Latest Blog Posts

by Tyler Gould

14 Oct 2009

Múm member Ólöf Arnalds’ debut, Við og Við, came out three years ago in Iceland, and finally hits the States on November 17th. Here are “Klara” from the album and a cover of John Prine’s “We’re Not the Jet Set” live in the KEXP studio.

by Rob Horning

14 Oct 2009

I have a post up at Generation Bubble about embedded social relations, prompted by Oliver Williamson’s winning the Nobel prize in economics. WIlliamson’s main field is transaction-cost economics—looking at frictions in economic exchanges that in his view shape the structure firms must assume to accomplish varying purposes. In the post I draw heavily on a paper by sociologist Mark Granovetter that emphasizes the dialectical nature of social relations—they are always in process, thus they are difficult to pin down in the mathematical formulas preferred by neoclassical economists. I wanted to use that idea as a jumping off point for speculating about the ways neoclassical economics puts forward as an ideal the possibility of exchanges unhindered by social relations, depicting the absence of social ties as the essence of true freedom. This reverses the apparent human instinct for sociality, yet seems to have a tenacious hold on capitalist society, if you accept that the fetishization of convenience is a product of perfect-markets ideology.

In the process I threw out a stray thought about the necessity of regulation and the problem of finding trustworthy regulators (a primary concern of the other new Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom, who is known for her studies of “tragedy of the commons” problems and various self-regulating systems of resource management): Regulation is not a matter of preventing corruption but providing a conduit for predictable corruption at a socially tolerable level. Regulatory agencies serve as clustering points around which a density of social relations can build up, and through which power can be exerted to calibrate the level of exchanges that are seen as unjust.

Anyway, Felix Salmon’s point in this post about smart bankers seemed apropos:

Banking isn’t for outright dummies — conscientious underwriting, for one, is a difficult and highly-skilled job which requires good, well-paid professionals. But far too many bankers thought of that kind of income as boring money, and were much more excited by the higher rewards and sophisticated risk management being shown them by the rocket scientists on the structured-products desk. Maybe in future they’ll be more suspicious of things they don’t really understand, but I’m not holding my breath. That’s what regulators are for.

Salmon’s hope, it seems, is that future financial regulators will both understand thoroughly the complex structures banks invent often to shroud risk and at same time won’t be seduced by their understanding to want to profit by it but will instead work to rein in and discipline the intelligent and ambitious people they must square off against. But financial complexity may work as a subtle form of regulatory capture; it supplies a rarefied meeting place where regulators and bankers can collude, with the hubris of wielding formulas and structures that few can understand working to override whatever generalized morality and adherence to duty that might have restrained them. (Arnold Kling suggests something similar—a “Kool-aid factor” that has regulators buying into financial-engineer hype.)

In the banking world, we’ve learned in the past year, the mastery of complex ideas is regarded as an automatic justification for personal enrichment, regardless of whether that complexity served any useful social purpose, even when that complexity becomes an elaborate ruse to overcome investor wariness. Complexity, as Salmon’s post details, ends up confusing everyone, and rather than match money with sound projects, bankers end up in a game of secrets and lies and off-balance-sheet shadiness.

So regulators overseeing complex entities may be more at risk to use their position to obfuscate rather than disseminate information. A point Steve Randy Waldman made in this post, however complicates that hypothesis a bit:

Information is a behavioral attribute, not an attribute of the external phenomena to which it may ostensibly refer. To say that an agent is informed means she behaves differently than an uninformed agent. Her behavior is less random, more predictable. To be informed does not imply one’s information is accurate. (In general, accuracy is unknowable, both ex ante and ex post.) Information increases the volatility of outcomes, because it provokes larger and more concentrated bets than uncertain agents would take, creating large gains and losses depending on how adaptive the informed behavior turns out to be. It is often better, as a behavioral matter, to be uninformed than to be poorly informed.
But we do not always have the option of remaining uninformed. We cannot afford to hedge all of our bets. Whether via a great mis-recalculator in the sky or a political establishment largely captured by certain interests, new information will be manufactured.

