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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008

He’s got billions of bucks, sports teams and his own blog but that doesn’t mean that Mark Cuban’s always right.  In his CNet column, he says that the album is kaput, citing singles sales trouncing CD sales. No arguing about that but to say that the album itself is R.I.P. is as premature as digging a grave for rock (or vinyl).  It may not have the pull it once did in the age of download but don’t tell that to the hundreds of thousands of buyers who still purchase records regardless, not to mention the thousands of artists who put out albums each year.  For a reality check, see this recent excellent interview where David Byrne and Thom Yorke discuss the continuing aesthetic value of the album. And even if you’re among the millions who prefer singles to albums now, are you really gonna give up on your old favorites in your record collection?  Plus, in the likely circumstance that a few dozen artists each put together a collection of say 10-15 great songs this year and next year and after that, are you gonna turn your nose up at these albums ‘cause Cuban told you to?  Even if it becomes a niche market, which I doubt, the album’s gonna be around much longer than Cuban himself.

But his silly prognostication is small potatoes compared to the MPAA fudging its figures about college students to turn them into scourges.  Even after getting caught saying that twice as many downloaders are out there as there really are, the not-so-veritable entertainment industry still insists that those damn students are still a threat.  Kind of sounds like the Bush administration warming us about Iran.  Maybe the MPAA will lobby Congress to bomb the Ivy League too to prevent any damage otherwise.

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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008

Animal stories from the urban jungle.

New York Rat Photo by Ksnap

New York Rat Photo by Ksnap


“In New York City, as in all great seaports, rats abound. One is occasionally in their presence without being aware of it. In the whole city relatively few blocks are entirely free of them. They have greatly diminished in the last twenty-five years, but there still are millions here; some authorities believe that in the five boroughs there is a rat for every human being.”
Joseph Mitchell. story from 1944

The Modern Library edition of Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbour is small enough to carry around as if it were a pocket bible. I treat it as if it were one. Joseph Mitchell was a creature running around the same kind of neighbourhoods as rats. He could be found in waterways, back alleys, saloons, flophouses. But, unlike the brown rat which was a vicious vandal, going on destructive rampages and soiling and chewing on things it never intends to eat, Joseph Mitchell’s gaze and attention was reverent. Luc Sante, who has covered the same kind of waterfronts in more recent times called Mitchell’s writing “clear and strong and rich,” writing in the New Republic that he possessed a quality “too seldom found in most writing of any sort: it is unreservedly generous.”

There are entertaining analogies in Joseph Mitchell’s story about the rats of New York: “They live to be three or four years old, although now and then one may live somewhat longer; a rat at four is older than a man at ninety.” He quoted an exterminator who said “Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth.” Mitchell has a sense of inner life of a rat: “The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits. Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of extreme anxiety, the black rats dreading the brown and both species dreading human beings. Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge of hysteria.”

Joseph Mitchell arrived in New York on Friday, October 25, 1929, the day of the stock market crash that eased in the Great Depression. He’s best known for “Talk of the Town” pieces for the New Yorker, that gathered up portraits of the city, but the profile in the Everyman Library’s collection of his journalism says that his first job was as “a kind of bottom-depths apprentice crime reporter at Police Headquarters for The World”. He was from North Carolina and frequently returned to spend months at a time in the swamplands looking for wildflowers and woodpeckers and hawks. “Once, deep in the swamp, looking through binoculars, he watched for an hour or so as a pileated woodpecker tore the bark off the upper trunk and limbs of a tall old dead blackgum tree, and he says he considers this the most spectacular event he has ever witnessed.”

Taxidermy Tasmanian Tiger

Taxidermy Tasmanian Tiger


Margaret Mittelbach and David Crewdson are nature writers reporting to the city desk. For the New York Times they cover wild animals in urban settings. In 2002 they wrote about an expedition they made through the Bronx.

