July 18, 2006

The Problem with the Long Tail

Filed under: criticism, culture — ted @ 12:48 pm

In an excellent commentary in yesterday’s Guardian, Natasha Walter questions the desirability of the “long tail” model of distributing works of art. For those not familiar with this burgeoning term, Walter provides a good definition:

The long tail, as [Chris Anderson] explains in his book of the same name, is what you see on the sales graphs for retailers like Amazon or iTunes, where a few hits and bestsellers may sell an awful lot, but most sales are of books and music that sell hardly anything – just bobbing along selling twenties, tens, twos and ones, rather than thousands. For online retailers, who can afford the kind of enormous catalogue that a real-space shop can’t dream of, this long tail of small sales adds up to significantly more than the short head of big sales.

As an alternative to the blockbuster paradigm of movie-making and book-writing, which formulates bland art and survives on expectation and marketing, the long tail is appealing: in our age, it’s very easy for writers and artists to reach their niche audience, and sell directly to them with little interference from the suits. However, as Walter points out, the long tail model leaves out something dear to many creators:

A culture divided between the massive hit and the tiny niche may feel comfortable for retailers and producers of a certain sort, but not so good for others. Many writers do not just want to reach a tiny online community and yet will never follow the formulas that please a massive audience; many film-makers don’t want to go it alone with a digital camera and sell to the teenagers on MySpace, but also don’t want millions of dollars of computer-generated imagery and a first week opening on thousands of screens

I think this is right on: if Anderson is correct, and the long tail truly is a developing phenomenon, our artistic culture could become increasingly divided between mindless drivel and niche interests. The problem here is that the truly great works of art have, throughout history, become great by appealing to a wide audience because of the indisputability of their greatness, not because they were directed at the right market or interest group.

The role of criticism and discernment is important here as well. Blockbusters like The Da Vinci Code — both the book and the movie — are essentially critic proof, counting on buzz and controversy, rather than critical success, as an entryway into our collective consciousness. On the other end of the tail, as writers and artists form a direct link between their specialized creation and a eager audience who is predisposed to love and appreciate it, critical opinion is again neutralized.

Perhaps it is too much to expect a great work of art to garner a large popular following in today’s fragmented culture — but I’d like to think that’s not the case.

Quick Hits:

I love this photo:

(view full)

  • This weekend, a group of teens were arrested in Boulder for “posing a trolls:” namely, attempting to charge people to cross a bridge while quoting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Read the full article — every paragraph is a precious gem.
  • The U.S Government, according to an ACLU release, is “broadly interpreting and using a controversial Patriot Act power known as the ‘ideological exclusion’ provision to block people from entering the country.” Yet another reason to be very, very afraid of the Patriot Act.
  • Cool Looking Stuff: an enormous Great White Shark jumping out of the water to catch a seal — in super slow motion.
  • Bullet Time Reaction: literally, dodge a bullet. Fun!

July 14, 2006

Link Dump

Filed under: web — ted @ 4:25 pm

Although, as Senator Stevens has informed us, “the internet is not something you just dump something on,” this blog, like a big truck, is a good place to dump three days worth of excellence.

Biggest news (well, apart from the end-times) first: the U.S. army has been accused of kidnapping in Iraq. Not content with simply torturing its prisoners, our men and women in uniform have been kidnapping and torturing their prisoner’s family members. This is, of course, a violation of the Geneva conventions, and nearly every reasonable person’s notion of justice.

Web news:

Speaking of Microsoft, here’s a sneak peak of what they’re “iPod killer” (NOT!), codenamed “Argo,” might look like:

You can color me unimpressed. Plus, it will probably go with Windows Media Player, an application which is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster — and, from what I’ve seen from Beta screenshots, will be ten times worse in Vista.

Have a good weekend. Stay off the Ritalin.

July 10, 2006

Assorted Linkage

Filed under: web — ted @ 4:45 pm

As difficult as it is to believe, I’ve been truly busy at work recently — an unfortunate circumstance which is cutting into my surfing and blogging time. Here’s some good stuff from the past few days:

Finally, check out this 1942 US Army & Navy’s HOW TO SPOT A JAP Educational Comic Strip. Originally appearing in a Pocket Guide to China hand-out, the strip teaches soldiers how to distinguish Chinese men from Japanese. The viciousness of the stereotyping is difficult to swallow sixty years later:

July 6, 2006

from Pale Fire

Filed under: books, literature — ted @ 7:58 pm

Just finished reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Not only was it a masterpiece, but it also contained this passage:

