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by Rob Horning

9 Feb 2008

Congress recently passed a stimulus package—which has become one of those weird set phrases in the recent news cycle, like “rogue trader” Jerome Kerviel, or the subprime meltdown or the “credit crunch.” The demands of internet search engines seem to encourage the formation of such news nuggets. These set phrases become what Marx (according to literary critic Michael McKeon) called simple abstractions, holding together and stabilizing a collection of related ideas that are actually in tension. Thereby simplified, they circulate like currency and can be deployed in lieu of a richer understanding or a more comprehensive explanation of the forces at work. The main thing I know about the stimulus package is that it means the government will send me $600 simply for being a taxpayer.

You would that would be delightful, but it seems more frightening, like something a banana republic would do. It seems akin to giving hobos booze on election day as a reward for their vote. Also, the economic problems seem to be derived from too much irresponsible borrowing and spending, so it seems peculiar that the solution would be to give consumers more money and tell them to spend it freely. It’s like giving kids pudding when they haven’t eaten their meat.

Built into the phrase stimulus package are assumptions about what fiscal policy (aka money spent by the government) can accomplish. The main assumption is that the economy is moving into a recession because of a failure of aggregate demand, which is a consequence of credit suddenly becoming unavailable for risky and non-risky borrowers alike. Therefore the government borrows from the future (by increasing the deficit) and hands out checks to regular folks and encourages them to spend it. You don’t have to revile Keynes to be skeptical of this. Tyler Cowen makes a good case against it here:

Most fundamentally, more aggregate demand is not the answer because insufficient aggregate demand was not the problem in the first place.  Just as a social framing effect (and lots of fraud) led subprime loans to be perceived as “not very risky,” right now social framing effects—call them collective fear—are causing lower asset prices, some degree of credit constipation, and higher risk premia.  The economy is undergoing a sectoral shift toward less risky assets and that can bring an economic downturn.  The shift itself is costly, it brings thorny coordination problems (e.g., sudden insolvencies, overturning of credit expectations), and lower-yielding assets also mean less wealth.  Lack of liquidity simply is not the fundamental problem.

But then logic of the stimulus package may be less economical than political, as is usually the case when it comes to fiscal policy—who should get the fruits of government spending is always a political question. This package is not likely to have much direct effect on the economy, but it will certainly affect voters’ attitudes. The stimulus seems a matter of preventing a hiatus in standards of living—of habitual shopping, that is—and forestalling the unrest this would cause. So instead of helping adapt consumers to more “realistic” limitations on their consumption, we will do what we can to encourage them that no limits exist. This is called bolstering consumer confidence, and seems likely enough to work. America is an optimistic place, after all.


by Bill Gibron

8 Feb 2008

Ever since Pixar proved that three dimensional animation could be considered art, the battle between traditional pen and ink cartooning and the high tech tool has raged ever onward. On the one side are those who fear the tradition of human drawing will be destroyed by the turn toward computer assisted creativity. On the other are those who fervently believe that all technological advances can only improve the process. This contrast between progress and the past is a lot like the conflict at the core of director Jeffrey Travis’ adaptation of Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 social commentary Flatland. Originally conceived by the author as a swipe at the stringent Victorian class system, this delightful fable provides the perfect metaphor for those who embrace change vs. those with a fundamentalist hold on the past.

Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his adopted granddaughter Hex (Kristin Bell) are free thinking forms in the two dimensional world of Flatland. He’s an office drone who takes orders from supposed superiors, sage like Circles who use their many angled manner as a means of oppressing the mathematical masses. There is a strict hierarchy in this order - triangles are the lowest, common worker, followed quickly by squares, pentagons, hexagons, etc. One day, Arthur is visited by Spherius (Michael York), a messenger from Spaceland. He has come to show the naïve citizens of Flatland that there is another dimension, a third dimension of height, that will broaden their perspective on the universe and their own 2D life. Of course, if successful, the Circles will lose their power. So they plot to suppress this information, and anyone who holds it - including Arthur and Hex.

Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes and packing a lot of education in its geometrical meaning, Flatland is a fabulously engaging effort. Not to be confused with a 2007 full length feature by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., this labor of love represents a real sense of individual imagination and awe-inspiring wonder. Writers Seth Caplan and Dano Johnson, along with director Travis, have translated the essence of Abbot’s allegory, using the best bits to fuel a fantastic look at conformity, control, and the power of contravention. With effective voice work from Sheen, his real life brother Joe Estevez, Bell, and others, the result is an exceptional classroom tool that functions equally well as an artistically brave entertainment. Indeed, one of the best facets of Flatland is the intriguing character design, in combination with the unique vision employed to realize the basic X,Y world.

Bringing personality to squares, triangles, and other shapes is never easy, especially when you have to adhere to clear mathematical principles (don’t want the number geeks getting on your case over the angles of your vertices, right?). Yet thanks to a combination of simplicity and sophistication, a clear old school cartoon technique merged with the infinite options of motherboard manipulation, we get breathtaking moments like the aerial view of our title locale, or the opening sequence shuffle through the everyday activity of the population. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of material that shows how dedicated Travis and company are at making this unusual universe real and tactile. We get a true sense of Arthur’s home and workplace, as well as the suburban Hell setup that strictures Flatland.

Yet this film doesn’t rely on eye candy to get its point across. There are solid ideas behind Flatland, concepts that Abbott challenged along with his pre-1984 prognostication. One of the best moments occurs when Spherius - voiced with perfect gravitas by York - scoffs at the notion of a FOURTH dimension. Apparently, just like the Circles who guide the 2D world, the 3D plane is equally shortsighted. There’s also a sensational sequence where little Hex begins the process of thinking “outside the box”, using the theorems presented to explain the leap from length and width to height - and maybe beyond. Arthur’s interaction with Pointland and Lineland are also flawless at getting their message across with straightforward, self-explanatory strokes. From the tiniest detail to the celebratory conclusion, Flatland stands as a major accomplishment.

It also suggests that old fashioned cartooning and CGI can easily work together. When given a chance, the techniques blend effortlessly, resulting in a memorable, magical movie going experience.  There is a lot of heart here, along with the various formulas and arithmetic - and while some of Abbot’s story and satire are simplified in order to make things more manageable, the main narrative never feels truncated. In fact, this adaptation avoids a great deal of the ancillary politics of the period that get in the way of the wonder. Flatland is clearly more interested in the bigger picture than the many minor facets. Its successful combination of approaches bodes well for the future of animated movies - and the fortunes of these filmmakers.

by Nikki Tranter

8 Feb 2008

Hobbit first edition up for auction
A signed first edition of Tolkien’s book, complete with black and white sketches by the author, will go under the hammer at London’s Bonhams auction house in March. It’s estimated the book could draw bids of up to $US70,000. This article, published in The Age, notes that over 100 million copies of the Hobbit have been sold, with “the US Library Association declaring the novel to be the most significant children’s book of the century”.


West Virginia Record calls John Grisham a hypocrite
On tour with his latest book, The Appeal, Grisham has apparently spent much airtime slagging of West VA for alleged high court corruption. The Record fights back in this article that claims Grisham isn’t one to throw stones:

Grisham continues to defend convicted judge-briber and ex-Scruggs associate Paul Minor, sentenced last October to eleven years in prison. Once president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, Minor was found guilty of a range of charges, including racketeering and bribery of two judges presiding over his cases.

Grisham’s Flat Earth Society analysis: “I never saw what the crime was.”

When it comes to trial lawyers, especially ones he likes, he can’t see well at all.


James Patterson is the UK’s most borrowed author
No shock there, really. This article tells us that Patterson’s works were borrowed from UK libraries in the vicinity of 1.5 million times in one year. He is the UK’s most popular author, while At Risk by Patricia Cornwell is the most popular book. Ugh. Re:Print readers are well-aware I’m a reformed Patterson fan. So, I find it hard to stomach the rate at which folks lap up his mini-chapter pomposities. I was once like you, Great Britain! If I grew out of it, so can you!


Man attempts to mail gun parts inside books
Seattle Police, so says this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, are hunting a man who attempted to mail gun parts to France hidden inside books:

Searching the books, officers found a disassembled Beretta handgun, three loaded magazines and two boxes of 9mm ammunition hidden in hollowed copies of Richard Tarnas’ “Cosmos and Psyche,” Isaac Asimov’s “Chronology of the World” and a communications text.

Read further and the whole things sounds like a Bond film in the making. Apparently the sender was an elderly man with liver spots on his face and a slight French accent.

Art exhibit showcases unloved books
I love this story. The Birmingham Free Press reports on an art exhibition featuring sculptures and other works created using the remains of branch-room library books, those old, unloved tomes no-one has borrowed in too long a time. Cut, pasted, bent, and burned, the books have been refashioned to give them new, the article says, “a second life”. The exhibition, titled “Un-shelved: An Altered Book Project” features 60 pieces and is on show at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center and the Cranbrook Art Academy’s student gallery.

When some pictures are available, Re:Print will take a closer look at this one.

by Jillian Burt

8 Feb 2008

Final broadsheet edition of the Guardian 2005 photo by Phil Gyford

Final broadsheet edition of the Guardian 2005 photo by Phil Gyford

This week I bought a copy of the Guardian Weekly, the digest of features and opinion pieces that’s sold as a magazine, which is probably almost the size of the newish tabloid size of the paper. It’s $4.95 in Australia. Usually I photocopy some of the articles from the newspaper collection at the Customs House public library in Sydney, or print out pages from the internet edition of the magazine. I have no great attachment to paper, but I want to be able to carry around stories and read them slowly, over the course of a week, not gulp them down in one sitting on the screen. I just don’t savor reading on the internet, but I want to. For the past few weeks I’ve had a couple of feature stories percolating. One is an update on the failure of digital reading devices to deliver a simple, ephemeral experience of reading. I had an e-mail from a friend who is an inventor of algorithms and technological devices, who said he still prints out and reads feature articles rather than reading them online. And I had a misty, sentimental yearning for great editing, to read long feature articles that have been shepherded and tightened by an expert editor. (I’m working on a celebration of the quality of writing in the Guardian blogs and features—watch this space.)

“A number of people wrote in late last year to ask what I thought of the NEA report on declining literacy, To Read Or Not To Read, in the light of my arguments in Everything Bad Is Good For You. I actually jotted down some pretty extensive notes about it, either for a blog post or an op-ed, but it was right before Christmas, and so they ended up sitting on my hard drive. But the other day, the Guardian asked me if I had anything to say about the issue, so I went back and wrote up this little essay that’s running today in the Guardian,” Steven Johnson wrote on his blog. The report showed that young readers have increasing literacy rates that drop off as they move into their teenage years. The report shows that reading of books drops off, but Steven Johnson points out that the type and style of reading being done on the internet, and the way that people are informed and engaged by what they read online isn’t measured.

The only reason the intellectual benefits are not measurable is that they haven’t been measured yet. There have been almost no studies that have looked at the potential positive impact of electronic media. Certainly there is every reason to believe that technological literacy correlates strongly with professional success in the information age.

I challenge the NEA to track the economic status of obsessive novel readers and obsessive computer programmers over the next 10 years. Which group will have more professional success in this climate? Which group is more likely to found the next Google or Facebook? Which group is more likely to go from college into a job paying $80,000 (£40,600)?

But the unmeasured skills of the “digital natives” are not just about technological proficiency. One of the few groups that has looked at these issues is the Pew Research Centre, which found in a 2004 study of politics and media use: “Relying on the internet as a source of campaign information is strongly correlated with knowledge about the candidates and the campaign. This is more the case than for other types of media, even accounting for the fact that internet users generally are better educated and more interested politically. And among young people under 30, use of the internet to learn about the campaign has a greater impact on knowledge than does level of education.”

by Jason Gross

8 Feb 2008

It might not send out as many ripples in the industry as Radiohead’s model did but maybe that’s because super-producer Timbaland has an idea that’s ahead of its time.  He plans to put out a song every month through Verizon’s V-Cast service, thus creating a ‘mobile album.’  Pretty smart on the side of Verizon, who already gave away a free (and great) Prince single.  Even smarter for T who knows what time it is.  Other artists are sure to follow this model and it makes you wonder why they haven’t already.  That’s probably because, like R-head, it takes a big name that has big ideas and some chutzpah to put an idea like this across.  Outside of the U.S., downloading music for your mobile is common but it has yet to catch on in the States.  It will as long as other artists like T take the plunge (and the telecomm companies come up with better rates for sales).  It’s just a matter of time…

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