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by Jason Gross

5 May 2009

Last time, I was talking about how Twitter can be a powerful tool when covering concerts even though it also has some limitations there too.  One of the problems is that if you wanna get across a complex, nuanced point, it ain’t easy to do it in 140 characters.  If you’re looking to have a meaty, intelligent conversation about a complex subject, Twitter makes it tough on you too.

The way I found this out was in a discussion with writer (‘media assassin’) Harry Allen.  About a week and a half ago, I responded to a tweet he did about an article that profiled rapper Asher Roth in the New York Times.  Allen wrote about the article on his blog, unhappy that Roth was getting preferential coverage as a white rapper.  I tweeted back to Allen, wondering “Isn’t it also about the perceived novelty of a white rapper (esp. one that’s broken into mainstream consciousness)?”  That led to this conversation:

Allen: “I think the perceived novelty, as you put it, is part of it. But the perceived novelty is solely based on race.”

Me: “Correct but white rappers are hardly a novelty anymore- look at Anticon‘s roster for instance”

Allen: “Thanks for saying that, because it just now led me to a key insight: Most, if not all, of what I say about white rappers stays… ...true if you change the word “rappers” to “people,” that being exactly my point. My articles, in this area, aren’t about… ...race leaking into hip-hop. They’re about hip-hop leaking into race. I’m using what many people know­hip-hop­to talk about… ...what many people cannot, or will not: Racism. So, even the observation that a label’s rap roster is all- or mostly white… ...becomes notable in that context. I said this to

@angusbatey. Those desiring can search his name with mine and read our notes.”

All of which made for a good, heady conversation about rap and race. I’m glad that he did it, not only because I learned a lot but hopefully some of the Twitter community saw this discussion and absorbed some of the thoughts there.  The problem was that Allen’s meaningful answers couldn’t possibly fit into a tweet.  Instead, he had to do 5 follow-up tweets in a row to finish his thoughts and his answer.  And because on Twitter, you’re usually following a bunch of people, his extended point would get broken up and interrupted by tweets from other people.  To get a handle on what he needed to say, Twitter was a little limiting- he could have more easily responded in full in a blog post or an article.  The point here again is that Twitter doesn’t make it easy to have deep conversations like this.

To drive home this point, Allen and I had the same problem when I brought in Tiger Woods as an example:  “... coverage is slanted racially but it’s also the novelty aspect they crave PLUS popularity, e.g. Tiger Woods as golf champ”  Allen right away pointed out “Tiger Woods is a superior athlete, above and beyond his competition in skills. Are you saying Asher Roth is, also?”  To give Allen a real answer that covered everything, I had to use three tweets:

“No, Tiger’s skills > Asher’s but media loves Tiger’s story as he dominates a sport with few African-Americans… ...which perpetuates the myth that anyone of any race can make it in any field with just hard work & determination… ... plus the media loves success stories (Asher, Tiger) combined with novelty factor (ditto)”

As such, I ran into the same problem that Allen did.  Even after that, it took about 12 more tweets between the two of us (including some multi-threaded ones) to hash out our positions and eventually find some agreement.  Time Out editor Steve Smith also called me out on the Tiger/Asher comparison, saying that it wasn’t a fair match.  I definitely agreed with him that in terms of skills, it was no match but that I was focusing on the novelty aspect and the success of each in their field (and how media covers that).  Just like with Allen, it took several multi-threaded tweets to properly discuss this with Smith.

Not that I minded it.  I learned a lot from it and I think that Allen got something out of it too.  At the end, I wondered “... I wish there was more discussion about this” and he agreed that it needed to happen but wasn’t sure how.  I’m not either but I know that it should happen more often on Twitter but that it also has to move beyond Twitter to do it right and give this kind of conversation the depth it deserves.

Later, I thanked Allen in an e-mail (on another subject) for a nice conversation.  He wasn’t sure ‘nice’ was the right term.  I agreed- maybe ‘healthy’ was a better way to describe our exchange.  That was something that we could both agree on.

