Monthly Archives: March 2012

“In Time” Economics; A Few Thoughts

Last night I saw the movie “In Time”, which had the working titles “Now” (worse title) and “I’m.mortal” (simultaneously MUCH worse and MUCH better title, paradoxically).

Justin Time? PUN!

The movie postulates a world where aging and physical illness have been genetically engineered away; in order to keep the world’s population below the carrying capacity of the planet, the population is born with countdown timers that read 1 year.  On their 25th birthday, aging stops and the timers start- people have 1 year of time before they are killed.

Of course, that’s not all.  If that were all, In Time would simply be an updated Logan’s Run.  No, in the world of In Time, time is also a currency, and can be traded between people.  Thus follow many puns along the nature of “Hey, can you spare a minute?”

The whole system is set up so that the population remains stable.  As one character puts it (paraphrasing here) “So that some may be immortal, many must die.”

I am going to assume that the end goal of the system is a stable population number – not growing or falling too much, but stable at a size that can be accommodated by the world’s production capacity (chiefly food and shelter and other necessities).

To ensure that the total population remains stable, while faced with people who will never age or sicken, you have to balance deaths with births.  And the main way that people die, in the world of In Time, is by having their countdown timers reach zero.

The current rate of birth, in the United States (a nice stand-in for a “typical” industrialized country, but not necessarily where In Time takes place) is 14 live births per 1000 people.  To balance this, obviously you need 14 deaths per 1000 people.

The movie, of course, doesn’t concentrate on the economics, but instead on frivolous things like gun fights, sexy people in expensive clothes and car chases.  I’m sure I was the only person watching the film who said “Enough with the skinny-dipping scene!  Go back to explaining how supply and demand works in this world!”

This concentration on unimportant things like “the story” and “the characters” leads to economic absurdities in the movie.  For a day’s work, the main character is paid 28 hours.  Fair enough, except, of course, by the time he would get paid again, only 4 hours would remain.

4 hours for a day’s worth of work means, of course, 1 day of rest a week – but only if you’re not spending any money/time.  And the things people spend time on, in the movie, have their prices seriously messed up.

A cup of coffee goes from 3 minutes to 4 minutes, and there are “99 second” stores.  This seems to imply that a minute is worth about a dollar.  But later in the movie, a bus ride for a distance that would take two hours to walk (about 8 miles, at a good clip), costs two hours.  That’s $120.  To go 8 miles.  O…kay.  Or, it costs half a day’s take-home pay to go 8 miles.  And the main character’s mom has only an hour and a half left on her timer.  How dramatically convenient, but economically implausible!

Later, a room in a luxury hotel is 2 months of time ($86,400) and a high performance sports car is 59 years ($31 million).  These prices are ridiculous – the most expensive car available today is “only” $2 million, and the most expensive hotel room is only $65,000 a night, and it is the entire penthouse suite.

But the prices, as ridiculously plot-convenient and made up as they may be, are not the problem with In Time’s economy.

The problem is that money/time is being destroyed, at the rate of 24 hours per day, per person.  Obviously, money/time must be created (at a rate that allows 14 deaths per thousand people per year), and injected into the system.  But who can create money/time?  The government.  How can they inject it into the system?  By buying products and employing people.

So the government, for every 1000 people, per year, must create and spend 986 years worth of money/time.  In dollars, at our previously agreed upon exchange rate, that is $518,000 worth of time spent, per citizen, per year.  Or, if the population is roughly equal to today’s population, $155 trillion dollars.  For comparison, 2011’s budget was $3.4 trillion dollars.  2011’s GDP of the United States was $15 trillion.  The entire world’s was $60 trillion.  Even if my valuation of the minute equaling one dollar was off by a factor of ten, these numbers don’t make sense.  The entire economy of the country can’t be bought by the government – why would the government need all those Cheetos and tax preparation services, for example?

So, basically what I’m saying is that the economics of a parable about wealth and wage-slavery don’t work out exactly, surprisingly enough.

The Problem with “Human Again”

My daughter is three years old.

