Evil Myths

The Expendables 2I was at the movies yesterday watching The Expendables 2, and I thought, “All these guys are rich and famous and they use the power they have to make pernicious, evil myths like this.” It is impossible for me to relate just how much I hated this movie. It was bad on every level. Watching all these aging action stars smirk and mug for the camera was hard. The repeated attempts at humor were pathetic. Arnold Schwarzenegger says “I’ll be back” a few times during the film. The “payoff” comes when Bruce Willis is talking to Schwarzenegger. Arnold says, “I’ll be back.” Willis responds, “You’re always back. This time, I’ll be back.” Willis leaves and Schwarzenegger says, “Yippee-ki-yay.” It is painful.

The movie starts with scenes designed to show that the newest member of the team is some kind of badass. And so we know that either he will turn out to be a villain or he will die. When he tells Stallone that he’s going to quit after this next job, we know that it is the latter. But here’s the thing: this character—Billy—used to be in the army. And so, much is made of this in the way that much is done to support the troops by putting a yellow ribbon on the back of your SUV. It’s a concession to those who might say, “Shouldn’t securing nuclear materials be the responsibility of the military rather than a group of misfit vigilantes?”

Indeed, after Jean Vilain (Oh, that’s so clever!) steals the map to where weapons grade Plutonium are stored and kills Billy, Stallone seems far more concerned about avenging Billy’s death than stopping five tons of Plutonium going on the market. (Ridiculously, Vilain claims they will get $4 million per kg. I’m not up on the market in illegal Plutonium, but I tend to think it would be more expensive than that.) This sets up the stupidest climax I have ever witnessed. Vilain is out of bullets, so instead of just killing him, Stallone puts down his guns so they can beat the shit out of each other before the bad guy is killed. (Spoiler! You thought there was a good chance Stallone would die, right?)

In the first five minutes of this film, our heroes kill 100s if not 1000s of people who made the mistake of being in the employ of the bad guys. It is an evil sensibility that modern action movies take for granted. I have made my peace with racism in otherwise great action movies from the past like Gunga Din. At least in those films, stereotyped characters actually are trying to kill our heroes. Today, the assumption seems to be that they are better off dead. Given what we know about modern conscripts, I cannot see them as anything but victims. When the audience cheers their annihilation, I am sickened.

One of my long standing complaints about movie villains is that they treat their henchmen poorly. If you treat your friends as bad as you treat your enemies, you will soon have no friends. We get a similar dynamic in this movie. Vilain is conscripting men from the villages to dig down to where the Plutonium is stored. But instead of just paying them and letting them go home, the villains kill one man who is exhausted and then bury alive all the men after they get the Plutonium. There is no reason to do this unless you happen to think that villains don’t have reasons for doing things.

These workers greatly out number the villains. But they do nothing. They just watch themselves die and continue working. They don’t act the way real human beings do. They don’t rise up. They don’t even demur. What they are doing is unclear. It seems the writer thought they intrinsically knew that our heroes were on the way to save them.

Action movies almost always elevate men to the status of Gods. But in The Expendables 2 they do it largely by reducing regular men to nothing more than props. And this is what these stars are doing: using their power to tell the workers of the world that they are nothing more than garbage and shouldn’t we all be thankful we have them to save us from the futility of our lives.

Afterword

There was one scene that was funny. Stallone is talking face to face with Willis. And they are the same height! Don’t believe what they say on IMDB. Stallone is about 5’6″. Willis is about 6′. Stallone must have been standing on a box. I bring this up only to show that these men are well aware of the mythic nature of their work. So when they create evil myths like The Expendables 2, they know what they are doing. And that makes them evil.

Update (21 November 2015 10:48 pm)

It turns out that the going price for legal Plutonium is about $4 million per kilogram. The price on the black market, would of course, be vastly more.

The Age of Niallism

Niall FergusonMatthew O’Brien wrote A Full Fact-Check of Niall Ferguson’s Very Bad Argument Against Obama earlier this week. It was in reference to Niall Ferguson’s disgusting counterfactual Newsweek article Obama’s Gotta Go. It seems everyone has written about this at some point during the week—even me. But Ferguson took the time to rebut his attackers in Correct This, Bloggers. The argument he makes is that his facts were technically rarely wrong and that we should all applaud him for writing such a deceptive article.

