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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2007

The cliche about New Yorkers is that they are rude and impatient. Some mistakenly believe that impatience is in fact a form of rudeness rather than an efficient system of communication among strangers pursuing a vast array of ends in a congested, shared space. Of course, I’m biased, but it seems most New Yorkers—the ones working, the ones with places to be and things to do—are generally aware of the people around them and together they all make a collective effort to keep things moving. Sometimes the awareness takes the form of attempts to outmaneuver one another, and efficiency in public space is achieved via the invisible hand of unrepentant individual selfishness and putting oneself ahead of those who aren’t paying as much attention to their surroundings. At the risk of venturing a Ayn Randian species of counterintuitive thinking (selfishness isn’t just not wrong, it’s the only virtue!), I want to suggest that aggressive behavior in public (what is dubbed rational behavior in market contexts) creates a grid of expectations that allows everyone to pass through public space more purposefully.

On the road, this principle is illustrated when there are lane closures—New York drivers tend not to respect any notion of civilized queueing, preferring instead a mad free-for-all of people cutting off other people. This seems theoretically “unfair” but it tends to keep traffic as a whole moving faster. (This is why in more quaint places in America, drivers are encouraged not to form one lane too early, expanding the areas affected by congestion.) True, too much lane changing in open road situations ultimately affects all riders negatively, contributing to volume-related slowdowns, but complacency and an abstract concern for respecting the rules of politeness only expedites road rage.

But the question of how aggressive one should be in trying to get where one is going is more pressing for New York pedestrians. The more aggressive one is in walking the streets, generally the more aware one becomes of the environment: if you are going to stand halfway in the street waiting to cross an intersection, you need to know what’s coming. If you are going to jaywalk, you need to make sure you can get away with it—as Dylan’s dictum goes,  “To live outside the law you must be honest.” The troublemakers on New York streets are not the hyperaggressive racewalkers and Knievelesque bike messengers (whose moves are always predicable based on the presumption of their heedless selfishness and can thus be countered) but tentative tourists, who are apt to make unpredictable moves in full obliviousness of those around them. They likely feel this is their right as tourists, as flight from responsibility to others is probably considered part of their vacation in general. But maybe as a culture we should stop creating the mistaken illusion that it is possible to take a vacation from responsibility to others, that this could be bought and sold as an experiential good. linked to this complaint about tourists who persist in being unaware of their surroundings. The author, Brooks of Sheffield, laments the “death of peripheral vision” and offers this interpretation of the essence of civic duty:

I was brought up to be constantly aware of others around me, to keep a sharp eye out to see if I was blocking someone’s way, holding someone up. For the simplest way a civilized human being can show their respect for a fellow person is to register and acknowledge their presence, and recognize they have as much right to the surrounding air and ground as you do.

In New York, it’s impossible to stay out of people’s way entirely; but the edge of intrusions into personal space are made much more tolerable and forgivable when it is made clear they they are either undertaken reluctantly or with the intent to move things in general along—when you know that its nothing personal and it was the result of calculation. What is intolerable is the species of selfishness that masquerades as mellowness and has no specific intent behind it and winds up communicating that the blissfully unaware person considers you so insignificant that they won’t even deign to recognize your existence enough to be rude to you on purpose. Instead of being situational rudeness (that which is practiced by most New Yorkers), tourists practice a categorical rudeness, a self-satisfied indifference they have toward everyone else, who, as Brooks puts it, become “merely extras in the home movie starring themselves.” And it seems to violate the categorical imperative, which is at the crux of the exchange below, from the comments on Brooks’ post.

Laura Moncur said…
Sorry, but it’s not my job to accomodate you. I watch out for other people, but that is strictly for my benefit, not yours. Assuming that the world should get out of your way isn’t the answer.
Plus, those tourists bring a lot of money to your town. Be a little more respectful of them.

4/09/2007 10:02 AM
Brooks of Sheffield said…
Actually, Laura, it is your job to accomodate other people. It’s everybody’s job. That’s part of what being a human being means. Civilization is nothing more than a thousand daily, silently-agreed-upon accomodations toward your fellow beings. And has it occurred to you that your attitude of looking out for other people only when it benefits you only works if there are other people in the world willing to look out for not just themselves, but others—like you.

