Midnight in Paris

Midnight in ParisLast night I watched Midnight in Paris. It is quite a good film with lots of honest fun for the intellectually or artistically inclined. On the down side, it is a Woody Allen film. By this I mean that it was continuously delightful but never transcendent. Of course, it will likely also be the best film you will see in the next year.

The main thing that bugged me was how heavy handed the film was about its theme of illusion and reality. It came to a head in the third act where Gil Pender has taken Adriana from her world in 1920s back to the world of 1890. Just as Gil wanted to escape the modern world and live in the 1920s, Adriana wanted to escape back to the 1890s. When Adriana wants to stay, Gil explains the problem. Most of it is unbearable. But like a good neurotic, Allen pulls it back to the reality of better living through chemistry:

I’m having an insight now. It’s a minor one, but it explains the anxiety in my dream that I had. I had a dream the other night where… It was a nightmare where I ran out of Zithromax. And then I went to see the dentist, and he didn’t have any Novocain. You see what I’m saying? These people don’t have any antibiotics!

As a side issue that doesn’t much get in the way, this is all fine. But to make a big deal about it? It detracts, to say the least. Not only is it old news that people dream of a better time. It is old news that people have always known it was old news. This is from 1859:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

But as I said, it is a fun movie. Unfortunately, Modigliani did not live long enough to be one of the characters.

But we’ll always have this:

Modigliani - Portrait of Chaim Soutine

Debates Would Be Meaningless Even If They Were Debates

George FarahThe New York Times has an article by Brian Stelter about the presidential debates, Memo Outlines Format and Rules for Candidate Debates. It basically demonstrates the the debates are a sham.

The most important part of the article is a quote from George Farah, “An anti-trust lawyer who runs Open Debates, a group that calls the current debate system antidemocratic.” He says:

In 1992, audience members and the moderator could ask anything, and no one knew the questions to be asked. In 1996, follow-up questions were banned… In 2004, all questions had to be prescreened by the moderator in advance, in some ways arguably reducing the audience members to props. In 2012, there are new restrictions on what the moderator herself can do—no follow-ups, no reinterpretations of questions, nothing really, except keep time and hold the microphone.

Of course, there is also the argument that Lawrence O’Donnell has put forth that the debates are basically useless because they don’t test what a president actually does.

But Farah is correct that we can’t get to the heart of what the candidates believe if we can’t have an honest debate—artificial as the whole process may be.

Newsweek Article or Drug Trip?

Newsweek - Heaven Is RealErowid is an organization that provides information about drugs and the experiences that drug users report. From the earliest days of its website (that predates the organization by about a decade), it has more focused on psychedelic drugs (but it covers all of them). On the site are lots of “trip reports” where people explain what happened to them while high.

The deliciously evil Max Read over at Gawker has created a test to see if you can tell the difference between passages from Erowid trip reports and the recent Newsweek cover story, Heaven Is Real. Let me offer you a taste of this with one passage each from the Newsweek article and an Erowid trip report. I’ll tell you which is which after you read through them.

First:

As I walked deeper, I could see, standing in the middle of the room, an object similar to an hour glass. It was slowly turning over. I became aware that this vessel, as it tipped over, transferring its contents from the small red end to the larger blue end, was transforming me.

Second:

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this: ‘You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.’ ‘You have nothing to fear.’ ‘There is nothing you can do wrong.’ The message flooded me with a vast and crazy sensation of relief. It was like being handed the rules to a game I’d been playing all my life without ever fully understanding it.

This is really hard. The truth is, even after looking at the answers, I keep mistaking one for the other. I’m pretty sure that the first one is the trip report and the second is the Newsweek article. But if you really want to be certain, you should click over the the Gawker article and see for yourself.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about this. I am not ridiculing the drug trip reports. These things are beautiful and meaningful. They say much about what we are as human beings. The problem is with the Newsweek article. It claims to be something that the trip reports do not: a report of some external reality. The human mind—under the influence of drugs or not—has an astounding[1] ability to create narrative structures based upon the smallest of external stimuli.

