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Saturday, Jun 7, 2008

Where he once sounded like a crank, U2 manager Paul McGuinness now sounds prescient when he rails against Internet Service Provides (ISPs) and their adverse effect on the music business.  He has his own reasons for being mad at them but now there’s yet another reason.  That’s because Time Warner is starting to test out a new system which will charge consumers extra when they go over a certain download limit.  If they can get away with it in the first market they’re testing it in, they’re likely to bring the system nationwide and then other ISPs will follow- see this Yahoo/AP report for details. 

So why should you care?  Normal websites’ pictures and text don’t add up to anything but if you’re used to streaming music all day (through an online station or a service like Napster or LastFM), you might get stung by the extra charges.  Similarly, if you’re a video buff who likes to watch YouTube a lot or stream movies through a service like Netflix (which I do), you’ll probably gonna get stuck with an extra bill too.  Admittedly, you’d have to stay on for about 5-10 hours to incur the charges but do you really want to time yourself daily on Net use (though you do need to step away from your computer now and then)?

The end result could then be that web users may shun these services or cut back on their use of them.  That means that these services would also lose money and have a harder time staying in business if they start losing their audiences.  If they were smart, these companies would team up to make the public aware of this coming storm and get them made enough to complain to Time Warner and any other company that tries to stick consumers with higher rates for Net access.  Otherwise, you could have less and less choices for online entertainment…

And don’t think it’s just Time Warner who’s going to be watching your Net use and leaning on you if they think it’s too excessive.  Comcast now seems to be going after ‘Net hogs,’ seeming to go after users who access streaming videos (i.e. YouTube).

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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

Wisdom and Sense interviews Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain just won the Orange Prize for her book, The Road Home. In this 1996 interview with Elena Dedukhina, she talks about literary prizes in detail. Tremain was a Booker Prize judge in 1988 and 1990. On literary prizes, she says: “Prizes are confirming. Self-belief is a profound requisite of being a writer and—as with any self-generated phenomenon, it can falter from time to time. Winning a prize helps to get you back on the road of self-belief.”

Philip Pullman talks to the Telegraph
It’s all about age-branding. If you haven’t heard, books in the UK will be marketed towards very specific age groups come Autumn. Books will be printed with labels stuck on covers indicating that a book is for the “9+” group or the “11+” group. Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, is not impressed: “I don’t want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested.”

Sophie Kinsella tackles the 5-minute interview
She’s the perfect judge for the new Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance (is there a book award they haven’t thought of?) with her hugely successful Shopaholic series, and here she discusses buying high heels but never wearing them: “The moment for those gold-encrusted Manolo Blahniks just never seems to present itself.”

Frank Herbert visits the Mother Earth News
I couldn’t go past this one. It’s just about the longest interview you’re ever likely to read, in one of the strangest places. I bet when you’re done with this, you’ll want to grab a sleeping bag and head for the wilderness, because Herbert likes to do that, and because the ads on this site are all about appreciating nature. Herbert’s first words: “I’ve always considered myself to be a yellow journalist.”

Daniel Wallace is interviewed at Cosmoetics
This is really worth a read. Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish opens up about writing, publishing, MFA programs, and the fact that he’s “never been a huge reader”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an author say that. His comments on an author’s luck:

I think luck plays a big part in a writer’s career.  But my first five novels didn’t get published because I was unlucky; they didn’t get published because they were bad.  I had the same agent for three of those books.  So Big Fish was definitely a better book than the others. It was turned down by 16 houses before Algonquin took it.  Still, here, there was luck involved.  Algonquin had been expected a book by one its established writers and it didn’t come in.  They needed a book to take its place, and quick.  They opened that day’s mail and what was in it: my book.





