Quantum Meruit

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Month: December, 2011

2012 Can’t Get Here Fast Enough for the Nerds

It’s been quite a week for nerds. No fewer than three film trailers have sparked our nerdly interest for 2012. It can’t come too soon, either, as 2011 was a crappy year for the nerds. (Non-nerdly films, however, were great. I’m thinking here of Drive and Tree of Life.)

The Dark Knight Rises is the final episode in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and it features Bane, Batman’s deadliest villain yet. Bane made a ridiculous appearance in the ludicrous Batman and Robin, where he lacked all of the criminal mastermind charm of the Bane found in comic books. Readers of the Batman comic books — and ostensibly even non-readers — remember what happened when Batman fought Bane. Will the same thing happen in the movie? We’ll find out July 20, 2012.

Prometheus returns Ridley Scott to the driver’s seat of a science fiction film. Though he’s remembered for science fiction, he directed only two such films. It’s probably because those two were Alien and Blade Runner that they overtake much of his other work. Prometheus is about . . . well, it’s about something that happens in space. The trailer seems to suggest that the movie could be a prequel to Alien, and not in a bad way, like Alien v. Predator. If my speculation is true, then it shows human beings discovering the alien out in space somewhere. Makes sense: in the original film, The Company already knew about the alien because it was able to program Ian Holm with instructions about what to do should the Nostromo find the alien. Coming June 8, 2012.

At long last, The Hobbit has actually been made. It’s actually been made into two films. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens December 14, 2012. Its counterpart, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, opens a year after that. It’s tempting to be cynical about splitting up movies like this and conclude that they’re doing it to make double the revenue. Then again, the Extended Editions of each Lord of the Rings film added about an hour to each of their runtimes, so maybe it’s worth it to pack all the stuff in to each movie Peter Jackson can. The Hobbit blissfully features the same actors, when necessary, from Lord of the Rings. Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson of the new Steven Moffat-penned Sherlock Holmes series) looks like a good fit as young Bilbo Baggins.

Though their trailers weren’t released last week, several other 2012 titles should make the nerds happy. The Avengers is the culmination of the individual superhero films Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. That’s May 4, 2012.

I’m upset about The Amazing Spider-Man, mostly because the first Spiderman came out only ten years ago. But we’ll see. July 3, 2012.

We haven’t seen Will Smith in a science fiction film since 2008’s Hancock, which was widely regarded as a stinker. Can you believe that the last Men in Black was 2002, and the first one was 2000? Men in Black III could be a good idea, or it could be desperation (some more emphasis on the latter because the plot involves time travel). Because the plot involves traveling back to the 1960s, where Will Smith will interact with Josh Brolin playing a younger Tommy Lee Jones, an important element of Men in Black — the banter between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones — might be lacking. Then again, if you were going to hire someone to play young Tommy Lee Jones, wouldn’t it be Josh Brolin?

And then there’s sequels for Underworld, G.I. Joe, Ghost Rider, and Clash of the Titans. Probably stay home for those.

AT&T Has One Final Tantrum

AT&T today announced, predictably, that it was dropping its bid to acquire T-Mobile. In so doing, AT&T didn’t miss a chance to petulantly tell the FCC that they would be sorry:

The actions by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice to block this transaction do not change the realities of the U.S. wireless industry. It is one of the most fiercely competitive industries in the world, with a mounting need for more spectrum that has not diminished and must be addressed immediately. The AT&T and T-Mobile USA combination would have offered an interim solution to this spectrum shortage. In the absence of such steps, customers will be harmed and needed investment will be stifled.

Really, AT&T? Merging the number one and number four wireless carriers in the United States to leave us with only three major wireless carriers would not stifle innovation? Does AT&T not remember  when it was the only phone company? Remember when customers actually had to rent their telephones from Ma Bell (that is, AT&T), paying many times more than the phone handset was worth, just because Bell insisted that no other handset would work on its network? Remember how that caused innovation?

Nice try, AT&T. If it’s any consolation, no one believed you from the beginning.

