Archive for the 'Self-indulgent Academic Rumination' Category

Suggestions for your periodical reading list

Posted by on Jun 29 2011 | Media, Press, Self-indulgent Academic Rumination

(David Kopel)

Although on-line reading continues to grow, many people still enjoy old-fashioned printed periodicals. In the spirit of gratuitous advice, here are some suggestions for print subscriptions.

First of all, if you’re conscientious about registering for the frequent flyer program every time you step on an airplane, you may accumulate a few thousand points on various airlines which you fly only occasionally. You’ll never get to the level of a free ticket, but the points expire if you don’t use them. So use them for magazine subscriptions. I’ve been enjoying the daily Wall Street Journal that way for several years, and have used low-level points for dozens of other year-long or half-year subscriptions over the past decades.

Second, there’s a lot to be said for trying many different periodicals with one-time subscriptions. You may find a magazine that becomes indispensable for you (as The New Republic was for me, for about 15 years), but just reading something for a year or a half-year can broaden your knowledge, and then you can move on to something else.

Some category recommendations:

Newsweeklies: Back in the olden days of the 1970s, these were truly great. Then, the daily New York Times wasn’t available outside of the New York area, and the Wall Street Journal was sparse on non-business news. Time and Newsweek, and to a lesser extent U.S. News & World Report, provided in-depth, thoroughly-reported stories of the major issue of the week, the deep inside of presidential campaigns, and so on. These days, it’s hard to make a case for reading the remnants of those once-important magazines.

The Economist is still probably the most influential periodical in the world. If you read its U.S. coverage, you’ll quickly discover that the analysis is not nearly so sharp and insightful as the omniscient tone would imply, and that the coverage has numerous blind spots and biases. Knowing how flawed the U.S. coverage is makes me question The Economist’s accuracy on topics for which I don’t know enough to judge the coverage. So in a sense, the less you know about something, the more useful The Economist is. For example, the latest issue had an article explaining that Poland is going full speed ahead with natural gas development via fracking. Because I previously had never thought about Polish natural gas, I learned a lot by reading the article. Overall, The Economist is still a strong source for weekly world news, as long as you don’t take its editorial judgements too seriously.

If you read French, Courrier International is definitely worth a trial subscription. This Paris-based weekly takes stories from newspapers all over the world, and translates them into French. You’ll get acquainted with many fine newspapers. I ultimately gave up on Courrier because their story and source selection leaned so heavily to the official left. If the choice is between a particular nation’s version of The Guardian vs. The Telegraph, Courrier almost always goes with the former. Their special issues were particularly tendentious and one-sided. But since tastes vary, I’d recommend that people who read French give it a try.

Le Figaro, one of the leading French daily newspapers, publishes a weekly edition for a U.S. audience. It’s well-written, and has good coverage of all the Francophone world, including African analysis that is hard to find in U.S. papers. As with The Economist and Courrier International, there’s also plenty of European news that you won’t find in the U.S. dailies. Le Figaro is right-wing by French standards, which places its approximately in the same zone as the New York Times. Le Monde, which is left-wing by French standards, also has a weekly; I’ve read occasional issues, but never subscribed, and, ideology aside, Le Figaro has bigger print and better layout.

Business and Finance: If you’re a law student, or in the same general age group, the time to start learning about business and investing is now. Don’t wait until you’ve saved $50,000 in a 401(k)  and have to figure out where to put it. The sooner you start reading and thinking about investing and business, the more you’ll see fads and bubbles come and go, and the less likely you’ll be to invest foolishly 25 years from now, or to allow yourself to be led around by a self-dealing financial advisor. Besides, whatever kind of lawyer you become (or whatever other career), you’ll almost certainly be more useful to clients and yourself if you have some background knowledge of business–whether you’re serving as a volunteer on the Board of a small non-profit, or urging your friend not to spend his life savings on program trading.

Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week remain the big three of the business magazines. Give each of them a try, and pick your favorite. I life Forbes, for excellent writing, and its pro-capitalist orientation. Barron’s is worth a trial subscription. It’s purely about investing, not about business in general. For a person just starting to think about the stock markets and other financial investments, Barron’s is a good choice. You may not want the avalance of daily information that comes in the Wall Street Journal or Investor’s Business Daily. Rather, in the learning stage, you may be better off with the weekly perspective. Especially useful are the big articles which provide the viewpoints of numerous experts on a major topic (e.g., how will the economy perform in the next 12 months?). As you’ll find, experts, even well-qualified and sincere ones, are often wrong about economic predictions. One of the reasons to start reading the business/finance press early in life is to develop a healthy skepticism about following any single expert’s advice.

Money is OK if you know absolutely nothing about money, and have to start at the very beginning.

