August 24, 2004

Random Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

Since I have a few minutes to spare, I'll briefly interrupt my break from blogging to link to some fun articles:

  • The Picts were cool.
  • Louis Menand and Steven Berlin Johnson have written nifty articles on how people make electoral choices and form political values. (The articles are fun to read, whatever you think of the research they describe.)
  • The New York Times discusses ugly Americans who study abroad.
  • Ann Louise Bardach has written a depressing Slate article pointing out just how corrupt the Florida electoral system really is. Dan Chiasson, meanwhile, discusses the glories of the Olympic trampoline competition.
  • My old editor at The American Prospect, Scott Stossel, has written a Boston Globe ideas section article on religious faith and the Boston Red Sox.
  • Timothy Burke has written a fun blog entry on "The Rule of Four and the Romance of the Professorial Life."
  • The Boston Phoenix looks at the New Hampshire Senate campaign of Doris Haddock, the nonagenarian activist known as "Granny D."
  • In The Village Voice, Rick Perlstein asks whether protests in New York could help reelect the president.

Next week, after I get back to Chicago but before I move to Boston, I'll have some more substantial posts, including a review of the best movie of 2004 so far (no, it's not Catwoman), a post about my academic work, and more.

Posted by Ed at 03:12 PM | Comments (0)

August 23, 2004

Did Cliches Depress Japan?

Posted by Susan

I was recently reading a New York Times article on depression in Japan (the article itself isn't really that interesting; it's pretty much a rehashing of a recent Nature article on the same topic, only with more silly cliches) which contained the following sentence:

In Japan, the coining of kokoro no kaze marked a sea change in people's thinking about depression. (emphasis mine)

This just sounded silly to me. Had the way Japanese people thought about depression become something "rich and strange"? Had the phrase "sea change" taken on any special meaning since last I heard it, when it referred to a "change" involving the "sea"? Was the sea somehow involved in the modern conception of depression in Japan? Or was the author just using a pretentious cliche? (Ding-ding-ding!)

In my attempt to confirm that "sea-change" is just a clichéd way of referring to a (large) change, I ran across Paul Brians's collection of common errors in English usage, which is well worth a look. Here's the entry on "sea change" if you're interested.

Posted by Susan at 06:38 PM | Comments (3)

August 22, 2004

Blogging Break

Posted by Ed

I doubt that anyone especially cares, but in case you're curious: due to a number of factors (I have a lot to do, I need to pack up my apartment, and I've been out of town with a family emergency), I don't expect to post much before September 1 or so.

Posted by Ed at 07:16 PM | Comments (1)

August 21, 2004

Brief notes from Ithaca

Posted by Matt

Our front page seems to be empty, and while I don't have the time to write anything careful or detailed at the moment, here are some brief notes.

I have moved to Ithaca and my classes will be starting within the week. I've already talked with Maxim Perelstein a bit about getting started with the particle theory group. I'll have more to say about this in the near future, I hope.

One very recent bit of physics news is that the "cold" technology option for the next Linear Collider has been chosen by the ITRP (International Technology Recommendation Panel). See the press release here. The last overview I heard on the different options, at the April APS meeting, claimed that they are pretty comparable in terms of both price and physics capabilities. However, people at both Fermilab and here at Cornell are happy that the cold option was chosen, as both groups are hoping that they can play a major role in the Linear Collider (and are hoping to have it at a site near their respective campuses). [I have some opinions about the merits of various possible Linear Collider locations, but it would probably be unwise to explain them here.]

A couple of things recently have reminded me of a particularly nice passage in Nabokov's Ada, so I suggest checking out Ada Online, clicking "Part One, Chapter 12," scrolling down to the marker 74.20, and reading to the end of the chapter. It's a beautiful passage; if you think so too, get a copy of the book and read it. (But start with Pale Fire.)

Also on a literary note, I'm reading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native and it's very good. And maybe it inspired a Jimi Hendrix song? ("The dark objects on the earth that lay towards the sun were overspread by a purple haze, against which groups of wailing gnats shone out, rising upwards and dancing about like sparks of fire.") Umm, yeah. Perhaps I'll have something more intelligent to say in a future post.

Posted by Matt at 12:58 AM | Comments (0)

August 12, 2004

Lynne Cheney: Novelist Extraordinaire

Posted by Ed

If you ever wonder about the effects that grad school can have on its students' souls, consider this shocking revelation: I've been known to waste my few spare moments reading mediocre novels by well-known politicians. (No one would ever read Spiro Agnew's The Canfield Decision for its literary merits, after all, but it's fascinating to read a political thriller by one of America's most mediocre vice presidents.) I was intrigued, then, to see this column in yesterday's Los Angeles Times; in it, Morrison discusses Sisters, a 1981 historical novel by Lynne Cheney that complicates the standard liberal image of the Second Lady as a right-wing culture warrior:

Throughout its pages are fornication (the heroine with her late sister's husband), incest (half brother knocks up half sister), adultery (the heroine, with her first husband's friend), contraception (by the wed and the unwed) and lesbian couplings (the heroine's sister and an older woman). And incidentally, lynchings, dogicide, cattle theft and robber-baronism.


A proposal this spring to reissue the book was deep-sixed by Cheney, whose lawyer explained it wasn't her best work. It doesn't show up in her White House website biography. During the 2000 campaign, she told the New York Times she hoped the book would start "flying off the shelves." Now she doesn't want it to fly at all. What a flip-flopper.

