Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Founded by Mark Kleiman (1951-2019)
Author: Keith Humphreys
Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.
I have written here before of my love for books that employ a bonkers narrator to deliver absurdist humor, and I have another gem of that cut to recommend this week. A perfectly ludicrous set of adventures are related in this collection by the is-he-a-genius-or-has-he-just-gone-spare Dr. Martin Smotheringdale, President of the Society for the Preservation of Preposterous Absurdity. Smotheringdale introduces the reader to a strange society via a series of investigations into mysterious problems, which through diligent effort he usually manages to make worse.
The hilarious stories in this book are reminiscent of Douglas Adams in being suffused with high-end scientific nonsense, from quantum kittens to a clowder of Schrodinger cats to black hole spaghetti makers. This reflects the day job of the author, Professor Shane Darke, an eminent addiction researcher whose work I have cited on many occasions (including in this interview by my fellow RBCer, Harold Pollack).
Each tale include many drolleries line by line that made me laugh out loud, and the collection is greater than the sum of those parts because the comic inventions build on each other: the poor chap who has his ears reversed in the first tale, the Perpetual Irritation Machine, and the Hypercube, among other off-the-wall concoctions, return for well-timed bows in the tales that follow after the stories that introduce them to the reader. And the best story in the book — The Ghosts of Gridley Gorge — is a joke within a meta-joke that is as brilliantly constructed as anything Evelyn Waugh, Lewis Carroll, or Punch magazine, ever pulled off.
On top of all that, it’s a good buy, just five bucks on a Kindle or 10 to 15 dollars in paperback depending where you look. You can find it at many on line booksellers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I frequently hear the claim that “doctors have just stopped prescribing opioids”. The truth is that U.S. doctors prescribe fewer opioids than they did 5 years ago, but the U.S. still dwarfs the world in its per capita prescribing even among the heaviest prescribing nations. For details, see my latest piece at The Washington Monthly.
Hound of the Baskervilles has a special place in The Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story is substantially longer than the typical Holmes outing, allowing him to weave two distinct mystery tales together. It’s also remarkable for putting Watson at center stage for a significant part of the book, allowing the sidekick a turn as the protagonist. And last but not least, it has been adapted as a movie more than any other Holmes tale, beginning with a silent version made in Germany in 1914. This week I recommend one of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, namely the 1959 Hammer Films version.
The plot of the book concerns Holmes’ investigation of the ancient, wealthy, Baskerville family, and the curse of a demonic hound which has allegedly brought ruin upon them for generations. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery about how the latest Baskerville has died, protect the new heir (Sir Henry Baskerville), and also cope with a mentally ill mass murderer named Selden who has broken out of prison and roams the moors near Baskerville Hall. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but it’s a compelling mystery with more suspense and horror elements than most of Doyle’s shorter Holmes stories.
The 1959 version, playing to the studio’s strengths, puts the accent on the horror elements of the novel. Who better than Hammer to give us fog-shrouded moors and ruined abbeys in the English countryside? Hammer also wisely cast their most reliable stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in the major roles of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes is true to the book, rendering the detective as eccentric, brilliant, and not particularly warm. Lee’s performance as well as Peter Bryan’s strong script make Sir Henry a more substantial and engaging character than he is in the book. As mentioned, this particular story also needs a strong Doctor Watson, and André Morell is well up to the task. Terence Fisher, an old hand at Hammer, directs as deftly as ever.
Being a Hammer film, the 1959 version also throws in some décolletage and sex in the person of Maria Landi. Bryan’s script also changes her character’s role from what it was in the book, which may be objectionable to Holmes purists. But I found it a refreshing take, and one that gives the film a more jaundiced take on the aristocracy than did the book and other film adaptations of it.
You can watch this worthy adaptation of a beloved novel for free and legally on Dailymotion.
I’m a fan of the podcast Women with Balls, on which Katy Balls interviews accomplished British women from politics, business, and the arts. It’s better than many shows of this sort because Balls takes her guests seriously as people and professionals and not just as women.
My favorite standard question on the show is “What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?”. We are often asked about the best advice we’ve gotten; Balls’ question directs attention in an unexpected direction.
It takes me back to a professional conference in Los Angeles that I attended right after earning my doctorate. I had finished my degree at a young age and I had an ever younger face in those days, so I was repeatedly mistaken for a graduate or undergraduate student (many of my female colleagues will know the feeling). Once it was revealed that I was in fact Dr. Humphreys, a very large number of older male faculty quizzed me aggressively about my current job in Palo Alto and immediately told me I was making bad career decisions. My friend Eric Mankowski, with whom I roomed at the conference and with whom I attended many convention events, told me he had never seen a person — male or female — subjected to a steadier stream of unsolicited, patronizing advice than what I endured throughout that conference. The specifics of the advice varied across giver, but the consistent theme “You will never succeed in academia unless you follow my path” was the worst advice I ever received.
What about you – what is the worst advice you ever received?
