Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Game-Theoretic Obama

If you scroll to 10:45 you will see Obama ridiculing critics of health care reform. A few days after he declared the debate on the new law over, he does this. In the same speech he dares the Republicans to try to repeal the health care plan. According to this article, this is the new Obama: more in-your-face, even less conciliatory than before. The author thinks the in-your-face health bill will be followed by a when-I-slap-you-you'll-take-it-and-like-it securities industry regulation bill, or possibly a f**k-you education bill.

If that is so, why does Obama think this is a good idea?

The really cool thing about this article is that the WSJ reporter who wrote it actually interviewed the game theorist Robert Axelrod for a sound bite, one that offers a possible explanation:
In classic game theory, confrontation is sometimes necessary when cooperation breaks down to present a credible potential threat and get the two sides to re-engage, said Robert Axelrod, a University of Michigan political scientist and author of the game-theory book, "The Evolution of Cooperation."
In Axelrod's famous series of experiments, he had his subjects participate in a series of "iterated prisoners' dilemma" games. In each PD encounter, players have two choices: either benefit both yourself and the other player a modest amount in the short run ("cooperate"), or benefit yourself more while also hurting the other player in the short run ("defect"). Since this is an iterated game, you will encounter the other player again, and they will remember what you did to/for them last time. Thus you must think about the long run as well as the short. This is where "strategic behavior" comes in: you make choices in order to elicit desired behavior (cooperation) from the other person.

Axelrod found that a very successful "strategy" (in this sense) is "tit for tat": you cooperate if the other player cooperated in your last encounter and defect ("punish" them) if they defected last time. Both behaviors can (though will not necessarily) elicit cooperation from the other side. In the above quote, Axelrod seems to be saying that in-your-face-Obama makes game-theoretic sense as a tit for tat punishment.

Amazingly, a sound bite from a Republican aide uses concepts right out of Axelrod's book:
The Senate doesn't work the way game theorists think, said Antonia Ferrier, an aide to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. A body built on personal relationships is likely to spiral into endless tit-for-tat retaliations in the face of Mr. Obama's new turn, she said.
Even though she denied the applicability ofgame theory to the Senate, I think Ferrier is using Axelrod's own theory better than he does himself in this case.

The punishment strategy only works if the other player has reason to think that you really are playing tit for tat, and are not just attacking them for short-term gain. This means: you must in the past have given them real evidence (behavior, not words on a teleprompter!) that you will cooperate in the future. In Senatorial terms this means: putting forth a bill that is based on both Democratic principles and Republican principles, ie., a bill that is ideologically adulterated and impure from a Democratic point of view. The problem is that, as I predicted they would long ago, BHO and the Democrats have given absolutely no evidence that they will ever do such a thing, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The health bill could have included Republican approaches like tort reform and interstate health insurance competition, yet such things were never even on the table, despite Republican attempts to put them there.

The Republicans have to assume that any "cooperate" behavior on their part will be followed by "defect" behavior by Obama and company.

In a way, I can't blame the Democrats for acting this way. For a long time, they thought they didn't need a single Republican vote, and thus had nothing to gain by cooperating. Also, after eight years of the (on some key issues) arrogantly non-conciliatory Bush, they were in no mood to behave in any other way themselves. But that just reinforces my point: game-theoretically speaking, the Republicans would be damn fools to trust Obama to cooperate in the future.

In view of this, the only game-theoretically rational thing for the Republicans to do is to assume that this even-more-in-your-face stuff is just another attack. In other words, they ought to defect at every turn: filibuster the crap out of every single Democratic legislative proposal that they find ideologically repugnant.

This is where things stand.

Some Like It Hot

Here is a slide show of never before seen photos from the set of Some Like it Hot, surely one of the greatest comedies in film. They were taken by a journalist who visited the work in progress at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego.

They make curious viewing, if only because they are in color and the movie itself was black and white. It's a little like seeing what it would have been like as a color film.

It really is a perfect movie -- everyone in it is the greatest at what they do and at the top of their form. Monroe especially was never better. And what a love-goddess she was! Sexy but not skeevy -- that's right folks, it can be done!

