Wednesday, September 30, 2009

WTF No More

The power of the internet:

Folks at the Wisconsin Tourism Federation couldn't possibly have seen how the Internet would change the lingo when it was established in 1979.

But now that it's been pointed out, the lobbying coalition might want to rethink using an acronym in the logo. To anyone online, WTF has a different meaning these days. And it's not the kind of thing you want visitors thinking about when they think Wisconsin.

Via Language Log.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

18. Radiohead "Pyramid Song" (2001)

Here's the conventional wisdom about Radiohead in the 2000s:
  1. Coming off of the creative apex of their twin guitar-rock masterpieces of the 1990s, The Bends and OK Computer, but especially the latter, the band was trapped by their own critical acclaim. Any subsequent release would have been seen as a retreat, or at least a disappointment.
  2. Instead of (uselessly) trying to top themselves, they changed the rules of the game and redefined the idea of rock music, by fully embracing electronica.
  3. Kid A is a masterpiece, precisely because it is still so polarizing. Musically, it was a shocking departure for the band. Fans who were unable to accept what Radiohead was trying to accomplish, did not truly "get" the band's art and genius.
  4. By following Kid A with the equally insular Amnesiac, Radiohead cemented their status as uncompromising artists.
  5. Their last two releases, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, while great, were a capitulation to the fans who did not understand the genius of Kid A (and Amnesiac), but who preferred (the genius of) The Bends and OK Computer.
I submit that this standard story is bullshit. My evidence is "Pyramid Song."

The fallacy here lies in the fact that it was Radiohead's artistic departure that was the problem, not the actual quality of their output. It is assumed that every song on Kid A and Amnesiac were genius, but that detractors just weren't sophisticated enough to enjoy them. Yet the songs from that era that fans regularly mention -- "Idiotique," "Optimistic," "Knives Out," "You and Whose Army," and "Pyramid Song" -- most resemble the band's more accessible music, by actually being high quality. The songs that contribute to the notion that Radiohead's music was difficult (but great) -- "Treefingers," "Kid A," "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," "Hunting Bears," and "Dollars & Cents" -- are rarely cited as examples of the band's genius. That's because they are not good songs.

To mix my metaphors: the emperor is naked, but he is also not all he's cracked up to be.

Radiohead decided to split their sessions following OK Computer into two separate albums, and that was their big mistake. There is enough genuinely good material on Kid A and Amnesiac to make one really excellent album. Instead, Radiohead released two mixed albums, a maddening decision.

Take "Pyramid Song," a song gorgeous even by the band's impossible standards. Its essential elements are vintage Radiohead: simple piano chords, swooning strings, syncopated percussion, and a beautiful vocal by Thom Yorke. Above it all hangs a canopy of unobtrusive electronic sounds that adds to the spaciness of the sci-fi lyric. Everything in its right place. On Amnesiac, "Pyramid Song" is followed by the aforementioned (and unfortunately-titled) "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors," a mediocre song by any standard. Should the latter's proximity to the greatness of the former rub off on it? I don't think so.

Radiohead has always been excellent at being Radiohead. But excellence should not blind us from recognizing subpar material. The worst Beatles song is not better than the best Maroon 5 song, because the Beatles made better music on whole. Great music isn't necessarily the music a great band makes. Thus, a tautology: "Pyramid Song" is great, because it is great. Not because it's a Radiohead song.

Click here to view the entire list.

A Great Paragraph...

...with or without context:
Alec Longstreth, a 30-year-old comic artist from White River Junction, Vt., won't buy a smart phone with a standard keyboard. "I wanted to punch my fist through the computer monitor" every time an advertisement for such a phone popped up, he says.
Via WSJ.

Monday, September 28, 2009

19. My Morning Jacket "Off the Record" (2005)

Forget Wilco. Please. Ever since Summerteeth, a wonderful record, Jeff Tweedy has tried to make his band into an American Radiohead. The results have been sometimes underwhelming, but mostly boring and pretentious. Thankfully, nature hates a void. Louisville's My Morning Jacket came along, stole Wilco's M.O., added the Big Sky vocal of Jim James, and made some of the best alternative country music of the decade.

"Off the Record" sees MMJ move beyond their alt-country roots. With its accent on the upbeat, it's more reggae than Americana. Yet their signatures remain intact: James' open-throated delivery, big guitar riffs, and a sing-along chorus.

This should have been a big hit for the band. Instead, it's a buried gem, in an album full of them.

Click here to view the entire list.

Music Videos by VideoCure

20. Outkast "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" (2000)

Ever since the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay, the kaleidoscopic mixture of rap, rock, funk, and fill-in-the-blank genres has been seen as a gold standard for excellence. It's become a cliché to praise "genre-bending" music. On the surface, it seems to make sense to applaud an artist or band, who is more comfortable in one style of music, for widening their palate and integrating styles to create something novel. Yet, novelty is not enough. Paul's Boutique and Odelay were notable for the assured and seamless fusion of styles that it made them almost uncategorizable.

"Bombs Over Baghdad" is the case in point. Remove Andre 3000's and Big Boi's vocal track and what's left is -- what exactly? A dance song? At 155 BPM, it's fast enough to classify. But the gospel choir chorus betrays something that is, well, weirder. Possibly some variation of jungle music? But the electric guitar and buoyancy of the mood betrays something that is, well, weirder still.

