Archive for the Category Culture/arts


Films of 2018

Overall, a disappointing year.  I didn’t see a single new film that I’d call “great”.  (I somehow missed Ash is the Purest White.)  I saw more films than usual this year, due to the purchase of a 77-inch OLED TV (which is great for movies in 4k).  I’ll start with films made in the last few years, and then older ones:

Recent Films:

Shoplifters (Japan) 3.7 This Koreeda film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. I wasn’t as impressed as I expected, and still prefer Nobody Knows.  There are some subtle, brilliantly developed scenes late in the film.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (US) 3.7 I’ll need to see this again to form a firm opinion as to how good it is. I missed some of the dialogue, but what I heard was excellent. The craftsmanship by the Coen brothers was superb. They seem to really care about getting the look of the film just right. The final four episodes were the film equivalent of first rate short stories.

Burning (Korea) 3.7 Fascinating Korean mystery involving two men who are interested in the same women. (Based on a Murakami story.) The film has some fine performances that went beyond the typical clichés. Even after the film was over, I was still trying to put the pieces together. My only reservation is that the director tried to do a bit too much mixing of the political and the metaphysical. The political seems to win in the end, whereas it might have been better to end with the metaphysical. Still, there is one scene in the film that stands out above anything else I saw this year.

The Salesman (Iran, 2016) 3.7 I’ve now seen three films by Farhadi, and all have been excellent. His films aren’t particularly innovative, just extremely well crafted and true to life. The political/social repression in Iran allows for plots that would be considered implausible in America or Europe.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (US) 3.7. Extremely entertaining film about the making of The Other Side of the Wind, very skillfully made. Orson Welles is one of the two great artists from my home state of Wisconsin, along with the equally colorful Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Bob Dylan (another upper Midwest guy), he had enormous accomplishments by age 26.

The Other Side of the Wind (US, 1975-2018) 3.6 It’s likely that I’ll enjoy this unfinished Welles film better on second viewing. Despite my rating it lower than the accompanying documentary, it’s the more important film.

Filmworker (US, 2017) 3.6 Fascinating documentary about Leon Vitali, who was Kubrick’s right hand man. (He also had a major role in Barry Lyndon.) The documentary is not particularly well directed, but it’s a very interesting story.

Isle of Dogs (US) 3.6 Wes Anderson films are delightful. He’s one of the few American directors that you can recognize from just a 10-second segment of his films.

The Third Murder (Japan) 3.6 A murder mystery by Koreeda. Here the puzzle is not so much the logistics of the crime, rather the mystery is the motivation.

Roma (Mexico) 3.6 Brought back memories of my time in Mexico during the early 1970s. I expected a bit more after the rave reviews.

Babylon Berlin (Germany) 3.5 I don’t usually watch TV, so I didn’t realize until well until the series that you can watch it on Netflix without dubbing. Definitely opt for the subtitles; the dubbing is horrible. My favorite parts are the opening and closing credits. The final episode is excellent, actually cinematic at times. Bryan Ferry did a great job with the music.

Maria By Callas (US) 3.5 Very engrossing documentary. It gave me entry into a subject that I know little about—opera. I’d guess they sugar-coated her life somewhat.

Kusama: Infinity (US) 3.5 Documentary about a Japanese artist who had a very interesting life.

The Farthest (US, 2017) 3.4 A documentary on the Voyager spacecraft mission, which explored the outer planets from 1977 to 1989 (and recently left the Solar System.) Gets my vote for the most interesting science project in human history.

Phantom Thread (US/Britain) 3.4 Daniel Day Lewis is the reason to watch this film.

Crazy Rich Asians (US) 3.4 Economics professors are so romantic. Unfortunately, my daughter informed me that game theory is way cooler than monetary economics.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (US) 3.3 This is one of those stories that would have been considered absurdly implausible if included in a work of fiction. But this is a documentary. The film suggests that she was the co-inventor of “frequency hopping”, the technology behind Bluetooth and several other high tech applications. Don’t know if it is true, but it seems clear she did have an interest in science and technology that went far beyond the typical Hollywood bombshell.

Three Identical Strangers (US) 3.3 This is a very engrossing documentary, with one big flaw. One can defend their decision to not mention the Minnesota twins study, but it is hard to defend the decision of the filmmakers to imply that this study never occurred. Or to imply that this particular case tells us something important about the “nature/nurture debate”. Or to suggest it tells us something about “free will”. It doesn’t.

Us and Them (China) 3.3 Two young people trying to make it in Beijing during 2007-17. A bit too conventional, but not a bad drama. The cinematography of Mark Lee makes it watchable.

Zama (Argentina) 3.3 I read the book a few months earlier, and this film allowed me to see the book in a slightly different way. It was clear the book featured an unreliable narrator, but the film makes him seem even more unreliable. Paraguay in the late 1700s seems like one of the saddest places on earth.

Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden (Austria/Luxembourg) 3.2 Standard biopic of one of Austria’s greatest artists, who died at age 28.

Oh Lucy! (Japan) 3.2 It’s always interesting to see your home country through the eyes of a foreigner.

Shirkers (Singapore) 3.2 A mildly interesting documentary about a punkish group of Singaporean teenage girls who worked with an American film teacher on a feature film, only to see the teacher disappear with their film. It resurfaced 20 years later, after he died.

Red Sparrow (US) 3.1 A standard US/Russian spy thriller, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The Spy Gone North (Korea) 3.1 Fairly engrossing spy thriller, but marred by an increasingly far-fetched plot. Memo to the movie reviewer at The Guardian (among others)—although the film claims to be based on a “true story”, it’s about as true to life as the average James Bond film.

Mission Impossible (US) 3.0   Lots of spectacular set-pieces, but as usual the special effects overwhelm the narrative. Tom Cruise is now too old for this; he’s lost that edge he had when he was younger.

Can You Ever Forgive Me (US) 3.0 Somewhat predictable film about a literary forger. The one saving grace was the actor who played Jack Hock, who brought some style to his role.

Nelly (French Canadian) 2.8 I never realized this was based on a true story, until the final credits.

Last First Man (US) 2.8 This film has lots of flaws, such as ridiculously hyperactive camerawork that will make you seasick. But it is sort of redeemed by Ryan Gosling’s performance. He refuses to pointlessly emote in the way that is so typical of Hollywood films. Disappointing special effects, especially on the moon. I’ve seen better images in documentaries of the space program.

Searching for Bergman (German) 2.5 A disappointing documentary about the great Swedish director.

Resistance Banker (Dutch) 2.5 Finally, a hero for neoliberals! Dutch bankers work to aid the resistance to the Nazis.

Sorry to Bother You (US) 1.8 Intriguing for a few minutes, then it degenerated into a weird combination of sophomoric political satire and teenage comedy.

Older films I saw this year:

Spirited Away (Japan, 2001) 4.0  I enjoyed this film the first time around, but was absolutely blown away when I saw it again on the big screen. This is Miyazaki’s best film, done when he was at the peak of his imaginative powers. (And he made many excellent films.) There are a number of scenes that burrow deep into one’s subconscious. (Yes, my writing has too many cliches.) I’d rate it one of the top 5 films of the 21st century.

Touch of Evil (US, 1957) 3.9 Each time I see this film I become more and more convinced that it provided Hitchcock with the inspiration for Psycho. The similarity between these two classics seems increasingly obvious as time goes by. This is probably my favorite film by Orson Welles, who must have lived a wild life. He looks about 65 years old in the film, but is actually 42. He gets all the best lines and his performance is amazing. Unfortunately, the film was butchered by the studio. Although it’s been partly restored, Welles’s original vision is lost forever.

Lord of the Rings (US/New Zealand) 2001-03) 3.8 I saw all three of the extended versions in one day, from 11:30am to 12:45 am the next day—13 hours including two intermissions. That’s probably a bit much. The third film has been extended to over 4 hours, and it drags at times. (After 12 1/2 hours I was like . . . just throw the damn ring into the lava!)  Still, the combination of a great story and superb craftsmanship is hard to beat. It seemed like the third film drifted away from the novel at times, but then I haven’t read it for decades, so perhaps I forgot some things.