Today, Matthew O’Brien again takes on the issue, going point by point through Ferguson’s rebuttal, in The Age of Niallism: Ferguson and the Post-Fact World. It is detailed and angering; how can a man like Ferguson be taken seriously? I recommend reading the article.

What is most interesting is the end of the article, where O’Brien gets to the heart of his argument as indicated in his title:

Of course, it’s not just Ferguson. There is an epidemic of Niallism—which Seamus McKiernan of the Huffington Post defined as not believing in anything factual. It’s the idea that bluster can make untruths true through mere repetition. We expect this from our politicians, not our professors. Consider Mitt Romney’s attacks on Obama for supposedly eliminating the work requirement in welfare. That sounds damning, unless you know it’s a complete lie—as Alec MacGillis of The New Republic has tirelessly pointed out. Or consider the economic white paper Romney’s campaign put out. As Ezra Klein has pointed out, the papers Romney’s team cites do not say what they say they say. In other words, Romney’s team draws conclusions from these papers that the authors who wrote them do not agree with. Romney adviser and Stanford professor John Taylor defended their work on the grounds that they quoted their sources accurately. This was never in dispute. The question was whether they selectively quoted their sources, not whether they selectively quoted their sources accurately.

We live in a post-truth age. That’s the term David Roberts of Grist coined to describe the way lies get amplified in our media ecosystem. (If I were feeling cynical, I might say we live in a pre-truth age—maybe things have always been this deplorable.) It’s bad enough when politicians do it. It’s even worse when journalists do too. Now, everybody has biases and those biases unwittingly slant the way we frame facts—myself included. That’s why I try to follow best practices of writers like Felix Salmon. I try to show my work, and admit when I make mistakes. The irony is that there’s an academic who would probably agree with all of the above. His name is Niall Ferguson. His early academic work was as good as his punditry is bad. It’s a shame that Niall Ferguson wasn’t the Niall Ferguson who wrote the Newsweek story.

The Age of Niallism, indeed.

Todd Akin Comes Clean

Todd AkinAt The Onion, “America’s Finest News Source” is not just a slogan; it is an indictment of the entire mainstream media industry. A couple of days ago, they “published” an oped from Representative Todd Akin with the title, I Misspoke—What I Meant To Say Is ‘I Am Dumb As Dog Shit And I Am A Terrible Human Being’.

Of course, I don’t believe this. Well, I don’t believe he is any more dumb than your average Republican, which I will admit has a slight advantage over dog shit. I also don’t believe he is any more terrible than your average Republican, but, of course, that is pretty much the definition of a terrible human being.

Here is his clarification, which I think is very helpful:

You see, what I said was, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” But what I meant to say was, “I am a worthless, moronic sack of shit and an utterly irredeemable human being who needs to shut up and go away forever.”

It is clear to me now that I did not choose my words with care and did not get across the point I was trying to convey. In hindsight, I guess instead of using the words “legitimate rape,” I should have used the words “I am an unforgivable, unrepentant, and unconscionable subhuman dickhead.” Or better yet, “I am an evil, fucked-up man who should never have been elected to the United States Congress, and anyone who would vote for me is probably a pretty big fucking dumbshit, too.” See how much more sense that makes? It’s amazing how a few key word changes can totally alter the meaning of a statement.

Because, of course, it’s all about context. And yes, when you take what I said out of context, I can see how it might sound like I’m denying that women can be impregnated via rape. This is, I assure you, not what I was trying to express at all. Such is the age we live in that one little sentence excerpted in a news report can come back to haunt a person in a pretty big hurry. But if you actually go back and look at the remarks closely, you’ll see that what I was actually trying to convey in my statement was that

(1) I am a big fucking idiot,

(2) I am a nauseating slug of a human being who doesn’t deserve to live, and

(3) I am essentially everything that’s wrong with this country and with humanity in general.

Now I understand!

Mass Market Fun

XXXAs far as I know, my friend Will has never watched a whole movie during his adult life. He just can’t sit still that long. I’ve watched many films over at his place, but he is in and out of the room and if he sees a quarter of them, I’d be surprised. He’s fond of saying things like, “I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it didn’t make sense.” Or “I didn’t understand the ending of Gosford Park.” So when he tells me that he didn’t like a film, I figure that he didn’t actually see it.