"Bombs Over Baghdad" is a frenzied, apocalyptic, presciently-titled rave-up. I refuse to attempt to parse its lyrics. Much like R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It," it's nonsense. Exciting and joyous nonsense. But nonsense, nonetheless.

Click here to view the entire list.

In-Flight Phone Use

The real reason why you have to turn off your cellphone when flying:
The Federal Communications Commission in Washington currently prohibits in-flight cellphone use on planes, partly because of some unresolved questions about the potential for interference with aircraft navigation equipment, but mostly because of phone industry concerns that airborne cell signals radiate widely, randomly contacting different ground stations. That would create interference between systems and cause logistical problems for things like billing.
From the NYT. Resistance to allowing cell phone use is still strong in the U.S., though it's becoming common overseas.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


John Stossel says that he, like every other reporter, has political beliefs. Only he admits it:
When I announced last week that I was leaving ABC for Fox, some readers complained about my "bias." I replied: "Every reporter has political beliefs. The difference is that I am upfront about mine."
Look at today's burning issue: President Obama's pledge to redesign 15 percent of the economy. Virtually every reporter calls his health care plan "reform." But dictionaries define reform as "improvement." So before they present any evidence, reporters pronounce Obama's plan an improvement. Isn't that bias?

The New York Times took its bias to an absurd length. Its page-one story on the big anti-big-government rally in Washington, D.C., referred to "protests that began with an opposition to health care. ..."

Apparently, in the Times reporter's and editors' view, opponents of the Obama health care plan oppose health care itself. (The online article was later changed.) [...]

I admit that my guiding political and economic philosophy—libertarianism—now shapes my reporting, in this way: It prompts me to ask questions that others don't ask.

I don't claim to be the expert. But some of my colleagues who write about business know nothing about economics. Many are comically hostile to profit—they dismiss it as "greed" (although they bargain for the highest salaries possible). [...]

I'm surprised that the self-described enemies of intolerance can't tolerate even one MSM reporter who doesn't share their statist premises. The interventionist state has been the status quo for generations, so I must be something other than "conservative." "Liberal" is what my philosophy used to be called. It's the statists who are the reactionaries.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Red Sky of Sydney

Dust storms in Sydney have produced some great, and ominous, photographs. More here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Efficacy of Congressional Committees

Via the Onion:


The Legacy of Keynes

While Paul Krugman's NYT Magazine piece continues to make waves in the profession, it's Greg Mankiw's WSJ review of a new bio of Keynes that presents the most accurate snapshot of his contested legacy in economics.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Surowiecki Gets It (Half) Right

In this week's New Yorker, James Surowiecki rightly indicts the three major rating agencies (aka the Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations) for getting so much wrong by conferring erroneous AAA ratings on "toxic" asset-backed securities, in particular the dreaded mortgage-backed securities that nearly brought down the financial sector:
By giving dubious mortgage-backed securities top ratings, and by dramatically underestimating the risk of default and foreclosure, the agencies played a key role in inflating the housing bubble. If we’re going to reform the system, fixing them should be high on the list.
Yet, the regulatory context that granted their status as nationally recognized is spared from the same harsh criticism he has for the NRSROs:
Rating agencies have been around for a century, and their ratings have been used by regulators since the thirties. But in the seventies the S.E.C. dubbed the three biggest agencies—S. & P., Moody’s, and Fitch—Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations, effectively making them official arbiters of financial soundness. The decision had a certain logic: it was supposed to make it easier for investors to know that the money in their pension or money-market funds was going into safe and secure investments. But the new regulations also turned the agencies from opinion-givers into indispensable gatekeepers. If you want to sell a corporate bond, or package a bunch of mortgages together into a security, you pretty much need a rating from one of the agencies.
True, but Surowiecki doesn't mention that the regulations, by granting the NRSROs oligopoly status, consequently misaligned their incentive structure. Their ratings held so much weight because competitors were barred from entering the market and offering alternative advice. As the current issue of Critical Review shows, "no competitor could take advantage of [the NRSRO's] mistakes."

Further, as Jeffery Friedman notes in his introduction to the issue:
The net result was that while the three rating “agencies” remained in private hands and could use whatever rating techniques they wished, their financial success did not depend on the ability of these techniques to produce something that somebody would have wanted to buy (in the absence of the earlier S.E.C. regulations)—such as accurate ratings. Instead, their profitability depended on government protection. If the rating agencies used inaccurate rating procedures, they would not suffer for it financially—let alone go out of business.
Worse, many investors were ignorant of the fact that the NRSROs held their hallowed position by regulatory fiat, not because of how good they were at what they did:
One can only speculate about what other methods might have been used by competitors to the rating agencies had it not been for the legal barriers to entry. All one can do by way of example is point to the vibrant market in equities-investment ratings, which includes not only firms such as Morningstar and publications such as Investor’s Business Daily and Forbes, which publish competitive ratings of stocks and mutual funds; but which encompasses many different approaches, ranging from “technical” analysis(which is somewhat akin to historical-probability assessment) to “value” investing (which is somewhat akin to fundamental credit analysis).

