Sunday, November 30, 2008

War, Inc.

I saw War, Inc. on DVD last night. Family Video was showing the trailer on the overhead TV and it looked cute.

The good news is that it only cost $2.79 to rent the movie at Family Video.

The bad news is that it wasn't worth it.

Listen, there is no doubt a potential comedy that tells the story of a harried foreign service flak-catcher, armed with contemporary clichés about "diversity", attempting to foist our idea of progress on a far outpost of America's accidental empire. After all, serious movies have been made that have mined this vein for comic relief.

But what we got instead was itself a cliché -- or rather, a collection of warmed-over Vietnam-era clichés seasoned with the masturbatory fantasies of a Daily Kos commenter.

In the movie, the army of occupation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of an American conglomerate, chaired by "the former vice-President" (gee, whomever could they mean?), with interests in everything from oil to fast-food. The foreign-service officer (John Cusack) is in reality a contract assassin and the trade show he is promoting merely the cover he uses to eliminate the conglomerate's rival in the oil business. We get treated to American soldiers mindlessly shooting civilians (that's what they do, after all!), a perky crusading journalist (Marisa Tomei) who spends her time "unmasking corporate greed when she's not washing her hair" (Get it? Being a leftist doesn't mean looking dowdy!), and the only foreign terrorists we actually see are simply aping the culture of American gangsta' rap. (Get it? Everything is America's fault!)

War, Inc., in both style and substance, reminded me of nothing so much as the movie Canadian Bacon, which advertised itself as a fun poke at U.S. - Canadian differences but was instead a vehicle for left-wing America bashing.

On a bright note, it was fun watching Cusack's slithery assassin bring his A-game to charming Tomei's journalist against her will. And at 44, Tomei is still easy on the eyes. But even this romantic angle degenerates into the usual story of the assassin-who-falls-in-love-and-renounces-his-evil-ways.

Recommendation: save your $2.79.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Turkey Day Rejections

My wife and I invited all the single guys in my research group to Thanksgiving dinner. Seven of them are in their early to mid twenties, while the last is 33. They all had other plans.

But here's the thing: of those that offered specific excuses, four said they were spending Thanksgiving with their girlfriends; only one said he would be with his family.

Four of eight have girlfriends? How the hell did that happen? I mean, the 33-year old is pretty smooth, but the rest are as geeky as I am, and I didn't get an actual girlfriend until I was 28!

Maybe geek cachet has improved this decade. Or maybe I've forgotten how truly geeky I used to be.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Warning: This blog is typed INTP

Via Typealyzer:

The Thinkers:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Yeah, well, I don't care what you think!

Actually, this isn't far off. As I recall, my Myers-Briggs score way back when was INTJ.

Men are NOT the problem!

Via Roissy (via Kyle), we come to Kay Hymowitz's "Love in the Time of Darwin":

Earlier this year, I published an article in City Journal called “Child-Man in the Promised Land.” The piece elicited a roaring flood of mailed and blogged responses, mostly from young men . . . . Their argument, in effect, was that the [single young man] is putting off traditional markers of adulthood—one wife, two kids, three bathrooms—not because he’s immature but because he’s angry.

Stop, stop, STOP! A pox on both your houses! The premise as stipulated by both Kay and her interlocutors -- that men are deciding to put off marriage -- is utterly and completely false as a generality applied to all men!

But to know this, Kay would have to open her eyes beyond their currently narrow field. For she is guilty of the same error as the men for whom women of less than car show model attractiveness are invisible. Like them, Kay only sees men in the top 5% of the status hierarchy, the same 5% being pursued by 95% of women, the same 5% for whose attentions women bid in an arms race to the bottom. Of course those men don't want to get married: in the immortal words of Kelly Bundy, why buy the cow when you can get the eggs for free?

But what about the other 95%? You know: the ones standing on the sidelines looking desperately for some sign of encouragement. The ones with no idea how to talk to a woman because, well, none of them have. The ones without game.

Are there tradeoffs? I've been reading Spungen too long to try to deny this. She overstates her case (as do we all), but it may be entirely possible that it is NOT in the average woman's interest to settle down in her twenties with the average betaman. (Certainly it was not in Spungen's interest.) There are arguments to be made on both sides, for both men and women, and I wouldn't try to substitute my judgment for theirs.

But this, too, is a tradeoff, so they should make it with their eyes open. They may do as they will, but please, please, please spare me the tired invective about how men-won't-settle-down. It. Is. Not. True.

Addendum: On this question, I have to recommend Roissy's usual mix of vital insight and crippling contradiction.

