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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

At his blog, economist Lane Kenworthy posted a compelling look at growing income inequality in America, illustrating with graphs how median income has fallen away from per-capita GDP—meaning that as the economy has grown, less of the benefits of that growth have been spread across the entire class distribution of the population. Kenworthy points to this as a source of strain on the middle class and sees it as a fundamental subtext for the upcoming presidential election.


Generally speaking, Democrats regard this inequality as a matter of those at the top leveraging their advantages to seize more and more of the pie. The solution to this, typically, is a progressive tax regime that takes away some of those financial advantages, redistributing the wealth created to those below. The rich resent this, as they tend to misconstrue the gains derive from passive investment as their just deserts for risk taking. (Whereas Marx describes capital as “dead labor that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the laborer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has purchased of him.”) But the middle class potentially has their tax burden lightened while getting improved government services financed by the new tax revenue.


Republicans obviously don’t see it this way. They instead evoke the past, when inequality was not so stark (thanks to policies they rejected at the time) and try to paint a picture of progress as failure and disruption, as individuals being crushed by a distant federal government that is essentially their enemy. The solution to the problems the middle class faces, from this point of view, is a recommitment to individualistic values of self-reliance and a church-based, small-town-size community (while scorning community organizers, the existence of whom signal a localized disharmony that conservatives are loath to acknowledge), and a repudiation of the idea that a federal government has any meaningful role in most people’s lives. This seemed to be the subtext of Sarah Palin’s angry, demagogic speech at the Republican convention last night—that small town people should be wary of those purporting to have expertise. At the Washington Monthly site, Steve Benen articulated the theme of the RNC this way:


Seriously, what’s the message of the week in St. Paul? That Republican governing works? No. That Republicans have a legitimate policy agenda? No. That the next four years should be different from the last eight? No. It’s simple: “Your house may be on fire, but don’t trust that man standing outside with a hose, because he doesn’t share your values.”


The Republicans offer voters an opportunity to live in a fantasy world in which they really are self-reliant and government is unnecessary; where “values” really are so uniform—perhaps because they are mandated by a God whom everyone must worship—that there aren’t any meaningful conflicts among groups that the state would have to mediate. All you need is a military to protect the homogeneous group from outside infiltration. (This is why conservatives are so quick to ridicule “political correctness”—because the existence of diversity, competing interests, fundamentally threatens their ideology of government. The only competing interest, from the conservative point of view, are those that the marketplace sorts out.)


Meanwhile, when voters abandon the idea that the atheistic federal government should work for them, it becomes captured instead by professional politicians and the corporate interests they serve—it becomes a machine of plunder, as Jamie Galbraith details in The Predator State. Ideologues like Palin ultimately provide the cover for kleptocrats like Duke Cunningham and his ilk.


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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008
by Colin Covert - Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Burn After Reading (opens Friday): After their moody Oscar triumph No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers let their hair down with this spoofy crime farce. Two dimwitted Washington gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) try to blackmail a CIA agent (John Malkovich) for the return of a CD-ROM containing his memoirs. The duo treat their scheme more like a prank than a felony until the misanthropic spy gives them a violent taste of reality. Tilda Swinton plays the spook’s irritable, unfaithful wife, George Clooney is her bumbling lover, and J.K. Simmons is an incompetent intelligence czar.


Ghost Town: After a near-death experience, testy New York dentist Bertram Pincus sees dead people and finds they’re just as needy and pushy as the living. One pesky spirit wants him to break up the planned marriage between his widow and a dull suitor, and when Bertram falls for the lovely, intelligent woman, he enlists the ghost’s help to chase her himself. On paper, it looks formulaic, but there’s a raft of solid talent involved, from Ricky Gervais (of the BBC’s The Office) in his leading-man debut to writer/director David Koepp (one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite collaborators) to Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni as the ghost and his former wife. (Opens Sept. 19.)


Lakeview Terrace: In this racially charged thriller, a black LAPD officer (Samuel L. Jackson) takes increasingly threatening action to force out the mixed-race couple (Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson) who move in next door. Director Neil LaBute delivers excruciating suspense as the feud escalates to dangerous violence. It’s also observant about subtleties of discrimination and powerfully acted. Jackson seems to have taken a lesson from Denzel Washington’s bad cop Oscar performance in Training Day. He’s scary, ferocious, cunning and treacherous. (Sept. 19.)


