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by Rob Horning

4 Oct 2007

It’s easy to be lulled into complacency when thinking about the putative wisdom of markets, and I’ve found myself guilty of it lately: listening to a co-worker complain about the death of mom-and-pop type stores in Manhattan, I sat silently thinking that if New Yorkers truly cherished such stores, they wouldn’t be disappearing. Of course the situation is not so clear-cut—big chains make their bucks elsewhere and then contribute to the rent inflation that makes smaller businesses unprofitable. Chains can defray the expenses of flagship outlets in prestigious locations by trimming costs around the margins at workaday branches in humdrum suburban strip malls. But since I’ve inundated myself with econothink, I tend to put the burden of proof on those who want to tamper with the workings of markets, particularly for the provision of nonessential goods. So this Slate column by economist Joel Waldfogel, worked for me as a timely corrective. His main point is that individual taste doesn’t dictate what is available in the marketplace:

Two simple conditions that prevail in many markets mean that individual taste alone doesn’t determine individual satisfaction. These conditions are 1) big setup costs and 2) preferences that differ across groups; when they’re present, an individual’s satisfaction is a function of how many people share his or her tastes. In other words, in these cases, markets share some of the objectionable features of government. They give bigger groups more and better options.


Waldfogel’s point here is that markets stifle diversity, but in a perverse way, this strikes me as an argument in markets’ favor; why should we labor under the tyranny of individuals’ taste, and the waste and inefficiency necessary to cater to each and every person out there? Maybe long-tail marketing and internet distribution can mitigate the collective burden of this somewhat, but still—markets may be useful to the degree that they break people out of selfish expectations and gratifications, teach them that gathering goods is the part of life in which you should conform and accept what’s available, and its the actual conduct of your life that brings to it its individualized color. What’s wrong with markets is not that that can’t gratify individualistic desires, but that they can and that marketers do whatever they can to foster such wishes.

But Waldfogel is right in pointing out that there is nothing particularly “just” about market outcomes, anymore than politically motivated outcomes determined by bureaucrats. The main argument in the market outcome’s favor is the illusion of control it affords the consumer—you seem to have no one to blame but yourself. But in a functioning democracy, a popularly elected government can contribute the same illusion of control, only you spend your vote rather than your dollar to shape your economic outlook. But the case I would want to make is that there is no point in expecting justice of that sort—of the “right” to have one’s peculiar wants serviced—in the marketplace, and that one should be looking for justice, fulfillment, self-expression, and so on elsewhere.

UPDATE: Economist Glen Whitman has a similar take.

by Jillian Burt

4 Oct 2007

On The Subway Photograph by Yi

On The Subway Photograph by Yi

AFP reports that three Japanese newspapers are creating an online alliance that will see their articles published alongside one another in order to maintain the influence of newspapers which is being eroded by the popularity of the Internet, and to encourage younger readers to subscribe to the print editions of the newspapers. “The tie-up involves The Yomiuri Shimbun, which is considered the world’s top-selling newspaper, along with its liberal arch-rival The Asahi Shimbun and the Nikkei business daily,” writes AFP. “The three media giants will also cooperate in distribution in regional areas, especially the Yomiuri and Asahi dailies which respectively sell over 10 million and eight million morning copies each day. The alliance came as the newspaper industry faces difficulties in maintaining Japan’s extensive home delivery system, particularly in remote areas where the population is dwindling.” The story also notes that Japan is one of the few countries in the world where newspaper circulation isn’t going down, and this attributed to the home delivery services.

In describing the new service The Yomiuri Shimbun said the alliance is also expected to “bolster the quality of their articles as readers will be able to scrutinize different accounts of the same stories from three papers. The Web site will serve as a journalistic arena where reporters from the three papers will compete with each other in the full glare of the public eye. Accordingly, reporters will strive to write articles of superior quality and the readers of each paper will come to expect high-quality writing.” During disasters the newspapers will share printing and distribution services to get their newspapers to their readerships.

 

by Jason Gross

4 Oct 2007

Interesting item from am New York (NYC area free daily paper) a few days ago which was supposed to appear in their blogs but only actually appears in their print edition:

“Here’s something that occurred to me last night.  The time of arrival at a concert is directly related to how cool a given concertgoer is, with later being cooler.  The distance from the stage is also directly related to coolness, with closer being cooler.  BUT the later one arrives, the less karmically cool it is to then push one’s way to the front.  Ideal solution: Be a VIP, come late and flash your credentials as you make your way through the jealous crowd.”

by Bill Gibron

3 Oct 2007

Back in the ‘80s, it was a running joke. It seemed like, every time you turned around, another Stephen King work - no matter how minor – was being prepped for a cinematic styling or on its way to your local Bijou. To call it overkill would be too simplistic. It was, as if, the man’s massive imagination was being purposefully corralled by an industry that believed his muse was all too fleeting. The “hurry up and hit it” mentality (otherwise known as strike while the iron’s assets are liquid) meant that, in some cases, the film version of a famed tome was in preproduction before the book even made the bestsellers. It was a buyers market and the author had literary real estate to spare. Among his many novels, numerous short stories, and projects purposefully created for the movies, he was a one man idea factory. A funny thing happened on the way to maximum production capacity, however. Audiences began to balk.

