Sunday, February 28, 2010

Song Break

Pavement was the best indie band of the 1990s, and "Cut Your Hair" their best song. ("Carrot Rope", is a close second.)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tragedy In the Atlantic

Spiegel Online recounts the harrowing final four minutes of Air France Flight 477, from Rio to Paris, which bellyflopped into the Atlantic last June:
Flying through thunderclouds over the Atlantic, more and more ice was hurled at the aircraft. In the process, it knocked out other, far more important, sensors: the pencil-shaped airspeed gauges known as pitot tubes.

One alarm after another lit up the cockpit monitors. One after another, the autopilot, the automatic engine control system, and the flight computers shut themselves off. "It was like the plane was having a stroke," says Gérard Arnoux, the head of the French pilots union SPAF.

The final minutes of flight AF 447 had begun. Four minutes after the airspeed indicator failed, the plane plunged into the ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

The article underscores how catastrophe, however unlikely, can result from the failure of a single instrument, in this case the craft's pitot tubes. I've become a skittish flier in recent years, largely due to a stomach-churning flight I took from New York to DC a couple of years ago. The article hardly calms my nerves, but it's a darkly fascinating read nonetheless.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Tyranny of Convenience

In an otherwise good article about Wal-Mart's move toward providing relatively inexpensive locally grown produce (and the threat it poses to high end supermarkets like Whole Foods), The Atlantic's Corby Kummer writes:
In an ideal world, people would buy their food directly from the people who grew or caught it, or grow and catch it themselves. But most people can’t do that. If there were a Walmart closer to where I live, I would probably shop there.
I suspect Kummer, and most readers, would find this paragraph benignly true. But the first sentence represents what may be the two most pervasive economic fallacies accepted by the public: middlemen (which Wal-Mart is in this context) do not provide a real service, create no "social" value; moreover, self sufficiency is a high ideal toward which we all should all strive. For an extensive explanation of why they're twin fallacies, I refer you to two EconTalk podcasts: one with Duke's Mike Munger on middlemen, and the other, an excellent monologue by GMU's Russ Roberts (who normally hosts) on comparative advantage.

The second and third sentences of Kummer's paragraph reveal why the first is so fallacious. Indeed, most people can't "buy their food directly from the people who grew or caught it, or grow and catch it themselves," not because they are incapable of going to a farmers market to purchase their produce, or because learning the rudiments of horticulture or hunting and fishing would be too difficult, but because doing so is extremely costly. Costly, not only because farmers markets tend to charge higher prices, but because time is man's most precious resource.

What Wal-Mart and (to a lesser degree) Whole Foods provide is convenience, places where consumers can purchase their locally grown produce and other goods they need (in Wal-Mart's case, goods as diverse as sunglasses, Wii games, and towels), thus saving them time (and cash). Even in an "ideal" world where we're all immortal beings with no regard for time, the gloriously austere self sufficiency of growing one's own arugula requires effort that would be akin to drudgery for many. A moral failing on their part? Maybe Marx would say so.

Some people enjoy going to farmers markets. That's fine. Some take pride in the bounty of their backyard gardens. That's great, too. But these activities are enjoyed as ends in themselves, as hobbies, or for the warm-and-fuzzy feelings they provide. Ask a single working mother if she would prefer waiting until Sunday to buy her family carrots from a farmers market, or to grow them herself, rather than driving to the local Wal-Mart or Whole Foods after work. Her answer is why Wal-Mart and Whole Foods provide a genuine service, why they create value, and why they should be celebrated, not vilified.

Monday, February 22, 2010

*Crazy Heart*

Crazy Heart, a crowd-pleasing redemption story, is a good movie, and a good enough movie to be a successful star vehicle for Jeff Bridges. Still, the film feels a bit too familiar. In fact, I've abstracted the movie to the following equation:

Crazy Heart
= [(The Big Lebowski - frat boy yuk yuks) + (The Wrestler/Leaving Las Vegas) + (Hedwig and the Angry Inch - sex change)] x Merle Haggard.

Otis "Bad" Blake (Bridges) not only performs country music (the kind played at run-down juke joints, mind you, not at the Opry or on CMT), he is it, the sad-sack archetype of every one of those songs: drunk, washed-up, penniless, alone. His greatest years behind him, Bad travels the Southwest in his beat-up truck, playing bowling alleys and dive bars. Still famous enough to be recognized by strangers, Bad, who hasn't written a new song in years, coasts on his legendary past, adrift in his own life.

Things take a turn for the better when Bad is asked to give an interview to a Santa Fe music journalist, Jean Craddock (played with great warmth by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Jean, a single mother, becomes charmed by Bad, despite being many years his junior, and the two begin to have a romantic relationship. Bad eventually takes on a paternal role for Jean's son (a role he never played for his own son), and in true Hollywood fashion, with fits and starts, he works at becoming a better man for the two (not without an end-of-second-act-fuck-up to put his reformation in jeopardy, of course.)

