December 01, 2012

Why I loathe 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Update, Dec. 1, 2012: I've identified even more why I don't like it. See paragraphs at bottom.

A few years ago, I wrote a fairly long blog post about the Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart chestnut possibly needing a remake, as well as some things that were wrong about this saccharine bit of of sentimentality, and extensively updated it last year at Christmas time. The post incorporated a couple of other bloggers' takes on issues or problems with the movie, which I didn't fully tackle at the time.

Well, now I am.

First, it's not just sentimental, it's, as I said above, saccharine about it. And cheesy. "Fiddler on the Roof," arguably, is sentimental, albeit darkly so. "The Sound of Music" is also sentimental, and overall, sunnily so, while accepting (as based on a true story) that Austria was dead (even as it mythologized Austria). But, "It's a Wonderful Life" has no nuance.

Second, in the actual movie, what's to be so sentimental about? Sure, George Bailey has all these friends helping him out. In fact, he's not only recouped the money Uncle Billy lost, but much more. Beyond that, even a George Bailey as soft-hearted as Capra's would have, at a suitable point in the next year, quietly but firmly pushed Uncle Billy on part-time status while looking for a permanent replacement.

Related to that, after the end of World War II, Bedford Falls would have gotten its own housing boom, even its own small Levittown. Most buyers would have taken loans from Bailey, not Potter. George Bailey might have come into decent money. Or, he might even have gotten rich.

Third, Capra HUGELY stacks the deck with his Clarence.

Clarence shows everything that went wrong by George never being born, but he never shows everything that went RIGHT by George never being born. Indeed, he and Capra never even offer that as a possibility, that some people might have been better off had George Bailey never been born.

It's like people who believe in reincarnation, but "somehow" always remember being a king in a past life, but never the person shoveling the shit out of the king's stables, let alone a dung bettle rolling around in that shit.

Maybe if George hadn't been born, Potter would have taken over the building and loan, then had a massive coronary a month later from overwork. In that case, somebody almost as nice as George Bailey might have replaced both him AND Potter.

(Per a 1992 bio of Capra, one director has another idea: George should have actually committed suicide. I could buy into that angle, too.)

So, I'm tired of crying sappy saccharine tears of this movie, and over how it makes me recognize my own life hasn't turned out so well in some ways. If I ever see it again in the next few years, I hope I get angry instead.

Update, Dec. 1, 2012: I watched bits and pieces of the whole thing, and all of the last half hour. I had to steel myself once or twice, but didn't come close to a real lump in the throat, let alone more.

And, I recognize even more why I don't like the movie ... it's along the "reincarnation" lines, but even blunter.

It's like when pro-life people say, "Would you have aborted 'Baby X' with a bad childhood? Congratulations. You aborted Leonardo, or Beethoven, or whomever." But pro-choice people can respond with similar counterscenarios, and say, "Congratulations. You kept Hitler alive to perpetuate the Holocaust."

It's that kind of deck-stacking that Capra does.

Does 'It's a Wonderful Life' need a remake?

"It's a Wonderful Life" is on TV again (Updated, Dec. 1, 2012). I am at home tonight, and per the linked follow-up blog post in the third paragraph, if I watch it tonight, it will be, contra past years before 2011, not be such a saccharine tear-jerker as usually has been for me. Indeed, I may turn a strongly critical eye on it, and a more introspective one on my past emotions.

And, I know that it is such a tear-jerker because it leaves me longing, more than just wistful, for a life that I never experienced that much growing up. (Since I didn't experience it, I can't be nostalgic about it.)

(Update, June 2, 2012: I've now come to the conclusion that behind the saccharine and my own tears, I loathe the ideas and philosophy behind it.)

Anyway, let's think of some alternative ideas for this movie, since it's a tear-jerker precisely because Frank Capra pulls  formulaic strings, while actually making it "Bentham’s Panopticon with picket fences," per a link below the fold.

What if Capra had ended the movie 20 minutes early with George Bailey, aka Jimmy Stewart, jumping from the bridge? Or, had run it out another 30 minutes after the tear-jerker ending? Would we see George take a more skeptical look at Bedford Falls? Would he perhaps wonder if a little bit of Potterville actually did lurk beneath the surface?

If you want to get more thought on that line of thought, go here; is IAWL "the most terrifying movie ever"?

Before I saw the Salon story, when I watched it (and, yes, cried again) this year, I thought that the end of what Rich Cohen calls "The Night Journey of George Bailey" had a major-key riff on the melody of the medieval church hymm of the Apocalypse par excellence, the Dies Irae. Cohan makes me wonder more.