Along with typical urban fauna like pigeons, squirrels and sparrows, the Bronx is visited by coyotes, wild turkeys, deer and the occasional bald eagle. In fact, the Bronx is so crowded with furred, feathered and finned species that the New York City Parks and Recreation Department posts a full-time wildlife manager there. Earlier this year, we had vaguely considered taking a trip to a wildlife hot spot like the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. But when we learned about the Bronx’s abundance of wildlife, we decided to save our money. A quick phone call to the Parks Department led us to David Künstler, the Bronx wildlife manager, who offered to guide us on a Bronx safari….As we neared the trail head, an Eastern cottontail rabbit hopped out of the brush and tried to hide from us in a clump of ferns. Its fur was pale brown and its ears were still rather stubby, suggesting it was a juvenile. Suddenly, we were O.K. with not having seen a coyote, which might have wanted to eat this rabbit. Though we hadn’t encountered the fiercest animal that stalks the borough, we were content to end our safari with this furry Bronx native.

New York Times. August 2, 2002

In 2005 they went to Tasmania with the painter Alexis Rockman to hunt for the (alleged) extinct Tasmanian Tiger. It’s a trip deep into the soul as much as across land.

When we first stumbled across a stuffed Tasmanian tiger at the American Museum of Natural History, we were spellbound. This killer, carnivorous marsupial was one of the most extraordinary creatures on the planet. But it hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, and most scientists considered it extinct. Undaunted we headed for the island of Tasmania in search of this elusive beast. Journeying through the island’s intoxicating landscapes, we encountered an array of odd characters: screaming Tasmanian devils, fervent tiger hunters, trickster botanists, and scientists trying to resurrect the tiger through cloning. The result of our travels is Carnivorous Nights, the story of a safari gone slightly unhinged.

Carnivorous Nights website.

Polar Bear in Nuremberg Zoo

Polar Bear in Nuremberg Zoo


In Nuremberg in Germany a polar bear cub has been removed from its mother after she began to act strangely after a photographer climbed a fence to take photographs within the man-made cave where the cub had been born.

The intrusion had “probably made Vera feel that she had no secure habitat” for her cub, it added. She had begun to pace endlessly around her enclosure carrying the cub in her jaws.After the cub was separated, vets said it was strong and healthy and had been “brought up very well” by its mother before she became disturbed, the statement said.

AFP. January 9, 2008

The Calcutta Telegraph reports that a chimp began throwing rocks at people after it had been taunted in the Allipore Zoo.

The chimp kept pelting stones at the visitors for half-an-hour since 9.15am, prompting them to run for safety, ducking the missiles all the way. Fortunately, no one was injured in the brick-batting between the distant cousins.

The zoo authorities have deployed keepers around the cages and enclosures to protect the animals, but on Tuesday, they were far outnumbered by the record count of heads — 62,000 — the highest in recent years on Christmas.

“It is only normal that the chimpanzee got irritated when visitors threw stones at it. It may have chucked back a few stones, but we have not received any complaints in this regard,” said zoo director S.K. Chaudhuri. “Such incidents are quite common.”

Calcutta Telegraph.


elephant in Bangkok Photo by Patrick Brown for the International Herald Tribune

elephant in Bangkok Photo by Patrick Brown for the International Herald Tribune


New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier wrote a book called The Beauty of the Beastly looking at questionably violent acts and aberrant behaviour by animals that we consider peaceful and warm and stir our hearts—dolphins, for one—and found complimentary things to say about scorpions and snakes and spiders. In a story from January 22 this year she writes about the political manoeuvres of animals.

Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians, cultivating robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate infrasonically across miles of savanna floor. Wolves, it seems, leaven their otherwise strongly hierarchical society with occasional displays of populist umbrage, and if a pack leader proves a too-snappish tyrant, subordinate wolves will collude to overthrow the top cur.

Wherever animals must pool their talents and numbers into cohesive social groups, scientists said, the better to protect against predators, defend or enlarge choice real estate or acquire mates, the stage will be set for the appearance of political skills — the ability to please and placate, manipulate and intimidate, trade favors and scratch backs or, better yet, pluck those backs free of botflies and ticks.

Over time, the demands of a social animal’s social life may come to swamp all other selective pressures in the environment, possibly serving as the dominant spur for the evolution of ever-bigger vote-tracking brains. And though we humans may vaguely disapprove of our political impulses and harbor “Fountainhead” fantasies of pulling free in full glory from the nattering tribe, in fact for us and other highly social species there is no turning back. A lone wolf is a weak wolf, a failure, with no chance it will thrive.