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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

At, Andy Baio has a couple of excellent posts about the Whitburn Project, an effort to catalog and preserve every pop song released since the advent of recording. Baio downloaded the project’s spreadsheet, and performed some analyses of the data. Highlights of his findings:
1. A pop song’s average length is becoming longer, hovering at around 4:00. (This strikes me as way too long. I generally head for the exits at 2:30.)
2. The pop charts turn over much more quickly in recent years. Prior to the mid 1990s, few songs came and went from the charts in four weeks. Since then it has happened with increasing frequency.
3. Nevertheless, fewer songs chart then in previous decades.
4. There have been more one-hit wonders in the ‘90s and ‘00s than in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Also interesting, if not surprising: This tag cloud of the words in pop song titles reveals that two of the most frequently used words are “love” and “baby.” I guess that makes the Supremes “Baby Love” the ultimate pop song.

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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

The most recent Harper’s has an interesting article about culture-bound syndromes (the fear of having one’s penis stolen in particular, a Nigerian phenomenon). Culture-bound illnesses are society-specific mental illnesses that would seem to be an acute expression of some aspect of that culture’s fears and preoccupations. It takes the pervasive ideology and renders it intimately and pathologically personal, employing it to explain away otherwise nebulous complexes of symptoms of dis-ease and anxiety. A culture’s concerns find bodily expression; obviously this has something to do with the prevalence of eating disorders in Western society. In this overview of culture-bound disorders, we learn this:

In North America the incidence of anorexia nervosa increased dramatically since the 1960s, coinciding with a drastic change in the feminine body ideal towards thinness, as propagated by the fashion lords and publicized by the media [GARNER & GARFINKEL 1980; JONES et al. 1980; LUCAS et al. 1991]. It is of interest that the weight tables used by American physicians, supposedly objective scientific measures of “normal” standards of health, followed the fashionable downward trend in female body weight [RITENBAUGH 1982]. The increasing frequency of anorexia nervosa is associated with socio-cultural factors such as disturbance of intrafamily relations due to the nuclearization and limitation of Western families, and the penetrant influence of the mass media popularizing Hollywood-type life styles and beauty ideals. Since the 1980s, cases of anorexia nervosa have also become increasingly known in non-Western countries among young women in social strata exposed to heavy Westernizing influence, notably in Japan and Hong Kong [Di NICOLA 1990; LEE et al. 1993]. The epidemic spreading of anorexia nervosa among young females of all Western countries, and among certain Asian populations and immigrants under Westernizing influence, links this syndrome to socio-cultural emphases and developments in modern Western societies.

In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi’s overarching argument in the book is that the coming of the machine led to an extremely dislocating shift to a market culture in 19th century Europe that disoriented the populace and threw value systems into chaos. In the culture-bound disorders overview, the authors write: “The bouffée délirante reactions are sudden attacks of brief duration with paranoid delusions and often concomitant hallucinations, typically precipitated by an intense fear of magical persecution through sorcery or witchcraft. They are also characterized by a confusional state and by highly emotionalized behaviour and, after the attack, by amnesia, or rather disavowal.” That is basically identical to the penis-thieving described in the Harper’s article. The overview continues, “In its symptomatology, the bouffée délirante is reminiscent of the transient psychotic reactions occurring in the early phases of industrialization and mass-urbanization in 19th century Europe; described under such names as folie hystérique in Paris and amentia transitonia in Vienna” [empahsis added]. The reorganization necessitated when implementing a market system has the potential to unleash these strange social illnesses, which seem like pathological ways of expressing a personal resistance to the “creative destruction” of market culture that the conscious mind perhaps wouldn’t bother with, knowing it is futile.

In many ways the Harper’s article was reminiscent of this unforgettable Atlantic article by Carl Elliott about voluntary amputees (a phenomenon which, incidentally, is back in the news), but it culminates in the author wanting to enact an instance of hysterical penis theivery. Thankfully Elliott did not remove his own leg in the name of journalistic diligence. Elliott was preoccupied with the very frightening question of whether merely describing an ailment like wanting to have your limbs removed was enough to make people catch it. The author of the Harper’s piece seemed to be trying to test that premise, seeing the ability to contract a culture-bound phobia as proof of having truly become acclimated to a foreign culture. This paragraph from Eliot’s article nicely captures what is at stake:

