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Friday, Jan 12, 2007

In Rob Walker’s article in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine about Freecycle, a Craigslist or Meetup style Internet matching service designed to help you give away stuff you want to get rid of, founder Deron Beal suggests that his organization has been successful because the sacrifice-free generosity it enables makes people feel good.


Whatever attracts people to join, part of what keeps them involved, Beal says, is something they probably didn’t expect: the moment when someone thanks you backward and forward for giving him something you planned to throw away. “There’s a sort of paradigm shift in your brain: ‘Wow, that feels really good,’ ” Beal says. “That’s what I think is fueling this absurd amount of growth we’ve had.”



It seems to me the analysis of this could be pushed a little further. Sure, it’s great to earn approbation for being charitable simply by redirecting your trash pickup. And it’s pleasing to simplify and streamline your belongings, something that can be surprisingly hard to do because of the reponsibility we may feel toward what we buy. Generally we think we are buying stuff with some use in mind, even though the actual motives have more to do with indulging some fantasy about who we want to become or who we might have been. That fantasy is enacted upon purchase, but the purchased object lingers on even after the fantasy fades, cluttering up our apartments—and our consciousness, when that fantasy curdles into disillusionment and we are embarrassed or taunted by what we wished we were or what the object reminds us we are not. It sits waiting to be use in the way we promised ourselves would when we bought it. My Russian-English dictionary, for instance, always annoys me with how quickly I gave up on learning Russian. But I don’t want to throw it away—not only will that seem a waste in the abstract, but it’s an admission of surrender. So I hang on to it, refusing to give up on the utility still entombed within it. That utility, which was the alibi for indulging the fantasy, becomes a trap until we can find some way of dissipating it.


One way is to find some other person to assume that burden, who by taking the object from you is making their own promise to use it in the way you couldn’t. This salvages the whole project, allowing you to part with the good without admitting to yourself complete failure. You’ve just changed one fantasy about yourself (whatever dream was evoked by the object) for another (the pleasure of being a benevolent gift-giver, the pleasure of feeling useful), and it’s no longer your fault if the thing is never really used for its ostensible purpose. Giving things away allows us to use them up without having to consume them in the way they are intended to be used. I use up the squash racket not by playing squash and wearing it out but by giving it to a stranger who now is making an implicit promise to play squash, taking me off the hook. So the gift is not as free as it may seem, it comes with the hidden burden of abandoned dreams and the duty to make good on those dreams for someone else as well as yourself. So the goods exchanged through Freecycle threaten to become freighted with serial failures, all the previous owner’s as well as your incipient own. But this probably doesn’t happen—giving something away for free seems to remove that thing from the money-for-pleasure cycle that renders the abstract notion of utility seem so important. The gesture, the effort to find a home for something rather than merely trash it, springs you from the trap, and that, I think, explains the unexpected elation Freecyclers feel.


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Friday, Jan 12, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

My Teenage Stride
To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge [MP3]
Terror Bends [MP3]


“At just under 40 minutes, Ears Like Golden Bats gathers a collection of captivation guitar pop gems that manage to combine fatalism with not-yet-defeated hope, which seems to be an inherent quality of many of Smith’s compositions. The references to Phil Spector, the Jesus & Mary Chain, and Television Personalities are still present in well-crafted and immediate tracks like “We’ll Meet at Emily’s”, “That Should Stand for Something”, and “Terror Bands”. They’re hook-laden songs that will have you humming all day long—you might clap your hands or snap your fingers too. Songs like “Reversal” or “Genie of New Jersey” and “To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge” expand on those influences, sounding more atmospheric, reminiscent of the Chills and the pop side of John Cale and Brian Eno.”—Becalmed Records

My Teenage Stride—They Are Alone in Their Principles


Softlightes
Girl Kills Bear (Lo-Fi-Fnk) [MP3]


Softlightes—Heart Made of Sound


Born Ruffians
Hedonistic Me [MP3]


Call Me Lightning
Billion Eyes [MP3]


Aerogramme
Dreams and Bridges [MP3]


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Thursday, Jan 11, 2007


Over the next few weeks, we will be revamping our Friday look at the films found on your premium pay cable channels. Our hope here at SE&L is to search beyond the Saturday night showings that tend to dominate these listings and instead broaden the viewing spectrum to include forgotten titles, recent hits, overlooked classics and big dumb guilty pleasures. With hundreds of offerings spread out over dozens of channels (and feeds), it will be a daunting task, but one we hope allows for more choices, and more films to discuss. As it stands, we stick with our old format this time around. But be on the look out. Over the next installments, SE&L will definitely be shaking things up. For 13 January, here’s what you can look forward to:


