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by Rob Horning

8 Jan 2008

Starbucks was prominent in the news yesterday. Founder Howard Schultz has been called back into action in an effort to reverse the coffee chain’s slide into mediocrity.

[Schultz] said moves to automate coffee making in the interests of efficiency had damaged the “romance and theatre” of a visit to the stores. Starbucks shares have fallen 48 per cent over the past 12 months. They rebounded 8 per cent in after-hours trading on Monday.
Mr Schultz said his agenda would include slowing the pace of new store openings in the US and closing under-performing locations, and redeploying capital originally assigned to the US to increasing the profitability of its overseas operations.

Ah, yes. I’m sure you fondly remember as I do how romantic it was to stand around in the Starbucks theater waiting for someone to hand you your coffee. What high drama there was in a cranky espresso puller getting burned by hot milk.

It seems that Starbucks’ ubiquity has bred indifference to the brand, and its own success has undermined the mystique it once had as purveyor of some rare, special elixir known as a “latte.” Now just about everyone knows what a latte is, and you’ll even be able to get them at McDonald’s, as this entertaining WSJ story details. Though Starbucks may have originally conceived of itself as the opposite of McDonald’s, it always seemed natural that they would either mimic each other’s identity or actually combine, like the women in Persona slowly shading into one another. I used to argue that instead of “selling hot, brown liquid masquerading as coffee” (as a ex-Starbucks exec called McDonald’s coffee), McDonald’s should be licensing Starbucks coffee and selling it to people who have come to want the serious gourmet shit. (But then I typically make the mistake of thinking that Starbucks primarily sells coffee as opposed to “upscale coffee drinks”—I don’t drink anything but black coffee, and I forget that most people associate Starbucks with the elaborate froufrou drinks and don’t really care one way or the other about good coffee as long as there is lots of sugar and steamed milk.) Both companies are also primarily brands that communicate a certain uniformity of standards. It’s not ideal but you know what you are getting when you roll into McDonald’s after pulling off I-80 somewhere in Nebraska.

It seemed as though the companies could reinforce each other’s brand equity; in a sense they already do. By giving the language of brands such powerful and universal symbols, it validates the whole phenomenon. But I hadn’t expected them to become direct competitors, for, as the article points out, they want to supply different things to achieve the goal of vending high-margin beverages: McDonald’s uses cheap, high-calorie food; Starbucks, ersatz ambiance and “theater.” But ultimately, Starbucks abandoned that method and sought more and more store traffic. Schultz’s return promises a reversal of that trend.

But the WSJ article offered other surprises. For one, McDonald’s may also seek to provide a music downloading service at some of its locations. What more evidence does one need that music has been thoroughly commodified, that you’d buy some songs alongside a Big Mac? But who wants to stand in a McDonald’s browsing for music? It’s not like Starbucks, which seeks to sell its (now faded) ambiance as an enhancement to the music sold. If there’s any justice, the first song McDonald’s will sell will be the Gang of Four’s immortal “Cheeseburger.” 

I also found this interesting:

Mr. Schultz has said that new competition actually helps Starbucks by expanding the specialty-coffee category. “Those consumers over time are going to trade up,” he told investors in November. “They’re going to trade up because they are not going to be satisfied with the commoditized experience or the flavor.” He has emphasized that Starbucks’s baristas, who are instructed to memorize customers’ drink orders and make genuine conversation with patrons, will continue to set the chain apart.

Not only is it ripe for Schultz to argue that the Starbucks experience is not commoditized, but he goes on to offer the fact that workers are ordered to make “genuine” conversation as evidence. This may be stupid of me to ask, but when you force people to talk, can the resulting conversation really be considered genuine?

by Edward Wasserman

8 Jan 2008

By Edward Wasserman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Penelope Trunk delivered career advice on Yahoo Finance until two weeks ago, when Yahoo dropped her Brazen Careerist column. Trunk says Yahoo decided the column didn’t draw enough traffic to warrant the premium rates advertisers pay to be in its financial news package. So out she went.