Of course, competing bond raters need not necessarily have obtained NRSRO status: Like many equities “raters,” they could have offered their ratings to the investing public for a price. But the price was limited by the investing public’s apparent ignorance of the fact that legal protections, not the accuracy of their predictions, were the basis of the Big Three’s continued existence and profitability. Thus, there was no demand for an alternative. The fact that the bond-rating agencies were shielded from competition is, even now, not widely known among scholars, let alone financial reporters—and such obscure matters are unlikely to be well known to bond investors if they are not reported.
Surowiecki doesn't offer a solution to the problem. He mentions that the idea of "uncoupling the rating agencies from the regulatory system" was a suggested answer, but he fails to mention the reason why: it would have encouraged competition in bond rating. Thus, he throws his hands up and concludes with the obvious:
Oddly, the ratings system, broken as it is, remains attractive to many investors who have been burned by it. For one thing, it provides an easily comprehensible standard: without it, we’d need to come up with new ways of measuring risk. More insidiously, the ratings system provides a ready-made excuse for failure: as long as you’re buying AAA-rated assets, you can say you’re being responsible. After the housing crash, though, we know how illusory those AAA ratings can be. It’s time for investors to face reality: working with a fake safety net is more dangerous than working without any net at all. [Emphasis mine.]
Agreed. But, the best way to find these "new ways of measuring risk" is not from top-down regulation. Instead, we should allow competition to discover the best method. A novel idea.

Is President Hating a Traditional American Value?

Steve Chapman says yes:
What Obama may not have recognized before he arrived in the White House is that hating presidents is an irrepressible American tradition. The haters hung George Washington in effigy. They called Abraham Lincoln a dictator. They said Franklin Roosevelt was a Bolshevik.

Dwight Eisenhower's enemies suggested he was a "conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy." Shortly before John Kennedy arrived in Dallas in November 1963, where he was assassinated, an ad ran in the local newspaper with his picture over the legend, "Wanted for Treason."

Looking back, all these claims seem bizarre and unwarranted. But that didn't count for much at the time. The furious denunciations against Obama are simply the latest installment in a custom that seems to have gotten more extreme as methods of instant communication have spread.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Paterson to Obama: "Don't Hold Your Breath"

This is so great. The White House is pleading with NY Governor David Paterson not to run for office in 2010. Given Paterson's approval ratings hover around 30%, the Obama Administration is worried that the Democrat will hurt his party's Congressional races.

From the NYT:
Gov. David A. Paterson defiantly vowed to run for election next year despite the White House‘s urging that he withdraw from the New York governor’s race. [...]

President Obama and his political team is worried that Mr. Paterson cannot recover from his dismal political standing, and have signaled to him he should not run, two senior administration officials and a New York Democratic operative with direct knowledge of the situation said Saturday.

The move represents an extraordinary intervention into a state political race by the president, and is a delicate one, given that Mr. Paterson is one of only two African-American governors in the nation.

The decision to ask Mr. Paterson to step aside was proposed by political advisers to Mr. Obama, but approved by the president himself, one of the administration officials said.Top Democrats have grown increasingly worried that the governor’s unpopularity could drag down Democratic members of Congress in New York, as well as the Democratic-controlled Legislature, in next fall’s election.
This guy has been vexing Obama since he took office last year. Though I couldn't care less about NY politics, this bit of Democratic in-fighting is so fun to behold.

Friday, September 18, 2009

When Banter Goes Wrong

New York's WNYW anchor Ernie Anastos inadvertently chooses a very wrong word on air. The NYT reports, and you decide:

Whatever Ernie Anastos, the longtime New York television news anchor, was trying to say, it did not come out right on Wednesday night. His inadvertent use of what could literally be called a barnyard epithet made him an unintended star on the Internet all day Thursday.

In the course of one of those familiar jocular exchanges, Mr. Anastos, the co-anchor on the 10 p.m. newscast on WNYW (Channel 5), seemed to be referring to the old commercial for Perdue chicken when he suggested to the weatherman, Nick Gregory, that “it takes a tough man to make a tender forecast.”

That was not the objectionable portion of the broadcast, but it may have befuddled some viewers because Perdue has not regularly used that phrase in its advertising since 1993. But then Mr. Anastos added a suggestion for what Mr. Gregory could do with the chickens, using a term that qualifies as the sine qua no-no of live television.

Mr. Anastos’s co-anchor, Dari Alexander, looked stunned, and Mr. Gregory tried to grin through the moment. Mr. Anastos appeared not to have noticed that he had said anything wrong.
All the news that's fit to print, indeed. Hurry, call the FCC!

What Makes a Genius Evil, and Evil Genius?

Russ Roberts, responding to Bryan Caplan, argues that the impact of an evil genius, say a would-be Hitler or Stalin, is mitigated by those who fight their rise:
The expected impact of an evil genius is often smaller than the expected impact of a wonderful genius. There are lots of would-be mass murderers and the bigger the population, the bigger the absolute number. But their ability to murder lots of people is limited by the fact that most people try to stop them. Yes, in some systems (Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union), a mass murderer is able to enlist lots of people to help him. But that is rare. Most of the time, people try to stop them, and in some systems it is especially difficult to kill lots of people over any long period of time.
I think Roberts is correct, though he is downplaying the fundamental impact of ideas in this struggle. The march toward statism in America has been slowed by the (however implicit) American political philosophy originally identified by Jefferson, Madison, and, ultimately, Locke. Conversely, it was the ideas of Kant, Hegel, and Marx that allowed Wiemar Germany and Czarist Russia to largely embrace the rise of Nazism and Communism.

