On doing bad things, being a bad person, making a living, and having a voice

The torture report hit the streets today, and John Yoo is teaching in my university, with a named chair.  I have a real problem that we are putting him in front of a classroom, especially a law classroom, no matter whether the course is international criminal law, constitutional law, or even civil procedure.
I could be wrong, or inconsistent, about this. In the last three weeks, I’ve assigned my students leadership “cases” by Richard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral).  I make a point of recognizing that these authors are a pair of notorious anti-Semites and misogynists, that Wagner was adopted as a Nazi poster boy, and make sure they attend to Sachs’ nasty little xenophobic speech at the end of the opera. I also point out that while this is a fairly long assignment, as a freebie they get to spend time with some of the most glorious music of the 19th century and poetry of the 20th.
This morning we learned that MIT has taken down Walter Lewin’s online physics lectures, because he sexually harassed one or more students taking an MITx  course which he is no longer offering.  There’s no suggestion that the lectures contained sexist physics, whatever that would be, or sexist anything else. Over the last few weeks, Bill Cosby has had what appear to be all his gigs pulled, including reruns of a TV show more than 40 years old that no-one ever complained about, because of offstage behavior that is invisible in his paid work. The football news is all about whether players whose on-field performance is completely unsexist  and sober should lose employment because they hit their lady friends or drive drunk.  I’m writing this on a computer made possible by the invention of William Shockley, who was just awful both personally and politically http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shockley, but his transistor works fine both for harmless bloggers and ISIS recruiters. My college organic chemistry professor invented napalm that helped win World War II, and did so with that end in mind, but he took a lot of heat when it was used in Vietnam. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Cry Danger

YWsOLKpWhat the difference between a first time directorial outing by a former film editor versus that of a movie star? In general, about 10-20 minutes of unnecessary footage. As directors/producers, movie stars tend to have too much sympathy with the actors (especially if they have cast themselves in the film) and not enough with the audience. A number of good films with actor-directors, for example Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, Ed Harris’ Pollock and Jack Nicholson’s The Two Jakes, did not achieve greatness simply because they were far too long.

Former film editors tend to understand that most movie scenes can be shorter and some movie scenes can be eliminated entirely. That doesn’t stop them from making long movies (David Lean was a former film editor) but it does prevent them from making flabby ones. A background as an editor was thus ideal for making an economical film noir in just 22 days, which is what Robert Parrish did in this week’s film recommendation: Cry Danger. I highlighted Parrish’s Oscar-winning editing in my recommendation of Body and Soul and am happy to report that he also clearly knew what to do behind the camera.

The plot of the film is near-boilerplate for these sorts of cinematic outings. Two noir staple characters, an ex-con named Rocky Mulloy who was wrongly convicted of a crime (Dick Powell) and a disillusioned ex-GI (Richard Erdman), team up to find the still-hidden loot from the robbery for which Rocky was framed. They tussle with the crime boss whom they suspect of being behind the original job (William Conrad, as usual a welcome film noir presence). Meanwhile, Rocky comforts his ex-girlfriend (Rhonda Fleming), who is now married to his best friend, who was sent upriver with Rocky and still remains in the Big House. Rocky is tempted by his ex- in more ways than one, but never lets himself be dissuaded from his mission of taking vengeance on those who framed him.

I have written before about how former song-and-dance men Dick Powell and John Payne repackaged themselves as noir tough guys after the war, and how Payne did so more credibly. Powell always seemed to me too Father’s Knows Best-ish to carry off morally murky or cynical noir roles, and his mien of near-continual faint amusement undermined his efforts to be an intimidating tough guy. But those problems are irrelevant here due to Erdman’s well-scripted part as Powell’s alcoholic friend, which is in Erdman’s hands is extremely funny (Fans of the TV show Community will not be surprised). Powell’s efforts to get his friend to sober up, and to be wary of the floozy (Jean Porter) who keeps stealing his wallet, turn Powell’s paternal demeanor into a strength rather than an annoyance, and the humor of these exchanges is only better for Powell’s frequent smirks.

Despite those light elements, there is still plenty of noirish content and mood on display here, as well as some pleasing mystery and action elements. The “surprise resolution” of the story is not hard to guess, but that will not diminish enjoyment of this tightly-constructed, well-directed crime melodrama.

p.s. As of this writing, Cry Danger is available for free for Amazon Prime customers.

