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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008

This forthcoming paper on inequality by economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson (summarized in the NYT by Eduardo Porter) is attracting much econoblogosphere attention because it argues, as Wolfers explains at Freakonomics, that happiness is becoming more equally distributed even as income is becoming less so. An excited Tyler Cowen suggests that these findings indicate why “moral arguments from the Left fall on deaf ears when it comes to most Americans.  Of course happiness inequality is more fundamental than either income or wealth inequality because we care about outputs, not inputs.” From this point of view, the Democrats should not futilely practice what the right likes to dub the “politics of envy” when it comes to the wealthiest 1% becoming much wealthier while income has stagnated in lower brackets. Regular Americans don’t begrudge the rich get richer, because they are just so happy themselves with what they have, in both material possessions and opportunities.


Likewise, Stevenson and Wolfers’s findings might give rhetorical ammunition to those who want to argue that income and happiness aren’t linked, and therefore growth policies shouldn’t be pursued aggressively at the expense of policies that prioritize other goals—namely, environmental protection, though any number of moral values may be cited as preferable to economic expansion, which is arguably a centrifugal force atomizing members of communities and leading to social disintegration.


But before one can give full credence to arguments developed from the paper’s findings, one has to sort of the methodological concerns about how happiness is measured—can it be defined in such a way that it measures the same thing for all people? What makes me happy certainly doesn’t make my neighbors happy; it doesn’t even make my parents or siblings happy. So what’s really being compared when the happiness of different social groups are set against one another? Also, are subjective reports about happiness relevant, policymaking-wise, given how adaptable people are and how volatile moods tend to be? And since happiness can often tend to be relative, a matter of looking at yourself in relation to acquaintances, it can vary depending on context.


In his post (and paper), Wolfers talks about the statistical distribution of those responding to this General Social Survey question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are: very happy; pretty happy; or not too happy?” But there’s a temptation to see in his charts a distribution of happiness, as though it were a resource in limited supply. Income, if you think of it as GDP, is a limited sum whose distribution is determined economically. Happiness is an emotion that can’t really be quantified, except as a span of time—it is really a ratio of hours spent in a positive mood over all waking hours. So I find it hard to understand what Wolfers means when he writes, “These changes yield some pretty striking changes in the distribution of happiness.” Isn’t this a matter of more people claiming to be happy in general? There hasn’t been any sort of redistribution, which the wording might imply to non-economists like me. And “happiness inequality” seems like a weird way to describe all this; it seems a coinage meant specifically to supplant or trivialize income inequality. “Equality” makes no sense as a description of the comparison of different people’s subjective, emotional states. It’s only being evoked here to distract us from or negate the impact of the unequal distribution of things that can actually be counted—money, well-paying jobs, vacation homes, etc.


It seems to me that measuring happiness through surveys tells us very little while putting a cudgel in the hands who want to be back a more substantive egalitarianism.


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Monday, Aug 4, 2008
A comparison between tarot cards and the field of non-linear, first person video games.


One of my favorite phrases to throw around in a video game debate is that no amount of naming the chess pieces in a game after something will change the fact that you’re still playing chess. The chief preoccupation is still scoring a checkmate, having nothing to do with whatever title or meaning you’ve assigned to the pieces. It’s simply a way to shake up someone who thinks that all video games need to do is have a more sophisticated plot, a way to make them question the game designs and activities we’re actually doing in games. It also reminds people that the player input is what makes game plots so difficult to manage, though it’s also what gives them so much potential. Yet there must be a way to create meaning in a game despite that huge variable without constantly forcing the player’s hand. A couple of games that are coming on the horizon are exploring just that, as highlighted by a fascinating interview over at Gamasutra with Patrick Redding about Far Cry 2. I made a comment there that was just meant to summarize what Redding was trying to explain when one designs a non-linear plot. The writer creates a series of reactions that relate to one another like vignettes that inter-operate in the game. People seemed to take a shining to it, so after giving it some thought, I figured I should explore what the hell that actually means.


 


Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them. When I say a lively and energetic man is affecting your life, I don’t have to worry that I’m talking to a person surrounded by boring people. They will, by default, manipulate the data in their head until someone conforming to that image plugs in. So to explain how one might create narrative in a seemingly random video game, I’m going to explain how I can create narrative with a deck of cards.


 


The deck consists of 78 cards representing broad philosophical and personal concepts. The Magus is skill, wisdom, cunning. Death is transformation, change, and destruction but not literally death. You then have the lower arcana of wands (energy), cups (emotion), swords (logic), and discs (material affairs). These are like the houses of a normal deck of cards: each are numbered and represent states or emotions, the major arcana represent types of people or situations, and the ace is a massive concentration of whatever arcana it represents. Each of these cards are visually and descriptively designed to kick off something in your subconscious, and they do so with a variety of tools. I use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Deck and I chose it because each card has a stunning amount of imagery on it. There’s phallic, vaginal, occult, and anything else they could pack into one little card. It is extremely unlikely that a person looking at one of these things is not going to have it register and connect with something in their head. Whether that association is positive or negative, tarot cards work as narrative devices because they deal with loaded symbolism that people naturally turn into stories. When I slap down the Knight of Wands, shown wielding flaming staves and thundering horses, I know the subject is both puzzled and creating connections without me saying a word.


 


Furthermore, in any narrative there is a great deal to be said for prepping your subject. I’ve experimented with a variety of reading methods and they almost all require the subject to shuffle the cards. While they do so, you have them think about what’s affecting them or what question they want answered. You do this to make sure the subject is already trying to turn the random symbols into a larger narrative. Other mediums use music, labels, etc. in a similar method: you prep your subject for thinking about a particular theme. The sad music in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is as much a signal for my brain to start referencing sad thoughts as the imagery itself. So I tell them to think about a problem in their life and that these cards are going to relate to that problem. Occasionally a person will be extremely helpful and tell me what’s on their mind, but most of the time I like the challenge of sniffing out the issue. This is probably what separates good fortune tellers from bad ones: the capacity to gauge a person’s responses to you. Fortunately, video games are going to be far better at this than me because they have all those graphs and feedback charts. There may still be a lot of cultural bias towards video games being anything except diversions or fun, but for a game that wants to impart a meaningful story one of the key aspects is letting the person know your intentions. As much as you might fear sounding pretentious, if you’re trying to say something complex and deep then don’t pretend otherwise.


 


So once you have a wide and universal array of symbols at your disposal and a subject who is thinking very hard about converting these symbols into something that means something, what is the final phase? The presentation. There are actually a lot of ways to do tarot cards, and most people choose based on their personal skills. I use the Celtic Cross method, which divides the draw into 5 groups of 3. One group represents the conflict, two are potential decisions for the user to make, and the other two are outside factors to consider. That’s a lot to work with, so that even if the subject does not really resonate with the central conflict group, they tend to perk up when I gloss over a successful future or interesting factors in their life. With so many topics to discuss, it means I don’t have to tell a perfect fortune, I just have to get my foot in the door. They’ll do the rest, the morphing and manipulating broad symbols into their life, all by themselves. There are other techniques for the tarot as well. The Egyptian method is to just draw cards until one hits pay dirt, then gloss the rest as significant in other ways. Others have their own unique set of symbols and claims for the subject. The result is always the same: if you mix broad symbols with proper presentation and carefully managed player input, you will have an impact on the subject.


 


It might surprise you that despite my own blunt perspective on the art of tarot, I still tell my own fortune a fair amount. When something is troubling me or I’m unsure about a choice to make, I break out the deck and follow the cards. Not because I expect good advice or even a solution, but because they help generate perspective. Like the ink blot test and sitting on your therapist’s couch, reading those cards makes me think about myself and my issue in a new way. Which is technically what narrative in most mediums is doing with symbols anyways. You find something you can relate to in a story and through that connection find profound meaning. Going back to more linear mediums, a popular symbol would be the mansion. From Faulkner to ‘There Will Be Blood’, that symbol of a big house, the wealth it implies, and its motivation to bloody-minded men is near universal. I don’t need Daniel Plainview to say another word in the film when he says he wanted a mansion as a kid, I and the vast majority of people know what it is to long for wealth. In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you.


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Monday, Aug 4, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner.

Kin of Chicago Jazz luminary Phil Cohran—Sun Ra Arkestra trumpeter and founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—this group of eight blood brothers (and one non) seem born and bred for musical conception. What began as a family band in Chicago during the late ‘80s has developed into something deeper. Since transplanting to Queens in 2005, busking and backing major artists has become the group’s calling card.


At New York’s Highline Ballroom, in what turned out to be a homecoming celebration (the group just completed a month-long European trek) the group was energized and unabashed in a show that seemed more like a party for their closest 150 friends.


