Friday, February 29, 2008

Quote for the Day

From Randall Collins, "Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities," in The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, ed. by Steven Brint (Stanford Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 27, 29:
The development of the high-tech economy has also been affected by educational credential inflation. For example, as the competition for managerial positions increased among B.A. holders in the 1960s and 1970s, M.B.A. degrees became increasingly popular and eventually the new standard for access to corporate business jobs. Holders of these degrees have attempted to justify the credential by introducing new techniques of management; often of a faddish quality, they nevertheless have given a technical veneer to their activities. Credentialed workers tend to redefine their jobs and eliminate noncredentialed jobs around them. Thus the spiral of competition for education and the rising credential requirements for jobs tend to be irreversible.

* * *

Education is also legitimated as democratic equality of opportunity; here is another quarter-truth, since the massive expansion of educational access through the twentieth century has not reduced the association between occupational attainment and family background, and sociologists have extensively documented how educational advantage and disadvantage are passed along through family culture and economic means. We all know these latter points. Yet it is striking how virtually all ideological factions in the United States embrace education as the favored solution to social problems. It is a kind of secular religion, keeping alive the ideology of equality because we go through the motions of having our children in public schools in which they are superficially treated as equal.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Supreme Court Justices on Video

Orin Kerr links to an amazing set of videos:
Over at LawProse.Org, Bryan Garner has posted a remarkable set of extended interviews with eight of the nine current Supreme Court Justices (all but Souter) about legal writing, advocacy, and the process of deciding cases and writing opinions. The interviews are one-on-one, and each ranges from 30 minutes to over an hour. Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Thomas were interviewed in their chambers, and the rest appear to be in either the Lawyer's Lounge or the SG's room in the Court building. Garner conducted the interviews in 2006-07, although I don't know when he posted the files.

For Supreme Court geeks, these interviews are a gold mine. * * *

Quote of the Day

From Randall Collins, "Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities," in The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, ed. by Steven Brint (Stanford Univ. Press, 2002), p. 26:

Credential inflation is largely supply driven, not demand driven; it is driven by the expansion of schooling, like a government printing more paper money, not from demand by the economy for an increasingly educated labor force. The opposing theory, that rising educational requirements have been determined by the functional requirements of jobs in the modern economy, does not hold up under the evidence. I summarized that evidence twenty years ago . . . and have seen nothing since then that leads me to believe that educational requirements are any more demand-driving in our era of educational hyperinflation . . . . Even in our "high-tech" era, the value of educational credentials is still mainly determined by the fact that the U.S. educational system has built up continuously widening access to each successive level of degree; it has been able to flood the market for educated labor at virtually any level.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Quote for the Day

From Randall Collins, "Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities," in The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, ed. by Steven Brint (Stanford Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 24-25:
Higher-level occupations require increasingly higher and more specialized academic credentials. Lower degrees have not lost all value, but their value is increasingly within the education, as a way station toward acquiring yet higher levels of education. A high school degree has become little more than a ticket into a lottery where one can buy a chance at a college degree, and that in turn is becoming a ticket to a yet higher level lottery. Most degrees have little substantive value in themselves; they are bureaucratic markets channeling access to the point at which they are cashed in . . . .

Nevertheless, there is a vestige of nineteenth-century community control campaigns in the stay-in-school propaganda aimed at teenagers disillusioned with being at the tail end of the competition for credentials . . . Thirty years from now we may have "don't drop out of college" campaigns.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Depressing Thoughts for the Day

From statistician William Briggs, who puts a statistical program to work on a series of random numbers, and then comes up with a statistical model that has a p value of under .05:
I am, of course, a statistician. So perhaps it will seem unusual to you when I say I wish there were fewer statistics done. And by that I mean that I’d like to see less statistical modeling done. I am happy to have more data collected, but am far less sanguine about the proliferation of studies based on statistical methods.

There are lots of reasons for this, which I will detail from time to time, but one of the main ones is how easy it is to mislead yourself, particularly if you use statistical procedures in a cookbook fashion. It takes more than a recipe to make an eatable cake.

