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Sunday, Mar 30, 2008

The latest strategy by major labels to monetize downloads comes from one of their consultants, Jim Griffin, who’s proposed that the Internet providers add on a service charge to their customers. The money would then go to the labels and everyone will be happy, right? Not exactly.


The Tech Crunch site calls this plan ‘extortion’ on the part of the labels. A bit harsh but maybe not too far off the mark. Since they found that they’re not selling enough albums and singles online to make up for the overall loss of sales (especially of CDs) and obviously since the RIAA lawsuits are meant to be a symbolic deterrent, they need to come up with another scheme to make money.


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Friday, Mar 28, 2008

Charles Frazier remembers Anthony Minghella
Fascinating piece in the LA Times by Cold Mountain author, Charles Frazier, detailing his friendship with the late Anthony Minghella. Minghella directed the film version of Frazier’s book, and chose to make Frazier a key part of the film’s production. The men were colleagues and close friends:


The next January, we spent a wet week driving around North Carolina, hiking in the mountains, talking about books, staying up late watching movies—“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” for one. We drove all through the mountains and down to the Atlantic, 700 miles at least. It was like a college road trip.


Frazier’s article is a wonderful insight into Minghella’s artistic desires, his sensitivity, and, particularly, his adoration of writers.


Investment banker is India’s most successful English-language author
We thought it was Salman Rushdie—how wrong we were. The New York Times this week profiled Chetan Bhagat, author of the Nick Hornby-esque Indian hits Five Point Someone and One Night at the Call Center. One Night is India’s fastest-selling novel.


The article outlines Bhagat’s return to India (he wrote his novels while living in the United States), and his desire to make a difference in his country. Bhagat also reacts to his critics. From the Times piece:


“The book critics, they all hate me,” Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here.


But he has touched a nerve with young Indian readers. Mr. Bhagat might not be another Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy, but he has authentic claims to being one of the voices of a generation of middle-class Indian youth facing the choices and frustrations that come with the prospect of growing wealth.


“I think people really took to the books mainly because there is a lot of social comment in there,” Mr. Bhagat said. “It’s garbed as comedy.”




Real-life Book Thief caught by determined librarian

Rob Lopresti, the librarian at Western Washington University in Bellingham, has become something of a hero in his community—and perhaps to book lovers everywhere. Rob’s refusal to accept that his library had been the target of a simple, run-of-the-mill theft, he put on his Sam Spade hat and uncovered a veritable ring of library such thefts across the US and Canada.


The Great Falls Tribune reports:


About 100 volumes of a book series called the Congressional Serial Set, dating back to the 1830s, had maps and other pages ripped from them. In all, the thief ripped 648 pages of historic lithographs, maps and other materials from the WWU library’s collection, according to the magazine article.


Lopresti found the documents listed for sale on eBay. He decided to purchase a handful of them to match with his lost property. His detective work paid off, but now, he notes, all valuable items in his library are now locked away from public view.


Maynard and Jessica to become a major film
Hot-shot producer Scott Rudin has purchased the rights to Rudolph Delson’s excellent Maynard and Jessica, according to Reuters Canada. The book details the evolving relationship between the titular characters throughout 2000-2002. It’s told from the very strange perspectives of more than 30 characters including Maynard and Jessica’s family members, their friends, a Russian scam artist, birds, and an emergency brake on a train. 


According to this article, Delson is happy with Rudin’s choice of screenwriter, Liz Meriwether, but he says he won’t be involved in the adaptation. Perhaps Scott Rudin could take a lesson from Mr. Minghella…


 


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Friday, Mar 28, 2008

Sorry for the hiatus—was busy moving. But it’s been business as usual in the lending industry: This story from The Oregonian, details the tricks used to circumvent Chase’s automated underwriting system, Zippy. It lays bare through one particular example how we have ended up in this full-blown credit crisis.


Chase, the nation’s second-largest bank, originates mortgage loans itself but also operates a wholesale arm that underwrites and funds loans brought to them by a network of mortgage brokers. The “Cheats & Tricks” memo was instructing those brokers how to get difficult loans approved by Zippy.
“Never fear,” the memo states. “Zippy can be adjusted (just ever so slightly.)”
The Chase memo deals specifically with so-called stated-income asset loans, one of the most dangerous of the mortgage industry’s innovations of recent years. Known as “liar loans” in some circles because lenders made little effort to verify information in the borrowers’ loan application, they have defaulted in large number since the housing bust began in 2007.