Blaxploitation films are often described as sloppily produced, overly violent, sexist, racist, and demeaning to their audiences. Those gibes definitely apply to many entries in the genre, but roses exist among the thorns, particularly when a film had a bit more budget than usual and drew on other genres in creative ways (e.g., Blacula, for which I have long had a soft spot). Accordingly, this week I am recommending a 1972 blaxpolitation-film noir blend which is usually remembered today only as a Bobby Womack song: Across 110th Street.
The plot: The long-entrenched Italian mob is struggling to maintain the upper hand over the rising African-American gangs who rule the underworld across 110th street (i.e., Harlem’s boundary). Some small-time black criminals execute — and I do mean execute — a bold robbery of both criminal organizations, netting a massive haul of cash. The big-time criminals set out for vengeance, led by an arrogant, racist, Mafioso (Anthony Franciosa). But the robbers’ leader (Paul Benjamin) is nobody’s fool, and also knows how to handle a machine gun. Meanwhile, an honest African-American police detective (Yaphet Kotto) and a much less honest old school Italian-American police captain (Anthony Quinn) spar with each other as they try to round up all three criminal gangs.
Probably the best thing about the blaxploitation genre is the opportunities it afforded African-American actors to strut their stuff. Paul Benjamin brings the emotional heart to what otherwise would have been a routine crime melodrama. He conveys the power of friendship in his scenes with his fellow thieves, and even moreso expresses quite movingly how the degrading life of being a black ex-con in America drove him to crime as his only apparent option. True to his character’s cynicism, Benjamin sadly never became a big star in white-controlled Hollywood despite his evident talent. Where Benjamin brings the passion, Yaphet Kotto radiates intelligence here, as he was always able to do even when cast in cardboard roles (e.g., the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, for which he was recruited while making this movie). Quinn as usual gives a blowy performance trying to dominate the screen, but in those same scenes you can’t stop looking at Kotto quietly thinking about what the hell he’s going to do next to crack the case.
Although many of its plot elements are straight from noir (cops being as crooked as criminals, small time crooks robbing big-time mobsters), the film retains the action-packed, violent, sensibility of the blaxploitation genre. The sadism of Franciosa’s character is hard to watch, but it’s central to the plot rather than being gratuitous: He’s such a racist that he enjoys torturing black people even to the point that his murderous black criminal allies are repulsed by him.
Across 110th Street’s modest budget shows here and there. At a few points, the plot jumps forward as if an intervening scene were missing, and there are some visible goofs (including two howlers in the first 10 minutes that I won’t ruin for you). But for the most part the unadorned sets and Naked City veteran Jack Priestly’s unvarnished cinematography are assets for a grim, gripping, story set in the rotting big apple that was 1970s New York City.
p.s. After watching this film, you will laugh very hard seeing Antonia Fargas send up his character 16 years later in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.
p.p.s. I don’t have a lot of company on this recommendation. Wikipedia summarizes contemporary critical reaction thus: Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, “It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide … By the time it is over virtually everybody has been killed—by various means, but mostly by a machine gun that makes lots of noise and splatters lots of blood and probably serves as the nearest substitute for an identifiable hero.” Variety wrote that “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Gene Siskel gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post slammed the film as “a crime melodrama at once so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” Yet I stand by my recommendation, because I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.
The 1984 movie Amadeus
deservedly netted 8 Oscars for its gorgeous sets, brilliant acting, nuanced
direction, and unforgettable music. The
film can also be appreciated for the lessons that Peter Shaffer’s story conveys
about fame, talent, humility, and gratitude.
The tale is told through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, above right) the court composer of Emperor Joseph II. Having risen from poverty to great musical success, Salieri is grateful for his lot in life until brash, young, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrives in Vienna (Tom Hulce, above left). Salieri is quite talented but Mozart is a genius whose gifts dwarf all of Vienna’s many composers. Salieri admires Mozart’s music but is consumed with envy — as well as rage at God — for the fact that he himself has never produced anything quite as beautiful.
Almost everyone who works or studies at a university will at one time or another identify with Salieri in the excruciating scene where a welcome march he has labored on all night is effortlessly transformed into a much better piece of music by Mozart. No matter what university is your home, it will bring you into contact with people who are smarter than you, and that can be hard on one’s vanity. For example, a few years ago, a friend of mine at another university worked out a bunch of scholars in my field’s h-index, and sent me an email saying that I should be proud of how relatively high mine was. Fifteen minutes of my own fiddling on Google Scholar revealed that I clock in slightly below the median of my regular poker game with faculty colleagues.
This is where one of the key
messages of the film becomes relevant: Salieri deserves no sympathy at
all. He had the extraordinary privilege
to pursue his talent in a nurturing environment, to create and be appreciated
for his creations, and to know and appreciate Mozart. All of Salieri’s
emotional misery stemmed not from his objective circumstances, but from his irrational
conviction that he was entitled to be a Mozart. I speak from experience when I
say that letting go of that vanity can make one appreciate how lucky it is to
be a Salieri.
other aspect of the movie that is meaningful to me concerns the character I consider
the hero, Baron Van Swieten (played by Jonathan Moore, above). All the other Vienna
court musicians lodge ridiculous critiques of Mozart’s work (“too many notes”)
because they are terrified at being passed up by the dazzling new arrival. But
the Baron advocates for the talented tyro because he takes uncomplicated joy in
what Mozart creates. Many people in
academia have horror stories about mentors who saw them as competitors. It’s
easy for even well-established faculty to be intimidated by extraordinarily
talented young students, fellows, or junior faculty. That’s why it’s vital for
mentors to summon their inner Baron Von Swieten, set ego aside, and be grateful
for the chance to see such magnificent birds take wing.
