Sudoku, Caribou, and the Pointless Life

Stupid GamesI came upon this Sudoku website. Well, “came upon” is not quite right. I went looking for Sudoku because I was bored. And I found out that even though I’m really good at the game, I’m slow — not even in the top half of players. I believe this is because I’m like that talking dog in Up, “Squirrel?!” I’m just not that good at things that require me to focus for long periods of time. I focus on the puzzle, I focus on something else, I focus on the puzzle. I was the same way when I played chess. People would think that I was analyzing the position, but more often than not I was thinking about lunch.

I did four puzzles and I could have done dozens. I could do them every day all day. They occupy my mind. But I don’t do that because I think that I have more important things to do. But I’m not so sure that that is true. I could write a novel or I could solve a thousand Sudoku puzzles. And other than the fact that I might make a little money from the novel, I doubt I would get much more out of one than the other. And once I’m dead I absolutely don’t care.

Puzzles always bring this up in my mind. They are the clearest indication that what we do is just waste time until we die. As Schopenhauer put it, “We see only momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium [everyone against everyone], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.” What is the point?

For the vast majority of us, life is a struggle. We have jobs that we hate. But we must have jobs! If we didn’t have jobs, we would die due to starvation or exposure or just some police officer beating us to death. But what do those jobs accomplish? They allow us to live for another day that we will use for the exact same purpose that we used the last day for: to live to struggle through yet another day. Even the momentary gratification we get in the course of the day is an illusion — a delusion that things might not be as bad as we think or that tomorrow might not be as bad as today.

Is life so precious? All my grand desires to do something great or at least marginally meaningful are at base no more profound than solving a Sudoku puzzle. Imagine waking up each morning knowing that your job was to solve a couple hundred puzzles. I don’t think it is hard to do. The work of most people is no more meaningful than that. And I accept Schopenhauer’s reason for this: it is our will to live. But not all lives are equally pointless. For many people the world over, life is very hard indeed. Some people live their whole lives is terrible pain. That isn’t necessary. There are social forces that dictate that. Namely: there are rich people who have spent a great deal of time and power “convincing” the rest of us that we would all be worse off if most of the resources of the world didn’t go to them.

I’m not sure that any life is any more worth living than one spent doing nothing but solving Sudoku puzzles. But I do know that our society is set up to make all of our lives as pointless as one long Sudoku solving session — this is perhaps more true of the rich than anyone else. The only difference is the quality of the food, the lodging, the entertainment. Humans consider themselves very smart. And when it comes to pointless things, like solving Sudoku puzzles, we are. But when it comes to how we’ve set up our society and how we use our resources, we are as stupid as caribou.

How Neoliberalism Destroyed the Left

Richard SeymourFor neoliberals, it’s not the volume of state activity that is the concern, it’s the character of state activity. As long as the state is getting involved to support markets and the spread and development of markets — financial markets and in other ways too — as long as the state is opening up the public sector to private profit while bearing the costs, and as long as the state is using its coercive power to punish non-market transactions, the state has a very strong central role.

These things have effects. One of the things you can see throughout the 1980s that Mrs Thatcher did — she tried to launch so called popular capitalism. That wasn’t very effective at the time. It didn’t win the majority of people over. It won a minority of people who were the base of the Thatcherite insurgency. But New Labor, because the political forces of the left had been defeated — because the labor movement had been defeated so drastically — New Labor basically internalized the ideas and the dominant policies of neoliberalism, and governed on that basis, and because their base was a working class one, and because it was a left-wing one, they learned to communicate these goals — policy goals and aspirations — that working class and radical people could at least accept — at least acquiesce in. And that had an effect. It was under New Labor that attitudes shifted so much on issues to do with nationalization, welfare, redistribution — a whole series of indices.

—Richard Seymour
Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made

Forty Years of Corporate Comedy

SNLI saw Edward Norton on All In talking about the 40 year anniversary of Saturday Night Live. I should be clear about my position on this: I could not possibly care less. There are mosiqutos being swatted in the swamps of Louisiana that I care about more. I certainly did watch it in its early years. And I do mean its early years. I was raised by people who would today be called bad parents who had no problem with my staying up until one in the morning. But I always thought that SCTV (Second City Television) was far superior to SNL. This might seem strange because most of the stars of each show came out of the same place: The Second City. So why did SNL fail so much more than it succeeded?

I think the problem was Lorne Michaels — or at least his production staff. Rather than build something, the show constantly depended upon hiring talent that did a single character. The character was funny — no writing was required. The best example of this was Julia Sweeney. Let’s be clear: she’s a comedic genius. I love her. But the only thing that SNL could ever find for her to do that was at all interesting was the annoyingly androgynous Pat. And that is the linchpin to the “magic” that is SNL.

