They Might Be James Goldman

James GoldmanOn this day in 1917, actor Susan Hayward was born. Ed Yost, the inventor of the hot air balloon was born in 1919. And magician Harry Blackstone Jr was born in 1934.

Economist Thomas Sowell is 83. Musician Stanley Clarke is 52. And actor Vincent D’Onofrio is 54.

But the day belongs to playwright James Goldman, who was born on this day in 1927. He was the older brother of novelist and screenwriter William Goldman. He’s best known for the play and the filmed version of it, The Lion in Winter. But I most admire him for the film They Might Be Giants, which was also a play but it has never been published.

The film is extremely deep, but I fear that most people don’t understand it. It is basically a modern version of Don Quixote. But in this telling, instead of Quixote thinking he is a knight, he thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. His family thinks he is insane, so he becomes a patient of a psychiatrist, Dr Mildred Watson. Once learning of her last name, Holmes becomes convinced that she is his Dr Watson. As time goes on, Watson is pulled completely into Holmes’ fantasy. On its surface, the film is just a silly comedy. But it is really quite deep and poses all of the most important questions that humans ask. Here is the end of the film (which is about all I could find), which shows the final commitment of Watson to Holmes’ world. It doesn’t completely work on screen, but on the stage it would have been perfect:

Happy birthday James Goldman!

The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.

Sluts Should Suffer for Sex

Bill MaherI’ve been having major computer problems today. I think it is the heat. It was 106 today and it is supposed to be—I am not making this up—118 on Tuesday. So if I’m not blogging it is because my internet connection is down or I’ve died of exposure. The latter case is my preference, but it will greatly limit the postings here.

As a result of this, I want to get up a few quick things while I can. On Friday’s Real Time, Bill Maher performed a really good “New Rules.” He cut right to the heart of what we all know is true. All this concern about abortion and birth control and abstinence has nothing whatsoever to do with religion or keeping people safe. It is all about making sluts pay for the sin of enjoying sex. And just look at how sexist it is. Everyone accepts that men will enjoy sex. But if that happens to a woman, she needs to pay. These religious people are small minded and evil.

But Maher’s rant is pretty funny:

Dean Baker and Perry Hotter

Dean BakerLast week, Dean Baker wrote More Thoughts on Patents and Copyrights. In it, he mentioned that it wasn’t just a matter of how long a copyright was; its scope can be even more harmful to the free market. For example, it isn’t just that J. K. Rowling’s books will be under copyright protection for at least 95 years. She can also prohibit derivative works. For example, Baker notes that he couldn’t come out with his own book, Harry Potter Becomes an Economist. That got me thinking…

Sure, we can’t use “Harry Potter.” But what about “Perry Hotter”? It does seem to me that the economics profession is every bit as mysterious as wizardry. Instead of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it would be the Hogwash School of Chicanery and Subterfuge. Or just the Chicago School of Economics.[1] I’m just brainstorming here. I’ll leave the details up to Baker.

I was also thinking that instead of being a single book, it should be a series. I don’t know why, but seven books seems about right. I’ve got a tentative list of titles:

  1. Perry Hotter and the Economic Stone Age
  2. Perry Hotter and the Chamber of Lies
  3. Perry Hotter and the Prisoners of Austerity
  4. Perry Hotter and the Goblet of Cash (This volume introduces sub-villain Henn Glubbard.)
  5. Perry Hotter and the Order of the Bankers
  6. Perry Hotter and the Half-Baked Principle
  7. Perry Hotter and the Deadly Hollers

I think we’ve got a winner here. The only question is who we use for the Lord Voldemort character. I have a lot of good ideas, but unfortunately, most of them are still alive. Milton Friedman seems like an obvious choice, but despite all the damage he did, he was a pretty good economist. Of course, that’s the thing about economics: you can be great at the art and yet use it for evil purposes. That’s why Alan Greenspan jumps out (not dead, but cadaverous enough for the part), but I don’t think anyone has ever thought of him as a great economists. One doesn’t have to be great to do evil. And then there’s the question of the name. Lord Voldespan might work, but Lord Friedmort has more pizzazz.

I’ll leave all the details to Baker. But I’m really looking forward to reading these books!

[1] Yes, I am aware it produces some fine economists. But recently, major “freshwater economists” seem more involved in apologetics than science.

Conservative and Liberal Lies About Each Other

Rich Uncle Pennybags: Not Real AmericaYesterday, Paul Krugman wrote about why it is that conservatives so hate Acela Express. Of course, it is all about culture. Geoff Nunberg gets it exactly right in the subtitle of his excellent book, Talking Right, “How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.” As he discusses in the book, it turns out that conservatives drink more lattes, drive more Volvos, and eat more sushi.

How can the stereotype be so wrong? It’s simple. As I’ve been saying for a long time, while there are many rich people who are liberals, in general, the rich are conservative. It is true that conservatism is more associated with rural areas, but it is still the rich in those areas who dominate the political landscape. It is not the rural poor who make places like Mississippi the political hellscapes they are. But it wouldn’t be fun for Ann Coulter to write a book mocking the rural the poor. So the target is always the urban rich, who interestingly mostly agree with Coulter and her ilk regarding economic issues.

The Real America Myth

Krugman pushes back on this whole business of the Red States being the True America:

Except they (we) are, in fact, the real America—a lot realer than the small-town, all-white America such people have in their minds. As I’ve pointed out before, the average American lives in a census tract with a population density of more than 5,000 per square mile. That’s not Mayberry—it’s dense, even quasi-urban suburbia. It is, as it happens, the population-weighted density of greater Baltimore.

