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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008

I’m usually skeptical of research that involves brain scans and areas lighting up when they are stimulated and that sort of thing—it seems reductive to equate brain activity with specific kinds of thoughts—but since this particular research into luxury effects that the Economist reported recently confirms suspicions I already had, I thought I would pass it along. The upshot of this study is this: “Dr Rangel and his colleagues found that if people are told a wine is expensive while they are drinking it, they really do think it tastes nicer than a cheap one, rather than merely saying that they do.” The question is whether this distinction is at all salient. It seems like evidence that people who buy into invidious display and conspicuous consumption are not merely other-directed and status conscious; their brains actually can translate the feelings of social superiority evoked by purchasing power into biochemical pleasure. They are not phonies simply pretending to like what’s more expensive to justify the conspicuous consumption. In saw ways, this suggests their consciousness is even falser than previously suspected; they are not in bad faith so much as betrayed by their own biology into transmuting money into fleeting pleasure.


Conspicuous consumption and waste are an important part of social display. Deployed properly, they bring the rewards of status and better mating opportunities. For this to work, though, it helps if the displaying individual really believes that what he is buying is not only more expensive than the alternative, but better, too.


Rangel, who conducted the study, believes this effect has something to do with an evolutionary (of course) need for learning.


Rangel suspects that what he has found is a mechanism for learning quickly what has helped others in the past, and thus for allowing choices about what is nice and what is nasty to be made speedily and efficiently. In modern society, price is probably a good proxy for such collective wisdom.


The idea that price is a proxy for collective wisdom seems a bit suspect, though. Despite what Hayek may argue about knowledge and prices, the magic of markets is not that efficient in translating truth into numerical values. Cooperation and survival don’t seem to be the sort of information conveyed by prices, which instead articulate scarcity and induce competition. It seems far more likely that we have a strong predisposition to want to believe our own bullshit. Just as the most gifted liars ended up persuading themselves of the truth of their own fictions, the conspicuous consumer ends up tasting the waste as nectar.


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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Right Hand on My Heart [MP3]
     


 


Clocking in at just 37 minutes, Mission Control may run a little shorter than Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip, but its relative brevity insists any listener to take on multiple plays. Like the band, who have since enlisted the permanent addition of bassist Tim Deaux, the album sounds like something complete, that survived the changes that were necessary to make it. It is also something that will in all likelihood end up being one of the best rock albums of the year.—Mike Hilleary


The Whigs on David Letterman



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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008

Leftovers and scraps from the media’s round-tables.


I’m so tired of John Edwards.


Apparently, in another act of campaign desperation, with interest in his presidential bid fading faster than a setting sun, the Edwards campaign is now blaming the media for his failures to earn primary votes. During a recent interview with MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer, Edwards campaign manager David Bonior, a former Democratic whip in the House of Representatives, turned testy when asked why Edwards wasn’t gaining more traction. His answer? It’s the 5% less media coverage Edwards has been receiving compared to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.


Such a claim insults the intelligence of American voters. How can anyone believe John Edwards, a former U.S. Senator and Vice-Presidential nominee, has not received ample media coverage? Bonior’s own numbers reveal the absurdity of this claim: Does any rational human believe 5% less media coverage will result is such overwhelming differences between Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina?


Haven’t we seen this playbook before? The Bush administration has masterfully manipulated public opinion by pointing fingers at the media instead of themselves and their policies whenever criticism has grown too harsh. Edwards, another candidate trumpeting change, seems immune from it with this new twist. Here is just one anecdote revealing Edwards’s failed strategies: Recently, while driving home from work, I listened to a NPR interview that featured three leading Hispanic thinkers commenting on the presidential primaries and the influence Hispanics would have on the elections. One commentator said the Edwards campaign was “invisible” when trying to reach out to national Hispanic organizations. 


The reasons Edwards isn’t gaining traction are simple: his campaign is poorly organized, and his messages don’t resonate with the American people. He is a millionaire lawyer with minimal experience as a legislator, no experience as an executive, and a former Vice-Presidential nominee that LOST an important presidential election. Sure, he’s attractive, smart, and energetic; however, his ideas are unattractive, and he should bow out of the race sooner than later.


Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.


