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Saturday, Oct 20, 2007

Writing about money and the value of things.

Piggy Bank. Photograph by BabaSteve

Piggy Bank. Photograph by BabaSteve


Marketshare


Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson has an interesting perspective on the failure of the New York Times subscription service, Times Select, on his blog. He says that the New York Times Opinion pages, “possibly the best raw material for blogging and online discussion,” lost out on being a leader in the debates swirling around the issues because the meaty content was hidden and open only to subscribers.  “Would the Huffington Post be what it is today if it weren’t for TimesSelect?” he wonders. “I don’t know, but that’s the kind of thinking I try to do instead of traditional economics/revenue maximization when I think about stuff like this.”


He writes that his perspective was formed by being an early investor in TheStreet.com which was a subscription service which lost on market share to the free MarketWatch. Market share drives everything else online, Wilson believes, and if the a content provider’s material isn’t visible there’s nothing to build a business on.


The Proprietary Model Heading Towards Extinction?


Apple built it’s business and cult-like following around being a closed system. The current controversy about the lack of openness of the i-Phone and people’s ability to mould it into something they want to use, rather than a cool system that Apple decides everyone should use has created cracks in Apple’s philosophy. Steven Johnson, on his blog, writes about the decision to open up Apple’s i-Phone to third party developers.


It struck me yesterday reading Steve Jobs’ personal note about plans for third-party apps on the iPhone that the most telling thing about the announcement was the opening five-word phrase:



Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February.



Let me just say it. What we’re starting to see here (and of course in the anti-DRM letter from earlier this year) is a pretty significant shift in Jobs’ public relations strategy, in that he seems to have recognized that there are limits to secrecy. Yes, some developments are best kept under wraps for as long as possible—like the iPhone or the Intel switch—contrary to all the principles of Web 2.0 openness and transparency. But with other decisions, you’re sometimes much better off going public early, and exposing some of your thought process when you do.


Old Thinking at Work in a New World


Fred Wilson’s criticisms about Times Select in his blog over the last year consistently return to the New York Times management not understanding the culture of the online world and the notion of value, what assets can be charged for or used to create revenue and what must be provided freely in order to establish and maintain credibility. The Australian media market is suffering the same uncertainties, and there’s an essay in The Monthly magazine, by David Salter, who suggests that the media in Australia has become unhinged as its previous revenue sources dry up.


Why do our media organisations now seem so close to unravelling? It’s always tempting to search for grand themes that offer a convenient, catch-all explanation. The truth is more complex and scattered. We’ve come to a point where a handful of powerful yet disconnected impulses are tugging the media in different directions. The brash, self-regarding confidence that characterised so much of Australia’s print and electronic output has largely evaporated. The old swagger is gone.


New technology undermines the media’s poise because few local editors and producers understand it. The newspapers’ embrace of the www world was motivated more by fear of being left behind than by any genuine expectation of journalistic improvements or expansion. Their rush to re-version themselves on the internet came largely without a workable strategic plan as to how the two forms would then support each other as businesses. The more prominent writers were given blogs on which to blather, adding to their workload without adding to the number of people willing to pay cash for a daily newspaper.


The Cultural Value of Economics


This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics goes to three individuals who have helped to establish “mechanism design theory.” They’ve created analytical tools that may help to evaluate the social costs and benefits of market forces. At least that’s what I think the work is about from quick read throughs of the Nobel Committee’s release and a few news stories I’ve read.


One of the award’s earlier recipients, Joseph Stiglitz, whose writing has helped to make the economics of globalization coherent for a general audience comments on the award in the International Herald Tribune


“Historically there was a lot of justification to the critique that it was somewhat ideological in nature,” said Joseph Stiglitz, who received the award in 2001 along with George Akerlof and Michael Spence for their analyses of markets where people possess different degrees of information.


He referred to a six-year period in the 1990s when economists from the University of Chicago - Milton Friedman’s headquarters and the temple of laissez-faire economics - received five Nobels. Some of that work, he said, “was clearly not breakthrough in any fundamental sense.”


That is no longer the case, he said; indeed, the trouble, Stiglitz said, stems from the committee going to the opposite extreme.