Geniuses on both sides were responsible for these antipodal philosophies. It follows from your value judgments how you assign the designations of "good" and "evil" to them. You can't have it both ways (and I'm not arguing that Roberts tries to): the same person cannot logically label Locke and Hegel as "good" geniuses, or Jefferson and Marx as "evil." They're opposites. Given the full-scale bloodbaths that were unleashed as a result of the ideas of Kant and his ilk, I think "evil" is the only way to describe their genius.

What makes their evil so genius? It's that their philosophies are taken seriously and downplayed. Insomuch as they are studied in academia, the philosophies of Kant and the rest are seen as important, worthy of study. But their impact on the cultures of Wiemar Germany and Czarist Russia are largely skirted (at least in the popular descriptions of the rise of totalitarianism, and with some notable exceptions). It's this disconnect, that their explicit philosophies are studied and their impacts ignored, that makes them genius, however evil. It's why their legacies are still felt to this day.

This is why I think an evil genius has a greater effect ideologically, than he does in particular instances, like Hitler and Stalin. Hitler and Stalin, however evil and opportunistic, were not geniuses. As Hannah Arendt noted, they were banal. It's the ideas that spawned them, that bolstered their rise and political legitimacy, that must be combated, even more so than these despots who where their logical conclusion.

is the evil that must be destroyed at its root, so its particular brand of genius does not endure.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Finally, Some *Good* News

Pavement is reuniting. Really. Even the New York Times says so:
Influential indie rock band Pavement will reunite for a world tour in 2010, 11 years after the lo-fi quintet broke up.

The first confirmed show is a September 21, 2010 benefit concert at New York City's Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. Tickets go on sale on Friday.

You Lie!

Arnold Kling argues that Obama's health-care rhetoric is misleading, if not outright dishonest. Since the president doesn't have an actual plan to refer to, his promises are not backed by explanations for how it's possible to expand care to the uninsured, force insurers to cover expensive customers, and somehow have this all be "budget neutral."

If you are going to repeatedly refer to "my plan" or "this plan" or "the plan I'm proposing," then unless you have a plan you are lying. The only question is whether it is a little lie or a big one. Obviously, most people think it is only a small lie, or the President would have been called out on it. However, I think that health care policy is an area where there is too much temptation to promise results that are economically impossible to achieve. In that context, my opinion is that giving a speech in favor of a nonexistent plan is a really big lie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Power of Fake

Does wearing knock-off designer fashion erode your morality? Dan Ariely says yes.

[HT Alex Tabarrok]

Hogwarts Opens in Orlando

Universal Studios is opening a Harry Potter theme park:

Three rides will form the center of the new park. Universal still will not talk much about the biggest one, a high-tech experience inside the castle called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey that involves the likenesses of the heroes from the films.

Flight of the Hippogriff is described as a family coaster that simulates a Hippogriff (the half-horse, half-eagle beast from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) training flight over Hogwarts castle. Dragon Challenge is a twin high-speed coaster that will feature elements from the Triwizard Tournament.
Scratch one off the bucket list.

Assorted Links

What happened to Tavern on the Green?

"Buy American" is hurting Americans.

The proper way to insult a president.

Real-time pundit pandering.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Your Vice Is Next

Why should non-smokers care about the news that NYC's Mayor and health commissioner are seeking to ban smoking in open spaces like public parks and beaches? Because now that the pretense of protecting non-smokers has been completely dropped, city governments are embracing bans to protect people from themselves. A total smoking ban is not far behind.

How long before junk food is banned? There's already a soda tax on the table.

How about taxation of the overweight? Outrageous? Let's not forget that a ban on smoking outdoors would have seemed unimaginable twenty years ago. Rest assured, your vice is next.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Among the Angry

Reason has posted its video footage of Saturday's anti-statist rally. It suggests that a number of protesters are abandoning the Republican Party. Has the Bush/Obama one-two punch inadvertently created more libertarians?

Gangster Government

Tyler Cowan, writing in yesterday's NYT:
[I]f bankers criticize the Treasury or the Fed, they risk losing their gilded cages and could get a bad deal when the next bailout comes. When major economic sectors can be influenced in this way, are we really very far from the nightmare depicted by Ayn Rand in “Atlas Shrugged”?
This reminds me of an off-the-cuff statement Obama made earlier this year while giving a commencement speech at Arizona State University. Commenting on the fact that ASU refused to grant him an honorary degree, Obama quipped:
I really thought this was much ado about nothing, but I do think we all learned an important lesson. I learned never again to pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA brackets. . . . President [Michael] Crowe and the Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.
The president was trying to be cute, by making light of the coercive power of the federal government. But he was also reminding us all of the power he wields. It was plain and simple intimidation: the method of thugs, not presidents.

The Man Who Fed the World

WSJ on the great Norman Borlaug, who passed on Saturday:

On the day Norman Borlaug was awarded its Peace Prize for 1970, the Nobel Committee observed of the Iowa-born plant scientist that "more than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world." The committee might have added that more than any other single person Borlaug showed that nature is no match for human ingenuity in setting the real limits to growth.

Borlaug, who died Saturday at 95, came of age in the Great Depression, the last period of widespread hunger in U.S. history. The Depression was over by the time Borlaug began his famous experiments, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, with wheat varieties in Mexico in the 1940s. But the specter of global starvation loomed even larger, as advances in medicine and hygiene contributed to population growth without corresponding increases in the means of feeding so many.

