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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

The wailing about the death of the newspaper focuses on the diminishing editorial standards due to the lack of money flowing into the newspapers because of the dwindling sales of newspapers in their paper form and the migration of advertising to other, online forums. But I’ve seen the future and the newspaper looks electronic and more flexible there.


Plastic Logic flexible screen reader

Plastic Logic flexible screen reader


The newspaper is a remarkably enduring form, something of a mythological archetype. The blogosphere can seem like one enormous covalent bond glued together with permalinks to New York Times stories, and the hugely successful blog forum, Wordpress, on its second birthday recently, stopped merely listing the most popular blogs (the darkly humorous photographs of cats, I Can Has Cheezburger routinely tops the list) and rearranged its home page so that now resembles the International Herald Tribune, with selected posts listed as if they’re drawn from newspaper sections. What’s crucially missing is electronic newspaper hardware. Newspapers are currently trying to squeeze and transform themselves to fit devices that are alien to their style of presentation and their essential ephemerality and flimsiness. Plastic Logic, is working with a group of newspapers to develop a flimsy, flexible screen device. But Forbes magazine suggested, in April, that what’s probably needed is an impresario like Steve Jobs to come up with a sexy piece of simple newspaper hardware to bring the electronic newspaper to life.


Newspapers have attracted readers because they have content people value and respect. Less staff means fewer fresh stories and ad-sponsored columns diminishes the credibility that has been the industry’s calling card since the first newspapers hit the streets in the U.S. in 1690… So, if anyone is going to save the newspaper industry, it isn’t any of the moguls who think they can breathe life into a dying technology. It is more likely to be someone like Steve Jobs who can devise a really appealing way to make newspapers available digitally. Sony, Microsoft and others have tried to come up with digital readers but so far most people aren’t that excited. But suppose someone invented a digital newspaper, connected wirelessly to the Internet, that people actually enjoyed reading over coffee in the morning or taking along their morning train ride. …Make no mistake: The only way to stop the slide of the newspaper industry into oblivion is to replace the traditional paper “form factor” with a technology that can compete with pay-per-click, per-per-action and contextual advertising. Anything less will only accelerate the industry’s decline.


David Evans. Forbes. 24.4.07


 


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

If you thought politics made strange bedfellows, look what happens when politics and pop culture combine. That’s right, inveterate rapper and former crack dealer 50 Cent, has weighed in on the 2008 Presidential race (why not?). Here’s what the artist told MTV News in a recent interview:


“I’d like to see Hillary Clinton be president. It would be nice to see a woman be the actual president and ... this is a way for us to have Bill Clinton be president again, and he did a great job during his term.”


While I’m sure Hillary is pleased with the psuedo-endorsement, she might take umbrage with the last part of 50’s statement concerning her husband’s role in her future administration. The former first lady has been attempting to deal with the overbearing popularity of her crowd pleasing companion. In any case, the nod is a welcome addition to a campaign competing with the rockstar status of Barack Obama who has been courting support from the black community.


There are other, more politically astute, hip-hop artists which have not yet vocalized their thought on the current crop of presidential contenders. So this begs the question: When will Kanye West will put in his, er, 2 cents?


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

It can come off as arrogance, sensitivity, or a noble dissent—a high-minded refusal to engage with America’s culture of celebrity, erosion of privacy and self-promotion. It may be just the wishful fantasy that their books might arrive unmediated, might “speak for themselves.”


Great piece in the LA Times this week about reclusive authors and the reasons they shield their faces from public view. Salinger and Pynchon are included, along with author Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son, the new Tree of Smoke).


 


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

So you think that country mega-star Toby Keith is some GOP slime who’s gonna get carpal tunnel from waving the flag too much?  Well, the guy obviously is patriotic but before you call him a conservative war-monger, you might want to check out his recent screed at Amazon about his politics.