W: Oliver Stone and politics go together like kitchen matches and kerosene. His quick, low-budget biopic of our commander in chief is guaranteed to be a partisan broadside; I’m hoping it’ll be shamelessly entertaining, too. With a lawn-lacerating car accident, boozing and a brawl between young George and his dad, the trailer could pass for an Adam Sandler comedy. Josh Brolin takes the title role, but I’m most eager to see that irrepressible hambone Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. (Oct. 24.)


Synecdoche, New York: From its obscure, tongue-twisting title to its reality-warping narrative, nothing in Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut takes the easy route. The story is a fable about creativity, imagination and aging, told through the life of a theater director creating an epic play on a lifesize set of New York City. The ever-astounding Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the lead, with a starry cavalcade including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hope Davis as the perplexing women in his life. Coming from the quirky Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it’s certain to be arty, elegant and more twisted than a barrel of pretzels. (Oct. 24.)


Zack and Miri Make a Porno: The new wave of raunchy-but-nice comedy reportedly ratchets up a few notches with the latest from a writer/director famous for his crude wit, Kevin Smith (Clerks). Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks star as longtime friends who decide to fill their empty bank accounts by shooting a blue movie in Pittsburgh with local amateur talent. While the film doesn’t quite deliver on its title (it’s rated R), it’s definitely rude. The late George Carlin, one of Smith’s mentors, would be delighted at the tone of salacious silliness. (Oct. 31.)


Quantum of Solace: The latest James Bond adventure reportedly takes off 20 minutes after the finale of Casino Royale, with 007 on a personal vendetta to punish everyone responsible for the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd. The trail leads Bond (Daniel Craig) to a ruthless businessman (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) making a grab for Latin America’s natural resources. If the film continues in the cool, high-energy path of its predecessor, the 22nd in the Bond series could be the movie that gets everyone to stop talking about The Dark Knight. (Nov. 14.)


The Soloist: Sometimes you have to get past the synopsis and put your faith in the talent. A disillusioned journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) befriends a schizophrenic, homeless musical prodigy (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of performing at L.A.‘s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Also on hand are Catherine Keener and Stephen Root, director Joe Wright (Atonement) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich). My fingers are crossed that this one will avoid Hallmark Channel schmaltz and soar to multiple-Oscar glory. (Nov. 21.)


Australia: No surfing, Foster’s beer or glamour shots of the Sydney Opera House here. It’s a historical-romantic saga from hipster auteur Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). An English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) who has inherited a huge cattle station recruits a rough-hewn stockman (Hugh Jackman) to drive 2,000 head across hundreds of miles of near-impassable terrain. There’s high-society dancing, courtship and ferocious aerial attacks from Japanese dive-bombers as World War II erupts. (Nov. 26.)



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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

The twelfth, and final, episode of Season Two of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, September 4, at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) is what all 11 of the previous amazing lineups were preparing viewers for: Brian Wilson, Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. All three performers are living, writing, singing proof that talent is often a family affair.


Brian Wilson opens the show discussing how Rubber Soul impressed him so greatly that he went on to write “God Only Knows” because of it. Brian Wilson’s band is made up of members of the Wondermints, among several other musicians. It’s clear from the between song banter that this group of people, Brian included, is very comfortable together, and it’s even clearer once the performances begin, that this is the rare, perfect musical combination. So it’s only fitting the band should have some of the most perfect compositions to perform. “Sloop John B” is up first, and after a false start for a piano problem, it swells until the various voices mingling threaten to carry the viewer away on a wave of goodwill. Yeah, it’s not supposed to be an uplifting tune, but Wilson’s arrangement—and his obvious pleasure at hearing it fill that room—can’t help but buoy you.


“Southern California”, comes from this year’s That Lucky Old Sun, and is an ode to Wilson’s home and his past. It’s a truly touching and beautiful song, and has that uniquely timeless quality of the very best Brian Wilson songs, in that it could’ve been released 40 years ago or 40 years from now, and it would still be just as gorgeous. The vocal harmonies, of course, are stunning. And that brings us to “God Only Knows”, which is Wilson’s favorite song for its “pretty melody and meaningful lyrics”. It has a lingering transcendence in this performance, which actually seems to add to the ambience of Abbey Road studios, rather than drawing from it. It’s a hauntingly beautiful effect.


