Weekend Film Recommendation: Alien

Closing out the October fright-fest, this week’s movie recommendation is Ridley Scott’s wildly successful maiden voyage of one of the best haunted house franchises in movie history. It’s Alien (1979).

The opening shot lingers on a wide open expanse of space. Instead of being a place of tranquil comfort, though, Scott’s outer space is an empty and soulless oblivion. Piercing that massive expanse is the clunky Nostromo, a cargo ship staffed by seven weary crew-members on a return trip home. During their journey, they are roused from ‘hyper-sleep’ to respond to a distress signal emitted from a mysterious source along their route. Exhausted by travel and labor, the crew struggles to see why the distress call should be their responsibility. Over the objections of the engineers Brett and Parker (played by Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, respectively), Dallas the captain (played by Tom Skerritt) insists on the Nostromo responding to the call.

Upon reaching the source of the signal, the crew finds a strange, possibly alien spaceship. The exploration party brings back to the Nostromo an unexpected package with unknown properties. In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, the nature of that package becomes clear while the crew sits down to eat together. Unbeknownst to the crew-members, in bringing the package aboard they also set loose a hostile alien with acid for blood, an appetite for humans, and a mean, mean temper. From that scene onward, the eponymous alien hides in the ventilation pipes and steam-filled corridors of the Nostromo, growing in form at each appearance while it hunts the crew-members – the most resilient of which is the impressive Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in her career-making role.

Screen shot 2014-10-30 at 22.46.26

When the characters wake from their groggy slumber at the start of the film, unenthused about either the job they currently have or the one to which they’ve been newly assigned, there’s a prevailing sense of gloom and diffidence permeating the mood. The pacing is deliberate, slow, and unnerving. Then, after the initial set-up is out of the way and the battle against the alien begins, it’s a long haul of tension, anxiety, and fear from about 45 minutes in right through to the very end. Unlike many horror films of similar ilk, Alien doesn’t bother with wacky offbeat comic relief to control the film’s pacing. Instead, Scott is merciless in giving the audience no reprieve whatsoever from the suspense.

Although the budget in Alien was ultimately sizeable, the project certainly did not begin life that way. Much of the film was shot on a shoestring, and it shows in the final product: the tricks Scott uses to elicit a gasp and build tension are basic and require little more than a well-placed shadow and camera. The performances are air-tight, as well. But the suspense of the film is not so much attributable to the action of the film as its concept: one of the defining features of the Alien franchise is the fear and uncertainty about who’s on the good guys’ team.

That ‘evil within’ theme runs throughout the film and operates at multiple levels: there’s the obvious fact that the alien is inhabiting the very ship that’s supposed to protect the passengers from the danger outside; there’s the suspicion surrounding one of the crew members, who isn’t letting on all he knows; there’s the more visceral nature of the alien’s gestation inside the chest cavities of its victims; and finally, in a story arc that is elaborated upon in much greater detail in later films, there’s the duplicitous motives of the corporation for which the characters work. At every turn, Alien raises suspicions about precisely that which ought to be providing a sense of security. Surely the spaceship is safe? If not that, then surely the crew is all on the same page? If not that, then maybe we can expect to be secure in our own bodies? If not that, then at least we can hope the nefariousness extends no further than the ship? On all counts, we’re wrong.

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As haunted house films go, Alien is about as good as it gets. Notwithstanding some dated monitor displays and odd noises emanating from the computers, you barely notice that it’s already a quarter century old. Some of the scare tactics are just timeless, it seems.

Those who fail to study history …

John Buntin at Governing looks to the development of alcohol policy after Prohibition for cautionary lessons about the future of the legal commercial cannabis industry, and some alternatives to that future. It’s the kind of solid, thoughtful reporting that is Buntin’s hallmark, and well worth a read.

 

Jails at Last Start to Empty

The U.S. rate of incarceration in prison has been dropping for five straight years. As I have written about before, the size of the jail population has been dropping for most of the same period, but less consistently because of California’s realignment policy, which expanded its massive jail population. Some recent revisions to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provide further evidence that jails are at last starting to empty out.

The revised report includes new information on “rated capacity” in U.S. jails, a measure of how many inmates can be held at one time. Astonishingly, after first being measured in 1982, this figure went up every single year for the next four decades. The break in the trend finally came in 2013, when national jail capacity fell by about 5,000 beds. Numerically, this is a small change, but after 40 years of unbroken increases, it’s a bellwether.

These national statistics resonate with recent on-the-ground reporting on counties and cities that are trying to sell off jails that they can no longer fill with inmates. Some localities are looking to sell off entire jail facilities, but I’d rather they use them to reduce their prison population. States could be pay counties and cities to take less dangerous prisoners into local facilities closer to their families. On the front end, empty jail cells are ideal for implementing swift, certain and fair community supervision programs that can serve as an alternative to being sent to prison for offenders with drug and alcohol problems.

