ask zompist


In less than six hours from the time I type this, if Congress cannot get its act together (which at this point is seeming certain), the goverment will go into shutdown. What do you think will happen next, both immediately and over the next few election cycles? Do you think the GOP will have the cojones to force default?

—Campbell

In brief, get ready for doom.

The Republicans apparently didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons, so they never saw Schoolhouse Rock and never learned how a bill gets passed. So they’ve had the crazy idea that whatever they pass in the House will somehow become law— thus the 40 motions to repeal Obamacare.  And then, because they can never get crazy enough, they got it into their heads that the Senate and Obama would go along with an attempt to get rid of Obamacare— after they lost the election and lost the Supreme Court case.

The shutdown, stupid and nasty and wasteful as it is, is nothing to the next bit: defaulting on the debt, which comes in about two weeks. Again, they’ve convinced themselves that they have leverage— that they can get Obama to enact Mitt Romney’s entire agenda, and more, in return for… nothing.

The thing is, when you ask for the moon, you have to be willing to provide something in return.  And “not kill the economy” is not providing something.  Defaulting on the US government’s obligations would be a suicidal move that would bring back another recession, or worse.  Needless to say, it doesn’t bring about the beautiful libertarian dystopia they dream of.  It doesn’t even get rid of Obamacare— that’s classified as an entitlement, like Social Security, which is why it’s continuing now during the shutdown.

For five years, anytime they’ve actually wanted to negotiate, Obama’s office door has been open.  Too open, really.  But to negotiate you have to be willing to give the other side some of what it wants, and for five years they’ve thought that they could skip this part.

The grand thing is, the base actually seems eager for a default.  They think it’ll be fine!  After all, “raising the debt ceiling” sounds like a bad thing— voters don’t really understand it, so many of them are against it, though they might not agree if you asked them directly “Should the executive branch refuse to spend the money Congress told it to?”

In 2011 Obama was eager for a long-term deficit-reducing deal, so he stupidly made some concessions on the debt ceiling thing.  That only emboldens the GOP now.  Obama seems to have wised up; he says he won’t offer any concessions in return for Congress doing its job.  And he has said, correctly, that if he gives in on this, it’s the end of majority government in this country.  They’d just increase their demands with each debt crisis.  And why would a future Democratic House play nice with a future Republican president?

So, will they do it?  I’m afraid they will.  They’re revolutionaries and nihilists; they don’t care what happens.  No one they care about is telling them not to do it.

The problem is, they have no exit strategy. Boehner is terrified of losing his job, so he went along with a plan he knew wouldn’t work. The Tea Party has worked itself into such a lather that it’s not going to go quickly to any sort of reasonable solution.

Normally at this point, you’d expect the grownups to step in and tell them to cool it.  But they’ve spent the last twenty years throwing out the grownups— there’s a moderate caucus, but it hasn’t even got the 25 votes required to get a vote on the Senate bill.  The more moderate national figures like McCain and Romney, who think the defunding moves are a terrible idea, have no influence on the House.

The money guys— Wall Street, the 1%— is going to get terrified at some point. Most of them are not crazed Tea Partiers— they don’t want to trash the government or destroy its credit rating. But they have very little leverage with the Tea Party either.  If they lean on anyone, it’ll be John Boehner— and Boehner can’t control his own party.

Now, the last few crises have ended with a deal at, or a few days after, the deadline. So the most likely case is that around Oct. 20, a deal come through that keeps spending levels about where they are, funds Obamacare, raises the debt ceiling, and contains some kind of sweetener so Boehner can claim victory.

At any point Boehner could end the crisis by allowing a vote on the Senate bill.  But he’d face a Tea Party revolt, so he’s not going to put his job on the line for a continuing resolution. For a deal that punts the problem for another year, maybe.

The worse case, and a series of steadily worsening cases, is that it takes the House a couple months after shutdown and default to realize that they’re not getting anything, and then they make a deal.

The Democrats, of course, are betting that the country will (very rightly) blame the GOP for the crisis, and for any pain that results.  So far they’ve been very firm; it’s the GOP that’s showing itself full of holes.

Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the Dish, is good for getting a handle on what all the pundits are saying. Crazier scenarios than the ones I’ve outlined are possible, and no one knows what will happen, except that it’ll be bad.