Writer/director Billy Wilder was always one of my favorites. An Austrian Jew, there is something deeply Viennese about his point of view: "Situation hopeless, but not serious." Behind his gloom there is always something of the light-hearted spirit of Viennese operetta.

Remember the last line in the movie. Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), on being told that his new wife not only has loose morals and drinks too much but -- is a man! "Well," he says, "nobody's perfect!"

I once heard Bill Rothman argue that Wilder's work is cold-hearted and devoid of compassion. I think that's how it looks if you miss the humor in it, the Viennese fatalism-overcome-by-humor.

One of the things that are funny about the last line is that it implies that being male is an imperfection, a theorem that the film has esatblished by that time with almost mathematical certainty.

Wilder takes the corniest comedic trick in the book -- men in drag, the stuff of desperate-for-a-laugh USO shows -- and turns it into a vast scherzo of variations on gender, gender boundaries, and above all gender as a boundary. Es lebe die Kunst!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Health Care Reform Schizophrenia

Updated below.

This is one of the weirdest things I've seen in a while. The obvious answer to the question O'Reilly asks five times and Weiner dodges with such an utter lack of grace is: the Internal Revenue Service. At one point, he seems to take the bizarre position that no one enforces anti-littering laws. At others, he seems genuinely angry that O'Reilly expects a direct, brief answer to his seemingly simple question.

[By the way, according to this article in Slate, the House bill, for which Weiner obviously voted, actually provided for jail time for violators who refuse to pay the resulting IRS-collected fine/tax/fee. The Senate bill, at least at that time, made not being insured a civil offense, for which the penalty was having $750 a year -- if you refuse to pay -- deducted from whatever money the feds end up owing you (eg., your tax refund).]

I suspect that what we have here is a phenomenon I've mentioned here before. Big government liberals favor any number of policy measures that involve massive applications of coercion. (By "massive" I mean widespread, against many people.) Yet they often don't seem to see their policies as coercive at all. It's the sort of mind set that led to Sen. Harry Reid to claim, weirdly, that paying taxes is voluntary.

Wiener couldn't give a short answer to the question because any truthful short answer would make the new law sound so authoritarian, so pushing-people-around, and not at all the way he feels its true nature to be. Anyway, that's the only explanation I can come up with for this otherwise-very-odd behavior.

Update: Reported here is some amazing news that may offer a better explanation of Weiner's behavior. The actual language of the new law indicates that, though the penalty/tax/fine/fee for noncompliance is to be given to the IRS, that bureau has no authority to actually collect it if you choose not to fork it over -- and apparently neither does anyone else!

This is very good news for the millions of young, healthy people for whom the lavish mandated insurance policies would be a waste of money (especially when companies are forced to insure pre-existing conditions). They can just pile up year after year a theoretical penalty/tax/fine/fee which they will never actually have to pay. But it is terrible news for proponents of the system, which will collapse without rivers of money forced from the hands of those same young and healthy people. In other words, the law itself suffers from the same schizophrenia I above attributed to Weiner, wanting to threaten and to make nice at the same time.

If so, this is a shocking case of legislative incompetence. (See also this.)

Somehow, Speech Code Has Effect Opposite of Intended One

[If you know the basic facts of this now-famous incident, you can skip to the "......." below.]

As right wing rage-aholic Ann Coulter was preparing to give a talk at the University of Ottowa, the provost of the university sent her a remarkable email message. It reads in part (emphasis added):

Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. . . .

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or "free speech") in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here. You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind. . . .

Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.

Francois Houle,
Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa

Coulter, a verbal bomb-thrower who loves to ratchet things up until rational discussion is no longer possible, immediately publicized this note far and wide. By the time she was introduced to her Monday evening audience, things were ready to explode. Some gave her a standing ovation before she had said a word. Others were there to boo and heckle.

The man who introduced her referred to the by-now-famous email as a "veiled threat." I wonder, what does he mean veiled? I just see the threat. I don't see any veil.

