Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

7 Sep 2009

Yesterday I was wondering about whether it makes since to curtail individual freedom in order to achieve a larger efficiency that no one individual will experience as directly beneficial. In particular, it’s possible that we like to think we can outwit everyone else when we can’t, but that fantasy is more beneficial to us than a smoother-running system.

Steenbarger, a guest poster at Barry Ritholtz’s Big Picture blog, calls attention to the research that suggests that certain traders are addicted to playing the market recklessly.

It turns out that a large body of psychological research finds that people who are sensation seekers tend to also be risk takers.  Indeed, many hapless traders are attracted to markets precisely because of the stimulation of risk and reward.  At the extreme, this makes trading an addiction, not a disciplined quest to exploit market inefficiencies.

Obviously this means market players are not all contributing useful information, and markets themselves are not automatically efficient in that sense. It may instead provide opportunities to express irrationality, to defy reason and take defiant chances. Markets are just another social medium in which individuals can try to leave their distinctive mark, even if it requires acting insanely. And markets may then conduct misleading information to other participants, compounding the confusion and generating unexpected or suboptimal outcomes.

Does that mean such individuals’ participation in markets should be curtailed in the name of perfecting markets? Of course we shouldn’t, but I wonder though if all the talk about the unfortunate reality of inefficient markets will at some point lead to attempts to perfect them by force and prohibition. A perfect market, as Albert Hirschman pointed out in his “Rival Interpretations of Market Society,” requires that participants not be connected by any ties other than commercial ones, ties that might affect their economic-rational judgment: “Involving large numbers of price-taking anonymous buyers and sellers supplied with perfect information, such markets function without any prolonged human or social contact among or between the parties.” Perhaps the isolating aspects of capitalist society are self-reinforcing, or at least are reinforced by economistic technocrats who wish to conjure their perfect market, which would reinforce the plausibility of their predictions and enhance their credibility and power. The more that traditional ties are broken, denied, or prevented from forming, the more “perfect” markets can be become; efforts to promote “rational thinking” over emotional or altruistic thinking may work to further our way toward such perfection, until we are all perfectly anonymous in our solipsistic individuality.

by Bill Gibron

7 Sep 2009

Jerry Lewis remains an elusive cinematic figure. For most, he’s a joke, the punchline to a slam on the foolish French, or the kooky caricature of a nerd screeching “HEY LAAAAADY!” at the top of their nasal voice. Others have a more proper perspective, recognizing both his work with former partner Dean Martin (they remain the biggest phenomenon and unquantifiable gold standard in the now dead art of night club entertainment) and his tireless efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy (summed up by this weekend’s telethon). But when it comes to film, especially those he’s personally written and directed, he stays a fool, a jester as jerk de-evovling the artform into nothing more than senseless silly slapstick. It doesn’t matter that Lewis authored one of the standard textbooks on the craft (The Total Film-Maker, 1971), or conceived technical innovations that revolutionized the production process.

Few see that he’s actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood’s Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude who takes the pratfall and pulls his face like putty – that’s all. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. While it’s true that Lewis lacks contextual sophistication – especially when it comes to subject matter and storyline – he is a procedural and visionary marvel. Thanks to a famous collaboration with Warner Brothers animator turned director Frank Tashlin (who’s really the aesthetic lynchpin for the look of most Lewis films) and his own turns in the creator’s chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist.

We begin by ignoring his first two solo efforts – the oddly dark The Delicate Delinquent (nothing more than a Martin and Lewis project gone sour) and the military farce The Sad Sack (good, but not quite there). After that, we can trace his talent, his tenacity, and his tendency toward self-indulgence. Hopefully, this will paint a better, more believable portrait of Jerry Lewis, an image beyond the frog-mouthed braying and the pantomime typewriter routines. For all his flaws, his hubris and his ego, the man could really make movies. The proof lies in the following list of legitimate cinematic statements, starting with:

Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For many this stands as the first ‘legitimate’ Jerry Lewis film. It’s not a leftover from his partnership with Martin, and marks the moment when Tashlin’s cartoon conceit steps in. It becomes the standard for most of the comedian’s work for the next two decades. While sappy and saccharine, it’s also the start of greater things to come.