In the long term, as I’ve said before, demographics are against the GOP… to mention just one state, Texas may well go back to the Democratic column within ten years. Relying exclusively on old white rural straight Christian non-Northerners is a losing strategy, if not in 2016, definitely in 2026.

The problem is, again, the craziness has no exit strategy.  There is no mechanism for moderation in the party— quite the reverse, the primary system (and the very well-organized grassroots) keeps dragging the party more to the right.  The public and the media may be pissed at the House Republicans right now— but their districts aren’t rebelling.

Juan Linz, who died yesterday, was a political theorist who mostly studied Latin America; his major thesis was that presidential systems just don’t work as well as parliamentary systems— because they have multiple concentrations of power each with electoral legitimacy, and there is no way to end the standoff. For years the major challenge to his theory was the two-century history of the US.  It’s beginning to look like Linz was right after all.  He suggested that the US avoided the trap because its parties were broad coalitions, too loose to create real gridlock.  Well, the GOP has spent thirty years becoming an ideological monolith dedicated to opposing the Democrats at all costs.  So the worst case is, the GOP causes a depression and forces a collapse of the American governmental system.

Have a good day!

In your recent post, you noted that the (first) world is moving to a frivolity/art economy. What will that mean for employment? After all, robots are making our cars and, increasingly, our burgers— and, like it or not, those are jobs that in the past were filled by regular people whose natural talents were in menial work. Not everybody has the talent or desire to spend their time writing novels or direct avant-garde movies…and that’s OK; people shouldn’t be cut out of an economy because of their natural skill set. What will that mean for employment or the economy? It seems unrealistic to give everybody a $30k/year minimum income, for example, as I’ve seen suggested; that seems fiscally undoable.

—dhok

There’s a grim meathook future answer and a nice answer, depending on whether we follow our current plutocratic path or not.

But first I’d just note that your question seems rather regressive.  It’s like Aldous Huxley assuming that the future must include a huge population of subhuman menials.  Dumb repetitive work is what machines do very well; those jobs just disappear.

The grim meathook answer is what’s happening today: lots of low-paid service work— call center employees, Wal-Mart greeters, nannies, waiters, nursing home attendants, home sales party presenters, bodyguards, flight attendants, SEO farm writers.  What humans do better than robots, for the indefinite future, is deal with other humans.  We need and value human contact, and anyway most of these jobs, even if they’re not exciting, require a generalist.  Humans deal well with the moderately unexpected.

Or to put it another way, automation targets expensive, repetitive jobs.  When you get rid of the $40/hour factory jobs, you have a large population that is forced to take $10/hour service jobs.  Even for Mr. Scrooge it’s not worth bothering to replace those jobs.

In the more optimistic future, we use the increased productivity that automation brings to improve everyone‘s life.  That’s what even the curmudgeonly old USA did in the liberal era, so it’s not unthinkable.  Poverty used to be universal; in mid-century America the vast majority were middle class; an even richer society could, if it chose, eliminate poverty entirely.  (That “we’ll always have poverty” is a myth to comfort the 1%.  We could end absolute poverty globally for a surprisingly small sum.)

I don’t think anyone has ambitions limited to factory work or bagging groceries.  Everyone has some dream that they’d love to be paid to do. In our economic system, maybe it’s too silly or specialized to pay well, but a world where the robots do all the heavy lifting is one where everyone can be a specialist or a frivolist.

But even in the more ideal world, it remains true that humans are better at making other humans happy.  When you’re 94, you probably don’t want to be surrounded only by robots.  So ‘elder care’ is still a human niche, but it’s seen as valuable rather than degrading and paid enough to make it attractive.

The SEO writer may not exist in the happier future, but only because he’ll be doing something far weirder.  In the Incatena, rather than a thousand different jobs with a million people in each— a situation that may be automatable— there’s a million different jobs with a a thousand people in each.

You propose in one of your blog posts that one of the best ways to reform education would be to get away for the old idea of standardized curricula and move towards more specialized, individual education— i.e. if you have a kid with no talent for math, you shouldn’t put him through calculus.

But is this really wise? C. S. Lewis makes the argument in The Abolition of Man that one of the primary roles of a good education is to preserve democracy (and goes on to note that the sort of education that will preserve a democracy is not necessarily one that democrats will like).