Tuesday evening, Coulter was to give a second talk, but by now there were crowds of anti-Coulter demonstrators, mainly as a result of her Monday evening "take a camel" comment (see above video at 2:35). Campus security canceled her talk, citing fears that they could not get her safely into the auditorium.


Well, if the purpose of the provost's threatening letter, and of Canada's national speech code, was to protect and promote civil, rational discussion, they don't seem to have worked very well, do they?

Such legislation arises from what I like to call the "magic wand theory of the law": if you pass a law against a certain sort of behavior, it simply makes the proscribed act disappear. It has no other effects that matter.

As J. M. Coetzee pointed out (Giving Offense: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996) censorship is often part of a wider drama, a dance of mutual hate between the censor and the censored.

People have often noticed that many victims of censorship seem to love being censored. The obvious reason of course is that it turns them into victims and martyrs. Another is that it moves the subject of public discussion from the topic the censor wanted to talk about (how evil racism and prejudice are, etc.) and onto something that the victims often would rather talk about: themselves.

What we see here is a third, less obvious reason.

Laws are not magic wands. To function as laws at all, they must be backed by a threat. And that threat, together with the insult and the presumption of superiority it implies, provokes angry responses that further spin the spiral of rage. Often, such a threat can have an effect on the course of a discussion similar to that of the epithets and insults that the law is meant to make disappear. They have the same soothing, calming, civility-inducing effects as a slap in the face or a brick through a window.

The resulting environment is ideal for people, like Coulter, who thrive in a stew of rage and hate. For the rest of us, not so much.

And now, here is another look at the civil discourse you get with a national speech code:

Go here to read of another U of O offense against free speech.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Free Concert

I posted this last weekend, but I am repeating it here as a reminder of the concert this weekend. More recent posts are below.

On Sunday the Madison Community Orchestra will be giving a special concert. (I will be seen buried in the middle of the second violin section.) This time we will be performing several pieces with a soloist, a young local soprano who has already gotten a surprising amount of exposure, Emily Birsan.

She'll be singing three arias:

"O Mio Babbino Caro," from Gianni Schichi, by Puccini
"Ach, Ich Fuehl's," from The Magic Flute, but Mozart
"Je Veux Vivre," from Romeo and Juliette, by Gounod

Above is a video of another soprano, Haylie Westenra, singing the breathtaking Puccini aria. I couldn't find one of Ms. Birsan. We have rehearsed with her and I can tell you that she has a very sweet voice and is a natural and charming actress.

We will also play some rousing orchestral show pieces:

Overture to The The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Nicolai
Bacchanale from Samson and Delila, by Saint-Saens
March Slave, by Tchaikovsky
Slavonic Dance Op. 46 No. 8, by Dvorak

All the orchestral pieces have long been favorites of mine, an "O Mio Babbino Caro" is by far one of the most beloved arias in the world.

By the way, Marche Slave has what is probably the most thunderous of Tchaikovsky's many uses of the Russian national anthem, God Save the Tsar. The tune was routinely omitted when the work was performed in the late Soviet Union.

It'll be a fun concert -- come and meet us!

The specifics:
Madison Community Orchestra
Blake Walter, Conductor
Sunday, March 28
3:00 PM
Mitby Theater
3550 Anderson St.
Madison, WI 53704
Campus of Madison College (formerly MATC)
Admission is free
Free refreshments will be served after the concert

Below is yet another soprano singing the Gounod.

Monday, March 22, 2010

America Continues to Fracture

If you scroll forward to 6:40 above, you will hear Obama saying "It's time to bring this [health care] debate to a close." That is, we are to stop criticizing his massive new entitlement program and get busy making it work. This is one of those times when his grasp of free speech seems, for a constitutional lawyer, surprisingly shaky. People who have fundamental objections to the plan have a right to say why, and they will continue to do so.

It seems to me that this legislation is divisive in a new and potentially dangerous way. Some folks have pointed out that the Democrats have in the past enacted huge new welfare state entitlements over Republican opposition, and yet the nation was not permanently fractured. The examples repeated given are Social Security (under FDR) and Medicare (under Johnson). Others have argued that those measures passed with considerable Republican support. About half the Republicans in Congress voted for Social Security. We have crunchable numbers showing that this time is different. This plan got no Republican support whatsoever.