I offer this, not as a disclaimer, not as protection from some sort of embarrassment that I feel the following words might generate, but as information, pure informative information, that serves merely to color in the complete picture of this post.

Alright, I admit it, I also want to justify watching Beauty and the Beast about 5000 times in the past year.

This, of course, is the new, Blu-Ray version of Beauty and the Beast. Just released from the Disney Vault (the subject of a completely different, yet-to-be-written rant). So it has the new song, “Human Again” in it. And that one song ruins the entire movie for me.

(It has to be said, it doesn’t ruin the film at all for Madeline, the three year old. She thinks that one day, if she is really really good and eats a good dinner and doesn’t whine, one day she might, MIGHT, get the opportunity to be a princess and to be kidnapped by a giant half-man, half-beast. If she’s really really lucky and uses her manners.)

See, the problem with “Human Again” is that it really spotlights the other victims of the Beast’s curse, his servants. And once you realize that there are other victims of the curse, the whole movie falls apart.

The thirty second version of Beauty and the Beast is that the Beast used to be a handsome prince, he judged an old lady by her stench and looks, she was secretly a fairy or something, and cursed him to be a hideous beast until he could earn the love of beautiful young woman.

Now, the problem with the Disney film isn’t so much visible in the above synopsis. I mean, one problem with the movie is that the Beast has to save himself through the love of another, and not by actually changing himself – but I suppose he earns the love the Beauty by changing himself, so in the long run that works out.

No, the problem with the Disney movie is that not only the Beast is changed by the curse (an aside: he really wasn’t changed into a hideous man-beast, he was changed into a handsome man-beast- I always thought that Belle probably was a bit disappointed when he changed back into a man – she really wasn’t that into Gaston, and looked almost exactly the same as the Beast as a man does), but the curse also affects his whole household.

So, all his servants are transformed, not also into beast-men, but into things like candlesticks and clocks and teapots. And unless the Beast can find true love by his 21st birthday (a test that 99% of modern society would fail, I’m sure – I mean, the Beast hasn’t even been to college yet, let’s have a few years of keggers and dorm-room-make-outs, and then maybe he can find True Love, right?), the servants are ALSO going to be stuck forever in their cursed forms, which are WAY less awesome than being a beast-man. (Except for Lumiere, the candlestick-man. He can SUMMON fire at will. He’s like Pyro from the X-men, just without legs. And one foot tall.  So… 75% as good?)

Now, I will grant that this problem exists in the original film.  But in the original film there isn’t a five minute sequence where the servants sing about how they just can’t wait to be human again, and all the things they would do if they were human again, and please, for the love of god, will someone just make them human again, instead of these horrible anthropomorphic bits of furniture and bric-a-brac?

Once you start thinking about the horrible plight of the servants, you can’t stop thinking about all the servant related plot holes in the film.  I mean, never mind the Beast not actually having a name, or apparently living alone as a teenager in a castle when he was cursed (unless you want to make the film really dark, and assume that the Beast slaughtered his parents in a fit of rage after becoming the beast-man).  Never mind that the Enchantress gave him one way to escape the curse – to find True Love- and he went about it by, what, not leaving his castle ever?  And the servants, who also needed him to find True Love, just accepted that?  Because maybe they wanted to be feather dusters forever?

No, you start thinking about whether or not the castle was furnished before the curse turned all the servants into furniture.  Maybe the curse turned all the furniture into servants?  Which the Beast ate?  Because I’ll buy that a clock and a candlestick don’t need food for years upon years, but the Beast is huge.  And we see him eating all the time in the film.  Where does this food come from?  You can’t exactly send your couch down to the store to buy food.

Yeah, the Beast definitely ate some people.  Villagers, maybe, if you don’t buy the former furniture turning into people theory.  That’s probably what he was going to do with Belle’s father.

Additionally, Mrs. Potts (a servant conveniently named, for she indeed turns into a teapot), has like twenty children, which make up the cup and saucer portion of the tea set.  Did these children live at the castle before the curse?  Or did a teapot give birth to a cup at some point?  And do the cups grow up into teapots and whatever the male version of a teapot is?  A kettle?

