Movie Review 30: Real Genius

1985 was an exquisite year for movies.  As a morbidly weird exercise, I am going to review some of the movies I watched as a 14/15-year-old  from the perspective of a wiser 44/45 year-old. Let’s begin with Real Genius.

Real Genius 1985 rating: B;  2015 rating A-

(NB My rating system will be like academic grades, e.g., A+ for the best ever, A for excellent, A-, B+,…, D- for let’s set fire to the celluloid, and finally, F for a crime against humanity.)

Real Genius is a movie that has held up remarkably well over the years.  Superficially, it is a teen, coming-of-age comedy in which the characters grow, fall in love, and make crude jokes about sex; if that’s all it was, then this is a movie that would have been forgotten long ago.  But of course, it’s way more than that.

This movie has held up so well simply because it doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence.  This is a movie about how science really gets done in America: the military wants a new toy, a lead investigator at a prestigious university wins a grant to build an aspect of the new toy, and the lead investigator has junior scientists carry out the work.

In this case, the lead investigator is Prof. Jerry Hathaway (Bill Atherton, who I guess played a lot of slimy characters we loved to hate in the ’80s), a “dean” at Pacific Tech (a stand-in for CalTech).  Hathaway is the sort of guy who wins these types of grants all the time.  Hathaway is a celebrity scientist who has his own TV show (like Carl Sagan?) and carries the domineering personality that one might expect of an apparently successful, hyperintelligent dude.  He is certainly good at what he does – laser physics – as evidenced by his ease with the equipment his slaves team built for him in the scenes at the end of the movie.

Now, the way a university grant works is that the grant proposal names the people who will be working on the project, as well as their salary requirements.  The university then pays these people accordingly as the grant money arrives.  Other money is used for stuff like lab equipment, conference travel, support staff, and overhead.  If all goes well, the lead investigator reports progress on the project to the funding source (the military here) and presents deliverables according to a schedule.

However, the central premise of this movie is that Hathaway doesn’t quite do this.  Rather, Hathaway, for reasons I can only guess are related to his dean-ship, manages to divert his grant funds to other scientific endeavors such as extensive home renovations.  One might also guess that his grant proposal listed his graduate students as his junior investigators for whom he listed salary requirements.  Hathaway likely used some of the money to pay tuition for his students and for lab equipment, etc.  But the rest of the money likely went to salaries that were never going to be paid out to people doing actual work.

Now we imagine that the military (the Army I think) has provided a very generous dollop of dough to Prof. Hathaway and thus has expectations of a finished product as likely promised.  As no finished product is even close because, well, his junior investigators are mostly semi-competent graduate and undergraduate students who are kept in the dark about essentially everything, the Army overseers are applying the screws to Prof. Hathaway, at one point hinting at a possible felony conviction for his creative accounting with the grant.  So Hathaway, who already is a Type A that thinks he is better than everyone else, is stressed out beyond belief.  This is all his students’ fault of course.

Most of what I just described is barely presented in the movie, but the movie is so good that this stuff doesn’t need to be said.  Again, the audience is assumed to be intelligent.  However, all of what I did present now explains how Prof. Hathaway came to recruit 15-year-old phenom Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarrett, who never really did many films yet did an excellent job capturing the awkward kid who just wants to please): Hathaway was desperate.  His wonder boy, Chris Knight (a young and excellent Val Kilmer in a role that would prove to be so very against type), who had been driving the project, has questioned his one-track existence and thus progress is not being made.

Progress on what?  What Prof Hathaway and the audience knows, and what the students do not, is that the deliverable is a weapon deployed in space that can vaporize a person anywhere on the ground.  The movie immediately makes clear the moral outrage of such a weapon when a morally outraged Army guy who leaves the project is “liberated.”  (“You mean liquidated?” “Let’s get some lunch.”)

Nevertheless, to Chris and his fellow students, Prof. Hathaway merely demands the solution of a “power problem,” which apparently is the generation of a 5 MW laser beam; this beam needs such power to vaporize a human target from space.  For those not in the know, 5 MW is extremely powerful, but its real use can only be measured in Joules of output, or power over time.  For example, a recent article claims production of a 2 PetaWatt beam in Japan, which is several hundred million times the power density of the 5 MW laser that Hathaway needs.  But the Japanese version only lasts for 2 pico-seconds, so the actual energy output couldn’t even heat your leftovers.  On the other hand, the 5 MW laser lasts 5 or more seconds, and even longer when deployed in the air so the energy density of this contraption is truly lethal.

Because Chris has no idea of the true purpose of his work, he merely thinks Hathaway is irritable for some odd reason.  (“But – and I am only saying this because I care – there are a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market today that are just as tasty as the real thing.”)  Chris seems genuinely baffled as to why Hathaway all of a sudden is demanding the solution of a far-out scientific problem pronto.  To him, the threats are almost comical – until Hathaway, in true desperation, and against every ethical and moral rule, states outright that he is failing Chris out of school and blacklisting him from employment in physics.

The movie makes it very clear that the true victims of Hathaway’s corruption are his students.  Hathaway has to put the squeeze on any way he can so that he can achieve his deliverable and not get convicted of fraud.

In one of the most horrifying scenes in the movie, Hathaway angrily belittles 15-year-old Mitch because he took a few hours off from the lab to go to a party.  Mitch, so young and impressionable and far from home, becomes despondent and begs his parents to allow him home.  When I watched this movie as a Mitch, I thought the scene was overdone.  I thought I was pretty independent from my parents emotionally (turned out to be inaccurate in ways I didn’t understand then) and couldn’t understand why Mitch took being berated like that so hard.  However, as a parent of a Mitch, I watched the scene in horror.  This kid is too young to know that he is paying for this jerk’s crime with such emotional abuse.   I wish Prof. Hathaway ill.

