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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

Air travel is something of an occupational hazard in my life—partly because of (obviously) my occupation and partly because of my geographically dispersed family.  So I spend a lot of time in airports, my time there equally divided between airport bars and airport bookshops.


I don’t usually buy anything in the bookshops.  $7 is a steep price for a beer, but you can’t very well sneak one in from outside just in case your flight is delayed.  $28 for a paperback is completely avoidable when you can plan your reading needs in advance.  The generally disappointing range of books is another factor.  It’s rare that anything on display catches my attention.


I’m always reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when the airport bookshop is named “Just Crichton and King”.  Although in recent times it’s more “Just Brown and Rowling”, the idea is still the same: sell the most populist, mass-market books you can think of, in big piles.


Australian airports are particularly bad, something that was brought home to me by the excellent range in the Great Canadian Book Company at Vancouver airport last week.  At Canberra airport (a city of 300,000 people and a frequent destination) the poor range is hardly surprising, but larger airports like Sydney and Melbourne don’t have the same excuse.  Even in a major airport, the lack of competition tends to leave shops perpetuating the narrow idea of the “airport novel”.


There’s nothing wrong with a bit of trash, to be fair, and at least page-turners have the virtue of keeping you awake and engaged when on a long flight.  Many is the time I’ve attempted to read something dense and complex only to fail with the combined distractions of turbulence, snoring neighbours and intravenous airline coffee.


I probably would have had better luck with a Michael Crichton than I recently did with Robert Musil’s epochal The Man Without Qualities, a dense, misanthropic exploration of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Fourteen hours over the Pacific Ocean and I managed a mere five pages before I gave up and watched Prince Caspian on the little TV screen.  The first volume is over 700 pages and I barely made a dent.


This teaches me that picking the right book for a flight is more complex than merely grabbing whatever you’re currently reading.  It’s a special case and deserves careful thought.


Everyone would have their own unique selection criteria.  Do you like to take a couple of books and see what you’re in the mood for?  Do you trust the serendipity of the airport bookshop selection?  Can you even read on a plane or is it just a bad reading environment?


I think next time I’m going for something punchy.  With big print for my sleep-deprived eyes.


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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

The advance of digital technology further and further into the nooks and crannies of our lives is based on an elementary trade-off. It supplies us with a great deal of convenience: It lets us communicate with one another wherever and whenever we want to; it provides us with instantaneous access to and limitless storage of media, everything from personal photos to films to most of the history of recorded music on a terabyte hard drive; it’s capable of building in a level of redundancy in our lives, preserving what we might otherwise forget and protecting us from oversights—if you lose tickets to an event, chances are the barcode on them can be canceled and new ones issued to you. And if your credit card number is stolen, chances are the bank will recognize suspicious purchases and notify you. But in exchange for all this convenience, we sacrifice privacy and spontaneity: We permit all our public actions to be cataloged and processed, and we make ourselves completely and instantly accessible not just to our friends and family, but to marketers who seek to guide our behavior in contexts that they can detect and analyze perhaps even before we have a chance to, and to the state, which may seek to stifle dissent before it has the opportunity to assemble and gather force. We become willing parties to our own reification, to our assimilation into the giant digital data machine. Obviously there is pleasure in this, not only in the expanded access to entertainment but also in the thrill of losing ourselves, of ceding responsibility, of having an all-powerful deity-like entity feed us what it thinks we need to know to be happy in whatever situation we end up in. In short, we have a easier time navigating the world as we experience it because it has been preformatted by powerful institutions. Unfortunately our interests are more or less tangential to these institutions, whose primary concern is their own survival and growth.


So, considering how technology threatens to render our wishes irrelevant even as it pretends to cater to them—that is, to our desires boiled down to the need for convenience, to consume more faster and with maximum indiscriminateness—it would seem diligent to regard technology’s encroachments with circumspection and skepticism. Because information technology makes so much of our private lives public and because it flattens our experience into a universal code of ones and zeros that threatens to annihilate our sense of its uniqueness, it’s natural and prudent to be ambivalent about IT and the dislocating change it incurs. But The Numerati, a new collection of profiles of mathematician data miners by frequent BusinessWeek contributor Stephen Baker, offers mostly token displays of such ambivalence. The book—whose chapters explore how data about us can be used to make us the target for ads and political appeals, how it can be used to better surveil us at work and capture terrorists (or at least casino cheaters), how it can expose our health issues, and how it can predict the fate of our relationships—is not really for skeptics. While occasionally paying lip service to privacy advocates, it is generally fawning in its coverage of the companies who sell their abilities to profile us in terms of what we might be susceptible to buy. It regards their invasive business practices as inevitable, the inescapable result of increased competition, and a reflection of the dubious proposition that consumer preferences dictate the direction of the economy. Companies need to spy on their own customers, the logic goes, in order to know what those customers will want just in time to provide it to them, maximizing whatever logistical competitive advantage can thereby be derived. “Retailers simply cannot afford to keep herding us blindly through stores and malls, flashing discounts on Pampers to widowers in wheelchairs,” Baker warns in a typical passage.


