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Friday, May 11, 2007

Today’s WSJ had a story about neurological research into the brain areas held to be responsible for morality.

Using neurology patients to probe moral reasoning, the researchers for the first time drew a direct link between the neuroanatomy of emotion and moral judgment.
Knock out certain brain cells with an aneurysm or a tumor, they discovered, and while everything else may appear normal, the ability to think straight about some issues of right and wrong has been permanently skewed. “It tells us there is some neurobiological basis for morality,” said Harvard philosophy student Liane Young, who helped to conceive the experiment.

Further along, the deeper ramifications of this research are considered:

For Harvard neuroscientist Marc Hauser, the moral-dilemma experiment is evidence the brain may be hard-wired for morality. Most moral intuitions, he said, are unconscious, involuntary and universal. To test the idea, he gathered data from thousands of people in hundreds of countries, all of whom display a remarkable unanimity in their basic moral choices. A shared innate capacity for morality may be responsible, he concluded.

This seems to lead invariably to the notion that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong that will eventually be decoded from our neurons—a premise that seems fairly ominous for those accustomed to a bit more liberty in matters of conscience. Also, it seems a matter of time before traders and the like would seek to have this inhibiting moral part of the brain removed, as it may provide them with a competitive advantage.

If you are wondering how you stack up in relation to universal morality, take this handy quiz. I discovered that I was much less likely to want to punish people than other test takers. Perhaps this means I am drifting toward amorality.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Just Say “No” to the Spin Room

Back in college, my Political Science professor used to grovel about how politics was the only academic field in which every average Joe thought their opinion was worth its weight in gold. He targeted MIT professor Noam Chomsky as an example. “He’s a linguist,” my professor would say. “Would you go to a dentist if you broke your ankle?” We students tended to disagree with this sentiment, arguing that a democratic society thrived on direct participation from the masses. It was while watching the recent post-debate coverage that made me think twice about my professor’s complaint. The old kook may have been right after all.

Post-debate news coverage may be the most confounding aspect of political reporting. The live broadcasts can sometimes go early into the next morning as any two-bit hack willing to appear on cable at some god-awful hour is treated like some sort of civic Nostradamus. The most egregious of the post-debate sins is the spin room. The appropriately named forum is host to a line-up of political consultants who congregate outside the debate hall, hounding the press for interviews. These political hit men peddle their client’s strengths by praising the night’s performance and berating their opponents. These esteemed political consultants are hired hands, paid by their respective campaigns to put the best face for the candidacy.

It’s not that these “consultants” should not be allowed to appear on the post-election coverage. They clearly have a right to their opinion; the problem is that they are treated as objective observers when they clearly have a conflict of interest. When Barack Obama campaign aid Robert Gibbs says Obama “looked strong and confident” during the past debate, or when the Clinton campaign explains how Hillary “really nailed” a question, they need to be challenged more. As spokespeople for the campaign they should be prepared to answer the tough questions: explain how their candidate will end the war in Iraq or provide universal health care without raising taxes. This should not be a forum for them to simply spout their campaign slogans and garner free publicity.

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Friday, May 11, 2007
by Preston Jones [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday / $24.95)

Raw and unblinking, Chuck Palahniuk’s novels often feel like primal scream therapy, unloading into the void and holding back very little.

His deadpan, withering social commentary has spawned legions of fans who anticipate his works with a fervor generally reserved for rock stars—it isn’t overreaching to connect the industrial-tinged nihilism of, say, Trent Reznor to Palahniuk’s razor-edged fantasies.

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey continues the author’s penchant for toying with conventions of form—2005’s Haunted was a novel masquerading as a collection of short stories; 2000’s Survivor unfolds in reverse—while retaining his flair for sketching reprehensible antiheroes with the faintest glimmer of humanity.

Palahniuk renders brief, punchy narratives that demand attention; Rant, in particular, isn’t a book to be consumed at leisure. Relying on interviews with those who met the mythic Buster “Rant” Casey during his brief, violent life, a portrait of a tortured, confused martyr emerges—or seems to, anyway. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Rant is infected with a potent strain of rabies and prone to freely sharing his sickness. The concept of a homegrown bioterrorist, an all-American “patient zero,” is merely an opening salvo in what becomes a misanthropic thrill ride, culminating in a temporally dislodged religious fervor.

Evoking J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Philip K. Dick’s cyberpunk dystopias, Palahniuk also cribs from future-shock films like Strange Days and eXistenZ, dour examinations of life in a brave new world. Rant flirts with government-mandated genocide, Greek tragedy, aberrant sexuality, substance abuse and audacious fusions of religion and violence, stitching together disparate elements to craft a surreal, poignant and darkly humorous quilt of madness.

Much of the book’s emotional potency stems from one of Palahniuk’s enduring thematic fascinations: the almost pathological need for his characters to feel something—anything—in their modern, anesthetized existences. Choke‘s protagonist, Victor Mancini, faked asphyxiation in restaurants to meet people, for example, while Rant’s hobby is Party Crashing, a brutal form of socialization that involves vicious auto collisions.

