Sunday, February 27, 2011

PoTAYto, PoTAHto: ISAF Edition

A very revealing article.

A few weeks ago I shoehorned into a conversation that my team leader was having with a young British officer who had wandered over from Communications.  He wanted to talk about “messaging” regarding an infrastructure project we were tracking.

“So, lemme get this straight, just so we’re all on the same page,” I said, after we had been introduced.  “Basically, you’re hear to coordinate propaganda directed at the Afghan people.  Is that right?”

“Oh, no,” he replied gravely.  “This isn’t information operations.  This is public affairs!

“Um, dude . . . whatever gets you through the day.”

You’ll pardon my insouciance.  As I have remarked before, Gen. Petraeus is a man of consummate political skill and quite accustomed to leveraging the military’s media management machine to have his way with politicians and public alike.  He is especially attuned to managing the way the war is viewed and presented by the global media.  The distinction between “presenting” and “influencing” would not have occurred to him – nor to me, for that matter, having seen it in action.  What would be the other reason to care about the global media if not to influence it?

The heck of it is, I would concur with this approach if I believed in the mission.  The received wisdom in the armed forces is that we lost the Vietnam War because we lost the American people – and that the hostile narrative of elite journalism, and our erstwhile powerlessness in the face of it, is responsible.  We do “public affairs” precisely so our side of the story is the one that gets told, not the side of such as Michael Hastings.

Which arguably makes the legal firewall between the formal missions of public affairs and information operations that much more important.  It would appear that not only did the highest levels of the ISAF command forget their responsibilities under the law, but they deliberately retaliated against the people who reminded them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Movie Potpourri II

More movies I liked:

TRON Legacy:  I remember thinking when I saw the original that nobody seemed to notice the obviously Christian allegory.  This wasn’t true exactly, it was just that all the pre-internet Christian pop-culture commentary was occupied with the other Christian allegory that came out that year.  This long-awaited sequel supposedly mixes in a number of Buddhist themes which, not being a Buddhist, I fail to appreciate.  But it does make profound point about the superiority of evolved or emergent systems which, whatever their imperfections in real life, inevitably work better than the top-down designs of imperfect human beings.  A lesson we would do well to remember as we try to impose in Afghanistan by design what we ourselves came to by social evolution.

Chloe / But I’m a Cheerleader:  I happened to watch these two movies back to back, and they nicely illustrate something that I wanted to say about the movie rating system.  A while back, I watched This Film Is Not Yet Rated, an self-purported exposé of the MPAA featuring a lot of independent filmmakers complaining that children aren’t allowed to watch their gay art-house porn.   The movie made a big to-do over supposed inconsistencies:  some films earning NC-17 ratings for content for which other films only got an R.  At first glance, Chloe / BIaC supports this complaint.  The scene with Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried in Chloe is vastly more explicit than that between Natasha Lyonne and Michelle Williams in BIaC; in fact, this latter film doesn’t even have any actual nudity that I can recall.  But what it does have is a miasma of didactic creepiness that made me wince throughout most of the film.  The sex scene in Chloe, in contrast, is (depending on your perspective) either garden-variety soft core porn or, in context, an affirmation of the heterosexual love that one of the women has for her husband.  Perhaps we should chalk up the rating difference to the ten years separating the release of the two films, and a more relaxed attitude toward “lesbian”* scenes; I don’t know.  But it looks to me like the MPAA did its job correctly.

Winter’s Bone:  Many aspects of this depiction of rural life along the Missouri – Arkansas border feel authentic based on my own exposure to it at an elementary school servicing a rural community.  Especially familiar was its portrayal of women:  on the one hand, they occupy sex-specific roles; on the other, they seem purged of all traces of femininity, both in dress (I didn’t see a single skirt the whole movie, just lots of poorly fitting jeans, flannel, and work boots) and manners (get ready for the female hillbilly version of a curb stomp).  Frankly, considering how poorly each sex treats the other, it’s not clear to me under what circumstances the mating ever takes place.  And yet the younger children, who don’t know they’re poor, seem happy to be growing up in the country with room to run around.

The Fighter:  While I’m on the subject of dysfunctional white people, I should warn you that this biographical account of “Irish” Micky Ward and his vampiric family was painful to watch for the first 15 minutes, shot as a shaky-cam documentary so authentic that it was indistinguishable from any other shaky-cam documentary.  But I’m glad I stuck with it.  Christian Bale’s obnoxious performance became tolerable once it became clear that it was tied to his character’s drug addiction, and that this would ultimately be an occasion for self-awareness.  Amy Adams here reveals herself to be a versatile actress; unfortunately, that versatility meant that I got to see only a glimmer of the vulnerable, innocent girl I have come to love.

