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Tuesday, Mar 13, 2007

This week’s Economist has a special Technology Quarterly section, which is, as is typical of such packages, full of generally optimistic accounts of how various technological breakthroughs will inevitably make everything better: “Geoengineering” will solve global warming, trees will be bioengineered to supply a sustainable fuel source, solar power is within reach, computer processing power will help eliminate crime and terror and the semantic Web will make our lives run on automatic pilot. The futurist bias means there’s not usually much column space given in these things to the way technology can be leveraged against ordinary citizens (as Julian Sanchez describes in this recent Reason article about pinpoint searches) to intrude into our lives in unforeseen and undesired ways and force upon us choices that we’d rather not have. I know that for some it’s an absurdity to assert the very possibility of an undesirable choice: all choices are good, they’d argue, because choices extend individuality. But to give an example of a choice I don’t want that may be coming, the section reports on a firm called Attention Trust that plans to allow you to sell your web-generated browsing data to advertisers interested in one demographic or another that you fit into. The idea here is that since other firms profit from selling your personal data, why shouldn’t you? (Self-exploitation, like undesirable choice, is an oxymoron. The Economist refers to it unironically as “grassroots self-marketing”.) Seth Goldstein, Attention Trust’s founder, points out that “attention is a valuable resource” and he wants to provide a means by which we can sell the traces of it to advertisers, who will process it to target us more effectively. Then we’ll be seeing what we want without perhaps even realizing its been sponsored, it will so seamlessly accord with what our gestating desires are—just-in-time advertising, right there to steer us as it occurs to us (a truth latent in our sold data, when cross-checked with those like us) that we want something. If we sell enough of our preferences, we’ll let advertisers perfectly target our well-crafted niche of one.


In the context of the Internet, where distribution costs are close to zero, production (usually cultural production—uploading photos, tagging film clips, blogging, etc.) is often undertaken for nothing but attention, making it the coin of the virtual realm. Goldstein wants us to think less of being producers in that way, trying to earn attention, and more of being brokers, selling it off, rather than giving it away, as we do now to things that merely interest us. We shouldn’t waste our attention this way; we should capitalize on it, instrumentalize it so that we can earn money rather than merely be engaged and enthused with what the Internet (and life, for that matter) can offer us. Proponents of Attention Trust would likely argue that you can do both; you can both pay attention and sell it. But it seems to me consciousness of the latter will begin to affect the choices that go into the former, circumscribing them. So the additional choice of self-marketing ultimately comes at the expense of other choices, which are now sullied and burdened with commercial considerations.


It seems that the very possibility of selling attention will inevitably make it seem incontestably right that one should do this, rendering irrelevant whether or not anyone should be doing this and whether we should be trying instead to develop technology to make our web lives more private, make anonymity more reliable. Instead of developing our abilities to sell ourselves, couldn’t we be more concerned with undoing the custom of our being sold?


This pragmatic question occurred to me as well: What happens if everyone stopped trading their attention for the entertainment products that ads are usually attached to and held out for a more direct deal? Who will fund those entertainments? Will user-generated content fill the gap? Or will the web denude itself of entertaining things, leaving us with no web histories to sell?


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Tuesday, Mar 13, 2007

First, a great article on hip-hop journalism history: Negritude 2.0: Vibe: Hard to Let it Go.  Also note that the author’s dream of an all-encompassing vision is still waiting to be realized and is important enough for someone to do the honors.


And then a great resource.  Blues Festival Guide which has its own newsletter:
weekly newsletter.  I subscribe to it and recommend it to anyone with any interest in blues.  You learn about great new releases, archives, upcoming festivals and more.


That’s probably it from me until after the madness that is SXSW.  Maybe I’ll see you in Austin.  If not, talk to you when I get back.


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Monday, Mar 12, 2007


I’m in a hotel where a full-length mirrored closet gives me a view of the bed. Do I need to think about the uses of that? Not really. Not, at least on this trip. I’m alone and the Internet cable that enables me to access the server doesn’t seem to work. Since I’m alone, it is the first thing I check, even before checking the fridge, washing my face, or using the toilet. My bladder works better than this cable (and at this stage of my life, that isn’t the condition you want your Internet in), so I have to call down to the front desk to get it fixed. Down there it’s called the “Front” (or “furonto” in Japanese). The concierge (or maybe she’s just the staff – “sutafo” in Japanese) comes upstairs to troubleshoot. She’s fast. I just barely have my jeans zipped and buttoned when her knock comes on the door.

Once inside, she does everything that I did: unplugs all the plugs, reconnects them, moves the table away from the wall, wiggles the connection in back. And, when she wiggles it,


everything

wiggles. But we don’t have to get into that. Except that after the wiggling, the connection mysteriously works. She’s definitely a pro. Her wiggles work.


She also did everything I wouldn’t have done – I mean, if I were her. Or “a her”. Namely, she entered the room – a male guest’s private chamber – and allowed the door to close. The last time this all happened—at an airport at Narita a couple of months back—the male staff (sutafo) made sure he left the door open. I think that was intended as a courtesy to me, although I could have had that wrong. Maybe he just had an inflated view of himself. But, back here in the moment, with this female sutafo with the wiggles,  her potential problems are compounded when she moves farther within the room’s recesses, enabling the male guest to become interposed between her and the door. Then (even more egregious—this ought to be a deposit account at the rate that she is compounding) she turns her back on her guest. Finally (and most egregious of all), she bends over at the waist – and, yes, proceeds to wiggle.


Wasn’t there a story like this involving Kobe Bryant a few years back? Fortunately (or not) I’m not that guy, and she (my wiggler) isn’t that girl. And so the result is all very different – for all hands (and other bodily parts) involved.


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Monday, Mar 12, 2007


It’s almost here – the Summer movie season is just a mere eight weeks away. Time to drop as many of 2006’s late arrival titles on the unsuspecting DVD audience as possible. Once a certain spidered man starts slinging his webs around the 6th of May, the suits inside the studios will be concentrating on how well their would-be blockbusters are doing at the Cineplex, not how many copies of last year’s lamentable romantic comedy they’ve sold. So be wary when traveling to your favorite home theater depot. Interspersed among the timeless classics and new-fangled franchise efforts are a boatload of bullstuff, all aiming to drain away the last of your yet to be determined dollars. So choose wisely as you walk the aisles this 13 March, and try to avoid the elephantine hype surrounding our SE&L selection for this week:


Casino Royale


It seems like, every few years, spy film fans go through the James Bond jitters, Either they’re fed up with Roger Moore’s aging aimlessness, or angry that longtime producer Albert “Chubby” Broccoli can’t keep the one man they feel was perfect for the role (Pierce Brosnan) from bolting to bigger and better things. The latest row was over the casting of British blond himbo Daniel Craig as the new, post-millennial 007. The only glimmer of hope inside this otherwise dismissed bit of hiring was the promise that this version of the classic UK agent would be a “real return to form” (meaning a creative call back to the days of Sean Connery). Sure enough, this kinetic update delivered the best Bond movie in a long time – a legitimate action film with heart and head to match. Craig may still have to win over the Ian Fleming faithful, but at the box offices, he’s more than renewed his character’s license to kill.

Other Titles of Interest


The Burmese Harp: The Criterion Collection


As one of two classics by Kon Ichikawa to be released by DVD’s definitive preservationists, this story of a WWII Japanese platoon who sing to keep their spirits up represents war at its most insidious. Instead of focusing on death and destruction along the battlefield, Ichikawa follows the fallout of battle on man’s inner strength and resolve. The results are dark and devastating.

Fire on the Plain: The Criterion Collection


The second Ichikawa film from Criterion focuses on the ravages of combat from the psychological outward. When a group of Japanese soldiers are trapped in a Philippine’s jungle, the stress of waiting for death drives them insane. Some even resort to murder and cannibalism. As strong an anti-war message as you are likely to find anywhere, this amazing film fits perfectly into the company’s creative dynamic.

The Holiday


It’s a shame that Nancy Meyers isn’t a more skilled filmmaker. She had a great idea here, and a certifiably star-driven cast. Just the thought of Jack Black hooking up with Kate Winslet had stocky guys all across the world celebrating in vicarious triumph. Unfortunately, most critics found this routine romantic comedy to contain more hackwork than humor…or heart…or hope.

Shortbus


Here it is – John Cameron Mitchell’s notorious follow-up to his madcap musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Following the failing fortunes of a bunch of beleaguered New Yorkers, Mitchell made the unprecedented decision to ignore the MPAA and show all the sexual acts in their full blown, X-rated reality. What you wind up with is a surreal cinematic experiment, a character study that suddenly breaks into hardcore porn honesty.

Volver


While other foreign filmmakers seem to mellow and wane with age, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar is only getting feistier and more confrontational. For his latest look at women on the verge of interpersonal freefall, he casts Penelope Cruz in a story of ravaging emotional erosion. So successful was the combination that Ms. Cruz became the first Spanish actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Open Water 2


It’s quite the motion picture pickle – how do you make a sequel to a film where both of the main characters died in the end? Easy - avoid everything that the first movie stood for, and strike out on your own; borrow the name for some instant audience recognizability and hope no one in the fooled fanbase hollers “FOUL!” That’s what the makers of Adrift did when they discovered that the lame-os over at Lionsgate were picking up their effort for direct to DVD release. This German joke of an aquatic horror film is so illogical, so laced with ridiculous decisions by both the characters on screen and the creative team behind the lens that the individuals responsible for the original ‘you are there” sharkfest ought to consider an immediate injunction. The only thing this stupid storyline has in common with the 2003 hit is the vastness of the ocean – that’s it.

