Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘pop culture’ Category

Mad Men, the American Women’s Movement, and the Rest of History

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by David (spoiler alerts)

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once offered eight tips for writing. My favourite was the last one:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This is pretty much how I feel about tonight’s final episode of AMC’s Mad Men. There is no cliffhanger. We are not hanging on the edge of our seats. We want to see what “happens” to the characters, but we sort of already know. And that’s ok. Because it doesn’t really matter. And that’s because the protagonist of Mad Men is not any one character, but American history itself.

Mad Men began as a show about Don Draper, creative director of a NYC advertising firm, and the people around him. Draper represented both sides of the American dream/nightmare, a con artist and an adulterer, but handsome and smart and charismatic enough to succeed in New York’s world of advertising in the 1960s. The best thing about Don was how he never succumbed to the racism and antisemitism he saw around him. He could be a sleazeball, but he seemed to conclude that those sorts of prejudices would only get in the way of his ambition.

After a few seasons, however, Don became boring, almost insufferably so. His former secretary, Peggy, became far more compelling, the real embodiment of the American dream, of feminist success in a man’s world world she made her own. Very quickly, the women of the show, Peggy, Joan, and Betty, became more interesting than the men, who stayed on almost as comic relief. That’s because the story of the 1960s belonged to them.

In the world that Matt Weiner and his writers created, women’s struggles in the workforce represented the driving force of the narrative. Other important events occurred: JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War. As viewers, we always asked ourselves: how is Mad Men going to incorporate this or that moment in history? Because in the final analysis, though we learned to love and care about the characters, what we were really watching was American history unfold through the lens of the white-collar working woman’s struggle. That struggle is not over, but we know the way it progresses, even if we don’t know specifically how it will go for Joan, Betty, Peggy, and the others. And this lack of a cliffhanger is an achievement of the show, not a flaw.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 17, 2015 at 18:50

On Anne Frank and Justin Bieber

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by David

Though teen pop sensation Justin Bieber is a fellow Canadian, I’m not usually in the business of defending him. I do not have “Bieber fever.” I can’t say I know any of his work, except for “Baby” featuring Ludacris, a song so catchy you’d have to be without a soul not to hum along. I know Bieber hails from western Ontario, I know that he was discovered on youtube, and I know that there is a website dedicated to lesbians who look just like him.

So I was pretty surprised when Bieber came up today in the context of every Jewish studies student and scholar’s favourite inescapable topic: the Holocaust.

You see, apparently Bieber and buddies were over in Amsterdam, and they decided to pay an after hours visit to the Anne Frank House (presumably they weren’t baked at the time). Anne Frank House is museum set up in the house where Anne Frank, the most famous victim of the Holocaust, stayed hidden for two years in the early 1940s. The teenage girl chronicled her life in her famous diary before the Nazis finally captured her and sent her to a concentration camp. I visited Anne Frank House in 2001. It’s a pretty moving place. And apparently Bieber was moved too, so moved that he left this note in the museum’s guest book:

Truly Inspring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

At first glance, this story seemed more like an incident from a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, a show with a distinguished record of hilarious Holocaust humour. It mixed the solemn with the silly so effectively it had to be some kind of joke, right? But no, it was the real life Justin Bieber expressing his genuine feelings after visiting Anne Frank House. He hoped she would have been one of his screaming, adoring fans. A belieber. So what are we to make of this?

Many have remarked that Bieber displayed an amazing degree of narcissism. He went to a museum that highlighted the horros of the Holocaust, and yet he made his reaction all about him, indeed, all about his celebrity. Unbeliebable!

And yet, and yet… here’s the other thing. Justin Bieber may have been right.

If you look at Anne Frank’s journal, later titled The Diary of a Young Girlyou’ll notice how incredibly normal she was. Frank was, in many ways, your typical teenager. She cared about her appearance. She had a crush on a boy hidden with her. She complained of boredom. She gave gifts to her family. She was aware of the latest fashion and literature and music. And so, in another setting, in another lifetime, Anne Frank might very well have been a belieber.

Inadvertently, through his arrogant and asinine message, Justin Bieber reasserted and clarified the central message of the diary. Frank should be remembered for her resilience, for her nobility in the face of mortal danger. She was indeed “a great girl.” But she was great precisely because she made her life so relatable, even under a Nazi occupation to which few can relate. Her diary is an account of her struggle for normalcy under hideously abnormal circumstances. But under other circumstances, she’d probably be singing along to “Baby’ just like the rest of us.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 16, 2013 at 10:44

Tommy Boy and Mitt Romney

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by David

Tommy Boystarring the late Chris Farley, is one of the funniest movies of all time. But it also provides us with lessons that are useful in understanding the 2012 American presidential election, particularly the question of Mitt Romney’s role as a “vulture capitalist” for Bain Capital.

