Monthly Archives: October 2008

The Meta Shock Value

Sometime before the First World War, ohhhhh, no need to be exact, let’s say about 1910, Virginia Woolf concluded that human nature changed. Like an asteroid laying waste to a whole species, she and others felt the conditions of modernity had wiped out the old dinosaurs of art, those crude beasts who transported their audience, who believed in such petty bourgeois elements as plot, representation, and the major scale. In their place, out of the primordial ooze left behind by their carcasses, arose the charming aristocracy of art, the newly evolved holy beasts who would not stoop so low as to entertain. Now Art would require a secret hand-shake to understand. Epater les bourgeois! 

Of this trend, Robin Hanson asks

In the art world something is “edgy” if it might well shock ordinary folks, but of course not in-the-know folks.  The idea seems to be that ordinary folks are shocked too easily by things that should not really be shocking.

The opposite concept, which I’ll call “anti-edgy”, is of something that does not shock ordinary folks, but should.  In the know folks are shocked, but most others are not.  Why does the world of art and fashion emphasize the edgy so much more than the anti-edgy? 

It’s an interesting thought. Outside of art, I would think any political philosophy outside the mainstream fits this category. Having unorthodox views myself, I interpret current events through this very lens. The bailout package is shocking to my sensibilities. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for the man on the street. But to return to art: I’m surprised Hanson, the king of meta, hasn’t noticed that there is a slight meta-shock that occurs in the art he refers to. An epiphenomena of shock. Like he says, the respectable middle class is shocked by some art, the charming intellectuals delight in that, but there’s also a normative tinge to the intellectual’s laughter. For the middle class should be shocked at their own reaction, but they aren’t.

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Michael Lewis At It Again

In his latest column, his wit shines once more: 

If you haven’t figured it out by now, America has hired the wrong Paulson. There are two of them, Hank and John. Hank turned Goldman Sachs from an investment bank into a busload of tourists going to a casino, with borrowed money.

Goldman might have been the smartest investment bank but you only needed to see Dick Fuld testify before a congressional committee to know how much that means. No pun intended, but Dick didn’t know dick.

Astute observers will note that every time they run across a party of midgets, one is tallest, and his name is usually Goldman. Suffice it to say that while Hank’s shop was creating subprime mortgage-backed bonds, John’s was shorting them. Hank wound up working for the government, John wound up making $3.7 billion. For himself.

Wake up America! The teacher has just asked the class to send one member to the chalk board to figure out a problem. You just reached past the A student in the front row and plucked the guy in the middle who’s working hard for a B-minus. And he’s confused!

Lewis also alerts me to this beauty of a letter written by Andrew Lahde. After running the table this year shorting banks–his hedge fund reports earnings over 800 percent–Lahde decided to retire in his prime. The best excerpt of his resignation letter

 I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy, only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.

Or as Arnold Kling would put it, it sounds like some geeks made some money off the suits.

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Mad Men Season 2 Finale

I’m not entirely sure, but it sure as hell felt like the show ended ten minutes early. Worse yet, during the last ten minutes of the hour, AMC showed highlights from the Mad Men closing party. As Cooper said to Pete Campbell in season 1, “Who cares?” 

After the triumph of the first season, the show glided into a sophomore slump. I have to say it. The last episode confirmed it. I’m still trying to put my finger exactly on what’s responsible for this trend. All I have is a few thoughts. First, the show has drifted away from its premise: we need continuously smoking, racist-chauvinist, adulterous, alcoholic–and yes, glamorous and charming–men creating advertising in the early 60s and we need the women who live lives of quiet desperation under them. We need characters struggling for fulfillment within this crucible. Much in that way, the first season was electrified by the uneasy relationship between Don’s creativity and his role at home as the man in the gray flannel suit. His dalliances fueled his genius and underscored his hypocrisy: where Betty was staid, controlled, and proper, Midge was free and dionysian; where Betty was domesticated, Rachel Menken was authoritative, decisive and defiant. The poignant moments came when it became clear Betty wanted to be this kind of woman, particularly in bed with Don, but his straight jacket conservative side wouldn’t allow it. All this was lost in season 2. Bobbie Barrett was an obstacle and the detonator to blow up the Draper household. That is all. It was much more interesting when Betty discovered Don and her shrink had been sharing information. Rather than confront him, she used this to her advantage as a feedback channel–subtle and better, alluringly devious. 

And this is supposed to be a show about advertising! We need the pitch meetings. We need Don, the master psychologist, the artist. After watching the SNL skit this last weekend, it occurred to me that because parodies of Don’s pitches were so obvious, perhaps Matthew Weiner feared they had to fight imitating themselves. But they can’t runway from this challenge. Don’s monologue for “The Wheel” in season 1 is unforgettable. It reaches so deep, operates on so many levels, that it haunts. I can’t think of one moment like that in season 2. 

The main point is that Don strayed off the reservation, figuratively and literally. Those episodes where he joined the Lotus eaters in Palm Springs were such a waste. There were glimmers of a return in the last episode. The cliffhanger involving Don leaving the firm sparks my interest. But with no contract in sight, and talk of taking a break, Weiner may leave us without anything for a long time. Sad to say.

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News You Can Use

From John Tierney

Pyschologists report in Science that you’re more likely to think warmly of someone else if you’re holding something warm in your hand like a mug of coffee or tea. The experimenters, Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale, gave cups of either hot or iced coffee to people and asked them to rate someone’s personality based on a packet of information. The ones who held the hot cup rated that individual significantly higher for “warmth” than did the subjects holding the iced coffee.

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The Mismatch Problem Corroborated

His new book Outliers isn’t out for another month, but today Malcolm Gladwell might justly bask in that warm glow arising from confirmation bias. The mismatch problem, you’ll recall, is that we have no idea what we’re doing when we try to measure talent before it’s been put to actual use. Scouts fail to identify diamonds in the rough among draftees because they believe they can correlate success with a set of easily tested attributes–how high you jump, how fast you run and so on. The problem is, these attributes have little or no correlation with superior future performance. Or, as William Blake so eloquently put it, the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Now the ABA Law Journal has some good news for Gladwell’s thesis. A study by an unnamed top 25 law firm suggests that law school rank and GPA are worthless as predictors of future big law success. Harvard Law? Who cares! Yale? A nice credential to fulfill your quest after years and years of application-review servility, but now…who cares! As one of the study’s authors, Ron Paquette, tells the ABA Journal, “The Harvard attorneys do not perform any better than those at the 30th-ranked law school.” (The study defined success as longer tenure at the firm, higher productivity, and being a good cultural fit.) 

However, the authors do claim to have found some counterintuitive correlates for success. Among them are involvement in community groups or even participation in college athletics. In some ways this is obvious. I’ve always thought the frat house prez would make a great lawyer.

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Shanghaiing Tom Wolfe in a Cafe

Whoever this intrepid new media interviewer is, I want to thank him. I can’t tell for sure, but based on what’s said in the interview, it would seem this excited fan found Tom Wolfe in Argentina and then persuaded him to sit down and talk over a cup of coffee. The guy must be using a phone camera. And yet this could be one of the best interviews with Wolfe I’ve ever seen. 

Watch for yourself.

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The Irrelevance of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Whose writing has been more widely read? Whose writings have had a greater beneficial effect on people around the world? Whose writing is “too isolated, too insular,” in the phrase of Horace Engdahl, slanderer of American writers and the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury for literature? 

A) Paul Krugman, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Or: 

B) Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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