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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2006

Think it was funny and/or disgusting when the religious right crowed that gays and lesbians caused the September 11th attacks.  Well, prepare to barf again.  It turns out that hip-hop and dance music can be bad for your health: Researchers link music tastes to HIV risks.  I guess that means that if you just listen to classical music and have promiscuous relationships, you’re in the clear, right?  It was easy to laugh at this ridiculous study until a lot of publications deemed it worthy to report on.  See why people don’t trust the media?


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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2006

Every so often, despite devoting almost every inch of column space to the pursuit of money, the business press feels the need to run a concessionary piece about how money can’t buy you happiness. This article about money and happiness, from last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, seemed to touch a nerve with libertarians and economists around the blogosphere. The article draws on happiness research conducted by behavioral economists and hedonic psychologists and the like to make the usual points about money only providing additional happiness up to the level of material security, at which point the hedonic treadmill (our rapid adaptation to improvements) and comparative dissatisfaction (our inability to keep up with a ever-receding-and-improving cast of Joneses) set in. That’s all familiar stuff, but what seemed to grab everyone’s attention, though (me included), was this quote from professor Daniel Gilbert (whose recent book Stumbling on Happiness collects and elaborates these findings, and had already spurred a similar article in New York magazine a few months ago): “Money itself doesn’t make you happy. What can make you happy is what you do with it. There’s a lot of data that suggests experiences are better than durable goods.” In other words, buying memories, which become more valuable as they get older, is better than buying things, which deterioriate over time, causing their owners great anxiety. That is why it is better to travel or to contrive ways to get together and do things with friends. Owning stuff just gives us the pleasure of watching it decay.


This makes perfect sense to me: I think of all the grief my old laptop has given me over the years—protecting it from viruses, installing software, making network cards work with it, replacing its battery which rapidly lost interest in holding a charge. Now it’s so feeble as to be utterly worthless and it sits in a bag in my closet unused, waiting to be junked. I needed the computer (sort of) for various reasons, but it don’t think of it as having generated a “flow of experiences” for me, as economist Bryan Caplan suggests. If anything it generated the fear he admits to: “whenever I worry about being robbed over vacation, my first thought is the sorrow of seeing my CD shelves empty.” That which is useful isn’t necessarily that which gives pleasurable memories, plus the repetition of experience from goods one owns destroys the singularity of the memories created. Also ownership seems to give us the feeling of having potential experience held in abeyance, which seems to nullify any prior experiences with the thing owned. When I think of the laptop, I think of what must still be done with it, not what great things it let me do in the past; and I think of those future tasks as duties, owed to myself and requiring my effort. I take whatever experience an owned good gives me for granted even before I make that experience happen. In some ways, this is why owning a film on DVD tends to ruin it for me; I never end up watching it even though the idea in acquiring it was that I could watch it over and over again. What pleasure I get from owning the DVD is knowing that I could watch it over and over again but don’t actually have to. Ownership becomes an acceptable substitute for actual experience. (Maybe this is why I’m waiting to get Gilbert’s book out from the library to read it.)


Will Wilkinson offers this defense of experiences over goods:


Two points. (1) Market egalitarianism. Qualitiative differences between cheap and expensive consumer goods is almost nil. There is almost no experiential difference between a cheap TV and a “nice” TV. If Deadwood is good on a $2,000 plasma screen on HBO, it’s 98% as good on your sister’s giveaway used 19-inch, a $35 DVD player, and Netflix. The extra expenditure buys almost nothing in terms of the quality of experience. Same with the music. For $4.95 a month, I can get I’m guessing 75% of of Bryan’s CD collection on Yahoo. Capitalism makes money worth much less when it comes to manufactured non-positional goods. (2) Adaptation. The mind is a novelty whore — a change detector. Consciousness loses its grip on the added quality of a premium picture, sound system, etc., very fast. The cheap, almost perfect substitute for an expensive stereo is a cheap stereo. The cheap substitute for an exquisite meal at the best restaurant in Paris is… what? IHOP in Arlington? A great memory and a great story is an ongoing flow of positive experience.



The term market egalitarianism smuggles some dubious associations into the argument (I don’t think the fact that we can all possibly buy comparable TVs makes us all equal in any meaningful way—purchasing power isn’t quite synonymous with political power) but the rest seems right. If we are looking to buy status or novelty, consumer goods are likely to disappoint us. As Jane Galt at Asymmetrical Information writes, “Status-hunting via material goods is a zero-sum game, and unless you’re Bill Gates, the odds are you’re going to lose. With a little mental discipline (okay, a lot) you can stop playing that game, and force yourself to concentrate on the things that really give you joy, rather than simply creating a transitory gleam of envy in someone else’s eye.” And If we are looking for utility, we can find generally it on the cheap. But perhaps most important, utility is not necessary equivalent to happiness—maximizing utility seems like defensive behavior, an anxious protection of certain standards one has adapted to, whereas happiness is something else, an absence of self-consciousness in the midst of experience, and the subsequent ability to remember later how that felt.


