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Friday, March 26, 2004

Light Entertainment
Dear Friedrich – Do we give light entertainment the respect it deserves? I started wondering about this question today as I was finishing the first book I’ve read by Ngaio Marsh, a mystery called Tied Up in Tinsel. (I listened to it on audiotape; it's rentable here. Hats off to the book's astoundingly good reader, Nadia May, by the way. I've listened to her read probably a dozen audiobooks, and she's never been less than clear, crisp and terrific. She has a flawless instinct for when it's appropriate to do some acting and when it makes more sense simply to read. When the time comes to act, she's dazzling: able to juggle scads of characters, as skillful with men's voices as well as women's, and able to score with dry humor as well as crude, knockabout farce. What a performer.) Do you know Ngaio Marsh's work? She's considered one of the half a dozen greats of the Golden Age, by which is meant the era ('20s-'30s) when audiences and writers had a taste for puzzle mysteries: Mr. Mustard in the cloakroom with a dagger, that kind of thing. She was born in New Zealand; although she was Anglo, her first name is a Maori one, and is pronounced "Nye-oh." She painted and wrote plays, and after she found her stride as a novelist split her adult life between NZ and Britain. Her writing has a lot of theatrical zing. She's one of those rare fiction writers whose characters stand up and walk around on their own; nearly all of the characters in the book I read were bursting with life. What she's most prized for is her dazzling social satire; when people get grumpy about her work, on the other hand, what they tend to say is that her novels are sparkling comedies of manners -- and then the crime happens, after which the books bog down. In any case, a not-bad way of describing "Tied Up in Tinsel" is P.G. Wodehouse meets Agatha Christie, with an added soupcon of malicious sexuality. Which is immensely high praise, at least in my cosmos. Reading the book, I had the following sequence of reactions and thoughts. At first: "This is brilliant! This is amazing! Wow! Who knew?" Then: "Well, harumph, let's be adults here: excellent though this book is, it is mere first-class light entertainment, after all." And, a while later: "Why the hell am I slamming on the brakes like that when this book is giving me so much pleasure? Isn't calling a book this good, this -- harumph, harumph -- phenomenal mere first-class light entertainment an act of condescension? And where do we get off condescending to something that's fantastically enjoyable?" When I emerged from the novel, I'd worked myself into quite a state of indignation about how dismissive we can be about light entertainment. To be sober for half a sec: it doesn't hurt to remember that we don't want to discuss the frothy stuff we love in ways... posted by Michael at March 26, 2004 | perma-link | (47) comments

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Cultural Hype
Dear Friedrich – I don't doubt that some of the people who visit the hot new gallery-art shows or read the latest hot "literary" novels do so out of simple enjoyment. I've got one friend, for instance, who, when asked what his cultural interests are, responds quickly, "Gallery art and graphic novels." Hey, he knows what he likes, and I see no reason to question his word. Our occasional Guest Poster Turbokitty is another example of someone who enjoys the hot-new-gallery-art scene. Her enthusiasm about it is winning and genuine. At the same time, I have zero doubt that some of the people who keep up with what's hot are doing so … well, for other reasons. They aren't reading, looking or listening simply because they love the stuff. Perhaps they're there out of curiosity. Perhaps they're there because they think "keeping up" is important, god only knows why. Perhaps – fools! -- they think something of immense cultural import is happening here and now, and they've got to, they've just got to, be part of it. Once upon a time, I followed a fair amount of the new, high-end hot stuff myself; I did it partly because I was curious and partly because I didn't know better, but mostly because I was being paid to "keep up." But I haven't been a pro for three years now. These days, interacting with the arts like a normal person (ie., choosing my cultural matter according to interest, whim and mood), I'm enjoying the arts far more than I did in my keeping-up days. I also experience them differently than I did during the pro years -- but that's for another posting. Which leads me to what I find myself wondering about today: if all the juju around the new and the hot cultural thing -- the hype, the cultural pressure, the pretences -- if all that evaporated, how many people would remain in the audience? How many would still be visiting that art gallery or buying that novel, let alone commissioning that piece of starchitecture? No way of knowing the answer for sure, of course. And in self-defence let's make all necessary noises about how people are grownups, are responsible for their own decisions, and are doing things for their own reasons, etc etc. Still, it seems obvious that a lot of what sustains these worlds and these phenomena is cultural pressure: newspaper and magazine babble, peer-group urgency, and whatever oomph the arts industries themselves can manufacture. Make those pressures go away, make the juju lose its magic, and how big an audience would remain? Some kind of audience, obviously. But how much of one? Me, I'm guessing that 80% of the audience for the new hot cultural thing would vanish if the hype and pressures sustaining it were to disappear. What would your guess be? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 25, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Life Among the Ruins
Michael: Thanks for the reference to an amazing website, “DetroitYes!” with its remarkable subtitle: “Home to the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.” (You should check this out, here.) I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. However, after reaching the ripe old age of 18, I only lived in the Detroit metropolitan area (on and off) for three more years prior to leaving for good at 26. Possibly because of youthful callowness and self-centeredness, I don’t think it really struck me at the time or even after my relocation to California that the period of my “blossoming” into adulthood had coincided with a truly remarkable collapse of my old home town. Oh, sure, even while growing up in Detroit it was known as The Murder Capital of the U.S.A. Heck, during my first job out of college when I was working downtown I myself was kidnapped at gunpoint while being relieved of my wallet and my car. (Nobody took this too seriously, not even me.) And the city was known for its racial tensions, what with the ’68 riots, white flight to the suburbs and the fights over forced bussing in the Nixon years. And in my few reflective moments during my stint working downtown (1976-8) it struck me as odd that whole swaths of downtown had been demolished as a result of something called urban renewal and didn’t appear to be slated for rebuilding anytime soon. (Few cities I’ve visited since combine skyscrapers with sudden patches of uncut grass growing in vacant lots a la Detoit.) And it did seem peculiar that some of the city’s worst neighborhoods were housed in large, stately structures that must have once verged on mansion-hood. But the true dimensions of what was happening didn’t really register, at least not consciously. After all, in many ways metropolitan Detroit was (and I assume remains) a wealthy area. During my youth, I recall, it was the third largest (media? retail?) market in the country. The auto industry was a huge money pump, and not only to its large executive class: in the late 1970s semi-skilled (if unionized) labor on the assembly line was paid $40 an hour (counting benefits, anyway). The suburbs, at least, continued to expand, swallowing up farmland north and west of the city. If you focused on that part of the story, things didn’t look so bad. But when I opened this website, I realized what a remarkable story had been unfolding under my nose. The creator of this website, Lowell Boileau (a painter) is a long-term Detroiter who has kept his eyes open during the past 30 years. He tells how he became a chronicler of ‘the fabulous ruins of Detroit’-- In the summer of 1971, I returned to Detroit after two and a half years in Africa, the Middle East and Europe where I had visited numerous ancient ruins. Detroit was restive, as the social revolutions of the late 60's played out their effects, and in transformation as its population began vacating... posted by Friedrich at March 24, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

