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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2007

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism


As author and UCLA Professor of Social Research Methodology Mike Rose once wrote in Lives on the Boundary, “Mistakes are the place where education starts.” Unfortunately, for too many journalists, mistakes are the place where good journalism ends.


For years, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics has outlined the template for good, ethical journalism. That code states, “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly,” and that sentence contains three mandates: the admission, the correction, and the speed in which a mistake is corrected.


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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2007

In its most recent issue, BusinessWeek has a package of articles on the future of work, and not surprisingly, these mostly adopt the viewpoint of management, regarding labor as a datastream of productivity and costs. This is a common euphemistic practice, to conceal the pain of workers behind dehumanizing terminology—empowered workers become “a tight labor market” that’s responsible not for a improved standard of living for workers (for that all credit must go to management’s brilliant efforts to extract more productivity from said labor market without increasing costs) but only inflationary pressure and macroeconomic danger. This damned tight labor market is keeping the Fed from cutting interest rates and giving the stock market a boost; if only more workers would be laid off and the reserve army of the unemployed were beefed up a little bit, then we’d have ripe conditions for the good kind of growth—get more of the fruits of economic growth in the hands of passive investors rather than the workers producing it.


It’s enough to make one want to dream of a world without a parasitic management stratum, and interestingly enough, the BusinessWeek package offers a hint of one form such a world might take. One article described Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, which seeks to match people with free time with simple jobs that can be done on computers but only with human guidance. The name Mechanical Turk is a reference to the famed hoax where a little chess genius hid inside a cabinet and pretended to be a machine. In other words, one got from the Mechanical Turk human expertise in the guise of a machine. So Amazon calls it artificial artificial intelligence—it allows corporations to use computer networks to harness uniquely human skill sets. But the crux of Amazon’s program is to liberate work from the managerial structures in which it is customarily contained—rather than show up at an appointed time and labor for a set number of hours for a by and large inflexible wage on the same tasks over and over again, the Mechanical Turk system portends relations of production in which workers would elect to work only as much as they chose to on tasks and for wages they basically select from a menu that takes into account their particular skills. This is how Amazon describes it (and I apologize in advance for the surfeit of business-ese in this excerpt):


Humans are much more effective than computers at solving some types of problems, like finding specific objects in pictures, evaluating beauty, or translating text. The Amazon Mechanical Turk web service gives developers a programmable interface to a network of humans to solve these kinds of problems and incorporate this human intelligence into their applications.
For businesses and entrepreneurs who want tasks completed, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service solves the problem of getting work done in a cost-effective manner by people who have the skill to do the work. The service provides access to a vast network of human intelligence with the efficiencies and cost-effectiveness of computers. Oftentimes, the cost of establishing a network of skilled people to do the work outweighs the value of completing it. By turning the fixed costs into variable costs that scale with business needs, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service eliminates this barrier and allows work to be completed that before was not economical.
For people who want to earn money in their spare time, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site solves the problem of finding work that they can do wherever and whenever they want.


I bolded what seems to me the key notion here, that capital can thrive by getting rid of the overhead costs of committing to maintaining a workforce. That sounds like a bad thing unless you are enamored of the utopian possibility that this will mean much more flexibility for labor as well as producers. If you are sufficiently optimistic, you can see in work distributed over the internet an end to the sites of exploitation, the factories and offices where surplus value is extorted. And with surplus value remaining with the worker, we effortlessly move out of the era of capitalist relations into something new.


Needless to say, there is reason to be skeptical of this revolution-free path to more egalitarianism and better quality of life for workers. Turning the internet into a giant worldwide labor market is likely to cause massive amounts of “dislocation” Currently, a class divide exists between those who have access to a feel comfortable in the internet environment, and those who are afraid of breaking the entire computer by pressing the wrong button and erasing everything. The divide is in part generational but is also a matter of income and autonomy—the income to have access to the latest technological innovation, and the autonomy to teach oneself how to use it successfully. That autonomy may come from higher education, or it may be part of the apparatus that comes with a bourgeois upbringing. At any rate, the technological dispersal of work will only benefit those equipped to navigate the system, and the amount of work to be dispersed in this way will likely remain a scarce commodity, as a larger and larger bulk of jobs in the future will consist of face-to-face services—care for the elderly, processing food, nursing, etc.


