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Friday, Feb 27, 2009

It may turn out to be a question of semantics, but the idea of “purchasing experiences,” as this PsyBlog item discusses, has always grated on me. It seems to conform the pleasures of living to the calculus of shopping, as if they were essentially the same, and the consumerist paradigm can be applied to all pleasures and desires. Everything is for sale, and everything has its price, if you only think of it in the right way. (Just ask Gary Becker.) Is this in fact true, that rational calculation underlies even our most spontaneous-seeming choices and we just choose to block it out of our consciousness from ideological convenience, or is hyper-rational-choice analysis of human behavior itself the ideological proposition? The PsyBlog post confirms what most research into the subject has found: that buying experiences is better than buying stuff, because the stuff sticks around and becomes lame and/or embarrassing, while the experiences become warm and fuzzy memories.


Experiences also beat possessions because they seem to:
  * Improve with time as we forget about all the boring moments and just recall the highlights.
  * Take on symbolic meanings, whereas those shoes are still just shoes.
  * Be very resistant to unfavourable comparisons: a wonderful moment in a restaurant is personally yours and difficult to compare, but all too soon your shoes are likely to look dated in comparison with the new fashions.


That makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, but I just wish it weren’t represented as a matter of what to buy. Can we simply have experiences rather than arranging to purchase them ahead of time?


I had a similar feeling about another consumer-choice related post. Jonah Lehrer, who has just written a book called How We Choose, recently posted about a consumer-research study built on the premise that we all operate with two distinct decisionmaking systems: “the slow rational, deliberate approach (System 1) or the fast, emotional, instinctive approach (System 2).” The study set out to determine which yielded better decisions, using the metric of “consumer consistency.” I have read the rationale for this several times, and have failed to understand it as anything other than an inexplicable plug for Nikon cameras.


When faced with a choice task, consumers need to evaluate the overall utility of each of the alternatives they are facing and compare these utilities in order to make their final choice. Such a utility computation process is likely to vary from case to case based on the exact information consumers consider, the particular facts they retrieve from their memories, as well as the particular computations that they carry out; any of these process components is a potential source for decision inconsistency. For example, when shopping for a new Nikon digital camera, it is possible that consumers might change the aspects of the camera they focus on, the particular information they retrieve from memory, the relative importance weights they assign to the attributes, or the process of integrating these weights.
As researchers, we often treat such inconsistencies as ―noise‖ and use statistical inference tools that allow us to examine the data while mostly ignoring these fluctuations. Yet, such noise can convey important information about the ability of the decision maker to perform good decisions, and, in particular, it can reflect their ability to conceptualize their own preferences. In the current work we focus on such inconsistencies / noise in decision making as indicators of the ease in which consumers can formulate their preferences: we focus on the question of whether the cognitive or emotional decisions are more prone to this kind of error.


I’m not sure why inconsistency iis defined as “error” (Am I reading this right?) or why they assume that beneath the “noise” evoked in a given decisionmaking moment is a preference that is true and consistent over time for a particular individual. People’s desires aren’t that static. And the “noise” in the decisionmaking process is what makes us more than automatons; it makes us strange to ourselves, potentially, but that also means we discover new possibilities for who we are that we wouldn’t otherwise reason our way into. I tend to think that our identity is not so continuous as the researchers’ assumptions imply; that instead our identity tends to be conjured up by the demands of a given context—to put it in lit-crit jargon, subjectivity is intertextual. It’s relational. It’s not a given, transcendent thing that then responds to situations and decisionmaking opportunities. The “noise” is everything.


