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Monday, October 29, 2012

Waitin' for Sandy

Sitting here, waiting for the hurricane, with everything on the East Coast closed down, the whole place has a little bit of a last-days-of-Pompeii feel to it.

The wonderful thing about an event like this is that it brings everyone's personality out in full bloom. The people you would expect to do so are running around preparing for the Apocalypse, while others are more nonchalant.

Even the politicians, like characters in a well-written screenplay, are all behaving completely in character.

Governor Christie of New Jersey told residents of his state, "Don't be stupid" (i.e., evacuate if you live on the coast).

The only thing more Christie-like he could have said is, "Stop being such a bunch of goddamn morons!"

New York City Mayor Bloomberg delivered a ten minute speech in a nasal monotone, droning on to residents about all the precautions they should take.

The only thing more Bloomberg-like would have been to go on for another fifteen minutes.

And President Obama read from a Teleprompter about how the federal government was "working effectively" with state and local governments to, essentially, save us all.

The only thing more Obama-like would have been to claim that the hurricane was all Bush's fault.

After Sandy passes, expect everyone to continue acting in character.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Paperboy

Ignored the critics, who gave The Paperboy only a 38% positive rating on, and saw it last night. It was entertaining, which is all one should ever ask of a movie.

A critic's #1 job is to show how intelligent he is. His #2 job is to show how refined his sensibilities are. And his #3 job is to show how cleverly cutting he can be. (As the writer of this review, I plead guilty to all three.)

In any case, letting you know whether you'd actually enjoy the movie doesn't even make most critics' lists.

The operative word for the movie is "steamy." It's a film noir set in late 60's Florida, with all the social commentary on that time and place you'd expect from a movie made by Hollywood in 2012.

Nicole Kidman vamps it up as a sultry siren with a fixation on men in prison. She seems to enjoy playing cheap, which she does well. The only problem was that at 5' 11" she towers over most of the men who are supposed to be lusting after her. (She had this same problem while playing Tom Cruise's wife, and for that and other reasons, I never found her convincing in that role.)

Zac Efron does a solid job as a former college swimming champion who is the son of a local newspaper publisher. Efron is about eye level with Kidman's breasts, which might explain his character's fixation on her. But Efron did bring to mind a cardinal Hollywood rule, which is to hide your gayness if you want to be considered for romantic leading roles. Also, when Efron enters the water and takes a few strokes, it's painfully obvious he was never a swimmer, though I doubt most moviegoers would be as bothered by this quibble as I was.

Matthew McConaughey played Efron's older brother, a Miami reporter who come to town to investigate whether a local man convicted of murder is in fact guilty. I've also heard that McConaughey is gay, but coincidentally, so is his character here. That knowledge actually seemed to enhance his credibility in the role, not sure why. I've never mistaken Arnold Schwarzenegger for an actual tough guy, yet that's never bothered me while watching him play a role. But knowing about an actor's sexuality is somehow more distracting.

The Efron-sized David Oyelowo did a good job as the reporter who is McConaughey's reporting partner from Miami. (He may have been cast so that it seemed credible that Efron could beat him in a fight.) It's to the moviemaker's credit that they didn't make Oyelowo's character too noble, as moviemakers tended to do with the vast majority of black characters until quite recently.

John Cusack was excellent as the convict, though not quite masculine enough. A guy who can come in his pants without even touching himself is a guy with a lot of male hormones, and the baby-faced Cusack, no matter how disheveled and profane, just doesn't look like that guy. (Now there's a role for Schwarzenegger -- except Arnold wouldn't have had the acting chops to pull it off.)

Anyway, some of what the critics said was true. The Southern gothic aspects do verge on camp. The accents aren't quite right. The movie does condescend to its characters. And it's awfully tawdry.

But none of that detracts from the fun, and some of it actually adds to it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ted Kaczynski

For a long time, the Unabomber was a figure of terror, mailing bombs to a seemingly random assortment of people. When Ted Kaczynski was finally caught, he seemed, as is so often the case with serial killers, a strangely pathetic figure.

He lived alone in a cabin in Montana and when arrested, had $33 in his bank account. And rather than the somewhat dashing-looking police sketch of him, he turned out to look like your average homeless guy:

He has been described as a Luddite, who railed against our industrial society; somehow this seemed a fitting cause for him. It was my impression at the time that he was probably a paranoid schizophrenic, although I didn't look all that closely.