I think I see an underlying ethical reason for this difference. Yes, the parties are more polarized than they used to be, but this is at least as much an effect as a cause.

The new plan a different sort of plan: it is openly redistributive. The earlier massive entitlements were sold to the individual voters as insurance plans provided by the government for their benefit. The money you get out of social security is even proportioned to how much you pay in, enhancing the similarity to an insurance or savings plan. We could argue about how honest/dishonest it was to package it this way, but the fact is that there was enough truth to this view of it to make it stick. This is, more or less, how the average citizen sees these plans.

The new plan cannot be packaged this way. It is plain to everyone that it is intended to provide millions upon millions with medical insurance at other people's expense. This moves the American welfare state officially into zero-sum territory. There is no way to reconcile the interests of the millions who will be provided with insurance policies with the (so far) even more millions who will be forced to pay for them.

If you add to this the "civil unrest" that is probably coming as a result of of government austerity measures (note riots in recent weeks in Greece, Portugal, and California -- California being the Greece of America), you can see we may be in for some very grim social and political conflicts in this Republic.

[For the lighter side of zero-sum politics, see this.]

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Until the Light Takes Us

Our son, Nat, insisted that we see Aaron Aites' and Audrey Ewell's "Until the Light Takes Us," so we did. Wow. It's haunting, beautiful, and disturbing all at once. The core of the film lies in the contrast between two strange and brilliant musicians: Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes of the one-man band Burzum, and Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell of the equally distinguished Darkthrone. They were among a tiny group of very young men who, circa 1990, originated what is probably the strangest musical style to currently enjoy a mass audience: Norwegian Black Metal.

As Fenriz tells us early on, he and Varg parted ways years ago: he went more and more into the music as music, while Varg focused more and more on "the politics." If you think that "politics" here means something like joining the Social Democrats and participating in democratic elections, you couldn't be more wrong.

The one most disturbing aspect of the film emerges in Varg's disquisitions as he sits in a surprisingly gemuetlich cell in Trondheim maximum security prison, where he was at the time serving a sentence for first degree murder and multiple acts of arson (church burnings). (He was released on parole after the film was completed.) It is disturbing because I find myself irresistibly drawn in by some of his statements. In this film we get a Varg's-eye-view of Varg, and it is strangely attractive. He is often insightful, eloquent, even funny. Then I am brought up short by reminders that there is something seriously wrong here. I think many people would have the same experience, though the aspects they find seductive will no doubt differ from one viewer to another.

I find myself seduced by his blistering attacks on Christianity's 2,000 year history of destroying indigenous cultures all around the world, often by very brutal and arrogant means. But some of his reasons for rejecting Christianity seem inescapably racist to me.

Christianity, he says, is a form of Judaism. In his view, Christians are Jewish heretics. Basically, this is correct. But what follows from this? Judaism, he believes, is "a Middle Eastern religion," and in Norway is simply a foreign imposition. We have our own gods, he says, like Odin, Freya, and Thor.

After 1,000 years of Christianity, including 500 years of Lutheranism, what would it mean to say that Yahweh is a foreign god? Obviously, he is thinking that history and culture are not what is decisive here. What matters is aspects of a people that persist throughout that length of time and do not change. That, of course would be their racial characteristics. He is attributing ethical and religious characteristics to a race, and that is exactly what racism is.

Of course, loving a race you think is good is not the same thing as hating a race you think is bad. I would imagine some of Varg's fans would lean heavily on that point.

Below is Burzum's only music video. The lyrics:
When night falls
She cloaks the world
In impenetrable darkness
A chill rises
From the soil
And contaminates the air
Life has new meaning.

