Everything That's Happened in the Republican Race Thus Far (2012)

When John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's book Game Change was first released, it was derided for its reliance on tawdry details and unnamed sources. Still, Heilamann and Halperin proved they knew how to spin a gripping yarn.

Those skills are again on display in a recent piece Heilamann wrote for New York, a blistering summary of the dynamics at play in the Republican race thus far:

The transfiguration of the GOP isn’t only about ideology, however. It is also about demography and temperament, as the party has grown whiter, less well schooled, more blue-collar, and more hair-curlingly populist. The result has been a party divided along the lines of culture and class: Establishment versus grassroots, secular versus religious, upscale versus downscale, highfalutin versus hoi polloi. And with those divisions have arisen the competing electoral coalitions—shirts versus skins, regulars versus red-hots—represented by Romney and Santorum, which are now increasingly likely to duke it out all spring.

Gawker recently published a piece on Romney's fake-ness, a series of brutal zingers that may nevertheless contain some insights into the man's image.

See also: Matt Taibbi's explanation of how the Republican party is destroying itself.

Two Hollywoods

Bill Wyman, on the problem with the Oscars these days:

There are two Hollywoods now. One makes those cacophonous entertainments, which kids flock to see in noisy multiplexes each weekend. The other makes films for adults, which we see in the calmer art theaters or in the comfort of our own homes on home video, Netflix, or on demand. They don’t make much money, so they leverage what influence they can. One of these has been their efficient hijacking of the Oscars race each year. If you don’t overspend in production and play the awards-season game well, you can do all right financially.

There Are No Ethical Smartphones

Andrew Leonard points out the ultimate paradox of digital activism:

Welcome to the fundamental contradiction of the age of the smartphone. The same gizmos that enable the ultra-efficient globalized exploitation of labor — computers, broadband networks, digital communication devices — are the tools that we must use to address and overcome those inequities. Sounds crazy, but it’s true: If you want an “ethical iPhone,” you’re going to have to use your unethical iPhone to get it.

Someone Like You

The WSJ breaks down exactly why Adele's "Someone Like You" is such an effective tear-jerker (there are scientific reasons!):

Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an "appoggiatura." [...]

"Someone Like You," which Adele wrote with Dan Wilson, is sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas. In addition, during the chorus, Adele slightly modulates her pitch at the end of long notes right before the accompaniment goes to a new harmony, creating mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution, said Dr. Guhn.

The New Normal

From The New York Times comes this report of pregnancy outside of wedlock:

Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.

More and more, marriage is becoming a means through which we see social, political, and economic power dynamics play out.

Racism and Ethnic Stereotypes in 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace'


I was doing my workout routine this morning and listening to AV Club's Reasonable Discussions podcast when host Kyle Ryan introduced writer Noel Murray for a segment on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Menace is going to be out in theaters soon for an eye-rollingly unnecessary 3D re-release). In recent days, Murray has taken some unpopular positions on films (example: defending the Matrix sequels) but he's super smart and I always find his arguments to be invigorating one way or the other, even if I disagree with him.

Murray made a few points about why he appreciated The Phantom Menace, but didn't really say anything controversial (for the record, I can't really agree with most of his praise for the film. At the very least, the positive is overshadowed by Lucas's stunning incompetence in other areas - but the negatives about this film have already been well-documented). Then, the following exchange occurred (you can listen to the conversation here at about the 20-minute mark):

Kyle: The biggest stumbling block for this film is Jar Jar Binks, for a lot of people. When I saw this a couple of years ago, I remember enjoying the movie more than I thought I did until Jar Jar shows up, and then it kind of takes a turn.
Noel: ...I can't defend that character. He's goofy, he's got the crazy accent. I don't think it's racist, I will say that. I think that criticism is a little bit overblown. These are characters. Yes he's got kind of a strange ethnic accent. What is it racist against? Floppy-eared people?
Kyle: ...he has kind of a Stepin Fetchit thing going on? And then the hooked-nose alien, Watto? And then the sort of Asian aliens that were the Nemodians at the beginning? If you didn't see the visuals and you just heard the audio, I would be put off by it.
Noel: I understand where it's coming from, but I think it's misguided. I think Lucas is trading on all of these old B-movie traditions which include kind of exaggerated villains with exaggerated characteristics. Theyr'e not specifically tied to any one race. They're just kind of generally exotic. That's always been my takeaway from it. That said, they're not like well fleshed out characters or anything. And in some cases they're actively irritating, so yeah, I certainly understand that.