It turned out that he had gone to Harvard, and had been some sort of math genius early in his life, with a tested IQ of 167, before he dropped out of society. He had also spent two years as an associate professor of mathematics at Berkeley

When he was caught, many news reports mentioned his 35,000 word manifesto, but it never once occurred to me to read it: why bother looking at the ravings of a madman?

Not to mention that his crimes were so despicable, so cowardly, and so destructive, that he didn't deserve to have his manifesto read.

But someone told me the other day that he had taken a look, and he read me a brief excerpt. The portion he read me made sense, so, curious to see what the freak had written, I took a look for myself. It's certainly easy enough to find on the internet.

It turns out that the first part of his manifesto (all I've read so far) is an analysis of leftism. I don't agree with the analysis in its entirety (then again, I don't agree with anybody on everything). But parts of it are actually brilliant, with insights I'd never heard before. An excerpt:

Almost everyone will agree that we live in a deeply troubled society. One of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is leftism, so a discussion of the psychology of leftism can serve as an introduction to the discussion of the problems of modern society in general. But what is leftism? During the first half of the 20th century leftism could have been practically identified with socialism. Today the movement is fragmented and it is not clear who can properly be called a leftist. When we speak of leftists in this article we have in mind mainly socialists, collectivists, "politically correct" types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like. But not everyone who is associated with one of these movements is a leftist. What we are trying to get at in discussing leftism is not so much a movement or an ideology as a psychological type, or rather a collection of related types.


By "feelings of inferiority" we mean not only inferiority feelings in the strictest sense but a whole spectrum of related traits: low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, depressive tendencies, defeatism, guilt, self-hatred, etc. We argue that modern leftists tend to have such feelings (possibly more or less repressed) and that these feelings are decisive in determining the direction of modern leftism.

When someone interprets as derogatory almost anything that is said about him (or about groups with whom he identifies) we conclude that he has inferiority feelings or low self-esteem. This tendency is pronounced among minority rights advocates, whether or not they belong to the minority groups whose rights they defend. They are hypersensitive about the words used to designate minorities. The terms "negro," "oriental," "handicapped" or "chick" for an African, an Asian, a disabled person or a woman originally had no derogatory connotation. "Broad" and "chick" were merely the feminine equivalents of "guy," "dude" or "fellow." The negative connotations have been attached to these terms by the activists themselves. Some animal rights advocates have gone so far as to reject the word "pet" and insist on its replacement by "animal companion." Leftist anthropologists go to great lengths to avoid saying anything about primitive peoples that could conceivably be interpreted as negative. They want to replace the word "primitive" by "nonliterate." They seem almost paranoid about anything that might suggest that any primitive culture is inferior to our own. (We do not mean to imply that primitive cultures ARE inferior to ours. We merely point out the hypersensitivity of leftish anthropologists.)

Those who are most sensitive about "politically incorrect" terminology are not the average black ghetto-dweller, Asian immigrant, abused woman or disabled person, but a minority of activists, many of whom do not even belong to any "oppressed" group but come from privileged strata of society. Political correctness has its stronghold among university professors, who have secure employment with comfortable salaries, and the majority of whom are heterosexual, white males from middle-class families.

Many leftists have an intense identification with the problems of groups that have an image of being weak (women), defeated (American Indians), repellent (homosexuals), or otherwise inferior. The leftists themselves feel that these groups are inferior. They would never admit it to themselves that they have such feelings, but it is precisely because they do see these groups as inferior that they identify with their problems. (We do not suggest that women, Indians, etc., ARE inferior; we are only making a point about leftist psychology). 

Feminists are desperately anxious to prove that women are as strong as capable as men. Clearly they are nagged by a fear that women may NOT be as strong and as capable as men. 

Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the leftist's real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful. 

Words like "self-confidence," "self-reliance," "initiative", "enterprise," "optimism," etc. play little role in the liberal and leftist vocabulary. The leftist is anti-individualistic, pro-collectivist. He wants society to solve everyone's needs for them, take care of them. He is not the sort of person who has an inner sense of confidence in his own ability to solve his own problems and satisfy his own needs. The leftist is antagonistic to the concept of competition because, deep inside, he feels like a loser....

