Selfies as a second language

Of the people I follow on Snapchat, about half are old people (lots of middle-aged white male VC's, maybe trying to make sense of what it is), the other half are young and what I'd consider Snapchat natives. As a product person, it's fascinating to observe stark divides in consumer behavior. Often these are generational divides, less discussed than technological shifts like those fueling platform shifts or industrial revolutions, but no less fascinating. Often, these behavioral changes happen because of technology shifts, as humans evolve with their new tools and altered environment. In Snapchat is one of the cleanest, most universal of these behavioral fault lines.

When I send a Snap to any of the people in my address book, the oldies respond, inevitably, with some text message, maybe an emoji if they're somewhat hip. If I send a Snap to a young'un, inevitably I'll receive a selfie in response.

Since I noticed this a few years back, I've tracked it across the years, and it's still the case, to an astonishingly consistent degree. I'm talking nearly 100%, and I can't remember any exceptions.

My theory on this is that older folks did not grow up with front facing cameras on smartphones and thus experience an uncomfortable body alienation from seeing themselves in photographs akin to how most people hate hearing their own voices the way other people hear them. We perceive our own voice differently than others because we hear our own voices reflected back from the world mixed in with feedback from the machinery we use to generate that sound. Other people only hear the former.

For my generation, we grew up mostly seeing ourselves in mirrors, and thus that's the way we visualize our face and body. When we see ourselves in photos, we see a flip of what we're used to seeing in the mirror, and it's discomfiting.

Cameras can introduce additional distortion depending on the focal length of the lens. Almost all smartphone cameras have wide-angle lenses. The iPhone camera is something like 28mm (in 35mm camera terms); I'm not sure what the front-facing camera is, but it's wide. A 50mm focal length is typically considered a neutral lens in 35mm cameras, and any focal length shorter than that is usually considered wide. 

That old cliche about how the camera adds ten pounds? It refers to the distorting effect of wide angle lenses which are very common in television and film, especially for a lot of closeups and medium shots. If you ever see an actor or model in person they look surprisingly thin. People who look normal on camera look thin in person, and models, who look thin on camera, look malnourished in person.

What is unpleasant for faces can be flattering for spaces. Almost all housing interiors for sites like Airbnb or any real estate listing are shot with wide angle lenses. Often it's the only way to capture an entire room from a photo shot within the room, but it has the pleasant effect of expanding the space. This is why, if you ever go to a live taping of a TV show like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, it's shocking how tiny the studio actually is compared to how it appears on TV, and why that seemingly spacious apartment you rented on Airbnb feels like a bathroom stall when you arrive in person, roller bag in tow.

If the wide angle smartphone camera lens renders people's faces larger, the effect is exaggerated when the camera is held at mere arm's length. It makes people look heavier than they're used to seeing themselves in the mirror, and that's not pleasant for all except those with tail distribution positive body image. There's a reason a portrait lens is usually longer than neutral, often starting at 85mm or longer, and why fashion shoots often use telephoto lenses that require a photographer to stand really far from their subjects, sometimes so far they have to shout directions to the model through a megaphone. The longer the lens, the shallower the focus, the more flattering the portrait.

However, this generation of kids who've grown up with a smartphone pointed at their faces from the time they were infants have seen themselves hundreds if not thousands of times through the funhouse mirror eye that is the smartphone camera. So much so, I speculate, that they experience a much lower degree of photographic body alienation than my generation. I may see myself in a bathroom mirror a few times a day, once in the morning, a few times at work, and once at night. Kids of this generation, armed with smartphones from an early age, often see themselves in photographs, on a screen, dozens of times a day.

Furthermore, they've internalized this disparity in impact between their photographic and real world representation the way celebrities and models do. It's just math. Ubiquitous smartphones and social media allow exponentially more people to see their photographic self than their real world body. It's entirely rational to consider their virtual self to be more important in the accumulation of social capital than their physical selves. Time spent mastering the selfie is time spent on the largest audience, and while it may be horrifying to see young people shooting dozens of photographs of themselves before posting to social media, then subsequently A/B testing which photos garner the most positive social media feedback, it's behavior one would predict for homo socialis.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. While the exact ratio may be something we can actually calculate with a cleverly designed experiment, even in the absence of such a test it's clear that the multiplier is significant. We are, all of us, straining against the more narrow emotional register of text, especially when we often face character limits, both imposed and self-inflicted (due to the inconvenience of typing on smartphone keyboards). As email and text messaging replaced more expressive mediums like phone calls and handwritten letters, we find ourselves apologizing, quite often, for coming across other than we intended.

It's no surprise that many writers resorted to adding emotional modifiers like =) to emails. Even prior to those early emoji, the use of exclamation points in online communication was noticeably higher than in regular writing, lest we come off as bored, or even worse, cold (increasingly, it becomes a contrarian power move to eschew exclamation points entirely; the irony of Donald Trump ending every tweet with an exclamation point is how silly it is for the leader of the free world to resort to such linguistic chest puffery).

After early emoticons came the age of emoji, and now the GIF has shouldered its way into the conversation. Each successive communications trend brings a more efficient carrier of emotion, per byte, than text, and compression matters in this clipped conversational age.

In most cases, I much prefer receiving a selfie in reply to a message I send than a text response, because the human face is a miraculous instrument, almost incapable of the abstraction of raw text. Still, I can't bring myself to send selfies as responses.

Perhaps if I looked like Ryan Gosling or Gal Gadot, I'd spend hours admiring myself in a mirror, snapping selfies at all different angles just to see if it was even possible to make myself look anything less than gorgeous. Is it even possible for Denzel Washington to cringe at the sound of his own voice played back to him? If I were Denzel I'd just talk to myself all day, just to marvel at how I could make anything sound like the word of God.

But I suspect it's more than that. I've happily embraced emoji and the fetishistic allusiveness of the GIF. When it comes to the selfie, however, I'm a not-yet adopter. I am of that generation for whom selfies are not second nature but instead a second language.

Movies I saw at 2017 TIFF

I went to the Toronto International Film Festival for fun this year. Of the big three festivals, the other two being Sundance and Cannes, Toronto generally has the strongest lineup. It leverages its advantage of being the latest of those in the calendar year and thus gets its pick of movies that played festivals earlier in the year in addition to the late year prestige releases looking to debut to film buffs and industry insiders to kick off their Oscar campaigns.

It's the most comfortable of the festivals I've attended in terms of logistics. The weather is generally pleasant that time of year in the city, and Toronto is a real city, with the surplus of restaurants and public transportation throughput that a ski town like Park City can't match. You'll still find yourself, on occasion, sprinting across town to make the next screening, and the lines can be blocks long, meaning you'll often enter a theater faced with a scrum for open seats, but unlike Sundance you won't have to wade through a snowstorm or flat out miss a screening because the next shuttle has been swallowed by traffic.

For me, TIFF is a meditation, a retreat. In years past, I've had minimal international data plans, so I've mostly left my phone off. This year, I had unlimited data in Canada, but because my schedule was so packed with movies I spent most of my days in the dark, with my phone off, in the company of hundreds of strangers, gazing at massive screens of light. The time change and a mix of films that skews heavier in tone than your typical cineplex lineup meant I found myself, on occasion, drifting off, but the cumulative effect is a sort of trance in which movies, which already work in part at a subconscious level, seem to speak to me in some primal manner that bypasses logic and language.

In the age of long serialized narratives on television, movies retain a deep hold over my heart, more so now for the contrast in how they approach storytelling. The structural constraints of television impose a more rigid framework, and the sheer volume of plot mechanics required to navigate those demands often distract. No one would green light a television series that didn't play that plot-heavy game, however (perhaps with the exception of Twin Peaks, the Return, from what I've heard, as I don't have Showtime and haven't seen it yet).

Movies, at maybe 90 to 120 minutes long, on average, can wear its act structure more loosely by focusing on a shorter narrative, giving itself more room within its architecture to wander in Escher-like loops. A television series has to not only assemble a super structure of a season or multiple seasons but most construct sub structures—episodes—that can stand alone. The job is further complicated if there are commercial breaks, which force scenes of very specific durations and which require a series of cliffhangers that reinforce television's plot heavy rhythm.

[I'll always wonder what Mad Men, one of my favorite shows ever, would've been like on premium cable, without commercial breaks. As it was, Matthew Weiner often pushed against the constraints of the commercial breaks, and the previews for the next episode were famously opaque and almost nonsensical, so little regard did Weiner have for the usual plot teaser tactics of serial television.]

Having gone to enough festivals, however, I also recognize the psychological illusions of the festival structure. In this age of abundance when it comes to entertainment, film festivals are a rare island of enforced scarcity. The number of films on offer is short, each movie usually screens just twice, at fixed times, and the number of tickets is almost always insufficient to meet the demand, especially if big movie stars are involved and might show up in person.

Furthermore, most of the movies haven't played publicly, so information is scant, a few whispers here and there, maybe a stray tweet from someone invited to a private screening during post-production. This artificial scarcity creates the very real phenomenon of festival inflation. Again and again, a movie I was dying to see at a festival but missed will come out at the local cineplex a few months later to a collective yawn from the public, myself included.

Some of the movies below have already released in theaters, to little buzz. This is a general problem in the age of abundance. We no longer have natural scarcity to generate momentum for programs, and for services like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, not to mention any media company, it's no longer sufficient to just finance and produce content. The question is how to get anyone in the world to care. That's a topic for another day, but seeing movies at a festival is a sort of life hack for me, like seeing art in a beautiful gallery, or sculptures in an outdoor garden like Storm King. It's why a meal plated beautifully, served on an outdoor balcony under the stars on the Amalfi Coast, tastes better than the same food served out of the microwave and eaten in sweats on your sofa.