But if you are not primarily worried about what companies can or can’t “afford,” the values implicit in the book may bother you. You might not celebrate as a company learns to shed its “barnacle” customers—i.e. the ones that try to keep companies to their word and make them deliver on their promises. You might not be happy that shopping carts can persuade people to buy more at the supermarket than they otherwise would have. You won’t cheer when a computer figures out who you voted for based on contextual clues, opening you up to a new slew of fundraising appeals. Baker seems to register just how dehumanizing and awful the world of surveillance and forced digitalization of our lives will be, but in the book, the craven instincts of the business journalist usually take over, and he presents corporate management’s side as the final word—our inevitable fate that we may as well start loving since we are powerless to alter it.


Think of the endless rows of workers threading together electronic cables in a Mexican assembly plant or the thousands of soldiers rushing into machine-gun fire at Verdun—even the blissed out crowd pushing through the turnstiles at a Grateful Dead concert. From management’s point of view, all of us in these scenarios might as well be nameless and faceless. Turning us into simple numbers was what happened in the industrial age. That was yesterday’s story.


The examples cited here are bizarrely incongruous—are we supposed to be happy to be compared to soldiers being ordered to march into certain death? is that at all comparable to Deadheads at a stadium show? and simply because a lot of people have gathered in one place means they have been ontologically reduced to a statistic automatically? But setting that aside, the phrase yesterday’s story is enough to tip us off to Baker’s teleological impulses, while his elision of management’s point of view with that destiny, with the end of the story, with the point of view that shapes the story, is characteristic of the book as a whole. It is our fate to become numbers in the eyes of the powers that be, because it suits those powers that we be organized in that much-more-manageable fashion. But Baker would have us believe that history itself is responsible, not the institutions and those who profit by them.


The confusions about cause and effect then extend to the means of data collection. “When it comes to producing data,” he declares, “we are prolific.” This seems an innocuous enough statement, but it’s totally backward. Our behavior is simply our behavior; to us it is lived experience, memory, sense stimuli. We don’t “produce” the data, the technology that collects it transforms our lived experience into that data that institutions (corporations, the state) crave. It works to have us reconceive ourselves as numbers, as the sum of datapoints, and then presents its manipulations of that data as the means for our personal extension, even though we are now limited to the field it has defined. “Once they have a bead on our data, they can decode our desires,” Baker notes, but it seems more appropriate to say that they encode it, trapping it in the mediated digital world. Amazon, for example, usefully tells us what we might want based on our behavior, and then buying the books it has suggested begins to seem a way of completing ourselves. The data—the preexisting categories, the defaults, the automated processes incumbent in the systems that capture information—has started to produce us.


The most obvious example of this is social networks, or the even more totalizing Second Life. These data-harvesting applications hope to encourage us to conduct our social lives in their petri dishes and behave in preconditioned ways the service providers can measure and exploit—attaching ads and recommendations to social exchanges that in the real world would transpire with unencumbered spontaneity, with no commercial subtext. Online, though, our behavior—now transformed into marketing data—suddenly works, to those we “network” with, like a sales pitch—a means to some other end rather than being autonomous. Our actions seems less real until they are posted and shared and processed to our maximum advantage with regard to the impression we would like to create or the number of page views we would like to garner. Our consciousness, when reduced to data out of convenience, becomes merely instrumental, something easily reprogrammed to accomplish various tasks. We can automate our social life or refashion our identities thanks to the tools the networks provide, but the thrill of lived experience vanishes to a degree, becoming more and more a matter of adjustments on the spreadsheet of self.


After Baker has misconstrued our role in turning ourselves into data, it’s a short leap to claim that “the only folks who can make sense of the data we create are crack mathematicians.” In other words, don’t try to understand yourself; you need a math genius to tell you who you are and what your meant to do through your behavior. Statisticians are better managers of our datasets than we are, and they are better able to manipulate our data to see what it will yield—to see what our true possibilities are. Apparently our own account of our hopes and dreams and intentions is irrelevant to the degree that it is not conditioned by what the math geniuses have calculated and made permissible. Once we are data, we are inscrutable to ourselves.