Now, I have sympathy for a career columnist with career problems, but my concern here isn’t with whether she was handled fairly but with what her experience suggests about the direction that online journalism is heading.

That direction seems to be toward handing over tighter and much more precise influence over editorial content to the outside people who write the checks. If she’s right about the reasons for her dismissal, Trunk has become an early casualty of the new order of online news—calibrated journalism.

Under the new rules, the commercial value of specific editorial offerings is estimated with precision, rewards and punishments doled out accordingly, and coverage cut to fit.

Of course, we’re used to seeing well-loved offerings on commercial media dumped if they don’t pull enough people—or enough of the right people—to keep advertisers satisfied. That’s how network TV works.

Still, although network executives re-jigger their Tuesday prime time lineup to please advertisers, editors aren’t supposed to redraw their Tuesday front page for the same reason. The journalism business has been different. Although news and commentary offer a setting both for public discourse and sales pitches, traditional ad-supported journalism has worked despite that disharmony, as long as editorial content is passably free of corruption.

But now? Suppose certain coverage pays—that is, pays in a direct way: It racks up the page-views, attracting audiences through search engines and enabling publishers to charge advertisers more.

Jack D. Lail, multimedia chief for The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, writes: “Print media writers look askance at how ratings affect TV news, but in the digital economy, they face the prospect of eventually being tied to their advertising generating power, the almighty CPM, or advertising cost per thousand impressions.”

So if a reporter or commentator produces work that is read, linked to and passed along by lots of people—to the benefit of advertisers—why shouldn’t he or she benefit?

Already, Gawker Media, with a network of 15 online publications, has created a bonus plan for its bloggers based on page-views.

News organizations benefit too, the logic goes. “This data should be shared, widely, throughout the newsroom,” Yoni Greenbaum writes on his Editor on the Verge Web site. “I think it’s important for desk editors and reporters to understand the habits of their online readers. Desk editors should know what stories play best online; this is not to say that you don’t report some stories, but editors should understand what plays best and where.”

Isn’t that all for the better? Why not direct journalists toward coverage people find interesting? That’s a point Michael Hirschorn, a magazine industry veteran (and ex-colleague) who’s head of original programming at VH1, examines in an Atlantic magazine column. Taking a week’s worth of three top newspapers, Hirschorn compares their most e-mailed articles with the ones that ran on their front pages—the stories readers liked most versus the stories editors liked most.

The two realms overlapped less than one-quarter of the time, he found. He admonishes editors, “Stop being important and start being interesting.”

Who could disagree? But chasing what’s interesting has always been a lot easier, and a lot more bankable, than pursuing what’s important. Big-city tabloids have done it for generations. So has local TV news: fast-paced, personality-driven, human-scale—and hollow to the core, a civic blight.

The problem with online Popularity Pay is it that it mistakes journalism for a consumer product, and conflates value with sales volume. Journalists don’t peddle goods, they offer a professional service, a relationship. The news audience renews that relationship to get information and insight on matters it trusts journalists to alert it to, even though the news may be disquieting or hard to grasp.

What’s more, the public routinely benefits mightily from stories that few people bother reading. Such is the power of exposure.

News can indeed be recast successfully as a menu of competing distractions. The question is whether we can afford the price of such success.


Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

by Bill Gibron

7 Jan 2008

As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.

This time out: It’s a Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, World

When they first hit video stores in the early 1980s, people were aghast and intrigued. Could it be? Did these films really live up to their legend? Was it possible that we’d actually get to see human atrocities like autopsies and actual murders in our very own living rooms? Indeed, that was the promise offered by Faces of Death, a soon-to-be series of on-the-cheap video collections that promised vile vignettes of burn victims, police surveillance footage and occasionally “staged” sagas of people being mauled by animals or killed in accidents. Incredibly popular amongst teens who used the tapes as weekend sleepover double dare fodder, Faces spawned a set of sequels and imitators that created a cash filled coffer of bad publicity.

