Tag Archives: Arts

Treme Dissapoints

A while back I called The Wire:

My favorite TV show ever.  It presents a vivid and believable world of Baltimore drugs, police, politics, etc. … I findThe Wire’s world unusually consistent with everything I know.  … “The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian.

Though I was puzzled that its producer, David Simon, didn’t agree with me about its overall moral. If The Wire was the best show ever, then it was quite unlikely that Simon’s new show, Treme, would nearly as good. And after watching six episodes now, I can assure you it isn’t.  (Newsweek agrees). Oh its better than average, and I’m sure it is cutting-edge and ground-breaking in many ways.  And in terms of the details of personal lives, Treme may be even more realistic than The Wire.

But in terms of the larger social forces, Treme seems to be setting up a standard political fantasy: colorful warm-hearted salt-of-the-Earth plunky outranged citizens “take back their town” from corrupt leaders.  Oh they may well fail and get squashed in the end, but their idealism and passion toward their heart-warming noble cause is way way over the top.

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Piling On Avatar

Piling On Avatar
Like most movies, Avatar makes less sense the more you think about it.  I recall others complaining about (and myself noticing) its shallow characters, wooden dialog, overly forced conflict, and its all too obvious message.  But my recent second viewing revealed to me a whole new depth of confusion.  Many spoilers about Avatar’s planet:
A special region destroys human navigation and search tech, but doesn’t interfere at all with their very high bandwidth long-distance remote control of avatars.
In this region huge rocks float in the air, though plants, animals, and water fall normally.  Far more water falls from the bottom of some rocks than falls onto them from above.
The large floating rocks are rough and worn, but no rubble of small rocks float in the air beside them.
Huge human ships and local flying animals weigh far too much relative to their surface area to fly.
Huge human machines and especially certain local trees are far too large to hold themselves up.
The density of jungle plant and animal life, in terms of average energy expended, is far larger than could be supported by the sunlight falling in from above.
Natives domesticate animals, use advanced tech for clothes and weapons requiring specialization and trade, live in groups of hundreds, are a few days travel from thousands of others, are monogamous, with hereditary and elevated leaders.  All of these appeared in humans only a few millennia ago.  Our meeting them at such a similar stage of development is an incredible time coincidence.
Animals on this planet evolved hardware for direct mind contact and control, though this serves no apparent function other than enabling natives to domesticate animals.  Yet a few millennia is far too short a time for such hardware to evolve.
Huge animals live near natives eager to hunt them to gain their meat at a proportionally low cost.  Such animals will be quickly exterminated, as humans did to most huge Earth animals.  An even more incredible coincidence to arrive before then.
A complex global system for exchanging signals between trees, natives, and animals has arisen, though it seems to perform no evolutionary function except in the extreme circumstance of alien invaders of the planet.
In three months a human working an avatar body can outperform every local who has learned their bodies for decades.

Like most movies, Avatar makes less sense the more you think about it.  On my first viewing, I noticed its spectacular special effects, but also its shallow characters, wooden dialog, overly forced conflict, and its all too obvious message.  My recent second viewing revealed to me whole new depths of confusion. Many spoilers about Avatar’s world:

  • A special region destroys human navigation and search tech, but doesn’t interfere at all with very high bandwidth long-distance remote control of avatars.
  • In this special region huge rocks float in the air, though animals and water fall normally.  Far more water falls from the bottom of some rocks than seems to fall onto them from above.
  • The large floating rocks are rough and worn, but no rubble of small rocks float in the air beside them.
  • Huge human flying ships and local flying animals weigh far too much, relative to their surface area, to be able to fly.
  • Certain local trees (and perhaps some human machines) are far too large to hold themselves up.
  • The density of jungle plant and animal life, in terms of average rate of energy expended, seems far larger than could be supported by the sunlight falling in from above.
  • Natives domesticate animals, use advanced tech for clothes and weapons, tech requiring specialization and trade, live in groups of hundreds at fixed locations, are a few days travel from thousands of others, are monogamous, and have hereditary and elevated leaders.  On Earth, all of these appeared only a few millennia ago, and this behavior package is now mostly past.  Our meeting aliens at such a similar brief stage of development is an incredible coincidence, as is their following such a similar path as ours.
  • Animals on this planet evolved hardware for direct mind contact and control, though this serves no apparent function other than enabling natives to domesticate animals.  Yet a few millennia is far too short a time for such detailed matched hardware to evolve.
  • Huge animals live near natives, who should be eager to hunt them to gain their meat at a proportionally low cost. Such animals will be quickly exterminated, as humans did to most huge Earth animals.  It is an even greater time coincidence to arrive while such animals remain common.
  • A complex global system for exchanging signals between trees, natives, and animals has arisen, though it seems to perform no function except in the extreme circumstance of being warned of an alien invasion by advanced natives.  How could unused abilities of a single undying organism ever evolve?
  • In three months a human working an avatar body can outperform every native who has learned their bodies for decades.
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Democracy In Action