During the first season, the show had seven cast members plus the only person who was truly amazing in those early years, Michael O’Donoghue. Now every time I see the opening of SNL I’m shocked at the dozens of cast members. Again, it’s the “Oh, you do one thing? Join the cast!” philosophy of the show. If SNL is on for another 40 years, I figure it will be an hour and twenty-five minutes of cast introduction followed by a single skit that makes one long for the mediocrity of Chevy Chase.

What really struck me about Norton’s interview was his claim about what a big happy family the people are who make Saturday Night Live. I am at a distinct disadvantage in believing this. First, there is the fact that people like Edward Norton and other stars are about as truthful during these interviews as Bill Clinton was when Hillary first brought up Monica Lewinsky. But even more, I’ve read a lot about the show — several books. They present a rather different picture of the show. It is one in which everyone hates everyone else and is jealous of everyone’s success. They fight viciously to get the better writers to create things for them and to get their own work featured. In other words, SNL is the perfect example of everything you’ve heard about what horrible people comedians are.

If you want to get a good idea of this, I suggest that you check out the director’s commentary of any Christopher Guest film ever. Guest — or as his friends call him, Christopher Haden-Guest, 5th Baron Haden-Guest — is very clearly a miserable bastard. I’m really quite amazed that he hasn’t killed himself. It must be that royal blood — a form of noblesse oblige. Then again, maybe he’s a decent guy and just one season working on Saturday Night Live will do that to you.

Regardless, let’s not make a big deal about Saturday Night Live. In an international context, it is an embarrassment. Is it supposed to be our Monty Python? God help us if that’s so. But most of all, let’s not romanticize the show as though it is some happy place where all the kids get together to “put on a show!” It’s corporate entertainment — moderately funny at its best. And it’s survived because it hasn’t had to compete with Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Dick Cavett Show.

Afterword

I would remind anyone who thinks I’m being overly hard on SNL that I have a long history of complaining about the show. My biggest complaint all along is that it has lowered the quality of comedy writing in the United States. I don’t doubt for a second the quality of the acting talent on the show. But again, that’s what corporate media are good at: looking around and finding onscreen talent. But at no time did anyone think that writing quality comedy was important. The show had two options: go with the cutting edge of Michael O’Donoghue or go with well crafted comedy. Instead, it went with poorly crafted comedy designed to never offend: the worst of all worlds!

American Media Shill for Power Elite

Shinzō AbeShinzō Abe is the prime minister of Japan. He was elected with promises to stimulate the Japanese economy using standard Keynesian economics. Basically, he’s trying to bring the New Deal to Japan. And since he was elected in late 2012, the Japanese economy has done pretty well. But from the very start, mainstream reporters in the United States have had little but derision for Abe. It reminds me of Eric Alterman’s classic book, What Liberal Media? When it comes to economics, American reporters push the interests of their publishers. And for the better known reports — the ones clearly inside the upper class — they push the interests of their class. (And let’s be honest: there is no columnist or pundit who you’ve ever heard of who isn’t at least in the upper middle class.)

Thus, after 2014 showed basically no economic growth for Japan, we get articles such as Japan Emerges From Recession but Growth Subdued and Japan’s Economy Expands, but Less Than Expected. But Dean Baker responded with the obvious, Confusion on Japan’s Economy. He noted that the short Japanese recession in 2014 was due to a hike in the sales tax that was approved before Abe took power. And Abe has killed a second scheduled increase in the sales tax.

Jonathan Soble at The New York Times provided this amazingly biased assessment, “A long-planned increase in the national sales tax, carried out in April, hit consumers harder than the government and most economists had expected, calling the effectiveness of Mr Abe’s approach into question.” Baker responded, “While it says that the resulting downturn was a surprise to economists, this is exactly what standard economics would predict.” But not, of course, what the heterodox economics of expansionary austerity predicts. And this is what the mainstream media want to push: economic theories that have no theoretical or empirical evidence. And they want to push it because this is what the power elite want to hear.

This brings me back to my days as a libertarian. At that time, I made a lot of arguments about how consumers would rebel against companies that didn’t behave properly. Even at the time, I wasn’t too sanguine about this theory. The problem that I came to see was that the vast majority of people don’t have the time, energy, or power to do something about every injustice in their lives. If a chemical company is polluting their ground water, they may be very upset. But it isn’t going to kill them as fast as not eating will kill them, so they continue to go to work. But the rich have the time, energy, and power to do something about every injustice that they see in their lives. That’s because they can hire people to protect their interests.