Rant may too strongly recall Fight Club for some, but Palahniuk has more on his mind here than simple titillation. A white-knuckled what-if, Rant is the author’s most idiosyncratic work to date, a piercing plea to push the galactic reset button.

Tagged as: chuck palahniuk
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Thursday, May 10, 2007

In keeping with the inherent structure of one of this week’s premieres, SE&L is going to suggest an American Idol like theme for 12 May – let’s label it “film fiascos”! Just look at the four choices being offered to you by the pay TV titans – each one a testament to poor conceptualizing, mediocre imagination, and a severe lack of tell tale talent. No matter how their merchandised or marketed, they are four examples of awful cinema. If one were prone to conspiracy theorizing, you’d swear the networks were doing it on purpose. It could even be a competition of sorts: which channel can bring out the absolute worst film of the last two years and still get audiences at home to celebrate their Saturday night bow. Our bet is on the SE&L selection – it remains one of the most audacious celluloid atrocities ever to be considered full blown family fare (right, perhaps by the Manson clan). Anyway, check you gag reflex and prepare to be pummeled by Tinsel Town at its most terrible, including:

Premiere Pick
Little Man

No, this is not a misprint, and your confusion is perfectly understandable. How can SE&L suggest 2006’s worst film as one of its weekly VDA picks, especially with the amount of vitriol and anger we’ve foisted upon it in the past 8 months? The answer is simple – misery loves company. That’s right, we want you to also suffer through what we did last year, to experience this sad, sloppy and racially insensitive stool sample for yourself. From its frightening sexualization of children, to the equally unsettling idea of a dwarf reduced to a cinematic sight gag, this mean spirited mess set back the cause of minorities in movies by much more than 40 acres and a mule. And the most depressing part – it made scads of cash at the box office, meaning that the Wayans will definitely return to cause more hackneyed hate crimes in the name of big screen humor. (12 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Omen (2006)

Here’s perfect proof that casting is EVERYTHING when making a movie. The script for this horror remake more or less mimics the original 1976 effort beat for beat, so it should work, right? Wrong! The decision to cast Julia Stiles in the Lee Remick role, and the decent Liev Schreiber in the part played by Gregory Peck turns something with potential into an object of sheer genre scorn. (12 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

American Dreamz

Bombs Away! After the success of American Pie and About a Boy, Paul Weitz wanted to make a scathing social commentary that mixed party politics with our nation’s love of all things Idol. The result was this weak kneed satire that sunk almost immediately upon hitting theaters. Instead of irony or insight, the only thing this flop could generate was irritation. (12 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Yours, Mine and Ours (2005)

To quote a famous baseball player, it’s like déjà vu all over again.. When Steve Martin brought the unnecessary remake of the big family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen to movie screens, its success sparked a search for similar properties. Bingo! – this 1968 title was tapped. While we no longer give Martin credit for career competence, shouldn’t stars Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo know better? (12 May, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)

Melvin Van Peebles contribution to popular culture is always reduced to a single, significant title – 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. And that’s a shame. Instrumental in jumpstarting the blaxploitation movement in film, there was more to this maverick’s work than generating grindhouse fare. Indeed, after 1968’s The Story of a Three Day Pass and 1970’s mainstream hit Watermelon Man, it looked like the writer/director would lead a new wave of minority moviemakers to greater prominence in the plantation-like paradigm of ‘60s/‘70s Hollywood. Instead, he was marginalized. Now, some three decades later, director Joe Angio has helmed a celebratory documentary that shows just how significant Van Peeble’s legacy is to modern artists of color. With a who’s who of contributors, and words from the cinematic madman himself, this is the perfect companion piece to son Mario’s amazing tribute, the 2003 biopic Baadasssss! (14 May, IFC, 10:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
City of God

With time, this critically acclaimed drama about youths attempting to navigate the gang-riddled ghettos of Rio de Janeiro has grown from masterful to masterpiece. Indeed, foreign filmmaking doesn’t get any fresher, or more innovative, than in this film’s shockingly straightforward cinema vétité style. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund deserve al the credit for taking something standard and giving it a unique narrative spin. (13 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

The Year of the Yao

For those unfamiliar with the subject of this sensational documentary, Yao Ming is the 7’5” center for Houston Rocket’s NBA basketball team. How this Chinese national came to be part of America’s second favorite sport forms the basic elements of Adam Del Deo and James Stern’s doc. It makes for some very compelling cross cultural observations. (14 May, Sundance, 10PM EST)

The Day of the Jackal

Thrillers don’t get any more skillful than director Frank Zinneman’s (High Noon) take on Frederick Forsythe’s classic novel. With a career defining turn by Edward Fox as the title character, an assassin charged with killing then French President Charles de Gaulle, this meticulous, step-by-step suspense saga makes the modern take at similar stories pale by comparison. (17 May, Sundance, 6:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Black Caesar/ Hell Up in Harlem

