December 18, 2006

Morse code RIP

Another one of those end-of-an-era things:
In an historic move, the FCC has acted to drop the Morse code requirement for all Amateur Radio license classes.
Back in my geeky teenage years, I flirted off and on with the idea of getting an Amateur Radio license. The electronics wasn't a problem. And Morse code ultimately wasn't the biggest hindrance (though it surely didn't help). My problem was what one supposedly did with an Amateur Radio license, that is, communicate blindly--in real time--with people I didn't know, something I had absolutely no interest in doing. Steve Sailer explains this disinclination well:
I'm not quick in interpersonal situations . . . which means I'm unimpressive in real time. So, I greatly appreciate the asynchronous nature of cyberspace, since I can take whatever time I require to think through an idea. (Which is why I hate instant messaging.)
I don't instant message either. I don't have a cell phone. I was born for the asynchronous age.

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December 14, 2006

CSI: Hawaii

A local television station broadcasts vintage reruns of Hawaii Five-O and Magnum P.I. It's interesting to see how far television has come in a couple of decade. In terms of cinematography, the one thing that gets me the most is how scared cinematographers used to be of the dark. Every time a character in Hawaii Five-O walks into a shadow, the gaffers haul out the floods fills and key lights and reflectors, so everybody's face ends up looking oddly radioactive.

These shows were shot with 16mm or 35mm film stock, and back in the 1970s the ISO for camera film was pretty decent. So why go to all the trouble of (over)lighting scenes that don't need to be lit? Perhaps the concern was about the video transfer, but I don't think television technology was so antiquated to make a little light contrast such a fearful prospect. Anyway, way back in the day, I remember watching It Takes a Thief and being bugged by the multiple shadows cast by all the flood fills.

Another thing. Even though these two shows were shot on location in Hawaii, the actors spend an awful lot of time on ticky-tacky soundstages that could be located on a Burbank backlot. You see a lot more of Miami on CSI: Miami, which isn't even shot in Miami. If you're actually on location, wouldn't a second unit be that much cheaper? It's amazing the extent to which a few seconds of processed second unit footage can enhance the pacing of the story. Had this not occurred to anybody twenty or thirty years ago?

And then there are the thugs and bad guys, who always show up right out of central casting, wearing the worst of mid-70's fashion and hair styles (and boy, were they awful). But Lord's conservative business suits and hair style (exactly the same as Caruso's) hold up very well almost thirty years later. Tom Selleck's too-short shorts and loud Hawaiian shirts definitely don't twenty years later. Even Magnum's early-80's Ferrari looks tinny and dated, while Nash Bridges' classic 1970 Barracuda doesn't.

And speaking of CSI: Miami, Jack Lord and David Caruso: distant cousins? Lord has a few inches and more of a chin, and Caruso a very red mop of hair, but they have the same sun-eroded profile, and both deliver their lines in either a deadpan, thin-lipped, heavily-lidded, husky growl, or--at the right melodramatic moment--a clenched jaw intensity. However, leading with his chin, Lord is more comfortable facing the camera directly, while Caruso prefers a three-quarter pose.

In terms of its own premise, CSI: Miami is undoubtedly the dumbest of the three CSI franchises, certainly dumber than Hawaii Five-O, which was really more a classic detective show (Mannix in Hawaii)--and often a better-than-Bond spy drama (rogue Chinese communists being the stock villains)--than Magnum (which has aged very poorly). No surprise that CSI: Miami increasingly tackles crimes from Jack Bauer's jurisdiction, and you almost expect to see Q lurking about its Star Trek-style forensics lab.

After all, once you've abandoned any pretense to cinéma vérité, the bigger and dumber the fantasy the better. CSI: Miami can certainly be thoroughly entertaining in its dumbness, a pure Tinseltown production that delivers high camp while skirting the low road. As Troy Patterson observes of 24,

You forgive [its] patent ridiculousness--you embrace it, in fact--because [it] has roughly the same aspirations as Die Hard With a Vengeance. It's a thriller; it thrills.

Besides, as Billy Crystal would say, CSI: Miami looks marvelous.

I don't mean all the surreally beautiful people occupying the surreally postmodern sets, but the cinematic look of the thing, shot through thick sepia filters and further post-processed to punch up the palette to unimaginable color saturations. This Miami is a 180-proof Hollywood Neverland, caught forever in the rich glow of an eternal tropical sunset, like a bee trapped in amber. It's Miami Vice at dusk, a bit thicker around the jowls, a golden world for baby boomers entering their golden years.

