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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008

I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch, which argues that computing power has become a centralized utility, like electricity, and the consequences of this will be nothing like what such utopians as Kevin Kelly, et al., have predicted. It won’t be a force for unleashing innovation and personal freedom; instead it will enact a more thorough state surveillance capability and be a powerful disincentive for creating intellectual property, leaving our culture awash in dilettante-produced mediocrity. Rather than pay an elite group of talented content-creators, companies can instead draw from the pool of free, user-generated content, a boon of unpaid labor, and monetize it in a way the individual workers can’t. (Management consultant types call this crowdsourcing. In a blog post, Carr called it digital sharecropping.)


Carr acknowledges that people have good reasons for donating their labor—namely, they are paid in recognition and the work is usually a creative outlet. But you still get the sense that it annoys him that amateurs are able to amuse and inform one another, that they are taking bread out of the mouths of anointed media professionals. Carr quotes a photojournalist who says that “the internet ‘economy’ has devastated my sector.” And presumably we are supposed to feel sorry for him, though what this means is that more people are sharing more images documenting more of the world’s activity for people to make use of as they see fit than ever before. Photojournalism is no longer strictly a matter of having the privileged connections to get work publicized and have one’s talent sanctified. If photojournalists feel threatened, its because they are being made aware how much of their distinction is a matter of access to travel and equipment and high-profile places to publish their work. If their work was so far superior to the work of amateurs, wouldn’t publishers and collectors be willing to pay for it, since everyone would see the difference and it would be something that could be marketed? The difference in talent may not equal the savings, and may never again. That seems to be what Carr is arguing, and lamenting: “Many cultural goods remain expensive to create or the painstaking work of talented professionals and it’s worth considering how the changing economics of media will affect them.” Hmm. I’ve considered it, and I’m inclined to say good riddance.


Being an obscure nobody, I’m strongly tempted (it probably already shows in my tone) to revel in schadenfreude and gloat about the misery of established artists or creative workers. How one feels about the fate of the poor photojournalist may be a litmus test for what one believes overall about talent. I’ve tended to think talent is far more subjective and ineffective that it’s generally held to be—that is, that it has no measurable value in mometary terms, but can only be assigned an approximate dollar value residually after other explanations for art market variances are accounted for—and that determination and connections are more important to success. And maybe, since these are somewhat destructive attributes to have, despoiling most personal relationships and making everyday life somewhat of a prod and a torment, they deserve to be amply compensated; those who are cursed with them are driven to produce the stuff we in our leisure can happily consume, while we enjoy things like family life and interpersonal relationships. We may need an airtight system of intellectual property rights to entice these miserably ambitious people to make commercial art, but that art, cherish it now though we may, is not the best or only art there is. It just happens to be what our economic system privileged and yielded and lauded, with a whole adjuct commercial system of reviewers and appraisers and collectors with a vested interest in it. If such work is “crowded out of the Web’s teeming bazaar” that may not be such a crushing loss. It may simply mean we need to recalibrate our aesthetic understanding of what we dub to be brilliant art to be something other than that which is created by an individual and possessed by a wealthy collector. We may have to accept art that is made collectively, distributed for free, and is never quite in a finished form. We may have to understand creative work as a process rather than a product. Horrible, I know.


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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008

The NME reports that George Michael has signed a major book deal with HarperCollins. According to the article, George will write a “no holds barred”, “truly authentic” autobiography set to shock more than any press article could hope to. I, of course, am too excited as George Michael is on my list of Top 10 Men I Just Love to Death. Funny, though, that none of articles online today mentions Bare, the book from way back in 1991. That book was considered way no holds barred for its time, and proved quite juicy, if a little odd, as George talks about “George Michael” as an alter-ego he wished to let go of.


This new book, obviously, will be updated to include the drugs, arrests, and whatever, that have plagued, one might say, George recently. Hopefully, too, we’ll get a good long spiel from George about the benefits of music downloading, as mentioned on BBC News here. Still, Bare is a fairly saucy read, if lacking in truth somewhat. It was released, after all, long before George officially came out. What it does reveal, however, is how self-aware the guy is. I can’t wait to read the updated life story, with the new, open George on the literary loose.


