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by Nikki Tranter

28 Sep 2009

Grant felt himself exposed in no man’s land. There was no avenue of retreat and the enemy was invisible and unassailable. His supports had been dissipated, his arms were lost. He could not even burrow into the ground to hide.

It’s perhaps a rite of passage for any Australian reader to endure Wake in Fright, the 1961 condemnation by Kenneth Cook of the outback and its inhabitants. It’s harsh, unsettling, a new (at the time) insight into the coastal vs. inland cultural disparities inherent in the so-called Australian way of life.

In the novel, John Grant, a Sydney-sider unhappily teaching primary schoolers in an outback town 1200 miles inland and consisting of little more than a pub and a railway station, is excited to be heading back to the coast for a six-week holiday. His journey home involves a stop-over in Bundanyabba, a small town in the middle of nowhere, yet with pubs, hotels, people, enough to get by. Happy to check out the local scene for his one night in town, Grant hits the pubs – confident, content, ready for his break to begin. And then, on a gambling whim, Grant loses everything. He finds himself trapped in this outback wasteland the locals call the ‘Yabba.

Grant, we learn early on, deplores the outback lifestyle, and the people that, by choice, populate and thrive within it. Soon, though, reliance on those people becomes his only means of survival. But at what cost? Grant’s ‘Yabba stay becomes a trek into his own personal hell – educated and well-to-do, Grant soon finds himself shooting ‘roos, drinking endless slabs of beer, skinning his own wildlife catches for food, and contemplating what to do with the last remaining bullet in his rifle – the gun a gift of the locals.

It’s a wonderful set up – stranger in a strange land goes to extremes to get by, discovers his weaknesses, battles his demons while flailing in hell. And Cook puts Grant through the wringer. It’d be giving too much away to describe exactly what fun amounts to for the local ‘Yabba yobbos who befriend Grant on his second night in town. Grant’s most horrific experiences, though, occur in the company of Doc Tydon, an educated man rather like Grant himself, an incongruity central to the book’s themes of class and culture, freedom and choice. Tydon is aware of Grant’s outback prejudice, and stirs up the snobbery in him whenever he can, cleverly using it to draw Grant into some seriously awful undertakings.  Grant endures it all; ultimate desperation, you know, can make us do crazy things.

The book is a rite of passage because it’s a view into a different part of Aussie life, the other, other side of the Sun, Sand, and Surf mystique. Or even the croc-hunter, man on the land ideal. It’s key, though, the distinction Cook makes between those lifestyles, and how so many of us don’t experience those other sides, at least not fully enough to grasp the customs of each. As a rural dweller most of my life, I can’t claim to know the first thing about the surf culture in Sydney or the fun park paradise of coastal Queensland. I’m as lost as Grant in such places. On the other side, too, I’ve smiled to myself at the awkwardness of the city dweller in the sticks.

These distinctions aren’t specific to Australia; everywhere has its Otherness – north and south, east and west, city and country. Cook’s observations of these differences in this country give his book authenticity. He gleaned much as a journo in rural Broken Hill, the town on which Bundanyabba is said to be based. Grant, for instance, is consistently surprised when men offer to buy him beers – this is the ultimate favour in outback Oz, and Grant feels he owes these men who give and give for no reason other than to quench another man’s thirst (one of his first mistakes).

And when Grant, drunk or tired or just plain full refuses the offer, his refusal is met with disdain. Country folks, apparently, take a refusal to be bought a beer as the ultimate dismissal. I laughed at this notion because it’s so, so true. But while the book aptly describes the isolation and inwardness of such communities, it is still a dramatization in the extreme. As a rural Australian, it’s difficult not to want to defend the tight-knit-ness of such a community, and the informal approach to, well, everything, as a sign, perhaps, of a freer existence, not a stupid one that knows no better. Or perhaps, I just don’t want to know if the outback indeed has such power to utterly destroy a man and his sensibilities. Everyone’s version of hell is their own, I guess.

Still, the book managed to scare me – I finished it the day before a scheduled flight across that mighty expanse from southern Melbourne up to Darwin, at its tippy-top. With no idea what to expect from that rural city smack bang in its own middle of nowhere, I wondered what I might do if my friends didn’t collect me from the airport, if somehow I left my bag on a bar counter as I once did with my Passport in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What would I do? Where would I go? I’d figure it out, no doubt, after a beer or two… Someone’d get the tab, that I know for sure.

