synthetic zero

December 26th, 2010

Back from Christmas dinner with the relatives!

Peter Merholz opined on Twitter today that the reason Scott Pilgrim didn’t do well at the box office was because it was a “movie for mid-30s folks starring early-20s folks.” I’m not so sure his explanation is right, for some interesting reasons — for one thing I think Generations X and Y aren’t really that different. I know a number of 20-somethings who adored the film: for example, my friend, early-twentysomething T. loved it, calling it the “coolest shit ever” (admittedly she’s from Toronto so perhaps biased), but also my 27-year-old friends Katharine and Jennifer Rimm thought it was genius, to name a few. One review I read suggested it was perfect for late-twentysomethings, but less so for early-twentysomethings, who wouldn’t be familiar with the specific video game conceits in the film; I’m not so sure — I’m trying to get a New York-based 22-year-old friend of mine to see it to test that theory.

There is a generational issue with the film, however; one of my later-40’s friends told me she had hated the film with a passion, couldn’t relate to it, thought it was terrible on every level; pretty much the exact opposite reaction of most everyone I know who is 45 and under. I asked her if she’d played video games at home, as a kid — she hadn’t, and obviously that’s a big generation gap right there. I’ve often suspected that one of the main things separating Generations X and Y from earlier generations is video games (seriously), and that Gen X and Y are more similar than different, perhaps for that reason. Nearly all Gen X and Gen Y people I know (at least those who are sort of identifiable as being in those cultural groups, not necessarily exactly divided by age) grew up with video games at home from a young age. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it was an Atari 2600 or a Nintendo. I don’t really have a theory or any evidence here; it’s just a hunch that video games and computers at home have had a major, even perhaps defining, cultural effect on our generation(s).

If I’m right, and the film had fairly broad appeal, then the explanation for its poor box office would have to lie elsewhere: I think it was in the marketing. I think the people doing the marketing were trying to appeal to folks who like Michael Cera films. But that just doesn’t work: the trailer just made the movie look dumb: fight the evil exes! There was very little hint (just really brief, hardly-visible blips) that the film was actually a visually spectacular, absurdist, action-packed, brilliantly shot and edited, surreal comedy. Had the previews pushed that take on the film (far more representative) rather than spending so much time harping on the plot (who cares?) I think it might well have become a minor hit.

I mean: did you expect the film to be what it was, after seeing the previews and/or commercials? I certainly didn’t, and neither did most of my friends who saw the film. They were (almost) all very pleasantly surprised. And in fact, the few people who actually saw the film loved it; most critics also liked it, though some disagreed (not sure if generational factors were involved).

Here’s another extreme example of the power, for good and evil, of the misleading preview: the trailer for The American makes it look like a suspense thriller with George Clooney:

In fact, I was expecting exactly that, a standard thriller. What it actually was blew me away: a brooding, slow-paced, difficult, and beautiful work. It was an art house film, not a film really suitable for wide release. I kept thinking, most of the other people in this theater are probably hating this, and sure enough, most viewers hated it. But the marketing was so successful (and misleading) it actually was the number 1 film in its opening weekend! Many hapless moviegoers were bored out of their minds by a film that they had essentially been tricked into seeing. For both of these films, the fault/credit lies with the misleading trailer.

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December 25th, 2010

Though I am strongly progressive, I have never felt comfortable within the confines of the typical left-right debate that goes on in this country. For me, progressive means progress, which is to say, not ideological, but rather devoted to empirical understanding of what works and what doesn’t work, evolving ideas, and innovation.

What really doesn’t work for me is the tired left-right debate between those who supposedly favor “government regulation” vs those who favor the so-called “free market”. What I favor is not in the middle, between those extremes; it’s something radically different.

For example, let’s look at what has often gone wrong with government regulation. Totally centrally planned economies are destined to be extremely inefficient, for example; the right-wing darling Friedrick Hayek correctly pointed out why: even a benevolent central planner cannot process enough information quickly enough to optimally distribute resources. Markets, which are inherently decentralized, do this job much more quickly, and can handle and process far more information more rapidly and responsively than central planners ever could.

