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Thursday, June 22, 2017

What's good on the Internet

A break from the movies. Also, note that I collect these over several weeks, and make no claim that they're hot off the presses.

The Rise and Fall of Toronto's Classiest Con Man - Imposters: Miss Self-Important's favorite subject.

Pilgrim at Tinder Creek - Modernity (specifically: grad school, dating) is sad, peeps.

A nice remembrance of Peter Lawler from Yuval Levin.

Against murderism - Slate Star Codex is easily the best blog on the internet right now, even in our diminished blog world.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The African Queen

Movie #2 from recommended list. So, movies like this in the past are why there are movies like Boyhood now, right? We go from total unconcern for basic believability to total obsession with realistic minutia.

For many years now, I've felt that there was some fundamental shift in the American aesthetic sensibility around 1968*, and that all movies made before then seem foreign to me, and all movies made after seem intuitively intelligible. I think I arrived at this conclusion during one of the summer film series at EPPC many years ago, when they were showing Bonnie and Clyde. We had already seen some older crime films, and Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be the turning point in James Bowman's universally-applicable Arc of Decline: films was great before this, and terrible afterwards. And everyone heaped contempt on it, because it celebrated the criminals and made them seem cool rather than miserable. That all may have been true, but the problem was that Bonnie and Clyde was the first one of the movies that I got. It spoke to my (apparently modern, amoral) sensibility. Everything before it had been stilted and weird, like the actors were all trying way too hard to express themselves and haven't they ever heard of just talking? It wasn't that post-1968 Americans couldn't follow pre-1968 movies, but that following was more labored, the way reading for school assignments is different from reading for yourself. A post-1968 cultural prole like myself could be instructed about the virtues of pre-1968 movies, and from that instruction learn a method of viewing them appreciatively, but that appreciation is never intuitive.**

All that said, The African Queen is a very pre-1968 movie. Not just in the overdone acting, but in the sense that one is dogged for the entire movie by the suspicion that, if this were made in 2017, the characters would not do a single one of the things they do. They'd just park their boat in the shade and have sex until the war ended.

*Bonnie and Clyde is actually from 1967, but 1968 is the year the Hays Code was abandoned, and that seems to be a broader indicator of the times than just one movie.
** There might be exceptions to this, but the only ones I can think of are Wizard of Oz and the Disney movies I watched as a little kid. But it's hardly surprising that what you see first doesn't strike you as weird and stilted, even if it's pre-1968, because at age four, what do you have to compare it to?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Boyhood

Recommended in my movie bleg, conveniently streaming on Netflix. This movie is so long yet so pointless. I guess we're supposed to be excited by the trick that the main character is the same actor literally growing up over the decade which it took to shoot this film, but I'm not sure that swapping different actors for younger and older versions of a character in movies was really a cinematic problem in need of a solution in the first place. I rarely have difficulty suspending my disbelief when this is done.

Beyond that, Boyhood has nothing in it. The characters are all the dullest sorts of unreflective people who possess no discernible qualities. Things happen to them, they react, and then they move on, usually by literally moving away and never talking (or, we assume, thinking) about the past again. In addition to being boring, this is implausible given that they discuss the use of social media a few times in the movie, so we have to assume that they can easily stay in touch with people - old friends, ex-step-siblings - from their past. But as far as the movie shows us, these people just dissolve from their consciousness once they're not physically present in their lives. It's the Rabbit, Run of twenty-first century movies.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

When the bad faith of schools is identical to their good faith

Cheryl has been sending me news about the latest in hare-brained schemes to reform college admissions, including this NR article detailing its hare-brainedness. In summary, this particular proposal, generated by 100 super fancy prep schools, follows the general trajectory of liberal reform ideas in repudiating all quantifiable measures of academic achievement in favor of some form of "holistic" evaluation that emphasizes non-academic qualities. In this case, the standard graded transcript will be abolished and students will instead be evaluated for their competence in a number of vague moral and intellectual qualities, not all of which are even clearly virtues: "leadership and teamwork," "adaptability and risk-taking," etc. It's all obviously a load of BS, and Rossman aptly describes why it's stupid and how it will only end up helping the wealthy students of these fancy prep schools at the expense of regular smart kids at public schools.