Sadly, all Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi could do was sit back and watch as their artistic statements about the diversity of the world were lumped together with bad dub copies of psychopaths committing suicide and catastrophe victims missing various limbs. These two Italian innovators were definitely responsible for the foundational films that started and popularized the whole “shock cinema” or “Mondo” genre, and compared to what came directly after it, Mondo Cane stands as a monumental cinematic statement. But with any success comes speculation, and no one was better at ripping off revenue streams than the exploitationers. Names like Harry Novak instantly saw the mock doc writing on the wall, and dreamed up their own globe trotting gratuity. The results were instant crap-ssics like Mondo Bizzaro, Mondo Freudo, Mondo Mod, and The Hippie Revolt.

Viewed today as both tawdry time capsules and copycat capitalization, the Mondo movies are indeed a compelling, complicated experience. Most rely on nudity to shill their swill, while others can get rather nasty (animal lovers beware - there are no ASPCA warnings here). For the most part, however, these films traded on the pre-satellite insularity of the world, exposing ‘60s citizens to things we post-millennial mooks see Anthony Bourdain do every week on No Reservations. In some ways, the Mondo movies were the first foray into understanding other parts of the world - the rites and rituals, the odd customs and even stranger traditions. They may seem silly today, but forty years ago this was eye opening stuff.

Take the first film under consideration. A great many things make up the wacky world circa 1966. Like Japanese massage parlors where, for 2000 yen, topless Geisha babes will scramble eggs on your sunken, pallid chest (gasp!). Or how about the fickle fashion fiascos of Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the only lingerie shop in America that treats the female breast like a cast iron torpedo, requiring a flamboyant metal framed clothing hanger to properly house it (eep!), Let’s not forget the odd exaltation of peeping on persons as they change clothes in an underwear store (shudder!). And who could forget the unbelievable enchantment and mystery of a bunch of suburban housewives painting nude canvas studies of a beefy black man (shock!).

Yes, all of these mischievous misdeeds and many more—like a man who collects oil paintings of naked women (the cad!), the freaked out art photographer who fancies himself a better go-go dancer than his nude model, or a scene from a play highlighting the Nazi’s interpersonal skills with a bullwhip - help to round out and explain the reckless reality of our pre-Nixon era global detente. Add to this the everyday details of a woodoo witch doctor doing the wicked watusi (ho hum), creepy kids on spring break (bad news—even in 1966 they were incoherent retards), and a real live illegal Arabian slave auction (zzzzz), and you have, as Topo Gigio would say, a true look at our way-out, wacky Mondo Bizarro, Mr. Eddie. [Bat creepy puppet eyes]

But wait - it gets better. The second feature finds old Sigmund getting his fifteen microns of post-mortem motion picture fame as we wander through a Freudian world of prolonged toplessness. We witness women bare-chested on the beaches of Malibu and nightclubs along the Sunset Strip (scandal!). Dentally challenged strippers and hookers drop shirt in merry, murky old England (bloody ‘ell!). Another round of Asian actresses unfurl their upper torso lotus leaves for a strange exotic dance/bondage show (um…), and balding, profusely sweaty businessmen eat cheese sandwiches and drink 7-Up (yum! yum!) in an “upper class restaurant” that features a revealing ladies’ linen show (hmm…). Even more foreign flesh is exposed in a sleazy Tijuana nightclub where men pay plenty pesos to sample the in-house taco.

And just to guarantee that we haven’t forgotten about the fiend factor in this trip around the unclothed universe we live in, there is a horribly blasphemous Black Mass featuring a practicing witch’s unbelievably possessed breasts (egad!) and a virgin sacrifice that is neither (huh?). Heck, they even throw in teenagers cruising the Sunset Strip ala American Graffiti (idgits!). But leave it, once again, to those international party people, the Germans, to show us a good time by having their frail fraulines slap each other like stormtroppers in a big thick pool of decidedly “blond” looking mud (yavol!). Yes, it is one crazy, prefabricated Mondo Freudo that we live in.

