Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

7 Jun 2009

Economics blogger Matthew Rognile (who was recently and deservedly touted by Tyler Cowen) pinpoints what is bothersome about Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and the extrapolations he makes from the slew of ingenious studies he details in the book.

The more general philosophical issue here is the tradeoff between internal and external validity. If you’re concerned about internal validity, Ariely’s work is great. Small sample size notwithstanding, I have very little doubt that if I set up an identical experiment measuring the effects of bonuses on laboratory tasks in India, my results will be similar to Ariely’s, and that if prodding lab subjects to perform contrived tasks ever becomes a critical policy goal, this knowledge will prove predictive and invaluable. In this limited sense, I have far more confidence in randomized economic experiments than I do in, say, the correctness of a particular regression specification.

Unfortunately, we are also concerned about external validity—whether our results extend to a more realistic setting—and here we are forced to indulge massive leaps in analysis.

This seems such an obvious problem—that people act differently in lab studies than in the course of their ordinary lives—but it also seems that the sorts of clever and pleasing conclusions Ariely typically draws are hard to resist and function well as story or conversation hooks. I’m wary of elevating the idea of revealed preference to the end-all and be-all of studies of decisionmaking; there are too many variables in play to read to much into a fait accopmli decision. But isolating the decision-making process artificially and attempting to control the variables would seem to yield equally limited results. I have the same skepticism about the neurological-scan based studies that Jonah Lehrer details in How We Decide.

Maybe I’m just creeped out more and more by the attempt to reduce decisionmaking to an object of exact science, so that human responses can be better predicted, and inevitably, better programmed in advance.

by Matt White

7 Jun 2009

J, Lou, and Murph are the coolest kids on the block. In this video for “Over It” from their forthcoming album Farm, Dinosaur storm the streets with their BMX’s and skateboards, pulling some extremely impressive moves and even wiping out with style. Check out the custom Dinosaur Jr skateboard deck and keep your eyes open for Mike Watt. Oh, and the song rocks too.

Farm is out on June 23rd.

by Bill Gibron

6 Jun 2009

Martin Scorsese has his Robert DeNiro. Tony Scott has Denzel Washington. In fact, there are a lot of directors who single out a certain actor to realize their particular vision. Even in the independent and outsider markets, filmmakers rely on specific performers to “sync up” with what they have to say and make it happen. This is certainly true of the Pasolini of the Trailer Park, Giuseppe Andrews. With his company of real life mobile home residents, the actor turned auteur has had the pleasure of working with some amazing talents - Bill Nowlin, Tyree, Walter Patterson, Walt Dongo, and little person Karen Bo Baron. But no one has been better, more consistently creative and iconic than Vietnam Ron. Scraggly bearded and mop haired, this wide-eyed acid casualty from decades gone by is Andrews ace in the a-hole, a demented center of crazed calm in the maelstrom of maladjusted fringe dwellers - and his latest starring vehicle, Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences, is a titanic tour de force.

Doily lives with his psychic wife Haley Comet. She does readings, and has sex with clients on the side. He spends his days dishing with his friends Terrace and Sabado. At the beginning of one memorable summer, Doily is chased by a bee. The insect eventually hunts down and kills his buddy Terrace, who is then brought back to life by a mysterious alien object. Next, a client of Haley finds his hair cut and shampooed - and he didn’t do it. Then a dinner party at friend Colby Jack’s turns weird when the host is transformed into a giant pot pie. In between, our hero is attacked by a monster and a household slipper, and rediscovers his love for crystal meth. But when buddy Terrace turns up again, this time as a talking VCR, Doily starts getting scared. While Haley considers all these events mere “freak occurrences”, her lover man is convinced they are signs that someone is trying to kill him.

As a showcase for Vietnam Ron and his silent movie star acumen, Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences is fantastic. It’s like a day in the life documentary except the subject here is a fragile little man being targeted by the more maniacal aspects of fate. When our lead goes gonzo while being chased by a bee, we can instantly see the appeal. Vietnam Ron, for all his aging ambiguity, it so gosh-darn likeable, so intensely loveable and entertaining that he can read the phone book for an hour and we’d believe it to be genius. There is nothing mannered or put on with this true-to-life character. What you see is (presumably) what you get. Ron often represents Andrews at his most unhinged. Unlike Tyree, who tackles the tawdry sex talk the director excels in, or Dongo who delivers his lines within a haze of permanent alcohol intake, this wiry wonder is all facial hair and freak out attitude.

All of which makes his leading role presence all the more important to Andrews’ sunny comedy. This is really nothing more than a series of sensational set-ups, situations waiting for Ron and his comely co-star Marybeth Spychalski to react to - and both definitely deliver. Andrews is also using them as the means to some evocative cinematic ends. He experiments with the lens, giving us an insect-eye view of the opening bee attack, while adding some gloriously amateur special effects to the alien/slipper sequences. While the strange occurrences seem to have no legitimate symbolism or theme, one can easily see Andrews evoking the nonsensical traumas of a typical life. It’s even Haley’s excuse for everything that’s happening. But because of Doily’s insistence that there is more to it than happenstance, we look deeper into the delirium - and therein lies the movie’s magic.

