Thursday, March 21, 2013

Attention Hollywood: Ten Can't Miss Movie Ideas

One of the great things about Netflix is that it introduces you to entirely new cultural subsets you normally would not have experienced. Sure, some of these experiences might get classified as "Movies where the royalties are so cheap because they are so bad that Netflix gets them for a song," but I prefer my cultural horizons to be broader and more inclusive.

Anyway, while looking for something to watch, my wife and I discovered that there were an alarming number of movies whose premises simply made no sense. It seems like a movie executive somewhere literally pulled two random concepts out of thin air, melded them together, and cranked out a shitty movie. The first one that caught our attention--Iron Sky, which Wikipedia helpfully notes is a "Finnish-German-Australian comic science fiction action film" about Nazis who escape to the moon after WWII to plan a space fleet reinvasion of Earth--has the out of being a deliberate B-movie. The second movie was Sophie & Sheba, about a--wait for it--young ballerina who gives up her career to save her pet elephant. Obligatory "Of Course!"

Almost immediately, my wife and I declared that if Hollywood could print money using this method, why on earth couldn't we cash in ourselves? So we each took a packet of scrap paper and wrote down several random items--people, places, or concepts--hidden from one another. When we finished, we randomly matched them up and came up with ten surefire box office hits.

Here is what we came up with:

Bill Nye the Science Guy in an English Boarding School
A Mattress Factory located in the Bermuda Triangle
Escapees in a hot air balloon from a Mexican Prison
Jon Hamm Playing A Mentally Challenged Man working in a coffee shop
Argentine Nazis with an Armadillo
A Carpet Store in a Grecian Ghetto
A Senile Old Clockmaker in Scotland
Zombie Margaret Thatcher on an Oil Refinery On The Moon
Dutch Vollyball Players using Invisible Ink
Two Lesbian Hitmen go after Joseph Kony

Can you think of any one of these concepts that couldn't create a blockbuster movie? I certainly can't; I would watch the hell out of any of these plots. Heck, combine a few and you could release this in the summer; get them all together and I think we're talking Best Picture territory.

Attention agents: My email address is to the right.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Middle of the End

How do you know when you are living in a failed nation-state? When people start lining up to get their own money out of banks.

Ok, so that's not entirely true: horribly run banks can also cause people to do a mass withdrawal of their funds. However, it's usually a pretty good sign that everything has gone to shit when the dreaded death knell of capitalism has rung: a run on the bank.

Anyone who's watched It's A Wonderful Life knows what happens. In case you never took Banking 101, it may be useful to know why a bank run is such a bad, bad thing. People put money in banks. The banks, in turn, lend out that money to other people who need it (presumably for cars, houses, small businesses, etc.) So when you deposit your money in a bank, it's gone. (Banks make money, of course, by charging more for loans than they do in savings accounts, which given the interest rates these days, tells you a lot.) They are required by law to have a certain amount of cash on hand, but beyond that the rest can be lent out. If a bank finds itself out of cash, either because they had more withdrawals than expected or not enough loans were repaid back, they can get more on loan from the Federal Reserve. (The amount required to have on hand, and the rate at with the Fed loans banks money, are two of the big tools the Fed uses to manipulate the economy.) It's a pretty elaborate system with a ton of checks and balances, but it's still not difficult to envision the entire thing as a big house of cards.* (I'm describing consumer banking, here; investment banking is something entirely different, as Glass-Steagall could have told you twenty years ago.)

So people place their money in the bank with the implicit impression that, while their money is going straight back out the door, it's still going to be there when they need it. Banks, in turn, do everything possible to earn the trust of consumers; that is why, back in the day, banks went out of their way to build huge, grandiose marble facades. By investing so heavily in their physical properties, it displayed that they had the money to back up your accounts. (Now that you can bank at a drive-through window or a strip mall or in a trailer hitched up to a donkey, that sort of thing isn't quite so, um, common.) When there is a threat to this trust--say, when Uncle Billy lets Mr. Potter take the deposits on the day the bank examiner comes or (more realistically) a bank makes enough bad loans that will not get paid back (and therefore nothing to back up the deposits, and no collateral for the Fed to use to replenish the money)--people make a run on the bank. As in depositors literally run to the bank so they can get their money out before anyone else does and the bank simply runs out of cash. Since so many banks are interconnected--for good or ill--a failed bank affects other banks as well.