Basically, what I’m saying is that Gaston, the “villain” of the film, is probably right when he says that the villagers have to kill the Beast.  I mean, even without the (probable) man-eating, the Beast drinks and eats and sits on sentient creatures, who so long to escape their plight that they’ll sing a terrible, lengthy and boring song about wanting to be human again.

Ellen Degeneres’s Ad

Quick update on my life:

Ellen Degeneres’s ad, where she complains about prices ending in .99 is driving me crazy.

Not because the complaint about 99 cents is old and a bit lame, but there’s a bit where she travels back in time, to an Olde England Shoppe, where she tries to buy a hat for 14 pounds, 99 pence.

Except she’s clearly in OLDEN TIMES, when the English didn’t have decimilized money. They had pounds and shillings and pence, and 99 pence was 141 pence short of a pound.

The worst part about the commercial, to me, is the knowledge that someone brought this very argument up in a meeting. They said it wasn’t accurate, that people would know, that it wasn’t right. That it wouldn’t be difficult to change the commercial slightly. To make it accurate, and still convey the point.

And then someone else said, “Ah, who cares!” And they made it wrong anyway, because who cares.

Adventures in NYC; OR A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I Didn’t See Any Trees; OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Subway

A story!  A parable?

/ˈpærəbəl/ [par-uh-buhl] noun. 1. a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.

…probably not.  For this story is not allegorical, it is what happened in REAL LIFE.

On Friday I drove Kenny (K(P)enny) into the nation’s largest, meanest, baddest city.  New York.  A city that is both the most populous, and most densely populated, city in the country.  It swarms with people, millions of people, all dressed in black like stylish cockroaches.

How did we set out to conquer the city?  Well, we needed to be in southern Manhattan by 11 AM, so we left at 7:45 AM.  Better safe than sorry.  And of course this was the one time in the history of the world that there were only two or three traffic snarls on the way into the city, and we got parked at 9:30.

The day before it had hit the mid-60s, so I naively assumed that such good weather would continue forever, without ever changing.  I wore a polo and light slacks.  Kenny, being from Louisiana, born, raised, never lived anywhere else, wore basically a parka.

He might have made the better choice.  The temperature started out about 40 degrees, American (Fahrenheit), and didn’t budge.  Which wasn’t a problem in the car, but started to be one by the time we got to the city and were walking around.

I managed to avoid both freezing to death and being burned up by the furious glares of the natives (not only was I not wearing long sleeves (fashion faux-pas!), I was wearing a brown shirt, and brown definitely isn’t on the approved list of New York colors*) on the two block walk to the Possibility Project offices.

We arrived safely there, only about an hour and a half early for our arranged time.  Well, it never hurts to show willing, right?  Paul, the president of the Possibility Project, invited us into the offices, where he went out of his way to make both Kenny and I comfortable.  He gave us a tour of the offices, which share the 12th floor of a 12 floor building in southern Manhattan with another non-profit, had Kenny fill out some paperwork while I fuddled around on the internet, and eventually took us across the street for some coffee.

Hurrah, I thought, coffee.  Until my second 20 ounces of coffee, that’s pretty much my thought process before the sun reaches its zenith.  Coffee is offered, coffee is consumed.  Coffee is made, coffee is consumed.  Coffee is all out?  Rage, panic, drive to Dunkin Donuts, coffee is consumed.

So naturally I took Paul up on his generous offer, and went for the largest drip coffee on offer.  20 ounces, or a venti, which may help narrow down the coffee store.  Yes, it’s the one you’re thinking of.  No, I don’t know why I’m being obscure.

After the coffee (or actually during the dreg phase of the coffee, which is interesting on its own; each sip a battle between the pre-noon impulse to consume MORE COFFEE and the lizard brain that keeps sending up POSSIBLY POISION warnings as the bitter liquid slides down the gullet), we started walking to the subway.

Kenny is going to live in Brooklyn, and commute via subway to lower Manhattan.  So it made sense to go set up his living situation via subway commute; the first hour of a parking garage is the most expensive, and besides, it would give Kenny a taste of his commute, and give me, the out-of-towner, a real life New York Experience.