Weekend Film Recommendation: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The RBC Film reviewing team is on holiday break this week, so we re-run a review that your family can enjoy together. Happy Thanksgiving!

I haven’t done a family film in awhile, so let me return this week to the same well from which I drew my recommendation of Treasure Island, namely Disney’s live-action post-war film canon. Kids and adults can both enjoy the dramatic, well-mounted adaptation of Jules Verne’s steampunk classic: 1954′s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The story opens with sailing vessels being destroyed in the South Seas by a mysterious underwater creature. Is it a kraken, a dragon or something else? At the behest of the U.S. government, a Parisian professor (Paul Lukas), his faithful assistant (Peter Lorre) and a free-spirited sailor (Kirk Douglas) join a military expedition to either find the monster or prove it doesn’t exist. In a fatal confrontation, their ship encounters disaster, which brings them face to face with Captain Nemo (James Mason), his devoted crew, and his extraordinary “submarine boat”.

Mason, as the tortured, destructive yet also sympathetic Nemo is in top form, adding weight to proceedings that might otherwise have been comic bookish. Lukas, as the brilliant scientist who is both Nemo’s prisoner and his nagging conscience, is an effective foil for Mason. Lorre isn’t given a huge amount to do, but he makes the most of it by being more vulnerable and afraid that the other central players, thereby giving the audience someone with whom to identify.

The special effects were trend setting at the time and still hold up pretty well today, as does the knockout set design on the submarine. It’s particularly hard to forget Nemo playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ as the Nautilus glides through the ocean deep. Also adding to the striking look of the film is Peter Ellenshaw, who as in Treasure Island does magnificent matte work (the crowded shipyard at the beginning and the Island of Volcania at the end are flawless).

The film has two weaknesses. The first is Kirk Douglas’ endless mugging and preening. I don’t know if Director Richard Fleischer couldn’t control his star’s legendary desire for attention or gave him bad direction, but it gets old pretty quickly. The second is that like many films of the period (e.g., King Solomon’s Mines), this one includes “nature photography” moments that would have dazzled audiences at the time but are pretty slow stuff for a generation that has the web, television and a thousand episodes of Jacques Costeau at its fingertips.

But neither of those flaws stops this from being outstanding family entertainment with exciting action scenes, a strong story, eye-catching visuals and moments of real emotion. It’s great fun for you and the kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I close this recommendation with a must-view clip for film-buffs. The truly spectacular fight with the giant squid in the film version released to theaters was not the first one that was shot. Here is the inferior original, the “Sunset Squid Sequence”.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Obsession

1862396_600In my recommendation of Dear Murderer, I described my fondness for British films in which brutal people say awful things with perfect manners and diction. This week’s film recommendation is another fine example of the “Terribly sorry old chap, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to kill you” school of Brit Noir: 1949′s Obsession.

Like Dear Murderer, the film revolves around a beautiful, faithless wife (Sally Gray) whose urbane, intelligent cuckold (Robert Newton) seeks indirect vengeance by trying to kill one of her lovers in a fashion that the police will never uncover. Gray, who was with us in prior film recommendation Green for Danger, is at her most alluring…and her most cold. If there were any doubt as the film progresses, the final scene makes clear her character’s utter selfishness, and she puts it over in a manner worthy of noir’s most memorable femme fatales.

Robert Newton, as a calculating, vindictive psychiatrist plotting the perfect murder, is even better. It’s hard to believe that his suave, perfectly tailored character is the creation of the same actor who made “Arrrrhhh!” the byword of would be pirates everywhere (see my prior recommendation Treasure Island for details). Because he is ostensibly the victim of his wayward wife and conducts himself so politely, it’s possible to feel sorry for him until about half way through the film, when a critical scene with a little dog makes you realize that he is, like his spouse, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

As the lover who is to be killed, Phil Brown is solid, though a stronger actor might have been able to do more in the many face-offs he has with Newton. Naunton Wayne — for once not co-cast with Basil Reardon — comes off better as a dogged Columbo-type detective, and also skillfully injects some comic relief into the otherwise grim story.

The other key presence here is director Edward Dmytryk, who was essentially exiled to Britain during the McCarthy witch hunts. He had a smaller budget to work with than what he was no doubt used to in Hollywood, but he gets everything possible out of the small cast and few sets as the film unfolds.

