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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

Again, I scratch my head at a pair of stories… What’s stranger?  Contestant number one is a combination taser gun and MP3 music player (dig the leopard design one) so you can look stylish and listen to your favorite tunes as you subdue your least favorite attacker.  Contestant number two is former American idol winner Taylor Hicks who got the boot from Sony/BMG because he only reached number 2 on the charts and ONLY sold 699,000 copies of his last album, which should help to explain why the music biz is in such trouble.  Maybe they should invest in the tasers…


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

In a few essays in Choice and Consequence, economist Thomas Schelling investigates problems of self-command, which in his view is central to the vicissitudes of a consumer society:


I propose that people concerned about consumer ignorance, about the inability of consumers to budget, the inability of shoppers, especially poor people, to spend money wisely, and about the consequences of misleading advertising—including the advertising that convinces people they feel bad or smell bad and need something that comes out of a spray can or a medicine bottle—all together add up to no more than the inadequacies of consumer self-management. In other words, if people could reliably do, or abstain from, the things that in their serious mode they resolved to do and to abstain from (or would resolve if they didn’t give it up as hopeless), it would make as much difference in the aggregate as if all those other familiar problems of consumer ignorance and budget management could be dissolved away.


This verges on the tautological: If consumers weren’t tempted by ads, they would be able to not do the irrational things that ads tempt them to do. But I think Schelling’s point is that consumers are not the rational, unitary individuals we for convenience sometimes assume they are; that instead we are made up of multiple selves with competing agendas, and the problem rests there rather than with the evil intentions of those companies seeking to exploit that fact.


And since we are made up of multiple selves—the self that wants to eat at Carl’s Jr. vs. the self that wants miso and wakame; the self that wants to read Hegel vs. the self that wants to play River Raid on an Atari emulator—Schelling laments the fact that we can’t enforce the contracts one of our selves make with another.


The law has grasped the paradox that freedom should include the freedom to enter into enforceable contracts; it seems to overlook the need that people often have, and perhaps the right that they should have, to constrain their own behavior for their own good.


The problem is that no one has an interested in enforcing our contracts with ourselves. As Schelling explains, no one else cares whether he actually gets up and does 20 push ups every morning. There’s only you, and who knows which you will be deciding whether your excuses for not keeping your word to yourself are sufficient. Contacts need to be reciprocal, Schelling notes, and we can’t have reciprocity with ourselves.


One solution is to make your pacts for self-improvement with a wrathful god, whose punishment you expect if you stray and whose church you can enlist for “social and institutional support,” Schelling points out. Perhaps religion is mainly a means of enforcing otherwise unenforceable contracts; it gives a slightly different wrinkle to Pascal’s wager—it’s to our own benefit to believe in God because then we can then use our belief as leverage against our recalcitrant selves. If we choose not to believe in God, not only do we risk God’s wrath and potentially miss out on infinite reward, but we subject ourselves to unlimited responsibility for ourselves.


Other solutions for the self-management problem involve various forms of voluntary paternalism, in which people consent in advance to have restrictions imposed upon them later by some outside force—friends, neighbors, the state. In other words, we would enlist the government to help us make irrevocable decisions. A cursory reading of 18th and 19th century novels quickly reveals how society used to work much more strongly in this regard, perhaps because there were fewer people, less social and geographical mobility, and a more widely shared moral code. People couldn’t as easily evade the reputation that they developed, and society was organized around promulgating the known reputation of others and generating consequences for ethical lapses. English novels are full of women worrying about being lady-like, men being gentlemanly; this upheld a specifically patriarchal system of gender relations, but the sexist system perhaps managed to entrench itself because it fulfilled a necessary social function of constraining behavior to a predictable range. And one thing that’s especially palpable in all the Trollope novels I’ve read recently is that his characters love restrictive mores, as a source of gossip and regimentation and, maybe most important, self-ordering. They have an easy time convincing themselves that the contracts they’ve enacted with themselves are backed by the force of society’s contempt. They seem to enjoy taking dishonor seriously, because it allows them to truly feel honorable.