Modern leftist philosophers tend to dismiss reason, science, objective reality and to insist that everything is culturally relative. It is true that one can ask serious questions about the foundations of scientific knowledge and about how, if at all, the concept of objective reality can be defined. But it is obvious that modern leftist philosophers are not simply cool-headed logicians systematically analyzing the foundations of knowledge. They are deeply involved emotionally in their attack on truth and reality. They attack these concepts because of their own psychological needs. For one thing, their attack is an outlet for hostility, and, to the extent that it is successful, it satisfies the drive for power. More importantly, the leftist hates science and rationality because they classify certain beliefs as true (i.e., successful, superior) and other beliefs as false (i.e. failed, inferior). The leftist's feelings of inferiority run so deep that he cannot tolerate any classification of some things as successful or superior and other things as failed or inferior. This also underlies the rejection by many leftists of the concept of mental illness and of the utility of IQ tests. Leftists are antagonistic to genetic explanations of human abilities or behavior because such explanations tend to make some persons appear superior or inferior to others. Leftists prefer to give society the credit or blame for an individual's ability or lack of it. Thus if a person is "inferior" it is not his fault, but society's, because he has not been brought up properly.

[The leftist's] feelings of inferiority are so ingrained that he cannot conceive of himself as individually strong and valuable. Hence the collectivism of the leftist. He can feel strong only as a member of a large organization or a mass movement with which he identifies himself.... 

Leftists may claim that their activism is motivated by compassion or by moral principle, and moral principle does play a role for the leftist of the oversocialized type. But compassion and moral principle cannot be the main motives for leftist activism. Hostility is too prominent a component of leftist behavior; so is the drive for power. Moreover, much leftist behavior is not rationally calculated to be of benefit to the people whom the leftists claim to be trying to help. For example, if one believes that affirmative action is good for black people, does it make sense to demand affirmative action in hostile or dogmatic terms? Obviously it would be more productive to take a diplomatic and conciliatory approach that would make at least verbal and symbolic concessions to white people who think that affirmative action discriminates against them. But leftist activists do not take such an approach because it would not satisfy their emotional needs. Helping black people is not their real goal. Instead, race problems serve as an excuse for them to express their own hostility and frustrated need for power. In doing so they actually harm black people, because the activists' hostile attitude toward the white majority tends to intensify race hatred. 

If our society had no social problems at all, the leftists would have to INVENT problems in order to provide themselves with an excuse for making a fuss. 

We emphasize that the foregoing does not pretend to be an accurate description of everyone who might be considered a leftist. It is only a rough indication of a general tendency of leftism.

That is actually an insightful description of why some -- not all -- people become leftists. And this first part of the manifesto itself is actually Exhibit A for why we should judge arguments on their own merits, not on the merits of the arguer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The 16 Smartest People on Earth"

Yahoo posted an article this morning about the 16 people with the highest officially tested IQs.

These are obviously not the 16 smartest people on the planet, but merely people who have devoted a fair amount of time to taking IQ tests. Most are at least somewhat accomplished, but none in ways that would have made them famous. It's their test scores which have led to this publicity.

At the same time, there's no doubt that all 16 are highly intelligent.

The first thing that struck me was that there isn't a single woman on the list. The second thing was, no non-Asian minorities.

A little surprising that Yahoo, which leans liberal, ran this article.

Addendum, 10/27/12: Just did the math. Fifteen IQ points represent one standard deviation on either side of the average score of 100 (that score was normed for whites, but let's ignore that for the moment). This means that roughly 70% of the population falls within one standard deviation on either side of that, 95% within two standard deviations, 99.7% within three, and 99.99% within four, and 99.99994267% within five. (According to Wikipedia.) This would mean that you would find roughly one in a million people outside 4.89 standard deviations. Given that the IQ distribution is a normal distribution, and assuming that only half of that one in a million fraction ranks above (as opposed to that far below) the norm (although I'm not positive it works that way on the underside of the average), that would still mean that roughly one in every two million people are at 172 or above (which is approximately 4.8 standard deviations above the norm) in IQ. Given that we live in a world of seven billion, the 1/2,000,000 fraction should mean that there are approximately 3500 people in the world at 172 or above. (I guess the other 3484 had better -- or worse -- things to do than take IQ tests.)

I point this out just so that none of these 16 think they're quite that special. (And actually, those last five guys on the Yahoo list who checked in at 169 to 171 wouldn't even make the top 3500.) 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Parents' Weekend

My daughter's college is holding its annual Parents' Weekend for the parents of new freshmen from November 2nd through the 4th.

It's not too hard to predict how the weekend will go.