UPDATE: Trumwill provides some perspective

Is Christ Omnipresent?

One of the features of Calvinism separating it from Lutheranism is its view of the Lord's Supper. In the words of the English reformers:

The Lord's Supper is a sacrament, wherein by the giving and receiving of bread and wine, according to Christ's appointment, His death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of His body and blood, and all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

This differs from the Lutheran doctrine of Consubstantiation, which holds (as near as I can tell) that while the communion elements remain bread and wine, they take on the properties of Christ's body and blood. So Lutherans would object to the bold-faced text above.

The most powerful argument on behalf of the Calvinist view is that when Christ presented the bread and wine at the Last Supper with the words, "This is my body, broken for you . . .", he was, at that moment, whole in his body. It therefore follows that he intended something other than a "corporal or carnal" understanding of his words.

It seems to me, however, that this reasoning doesn't limit itself to the Lord's Supper. At his ascension, he was also whole in his body, and there is no evidence from scripture that Christ was ever in two places at once. On what grounds, then, would we say that he is omnipresent in the way that God the Father (who is a spirit only) is omnipresent?

Now that I think about it, there is ancillary evidence against Christ's omnipresence. (1) When he ascended to heaven, he promised to send the Holy Spirit. Why would this be necessary if he remained spiritually present himself? (2) The Scripture doesn't speak of the resurrected Christ just wandering around; he has the specific job of representing the elect before God.

All this came up in conversation last night. With more research I might figure out what was the considered view of the church fathers. Or perhaps my readers can help me out?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stop the Big Three Bailout!

I opposed the housing bailout.

I opposed the Wall Street bailout.

I now oppose the GM/Chrysler/Ford bailout, and for the same reason: taxpayers should not be liable for the bad decisions of private actors, be they the unions or management. Let the Big Three sort themselves out in bankruptcy court. It's the best thing for them, and us.

Please sign the petition. For additional impact, contact your congressional delegation directly.

Note: the informationn attached to the petition appears incorrect, as Half Sigma has explained it. Still . . .

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reviewing Life on Mars

Do we say of the man stepping out on the wife who bore his children that he is courageously expressing his authentic self by sleeping with hot twenty-somethings? No. We say that he is an adulterous weasel.

So why do we give "courageous authenticity" awards to the man who bangs other guys?

If this kind of moral reasoning is too strenuous; if in fact observations like "Anti-war demonstrators have rights!", "Gays are people too!" seem like pathbreaking insights, then, boy, do I have the T.V. show for you.

Life on Mars concerns a police detective struck by a car in 2008 and awakened in 1973. How this happens is not explained. The time traveler ingratiates himself with the San Francisco (I think) police department and "resumes" his duties, a set-piece providing him ample opportunity to express shock and horror at what is represented as typical features of 1973 urban policing: racism, sexism, gay bashing, civil rights violations, torture, etc., etc.

On Whiskey's recommendation, I watched the earliest episode I could get: season one, episode three. I was disappointed.

Which is too bad, really, because the concept had a lot of potential. Much like Mad Men does for the 1960s, we get some fond backward glances at the 1970s that will provoke smiles from those of us around back then: the police officer who sniffs the output of a mimeograph machine, for instance, or the pre-CSI indifference to crime scene integrity. And the cast, including Michael Imperioli and Harvey Keitel, give a sympathetic portrait of the policemen facing a new order of law enforcement challenges.

But while Mad Men often (though imperfectly) forces us to bring our own moral judgments to the failings of its time, Life on Mars has these judgements pre-processed and fully articulated by Time Traveler. Now, I am pretty sure that most actual human beings, waking up in the past, would have the moment of holy-crap-everything-sure-is-different-here and proceed with our moral judgements with some ironic detachment. But not this Time Traveler; no, he proceeds with full-octane liberal bluster. Were this bluster presented as a prelude to a mutual exchange of insight--if, indeed, the show was about teaching 2008 Man valuable lessons of the past--then the show could have been quite good. Unfortunately, the show has no lessons for him to learn; he serves only to lecture the past about its sins.

Is liberalism really so decadent that it has nothing left to say but to indulge its self-satisfaction over 1973? Probably. But it doesn't make good television.

Whiskey is quite taken with the mystery of the show's time traveler. Did he really travel through time? Or is he enjoying a coma-induced hallucination? Or, in fact, was 2008 but a dream? 2008 Man is continually having paranormal experiences that supposedly tie him to is future self, but I ultimately decided that these were without purpose.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Random Reflections on the Grad Student Party of 2008

My advisor threw a party for our research group at his house last night.