The film is as much about music, or rather the lifestyle of musicians, as it is about overcoming addiction. It succeeds more at the former than it does at the latter (which feels rushed and tacked-on). But most of all, it is Bridges who succeeds by making Bad Blake pitiful, loathsome, charming, and (yes) heroic at once -- and all without a whiff of effort.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Articles to Read When Trapped In an Elevator

I was trapped, alone, in an elevator today. It wasn't for long: ten to fifteen minutes at most. While trying to deep-breathe my way through near panic, all I could think about was Nick Paumgarten's wonderful New Yorker article "Up and Then Down", about the history of elevators in general and Nicholas White, a man who was trapped in an elevator for 41 hours, in particular. (I have never denied being a complete dork.)

Here's a terrifying, and representative, snippet:
Still, elevator lore has its share of horrors: strandings, manglings, fires, drownings, decapitations. An estimated two hundred people were killed in elevators at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—some probably in free-fall plunges, but many by fire, smoke, or entrapment and subsequent structural collapse. The elevator industry likes to insist that, short of airplane rammings, most accidents are the result of human error, of passengers or workers doing things they should not. Trying to run in through closing doors is asking for trouble; so is climbing up into an elevator car, or down out of one, when it is stuck between floors, or letting a piece of equipment get lodged in the brake, as happened to a service elevator at 5 Times Square, in Manhattan, four years ago, causing the counterweight to plummet (the counterweight, which aids an elevator’s rise and slows its descent, is typically forty per cent heavier than an empty car) and the elevator to shoot up, at sixty miles an hour, into the beams at the top of the shaft, killing the attendant inside. Loading up an empty elevator car with discarded Christmas trees, pressing the button for the top floor, then throwing in a match, so that by the time the car reaches the top it is ablaze with heat so intense that the alloy (called “babbitt”) connecting the cables to the car melts, and the car, a fireball now, plunges into the pit: this practice, apparently popular in New York City housing projects, is inadvisable.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Song Break

I adore the music of Sam Cooke so intensely that talking about it usually involves an inordinate amount of gushing. For example, I think "Bring It On Home to Me" is so good it hurts.

In fact, it's so good that it's earned a spot on my funeral mix. (Track seven, just in case you were wondering.)

*It's Complicated*

I doubt Nancy Meyers meant to be ironic when she titled her film (which she wrote and directed) It's Complicated. I assure you, complicated it's not. Not only is the film a color-by-numbers (and at times funny and charming) romantic dramedy, but it's also a fairy tale that shamelessly panders to the fantasies of middle-aged women. Still, who am I to begrudge that infrequently-pandered-to demographic a movie of their own?

Meryl Streep plays Jane Adler, an independent divorcée whose life is ridiculously perfect: she has a breathtaking house in Santa Barbara (which is about to be made even more breathtaking); owns a charming bakery of the kind that only exist in films set in California; has three smart, pretty, and emotionally mature children (plus one smart, pretty, emotionally mature soon-to-be son-in-law); and has an enviable relationship with her ex-husband of ten years, Jake (Alec Baldwin, who plays a toned-down version of Jack Donaghy, who is, in turn, just an amped-up right wing version of Alec Baldwin). There's only one chip in this Steuben Glass vase: Jane is still single. Not to worry ladies, Nancy Meyers has got you covered!

Though Jake is married to the ridiculously gorgeous (and young) Agness (whom he left Jane for), he still pines for his ex-wife. Early in the film, Jane and Jake share a drunken night out that ends in a wild romp in bed. Their sexual rediscovery leads to a full blown affair and, yada yada yada, things get complicated. (Hey, that's the title!) Adding to Jane's predicament (you see, now she's the other woman) is Adam Schaffer (a defanged Steve Martin), the architect working on an addition to her already-perfect home, who is himself recovering from a divorce and is beginning to fall in love with her. What's an older gal to do?

Really, does it matter? This film hangs together on, and is only worth seeing for, the genius of Streep and Baldwin, who have some truly wonderful romantic and comedic chemistry, to boot. And despite how formulaic the film is, the lead characters' maturity sets the film apart from generic chick flick fluff. (As Jane says at one point, "Wow, it's nuts how grownups talk.")