It’s interesting that he mentioned Mayberry. The typical conservative view of “real America” doesn’t come from American history. It comes from early 1960s TV series like The Andy Griffith Show and Leave It to Beaver. They somehow whisk away all the discord that America ever was. They’re more than interested in lionizing Thomas Paine, as Glenn Beck has done, without engaging with his ideas or recognizing what a hated figure the man was at his death. Their view of what America has always been is as cartoonish as their views of what liberals are.

We Are All Real America

The same goes for us liberals. We too often portray conservatives as know-nothing red necks. And I understand that this kind of thing can be fun. But in the long run, these people will be our allies. They are workers, after all. They need a living a wage. They can be the basis for new age of unionization. And we have much in common with them if we can just talk to them. Our true adversaries are the bankers. There is no talking to them except when they are on the verge of ruin and they need a bailout from us. Otherwise, they will fight us with everything they have (and that’s a lot) for every extra marginal dollar of profit. It isn’t that they are evil; it is just their nature:

Move Ahead — Together

People who must work for a living need to bind together. It is the only way forward.

Intellectual Jokes

Math JokeA Reddit user recent asked a question, “What’s the most intellectual joke you know?” The only joke that immediately came to mind was the classic, “How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “Fish!” There is also a line from Woody Allen during his stand-up days, “My ex-wife was a philosophy major at NYU. She and I used to have deep philosophical discussions where she would prove that I didn’t exist.” But that isn’t really a joke, and it is more about the abuse at the hands of his wife than it is about the nature of existence.

Katy Waldman and Will Oremus over at Slate provided An Idiot’s Guide to the Reddit Thread, “What’s the Most Intellectual Joke You Know?” Now, it’s true that by its very nature, explaining jokes is a thankless task. Here is a screamer of a joke from the 15th century when Europe was just rediscovering the joke:

The abbot of Septimo, an extremely corpulent man, was traveling toward Florence one evening. On the road he asked a peasant, “Do you think I’ll be able to make it through the city gate?” He was talking about whether he would be able to make it to the city before the gates were closed. The peasant, jesting on the abbot’s fatness, said, “Why, if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!”

As I noted last year, this is like, “Take my wife, as in ‘consider my wife’… Please! In the different sense of ‘take’ you see. I was implying that you should consider my wife but I was really just saying that you should take her off my hands! This is because I don’t like my wife very much.” So Waldman and Oremus can be forgiven if they take some of the fun out of the jokes.

Consider this:

Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waitress replies, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?”

They point out that Sartre argued that the absence of something was still something. This is like in Waiting for Godot where Estragon says, “Nothing to be done.” It is the core philosophical idea in the play: how will we accomplish nothing until we thankfully die. But that is really not what the joke is about. You could pull Sartre out of the joke altogether. We delight in the word play: the server can’t deprive you of cream when she has none. Like most jokes, its just silly.

In general, I don’t find the science oriented jokes particularly intellectual. One is a classic that math teachers like to use to explain how statistics can be misused:

A biologist, a chemist, and a statistician are out hunting. The biologist shoots at a deer and misses 5 feet to the left, the chemist takes a shot and misses 5 feet to the right, and the statistician yells, “We got ‘im!”

Here our guides try to be funny by saying that the joke is “mean” as in average. I think it is more correct to say that it isn’t really funny, just interesting. Similarly, the following programming joke:

A programmer’s wife tells him: “Run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, get a dozen.” The programmer comes home with 12 loaves of bread.

This joke doesn’t have to be explained and I’m sure you see how the folks on the Redmond campus were laughing for weeks over this one. But as written, it isn’t correct. It is two sentences. If I were coding it, it would look like this:

Go to store
Pick up bread
If eggs
    Get dozen

That last statement is ambiguous, but it no more means to get a dozen loaves of bread as it does a dozen stores, eggs, or anything else that happens to be on the top of the stack.

There was one joke that I did not get at all, so let me explain it to you first. The Bechdel test is a way to gauge gender bias in fiction. It is really simple. In a novel, do two women ever talk to each other about anything other than men. I find this interesting because my first novel that I think has really great female characters does not pass the Bechdel test. I only have one scene in which two women talk together, and it is all about men—or rather one man in particular. The biggest problem is just that I rarely have women talking to each other. The primary characters are men. The second novel is even worse because two women never talk to each other at all given it is written in strict first person and the character is a man. But it’s food for thought.

Here’s the joke:

Two women walk into a bar and talk about the Bechdel test.

Not exactly a thigh slapper, but clearly intellectual.

My favorite joke I will leave alone because I don’t want to spoil it:

Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?

Let me only add that I am less and less solipsistic and more and more with Woody Allen’s ex-wife: it isn’t even just me.

Here are a few more jokes that I don’t think need explaining, but ask in the comments if I’m wrong:

Pavlov is sitting at a pub enjoying a pint, the phone rings and he jumps up shouting, “Oh shit, I forgot to feed the dog!”

It’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they always take things literally.

Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Noam Chomsky walk into a bar. Heisenberg turns to the other two and says, “Clearly this is a joke, but how can we figure out if it’s funny or not?” Godel replies, “We can’t know that because we’re inside the joke.” Chomsky says, “Of course it’s funny. You’re just telling it wrong.”

Now that I think of it, the most intellectual joke is the meta joke about the nature of jokes themselves, “A priest, a rabbi, and a monk walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘What is this? A joke?'”


Will reminded me of another Woody Allen joke, “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”