Before I say anything else, let me just point out that as someone who hosts my own podcasts, I know what it's like for people to totally rip something you're saying out of context, so I'm going to try to be as cautious as possible here.

That being said, can we please stop pretending that the clearly racist caricatures in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were a) not racist caricatures, and b) acceptable to our society? Like, at all?

Bruce Gottlieb over at Slate wrote up a pretty good summary of Lucas's racial offenses when Phantom Menace was first released:

Crafty Japanese trade villains aren't the only heavy-handed ethnic stereotype in The Phantom Menace. As the story continues, the heroes slip past the evil Japanese to a nearby planet. There, they attempt to repair their broken spaceship but are stymied by the hook-nosed owner of the local parts shop--Watto--who also happens to have a thick Yiddish accent! (To hear an example, click "Great.") Psychological manipulations that work on almost everyone fail with Watto--"Mind ticks don'ta work on me ... only money! No," he cries--and the heroes get what they want only through the bravery of a gifted slave boy (Anakin Skywalker). At the end of the desert planet sequence, Anakin is emancipated but separated from his mother, who still belongs to Watto. Even in a galaxy far away, the Jews are apparently behind the slave trade.

And then there's Jar Jar Binks, the childlike sidekick with the unmistakably West Indian accent and enormous buttocks. Jar Jar is likable, easygoing, and dumb as dirt--always being scolded or saved from death by the Jedi knights. His stupidity and cowardice are running jokes throughout the film. And his people, the Gungan, are a brave but primitive tribe who throw spears and rocks at the oncoming army in the climactic battle sequence. Only Hispanics escape Lucas' caricature, which is actually something of a mixed blessing since Hispanics often rightly complain that they are ignored in the national race debate.

In a 1999 article for the Boston Review, Alan Stone corroborates Gottlieb's take on things. He also identifies one of the reasons why Lucas got himself in trouble: he made the aliens English-speaking. Unlike aliens from the previous Star Wars films (see: Chewbacca, the Ewoks, all the people in the Cantina scene), the aliens in this film spoke our language and had accents and other characteristics reminiscent of the ones found in ethnic stereotypes:

What has made my student and many other cultists of his generation feel betrayed is the new ingredient in Lucas’s recipe: aliens who, unlike any of the previous exotic life forms, suggest racist stereotypes. The evil henchmen in this story seem to be Fu Manchu style Asians, and the primitive Gungan people who live under the sea suggest old Hollywood stereotypes of African-Americans.

A particular controversy has arisen around the Gungan character of Jar Jar Binks, who has been described as a science fiction version of Stepnfetchit. Lucas is outraged by this reaction; he claims that critics found it on the Internet somewhere and seized on it to disparage his film. He also says it’s in the eye of the beholders who have converted his orange amphibians into degrading stereotypes. He may be right, but I must report that I went into the film knowing nothing about the controversy and yet as soon as I saw Jar Jar Binks I knew why my student, an African-American, felt betrayed.

To be fair, Lucas has already responded to these allegations...in the most condescending way possible. In a 2000 article for Salon, Lucas was quoted as saying the following about critics of his film's racial politics:

“Most of them that I’ve met are reasonably dim-witted,” he said of critics. “I mean, they aren’t like the rest of us. They don’t have any knowledge of anything. They’re not successful in any world that I’ve … They certainly don’t know anything about history; they don’t know anything about film. They don’t know anything about politics. They don’t know anything about sociology or psychology or anything. I mean, it’s like, you get into a conversation with them and it’s hard to find a subject that they can actually converse on.”

[I don't need to respond incredulously here, because the author of that article, Alynda Wheat, already did it for me]

Many people have responded to the above allegation of racial stereotyping by saying "Well, they're aliens. Aren't YOU being racist by saying that these are ethnic stereotypes?" Good one. But hiding your ignorance behind the veil of a different species does not make it acceptable.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace clearly invokes imagery and audio from racist ethnic stereotypes. The fact that the recipient of these stereotypical characteristics are non-human aliens does not change this fact (and yes, I realize that in Star Wars, technically ALL the characters are aliens, so no need to point that out). If you want to deny this, we can go back to the movies and do some scene-by-scene comparison. I quite frankly can't believe that I'm still having to even argue this point.

But to me, the question of whether Lucas has invoked these stereotypes (which I think he undeniably has) is much less interesting than the effect of his doing so. Does it make his movie "racist"? Does it lessen the film in any other substantive way? And what are its implications for how we talk about the film with children?

I'm going to try not to ascribe any intentionality to Lucas's actions. I doubt he's a racist at heart. In the above article, Stone suggests that these aliens came out of "suppressed stereotypes" from Lucas's psyche.  What I know is that most of the non-human-appearing aliens are presented as evil, devious, and/or scheming. Their accents and varying demeanors add to their "other-ness," and allow the audience to distance themselves, emotionally, from them.

It's not rocket science, this storytelling method that Lucas employs. There's a long cinematic history of using this type of imagery in this way. But I had hoped it was something that our culture tried to leave behind, not something that we still find defensible. Ultimately, The Phantom Menace is so artistically reviled that most people just throw the baby out with the bath water. Nonetheless, I feel a full accounting of the film's flaws must include this racial footnote.

Having spent a significant amount of time in the past two years studying media and its effect on children, I've learned that there aren't very many causal conclusions that can be drawn about whether or not violent imagery, sex, etc. actually have a concrete effect on child development. But one thing that I can confidently say is this: what we allow our children to watch matters. When they see The Phantom Menace, which features the triumph of (mostly) white characters over those people with the weird accents who talk, dress, and act differently than "us," what message does it send them?

I don't know the answer to that question. But I'm not going to pretend that it's not worth thinking about.

You Never Get To Taste the Bread

David Carr, on the illusory nature of online relationships, as exemplified through a recent dinner he had with Clay Shirky:

As it turns out, Mr. Shirky became very good at bread eating at a young age, so his mother decided that he should also be good at bread making. We all chewed on the bread as Mr. Shirky told the story of learning how to make bread as a 10-year-old.

Now, he could have told that story in a blog post or in an e-mail chain, but it became a very different story because we were tasting what he talked about. The connection in an online conversation may seem real and intimate, but you never get to taste the bread. To people who lead a less-than-wired existence, that may seem like a bit of a “duh,” but I spend so much interacting with people on the Web that I have become a little socially deficient.

The Young and the Unemployed

Discouraging news for the young'uns:

Just 54 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 currently have jobs, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. That's the lowest employment rate for this age group since the government began keeping track in 1948. And it's a sharp drop from the 62 percent who had jobs in 2007 -- suggesting the recession is crippling career prospects for a broad swath of young people who were still in high school or college when the downturn began.


Once again, OK Go has outdone themselves with a creative new music video that pushes the limits of what's possible in the medium:

Car and Driver has a great "making of" feature on the insane amounts of work that went into this.

Obama Reverses Positions on SuperPACs

Sad that it's come to this, but I understand the necessity:

Aides said the president had signed off on a plan to dispatch cabinet officials, senior advisers at the White House and top campaign staff members to make clear to donors that they should support Priorities USA Action, the leading Democratic “super PAC,” whose fund-raising has been dwarfed by Republican groups. The new policy was presented to the campaign’s National Finance Committee in a call Monday evening and was set to be announced Tuesday.

“We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back,” said Jim Messina, the manager of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign. “With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules. Democrats can’t be unilaterally disarmed.”

Still, it's not an unprecedented move, given Obama's similar reversal in 2008. Principles are nice, but apparently in the end, all that really matters in this system is winning.

