Friday, September 26, 2008

Laurie Anderson PSAs

Laurie Anderson has been a favorite of mine for a long time. She's great at mixing the goofy with the enlightening. The above clip is a great example: something totally absurd that barely makes sense as a sort of illustration of her worldview.

Check out this one for something related to current events, even though it's approximately 20 years old. Or this one about women and money.

(credit to smashing telly for getting me on the right track for this one)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New Facebook: My Take

(above: my actual Facebook page, available through a link to the right)

New Facebook does the following very good things:
  • Forces you to prioritize your applications: you can only keep a small number of application boxes on your main profile page, and the rest of them must go on your "boxes" tab. This finally eliminates the MySpacey ugliness of poorly designed and ugly-graphic-heavy application boxes all over a profile.
  • Tabbed browsing of relevant profile information: if you only want someone's information or favorites, it's all neatly collected in their "info". If you want their pictures, you hit the "pictures" tab. And the news feed also has a tab. Oh, speaking of...
  • Combines all recent friend information in one place: gone are the days of checking news feed, wall, posted items, and so on just to see what is happening with your friends (or yourself!) at a given time. The combined feed gives you an overview of ALL recent activity.
  • A comprehensive, organized right sidebar on the main page: I watched a pointless little YouTube video mocking this specific feature and contesting that the internet is ALWAYS left justified. Turns out, interestingly enough, that some of his rant was in his video's info sidebar, which was on the (you guessed it) right side of the YouTube video page. And not only that, Facebook's sidebar has all the relevant info you might want, including a late-breaking addition of an application link menu, a change made as a result of constant and meticulous refining by the Facebook development team.
  • Generally cleaner, without wasted space: yeah, the pages take up more space in a browser window and gest rid of the white space on the two sides, but I always thought that screen efficiency and clean design were good things.
  • The ability to comment on everything: the dialogue-starting ability to comment on, for instance, stati is awesome; I have commented on quite a few people's stati and received reciprocal comments on my own. It's instant, compact, and it stays current and easy to use.
That's just an at-a-glance list. But even if you don't buy that new Facebook is superior, it's time to clam it, 'cause Facebook isn't about to host two separate architectures for their site just so that a few change-averse people can avoid getting used to something new. I myself am usually change-averse, but this time, even if the change isn't, in your eyes, far superior, it sure is permanent!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans"

The name "Jarecki" should jump out to fans of the modern documentary. A man named Eugene Jarecki made a movie called "Why We Fight," which is, in my opinion, the finest documentary I have seen. Apparently this knack for documentary is a family trait: Eugene's brother Andrew Jarecki made his directorial debut with his documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans."

The film captures a family in turmoil. In a semi-affluent New York neighborhood, a father and son, the Friedmans, are accused of molesting multiple children at a computer class taught in their basement. The film, though, starts with some benign, almost endearing footage of the family joking with each other and just acting like a family. It's not until about ten minutes in that we realize the film is not about how the family functions, but how the family falls apart over the course of the investigation and trial of the father and youngest son.

It's an absurd premise. Making a documentary about a trial is not unheard of. Neither is making a documentary about a family, or making a documentary about a failing marriage or about a troubled individual giving in to temptation. What this film does is blend all of these together to arrive at a complex, interwoven portrait of the nature of truth in an American family and an American court.

And that's what sets this film apart from a lot of the pack of modern documentaries. It does tell a story or two (or more), but it's main premise is to expose the ambiguity of truth in our legal system and in our lives. The question is not whether the father and son are guilty of the molestation charges against them. The question is, who else might be guilty, and of what? Or even, what is guilt?

In one expert scene, a lawyer relates a touching account of his client finally admitting to having a problem and deciding to plead guilty. But intercut with his account is the client's story of being manipulated by that very same lawyer into pleading guilty against his own better judgment and out of desperation. The truth probably hovers somewhere in between, and Jarecki does an expert job of letting us sort of wander around this in-between-ness of truth and come to our own conclusions (or even be satisfied by the roundness and symmetry of this lack of conclusions).

One similarity between Eugene Jarecki's expert "Why We Fight" and Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans" is the nearly entirely absent hand of the filmmaker. Every once in a while, you can hear the director ask a question in an interview, but by and large, there are no voice-overs or on-screen appearances by the filmmakers. These films appear self-organizing, as opposed to the products of the directors.

