Brush up on your Serbian

Serbia’s public broadcaster, RTS (that’s PTC in cyrillic) has a good chunk of its archive spread across multiple YouTube channels, and it is magnificent (this one in particular).

Observe the 1960s-1990s televised plays and TV dramas. I still have vivid memories of watching one particular product the first time it aired, about a Serbian family keeping in touch with their ex-pat relatives in Germany via VHS tapes. Replace camcorders with smart phones and speed up the timeline to account for the internet, and it could have been shot today. Technology changes, people don’t.

My favorite childhood TV show hasn’t aged well at all; then again has anything from the ‘90s? If you consider most of it was made during a civil war and in a time of hyperinflation it is actually quite good. What was 90210’s excuse? Better kids’ shows have been made in Serbia both before and after.

Best for last: the celebration of hard core nerddom that is Serbia’s longest-running quiz show, important enough to have its own channel. It starts with anagrams and math problems, makes a detour to Mastermind, then finishes off with three different ways to test for trivia. Jokes about the autism spectrum would be writing themselves if this were an American show, but it’s not, and (before I left, at least) Serbian viewers still had some admiration for the participants. It is all very serious and competitive, and has been on the air every weekday for the last 24 years. (A political side-note: this does not mean Serbia is free from anti-intellectualism, quite the opposite in fact. Some combination of militant anti-intellectuals, gas-lighters, and proponents of economic/financial scientism has been in positions of power since the early 90s. There are no lessons here, just observations).

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A few unpopular (in certain circles) opinions from a person who has no rights having them

For better or worse, the American system of government is strong. Those who say otherwise have a financial interest in people thinking the opposite.

Culturally, US has more similarities with Iran than with Saudi Arabia, even if you count religion and religiosity as part of culture. The Christian right is working hard to make them even more similar.

Though still quite hard, it’s easier for a high-skilled immigrant to come to America than to any other country in the world. Comparison is even more favorable for low-skilled and unskilled immigrants. For all of them, quality of life, acceptance, and protection they get are better than anywhere else.

The randomness of the Green Card lottery process is a feature not a bug.

Reading the non-fiction sections of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and whatever their conservative equivalents are, is good for generating fake insight but ultimately pointless. The Economist is useful for a tiny segment of the population but lets be real: if you’re reading this you are not it.

The only useful section in the daily newspapers is Local. Maybe Sports, if you are into that sort of thing, but professional and college sports are a scam so stick with the amateur leagues.

TSA agents and airline personnel are nice people but some passengers check out their brains at the curb and make everyone’s lives less pleasant.

Apple hardware products are underpriced for what you get but do you actually need what they offer? This doesn’t include the AirPods, which are the best thing Apple has made in the last 20 years and still underpriced; though they unfortunately resemble in both name and appearance a mind control method from Doctor Who S2 and paired with a smart phone are not far from it.

The world doesn’t need another IPA. America needs more tripels.

This is all coming from a non-immigrant resident alien with no expertise in politics, international law, transportation, or technology. I do know beer though.

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Voices in my head, 2018 edition

(voices as in podcasts, not a psychotic episodes)

  • Conversations with Tyler: I much prefer this over his mostly spartan, often cryptic, and always clueless about things medical blog Marginal revolution. Cowen‘s interview style brings out the best from people; it is also a good and rare example of clear thinking. Compare and contrast his chat with Malcolm Gladwell and Patrick Collison’s chat with Cowen: when answering, Gladwell uhms and ahhs and changes direction mid-sentence; Cowen pauses for a half-second, then produces paragraphs of prose that could have been lifted right out of an encyclopedia. Not to belittle Gladwell — for one, I’d be even worse (as anyone who had to finish my sentences for me can confirm); and two, he is responsible for
  • Revisionist history: He had me at Food Fight. Gladwell embraces and owns his Well, actually kind of story-telling — even the show’s name is a big Well, actually to the Gladwell-haters. And good for him, because the stories are marvelous in both topic and style, and make me want to read his books again.
  • Sources and methods: Two ex-spies talk about learning and cognition. They are still in intelligence-gathering mode, interviewing guests you‘re unlikely to hear anywhere else. It’s how I learned about Tinderbox (and you can too).
  • America the bilingual: One part pep-talk to encourage the pre-1990s waves of immigrants to America to take up a second language, one part advice to parents raising multilingual children. The latter validated my plan to ~~save money~~ strengthen the offspring’s Serbian by shipping them across the Atlantic to spend some quality time with the grandparents.
  • Novel targets: Finishing of the list of men talking to each other is the best oncology podcast I’ve come across. It may be heavily slanted towards immunotherapy, and not zealous enough in dampening the hype, but it tries.
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The hero with a thousand faces

What you do is you take as many fairy-tales and myths and other stories as you can — Campbell is extraordinarily good at collecting them — then squint and trace out the patterns. Us humans are very good at finding patterns where none exist (just ask Percival Lowell), so it is no wonder that we end up with an overarching story, albeit disjointed, which is — of course it is — steeped in New Age monism.

