Movies As Education: Books and Selves

La Notte (English: The Night) is a 1961 Italian drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The film stars Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti (with Umberto Eco, the novelist, appearing in a cameo).

Filmed on location in Milan, the film depicts a day in the life of an unfaithful married couple and their deteriorating relationship.

In 1961, La Notte received the Golden Bear (at the Berlin International Film Festival, the first for an Italian film) and the David di Donatello Award for Best Director.

La Notte is the central film of a trilogy, beginning with L’Avventura (1960) and ending with L’Eclisse (1962).

The movie follows Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), a distinguished writer, and his beautiful wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) as they visit their dying friend Tommaso Garani (Bernhard Wicki) who is hospitalized in Milan. Giovanni’s new book, La stagione (The Season), has just been published, and Tommaso praises his friend’s work.

La Notte reflects the director’s intuition that “you are what you read,” and books create a kind of thread through the story.

The dying, hospitalized patient has recently published an article on the famous philosophical writer Theodor Adorno. At the party the couple drifts into, the works of the AustrianJewish writer, Hermann Broch, are mentioned. Essentially, in a depressing glitzy world of lost and semi-lost souls, reading and books constitute a kind of emotional life raft or direction-finding compass, at least potentially. Antonioni frequently uses this motif.

We find this kind of reading and books-centered view of people interpreting their (bewildering) worlds in the works of the French thinker Charles Péguy (who died in battle during World War I in 1914):

“The Jew,” he declares in a passage that has become famous, “is a man who has always read, the Protestant has read for three hundred years, the Catholic for only two generations.”

(quoted in Consciousness and Society, H. Stuart Hughes, Vintage Books, paperback, 1958, page 355)

Charles Péguy is also central to Louis Malle’s classic French film Au revoir les enfants (English: “Goodbye, Children”).

If we “zoom out” and look for a meta-intelligent lesson, we can say that reading, writing, and arithmetic, the three basics mentioned in the phrase we all know, are very deeply entwined with who we are. Stories explain us to ourselves, and stories involve books and reading in our “Gutenberg world.”

The replacement of these by various (post-Gutenberg) screens and games may or may not be thought of as a variant since they constitute a kind of “pseudo-participation” and not participation based on perusal.

Education and “Chaos”: The Example of Climate Change

Students will have heard on read descriptions of “chaos theory” which try to capture the phenomenon that a small change “here” or now might involve a mega-change somewhere else or later on or both. In other words, tremendous turbulence could arise from overlooked minutiae in some other region or domain. Chaos here does not mean lawless…it means lawful but in surprising ways, like a pendulum swinging from another pendulum where the laws of pendular motion are still in effect but the motions are “jumpy.”

This can be described as follows:

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos—states of dynamical systems whose apparently-random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Chaos theory is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization.

The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in Texas.

Blaise Pascal (17th century) gives us the example of “Cleopatra’s nose.” Had her nose been longer, Pascal muses, she would presumably have not been so beautiful and this could have altered romantic entanglements and the behavior of rival Roman generals and world history might have moved along different pathways completely (recall Caesar and Cleopatra, the play).

All of this “strange science” applies to climate change.

In the Winter 2019/20 issue of Options, from the International institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA, Austria headquarters), there’s a short piece that shows you how climate change has such “chaos-type” features which could “turbo-charge” changes already expected:

Will Forests Let Us Down?

Current climate models assume that forests will continue to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at their current rate.

A study by an international team including researchers from IIASA, however, indicates that this uptake capacity could be strongly limited by soil phosphorous availability. If this scenario proves true, the Earth’s climate would heat up much faster than previously assumed.

(Options, Winter 2019/20 issue, IIASA, page 5, “News in Brief”)

Students should glimpse something here that points to a “deep structure.”
Climate scientists and climate modelers at this time are trying to re-examine and re-jigger predictions to include overlooked details that could add “chaotic dynamics” to the predictions. Knowledge itself is evolving and if you add knowledge changes and revisions to model ones, you have to conclude that even with this fantastic level of human ingenuity and scientific intricacy, we “see the world through a glass, darkly” because the facts, models, chaos math, overviews, are themselves in “interactive flux.”

