Links: Rigor in universities?, the culture of the U.S. and the Internet, small apartment buildings, SpaceX, and more!

* “AAUP report says adjunct professor was likely fired for insisting on rigor in courses.” Then again, who knows for sure? Still, see also my post, “What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.”

* “The Like Button Ruined the Internet.” The best responses to this blog are always emails or other blog posts.

* “Toronto Schools to Cease Field Trips to U.S.,” and the Board cites “concerns that some students may be turned away at the border in the wake of President Trump’s latest travel ban and the American immigration authorities’ newly implemented ‘extreme vetting’ procedures.” Makes sense to me. I remember talking to a student with dual New Zealand and American citizenship and observing that, if I were her, New Zealand universities would be looking very good right now. See also “
Dr Peter Watts, Canadian science fiction writer, beaten and arrested at US border
.” One can see why Canadians would not be eager to visit!

* “America Needs Small Apartment Buildings,” and zoning reform more generally.

* “The age of offense.” See also me, “How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?

* “How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive.” Unexpected throughout.

* “How SpaceX’s Historic Rocket Re-Flight Boosts Elon Musk’s Mars Plan;” by far the most important news last week is that SpaceX launched and re-landed a previously launched and landed rocket booster. The price of getting to space is about to plummet.

* “The Reckoning: Why the Movie Business Is in Big Trouble.”

Thoughts on the movie “Arrival”

* Trust the good reviews, as they’re correct about Arrival.

arrival* I like the movie’s implicit criticism of morons, which is too rare. Too often in movies the institution is the bad guy and the uncredentialed are, automatically and by virtue of being outsiders, the good guys. Contagion (the movie) also has this quality. It’s also rare to see academics depicted as admirable (or useful).

* It’s a stranger and somber movie, maybe not keeping with the times. It’s also weirdly applicable to current politics.

* Think of it too as a modern The Day the Earth Stood Still, especially because few of us will want to watch the original as a movie. As a cultural artifact and statement of its times it is still interesting.

* See also my 2013 comments on Gravity.

Thoughts on the movie “The Nice Guys”

* It’s charming: Charm is hard to define but easy to feel. The plot is ridiculous without being stupid, which is a more important distinction than it seems. Shane Black, the director, also did the underrated and forgotten Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In an age of Netflix and streaming, I’m surprised Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hasn’t been rediscovered.

Nice Guys* Like many caper movies (and books), The Nice Guys is about principled dirtbags, but observing life I’ve run into few, if any, principled dirtbags, and many unprincipled, standard-issue dirtbags. Shades of Elmore Leonard abound.

* One of the movie’s lessons may be, “Never lose your pistol.” But it’s not really a “lesson” movie.

* The Nice Guys‘s villain is unusual and unusually interesting, though not overstated or supernatural. You may be reminded of the second, not-very-good season of True Detective. But The Nice Guys gets tone as right as True Detective gets it wrong.

* The number of people who die in cars is amazing. Even today, around 30,000 people die annually in cars. You’d think this would lead to a transportation revolution and political outcry, but it doesn’t. About 3,000 people died, once, on 9/11. If the U.S. response to mass car death were proportional to the U.S. response to 9/11, we’d be living in a very different world.

* Seattle is now larger than Detroit, and Seattle isn’t even that big (this won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the movie).

* Were the ’70s as fun at the time as they’re now depicted in retrospect?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

* The movie is remarkably funny, and it’s funny in a way that most supposedly funny movies aren’t. Comedies tend towards the scatological or sexual, which I’m not against but the relentlessness of the subject matter does become tiring. This one has a bit of each, but it’s more absurdistly funny. And politically funny.

* Afghanistan really is the forgotten war. I don’t really know what’s going on in Afghanistan right now. Do you? Don’t let this serious bullet point dissuade you from the movie.

* Whiskey Tango Foxtrot sticks the landing: The last two minutes are perfect and in tune with the rest. The last third of Magic Mike is like the first two-thirds but without the “magic” part.

* We are very much outsiders from there. The movie is congruent with “Soldiers of Reddit who’ve fought in Afghanistan, what preconceptions did you have that turned out to be completely wrong?” (See the seventh item at the link.)

* Being able to retreat from history is really, really nice. Even terrorism, while nice, kills less than 1% as many people in Western countries as car crashes alone. The average person has far more to fear from simple carbs than from terrorists.

Guest post: “Brooklyn” is movie of the year, or maybe the decade

This post is by Isaac Seliger; there are some minor spoilers.

Movie buffs know that the end of the year brings Hollywood’s “adult” (not that kind of adult) movie openings. This year Brooklyn fits that slot, and it’s easily the movie of the year if not decade. There’s not a single wasted shot.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who ends up in Brooklyn in 1952: This is not the hipster Brooklyn of today or the “dems” and “dosse” ethnic Brooklyn caricatures Hollywood usually presents. Instead, this Brooklyn is a mashup of hard working immigrant and first-generation Irish and Italians living side by side yet apart from one another. They strive for the American dream but are lashed to the fading memory of a romanticized old country. As the child of German Jewish refugees from the Nazis (Jake never knew his grandparents) who grew up in the 1950s in a not-too-dissimilar neighborhood in Minneapolis, I know these people.

The story swings back and forth from Brooklyn to a seemingly charming Irish village. Or is it charming? People don’t leave charming, happy places. While Eilis longs for the imagined brighter future of America at the start of the film, homesickness fills the middle third. With the film’s resolution, we learn why Eilis can’t go home again and must, as all immigrants/refugees, find a way to build a new home. America’s immigrant nature means that almost every family has an Eilis in their lineage.

Then there is the choice to name the heroine “Eilis,” an unusual Irish girl’s name and the Gaelic form of Elizabeth. Eilis evokes the timeless image of waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Brooklyn includes two scenes set in an Ellis-Island-like immigration arrival hall.