If those descriptions haven’t convinced you, here’s the dilemma with Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Freudo, and frankly, any of the Mondo style movies that have been made in the last 30 years. Your enjoyment of these faux photologues will be directly linked to the amount of acceptance you give them. You either buy the artifice, which means you will believe in the “behind the scenes,” “candid camera,” “people caught in the act of being perverted” approach offered, and spend several minutes in mild shock as “real” sexual sensationalism unfolds before your beleaguered eyes. Or, you could see through the setups and find the whole “actually happened” pretense hilarious, in which case you giggle along with the staged sin shows and slave auctions and wonder if the early ‘60s audience (mostly men in raincoats) took time from their personal “fiddling” to notice how boldly fake most all of these movies are.

Perhaps you will be like the majority, and find Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo exceptionally trashy and tasteless. Even without the usual standard animal mutilation and gore footage, the notion of spying on hapless women as they change clothes or poor Mexican girls (even if they are obviously off-market models) being sold into slavery looks more sleazy than spicy. As the forerunner to the far more reprehensible Faces of Death and Caught on Tape category of exploitation exposés, these innocent attempts at shirking indecency laws are like visual versions of a double dare. Here, fortunately, you only have to put up with distorted mammaries and the occasional unfortunate mouth of teeth.

Of the two, Mondo Bizarro is the better film if only because it broadens its focus to feature more “outrageous” incidents beyond women of many races exposing their tits. The aforementioned yoga master at least provides some philosophical bric-a-brac to support his sideshow geek demonstrations. And we do occasionally move beyond the boob to see a couple of male hustlers chasing tricks and critical deliberations on modern art. The overall tone of Bizarro is light and fluffy, not taking itself or its subjects too seriously. The film finally bogs down in the far too detailed description/depiction of the trials and tribulations the filmmakers experienced to capture, on camera, a supposed Middle Eastern slave auction. A close look will tell you the nearest many of these “Arabs” got to a “desert” was a sand trap at Pebble Beach. Most of these nomads are as Lebanese as Peter O’Toole.

Freudo, on the other hand, is determined to be a more serious, sensual escape behind the seemingly sanguine outer layer of society and into its reprobate nether regions. Candidly, this film is exactly like one of Uncle Siggy’s obsessive phases. It is totally taken with the teat. The female fleshbag in its many (mal) forms is showcased here so often and up close that you’d swear you were watching La Leche League: The Movie. Eventually, the film implodes under the burden of its repetitiveness, so that by the time we reach the end we feel like we’ve seen half the planet’s population in the altogether. Both Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo suffer from a strange sameness syndrome. Even vignettes proclaiming to be odd and unique have a familiar, formulaic feel to them.

Things weren’t much better for those fixated on the counterculture shock wave sweeping the US. Novak in particular decided that young people with their freedom and flowing locks needed reprimanding and pronto. So he dreamed up the one two sucker punch of Mondo Mod and The Hippie Revolt. You see, back when the moon was in the seventh house, before the Summer of Love melted into a winter of bitter discontent for the US, these two quasi-documentaries claimed to expose the fun, fads, and flaws inside the growing youth coup.

Mondo‘s various “groovy happenings” include surfing, drug use, a really terrible band called The Group and, what appears to be, the scandal of staying out late. The Hippie Revolt is told in the words of the “youth” themselves, and proves just how much brain damage hash brownies can cause. We witness love-ins, freak outs, and a visit to the Manson family’s understudies who smoke weed and blather on, philosophically, at a commune. Add some more nude body painting and a wild sex crazed hippie pot party (to make the target audience of all white middle aged Republican males happy) and you too will be waiting for Elton John and disco to hurry up and take over already.