I can’t find a release date for the book, so while we wait, let’s look at George on Extras, the TV cameo of the year:



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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2008


Over the last three days, SE&L has had the opportunity to champion the current canon of Giuseppe Andrews. We’ve looked at the amazing Americano Trilogy, touched on the brilliance that is the pro-animal Garbanzo Gas, and found ourselves unexpectedly moved by the sensitive short Cat Piss. But this is just the tip of the talent iceberg when it comes to the new voice in American cinema. Andrews has actually been making films for years - inconsistent reports put his first efforts as far back as 1999. The date doesn’t matter really. What’s important is the output - dozens of deranged delights that continue to redefine the focus of film and the ability for anyone with talent and moxie to make it. Many consider these works his “mainstream” efforts, since they are readily available to the public via standard DVD distributors. 


Of course, there are some maddeningly MIA titles. The long dormant Bathroom Home School Box Set from long time supporter Troma has promised intriguing titles like In Our Garden, Dad’s Chicken, Air Conditioning, Monkey, and The Date Movie. Even more frustratingly, while this special section was being prepared, Andrews’ own website announced the addition of another new film, Orzo.  So it’s almost impossible to keep up with this man’s amazing productivity. Still, over the course of the last five years, the staff at SE&L has been lucky enough to see ten other Andrews’ opuses, films so ingenious and inspiring that they actually forecast the future of the artform. In this last day discussion of the man and his muse, we will provide a brief overview of each outstanding title. Together with the previous blog pieces, both the knowledgeable and the newbie should have a fine frame of reference to begin their own Andrews’ reevaluation. Let’s being with:


Trailer Town


Where the Andrews obsession started for many. This absolutely mesmerizing movie begins with a bang and continues down a cockeyed course of craziness until its fatalistic ending with its “I’m mad, drunk, depraved and dirty as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” philosophy. Forcing arcane authenticity to the point of inventive retardation and trading cinema vérité for skin flick straightforwardness, it’s a masterpiece. Buried somewhere in the piss-soaked liquor stained souls of these decomposing denizens lives the true spirit of America, not quite dead but pretty damn close to needing life support. Featuring the fantastic Bill Nolin, Andrews’ first true superstar.




Period Piece


Everything about Period Piece is a philosophical missive about misinterpreting libido for love, pain for personal connection, and desire for dreams. There is much more here than a gross out comedy about old people talking filthy, or snuggling with dead baby pigs. As its title suggests, Period Piece is a statement about the world, today. In our era of mass marketed sex, the influence of XXX material is like an infection. Some people are drowning in the disease, and these are the men that Andrews wants to champion. After all, their needs are as valid as anyone else’s, they’re just not as pretty…or profound…or proper.




Touch Me in the Morning


Touch Me in the Morning is like a series of sharp stabs in the solar plexus, a ennui-reducing wake-up call for anyone who thinks Miramax is the cutting edge of Indie art. Uproariously funny, occasionally cruel, and inventive to a fetid fault, this initial volley in the Andrews career vault is simply outstanding. There is no other moviemaker, past or present, doing what he is doing in the newly minted digital domain. There is no pretense in his work, no attempt to tweak the world into a weird, wacky package. It’s all about people, places, and the public perspective of each.




Dribble (Found on the Best of Tromadance DVD Volume 3)


If anything, this satisfying short film matches the previous masterpieces Andrews has crafted brave beat for beat. He offers more of a narrative here, taking his main character through the trials and tribulations of being a has-been sports hero. There are scenes so profound they literally boggle the mind. There are moments so perverted you feel dirty overhearing them. Andrews loves the language of filth, and he uses words and images in carefully crafted couplets of corruption, blending the brash with the brazen and the bawdy to practically revolutionize onscreen dialogue. One of the man’s best efforts, bar none.




