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Saturday, Sep 23, 2006

Amateur stock picking is generally a bad idea, and every staight-talking guide to personal finance will tell you to invest in low-fee mutual funds that track certain indexes—take the guesswork out of it, since changes in stock prices are generally a random walk that no analyst or fund manager could predict. The theory is that whatever information an investor could act on is already priced in to a security by the time you get your order for it in. But this doesn’t stop financial publications and financial service providers from pimping stocks and urging stock tips on readers. In One Market Under God Thomas Frank describes some of the hoopla about personal investing during the 1990s bubble, and what he calls “market populism.” The idea was that anyone could use the stock market to get rich and that purchasing power rendered political power insignificant and made giant gaps between rich and poor immaterial. Part of the hype of the time regarded wise amateurs who could follow their gut and invest in companies whose products they believed in, as though it were as simple as having a good experience in a Home Depot (I know, a far-fetched example) and then phoning your broker the next day for 100 shares of it. Frank notes that one financial guru advised going to the mall and writing down the names of your favorite stores as a way to generate stock-investment ideas. Then you can have a personal stake in the success of the brands you prefer; you can cheer them on like sports teams, but have a legitimate reason for it.


I’m prone to do the opposite. Not that I’m a big-time stock picker, but whenever I read about recommended securities from the retail sector, I’m skeptical, and it has everything to do with my personal bias against brand-name shopping. I rationalize by thinking that it’s foolish to bank on the overtapped American consumer’s propensity to continue on a discretionary spending binge forever, but really it is that I don’t want to believe that American Eagle Outfitters (AEOS) or Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) are simply going to continue to grow; that duping teens with sexed-up advertisements can constitute a business strategy that Wall Street respects. I don’t even want to take them seriously as businesses; I prefer to think of them as dark cultural forces that will be thrwarted once everyone eventually wakes up and realizes how pointless brand-name clothes are. Investing in a company like Chico’s (CHS) or Coach (COH) would not only be hypocritical, it would be against my utopian vision of the world, against what I want to believe about universal common sense. (Maybe this is precisely why I should be buying retail stocks. Never a bad idea to bet against utopias.) Perhaps the behavioral finance theorists have a term for this kind of bias, but I’m fully aware that it is irrational. But rejecting retail stocks because of a reactionary personal philosophy seems no less coherent than picking them because of the weather. And it turns out the weather is one of the most significant economic factor for retail stocks, perhaps more than fashionability or personal belief in the brand or a good feeling about a marketing strategy. Justin Lahart’s column in Friday’s WSJ noted the tendency for September’s weather to determine a retail stock’s fortunes:


September temperatures tend to vary a lot. And September is a crucial month for retailers. That means the weather plays an outsize role in the month’s sales and can trump other economic factors, says Paul Walsh, a meteorologist at weather-analysis firm Planalytics, which advises retailers. September is when retailers, especially in the apparel business, are stocked with fall fare. Cool temperatures early in the season make it easier to sell sweaters and furry boots at full price. Last year, warm weather lasted across much of the U.S. until October, leading retailers to cut prices deeply in an attempt to clear inventory. The jolt of Hurricane Katrina also hurt many, meaning comparisons to last year are especially easy this month.


Obviously, if we follow the money, retailers must be scheming along these lines. Control the weather, control your portfolio. But it’s amazing to me to think of all the sophisticated mathematical tools and speadsheets and models and algorithms, and the vast sums of money at stake, and the myriad of different brokers and analysts who work everyday to try to harness the market, and in the end the kind of logic that is seen retrospectively to have affected the market can run along the lines of “Retail is thriving because September was sort of cold and more shoppers bought sweaters.”


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006


After a series of highly ambitious, but financially unrewarding efforts – including his gross out revamp of The Thing, an adaptation of Stephen King’s classic killer car novel Christine, Starman‘s stellar sci-fi romanticism and that unique take on the martial arts comedy known as Big Trouble in Little China – John Carpenter wanted to get back to his low budget genre roots. His idea? Make a movie using both a theological and a scientific basis for the existence of evil. Mixing physics with the supernatural and arguing that Satan’s potential return to Earth for Armageddon may just be a provable mathematical theorem, we follow a group of graduate students as they try to unlock the secrets of viscous liquid swirling around in an abandoned church basement. Toss in a little unconscious bi-location, rocker Alice Cooper as the leader of a zombie-like clan of homeless people, and a smart, intelligent script, and you’ve got all the makings for a highbrow horror classic. Naturally, it bombed at the box office.


Yet brains are only part of the reason why Prince of Darkness is so special. Throwing away the typical conventions of your standard dumb monster movie, and dealing with fear and evil in engaging philosophical debates, Carpenter created as much a comment on the nature of wickedness as he does an illustration of same. In fact, the last act of the film could easily be mistaken for a standard scarefest, with the possessed servant of Satan (or his actual disembodied son) looking for minions, as well as a way to bring his dethroned Dad back to prominence. With a stellar cast including Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, Carpenter argued that there were still some major motion picture shivers left in the old shockmeister. Sadly, after the fun social satire of They Live, and the uneven if effective In the Mouth of Madness, this would be the last significant Carpenter creepfest. But it is clearly one of his best. 


