Archive for September, 2008
“Last fall, more than 2,700 heavily armed Yale students faculty, and alumni assembled on the Massachusetts border. Several days later, they overcame the pitifully meager Cantabridgian forces of Harvard … ” So begins the tale, told in the September-October issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, of last year’s edition of the GoCrossCampus Ivy League Championship Tournament. The competition is like an Internet-based version of the old board game Risk, with teams made up of hundreds or thousands of students and alumni from each campus, each team led by an appointed “commander,” each vying to take over the Northeast (and squash the other members of the Ancient Eight).
The creators of GXC are four Yale undergradutes and a Columbia student, a creative team that got its start building a similar game that pitted Yale’s undergraduate colleges against one another, a game that became a major local hit. They’ve since attracted about $1-million in venture capital, hired a 38-year-old executive vice president, and are at work on other team-based games designed to bolster camraderie within corporations …
[This is the tenth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]
In considering The Northern Land (aka A Corte do Norte), adapted from a Agustina Bessa-Luís novel by director João Botelho and José Álvaro Morais (mysteriously listed in the IMDB as dead, which suggests an intriguing collaboration if you believe in the afterlife), I am compelled to present the following positive facts about Portugal:
- Portugal has a high Human Development Index and is among the world’s 20 highest countries rated in terms of quality of life.
- Portugal is ranked as the 8th freest press in the world. (This beats out the United States, quite a bit, in case you were wondering.
- Portugal has its own form of martial arts called jogo du pau, in which fighters kick the asses of other fighters using staffs.
- As we all know, Portugal’s capital is Lisbon. And as names for capital cities go, this is quite pleasant to say. Because it sounds much colder than it really is. And then after you’ve said “Lisbon” for the seventy-seventh time, you realize that this is a city name with some character.
- According to the CIA World Factbook’s page on Portugal, “Azores and Madeira Islands occupy strategic locations along western sea approaches to Strait of Gibraltar.” I do not know the degree to which the Portuguese population itself is aware of these places of beauty as “strategic locations,” but given that The Northern Land is set in this area, I suspect that, on this level, filmmaker Botelho knew what he was doing.
- You can expect to live about 74.78 years if you are a Portuguese man and 81.53 years if you are a Portuguese woman.
- Portugal’s literacy rate? 93.3%!
And this is only scratching the surface. There are many good things that one can say about Portugal. I am trying to stay positive. This film’s muddled digital look did not help matters. (And should one call this a film if it does not look like a film?)
However, I am struggling to find something cheery to say about this film. (Let us be fair and aesthetically progressive here.) On a rather base T&A level, Botelho is to be commended for including one interesting costume featuring a single boob sticking out. No doubt the intention here was to bring a peculiar sartorial quality to the proceedings. But this is essentially a Merchant-Ivory-style film that will put any sensible person to sleep. I should note that I checked my cell phone five times during the course of this film to determine the time, and I am a very patient person. I should also note that this film attempts to express sympathy for a family that is squandering its considerable affluence over the course of a century. In light of the current economic disaster and the egregious bailout bill (a zombie in Congress?) that is currently scaring the hell out of anyone with money, this was not exactly a theme that floated my own particular dinghy.
Botelho also has a rather intrusive narrator describing the action for us. The narrator was so lifeless that I longed for a bon mot from Guy Debord. But here’s the thing. Botelho resists dramatizing this action. And what’s more, he has the characters on the screen frozen in their actions while the narrator continues her plodding narration. And the actors deliver their most impassioned performances while they are frozen. When they are released by the narrator, they became less interesting to me. And I was so disinterested in their lives that I longed for them to kill themselves. Fortunately, Botelho does kill a few of them off. But it’s simply not enough.
This, I would contend, is a bad cinematic strategy. When the most compelling visual that a filmmaker presents is a smug and affluent man sitting naked in a large bathing dish, waiting for servants to douse him with water, I likewise must suggest that the filmmaker has failed in some sense. Let me put it this way. I longed to revisit Bullet in the Head and Serbis.
But that’s just me. This is, after all, the New York Film Festival. And that cultural imprimatur will persuade enough misguided cineastes that The Northern Land is a beautiful film. And it certainly is beautiful in the same way that a particularly striking postcard purchased at Duane Reade is beautiful. The people who inhabit this film are not beautiful. Nor are they particularly interesting.
“This island is killing me,” says one member of the spoiled Barros family. And I suppose that this individual had a point. When your biggest worry in life is a bunch of people laughing at you, and when you declare such a common snafu to be an unmitigated “disaster,” and when the insult itself involves being called a “smelly Boal” (about as tepid an insult in any epoch), chances are that just about anything is going to kill your oversensitive soul. Such is the Barros family.
But if you’re the kind of person who genuinely believes that “I have never looked upon my father as a rich man” is the worst insult known to humankind, I suspect you’ll have a better time at this film than I did.
from the upcoming Arthur Magazine No. 31, Oct 2008
I poked my head up from writing my book a couple of months ago to engage with Arthur readers about the subject I was working on: the credit crunch and what to do about it [see “Riding Out the Credit Crisis” in Arthur No. 29/May 2008]. I got more email about that piece than anything I have written since a column threatening to defect from the Mac community back in the Quadra days.
Many readers thought I was hinting at something under the surface—a conspiracy, of sorts, to take money from the poor and give it to the rich. It sounded to many like I was describing an economic system actually designed—planned—to redistribute income in the worst possible ways.
I guess I’d have to agree with that premise. Only it’s not a secret conspiracy. It’s an overt one, and playing out in full view of anyone who has time (time is money, after all) to observe it.
The mortgage and credit crisis wasn’t merely predictable; it was predicted. And not by a market bear or conspiracy theorist, but by the people and institutions responsible. The record number of foreclosures, credit defaults, and, now, institutional collapses is not the result of the churn of random market forces, but rather a series of highly lobbied changes to law, highly promoted ideologies of wealth and home ownership, and monetary policies highly biased toward corporate greed.