Note: Burzum and Dunkelheit both mean "darkness," though not in the same language.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Texas Texbook Battle

As reported in the New York Times:
After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.
The members of the Board, all elected officials, met to ammend a long list of guidelines for social studies textbooks that had earlier been drafted by teachers. Tempers ran hot:
Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population were consistently defeated, prompting one member, Mary Helen Berlanga, [NYT photo, above] to storm out of a meeting late Thursday night, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”
Among the Boards more dubious changes, from my point of view:
Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)
There are those who say "let's just tell history like it actually happened." Perhaps this approach can resolve issues like whether Thomas Aquinas was a greater direct influence on the age of democratic revolutions than Thomas Jeffersonn (after all, Aquinas did earnestly defend the death penalty for heretics), but there are plenty of issues that cannot be so easily dodged.

The study of American history reveals injustices and atrocities. (Take another look at Ms. Berlanga's picture, above. Click to enlarge.) Everyone can agree they should be discussed. But how much attention should they get, compared to certain positive aspects of the American past?

There is no way to answer such questions of relative importance without applying ethical, political, economic, and, yes, religious principles (if we understand this last to include ideas like secularism and atheism). The facts of history by themselves will not do it.

The problem here is not the conservatives on the school board. The liberals do exactly the same thing when they are in the majority. They have to.

The problem is the system itself: the monolithic state monopoly in K-12 education. Here is a single, winner-take-all prize: the state's power to mold the minds (so they think) of future generations. Putting liberals and conservatives together in a system like this is putting cats and dogs in a sealed container. They are doomed to scrap it out. History allows no neutral, Joe Friday ("just the facts, ma'am") ground to which they can retreat.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

18 Months for Police Brutality

Warning: Disturbing violence.

I've seen a lot of negative reaction to this week's sentencing of this police officer to 18 months in prison. Not only has he lost his job, but as a convicted felon he will no longer be able to use a firearm, not as a cop or as anything else. A commentator on Fox News pointed out that "this is not Rodney King," in that the beating that was administered was not as severe as the famous L. A. one.

I agree the sentence was surprising. Browsing through this web list of police brutality cases, I can't seem to find a non-lethal case that resulted in any prison time for the cop at all. It seems police who don't do anything worse that beating a manacled suspect generally get (if anything) "administrative duties" (desk job) after a period of "administrative leave" (paid vacation).

However, what this officer did was nonetheless brutal and completely inexcusable. He was not using excessive but otherwise justifiable force. He was not protecting anyone from danger of any sort. His drunken suspect could have tapped his toe on the window and asked to go to the bathroom (which is what he was actually doing) all night long with no one the worse for wear. (Though I am sure the seat would have eventually gotten wet.) If this case wasn't Rodney King as far as police reaction is concerned, it also failed to rise anywhere near Rodney King in terms of suspect provocation. Plus, by law, the judge could have given him three years.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Avatar vs. Ben Hur

A comment someone made on an earlier post about Avatar suggested to me the idea that it might be interesting to compare these two films, thinking they might reveal something interesting about the filmic cultures of their times. Both were huge eye-popping spectacles that relied heavily on special effects. Both were sufficiently in tune with their times to win many Academy Award nominations and make tons of money. Both were frankly mass entertainment and not high art, but both had some pretensions to moral seriousness. I re-watched Ben Hur. Here is part of what I came up with.

Ben Hur is a movie with a clear moral and thematic center. The very first words we hear are those of a voice-over narrator (he turns out to be Belthasar, one of the Three Magi):
In the Year of our Lord, Judea - for nearly a century - had lain under the mastery of Rome. In the seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar, an imperial decree ordered every Judean each to return to his place of birth to be counted and taxed. The converging ways of many of them led to the gates of their capital city, Jerusalem, the troubled heart of their land. The old city was dominated by the fortress of Antonia, the seat of Roman power, and by the great golden temple, the outward sign of an inward and imperishable faith. Even while they obeyed the will of Caesar, the people clung proudly to their ancient heritage, always remembering the promise of their prophets that one day there would be born among them a redeemer to bring them salvation and perfect freedom.
There are two groups of characters: the Romans and the Jews. The clash between them is consistently depicted as a clash between ideas: the Romans represent power and the Jews represent freedom. The main dramatic conflict is between two former friends: the Roman Messala, whose first lines declare that he is "in command," and the Jew Judah Ben Hur, who eventually tells Messala, "I tell you the day Rome falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!"