If only I knew just how much of an Experience it would be.

On the way down the subway stairs, I asked Paul if the subway allowed beverages.  “No,” he chuckled, “but everyone does it, it’s not a big deal.”

Oh, I thought, well I better finish my coffee (in the final lizard-poison dreg stage anyway), I don’t want to break any rules on the subway and get in trouble.  I’m not from around here.  I’m from a more innocent place, where we have cows, neighborhood associations and Wal-Marts.  So I slug down the coffee, and deposit my cup in a waste receptacle, like a responsible human being.

Down in the subway Paul swiped his commuter card for himself, then swiped through Kenny and I, paying for our fares (complimentary coffee, complimentary subway ride, a native tour guide- awesome dude all-around, is Paul).  We boarded the F train, heading south toward the… tunnel?  Bridge?  Something that subways take to Brooklyn.

After a bit on the subway, the car emptied out a good bit, leaving us, a few people toward the back of the car, and a large, interesting(scary)-looking gentleman at the front.  Paul and Kenny were talking theatre logistics and audition schedules, and almost missed the large, interesting(scary) gentleman get up, open the door between cars that is clearly marked with “never open this door because you will probably fall out and die” signs, unzip his pants, and pee for an impressive amount of time.  Unfortunately for the micturator, he was facing into the wind, and a good bit of his stream splashed back onto his pants and shoes (and the floor beneath his shoes).

I gestured toward the man subtly, with my head, a slight nod as if to say “Don’t over-react, but look at that.”  However, I believe that my eyes were conveying a different message, specifically, “HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THAT!  THAT MAN IS PEEING.  DEFINITELY PEEING.”

Kenny and Paul, reading the panic in my eyes, turned and saw the man.  At least, I assume Paul saw the man, because his head was briefly in that direction.  I’m not sure that a peeing man registered in Paul’s conscious mind, however.  As a native New Yorker, Paul probably has seen hundreds or thousands of peeing men, and has learned to edit them out of his field of view, like Tyrannosauruses in Jurassic Park cannot see things unless they are moving.  (Spoiler?)

If you ever wanted to be invisible to a group of New Yorkers, like if you were a wanted criminal, you could just walk around peeing all the time.  New Yorkers can’t even see REGULAR Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes anymore.

New Yorkers cannot see this.

Kenny goggled, like I did.  Perhaps he boggled as well.  He didn’t google.  But shortly, I saw the first step of his transformation into a city person.  He turned his head back, and started to actively ignore the interesting(scary) gentleman.

I, being an consummate suburbanite, continued to watch.

Fortunately, we got off the car at the next stop.

Paul, living in Manhattan, was following a subway app on his phone to figure out where we needed to transfer trains.  Paul followed the app, and we followed Paul, right out through the no-return turnstile.

Immediately Paul stopped.

“Oops,” he said.

Paul turned around and swiped his card (which is a monthly, and allowed unlimited subway rides for himself) through the turnstile and walked through.  “We wanted to transfer trains at the next stop, not here.  We have to get back on the train,” he said.

Kenny and I looked at the turnstile.

“C’mon,” said Paul, “Just hop over it.”

Okay, I thought.  Paul is a native New Yorker.  He’s middle-aged.  Hell, Kenny and I are approaching middle-age.  It must be allowed to hop the turnstile if you made an honest mistake?

Kenny hopped over.  I hopped over.  Hey, I thought, that was fun.  It was like being in a movie about New York.  Warriors, come out to plaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAaaaaaaAAAAy!

An artist's recreation. I looked THIS AWESOME while hopping the turnstile, too.

So we stood on the platform waiting for our train for a minute, chatting.  Then a young dude in a zip hoodie, jeans, backpack and sneakers comes up to us.  Crap, I thought.  This dude doesn’t just want to ask the time.

He unzipped his hoodie, exposing a badge.  “Any particular reason you hopped the turnstile?”  He paused, and looked at Kenny and I expectantly.  We pivoted on our heels, and stared at Paul.  Maybe there was a reason?  Maybe there was a correct answer to the question?  Maybe everyone was about to laugh in unison, and we’d get a pat on our heads and our hair tussled and a stern remonstration to be better next time?