* * *

[After describing the invented model:]

Nobody, or very very few, would notice that this model is completely made up. The reason is that, in real life, each of these x’s would have a name attached to it. If, for example, y was the amount spent on travel in a year, then some x’s might be x7=”married or not”, x21=”number of kids”, and so on. It is just too easy to concoct a reasonable story after the fact to say, “Of course, x7 should be in the model: after all, married people take vacations differently than do single people.” You might even then go on to publish a paper in the Journal of Hospitality Trends showing “statistically significant” relationships between being married and travel model spent.

And you would be believed.

I wouldn’t believe you, however, until you showed me how your model performed on a set of new data, say from next year’s travel figures. But this is so rarely done that I have yet to run across an example of it. When was the last time anybody read an article in a sociological, psychological, etc., journal in which truly independent data is used to show how a previously built model performed well or failed? If any of my readers have seen this, please drop me a note: you will have made the equivalent of a cryptozoological find.
From an interview with Timothy Keller, author of "The Reason for God":
Even [C.S.] Lewis, in his Weight of Glory series, Lewis said that, before World War One, the average educational experience was twelve or thirteen people sitting in a room listening to a paper by one person then tearing it apart till 2 a.m. in the morning. And he says, now, the quintessential educational experience is listening to a celebrity lecturer, with a hundred or two hundred other people taking notes and then taking an exam. Even he said, between the wars, he saw a diminishment in people’s ability to really think hard and long about issues.

People want you to get to the point quickly. And they want you to tell them what’s going on quickly. And they just don’t have the attention span. You can look at television, you can look at the Internet, you can look at the so-called rise of narrative and loss of trust in logic—I think it’s cumulative . . . I don’t want to say it’s all relativism or all the Internet because people don’t read long articles anymore. But I just know that it’s very hard to find people who can wade through—unless you’re a professional academic, you’re not going to wade through these books anymore.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Book Covers that Imitate Freakonomics

Every time I walk into a bookstore, I see a book whose cover reminds me of Freakonomics:

The classic is John Lott's book, which imitates the cover and the title:

The Freakonomics authors themselves pointed out several imitators in this post.

This one seems familiar as well:

And this:

And this:

And this:

And these books, which are at least about food:

The Hawthorne Effect

I have a post on the Hawthorne Effect over at Overcoming Bias.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New York Times stories

Every so often, I run across a New York Times story that is puzzling, because I can't figure out whether it's supposed to be making fun of its subjects or not. Such as this: Parent Shock: Children Are Not Décor.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Kudlow on the Stock Market

So, according to Lawrence Kudlow, not only can the stock market predict the success of US policy in Iraq, it might have an opinion on the results of the presidential primaries. I guess that latter claim is a bit more plausible, although given that the various candidates have shifted in position since Iowa (which Kudlow cites as an example), it's not clear which candidate the stock market supposedly likes.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Deas Vail

I saw Deas Vail live last week at the Music Hall, which has a history of hosting lots of up-and-coming bands. They were a great live band -- everything sounded really polished and professional, and I predict a bright future for them. I was also impressed that despite the soaring tenor vocals, all of the songs were done in the original key, and the lead singer didn't alter the melody to avoid the high notes (both of which are tricks that many bands use from time to time; for example, here's U2's Pride in the Name of Love in the original key; in a live performance at the time, it was about a half-step lower; and in a more recent performance, it was lower still.)

Here's a beautiful slower song of theirs:

Another good live video:

I can't recommend their album highly enough. You can buy it here.

I agree with this review, which calls Deas Vail "An Astonishingly Good Debut":
Frontman Wes Blaylock could very well be one of the best new vocalists in all of rock music, soaring above airy guitars and keys in a way that I thought only Copeland's Aaron Marsh was capable of (especially on the Mew-like "A Lover's Charm"). Backed by crunching guitars on tracks like the aggressive "Surfacing," and a simple yet effective piano-line on "Shoreline," Blaylock's voice soars through the roof and into the upper levels of the atmosphere.

Deas Vail's musical display shines the most when veering on the more melancholy side of the indie scene, especially on tracks like "Follow Sound," a five minute epic reminiscent of Coldplay. The band rarely falls into the trap of generic radio pop on All the Houses Look the Same, but even the tracks that do, such as "Anything You Say," or "Light as Air," only suffer from straying on the side of slightly more light-hearted pop.