Essay 106: World Watching: Project Syndicate—New Commentary

from Project Syndicate:

The EU’s EV Greenwash

by Hans-Werner Sinn

EU emissions regulations that went into force earlier this year are clearly designed to push diesel and other internal-combustion-engine automobiles out of the European market to make way for electric vehicles. But are EVs really as climate-friendly and effective as their promoters claim?

MUNICHGermany’s automobile industry is its most important industrial sector. But it is in crisis, and not only because it is suffering the effects of a recession brought on by Volkswagen’s own cheating on emissions standards, which sent consumers elsewhere. The sector is also facing the existential threat of exceedingly strict European Union emissions requirements, which are only seemingly grounded in environmental policy.

The EU clearly overstepped the mark with the carbon dioxide regulation [PDF] that went into effect on April 17, 2019. From 2030 onward, European carmakers must have achieved average vehicle emissions of just 59 grams of CO2 per kilometer, which corresponds to fuel consumption of 2.2 liters of diesel equivalent per 100 kilometers (107 miles per gallon). This simply will not be possible.

As late as 2006, average emissions for new passenger vehicles registered in the EU were around 161 g/km. As cars became smaller and lighter, that figure fell to 118 g/km in 2016. But this average crept back up, owing to an increase in the market share of gasoline engines, which emit more CO2 than diesel engines do. By 2018, the average emissions of newly registered cars had once again climbed to slightly above 120 g/km, which is twice what will be permitted in the long term.

Even the most gifted engineers will not be able to build internal combustion engines (ICEs) that meet the EU’s prescribed standards (unless they force their customers into soapbox cars). But, apparently, that is precisely the point. The EU wants to reduce fleet emissions by forcing a shift to electric vehicles. After all, in its legally binding formula for calculating fleet emissions, it simply assumes that EVs do not emit any CO2 whatsoever.

The implication is that if an auto company’s production is split evenly between EVs and ICE vehicles that conform to the present average, the 59 g/km target will be just within reach. If a company cannot produce EVs and remains at the current average emissions level, it will have to pay a fine of around €6,000 ($6,600) per car, or otherwise merge with a competitor that can build EVs.

But the EU’s formula is nothing but a huge scam. EVs also emit substantial amounts of CO2, the only difference being that the exhaust is released at a remove—that is, at the power plant. As long as coal– or gas-fired power plants are needed to ensure energy supply during the “dark doldrums” when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, EVs, like ICE vehicles, run partly on hydrocarbons. And even when they are charged with solar– or wind-generated energy, enormous amounts of fossil fuels are used to produce EV batteries in China and elsewhere, offsetting the supposed emissions reduction. As such, the EU’s intervention is not much better than a cut-off device for an emissions control system.

Earlier this year, the physicist Christoph Buchal and I published a research paper [PDF, in German] showing that, in the context of Germany’s energy mix, an EV emits a bit more CO2 than a modern diesel car, even though its battery offers drivers barely more than half the range of a tank of diesel. And shortly thereafter, data published [PDF, in German] by Volkswagen confirmed that its e-Rabbit vehicle emits slightly more CO2 [PDF, in German] than its Rabbit Diesel within the German energy mix. (When based on the overall European energy mix, which includes a huge share of nuclear energy from France, the e-Rabbit fares slightly better than the Rabbit Diesel.)

Adding further evidence, the Austrian think tank Joanneum Research has just published a large-scale study [PDF, in German] commissioned by the Austrian automobile association, ÖAMTC, and its German counterpart, ADAC, that also confirms those findings. According to this study, a mid-sized electric passenger car in Germany must drive 219,000 kilometers before it starts outperforming the corresponding diesel car in terms of CO2 emissions. The problem, of course, is that passenger cars in Europe last for only 180,000 kilometers, on average. Worse, according to Joanneum, EV batteries don’t last long enough to achieve that distance in the first place. Unfortunately, drivers’ anxiety about the cars’ range prompts them to recharge their batteries too often, at every opportunity, and at a high speed, which is bad for durability.

