Weekend Film Recommendation: Suspiria

suspiria-Technicolor Halloween is almost here, so I will keep the chills coming again this week by recommending Dario Argento’s ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.

The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.

If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.

Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.

All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.

In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal Halloween viewing for those who are not faint of heart.

Cannabis legalization in Oregon: Why Measure 91 is close enough for government work

Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when the technical details matter. Despite the simple-minded sloganeering on both sides, the question of creating a legal cannabis market is about as technical as they come, with equally valid public goals in sharp conflict, many unknowns, a variety of tricky design issues, and some big risks.

But sometimes initiatives are the only way to go, because legislators simply won’t do what a majority of voters want.

Cannabis legalization is that sort of issue, too: legislators are scared of cops and prosecutors, and most cops and prosecutors really hate legalization.

In Oregon, advocates went to the legislature and said, “We can and will put legalization on the ballot unless you handle the issue.” The legislature didn’t move. So the advocates acted on their threat, giving us Measure 91.

What they produced is noticeably less crazy than the measure that failed in 2012: for example, the quotation from the Book of Genesis about “herb bearing seed” is missing.  It seems to reflect a good-faith effort to craft a law that will allow adults to get cannabis, wipe out the illicit market, provide some revenue, and prevent a big increase in use by minors.

But Measure 91 does not reflect a sophisticated understanding of the problems of illicit markets or a nuanced view about substance use disorder. Focusing on the goal of eradicating the illicit cannabis market in Oregon, it doesn’t pay enough attention to the risk that Oregon might become a source of illicit supply to neighboring states. Focusing exclusively on preventing use by minors, it neglects the risk of increasing dependency among adults.

The basic fact about a legal cannabis market is that the product will be remarkably cheap to grow; once competition and industrial-style production have taken effect,  a legal joint would cost (before tax) about what a tea-bag costs, rather than the illegal or medical-dispensary price, which is 100 times as high. And the tax provided for in Measure 91 would add only about 50 cents to the price of a joint: not a high price to pay for two hours or more of being stoned.

Lower prices won’t much change the behavior of adult casual users; even at today’s illegal prices getting stoned is a bargain compared to getting drunk.  But lower prices would matter a lot to frequent users, and most of all to frequent underage users, simply because what they spend on pot represents significant element in their personal budgets: at current prices, the cost of a heavy cannabis habit can exceed $5000 per year.

Of course the claim that barring minors from buying in cannabis stores will keep them from having access to diverted supplies doesn’t pass the giggle test: just consider how easy it is for a minor to get alcohol from an older friend or relative or from the poor heavy drinker hanging around the liquor store, willing to buy a case for a teenager as long as he gets to keep a couple of bottles for himself. Cheap cannabis for grown-ups inevitably means cheap cannabis for kids.

Unless the legislature decided to raise it, the $35-per-ounce tax in Measure 91 would lead, within a couple of years, to prices way below current illicit prices and way below legal prices in Washington State. That in turn would mean big increases in use by minors and in the number of Oregonians with diagnosable cannabis problems. It would also mean substantial diversion of cannabis products legally sold under Oregon’s low taxes to Washington, where taxes are much higher. (Currently the flow goes the other way, with the two biggest-selling legal cannabis stores in Washington being the two closest to Portland.)

It wouldn’t be hard to draft a better-balanced measure than the one to be voted on in two weeks. For example, it might be wiser to limit legal production and sale to co-ops or non-profits, keeping the profit motive out of the business altogether.

But the choice Oregon voters face isn’t between what’s on the ballot and some perfectly designed cannabis policy; it’s between what’s on the ballot and continued prohibition at the state level, until and unless a better initiative can be crafted, put before the voters, and passed into law.

Measure 91 would enact an ordinary law, not a constitutional amendment. If it passes, the legislature will be free to amend it the next day by a simple majority vote; such moves are allowed not only by law but by the conventions of Oregon politics.

So the question facing Oregonians who want adults to be able to buy cannabis legally – without the nonsense of finding a “kush doctor” and faking an ailment – is whether to defeat the proposition and hope that the legislature will act on its own (or that a better-drafted bill will appear on the ballot in 2016) or whether instead to pass the current proposition and hope that the legislature will move to fix what’s wrong with it.

Given the balance of political forces, it seems more reasonable to trust the legislature to rein in a too-lax legalization scheme than to expect it to do what no legislature in the nation has been willing to do yet: pass a full cannabis-legalization law.

It’s not hard to identify the key points that need amendment, within the context set by the initiative: cannabis sold by a set of for-profit enterprises under state regulation. (That leaves aside such interesting ideas as just letting consumers grow their own, or requiring that growers and retailers be not-for-profit co-ops or public-benefit corporations, as well as the alternative of state-monopoly retailing, which has some attractive features but can’t be done while the federal Controlled Substances Act is in place, because the state can’t tell its officials to violate federal law.)