Everyone needs escapism, including older women, and It's Complicated is not bad escapism by any measure. Let's just hope that it's also the beginning of a trend that will result in films worthy of their target audience.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Vacation

I've been away on vacation since last week, so posting will be light (if at all). I'll be back to regular posting next week.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow and Property Rights

Alex Tabarrok cites a passage from the Washington Post that perfectly illustrates the Lockean concept of property rights:
And for those who managed to liberate their cars from the Snowpocalypse of 2010, another tricky moral dilemma can lead to some volatile confrontations: If you dig your car out from its frozen tomb, do you then own that parking spot until the sun melts open the rest of the curbside space?
Washington's long history of relatively mild winters has left residents without a common sense of snow etiquette to help answer that question.
Boston has codified its citizens' right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you're away at work.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

*The Road*

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a quick read -- McCarthy's spare and lyrical prose, at times hypnotic, propels the reader forward, making the book an out-and-out page-turner, even when not much is happening -- but it's not an easy one.

The post-apocalyptic world of The Road is desolate, burned, and ash-strewn, devoid of any life, plant or animal, save a handful of pitiful, vagrant humans. Two figures, a father and a son, both unnamed, seek deliverance from their hopelessness by trekking the titular road with a shopping cart filled with all their worldly belongings. Their destination is the coast, where they hope to find some semblance of stability, a terminus to their wandering, and most importantly a reprieve from the world's perpetual winter, since the sun has been blotted out by "the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming the world."

Along the way, father and son scavenge for food in abandoned homes and grocery stores. These scenes, and there are many, underscore the desperation of their situation. They not only have to survive near-starvation, but also the cannibals (most surviving humans have turned to eating human flesh) that may inhabit every building they enter. Every time the father and son enter a building, you feel as if the two have ventured into a sinister fun house, where the opening of a door or the turning of a corner brings anxiety and dread.

McCarthy's central metaphor is the road our duo walk. It is a symbol of lifetime, the linear path we all move along. It is the potential bringer of salvation, or of marauding hordes who literally hope to devour us. But most of all, the road is a symbol of movement, of resilience, of forward motion even when it seems to be a fruitless endeavor.

Is it fruitless? By the end of the novel McCarthy implies no. The Road is a novel of survival, of the "carrying [of] the fire," by which McCarthy means the continuation of life, of humanity. At the center of the novel is the father's determination to give his son the only gift he can give him: a life, a future.

By The Road's final pages, the pathos McCarthy builds throughout the novel becomes palpable and heartbreaking. McCarthy leaves it to the reader to decide how humanity will fare. What remains unequivocal is his portrayal of the raging against the dying of the light, a fight humans have had to wage in the darkest moments of history, most recently in the totalitarian nightmares of the 20th century. But, as McCarthy shows, there is one fundamental choice: to succumb, or to move on down the road.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Democracy, Good and Hard

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard. -- H.L. Mencken.
Slate's Jacob Weisberg laments the schizophrenic, contradictory, opinions of the American public:
In trying to explain why our political paralysis seems to have gotten so much worse over the past year, analysts have rounded up a plausible collection of reasons including: President Obama's tactical missteps, the obstinacy of congressional Republicans, rising partisanship in Washington, the blustering idiocracy of the cable-news stations, and the Senate filibuster, which has devolved into a super-majority threshold for any important legislation. These are all large factors, to be sure, but that list neglects what may be the biggest culprit in our current predicament: the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.

Anybody who says you can't have it both ways clearly hasn't been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the stimulus plan, according to Gallup. A few months later, with the economy still deeply mired in recession, a majority of the same size said Obama was spending too much money on it. There's nothing wrong with changing your mind, of course, but opinion polls over the last year reflect something altogether more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, climate change, and a whole host of other major problems. Sixty percent of Americans want stricter regulations of financial institutions. But nearly the same proportion says we're suffering from too much regulation on business. That kind of illogic—or, if you prefer, susceptibility to rhetorical manipulation—is what locks the status quo in place.
I could be elitist and say that these contradictions stem from the public's lack of basic economic knowledge, of cost-benefit analysis, of the seen and the unseen; they want results (health insurance for all!), while ignoring the costs and means involved (higher taxes?!!). But I won't. Read Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter. He does it for me. The public gets what it wants, good and hard. Just ask a Californian.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Humanitarian with the Guillotine

Today's tax system was shaped by sadists who were trying to be nice.
That was George Will writing in his column today (HT Don Boudreaux). I would extend the sentiment to most of the regulations that have been passed in the last 120 years. The great Isabel Paterson fleshed out this idea in her classic 1943 essay, "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine":
Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends. This is demonstrably true; nor could it occur otherwise. The percentage of positively malignant, vicious, or depraved persons is necessarily small, for no species could survive if its members were habitually and consciously bent upon injuring one another. Destruction is so easy that even a minority of persistently evil intent could shortly exterminate the unsuspecting majority of well-disposed persons. Murder, theft, rapine, and destruction are easily within the power of every individual at any time. If it is presumed that they are restrained only by fear or force, what is it they fear, or who would turn the force against them if all men were of like mind? Certainly if the harm done by willful criminals were to be computed, the number of murders, the extent of damage and loss, would be found negligible in the sum total of death and devastation wrought upon human beings by their kind. Therefore it is obvious that in periods when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced, starvation enforced, oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world, and as it has often been in the past, it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object. When they are not the immediate executants, they are on record as giving approval, elaborating justifications, or else cloaking facts with silence, and discountenancing discussion.