The Terrorizers (Taiwan, 1986) 3.8  Somehow I missed this masterpiece, which was never released in the US. Now I need to find all the other films directed by Edward Yang.  (They need to come up with a better translation of the title.)

Flowers of Taipei (Taiwan, 2014) 3.8 For film buffs, this is 2 hours of pure bliss. It looks at the Taiwan films of the 1980s, and made me realize how many great films I have yet to see. There are interviews with an amazing list of directors and artists from all over the world. The 21st century has yet to produce any film school as distinctive as Taiwan during the 1980s and 1990s. This is the first time I ever watched a film on Amazon Prime.

The Big Lewbowski (US, 1998) 3.8 I haven’t seen this film in 20 years, and it holds up extremely well. I always wondered why it became a cult classic—now I know.

A Time to Live, A Time to Die (Taiwan, 1985) 3.8 A semi-autobiographical film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Ikiru (Japan, 1952) 3.8 A classic Kurosawa film about a man with 6 months to live. Japan looks really poor, and much wilder than today.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, 2014) 3.8  This Golden Bear winning film is called “Daylight Fireworks Club” in Chinese, and is the best film noir I’ve seen in years. I can’t wait for the next film from the director (Diao Yinan.) Takes place in gritty northern China (Harbin), which has bitter cold winters. Almost everything about this film is outstanding. The story begins in 1999 and ends in 2004. At one point a character refers to the cost of an expensive coat that was damaged back in 1999, and says something like, “That was a lot of money back then.” In what other (non-inflationary) country would this statement make any sense, referring to only 5 years in the past!

You’ll never look at ice skates in the same way again.

Japanese Story (Australia, 2003) 3.7 I loved this film when I saw it 15 years ago, and re-watched it recently. It still holds up pretty well, mostly due to Toni Collette’s amazing performance. Hard to recall a film with a sadder ending.

Lost Highway (US, 1997) 3.7 A fairly representative David Lynch film, and thus a minor masterpiece. For a while during the mid-1990s, Bill Pullman seemed like the most interesting leading man in Hollywood. He also starred in The Last Seduction and The End of Violence at about the same time. Great soundtrack, put together by Trent Reznor.

It Happened One Night (US, 1934) 3.7  We watched this mainly because Netflix had a 4k copy, and I was interested in how it would look on my new 77 inch OLED. It looked very good. (It cost $5.99.)

Age of Consent (Australian, 1969) 3.4 I ran across this film on Amazon Prime, and noticed that it was directed by Michael Powell. When I was young, films from the 1930s seemed charming and innocent. Now I get that feeling from a film from 1969. Helen Mirren has plenty of “charisma”. If you’ve only seen her later work, you need to check out her short YouTube video from 1967.

Let the Wind Carry Me (Taiwan, 2009) 3.4 A documentary about Mark Lee, the cinematographer for many Hou Hsiao Hsien’s best films, along with other classics such as In the Mood For Love.

500 days of Summer (US, 2009) 3.4 As always with romcoms, you need to avoid overthinking what’s on the screen. The leads are charming and as an added bonus the film defies Hollywood convention by not having them end up together.

The Sandwich Man (Taiwan, 1983) 3.3 Considered the beginning of Taiwan’s new wave. Three short films, primarily interesting for the way they portray Taiwan during the 1960s (when it was quite poor.)

Bullit (US, 1968) 3.3 Interesting to see the famous car chase again after 50 years. It’s still probably as satisfying as any subsequent car chase, despite being pretty tame compared to modern extravaganzas. Less is more, perhaps because it seems bit more real. The same applies to Steve McQueen’s acting style.