Naturally, demand is in inverse proportion to availability. In March, the New York Theatre Workshop staged a performance of choice scenes. The snicker factor is obvious, with passages like "Let us go away together, away from the anger and imperatives of men," and "Eve and Eve, loving one another" in "a passionate, loving intimacy." So is the hypocrisy potential, when both Cheneys and their lesbian younger daughter are laboring to reelect a man who regards Adam-and-Steve nuptials as the death knell for civilization.

The book as a whole, though, is even more radical. "This is a very feminist book," said Elaine Showalter. She's a Princeton English professor emeritus who ran across "Sisters" at a Paris bookstall about a dozen years ago and wrote about it for a scholarly publication. I reached her on vacation, which I hoped was being financed by a five-figure sale of that long-ago copy, but wouldn't you know it — she'd sold it some years ago for $25.

"I couldn't believe it was Lynne Cheney," Showalter told me. "At that point she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I've had many not personal but institutional dealings with her; she had a reputation as being pretty tough on women's history and feminist criticism."

Showalter thought the book did a "wonderful job" of dramatizing "the role of women in the West … she'd clearly read [the historical research] and wrote sympathetically. It's about women breaking away from the dollhouse and striking out on their own." If Cheney ever did allow a reprint, Showalter would probably be delighted to write a jacket blurb.

I found the Los Angeles Times column a little too cute, but if you want more information on Cheney's novels, check out this fascinating article on the subject, published by Elaine Showalter in The Chronicle of Higher Education four years ago.

Update: Are you intrigued? Are you rich? If you answered "yes" to both those questions, you can buy Cheney's book here. (Thanks to Ralph Luker for the link.)

Posted by Ed at 11:15 AM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2004

M. Night Shyamalan's The Village

Posted by Ed

By now, it almost seems too late to comment on M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, The Village. Reviews of the film have been almost universally negative, after all, and if you want a quick summary of what's wrong with the movie, you can always turn to A.O. Scott's New York Times review:

The last thing I want to do is spoil the fun, meager though it is. I will say, though, that while I am generally pretty obtuse about these matters, I had an inkling early on of where ''The Village'' was going, which I then dismissed as too ridiculous to consider. When I turned out to be right I felt less vindicated than cheated...

At times you do sit up in your chair and crane your neck, as if you could see around the next bend of the story and glimpse what's coming. Then you do see it, and you burst out laughing.

Critics have been quick to pounce on The Village for the lameness of its twist ending, which is quite appropriate. But I think that to dwell on the twist is to give the movie too much credit. The biggest problem with the movie isn't the conclusion--stupid as it is--but the complete lack of any redeeming virtues before the movie's final scenes. Before seeing The Village, I'd have told you that Shyamalan was a good director and a lousy writer, whose movies were an amusing (and sometimes intriguing) combination of good and bad. Now I'm inclined to say that Shyamalan is a nutjob, and that the parts of his movies that are least impressive are what motivates him as a film-maker.

I had three main problems with The Village. If, for some reason, you're interested in seeing the movie unspoiled, you may want to stop reading now, but otherwise, consider the following:

  • The story of The Village is quite simple, as anyone who's seen a preview could tell you. The action takes place in a small Pennsylvania settlement in 1897; the villagers live an idyllic, peaceful existence, free from the cares that plague most communities. There's only one problem, however: in return for living in the ideal community, the townspeople have been forced to come to a truce with the monstrous residents of the forest around them. They cannot enter the forest; they've built a series of watchtowers to monitor the woods; they leave periodic offerings of food for the monsters to eat; they must avoid the "forbidden color" (red) at all costs; they know that they can never leave the village for the towns beyond.

    That's fine, as far as it goes: I'm not saying that it's the formula for the greatest movie ever, but it's okay as the plot of a silly horror film. There's one big problem with this set-up, however: once the basic plot conceit is introduced, everyone takes it for granted and no depth or nuance is introduced. (I don't think I learned anything important about the village that I hadn't already picked up from previews.) No one asks why the forest monsters hate the color red; no one wonders what life is like outside, or doubts that "the towns" are sinful and dangerous places; no one asks if past villagers have tried to leave; no one wonders how the village's truce with "those we do not name" came about or how the village was founded. In fact, no one seems interested in who the monsters are, what they look like, or what they want. This completely incurious and accepting attitude struck me as the least realistic part of the movie--and that's saying a lot.

    Under these circumstances, it's nearly impossible to care about what's going on, and it's really easy to laugh at the characters' stilted speech and funny mannerisms. Shyamalan introduces a bunch of characters: the solemn village schoolmaster (named Edward Walker and played by William hurt), his blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a village idiot played by Adrien Brody, and a shy young man named Lucius (played by Joaquin Phoenix.) It's hard to care about any of these people, however, and the movie comes across as boring and ponderous. I like William Hurt and think that he has an expressive and interesting voice, but his lines sound so stilted that he just comes across as long-winded when he recites them. In two unfortunate scenes, Joaquin Phoenix's character addresses the village elders by reading--awkwardly--from a speech he's written; Phoenix probably does a good job playing a shy, semi-literate man reading an overly formal speech that he's written himself, but I'm not sure that that's saying much. The only actor to escape unscathed was Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard's daughter), who seemed likeable enough playing the part of Ivy--even so, I sometimes felt a little embarrassed for her, given how trite and silly some of her lines were.

    At the same time, Shyamalan really downplays the creepy side of the movie: his Village features no thrills and very few chills. In one scene, a man on the watchtowers catches sight of one of "those we do not name", a revelation which might have been worth a jump if the monster weren't so funny-looking. (It looked like a cross between a satanic priest and a porcupine, with a long red robe and a bunch of pointy quills sticking out of its back.) Then the monsters decided to enter the village, and there was some suspense as the villagers rushed to hide. But I thought these scenes were building toward a climax, and that climax never came.