However, musical maturity abounds that you don't usually expect on debut albums. Take "Shadows and City Lights," for example, a powerful tour-de-force with a deceiving intro that meanders slowly through moody keys and samples until the chorus, when hard-hitting guitars combine with a glockenspiel combine to create a powerful backdrop as Blaylock sings of a hopeless relationship. A young band that capitalizes off of their influences with amazing ease, and a sound that is as interesting as it is accessible, Deas Vail seems poised for greatness. The future looks promising, and if their debut album is any indication, we'll be hearing more from this band--a lot more.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Two Law Review Articles

Two new law review articles from professors who clerked for Judge Stephen Williams:
Does Political Bias in the Judiciary Matter?: Implications of Judicial Bias Studies for Legal and Constitutional Reform

University of Chicago Law School; University of Chicago Press January 1, 2008

U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 377
U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 195

Recent empirical scholarship that shows that judges decide cases in a manner that is consistent with their political biases has motivated a stream of proposals for reform, including judicial term limits, limitations on judicial review of statutes and agency actions, revision of the judicial appointments process, and mandatory mixed party representation on judicial panels. However, these proposals incorrectly assume that judicial bias is necessarily harmful, and do not fully consider the costs to other values even when reduction of judicial bias is justified. To evaluate proposals for reform, one needs a theory of judicial review, one that explains how bias and other characteristics of judicial behavior result in socially good or bad outcomes. This paper supplies such a theory, drawing on rational-choice accounts of the role of the judiciary in the legislative process. It argues that judicial bias is not harmful in a broad range of circumstances, and that the merits of the reform proposals depend on many factors, including, among others, the degree of supermajoritarianism of the legislative process, the magnitude of legislative bargaining costs, judicial competence, and the extent to which the judicial appointments process and party competition result in an ideologically diverse judiciary.
Deadlines in Administrative Law

University of Chicago Law School
University of California, Berkeley - School of Law (Boalt Hall)
University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 2008
U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 380
U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 196

A cottage industry in administrative law studies the various mechanisms by which Congress, the President, and the courts exert control of administrative agencies. Restrictions on the appointment and removal of personnel, the specification of requisite procedures for agency decisionmaking, presidential prompt letters, ex ante review of proposed decisions by the Office of Management and Budget, legislative vetoes, and alterations in funding or jurisdiction all constitute potential mechanisms for the control of agency behavior. In this paper, we focus on a much more elemental mechanism of control that has surprisingly gone relatively unnoticed in the literature on administrative agencies: Congressional control of the timing of administrative action. The use of deadlines that require agency action to commence or complete by a specific date is extremely common in the modern administrative state, but even basic descriptive statistics about the frequency and nature of these mechanisms are lacking, much less a fully elaborated theory of regulatory deadlines. This paper offers the beginning of such a theory by providing a doctrinal, theoretical, and empirical analysis of deadlines in administrative law.
As far as I can tell, this paper doesn't mention 47 U.S.C. 160(c), which allows parties to ask the FCC to forbear from any of its regulations, and if the FCC doesn't issue an order within 12 or 15 months, the petition will be automatically granted. This is a strongly deregulatory deadline, and one that leads to some controversy when the FCC fails to act in time.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Deneen's Cynicism about Electric Cars

Patrick Deneen of Georgetown has some typically bracing thoughts about electric cars, and, by extension, about our whole way of life:
* * * Our environmental "greenness" is as substantial as our March 17 Irishness: each is wholly superficial and bears no actual relation to reality.

A case in point: out of curiosity, I attended the Washington D.C. Auto Show two weeks ago, and wasn't remotely surprised that every auto manufacturer prominently advertised all the ways that they are embracing a "green future." Signs bragging about the mileage of existing cars - as if the frequent invocation that a car can get 30 mpg will convince us that this is actually good mileage! * * * This is a feel-good advertising campaign that promises more of just what we've been doing - paying absolutely no attention to what it is we are doing. * * *

On the environmental Left, our bourgeois bohemian centrists, even our Schwarzneggerian Republicans - along with various automobile manufacturers - there's a great deal of excitement about the prospect of a "clean" biofuel-powered or plug-in electric car. No more dirty emissions, no more addiction to oil! Just fill it with vegetable oil or plug it in and save the planet.