Martha Wainwright steps up next with “Bleeding All Over You”, “Cheating Me” and “Coming Tonight” from her most recent release, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. “Bleeding All Over You”, from which the album takes its name, is a song about unrequited love and the way it can still haunt you even after you’ve moved on. Despite its subject matter, it’s a hummable, strummable tune made all the more catchy by Wainwright’s infectious vocal delivery.


“Cheating Me” is a harder, darker, but no less contagious in its chorus. “Coming Tonight” has a false start as well, but once the song gets going again, it begins to appear that this episode isn’t so much about the stars, the performances or this particular lineup’s genetics, but about the sheer songwriting prowess.


Teddy Thompson begins his segment by referring to his parentage (“My mom is Linda Thompson… she’s like the British Museum, my dad’s more like the vault down below where they keep all the stuff they don’t show you!”). Thompson gives us “In My Arms” and “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” from his latest album, A Piece of What You Need. “In My Arms” is a song which Thompson claims is the first of his that has ever made him want to move to it, but dancing isn’t his inclination. However, if it’s yours, you’re going to love this song. It’s got that mid-‘60s girl-group rhythm, a great bit of organ and some fabulous “oooohs” from Thompson. It will make you believe, as Thompson sort of intended, that A Piece of What You Need is a happy record. “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” is another of the performances in this episode that point to these artist being grouped together for their enviable abilities to write songs just like this one. And Thompson’s voice on this is particularly strong.


The brilliant second season of Live from Abbey Road comes to a close with Thompson dueting with Wainwright. They are friends from way back, so the rehearsal and pre-performance banter come off as completely natural. When they begin their stripped down, almost sad, and, yes, haunting cover version of “We Can Work it Out”, it’s mesmerizing. It’s also quite an impressive way to end a very impressive season. Let’s hope season three of Live from Abbey Road has even more world class artists and wonderful lineups to come.


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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

Air travel is something of an occupational hazard in my life—partly because of (obviously) my occupation and partly because of my geographically dispersed family.  So I spend a lot of time in airports, my time there equally divided between airport bars and airport bookshops.


I don’t usually buy anything in the bookshops.  $7 is a steep price for a beer, but you can’t very well sneak one in from outside just in case your flight is delayed.  $28 for a paperback is completely avoidable when you can plan your reading needs in advance.  The generally disappointing range of books is another factor.  It’s rare that anything on display catches my attention.


I’m always reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when the airport bookshop is named “Just Crichton and King”.  Although in recent times it’s more “Just Brown and Rowling”, the idea is still the same: sell the most populist, mass-market books you can think of, in big piles.


Australian airports are particularly bad, something that was brought home to me by the excellent range in the Great Canadian Book Company at Vancouver airport last week.  At Canberra airport (a city of 300,000 people and a frequent destination) the poor range is hardly surprising, but larger airports like Sydney and Melbourne don’t have the same excuse.  Even in a major airport, the lack of competition tends to leave shops perpetuating the narrow idea of the “airport novel”.


There’s nothing wrong with a bit of trash, to be fair, and at least page-turners have the virtue of keeping you awake and engaged when on a long flight.  Many is the time I’ve attempted to read something dense and complex only to fail with the combined distractions of turbulence, snoring neighbours and intravenous airline coffee.


I probably would have had better luck with a Michael Crichton than I recently did with Robert Musil’s epochal The Man Without Qualities, a dense, misanthropic exploration of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Fourteen hours over the Pacific Ocean and I managed a mere five pages before I gave up and watched Prince Caspian on the little TV screen.  The first volume is over 700 pages and I barely made a dent.


This teaches me that picking the right book for a flight is more complex than merely grabbing whatever you’re currently reading.  It’s a special case and deserves careful thought.


Everyone would have their own unique selection criteria.  Do you like to take a couple of books and see what you’re in the mood for?  Do you trust the serendipity of the airport bookshop selection?  Can you even read on a plane or is it just a bad reading environment?


I think next time I’m going for something punchy.  With big print for my sleep-deprived eyes.