Schelling also worries about how to determine which of our multiple selves is the authentic one. Which self would have the right to have the upper hand in contract negotiations? (Postmodernist theory seems to suggest either all or none of them.) When external codes of conduct limit what one can feasibly conceive of doing, certain selves become unthinkable, disqualified, inauthentic automatically. From this stems the joys of conformity.


But consumerism relies on the joys of individuality, which ironically calls for giving our multiple selves free play, and subjecting ourselves to continually reversing on ourselves or revising our desires. All the potentially negative traits that derive from a disunified self—impulsivity, indecision, behavioral incoherence, unpredictability, unreliability, inability to plan or follow through, irrationality, inefficiency—seem to be exacerbated intentionally in consumer societies, precisely because these states of mind are conducive to shopping. We express individuality through the freedom to do whatever—to be inconsistent—rather than by having a clearly defined and consistent self.


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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2008

Pakistan Tops List of Journalists Killed in 2007


In 2002 Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered in Pakistan. His widow, Mariane, also a journalist, wrote a book about her search for him that was adapted into a movie that was released in 2007. “I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do what she did,” Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane Pearl, told Voice of America, “and when I first saw her interviews and the way she responded to what happened to her husband ...and she was able to go on days later and say ‘ten other people died this month and they were all Pakistani and they are suffering as much as we are…’ I could not, when I first heard that, understand how she was able to come to that so quickly; and having gotten to know her and understand where that is coming from and the importance of having dialog and trying to go that higher ground to find solutions - I have learned that and it is a big lesson.”


Journalists are still dying in Pakistan. Several days after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto the South Asia Free Media Association reported that seven journalists had been killed in Pakistan in 2007, six in Sri Lanka, and five in Afghanistan. “The Pakistani journalists killed were - Mehboob Khan, a freelancer, Noor Hakim Khan of Daily Pakistan, Javed Khan of Markaz and DM Digital TV, Muhammad Arif of ARY One World TV, Zubair Ahmed Mujahid of Jang, Nisar Ahmed Solangi who worked for a Sindhi daily, and Syed Kamil Mashadi, who worked with a private TV channel.”


For security reasons Angelina Jolie’s scenes were shot in India but Dan Futterman, who played Daniel Pearl, went to Pakistan and filmed his scenes in Karachi, in the actual locations where Pearl had been living and researching his stories. “To be there and get a sense of Urdu being spoken on the street, the sort of incredible chaos - both in good and bad ways of that city ...it is an amazing place, teeming with 14 million people in greater Karachi, and you get the sense of sort of bursting at the seams,” he told Voice of America. “I don’t think you could get that anywhere else. It was incredibly important to the texture and the feel of the movie to be shooting actually where things happened.”


“The Pakistani detective who solved the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has joined the probe into the killing of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto,” Agence France Presse reports officials saying. Zubair Mahmood, a Pakistani detective, is portrayed in the movie as Captain. He’s joined the British detectives from Scotland Yard investigating the assassination. In November of 2006 the Christian Scientist Monitor interviewed him when the movie was being shot.


He risked his life and reputation.On the one hand, the current attention makes Mr. Mahmood proud. But five years later, he still has concerns about how the film will be received here. “I did something good and have recognition for that. But it brings a threat to me; it compromises my security,” he says. “There are so many who don’t like me, who think I’m a traitor - because I arrested one of their good friends.” But in the spirit of the film, Mahmood says he won’t be swayed by fear. Instead, he hopes that in highlighting the efforts of his investigative team, the film can create a positive impression of Pakistan. “The movie will bring a good name to my country in a way.”


David Montero. Christian Science Monitor. November 8, 2006


AFP Photo of Fatima Bhutto by Rizwan Tabassum

AFP Photo of Fatima Bhutto by Rizwan Tabassum


A Journalist In The Bhutto Dynasty


On November 14 last year the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by Benazir Bhutto’s niece. “We Pakistanis live in uncertain times. Emergency rule has been imposed for the 13th time in our short 60-year history,” Fatima Bhutto wrote. “Thousands of lawyers have been arrested, some charged with sedition and treason; the chief justice has been deposed; and a draconian media law—shutting down all private news channels—has been drafted.”