And it gets worse for Mitch.  Mitch instantly angered the alpha graduate student Kent (Robert Prescott, whom some of you might recognize many years later as a thug in the excellent film Michael Clayton) by making intellectual mincemeat out of him in the lab in front of Prof. Hathaway.  Kent is one of the least appealing characters in the movie because I feel the character is over-the-top pathetic.  Kent too is a victim of Hathaway’s, but Kent is a willing slave.  He gets Hathaway’s dry cleaning and teaches his undergrad class, and for these trifles, expects the success that comes with actual achievement. So Kent, a man in his mid-20’s, becomes so enraged at and fearful of a 15-year-old boy that he utterly humiliates him in front of a cafeteria full of students by taping and replaying Mitch’s pleadings with his parents.  (The students all laugh at Mitch, which makes me wonder WTF is wrong with people.)  Kent also turns Mitch into Hathaway for the “crime” of taking a few hours off from the lab.

This low point of the movie is the catalyst for the expected bonding of Chris and Mitch.  I think Kilmer and Jarrett have really good chemistry together as senior and junior research associates.  Their characters rightly benefit from each other’s presence: Mitch is able to stand up for himself better (and gets an older woman to boot), and Chris is able to find the balance between being loose and being successful.  Mitch of course plays the straight man and Jarrett does that well.  Chris, on the other hand, has the majority of the great lines in the movie, and Kilmer, not yet the superstar, is more than up to the task.  Not only that, the characters are clearly comfortable rattling off scientific reasoning as the scenes demand.  (“Bromide in an argon matrix…radiatively coupled to the ground state…10^21 photons per cubic cm”; not easy stuff to say with conviction.)

One other character stands out: John Gries as Laslo Hollyfeld, the mysterious bearded dude that seems to live in Mitch’s closet.  One watching the film today might get angry at Gries’ character as being a ripoff of David Foster Wallace…until one realizes that this movie came out two years before an unknown Wallace released his first book (Broom of the System) after graduating from Amherst College.  Yes, so DFW may actually be a ripoff himself of Laslo Hollyfeld (although Hollyfeld has no bandana).

Real Genius takes a few twists and turns and so keeps the audience on its toes.  Chris has an epiphany about solving the power problem, and he and Mitch successfully carry the solution out in front of a gleeful Hathaway and an incredulous Kent.  Mitch and Chris’s celebration is cut short because Hollyfeld informs them of the true purpose of Hathaway’s nagging.  Horrified, the kids (along with an unwitting Kent) take revenge by infiltrating the demo that Hathaway is giving his Army patrons and causing the laser to fire at Hathaway’s house and pop a literal shitload of popcorn in the house. (Hathaway expressed disgust for popcorn earlier.)

So what can I say: good plot, mostly good characters, quotable dialogue, excellent science, respect for its audience.  Overall a terrific movie…but I do have a few parting questions:

  • Mitch pairs up with Jordan (Michelle Meyrink, who in hindsight is not bad to look at).  Jordan is 19, Mitch is 15.  A little questionable, but good for Mitch.  However, at some point in the film, Mitch is propositioned by one Sherry Nugill, whose goal is to sleep with the smartest people ever; Sherry is easily in her 30’s (a quite hot Patti D’Arbanville) and…don’t hot chicks in their 30’s get jailed for sleeping with young boys?
  • The finished product is not only the laser, but also a tracking system.  The tracking system is barely mentioned until deployment, but it seems to be Kent’s baby.  Why is Kent even working on this piece?  Wouldn’t this go to another group whose expertise is in…tracking systems?  And if Kent is able to develop and complete the tracking system as well as “contribute” to the laser development, doesn’t he deserve more credit?

Postscript:

Upon a second read of my review, I find more than a little sexism.  I apologize.  I gave short shrift to the quirky character Jordan played by Michelle Meyrink.  That is another thing this movie gets right: in the 1980’s (and 90’s), women in very high-tech campuses are few and far between.  So there are not too many like Jordan.  But she is as adept at science and tech thinking as any of the guys, and makes no bones about it.  Another great character.  (See more in depth about women in science and this movie here.)

We are trans parents

Our younger child, formerly known as our daughter Eliza Hannah, has become our son Elijah Henry (Eli).  Let me explain.

Late last year, Eli came out to us as transgender.  In our case, this means that Eli, despite having female body parts, feels that he has always been male.

To say that this was bewildering news to Laura and me is a severe understatement.  Laura and I pride ourselves on our open-mindedness and have steeled ourselves for all sorts of surprises the kids could spring on us (e.g., “Hey Dad, I’m gay!”, “Hey Mom, I’m Baha’i.”, “Hey Mom & Dad, I eloped!”).  But we didn’t think about this possibility.  It never occurred to us.

Being clueless about anything transgender, we had no idea what this meant or what to do.  Clearly, Eli needed us and was confiding something major to us.  Very quickly, we had to educate ourselves on matters transgender.  Laura and I were simply overwhelmed at first.

That said, some months later, here we are, much more knowledgable and confident of the path we are taking.  Are things perfect?  No.  Eli is still a teenager and, well,…you know.  But we are very proud of Eli for having the courage to be true to himself, his family, and his friends.  We are a very out family and are happy to talk to anyone who may have questions.

Just for our sake, here are answers to questions and comments we get a lot:

  • Did this come out of the blue or did you suspect something was amiss?

While we never suspected anything like this, there were signs in hindsight.  For example, at Eli’s Bat* Mitzvah, he fought Laura incredibly hard about wearing a dress.  Laura relented, which says a lot because she invested a lot of thought into what dress to buy for Eli.  Eli also has always been sort of a tomboy, but that says very little because many girls who are tomboys are indeed girls.

Eli also had a rough year leading up to the announcement.  I won’t go into detail, but I will say it’s a miracle that, despite everything, his grades are stellar.

  • How do you know that this in fact a real thing and not just a passing fad?

To be honest, we don’t with 100% certainty.  99% certainty, not 100%.  But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.  Eli is clearly serious about it – we know Eli and we know when he’s very serious about something.  And that’s enough for us.  If more time goes by and Eli changes his mind…well, lesson learned.  But we don’t see that happening.

  • I imagine you guys have gone through the mill with the school and other kids.

Wrong.  The school has been nothing short of incredible.  The teachers and staff have all been on board and have, to the best of their ability, respected the name and gender change.  We have been working very closely with the school and they are just a pleasure to work with.

The kids…wow.  Eli’s friends have been wonderful, just so accepting.  Zero bullying in the school.  Zero.  What a different world than mid-1980’s Brockton.  (To my Brockton homies: no offense meant, I will always love my hometown, but you know precisely what I am talking about.)

Some of this has to do with being here in Massachusetts.  Since 2012, gender identity has become a protected class in the public schools (but not in other public spaces such as businesses).  This means that if someone is bullied for being transgender, then the school is obligated to do something about it.  Further, the school staff are trained to work with transgender kids and educate other kids as the situation arises.

I will note here that this is obviously not the case in many states.  Even a very liberal state like New York does not consider gender identity a protected class in its public schools.  So we count our blessings that, sucky winter weather and all, we live in Massachusetts.

  • How has your family taken the news?

Really well.  Amazing.  Knocked our socks off.  First of all, Eli’s older brother Josh has been so incredible through this.  He understands that he is not getting as much grease right now as his wheel isn’t squeaking as much.  We are very proud of him.

Parents, brothers and families, aunts and uncles, cousins, close friends,…., just so much love and support.  We are so blessed.

  • Psst! You have to be really careful around the Gordons now because they offend easily.

(Actually, no one’s said this to us, but I can tell that some people we have told got a little careful in what they said to us at first.)

Hey, this is a bit weird for everyone.  We had no clue about what being transgender was all about not that long ago.  It would be awful of us to assume that everyone is instantly on board with everything transgender.  I alone have over 500 FB friends and I would be amazed if 10% of them knew anything about transgender issues.

We do not care if you don’t know the difference between trans and cis.  We are not concerned if you instinctively refer to Eli as “she.”  We understand if you are uncomfortable with certain perceived aspects of transgender issues (e.g., “Does my daughter have to take a leak next to a 275 lb, hairy, bearded dude in a ponytail, dress, and matching espadrilles?”).

But we will not lie about the fact that we are a little exasperated with misinformation being disseminated in articles and elsewhere by certain political and religious commentators that have the ear of many frightened parents.  Please, by all means, ask us about the content of these articles and ask us why we might agree or disagree with the assertions presented therein.  However, if someone truly buys into misinformation enough to express it as fact in public, expect a rebuttal from me.

Examples of misinformation I have seen:

  1. “The child has gender confusion.”  Wrong.  Eli is not confused one bit about his gender.  He is a male.  End of story.  Eli, however, suffers from gender dysphoria, which is trauma felt by despising the wrongly-gendered body he feels trapped in.
  2. “Exposing our kids to all this sex talk.”  Gender identity has nothing to do with sexual attraction.  Nothing.  This is about one’s identity and is centered on the self rather than other people.  The misinformation may come about by the “T” being included in LGBT.   The inclusion is really about similarities in societal attitudes rather than actual similarities.
  3. “Perverts.”  This is the language of bigots.  Used also to describe gay people.

When all is said and done, it is basic respect.  Asking questions about that which is not understood is respectful.  That’s all.

Religious Freedom, Pizza, and The Stupid: Please, Make It Stop

So unless you’ve been living in a cave the past week or so, you know about Indiana’s botched RFRA act and its signing by its terribly unfortunate Governor.  The incident has ignited a kulturkampf the likes of which are…let’s face it, necessary to keep the news agencies alive during periods of otherwise slow news.

But I’d like to focus on a micro-incident that has religious conservatives who support the bill in a lather.  An owner of a small pizza restaurant in Walkerton, IN, stated publicly, as the focus of a news segment, that as a Christian she would not cater a gay wedding.   If you see the video, the young owner seems very sincere about her faith and what it means, and that she supports the controversial new law.  Her father states plainly that he doesn’t have to support anyone’s lifestyle choice, so at least you know where he’s coming from.

The reaction was about as predictable as that of my dog upon smelling a steak being unwrapped in front of her.  That’s right: The Stupid.  Liberals pounced on the non-would-be-gay-wedding-pizza-caterers, one-starring them in Yelp and making grand pronouncements against them in blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever else.  Conservatives who support this bill and every other anti-LGBT measure fought back.  The non-would-be-gay-wedding-pizza-caterers then announced very publicly that they were being forced to close their doors due to the backlash.  Liberals apparently became the “new McCarthyites.”

A bit of free advice to my pro-equality allies: stop!  Just stop being so dumb and visceral.  Know where you are.  The country as a whole is on our side.  Who gives a rat’s ass about a shitty** pizza joint that is turning away hypothetical catering business?  The attention that these folks have drawn to themselves – which to anyone not comatose is obviously done deliberately – has brought them, as of this writing, nearly half a million dollars from a GoFundMe account.  These people are playing the Martyr bit, and doing it well.  Don’t buy into it!

So, really, stop.  Stop paying attention to these people, and anyone else who boldly pronounces their refusal to serve customers that don’t exist.  Focus instead on legal protections for LGBT citizens of Indiana.  Because no kid  I know in this country has ever attempted suicide because of their oppressed religion.