Power and freedom are connected in this film with other ideas. The Roman Governor Sextus tells Messala of a carpenter's son who "teaches that God is near, in every man." Messala replies with the authentic Roman view, that "there is divinity in only one man." Power means inequality, while freedom rests on the equalizing effects of Christian love.

Power also rests on fear. When Messala unjustly condemns Judah to the galleys and his mother and sister to a dungeon, he does so as a power play: "By condemning without hesitation an old friend," he says, "I shall be feared." In addition, just as freedom comes with love in this film, so power uses hate as a resource. As Quintus Arrius says to the enslaved Ben Hur: "Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength."

Such are the ideas expressed in Ben Hur. What about Avatar?

To tell you the truth, I wrote the above paragraphs six weeks ago, and didn't know how to go on. Since the Academy Awards are tonight, I thought I should force myself to finish this post. The best I can do, though, for Avatar, is a sort of laundry list of notions:
  1. One should love one's planet (or, as in the case of Pandora, satellite).
  2. Greed is bad.
  3. Hunter-gatherer tribes are good.
  4. Business corporations are bad.
  5. Military forces are bad.
  6. One should not take the property of others, at least if it is the collective property of a hunter-gatherer tribe.
Two things strike me about these two constellations of ideas. a) While the first group is at least half-way interesting and might deserve some further reflection, this is clearly not true of the second group. And that is because b) the second group consists entirely of cliches. We have heard them all a million times before and there is nothing interesting or clever about what Avatar does with them.

I am not saying that communicating ideas is something that any movie has to do. But if its makers do choose to do this, then standards of intellectual clarity, originality, and profundity come into play. Measured by these standards, obviously, Ben Hur kicks Avatar's butt.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Holocaust Denial Ad in the Badger Herald

One of the two student newspapers here at UW Madison, The Badger Herald, ran a paid ad on its website before realizing that the ad is a link to a Holocaust denial web site. After some discussion, the paper's board decided to continue to honor their agreement to run the paid ad. [The above video is from the Herald's web site.] Then the stuff hit the fan.

As explained in this news story:
The newspaper's board of directors have defended the decision to place the ad, stating its presence did not qualify to be rejected by newspaper ad rules, and that students were thoughtful enough to reject its message. But students, professors and other on campus have called on the newspaper to discontinue the ad as blatantly false.

WKOW27 News reporter Jamie Hersch spoke with Greg Steinburger, the director of the Hillel Foundation at UW. Steinburger says that no pulling the ad is "unconscionable." He also said that he is already hearing from parents of prospective UW students who are concerned about whether Madison or UW is friendly to the Jewish community.
I think if I had been in their place I might have refused their ad but would have left it in place if I had found out what it was only after agreeing to run it. Part of the reason for leaving it up is that I don't think the fact that someone is promulgating odious opinions is enough to justify breaching a contract with them, just as it is not enough to justify defacing their property or beating them up.

That is why I think of this as a free speech case. Obviously, you don't have a free speech right, or any right, to appear in someone else's newspaper. On the other hand, if you enter a contract with someone, you do have a right that they do what they contracted to do. Censorship is based on the idea that if you hold views that are sufficiently false or noxious, then we have a right to do things to you that would violate your rights if you only had the right beliefs. Thus I regard pulling the ad as morally equivalent to censorship. (Though admittedly a trivial one when compared to the evils that typically go by that name.)

During the WKOW news segment I saw about the controversy, the Badger Herald's publisher made a useful distinction. He said that they would not run ad ad from the Ku Klux Klan, because it is an organization that we know has violated the rights of individual human beings. He is assuming of course that merely holding an opinion, however wrong it might be, does not violate an enforceable right. I agree.

[Note: As I have explained elsewhere, I regard Holocaust denial as a vicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. I'm not questioning the awfulness of the opinion involved.]

Another Shooter, Another Argument

Here we go again. No sooner did another mad shooter open fire yesterday (this time at the Pentagon) than the familiar argument started up again. The left and the right are once again eager to prove that the latest psycho killer is from "the other side." Lefties are pointing out that the shooter "hated the government," and the righties are replying that the government he seems to have hated was that of G. W. Bush.