New York City:  If you’ve ever lived there, it’s fun to stay in touch. Of course the New York Times takes care of this for plenty of readers who used to live in The City, but there are other options. New York magazine is lively and interesting, and captures the NY feel in a way that the Times doesn’t. It also sometimes has strong reporting on national politics. Also worth trying is the weekly New York Observer newspaper, which has great coverage of state and city politics. As with New York, the political slant is firmly to the left, but the factual reporting can sometimes be very good. The New Yorker remains, for eight decades running, the best cartoon magazine in the world. It has, unfortunately, also become a favorite vehicle for character assassination–sort of a highbrow version of ProgressNow. I’d trust its non-fiction articles only on topics which don’t involve U.S. politics.

Legal newspapers: Especially if you can get a law student discount subscription, the National Law Journal (general national news), Legal Times (D.C. focus), and American Lawyer (corporate lawyers) are all worth trying. The same goes for any local/regional law paper in your area, such as New York Law Journal. Because of the Internet, none of these are probably as influential as they were 20 years ago, but they’re still a good way to diversify your diet of legal news.

Daily newspaper: Coverage of legal issues in the mainstream daily press is typically horrible, with stories tending to concentrate only on who won or lost, while leaving the reader in the dark about the precise legal issue in dispute. But for general coverage of the state where you live, there is still nothing that comes remotely close to the daily newspaper. So if you live in the Denver area, you ought to be a daily reader the Denver Post; in Dallas,  the Dallas Morning News, and so on. Yes, those papers can be biased and selective, but they’re still far superior to any other single source for state and local coverage.

On top of that, I’d recommend a high-quality national newspaper. In other words, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. The Times has a much larger “news hole,” except for business news. But the Journal’s new stories are much less likely to be DNC opinion essays misplaced in the news section. While both papers are well-written, the Journal is better-written. And the Journal’s Friday/Saturday culture and leisure coverage has gotten quite good. For the Times, I’d recommend a partial weekly subscription (e.g., Monday to Friday), rather than the Sunday paper. You’ll get a better variety of stories in the weekday editions, and the weekly special section on Science and Technology is sometimes excellent.  The Sunday Times does have the Book Review, which is now more important than ever, given the harsh cutbacks in book reviews at almost every other newspaper. But you can always subscribe to the Book Review separately, if it’s important to you.

For a change of pace, London’s Financial Times can sometimes be obtained with airline points. Like the Wall Street Journal, it’s a business newspaper which covers lots of regular news, and some culture. And of course plenty of U.K. news. The editorial viewpoint might, roughly speaking, be considered somewhat similar to The Economist: supportive of free markets and globalization in general, but not at all afraid of big government activism.

Gun Week: Despite the title, published tri-monthly by the Second Amendment Foundation. Pre-Internet, the indispensible source of news on the firearms industry and the gun control issue. Even today, the best single source for people who follow the topic closely.

Bonus on-line reading: One of the big differences between the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times is reporting on the United Nations. The Journal has done excellent investigative reporting on the U.N. The Times has also done some good work, as in coverage of the “peacekeeping” fiasco in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Times coverage of U.N. HQ often consists of running p.r. interference on behalf of the U.N. For daily coverage of the U.N., by far the best source in the world is the indefatigable Matthew Lee, of the on-line Inner City Press. Lee’s personal viewpoint is definitely from the Left, but he is relentless at digging into the corruption, lies, and human rights abuses perpetrated by an organization which too often escapes serious journalistic scrutiny, all the more so because of budget cuts in international coverage in most of the rest of the media. To his credit, the United Nations Development Programme temporarily convinced Google News to disappear Inner City Press.

p.s.: In response to some of the comments: Legal Times and National Law Journal merged last year; all the more reason for law students to give NLJ a chance, I guess. The above periodicals are only a small fraction of the periodicals to which I subscribe, and those to which I’ve subscribed in the past. Not included are categories including public affairs (e.g., Mother Jones, Natonal Review, Reason), Congress (National Journal etc.), hobby/lifestyle (Sky & Telescope), sports (Field & Stream), or scholarly journals. I’ll write about some of those when mood strikes.


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Understanding Inception

Posted by on Jul 27 2010 | Self-indulgent Academic Rumination, Space Law

(David Kopel)

Inception is a great movie. Perhaps one of the greatest of all time. You should see it without reading reviews, or learning anything about the film beforehand. For those of you who have seen it, some thoughts about various meanings are below the fold.

First some resources: Six Interpretations and Five Plot Holes, by Peter Hall. Cinema Blend has a helpful FAQ and glossary. TechEBlog provides a useful graphic of the dream levels. To keep things straight, let’s adopt their terminology of level 1 (“reality”; takes place in Paris, Mombassa, the airplane cabin), level 2 (dream of the kidnapping of Fischer), level 3 (hotel dream), level 4 (ice world dream), and level 5 (“limbo,” perhaps; Cobb & Mal’s beach city, and Saito’s oriental mansion).