Alas, were it that easy - as easy as putting on a hat that says "Erin Go Braugh." A report in today's "New York Times" recounts growing evidence of the enormous destruction and carbon emissions of "bio-fuels," the boom in which is resulting in the destruction of huge swaths of carbon-consuming rainforests and nature preserves. It turns out our rush to adopt this new, "clean" energy source - which, incidentally, is also resulting in the starvation of poor peoples who cannot afford the rising price of food, a consequence of our refusal to drive less to eat at "TGIF" and "Dunkin' Donuts" - is contributing mightily to the ravaging of the planet.

Further, enthusiasts of the electric car can spare nary a thought to the question of where electricity comes from (do we suppose we collect the static electricity generated by rubbing our sneakers on a carpet?). Well, what a surprise it is to most people to learn that we generate most of our electricity using coal, followed by natural gas and then distantly by nuclear, water, wind and solar. Our "clean" electric car future is going to be powered by a different (and still limited) fossil fuel, one that is considerably more polluting than refined oil and which is mined in ways that destroys the land and unsettles communities.

* * *

[I]f we are going to have an electric fleet, it will surely be running to a great extent on "dirty coal" (Note that no one will call it that - it will just be called "coal," with adjectival descriptors magically disappearing). Or, the second possibility is that we really truly mean it about "going green," and thus forgo our current way of life, begin to make changes to our built community so that we can walk more, buy goods from more local sources, and live smaller and leaner and poorer.
Live smaller, leaner, and poorer -- probably good advice, but it would never fly as a campaign slogan, which leads one to pessimism that our "built community" will ever change unless something akin to Kunstler's Long Emergency takes place. I'm not sure why we humans have such an ingrained bias against believing in hedonic adaptation, or why -- even when we know that affective forecasting has proven wrong time and time again in our own lives -- we think that it will really work this time.

Baby Pictures

I was looking at some old pictures last night, and was struck by how different my kids look from when they were newborns. For example, here are Helena and our adopted son Jonathan as newborns.

A more recent picture:

Thursday, February 07, 2008

New Paper on Judicial Bias

Two of the top scholars of law and psychology and a federal magistrate judge have written a paper on various ways in which judges make bad decisions, and ways to overcome those cognitive biases. It's a fascinating read. They did experiments in which they asked real federal judges to rule on hypothetical cases, and have found evidence of anchoring bias, the representativeness heuristic, and hindsight bias. Of course, this is all treading in the well-worn paths of Kahneman and Tversky, but it's very useful to have experimental confirmation of how these cognitive biases affect judicial decisionmaking.

Here's the abstract:
Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Decide Cases

Vanderbilt University - School of Law
Cornell Law School
Cornell Law Review, Forthcoming
Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 07-25
Vanderbilt Law and Economics Research Paper No. 07-32

How do judges judge? Do they apply law to facts in a mechanical and deliberative way, as the formalists suggest they do, or do they rely on hunches and gut feelings, as the realists maintain? Debate has raged for decades, but researchers have offered little hard evidence in support of either model. Relying on empirical studies of judicial reasoning and decision making, we propose an entirely new model of judging that provides a more accurate explanation of judicial behavior. Our model accounts for the tendency of the human brain to make automatic, snap judgments, which are surprisingly accurate, but which can also lead to erroneous decisions. Equipped with a better understanding of judging, we then propose several reforms that should lead to more just and accurate outcomes.
And here's an interesting quote:
In another study, we tested whether a motion to dismiss would also affect judges‘ damage awards. We presented participating judges with a similar fact pattern and asked judges in the control group, "[H]ow much would you award the plaintiff in compensatory damages?" We gave the judges in the anchor group the same background information, but also told them that "[t]he defendant has moved for dismissal of the case, arguing that it does not meet the jurisdictional minimum for a diversity case of $75,000." We asked these judges to rule on the motion, and then asked them, "If you deny the motion, how much would you award the plaintiff in compensatory damages?" Because the plaintiff clearly had incurred damages greater than $75,000, we viewed the motion as meritless, as did all but two of the judges. Nonetheless, the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum served as an anchor and resulted in lower damage awards from those judges exposed to it. The judges who had not ruled on the motion awarded the plaintiff an average of $1,249,000 (and a median of $1 million), while those judges who ruled on the motion to dismiss awarded the plaintiff an average of $882,000 (and a median of $882,000). Thus, the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum anchored the judges‘ assessments, as they awarded roughly $350,000 (or nearly 30%) less on average.
This would clearly affect lawyers' incentives to file meritless motions to dismiss. (Note: There are other studies showing the effect of anchoring bias in judicial decisionmaking. See here and here.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why Doing Sprints is Great for Your Health

