Sunday, November 25, 2012

Eventually everyone gets shot: a review of "Coming Apart" by Charles Murray

Why I read this book:

Charles Murray's "Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960 - 2010" made quite a splash among the editorial pages of the major newspapers, magazines, and the like outfits upon its publication. Murray, a political scientist and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, demonstrates that a gargantuan class divide has formed and accelerated in the last several decades as compared to the interconnected lifestyles of the American classes in the sixties. Murray argues that the confluence of education, technology, and enhanced mobility has led to the isolation of the elite classes in their own geographic, cultural, and social bubble at the same time as the lower classes have experienced a shocking decline in social capital measured by factors such as marriage rates, industriousness, and religiousness. The author focuses on the whites of America to remove race as a variable in this alarming discussion of the disintegration of the American social fabric.
When my favorite columnist, David Brooks, raved about the book in his column, I decided to see for myself what the hype was about. Looks like "The Hunger Games" will have to wait.


1. Somali shillings
2. Uzbekistani som
3.Turkish lira
4. Mexican peso
5. US dollar, baby.


The book comprises three main parts: demonstration of trends and data that identifies the geographic isolation of the elites and the disintegration of social capital in the lower classes, root cause analysis of the problem, and lastly, the author's recommendation for addressing the problem of the downward trend among the lower classes and the issue of the growing divide between the elite classes and everyone else.

The first part of the book produces the evidence for the conclusions that made "Coming Apart" the talk of the nation: the affluent and the educated are congregating in a handful of pockets of zip codes around major cities, flourishing, sipping good coffee, and living their lives largely unaffected by the rest of society, while the working class whites have experienced a sharply pronounced increase in unemployment rates (both willful and forced) and births out of wedlock as well as a corresponding decline in marriage rate and religious and civic participation.
Murray spends a considerable amount of time explaining his methodology using sexy terms such as "multivariate analysis" and producing a wide array of graphs to support his findings. While such discussions focus on the technicals more than the average reader (me) would care about, the discovery of trends and revealing graphs grasp at the same pleasure circuits as the more prettily wrapped works of social and behavioral economics such as "Freakonomics" and everything Malcolm Gladwell ever wrote.

The second and third parts of the book focus on the underlying causes of the divide between classes and the decay of the lower class and contain the author's views on addressing these issues. These sections of the book are subjective and open to debate (perhaps this is why every mention of "Coming Apart" that I saw in the newspapers and magazines cherry-picked only the conclusions of the first part of the book and ignore these sections), but they made a tremendous impression on me and garnered the book the highest of the ratings.

For starters, Murray spends a considerable amount of time discussing why the stratification of various elements of the American society is bad for the health of the country. At a time when inequality, economic or social, is one of the most charged political topics, how often have you stopped to think about if and why that is an issue? How often do you hear pundits and policy makers provide that explanation? The answer is practically never. You cannot, however, escape the hysterical cries of "We are the 99%" on the extreme left, finding their scapegoat in the richest 1% and short-sightedly focusing on a symptom instead of a cure; nor can you miss the roars of "socialism" and "class warfare" of the far right when the topic of inequality comes up, as they turn a deaf ear to the tremors of the changing times and choose the tactics of a shouting chid over a reasonable conversation with the other side. Murray devotes a number of pages to explain what most of us inherently know: that social trust and cohesion between citizens constitute the basic material for the success of the American project, and this effort alone elevates the book past much of the traffic I encounter on the television and the editorial pages of newspapers. 

Murray is a libertarian, and many of his views are unconventional and stir controversy, as he readily acknowledges. They are also untenable for all practical purposes. For instance, he argues that the vast amount of resources that our government devotes to fighting social ills with self-evident lack of results are so mishandled, we may be better off by writing everyone a check for their portion of the aforementioned resources. Where Murray stands out, however, is in his ability to identify the domestic problems facing the country, and to do so in a deeply analytic, intelligent way, backed by data and framed within a historical context, leaning on writings of men who shaped American history, such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexis De Tocqueville.

