Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Norwegian web: A black hole of ideas

I have an agenda: I want Norwegians to use English on the internet, so we can have two-way conversations with the rest of the world.  I promote this agenda by setting a good example, (see how easy it is?), and by writing bitter blog posts every couple of years about what we miss out on by huddling together in our linguistic walled garden.

The agenda is a failure.  A colossal failure.  Like everyone else, Norwegian web users started out globally oriented, then turned in on ourselves along national lines. We have hardly a link to spare even for Swedes and Danes, who, oh horror, write words in a slightly different way from us. Mirroring the flow of news from American to Norwegian media, and of laws from Brussels, we read and link to English-language sites, but it’s all one way, creating a black hole of ideas.

My agenda goes further than the internet. I want to see English in common use for work, in culture, and in the media – not replacing Norwegian, but side by side with it.  This agenda is even more quixotic, which makes it extra fun to cling to it.  And you know I’m right.  You know our future is – or ought to be – one of close integration with other countries.  A world where we study abroad, and marry abroad, and live abroad, and where foreigners do the same to us.

The language wall will fall, then.  It has to.  But could we please start tearing it down right away?

The painting is beautiful, and the smile mysterious, because we are told it is so

Dan Ariely - Predictably Irrational

I’ve read many books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, about how people are consistently irrational in specific ways.  It’s my favorite topic in psychology.  I wonder what long-term effect this reading has.  Does being aware of your own irrational tendencies help you to counteract those tendencies, or are they like optical illusions: We see them even when we know that we shouldn’t?

I suspect the first.  This knowledge influences me all the time.  It’s why I try to read books and watch movies without any foreknowledge, (to prevent expectations from tainting the experience), why I don’t pretend I can tell an expensive wine from a cheap wine, and why I try to decouple my political principles from factual claims.  (Gender discrimination is not wrong because it, say, reduces economic growth.  Maybe it’s good for the economy. It would still be wrong.)

This is one reason why I think behavioral economics has its limits.  Another is methodology: Almost all these experiments use students as subjects.  What happens when they grow old and gain experience?  Do they learn that FREE isn’t magical?  Do they learn tricks to stop overvaluing short-term benefits?  Probably, even if they never read this book.

What researchers like Ariely has done is not to introduce brand new ideas.  What they’ve done is replace the first step towards wisdom with science.  That’s great, it makes the step easier to make, but it doesn’t help you with the next step.  At some point science must give way to intuition.

40’s movies marathon – part 114

The Loves of Carmen (1948, USA, Vidor)

Rita Hayworth doesn’t look at all like a gypsy in 19th century Spain, she looks like a Hollywood actress in a technicolor movie.  But she’s a non-gypsy in non-Spain who can violate the spirit of the Hays Code with the slightest twitch of an eyebrow, so who cares?  Watched it all.

Scott of the Antarctic (1948, UK, Frend)

It was clever of Roald Amundsen to plan to go to the North Pole, and then surprise Scott by racing him for Antarctica – but it’s not cricket.  Watched: 30 minutes, then fast forwarded to see the Norwegian flag on the South Pole.  Muahaha – screw cricket!

Melody Time (1948, USA)

Watching this and knowing that this was a low point in Disney history, when Walt didn’t really care about animated features and they were just trying to make ends meet by churning out cheap collections of shorts, makes you feel a bit humble.  Pecos Bill above, and here’s Bumble Boogie.  Watched it all.

I Walk Alone (1948, USA, Haskin)

Kirk Douglas is such as perfect asshole in his early movies, a walking magnet for hate.  You just want to kick him and punch him, and you know it’ll feel good.  What makes him different from Errol Flynn is that Kirk Douglas will get what’s coming to him by the end of the movie, and that makes it all okay.  Watched: 19 minutes.

And at the proper moment he retired to the English side of the lawn

E. M. Forster - A Passage to India

The British and Indian characters in E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India are unable to understand each other.  Not because east and west can never meet, but because it requires patience, trust and luck, and the circumstances here all conspire against it.  The imbalance of power between ruling class and subjects makes every social gesture a potential grab for power or status, or a potential source of embarrassment.

The desire of two visiting Englishwomen to “see the real India” is based on an illusion. The imperial elite can never be friends with their subjects.  They cause only problems by trying.  One friendship comes out of it all, but at a high cost.  It’s probably not worth it – but Forster wishes it was.

A century later, the empires are gone, but alien cultures keep grinding into each other, through immigration, globalization, tourism – and war, and A Passage to India is a template that fits all of these collisions, even today.  It warns us not to assume that we know how people of other cultures are similar to or different from ourselves.

Forster’s Anglo-Indians can, if they want to, and most of them do, retreat behind the safe, thick walls of prejudice and hierarchy, – or if necessary back to England.  There are no walls to hide behind today.  The option of retreat from the foreign is gone.  We’re all in this mess together.  Any genuine, intimate cultural encounter is going to be at best confusing and painful, but what other option do we have?

40’s movies marathon – part 113

Key Largo (1948, USA, Huston)

The five hotel guests who look and act like gangsters, actually are.  Especially the one who looks like Edward G. Robinson.  Watched it all.  I didn’t realize the first time I saw this movie how retro it is.  The gangster movie had been dead for a decade.  The bad guys are exiles who want to recapture their golden youth.  But a great storm has swept the world, and revealed “Rocco”, “Curly” and “Toots” for the clowns they are.

