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by Rob Horning

4 Dec 2008

Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, seems a novel well suited to our times. It’s about what happens to a society in which speculative motives have supplanted the traditional moral codes governing economic and social behavior—how bubble psychology plays out at the various levels of society and affects the various relations between different classes of people. Trollope unobtrusively works the theme into his different plot strands: we see speculators in the marriage market, speculators in aristocratic titles, speculators in a fictitious railroad scheme; cheats at cards, cheats at establishing literary reputation, cheats in the game of love, cheats in self-representation, and so on. Aristocrat card players issue their own illiquid commercial paper and reputational bubbles swell and burst.

In his workman-like way, Trollope take us through the thought processes of his characters, who, unlike those of so many other Victorian novelists, at least succeed in coming across as adults. In The Way We Live Now, characters are generally rationalizing their own selfishness by referring to the apparent selfishness of others—the overriding mode of moral reasoning during a bubble. Presuming that everyone is in the midst of calculating how to press their advantage leads to an overwhelming cynicism that one adopts by default. It becomes to hard to conceive of the possibility of authenticity, of a disingenuous self-presentation. (Hetta Carbury, maybe the least tainted figure in the novel, captures this well when she says to her mother of a suitor, “He has to me that air of selfishness which is so very common with people in London—as though what he said were all said out of surface politeness.”) Genuine emotions are so routinely turn out to be vulnerable weaknesses that the characters instinctively resist them and ultimately succeed in banishing the notion of having them from their minds for the most part. 

This gives the novel moments of genuine tragedy, when we recognize that the characters can’t acknowledge their own natural sympathies, and the opportunity for real love and mutual understanding with others passes them by. Over and over, Trollope illustrates the alienation that stems from calculating rationality. If they sense them, they dismiss the possibility of acting on them, mainly because they are skeptical that such feelings aren’t a social trap, but also because they are so habituated to scheming. They are self-centered without taking much pleasure in it, which suggest the demeanor is imposed on them by the times—the way they had to live then. Speculation had become an end in itself—it becomes gambling addiction, where winning is beside the point of always finding action, always having a live bet. All the characters are subsumed by variations of this compulsion.

In a world where cynicism is virtually universal, belief becomes a valuable commodity. In this regard, the interpersonal intersects with the economic, as a capitalist economy runs on trust, or at least on trust transformed by capital into its economic aspect, credit. But credit, in Trollope’s novel, is a means to pervert the human relation of trust into something exploitable, into something that may easily be misrepresented since it is not a lived relation but a contracted simulacrum of a relation. Lady Carbury, the hack writer who hopes to ingratiate herself with the dubious financier Melmotte, poses this question—the question of the age, it seems—to one of her editors: “If a thing can be made great and beneficial, a boon to humanity, simply by creating a belief in it, does not a man become a benefactor to his race by creating that belief?” One can imagine many advertising professionals asking themselves this, as well. Nothing is real, anyway, right, so should we give people the opportunity to dream big? But the question also suits the Ponzi scheme high-finance has become in our time. As we have discovered, it is easy for the untrustworthy to secure vast amounts of credit; there are no moral tests to pass before one can pile on leverage.

So it’s not surprising that this piece of analysis from financial consultant Greg Curtis (posted at Barry Ritholtz’s site) seems a summation of the themes of Trollope’s novel:

In our view, poor risk controls, massive leverage, and the blind eye were really symptoms of a much worse disease: the root cause of the crisis was the gradual but ultimately complete collapse of ethical behavior across the financial industry. Once the financial industry came unmoored from its ethical base, financial firms were free to behave in ways that were in their – and especially their top executives’ – short-term interest without any concern about the longer term impact on the industry’s customers, on the broader American economy, or even on the firms’ own employees.

by Mehan Jayasuriya

4 Dec 2008

In the annals of rock and roll history, producer Ross Robinson will most likely be remembered as a scoundrel. After all, Robinson is largely responsible for the “Nu-Metal” scourge of the late ‘90s, having produced and championed acts like Korn, Limp Bizkit and Soulfly. Future historians, however, would do well to also note Robinson’s second act, wherein he realized the err of his ways and attempted to slay the beast that he had created. Starting at the turn of the millennium, Robinson scoured the globe for progressive hardcore and metal bands, in a valiant attempt to break through the haze of cookie-cutter Nu-Metal being peddled by MTV and corporate radio. To his credit, Robinson managed to round up some of the most inventive heavy bands active at the time—At the Drive-In, the Blood Brothers, Glassjaw—and in the albums that he produced for them, he pushed these bands to produce recordings that accurately captured their energy as live bands. The resulting records, At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, the Blood Brothers’ Burn Piano Island, Burn and Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence and Worship and Tribute, still stand as some of the best post-hardcore records produced during the last decade.

by Rob Horning

3 Dec 2008

In an effort to maintain its share of the export market, China has decided to depreciate its currency. (In the past, its loose peg to the dollar kept it artificially low as the dollar dropped against the other currencies. Now the dollar is appreciating, making the Chinese currency—the yuan, or renminbi if you prefer—stronger against the rest. That dampens demand for Chinese goods, which become more expensive.) Brad Setser explains the ramifications:

The absence of real appreciation in the past undermines China’s case for reacting to the recent renminbi move by allowing the renminbi to depreciate rather than by doubling down on efforts to stimulate domestic demand. China has by far the world’s largest current account surplus. The latest World Bank report argues, I think correctly, that this surplus should persist next year even as exports slow. China will benefit more than most from the recent large fall in commodity prices. If China is unwilling to accept that its exports will slow as the global economy slows, and instead tries to offset dollar strength by weakening the renminbi against the dollar – or it tries to offset renminbi appreciation with export subsidies – everyone else will face additional competitive pressures.

If I’ve understood this correctly (and I had to read it several times), China would rather intensify its competition for foreign market share than let global economic adjustments enhance domestic demand. The state is futzing with the yuan so its people won’t shop more.

A few weeks ago, I wondered about the future of Chinese consumerism before, figuring that the state had its reasons for impeding it and the ideological forces consumerism would unleash. This NYT story explores the current ideological dispensation for the Chinese—“tenacious thrift”—and takes at face value the government’s efforts to stimulate demand. From this perspective, the challenge is to overcome the paradox of thrift.

Government analysts are looking to consumers, especially the country’s hundreds of millions of high-saving peasants, to pick up much of the slack. “If we can boost people’s confidence and they spend more money, it will not only be beneficial to China but it will help stabilize the world’s economy,” Zhu Guangyao, the assistant finance minister, said last week.

But getting people to spend more, especially in the face of an economic slowdown, may be a tall order. Consumer spending makes up 35 percent of China’s G.D.P., and that number has been dropping since the 1980s, when it stood at 50 percent; consumer activity in the United States, by contrast, is responsible for more than two-thirds of the economy.

As an American, I find this hard to believe, since the desirability of spending and owning are second nature to me. They seem instinctively preferable. But of course, those instincts are my inheritance; it took a century of hard marketing work and a culture that gives pride of place to persuasion. Capitalism seems by necessity to nurture this consumer psychology; it requires that needs expand to foster perpetual growth. It requires us to regard the expansion of needs as a spiritual enrichment of our lives. But needs can only expand when they must suck up higher wages, which aren’t taking off in China yet. And judging by these anecdotes, the Chineses have yet to shift their moral outlook toward spending:

Mr. Dang and his wife, Zhang Fengxia, 52, are the apotheosis of Chinese thrift. They do not use banks — “better to keep money at home,” Ms. Zhang said — and the couple’s biggest expenditure was a used tractor they bought for $1,200 a few years ago. Everything else is set aside for their retirement and for potential medical costs.
Asked if she would use a credit card if one were given to her, Ms. Zhang looked confounded. “What’s a credit card?” she asked, adding, “We have everything we need.”


Xing Xiuqin, 60, bragged that she managed to stash away 80 percent of her income before retiring. “Old people just need one outfit,” she said. “You should save everything for your kids.”

