No new shows

Another episode in the continuing series ‘what does green mean?’ Ahem.

And a sub-them of what does the Screen Actors Guild strike have to do with sustainability – in the business sense, everything. Every. Little. Thing.

The issues of the strike might simultaneously seem clear and be difficulty to parse, especially when the sides are show writers, actors, and creators versus the studios. One might think they would be able to work in concert, at least for the sake for of self-preservation. But panning out just a little, the sand in the gears becomes a bit more apparent. From the third link above:

If you read any of the business, publishing or entertainment press you’ll see stories about hard times in streaming world. This means Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Max, Hulu et al. This is undoubtedly true. You’ve likely seen this in the rising prices you pay and the declining offerings your subscription gets you. I don’t write to dispute any of this. But it’s nothing new under the sun. It is more or less exactly what we’ve seen in the digital new industry. The same pattern.

Entrants raise large sums of money (or use cash on hand from other business lines) and then spend substantially more than your subscription merits. They lose money in order to build market share. At some point the industry becomes mature and then they have to convert the business to one that can sustain itself and make a profit. That means substantial retrenchment. Inevitably that means spending less on the product and charging you more.

Another way of looking at this is that the product as you knew it was never viable. You were benefiting from the excess spending that was aimed at building market share. Now the market is saturated. So that era of great stuff for relatively little money is over. At a basic level what many of us enjoyed as a Golden Age of TV was really this period of excess spending. It was based on a drive for market share, funding lots of great shows with investments aimed at building market share.

Very important to realize that, as Josh points out, streaming media is not a viable business. Without transparency and the upfront, continual re-investment in creative, there is no model, because there is no business. The streaming services don’t own anything – they have platforms and partners. One set of partners is now standing up for themselves but pointing out something very important to us and to the tech companies. If we will  listen. World domination or bust is a faulty Silicon Valley idea and a very costly reality. Maybe they’ll make a show about that. Maybe that’s what they’re doing. Don’t touch that dial.

Image: SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, left, takes part in a rally by striking writers and actors outside Netflix studio in Los Angeles in July. (Chris Pizzello / Associated Press) via LA Times

Into metaphors and back again

Most English speakers are familiar with the saying, “a rotten apple.” Employed as a sort of lame excuse for the bad behavior of some, it’s the end of the saying that makes it so much worse, “spoils the bunch.”
Do we develop metaphors to describe things/phenomena/feelings/people that otherwise elude description? It seems so. But do we then turn the metaphors back onto actual situations again? Less clear, but promising.

His only adaptation of a book from his favorite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Akira Kurasawa’s “The Idiot” turns the film into a larger metaphor for Postwar Japan, a nation traumatized, ashamed, destroyed and suffering a severe identity crisis. It also has a what-could-have been awfulness: the director originally intended the film to be nearly five hours long, and in two parts, but his backers, Shochiku, cut it to shreds, ending up a little shy of three hours.

No other work has been a better companion to Dostoyevsky’s unrelenting view of humanity than Akira Kurosawa’s much-maligned 1951 film Hakuchi. The original cut stood at 265 minutes, trimmed to 166 minutes by studio executives at Shochiku against the director’s wishes. “In that case, better to have it cut lengthwise,” he is said to have responded. Nobody knows what was left on the cutting room floor as Kurosawa was unable to locate the lost footage, leaving it impossible for audiences to follow the narrative of the film. Hakuchi was critically derided upon its initial release, finding only a handful of fans in Russia – among them Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hakuchi must have been a very special project to Kurosawa. It is one of his most important early works, and he refused to stray from a wholly faithful adaptation to the book unlike later on with his liberal interpretations of Shakespeare in Throne of Blood and Ran. And despite its obvious failings in narrative flow, no other Kurosawa film tells us more about Japan at the time or conveys as much intense emotional power as Hakuchi. His decision to transport the novel’s events from the glittering St Petersburg to wintry Sapporo on the northernmost island in Japan, is not a purely aesthetic one.