Brooklyn is the best movie about the American immigrant experience since Hester Street that I can recall. Hester Street tells a similar story: A young Russian Jewish woman named Gitl follows her husband to the Lower East Side in 1896. Like Eilis, Gitl struggles with the new land, but Hester Street is darker. The Lower East at the turn of 20th Century presented a much more uncertain future for immigrants than Brooklyn in 1952. The U.S. was much smaller and poorer. The fruits of industrialization and mechanization were less certain. And by the 1950s, the overt and virulent anti-immigrant feelings of the 19th Century had largely faded. The early 1950s America was a time of post-World-War-II optimism and economic growth. Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian immigrants are confident of a bright future.

Unlike many modern bloated films, Brooklyn is only 111 minutes long. Casablanca, my vote for best movie of all time, is only 102 minutes. In contrast, The Revenant clocks in at 156 minutes and The Hateful Eight at a butt-numbing 168 minutes. As grant writers, Jake and I can attest that writing shorter is often much harder than writing longer; I assume the same is true of movie making.

Individual stories humanize mass groups. Today’s news often presents Syrian refugees as a faceless horde with potentially ominous motives. In Brooklyn, Eilis places a human face on the overarching immigration theme. She chooses to come to America, rather than being forced, and choice matters. My parents and most of the Syrian refugees today are really just leaves being blown by The Winds of War. America is a big enough country to shelter many, and Brooklyn implicitly shows why and how.

Thoughts on “The Martian,” the movie

* The Martian is thrilling and the best movie I’ve seen in recent memory. The people telling you to see it are right. It’s a definite win in 3D.

* Very few contemporary movies are pro-science and optimistic about the abilities of humans to get things done and solve big problems, as Michael Solana argues in “Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology” and Neal Stephenson argues here (and elsewhere). Although many of us fear what will happen technologically in the future, few of us would want to return to the technologies of the past—which will probably also be true in the future. Few contemporary movies depict engineers as heroes.

* The absence of SpaceX or an analogous company (Blue Origin, for example) seems odd, as private companies seem poised to win the race to Mars. The presence of China’s space agency seems wise, though.

* The movie is a lesson in perspective: most of us are mired in minutia instead of thinking about how to concretely make the world a better place, one day at a time. Spacecraft happen through trillions of tiny decisions. What have you done, today, to make the world a slightly better place? (Imagination can count.)

* The Martian depicts “ah-ha!” moments well, in ways that are compatible with Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I also didn’t expect to hear phrases like “The Hohmann transfer window” used correctly.

Thoughts on “Hot Girls Wanted,” the Netflix documentary

Is it a sign of getting older that, more than seeing the hot girls featured be nude, I want to see them take economics, psychology, and human sexuality classes? I’m not ideologically or otherwise opposed to porn—quite the opposite, actually—but I am opposed to ignorance and Hot Girls Wanted is arguably about that subject, rather than its putative subject. The girls followed remind me of my least sophisticated students and do not seem to have a sense of future (or life trajectories) or past (and where their industry comes from). Often on this blog I write about the perils of academia, but if this is the alternative then academia looks really, really good. Ignorance has tremendous costs and rarely are those costs made as stark as they are in Hot Girls Wanted.

That being said, I wish the filmmakers had asked more questions about what these girls would otherwise be doing. What’s their opportunity cost? At what margin are they operating? They are getting paid for what they do, and from what I’ve heard, usually after a couple drinks, from women I know who’ve been in adjacent industries the college hookup scene is often not much better or more satisfying than getting paid.

hot_girls_wantedThe New York Times (and similar publications) has a trope: some Bad Trend occurs and then the writer adds, “Women and minorities hurt most.” Hot Girls Wanted deploys a similar frame; although perhaps being a porn actress is for many women not the world’s best job, it is possible for straight women to have straight sex on camera and make a lot of money, which isn’t even an option available to the vast majority of men. How many attractive 18- and 19-year-old guys would love to make a couple hundred or thousand dollars to have sex on camera? I haven’t done a formal study but let me guess “a lot.” Yet those jobs don’t or barely even exist. Having an option to trade heterosexual sex for money is still valuable, even if the makers of Hot Girls Wanted disapprove and/or think women don’t really have the agency necessary to consent to the job.

To me the girls seem sad not because they’re doing porn, exactly, but because they’re ignorant and don’t understand what they’re doing. How was their relationship with their high school teachers? My reactions to them doing porn would actually be similar if they were doing, say, currency trading: The people on the other ends of the trade are not there to help them. If you want to trade currency you really need to understand what you’re doing. Failure to know will have real consequences. Porn is similar in this way.

Hot Girls Wanted could be compared and contrasted with Belle de Jour’s work. Both are about women in sex work but the tones couldn’t be different. Belle de Jour already had gone through British undergrad. She was (and probably is) an intense reader. She knew much better what she was doing when she started working.

There are intelligent, empowered ways of being in the industry depicted in Hot Girls Wanted, but they are not evident here. It is at best very difficult to protect people from being from themselves, and attempting to do so usually has distortionary outcomes in other areas that make the protection itself not worthwhile. Arguably much of the sexual revolution since the 1960s is a demonstration of this, and we’re now seeing the outcome in terms of family and economic structure (link goes to Robert Putnam’s latest book). The wonk-o-sphere is abuzz about family structure issues but I wonder how many, if any, wonk-o-sphere members will connect them to Hot Girls Wanted. People want what they want and the elite pundit class, left, right, and Alpha Centauri is maybe not good so good at understanding or emphasizing this.

You will not learn much from Hot Girls Wanted. That said I don’t regret watching and my interest did not waver.

%d bloggers like this: