peteg's blog

The Ugly American

/noise/movies | Link

I had some hope that this flick would do some sort of justice to the books but it really is just a travesty. Sarkhan is split into north and south and is more-or-less Vietnam of the early 1960s instead of a composite of South-East Asian nations. The U.S. Ambassador (MacWhite, played by Brando) is intelligent but nowhere as empirical or sophisticated as the written character.

The film was shot in Thailand, which sometimes looks pretty good, and the stunts are great.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

The threat of a late storm did not dissuade me from riding to work this morning. I dumped the CB250 in the UNSW carpark near the new Law building, and showed it off to Ilan at lunchtime. After work I headed down to Maroubra Junction for some dinner (some OK fish-and-chips from the last shop on the south-eastern corner of the shopping strip on Anzac Parade) and back to NICTA then home, fairly directly. In between all that there were a few spots of rain, with no impact on anything.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

I rode to work, and afterwards (after 6:30pm) over to Yen's in Alexandria, and then back to NICTA via Pagewood (Banskia Street). For the most part the traffic was fine, though some P-platers were in too much of a hurry to let me switch lanes like I needed to do; riding along Wentworth was one of those times when I really need to get my speed up to (and beyond) that of the other vehicles. The phở was as tasty as ever, and my phở bò (tai) gà is now on the menu.

NIDA Graduating Directors' Productions: Studio

/noise/theatre | Link

I've been meaning to go to NIDA for ages, seeing as it's just up the road, and so I invited Sean along to this half of the Graduating Directors' Productions; the other half looked less scintillating. As a not-quite-adult I got in for about $20. I note now (afterwards) that the remaining nights are sold out, though tonight's performance wasn't quite.

The first two plays were great. Pierce Wilcox directed an abridged version of Camus' Caligula, the story of a Caesar going nuts in an amplified-by-the-French kind of way. It might have worked even better in a larger space. Secondly Lucas Jervies directed Guy Edmonds in a very funny one-man adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic The Witches. Though the director had no previous form in that role, he made excellent spatially-imaginative use of his physically-expressive star. Perhaps that comes from his experience with coreographers. The SMH was right to focus on this one.

Every three-wheeled relationship has a dog in it, and the third one was it; Play House covered the banalities of some urban lust-turned-domestic. The director may have been applying for a gig at Home and Away.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

Around 8:30pm I set off for a ride down Coogee Bay Road and the streets south of the beach. I totally stuffed up the u-turn on the incredibly steep cul-de-sac of (east) Cairo Street, so to all the kids out there just getting started, do be kind to the South African gent who comes to rescue you. After that I played it safe and headed down Malabar Road to a pacifically dead Maroubra Beach, and then back to the Junction for some fuel. I've used 6 litres so far on these short trips, perhaps 130km. The ride back up Anzac Parade and Alison Road was quite relaxed. My clutching is improving and sometimes I do get the gear changes to sing.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

This being the first day of summer-ish weather in a long while, I thought I'd see how it was to take the bike to the beach. Little Bay was pretty chockers, and it was great to be able to park close to the walkway. The drawback is having to lug around so much safety clothing; afterwards it was too hard to get dry and get the sand off, so on the way back I just wore my swimming togs (with the jacket and gloves) and felt fairly comfortable about it.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

I set off around 8pm to meet Marc and Rob at Bondi Junction for a chocolate something-or-other at Max Brenner's in the Westfield. I got there a lot quicker than I expected, although I encountered some dodgy driving (one SUV ploughed through a pedestrian crossing with a red light). On the way back I headed down Oxford Street, past the old showgrounds and along Anzac Parade. I'm still getting the hang of the S-bend on Alison Road.


/noise/movies | Link

At the 3:30pm Cinema 1 session at The Ritz. The upstairs was full but they didn't open the downstairs. Weird.

Skyfall is a tired, paint-by-the-numbers sort of thing. It is better than Quantum of Solace but doesn't live up to the promise of Casino Royale. (Whatever happened to that story arc?) The bond girls never linger long, and the plot barrels down a highway to nowhere. Javier Bardem enjoys hamming it up as a Bond villain, and Naomie Harris put in a bid for a continuing gig with the Daniel Craig franchise. Rated #236 in the IMDB top-250 when I saw it, but destined for a much lower ranking when the marketing campaign wears off.

Denby is probably right to mostly ignore this new confection. Dana Stevens is about right too.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

The timid late-spring weather in Sydney is continuing to be fine, so I took the bike for a spin up to Oxford Street on Thursday night, stopping at Max Brenner's for a hot chocolate and to see if the anti-Zionists have trashed the place yet. After that I had a crack at Old South Head Road, up to Watsons Bay, which turned out to be almost entirely deserted around 9pm. I got a bit lost on the way back via Bondi and almost entirely missed Military Road. I felt pretty comfortable apart from a stretch on Oxford St / Syd Einfeld Drive where everyone starts jockeying for position, and when the wind picked up around Bondi Junction. The L plates might be working some magic as I haven't had to work too hard to switch lanes and so forth. (So far it has been easier than it would be in the car.) My camera (an Olympus μTough 6010) is too crap to take decent photos at night without a tripod.

