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(no subject) [Sep. 25th, 2016|06:19 pm]
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Things I did today

-Made it to davening for all three services
-Ran laundry (new, nonleaky washing machine just installed by landlord!)
-Baked challah for the next couple weeks
-Paid electric bill and did other financial stuff
-Filed old health insurance paperwork
-Cleaned my apartment
-Biked about five miles
-Finished another draft of my new vid and sent to betas
-Watched the Giants game :(

Fairy productive Sunday :)

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Pitch [Sep. 22nd, 2016|10:08 pm]
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Pitch, the new TV show about the first female Major League baseball player, was amazing!!!!

The baseball looked real, the story beats felt right but also felt realistic enough that they could drive a serious drama rather than a classic feel-good sports movie, and Ginny was awesome. I can't wait to watch more of this show.

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(no subject) [Sep. 22nd, 2016|11:04 am]
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The Empress, The Queen, and the Nun: Women and Power at the Court of Philip III of Spain by Magdalena Sanchez

Alternately infuriating and fascinating, an academic re-examination of the historical view of the roles of Empress Maria, Philip III's aunt and grandmother, Queen Margaret of Austria, Philip III's wife, queen, and cousin, and Margaret of the Cross, Maria's daughter who took vows as a nun, possibly as an alternative to having to marry her cousin Philip II and possibly out of sincere devotion to the Faith. The trio were the most visible and notable Habsburg women at the court of Philip III, and I mention all their family relationships to highlight what Sanchez does repeatedly, that family and politics were intertwined deeply for the Habsburgs and this reality enlisted the Habsburg women as powerful political agents on behalf of the House of Austria, in spite of a significant literature composed by the Habsburgs' allies that suggested that these women were pious Catholic women who did not engage in politics but only served their nations as wives, mothers, holy women, charitable givers, and other positive stereotypes of early modern femininity.

The main reason the book is annoying to read is that Sanchez demolishes this anti-feminist Habsburg propaganda literature fairly quickly and extremely effectively and then spends the rest of the book repeating herself. Not just repeating her arguments- repeating her facts.

Sanchez shows how power in Philip III's Spain was driven by two things only- access to the King and access to his privado, or personal favorite, who for most of the period discussed in the book was the (infamous) Duke of Lerma. The privado served as a sort of informal chief minister, capable of speaking in the King's voice within certain limits. And while in official political settings, the King and the Duke of Lerma moved in exclusively male circles meeting with the Council of State, various ad hoc committees, and diplomatic envoys from other nations, the reality of the King's court was much broader and included significant room for female access to the King. As a devout Catholic, much of the King's day often involved religious activities such as attending masses, giving money to poor people, and visiting convents and monasteries. And those activities were often undertaken with his wife, and often led to interacting with other royal women, including his aunt and cousin, who lived in the Descalzas Real convent that was adjacent to the royal place in Madrid.

Sanchez lays out the evidence for this reality, that King Philip was constantly talking to and being influenced by his female relatives, and that the serious players at court were aware of this and that they moved within spheres of influence including those whose agendas were set by Empress Maria and Queen Margaret of Austria. She draws from the memoirs and letters of male diplomats at court who knew that if they wanted to advance the Austrian Habsburg agenda, their first call wasn't to Lerma but to Empress Maria. She talks about how these womens' agendas began with protecting the interests of their Habsburg relatives in Central Europe but expanded outward from there to encompass other personal political agendas- rewarding trusted allies, establishing legacy-making institutions, providing for the poor and needy. She uncovers the way Lerma tried to gain influence over Queen Margaret by planting his relatives as ladies in waiting to the Queen, and how Queen Margarget kept suborning his spies and forcing him to install new spies, and how the Queen's allies were able to use the Queen's sudden death as a political tool against Lerma because of the seeds of doubt in Lerma's loyalty that the Queen skillfully planted during her lifetime. She highlights how Lerma's desire for an isolationist public policy, a Spain-First policy involving negotiated peace with England and other traditional rivals in order to build the wealth of Spain and consolidate a century's gains against the Moors, warred with Philip III's ties and obligations to support his Austrian Habsburg relatives in their wars against Protestants and Muslims to the East and North.

The first three chapters or so were great, but as I got deeper and deeper into the book these details just got rehashed again and again in new variations. Chapters 4-6 barely had any new ideas or facts the first three chapters don't have. I got more and more desperate for any kind of new argument or perspective.

And then we got one, and it was even more infuriating- a final chapter on the melancholy and illness of Empress Maria, and how it was a political tool wielded to influence Philip III and the Duke of Lerma. Basically this chapter reduced its discussion of melancholy to "Empress Maria pretended to be sick in order to manipulate men."

Sanchez doesn't have much evidence of this beyond outcomes- sometimes when Empress Maria claimed melancholy, she ended up achieving some political objective, or sometimes just a thing that one might suppose was a political objective, like getting more visits from King Philip III. She has no letters between Empress Maria and her political allies where Empress Maria says that she's going to feign melancholy. Nonetheless she tries to argue that her melancholy wasn't a disease afflicting her but a pose used to communicate displeasure.

This makes me so angry because I have science!feels about humor medicine. Which is kind of ridiculous, I know. On the one hand, humor theory is completely wrong. The body has far more than four fluids whose regulation is necessary for the operation of the body, these fluids have no connection to the four elements, except in very rare cases these fluids do not get out of balance in a way where draining or infusing one of the fluids is going to help a person medically... As a medical theory with any relation to a realistic description of the body's processes, humor medicine is mostly bunk. As a medical theory offering any useful advice toward treatment, humor medicine is completely bunk.

But as a symptomology, that is less true. Here's what I mean by that: We know depression is a illness caused by brain chemistry problems. This did not start being the case when scientists disxcovered the faulty neurological processes, it was always a human condition that some people had. Likewise, the flu existed before we discovered the microbe. And it was doctors in the Galenic/Hippocratic tradition who treated them, and recorded the symptoms in their records. The science was fake, in other words, but the symptoms were real. They were using humor medicine to treat people who actually had the flu. And to treat people who actually had schizophrenia, and people who actually had depression.

It's not very clear how to map 'melancholy' onto the modern diseases of clinical depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophenia, etc... Probably it included all of them to some degree, and brain tumors, as well as other physical ailments that caused mental struggles, and probably it also included some things that modern science would not call disorders of any kind. Sanchez notes that Queen Margaret reported periods of melancholy after her pregnancies- we would today likely call that post-partum depression.

It seems... really toxic to me to treat melancholy, since it is a fake disease created by unsystematic doctors compositing various symptoms together under the false theory of humor medicine, as reflecting fake symptoms. Even today we as a culture are bad at treating depression as a real disease. I certainly am not proposing to diagnose Empress Maria as suffering from clinical depression from across five centuries- not only am I unqualified to diagnose anyone with any mental illness, but the facts in the historical record are ambiguous and mental illness seems to me to at least partially encode culture, so diagnosing a 16th century woman with clinical depression is meaningless. But I'm proposing that we ought to assume that when people claimed the symptoms of melancholy in the 16th century, they were claiming symptoms of a disease that they were legitimately suffering from, unless we actually have evidence to the contrary.


In any case, I read this book so that I could learn more about Philip III's Spain, toward eventually writing a Pirate Rabbi novel. It was definitely helpful in that regard... The impressions I held of the Duke of Lerma and Catalina de la Cerda and which informed "Chasing Pirates" and "If We Were All Wise Men" seem to me to have been inaccurate in some respects, and I would have written those stories differently had I written them with knowledge of this book. It also gave me a closer and deeper sense of how Catholicism informed the court, which is essential knowledge to a story about Jews navigating the court. In the end, it was a valuable read.

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(no subject) [Sep. 15th, 2016|11:14 am]
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Now You See Me 2

I loved the first film enough that I actually requested it for Yuletide one year. Somehow the release of the sequel slipped past my awareness until Facebook started spamming me with ads for it, at which point I made a point to watch it.

I was disappointed by the sequel. It didn't ever seem to get its footing in the way the first one did in terms of telling interesting stories about the characters, and it seemed less enthralled with the power of magic and more convinced that magic was the refuge of manipulative misanthropes. NYSM skated past its imprecise plotting by being such a joyful film. NYSM2 was largely joyless.

Lizzy Caplan was a rare exception- stepping in for Isla Fisher as the token female Horseman, she brought energy and mystery and comic sexiness to the film that it desperately needed. That being said, it would've been better if the film had more interesting female characters besides her- Sanaa Lathan's police supervisor seemed like her scenes had probably been cut back, based on her lack of interaction with Dylan or any of the Horsemen, Melanie Laurent's French detective from the first film was sorely missed, and I'm disappointed that my weird pet theory about Hermia, Bradley's assistant, being more important to Bradley's plans than the first film suggested got no further evidence in film 2. The presence of the token female Horseman is grating no matter how cleverly they subvert it, and how effective the character actually is. I will say that I appreciated how intentionally they made it clear that she was not Atlas's new love interest.

And then you had Atlas and Jack get basically no character development, and the weird thing with two Woody Harrelsons had no emotional payoff in the end. Bradley was great (Morgan Freeman being morally ambiguous, duh), and we got one awesome Bradley/Tressler scene (they were definitely a couple at some point, right?), but then the Bradley/Dylan stuff had the laziest payoff because I guess they've shoved resolving Dylan's daddy issues for real to the third movie. Obviously Lionel Shrike is not dead, they've been hitting us on the head with how obvious that is for two movies now (First Jack's fake death, then Mabry's fake death... then Dylan surviving despite being apparently killed in literally the same vault that apparently killed his father), but they're unwilling to reveal him yet.

But Mabry was the movie's biggest problem. Daniel Radcliffe playing a manic sociopath was supposed to be the big new addition to the movie, the thing that upped the ante from the first film, but he was just not amped up enough to really be scary to the Horsemen. He never pushed any of his scenes far enough, never made it seem like he was actually worse than Tressler, and Tressler's mid-film reappearance undermined Mabry even further, making it seem like he wasn't competent enough to fight the Horsemen without assistance from papa. A demonic, soulless Daniel Radcliffe would have foiled Atlas perfectly, battle of the nerds for magical dominance, but he never got anywhere close to pushing Atlas, and the Horsemen coasted to a victory that was somehow both too easy and not easy enough- too easy because you never got the sense that they could actually lose, not easy enough in the sense that they were accomplishing their magical wonders with the breezy self-confidence of the first film's Horsemen.

In truth, the first raid on Octa was a monkeywrench in the film's sense of fun that they never really overcame. After showing the Horsemen so publicly humiliated, you would think that in addition to making contact with the Eye, there would be a sense of needing to prove themselves as stage magicians again, but that dynamic was left out of the film, so after that scene, I had lost confidence in the showmanship of the Horsemen, a confidence they never tried to re-earn. Was London a frothy triumph in the vein of the Vegas/France heist of the first film? Yes, but it had no character oomph behind it.

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Yuletide nominations [Sep. 9th, 2016|01:41 pm]
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Holy shit it's Yuletide time already.


Manhattan Project RPF

Because [personal profile] naraht's recent post reminded me of past requests. Nominated more or less my usual characters, Szilard, Teller, Bethe, Fuchs, I think? But as usual with this fandom my request will say I don't really care who in the cast of thousands someone is inspired to write about.


19th Century London Cholera Epidemic RPF

Because The Ghost Map made me want John Snow/Henry Whitehead fic.


A Void - Gilbert Adair

Uncertain about this nomination... can one truly request A Void fic, separate of La Disparition? I'm not sure, but seeing as I've only read A Void, seeing as how I've only ever read Perec in translation, and seeing how Adair's work is a massive literary accomplishment in its own right, it felt right. Of course, I'm going to have to figure out how to write my request as a lipogram, so... that's a whole thing now.