It’s pathetic that Newsweek doesn’t seem to understand this. But what do you expect when a major news magazine puts Tina Brown in charge?

Thanks to regular reader Andy for pointing me to this.


[1] It’s astounding:

Andrew Sullivan: Don’t Be Like Me

Andrew SullivanAh, the blogger’s life! Most of it is one long anxiety attack: staying up on the news and writing something fast that doesn’t suck too much. But now and then, something comes along that makes it all worth while. I imagine it is like a great hitter watching an anemic fast ball heading toward the plate. And today, that ball was thrown by Andrew Sullivan over at The Daily Beast.

I know, after the recent laugh fest over Sullivan’s freak out about Obama’s poor debate performance and plummeting poll results, perhaps I should give him a pass. After all, he may be suffering from PTSD. But I’m not going to let him off because what he is doing today is really over the top. Also: he’s kind of a dick.

Sullivan is calling out Jackson Diehl for wanting to invade Syria. What’s with this guy? Does he want to invade every country? These are good questions and they can be summed up the same way that I summed up Sullivan: Diehl is kind of a dick.

But whether it is because Sullivan understands that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones (Dicks shouldn’t call out dicks), he calls out Diehl for being a supporter of the Iraq War:

Remember that there was no—repeat no—consequences for any of Washington’s pundits who backed the Iraq war. Torture-enthusiast, Marc Thiessen, got a column out of it. Liz Cheney parlayed a career atop the corpses of 100,000 dead Iraqis. Charles Krauthammer, architect of the torture policy, advocate for Greater Israel, instigator of the calamity of the Iraq war, for which he has never apologized, is still regarded as the dean of Washington conservatism.

Do you know who also suffered no—repeat no—consequences for supporting the Iraq War? Andrew Sullivan.

On the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, Slate asked the question, “How did we get the Iraq War so wrong?” That’s easy: because you employ a bunch of evil idiots. A better question is the one implied by Andrew Sullivan, “Why do evil idiots continue to be employed by major media outlets?” It just so happens I have two answers for that.

  1. Fucktards like Andrew Sullivan don’t even remember being wrong.
  2. The vast majority of the commentariat were wrong about this and don’t like to be around people who were right because that just makes them feel bad.

I think Sullivan should go back to freaking out about Obama’s debate performance.

Afterword

Regular readers will be disappointed that I did not call out Sullivan on his grammar error. All I can say is that I’m feeling kind today.

No Sea Monster?!

Giant Florida Eyeball Identified
Gino Covacci, the intrepid beachcomber who found the eye on a Florida beach, thought it had belonged to a squid.

But experts who examined the eyeball made their call of swordfish based on the its size (softball), color (blue) and structure (presumably swordfishy), according to a statement from Joan Herrera, curator of collections at the agency’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Based on straight cuts on the bone around the eyeball, Herrera said, experts think an angler cut it out of a swordfish and tossed it overboard.

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I understand why the angler who had wrenched the swordfish from the sea also cut out its eyes and tossed them overboard. Those lifeless, yet reproachful eyes would have haunted him all the way back to shore. Or maybe they’re not edible.

On the other hand, the cavalier reporting of this fascinating drama is not so easily understood. The structure was “presumably swordfishy“? Seems somebody doesn’t take his job very seriously. If news isn’t worth reporting, at least have the decency to pretend that it is.

Accidental Eavesdropping

Old ManAging, thankfully, is an effortless transformation; having to work at it would be a pain in the ass. Instead, every morning — after putting on my glasses of course — I eagerly gaze into the mirror. What new magic did the Fairy of Death work upon my face as I slept? Puffy eyes that last a little longer each day? A slightly deeper brow furrow? Or maybe a long chin bristle that I can feeI but not see without my glasses and a magnifying mirror? Every day brings me a little closer to becoming the scary old lady I know is trapped inside.