 


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Monday, Mar 12, 2007

Having just finished Richard Hofstadter’s essays about Goldwater and pseudo-conservatism in The Paranoid Style in American Politics I feel as though I understand our own political moment much better. The essays are a bit depressing in that they assume a far-right-winger like Barry Goldwater could never be elected, let alone be allowed to actually govern; Hofstatder seemed to have believed that the fact Goldwater was nominated at all was the high water mark for the American forces of reaction. He felt they ran to lose on purpose and become martyrs to their extreme causes and keep them in the public forum. But George W. Bush’s presidency has proven otherwise. The essays provide a litany of descriptions of pseudoconservatism that remind us how little of the Bush agenda is new: “Only in the pseudoconservative movement that man have begun to hint that disobedience to the Court is not merely legitimate but is the essence of conservatism.” “The two=party system ... hangs on the common recognition of loyal opposition: each side accepts the good intentions of the other… But an essential point in the pseudoconservative world view is that our recent Presidents, being men of wholly evil intent, have conspired against the public good.” (This is why the shrill, spasmodic accusation of Bush hatred conservatives often cast at liberals seems pure projection.) Hofstadter quotes Goldwater, who wrote this in Why Not Victory? (which could serve as a motto for Iraq surge supporters): “A craven fear of death is entering the American consciousness, so much so that many recently felt that honoring the chief despot himself was the price to pay to avoid nuclear destruction.” That horrifying logic is the main thing that kept Goldwater far from the White House. But a similar line is often evoked by right-wing reactionaries when talking about the spread of “islamofascism”—we must have the conviction to stop at nothing to eliminate the terrorist threat. The end of the Cold War removed the deterrent threat of nuclear war, allowing Bush to enact psudoconservative/neoconservative fantasies in the Middle East, starting wars of choice without threat of drastic reprisal international enemies.


Just about everything Hofstadter writes about Goldwater’s core constituency holds true for Bush: it’s a fusion of those with ultraconservative economic views (the sort who believe a social safety net breeds weakness) and an aggrieved lower-middle class who see politics as an arena to reclaim lost status (via moral crusading and culture wars) rather than protect their material interests. (The opposition of status and interest politics seems to foreshadow Thomas Frank’s debunking of the red state/blue state myth in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) But whereas Goldwater was regarded skeptically in his time and effectively framed as far outside the mainstream, a complacent media in 2000, intent on lambasting Gore, allowed Bush to pass for a moderate, “compassionate” conservative. Once he won and gained political capital from the events of September 11, he enacted the Goldwater agenda of 1964: heedless economic individualism and impulsively belligerent foreign policy derived from simplistic absolute principles and pursued with religious conviction. (In Goldwater’s famous words: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and .., moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”)


This analysis helps make obvious the tenuousness of the pseudo-conservative coalition: radical free-marketeers and moral prescriptivists have in common a belief that privation is a useful social tool, whether it be culling the herd of its weak members or punishing sinful wastrels. Beyond this is a belief in individual’s ultimate ability to overcome circumstances, which are always in some way deserved—your responsibility. But moral crusaders, in taking a hard-line ascetic view that is uncompromising with respect to the opinions a majority of Americans actually profess, believe their politics rise above greedy selfishness, and that their views are legitimized to the degree that they are impractical and thus apolitical. Their disregard for public opinion seeks to destroy democracy in a fundamentally different way than those with radical economic views, who would prefer that the government atrophy and cease to function (the shrink-government-until-drownable-in-bathtub philosophy). Moral crusaders, instead, want to empower government to the degree where it can legislate and enforce the stringent value system they have placed above politics as non-debatable truths. (Neither want to do the hard work of coalition building in order to arbitrate between the inevitable competing interests in a pluralistic society.) This contradiction, exacerbated by the erosion of civil liberties brought on by fears of terrorism, has led to discussions of a rapprochement between libertarians and liberals. Hofstatder points out that Goldwater did little to forward conservative causes; rather he broke the back of practical conservatism in the Eisenhower mold and enabled Johnson to push through the Great Society reforms. That’s hope the revulsion Bush has inspired in American voters has done the same, and we can look forward to a coming decade of progress on universal health care, the strengthening of unions, and the amelioration of income inequality.


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