A Senate committee dealt a big blow to the plans of two trading firms looking to create a box-office futures exchange that would allow the movie industry as well as investors to wager on movie ticket sales. … Federal regulators only in the last week had given the first stage of approval to the exchanges. …

Included in the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act financial reform package, passed Wednesday by the Senate Agriculture Committee, is a provision banning futures trading on box office. …. [Many are] scheduled to testify along with other motion picture industry leaders before the House Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management, which is also investigating the proposed exchanges. … The next step in the Senate is for the Transparency and Accountability Act to be merged with similar legislation proposed by the Senate Banking Committee. (more; HT Midas Oracle)

This is sad hour for prediction markets.  Movie markets seem a near best case, where the public would:

  1. easily understand the value to be gained by more accurate estimates, since they could personally use prices when deciding what movies to see, and
  2. find it hard to get worked up about supposed “manipulation”; they know all their other sources of info on movies are manipulated as well.

The fact that one can kill these markets by just yelling “manipulation” in a crowded democracy is a very bad sign for other interesting markets in the US anytime soon.

A key confession by Max Keiser on HSX.com, today’s play money movie markets:

When I was CEO of HSX – I shared a board seat with members who were also on the board of Lionsgate Films.  Lionsgate was constantly moving the prices of their films (or films they had an interest in, or a friend’s film) on HSX as a way to manipulate perception and marketing dollar spends. … I went to war with the rest of the board to defend my creation, … [re] allowing the prices on HSX to be moved per ‘marketing’ requests made by the studios. This lead to a blowout on the board and my leaving HSX as a result.

I’ll take Max at his word.  So does this prove movie markets must be banned because manipulation is possible?  Well consider that the movie industry has been fine for 15 years with play money markets they can manipulate, and scared to death of real money markets, supposedly because someone might manipulate them.  The obvious difference:  it doesn’t cost much real money to manipulate play money markets, when market administrators will keep handing you as much play money as you want.

In contrast, the cost to manipulate real money markets would go through the roof, as savvy speculators jumped in on the other side of those losing manipulation bets.  On average, the movie industry would lose on their manipulation bets, fail to bias the prices, and increase movie market price accuracy.  Now you can see the movie industry’s real concern about manipulation: they might lose their ability to manipulate!

Added 5p: John Lopez at Vanity Fair says “the increased incentive for piracy still seems like a valid concern,” but given the huge incentive to pirate movies in order to watch them, it is hard to see pirating movies to maybe influence these thin markets would make much difference.

Added 6p: At lunch several of my colleagues sensibly suggested that studios are worried that more accurate pre-release movie quality estimates would make it easier for new studios to enter the movie industry.

Added 8p: Can this example finally put to rest the idea that play money markets work just as well as real money markets?

Added 24Apr: Early HSXer Ben Curtis comments below.

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Unincorporated Man

The science fiction novel, The Unincorporated Man, is widely praised for its thought-provoking premise.  Yet I find no evidence that it provoked thought about its premise.

The premise is folks selling shares in their future income.  Initial ownership is: person 75%, parents 20%, government 5% (there are no other taxes).  People typically sell 12-15% to their university, more for other early training and resources, and they trade shares with relatives, spouses, and coworkers.  They then own less than 50%, must accept majority control over their careers and locations, and try over time to rebuy enough to regain control.

Among the 70+ reviews/comments on the book I’ve read, a few take a position on this idea (all against), but none engage the idea, i.e., offering arguments for or against it based on details of the book.  The most detailed argument I found was:

A horrendously bad idea that will only fuel the worst aspects of human nature: greed, ruthlessness, selfishness, and more of such unpleasantness.

The book’s characters at least give arguments.  For: gains from voluntary trade, and the system’s wide acceptance among vast peace and prosperity.  Against:  Horrors, its “slavery”!   (Spoilers below the fold.) Continue reading "Unincorporated Man" »

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Beautiful

I just saw the 2000 Movie Werckmeister Harmonies, with music by Mihaly Vig.  I found it quite moving, and am at a loss for words to say more.  So I’ll just say: it is beautiful beyond my words.  I found it via Metacritics’s All-TIme High Scores.  Here is some music, and the opening sequence.

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Movie Manipulation

Today, public perceptions about which new movies will be how popular is formed in a complex jumble of explicit advertising, word of mouth rumor, independent media evaluation, and paid ads masquerading as independent media.  This process is little like neutral analysis; it is packed full of vigorous attempts to manipulate our perceptions.