Considerate hosts, they announced their 9:30 pm starting time and even came on five minutes early, cutting off the Lil’ Wayne prelude. Playing disciplined and cohesive brass lines, the ensemble carved out dense harmonies across a scope of styles ranging from the somber but resilient “Baliky Bone” to the rowdy “Get the Party Started”. “War” has a beguiling Afro-Cuban beat that was missed when performed live. They even made room for a speedy variation of “Korobeiniki” a.k.a. Tetris song A.


As a unit they still maintain their individual identities with demure solos. But it’s largely their tight brass and hip-hop laden sound that has attracted collaborations and backing gigs with Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Damon Albarn, Tony Allen, and a Jay Z remix. Sadly, September 1st has been declared their final street-performance, something they have diligently served NYC since their arrival. On the upside, it may mean a sharper focus and more recording that should yield promising results.



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Monday, Aug 4, 2008

Not every composer gets to add the soundtrack to a major motion picture. With so many small movies out there, and so many potential musicians, there must be some manner of professional pecking order to see who accents the blockbusters, and who toils away in obscurity. Of course, all film scorers had to start somewhere. John Williams started out in B-movies and TV (Lost in Space) while Danny Elfman took a rock star to cult icon (Pee Wee Herman) path to importance. From Randy Newman to Elmer Bernstein, fame was not instantaneous, especially in the mostly unsung world of such craft. Few films are remembered exclusively for their music. Instead, when functioning perfectly, a score solidifies its place as part of the overall cinematic experience, neither overly intrusive nor singularly memorable.


It usually takes an entire career (or one huge commercial success) to bring a movie musician out into the limelight. In the case of the four artists featured in this week’s edition of SE&L‘s Surround Sound, many were part of the journeymen aspect of the artform before universal acknowledgement arrived. In the case of two of these individuals, there work may speak louder than their actual names. What all four albums represent, however, is the everyday product of artisans hoping to define themselves to the next potential employer. A composer is only as good as his next job, so to speak, and the level of proficiency shown here illustrates why they represent some of the industry’s best.


The Life Before Her Eyes - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


James Horner has had a very interesting career trajectory. Many first noticed him in large part to his steel drum tinged music for the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte hit 48 Hours. But there were many facets to this composer’s character, aspects he explored while creating the soundtrack for Star Trek II and III, Aliens, and Commando. By the late ‘90s, however, he had become a more mainstream fixture, earning Oscar nods for Field of Dreams, Apollo 13, and Braveheart. It was another collaboration with James Cameron, that finally earned him Academy gold. Titanic remains the biggest film of all time, and Horner’s score, and the song “My Heart Will Go On”, are now part of cinema history. Oddly enough, that was 11 years ago, and Horner remains a fixture in filmmaking. His most recent work on the Uma Thurman thriller The Life Before Her Eyes, proves how provocative and daring his work can be.


Built around simple piano lines ala Michael Nyman, and yet structured in a way that recalls the moody atmosphere and tension inherent in the storyline, Horner’s music for Life is very haunting. It aches in places, recalling lost memories and painful experiences. Elsewhere, as in the final track “Young Diana’s Future - A Future that Could Have Been” some of his familiar ‘mechanisms of dread’ come to the fore. What’s most compelling about this collection is that it could easily be enjoyed outside the cinematic experience. Almost ambient in the way it approaches its form and melody, Horner really excels in selling a certain sentiment and feeling. You can practically feel the emotion buried beneath the unseen storyline. While The Life Before Her Eyes was not a box office success, this score certainly is a triumph of his talent.


Definitely, Maybe - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]


Like Danny Elfman before him, Clint Mansell got his start as part of a rock act. As the former lead singer and guitarist for ersatz industrial badboys Pop Will Eat Itself, he was known to explore all facets of sound. When the group disbanded in 1996, he got a shot at film scoring thanks to his friend Darren Aronofsky. After supplementing the sci-fi surrealism of , he would gain massive fame and obsessive recognition for his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. Much of his material has focused on the spooky, spatial New Age evocations of tone and environment. But Mansell has been known to break out of that dreamscape mode now and again. He did so with 2007’s Smokin’ Aces, and he does again with his charts for the amiable romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe. While there are times he reverts to the epic, most of the music is a grab bag combination of influences, inflections, and straight ahead instrumental fun.