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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

The advance of digital technology further and further into the nooks and crannies of our lives is based on an elementary trade-off. It supplies us with a great deal of convenience: It lets us communicate with one another wherever and whenever we want to; it provides us with instantaneous access to and limitless storage of media, everything from personal photos to films to most of the history of recorded music on a terabyte hard drive; it’s capable of building in a level of redundancy in our lives, preserving what we might otherwise forget and protecting us from oversights—if you lose tickets to an event, chances are the barcode on them can be canceled and new ones issued to you. And if your credit card number is stolen, chances are the bank will recognize suspicious purchases and notify you. But in exchange for all this convenience, we sacrifice privacy and spontaneity: We permit all our public actions to be cataloged and processed, and we make ourselves completely and instantly accessible not just to our friends and family, but to marketers who seek to guide our behavior in contexts that they can detect and analyze perhaps even before we have a chance to, and to the state, which may seek to stifle dissent before it has the opportunity to assemble and gather force. We become willing parties to our own reification, to our assimilation into the giant digital data machine. Obviously there is pleasure in this, not only in the expanded access to entertainment but also in the thrill of losing ourselves, of ceding responsibility, of having an all-powerful deity-like entity feed us what it thinks we need to know to be happy in whatever situation we end up in. In short, we have a easier time navigating the world as we experience it because it has been preformatted by powerful institutions. Unfortunately our interests are more or less tangential to these institutions, whose primary concern is their own survival and growth.


So, considering how technology threatens to render our wishes irrelevant even as it pretends to cater to them—that is, to our desires boiled down to the need for convenience, to consume more faster and with maximum indiscriminateness—it would seem diligent to regard technology’s encroachments with circumspection and skepticism. Because information technology makes so much of our private lives public and because it flattens our experience into a universal code of ones and zeros that threatens to annihilate our sense of its uniqueness, it’s natural and prudent to be ambivalent about IT and the dislocating change it incurs. But The Numerati, a new collection of profiles of mathematician data miners by frequent BusinessWeek contributor Stephen Baker, offers mostly token displays of such ambivalence. The book—whose chapters explore how data about us can be used to make us the target for ads and political appeals, how it can be used to better surveil us at work and capture terrorists (or at least casino cheaters), how it can expose our health issues, and how it can predict the fate of our relationships—is not really for skeptics. While occasionally paying lip service to privacy advocates, it is generally fawning in its coverage of the companies who sell their abilities to profile us in terms of what we might be susceptible to buy. It regards their invasive business practices as inevitable, the inescapable result of increased competition, and a reflection of the dubious proposition that consumer preferences dictate the direction of the economy. Companies need to spy on their own customers, the logic goes, in order to know what those customers will want just in time to provide it to them, maximizing whatever logistical competitive advantage can thereby be derived. “Retailers simply cannot afford to keep herding us blindly through stores and malls, flashing discounts on Pampers to widowers in wheelchairs,” Baker warns in a typical passage.


But if you are not primarily worried about what companies can or can’t “afford,” the values implicit in the book may bother you. You might not celebrate as a company learns to shed its “barnacle” customers—i.e. the ones that try to keep companies to their word and make them deliver on their promises. You might not be happy that shopping carts can persuade people to buy more at the supermarket than they otherwise would have. You won’t cheer when a computer figures out who you voted for based on contextual clues, opening you up to a new slew of fundraising appeals. Baker seems to register just how dehumanizing and awful the world of surveillance and forced digitalization of our lives will be, but in the book, the craven instincts of the business journalist usually take over, and he presents corporate management’s side as the final word—our inevitable fate that we may as well start loving since we are powerless to alter it.


Think of the endless rows of workers threading together electronic cables in a Mexican assembly plant or the thousands of soldiers rushing into machine-gun fire at Verdun—even the blissed out crowd pushing through the turnstiles at a Grateful Dead concert. From management’s point of view, all of us in these scenarios might as well be nameless and faceless. Turning us into simple numbers was what happened in the industrial age. That was yesterday’s story.


The examples cited here are bizarrely incongruous—are we supposed to be happy to be compared to soldiers being ordered to march into certain death? is that at all comparable to Deadheads at a stadium show? and simply because a lot of people have gathered in one place means they have been ontologically reduced to a statistic automatically? But setting that aside, the phrase yesterday’s story is enough to tip us off to Baker’s teleological impulses, while his elision of management’s point of view with that destiny, with the end of the story, with the point of view that shapes the story, is characteristic of the book as a whole. It is our fate to become numbers in the eyes of the powers that be, because it suits those powers that we be organized in that much-more-manageable fashion. But Baker would have us believe that history itself is responsible, not the institutions and those who profit by them.


The confusions about cause and effect then extend to the means of data collection. “When it comes to producing data,” he declares, “we are prolific.” This seems an innocuous enough statement, but it’s totally backward. Our behavior is simply our behavior; to us it is lived experience, memory, sense stimuli. We don’t “produce” the data, the technology that collects it transforms our lived experience into that data that institutions (corporations, the state) crave. It works to have us reconceive ourselves as numbers, as the sum of datapoints, and then presents its manipulations of that data as the means for our personal extension, even though we are now limited to the field it has defined. “Once they have a bead on our data, they can decode our desires,” Baker notes, but it seems more appropriate to say that they encode it, trapping it in the mediated digital world. Amazon, for example, usefully tells us what we might want based on our behavior, and then buying the books it has suggested begins to seem a way of completing ourselves. The data—the preexisting categories, the defaults, the automated processes incumbent in the systems that capture information—has started to produce us.


The most obvious example of this is social networks, or the even more totalizing Second Life. These data-harvesting applications hope to encourage us to conduct our social lives in their petri dishes and behave in preconditioned ways the service providers can measure and exploit—attaching ads and recommendations to social exchanges that in the real world would transpire with unencumbered spontaneity, with no commercial subtext. Online, though, our behavior—now transformed into marketing data—suddenly works, to those we “network” with, like a sales pitch—a means to some other end rather than being autonomous. Our actions seems less real until they are posted and shared and processed to our maximum advantage with regard to the impression we would like to create or the number of page views we would like to garner. Our consciousness, when reduced to data out of convenience, becomes merely instrumental, something easily reprogrammed to accomplish various tasks. We can automate our social life or refashion our identities thanks to the tools the networks provide, but the thrill of lived experience vanishes to a degree, becoming more and more a matter of adjustments on the spreadsheet of self.


After Baker has misconstrued our role in turning ourselves into data, it’s a short leap to claim that “the only folks who can make sense of the data we create are crack mathematicians.” In other words, don’t try to understand yourself; you need a math genius to tell you who you are and what your meant to do through your behavior. Statisticians are better managers of our datasets than we are, and they are better able to manipulate our data to see what it will yield—to see what our true possibilities are. Apparently our own account of our hopes and dreams and intentions is irrelevant to the degree that it is not conditioned by what the math geniuses have calculated and made permissible. Once we are data, we are inscrutable to ourselves.


Not only does our reduction to data make us strangers to ourselves, but Baker goes so far as to opine that in the future, we will be “happy to pay for the privilege of remaining, to some degree or other, in the dark” about the selves that can be constructed from our data. He has in mind the disconcerting probabilities that we will contract diseases, but it applies plausibly to the whole range of knowledge that can be produced about us. When we begin to be overtargeted, we will need filters to discover our authentic reflection in the efforts to persuade us. We will want liberation from the self left behind by the trail we’ve blazed through commercial culture, as that identity is merely the one that shopping permits us to have. A more integral self will fight that commercially derived one for social space in which to manifest. But the hegemony of consumerism will require us to pay for that privilege of being able to conceive an authentic self independent of our data stream.


What can we do to thwart our being converted to data? Baker suggests a can’t-beat-em-join-em approach, urging us to make spreadsheets of our achievements to demonstrate our worth. As digital data hounds become more thoroughly intrusive, we can probably count on the advent of services that would throw out false scents in our name, creating fake data trails to muddy the image of ourselves therein, to obscure our health concerns from insurance companies who would like to exclude us, and to mask our shopping proclivities to ensure that we don’t suffer price discrimination or perhaps attract favorable discounts. Just as credit-score doctors learned how to game FICO, a counter-Numerati is sure to emerge to try and thwart their efforts to define us. Short of that, it will increasingly be to our benefit to conduct ourselves anonymously if we want to preserve any sense of self at all.


 


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