Visiting Your Favorite Film

by Brendan James

Troy Patterson studies what keeps us coming back to amusement parks, after “a record-setting year for the business”:

Projection is what the amusement park is all about—the projection of eager ideas of innocent fun, of nostalgia for things that haven’t even happened yet, of vomit on the X2 at Magic Mountain. The latest and last word in amusement-park projection concerns our disappearance into virtual reality by way of film—meaning, for one thing, the continued trend toward attractions such as Transformers: The Ride 3D at Universal Studios.

Enthusiasts are already anticipating what 2014 will bring, naturally enough, ardent anticipation being among the defining qualities of the amusement-park experience: In Florida, Hogwarts wannabes will thrill to the expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In Italy, Cinecitta World will open on the grounds of the venerable movie studio, a development that has some cineastes up in arms but is okay with me so long as they include an Anita Ekberg water slide.

There is a difference in kind between the straightforward pop-entertainment experiences pioneered by Disneyland and those exemplified by Transformers: The Ride (the purpose of which is “blurring the line between fiction and reality”). If we may take a brief ride of the Jean Baudrillard Reverse Bungee, we may theorize that while the old Disneyland model of escapism involves a flight from adult reality into its infantile simulacrum, the new line-blurring Transformers-style escapism represents the next generation of the ethos of Walt Disney Worldand EPCOT Center, with their designs on reshaping reality.

When Dinosaur Rockers Go Extinct

by Brendan James

E.J. Dickson worries that Springsteen’s music, unappreciated by millennials, won’t survive longer after his death:

[H]ere’s the thing about Bruce’s fan base: It may be huge, and it may be rabidly loyal, but it is old. Like, Peter, Paul and Mary fan old, to the point where David Brooks, in a recent New York Times editorial, referred to American Springsteen fans as “hitting their AARP years, or deep into them” (in Europe, where Springsteen’s fans are arguably even more fervent than their U.S. counterparts, the crowds tend to skew much younger). …

That feeling of restlessness and exhilaration that Bruce speaks to in his songs will be around forever. But Bruce won’t be. Dude is pushing 65. He can’t go smashing his balls into cameramen forever. And if this trend continues – if his music is listened to by progressively fewer and fewer members of younger generations – his fans won’t be around for much longer, either. He won’t reach the level of Zeppelin or Dylan or Kurt Cobain or Neil Young, artists who are still popular among those born decades after the pinnacle of their popularity. In 20 years, he will be a dinosaur, a Glenn Miller, duly respected in record books and Rolling Stone but virtually ignored by people born from 1995 onward. He will be known as the guy who sucked because he was old, or the guy who was old because he sucked.

I’ll make a tentative prediction that Springsteen’s quieter albums like Nebraska and Tom Joad will resurface in the future generations with every obligatory 10-year folk revival. Those records drop the gaudy, heartland grandeur that turns off younger listeners with no interest in cars or crumbling textile mills.

Previous Dish on the Boss here, here, here and here.

What’s In A Dance?

By Brendan James

Susan Shepard highlights a 2005 tax case up for appeal, centered on the whether a man’s strip club provides genuine “artistic performance”:

The origin of the case stems from a provision in New York’s tax code that exempts dramatic and musical performances from sales taxes. The Court ruled that the stage and private performances taking place inside of Nite Moves did not qualify as such. But when courts make a determination as to what is and is not art, they are not on the most solid ground. As the dissenting opinion read, “It does not matter if the dance was artistic or crude, boring or erotic. Under New York’s tax law, a dance is a dance.” After that defeat, [owner Stephen] Dick hired First Amendment expert Robert Corn-Revere, who has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their appeal.

She interviews anthropologist and dancer Judith Lynn Hanna, who testified in the case that stripping and lap dancing qualify as a “choreographed performance”:

A choreographed performance is a performance that has some plan. And it has some specific use of time, space, effort, and of body movement and posture. Just as a dancer on stage has a routine, whether she’s going to the mirror, whether she’s going to the pole, whether she’s changing flow over the performance, it usually very much depends on the dancer’s earlier background. Some people have had ballet, some have been in dance companies, some draw on moves they had as a cheerleader or social dancing, They watch television or they just watch the dancers who are already dancing and learn like most people learn, which is by watching or being coached.

So the issue was can you have improvisation? Well, of course. Even in a very choreographed ballet performance there can be interpretation by the specific dancer. Some people just think that you don’t dance when you are an exotic dancer or doing striptease, that all you do is get up and shake your booty.

Colbert covered the story here.

Beer Goggles In The Lab

by Brendan James

To explain the effect of booze on perception, researches ran an experiment that found “acute alcohol consumption decreases ability to detect asymmetry in faces”:

Twenty images of a pair of faces and then 20 images of a single face were displayed on a computer, one at a time. Participants were instructed to state which face of each of the face pairs displayed was most attractive and then whether the single face being displayed was symmetrical or not. Data were collected near campus bars at Roehampton University. Sixty-four self-selecting students who undertook the study were classified as either sober (control) or intoxicated with alcohol. For each face pair or single face displayed, participant response was recorded and details of the alcohol consumption of participants that day were also obtained. Sober participants had a greater preference for symmetrical faces and were better at detecting whether a face was symmetrical or otherwise, supporting the hypotheses.