If we are start making consistent decisions when forced to rely on our “emotional” decisionmaking system, as the study found, that suggests to me a failure of imagination, a retreat into safe choices in response to being overstimulated. The emotional brain is boring in its consistency, not “rational” as Lehrer suggests. Again, this could be semantics, could be a matter of how you define “rational,” but it seems irrational to me to continue to choose the same thing over and over again. That seems sort of regressive, tending toward an infantile repetition compulsion. As much as I complain about gratuitous novelty-seeking, the idea that only consistent choices are rational seems even more absurd. (I am missing something about this study? I must be.) I sometimes feel as though I am coming around to a totally indefensible and irrational position that we shouldn’t bother to study how we choose at all, since it can hardly be anything but a weapon in the hands of marketers to control what we choose, to force out the noise that makes us unique to ourselves and replace it with an official, monologic hum.


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Friday, Feb 27, 2009

Economopocalypse got you down?  Banish the gloomies by slurping up a Chipwich® or a Bomb Pop™—American obesity has already pressed on beyond epidemic levels into pure comic Nutty Professor territory, after all, so why hold back in your time of need?  If you’re among the few still watching your girlish figure, however, you can instead dip into Virginia composer Michael Hearst‘s adorable little Songs for Ice Cream Trucks project, which pays homage to the beloved nuggets of dairy delight and the remarkable mobile delivery infrastructure that carries them throughout suburbia with nostalgia-riddled melodic pointillism delivered via wobbly bells and xylophones.  It’s also a remarkable study in self-restraint: these songs had to work with only the technical underpinnings of what is essentially just a giant music box on wheels. And even though ice cream is always awesome, the songs aren’t always upbeat, sometimes opting instead for creepy minor keys that remind you that at least a few of the truck drivers from your childhood were probably borderline pedophiles and Mister Softee kinda looks like a bow-tied turd.  But you can grab these songs for free, so if you ultimately decide that rainbow sprinkles aren’t a suitable substitute for your 401k (imagine that!) and still need a pick-me-up at the other end, you’ll have plenty of money left over for the Jim Beam.


Michael Hearst
“Where Do Ice Cream Trucks Go in the Winter? [MP3]
     


“Chocolate, Vanilla, or Swirl?” [MP3]
     



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Friday, Feb 27, 2009

These are all the video’s I can find for Sia’s surprise Billboard charting 2008 impulse item Some People Have Real Problems. There’s just something about this bizarre Australian that melts my jaded, critical heart. The best of her vids is her most recent, “Soon We’ll Be Found”. It’s undeniably beautiful, even if the music doesn’t do it for you. I often think she’s crazy, then I wonder why her music sounds so normal. She’s like a Bjork that doesn’t drag reporters down airport walkways and mentally explode on film sets. All that’s left is a nice voice, an endearing, impish personality, and a big effort. I can’t help rooting for her. She had me since Zero 7’s “Destiny”.


Sia - “Soon We’ll Be Found”


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Friday, Feb 27, 2009

Not being from Chicago, the Chic-a-go-go show is somewhat bewildering to me. It seems too good to be true that there’s a Public Access show where ? and the Mysterians, the Specials, and Nobunny would all play. This Nobunny clip from the end of 2005 is especially excellent—possibly because of the carrot as microphone or the gentle and awkward dancing/bobbing of the teens, adults and children. Also, the song is excellent. I’m posting this because I won’t be able to see Nobunny on his latest tour, so to make up for it I watch this YouTube clip over and over.



Tagged as: nobunny
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Friday, Feb 27, 2009
Nils at the piano.

Nils at the piano.


Neil Young’s seminal 1970 record, After the Goldrush, yielded so many classic compositions, many would be surprised to find out it was panned by critics upon release. Now, the album routinely occupies “top 100” and “best of” lists by fans and critics alike.  It is a record I’ve heard so many times it often goes unnoticed by me when played, sinking into the background like the wallpaper on my grandmother’s kitchen walls; familiar and comforting but long since removed from piquing any real curiosity. Some records are like that, essential but no longer warranting of examination.  Or, so I thought.