My Favorite Aperture Presets

Presets. They are the poor man's Photoshop actions. A decent preset can totally change the mood of a photograph with the click of a button. It can make it into something unique or consign it to the failure pile.

I've recently been on the lookout for some filters/presets/actions/whatever to take my photographs to the next level. In the course of my journey, I bought the Flare app for my Mac and found it to be a colossal waste of money. While reviews stated it was great for beginners and adequate for professionals, I found their preset filters to be amateurish and unpleasant. Many of them mimicked the effect of having an old film camera, complete with emulsion spots and grainy texture. This might be fine for photos I produce playing around with my iPhone, but I would never think of presenting anything produced by Flare for a client.

Thus, I retreated back into the arms of my current photo app of choice, Aperture 3 for Mac, and tried to find some decent presets to work within it. It's a minefield out there when it comes to finding decent presets. A Google search for "Aperture presets" turns up spam site within spam site, and most of the sites I came across felt as sketchy as hell. That being said, I did find one (XposurePro) that, despite its spartan appearance, actually had some pretty decent stuff for sale (you can pay via Paypal, for those who are wary of site security, as I am).

After copious searching and experimentation, I've arrived at a tentative list of my favorite presets (click to enlarge before/after):

Toy Camera - Alright, this one's kind of a cheat because it comes with Aperture, but I've consistently found it to be a good go-to if I want to punch up my images. Increased vibrancy and a hardcore vignette make the blues and reds in your images really shine.

Monster Punch - This preset puts a lot of emphasis on Edge and Edge Sharpening. The result is a photo that pops, while still looking quite professional. While this preset is quite Warm and its Tint borders on a bit too purple for my tastes, it is a great starting point. It also reminds me of my colleague Tammy Swales' photography style, and that's never a bad thing. Monster Punch is available for free.

Vintage Fashion - Much preferable to Aperture's default Vintage preset, Vintage Fashion gives a glamorous, old-school feel without making everything feel washed out. Vintage Fashion is available from Xposurepro for $2.99.

Retro Vogue - There are a lot of apps that purport to give you a retro/vintage look, but few do it as subtly and with as much grace as the Retro Vogue preset. The colors in Retro Vogue are a little bit punchier than those found in Vintage Fashion, but they still look fantastic. I can tell this is going to be a preset I'm going to return to again and again in the future. Retro Vogue is available from Xposurepro.com for $2.99.

Woody Harrelson Gets Chased Out of Reddit

Woody Harrelson is starring in a new drama called Rampart. I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard it is pretty solid.

A few days ago, some PR wizards decided to use Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) community to do a little publicity for Rampart. They created a page for him that read as follows:

Hi Reddit, it’s Woody here. I’m in New York today doing interviews for my new film RAMPART, which opens in theaters on February 10th. I’ll be checking in from 3-4EST today and will get to as many of your questions as I can, so start asking now! Be back soon.

A deluge of questions followed, as is typical for these AMAs. However, either Harrelson or the PR people running his account were instructed to only answer questions about Rampart (or in ways that referred explicitly to Rampart). In fact, if you read some of his answers, they sound like they're coming straight out of a press kit for Rampart. As a result, Harrelson ignored the vast majority of other non-related questions, thus violating the "spirit" of Reddit's AMA section.

Subsequent to this was a Reddit backlash the likes of which has rarely been seen. Reddit was outraged (OUTRAGED!) that Harrelson had attempted to use the site to brazenly promote his new film. But while others have done this sort of promotion in the past (e.g. Louis CK), Harrelson's attempt struck the community is totally inauthentic and blatantly self-serving. The site is now awash with meme pictures of Harrelson, unpleasant trivia about Harrelson's family, as well as rumors of some kind of sexual liason that Harrelson ostensibly participated in with a high school student in LA.

PR professionals, take notice: do not toy with forces beyond your control or understanding. Speak to communities such as Reddit correctly and they will reward you with lavish praise and tons of page views. But do it with a hint of insincerity and they will respond with the anger of a thousand suns.

[In fact, to state the obvious, when it comes to this sort of online promotion, or ANY online promotion, the less PR people are involved, the better and more interesting the resulting content usually is.]