Latest Blog Posts

by Terry Sawyer

11 Jun 2008

Okay, so the title is both an exaggeration and a reversal of proper chronology.  Wanda Jackson is a huge Elvis fan, as evidenced by her one of her most recent releases, I Remember Elvis, but I couldn’t resist the quip since nearly all writing about Wanda Jackson contains the diminishing compliment, “the female Elvis”. 

Personally, I listen to her more and get much more enjoyment from her sound than I do Elvis’ oeuvre. (Also, please note that she could really play the guitar from the very beginning of her career.) The comparison also misses the deeper country and western influence, nowhere more evident than on the song, “I Gotta Know” which almost comically accents the twang on “thang” and “rang” (ring). 

She’s still touring; I guess that’s one of the benefits of being a hard working musician over a worldwide icon.  Try to sit still through the song’s bounce and her tight little jig around the stage.  Granted, she doesn’t have the smoldering sexy that pre-Rx bloat Elvis had, but her pin-up beauty and spitfire confidence go a long way in cultivating a wholly different brand of star presence.  She should have garnered bigger fame in her time, but has to instead settle for a devoted following and a belated critical resurrection.

by Rob Horning

11 Jun 2008

You know you’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated into neoclassical economics when you can embrace the benefits of discriminatory pricing and see nothing unfair about different classes of people paying different prices for the same good or more nefariously, companies purposely degrading or adulterating products to sell them at different prices and break consumers into different classes. This process, known as versioning (explained in this paper by economist Hal Varian), explains why many software suites (or Windows Vista) ship standard with certain functions included in the code but disabled, forcing customers to buy the gold or platinum package to have them made operable. (Sometimes this is dubbed crippleware.) It’s also why DVD players don’t play discs from all regions automatically, why more and more services are being stripped from coach class, and so on. If one can see that intentional destruction as actually adding to the sum total of utility in society, then you are really on board.

How is it possible that purposely damaging goods helps a society? The premise, as Varian explains it, is that segments of the market that it would not be profitable to serve at all are put in play by versioning. In general, companies need to create the illusion of premium values among what are essentially the same products in order to get people who are willing to spend more to pay as much as possible. (Branding can play a big role in that procedure, especially with things like corn flakes and bar soaps, cases in which the generic and the branded product are more or less indistinguishable.) The process makes asymmetrical information not the bane of markets, as Akerlof suggested in his “Market for Lemons” paper, but instead a boon of added efficiency for creating profitable price differentials.

What I found disconcerting about Varian’s analysis is his casual aside that “the low-willingness-to-pay consumer always ends up with zero surplus” in the model of versioning he pursues, so they “can safely be ignored in the welfare calculations.” Maybe I am misunderstanding, but doesn’t that mean this model basically ignore the possibility of redistribution of surplus to the “less willing to pay” a.k.a. the poor? “Willingness to pay” seems like a euphemism for “can’t afford to pay because too broke”—a convenient means for evading that particular question of what makes people more or less willing to pay in certain situations, of building in the dubious assumption of consumer sovereignty (the consumer decides what they will do, and the market responds accordingly) directly into the model.

And then then in employing the model itself, Varian sees it as a victory for all of society when producers and rich people (oops, I mean those with a high willingness to pay) accrue more of the social surplus on account of the fact that the total pie has become bigger. When producers make more profit, is that a win for society? If you believe that profit somehow trickles down and around and throughout society, then I guess so. Producers and consumers are basically the same people from a macro perspective. The idea is that more people making and buying more things is inherently good, no matter who is doing the buying and selling. This conflation of social surplus (i.e. profits) with social welfare, though, is the same kind of thinking that would have us ignore growing income inequality in cases when the lower classes’ income growth is not totally stagnant (but just relatively so).

It also helps your conversion to an economistic outlook if you buy into Pareto efficiency as being the basis of ethics, the core method for determining fairness in a society. If no one can be be made better off without any one else having been made worse off as a result, then Pareto efficiency has been achieved. From a non-economist’s view, the problem with this ethical measure is that being better or worse off are relative concepts that are constantly in flux and rely a great deal on the information participants have. I’m not any worse off when I’m flying next to someone who paid have as much as I did for a fare until they tell me about it. In “Markets and Freedoms” Amartya Sen points out that “Pareto efficiency is completely unconcerned with distribution of utilities (or of incomes or anything else), and is quite uninterested in equity.” Most people, however, are interested in those things, and don’t like to see them discarded in favor of output maximization.