* Recognize preventing adult substance use disorder among the goals of the law.
* Assign some of the regulatory authority to the health department rather than giving it all to the revenue department.
* Give the regulators explicit authority to restrict the quantity of cannabis that can legally be grown. (Ideally, growing rights ought to be auctioned off rather than given away, giving the financial windfall to taxpayers instead of to the lucky few who end up with licenses.) * Increase the proposed taxes, and make them adjustable to keep legal prices at about the current illegal level as production costs fall. In the end, to prevent a big price decrease, the tax would have to be a very large fraction of the current illegal or quasi-medical price of about $10/gram.  Ideally, taxes would be based on the intoxicating power of the product – measured in milligrams of THC, the primary active chemical – rather than on the total weight of the plant material. (We tax whisky more heavily than beer or wine; why shouldn’t cannabis taxation work on the same principle?)
* Require that retail clerks have some serious training in pharmacology and substance use disorder, and make it part of their job to discourage excessive and dangerous consumption patterns, rather than letting their bosses just tell them to sell as much product as they can.
* Make sure there’s enough enforcement against illicit growing and dealing to make the legal market competitive.
* Rein in the medical-marijuana business. Once Oregonians with medical need can buy tested and labeled product at commercial outlets, there’s no need to have an entire parallel distribution system. It makes sense to offer tax exemptions for limited quantities to genuine patients, but the current practice of “patients” buying “medical” supplies for illicit resale has to stop.

There are lots of other good ideas around. (See the forthcoming RAND report on legalization options for Vermont.) But those will do for a start.

Would the legislature pass them all? Probably not. But Oregon’s chances of getting to a temperate cannabis policy will be better if the voters force the legislators to get off the dime.

It’s not an easy choice; as a Californian, I’m glad I don’t have to make one like it (yet). But if I had to vote in Oregon, I’d vote “Yes.”

Why the “I’m not a scientist” excuse is like a glass of tea

Like many who care about climate change, I’ve noted with a mixture of disbelief and anger the latest trick by Republican politicians: they don’t explicitly deny climate change but attempt a kind of agnosticism. The line is to say, with great modesty, “I’m not a scientist” and therefore can’t be confident that anything needs to be done. (Meanwhile, though “I’m not an economist,” I’m sure that any proposed action would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.)

David Shiffman’s short Slate article on this is great. In particular, there’s this:

… Do they have opinions on how to best maintain our nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels—or do they not because they’re not civil engineers? Do they refuse to talk about agriculture policy on the grounds that they’re not farmers? How do they think we should be addressing the threat of ISIS? They wouldn’t know, of course; they’re not military generals.

No one would ever say these things, because they’re ridiculous. Being a policymaker in a country as large and complex as the United States requires making decisions on a variety of important subjects outside of your primary area of expertise. Voters wouldn’t tolerate this “I’m not a scientist” excuse if applied to any other discipline, yet politicians appear to be using this line successfully to distance themselves from experts crucial for solving many of our country’s most important problems.

I’d only add that the analogy is not quite exact. After all, the politicians saying “I’m not a scientist” aren’t actually refusing to take a stance on climate policy. They’re adducing their mock ignorance as reason to take a very firm position: against taking action to solve the problem that all the real science reveals to be urgent.

It all reminds me of one of my favorite Jewish jokes. Two men in the old country are relaxing over glasses of tea.

Yakov: You know, life is like a glass of tea.

Yitzhak: Like a glass of tea? Why?

Yakov: Why? How should I know why? What do I look like, a philosopher?

If politicians think they lack the expertise to opine on science, fine. But then they would be well advised to defer to the damn scientists instead of standing in their way.

Catching a Catfish

In The Guardian, Kathleen Hale offers her riveting tale story of tracking down an Internet troll who turns out to be a catfish. At one point, she makes a powerful observation on the psychology of those who troll:

Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers. The more I wondered about Blythe, the more I was reminded of something Sarah Silverman said in an article for Entertainment Weekly: “A guy once just yelled, ‘Me!’ in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy’s heckle directly equalled its heartbreaking subtext – ‘Me!’” Silverman, an avid fan of Howard Stern, went on to describe a poignant moment she remembers from listening to his radio show: one of the many callers who turns out to be an asshole is about to be hung up on when, just before the line goes dead, he blurts out, in a crazed, stuttering voice, “I exist!”.

It’s the best essay I’ve read in awhile, and is sparking debate about the ethics of the author and the troll. Check it out here.