In Tommy Boy, Farley plays Tommy Callahan III, a hard-partying recent college graduate (after 7 years) who inherits Callahan Auto, his father’s brake-pad company. The business is on the verge of bankruptcy, so Tommy has to travel across the country (with his sidekick, portrayed brilliantly by David Spade) to drum up sales for the company, which is the economic foundation of the small town in which it is located.

The point is that Tommy Boy is all about saving the American auto industry, the same industry that Romney effectively told to drop dead. And of course, Romney has had lots of experience dismembering businesses for his own profit at Bain Capital. Free marketeers will argue that Romney was just making the market more efficient by shutting down failing corporations. But, as we well know, presidents aren’t just interested in making the market more efficient, especially when that efficiency translates into big profits for the few, job losses for many, and without any noticeable improvement in productivity, reduction in consumer prices, or innovations that better our quality of life.

Beyond that, Tommy Callahan III could relate to the workers at his plant, whereas Mitt Romney cannot relate to anyone, least of all the vast majority of Americans who aren’t as wealthy as he is. Indeed, Chris Farley, perhaps America’s greatest slapstick comedian, could make everyone laugh, regardless of class or social background. President Obama has his flaws, and he’s more David Spade than Chris Farley, but at the end of the day, he’s a president who at the very least can relate to people across America’s socio-economic spectrum. So if you love Tommy Boy, you should vote for Barack Obama.

Written by David Weinfeld

July 13, 2012 at 19:23

Posted in film, politics, pop culture

Queer and Hip Hop: Frank Ocean Comes Out, Black Music Opens Up

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Beyonce’s Words of Support to Frank Ocean

by Afrah

It’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to overread the importance of firsts: Frank Ocean, the R&B singer who is best known to a wide audience for singing the hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” and member of Odd Future collective, wrote a poignant story on tumblr about falling in love with a man. By virtue of his post, he accomplished a first for mainstream black music in openly discussing his relationship with a man. The actual story is powerful because in many ways because it is universal. Ocean recounts the longing, unrequited feelings, and finding closure from a transformative love. The posting is a pivotal one in his personal journey and feels like a great moment for black music writ large. The expression of Ocean’s group member, Tyler, the Creator sums up the exuberance of this moment by stating on Formspring, “yeah thats my n***a tho, shit is hard for him but he did that.”

The African American community has expanded immeasurably by the figure of Frank Ocean. Black music in general and hip hop in particular is supposed to reflect the vast expanse of human existence and the reality of life in urban America. It has often been summed up by shorthand to keep it real. Authenticity is a preoccupation of hip hop and its marching orders. It is a medium that possesses a youthful swagger that has become a dominant force in popular culture. Like all art, hip hop both transcends and remains frustratingly bound by material limitations of sexism and consumerism. In other words, it encompasses the contradictions, myopias, strivings and beauty of life. At this moment, black music also has the power to become more accepting of the range of human sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

July 9, 2012 at 16:05

Posted in pop culture, race, sexuality

The Agony & Ecstasy: A Review of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta

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The Ladies of Love and Hip Hop Atlanta

by Afrah

Watching reality tv shows such as Vh1’s Love and Hip Hop Atlanta leads to existential questioning such as: Why do we watch? Do shows like this fuel the poor representation of black people in popular culture writ large? And can 3.6 million people who watched the show’s debut possibly be misguided?

I am of two minds. I am shocked, shocked to see black folks embodying the racial stereotype that predicts loud and uncouth behavior.  As of this posting, over two thousand people have dutifully signed the change.org petition to boycott the show. Yet the conventions of reality tv rewards bad behavior and highlights extreme personalities. Given the platform, their actions are unsurprising.

The clear anti-heroes of the show are Stevie J and Joseline Hernandez. The audience can easily root against them and are riveted by the pure unabashedness of their characters. Stevie J is a former Bad Boy producer of classic 90s  hits with Notorious B.I.G. and Diddy who has won three Grammy awards. He is the resident cad who is juggling a relationship with Joseline and Mimi, who is the mother of his young daughter. Joseline is a stripper turned recording artist for Stevie J who unironically states that her purpose on the show is to inspire young girls to follow in her footsteps.

Their motives are clear: to get paid and get into as much drama as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by afrahrichmond

June 26, 2012 at 11:57

Posted in gender, pop culture, race

Didn’t Former Goldman Sachs Banker Greg Smith See American Psycho?