What touched me the most was Murray's ruminations on the issue of executive compensation. Murray pierces right through the tired debate (of course, the rate of executive compensation growth is egregious) with a simple, yet poignant rebuke: Have you, as an executive and a leading figure in the nation, given any thought to how unseemly your astronomical compensation and your golden parachute are? This appeal to the higher principles in our business leaders resonated with me. We tend to portray the captains of industry as star individual performers, the Kobe Bryants of business, who should be compensated as such. That may be, and I cannot advocate putting artificial restrictions on someone else's earnings. I can and will, however, stand behind the notion that a leader should recognize that his position places him in the vanguard of maintaining and shaping the values that govern this nation. Humility and selflessness may seem to be relics of a bygone era, a time that is ill-suited for the pace of today's events. Murray himself exposes his fears that the foundation of values that made America great may today be crumbling. I think those fears are misplaced despite his astute diagnosis of the issues facing the country. Despite the political turbulence of today's age, American democracy is still vibrant, and its companies and universities are still the centers of global innovation. I think we will emerge from the Great Recession and its aftereffects with a renewed sense of industriousness and importance of civic participation.

Do not despair, Charles Murray: If we can successfully bring back the high five, we can bring back virtuousness and humility.

Coincidentally, I had been searching for the intellectual basis for the conservative reaction to the handling of the Great Recession by making acquaintance with Arthur Brooks' "The Battle" and Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged". Those books left me disenchanted and in mourning for the hours that I spent laboring through the bleak, uninformative pages; hours that I could have put to use on something more productive such as watching "Game of Thrones" or working on my back squat. I stumbled upon Charles Murray's analysis by accident - the book was not advertised to me as a work of political philosophy. I am glad I did find this book - this work is by far the most robust, intelligent, and informative discussion of the foundational issues facing the nation that I have seen from an advocate of limited government. This book is not exactly an high-octane, action-packed thriller - this is not everyone's cup of tea. If you find this topic interesting, however, and you find yourself on the fence about whether to pick up this book, let me nudge over the edge. It will be worth your time; provided you are a fan of "multivariate analysis", of course.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

An open letter to James Bond villains

To whom it may concern: 

I saw "Skyfall" over the weekend. The movie impressed and has been a wild success at the box office, becoming the franchise's highest-grossing installment in its opening weekend. The movie owes its success in no small part to the tremendous performance by Javier Bardem (aka Raoul Silva). Bardem is equally terrifying, entertaining, and enthralling. There is an argument to be made that he may be the greatest Bond villain ever. Silva is as formidable an opponent as Bond has ever faced: a former star agent in MI6 with hacking skills comparable to Anonymous, hair more glorious than Donald Trump, and a small army of highly trained mercenaries at his disposal. Silva's star peaks at an opportune time as Bond faces a personal crisis that parallels an institutional crossroads at MI6 headquarters, and as whispers abound: Is Bond over the hill? Is he, like the institution he works for, a relic of a bygone era? 

Despite the favorable circumstances, victory eludes Silva. Undoubtedly, this is foremost a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of James Bond and the democratic-capitalistic-political-democratic-model-Western-Civilization-is-still-peaking-so-hard way of life that he represents. Yet Silva, despite his daring and meticulously planned schemes, commits tactical and strategic errors so grave and appalling that I feel compelled to rebel against such level of incompetence in this letter. 

Please do not misunderstand my intentions. I root for Bond, universal suffrage, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The observations that follow constitute no endorsement of your actions. They are simply lessons that must be self-evident to anyone with half a brain who is hoping to become a memorable villain.

1. You will lose in the long-term

It is like playing blackjack in a casino. The odds are stacked against you. Sure, you hit big once in a while and take over Cyprus, but eventually you end up broke, spending your last five dollars on a meal at IHOP and hitch hiking your way back home to the East Coast.

Since the beginning of time, many a philosopher has burned the midnight oil mulling over the fundamental question of whether Man is good or evil. I do not consider this to be a difficult question. I hold it to be self-evident that Man is good even as he is locked in a perpetual struggle against his sinful nature. That is why we want the best for our children even if we have strayed from the righteous path. The perceived balance between Good and Evil lies in the impact that a few super crappy people wreak on the world.

This is why I usually just borrow pictures from the Internet.

Even though Evil is a huge pain in the neck, Good inevitably triumphs. Your objective then, if you dream of leaving a memorable legacy as a villain, is to prolong your reign as long as possible. With that in mind, an enterprising villain will incorporate these lessons into his budding career:

2. Setup surrogates

Let me guess: your current evil genius plan is to announce your presence on the world stage by capturing the last of the rare Dalmatian pandas and holding them hostage until the world gives you a pension and full medical benefits. I have news for you: a) that is so cliché - BORING!, and b) the 1960s called - they want their utopian dreams back. Nobody has a pension anymore.

