Archive for the ‘On the Long Side’ Category

The Great Read-cession: Books of the Financial Crisis

It's been five years since Lehman's demise

Introduction

 

Sometime during 2011, essentially on a whim, I decided that I wanted to read every book written on the subject of the financial crisis of 2007-08.

What would motivate someone to undertake such a project? Eh, who knows why people do the things they do? As far as I can remember, I had two main motives: one general and one specific.

Generally, I’ve always had a vague desire to pick one subject and just read everything I could about it. Whenever I read a work of nonfiction, no matter how good or thorough it is, I have this feeling that I’m only getting some of the story. I’m only seeing reality as filtered through the author. The stories told are the ones the author found interesting; the opinions featured are the ones of this writer’s sources; the quotes are the ones he happened to write down. Even the most evenhanded and objective writer retains some biases, if only due to the natural limitations on research and reporting. When I read nonfiction, I always feel keenly aware of this. As a result, a book that’s supposed to inform me often ends up highlighting what I still don’t know.

This problem doesn’t really have a solution—nobody can be a firsthand witness to everything—but reading the same story multiple times is at least a better approximation of reality than reading it just once. After all, the police don’t stop the investigation after interviewing one witness. Of course, there’s a reason most people don’t read this way: It is, by design, very, very repetitive. You’d end up reading slightly different versions of the same story over and over again, intentionally making a leisure activity less fun.

Nevertheless, the cumulative nagging of years of nonfiction motivated me to at least try this method once. No matter the subject, I felt like the experiment would at least give me a better sense of the systemic biases of nonfiction.

Which brings me to the specific reason of why this subject. Continue reading

“Now the story…”: Brief Reviews of Arrested Development

The original plan — like four years ago — was for John S and Tim to barrel through the 53 original episodes of Arrested Development and cooperatively rank them best to worst, with an in-depth review of each. Circumstances intervened with the thoroughness of that project, and egos intervened with the idea of two people “cooperatively” ranking all 53 episodes. (Ranking Game isn’t as effective with just two people.)

So here’s the result of all that labor: Shorter reviews of all 53 original episodes, presented in chronological fashion (albeit with a good deal of ranking going on within them).

Arrested Development is our favorite show, and this, in 53 different ways, shows why.

(Extended) Pilot

John once made a point — I think it was in here — about how dramas are most perfectly conceived in their first seasons. (He’s taken a step back, btw.) Comedies have always been driven differently. It takes time for the characters to evolve and develop the right way, for the proper interactions to take hold.

Which makes watching Arrested Development’s extended pilot so remarkable. The characters are properly and almost comprehensively established right away. “This is Michael Bluth. He’s a good man” is the first line of the series, and it foregrounds everything that is to come after it.* Lucille is overdramatic and quick-witted, Lindsay is hypocritical, Tobias is oblivious, Gob is creepy, Buster is incompetent, George Sr. is going through one of his phases (a cowboy one to be exact). None of these characterizations ring untrue.

*The “He’s a good man” is actually cut from the pilot that aired. Seems like it shouldn’t have been.

This isn’t the funniest episode of the series by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one of the funnier pilots you’ll ever see, especially considering the amount of expository work that has to be done. The series lays its extensive deck of cards on the table right away, complete with the eccentricities of its characters and absurd plot developments (i.e. incest in the first episode). It’s a nearly flawless pilot. —Tim

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The War for Late Night: Smiling Politely Towards Disaster

Anyone who picks up Bill Carter’s new book about last January’s late night TV debacle—The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy—looking for a villain is destined to be disappointed. This is not for lack of effort. The book is impressively comprehensive about NBC’s decision to move Jay Leno from The Tonight Show to primetime and back again and the disaster that followed. Carter gives detailed histories of and various perspectives on all the major players involved—Leno, Conan, Jeff Zucker, David Letterman, Jeff Gaspin, etc.—but in the end nobody comes off as an evil monster responsible for the train wreck. Instead, we get a fascinating example of how a bunch of people all acting with the best intentions can lead to the worst possible outcome.

“If they’d come in and shot everybody—I mean, it would have been people murdered. But at least it would have been a two-day story. I mean, yes, NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 onward.” —Jay Leno Continue reading

Against Voting

Yesterday was Election Day, meaning a lot of people spent a lot of time talking about how important voting is. Voting is the cornerstone of democracy—it’s a cliché, but it’s true. And, as most of the Western world lives in a democracy, we hear a lot about the importance of voting. When President Obama went on The Daily Show last week, he made sure to remind viewers to vote in yesterday’s elections, and you can assuredly find countless celebrity videos and PSAs telling people to vote every November, or risk their corporeal demise.