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by David

 Thinking a little more about our friend Greg Smith who just quit his job at Goldman Sachs, it occurred to me that Smith must have a very short memory. He claims that Goldman used to have a “culture” that “revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” But when exactly was this? He started at Goldman Sachs 12 years ago, in 2000. But thirteen years before that, in 1987, Tom Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities (25 years ago now!). Four years later, in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis came out with American PsychoBoth novels parody (or celebrate, depending on your point of view, the arrogance, materialism, and overall douchebaggery of Wall Street. The main character in Bonfire, a white Wall Street trader named Sherman McCoy, thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe” (and not the He-man variety, which would have been awesome). In American Psycho, the protagonist, investment banker Patrick Bateman, is driven to a psychopathic murderous rampage (or is he?) because intense elitism and douchebaggery of the corporate culture. No humility there. Heck, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, which some capitalists curiously misinterpret as a celebration of the financial sector, is in fact a criticism of the Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality that was rampant during the 1980s, including, I’m sure, at places like Goldman Sachs.

So yes, the fierce douchbaggery of the financial sector is nothing new, nor is the reputation for pulling a fast one on clients and committing either outright fraud or legal manipulation of unsuspecting customers. Greg Smith should have known that, and could have known that from simply cracking a fun book or watching a fun movie like American Psycho (I doubt there’s an investment banker alive who hasn’t seen that movie). But if the pop culture history isn’t enough, Smith can read this op-ed by William D. Cohan, which documents how

Goldman Sachs has been in and out of trouble throughout its 143 years — chiefly because it chose to put its own interests before those of its clients. What appeared to be a revelation to Smith was actually available to anyone who looked for it, buried deep within Securities and Exchange Commission and court records. Smith could have saved himself grief if he had only used his Stanford education to examine Goldman’s DNA before crossing its threshold.

Cohan’s article, titled “Goldman Sachs’s Long History of Duping its Clients,” focuses on one incident in particular, the June 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central Transportation Company, the nation’s largest railroad.” According to Cohan, Goldman Sachs has been screwing over clients since at least 1928. I read the article. Now I think I’m gonna buy Cohan’s book, Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. Greg Smith and all the other former and current financiers should probably read it too.

Still, despite my criticism here, let me re-emphasize that I applaud what Greg Smith has done. Even if his op-ed read a bit like a resume, he still did a good thing. Quitting was the right move, and telling people how sleazy Goldman Sachs has become, even if it, like all the other banks and hedge funds out there, have actually been that sleazy all along, is an extremely important message to get out there. It’s especially important coming from the inside. If it inspires others to quit, or to avoid applying in the first place, it will be a greater accomplishment, and a greater mitzvah, than even winning a gold medal in ping pong at the Maccabiah Games.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 16, 2012 at 21:54

Hedge Funds, Holodecks, and the Science of Altruism

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by David

Leaf-cutter Ants Carrying Leaves Back to the Nest

I just read a great article in last week’s New Yorker, “Kin and Kind: A Fight About the Genetics of Altruism,” by Jonah Lehrer. Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay-wall, so you should try to find a paper copy somewhere. As a humanities major, I can’t really do it justice, but it’s all about how various species, from vampire bats to the above pictured leaf-cutter ants, engage in different degrees of altruism, from the Darwinian phenomenon known as “inclusive fitness,” where animals look after not only their own offspring but also their nephews and nieces, to the “eusociality” of ants and other insects, “in which individuals live together in vast cooperative societies.” Human beings, of course, also live in complex cooperative societies, regardless of what Republicans might tell you about rugged individualism. The article is also about the academics attempting understand the biology behind benevolence, the “genetics of altruism,” and includes interesting discussion on the difference between mathematicians and biologists, who have been working together to understand these phenomena.

Dr. Corina Tarnita, math whiz/altruist

What interested me the most, however, was an apparent throw-away paragraph (that was clearly not a throw-away paragraph) about one of the scholars involved. Corina Tarnita, a math prodigy who grew up in rural Romania, had excelled at Harvard as an undergraduate, but was becoming bored in a doctoral program there until she discovered a textbook on “the mathematics of evolution.” Unlike her previous research on abstract algebraic geometry, this seemed more concrete, and got her excited. She emailed the author of the textbook, Austrian biologist Martin Nowak, also at Harvard, to see if she could work with him on this. But her life remained at a crossroads:

At the time she emailed Nowak,Tarnita had a dilemma. She’d recently received a job offer from a large hedge fund, for a lucrative position as a quantitative analyst. She was tempted by the money. “I like fancy clothes and fast cars,” she says. “I told myself that if Martin didn’t email me back then maybe I would leave Harvard.” Fortunately, Nowak responded and soon invited Tarnita to join his working group.

The word “fortunately” in the final sentence reflects a bit of editorializing on the part of the piece’s author, Jonah Lehrer, but it’s an opinion I’m sympathetic to. I think it would have been rather disappointing had Tarnita given up a potentially path-breaking career in the academy for the rewards of Wall Street.

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Written by David Weinfeld

March 6, 2012 at 08:21