Once you are captured, the world will forget you and the Dalmatian pandas. Instead, send a henchman to do the job. You will gain notoriety whether your number 2 succeeds or not. 

3. Be charismatic

Once you show your face to the world, you must have an electrifying presence. Have recognizable and unique outwardly appearance - scars, crazy hair, extra limbs. Do not be afraid to "peacock". Wear a kimono. Accessorize. Consider a new pet, perhaps an iguana. Mutations are encouraged. A set of gills would be nice: modest and inconspicuous, yet highly functional. Remember: Evil is an art, not a science. Think the laugh is overdone? Carry a baton and pretend you are directing an orchestra any time you have to make a speech.   



4. Have offspring

At first you considered your child a hinderance to your ascending career and your cosmopolitan lifestyle. You never understood just how selfish and unappreciative children are until you had your own. In retrospect, you have come to terms with your own father's absence from your childhood. It tears you apart to think of all the moments that you should have expressed, but never did, your gratitude to your mother for her unwavering affection and her early recognition and encouragement of your potential for unspeakable evil. 

You watch your children grow. It is an arduous journey, filled with frustration and headaches - like the time your daughter accidentally killed the Dalmatian panda by feeding it "5-hour energy" shots. While you figure out how to tell your number 2 that he is probably going to be behind bars for a very long time, your son decides that he finds the family tradition of villainy too conventional and stifling and that he wants to become an artist instead.

Yet through it all you learn the deepest meaning of love and pride as your children develop into functional adults, more like their father and mother with every passing day, and you know that long after you are gone, they will carry on your legacy, immortalizing your name, and taking the Bond franchise to new heights.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who needs fiction when you have stories like this: a review of "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Why I read this book:

Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" hardly needs an introduction. The author who brought us the story of Seabiscuit came back to the New York Times Bestsellers List with a real-life tale of "a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption" about a son of Italian immigrants who ran track for the United States in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and suffered unimaginable horrors in the Pacific theater in the struggle against imperial Japan. "Unbroken" became a number one bestseller and was a smash success among the reading public. After a couple of friends raved about the book, I decided to hand Amazon some more of my money.

My rating for this book:

1. Like fouling a pitch off your foot into the catcher's mitt - painful, embarrassing, and detrimental to the team.
2. Like hitting into a double play with one out and a runner on third.
3. A solid single up the middle.
4. A triple to round out the cycle. 
5. A grand slam (against the Yankees).


There is really not much to analyze here. This book is a classic definition of a page-turner: it enthralls the reader with a gripping, powerful story, yet it is easy to read and difficult to put down. This book is clearly going to be made into a blockbuster movie. Thus, the pressing question of the day is: who is going to play the lead character, Louis Zamperini?

 In order to convey Zamperini's personality and to determine which actor is best suited to play him, I have to summarize the book. Warning: this is a total SPOILER ALERT! Skip the next paragraph if you are going to pick up "Unbroken", and you feel the summary may ruin your reading experience. Truth be told, however, the appeal of this book hardly depends on preserving the mystery of the story; my summary does littlle more than expand on the full title of the book.

Louis Zamperini was a troublesome youth, uninterested in school, and always brawling, stealing, and getting into trouble. After discovering a knack for running, Zamperini channeled his tenacity into the sport and eventually reached elite levels, representing USA in the Berlin Olympics, before the outbreak of World War II cut short a promising and still blossoming running career. Zamperini became a bombardier in the Air Force and joined the fight in the Pacific against the Japanese. The real drama of the story begins when Zamperini's plane crashes over the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini faces weeks of starvation, dehydration, and sharks on a life raft, miraculously surviving being stranded in the middle of the ocean, only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to unspeakably inhumane acts of cruelty in internment camps.

Louis Zamperini

In order to bring the drama of the story to the big screen, our actor needs to personify the following characteristics:

1. Sinewy toughness - I know, what in the world is that? I just made that up. This character trait calls for a man who can play the outsider, his outbursts of violence and bad behavior a glimpse of an adolescent who has trouble fitting in. Someone who can portray a "bad boy" as a troubled soul with a lack of direction rather than a tough bully who knows his strength. Sorry, Vin Diesel.