* I don’t actually know what real-life lesbian activity looks like, but I’m pretty sure that its depiction in general-audience (i.e., male heterosexual) entertainment is a pretty poor guide to it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Movie Potpourri I

These are the movies I liked:

True Grit:  I agree with Half Sigma that this is the best Western ever.  But regarding Hailee Steinfeld’s racial background, I initially thought she looked vaguely American Indian, but I later attributed that to the long braided hair.  Also, I never would have believed that Hailee Steinfeld was thirteen until I looked it up.  Now that I know she is a minor, I’m just going to, um, leave it at that.

Also, I had seen the John Wayne movie as a child, although I didn’t remember it until Jeff Bridges said the line, “You do what you think is best, Ned.”  It was a lot funnier when John Wayne said it.

Secretariat:  Penny Tweedy [Diane Lane]:

I’ve been through the stud books, Jack.  Bold Ruler – that’s the sire – he was fast, but he couldn’t last over distances.  Now the two dams are Hasty Matilda and Something Royal.  Hasty Matilda is eight years old.  She’s still young, and since brood mares tend to produce their best offspring while they’re young, that makes her foal the obvious choice since Something Royal is 17.  But her grandsire was Prince Quillo, he had great stamina, Jack.  Do you know what that means?

Meanwhile, nothing has been heard from Malcolm Gladwell.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the WorldTrumwill wrote the authoritative review.  But I want to remark on the absurdity of the protagonist deciding to dump his pretty, devoted, virgin, Asian girlfriend so he can make a play for a weird-looking carousel rider that, frankly, isn’t giving him much in the way of encouragement.  Please tell me that even indie musicians wouldn’t be that self-destructive.  Right?

The Girl Next Door:  Escapist nerd fantasy about a high school senior who’s pure love for the porn starlet next door redeems her from her life of sin, as she redeems him from his life of solitude.  I get it.  Nothing in the movie makes much sense, but so what?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs:  Animated escapism about a nerdy young scientist  who saves the day and gets the girl.

The Kite Runner:  The heartfelt saga of a young refugee from Afghanistan who must return as an adult to rescue the son of his childhood friend from the clutches of the Taliban.  Sadly, it gets its central premise wrong:  as I have remarked before, it is Karzai’s government that turns an indifferent eye to pederasty, while the Taliban vigorously suppressed it.

Miss March:  If you can swallow the prospect of Hugh Hefner holding forth on the importance of true love (and, I should add, a middling amount of gross-out humor), then this movie about a young man,  wakened from a four-year coma to learn that his erstwhile girlfriend has become a Centerfold, is actually sweet and touching.

Tangled:  It’s been a while since I enjoyed a Disney animated musical quite this much.  Perhaps it doesn’t equal their ‘89 – ‘94 output, but this movie was nonetheless competently executed, especially the scene-stealing non-speaking characters (the horse and the chameleon).  However. . . I have to remark on the story arc:  a young girl rebels against the authority of her mother-figure by running off with a man, who happens to be a dashing criminal.  Really?

Knight and Day:  Girl ignores earnest overtures from fireman/beta provider type to run off with rouge super-agent . . . wait a second, I’m starting to notice a pattern here . . . .  Okay, never mind, this was a fun romp of a romantic comedy cum action-adventure.  Cameron Diaz is still smokin’ at 39, and Tom Cruise, while starting to show his age, is a lot better actor than he ever seems to get credit for.

Speaking of Tom Cruise, when was it exactly that popular opinion decided Top Gun was the punch-line to a fag joke?  Back in ‘86, that movie defined military aviation for a generation of AFROTC cadets.  Yet now, all everybody talks about is the “shower scene”.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bragging vs. Complaining

Savvy (H.T.:  Prof Hale) writes:

The thing that makes me so sad is that all I have ever wanted is to meet a decent man who will be kind to me in all the right ways, love me, and want to marry me.  Instead, jerks abound.  They are there like sharks under the water, circling and waiting to bite.

For some reason this reminded me of Swoozie06.  I enjoyed Swoozie’s account of his experience at Prom Nite, for a couple of reasons.  The story was certainly engaging, the animation was clever, and I particularly liked his rendition of himself as a bit of a nerd.  But after visiting his YouTube site and acquainting myself with much of his oeuvre, I began to get a little . . . annoyed.  Swoozie essentially tells the same story over and over:  he (1) meets a young woman, (2) deploys his considerable status, charm, and physicality to “game” her, and finally, when the young woman is in too deep to get out, (3) drops that he’s a Christian saving himself for marriage.