International Cost-Shifting and Political Strategy

UK Bill

The British taxpayer just got an unpleasant surprise. The EU obligates member states with stronger economies to pay more of the EU’s budget than do members who have weaker economies. Having crunched a bunch of revised current and past economic figures, the green eyeshade wearers in Brussels have announced that some countries are due money back and others must pony up more. As the above chart shows, many countries are affected, but most of the action can be summed up simply: The Brits are being touched for over 2 billion Euros, which will fund hefty rebates for the French and Germans.

Whether the revised economic figures are more accurate than the early versions (which would mean Britain is simply being asked to make up for a getting an overly sweet deal in prior years) or whether they are less accurate (which would mean Britain is being mulcted) is beyond my ken. What I find more interesting is how European policy making might change if those who want the EU to be more centralized and powerful succeed in their wish to make equalization payments like these much larger and more frequent.

Politicians are always tempted to give voters more in services than they charge them in taxes, while sticking non-voters with the resulting debt (e.g., children and generations yet unborn). This can clearly work politically, but there is always a risk that voters will eventually notice how much their grandchildren are struggling and begin to hold the political class accountable. The perfect solution for this problem for integrity-free pols is to create international agreements such that the debt burden caused by undertaxation (or if you prefer, overspending) is shifted to people who will never be able to kick them out of office: Voters in other countries.

Imagine a EU centralizer’s dream world in which the equalization payments in question were 50 times what they are today. If you were running a country where the work week is capped at 35 hours, the retirement age is 60 and employees are only expected to come to work 26 weeks a year (the rest of the time, they would be on holiday or on strike), you would eventually be punished by the electorate for delivering little or no economic growth. But if you are in international equalization payment agreements with other countries in which cultural norms and labor rules are such that people work much harder and produce more economic growth, you might be more inclined to lower your own country’s retirement age or the number of allowed hours of work per week. Your own citizens would be happier, and your treasury would get a big check each year from other countries. And if the countries who are paying your bills are historical rivals of yours, so much the sweeter — perhaps even a vote winner if handled properly.

Chart courtesy of The Daily Mail

Rob MacCoun on growing your own cannabis legalization

Stop right now and read Rob MacCoun’s essay on cannabis legalization. Whether or not you’re actually interested in the issue – more exciting than it is important – Rob’s piece shows how policy analysis is done. In particular, he focuses on what advocates almost always deny: the fact that policy choices involve tradeoffs among competing values.

Let me offer one technical amendment to what Rob says: in my view, high taxes – as long as they allow prices close to current illicit prices – will decrease health risk and also increase revenue.

Shorter Ross Douthat

All Popes are infallible, but reactionary Popes are more infallible than others.

Note especially two extraordinary claims:

* That what Douthat admits is a traditionalist minority deserves deference because of its energy. Apparently Douthat wants his faction to dominate the Church the way the Tea Party dominates the GOP.

* That it would be outrageous for Pope Francis to use the power of appointment to move the Church into the future in precisely the way his two predecessors used it to move the Church into the past.

Brad DeLong notes the historical falsity of the claim that the early modern church was prepared to lose England rather than compromise on the indissolubility of marriage. But it is worse than false: it is absurd. The granting of annulments to royal persons when politically convenient was no more controversial at the time than was granting dispensations from what otherwise would have been impediments to marriage (e.g., on grounds of consanguinity) for the same political reasons. When Louis VII of France decided he could no longer put up with Eleanor of Aquitaine – after 15 years of marriage, with two children – he had no problem getting their marriage annulled, to his own relief and to the delight of Eleanor and her lover Henry Plantagenet, soon to be King of England.

By Douthat’s announced standard – the Gospel teaching that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery –  the marriage of Eleanor and Henry was adulterous, and their children therefore bastards. But of course no one would have suggested that at the time. Nor does anyone suggest that about the tens of thousands of Catholic couples each year who suddenly decide that their long-standing marriages were invalid from their inception and get a church tribunal to go along with that assertion. (In some cases, that decision is mutual, but in others it’s at the instance of one party or the other, sometimes against vigorous resistance of the other party.)

If you can read this explanation by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops without laughing out loud, your facial muscles are stronger than mine:

“Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.

The document goes on to explain why the children of two people who were never married are nonetheless considered legitimate. It’s true: “With God, all things are possible.”

Footnotes

1. If you consider the practice of assigning children nasty labels based on the conduct of their parents outrageous, I’m with you all the way. But the Church has never repudiated the disgusting concept of bastardy, which unfortunately occurs in the Torah. It merely invents a way around it.

2. Having a somewhat game-theoretic way of looking at the world, I’m more sympathetic than most of my friends to the idea that marriage ought to be somewhat more difficult to escape from than it is, for example, in California under “no-fault divorce.” An easy out can easily lead to great injustice, usually against the woman.  And there are clear advantages to both parties in being able to plan as if the marriage would outlast at least any temporary and unilateral inclination to end it.

But that analysis doesn’t answer the question how much suffering it is desirable or justified to inflict on people who made a marital mistake and on their subsequent spouses and children. Douthat’s failure to mention the human costs of the current rigid policy suggests a certain hardness of heart. Perhaps he needs to meditate on the Sermon on the Mount.

 

 

Bad day in the blogosphere

Kevin Drum is one of the high-candlepower sources in public deliberation.  This did not begin my day well.  My aunt succumbed to this disease fifty-odd years ago, and  one bright spot here is that Kevin’s prospects are so much better than hers. Another is Kevin’s completely unwhiny, thoughtful affect.  Get better, Kevin, and my best to Marian. And the cats.

Why we should fund medical and all science research more, I leave for another post.

Annals of commerce: Beerkeley

Mark says alcohol creates more social cost than all other drugs combined.  I work for a university that has a persistent alcohol problem among its students.

It also has a sideline in big-time athletics, but that operation has made some very bad decisions in recent years and is genuinely desperate for money.  Three years ago, we made a three-year deal to let Coors use our name to sell beer.  No, really; there was an enormous billboard on the local interstate, but no-one on campus noticed. Last year such a billboard went up again, and the 15-year-old son of a public health [sic] prof noticed, producing some faculty outrage and this 21/XI/13 assurance from Claire Holmes, our Associate Vice Chancellor for PR:

… I am working on this issue with Vice Chancellor Wilton and have a meeting to discuss this with him Tuesday next week.  As you know,  contracts are binding agreements, so there is a process involved to change any agreements.  What I can assure you though is that there are no more beer ads planned for the foreseeable future.

Oops:

billboard 14a(Photo Terray Sylvester/SF Chronicle)

It appears the “process” didn’t work, or AVC Holmes was misled, or the folks who could sign a three year contract couldn’t foresee a year ahead…or everyone at our higher financial levels missed the MBA class where they explained that any contract can be abrogated for a price (which would be pretty small while Coors had a whole year to figure out how to use the billboard without us).  Or maybe our campus leadership just decided $200,000 was an appropriate price at which to sell our students’ welfare and our principles, and endure public humiliation in the eyes of every driver and Chron reader.   You might think the 200 large at least went to the health center for alcohol emergencies, or the police and fire departments who have to deal with the alcohol poisonings and sexual assaults on Saturday night, or the undergraduate dean’s office for student alcohol education and safety programs, but as far as I can tell, you would be wrong.  The money is Intercollegiate Athletics’ to use as they wish.

This year’s poster has a couple of little logos in the corner saying “Party safe”and “21 means 21″, so it’s fine! Cigarettes are OK with a little health warning on the pack, right? OK, I’m ready to get with the program…but we can do a lot better.  At the least, we need to start selling beer at games again.  Several years ago, I offered what I thought was a surefire scheme, but so far haven’t been able to sell it.  Never mind: how about we partner with these guys, so they can put our logo right on their page as long as they also have a little box that says “Don’t plagiarize!” But the payoff from that deal pales in comparison to what we can get for adjusting research results, from companies who would kill to have a UC study finding their products safe/effective/whatever.  A notice on our web home page, and on the title page of each such lucrative report, to the effect that “UC Berkeley does not support compromising academic standards” would surely sanitize such deals.

I’m already shopping for my new office furniture.

Tipping

I despise the institution of tipping for service.  There’s no practical way to escape it (obviously no decent person will stiff a waiter in the service of a principle), it’s degrading to people who are no more “servants” to me in a restaurant than I am to my students, the “expected” tip has been increasing as a percentage of the tab for no reason (because its a percentage, inflation is automatically covered already), and in some contexts (like New York garages and apartment houses) it’s only slightly above extortion, with a soupçon of positional arms race.  Furthermore, it’s an invitation to tax evasion.

Here’s the beginning of a worthy trend: some high-end restaurants here are just putting a stop to it, and apparently to everyone’s approval.  Now we just need to increase the menu prices 20% and have done with the whole mess.  I like charging extra for checked bags on an airplane; why should people without bags pay to schlep mine across the country?  But having dinner put on your table is not an optional part of dining in a sit-down restaurant.  Roll it all up together and have done with it; let management manage things like salaries, training, and working hours.

[rev 24/X] from the linked (paywall) article:

Citing both pragmatic and philosophical reasons, a small collection of Bay Area restaurateurs are eliminating tipping. Instead of expecting diners to leave a tip, the restaurants will automatically add a 20 percent service charge to all bills — and not accept any additional gratuity beyond the service charge….Rather than relying on tips, the restaurants will compensate staff on merit-based hourly wages and revenue-sharing. It’s a system common abroad….So far, the restaurants’ respective staffs have been largely supportive, according to owners. Camino’s Hopelain estimates that cooks stand to receive an hourly increase of 50 cents to $1, while servers’ pay will remain steady, or perhaps decrease 50 to 75 cents an hour….One major shift will be in reporting tips for tax purposes. Generally speaking, cash tips have a tendency to go unreported among restaurant servers. Once the service charge becomes an official line item on a receipt, people will be accountable. Hoffman [co-owner] said employees at Comal will not see a change in their income if they have been declaring all of their tips.