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Monday, July 26, 2010


Inception: Daily Caller is a manic, needlessly complex, and ultimately trivial movie—good for a few hours’ entertainment in a sweltering summer, but mind-numbingly insubstantial.  The initial premise is promising: former Beltway star Tucker Carlson, anguished at having dropped to the Schlussel-Breitbart level of American punditry, assembles a team of accomplished sociopaths and professional liars (led by newcomer Jonathan Strong) to sedate young Ezra Klein and journey deep into Klein’s unconscious to find the vault where he keeps the names of the members of a secret society known only as “Journolist.” It’s like Fantastic Voyage meets The Matrix, and some of the special effects—like a free-fall fistfight between Dave Weigel and Jeffrey Goldberg in a zero-gravity hotel corridor—are remarkably convincing.  But the plot goes awry when the intrepid Carlson discovers that the sleeping Klein is dreaming of yet another list.  This is apparently made up of a still more shadowy group of academics and political commentators who are, in turn, collectively dreaming of ways to develop techniques for “inception,” that is, planting ideas in other people’s minds so deeply that the people believe the ideas to be their own.  This could have been an opportunity for some genuinely innovative and challenging filmmaking, the dream-within-the-dream-within-the-dream taking any number of surreal forms.  But it’s just at this point that Inception: DC runs out of imagination, revealing a secret society in an Arctic fortress devoted to some of the most banal and mundane machinations ever machinated.  Middling obscure and openly left wing university professor Henry Farrell is shown dreaming up an “Open Letter” together with 106 fellow sleepers (giving new meaning to the term “sleeper cell”), while on still deeper levels, teams of liberal and center-liberal dreamers plot to criticize Sarah Palin for her ignorance and inexperience.  At which point the befuddled viewer can only ask, was this trip really necessary?

There may be some kind of paradox in the fact that the dazzling high-tech wizardry of Inception: DC is ultimately deployed to uncover the weakest-sauce “conspiracy” in the history of conspiracy theories.  Meanwhile, the real mystery, as always, lies hidden in plain sight: the mystery of how a team of accomplished sociopaths managed to get so deep into John McCain’s brain as to persuade him to nominate Sarah Palin in the first place, and then to “suspend” his campaign in response to the financial crisis so that he could fly back to Washington and stand around the White House muttering and looking angry.  The day that bizarre story comes to light is the day we’ll finally have a political/psychological thriller worth watching.

Posted by Michael on 07/26 at 10:16 AM
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fuzzy Dice

Mark C. Taylor, writing in a New York Times forum on tenure:

Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The fundamental problem is liquidity – both financial and intellectual.

If you take the current average salary of an associate professor and assume this tenured faculty member remains an associate professor for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years, the total cost of salary and benefits alone is $12,198,578 at a private institution and $9,992,888 at a public institution. To fund these expenses would require a current endowment of $3,959,743 and $3,524,426 respectively and $28,721,197 and $23,583,423 at the end of the person’s career. Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment more flexibility is required.

Capital is not only financial but is also intellectual and here too liquidity is an issue. In today’s fast changing world, it is impossible to know whether a person’s research is going to be relevant in five years let alone 35 years.

I do not know what to say about this.  I have one minor editorial quibble:  although it’s true that research on stuff nobody cares about, like Duns Scotus, will not be relevant in five or thirty-five years, the proper locution is “in today’s fast changing world today.”

But never mind the words—let’s look at those numbers.  As director of Penn State’s Institute of Advanced Research in Totally Made Up Arithmetic, I am tempted to respond to Professor Taylor’s claim that faculty at public universities average just over $285,500 in salary and benefits by awarding him a Distinguished Visiting Professorship and a research account in the amount of four-twenty ten-eight scintillion dollars.  But for now I think I will simply board a plane to Las Vegas, where I hope to put Professor Taylor’s system to use at the gaming tables of that fair city.  By my calculations, the Taylor Theorem suggests that your average craps-shooting college professor has a 95 percent chance of tripling his stake every twenty minutes, so if you’re in the house, stop on by! 

Posted by Michael on 07/21 at 07:23 AM
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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Back by popular demand

Looking deep in the thread of the previous post, I find that the people are one person is clamoring for new posts.  Well, Mr. Mike Roberts, your wish is my command!  But first I have to take care of some important post-ironic business.  In comment 47, Dave Maier writes,

Okay, when you said

you know I love that spacy ambient dreamy stuff

I didn’t mean to suggest that you were being insincere in saying you liked Code 46 (which, as we agree, is very nice). I simply noted the irony you seem to need to employ in expressing even this relatively straightforward fact: because as you very well know, we know no such thing about you, given that this is the first you have ever said about it, and that in a post which is mostly about how great X and Hüsker Dü and suchlike are.