I started the evening in something of a foul mood: the cold and rain didn't help, and after a difficult day at "work", I was even less in a social frame than usual.

Plus I worried about the future for no immediate reason. We spent the week working with some folks who were applying commerically the technology we are researching, which was encouraging until I found out their company had never made any money! And that was before the economy tanked.

It was a wives-and-kids party, so there was quite a crowd. I got an ego boost observing that mine was the prettiest wife in attendance, which surprised me with respect to our advisor, who is a pretty charismatic guy but whose wife was not what I had expected. Oh well, I guess that makes me, what, like the NUMBER ONE STUD of the research group! WOOHOO!!!

The group has one female, who, in addition to being the second prettiest woman at the party tonight, is notable for being the only one actually working in the field, as opposed to the rest of us who enjoy lucrative fellowships. She brought her family. Her husband is clearly S.E. Asian (his wife is white, a match you don't see every day) so in my aspergery way I inquired about his "background". At the age of five he fled communist Laos with his parents. He doesn't remember much about Laos, but he remembers the nighttime escape to the Phillipines, a journey that at one point included the sound of gunfire. Imagine for a moment: the entire future of your life, as in whether you get one or not, comes down to a few seconds over which you have almost no control. Kind of puts a perspective on things.

Listening to him, I got an unmistakable impression: works with his hands. I don't mean that in a bad way, necessarily, since I don't consider IQ and education the end-all of character and sociability. But it did make me stop short of asking him what he "did" -- weird, I know, considering I had no problem telling him, effectively, that he looked like a foreigner. But it was a grad student party, and I didn't want to make him feel even more out of place than he already did. Mmmm . . . I guess that means that I really do think that the salient feature of a man is his education. I'm such an asshole.

And myopic. It turns out that I was only half right in my assessment. As my wife told me afterwards, Laos man is a lineman, which as the do-stuff end of engineering is way cooler than the think-stuff-up end the rest of us inhabit. I could have talked to him about power distribution for an hour.

Interesting how status works. Over at Hit Coffee, I recently commented how in my foolish (and self-serving) youth I thought that smart, educated women would be attracted to smart, educated men. But here is someone who not only overcame Secret Asian Man* syndrome but also an average intelligence by having, first, a family oriented character (they have four children!) but also by working in a technical field with BIG STUFF: high voltage wires that can turn you to a cinder if you get too close at the wrong time.

*Go here and scroll down to 3.14.06.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Children in Politics

I don't know what to think about this:

Or rather, I think several things simultaneously:

- It's cute and fun to see small children enthusiastically support political causes for which I have sympathy.

- Has anyone really been persuaded to a particular position on an issue by people waving signs? Or perhaps its about motivating the base to go to the polls. That makes sense if you live in an area, as do these children, where there is more of your base than your opponents' base.

- I'm uncomfortable with using children as proxies in political advocacy. It's dishonest. Not as dishonest in this case as when busloads of children showed up in D.C. to rally for legislation that allegedly affected them, as we saw during the Clinton Administration; this was a front for adult agendas. But still: it's representing the children as having a considered opinion on an issue that they most probably lack. (Then again, in the case of Florida's Amendment 2, the issue really is simple enough for an eight-year-old when considered under a religious paradigm.)

- I don't really want to communicate to my own kids that the essence of politics is waving signs at street corners. I rather want to teach them: First gain knowledge. Second, pursue understanding. Then, and only then, should they advocate. I believe too many people get this exactly backward: we start with our position, we then master a set of arguments in favor of that position, and rarely if ever get around to learning any facts that drive those arguments.

- [New] Did you check out the Mom that posted the video? Now that's the secret of a winning political campaign: having hot babes on your team.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the Fate of GM

Megan reflects on western New York in one of the most beautiful pieces she's ever written.

But I'm not sure why she insists that GM can't make cars nobody wants to buy. The GMC Acadia and its kin are highly rated 7-8 passenger crossovers. In fact, this is exactly the vehicle we plan to buy (assuming it still exists) as soon as I save up the money.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Season 5 of The Office

I need to get this off my chest:

If you follow The Office, you may remember from season 4 that Angela breaks up with Dwight over the somewhat mysterious circumstances of her cat's demise. Andy appears to win Angela's affections when he buys her a new cat, but is clearly unhappy with him by the time he proposes to her. For reasons the show doesn't bother to explain, she accepts Andy's proposal anyway, yet immediately cuckolds him in a secret affair with Dwight.