Sometimes rendered in evocative snippets only, Definitely Maybe is a celebration of all that modern music has to offer. There are nods to the ‘60s, the bombast and Beatlemania. Mansell tosses in Eastern accents, Latin beats, and lots of rock posing. By the time the familiar strains of one track have settled in (“It’s April”, “Panic Stations…”, “Summer’s Over”) we jarringly move onto another composition. There are long form wonders like the horn and fuzz guitar driven “The Candidate” and the beautiful piano solo “The Happy Ending is You”. Toward the end, a trio of tracks - “Brooklyn Bridge”, “Countdown”, and “April’s Story” suggest Mansell’s work on Aronofsky;‘s magnificent immortality allegory. But luckily for listeners here, this is one artist who also acknowledges his previous work. For all its career spanning references, Definitely Maybe is definitely good. Very good.


The Promotion - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]


While his name is relatively new to the mainstream movie scoring department, Alex Wurman has a long and studied career behind the composer’s desk. After nearly a decade writing in relative obscurity, he got a huge break when George Clooney pegged him to create the time traveling treats of the A-lister’s directorial debut, the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. From their, he went on to give the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy its retro kick. After another collaboration with the pair (Talladega Nights), Wurman went back to smaller films, focusing on such efforts as The Nines and the Simon Pegg RomCom Run Fatboy, Run. The Promotion, his most recent score, is perhaps the greatest nostalgic shout out Carter Burwell never wrote. But thanks to an infusion of sly humor, Wurman’s work stands on its own.


Like listening to a time traveling Esquivel as channeled through an indie rock heartthrob, the work here is stunning in its recall. You literally feel the old ‘50s business model manufactured by films like The Apartment in Wurman’s arrangements. Sometimes, the material maneuvers over into kitsch, as with the feisty “Fight Dance” or the follow-up track, “Masculari Horriblus”. But for the most part, this soundtrack keeps itself low to the ground and very enjoyable. Of course, with any invocation of a certain time and place (although the film is set in our current social clime), things tend to get overly familiar after a while. By the time “I Am Peanuts” and “Four Handed Promotion” roll around, we’ve had more than enough of the sly pseudo jazziness. For all its pointed positives, Wurman’s work on The Promotion is just like the film it defines - fun, if ultimately overstaying its welcome a little.


Before the Rains - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Mark Kilian’s is a name mostly unknown to film score fanatics. After a time as a TV composer, working on such efforts as F/X: The Series and Jake In Progress, he got lots of recognition for creating the fascinating backdrop for Gavin Hood’s Oscar winning foreign film Tsotsi. Now he’s back with another cross culture creation. Working with renowned Indian cinematographer turned director Santosh Sivan, he provides the sweet, sassy, and quite savory aural environ for the filmmaker’s first English language effort (the nationalist themed Before the Rains). With its exotic mix of ethnic sounds, tone poem pieces, and standard symphonics, what could be a tired bit of traditionalism actually comes across as exciting and quite evocative.


The first three pieces prepare us for the various soundscapes to come. “Main Titles”, “Honey Drives”, and “Hand Lines” all summon the spirit of Hindi culture, a mix of modern and authentic instrumentation taking us into the heart of this complex civilization. There are frequent nods to Islam, with call to prayer cries subtly working in the background. The familiar call of tabla and mukhavina is ever-present, and there are even some aboriginal and other tribal tinges here as well. Around track 10 - “Sanjani’s Struggle”, things begin to turn more mainstream and maudlin. The next few pieces offer the kind of simple piano and string arrangements we come to expect from such soundtracks. It makes Before the Rains a little disconcerting. Where once we had music that dared to combine the elements of all environs, the finish (except for tracks “Coming for TK” and “End Credits”) is devoid of such out of the ordinary flourishes.



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Monday, Aug 4, 2008

Though it’s all over the news media today, I’m recommending checking out The Australian‘s piece on the passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alongside a straightforward obituary is a 16-page photo album featuring images of the reclusive author thoughout his long life, from his days in the Soviet Army to his exile in Vermont up until his 80th birthday celebrations at Moscow’s Theatre Na Taganke. It provides a full picture of an artist and his time.


For a comprehensive investigation into the author’s life and work, visit today’s Guardian:


His wife, Natalya, told Interfax that her husband, who suffered along with millions of Russians in the prison camp system, died as he had hoped to die. “He wanted to die in the summer - and he died in the summer,” she said. “He wanted to die at home - and he died at home. In general I should say that Alexander Isaevich lived a difficult but happy life.”


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