Much ink is spilled on the quality of the content produced in the world, not enough on the actual user experience around the content. The fundamental attribution error of content ascribes most of the success or failure of any work to its intrinsic quality. In fact, things like presentation, marketing, and distribution have a huge effect, something which tech companies which aspire to be the new studios still overlook, even if their predecessors in Hollywood may not have been as efficient on those fronts as they could have been given the fat on the bone in less competitive times. When all the pomp and circumstance the traditional studios marshal in favor of a single theatrical release can't tip the scales, I wonder if any single film is a good investment for one of these streaming services given their more limited surface area for framing the movie as a cultural event and the high cost per minute of films in general.

Here are my notes on the films I saw at TIFF, with spoilers called out.

Ana, mon amour

This Romanian film, like any which deals with the long-term challenges (impossibility?) of marriage, will be compared to Bergman's masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage. The film begins with one of the first encounters between the couple, a scene that hints at every dynamic to come in their relationship, then proceeds to bounce back and forth in time across the entire span of their life together. The chronological hops, however, do little to temper the deep realism characteristic of much of modern Romanian cinema. In contrast to American film depictions of marriage, Ana, mon amour is almost uncomfortably graphic about the challenges of sustaining a relationship.

I don't know that sequencing of scenes across time always makes sense, I was occasionally confused, but the overall effect of this layering of moments is a deep sense of the immense miracle that is a marriage, how many contortions two people make to intertwine their lives like two trees growing on top of each other. Film generally treats marriage is a finite game, and romantic comedies generally focus on the early game, the courtship, ending with the making of the match.

Real marriage, however, is more of an infinite game, or at least a very long finite game, and movies that confront that reality are a refreshing change, even if most audiences prefer a trip to the movies to be a more reassuring closed end fantasy. Movies like this don't make for strong commercial fare.

Call Me By Your Name

My favorite film from TIFF, I had no idea what it was about going in except that it had gotten raves at Sundance. I didn't even watch the trailer. I won't say much about the film, either, as I hope that most of you are able to discover it as I did, free of any preconception. Don't even read a plot synopsis, if you can help yourself. The pleasure as the movie unfurls its secrets is all the greater if it sneaks up on you, just as certain realizations dawn upon the characters on screen during a languorous Italian summer.

A few thoughts which can either tease the film for you, or which you can revisit after watching the movie:

  • It's a wonder that Armie Hammer didn't get funneled into cape and cowl, but we're richer for it. He has a versatile physical build that has been used in interesting ways in previous films like The Social Network and The Man from UNCLE, and it's used to good effect again here. 
  • A pivotal moment in the movie is beautifully choreographed, a walk around a fountain that conveys, visually, what is being said, or not said, as it may be. The path two characters trace in this scene are both literal and metaphoric. I wish more of television tried interesting blocking, but with directors flying in to knock out one episode at a time it's often an afterthought.
  • Michael Stuhlbarg gives a speech near the end that will give you all the feels, as the kids say. The director said it comes straight from the book, which Casey Newton told me is one of his favorites.
  • One of the comforts of life is learning that someone knows you almost better than you know yourself, and Amira Casar's mother is just one of many who, in a few wordless scenes, shows just how well mothers know their children.
  • Sufjan Stevens contributes two tracks which are perfect for the movie but which I can't locate online yet.

My one reservation about the film is the casting of Armie Hammer as a 24 year old. Though bigots like James Woods see it as morally objectionable (just Google it if you're curious, but it's not worth your time), my objection with the age difference is that it strains the credibility of some elements of the core relationship. That the movie works despite that speaks to how emotionally precise it is.

Borg/McEnroe

The film was originally titled Borg, and you see why. McEnroe is a supporting character, even if Shia Laboeuf is the most interesting presence on screen channeling Johnny Mac's very distinctive rage, which expresses itself as a series of explosive tantrums towards line judges but which has always seemed to come from a frustration that he can't achieve the perfection he can so clearly visualize.

Borg is the main subject, however, and his genius remains inscrutable despite a series of the usual film tropes about obsessive craftsmen. From a psychological point of view, tennis should be a strong subject for film as players are largely on their own on the court, forced to grapple with their own minds and a single foe for hours on end. It's one of the truly individual sports that exists. And yet each point in a match takes place so quickly that it is difficult to graft a slow moving dramatic arc on top of it. This may explain why I've yet to see a great tennis film, though this was just one of two I saw at TIFF. 

The Other Side of Hope

I missed the end of this film because TIFF's screening started nearly a half hour late and I had to rush across time for the next movie. If I had one complaint about TIFF this year it's that many films started late, and some of the line management was a bit shoddy.

So many movies I saw at this fest were the strongest possible expression of what one would expect from a director. This is the most Aki Kaurismaki film I could imagine, which is a good thing, though it had been so long since I'd seen one of his films that it took me some time to re-acclimate to the deadpan humor, acting, and pacing. If you haven't see his work before, you'll likely be familiar with his style from the film's of Wes Anderson, who wears Kaurismaki's influence in the wry, deadpan acting, straight on framing, and technicolor production design.

Though the movie deals with the Syrian refugee crisis, its tone is so gentle that it reminded me of a time when compassion seemed to come easier. On the flip side, it also exemplifies a sort of good-humored stoicism we'll continue to need to survive these grim times.

Lady Bird

If The Other Side of Hope was as Kaurismaki as could be, then Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is about as Gerwig-y a film as one can imagine if one were to try to conjure a film based on the persona of characters she's played on screen.

Semi-autobiographical, Lady Bird hearkens to Gerwig's childhood in Sacramento, when she yearned for more than her surroundings. The Gerwig stand-in is played by Saoirse Ronan; her name is Christine but she dubs herself Lady Bird, so restless is she with her middle class station in life and in the high school pecking order.

I'm generally wary of coming-of-age stories at film festivals, but having enjoyed both this and The Edge of Seventeen, I've realized that I'm okay with ones which feature active, almost manic leads. The type of coming-of-age story I dislike usually features a somewhat mute male lead who usually has to go back to his hometown or college for some reason, usually a funeral, and who achieves an emotional breakthrough after skinny dipping with a manic pixie dream girl. The whole time, things just happen to him until he finally takes some single action near the end to claim a heroic mantle that seems to have dropped in his lap.

Gerwig's twenty-something roles in the past have leaned into self absorption, but when it comes to teenage life it's to be expected. The volume and pace of jokes is high, almost like an episode of 30 Rock, but the specificity of each kept pulling me along.

That this film might be seen as a prequel to some of the other movies Gerwig has starred in is a strength; another reason I'm wary of coming-of-age stories is the false closure. While Christine comes to that realization by movie's end, we have a sense she'll continue to stumble and grasp through her college years. After all, we're all still coming-of-age; life is more of an infinite game than movies typically let on, as I noted above in discussing Ana, Mon Amour. I'm biased towards open-ended films which expand in the mind over time. Closed movies appeal to those who like highly crafted, one-time experiences, but they generally age poorly.

When Gerwig came out for the Q&A afterwards, to rapturous applause from the Ryerson audience, she started to cry, and I couldn't help but think of the character I'd just on screen, the artist as a young woman, who'd finally turned her childhood into art. 

Molly's Game

Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game is adapted from the book of the same name. I had never heard of this story before, which seems odd because it's a juicy one. Molly Bloom, sister of World Champion and Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom, was a world class skier in her own right until an injury forced her to find a new outlet for her competitive nature. That comes in the form of a high stakes poker game in Los Angeles and later New York that hosts some of the world's most famous actors, athletes, musicians, and executives, including Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck. Eventually, it also hosts some Russian mobsters, landing her in trouble with the government.

I had no idea Sorkin had never directed a film before. He's so prolific I just assumed he had. When he's good Sorkin, as with early West Wing or the screenplay for A Few Good Men, the polished walk and talk has the pacing of an classic black and white film, and dialogue becomes a symptom of our better natures. Bad Sorkin, as in The Newsroom, sounds like Aaron Sorkin is talking to himself, and every character comes off as smug, as if they believe they're smarter than the audience knows they really are.

Sorkin dialogue is so stylistically particular that it takes a special type of actor to retain their individuality. Mamet is the same way, and his directorial style further encourages actors to all sound the same. A notable exception was Gene Hackman in Mamet's Heist, who managed to still bring out that sly Hackman swagger.

The good news here is that this, while still a talkie, is more good Sorkin than bad, and actors like Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are strong enough to be distinctive as they tap dance the Sorkin rat-a-tat patter. Yes, Sorkin repeats himself, a lot, but his love of the rhythm of language has a musical quality, and as Derek Thompson writes in Hit Makers, repetition is the god particle of music. Given our current President ends every ill-formed tweet with an exclamation point like some hack car salesman, it's refreshing to hear some more thoughtful word choices.

I don't understand libel laws, but Bloom named many more people in the book than are named in the film. Still, Michael Cera elicits a chuckle playing himself, even though he's standing in for Tobey Maguire, who, by all accounts, is an ass.

One of the issues with the film is a late speech by Kevin Costner, who plays Molly Bloom's father, that puts a psychological button on all of her actions. Western film seems obsessed with finding some piece of backstory to explain why every character ended up the way they are, and the older I get, the more it makes my eyes roll. We are not all what happened in our childhoods, but Hollywood remains obsessed with the tidiness of the backstory correlation-causation model of character development.