You might think there is enough weirdness here already for comedic purposes, but now let's add that the show portrays Angela as not only an outspoken Christian, but a Christian of a particularly uptight variety. Yet not only does she have romantic relationships with non-Christian men, but the show doesn't hesitate to toss an unconflicted adulterous affair on top of this.

The show's writers are just plain lazy. They're reaching for a grab bag of behaviors and characteristics they regard as unpleasant and dishonorable and dumping them into a single character without even a nod in the direction of internal consistency. "Hey! Let's make the character we've spent four seasons building up as a religious prude cheat on her husband-to-be with the old boyfriend who killed her cat! Yeah, that makes sense!"

This isn't just Φ griping about religion in the media. Sure, I want to see Christianity portrayed positively, but I'll recognize that while the Angela character is exaggerated (it's a sitcom, after all), some of us can come across as a little uptight to outsiders. And since the format requires that everyone's lives revolve around the office (like I said, it's a sitcom), there wasn't any room in the show to have Angela meet guys at, you know, church or something.

But if there is a profile for an adultress, surely Angela is its exact opposite. And, okay, sometimes people break their profiles, but that would require a complexity that the writers never wasted on Angela. Instead, they simply defaulted to simply making the Christian character look as bad as possible.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Review of Iron Man

I saw Iron Man on DVD this weekend. The story goes thusly: Tony Stark, owner and CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Enterprises, is demonstrating his company's new missile system to American troops in Afghanistan when he's kidnapped by ragheads mysteriously armed with Stark-manufactured weapons. He's forced to re-construct the system for the terrorists; under their very noses, however, he instead builds an iron bio-suit powered by a mysterious device called the arc reactor. This suit becomes the "Iron Man" protype, and it allows him to escape the terrorists and return to the United States. Conscience-stricken at seeing American soldiers killed with Stark weapons, he stops all Stark weapons manufacturing while he secretly devotes himself to developing Iron Man 2.0.

Now for the kvetching.

This was a fun movie, and not necessarily an anti-American or anti-military one. But it is useful to critically ponder the socio-political morality it presents. Because some of his weapons fall into the wrong hands, and he sees the devastation they wreak at close hand, Stark stops lawful arms sales to his own government. But Stark then goes on to build -- for what is apparently his own personal use -- a weapon system of immensely destructive and unstoppable power. (The Iron Man suit flies, and it beat two F-22s in a dogfight.)

Why are we, the citizens of a free republic, expected to applaud this? The United States armed forces are, broadly speaking, under our collective control. We, through our elected officials, get to determine how they armed, where and when and in what numbers and to what end they are deployed. Even leaving our republicanism out the equation, there are tens of thousands of people that design, test, manufacture, transportation, service, and supply these weapons, and hundreds of people with operational roles standing between the president's order and the soldier that carries it out.

Why do we wish to trade all this accountability, all these checks and balances, for the arbitrary will of a billionaire with the personal wherewithal to design, test, manufacture, service, . . .and use, without the apparent involvement of a single other person, a weapon against which the lawfully constituted military has no known coutermeasures? Because . . . he's a good guy? Because he has the omniscience and wisdom our national security apparatus lacks? On what grounds are we to believe this?

I suppose this is the premise of the entire superhero genre: a man with special powers steps into the void created by the failure of our democratically-ordained institutions. But in most of these storylines (as near as I can tell; I am not, in fact, very knowledgeable about the Marvel and D.C. pantheon and their adventures of record), the hero steps in to support the established authorities. In Iron Man, however, the hero seeks to replace the established authority, or at least the ordinary means by which it preserves itself.

Mrs. Φ: "Yeah, well, look who we just elected!" (N.B.: Mrs Φ is much more partisan than I am).

First, at this writing, and judging by his stated nominations thus far, Obama is shaping up to be much more of an establishment figure than many of us expected. But second, even a bad president is subject to much more accountability than Tony Stark.

On a completely unrelated note: there was something satisfying, in a pretty straighforwardly misogynistic way, in the scene where the liberal feminist reporter sexually succombs to the egocentric billionaire. This kind of scene seems to crop up in movies and TV pretty often lately, and I wonder if Hollywood could articulate the sentiments they are playing to.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Quotable

Quote of the day:

About the only really black things about Obama are his church and his wife, and he left one of those.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Way Forward

Ross Douthat recommends Jim Manzi's piece in the "Whither Conservatism" vein:

[T]he challenge in front of conservatives is clear: How do we continue to increase the market orientation of the American economy while helping more Americans to participate in it more equally?

Here are two ideas among many.

First, improve K-12 schools.

That's it!?! That's the great Jim Manzi Plan for restoring the middle class!?! The same idea politicians have been promising for the last 25 years!?! Isn't this like the plan for earning $1M without paying taxes: "Step one: get $1M"?