Obviously this could not occur without cause or reason. And it must be understood, in the above passage, that by good people we mean good people, persons who would not of their own conscious intent act to hurt their fellow men, nor procure such acts, either wantonly or for a personal benefit to themselves. Good people wish well to their fellow men, and wish to guide their own actions accordingly. Further, we do not here imply any “transvaluation of values,” confusing good and evil, or suggesting that good produces evil, or that there is no difference between good and evil, or between good and ill-disposed persons; nor is it suggested that the virtues of good people are not really virtues.

Then there must be a very grave error in the means by which they seek to attain their ends. There must even be an error in their primary axioms, to permit them to continue using such means. Something is terribly wrong in the procedure, somewhere. What is it?

Certainly the slaughter committed from time to time by barbarians invading settled regions, or the capricious cruelties of avowed tyrants, would not add up to one-tenth the horrors perpetrated by rulers with good intentions.
You can read the full essay here.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Blizzard and Off-Brand Goods

Bryan Caplan ponders:
A blizzard is about to hit DC. As reports of its magnitude spread yesterday, people unsurprisingly rushed to grocery stores to stock up. Stores unsurprisingly failed to raise prices to cope with this sudden demand shock. By the time I got to the grocery store last night around 11 PM, many of the shelves were unsurprisingly empty.

Many, but not all. They were out of milk and bread, but there was still plenty of cheese and chocolate. That was easily explained - people knew they could shop again in a few days, so they only needed to stock up on staples. But the more I looked around, the more puzzled I was.

Here's what I noticed: For any given type of product, the most popular brand always sold out first. There were no Eggo waffles, but plenty of Wegmans brand waffles. All the national brands of hot dogs and sausages were gone, but there were plenty of obscure sausages still on the shelves. If you broadened the categories, the pattern remained. In produce, all the bananas were gone, but there were still plenty of apples.

You might say, "What's the puzzle? Of course the most popular stuff sells out first." But that's a feeble explanation. After all, if X is ten times more popular than Y, then you'd expect stores to simply carry ten times as much X as Y. Why would X sell out faster in a blizzard if stores have already taken its greater popularity into account?
I think the answer to Professor Caplan's question is that grocery stores keep up with demand by using the just-in-time inventory system -- as inventories run down, they replace them. As long as trucks can bring in more shipments to replenish the most popular goods, the system works well. But, given severe weather, a grocery store's inventory remains static. Thus, the most popular items run out first, leaving only off-brand supplementary goods. And plenty of cheese and chocolate.

When there's enough notice, like with an impending hurricane, stores often stock up on the most popular wares, like bottled water, bread, and canned goods. But the severity of this year's blizzard was only evident just before it hit. Thus, Professor Caplan was stuck with Wegmans brand waffles, instead of Eggos.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Americans Love Free Enterprise, Capitalism (Sorta)

Gallup has conducted a poll of Americans' opinions on capitalism, socialism, and other ideological buzz terms (HT Hit & Run). Note: Gallup did not provide definitions for the terms. Some noteworthy findings:
  • 86% of Americans are pro-free enterprise, yet only 61% are pro-capitalism.
  • 58% of Americans are anti-socialism, while 33% are anti-capitalism.
  • 4% of Americans are anti-small business. (Fat Cat CEOs, I suppose?)
  • Americans are split on big business (49% pro and con).

When broken down by ideological identification, there are some more bizarre findings:
  • 60% of liberals are pro-capitalism and 61% are pro-socialism. What explains this apparent ambivalence?
  • 87% of liberals are pro-free enterprise!
  • 20% of conservatives are pro-socialism. No surprise there.
  • More liberals are pro-capitalism/free enterprise than moderates. What?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Best *Avatar* Review Yet

Mike Stoklasa, who produced the hilarious seven-part review of The Phantom Menace, reviews Avatar. As Tyler Cowen would say, self-recommending.

Both Sides of the Coin

Writing about the recently-departed Howard Zinn, GMU economist Donald Boudreaux makes the simplest, most fundamental, argument for limited government:
Were Zinn still alive, I would ask him why the very same government that he believes scurrilously, cold-bloodedly, and deceptively sends young people off to die in unjustified wars is to be trusted on the home front with the task of rearranging America’s own economy and society.

Seems to me that an evil brute pointing guns at foreigners remains an evil brute when he turns ’round to point those guns at fellow citizens.