This is how it is that the liberal readership of The New York Times can put up with reporting that takes it as granted that of course economic policy that is bad for a nation but good for its power elites is good economic policy. Personally, I think that Jonathan Soble should be thrown in jail for a few years for writing that one “news” article. But he should at least lose his job because he clearly isn’t doing the work that the readers of The New York Times expect. But most readers of The Times don’t even know that they are being deceived. Reporters like Soble have been shilling for the power elite for so long that it is now seen as “objective reporting.”

Instead, we have to read Dean Baker who has a far smaller profile. (Dean Baker Is Must Reading!) But as usual, he smashes the subtext of most of the reporting on Japan, which claims that the economy is not doing well under Shinzō Abe:

It is also worth noting that Japan’s employment to population ratio (EPOP) rose by 2.2 percentage points from the fourth quarter of 2012, when Abe came to power, to the fourth of 2014. By comparison, the EPOP in the United States has risen by 1.1 percentage point over the same period. News reports have been nearly ecstatic over the rate of job growth in the United States.

In comparing economic growth rates in the United States and Japan it is important to note that the U.S. population is increasing at an annual rate of 0.7 percent while Japan’s is shrinking at a 0.2 percent rate. This means that Japan’s 2.2 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter would look to its people like a 3.1 percent growth rate in the United States.

So we continue to be told that traditional Keynesian economics isn’t working in Japan — or even worse: that it can’t work. This has nothing to do with Japan, of course. It is all about what is acceptable to discuss here in the United States. And the power elite do not want us discussing economic stimulus. They want to focus on “out of control debt” and the need for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. Because the health of the economy doesn’t matter to the power elite — only controlling what they already have. And reporters all over America are there to shill for them. But without ever admitting it. They are just being “objective.”

Isabelle Eberhardt: the Power of Youthful Idealism

Isabelle EberhardtOn this day in 1877, the great writer and activist Isabelle Eberhardt was born. She lived much of her adult like in Algeria during the French occupation. And she was often in conflict with it as she worked to help the native people. But as I’m going through a difficult period, let me just go over the 1991 film Isabelle Eberhardt — an accurate biopic that I wrote about a year and a half ago.

It tells the story of the real life title character and the end of her life as a journalist and advocate for the people of Algeria during the French occupation at the beginning of the 20th century. Eberhardt was an amazing woman. Her mother was an aristocrat and her father was the older children’s tutor. By the time the film starts, Eberhardt has long been a convert to Islam and most of the time after that involves her fighting with the French occupation forces.

Fundamentally, the film is about the disintegration of innocence. At the beginning of the film, her father tells her, “Never lose your innocence.” But it isn’t like Eberhadrt ever compromises hers ideals. It is just that self-knowledge is the opposite of innocence. And by the end of her short life, Eberhardt seems more resigned to the tragedy that is unfolding in Algeria than anything else.

Still, the film is not a downer. Eberhardt maintains her plucky exterior throughout, even as she seems to be dying on the inside. She is the kind of person who we all wish we would be in that situation but know that we would not. So if you are the kind of person who thinks that only results matter, then the film is ultimately depressing — even though Eberhardt does win important battles. But if you think that the struggle is what matters — what makes us human beings — then the film is inspiring. I am in the latter camp.

The production of the film is interesting. For this kind of film, it was made for almost nothing: a couple million dollars. And it shows. It looks like it was shot on 16 mm (maybe Super-16). It doesn’t look like they had more than a basic Lowel lighting kit for any of the indoor shoots. But what the production lacked in equipment, they made up for in personnel. The camera work and direction, for example, are all great. The art department did a good job of using locations. And the acting is without exception fantastic. The film doesn’t bother with accents, which may bother some. I don’t see the problem myself. The actors squeeze every drop of drama from every scene.

I do have a bit of a problem with the screenplay. As it stands, it is just fine. My problem is with the decision to dramatize the last 5 years of Eberhardt’s life. As a result of this, it is necessarily episodic. On the other hand, I don’t see how the arc of her life could be shown. A more entertaining film could have been made by focusing on a full blown war she prevented. But it wouldn’t have told us much about her. But there is definitely room to make other films about this fascinating woman.

The film ends with Eberhardt’s death due to a flash flood that destroys her home. Right before the walls crumble, she says, “I want to live!” It is a movie cliche, of course. But in the context of her life, it is a fitting epitaph for her. Because there is little doubt that in her 27 years, she lived a great deal more than those of us pushing twice that age.

Happy birthday Isabelle Eberhardt!