Actors and financiers

The New Statesman has published an extended interview of Tony Blair by… the Welsh actor Michael Sheen. I found it a bizarre prospect. I know nothing about Sheen — I saw him in a film once — but I’m pretty sure if I wanted to hear Blair’s opinions, an actor would be one of the last interlocutors on my list. (A judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the other hand, would be right near the top.) What is it about actors, particularly film actors, that makes people want to rub up close to them and insert them into all kinds of roles for which they are in no way especially qualified or even interesting?

Michael Sheen and Tony Blair

My use of the word role there may suggest part of the reason: Even if actors are generally not especially intelligent, or insightful, or capable of repairing a leaky faucet, and their life experience is less relevant to the concerns of average people than pretty much anyone else’s — academics such as myself excepted — actors are used to playing the part of people who are intelligent or insightful or capable of fixing a leaky faucet, and perhaps they convey the superficial image of holding an intelligent conversation, even when they are utterly banal. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that actors are unusually stupid: I have met some reasonably intelligent and interesting actors, and heard interviews with an occasional few who seemed genuinely fascinating. Only that their professional accomplishments give me no more expectation of their competence in any other area — or of them having anything interesting to say on any subject other than theatre and film — than members of any other profession or none.

It occurred to me, that there is an analogy to the perverse role of the finance industry. Money is sticky. That is, a significant fraction of the money running through the banks sticks to the people who handle it. It’s not at all obvious that the people who are responsible for investing and manipulating rich people’s money should themselves become rich. There is a German expression about the opposite expectation, “Pfarrers Kind und Müllers Vieh/ Gedeihen selten oder nie”: The preacher’s child and the miller’s livestock/ Will as good as never thrive. But we accept that there’s no way to prevent the people who are close to the money day in and day out from siphoning much of it into their own pockets. According to some estimates financial services in the US absorb a full 20% of all corporate income in the US.

Actors have a similar position in the attention economy. Attention is sticky. Their main job is to attract attention. And once they have the attention of a large public, the attention sticks to them, personally, even when they transition to activities that no sensible person would want to pay attention to.

Conversion ratio

The attempted terrorist bombing of a Liverpool hospital a couple of days ago was apparently carried out by a Christian convert. As far as I can tell from reports in the press, Christian leaders — including the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury — have declined to condemn the attack, or engage in any soul-searching about violence in their communities. The bishop who confirmed the bombing suspect has professed to be “shocked and saddened” by the act, while denying having any specific recollection of the man, and dismissing any possibility of a connection between the conversion and the terror attack:

I know that he would have been thoroughly prepared with an understanding of the Christian faith. It seems that, sadly, despite this grounding, the bomber chose a different path for his life.

Where are the headlines about the “terror bishop”? Speculation about the Liverpool Cathedral terror cell?

In all earnestness, I doubt that this man was specifically motivated by Anglicanism to bomb a hospital, but at the same time, I come from a country (the US) where a significant fraction of terror attacks are committed by people adhering to Christian churches, and often claiming inspiration by their Christian faith. If the would-be terrorist has had been a Muslim convert would the press have devoted nearly so much space to the religious leader responsible for his conversion, lamenting that he had not taken the promised religious path? Instead, we get reports suggesting that there are many fake conversions, of Syrians hoping to strengthen their case for asylum.

Neanderthals and women

The article seems to have good intentions, but this headline in today’s Guardian is the most sexist I’ve seen in some time. It sounds like the men were hard at work “creating language”, and some women helped out with some testing, and maybe brought snacks. Also some Neanderthals came by and lent a hand. And apes.

Anglophone exceptionalism

Guardian film reviewer Peter Bradshaw does not like the new French film Deception, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, based on one of Philip Roth’s many pseudo-autobiographical novels. And one of the things he really doesn’t like about this French film is that… it’s French.

Desplechin doesn’t change any nationalities. His Roth is still supposed to be American, and the object of his love is still English. But Desplechin casts French people, speaking French. Denis Podalydès plays Roth and Léa Seydoux is the English actor.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

C’est pas vrai! A French director cast French actors in his film, and let them (I’m trying not to hyperventilate here) speak FRENCH! How could this be allowed to happen? He seems to have gotten the Hollywood rule, that European characters (of whatever nationality) are always supposed to be played by British actors, exactly backward!