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006

Whenever I read an article like this one, from today’s WSJ, about spending real money for objects that only exist in virtual worlds like Second Life, my first thought is usually something along the lines of “How pathetic.” I assume that the online life is a compensation for a circumscribed real life (as though mine was so free and uninhibited)—without autonomous scope in reality, one seeks refuge in a virtual world where one has quasi-divine powers of generation. And that’s not such a terrible thing, I guess, even though it leaves the existing institutions that crush aspirations in the name of “being realistic.” Online, unconstrained by the givens of genetics and circumstances, one can build an entirely new self that conforms more closely to one’s aspirations without having to undergo the struggles and compromises, without having to take the risks or confront the failures that one would while pursuing such ambitions in real life. You start off on a somewhat equal footing, but making the initial decisions yourself about the context that will shape your Second Life destiny. Decisions have consequences on a much more insigificant scale, and aren’t irreversible. So matter what you look like or what your ethical standards are or how poor you are in real life, you can be both a stripper and a fashionista in Second Life:  “The scene—drama and all—keeps Janine Hawkins engaged in fashion in a way that wouldn’t be possible for her offline. ‘It’s totally different to pay $15 to keep up with the fashions in Second Life than’ the $1,500 that would be necessary in real life, she says. Her avatar, Iris Ophelia, originally paid for outfits by dancing at Second Life bars. ‘Every time I had enough money, I’d run there and buy everything I could,’ she says.” One can leverage technology much more directly on the narcissistic project of identity, while shifting this project ouside of oneself to appear to legitimize it, as if it were the same as making art or pursuing an entrepreneurial scheme. So in short, my immediate judgmental reaction is to see involvement with these worlds as the product of stunted, misdirected energy, and the economic transactions that mediate between real and online worlds as enabling the misdirection, as making the pretend world seem more real, like having a toy Fisher-Price gas station for your Matchbox cars.


But economic penetration into these worlds actually renders them less of an escape, because it introduces the very elements one may have been trying to flee from—the competition for limited resources, the positional status games that come along with unequal distributions of income. Suddenly one’s limitless autonomy is constrained not by the desired Pavlovian obstacles and rewards built into the game by programmers but by the very same intractable realities of money and status that it would seem one would use role-playing games to render insignificant. The invasion of real-life economic considerations is all the more likely in a game that doesn’t dictate an objective, like Second Life: “There are no dragons or wizards to slay. Instead, San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, has provided a platform for players—median age 32 and 57% male, with 40% living outside the U.S.—to do whatever they want, whether it is building a business, tending bar or launching a space shuttle. Residents chat, shop, build homes, travel and hold down jobs, and they are encouraged to create items in Second Life that they can sell to others or use themselves.” It almost sounds like an unbounded space wherein individuals can be left alone to construct their own fantasy lives without the constraints of social pressure or necessity—a utopian space where both egalitarian and individualistic norms can prevail.


But human nature abhors a utopia. Without a specific fictive goal to pursue, the goals we improvise to direct our ambitions in real life will invade, and the anxieties that beset such ambitions will also follow them into cyberspace. And one of the fundamental invented ambitions to keep ourselves preoccupied is keeping up with fashion, or staying ahead of its curve. Sometimes fashionability is a proxy for wealth, another way of demonstrating it conspicuously. But often—think of Lower East Side youth innovators, or spontaneous ghetto street styles—fashion is an alternate means for accruing status, for partcipating in a game with winners and losers in the absence of other clearly delineated goals and in conditions where vast sums of money are inaccessible. Fashion creates a zero-sum game where none otherwise exists, and that no one has an excuse not to play, to sate our need for “meaningful” competition and purpose across any boundary within a society. Hence Second Life becoming overun by the fashion business, which combines two compelling ways to create winners and losers:


Because Second Life creators own their products and can sell them, the game has attracted both professional and amateur designers, says Linden spokeswoman Catherine Smith. That has led to a thriving fashion scene that includes not just dressmaking but also jewelry, hair and even skin design, as people purchase the elements to create a look for their online alter egos. Selling virtual clothes to real people for their avatars can even be lucrative: In August, the 20 best-selling Second Life fashion designers generated a combined $140,466 in sales, Linden says. “We found out pretty quickly that people loved owning things,” Ms. Smith says, and many start by buying items for their avatars. “It’s not surprising that fashion and hairstyles and skins are as attractive and as exciting and as valuable as they are, because it’s part of individualizing” the appearance of a player’s online persona.


Individualization online is not an innocuous project of self-actualization but a competition, a contest, just as we are encouraged to see it in real life. Fashion, in order to thrive, must make sure we never forget it.