The story is always the same. No one—not the borrowers (who wanted a house), the mortgage brokers (who wanted their cut for getting the loan made), the banks who supplied the money (who wanted to sell the loans to Wall Street), or the Wall Street firms who repackaged the loans (who wanted more-enticing yields for the securities they made out of them)—wanted to interfere with the subprime lending, despite the obvious skepticism about the ability of the borrowers to repay. They were like tobacconists facing down the medical studies linking smoking to cancer. As Barry Ritholtz argues, “Anyone with even a modicum of experience in the mortgage industry will confirm the rampant disregard for lending standards and the corner cutting and shortcuts that were all but official corporate policy during the boom years. There was headlong rush to originate, process and securitize mortgages—and the ability to repay the loans be damned. (Predatory Borrowing my ass!)”


Martin Wolf, in an FT column, noted what Bernanke has come around to saying about subprime lending:


Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, famously understated, described much of the subprime mortgage lending of recent years as “neither responsible nor prudent” in a speech whose details make one’s hair stand on end. This is Fed-speak for “criminal and crazy”.


Everyone seemed to countenance fraud, perhaps figuring that the fraudsters would come up with new frauds to keep payments coming in or that rising house prices would allow refinancing to keep up payments. Or maybe they wishfully believed that the fraud risks would be spread thin enough across the many, many securities derived from mortgages that they wouldn’t matter in the end. They would be lost in the shuffle. But it hasn’t worked out that way, because eventually everyone caught on to the counterparty risks because everyone knew all the tricks that everyone else was pulling because they were pulling them too—so banks stopped feeling comfortable about lending to other banks on the collateral they knew to be dodgy. Tyler Cowen asked the relevant questions last week:


Does herd behavior, combined with agency problems, make things worse?
Is it the standard story that everyone is afraid of the other trader’s knowledge?  Or can liquidity crises become more acute in a hyper-informed world?  We like to think: “market—trade—liquidity—good, etc.”, forgetting the Glosten-Milgrom point that liquidity often rests upon the presence of fools.  Informing the fools eliminates one business cycle problem but creates another.


It’s hard to fool people when everyone is trying to do the fooling.


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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008
Yesterday, Rockstar Games announced the Rockstar Social Club, which sounds like a good idea despite the fact that there's nothing "social", really, about it.

Shh…did you feel that?  That little tremor, underneath your feet, did you feel it?


That was the hype train, embarking on its latest journey through mass media city, blog village, and all points in between.  Its passenger for the next month will be Grand Theft Auto IV, set to claim the title of most hotly hyped release of 2008 now that the buildup to Super Smash Bros. Brawl has passed us by.  GTA4‘s seat is likely saved until at least mid-May, when it will likely have to step aside for the adventures of Geriatric Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4.


The sparkplug that’s starting the train’s journey to April 29th, then, is the announcement of this:



That’s right, folks, the Rockstar Social Club will be opening on the same day as GTAIV‘s release, complete with all of the seedy connotations and orange neon you can handle. 


Before you start thinking that Rockstar’s games are going to turn into a dark, irreverent version of Second Life, one thing should be clear: There is nothing, at least according to the press release that showed up in my e-mailbox yesterday, “social” about the Rockstar Social Club.  It is an online leaderboard with a fancy name, which requires only a PlayStation Network ID or an Xbox Live Gamertag as admission to enter.  Offer up one or both of those things, and you get to measure yourself against the legion of other Grand Theft Auto junkies out there in a number of different ways.


That said, as far as leaderboards go, the Rockstar Social Club sounds pretty snazzy.  It’ll be keeping track of the race to get to 100%, and the first 10 insomniacs to do so will get an extra-special trinket of some sort that they will undoubtedly be able to Ebay for big bucks.  It’ll have a map keeping track of every recorded crime committed in Liberty City.  The bit that sticks out most, however, is the following:


The Liberty City Marathon—A ranking of special physical milestones achieved in the game - from the amount of miles walked, driven, or swam - to the number of bullets fired and stunt-jumps jumped.  There will be additional special marathon-based competitions in the future from this area as well.