Could you imagine a critic commenting on a film by a British or American director set in a non-English-speaking country, that complains that the director cast British or American actors speaking English, which completely misses the nuances of dialect differences?

Spielberg doesn’t change any nationalities. His Schindler is still supposed to be Moravian, and his antagonist Amon Göth is still Austrian. But Spielberg casts British people, speaking English. Liam Neeson plays Schindler and Ralph Fiennes is the Austrian Nazi.  So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.

I mention this particular example because I do recall seeing a German review of Schindler’s List that did complain about the dialect issue, but only as an issue about the dubbing by the regular German representatives of those particular British actors, speaking their regular high German. No one would have suggested that an American director really should have made his film in German to begin with.

How to vaccinate all the Germans in two easy steps

One might despair at how hopelessly behind Europe in general, and Germany in particular, is with its vaccination campaign. According to the data below from the Robert Koch Institute, they recovered last week from the collapse of the week before due to the brief rejection of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and resumed their very modest acceleration, but that seems to have stopped, and they’re now back to the rate of the previous week of about 1.5 million vaccines per week, a rate that would get them through the entire adult population in around… 2 years.

RKI Vaccine statistics 1/4/2021

But not to worry! says Der Spiegel. They quote an expert — Sebastien Dullien, scientific director of the Institute for Macroeconomics and Economic Research (Institut für Makroökonomie und Konjunkturforschung (IMK) der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung), for which I’ll have to take their word that he’s somehow an expert on vaccines and public health, because his job (and his Wikipedia page) make it seem that he’s an expert on finance and economics — who claims that the vaccination of the entire German adult population will be complete before the middle of the summer. “Es ist realistisch, alle impfbereiten erwachsenen Deutschen bis Ende Juli durchgeimpft zu haben.” [It is realistic, that we can have all willing adult Germans vaccinated by the end of July.) Sounds good! He goes on to say “Dafür müssen nur zwei Bedingungen erfüllt werden.” [This depends on just two conditions being fulfilled.] Okay, two conditions. I hope the conditions are fulfilled… What are they?

Der Impfstoff muss kommen, und er muss verimpft werden.
[We have to get the vaccine, and then we have to vaccinate people with it.]

It’s this kind of reduction of complex problems into manageable sub-problems that only the truly great minds can deliver. This goes on my list of “How-to-do-it” solutions to complex problems. (Previous entries here, here, and here.)

Actually, this is amazingly close to the Monty Python original, where the kiddie show How to Do It explained “how to rid the world of all known diseases”. Their method was more elaborate, though, involving five steps:

First of all, become a doctor, and discover a marvelous cure for something. And then, when the medical profession starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there will never be any diseases ever again.

The opposite of a superficial lie

“The opposite of a fact is a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

The news media have gotten themselves tangled up, from the beginning of the Trump era, in the epistemological question of whether any statement can objectively be called a lie. Yes, Trump says things that are untrue, that contradict objectively known facts, but are they lies? Does he have the appropriate mens rea to lie, the intention to deceive, or is that just a partisan insult?

The opposite problem has gotten too little attention. Just because Donald Trump says something that corresponds to objective facts, one cannot infer that he is speaking the truth. (We don’t really have a word in English to correspond to the opposite of lie, in this dichotomy.) A good example is the controversy over Trump’s private and public comments on the incipient Coronavirus pandemic in February and March of this year. On February 7, 2020, Trump told Woodward

You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.

This is quite an accurate statement, and also very different than what he was saying publicly. On February 10 he said, in a campaign speech,

I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.

And February 26 in an official White House pandemic task force briefing:

The 15 [case count in the U.S.] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. … This is a flu. This is like a flu.

When you see that someone has been saying one thing in public and something completely different in private, it’s natural to interpret the former as lying and the latter as the secret truth — particularly when, as in this case, the private statement is known to be, in fact, true, and the public statement false. And particularly when the speaker later says

I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.

With Trump, though, this interpretation is likely false.

The thing is, while his statement of February 7 was true, he could not have known it was true. No one knew it was true. We can see any number of statements by responsible public-health officials making similar statements at the time. For example, Anthony Fauci on February 19:

Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is “just minuscule.” But he does want them to take precautions against the “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”

“We have more kids dying of flu this year at this time than in the last decade or more,” he said. “At the same time people are worrying about going to a Chinese restaurant. The threat is (we have) a pretty bad influenza season, particularly dangerous for our children.”

