Monday, June 26, 2017

Gross Pointe Blank

Funny haha, and funny that if this were to be made in 2017, it would have to be about the characters' 20-year high school reunion because 10 years after high school, most people are still living pretty much just like they were one year after high school and there are no additional social expectations to live up to.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What's good on the Internet

A break from the movies. Also, note that I collect these over several weeks, and make no claim that they're hot off the presses.

The Rise and Fall of Toronto's Classiest Con Man - Imposters: Miss Self-Important's favorite subject.

Pilgrim at Tinder Creek - Modernity (specifically: grad school, dating) is sad, peeps.

A nice remembrance of Peter Lawler from Yuval Levin.

Against murderism - Slate Star Codex is easily the best blog on the internet right now, even in our diminished blog world.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The African Queen

Movie #2 from recommended list. So, movies like this in the past are why there are movies like Boyhood now, right? We go from total unconcern for basic believability to total obsession with realistic minutia.

For many years now, I've felt that there was some fundamental shift in the American aesthetic sensibility around 1968*, and that all movies made before then seem foreign to me, and all movies made after seem intuitively intelligible. I think I arrived at this conclusion during one of the summer film series at EPPC many years ago, when they were showing Bonnie and Clyde. We had already seen some older crime films, and Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be the turning point in James Bowman's universally-applicable Arc of Decline: films was great before this, and terrible afterwards. And everyone heaped contempt on it, because it celebrated the criminals and made them seem cool rather than miserable. That all may have been true, but the problem was that Bonnie and Clyde was the first one of the movies that I got. It spoke to my (apparently modern, amoral) sensibility. Everything before it had been stilted and weird, like the actors were all trying way too hard to express themselves and haven't they ever heard of just talking? It wasn't that post-1968 Americans couldn't follow pre-1968 movies, but that following was more labored, the way reading for school assignments is different from reading for yourself. A post-1968 cultural prole like myself could be instructed about the virtues of pre-1968 movies, and from that instruction learn a method of viewing them appreciatively, but that appreciation is never intuitive.**

All that said, The African Queen is a very pre-1968 movie. Not just in the overdone acting, but in the sense that one is dogged for the entire movie by the suspicion that, if this were made in 2017, the characters would not do a single one of the things they do. They'd just park their boat in the shade and have sex until the war ended.

*Bonnie and Clyde is actually from 1967, but 1968 is the year the Hays Code was abandoned, and that seems to be a broader indicator of the times than just one movie.
** There might be exceptions to this, but the only ones I can think of are Wizard of Oz and the Disney movies I watched as a little kid. But it's hardly surprising that what you see first doesn't strike you as weird and stilted, even if it's pre-1968, because at age four, what do you have to compare it to?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Recommended in my movie bleg, conveniently streaming on Netflix. This movie is so long yet so pointless. I guess we're supposed to be excited by the trick that the main character is the same actor literally growing up over the decade which it took to shoot this film, but I'm not sure that swapping different actors for younger and older versions of a character in movies was really a cinematic problem in need of a solution in the first place. I rarely have difficulty suspending my disbelief when this is done.

Beyond that, Boyhood has nothing in it. The characters are all the dullest sorts of unreflective people who possess no discernible qualities. Things happen to them, they react, and then they move on, usually by literally moving away and never talking (or, we assume, thinking) about the past again. In addition to being boring, this is implausible given that they discuss the use of social media a few times in the movie, so we have to assume that they can easily stay in touch with people - old friends, ex-step-siblings - from their past. But as far as the movie shows us, these people just dissolve from their consciousness once they're not physically present in their lives. It's the Rabbit, Run of twenty-first century movies.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

When the bad faith of schools is identical to their good faith

Cheryl has been sending me news about the latest in hare-brained schemes to reform college admissions, including this NR article detailing its hare-brainedness. In summary, this particular proposal, generated by 100 super fancy prep schools, follows the general trajectory of liberal reform ideas in repudiating all quantifiable measures of academic achievement in favor of some form of "holistic" evaluation that emphasizes non-academic qualities. In this case, the standard graded transcript will be abolished and students will instead be evaluated for their competence in a number of vague moral and intellectual qualities, not all of which are even clearly virtues: "leadership and teamwork," "adaptability and risk-taking," etc. It's all obviously a load of BS, and Rossman aptly describes why it's stupid and how it will only end up helping the wealthy students of these fancy prep schools at the expense of regular smart kids at public schools.