Paul explained our situation.  We were from out of town, he told us to do it, we had just walked out of the turnstile by accident, we had already paid before, but look, he was willing to swipe us in again if the cop wanted us to?  Kenny and I pivoted back to the police officer.  Surely this reasonable explanation would work.

“That’s not how it works, sir.”  Crap.

We were herded over to a bench, and the cop took our licenses.  Louisiana and Pennsylvania.  Huh.  Well, it looks like the out of state thing checks out.

The cop was new to the job.  Young enough to have the pubic-hair mustache that presages a real soup-strainer.  Young enough to need to call in his partner on this big-time case, the Case of the Two Out-of-Town Scofflaws.  “Frenchy!” he yelled.

“Frenchy!”

“FRENCHY!”

Frenchy was not evident.  Across the subway tracks there was a toddler with special needs (not a judgment, an observation – or else New Yorkers strap helmets to their toddlers at all times, not just riding bicycles), who picked up the call.  “FRENCHY!  FRENCHY!  FRENCHY!  FRENCHY!” she called, her voice echoing off the walls.

Stymied by the lack of Frenchy, Bad-Moustache cop laboriously filled out our tickets on his own.  About ten minutes into the ordeal (with Paul standing off to one side, getting angrier and angrier, non-verbally playing “impatient” so well that if this was Charades, and not Unnecessary Police Action, Kenny and I would have both yelled out “Impatient!” at the same time, two second into the performance), Bad-Moustache’s OTHER partner, Not-Frenchy walked up.

Not-Frenchy was immediately accosted by Bad-Moustache.  “Where’s Frenchy?” B-M asked N-F.  “I don’t know,” said N-F.  “FRENCHY FRENCHY FRENCHY!” went the small helmeted child.

About this time, the coffee (which had been the second twenty ouncer of the day) kicked in.  I needed to hit a restroom.  And while peeing people are invisible to New Yorkers, I didn’t want to test that theory on New York cops.  Somehow I don’t think it would work.

I crossed my legs instead.

Ten more minutes passed.  Paul took off and put on his glasses about a hundred times, crossing and uncrossing his arms.  I kept my legs crossed, but pressed harder.  The cops checked to see if Kenny had a warrant out.  Then B-M turned to me.

I don’t have any warrants out, but I do have one hell of a last name, and every second counted in the battle between my bladder and my force of will.  I desperately wished for B-M to not to start to (laboriously) radio in my last name, phonetic alphabet character by phonetic alphabet character.

B-M looked at me, and asked, “How much do you weigh?”

“What?” I said.

B-M repeated himself, robotically.  “How much do you weigh?”  I looked at Kenny and Paul.  They were looking at me.  Both also seemed nonplussed.

“Uh… 190?” I said.

“Huh.”  B-M returned to his paperwork.  Five minutes later we had our tickets.**

Paul took the tickets from Kenny and I.  Coffee, subway ride, subway tickets.  Paul is awesome.  But don’t trust him on which laws are okay to break in NYC.

We got back onto the subway – without swiping through!  Hah, our turnstile hopping had worked – it just took us forty minutes longer and cost about fifty times as much!  Whee!

On the car, I seriously considering opening the doors and letting loose.  But I saw some young dudes with hoodies and bad moustaches.  And I figured Paul wouldn’t handle that one.

The confrontation with the cop that somehow took forty minutes to write two tickets had angered Paul, and we angrily departed the subway.  Too angrily, it turns out, because we were off a stop early.  When I had exited the restaurant that I had taken my pit-stop in (after rattling the doorknob about three or four times on a girl who was dropping a deuce – sorry!), Paul was swearing at his phone.

We were two miles from Kenny’s apartment.  The time was 12:45.  Kenny’s landlord could only meet us from noon-1, then she had an appointment to get to.  The whole point of the trip was getting screwed over, Kenny wouldn’t be able to find anywhere to live, he would have to go back to Louisiana, jobless and despondent, and probably a wanted criminal scofflaw.