“The main criticism right now is, if anything, they’re slanted more to mechanical modeling and technical advances,” he said. “One can understand that as part of a response to criticisms that they were too ideological,” he said, but the problem is that not enough thought has been given to “how substantial the work is.”


Patricia Cohen. International Herald Tribune. October 19, 2007


The debate involves the definition of economics, if it’s something scientifically quantifiable and mathematically rigorous, or a set of theorems based around observations of financial forces that require cultural details for their context.


Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s blog, Freakonomics, takes economics to pop culture. Their blog grew out of a book which grew out of a feature in the New York Times, now resides on the Times’ opinion page. They write about the Nobel Prize in Economics, linking to an Economist story that explains the prize itself, while drawing out the curious, hip details that characterize their work, mentioning that a Nobel laureate in Economics, Eric Maskin, lives in Albert Einstein’s old house and dresses up as Einstein on Halloween.


They write about the new economic systems that have emerged online, for instance this evaluation of Amazon.com’s reader reviewing system.


What Are We Buying?


The Ethicurean writes on food from an economic as well as ethical perspective, from the farm bill and the environmental and social as well as economic costs of agriculture, to the price of food and the value structure of organic food. “Organic”, “Free Range”, “Bio-dynamic”, the labels on food tug on our hearts and consciences as much as our wallets, and The Ethicurean’s founding editor, Bonnie Powell, has this recent examination of the “grass fed” labelling system for beef.


Exciting announcement for Ethicurean readers: After almost five years of deliberation and two rounds of public comments, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has finally issued standards for “grass (forage) fed” marketing claims — ones that actually mean what most consumers think they should mean, and aren’t chock full of industry-pandering loopholes as we feared they would be.


 


Tagged as: finance, media
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Saturday, Oct 20, 2007

While I could go on about Sasha Frere-Jones’ white-indie-rock guilt piece in the New Yorker, I’d leave it to three smart scribes for a response.  First, is Margaret Wappler’s piece for the Los Angeles Times (Turning the beat around again) covering how dance music is indeed making a comeback in the indie world.  The other is Grace Brodie Cruz (of the great Playlist blog) who proclaimed: “Shocka: Rock Music Made By White People Is Surprisingly White.”  Best of all is Carl Wilson’s article in Slate, where he not only parses out some worthwhile things in the article but he also nails what’s off-base or just plain wrong about it too and shifts the argument to class conflict.


Honestly, you’d think that SFJ would have stopped after calling Stephen Merritt a racist and then having to apologize (somewhat).  I was mad enough at him already for making Fiona Apple look bad.


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Friday, Oct 19, 2007


You want Friday the 13th. You’ll settle for Sleepaway Camp. What you get instead is this enjoyable little romp which marked the inauspicious debut of Miramax Films and soon to be indie icons Bob and Harvey Weinstein. While they will argue that they had the idea long before Momma Voorhees went ballistic on a bunch of oversexed counselors, The Burning remains an afterthought in the world of splatter, a slasher film destined to remains solidly second tier. Of course, it’s not the worst company to be considered in, standing alongside My Bloody Valentine, Terror Train, Prom Night, and any number of Carpenter/Cunnigham knock-offs. While originality has never been the genre’s strong suit, The Burning gets by on some interesting character dynamics, a sleeping bag full of sleaziness, nasty F/X, and a blatant brutality that few of its fellow scarefests could begin to imagine. 


Of course, Cropsy the caretaker with a penchant for hedge trimmer histrionics is not the classic spree killer we’ve come to expect from such entertainment endeavors. As manipulated by director Tony Maylam (a cinematic non-entity, before and since), our trench-coated terror with the garden implement accessory is the least inspired slayer around. All throughout The Burning, victims are carved up in the same, sharpened tool manner. We see a post-coital teen, or a far too irritating adolescent, and we innately understand that, soon, they’ll be staring at the business end of some agricultural pinking sheers. This leaves the interpersonal interaction, plot development, and Tom Savini’s make-up massacres as the sole motion picture mortar. While it ends up holding together, there will be those who find this slice and dice a tad too talky and a bit too basic to claim classic status.