The occurrence is just before Bert pulls up and says, "Where have you been, George"?" It just caught my ear. [That said, that's part of why I love Rachmaninoff, and I will hear the Dies Irae wherever it pops up. More on that "aha" here.] Given that Dmitri Tiomkin, who wrote the score, was born in Old Russia 21 years after Rachmaninoff, and studies there under Alexander Glazunov and later, in Berlin, under Ferruccio Busoni, it adds to the possibility. However, the original score was even darker.

Per the link, which talks about George's "resurrection," I think that IS a Dies Irae riff. (More on that thought here.) That said, to riff on some of the ideas in the link ... it would have been interesting if, in the "salvation by friends" scene at the end, the actual Dies Irae had been playing, sotto voce.

Anyway, Cohan says there's a darker meaning underneath the saccharine. I think he overstates his case, but may have something going on here.

So, per Cohan, and my own thoughts, maybe it's time to do a remake? Either cutting it short, or else extending it?

I think you could extend it, by about 15-20 minutes, cut about 4-5 minutes from the original, and do something "interesting." Along Cohan's line, could we make this an "Occupy Main Street" movie for today, taking "Occupy Wall Street" to the local level? Or would we have an "Occupy Shrugs," in which our updated George Bailey is crushed, bribed or otherwise taken out of the picture. Could we "darken" it further? Should we? Or make it more ambiguous in general?

Anyway, more thoughts on a remake, including suggested actors and directors, below the fold:

November 29, 2012

The fall colors of Texas

A beautiful red oak in Rosebud, Texas, with my judicial

and skilled, if I may say, use of Photoshop.
I was worried, earlier this year, that ongoing semi-drought was going to gut fall colors this year in east and central Texas. Instead, it looks like the year is, at least in selected spots, supplying perfect fall colors.

Without going into all the details, the lighting was from the right back, in other words, partially backlit, which is what you want.

Photoshop work, without giving away details, involved some dodging, some burning, some of the highlights/shadow command, moderate application of, and proper settings for, Photoshop's HDR toning, then my usual combo of Gaussian blur and unsharp mask.

I'd guesstimate this weekend is just about peak color in central Texas. So, if you have time free on or around the weekend, make a thermos of coffee or tea, get in the car, drive at a leisurely pace to and through some favorite spots, and enjoy.

For some more photos from in and around Rosebud, go here.

US top oil producer by 2020? Hold on

First, even though Al Jazeera as well as a Scientific American blogger is touting the idea, we may not pass Saudi Arabian in total oil production by 2020.

That’s in large part because of this piece which Al Jazeera has and SciAm doesn’t. Much of what is being banked on for a US oil “surge” is “unconventional oil” and Michael Klare, a respected writer on “Peak Oil” issues, lays out the details of why we shouldn’t gush such optimism.

That includes the shale oil of places like Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in south Texas. It takes water to do the fracking to get that. It will take even more water to get the putative reserves of oil shale in Utah and Colorado — converting shaly rocks to a crude-level oil precursor.

That doesn’t count the dangers and rigors of Arctic oil exploration or deep sea work elsewhere, nor the water consumption in Canada with its tar sands.

Beyond that, per those original two links? With natural gas, we know fracking causes wells to produce quickly and at high volume. However, they also fall off quickly.

What if the same is true in oil, and US production of unconventional oil shows a sharp, short-lived bell curve superimposed on the continuing decline in “conventional” reserves? 

Also, note that the hype about the US becoming self-sufficient apparently isn’t driven by the EIA, the Energy Information Agency, or the IEA, the International Energy Agency, nearly as much as it is by AEI — conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

The Oil Drum explains.

Update, Nov. 16:

More fluffing hype about US hydrocarbon reserves from The Guardian. First, an LNG auto still isn’t commercially viable, so US natural gas reserves do little to make OPEC worry.

Second, as far as oil reserves? The Bakken in North Dakota is “nice,” but best estimates still put it behind Alaska’s North Slope. The Eagle Ford in Texas is probably about the same.

Now that’s shale oil, i.e., oil in shale rock formations. Oil shale, converting even “poorer” rock formations to kerogen and then to oil? More energy expensive yet, as well as more water expensive, and a long ways from the market.

So, while US oil reserves are “interesting,” and the environmental effects of getting them problematic, at best, Bakken and Eagle Ford do NOT have OPEC quaking in its collective boots.

