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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2007

Why use the Internet to find out the world beyond your nose? Wouldn’t that just ultimately be a waste of time? Aren’t we all wishing for more sites about the topic that truly interests us, namely ourselves?

This seems as though it should be a parody, but it’s not: In today’s WSJ, Walter Mossberg’s minion Katherine Boehret writes about Meosphere, a new website that prompts you to make lists about yourself so that you may then use the site to regard yourself, preen and plan for the future. The site bills itself as a kind of Web-based scrapbook where you can store memories and have dormant ones reawakened by prompts devised by Meosphere’s staff and by the site’s other users.

This free site is a lot of fun to use, not to mention addictive. Once you start checking off items in one list, you’ll want to complete other lists to beef up your meosphere. And when friends and family share their meosphere with you, you’ll learn things you never knew about them.

The idea here, as with every social networking tool, is that the site provides a central repository for signaling information about yourself that might otherwise be lost or underexploited—we don’t generally blab to strangers about our many fascinating experiences because we may have the strange idea that we are not universally and inherently fascinating at all times. Like booze or sodium pentathol, the site seeks to disinhibit us. (Writes Boehret, “Chances are that almost everyone you meet has done something fascinating, but it’s not always easy for people to spit out these facts about themselves. Meosphere gives you a chance to do so, through the Web.”) On the internet, no one needs have any scruple about putting themselves forward or to convert all their experience into ruses to impress other people. Even if we had no thought other than the experience itself as we did thing in our lives, sites like this one allow us to retroactively convert them into conspicuously consumed commodities.

So on the one hand, these sites supply encouragement for us to turn activities into identity-fashioning goods that signal our place in a consumer economy. We generally do this without thinking, regarding ourselves as little more than a catalog of belongings (our memories are objects belonging to us from this perspective)—they bolster a possession-oriented subjectivity, rather than a process-oriented one. At the end of the day, it’s not what you’ve done but what you have that makes you who you are. On the other, these sites supply marketers with extremely useful data in order to better target ads toward you. As Boehret explains,

Web sites know how valuable lists can be; wish lists and automatically generated recommendation lists provide encouragement for online shoppers.

When you are enticed to feed these recommendation generators, they become that much more persuasive in convincing you that you need more stuff than you imagined, a thought that many people likely find reassuring—I’m always glad when I “discover” new albums I need to buy or books I need to read; future consumption plans make me feel like I have a purpose. 

This article, from yesterday’s WSJ details how thrilled companies are with what advertisers call behavioral targeting, “in which marketers analyze consumers’ online activities to figure out who is most likely to be interested in its product—and then place ads on whatever sites those consumers are visiting.” Now, though advertisers love this technology, let’s not forget that it’s really for our benefit, helping to construct a more perfect meosphere:

“The future of digital media is less about distribution and more about understanding the audience’s interests and being able to project that anywhere,” says Bill Gossman, president and chief executive officer of independently owned behavioral-targeting firm Revenue Science.

The web is about projecting our interests, which couldn’t in the end be anything but bound up with commercial interests—what could we be interested in doing that wouldn’t open up the possibility of selling us stuff, stuff that would extend our interests further? When we volunteer information on social networking sites, it’s close to affirming the idea that we don’t mind targeted ads, that we are in fact in a way soliciting them.

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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

Little Big Shots: Melbourne’s International Film Festival for Kids
June 6-11 2007
ACMI Cinemas, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

It was the first day of the festival, first morning, first film, and Marcella Bidinost was standing in a spotlight asking if anyone here understood Hebrew. Yes! shouted part of her audience. Woo! Yeah! We do! The boys who were shouting looked about fourteen years old. Some of them—the ones whose hair I could see in the light from the screen—were wearing teased mullets. You knew they were from well-off families, middle class at least, because no one, no matter how hard they banter and snicker, can look seriously tough in a teased mullet.

What had their teachers brought them to see, these students from Bialik College in Melbourne’s east? They were here to watch a movie called Little Heroes. “One of Israel’s first feature films for kids,” explained the programme. Little Heroes is the story of a telepathic migrant girl, a half-orphan boy, a genially retarded teenager, and a squinting kibbutz kid who looks like Rick Moranis at the age of six. The children are independent and strong, fine-feeling without being saintly (although the girl comes close—many shots of her staring into the distance, eyes pale with contemplation), and they neither reject the adults nor lean on them excessively. There is comedy and danger. There are ostriches and a car crash. This is an adventure film with a good sense of balance. It didn’t make a bad start to a festival.