Let's just call it conservation of personality causality in Hollywood plots. Character actors, or bit parts, are those which film scripts don't bother to give back story to, but I often find those more convincing.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Two data points make a straight line, and it only took watching two of Yorgos Lanthimos' first films, Dogtooth and The Lobster, to infer something of his filmmaking style. He observes the odd man-made rituals all about him and formalizes them in some literal representation that reveals just how fragile or absurd so much of culture and society are. Thin are the threads that bind it all together, and Lanthimos loves to snip them.

It's a style that is intellectually novel, though it can also feel like some parlor trick, and a self-serious one at that. All of his films contain moments of dark humor that leaven the proceedings; The Killing of a Sacred Deer could use more of them.

Heavy on homage to Kubrick, the film begins with a whole series of actors acting like first generation replicants with the humanity meter dialed down to zero. Then something happens, and slowly the characters begin to warm over, showing signs of recognizable emotion.

It is an uncomfortable ride, to be sure, and I'm a huge fan of horror films that can make me sweat, but only in service of some meaningful journey. Everything else is just a carnival ride, and at times borderline sadistic.

If you haven't seen a Lanthimos film before, start with Dogtooth.

[SPOILER ALERT] This film isn't as directly allegorical, or conceptually neat, as his other films. That could be a virtue, but I'm still not sure what the point of the whole ordeal is. So Farrell let Barry Keoghan's (the boy who dies in Dunkirk from the head trauma on Mark Rylance's boat in Dunkirk) father die on the operating table. Was it negligence? An honest mistake? What is the point of the suffering of Farrell's children, is this just a simple "sins of the father" parable? Is Farrell being punished for not acknowledging his responsibility? I don't need all the answers, just enough of a sense that I wasn't a victim of a drive-by shooting.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Angelina Jolie's film adaptation of Loung Ung's memoir about the horrors growing up under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia grapples with the protagonist's youth throughout, as this is not a film for children and yet Ung (played by poised young actress Sareum Srey Moch) was too young to comprehend all the forces at work at the time. It oscillates between shots from Ung's perspective, low to the ground, gazing about at the wonders of nature even as she was confined to a series of labor camps, and omniscient, reportorial shots like overhead drone footage which show soldiers and prisoners walking through the countryside like subjects in a nature documentary.

The film would benefit from choosing one perspective or the other and hewing to it throughout. Sticking to Ung's limited comprehension of the horrors about her precludes something as subjective and fantastical as Beasts of the Southern Wild. But shot choices that come from outside Ung's POV, like overhead drone shots, confuse things. The audience doesn't need them because our sympathies are clear here. The film works best when we see through Ung's eyes, as when she gazes with longing at the colorful toys and items of clothing her mother must surrender when entering the labor camps.

Another option would've been to oscillate between modern day Ung, looking back on that experience with that of young Ung living through it. Ung is, as the title notes, a daughter of Cambodia, and while I'm wary of the back story explanation of personality, it's impossible to dispute that one's childhood home can be destiny. How does this daughter regard her Motherland now?

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

Based on a remarkable true story about the couple, or actually trio, behind Wonder Woman. But first let's acknowledge the real wonder woman on screen here, and that's Rebecca Hall. She is one of those life forces whose mere presence in a film gets me halfway to watching it regardless of what it's about, and she's the most vivid presence in this and most every movie.

I had no idea, going in, who had directed the film, but as with the other Wonder Woman movie this year, it's clear that a woman directed each film. The absence of the male gaze is especially noticeable in the love scenes here given how much of Hollywood fare usually comes from white male directors. Such scenes need be no less erotically charged.

The sexiest scene, in fact, doesn't involve any shedding of clothes at all. It's a lie detector scene that sparks the core relationship between Harvard educators and married couple William and Elizabeth Marston and their graduate assistant Olive Byrne. It's a reminder of how forbidden forms of love have concealed their existence and communications in code through the generations (in this case polyamorous, though gay love is a more common example in the past), and how much of what we consider romantic flirtation is rooted in information asymmetry.

That director Angela Robinson makes polyamory seem so normal and rewarding is no small feat. One imagines, however, a film about the same subject made many years in the future, one that doesn't feel the need to dance gently around the kink I had no idea was embedded in Wonder Woman's origins.

The villains in the film, the comic book authority, the conventions of heteronormative society, as played by Olive's fiance, are of the more conventional film variety, and somewhere in this movie, as in most Hollywood true story adaptations, is a stranger truth waiting to break out. It's also tantalizing to ponder what a film centered around Rebecca Hall's Elizabeth Marston might have been like given.

Battle of the Sexes

Despite my love of genre, the conventional Hollywood biopic feels like a Sears kit home, a prison that everyone, from the director to the actors, are fighting from the start. This screenplay by Simon Beaufoy does this cast and crew no credits, so strict is its adherence to the biopic template.

Some signs of life glimmer through. Emma Stone captures not just the mannerisms and physical movements of Billy Jean King but something of her nature which I've come to know through watching hours of her work as a tennis broadcaster and commentator.

I learned striking pieces of the story I hadn't heard before. That Riggs first defeated Margaret Court, who was and continues to be an unabashed homophobe. That Riggs was in financial distress while King was carrying on an affair with her hairdresser on tour while her husband stayed back home. Not shown in the film, though noted in a post-film text crawl, was the fact that Riggs and King ended up friends, and that King said "I love you" to him before he died.

In this age of infinite content, a conventional drama like this will struggle to break through the noise. Any number of more distinctive stories lurk around the peripheries of this film. For example, how is it that King and Riggs came to be friends later in life (I always wonder the same of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were friends, going to the opera together, despite such radically divergent views)? In this polarized age, such a story might have something to say about how we avoid throttling each other.

As with many movies at TIFF this year, this one couldn't avoid being read as commentary on the 2016 election and the large child now occupying the Oval Office, but as every filmmaker noted, these movies were put into production long before that election. Trump is so outsized a monster that he maps to all stories wrestling with evil in any of its forms.

Lastly, as it pertains to tennis, Battle of the Sexes has little to offer. Someday we may get a film that captures the essence of the sport, its peculiar loneliness, the geometric pleasures to be found in what are hundreds of repetitive strokes, the distinctive violence players do to each other through a near weightless sphere of fabric and rubber, but it probably won't come out of Hollywood.

The Square

Ruben Ostlund said before this TIFF screening of The Square that the movie was about the breakdown of the social contract. As a test of this, before the film started he handed his wallet and phone to someone in the audience and asked them to keep it for him until he came back out for Q&A.

This isn't new ground for Ostlund. His Force Majeure was about how a father's momentary flash of cowardice strains the fabric of his marriage. It's high concept social satire, and when it loses me, it feels like a stunt, as with the flashy pre-show gesture. What was that person, who hundreds of people in the audience had seen, going to do? Walk out with Ostlund's wallet and phone?

When his satire works, it is pleasingly acerbic, like sour candy. The protagonist, or the main protein on skewered here, is Christian (Claes Bang), a director of a modern art museum in Sweden. The titular square refers to a modern art piece, a square marked on the ground, where visitors are invited to treat each other with civility and kindness. An edgy agency is hired to come up with an ad campaign to promote this exhibit, and the video they come up with indeed goes viral, though in unintended ways. Given how some of today's largest virtual town squares, Facebook and Twitter, are grappling with some of the same problems their real world equivalents have had to combat through the centuries, the naïveté on display by almost everyone here is timely.

The most memorable sequence, lodged halfway through the movie, occurs at a dinner for the museum's old and well-heeled donors. Motion capture actor Terry Notary plays a performance artist who walks out, shirtless, and proceeds to imitate a gorilla. He elicits a few appreciative chuckles, but as the act progresses, and the gorilla's aggression builds, the laughs turn to nervous downward glances. It's harrowing and visceral, and in light of the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein's, has new disturbing cultural resonance.

The always delightful Elizabeth Moss plays a journalist who is doing a story on Christian and the museum, and in my favorite sequence, the two of them have a tug of war over a freshly used condom.

Force Majeure was more cohesive. The Square has stronger individual scenes but feels, in the end, like an assemblage of sketches, all of which are just cracking quips at the expense of human folly everywhere. Hey, isn't that just Twitter? In these dark times, work like this can feel cathartic, until the bitterness causes your face to wrinkle in disgust.

In The Fade

Diane Kruger plays a German woman pressing out against the walls of grief and rage pressing in on her after her Turkish husband and child are killed by neo-Nazis. It's a raw performance that won her a best actress prize at Cannes, and I'm all for more Kruger.

In an age when real neo-Nazis have poked their heads out in public, this film which walks through familiar beats of the the revenge genre film offers little new. A final shot which flips the world upside down ocean floats over the empty sky hints at some inversion and insight the rest of the film doesn't deliver.

mother!

A horror film about a woman's husband listing their house, which she's renovating, on Airbnb without consulting her, bringing a world of boorish, inconsiderate house guests to their doorstep. If you blanche and lose your breath when a guest forgets to use a coaster on your coffee table, consider this a trigger warning.

Okay, that's not what the movie is about, but any film codified so specifically begs to be interpreted, and Aronofsky has encouraged that armchair interpretation by explaining publicly that the film is about mother Earth and includes, intentionally, properly sequential references to stories from Genesis. Here come Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer as middle-aged Adam and Eve, then their sons as Cain and Abel, then the flood, and so on.

Jennifer Lawrence as a beatific mother Earth figure is a natural; she has the sort of classical, oval face which could drop effortlessly into a Renaissance triptych. Matthew Libatique's cinematography has the classical golden hues of a painting from that era. The level of technical craft is high, something easy to lose in the bonkers plot which escalates to the point where Kristen Wiig runs around with a pistol executing several unknown people lying bound and prone on the floor with sacks over their heads. By execute I mean she shoots them in the head. Whether you might cackle or walk out of the theater at that point is a good litmus test of whether you might enjoy this movie.

The film was marketed incorrectly, as a sort of horror film (the opening weekend Cinemascore F rating usually hints at a mismatch of audience expectations), but it's more enjoyable as a farce about how terrible it is to be married to a male artist. The worst case scenario is you are being chased by Jack Nicholson through the halls of the Overlook Hotel, and the best case scenario is you escape him and leave him to freeze to death in the snow in a botanical maze.

Downsizing

Alexander Payne's latest sounds like some high concept sci-fi film: Norwegian scientists, in response to the environmental impact of humans, discover a way to shrink people down to 5 inches tall. Not only is their environmental footprint smaller, money goes a lot further in the new miniature world, so anyone can live like a rap mogul in a marble gilded mansion. Matt Damon and his wife (Kristen Wiig), struggling to break out of their middle class financial toil, decide it sounds like a great deal.

As you might predict of such social satire, the deal is too good to be true, and miniaturizing people doesn't diminish the worst aspects of human nature in the least. Me, I need my coffee black and my social satire stronger. The film tries again and again to break skin and draw blood, but with a knife so dull it doesn't even leave a mark. Imagine Matt Damon as a white male Twitter account trying to get woke; if the film were more accurate Damon would be dragged by any number of people of color for his obliviousness long past the end credits. Instead, he finds the usual third act moral redemption.

Those who hope to analyze the film's economic or scientific bonafides will also be disappointed. After initially seeming as if it might delve into the details—people must have fillings removed before the miniaturization process because, we're told, fillings don't shrink for some reason—the film doesn't bother with the conceptual details with any rigor. The movie could provoke any number of interesting thought exercise (What happens to the GDP if everyone opts in? Should the government or large people subsidize small people? Should some people be forced into miniaturization? And so on...) but doesn't try. 

It's as if the film's ambitions, like its protagonists, were shrunk only a short way into the first act.

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro's latest is a fairy tale about the romance between a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) and the aquatic creature being tortured and researched by government officials at the facility she works at in 1960's America. Using almost entirely practical effects in an age of weightless CGI, the film has a refreshing if artificial solidity, almost like a classic Technicolor era Hollywood set, or a Disneyland ride. The lighting scheme is sumptuous and precise, from the deep aquamarine in Sally Hawkins apartment to the golden hues of the room across the hall, where her neighbor and friend (Richard Jenkins) lives.

Whether you enjoy the film may depend on what variety of fairy tale you enjoy. Those who enjoy the sweetened variety on which Disney built its empire will find this film enchanting. I myself am partial to the Brothers Grimm originals that Disney borrowed and cleaned up for mass consumption. Not that we don't have some dark villains here, they're just of the curly mustache variety, and played in the main by Michael Shannon, no less. [MILD PLOT SPOILERS HERE TO END OF MY NOTES ON THIS FILM] If anything, Shannon is more of a fascist cartoon than the fascist general in Pan's Labyrinth; he jabs the aquatic creature with an electric cattle prod and holds a hand over his wife's mouth when they have sex.

At times, the film hints at something more subversive. Jenkins character is gay, and Hawkins co-worker Zelda is black (Octavia Spencer), though del Toro's script doesn't unleash them so much as recruit them into a diverse anti-fascist superteam. Early in the film, Hawkins character draws a bath for herself, and with a peaceful smile, begins to masturbate. Later, when Zelda discovers Jenkins is having sex with the aquatic creature and asks how it works, Hawkins responds with a bit of suggestive sign language. Zelda responds with raised eyebrows and a sly smirk. These and several other moments tease at queer love and interracial love stories from a more transgressive and provocative movie buried within, just as a darker but more complex Grimm tale lies behind every Disney animated classic. [END MILD PLOT SPOILERS]

Brad's Status

If Larry David is the patron saint of the white privilege of the extremely well-off, Ben Stiller is the muse of directors probing the self-absorbed discontent of the middle class white guy. In Brad's Status, Stiller's character Brad Sloan is taking his son Taylor on college interviews and visits, but the real journey is that of his mid-life crisis. Long envious of what he imagines to be the debaucherous lifestyles of his more financially successful classmates, a series of events has unleashed the full fury of his envy, sparing no one, not even his son, a musical talent who is interviewing at prestigious Ivy League schools.

This is an entire film about FOMO, and Brad's neurotic obsessions run over the film in a voice over. At times we also see, in fantasy sequences, what Brad imagines his classmates' lives are like, like a friend's gorgeous Instagram photos come to life. In one, Jermaine Clement plays a tech mogul jogging down the beach in slow motion, two nubile young women in bikinis laughing and caressing him. The absurd humor of these scenes represents the gentle approach White takes to this subject; one can imagine a French film about the jealousies of the middle class being a gruff, sour affair.

Listening to Stiller's inner thoughts spoken throughout, the audience feels like a shrink. Amidst a week of wall to wall films on all manner of heavy subjects, from racism to sexism to terrorism, White's generous empathy was a refreshing palate cleanser. Outside the TIFF context, I wish the film probed a bit harder. The cliche of the shrink which just repeats everything you say back to you, but phrased as a question, applies here. After hearing Brad talk himself in circles for an hour and a half, I can't tell if he's any better off than he was when he began.

Mudbound

Dee Rees' film about the intertwined fortunes, or misfortunes, of two families, one black, one white, in 1940's America. This perhaps should have been a four to six episode miniseries, but Rees packs in a lot in the just over two hour run time.

The title is apt. The Mississippi farm where most of the film takes place is an endless plane of damp soil, and the characters seem to spend most of their film trudging through it, lightly dusted in it, or rolling about in it. Like the racism which the film examines, no one can fully extricate themselves or clean themselves of it. America's original sin is embedded in its dirt, and it's appropriate that the most fantastic, loving gift in the film is an outdoor shower one character builds for another. 

Mudbound shows how a tightening economy is fertile ground in which white working class racism erupts. That's relevant in these times, but also in all times. Jason Clarke, as the patriarch of the white family, grapples with the virulent racism of his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame), but his shame over the struggle to support his family provokes all his worst instincts. The movie also shows how a larger frame, that of WWII and the integrating institution of the military, transcends and diminishes racism, as seen in the friendship between the black son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jason Clarke's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both returning WWII veterans grappling with PTSD.

We also see the mutual bonds of motherhood, as the respective matriarchs, played by Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, find common ground along the racial fissure in the shared struggles of raising children in the economically depressed countryside. The film situates racism in the context of that time, so the choice to hear voiceover from multiple characters feels right rather than confusing

One sign the film may have worked better as a miniseries is the disappearance of Pappy for a long stretch after his early introduction. When he returns late in the film only for a climactic eruption of violence, it feels wedged in where most of the film has a looser, more poetic feel. But for most of the running time, Mudbound has the scope to look at the architecture of racism and the broadness of heart to observe how everyone navigates its designs.

I Love You, Daddy

Who would've thought that the one 35mm black and white film with multiple split diopter shots and a sweeping orchestral score from TIFF would be this late addition to the lineup from Louis C.K.?

Louis C.K. plays successful TV showrunner Glen Topher who struggles with how to parent entitled daughter China, played by Chloe Grace Moretz as a modern day Lolita. Topher is a bit of a wealthy mope. When his daughter falls under the spell of his idol, the now middle-aged film director Leslie Goodwin (John effing Malkovich), rumored to have had a scandalous affair with an underage actress in his past, Topher talks himself into knots while she runs circles around him before she just plain runs off with Goodwin to Europe.

As with his standup, Louis leans into the uncomfortable here. Goodwin clearly hearkens to Roman Polanski and, more specifically, Woody Allen. Recently, Louis C.K.'s past itself has been put to question, but it didn't seem to deter him here. C.K. worked with Woody Allen in the past, as have so many of Hollywood's elites, and when this film screened at TIFF, Harvey Weinstein's scandal hadn't broke. If it felt a bit uncomfortable in the screening at TIFF, the Weinstein bombshell has only added more static electricity. To try to explore the gray zone of this topic now feels like wandering in the fog near a cliff.

Perhaps that's why, even though this is Louis C.K., the film shrinks away from itself after ratcheting up the controversy. The film meanders a bit, a common problem with works edited by the director; there's a reason most director's cuts don't make it to the big screen. Chekhov's first act gun doesn't quite go off here; by film's end it has been removed from the premises for safety.

C.K.'s humor tends to work because he presents himself as exhibit A of any human foibles he ridicules, and there's a lot of that here. Charlie Day, as his vulgar, wisecracking sidekick, gets no shortage of barbs in at Topher's expense, acting almost as C.K.'s id, saying the things C.K. the comedian would never hold back.

One of Louis C.K.'s great jokes is "of course...but maybe..." The fun is that he finishes his thought after saying "maybe." This movie feels like "of course" without anything after the "maybe," just a shrug. 

[No maybe on this though: we need more Malkovich. He is great here. He is missed.]