Wake in Fright was originally published in 1961, and was reissued in June by Text Publishing to coincide with the re-release of the 1971 film version directed by Ted Kotcheff.

by Rob Horning

28 Sep 2009

Steve Waldman has a great post about the Consumer Finance Protection Act, which has just had what’s known as the “vanilla” provisions taken out of it—these are the no-frills straightforward financial products (think 30-year fixed-rate mortgages and low-interest, low-fee credit cards) that banks would have been required to provide alongside of the complicated hidden-option-laden mortgages and the teaser rate cards and all that other junk for suckers who can’t understand financial trickery, i.e. just about everyone. As Waldman explains, the market for financial products is rife with information problems. Consumers don’t understand the market but are compelled to enter into anyway if they want to live “the American dream” of owning a house, just like the hegemonic ideology insists we should.

Consumers know they are at a disadvantage when transacting with banks, and do not believe that reputational constraints or internal controls offer sufficient guarantee of fair-dealing. Status quo financial services should be a classic “lemons” problem, a no-trade equilibrium. Unfortunately, those models of no-trade equilibria don’t take into account that people sometimes really need the products they cannot intelligently buy, and so tolerate large rent extractions if they must in order to transact.
The price of assuring that one is not taken advantage of by financial service providers is not participating in the modern economy. You cannot have a job, because payments are by check or direct deposit. You cannot buy a home or a car, because for the vast majority, those purchases require financing. Try travelling with only cash for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals. People will “voluntarily” participate in markets rigged against them for the privilege of being normal. And we do, every day.

This is a lot like the health care market, in which consumers are procuring a service about which they must defer to the expert they are procuring it from, trusting that their ethics are sound.

With a vanilla option in place, consumers would able to take some solace that they weren’t being exploited, that instead they would pay a fair, explicit cost for a loan rather than being taken advantage of. Waldman:

Instead of tolerating rent-extraction as a cost of participation, consumers put up with one-size-fits-all products in exchange for peace of mind. Most consumers benefit very little from exotic product features, and I suspect that many are made deeply nervous by the complex contracts they can neither negotiate nor understand, but nevertheless must sign. Vanilla financial products would be extensively vetted and and their characteristics would soon become widely known. Inevitable malfunctions would be loudly discussed in the halls of Congress, rather than hushed-up in rigged private arbitrations. Vanilla products would face discipline both from private markets (no one is suggesting we forbid other flavors) and from a very public political process. Politics and markets are both deeply flawed, but they are flawed in different ways, and we should take advantage of that.

The rationale for a public option in health care is similar—a simple insurance plan that sets a base line that assures that individuals are reasonably covered and won’t be denied coverage when they need it on a technicality. If you want more elaborate coverage, you can do the research and get it. But if you want what has been deemed the basic acceptable standard (with the government protecting you from exploitation) without wading into the intricacies of the insurance market, you can do that too. Of course, if you think government is always the villain and has some incentive in exploiting you, you might be wary of this. But you still have the ability to go the for-profit route if you believe that will guarantee better service.

As Waldman says about the vanilla financial products, “Rather than being anti-market, vanilla financial products would help correct very clear market failures that arise from imperfect information and high search costs. It is the status quo that is anti-market.” The status quo protects the information asymmetries that allow banks and insurance companies to extract rents—that is, earn money simply by being pitiless gate-keepers or by locking people into non-optimal contracts with hidden fees and options that can be exercised against them. With a vanilla option (or public option), as Waldman explains, there is a “commoditized” offering that forces more overt competition from providers (or more unmistakable collusion otherwise). It forces a market for “ostentatious simplicity” as Waldman calls it—forces banks to compete on providing the simplest product for customers craving simplicity. Currently banks have no incentive to do this; it’s more lucrative to take advantage of customers’ confusion. (The same is true of health insurance, and cell-phone service to some degree as well.)

