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by Crispin Kott

25 Feb 2010

Way back in 1997, the Verve released a single that launched them into the commercial stratosphere. The band were already well known in their native Britain by this time, having released two dynamic albums that mixed their innate gift for sonic exploration with a knack for composing anthemic songs in the rock medium.

“Bitter Sweet Symphony” was the band’s first salvo since reuniting after a two-year hiatus, and it was a good one. But while it was good enough to earn the band a worldwide chart smash (including #2 in the UK, and #12 in the US), the song as released was built upon a sample of a tune by the Rolling Stones, both of which can be heard at the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” Wikipedia page.

Actually, while the song in question was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the sample itself was taken from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra version of “The Last Time”, recorded in 1966. The Verve licensed a sample of the song in advance, but had apparently bitten off more than they were allowed to chew. When “Bitter Sweet Symphony” became a hit, the Stones’ lawyers came calling.

by Bill Gibron

25 Feb 2010

Like the current Academy Awards that decided to revamp its format this year and include 10 choices for Best Picture, our annual Shorts Ends and Leader acknowledgements - or the SEALS, for short - has undergone a bit of a make-over as well. No, we still don’t look at the actual Oscar nominees for guidance. We figure that once these movies have made it into mainstream recognition, they no longer need our support. So instead, we only choose movies and moviemakers who didn’t manage a ticket to the Kodak Theater on 7 March. We also maintain our own exclusive category - Best Guilty Pleasure - as well as look well beyond the last minute awards season snowballing to find many of our winners. Finally, we don’t grouse at success. You don’t have to be a box office nonentity to earn our attention around here. In fact, we kind of like your motion picture pot luck success.

But we have tried to be a bit more pragmatic this year. It’s hard not to be when a bunch of Hollywood backslappers steal most of your potential thunder. In any other year, we’d be touting the wonders of District 9 or A Serious Man. But since the Academy let these titles into the formerly exclusive Best Picture party, we have to step back and think outside the standard cinematic box. Still, many of you won’t agree with most of our choices, forgetting our “no nominee” mandate from a paragraph ago and acting annoyed when your favorite film - In the Loop, Avatar - isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the best way to look at The SEALS is as an alternative’s alternative, a last gasp wrap up of the year in film before the next massive marketing onslaught starts. In any case, here are the winners for 2010, beginning with:

by Rick Dakan

25 Feb 2010

I did a lot of mining during my first play through of Mass Effect 2. I did a lot more than I had to, and when the game ended, I had thousands of units of resources, while at the same time I’d researched pretty much every upgrade I could. I probably spent more than two hours in excess of what was necessary guiding that scanner around planets, waiting for the squiggly line to spike, and for my controller to start vibrating in my hand. As mini-games go, it’s not thrilling. Of course, it’s not terrible either. The simple system reminds me of what using a metal detector on the beach must be like, which makes thematic sense. The hide and seek element means that technically, I guess, it’s a kind of game, albeit one requiring only patience rather than strategy or skill. However, within the context of a game in which I was heavily invested in building up my crew and doing the best job possible in my quest to save the galaxy, I mined and mined and mined with nary a complaint until now.

But as I scanned and probed, I had a lot of time to think, and I wondered if there was some more productive way that someone could exploit my mindless willingness to mine for the greater good of The Normandy and her crew. The first thing that came to mind was the work being done at reCaptcha.net. We’ve all seen captchas when registering with web sites: you have to identify the word to prove that you’re human. ReCaptcha uses two words instead of one, one is for security testing and the other is a scanned image from an old printed book. By entering what you interpret that the scan as saying, you add to the database of reliable translations of scanned texts, helping to eliminate optical character recognition errors. Obviously the Folding At Home project for Playstation 3 re-purposes the gaming console for some sort of public good, but it just takes advantage of idle CPUs, not the player’s own cognitive skills.

by Oliver Ho

25 Feb 2010

Modesty Blaise beguiles. When we first meet her, in her 1963 debut storyline, “La Machine”, she has already retired from a successful life of crime. Two secret service agents request her help, and as they review their dossier on her, the description arises that she has a ‘hint of Eurasian features’.

With her Breakfast at Tiffany’s hairdo, a Jane Russell figure, and a penchant for ditching her shirt, it would be tempting to dismiss Modesty Blaise as a simple pastiche of early 60s pop culture sex kittens added to a James Bond template.

by Rob Horning

25 Feb 2010

Google, as we know, makes a lot of money by providing “relevant” ads alongside its search results.  As this cheerleading Wired article by Steven Levy details, Google can provide relevance to users because it has devised ways to harvest the data users provide in their various searches and in what they subsequently click on. This makes the search operation a quid pro quo exchange, even though it seems as if we are getting something for free when we use Google.

Singhal notes that the engineers in Building 43 are exploiting another democracy — the hundreds of millions who search on Google. The data people generate when they search — what results they click on, what words they replace in the query when they’re unsatisfied, how their queries match with their physical locations — turns out to be an invaluable resource in discovering new signals and improving the relevance of results. The most direct example of this process is what Google calls personalized search — an opt-in feature that uses someone’s search history and location as signals to determine what kind of results they’ll find useful. (This applies only to those who sign into Google before they search.) But more generally, Google has used its huge mass of collected data to bolster its algorithm with an amazingly deep knowledge base that helps interpret the complex intent of cryptic queries.

The egregious use of the word democracy in this passage gives a hint of how corporations would like people to view this immaterial or affective labor (the production of meanings or emotion) that its consumers perform. When you do work for Google, it’s not work per se, but an expression of your significance as a digital citizen in the great internet super-regime. Your privacy isn’t being invaded; no, instead you are getting to vote your desires automatically and have your voice registered in the way Google molds our common shared reality online. The “amazingly deep” company then can sort out the “cryptic” nonsense that its users type in and tell them what they really wanted to know, as if they weren’t so ignorant and could ask for it intelligibly.

Michael Hardt argues that affective labor, the way we collectively “make” emotions in society, used to occur by and large outside of capitalist production, but the shift to an information and services economy brought it inside. “Just as through the process of modernization all production became industrialized, so too through the process of postmodernization all production tends toward the production of services, toward becoming informationalized…. production has become communicative, affective, de-instrumentalized, and ‘elevated’ to the level of human relations—but of course a level of human relations entirely dominated by and internal to capital.” In other words, the effort we put into making emotional bonds with one another have been co-opted in part by capitalist production, which exploits our human desire to cooperate and like each other and get more done and share things with each other and so on. My sense is that internet platforms have completed that project of cooptation.

The point is that Google and companies like it will increasingly use both promises of convenience and efficiency and celebrations of the democratic joys of open participation to justify privacy invasion and the annexation of the information work users do for their own private purposes. Web 2.0 is an ideological phenomenon more so than a technological one. It’s a matter of persuading us to live publicly so that our lives can become the by-product of the data processing we do in the course of living.

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