Blowout (US, 1981) 3.3 Just as 1971 was actually part of the 60s, 1981 seems like the 1970s in this DePalma film. As usual, he rips off other directors. The good news is that he chooses to copy people like Hitchcock, Coppola and Antonioni. This film really makes me feel old—is 1981 already ancient history?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1978) 3.3 When I first saw this film it seemed as good or better than the original. It doesn’t quite hold up, and the original (which I saw again a few years ago) now seems like the enduring classic. This version seems too frenetic at time, too noisy. When it slows down it’s still pretty good. San Francisco looks very rundown.

Riding the Breeze (Taiwan, 2014) 3.0  I’m drawn to films about long bike trips.

As far as books, I read volume 6 of Karl Knausgaard’s great novel, if that’s what it is.  Also Murakami’s new novel, as well as his first two, which were finally translated.  Also the excellent Chinese sci-fi trilogy The Three Body Problem. Another Chinese novel entitled “Decoded” is also pretty good.  I also read Zama, Disgrace, Solaris, and The Immoralist, all from the long list of famous authors that I’d never gotten around to reading.  Plus a few other novels and travel books that I’ve forgotten. I’m a slow reader.  The best nonfiction book I read was Simon Ley’s The Hall of Uselessness, which is a collection of essays.  It’s not perfect—the remarks on gay rights haven’t aged well—but overall it’s very, very impressive.  He’s a sort of Belgian George Orwell. The book I learned the most from (“How to Change Your Mind Life“) discussed psychedelic drugs.  In social science, my favorites were the latest books by Tyler Cowen, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Bryan Caplan and Kevin Simler/Robin Hanson.  All were excellent, and also very readable.


Too much of a good thing is boring

America keeps getting richer, but it doesn’t seem to be making us happier. There is an epidemic of depression among the young, and suicide rates keep soaring to new highs. I’m going to argue that the main problem is the 3-point shot, which is a long shot in the game of basketball, for those who don’t follow sports. This is what’s making us unhappy. Obviously you’ll need to bear with me on this one.

The three point shot occurs from behind a line about 22 feet from the basket, which was added to spice up the game back around 1980.  For years, the shot was rarely used.  When I was 30 years old, the two most exciting plays in basketball were the 3-point shot and the slam dunk.  The successful completion of these shots gave you the same feeling as three cherries at the slot machine in Vegas.  But like an explanation point in literature, these two exciting shots lose much of their impact if overused.  And they are increasingly overused.

After the Golden State Warriors achieved great success by loading up on skilled three point shooters, other teams saw that this was the way to go.  The game was further “hacked” by the Houston Rockets, who realized that you could have one highly skilled player control the ball, and either drive to the basket or take a three pointer.  The other four would stand around at the three point line.  James Harden was too skilled to be guarded with one player, so he’d either score a layup at the basket, or, if defended with two players, he’d pass to an open teammate to shoot a three pointer.  Rinse and repeat.  I wouldn’t say that basketball became boring, but it’s much less interesting.

My team hired a new coach this year, who realized that the mediocre Milwaukee Bucks team from last year could become much better by adopting this approach, even though the Bucks are not particularly talented, except for one player.  I read that in November, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first team in NBA history to shoot over 60% from two point range for an entire month (excluding October, when few games are played.)  This is because Milwaukee figured that the optimal strategy was to either drive to the basket or shoot threes.  No “midrange” shots.  Their three point shooters are not particularly talented, but the odds favor that shot so strongly that the other team still must guard the 4 players at the three point line, and no one in the universe can guard Giannis close to the basket.  As a result, this season he’ll blow by the NBA record for slam dunks by a wide margin.  (For foreign readers, imagine they made the net in football (soccer) twice as large, and allowed players to use their hands–that’s the impact of the three point shot.)

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the greatest basketball coach of all time, and he’s horrified by what’s happened to his sport as a result of the three point shot:

I hate it, but I always have,” Popovich said of the shot. “I’ve hated the three for 20 years. That’s why I make a joke all the time [and say] if we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a four-point play. Because if everybody likes the three, they’ll really like the four. People will jump out of their seats if you have a five-point play. It will be great. There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”

His championship team from 5 years ago featured the most aesthetically beautiful style of play ever seen in any American team sport, deploying a wide range of approaches.  Now it’s nonstop drive to the basket and score, or toss it out for a three pointer, over and over and over.

Do you see what we did?  The NBA noted that three pointers were lots of fun for fans, and thought that increasing them 10-fold would increase the fun 10-fold.  But it didn’t happen.  It’s as if baseball moved the fences in 100 feet to have lots more home runs.

Or—and this is where I finally get around to explaining why we are so unhappy—as if you made it so that all our desires were right at our fingertips.  No more unpleasant surprises in foreign travel; you’ll surf the internet and know exactly what to expect before you leave home!  You can also use the internet to do research on your date, before going out with him or her.  No messy surprises. No more need to browse through an old bookstore; it’s all on Amazon.  No need to trek out to the movie theatre and wait expectantly for the new Star Wars, it’s all on your big HDTV.  Remember when eating at a Thai or sushi restaurant was a thrill?  Remember when it stopped being a thrill?  Remember why it stopped being a thrill?

Last night I saw Anthony Bourdain’s final episode on CNN.  He revisited the Lower East Side of New York, where he used to buy drugs when he was young.  By modern standards, the Lower East Side circa 1980 was a nightmarishly awful place, and yet he and the people that he interviewed longed for the wild and messy world they had lost.  He seemed like someone who had lost interest in the modern world.

I’m not a Luddite who is opposed to change, indeed there are lots of rule changes I’d like to see in sports—starting with no instant replays by referees. (Remember, it’s a zero sum game.)  But we need to be careful that we don’t assume that just because X is pleasurable, 10X will be 10 times as pleasurable.

RIP, Nicholas Roeg (plus Rage Against the Machine)

One of Britain’s greatest directors passed away today. Nicholas Roeg produced some lovely dreamlike films during the 1970s.

PS.  Scott Slumber pointed me to a National Geographic story, which explains why the sleep world is superior to the awake world:

[W]hen we’re sleeping, and we commence our first REM session, the most elaborate and complex instrument known in the universe is free to do what it wishes. It self-activates. It dreams. This, one could say, is the playtime of the brain. Some sleep theorists postulate that REM sleep is when we are our most intelligent, insightful, creative, and free. It’s when we truly come alive. “REM sleep may be the thing that makes us the most human, both for what it does for the brain and body, and for the sheer experience of it,” says Michael Perlis.

Maybe, then, we’ve been asking the wrong question about sleep, ever since Aristotle. The real wonder isn’t why we sleep. It’s why, with such an incredible alternative available, do we bother to stay awake?

And the answer might be that we need to attend to the basics of life—the eating and mating and fighting—only to ensure that the body is fully ready for sleep.

They also suggested that logic is turned off during dreams:

Belief in the unbelievable happens because in REM sleep, stewardship of the brain is transferred away from the logic centers and impulse-control regions.

Slumber then pointed to a related quote from André Gide:

Because of his multi-faced inconsistency, Proteus is, among all the gods, the one who has the least existence. Before he chooses, an individual is richer; after he chooses, he is stronger.

The dream world is richer, as logic doesn’t force us to choose, while the awake world is stronger.

Slumber added this:

People in the awake world tend to view the conflicts of society in terms of left vs. right.  But perhaps the real struggle is the best parts of humanity (creativity, freedom, love, intelligence, etc.) against “the machine”—a stupid oppressive bureaucratic structure built by both the left and the right.  I’m talking about the war on drugs, the military, organized religion, the K-12 educational system, health insurance, the IRS, the INS, the TSA and all of the other ways that society tries to crush our spirit and turn us into a cog in the machine.

Isn’t that just warmed over Foucault?  Don’t we need a “machine” to generate the GDP required to make the world safe for sleepers, so they don’t get eaten by wolves?

Slumber responds:

Maybe, but late in his life Foucault saw a possible “third way” between the authoritarianism of the left and the right, and began flirting with economic liberalism.  Had he lived, he might have developed a liberalism far more radical than anything espoused by more conventional thinkers such as Hayek.

What a nice dream.