Still, it’s pleasant to dream about being able to log on for a few hours to replenish your account doing whatever task that’s available that looks intriguing and then spending the rest of your time furthering your own projects, perhaps generating tasks you’d be willing to pay someone else for help with. We could all be middle managers, grunt workers and entrepreneurs all at once, depending on the time of day and the energy we’re inclined to invest.


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007


It’s a week of extremes at the old B&M. On the one hand you have the arrival of the latest opus by a man who makes more than just movies. Indeed, his latest work is as unruly and brilliant as ever. On the other side you have an obscure TV cartoon that made the transition to celluloid in a rather nefarious fashion. The city of Boston will never forget the fear generated by its viral marketing strategy, a plan that ended up being mistaken for a terrorist attack. In between, you’ve got an unfathomable box office hit, an unfairly dismissed thriller, an amazing documentary, and a collection of desirable double dips. Put them all together and the 14th day of August is looking like yet another retail burden on the old bundle. If you can only afford a since disc this week however, make sure you pick up our SE&L selection. It represents the best that the modern film movement has to offer:


David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE


It’s a shame that this director’s output is so infrequent that it becomes an event when he makes a new movie. What’s even more disturbing is that no one would allow the man the artistic freedom to produce and market the final results the way he wanted. David Lynch may be a lot of things – difficult, arcane, incomprehensible – but to deny his impact on cinema, and the amazing films he’s made in the process, seems downright foolish. In fact, many found this latest offering (a shot on digital experiment melding many divergent storylines and characters into a single thematic statement) to be his most daring and definitive to date. Leave it to the jaded genius to self distribute the work, carting it around to theaters all over the country for limited engagements. The DVD promises insights into the production, as well as providing a chance for those not lucky enough to live along the roadshow’s stops to witness its wonders themselves. Most will be flummoxed, while a few will be rewarded. All will have to appreciate a true creator at the top of his game.

Other Titles of Interest


Back to School (Extra Curricular Edition)


No one pegged professional comedian (in a good way) Rodney Dangerfield as a movie star. But after stealing Caddyshack from everyone else in it, he was headed for solo vehicles of his own. While Easy Money is much funnier, this oldster goes to college crack-up is definitely worth discovering. This was Rodney in his prime, banging on all six cylinders and never underestimating his growing fanbase. After this, it was all pretty much down hill.

51 Birch Street


Like Capturing the Friedmans without the horrible hot button issues, this oddly insightful documentary finds filmmaker Daniel Block discovering the truth about his parents’ 54 year long marriage. Within three months of the death of his mother, his father catches up with a past secretary, and the two marry almost immediately. Then Block discovers his mom’s diaries. What they reveal turns his adult life upside down, and argues for the notion that no one really knows their family.

Taxi Driver: Two Disc Collectors Edition


Travis Bickle is back, and ready to sweep the scum off of New York’s seedy sidewalks. One of Martin Scorsese’s undeniable masterpieces, this look at life on the fringes has been released on DVD a few times before. This presentation promises a bonus disc loaded with additional context. If you don’t already own it, what’s stopping you? This is classic cinema, period. For others, a double dip may be in order.

Wild Hogs


Every year, Hollywood has to publicly humiliate itself by offering some god-awful effort (usually a comedy) and cringe as critics cry foul. But a funny thing happened on the way to this junk pile’s journalistic drubbing – the audience ate it up. Trying to figure out how this slapdash crap became a hit will challenge every fiber of your cinematic being. It is not funny, poorly constructed, and relies almost exclusively on its dim star power to shine.


Vacancy


Amongst all the hype and hoopla surrounding the spring hit 300 and the imminent arrival of Spider-man, this decent little thriller failed to find room on the pop culture radar. Like Disturbia, which opened the week before and earned all the press, this throwback to the days of solid suspense was overrun by the tween take on the material. Here, Kontroll’s Nimrod Antal makes a spectacular Tinsel Town bow. Definitely should be rediscovered on DVD.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theaters for DVD


To call Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force (part of its Adult Swim nighttime lineup) a “cult” animated series would be an understatement. This show has flown so far under the channel’s routine radar that its elusiveness should be utilized in the creation of future Stealth technology. Still, for those devoted to its deranged surrealism (the show is about a talking trio consisting of a milk shake, some French fries, and a ball of beef), it’s one of the funniest ‘things’ on television. A movie seems like a creative stretch – the series itself only exists in short, 10 minute installments – and the characters do use their inherent abrasiveness to push the limits of their humor. Still, like The Simpsons Movie that finally arrived this Summer, ATHF more than managed the transition intact. Unfortunately, that meant it was still too weird for mainstream appreciation. The DVD promises to deliver even more unglued hilarity. 