Little Big Shots runs annually for six days, three for schools, three for the wider public. It’s the largest international film festival for kids in Australia. Melbourne has had a film festival for adults since 1951, but prior to 2005 there had never really been one dedicated to those among us whose parents don’t want them watching nudity, gore, and Lars von Trier comedies. Brief seasons of independent family films were sometimes screened during the holidays (I remember a friend’s father taking us all to see one of them on a summer’s day in a cellar-like cinema, somewhere at the bottom of a government building where there was a lot of concrete slab) but nothing as organised, official and regular as this. Nothing with a programme quite as glossy, or sponsors quite so joyfully prominent or cinemas quite so large and undungeonlike, as this.

Almost half of the films are Australian premiers, two have been nominated for Oscars, and 25 of them are made by children themselves. This is important. One of the festival’s aims—stated in the publicity, and again when you talk to the people who are running it—is to show children that they can make movies themselves, that they can do more than gawk tamely at the screen, that they can be the grown-up filmmakers of the future. Being Australian they’ll make one film here and then hive off to Hollywood and direct Legally Blonde but we don’t tell them that yet. For now, they are our filmmakers. 

The festival travels. This year it’s going around Australia and then to Singapore. Marcella will go with it. Little Big Shots is partly her brain-child. She stands at the front of each session, she welcomes everyone. She is the festival’s face.

She also chooses the films. Her favourite this year is Renuka Jeyapalan’s Big Girl, a deft Canadian short about a girl who challenges her mother’s new boyfriend. “Bartender,” she grumbles at him crankily. “Loser.” There is a twist at the end. It’s a perfectly shaped short story, and one of several films here that would fit equally well into a festival aimed at adults. In 2005 the Toronto Film Festival judged it their Best Canadian Short Film; in 2006 the Children’s Jury at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival put it in second place behind Nils Mooij’s Fried Rice. Fried Rice screened here at the end of a session that included Small Ant Syndrome (Australian, funny) and Drive (live action from a North American teenager named Joseph Procopio who, going by his festival appearances, seems to be one of the world’s most prolific quality filmmakers under the age of 15).

It’s a festival free of breathless interviews and high-profile names, unless you count Disney, whose Little Match Girl left people sniffling as the lead perished in the deathly blue Russian snow, or Nickelodeon, a primary sponsor. The filmmakers who turned up for question time were all Australian. No one, it transpires, is going to fly umpteen thousand miles around the earth to discuss Het Monsterlijk Toilet, or The Monsterous Toilet, a handsome fourteen-minute Dutch short in which a girl eats a table-load of cakes and chocolates and then has to confront a cistern that growls at her.

These local filmmakers were shy, some seemed nonplussed—they had little instinct for self-promotion. The animator of Big Cat Zoo came down the front with his two co-creators, his children, both of whom were under the age of ten. Was it difficult to make the film? the audience asked.

Nah, not really, he said diffidently. The kids did most of the work. He put one hand lightly on his son’s head.

Marisa Lai was more forthcoming. She was 14, with two films in the festival. One of Marisa’s films was titled Talk to the Toys; the other was Military Sandwich. In Military Sandwich there is a funny moment with the lettuce, which I’ll leave you to discover if you ever get a chance to see it.

Why did she decide to animate talking toys? the audience asked.

Marisa said that she liked Creature Comforts and wanted to do a similar thing, but with toys. The decision made sense—animals were already taken. She grinned and brushed her hair off her cheek. The spotlight was on her and she handled it well.

Five of Little Big Shots’ child-made films came from Croatia’s Škola Animiranog Filma, an animation workshop run specifically for children. Wonderful things are done there. Their films were part-surreal without being incoherent. One of them, Rose, was entirely the work of a 13-year-old boy named Toni Zadravec, whose Water appeared in the festival last year. “He draws above his age group,” Marcella said before the screening, and it’s true, he does.

Storytelling and jokes are not the preserve of adults. Nor are they the preserve of countries with an excess of money. The film that got the biggest laugh was a computer animation from Zimbabwe, Moondance, while the United States’ Camp Lazlo: Treehugger was received with plain stares. Lazlo was flip, smart, noisy, and graphically stylised, with a pedigree that stretched backwards through Ren and Stimpy to Roger Ramjet and the UPA. Moondance was a series of simple visual jokes built around a giraffe. After sitting in on Little Big Shots, I wonder if marketers who say that kids won’t watch anything unless it’s edgy and hip aren’t thinking more wishfully than realistically. Funny animals tripping over themselves seem to do the job just as well.

Sad films work too. People were attentive during The Little Match Girl and quiet for Big Girl‘s poignant finale. Come to think of it, girls turned up a lot in these films. Girls brandished plungers at toilets, girls poked dangerous suitcases (Miriam Plays Hide and Seek), girls befriended girls who were different (Sirah), girls conducted interviews with other girls (Children of Nomads), girls survived natural disasters (Ayla the Tsunami Girl), girls built aeroplanes (Lolly’s Box), and, in Marta and her Flying Grandfather, a girl stubbornly tried to cure her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s. (Lovely Marta manages to make the grandfather likeable even after we’ve seen him throw a senile fit, very frightening and inexplicable to his granddaughter, with whom we are asked to identify. At the end of the film all of the bad adults turn over a new leaf and become good. I saw a wonderful Tempest once; it ended like that too).