String Theory Etc.
Dear Friedrich – Long ago at Camp Massaweepie, my Boy Scout chums and I would occasionally gather in a tent and ponder The Big Questions. "Nothing" was one of our faves. If Nothing were really Nothing, then how could we talk about it? Yet here we were talking about it. Didn't the fact that we were managing to discuss Nothing prove that Nothing has a Something sort of existence, if only as a topic of conversation for a bunch of Boy Scouts? And if Nothing is Something, well then … At this point, one of us would toss himself onto the ground and let out a holler of bewilderment and consternation. We loved that. Graybeard though I may now be, I'm having a Massaweepie Moment. Not long ago, I went through a couple of intros to relativity and quantum mechanics, and at the moment I'm in the middle of a Brian Greene introduction to string theory. Whee: is my head spinning. Have you had a wrestle with string theory? It's -- and I'm happy to admit that I speak here as nothing more than someone partway through a Brian Greene book – an attempt at a Theory of Everything. The basic challenge string theory is meant to meet is this. On the one hand, there's relativity, which does a good job of explaining things at a big scale; while on the other hand, there's quantum mechanics, doing a fine job of explaining things at the subatomic scale. Two sets of circumstances; two sets of equations. This situation is apparently intolerable; it seems to rubs theoretical physicists the wrong way. They look at black holes, where the two sets of equations go haywire, and they want something to bind relativity and quantum mechanics together. Even better would be to arrive at the one Equation of All Equations that underlies both relativity and quantum mechanics. There must be such a thing, if only for the sake of … elegance, or something. String theory is an attempt to be that Equation of All Equations. It's the idea that matter and forces both are made up of minuscule vibrating loops of energy; differences in vibrations account for differences in matters and forces. According to Greene, string theory is what the best young theoretical-physics minds are excited about at the moment. They find it promising and attractive, if not without its problems. My mediocre and arty mind finds it appealing too; I enjoy playing with the obvious connection between vibrating strings and ancient ideas about the Music of the Spheres. Why does music hit us the way it does? Why should it exist at all? Perhaps it really is an emanation of the basic Nature of Everything! In any case, it's an exciting moment: we may be on the verge of something really enormous. My heart goes pitty pat … and then my feet start to drag. Not that my reactions could matter less, of course. Nonetheless, I'm feeling reckless tonight and will forge on.... posted by Michael at March 24, 2004 | perma-link | (17) comments