It’s hard to articulate why I eventually became annoyed by these stories.  Envy perhaps, combined with the realization that they contain an undertone of bragging.  But mainly, it’s that he’s engineering these women into making sexual overtures of varying subtlety simply for the vanity hit.

I’m prepared to be sympathetic.  Swoozie is a “professional gamer”, and while I don’t understand the economics of it, I gather the job involves “branding” himself in a way that makes him especially appealing to women, and working in an environment where the women aren’t especially known for their virtue.  So yeah, getting hit on is an occupational hazard, much as Savvy’s job as a rock music journalist exposes her to . . . musicians, and all that that implies.  But Swoozie, last I looked in on him, wasn’t doing much to mitigate these hazards, nor was he doing much to surround himself socially with the kind of women who share his values.

Contrasting Savvy’s and Swoozie’s personal accounts provides a clear illustration of the difference between a man’s position in the sexual market and a woman’s position:  a surfeit of female attention, even aggressive attention, raises a man’s status, while unwanted male attention lowers a woman’s status.  Thus Swoozie can (obliquely) brag about his adventures, while Savvy cries herself to sleep.

Parenthetically, as I read Savvy’s blog, I reflected on the peculiar difficulty of women who are not virgins yet have rededicated themselves to living a chaste life.  On the one hand, they cannot offer themselves unblemished to men for whom virginity is important (as well it should be); on the other, they cannot meet the expectations of men for whom sex is the normal way to wind up a date.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Invention of Lying

I watched the movie The Invention of Lying.  A world without lying, ceteris paribus, is also a world without skepticism.  So our protagonist has little difficulty inventing his world’s first religion.  The propaganda point is postmodernist:  humans need religion, not for the veracity of its truth claims, but to give us comfort in the face of death.  But the writers faced squarely the full implications of God’s sovereignty in a way that I can’t recall any other general audience film doing.  Not that I agree with all the conclusions, but it does ask the right questions.

The Man in the Sky

Oh yeah, the film also dares the audience to have sympathy for men at the margins of the sexual marketplace, and it does it without conjuring fantasy female figures that like short, pudgy, balding middle-aged guys.  Yes, Ricky Gervais does win Jennifer Garner in the end, but only after he becomes rich and invents the world’s first religion!  I mean, really, why all the feminist vitriol?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Middle East . . . and Us.

A new colleague at work let me look at an article he’s working on about the current situation in Afghanistan.  It hasn’t been published yet, so I can’t source it, but it contains a quote that is supposedly circulating at high levels around the DOS:

Governance is a less tangible or measurable term, more organic, and having more to do with the political affairs and conditions of a given area.  We almost always conflate society and the state -- this in a country which has always prized informal, non-state local mechanisms to run its affairs.  Most rural Afghans are less concerned about tashkiels and social services than they are about practices like inclusivity and access to community decision making in an environment of safety.  For most villages, inclusivity and access to community decision making in an environment of safety.  For most villages, governance is less about the state, and more about a state of affairs; a set of conditions involving tribal balance, security, and having the sense that decisions which affect them are made with their interests in mind.  The definition, in other words, has less to do with the capabilities of the state than it has to do with the qualitative aspects of good political governance and stewardship over an area.  In most districts that are experiencing progress, it is the quality of this type of governance, not mostly our investment in professional social service delivery, that accounts for it.  Indeed, as we are learning, our own development strategies work best when their focus is less on the immediate development objective and more on building lasting community cohesion.

Where I part ways with the author is on what seems to be his tacit assumption that United States policy makers and AID officers have any idea how to build community cohesion.  But the bolded phrase above stood out, especially considering the events that have rocked this part of the world in recent months.

W. F. Price gives the blow-by-blow (literally) of the incident that started it all.  Now, I’m not going to pretend to have any particular concern for the plight of Muslim men in the grip of feminist-modernist governments; they aren’t my people or my country.  I do have some concern for the fate of Egypt’s Christian community, but let’s face it:  those poor bastards are gonna get FUBARed anyway (H.T.:  Gates of Vienna, I think) whether Mubarak stays in power or not.  The blogroll consensus is surely correct:  any revolutionary government is almost certain to become Islamist, but while this may represent a net loss to civilization, there really isn’t anything we can do about it that we’re likely to do.

But I have my own country to worry about, and I fear for its future.  Feminists exult in their triumph and mock concerns about its sustainability.  They revel in their schadenfreude because of the real an imagined offenses of other men in other times.   But Tunisia should teach us that a hand can be overplayed; of such are revolutions made.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Dawn Treader

I watched Voyage of the Dawn Treader the other day.  Of course it was excellent – how could it not be – but I want to comment on the psychological sidestory involving Lucy’s alleged sense of inferiority compared to her older sister Susan. 

