Daily Archives: 23 Jan 2015

Stanley Kramer Soiled Me With His Cynicism

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldThe other night I watched It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — Stanley Kramer’s almost three hour long, hundred star comedy. I saw it on television when I was very young. And I remembered it as being somewhat funny. But mostly, I didn’t remember much of it at all — just the scene where Sid Caesar and Edie Adams are locked in the hardware store, and the scene where Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Provine figure out what the “big W” is. Otherwise: not much. But it is a classic and I’m especially interested in how comedy ages.

Because the film is so long, it has an intermission after an hour and a half. And it is a good dividing line for the film. From my perspective, the first section is near perfect. The action and comedy all work. In fact, it looks easy. And this is with some actors who I really don’t like (Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney). But the second section goes to hell. Well, that isn’t exactly true. The first half hour of the second section is very good. But the last forty minutes of the film is a real slog.

About the only thing that I took away from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade was that a third act should be resolved as quickly as possible. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World breaks this rule of thumb in a big way. The ending goes on and on and on. It culminates in a ridiculous sequence when all the male leads are stranded on a very high fire engine ladder. It is excessive for no real purpose. And looking at it over fifty years later, the special effects are terrible. This is made even worse by the fact that other effects earlier in the film were rather well done.

On top of all this, the film has a very dark ending where every major character is in jail and all the men are also in traction. But it does go along with the overall — incredibly cynical — take on human nature. According the film, all people are greedy and selfish and, as a result, irrational. Still, if everyone is guilty and the only difference is that some of us encounter temptation, then how can any of us deserve to be punished — given that we would all do the same thing in those circumstances.

This is a thematic problem that I have with a lot of modern narrative art. I know that a lot of my friends think of me as something of a Pollyanna. But I think that people are a good deal more decent than we give them credit for. My friend Will likes to point out that most of the politicians that he hates — like Bush the Younger — would probably be great neighbors. I think he’s right. It’s generally external factors that set us against each other. In the film, it is just greed.

But there is more. The police are onto the group of treasure hunters from the very beginning. But it seems, through most of the film, that somehow everything will come together. But it doesn’t. Instead, the film is like watching the universe expand until it tears itself apart. There is no feeling of resolution. We just watch these people behave badly for hours and then get punished. It’s not so much bad as pointless. And it poisons the earlier parts of the film that were entertaining.

There are two exceptions from the rest: characters who weren’t just motivated by greed. First, Spencer Tracy as the police captain. He’s actually driven to his bad behavior by various forces in his life. It is hard to blame him. And then, as though the filmmakers just wanted to make it all the more painful, his major complaint is addressed, but he doesn’t learn of it in time. The second character is Dorothy Provine as Milton Berle’s wife. She’s the only one who learns anything — namely, that chasing after the money was a big mistake. She too has a pitiable life. But there is no redemption or escape for either character. In fact, things go the worst for Tracy — even though he is one of the least guilty.

It’s tempting to suggest people watched the first two-thirds of the film. But I don’t think that works. Ultimately, you want an ending and whether you put yourself through the final half hour of tedium or not, you only get a “stop.” But the film might be enjoyed just to watch for the roughly fifty cameos. Or if you really think all people are awful and they deserve to be punished, maybe you will love it. As for me, I feel like I did more than waste three hours. I feel like I got soiled.

Adam Smith on Mistaking Wealth for Wisdom

Adam SmithThis disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.

We desire both to be respectable and to be respected. We dread both to be contemptible and to be contemned. But, upon coming into the world, we soon find that wisdom and virtue are by no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object; the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity. the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its coloring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.

—Adam Smith
The Theory of Moral Sentiments

H/T: Stumbling and Mumbling.

Police Shootings Only News if on Video

Police ShootingSteven D over at Booman Tribune alerted me, Unarmed Black Man Shot By Cops, Again. It is about Jarame C Reid who was killed during a traffic stop in Bridgeton, NJ — in which he was just the passenger. It happened back on 30 December, but it is getting attention how because the police dashboard camera video was just released. And it shows that Reid was shot while he was apparently unarmed with his hands raised over his head.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t watched the video. I’m not going to watch the video. Things like that are extremely upsetting regardless of the circumstances. But according to all the reporting, the video is clear. Steven D added, “You can hear anxiety, anger and fear in the voices of the police…” And I figure that’s what happened here. Police, like all people, get themselves worked up. Emotionally, they are on a hair trigger and unfortunately, they have guns. This is not to apologize for the officers, but I can well see how such a thing could happen without the officers being psychopaths.

What bothers me in all this is that the shooting was not really a story for three weeks. There were witnesses who said that Reid was shot while unarmed and with his hands up. But that didn’t much matter — especially after Michael Brown, and what was a farce of a grand jury and the resulting media narrative that claimed that such eyewitnesses were lying, when they were contradicted only by the officer and one clearly deranged racist who almost certainly wasn’t there. So I can understand why the media is reluctant to report on yet another case where the police kill an unarmed black man who had his hands raised.

Is this where we are as a society? Can the police kill any black man with a crowd of ten thousand witnesses, and have it be no story? That is: it is no story unless there is video footage of the incident? That certainly seems to be the case. Certainly, Eric Garner’s death would have been nothing at all if it hadn’t been for the video. And even with the video, there was no indictment. And I seriously doubt there will be an indictment in Reid’s case. Because it can’t be the officers’ fault because it is never the officers’ fault because they were afraid and their jobs are so dangerous. Also: a police officer’s word is always golden because they would never lie — not even when it is very much in their interests to do so.