It all started to make sense to me when I attended Learning Annex’s Wealth Expo earlier this year—a seminar where teachers of The Secret, the hosts of Flip This House, George Foreman, Tony Robbins and former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan [pictured above in banner from Learning Annex website] purportedly taught the thousands in attendance how to take advantage of the current foreclosure boom.
Using language borrowed from today’s more money-centric New Age spiritualists, as well as the get-rich-quick books of the early 1900s “New Thought Movement” on which these pyramid schemes are based (such as Elizabeth Towne’s The Science of Getting Rich or Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich), they encouraged their mostly black audience to get on the ladder to success by purchasing educational DVDs and wealth-building “systems.”
These courses all promised to teach the properly motivated American how to find homeowners down on their luck and approaching foreclosure, as well as how to buy those homes from under them and resell them at a great profit. What made the spectacle doubly outrageous were not the dancing girls or indoor fireworks; it was the fact that most of the participants were themselves desperate former homeowners, whose illnesses, divorces, fires, and floods had put them in to foreclosure, too. Get it? They were paying to learn how to feed on people just like themselves.
While most of the speakers and seminar leaders might be expected to show up at a Learning Center pyramid scheme convention, what the hell was Alan Greenspan doing there? First off, he was trying to make some money. He had a new book out, and this was a good way to pitch it to a few thousand potential buyers at once. On a deeper level, though, we can only assume he was there to pump some much-needed air into the collapsing real estate balloon. These poor folks might just be dumb enough to try to borrow some money to purchase foreclosed properties from banks and other lenders that had themselves made disastrous investments during Greenspan’s tenure. His presence lent credibility to the current, lowbrow version of the same scam over which he presided as Fed Chair.
The whole show was a fitting metaphor for the credit crunch, a misnamed sabotage of the credit system by institutions with the problem of too much, not too little, money to put to work. As I explained in my last column, banks and credit institutions simply had more money on hand than they had people who were qualified to borrow it. So they changed the law to create more demand for the money they had in oversupply.
The banking industry lobbied to reduce the remaining regulations on its lending practices. They won a repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a law enacted just after the depression as a way to prevent regular savings banks from doing risky things with depositors’ money. A “Chinese Wall” was put in place between banks and investment brokerages, preventing conflicts of interest and limiting financial institutions’ power over both the lending and borrowing sides of the same transactions. With the repeal of the Act in 1999, banks were now free use their capital to lend money to unworthy borrowers, package those loans, and then underwrite the sale of those loans to other institutions—such as pension funds.
Meanwhile, the credit industry spent over $100 million lobbying to change bankruptcy laws. Although a corporation in bankruptcy still has its debts erased, the regulations surrounding personal bankruptcy were changed so that personal debts stay on the books forever. The logic they used to argue for the change was that debtors are smart, gaming the system to buy beyond their means and then declaring bankruptcy at the last minute.
But the very same creditors knew that just the opposite was true—as evidenced by their sales tactics and marketing campaigns. They turned to a social science known as behavioral finance—the study of the way people consistently act against their own best financial interests, as well as how to exploit these psychological weaknesses when peddling questionable securities and products.
These are proven behaviors with industry-accepted names like “money illusion bias,” “loss aversion theory,” “irrationality bias,” and “time discounting.” People do not borrow opportunistically, but irrationally. As if looking at objects in the distance, they see future payments as smaller than ones in the present—even if they are actually larger. They are more reluctant to lose a small amount of money than gain a larger one—no matter the probability of either in a particular transaction. They do not consider the possibility of any unexpected negative event occurring between the day they purchase something and the day they will ultimately have to pay for it.
Credit card and mortgage promotions are worded to take advantage of these inaccurate perceptions and irrational behaviors. “Zero percent” introductory fees effectively camouflage regular interest rates up to 20 or 30 percent. Lowering minimum payment requirements from the standard 5 percent to 2 or 3 percent of the outstanding balance looks attractive to borrowers. The corresponding increase in interest charges and additional years to pay off the debt will end up costing them more than triple the original balance. It is irrational for them to make purchases and borrow money under these terms, or to prefer them to the original ones. But they do. We do. This behavior is not limited to the trailer park renters of the rural south, but extends to the highly educated, highly leveraged co-op owners of the Northeast.
Combine this with George Bush’s campaign to convince Americans that home ownership is a virtue—itself a revival of a strategy intended to assuage the resentment of veterans returning from World War II—and you end up with a population willing to do almost anything to “get into” a house, and a mortgage lending industry ready to provide the instruments capable of doing it. Once the mortgage rates shifted and homeowners began to default, the people who created the mess were largely safe. Bankers and high-salaried directors received their bonuses for a job well done, and the only people who lost money were the hapless shareholders—people like you and me—who might own some supposedly low-risk bank stocks. And, of course, all the people who were holding mortgages bigger than the total value of their homes.
The fiction is that the money just “vanished.” Financial newspapers and cable TV business channels say that the value of holdings has been “erased” by market downturns, but it hasn’t been erased at all. It’s on the negative side of one balance sheet, and the positive side of someone else’s. While Goldman Sachs was underwriting mortgage-backed securities of dubious value, it was simultaneously selling them short. Take the example of John Paulson, a trader who earned himself $4 billion and his funds another $15 billion in one year by betting against the housing market. For help predicting the extent of the downturn, Paulson hired none other than Alan Greenspan as an advisor to his hedge fund. The Fed Chairman who encouraged the housing bubble even after it began to crash is now cashing in on the very devastation his policies created. The money did not disappear at all. It merely changed hands. People’s homes were just a medium for the redistribution of wealth.
That’s because the biggest industry in America—maybe the only real industry left—is credit itself: money is lent into existence by the central bank, and then lent again to regional banks, savings and loans, and eventually to you and me. Each bank along the way takes its cut; the final borrower is the only one who has to figure out how to pay it back, with interest, by the close of the contract.