Bare Island, La Perouse

Bare Island from Price of Wales Drive

La Perouse from The Grand Parade, Kyeemagh

On Friday I got a pink slip from the bloke at the Caltex at the end of High Street on Anzac Parade ("Lights... indicators... OK."), and re-registered the bike at the Maroubra RTA. All up that was $114 for the registration, $309 for the green slip, $21 for the pink slip, and $150 to change the ownership details. Again the traffic was pretty easy to navigate.

After work (around 6:30pm) I headed off from NICTA down to La Perouse, around Prince of Wales Drive, and then the brown trousers of General Holmes Drive that connects Southern Cross Drive to the M5. Scooting the three lanes from the Foreshore Road feeder to the Grand Parade exit-of-sorts proved not too hard, and I couldn't tell if it was me, the drivers or the L plates that made it so. I grabbed some dinner at a not-too-flash fish and chips at Brighton-Le-Sands and headed back to NICTA via West Botany Street / Airport Drive, where I was fortunate to encounter only (mildly panicky) light traffic streaming around the airport. The old roads (Botany Road, Gardeners Road) are quiet and easy now.

The motorcycle that proof maintenance bought.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

My Honda CB250 parked at Casula Powerhouse.

I've been doing a lot of seL4 proof maintenance recently. All I've learnt is that whatever I bitterly whinged about last week was far better proof engineering than what I'm hacking this week (so to speak). A short memory indeed; or putting it another way, it's only clear to me how to do something in Isabelle after I'm over-invested in something half-arsed. I now have a greater understanding of seL4's bedrock abstractions and just how much we have abused them. Oh well.

In any case my proof chimping has paid for a bright shiny old Honda CB250, the Fabergé egg of the masses according to James May. (As you can see, mine looks nothing like his.) It's a 2005 model in almost perfect condition, and has done about 7,000km. I paid $4,000 for it to a bloke out at Mt Annan, and rode it home just this evening. (The price is decent for a motorcycle in this condition; the LAMS market is quite inflated.) Earlier editions have been called Dreams, reminding me of the aging 100cc scooters of Vietnam. It is super-easy to ride, and doesn't stall unless you try to take off in second gear, or something stupid like that. (That and many other things do I need to unlearn from my time in Saigon.) The ride home was uneventful; I got on the Hume/M5 by mistake for a bit but the traffic wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. I had dinner at El Manara in Lakemba for the first time since 2009 or so. It hasn't changed.

This model is weird as there seems to be no canonical example of it. The Wikipedia page suggests this is a Nighthawk, but those have spokes.

Michael Sandel: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

/noise/books | Link

Sandel is famous for his justice class at Harvard, and claims to have co-lectured with Amartya Sen. I therefore had high hopes for this book, and hoped it would explore my abiding interest in why we use particular mechanisms (voting, markets, consensus, representational institutions, dictatorships, ...) to make particular collective decisions. There is a significant body of theory about markets but it is (supposedly) generally morally-neutral beyond some weak requirements such as Pareto optimality, liberalism and other things I don't know about. Of course this book was disappointing, but that is almost always the case with these philosophical sorts of adventures.

Perhaps the key thing to understand about this book is that Sandel is less interested in the operation of markets than in taking moral offence at attaching prices to things. Consider his hoary example of trading human body parts. Sandel thinks that having a money-based market in them would value them the wrong way, but we could just as easily have a bartering arrangement that yields very similar moral quandaries. (Some amount of bartering seems necessary due to the biological incompatibility of donors and recipients.) This, combined with an adversion to mathematics, means that he struggles to get to grips with modern concerns such as (provable) efficiency and resistance to manipulation. I don't recall him ever really defining what a market is. Moreover there is the conflation of can't buy with shouldn't buy; I simply cannot buy a Nobel prize or a friend in any meaningful way, but Sandel wants to argue that I shouldn't be able to buy a liver.

As for buying access to universities, well, there have been crammers around for ever; just because I don't pay at the gate doesn't mean I'm not buying my way in. One also has to wonder if it is so very different to the bums-on-seats policies that keep the unemployment statistics for youth down to almost non-scandalous levels. It is clear that commercial sponsorship at universities does crowd out freedom of expression, for it (obviously) limits dialogue about the sponsor's products, even to the extent of making fair evaluations (take, for example, Oracle's no benchmarking policy).

Here are some notes I took while reading this book, many of which are merely picking nits. I started after the first few chapters as these did not raise my ire or interest so much. The page numbers are for the Allen Lane ("An imprint of Penguin") paperback edition.

  • p60: The idea of pricing immigration visas is becoming more common; Australia is going down the same path now.
  • p80: Apparently one can buy the right to shoot an endangered black rhino, which is intended to incentivize their preservation. Sandel ignores the opportunity for moralists to buy up the shooting permits and not exercise them, thereby helping the rhino and signalling their moral judgement. That markets may facilitate such signalling is a broader point he does not consider.
  • p83: Contrary to Sandel's dogmatic assertion, markets do pass judgement, if only by existing or not (consider the black market), and by pricing out repugnant outcomes. Moreover the existence of a price does not imply the existence of a market.
  • p88: Sandel asks why we should maximise social utility, and I wonder why he doesn't also ask why we should worry about efficiency at all. (I tend to think at least some "economic efficiency" is really about externalising costs; consider superannuation versus government-guaranteed pensions). He blithely ignores the recent trends in economics that try to reconcile the discipline with humanistic goals. (Amartya Sen has done some work here too.)
  • p96: Paying someone to apologise on one's behalf reminded my of the professional mourners of Vietnam; then again, in a Buddhist society there is probably not as much deathbed pleading as in a Christian one.
  • p98: Gift giving is not a persuasive example. I tend to think that the best gift to someone these days is something non-fungible, such as spending time with (or apart from :-) them. Stuff is no longer scarce, so what do I care what you buy for me? Once again Sandel seems to think that pricing something is the same thing as there being a market in that good. Surely we also need negotiation / bargaining / price discovery and so forth as well for there to be a market.
  • p107: You cannot buy a friend but you can buy many of the things that friends are supposed to produce, such as wedding speeches. This made me think of paid thesis editors, and someone with someone else autobiographies. Then again, Pete R. made the point years ago that being able to write well is not the same thing as having a story worth telling.
  • p122: The section on blood donations is spot on.
  • p125: Sandel does a good job of dissecting Arrow's assertions about the market. However he missed the bigger opportunity to discuss how plausible markets really are, and under what conditions they work as intended. He could also have explored the reasons that markets get distorted, and strengthened his appeal to authority by discussing Arrow's technical results. By the end I began to wonder if his real objection was to the application of rationality (science?) to sacred cows.
  • p127: Sandel tries to argue that we should rely less on economic rationalist / self-interest mechanisms and on more humanistic notions such as civic duty. While I don't completely disagree with the sentiment, he seems to think that local comity can somehow scale up to nation-states; around about here one might also start mumbling about the tragedy of the commons and nuclear nightmare diplomacy. Dogmatically I would say that economics (and many other Western institutions) is about somewhat anonymous interactions, those with people we don't know or have no reason to treat well; it encodes a kind of institutionalised fairness towards the "other", such as non-citizens and foreigners. I remember my Law of the Global Market lecturer saying something like "if goods don't cross borders then guns will" as a way of summarising the Marshall Plan and so forth. Conversely markets inflict a computational problem on participants which is likely to crowd out other considerations. I guess I could gesture at Bruce Schneier's take on security, which (Schneier argues) is a necessary underpinning for a large society. Sandel's position is to essentially affirm the social contract.
  • p131: Chapter 4 on death markets is solid, though it is warmed-over; the "insurable interest" test has been there forever, and Sandel labours the point that the morality of the life insurance market has been undone by a series of crappy (corrupt?) decisions of SCOTUS over the years.
  • p163: Chapter 5 on commercialising sport is banal. David Williamson complained far more eloquently about commercialising sport in the late 1970s in The Club. Sandel here engages in some tedious sacred cow-ism; what do I care if the audience for professional sport is stratified? It would be better for everyone if amateur sport was better funded, for (p174) the former has already crowded out many of the socially valuable outcomes of people playing rather than watching; one merely needs to listen to the cynicism that swirls around the cost of each Olympic medal.
  • p168: one could imagine a twenty-first century Solomon selling the baby and splitting the proceeds.
  • p173: Sport is not a universal social glue; here Sandel paternalistically excludes women, minorities, geeks, migrants, etc.
  • p190: Municipal marketing appears to be uncommon in Australia; according to Sandel this is the practice of buying influence over the policies of a sponsored organisation. This is clearly a conflict of interest sort of thing. I would contrast this to the kinds of sponsorship that e.g. Surf Life Saving Australia attracts; Westpac might get its name on the helicopter but it has no say in how the service is provided (I hope and expect).
  • p203: In his closing paragraphy, Sandel wants to think we're all in this together, quietly ignoring the fact that having lots of money insulates people from the need to worry about the common good.

What I really wanted from this book was more analysis of serious / established / consequential markets, such as labour; surely the revealed preference of working Australians for longer hours (more money) and less leisure time is a moral issue, given that it takes time away from family, meaningful relationships (of choice), child rearing and so forth. I also hoped he would clarify the limitations of the market dogma; for instance we can't buy more than 24 hours a day, though we can pay to make them more pleasant. Expanding choice yields diminishing returns; surely there could have been a broader exploration of what we value and why, an expansion of the "good life" rubric into something less dogmatic.

Sandel really should have provided examples of where markets work well, so we had some reason to believe that they had some validity at all. Why are they being so aggressively and invasively pushed now? In contrast to many of the philosopher kings I have met, he seems to avoid discussions of historical antecedents and the maths that might bring another kind of understanding to the table. The U.S. is already so compromised by thorough-going market thinking that almost all of the examples he gives look like fiddling at the margins.

Out in the wilds of the internet, this book is often bracketed with one by the father-and-son Skidelsky team. Here's a brief list of pages I read:

Of these I find myself siding with the CATO review.

Update: a bloke at the New Yorker points out the difficulties of having justice (etc.) supervene on empathy.

Elephants from Copenhagen

/noise | Link

Last year I found a small shop at Copenhagen airport that sells elephants. It turned out to be the merchandising end of the Elephant Parade public artwork project that had lined the streets of the city a few weeks before I got there. Not knowing how much money I'd need in Sweden, I bought just a small one and ended up leaving it with Sus as a thank-you for letting me stay. I tried buying more from their webstore but the postage was insane, more than the elephants themselves. Fortunately Ben went to ICFP this year in that very same city and scored me these beauties.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

/noise/movies | Link

The final of the Chan-wook Park vengeance flicks. As observed by someone on IMDB, this one is the opera. Even more of the violence occurs off-screen though the results are graphically depicted. I greatly enjoyed how the story unfolded in the first half, heavy with mystery and implication, but the big say-don't-show reveal in the middle left room only for a long slow denouement. The cinematography is excellent. Park pokes gentle fun at Australia through an entirely familiar middle-class couple who get a few priceless scenes.

Dark Passage

/noise/movies | Link

Bogart and Bacall's bridge too far. The plot is nonsensical, and Bacall has little to do beyond smoldering as a rich, idle siren with a daddy complex. San Francisco is evoked in all its cliched glory, circa 1947. There is way too much talking and nowhere enough showing. I must be at the point of diminishing returns with these noirs.

Gates of Heaven

/noise/movies | Link

Another Errol Morris (one of his first). A bunch of Californians go on, at length, about their pets, their dreams about pet cemeteries, and their life philosophies. It is like reading the pages of a tabloid newspaper: alternately and simultaneously touching, horrifying, funny and stupefying. It proved either too oblique or condescending to get into.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

/noise/movies | Link

A segue from Chan-wook Park's masterful Oldboy (which is now rightfully #87 in the IMDB top-250). Again this is ultraviolence married with excellent cinematography. The multitude of cut aways from the gore increase the ick factor as we're never sure he's not going to cut back for a money shot. The character development is quite good, especially for a lead who is deaf and dumb but not stupid, and yet the entirety adds up to less than its parts. It is strangely disengaged.

I think this is the first of three Vengeance movies, with Oldboy being the second.


/noise/movies | Link

I've been wondering what Sickboy saw in Connery as Bond, and his antipathy towards Pussy Galore, and I guess I now know. This one, the highest rated of the Bonds (?), contains the original of Gemma Arterton's oiling in Casino Royale and the familiar object-stowed-in-a-shoe-heel (though both surely have further antecdents). The plot makes little sense. "No Mister Bond, I expect you to die!"

Conroy cans the internet filter

/noise/politics | Link

Finally. I'll be happy if more of these internet regulations are similarly successful.


/noise/movies | Link

What a turkey. This is some kind of tale about the transition from colonial Indochina circa 1930 to the Geneva Convention in 1954. The end credits ascribe that day (July 21) as the one when France lost their possession half a world away, quietly ignoring Điện Biên Phủ and minting much other neo-colonialist mythology along the way.

Perhaps it makes more sense as a love story where everyone is super-passionate, completely irrational and entirely one-dimensional. Catherine Deneuve was a 1960s pinup, I think. Hạ Long looks beautiful even when used to such dire ends as these.


/noise/movies | Link

Another stylistic Pen-Ek Ratanaruang effort, featured at the Sydney Film Festival this year. Not as good as I'd hoped, or even up to Last Life in the Universe. A righteous cop becomes an assassin (was it because he got framed for not murdering his girlfriend-of-a-night?) and a sometimes monk in recent Thailand. The girls are beautiful and the plot not as twisty as the director thinks it should be.