Like the protracted puzzles he often creates with his screenplays, Doily’s issues can be chalked up to emotional and environmental faults. He loves Haley so much that he tolerates her occasional affairs. She also has a deep and never-ending affection for her man, since she is also willing to forgive his equally selfish sins. He’s also a recovering meth addict - though, in reality, he’s more like a junkie who has his cravings under some manner of control. The brain baffling side effects of living in a narcotic haze could explain many of the oddball things that happen here, but Andrews doesn’t make the connections clear. Instead, he uses the drugs and the drain of relationships as the dragons Doily must slay simply to survive. In the end, when it looks like life will consume him, our hero simply recognizes his devotion to Haley, and their precious “pillow talk” leaves the movie on a memorable last (and legitimate) beat.

As with almost all his films, Andrews’ Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences is as important in its journey as its critical conclusions. The trip to Colby Jack’s home is particularly memorable, with Walt Patterson putting on his best jerk-off jackass persona. Kai Scott, as Sabado, is also a highly unique presence. Speaking in a genial, gentle tone that underlines his hefty size, he’s the esoteric voice of reason in a circumstance that has very little rationality. As usual, Sir George Bigfoot makes a memorable statement as a visiting monster, and Dongo’s discussion of his Luddite planet’s need for paper and pens is classic in its off the wall insanity. Those looking for - or used to - Andrews’ love of the scatological will be glad to know that most of Haley’s issues come from a rather burdensome period, and there is a sequence where Doily hallucinates a client’s butt singing a song about farts. But those are the rare instances of risqué content.

Indeed, Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences proves that, as a filmmaker, Giuseppe Andrews is an overflowing fount of artistic ambition and ideas. How he can go from serious dissections of human misery to goofball explorations of fate, mock Italian neo-realism to outrageous statements of psychedelic surrealism and still maintain his indie auteur cred is a lesson a few so-called outsiders could - and should - contemplate for a while. After all, here is someone who works with basically the same company of characters, uses the same backdrops and settings, explores the same elements and aspects of human nature, and yet turns in one unique gem after another. Doily’s Summer of Freak Occurrences is another flawless feather in the man’s already overflowing cinematic chapeau - and this time, it’s thanks to stellar star power of one Vietnam Ron. As the yokel yin to Andrews’ yang, he’s a national treasure. He’s also the reason why we come to love every minute of this memorable masterwork.

by Rob Horning

5 Jun 2009

Barron YoungSmith’s post at the New Republic’s blog about Craigslist suggests that the site’s founders are motivated by “libertarian ideology” rather than profit—a surprising conclusion if you believe that libertarianism is all about unfettered markets and the triumph of the will and the cash nexus as the expression of the freedom of choice. Conceived instead as deinstitutionalization, libertarianism means dismantling the barriers between people wanting to make small-scale exchanges. YoungSmith quotes Mark Gimein, who summed up the Craigslist philosophy in this Big Money article: “Bad things don’t come from what two individuals decide to do together. They come from the institutions that stand between them.” (If this was the essence of libertarianism, you’d think they would come out in full force for rescinding the legal personhood status of corporations. Maybe some are.) Such a position implies that caveat emptor should be the only law of the land, which is great if you believe that exchanges always take place with both parties on equal footing (or if you believe a Lewis Hyde-style gift economy is coming right around the corner). But this isn’t the case—asymmetrical information is more the rule than the exception, and economic institutions exist in part to combat that, to illuminate otherwise black or gray markets, to make contract enforcement possible and to allow trust to ultimately flourish. It’s not clear whether newspapers were ever a significant institution in this regard however; they just had a de facto monopoly of local information distribution that has since been broken by the internet.

Anyway, YoungSmith’s post prompted two interesting responses about the phenomenon of working for free (whether in the name of some quasi-utopian ideology or not). Kevin Drum suggests the limits to what people will do for free are not set by how dull the work is but by how many people are necessary to complete it:

Sure, some things are just more fun than others, and thus more likely to attract people to do them for free.  But just as important is: how many people does it take?  Once something gets to the point where it only takes a person or three to do it, then there’s a pretty good chance that someone, somewhere will start offering it for free.  Even if it’s something that most sane people think is boring as hell, there’s almost bound to be at least one person who’s obsessed by it.  Like classified advertising.