It’s a wonderful, awful, and perplexing life

Time for another Ted talk.  Commenter Ted asked me a bunch of interesting questions, including this:

How you have thought about death and how you wish you thought about death.

This is going to be a long and dreary post, mostly focusing on my “outside view”, which features a rather apathetic attitude toward death.  So let me first reassure my readers that my inside view is much like yours.  If I’m on a Boeing jet plunging toward the ground, I’m going to be screaming in terror with the other passengers. I’m just as horrified by the prospect of death as the average guy.  Woody Allen put it this way:

There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

I’ve been reading My Struggle, Vol. 6, and thus I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of life, and also the meaning of death—which sort of seems like the same thing.  AFAIK, death itself is nothing; what seems to matter is the life one misses out on and/or the impact of death on the lives of your loved ones.  Let’s put aside the loved ones for a moment, and think about death selfishly.  Bryan Caplan asks:

Suppose you receive the following option.

  1. You flip a fair coin.
  2. If the coin is Heads, you acquire healthy immortality.
  3. If the coin is Tails, you instantly die.

The expected value of this option seems infinite: .5*infinity + 0 is still infinity, no?  . . .

Nevertheless, I suspect that almost no one would take this deal.  Even I shudder at the possibility.  So what gives?

Statistically speaking, I have about 20 years left.  Putting aside the impact on my loved ones, I’d take that bet in a heartbeat.  But only if the immortality part were eliminated.  Just give me a 50/50 chance at living to roughly 83 in perfect health, then hit by a bus while crossing the street.  The kind of health I had at age 14, or even 24.

Borges once referred to Nietzsche’s eternal return as “the most horrible idea in the universe”.  I agree.  But why is that?  Suppose you had the option of living your life over a trillion times in exactly the same way, each time with no memory of what came before.  Would you take it?  If life is good, then why not?  My visceral reaction is “hell no!” But I’m not sure I can explain why I feel that way.  That thought experiment makes me instinctively recall painful experiences I had earlier in life that I don’t want to relive, not all the pleasant experiences I’ve also had.  I’m not even sure I’m able to think about the thought experiment in the right way.  I am presumably thinking, “once is enough”, but the person being reincarnated would have no memory of previous lives, with previous miseries and blissful moments.

When it comes to life and death, I don’t trust my intuitions.  Am I happy?  It depends on what day you ask me.  Not just in the sense that I may not be happy on a given day; rather on days that I’m unhappy I often think my whole live has been bleak and miserable, and vice versa when I’m happy.  I’m not able to see my life clearly, past my current moods.  Am I more or less happy than other people?  Again, how would I know? I’m an unreliable narrator of my own life.  I’d trust someone else’s judgment of my happiness more than my own.  (Hey, wasn’t that once a corny movie?)  With the exception of Karl Ove Knausgaard, I don’t know what it’s like to be anyone else but me.  Are Karl and I unusually moody Nordics?  Or typical people?

BTW, here’s Knausgaard describing how he’s viewed by his best friend:

[Geir] took all of this and composed a picture of my psychological and social character he then analyzed and discussed.  He construed me as a kind of baroque entity, abnormal and warped, whose inner being was utterly out of sync with its outward expression — completely the opposite of how I saw myself, which was ordinary to the point of self-erasure

Literary critics have paid too little attention to the role of this fascinating friend, who even came up with the near perfect title of Knausgaard’s book.

In previous posts, I’ve remarked that my “outside view” rejects concepts like objective truth, free will and personal identity.  In contrast, my inside view of this stuff is just like yours.  Because my outside view tells me that personal identity doesn’t exist; there is actually no “me” to die.  There are a bundle of thoughts that will no longer swirl around in my brain, but billions of other people will still have similar thoughts.  No great tragedy.  My inside view that my death would be a much greater tragedy than the death of a random 63-year old shepherd in Turkmenistan is an illusion, reflecting the bias of my own perspective. (Yes, I know, my language implies the existence of personal identity; I know of no other way to write.)

Think about the Edmund Spenser line:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.

