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Saturday, Jan 19, 2008

Berkeley Center for New Media Announces Endowment

Photo by Craig Newmark. CONE sutro forest project.

Photo by Craig Newmark. CONE sutro forest project.


Last year Craigslist founder Craig Newmark placed a camera that allowed thousands of people, collaboratively controlling it online, to capture images of birds from the deck of his home on the edge of the Sutro Forest in San Francisco. It was project developed by Ken Goldberg, now the Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media and Texas A & M University. It’s a project that’s a metaphor for all of his double-edged art/science projects, the tools are only valuable when it’s possible to observe and understand how people use them in their natural habitats. The Berkeley Center for New Media has just announced an endowment of $1.6million from Craigslist, matched by $1.5 million from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for a total of $3.1 million. It will support research, symposia and lectures. Craigslist and the Center for New Media share “...interests in research areas such as privacy, reputation, trust, access and new ways to encourage socially constructive actions,” said Goldberg. The Berkeley Alumni magazine said “The Center for New Media is less concerned with whiz-bang technologies than with old values—truth, depth, reliablitity, authenticity, aesthetics, and public service.”


Goldberg’s telerobotic art projects created around his research with the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research School at Berkeley were in the realm of what he termed “telepistemology”, the study of ways of knowing, and the validity of what we know, if that knowledge is gained at a distance, through the internet. He encourages what he calls “the resumption of disbelief,” being skeptical of what we find on the internet. His Dislocation of Intimacy project wondered if all that we discover about the world through the internet, which seems like everything, might be nothing more than the shadows on the walls seen by the prisoners in Plato’s cave parable. He combined this with wondering about a place for genuine mystery and wonder in this world, with a mechanism that was a telerobotic version of Duchamp’s hidden noise in ball of twine project. Whether to dismantle something to find out how it works or accept the mystery is a crucial question in today’s world.


All of the telerobotic projects were available to anyone, anywhere online, and the opening up of university research to the world is part of an going mission. There’s a Los Angeles Times article posted on the Berkeley Center for New Media’s website that looks at the phenomenon of university lectures delivered through i-Tunes as free podcasts.


By making hundreds of lectures from elite academic institutions available online for free, Apple is reinvigorating the minds of people who have been estranged from the world of ideas.


For several years universities have posted recorded lectures on their internal websites, giving students a chance to brush up on their classes or catch ones they missed.


But 28 colleges and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Yale, now post select courses without charge at iTunes.


The universities want to promote themselves to parents and prospective students, as well as strengthen ties with alumni. Some also see their mission as sharing the ivory tower’s intellectual riches with the rest of the world.


“It was something we couldn’t easily do before the digital age,” UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said.


Michelle Quinn. LA Times. November 24, 2007


 


 


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Friday, Jan 18, 2008


Star power is everything. That’s how it used to be back in the golden days of the Tinsel Town studio system. Acting was never priority number one. Instead, the way a man or woman commanded the camera, the direct connection with the audience beyond the character or the performance, were the key to cinematic success. Few in the current crop of celebrity have this special trait. Most get by on a combination of publicity and hype-enforced popularity. But if you’re looking for a post-modern example of this old school ideal, then Amanda Bynes is your amiable icon. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features.


With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween to Pinkberry set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. Now available from Universal on an excellent DVD release, this wonderfully effective film is her first foray into quasi-adult fare. As a result, it functions as a future career gauge, measuring how much true star staying power she really has.


By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based (intermittently) on the famed fairytale - the film’s title should provide the necessary hint - and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and really makes it hum. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins, or anyone else in the Hannah Montana demo, passed on this project. The simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Tri-Delt dementia. It’s all very Revenge of the John Hughes Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, and the last act confirms our current laugh-along love affair with geek nation.

This is a film that relies on Bynes’ innate ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president (and future beau) Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the resident rejects of the all dork Vortex House reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. Yet our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous circumstances with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of freshness. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook.


Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar snap. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. As the rightly named Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven likeable losers, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.


In fact, it’s proper to compare Sydney White favorably to the classic college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the middle school marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. A few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative can’t help but follow traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.


As part of the DVD package, Universal includes some interesting extras. Director Nussbaum gets an opportunity to explain his motives and what drew him to the project in a sitdown Q&A, while he’s also around to introduce a collection of intriguing deleted scenes. Many in the cast, including Bynes and the dorks, get a chance to play EPK with the film, praising each other and their efforts. From specific set design choices to dealing with the various personalities on set, the material here all leads to one conclusion - everyone here tried really hard to make a sunny, successful comedy. And they succeeded.


In fact, it’s clear that what we wind up with is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.


It also provides proof that Amanda Bynes is the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. And pure star power is the foundation. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.


DVD


 
EXTRAS


 


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Friday, Jan 18, 2008

Not much going on in Book World this week if you’re not Tom Cruise. Cruise’s latest ravings have shown up on the web via a nine-minute video clip in which the actor proclaims himself near God-like. Here’s a sample: “[Scientologists] are the authorities on getting people off drugs. We are the authorities on the mind. We can bring happiness and peace and unite cultures ... If you are a Scientologist, you see things the way they are, in all their glory, in all their complexity… It’s rough and tumble. It’s wild and woolly. It’s a blast.” Gawker.com has a video of Cruise’s speech, which is apparently an acceptance speech for the Scientology ‘Freedom Medal of Honor’. It’s also supposed to inspire new recruits.


