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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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Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007


There is a moment in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Children of Men where the reality of what is going on finally sinks in. It doesn’t occur when our hero, Theo, narrowly escapes death as a bomb goes off in his local coffee shop. Nor is it the sequence where a band of rebels known as the Fish kidnap this disgruntled civil servant and ask him for a bureaucratic favor. No, in a scene so subtle it almost gets away with its subversion, Cuarón lets us look at the London kept unaffected by the ongoing apocalypse around it. Behind well guarded gates, past lawns loaded with all manner of English tea party pageantry, zoo animals mingle with the privileged and the upper crust, palace guards parading down archetypical streets, everything glazed with proper British ceremony.


Theo, there to visit a relative in the ministry, gets to see the spoils of a world gone warlike. The “rescued” statue of David sits in the foyer, as memento of a raid in Florence. Similarly, a trip to Spain garners Picasso’s Guernica, it’s images of death and destruction used to line a dining room wall. As he sits and eats, sipping wine and drinking in the artificial atmosphere, we see a shockingly familiar site just beyond our view. Sure enough, right outside the window, is yet another lesson in preserving the past. It’s the inflatable pig from Pink Floyd’s Animals album, once again sitting perched within its Battlesea Power Station setting.


Call it dystopian or future shocking, but Children of Men is nothing more than a sensational cinematic allegory as bona fide art. Fashioned from PD James famed novel about a world gone infertile (and the horrors that accompany such a biological barrier), a legion of screenwriters have boiled the metaphorical wake up call into a look at the planet circa 2006. The technology visible is not quite beyond our current comprehension (even if computer screens float freely in the air) and the destruction not predicated on massive acts of global extermination. It is clear from the neo-fascist regime ruling Britain that Earth has died from the inside out, unable to cope with the demise of implied immortality. One of the ideas that this stellar motion picture exploits effectively is the hopelessness of those unable to contemplate the inability to continue on with the species. Instead of finding ways to channel this despair, to join together to fight, they turn on each other, creating police states where citizenship is more important than solutions.


The scenes where immigrants – or ‘fugees’, for refugee – are rounded up and placed in camps smack of so many historical atrocities that it’s hard to pick just one. Between references to the Troubles, the Holocaust and post-9/11 America to the Cuban Boat Lift of the ‘80s and the Japanese internment of the ‘40s, it is clear that Cuarón sees the world as a constant power struggle between the established and the excluded, a continuation of colonialism and imperialism wrapped up in jingoistic jargon and problematic patriotism. When we learn that Theo’s being recruited to help Kee, a pregnant black migrant, escape the city to a supposed scientific project, his stupefaction over seeing a woman with child provides him with an answer to everyone’s problems. “Tell them”, he says, “tell the world.” Naturally, he is scoffed at, one member of the resistance making it clear that Britain would never stand for the first new baby in 18 years being a non-citizen. Of course, there is another reason for their rejection of Theo’s plan, but it’s clear from their conviction that Kee’s existence would only escalate the problem.


Part of the beauty of this film is its exquisite attention to detail. Songs like “In the Court of the Crimson King”, “Hush” and “Ruby Tuesday”, obviously chosen for their ready recognizability, also set the tone for these looking backward times. The Beatles are nowhere to be heard, and bands from the later part of the Brit-pop movement fail to make an appearance as well. Indeed, when Theo’s hippy friend, a pot growing ex-political cartoonist named Jasper (played brilliantly by Michael Caine) wants to “rock out”, he puts on some discordant noise which sounds like techno gone tainted. Memories from the past are important to the people of Children of Men, but they also realize that without a future generation to share them with, such recollections are more or less pointless. They too will die one day. Even Theo’s ex-lover, the Fish leader Julian (Julianne Moore) reminds her partner (and father of their now dead child) that you never really forget what came before, you simply try and learn to live with it. Since each performance is amazingly effective – Clive Owen, as Theo, argues for his place as one of today’s best big screen actors – and the world Cuarón creates so precise, we don’t need long scenes of expositional explanation to get the feel of this tentative time period.


The camerawork here is equally amazing. Mostly handheld, sometimes with the addition of a Steadicam, Cuarón places us alongside the characters, letting us overhear conversations and viewing potential dangers from a clear first person POV position. Some may see this as a trick – along with a couple of sensational tracking shots that, in one take, cover substantial narrative and action ground – but it works to keep us attached to the storyline. Something as unfathomable as Children of Men‘s crisis needs to stay immediate and focused. Sit around too long, or maintain too much distance from the situations and people begin to pick away at plotpoints. Similar to the style Stephen Spielberg employed during War of the Worlds, Cuarón is making it clear that this is no time for thinking. Thought went away over 18 years ago, and now governments wage war against humanity in order to save their own sense of sovereignty. We are supposed to be swept up in events like these, not sit back in the comfort of our stadium seat and rationalize a way for these desperate people to simply get along.


Yet there’s another element at play here, something sly and rather underhanded. It is clear that Children of Men is offering up a weird sort of warning sign, telling a social structure that clearly sanctifies all offspring to be careful what they live vicariously through. The notion of biology as a balm has long been a staple of the cinematic experience. Couples are fighting, families are in free fall, the wicked are wearing down the world. Have a baby, and suddenly, everything is lollipops, roses and puffy pink (or blue) clouds. The implication, both from the opening news report on “Baby Diego” and the glimpses we see of other catastrophes, is that without kids, adults go insane. Unhappy, unfulfilled and without a means of channeling their fear of death into something that will theoretically live on, the supposedly more mature members of society become unglued, guiding the populace toward genocide, isolationism and religious radicalism. Both Christians and Muslims get their moment to muck things up (never outwardly, but in the background) and it’s interesting how God becomes an incomplete catalyst. Kee is seen as a miracle, but one only a phantom group of scientists can supposedly help.