UPDATE: Allen and I are later discussed the finer points of graffiti art and its semantics.  We’re already finding that we need multi-thread tweets to get our points across again.

by Rob Horning

5 May 2009

I’ve worried before about whether I should switch to a cash-only lifestyle. The idea was that using only cash would keep me in touch with reality and allow me to actively resist the creep of ersatz convenience into my life. But this reasoning may be somewhat flawed, in that there are straight financial incentives for customers to use credit. (Then if they use it unwisely, they fall prey to the abusive lending practices that the consumer credit bill of rights law stalled in the Senate currently is intended to prevent. Basically, the payment system is designed to grease the path to debt slavery.) 

After looking at how interchange fees—what banks charge business for processing credit-card payments—have increased despite technology making credit-card usage far more efficient, Mike at Rortybomb wonders why more businesses don’t offer customers a discount for using cash. He breaks out some game-theoretical analysis to show that customers (thanks in part to rewards programs) have an incentive to pay with credit, especially since businesses pass on the bank fees to consumers through uniformly higher prices:

A small business I was at had a sign noting that they get charged over 2% every time a customer used a credit card, so why don’t you pay cash or with a check? But as I was about to pay cash, I wondered: “Don’t the prices already reflect that I will use a credit card? I might as well get points towards my free inflatable grill or whatever comes with the card.”

As Mike notes, this structure encourages us to use credit cards even when we don’t find using them to be more convenient.

Nonetheless, I still think retailers are too mindful of consumer convenience to ever implement a cash discount, which does send a message that customers are not always right in their preferences. The discount—differential pricing for different classes of consumers—would make explicit something retailers prefer to remain concealed: the practice of price discrimination. Once customers are aware that their activities might affect what they have to pay, their comfort level with shopping as a leisure activity generally has to shift as well. In America, set prices promote the enticing illusion that shopping has a leveling effect, that in the great arena of goods, all customers are equal since they are entitled to the same great deals. This also has the byproduct of letting us experience any exclusive deals we finagle as personal triumphs, secret signs of our specialness or our ability to beat the system, transcend it, rise above consumerism while mastering its terms.

by Bill Gibron

5 May 2009

Talk about questionable prospects! Who could ever imagine that Paramount, preservers of Gene Roddenberry’s seminal Star Trek empire, would mount a massive reboot of the series, an attempt in 2009 to turn the fortunes of a forty year old property into something modern and merchandisable. For a while, it looked like Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest would have to rally around the aging nostalgia factor and forge a path more backwards glancing than forward thinking. But the past can’t hold forth in the future forever.

Even with the still popular possibilities of The Next Generation (and to some extent, Deep Space Nine), fans both young and old just can’t get enough of the 1960s series. And with prequels being so plentiful (and usually unsuccessful), going back to the very beginning of Trek would appear tenuous at best. Luckily, studio heads cleared enough to give Lost‘s J.J. Abrams the creative Con - and it’s a good thing too. His Star Trek instantly becomes one of the year’s best films.

Troubled and rebellious as a young boy, James Tiberius Kirk can’t shake the feeling that he was meant for something more. Similarly, Vulcan child Spock has difficulty deciphering his half-human, half-alien feelings. The two end up at Starfleet Academy, where they begin to learn the ways of the United Federation of Planets. Along the way, they pick up some close friends - Kirk and new doctor cadet Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and for Spock, the special affections of communications specialist Uhura.

When a mystery mining vessel carrying the angry Romulan Nero breaks through the neutral zone and attacks Vulcan, Captain Pike pilots the newly christened Enterprise to intercept. On board are Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Chekov, the two latest additions to the crew. Eventually, the Federation learns of the Romulan’s time-travel inspired plan, it’s passion to destroy planets, and it’s particular vendetta with Spock - even though they’ve “technically” never met the young alien…at least, not this version of him.

It’s hard to express in mere words how wonderful J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot is, especially for a worn in the wool die-hard Trek head like yours truly. It’s a silly, grinning from ear to ear experience, a ‘wow’ that works overtime to keep from ever letting you down. From the moment we learn of our heroes’ hamstrung youth, to the final confrontation that will define their legacy for star dates to come, there is a reverence and a revitalization that finally turns Trek into everything founder Roddenberry - and his throngs of devotees - hoped for.

This is more than just a ‘remake’ or a ‘reimagining’. This is brilliant filmmaking artistry filtered through a deep appreciation for what Star Trek stands for, for the years it held the lantern for serious science fiction while other efforts traveled toward the ‘dark side’ of action adventure commerciality. Granted, Abrams pours on the thrills, but he doesn’t cheapen the mythology that made Kirk and company true cultural icons.