The video is just more bad publicity for Cruise, who is facing off against author Andrew Morton over Tom Cruise: An Unathorized Biography, which further exposes the actor as a nutjob whose daughter was conceived from the sperm of dead Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. (One wonders why Cruise is so worried about this book making him look mad when he does so well at that himself?) My opinion of Andrew Morton is so low that I hope Cruise gets the book banned and, if wishes were horses, Morton sent to scum-author hell. Time will tel. Cruise, too, has a good, solid record of winning lawsuits, so it could happen. Apparently, though, the book is on sale online in Australia, so he better get to work.


In other, far more important news…


Check out this heartbreaking story of a librarian forced to retire from the Ferguslie Library in Paisley. Paisley council members think 65 is too old to work, and have sent library stalwart Isa Erroch packing. This hits home for me as my 60-year-old mum thrives in her job as the local librarian. Recently, a new librarian was brought in to work with mum. This new woman has scolded my mum for her friendly, welcoming attitude to patrons. This worries me for two reasons. Firstly, because the library is often the talking spot for patrons, especially older patrons who love a good chinwag, and my mum has provided that for 15 years. Secondly, who’s this young upstart to demand anything change in a functioning, popular environment? A library visit without a good chat is just unthinkable. Or is it true that libraries are going the way of everything else—business, business, business?


It’s interesting that at our local library, when you enter, there’s chatter, laughter, good times being had. There are colourful pictures on the walls and images of new books on the way. It’s relaxed, comfortable. When you enter the bigger, city library a few towns over, you feel trapped in a big sterile box and risk a caning if you open your mouth too wide. I don’t know—it’s concerning. How are libraries run these days? The new sterile way, or the old comfortable way? My mum knows her patrons. She knows who likes what and what to recommend. She’s got fans, who trust and respect her opinions. That kind of rapport takes a long time to secure. I realise my mum’s not being shown the door like poor Mrs. Erroch, but is it that far away?


On a completely different note:
Michael Leahy discusses religion with Ron Jeremy. Leahy says: “It was pretty surreal, because we were talking about heaven and hell and ‘Is there a God?’ and those coeds were walking up and asking Ron to autograph their body parts.” Leahy is the author of Porn Nation, which describes his young days as sex-addict. Jeremy was on hand to offer his own insights into porn and the modern age. A recovering sex-addict becoming chummy with the biggest name in porn? A good idea?


Did pulp fiction “murder long sentences”? Check out this NPR piece: “I think it was really the beginning of a different kind of writing. The kind of writing in the world of literature that everyone had been familiar with was Henry James with long sentences, long paragraphs. And then Ernest Hemingway came along and Dashiell Hammett came along and they started to write short, quick, clipped sentences that didn’t require lots and lots of description. The pulps provided the perfect springboard for that literary tone”.


And lastly, consider this when throwing out your old, used books: “Is there any other industry in which such high-quality goods regularly make their way to consumers via a trash bin? Stand in the bookselling line at the Strand and the store starts to feel less like a dusty bastion of erudition and more like a messy, mulchy place where old ideas struggle to find new life.”


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Friday, Jan 18, 2008

Following on the heels of Rolling Stone and XLR8R, it seems that another national music publication is trying to bend the rules about ads and content: Did Blender Blur Ad-Edit Line?


Folio Magazine describes the special section layout as “(a) 16-page new music preview sponsored by Sync, Microsoft’s in-car voice-activated technology. In it, a small logo that reads “Presented by Sync/Powered by Microsoft” appears on five of the section’s 10 editorial pages, with the other six pages devoted to Sync-related ads. Four of those logos ask readers to log onto fordvehicles.com/sync for free MP3 downloads.”


Unlike the RS and XL, there hasn’t been an uproar or lawsuits yet so the lesson may be that if all’s relatively quiet, such incursions into editorial might be worth the risk, not just for Blender but for other magazines as well.  It’s a tough time for mags (Walmart just said they’re cutting some 1000 magazines off their shelves) and they’re desperate to find ways to keep afloat but when they get this desperate, that ain’t a good sign.


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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


For the weekend beginning 18 January, here are the films in focus:


Cloverfield [rating: 9]


Cloverfield is the first great film of 2008


Hype - specifically the viral, Internet marketing kind - has been under the gun recently, thanks in part to the failure in 2006 of Snakes on a Plane. Pimped and overplayed by fans who felt the title alone indicated a pure kitsch confection, the resulting benign b-movie was very good. But compared to the web-based blitzkrieg that came before, excitement and expectations were bound to clash and then be dashed. The failure forced studios to reexamine its information superhighway strategies. It didn’t stop Lost legend J.J. Abrams from embracing the concept for his latest production - the monster destroys Manhattan home movie Cloverfield. Now, after months of speculation and backwards ballyhoo, the novel genre effort has arrived - and it definitely lives up to the propaganda.  read full review…


Cassandra’s Dream [rating: 3]


Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative draught evident in Cassandra’s Dream.


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in. read full review…


There Will Be Blood [rating: 9]


When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism.


This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium. read full review…


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