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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008
Anticraftby Renee Rigdon and Zabet StewartNorth Light BooksNovember 2007, 160 pages, $22.99

Anticraft
by Renee Rigdon and Zabet Stewart
North Light Books
November 2007, 160 pages, $22.99


Let’s get the obligatory mention of the duct tape corset out of the way straight off.


With the small sacrifice of an old tee and possibly the help of a close friend you can craft your own perfectly fitted and ‘slightly sinister’ corset. Besides this project, there are several other excellent features in Anticraft: Knitting, Beading and Stitching for the Slightly Sinister. The photography is sensational, even when the showcased project isn’t overly exciting. Black and white backgrounds provide a fabulous contrast to colorful (think ebony, blood red, and “ichor green”) projects frequently adorned with skull motifs. The settings are invariably dungeon-inspired hangouts with antiqued decorations. Just flipping through and looking at the great pictures might keep you from noticing that a simple skull-accented hat is edged with faux FunFur. Which I didn’t realize came in black. I can’t actually picture this one on any self-respecting goth-chick, but the appeal of The Anticraft is not limited to those with yarn stashes exclusively containing various shades of black and red. All the better for the book sales, really.


A couple of favorite patterns of mine include ‘The Whilameenas,’ a crocheted two-headed rat, and ‘Three Owls,’ a mini-parliament of felted and embroidered feathered friends. There are many goth-leaning crafters out there (witness the success of The Anticraft website, now on issue number nine), and each of them can find something fascinating among the collection’s 25 projects.


The extra material in the book is a big plus. One feature is the ‘mood enhancer’ paragraph the accompanies each project, in the usual manner of listing materials and tools needed to complete it. Here the authors recommend music, movies, or books to match the mood of the project. Themed recipes and comic strips featuring the authors are also great touches. And the whole book is illustrated like an art project, with vine-like doodles, Victorian-style wood-block prints, and explanations of pagan symbols. At the back there is the customary crafting techniques section, although this one contains illustrated instructions on creating your own chain mail. On the whole, the book is a pleasure to flip through, but most of the projects are either too intricate or too impractical to really bother making.


The point is more about the inspiration and finding a place in the community of Anticrafters.


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Monday, Jan 28, 2008


It’s literally like going back in time. Three voices, long silenced, have returned from entertainment exile to remind us of why we fell in love with Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the first place. When a local Minnesota TV station took a chance on comic Joel Hodgson’s unique vision for a combination matinee movie/satiric space take-off, five now familiar faces were there, establishing the foundation for what would end up being the best TV show in the history of the medium. Along with the famed stand-up, young J. Elvis Weinstein, the snarky Trace Beaulieu, and two station employees - Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon - they honed a rather scattered scheme to make fun of really bad movies. Establishing such soon stalwart ideas as The Satellite of Love, robots Servo, Crow and Gypsy, and a pair of mad scientists running the show, these MST makings would remain solid memories for die hard devotees.


That’s why the first few minutes of the new Hodgson created enterprise Cinematic Titanic are so spooky. Hearing the talented man and his former collaborators (minus Murphy and Mallon) is like a late night on the Comedy Channel back in 1991. It’s like standing in the doorway of your one bedroom apartment’s kitchen and craning your ear to hear what wonderful quip was going to come next. Announced last winter as a return to form, Hodgson has paired with Weinstein and Beaulieu, and with the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to bring the fine art of movie mediocrity back to the masses. While Murphy, along with Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson have carried on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format for over a decade.


And it was well worth the wait. Cinematic Titanic’s first offering, the horribly dull Al Adamson splatter stiff The Oozing Skull, is vintage MST filtered through a slightly more adult ideal. Like Nelson’s download only offerings, the jokes can get a bit ‘blue’, but never venture into territory that would insult the intelligence, or the sense of age appropriateness, of the established fan base. Without much initial context (there’s no setup, no ‘us vs. them’ villainy, or sketch comedy insert material - at least, not yet) and an unusual construct that finds five people interacting with the film (two standing, three sitting) there’s an initial adjustment period that lasts about 10 seconds. Then we hear the sonorous tones of our former heroes, and the hilarity comes reeling back.