And it’s not just Americans under the thumb of Trump. February 6, the day before Trump’s remark to Woodward, the head of the infectious disease clinic at a major Munich hospital, where some of the first German Covid-19 patients were being treated, told the press that “Corona is definitely not more dangerous than influenza,” and criticised the panic that was coming from exaggerated estimates of mortality rates.

Researchers were posting their data and models in real time, but there just wasn’t enough understanding possible then. This is the kind of issue where the secret information that a government has access to is of particularly limited value.

So how are we to interpret Trump’s statements? I think the key is that Trump is not a liar per se, he is a conman and a bullshitter, someone to whom the truth of his statements is completely irrelevant.

In early February he probably did receive a briefing where the possibility that the novel coronavirus was highly lethal and airborne was raised as one possibility, as well as the possibility that it was mild and would disappear on its own. .In talking to elite journalist Bob Woodward he delivered up the most frightening version, not because he believed it was true, but because it seemed most impressive, making him seem like the mighty keeper of dangerous secrets. When talking to the public he said something different, because he had other motives. It’s purely coincidence that what he said in private turned out to be true.

It would be poetic justice of Trump were to be damaged by the bad luck of one time accidentally having told the truth.

When did the sixties end?

The Guardian’s obituary for Baba Ram Dass comments about his most famous book

He wrote about his conversion in Be Here Now, which became popular in the 1960s and provided a road map for the burgeoning New Age movement of spirituality.

Now, this should have given the writer pause, given that a prior paragraph dated his travel to India and religious conversion to late 1967. Indeed, Be Here Now was published in 1971, making its popularity in the 1960s of a particularly esoteric sort.

I suppose they’re not talking about the literal 1960s — as in, the span of ten years beginning from 1 January, 1960 AD — but rather, about the cultural 1960s, that began between the Chatterley case and the Beatles’ first LP, continued, as Hunter Thompson put it, only in San Francisco,

in the middle sixties… a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run … but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.

and concluded

now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Or maybe it never ended. Donald Trump is in many ways the apotheosis of the 1960s. The reduction of politics and traditional institutions to pure id and appetite. The unmasking of the White House mystique as just a cranky old antisemite with a fourth-grade vocabulary and a jones for Big Macs. He’s not what Abbie Hoffman thought he was fighting for, but in retrospect it turns out that’s what he was fighting for.

Extra precision: Currency edition

I have commented before on the phenomenon where changing units turns an obviously approximate number into a weirdly precise one. Here is a new example, from the Guardian’s disturbing report on the mass slaughter of donkeys for the use of their hides in traditional Chinese medicine:

Since the booming skin trade has driven up donkey prices, owners struggle to replace their animals when they are stolen. The cost of a donkey in Kenya increased from £78 to £156 between 2016-19.

£78 seems like an oddly precise figure for what is surely a very diverse market in animals of varying qualities. Even weirder is that that precise figure precisely doubled in the period under consideration. Then it occurred to me, at current exchange rates £78 is about what you get when you convert the round number of US$100. So I’m going to hazard a guess that the reporter was told that the price had risen from around $100 to around $200, and simply converted it to pounds for the UK market without further comment.

16th century lessons on fake news and disinformation

I’ve just been reading an interesting book on the relationship between two 16th-century social-media influencers, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther (Fatal Discord, by Michael Massing). I was struck by one comment that came up at the Diet of Worms that speaks to our current conundra over propaganda and disinformation.

Luther argued that he could not recant all of his writings, since some stated truths universally acknowledged by Christians. They must point out to him which particular assertions were false, and demonstrate the falsity with citations from genuine authorities, which could only be scriptural.

Determined not to be drawn into a debate, the theologian Johann Eck countered that Luther’s

assertion that some of his books contained teachings that were sound and acceptable to all was specious, for heretical books, going back to the Arians, had been burned, despite containing much that was godly and Catholic. In fact, Eck said, no doctrine is more effective in deceiving than that which mixes a few false teachings with many that are true.

This is a clear formulation of the principle of optimal fakery that I have discussed at length in this essay.