**As I have never eaten at Memories Pizza, I have no idea how their pizza is.  But if they need this sort of publicity, then my guess is that the food does not speak for itself.

See kids: Actual anti-semitism!

I am frequently told these days that, at least here in the U.S.A., anti-Semitism is a rarity.  Oh sure, it’s pretty bad over in Europe.  And in the U.S., one can hear increasing hostility toward the Jewish state, especially on some university campuses.  But criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, I am told.

And for the most part, I buy it.  Of course the leadership of Israel does some things that drives liberals (and some paleo-conservatives) batty.  And the leadership of Israel, despite claims to the contrary, does not represent all Jewish people of the world.  It should go without saying that one has the right to condemn a new settlement, or an airstrike, or a failure in negotiations with the Fatah, without worrying about being labeled a bigot.

And I preface this by stating that I do not look for anti-Jewish bigotry.  I am always the one disagreeing that this or that statement is anti-Semitism.  For example, I defended Andrew Sullivan when he did a 180 on Israel and put out some seriously harsh words on the topic, like a lover scorned.

I say all this to emphasize my point: what I am about to describe is real anti-Semitism, make no mistake about it.  It is real, and it happened, at UCLA of all places, an elite state university in Los Angeles, the second Jewish city of America. The story has made the rounds on Twitter, but it has reached the NY Times and is now a big deal.  It is worth talking about so it is understood in light of all other bigotries that must be recognized and unlearned.

The incident happened last month and involved a 20-year-old student named Rachel Beyda.  Ms. Beyda, from all appearances (I obviously do not know her), has all the hallmarks of a bright future: intelligent, attractive, ambitious, and involved.  She had an interest in joining the campus Judicial Board because she wants to be a lawyer.  She was nominated and was ready for the questions from the rest of the Board, which she expected to be a formality given her formidable credentials.

But Ms. Beyda is Jewish.  This of course has nothing to do with anything in theory, but apparently it did in this case.  The Council debated, while Ms. Beyda waited outside for 40 minutes, whether one could be Jewish and “unbiased.”  The debate touched the theme of Judaism and dual loyalties, Judaism and dishonesty, you name it.  Everything except the elephant in the room: Israel.  Israel was never mentioned – just Ms. Beyda’s Judaism and her involvement with Jewish groups  (Hillel and a Jewish sorority).  That this is disgusting is obvious.

But there’s more, much more.

  1. Everyone has biases.  Jewish people involved in Jewish organizations have biases.  Muslim students who belong to Muslim organizations have biases.  Jews and Muslims and Christians and Atheists who stay away from such organizations have biases.  The question is whether Ms. Beyda could do the job.  Not one person said that.
  2. Being Jewish does not presuppose any point of view.  Again, this should not matter, but apparently it did.
  3. Even if it could be assumed that Ms. Beyda would try to assert a point of view in line with the Jewish groups to which she belongs (and that may indeed be the case)…so what?!?!?!?  Anyone who has not been asleep in a cave knows what happened here.  The Council members opposing Ms. Beyda wanted to make sure that certain votes in connection with the Israel/Palestine issue went a certain way and did not feel Ms. Beyda would go along because of the Jew.  But is this a requirement now to take part in student government – that one speaks and thinks as an anti-Zionist.

The BDS folks have now proven that their form of anti-Zionism is indeed anti-semitic. The four who voted against Ms. Beyda recanted, and Ms. Beyda is now ensconced in the Council.  The damage, however, is irreversible.

When modern states dictate what movies get made

I was thinking about the recent events surrounding the so-so movie, The Interview.  To review, hackers infiltrated Sony’s computer systems in response to the impending release of the Seth Rogen comedy about a fictional assassination of Kim Jong Un.  It has been widely believed that the hackers work for the North Korean government, although as of this writing the North Koreans have denied this.

There are two things that need to be said about these events that really help put things in perspective.  The first is that there is already a spoof about a killing of a North Korean Supreme Leader that was widely released in the movies.  Team America: World Police, released in 2004, is a far more funny, obscene, and effective satire than The Interview.  In this movie, Kim Jong Il is not only killed, but is reincarnated as an alien cockroach.  No attempt was made to interfere with the movie’s release in the U.S.** – although, according to the Wikipedia article, the North Korean government attempted to have the movie banned the in Czech Republic.

**One could say, however, that the MPAA did effectively censor parts of the movie out by issuing an initial NC-17 rating.

The second thing is that there is a long, ugly precedent of a foreign power interfering with the release of a movie.  The movie, which unfortunately did not get made for fifty years – and even then, was a castrated version of the intended feature that almost no one saw – was to be based on a novel called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel.  The history of this book and its subject matter invoked the ire of a major world power that is the gold standard of censorship by a foreign power that holds to this day.

Basically, Forty Days is based on a real-life incident that happened in Turkey during WWI.  During 1915, the Turkish government conducted a campaign of deportation of Armenian villagers to the Syrian desert (then under Ottoman control).  The novel provides a fictionalized account of an act of resistance to one of the deportation orders.  About 5,000 villagers took refuge on a mountain, Musa Dagh, to fend off Ottoman Turkish forces who had arrived to carry out the deportation.  After 53 days (not 40), the villagers were rescued by Allied warships.

Forty Days, first published in Germany in 1933 (in an act of brutal irony), served as an inspiration to Jewish ghetto inhabitants in  Białystok and Vilna.  More importantly, it gave much-needed publicity to the then-neglected treatment of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during WWI, a treatment that inspired Raphael Lemkin to introduce the word “genocide” into the English language.  Turkey, however, holds to this day that no such genocide ever took place.