We have a really bad situation in this country. And it is bizarre. The same people who are convinced that they must hold onto their guns or Obama will send the black helicopters after them, believe that local law enforcement officers are above the law. But even apart from these freaks, white America needs to wake up. This may be primarily a problem in minority communities where it seems that the police are constantly in fear of their lives. But that kind of thing grows. Nothing I’ve seen indicates that the police will stop being pussies. With every police shooting, all we hear is about what heroes most officers are and how dangerous their jobs are and how we should just be happy they don’t go door to door killing the first born son of every family.

So I understand how it happens that police officers allow situations to escalate, become fearful, and then use deadly force. But I don’t think that makes it acceptable. It’s like how abusing children can make them violent adults. I understand, but that doesn’t excuse it. I still think murderers should be punished. As a society, we can’t continue to excuse misbehavior and incompetence on the part of our police. The stakes are too high.

When Is Democracy Undemocratic

Jonathan BernsteinThe consistently brilliant Jonathan Bernstein was answering questions yesterday. And one of them really caught my eye, So What If Majority Parties Lose? In the article, he claimed, for example, that the Republicans holding the House in 2012 despite losing the popular vote was more due to a Democrat being in the White House than any built in advantage for the Republicans. He also claimed that it is most democratic to not allow small majorities to do whatever they want (as can happen in a parliamentary system). I have problems with both claims, even if I don’t fully disagree.

Let’s start with the idea that there is no built in advantage for Republicans — a claim that Bernstein seemed to imply, but in fairness, never said. In the article, Bernstein noted that the Democrats did very well in 2006. That’s true, but so what? In the House that year, Democrats won 15% more seats than the Republicans did. But they also won 20% more of the popular vote. Compare that to 2012 when the Democrats got 14% less of the seats, even though they won 2% more of the vote. Or 2010: Republicans got 25% more seats but won the popular vote by 15%. Or 2014: Republicans got 31% more seats but won the popular vote by less than 13%. That seems like an extremely troubling systemic bias. And this is the House of Representatives! The Senate is far less democratic — by design. But it is clear that we have problems that go beyond the design of our system and the fact that liberal voters live in high density areas.

This brings up something that really bugs me. It is the idea that there is a “natural gerrymandering” because liberals live in high density places like cities and states that aren’t backwaters. I don’t have a huge problem with the Senate. It is, as I mentioned, designed that way. Similarly, there is a smaller effect in low population states in the House. But there is nothing natural about putting making districts strictly urban or rural. The only thing that is natural is that it is to the advantage of various political actors to do that. These same political actors have no problem creating the most unnatural districts when that suits them.

Bernstein’s main point in the article is one that I’m not totally against. It goes back to Karl Rove’s idea that if you got 50% plus one vote, that gave you the ability to do anything you want. Of course, it doesn’t. It is more true when Republicans are in the majority because, in general, Democrats are spineless pussies. But in some ways, it is good that our system is set up to make change proceed slowly.

But there is another aspect of this that I think is quite poisonous. Because political parties never get to do what they really want to do, the voters never get to see clearly what they are voting for. For example, as much as the Republicans may whine, Obamacare is still a fairly conservative plan. So the people never got the opportunity to see a truly liberal idea: Medicare for all. Similarly, the economic policy these last six years has been more conservative than the policies we saw of any Republican going back to Hoover. I don’t mean tax policy here. I mean government spending. So we’ve had a very slow recovery. But that isn’t the fault of liberal policy.

The question is whether allowing voters to see what their actual votes mean would make up for the absolutely disastrous policy that the Republicans would push when they did get into power. And I have to admit: I don’t know. But it does bug me that the American voter still depends almost entirely on the vagaries of the economy to determine who to vote for. It all seems quite random. And in this way, Bernstein was right when he noted, “In other words, it’s a problem if a party that takes 49.5 percent of the vote gets to run the government, but it’s almost as big a problem if a party that wins 50.5 percent gets to run it.” But maybe if people were able to see what their votes mean, we wouldn’t have a political party as crazy as the modern Republicans.

David Hilbert

David HilbertOn this day in 1862, the great mathematician David Hilbert was born. It’s always hard to write about mathematicians who worked any time in the last couple hundred years. This is because most people find the idea of equations themselves to be highly theoretical. But for a very long time, mathematicians have been more involved in working out things like the theory of equations. So for most people, it is the theory of theory. Mathematicians don’t find solutions to equations, but rather find out fundamental properties of kinds of equations. And even that is rather old — more Évariste Galois than David Hilbert.

Hilbert built on Galois’ work in invariant theory, but he was also very interested in geometry and mathematical logic. Sadly, my grasp of this stuff is tenuous at best. This understandably limits my ability to discuss them. But it isn’t the specifics of the math that I care about getting across. It is just that it so aggravates me that most people have such a skewed notion of what math is. Most people think it is multiplication tables. Yet I can hardly think of a less mathematical thing. For one thing, it is about memorizing. For another, it is about numbers. Math isn’t about numbers! And something you will notice if you look at a discussion of Hilbert space is that numbers are never used! About the only place where numbers are used is in number theory — and even there, you won’t find many numbers, because it is really about the nature of numbers and not the numbers themselves.

Happy birthday David Hilbert!