Hitchens’ Legacy of Never Budging (Not Necessarily Good)

I literally can’t count the number of eulogies online for Christopher Hitchens, recently deceased of esophogeal cancer. Hitchens was well-known as a stubborn contrarian and an outspoken atheist. He was also a good writer.

What drew liberals to him is mysterious. Hitchens was definitely an independent thinker in the sense that he believed whatever he wanted, and to hell with what anyone else thought. This temperment attracts people who appreciate such a cavalier attitude toward what other people think, but fanboys can conveniently ignore the parts of their hero that they don’t like. With Ron Paul, it’s the same way: are his more liberal, Daily Show-watching supporters aware that he thinks same-sex marriage is detestable and wants it to be banned?

Hitchens held several points of view that are appalling to liberals, the most overt of which was a sense of Western — and more specifically, Anglo-American — triumphalism. As Glenn Greenwald points out, the biggest philosophical mistake of Hitch’s career, and one that I think his supporters casually overlook, is his superlative support for the Iraq War:

Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neoconfaux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker‘s John Cook, who — in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary – detailed Hitchens’ vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected (he denounced the Dixie Chicks as being “sluts” and “fucking fat slags” for the crime of mildly disparaging the Commander-in-Chief). As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”; indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made.”

He didn’t just support the war in a political sense, he thought it was a moral imperative. It’s cliched to compare such expressions — where the political stretches into the cultural — to Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” but I’ll do it anyway. 

A friend and I were talking about Hitchens, and he remarked that Hitchens was never apologetic: in a debate or discussion, Hitchens never said that the sides should agree to disagree or something like that. Hitchens was in it to win it, so to speak; he defended his opinion and refused to back down, which is something we don’t see very much of anymore. While that’s admirable (it does, as this friend pointed out, what debate is supposed to do: ferret out the poor arguments and destroy them, which is the point of the “marketplace of ideas”), it also lends itself to the type of hubris that brings down Greek kings who sleep with their moms: I’m right, and you’re wrong, you will always be wrong, and I will always be right, no matter what you say. He supported the Iraq War to the end, even after it became blitheringly clear to most reasoning people, which should have included Hitch, that the whole thing was a mess. It’s great to be able to defend your side, but it’s also important to know when you’re wrong and when to concede defeat. Otherwise, you end up looking silly, as he did whenever the Iraq War came up.

The invective toward Muslims in general was also troubling. But as I said, it seemed to reflect a greater Anglo-American triumphalism. Hitchens supported Margaret Thatcher because he believed the British should triumph in Argentina. A battle, perhaps, between the white people and the brown(ish) people. Just like Iraq. You probably won’t see that mentioned in a Hitchens obituary.

Scrooge’s Morality Problem

I have seen probably a dozen versions of Charles Dickens’s short story “A Christmas Carol.” I’ve seen the Alastair Sim version, the George C. Scott version, the Patrick Stewart version. These are the “straight” versions. I’ve also seen the derivatives, including A Muppet Christmas Carol, Scrooge (a musical starring Albert Finney), and my personal favorite holiday film, Scrooged, in which Bill Murray plays the Scrooge-esque character Frank Cross, a miserly, self-important version of Scrooge who helms a TV network.

Scrooge is shown his past, present, and future, courtesy of three ghosts sent on behalf of his former partner, Jacob Marley. Marley died seven years ago and is most likely in hell for being such an uncaring miser. By the end of the story, Scrooge has learned the true meaning of Christmas and “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

The story of Scrooge is presented as the story of a man who has learned the error of his ways. Having watched so many versions of this perennial holiday fare, one thing has become clear: Scrooge has learned nothing except that he should fear death.

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge how happy he used to be, and how his love of money overtook his love of his fellow man (and women; Scrooge chose the accumulation of wealth over his fiancee). But at the end of this chapter, Scrooge returns to being his bitter self.

The second ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, visits Scrooge and shows him that, even though people out there in the world — Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew — have less money than Scrooge has, they are nevertheless happier. Scrooge expresses genuine concern for Tiny Tim, who will probably die if the Cratchits continue to live in poverty. It’s hard to know whether Scrooge has changed at the end of this chapter because the next ghost appears immediately and without the light banter of the other two.