Plot twist: unlike similar attempts in other arts, this one becomes wildly successful, serving as a template for other stories that end up following it more closely than any of the tales of old ever did (see Kevin Garvey’s literal and metaphorical travails for the most recent example). I like The Leftovers, so I would say The Hero… is a net benefit for the civilization. It just wasn’t for me.

Full disclosure: I stopped reading the book near the end of the first (of two) sections, the one about The Hero’s Journey. I therefore never got to the Cosmogonic cycle, and cannot comment. Do let me know if there was a surprise ending.

Written by Joseph Campbell, 2008

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50/50 👍

An oncologist(?), a psychologist, and a surgeon give master classes on unprofessional behavior while treating JGL and his unfortunately named tumor. Even though only one of the three was meant to look bad in the movie, they each break a fundamental rule of the doctor-patient relationship: don’t be a douchebag, don’t sleep with the patient, don’t tell them everything will be fine when you have no clue. Cut out the profanities, and you’d have a semester’s worth of medical ethics discussions.

Cut out the profanities, though, and you’ll miss half the movie. Seth Rogen — a dirty old man trapped inside Fozzy the Bear — does what he’s been doing ever since Judd Apatow found him, heart of gold included. Fortunately, 50/50 has better timing than anything to come out from the Apatow cringe factory, and even has a point.

Medical miscellanea: was the diagnosing physician a medical oncologist, neurologist, neurosurgeon, or an orthopedic surgeon? Likely not the first, else he wouldn’t give neoadjuvant cytarabine for a sarcoma, and probably not the latter two since another, overoptimistic MD does the actual surgery. Can a psychologist perform interviews for what she admits will be her PhD thesis without getting informed consent? How can a surgeon say with any certainty that “everything will be fine” minutes after performing what she admitted to be a difficult operation for a tumor with a relapse rate north of 50%. You know, the 50% that gave the movie its name.

Still, thumbs up.

Directed by Jonathan Levine, 2011

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Doctor Strange 👎

Inception for the Disney Franchise Age of American cinema. Trying to be deliberately inoffensive to a particular class of consumer, it dodges Mickeydom’s most glorious moments of cultural sensitivity only to fall on the sword of blandness. But credit where it is due — it takes talent to make a trippy 60s comic book that’s oddly relevant in today’s world of magic mystery turmoil into a boring, predictable, dull, uninspired, yawn-inducing, delta wave-producing, paint-by-numbers origin story.

And if you thought only the Strange-ness was fumbled you must not be a doctor, because his day job features the most laughable medicine this side of the Human Centipede. Though I shouldn’t complain too much — I imagine aerospace engineers cringe an order of magnitude more when watching any other Marvel miracle.

Thumbs down.

Directed by Scott Derrickson, 2016

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Black Swan 👍

Every ballet metaphor told and/or written by dancers, visualized: you don’t feel like a swan, you become one; competitiveness means murdering the competition; and liberating yourself from constraints is suicide. It is on the nose and at times painful to watch, but I would not expect anything else from the master of the afterschool special.

Portman is a pro: she gets you to swallow the banal white swan/black swan analogy whole, and ask for more, goes through every exercise in Aronofsky’s mental torture playbook like it’s nothing, and looks believably cool and composed until she believably isn’t. Watching her in this movie makes a certain trilogy an even bigger crime against directing.

Thumbs up.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2010

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Stoker

Derivative drivel.

Directed by Chan-wook Park, 2013

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La La Land

A solid attempt in recreating musical films of old that succeeds in all the technical details — the cuts are smoother, the camera livelier, the sets more real — but fails in a thing that matters more: talent. Literally anyone (yes, anyone) from the cast of Hamilton would have been a better choice for Bigeye’s partner. Heck, Justin Timberlake would have made more sense, being a human being of actual musical ability, and if you are forcing me to recommend Curly for a role in your movie, your have miscalculated horribly.

The only way Gosling would possibly have made sense was if you were making a point that anyone could sing, but then don’t make the character a musician, and better don’t do that movie at all since it had already been done much better on TV 15 years ago by a man who knows his musicals. And this is clearly not what Chazelle was trying to do, what with him incorporating high-level bizarre dance numbers and movie-making subplots reminiscent of the greatest American movie ever made.

Emma Stone is a real jewel, though.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, 2016

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Birdman

A faux-continuos shot of a washed-up superhero movie star trying to stage a Broadway comeback. The way it plays with space and time is admirable, and the law company of Keaton, Norton & Stone does their job with perfection, but the subject matter is so far up Hollywood’s large intestine that Birdman should best be compared to another well-known continuous shot.

It is on-your-nose pretentious, and artsy by design, yet too loaded with contemporary references to become timeless. Its one deep message — the one about criticism — was much better stated, and with a more positive attitude, a decade ago in an animated film about a rat. Iñárritu must have made it on a dare.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014

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