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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007

Smokin’ Aces is a movie that desperately wants to be liked. Not by your typical mainstream moviegoer, however. No, Joe Carnahan’s follow-up to his well received Narc is feverishly adamant about being adored by the frantic film geek contingent – the mélange of messageboard taste makers who determine their own individual aesthetic criteria by what Quentin Taratino determines is cool on his MySpace page. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the slightly introverted dork who walks around the high school cool kids bragging about his accomplishments and contacts. By faking and fronting, this movie hopes to grab their attention and earn an uneasy place in their crime genre lovin’ hearts.

It’s just too bad then that the director decides to win their praise by overplaying his obvious and rather obscure hand. Part of the problem is in the story itself. Smokin’ Aces (released on DVD by Universal on 17, April) rests its entire effectiveness on our desire to empathize with and/or outright despise its amoral center, a sleazy Las Vegas magician named Buddy “Aces” Israel. Brought to remarkable life by Entourage‘s Jeremy Piven, this miscreant mobster wannabe is ready to rat out the entire West Coast syndicate, and a substantial bounty has been placed on his head (and, oddly enough, his heart). Naturally, word gets out on the street that the successful assassin will earn themselves $1 million large, and before you know it, every noted nutcase with a comic book persona and a wealth of heavy artillery is headed towards Israel’s Lake Tahoe penthouse suite. Their goal? Pump this putz full of lead – and various other projectiles- before the Feds can speed him off to Witness Protection.

Thus begins the parade of peculiar cartoon characters and lean mean action movie archetypes. Carnahan is not out to manufacture realistic, three dimensional thugs. Instead, he decides that a heightened sense of stature, a caricature perhaps, would be the best way to envision his wild and wooly villains. This means we get ghetto gangbusters Georgia Sykes (a decent Alicia Keyes) and her slightly Sappho backup, Sharice. There’s also the slightly homosexual redneck retards The Tremor Brothers. Played by Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Sterling, they’re like the Three Stooges on speed metal and too many episodes of Jackass. Toss in the torture expert Pasquale Acosta, the master of impersonation Lazlo Soot, and a trio of bewildered bounty hunters led by a seedy Ben Affleck, and you’ve got a considerable cast of crackpots.

On the side of good, Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta are fast talking FBI agents, their partnership so focused and single minded that they more or less finish each other’s thoughts. Their boss is Andy Garcia, a stuffed shirt hiding his bureaucratic bluster within an air of suave seriousness. There are ancillary people props as well, including a heard but not seen Alex Rocco, a Ritalin addicted brat who speaks like a rapper, and a collection of slight and sketchy human odds and ends. Everyone’s status as incomplete ideas wouldn’t be so bad if Carnahan had set them up inside one of those wonderfully impractical macho mania movie narratives. You know the kind – an impenetrable fortress, a series of video game like challenges to be met and overcome, the sense that defeat is just around the corner while victory is almost always assured. Had Smokin’ Aces been so intricate and innovation, the flat features of its cast would fit right in.

Instead, we find our attention wandering during many of the so-called set pieces. We watch Alicia Keyes’ Georgia and try to decipher how she started her life as a hired gun. As the Tremor Brothers grapple with each other and constantly fidget with their privates, we speculate on how these Deliverance style bumpkins became such in demand daredevil thugs. Even as round after round of ammunition is dumped into situations, when muzzles are flashing and sparks are spraying in eye and mind appealing slow motion, we never once feel connected to the chaos. That’s because Carnahan is merely pretending to play visionary. In truth, he’s just riffing on those filmic forefathers that created and confounded the formulas he’s fooling with, which makes the arm’s length ideal that much stronger.

This doesn’t mean that Smokin’ Aces is unwatchable. Hardly. There are specific scenes and individual moments that stand throughout as examples of the movie’s many facets – comedy, action, homage and spectacle – coming together in amazing statements of artistic clarity. When the backstory on Buddy Israel is offered, it’s many Las Vegas insider elements revealed, we feel the dizzy glitz of the city where any and all sins are meant to stay secret. Similarly, each hit man (or woman) gets a nice little illustration of their skills, and this helps to make Soto, the Tremors, and Acosta into viable evil. As the moral center of the story, Reynolds gets a couple of fantastic visual moments. One comes as he leaves the hotel, the attempt to protect Israel botched by a dozen intervening elements. As he walks into the daylight, the sun literally absorbs his outline, losing his fixture as a hero in a cloud of dazzling whiteness.