Not only does our reduction to data make us strangers to ourselves, but Baker goes so far as to opine that in the future, we will be “happy to pay for the privilege of remaining, to some degree or other, in the dark” about the selves that can be constructed from our data. He has in mind the disconcerting probabilities that we will contract diseases, but it applies plausibly to the whole range of knowledge that can be produced about us. When we begin to be overtargeted, we will need filters to discover our authentic reflection in the efforts to persuade us. We will want liberation from the self left behind by the trail we’ve blazed through commercial culture, as that identity is merely the one that shopping permits us to have. A more integral self will fight that commercially derived one for social space in which to manifest. But the hegemony of consumerism will require us to pay for that privilege of being able to conceive an authentic self independent of our data stream.


What can we do to thwart our being converted to data? Baker suggests a can’t-beat-em-join-em approach, urging us to make spreadsheets of our achievements to demonstrate our worth. As digital data hounds become more thoroughly intrusive, we can probably count on the advent of services that would throw out false scents in our name, creating fake data trails to muddy the image of ourselves therein, to obscure our health concerns from insurance companies who would like to exclude us, and to mask our shopping proclivities to ensure that we don’t suffer price discrimination or perhaps attract favorable discounts. Just as credit-score doctors learned how to game FICO, a counter-Numerati is sure to emerge to try and thwart their efforts to define us. Short of that, it will increasingly be to our benefit to conduct ourselves anonymously if we want to preserve any sense of self at all.


 


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Wednesday, Sep 3, 2008
I wrote this for a contest over at The Escapist and thought it was worth sharing. It still brings me a smile.

There once was a game from Japan,
About a jumping Red Man.
With mushrooms he grew stronger, flowers made his life last longer,
and coins earned him many a fan.


But as the sequels went by,
players stopped wanting to die.
They made the game less tricky, they made the power-ups more nifty,
and now anyone can play as that Red Guy.


So they sent him into space,
such an amazing place.
So many stars to collect, the same old Princess to protect,
but little to explain the newfound pace.


You can ride on Manatees,
you can even talk to psychotic peas.
But at around Star Seventy, you’ll wonder about brevity,
and instead play something with Miis.


There once was a game from Japan,
About a jumping Red Man.
With mushrooms he grew stronger, flowers made his life last longer,
and coins earned him many a fan.


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Wednesday, Sep 3, 2008

It appears to come on suddenly, almost without warning. One minute you’re juggling a schedule to see if you can fit a few more screenings into a certain week, the next Hollywood forgets you exist and takes an extended preview hiatus. Too call it feast or famine would be an understatement, since after the lull, you’ll more than likely have access to more cinematic product than you can shake a celluloid stick at. Between Oscar screeners, ancillary awards hype (read: book, screenplays, soundtracks, promotional materials), and actual trips to the theater, Fall forces a critic into a state of solitary suspended animation. It’s just you, the studios, and an endless parade of motion pictures.


So why the dead zone? Why now? Why the lack of anything legitimate for the last two weeks? Some point to the industry’s notorious track record (load up Summer and Winter, screw off Fall and Spring) while others indicate a pro-festival format. Right now, between Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, the last remnants of the old guard print media are schmoozing and cruising on company expense accounts, getting early looks at potential award winners and larding their bylines with interviews, insights, and occasionally insipid gossiping. As a result, the suits figure that few are in town to take apart their feeble failed popcorn fare. So they release these titles sans screening and wait for the season to start up mid-month.


Indeed, looking at the calendar in my office, there are approximately 12 screenings from 8 September to 15 September. Fourteen days. Twelve new films to consider. Some are being tagged right before their release date (be warned, fans of Pacino, DeNiro, and Righteous Kill). Others are being dragged out early, hoping to generate a little gold statue buzz. Such pre-prerelease presentations usually bode well for a movie. While it wasn’t my cup of tea, last year we saw Michael Clayton a full six weeks before it opened. On the other hand, Persepolis never arrived on our shores until AFTER it had won an Academy award, and even then there were review restrictions based on region and potential release.