    In short, I think that The Village was a big step down in quality from Shyamalan's previous two films. Each of those movies, I'd argue, was set up in an intriguing way--if, that is, you were willing to accept the movie's questionable premise and to ignore the silliness of its twist ending. Unbreakable, for example, tells the story of the lone survivor of a massive train wreck; in the weeks after the accident, he finds out that he's like the superhero from a comic book, with superhuman strength, an inability to deal with water, and a latent desire to fight crime and help those in need. Some of the movie's revelations seem a little far-fetched: how could a man reach the age of 40 without noticing that he'd never been ill? How could he forget that he'd faked the injuries from the car accident that ended his football career? But if you can suspend your initial disbelief, Unbreakable is an intriguing and likeable film--not a great movie, but a pretty good one, and easily Shyamalan's best.

    Signs, meanwhile, tells the story of a farmer (and ex-minister) who discovers a bunch of crop circles in his fields. I found this plot device a little irritating: crop circles are the sort of silly plot conceit that seems most fascinating to 11-year-olds and conspiracy theorists, and Shyamalan treated the subject far too seriously. Even so, I found the actual story of how the farmer and his family dealt with the prospect of an alien invasion really engrossing--until the end, that is, when Shyamalan gave us a pat and simplistic conclusion loaded with cheap religious symbolism.

    Neither of those movies was great, but they each provided a compelling picture of people dealing with serious problems and concerns. To really enjoy The Village, however, you have to accept everything that appears before you without giving it any thought--or, in other words, you have to be just like the villagers themselves.

  • My second big problem with The Village was, of course, its plot twist. By now, I'm not sure which would shock me more: if Shyamalan made a movie without any plot twist at all, or if he ended some future film with a conclusion that's as clever and surprising as he thinks it is. Either possibility would come as a complete surprise.

    Unfortunately, The Village gets worse after its first third is over. Ivy and Lucius decide to get married (yawn!), which makes the village idiot really jealous; he stabs Lucius and nearly kills him, leaving him at the mercy of an infection that requires "medicines" from the outside world. Ivy's father then tells her about the town's secret: there are no monsters, and the year isn't really 1897. The town elders were part of a 20th-century crime victims' support group which decided that the world was so painful that they'd withdraw from it completely; Walker's father had been a millionaire businessman, so they bought a bunch of land, called it a "wildlife preserve," surrounded it with a big fence and lots of guards, bribed a bunch of government officials to reroute airplanes away from the community, and moved inside, concocting the story about "those we do not speak of" to keep anyone from leaving. With her father's blessing, Ivy slips outside, meets a friendly security guard who gives her some medicine, and returns to save her betrothed's life. The end.

    No one, as far as I can tell, thinks that this plot twist was clever or interesting; for once I even agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote that "It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream." Silly and juvenile as this revelation is, however, the problem runs deeper still: the twist is introduced in a completely inept way. Edward Walker explains the village's secret to his daughter about halfway through the movie, and then she leaves on what's supposed to be a suspense-filled journey to the outside world. But Walker's revelation sucks all the suspense out of the rest of the movie: why should we be worried about Ivy when we know that there's no danger? Things just get weird when a red-cloaked monster confronts her anyway, and we eventually learn--in yet another delightful twist--that the village idiot escaped from the "quiet room" where he was locked up, discovered a hidden monster suit, and decided to stop Ivy, all without the townspeople noticing. Then Ivy tricks him into falling into a pit and he dies.

    Many of the problems with The Village, I'd argue, appear in the scene where Walker tells his daughter about the village's secret. Consider:

    • Walker reveals the secret by showing Ivy the village elders' secret stash of red monster suits, which was conveniently located in what he calls "The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used." I burst out laughing when I heard this phrase, since you could tell--from his tone of voice--that every word in the name was meant to be capitalized and that he'd been referring to it this way for years. Shyamalan, I think, equates solemnity with significance, and assumes that if he treats everything really seriously, his audience will too. Instead, he's just made his movie unintentionally funny.
    • The title "The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used" reminds me of a really good Simpsons episode, in which Bart Simpson and Ralph Wiggum poke around in Ralph's father's supply closet. When Chief Wiggum gets home and sees what his son is doing, he's indignantly asks, "What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?" In any normal village, children would have raided such a forbidden place long before--but, then again, Shyamalan's villagers aren't like that.
    • As Walker opens the door to the shed, he gives his daughter a solemn warning: "Do your best not to scream!" But everyone in the theater has figured out the secret long before, so there's no suspense. The Village isn't terribly successful as a horror movie or a suspense film.
    • Ivy never questions her father's deception or suggests that he might have been wrong. From what we can tell, she unthinkingly accepts what he has to say and plans to return happily to the village. To be fair, she's probably a little more concerned with saving Lucius's life, but her reaction still seems surprisingly mild.

    I've just hinted at my last problem with the plot twist: if you're going to center your movie around a woman who thinks she lives in a nineteenth-century village, but finds herself travelling to a 21st-century town, then there are a couple things you really ought to do. First, show the culture shock the woman experiences when she ends up in the outside world. Second, show us how the woman feels when she learns she's been lied to her whole life. Shyamalan never deals with either of these concerns.

  • These problems lead to a lot of obvious questions. What was Shyamalan thinking? Did he realize just how lame his twist ending was? What did he think of Edward Walker's plan for the village? Why didn't he ask any of the moral questions that arise from the story?

    The answer, I think, has to do with the film's genre. I could be wrong, but I think that Shyamalan intended The Village to be a serious moral parable with a handful of suspenseful moments, not a creepy horror film. Consider the following:

    • All the early scenes of the movie, as I mentioned above, were peaceful, happy, and idyllic: we see children playing, young women happily going about their chores, and the whole community gathering together for wonderfully elaborate feasts. What's not to like?
    • When Edward Walker sends his daughter outside to get medicine, he emphasizes that he isn't giving up on his plans: he sees Lucius and Ivy as the village's next leaders, and thinks that it will fail without them. Ivy, in turn, never questions her father on his motives or accuses him of being a manipulative jerk: she seems to accept what he has to say without question.
    • Later in the movie, when Ivy enters the outside world, we see a security guard reading a newspaper, all of whose headlines discuss the crime, violence, and heartbreak experienced by people in the real world. That newspaper paints a bleak picture of contemporary life--and the guard who's reading it is played by Shyamalan himself.
    • Finally, in the movie's very last scene, Walker explains that he's found a way for the village to survive--if, that is, the elders want to continue keeping secrets from the rest of the town. The elders stand up, one by one, signalling their heroic dedication to the village and their determination to continue life as they know it.

    Could it be that no one questions what's happening in the village because, according to Shyamalan, life there is good? Could it be that he thinks that Walker's plan was--in the context of the movie--a good idea? Is one of Shyamalan's main goals to emphasize just how chaotic, violent, and unpleasant the modern world can be? It's hard to say, but I think so.

    Compare The Village to Shyamalan's past films. I don't remember The Sixth Sense very well, but here's David Edelstein's assessment of the movie from 1999:

    The larger point is that the movie, directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, belongs to a different genre than Blair Witch, which traffics in the irrational, the unseen, the terror of malevolent nothingness. The Sixth Sense uses the supernatural for reassurance. For all its bogey-man shenanigans, it wants to leave you with faith in a higher order--in the possibility that even after death wrongs may be avenged, innocents protected, and the loose ends of one's life tied up.

    The spiritual overtones of Unbreakable are a little less obvious, but I think they're there. Last spring, for example, ABC aired an extended version of Unbreakable with several scenes deleted from the movie's theatrical release; in one of them, the priest who's just led a memorial service for the train wreck's victims tells the movie's central character that there's no such thing as faith or fate and that he survived the accident by pure luck. Shyamalan clearly disagrees with this message: he wants his viewers to see that the modern world is crazy and unpleasant, but that it doesn't have to be. He's setting up his own films as alternatives to those who would deemphasize faith and deny life its meaning.

    In Signs, moreover, Shyamalan gives us the simplest (and most simplistic) answer of all. The movie's central character, an ex-minister played by Mel Gibson, eventually realizes that God wanted his wife to die so that the rest of his family could live; before she died, he discovers, the wife gave him some crypic advice that would save their lives when the aliens came. (If I remember correctly, the most important of her instructions amounted to "When the aliens come, encourage your brother to go after them with a baseball bat.") In the end, everything is part of a divine plan: God even gave asthma to Mel Gibson's son so he could survive when an alien breathed toxic fumes down his throat! As the movie closes, we see that Gibson's character has regained his faith and become a minister again--just as audience members are supposed to have a renewed sense of faith.

    I could be wrong, but I think that Shyamalan has a low opinion of the contemporary world--and that his movies have become increasingly concerned with showing us alternatives to that world. Seen in that context, The Village isn't a horror movie that went completely off the deep end with a bizarre and amateurish twist; Shyamalan's main goal wasn't to scare us, but to compare the idyllic world of Walker's village with the chaotic world of today. The movie's main revelation, then, still seems obvious and juvenile, but it's not illogical or bizarre. If you want to make a point about the world, however, it really helps if you have an understanding of human nature, and that's where Shyamalan falls short.

A few weeks ago, Michael Agger wrote a blistering critique of Shyamalan's work, complete with the wonderful title "Village Idiot." He barely touched on some of the most obvious characteristics of Shyamalan's work, however: his concern with faith, his desire to reassure viewers, and his dislike for the confusing and unpleasant modern world. Shyamalan has made it clear that he's going to keep adding lame twist endings to his movies, whether the critics like it or not. He's also made it clear that his work is supposed to be deeper, more emotional, and more reassuring than standard Hollywood fare. That's the main problem with his movies, I'd argue: at his worst, he disguises shallow and poorly thought-out moral parables as creepy thrillers. Maybe viewers have begun to catch on.

Posted by Ed at 03:28 PM | Comments (8)

Booknotes, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

As you could probably guess from reading my blog entries, I've suffered from a C-SPAN addiction for many years. I was a little disappointed, then, to see that the network is ending its author interview program, Booknotes. The show will be replaced by a new interview program with Brian Lamb:

"We really want to hear from new and exciting people who are not necessarily writing books, accomplished people from all walks of life," says Lamb, mentioning that politicians, journalists, doctors, scientists and historians will all be a part of his expanded Rolodex. A scenario he's counting on for the show's development sees him picking up the paper, turning to the back pages and finding a story on someone who has very little or no chance of making it on any other TV show. That's his new definition of a quality guest.

"There are 4,000 schools of higher learning in this country," Lamb says. "How many of those chancellors and presidents have you seen on TV? How many of them have interesting stories to tell? How about we just start with that?"

I was amused reading the passage above: maybe I'm just a cynical old grad student, but I'm not convinced that college presidents and chancellors would be especially interesting guests on interview shows. (What are they going to talk about? Fundraising? Plagiarism?) The basic idea for the show could be intriguing, though: I like the way that Lamb sometimes interviewed obscure authors of obscure books, with obscure questions phoned in from random members of the public. Booknotes was a weird, hit-or-miss show, and I'm not sure I ever watched an installment of the program in its entirety, but I'll be sorry to see it go. At least C-SPAN 2 will still (I hope!) devote its weekend programming to Book TV...