“Fatima Bhutto, the daughter of Benazir’s late brother Murtaza, is a poet and politician who became a harsh critic of her aunt. But after her death, Fatima issued a public call for calm in the family,” reported the Associated Press, which quoted from a piece she’d written for The News in Pakistan. “I never agreed with her politics. I never did. I never agreed with those she kept around her, the political opportunists, hangers-on, them. They repulse me. I never agreed with her version of events. Never. But in death, in death perhaps there is a moment to call for calm. To say, enough. We have had enough. We cannot, and we will not, take anymore madness.”


In an opinion piece published in the Telegraph in London, Jemima Khan, ex-wife of former Pakistan Cricket Captain Imran Khan, who has his own political party in Pakistan, suggested Fatima as a future leader.


The justification for the selection of Benazir’s son as chairman was that only a Bhutto could provide unity within the party. If so, then why not 25-year-old Fatima Bhutto, who is arguably more qualified for the job than her teenage Facebooking cousin? If everything’s in a name, Fatima need not have changed hers in order to inherit. Brought up in Pakistan, unlike Bilawal, and a native speaker, she is an established writer and political commentator. At least she has some work experience. Aunt Benazir’s first-ever job was prime minister of a 160-million-strong nation.


It helps, in a lookist society, that she’s also as beautiful as her aunt - a young Salma Hayek lookalike - and has similar tragic appeal: orphaned, like most Bhuttos, as a result of a political assassination. Fatima is also politicised and outspoken. Too much so. She repeatedly accused her aunt of being complicit in the murder of her father and savagely opposed Zardari. That ruled her out.


The real reason Fatima is my favourite Bhutto, though, is that she has the sense to realise that a few good articles and the right surname don’t qualify her for leadership. Unlike others in the family, she rejects the notion that political power is her birthright: “I don’t think my name qualifies me or makes me the best person.”


 


 


 


Tagged as: cricket, india, media, pakistan
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Tuesday, Jan 8, 2008



So, Warner Brothers is officially dropping HD-DVD for Blu-ray. Does anyone really care? Are there really people in this complex, politically unsound world really worrying about who wins the so-called format wars? Is this a battle really worth focusing on? For some websites, the victor has been crowned and all that remains is the gathering of the spoils. For others, the decision to support/not support publicly the triumph of topaz has been akin to playing pundit and announcing that Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic Nomination (how’s that predication working out, huh?). Frankly, anything that costs thousands of dollars to implement and asks fans to reconfigure their already bloated digital collection should have some manner of referee - and smug, know it all bloggers and Netheads are the wrong ones to make the call.


Clearly, HD-DVD is on the ropes. There are only three studios - Universal, Paramount, and Dreamworks - that are exclusively in their camp, and with this latest defection, the support from this trio is already fading. Rumors have these companies already looking for Blu-ray mastering houses, and events sponsored by HD-DVD champions Toshiba and Microsoft at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show have mysteriously been cancelled. Over the last couple of days, industry wannabes like The Digital Bits and Ain’t It Cool News have jumped on the premature bandwagon, perhaps trying to guarantee a steady stream of reviewable product come screener request time. Whatever the case, the race has been called before the final laps - or even before the spectators have arrived at the track.


For many outside the sphere of the cinephile or the obsessive, the clashing format fiasco has been much ado about nothing. This has always been a tech geek toss up, an unnecessary advancement into an area few are ready to broach. Sure, the government has seen fit to mandate a conversion to high definition in 2009, but with cable and satellite providing a seemingly unlimited supply of movies, sporting events, and pay per view offerings in the new medium, the need for a thousand dollar DVD upgrade seems pointless. Even worse, those who bit during recent HD specials (Wal-Mart’s $100 player, Amazon.com’s Christmas machine/movies deal) must be feeling awful foolish right now - not immediate IPhone adapter dumb, but raked over the consumer coals nonetheless.