Better reporting, please. And, it’s weird how The Guardian can combine great reporting on “green” issues with breathless stuff like this.

Finally, let’s not forget that King Hubbert, in talking about Peak Oil, made allowances for unconventional oil. Whether they were perfect or not remains to be seen, of course.
At least the SciAm writer mentions how, if this is even partially true, it could affect global warming adversely.

Update, Nov. 29:

Alternet has much more about the reality behind the U.S. oil surge.

First, the IEA says Russian and Saudi production are both likely to decline.

Second, it — unreasonably, in my point of view, given ongoing violence, and continued deterioration of current wells, etc. — assumes Iraq will more than double its production by 2025. Well, I’ve got another invasion of Baghdad to sell you if you believe Iraq will be producing 8 million barrels a day by 2035.

Third, the IEA expects the world’s global warming to hit 4C by the end of the century.

Arctic: Area larger than US melted

That’s right, this summer’s record-setting melt of Arctic sea ice eventually killed off anarea larger than the United States. Yet the US continues to drag its feet at Doha, Qatar just as much as anybody else.

That’s even as the alarm bells continue to sound:
The dire climate news — following on the heels of a report Tuesday that found melting permafrost could significantly amplify global warming — comes as delegates from nearly 200 countries struggled for a third day to lay the groundwork for a deal that would cut emissions in an attempt to ensure that temperatures don't rise more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) over what they were in preindustrial times. Temperatures have already risen about 0.8 degrees C (1.4 degrees F), according to the latest report by the IPCC.
And as the Antarctic melt is increasing, too.

And, assuming they don’t get a deal? As I have blogged before, temperatures are likely to hit a rise of at least 4C overall. And, that’s overall, including the water of the world’s oceans, which warms more slowly. We could see temperatures at least 6C, or 11F, higher than preindustrial times by the end of this century.

Which means droughts like this year’s, now intensifying again, will be “the new normal.”

And, not just for the US. China, ahead of us on carbon emissions though still far lower on per-capita emissions, would probably lose one-third of its agricultural output. An 11F rise would certainly nuke much of the Himalayan glacier field on which its, and India’s, rivers depend, as well as causing massive changes to India’s monsoon.

So, yes, the US is at fault for diddling away under Team Obama. So, too, is China for insisting “rich countries” pay more. Chinese leaders, look into your Mahayana Buddhism past: We’re all on the one “big raft” together.

Texans: Blame Rick Perry for gas prices

Map from NRDC via High Country News
Per this post from my go-to magazine about the American West, High Country News, rather than blaming Barack Obama for high gas prices, inside Texas, wingnuts should be honest and blame Rick Perry instead.

Oh, and wingnuts should also be honest and join the reality-based community another way. The future EPA standards will save drivers a lot more in gas money than they will add to the price of a car. Of course, the new EPA standards are full of loopholes, like “credits” for air-conditioning, alt-fuel vehicles (Ford could roll out a shitload of E85 vehicles), etc., but it’s still an improvement indeed, both for saving oil and for reducing carbon emissions.

Does AI engage in behavioralism?

Noam Chomsky/From The Atlantic
Noam Chomsky, a long and persistent critic of artificial intelligence, says yes, or that it at least engages in the equivalent thereof, as related in this extended interview with the Atlantic.

If he is right, and I think he’s at least in the right ballpark, I think this arguably explains why AI, for all its self-touting, is the biggest research science and technology failure this side of peaceful fusion power. Indeed, progress on the two shares a remarkably similar arc.

The interview is indeed worth a read. It’s in-depth, and as the Atlantic editor-reporter notes, it’s rare these days, because everybody wants to interview Chomsky on political topics, not scientific ones.

Beyond his “behaviorist” comments, he suggests AI researchers, and at least some people in fields such as his own cognitive science, are still doing research on mind and intelligence at what might be called the wrong level of abstraction. It brings to mind Dan Dennett’s comment (ironic at times, given Dennett) of “greedy reductionism.”

It also brings to mind Paul Davies’ book “The Eerie Silence,” which criticizes SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, for various blinders it may be wearing in its search.

Chomsky, in the interview, also veers at least a bit into his home turf of linguistics. As part of that, he doesn’t have a lot of good to say about Bayesian statistics.

He says there are better ways for us to try to understand the “noise” with which we are bombarded on a daily basis.

To me, Bayesian statistics seems like “the hip thing” for pop and semi-pop observers of human cultural sociology. All it needs is a new book by Malcolm Gladwell.