Understand this - Tampa is the artistic armpit of the movie business. We are frequently forgotten when it comes to art house offerings while readily relegated to numerous screenings of the latest mainstream mung. In fact, you know a film must suck and suck mucho hard when Cigar City fails to get a sneak peek (I’m talking to you Babylon A.D. and Bangkok Dangerous). Heck, there was even a Disaster Movie offering the night before it opened. You’d figure that a city a mere 70 miles from Orlando (Eastern home of one Universal Studios and the House of Mouse) and 175 miles from Miama (South Beach, BABY! ) would warrant a tad more consideration. But unless we push for titles, or remind studio reps that we work here, several significant films would simply pass us by.


One of this Summer’s hot ticket releases was Man on Wire. Telling the story of daredevil and high wire performer Phillipe Petit’s 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers, the documentary has been getting stellar reviews and lots of positive press. But not in Tampa. There has never been a general screening of this film, and any critic who has reviewed it either got a deal from the distributor direct or saw it outside the area. Come the end of the year, when ‘Best Of’ lists are getting put together, many think Man on Wire will be right up there. Yet instead of using this downtime to play catch up with places outside the major metropolitan loop, it’s the clean slate calm before the storm.


Another example of locational prejudice, if you will, is City of Men. Last April, Tampa got an exclusive press showing of the Brazilian drama (a follow-up of sorts to the award winning City of God and based on the TV series of the same name). While many felt Paulo Morelli failed to capture the same South American spice that Fernando Meirelles brought to the original, it was still a highly touted release. After seeing the film, we critics were informed by the studio rep that we would have to wait until a regional release before we could review the film. As dates were set and then retracted, excuses provided and then pushed aside, we have yet to be given the go ahead to write up this title. When it finally hit DVD on 1 July, I thought about giving it a go. But since there was no longer a need to satisfy a screening obligation, I decided to lighten my workload, so to speak.


Some of my fellow scribes LOVE this time of year. It’s an excuse for a vacation, or to simply decompress from a Summer overflowing with empty entertainment value. But if you’re part of the nu-media, the ‘constantly-having-to-update-a-blog-or-post-new-content’ contingent, this lull is literary death. You have to scramble every day, digging through a backlog of material and off the radar releases in quasi-desperation to find something to scribble about. After the typical post-Labor Day wrap-up, SE&L went silent for a day. We frequently skip a post, believing that something we said previously warranted an extra bit of attention. But with no movies to talk about last week, and even less available now, it’s almost impossible to come up with a fresh or fun approach. Everything just feels - well, dead.


And the notion of four months filled with daily screenings doesn’t make the dearth seem any more acceptable. Indeed, as the calendar dates float by, one finds themselves wondering why THREE films have be scheduled for the 18th, or why some films are being shown at theaters 25 miles outside the city? Would it have been so hard to drag a print to the area for the last week of August/first of September? Granted, you didn’t want us to see Vin Diesel destroy yet another semi-solid sci-fi premise, but couldn’t that look at the new Mike Leigh comedy Happy-Go-Lucky have filled its spot? Who cares about the well named Disaster Movie? How about an earlier look at Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (which, by the way, is getting the standard Disney sneak - the night before it opens…Sheesh). 


Instead, we are stuck waiting - waiting for the press reps to decide whether The Women deserves our attention (the answer - HELL NO! ), or arguing with New York/LA publicists over whether or not they should send a screener DVD your way (“you write WHERE, again???”). Sure, it sounds like ungrateful bellyaching and anyone who has done this job for longer than six years laughs at the suggestion of a slowdown. But with something like the Internet which functions like an infinite source of information - and a seemingly equal number of individuals looking to get it and publish it - offline is off topic, and soon, out of touch. This may be the way things have worked for decades, but times tend to change. If the business model doesn’t alter its tendencies, this pause might end up a literal dead zone before long. 


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Wednesday, Sep 3, 2008

Imagine if you got to do this at primary school!


The good teachers at Parkdale School in Edmonton gave their students $25 each and let them run wild at a Chapter’s bookstore this week to help replenish the school’s library. Students from kindergarten up to ninth grade selected dinosaur books, ca magazines, and even a few Stephen King paperbacks. All up, the kids nabbed 410 books.


The Edmonton Journal reports that Parkdale is an “inner-city school that puts extra emphasis on literacy and writing”. My favourite bit of the article is this: “The field trip ended up being part literature lesson, part math class. With a price limit, students had to figure out each book’s Canadian price and how much money they had left. Some, with a few dollars left over, opted to pool their money with a friend and get an extra book.”


Can’t you just see the kids getting together and working out what coins would buy which books, like they were swapping marbles in the playground?


 


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