Anyway, Varian’s prescription for versioning informational goods reminded me of the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic book reader that many people seem to be quite taken with. I haven’t used one, but it sounds like an oversize BlackBerry with less functionality. Varian writes: “The first point is the most fundamental: make sure that you design the product so that it can be versioned. That is, the product should be designed in a way that it is easy to reduce its quality in order to sell to a particular market segment.” The fact that the Kindle is WiFi enabled but only allows users to connect to the internet through its proprietary system and access only its sales catalog is an indication of Kindle’s success on that score. Kindle is out to set the terms of e-book reading so that it could implement differential price schemes on the fly: “If the owner of the content controls the browser, then it can choose the features of the browser to enhance the quality of consuming the content…. Controlling the browser allows the seller of content to increase the quality of what it is selling.”

I’m not a long-term skeptic about electronic books—I’m not sentimental about the magic of propping books open and smelling the wood pulp and feeling the grain of the page under my fingers and all that. (I tend to think about what a pain it is to eat and read anything but a magazine at the same time.) But I have a strong inclination to wait until the version of the Kindle comes out that is not locked down, forcing me to pay for information I could get free with WiFi, and giving me only one option for where I can go to replenish my supply of reading material. I’m waiting for the model that is basically a hand-held computer. So I’m hoping the tenets of versioning don’t prevent that device from ever being made.

by John Bohannon

11 Jun 2008

I wish more people would stay on top of mid-‘90s hip-hop videos. This little gem by 8Ball and MJG is a prime example of how much nostalgia some of these videos create. It’s hard not to think of something like 8Ball and MJG’s “Just Like Candy” or Biggie’s “Hypnotize” and not remember the time or place in one’s life during the release of these videos. The quick cuts and the fade-ins and outs were staples of ‘90s hip-hop videos, especially the more laid back summer suave cuts.

This was before Southern hip-hop became immersed in clap-style snares and a much more narrow topic base—these were innocent party hits that play out over time as classics with style and class. 8Ball and MJG are two of the South’s kings—and its tracks like “Just Like Candy” that keep them on that throne. The Dirty South has changed quite dramatically, but it only takes a look back on tracks like these to realize the kind of soul there was at the party long before the youngsters hit the streets.

by Bill Gibron

10 Jun 2008

Introspection is key to an artist’s imagination. Reflecting life is one thing. Inspecting the inner existence is an equally important facet. In essence, it’s the ultimate expression of self, a sense of what makes a mind tick, a brain bubble, and a thought process percolate. In film, some of our greatest directors have made masterworks out of the creative core concept. Fellini gave us 8&1/2. Woody Allen offered Stardust Memories. David Lynch divined Mulholland Dr.  And now Giuseppe Andrews steps behind his wholly independent lens to give us a take on cinema, karma, movie history, and Hollywood phonies. Oddly enough, he draws a very interesting conclusion - It’s All Not So Tragic.

For film historian Greg Connor, things haven’t been going well. He’s had mental problems ever since the day he ruined his chance at being a DVD commentator. During the featurette for a favorite noir classic, he committed an unspeakable, unnatural act. Now his shrink is suggesting he take a small vacation to get away from it all. Running out of gas, Connor comes across a fallen crossing guard, a psychotic with a pick axe, a young lady named Distosia, who is studying to be part of a cult, one of his favorite soap stars, and a young man he once photographed in the nude. All of this leads to a kind of psychotic breakdown where Connor’s sexual dysfunction manifests itself in more and more bizarre ways. Eventually, there’s nothing left to do but dance and sing. Besides, life’s not too bad when you think about it.