It’s true that voting plays a significant role in our society, but that doesn’t make it good. There are plenty of things that are important but terrible: the Iraq War, cancer, the Tea Party, religion, the imperial conquests of the British Empire, terrorism, Dr. Luke’s contributions to pop music, infanticide, etc. Like all of these things, voting’s negative consequences so overwhelmingly exceed its positives that voting in democratic elections ought to be considered an immoral act. Continue reading

Simpsons Classics: 22 Short Films about Springfield

“The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. This antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily existence.”

–Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”

“Everybody in town’s got their story to tell.”

“There’s just not enough time to hear them all.”

Milhouse Van Houten and Bart Simpson, “22 Short Films about Springfield”

Viewed in and of itself, “22 Short Films about Springfield” isn’t the funniest episode of The Simpsons, or its most character-driven, and it certainly isn’t the best. In fact, it doesn’t even earn these titles among the five episodes that accompany it on Disc 4 of the Season Seven DVD.* It isn’t as funny as “Much Apu about Nothing,” and it lacks the frequently poignant characterization of “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” or “Homerpalooza.” But within the entirety of The Simpsons canon, “22 Short Films” stands out as a unique, and, I’d like to argue, uniquely necessary episode of the series. This is because “22 Short Films” is nothing short of a thoroughly Modernist foundation and legitimation of Springfield as a metropolitan setting.

*If I could only keep one of my DVDs, it would be this disc. It has “22 Short Films,” “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish,’”  “Much Apu about Nothing,” “Homerpalooza,” and “Summer of 4 Ft. 2.” It is amazing.

By this, I mean that the 23 minutes of “22 Short Films about Springfield” help establish, develop, contextualize, and yes, animate the world around the series’ eponymous family. And the manner in which it does this is steeped in what appears to be a distinctly Modernist tradition. My texts for backing up this assertion will be the episode itself (obvs), the aforereferenced “Metropolis and the Mental Life” by Georg Simmel, and two landmark Modernist novels: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and definitive Modernist tome of them all, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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First Amendment Symposium, Part II: In Defense of Rights

This is the first part of a two-part reply to John’s critique of the First Amendment. The second part will run tomorrow.

John has two main arguments to support his proposition that the First Amendment is vastly overrated. First, he argues that the concept of a “right” is meaningless, and insofar as the First Amendment protects rights, it too lacks meaning. Second, John groups a bunch of arguments specific to the First Amendment together under the general proposition that the First Amendment is only about government neutrality towards speech, which can be deleterious. I will respond to these two arguments in two separate posts, addressing the rights argument in this first one.

John claims that the concept of a right is “an outdated modality,” “an autocratic fiat,” and “tremendously unhelpful” among other things.* John doesn’t formally define what a right is up front, and the closest he comes is when he calls rights “protections which you are entitled no matter what the consequences are.” This may be one effect of one having a right, but it is not a definition.  A more precise definition would be helpful to prevent us from speaking past each other. Wesley Hohfeld, somewhat like John, was bothered by meaningless invocations of “rights” and sought to clarify exactly what a right actually was; he argued that rights and duties were correlative. If X has a right to do something, he is legally protected from interference by Y.** In other words Y has a correlative duty not to interfere with X’s right. So, if X has a right to speak freely, then Y has a correlative duty not to interfere with X’s speaking freely.

*If I were a right, I would be very offended. I would likely cry.

**Y being any other individual or the government.

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First Amendment Symposium Part I: Why The First Amendment Is Drastically Overrated

Now that Josh has concluded his eight month-long analysis of the Bill of Rights,* it’s time for we at NPI to finally face facts: The Bill of Rights as a whole is incredibly overrated. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments are glorified addenda, the Seventh is, as Josh said, dull, the Third has been pretty useless, and the Second is essentially gibberish. The entire document is in desperate need of a proofreader (seriously, the grammar in that thing is offensively ambiguous).

*And in depressingly anticlimactic fashion, I might add: Oh, the First Amendment is first and the Second is last? How original! Is he also going to write something about how rainbows are pretty and chocolate tastes good?

And yet the Bill of Rights remains incredibly popular. Demagogic political figures appeal to it for justification of any principle they want to espouse; citizens regard it with a scriptural sanctity even though polls show that most of them don’t know what it says. In other words, the Bill of Rights is basically the secular version of the Bible. And not much of that has to do with its proscription on troop-quartering.

You don’t have to be a constitutional scholar to know that the Bill of Rights’ reputation with the public is largely the result of the First Amendment, specifically the freedoms of speech and the press. And yet it is this part of the Bill of Rights that is the most overrated. Continue reading