Don’t we have an obligation to students’ countrymen, and not just their employers, to make sure that they not only have the skills required to do their job, but also have a firm grounding in (at the very least) scientific thinking, Western history, mathematics, and (going further) a foreign language, the classics, philosophy and logic?

—Campbell

The main thrust of my proposal wasn’t to do less education, but more!  The point is that most kids learn very little in school.  I think the twin ideas of learning by doing, and studying what interests them, will make them learn far more.

The insufficiently examined assumption in your question— and in most discussions of education— is that kids learning, which is hard to make happen and hard to measure, is replaced with adults lecturing, which we know how to do.  (Standardized tests pretend to measure progress, but every schoolchild knows that what you know on the day of the test has very little to do with what you know a week later, to say nothing of ten or twenty years!)

To take one of the items on your list— sure, I think it’s great for kids to learn mathematics. But it’s  complete illusion that forcing kids to sit through a math class makes them learn mathematics!  It works for a fraction of kids, but even they would probably learn better another way.

Now, why do we learn mathematics?  Because it’s useful in all sorts of fields.  That means it’ll come up naturally if you let kids pursue those subjects.  For some, they’ll have to learn it if they want to write a 3-D graphics program, or plot a spaceship’s trajectory, or calculate whether a roof will cave in  Others might run into it while trying to run a business, or argue a political point, or figure out sports statistics, or understand the way musical scales work.

Now, it does seem true that what adults should really know, kids may be regrettably uninterested in.  E.g. surely we’d like voters to have a basic understanding of government.  But again, the question is how to produce this knowledge?  The required constitution class I mentioned just doesn’t do it.  I think kids of the same age would learn a lot more if, say, they spent a year creating their own government, with multiple branches, elections, and a measure of real power over the school.

I’ll understand if you don’t take this question seriously; I realize it sounds kind of silly, but I promise that I would not waste your time with a frivolous question.

What I wonder is, how does a person know if he or she is stupid? It seems like the more a person knows, the more they realize they don’t know— and, conversely, with decreased knowledge comes a weaker sense of one’s limitations. For all I know, I could be a complete idiot, and never realize it because I’m too stupid to do so.

—Tim Klausewitz

No need to apologize; it’s a good question and lets me bring in the Dunning-Kruger effect, which allows us to detect and kill replicants.  Er, which tells us that while competent people are pretty good at estimating how competent they are, incompetent people wildly overestimate their skills.  E.g. in tests of four skills, those scoring in the bottom quartile (thus, averaging at the 12.5 percentile) estimated that they were in the 62nd percentile (i.e. well above average).

So the bad news is, yes, if you’re stupid you probably don’t know it.  But then the good news is, if you really wonder, you’re probably not.

I suspect you know how well you do on tests and your job.  I was always one of the top kids in my class, through high school; then I went to a good university where everyone was smart, and that cured me of any worries that I was a genius.  For what the real geniuses are like, I recommend Richard Feynman’s memoir, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”.  Not only is it fun to read, it shows how a smart person approaches the world, and shows how he compared himself to even smarter people, such as Niels Bohr and Einstein.

To some extent, intelligence isn’t even the main thing.  As momentum is mass times velocity, I think great minds have a quality that’s used with intelligence and multiplies it.  Or several different qualities.  Some people just have so much energy that they can crack a problem by direct hard work.  Some are particularly gifted at finding lateral solutions.  Some partner with someone else whose strengths and limitations complement theirs.  So even if you conclude that you’re no genius, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re limited.

I posted this link on my Facebook page, and one of my friends commented:

“This was written in 2000. In the wake of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco,
TARP, the looming collapse of the euro, staggering debt and inverted-
pyramid demographics throughout the first world, I wonder if he still stands by this analysis?”

and I thought… why not ask you?

—Dana

Sure, why not?  I assume he means the predictions at the end; as they’re intended to look up to a century in advance, not much can happen in ten years to throw them off.

Of course, the first one (that Republicans would find they like governing) looks the worst.  It’s somewhat baffling why the Repubs get crazier and crazier.  Traditional political science says that two-party winner-take-all systems produce fairly similar moderate parties, and that’s what we had for most of the 20th century.  But now the GOP goes more off the deep end every year.