Black Sumatra Chicken

Black Sumatra Chicken


The US Fish and Wildlife Services list of endangered animals doesn’t include domesticated animals but Jennifer Cermak wants to save endangered family farm animals.

A fourth-generation farmer with a PhD in pathology and who works by day at a biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Cermak owns rare farm animals that are believed to be on the brink of extinction, including Sumatra chickens, Southdown sheep, royal palm turkeys, and a Friesian horse. She is hoping her rare birds and livestock will bring what she calls “agritourism” to her 24-acre property. Her work, experts say, is crucial to keeping alive memories of America’s rural past and protecting food supplies in an era when deadly diseases like Asian bird flu threaten to wipe out segments of the food chain….The animals most in danger of extinction on Cermak’s farm are the Sumatra chickens, black birds with long tails originating from their namesake island in Indonesia. Brought by sailors to the United States centuries ago as souvenirs, fewer than 500 Sumatras exist in the country today, according to the conservancy. Another member of a rare species on the farm is Quincy, a majestic black Friesian horse whose breed was imported to the United States from Holland in the 1600s….Other endangered animals at Berlin Farms include royal palm turkeys, of which around 10,000 exist in the country, and Southdown sheep, which the conservancy recently listed as “recovering,” no longer on the brink of extinction but their numbers still need to be monitored. Cermak’s speckled Sussex chickens are among 1,000 in the United States, according to conservancy figures.

Boston Globe. John Dyer. November 1, 2007




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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

This week: Visit the strangest waiting room in America. Despite not being allowed to use cellphones or gerunds, there’s something even more odd about this place. You won’t believe the incredible visual effects in this week’s episode of Backpack Picnic.

Every week PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.

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Thursday, Jan 24, 2008

Cato Unbound has an interesting series of essays about the future of marriage, by historian Stephanie Coontz, and the economic factors driving the evolution by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. (Wolfers has a related post at the Freakonomics blog as well.) Its no surprise, considering the Cato Institute’s involvement, that a great deal of skepticism is directed at the State’s involvement in the institution, i.e. the bigoted American obsession with “protecting” marriage. But the history here is interesting in its own right, and absolutely essential if you want to have any understanding of what’s going in pretty much every novel written before World War I. Novels in their heyday dramatized the shift from more or less arranged marriages to love matches, offering all sorts of prescriptions for what love really is and proving a host of psychological and sociological defenses of the change. If I hadn’t sold all my lit-crit books when I moved to New York, I could probably even cite the appropriate scholar on this, but it has been argued that the commercial novel pretty much emerges from that shift; it’s a salient dramatic set piece that everyone in Western culture could relate to. (Maybe I need to go reread Denis de Rougemont.)

As Coontz explains, it made sense for state institutions to involve themselves in marriage when the practice was fundamentally a matter of broader family alliances than the preference of the betrothed individuals.

Because of marriage’s vital economic and political functions, few societies in history believed that individuals should freely choose their own marriage partners, especially on such fragile grounds as love. Indeed, for millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children. Until the late 18th century, parents took for granted their right to arrange their children’s marriages and even, in many regions, to dissolve a marriage made without their permission. In Anglo-American law, a child born outside an approved marriage was a “fillius nullius” - a child of no one, entitled to nothing. In fact, through most of history, the precondition for maintaining a strong institution of marriage was the existence of an equally strong institution of illegitimacy, which denied such children any claim on their families.

In short, marriage was a system that supplied a legal framework for inheritances (and maintain gender roles, but that’s other story). That changed with the rising discourse of happiness, and marriage as permanent property arrangements was replaced with marriage as a public recognition of companionate love. A great deal contributed to orchestrating this shift; it correlates with the rising middle class and relaxing of the rigidity of the class system. But whatever the causes, it has left us with an institution patently rife with contradictions.

The same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation. They have also made marriage seem less bearable when it doesn’t live up to its potential. The forces that have strengthened marriage as a personal relationship between freely-consenting adults have weakened marriage as a regulatory social institution.