Borlaug solved that challenge by developing genetically unique strains of "semidwarf" wheat, and later rice, that raised food yields as much as sixfold. The result was that a country like India was able to feed its own people as its population grew from 500 million in the mid-1960s, when Borlaug's "Green Revolution" began to take effect, to the current 1.16 billion. Today, famines—whether in Zimbabwe, Darfur or North Korea—are politically induced events, not true natural disasters.

In later life, Borlaug was criticized by self-described "greens" whose hostility to technology put them athwart the revolution he had set in motion. Borlaug fired back, warning in these pages that fear-mongering by environmental extremists against synthetic pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and genetically modified foods would again put millions at risk of starvation while damaging the very biodiversity those extremists claimed to protect. In saving so many, Borlaug showed that a genuine green movement doesn't pit man against the Earth, but rather applies human intelligence to exploit the Earth's resources to improve life for everyone.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

More on Yesterday's Demonstration

Here's Arnold Kling's take:

I think the long-term significance of what is going on, both at the progressive end and at the Tea Party end of the political spectrum, is an open rupture. In the 1960's, a Hubert Humphrey or Robert Kennedy could connect with uneducated white voters. The idea of blowing them off was unthinkable, if only because they were such a large majority of the voting population at the time.

Now, the elitism of President Obama and his supporters has reached in-your-face levels. They have utter contempt for the Tea Party-ers, and the Tea-Party-ers know it.

I wouldn't want the Tea Party-ers at the faculty picnic, either. But my sense of class solidarity with Obama and other educated progressives does not make me want to see them exercise power. If anything, being a member of the educated elite and [...] knowing them as well as I do makes me share the Tea Party-ers' fears.

I come back to my view that this is white, small-town America making its last stand. However, I think, also, that the progressive elite is making a last stand. My guess is that doubts are mounting among many independent voters about whether they want such a highly-charged politics. I am sticking with my bet that the Democrats will hold onto their House and Senate majorities as well as the Presidency through the elections of 2016, but relative to six months ago I feel that I am depending more on Republican incompetence than overall political trends to win that bet.

One could argue that this country is on the verge of a crisis of legitimacy. The progressive elite is starting to dismiss rural white America as illegitimate, and vice-versa. I see the chances of both sides losing as much greater than the chance of either force winning.

Don't Be a DouChe Because Your Mom Hates Freedom

Reason's Nick Gillespie shot the below photos at yesterday's Taxpayer March. Further proof that the Left doesn't have the humor market cornered.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Theory of Monogamy

Bryan Caplan has a theory for why monogamy breaks down:
Some people sincerely like monogamy; other people sincerely don't. Under the circumstances, it seems wise for everyone to just reveal their proclivities and pair up with people who share their expectations. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening. There is a fundamental flaw with monogamy, but it's not human nature. It's asymmetric information.

My key assumption: Most people - even most commitmentphobes - prefer a person who will be true to them. When you announce your religion, you make yourself less desirable to people who reject your religion, but more desirable to people who share it. When you announce your rejection of monogamy, in contrast, you make yourself less desirable even to people who share your rejection.

In a world of symmetric information, this wouldn't matter. People would know as much about your proclivities as you do, so there'd be no reason to pretend to be something you're not. But in the real world, no one knows your own preferences better than you do. The result: People pretend to be more monogamous than they really are.
I think his last sentence is obviously true, given the anecdotal evidence of divorces and breakups resulting from infidelity. But Caplan's theory doesn't explain the full story, for the following reasons:

"When you announce your rejection of monogamy, in contrast, you make yourself less desirable even to people who share your rejection."

Yet many people enter into "open relationships" with full knowledge on both sides. Granted, these relationships usually involve strictly-defined rules, and a breach thereof would constitute "cheating." But these rules usually limit the emotional nature of the off-relationship activities, e.g. no romantic "dates." While I think there is a strong social stigma with these types of relationships in the general population, they are not uncommon in the gay community.

"Some people
sincerely like monogamy; other people sincerely don't. Under the circumstances, it seems wise for everyone to just reveal their proclivities and pair up with people who share their expectations."

I think many cheaters wouldn't necessarily be cheaters given the context of a different relationship. Hence, they don't "know" they're cheaters going into a relationship. Many individuals find they become dissatisfied with the sexual element of their current relationship, given the differing preferences of their current sexual partner. Thus, they cheat. It's not implausible to imagine this type of cheater more sexually satisfied with a partner who more closely shares their sexual preferences. Thus, they would be less likely, or unlikely, to cheat with that partner.
This doesn't excuse anyone for being a cheater. I only suggest that many may not plan on cheating when entering a relationship.

"Most people - even most commitmentphobes - prefer a person who will be true to them."

Many "commitmentphobes" are such not only for the fear of losing sexual variety, but for deeper reasons concerning the emotional intimacy that comes with serious monogamous relationships. This type of commitmentphobe would still reject a serious "open relationship."

Caplan offers some solutions to this problem of asymmetric information, but I think they're also a mixed bag:
1. Increase the social sanction against concealing your type. Most obviously, we should take any outrage we feel toward "promiscuity" and redirect it toward hypocrisy.

2. Lower the social status of monogamy. As far as I can tell, this is basically Micha Ghertner's proposal. If people cared less about monogamy, there would be less incentive to pretend to be more monogamous than you really are.

