Archive for November, 2009


Bad Lieutenant

Nicholas Cage stars in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and the movie is awesome. Some disagree. Let me explain why these “some” are wrong.

First, some reviews compare the movie to a 1992 flick directed by Abel Ferrara. In this movie, a corrupt cop does a bunch of ridiculous things, earning the movie an NC-17 rating. Such reviews complain that this movie isn’t as offensive, graphic, or gritty, and they’re right, but that’s because Werner Herzog wasn’t aiming to follow up Ferrara’s movie, and comparisons between the two movies miss the point.

That’s because as I see it, the latest Bad Lieutenant is not a crime drama or a cop story, but rather a very sophisticated comedy. The movie isn’t going for grittiness or offensiveness, though I think it sometimes achieves both of those moods; rather, it’s going for a kind of sarcastic commentary on New Orleans, a devastated city filled with ruined people. The satisfying point of the movie is that it’s funny, but not because the characters are trying to be funny. This isn’t a comedy in that crude sense. The characters take everything deadly serious; their world is no joke. But for us it is a joke. The antics of Nicholas, the deus ex machina ending, and Cage’s sprinkled hallucinations all create a cynical humor that pervades the movie. Cage is simply a bad lieutenant, and he gets what he wants. Awesome.

Also, there is a philosophical point to the movie, which I think is that immoral people succeed best when they can find a moral community to parasitically infect. Even the gangster’s behave somewhat morally in that they fulfill their bargain with Cage and don’t just shoot him at various opportune moments. Cage is the bad guy, as the title suggests, but he needs the rule of law, honor, and authority to fulfill his impulses. Like the Fool in Hobbes, the most successful egoist is the one that knows how to fake altruism.

Finally, I want to note that the director, Werner Herzog, wins the war of words in terms of defending his movie. Abel Ferrara melodramatically said, in reference to Herzog and his crew, “”I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Die in hell? Is that possible? It doesn’t matter because Herzog’s response was pretty good. When asked about Ferrara’s comments, Herzog replied “I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is. I don’t feel like doing homage to Abel Ferrara because I don’t know what he did — I’ve never seen a film by him. I have no idea who he is. Is he Italian? Is he French? Who is he?” I think this is funny because Herzog is famous (among movie people) and successful, and so his response nicely leverages his social status against an immature and obviously pretty insignificant rival. Way to be strong Werner.


Political discourse

Every time I check out the news, its the same old garbage. Of course, there are a lot of reasons to complain about the news, but here’s mine: the news is always about people. Palin did this and Obama did that. So and so talks about family values, but he has sex with his secretary, what a hypocrite. On and on.

Why can’t news be about ideas rather people? Rather than trying to implicitly regulate who is allowed to say what, I think we should be concerned about what is being said. 90% of the time a story about politics is about something a senator said about some policy followed by some personal scandal the politician was involved in or how the particular senator, has, in the past, acted against his current stance.

Who cares. Ideas are not supported or refuted by the character or actions of the people who present them. Legislation that is supported under the banner of family values is not discredited if a supporter of the bill commits adultery and climate policies are not a sham merely because some politicians who support such policies drive hummers or limousines or fly in jets or whatever.

Ideas, especially the most important ones to a democracy, have to stand or fall on their own merits, and talk about who is doing what and saying what is completely irrelevant to the importance or cogency of a position (unless the issue is an investigation into someone’s misconduct). It would be really refreshing if the media could follow this simple point.

Of course, I’m just an ivory tower intellectual who runs with the limousine-liberal intelligentsia elite. So what do I know. There are more than enough labels that could be used to silence my opinion.


Google on top forever?

I love google stuff; everything they make is great. However, I’m very concerned that they can’t keep it up forever. The company has become fairly large and today it seems to “innovate” primarily by buying other more nimbler and innovative companies. How long can this model sustain revenue, especially since revenue from advertisements seems to have a saturation and other companies are likely to get really good at advertising on the web as well.