The usual cure is to lose elections, but it takes several in a row. But the problem today is that the voters have short memories.  The Republicans did their best to destroy the country, and lost accordingly in ’06 and ’08.  Two years wasn’t enough to clean up their mess, but the voters gave them another chance in 2010.  Maybe this cycle will continue for awhile; but demographics are against them.  The Republicans can’t keep alienating women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, and the young forever.

Your friend’s list is pretty miscellaneous, but let’s go over it briefly:

  • Subprime mortgages: The damage done by deregulation is basically over.   We don’t have the housing bubble as a problem any more; our problem is the ongoing recession.  And half the country doesn’t want the recession to end, because omigod Obama would be reelected.
  • Bush’s TARP: no one likes the idea of a bailout, but this one saved us from a depression and the taxpayers got their money back.  The alternatives would have been worse.
  • The euro crisis is mostly notable for showing that the European right is just as self-destructive as the American right.  Large currency unions are a bad idea; ours only works because we have an ongoing commitment to support weaker regions.  The Europeans will either have to give it up, or actually decide to make it work (by making the same kind of commitment).  Chances are they’ll do neither by November.
  • Staggering debt: nonsense.  We’re in a liquidity trap; government debt is not the problem.  And debt has been far higher (as a percentage of GNP) before.
  • Aging populations: for the US, there’s no reason we should face a problem anytime soon.  Japan does, because it foolishly doesn’t allow much immigration.  We can allow as much as we like.

If you look at the daily paper, the world is always going to hell.  If you look at the history books, things have been steadily improving for two centuries.  Sometimes we rationally avoid a crisis (the Horse Poop Apocalypse one might have expected in 1900 was averted by the invention of the automobile).  Sometimes we make the worst choices, have the catastrophe, and learn our lesson.

On the other hand, since I wrote that essay, I’ve also written an sf novel whose future history assumes that in the next century we keep making the wrong decisions and cause a global collapse.  So my sanguinity has its limits.

 

Quick question about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and future Englishes— it seems to me an awfully regional shift to be incorporated broadly into subsequent daughter languages or dialects of English. When I look back at other sound changes in English, like the Great Vowel Shift, their success seems to be predicated partly on the more regionally restricted nature of English before British colonialism really took off— not to mention the fact that nowadays English seems to have more than one prestige dialect (American English might be argued to enjoy a little more prestige that British English globally, but American English is hardly monolithic).

I could easily see in a civilization like the Incatena, where you have a new central focus of political and cultural influence being established (Mars) whose standard language is not necessarily the mother tongue of many people who speak it (cf. the number of people in India or Africa who speak English as a second language), various dialects contributing to the formation of a new standard. Obviously some will have outsize influence, based on population and cultural influence, but it doesn’t seem to follow that a regional shift like the Northern Cities Vowel Shift would come to dominate.

Just curious if you followed a different line of reasoning on this.

—James.

It’s pretty simple, really: designing a future English, rather than simply make up the first step, it makes more sense to use a sound change that’s actually in progress, though it’s currently below public perception. 

For the “regional” objection, two points.  First, what’s the alternative, given that I want to use a real sound change?  I don’t think there’s any sound change of similar phonetic importance that is more geographically widespread.

Second, if anything is going to affect near-future American English, the Northeast US is probably about the best place for it to start.  It’s already the core of General American, and other US dialects (New England, New York, the South) have historically been stigmatized and not spread outside their regions. 

A better objection might be that it’s highly urban, and doesn’t seem to have spread to the suburbs and thence to the media.  But Labov says that typically sound changes spread from the working class upward and downward, so again this is just what we’d expect for the origins of a major change.  It’s true that not all changes keep spreading; but this is sf, not physics.  I wouldn’t bet a lot on the NCVS not spreading; but I wouldn’t be surprised if it stopped, either.

Now, I said Stennud was “50C Earth English”, but this is taking a broad interstellar view.  To be more precise, I’m going to say that UK and American English will no longer be mutually intelligible, and Stennud is the descendant of the latter.  It’s likely to be more of a world standard simply because North America is a much much larger clot of English speakers.

This could change if India actually switched to English.  I don’t think this is likely, and it’s even less so in the Incatena timeline.  Currently there’s something like 86 million Indians who speak English as a first or second language; compare that to 520 million for Hindi.  In the Incatena future, Dravidian India splits off (which removes a significant barrier to the further spread of Hindi), and the Collapse reduces American influence worldwide. 