I was up for running there, arriving sweaty and disheveled, a bit wild-eyed and probably late (counting the fact that Kenny and Paul smoke, and nobody was wearing running shoes).  That would definitely get Kenny the place.

Paul, instead, stuck his head inside an unmarked black Lincoln towncar.

“Hey,” he said to the driver, who was eating a sandwich, “You working?”

Oh crap, I thought, we’re breaking more laws.

“Where you want to go, man?” came the Jamaican (not New York Jamaica, the real Jamaica) tinged response.

“Clinton Hill.”

“Alright, I’ll take you there.  Ten bucks?”

“Sure.”

Paul opened the back door and gestured Kenny and I inside.  We entered the unmarked civilian vehicle, and proceeded forward to the apartment.  When we got there, Paul handed the guy a ten.  (Coffee, subway, subway tickets, illegal gypsy-cab ride, and later he bought lunch.  Paul is awesome.)

“Can I get a recipe?” he asked.

The Jamaican cab(?) driver looked at him cross-eyed.  “No, man.  Machine is broken.”

We arrived on the doorstep at 12:55.  Kenny got the place.  We took the subway back without incident.

So, moral of the story: (so it can be an allegorical parable, or whatever I promised) If you go to NYC, ride the subway, it’s fun, entertaining and educational.  But don’t expect to break minor laws and get away with it.

Bad-Moustache is on the patrol.  But Frenchy’s whereabouts are unknown.

*1. Black.  2. F$ck you.

**$100.  Each.  Somehow I think the tickets fund the city just a… bit?  Oh well, it’s a tax on scofflaws.  And honest people who just made a mistake, of course.  Like me.

K(P)enny

My best friend (of all time – including potential future or past (assuming I get a time machine) best friends) is coming to visit.

We told Madeline this yesterday, and she had an interesting reaction.

“Uncle Kenny is going to come to our house and sleep over a few nights, Madeline!”

Her face lit up. Wow, I thought, I guess Kenny must have made an impression on Madeline during the hour we spent with him in New Orleans half a year ago. Three year olds are world renowned for their incredible powers of memory (specifically, promises of cookies and toys that were broken and quietly discarded), so this didn’t shock me. Plus, Kenny is a fun guy, who is wonderful with children. And he was wearing a hat that day, so that stuck with Madeline for a few months. (“When we see that guy with the hat again?” was a common question. We’re working on the name retention aspect of making friends and influencing people. Madeline still refers to one of her best friend’s moms, who we see about once a week, as “her”.)

“Hooray!” Madeline exclaimed, without irony or eye-rolling or derisive snorts (I put those qualifiers there so that when I look back at this post, when she’s a teenager, I will remember there were times when she was a ball of pure, innocent joy that I didn’t want to strangle with her headphone wires).

And then the questions started.

“Where will he sleep? In my bed?”

…territorial? Maybe. But she said it like it was an option that was encouraging, rather than disheartening. Madeline is MUCH too young to be inviting boys into her bed.

“Or on the floor?”

Maybe Madeline’s forgotten about the guest bedroom. Where all the guests have slept. For all of her life.

“No, Madeline, he’ll sleep in the guest room.”

“Oh. On the bed?”

“…yes?” The questions are definitely on a strange track. But who can fathom the mind of a three year old?

“Can we feed him?”

Perhaps Madeline DOES have intentions towards Kenny! After all, the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach (it also eliminates the possibility of being turned aside by the rib cage).

“Yes, we’ll feed him, Madeline.”

“What will we feed him, chicken?”

My wife and I exchange a glance. Chicken dinner? That would be nice and fancy. But we were actually thinking of the trump card of all three year old’s dinner fantasies. “We thought we would feed him pizza.”

“He can eat PIZZA?!”

Ah, Liz and I thought, Madeline is super excited about pizza. Problem solved. The conversation started down another track entirely, and the matter of Uncle Kenny arriving was tabled for the night.

About one day later, Madeline started pitching a fit when she realized that Uncle Kenny was a person, and not Penny, my brother-in-law’s new puppy.

I am heartened that Madeline is not inviting strange men into her bed, but I wonder about what she is feeding our dogs when my back is turned.