Anyway, the long post above is why bank runs are always a bad idea. The house of cards depends on trust. (For those that don't care for this fragile arrangement, note that nearly 99% of the time the system works exceedingly well.) We know our money is flitting out the door, but we also know that the bank has our back, so to speak. When one single ounce of trust is lost, people get jittery; and when one person gets jittery, they all do. It feeds on itself until the bank is ruined.

So when you hear about what happened in Cyprus, it is usually an incredibly, despairingly bad sign. In this case, though, it's the government that is causing the issue. As part of a bailout plan for the small island nation, the government agreed to the EU's plan, which would levy a one-time tax on all deposits. When Cypriots woke up Monday morning, whatever money they had in the bank was between 3-10% less, the money taxed away by the government. Someone who shoved their money under a mattress--they were perfectly fine. People who spent every last penny they had and had no savings--they didn't get dinged. Only people who trusted that their money would stay in the bank were hit with the penalty.

Immediately, there were calls to reverse it, but guess what? The trust is gone. If the government was willing to raid savings once, who says they won't do it again? No one in Cyprus--and, alarmingly, the rest of the EU--now views their deposits as safe. This is a very, very bad sign for a healthy economy. It was incredibly foolish for the Cyprus government to agree to it, and equally foolish for the EU to even offer it--because now, other struggling nations now know that consumer deposits are on the table to be negotiated away. Even if the plan is shelved and never brought up again, it's out there, and the idea got far enough for some bureaucrats to offer it and another set of bureaucrats to accept it. The losers, of course, are consumers, but even more so the banks, who, while they certainly had some economic trouble and did legitimately need a bailout, had little to do with agreeing to the plan and now their one main tool--trust--has been taken away from them.

Of course, politics entered this as well; Cyrpus is a known tax haven for Russian oligarchs, so there is a certain element that this was directed at them. A less clumsy plan surely would have been a better idea.

What does this mean for the future of EU? I don't know, but if we are fishing for silver linings, I can say things can only get better.

The Pledge: That's a lie. There are a thousand worse things the EU can do for their economy, and I guarantee they're going to try them all. This is the sort of thing revolutions were invented for.



*To any proper economists, I apologize for the simplicity of this explanation; to any Ron Paul supporters, I get it, but the house of cards that the Fed supports is not nearly as big as the house of cards in a banking system without the Fed. I'm sympathetic to many complaints about the Federal Reserve, but I take a "I'd rather have smaller problems than big ones" when it comes to something as fragile as the banking system. I may change my mind some day but it's not on my list of concerns at the moment.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

House of Cards:A Review

If you haven't already done so, I recommend watching the television series House of Cards. It is a new, somewhat experimental project; the series was produced by Netflix which, if you remember, used to be in the red envelope-printing-then-mailing business. It's not their first endeavor (Lilyhammer would be the first) but at a price tag of over $100 million, House of Cards is certainly the most ambitious. 

The series isn't an original concept--it was based off of a British series of the same name that was produced way back in 1990, which itself was based on a novel published in 1989--but its Americanization has put it enough degrees away from the original work that it can stand on its own. Thirteen episodes were made of the first season, all released on the same day for instant viewing. It involves the machinations of a ambitious politician who, moments after the series begins, is denied a promised appointment. He then initiates a tangled set of events full of backstabbing, blackmail, and the brute force of political negotiation to exact his revenge. The protagonist, Frank Underwood (played with sublime asshollery by Kevin Spacey, who does, as always, sublime asshollery quite well), a classic Southern glad-hander, is the bright, shining vehicle that gets the series in motion.

Thankfully, the series (at least so far) manages to stay coldly ideologically neutral; it's not even readily apparent aside from a few fleeting mentions exactly what party the main character belongs to until several episodes into the series, and even then it never really matters.