Release of Forty Days inspired intense interest in a film version.  MGM studios secured the rights, and pre-production work started in 1934.  The government of Turkey immediately registered protests and ordered its Ambassador to stop the film from being made.  Although attempts were made at mollifying the Turkish government, nothing short of outright cancellation would stop the protests.  Although angry studio executives swore that no foreign country could stop their work, some classic anti-Semitic threats did the trick, according to a book Musa Dagh by Edward Minasian.  (The United States government was little help and in fact likely helped make sure the movie would not get made, according to Minasian.)

To this day, the only movie based on the book was made in 1982, nearly 50 years after MGM began pre-production.  I certainly never heard of it, and it looks like a small production that few people saw and has been since forgotten.  Subsequent attempts to release a film have come to naught because of protests.  Given the understandably strong desire of a powerful government to suppress an important piece of history, I doubt it ever will.

The New Republic’s alleged racism…and mine

So, The New Republic apparently died on December 5.  The news has affected maybe 73 non-journalist people, and one of them was me.  I didn’t see it coming, even though the magazine has effectively served as my portal to the outside world for the past 11 years.

The news has served up quite a lot of debate within…OK, let’s face it: the news of the demise of TNR spawned in effect a huge circle jerk.  Really, outside the circle, there were more interesting things going on, like the weather, the local traffic, and the baseball winter meetings.  But inside…whoa!  Such emotion from those who got their start at the magazine!  Such vitriol from those who didn’t!  The recounting of the misadventures that took place behind the scenes is somewhat entertaining.

 

One point brought up repeatedly by those inclined to celebrate the demise of TNR was its alleged racism.  Doubtless, TNR‘s owner and editor-in-chief for 37 years, Martin Peretz, had his dark side which he unfortunately expressed in his pages.  But his cartoonish buffoonery in the alleged service of Zionism, painful as it was to read, is not what keeps me up at night.  Rather, it is the insidious reality of the highly educated workplace of today, one similar to that in which I work.

Ta-Nahisi Coates of The Atlantic wrote what I think is the most eloquent explanation of TNR‘s alleged racism.  Essentially, Coates argues that TNR harmed African Americans simply by having no AfrAm voice on its staff.

Things got better after Peretz was dislodged. The retrograde politics were gone, but the “Whites Only” sign remained. I’ve been told that Foer was greatly pained by Peretz’s racism. I believe this. White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough. That is not true because they are white, but because they are human. I know this, too well. Still, as of last week there were still no black writers on TNR’s staff, and only one on its masthead. Magazines, in general, have an awful record on diversity. But if TNR’s influence and importance was as outsized as its advocates claim, then the import of its racist legacy is outsized in the same measure. One cannot sincerely partake in heritage à la carte.

Andrew Sullivan, Coates’ former colleague at The Atlantic and a former editor at TNR, defended TNR and himself equally eloquently.

Did we fail to find and nurture and promote African-American staffers? We did – along with almost every other magazine and newspaper at the time. I regret this. I tried – but obviously not hard enough. I’m no believer in affirmative action, but I’m a deep believer in the importance of differing life experiences to inform a magazine’s coverage of the world. And I tried mightily hard to find young black writers to contribute to the magazine. Did we fail because we were racists? I’ll leave that up to others to judge. But did we try to include black writers and intellectuals in the magazine’s discourse? Of course we did.

It is this debate that has made me sit up and take notice because it really isn’t about TNR.  No, it is about a lot of us, me included.  It is about why I rarely encounter an African American at work.  It is about why I live in a town that, for all of its lovely diversity, sports hardly an African American kid in its vaunted schools.   It is about why I don’t often see an African American at all.  Now I am forced to look in the mirror, naked and stripped of my fantastic liberal sensibilities, at the life I really live.  It is the world in which TNR has existed, the world that has captivated me because it has been my world.

Like the journalists at TNR, I work among talented, highly educated people.  These people tend to come from suburban school systems, major in subjects in which AfrAm participation is still considered notable, and then go onto highly coveted positions in firms/organizations in which – surprise surprise – there are few AfrAms in any such coveted positions.  I personally saw the same thing at the tech companies and patent boutiques in which I have worked.

Does this mean that the companies I worked for, or the town I live in, are fundamentally racist?  Certainly not in intent.  Every company I have seen from the inside has been committed to do all possible to acquire a diverse staff.  My children are educated in a system that excoriates racism; my 13-year-old daughter herself likes to expound on the racists among us, as if she could never be one of those.

Unfortunately, as I must teach my daughter, the excoriation of racism is make-believe.  We clearly understand that racism is an evil.  But it is not an evil of the other, i.e., Southern Man, but is an evil inside all of us.  When I moved back to Massachusetts 10 years ago, I could have moved my family anywhere where my home equity could take us.  I could have moved us into downtown Worcester, which would have been convenient for the Conservative synagogue and other amenities.  I could have moved us back to my hometown of Brockton, where I have a lot of friends.  I could have moved to any place with real diversity and AfrAm neighbors, and cheap.  But I chose, for the sake of the good schools that I and every parent covet, to move to our lovely town here in Northborough at a much higher financial cost.  I did not do so to avoid AfrAms.  But apparently, the good schools are singularly unavailable to AfrAms.

And that is the diagnosis here: there is an undercurrent of racism deep in our society that few of us wish to face.  Believe me, I don’t really want to.  But how else to explain TNR and my own life?  TNR does not deserve Coates’ singular, brutal prose, even if he dislikes some of its content.  He may as well devote a column attacking every group or department I have worked in.  Coates is correct, however, to set his sights on the big picture, as he surely has done over the past year.  I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusion, but I find it hard to argue with his facts.

I used to believe that I didn’t have a racist bone in my body.  But that’s a lie, a dangerous one at that.  I live in a society with people like me that do not want to be racist, but unfortunately are too concerned with the banalities of everyday life to wonder why most of my friends, coworkers, and magazine editors look like me.