Recall that interstellar travel is expensive and time-consuming; the vast majority of people never leave their home system.  Thus planets tend to diverge linguistically; there is no “Incatenese”.  Interstellar travelers tend to use either Hanying, the major language of Mars, or Sihorian Franca.  Stennud is not that big a deal off Earth.

Have you considered putting out something on Verdurian on print-on-demand— some sort of more advanced Teach Yourself Verdurian or the like, or a more in-depth dictionary/grammar?

—Dhokarena56

I have, in fact, though I’ve thought more about (say) an edition of all the ancient Eastern languages (Caďinor, Cuêzi, Axunašin, Obenzayet).

So it’ll happen eventually.  The main holdup is that I don’t think sales would be phenomenal, while the book production would take as long as any other project, so it’s not terribly high priority.

You say in your latest blog post that very few movies have got great scripts – the good ones rely mainly on spectacular sets/CGI, good (or good-looking) actors, action sequences, etc, and plot tends to get left until last. Which movies would you say have got great scripts? And what, in your opinion, makes a great movie script (as opposed to an OK one or a bad one)?

–Mornche Geddick

Good question, by which I mean a hard one.  I’m going to just talk about some movies that I think do have great scripts, and then see if there’s anything I can generalize.  I’ve included only films made in English, and I’ve leaned toward geeky movies, inasmuch as the original post talked about an English-speaking geeky movie and it seems unhelpful to just say “Oh, go watch Rashomon or Rules of the Game instead.”  I’ve also included only one film per director.

(Also, it’s not intended as a top films list, so if a film isn’t listed don’t get upset.)

Casablanca.  A lot of the old Bogart films are great, and they’re hard to separate from his likeable, low-key intensity.  But this one has some great lines, it masterfully introduces and sets in motion a large cast, it gets a lot done in very few locations and with very little action per se, and it has heart (doomed romance, Nazi enemies, a main character who’s heroic but roguish enough that it’s not certain he’ll do the right thing).

(Writers: Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch)

Memento.  A fantastic mind-fuck.  It’s constructed with what may seem to be a gimmick– it’s told in 10-minute sections in reverse order– but there’s a reason for it: it puts us into the same mindset as the protagonist.  I used to think it didn’t hold together quite as tightly as it was supposed to, but I think this is because I resisted the usual interpretation.  The movie thus uses structure and plot to make maximum fictional use of the already mindblowing idea of anterograde amnesia.  (Nolan’s Batman Begins is also the best of the Batman movies.)

(W: Christopher Nolan)

Being John Malkovich.  Funny, weird, and often disturbing; you never quite know where it’s going to go.  Though everyone remembers the main idea (entering Malkovich’s brain), it has other cute oddities as well, such as the inappropriate puppet show near the beginning (a nice metaphor for the main theme) and the Gilliamesque idea of a half-height floor in an office building.

(W: Charlie Kaufman)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Completely silly and low-tech, but that’s the point: the reason it’s memorable is precisely because of the scintillating writing.  Sketch comedy doesn’t always translate well into 90-minute movies, but this has enough thematic unity to work.  And besides, abandoning the plot 3/4 of the way through is itself a Pythonesque meta-joke.

(W: The Pythons)

Ghostbusters.  A rather conventional action-movie structure, but more coherent than most.  E.g. the final action sequence doesn’t come out of nowhere, but builds out of the earlier low-key confrontations with the Nasty Bureaucrat Guy.  Lots of great lines, and they managed to nail the delicate balance between taking the story seriously and winking at the audience.  (If you take shlock too seriously you get MST3K fodder, and if you don’t take it seriously enough you get camp.)

(W: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis)

A Clockwork Orange.  Hard to isolate the plot, as it also has great visuals and great performances, plus the greatest future conlang on film.  But it focuses on some of the deepest social and philosophical questions– free will, anarchy vs conformism, animality vs. morality, and it’s just brilliantly manipulative– it takes us on a roller coaster of emotional reactions to its antihero.  Like Dr. Strangelove, it confronts us with some of the attractiveness of evil and destruction without blunting their horror.