This is outstanding stuff, the kind of rapid fire revelry that sends a satiric chill down your funny bone. While it’s hard to top the artistic triumph that was Mystery Science Theater 3000, what’s clear is that none of the former participants have lost an ounce of their wonderfully witty edge. The ‘all over the map’ spirit is still intact, jokes running the gambit from unusual references to the very essence of lowbrow. Unlike the original show, Hodgson has incorporated a small amount of physical comedy, letting Conniff take point for a glitzy guest star showcase (all done in silhouette). Beaulieu also gets a make-over moment for Skull‘s leading lady, and on at least two occasions, a wheelchair bound individual comes in and cracks wise, Stephen Hawking style. It’s all very wacky, but within a controlled entertainment environment.


As with most MST product from the past, an episode of Cinematic Titanic will more than likely be judged on the success or failure of the film being mocked - and in the case of The Oozing Skull, they couldn’t have picked a better slice of schlock. Al Adamson, as bad a Z-movie maker as the often mocked (undeservedly so) Ed Wood, steps up and spews his aimless point and shoot stool sampling all over the audience. When the benevolent dictator of a small fictional Middle Eastern empire is diagnosed with a terminal disease, he resorts to a rather extreme backup plan to stay in power. With the help of his peroxide blond gal pal Tracey, the experimental brain transplant operations of Dr. Robert Nigserian, and the protection of attending physician Dr. Lloyd Trenton, Abdul Amir will get a new body. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Gor, an acid scarred retard whose brutish strength hides a baby’s mentality.


So corny that hominy grits are jealous of its maize like properties and so hackneyed that a picture postcard of an Indian Taj stands in for a real location, The Oozing Skull is all gory head surgery and undeniably illogical plot pointing. Adamson, who never met a sequence he couldn’t shatter with his innate lack of mise en scene, delivers his standard 80 minutes of mediocrity, lots of close ups substituting for coverage, and insane ramblings replacing ideas. Dogs dying of rabies-induced dementia are more cogent in the ways of science than this operation-oriented dung. During the first act dome cracking, we get a nice amount of scalpel to fake flesh bloodletting. And the finale is fun in a fumbling, drunken uncle sort of incomprehensibleness. But for sheer boredom and genre junking, this is some very dumb dread.


Luckily, the CT squad is around to address the dilemma. Punching away at all the story chasms, reasoning quagmires, and pizza dough quality effects, the quintet’s quipping is masterful. There is never a missed opportunity, no one performer overriding or dominating the proceedings. Conniff gets off a couple of classic drug jibes, while Hodgson occasionally calls on other cast members to give their talented two cents. The movie is actually paused four times - once to introduce a nauseous Al Hirt, another to let Trace touch up bimbette Regina Carrol’s clown-like face, then for a discussion of battery acid, and finally to hear Weinstein croon a plaintive ballad (kind of) - and during these moments, we instantly recognize the brilliance of these comedians. Even when faced with the daunting challenge of making a sloppy ‘70s drive-in exploitation turd manageable, they are consistently clever and right on the money.


Even better, the movie seems to inspire a kind of chemistry and camaraderie that’s been missing from other MST-styled offerings. Taking nothing away from the radiance offered via Rifftrax and the Film Crew, but seeing all five together, outlines contrasted against Adamson’s bile like cinematography, is morphine for the memory. It reminds us of that classic trio, sitting at the bottom of the screen, providing enjoyment where there definitely was none, smiles where only depressive tears once appeared. Some may think this is nothing more than trading on the past for the sake of a quick buck. But there is much, much more to Cinematic Titanic than traveling back down bad movie memory lane. And with mysterious elements like the Time Tube and other mythology left to explore, the series can only continue to grow.


While we all tend to bark at technology for making life a lot harder than it needs to be, science should be snogged for allowing one time talents, stifled by bumbling broadcast feebs unable to see their inherent value, to take control of their own creative destiny and deliver amazing experiences like the Cinematic Titanic. It will be disorienting at first, a pro-MST mentality unsure of how to react to the satiric specter of the former masterwork. But after a while, after the novelty wears off and the intelligence sinks in, the spirit is lifted and the soul assuaged. The Oozing Skull is just another of those long festering celluloid sores that should have been lanced with some manner of corrosive and cast aside. But in the capable hands of the CT crew, it stands as the start of something wonderful indeed.

DVD


 



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