Daily Archives: 27 Jan 2015

Tune in Tomorrow and the Search for Light Comedy

Tune in TomorrowBack in 1990, I walked into a movie theater cold, and was treated to Tune in Tomorrow. It is a very clever film adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1977 novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. It stars Barbara Hershey, Keanu Reeves, and Peter Falk. Set in 1950s New Orleans, it features a great score by Wynton Marsalis, much of which is in situ in clubs and restaurants. It also has a beautiful pastel themed art direction that captures the period in all its rose colored nostalgia. Tune in Tomorrow is a sweet and funny comedy that should delight everyone.

So why did it bomb? Why do critics generally dismiss it? Why has no one I know ever seen it? I think I know the answer to this question. The problem is with me. There are many films that I think are anywhere from good to classic that other people dismiss. A partial list will do: Medicine River, Krippendorf’s Tribe, French Kiss. And the problem seems to be that these are sweet and funny comedies. Had they been made in France, well that would be fine. The French are into that sort of thing. So films like My Best Friend, Romantics Anonymous, and The Dinner Game get a fair hearing because the French are allowed to make such movies.

But big budget comedies are somehow not okay in America — at least as long as they aren’t Dumb and Dumber or one of the Farrelly brothers’ films. It’s a strange thing. “Critics” like to complain that Hollywood doesn’t make films for adults, but when Hollywood does make films geared toward escapist fun for adults, these same people savage the films. Apparently, films for adults are supposed to be limited to deadly serious films like Schindler’s List.

I’ll admit, I tend to like French comedies (and generally, European ones) more than American comedies. They tend to be more emotionally complex. They also tend to have relatively low budgets. It seems that Hollywood can’t make a film only for adults; they also worry if it will play with the kids. And God help us when Hollywood decides to remake one of these foreign films. A good example is the remake of The Dinner Game. The original was basically just a filmed play. Almost the entire thing took place in a single location. But the remake, Dinner for Schmucks, became some kind of bloated frenzy, designed to appeal to the only demographic Hollywood is really interested in.

But Tune in Tomorrow really is worth watching. I fully admit, the film would have been better if the French had made it. But I doubt the great care in art direction and music would have been shown. It really is a beautiful film to watch and hear. It was clearly a prestige film — just look at the cast for some of the minor roles: Peter Gallagher, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Hedaya. I suspect that the studio intended to kill it, because I would have thought it would have played reasonably well. It’s hard to say. But lucky for you, the whole thing is available on YouTube — at least for now.

Libertarian Fail on Fifth Amendment

Richard EpsteinIn the most recent issue of Washington Monthly, Michael O’Donnell wrote, SCOTUS Heads Toward the Cliff. It is ostensibly a review of two books about the Supreme Court — mostly, Damon Root’s Overruled: The Long War for Control of the US Supreme Court. I’ll present a quote from the article tomorrow. Right now, I just want to comment on one thing mentioned in the review as a side note. O’Donnell mentioned Richard Epstein, the “dean of judicial libertarians” — who Root apparently talks about with much admiration. But Epstein has a curious take on the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. According to him, the government doesn’t just have to pay for land they take away from a citizen, “It also owes a business money if its regulations have the effect of ‘taking’ the business’ profits.”

By this theory, if the government enacted a law that banned the use of lead in gasoline, the oil companies would have to be paid not only for the cost of doing so but for any related loss in sales because, for example, people used less gasoline because their cars didn’t run as well with unleaded gas. This would effectively tie the hands of the government. As a practical matter, the government would never be able to regulate anything at all. And that, of course, is the point. That’s the point of “judicial libertarianism”: to tie the hands of democracy so that the public sector has no power to do anything.

This is a ridiculous theory. Consider a similar situation in which property rights are set like a fly in amber: the invention of flying. In the distant past, it was generally accepted that the space above your property was your own. The government had no right to tell you that you couldn’t shoot birds that flew over your property. But then planes came in. People were flying over private property. Sound silly? Maybe so, but there was a court case where a farmer sued to stop planes from flying in his air space. Because the aircraft industry had a lot more political power than the farmer, the courts found the way they almost always do: for the powerful. And as a result, air traffic is a common thing.