HBOFirewall
As if we need proof to be nervous about Harrison Ford taking up the Indiana Jones mantle for a fourth time, the 64 year old’s inert performance in this pedestrian thriller will definitely give Raiders fans a reason to recoil. Borrowing from almost every previous Ford action film, this combination of Jack Ryan, Air Force One, and The Fugitive fails on all levels. It is never very exciting, offers up an illogical narrative, and reduces our star to nothing more than a catalyst for various confrontations and stunt setpieces. Not even capable of being a slight, superficial diversion, director Richard Loncraine, whose previous efforts behind the lens (My House in Umbria, Wimbeldon) show little action acumen, creates a dull, derivative techno mess. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 8PM EST).


Cinemax16 Blocks
Richard Donner returns to the action category, eight years after the last Lethal Weapon film, and the results are uneven but effective. Bruce Willis is an aging cop set to deliver a key witness (Mos Def) to court. The title indicates the distance he must traverse. Naturally, shadow forces want to silence the stoolie, and our hero ends up caught in a crossfire of competing interest. Once the truth is uncovered, the case becomes even harder for our loyal policeman. Released in March 2006 to little fanfare and mediocre studio support, critics actually enjoyed this return to form for the one time creator of box office blockbusters. Home video – or in this case, the pay cable medium – may be the perfect place for fans to discover this genre gem. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzThe Shaggy Dog
That noise you just heard was Tim Allen’s already toilet-bound film career being flushed away for good. With a third sloppy Santa Clause film under his belt (featuring that career-killer Martin Short) and the abominable Zoom barely making a dent in the Summer sweepstakes, this disastrous Disney misstep is the inexplicable icing on the comedian’s cinematic cake. Never the best House of Mouse franchise to begin with, the Shaggy series pushes the boundaries of both believability and likeability. There is just something so surreal about a storyline that has an adult male going canine in order to learn some lame life lessons. Kids may cotton to this cutesy crap, but adults will require instant insulin shots the minute this saccharine slop starts. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeFour Brothers
Borrowing more than just a bit from The Sons of Katie Elder, this John Singleton success finds a quartet of divergent siblings seeking justice once their beloved adoptive matriarch is found murdered. Of course, their vigilante style of payback reveals closely held secrets among the four, and that complicates the situation considerably. Though the link to the John Wayne western was downplayed upon initial release (similar to the stance Michael Bay took with the whole Island/Clonus circumstances), Singleton strove to make his gritty urban crime drama different. By focusing on the interaction between the characters, and keeping the action amplified and fierce, he delivered a delightful mainstream hit. While no means a work of art, these Brothers definitely excite as they entertain. (Saturday 13 January, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


ZOMBIES!
For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 12/13 January, an unusual Basil Rathbone/Bela Lugosi/Lon Chaney Jr. effort is highlighted:


The Black Sleep
Hoping to cure his wife’s brain tumor, a mad scientist conspires with a cohort to find victims for his evil surgical experiments.
(2am EST)


Independent Eye
A new year signals a new approach for SE&L‘s weekly venture into deciphering the best that pay television has to offer – at least film wise. Going back to basics, each week, Independent Eye will focus on the films featured on two of cable’s more esoteric movie channels – IFC and Sundance. The top three picks (when available) for each will be discussed, hopefully enlightening you on the cinematic possibilities that exist beyond the standard blockbusters and off title releases. For the second week of 2007, the filmic focus finds:



IFC: The Independent Film Channel


14 January 1:50PM EST – Office Space
Mike Judge’s ode to mindless corporate drones, unnecessary flair, and the joke that is a cubicle-based career arc, deserves its crazy cult status. Find out why.


16 January 9PM EST – Amelie
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s gorgeous little fable about a girl who returns beloved lost objects to the forlorn people they once belonged to is a magical movie experience.


19 January 12AM EST – This Night, I’ll Possess Your Corpse
Hoping to find the perfect bride to bear his son, Zé do Caixão – a.k.a Coffin Joe terrorizes the citizens of a small Brazilian village. A masterpiece of macabre.