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Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 4: Mughal-E-Azam (“The Great Mughal”)
1960, recently restored to color, Hindi.
Dir: K. Asif


Bollywood’s definitive historical film. The war of wills between the late 16th century Emperor Akbar and his son, Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir) over Salim’s love affair with a palace slave girl, Anarkali, is the source of endless fascination in Indian cultural history. Bazaars and streets in North India are even named after the lovers. Accuracy and truth plays a modest role here, with the story of a slave girl who sought the love of a prince and dared to defy the Emperor having an irresistible, romantic allure, like the love triangles of the Arthurian legends. Not mention, the Mughal court was a haven of such opulence that it couldn’t help but unlock the imagination. This is why many directors before Asif refused to even touch a story set in such an expensive period. Asif’s meticulous attention to detail cost the studio three million dollars at the end of 1960, a time when the average Indian film cost $200,000 to make. The awe surrounding the movie’s overextended budget persists even today.  In the Indian film industry, the joke goes that whenever a movie takes longer than six weeks, the producer berates the director by asking, “What the hell are you doing here? Shooting Mughal-E-Azam?” The movie’s name has become the code word for “epic.” And epic it is. Filled with bejeweled interiors, paradiscal gardens, and sprawling battle scenes with chain mail clad warriors astride elephants, Mughal-E-Azam almost seems like a comic book fantasy of Eastern exoticism, like Disney’s Aladdin. But the strength of the film lies in Asif’s respect for a bygone era and his direction of the three charismatic stars, Prithviraj Kapoor (Akbar), Dilip Kumar (Salim), and Madhubala (Anarkali). All three breathe humanity into the fabled characters.


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Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Or catch them singing the same song in acoustic fashion at the Cornerstone/FADAR offices…



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Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006

Marketers who specialize in getting teen girls to buy things can always be counted on to have their chosen demographic’s best interests at heart. After all, marketers just want people to become who they really are, as the firms’ market research has revealed them to be. An ad provides useful information that empowers consumers; it never tries to befuddle them or attempt to exploit their insecurities. And marketers certainly wouldn’t want to reinforce any retrograde stereotypes. Never, no way. Here’s proof.


The “all-girl talent team” at marketing firm 3iYing, which “specializes in marketing to girls ages 15 to 25,” has a column in BusinessWeek this week in which they (somewhat self-servingly) criticize the existing state of advertising targeted at teenage girls. “Girls cringe at overtly sexual ads, yet paradoxically, marketing campaigns targeted at teen girls are sex-obsessed. It’s impossible for us to browse, shop, and surf online without being bombarded with groping bodies, akimbo legs, come-hither gazes, and other provocative imagery. Even when we escape to teen magazines, we find sex staring back at us.” They are so right; everyone knows that teen girls shouldn’t be interested in sex, and that if they are it needs to take a higher form then models pretending to make out in a photograph: “Girls want a deeper storyline. To us, sexuality is more than physical. It combines visual, intellectual, and emotional elements.” As for us guys, we just close our eyes, empty our minds and steel ourselves for some stoic, emotionless orgasms. Teenage girls are far more “sophisticated.” For them, sex comes with a storyline, probably one that ends happily ever after with wedding bells (and hopefully with lots of expensive clothes and jewelry and cosmetics other such products one has to market to girls purchased along the way).


In other words, what girls want is true love. “Often, ads are so sexual, it’s not clear what is really being sold. By relying on sex to sell your product you are not only getting lost in the steamy sea of marketing erotica, you’re not highlighting what you want us to love in the first place—your product.” Girls are ready and waiting to fall in love with branded objects, if only advertisers would stop treating them as if they enjoyed sex for its own sake. That, as “modern girls know,” is “raunchy” and “cheap”: “Raunchy is when the message is strictly graphic and physical, when there is no mystery, romance, sincerity or deeper meaning. Raunchy campaigns communicate only one idea—‘girl wants some’—using the same visual messaging typical of pornography. Raunchy is a cheap play for attention. It shows lack of imagination and depth in the people and brands that use it.”  Girls, you see, don’t “want.” Such passion would be unseemly, base and immoral, as well as being shallow and without imagination. And looking raunchy, i.e. expressing sexual desire, just gives men an excuse to exploit you. “When a girl acts or dresses raunchy she doesn’t get respect, at least no one takes the time to look beyond her body and appreciate her mind. The raunchy look signals to every nearby male ‘Hi! I’m game for action.’ ” A “modern girl” should never seek action. She is a passive, frail flower, who’d best wait for the true love that comes looking for her. She understands a true courtier when he comes calling. “If the marketing community thinks [a sexy ad] is what girls find hip and edgy, then they grossly underestimate how mature and cultured we are. Girls’ aesthetic tastes and relationship requirements are sophisticated. So if you want your messages to be relevant, give us more than animal urges.” Girls don’t want something shallow in their relationship with an ad; they want something deep and lasting. They want a sophisticated relationship. They want their ads to be polite, gentlemanly. If you can’t trust an ad to be hip, sophisticated and relevant, what can you trust? Luckily modern girls have lots of products to choose from when looking for a knight in shining armor: “We girls have more product options than ever and very limited time to be hooked before we turn our attention to the next product or advertisement. In this competitive environment, advertising must deliver visually, intellectually, and emotionally interesting content that builds the brand and seduces us. Marketers must demonstrate the unique properties of a product so that we instantly appreciate its relevance in our life and fantasies.”


I can’t speak for teenage girls, but I really doubt they are pining for ads that will absorb more of their attention and be more “relevant”. I don’t know that I believe stylized eroticism is “irrelevant” in that respect. (In fact, research suggests women’s brains react quickly and strongly to erotic images.) I’d guess girls don’t need emotional connection with an ad, even if they do expect it from their teen boyfriends (though I wonder if that requirement is not exaggerated). And they are probably better served by sexualized ads that let at least them know how much of the world intends to see them and allow them to react accordingly. To be fair, I agree with this 3iYing statement entirely (though the grammar seems a bit off): “Sensitivity, playfulness, authenticity, and emotional expression between couples is far more fascinating than being a trinket for men to play with.” I just don’t believe marketers are in any position to lecture anyone about “authenticity.”


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