Recently, we discussed the film The Matrix. Will told me he didn’t like it. His reasons were vague, but at least it seemed that he had watched much of it. But it’s hard to say. It is the kind of film that can be confusing if, you know, you don’t pay attention. But I found myself hard pressed to make the case for why I think it is an excellent Hollywood film. So I watched it again last night.

The most important thing about the film is that it is a big budget, mass appeal filmed version of William Gibson’s world. The scene where Neo is first prepared to be taken out of the Matrix is the best rendering of cyberpunk sensibility that I have ever seen. And this gets to the heart of the best aspects of the film: its art direction. The distinction between the ugly green of the Matrix versus the dark vibrancy of the real world is stunning.

It is my working theory that the reason we don’t see many musicals any more is that action sequences have taken the place of dances. Most of the time, it is a poor substitute. In The Matrix, however, the action sequences really are beautiful. As we see in the sequels, there is a strict limit to just how much of these we want to see, but the original only leaves me wanting more. I also find the conceit of the Matrix makes these over the top sequences believable in a way that the Mission Impossible films simply don’t.

On the first viewing, what is most compelling is the story itself. It is a good mystery. And even though the mystery is resolved before half the movie is finished, where it leads is so unusual that it propels the narrative all the way to the end.

And then there are the more philosophical issues of the film. I like that Neo and Trinity are about the same age. The references to Christianity are great (“You’re my own personal Jesus Christ” and “The One”), as are those from Alice in Wonderland. It is especially compelling that Neo is an every man who is too frightened to climb to the scaffolding but self-assured enough to give Agent Smith the finger. And perhaps most of all, the anarcho-syndicalism that is the philosophical basis of all the films is a refreshing change from the brain-dead individualism that poisons most action films.

On this last point, I think many people are in the dark. Over the years, I’ve come to see that Neo truly is the chosen one. The only thing that is special about him is that he has entered the Matrix as an adult. This turns out to be critical to him becoming the One. Left to his own devices, he would perhaps have become someone like Morpheus. It seems as though the cookie that the Oracle gives him is some kind of a program which turns him into the One. (See, for example, the cake in Matrix Reloaded.) This pushes against the traditional notion of heroes being born rather than created.

One thing that bothered me for years was why the machines would choose to use troublesome humans as batteries when they could have just used rabbits or sheep. Why the humans? I’ve come to the conclusion (and yes, I’ve spent far more time on this than it deserves) that the machines were originally created to think like humans and that they must use the humans to make their own culture more rich. Frankly, that should have been the basis for the whole movie. The whole idea of the batteries is preposterous.

I’m equally fond of David Cronenberg’s Existenz. But they are entirely different kinds of films. Even though they both deal with virtual reality, Existenz is really a David Cronenberg film. It isn’t any different than Videodrome or Dead Ringers. As much as I may like them, they are not mass appeal films. The Matrix is. And as such, it is hard to beat.

The Value of Bosses

I found this paper The Value of Bosses via WonkBlog:

Do supervisors enhance productivity? Arguably, the most important relationship in the firm is between worker and supervisor. The supervisor may hire, fire, assign work, instruct, motivate and reward workers. Models of incentives and productivity build at least some subset of these functions in explicitly, but because of lack of data, little work exists that demonstrates the importance of bosses and the channels through which their productivity enhancing effects operate. As more data become available, it is possible to examine the effects of people and practices on productivity. Using a company-based data set on the productivity of technology-based services workers, supervisor effects are estimated and found to be large. Three findings stand out. First, the choice of boss matters. There is substantial variation in boss quality as measured by the effect on worker productivity. Replacing a boss who is in the lower 10% of boss quality with one who is in the upper 10% of boss quality increases a team’s total output by about the same amount as would adding one worker to a nine member team. Using a normalization, this implies that the average boss is about 1.75 times as productive as the average worker. Second, boss’s primary activity is teaching skills that persist. Third, efficient assignment allocates the better bosses to the better workers because good bosses increase the productivity of high quality workers by more than that of low quality workers.

The main thing that strikes me about this is the claim that the average boss is 1.75 times as productive as the average worker. The statistic that replacing a bottom 10% boss with a top 10% boss increases productivity by only 10% (one worker out of ten) is pathetic. I don’t see how the authors get from that stat to claiming that an average boss is 75% more productive than an average worker. But we’ll assume it does.