The question is, why do such proposals get made? Rossman implies that it's a matter of bad faith on the part of the would-be reformers, and I had a long Twitter exchange with Phoebe, who suggests the same thing (you can only read her side unless you are my special Twitter-friend). I think it's tempting to make this argument that places like Andover are feigning concern for the plight of the poor and disadvantaged to justify policies that they actually pursue to help their own students get (even further) ahead, and that Yale is feigning it just to get more Andover students. And I can't claim to be reading their minds. But I think there are two reasons this argument may not be correct:

First, there is the problem of secondary schools generalizing from limited experience. It is very possible when you work at an elite school (or are the parent of a child who attends one) to think that the biggest problem in education today is the hyper-competition among students for college admission that completely reduces education into a vehicle for resume-building and results in depression, exhaustion, etc. That probably is the biggest problem in your school. And trying to disarm the competitors in this war by banning their weapons (grades, rankings) is a reasonable response. You face a collective action problem if you're the only school that does this, so getting 100 similar schools on board is a big step towards solving that. But the error comes when you generalize from your experience to conclude that cutthroat academic competition must be the biggest problem in all of secondary education, and that your solution will therefore eventually benefit all, when it is eventually applied to all.

I think this error plagues a lot of the people involved in these sorts of reform measures: they really do have a poisonous hyper-competition problem in their schools, and they really can abolish traditional evaluative measures without risking any decline in their students' academic performance, at least in the short run. What they don't see, or don't care to see, is that this problem is pretty limited to, well, them.

Second, and more important, there is the problem faced by universities that sincerely do want to expand access to poor students who don't have the burnished resumes of Andover kids. How should they do it? Let's put aside the question of racial minorities for a minute, since that is subject to a whole set of legal as well as merely logistical limitations, and talk only about economic "minorities," the poor of whatever race. Here is the question: if elite universities were to acknowledge that "holistic" evaluation is basically subjective garbage and admit students based entirely on "hard" factors like grades, class ranks, and SATs, would this result in a bigger representation of the non-rich? I'm not sure if anyone has tried to empirically model this possibility, but if you know of any such efforts, send them my way.

But I suspect not, and the problem I see is this: class ranks across the different kinds of schools whose students apply to elite colleges are incommensurate. The valedictorian of a very bad high school may be academically less meritorious than a kid graduating in the bottom quarter of Stuyvesant's or Northside College Prep's class. An A in an AP course at the former school may be the equivalent of a B- or C at the latter. So the only consistent measure would be standardized tests. Now, even I don't think that determining college admissions entirely by test scores is a desirable policy, and I'm pretty close to a merit absolutist on these questions. But let's say we tried it. Well, wealth does correlate with test scores, in part because the wealthy are more likely to have preparation (whether in the form of pricey tutoring or just exposure to less formal prep through schools that expect most students to eventually sit for these tests) and in part because of the heritability of intelligence (the rich can even be smart). Does it correlate enough that the vast majority of the spots at top schools would be taken by the rich and upper middle class? Again, anyone with data should now speak up. My speculation, based on what happens at exam high schools in a somewhat different context, is that somewhat more working-class and poor kids than now are admitted would be admitted through a test-only system, but that elite universities would continue to be dominated by the rich, and more-or-less rich.

Even if a school committed to expanding access did want to go this route, imagine the public relations fiasco that would ensue: "Yale drops entire application in favor of exclusive reliance on SAT scores." All the people who believe the SAT is racist and that standardized testing doesn't measure anything except how much tutoring you got - which is pretty much everyone on the left - will immediately flip out, protest and boycott and threaten to withhold donations, and that would be the end of that.

So that's the bind that even a college sincerely committed to expanding access is in. It shouldn't be that surprising then that it will embrace reforms that expand its own discretion in the admissions process, because even if this expanded discretion also has the effect of allowing them to admit more rich kids, it's probably the only way they can admit more poor ones. There just aren't many (or any?) good discretion-limiting options. All I can think of is preference system that gives a "boost" to lower-scoring but low-income students, but that too introduces discretion. That's why, even though it's easy enough to suspect that everything these schools do is ultimately self-serving and never really public-spirited, we actually can't really say in the cases of these stupid reform schemes which it is, since both intentions would rationally lead them to the same policy.