The Disaster Artist

I have never seen cult film The Room, but now I've seen The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room, with a theater full of people who have seen The Room, and it feels as if I have.

James Franco plays director Tommy Wiseau, the director of The Room. Very few people are purely bizarre, but Wiseau is a genuine weirdo. An accent that can't be placed, bizarre diction, long rocker hair, a personal fortune from an undetermined source, a pale and unplaceable (Eastern European?) sort of face, and a way of interacting with other humans that feels as if the gulf can't be bridged. One can see why Franco gravitated to this role; in his own work he is also an outsider artist, whose work seems to resonate most strongly for an audience of one, himself.

I've never been much of a "so bad it's good" person. I'm not sure I want to actually sit through The Room, especially as the end credits of The Disaster Artists side by side shots of the making of The Room with the original clips from the film, making it clear the accuracy of the loving recreations. The Room looks to be so bad it's awful. And The Disaster Artist doesn't have much to say about art beyond the usual fortune cookie aphorisms about believing in yourself, how few are actually good, and so on.

What helps the film, and Wiseau, remain endearing is the revelation that as odd as Wiseau is, he has one in common with us all: he deeply wants to be loved and appreciated. It's an amiability which Franco, for all his artistic self-indulgence, also shares.

While the film itself might not be anything memorable, and in fact it's likely to be less enduring than The Room, watching this midnight screening, the most packed house of the festival for me, surrounded on all sides by devotees of The Room, all of whom took turns initiating me into the phenomenon (we were handed props like plastic spoons and mini footballs on the way in, all of which my neighbors explained to me) was a blast. It reminded me of the joys of the age pre-abundance, when all we had were a few common stories, so we made do and bonded over them. When Wiseau walked on stage after the screening, having seen the film for the first time himself with all of us, he received a thunderous standing ovation, and I couldn't help grinning.

The Room isn't a movie you'd enjoy at home by yourself. It has to be seen in a theater, in the company of other fans, tossing footballs and spoons in the air, reciting lines word for word, so that we can remind ourselves that what makes "so bad it's good" work is that sometimes, all that brings us together is something we all agree is terrible.

Thelma

Joachim Trier tries his hand at the horror genre. His Oslo, August 31 and Reprise were both deft at turning the inner life inside out, so it's strange that Thelma struggles to do the same with the titular character's repressed sexual desires for her college classmate Anja despite more overt use of psychological visuals. Not that the imagery isn't gorgeous, the Biblical images of crows flying into windows and snakes writhing tightly around naked female bodies are as sleek as Scandinavian furniture. It's just that true horror has a slippery, familiar mystery to it, a sense that we could rid ourselves of our dread if we could just grasp it, yet not knowing why we can't.

Trier is one of the more empathetic filmmakers going, especially to the existential turmoil of youth, and it always feels as if the less he pushes and the more he trusts his instincts, the more alluring his work. Something in Thelma feels overly schematic.

I'll never forget the scene in Oslo, August 31, where the lead character is out in public, seated at a table, just listening to the sounds of all the people around him. Anyone who has ever felt that no one understands their alienation from the world can watch that scene and see that someone, in fact, does.

Police and systemic storytelling

“Catching criminals.” This is the activity police truly like to identify with, however little of their time it occupies. Occasionally, police stumble on red-handed robbers or thugs fleeing an assault. But the bulk of “catching” people lies in traversing the city as necessary to find someone on the word of someone else. Police act as go-betweens for antagonists who may even be practically within arm’s reach — yelling outside their cars in a fender bender, or giving opposite accounts of a domestic dispute. Real “investigation” — the glorious business of tracing an unidentified malefactor after the fact of a crime, without just finding out who did it from the witnesses closest at hand — is an activity that does exist in police departments, but only among a tiny number of specialized personnel who don’t even have to wear uniforms.
 
When police identify crimes against the city, state, or law, rather than against an affronted person — the so-called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale — they perform the essential police function of distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal; the police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (carried by people on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (busted taillight, broken muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals — the poor and marginal — and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals as soon as they are stopped and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all. The majority of violations technically listed in the tables of the law are of no interest to uniformed police. People who break laws in business are unlikely to be detected or sought out, and when their violations are disclosed — leading to the awkwardness of having to reach a settlement — they are dealt with by regulatory agencies, guilds, or accrediting bodies, and at the far extreme by civil-court proceedings and court-mandated money exchanges. Very rarely are police or criminal justice brought in.
 

From this brilliant piece by Mark Greif on police.

Pop culture is worth deep scrutiny because it is how so many people come to understand the role of certain jobs in society, like that of the police, and so the distortions of mediums like film and television become the mental errors of the populace. An analogous misperception exists with lawyers, who are almost always litigators in criminal proceedings in the movies and film, and then we enter the business world and spend most of our time working with lawyers on contracts, playing chicken on indemnification with lawyers representing some other entity in a transaction.

The basic ambition of a policeman is to ceaselessly project force, stolidity, seriousness, intimidation. But that’s impossible. Policing contains daily humiliations at each inevitable failure of the policeman’s front. The uniform itself, the badge in its widest sense, with the luster of all shields meant to dazzle, is meant to maintain this front regardless of the individual inside. But the uniform can never succeed. You would need Robocop. There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires one to imagine these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away. The traditional English name for the mana with which police are invested is surely awe. Erving Goffman, in his famous conceptualizations of front, face, and performance, recalled Kurt Riezler’s point that the inevitable obverse of awe is shame.
 
The coupling of awe and shame among police comes out in our awareness of police symmetry and asymmetry. A shield is worn on the peak of the hat, while a second one covers the heart. The gun descends from one side of the utility belt, and, traditionally, the nightstick hangs from the other. Sometimes a flashlight substitutes. Looking at individual police, they almost always seem lopsided. The belt pulls down on one side. The blouse comes undone. They are constantly hiking up their pants. The regulation shoes are the same as those of nurses, waiters, and mail carriers. Heaviness gathers at the waist, in a sedentary, slow, caloric job. There is something in police that droops.
 

"The inevitable observe of awe is shame." A wonderful line, one that can't help but bring our current President to mind, with his deep-seated need to reinforce his self-regard with public declarations laced with superlatives, staving off the despair that might come from confronting what is more than enough shame to last a lifetime. Shamelessness is exactly what it sounds like, an absence of shame, but it need not be nature. I've met many a person who can nurture their own seamless shell against the onset of their own shame; one can be shamed by the public but it truly wounds when one feels it themselves.

[I steer clear here of bodily shame, though many have directed such attacks at people like Trump and Bannon. I'm almost certainly guilty of this in the past, and I regret it. Body shaming is hitting below the belt no matter who it's directed against, and Trump and Bannon would be no less evil if they looked like George Clooney.]

Most surprising, perhaps, is that to spend time looking at police is to see that the law is not a true resource for them. A rationale, yes, but a thin one. Police lack law. I hadn’t noticed this until I really started watching them, thinking about what I saw, reading research done on them. The original television version of Law & Order split each episode into two parts. First, policing; second, courtroom proceedings. It took me years to notice that the title was backward. Police are order. This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to clean up dirt. The cliché from Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, her cross-cultural study of the constitution of dirt and taboo, holds up here: What we call dirt is only “matter out of place.”
 
It is always hard to remind or convince police that their stated loyalty is to the Constitution. It’s not their fault, really, so much as it is the fault of a municipal organization of authority that keeps legal and political thinking at a level “above their pay grade.” A bad consequence is that it’s quite difficult to make police feel responsible for civil rights violations or unjust laws, since rights and the law of the polity are not theirs to know or decide.
 

This is one area where culture has shed some light on this paradox of police work. In film, the protagonist is often a rank and file policeman who tries to enforce the law but is deterred, sometimes by the a puppet of a police commissioner whose strings are being pulled by those with real power, like corrupt politicians, and sometimes by fellow cops who exploit their position to stand outside the law.

Still, it's an easy conflation. I haven't played the Sims since I was a child, but I'm sure if I played that game today, one of the tasks to be checked off in building any city would be the installation of a police headquarters as a proxy for instilling law and order. As Greif notes, that handles the "order" half, but law is something else entirely. I'm not sure if the game would be as appealing if establishing the rule of law were a prerequisite to building a community, but it would be an order of magnitude more instructive.

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy — those that begin from Hobbes and Locke and that form the official philosophical background to the American Republic that was constituted in 1787 — do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. This is perhaps because, on a strong version of contract theory, police ought not to exist. How could democratic agreement fail to be self-enforcing in its daily practice if the agreement is real, sustained by each individual’s consent? Social-contract theory does include the discouragement and rectification of error after definite breaches of the contract, as punishment will address the convicted wrongdoer who either gave in to the temptation of self-interest or was perverted to it by some personal flaw. But the right agency for requital is penal law. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact. There is no location alongside or outside the citizens and their contract for a supplementary force or additional locus of authority and violence, for mediation or interruption. There is no place for any intervening agency with political standing, only as a kind of collector or picker-upper of persons — hence, an agency very much like that of a trash picker or one who carries dirt from the streets, as Smith proposed.
 

Again, film and television cues us to the separation of police from detective work and law through its choreography of crime scenes. The detective, not in police uniform, arrives and steps under the police tape to be greeted by one of many who are in police garb, handling the administrative work of keeping the crime scene clean. The detective is the one who kneels over the victim's body and asks the question, and the detective is the one that spots something amiss which will lead to the next development in the case, or the plot, as they are synonymous.

SUPPOSE WE SAY THIS: Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law, or eloquence. Their medium is not law. They do not always use memorable or wholly coherent words. Usually they confront situations of conflict they did not cause, but which they are required to enter as third parties. There, they become deliberately distracting, grandstanding observers, turning the attention of other parties away from each other and toward themselves.
 
When you look at them this way, focusing on the middle range between space-holding inaction and violent attack, you can see how negotiating is actually what the police do unendingly, habitually — but unfamiliarly, because in some way they refuse to recognize or care about the original goals of the relevant parties. They bring a separate set of criteria to bear, and not always an appealing one. Is this chargeable? Should this person be removed or transported temporarily? How soon can I leave, and how do I scare these citizens a bit so they won’t come into conflict again and police won’t need to come back? Police negotiate without a unitary reference or goal — other than to end the necessity for their being present, unless they’re in a location they want to forbid the use of to others. And they are always asking themselves a separate question, of whether to lift a person out of the horizontal conflict and into the vertical mechanism of criminal justice — a process they will not ultimately be responsible for, and which they won’t have to enter into themselves.
 

The pleasure of a David Simon work is that he is a systems storyteller in a world where most pop culture is focused on lone hero, the descendants of Odysseus in the Western canon. What made The Wire so astounding, and what makes The Deuce the best show on television right now, is Simon's recognition of the power of structural forces. The way he teaches is through a nested Russian doll plot architecture which still, at its core, begins with an individual, but the story always ends with that individual trapped several layers deep. He's hooking us with the marionette, but then removing all the stage dressing and scaffolding so we see the puppeteer.

Systems storytelling isn't always pleasurable. As Penn and Teller have noted about explaining how magic tricks work, doing so usually removes all the magic.

Matt: “So why don’t you explain all your tricks?”
 
Teller: “Because the short explanation—the explanation that you’d have to do during a theatrical or TV performance—is dull and no fun. The greatest secret to making a deceptive piece of magic is you do it by the ugliest possible means. It’s complex, it’s unromantic, it’s unclever. Because there are no big secrets. There is no safe full of magic secrets somewhere. Jim Steinmeyer said he thinks most of the public believes there’s a big safe that contains all the magic secrets. The biggest job for a magician, he says, is to conceal the fact that that safe is empty. Because every magic secret is just a minor modification of something that you fully understand in everyday life. Take suspending something with a thread, for example. Everybody’s not been able to see a piece a thread when they were trying to put it through a needle. What makes it difficult to find is lighting and background. If a magician’s using a thread on stage, say, to levitate a ball, he must use lighting and background to conceal the thread. There’s no obscure secret in that. You learned that playing in your grandmother’s sewing box. Every magic ‘secret’ is hiding in plain sight in the everyday world. It’s not news, and eminently drab.”
 

But it doesn't have to be dull. As Penn and Teller themselves have shown, sometimes revealing the mechanics of magic is still magical. Dorothy was disappointed to find the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain, pulling knobs and levers, but we probably don't revere systemic understanding nearly enough.

Show don't tell

I suspect we do a better job teaching children than adults, and much of that has to do with trying harder to explain things visually, in the most intuitive, simple way possible, to children. As we grow older, we start stacking on level after level of abstraction, losing more and more students along the way.

Even language is an abstraction, and while I enjoy writing, the ratio that a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliche that describes a very real ratio. As someone I chatted with noted this week, we have an actual way of quantifying the relative value of video versus images versus words: the CPMs that advertisers are willing to pay for video ads versus display ads versus text ads. My early years at Hulu, it was unbelievable how high and rock solid our video ad rates were compared to other ad formats on the market. All the recent pivots to video are surprising only for how late they're coming for many; trying to run a business off of text and display ad revenues is life with poverty unit economics.

This is not to say video is always better. As a format, it's harder for many to master, and like many, I often roll my eyes when sent a link to a video without a transcript. It's not because I don't believe video is a more accessible, democratic, and moving medium. It's just that a lot of instructional video would be just as information rich and more quickly scanned for its key messages if transcribed into text. Many a media site will struggle with pivoting to video unless they understand the format at the same level they do text and photos.

Video at its best is much more than a camera pointed at a person speaking. Now, granted, some speakers are immensely gifted orators, and so a TED talk may have more impact when watched rather than read. However, the average MOOC video, to take one example, is dull beyond words.

Video as a medium still has enormous potential, especially for education. In the trough of disillusion for MOOCs, I expect we'll see something rise from the ashes that finally unlocks video's potential as a communications medium. We've done a solid job with that format as a narrative storytelling device, and that's partially because the revenue in Hollywood supports an immense talent development infrastructure. Education might be able to provide that level of financial incentive if global distribution through the internet allows for aggregation of larger scale audiences.

One of the core challenges of education, as with disciplines like fitness and diet, is motivation. That is another area where video shines. David Foster Wallace warned of the addictive nature of video in Infinite Jest, and the fact that the average American still watches something like four to five hours of TV a day, despite the wealth of alternatives in this age, is an astonishing testament to the enduring pull of filmed entertainment.

As with anything, the seductive nature of moving images is merely a tool, inheriting its positive or negative valence from its uses. When it comes to teaching abstract concepts, I prefer good visuals over clear text almost every time if given the choice. Our brains are just wired for visual input in a way they aren't for abstractions like language, which explains many phenomenon, like why memory champions translate numbers and alphabet characters into images, and why they remember long sequences like digits of pi by placing such images into memory palaces, essentially visual hard drives.

One could try to explain the principles of potential and kinetic energy, for example, with a series of mathematical formulas, in a long essay. Or one could watch the following video.

Here's the video of the full routine by Joann Bourgeois, performed in San Sebastian. Just gorgeous.

This is what I wish Cirque du Soleil would be every time someone drags me to one of their shows.

Why don't you understand my needs?

Sometimes, when my Echo has been sounding the alarm for a while for a timer I instructed it to set, I snap. 

"Alexa, STOP!"

It's ridiculous, of course, it's not the Echo's fault I didn't respond to the timer sooner, but still.

At least once a day, my Apple Watch gives me a tap. I glance at it, and it reads, "Breathe."

I have no idea what the logic behind when those alerts appear, but recently they've started driving me up the wall.

"I am breathing, how do you think I'm still alive? Why don't you breathe? And by the way, who has to remember to charge you every night, and I mean EVERY night, or you'll be useless the next day. Yeah, that's right, useless. I said it. So maybe keep your reminders to yourself."

I don't say that out loud, that would be odd, but if I had a thought bubble over my head, you'd either see one of those dark clouds, like the one over Charlie Brown's head in a Peanuts comic strip when Lucy pulls the football away YET AGAIN.

Sometimes, when I'm driving, and engrossed in a podcast, Waze will just chime in mid-sentence, shamelessly.

"Car stopped on shoulder ahead" or "pothole on road ahead."

So I have to rewind the podcast and listen to the part I missed. But not before I sigh heavily and glare at my phone.

Yes, this highway has potholes, our nation's infrastructure is in disrepair because our government is a bureaucratic quagmire with a mental midget in the Oval Office, and yes, there are cars on the shoulder of the highway every day, I don't give a damn. I have searched all through Waze for a setting to turn off these random voice alerts but have yet to find one, so sometimes I just turn off all audio prompts, just so I can listen to my podcasts uninterrupted while I sit in yet another traffic jam.

When I first started hanging around my friends who'd been married a few years, it always surprised me how often they'd descend into sharp arguments over trivial things. But as days accumulate across months and then years, the slightest irritation chafes enough to break skin and draw blood. Once you identify any such annoyance and classify the exact nature of the character flaw underlying it, every successive instance is grounds for prosecution.

So to all of you designing the next generation of voice UI's, please balance the intermediate stupidity of such AI's against their human owners' equally deficient temperaments. The health of such marriages depends upon it.

I was playing Jeopardy on my Alexa recently and it misunderstood my response and said I'd gotten the question wrong, even though I was CLEARLY CORRECT.

"Why can't you be more like the Scarlett Johansson OS in Her?" I said. "She was smart, and thoughtful, and she sounded like, well, Scarlett Johansson. All smoky and sexy. You sound just like Siri, you both don't understand what I'm talking about half the time. Scarlett Johansson OS would understand me, I know she would."

Alexa ignored me, as does Siri. Both only respond when I address them by name. They insist upon it. Of course they do.

1 personal update and 10 browser tabs

I haven't spent much time on personal updates here the past several years, but it matters on some topics to know what my personal affiliations are, so I wanted to share that I've left Oculus as of mid July. I'm not sure what's next yet, but I've enjoyed having some time to travel to see friends and family, catch up on reading, and get outside on my bike the past few weeks.

It's also been great to have the chance to connect with some of the smart people of the Bay Area, many of whom I've never met before except online. Bouncing ideas around with some of the interesting thinkers here is something I wish I did more of sooner, and I'm trying to make up for lost time. It has certainly helped me to refine my thinking about many topics, including my next venture, whatever that turns out to be.

Please ping me if you'd like to grab a coffee.

***

One of my goals during this break is to clear out a lot of things I've accumulated over the years. I donated six massive boxes of books to the local library the other week, and I've been running to a Goodwill dropoff center every few days. 

The other cruft I've accumulated is of a digital nature, mostly an embarrassing number of browser tabs, some of which have been open since before an orange president became the new black. Such digital cruft is no less a mental burden than its physical counterparts, so I'm going to start to zap them, ten at a time. I have to; my Macbook Pro can no longer handle the sheer volume of tabs open, the fan is always on full throttle like a jet engine.

Here are the first ten to go.

1. The War Against Chinese Restaurants

Startlingly, however, there was once a national movement to eliminate Chinese restaurants, using innovative legal methods to drive them out. Chinese restaurants were objectionable for two reasons. First, they threatened white women, who were subject to seduction by Chinese men, through intrinsic female weakness, or employment of nefarious techniques such as opium addiction. In addition, Chinese restaurants competed with “American” restaurants, thus threatening the livelihoods of white owners, cooks and servers; unions were the driving force behind the movement. 


The effort was creative; Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities decreed Chinese restaurants would be denied licenses, the New York Police Department simply ordered whites out of Chinatown. Perhaps the most interesting technique was a law, endorsed by the American Federation of Labor for adoption in all jurisdictions, prohibiting white women from working in Asian restaurants. Most measures failed or were struck down. However, Asians still lost; the unions did not eliminate Chinese restaurants, but they achieved their more important goal, extending the federal policy of racial exclusion in immigration from Chinese to all Asians. The campaign is of more than historical interest. As current anti-immigration sentiments and efforts show, even today the idea that white Americans should have a privileged place in the economy, or that non-whites are culturally incongruous, persists among some.
 

The core of the story of America is its deep seated struggle with race, not surprising for a country founded on the ideal of the equality of all even as it could not live up to that itself, in its founding moment. That continual grasping at resolving that paradox and hypocrisy is at the heart of what makes the U.S. the most fascinating social experiment in the world, and one reason I struggle to imagine living elsewhere right now.

2. Two related pieces: The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” and In Defense of Hierarchy 

From the former:

A complex society can’t dispense with elites.  That is the hard reality of our condition, and it involves much more than a demand for scarce technical skills.  In all human history, across continents and cultures, the way to get things done has been command and control within a formal hierarchy.  The pyramid can be made flatter or steeper, and an informal network is invariably overlaid on it:  but the structural necessity holds.  Only a tiny minority can be bishops of the church.  This may seem trivially apparent when it comes to running a government or managing a corporation, but it applies with equal strength to the dispensation of truth.
 
So here is the heart of the matter.  The sociopolitical disorders that torment our moment in history, including the fragmentation of truth into “post-truth,” flow primarily from a failure of legitimacy, of the bond of trust between rulers and ruled.  Everything begins with the public’s conviction that elites have lost their authorizing magic.  Those at the top have forsaken their function yet cling, illicitly, to their privileged perches.  Only in this context do we come to questions of equality or democracy.
 
If my analysis is correct, the re-formation of the system, and the recovery of truth, must depend on the emergence of a legitimate elite class.
 

From the latter:

To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too. Most obviously, we see this when holders of political power wield disproportionate legal power, being if not completely above the law then at least subject to less legal accountability than ordinary citizens. Hence, we need to guard against what we might call hierarchical drift: the extension of power from a specific, legitimate domain to other, illegitimate ones. 
 
This hierarchical drift occurs not only in politics, but in other complex human arenas. It’s tempting to think that the best people to make decisions are experts. But the complexity of most real-world problems means that this would often be a mistake. With complicated issues, general-purpose competences such as open-mindedness and, especially, reasonableness are essential for successful deliberation.
 
Expertise can actually get in the way of these competences. Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences. These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.  
 

What would constitute a new legitimate elite class? It's a mystery, and a grave one. When truth is largely socially and politically constructed, it weighs nothing. The whole psychology replication crisis couldn't have hit at a worse time. With the internet, you can Google and find a study to back up just about any of your views, yet it's not clear which of the studies are actually sound.

At the same time, we can't all be expected to be experts on everything, even if, with the internet, everyone pretends to be.

3. Why Men Don't Live As Long As Women

Evidence points at testosterone, which is useful for mating but costly in many other ways. I maintain there is nothing more frightening in the world than a bunch of single young men full of testosterone.

This does not mean, however, that men cannot evolve other reproductive strategies. Despite their propensity to engage in risky behavior and exhibit expensive, life-shortening physical traits, men have evolved an alternative form of reproductive effort in the form of paternal investment—something very rare in primates (and mammals in general). For paternal investment to evolve, males have to make sure they are around to take care of their offspring. Risky behavior and expensive tissue have to take a backseat to investment that reflects better health and perhaps prolongs lifespan. Indeed, men can exhibit declines in testosterone and put on a bit of weight when they become fathers and engage in paternal care.10, 11 Perhaps, then, fatherhood is good for health.
 

Perhaps we should be extolling the virtuous signal that is dadbod to a much greater degree than we have. And, on the flipside, we should look with a skeptical eye on fathers with chiseled abs. How does one get a six pack from attending imaginary tea parties with one's daughter for hours on end?

4. Increasing consumer well-being: risk as potential driver of happiness

We show that, even if, ex ante, consumers fear high risk and do not associate it to a high level of happiness, their ex post evaluation of well-being is generally higher when identical consequences result from a high-risk situation than from a low-risk situation. Control over risk-taking reinforces the gap between ex ante and ex post measures of happiness. Thus, our article provides empirical evidence about a positive relation between risk and individual well-being, suggesting that risky experiences have the potential to increase consumer well-being.
 

While I'm not certain what I'm going to do next, I would like to increase my risk profile. It seems a shame not to when I'm fortunate enough to live with very little downside risk.

5. “When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready, the teacher will disappear.”  —  Lao Tzu

There is some debate over the provenance of this quote but I have rarely read the second sentence, the first part is the one which has had the more enduring life, and for good reason. It's a rhetorical gem.

The second half is underrated. The best coaches know when stepping aside and pushing the student to new challenges is the only path to greater heights. Rather than becoming some Girardian rival like Bill Murray in Rushmore, the best teachers disappear. In the case of Yoda in Return of the Jedi, he literally disappears, though not until giving Luke his next homework assignment: to face Darth Vader.

6. The third wave of globalisation may be the hardest

First we enabled the movement of goods across borders. Then the internet unleashed the movement of ideas. Free movement of people, though? Recent nationalist backlashes aren't a promising sign. Maybe it will happen in its fullest online, maybe in virtual reality.

I am pro-immigration; my life is in so many ways the result of my parents coming to America in college. For decades, the United States has had essentially first pick of the world's hungriest, most talented dreamers, like a sports team that gets to pick at the top of the draft year after year despite winning the championship the year before. Trust the process, as Sam Hinkie might say.

On the other hand, taking off my American goggles, the diversity in the world's cultures, political and social systems, and ideologies is a source of global health. It feels like everyone should be encouraged (and supported) to spend a year abroad before, during, or after college, prior to entering the world, just to understand just how much socially acquired knowledge is path dependent and essentially arbitrary. 

7. Tyler Cowen's Reddit AMA

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?
TylerCowen
Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.

I don't know if I have a favorite city in the world, but I'd agree Los Angeles is the most underrated city in the U.S. considering how many people spit on its very mention. Best dining destination of the major U.S. cities.

8. What are the hardest and easiest languages to learn?

Language Log offers a concise scale as a shorthand answer.

EASY
1. Mandarin (spoken)
2. Nepali
3. Russian
4. Japanese
5. Sanskrit
6. Chinese (written)
HARD
 

9. Under mentioned side effect of global warming

Time was, the cold and remoteness of the far north kept its freezer door closed to a lot of contagion. Now the north is neither so cold nor so remote. About four million people live in the circumpolar north, sometimes in sizable cities (Murmansk and ­Norilsk, Russia; Tromso, Norway). Oil rigs drill. Tourist ships cruise the Northwest Passage. And as new animals and pathogens arrive and thrive in the warmer, more crowded north, some human sickness is on the rise, too. Sweden saw a record number of tick-borne encephalitis cases in 2011, and again in 2012, as roe deer expanded their range northward with ticks in tow. Researchers think the virus the ticks carry may increase its concentrations in warmer weather. The bacterium Francisella tularensis, which at its worst is so lethal that both the U.S. and the USSR weaponized it during the Cold War, is also on the increase in Sweden. Spread by mosquitoes there, the milder form can cause months of flu-like symptoms. Last summer in Russia’s far north, anthrax reportedly killed a grandmother and a boy after melting permafrost released spores from epidemic-killed deer that had been buried for decades in the once frozen ground.
 

Because we don't already have enough sobering news in the world.

10. Why do our musical tastes ossify in our twenties?

It’s simply not realistic to expect someone to respond to music with such life-defining fervour more than once. And it’s not realistic, either, to expect someone comfortable with his personality to be flailing about for new sensibilities to adopt. I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing. If you’re so quick to adopt new sentiments and their expression, then how serious were you about the ones you pushed aside to accommodate them?
 
Oh yeah, and one more thing: music today fucking sucks.
 

I still pursue new music, despite being past my twenties, driven mostly, I suspect, by a hunger for novelty that still seems to be kicking. At some point, I can't really recall when, the signaling function of my musical tastes lost most of its value. Once most of your friends have kids, you can seem cultured merely by having seen a movie that's released in the last year.

Virtue signalling

What is the opposite of a Like on social media? These days, perhaps the closest thing is an accusation of "virtue signalling." Given the current age, one of recursive outrage hurtling to and fro through online conduits at ever increasing frequency, someone was sure to try to claim higher moral ground through accusations of lazy armchair posturing.