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(no subject) [Sep. 8th, 2016|12:10 pm]
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An NYC community venue I've gone to a number of times for the New York Review of Science Fiction book reading series, the Brooklyn Commons, hosted a 9/11 Truther for a lecture last night. That's bad enough- Trutherism is completely untethered from truth and spreading lies about an event as personally painful as 9/11 is pretty morally awful in my book. But the particular Truther they hosted is of the sort who blames a Zionist Jewish conspiracy for causing 9/11. And who may also dabble in a little Holocaust denial on the side. When confronted about this, the Commons doubled down, issuing a letter defending their decision on the grounds that they don't vet speakers, and arguing that giving a space to racists is important because it teaches people the valuable lesson that racists exist- all the while continuing to claim the Commons was a 'progressive' space.

I was planning to go to a NYRSF event there tonight, with an awesome guest list including Keith DeCandido, Steven Barnes, and Emily Perrin-Asher to talk about Star Trek on the 50th anniversary of the first episode airing. I'm torn, but I've decided not to go. On the one hand, the organization that runs the NYRSF readings is not anti-semitic, not at all affiliated with the Truthers, and has condemned Brooklyn Commons for hosting this speaker. And I've been going to NYRSF events for more than a decade, they were one of my first entrypoints into organized SF fandom and I don't want that to be ruined because of decisions made by people they don't have direct control of. On the other hand, they rent the space from the Brooklyn Commons and so my money if I attended would be going ultimately to the group that has condoned and welcomed this vile anti-semite, given him this platform within my own community.

A friend of mine organized a protest at the venue last night. I wish I could have joined, but I already had plans- the whole situation came up suddenly. And the whole situation makes me sick. It's bad enough to combat anti-semitism in the general world, but when it creeps into your own communities, that's a whole additional level of difficult.

Tonight, [personal profile] freeradical42 and I are just going to watch Star Trek TOS episodes on our own instead.

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Vid Amnesty [Sep. 3rd, 2016|10:17 pm]
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[personal profile] kerithwyn says I should post this, so I guess I will. I feel awkward about it, though.


Blonde Redhead from ronarfelq on Vimeo.



password: fringe

The story of this vid is that DNA is a fake band started in the late 70s by three visual artists/performance artists who didn't know how to play instruments. Because it was the late 70s, they got gigs all over the Lower East Side anyway and developed a cult following for their raucous and enthusiastic bad songs. It was something called "no wave" that I remain baffled by now, but I kind of love their music because even on the recordings you can hear how passionate they are about BEING A FUCKING BAND. Ikue Mori, the band's drummer, eventually learned a little bit about electronic music and I learned of DNA by attending some of Mori's mid-2000s electronic music concerts on the Lower East Side.

DNA's 'hit', if you can call it that, is a 'song' called 'Blonde Redhead' with urgently hissed or sometimes blurrily drawled lyrics over dissonant guitar playing and a mostly steady, occasionally wobbly drumbeat. I once described it to [personal profile] sanguinity as 'DNA's songiest song'.

Because most of my vids start as puns, I decided to try to vid "Blonde Redhead" to the story of Olivia and Altlivia, the two versions of Fringe's Olivia Dunham who live in alternate universes and who are only different at first glance becauce Altlivia has red hair and Olivia has blonde hair. There is much more to the differences than that, ultimately- Altlivia walks more confidently, cracks jokes more easily, smiles more quickly... Anna Torv's two performances are a study in subtle acting. But at first glance, Blonde/Redhead is the fundamental contrast.

I put together a timeline, and I liked good chunks of it, but there were parts that were always intended as placeholders, so I could have something in the vid to explain when I sent it to betas asking for suggestions. Most notably is my one attempt at a significant visual effect, where I try to parallel the show's image of Olivia in Tankworld by using blurs and lighting effects to synthesize Altlivia in Tankworld. The result is a disaster. There are a number of other, less obviously terrible problems with the vid, and I uploaded it to Dropbox to share with a few people I trusted for advice.

Then my laptop was stolen and I lost my timeline. Since then, I've shared the draft I had saved in my email with a few Fringe fan friends I trusted, to show them where I got and what could have been, but I've been too demoralized by the loss of all that work to try to remake it and finish it. But to hell with it, here's the vid draft. It sucks in places, but in other places it's pretty fucking rad. But I'm never going to finish it, so what the hell, feel free to watch it, knowing I'm unsatisfied with it.

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Moby Dick Chapters 102-135 [Aug. 28th, 2016|09:13 am]
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Three years and two months since I started, I finished my reread of Moby Dick!!!

-The shift in tone is very gradual, and then all of a sudden the Typhoon hits and you are in the endgame. The atmospherics change completely to this dark, somber, foreboding tone that of course Melville is constantly subverting to hilarious effect. Every other chapter ends with a line foreshadowing Ahab's death. Ten or fifteen chapters from the end, Melville ends a chapter with "In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride." and all I could think was "Way to spoil the ending, Herman!"

-But it's actually really important, since I've spent so much time in these notes snickering at Melville, to note just how brilliant the last twenty chapters of Moby Dick are. Seriously, if you're not interested in reading the whole damn tome, I totally understand it. Parts of it are pretty much unreadable. But do yourself a favor and read from chapter 115 to the end. You won't understand everything- the hundreds of pages before really do matter, Melville actually does spend that time setting up plot points and building character arcs and he pays off way more of them than I'd remembered in the ending, but even without understanding all of those details, those last twenty chapters are a thrill ride from a master of action suspense who is also a literary technician par excellence. For once, Melville does pacing remotely conventionally, except it turns out that when Melville tries to do pacing normally, he fails because he just does pacing better than everyone ever. He matches short chapters against long chapters, quick chapters against quicker chapters, then slows you down with a gripping monologue from the troubled Starbuck, then speeds back up again. The ending is just as unconventional as the rest of the novel, truly, but it's so skillfully done that it feels like there's no artistry to it.

-And holy shit the scene with Starbuck and the musket is a fucking masterpiece of slow-built character development. "The very tube he pointed at me!—the very one; this one—I hold it here; he would have killed me with the very thing I handle now." That scene could have been so tedious, but it's the opposite of tedious. After "Cetology" I think it's my favorite chapter in the reread, because Starbuck's dilemma is so morally difficult- and it is so specific. Nobody else in the crew could have struggled with it in the same fashion, but Melville somehow gets you to this scene and you just, with every bone in your body, ache for Starbuck, because you know that no matter what choice he makes, he will regret it for the rest of his life, and he knows it too, knows there is no choice he can make that is truly a moral choice.

-All of a sudden at the end we get Ahab as a real person. He monologues for page after page after being this inscrutable mystery to Ishmael for the whole book. We learn about his first whaling trip, his feelings about his wife, his feelings about his son. We know more about Captain Ahab's backstory than we do about Ishmael's backstory! And what really struck me this time around is that the change only comes after the musket scene, because something changes at the musket scene, or really I suppose after the typhoon scene that immediately precedes it, but the musket scene lays it bare: Before, there was something heroic about Captain Ahab's pursuit of the White Whale. After the typhoon, after the first time when Ahab deliberately risks the lives of the crew to keep his pursuit hot, Ahab is no longer the hero of the novel. And Starbuck considers becoming the hero, but he too declines. By the end of the book, there is no hero, just a collection of madmen following a spectral whale to their doom.

-"There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!" And then we get the three days of the chase sequence, three days that Melville compares to Jesus's resurrection, because nothing in Moby Dick is a metaphor or a symbol, right? The chase is operating at so many levels of symbolism and character drama, but it is fundamentally an action sequence and a brilliant one, albeit a scene that would make little sense at all without all of the exposition that preceded it. Melville doesn't do exposition in the chase, he doesn't explain how harpoons work or when boats are set out, he doesn't explain who crews the boats and what their rowing tactics are. He's done all that already and finally we get to enjoy the fruits of that labor, a totally unadulerated action sequence that rings with incredible clarity because of how hard Melville has worked to get you there.


-I did want to address one of the levels, a level that is oddly absent from the ending. No mention is made whatsoever in any direct fashion of Bildad and Peleg, but there are hints: Ishmael writes that Ahab seemed to especially value the Pagan members of his crew, whereas he didn't trust the Christians. After the compass demagnetizes, he goes to extra effort to magnetize a new compass needle to appease the Pagans of their superstitions, and perhaps this special trust for the non-Christians comes from his knowledge of Bildad and Peleg's devout Christianity, a piety that extends only so far as to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. They have no room for vengeance on the seas, not because charity is Christian but because vengeance is expensive. Ahab knows that there is more to life than money, though, and because of this he is drawn to his non-Christian crew as natural allies against the Christians. Of course, in the end, Ahab is monstrous for this. There is a safety in working only for money, a righteousness. That is a strange form of true Christianity, but it's what seems to emerge.

-And then somehow fucking Ishmael escapes, floating away on Queequeg's casket life buoy. As if in some way he never really belonged in the story at all, as if Moby Dick somehow wasn't his story but that of Ahab and Starbuck. What the fuck, Ishmael?

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Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God [Aug. 25th, 2016|10:21 pm]
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The summer I was fifteen, I went as an observant Conservative Jew to an Orthodox Jewish summer camp and came back wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit on a daily basis. I passed it off to my parents tacitly as some sort of conversion that'd happened at camp, but that wasn't really accurate. Jew camp was thoroughly ridiculous, in fact, but I didn't reveal most of the horrors to my parents until many years later. The basic principle of the camp was that all morning we studied Talmud and all afternoon we played sports and all night we did whatever the hell we wanted without supervision as long as we were awake the next morning for Shacharis davening. It was a strange unbalancing combination. It was an interesting experience for a few weeks, but it was exhausting and confusing and most of the time had very little to do with Judaism. One night those of us who were actually asleep at 3AM were awakened by our counselors- someone was friends with the dude responsible for closing the Baltimore kosher Krispy Kreme and had managed to score all of the leftover donuts from that night- several garbage bags full. They spread the garbage bags out on the hood of someone's car and urged all of the campers to eat as many stale donuts as they could. It was an incredibly surreal experience that did not bring me any closer to God, needless to say.

The truth is I'd been contemplating making some shift of the sort for months if not years before I went to camp- camp gave me an excuse and an impetus to make the shift. I found Conservative Judaism an uncomfortably tenuous place to be- I believed in Hashem and believed that at Bar Mitzvah I'd been obligated in Hashem's commandments, but I wasn't exactly clear on what Conservative Judaism said that obligation looked like. Conservative Judaism's answers to how to resolve the tension between modernity and traditional Judaism did not satisfy me and even in cases where today their answers do satisfy me, my teachers in Conservative Judaism often failed to do a good job of publicizing those satisfying answers. (Part of the problem, looking back, is that most of my teachers in Conservative Judaism weren't actually Conservative Jews. For want of qualified staff, my Hebrew Schools often hired a)Orthodox Jewish teachers and b)Secular Israelis who could teach Hebrew. Neither was equipped to intelligently articulate the philosophy and praxis of Conservative Judaism. But that's neither here nor there.) I was looking for an approach to Judaism that offered a deeper connection to Mesorah and I was looking to make a commitment to it. But I've never been the sort to make a blind commitment. I research and I research and I think and think, and then I jump. The jump I made that summer was in the aftermath of a long and serious negotiation with my faith, and the reality is that I'm still negotiating.

One of the things that was important to me in this negotiation with Modern Orthodoxy was making sense of Judaism's ideas about science. I already knew at 15 that I was probably going to end up a scientist or engineer- After those three weeks at Orthodox Jewish summer camp, I went straight to three weeks at a summer camp (CTY) where I studied number theory all day. I was (and still am) a giant nerd, an intellectually curious, skeptical, omnivorous bibliophile, and a strong believer in the scientific method, and I needed reassurance that there was a place in traditional Judaism for those parts of me. And people have a sense that religion and science are things in tension with each other, and there are reasons for that. Not always good reasons, but sometimes they are good reasons. They're fundamentally epistemologically different approaches to the world, and while I don't think that means you can't use both approaches, it does provide an explanation for why they might see the world differently. It is not, in fact, easy, to hold two visions of the world in your head at the same time. It's much easier if you can reconcile the two approaches so they're both seeing things the same way. You will find Jewish scientists on the Orthodox Right who say things like "People ask me if it's hard to be a scientist and an Orthodox Jew and I tell them No! When I'm doing my scientific work, I apply the scientific method. When I think about God and our place in the universe, I turn to Judaism." It does not strike me as being as easy to compartmentalize as that, for many reasons.

