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Ideas 2006

Even though there's something artificial and reifying about these kind of packages, I still recommend reading the entire special section on the year in ideas in this week's NY Times Magazine. It's essentially a list of insights and memes and piquant research findings from the past 12 months, the sorts of things you probably are already half familiar with if you spend much time reading blogs, only cataloged and alphabetized. Here's a sampling:

1. Cohabitation can harm women's health: The gist of this is that women adopt unhealthy male eating habits over the long run. Is this evidence of how deeply our culture inculcates the female imperative to submit? It seems to suggest how women compromise by default in order to sustain traditional relationships.

2. "Digital Maoism" -- this is a phrase coined by computer scientist named Jaron Lanier, who from the illustration looks to be a white guy with dreadlocks (This, I must admit, makes me question his judgment and discount his theory.) He is skeptical about the power of the Internet to aggregate the wisdom of users into infallible products and predictions, which would seem to make him a skeptic of markets and hayekian spontaneous order. But because things like Wikipedia tout their open format but are actually managed by a small group of contributors, this phenomenon is presumed to resemble China's approach: talk about collectives while concentrating power in the hands of a few. But those who maintain Wikipedia are self-selecting, they don't hold on to what dubious power they may have by anything other than their own effort. They aren't oppressing or silencing other people who want to contribute. Yes the propaganda surrounding "the wisdom of crowds" can be overstated, but it seems we are in little danger of forgetting the contribution of the individual -- if anything, capitalist society fetishizes individualism and propagates the "great man" theory of causation and history (cf, the fundamental attribution error). There are two different processes at work -- the first process has individuals coming up with ideas they think may be useful, which prompts the second process, using the Internet to distribute the idea and subject it to the collective modification of those out there with any investment in the idea. The Internet expedites the aggregation of useful ideas, and the knowledge that one's ideas will much more likely become useful for a greater number of people much more rapidly provides individuals with incentive to concentrate more on innovation. It matches thinkers with the audience capable of helping them sharpen that thinking. If this is Maoism, I'm for it.

3. Eyes of Honesty: the title the editors devised for this one is a little portentous, but it refers to psychology researchers in England finding that even a picture of watching eyes was enough to encourage people to obey the honor system at a beverage stand. Perhaps they might have called it the Big Brother effect, or the pretend panopticon or something. With the ubiquity of surveillance cameras and whatnot out there, someone virtually is watching us all the time. But with the newfangled attention economy, perhaps in our eagerness to display ourselves in hopes of being watched, we forget this. It seems as though our awareness of surveillance is always shifting dialectically in relation to our exhibitionism; the more we want to be seen, the less we realize we are already being observed and vice versa. This would allow rampant narcissism to coincide with conformity without the ideas necessarily colliding. A related idea from the list: "sousveillance" -- being watched from below, using cell-phone cameras to capture truth and speak it to power, as the saying goes.

4. The Hidden-Fee Economy: I blogged about this before but I can't find the link. A paper by Laibson and Gabaix offered an explanation for the sort of hidden fees that are encrusted to rental cars and hotel rooms and electronics products and cell phones and whatnot. Because this kind of pricing selects for shortsighted customers who supply the fattest profit margin for services, there's little to gain by trying to educate how competitors are taking advantage of them. If you educate the customers, the profit margins go down for everyone in the sector. This helps explain why advertising cannot be considered to be more informative than misleading, and why heightened skepticism is always warranted: It's in a business sector's best interest to embark on a de facto collaboration to befuddle us.

5. Hyperopia: A word coined to describe our being too preoccupied with long run consequences and thus neglecting our urge to indulge in the moment. In the long run, we'll actually look back fondly on our hedonism as peak experiences. It's the short run impact of guilt (which doesn't last long) that makes us err on the side of prudence and circumspection. This corresponds with the gist of happiness research that suggests risk aversion and endowment effects makes us overly conservative to our own detriment. It's actually hard work being impulsive, which suggests useful life skills can be learned from occasional casual gambling.

6. Negativity Friendships: I'm a pretty negative person, so this cheered me -- social psychologists found that its the negative opinions that friends share that make them close. This may be why people are loath to express negative opinions; they want to preserve boundaries and not let people into that sphere of intimacy where "real" opinions are shared. This has a reinforcing effect; negative opinions likely seem more real as they are relatively rarer and riskier, they yield no immediate benefits (no one likes to network and hobnob with cynics and naysayers) and suggest a long-term strategy of deep friendship. A negative opinion about someone else has no use value other than inviting a conspiracy of intimacy.

7. Smart elevators: I know these are supposed to save energy and all, but entering a buttonless elevator seems creepy to me. It reminds you how dependent you are when you're commuting into the sky and reminds us of the disturbing trade-off of autonomy for efficiency. It's wasteful when individuals have full control of how they transport themselves (see Northern Virginia traffic, for example) but few would voluntarily surrender the convenience of control for a gain in public good.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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