 


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Friday, Sep 22, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Music historians may not go out of their way to be kind to Death Row Records or its founder, Marion “Suge” Knight. Due to the murders of Tupac Shakur (“2pac”) and Christopher Wallace (“the Notorious B.I.G.”), Knight and his company may go down in history as the record label that went ballistic in the infamous East Coast-West Coast beef. But when you listen to Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather, the Murder Was the Case soundtrack, and a compilation of Dr. Dre’s Death Row gems called Chronicles, one thing is clear: Death Row brought us some of the most compelling music of the 1990s.”
“The Dogg, The Doctor, & Death Row” by Quentin B. Huff [PopMatters feature]


Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog—Nuttin’ But a ‘G’ Thang


2Pac—California Love


2Pac and Snoop Dogg—2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted [live]


Dr. Dre—Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)


Snoop Dogg—Murder Was the Case


2Pac—Changes


Dr. Dre—Let Me Ride


Snoop Dogg—Doggy Dogg World


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Thursday, Sep 21, 2006

As the month of September winds down, it’s a fairly routine 50/50 proposition on the premium movie channels this weekend. Granted, none of the offerings are instant classics, and if you base success on box office, only one truly triumphed (the other’s stellar fiscal performance masked a massive budget and even more monstrous marketing campaign). Still, if you’re up for a little man vs. monster brutality – complete with overreaching firepower – or a second serving of Elmore Leonard’s neo-noir, you just might be in luck. In fact, with the local Cineplex offering the kind of critically questionable vehicles that seem to slowly slog along between the blockbuster biz of Summer and the official start of awards season, you may be as equally entertained on the small screen as with a trip to the bigs. Besides, at least one of this weekend’s titles promises the kind of no holds barred brazenness that’s been missing from most mainstream comedies. So, for your consideration, here are the titles trying to grab your attention for the weekend of 22 September:


HBOWedding Crashers

In an age where ‘PG-13’ rules the Cineplex roost, and audiences apparently want their humor on the goofy or gross side, this raunchy R-rated comedy was a welcome relief from all the pro-PC platitudes stinking up the screen. With the viable chemistry between leads Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson (as men who arrive, uninvited, to other people’s ceremonies and cruise for some easily available action) and the laughably lewd hi-jinx they get into, this was one of 2005’s better efforts. While Cinemax subscribers have already had their fill of these naughty nuptial nogoodniks, it’s time for the Home Box Office crowd to get a taste of this film’s wild and wanton wackiness. (Premieres Saturday 23 September, 8:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


CinemaxDoom

Even with the rising stardom of one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, no one except die-hard ‘Doomers’ were expected to give this adaptation of the popular title a chance. Turns out, those anonymous analysts were right. Granted, revamping a first person shooter experience noted for its horror, monsters and gore quotient into a continuous 100 minute narrative would seem like a tough enough challenge. Yet after jettisoning much of the original storyline in favor of a more Aliens-esque approach, even the loyalists felt lost. With only a single memorable POV sequence, this dull, derivative is high on body count, low on logic and proves that it’s the VERY rare game that can make the cinematic grade. (Premieres Saturday 23 September, 10:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


StarzThe Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

In an obvious bid for some Lord of the Rings style revenue, Disney teamed up with late author C.S. Lewis’s multi-volume Christian allegory, and laid on as much CGI spectacle as they could. The result was a fairly well regarded hit. But first time live action director Andrew Adamson (who helped helm the first two Shrek epics) soon learned the lessons his Kiwi better Peter Jackson had to bear as well – fans will fry you if you’re unfaithful to the source, critics will complain if you sacrifice drama for the sake of literary loyalty. Where the Rings trilogy succeeded on all levels however, this heavy, ponderous production only soared when the action trumped the traditional narrative elements. Not surprisingly, a sequel is in the works. (Premieres Saturday 23 September, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeBe Cool

Somehow, this smacks of desperation. John Travolta used the one two punch of Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty to resurrect his flagging feature film career back in 1996. Now, 10 years later, he is back as mobster turned mogul Chili Palmer, and not surprising, looking for yet another considered career boast. Not even the eccentric cast – featuring Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer and a previous named ex-wrestler – can save this sloppy, silly sequel. Moving the action from the movie to the music business may have seemed like a logical - and literary - move, but it only stands to rehash material that was tenuous to begin with. Even with the thankless artifice of Barry Sonnenfeld’s mannered direction out of the picture (F. Gary Gray is in charge here), this is still one revisit too many. (Saturday 23 September, 9pm EST)


PopMatters Review




Indie Film Focus: September 2006


Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 16 September through 22 September:


IFC


Wonderland (2003)
Val Kilmer stars in this intriguing look at these infamous murders, and the possible connection to porn star John Holmes.
(Sunday 24 September, 9pm EST)


Talk To Her (2002)
Pedro Almodovar won an Oscar for his screenplay to this unusual character drama revolving around life, death, and the tenuous, comatose connections between.
(Tuesday 26 September, 9pm EST)


Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
The Vermeer masterwork gets its own unusual cinematic explanation in this fascinating film. With Colin Firth as the artist and Scarlett Johansson as his muse.
(Wednesday 25 September, 9pm EST)


Secrets and Lies (1996)
Director Mike Leigh turns his idiosyncratic improvisational style loose on the family drama, with amazing, masterful results.
(Thursday 28 September, 5:45pm EST)


Sundance Channel


Dazed and Confused
The ultimate time warp back to the ‘70s, D&C also stands as the final statement on the joy and illogical liberty of youth.
(Saturday, 23 September, 10pm EST)


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