If you have trouble finding a copy of Obsession, look for it under an alternate title that was adopted at some point after its release: The Hidden Room. Any required extra hunting effort on your part will be well-rewarded by this finely-crafted piece of cruel and suspenseful entertainment.

p.s. Look fast for Stanley Baker (whose films were recommended here, here and here) as a cop on the beat.

p.p.s. If Stanford grad Phil Brown looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because he played Luke’s Uncle Owen in the opening scenes of Star Wars!

Weekend Film Recommendation: Onibaba


When movie aficionados think of Japan, their minds typically turn to Akira Kurosawa. That’s understandable, as one could make a plausible case for him being the best director in the history of cinema. But Kurosawa is far from the only brilliant filmmaker to hail from the Land of the Rising Sun. Another is writer-director Kaneto Shindô, the creative force behind this week’s film recommendation: Onibaba.

Shot in lustrous black and white under demanding conditions in 1964, Onibaba is a primal, sensual and eerie story of human beings struggling to survive. Emphasizing the mythological nature of the tale and its universal themes, the two central characters do not even have names. The older woman and her young daughter-in-law eke out a living in a swamp by murdering unfortunate soldiers who are lost or are fleeing the battles that rage across 14th century Japan. Strong, complex women characters were one of Shindô hallmarks, and he chose brilliant actors here to essay the roles: Nobuko Otowa (his real-life wife) and Jitsuko Yoshimura.

Into this small, brutal world eventually comes a disruptive force, an ex-soldier played by Kei Satô who informs the women that the link between them is gone: the older woman’s son is dead and the younger woman is therefore now a widow. The ex-soldier moves into the swamp, while keeping a lustful eye on the young woman, whose own uncontrollable sexual yearnings are memorably dramatized by her racing through the tall, undulating susuki grass (truly, the grass forest is the film’s fourth character). The older woman is consumed both by her own sexual frustration and her fear that the young woman will leave her, ending the bloody partnership that allows her to survive. So she concocts an unusual scheme to disrupt the relationship, which backfires as the movie takes a supernatural turn that will resonate with those viewers who are familiar with Buddhist folklore.

skullsThis is a raw film about how human beings’ animal nature emerges under harsh conditions. On display are unbridled lust, jealousy, greed and violence. Even the way the characters eat suggests animality. Hikaru Hayashi’s one-in-a-million score, a mix of Taiko, jazz and ghostly notes from wind instruments, is the perfect marriage of music with celluloid. Kudos are also in order for cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda for achieving technical brilliance on a hot, rainy and swampy set (It was so brutal that Shindô allegedly refused to pay the rebellious crew unless they finished the shoot). Like Saed Nikzat, Kuroda has the confidence to hold a still long shot and let the audience experience the environment and characters rather than forcibly directing our attention by moving from one quick cut to another. This is especially effective in his hypnotic, sensual images of the ever-swaying susuki grass forest.

Although the film is perhaps 10 minutes too long, Onibaba is completely original and fascinating. It’s also rather unsettling in the best artistic sense of that word. To fully enjoy this classic of Japanese cinema, try to get your hands on the gorgeous Criterion Collection re-issue.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of our prior recommendations.

If no-one can hear us…

Last week was the annual research conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. For those who do not frequent academic conferences, this is a get-together of people like me and several of yr. obdt. bloggers, where we break up into “sessions” of about an hour and a half, in each of which three or four people present recent research.  A program committee of really noble souls puts these together out of proposals so they have some internal coherence: four papers about urban crime, or three about state pension accounting, and like that. Hour after hour of smart people saying more interesting things than you can possibly absorb.
The outgoing APPAM  president gives an address, on a topic of his or her choice, that is well-attended and subsequently published in the organization’s Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  This year we heard from one of my  very favorite colleagues, Angela Evans, formerly of the Congressional Research Service and now at UT Austin scarfing up every teaching award in sight.
I thought it was an excellent talk about stuff on which Angela and I almost entirely agree, but at about 49:00 she has one of those moments professors anticipate with, um, qualified enthusiasm: in front of her whole tribe, and the world on YouTube, one of her own students asks an excellent question (heart leaps) to which she has only half of a good answer (heart palpitates): how is all this excellent policy analysis and research supposed to get to the public? Angela has always been all over the need for pointy-heads to explain their stuff in languages people can understand, and not browbeat them with regression coefficients and the kind of technical stuff we play catch among ourselves with.  But she didn’t say a word about  the most important current challenge to good governance in a democracy (and othercracies), namely the technology-driven collapse of the business model for diffusion and creation of content.

Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Barry Lyndon

Now that the wintry November weekends make staying indoors for whole afternoons acceptable, you might need a long film to wile away the day. It’s a perfect opportunity to go back and watch Stanley Kubrick’s period masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), based on the Thackeray novel of a similar name.

The story unfolds in two acts. Act I sees a young Redmond Barry, played by a chisel-jawed Ryan O’Neal, being deceived by the noble English suitor to his beloved cousin. In disgrace and determined not to be outdone again by a fellow of superior birth, he departs from his life of poverty in rural mid-eighteenth century Ireland. Upon having his every penny stolen by Irish highwaymen, Redmond enlists in the British Army, and is shipped off to the continent to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

Screen shot 2014-11-07 at 00.29.50

But ennoblement is hard to come by for young Redmond, so he deserts for want of a life elsewhere where he may enjoy gentlemanly recognition. His desertion is unsuccessful, however, and he is soon enlisted yet again, albeit this time in the Prussian forces. Barry’s captain assigns him the task of keeping an eye on a suspected spy by the name of the Chevalier de Balibari (played by Patrick Magee), a notorious libertine who swiftly teaches young Redmond the art of inveiglement. Barry takes to the pretense rather fondly. Continue Reading…

Corporate Egg Freezing as a Research Opportunity

Apple made news recently by announcing that it will pay the costs of egg freezing for employees, thereby potentially extending fertility later in life. Brigid Schulte sees the policy as a corporate tactic to justify 90-hour work weeks, whereas Katie Benner sees value in giving workers more flexibility in their family-building options (although as Megan McArdle points out, spending your 40s and 50s chasing toddlers around is challenging, frozen eggs or no). Now that the ethics and impacts have been debated by subtler minds than my own, I step in as a bloodless behavioral scientist to say that this is a terrific opportunity to research how human beings make important decisions.

Up until now, there was no good way to study the effect of freezing eggs on child-bearing decisions because of self-selection, i.e., the women who chose to pay for the procedure were fundamentally different from those who didn’t in ways that independently affected their likelihood of becoming mothers (e.g., education, income, planfulness). But now we have an excellent instrumental variable to exploit in quasi-experimental analysis (nice explanation by Austin Frakt here): Was a woman working at Apple when the egg-freezing policy was announced or was she working at a tech company that didn’t have the same policy?

The logic here is that whether those female Apple employees freeze their eggs or not will now be determined not only by the usual self-selection factors, but also by something exogenous, namely the company’s new policy. Presuming (reasonably) that they did not know that the policy was going to be implemented before they chose to work at Apple versus a different tech company, the instrument should exert no effect on the outcome except through the policy in question.

So, what would you hypothesize? Will more egg-freezing lead to more or fewer women becoming mothers? On the one hand, one could argue that knowing that the eggs are frozen would lead more women to delay childbirth for longer, perhaps to the point where it was no longer possible. This would mean that the egg freezing option lowers the likelihood of giving birth.

But I expect the opposite, because of two countervailing forces, sunk costs and public commitment. Egg freezing involves a significant amount of work, which will be experienced as a loss if the woman never has kids. Of course, the work has been done regardless, but there is good evidence that that is not how we think about sunk costs. Rather, we want to justify them by following through. Public commitment would also work in favor of more births. We are generally more likely to make major behavioral changes when we make others aware of our plans. If you tell yourself you are dieting and leave it at that, you are less likely to lose weight than if you decline a dessert and say loudly to everyone at the table “No thanks, I am trying to lose 10 pounds”. Egg-freezing involves some public commitment to a future behavior; you don’t have to announce it to your co-workers but you will obviously tell the health care staff and perhaps people close to you as well. That in itself makes it more likely that you will follow through, even beyond the sunk costs effect.

So that’s my bet, to be evaluated empirically with an instrumental variables study: This policy will lead more, not fewer, women to become mothers.

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.

Screen shot 2014-10-30 at 22.47.13

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.

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