First we'll be greeted by an administrator who'll look absolutely delighted to see us, as if she's just absolutely certain, before she even gets to know us, that we're the most wonderful group of parents to ever grace her campus.

Then, basically, we get to spend the weekend being told what wonderful care they're taking of our little dears.

We'll be told how special our daughters must be to have gotten into such a selective college.

Then we'll be told that the college is a wonderfully nurturing environment where our daughters will be encouraged to explore their different intellectual interests, and where they will master skills essential to meaningful scholarship. They will learn to reason critically, and to argue clearly.

They will inform us that the young ladies will absorb "an interdisciplinary approach to learning," and a lot of other meaningless platitudes.

We'll be told of the world class faculty who will instill a great love of education into our daughters.

We'll be informed that our daughters will be molded into "independent thinkers."

We'll be told about the wonderful diversity on campus, how the college attracts students of every race, creed, and color from all around the world, and that this will confer "educational benefits" to our daughters.

We'll undoubtedly be told of the college's "wonderful community spirit" as well.

At some point we'll be given a speech by the college's distinguished president, who will tell us with great earnestness that the education the college offers extends beyond the classroom, and that their experience here will help students to go on to "make a meaningful contribution to the world." She will inform us that being a member of this college community is a lifetime affiliation, that the alumnae take "great pride" in having gone here, and that "lifelong friendships will be forged here."

Blah blah blah.

The worst part would be looking around at the faces of the other parents and seeing their expressions of sublime appreciation as they nod approvingly at all these cliches.

Seriously: what kind of person would want to spend their weekend listening to this kind of fulsome treacle?

Not me.

Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern, RIP

George McGovern, the three term Senator from South Dakota and unsuccessful Presidential candidate in 1972, died early Sunday.

He had been a hero in WWII, flying 35 combat missions over Europe, and won a Distinguished Flying Cross for landing a crippled airplane and saving his crew.

As a Senator and Democratic nominee for President, he was known for his strong anti-Viet Nam War stance. He turned out to be right about that, even if he was wrong about communism in general.

A war hero who advocates for peace is far more credible -- and admirable -- than a chicken hawk who never served himself but is eager to send young men to their deaths.

McGovern had also seen hunger firsthand in Italy during WWII, and worked both during and after his political career for famine relief.

An old-fashioned liberal who supported causes like that is far more credible -- and admirable -- than the modern kind, who enforces political correctness.

The American people said a resounding no to McGovern in 1972, giving him only 38% of the popular vote.

But if you view his life as a whole, he was an admirable man, far more so than most politicians.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Nice little old ladies

Stumbled across a fascinating website, Eviliz's Manson Family Blog. The most interesting thing about it is the pictures on the right hand side, which are of former Manson family members as they look today. Bear in mind, only a few of the family members were actually convicted of those murders back in 1969. Those are the names we are most familiar with: Charles "Tex" Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten.

There were other family members who were not present at the Tate-LaBianca murders, and thus were not prosecuted. Remember those girls who sat on the courthouse steps during Manson's trial and carved X's into their foreheads?

Among their number was Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who would later gain fame for trying to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 (she was released on parole in 2009, and now lives in Marcy, New York). Other members of that group included Sandra Good, Mary Brunner, Kitty Lutesinger, Nancy Pitman, and Ella Jo Bailey.

Their updated pictures are all on the right hand side of the website. (Click on them to see larger versions.) The most interesting thing about the pictures is how normal most of them now look. Some still have a vaguely hippie-ish look to them, some don't. But for the most part they're not people you'd give a second look to if you saw them on the street.

One wonders, have they had a hard time living down their pasts? Do they try to hide them, or do they dine out on them? Has their notoriety, at a certain level, made them more attractive as sexual partners to a certain kind of person? Do they try to justify their association with the family, or rather hold themselves up as examples of misspent youths? Are they nostalgic, or regretful?

These other family members certainly aren't all sociopaths: most were probably just very mixed up -- and drugged up -- kids at the time they were under Manson's influence. (Sociopaths generally don't get along well with other sociopaths, and Charlie definitely preferred passive types who would just bend to his will.) But even if they weren't sociopaths, they were part of that cult, and were quite willing at the time to do Charlie's bidding.

The pictures do make you question your automatic assumption about older women: that they are just nice little old ladies. We generally don't wonder about what old peoples' youths were like, and about how wild they might once have been. When we see wrinkles, we tend to assume, "old and harmless," end of story.