To be fair, Manzi's prescriptions -- choice and accountability -- are good ones. But conservatives and Republicans have groped around -- unsuccessfully, and for some time -- for the political leverage to actually implement these kind of reforms, and I can't help thinking that their effect will be marginal.

Better yet would be to admit that the kind of college preparatory academic work to which our high schools have defaulted have essentially negative utility for those students at the bottom half of the cognitive bell curve. These students should be learning specific job skills appropriate to the kinds of work for which their abilities suit them.

But the flip side of this problem is that improving (or rather, redirecting) education will accomplish nothing if there are no jobs to which they can apply this education. The inescapable reality is that the only way to improve the economic standing of the bottom half of our people is to re-invigorate the industries in which they are likely to be productive. And this, in turn, will require making changes to the legal and regulatory environment for such industries of exactly the kind that the SWPL crowd is likely to oppose.

To give credit where it is due, Manzi's second recommendation -- using immigration policy to improve our nation's human capital -- is much better, and when Congress returns to immigration reform, as it most surely will, Republicans will have an opportunity to offer amendments that highlight the Democrats' refusal to do this. I can think of at least two:

-- Require that guest workers or their employers post a bond indemnifying the public fisc against their consumption of public services (healthcare, education, law enforcement) over and above what they will pay in taxes.

-- Require that all immigrants possess the human capital, and earning power, to pay more into the treasury than they and their families extract in benefits.

Of course, these amendments undermine reform's unstated purpose: to lower the nation's human capital through mass unskilled immigration. But they will give Republicans a language for opposing immigration beyond mere nationalism.

UPDATE: Jim Manzi comments (OMG, Jim Manzi commented on my no-account little blog! I swoon!):

Thanks for reading my post closely. I agree that (1) the education thing is easier said than done ([p]olitically), and (2) it's impact would be significant, but not decisive. Nonetheless, I think it is a big thing worth doing.

As I indicated, I was giving a couple of ideas, not a comprehensive plan for renewing America.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Is "Conservatism" more popular than conservatives?

I ask this question in light of the victory of the Marriage Amendment in a state - California - in which McCain never had even a glimmer of hope of carrying in this election. There is some nuance here: McCain was something less than a full-throated opponent of gay marriage, while Obama was something less than an advocate. Still, I can't help but wonder about that slice of the California (and Florida) electorate that cast ballots to protect traditional marriage, while simultaneously casting ballots in favor of a president who will, at a minimum, appoint judges that will vitiate that protection.

This may point to at least part of the way back for the Republican party over the next two years. Since it seems that the Senate will retain a filibuster-capable margin, there is one area where they should be absolutely prepared to use it: judicial appointments.

But they must be careful to deploy it for the right reasons. For instance, Obama ran and was elected as a pro-abortion candidate; support for Roe is both non-negotiable for his base and largely (if incoherently) popular with the broader public. Obama's judicial nominees will therefore inevitably swear fealty to Roe, and there isn't much the Republican rump can do about it. This is not to say that Republicans should abandon their opposition to abortion and the judges that defend it; it is to say that in the current environment, the Republicans must be about something other than abortion.

In contrast, consider gun control. Obama did NOT run as the gun-control candidate; on the contrary, he endorsed the Heller decision, and his party has generally muted its support for broad-based gun-control. But Obama's judicial nominees will almost certainly be the kind of lawyers who reject Heller. This provides Republicans with a critical opening -- a wedge issue, if you will -- to force Obama into appointing judges who are operationally much more moderate than they would otherwise be. By using Heller as their own litmus test -- "A vote for cloture is a vote for gun control!" -- they are not only reasonably likely to hold their caucus together for a filibuster but also persuade (or intimidate) the more centrist Democrats into joining their opposition. This would be a powerful political defeat for Obama and buy them concessions across a range of legal issues beyond the nominal one of gun control.

Based on last night's results, I am inclined to put defense of traditional marriage into the Heller category (as a political winner) rather than in the Roe category (by itself, a political loser).

Parenthetically, the electoral map depresses me. Obama was able to capture a lot of Republican real estate last night. In contrast, absent the epic failure of an Obama presidency, it is tough to imagine a Republican ever doing as well as even Bush 41 did in '88. Steve Sailer has a post on the startling correlation between the '00, '04, and '08 election results that show how static our politics have become.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Φ Liveblogs the Rocky Movies on AMC

Rocky I: Rocky looses the fight in a split decision.

(Aw, screw it. I'll watch the second movie in 2012.)