2.  A likable loser with the opposite sex - Zamperini was endlessly chasing girls, with about the same success ratio as someone who spends his time writing blogs. He does end up getting THE girl - not that it matters for the movie; the script would have a love story no matter what. After all, that is how they sold us "Titanic" and "Pearl Harbor", is it not? We have just lost Brad Pitt - the man is way too smooth for this job.

3. Emotionally resonant - seriously, what does that even mean!? It means that we have lost Josh Hartnett. We need someone to demonstrate the horror of war and the brutality of prisoner of war camps. We need someone who can bear the torch of the resilience of the human spirit in places where humanity ceases  to exist. We need someone who can withstand endless suffering, from without and from within, and who can somehow find his way to forgiveness and an inner peace. We need someone who can help this nation re-discover the founding principles in these turbulent times.

Candidate 1: Leonardo DiCaprio

Do not be fooled by the "Titanic" - Leo can be a total badass.

1. Toughness - I have to give it to Leo. He may look like a total wuss, but the guy is a terrific actor. His gutsy attitude gives his characters that "sinewy" aspect of the toughness that we are looking for.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - I know what you are thinking: "Leo could never not be a dreamboat. He has great hair, and he would be a great father to my children". That is true. Ladies love Leo, and he loves them back. However, if there is one thing that life taught me, it is that it does not take much for a man to ruin his chances with a woman. You may be pitching a perfect game all night, then you make one joke about "legitimate rape" or "transvaginal ultrasound", and all of the sudden you find yourself alone, the remains of her martini trickling down your face. I am sure we could tinker with the script a bit to make even Leo seem mortal.
3. Emotional resonance - Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the few actors who connects to both sexes on a deeper level. Both men and women would be captivated and react empathetically to, say, Leo's musings about his inattentive father.

Candidate 2: Jake Gyllenhaal

Is it me, or does Gyllenhaal look exactly like Zamperini in real life?

1. Toughness - Jake is excellent at portraying the regular guy, be he from rural Nebraska or from the Jersey suburbs. You can easily relate to him as one of your friends or someone you know. Eric Church, a country singer, has a line in the song "Guys like me" that I think captures the American philosophy on toughness: "I don't like to fight, but I ain't afraid to bleed". Jake is a natural to represent that philosophy.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - "Hey baby, you must be tired because you have been running through my mind all day long". Something like that. You get the point - it would not be difficult to bring a Mr. Hearthrob down to Earth if we had him throw out a couple of gems like that.

3. Emotional resonance - I always marvel at how the best actors such as Tom Hanks are able to convey the complexity of the human soul through meek, plain, and otherwise unnoticeable characters. I think Jake would surprise you and demonstrate his range here.

Candidate 3: Adrian Brody

Adrian Brody is so frail, I subconsciously hold my breath when I look at this picture for fear of breaking him.

1. Toughness - ok, I am taking a huge leap of faith here. The man is the opposite of tough - the mere mention of his name conjures images of organic soap, water with cucumbers in it (surprisingly delicious, by the way), and newborn infants wrapped in soft blankets. The dude has a chihuahua, for crying out loud! Have you seen those things? They are always shivering, and they pee in a litter box, like a cat. Proposing that Adrian be cast for a role that requires toughness is a preposterous venture, but hey - if we can make Leo DiCaprio seem unappealing to women, I am sure we can work another miracle. My gut does tell me that Brody is a talented actor who will pleasantly surprise the audiences in this role.

2. A likable loser with the opposite sex - "Do you have any Italian in you? Want some?" - then, just as you begin to feel disgust for the hound dog, Adrian can unleash his acting talents to demonstrate his ability to persevere and to eventually find true love.

3. Emotional resonance - Adrian is off the charts in this category. He invokes nurturing feelings in people - he seems to always be shivering (like a chihuahua), and that is before he gets into a role that truly demonstrates his capacity to exude frailty and sensitivity as he did in the "Pianist".

I would personally love to see the studios take a chance on Adrian Brody on this one although I am certain Leo and Jake would do an excellent job as well.

Note: This blog uses images that may be subject to copyright. I do not own these images. That is probably a good thing - it would be weird if I owned images of Adrian Brody holding chihuahuas. One week of that as my wallpaper is plenty. I use these images with full appreciation and respect for those who do own these images. Please do not sue me. If you do choose to pursue legal action, know this:
1. You are a d**k.
2. My closing argument will include me pounding on the docket and screaming: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!!"