I live in Fairfield County, CT. I see a lot of staid, well dressed, well coiffed ladies in my hometown. For the most part they act the part of concerned mothers, involved PTA parents, vivacious hostesses, fundraisers, or whatever role they're supposed to be playing.

But I occasionally wonder which of them were really wild in their youths. I've never suspected any of being former Manson family members. But I'm willing to bet that more than a few have been crazy in ways they wouldn't want their fellow Garden Club members to know about.

A genteel present does not necessarily imply a genteel past.

Or, as Will himself said (in reference to the roles we play at different points in our life), "All the world's a stage."

Friday, October 19, 2012

"The 100 Fittest Men of All Time"

The good folks at Men's Health, who brought us that list of the 25 best beach bodies, are at it again. This time they've decided to compile a list of the 100 fittest men of all time.

My attention was drawn to this when Swimming World ran an article about how Michael Phelps had been named number one on the list. Comparing athletes and fitness levels across sports is, of course, a useless exercise, as this blog has pointed out before. Many of the highly specialized physiques which are perfect for one sport would be near useless in others.

But even within a sport, some of the Men's Health rankings are baffling. Why is the old time distance runner Paavo Nurmi listed at #36 but Haile Gebrselassie not included at all? Why is Carl Lewis at #31 ranked 28 spots ahead of Usain Bolt, who is clearly the better runner?

The whole thing is a weird mishmosh of fitness promoters (like Jack Lalanne, #4, shown below), show business types, and even a few body body builders, like Steve Reeves at #27 and Arnold Schwarzenegger at #3, along with the athletes. (Are body builders really fit? Are actors?)

There were actually a few unexpected and thoughtful choices, old time strongmen like Eugene Sandow (#19) and Alexander Zass (#42), turn of the century wrestler and strongman George Hackenschmidt at #39 (shown below), and also Harry Houdini, the old time escape artist, at #69.

The editors tried hard -- perhaps too hard -- to be inclusive. There are football, basketball, hockey, soccer, rugby, volleyball, and baseball players, as well as swimmers, divers, runners, triathletes, decathletes, cyclists, boxers, wrestlers, mixed martial artists, lifters, surfers, a mountain climber, a rock climber, a Paralympian, a gymnast, and even a rapper. (Why no rowers?)

The inclusion of actors makes one wonder exactly what the standards were. Exactly what have Hugh Jackman (#53) and Daniel Craig (#50) ever done athletically other than take steroids and doff their shirts for the camera? Should Jackie Chan at #62 really rank ahead of Mark Spitz at #88? Should Brad Pitt at #57 really have been ranked ahead of three-time world Ironman Triathlon champion Craig Alexander at #58? Should Gerard Butler (#22) rank ahead of Jesse Owens (#29)? Should Mark Wahlberg (#17) rank ahead of Michael Jordan (#21)? And how about Sylvester Stallone, at #12, ahead of all of the above? Here's Sly in his pre-steroid phase:

The number of athletes who have been obvious dopers is a little dismaying: Ken Shamrock at #93, Tiger Woods at #86, Wanderlei Silva at #66, Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) at #46, Marius Pudzianowski at #26, and Arnold at #3. They even included Lance Armstrong at #8. (Why not Ben Johnson?)

The article also included a number of exercise popularizers, like Billy Blanks (inventor of TaeBo) at #92, Tony Horton (inventor of P90X) at #80, and Charles Atlas (remember him?) at #43. They even included B.J. Gaddour (ever heard of him?), who created an exercise video for Men's Health, at #76. B.J. ranks ahead of Michael Johnson, the world record holder in the 400 meter run. My personal favorite was #20, Richard Simmons:

Did they rank Richard at #20 as an affront to Michael Jordan (#21)? Or did they include Richard to make the rest of us feel good about ourselves by comparison?

Hard to figure how those discerning minds at Men's Health work.

A far more accurate title for the article would have been, "The 100 most famous people associated with physical fitness."

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"To be....or not to be?"

One of my favorite scenes from the highly underrated Last Action Hero from 1993.

Arnold Schwarzenegger made this Shane Black script which was a sendup of all the action movies of the era. The movie within a movie format can work if it's done well, and it's never been done more ingeniously than here. Never understood why it wasn't a bigger hit. It was certainly a far better movie than Schwarzenegger's True Lies, which was a huge success.