The Geisha Boy (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
While far from politically correct (watch out for lots of slant eyed Asian awkwardness) and hitting, again, on the “Lewis with a foundling” formula that would guide his initial output, this otherwise ordinary film represents something miserable, not memorable.

The Bellboy (1960)
After the routine returns of Don’t Give Up the Ship and Visit to a Small Planet, Lewis was looking for a way to express himself without the interference of studio stooges who didn’t understand his style. In the meantime, Paramount wanted to save his upcoming Cinderfella for the Fall. So during a nightclub appearance in Miami, he made an agreement with the studio to create this on the fly homage to silent slapstick comedy. It became Lewis’s breakthrough. It also marks the introduction of ‘video assist’ – the use of video playback to allow a director to test how a scene plays and how the compositions work. Yes, Lewis is credited for creating the now-obligatory tool.

Cinderfella (1960) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Tashlin’s take on the classic fairytale is so weepy and maudlin that it’s hard to believe that anyone thought it would be a sizeable hit. But because of his stature as a legitimate solo superstar (eclipsing his previous partner many times over), Lewis’s career in front of the camera was now secured. His next effort would establish his prowess behind the lens as well.

The Ladies Man (1961)
It remains a monumental achievement in set design and art direction. Throwing his weight around as a box office behemoth, Lewis demanded and received an entire Paramount soundstage to create what is, essentially, an entire four story house complete with grand concourse, spiral staircases, open walled bedrooms, and an old fashioned elevator running up the side. It was a massive masterpiece of a playset, and Lewis made the most of it. Visually, Man is amazing. Unfortunately, the comedy is a tad forced, relying more on small moments than the epic environment created.

The Errand Boy (1961)
As a love letter to the studio that stood by him, Lewis made this simplistic silliness. Standing as one of his true classic comedies, this skewering of Hollywood hubris in combination with the filmmaker’s fleet footed physical shtick resulted in a creative combination that would underscore his next few films. Tinsel Town never took such a well-intentioned tweaking.

It’$ Only Money (1962) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Relatively forgotten, even among Lewis fans, this oddball detective farce – Lewis is a TV repairman and alongside a shifty private dick, get caught up in the search for a rich family’s missing heir – is one of the funnyman’s forgotten gems. Tashlin really amplifies his anarchic style, and Lewis looses himself in the relatively low key role. Instead of playing to the audience, he’s playing FOR them.

The Nutty Professor (1963)
Without a doubt, this stands as one of comedy’s major cinematic milestones. By riffing on his relationship with ex-partner Martin (who Buddy Love is obviously mirrored after) and putting to use every kind of cleverness imaginable, we get a wonderful whirlwind of dopiness and deftness. Lewis actually plays CHARACTERS here, not just weird variations of his own stick boy persona, and the emotional underpinning of the relationship with Stella Purdy is heartfelt and very human. Granted, this satiric Jekyll and Hyde has its slack sequences, but if you wonder what keeps Lewis part of the motion picture equation, even four decades later, this fantastic film is the answer.

Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) (with director Frank Tashlin)
After Professor, another go round with Tashlin seemed like a step backward. Still, Store is fun, using the premise (Lewis is a clerk put through the ringer by an owner who doesn’t want him marrying her daughter) to explore some major spectacle set pieces. It’s hit or miss, but there’s more to love than loathe in the end. 

The Patsy (1964)
Often cited as one of Lewis’s more cynical films, this droll look at celebrity and the shallowness of fame is, in reality, on par with Professor as a certifiable sensation. A dynamite combination of silent film gags, pop culture spoof (see Ed Sullivan mock himself!), and insightful evisceration into the cult of personality, it’s a brilliant, brazen farce.

The Disorderly Orderly (1964) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For his last film with Tashlin, Lewis resorts to stereotyping – that is, merely playing a version of the klutzy character he perfected in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy. Still, Disorderly is a surreal bit of insanity. It’s a cookie-cutter confection that only wants to entertain. And it definitely does so in small, sublime doses.

The Family Jewels (1965)
Marking the end of an era in more ways than one, this unfunny flop would represent the last time Lewis worked within such a cartoonish carelessness. Playing seven separate roles (the film focuses on a butler – Lewis – looking to place an orphaned girl with one of six specious Uncles – again, all Lewis). Some may marvel at the extensive use of split screen, and the attempt to distinguish the ridiculous relatives by outrageous make-up and costume conceits, but by going back to the days of fostering wee ones, Lewis seemed to suggest that he needed such a crutch to remain relevant.

Three on a Couch (1966)
Attempting to make the leap into more ‘adult oriented fare’, many feel Lewis succeeded with this sincere psychobabble. Again playing multiple roles (the plot has the clown wooing the man-hating patients of his psychiatrist fiancé so the pair can vacation in Paris), we get the battle of the sexes circa the swinging ‘60s. Unfortunately, the envelope pushing concepts of gender politics and free love are nowhere to be found. In many ways, this film’s view of relationships is so conservative it would make ‘50s suburbanites smile.

The Big Mouth (1967)
Here it is - the last straw in the lumbering Lewis legacy. After the failure of two films made without his direct input – the sci-fi stupidity of Way…Way Out! and the British bunk Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River – Lewis retook the reigns of his motion picture product. The result was this horrendous, mean-spirited mess. Overstuffed with stereotypes (including more mandatory Oriental awfulness) and painfully unfunny, it signaled the final nail on the comedian’s almost closed creative coffin.

Which Way to the Front? (1970)
After once again failing to connect both as an actor (in the mediocre Hook, Line and Sinker) and director for hire (the Peter Lawford,/Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle One More Time), Lewis was desperate to revive his cinematic fortunes. With such war-oriented comedies as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Start the Revolution Without Me creating significant buzz, Lewis jumped into the genre with both feet. The plot involved a rich army reject desperate to battle Hitler’s Nazi nogoodniks, and there’s a lot of attempted anarchy here. Most of the movie is inert, however.

Hardly Working (1980)
After his attempt at a semi-serious Holocaust drama was sidetracked by funding issues and a creative concern for the actual material (more on this in a moment), Lewis left filmmaking. He claimed he was angered when he saw one of his films playing on a double bill with the then popular porn film Deep Throat, and announced he was no longer “in tune” with the crass concerns of the industry. After a decade out of the moviemaking limelight, Lewis released this ‘comeback’ effort, a collection of cobbled together vignettes centering on a schlub who just can’t stay employed. Varying wildly between good and grating, the result was deemed a dud by a savvier motion picture marketplace. Lewis again blamed everyone but himself, and regrouped. He still had one more aged Ace up his sleeve.

Cracking Up (1983)
Though he would spend the rest of his career playing character parts (and quite well – his work in both Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and the TV series Wiseguy were performance epiphanies), Lewis longed to be a big screen buffoon once again. Hoping to avoid the flaws of Working, he brought in old script collaborator Bill Richmond (who had worked with the actor on several of his seminal hits). The result was a weirdly uneven effort that still manages to be uproariously funny. Though he was about as old as the material he was mining, Lewis proved that no one understood this kind of craziness better than he. Sadly, physical limitations and demographic denial prevented any further films.

The Day the Clown Cried (Unfinished)
For a long time, this rumored fiasco acted as an artistic albatross around Lewis’s neck – and with good reason. As Roberto Benigni proved with his painfully insulting Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful, some subjects can’t stand up to dimwitted dopiness. Clearly, the killing of six million Jews by Hitler during World War II is one of them. Still, Lewis believed he had stumbled onto something substantive when he discovered Joan O’Brien’s novel about an imprisoned clown employed by the Nazi’s to entertain little children as they were sent off to the gas chambers. True, there is a queasy quality of tastelessness when matched up against Lewis’s love of all things overdone and overbroad, but it’s quite possible that he could have pulled this off. Naturally, those who’ve seen a rough cut have argued for its awfulness, but if a stunted Italian gimmick can get audiences to appreciate his jesting snuff stuff, why couldn’t Lewis? Sadly, it appears this will merely remain fodder for further mythologizing, nothing more. 

by Ashley Cooper

6 Sep 2009

American funk/soul band, the Commodores, are releasing a new album of all of their hits. The band, established in 1974 when they all met as freshman at Tuskegee University (then known as Tuskegee Institute). They signed with Motown in November 1972, having gained public interest by opening for the Jackson 5 while they were on tour. They have sold over 70 million records worldwide.

Known for the ballads, “Easy” and “Three Times a Lady”, both of which are on the remastered cd, the group is known for their dance and feel good records. Fans of their music can tell you that the Commodores was the launching pad for the career of Lionel Richie, but also can tell you that the soul/funk vibe of the group is missing from the current music scene, which is why it is so appropriate that the group remaster their hits, allowing their old fans to enjoy the music in quality form, and even attract some newer fans.

While the group has not recorded new material in over ten years, they are very active in performing in venues all across the world and selling out concert halls. They tour with other groups, and headline shows in such venues as Trump Casinos and Hard Rock Casinos.

by Ashley Cooper

6 Sep 2009

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II will be the fourth solo album from Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon. It is the anticipated sequel to the 1995 album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and will be released on September 8th, 2009.

The album was initially announced in 2005, and was completed in 2006. It was not released as of 2007, and was named the “#6 Most Anticipated Album of 2007” by XXL Magazine. Despite all the hype surrounding it, the album kept getting pushed back and release date changes were made. Due to a new contract Raekwon signed with Dr. Dre’s record label, Aftermath Entertainment, distribution concerns also impeded the album’s release to the public. Despite all the fuss and concern, the album was revamped and is now finally set for release.

The first single “New Wu” (originally named “Wu Ooh”), has been getting playback on New York station Hot 97, and the video, which can be seen below, was released exclusively online. The album features all of Wu-Tang Clan except for U-God, and also Cappadonna, Poppa Wu, Blue Raspberry and Suga Bang Bang. Other guests also Busta Rhymes, Styles P., Jadakiss and R&B singer Lyfe Jennings.

by Rob Horning

6 Sep 2009

Krugman’s NYT Magazine article, which looks at shortcomings of economics as a discipline, reminded me of a question I have been mulling over. Does macroeconomics, in aggregating and potentially canceling out more localized movements in opposite directions within the data, gloss over the questions that are significant to individuals, which are typically a matter of where they stand in relation to other individuals? Macro data flattens out much of the relative differences in between individuals, but such differences are what register to those individuals and determine to large degree their sense of how the economy is faring and what their prospects are. So when economists and econojournalists begin prognosticating based on the macro data, they create a picture of reality that excludes everyday experience and alienates those whose relative story doesn’t fit the general trends. Or what individuals experience as lost opportunities or jobs or wages may show up in aggregate data as something more hopeful about society generally. This means a disconnect between what passes for the truth about society and what people experience in everyday life can grow and deepen, intensifying the perceived antagonism between the two.

To make this less abstract: I couldn’t accept the premise reported on in this Christian Science Monitor story that reducing the number of roads for drivers might cut traffic delays.

It all hinges on something called Braess’s Paradox, which states that adding capacity to a network in which all the moving entities rationally seek the most efficient route can sometimes reduce the network’s overall efficiency…. The price of anarchy drops if you close a few roads, because individual drivers are less able to selfishly optimize their routes. In their analysis, the authors identified six streets in Boston and Cambridge: By closing those streets, they say, the optimal collective travel time would decrease between the two points.

Granted, but we as individuals don’t care about the overall efficiency of the system; freedom, from our limited point of view, is being able to use our wits (and alternate routes) to beat the system, or at least believe we are. When roads are closed, even if it helps the overall efficiency, it may appear to us as an arbitrary nuisance thwarting our creativity and improvisational skills. We may think, relative to other drivers, we know more and can get through a busy traffic network more quickly. If the state intervenes and negates the value of that knowledge, we are likely to feel unnecessarily frustrated, thwarted in our personal potential.

The stock market, and the efficient markets hypothesis (which Krugman covers, and is discussed at length in Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market), is somewhat analogous—individuals participate in the market because they believe they can beat it, even though financial theory (in its most dogmatic form) holds that any advantageous information is already priced in. Imagine if the state stepped in and forced investors to accept that they couldn’t beat the market, on the idea that it would be more efficient socially to have a few large institutions allocate a country’s collective capital. Would all that knowledge that those individual investors believe that they have be wasted—or are they all deluded in their belief in that knowledge and would thereby be prevented from harming society by acting on it? And would the theoretical gains in efficiency outweigh the enforced impotence that individuals would experience?

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