Perhaps a more obvious choice would have been Tokyo or Osaka, cities which are closer similar in spirit to St Petersburg. But then we would have been denied that remarkable scene at the beginning of the film. The thuggish merchant Akama (Rogozhin in the book, played by Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune) and Kameda (Masayuki Mori as Myshkin) stop before a portrait of the woman they will both destroy each other for, her gaze lit up by the blizzard. All around them, peasants struggle by with their carts and goods in the bitter cold. The darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is almost complete save for the faint falling snow, which makes the men’s faces flicker in the shop window. How difficult it is, Kurosawa seems to be saying, to bring light to a place where it is perpetually night.

An old stereotype valorises the purity of the “traditional way of life” in Japan, outside of the moral corruption of the big cities. This is epitomised in many classic novels including Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘The Old Capital’ from 1962. But Kurosawa situates the showy greed and lust of The Idiot in the heart of Japan’s rural outposts, turning this assumption on its head. There is no foreign malice come to take away the innocence of the people; they have nobody to blame but themselves. Fittingly, although the film is set in post-war Japan, the endless snow negates all reference to the time period. The struggle to do good in the world and to eke out a redemptive humanity requires no specific cultural context.

I have a deep reverence for The Idiot (as well as Poor Folk), and its rendering into a different medium brings up some good questions about the utility of metaphors themselves. Refracted cultural explanations of real life that slap back onto actual things; this is [one of the reasons] why, as soon as I heard about it, I couldn’t wait for Postmodernism to be over.

The Plastocene

The Graduate is a great film, with an enduring effect on our culture. But one scene in the film called out a phenomenon that will have an even more enduring effect on our planet: “Just one word

In the first global analysis of plastic production and use, the true weight of the world’s most flexible material has been brought to light. By 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. Of that, 6.3 billion is waste, with just nine per cent of it recycled. The majority, 79 per cent, is piled-up in landfills.

To put this staggering quantity in perspective, 8.3 billion metric tons is the same weight as 80 million blue whales, or 822,000 Eiffel Towers, or one billion elephants. The research was conducted by the University of Georgia, the University of California and others and is published in the journal Science Advances.

The scene in question:

Now, do you think you could stop buying plastic bottles? Like right away? Today? What does half-life mean? And… scene.

Piggies, markets

A can of worms, wrapped in a puzzle, buried inside an enigma, with a little pink flag sticking up, the only thing visible, while the sound of one hand clapping faintly echoes in the background


By the time the subject of the movie finally comes up, we’d already spent half an hour discussing the ossification of our own culture. We talk about how New York City, the place in which Gray set his first five films, has changed so drastically since the mid 1990s; Gray says the Brooklyn of Little Odessa “is totally gone,” and that, while the 1920s tenements in The Immigrant are still there, they now tower above John Varvatos boutiques. Gray specifies that he’s less interested in romanticizing the crime-ridden city of the past than questioning what’s led to the kind of environment in which, he says, one of his friends seems to be the only person actually living in his apartment building on Central Park West, not using it as an investment.

The fundamental issue on Gray’s mind when we talk is how capitalism impacts our priorities as human beings. Saddled with student debt from the moment we set foot in a university, our ability to “study for the sake of learning” is over; instead, we’re “forced to become budding capitalists.” It’s a critique that received major airtime during Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and Gray’s clearly given it some serious thought. “We haven’t figured out a way to monetize integrity, and when you can’t monetize integrity, and you can’t incentivize integrity and incentivize individuality, and you pray at the god of the market, you get a very strange beast that almost consumes itself,” Gray says. “It’s almost like everyone is beholden to this market god, and nobody knows what to do.”

All in one place, this short article has it all. Best of luck to Gray with the The Lost City of Z.

Join the One Percent to Live Longer

Towards the BrinkI hope this is an admonition:

New research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows top earning Americans gained 2 to 3 years of life expectancy between 2001 and 2014, while those at the bottom gained little or nothing. Plenty of research has already shown that health and wealth are intertwined, and that they generally improve in tandem as you move up the income scale. But this year, the vanishing middle class and wildly divergent incomes among Americans have been central issues in a vitriolic race for the White House. Today’s JAMA research shows in the starkest terms yet how disparities in wealth are mirrored by life expectancy, and how both are getting worse.