The problem is, in order to pay back three or four dollars on every one dollar borrowed, someone else has to lose. Our monetary system is itself a shell game, with losers built into the very rules. The more the credit industry dominates our economy, the more losers there will inevitably be.
As anyone in any business at all well understands—even the editor of this magazine, I’m sure—one has to borrow money to do almost anything real in this society. Anything that requires a resource, a supply, an office, a piece of ground, transportation, also requires a bit of capital. That capital has to be borrowed. And if it’s not coming from a friend or from mom or dad, it’s being borrowed from an institution that borrowed from another institution that borrowed it, and so on, and so on.
Participation in business or, in most of our cases, land or home ownership, means helping put those wheels of the credit industry in motion. And the more we push, the more momentum they gain, and the more influence they have over an increasingly large portion of our experience. Reality becomes defined by credit sectors, and our time is consumed more each day with wondering how we’re going to pay back what we’ve borrowed.
Every once in a while, though, we break the rules and get to see the possibility for another kind of economy. Whether it’s an alternative currency, an open source software solution, or the simple good faith gifts we make to one another for creating value in each other’s lives. It’s the way Arthur readers bailed out the magazine a few months ago, within a few hours of when creditors would have turned off the lights in the editor’s apartment bedroom (which doubles as the Arthur office). Or the way Robert Anton Wilson’s fans came to his rescue via Paypal to let the ailing writer die at home in his bed rather than a free city hospital (thus saving the taxpayers a whole lot more money than we raised and spent).
Without getting spiritual or mushy, we can agree that there are self-perpetuating cycles of greed and generosity in which we can participate. The more we commit to one or the other, the more of the world conforms to its rules.
On a brief visit to Portland back in April, I had a chance to stop by a pretty cool show at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, titled “Framing: The Art of Jewelry.” Among the pieces that I found most interesting were some by Harriete Estel Berman, a jewelry maker based in California. So I was really pleasantly surprised when Berman coincidentally contacted me a few months later.
After learning a little more about the breadth of her work, which is consistently fascinating both in terms of her actual mastery of craft and materials, and in terms of its thematic exploration of consumer culture.
I immediately figured she’d be a great Q&A subject here, and after some delays that were entirely my fault, I got some questions together for her. Her answers did not disappoint. And here (after another delay that was again my fault) they are. Read on for Berman’s thoughts on advertising language, on where she gets the raw material that she converts into art, about consumer culture and identity, trying to imagine sexy furniture at Ethan Allen, and her take on the impact of Etsy/the DIY scene/the Internet on creators such as herself, so far.
[Plus: It happens that she also has work at a show that opened more recently at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, called Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects, which is up through January 4, 2009 and sounds pretty interesting.]
Q: We’ve been in touch for a while, and I’ve wanted to do this Q&A for a while, but part of what’s slowed me down is that you’ve done so much interesting work and I don’t know where to start. So I’m actually going to start at the end. What are you working on right now — and how does it fit into the general themes you’ve been exploring since (I think I have this right but correct me if not) about 1980.
A: Usually, I am working on several different pieces at the same time, all at different stages of progress. Generally, this is a necessity, as ideas often gestate for months to years or time is needed to collect the right tin cans for a specific idea.
Currently, I am in the middle of a series of work called, Bermaid, the California Collection. (Image above.) These three-dimensional fruit crate labels and bracelets are constructed from recycled tin cans providing layers of images and symbolism. The images and repurposing of post consumer material to construct the fruit crate labels and bracelets reflect upon California as both the archetypal consumer culture and a leader in the recycling movement and green design.
Fruit crate labels were actually invented by California growers as an early 20th century promotional image for California produce. The fruit crate labels symbolically convey the fertility of California’s bountiful agricultural industry of fruits and vegetables. Orchards once covered Silicon Valley, but it now blooms with inventions and technology ventures. The bracelets symbolize the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of California exporting ideas and products from its fertile valleys.
Bermaid is a play on words. First, my name — Berman — is not a very good name for an avowed feminist. Using “maid” instead of “man” indicates the artist is a woman and suggests a pun on “made”, as in made by hand.
A new sculpture, constructed from over 50,000 pencils, will take the shape of a bell curve as a commentary about the national focus on standardized testing. The pencils were sent to me from all over the United States from students, teachers and individuals who wanted to lend their voice to this project. This installation will be assembled by hundreds of educators attending the annual conference of The California Art Educators Association Conference in November.
Relevant to your theme of marketing, many of the pencils are promotional items embossed with advertising messages selling a product, idea or political message. Older pencils promote merchandise from appliances to cars while more recent pencils promote events, schools, high academic achievement or improved test scores.
Almost completed is a Seder plate titled, Eons of Exodus, for an exhibition at the new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The Seder service which takes place on the first night of Passover speaks specifically about the exodus of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt. This Seder plate addresses the Diaspora of all people through time who choose to leave their familiar surroundings to escape assault and hardship due to religious or ethnic persecution. (More of Berman’s Judaica work here.)
I think a natural question for someone immersing him or herself in your site, and recognizing that you often work with what seem like discarded materials, might be: Where do you get all this stuff? Do you have a garage heaped to the ceiling with trash or what?!
Actually, you described it pretty closely. My studio is overwhelmed with tins from floor to the ceiling. I get tins from the East Coast and West Coast, from the depths of basements and attics, from friends, my children’s orthodontist, curators, and total strangers. After working with recycled tin cans for over 20 years, word spreads.
The tins are organized by color, pattern, or subject matter (such as standing women, sitting women, words, candy, chocolate, tea, and crackers, to moth balls, etc.). But it is not just about recycling; the tins also make a statement about our consumer culture and how branding and marketing affect our identity. These are recurring themes in my work. Sometimes the images are very familiar and people can identify the brand even if only a portion of the image is visible.
When I am working on a new piece, I’ll have heaps of “inspirational tins.” It can be incredibly difficult to make all this eclectic found material work into one coherent piece. Successful work comes from being able to edit and simplify; integrating layers of meaning so that the audience is enchanted at every level.