Who Flung Po? (Found on the Trailer Town DVD)


This seems like the film John Waters was trying to make with Polyester. Groovy, grotesque and giggle inducing, this is a funnier, more fetid take on the trailer park people Giuseppe uses to populate his films. Some of the same old faces are present in this tale of pornography and parenthood and there are several classically comic sequences. More fully realized than Trailer Town (again proving that if said film had a viable narrative, the entire enterprise would have skyrocketed into the realm of near perfect prurient parable) Who Flung Poo? is a laugh riot filled with great repeatable lines, a taboo busting storyline and some wonderfully weird characters.




Wiggly (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Using the theme of difficult decisions, Wiggly is wonderfully weird. Vietnam Ron is the star here, playing Andrews’s dad, and as usual, he is amazing - a creepy combination of Charles Manson and scarred skeleton. He shouts his lines with a demented glee that is marvelously manic. The usual suspects also turn up throughout the film, and when we get to the fated finale, Andrews handles the meaningful moment perfectly. A great little diversion.




Ants (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Our friendly freaked out Ron is back again, essaying the role of a mentally unstable filmmaker melting down at the merest suggestion that something he’s done doesn’t fit his ant movie’s mandates. The standout scene, however, has Andrews randomly rollerblading while an original song about the sport plays in the background. It is both ethereal and engaging, as is this entire short.




The Laundry Room (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Perhaps the most “mundane” of Andrews’s films, this feels like two ideas crammed together. The mass-murdering marauder (our Wiggly and Ants star Ron once again) is faultlessly frightening, but there is a strange interlude where an ancillary character goes into a patented Andrews’s X-rated rap that feels out of place. While very entertaining, it’s not a true testament to this auteur’s abilities.




Jacuzzi Rooms (Found on the Period Piece DVD)


Nothing more than a simple set up – four of Andrews’ company getting smashed in a seedy hotel room – this improvised look at men out to party is strangely spellbinding. There are the typical taunts about penis size and sexual prowess, and with liquor involved, things soon turn violent. You can tell that Andrews stopped the drunken antics about halfway through and delivered typed pages filled with poems and elegies to keep the cast coherent. Such a scripted strategy really doesn’t help. If Period Piece is a representation and rejection of sex, then Jacuzzi Rooms is a debauched denunciation of booze.




Okie Dokie


A terrifying testament to the power of love, laced with farts and a fatalistic view of interpersonal relationships, Okie Dokie argues for the continued genius of this maverick moviemaker. Part personal ad come to life, part dialectic on the disconnect between men and women, it picks up where Piece left off, and ties together the various thematic ideals in the other offerings of his oeuvre, specifically Touch Me in the Morning and Trailer Town. Featuring the standard Andrews repertory company, Dokie uses interweaving stories of companionship created and relationships torn asunder to literally redefine the way in which we view romance, lust, depression, and death.

 


 


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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2008

You might want to sell any stock you have invested in major labels, especially if it’s EMI.  After some belt-tightening, they’re now shuffling around personnel, causing a rift with artists that they can’t afford to piss off (including Coldplay and Robbie Williams): Artists’ managers protesting EMI shake-up.  Even after that bit of bad news, they compound it by having their pink slip machine work overtime: EMI’s drastic belt-tightening.  But there is one piece of good news coming out of this as they’re now thinking of cutting off money to everyone’s least favorite industry slimebags: RIAA might be doomed.  Ah, but fear not… When it comes to fresh ideas to save themselves, the industry is full more useless, empty platitudes than a candidate’s speech as witnessed by this pathetic MSNBC article.


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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2008

A recent column by Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution fame) in the New York TImes caused a little flap in the econoblogosphere recently about whether lenders or borrowers are more to blame for the recent credit crisis/subprime meltdown/imminent recession. Inhis piece, a sort of year end wrap up of things that surprised economists, Cowen offered this
item:


IT’S NOT JUST THE LENDERS
There has been plenty of talk about “predatory lending,” but “predatory borrowing” may have been the bigger problem. As much as 70 percent of recent early payment defaults had fraudulent misrepresentations on their original loan applications, according to one recent study. The research was done by BasePoint Analytics, which helps banks and lenders identify fraudulent transactions; the study looked at more than three million loans from 1997 to 2006, with a majority from 2005 to 2006. Applications with misrepresentations were also five times as likely to go into default.
Many of the frauds were simple rather than ingenious. In some cases, borrowers who were asked to state their incomes just lied, sometimes reporting five times actual income; other borrowers falsified income documents by using computers. Too often, mortgage originators and middlemen looked the other way rather than slowing down the process or insisting on adequate documentation of income and assets. As long as housing prices kept rising, it didn’t seem to matter.
In other words, many of the people now losing their homes committed fraud. And when a mortgage goes into default in its first year, the chance is high that there was fraud in the initial application, especially because unemployment in general has been low during the last two years.