Then comes the climax: Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The ghost, described as “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand,” is reminiscent of the Grim Reaper. Scrooge learns that his own death will not be mourned — indeed, it will be celebrated — and Tiny Tim will die. Many adaptations will, at this point, depict Scrooge descending into hell (with Scrooge being the most eventful and hilarious).

At the end of the story, it appears that Scrooge has become a new person. But as with any good Christian story, what is Scrooge’s motivation? Has he genuinely rediscovered a charity and humanity long forgotten? Or has he merely been frightened into charity by the prospect of a grim death? At the end of the Ghost of Christmas Past’s chapter, Scrooge appears ready to return to his old ways. It’s just a dream, he convinces himself. If seeing his old self making merry at Fezziwig’s party really had changed him, wouldn’t he have changed by now?

Scrooge returns from his nightmare on Christmas morning, excited at the prospect of being alive. Essentially, Scrooge was threatened with death, and now he’s happy just to be here. As I said above, this is a recurring problem with Christianity: do people do good works because they genuinely believe in doing them, or do they do good works to avoid hell? It’s a distinction with a difference: morally speaking, the person who does good things for the sake of doing good things is better off than the person who does good things because punishment is the alternative.

As a morality tale, this isn’t promising. Scrooge is threatened into proper behavior; what does that mean for the rest of us? Sure, the spirits — specifically the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come — got the job done, but it feels a little slimy. Wouldn’t even the worst of human beings change his or her tune if faced with the prospect of immediate death? Scrooge’s about-face is not so impressive.

Should Politicians Be Intellectuals?

Should politicians be intellectuals? Not necessarily. But that’s the wrong question. The correct question is, should politicians be thoughtful? A politician doesn’t need to be an academic, but a politician does need to be capable of forming reasoned opinions.

From My Google Reader Feeds

The latest from the RSS world:

  • Charities need money, not your random old food. “You’d be doing dramatically more good, in basic dollars and cents terms, by eating that tuna yourself and forking over a check for half the price of a single can of Chicken of the Sea.”
  • All that money we’ve spent on the Transportation Security Administration? Yeah, it’s been a waste.
  • The most hated meeting buzzwords. In a single meeting, I can remember hearing “it is what it is,” “touch base,” “let’s take this offline,” “going forward” and “a lot on my plate.”

Occupy Wall Street’s Legacy

Sometimes, Americans get a false sense of being cosmopolitan by traveling to other countries. We are an insular people, isolated from the goings-on in Europe and Asia by two oceans, and isolated from the goings-on in the rest of our continent by choice. During college, or shortly afterward, we spend a month in Europe and then come back. It’s a variation on the old English tradition of wealthy graduates of Oxford and Cambridge going on the Grand Tour of the Continent, traveling to exotic places like Italy, then returning.

The Occupy movement feels a little like that.

Early this morning, after two months, San Francisco police dismantled Occupy SF. By then, according to the San Francisco Chronicle (which is quite anti-Occupy and strangely conservative given its location), most of the original Occupiers had moved out.

Occupy Oakland, Occupy SF, Occupy LA, and the flagship, Occupy Wall Street. All gone, at least geographically. But the Occupy movement was tremendous. For the first time in a long time, the United States traveled to Europe and got a little rowdy. Politically, Americans are not a restive bunch: we have two major parties, which have existed for well over one hundred years. When there is political unrest, it usually comes in the form of heated debates, not protests.

Even over the last eight years, Americans were pretty milquetoast. There were protests against the Iraq War, but they were scattered, and easily dismissed as the work of college students without enough homework to do. I suppose reasonable people could disagree about whether we should be in Iraq, whether Medicare should be restructured, and whether water-boarding is merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.” 

But with Occupy, something happened. Reasonable people could no longer disagree that a sinister sense of inequity had been pervading the country in the recent past. When did the inequity start? Who’s to say. But it was there. Even The Middle Class — normally stalwartly ignorant of national problems — jumped on board. They felt this sense of unfairness, too. Bobby’s college was more expensive, even though he was paying (allegedly) in-state tuition at Big U. Sally graduated from college with a “useful” degree (none of that art history stuff), but had trouble finding a job. It was so bad, she was thinking of going to law school to wait the recession out. With the kids moving out of the house, Mom and Dad had been trying to sell the old family home and head for Florida, but the house languished on the market, even after they lowered the price three times. Eventually they gave up and decided to stay.