All in all, google won’t have the money to keep buying every small interesting start up out there, and if they can’t buy all the innovation, then their eventual fall from dominance (not saying google will disappear) seems assured. It’s just impossible to have one company beat all other companies at innovation in every conceivable type of app, program, application, or website. Sure, for now chrome is the answer to Firefox and google’s new operating system might be a competitor to Windows, but can google keep one step ahead forever. It seems impossible.


alarm clocks

Alarm clocks are philosophically interesting. Sometimes they function in a purely informational role; they help you know what time it is so that you can do something. You’re preparing food and you need to add the tomatoes in 10 minutes, so you set an alarm for 10 minutes and then go watch TV. The clock merely tells you what time it is and you respond immediately to that information with what you wanted to do all along: add the tomatoes.

However, in other cases, alarms can serve as a commitment device. In these cases, alarms don’t just give you information so that you can follow through on an action you decided on earlier, but rather, they can help you abide by intentions you formed earlier. Let’s pretend you want to wake up at 7 am. This is an intention that you suspect might be hard to follow through on when the time comes. The alarm, when it goes off at 7 am the next morning, isn’t just informing you that it’s 7 am so that you can carry out your desire to wake up. Rather, it wakes you up!

This is why it’s important to have varying strengths of alarm clocks. Some clocks just go off and you can easily shut them off and go back to sleep (maybe they are right next to you), but then there are alarm clocks that move around and make really loud noises so that you have to get up and track them down to turn them off.

What I really need is an extremely committing alarm clock. I’m thinking a computer alarm clock that you have to input a code into it every two minutes for thirty minutes, otherwise it will start going off again. Then, I would have to be next to my computer for at least 30 minutes, at which point I would be fully awake. Of course, the program would have to prevent me from muting my speakers or from closing the program down.


Boston lets me down again, but I’m used to it

Everything in Boston is breaking apart. In fact, current predictions put Boston’s total disintegration about 5 years out.  That said, it’s understandable that the city would do anything in its power to extract more money from its inhabitants.

Case in point. Thanksgiving day, I drive to south Boston on the waterfront. I see three cars my entire time and park in an uninhabited lot. Most meters in Boston say a time parking limit and then “except sun and hol.” I assume that this is the case here. I come back three hours later, and lo and behold, a ticket from the city of Boston. On Thanksgiving. Are you kidding me?

Again this just proves my point that a good parking spot is one of the most valuable commodities in all of Boston.


Sociality, facebook, and farmville

First there was facebook, and then there were a bunch of games for people to play on facebook.

Today, sociality is becoming explicit in a variety of ways. What I mean is that our cultural institutions are, to an increasing degree, solidifying sociality into a quantifiable and manipulable force. Sociality is now a game, a goal, a method, a tweet, a status update, a friend count, a text, and a host of other measurable units. The point is not just that we have all these new units of sociality; it’s that we are slowly but surely making social interaction into an object of social consciousness. Social networking sites, social gaming sites, twitter, and real time news polls, are part of the same trend to make explicit or conscious our interaction with other people.

What worries me about this trend is that some things are better left implicit and in the form of a fluid practice rather than a static institution. Coming from an analytic philosophical tradition, I realize that the previous sentence may seem cryptic and unhelpful, but I think I can make the point more clear.

There are many examples I think, of values or goals that are best fulfilled by not trying to achieve them in a conscious way. Take the person who is tries really hard to be funny. This person is always thinking to himself “how can I say something funny?” But inevitably such an indelicate and direct approach to being humorous fails. People recognize that the person is trying too hard or that the jokes are forced. The same goes for any number of other activities. Take the person who is playing basketball and thinks to himself “I’m going to make a great play on our next possession.” As we all recognize, such thinking is nonsense. Great plays come about as side effects of playing hard or playing with intensity. Highlight moments can’t be reliably produced by the direct intention of producing them; you have to get at them obliquely. They arise naturally out of practice and dedication.