This is why I find the concept of immortality (or the eternal return) to be so frightening.  I fear (and expect) something like the end of the film Avatar, where death is immediately followed by rebirth into another body.  No rest for the weary.

In a book entitled Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright remarked:

I asked [Gary Weber] about a line of his I recall reading, something to the effect of: The bad news is that you don’t exist; the good news is that you’re everything.

That latter claim is not good news to me. I don’t want to be Donald Trump, much less a trillion future Trumps, but I fear that Weber is right.  Without personal identity, we’re everybody.  Wright also says:

Meditation can weaken the link between perceptions and thoughts, on the one hand, and the feelings, the affective resonances, that typically accompany them on the other.  Well, if you do a really thorough job of that weakening, and perceptions become increasingly free of affective associations, this could change your view of the world.  It could leave things looking the same on the outside but seeming as if they lack some inner something.

I’ve never done meditation, but that sounds like growing older.  When I went to Wisconsin basketball games at age 16, there were times late in the game when the entire arena seemed to be pulsating with swirling, delirious waves of energy, which went right through my body.  The noise was deafening and the players and the crowd were almost one in the same.  Now I’m more analytical, watching games on TV and noticing whether teams are playing “moneyball” by avoiding mid-range jumpers.  (Thank God for Coach Budenholzer!)

It seems to me that nature prepares us for death with a series of “little deaths”. (No, not in the French sense!)  As we get older, our earlier selves are repeatedly shed like the skin of a snake.  These are the little deaths.  Life is gradually drained of magic and meaning—we get wiser and grayer. We keep repeating the same basic experiences, but each time with a bit less “color”.

About 25 years ago I bought a vintage French railway poster.  Unfortunately the skin tones gradually faded from tan to grey.  I never noticed this until I recently saw a clean copy on the internet.   So I went onto eBay and bought a fresher copy, had it delivered from France, and put it in an expensive frame with UV protection.

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 3.19.35 PMOf course my wife thought I was crazy to spend all this money in an pathetic attempt to reclaim the color of my earlier life.  (Or maybe she saw something ominous in my desire to trade in old grey skin for young tan skin, noticing that I’ve recently been reading a Michel Houellebecq novel.)

So why keep living, with such a dreary attitude toward life?

1. Option value.

2. Most importantly, for my loved ones. (And let’s face it; that means one’s spouse.  Others may pretend to care, but at my age only one person is severely impacted by my death.)

3.  Still some good films and novels to see and read. Last week I took delivery on a 77 inch LG C8 OLED TV.  I can finally watch films at home.

4. To see how Giannis’ career plays out.

Remember, evolution doesn’t want us to be content; it wants us to struggle.  But it also wants us to hate dying, even if we are not content with life.

Recall Dylan’s line:

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

PS.  I didn’t answer the second part of Ted’s question.  How do I wish I thought about death?  Like a Buddhist.  Maybe I need to start meditating.

What do we mean by meaning?

A commenter named Ted asked me some interesting questions:

Topics/prompts that I’d be interesting in reading your thoughts on:

-What determines the risk-free rate?
-Where have you found meaning in life?
-How do you think historians will look back on this period?
-What will money look like in 100 years? In 1,000 years? In 10,000 years?
-What’s a book or TV show or movie or podcast you liked? Why?
-How do you fight against selection bias as you consume information about the world?
-What are topics we should be talking about more?
-Maybe a high-level tour through periods in history that illustrate something about monetary policy (aimed at people like me who are too lazy to read books where this already written down)
-What are topics you wish you knew more about?
-What are questions that are both important and difficult to answer?
-What constitutes your information diet? What sources of information do you strongly recommend?
-More posts on how public opinion isn’t real (for me, this was a big takeaway from your writing)
-Thoughts on macro hedge funds
-How you have thought about death and how you wish you thought about death
-Questions that you have for your readers

That gives me ammunition for a number of “Ted talks”.  I’ll start with meaning, as I’ve recently been reading a book on psychedelics that touches on that subject.

