Monday, February 21, 2011

Two Black Swans and One Tiger Mother

Three quick reviews and recommendations on one movie and two books that I have had the pleasure to experience in the last week.

Black Swan the movie starring Natalie Portman and directed by Darren Aronofsky was out of this world good. I don't think it is timeless in the way that film students and movie buffs will be watching it 20 years later and writing about it however for the here and now it reminded me that a movie does not need special effects nor does it need to approach the limits of technology to be great. The cinematography is very raw and unpolished but it adds a lot to the film. There is very little character development and it has some of the Eyes Wide Shut surrealness and sexuality. The focus is on one thing only; Nina's (Portman) descent into madness as the pressure to be the perfect White and Black Swans consume her. The ballet scenes are outright impressive but their real purpose is to show how technically difficult is Nina's task. It is intense and a little freaky crazy, not necessarily freaky-scary.

The second black swan is The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is not a new book, it has been out since 2007 before the financial crisis but recently updated in 2010 with a new essay. Taleb painstakingly shows that because the world has become increasingly complex and integrated, things that we see and view as once-in-a-lifetime aberrations (like the 2008 global economic crisis) are in fact commonplace occurances. These Black Swans, once thought impossible or improbable, will pop up frequently and will be consequential to those who are not robust against them. His critique of economists and anyone who uses models to make predictions is devestating and cutting. Taleb has no use nor respect for nearly any economist or person who makes a living predicting events in a world dominated by Black Swans. Here are his ten-commandments for making the world more robust to the Black Swans: ( He has some ideas about how to do this on a personal level and hints at it with #9. Part philosophical, part statistical, part economics, part social critique, but 100% recommend if you have the time.

Last book is Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. NYT review here. And the WSJ shot across the parenting bow here. Honestly it is not that well written but it is an easy read. Central question: Are so-called Chinese style parenting methods better than Western ones? Chua conducts the experiment on her daughters with a very strict, no room-for-goofing-off, no video games, lots of violin and piano practice and schoolwork. One daughter takes to the workload and enjoys it, the other fights her tooth and nail. What is interesting is the motivation behind it all. According to Chua the Chinese perspective is such that "it's a hard-knock life" and childhood is a brief period of training to prepare for the Hobbsian real world. Creativity, happiness and finding oneself are of secondary, or of zero, importance. Chua has some whithering criticism for the parents around her who let their children be aimless and do not develop their work ethic and talent. All her critiques are points well taken but hat tip to my friend Paul Graves for offering this question. If the Chinese parenting method is "The Way" what exactly are we to be enamoured of regarding the Chinese culture? Nothing of consequence is invented or created there nor has been for the last 2000 years. All of our movies and music are pirated and copied along with our technology by China. All those music pieces the Chua girls practice for hours and hours were composed by Western greats and the universities mother wants her girls to attend are in the US, not in China nor Asia. Where is the creativity and vision? Yes, we are slackers and are losing our competitive edge with each passing school year but we don't need to swallow whole the so called Chinese parenting method. We should take the important parts, like be involved in our children's education and training and restrict t.v. and videogames, but ditch the pressure and extremism.   

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