In addition, the film forces a confrontation between the diplomatic minded among the liberal set and the far more iron fisted forces in charge. The parallels to Iraq and other recent US foreign policy blunders are more than obvious, and scenes where armed forces battle rebels for control of a refugee facility have a war correspondent feel to their filmmaking. Cuarón keeps his camera fluid during these moments, never letting it settle even in sequences of outrageous histrionics or nail-biting stealth. He also avoids the brave new worldisms of most futuristic films, keeping police state Britain recognizable, with minor touches here and there to amplify the unfamiliarity. In the end though, Children of Men is more about the present than what we can anticipate years from now. It holds up a mirror to our sentimentalized selves and argues that, without a conduit for our care and consideration, we will turn on our fellow man and destroy all civilizing concepts around us. In a year that saw masterpiece works from Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a cinematic clinic on how to make images work both as metaphors and movie. Definitely one of 2006’s best, Children of Men helps reinstate the sagging fortunes of serious sci-fi. Too bad all filmmakers can’t be as specific – and sensational – as Cuarón.


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Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007


I’ll admit I don’t understand all the fuss about Apple’s forthcoming iPhone, which just seems like an overpriced BlackBerry to me. (Like I know—I’ve never had a cell phone or any gadget that gets emails or text messages. I received a Palm Pilot for Christmas one year in the 1990s and I never took it out of the box—it seemed inherently inferior to my preferred PDA, a spiral notebook. So you can discount my opinion accordingly.) The iPod was successful mainly because it created its own market for mp3 players. But people already have phones and they probably aren’t going to adopt Cingular and abandon their current service (usually contracted for years and with penalties for breaking it off) just for whatever minimal cachet comes from being an iPerson. (And I know the more I see that douche-bag hipster in Apple’s commercials, the less I personally want to be one—an iPerson that is; I’m probably a douche bag already.) And those who for whatever reason need to be reading email while walking down the street, driving their car or sitting in a restaurant already can, and they are already accustomed to twiddling their thumbs on the little keypads—they probably won’t want to switch to the touch screen interface Apple’s peddling here. Apparently the hope is that some suckers will want iPhone because the DRM-crippled iTunes collection they’ve already amassed will play on it. And then perhpas some of these people will become so enamored of the OS X style interface, they’ll start buying Mac PCs. However, my guess is only Apple cultists buy this particular gadget in the first place.



All that being said, I don’t know why I feel invested in this gadget’s success at all. I have the feeling that the iPod, like cultural phenomena like Nirvana and Pulp Fiction, served to mainstream a certain kind of hipsterdom that seems like a parody of ideals I once held, and I guess I’m still bitter about that. Apple’s whole business model seems predicated on coolness, the same way Tiffany’s is based on exculsivity and snobbery. I’m in favor of less snobbery; I hope the next revolutionary gadget will expose all gadgets to be interchangeable commodities, with nothing going for them but their functionality. I can dream, can’t I?


(Thanks to englishrussia.com for the image.)


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Wednesday, Jan 10, 2007

Sometimes your money really isn’t good enough. Here’s something to remember the next time you hear an argument that extols how purchasing power is emboldening democracy: Today’s WSJ has an article about Tiffany’s strategy to alienate existing customers—trend jumpers, teenagers, aspirational lower-class folk; the wrong sort of customers, apparently—and the huge profits they brought the company and shareholders in order to make the brand as a whole seem more exclusive. The company believes its image is ultimately more valuable in the long run than whatever profits it surrenders by pricing its once popular line of silver jewelry out of the reach of the little people: ” ‘The large number of silver customers did represent a fundamental threat—not just to the business but to the core franchise of our brand,’ says Tiffany CEO Michael Kowalski.”  The company was frustrated that its initial price raises couldn’t scare away enough consumers, so it boosted prices again and again until demand was finally quelled.


Tiffany’s is declaring essentially that it’s more important to make slim profits by selling to rich people than to make big profits selling to everyone. “Like a growing number of publicly traded luxury-goods makers, Tiffany is attempting to walk a razor-thin line: broadening offerings to the upper-middle-classes while pitching privilege to the truly rich. The dilemma is particularly common these days, as investors clamor for sales growth on one side and fickle luxury buyers demand exclusivity on the other.” This is pitched as a reasonable long-term strategy, but what Tiffany’s is trying to preserve is not profitability but a class structure that it has postioned itself to police. In our democracy, the state has forsworn much of its traditional role of conserving privilege to the people who already have it. This opens up the field to capitalists. In the absence of a repressive state enforcing castes, comapnies like Tiffany’s spring up like rent-a-cops to do the necessary policing of class boundaries, controlling supplies of positional goods and keeping the lid on aristocratic social capital. Jealously guarding its supply of exclusivity—which is valuable less in monetary terms than in its priceless, near timeless, significance to class antagonisms that predate the cash economy—Tiffany’s will do what it can to make sure that its fine, upstanding name is not used to give the hoi polloi any dignity. Apparently, preserving that class gulf is more valuable than any cash profits could ever be.


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