"Why We Fight" was a clean, impactful, persuasive film essay, while "Capturing the Friedmans" is a messy, ambiguous, emotional nonfiction narrative. But both, for entirely different reasons, feel like they sprang fully formed from reality. And that's basically what I feel a great documentary is meant to accomplish.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

LHC: Fictional Crisis Not Actually Averted!

(above: there it is, folks. the LHC's detector. no idea where i got the image from)

The LHC started yesterday. Nearly every blog I read that has regular updates had a post today saying something along the lines of "The LHC Started! We're Not Dead! Crisis Averted!" This is nonsense, and not because I think the world is going to end and we are in danger, but because the LHC hasn't C'd any H's yet.

That's right, the Large Hadron Collider has not even collided anything yet. The "tiny black holes" and other unpredictable, beautiful, GIANT DANGEROUS SCIENCE doesn't happen until things start smashing into each other some time next month. All that was tested today is the LHC's ability to get particles up to speed and spinning inside of the array. I certainly do not believe that the LHC will destroy the world, but even if it is going to accomplish this task, it can't happen until collisions start next month.

I know that bloggers are often rigor-averse (are they? are we? am I allowed to say that? etc.), but a little science knowledge would prevent misleading posts like the rash of posts I saw today. Without getting into too much sciency detail, saying that we averted a crisis today when nothing went wrong is like saying you averted the crisis of your car's engine blowing up by checking the tire pressure before leaving the garage. Or maybe even preventing a nuclear meltdown by checking that your pen works first before starting the reactor. Pure nonsense.

Almost as much nonsense as thinking that the LHC can destroy the world. But that is a subject for a later date.

Nonsense-purveyors: boingboing, io9. Nonsense-destroyers: WWdN.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Making Fun of Hipsters is the Hip Thing to Do!

(above: Toothpaste For Dinner, on hipsters)

The magazine, “Adbusters,” is one that I had no contact with before now. After doing a little research, I see that the magazine shoots for small press but big change, something I certainly can get behind. It’s slickly designed and has features on how you can feel like you are changing the world. It appears the magazine harnesses the hipster aesthetic to try to sell to a niche independent market of hip young people.

Notice that I used the word “hipster” to describe the magazine. That’s a term that gets thrown around a lot these days without really having a definition. In this case, all I really mean is that the magazine uses the current trend of sleek, sexy design and style to hock its substance to a young demographic. But really, all that my stilted definition of “hipster” does is show just how poorly-defined the term actually is.

Enter, once again, “Adbusters.” The magazine recently featured an article called “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” The article, by Douglas Haddow, tries to delineate exactly what a hipster is and how this current trend of hipsterism means the downfall of the legitimacy of culture. Since his article has these twin aims, I will discuss each in turn, first his definition and second his claims about the significance of hipsterism.

As far as the definition of “hipster” is concerned, Haddow makes a valiant effort. His essay is interlaced with vignettes from the “hipster” world, including clubs, all-night parties, and the like. These little scenes really do establish just which crowd he means when he talks about hipsters. That Haddow equates hipsterism with a shifting sense of brand and self, in order to facilitate instant relevance, is certainly a large part of what hipsterism is all about.

This, I think, does get at a fundamental commonality among all of those that we might call hipsters. Hipsters are strongly interested in being on the cutting edge, on being the trendsetters and culture creators. There is an emphasis on recentism inherent in hipsterism. (Incidentally, this same recentism motivates most articles on hipsterism, but that would be a digression.)

But something is missing from Haddow’s definiton. Most people you might call a hipster would bristle at the insinuation. Hipsters rarely self-identify (Andy Warhol likely was the closest to self-identifying as a hipster). The term isn’t a general description of a culture. It inherently only reflects the negative side of this culture. Inasmuch as “hipster” is a pejorative term, Haddow nails what it means.

This brings me to Haddow’s second point. He argues that hipsters, because of his definition, are leading to a dead end in cultural and societal development. This claim is flawed for two main reasons: it imputes a negative trait to a largely indefinable group, and it ignores a good amount of history in marketing and culture.