This doesn’t speak that well for bosses. In my experience, worker productivity in technology-based work is highly variable. I think the best employees are on the order of twice as productive as the average. This would make them roughly as productive as the average boss. Given that bosses are generally the best workers who have been promoted, wouldn’t we expect this? Doesn’t this imply that the bosses are just better than average workers and it isn’t their “supervision” that is adding to the productivity?

In case you are wondering, yes, I am suggesting that hierarchical systems are not very helpful in a business environment. I have found that they are often harmful. The best situation is where people have common goals and the best people guide their own work—which after all is what they know best anyway. Unfortunately, I doubt that a bunch of business and management graduates are going to be looking into this question.

48/2 + 7 < 37

Michelle GoldbergFirst things first: in preparing this picture, I had to crop out the copy of Victor Navasky’s history of the Hollywood blacklist Naming Names from Ms. Goldberg’s left. And this is important, because what I’m about to say is not just about the objectification of women. In fact, it isn’t even mostly about that, but she is cute as a button.

The only relationship rule that matters and actually makes intuitive sense to me is Half Age Plus Seven. It states that if your girlfriend or boyfriend is younger than half your age plus seven, it is officially creepy. For me, this age is 48/2 + 7 = 31. This is certainly true. In fact, it seems a little young. But certainly, a man my age having a relationship with someone 25 is beyond creepy. The younger one must have daddy issues and the older one—I don’t even want to think about it.

I bring all this up because I just want to go on record with the fact that I now have a crush on Michelle Goldberg, and although it is pathetic, it is at least not creepy because she is roughly 37 (or about to be). I like her writing and her style and much else. But mostly, this is all about the hair. It’s too cute.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. This doesn’t mean I am giving up my many other crushes such as those on Emily Brewster, Sarah Vowell, and Kristen Schaal. But at my age, my ultimate fantasy is that they’d all come over for tea.

Emily Brewster

Sarah Vowell

Kristen Schaal

Michelle Goldberg

That Michelle Goldberg video is really inspiring.

Abortion Demographics

This is from Sarah Kliff at WonkBlog in an article Who rejects abortion in the case of rape? It tells you all you need to know about abortion politics. If you are very religious in a fundamentalist way, you’re for rapists getting to keep their babies. If you are very ignorant, you are for rapists getting to keep their babies. If you are conservative, you are for rapists getting to keep their babies. Strangely, women are more likely than men to think that rapists should be allowed to keep their babies.

Abortion Demographics

Update (22 August 2012 9:40 pm)

Via CNN via Digby:

It would not be long before I would learn firsthand that in the vast majority of states—31—men who father through rape are able to assert the same custody and visitation rights to their children that other fathers enjoy. When no law prohibits a rapist from exercising these rights, a woman may feel forced to bargain away her legal rights to a criminal trial in exchange for the rapist dropping the bid to have access to her child.

On Hating Women

5 Day Old Human BlastocystThe anti-choice movement is anti-woman. They hate women.

When I wrote about Todd Akin, I got a little push back regarding my insinuation that Akin was some kind of a sexual deviant. I want to be clear: I do think that Todd Akin is a sexual deviant. I think that all the fundamentalist religious people are—at least, based upon their obsessions. Sam Harris noted this in Letter to a Christian Nation when he said something to the effect that the Bible warps people’s priorities and this is why Christians are usually more concerned about premarital sex than they are about genocide.

Todd Akin claims that he cares about women, but he shows no signs of it. I suspect in his mind, he sees a blastocyst as a living, breathing human being. He’s like the serial rapist and murderer who weeps while watching Old Yeller: he is immune to actually human suffering while falling apart over imagined suffering. It is sick. Todd Akin is sick. Those like him are sick.

My issue is not with allowing abortions for rape victims. I think that humans have a right to their own bodies and that society has no right to interfere. There are questions in my mind regarding fetuses that are developed enough to experience pain. However, I would note that very few people are against abortion because of the suffering of the fetus, and this is clearly not an issue in the first few months of a pregnancy.

I at least understand people who say they are against abortion in any case. Their claim is fantastical: a single cell should be given equal rights to life as actual breathing human beings. (I don’t know when fetuses get lungs, but it certainly isn’t at conception.) But given this belief, the rest follows. If a fertilized egg is a human being, then it doesn’t matter how it came into being. If two serial killers mated, that would be no excuse for killing their baby. The baby is innocent. (Although I’d want to keep an eye on it!) So I at least understand where these people are coming from.