 


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007

Reading Henry Treece’s The Green Man, which climaxes in a long spasm of apocalyptic violence—death by sword, buildings on fire, women eaten by pigs, that sort of thing—it’s startling to remember that the author lived out his professional life as a well-liked schoolteacher and after his retirement gave history lectures to children. “He was such a stimulating person to talk to,” commented one librarian less than a month before his death in 1966. Green Man is a mash-up of Hamlet and Beowulf, drunk, savage, breathless, even laughing at its own atrocities, a strange and little-known book.


Treece was a poet before he became a fiction writer. He authored the first lengthy critical assessment of Dylan Thomas (Dylan Thomas: Dog Among the Fairies—Thomas called it, “This stinking book”) and in the late 1930s co-founded an amorphous Romantic movement named the New Apocalyptics. “The New Apocalypse, in a sense, derives from Surrealism,” he wrote in the movement’s manifesto. It was his awareness of Surrealism—a writer’s movement as well as a painter’s, although that’s not how it has been popularly remembered—that lent his historical fiction its air of alien authenticity and strangeness.


It gave him a standpoint from which he could look with equanimity at ancient Europe’s faith in portents and signs. In Treece’s first published novel, The Dark Island, a Belgaic warrior sees his brother shot in the throat, and, unable to comprehend this sudden horror, he believes that a raven comes down from the sky, screaming, “Caradoc, he is calling for you! The blood is coming out of his mouth!” This combination of old imagery, modern shellshock, and Romantic Surreal dreamshock is a bridge Treece would often use to bring his contemporary readers into sympathy with ancient peoples whose mindset would otherwise seem inexplicable. They were human too, he suggests; they understood things differently but their ideas seemed as valid to them as ours seem valid to us.


He has empathy, even, with the dead. In The Great Captains, one corpse “stared up at the sky, pleasantly, as though trying to weight up what sort of day it was going to be. He seemed to have died thinking of the last barley crop ... Medrawt noticed the broken nails of his hand, a hard-working hand ...” and we go on to speculate on this man for half a page, not because he, personally, is a vital part of the story (he isn’t; we don’t even know his name) but because he is human, he is there, part of the world, and it could have been one of the named characters, the ones we like, staring up at the sky, seeming to think about barley crops or “a new milch cow he had bought in the market last week.” Medrawt wonders over him, looking at the marks scratched into his bracelet, considering the possible nationality of his wife (foreigner or native?), and we learn something about the composition of Britain at this point in its history. The idea of Treece as a history teacher, a pupil’s favourite, makes sense when you read passages like this.


His characters are everything a reader would want them to be: tough yet too intelligent not to be weak sometimes, loving or cruel, curious about magic and about the gods (Christian or pagan, which to choose—his Vikings pragmatically dole out a bit of worship to everyone, just in case). His prose voice holds to a backbone of slight bardic formality that seems appropriate to the books’ subject matter without ever descending into thees and thous and other bits of cod-Ye Olde slang. He was always a better author than a poet. His poetry is mannered and outdated for its time. He was fighting against the forces of T.S. Eliot and modernism and the fight hobbled him, leaving him unable to move either forward into the future, or backwards into the past. Prose was his native medium.


He is dead, however. His books are not often reprinted. One day he will be forgotten: at one with the dead Jutes, the lost Picts, and the barley crops of history.


Read Henry Treece’s essay, “Notes on Perception and Vision.”


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Monday, Aug 13, 2007

After a three year wait, the next installment in the Halo franchise is coming closer to its release. Halo 2 earned $125 million its first day and received many ratings above a 9/10 from major video game publications. With this extreme success, Halo 3, the last game of the Halo trilogy, has a bar set very high for itself, and Bungie Studios is quite aware. Halo 3 will be released September 25, 2007.


Multiplayer footage of Halo 3:



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