While most people will tell you they waited on adopting one of the two formats as a cautionary move, the truth is that no one is antsy about replacing their dead VHS demanded aluminum discs. CDs stayed around for decades before something other than fancy gimmickry gave them the shaft (read: the MP3). Laserdiscs were never popular because of their bulky, blue blood aura. All the new format can offer right now is an improved picture and some title exclusives. And for a family pinching pennies, wondering if they are going to lose their home to a soft, self-destructive mortgage market and compounding credit crunch, making sure the household has the latest high tech toy seems like complete fad gadgetry. For now, HD remains an elitist conceit, a must-have item for those already dissatisfied with DVD.


Somehow, this feels like the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the home theater domain. Walk into any Best Buy or Target and you’ll see massive displays of Hi-Def televisions, the latest blockbuster or CGI kiddie fare flashing mindlessly across the impressive screens. Granted, the image doesn’t look that amazing smashed up against a dozen other examples of the concept, but early accepters have sworn by the clarity, detail, and overall feeling of theatrical recreation. Where the difference is really obvious is in the HD-TV signal. Even on a standard set, one glimpse of the brilliant picture presented on many cable and satellite services should have consumers running to the local B&M for a quick boob tube revamp.


Yet the ‘hurry hurry’ push for equally impressive home video seems like a rush to unrealistic judgment. Companies seem to forget that price and ease of adaptation are what made sell-though possible in the first place. When VCRs came out in the ‘70s, the cost prohibitive nature of the technology, and the medium (Prerecorded VHS movies cost over $100) held many back. But then the alternative nature of the device - its ability to RECORD - gave people a reason to reconsider. Then, after a decade of careful market manipulation and controls, the notion of making titles cheap and machines even cheaper guaranteed quick and all encompassing acceptance.


It was the same strategy used by DVD. Sure, initial players were expensive, and available movies limited, but after a brief period of time (and a substantial improvement in audio and video), demand drove down the price. Again, cost and improved picture quality compensated for the lack of other available bells and whistles, and the digital revolution was in full swing. HD has failed to follow suit. If the makers of the slowly sinking format really wanted to beat old Blu, it could do so at the cash register. Right now, prices hover between $299 to $799. Here’s an idea - offer a $90 machine, a $400 TV set, and $10 discs. Make the Wal-Mart shopper sit up and take notice - after all, they’re the ones who will drive this mandated switchover in the long run.


Of course, the competition has the long in development Playstation 3 on their side, guaranteeing that in many households, the whiny needs of a spoiled bratling will give Blu-ray an automatic edge. It was a strategy that almost chomped them in the bitrate when DVD was attached to the Playstation 2. Compared to the cost, many felt they were getting a second rate machine at an incredibly high end price - and with the current tech criticisms of 3’s incorporated format, it seems like lightning is striking twice. Still, the biggest barrier to a VHS to DVD style tidal wave is wealth. Asking your average shopper to casually toss out $1000 total (and in most cases, much, much more) to see a little more detail in Captain Jack Sparrow’s dreadlocks seems like a leap. And since TV sets are an uncontrollable part of the bargain, the format seems handcuffed.


In fact, the whole High Definition argument can be likened to asking lovers of McDonalds to spend three times as much at Five Brothers for what they perceive as the same thing. Granted, it’s clearly not, but to members of a rat race bleary constituent, it sure FEELS the same. Unlike DVD, which saw a must own title like The Matrix make the leap seem compulsory, HD/Blu-ray has yet to find such an offering. The problem, of course, comes outside the merchandise. If Pixar decides that Wall-E, its upcoming Summer blockbuster, should become Disney’s first Blu-ray exclusive release, it’s setting itself up for disaster. Aside from the shouting match over giving old format fans a chance at owning it, the appearance of implied elitism will turn the public off. After all, movies are still a mainstream medium, last time anyone checked.