The story begins with that horror film standard – a prank gone horribly awry. The cruel Cropsy, resident handyman of Camp Blackfoot, is apparently the boogeyman with a booze problem. For their tired teen revenge, some kids give him a literal trial by fire, and he ends up a semi-comatose mess in the local hospital burn unit. Fast forward five years, and the camp across the lake from the now-burnt out ruins is having its own issues. Counselors are scoring off each other left and right, some whiny, creepy kid keeps peeping on the more “pert” members of the crew, and Jason Alexander is everyone’s asexual comic relief. When numerous skin grafts fail to cure what ails Cropsy’s carcass, the incredibly semi-melted man goes bonkers. He kills a hooker, and then heads on over to his former stomping grounds. There, he intends to fold, spindle, and/or mutilate everyone who gets in his way – including one individual who may hold a key to what happened that fateful, bonfire-tinged night.


So the plot isn’t going to win points for abject novelty, and Harvey Weinstein’s wordsmithing (along with scribe help from Brad Grey and Peter Lawrence) can best be described as cookie cutter politically indirect, yet something about The Burning manages to resonate beyond such artistic limits. To call the characters crude would be doing a disservice to rapists, thugs, and borderline psychotics everywhere. This is the kind of movie that believes pressuring girls into sex is seduction, that voyeurism is ‘boys being boys’, and actual fornication conforms to the five second rule. The mangy melodramatics that play out between the cast creates the perfect abattoir atmosphere – after 45 minutes or so, we want to see each and every one of them hacked up like head cheese. Even better, we find ourselves rooting for Cropsy, hoping his silvery blades find their mark again and again.


Of course, fright fans may balk when they learn how backloaded the gore really is. After the initial fire fight (which is thrilling, if less than bloody) and the prostitution piercing, half of the movie plays out without a significant slaying. In the meantime, we have to wade through gratuitous sequences of actors playing perv and afterschool special heart to hearts. Unlike Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp, where a clear kid/counselor dynamic is established, there’s no solid line of age demarcation. On the one hand, you’ve got someone named Tiger who looks like a 12 year old laughing stock puffing away on her cigarettes. Equally unsettling is Larry Joshua’s Glazer, who has cornered the market on machismo meatballing. Sucking in his obvious gut and strutting around like a greasespot in need of some Shout, his big ham on campus stature belies his supposed young adult standing.


Thanks to the arrival of Tom Savini’s skin ripping specialties, however, none of this really matters. Unlike the work of fellow fright masters, this ex-Army photographer who served time snapping casualties in Vietnam knows a thing or two about realistic grue. Throughout the course of The Burning’s last half, we witness numerous human atrocities. Throats are slashed, necks are garroted, heads are hacked open, and fingers snipped off. While the logistics of taking out an entire raft of victims (from the standing position inside a canoe, no less) can be questionable, the sequence itself is sensational, a jump cut collection of clips and collected blood. The finale is also very effective, an axe into a head as impressive as Dawn of the Dead’s machete to zombie faceplate. One could argue that Savini saves this film, his skill in sluice leaving more of an impression than anything anyone else does here, but that would be selling The Burning short.


No, the most striking element one takes from this film is its no holds barred brutality. It’s rare, even in post-modern horror, to see killing portrayed with such cold, calculated aggression. While it may seem strange to say it, the Friday the 13th style slasher film was not out to bludgeon its audience with viciousness. Instead, it used mass murder as a kind of cinematic joyride, a rollercoaster combination of goofball highs and vivisectional lows. But once it gets going, The Burning is relentless. It’s like a car engine that takes forever turning over before racing down the road at 100 mph. Maylam makes the most of what he’s got, limited budget resulting in fascinating found locations, and there’s a disconnecting lack of mise-en-scene that keeps the suspense taut and the dread palpable. On the recent DVD release of the film, the director discussed his approach, sharing insights with film scholar Alan Jones. Savini himself even shows up, behind the scenes footage in hand, to discuss why he dumped Friday the 13th Part 2 to make this movie instead.


While it will never work it’s way into the upper echelon of fright flicks, The Burning remains a solid sample of ‘80s horror showboating. To call it generic would be too tame of an assessment, while archetypal awards it merits it fails to legitimately earn. No, if one was looking for a dictionary definition of the slasher genre, from its accident atrocity backstory to death for sexual congress, this film satisfies most of said motion picture facets. While Cropsy’s man in black motif may be an unsung iconic image, his story is sadly familiar. Thankfully, elements both within and outside the macabre manage to save the slaying day. 