A final, rather crass but nonetheless still probably true point is that elite colleges need rich students, and rather a lot of them, not just to keep themselves solvent but to serve the poor. The service - acculturation, social mobility - such colleges provide to poor students largely depends on the historical and continued presence of the rich. These people provide the scholarships the poor need to attend, and they provide the connections they need to then become rich themselves after college. There are some instances where this is not the case, like when the economy is expanding very rapidly and any college degree is a ticket to financial security, so that attending Brooklyn College in 1954 is roughly the same in terms of social mobility to attending Columbia at the same time. But I don't think that's the case now or will ever be the case again, except if some new certification that most people don't yet have replaces the college degree. In present circumstances, elite colleges need the rich to stay elite. The big question is, how many rich kids do they need? The apparent injustice is that the answer is always: more than the percent of the rich in the population at large. There are probably too few rich people as a percentage of the entire country to make Yale function as Yale if Yale could only admit as many as are in the population at large, proportionally. So even if only five percent of Americans have incomes above some high number ($166k, as it happens), it may still be necessary that 30 percent of Yale students be that rich to ensure that the 30 percent of Yalies who aren't become so. (Actual distributions here, and not too far off.) What the precisely optimal number of rich students is, I don't claim to know, but only bring this up to emphasize another limitation on colleges with sincere egalitarian intentions.

Now, you can conclude from all this that the solution is not to abolish grades or tests or holistic nonsense, but instead to abolish Yale. So, fine, go ahead and try, but under current conditions, you won't create a world of egalitarian 1950s CUNY colleges; the only effect you will have is to turn another school, now languishing just below it in the rankings, into New Yale.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Explain little kids' shoes to me

Peeps with kids or experience shoeing kids: what is the best strategy for shoeing kids? Goomba now walks and climbs and runs and all that, and so needs footwear. But what footwear? Why are baby shoes so expensive? $60 for a pair they will outgrow in two months is not sustainable. And how do you know if shoes are comfortable on a kid too young to explain if they're not?

Here are some specific questions:
1) What is with all the rubber/plastic shoes, like Crocs and jelly sandals and those Keds-looking shoes that are actually all rubber? I would never wear rubber shoes on my own feet, except galoshes, only because they're the only functional option for rain. Aren't rubber shoes uncomfortable and sweaty for kids? Galoshes are super sweaty.
2) Why do so many toddler shoes have laces? Is that actually convenient for either you or the kid?
3) Little girls' shoes seem to be basically women's shoe styles, sized for little feet. But even if you discount the obviously crazy idea that a two-year old should wear wedges or block heels, are any of the flat sandals and mary janes and things like that really practical on a toddler? Or do they obstruct running and climbing?
4) If, due to the obscene price of kids' shoes, you're buying them all used and usually online (as I am), what is the best shoe acquisition strategy given the rate of foot growth of small children? That is, say you find a nice pair that's one or two sizes too big currently at the bi-annual county-wide kid stuff sale in your town - should you assume the kid will grow into them, or do they skip whole sizes in foot-growth spurts? (I recall this happening to me, but only much later in childhood.) Should you buy them a little big for room to grow, as I do with clothing?
5) What is the status of low-cost brands like Children's Place and Gymboree? Are they equally comfortable for the brief time they're used before they're outgrown? Or are the expensive brands worth it (and by worth it, I mean worth the discounted price I pay on ebay, not retail)? If the only or main advantage of pricey brands is durability, isn't that kind of pointless given outgrow rates?

Friday, June 02, 2017

The intellectual origins of polarization, an illustration

A Twit-fit from some supposedly educated (as they make sure to point out!) luminaries on the left and right:

Both of these claims are wrong. Contra Chaplin, France and the Netherlands recognized America's "national statehood" before the Treaty of Paris. While the Treaty was diplomatically important, the only new source of recognition in it is from Britain. That of course is the most important source in some ways, since it signaled to the many smaller, weaker nations of Europe that Britain had relinquished its colonial claims and they would not risk repercussions by treating with the US. The US had to make separate treaties with each nation with which it sought diplomatic or commercial relations after the war. That road to "international recognition" is a far cry from "creation by the international community" in any meaningful sense.

Cruz, on the other hand, seems to believe that the US was created in an international vacuum. While this has a certain appeal since it frees us from dependence on foreign opinion and foreign assistance, it would mean that so long as any group declares itself autonomous, fights some battles, and produces a legal charter, it is a country. On these grounds, Quebec can probably qualify, along with a number of other separatist movements.