In addition to your obvious concerns with and interest in material, you also clearly have a fascination with language — commercial language. What’s your take on the difference between the marketing language of, say, the 1960s, compared to today. Does ad language treat us with more respect than it used to? Or … not?
How advertising and branding creates an identity in our consumer society is a major theme in my work. What happens to an individual’s identity when he or she wears a sweatshirt with a gigantic brand name emblazoned across the front? Why do we buy what we buy? It is very interesting, for example, that Tiffany sells a line of jewelry that has an oversized hallmark for Tiffany on the jewelry. Clearly, the consumer is buying the brand name Tiffany on their I.D. tag, instead of their own name.
Commercial language in advertising, specifically on the tin cans, is often a theme in my work. Advertising from the 1930’s through 1960’s seemed sincere, though possibly inflated, such as “Automatic Beyond Belief.” More recently, commercial language tends to sell power, seduction, and impulse; “Now,” “New,” “More.” When examined closely, the suggestions are sneaky and manipulative — really like brainwashing with a heavy undercurrent of sexual innuendo.
Have you seen a recent Ethan Allen furniture ad on television? It has a strong, tribal or techno drum beat; heart pounding, pulsating, pumped up. The images of furniture are flashing quickly, alternating with words, one of which is actually “SEXY”. Can you imagine sexy furniture from Ethan Allen?
Advertising words are often highlighted within my artwork. In “Nice and Easy, Even if Your Marriage Doesn’t Last Your Color Will” (picture above) the title was taken from a very short-lived television ad for Clairol.
“Witnessing the Weight of Words” (at right) is constructed from over 575 metal triangles from recycled tin cans, cut, folded, and riveted together. By fabricating the piece with materials originally used for consumer packaging, it becomes a commentary on art as another product in our consumer society.
Commercial language occasionally borrows words from the art and craft world to enhance the promotion of consumer products. The irony of a “limited edition” tin container for Ritz crackers reveals many aspects of our consumer society and the marketing of art. (This work is part of the Manuf®actured show.)
In “Hourglass Figure: the Scale of Torture,” words from the Slim Fast tin cans give people an instant insight into the work. The scale’s dial includes words used in advertising often used to describe both food and women, such as “muffin”.
How do you think about the audience for your work? Who is it you want to reach?
I try to engage a broad audience. As an artist, I consider it a personal responsibility to draw the general public into the work. First of all, I am using recycled tins, or trash, to put it bluntly. Many of the pieces have a sense of humor or colorful patterns that would appeal to even a casual audience. On the other hand, I work very hard to include intelligent, insightful commentary within the work. Conceptually there are multiple levels, so that people with more knowledge about art or the content can appreciate and think about the issues within the work.
Hopefully, the detail in the construction of the work and in the multi-level commentary engages the viewer as they decipher the messages.
What’s your take on the recent rise of the sort of DIY/craft trend via things like Etsy. I know you have a shop on Etsy (here). But I also know that there are mixed feelings out there among people who do work like yours, that seems like it would fit comfortably in a fine art setting, about (for lack of a better word) the “trendiness” of handmade goods these days. I’m sure you’ve seen the various “new wave vs. old guard” debates here and there.
Etsy and the D.I.Y. issues have been a huge topic in the last year or so. I immersed myself in the Etsy/ D.I.Y. websites to thoroughly participate and experience the online communities. I even made a line of jewelry and posted them on Etsy. I firmly believe that the Internet can be an enormous asset for the art and craft communities.
Overall, however, I am somewhat disappointed with the Etsy and D.I.Y. world so far. My main complaint is that too much of the merchandise is priced unrealistically low. The site is watered down by the onslaught of $6 “do-dads” and such. And the general Etsy consumer doesn’t seem to be interested in buying higher quality or more adventuresome work. Unfortunately, the discussion seems to have devolved into an “us vs. them” debate.
From my personal assessment, the Etsy site has serious technical flaws — poor search engine, lack of filters for the buyers, and lack of sophistication in the marketing to the general public. The social networking aspect can be fun, but if you feel that “time is money,” it is not worth the investment. It appears that Etsy is making most of their revenue off people posting their items 20 cents at a time. So far, from everyone I know, Etsy is not contributing significantly to their income.
What is great about Etsy and other online sites is that the maker controls the posting of items. You don’t have to develop relationships with a network of galleries or exhibitions in remote places — you post it and it’s up for sale within minutes. Plus it reaches an extensive potential audience with the idea of buying something handmade from a real person. Perhaps it will influence future consumer habits or develop new markets.
I think that the Internet’s impact on the art and craft communities is still embryonic. I look forward to the evolution of this dynamic environment.
Murketing thanks Harriete Estel Berman for her time and her very thoughtful answers. Check out many more images at her site, here; her Etsy store, here; and her Flickr stream, here. And if you’re in or going to Portland, check it out in person at Manuf®actured, or see that show’s site, here.
Back in the 1990s I worked as an editor at various personal finance and business publications, and one of the very smartest people I ever crossed paths with was Jason Zweig. So I was very interested in his WSJ column today, not least because of this point countering those who might think we’re headed toward another Great Depression:
When you spend time studying the Crash of 1929 and the depression that followed, what stands out the most is the dearth of doomsayers. Even Roger Babson, the economist known to posterity as “the man who called the crash,” did no such thing; he forecast only a 15% to 20% drop, not the apocalypse that actually occurred. Depressions start not when lots of people are worried about them, as we have today, but when no one is worried about them, as in 1929.
Interesting! Also this:
Furthermore, U.S. nonfinancial companies have just under $1 trillion in cash on their books. Even though Wall Street is dead, innovation is not: In the months to come, clever new financial go-betweens will spring up and find a way to get that cash flowing again. It’s hard to see how a depression could get under way when so much capital is waiting in the wings.