The remainder of the cast, while not nearly as focal as Underwood, are still quite well. In particular, it's worth mentioning the character of Congressman Peter Russo, played superbly by Corey Stoll; his character manages to invoke an almost steady stream of empathy from the viewer, even as he made one monumental mistake after another.

I won't go into a point-by-point synopsis of the plot. With thirteen episodes (the second is currently in production), it manages to cram in twice as many storylines, all which eventually intertwine themselves into the main narrative. But the general idea is that Underwood uses his 20+ years of experience to embark on a series of ambitious goals (ram a new bill promised by the President though Congress; get an ally to run for Governor; get his preferred candidate to be appointed to the cabinet, etc.) all for the sole purpose of getting revenge. The plots involving Russo are of interest, since he ends up getting involved in some way or another in most of these schemes. Underwood's wife runs a clean water charity, another entity that often gets involved in Underwood's plans; a former staffer-turned-lobbyist pops up now and then to advance or hinder some of his progress; and the relationship of the media and politics is explored though the eyes of a young, hungry reporter who latches on to Underwood as a source.

If you don't care for politics, the series may not be quite as interesting; while the characters and drama will still make it worth watching, some of the minutia of politics (and the relationship politics has with the media) may bore you. And there are two romantic subplots that quite frankly are executed quite sloppily and do drag down quite a few episodes. But these are exceptions to an otherwise excellent series.

Still, there are a few...glaring issues behind the politics of the series. At this point I'll warn you that there are spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution. (Considering they're all available for instant viewing right now, you should just go rectify that anon.) Politically, the series seems very true to what actually happens; bills are made with a combination of threats, cajoling, and rooms full of sweaty interns, which are then picked apart over a foul weekend where staffers and special interests cram into a room and pore over each 600 pages individually in a big room. However, a few things stick out as being sadly unrealistic in a series that otherwise does so much right:

  • At one point, Underwood engineers a leadership coup to get his preferred person in the slot he wants. However, the person supposedly initiating the coup has zero desire to do it. Underwood basically lies to everyone to give the impression that he does, and sure enough the "target" is forced to resign. I know politics is hard-nosed and full of lies and misery, but there's no way that could happen.
  • In an episode that showcases a brilliant aspect of all politics from the top down--the Peachoid--it leaves a glaring question mark. In it, a teenage girl wrecks her car while texting a crude message to her boyfriend about the Peachoid, a huge water tower painted and shaped like a peach (or ass, depending on your level of maturity). The peachoid, you see, is an eyesore for many but a prized possession (and thus an important political issue) for the local vote-happy peach farmers. Somehow, this is framed that the local jurisdiction should somehow be liable for her death, but aside from political embarrassment it makes no sense: I can't see how any governmental authority could be monetarily (or morally) bound to pay anything over a girl who wrecked her car while texting, yet the episode treats it like a huge deal and a foregone conclusion. It seems like a good political issue that is treated like a flimsy justification for conflict.
  • Finally, the sitting vice president is bored and underappreciated and so is easily persuaded to re-run for the Governorship of Pennsylvania, which is holding a special election to fill the seat he just vacated. No one is ever going to give up being Vice President after six months to run for the office they just resigned. Every VP knows they go into the job more or less being useless--the whole point is more or less to wait around and check to make sure the President hasn't died yet. 
All of these plots are obviously possible, they are just extremely unlikely and a little too convenient. (More broadly, the "new media" smugness is a little too heavy handed--yes, we get it, old dead tree newspapers need to embrace blogs and Twitter!--but there's no one glaring scene that is cause for consternation.) It might make poli sci majors like me a little cranky, but from an actual dramatic standpoint there's nothing wrong with them.