Reynolds’ second scene brings the film to a close, and after the half-baked denouement we get for all the gunplay, it’s a very dramatic and very necessary sequence. Yes, Smokin’ Aces wants to give us one of those gobsmacking, jaw-dropping twist endings, a conclusion that cancels out and changes everything we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, only the dimmest of cinematic sleuths would miss the obvious clues to the reveal, and though he intends it to be insightful, Carnahan’s finish just kind of lays there, doing very little to alter our perceptions. It’s like learning that there’s no Santa Claus, or that Dr. Pepper doesn’t contain prune juice. For all it’s attempted kinetic energy, Smokin’ Aces can’t help but resemble an urban legend that’s been left out in the public consciousness for far too long.

And the recently released DVD does little to alter that suggestion. Universal deserves credit for creating a technically sound (nice image and audio), fully supplemented package that draws us into the various facets of this film’s production. Two commentaries expertly illustrate the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the film. Carnahan and his editor Robert Frazen discuss the actual shaping of the storyline, mentioning scene by scene what was filmed and how it was tweaked in the cutting room. A second track with Carnahan and a few cast members (no one significant) is just an excuse to joke around and mock the other actors. The deleted and extended scenes clarify very little, while the “explosive alternate ending” advertised on the package is nothing more than gunshots substituting for nuance. The best material offered is a trio of backstage featurettes, all of which illustrate how determined and delighted Carnahan is to be working on this, his first major motion picture.

It’s a shame then that the results weren’t more magical. Smokin’ Aces stands somewhere between the creative crack attack of Crank, and the testosterone fueled freak out of the WWE’s The Marine. It’s not the highest octane thriller in the entire post-modern motion picture paradigm, but it sure doesn’t crackle and snap like it should. It could be a case of too many character kooks spoiling the body count broth, or a filmmaker so filled with ideas that he doesn’t know how to successfully streamline his approach. Whatever the case may be, you’ll enjoy the various overly aggressive face offs while wondering aloud just who in the heck these oddball people really are. While Buddy “Aces” Israel may be the center of a murderous maelstrom, pitting mobsters against maniacs, he remains the core enigma of an entertaining offering that just can’t fit in – not within the creative OR commercial cliques.

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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
Ed Rec Vol 2

Ed Rec Vol 2

Various Artists
Ed Rec Vol 2 Feadz Medley [MP3]

Xiu Xiu
Hello from Eau Claire (Gold Chains remix) [MP3]

Fabulous Muscles (Kid 606 remix) [MP3]

Minus Story
Stitch Me Up [MP3]

Jana Hunter
Valkyries [MP3]

Paul Duncan
The Lake Pt. 2 [MP3]

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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007

Musings on the ethics of contemporary journalism

The Washington Post’s Tom Ricks is one of America’s most respected journalists who has diligently covered The Pentagon for years. His expertise and experience in covering military affairs is encyclopedic. His book Fiasco has outlined the “complete failure” America has launched in Iraq. Many of his colleagues at The Washington Post have also written similarly engaging books about different aspects of the Iraq war.

However, while Fiasco has received much critical attention (and has sold many copies), what has not been addressed are the ethical ramifications that emerge when reporters like Ricks publish books that argue positions about a war they are still being paid to report and cover. While The Washington Post, like many newspapers, typically offers sabbaticals or some other compensatory reprieve for reporters while they are writing such books, mainly to relieve them of their regular journalistic beats, Ricks and others do ultimately return. Unfortunately, they cannot fully divorce their journalistic objectivity from the positions they argue in such books. And this is a fundamental problem of journalism ethics.

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Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007

Sociologist Duncan Watts writes up his study on how music becomes popular through network effects for the NYT Magazine. The upshot of his results are this: When we are deciding how much we like a pop song, intrinsic qualities of the music are far less important than our perception of how many others like it.

The common-sense view [of music’s popularity], however, makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because what we often want is not so much to experience the “best” of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing.