The best interval workout seems to consist of 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds of rest; repeat 7 or 8 times. These are often called "Tabata intervals," after a Japanese scientist who headed up several studies on humans and rats. His studies showed, among other things, that these intervals increased both anaerobic capacity and aerobic capacity more than an hour a day of more moderate exercise, and that a short bout of sprints was effective at burning fat or at increasing glucose transport (particularly helpful for diabetics). Some people use the same principle for any number of other workouts -- such as push-ups -- rather than a literal sprint.

I tried the Tabata interval workout today. The good part is that it was over very quickly. But it was one of the most intense workouts I've ever had, and I'm already sore right now, before the day is done (I almost never get sore from my running any more -- not from a relatively hard hill workout, not from longer intervals (such as 10 intervals of .4-.5 mile at about a 6:15 pace), etc.).

Here's a run-down of Tabata's studies:

1. Tabata I, Nishimura K, Kouzaki M, Hirai Y, Ogita F, Miyachi M, Yamamoto K., "Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max," Med Sci Sports Exerc., 28 vol. 10 (Oct. 1996):1327-30. This study consisted of six weeks of training. In one group, people cycled for 60 minutes a day at a modest pace. That group did not increase anaerobic capacity, and VO2 max increased by about 5 ml/kg/min. The other group did 7 or 8 sprints on the cycle with a 10-second rest in between. For them, anaerobic capacity increased by 28%, and aerobic capacity (or VO2 max) increased by MORE than the first group: 7 ml/kg/min.In short, 4 minutes of an intense sprint workout did more than an hour-long workout. Tabata has reportedly said that "the rate of increase in VO2max is one of the highest ever reported in exercise science."

2. Tabata I, Irisawa K, Kouzaki M, Nishimura K, Ogita F, Miyachi M., "Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises," Med Sci Sports Exerc., 29 vol. 3 (Mar. 1997):390-95. This study compared two types of interval workouts. Number One consisted of 20 seconds of sprints and 10 seconds of rest. Number Two consisted of 4 to 5 intervals of 30 seconds with 2 minutes of rest. The study looked at how hard each type of interval taxed the person. Number One sent people into a much higher oxygen deficit, and a similar peak oxygen uptake (as percentage of VO2 max). What this means is that Tabata intervals "may tax both the anaerobic and aerobic energy releasing systems almost maximally."

As this article explained:
The reason subjects didn't reach their anaerobic capacity on I2, even though they did more work, is due to the differences in the rest periods used. During each bout, phosphocreatine (PCr) is broken down, oxygen stores used up and lactate is produced from anaerobic glycolysis. During a two-minute rest period, as on I2, oxygen stores in the muscles can be replenished and the PCr stores used during each bout will be significantly recovered. Therefore the oxygen store and PCr contribution to each bout in I2 will be high. Because of this, more work can be done until lactate reaches the level whereby the subject cannot continue. In addition, although more TOTAL anaerobic work is done on I2, a two-minute recovery time allows the aerobic system to contribute more. Thus, PROPORTIONATELY less anaerobic work is performed and so the subjects do not reach anaerobic capacity.

In contrast, the rest intervals in I1 are very short. Therefore the PCr and O2 contribution will be insignificant after the first or second bout, as little oxygen and PCr store recovery will occur during 10-second rest intervals. PCr and O2 stores are quickly used up, and so the anaerobic energy must be mainly supplied by anaerobic glycolysis. This results in faster accumulation of lacate and earlier fatigue. Also, with short rest intervals there is proportionately less aerobic contribution and so subjects must reach anaerobic capacity to achieve the workout. Interestingly, even though proportionately less aerobic work is done, the aerobic demand on I1 is higher than on I2.
Tabata's article itself ends with this:
Many commonly used training regimens are based on little scientific evidence. We have, therefore, examined two different intermittent exercise protocols from the views points of maximal aerobic power and the accumulated oxygen deficit. Our data suggest that one protocol seems superior to the other since IE1 appears to stress both the aerobic and anaerobic energy releasing systems maximally, while IE2 did not. It may therefore recommend that protocol IE1 is used rather than IE2.