And unlike CSI: Las Vegas or CSI: New York, where the ostensible male leads tend to fade into the woodwork and concrete, like Jack Lord's statuesque presence on Hawaii Five-O, CSI: Miami is all Caruso, who, paralleling his post-NYPD Blue career, plays a washed-up, world-weary, B-grade film noir action hero, whose quest for simple justice is being constantly complicated by a never-ending supply of gorgeous femme fatales (half his age). It's tough being a cop in Miami, that's for sure.

So of course CSI: Miami is such a successful overseas Hollywood export, and all the power to it. In a world of 24-hour news, it is an unapologetically unreality show. It doesn't ask the world to view the United States through rose-tinted lenses. It supplies them itself.

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December 07, 2006

A Kuranian take on the religious gender gap

Bryan Caplan offers the following explanation for why the religiosity gap between men and women grows as societies modernize:

1. Men and women have different cognitive orientations - a difference that is in large part genetic. As the Myers-Briggs personality test powerfully confirms, men are more Thinking, and women are more Feeling. (Or if you prefer the Five Factor Model, men are less Agreeable).

On a deep level, then, men are more inclined to want some hard proof that religious claims are true, while women are more willing to take religious teachings on faith because they sound nice. Burn me at the stake if you must, but it's true.

2. As the great Timur Kuran persuasively argues, social pressure leads to "preference falsification." If other people hassle you for lacking piety - as they do in traditional societies - people will pretend to be pious even if they aren't. The weaker the social pressure, the more sincere people become.

In traditional societies, then, men keep their irreligion to themselves and pretend to be as religious as women. (As Kuran emphasizes, preference falsication also inhibits communication, so men who would be open to irreligious arguments are less likely to ever hear and adopt them).

I don't necessarily disagree (many factors are obviously involved), but I can think of a simpler explanation. Evolution has created in men a fundamental (even existential) interest in power. In traditional cultures, sectarian and secular power centers are strongly entwined, if not one and the same. As the two unravel in modern societies, men pursuing the latter will necessarily lose interest in the former, as rendering unto Caesar and mammon takes up more and more time and effort (though with bigger and bigger payoffs).

The "gender gap" remains much narrower in places like Utah, where religious devotion still counts strongly towards economic power and political influence. Nor do I think pretense has much to do with it (though appearances count). Most men just aren't that subtle. It's an "in for a penny, in for a pound" type of thing, also the reason for the First Amendment.

And as stated above, more sectarian communities also give greater social cover to those men who, of their own volition, sincerely wish to spend more time rendering unto God, just as secular pressures give cover to those men who were never interested in religion in the first place. This leaves the happy middle to those of us not particularly captivated by either extreme.


My sister points out the most blatant fact overlooked in the preceeding analysis: that most religions are founded by men and are run by men. To which I add that religions (even the wackiest of cults) are organizations, and have thus to be run by someone, and men love running things. It's called "setting the agenda." My own explanation for religious patriarchy is that the promise of being in charge gives men a much greater incentive to become and stay involved. (And drives away men terrified by that same prospect.)

This nexus between power and organization means that the success of a religion in the social and political context can largely be explained in terms of pure utility, a fact missed by those who focus primarily on the rationality of theology, or the gulf between belief and practice. But that is an argument for another day.

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December 06, 2006

Larry Miller interview

In a local radio interview, Larry Miller (the actor and comedian, not the Utah Jazz owner) has some interesting and insightful things to say about life in general, in the context of being an unapologetic member of the Hollywood entertainment community (he tells a very funny anecdote about encountering Annette Bening in the "real" world), and specifically about what audiences are really looking for in--and taking away from--popular art.

I particularly like his riff about how the "backstory" obsession with the "motivation" of characters ruins movies. And how what we look for in our entertainment are not cynical depictions of "reality" ("God save us from art that wrings its hands"), but the small moments of shared truth that stand transcendent to everything else, including the medium itself.

This confirms my general observation that the most interesting Hollywood personalities (note Larry Miller's definition of "entertainment")--like Larry Miller, Roger Simon, John Stossel (okay, he lives in New York), Ben Stein--lean libertarian, often with a right-of-center slant. Perhaps because tilting against so many windmills demands a generous store of contrarianism.

The Hollywood left is more Lutheran than Catholic (more Garrison Keillor than Mel Gibson): they believe in faith, not works. So you can preach against third-world poverty while dodging taxes, and against global warming while living in 10,000 square-foot mansions with heated pools and flying around in private jets. You need only confess the "inconvenient truth," the same way Born Again Christians confess Christ.

Oh, and buy a Prius.

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