As for EU lawmakers, there are now only two explanations for what is going on: either they didn’t know what they were doing, or they deliberately took Europeans for a ride. Both scenarios suggest that the EU should reverse its interventionist industrial policy, and instead rely on market-based instruments such as a comprehensive emissions trading system.

With Germany’s energy mix, the EU’s regulation on fleet fuel consumption will not do anything to protect the climate. It will, however, destroy jobs, sap growth, and increase the public’s distrust in the EU’s increasingly opaque bureaucracy.

Essay 79: Past and Present Thinking

History is “forever new” and we keep asking “what’s new?” but the past is “forever suggestive” and so we inquire here as to whether the past gives us interesting echoes of the more recent.

Specifically, we juxtapose the “closing of the gold window” in August 1971 (Nixon) and the British gold standard gyrations between 1925 and 1931, when England left gold (i.e., September 1931).

At the time, under Nixon, the U.S. also had an unemployment rate of 6.1% (August 1971) and an inflation rate of 5.84% (1971).

To combat these problems, President Nixon consulted Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns, incoming Treasury Secretary John Connally, and then Undersecretary for International Monetary Affairs and future Fed Chairman Paul Volcker.

On the afternoon of Friday, August 13, 1971, these officials along with twelve other high-ranking White House and Treasury advisors met secretly with Nixon at Camp David. There was great debate about what Nixon should do, but ultimately Nixon, relying heavily on the advice of the self-confident Connally, decided to break up Bretton Woods by announcing the following actions on August 15:

Speaking on television on Sunday, August 15, when American financial markets were closed, Nixon said the following:

“The third indispensable element in building the new prosperity is closely related to creating new jobs and halting inflation. We must protect the position of the American dollar as a pillar of monetary stability around the world.

“In the past 7 years, there has been an average of one international monetary crisis every year …

“I have directed Secretary Connally to suspend temporarily the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets, except in amounts and conditions determined to be in the interest of monetary stability and in the best interests of the United States.

“Now, what is this action—which is very technical—what does it mean for you?

“Let me lay to rest the bugaboo of what is called devaluation.

“If you want to buy a foreign car or take a trip abroad, market conditions may cause your dollar to buy slightly less. But if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.

“The effect of this action, in other words, will be to stabilize the dollar.”

Britain’s own experience in the twenties is explained like this:

“In 1925, Britain had returned to the gold standard.

(editor: This Churchill decision was deeply critiqued by Keynes.)

“When Labour came to power in May 1929 this was in good time for Black Friday on Wall Street in the following October.

“After the Austrian and German crashes in May and July 1931, Britain’s financial position became critical, and on 21st September she abandoned the gold standard.

London was still the world’s financial capital in 1931, and the British abandonment of the gold standard set off a chain of reactions throughout the world.

“Strangely enough Germany and Austria maintained the gold standard…”

(Europe of the Dictators, Elizabeth Wiskemann, Fontana/Collins, 1977, page 92-93)

Nixon’s policies gave us the demise of Bretton Woods, while the economic gyrations of 1925-1931 were part of the lead-up to World War II.

The setting is both “infinitely different” across the decades but the feeling of “flying blind” applies to both cases: U.S.A. “closing the gold window,” August 1971 and Britain’s overturning Churchill’s 1925 return to the gold standard, by 1931. One gets the sense of “concealed turmoil” and a lot of “winging it” in both cases. Policy-makers disagreed and they all saw the world of their moments “through a glass, darkly.”