One of the texts that was really important and influential to me on this nebulous journey we might hyperbolically call a teenage religious epiphany was Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God. I've recommended the book to a number of people since then, including [personal profile] marginaliana. I sent her a copy for Yuletide bookswap, after she asked me how I thought about Creation and entropy, but I realized I hadn't actually read the book myself since I was 15 and my thinking about religion and science has changed considerably since I was 15, so I figured I ought to revisit it myself.

And, well, I can see why the book mattered to me at 15, but I am not the same person anymore, and the book does not well-serve the 31 year old me.

Schroeder's basic question is this: Genesis describes a particular story by which the World was Created. Many of the particulars of this story do not match the conventional presently dominant scientific narrative of the origin of the universe and the Earth. How should a religious person who wants to hold by the dogma that the Bible is unerringly true understand the tension?

And his basic approach to resolving the question is twofold: First, he asserts that the ancient Rabbis understood the narration in Genesis not literally and not as a metaphor, but as a sort of coded explanation of true events. And second, he asserts that if you can decipher the code, scientific revelation never contradicts Biblical revelation, and in fact affirms the hidden wisdom of the Torah and it's worldview.

I have less problem with the first prong of his approach than the second. It's pretty obvious if you spend any time learning traditional Jewish approaches to Genesis that most Rabbis don't expect you to read Genesis literally, but that if you start reading it metaphorically you're veering out of theism altogether. Which does not necessarily make such an approach non-Jewish. Obviously that kind of metaphorical reading is how observant Reform Jews tend to approach Genesis, though not exclusively, and I don't presume to speak to their theology. It also sort of appears to be how Ibn Ezra reads Genesis, if you take the ibn Ezra at face value, which is probably a bad idea since ibn Ezra is smarter and cleverer than you. And it's worth noting that there are some who do read it literally- the Lubavitcher Rebbe is noted for the claim that the dinosaurs may have been planted by Hashem to look older than they are, apparently as some sort of test of faith. There is a strand of tradition in Judaism particularly aligned with the Kabbalist/mystical tradition, in opposition to the rationalist strand, that believes that God miraculously maintains the universe from moment to moment and that because of the nature of this miracle, any effort to study archaeology or history or cosmology is useless. Schroeder barely acknowledges this tradition, but that's fine, most Jews I talk to on a regular basis usually don't either.

But the second prong is problematic to me. Schroeder uses as his proof texts of the Rabbis' wisdom a number of quotations from the Talmud, and from Nachmanides' (Ramban) commentary on Genesis. There is a confidence in his writing that suggests he's got an absolutely clear comprehension of these texts from the religious side, and he's using this comprehension to share the wisdom of the Rabbis with the reader. At fifteen I swallowed this up fairly unquestioningly, not because I felt Schroeder was some unerring Torah scholar, but because the interpretations he was placing before us seemed like fairly straightforward Torah interpretations.

But let me share with you one of the first things Nachmanides says in his commentary on Genesis. He's asking a question about the commentator Rashi, because Rashi famously opens his own commentary on Genesis by saying that it is puzzling that the Torah begins with Genesis, since there are no commandments in the Creation story, and the Torah is ultimately a vehicle for delivering the commandments to Israel. Nachmanides objects, since clearly if one knew for certain that Hashem created the universe in miraculous fashion, it would have an impact on their observance of the commandments, so why is Rashi puzzled? His answer is that Creation is a mystery and the narrative in Genesis does not actually explain it, and so therefore Rashi's question pertains- given that the Genesis account fails at its ostensible purpose, why open the Torah with it?

And one can question it, because there is great need to begin the Torah with "In the beginning God created" for it is the root of faith; and one who doesn't believe this and believes that the world is primordial is an apostate and has no Torah whatsoever. And the answer, it is because the work of creation - it is a deep secret - is not intelligible from the verses, and will not be understood by its students except through the received tradition up until Moses our Master from the mouth of God [lit. "The Strength"], and those who know it are required to hide it.

So I'm more than a little skeptical of Schroeder's assertion that Nachmanides's interpretation of Creation aligns with science's interpretation. Supposing it were true, it would actually mean Nachmanides failed at his purpose, which was to offer religious insight into the message the Torah was providing in Genesis while hiding that which he was obligated to hide about the true nature of Creation. Nachmanides explicitly says that he is not offering a scientific explanation of Creation!

But that's sort of a meaningless speculation without actually looking at what Schroeder's project means for his analysis of the scientific data. And here it gets a lot messier. The problem is exactly why the book was so useful when I was 15. I said to [personal profile] liv that The Science of God is Jewish apologetics, which does not work the same way as Christian apologetics does. Schroeder teaches a Judeo-scientific approach by way of the Ramban, but his main purpose is not to create a book teaching the teachings of the Ramban.

Schroeder's real purpose is to offer a Jewish counterpoint to secular atheistic popular science books- Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Gould's Wonderful Life, Weinberg's The First Three Minutes, Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, and so on, not to offer the answers to the deep questions about Creation and its nature. The '09 edition that I'm reading now actually has substantial updates to add to the list of atheist popular science books he is parrying, including Dawkins's noxious The God Delusion.

And when I was fifteen, that's exactly what I needed, because those were the books I was reading, and I needed something in conversation with them. I was reading Gould and listening to him lay out this flimsy, speculative mechanism by which he thought evolution occurred and thinking "That doesn't quite add up," and I was looking for other ways to think about the bigger questions we grapple with when we think about the origin of humanity and our place in the the universe because Gould and Dawkins and Hawking weren't giving me what I needed. But most of the Jews I was talking to weren't giving me the answers I wanted, either. Most of the Jews I was speaking to about these questions weren't scientifically trained and they couldn't recognize the problems I was having with Gould and Dawkins and so on, so they couldn't articulate for me the appropriate Jewish counter-arguments. Schroeder at least was, more or less.