Narratives are nice, but graphs are better. The sense of unease that prompted Occupy to get as big as it did was like the feeling you get after eating too much at the buffet. Am I going to be sick? I’d better sit down and let this pass. While you’re sitting down, pop open The Economist and observe how real after-tax income for the 99% has increased modestly, while real after-tax income for the 1% shot through the roof. Very wealthy people weren’t just becoming wealthier, they were becoming wealthier at an increasing rate. Indeed, from 1979 to 2007, the 1%’s income increased almost 300%, compared even to 50% for the top 20% (minus the top 1%).

But even this isn’t the end of the story. Growing up, we all know that wealthy people make more money than the rest of us do. The Occupy movement brought to light not only inequity, but the source of this inequity. The very wealthy, along with corporations and lobbying groups like the odious U.S. Chamber of Commerce, used their wealth to purchase laws favorable to them, ensuring that their taxes would go down while everyone else’s went up.

While Occupy Wall Street is no Tahrir Square, Occupy substantively changed the debate in this country. And it was about time. Instead of bromides about whether it’s fair to tax “job creators,” Occupy exposed how the political and financial systems had become a tool of very wealthy Americans, frequently exercised at the expense of everyone else. The “99%” metaphor was particularly thoughtful, as Americans from every tax bracket united under common concerns. It’s true that there’s class warfare out there, but the class warfare has been coming from the 1%. For thousands of years, people in power have learned that there’s no better way to quash an uprising than to create artificial barriers to organizing among the rabble. Class divisions are a particularly great way to cause infighting among people who all have the same goals. The 99% metaphor tells the Fox News-watching parents back home in the Midwest that they really do have more in common with the unemployed post-doc than with Grover Norquist. This metaphor also has the added advantage of being true. (I say the “99%” is a metaphor, because it’s more of a mentality than a tax status. People like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or George Soros are thoroughly ensconced in the 1% — indeed, in the top 0.01% — but they’re using their money to improve the world. The Koch brothers? Not so much.)

Even as Occupy encampments are shuttered around the country, the core message remains: there’s something rotten going on. Commentators have hemmed and hawed that Occupy had real no purpose, but they were as wrong as they were unobservant. Awareness was the purpose. Mom and Dad, Bobby and Sally, you’re not imagining things. Something deeply wrong has happened to this country, and it’s not your fault that Bobby’s education is expensive or that Sally can’t find a job. Nor is it just circumstance; people whom you don’t know, spending more money than you have ever earned in your life, restructured the rules of the game without your knowledge, and now you’re suffering the consequences while they reap the benefits. Sounds pretty rotten to me.

From My Google Reader Feeds

A look at some of the interesting things I read today, as found in my RSS feeds:

  • Fox News thinks the Muppets are brainwashing your children against capitalism.
  • Young adult writers (that’s adults who write YA fiction, not minors who write YA fiction) take the writing portion of the SAT.
  • Are stories about excessive student loans overhyped? If so, prepare for students loans to be derided as the liberal version of the “welfare queen.” According to The New York Times, stories about students who graduate with over $100,000 in debt are the extreme minority. A 2009 Department of Education survey showed that only 0.3% of bachelors degree recipients graduated with over $100,000 in debt. “If you have more than $75,000 in undergraduate debt, you are the 1 percent—just not the 1 percent you might have been hoping for.” Ouch! Then again, the NYT story doesn’t talk about graduate or professional school debts.
  • As it turns out, the amount of money put into literary research isn’t worth it. “The quality is high, the professionalism obvious, but the reception of the article hasn’t come close to matching the time and energy and talent it took to create it.”
  • This one’s an old one, but it came up again. Eliot Spitzer, writing for Slate, describes the Big Banks’ $7 trillion no-strings-attached loan from the U.S. government.