There were plenty of boys (Wander, The Big Race, Frankie’s Story, Drive, Dobli, etc) but the resilience of the girls was more noticeable, perhaps because it doesn’t always carry through to adult productions. If you’re sick of watching films in which every female character is scripted and cast with the male audience in mind then you should try a children’s movie. It might cheer you up. Try The Time-Out Chair, possibly the neatest little fuck-you to authority ever filmed. The lead character is a silent girl with long brown hair.  Nobody gets hurt; nobody needs to, and the ending is funny.

The other thing I’ve realised, after listening to audiences of adults and children, is just how much rubbish the grown-ups talk. “This film comes from Zimbabwe,” a mother told her daughter next to me, but the film came from Madagascar. A father, trying to figure out the nationality of Marta and her Flying Grandfather, saw a .de at the end of a web address in the credits and said that it must be Danish. Oh kids, kids. Don’t be fooled by our size, our bossiness, the mysterious languages we confidently pretend to recognise. If only you knew how little we know, you’d never trust us again.

Talk to the Toys, by Marisa Lai (Australia, 2006)

Wander, by Joshua Clark (USA 2006)

Small Ant Syndrome, by Anne-Marie Denham (Australia, 2004)

The Lollipop Tree Wish, by Olivia Allen-Wickler (USA, 2006)
Lollipop Tree Wish

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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

With poor people literally lining up at paycheck loan kiosks, it can seem distinctly whiny to fret about middle-class suffering, as law professor Elizabeth Warren did in this testimony to the Senate Finance Committee from May. But I found it pretty persuasive, at least for its insight into what Americans are consuming. Routine critiques of consumerism—my own included—tend to focus on frivolous overconsumption of branded products or status goods, but Warren points out that spending is trending downward for clothing, food, appliances and cars. Spending on electronics is up, but understandably so, considering recent technological changes. Instead, spending is going increasingly to what Warren labels as fixed costs—housing, taxes, health care, child care, education and transportation expenses. These costs are exacerbated by the fact that both parents in a child-rearing household have to work, in part to keep up with these very expenses, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. (It also left me wondering why anyone chooses to raise children—from a rational-economics standpoint, the incentives are all wrong; I suppose the desire for the music of children’s laughter is an exogenous variable.)

Warren then offers some middle-class friendly policy prescriptions: subsidies for education, better health insurance, universal preschool, and more-stringent regulations on credit markets, which she details further in this piece for the journal Deomcracy. These seem like wise political ideas, since they are likely to appeal to voters in contested districts and battleground states. And they would probably help alleviate what Jacob Hacker has dubbed the Great Risk Shift, the recent tendency of government rescinding the safety net it once promised. Above all, such prescriptions would assure that the middle class lifestyle would appear as an entitlement to those already possessing it, but they may not do much to give hope to those on the outside that they ever might enjoy such privilege. Directing entitlements at the middle class may only help the middle class guard its turf, to build the wallls higher, or help them maintain a safe distance from the lower classes they are trying to differentiate themselves from.

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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

By definition, the word anonymous means, according to Merriam-Webster Online, “not named or identified,” “of unknown authorship or origin,” and “lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability”. These are three fundamentally different definitions, and the first two raise problems for journalists. 

When anonymous means “not named or identified,” a reporter knows the source’s name, credentials, or other vital information, but the source chose to remain anonymous for important reasons that include personal safety, job security, classified information, political affiliations, etc. The reasons are not always nefarious nor do they reflect the authenticity or accuracy of the information itself. If information from anonymous sources is accurate and credible, a reporter may owe this anonymity to the source if the reasons are justified. When anonymous means “of unknown authorship or origin,” a reporter does not know the source’s name, identity, credentials, or other vital information. This type of anonymous source should raise caution flags; however, those flags don’t automatically mean the information is unusable. If reporters investigate the information and find it credible and accurate, it still may be publishable.

Tagged as: annonymous, sources
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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007
by Mark Bowden

Just about 10 years ago, when I was working to present a 29-part serialization in The Philadelphia Inquirer of what would become my book Black Hawk Down, we had some discussions about presenting the story at the same time on the paper’s Web site.

At the time, it seemed like a fairly simple task. To the extent I thought about it at all, I figured it meant we would just display the text of the story each day online, along with the rest of the paper’s offerings. That was when Jennifer Musser (now Jennifer Musser-Metz), a young woman who worked for the online edition, stopped by my desk to ask me what sort of research material and documentation I had for the project.

I had been working on it for years at that point, and had piles of audiotapes, notes, documents, radio transcripts, photos, etc.

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