Category Archives: Arts

Anti-Edgy

In the art world something is "edgy" if it might well shock ordinary folks, but of course not in-the-know folks.  The idea seems to be that ordinary folks are shocked too easily by things that should not really be shocking.

The opposite concept, which I’ll call "anti-edgy", is of something that does not shock ordinary folks, but should.  In the know folks are shocked, but most others are not.  Why does the world of art and fashion emphasize the edgy so much more than the anti-edgy? 

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Transparent Characters

Most characters in movies, television, and theater are relatively easy for audiences to read.  Actors learn to use their voice tone, gaze direction, body motions, etc. to clearly telegraph their characters’ feelings and perspective. But in the stories that are told, the characters themselves usually do not understand each other, or themselves, quite so well.   

For example, audiences enjoy seeing one character lie to another; the audience gets many clues that what is said is a lie, but the duped character just doesn’t notice them.  Similarly, characters often have large character flaws easily visible to the audience, such as arrogance or selfishness, but those characters just don’t see their own flaws.   

These acting tricks let audiences enjoy a sense of inside access, of being able to see more into the story’s world than they can usually see in their ordinary world.  But I fear prolonged exposure to such acting tempts us to overconfidence about how well we can read those around us.  We feel we can read ourselves well and read others better than they can read us.  And when we disagree, we think we can usually spot the flaw in their thinking, a flaw they have not even considered. 

Now I do think humans try to simplify themselves in order to be understood, and thereby trusted, by others.  It is hard to trust folks whose actions you can’t at least roughly predict.  But Beware: life is not a movie, and most people can’t actually read themselves and others nearly as well as they think they can. 

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The Wire

I recently finished watching the fifth and final season of The Wire, my favorite TV show ever.  It presents a vivid and believable world of Baltimore drugs, police, politics, etc.  Some suggest producer David Simon’s "political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness."  But I find The Wire‘s world unusually consistent with everything I know.  It seems real overall, though Simon tells a less realistic good vs. evil tale about newsrooms, his old stomping ground.

The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian.  A renegade cop effectively legalizing drugs in one area works out great, and the show’s writers have a Time oped supporting drug law jury nullification.  Dire consequences follow from child labor and prostitution being illegal.  The police, courts, prisons, schools, and city hall are unrelentingly corrupt and dysfunctional, because voters don’t much care.  In the background of the story, industries managed mainly by private enterprise, such as stores, hotels, shipping, and cars, seem to mostly function well.  Private newspapers look bad, but mainly because readers don’t much care. 

Apparently, however, many see The Wired as calling for more government.  At a Harvard symposium on The Wired, many panelists said the answer was more funding.  Simon was there: 

The wire is about a world in which people are worth less. … We depicted a world in which market forces always have their say and in which capitalism has triumphed, and marginalized labor – it makes labor cheap. … What we have here is a market-based [world]; capitalism has been the God.  To even suggest that there should be some social compact along with the capitalistic forces, to mitigate any of that, over the last twenty-five years, has been political suicide. … We are only getting the American that we’ve paid for, no more, and God damn it, we deserve it. 

When asked if government wasn’t the problem rather than the solution:

Continue reading "The Wire" »

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Say It Loud

Reply toOverconfidence is Stylish

I respectfully defend my lord Will Strunk:

"If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"  This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?  Why run and hide?

How does being vague, tame, colorless, irresolute, help someone to understand your current state of uncertainty?  Any more than mumbling helps them understand a word you aren't sure how to pronounce?

Goofus says:  "The sky, if such a thing exists at all, might or might not have a property of color, but, if it does have color, then I feel inclined to state that it might be green."

Gallant says:   "70% probability the sky is green."

Which of them sounds more confident, more definite?

But which of them has managed to quickly communicate their state of uncertainty?

(And which of them is more likely to actually, in real life, spend any time planning and preparing for the eventuality that the sky is blue?)

Continue reading "Say It Loud" »

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Overconfidence is Stylish

On William Strunk, author of the classic Elements of Style:

His original Rule 11 was "Make definite assertions." That was Will all over.  He scorned the vague, the tame, the colorless, the irresolute. He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong.

An "irresolute" person is "Undecided or unsure how to act; Indecisive or lacking in resolution."  You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration that we prefer overconfident people. 

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Serious Music

As I too often fall on the wrong side of serious-silly norms, I’d like to better understand what makes music fun vs. serious.   From What Every First-Year College Student Needs to Know About Washington:

Don’t dance at indie-rock shows. Maybe where you come from, dancing is acceptable or even fun. Not here. Music is serious, and being serious about music is serious, too. Seriously? Yes. You can smile in an ironic way. Or sneer. But keep those dancing shoes in the closet. You’ve entered folded-arms territory.

From the Sept. 8 New Yorker:

The modern classical-music performance, as audiences have come to know it and sometimes to love it, adheres to a fairly rigid format. … Before 1900 concerts assumed a quite different form. … The opera served mainly as a playground for the aristocracy. The nobles often possessed considerable musical knowledge, but they refrained from paying overt attention to what the musicians were doing.  Indeed, silent listening in the modern sense was deemed déclassé.  Johnson quotes a nobleman writing, "There is nothing so damnable as listening to a work like a street merchant or some provincial just off the boat." … Public concerts … [were] eclectic affairs at which all kinds of music were played before audiences that seldom sat still or quieted down. …

What changed? …. With the aristocracy declining … the bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life. … Programs favored composers of the past over those of the present, popular fare was banished, program notes provided orientation to the uninitiated, and the practice of milling about, talking, and applauding during the music subsided.  … By applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and cultural élite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder … Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum.