3. Encourage - nay insist upon - disclosure from potential mates. With the advent of Facebook, this is far from utopian. When people announce - and update - their relationship status, for example, it's a strong and informative signal. All their friends know what they're up to - and what they've been up to. Even better, the information is just sitting there in cyberspace, so it's easy to avoid the social awkwardness of point blank questions about people's relationship history. Admittedly, it's logically possible that insisting upon disclosure would lead to a pooling equilibrium of massive deception, but it seems unlikely. Lying about yourself to isolated individuals for short-run gain is a lot less costly than lying about yourself to everyone you know, all the time.
I think his first point is already the case. The problem with cheating isn't that people don't understand how some would prefer sexual variety, but that they conceal their infidelities. It's the breach of contract that is the issue, which is, in a sense, hypocrisy. What else would you call entering into a contract you know you are going to break?

His second point is dead on. This goes back to my point about "open relationships." Without the accompanying stigma, many who sincerely don't like monogamy would enter into these types of relationships. But, as I mentioned before, even these relationships have contractual elements that can be broken, which brings us back to the problem with point one.

Point three is a bit strange. Caplan gives the example of Facebook relationship updates as a sort of "permanent record" for someone's romantic past. The problem is, these updates don't capture instances of cheating. Moreover, there is no running log of someone's "permanent record" to reference. Once the status is changed, it's changed for good.

A potential solution could be sites like this, which allow people who have been cheated on to document their former lovers as "cheaters," while also giving those entering a relationship a central location to vet their potential mates. Of course, these sites don't require proof of these indiscretions, so their reliability is dubious.

Where does that leave us? I think Caplan's second solution is the best way to overcome this information asymmetry. For instance, people like Dan Savage are already changing how some think about monogamy. Still, there's a long way to go before people accept that they can enter into a long-term relationship, especially marriage, without assuming monogamy.

Friday, September 11, 2009

21. Mitch & Mickey "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" (2003)

Though it was written for Christopher Guest's comedy A Mighty Wind, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" is no joke.

Its subject being the folk music scene of the early 1960s, A Mighty Wind is equal parts satire and loving tribute. The film chronicles the run up to a modern day reunion concert for three formerly-prominent folk acts. All the music from the film is original, and it captures the stylistic facets of the folk music era. Unlike Guest's two previous mock documentaries, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, A Mighty Wind has moments of sweetness and poignancy, largely thanks to its folk duo Mitch & Mickey (played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara).

Mitch & Mickey are former lovers, whose storybook romance ended badly. Their reunion is fraught with awkwardness (Mitch is still single; Mickey is married to a catheter salesman). The duo was famous for a kiss that occurred during the dramatic pause of their signature song, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow." The movie's central tension is whether they will repeat that kiss during the film's climactic tribute concert. (They do.)

For the story to work, the quality of the song had to match its importance in the film. Guest and Co. outdid themselves in this regard, by writing a genuinely lovely song. (It was nominated for an Academy Award, which resulted in the below performance at the Oscar ceremony) True to its genre, the song's lyric is a string of platitudes. However, the actors' impressive vocal performances (especially O'Hara's) imbue the song with longing and melancholy.

The song's gorgeous melody is enough to elevate it above parody, but its context within A Mighty Wind makes "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" unequivocally great.

Click here to view the entire list.

Eight Years Later

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Obama on Health Care (If Only)

John Stossel imagines the health-care speech Obama would have given, in a better world:
Therefore, today I apologize for defending the absurd health care bills that have emerged from your committees—proposals that would add trillions of dollars of additional debt to an already unsustainable system.

Instead, I propose that we raise the Medicare eligibility age. I propose that wealthy seniors receive Medicare only until they recover as much money as they paid in. After that, you rich people should pay for your own damn health care.

These measures will delay but not prevent Medicare's bankruptcy. You Democrats and Republicans both better get your heads out of the sand. There will never be enough tax money to pay for everything that everyone wants. If we expect the state to pay for care, a bureaucracy must tell people, at some age, "No, you can't have that." You might call it a death panel.

There's a better way. I remind you of my speech to business leaders in March. I said, "America's free market has been the engine of America's great progress. ... And I believe that our role as lawmakers is not to disparage wealth, but to expand its reach; not to stifle the market, but to strengthen its ability to unleash the creativity and innovation that still makes this nation the envy of the world."

Only the vitality of the private sector—a truly free one, unencumbered by the crippling stranglehold of burdensome government regulation—can lift America out of the unsustainable mess that we liberals created.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

22. The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" (2003)

U2's lead guitarist, the Edge, recently admitted, with a bit of embarrassment, that he almost plagiarized the main guitar riff of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." It's a testament to how a great guitar lick becomes part of the musical language, like a word in the spoken language (for example, "Satisfaction," or "Louie, Louie"). You forget that it had to have an origin. It's an eloquent example of how a mere seven notes can be swallowed by a great canon.

The news must have come with a small amount of pleasure for Jack White, who, like Keith Richards, is as notable for being a fan of music as he is for being an actual musician. Not that he needed the validation. Upon its release, "Seven Nation Army" (and its accompanying album, 2003's Elephant) was hailed by many critics as an instant classic.