Ian Hacking uses the term “semantic contagion” to describe the way in which publicly identifying and describing a condition creates the means by which that condition spreads. He says it is always possible for people to reinterpret their past in light of a new conceptual category. And it is also possible for them to contemplate actions that they may not have contemplated before. When I was living in New Zealand, ten years ago, I had a conversation with Paul Mullen, who was then the chair of psychological medicine at the University of Otago, and who had told me that he was a member of a government committee whose job it was to decide whether pornographic materials should be allowed into the country. I bristled at the idea of censorship, and asked him how he could justify being a part of something like that. He just laughed and said that if I could see what his committee was banning, I would change my mind. His position was that some sexual acts would never even occur to a person in an entire lifetime of thinking about sex if not for seeing them pictured in these books. He went on to describe to me various alarming acts that, it was true, had never occurred to me. Mullen was of the opinion that people were better off never having conceptualized such acts, and in retrospect, I think he may have been right.

I’m inclined to agree to, though I’m completely uncomfortable with the further implication that there should be limits on the freedom of thought; that some ideas are too dangerous to be expressed even in a putatively free culture.

But perhaps the notion of freedom needs more careful consideration in light of “semantic contagion.” At SkepticLawyer, an Australian legal blog, this discussion, prompted by a Tyler Cowen lecture, of liberty and culture’s interaction made me wonder if the fixation on personal freedom (the snakeskin jacket syndrome) was itself a culture-bound syndrome.

Finally, in language sure to gladden the heart of jurisprudes everywhere, throughout the address [Cowen] placed considerable emphasis on the rule of law and the benefits that flow from it. What poor countries need is not more liberty, but more law, law that is abstract, end-independent but - and this is the clincher - also enforced. He then moved into territory that is politically dangerous, but needs to be addressed: one of the things that helps promote both liberty and prosperity throughout the Anglosphere is citizens’ widespread ability to be loyal to a set of abstract concepts. Russia, he pointed out, is failing as a free society not because it is poor - Putin’s shrewed management of high commodity prices has put paid to much Russian poverty - but because Russians tend to privilege their friends and contacts above all else, leading to epic levels of corruption. Corruption, of course, is a signal rule of law failure.
He then asked, somewhat rhetorically, if liberty was confined (and defined) by culture: ‘We should not presume that our values are as universal as we often think they are’. What happens, he asked (also rhetorically), if - in order to enjoy the benefits of liberty and prosperity - societies have to undergo a major cultural transformation, including the loss of many appealing values? Cowen focused on Russian loyalty and friendship, but there are potentially many others. Think, for example, of the extended family so privileged throughout the Islamic world, or the communitarian values common in many indigenous societies.

Take that one step further—perhaps the struggle to exchange communitarian values for market-based ones throws off pathological symptoms: What if individuality (and the consequent preoccupation with personal freedom) itself is a kind of sickness that the demands of a market society imposes on us, forcing us to surrender those other indigenous values. This, more or less, is what Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation. The labor market requires the end of paternalist protections extended by pre-market societies; to make this palatable, the destruction of the safety net is represented as the freedom from state intervention into personal life. Polanyi writes,

To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one. Such a scene of destruction was best served by the application of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.

So Sailor’s fetishistic attachment to his snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart—“a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom”—is perhaps emblematic of our need in general to cling to the consolation prize of individuality in the face of our loss of a more-organic value system, which roots our self-worth in a social system—in a community’s mode of functioning. But we are too far along the path of a market society to turn back; we’d experience that pre-market culture as unfreedom, the loss of possibilities, even though we rarely seize upon all those possibilities and are likely to feel oppressed by them. Yet we are haunted by these values, and perhaps our submerged longing for them causes us to pervert the freedom the market culture supplies us with, leading us to come up with wildly bizarre uses of freedom, like lopping off our limbs.

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Friday, Jun 6, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

The Notwist
Where in This World [Video] (from The Devil, You + Me, releasing 17 June in the US)

Diamond Hoo Ha Man [Video]

The Futureheads
Broke Up the Time [MP3]

Jaguar Love
Bats Over the Pacific Ocean [MP3]

Ed Harcourt
Revolution in the Heart [MP3]

Bottle Up and Go
Wayword Son [MP3]

Frog Eyes
Bushels [MP3]

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