Back in 1999, David Brooks wrote an entertaining article on C-SPAN for The Weekly Standard. He makes some really silly comments in the article (say, that "university historians" are "obsessed with social forces and group consciousness"), but he has some neat passages too:

It’s hard for impatient people in an impatient age to understand the pleasures that some people feel poring studiously over old documents.

The political theorist William Dunning said that one of the happiest days of his life was the day he discovered, by comparing handwriting samples, that Andrew Johnson’s first message to Congress was actually written by George Bancroft. Dunning wrote to his wife, “I don’t believe you can form any idea of the pleasure it gives me to have discovered this little historical fact.”

One of the strengths of C-SPAN's Booknotes, I'd argue, is that it appealed to a lot of different groups: history buffs, autodidacts, and academics, to name just a few. It wasn't showy, and it didn't make an effort to draw in people who wanted a fluffy, fast-paced show; even when it was dull or silly, however, it was a refreshing change from a lot of the programming on other channels. I'll be sorry to see it go.

Posted by Ed at 12:23 PM | Comments (0)

August 10, 2004

Fay Wray, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

Fay Wray, the actress who played King Kong's love interest in the classic 1933 movie, has died at 96.

Jesse Walker has written an intriguing tribute to Wray for Reason Online, but what struck me most about it was its discussion of Wray's most famous film:

The modern viewer watching King Kong might be put off by the holes in the plot and the gaps in the special effects; or, worse, he might accept them, condescendingly, as problems that are only obvious to us sophisticated cineastes of today. In fact, many moviegoers noticed them in the '30s as well. Ferry complained that he had seen the film (which he loved) with an audience that had greeted it with "howls of derision and contempt." He himself conceded that the picture was filled with "flagrant...absurdity"—indeed, that was part of what he admired about it. He offered a list of eight such insults to logic, of which my favorite is the last: "King Kong perpetually changes size; one minute his hand is big enough to seize an underground train, the next it only goes round the torso of a woman we see waving her arms and legs about." The result, he argued, was a movie with the logic of "the dream in which, pursued by too pressing a danger, we create the elements of our salvation...without being able to escape." It crossbred those childhood terrors with something more mature but no less primal: the monster's lust for Fay Wray.

I don't know that I buy Jean Ferry's argument--after all, I've never watched King Kong in its entirety, and much of his argument sounds rather questionable to me. But I found Walker's article intriguing anyway:

In 1936 Joseph Cornell reedited a reputedly awful (I haven't seen it) Hollywood potboiler, East of Borneo, into a powerful, dreamlike short called Rose Hobart. Put simply, he removed the plot, the dialogue, and the acting—removed everything but a succession of mysterious images, most of them featuring the actress cited in Cornell's title. King Kong became a classic the same way. In their memories, millions of viewers excised everything wooden or laughable about the movie, until all that was left were those visions of Wray and Kong, of beauty and the beast.

Now I feel like going out and watching King Kong...

Update: The Telegraph has now published a Fay Wray obituary that highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of that newspaper's obituaries.

Posted by Ed at 03:47 PM | Comments (3)

History Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

I've been feeling a bit lazy of late, and my reviews of The Manchurian Candidate and The Village are probably never going to be finished. (The short version: The Manchurian Candidate is nowhere near as good as the original, but it's not a bad movie. The Village is really bad.) For now, then, here are some history-related links:

  • Mark Schmitt has a nice article on TAP Online about the unintended consequences of congressional reform.
  • The New York Times discusses how iconic sites from the civil rights movement are now entering the world of tourism.
  • The Telegraph has published a nice obituary of Janet Chisholm, who played a key role in the spy ring centered around Oleg Penkovskii in the 1960s.
  • In The Chicago Tribune, James Warren discusses the historical value of the Nixon tapes, and an AP reporter comments on new revelations from the tapes about Nixon's Vietnam policy.
  • In The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum reviews a book on the myths of Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign, and Frances FitzGerald discusses a collection of excerpts from foreign history textbooks.

Today's National Journal features a column by Charlie Cook with the best news on polling data I've seen in months. We've known for a long time that Bush's poll numbers are kind of anomalous: higher than those of the recent presidents beaten for reelection, but lower than those of the presidents who won a second term. I've been encouraged, but not fully convinced, by claims that Kerry will have the advantage in November, since undecided voters tend to break for the challenger in campaigns where there's an incumbent; I think there's something to this analysis (to put it mildly), but I worry that opinions are so polarized this year that election results may not follow the usual pattern. The polling data cited by Cook has helped allay my fears a little, however. When you pool all the data from this year's AP/IPSOS poll for undecided voters, Cook points out, the signs don't look good for Bush. 74% of undecided voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. 68% of undecided voters think that President Bush is doing a bad job as president. Cook's conclusion:

But with those major caveats and disclaimers now safely out of the way, President Bush must have a change in the dynamics and the fundamentals of this race if he is to win a second term. The sluggishly recovering economy and renewed violence in Iraq don't seem likely to positively affect this race, but something needs to happen. It is extremely unlikely that President Bush will get much more than one-fourth of the undecided vote, and if that is the case, he will need to be walking into Election Day with a clear lead of perhaps three percentage points.

This election is certainly not over, but for me, it will be a matter of watching for events or circumstances that will fundamentally change the existing equation -- one that for now favors a challenger over an incumbent.

We can only hope!