This is a movie that performs remarkably well on all levels - as an introduction to the seminal characters for newbies, a welcome return visit to younger versions of old friends, a highly sophisticated mainstream entertainment, a rock ‘em sock ‘em effects spectacle, and a reminder that ideas can be just as exciting and interesting as images. Abrams, working from an excellent script by frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, takes his time with each element, letting information and concepts sink in before rapidly and rationally moving on.

The opening battle, which we catch more or less in mid-strategy, instantly encases us in the world we are about to enter. It also sets the emotional tone. By the time an underage Kirk runs his step-dad’s classic car up to (and over) the edge of a nearby ravine, we are ready to go anywhere with this story - and Abrams takes us there, both outside the characters and inside their deepest fears.

This is a true origin story, the kind which doesn’t skimp on the painful parts. Both Kirk and Spock are seen as deeply hurt by their childhood circumstance. It is a realistic foundation which explains a great deal of their later relationship. Similarly, we understand the motives of Uhura and McCoy, each one taking up defense for their friend. As actors, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are so note-perfect as our Trek titans that we often wonder if we are viewing Shatner and Nimoy through some kind of age-defying prism.

Also excellent are Zoe Saldana, John Cho, and in a last act appearance that’s a tad too brief, a wonderful Simon Pegg as everyone’s favorite “beamer” Scotty. Of particular note is Karl Urban. About a billion light years from Middle Earth (where he was Eomer), his McCoy is so delicious dead-on, so absolutely channeling the spirit and spunk of DeForest Kelly that he almost steals the film from everyone else.

But it’s Eric Bana who brings it all together. His villain with a heart hellbent on revenge is not some ridiculous raving psychopath. Instead, he’s someone who literally lost everything, and is determined to make those who he believes responsible pay in the exact same way. This leads to Trek‘s biggest surprise - the sheer scope and size of the threat. When we first realize what’s about to happen to one of the series well known places, the shock is matched only by the sensation of seeing it play out powerfully on the big screen. Star Trek is the very definition of a blockbuster, a larger than life experience that has to be seen theatrically to be fully appreciated. This is as epic an entertainment as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the original Star Wars, and Christopher Nolan’s operatic Dark Knight.

Once again, long time Trekkies (or Trekkers), have no fear. No one has raped your memories this time around. If anything, Abrams has acknowledged and acquiesced to them, giving your love of the original series as much care and consideration as you do. And those unfamiliar with the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, you too should feel unafraid. Accessibility is the key here, the movie made so stunning in its ability to hook you and keep you happy that you’ll soon forget your four decades outside the obsessive Trek fray.

For all others in between, heed this advice - Star Trek is destined to be remembered as one of 2009’s biggest and best surprises, a gamble that beat both the house and those holding the cards to turn everyone into a winner. This is the reason why movies are magic. This is why some of us fell in love with the original series in the first place. Bless you J. J. Abrams. May you live long, and definitely prosper. 

by Thomas Hauner

5 May 2009

King Khan was the sovereign and the audience his court, just as one would suspect. Notorious for his stage antics and backing himself with the controlled chaos of a garage-inspired eight-piece funk outfit (his Shrines), dancing cheerleader, roller-skating geriatric hype-man, and any other member of the audience with the conviction to share the spotlight in various stages of undress, King Khan unleashed a riotous set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Yet, unlike my last King Khan and the Shrines experience, the result was relatively tame by comparison—and not for Mr. Khan’s lack of wanting.

 

by Sarah Zupko

5 May 2009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: Outer South—Former Bright Eyes poster boy, Conor Oberst returns in rootsy guise for his second album with the Mystic Valley Band and now resides firmly in that space between alt-country and pop that is also occupied by Wilco.

New York Dolls: Cause I Sez So—The New York Dolls were at the very forefront of the punk revolution, forming in 1971 and being the primary influence on early UK punk bands like the Sex Pistols and to a lesser degree the Clash. The original group broke up in the late ‘70s, but David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain reunited the band in 2004 and put out their first studio record since 1974 in 2006. Now they have another gritty rock platter for us in Cause I Sez So.

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