The question is, why do such proposals get made? Rossman implies that it's a matter of bad faith on the part of the would-be reformers, and I had a long Twitter exchange with Phoebe, who suggests the same thing (you can only read her side unless you are my special Twitter-friend). I think it's tempting to make this argument that places like Andover are feigning concern for the plight of the poor and disadvantaged to justify policies that they actually pursue to help their own students get (even further) ahead, and that Yale is feigning it just to get more Andover students. And I can't claim to be reading their minds. But I think there are two reasons this argument may not be correct:

First, there is the problem of secondary schools generalizing from limited experience. It is very possible when you work at an elite school (or are the parent of a child who attends one) to think that the biggest problem in education today is the hyper-competition among students for college admission that completely reduces education into a vehicle for resume-building and results in depression, exhaustion, etc. That probably is the biggest problem in your school. And trying to disarm the competitors in this war by banning their weapons (grades, rankings) is a reasonable response. You face a collective action problem if you're the only school that does this, so getting 100 similar schools on board is a big step towards solving that. But the error comes when you generalize from your experience to conclude that cutthroat academic competition must be the biggest problem in all of secondary education, and that your solution will therefore eventually benefit all, when it is eventually applied to all.

I think this error plagues a lot of the people involved in these sorts of reform measures: they really do have a poisonous hyper-competition problem in their schools, and they really can abolish traditional evaluative measures without risking any decline in their students' academic performance, at least in the short run. What they don't see, or don't care to see, is that this problem is pretty limited to, well, them.

Second, and more important, there is the problem faced by universities that sincerely do want to expand access to poor students who don't have the burnished resumes of Andover kids. How should they do it? Let's put aside the question of racial minorities for a minute, since that is subject to a whole set of legal as well as merely logistical limitations, and talk only about economic "minorities," the poor of whatever race. Here is the question: if elite universities were to acknowledge that "holistic" evaluation is basically subjective garbage and admit students based entirely on "hard" factors like grades, class ranks, and SATs, would this result in a bigger representation of the non-rich? I'm not sure if anyone has tried to empirically model this possibility, but if you know of any such efforts, send them my way.

But I suspect not, and the problem I see is this: class ranks across the different kinds of schools whose students apply to elite colleges are incommensurate. The valedictorian of a very bad high school may be academically less meritorious than a kid graduating in the bottom quarter of Stuyvesant's or Northside College Prep's class. An A in an AP course at the former school may be the equivalent of a B- or C at the latter. So the only consistent measure would be standardized tests. Now, even I don't think that determining college admissions entirely by test scores is a desirable policy, and I'm pretty close to a merit absolutist on these questions. But let's say we tried it. Well, wealth does correlate with test scores, in part because the wealthy are more likely to have preparation (whether in the form of pricey tutoring or just exposure to less formal prep through schools that expect most students to eventually sit for these tests) and in part because of the heritability of intelligence (the rich can even be smart). Does it correlate enough that the vast majority of the spots at top schools would be taken by the rich and upper middle class? Again, anyone with data should now speak up. My speculation, based on what happens at exam high schools in a somewhat different context, is that somewhat more working-class and poor kids than now are admitted would be admitted through a test-only system, but that elite universities would continue to be dominated by the rich, and more-or-less rich.

Even if a school committed to expanding access did want to go this route, imagine the public relations fiasco that would ensue: "Yale drops entire application in favor of exclusive reliance on SAT scores." All the people who believe the SAT is racist and that standardized testing doesn't measure anything except how much tutoring you got - which is pretty much everyone on the left - will immediately flip out, protest and boycott and threaten to withhold donations, and that would be the end of that.

So that's the bind that even a college sincerely committed to expanding access is in. It shouldn't be that surprising then that it will embrace reforms that expand its own discretion in the admissions process, because even if this expanded discretion also has the effect of allowing them to admit more rich kids, it's probably the only way they can admit more poor ones. There just aren't many (or any?) good discretion-limiting options. All I can think of is preference system that gives a "boost" to lower-scoring but low-income students, but that too introduces discretion. That's why, even though it's easy enough to suspect that everything these schools do is ultimately self-serving and never really public-spirited, we actually can't really say in the cases of these stupid reform schemes which it is, since both intentions would rationally lead them to the same policy.

A final, rather crass but nonetheless still probably true point is that elite colleges need rich students, and rather a lot of them, not just to keep themselves solvent but to serve the poor. The service - acculturation, social mobility - such colleges provide to poor students largely depends on the historical and continued presence of the rich. These people provide the scholarships the poor need to attend, and they provide the connections they need to then become rich themselves after college. There are some instances where this is not the case, like when the economy is expanding very rapidly and any college degree is a ticket to financial security, so that attending Brooklyn College in 1954 is roughly the same in terms of social mobility to attending Columbia at the same time. But I don't think that's the case now or will ever be the case again, except if some new certification that most people don't yet have replaces the college degree. In present circumstances, elite colleges need the rich to stay elite. The big question is, how many rich kids do they need? The apparent injustice is that the answer is always: more than the percent of the rich in the population at large. There are probably too few rich people as a percentage of the entire country to make Yale function as Yale if Yale could only admit as many as are in the population at large, proportionally. So even if only five percent of Americans have incomes above some high number ($166k, as it happens), it may still be necessary that 30 percent of Yale students be that rich to ensure that the 30 percent of Yalies who aren't become so. (Actual distributions here, and not too far off.) What the precisely optimal number of rich students is, I don't claim to know, but only bring this up to emphasize another limitation on colleges with sincere egalitarian intentions.