The White Stripes had already managed to squeeze a great deal of sound from a guitar and drum kit. Still, that did not prepare listeners for the great leap forward of "Seven Nation Army." Using only an antiquated 8-track tape machine to multiply the guitar tracks, Jack White was able to create the roar of a full rock band. Even the opening lick, which mimics a bass guitar, was produced by using an octave pedal to lower pitch of an acoustic guitar.

The audacity of White's recording methods would be meaningless if the end result wasn't so assured. "Seven Nation Army" finds the band at the height of their powers. Meg White, who would never be confused for a John Bonham, gives the song a menacing thump. Jack White's guitar exhilarates, as he pushes the iconic riff up three full octaves.

"Seven Nation Army" is not the White Stripes' best song, but it remains their great statement of purpose. And while they have subsequently expanded their sonic palette, they have yet to match the song's ferocity and grandeur.

Click here to view the entire list.

Monday, September 7, 2009

*District 9* Review

District 9 aims to be IMPORTANT, while wearing the skin of science fiction. Hey, it's about Apartheid...sorta! Look at how it exposes the utter villainy of humanity! Wallow in the victimhood of the film's insectoid aliens! The soundtrack even features dramatic choral music!


Having read many glowing reviews beforehand, my initial response to District 9 wasn't just disappointment, but the feeling that I had been seriously misled. Afterward, as I thought further, I became confounded by how so many critics could have loved the film. Even the handful of negative reviews only focused on how the film's (admittedly) original premise quickly cedes to run-of-the-mill action movie tropes. Yes, that's true. But, it's like observing how ill-fitting a couture dress is on a gorilla. It completely misses the point.

District 9 is fundamentally driven by a profound hatred for humanity. The ostensible villain is the bogeyman that keeps on giving, a multinational corporation (with the startlingly original name...Multinational United). Ultimately, we're all implicated in the film's condemnation. Even our hero, a Richard Kimble with an alien arm, is unsympathetic through most of the movie. When he does, obligatorily, begin to "do the right thing," fifteen minutes before the movie ends, the filmmakers don't let us in on what motivates the sudden about-face. Meanwhile, the aliens are merely grotesque surrogates for every subjugated people in history; they're there to be helplessly tyrannized. We're supposed to feel hatred and anger for the humans who do this to them, but, somehow, not for the humans who made this ugly movie?

District 9's many plot holes could comfortably accommodate the aliens' mothership, which hangs suspended over Johannesburg through most of the movie. Why didn't the main alien, Christopher Johnson, use the goop that powers his spaceship to escape earlier? (In case you don't make the connection to African slavery yourself, the film's earthlings give the aliens white-man names.) The film implies that he hadn't yet gathered enough, but the supply is sufficient for the job later on, even after our hero accidentally sprays himself in the face with a significant amount of it. Further, we are asked to believe the aliens, who were somehow able to create this advanced technology, which the baddies so rapaciously seek to covet, are, for the most part, mindless brutes. Only Christopher and his bafflingly precocious child show evidence of intelligence. And then there's the "superior" alien technology itself, which can barely hold up against the boring human gunfire that destroys it throughout the movie. Why do the mean humans want this stuff in the first place?

There are many more inconsistencies, but to recount them only hurts my head. Good science fiction is allowed, no supposed, to present the extraordinary and unlikely as mundane, as long as it follows its own rules. It must adhere to an internal logic. In that regard, District 9 is a mess.

But, what is so offensive about the film, and what the critics so heartily lapped up, is the film's pretense at being an insightful parable about humanity. What do we learn, by the end of the movie? Humans are nasty, violent creatures, who seek to dominate disgusting, mindless creatures. I think the filmmakers were too effective; District 9 achieves the opposite of their intent. You don't leave the theater thinking humanity is rotten. That evaluation is reserved for those responsible for this film.

How to Completely Discredit Your Cause with a Single Image

Courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund:

Caption: "The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it."

The accompanying video can be viewed here.

WWF's response here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

23. Jay-Z "99 Problems" (2004)

I don't know if I count 99 of them, but Jay Z certainly has a cornucopia of gripes: critics, the police, rival rappers, the rap media, a racist district attorney. The number doesn't quite reach the triple digit: he makes it clear that a "bitch ain't one" of those titular problems.

Throughout the song's triptych of verses, Jay Z confronts his adversaries with swagger and defiance. But it's the second verse that especially stands out. As he recounts a run-in with the law, Jay-Z deftly switches perspective between the police officer and himself. In a virtuoso example of rhyming and storytelling, Jay-Z enters a battle of wits with the officer:
Officer: "License and registration and step out of the car. Are you carryin' a weapon on you I know a lot of you are?"

Jay-Z: "I ain't steppin out of shit all my paper's legit"

Officer: "Well, do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?"

Jay-Z: "Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back. And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that."

Officer: "Aren't you sharp as a tack, you some type of lawyer or something? Or somebody important or somethin'?"

Jay-Z: "Nah, I ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit. Enough that you won't illegally search my shit"
While Rick Rubin's album version is great, Danger Mouse's mash-up of the song, with the Beatle's "Helter Skelter," is brilliant. Unfortunately, as Danger Mouse didn't actually secure the rights to the two songs, it's also very illegal.

Whatever the version, the lyric, not the music, is the star of "99 Problems." And for that, Jay-Z has earned the right to swagger.

Click here for the entire list.

24. Madonna "Hung Up" (2005)

This is the sound of Madonna begging her fans for forgiveness, a 120 BPM act of contrition.