The Earth Trembles (1948, Italy, Visconti)

The fishermen of a Sicilian village are being exploited.  If only there were some sort of political system that could put power in the hands of the common laborer..  Watched: 16 minutes.

Another Shore (1948) - Robert Beatty

Another Shore (1948, UK, Crichton)

Robert Beatty hangs around in the Dublin streets all day, hoping that an old person will have an accident, so he can help and be rewarded and get rich and go live in a South Sea island paradise for the rest of his life.  Hey that’s clever – I think I’ll head over to Dublin myself and try it out.  Watched it all.

Adventures of Don Juan (1948, USA, Sherman)

How I hate Errol Flynn.  His smirk.  His self-righteousness.  The way he flynns his way through swordfights.  Luckily I’ve read his Wikipedia entry.  I know his career is going downhill at this point, and is about to reach bottom.  When it does, I’ll watch his movies.  And I’ll enjoy it.  (Geez, what did Errol Flynn ever do to me?)  Watched: 6 minutes.

Listened to this week: Miklos Rozsa, Python Lee Jackson, Ayumi Hamasaki, Air, Kenny Ball

Miklos Rozsa – Theme from the 1961 movie King of Kings

This version is without the choir, but what I like is that it’s clearly just some student orchestra playing in a mall, and one of my dreams (it’s true) is that one day I’ll walk into a mall and find a student orchestra there playing the theme from King of Kings. Here’s the actual theme, with epic movie font and everything.

Python Lee Jackson – In a Broken Dream, from 1969

A one hit wonder, with Rod Stewart on vocals.

Ayumi Hamasaki – Depend on You, from the 1999 album A Song for XX

For some reason it’s the transition at 0:50 that gets me. Always.

Air – Tropical Disease, from the 2009 album Love 2

Let me take this opportunity to ask how come every single review ever written about Air’s 2001 album 10 000 Hz Legend calls it a disappointment.  I listened to it for years before I learned how horrible it was.

Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen – Midnight in Moscow, from 1961

Don’t say the Soviet Ministry of Culture never produced any hits.  There’s this song, (here covered by some goofy English “jazzmen”), and then there’s .. probably many more.

Mischief on the Norwegian right

Jay Nordlinger’s analysis of Norway’s Progress Party is off, because he takes everything they tell a foreign conservative writer at face value.  He doesn’t consider that maybe they’re popular because they have multiple faces, and the “Reaganite, Thatcherite” face he describes is only one of them.

But he does capture something Norwegian commentators usually miss: Cultural markers, a taste for mischief.  Rockabilly, Coca-Cola aka “capitalist water”, Ayn Rand.  Potatoes from Israel, a bust of Reagan, posters of Churchill and Barry Goldwater.  He’s pointing towards something interesting, and that something is what divides those who read that list and smile and think “that’s hilarious”, from those who react with a stern “oh dear”.

I don’t mean that politics is all about cultural gut reactions, but sometimes they’re what originally motivate people to abandon their ideological safe zones.  A sense that a main problem with social democracy is its dullness, that its undeniable successes conceal cultural and intellectual decay. Follow that line of thought and you discover that social democracy isn’t dull, it’s hilarious, with its earnest pretensions and absurd side-effects and “this time it’s really going to work” government programs.  And then you can’t stop laughing.

It may or may not “begin with Ayn Rand”, but it continues with the realization that about the most provocative thing you can do in Norway is to have a Reagan bust in your office.  And that’s funny because it is silly.  The fun doesn’t make it right, but it makes it fun to be right.  Viva la Reagan revolucion!

40’s movies marathon – part 112

Hamlet (1948, UK, Olivier)

Laurence Olivier’s dad has been murdered, and all he does about it is arrange for a controversial play to be performed, which only confuses the murderer.  Then everybody dies in a hilarious accident.  Watched it all.  (No but really: Don’t tell me the last scene isn’t slapstick.)

Under the Sun of Rome (1948, Italy, Castellani)

A gang of teenage boys try to get into trouble and stay out of trouble at the same time.  Watched: 19 minutes.  I hope Italian moviegoers of the late 40′s didn’t only have neorealist movies to watch.  I see the appeal, but realism can get pretty shallow.

Krakatit (1947, Czechoslovakia, Vávra)

A gang of dethroned aristocrats find it very interesting that Karel Höger has invented an explosive substance that is vastly more powerful than the nuclear bomb.  Very interesting indeed.  Watched it all.  This may be one of the few good SF movies of the 1940′s.  The oppressive atmosphere fits the birth of the Cold War – and, unintentionally, the arrival of Czech Communism a year later.

Easter Parade (1948, USA, Walters)

Fred Astaire is a professional dancer with a keen eye for women’s hats and a thing for Judy Garland.  Watched: 24 minutes.  Seen and liked it before, but this time I got bored.

Coroner Creek (1948, USA, Enright)

It’s hard to say who is more stupid in the opening scene: The evil Indians who set up an ambush by waiting slightly off the road, visible to anyone, or the wagon that travels right into it.  Watched: 5 minutes.