At first, all was business as usual. The studios kept churning out the chum, delivering subpar motion pictures and endless, unnecessary sequels. And while they weren’t overwhelmed, the crowds kept coming. But diluting your inventory never results in quality, and before long, King’s name was as marginalized as his turnstile reputation, a lamentable presence in a genre that had long since surpassed his undeniable storytelling expertise. Additionally, the remaining items in his oeuvre were becoming more and more complicated to realize – massive magnum opuses sprawling out over hundreds of pages and dozens of subplots. With visionary elements far exceeding Hollywood’s ability to realize them, and narratives that touched on subjects both controversial and complex, the days of simple story arcs (killer dog, killer car, killer kid) were long over. So while the viewers were turning to other macabre makers, Tinsel Town turned its back on the once heralded cash cow.

But that doesn’t mean King is tapped out. Far from it. As a matter of fact, there are a half dozen or so interesting production possibilities just lying around, waiting to be discovered. At SE&L’s suggestion (and we will gladly accept any and all finder’s fees, thank you), here are six wonderful works that would make riveting entertainment options. We’ve purposely avoided anything already planned (The Talisman, Cell, From a Buick 8) as well as remakes, reimaginings and outright rip-offs. As far as we known, this sextet of stellar novels are languishing in limbo, caught somewhere between 1408’s recent success and past calamities still stinking up the artform. Each one argues for two incontrovertible truths. First, there has never been a man as prolific as Stephen King. And second? That for every mediocre motion picture pried from his prose, there’s a possible gem waiting in the wings, beginning with:

The Long Walk

As part of his Richard Bachman persona, King tackled the dystopian future as only his insular mind could imagine it. The results are this spellbinding thriller about a group of 100 randomly picked boys sent on a mandatory trek across a totalitarian American landscape. With a storyline similar to Speed (the lads must maintain a certain pace to avoid being ‘warned’ and then ‘ticketed’ by the accompanying soldiers) and a breathtaking narrative drive, it has the makings of a fine action adventure. Even better, the Lord of the Flies like characters, each one bringing their own precarious personal situation to the contest, allows for endless subplotting and openness. Rumor has it that Frank Darabont owns the rights. If anyone can realize this intricate tale, he can.

The Regulators

Granted, the plot feels like a revamp of the classic Twilight Zone episode where little Anthony is the “monster” who can create unimaginable evils with his mind, but in a CGI reliant industry desperate for more bitmap magic, this could be the next horror hybrid hit. Maybe studio heads are waiting to see if the similarly styled The Mist makes a mountain of money come theatrical release time. Remember, King is still considered a tenuous source of material at best. And because this book is another example of his Bachman alter ego, there’s the possibility of a less than bestseller backlash. In the hands of the right visionary director, however, this reality in flux narrative could be a sensational slice of eerie eye candy.

Eye of the Dragon

Why this excellent sword and sorcery epic hasn’t been made into a movie is baffling? After all, if subpar crap like Eragon can stumble along and stink up a Cineplex with its dumbness and dragons, why not the work of an actual adult writer? Part of the problem, at least at the time of publication, was realizing the more “magical” elements of the story. It was reported that animation was initially suggested, the cinematic category’s open palette more readily capable of bringing the fanciful to life. But just like The Regulators, the supercomputer has changed the face of filmmaking, and with the proper director – someone in tune with the genre’s inherent pitfalls and possibilities – this excellent example of good old fashioned yarn spinning would make a wonderful bit of wistfulness.

 

Gerald’s Game

Actresses are always complaining that there are no good roles for them. King, fortunately, loves to feature women in complex, life changing situations. In this very dark single character piece, our heroine Jessie Burlingame finds herself alone, tied up, and very afraid after her husband dies during some rather rough sex. As she lies in bed, hunger and dehydration taking its toll, she recalls horrors from her past, while envisioning even more dreadful terrors in the shadows of her isolated cabin. While it’s true that any star who wanted the part would have to agree to some demanding physical trials (nudity, suggested violence), the rewards would be well worth it. Within the usual setting, the author creates some undeniably powerful prose.