Some might complain that vanilla options incentivize ignorance, or at least remove the penalties for it. It may remove advantages that savvy consumers might be able to take advantage of at the expense of their fellow citizens. But is that the kind of society we want? Personally, I don’t. I don’t want to save a few bucks on my check-ups while other people die of swine flu.

by PC Muñoz

28 Sep 2009

Written by Mariah Carey, Dave Hall, and Walter Afanasieff
From Music Box, Sony Records, 1993

An earlier version of this V-C-V first appeared on pcmunoz.com on January 17, 2006

I love Mariah Carey for all kinds of reasons. For starters, she’s a technically amazing vocalist, capable of notes most vocalists can only hope to reach via a healthy dose of “digital assistance”. She’s also a steely, determined artist who wouldn’t let consecutive project failures and public embarrassments defeat her spirit. And of course, I appreciate that she’s a serious, savvy songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Carole King to Kanye West. After a rough patch around the year 2001, Carey spent a few years as the butt of mean-spirited (read: hatin’) jokes and undeserved write-offs. Fans like myself were not surprised at all when she re-emerged on the scene in 2005 with a wildly successful straight-out R&B album, The Emancipation of Mimi, a spectacular platter of choice grooves, killer vocals, and a fun vibe that recalls the ‘90s hit I will discuss here, “Dreamlover”.

“Dreamlover” is pure, frothy pop. It flows along so sweetly and lightly, it’s easy to dismiss the wide-eyed innocence which the lyric imparts. With her talk of rainbows, charm bracelets, music boxes, and butterflies, I’ve always thought Mariah Carey seems to possess a kind of little-girl spirit which most female songwriters don’t dare conjure, for fear of being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, or mocked by “serious” songwriting peers and critics. One might conjecture that Carey’s use of these images is simply a calculated manipulation of her focus-group tested demographic (young females), or, worse, an indication of a kind of stunted emotional growth, but I happen to be of the opinion that she really likes that kinda stuff. Her covers of Journey’s “Open Arms” and Def Leppard’s big-haired suburban classic “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” support this theory, as far I’m concerned. Carey’s penchant for this imagery of course completely precludes her from ever earning the type of indie-cred heaped upon more appropriately-cool songwriters like PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco, or the early, pre-pop-stardom-grab incarnation of Liz Phair, but it certainly does not warrant automatic dismissal of her work as an artist.

by Evan Sawdey

28 Sep 2009

For the longest time, Matt O’Hare has paid his dues by taking on one of the most thankless jobs in mankind’s history: theatrical sound designer.

Gathering rare and sometimes impossible-to-find songs, crafting sound effects and elaborate cues meant to be triggered at moments notice, and sometimes even writing songs specifically for a show can be a positively daunting effort. The person who can successfully tackle an effects-heavy production like Mnemonic or The Skriker is worthy of a medal of some sort, but—for the musically-inclined—sound designing is nothing short of the ultimate training ground for bigger things.

It is here where you have to deal with meeting specific challenges, often having to reach far outside your comfort zone to get results. It is through this process that Matt O’Hare has been able to hone his craft, learning everything he can before applying it to his own music. Back in 2006, O’Hare was once quoted as saying that he rarely writes music for himself, simply because he found it much easier to write for pre-existing material, like his score for the Hangar Theater production of Art built almost entirely out of soft guitar harmonics. Yet after tackling an expansive, ambitious design for the Trinity Rep/Brown production of The Maids in February of this year, O’Hare gradually began working on 1983, his first album under the pseudonym Motorcycles Are Everywhere.

What’s amazing about this little electro-rock gem is just how well it all holds together.  Playing every instrument himself, O’Hare manages to keep things propulsive, never once coming off like a laptop-rock project some kid did in his spare time.

by Kirstie Shanley

27 Sep 2009

French four-piece Phoenix are on the rise.  Take the fact that the band was originally booked to play Chicago’s 2,500 person capacity Riviera Theater, but it sold out so quickly that the show was then moved to the larger Aragon Ballroom, with it’s 4,500 person capacity, and easily sold out as well.  One reason for this surge in popularity is certainly due to the fact that their newest release, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is filled to the brim with pop tunes guaranteed to make any cynic get up and dance.  While their three previous releases captured some of this spirit their fourth accomplishes it more fully, as if the band has been steadily evolving and reached a high point in its continuum.


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