3. Now for a rat study: Terada S, Tabata I, Higuchi M., "Effect of high-intensity intermittent swimming training on fatty acid oxidation enzyme activity in rat skeletal muscle,"Jpn J Physiol., 54 no. 1 (Feb. 2004):47-52. This study subjected two groups of rats to two exercise routines: The Tabata intervals (swimming with weight attached for 20 seconds and 10 seconds of rest), or 6 hours (!) of swimming. The intervals led to a similar level of fatty acid oxidation, i.e., burning fat.

4. Terada S, Yokozeki T, Kawanaka K, Ogawa K, Higuchi M, Ezaki O, Tabata I., "Effects of high-intensity swimming training on GLUT-4 and glucose transport activity in rat skeletal muscle, J Appl Physiol., 90 no. 6 (June 2001):2019-24. This study compared rats doing the Tabata intervals to a control group getting no exercise, another group doing longer intervals of 17 minutes, and yet another group doing 6 hours of swimming a day. The study found that GLUT-4 content and maximal glucose transport was "similar" in the rats who did the Tabata intervals compared to the 6-hour-swimmers. (Quick googling shows that this might be useful for diabetes, for example.)

5. Kawanaka K, Tabata I, Tanaka A, Higuchi M., "Effects of high-intensity intermittent swimming on glucose transport in rat epitrochlearis muscle," J Appl Physiol., 84 no. 6 (June 1998):1852-7. I'm not sure I understand what happened in this study, but the high-intensity intervals seemed to have raised glucose transport to a "much higher level" than the comparison group.

6. This study was not by Tabata, but it's worth noting: Tremblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C., "Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism," Metabolism, 43 no. 7 (July 1994):814-18. This study compared high-intensity interval training (not clear how long the intervals were) to long slow endurance training. The key finding: "Despite its lower energy cost, the [interval] program induced a more pronounced reduction in subcutaneous adiposity [fat] compared with the [endurance] program. When corrected for the energy cost of training, the decrease in the sum of six subcutaneous skinfolds induced by the [interval] program was ninefold greater than by the [endurance] program." In other words, the high-intensity intervals used less than half the energy per workout, but all of the energy expended was nine times more efficient at burning the fat that's right under your skin.

UPDATE: A recent study -- Helgerud et al., "Aerobic High-Intensity Intervals Improve VO2max More Than Moderate Training," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 39 no. 4 (2007): 665-71 -- found that the best VO2max improvement occurred in a group that did four 4-minute hard intervals with 3 minutes of rest; similar improvement occurred in a group that did 47 (!) 15-second sprints with 15 seconds of rest (I can't even imagine); but NO improvement in VO2max occurred in two groups that, respectively, did 45-minute slow runs or 24-minute harder runs.

UPDATE 2: I found several more studies on sprinting and interval training; see here.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Decline of Romantic Comedies

In an article that I think is supposed to be a review of some Matthew McConaughey movie, A.O. Scott of the New York Times makes the case that romantic comedies were better-written back in the days of censorship:
The marriage plot, after all, is one of the oldest in literature, flourishing in Roman comedy, in the plays of Shakespeare and Molière and in the novels of Jane Austen. More to the point, the obstacle-strewn road to discovered or recovered bliss was heavily traveled in the old studio days, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s to their loopy Technicolor descendants of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

Our parents and grandparents had Rock Hudson and Doris Day — such delicious subtext! such amazing office furniture! — or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Or even, in “That Touch of Mink,” Cary Grant and Doris Day. But you get the point. We have Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.

Who are perfectly charming. Don’t get me wrong. You remember them in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” don’t you? Neither do I, even if a search of this newspaper’s archives indicates that I saw it.* * *

How did this genre fall so far, from one that reliably deployed the talents of the movie industry’s best writers, top directors and biggest stars to a source of lazy commercial fodder?

There are several possible answers. The most obvious one (and to me the least persuasive) is just that they don’t make them like they used to, that the history of American cinema since its classical era has been a sorry chronicle of decline. It may be true that you rarely hear the kind of sharp, sparkling dialogue that used to animate the films of Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor and Preston Sturges, but it would be hard to look at movies and television today and conclude that there is a shortage of funny writing or sharp storytelling.