Well, Dave, this is not the first time we have disagreed about the status of the natural world, is it?  In fact, I have informed my readers of my love of that spacy ambient dreamy stuff a couple of times—as, for example, in the second paragraph of this five-year-old post, and more recently in this important parenthetical remark I inserted into my two-part post on 2001: A Space Odyssey a mere three and a half years ago:

Brian Eno had the same reaction to the Apollo visuals that I did, except of course that he responded by recording this brilliant album which sought to rectify those staticky TV images by reminding us of the immense void surrounding our tiny, frail bodies.  Hey, have I mentioned that I want “Ascent,” track 5, to be played at my funeral service?  Just a reminder.

I can’t believe you don’t remember that important parenthetical remark from three and a half years ago, and no, I am not being ironic.

All right, back to your irregularly scheduled blogging.

So we’re back from Rhode Island, where we did some swimmin’ and golfin’ and chowin’ down at this fine establishment (thanks to Nick for the tip!).  And lots of extended-family business.  Today, we’re off to Norfolk, to my father’s book party and some extended-friends-and-family business.  I’m not even bringing the laptop, so don’t take this opportunity to send me a whole bunch of electronical mails.

Besides, I have rediscovered the virtues of the non-electronical mail!  Before leaving for vacation, I used the Internet to buy some things, and lo, they were waiting for me when I returned, courtesy of the US Postal Service.  One was the soundtrack to Code 46, which is lots of that spacy ambient dreamy stuff I like—as you well know.  The other was Mark Alan Stamaty’s epic MacDoodle Street, which you must buy now if you want to continue reading this blog.  It’s not that I forgot how good it is, not only for individual panels and strips but also for its whole entire twisted plot; I’ve always known how good it is.  What was astonishing, reading it again after 30-plus years (during its run in 1978-79 it was the first thing I read every week in the Village Voice), was realizing how much of its humor I’ve stolen it’s influenced me over the years.  I’m willing to bet it influenced the young Matt Groening, too, though he wound up doing more in that medium than I did.  Anyway, plunk down the extra bucks at Alibris.  You’ll be glad you did—and, more important, I’ll be glad you did.  Because that way you’ll know what I’m talking about when I refer to Gustave Ranto, Dishwasher Monthly, Rebecca the Cow, and the Conservative Liberation Front.  You’ll resonate with sympathy when I say, “the mere twitching of an eyebrow is worth more than a hundred tons of gold,” and you’ll reply, “All my life I have hungered for those words.” And we’ll both be richer for it.

I may write about MacDoodle Street at some point—it’s a long-overdue assignment, since I volunteered to review the book for the Columbia Spectator thirty years ago and froze up, paradoxically because I had way too much to say about it for an 800-word review.  But on the Internets, you can run on and on and on and on and on, just like one of Stamaty’s marginal characters (really, he has characters who inhabit the margins of the comic strip, just as he has characters who are capable of climbing out of the strip and salvaging part of its plotline when the strip itself is too drunk and belligerent to meet its deadline).  So let me know if you’d like to hear more.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading about the financial crisis in Illinois, where the elected representatives of the state in which I lived for twelve years are engaging in an all-out effort to surpass California for advanced achievement in the general area of total systems failure.  The reason this matters to me, dear readers, is that part of my retirement savings lies vested in Illinois’ State Universities Retirement System, which means that part of my retirement plan is made up of IOU’s, ticker tape, and filling-station coins commemorating the presidency of Chester Alan Arthur.

But I have a solution to Illinois’ pension crisis—and the pension crises facing dozens of other states in the next decade.  My slogan is this:  Don’t default, prioritize! 

There are many different kinds of state employees, after all.  Some deserve to have their pensions honored, and some ... not so much.  If state legislatures would simply rank state employees by the degree of their patriotism, paying out pensions to the most patriotic retirees first, this would go a long way toward solving the solvency problem.  That way, states could prune roughly 40 percent of K-12 teachers as well as up to 90 percent of college professors from the pension rolls, while ensuring that state legislators themselves could collect their full pensions—indeed, more than one full pension, if they took advantage of Illinois’ “double-dipping” option back in the day.

Pension reform ... it’s about country, and it’s about time.

Posted by Michael on 07/15 at 11:01 AM
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