Firstly, hipster, as I understood it and explained it above, is a negative quality of culture that is currently pretty dominant. It would be fair to say that this negative trait is bad for culture, but so is the vapidity that made “Epic Movie” profitable and the selfishness that lets 3rd world children starve. In other words, while self-interested superficial recentism is certainly a bad thing, it, more often than not, comes in concert with many other things, like political awareness, political action, and the development of art and culture. Hipsterism is just a rather unfortunate side effect of being young and trying to be cool.

Which solidly introduces my second point: the emphasis on recentism and superficiality is not new. It is what drives advertising and marketing. But even if you don’t care for advertising and marketing, you need look no further than the politically influential movements of the past to see hipsterism at work. The beat movement, arguably, had elements of hipsterism. So did the hippie movement (no surprise there) and the grunge movements. That the modern era has elements of this does not eliminate its relevance or spell doom for culture. If anything, the current election serves to demonstrate the influence of young voters and young, politically active students, despite the fact that some of them evince some elements of hipsterism.

So in essence, Haddow’s article is first and foremost well written and a good read. It even gets a lot of things right about hipsters. But the article arrives at some false dichotomies and some false conclusions. Haddow has fallen pray to the common belief that things are totally different now than they ever have been before. The call has gone out many a time in the past that Western Civilization was being threatened by “those crazy kids” and their “rebellion without a cause.” But 50 years has shown us that many of these movements weren’t death knells, but cultural cornerstones.

All that said, unfortunately for Haddow, this article will likely be forgotten long before the political influence of hipsters is forgotten.

NOTE: Thanks, Melanie, for the article. And also, see hipster runoff for examples of why hipsterism is hilarious, interesting, important, goofy, meaningless, and ridiculous.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

J.J. Abrams Talks "Fringe," Shark Jumping

(above: press image for "Fringe," yoinked from io9.)

J.J. Abrams did a conference call with press about his newest show, called "Fringe." He's the guy who sort of jump started "Lost," "Alias," "Felicity," "Cloverfield," and is now working on the new "Star Trek" film. So he's got some serious geek-cred and is well-established as a relevant voice in modern television.

That's why a conference call with him about his upcoming television work is a big deal. And in this particular call, he said something that I thought said a lot about what people expect from television and how he delivers it. Specifically, he said that "Fringe" was going to be "jumping the shark" early and often. What he means is that the show will take the things we see as indicating the outlandishness of television and bring them out early.

For example, as Abrams says about "Lost," he brought out a weird, supernatural monster and a polar bear very early in that series to establish just how far the show was willing to go. He doesn't mention "Alias," but in that show, he, within the first episode, killed off a character that was shaping up to be a main force in the show. Both are great examples of doing really stupid, really strange things very early in a series to shake up expectations of the show.

After seeing the pilot cut of "Fringe," I can verify that Abrams does take similar risks and shows you stuff you do not expect from this show within this first episode. It starts like a police procedural and drifts quickly into "X-Files" type territory, hitting some big twists and unexpected plot points, even within the first half of the pilot.

I guess this might be the thing that makes an Abrams project unique. Most shows establish early in their first season they have set boundaries that they are going to live within. They do this by not surprising us too much in those early episodes. Abrams never really goes this route. The reason "Lost" blew up was that we never really did establish what the show exactly was about, let alone what genre it was. We still haven't really found this out.

"Fringe" is set up in a similar way. It hovers through a few genres and shows us a number of things that just can't make sense yet. It leaves us only comfortable enough to accept the confusion it creates. While this is a great strategy for making intelligent, challenging, ground-breaking television, "Lost" might have been the first time this strategy translated into giant viewing numbers. ("The Prisoner," for instance, via similar techniques, had some followers, but didn't score the same share and revenue as "Lost" has managed to score.)

It's nice to get a little insight into how Abrams exploits this tension between the comfort of the expected and the thrill of the unexpected in his shows. Even if it's not as brilliant as "Lost," "Fringe" pays off on this philosophy. You settle into the rhythms of the show just long enough to be really pleased with the syncopation.

Head over to io9 for their coverage of the conference call about "Fringe."

A Brief Note: J.J. Abrams also tried this approach much less effectively with the ill-fated show "6 Degrees." I personally liked it, and I could tell it was struggling to get out of it's drama-rut and into more interesting Abrams territory. I guess it just never got a chance to get out of that rut before it was cancelled.