Here is exactly what I think people picture when I tell them I perform stand-up comedy:
You don't need words or video to know that audience member is going to be jerking that steering wheel/dog frisbee very hard, very often and very hilariously in order to suddenly avoid imaginary things in the imaginary road, as announced by that Dress Barn sales associate holding the microphone. ("Look out! It's Lorena Bobbitt and she's holding a pair of hedge clippers!!")
I was very pleased, a couple of weeks back, to be invited to chat with Melody Simpson over at Hollywood the Write Way, although I fear that I was only intermittently coherent.
I think there might have been some points where the connection faded out — plus there’s just something about phone interviews that makes me pile qualifying clauses onto each sentence like they’re going out of style — or maybe that’s just the way I talk, and I’m only made aware of it when it’s transcribed — um, yeah.
Anyway, check it out, and check out the rest of her blog, too!
As a counterpoint to the anonymous J, mentioned yesterday, there was an unbelievably gloomy roundtable on This Week Sunday, most interesting to me because in addition to the usual beatdowns to government and Wall Street, the participants went after Main Street consumers.
Here’s a link to the video, but I’ll give you the highlights, or lowlights (with selected bolding to underscore the most interesting stuff). The first 10 minutes or so is boilerplate hemming and hawing about the bailout and craven politicians and all that. Then about halfway through, Washington Post writer Steven Pearlstein said:
We’re a country that has lived beyond our means for more than a decade. Seriously beyond our means. The rest of the world was going to finance that; they no longer are. And it’s not exactly a great campaign slogan to tell the country, ‘You’ve been living beyond your means, you’re going to have to cut back.’ But when you get to be president you’re going to have to deal with that reality.
Robert Reich countered that it’s not about people living beyond their means and needing to cut back — it’s about stagnant wages: “Some pepole are living beyond their means, but median wages and median family income are below today adjusted for inflation than what they were eight years ago. Most people are struggling.”
Newt Gingrich chimed in to say the problem is government failing to invest for the future (he cited everything from oil drilling to education), and predicted a rerun of 1970s gloom. Then Pearlstein piped up again:
I’m pretty pessimistic about the next four or five years …. Bob with all due respect I disagree with you. The average American was living on debt; their lifestyle was maintained by debt. That’s not sustainable. And not only debt, they weren’t even saving, so they have to go back not only to zero, they have to go back positive so they’re doing some saving.
Again Reich made his point about incomes failing to keep up for most Americans. Then George Will had this to say:
We’re coming dangerously close to the truth, which is the sainted American people are the problem here. That is, they have 105 billion credit cards, that’s nine per cardholder. Self-reporting, they have about $12,000 credit-card debt per household; household debt is 139% of household income. I mean, they can’t go on like this. The refusal to defer gratification is a fundamental attribute of childishness.
Reich tried a different way of making his point, citing stats showing wealth concentration at the top, etc., and saying most Americans don’t have the same purchasing power they used to. Pearlstein waved that away: “If there’s not adequate purchasing power, then you don’t purchase.”
Gingrich pivoted back to the “childish” point by saying that’s what the government has been doing — spending for the short term, not investing for the long term.
Back to George Will:
For as long as I can remember, the slogan in this town has been – I mean, political rhetoric – ‘the federal government ought to behave more like families, because families balance their budgets.’ Turns out the families turned around and said let’s behave more like the government.
This got a big laugh.* And after some more discussion of spending v. investment, it was a wrap.
I was most interested in the degree to which Will and Pearlstein picked on consumers. I have no idea if Will’s stats are true, but it was a pretty convincing spiel. (And it reminded me of a David Brooks column I wrote about earlier, here.)
So have Americans been living beyond their means? Have you?
Is it because we’re a bunch of spoiled babies, or because of stagnant wages — or both?
Can we change?
Do we want to?
Do we need to?
And as I’ve asked in various ways before and nobody has given me anything close to an answer: What might the role of the commercial persuasion industry be? Has it contributed to living-beyond-our-means, if that has been a problem? Can it contribute to a solution?
[* I don't know if George Will is a Laurie Anderson fan or not, but she said something very similar to this back in the 1980s. In fact, in one of those moments I was surprised I got away with, I cited her observation in this May 14, 2000 (yikes I've been at this a long time!), NYT Magazine essay about the rise of "personal branding":
In the 1980's, Laurie Anderson had a funny line about how she figured out how to live life. Basically, she said, just look at what the government does and, you know, scale it down to size. That, of course, was back when people paid attention to the government. Now nobody cares about the government; we care about hot companies. And when we try to figure out how to advance our careers and live our lives, we figure out what hot companies do and scale it down to size. Ours is the age of personal hype.
Go ahead. Tell me I was wrong.]
The Pilkdown Man just wrote me from England, asking me to pick him a DVD that just came out this year and for some peculiar reason involving Best Buy is unavailable across the pond. Phase IV is a…
Last week Zappos.com offered me a $100 gift certificate to try their new clothing shopping "experience", and, after thinking about for a while (Pro: I like shopping online in general, and the Zappos interface in particular; Con: will it damage my Walter-Cronkite-like credibility to take free stuff to write about a shopping site?) I decided that sure, I'd give it a shot.
Honestly, after about an hour of browsing, I almost wrote back and said "thanks but no thanks" -- let's just say my taste in clothing and what was available on Zappos didn't have a lot of overlap. (Which is odd, because I can find a pair of shoes I desperately want on Zappos merely by clicking randomly on any page ...) There are a lot of very trendy clothes on Zappos, which would be a huge selling point for anyone whose fashion sense didn't crystalize roughly twenty years before they were actually born.
I thought for a while about this sweater (also gray, highly rated, and heaven knows I love cardigans) but I haven't been impressed by Three Dots stuff before, so I didn't hit 'buy' on that one.
This morning, though, I realized that I had never replaced my favorite "cozy for around the house, but nice enough to wear out to the post office" gray hooded sweater that got eaten up by SOMETHING (I refuse to countenance the possibility of MOTHS) winter before last. All last winter I tried to find a replacement, but my heart wasn't in it. But now I'm ready to move on.