A final note: when I say that TNR is dead, it’s not really dead.  It has an owner, a CEO, and an Editor that are trying to pull the enterprise together after, well, most everyone quit suddenly.  In yet another attempt to explain themselves, the new Editor fired a shot across the bow, a cheap one at that, basically acceding to the racism charges leveled at the pre-December 5 TNR by its enemies.

As we revive one proud legacy of The New Republicthe launching of new voices and expertsthose new voices and experts will be diverse in race, gender, and background. As we build our editorial staff, we will reach out to talented journalists who might have previously felt unwelcome at The New Republic. If this publication is to be influential, and not merely survive, it can no longer afford to represent the views of one privileged class, nor appeal solely to a small demographic of political elites.

This is the language of desperation.  Yes of course, hire writers who reflect the world around us.  But don’t think for a minute that the people before you didn’t try their best.  The problem is much deeper than you say.  Oh, and I will not be renewing my subscription.

Alan Turing gets a pardon

In case you haven’t heard, Queen Elizabeth pardoned Alan Turing from his 1952 conviction for Sodomy. By today’s standards, the conditions under which Turing was convicted and branded a criminal, and his subsequent treatment, were nothing short of appalling. So three cheers for the Queen for undoing a great injustice. (Not that she would give a rat’s arse what this Yank thinks, especially a Yank who couldn’t be bothered taking Queen’s birthday seriously as a holiday when he lived under the Queen’s rule.)

This said, I have a bit of a deeper problem with all of this. For example, the pardon has little more than symbolic value. What really has been accomplished by this act, other than the Queen and greater English society generally recognizing how important Alan Turing was for Britain, and how stupid the law was that labeled Turing the father of computer science and war as into a criminal pervert? Turing, as a result of his conviction, was chemically castrated and the subsequent effect was to turn a fit, virile, and productive young man into an obese eunuch with depression severe enough to cause his 1954 suicide. We’ll never know what we lost, and we’ll never get it back as a result of the pardon.

There are deeper problems with the pardon, however. For one, the law under which Turing was convicted was repealed in 1967. Society has apparently recognized for the past 46 years that the Sodomy law was wrong, incompatible with a free society. Turing’s conviction must have had been a factor in causing the change of mind that brought on the repeal. So greater society really did not need to be re-educated: the outrage over what happened to Turing is pretty plain and near-universal.

Then there’s the logic of the pardon, which is sorely lacking. Outrageous as the Sodomy law is by today’s standard, Turing was clearly guilty of violating it. If Turing had not violated it and was wrongly convicted, then of course he should be pardoned. But he was guilty. Turing, as part of his naive nature – he never imagined he was doing anything wrong – never flinched from telling police the truth about his sexual liaisons with a man. Again, I cannot stress how much I am truly disgusted by the law and the consequences for Turing and anyone who admires what he accomplished in his tragically short life. But the pardon, a good intention it is, is wrong.

Having read Hodges’ biography of Turing (as well as a couple of lesser biographies – Hodges’ is really the one to read if you want to learn about the man and his work), I can guess that, while Turing would appreciate the attention to the injustice of the Sodomy law and his treatment by the government he served so well, he would be bemused by the pardon. Turing if nothing else was a stickler for logic and would likely not understand why he was being pardoned for something for which he was guilty, even if the law under which he was found guilty of violating was horrifically unjust.

And, finally, even if the pardon made any sense, there’s the problem of the roughly 75,000 men who were also found guilty under the Sodomy law. Must the Queen now pardon all of these anonymous men and clear their names? Or is Turing a special case because he solved the Entscheidungsproblem? No: while Turing is a test case, justice is not served unless all of these nameless men are unburdened by their convictions as well.

So how could the Queen best serve justice for Alan Turing and the thousands unjustly branded criminal perverts in the 1950’s? How about simply commemorating Turing and teaching his story to our children, about the consequences of unjust laws? Instead, the pardons are like an annulment: the convictions never happened, so we may now close the books on them and pretend they never existed. And Britain was always great and never made mistakes and treated her heroes with all due respect. The whitewash is now complete.

Evaluation of a surprisingly beautiful integral

I wish to evaluate

$$\int_0^{\pi/3} dx\: \ln^2\left(\frac{\sin x }{\sin (x+\pi/3)}\right)$$

It turns out that this integral takes on a very simple form amenable to analysis via residues. Let $u = \sin{x}/\sin{(x+\pi/3)}$. We may then find that (+)

$$\tan{x} = \frac{(\sqrt{3}/2)u}{1-(u/2)}$$

A little bit of algebra reveals a very nice form for the differential:

$$dx = \frac{\sqrt{3}}{2} \frac{du}{1-u+u^2}$$

so the original integral takes on a much simpler-looking form:

$$\frac{\sqrt{3}}{2} \int_0^1 du \frac{\log^2{u}}{1-u+u^2}$$

This is not ready for contour integration yet. We may transform this into such an integral by substituting $u=1/v$ and observing that

$$\int_0^1 du \frac{\log^2{u}}{1-u+u^2} = \int_1^\infty du \frac{\log^2{u}}{1-u+u^2} = \frac{1}{2} \int_0^\infty du \frac{\log^2{u}}{1-u+u^2}$$

We may now analyze that last integral via the residue theorem. Consider the integral

$$\oint_C dz \frac{\log^3{z}}{1-z+z^2}$$

where $C$ is a keyhole contour that passes up and back along the positive real axis. It may be shown that the integral along the large and small circular arcs vanish as the radii of the arcs goes to $\infty$ and $0$, respectively. We may then write the integral in terms of positive contributions just above the real axis and negative contributions just below. The result is

$$\oint_C dz \frac{\log^3{z}}{1-z+z^2} = \begin{array}\\ i \left ( – 6 \pi \int_0^\infty du \frac{\log^2{u}}{1-u+u^2} + 8 \pi^3 \int_0^\infty du \frac{1}{1-u+u^2} \right ) \\ + 12 \pi^2 \int_0^\infty du \frac{\log{u}}{1-u+u^2} \end{array}$$