Insomnia

It stands as one of his oddest ideas – an old man, unable to sleep, who can literally see the “strands” or mortality that rise from our body…and the creepy creature killers carrying the scissors to ‘cut’ them. And then there’s the whole abortion subtext filled with dogma and social terrorism. But Insomnia is still one of the author’s best books, a character driven exploration of mortality and aging drenched in a weird wickedness that is hard to shake. Even better, the book finally explains King’s favorite setting – the paranormal plagued town of Derry. With all this amazing material at their disposal, the right creative team could make something truly special. And with a lot of great actors approaching their twilight years, the casting possibilities are also tempting.

Blaze

Another Bachman book, another potential for some major acting tour de forces. The story revolves around a mentally deficient con man who decides to kidnap a wealthy couple’s baby for the ransom money. The crime begins to go awry, and Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (or “Blaze” for short) starts flashing back to his own childhood, and the reasons for his own damaged brain. Imagine this unusual tale told by one of our modern movie icons, or better yet, driven by a fascinating newcomer (like Casey Affleck, perhaps) and you could have a character based dynamo. Though it was written way back in the early ‘70s (in between bouts with Carrie), there is a modern mentality to the piece that plays perfectly in these desperate post-millennial days.

 

by Rob Horning

3 Oct 2007

Economists are very excited by the Radiohead’s voluntary pricing scheme, mainly because it will provide a data set with which to test assumptions about tipping and about the future of the music industry. Prognosis? It’s fucked, according to Bob Lefsetz (quoted here): “This is big news. This says the major labels are fucked. Untrustworthy with a worthless business model. Radiohead doesn’t seem to care if the music is free. Not that they believe it will be. Because believers will give you ALL THEIR MONEY!”

There’s a strong temptation to be faintly cynical about Radiohead’s motives and look for the advantages the band reaps through this highly publicized gambit. Tyler Cowen explains how it’s a good publicity stunt for bands that make their money by seeming cool to their fans and by touring. Megan McArdle points out the clever deployment of price discrimination:

While the download is free, the physical discs with all the notes and bonus material are 40 quid . . . or about $80. This is quite a lot to pay for an album, even if you really, really like the band. So in effect, Radiohead may have created a really effective price discrimination system: the free download might not only rope in lukewarm fans like me who would have put off the purchase, possibly to forever, but also create goodwill that encourages more of their fans to buy the super-expensive (in America) discs.
Another way it might work is that the very popularity of the free (or low cost) download might force dedicated fans to spend a lot in order to signal their committment to the band. Music has a substantial status component to its consumption. If everyone and their lame younger brother has downloaded the new album for a pittance, you might have to order the discs just to set yourself apart from the hoi polloi.

Price discrimination can seem sort of nefarious, but in charging people different sums in order they may have a slightly different experience of the same basic good, just enough rope is supplied to consumers to hang themselves how they choose. And superfans can try to feel connected to their idols by making larger and larger pecuniary sacrifices. That they are buying an illusion doesn’t necessarily mean they should be kept from doing so.

As someone who grew up listening to music on a collection of homemade cassette tapes, I have never understood the idea of showing one’s loyalty to a pop band by finding occasions to pay them for their work; in the crowded world of pop music, it seems enough just to pay with the much scarcer currency of attention. In fact, people may have few qualms about stealing music because they see no correlation between the amount they pay and the value they get out of the work—because they don’t price aesthetic pleasure, despite the culture industry’s desperate wish that they do so (I paid $5 for an Astral Weeks LP; I got the unspeakably awful Poetic Champions Compose for $15. I certainly didn’t get three times as much pleasure from it.) Some peope might find that investing money in cultural product commits them to putting in the time necessary to embellish its value, to weave it into the fabric of one’s experience, bind it up with memories; but when price isn’t an issue, the process seems to me a little bit more organic (if not altogether arbitrary).

You also can’t put a price of being socially relevant, and that is something you can monetize in innumerable ways, something Radiohead is probably aware of. My impression is that the artists making music worth hearing would make it even without the financial incentive (expression at that level is its own reward), so there’s no need to worry about “supporting” them so that their innovations can make it into the world. Intellectual property arguments applied to artistic expression seem to me to debase art out of all recognition and turn it into nothing more than a patentable idea, art as entrepreneurship.

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Double Take: The African Queen (1951)

// Short Ends and Leader

"What a time they had, Charlie and Rosie. They'll never lack for stories to tell their grandchildren. And what a time we had at Double Take discussing the spiritual and romantic journey of the African Queen.

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