The Sundance Channel


17 January 12AM EST – Boom!
The famous Burton/Taylor flop, this reworking of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is a bad movie buff’s dream. Choice cheese indeed.


 


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Thursday, Jan 11, 2007

With the usual grace and modesty that he’s know for during a product roll-out, Steve Jobs wowed the Apple Convention on the West Coast, not to mention the whole tech world with his announcement about the new iPhone that his company’s producing- it’s a phone, blackberry, Net surfer, music player, etc.. all in one device.  He predicted that it would be no less revolutionary that the music player his company came out with in 2001.  Sure Steve…  There’s a lot of problems with that claim though and reasons to believe that it might not be the gadget to end all tech gadgets (which is to say that Apple itself may not have invented its own iPod killer).


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Thursday, Jan 11, 2007

In debates about income inequality, this dilemma often arises: Should we divide the GDP pie more equally among society even if that means making the pie smaller? This question is complicated by another observation, that increased income doesn’t seem to make individuals any happier in the long run (when, as Keynes noted, we’re all dead). If more won’t make you happier, then what difference does it make how national wealth is divided? And if growth is all-important, how do we square increasing returns to scale with a meritocratic ideal, which holds that earnings are actuallly earned? Those who question growth’s correlation to happiness often seem to demand more equitable distribution of income, and those who say unfair distributions of income don’t matter often seem to argue that personal prosperity is significant and shouldn’t be neglected.


For example, at Spiked online, Daniel Ben-Ami has an essay arguing that we shouldn’t worry about whether prosperity is correlated to happiness, basically because happiness, in his opinion, isn’t particularly important. It’s a classic piece of telelogical triumphalism (life is always improving) that fetishizes technology (it will magically remedy everything), but I admit, the curmudgeon in me appreciates his position—yeah, screw happiness. Who needs it? As a wise man once said, “Look at me, I’m making people happy! I’m the magical man from Happyland in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane. Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic.” Trying to make people happy is fruitless, since what they think they want is always shifting. Better to make them live longer and give them more technological process (which according to Ben-Ami will also solve global warming, so don’t stop wasting energy, no matter what those whiners say). And if the poor are striving to emulate the rich, so much the better. A little envy is good for them; it keeps them in line and keeps them striving, which helps propel social progress. Writes Ben-Ami:


Coveting what the rich have should not be dismissed as unhealthy envy. On the contrary, the fact people are dissatisfied with their lot can be seen as a healthy motive for change. Humanity has historically progressed by constantly trying to improve its position. As a result people are better off than ever before. In this sense unhappiness should be welcomed. It is a sign of ambition and a drive to progress rather than one of inherent misery. In contrast, the essentially conservative message of the happiness gurus is that people should be happy with their lot.


Progress? It’s always positive. Ambition? It’s the fire that tempers the steel in your soul, never let it die. Disappointment? It’s really a reward since it should encourage you to try harder. If you are discouraged by failure or depressed by relative stasis after all your struggle, then you are obviously a weak person who is opposed to human progress and perhaps a traitor to your species. People who tell you that you can be “happy” are also secret enemies who think there is something valuable in nature as it is and in being present in the moment. Don’t be seduced! If you forget that you always need more than you have, you might stop paying attention to what society expects from you: more hard work, more desultory consumption. You are not here to “feel” “good”—you are here to struggle and suffer for the heroes of posterity (just like Soviet citizens in the 1930s). Without these things living standards—measured in income and technological dominance over our environment, not foolish trifles as your insignificant “feelings”—will slip and your children will hate you.


The rise of mass affluence is an incredibly positive development. It has bolstered the quality of people’s lives enormously. But there never was any guarantee that such progress would bring happiness. One of the most positive qualities of human beings is that they often want more than they have got. They typically want the lives of their children and grandchildren to be better than their own. The growth sceptics would have us stay where we are or even retreat to living a life of lower living standards.


You must be dissatisfied so that your children can be too. Happiness is obviously just another word for surrender.


Anyway, I agree with Ben-Ami that the government has no business trying to make people happy, not if we want to respect individuals’ right to determine what happiness is for themselves. But the income inequality problem and controversies about growth aren’t about happiness; they are about fairness, justice. That’s perhaps no easier to define than happiness (is it equal opportunity or equal outcome?) but we shouldn’t let the nebulousness of happiness distract us from its importance. It’s not like we’d ever declare prosperity is more important than justice, would we?


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