Stevenson and Wolfers put this in a more explicitly economic framework: when we say couples are together because they love each other, what we mean is that share “consumption complementarities”—they share similar tastes about all the good stuff consumer society brings us.

Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children.

No longer preoccupied with productive concerns—with capital formation and division of labor in producing a household—couples now can focus on consumption; this Stevenson and Wolfers call “hedonic marriage.” And this change seems indisuptable. But as our tastes are subject to change, complementary tastes seems a flimsy pretense to enter into contract with someone that lasts until death does you part. Though I am sure this happens all the time, it’s probably not necessary to marry the people you might like to, say, play bingo with. This shift likely puts implicit expectations to share all tastes on a couple, and probably subjects marriages to all sorts of undue pressure. Making the marriage commitment can in some ways become a kind of pledge to never change your tastes fundamentally, to become, to a degree, static. Obviously this doesn’t happen to all wed couples; perhaps some share a taste for curiosity.

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Wednesday, Jan 23, 2008

Wow. When Oscar gets it wrong, they get it REALLY wrong. Amid rumors that the ongoing Writer’s Strike may dampen the 24 February festivities, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did there typical early morning “thang” and proved it couldn’t be more out of touch. It’s not just the glaring omissions, ridiculous choices, or questionable nomination tactics (in at least one major category). It’s the knowledge that, in an arena that saw nearly 600 movies arrive in theaters worldwide, this is the way the old guard sees things.

Clearly not wanting to play favorites, four films walked away with 30 of the major nominations. Of that group, only two technically deserve such amassed recognition. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men (eight each) have garnered so many critics awards that to have Michael Clayton (good, but not great), and Atonement (middling Merchant Ivory at best) one acknowledgement away seems specious. And when you add to it that Clayton‘s got seven of the big ones - including picture, director and acting - while our pretty British period piece is left holding up the technical ends, the distinction is even greater.

That just leaves Juno as the odd duck out in what, by now, is being labeled the Little Miss Sunshine Recognition of Indie Quirkiness achievement. It is a huge feat for such a divisive little movie. Even more amazing, Jason Reitman walked away with one of the five coveted Best Director slots, beating out DGA given Sean Penn. Speaking for the accomplished actor/director, his brilliant Into the Wild deserved a lot more attention than two whole nominations (Hal Holbrook, Supporting and Jay Cassidy, Editing). In fact, going back to Atonement for a moment, there is nothing in that stylized snooze fest that can match the final moments of Penn’s life in limbo real life drama.

But that’s why Oscar is Oscar, and why fans are flocking away from its narrow minded backslapping year after year. Take the two Supporting actor categories. No offense intended to the individuals in the running, but its dead pool time once again. No matter how good Javier Bardem is, or how memorable Casey Affleck (Jesse James) or Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War) are, Holbrook is probably going to win. By the time the ceremony rolls around, he’ll be 83, and with this being his first trip to the Academy red carpet, visions of Alan Arkin and James Coburn begin filling one’s head.

The Best Supporting Actresses have it even worse. The clear front runners - Cate “I’m Not Dylan” Blanchett and Amy “Gone Baby” Ryan - figured to be even money come envelope ripping time. Even the talented Tilda Swindon, who perspired like a champ in Michael Clayton, had an outside chance of swiping Oscar gold (the less said about Atonement‘s bratty little Saoirse Ronan, the better). But all that changes now that Ruby Dee is in the mix. Another certified oldster (she’s 83 also), her blink and you’ll miss it - literally - turn as Denzel Washington’s mother in American Gangster is the kind of left field freak accident, Marissa Tomei meets the Grim Reaper wrench that’s destined to destroy the predictions of many a prognosticator.

It just feels like that kind of year. The kind where conventional wisdom - and creative logic - loses out to warm fuzzys and already celebrated career achievement. How else would you explain the inexplicable decision to nominate three songs from Disney’s Enchanted? It’s not like Alan Menken needs another Oscar (he has eight). Even worse, the craptacular sonic sludge referred to as music in August Rush got a nod - and a weird “nominees to be determined” on the accompanying press release. This must make Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder groan. His work for Penn’s Wild was crucial to the film’s overall success. Since the movie failed to get any real awards push, he appears to be the victim of your typical Academy myopathy.