I’m a huge fan of the achievement system, given that achievements can serve as suggestions, prompting ways to play games that one might never have tried had Gamerscore points not been attached, thus extending the life of a game beyond its immediate goals.  Still, there’s something more than a little humorous about the idea of keeping track of, say, who swam the most in a game called Grand Theft Auto.  You just know that there are going to be a few poor souls whose ultimate goal is to top the distance-swam leaderboard, and watching that race as it happens is going to be a little bit hilarious in a sad sort of way.  Still, kudos to Rockstar for finding ways, more than a month before the game is even released, to extend the play experience of a game destined to eat hundreds of hours of our time anyway. 


The full press release is after the jump, and the latest trailer is sitting below.  Looking forward to GTAIV?  Couldn’t care less?  Let us know in the comments, and enjoy your weekend.



Grand Theft Auto IV Trailer: “Good Lord, What Are You Doing?”



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008


For the weekend beginning 28 March, here are the films in focus:


Stop-Loss [rating: 5]


...more of an artillery based Abercrombie and Fitch road trip than a concise character study.


The War in Iraq remains a tricky cinematic situation. Over the last few months, there’s been a myriad of motion pictures that have decided that the best way to interpret the conflict is to make the soldiery a kind of indirect villain. Instead of celebrating the bravery and duty of these incredible young men and women, they’ve turned the political/policy elements of the conflict into a means to murderous, madmen ends. No matter the theater – foreign or domestic, religious or military – it’s nothing but the worst of our fears made very, very human. Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss wants to buck this trend. It hopes to illustrate the Bush Administration’s ridiculous reenlistment strategy, a revolving door that keeps haggard and harried defense forces in harms way long after their effectiveness has waned. But instead of getting to the heart of the matter, it mines the middle of the road for a series of clichéd contrivances. read full review…


Run, Fat Boy, Run [rating: 5]


For all its faults however, this is a romantic comedy that works - if just barely.


Romantic comedies are, by their very nature, saddled with two completely different sets of motion picture hurdles. First, the story needs to be quixotic, dealing with the emotional bond between two typically star-crossed individuals. If the chemistry or the charisma is not there, part of the filmic formula fails. Then there is the humor. While not needing to be outrageous or riotous, there should be a fairly consistent level of laughs. Both of these prerequisite issues come to bear when discussing the Simon Pegg vehicle Run, Fat Boy, Run. Directed by ex-Friend David Schwimmer and co-written by The State‘s Michael Ian Black, what we have is an attempt to turns a sullen London slacker into a lovable determined dreamer. The movie only gets part of this right. read full review…


Chapter 27 [rating: 5]


In fact, the real problems with Chapter 27 is it vagueness. Everyone here - Leto, Lohan, Friedlander - leaves us in the lurch, and nothing Schaefer does can save our confusion.


For an entire generation, the death of John Lennon resonates more clearly than the assassination of President Kennedy or the suicide of Kurt Cobain. As the peace and politics voice of arguably the most important musical act of the 20th century - The Beatles - the iconic man with the sad/sweet gaze paid a substantial price for his undeniable megafame. While returning to his home in New York’s swanky Dakota building on a December evening, a mentally unbalanced young man named Mark David Chapman pumped five bullets into his back. As he lay bleeding, a ruptured aorta sealing his fate, his killer pulled out a copy of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, silently reading until the police came. read full review…


Married Life [rating: 4]


There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle


Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations? read full review…


Other Releases - In Brief


21 [rating: 4]


There is an inherently interesting story to be told about a group of Asian MIT students who used a complex card counting scheme to take Las Vegas blackjack tables for large amounts of cash. How that narrative translated into 21 – complete with several Caucasian leads – stands as just one of the film’s many mysteries. Based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Ben Mezrich, this real life thriller becomes a mediocre mainstream effort in the hands of Legally Blonde director Robert Luketic. It’s not just the confused plotting that undermines our interest. The cast, including Jim Burgess as our money desperate lead, Kevin Spacey as the group mastermind, and Kate Bosworth as the mandatory eye candy, seem hemmed in by unavoidable elements outside the narrative, from the Mensa mentality set up to the gaudy neon glitz of the Sin City sequences. There’s also a weird ethical malaise that celebrates materialism for the sake of common sense. While it’s understandable that a Harvard Medical School bound student would do anything to get the $300K he needs for tuition, such a nefarious enterprise seems contradictory to everyone’s collective IQ. Add in Laurence Fishburne as a no nonsense casino security expert, and you’ve got something that should be better. Instead, it tries to stand pat and fails to beat the house.


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