Posted by Ed at 11:29 AM | Comments (5)

August 09, 2004

Returned from Colorado; Thinking about supersymmetry

Posted by Matt

I'm back from Colorado (I've been in Louisville for about a week, for that matter). A small fraction of the pictures from the trip are here. The weather was cooler and rainier than usual, which is probably correlated with how much more active the wildlife seemed to be. (The foxes were brave or foolish enough to walk within a few feet of us, hence the very good pictures of them.) We did a lot of hiking. If you're ever in Rocky Mountain National Park and only have a day or so (and the altitude doesn't bother you too much), I suggest taking the hike starting from Bear Lake, and progressing down to Odessa and Fern Lakes. It's about 9 miles, if I remember correctly, but all the uphill part is at the beginning. There are spectacular views of the mountains, and beautiful lakes and streams.

In the time since I last posted I've read a number of novels, and watched a handful of movies, so later I might post some selected commentary on those. I've also been working on learning some physics, about which I'll elaborate in this post. Read on for some thoughts on supersymmetry, and why it's important to study it whether or not our world is supersymmetric at experimentally accessible energies.

Back in April I wrote this post summarizing the forces we see in nature (gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force). I mentioned there that two of these are part of a unified "electroweak" interaction, characterized by certain symmetries that are only manifest at high energies. How these symmetries are "broken" to give the two distinct forces we see at low energies is still an open question experimentally, but one that we hope will be answered by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in a few years.

The simplest possibility is that there is a particle called the Higgs boson, that is responsible for the symmetry breaking. (See this Wikipedia article for some details.) This is the "easy," naive answer to what you can do to the theory mathematically to produce what we see in nature. But the theory with the Higgs has its own problems; to make sense, certain parameters of the theory have to be "fine-tuned" to very high accuracy, or the predictions are nonsensical. We generally don't like fine-tuning in physics, preferring to have answers that are dynamically chosen. (We don't like having to believe that things just accidentally worked out in the right way, which leads some to invoke the anthropic principle.)

The effects that lead to this need for fine-tuning are all "quantum corrections" to the simple classical Higgs theory. One possibility for building a better theory that isn't spoiled by these corrections is to invoke new symmetry, called supersymmetry, positing that every boson has a fermion partner and vice versa. Bosons and fermions give quantum corrections with opposite signs, nicely cancelling, and eliminating the need for fine-tuning. There are problems with this idea, though. None of the known bosons and fermions can be paired under supersymmetry, so this makes the drastic prediction that there are many particles we have not discovered. It also predicts that all the partners should have the same mass, which is demonstrably not true in our world. So, if supersymmetry is a property of nature, it is broken. Explaining how it is broken is a big problem on the order of our original problem of explaining how electroweak symmetry is broken, so you might wonder why we would take this theory seriously. (After all, it seems to blatantly go against Ockham's razor.)

One answer is that we can construct plausible models with broken symmetry that look like the real world, and might explain other phenomena like dark matter in the process. If these models are true people expect we'll see experimental evidence at the LHC.

That's the familiar answer, and I'd like to supply a different one. The outline I'm about to give is fairly well-known, but it's not something you hear as often as the above "supersymmetry fixes the Higgs" sort of argument.

Supersymmetry puts strong constraints on theories. This makes it possible to calculate things that you just aren't capable of understanding in non-supersymmetric theories. In fact, this might give us a way to understand a fundamentally different type of electroweak symmetry breaking from the simple Higgs models. It's fairly well-known (though I'm not sure I could give a detailed argument) that aside from having a Higgs sector, the only other way to break electroweak symmetry is to have some sort of new strongly interacting physics at around the TeV scale. This means having a new gauge symmetry where the gauge bosons interact in a way similar to the way the gluons of QCD interact. The original ideas along these lines were called "technicolor," and have been experimentally ruled out.

However, we don't really know much at all about strongly interacting gauge theories. We observe the strong force of QCD, but a lot of what we know about it comes from high-energy experiments, and at high energies where you probe individual quarks, the strong force isn't really so strong anymore. We can calculate in that regime; the calculational techniques of particle physics involve taking the first few terms of a series where each successive term is multiplied by a "coupling constant" indicative of how strong an interaction is. When the coupling constant is small, these successive terms get smaller, and you can approximate an answer by just a couple of terms. Such a calculation is called "perturbative." When the coupling constant is large, this no longer makes any sense. Thus, QCD at low energies is nonperturbative, and our main calculational tool is to use computers to do something called "lattice QCD."

Since calculations are hard to do in strongly interacting theories, and we only have experimental access to one such theory so far (QCD), it's hard to have a good sense of the different ways such theories can behave. Simple QCD-like technicolor models might be ruled out, but what if there's some other sort of strongly interacting physics responsible for electroweak symmetry breaking? We could see it at the LHC and not really know what we're looking at. It's important, then, to try to better understand the possible types of strongly interacting physics within the next few years, before the LHC turns on.

This is where supersymmetry can be useful. Having this powerful symmetry greatly constrains nonperturbative properties of the theory. In short, it makes it possible to calculate things that we just can't calculate in nonsupersymmetric theories. These methods were pioneered by Nathan Seiberg and others in the early-to-mid 1990s, and progress continues to be made today. (Csaba Csaki at Cornell has done some work on a new idea of Intriligator and Wecht called "a-maximization" for looking at such theories, which is one of the reasons I've been trying to catch up on all these things.)