Finding a gray hooded sweater on Zappos was really easy -- there's a nice drill-down interface, so you don't have to sort through too many irrelevant options. (It did take me a minute to figure out how to filter just for women's clothing, but only a minute.) The *huge*, well-lit, all-angles photos were great, too.
I wish there were actual garment measurements (or, if there were, that I could find them), but looking at the general cut of the clothes on the site (narrow, narrow, and narrower) induced me to order the Large (and Zappos has free shipping both ways, so it's not like making the wrong size choice is gonna cost me another $8.90 in postage).
The price points were a bit towards what I consider the "higher end" (this sweater was $104! Which I would not otherwise spend without a subsidy of at least $50); about the same as a mid-level department store, like Macy's.
Finding a sweater that had a kangaroo pocket was a bonus. I love kangaroo pockets. So cozy ...
In short: Zappos has a lot of clothing-type stuff, mostly geared (as far as I could tell) towards juniors/young misses. (Which is smart on their part, that's who spends a lot of money on clothes!) Their search system is clever and easy to use, which won't surprise anyone who has ever looked for shoes on the site. I would definitely use it again if I were looking for something in particular (like, say, a gray hooded sweater) ... I'm not much for just browsing, though, so I don't know if I'd go to their site just to hang around. I think it will improve as they add more vendors; I would much rather shop at Zappos than on most crappy, Flash-heavy, badly-organized boutique/manufacturers' sites ...
If I had to suggest a feature, I'd love something where I could ask to be notified when something came in that they didn't have any current listings for, like a red short-sleeved cardigan or a kimono-sleeved cardigan, or a way to suggest categories ...
Thus endeth the review. In other retail news, Little Hunting Creek is having a sale this week: ten percent off everything (to make room for holiday merchandise) through October 5 at midnight. The discount code is LHC10.
PiXistenZ has added a photo to the pool:
I think I've never posted anything this surreal. I hope you guys like it.
Itay Talgem: Conductors aren't leaders. (That's the first vionlin's job.) Instead, "the conductor has another job. He has to make people connect. So it is about connectivity, about becoming a conductor to enable other people to work together. So that is quite a funny profession. In internet, I guess people are very much interested in the ways people come to collaborate and to create together."
Regardless of the mixed reviews, the debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was of Lincoln-Douglas caliber compared to what’s going on on many college campuses. The Chronicle of Higher Education this week has an extraordinary story on how the debate world has descended into fights between coaches and judges — including a mooning, captured for posterity on YouTube — and instances in which debaters ignore the topics at hand to rail against the inherent racism of debate competitions. Often, these are winning tactics.
This excellent, brief (1:40) narrated video, which includes a SFW mooning and a few NSFW curses, distills the story and offers a window into the bizarre world of debate today — a world apart from that which existed in the days of William F. Buckley. (It even makes the Buckley-Vidal TV slurfests look, by comparison, civil.) [...]
Blake Hounshell, of Passport, the blog of Foreign Policy magazine, puts recent arguments over earmarks into context. John McCain and Barack Obama skirmished in their debate last week over the relative importance of earmarks within the overall budget, with McCain arguing that they represented all that was wrong with Washington and Obama suggesting the issue was somewhat important but overblown.
Courtesy of economist Mark Thoma, of the University of Oregon, Hounshell presents this graph, which illustrates earmark spending as a proportion of the federal budget.
Passport is a nonpartisan blog, but Hounshell concludes: “This is a fake issue, folks” …
As someone commented last week, SignandSight has just posted excerpts from five of the six finalists for this year’s German Book Award. (The only one missing is Rolf Lappert’s Swimming Home, which appears to be in process.)
I think this is a very valuable resource, especially if one of the goals of the prize is to get these books translated into other languages. I’m looking forward to reading the samples and placing my bet on who’s going to win . . . (This is one of those awards you can gamble on, right?)
Over at the Literary Saloon Michael Orthofer has a great summary about the 2008 “Translation Prizes,” lamenting the generic name and overall lack of coverage:
We realise it’s sort of an umbrella-designation — the six prizes do come with their own names and/or sponsors — but it still seems way too vague to us.
A bit more publicity couldn’t hurt either: yes, sites like the Translators Association of the Society of Authors have some information (though none about this years winners, last we checked . . .), but for the most part you’re hard-pressed to find any. They seemed to have a nice poster for the event too — but the only place we could find it depicted was here, in that tiny size.
Thankfully he does provide a list of the winners though:
- The Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for translation from Arabic, which went to Fady Joudah for his translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry collections in The Butterfly’s Burden.
- The Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from French went to Frank Wynne for his translations of Holiday in a Coma & Love Lasts Three Years by Frédéric Beigbeder.
- The Schlegel-Tieck Prize for translation from German went to Ian Fairley for his translation of Snow Part by Paul Celan.
- The Hellenic Foundation for Culture Translation Prize for translation from modern Greek went to Roderick Beaton for his translation of A Levant Journal by George Seferis.
- The John Florio Prize for translation from Italian went to Peter Robinson for his translation of The Greener Meadow by Luciano Erba.
- The Premio Valle-Inclán for translation from Spanish went to Nick Caistor for his translation of The Past by Alan Pauls.
There are a couple of decent reviews of works in translation from the Sunday papers that are worth mentioning.
In his latest short-story collection, “Happy Families,” Mexican author Carlos Fuentes lends credence to Tolstoy’s paradigmatic line from “Anna Karenina,” demonstrating in myriad ways that, indeed, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Certainly, there aren’t many “happy families” to be found in these pages – more like miniature cyclones of emotion that oscillate between loyalty and betrayal, devotion and rebellion. These 16 stories, like most of the author’s fiction, spotlight his home country, though more often than not it’s portrayed in less-than-rose-colored hues. [. . .]
