25 February 2009

Squirrel Sausages

  • In the NYT, a lukewarm article (probably written by a journalism major) asks how we justify the humanities during a recession. Which begs two much larger questions:

    1. How do we justify MBA programs when MBA-think is what got us into this recession in the first place? Frankly, we can't — especially when what passes for quantitative reasoning in MBA programs is so divorced from the real world, and what passes for analysis in MBA programs is so focussed on short-term indicators of success that have been accepted as valid without any reasonable effort to correlate them to long-term success... or even define "success."
    2. How do we justify taking technically skilled people and making them devote their entire efforts to "management"? Perhaps the best example I can think of is the "management problems" we had in the military during the decade on each side of Gulf War I thanks to the "engineering curriculum" at the military academies... but spotting that problem required both being far enough on the inside to understand the the problem and being far enough on the outside to be willing and able to criticize it. (Not that it did an awful lot of good, although most of my non-Academy-graduate bosses ultimately agreed.)

       The most important justification for the humanities, though, is purely functional. At the university level, the humanities all concern how one communicates, and the assumptions that one makes while communicating. And if there is one thing that this particular recession comes from, it is a failure to communicate.

  • Lee Goldberg doesn't understand the DVD release schedule for TV series... and he should if anyone does. But he doesn't, primarily because he's not thinking in terms of legal minutiae. Leaving aside the serious issue of the condition of archival materials — a nontrivial problem, but one that also applies to feature films — one must place most of the blame on the lawyers and beancounters. Really. (Like I have ever shown any reluctance to blame lawyers for anything, eh?) Too often, the cheapskate beancounter types who played manager in the 1960s through 1980s chose to save a tiny bit of money — tiny, that is, in comparison to the entire budget — by only clearing rights to other materials, such as music, for broadcast. Now, the value of the rights for recorded media has skyrocketed, and the Fram Oil Filter theory has come back to haunt them. Exhibit A: The classic, good PBS production of The Lathe of Heaven, which could probably have secured all of the rights in question for about $3,000 more in 1979... and was left in the vault for two decades thereafter. (Of course, the greed at Apple Corp. didn't help; it's not always the beancounters at the film producers who are at fault.) Now throw in the AMPTP's general reluctance to share silly things like residuals from DVDs with anyone else, and all of a sudden things make sense: They don't have to share residuals (or, at least, not as much of them) until the series as a whole is in positive-net territory, and all of those failed series aren't in positive-net territory, so...
  • Here are some thoughful comments on why book reviews don't "work" from Tom Christenson. I will now apply my own humanities education and assert that there is a yet more fundamental reason that they don't "work": We can't agree on what "work" means. Often, a negative review is at least as valuable to the potential purchaser as is a positive one. For one thing, a reviewer who never issues (or seldom issues) negative reviews — at least those not fuelled by a preexisting feud with the author/editor of the book(s) in question! — has little or no credibility with those who actually pay attention to the content of the review, rather than its very existence. Understanding what someone does not like, and why, helps immensely when trying to give appropriate weight to his/her praise. Bluntly, one of the reasons that nobody really pays any attention to Kirkus anymore is that the bland bits of praise, in varying weights, that infect its reviews have no context, seem generic... and, all too often, end up being inconsistent with readers' experiences with the books. In strictly economic terms, a good book review helps me focus my limited time and other resources (such as bookshelf space!) on works that are more likely to have a reasonable return on my investment of time, money, energy, etc.; and sometimes, that necessarily requires eliminating the inadequate-but-heavily-marketed dreck so I can spend my decisionmaking time on the items that potentially are worth my attention.
  • Perhaps the rhetoric is a bit overblown, but Joss Whedon does make some sense when explaining why — with one exception — DC's comics have not made good films. The problem is not the audience's inability to identify with god-like superheroes; if it was, the comic books themselves would not have been popular. The problem, instead, is that film as a medium is inappropriate for depicting god-like characters, because it doesn't leave enough to the imagination: It puts everything in the same frame of immediacy, and doesn't allow the audience a chance to pause and reflect. Except, that is, when watching it on DVD. So perhaps — just perhaps — the best way to adapt superhero comics might be via direct-to-DVD release with "frames" to anticipate audience pauses? And keep things in a episodic structure, just like the release of the actual comic books? I shudder to think of what Warner would do to material like Sandman that not just allows, but demands, audience reflection (and even flipping back a few pages to confirm what already happened)... because, if there's one thing that Warner's films do not do — even the relatively successful ones like The Dark Knight — it is encourage the audience to immerse itself more fully in the experience by taking a break in the middle.
  • The Supreme Court restricted itself to the "It may be stupid; it may be offensive; but that's a political defect, not a constitutional one" meme that informs so much (perhaps too much) of the debate on government and religion in its decision this morning in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, No. 07–665 (25 Feb. 2009) (PDF). In this case, a distinct-minority religion (one might say "crackpot," as if that's any real distinction) wanted to put a monument with its Seven Aphorisms in a public park that already had nearly a dozen other religious monuments. The city rejected Summum's application, codified its reasons for rejecting the application, and gave Summum another chance... which Summum promptly blew by not following directions.

    On principle, I'd prefer not to have religious monuments on public land. Of any kind. But in this instance, the Court was caught between two different flavors of stupid, and chose the flavor of stupid least likely to cause further constitutional damage. I do not believe that this foreshadows anything about the other monument case this term... because in that instance, the government did not establish written criteria and yet explicitly allowed a monument that is exclusionary — not inclusive — in nature.

And now, off to the vet: Lucy needs her vaccinations and rabies shot. Then the local wildlife needs its daily dose of mortal fear.