Two firms propose to augment this system with speculative markets forecasting movie sales. And the movie industry is horrified; this might let someone purposely influence perceptions of movie popularity!:

A growing coalition of entertainment industry workers, creators, independent producers and distributors, business organizations and theater owners today announced opposition to two proposals to establish online wagering services based on speculation over box office receipts for motion pictures. … The groups said that the proposal by MDEX and a separate plan by Cantor Futures Exchange, L.P. “are based on faulty understanding of the film industry and create a risk of rampant speculation and financial irresponsibility. … Now is not the time to open up new and highly speculative marketplaces that could end up costing jobs and harming legitimate businesses … We will address whether any exchange infrastructure is capable of surveying the box office marketplace to detect and address potential market manipulation.

My research suggests that speculative markets are remarkably robust to manipulation attempts; the more folks try to manipulate, the more accurate market estimates get on average!  But with limited funding, I’ve only done a limited number of experiments; I can’t prove no one will ever use a speculative market to purposely influence movie perceptions.  And alas this mere possibility of manipulation may seem intolerable.

An enormous double standard favors existing ads and mass media over proposed speculative markets.  No one has to run experiments showing that manipulation is impossible with existing institutions; in fact, we all know such manipulation is rampant.  But many will call it irresponsibly risky to let speculative markets permit further manipulation, even if the ratio of error to solid info is far lower there.

Robust movie markets would in fact give the public more reliable estimates of movie popularity, estimates more resistant to movie industry manipulation.  Could it be that what the movie industry fears most is not more manipulation, but less?

Hat tip Trey Kollmer.

Added 1Apr: Some say that a model based on Twitter can predict movies better than the HSX prediction market.  Let’s set aside the level confusion here (HSX could do better if its traders had access to this model).  Does anyone doubt that, if this model’s predictions were taken seriously, Twitter could be used to manipulate movie perceptions?  Does anyone expect the movie industry to therefore request regulators to ban movie tweets?   Still can’t see the double standard?

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Realistic War Films?

A few months ago I had a nice long talk with a smart high-ranking, well-published (ex-) military officer who focuses on soldier psychological issues.  He said most war movies aren’t at all realistic.  When I pressed him for a realistic film, he offered Catch-22, at least for emotional realism.  This doesn’t appear on any of the four lists of most realistic war films I found in a quick search (here, here, here, here), which agree only modestly with each other.

The supposedly realistic Hurt Locker is favored to win Best Picture tomorrow, but some complain about its realism:

Many in the military say “Hurt Locker” is plagued by unforgivable inaccuracies that make the most critically acclaimed Iraq war film to date more a Hollywood fantasy than the searingly realistic rendition that civilians take it for. … To those who were there, Iraq is real life. And they’re very sensitive — some would say overly so — when their war is portrayed via a central character who is a reckless rogue. … “When he puts a hood on like Eminem and starts roving outside the wire, it’s ridiculous.”

Is it even possible to make and sell a realistic war movie?  The experience of war varies enormously across wars, battles, roles, moments, etc., and most of that is insufferably slow and boring.  Since war is so powerfully symbolic, and so many care about those symbols, it seems many would complain about most any emotionally compelling war film, even if exactly accurate on a particular event.

What exactly could it mean for a film to be “realistic”?  Since few are entertained by watching random samples of real life, entertaining films must select strongly from the space of actual and possible events.  One might allow a movie any initial setting, no matter how strange, and call it realistic if events depicted that were typical conditional on that setting.  But then how long does the movie get to “set the scene,” after which we start to evaluate its realism?  And for how many settings could realistic behavior given that setting be entertaining?

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The Biggest Lie?

The message of the movie The Invention of Lying, according to the NYT:

A world without lying is also one without art. … Lying becomes a means to transcendence, an escape from the quotidian, from our oppressive literal-mindedness, from our brute selves. … The truth doesn’t just hurt — sometimes it’s also degrading, and not just for the characters. The movie encourages our inner bully, coaxing it out for giggles.

Notice: a movie dedicated to the idea that lies are better than truth induced little outrage or opposition!  Reviewers’ main complaint was just that it didn’t stay funny long enough.  Can anyone make a similarly compelling movie dedicated to the opposite claim, that truth is better than lies?  If not, doesn’t that count as evidence that most people do in fact accept that lies are better?

The movie is set in an alternate Earth where people not only never lie, they go out of their way to tell truths others want to know, even when that makes the speaker look bad.  This is far from a stable social equilibrium – most any weak tendency to more often repeat successful behavior would quickly lead away from this.  But let’s set that issue aside to consider the movie’s message.

In this world people are selfish, shallow, cynical, base, and rude. They explicitly think in terms of evolutionary motives; men want sex with pretty women, while women want money and hansome good-gene sex partners, etc.  People act on these beliefs, which makes them dull, unhappy, and emotionally flat:

The undressed, undeceptive, utterly honest world is no Eden: flat lighting, earth tones, beige bachelor flops, blank-walled offices, bland daytime barrooms.