The author also uses large blocks of stream-of-consciousness thought processes, similar in style to the simultaneously emotional and philosophical prose of his Portuguese contemporary José Saramago. Combined with irregular punctuation, the effect can be dizzying, but Fuentes provides just enough connective tissue to piece things together.
He may be a few months from his 80th birthday, but Mexico’s premier novelist shows no signs of slowing down. Like Saramago, Fuentes proves there’s still pungent life in his fiction, even if the episodes don’t always cohere as tightly as they once did.
The story — such as it is — evolves in a series of highly impressionistic moments, recalled by a 60-year-old unnamed narrator whose unmitigated sorrow casts a shadow over everything she remembers. Her memories of life when she was a girl present themselves to us like visions in a dream: intense and detailed at the focal point, vague and misty around the edges. The events generally fall into chronological order, in three sections: the narrator’s childhood, the German occupation during her teen years, and her travels through Denmark and Norway in her early 20s. But there are numerous disorienting gaps and references we can’t understand until later — if ever — as the meanings of various associations slowly accrue.
Inevitably, this Petterson book is going to be contrasted with Out Stealing Horses, and since that was such a critical and commercial success, I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of reviews were a bit cautious in their praise. (Like the Post one referenced above.)
Both of these reviews remind me though that it’s time to start thinking about our Best Translated Works of 2008 list . . .
From Harold Augenbraum’s Reading Ahead post regarding the rise of immigrant fiction in foreign countries:
I wonder, however, if the specific minority group fiction in foreign languages—say, Paris’s banlieue—will appeal to the American sensibility, as did Zadie Smith with White Teeth or Hanif Kureishi with My Beautiful Laundrette (which came to America through the movies). It poses intriguing problems for the translator who must take English-laced French and develop a new code to convey the pervasiveness of American popular sensibility without losing the sense of foreign-language creep in French. The future of translation—both language and experience—becomes increasingly interesting as argot digs deeper into the literary realm.
Mike Leigh is the filmmaker behind Naked, Life is Sweet, Vera Drake, and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky, which is currently playing the New York Film Festival (among many others) and opens in the United States on October 10.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Too unhappy and too unlucky.
Guest: Mike Leigh
Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming when I return from screenings!]
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Leigh: But as to the jewelry as a symbol of cyclical anything, I don’t know whether I’d go along with that one.
Correspondent: Okay. Well, fair enough.
Leigh: (laughs) Nice try.
Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about another possible symbol. The back pain that she experiences. This to me suggests that here we have Poppy moving forward as her specific identity — “happy-go-lucky” — and yet there is this pain in the back. And, of course, she laughs it off while she’s at the chiropractor’s office. But the thing that’s fascinating about this to me is that, well, this is behind her. So it’s almost as if she has her blinders on. She’s so focused in on moving forward that she doesn’t notice what she’s feeling in the back. And I’m wondering again how much one should read symbols into these particular choices.
Leigh: I think as we progress into this conversation — I think you are plainly a fundamental, unreconstituted, top-rate intellectual. Which I’m not. I think it’s fascinating, your analysis. But I think it’s a load of old rope. Basically. And I can’t go along with it at all. I mean, the fact is, she gets a bend in the back because she pulls her back when she’s trampolining. And it happens to be her back because that’s what she pulls. The back muscle. I think what’s more interesting about that unfortunate thing that happens to her, which gets fixed by an osteopath, not a chiropractor…
Correspondent: My apologies.
Leigh: No, no, you couldn’t, you know. But I think what is interesting, I’ve found, is that, you know, a lot of people — this has nothing to do with your question, but it’s talking about the same part of the film.
Leigh: The same aspect of what happens to Poppy. You know, people are conditioned — mainly, courtesy of Hollywood — into the inevitability that something terrible is going to happen. And a number of people have thought, “Oh! She’s got cancer of the kidneys! That’s what this film is about!” Partly because the last film I made was about an abortionist. The fact is that it’s not about that. People say, “Well, couldn’t something terrible happen to her in the film?” And then you think of that. And you say, “No. Because that’s not what it’s about.” Of course, this could become a film about a woman who dies of cancer of the kidneys. But so what? That’s not what it’s about. It’s about somebody who giggles at stuff and is positive.
Correspondent: You also quibbled in another interview over people identifying Scott as a taxi driver instead of a driving instructor.
Leigh: Yeah, people say “that scene with the taxi driver.” I mean, it’s amazing. The number of people everywhere — here, in Paris, in London, in Berlin, and we’re talking about international fests — who call him a taxi driver. And it’s very curious. It’s as though this is a film about an airline pilot and people are calling him a doctor. It’s very strange.
Correspondent: I mean, I’m wondering. Could it be the way that you actually shot him? Because I know that you and Mr. Pope actually used lipstick cams to get…
Leigh: No, no. Come on. You cannot construct any correlation between how the film was shot and the fact that, for some reason, people call a driving instructor a taxi driver. You really can’t do that.
Correspondent: So it’s the audience’s problem. Not yours.
Leigh: No, no. It’s just a weird thing. I mean, I don’t think it’s even a problem. It’s just a strange quirk. But I don’t think anything should be made of it really.
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Last weekend was a full one for L.A. history buffs.
I was pooped after taking the LA chapter of the Dorothy Parker Society on a walking tour of West Hollywood that I forgot all about the West Adams Heritage Association’s Living History Tour at the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery on Sunday, Sept 29th. Pooh.
You can enjoy pictures and a recap on the Association’s website.
- Jonathan Martin’s Blog: In reintroduction, Palin to do more interviews and “tell her story” - Politico.com
I can't promise you a row of cheerleaders high-kicking, but barns, rolling corn-scapes, little old Main Streets, deep-fried food, and good people are in abundance.
UP in case you don’t know, stands for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I had been there before, but merely driving through, though I did manage to get my second highest bowling score of all time there (164!). This time I went up to do a half-day talk at the Upper Peninsula Region of Library Cooperation’s annual conference in Marquette, Michigan. I decided to add a few days to my trip since I rarely get to the UP and it’s lovely. Someone from MetaFilter noticed that I was going to be up near Michigan Tech and invited me to do a public talk there, so I got to take a nice drive out to Houghton Michigan and meet some folks there and see the public and MTU libraries. I took a few photos: here is the Portage Lake District Library. I’m still uploading my photos of the MTU archives. Thanks to everyone for showing me around.