We yield the floor to Claude Manceron:

The foundation of all revolutionary thought lies in this idea that now is what matters, and don’t try to tell us about anything else. As one scans the images of that now, the temperature begins to rise. And keeps on rising until it reaches that irrepressible indignation at injustice, the burst blood vessel of Revolution, the wrath of love.

Income inequality slowing growth

QE4PRight. Water is wet. Mud, muddy. Dirt, still dirty. In other news, when people don’t have money to buy things, people that make things aren’t able to sell things. This model is fully scalable to the global economy:

Think of an economy as a large network of individuals and firms who make and use things, interact and exchange with one another. Any party can, in principle, transact with any other, buying and selling, the only constraint being the budget of the buyer. Economists have studied network models of this sort — called random exchange economies — to explore how normal trading activity might (or might not) make an economy approach equilibrium.

Now some European physicists have used such a model to examine a different question: How does a significant change in inequality affect the overall level of exchange? Their study makes use of some fairly abstruse mathematics coming from physics, developed precisely for messy network problems of this kind. What they find is troubling, although not all that surprising — rising inequality tends to undermine exchange.

The reason is quite simple. As inequality gets more pronounced, a larger fraction of the population faces more stringent budget constraints, and the spectrum of possible economic interactions open to them narrows. Fewer people have the wherewithal to engage in economic activity. This mathematical economy actually demonstrates a sharp transition, akin to the abrupt freezing of a liquid, as the level of inequality exceeds a certain threshold. Worryingly, the wealth distribution in the U.S. over the past few decades has been moving ever closer to this critical edge.

When will it sink in that you don’t have to be a dirty socialist or believe that everyone should have exactly the same income (and color VW in the garage) to understand that beyond some point, income inequality becomes poison for the entire system. Capitalism can’t work without broad participation, without a diversity of exchange, without the possibility that people may rise into the sphere of [at least] middle class consumption. The 1% idea is not just rhetoric; it’s unhealthy economically as well as politically.

Misleading Investors

gas-pump-climate-changeI guess if that’s how we’re going to see things. But it would be better to state at the outset that every instance of disbelieving, climate change skepticism rises from the deliberate misinformation campaign devised by fossil fuel extraction companies when their own research began to tell them that the delicious smell from the kitchen was their own bacon frying:

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released the results of an investigation that found one of the world’s largest coal companies had misled the public and its shareholders about the risks climate change could pose to its bottom line.

After several years of investigations, Schneiderman reached an agreement with Peabody Energy that won’t require the company to admit it broke the law and does not entail a fine or other penalty. Instead, Peabody must file revised shareholder disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission with new language acknowledging that “concerns about the environmental impacts of coal combustion…could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities.”

The agreement comes just days after Schneiderman issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, kicking off an investigation into whether the oil giant has misled investors and the public about the basic science of climate change for decades. Exxon has denied any wrongdoing. While the two investigations have some similarities, Exxon could face tougher penalties than Peabody, said Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas programs at Ceres, an investor advocacy group. The allegations against Exxon stretch back much further in time and could potentially be more serious, so the attorney general could pursue more aggressive action against the company, Logan said.

The Exxon practice is the actual real story here, one that goes back to the late seventies. The companies were no fools; they invested their own money in real research because they wanted to know the truth. They just decided that it was more important that you didn’t know. And that you questioned any attempts by the government to reign in your freedom. They even gave you a few things you could say.

Framing the practice of climate deception as ‘no duty’ to be truthful with investors may make it seem like a victimless crime, we’re all adults here and all’s fair in love n’ bidness, but c’mon.


File this under “cabbage truck,” “born” and “yesterday:”

Salish-language-signsArtificial intelligence sits at the extreme end of machine learning, which sees people create software that can learn about the world. Google has been one of the biggest corporate sponsors of AI, and has invested heavily in it for videos, speech, translation and, recently, search.

