize Theron driving around in a Mini Cooper as much as the next guy.

But what about those Mini Coopers? Why Mini Coopers? There was a very good reason for them in the original film. It was basically nationalistic. The British were giving the Italians a spanking. This was explicit. The English gangster (Noël Coward) was backing the job for the good of England and the Italian gangster (Raf Vallone) wants to stop the job for Italy. So the Mini Coopers were a symbol of British pride. What’s more, there were three cars, one each in red, white, and blue: the colors of the British flag. Well, we get the same thing in this new film but there is no reason for it. This is a film about a group of Americans sticking it to another American.

Speaking of that other American, I read this about Edward Norton’s role as the bad guy, “Norton took the role of Steve Frazelli, due to a contractual obligation he had to fulfill.” That makes me feel better about him because as I was watching the film, I was wondering why he took this role that is provided absolutely no motivation in what is a very mediocre script. The full extent of his character is when Wahlberg tells him, “Same old Steve, huh? Always thinking defensively. That’s why you’re always number two… You got no imagination.” Of course, he had enough imagination to rip off Wahlberg’s entire team at the beginning of the film. What he didn’t have was intelligence, because the entire plot depended upon him being stupid.

Don’t take this to mean it is a bad movie. It’s okay. But for $60 million, a lot more could be done. And in the end, the original film is more fun. This one takes itself very seriously in the same way that Mark Wahlberg takes himself very seriously. It is cookie-cutter filmmaking. And it includes its own indictment of the filmmakers, “You got no imagination.”

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Racist Apologetics From Recent Mormons

Joseph Fielding SmithThere is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less…

There were no neutrals in the war in Heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits.

—Joseph Fielding Smith, LDS President
Doctrines of Salvation, 1954

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Blacklist and a Culture in Decline

BlacklistThe television series Blacklist was recommended to me. I had seen an ad for it before it came out and it looked rather good. I have long been a fan of James Spader — at least since he got to play characters that weren’t trust fund babies (although he did them well). Since Netflix was pushing it on me, I decided to watch an episode. The first episode is very much like The Silence of the Lambs, but without the cannibalism. Later episodes stray from this formula and the series gets tired fast.

By far, the biggest problem with the show is that it has only one really compelling thing: James Spader. When he’s on the screen, all is fun. When he’s not, I was wondering why I was watching. Much of the show revolves around FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Keen. She is a profiler who seems to have no insights into human nature at all. She is married to the world’s perfect man — a fourth grade teacher who may or may not have a secret past along the lines of Jason Bourne with piles of cash, piles of passports, and a handgun. Really: it’s like they just went into the property department of Universal Pictures and stole the safe deposit contents from The Bourne Identity and put them in a wooden box.

The plot arc of the first season is what I call “kitchen sink” writing. There is so much junk thrown into the story that absolutely anything could be really going on. Red, the James Spader character, could be Keen’s real father. Or he could be a friend of her father who while he lay dying made Red promise to watch out for his daughter. Or he could have killed Keen’s father. Or maybe her father is not dead. It could be any of these things and more. And this is to mention nothing of Red’s past. Or Keen’s husband. The problem is that the show is not going anywhere. It is bouncing around and then the writers will decide which place to stop.

In a sense, this doesn’t matter. People love this. My father is addicted to Resurrection. People enjoy the journey. The problem is that stories dependent upon mysteries that are never well explained always leave a bitter aftertaste. I remember how much I like Twin Peaks, only to find the ending totally disappointing. It isn’t that I had a problem with the father being the murderer. It was that the ending was random. What’s more, it didn’t even comply with the plot up to that point.

On a micro-scale, Blacklist works equally badly. Each episode flits around. The main plot of each show would fit easily inside a half hour. So that leaves the other commercial television half hour (21 minutes) for side “drama.” Often in the middle of some ticking time bomb plot, Keen and Red find time for some banter — often on a park bench. Not that I’m complaining! The main plots are without exception boring and totally unbelievable. All the people on the blacklist are so clever that the FBI doesn’t even know they exist. But then they are caught through various mistakes that such clever people would never make. It is like Edward Snowden starring in “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.” Oh my God! He’s calling from the extension upstairs!

A very troubling aspect of the series is its casual use of torture. In this way, Blacklist is the intelligent man’s 24. But of the half dozen episodes I watched, this seemed to go away. I hope that is a trend. Torture itself doesn’t go away. But I have no problem with torture. Growing up, I watched a lot of cinematic torture. What has been really bad since 9/11 is that we see the supposed good guys torturing. This is sick and an indication of a culture in steep decline.

Despite everything, I still found myself draw to the show. Harry Lennix as the Assistant Director of FBI counterterrorism adds a lot of humanity to a show that has too much disregard for human life — especially in the form of Keen’s partner Donald Ressler and torturer in chief Meera Malik. But after a while, everything is flying off in all directions. I came to realize that I didn’t really care what happened to any of these characters. And in that way, I am right with the producers. But the sad thing is that this is that Blacklist is an above average show. And that doesn’t speak well of us as a people.

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