We set this equal to $i 2 \pi$ times the sum of the residues of the poles of the integrand within $C$. The poles are $z \in \{e^{i \pi/3},e^{i 5\pi/3}\}$. The residues are

$$\mathrm{Res}_{z=e^{i \pi/3}} = -\frac{\pi^3}{27 \sqrt{3}}$$

$$\mathrm{Res}_{z=e^{i 5\pi/3}} = \frac{125 \pi^3}{27 \sqrt{3}}$$

$i 2 \pi$ times the sum of these residues is then

$$i \frac{248 \pi^4}{27 \sqrt{3}}$$

Equating imaginary parts of the integral to the above quantity, we see that

$$ – 6 \pi \int_0^\infty du \frac{\log^2{u}}{1-u+u^2} + 8 \pi^3 \int_0^\infty du \frac{1}{1-u+u^2} = \frac{248 \pi^4}{27 \sqrt{3}}$$

Now, I will state without proof for now that (++)

$$\int_0^\infty du \frac{1}{1-u+u^2} = \frac{4 \pi}{3 \sqrt{3}}$$

Then with a little arithmetic, we find that

$$\int_0^\infty du \frac{\log^2{u}}{1-u+u^2} = \frac{20 \pi^3}{81 \sqrt{3}}$$

The integral we want is $\sqrt{3}/4$ times this value; therefore

$$\int_0^{\pi/3} dx \log^2{\left [ \frac{\sin{x}}{\sin{(x + \pi/3)}}
\right ]} = \frac{5\pi^3}{81}$$

**Proof of (++)**

Now, to prove (++), we go right back to the observation (+) that

$$ x = \int \frac{du}{1-u+u^2} \implies \tan{\left ( \frac{\sqrt{3}}{2} x \right )} = \frac{(\sqrt{3}/2)u}{1-(u/2)}$$

Therefore

$$\int_0^1 \frac{du}{1-u+u^2} = \frac{2}{\sqrt{3}} \left [ \arctan \left ( \frac{(\sqrt{3}/2) u}{1-(u/2)} \right ) \right ]_0^1 = \frac{2}{\sqrt{3}} \frac{\pi}{3}$$

and we showed that this is $1/2$ the integral over $[0,\infty)$, and

$$\int_0^\infty \frac{du}{1-u+u^2} = \frac{4 \pi}{3 \sqrt{3}}$$

QED

 

Did Tales From Topographic Oceans kill progressive rock?

Dave Weigel at Slate has done nerds all over a wonderful service in writing a five-part series about Prog Rock. Weigel recalls the birth of what we know as progressive rock with Keith Emerson and his band The Nice. Weigel doesn’t really offer a strict definition of the genre because, well…who has one? Rock with classical influence? Rock songs that are longer than 7 minutes in length? Mythical themes? Unusual and dynamic time signatures? All or some of these? Or none? Weigel is right to waffle here, but he knows of what he speaks:

[H]ubris is…compelling. We praise enormous, magisterial novels informed by the classic literary canon. We love huge movies that attempt never-before-accomplished technical feats. In music, though, many fans prize “authenticity”—the gritty allure of the untrained, instinctual rock star—more than they prize virtuosity or ambition. Say what you want about Icarus, but he was making an innovative use of wax and feathers. We’re too hard on the artists who try big things, show off their prowess, and occasionally screw it all up.

That’s right: prog rock is to music as Infinite Jest is to novels. I’d never thought of it that way, but it’s hard to disagree.

In the fourth part of the series, Weigel focuses on Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans as the “ur-text of prog rock excess,” responsible for the demise of prog rock as a genre. Here, he cites Rick Wakeman (Yes’s keyboardist at the time) who left the group after the foundering tour supporting the album.

[A]s the tour went on, Yes dropped the third section of the album from the show, then the second. Soon, Wakeman vented to reporters about the band’s screw-up. “Tales From Topographic Oceans is like a woman’s padded bra,” he told one interviewer. “The cover looks good but when you peel off the padding there’s not a lot there.” Yes had gotten too damn silly. The music had collapsed in on itself.

Look, Tales is, prima facie, insanely ridiculous and pretentious and…well, a snow job. The liner notes contain a passage about the origin of the album from Jon Anderson. In it, he describes an epiphany while on tour in Japan that involves a footnote on page 83 of Paramhansa Yoganda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and how he right then and there had to make an album about four shastric scriptures inspired by his reading of that footnote. Yikes! What is an American devotee of rock music supposed to do with that?

One must keep in mind that Yes had already been adherents of Eastern mysticism, so Anderson’s musings are in no way a spontaneous outburst. In fact, Yes’s previous album, Close To The Edge, as beloved an album as any Yes has ever made, was partially based on Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. In addition, the members of Yes were vegetarian, no doubt also an influence of their Eastern religious influence. All except Wakeman, who would be annoyed enough by the vegetarianism to cite this as a factor in leaving the band.

More importantly, most Yes fans I know all have given up on finding meaning and inspiration in Yes’s music. Yes is not made for singing along and discussing; rather, Yes is made for rocking out in a quiet room with the lights out. The length and complexity of the passages makes for a deeply satisfying experience in and of itself. Anderson’s vocals are an instrument in harmony with the other incredibly played elements, in contrast to a deliverer of some deep message. I don’t know if Yes understood this at the time; if so, I’m not even sure it would have influenced anything they did in the early 70’s.

In this way, Tales is no longer a concept album, but an imperfect album with two great pieces that belong in their pantheon: The Revealing Science of God (Side 1), and Ritual (Side 4). Yes eventually saw this as well through their audience and only played these tracks at their shows eventually. To this day, they are as beloved as anything in their oeuvre. The other tracks do not resonate as well and are more or less forgotten.

Seen in this way, it is hard to see how Tales “killed” prog rock. People continued to make, and consume, grand concept albums (Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Springsteen’s Nebraska, and Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime come to mind) and insanely long songs (Genesis and Yes continued to put out 10-minute-plus epics, and need I mention Rush’s 2112, Metallica’s And Justice For All…, Rainbow’s Stargazer, …?).

Jethro Tull deserves special mention here. Having heard their monster hit Aqualung being described as a concept album (and with its plethora of anti-religious tracks, one could be forgiven for making such an assumption), they decided to make a spoof of a progressive rock concept album. In doing so, Thick As A Brick became one of the greatest works in the genre. Apparently, they tried to make a serious work in a similar vein, A Passion Play, and failed spectacularly.

The lesson here is an old one: people who find spontaneous success doing one thing find it hard to reproduce that success when it is not clear on what that success was based. And music seems to me to be like that, despite recent technological advances (e.g, Apple’s Genius feature).

So, Weigel’s impressive writing aside, I do not see Tales as being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yes had issues far transcending poseurism in their music. Prog rock as a genre never really went away – rather, it influenced other realms of music, thrash metal being a good example. Nerds love grandness in their art, and like Infinite Jest, prog rock will always sell.

 

Confirmation Bias and Voting in OH

I knew that the liberal/conservative divide in this country was bad, but never this bad.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but a recent episode involving the reporting by a certain right-leaning reporter of a mundane, although likely political, lawsuit filed by the Obama campaign and certain local Democratic groups against the OH Secretary of State opened my eyes pretty wide.

You can read the text of the lawsuit here. Really, it’s not very difficult. The story goes like this. OH has instituted early voting; people can vote up to a month early. There is a restriction, however: only members of the military can vote the last three days of the early voting period. While this restriction has basis in law, the plaintiffs of the lawsuit contend that not allowing non-military folks to vote on these three days has “no rational basis in law.” The lawsuit seekd to open the three days to all voters, military and non.

This is a statement of fact, obvious to anyone that has read the lawsuit, or any of the news articles reporting the lawsuit. If you are not comfortable looking for those articles, or reading the text linked here, I will supply a relevant passage from the lawsuit (Page 4, Paragraph 7, emphasis added):

For these reasons and those specifically alleged herein, Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants from implementing or enforcing the HB 224 and SB 295 changes to Ohio Rev. Code § 3509.03, thereby restoring in-person absentee voting on the three days immediately preceding Election Day for all Ohio voters.

Now, I am not about to defend this lawsuit. It is likely a political gambit: recent polling results have pointed to a tendency of poor, single mothers who use these three days to vote. Such voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, so it would seem on the face of it that this lawsuit is an effort to get those voters to the booths. But it is an enabling lawsuit.

I found out, however, how easy it is for facts to be distorted, twisted, and in some cases, thrown away completely. I found out about an article for Big Government on breitbart.com, written by one Mike Flynn, when two of my Republican friends posted the article on Facebook. The headline says it all:

Obama Campaign Sues to Restrict Military Voting

Whatever the lawsuit aimed to do, it was not looking to touch military voting. In fact, how would such an alleged gambit by the Obama campaign make any sense? Even if you buy that the military is overwhelmingly anti-Obama (which may have merit), Obama still gets no points for such petty behavior toward our fighting men and women. Not knowing anything about the lawsuit when my friends posted the article on Facebook, I decided to investigate.

It took me about 30 seconds on Google to find local articles – many of them – that say nothing about restricting anyone’s vote, and only mention expanding the vote to everyone. To the first person who posted, I put these observations into the comments. It took about 24 rounds of postings to get an acknowledgement of the facts in the case.  And I got word that my foils read the facts and understood them, then I knew that a sane discussion could take place.  Which it did.

It wasn’t long, however, before a second Republican friend posted this article with more snide comments.  It was occurring to me that a plausible lie (that is, plausible to someone already biased) was going to make its way into the discussion.  It was then that I decided to look into that discussion, in the comments for the article.

And, lo and behold, I saw not merely confirmation bias, but a complete disregard for the facts that was so total.  How to describe?  It was a totalitarian mindset in the comments, where the few misguided souls that pointed out the error in the article were roundly abused, threatened, insulted, and otherwise harassed.  I did, however, see some similar patterns where in some cases, a few posters were convinced to actually read the case and were driven to admit their error.

But how did Big Government react?   With irrelevant distraction (“It would not be the first time Democrats…have tried to stop the military’s votes from counting.”), useless non-facts (“Since Flynn’s story broke, the Romney campaign weighed in to support those facing down the Obama campaign’s army of lawyers. ‘I stand with the fifteen military groups that are defending the rights of military voters, and if I’m entrusted to be the commander-in-chief, I’ll work to protect the voting rights of our military, not undermine them,’ Mitt Romney said. “), and doubling down of the lie (“Regardless of the remedy they seek, Flynn points out, they are suing to end an exemption for military voters.”).  And of course, the right-wing sheep bought it.

This is the saddest fact of all.  I know that there are also left-wing sheep that believe anything out of Huffington Post or the like.  But in my experience, liberals tend to be more willing to admit when they are wrong, and their sheep will move along.  This is a much more worrisome phenomenon: a “news” site that plants lies and misinformation that is readily accepted by willing sheep, and refuses to budge in the fact of even the most crystal-clear evidence of its lies.  Thinking conservative supporters of breitbart.com should be very vocal about demanding the truth so that the rabid masses below do not make good on their threats.