Like a fever dream infected with rabies, or a Tinsel Town satire slathered in scatology, It’s All Not So Tragic takes some getting used to. Not in a bad way, mind you, but unlike previous offerings from America’s trailer park Godard, this narrative is so knotty it tends to cannibalize and consumer itself. What begins as a simple road trip, a chance for one messed up man to escape the demons that force him onto the couch and into the bottle, turns into a freak show Ferris Wheel, the next turn of the tale offering up increasingly disconnected delirium. Naturally, sex plays a major part in the plotline, but this time around its more violent and ‘self abusive’. The end result is a film that challenges the conventions created by Andrews and his anarchic mobile hominess. Instead, we witness one man’s tenuous grip on reality slowly draining down his pants’ leg and into the sewer.

Of course, there are obvious targets. Daytime dramas get skewered as our hero sits back and enjoys a shower-oriented scene from his favorite serial As the World Spins. The writing and realization of this sequence is so spot on it mandates its own movie. Similarly, Andrews’ regular Marybeth Spychalski shows up as a brainwashed religious cult chick, clamoring for the very Scientology like “Wolancoism” belief system. Her conversations with star Miles David Dougal are classic in their crackpot philosophizing. Elsewhere, DVDs get a slamdance stake through their bonus feature hearts, our lead longing to be legitimized by placement as part of the format’s added content. Even soap box racers (and those put in charge of maintaining traffic safety for said cardboard cars) get skewered. Andrews is amazing in this way. Just when you think he’s covered all the narrative possibilities, he finds more fodder for his unsettled cinema.

Not so clear is the motivation behind the last act montages. Since he loves music as much as film (his CDs are well worth picking up - they contain a wealth of equally eccentric sonic sensationalism), Andrews presents a series of songs interspersed with a clown satisfying himself with a vacuum cleaner and a collection of seemingly unconnected clips. But deep thinking reveals some clues. Early on, it appears that every time something sinister is about to happen to our hero, someone appears from out of the blue and blows the threat away with a handgun. Naturally, it seems nonsensical at first, until you apply the motion picture standard by which violence - and most specifically, gun violence - solves most problems. In that regard, Connor’s various packing saviors appear practically sane. The sudden dive into song and dance could clearly be a reflection of the old school Hollywood-ism that any depressive down time can be “cured” with a little celluloid whimsy. Here Andrews’ amazing muse provides the perfect antidote to the main character’s descent into debauchery and delusion.

While star Dougal redefines the concept of a tour de force, the rest of the writer/director’s standard company gets reduced to extended cameos. The venerable Vietnam Ron plays an unhinged stalker, while Sir George Bigfoot travels around with a suitcase full of cockroaches. Guitar wizard Ed stands in for the dome doc, while Walt Dongo plays a pissed off member of the Walancoism sect. Noticeably absent this time around are Karen Bo Baron (star of Andrews’ masterful Orzo) and that queen of the ancient art of the flapjack dance, Elaine Bongos. Their peculiarly endearing presence is always missed. Thankfully, our filmmaker finds ways to substitute and persevere.

That he continues to grow as an artist is no surprise - true talent finds a way to flourish, instead of stagnating and straining - but how this amazing auteur channels his creativity is what continues to make his movies so amazing. Giuseppe Andrews has an oeuvre now that far surpasses many who maintain a place in the hallowed halls of cinema’s standard bearers. For what he’s done in expanding the realm of homemade moviemaking, for providing a voice to the disenfranchised and the routinely marginalized, for locating brilliance where others would see idiosyncrasy, hopelessness, and despair, he becomes the most independent of true icons. He also remains the most staunchly original voice working along the fringes of the artform today. It’s All Not So Tragic continues to prove his place among the true creative champions.

by Jason Gross

10 Jun 2008

Two fine articles clear away some stinkin’ thinking about recent technology.  First up is this CNet article that goes against all of the sweaty love and worship of Apple’s launch of the iPhone, providing a much needed reality check about the hoopla.  Amazing how many news org’s kiss Steve Jobs’ feet again and again as if he’s Midas.  He did corner the market on digital media players but he’s got a long way to go to conquer the phone market, even with all the bells and whistles he adds to his gadget.  Then there’s this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article where Bill Virgin pushes back against Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, who’s telling people to dig graves for newspapers.  Virgin rightfully asks “Isn’t it Microsoft that should be more worried about their future…?”

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Could 'Heroes Reborn' Be the Stealth Reboot the Series Always Needed?

// Channel Surfing

"Heroes: Reborn looks like what the original Heroes could have been in an alternate, better universe.

READ the article