My page of notes from the talks is here. I tried to go the extra mile and not just link to keynote and pdf versions of my talks but also hyperlink the specific sites I mentioned so that people could click through to them relatively easily. We’ll see how this goes. One of the things I enjoyed doing was checking out the digital archives that were available online: Keweenaw Digital Archives and the Upper Peninsula Digitization Center Collections. I love this photo for example, with all the people commenting on who the people in the photo actually are. I used this photo in one of my talks.
I am less interested in cycling than I am in the other components of triathlon, but I must say that Joe Parkin's A Dog in a Hat: An American Bike Racer's Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium is quite excellent. The subtitle does the book a slight disservice - the main title captures its off-beat charm much better. It really is a very well-written and enjoyable book, I whole-heartedly recommend it.
John Jerome's Staying With It: Becoming an Athlete is less about swimming than it's about the quest to fend off the onset of middle age by embracing the magic of the training effect. Parts are wonderful, parts are a little too meditative and metaphysical for me - I do recommend it, but I found myself slightly wishing it had been more of a mash-up with the other swimming-related book I read recently, Hodding Carter's Off the Deep End. Jerome's book is the deeper and more memorable of the two - Carter's reads slightly as though it has been pasted together from magazine articles, and the persona he adopts (or maybe he's just like this!) is incredibly annoying. Even just as a reader, I was irked by his self-defeating decisions about his training and racing! But parts of it are very funny and vividly written - his subtitle is "The Probably Insane Idea That I Could Swim My Way Through a Midlife Crisis - And Qualify for the Olympics," and it is a fair enough description of the project and the book. Interesting stuff - keep the swim lit recs coming, please....
Miscellaneous young-adult (middle-grade?) books by authors I like but who are perhaps in this case not at their best, though I will honestly read any book by any of these three with delight: Eva Ibbotson's The Dragonfly Pool (appealing, but a thinner reimagining of a story very similar to the one told more richly in her adult novel A Song for Summer); Diana Wynne Jones, A House of Many Ways (DWJ is in my book an absolute genius, but she writes so many books that some of them are inevitably, to use the same terminology, fuller and more richly imagined than others, and this is one of the minor ones); Robin McKinley's Chalice (I enjoyed it, but it feels more like one of her long stories or novellas than like Sunshine, a novel that I have reread about five times because it so much corresponded to my notion of the ideal book to read).
"My own first experience with a big telescope, the 'Old Northumberland' at Cambridge Observatory, an 11-inch refractor built in 1839, left me stunned. We observed a globular star cluster in Hercules, a blue-gold double star, Beta Cygni, and a gas cloud nebula (whose name I forgot to record, since it appeared to me so beautiful and malignant, according to my shaky notes like an 'enormous blue jellyfish rising out of a bottomless black ocean'). I think I suffered from a kind of cosmological vertigo, the strange sensation that I might fall down the telescope tube into the night and be drowned. Eventually this passed."I have been in love with Holmes's writing for a long time now. I remember reading Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (on Simon Schama's recommendation, probably c. fall of 1992) and being altogether blown away by its charms and peculiar excellence, and then during my first few years of graduate school I devoured his literary biographies. I love the Coleridge one also, and am often recommending the Johnson-Savage bio, but the one that most fully transported me - it reads as though it were written in a kind of frenzy or fury, and though it is a long book I think I read it over only one or two sittings, it is simply impossible to put down - is the Shelley biography, which has been recently reissued by the New York Review of Books.
This is from a footnote to a section about Herschel looking through a telescope. Footnotes are a wonderful part of the armoury of a biographer. In this book the structure is like a series of sliding panels that go back and forth, but I wanted a sense of a chronological narrative, so I used footnotes to step outside the story. Also in this note are two of Thomas Hardy's characters in the late 19th century, terrified at realising how small they were in the universe, and Edwin Hubble in the 1930s. It's important to me that the reader is imaginatively held by the characters to the extent that they really do hope something for them and really do dread something for them. Breaking the chronology works against this, but there are still other interesting things I want to tell them, one of which can be my own personal response to the things I'm describing. So the footnote provides a bridge to the reader which allows me to break the chronology but not, I hope, the mood of the main story.
Norman Denny, whose translation of Les Misérables was published by Penguin Classics in 1980, and which is probably the translation that most English readers know, did so much smoothing that, even including the two sections on convents and slang that he turned into appendices, his version is still 100,000 words shorter than Rose’s.
“It is now generally recognized”, wrote Denny, “that the translator’s first concern must be with his author’s intention, not with the words he uses or with the way he uses them”. Most of his elisions are surreptitious – confusing images, eccentric aphorisms, strings of apparently superfluous adjectives. He does, however, confess to pruning Hugo’s dizzyingly detailed chapter, “L'Année 1817”, in which the “physiognomy” of the period is constructed out of a hundred or so seemingly miscellaneous facts: imperial Ns were scratched off the face of the Louvre; a steamboat sailed up the Seine and left Parisians unimpressed; little boys were made to wear enormous leather caps with earflaps; Chateaubriand cleaned his teeth at the window of 27 rue Saint-Dominique every morning while dictating La Monarchie selon la Charte; and so on. According to Denny, nearly all the apparently unrelated facts that make up the chapter are “of no great importance”. Evidently, their interrelatedness escaped him, and he chose to ignore Hugo’s concluding remark, which provides a clue to his megalomaniac ambition as a novelist: “History neglects almost all these little details, and cannot do otherwise: it would be engulfed by the infinite” (“l’infini l'envahirait”). Preferring a more conventional and consoling notion, Denny translates the last phrase as “the larger scenes absorbs them”, which is not at all the same thing.