Let me begin by noting that I often have a sort of “inside view” and an “outside view”.  Thus my inside view is, “of course I have free will” and my outside view is, “of course free will doesn’t exist.”  Similarly, my inside view of meaning is probably not too dissimilar from the views of others, while my outside view is that meaning doesn’t exit.  Life is just one damn mental state after another.

With free will, my outside view is not just that free will doesn’t happen to exist, but that something like that can’t possibly exist.  Similarly, my outside view is that meaning can’t possibly exist.  Since my outside view is uninteresting, and a bit depressing, I’ll focus the rest of my post on my inside view.

Because of my outside view, I prefer not to talk about “finding meaning”, as if there is something out there to me found. Rather I’d prefer to say “seeing meaning”, which implies meaning occurs in our minds.  I’ve long believed that the very young see more meaning in life than older people, and that meaning gradually drains away as you age.  Meaning is also more likely to be visible in dreams, and (I’m told) in psychedelic trips on LSD or mushrooms.

This quote from a book by Karl Knausgaard nicely captures the way meaning drains away from life as one ages:

You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s, was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. The same with the sea, the same with the rocks, the same with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story. The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

Of course there are also some consolations that come with age.

Compared to most people, I probably find less meaning in success and fame, and more in art.  At least that’s how it seems to me.  I’m probably about average for seeing meaning in friends and family (although given my Northern European cultural heritage, perhaps a bit less than average for family.)

During my career, I noticed that some colleagues cared a lot about things like promotions, whereas I didn’t care at all.  I did get some satisfaction from the positive press I got in September 2012, but probably less than most people would.  I’m not ambitious in a career sense.  If given the opportunity to be Fed chair, or a senator from California, or CEO of Goldman Sachs, I’d immediately turn down the opportunity.  If not for this Mercatus position, I’d already be retired—at age 62.  I’d rather make $20,000/year and have the health I had at age 31, than $200,000/year and have the health I have today—and I don’t even have any serious health problems, just chronic annoyances. That’s why the income inequality debate doesn’t really resonate with me; it just doesn’t seem that important.  (That’s my impression; I’m not trying to defend it.) On the other hand, extreme poverty in developing nations such as North Korea seems like by far the most important problem in the world.

I also find much less meaning that usual in ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, graduations and other such events. I’m not a social person.

When I was a young academic, my research was meaningful to me.  As I got older, I realized that people simply didn’t care and it lost meaning.  What made my depression book so hard to write is that I did it after I’d become disenchanted, after I realized the book would be ignored.  Fortunately, the hardest part (all the research) was done by the time I reached that view, but it was still an agonizing process to write the book.

Conversely, I got a lot of meaning out of a brief summer course I taught at Cato this summer.  I was great seeing younger students from really good schools that were interested in market monetarist ideas.  My blog also gave me meaning, especially during the early years when I still had new things to say and the readership was larger and more engaged.  I still have modest hopes for my blog book, but I don’t think book length projects are my forte.  If I were actually able to influence Fed policy, that would seem meaningful to me.

For me, the greatest meaning in life comes from art, broadly defined to include aesthetically beautiful experiences with nature, old cities, and scientific fields like astronomy and physics.  The most meaningful experience in my life might have been seeing the film 2001 at age 13.  I’ve never tried LSD, but after reading about the experience it reminds me of this film, and indeed the director was someone who experimented with acid.  (It might also be the only “psychedelic” work of visual art that’s actually any good.  Whereas pop music from the 60s is full of good examples.)

To me, art is “real life” and things such as careers are simply ways of making money in order to have the ability to experience that real life.  After art, I’d put great conversation second on the list.  And the part of economics that most interests me is the ability to converse with like-minded people (such as at the Cato summer course.)

I’m sort of like a satellite dish, receptive to ideas and sounds and images.  My ideal is Borges, who regarded himself more as a great reader than a great writer (of course he was both, and a great conversationalist.)  I’d rather be a great reader than a great writer.  I’d rather be able to appreciate great music than be able to produce it.

I’m not at all like Trump.

PS.  I’ll answer some other Ted questions in later posts, here and at Econlog.