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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (11/15/10) 10:28am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Friday Night Lights [3x01-3x04]
Books:  The Logic of Life

Friday Night Lights [3x01-3x04]
This is the third season of NBC's criminally-underwatched show about high-school football in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.

It's about twenty minutes into the third season that you have your sigh of relief.

Ah.  Good.  They're over season two.

Season two, you'll recall, is where the show took that bizarre turn to soap-opera land, and put aside its quiet, character-based drama in favor of wacky trips to Mexico and a murder and its subsequent cover-up.

But season three gets back to a comprehensible reality.  Sure, it's strained in some ways -- Tami is the principal now? Matt was a sophomore in season one? -- but it doesn't yank you out of the story.

And sure, it's not as good as season one, but what is?

Lots of the show retreads familiar territory.  Tim Riggins is trying and failing to stay out of trouble, again.  Matt is overwhelmed by trying to care for his ailing grandmother, again.  Lyla watches everybody fall short of her moral expectations, again.

The new storylines have varying levels of success.  Tami's fight to reappropriate JumboTron funds for, y'know, actual schoolbooks and teachers felt honest, and seemed to answer a question that lingered in the air for the first two seasons:  how can they justify pouring so much money into high-school football in a time when high-school education is so strapped for cash?

The appearance of J. D. McCoy at least sets up an interesting showdown between Eric, who wants to stand by his quarterback, and everyone in Dillon, who wants the new kid off the bench.  J. D. and family seem interesting enough as characters.

Matt's mother shows up, because... well, she exists, we might as well bring her in and see if something interesting happens.  So far, nothing interesting has happened, and Matt's mom feels like a bit of a nonentity.  Tyra dates a cowboy, because... I dunno.  It'll piss Landry off, and maybe that'll be interesting.  So far, it isn't.

Basically, the successful storylines are straining the characters' relationships in new ways.  How will Eric and Tami get along when they're on opposite sides of school politics?  How will Eric and Matt get along when a hotshot new quarterback comes along?  Other, less successful storylines seem to operate like a kid desultorily prodding an anthill to see if something happens.  Hey, let's bring in Matt's mother.  Maybe that will cause plot.

That said, it's still never going to be as bad as season two.

(Side note:  this is turning into a fun season for spotting Austin improvisors in minor roles.  So far I've spotted Deana Ricks as a beleaguered teacher and Tom Booker as the local butcher.  I am told there are more to come.)

The Logic of Life:  The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford
You might think of this as a companion volume to Predictably Irrational.  The Ariely book covered the ways that human beings fail to respond to rational incentives:  everybody prefers a free trip to Paris to a free trip to Rome -- but make the options "free trip to Paris with breakfast", "free trip to Rome with breakfast", and "free trip to Rome with no breakfast", and everyone opts for Rome-with-waffles.  Harford's book covers the flip side of this -- the situations where people *seem* to be acting crazy, but if you look just a little bit under the surface, you find the same simple incentives at play.

In fact, he spends some time pooh-poohing the more-modish world of "behavior" (i.e. irrational) economics.  Some experiments demonstrate that the 'predictably irrational' rules hold more sway (1) in a laboratory environment, and (2) with people in situations where they're inexperienced.  So:  give a bunch of travel agents those three free-travel options out in the real world, and the Roman waffles lose some of their hypnotic allure.  Behavior economics still has value, Harford says, but it's just as valid to tackle social situations by asking what the rational incentives are.

Some of these 'rational-incentive' analyses were fascinating.  For instance, you can predict with almost eerie accuracy where government subsidies will go based on three factors:  (1) is the subsidy not just egregious theft? (2) does the subsidy siphon off a small amount of money from each non-subsidized person? and (3) does the subsidy go to a group that has a high barrier to entry?  You could look at, say, agribusiness subsidies through this lens:  it ostensibly protects America's values, or food supply, to give money to farming; it draws from the tax base equally; and unless you're going to magick together some more arable farmland in the U. S., you're not going to join that subsidizable group.[1]

Libertarians could have a field day with that.

The book often strikes a hopeful note, because often, if you can just figure out how the incentives are making something awful happen, then all you have to do to ameliorate the problem is to shift the incentives somehow.  You want to drive down the HIV transmission rate in a medium-sized Mexican city?  Target your sex education information to the guys who frequent prostitutes -- no, not the prostitutes themselves, but the johns.

Other parts of the book are depressing, for almost the same reason.  Sometimes, there are awful behaviors in place that seem to be cemented there by immovable incentives.  Consider the section on "rational racism", where (to oversimplify things) employers assume "all <x>s are uneducated", and save time by not bothering to bring them in for interviews; conversely, all <x>s assume "nobody's bothering to hire me", and save effort by not bothering with an education.[2]  Both groups get locked into their attitudes, for reasons that are conducive to their own best interests in the immediate term, and there's no obvious way to fix the incentives.

I doubt I learned much here that's particularly useful.  It was just interesting to see  a complementary view to the Ariely book, and to see some of the ways economists try to ferret out incentives and other economic information.  For instance, people might say you can't put a price on a good school district, but in fact a quick analysis of home prices will give you the price tag in short order.

Hopefully this will be it for me for pop-psych and pop-econ books for a while.

For next time, I'll watch some more of Dollhouse and Friday Night Lights, read a novel that Mo recommended, and continue with the audiobook high-fantasy adventures of A Game of Thrones.

[1] ... and even if you could, you still would be puny compared to the massive conglomerates who do most of the farming in America.

[2] A psych experiment where college students were randomly split into "employers", "greens", and "purples" death-spiralled into this state really fast.

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (11/15/10) 11:34am
And sure, it's not as good as season one, but what is?

Season 4. Seriously.
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (11/15/10) 12:33pm
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