In any case, I certainly recommend this series. It's a fascinating look into politics while also being an excellent drama in its own right.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Fresh Prince, Pop Tart Guns, and the Klan

It's not exactly a secret that the official stance of this blog is that society is slowly degenerating into a morass of weak-willed pussydom, but it's rare that this particular aspect of Western civilization manifests itself by being so obviously apparent and occurring with such alarming frequency. As a representative sample, in case you haven't been paying attention in the past week or so:
  • A Maryland boy was recently suspended because he bit his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. And when I say "shape of a gun" I mean "something vaguely resembling something that has a handle and a point but in nearly every other way does not, indeed, look anything like a weapon, because it is, in fact a Pop Tart." True, he held the Pop Tart like a gun and pointed it at people, but that is beside the fact that it is, in fact, a Pop Tart. And while the weapon was loaded with ammunition, that ammunition was strawberry jam, long held to be the biggest offender in breakfast pastry weaponry. Sadly, the only thing the gun-shaped Pop Tart was capable of attacking was his arteries.
  • A school in Pennsylvania recently had a total lockdown--including a terrifying afternoon where people weren't told exactly what was going on--because a student had a ring tone of the lyrics to the theme song from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." You see, the lyric "shooting some b-ball outside of the school" sounded a little bit too much like "shooting people outside of the school." Despite the fact that this was clearly a ring tone of a song and not an actual human being making any sort of threat, a (no doubt) well-meaning secretary pulled the trigger, so to speak, and called the cops. The best part of this story is the vision of half a dozen school administrators gathered around a cell phone interpreting the lyrics to a TV theme song from the 90's to see if a kid got to go to the shrink or not.
  • Finally, Oberlin College recently cancelled classes for an entire day because there was a report of someone walking around campus wearing a Klan hood. The day was instead spent in discussions with students and faculty about handling the situation. After investigation, however, it appears that the supposed Klansman was most likely simply a woman wearing a blanket.
I'm not one to draw broad, tinfoil-hat conclusions based on a few anecdotes, but since this sort of thing can't really be quantified and regressed, it's the best we've got. In each of these cases, someone whose imagination is actively looking for threats and dangers misinterpreted the real situation, and the reaction was well out of line for what ended up being the case.

Obviously, none of these incidents occurred in a vacuum. Zero-tolerance laws about pretend guns are well known in our school system, but that doesn't make it any less realistic (or justified) when we hear about it. The Oberlin incident occurred after a month of racial incidents and tension, so everyone on campus was already nervous.

Still, the broad idea in our society is that we should be "better safe than sorry," but I'm not so sure that is the case. Certainly, after recent events involving mass shootings, everyone is looking for any sign to prevent such disasters from happening again, but the cold fact is that mass violent incidents are incredibly rare.

Are the overreactions to miscommunications doing a lot more harm than we think? Given the first two examples above, people acting normally and without any ounce of hostility suddenly find themselves suspended from school or causing a lockdown and terrifying the entire student body for what turns out to be absolutely no reason at all. Are students simply going to shut themselves down for fear of triggering some unknown, severe reaction? Are kids going to become less creative and more submissive to authority simply because it's been psychologically beaten in to them? Remember, these aren't incidents were teachers are trying to control the students, which has at least some justification given the nature of having a building full of cranky, energetic, and (later) hormone-driven kids. These are incidents were cops are called in after kids do something innocent, and they aren't going to be screwing around when some presumably credible middle-aged secretary calls in a potential shooting.

There is also the very real danger of heightening the sense of false alarm. When everything gets called a crisis, then people (and especially kids) start not caring quite so much. What happens when the next lockdown happens for no reason? How long will it take before everyone stops taking it seriously because someone make a Cinnamonster grenade or played the theme song from Full House too loud? I'm not really trying to be facetious, but there is a real problem. People aren't going to treat every pastry bomb like a school shooting; they're going to treat every school shooting like a pastry bomb.

This is, of course, not necessarily limited to our educational system. (School are just more visible because everyone is willing to pay any cost regardless of rationale or reason when they can justify it by crying out "Think of the children!" as loudly as possible to drown out anyone foolish enough to argue with that parent.) The definition of a "crisis" has devalued itself so much that it's hard to determine where the line is anymore. Crises used to be triggered when the Commies were landing in Seattle or a president got assassinated. Now it's a red-banner, screen-scrolling disaster when milk hits six dollars a gallon or two cable companies are going to merge or it takes an extra half hour to vote once every four years.