In short, the hope is that understanding in detail the physics of highly constrained supersymmetric field theories will give us a better understanding of the possible behavior of strongly interacting physics in general. Then, whether supersymmetry is present in the real world at accessible energies or not, the things we learn from these theories can be powerful guides. In a few years we might be facing experimental evidence of some phase of strongly interacting gauge theory that we have never seen before, and the only way to understand electroweak symmetry breaking might be to identify the experimental signatures of this new strong interaction. Then, the seemingly abstract work of Seiberg and others might start telling us a great deal about the world around us.

If you know some field theory and want to learn about supersymmetric field theories, I'd suggest working through Lykken's lecture notes, then moving on to those by Peskin and Terning.

Also of note: the KITP at Santa Barbara is having a program on "QCD and Strings," looking at how string theory might shed light on QCD. The first lecture, by Matt Strassler, is online now and well worth watching. (Especially to hear him emphatically claim that he never does supergravity. Trust me, watch to the end, it gets exciting.)

Posted by Matt at 12:26 AM | Comments (6)

August 08, 2004

Ironic Link of the Day

Posted by Ed

A headline from yesterday's Washington Post: "Bush Hits 'Legacy' College Admissions."

Posted by Ed at 06:56 PM | Comments (19)

August 06, 2004

Alan Keyes Returns

Posted by Ed

According to The Chicago Tribune, it looks like Alan Keyes is about to accept the Republican Senate nomination here in Illinois. As readers of this blog probably know, the Republican candidate--Jack Ryan--dropped out of the race in June after a series of embarrassing revelations from his divorce case; most of the state's prominent Republicans refused to enter the race against Barack Obama. In the end, state GOP leaders turned to Keyes, a former presidential candidate and Senate nominee Maryland, even though he has a reputation as an extremist and has never lived in Illinois.

Josh Marshall has written the best quick summary of what Keyes is like:

Keyes is something else to watch on the hustings or in a debate. But calling him a master debater is rather like saying Dolly Parton has a dynamite bod or Lou Ferrigno is toned -- or, perhaps mostly aptly, that the Tasmanian Devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons is quick on his feet. In other words, impressive in his own way, but also a bit cartoonish and rather less than subtle.

If and when these two guys debate what we're going to hear are rants from Keyes -- both spellbinding and inane -- about how tort reform is necessary to bring America back into compliance with natural law, how drug reimportation is incompatible with the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and how gun control has been outlawed by God.

Keyes, I think, is making a big mistake. Right now he's often viewed as principled, but a bit loopy; by moving to Illinois to seek office, he'll lose his reputation for having high principles. Moreover, I think that Keyes's reputation won't stand up well under the spotlight of a Senate race. In a weird sense, Keyes's presidential campaigns were a success: they got him just enough support and attention to help him become a well-paid lecturer and talk-show host, but not enough to put his ideas, his background, or his personal life under scrutiny. Newspapers treated him, reasonably enough, as comic relief during a boring campaign, but if he'd ever had a chance of getting more than 5% of the vote in a primary, their tone would have changed dramatically.

This campaign, I'd argue, will be different. When he ran for the Senate in Maryland, Keyes was a low-profile candidate in a low-profile race. When he ran for president, he was an amusing diversion. Now he's a nationally recruited candidate in a high-profile race: no one expects him to come close to winning, but the national media will be paying attention because of Barack Obama's rise to prominence. His recruitment from out-of-state, moreover, will make the Illinois Republican party look really bad, especially when it becomes clear just how nutty he is. No one has ever taken Keyes very seriously, and he'll still have some fans among the country's less discerning voters, but his reputation may now take a turn for the worse.

Posted by Ed at 03:40 PM | Comments (0)

Manguel on Borges

Posted by Ed

Canada's Globe and Mail has published a short review of Alberto Manguel's new volume With Borges, which describes the four years its author spent reading out loud to everyone's favorite blind Argentine librarian. Here's an excerpt from the review:

To that end, this book offers readers any number of Easter eggs in the form of anecdotes, sometimes first-hand, sometimes not, like the one about Borges going to an old Saxon chapel near Lichfield in England and reciting the Our Father in Old English, "to give God a little surprise." If you find that just about the coolest thing ever, you'll like this book. If you think it's banal, you'd best choose some more serious fare, something by Ted Hughes about Shakespeare, perhaps.

The review as a whole didn't really tempt me to read Manguel's book, but the passage above did intrigue me, I have to admit...

Update: Michael Dirda has reviewed a new Borges biography in The Washington Post, noting that the book "left me at least a sadder if wiser reader: I will miss picturing the author of 'Death and the Compass' as a lovable scholarly antiquarian rather than as this self-tormented mama's boy."

Posted by Ed at 03:13 PM | Comments (3)

August 05, 2004

Alan Keyes and The Lord of the Rings

Posted by Ed

The Illinois Republican party has finally made up its mind on a replacement for Jack Ryan: GOP leaders have asked former presidential candidate Alan Keyes to be the party's Senate nominee. Keyes, I'd argue, was the perfect choice. Never mind that he's certifiably insane. Never mind that he's never lived in Illinois and that he's denounced Hillary Clinton for seeking office in New York despite lacking roots in the state. ("I deeply resent the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton's willingness to go into a state she doesn't even live in and pretend to represent people there," Keyes told Fox News in 2000. "So I certainly wouldn't imitate it.") Given everything that's happened so far this year, no Republican could beat Barack Obama for the Senate in November--and the Republicans have finally found a candidate so egotistical and so desperate for attention that he doesn't care if his cause is hopeless!

Keyes will be in for a lot of criticism if he accepts the state GOP's offer, both because of his extreme views and because of his carpet-bagging. I have a much more serious criticism to make, however: Keyes gives Tolkien fans a bad name.