The Symphony’s Self-Sabotage

by Brendan James

Philip Kennicott complains that the classical music industry has lost its way, stricken by a lack of confidence in what contemporary audiences want:

Many in the managerial class, especially those who first trained as musicians, care deeply about the rich, variegated, and complex history of classical music, but can find no practical way to offer that history to like-minded patrons. Instead they work with a caricature of the audience, dividing it into two classes, one made up of younger, adventurous listeners willing to try anything, and the other composed of older, problematic ones, who want only Beethoven’s Fifth night after night.

But the serious listener, who is adventurous and critical, open and discriminating, does not fit into either of these categories.

Among the most worrisome signs for the orchestra is how little concern there is for listeners who care deeply about the infinite variety of orchestra music—Mozart, Mendelssohn, or Lutosławski—but have little use for syncretic hybrids. As always, there is an economic explanation for the marginalization of the serious listener: interesting repertoire takes more time to rehearse, it is difficult to market, it cannot be repeated with the frequency of more popular fare. And serious listeners are resistant to the basic ideological sleight-of-hand behind so much programming: they do not believe that trivial music is worth the same investment as the core repertory, and so they vote with their feet and stay home. This gets them marked as fickle supporters of the civic institution.

Syria Is Not Your Moral Playground

by Brendan James


Sean Lee, a blogger living in Lebanon who’s skeptical of intervention, delivers a sharp message to fellow leftists:

[I]f your opinion of Syria is actually an opinion about the United States, I have no interest in hearing it, and it’s probably safe to say that most Syrians (or at least all of the ones I know) who are faced with the business end of the regime’s ordinance don’t either. I can’t think of a single Syrian who’s willing to get killed so you can flaunt your anti-imperialist street cred from the comfort of your local coffee shop.

Ramah Kudaimi is even more direct:

I think taking a position of the US should not get involved through a military intervention is fine. DON’T put it as “Hands off Syria” implying this is some kind of American conspiracy. DON’T argue this is about US not having a right to taking sides in a civil war. DON’T make it all about money for home since we do want more humanitarian aid. DO frame it as what will help bring the suffering of Syrians to an end.

We’re used to hearing the charge of abstract moralism leveled at advocates of intervention: those puffy Western pundits and armchair generals who convert every instance of mass atrocity into a simple moral quiz best answered with cruise missiles. And it’s true: there’s usually an inverse relationship between the level of a commentator’s self-righteousness and their knowledge of the country they intend to throttle. Tiny, wretched countries like Iraq and Syria suddenly echo the threat of European fascists on the march. There’s been no shortage of this posturing among those making the case for intervention in Syria.

But Lee and Kudaimi, like anyone outside of the interventionist bubble, are often forced to interact with a different crowd that, through either ideology or exhaustion, is equally guilty. Just as misguided liberals or delusional neocons perceive militarism as a sign of ethical yet  “hardheaded” foreign policy, many on the left and the Paulite right wear their anti-interventionism as a badge of honor, using a horror like Syria as a test of personal strength: it proves they’re not fooled by Washington’s propaganda or vulnerable to humanitarian appeals. And so arguments are reverse-engineered from a general attitude about the United States, global capitalism and waning empire.

For a taste, here’s self-appointed spokesman for the Arab world Robert Fisk, today:

If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Quite an alliance! Was it not the Three Musketeers who shouted “All for one and one for all” each time they sought combat? This really should be the new battle cry if – or when – the statesmen of the Western world go to war against Bashar al-Assad.

The men who destroyed so many thousands on 9/11 will then be fighting alongside the very nation whose innocents they so cruelly murdered almost exactly 12 years ago. Quite an achievement for Obama, Cameron, Hollande and the rest of the miniature warlords.

If you find it odd that this is the first thing Fisk has to say about a potential strike, you’ll begin to see Lee’s point above. When you’re rolling on a cocktail of sanctimony and snark, there’s neither time nor need for genuine analysis, as Lee points out:

It is the flip side of the rhetoric that was so evident in the run-up to war in Iraq that equated any opposition to an idiotic war with support for Saddam Hussein. Well, guess what? There are lots of perfectly fine opinions that might put you on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Just to name one: if you’re against drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as I am, then you’re also “on the same side as al-Qa’ida” according to this logic.

In short: don’t pretend your moral pageant has anything to do with what’s right for Syrians. The months and months of chatter over this war have been a fine reminder that moralism, from the left and right, is utterly useless in writing about the conflict. With little time left before the US makes a final decision whether to strike, anyone serious about Syrian (or Lebanese, or Iraqi, or Israeli) lives can drop the indignation and the piety. An honest observer’s thoughts look a lot less like this or this, and a lot more like this.