Essay 47: Novels as a Kind of University Demonstrating Storms of Global Finance and Technification

Edith Wharton began writing The Age of Innocence in 1917 as a way of recalling and criticizing the world of her youth, which had not yet experienced the devastation of World War I (1914–18).  Beginning in July 1920, the novel was published in serial form in New York’s monthly Pictorial Review.

The centrality of finance and technical change can be seen. We are reminded of the very first line in The Magnifcent Ambersons of Booth Tarkington, which tells the reader that the basis of the magnificence of the Ambersons was established when they somehow benefited from the 1873 financial crisis which destroyed many others. (Whether the Ambersons were shrewd or lucky or wily is not clarified.)

The Age of Innocence is set in New York in the 1870s and the financial storm and “techno-storm” become vital:

The Panic of 1873:

In The Age of Innocence, the investment bank run by Julius Beaufort collapses, bringing shame upon him and his wife and throwing New York into a tizzy. Beaufort’s business failure is a fictionalized version of the Panic of 1873, industrial capitalism’s first worldwide depression. Then, the United States backed its currency with both silver and gold, but when Germany and several other countries stopped using silver to back their currency, the price of silver fell precipitously, devaluing U.S. currency. The U.S. Treasury made matters worse by releasing large amounts of paper money into the economy. Speculators and bankers now had to immediately pay off their debts with gold.

In 1873, a prominent investment banker by the name of Jay Cooke went bankrupt, the effects rippled throughout the entire U.S. economy, and panic ensued. Trading was suspended for two weeks on the New York Stock Exchange as company after company failed, wages dropped precipitously, and unemployment spiked. The rise of the labor movement can be traced to the widespread unrest and economic instability set off by the panic. Additionally, the panic allowed a few of the wealthiest businessmen—such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Cyrus McCormick, who retained access to valuable capital—to vastly increase their wealth and snuff out competitors.

Technological Advancements

Characters in The Age of Innocence are aware their world is about to be forever changed by the culture of outsiders, brought to them in part by advancements in technology. Although inventions like the telephone were on the horizon, they seemed improbably fantastic to people living in the early 1870s world of telegrams and horse-drawn carriages. However, in the final chapter, Wharton depicts Newland Archer living in a world that has been significantly altered by these technologies, a mere quarter century later.

In 1876, for example, American inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) patented an early telephone and wowed audiences by demonstrating the world’s first telephone call by placing a call from one telegraph station to another five miles away.  The Western Union company refused to buy Bell’s telephone patent, claiming his invention would amount to no more than a novelty. However, the first telephone line was built in 1877-78, and after that, telephone usage skyrocketed.  At the start of the 1880s, there were almost 50,000 telephones in use, a number that swelled to over half a million by the turn of the century.

A similar large-scale change was the invention and development of electricity. Although the first electric light was developed in 1835, it was not until 1879 that American inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) developed and patented a light bulb with a life span of 15 hours. Edison’s work also focused on the problems of electrical generation and conductivity.

At the same time that communication was becoming easier and the day was lengthened artificially through electric lighting, the distance between continents was shortened by advances in turbine steam engines

In the 1860s, it took between eight and nine days to cross the Atlantic Ocean; by 1907, the Mauretania (the ship that Dallas and Newland Archer take to Europe in the last chapter) makes the voyage in half that time.  This was a contributing factor to the great influx of European immigrants who arrived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Chapter 29, Newland contemplates the “brotherhood of visionaries,” who predict a train tunnel under the Hudson River as well as “ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days … and other Arabian Night marvels.” In 1904, excavation for train tunnels under the Hudson began, directed by Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1910, New York’s Penn Station opened and began receiving traffic from electric trains that traveled through the tunnels.

Notice that the novel The Magnificent Ambersons is from 1918, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence from 1920. In each, the personal storms of private emotion are somewhat carried along and swept up into the storms coming from national and even global finance (1873 caused a tremendous crash in Germany and Austria called the “Grunderkrach” [founder’s crash]) as well as techno-waves that are very baffling to the people of the time.