Two years ago, Keyes mentioned in an interview that he loved The Lord of the Rings, which led to the question, "So if you had to be a hobbit, elf, or dwarf, would you be a hobbit, then?" Here's how Keyes responded:

That’s a tough choice. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be a dwarf, because I think the dwarfs represent the industrial side of things. The hobbits represent the hidden virtue that resides on a façade of comfortable consumerism. And the elves represent the kind of wistful aspiration, that unwillingness to surrender the ideal even as it fades into the past. I guess there’s something about that that corresponds with my own life. So in the end I would be an elf.

Keyes also discussed the morality of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings in an unenlightening 2002 installment of his MSNBC talk show, Alan Keyes is Making Sense. (The name of that show never ceases to amuse me.) At the start of the program, Keyes announced that he'd watched Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Rings four times in the theater--more often than I had at the time.

It's bad enough when people assume that only geeks, weirdos, and elementary school boys like reading Tolkien. Adding Alan Keyes to the mix almost makes me ashamed to be a Tolkien fan!

Posted by Ed at 11:00 AM | Comments (4)

August 03, 2004

The Guardian on Paul Fussell

Posted by Ed

The Guardian has published a lengthy profile of Paul Fussell, the literature scholar best known for The Great War and Modern Memory. I can't say that it's especially enlightening about his work, but it's a nice read.

Posted by Ed at 01:57 PM | Comments (0)

The Romanov Bones Revisited

Posted by Ed

In 1998, a team of forensic scientists analyzed the DNA in some bones taken from a mass grave in Yekaterinburg, Russia, compared it to DNA from Prince Philip's blood, and announced that the skeletons were almost certainly those of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and three of their daughters. Conspiracy theorists were apoplectic.

Last month, as the London Telegraph reports, a team of Stanford researchers called the 1998 findings into question. Conspiracy theorists the world over are very happy.

I don't know enough about the science involved to be able to say anything intelligent about the two studies, but--even if the Stanford research is correct--I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that any of the Romanov children survived.

Posted by Ed at 11:06 AM | Comments (1)

August 02, 2004

Francis Crick, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

I hadn't planned to comment on the death of Francis Crick, but I was browsing through his Telegraph obituary and found two anecdotes I just had to share:

One day he was chatting to some naval officers about recent advances in antibiotics and realised he knew almost nothing about the subject. There and then he invented a "gossip test", which holds that whatever you are interested in, you gossip about. Applying the test to himself, he discovered that there were two subjects that interested him most: the border between the living and non-living and the workings of the brain - molecular and neurobiology to give them their scientific names.

Although molecular biologists were regarded at the time as little more than cranks by many in the scientific community, Crick chose molecular biology as the more promising field and began reading round the subject.


In 1960 Crick accepted a fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, on condition that no chapel was built in the college. When in 1963 a benefactor offered the money for one and the majority of college fellows voted to accept, Crick refused to be fobbed off with the argument that some members of the college would "appreciate" a place of worship; many more might "appreciate" the amenities of a harem, he countered, and offered to contribute financially. The offer was refused and he resigned his fellowship.

Later, as a member of the Cambridge Humanist Society, he suggested as the title for an essay competition "What can be done with the college chapels?" and provided £100 for the best essay. In 1965, however, he did accept an honorary fellowship at the college.

The New York Times obituary has more details on Crick's scientific career, but The Telegraph's account is more entertaining and tells you more about his personality.

Posted by Ed at 06:30 PM | Comments (2)

Germany's Cult of the Cowboy

Posted by Ed

On Friday The Times of London published an entertaining article on an off-the-wall subject: the German "cult of the cowboy." So many Germans are fascinated with America's Wild West that entrepreneurs have opened Silver Lake City, a cowboy-inspired theme park just north of Berlin:

There is a main street with a saloon with swinging doors, a general store, a jail at the back of the sheriff’s office and a horse trough. There is a bank that can be robbed to order and a hotel to sleep off one shot of rye too many.

Silver Lake City was inspired by Karl May’s Winnetou and Old Shatterhand books: 1920s German pulp fiction about a cowboy and an Indian chief in a place and a time far from the drab, depressed Fatherland of the day.

Even Adolf Hitler was a fan and before conquering vast tracts of the world he read himself to sleep in the early days of the Nazi movement with a May book every night.

Psychologists say that it is precisely the formality and the order of German society that draws people to escape from it, even if only for weekends and in clothing that most people left behind in the toy-box at the age of ten. The Wild West boom is one of the few growth industries in a country with high unemployment and a collective depression about the future. Silver Lake City is a theme park for the family, but the family had better like its leisure served up in boots, Stetsons and spurs. It cost £12 million to build, as a venture of private and public capital, in a region north of Berlin with double-digit unemployment.

The article was fairly weak in a lot of ways: it never really demonstrated that the country was experiencing a "wild west boom" (beyond the construction of the theme park), and its psychological explanation of the cowboy craze was rather unconvincing. But some of the facts in the article are really fascinating:

After the Second World War, communist East Germany led the way in the creation of Indian fan clubs as they presented a legal opportunity for people to gather in large numbers and because May’s anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist messages conformed to the Eastern bloc doctrine.

Assuming that people actually joined these clubs, then I think this is yet another nice example of just how fascinating (and even weird) life under Communism could be.

Update: The blog Regions of Mind features an interesting entry that touches on European interest in American Westerns (and mentions Karl May.) What's more, as I look back on this post, I'm inclined to think that I was a little too quick to emphasize the humor in this article and a little too slow to think about what might make these Western images resonant, or appealing, or interesting in a German context.

Posted by Ed at 02:41 PM | Comments (3)