Regulators obfuscate precisely by manufacturing information, by spreading unwarranted certainty. This may be precisely because they have been taken in by their own understanding, which gathers momentum. “Knowing” is ontological; it doesn’t depend on what is supposed to be known. And in a state of “knowing,” the objective reality of uncertainty is ignored. Being a “smart banker” is a dangerous state of mind, difficult to corral, impossible to regulat—we can’t force people to think they are ignorant; those who think they are smart also think they can figure out the loopholes.

UPDATE: Boing Boing linked to a writeup of a recent paper that argues complex securities are inherently impossible to regulate. Basically they argue that one can tell with structured securities whether the tranches are random or tampered with so that they are front-loaded with lemons.
UPDATE II: Free Exchange discusses the problem of too many smart people becoming bankers because it pays so disproportionately well, because it is dimly understood and poorly regulated. “To an increasing number of people, it looks as though the financial sector is recruiting the nation’s best brains and putting them to work endangering the global economy.” A paper (pdf) the blogger links to argues that “financial deregulation” is among the reasons jobs in the sector came to require more “skills”—which could be translated into: deregulation brought smart people into finance because the field had been opened up to the devising of complex money-making schemes designed to enrich them far beyond what one could make in other more carefully scrutinized professions.

by Allison Taich

14 Oct 2009

In honor of Devendra Banhart’s major label debut, What Will We Be, the musician has released an unofficial video for the album’s 13th track “Walillamdzi”. The video features images from the recording sessions, which took place this past spring in Northern California. Two of the album’s singles, “Baby” and “Angelika”, are also available for streaming via Devendra’s MySpace. What Will We Be is due out 27 October, 2009 on Warner Bros. Records; it was co-produced by Banhart and Paul Butler (from UK outfit Band of Bees).

by Gregg Lipkin

14 Oct 2009

One tongue. One set of lips. One titanic album, and the Rolling Stones had changed the course of rock and roll forever. Again.

When the Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers in 1971 they had already surpassed the expectations of most rock and roll bands. They had proven themselves to be masters of the form with the release of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet and its 1969 follow up Let It Bleed, the first two in a series of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in history. The two superlative discs were musical dictionaries that defined the concept of rock and roll for generations of aspiring musicians. In 1971, the Stones published a new dictionary called Sticky Fingers which defined the concept of rock and roll super stardom. Beggar’s Banquet was a lesson of simplicity, Let It Bleed was a lesson in authenticity and Sticky Fingers was a lesson in audacity.

by G. Christopher Williams

14 Oct 2009

Only one thing could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
—Ralphie, A Christmas Story (1983), MGM/UA Entertainment

Much like the “major award” won by Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story, contemporary video games with “the snap of a few sparks, and a quick whiff of ozone” tend to offer rather ideal, if incomplete images of lurid matter to their audience.  Indeed, sexuality tends to get treated in one of two distinct ways these days. 

The first treatment appeals to Ralphie’s voyeuristic curiosity at the sight of the simulation of an adult female leg in its electrified form, the infamous leg lamp itself.  Getting to view some T&A in a Leisure Suit Larry game as a result of solving some puzzles or beating some mini-game or getting to ogle Dead or Alive babes clad in the scanty suits that took a lot of effort and deductive skill to convince those women to put on are both ways of treating electric (or stimulatory) versions of sex as if such images are indeed “a major award”.  After all, they serve as a visual reward for the player’s efforts in the game.

The second common treatment of sex is to reduce it to manual operations, seemingly a more suitable and participatory effort than other media can usually provide in their expressions of the pornographic. Film, television, and books can merely offer the same fleeting voyeurism of the aforementioned games, but video games offer the opportunity to participate in the representation of sex by potentially simulating its process and not merely by representing images similar to it as a Playboy magazine might. 