Nudgefail: The Case of Organ Donation

Behavioral economics is cool science with numerous applications. The concept of nudges, for example requiring newly hired workers to sign a form to stop automatic retirement contributions rather than having to sign a form to start them, is certainly useful in many contexts. But as I write in Washington Post’s Wonkblog, it can’t solve some problems, including the shortage of organ donations, which leaves over 120,000 Americans on the waiting list:

One commonly proposed solution to the organ shortage derives from behavioral economic “nudge” principles. Rather than requiring Americans to complete paperwork in order to opt-in to donation at death, the country could shift to the European model of presuming that donation at death was acceptable. But Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, the nation’s largest organ and tissue recovery organization, points out that “The recovery rate for deceased donors in the United States is actually better than that of European nations with presumed consent laws. The United States rigorously follows individual donor registrations whereas presumed consent countries actually defer to family objections.”

What this means on the ground, as Tom explained to me and our audience at a recent Stanford Health Policy Forum, is that when European health professionals show up to harvest organs from a newly dead individual, that person’s family often says “no way”, nudges be damned. The state could legally take the person’s organs by force of course, but unsurprisingly it does not. In contrast, in the US opt-in model, both families and the state respect the deceased donor’s wishes because they know they were the result of a proactive decision rather than a bureaucratically-designed nudge. More simply, an active choice has legitimacy that a nudged choice does not

Turning the clock back

No, I’m not referring to daylight savings time. The Supreme Court apparently thinks that making it hard for Texans to vote is a good thing. Catapult me back to 1964.
I guess we have to join Texas in that era. Bring back the Freedom Rides. I would hope that if we baby boomers got the ball (and buses) rolling, some of the Facebook generation might join us. Perhaps my youthful colleague Steve Davenport (who commented eloquently on Keith’s recent essay about Facebook narcissism) could be our liaison to the under-thirties. At my age, the prospect of a long bus ride does not thrill me, (please let there be adequate restroom breaks) but if a couple of my boomer pals from the RBC are in, I’ll ride to Texas to assist with voter registration. It’s just so confusing! Didn’t we do this already?

Consider Staying in the Closet

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Murder by the Clock

vlcsnap-2575882Halloween month on RBC is devoted to movies about ghoulies, ghosties, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. This week, I offer an admittedly off-beat film recommendation from the early days of talkies: 1931′s Murder by the Clock.

The plot centers on the Endicotts, a wealthy family in decline. The parsimonious matriarch of the clan, Julia Endicott (Blanche Friderici), lives in fear of a Poe-style premature burial and laments the fact that her direct heir is a musclebound half-wit (Irving Pichel, in a quasi-Frankenstein Monster sort of role). Julia reluctantly decides to leave the family fortune to her drunken, ne’er do well nephew (Walter McGrail). But his scheming, sexually voracious wife (Lilyan Tashman) isn’t in a mood to wait for Julia to die of natural causes, and begins using her considerable feminine wiles to get multiple men to work her evil will. Murders and mystery ensue.

Fair warning: Movie sound technology was not well-developed when this film was made. Microphones on the set were few in number, often in fixed positions and of low quality. As a result, actors had to talk more slowly and clearly and not move around too much as they did so. This understandably comes across as stilted to modern audiences. But as with the famous Lugosi/Browning Dracula which came out the same year, if you can let those limits of early talkies go and just enjoy a scary story well told, Murder by the Clock will greatly entertain you.

62-lilyan-tashman-554x417In style and plot, this film is an agreeable cross between the haunted house pictures of prior years and the monster movies that were just becoming popular (like Dracula, Frankenstein also came out in 1931). The other enormous appeal of the movie is the campy, vampy work of Tashman, in a part that screams “pre-Hays Code”. Dressed in a series of outfits that leave little to the imagination she sexually disables virtually every male character in the story (Tashman was apparently a sexual dynamo in real life as well, though her energies were usually directed at women rather than men, allegedly including Greta Garbo). Tashman has a lot of fun going way over the top and it’s intentionally funny for the audience too, as were many of the classic monster movies of the 1930s.

The atmospheric photography is another asset of Murder by the Clock, and amplifies the mood effectively. That’s a credit to Karl Struss, one of the first famous cinematographers, who worked with many of the early giants: Murnau, Griffith, DeMille and Chaplin. Struss gives fans of scary movies what they want: eerie shots of dusty secret corridors, foggy graveyards, and killers skulking through abundant shadows

If you just can’t stand the technically-imposed limitations of early talkies, this movie is not for you. But otherwise Murder by the Clock offers creepy, campy fun for the Halloween season as well as being of historical interest for its look and pre-Hays code salaciousness.

p.s. Pachel went on to direct an ever better pre-Hays code film that I recommended here two years ago, The Most Dangerous Game. Note also that Murder by the Clock is in the public domain, and you ought to be able to find it for free online.