As the above sources details, there are some plot holes which seems difficult to resolve. There are two meta-explanations: One, the movie-makers made mistakes. Two, the incongruities are clues to what’s really happening. Namely that everything in the movie is a dream.

The all-dream theory is well-developed in this essay by Devin Faraci of C.H.U.D., comparing Inception to Fellini’s 8 ½, a film about making a film. It’s not at all a cop-out, in the sense of Fifties-era Superman comics in which Superman marries Lois, but then the whole episode turns out to be Lois’s dream.  In support of the all-dream theory, Faraci points out that the chase scene in Mombassa (which is supposed to be at level 1, Reality), ends with Cobb being trapped between two walls that are closing in (classic anxiety dream), and then rescued by Saito, who just happens to pull up in a car at the right moment. Further thoughts on Inception as a movie about movie-making here, by Maria Bustillos. 

When you think about it, the whole Mombassa chase sequence (which reminded me of the chase sequence at the beginning of Disney’s Aladdin) is quite unrealistic, although it’s the kind of chase sequence we accept as “real” in movies. And there’s plenty of other stuff on Reality level 1 that, on second thought, doesn’t seem very plausible in real life. For example, Saito buys a transpacific airline in a few days. Really? Buying an international airline usually takes longer than that.

I differ from Faraci in his conclusion that the final scene proves that Cobb is still dreaming. The ending is deliberately ambiguous. We don’t know if the top will fall. While it’s true that Cobb’s children are playing in the same place, and in the same posture as when Cobb last saw them, and wearing the same clothes, they are wearing different shoes, and they are played by different actors. Further, Cobb wears a wedding ring when dreaming, but not when in level 1, and at the end of the movie, he has no wedding ring. However, none of these facts are decisive proof that level 1 itself is not a dream. They’re just proof that the movie ends on level 1.

Now if the whole film is a dream, one might say that Cobb has just decided to stay in dreamspace, hanging out with his children and father. The story arc is about Cobb progressing from being tortured by doubts about what is real, to being content with being happy and not worrying about reality. One might theorize that Mal was correct in discerning that level 1 is still a dream; she escaped, and the movie concludes with Cobb achieving peace about his decision to stay behind in dreamworld level 1.

Fair enough. But here’s an alternate understanding. Cobb, the guy whose dream we’re watching, is not in true Reality (level 0) a professional dreamer who can get into other people’s dreams. He’s just a regular guy having a very elaborate dream. And it happens to be a dream in which Cobb learns some important lessons about himself, and Reality. When Fischer wakes up on the plane, Fischer knows that there was not really a pinwheel in his father’s bedside safe. But finding the dream pinwheel has helped Fischer grow emotionally, and make progress in his own real life. There is an obvious parallel between Fischer’s cathartic confrontation with his personal demons on level 4 (ice world) and Cobb’s confrontations on level 5 (getting rid of Mal, and—with Saito—remembering to come back to Reality). A more subtle point is that Cobb is continuing this process of discovery, of personal reintegration, when he returns to level 1; there, the barriers that have kept him apart from his children disappear, and he reintegrates into his family. When he wakes up, eventually, into level 0, he will have all the insights he gained from dream levels 1–5.

Maybe real-life Cobb has been feeling bad because he wife walked out on him. Or maybe his real-life anxieties have nothing to do with a spouse. Someone named “Mal” can represent all kinds of pernicious influences or obstacles. Is Ariadne (who in Greek mythology gave Theseus the string which he used to escape the Minotaur’s maze, and who in Inception creates the maze for Fischer which will lead him out of his own mental prison) a projection of the part of Cobb’s personality that he needs to help him escape from Mal? Is she his real-life psychotherapist?

The real answer is that we don’t know the meta-story around the movie, but we do know that the movie invites us into the creative process of creating the meta-story, and there is not necessarily only one true answer.

One can reduce Inception to a didactic 1969-style moral like “There’s no reality. Just whatever makes you happy.” And it’s also true that no-one can fully answer the movie’s “Am I dreaming?” question, namely “How did I get here?” You may have scattered memories from when you were a baby, but those memories could just indicate a very long dream. However, blithe unconcern for reality vs. unreality is not entirely consistent with Cobb’s realization that Mal and he needed to escape from their fifty-year excursion in level 5.

More broadly, Inception plants many diverse ideas in the audience—multiple ideas for every person who sees it. Like the characters in the airplane sequence, when we watch the movie we experience a shared conscious dream. Like almost all performance artworks, Inception is a deception; it is an unreal artistic construct which we choose to believe for a while, in order to find a deeper understanding of reality.

Inception is not only about dreaming, but also an optimistic invitation to awaken to the creative possibilities of sharing imaginations—as some people do when participating in the creation of a film, and as we all can do with our diverse talents when we share our dreams with others, and they share ours.


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The use of this feed on other websites breaches copyright. If this content is not in your news reader, it makes the page you are viewing an infringement of the copyright. )

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