(W: Stanley Kubrick)

Galaxy Quest.  Hey, if David Mamet thinks it’s a perfect movie, it’s worth a close look.  Non-heroes learn to act like heroes… this is the basic adventure story, but without the usual ironic barrier of archaizing convention (no orphaned farmboys here).

(W: David Howard, Robert Gordon)

Rear Window.  Hitchcock could fill out this list all by himself.  Though the cleverness of the idea is itself interesting– it’s all photographed from a single vantage point– the real brilliance is in how Hitchcock builds up his thrills.  My go-to example for cerebral terror is the moment Grace Kelly is rifling through the murderer’s apartment– and we pan over to see the murderer himself coming to open the door.  No monsters, no SFX, no guns, nothing but a man in an overcoat, but it’s chilling as hell because of what the director put in our heads.

(W: John Michael Hayes)

Annie Hall.  Hey, remember when Woody Allen made fantastic films?  If not, go get this one.  The point of intersection between his “early funny films” and his later drive to be a ’50s European.  Full of great lines, some great fourth-wall-breaking, and rueful self-awareness.

(W: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman)

Young Frankenstein.  I think this is my wife’s favorite film.  In other films Brooks tends to degenerate into vamping and chaos, but this film remains controlled and is all the funnier for it.  Again, any number of great scenes, but it’s also a loving homage to the early horror film, and it actually has a coherent plot with character arcs and everything.  (So I don’t list too many humor films, let me also list Airplane! whose gag-a-minute pace is wedded to a firm classic plot structure.)

(W: Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks)

Noises Off!  An adaptation of a stage farce, with the neat idea that we first watch a rehearsal (of an imaginary play); then we see the backstage of an actual performance; and finally a production later in the run when everything is going wrong.  And on top of that, the opportunity is taken to tell interlocking, satiric stories about the half dozen actors and the director.

(W: Marty Kaplan, after Michael Frayn)

What About Bob?  Some very clever satire of self-help and the therapeutic situation, plus the age-old laff riot of the slow burn: take an uptight, arrogant, straitlaced dude and add an annoying, persistent, impossible-to-evade force of chaos.  Almost all of the scenes can be placed somewhere along this slow line of unravelment, made all the more piquant by the fact that the force of chaos is a huge fan of the uptight guy and only wants him to succeed.

(W: Tom Schulman)

Sin City.  Noir boiled down to its geekish, stylish essence.  It’s nasty and brutal and over the top, and yet nothing is wasted, every scene and shot is planned.  Sometimes you see a shlock movie and think “It would’ve been cool if they’d actually fixed the plot holes, wrote good lines, and honed the plot.”  This is what you get if you do that: pulp film buffed till it shines.

(W: Frank Miller)

Do the Right Thing.  I may be prejudiced since I read Lee’s diaries and production notes, so I can see how much thought he put into every detail.  But I think it’s a great movie.  Interesting characters, a slow-building plot, a confrontation with race which manages to be powerful without ever being unfair.

(W: Spike Lee)

Honorable mentions:

Mulholland Drive.  It doesn’t quite count because it was intended as a TV series, and its first half is expansive as only a longer form can be, and of course there was no time to develop all the plot strands.  Lynch makes it into a single movie by an almost shamanistic act of will.  Importantly, it’s not a good movie because it’s weird.  There’s any number of films that just go weird in the middle, and usually it’s just a mess.  This one is held together in part by Naomi Watts’s fantastic performance, but even that wouldn’t have helped if there wasn’t a story that made sense of it.

(W: David Lynch)

Serenity.  As a movie, way too rushed, because it was trying to be the entire second season of a TV series.  And arguably Whedon’s greatest skill is in managing complicated long-term ensemble series, so the compression really hurts.

(W: Joss Whedon)

Trends?

You’ll notice some tricks or gimmicks in the list– obviously that sort of thing draws attention to the script.  It’s of course possible to be tricksy and still fail.

I also put a high value on a movie that can do the unexpected without simply becoming bizarre.  Hitchcock’s Psycho (W: Joseph Stefano) is the classic example: it’s quite a mindfuck to kill of the main character halfway through.  Extra credit for unexpected directions that turn out to thematically resonate: e.g. the prison sequence of Clockwork Orange (W: Kubrick) certainly isn’t what we expected from the first half, but of course criminality and punishment go together.