But not according to Epstein. Or rather, it wouldn’t have been according to Epstein a century ago. Now, I’m fairly sure, he would make some argument about how property rights have a limit in their vertical extent. But there is nothing obvious about that. I doubt very seriously that 19th century farmers would have liked the idea that they only owned a finite box of air. And like all libertarian thought, this idea starts to rattle apart with the slightest of pressure from practical implementations.

Think about what would have happened if the courts had claimed that airplanes couldn’t fly over private property without permission. The airplanes would have ignored the laws. The private property owners would have then had to sue the owners. But how would they have known what airplane violated their property rights? And even if they did, they would have to hunt down the owners and then start legal procedures. That would be pretty hard if the plane belonged to a foreign corporation. And what if a hundred planes flew over? A hundred lawsuits? In the end, the property owner would just give up in frustration. So much for your property rights!

But let’s go back to the leaded gas example. It is more complicated than I just said. Leaded gas is highly toxic; it makes people stupid. Every seller of gas should be culpable for the damage done by the lead that is poisoning society. But in Epstein’s world, the government couldn’t stop them. So every person who was harmed would have to sue every oil company. And that would be hard because it is pretty much impossible to show individual damages, even when it is trivial to show collective damages. And what about the secondary effect of lead: a more violent society. Should people knifed in the park be able to sue?

The situation clearly gets out of hand quickly. And this is why we do allow the government to regulate. Libertarianism may have an impressive simplicity in theory, but it always becomes ridiculously complex in practice. Consider just what a mess it would be if all the roads were owned by various people and we all had to pay tolls on them all. Now compare that to the very simple alternative of public roads funded by gas taxes. Gas use is correlated with road use. It’s a wonderful, simple solution. But it is unacceptable to libertarians because it doesn’t fit into their theory.

Libertarians live in a fantasy land in most of their thinking, but they are most delusional when it comes to the judicial system. They claim that the government can’t do anything right, yet it is going to have a perfect judicial system. Or maybe it is going to be a private system that somehow won’t be corrupted by money. It’s just madness. O’Donnell started a sentence with, “Libertarianism, so principled, so carefully thought out, does not appear to have grappled with…” But you could put anything that is concrete at the end of that. It hasn’t grappled with the real world consequences of anything. Why people take it seriously is beyond me.

Europe Should Let Greece Democracy Work

Francesco SaracenoIt is most likely that from the elections of January 25 will emerge a Syriza-led government, the main uncertainty being how large a coalition Alexis Tsipras will have to gather to obtain a comfortable parliamentary majority. This is seen with a fair deal of preoccupation in Europe. A preoccupation that does not seem warranted. Syriza is no longer the radical party of the beginning, which called for the exit from the euro and for a default on Greek public debt. Today it is party whose program can hardly be defined revolutionary, and whose label of “radical” left is justified mostly by the drifting of other social democratic party in Europe (for example in Italy and in France) towards the center of the political spectrum, and towards a de facto acceptance of the European macroeconomic orthodoxy. Syriza’s leader, Tsipras, as the prospects of victory become more concrete, has further softened his tones and is already actively negotiating with the Commission and with the major countries, in view of a compromise on the key points of his program. However, some of the media and some political leaders around Europe continue to present the Greek elections as an incoming Armageddon, and the possibility of a Syriza victory as the beginning of the end for the monetary union…

On closer inspection, it seems far more radical the position of those who, despite having grossly underestimated the negative effects of austerity, ask for more of the same; of those who insist on advocating supply-side reforms to cope with a chronic lack of demand; and of those who boast having achieved a balanced budget one year ahead of forecasts, when Europe would benefit from a recovery of domestic demand in Germany…

Europeans should stop worrying and let democracy play its role. A Syriza-led government (possibly forming an alliance with George Papandreou’s To Kinima) would not cause an earthquake. Rather the contrary, it could help stirring things up, and bring within the European debate discussion about measures the need for which is now obvious to all except to those who will not see.

—Francesco Saraceno
Who are the Radicals in Europe?