Two problems with this.  First of all, Georgie Henley is coming along nicely and at 15 is, in her own way, every bit as pretty as Anna Popplewell.  But also, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy had already lived to adulthood and therefore already knows exactly what she will look like when she grows up.  Since this happens to be Georgie’s older sister Rachel, a certifiable hot babe, it’s not clear why a younger-again Lucy would suddenly be envious of her supposedly more beautiful sister.

I don’t recall this being part of the book, but then I don’t recall much of the book at all.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Game Theory Predictions

Susan Walsh (H.T.: F.B.) writes:

Let’s say that Carol is sitting in Starbucks. Cute Guy sees her and feels attraction – he would love to get her number. He figures there are three potential outcomes, listed in order of preference:

1. Approach Carol and get her number. Win!

2. Forget it and go back to texting. Meh.

3. Approach Carol and get rejected. Loser!

While Cute Guy is deciding what to do, he notices other guys in Starbucks, several of whom also have noticed Carol and are also stealing glances at her. He is a STEM guy, so he calculates his odds of success with each approach. Obviously, his chance of success with option 2 is zero. Option 1 is much more likely if he’s the only guy who approaches Carol, and Option 3 is probable if several guys approach Carol. He’d really rather not deal with the rejection. But she is gorgeous! How to know what other guys will do?

Game theory says that the better looking Carol is, the more guys will want to approach her, and the more likely that any one of them will be rejected. Since all the guys act independently, the odds are highest that each of them will conclude that it is not a good idea to approach Carol. The more admiring men there are in Starbucks, the lower Carol’s chances of getting approached at all. (Math nerds can find the equation here.)

The article concludes:

“Carol’s perception that she scares men away is not a delusion after all. According to the mathematics above, she may be justified in thinking that guys stay away from her. It is not a matter of bad luck but a collateral effect of interactive rationality. A paradoxical consequence is that Carol’s attractiveness acts as a repellent. This surprising phenomenon — which we call the Carol syndrome —is a by-product of psychological social interaction.”

Men like to say that beautiful women get hit on 50 times a day, but it simply isn’t true. They’re much more likely to go through their day having awkward interactions with tongue-tied men who won’t look them in the eye. Very few men have the cajones to approach a 10 and hit on her – and most 10s are not likely to jump at the chance to stroke the ego of a player. In this sociosexual climate, there are fewer men who feel confident approaching, period.

If this analysis is true, it supports my favorite hypothesis about why pleasantness of personality is overrepresented among both the low and high ends of the attractiveness spectrum:  that neither group is much bothered by excessive male pestering, in the latter case because the cost of failure times its probability is prohibitive for the majority of men.

But Ms. Walsh also writes something unexpected:

Mark Gimein wrote The Eligible Bachelor Paradox, exploring how game theory might explain why dinner parties among 30-somethings always seem to have a shortage of available, appealing men:

. . .

The problem of the eligible bachelor is one of the great riddles of social life. Shouldn’t there be about as many highly eligible and appealing men as there are attractive, eligible women?

Gimein says no, and offers an explanation via game theory. In any auction, there will be “strong bidders” and “weak bidders.” Strong bidders are very confident of their ability to win the auction. However, weak bidders understand they can be outbid and often bid more aggressively, while the strong bidders hold out for a great deal. Empirical studies of auctions show that weak bidders often win. In dating, a strong bidder is a woman who feels very confident of her ability to attract men, while a weak bidder knows that she is less attractive and faces stiff competition.

You can see how this works intuitively if you just consider that with a lot at stake in getting it right in one shot, it’s the women who are confident that they are holding a strong hand who are likely to hold out and wait for the perfect prospect.

It’s all about the checklist! Meanwhile, women holding a weaker hand make moves.

Where have all the most appealing men gone? Married young, most of them—and sometimes to women whose most salient characteristic was not their beauty, or passion, or intellect, but their decisiveness.

Why is this noteworthy?

As an interesting aside, this calls into question the constant refrain that women who are less attractive than their hookups can get them for sex but not for commitment. That makes sense intuitively, but it appears that down the road, at least some men marry the women who bid aggressively. Some of those men may not be worth winning, but some of them are bound to be. In fact, men who are attractive but not socially dominant in their sphere may be quickest to jump at the chance to secure a woman – even if she is not as attractive as he is. The weak bidders are snatching up the good men.

Come to think of it, I have known men, all of whom were Christians (i.e., "marriage minded"), who married girls that struck me as . . . meh, not as attractive as I would have expected. In one case, I knew (of) his previous girlfriends, and knew that he had dated a lot better than he married. I never really considered that I could generalize from their experiences.