Professor Mark Kleiman, the founder of RBC, and a giant in crime and drug policy analysis for decades, passed away this morning after a long illness that he himself had chronicled here. His sister Kelly announced his death on Twitter earlier today, asking that “If you are moved to honor him, please donate to the NYU Transplant Institute, the ACLU, or any Democratic candidate.”
All of us who have written at RBC over the years mourn the loss of our remarkable colleague and friend.
As I waited for my train to London in one of those cavernous railroad stations up North, flakes of snow started to fall around me. My first thought was “Huh – it’s snowing”, followed seconds later with a shocking realization: “I’m indoors…and it’s snowing!!!”.
I looked up into the gloomy reaches of the arched ceiling high above me and concluded there must a hole in the roof through which an outdoor snowstorm was casting some flakes. I walked outside to check. It was certainly a cold November day, but the sky was clear and there was not even a skiff on the ground. Yet when I walked back inside, it was still very lightly snowing by the tracks where I had been standing.
Later that evening, in a downstairs bar off Pall Mall, I related my strange tale to my companions, who began forming theories. Because this particular watering hole is popular with spooks — who enjoy eavesdropping and puzzle solving in equal measure — pretty soon the whole place was engaged in a lively debate regarding how my impossible data could indeed be possible. It was fun discussion and without rancor.
Contrast that with different impossible data: Your doctor brings back your “routine tests” and says that even though you feel fine, you are gravely ill. Something in you shouts NO and you understandably come up with every possible reason why the impossible data just can’t be correct.
Those two cases of “impossible data” are at the extremes where the data are either entirely fun and non-threatening to learn from vs. terrifying to the core. Most impossible data is between those poles, and I wonder as a teacher and as a citizen whether we can instill in people a stronger habit of seeing impossible data like indoor snow instead of proof of terminal illness.
How do we get a gun rights advocate to do something other than scream “fake news!” when a study shows that gun owners are more likely to be shot? How do we get a firm atheist to appreciate evidence that highly religious people are happier and healthier? What is the magic that makes impossible data an exciting chance to learn more about the world rather than something to shut out at all costs?
Americans understandably think of World War I as a far less severe conflict than World War II. But for most European nations, the slaughter was on a larger scale in The Great War, making the 2018 Armistice centennial a major cultural and historical event. The British Imperial War Museum’s contribution to the commemoration was to open their film archive to Peter Jackson, who is addition to being a famous filmmaker is also a Great War buff. The astounding result is this week’s film recommendation: They Shall Not Grow Old.
Jackson and his team began with unpromising visual material: scratchy, battered, over and underexposed, black and white, silent, film footage taken during the war with hand crank cameras. The audio material — interviews with many veterans long after the war ended — was in better physical shape but had no essential connection to the images. With remarkable technical skill and artistic vision, Jackson spun dross into gold.
Computer scanning was used to counterbalance for light exposure problems, add vivid color, and impute missing frames (the latter of which eliminates the herky-jerky motion produced by the slow pace of filming in this period). Professional lip readers were employed to determine what the soldiers in the film were saying and actors were hired to voice the lines. And an array of preserved WWI tanks, rifles, artillery, and other equipment were recorded and the resulting sound track synced up seamlessly to the original footage. The stories of soliders were then skillfully assembled to narrate the film entirely in the words of “ordinary people”.
The resulting film is a technical marvel and an emotional wallop at the same time. Watching so many young men marching cheerfully from the recruiting station to the front line, and seeing them later dying in the muck and staring shell shocked into the camera is a devastating experience for the audience. And the stories told by the veterans, which range from the lighthearted (e.g., fishing soldiers out of the latrine when the bench broke) to the gut wrenching (e.g., seeing horrific injuries…and smelling them too), are utterly compelling. The banal aspects of military life are interspersed between the terrifying moments, including the shattering climax when the troops go over the top into the teeth of machine gun fire.
Many film makers would have had the impulse to have some authority figure add narration regarding “What it all means morally” either to (a la Stanley Kramer) “make sure the audience drew the correct conclusions” or to signal their own virtue. Peter Jackson is wiser than that: he lets the soldiers speak for themselves and the audience to draw their own lessons. The overpowering result is a unique cinematic achievement. Indeed, it even made me forgive Jackson for The Hobbit.
The above chart is from Electoral Calculus, a reputable polling and forecasting firm in the UK. When I see my friends in Parliament these days, I largely confine myself to buying them drinks and telling jokes. Nothing much is happening in the policy areas I know something about, so I instead focus on providing some transitory relief of their suffering and uncertainty.
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