There are important clues in here somewhere, if only I could understand them.

Added 17Sep:  Fortune has a nice quote about serious jazz in the comments.

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Fake Fish

1/4 of sushi is mislabeled:

Two high school students … took on a freelance science project in which they checked 60 samples of seafood using a simplified genetic fingerprinting technique to see whether the fish New Yorkers buy is what they think they are getting.  They found that one-fourth of the fish samples with identifiable DNA were mislabeled.  A piece of sushi sold as the luxury treat white tuna turned out to be Mozambique tilapia, a much cheaper fish that is often raised by farming.  Roe supposedly from flying fish was actually from smelt.  Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species.

This is a huge fraud rate.  Will diners continue to tolerate it?  Probably, yes – I suspect diners care more about affiliating with impressive cooks and fellow diners than they do that fish is correctly labeled. 

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Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Fiction

One of my pet topics, on which I will post more one of these days, is the Rationalist in Fiction.  Most of the time – it goes almost without saying – the Rationalist is done completely wrong.  In Hollywood, the Rationalist is a villain, or a cold emotionless foil, or a child who has to grow into a real human being, or a fool whose probabilities are all wrong, etcetera.  Even in science fiction, the Rationalist character is rarely done right – bearing the same resemblance to a real rationalist, as the mad scientist genius inventor who designs a new nuclear reactor in a month, bears to real scientists and engineers.

Perhaps this is because most speculative fiction, generally speaking, is interested in someone battling monsters or falling in love or becoming a vampire, or whatever, not in being rational... and it would probably be worse fiction, if the author tried to make that the whole story.  But that can’t be the entire problem.  I’ve read at least one author whose plots are not about rationality, but whose characters are nonetheless, in passing, realistically rational.

That author is Lawrence Watt-Evans.  His work stands out for a number of reasons, the first being that it is genuinely unpredictable.  Not because of a postmodernist contempt for coherence, but because there are events going on outside the hero’s story, just like real life.

Most authors, if they set up a fantasy world with a horrible evil villain, and give their main character the one sword that can kill that villain, you could guess that, at the end of the book, the main character is going to kill the evil villain with the sword.

Not Lawrence Watt-Evans.  In a Watt-Evans book, it’s entirely possible that the evil villain will die of a heart attack halfway through the book, then the character will decide to sell the sword because they’d rather have the money, and then the character uses the money to set up an investment banking company.

Continue reading "Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Fiction" »

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TV is Porn

When choosing what TV show or film to watch, most of us probably think our main consideration is something other than how "hot" are the actors.  Not so, apparently

As an acting coach, I’m writing specifically about actors, who today are being cast more and more on their looks and less and less on their talent. … Where once casting seemed to strive for a combination of looks and talent, the equation now appears to have shifted radically toward the former, particularly with regard to film and television aimed at the youth market. Not long ago, I coached a young woman on a screen test for a television project. Afterward, the casting director told me that she had been "hands down the best actress of the bunch" but they had decided to go "another way." "Why?" I asked. "Because the girl we went with is a Victoria’s Secret model," he said, as if that were the most obvious explanation imaginable.

As in most industries, the main expense in giving shows is labor, and the most expensive laborers are actors. 

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Expelled Beats Sicko

Metacritic (a review aggregator) gives Michael Moore’s latest movie Sicko a 74 out of 100, while the new Expelled gets only a 20Expelled, however, is a better movie.

In Sicko, Moore shows US folks facing high prices for docs, drugs, and surgery.  Sad anxious people find that if they can’t pay, they may not be treated.  But then we see happy glad folks in England, France, and Canada getting all the medicine they want for free.  Free good, expensive bad — that is the depth of Moore’s celebrated case for universal care.

Sicko makes Expelled seem like a graduate seminar.  In Expelled, experts on many sides speak at length in their own words.  The movie makes a good case for its main claim, that intelligent design advocates are shunned by academia.  And they get opponent Richard Dawkins to admit a 1% chance of God, and a higher chance Earth life may have been designed by distant ancient higher powers.  Both these estimates justify devoting higher-than-now fractions of origin-of-life research to such possibilities.  (And I estimate betting markets would endorse >1% chances for these.)

For my taste, the movie overdid threats to a mythical "academic freedom" that supposedly made the US great, but probably never existed.  It also overdid how understanding Darwin leads people to reject God, and emboldened Nazis to brutality.  These claims are not relevant to the truth of intelligent design, but they are admittedly true and relevant to most viewers’ desire to avoid beliefs with such consequences. 

Sadly, it seems reviewers praised Sicko because they agreed with universal care, and panned Expelled because they disagreed with intelligent design.  The tug-o-war continues.

Should-be-unneeded disclaimers: There are good arguments possible for universal care, and in a betting market I’d probably be short both God and universal design.

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