One aspect of getting older that does require effort is collecting doctors. It is not easy to find doctors one is comfortable with and that accept our insurance. As of now, I have a GP, a dentist, a gynecologist, a dermatologist, and a chiropractor. Once I find a good psychatrist I’ll have a full set!

Everyone knows that having doctors means having prescriptions, which also means plenty of pharmacy visits. I imagine that some time in the next ten years, I’ll have been to the local RiteAid so often, there will come a day when I’ll hobble in and the staff will yell “Norm!”

On a recent visit, as I sat waiting for a prescription to be filled, a gray-haired man of about 70 stepped to the counter. The clerk cheerfully asked, “How are you today?” The man replied with the gusto of a man twice his age, “Still vertical – so that’s something.”


“I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places.” —Henny Youngman (1906 – 1998)

Romney Will Explode National Debt

Romney - No We Can't - NopeAccording to the new Washington Post / ABC News poll, Obama has bounced back a bit. He leads Romney in almost all of those sub-questions like, “Is Obama or Romney better on the issue of Medicare?” But the one big place that Romney is leading is on the deficit. By a margin of 8%, the people think that Romney would be better on the deficit. Wow.

I went out to dinner with my father last night and we discussed politics as usual. I explained Romney’s plan: cut taxes, close loopholes, balance the budget. Of course, Romney can’t do all of this without raising taxes on the middle class. But regardless of what the Obama campaign says, Romney will not raise taxes on the middle class. That would be political suicide. What’s going to happen is that Romney will explode the deficit.

“Really?” my father replied like a child who just learned that Santa Claus is a myth. Sometimes my father is adorable, as he was last night. He thinks of himself a cynical old man who knows that all the politicians are crooks and liars. In fact, he is one of the most naive people I know—perpetually shocked that politicians do different things than they promise.

We don’t even have to look at Romney or his plan; we need only look at history. From the end of World War II on, the national debt declined. Under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter: it went down and down and down. Then Ronald Reagan ran. A big part of his stump speech was that the national debt was exploding. It was a big problem! And he was going to solve it by cutting taxes. (I can’t put my finger on it, but I seem to remember someone else suggesting this plan.)

So the debt not only went up, it went way up. And it continued up under Bush Sr. And it went up during Clinton’s first term, but then went down under his second. But then we elected another deficit cutter; under Bush Jr. the debt went way up again. Under Obama, the debt has continued up. But I don’t blame this on him. In fact, if you look at this graph, it is hard not to blame Bush Jr.

CBPP Debt Time Series Graph

I hate having to make this argument. The truth is that I’m not worried about the debt. Right now, we need more debt, not less. It is only after the economy recovers that we should deal with our debt. This is because government debt can crowd out private sector borrowing when the economy is booming. But as long as the economy is in recession, almost no amount of borrowing will harm the private sector. As it is, corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars not knowing what to do with it.

So it is frustrating as hell to have people like my dad vote for Romney because he will reduce the debt when just the opposite is what will happen. Matt Yglesias has written about this exact point. Right now we should be spending more. Obama—like most Democrats—is conservative and probably won’t spend as much as Romney. (Also, if Romney is President, he will have a Republican congress and they will go wild.)

So why not vote for Romney? In this particular case, it is because not all spending is created equal. Romney’s spending will go to two things: tax cuts for the rich (There is no way around that and anyway: look at history!) and increased military spending. Note that the military spending will not go to hiring more soldiers or paying them better. It will go to the weapons manufacturers. This will create jobs, of course, but not as many jobs (PDF) as it would if the money were spent on healthcare or education or just about anything else. The bottom line is that the debt that Romney will run up will primarily go to people who already have more money than they can use. This is not the way to a prosperous economy.

If you care about the nation debt or if you don’t, you should vote for Obama. He isn’t perfect, but he has reasonable and pragmatic policies. Romney is offering the same policies that have failed for the last 30 years. What more needs to be said?

Afterword

Check out this great zFacts video on the history of the national debt. It’s only 4:15 long.