There is a dogmatic certainty in the writing of these materialist secular scientific giants that the gaps in their scientific knowledge will be filled with more and more materialist interpretations of nature until all the gaps are closed, and I found this faith wanting. But there's a trick Dawkins in particular pulls- he fills his works with so much legitimate evidence that it almost papers over the giant gaps in his knowledge. So a Jewish counterargument against Dawkins that I find worthwhile has to acknowledge and accommodate all legitimate evidence, while still finding value and truth in whatever it is the Torah says. And while rejecting all the clear nonsense Dawkins is pitching.

Now that I'm much more experienced as a scientist I see the flaws in those popsci books as scientific literature much more clearly. I therefore don't find refutations of them very interesting on their face because I recognize that disproving arguments advanced in popular science books is not equivalent to disproving the latest scientific theories, and furthermore, that disproving scientific theories is something that scientists do. It's epistemologically part of the process of doing science, it's not epistemologically part of the process of pursuing God. Seeing Schroeder pick up a particular oversimplified argument from Dawkins and knock it down is not a very fruitful exercise for me. I could do it myself, and have. But it doesn't say anything about the nature of God's universe to do so. But I guess it was a stepping stone to where I am now. Which is a deep, powerful uncertainty.

But to the book!

Schroeder tries out some old chestnuts from the book of bad arguments for theism. Quantum mechanics, says Schroeder, proves that miracles exist! Why? Because one of the elements of some parts of the theory of quantum mechanics is apparently 'effect without cause', which he says is the definition of a miracle. But this is only true of some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, while others preserve locality and causality. And in any case it's a baldly presumptuous linguistic game- the sort of 'miracle' quantum mechanics implies has very little to do with the sort of miracles the Bible treats with- the parting of the sea in Exodus, or the stopping of the Sun, in Joshua, or the swallowing of Korach in last week's Torah portion.

To a certain degree I'm being too hard on Schroeder. He's making a qualitative argument in a popular theology work, and if I were feeling more generous I could say that his point here is the same as the point he makes more effectively about the Big Bang Theory: Until a revolution struck the mid-20th century astrophysics world, the scientific consensus was toward a steady state theory that the universe had always been in the basic form it is now. However, the Bible and its believers firmly claimed that the Bible argued that the universe had a Beginning. Now, via a 'new convergence' (his term, not mine, definitely not mine), the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that there was a Beginning- and it is the scientific world that has shifted.

Similarly, we could say that Schroeder's point with respect to quantum mechanics is not that quantum mechanics is miraculous in the same way as Elijah being carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, but that science until recently always claimed that causality was inviolate, that cause always preceded effect, whereas believers in the Bible insisted that there mechanisms by which effect could happen without cause, i.e. miracles. However, by the same 'new convergence', the Bible and science have come into qualitative agreement that causality is not inviolate. This is a much flimsier argument, though, and the original argument about Beginnings, which I just defended as being well-sounded by Schroeder, is rather flimsy and qualitative to begin with. There is the fact that the assertion about science and steady state hypotheses is less storybook-true than the theists would prefer, and there have always been 'scientific' theories about a beginning to the universe. I put 'scientific' in quotes because the problem for Schroeder's triumphalist narrative of science converging on the Bible is that until the 20th century there was no significant scientific evidence either for or against a Beginning of the universe, so any so-called scientific theories were just speculations with little basis. Even worse, there's the fact that seeing as many scientists, albeit with no real evidentiary basis, supposed the steady state hypothesis to be the truth, several great Rabbis, most famously Maimonides, tried to do what Schroeder attempts in The Science of God and reconcile the Bible with the steady state hypothesis. And likeweise in the centuries before the 20th, the majority of scientists were theists and believed in miracles, so it seems silly to claim a new convergence on the idea of cause not following effect as a vindication of the Torah over scientists.

Schroeder's problem gets even deeper when he leaves physics and moves on to tackle a proposed Jewish scientific approach to evolution. At least with physics, the basic effects are more or less understood in a quantitative way. There's a clear scientific consensus about the things he is talking about. Everyone agrees that the equations of relativity work in a specific way. The problem with evolution is that Schroeder is trying to prove that science agrees with the Bible, when science isn't even sure what it thinks!

It's inarguable that there are species that once existed and no longer do, and that these species have familial similarities with currently living beings that suggest that species change over time on a geological scale. It seems likely that one or some of the to this point poorly understand mechanisms of genetic mutation drive these changes that lead to speciation. But how this happens is not clear. Those Christians who argue against evolution in a scientific register make the argument that whole complex biological systems would seem to have been required to develop all at once, as it's implausible that partially developed versions of such systems would offer fitness advantages, an argument called 'irreducible complexity'. Schroeder is not interested in arguing against evolution, thankfully, or I would throw the book across the room. Irreducible complexity is a stupid, qualitative, sleight of hand argument. It looks at something really complicated, acting by mechanisms that we don't understand, and it concludes without evidence that since it can't figure out the mechanism, there must be no mechanism. Irreducible complexity is not something to place faith in. But it has a certain air of plausibliity to it. The truth is that we DON'T know where the human eye comes from, what kind of evolutionary mechanism might have had to occur for it to happen and how many steps there were along the way. And the plausibility of the irreducible complexity argument is a problem for Schroeder- if scientists cannot explain how these systems developed, how can he show that the scientific truth of how evolution works is in agreement with the Bible's description? Schroeder's general solution is to go through the counterarguments against all the current tentative hypotheses, as if to show that since none of them are right, the ultimately-to-be-discovered true explanation of evolution will necessarily have to agree with Genesis, since there is no known unresolvable incompatibility between the inarguable facts of evolution and the Torah, and in fact that the order in which God is described as creating different sorts of creatures in Genesis is in at least rough alignment with the current fossil evidence about the origin of species.