Even worse, some artists never got a chance to go for the gold. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood delivered an amazing score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood. But because some of the music was “not made specifically for the movie” an arcane rule was invoked and he was disqualified. Similarly, films from Israel (The Band Visit) and France (Persepolis) were discounted from the Foreign Film category. The latter now battles it out with Pixar’s mighty mouse and some lame cartoon penguin flop for Best Animated effort (someone involved with Surf’s Up must have pictures of naked Academy members cavorting with livestock - it’s the only way to explain that jaw dropper of a nom).

It never changes. George Clooney picks up another Best Actor nomination for playing a legal eagle version of himself with gambling issues. Cate Blanchett, already rewarded for her brave turn as the iconic ‘60s protest prince finds herself listed among the baffling choices for Best Actress for replaying (rather unexceptionally, mind you) the role of Queen Elizabeth I. Sweeney Todd - all but forgotten except in a couple of inconsequential categories and the wink to Johnny Depp, can’t even call up a glance from the sound segment of the Academy…and it’s a musical. And back to foreign film for a moment. Like documentaries a decade before, the randomized manner in which these no name offerings got on the ballot continues to baffle the mind.

It’s not that the choices are bad - for all this critic knows, they could be amazing. Of course, very few if any were screened for the general reviewing populace, nor did companies send out screeners. So how, you may ask, did these five get chosen? By a combination of The Da Vinci Code and The Star Chamber, apparently. Industry insiders can explain the process much better, but apparently, Oscar takes noms from specific countries, determines if they meet their mysterious and sometimes contradictory rules, and then gives their handpicked choices to a group of Academy volunteers (usually old members who’ve retired) who agree to screen them and narrow the field. That sounds fair, right? Well, it’s not. There are a couple of egregious omissions this time around - the 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, The Orphanage - and all this just one year after two masterpieces (The Lives of Others and Pan’s Labyrinth) battled it out for best film supremacy.

There is a little light here and there. It’s nice to see Julie Christie - and even better, Sarah Polly - get acknowledged for Away from Her, and Nancy Oliver’s bump for Lars and the Real Girl argues that the members of the Writer’s Branch understand the value of a good script (they did reward the undeserving Savages, and the gimmicky Juno however). Yet if you were a betting man or woman, you can easily see the Academy setting you up. Atonement gets the surprise Best Picture win in a classic Shakespeare in Love style statement. Aside from Christie, the entire Best Actress category seems set up to simply hand the statuette to a far too young to deserve it Ellen Page. Depending on how the DGA decides, the directing trophy could be another of those out of left field flukes, and there is the distinct possibility that Norbit, one of the worst if not the worst film of 2007, will walk away with more Academy cred than Sweeney Todd, Into the Wild, or Eastern Promises (it’s already beat The Darjeeling Express, Zodiac, and Knocked Up - films that didn’t garner a single nomination).

The best thing that could happen to the Oscars is a Golden Globes like lockout, with host Jon Stewart and a select group of union busting performers reading the list of winners and then running away before the villagers remember where they put the pitchforks. There’ll be the standard 15 minutes of moaning, the typical ‘woulda’, ‘coulda’, ‘shoulda’ of a collective that can’t get its pejorative head out of the studio’s behind. Consensus will crown the true non-Crash champ, and the motion picture planets will temporarily realign. Then like the most sinister and secretive of cabals, the Academy will slink away and reconfigure its formula to guarantee even more ennui next time around.

Perhaps we have their purpose all wrong. Maybe AMPAS was designed not as a means of recognizing the industry’s best. It could have been specifically crafted to create contention and debate. Of course, that would make them very smart and rather forward thinking, and so far, their methods have been very, very dumb. As the mainstream moves further and further away from the sainted celebration, as a stint on TMZ or You Tube becomes the larger badge of fame whore honor than a symbol of old school studio system stagnation, as Indie’s continue to forge new art, and established names go digital, or simply disappear, Oscar 2008 remains a lot like Oscar 2007, 2006, etc. That means more Acade-mediocrity at its bumbling best.

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