Contrast that with the baby-boomer philosophy, as discussed in yesterday’s post. To reiterate, boomers “have raised overscheduled spoiled children, moved up the corporate ladder by pushing paper rather than making things, lived above their means in order to keep up with their neighbors, bought whatever they wanted using debt, and never worried about the future. Over optimism, unrealistic assumptions, selfishness and conspicuous consumption have been their defining characteristics.”

by Bill Gibron

3 Dec 2008

The most interesting Oscar race this year won’t be for Best Actor, Best Director, or Best Film. By the time we get to the ceremony next March, we’ll have had so many preemptive awards that those categories will be more or less decided. Sure, there’s always a Crash like surprise in the mix, but when was the last time a real dark horse took home the top prize? No, the more intriguing competition will be for a trophy that few televised talent fests focus on, with critical groups paying it equally uninspired lip service. Yet 2008 will go down as one of the great years for those fun fact films known as the documentary. And now that the Academy has narrowed down its potential nominees to an interesting collection of 15, perhaps it’s time for a little handicapping.

Looking over the titles featured, SE&L can safely say that it has seen almost half - seven in total. FYI - the full list is here:

At the Death House Door
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Encounters at the End of the World
The Garden
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
In a Dream
Made in America
Man on Wire
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Standard Operating Procedure
They Killed Sister Dorothy
Trouble the Water

Of this collection, we’ve experienced the horror of NOLA during and post Katrina (Trouble the Water), the fascinating story of Philipe Petit and his 1974 Twin Tower tightrope walk (Man on Wire), Werner Herzog’s trek to Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), the story of Earth’s most precious and addictive resource - oil (Fuel), the international embarrassment that was the US’s involvement in the tortures at Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), our current credit crunch (I.O.U.S.A. ) and the story of renowned mosaic artist Julie Zagar and her husband Isaiah (In a Dream). Of that selection, the “you are there” realities of Trouble match the spellbinding personal chutzpah of Petit for a virtual tie for number one - and that’s without seeing the other eight offerings mentioned.

In past years, Michael Moore and his SiCKO/Fahrenheit 9-11/Bowling for Columbine hype have overwhelmed the documentary with mangled, “must win” mannerisms. No one else had a real chance when faced with said filmmaker’s jaunty jingoism. But 2008 was a downturn for Moore, his Slacker Uprising a mostly uninspired offering of cloying campus ennui. That meant that there was room for other entries to fill the gap. Of the several fine films SE&L experienced this year, Bigger, Stronger, Faster has to be one of the best. This troubling take on steroids, metered out in true journalistic fashion (bias, whenever obvious, is countered with troubling contradiction), presents its subject with humor, depth, and a great deal of personal insight.

Sputnik Mania was the kind of hilarious history lesson which a post-modern mindset would find hard to believe. Looking back on the Commie-concern of the ‘50s is even more frightening when filtered through a wasted War on Terror based on many of the same mob rule principles. Speaking of dated period railroading, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired illustrated quite convincingly that, while guilty as Hell of having sex with an underage girl, the famous director did everything to settle the case by the book. It was the starstruck LA judicial system, desperate to put the kibosh on several high profile celebrity crime controversies, that decided to make him an example…one that still exists nearly four decades later.

No one, not even SE&L, thought that Bill Maher’s riotous Religulous would make the short list, but not because it wasn’t a brilliant social satire in the Moore mode. No, the industry insiders who vote for such self-congratulations would never let a subject like the razor-sharp ridicule of faith go rewarded. And yet such “God” content made the prison rehabilitation expose, The Dhamma Brothers, a solid and uplifting delight. The idea of using Buddhism, and the staunch requirements of Vispassana (an ancient technique of fasting and meditation) to help convicts get in touch with their inner anger is inspiring - and the Establishment’s skeptical reaction to it all too typical.

The life of legendary surf idol Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his extended family would seem like standard documentary material - until you learn that all nine of his kids were raised in a tiny camper as the maverick medico and his sainted wife traveled the country, longing to find the American dream. Surfwise‘s warts and all portrait was one of 2008’s most powerful, and poignant. So was the soul stirring [email protected]. As with many of the genre’s best, this film was disqualified since some of the material came from a BBC project started in 2004. Still, in the running or not, the tale of a group of senior citizens and their choral productions featuring modern music (Nirvana, Talking Heads, Coldplay) is the kind of rousing, revelatory film that renews your confidence in the medium.