Bonus points for themes deeper than “blowing up things and defeating the evil wizard”.  I don’t demand that the story be tied to present-day life and morals– after all, if we can have a good story about anterograde amnesia, why not one about robots and free will?  A film like Wall-E (W: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon) includes what would be a completely scathing satire of capitalism if it wasn’t disguised as a kid’s cartoon.

I’ve also left out a bunch of films whose plot might be described as straightforward.  The original Star Wars (W: George Lucas) might fit this category.  The writing is not great, and what makes the movie is its unprecedented set design.  But the story hits all the right notes and just has a very satisfying feel to it.

If there’s any common thread, it’s probably coherence.  Does the picture hold together as a unit, is the writing consistently good, do the decisions of the characters as well as the director reinforce what the movie’s trying to do?  A poor script, by contrast, feels like it’s bolted together, the characters do things for no apparent reason, and the climax supplies only thrills rather than any higher satisfaction.

(Update: Alert reader GreenBowTie pointed out that I didn’t include the screenwriters’ names, so I added them.  With adaptations this opens up a can of worms which I’m not going to disentangle here.)

I recently got into a conversation with a work colleague regarding piracy. Specifically, the basic assumption that I came to is that internet piracy of media is that we do not value the artist’s effort in production, nor do we comprehend the inherent monetary value of art (I positioned it as a symptom of post-modernism, that art is for art’s sake, and art-for-monetary’s sake is blasphemous.) He stated that the cost of media is just too high, and he also opposes (much like a lot of things) certain studios so refuses to give them his money, but still wants to enjoy the media produced under their umbrella. My question is, knowing that you have written on this before: What are your initial thoughts on the MegaUpload extradition? And what are your thoughts pertaining to the idea of media piracy— why do we do it? Ultimately, I’m not trying to understand why the government is wrong in trying to push SOPA and PIPA through, nor am I trying to figure out which one of us was right, if any, just your opinions on the subject.

—Nikolai

As a content creator myself, I think people should pay for their art.  (Except sometimes; see below.)

But in general, I think ‘piracy’ is a sign of market failure, and disappears when providers make it easy to get content in whatever form is desired.  My best argument for this is the enormous success of Steam.  Steam is at root a DRM system, but it’s so packed with features for the gamer that it’s actually a pleasure to use, and I don’t buy games any other way now.  You can buy your games there, see what games your friends are playing, chat with them, use games on multiple computers and platforms.  There are frequent sales, so those $60 games will soon be available for half that— or wait a year and get them for under $10.  You can review games or get links to other reviews before you buy.  You automatically get updates and patches.  I recall an interview with Gabe Newell where he said people thought Steam was crazy to get into Russia, which is notorious for piracy, but they’ve done very well there.

The music industry earned a lot of hatred for attempting to continue its lucrative old model— selling physical CDs for $20 a pop— well into the electronic age.  Their business model had very little to do with helping artists; they wanted the profits of the manufacturer / distributor… precisely those costs that go away with electronic distribution.  I don’t know the figures, but I’d guess that most people are pretty happy buying single songs from iTunes for a buck.

The next battleground is movies.  Why haven’t the studios come up with a Steam-like service where all movies are available on all platforms, at reasonable prices?  Instead of tracking down pirates and alienating customers, they should be figuring out a feature-packed, cheap distribution system of their own.

During the SOPA fight many people pointed out the absurdity of the jobs claims made by the industry, which were based on the idea that any pirated viewing represents a full theater admission lost.  Of course it doesn’t.  If someone wasn’t able to pirate the movie, he would probably have skipped it, or waited till it was free on TV or at the library.  Or maybe he’d pay $1 for a used DVD, or $2.50 for an iPad version.

Many businesses have discovered the joys of variable pricing— Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist goes into detail on this.  Econ 101 tells you that there’s a single price— let’s say $17.95— where the supply curve and demand curve intersect, and which maximizes sales and profits.  Econ 101 is wrong!  All those consumers who’d happily pay $10, or $5, or $1, don’t get what they want, so their sales are lost.  And those consumers who’d pay $50 or $100 aren’t being milked for enough simoleons!

