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Saturday, Feb 11, 2006

You have a right to worried that the huge telecomm companies want to stick it to you online (and offline) as well as “leeches” like Google: Verizon Executive Calls for End to Google’s ‘Free Lunch’.


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Friday, Feb 10, 2006

I’m not sure I have anything fresh to add to discussions of the sudoku craze. Rob Walker, I think, had a column about it in The New York Times Magazine a while ago, and these ideas are likely derived from that: Its universal appeal probably stems first and foremost from the media feedback loop that has been created about it, affirming it as some aspect of the zeitgeist one should be aware of and assuring everyone that it really is fun and addictive and so on. Beyond that, it transcends language barriers; it liberates users from needing to have verbal skills (like punning, thinking of secondary definitions, etc.) or have a wide base of learning (no trivia or familiarity with history, culture, entertainment, or the past in general is necessary); and it can be made by machine at various levels of difficulty and is thus endlessly reproducible for a wide spread of people, regardless of skill.


The purity of the logic to solving the puzzle has its appeal—no tricks or guesswork, just sheer deduction. There are no layers of meaning to it; just a pure discharge of mental energy in something elegantly useless. It’s the kind of intellect our culture celebrates—the useless noncritical kind—and it epitomizes how Americans often view smart people, as having the ability to perform pointless tasks with expediency, as having this cranial power that is not directed toward anything relevent to anything else. Other cultures seem to have public intellectuals, and a concept of such a person as engaged with social reality, analyzing culture and politics. (America has vapid pundits whose primary function is to “entertain” rather than instruct, staging an ideological stalemate to convey the sense that having an ideological perspective is either pointless or as basically irrelevent as rooting for a sports team. You won’t find a single moment of intelligent discourse on commercial TV in America. Maybe this is true everywhere.) Sudoku is a good way to render intellect harmless. (So it’s fitting that it’s being rolled out for that other brain-zapping device, the cell phone, according to a trendpiece—that prompted my own trendpiece— in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.) That alone may account psychologically for its addictive qualities—it’s enjoyable to burn mental energy and the restlessness that comes with it, the feeling that one should be doing something productive. By producing the right numbers in the right places we can control and master that need to produce without confronting any of the difficulties that come from making something useful or social.


The WSJ article concludes with a quote from a woman who is trying to control her habit around her boyfriend, so that she can “pay more attention to him.” Sudoku not only dissipates intellectual energy, but it also exhausts our need to focus—it forces one to concentrate intensely on something private and hermetically sealed off from reality, and then you can return to reality afterward with the attention deficit that’s expected of all of us to function in our media-oversaturated lives.


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Friday, Feb 10, 2006

I know, I know… I said I’d quit it but… two articles worth noting.


1) ‘American Idol’ Crushes Grammys in Ratings: the title pretty much says it all and you get the idea of the cultural import here.


2) Academy in a funk: Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times is one of my favorite writers: he’s always insightful and clever with his work and he’s been at it for decades now.  In articles like this, he’s not afraid to speak his mind outright and say that the Grammy electorate are a bunch of idiots for not honoring Kanye’s genius.  I agree but I don’t think he should be so surprised about their conservative bend. 


One thing occurs to me though: even though U2 won, we have no idea if it was by a lot or a little.  We don’t even know if most of the 13,000 people who were eligible participants even voted for them (same goes for the Oscars) . Why not make this more transparent and let people know more than just who won?  It would tell us a lot more about the process and where artists really stand rather than just knowing if they’re winners or losers.


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Thursday, Feb 9, 2006

I was listening to Dionne Warwick(e) sing “A House Is Not a Home” today, and after I finished puzzling through the ontological and semantic ramifications of the opening line (“A chair is still chair even when no one is sitting there”—does that mean that we can’t assign semantic identity on the basis of function, or does it affirm that meaning remains relational even under adverse transitory conditions? Is human agency sufficient to preserve the conditions of signification or is the signifying process always already in the hypothetical?) I started to wonder how Bacharach-style pop could have ever fallen from prominence, and how strange it was that my father, who owned these records when they were released, hasn’t listened to them since the 60s, while I listen to them all the time. I wondered, How could he have ceased to listen to them (other than because I pilfered the vinyl from his collection)? Though I am accustomed of thinking of him as being much more conservative than I am (his vote for Bush, even in 2004, testifies to that), it may be that in cultural matters, I am more more conservative. I’m the one who wants to see fashion halted, want to see something recognized as good, as satisfactory, as pleasing, to remain so forever. Let the chart hits of 1971 remain on the top of the charts till Doomsday, I say. Whereas my father seems to be discovering new music more and more (if you can call smooth jazz music), I’m perpetually narrowing my focus and ignoring as much of what is current as I possibly can. I want to trumpet the lasting value of cultural artifacts in the face of an entertainment industry that wants me to see its products as disposable. (If it can’t convince me of that, it has to resort to the technological ruse of duping me to buy the same things over and over again as they are remastered or larded with bonus features or what have you.) Rejecting novelty and ever suspect of the zeitgeist, I am always championing the conservative values of frugality over luxury, simplicity over fashion, truth over hyperbole, function over form, satisfaction in work (hard work, even) rather than reified leisure.


As Daniel Horowitz details in The Morality of Spending, there is a long tradition of left and right blurring into each other via vituperous critiques of consumerism, as such critiques are essentially moral. Capitalism makes possible choices for self-indulgence that moralists, nostalgists, Luddites and other zealots wish would remain impossible. It encourages a hedonistic view on self-gratification that makes moralists’ various articulations of the “good life” harder to abide by, recognize or even attempt. Moralists try to imagine a authentic life that exists untouched by the more debasing aspects of consumerism, but as my old notebook entry for yesterday touched on, such authenticity is a myth, nearly impossible to conceive. I don’t think one should stop trying—even if such utopian fantasies are “phony,” they still evoke alternatives to what we can all agree is a not-entirely-satisfactory status quo. Capitalism’s own moral justification for itself comes from the comforts in can provide despite its corrosive effects on the continuity and community within in a society. Consider these words of robber baron Andrew Carenegie (courtesy of an Economist article about Lakshmi Mittel): “The price which society pays for the law of competition ... is great, but the advantages of this law are also greater still than its cost—for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development.” As Horowitz points out, anticonsumerist critiques often typically evince class prerogatives; this is obvious in a condemnation of conspicuous consumption, but is also present in criticizing poor people for coveting brand names or jewelry or other “wasteful” goods. It’s tempting to think of the “good life” as something achievable by anyone, in any class, but such a belief would fly in the face of the fundamental way class configures what sort of life one can potentially lead. Wait a second, maybe I’m not so conservative after all.


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Thursday, Feb 9, 2006

Good for Kelly Clarkson, good for U2 and too bad for Kanye but it’s time to move on from the Grammys.  After targetting major labels for handing out money and favors for airplay, NY attorney general Eliot Spitzer is now going after the other side and handing out subpoenas to radio stations.  And it’s not just small fish that he’s frying…


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