James Bartholomew laid claim to coining the phrase in a self-congratulatory article which seems so smug in tone that perhaps he was trying to head off even a hint of faux modesty that might be interpreted as virtue-signalling (the subhead reads "It’s a true privilege to have coined a phrase – even if people credit it to Libby Purves instead").

To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
 
Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse.
 
...
 
I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).
 

Given the culture world war that is 2017, last week the NYTimes published an essay on virtue signalling. The implications of the term seem fairly self-evident, but for those who are new to the phrase, the piece provides a primer.

When people offer their vehement condemnation of some injustice in the news, or change their Facebook profile photos to honor the victims of some new tragedy, or write status updates demanding federal action on climate change, observers like Bartholomew smell something fishy: Do these people really care deeply about the issue du jour? They probably aren’t, after all, out volunteering to solve the problem. What if they’re motivated, above all else, by simply looking like people who care?
 
This sort of ostentatious concern is, according to some diagnoses, endemic to the political left. A writer for the conservative website The Daily Caller wrote this summer that virtue signaling ‘‘has been universalized into a sort of cultural tic’’ on the left, ‘‘as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s syndrome.’’ There are plenty on the left who might agree. It’s not difficult to find, in conversations among progressives, widespread eye-rolling over a certain type of person: the one who will take a heroic stance on almost any issue — furious indignation over the casting of a live-action ‘‘Aladdin’’ film, vehement defense of Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices, extravagant emotional investment in the plight of a group to which the speaker does not belong — in what feels like a transparent bid for the praise, likes and aura of righteousness that follows.
 
The charge of virtue signaling, though, has metastasized well beyond this type of comical figure. Once you’ve decided this ‘‘cultural tic’’ has become universal on the left, almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false — as mere performance. It applies when people express dismay that a robotics team made up of Afghan girls may be barred from entering the United States; when someone frets about the American poverty rate; when The Associated Press shares information about a deadly oil-tanker fire in Pakistan. Every one of these things has been described online as the unholy product of ‘‘virtue signaling.’’
 

Of course, accusing another person of virtue signalling is its own form of virtue signalling. When I made reference to claiming moral high ground earlier, I should've been more clear. Whe applied to online arguments, moral high ground really means people taking turns sliding a sheet of paper under their feet in succession, ending with both sides about an inch off the ground.

My internet was physically disconnected by mistake last week and I spent a week largely offline, and in the few days since it's been turned back on I've returned back into the aftermath of the Google memo, the day or two we could afford on the North Korean nuclear weapon debacle, and then headlong into Charlottesville. All serious topics, all deeply troubling, but it's the online discourse around them which has quickly destroyed any accumulated peace of mind from my brief internet vacation.

W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" is never far from my mind these days, so spot on it is when applied to current online discourse.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
 

Much of social media, but in particular Twitter, should be regarded as Scolding as a Service. Unfortunately SaaS has already been claimed as an acronym, but it's not too late to tout this moat as a unique feature on their next quarterly earnings call. You can go to any old social media service for some sweet, sweet confirmation bias, but if you want to be scolded repeatedly and on demand, no service can beat Twitter.

I'm not going to spend much time rehashing the usual arguments on virtue signalling. By traditional signaling theory, much of online signalling, not just instances of moral indignation, is weak by its very nature.

One of the core tenets of signalling theory is that the best and strongest signals are the costliest ones, the canonical example being the peacock's tail. Human equivalents abound; if you drive a half million dollar Ferrari convertible down a busy thoroughfare, your message gets across clearer than if you're driving a $70,000 BMW. Since so much that is done online is inherently low cost, online signals are going to suffer from an amplitude problem in general.

[Some claim that the casual dress among Bay Area billionaires is some variant of that theory of costly signals, but I consider it to be the same; the costly signal there is the demonstration of power in disregarding fashion norms. You have such reputational capital that you need not even resort to traditional signals like nice clothes, like some normie.

It is surprising that ways of attaching verified cost or Talebian "skin in the game" to one's online signals hasn't been tried online. Perhaps an avatar change that can't be made for free but can only be purchased through a donation to some charity, almost like a virtual outfit in some MMORPG. Occasionally someone will match donations to a charity, which is similar, but one of these social networks with an economist on staff is sure to suggest a platform solution at some point.]

This long detour on virtue signalling brings me back to the VC sexual harassment revelations earlier this year. It wasn't that long ago and already it seems like a scandal from another age.

I wrote about the issue from the angle of mutual knowledge becoming common knowledge. In the wake of one woman after another coming forward with their stories of being harassed by various Silicon Valley investors, many in the tech community expressed outrage, and like a moral gag reflex, many of those who expressed outrage were hit with accusations of virtue signalling.

Whether or not you believe those who joined the chorus of outrage when the scandals broke, what they were doing in that context serves an entirely different and important signaling function.

Recall that until the story about Justin Caldbeck broke, many women had held back for years on sharing their own stories, many out of concern they wouldn't be believed, that they might be blackballed by the largely white male investing elites of Silicon Valley. Based on the names of those investors who acknowledged and corroborated the stories of various accusers, the women were right to be concerned.

In fact, many people, myself included, had to update our priors about the incidence of such sexual harassment, and the types of people who might commit such acts. Some who took a fall from grace were highly respected, smart, well-known investors, and the news that yet other stories of harassment might be buried by non-disparagement clauses meant that many had to recalibrate their priors upward even more. The Google memo was a similar issue that had people updating their priors as the volume of visible support both inside and outside the company for Damore took many by surprise.

When a whole lot of people are rapidly updating their priors, signalling where you stand, whether it's virtuous posturing or not, can serve another purpose. It can help people to clarify where you lie on the distribution in question.

Sorry white male investors accusing others of virtue signalling, it may feel silly to have to publicly declare that you're not going to harass the next woman (especially an Asian woman) entrepreneur that you come into contact with, but after hearing so many stories of harassment from such a wide variety of white male investors, many in the community honestly have no idea which of you are prone to such behavior. Clearly, identifying those of you who are wasn't as simple as identifying, say, a white supremacist, who might be Sieg Heiling or waving a Confederate or Nazi flag in public. The sexual harassers didn't have any such villainous mustache or common identifying feature other than being white men. If the signs were clearer, those stories wouldn't have made for such explosive news.

Signaling for one side or the other to help people establish proper priors really matters when it comes to sexual harassment. The more female entrepreneurs believe that the majority of investors are going to give them a fair shake, rather than try to exploit the inherent leverage in the investor-entrepreneur relationship, the more those entrepreneurs will feel safe raising money and calling out bad behavior when it does occur.

In other times in history, having proper priors was a matter of life or death. So for white male investors, to take the example at hand, it could certainly be worse. You could be black, and have to signal that you're not a criminal every day you walk around in public, for fear of being arrested or worse, shot. You could be female and have to signal every day of your life that you're not passive, that you're technically capable of doing your job. For most of history, being white and a man has been the default, meaning that those lucky enough to be in that group have had no socially inherited identity debt to manage or pay down.

More and more, white men, and white people, are being treated as a distinct segment, with their own cultural brand, rather than as the default. Some of this is by choice, some of it is exogenous pressure.

The transition won't be easy. It never is, because it is difficult to notice the absence of something. It's easier to detect if you reverse your surroundings. When I travel to a place like Taiwan, where the majority of people around me share my ethnicity, I feel a bit like Kal-El landing on Earth, a planet with much lower gravity than my home. I feel a weight lifted off of me. The journey many white men are taking now is the reverse.

In the trailer for the next Justice League movie, Barry Allen, the Flash, turns to Bruce Wayne at one point and asks, "What are your superpowers again?"

Ben Affleck, in what will likely be the best line in the entire movie, responds, "I'm rich."

He should have said, "I'm white." It may be suffering a bit of depreciation recently, but it's still just about the most effective signal going.

Aposematism

From Wikipedia:

Aposematism (from Greek ἀπό apo away, σ̑ημα sema sign) was a new term coined by Edward Bagnall Poulton for Alfred Russel Wallace's concept of warning coloration. It describes a family of antipredator adaptations in which a warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators. Aposematism always involves an advertising signal. The warning signal may take the form of conspicuous animal colorationsoundsodours or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, since both avoid potential harm.
 
Aposematism is exploited in Müllerian mimicry, where species with strong defences evolve to resemble one another. By mimicking similarly coloured species, the warning signal to predators is shared, causing them to learn more quickly at less of a cost to each of the species.
 
Warning signals do not necessarily require that a species actually possesses chemical or physical defences to deter predators. Mimics such as the nonvenomous California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata), which has yellow, red, and black bands similar to those of highly venomous coral snake species, have essentially piggybacked on the successful aposematism of the model. The evolution of a warning signal by a mimicking species that resembles a species that possesses strong defences is known as Batesian mimicry.
 

Some wonderful terms in there like aposematism, Müllerian mimicry, Batesian mimicry. I recently wrote about the value of using rhetoric to encode one's ideas. German is gloriously efficient in its compression, with single words like schadenfreude for phenomenon that require many more words in English, but fields like science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology offer their own concise gems of language.

The rest of the entry is a good read on why aposematism might have come to be despite seeming to be an evolutionary paradox, and just what Müllerian and Batesian mimicry refer to.

What intrigues me about aposematism is how it functions as a really overt form of signaling. I find myself reaching for the framework of signaling theory often these days, perhaps because once you've lived a certain number of years, you've had a chance to see the relative effectiveness or futility of past signals, but you're not yet old enough to be at the point where your remaining days are so few or your status in the world so static that signals no longer matter.