Isn't this an odd thing to be arguing about? Some rightists have even pointed out, as if it is significant, that Amy Bishop is a far leftist and, so they say, a Kool-Aid-quaffing Obama fan, though this obviously had nothing to do with her crimes. Why on Earth does anybody care about such things?

This is one of those discussions that make no sense as long as you suffer from the delusion that the subject-matter of all this talk is that portion of reality to which the words literally refer.

What we have here is not a case of what Glenn Loury calls "naive communication," where, as he puts it, "a speaker states literally all that he thinks, and/or an audience accepts his representations at face value." Rather it is a case of "strategic communication," in that it appears to be a literal discussion of the facts of reality but is in fact aimed at achieving ulterior objectives.

I think there at least two ulterior motives are involved here. One is a desire to smear the people on the "other side" as nasty and dangerous.

I think I see something particularly vicious behind this particular smear. I once hear a psychiatrist who worked with accused criminals (interviewing them to see if they are competent to stand trial, etc.) say that the minute he started to think one of his "patients" might momentarily become violent, he found himself "unable to hear" what the person was saying. I think we've all had experience of that state of mind, though not necessarily from the same cause. You can hear the person's words as sounds, but cannot decipher them as human speech.

If someone could put you in this state of mind via strategic discourse -- eg., convincing you that this is a violent sort of person -- it would be as if they have magically dehumanized them. The purpose of this strategy is, not to win an argument, but to rob the other side of their ability to speak and be heard.

The other ulterior motive i see behind this baffling talk is self-defense against the smear. "The killer is not one of us! He's one of them!" You try to deflect the smear back to the other side. Even if it is meant purely as self-defense, though, this move has the same effect as the original smear tactic. It makes it harder to hear the other side. So they have all the more reason to bat it back at you.

The result is a self-perpetuating spiral of self-serving talk.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Murderer Fabrikant, or: Professors Who Kill, Part II

In connection with an earlier post on lethally violent academics I got a comment from, believe it or not, one of the murderers I discussed there: Valery Fabrikant, a former engineering prof who in 1992 murdered four colleagues at Montreal's Concordia University. Since then, I've gotten another of his missives. Because mine is a moderated comment thread, I am fortunately able to refrain from publishing it, and any further comments from him, out of respect for the families of the four people he slaughtered.

Along with his other repellent characteristics (eg., being a remorseless mass murderer) Fabrikant happens to be an internet attention hog, and I did not want to give him another venue for displaying his horrific creepiness.

There is nonetheless an interesting question here: How on Earth is a convicted mass murderer able to send messages on the internet? For some years I corresponded with Walter Bell, an inmate on Texas' death row (eventually commuted to life). As I understood it, Walt wasn't even allowed access to a radio or tape player, let alone an internet computer.

According to this 2001 newspaper article, Fabrikant had at the time the article was written sent 1,361 internet messages from at least one known email address. God knows how many he has sent by now.

According to the same article:
Although he is given a limited list of eligible phone contacts, Fabrikant gets around this by phoning the home of Maya Tyker, his wife and the mother of his two children. Someone in that household then puts him into contact with whatever number he requests through a three-way conference call.
Evidently, a family member patrols the internet for him and frequently sends out messages dictated by Fabrikant, who is officially denied internet access, to the web. In addition, this ueber-creep maintains a voluminous website, which includes rants claiming that his murders were self defense (on the grounds that the university was trying to give him a fatal heart attack). He also boasts that he is so revered by his fellow prisoners that some have offered to kill his enemies when they are released.

The saddest note in the article is this:
Mark Hogben, whose father Michael was among those murdered by Fabrikant, says he was first made aware of Fabrikant's attention-seeking activities when he did an Internet search for his own last name and discovered a series of notes, written by Fabrikant, justifying himself. Hogben believes that a twisted few actually celebrate Fabrikant's actions.
Imagine sitting at your computer and finding recent screeds from the murderer of your father attacking his victim.
Hogben--like authorities from the Cowansville prison, Concordia University and Colba Internet provider--is resigned to Fabrikant continuing with his Internet activity.
Why? Convicted criminals are sent to prison as punishment, and part of what this means is that the most of the rights that we cherish become (at best) revokable privileges. I'm told that, at least in this country, a prisoner has no non-revokable right to talk to anybody but their attorney, and no such right to use the telephone at all.