(Photo: Demonstrators hold up placards during a protest against potential British military involvement in Syria at a gathering outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on August 29, 2013. By Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)

Measuring The Spirit Of Capitalism

by Brendan James

Josh Keating finds a study claiming the Protestant work ethic is scientifically verifiable:

Using data from the European and World Values Surveys—global studies in which people are asked to describe their economic circumstances and subjectively assess their own well-being—they examined a sample of 150,000 individuals from 82 societies to see how people felt about unemployment. They found that while unemployment reduces well-being regardless of religious denomination, “it has an additional negative effect for Protestants of about 40 percent the size of the original effect.” In other words, “the individual level unemployment hurts Protestants much more than it does non-Protestants.”

The effect also applies for people living in predominantly Protestant societies, even if they are not Protestant themselves. When they examined self-reported happiness ratings, as opposed to well-being as a whole, they found the “negative effect of unemployment … to be twice as strong for Protestants compared to non-Protestants.”

Bonding With Bots

by Brendan James

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Jessica Love wonders what it will be like “when our daily conversations are as likely to take place with computers as with humans”:

Just this month, the New York Times’s Ian Urbina reported on the increasing ubiquity of socialbots: robotic programs designed to lure actual humans into virtual conversations, and then, more often than not, convince them to do something: buy stock, adopt a political stance, even fall in love. (And who better to fall for than a Nigerian Prince?) “Within two years,” Urbina writes, “about 10 percent of the activity occurring on social online networks will be masquerading bots, according to technology researchers.”

Make no mistake: these bots will get good. As will Siri and Google Search and any number of algorithms programmed—for reasons insidious or otherwise—to behave as humanly as possible. I find it very probable that, in my lifetime, I’ll be able to have entire conversations without ever quite knowing whom or what I’m talking to.

Previous Dish on our future robot companions here and here.

Justice For Revenge Porn?

by Brendan James

Maureen O’Connor profiles a victim of “revenge porn” in New Jersey, the only state where the sick practice is illegal:

[Anonymous victim “A”] remembers shooing her young cousins away during a back-to-school shopping trip at Target, when an older man approached to compliment “your pictures.” Another time, printouts of her nude photos were left outside her front door.

A’s story is remarkable not because of the personal betrayal it involved or the public humiliation of having an X-rated digital doppelgänger. Those things happen to countless victims of “revenge porn,” the term for sexually explicit images distributed without the subject’s consent, whether by an ex-boyfriend or anonymous hackers. What’s truly remarkable is that the legal system took interest in A at all.

For victims elsewhere, the legal system provides few options:

At the heart of a burgeoning movement to change that is End Revenge Porn, the advocacy group that A began volunteering for in the wake of her nightmare experience. It’s the brainchild of Florida resident Holly Jacobs, who went public last spring with her five-year battle against a pornographic attack so pervasive it led her to change her name. She has since built a network of around 50 victims and legal experts advocating for laws banning revenge porn, and she’s now spinning End Revenge Porn into a nonprofit called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. She works with lawyers, academics, and legislators — including California state senator Anthony Cannella, who has sponsored a California bill to make revenge porn a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense; the popular bill is under consideration right now.

But Lux Alptraum argues new legislation is misguided:

[R]evenge porn is already illegal. Distributing pornographic content without maintaining an extensive database conforming to the specifics of 18 USC 2257 records keeping requirements is a criminal offense. So are harassment and stalking, which could be interpreted to include revenge porn. If it’s already on the books as illegal, why do we need more laws to specifically call it out as illegal? And, more pressingly, if the existing laws aren’t enough to deter and punish the distributors of revenge porn, how can we genuinely believe that one more law is going to fix the problem?

The UK Won’t Touch Syria

by Brendan James

Yesterday, as we noted, the House of Commons voted down David Cameron’s motion for intervention in Syria 285 votes to 272. It can safely be said that the parliament delivered the will of the people, with British public opposing strikes two to one. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry sees this as “an example of democracy actually working, and in the best sense of the word”:

The neocons urging Cameron to ignore the vote since it was non-binding are missing the point. And David Cameron gets it. Britain’s Parliament, its House of Commons, spoke. And the Prime Minister has to yield. There is no law that says that in this specific instance the Prime Minister should do that–but no matter. The United Kingdom has centuries of tradition of the highest respect for the will of its Parliament, and so there really was no other option for David Cameron.

Larison expects the US to go it alone:

The defeat for Cameron makes it that much more likely that Obama will proceed while ignoring Congress, since he won’t want to risk the same rebuke from our representatives. In truth, that rebuke would probably not be forthcoming, but it’s a chance that Obama isn’t going to want to take at this point. Despite the embarrassment for both Cameron and Obama that this vote represents, it is hard to imagine the administration won’t proceed with the attack because of this. This is good news for Britain, but regrettably won’t have much effect here except to cause a lot of whining about the state of the U.S.-British relationship.

Jack Goldsmith suggests Obama is now going full-Dubya:

The President is way out on a limb, by himself.  Independent of legality, unilateral military intervention in these circumstances is extraordinarily imprudent, and it is hard to fathom that it is being considered by the man who based his case for the presidency in 2008 on his commitment to domestic and international legality, and on opposition to imprudent wars.