But this is much harder to show than Schroeder would like it to be, for all the reasons that Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books show so well- definitions of species and categorizations of species are not indisputable scientific truths, they're fuzzy categories applied by taxonomists for convenience. And this is both true in science and in the Bible, which each use different taxonomic categories because of their different purposes. In one notable place of conflict, Schroeder dispenses with the difficulty posed by Genesis 1:20 with a single sentence. Per NJPS: "And God said: 'Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl [עוֹף] fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.' " But this is too early, right after the appearance of liquid water, for birds to have evolved. Schroeder easily resolves this problem by retranslating עוֹף as 'flying creature', a translation he says is uncontroversial among Rabbis since צִפּוֹר is the true word for 'birds'. The truth is more complicated: The language the Torah uses does not align with modern scientific taxonomy, so it's not so simple to say that the Bible does not use עוֹף in the more specific sense. As R' Slifkin points out, as far as the Bible is concerned, winged creatures fall into only two taxons: kosher winged creatures, and unkosher winged creatures. Any further granularity is unnecessary. The idea of 'species' is not really in the picture. The idea of distinguishing between the dove and the bat by one of them being a mammal and one of them being an avian is not worth considering. This is not because the Torah is unscientific, it's because the Torah is not a 21st century science textbook! Most of the places where עוֹף is used in the Torah use the word as a figurative language where it doesn't matter whether it means bird or just winged creature, like several places in Daniel. So Schroeder could be right. But עוֹף is used in Leviticus, like in Leviticus 7:26, "And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl [ עוֹף ] or of beast, in any of your dwellings." In that verse, clearly it must be referring to birds more or less as we currently understand them, since it's talking about the laws of kashrut and non-bird flying things are not kosher, so nobody would possibly think the verse is suggesting that you would consider eating the blood of generic winged creatures. So while resolving the scientific discrepancy as Schroeder does is possible, it is not incontrovertible the way he suggests it is.

Beyond the argument for alignment, Schroeder attempts, even less successfully in my opinion, an argument against 'randomness' in evolution. I put 'randomness' in quotes because it remains unclear to me exactly what principle Schroeder is objecting to, other than pure materialism in general. According to Schroeder's 'randomness' paradigm, every time a DNA transcription error occurs, it is like a four sided coin is being flipped. Some almost completely hypothetical number of such coin flips must go in the correct way, over a certain period of time, for new biological pathways to be installed in a genome. I don't think this is the right way to think about evolutionary statistics, as I've said before. The probabilistic alternative isn't no change, it's a different change.

That is to say, suppose we play a game with a four sided die. I tell you, "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey kiss, if it rolls anything else, nothing happens." That's the game Schroeder is imagining. Now suppose we play a different game: I tell you "If it rolls a 4, I'll give you a Hershey's kiss. If it rolls a three, I'll give you a Mounds bar. If it rolls a two, I'll give you a bag of M&M's. If it rolls a one, nothing happens." That's the game as I see it. The probability of getting a Hershey Kiss is the same in both games. But the meaning of getting a Hershey Kiss is different. If you start with the end result: I have a Hershey kiss in my hand... then you can calculate and say it's a fairly improbable event. There was only a 25% chance of it happening. But if you asked what the probability of something happy-making happening was, it's 75%. The difference is considering the possibility of other different but positive outcomes.

Both Schroeder's arguments on the Big Bang and evolution are buttressed by the book's biggest and most notable construction, which is to use General Relativity and a 'universal' non-Earth based frame of reference to construct a relativistic time clock for Creation. Essentially, if you plot the temperature of the cosmic background radiation on a polar natural log plot with the time constant being the expansion rate of the universe, you get the time dilation of time on Earth relative to time at the beginning of Time itself. This works out to roughly six logarithmic time half-periods. Depending on how you calculate the expansion rate of the universe, obviously, which is in some dispute, so it could be five and it could be seven, I guess. Each of these successive time periods is roughly half the length of the previous, in the Earth's current relativistic frame of reference. The result is that if you call each of these periods a 'Day' for Torah purposes, each successive day is zooming in closer and closer on the story of Earth and humankind. (In a really weird moment, Schroeder says "I do not claim my calculation is any more accurate than +/-20%", which is weird because what is he asking you to believe? That when Hashem composed the Bible, what was actually meant was "And it was evening, and it was morning, Day 1 +/- 20%""??? More likely he's asking you to take on faith that since his calculation came close, as science refines its calculation of the age of the universe it will get closer and closer to his cosmic clock, but this is the same problem I complained about with Dawkins and Gould. Being close but not quite there sometimes means you're close to true understanding, but it sometimes means you're missing some important factor. In my lifetime as a scientist, I have been off by 20% for some pretty colossally important reasons.)

Schroeder uses this idea of a cosmic relativity clock to claim that the various events that happen on each Genesis Day align with the events that scientists believe happened in each time period. The similarities he finds are compelling and fascinating, but not convincing, because the science is not certain enough for it to be convincing. Scientists think that life appeared about 500 million years ago, based on radiation dating of the earliest fossils and hypothesizing about the nature of the origin of life. This aligns with Schroeder's clock reasonably well, but this scientific idea is based on us not finding earlier fossils and not finding any calculation errors in our radiation dating, and all sorts of assumptions that are not set in stone, as it were. Darwinian gradualism, which scientists now think is generally implausible, was a plausible interpretation of the fossil record as it stood when Darwin was writing, and it is the quite-recent discovery of further components of the fossil record that has cast doubt on the idea of gradual evolution. Furthermore, there are some types of creature that because of body type cannot be discovered in the fossil record- our knowledge of their evolution is much weaker. If the science refines its calculations and pushes some events out of one period into the next, is Schroeder going to be sunk on his reliance on in-progress science? Defenders of Genesis's primacy can't be dependent on the latest science. They can point to it to show it holds no contradictions, perhaps but they can't assert it as a truth on its own because it's built on assumptions and suppositions. Schroeder's cosmic clock is not a dependable proof of Hashem's creation, just a cute game to tease people with.