Other missing in action titles that SE&L is certain should have earned some minor consideration include Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one of the best films on the late great journalist, and Trumbo, a take on the notorious blacklisted screenwriter. Dear Zachary offers a heartbreaking testament to a dead father on behalf of a son who never knew him, and The Cool School: How Los Angeles Learned to Love Modern Art discussed the movement which took the spotlight off New York and its vice-like grip on cultural criticism. And then there’s The Order of Myths, an unusual look at how Mardi Gras is celebrated in Mobile, Alabama. For over 300 years, race has been secretly served by clubs and organizations that, while preaching tolerance, confirm their bigotry behind closed doors.

Of course, the issue remains - with so many grand movies already mentioned, imagine the quality of the eight films on the official list that SE&L has yet to see.  At the Death House Door is supposedly a searing anti-Death Penalty doc, while The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) focused on a family fleeing Laos during America’s secret bombing campaign during Vietnam. The Holocaust and its many unsung heroes get another incredible airing in Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, while a post-riot LA and a 14 acre community project sits at the center of The Garden. Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts seems self explanatory, while Made in America is actually a film about the longstanding gang feud between The Crips and Bloods. Finally, Pray the Devil Back to Hell discusses the rise of Liberia’s first female head of state, while the murder of a prominent activist forms the foundation of They Killed Sister Dorothy.

Thanks to DVD, and the ability of smaller films and cinematic types to gain wider distribution, the documentary has come of age. It’s no longer an elusive entertainment relegated to arthouse screenings and an eventual PBS rebroadcast. The 15 films highlighted by Oscar may not represent every worthy endeavor over the last 12 months, and critics can’t keep up with the sheer number of releases arriving on a weekly basis, let alone some painstaking labor of love from an independent party. Yet as the last few years indicate, each new documentary deserves at least some cursory attention. Fall asleep at this switch, and you could miss some amazing movies.

by L.B. Jeffries

3 Dec 2008

Some very clever folks have put together a web browser version of Doom that does a decent job of recreating the original via Flash. The turn speed isn’t quite right and you can’t adjust the controls, but they still managed to put the entire first episode of the game online. Any doubts people may have about the inevitability of players streaming their games online in the future only need to give this a swing to realize the potential. Keep in mind that this technology is improving at an exponential rate.

Playing Doom again is a fairly interesting experience. Design-wise, we now have a huge variety of FPS titles to contrast it with. Since the game does not typically rely on aiming with a reticle, it automatically adjusts your shots to go up and down in conjunction with where an enemy is located. The lack of control is a bit stifling at first but eventually you start to recognize that the design essentially removes one of the essential skills we come to associate with an FPS: aiming. You still have to point your gun in the general direction of the opponent but the game will handle the rest. The level design handles this by generally focusing on corridors and large rooms, but the spatial limitation becomes a perk rather than a handicap. Maintaining health, ammo, and effectively strafing is all you really need to excel at to play the game. Ducking, aiming, or jumping are not even options. The end result feels decidedly minimalist but obviously still has a lot of appeal. It isn’t quite appropriate to call Doom a casual FPS but by today’s standards it qualifies. As outlined by the success of Wii Sports minimalist design, all you’re really doing in a casual game is taking out chunks of game design so that a beginner can grasp it. You take baseball and you trim it down to batting and pitching. You take boxing and trim it down to waving you arms in vague coordination. You don’t expect them to do fifty things at once, you start them off with five. Adopting that presumption, it seems reasonable to presume any genre of game could find ways to stay interesting while cutting down their game design to simplified but elegant levels.

Which is why having Doom in Flash, a place where many simple games find a home, is actually quite appropriate. I don’t think this version is quite there yet and the lack of multiplayer is going to keep most players restricted to nostalgia and brief distraction. The lack of music and some side effects also keeps this from becoming a definitive Flash version of the game. But given enough time, games like this could be the beginning of something very interesting for video games.

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