Recently, I mindlessly reached into the stack of vinyl I have next to my stereo. Retrieving the worn, frayed, musty scented copy of “Goldrush”—bearing more than a striking resemblance to the patchwork jeans displayed on the back cover—I decided to put it on while I folded the pile of laundry gathered on my couch. T-shirt in hand, out of the speakers the folksy strums of Neil’s acoustic guitar filled the room. He plaintively asked to be “told why” and I reflexively hummed along.


Suddenly, with the opening piano chords of “After the Goldrush” my ears stood up at attention. I must have resembled a dog that hears the word “TREAT” go un-spelled from his owner’s lips, I was struck by how simply the progression was rendered. Having seen Young play this many times before on piano, I assumed he was also on the recording. The back of the album, however, revealed Nils Lofgren was credited with piano.


Lofgren, a guitar player and Chicago area native, was only 17 and had virtually no experience playing piano. He reportedly practiced his parts around the clock during breaks in recording. His rapport with Young would last overtime, appearing next on guitar for the recording of Tonight’s the Night. But it was his turn as piano player on “Goldrush” that would serve as his introduction into rock music’s pantheon.


Nils and Neil live onstage.

Nils and Neil live onstage.


Originally, Young sited inspiration for the songs on the album came after reading a screenplay written by Dean Stockwell and Herb Berman entitled After the Goldrush. The film was never released but the songs generated for the soundtrack were.  “Goldrush” came out just fifteen months after Young’s Everybody Know This Is Nowhere with Crazy Horse and his collaboration with Crosby, Stills, and Nash Déjà Vu. He recruited members of Crazy Horse and tapped relative unknown Lofgren to play piano on the record.


With each track on the album I was drawn to the economy and restraint of Lofgren’s playing. His chordal approach added heft to Young’s vocal delivery while providing foundational support for the songs melodies. It’s the type of playing that suggested nods and eye contact amongst the participants. Langdon Winner, in his original review of the record for Rolling Stone in 1970, described the band’s performance of “Southern Man” this way; “By today’s standards, the ensemble playing is sloppy and disconnected. The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others’ footprints now and then, they never really come together.” This “half-baked” quality-as Winner further characterized it- become the hallmark of Young’s work with Crazy Horse and went on to inform subsequent alt-country playing in further decades. Lofgren was integral to this dynamic.


You need only listen to “Cripple Creek Ferry” to hear its echoes in the work of Wilco, Ryan Adams, Old 97’s and others. The piano comps along just behind the beat, lending the rollicking atmosphere of a honky tonk to the track. “Oh, Lonesome Me” features reticently delivered fills bridging the gaps left by guitar and bass. The playing throughout is earnest and textural, framing some of Young’s best-known melodies, without clogging up the space.


On the more up-tempo track “When You Dance, I Can Really Love”, the staccato plinking of single notes drives the tune forward. He tackles each song more like the guitar player he is better known for being.  It is this sensibility that lends “Goldrush” a vacuole quality. Less self-aware players might have tried to overcompensate for their lack of experience by trying to prove too much.


There is no better evidence of this type of restraint than on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, one of Young’s best-known vocal melodies. The vocal is simply augmented and nurtured along by Lofgren’s piano line. A more virtuosic and accomplished player could easily have cluttered this song.  Instead, the lullaby at the song’s core is left unmolested. That may be precisely what Young saw in the neophyte.


By album’s end I was filled with the type of excitement I seem to only get from discovering a new band these days.  In a sense I had.  Now, when I listen to After the Goldrush, I hear melodies I had never considered before. Lofgren has of course gone on to achieve fame as both a solo artist and as one of the most heralded sidemen in rock.


Nils with his new \

Nils with his new “Boss”.


Bruce Springsteen, whose E Street Band Lofgren has been a member of since the mid-‘80s, once quipped that the best guitar player in his band was relegated to third-string status.


I’ve since begun to take a different view of albums I’d written off as fully explored. Given the right frame of mind, a mundane, distracting task, and open ears, undiscovered wonders lie buried just beneath the surface of records you’ve heard thousands of times before. It only takes one more listen.



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