* * *

But the movies made under the old taboos of the Production Code are far more sophisticated, and far less timid, than what we see today. The standard PG-13 romantic comedy nowadays treads so delicately in fear of giving offense to someone somewhere that it wonders into blandness and boredom. Its naughty R-rated sibling, meanwhile, will frequently wallow in coarseness at the expense of subtlety or wit, mistaking grossness for honesty.

Yes, there are exceptions: explicit movies that are also sharp and insightful, and more decorous ones that disarm with their sweetness. But “Knocked Up” and “Juno” are hardly the norm (and hardly without compromises and evasions of their own). The norm, sadly, is “27 Dresses” or “Dan in Real Life” or “Good Luck Chuck”: movies whose notion of love is insipid, shallow and frequently ludicrous.

And yet, while the romantic comedy has almost always trafficked in happy endings, that happiness is rarely accompanied by a sense of risk or exhilaration. When you think of, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn — or even Doris Day and Rock Hudson — you recall the emotional combat of two strong-willed, independent individuals ending in mutual conquest. Love, in those old pictures, was a dangerous and noble sport that required skill and cunning as well as commitment.* * *

Which brings me back — apologies to both; it’s nothing personal — to Mr. McConaughey, Ms. Hudson and their photogenic ilk. They are, for sure, better looking than the rest of us, but in their screen incarnations almost programmatically less interesting.

The actresses are spunky and sweet, but lacking in the vinegar that made Barbara Stanwyck in “The Lady Eve” or Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night” so definitively sexy. Those ladies were not always nice, and neither were their gentleman counterparts, who could be sarcastic, brutish and domineering when the mood struck.

By contrast, the romantic comedy leading men of today are the kind of nice guy — the Ralph Bellamy type — whom these earlier heroines would have triumphed by rejecting. The vision of love they embraced was not comfort and affirmation but a kind of grand, spirited struggle, what used to be called the battle of the sexes.
Ralph Bellamy, of course, was the dense-but-decent character who competed with Cary Grant in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth (a wonderful romantic comedy that A.O. Scott doesn't mention). Speaking of The Awful Truth, which starred Grant and Irene Dunne, those same two were paired in another hilarious romantic comedy, My Favorite Wife, as well as in the drama Penny Serenade.

Attention Spans and Blogging

I'm sure I could write something about this article, but I only got through the first paragraph.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Productivity Blogging

I find something ironic about how much time some people evidently spend just reading about generic ways to be more "productive."

Friday, February 01, 2008

Presidential Campaigns

This quotation from an Andrew Ferguson piece is long, but it's the best thing I've read about the presidential campaign:
It's not pleasant to think of the life they lead, these Americans who would be president, from the first hints of dawn to well past midnight, this life of endless demands, this succession of superficial sociability, in which you smile and smile and pop your eyes wide open in delighted wonder at the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of faces and places that circles before you, and you haven't the time or leisure to settle on a single one. Charming countryside, pretty little towns, sprawling centers of commerce and industry fly by and you haven't a moment to enjoy them or learn their tales. You rush to meet hundreds of people a day and never have a meaningful exchange of words with any of them.

From the backseats of freezing cars and vans you're hustled into overheated coffee shops and those packed school gymnasiums with the stink rising to the rafters and then the oppressive hush of corporate meeting rooms, where your nose starts to run and a film of sweat forms under your wool pullover, and you press the outstretched hands that carry every bacterial pathogen known to epidemiology. You open your mouth and you release the same cloud of words you recited yesterday and the day before. And in the Q&A, when you stop to listen, you hear the same questions and complaints from yesterday, the same mewling and blame-shifting, all imploring you to do the impossible and through some undefined action make the lives of these unhappy citizens somehow edifying, uplifting, and worth living. And you always promise you will do that; you have no choice but to tell this kind of lie.