Those who allow exceptions to their abortion restrictions are vile. If you deconstruct the rape exception, it comes down to, “If you enjoyed the sex, you have to host that fetus even if it kills you, but if you didn’t enjoy it then we will allow you to avoid your hosting duties.” In this kind of thinking, there is no thought of the fetus as an individual. This is just punitive. Girls that enjoy sex should suffer the consequences! I can’t see this attitude (and it is the most common) as anything other than patriarchal: women must be kept in their places.

The no exception crowd get into trouble when a pregnancy is life threatening. Here it is not just a question of the fetus’s life; it is a choice. What’s more, it could end in mother and fetus dying. Regardless, anyone who chooses the life of the fetus over the life of the mother[1] just hates women.

The whole abortion debate really is about hating women. I don’t think the no exception crowd are just morally rigid. I think they started off hating women and over time they learned that they needed to be consistent. It is only quite recently that people have made “fetus rights” arguments. In the past it was normally “father rights.” This is why I don’t accept the term “pro-life”; these people are anti-choice and anti-woman. In contrast, the pro-choice movement really is made up for people who are in favor of choice.

In the long run, the pro-choice movement will win. Our only way forward is to empower women ever more. And I pity the man who tries to stop them from empowering themselves. A necessary result of female empowerment will be reproductive rights. So we will get there, as long as we don’t move backwards.

Afterword

Note that if the anti-choice movement got its way, it is clear that they would next go after birth control. This is all about un-empowering women. What’s more, they would also pass laws about health standards that women would have to maintain, because from their perspective, until a woman spits out a baby, she has rights only to the extent that they don’t affect the fetus. All you have to do is listen to what these people say today to know how they will act in the future; it is all in their ideology.

Update (22 August 2012 12:51 pm)

This via Digby, the GOP Abortion Platform Survey offers only three answers to the question, “What do you think of the GOP’s platform outlawing abortion, even in the cases of rape and incest?”

  • I’m not sure.
  • I disagree. I believe exceptions should be carved out in cases of rape and incest.
  • I support it. Like the GOP, I believe in “the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

The GOP have defined “pro-choice Republican” out of existance.


[1] Other than the mother herself. Although I think it is wrong, people can choose to die so others may live.

Ari Melber Describes the Republican Party

Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed Ari Melber of The Nation today. I thought what he had to say about Paul Ryan and the Republican Party was very good:

Paul Ryan was for earmarks before he was against them. He was for deficits before he was against them. And he’s part of a political party that inherited a surplus from a Democratic administration in 2001 and as you said in the introduction, spent their way into this big deficit. They are the party that goes out with you for dinner, orders not just appetizers and desert but two big fancy bottles of wine and when the check comes they start yelling at you and the restaurant and the waiter.

He notes that Paul Ryan voted in favor of 91% of the Bush era deficit increases. But he’s a fiscal conservative.

Mad Citizen Kane

Mad KaneVia Crooks & Liars, I discovered Mad Kane’s Blog. Actually, she has a few—I linked to her humor blog. I haven’t spent much time with the blog, but it seems to circle around Madeleine Begun Kane’s love of limericks.

The limerick is an interesting art form. If you throw out all those that use the word “Nantucket,” they are pretty sweet.

Here is one of Kane’s called Dear Conductor:

Dear conductor, you think you’re elite,
But in substance, you’re always off beat.
You pressure musicians
With harsh admonitions.
To follow your stick’s no mean feat.

But I discovered Mad Kane via her political writing. She wrote a limerick about Romney’s continued use of the discredited claim that Obama has ended the work requirement for welfare (which would be a good idea; perhaps I’ll discuss it later):

For Romney, the truth holds no sway,
As his lies mount up day after day.
Welfare, health care and tax—
With the facts he is lax,
Treating voters like ignorant prey.

It is hard after you start reading these not to write them. This may have something to do with the reason I’ve written over 200 songs that you don’t ever want to hear. I like real poetry, of course. But this stuff if such fun. I commented with one limerick, but I later wrote the following that I think is better:

Everyone thinks it’s a pity
To disregard voters in cities
They vote Democrat
And we can’t have that
How else can we all elect Mittie?!

Anyway, there is good fun over there at Mad Kane. In fact, she has a weekly limerick contest if you would like to get involved. The stuff I read was really good. And it isn’t the kind of stuff you have to read many times to understand. So there’s that.