For the past few months, a “very large fraction” of the millions of queries a second that people type into the company’s search engine have been interpreted by an artificial intelligence system, nicknamed RankBrain, said Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist with the company, outlining for the first time the emerging role of AI in search.

RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities — called vectors — that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.

Key quotes from the Bloomberg article:

“Machine learning is a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing,” said Google’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai on the company’s earnings call last week.

Unironically, we’ll assume. And

“It’s very carefully monitored,” Corrado said, nothing that Google periodically updates the system by feeding it a load of new data to help it better reason with new concepts.

Here’s a guess: A new, highly valued skill set becomes communicating with language and word combinations that the computer cannot understand. Weird, constantly changing pigeon combinations develop that mimic and often include the use of dying and/or dead languages. But this development coincides with the mass extinction of any ability to communicate, “search,” think or anything else with any language other than what the computer can understand. The race is on to talk and write beyond the reach of the learning machines. Think of it as sort of a dystopian, 1984-esque, Escape from Jeopardy-Humanities-Terminator cauchemar (see what we did there?), that I am not going to write but on the film about which I would like to have points.

Greece vs. History

o-GREECE-FLAGMy affection for Greeks and Greece knows no bounds, but even setting that aside, via Digby, here is Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, bringing some historical perspective in an interview with DIE ZEIT on the subject of Greek debt:

ZEIT: But shouldn’t they repay their debts?

Piketty: My book recounts the history of income and wealth, including that of nations. What struck me while I was writing is that Germany is really the single best example of a country that, throughout its history, has never repaid its external debt. Neither after the First nor the Second World War. However, it has frequently made other nations pay up, such as after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when it demanded massive reparations from France and indeed received them. The French state suffered for decades under this debt. The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.

ZEIT: But surely we can’t draw the conclusion that we can do no better today?

Piketty: When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.

The internets are continuously aflutter with ‘who has the facts,’ and ‘who has them right.’ But the easy moral indignation available about the Greek debt crisis for any and all is actually… too easy. One needs to look deeper and as usual, history is instructive. Not saying the Germans or any nation is wrong, but as Krugman points out, the ‘No’ vote was actually a victory for democracy in the face of demands from the banksters. It’s more complicated than just ‘the Greeks need to pay up.’ It takes a bit to suss all this out and gain anything like an informed opinion. But we owe (get it?) it to ourselves to do so.



Where you live: the best places

They’re such a big target – and everyone who reads them knows how easy it is hit the logical lunacy of columns by Tom Friedman, David Brooks, and Maureen Dowd, among others. But this New York Times interactive feature on the best and worst places to grow up also leaves a bit to be desired.

Where to live

I don’t think its fact are wrong, per se; indeed they quite accurate, I’m sure. It’s just that there is far more to the story, which assumes that everyone is only living to earn as much as possible. Certainly, many people are. But do we have to cater every possible thought and thought process toward them? What if you are living to become the best person you can? Or to help make your community a vibrant, welcoming place? To use less energy? To achieve some kind of work-life-family balance? There are a whole host of reasons to live any place, and they can’t be completely disentangled.

Also, for counties where there is extremely bad income mobility for children in poor families, the accompanying text boldly suggests that families should move to a better, adjoining county. There are so many reasons that this would be a terrible idea in many cases that it undermines that case for the entire (and exhaustively robust) info graphic in the first place. That’s the take away? To move? What about the other factors that would surely follow? Besides the obvious impossibilities that would come into play for most people – this is akin to advice that, if your job doesn’t pay well enough, just get another, better paying job – the array of other impacts, less diversity, no public transportation, less nightlife and restaurants, driving (if applicable) back from the terrible place you lived where there was more going on after a few drinks to your Shangra-la out in the (gated, even) sticks, more TV watching, fewer neighbors… the whole thing becomes absurd when imagined within these all-too-likely outcomes.

It is great to acknowledge (and visualize) societal problems. But let’s don’t get too secure in the availability of easy answers.