And I am, in fact, going to borrow that tinfoil hat for a moment, if you don't mind. Once something is deemed a disaster, it's generally bad enough that only one entity has the authority to fix it, and that happens to be the government. But now that we've devalued the concept of a crisis, it means more justification for the government to act with the consent and even active appreciation by the population, who is now conditioned to think that everything is a crisis, and only the government can solve crises. (OK, you can have it back now.)

How did we get here? I don't know, but I'm sure there are plenty of sociological explanations. I think it is twofold: first, we've painted an idealized vision of how the world should operate. We want to have the freedom do do what we want, but we want to snatch that freedom away as soon as a percentage point of danger shows up on the radar. People are naturally risk-averse, but we've gotten to the point where the costs of dealing with prevention are so low because we're able to pass that cost on to everyone else.  Secondly, we've become increasingly content with simply ceding authority to deal with the difficult stuff to various agencies--whether they be schools, corporations or the government--and then justifying away the negative aspects of the consequences of doing so. Sadly, it's also become normal for people who resist this to simply be dismissed as warmed-over red-baiters and modern-day Birchers. (Apparently all of my political culture references are from 1958.) There's also a certain amount of generational divide going on, as the generation brought up with the dreaded bogeyman of self-esteem programs encapsulated with promises of technological prosperity that have yet to be delivered suddenly find that the entire world isn't under their control.

So where do we go from here? I don't know the answer to that, because it's going to involve a tectonic shift in our modern culture that I don't think will be either easy or fast or even desirable by most people. My fear is that, in the near future, the costs of false alarms are going to be much, much greater than a day of missed classes, and the consequences of such alarms are going to correlate less and less to actually solving the crisis and more with pushing some sort of agenda.

The Pledge: Cowboy up, folks. Not everything is a crisis, and not all crises can be solved. If we don't learn how to deal with that, we--as a society--are going to simply grind to a halt.

Money for Nothing

 We're in the first week of the sequester. Right now not much of our daily lives have changed, though as time goes on that may drastically change. Understandably, there is a lot of hostility, mostly deserved, as to how our government has become dysfunctional--and, of course, lays the appropriate blame based on each individual's political preference.

While I think the sequester is a stupid idea stupidly executed, there's still a part of me that isn't all that sad. In a nutshell: things like this show that our system works, and we should be glad about it, even if the details infuriate us.

We all know that the American government isn't just the President. We have three separate yet equal branches of the government; to not have this system would, in effect, be a dictatorship, albeit one with a sunset clause of four years. All democracies in the world operate with some form of check against the chief executive, whether it be the dreaded Vote of No Confidence in a parliament to the Congress of the United States. We want this to be the case since we never want any one person--elected or not--to have unlimited, unchecked power.

This means, of course, that nearly all decisions must be part of some sort of negotiation. (Presidents do have, and use frequently, some limited powers they can execute without advisement, but in the grand scheme of things these are beside the point.) Any sort of lasting legislation--especially those involving budgetary figures--aren't just want the President or what the Speaker of the House proposes, but some cobbling together of ideas, acceptability, and resentful swallowing of pride of a minimum of half of the members of congress, plus one.

Of course, part of any negotiation is the threat of absolute failure. This applies to anything; this is how we get failed business deals (of which we usually don't hear of) or strikes and lockouts (which we normally do). The threat that if the deal doesn't go through something bad will happen is an integral part of the process. Otherwise, why would either side ever budge? Without the consequences of failure, both sides have an incentive to wait the other party out. If workers knew that the factory owners would never actually shut down, and the owners knew the workers would never walk away, then why would either ever settle?

Unfortunately, the threat of something bad happening necessitates that something bad actually has to happen on occasion to make it worth something. If workers always threaten to strike but never actually do, the threat becomes less and less potent. It's important to punctuate a history of smooth negotiations with the cold, hard reality of consequence for it to mean anything for the future.

And thus we have the current fiscal situation we are experiencing now. The sequestration is a good thing--in theory--because it shows that no one branch of our government is more powerful than the other. It's also showing us that the consequences of inactivity have true meaning and aren't just empty words.