A man notices that he can gain by lying, first to avoid being evicted.  Then he tries to lie to bed a pretty woman, but finds he just doesn’t want this.  Apparently lying induces altruism, as he spends his time telling lies to make various random strangers like themselves better and be more entertained.  He also lies to get cash and fame, but that is apparently all right in pursuit of a woman – the main thing he likes about her is that she is “out of his league” pretty.  But he refuses to lie to her about why she should like him.

He invents God and heaven, lies big and bright enough to make the whole world honestly happy.  A headline reads: “Finally a reason to be good.”  The man finally convinces the woman to focus less on his looks; “he’s smart funny kind loving, makes me feel special, makes me happy.”  She learns to lie to please, and see the best in people.

So the movie’s thesis is that to be happy, we must self-deceive and embrace incorrect but inspiring far-view ideals, such love, friendship, altruism, laughter, art, and fiction.  This thesis affirms a core ideal we seem desperate to believe: that common far ideals have little practical function.  For example, we want to think that our loves of fiction or laughter are “true” loves, and do little to achieve base and personal purposes.

In fact of course our far ideals evolved to serve concrete, practical, and largely personal functions.  A world without lies would still contain art, laughter, fiction, etc. – we’d just be more honest about the functions they serve.  But that is a truth we dare not tell; we’d actually rather believe that most of our other cherished ideals are lies.

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Soothing the Sad Savage

In the latest New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews reasons to be skeptical of psychiatric drugs, including this stuff I teach in my health econ class:

Fifteen years ago, [Irving Kirsch] began conducting meta-analyses of antidepressant drug trials. … Kirsch’s conclusion is that antidepressants are just fancy placebos. … Drug trials are double-blind: neither the patients (paid volunteers) nor the doctors (also paid) are told which group is getting the drug and which is getting the placebo. But antidepressants have side effects, and sugar pills don’t. Commonly, side effects of antidepressants are tolerable things like nausea, restlessness, dry mouth, and so on. … This means that a patient who experiences minor side effects can conclude that he is taking the drug, and start to feel better.

But after 6000 words of such skepticism, Menand still concludes: take the meds.  Why?  Because impressive authors have written eloquent testimonials:

The recommendation from people who have written about their own depression is, overwhelmingly, Take the meds! It’s the position of Andrew Solomon, in “The Noonday Demon” (2001), a wise and humane book. It’s the position of many of the contributors to “Unholy Ghost” (2001) and “Poets on Prozac” (2008), anthologies of essays by writers about depression. The ones who took medication say that they write much better than they did when they were depressed. William Styron, in his widely read memoir “Darkness Visible” (1990), says that his experience in talk therapy was a damaging waste of time, and that he wishes he had gone straight to the hospital when his depression became severe.

The only reason Menand can imagine resisting such artists is a perverse religious desire to suffer:

What if there were a pill that relieved you of the physical pain of bereavement—sleeplessness, weeping, loss of appetite—without diluting your love for or memory of the dead? Assuming that bereavement “naturally” remits after six months, would you take a pill today that will allow you to feel the way you will be feeling six months from now anyway? Probably most people would say no. … Gerald Klerman once called “pharmacological Calvinism” … the view, which he thought many Americans hold, that shortcuts to happiness are sinful, that happiness is not worth anything unless you have worked for it.

Numbers schmumbers – only uncivilized animals, or religious nuts, would not let eloquent authors soothe their savage doubts, until they accept being comforted by their culture’s conventional ways to show that folks care.

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Celebrating Compromise

Crapgame:  Then make a DEAL!
Big Joe:  What kind of deal?
Crapgame:  A DEAL, deal! Maybe the guy’s a Republican. “Business is business,” right?   [Famous scene from 1970 movie Kelly’s Heroes]

Invictus is a decent movie – at 80 years old Clint Eastwood is still in top form.  More interesting is that Invictus, like Kelly’s Heroes, is a rare movie celebrating compromise, the key virtue of “dealism,” or economic efficiency.

The movie shows Nelson Mandela, new black leader of previously white-run South Africa, trying to unite suspicious whites with blacks eager for revenge.  Of course Mandela achieves this not by touting the advantages of peace and prosperity, but via pride in beating a common enemy: the South African rugby team wins the world cup.  The title of the movie comes from a poem that inspired Mandella in prison, a poem all about defiance, self-respect, and not a whiff of compromise.

All of which shows just how hard it is to inspire passion for compromise; sadly, no one goes to the barricades for efficiency.  The best this movie can offer is that peace and compromise can help you crush your enemies into smoldering ruins.  Whee.

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