What's interesting about these two wrong explanations of American creation is what they betray about partisan assumptions. There is a central ambiguity in these Tweets - what is meant by the term "creation"? Chaplin gives no suggestion that Americans had any role in their own founding. The country seems to be the product of a multi-national meeting of powdered wigheads in Paris in 1783 who said, "How about we designate a little country out there in the New World, say between Monsieur France's claims in the north and Senor Spain's claims in the south? We shall call it America! Wouldn't that be splendid? I'll bet the inhabitants will be so pleased! Let's have a vote on it!" Of course, countries have been created this way, in the 20th century, by the UN. And one suspects that this is Chaplin's reflexive paradigm for national legitimacy: however it is that countries technically come to be or whatever their own national narratives, they effectively exist only by the generosity of a unified "international community," which could dismantle them at any time and to which they ought to defer as a result. According to Chaplin, we owe everything to everybody.

Cruz clearly takes "creation" to mean how America fashioned itself and what makes it internally complete. The inclusion of the Constitution gives this away, because if you think of national creation simply as what it takes to become a minimally functional, self-governing country, the US was one for over a decade before the ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution completes the creation of America for its citizens, but it doesn't change anything about our status with respect to the rest of the world. Still, even if you want to emphasize the American role in its own founding, which is a reasonable response to the suggestion that the US was created ex nihilo by an 18th-century UN Resolution, you still have to admit that the assistance of other countries (France, Spain) was essential to its creation, and that our internal political institutions were influenced by external political considerations (paying off debts, etc.). But according to Cruz, we don't own nothing to nobody.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A day in local news

Utopia, VA's local paper outdoes itself today. No less than three exemplary moments in journalism here. First, we have this fine exhibit in the difficulties of democracy:
Members of the Charlottesville City Council say they will no longer recognize Lee or Jackson parks by those names and will vote in two weeks on new names. A majority of responses to a survey on the matter, however, suggests the council shouldn’t do that. Of the more than 2,600 name suggestions that were submitted to the city in an online survey, approximately 2,200 of them included “Lee” or “Jackson.”... Aside from several profane suggestions, some submissions took aim at the council, such as “you are traitors park,” “Politically correct park” and “Forgot U.S. history park.”
Then, in photojournalism, we have this stroke of brilliance. And, finally, in headline-writing, the award goes to "US immigration agents eat, arrest 3 at Michigan restaurant." 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Zombie posts

Efforts to clean up the archives of this blog have resulted in some posts from like 10 years ago being republished as today's posts. Please ignore.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How to become a famous white supremacist without even trying

As far as I can tell from following the media's coverage of Richard Spencer, being a white supremacist - nay, the worldwide leader of white supremacism - requires one qualification and one only: the ability to espouse white nationalist sentiments in grammatical sentences. None of the many think-pieces about him and his important intellectual evolution ever suggests that Spencer has done anything, at least anything beyond writing grammatical sentences espousing cookie-cutter white nationalist ideas. He runs a think tank that has no staff. He writes for magazines that have no readers. He has a decent number of Twitter followers, but not even half as many as this house cat. He has never held public office, and his entire career consists of being a student, then working at a series of publications with serially decreasing readership. Last weekend, he appeared for 15 minutes in a public square in Utopiaville carrying tiki torches with like 12 other dudes defending a Robert E. Lee statue by shouting about how great Russia is.

Nonetheless, he is super famous. More famous than any other white supremacist/neo-Nazi/alt-Right/whatever dude in America today. I bet you do not, off the top of your head, know the name of the leader of the KKK, which is a real white supremacist organization with a long history of doing much worse things than writing essays. But you do know the name Richard Spencer. Nor do you know the names of anyone associated with Stormfront, nor probably even the genteel eugenicists of VDARE, who write for publications that you have probably read. But you know Richard Spencer. (Ok, for those with slightly longer memories, maybe you also know David Duke.)