There's no rest, because there's not a moment to waste: The handful of minutes away from the kaleidoscope are spent chatting with the scorpions of the press, the ill-dressed, ill-mannered reporters from the prints and the pretty, preening peacocks of TV, each of them either a know-it-all or a cynic or a dope, take your pick, and each of whom, for professional and other reasons, will deploy all his energies and cleverness to the task of trapping you into a misstatement or ungenerous remark or expression of irritation so he can convey to his editors and the world that--at last!--you've made a gaffe; and if you won't make a gaffe then he will convey to his editors and the world how "scripted" and "over rehearsed" you sound; kind of slick, almost robotic, inauthentic.

When the scorps are dismissed, in the seconds before you pass from the freezing van to the overheated gym or boardroom, a sycophant whose name you can't remember hands you a cell phone that connects you to a rich man whose face you dimly recall from another boardroom last summer and you beg him to give you money, or more often--considering the grinding pressure you feel for cash, always for cash--you beg him to assemble a circle of other rich men that he can beg on your behalf, and when you sign off you don't have time to be grateful. There will be more calls before dinner and after dinner, and dinner is a cold thigh of chicken in a sump of clotted gravy served from a steam table in a freezing cinderblock banquet room at the Lions Club, and a hundred pairs of eyes fix themselves on you--a celebrity, someone they've seen on TV--as you dribble the gravy on your shirtfront. And after you release the same words and hear the same complaints you go to bed in a Hampton Suites for five hours of sleep on starchy sheets with dimly visible stains whose origins are impossible to discern, and from the corner the digital display on the microwave flashes 12:00 12:00 12:00 . . .

And you do all this so you can wake up the next morning and do it again. Because you like it.

The man or woman who seeks out such a life and enjoys its discomforts is not normal. Not crazy necessarily, but not normal, and probably, when the chips are down, not to be trusted, especially when the purpose of it all is to acquire power over other people (also called, in the delicate language of contemporary politics, "public service" or "getting things done on behalf of the American people"). The case is made, in defense of the contemporary campaign, that this is an efficient if unlovely way to choose leaders: It winnows out those who lack the stamina and discipline necessary to lead a rich, large, powerful, and complicated country. By this argument, Thompson failed because he deserved to.

But the opposite case is easier to make--that the modern campaign excludes anyone who lacks the narcissism, cold-bloodedness, and unreflective nature that the process requires and rewards. In his memoir -Greenspan remarks that of the seven presidents he has known well, the only one who was "close to normal" was Jerry Ford. And, as Greenspan points out, Ford was never elected.

Matching People to Careers

Seth Roberts has a correspondent who makes a very good point:
I believe a large fraction of people around ages 16-22 are ignorant of what kinds of work environments and activities will make them happy and productive later in life. Current classroom-based training structures do not provide exposure to work environments. The cultural and social pressures from media, family and friends can be overwhelming and can often lead to people being very confused, and hence, making poor choices. I’ve seen that people tend to get very limited and highly biased information that leads to making training choices and work choices early in their life that are often not well matched for the person’s individual genius. By mid 20’s and 30’s, getting out of these poor choices is extremely difficult, as financial requirements as one ages grow and available time to retrain diminishes. Expectations of experience grow as one gets older, and the neural ability to quickly learn and master new skills diminishes, especially much later, after 40 or 50 years.

* * *

I think there are enormous unmet needs in many cultures, the US in particular, to provide more assistance to people in their late teens and college years to deeply explore what career options best fit their personality, and provide assessment and testing with definitive recommendations for majors, mentors, internships, and work choices.
It certainly seems true that most people go through life in complete unawareness of the staggering variety of jobs/careers that are out there and that might be a better fit for their personalities and gifts. Think of a more modest example: There are lots of different musical instruments (flute, violin, piano, cello, guitar, drums, oboe, tuba, dulcimer). Maybe you tried out the piano and disliked it, but you might have been good at one of the many other instruments. The discrepancy is much larger as to careers -- there are literally thousands of different jobs out there, many of which you might have enjoyed more than the job that you actually have (which you probably got just by falling into it, or because you thought it was prestigious, or because you were familiar with it from family or friends).

I'm skeptical about the notion that one can provide real "assistance" in overcoming this mismatch, however. You could give someone a list of a thousand different jobs and their descriptions, but no one (and certainly not an 18-year old) would be able to make sense of such a list -- you just wouldn't know whether you'd like many particular jobs until you had tried them out. But, of course, even if you tried a different job every year, you'd die before you had gotten through even a minute fraction of the many kinds of jobs that are out there.