Novak knows demographics, and both films reflect this pro-establishment, pro-skin favoritism. While the majority of the footage is exciting (and great to look at: future Academy Award winners Vilmos Zigmond and Lazlo Kovacs worked on Mod), the narrative tone is mocking, making surfing sound suicidal, karate insane, and declarations against war and racism anti-American. Nowhere is this more evident than in the several staged/real events that were supposedly being captured “as they happened.” The aforementioned orgiastic pot party is so phony it would make Holden Caulfield bleed internally.

The biker gang scenes achieve angles and actions that no “hidden” camera could ever capture. Besides, the riders look like your Uncle Gary playing dress-up with several of his more, shall we say, leather intensive friends. Oddly enough, for a film that wants to ridicule out of control young people, it’s the protest scenes in Revolt that strike the truest chord. Nothing, not the cheesy voice-overs or the incoherent drone of blissed-out bong suckers, can undermine the historical importance of these moments, no matter how hard Novak tries.

Unlike the brilliant docu-deconstructionism of Jacopetti and Prosperi, these films prove that Mondo eventually became a catch-all tag for something akin to gratuitous grindhouse anthologies. Find an unsigned rock act. Get some girls to take off their clothes. Break out the Dutch Boy and - VIOLA! - who have a filmable slice of scandalous life. Nowhere is there an attempt to contextualize the material, to argue why it’s important to understand an African tribes reliance on ancient ceremony or how sketchy sustenance like bugs and insects derived from need and endless suffering. No, Mondo meant a recognizable name, a quick buck, and the old school bait and switch. Then, there was some promise of witnessing the perversion inherent in our planet. Today, it’s nothing but smutty smoke and mirrors.

by Jason Gross

7 Jan 2008

I don’t what’s more earth-shaking…  First, we hear that the last of the major labels is SLOWLY (but not fully) starting to drop DRM and then there’s the revelation that the whole idea of high culture and low culture are just artificial divides as we’re all immersed in pop culture to some extent, like it or not.  Only a week in and it’s already shaping up to be an interesting year.

by Rob Horning

7 Jan 2008

This article from Scientific American suggests something that I’ve often suspected, that boredom is less a matter of dull circumstances than of unimaginative people.

a new generation of scientists is grappling with the psychological underpinnings of this most tedious of human emotions—and they have found that it is more complicated than is commonly known. Researchers say that boredom is not a unified concept but rather comes in several flavors. Level of attention, an aspect of conscious awareness, plays an important role in boredom, such that improving a person’s ability to focus may therefore decrease ennui. Emotional factors can also contribute to boredom. People who are inept at understanding their feelings and those who become sucked in and distracted by their moods are more easily bored, for example.

In the past, I’ve argued that consumerism as a system induces people to become more prone to boredom by encouraging them to feel entitled to convenience and hence exist in a state of perpetual impatience, which is quite like boredom. People come to regard their own experience as disposable, something to be hurried through. At the time, I didn’t know about the Boredom Proneness Scale, developed by two psychologists, or what its application has found in terms of whether people are getting more or less bored as society becomes more saturated with commodified culture. But the researchers who created the scale have identified two main characteristics of those easily bored that fit well with my theory: Boredom stems, in their account, from a need for novelty and an inability to generate their own stimulation: In other words, they have become passive consumers who wait to be entertained by some new external stimulus as rapidly as possible. These in turn derive from a short attention span. The question then is whether consuming culture designed for people with short attention spans can actually produce a short attention span. Or is A.D.D. not something our environment has inflicted on us.

This point of view gives a new cast to a meme that already sounds creepy and ominous—the onset of the “attention economy.” It feels as though we have less and less attention to give, as our surroundings become hypermediated, and worse, the scarcity of attention reinforces itself. Attention ceases to be a renewable resource.

//Mixed media

Indie Horror Month 2015: 'Dark Echo'

// Moving Pixels

"Dark Echo drops you into a pitch back maze and then renders your core tools of navigation into something quite life threatening.

READ the article