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Wednesday, Sep 5, 2007

This morning, NPR had an item about the impact of the subprime-mortgage crisis on which real-estate experts were complaining that the pendulum has swung too far too quickly: A few months ago loans were too easy to come by; now they are too hard—bankers now have the temerity to verify borrowers incomes. This was accompanied with the usual trumpet sounding about home ownership as the basis of the American dream, and what about the families? If a middle-class family can’t exercise its god-given right to home ownership, then why the hell do we even have an America for? We were then invited to feel sorry for the families that couldn’t afford median-priced homes in bubble-inflated markets, with no indication given that the lax lending helped foster the high prices in the first places. Instead the implicit prescription was more of the germs that led to the disease in the first place.


To give the matter more urgency, the piece went on to elucidate this chain of reasoning. When the middle class feel as though they can’t afford the half-a-million dollar houses for sale in southern California, they may become discouraged about economic prospects generally, and curb their discretionary spending on luxury consumer goods—an interesting link, because expensive housing isn’t always regarded as the luxury good that it is. This downturn in consumption would then spread throughout the economy, bringing on a recession that would harm everyone. We are already seeing some of this in the ways local governments are being affected by the loss of housing-related revenues, as this WSJ story points out. Lower housing prices mean lower tax assessments, and fewer homes sold mean fewer taxes paid, fewer housing starts mean fewer associated fees collected. You start to see how many people have an interest in prolonging the housing bubble, how deeply perverse the incentives can be as long as people believe the inflation in housing can be contained to housing, where it is offset by generous income tax breaks and the happy possibility of home equity loans.


But whenever I hear about housing woes threatening consumption, I think about my frequent complaints about consumerism and wonder whether I should consider this a good thing, if whether my recent fixation of credit markets is a product of hoping that credit will dry up altogether, forcing a shift in values away from consumption, for which there will no longer be any funds. By that logic then, what I am hoping for is a return of the Great Depression, when people were forced to find other ways to occupy themselves than shopping (and working).


But I don’t in fact hope for that kind of material deprivation, rampant unemployment, and generalized insecurity. One thing worth remembering is that increased consumption is different from consumerism. Increased consumption is a macroeconomic fact inseparable from any kind of growth, even if it is restricted to the population. More prevelant consumerism, however, is a matter of social priorities. What’s needed is a way to divorce prosperity from the ethics of frivolity; to find a way to mitigate the corrosive effects prosperity sometimes seems to have on individuals, making them vain, selfish and insipid; obsessed with developing their own identity and lifestyle rather than contributing anything to their communities, etc.—the typical complaints about consumerism. One could argue that these traits are actually good—the libertarian approach that sees self-obsession as a radical expression of freedom. By this argument, shopping makes our lives meaningful—all those important choices about what to buy that we make and almost take for granted—as opposed to the opposite. Consumerism widens the scope of our ultimate activity rather than narrows it into a channel carved out by corporate interests and conformism and a customary allegiance to what appears to be common sense.


Or one can refute the complaints. Maybe such self-involved and shallow people don’t actually exist and are only posited by the advertisements that are designed to sustain consumer enthusiasm, yet this is belied by the apparent success of such ads (they keep making them and devoting millions of dollars to them) and the theoretical apparatus that has identity being formed by such cultural influences, as in Judith Williamson’s case (critiqued here) that ads function as Althusserian ideological state apparatuses allowing us to define ourselves in a way that is complicit with the economic system they support.


The important question, I guess, is whether economic growth relies on consumerism—whether consumption will only grow at the rate required or in the directions necessary for capitalism (consumption of goods made for profit in order to display status) when consumers are prodded ideologically. John Kenneth Galbraith argued as much in The Affluent Society but many other economists scoffed at that assessment. But one can’t reject consumerist values merely out of being offended by their puerility—one person’s BeerFest is another person’s Hamlet. It seems that the point where one differentiates between consumption and consumerism is where critics of consumerism become enivronmentalists, insisting that sustainability is the basis upon which to restrict growth and develop alternative values.


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