And furthermore, have you tried reading Nachmanides's commentary on Genesis? It's incredibly hard to read and interpret and most of the time I have no clue what it's saying. If you actually read Schroeder against Ramban, as I did this time, you realize that what he's pointing to as uncanny similarities with the scientific narrative are small sections carefully selected from the account. That's not an accusation of deceitful manipulation on Schroeder's part, mind. He uses all the comprehensible parts and his translations seem reasonably fair to me. It's just that so much of Ramban's understanding of Genesis is not part of Schroeder's schematic, because so much of Ramban is abstruse metaphysics pointing toward, apparently, the hidden Torah of Genesis he's not allowed to discuss. Much of the Ramban's commentary on Genesis, Artscroll's Ramban Chumash refuses to translate because it considers it to be Kabbalah not meant for the common reader. It's hardly worth the effort of keeping it secret, though, because when I try translating it on my own it makes no sense to me. One wonders if in a hundred years, with advancements in cosmology, a new generation of Schroeders will be struggling to explain how those incomprehensible Kabbalistic passages correlate to the new theory of the start of the universe.

The truth as I see it is that the Torah is its own greatest defender. The words of Genesis have an evocative power that speaks to me and testifies to its own truth, and that is the truth I see echoed in the commentaries of the great Gedolim of Jewish history, of Rashi and Rambam and Ramban and Rif and Ibn Ezra and so on. All the answer Ramban need have provided to Rashi's question, if you ask me, is that the Torah began with Genesis to prove that God's creation matters. To tell us that it is a challenge to all Jews to try to ask questions about God's universe, and to wonder where it came from and how it came into being. The Torah is blessing scientific pursuit and linking it to the mitzvot. Reading further into the words of Genesis is worthwhile without having any expectation of revelation of the great secrets of the text. Still, fifteen year old me appreciated that Schroeder made the effort even if he didn't really get anywhere solid. Thirty one year old me wonders how he got as far as he did without questioning the effort.

Ultimately, what Schroeder reassures me of is not that Nachmanides's evocation of Creation is convincing or accurate, but that there is a plausible reconcilation. I don't need the specific reconciliation. I've never needed the specific reconciliation- God as Jews understand God is not a falsifiable proposition. But the ideas Schroeder lays out, though I don't believe them, suggest that at least a similar approach might actually be accurate. Or not, I don't really know where science will go in its explorations of God's universe.

So going forward, when friends ask me for books to read about Judaism and science, I do not think I will continue to recommend The Science of God. I think instead I will invite them to join me at a bar over a beer to talk about Judaism and science. I am in a place right now where I don't have all the answers, but I think that might be the more productive way to advance the conversation.

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(no subject) [Aug. 23rd, 2016|10:33 pm]
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The Big Short directed by Adam McKay

There are times, and now is one of them, when I have the sense that most of the success of the Judd Apatow empire is the result of Adam McKay being a comic genius.

So... The Big Short is a parody of Moneyball. All of my problems with Moneyball? Adam McKay is aware of them and he devotes considerable effort to lampooning them. (He also minors in lampooning Scorsese's appalling Wolf of Wall Street, a movie I couldn't endure past the first half hour.) One of The big Short's most arresting scenes involves Margot Robbie, the actress from Wolf of Wall Street, sitting naked in a bubble bath and talking about collateralized debt obligations. This scene serves multiple purposes. At its most obvious, it is a commentary on the impossibility of this movie: Nobody can make CDOs sexy. They are fundamentally, deliberately unsexy. Even when shot in the most horribly sexist, objectifying way, even when oversimplifying the explanation in the most horrendously condescending way, Margot Robbie cannot make CDOs an interesting subject. And in making this point, McKay brilliantly casts shade on Wolf of Wall Street, which tried to be a cautionary tale of Wall Street greed and excess and instead got caught up in trying to sell the excess, trying to sell the sex and drugs, trying to sell the pleasure as the entertainment to pair with the moralizing. But thirdly, the scene is a brilliant summation of what Michael Lewis tries to do. He tries to make CDOs sexy, to depict them in a way that people will find entertaining.

But this is bullshit. How do we know it's bullshit? Adam McKay has Brad Pitt (of Moneyball Brad Pitt!) explain it to us in clear terms: Celebrating the bears who created the big short is heinous, not because they didn't have a right to do it, not because they don't deserve the money, but because what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy and the ruination of many, many lives.

The Big Short begins with the smugness that characterizes every word out of Princeton Man Michael Lewis's pen, but it takes every opportunity to puncture it. It depicts scenes using Lewis's credulously oversimplified dialogue, scenes you can't believe happened as described, but you can certainly believe that the people interviewed simplified the dialogue in retelling it to Lewis, who then reported it as the gospel truth- and just as you're rolling your eyes thinking here Lewis goes again, Ryan Gosling shows up, breaks the fourth wall, and says "None of this actually happened like this." It's an incredibly striking effect to deconstruct the easy narrative.

The heroes of The Big Short are not heroes. There are no heroes in The Big Short. That doesn't mean you can't sympathize with them, sympathize with Steve Carell's fund manager trying to stick it to Wall Street in a misplaced crusade to right unrightable wrongs or sympathize with Christian Bale's brilliantly weird hedge fund manager trying to persuade his clients to hold on just long enough to actually benefit from the crisis he sees as unavoidable in the numbers, but you can't call what they do heroic. There is a lot of great acting here, but it is not in service to a feel-good story.

But I worry, because not everyone is as jaded about Michael Lewis as I am. My sense from skimming reviews is that not everyone understood that this movie was a parody of Moneyball. Not everyone got that the scene where Anthony Bourdain compares CDOs to fish or the scene where Selena Gomez talks about synthetic CDOs are not serious efforts to explain the financial market, they're jokes about how understanding the financial market isn't something you do by watching a movie, or by reading a Michael Lewis book. And not everyone will recognize that the moralizing the movie engages in in its rather impressive gut-punch ending is also leavened by the humor: Adam McKay is preaching at you about fixing the markets, but he's also preaching at you about saving our consumerist society. He's not preaching an easy salvation, that there's some obvious regulation you can get Congress to pass that will stop this from happening again, he's preaching for smart people and moral people to talk to each other and figure out how to create a system where evil people and dumb people can't win. By doing the hard and complicated work that the movie is unwilling to do. By not being stupid, by not listening to Michael Lewis tell us how it all happened and how easy it was to see the signs if you were only Christian Bale. By working within the recognition that in order for a solution to happen, it has to acknowledge that everyone in the world is rightly working toward their own self-interest.

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