Perhaps because this plays faintly echoes a particularly repugnant free-market talking point—caveat emptor ad omnium—or because Cowen was sounding like an apologist for a typically exploitative and greedy industry, Barry Ritholtz of the Big Picture went apoplectic.


Anyone who works in this area knows that the reality of the situation was far more blatant. To begin with, most people are naive when it comes to any financial product. They rely on the experience of the professional they are working with, even if this person is a SALESMAN or another party in an ADVERSARIAL NEGOTIATING ROLE.
I work with many builders and mortgage lenders; I take personal responsibility for a major builder selling much of his company’s stock in 2005 (more than $100 million worth). The rest of the family hated me—for about 6 months. I know how their company works, and I know what they and others in their field do in actuality.
During the hey day of the no-income verification, “No Doc” loans, the builders finance people, as well as other mortgage brokers walked people through the application process. Mr. Cowen writes that “Too often, mortgage originators and middlemen looked the other way.” That’s a rather generous read on it. The reality is that THEY TOLD PEOPLE WHAT INCOME TO WRITE. They used sentences such as “Put down $150k.” OTHER TIMES THEY APPLICANTS LEAVE THE INCOME SPACE BLANK; The reps later conveniently filled in the data on the own.
To claim mortgage originators and middlemen only looked the other way is putting too fine a point on it. THEY WERE ACTIVE COLLABORATORS IN ANY FRAUD. 
Oh, and, don’t take my word for it—find some people from the industry and ask them yourselves. This is a very well known fact amongst real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and builders.


I side with Ritholtz here, because I think in order to commit fraud, you have to understand the meaning of what you are doing, and most people, I’d guess, have no idea what is going on in the midst of the mountains of paperwork necessary to secure a mortgage and buy a house, something we are all led to believe is as fundamental to being an American as pledging allegiance to the flag and eating hamburgers. And unlike the brokers, the borrowers have the loans in their name and ultimately would be held accountable for the lies by having to pay the consequences, while brokers skate away relatively scot-free—at least until they started becoming unemployed—permanently if our society has any justice.


Housing blog Calculated Risk today excerpted comments by Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in which he seemed to imply that brokers were not doing such a good job assessing risk, to put it euphemistically.


James Dimon:
This is a lesson that’s been learned over and over about broker originations, they perform much worse than our own originations, and if you separate home equity into we call it kind of good bank, bad bank, and broker so I would say it’s less than 20%, but a lot of the losses are coming from that 20%, which is high LTV [loan-to-value], broker originated businesses. High LTV business is also bad in its own.
Analyst:
And the 20% you referred to a minute ago in round numbers is the sort of specifically high LTV and originated away [by brokers] is that right?
James Dimon:
It’s been very consistent In both our own originated and broker originated, high LTV, stated income is bad. It is three times worse in broker than it is in our own.
Analyst:
Wow.


Wow, indeed. This suggests that banks were constrained by the size and nature of their institutions, but brokers had no such scruples; they behaved like the fly-by-night operators they so often seem to be. The Caluclated Risk post prompted Felix Salmon to wonder why brokers have not yet been disintermediated (to use another fun euphemism), drawing the same conclusion that prompted me to start this entry:


Frankly, in an era where people can get mortgage quotes online almost as easily as they can buy car insurance, I fail to see why mortgage brokers should exist. It would be an industry crying out for disintermediation even if it weren’t obvious that mortgage brokers are top of the list of people to blame for the current mortgage crisis. In the debate about “predatory lenders” and “predatory borrowers”, the bigger truth is that the real problem was predatory brokers - people who abused the trust of both lenders and borrowers. If they do disappear, they shan’t be missed.


 


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