Now the details of this specific incident--and the fiscal cliff, and the debt ceiling, etc.--I don't necessarily agree with. While I'm sympathetic to the details, I think each of these incidents was clumsily handled and artificially forced by the GOP, negating a lot of the benefit that they were hoping to reap. (The Democratic side isn't much better by ignoring a lot of pretty obvious signs that the shit is going to hit the fan sooner rather than later. And the fact that popular programs get cut first instead of unncessary or wasteful once is an obvious ploy for sympathy that I find ingratiatingly pedestrian.) So I think the details are stupid and politics at their worst.

And yet I don't think the consequences are so bad as that we can ignore the good things. Some people consider this a dysfunctional government and proof that Washington is a cesspool of prideful, arrogant jerks blinded by ideology. I don't think that's really the case at all; I think sessions like this, while lamentable, are also quite necessary. 

The Pledge: I think this is the price we pay for having a democracy--and in the grand scheme of things isn't a very high price to pay at all.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My Subliminal Arabian Proverb Of The Day

I had a dream last night. The details, as always, are fuzzy, but I distinctly remember that at one point I was watching a historical documentary about ancient Arabia. At one point they flashed what was, in my dream, a piece of ancient Arabic wisdom in the form of a proverb:

It matters not to the weary camel whether he travels for friend or foe; his bladder bursts either way. Eat some dates.

I presume "eat some dates" is the Arabic version of "c'est la vie." I vastly prefer my version.

I think we should all heed the wise words of my endlessly creepy subconscious.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Diplomacy

The creator of the classic board game Diplomacy, Alan Calhamer, has died.

I say "classic," even though most likely the majority of people have never heard of it. But back when it was released by Avalon Hill, the then-king of what we would now call "strategy gaming" (as opposed to "family gaming"), it became a modest hit. Popular enough to survive multiple printings--nearly unheard of for most board games--and countless (rather shitty) computer adaptations.

For those that don't know, Diplomacy is a game set previous to World War II, where seven major powers fight each other. The board, at first glance, appears to be a Europe-centric Risk, but it's far from anything like Risk. While there are armies on the board and you are trying to conquer other territories in the game, it is done through a majestically simple mechanism that requires zero luck. At the end of each turn, you simply have to have more armies in a territory than the defender.

Simple, of course, until you realize that it's impossible to do it on your own. And that is where Diplomacy begins.

All movements are simultaneous; players don't take individual turns. Rather, everyone writes down their "orders"--basically what armies they are going to move. These are all revealed simultaneously  and resolves as if they were simultaneous.

So...during each turn, players negotiate with one another. Since it's nearly impossible to conquer a territory by yourself, this turn is all about asking your "friends" for help. Support my army here, you might say, and I'll support your army there. Of course, neither player is bound to follow through...acutely so, since eventually you'll have to turn on everyone to win the game.

And that is one of the reasons Diplomacy is called the "friendship-killer." When the game has a built-in mechanism for betrayal, people who can't help but metagame will find themselves developing hatreds they never felt existed. Normal, rational people with long-lasting friendships have hated each other afterwards. This is what has made the game so iconic--and has also limited its appeal. While it's largely regarded as a critical favorite, you don't see a whole lot of games played of it anymore. (The game is perfect for play-by-email--or, if you're particularly adventurous, play-by-mail, and the lag between turns and lack of face-to-face betrayal makes the entire endeavor much less volatile.) It's this emphasis on negotiation that has made computer adaptations so poor--playing against an AI just doesn't have the right feel to it.

The game certainly isn't perfect--the sides aren't perfectly balanced (woe to Italy), and in a game like this they pretty much have to be, and while it's set in WWII it has no other theme to speak of (it could just as easily have been the ancient Mediterraneans or Chinese provinces  and indeed maps have been made for multiple historical scenarios)--but it does everything that a luckless, negotiation game should.

I once claimed that once I could get seven people together willing to play this (admittedly dry) game, I would purchase and play it. One enterprising friend did, indeed, purchase this game for my wife and I for our anniversary in the hopes that we would play it. Sadly, we have yet to do so. I just need, um, five more people ready to go.