It’s interesting – the same week that a documentary on blaxploitation legend Melvin Van Peebles arrives on the small screen, TCM’s Underground offers up two examples of the genre’s best. Former football star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson stars in both, the first a ghetto-fied remake of the 1931 Edward G. Robinson vehicle. With success came a sequel, and the Hell Up quickly followed. Both efforts were written and directed by Larry Cohen, a genre giant who began in TV, but quickly made a name for himself in offbeat cinema and motion picture macabre. With their mix of violence, sex, operatic dramatics and full throttle action, these explicit entertainments changed the face of post-modern cinema. Sadly, because it was so tied to revenues, a great many of these movies never got the aesthetic appreciation they deserve. Thank God for the preservationist principles of technology. (11 May, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Two Lane Blacktop

A notorious grindhouse epic, this drag racing saga (about two men – The Driver and the Mechanic - who find themselves locked in a cross country competition) expertly illustrates the passion pit style. No frills, not fat, all fun! Sadly, problems with music licensing rights have kept it out of the public eye for decades. Here’s a perfect chance to catch this gearhead classic. (16 May, Drive In Classics – Canada, 12:45AM EST)

Ulee’s Gold

Peter Fonda was 1998’s Oscar shoe-in for Best Actor with his performance as a quite beekeeper who finds himself inexplicably mixed up in some very deadly criminal activities. He ended up losing out to Jack Nicholson’s grandstanding OCD case from As Good As It Gets. The proof over who really deserved the shiny statuette is here for all to see. (17 May, Indieplex, 5:05PM EST)

Dr. Chopper, M.D.

Every once in a while, we here at SE&L need a good old fashioned piece of cinematic schlock, a motion picture purgative to cleanse our occasionally clogged up aesthetic. And nothing spells relief faster or better than a slice and dice slasher flick. In this case, a band of vacationers run into…wait for it…a psychotic biker turned plastic surgeon. Woo-Hoo! (18 May, Starz Edge, 12:35AM EST)


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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Economists Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy recently mounted a defense of income inequality on the grounds that it is a sign of increased returns to human capital—in other words, better-educated and higher-skilled people made more, which is as it should be. Hence they view progressive taxation as being tantamount to a tax on ability.

For many, the solution to an increase in inequality is to make the tax structure more progressive—raise taxes on high-income households and reduce taxes on low-income households. While this may sound sensible, it is not. Would these same indi­viduals advocate a tax on going to college and a subsidy for dropping out of high school in response to the increased importance of education? We think not. Yet shifting the tax structure has exactly this effect.

This seems hardly an exact analogy. Those in favor of progressive taxation would likely favor redistributing some of that money so that others could afford to acquire the skills and education that created the gap in the first place.

But the underlying question of whether an egalitarian distribution of outcomes rather than opportunities is possible (and desirable) remains—can these concepts be neatly separated, as is often the tendency? Becker and Murphy’s argument relies on the idea that merit is on the whole rewarded and they have an impressive battery of graphs and statistics to support that case that I’m not remotely qualified to critique. The implication that we live in a merit-rewarding society seems to require many codicils and exceptions and hedges, most of which revolve around what constitutes merit (being born rich and connected—this has obvious value and constitutes a kind of human capital; is it being lumped in with the human capital of education? If this kind of old-boys network facilitates productivity, should it be condemned or does it have merit, by that definition?) So my mind turned to a more abstract question: Is inequality a matter of the return coming from relative differences in skills in a population, or is the return absolute to the skills themselves, no matter how widely they are distributed? If the former is the case, then this would ultimately impinge on equal opportunity, as those with advantages will in accordance with rationally seek to consolidate them rather than let others catch up. Those left behind initially will remain behind, because the meaning and value of the skills they acquire is always defined in relation to those ahead of them, who are presumably maintaining their skills lead.

This is especially the case with education, where the abilities acquired are less significant than the signaling value of the institutions involved. At the Economist‘s blog, Will Wilkinson, citing Bryan Caplan, makes the point

that university diplomas mostly function to signal prior competence, and that time and money spent in school is largely wasted. If [Caplan]‘s right, Becker and Murphy’s emphasis may be misguided, and I suspect Bryan may in fact be right, despite the fact that he’s never won a Nobel or Clark prize and wears shorts in the winter. In which case it strikes me that there is a huge entrepreneurial opportunity for whomever can come up with an alternative scheme of credible human capital certification.  Who cares if people develop their skills by attending classes at their local college, listening to free lectures from MIT, learning on the job, or by sitting in their mom’s basement gaining mad hacking skilz? I don’t. But employers do.


The point is, signaling communicates relative rather than absolute values—the Harvard degree has more credibility than the State U. degree, and if we made it such that everyone could get a Harvard degree, some new elite institution would arise to take its place. Whereas the human capital that enhances productivity and quality of life relates not to the signals, which preserve class distinction, but to the actual skills—the ability to build useful machines and develop useful medicines and so on. The question then becomes do we need the class system to motivate people to pursue the skills, and does coasting on the signaling power at one’s disposal—the habitus and social capital and networking connections—inhibit the development of their actual capabilities such that they are incompetent when they wind up in power (a certain North American world leader comes to mind). All of this makes me wonder if an alternative human capital certification program is even possible given our current set of social relations—the University of Phoenixes of the world don’t seem in any danger of supplanting Princeton and Yale anytime soon, but the blogosphere may prove a viable arena for autodidacts to build their reputation. (Or destroy it.)

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