Organic Macromolecules on Comet P67

Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P)You may remember back in November, I went a little crazy about the Rosetta mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P). And I was especially crazy about the lander, Philae, because I thought that through it, the science team would be able to test for organic compounds. This is my main interest in comets: the idea that the building blocks of life (or life itself) could have been seeded onto earth. So when Philae did its big bounce and got jammed up against a cliff wall, my hopes were dashed. But I was mistaken. It turns out that Rosetta can do a whole lot more from a distance from the comet than I had realized.

Last week, Science Magazine put out a special issue on new research from the Rosetta mission. Joseph Stromberg over at Vox provided a good overview, The Rosetta Probe Discovered That Comet 67P/C-G Is Light as a Cork. As the title indicates, 67P has a very low density: roughly that of a cork. It’s porosity is more than 70%. Associated with that, I think, is the fact that the comet has very little water. I assume that the comet once had water, which it outgassed, leaving behind all these pores. So that’s interesting. Also of note is the fact that the water that is on the comet is much “heavier” than earth water — as a percentage, there is three times as much deuterium (“heavy hydrogen” or hydrogen with a neutron).

But the big news is a paper by F Capaccioni and 77 colleagues, The Organic-Rich Surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as Seen by VIRTIS/Rosetta. The satellite has a spectrometer that looks at visible and infrared light. And looking at the light that bounces off the surface of the comet, they can tell what bandwidths are absorbed and thus determine which chemicals are on the surface. Based upon this, they found very little water and lots of organic compounds. Well, what they say is very much what we expect from scientists: their results are “compatible with opaque minerals associated with nonvolatile organic macromolecular materials.” I have to wonder if creatures had evolved and were building high rises, would they be willing to say much more than that the buildings were compatible with the existence of higher life forms?

Unfortunately, we don’t know what the organic chemicals are. All the spectral data can tell us is that they are “a complex mixture of various types of carbon-hydrogen and/or oxygen-hydrogen chemical groups, with little contribution of nitrogen-hydrogen groups.” DNA and RNA consist of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. But long carbon compounds are primarily concerned with carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The fact that the data indicate macromolecular materials, that would have to be what we are talking about.

This is all very exciting. And this is just what scientists managed to discover so far. In fact, this article isn’t even based on the results of Rosetta while orbiting it. The paper was submitted to Science Magazine back in the middle of October. The main thing to remember is that it is this kind of science that the Rosetta mission is all about. Here in the United States, we tend to focus on the technology side of it, “Hooray! We got a spaceship to orbit a comet! We landed on a comet!” But that’s just the means of doing something much greater. The objective of the mission is to better understand the origins of the solar system. And that work will be going on for years to come. It’s great stuff — the best of what we are.

Mozart Again!

MozartOn this day in 1756, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born. Look: I know. I did him last year. And it is also Lewis Carroll’s birthday. But I’m crazy for Mozart. As I noted last year, “Mozart is the sweet spot between the intellectual excesses of the Baroque period and the emotional excesses of the Romantic period.” But that isn’t to say that I think Mozart is some kind of singularity. Mozart was undoubtedly the greatest of the Classical period composers. But Haydn and Gluck are great too. So are a number of other composers that I don’t want to take the time to list.

I am not, however, a Mozart idolator. One thing I hate is this idea people have that Mozart was born a great composer. “This man had written his first concerto at the age of four — his first symphony at seven — a full-scale opera at twelve!” Yeah, but they sucked. I mean, not for a four, seven, or twelve year old. They show great potential. But Mozart learned a great deal over the years. In particular, it was his formal study of counterpoint that really moved his music from charming to great. And the music that I love the most was written during the last couple of years of his life. That’s the great tragedy of his short life.

Anyway, let’s listen to some music. I can’t help but present to you this performance of his D major flute concerto. It is not one of his great works. It is a total hack job, yet it is still wonderful. But the flutist is Emmanuel Pahud, who is 45 today:

Since we listened to the G minor symphony last year, let’s do some opera today. I wanted to provide something from his first unquestionably great opera, Idomeneo, King of Crete. But there really isn’t anything good online. The same is true of The Abduction from the Seraglio. So let’s just cut to the chase and present Bergman’s filmed version of The Magic Flute:

Happy birthday Mozart!