Look, even if you are the sort of liberal who thinks that prisoners should have oodles of rights, you can think of this as a distributive justice issue. God-or-Nature, in Her inscrutable wisdom, decided to give this prisoner the brain of a genius, while giving the average prisoner the brain of a dimwit. Whatever the reasons for this in the infinite scheme of things, we shouldn't permit him to use this brain to communicate with the outside world on this massive scale, while the other prisoners are quite unable to do so.

Along with everything else that's wrong with it, it just isn't fair.
Update: About 18 hours after I posted the above, Fabrikant, or someone claiming to be him, submitted a response to it. It will go unpublished, along with all future comments submitted in his name to this site.

Monday, March 01, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

I've just re-watched this movie, and listened to the highly enlightening audio commentary by Alan Pakula and Robert Mulligan (the producer and director).

First off, I'm afraid I have to be the crotchety curmudgeon because the one thing that pops into my head is: they don't make them like this any more.

Well, it's true, they don't. So shoot me.

Beyond the obvious fact that it's in black and white: The pacing compared to today's movies is very leisurely, without rapid cutting and with rather sparse camera movements. The story and the mood are given plenty of time to build up. The sountrack is very quiet, compared to today's films. Nowadays filmmakers seem to live in fear that the audience would fall asleep without the constant presence of a crackling, bustling Foley track and thudding music. In TKaM, even Elmer Bernstein's music track is quiet, and all the more powerful for that, proving that even in music, less is more.

There are three violent deaths in the film, but the only one that happens on screen is the shooting of a rabid dog.

In the whole movie, there is only one special effects shot: the one in which Boo carries the injured Jem to the house. The sparkling, moonlit leaves had to be superimposed on him in the printer.

For a Hollywood movie, there are very few closeups, and when they come, they pack a huge whallop. Again, less is more.

Chefs say that the simplest food, with the fewest ingredients, can be the most impressive, but only if you do everything perfectly. These guys did everything perfectly.

This could be one film where you could make a case that the real auteur is not the director but the literal author -- the person who wrote the screenplay. Like Rod Serling, Horton Foote learned his craft in the Golden Age of live television drama (Playhouse 90, etc.). This produced a lot of writing characterized by ideas and serious issues and a zero level of spectacle. A number of the actors were live theater actors brought in by Foote, which is why so many of them are unfamiliar faces (something that adds greatly to the realism of the film, for me). Mercifully, Gregory Peck was the only one in the cast who was a star at the time (it was the film debut of both William Windom and Robert Duval).

One thing I first noticed on this viewing was the highly effective way Peck's summation speech to the jury was presented. Except at the beginning and the end, I'm pretty sure there are no reaction shots of the jurors at all. Instead, we see Peck from the jury's point of view. He leans toward us, almost as if he were speaking to the movie audience itself. We have the impression that we hold the life of the accused man in our own hands, and through this issue must wrestle with the injustice of the world. There are a number of factors that make this one of the greatest single speeches in any film. The understated-but-brilliant camera work and editing are among the less obvious ones.

Like I say, less is more.

"Climate Panel to Appoint Committee to Review Its Procedures"

The above, I kid you not, is the headline of a Wall Street Journal article on the scandal-rocked Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The IPCC is appointing its own review committee. If I could have appointed my own review committee, I could have gotten tenure seven years earlier and at an even better school than I did.

Seriously, the ideologically driven parts of the academic world constitute a broken system that will not and cannot fix itself. It either has to be fixed by outsiders or its conclusions taken with an appropriate-sized grain of salt. Since the former course would violate academic freedom and isn't politically feasible anyway, I favor the latter.

For the most part, that's what the world does already, but for some reason they make an exception of climatology.