This conforms with the sociological view that musical taste is predominantly a matter of signaling which social groups you’d like to belong to—that taste is a proxy for class (this notion is elaborated at great length in Bordieu’s Distinction.) Yet we typically believe that our musical taste reflects something unique to us, is an outlet for some inner truth about ourselves that can’t otherwise be expressed. Perhaps both these propositions can be true, that musical taste is both produced by our desire to merge socially and by our own unique methods for performing the merge. But it remains absurd to assert the superiority of one’s taste in pop music; if this study’s findings are right, than such assertions are sheer tribalism—a rallying tool to uphold boundaries and exclusions.

In “Listening to Popular Music” (in the often derided 1957 anthology Mass Culture) David Reisman argued that “the functions of music our social—the music gives them something to talk or kid about with friends; an opportunity for competitiveness in judging which tunes will become hits, coupled with a lack of concern for how hits are made; an opportunity for identification with star singers or band leaders as ‘personalities’, with little interest in or understanding of the technologies of performance or of the radio medium itself.” He suggests that discrete hits allow mass participation in culture and the illusion of equality (we all share the same songs) while at the same time reiterating the atomized nature of society—everybody is isolated and in competition with everyone else. This all seems about right to me—pop music carries water for organizing society into recognizable groups, usually ones required to maintain the status quo—yet music nerds masquerade as connoisseurs. I guess I harp on this frequently because I regret all the time I’ve already wasted arguing that some band sucked or trying to convince people (or myself) that it was imperative to be into a certain album or band. I think of the stupidly smug sense of superiority I’ve derived from having “good taste in music,” as though I knew something others didn’t, when in fact I was the ignorant one—I hadn’t considered or couldn’t accept the reality of the extra-musical influences shaping my opinions. Accepting the reality of those influences seems now to be an integral step toward really hearing what you are listening to.

In his essay, Watts calls our attention to how a few key influencers early in the process of disseminating a piece of culture can have a massive, unpredictable effect on the success of that work, and the future success of all other works by that artist.

if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.

A small shift in relative popularity at a key time and place could explode into a massive difference. This seems to justify advertising and payola efforts, targeted at those key places (could they be determined), which can make a thing seem already popular as its popularity is being built. But it’s probably the case that such efforts need to corroborated by a trusted source, by the überinfluencers for instance that Gladwell writes about in The Tipping Point, for the public as a whole to buy into something—word of mouth must confirm the impressions created by media and marketing. This all creates the context in which we hear something, and that context is obviously all important—pop music is more evocative of other things (firends, feelings, places we’ve been, experiences) than it is intrinsically compelling.

Watts emphasizes the unpredictability of what will eventually be popular, hoping to discredit the impression that the market vindicates preexisting preferences rather than contributing to shaping them—in other words the market is not transparent and neutral as a medium; it compounds the rewards it gives and affects the exchanges which take place within it. This is a useful lesson to be reminded of over and over because as Watts points out, we tend to ascribe logic retrospectively where there was none:

sudden shifts in consumer demand can still arise, persist and then shift again. These shifts often come as surprises but are soon explained away as mere reflections of changing public sentiments. Yet while in some sense these markets do reflect what people want, that is true only of what they want right now. If markets not only reveal our preferences but also modify them, then the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before — or what we will want in the future — becomes deeply ambiguous.
Our desire to believe in an orderly universe leads us to interpret the uncertainty we feel about the future as nothing but a consequence of our current state of ignorance, to be dispelled by greater knowledge or better analysis. But even a modest amount of randomness can play havoc with our intuitions. Because it is always possible, after the fact, to come up with a story about why things worked out the way they did — that the first “Harry Potter” really was a brilliant book, even if the eight publishers who rejected it didn’t know that at the time — our belief in determinism is rarely shaken, no matter how often we are surprised. But just because we now know that something happened doesn’t imply that we could have known it was going to happen at the time, even in principle, because at the time, it wasn’t necessarily going to happen at all.

It’s a repeat of the lesson Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior hammers home—that the dynamic nature of events alters our preferences over time, so that the choices others make shape our choices and the contribution our behavior makes to a system alters the desirability for everyone, ourselves included.

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