So as of today, no one really cares that Warners is jumping the HD ship (and Paramount, supposedly, is looking to as well). Blu-ray may win the day, and the decision, for most consumers, but it will be a long, painful process before the switch over is successful (if it ever is). Microsoft, smarting from the announcement, said it really doesn’t care if HD dies - people will be using a download technology (probably an Internet adapted box on their TV) to bring the highest quality image right into their living room. Discs will be dead. Of course, someone said the same thing about CDs, and we still have their tactile pleasures. Instead of pushing technology on people, companies should really listen to what they want. Until they do, a studio switch means nothing - except to those eager to make their messageboard pronouncements. Everyone else will just wait and see.


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Tuesday, Jan 8, 2008

Starbucks was prominent in the news yesterday. Founder Howard Schultz has been called back into action in an effort to reverse the coffee chain’s slide into mediocrity.


[Schultz] said moves to automate coffee making in the interests of efficiency had damaged the “romance and theatre” of a visit to the stores. Starbucks shares have fallen 48 per cent over the past 12 months. They rebounded 8 per cent in after-hours trading on Monday.
Mr Schultz said his agenda would include slowing the pace of new store openings in the US and closing under-performing locations, and redeploying capital originally assigned to the US to increasing the profitability of its overseas operations.


Ah, yes. I’m sure you fondly remember as I do how romantic it was to stand around in the Starbucks theater waiting for someone to hand you your coffee. What high drama there was in a cranky espresso puller getting burned by hot milk.


It seems that Starbucks’ ubiquity has bred indifference to the brand, and its own success has undermined the mystique it once had as purveyor of some rare, special elixir known as a “latte.” Now just about everyone knows what a latte is, and you’ll even be able to get them at McDonald’s, as this entertaining WSJ story details. Though Starbucks may have originally conceived of itself as the opposite of McDonald’s, it always seemed natural that they would either mimic each other’s identity or actually combine, like the women in Persona slowly shading into one another. I used to argue that instead of “selling hot, brown liquid masquerading as coffee” (as a ex-Starbucks exec called McDonald’s coffee), McDonald’s should be licensing Starbucks coffee and selling it to people who have come to want the serious gourmet shit. (But then I typically make the mistake of thinking that Starbucks primarily sells coffee as opposed to “upscale coffee drinks”—I don’t drink anything but black coffee, and I forget that most people associate Starbucks with the elaborate froufrou drinks and don’t really care one way or the other about good coffee as long as there is lots of sugar and steamed milk.) Both companies are also primarily brands that communicate a certain uniformity of standards. It’s not ideal but you know what you are getting when you roll into McDonald’s after pulling off I-80 somewhere in Nebraska.


It seemed as though the companies could reinforce each other’s brand equity; in a sense they already do. By giving the language of brands such powerful and universal symbols, it validates the whole phenomenon. But I hadn’t expected them to become direct competitors, for, as the article points out, they want to supply different things to achieve the goal of vending high-margin beverages: McDonald’s uses cheap, high-calorie food; Starbucks, ersatz ambiance and “theater.” But ultimately, Starbucks abandoned that method and sought more and more store traffic. Schultz’s return promises a reversal of that trend.


But the WSJ article offered other surprises. For one, McDonald’s may also seek to provide a music downloading service at some of its locations. What more evidence does one need that music has been thoroughly commodified, that you’d buy some songs alongside a Big Mac? But who wants to stand in a McDonald’s browsing for music? It’s not like Starbucks, which seeks to sell its (now faded) ambiance as an enhancement to the music sold. If there’s any justice, the first song McDonald’s will sell will be the Gang of Four’s immortal “Cheeseburger.” 


I also found this interesting:


Mr. Schultz has said that new competition actually helps Starbucks by expanding the specialty-coffee category. “Those consumers over time are going to trade up,” he told investors in November. “They’re going to trade up because they are not going to be satisfied with the commoditized experience or the flavor.” He has emphasized that Starbucks’s baristas, who are instructed to memorize customers’ drink orders and make genuine conversation with patrons, will continue to set the chain apart.


Not only is it ripe for Schultz to argue that the Starbucks experience is not commoditized, but he goes on to offer the fact that workers are ordered to make “genuine” conversation as evidence. This may be stupid of me to ask, but when you force people to talk, can the resulting conversation really be considered genuine?


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