It’s not easy to work up a pricing scheme where everyone pays the maximum they’re willing to… but plenty of markets do their damnedest to try.  Airlines are very good at this— it’s almost the case that no two flyers get the same price.  Books are a good example: you can get a hardcover for $25, a trade paperback for $15, a mass market paperback for $9, a Kindle for $5, a used book for $3, a library book for free.  Steam approximates this for video games, the chief variables being willingness to wait, and assiduousness in checking sales.  (Game companies have even figured out how to get the really motivated customers to spend more, largely with premium editions and DLC.)

And note, there’s a role in this model for free.  I don’t mind if you lend your copy of the LCK to a friend, or donate it to the local library!  A certain amount of free distribution builds recognition and good will, and in the long run increases sales.  (Neil Gaiman has experimented with giving books away for a limited time; it always increases actual sales as well.)

Plus, art needs art as a source of ideas and inspirations— it would be a bad thing if the heirs of Shakespeare controlled performance of his plays.  It’s right there in the Constitution: copyright is a balance between the interest of creators and consumers.  The sign that the balance has gone too far toward the consumers would be that artists are starving and not producing any art— and they’re not!  We’re awash in art!

If I read anti-industry people too much, I start to sympathize with the conglomerates.  People make all sorts of rationalization for what sounds like entitlement and miserliness.  But really such things are a reaction to the obvious greed and stupidity of the distributors (who aren’t even the creators).  If your friend doesn’t want to pay $17.95, that doesn’t justify him in paying $0, but if they were smart the distributors would find a way to get him to pay $5, or whatever.

I also think we’re going through a slow transition from a system dominated by middlemen, to one where artists handle their own production and distribution, and of course the middlemen are squawking.  But it’s their own fault for not adapting.  Books and music, and even indie movies, could easily be produced by their creators.  Maybe not blockbuster movies, but somehow I don’t think we’ll ever have too few of those.

 

 

I’ve been catching up on the blogs lately, and I noticed you listed his opposition to the Osama raid as one of Paul’s “crank” positions. Really? I’m not denying bin Laden was a bad guy who had it in for the U.S., but I’m not sure that opposing extrajudicial killing of someone who was never convincted of a crime in US courts is necessarily a “crank” position.

Much as I have liked some elements of Obama’s presidency, he’s been distressingly willing to continue Bush’s policy of ignoring the rule of law when it suits his administration’s military objectives, and has shown no initiative in transforming the neocon’s endless, overhyped, and badly-defined war on terror into a sane antiterror foreign policy strategy, much less a realistic domestic security strategy. Besides Osama, there’s the matter of being willing to use drones to kill U.S. civilians (again, neither convicted of nor sentenced for capital crimes by an American court)–al-Awlaqi may have held reprehensible political views, but that hardly obviates the necessity of adhering to the rule of law. Paul is a crank, and an often inconsistent one, but I can’t help but have sympathy for his views on this one. Maybe I am more of a leftist outlier than I thought I was.

—James

The Osama bit doesn’t seem difficult to me.  He was directly responsible for killing 3000 Americans and he had declared himself to be at war with the US.  We are not under any obligation to try rather than kill enemy warriors.  Ideally he’d be arrested anyway— but Obama and his advisors obviously believed that Pakistan was incapable of apprehending him.  Indeed, it seems likely that he was being shielded, perhaps not by the top officials of the state, but all it takes is a bunch of sympathetic insiders.   Also, the US team was under orders to accept a clear surrender, and none was given. (Understandable given a violent raid in the middle of the night, but important morally as well as operationally.  Soldiers have to neutralize armed opponents immediately.)

As for the rest, I’m not happy about it either— if you’ll notice, I included opposition to foreign interventions and the national security state as the refreshing bits of Paul’s positions.  But, two things.  One, candidates are packages.  It’s not an election on whether to use drone attacks in Pakistan.  You don’t get Paul without the rest of Paul’s positions, including leaving the UN,  going back to the gold standard, making abortion and “sodomy” illegal, giving away more money to the rich, and dismantling the New Deal.

Ah, but some of his personal positions probably wouldn’t get past Congress.  That brings us to the second point: presidents come attached to a party, and Paul is running as a Republican.  That means Republican allies, Republican values, Republican judges.  It also almost surely means that he won’t be the nominee.  But if he was, and won, he’d be relying on the support of a party that wants torture, wants more war, wants no-strings-attached support of Israel.  I just don’t see a path where this combination actually leads to an actual non-interventionist policy.

 

 

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