You see, in 2003, Madonna decided to release a somber electro-folk album of protest songs called American Life. She soon discovered that when you're Madonna, you don't release a somber electro-folk album of protest songs without seriously offending your (mostly gay) fanbase. Being the savviest artist of her generation, Ms. Ciccone was smart enough to pull an immediate about face. She squeezed herself into a purple leotard and record some of the frothiest dance music of her career. Hence, "Hung Up."

Madonna beat Junior Vasquez to the punch and released a single that came pre-remixed and ready to dance (with an impossible-to-get-if-you're-not-Madonna ABBA sample, to boot). "Hung Up" stands shoulder to shoulder with early career hits like "Holiday" and "Into the Groove," and is essentially a throwback to her club days.

"Hung Up" is great because, where most hit singles contain one really good hook, it contains three: the aforementioned sample of "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," the chorus ("Every little thing that you say or do...!"), and the excellent bridge ("I can't keep on waiting for you!").

You could say Madonna was punished for venturing into new sonic territories with American Life, and her return to dance was a step backwards, a capitulation to whiny fans. I think there's some truth to that. Still, "Hung Up" shows that at this point in her career, Madonna is best when she's just being Madonna.

Click here to see the entire list.

25. Justin Timberlake "Cry Me a River" (2002)

"Cry Me a River" is surprisingly baroque for a pop song, even by modern pop standards. Justin Timberlake's producers, Timbaland and Scott Storch, layer the song with texture upon texture, making it more appropriate for headphones than a car with its windows down.

As far as kiss-offs go (and there are a few on this list), "Cry Me a River" is more hurt than scorn, which makes the song genuinely moving. (Britney really did break the poor boy's heart.) It's also funky and, with its human beatboxing and Gregorian chant samples, a little weird.

Justin Timberlake is the only male artist from the late-90s bubblegum renaissance who managed to successfully transition to a serious solo career. You have to give it to Justin; the guy is ambitious. It's no secret the JT wants very badly to be the next Michael Jackson. He may fall short of that goal, even Jackson had a hard time at being Michael Jackson, but he's made some really good music because he aims so high.

Click here to see the entire list.

Justin Timberlake - Cry Me A River (Official Music Video) - The most amazing bloopers are here

The Joy of Overwhelming Dislike

I don't typically engage in schadenfreude, but the Metacritic page for the new Sandra Bullock movie, All About Steve, is pretty great. It's not easy to annoy virtually every major film critic (even Transformers 2 received a few decent reviews), but Bullock managed to pull off that ignoble feat.

Here's an especially good quote, from the Boston Globe:
It is to comedy what leprosy once was to the island of Molokai: a plague best contemplated from many miles away.

In a spectacular feat of miscasting, the star plays a California fruitcake named Mary Horowitz who lives with her parents, constructs crossword puzzles for a living, and never stops yammering about the trivia that fizzes around her brain. Mary is supposed to be adorable. She’s not. She’s possibly the most irritating character I’ve ever encountered in a Hollywood movie. Five minutes in her presence produces only a searing pain in one’s frontal lobes and a primal flight response. The other characters understand this. Why don’t the filmmakers?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Incredible Growing Receipt

The WSJ reports on how store receipts are getting preposterously long.

Many shoppers have noticed with chagrin store receipts getting longer and longer as retailers tack coupons, return policies, loyalty points and other bits of information and advertising onto narrow pieces of paper that are supposed to be a record of what you bought and how much you paid.

The purchase of a pack of gum from a Duane Reade Inc. store in New York generated a foot-long receipt. Single-item buys made recently at RadioShack Corp. stores around the country each yielded 19 inches of paper. The purchase of a Hula Hoop at a Chicago Kmart produced a receipt two-and-a-half feet long.

Seems excessive, sure. But stores are benefiting from using the extra paper, or else they wouldn't do it.
NCR said redemption rates for coupons printed on receipts can run as high as 3%, about triple the rate of coupons mailed to customers or included in advertising circulars. Retailers "find it's one of the most effective places to communicate with their customers," Mr. Bogan said.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

26. The Strokes "Someday" (2001)

It's hard to believe that, earlier this decade, the Strokes were heralded as the saviors of rock music. Of course, rock didn't need saving. Radiohead had already released what was widely seen as their (still overrated) second masterpiece, Kid A. And indie rock was alive and well, as it usually is, creating great music under the radar. But popular rock was dominated by chest-bumping rap rock, pedestrian acts like Matchbox 20, and the last gasps of neo-grunge. The Strokes, with the White Stripes, ushered in a new aesthetic: the return of popular, stripped-down garage rock. (With that they also brought vogue to the definite article, with lesser bands like the Hives, the Vines, the Mooney Suzuki, and so on.)

"Someday" is a testament to the excitement of the Strokes' initial promise. While "Last Night" is their most popular song, "Someday" finds the Strokes at their petulant best. It epitomizes what was great about the band: Julian Casablancas' vocal matches, and plays with, the pop melody of the lead guitar, while the airtight rhythm section drives the music along.

Alas, the dream soon died, at least for the Strokes (and their ilk). They were never able to recapture the lightening that struck with their first album, Is This It. Still, "Someday" continues to remind us why we cared so much in the first place.

Click here to view the entire list.

The Strokes - Someday (Official Music Video) - The funniest bloopers are right here