For a more in-depth analysis of what I see Chomsky’s meaning, go here at my philosophy and arts blog.

November 27, 2012

A better idea for drug screening in Tejas

Gov. Rick Perry continues to tout the tired old wingnut line of drug-testing welfare recipients.

I have a much better idea. Given that yahoo at the mall in San Antonio on Black Friday, let’s drug test applicants for concealed handgun licenses.

And, no, it’s not a total “pox on your house” idea, or joke. The greatest number of homicides in the U.S. involve a victim who knows his or her killer; many of those involve domestic issues. Why shouldn’t we drug-test you? And, include alcohol as a “drug” on the testing, too?

Clay Shirky - new day, same old dishonest New Media blather

Well, Clay Shirky, this time with two co-authors, has largely “done it again.”

He’s commented mordantly on the financial future of journalism without major overhauls, while again largely dissing paywalls as part of the financial side of that overhaul.

As part of that, he (like Jay Rosen and others) has again — deliberately, I have to think — misunderstood Stewart Brand’s “information wants to be free” idea.

He’s again overtouted crowdsourcing’s potential value.

And, he’s exacerbated that by now touting the bright, shiny future of machine-generated journalism, while writing nary a word about ethical and other problems that have already cropped up with machine-generated journalism.

This is all in a new report, portentiously, or perhaps pretentiously, titled, “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

Here’s some insights from the PDF of the report.

Page 12 of text:
Web advertising has never generated anything like the same revenue per reader, mobile looks even worse, and the continuing rise in online advertising generally is now often bypassing traditional news properties altogether. Meanwhile, hoped-for sources of direct fees—pay walls, micropayments, mobile apps, digital subscriptions—have either failed or underperformed.

Of these, digital subscriptions, as practiced at the Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, New York Times and others have done best, but even here the net effect of subscriptions has not made up the print shortfall. Furthermore, because most digital subscriptions are designed to increase print circulation, the short-term effect of digital subscriptions has the immediate effect of making the papers more reliant on print revenue, despite the long-term deterioration of print.

We do not believe the continued erosion of traditional ad revenue will be made up on other platforms over the next three to five years. For the vast majority of news organizations, the next phase of their existence will resemble the last one—cost reduction as a forced move, albeit in a less urgent (and, we hope, more strategic) way, one that takes into account new news techniques and organizational models.
Generally agreed on the “outlook” side, including for mobile. But, if that is what it is, for short, and even medium, term, it makes sense that paywalls should in part be used to drive people (Back) to print. Also, Shirky fails to mention his past general opposition to paywalls.

Page 13 of text:
This restructuring will mean rethinking every organizational aspect of news production—increased openness to partnerships; increased reliance on publicly available data; increased use of individuals, crowds and machines to produce raw material; even increased reliance on machines to produce some of the output.
Shirky et al should know the limitations of machine-based journalism. In case you don’t, they include possible spamming susceptibility roughly along the lines of computer-based trading on Wall Street having computers ping each other back and forth; computer inability to “read” human emotions/motives; and more. For the trio not to report on the problems that have already happened with computer-generated reporting from the human side, such as fake bylines, is simply unacceptable.

Page 22ff of text — The trio talk about the crowd as journalists, while appearing to conflate crowd journalism and crowd eyewitnessing taken to the next phase. An eyewitness with a Twitter account isn’t necessarily a journalist; often, rather, he or she is simply an eyewitness broadcasting his/her observations before being queried by a journalist. There’s really not, IMO, a huge difference between this and old-fashioned tips. There is some difference, but it’s not huge. And for the trio to not even see Twitter eyewitnesses as a continuum to this, again … they’re wanting to see what they want to see, just as I am. As for “social” breaking the reliance on old sources … maybe, or maybe new social sources soon enough become the new old sources.

Crowds and photos? How many crowds, or individuals within a crowd, know journalistic ethics on things such as not photoshopping photos?
Or, the guy who did the fake Tweet of false “news” in NYC during Hurricane Sandy?

Related to that, on page 88ff, the group tends to overestimate the power of social media, in specific, in things such as the Arab Spring.

Page 25ff of text — machine journalism. If it’s being done by algorithms, there’s still humans who are needed to set and tweak the algorithm’s parameters. And, as Facebook users know, some algorithms suck. They hugely suck.

On news as institutional and other things … yes, changes are still coming, even to smaller newspapers, whether desired or not. But, the money issue will still be there, and in ways that Shirky et al don’t cover.