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Friday, Oct 19, 2007

I’ll admit to rooting for Facebook to fail, in part because something about “founder” Mark Zuckerberg rings false, whether it’s the allegations that he stole the basis for his site from his college buddies or his visionary claptrap about social graphs or his wardrobe-based attempts to emulate Steve Jobs. Maybe I’m not interested in sharing enough to use a site that encourages you to share everything, as if that’s inherently good. (Perhaps it is, but only for marketing purposes.) And I’m not interested in a continual update of what other people are doing while they are on the web, which seems voyeuristic and bland simultaneously—destroying the whole illicit thrill that is presumably supposed to come from voyeurism and rendering it routine. It all becomes data to process.


Much of my energy is already spent filtering the abundance of information, and I suppose a site like Facebook is meant to help, but it instead seems a tool to make information proliferate, to generate more linkages that I’m supposed to invest myself in finding use for. And now that it’s become a platform for third-parties to program for, it threatens to reap even more automated pseudo-meaningful connections between people in networks, automating the work of friendship and perhaps stripping friendship of much of its richness. Or it will also mimic another time-wasting tool, the Mac Dashboard (or like NetVibes, a customizable web homepage that you can clutter with widget like mini applications). Sometimes I start to think about trying to make more use of the dashboard, at which point I try to force myself to spend more time away from the computer. I don’t want to be so glued to my computer—I don’t want my life so mechanized that I feel the need to have a computer-based dashboard for it. The dashboard is undoubtedly useful, but to make use of it, to reap its efficiencies, one would have to be so devoted to computer-centricity that there’s no telling how much else is being sacrificed.


Basically, I’m a grumpy old man when it comes to social networking sites, for similar reasons as Fortune columnist Brent Schlender lists here: “I’m 53 and somewhat unsociable, so the novelty wore off pretty quickly. But it’s not just me: Once people have demanding jobs and marriages and kids, their social lives narrow a lot, and they just don’t have the mental bandwidth or time to stay current with so many friends.” Facebook potentially irritates because it shines a spotlight on how little time adults have for non-familial relationships; it’s demographic—though a highly coveted one for marketers and a highly impressionable one to boot—would seem to have a built in expiration date and built in limitations. Perhaps the generation growing up with social networking will continue to integrate it with their personal lives, but it seems much more likely that, as Schlender suggests, the technology will become institutionalized—will become part of office culture that people will want to tune out as soon as they leave work, which ever more associated with being tethered to a computer.


When adopted by companies and social organizations and other controlled environments, Facebook and the applications that can be built upon it could be, of all things, a management tool. It could be a friendly means to reinforce corporate or institutional culture; a method to keep far-flung telecommuters in the fold and in the know; and a digital water cooler for trading the useful gossip that sometimes lubricates a work group.
And when it comes to helping employees make the most of their benefits and perks, a Facebook system could provide the infrastructure for the mother of all HR systems.


A giant HR system? Ooh, sign me up! Great, a way to blur the lines between work and personal life, so that I’ll feel obliged to subject more of myself to employer scrutiny and be more available to employers through the insidiousness of the network.


The Economist is also skeptical of Facebook’s future, arguing its value has been overestimated amid the recent rumors of its imminent absorption into Microsoft or Yahoo. Facebook, it points out, is an address book, and when it reaches a certain size, it becomes useless; it ceases to organize or filter and instead becomes just another thing crying out for grooming, demanding more attention than we have time to give it.


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Friday, Oct 19, 2007

There’s something unruly about today’s update, an unmitigated energy pulsing through the bands and, by association, our photos. While big buzz acts often play several CMJ shows, Thursday was a make-it-or-break-it day for many, with a number of exclusive showcases and one-off performances. PopMatters was there alongside our photographer friends from Flavorpill, capturing it all in full (and sometimes florescent) color.


Check out Flavorpill’s CMJ preview...


ISLANDS
UNKLE
SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO
...AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD
ENON
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