But that doesn’t make me a libertarian. It makes me an anti-Stalinist, against any form of Soviet-style central planning. Yet my opposition goes further than that obvious straw man; I’m also against the sort of micromanaging that we used to do of the telephone industry and airlines, for example, which I believe tended to stifle innovation and keep prices higher than they otherwise would have been. I think conservatives were right to attack and dismantle much of that. Prices went down and options went up in the aftermath of both moves (but also in the wake of the forced antitrust breakup of AT&T, we should remember).

But let’s now look at some successful regulation. Banking regulations such as Glass-Steagall, it turned out, were very good ideas which dramatically improved the stability of our banking system at the cost of damping some of its dangerous and unstable hyper-growth. Banking regulations in Canada, for example, protected their country from the financial meltdown we saw here. In urban planning, regulations such as Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundary and their clever mixed-used zoning had a spectacular effect on revitalizing Portland’s downtown and close-in neighborhoods and have made Portland one of the most livable cities in the country, if not the world. Or in telecommunications, the transition to HDTV was another example of successful government regulation which led to more, not less, innovation.

I think we can begin to see a pattern: “good” regulation tends to avoid micromanagement to the extent possible. It tends to set large-scale, overarching, big picture rules or guidelines, it doesn’t choose winners in the market and it doesn’t dictate, for the most part, how people innovate on the small scale. Sometimes government is ideal for setting up infrastructure (transit systems, public schools, libraries, fire, police), but when it comes to regulation, it seems to work best when government sets up fences but gives the private sector a lot of freedom within those fences. Successful regulation tends to increase competition, it even encourages or increases it (breaking up monopolies or preventing them from unfairly leveraging their market position to disadvantage new entrants to the market, for example), when possible, it doesn’t tell people HOW to do things, but, through clever large-scale policy, it can encourage larger-scale goals. Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary and their clever mixed-use zoning regulations had the effect of revitalizing the downtown and close-in areas which had been on the decline, and they reduced sprawl, and all this happened without the government dictating on a small scale where and how developers developed.

I think we need to develop a new theory of what kinds of government regulation work and what kinds do not, based on actual case studies. It should be evolving, not based on a fixed ideology. Do the research, see what works and doesn’t, figure out why and how it does when it does, or why it didn’t when it failed. Politics, I think, ought to become more evidence-based, more human, more pragmatic, and less based on abstract theory without a grounding in practical reality and observation. It’s not that the answer is “somewhere in the middle” between lots of regulation and none.

We need a new politics, a more human, perceptive, evolving, and evidence-based politics.

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December 16th, 2010

I apologize for not writing for some time; been so involved with so many things. I have a lot of thoughts to share, and some strong opinions which I just haven’t had time to write down here; but I promise to start up again on this.

One of the topics I’d like to touch on is health care reform. Many on the left have criticized it as a capitulation; I agree with Paul Krugman that it is, in fact, a very big step forward. Let’s take the fact that the law doesn’t include a public option — but how important is this? A public option was not possible to get through the Senate, because it had no support from Republicans and Joe Lieberman also came out against it. What people don’t realize about the law is that it mandates, instead, that every state which runs an insurance exchange must include a non-profit cooperative, run by majority vote of the insured (the members), which by law must put all profits towards increasing benefits or lowering premiums, and if such a cooperative does not exist the Federal government will set one up. In many ways, such an arrangement is the best of both worlds: it’s accountable to the public, these cooperatives could compete with private insurers even in the employer market, and yet they cannot be accused of being “government control” of health care.

What did we get with health care reform, in exchange for this relatively minor compromise? We get the end of medical underwriting: denying coverage or varying rates due to preexisting conditions. We get health insurance exchanges to give individuals and small businesses large group purchasing power. We get the end of rescission on technicalities when you get sick. We get subsidies that will cover on average at least half of the cost of insurance if you are poor or a small business. We get mandated minimum benefits. We get much stronger regulatory oversight. We get cost control experiments such as Medicare experimenting with non-fee-for-service arrangements. And on and on.

I’d say this is a massive, historic achievement. Yes, it involved some compromises, but much less than people seem to think. I believe this is one of many examples of Obama and Congress doing a better job than people give them credit for.

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