Foundational funding, for example? What if the foundation wants particular news covered, or wants a particular “angle”? What if it doesn’t want other news covered? That said, on 108ff, the trio does discuss the issue of further blurring PR and journalism.

Page 90ff — the financial cat is out of the bag. Shirky et al clearly believe that fair use means the old “information wants to be free,” and in its normal, misquoted form.

Per a previous blog post of mine:

Just maybe, more newspaper execs (and “Webbies” in general), are reading the full paragraph that contains Stewart Brand’s “information wants to be free” statement.

If you aren’t familiar with it, I’ll post it now:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
The issue at hand is what “free” means, whether to Brand himself, or others.

Also, per this American Journalism Review article, new buyers of newspapers, for whatever reasons they’re buying them, see paywalls as part of the business-side equation.

Indeed, as I blogged last week, many such new owners, and more and more legacy owners, are simply ignoring the new media fluffers like Shirky on paywalls.

And, at bottom line, per one commenter in the AJR story, a newspaper (or a TV station, for that matter) is a business. Yes, the business part of the current model, especially on print journalism, is what’s most broken in the journalism field.

Related to that, as Evgeny Morozov and others have noted, most the new media fluffers have spent most to all their careers teaching at taxpayer-funded public universities. It’s a luxury that people actually owning media operations don’t have.

 That said, the AJR story also notes, by taking elbow-throwing rich new owners as an example, of what could go wrong with foundational funding.

Page 109ff — by giving “shoutouts” to the likes of Twitter, Wikipedia and others, aren’t the trio trying to establish new “legacy organizations”?

Page 113 — This simply doesn’t make sense:
The wastefulness of pack journalism and the empty calories of unimproved wire service news are both bad fits for most institutions in the current environment. The organizations that set out to provide a public with a large part of the news will more often be aggregators, in the manner of Huffington Post or BuzzFeed.
Uhh, aggregators still survive, in part, on the “empty calories of unimproved wire service news.” And, isn’t commentary a filter, and any alleged improvement in the eye of the beholder?

That last graf just showed me that Shirky will write what he wants to write. Touting aggregators, without even noting that much of their aggregation is still wire service, is untruthful. Also not noting that much of the rest of the aggregate is unpaid contributions, much of the rest of the rest is vanity blogging, and that Huff Post has gotten its hands slapped on fair use issues before, is more dishonesty.

Finally, let me add one other important observation.

November 26, 2012

A theological-philosophical mashup can’t save god

A Jewish scholar, Yoram Hazony, tries to make the claim that the Christian Old Testament/Jewish Tanakh doesn’t support the idea of a god who is both omnipotent and omnibevolent.

He tries to do this with an old angle … claiming the “omnis” all come from Greek philosophy, and they’re not supported by the Old Testament.

Simply not true that they all come from Plato et al, and simply not true that they’re not biblical.

The second issue first.

“Second Isaiah” is probably the clearest Old Testament example of the omnipotence of the biblical god. Isaiah 45:7 NIV:
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Second Isaiah has numerous other passages like this.

As for the provenance of omnipotency, etc., in early Judaism, after the return from exile? That came from the Persians that liberated the exiles, namely from their Zoroastrianism that gave us, as well, cosmic dualism, heaven and hell, etc.

That’s why Second Isaiah has passages like this. Ditto for Zechariah and some other late books.

Beyond that, Hazony is wrong in another way.

Daniel, of course WAS written long after Jews had had extensive contact with Greek philosophical thought. Depending on where you butter your bread on the date of this book, Ecclesiastes may reflect Greek philosophical influence, too.

And, the rabbis by the time of Rome certainly did.

A "more plausible" idea of god might exist, but it's not in the Tanakh.

Second, what is this "more plausible" idea? Is it a "god of the gaps"? Is it a magic-god of Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum, wielding advanced enough technology to seem divine to at least a few?

Finally, the idea that the Hebrew imperfect is best translated in this case as “I will be what I will be,” rather than “I am what I am,” in god’s burning bush appearance to Moses, is a weak reed. In English, both tenses can be seen, to some degree, as implying continuity, not a one-time event, or as implying an ongoing status. In either case, the Yahwist author of that portion of Exodus wrote about 450 years before Second Isaiah. If Hazony is going to give us an ounce of exegesis, please give us the whole pound.

And, he should also tell us that modern scholarship thinks the name of Yahweh is yet another botched pun, whose roots are actually in the verb HaWaH, to storm or blow. In short, Yahweh was a Midianite Zeus, with Sinai, like Olympus, an old volcano.