While Ralphie’s groping of the leg lamp in A Christmas Story has a certain passionate pubescent charm to it, efforts of the manual variety in recent video games maintain the cold, plastic feel of a mannequin leg and teach probably less about effective groping than Ralphie’s initial efforts at such business.  The sex mini-game in God of War reduces sex to the stabbing motions of button mashing (while obscuring the activity as the camera modestly turns its gaze away from the ménage à trois that Kratos is participating in).  Similarly modest is the Saint’s Row “ho-ing” mini-game that allows only the view of a bathroom door behind which some lurid behavior is apparently occurring between the player’s avatar and a john.  The only participation in this activity is represented by some odd manipulations of the right and left sticks of the controller that vaguely resembles the mechanics of a rhythm game.

Such efforts reduce sexual representation to some kind of weirdly mechanical process. Participating in simulated sexual acts in these games seem to maybe offer less insight into what sex is about than traditional passive, voyeuristic pornography does.

That is why I was fascinated by a recent interview with David Cage of Quantic Dream, the developer of the forthcoming Heavy Rain.  In the interview published in the October 2009 issue of Game Informer, the interviewer comments on a sequence in the E3 demo of the game, in which one of the game’s protagonists, Madison, is forced to strip at gun point by a mob boss.  The interviewer reports that playing this sequence “made me feel uncomfortable”.  Cage responds by saying:

Fantastic.  You know what?  That is exactly what we wanted.  Exactly.  It was really funny to read the reactions to this scene because people were kind of confused.  They really feel uncomfortable because it’s a really strange situation . . . You control a girl and you’re forced to strip in front of a guy, and the guy is really disgusting . . . Yes, it’s a strong moment for the character.  But if we managed to make you feel uncomfortable it is because at some point we made you believe you were Madison.

If I am interpreting Cage’s thinking correctly, he seems to be suggesting that Heavy Rain is moving beyond the voyeuristic simulations of sexuality offered by countless other forms of more passive media and also beyond simply making a participatory simulation of sexuality into a mere simulation of the “‘ol in-out, in-out”.  Instead, what seems to be offered here is a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience. 

In this particular instance, the psychology is particularly fascinating as it is likely a rather novel experience for the largest demographic of video game players, males.  If feminist theory concerning the tendency for women to become the object of the male gaze holds any credence, the experience of being made object to that gaze may be an entirely new experience for many players.  Indeed, it may also be an uncomfortable one as traditional gender roles and perspectives may be tested and reversed as a result of being made to “believe you were Madison” because players will participate in this humiliating act rather than merely view it.

Certainly, Cage and Quantic Dream’s efforts are not entirely new.  Many video game players have toyed with gender bending experiments such as playing avatars that represent themselves as the opposite of their own gender.  I have played female avatars in online games and have noted differences in the ways that I am treated when playing as a female character as opposed to a male character.  Largely, my own experience had led me to observe that I seemed to receive a lot more gifts from other players when playing as a female (which may suggest something about cultural norms and expectations concerning male-female relationships). 

However, this limited sort of experience was not placed in the context of a story or a character whose entire personality is coded as female (my avatar was always driven by my own personality as I am not one to play “in character” in games, not attempting then to specifically act like the character that I am playing in the context of the gaming world).  Adding layers of storytelling and the more objective, dramatic qualities of scripted and directed behaviors into this mix may produce more focused statements on sexuality than we have seen in gaming thus far and may push this participatory art in directions that the passive arts are limited in exploring.  Because we may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the experiences of someone else.  Games have the potential to create empathy with characters rather than the sympathy that film or books might evoke in watching someone else suffer or experience pleasure. 

Such illumination might shed some interesting light on sexual issues by provoking emotional responses from players invested in “being” their characters rather than practicing the merely mechanical aspects of sex as if it were a mere game or puzzle to be solved.  I am hoping that more developers are willing to produce a more interesting and insightful vision of real sex through the simulation of the electric, rather than offering us the same leering peeks at it through the window that we have had before.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article