Now, you can conclude from all this that the solution is not to abolish grades or tests or holistic nonsense, but instead to abolish Yale. So, fine, go ahead and try, but under current conditions, you won't create a world of egalitarian 1950s CUNY colleges; the only effect you will have is to turn another school, now languishing just below it in the rankings, into New Yale.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Explain little kids' shoes to me

Peeps with kids or experience shoeing kids: what is the best strategy for shoeing kids? Goomba now walks and climbs and runs and all that, and so needs footwear. But what footwear? Why are baby shoes so expensive? $60 for a pair they will outgrow in two months is not sustainable. And how do you know if shoes are comfortable on a kid too young to explain if they're not?

Here are some specific questions:
1) What is with all the rubber/plastic shoes, like Crocs and jelly sandals and those Keds-looking shoes that are actually all rubber? I would never wear rubber shoes on my own feet, except galoshes, only because they're the only functional option for rain. Aren't rubber shoes uncomfortable and sweaty for kids? Galoshes are super sweaty.
2) Why do so many toddler shoes have laces? Is that actually convenient for either you or the kid?
3) Little girls' shoes seem to be basically women's shoe styles, sized for little feet. But even if you discount the obviously crazy idea that a two-year old should wear wedges or block heels, are any of the flat sandals and mary janes and things like that really practical on a toddler? Or do they obstruct running and climbing?
4) If, due to the obscene price of kids' shoes, you're buying them all used and usually online (as I am), what is the best shoe acquisition strategy given the rate of foot growth of small children? That is, say you find a nice pair that's one or two sizes too big currently at the bi-annual county-wide kid stuff sale in your town - should you assume the kid will grow into them, or do they skip whole sizes in foot-growth spurts? (I recall this happening to me, but only much later in childhood.) Should you buy them a little big for room to grow, as I do with clothing?
5) What is the status of low-cost brands like Children's Place and Gymboree? Are they equally comfortable for the brief time they're used before they're outgrown? Or are the expensive brands worth it (and by worth it, I mean worth the discounted price I pay on ebay, not retail)? If the only or main advantage of pricey brands is durability, isn't that kind of pointless given outgrow rates?

Friday, June 02, 2017

The intellectual origins of polarization, an illustration

A Twit-fit from some supposedly educated (as they make sure to point out!) luminaries on the left and right:

Both of these claims are wrong. Contra Chaplin, France and the Netherlands recognized America's "national statehood" before the Treaty of Paris. While the Treaty was diplomatically important, the only new source of recognition in it is from Britain. That of course is the most important source in some ways, since it signaled to the many smaller, weaker nations of Europe that Britain had relinquished its colonial claims and they would not risk repercussions by treating with the US. The US had to make separate treaties with each nation with which it sought diplomatic or commercial relations after the war. That road to "international recognition" is a far cry from "creation by the international community" in any meaningful sense.

Cruz, on the other hand, seems to believe that the US was created in an international vacuum. While this has a certain appeal since it frees us from dependence on foreign opinion and foreign assistance, it would mean that so long as any group declares itself autonomous, fights some battles, and produces a legal charter, it is a country. On these grounds, Quebec can probably qualify, along with a number of other separatist movements.

What's interesting about these two wrong explanations of American creation is what they betray about partisan assumptions. There is a central ambiguity in these Tweets - what is meant by the term "creation"? Chaplin gives no suggestion that Americans had any role in their own founding. The country seems to be the product of a multi-national meeting of powdered wigheads in Paris in 1783 who said, "How about we designate a little country out there in the New World, say between Monsieur France's claims in the north and Senor Spain's claims in the south? We shall call it America! Wouldn't that be splendid? I'll bet the inhabitants will be so pleased! Let's have a vote on it!" Of course, countries have been created this way, in the 20th century, by the UN. And one suspects that this is Chaplin's reflexive paradigm for national legitimacy: however it is that countries technically come to be or whatever their own national narratives, they effectively exist only by the generosity of a unified "international community," which could dismantle them at any time and to which they ought to defer as a result. According to Chaplin, we owe everything to everybody.

Cruz clearly takes "creation" to mean how America fashioned itself and what makes it internally complete. The inclusion of the Constitution gives this away, because if you think of national creation simply as what it takes to become a minimally functional, self-governing country, the US was one for over a decade before the ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution completes the creation of America for its citizens, but it doesn't change anything about our status with respect to the rest of the world. Still, even if you want to emphasize the American role in its own founding, which is a reasonable response to the suggestion that the US was created ex nihilo by an 18th-century UN Resolution, you still have to admit that the assistance of other countries (France, Spain) was essential to its creation, and that our internal political institutions were influenced by external political considerations (paying off debts, etc.). But according to Cruz, we don't own nothing to nobody.