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Why Crime Pays
Michael: Many people have wondered why it has taken so long for the corporate scandals of the past few years to result in convictions. Perhaps they should take a closer look at the the ‘fine print’ of our nation’s securities fraud legislation. The importance of this ‘fine print’ is currently on display in the trial of Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski and former chief financial officer Mark Swartz. The two men are accused of stealing $170 million from Tyco to finance their lavish lifestyles by taking unauthorized bonuses and abusing company loan programs as well as reaping an additional $430 million by inflating Tyco stock prices via improper accounting and then dumping their shares from 1995 through 2002. A conviction requires that the men were motivated in these activities by ‘criminal intent.’ It appears that the definition of this critical ‘term’ is stumping the very people who most need to understand it: the jury. From an A.P. story on the trial: NEW YORK - Jurors at the Tyco International grand larceny trial asked a judge Tuesday to explain the term “criminal intent,” the second time they have requested that explanation in four days of deliberations. In making the request, the panel asked state Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus to “go slowly” this time in giving his explanation. On Friday, under protest from prosecutors, Obus informed the jury that criminal intent was meant to describe a defendant’s state of mind, and that there was no separate definition of the term. “That’s what the law says,” Obus told the prosecution on Friday. “I know you’re not crazy about it, but we just work here.” Adding in impossible-to-objectively-prove criteria like “criminal intent” is a wonderful way to let legislators appear to be doing something about the bad guys without, um, actually doing anything about the bad guys. (Where would the law--that paradigm of intellectual precision--be without its metaphysical mysteries like 'intent' and 'the reasonable man'?) Truth-in-advertising applied to the legislative process would reveal that an amazing amount of the laws on the books are riddled with this kind of semantic nonsense. Of course, the heavy campaign contributions of the securities’ industry to Congress wouldn’t have anything to do with this sort of clever drafting, would it? I can hear the objections now. I mean, haven't most of us--at one time or another--ended up with some large fraction of $600 million in our pockets as a result of forgiven corporate loans, bonuses granted during informal board meetings where no minutes were kept and as a result of regrettably inflated financial results given out to the investing public? And that surely didn't mean that we had 'criminal intent,' right? It was all just an honest mistake! If eliminating intent, criminal or otherwise, as a requirement for securities fraud seems too draconian for you, I have another suggestion. Let's get rid of securities fraud as a crime. The way it currently is, the public is duped into thinking that having their money stolen by crooked management... posted by Friedrich at March 23, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

Monday, March 22, 2004

Comment-Spam Update
Dear Friedrich -- Sad to report, but we've hit a small landmark. We've now banned over 200 evil IP addresses from posting comments on our blog -- well, really, from comment-spamming us. There oughta be a law. Well, maybe not. But some tactical nuke-ing would suit me fine. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 22, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Business and Craft in Animation..and the World
Michael: I just read a story in the L.A. Times of March 21 that gave me amazingly mixed emotions. “Out of the Picture” discusses the significant cutbacks in the L.A.-based animation workforce. (I planned to link to this story, but unfortunately, this content seems available only to paying L.A. Times subscribers who are willing to go through a lot of rigamarole. Sorry.) While there is no shortage, apparently of animation work, particularly for television, a lot of animation now involves CGI 3-D animation (and a different set of skills). In another negative trend, jobs in ‘traditional’ animation are being outsourced to shops in cheaper international markets like Australia, Korea, Taiwan and India (for a cost savings to the studios of around 50%.) The net effect over the past three years has been a loss of around 1,000 jobs, representing roughly 40% of the American animation workforce at its maximum. Naturally, this has resulted in a lot of bitterness among traditional animators who have been tossed into the boneyard. One who is profiled in the story is Eddie Goral, now working at the checkout counter at local grocery store Trader Joe’s: “Before this?” he’ll explain, if you press him as he runs bottles of “Two-Buck Chuck” through the price scanner. “I was an animator.” Suddenly whimsy drains away. Anger flashes in its place. “Until Disney got rid of all of us.” Once upon a time, not so long ago, Goral worked “cleanup” on a variety of big-screen Disney products—from “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Great Mouse Detective” in the ‘70’s to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Mulan” in the ‘90s. He averaged about $1,200 a week, not high-end animator money, but Goral had no complaints—he was doing what he loved. But then worked slowed, eventually dried up, and Goral joined the growing ranks of the newest displaced Los Angeles employee—the out-of-work animator. It’s impossible not to feel for these people, since it is clear that collapse of Disney animation, at least, was hardly the fault of its lower-ranking employees. The Eddie Gorals of the animation world didn't screw up. No, clearly, the ‘suits’ are to blame here for bad business and artistic decisions (like the last four or five Disney animated movies, with the notable exception of “Lilo and Stitch.”) And yet, is it really fair to blame the ‘suits’? Is it really the responsibility of the ‘suits’ to ensure that the Eddie Gorals of this world are employed at reasonably well-paid salaries doing what they love? Isn’t part of the problem that the Eddie Gorals of this world want to beaver away at their craft, and don’t want to be bothered to think about raising money and launching new projects that would ensure that they stay employed? I know the tradeoff Eddie thought he was making—the ‘suits’ would get the big bucks and he would settle for a middle-class life-style coupled with a steady-stream of craftsmanly job satisfaction. But that didn’t take into account the more-or-less inevitable... posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments