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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007

No splashy headlines yet but they’re selling DRM-free tracks for 89 cents each, under cutting Apple/iTunes by 10 cents.  How much this cuts into Apple’s market remains to be seen as they don’t have a best-selling gadget like the iPod to tether this to.  But the idea of songs with out any stupid DRM restrictions is very appealing and the price cut is obviously a shot at Apple’s firm 99 cent policy.  Also, since Amazon is such a name brand, that’ll go a long way to roping in customers and getting a good foothold in the market.


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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007

The most recent BusinessWeek has an article about how many employees miss out on the overtime they may be owed under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was enacted during the New Deal in order to promote higher employment. The idea was that by forcing firms to pay time-and-a-half overtime wages for any hours an employee works over 40, they would discourage long hours and hire more workers instead. But as the article points out, the math no longer works out—the benefits and training that any new employee requires makes overtime a better deal for management, particularly if they can get away with not paying it. How can they do that? By making wage workers mistakenly think that they are salaried employees who are “exempt” from overtime.


What makes that piece of subterfuge possible is the longstanding association of overtime with blue-collar work, itself a product of FLSA. The law established a distinction between work eligible for overtime pay (which was anything that could be done interchangeably basically by any trained worker) and work that wasn’t—namely any kind of work that required judgment, management ability, or administrative talent any professional or creative work, any work where the worker’s individual talent and personality factors in. So naturally, workers concluded if their work was meaningful or satisfying in any way, then it wasn’t eligible for overtime. Only those working on mindless tasks would expect overtime. Moreover, to be offered overtime was an implicit suggestion that your work should be meaningless to you, that only money should be able to induce you to want to be doing it anymore than you already unfortunately have to. Thus, at one of the places I’ve worked as a copy editor, the other copy editors were fighting to be regarded by the human resources department as exempt, as this would prove officially that their work required judgment and not just the mechanical application of standards passed down from managers. Whether they were right about this is an open question, but it seems to me that surrendering overtime to feel pride in your job is an absurd sacrifice. And no employees, salaried or not, should be resisting the opportunity for overtime, or the additional leverage over their employers that rights to overtime supplies. And the fact that meaningful work is in some ways its own reward doesn’t change that. Companies seem to get away with paying employees in meaningful work—in autonomy and in decision-making latitude. If money really were the ultimate key to autonomy, the ultimate invitation to decision making, that neutral storehouse of value that we decide to turn into whatever we want, perhaps we’d be more outraged about this. But the truth is that money can’t necessarily buy the satisfaction of having power and responsibility, the gratification of being taken seriously by people and entrusted to exercise one’s own judgment in the planning for achieving a common goal. This is underscored by a comment in a sidebar to the article from a professor of leisure studies (a oxymoronic discipline if there ever was one):


This brings to mind an oft-forgotten fact about overtime laws, which is that they were rooted in a time when many envisioned a steady reduction in the hours Americans worked. (John Maynard Keynes predicted a two-hour workweek by 1980.) That vision is long gone. In the intervening years, says Benjamin Kline, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, a huge change has taken place. The ideal of working fewer hours vanished long ago, partly as a result of economic imperative but also because of a cultural shift toward embracing work, particularly by professionals. “The image I use is that our faith is in our jobs” now, he says. The sense of purpose and identity that we used to find in religion, “we find more and more in our work.”


We look to work for meaning as much as for pay, so if we’re getting one, we perhaps don’t mind getting short shrift with the other. Thus it’s likely that the more an employer can create the illusion of meaning for its workers, the greater the share of profits it’ll be able to retain for itself. In order to fight this, we as a society would have to establish meaningful work as an automatic given rather than a glamorous substitute for other kinds of compensation. But unfortunately, there will always be that ever-enlargening proportion of non-meaningful work that needs to be done by someone.


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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2007

Faith or fact? The symbolism of religion conveyed by journalism.

Cordero by Zatorski + Zatorski

Cordero by Zatorski + Zatorski


Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by Francisco Zurbaran (1635 - 40)

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by Francisco Zurbaran (1635 - 40)


New Era, Renewed Symbols


“Cordero” is what the UK based artists Zatorski+Zatorski call a “video painting”. It’s a silent movie of a lamb that had died in an unusually cold snap on a farm near the cathedral in Durham where they were artists in residence. It only becomes apparent that you’ve been watching a movie rather than looking at a painting when a bird flies into view and alights on the body of the lamb. Zatorski+Zatorski bring the symbolism of the Christian Bible into a new context in a new time. “Cordero” makes reference to the famous 17th century sacrificial lamb painting by Francisco Zurbaran, which is the cover image of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, the follow up to the Pulitzer Prize winning, God: A Biography, by former Los Angeles Times Literary Editor, Jack Miles. In last Sunday’s L.A. Times Book Review he reviewed Secular Age by Charles Taylor and The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West by Mark Lilla.


To a scientist, “secularization” means that God no longer explains nature; to an artist, that the Bible no longer provides subject matter; to a businessman, that the shop stays open on Sunday—and so forth. In “A Secular Age,” philosopher Charles Taylor takes on the broad phenomenon of secularization in its full complexity. In “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West,” Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, asks only what secularization means to the prime minister.


Jack Miles. L.A. Times. Sept 26, 2007


Jack Miles might also have speculated upon what God (or the absence of God) means to the journalist. It seems that Jack Miles wasn’t a part of the Religion Section at the Los Angeles Times, but the newspaper has an deeply nuanced approach to reporting on religion, treating it as a branch of ethics, and looks at the cultural rituals that unite or divide peoples and places. The Los Angeles Times religion column links stories to the wider community and traces social and political implications of spiritual matters. In a memorable story, that’s not in its online archive, it discussed voodoo being declared the official religion of Haiti. But the religion section is also a city desk: there’s recent coverage of a muslim woman asked to remove her headscarf in jail in Anaheim, and a convent that will close in Santa Barbra, displacing elderly nuns, as a consequence of the site being sold to help pay a priest abuse settlement.


 


Tagged as: media, religion
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Monday, Sep 24, 2007


Suddenly, it’s a full blown fright night at your local B&M. Now, you’d think that manufacturers and distributors would wait until the actual arrival of October before larding the shelves with as much scary movie product as possible. But just like various department and discount stores who drag out their seasonal promotions months before the actual holiday arrives (Wal-Mart’s even doing Christmas right now, if you can believe it), the DVD companies are already crying “werewolf”. This week alone, there are literally hundreds of horror hopefuls - new direct to disc offerings battling just now making it to the medium ‘classics’ for your hard earned supernatural scratch. Certainly there are some non-genre titles peeking through the fog of fear, but with only 35 days until the ghosts and ghouls rule the roost, there’s no time like the present to pick up a few dread based delights, including SE&L’s special pick for 25 September:


A Half Dozen from Dario


While the lack of more obscure Argento titles on DVD is disheartening (Four Flies on Gray Velvet remains MIA some three decades after its blink and you missed it US release), Blue Underground is maintaining the macabre maestros digital presence by rereleasing several of his more seminal works. They include a brand new version of The Stendhal Syndrome, a revamped Cat O’Nine Tails, a revisit of Opera and another version of the Italian terror titan’s masterwork, Suspiria. When you add in the producer-only efforts Demons and Demons 2, you’ve got an excellent start to your Argento collection. Far more important to the genre of foreign horror than many will give him credit for, his recent efforts (The Card Player, Do You Like Hitchcock? ) have been pretty hit or miss. But with the Toronto Film Festival still buzzing over his latest installment in the Three Mother’s Trilogy (entitled The Mother of Tears), it’s time for a recognized renaissance. And we can thank the Big Blue U for getting the accolades rolling.