We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable…


Double Dose

Filed under: web — ted @ 4:32 pm

Two days worth of sundry links, in convenient bullet form:

  • As if we needed another reason to love Barack Obama: in this write-up in Slate, read about his remarkably reasonable view of religion and the role it plays in politics and daily life.
  • The Kama Sutra of Reading: smart, sexy, and adorable.
  • Western Union refuses to transfer money to people named Mohammed. This is one of the few anti-terror measures I’ve encountered which is actually more foolish than the random search. Pakistani Qadir Khan is quoted as saying: “Every Mohammed is a terrorist now?” Yes, Mr. Kahn, especially the Prophet.
  • Ever wanted to be a Jedi? You can practice with this Flash game. Once you’ve mastered the practice droid, well… um… what’s next… attacking the Death Star in and X-Wing? Sadly, that’s in another game.

Like the rest of you, I love things that make boring, mundane aspects of life look lovely. Presently, I’m loving these stylized barcodes.

Super rad.

Another superb list: rateyourmusic.com’s The 100 Worst Album Covers EVER. I was pleased to see my musical nemesis, The Rolling Stones, check in at number 3 for this gruesome monstrosity:

Nice pants, Mick.

Schopenhauer and Beckett

Filed under: criticism, literature — ted @ 10:02 am

In an article on Becket from the June 23 edition of The TLS, the author considers the following metaphor from Arthur Schopenhauer’s “On Judgement, Criticism, Approbation and Fame”:

Authors can be divided into meteors, planets, and fixed stars. The meteors produce a loud momentary effect; we look up, shout “see there!” and then they are gone forever. The planets and comets last for a much longer time …. The fixed stars alone are constant and unalterable; their position in the firmament is fixed; they have their own light and at are at all time active, because they do not alter their appearance though a change in our standpoint, for they have no parallax. Unlike the others, they do not belong to one system (nation) alone, but to the world. But just because they are situated so high, their light requires many years before it becomes visible to the inhabitants of earth.

The essay “On Judgement, Criticism, Approbation and Fame” was published in Schopenhauer’s Pararga and Paralipomea (1851).

July 3, 2006

Jesus, Take the Wheel

Filed under: politics — ted @ 4:15 pm

In honor of tomorrow’s celebration, this afternoon’s post will have an actual focus — America.

First, the bad news:

1. The Brits hate us. This fact has become pretty clear in recent years, but a new poll reveals some shocking numbers:

The YouGov poll found that 77 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the US is “a beacon of hope for the world”.

US President George W. Bush fared significantly worse, with just one percent rating him a “great leader” against 77 percent who deemed him a “pretty poor” or “terrible” leader.

More than two-thirds who offered an opinion said America is essentially an imperial power seeking world domination. And 81 per cent of those who took a view said President George W Bush hypocritically championed democracy as a cover for the pursuit of American self-interests.

2. The CIA wants to decide what’s news and what’s not. The National Security Archive filed a suit two weeks ago against the CIA, noting that “the CIA last year began claiming authority to assess additional fees if the Agency decides any journalist’s request is not newsworthy enough.”

“The CIA takes the position that it should decide what is ‘news’ instead of the reporters and editors who research and publish the stories,” explained attorney Patrick J. Carome of the law firm Wilmer Hale, who is representing the Archive. “If the CIA succeeds in exercising broad discretion to charge additional fees to journalists, despite the plain language of the law, then too often we will find out only what the government wants us to know.”


“This policy is a clear attempt to prevent journalists from getting information out to the public,” said Archive Director Thomas Blanton. “Given the timing – when the intelligence community is under serious scrutiny about its activities – this appears to be an effort to shut down the growth of a vibrant public debate in the print, broadcast and online communities.”

3. One representative voting on the Net Neutrality bill doesn’t know what the Internet is. At least Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) knows “the internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck.” Unfortunately, he believes it’s “a series of tubes.” Here’s his chief complaint against the Internet

I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why?

Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially.

Considering that he received the entire Internet, I think the timeline he outlines is reasonable.

4. George Bush’s activities bear an uncanny resemblance to those of King George III. In a post on the Liberal Populist, Daniel took portions of the Declaration of Independence and substituted Bush’s name for George III’s. It’s frightening stuff:

President Bush has obstructed the administration of justice by refusing to follow and enforce laws that establish proper judiciary review and schemes of jurisdiction.

President Bush has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the power and will of the people.

But what about the good news?

Well, Carrie Underwood is kind of cool, and she likes to sing about independence:

And flag burning is still legal, at least for now. So, in a gesture of patriotism:

Happy 4th, folks.

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