That makes no apparent sense. Especially if you agree with the general view of the media establishment that white supremacism is a huge problem, why do you know the name of only one self-identified white supremacist in the entire country? Here is why. What Richard Spencer has actually done to garner the rapt attention of the entire national media establishment, and through it, the nation, is to be a person who had the same upper middle class suburban upbringing as them, went to all the same elite schools, and yet somehow ended up espousing the opposite opinions. Not just moderately contradictory opinions, which are undesirable but at least comprehensible because the debate about, say, which welfare programs are good is still pretty open, but out-and-out opposite ones, over which debate is closed. He went to a fancy high school, UVa, UChicago, and Duke, but believes things that no one at these places even bothers to argue against anymore because the consensus against them is just so consensual. And the journalists burn to know, how is this even possible? How can someone who is supposed to be just like me end up disagreeing with me? This being an extremely pressing question of clearly national significance, they set about investigating it, in profile after profile after profile after profile exploring Spencer's childhood and interviewing his former classmates and colleagues. (There are more, but they're all the same "Meet the nutjob crazypants guy we purportedly hate but can't stop writing about.")

Now, there are of course a number of other white supremacists out there who have done about as little for the cause as Spencer, and even some who have done a lot more for it, but they have failed to sustain the media's attention in the same way. There is, for example, the guy who started Stormfront. His son got a little profile in the WaPo last year for leaving the movement, but I don't see The Atlantic and Mother Jones delving into the guy's childhood and interviewing his college classmates to discern how he became who he is. They aren't interested in the "human biodiversity" crowd. I don't think that even Dylann Roof, who shot a dozen people, got this sort of sustained think-piece treatment in the high-brow magazines. What was all these lesser white-supremacists' problem? Their problem was that they didn't go to elite schools and frame their ideas in predictable but slick and grammatical little essays, sprinkled with Nietzsche references. It's not surprising - and therefore interesting - that they became white supremacists, because they were kind of already you know those kinds of people, not our kind of people. And all of those kinds of people are kind of already white supremacists more or less, right? At least none of our kind of people is surprised when one of their kind is found to have acquired a prolific neo-Nazi internet persona and a large weapons cache. But when one of our kind expresses such sympathies, it's absolutely shocking and also endlessly fascinating.

In the past, becoming famous through white supremacy posed certain usually insurmountable difficulties for most people. You had to get pretty committed to it, join an unpleasant organization, rise in its ranks, and then either publish a hugely popular book repackaging your ideas in a totally new way, or, if you were not the literary sort, probably kill a lot of people. But now, it seems that all you need to do is get a couple elite university degrees and then post an essay online announcing your epiphany that the white race is the best race and Hitler had a pretty good idea. Within a week, Slate will be referring to you as the "spokesman" for all the white supremacists in America. Interview and speaking requests will pour in. And if an entire essay seems daunting, I suspect that even a few Tweets to this effect will suffice. Just make sure they're grammatical and occasionally reference writers from an Intro to Philosophy syllabus. The simpler your position, the better, because journalists don't want to argue with you; they just want to be able to categorize you, and then fly out to interview your fourth-grade teachers about what horrible error in your otherwise socially impeccable upbringing led you to arrive at this wrong position. It's super easy! You don't have to commit to much hard intellectual labor in the white supremacist literary archive or even believe what you say, because after a year of simple but inflammatory Twitter posts and tiki-torch appearances, when the media gets bored of you, you can probably just announce that you've converted back to respectable views (or even that you got woke!), and the cycle of media fascination and speaking engagements will start up again. The contract for the memoir will come through. And you'll be set.

So, if you are an unemployed and unattached young person with the requisite educational pedigree (attention humanities majors!), and are looking for a career change, or just a career, and one that doesn't require yet another round of graduate or professional training or a big time-and-student-loan investment, professional white supremacy advocacy maybe be an ideal route for you. Oh, the places you'll go, with our insular, self-obsessed media to enable you!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Dear internet, which movies should I watch?

We're out of stuff to watch on Netflix because we just can't get into the time-sucking High Art Series Television which is the entire tv/movie world at present, so we are returning to DVDs. What are your favorite movies, within the following parameters:
1. Must be available on DVD
2. Not horror movies, mafia movies, or other egregious blood and violence movies, especially involving violence to children, or movies directed by Woody Allen. Probably not sci-fi or avant-garde either.
3. Must have colors and sounds.
4. In short: relatively mainstream comedy and drama from the past 50 (stretchable to 80 if really good) years. Doesn't have to be American, but I think I've actually seen fewer American than international movies in my (very limited) movie-watching life, so my cultural literacy in this sphere could stand to be expanded.