Other Titles of Interest


Black Book


Paul Verhoven returns to his Dutch roots to tell the story of a female singer during World War II who is forced into sexual servitude to survive. A Jew, young Rachel agrees to seduce a Gestapo agent in order to save a resistance leader’s son. Naturally, possible betrayal is around every corner. Praised for its personal take on the European occupation by the Nazis, it proved that there was still some art left in this director’s arch approach.

Bug


For a long time, William Friedkin was considered a has-been. With his rich cinematic history well behind him - including the French Connection and The Exorcist – and two decades of underperforming efforts (Jade, Rules of Engagement) ruining his reputation, critics didn’t expect much from this adaptation of Tracy Letts powerful play. Oddly enough, Friedkin defied the odds and elevated the material to a whole new level. It’s a terrifying, telling experience.

Eat My Dust


The history behind this inventive car chase cock-up is just as entertaining as the film itself. When Ron Howard was looking to leave behind his child star status and take up residence behind the camera, producer ‘ordinaire’ Roger Corman cut him a deal. Appear in this Charles Griffith action effort, and he could direct the follow-up. The future Oscar winner jumped at the opportunity.  The resulting pair of vehicular mayhem masterworks helped define the ‘70s for New World Pictures.


Knocked Up


It’s one of the few classic comedies to come out of the otherwise atrocious post-millennial movie dynamic. Judd Apatow, using all the clout gained from producing hits like Talladega Nights and creating a phenomenon like The 40 Year Old Virgin to orchestrate this brilliant deconstruction of human biology. As daring as it is demented, with the profound frequently clashing with the profane, it marks the point when onscreen humor went from horridly ironic back to just plain hilarious.

Next


Nicholas Cage steps back into sloppy sci-fi mode with this tale of a talentless magician who can see two minutes into the future. Naturally, the government wants to corral him to help with an impending terrorist attack. Of course, conspiracy theories and various cabals abound, and our hapless hero must navigate a series of double crosses and interpersonal pitfalls to save the day…sort of. Another reason why Philip K. Dick still can’t rest in peace.


And Now for Something Completely Different
A Triptych of Elvira Entertainment


Everyone’s favorite chesty horror host is back with another six films (two per DVD) from her Movie Macabre vaults. This time around, we get Maneater of Hydra paired with The House that Screamed, Blue Sunshine and Monstroid, and everyone’s favorite oversized turtle, Gamera with They Came from Beyond Space. Of course, the real selling point here is not the nauseating transfers of prevalent grad-Z schlock. No, it’s star Cassandra Peterson and her undeniably provocative bustline, a visual saving grace for the show’s otherwise cornball comedy. While many will argue over the sanctity of cinema, believing that all movies, no matter how bad, deserve respect instead of ridicule, there’s no denying the innate pleasures of seeing motion picture mung torn apart for the sake of some silliness. While Mystery Science Theater 3000 elevated it to an artform, Elvira laid the goofing groundwork. With these newest offerings, here’s hoping the new reality TV series based on finding an up to date replacement for the aging Goth icon does her legitimate legacy right.

 


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Monday, Sep 24, 2007

A reviewer once wrote of Les Murray that he had published no juvenilia. The same can be said of Christina Stead. Her first books, Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Salzburg Tales, both published in 1934, were massy, thick with the same ferocious, perceptive, satirical personality she showed in her stories until the day she died nearly five decades later. Born in Sydney, she left Australia at 26 and spent the next 45 years travelling between Europe and the United States. Her husband William Blake, or Blech (was the latter, preferred the former), was Marxist and American; she met him during her first week in London. The last part of For Love Alone is a fictionalised account of their courtship.


Stead was inimitable. She had her own way of taking a theme and growing scenes around it, an organic process in which each incident rises up into a suggestive monument, not a punchline but a cumulative climax, as waves surge and die. Stead’s voice is always moving. It’s a difficult voice to categorise—she’s both a fabulist, inventing stories that are something like folk tales (easiest to see this in Salzburg Tales), and a social realist wallowing in the dirt. There is a fairytale ritual quality to the exchange near the end of The Man Who Loved Children when Henny’s son discovers that she has burgled his money box, but the scene itself seems true to life. “Mother will put the money back.” “Will you, will you?” “Yes dear: yes dear.” Henny is described in other parts of the book as a witch, her room a cave of magic. 


Referring to her own writing, Stead, whose father was a naturalist, said that she saw it as a naturalist’s process, examining the behaviour of people instead of animals or fish. In her books, the weak and poor do not inherit the earth. Instead they get dominated by stronger characters in the way that a large animal shoves a smaller one out of the herd or eats it. She is censorious, however, as good naturalists are not supposed to be. There is something of Flannery O’Connor in the pitiless, godlike view that opens her characters out for us to see, exposing them as hypocrites or ninnies. But no matter how scornful she becomes, her prose is always vivacious, never meanly stingy; her monsters are properly monstrous—there is something of D.H. Lawrence in her as well, something of The Virgin and the Gypsy‘s terrible, toadlike grandmother in her characterisations. You could even mention Rabelais and point to her love of lists, fat accumulations of objects or impressions.


Here she is in The People with the Dogs:


“Here, Third Avenue up to 18th Street is still the Old Bowery, with small rented bedrooms and apartments like ratholes, cheap overnight hotels, flophouses, ginmills, fish places, bowling alleys, instant shoe repairers, moneylenders, secondhand clothing stores, struggling cleaning and tailors’ places, barber schools, cellars where some old man or woman sells flowers and ice in summer, coal in winter, dance academies up crumbling stairs, accordion and saxophone schools, and such businesses as are carried on for very poor people by very poor people and so occupy a very small space in a very old building.”


Her lists can bloom into a kind of mythic impressionism. From the same book:


“The storms of rain passed on the other side, escalading the farther bluff. Scarcely had they passed but vapours rising in the heat, from hollows and clefts, tall, slowly forming and moving, spirits, savage men, with weapons, daggers, things habited like the Rabbi, question marks especially, and puffs of smoke, rose out of the new wet earth and shaggy heads of trees and clots of water, rags of steam, began to tear themselves out of the woods and vacillating, tried to get up again in the moving air.”


This is language that writhes and breathes, expands, and also stifles; it creates a world and stuffs it full. (The reviewer at Time missed the mark when they wrote that “Stead’s prose is as hard and cold as a cake of ice.” It was the author’s lack of obvious sympathy for her characters they were responding to, not the prose itself.) She can sound like one of her own huge characters, making universes, issuing nicknames, invoking legends. In real life she was a flirt but also shy, shyer than her husband, a banker and writer whose books have not survived. By the time she died she had a reputation for cantankerous pronouncements, the most notorious ones stating her dislike of feminism, startling in a woman whose books fumed so furiously over women trapped by the social mores of marriage and peer expectation. But not so startling in a person who likes to flirt.


She was in a trap of her own. Travelling with Blake from country to country, she set her books on three different continents, remarked on the society of each, and consequently became famous in none of them. “To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness,” wrote Angela Carter, but Stead can never be entirely claimed. She was not a Great Australian Writer because most of her books weren’t set in Australia, not a Great English Writer (although Carter called Cotter’s England a great novel about England), not a Great American Writer (yet American overviews of her career are always likely to tell us how evident it is from her books that she loved New York), not a Great Marxist Writer (she sympathised openly with the movement and commerce is a constant theme, yet neither the noble worker nor the Marxist character is immune to her criticism), not a Great Feminist Writer (although the majority of critical assessments of her work have probably been written by feminists). In the end she is nothing but a Great: expansive, world-gobbling, oceanlike.


Further Reading:


Nine essays in the 2003 Christina Stead centenary issue of the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.


Hazel Rowley, who wrote a well-regarded biography of Stead, is interviewed on New York Public Radio.


A Real Inferno: the life of Christina Stead, an article from The New Criterion, written by Brooke Allen.


The night of which no one speaks: Christina Stead’s art as struggle, an essay by Susan Lever.


 


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