Think also of dating advice. Any number of men and women, when giving advice to the opposite sex, say things like “just be yourself and don’t try too hard.” The point is that the someone who approaches a member of the opposite sex as if they are “on a mission” come off as fake and mechanical (think also of business people that can’t stop “networking” and how obnoxious it is to endure their fakery). The people who are best at meeting others aren’t trying to meet people; rather, such people are just having a good time, or are genuinely interested in things, or are just nice. Meeting people comes about as a side effect for such people.

One last example. Take a kid lying in his bed on christmas eve. The more this kid focuses on trying to go to sleep, the more he will stay awake. We’ve all experienced this feeling. The more we try to will ourselves asleep so that morning will come, the more we stare at the ceiling. Sleep has to be attained through the back door; we have to count sheep or think about something other than sleep itself.

I think sociality is the same way. It always waits in the background as a fluid setting for all our other actions. We go to work, to school, and to the movies. We cook and compete and fight, but all these activities are always with other people. In the course of our other activities we are always navigating the fluid waters of greetings, platitudes, jokes, and conversation. The new emphasis on social everything is taking an elaborate and unconscious skill and transforming it into an object of scrutiny and work, destroying its spontaneity and playfulness in the process. Sociality is reduced to information. Notice how this model of sociality is dulling our ability to have conversations and interact with other people in satisfying ways. Text conversations are slow and drawn out, and one can always wait a few minutes before replying. The art of repartee, changing the subject, acknowledgment and reading someone’s face or mood are all lost. The same is true on facebook and all other social media: social exchanges are reduced to sound bytes, hanging in electronic space, awaiting a response. In other words: just because we can share more information with more people does not mean we have become more social.

You might ask: why then do you have a blog? Are you not just participating in this mechanical model of sociality? I answer: no, because my blog has never been aimed at sociality. Rather it has always been about trying to stimulate my thinking on philosophical subjects. Any social interaction I get from it comes about purely as a side effect.


J.S. Mill on school choice

Here’s a passage from On Liberty that I think is really prescient:

Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted thee would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battlefield for sects and parties, causing the time and labor which should have been spent in educating to be wasted in quarreling about education. If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the schools fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education; which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as anyone in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education.

This fits with a general line of argumentation in this blog (see here and here) that school choice would be a good idea. As Mill points out, there is significant argument about what should be taught in schools. The correct response to this, Mill thinks, is to enforce mandatory education without having the State provide it. Parents could choose an education for their children. Such choice would allow many controversies about what should be taught in schools to be avoided (sex education, evolution, certain highly critical interpretations of American history, etc.) In many cases, this will mean paying for education on family by family basis, but as Mill suggests, subsidies could be provided to poorer people so that they could choose their schools with respect to quality rather than pure cost.

I like this outline of a school choice program, but Mill also thinks that it should be enforced by standardized tests. A child would have to past each test or the parents would be fined. There are many problems with this, but the largest one is that it doesn’t solve Mill’s concerns about plurality in education. He says that these tests should be confined to “facts and positive science exclusively,” but then what about evolution? What about sex? It seems that families who opted for a type of religious education would again object and claim a right for their viewpoint to be respected.

In other words, Mill was hoping that privately provided (but publicly mandated) education would be neutralist, and allow each group of people to educate their children in their own way. However, it seems that such a neutralist position is impossible to justify. We think: kids should learn certain things, and they should learn them regardless of whether their parents believe they should not. Or at the very least, there is no way to mark what is required learning and what is not. From my perspective, parents do harm to their kids when they don’t teach them about sex, but from the parents’ perspective, their child is harmed when they are taught about sex.

Even the requirement that education provide children a chance at individuality and autonomy is value-laden in a question begging way. Some religions and groups of people believe that obedience or piety or some other value trumps autonomy. So even a test that requires children to demonstrate autonomy and not acquaintance with specific facts would fail at being fully neutralist.