Rick Scott and fangate: the limits of ignorance

[See update below]

Apparently the rules of the Florida gubernatorial debate forbade the contestants from using electronic equipment.  Rick Scott refused to participate (until his handlers told him how silly he looked) because Charlie Crist brought a fan on to the stage.

Yes, I know that there’s no legal minimum IQ required to become the governor of a state. But really, is it too much to expect the the former CEO of a big health- care company to know the difference between “electronic” and “electrical”?

Update Well … not perzackly. A reader points out that the debate rules banned “electronic devices (including fans).” Now, I still insist that passage is nonsensical, since a fan is an electrical device, as opposed to an electronic device such as a cell phone. I suppose there might be some sort of fan with semiconductor controls that was, to that extent, electronic – in which case the rules would bar such electronic fans, as opposed to normal fans,  but an ordinary air-moving machine with an electric motor is not, by any normal definition, an “electronic device.” So to me, the phrase is about equivalent to “birds (including bats)” or, in Lincoln’s example, “legs (including tails).”  To make sense, the phrase would have had to read “electronic devices or fans.”

Apparently Crist’s penchant for cooling himself was well-known.  And apparently his handlers didn’t agree to the conditions as suggested by the organizers, but added to the signature page *with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”

My understanding of the law is that when one party modifies a contract before signing it, the other party has the choice of accepting the contract as amended or refusing it. So it can’t, I think, properly be said that Crist broke the rules he had agreed to. Clearly, the organizers were remiss in not bringing the amendment to the attention of Rick Scott, which left Scott’s handlers believing that Crist was breaking a rule.

It was, still, I submit, unbelievably foolish to try to use that as an excuse to duck the debate, and it’s remarkable that it took the Scott corner six long minutes to figure out they couldn’t get away with it. But the original post wasn’t right to suggest that Scott doesn’t know that a fan isn’t a cell phone. After all, what are the odds that someone who cheated the federal taxpayers out of most of a billion dollars and never went to jail for it is actually that stupid?

Cheap power is progressive

According to a statistic I just made up, 97.3% of all technical “breakthroughs” trumpeted in press releases turn out to be either wrong or minor. Moreover, it’s well known that fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be. When I was ten years old, economically relevant fusion power was thirty years away, and that number hasn’t changed in the half-century since.

Still, the folks at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works aren’t very likely to be either fools or hoaxers, so when they say they’ve figured out how to make magnetic-confinement fusion practical and that they think they can have a prototype in five years and a production model in a decade, that’s worth paying attention to.

The gimmick, if it works, would have all the features that have made fusion such a dream: no greenhouse-gas emissions, no meltdown risk, no waste-disposal problem, no weapons-proliferation issue, and effectively unlimited fuel supply. Even better, they’re talking about 100-megawatt reactor that fits on a flatbed truck, not a 1000-megawatt behemoth like the current generation of fission reactors. That would make producing the devices a manufacturing problem rather than a construction project. (Even more so if you could retrofit a power plant now running on coal by simply substituting half a dozen of the new gadgets.)  With luck, this could put a big hole in fossil-fuel production and the environmental and political disasters it creates.

Of course the Lockheed Martin folks could turn out to be wrong about the physics (though that doesn’t seem especially likely), or (much more plausibly) one of the ancillary problems such as materials development could turn out to be insoluble or too expensive to be economically practical.

But the only reasonable reaction to this from someone not invested in Exxon or Koch Energy or Putinism is a (somewhat hesitant, because the idea is still more likely to fizzle than to work) “Yippeeeeee!!!!”

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will. Since there’s no way a patent-holder could possibly internalize the social gain from making this work, the case for public funding is overwhelming. The social value of the discovery, if it can be perfected, couldn’t possibly be less than $10 trillion,  so spending $10B or so on even a 1% chance of success is an obviously positive-expected-value gamble.

Of course, if we have to triple energy prices in order to prevent a global-warming disaster – which might well prove to be the case – we should accept that, and the economic disruptions that would result, rather than accepting a 3-degree-Celsius rise in average surface temperature and the catastrophes that would result from that. But I’d rather not, thanks.

If cheap energy gets to be real again, that will be a tremendous boon to the planet, and especially to its poorest inhabitants. And if as a result we have to stop saying that 40,000-square-foot mansions are environmentally unsustainable, and have to go back to saying that they’re grotesque and vulgar, is that really such a steep price to pay?

A progressive movement that, in its heart, prefers scarcity is not one I really want to be part of, and it’s not one likely to command majority support.