Behind this theory, I think, is that endeavors requiring fewer people allow those few to make all the salient decisions and claim all the glory for the accomplishments, which goes a long way toward compensating them for not getting paid. When we are cogs in a large machine, we need to be paid to feel recognized, because our individual contribution is lost in the elaborate division of labor and our autonomy is similarly circumscribed. But having control over how the work is done and knowing one is responsible for the final product in its entirety makes work palpably meaningful, which is its own reward, fulfilling a basic aspect of what it means to be human. What Drum is highlighting is the possibility of a return to the ideals of handicraft—of work not organized and integrated by capital—only digitally mediated. From this perspective, the internet takes what are urban populations in the real world and scatters them into an archipelago of workers in small-scale groupings who can nonetheless participate economically on a global scale. Small groups of individuals working more or less voluntarily on projects would ideally permit the social benefits of cooperation to flourish without them being made over “as a free gift to capital,” as Marx puts it. So when we work for free online, our main goal may be to express our freedom from capital, for at least a little while, and experience the restorative essence of performing socially useful work for its own sake. It could be that it’s inherently delightful in the midst of late capitalism to discover a social need that can be fulfilled without capital’s intervention. So it doesn’t take an obsessive freak to fulfill some seemingly dull function, just an anarcho-syndicalist.

Of course, if we are cut off from social recognition, we rely on cash payment to serve as its proxy, as these research findings published in Nature suggest:

Handling or even contemplating money can relieve both physical pain and the distress of social rejection, according to a study by Chinese and American psychologists. But remembering cash one has spent intensifies both types of hurt. The findings suggest that the mere thought of having money makes people feel physically stronger and less dependent on the approval of others to satisfy their needs. “Money activates a general sense of confidence, strength, and efficacy,” the researchers propose.

Bu couldn’t it be that money functions as a consolation for social isolation, which it then reinforces by supplying the illusion of strength and efficacy?

Matt Yglesias seems to be arguing along the same lines:

profit-maximization is not a natural form of human behavior. I think it’s best understood as a very idiosyncratic kind of pursuit. It happens to be one that’s economically rewarded because with money to invest tend to want to invest it with would-be profit-maximizers. Thus, in fields of endeavor where the ability to raise large sums of capital on reasonable terms is a huge advantage, a profit-maximization impulse winds up being a huge advantage.

In other words the profit motive is a product of capitalism, and not what inspires it. And having to think in that economically rationalistic way, far from being natural to humans, may actually be fatiguing and confining. When capital is not necessary to the enterprise, other motives spring to the fore—the need for recognition being primary among them. Yglesias explains:

The startup costs of a decent website are pretty small in the scheme of things. And there are lots of people and institutions—academics looking to bring their research to a wider public, think tanks and advocacy organizations looking to influence the public debate, corporations like Google looking to express their views on policy debates, students trying to get an edge in the job market, authors hoping to promote a book—with perfectly good incentives to run websites that don’t aspire to maximize profits.

“Free competition” turns out to be a way to use the profit motive to inhibit free expression. Ideas aren’t typically or necessarily manufactured in accordance with the dominant modes of production (though arguably capitalism aspires to make it so that only the ideas manufactured corporately—by the entertainment industry, say, or the for-profit press—are recognized as valid). Capital is not necessary to think. So ideas don’t necessarily need to circulate in the ways capitalism requires. The exchange of ideas relies on a different sort of economy, of influence and notoriety. Capitalist society presumes that influence is only meaningful insofar as it can be converted into capital, but perhaps we are now beginning to see signs that money and intellectual influence could possibly move apart again. Perhaps this will only empower the advertising industry even further, as they will have to squawk louder to help paid content drowned out the alternatives.

by shathley Q

5 Jun 2009

Who could have guessed that 50 years down the line in 2007, there actually would be a comedy show called The Office? And that deadpan, cornball humor, exactly of the kind to be found in this 1957 cartoon strip would be its trademark? Certainly not Charlie Brown. Nor his prodigious creator, Charles Schulz.

Approaching the second decade of the second millennium, it is hard to miss the cultural impact of Schulz’s Peanuts. Three generations now have grown up in a world where Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown have been part of their world for much longer than they themselves. More than a literary staple, Peanuts has become a permanent fixture of popular culture. In time, as with all enduring cultural objects, Charlie Brown and the Gang have become the fuel for these generations having dreams and writing popular culture of their own.

Fifty years down the line, it becomes very easy to celebrate Schulz’s achievement by saying, ‘Without Peanuts there would be no…’. This cry can be completed in any number of ways. No Rugrats, no Dilbert, no Calvin & Hobbes, no Boondocks. No TV show called The Office. But making this claim while living in a world where Peanuts culturally predominates, also means losing something of the vitality and vibrancy of Schulz’s original work.

Just beginning to write in the mid-‘50s, Schulz could not have guessed at the overwhelming success that awaited him, nor at the popular and critical reception still to come for his work. Schulz’s Charlie Brown was not the Charlie Brown of our era. Peanuts was slow, and deliberate, just as Charlie Brown was the kid who always got out of bed late at night to feed Snoopy, no matter his own fear of the dark or neuroses around social failure. And like his fictional analog, Charles Schulz was the guy who drew a comics strip, everyday for fifty years.

It is this enduring spirit that would propel Peanuts well beyond the newspaper funny pages and into the popular imagination. Writing in the Introduction to second volume of The Complete Peanuts Jonathan Franzen reminds us, ‘Schulz wasn’t an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip everyday for 50 years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It’s the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz’s early sorrows look like “sources” of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them’.

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