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23 March 2010


Matins: A solid editorial at the Times takes the smart view of health-care reform and regards the new legislation for what it is: a beginning.

Just as Social Security grew from a modest start in 1935 to become a bedrock of the nation’s retirement system, this is a start on health care reform, not the end. A lot will depend on whether future presidents and Congresses stick to the savings and deficit targets set in this legislation; on how aggressively states administer the new exchanges; on how health care professionals and institutions respond to the challenge of changing their ways; and on how the public responds to the mandate that everyone obtain insurance or pay a penalty.

Our hope and belief is that this reform will in the end accomplish its great objectives. Right now, the good news for all Americans is that despite all the politics and the obstructionism, the process has finally begun.

Lauds: Steve Almond discusses his discovery of the "Music Critic Paradox."

But a funny thing happened on the way to my glorious career as the next Lester Bangs: I was dispatched to cover an MC Hammer concert. This involved lots of flashing lights and sparks. Hammer himself was wearing those ridiculously baggy pants and barking out lyrics about jewelry and torture.

I dutifully spent the evening scribbling witty insults in my reporter’s notebook. But at a certain point (after I’d fulfilled my quota of witty insults) I turned my attention to the folks all around me. They were enthralled. And what I realized as I gazed at them was this: I was totally missing the point.

The very idea of music criticism — of applying some objective standard to the experience of listening to music — suddenly struck me as petty and irrelevant. I spent several more months as a critic, but my essential belief in the pursuit evaporated.

But wait: there's "compassionate arbitration." Despite the term, that describes what we go in for.

Prime: If you want to sell your widget globally, James Surowiecki advises you to aim for either luxury or economy, and to steer clear of the the "Mushy Middle" (f/k/a "Big"), a market that may be shrinking even as its profitability dwindles. (The New Yorker)

While the high and low ends are thriving, the middle of the market is in trouble. Previously, successful companies tended to gravitate toward what historians of retail have called the Big Middle, because that’s where most of the customers were. These days, the Big Middle is looking more like “the mushy middle” (in the formulation of the consultants Al and Laura Ries). The companies there—Sony, Dell, General Motors, and the like—find themselves squeezed from both sides (just as, in a way, middle-class workers do in a time of growing income inequality). The products made by midrange companies are neither exceptional enough to justify premium prices nor cheap enough to win over value-conscious consumers. Furthermore, the squeeze is getting tighter every day. Thanks to economies of scale, products that start out mediocre often get better without getting much more expensive—the newest Flip, for instance, shoots in high-def and has four times as much memory as the original—so consumers can trade down without a significant drop in quality. Conversely, economies of scale also allow makers of high-end products to reduce prices without skimping on quality. A top-of-the-line iPod now features video and four times as much storage as it did six years ago, but costs a hundred and fifty dollars less. At the same time, the global market has become so huge that you can occupy a high-end niche and still sell a lot of units. Apple has just 2.2 per cent of the world cell-phone market, but that means it sold twenty-five million iPhones last year.

Tierce: Interesting findings at Johns Hopkins: the common anti-acne medication known as minocycline targets HIV-infected immune cells. (via Joe.My.God)

The idea for using minocycline as an adjunct to HAART resulted when the Hopkins team learned of research by others on rheumatoid arthritis patients showing the anti-inflammatory effects of minocycline on T cells. The Hopkins group connected the dots between that study with previous research of their own showing that minocycline treatment had multiple beneficial effects in monkeys infected with SIV, the primate version of HIV. In monkeys treated with minocycline, the virus load in the cerebrospinal fluid, the viral RNA in the brain and the severity of central nervous system disease were significantly decreased. The drug was also shown to affect T cell activation and proliferation.

“Since minocycline reduced T cell activation, you might think it would have impaired the immune systems in the macaques, which are very similar to humans, but we didn’t see any deleterious effect,” says Gregory Szeto, a graduate student in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine working in the Retrovirus Laboratory at Hopkins.
“This drug strikes a good balance and is ideal for HIV because it targets very specific aspects of immune activation.”

Sext: Food for thought: Jonathan Harris hears from a friend at SXSW.

A few nights ago Kyla called, and she was at SXSW, in Austin, Texas, where the digital aristocracy is gathered to learn about the latest developments in the digital world. She was saying how everyone in the Interactive session sat around in corridors staring into their iPhones or laptops, and how nobody was actually interacting in person, because they had digital tools that could do it more efficiently. These people were not nerds — they were fashionable, educated, urban, tech-savvy hipsters, and many of them were very attractive. They just had all the right devices, and these days it's cooler to use them than to talk or to touch, unless what you're touching is a multitouch screen.

She described a sense of euphoria there among them — an excited optimism for what they were building, and for what the online world can become. But there was something that bugged her, too, and she was trying to tell me what she thought it was.

"Everyone's really smart and friendly and nice," she said, "so it's not that. And everyone seems to be having a really good time, but it's like everyone is so smart and logical and ambitious, but no one is wise. I think that's it. In all this stuff they're building, there doesn't seem to be any wisdom.

(Wikipedia on SXSW)

Nones: Last week, Rand Richards Cooper complained about poor RSVP etiquette (online, that is). This week, some responses. Most of them mention a resistance, on the part of an invitee, to commit to one event when (it is alleged) better offers may come along. Phui, say we. Margaret Moore, of Portland, Oregon, has it right: we're not sure that we'll be in the mood to go out at all when the date comes round. (NYT)

To R.S.V.P. is to commit yourself to something you may not really want to do. Most parties are simply gatherings of friends of the host, most of whom you probably don’t know. On the other hand, you may decide, that night, that you’ve watched enough TV and just want to get out of the house for a while. Store-bought chips and dips? Cheap beer? No way to know ahead of time.

Unfortunately, the art of lively conversation and hospitality has been lost. People simply don’t know how to socialize intelligently anymore (as in, You speak and I listen. Then I speak and you listen — we entertain a shared topic, not just “all about me me me”). Odds are the partygoer ends up getting plowed or heading home early. To R.S.V.P. ahead of time to what may be an ordeal takes real nerve.

Vespers: Randolyn Zinn interviews Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges, a book that, ahem, the Editor ought to be writing up (he liked it quite a lot.)(3 Quarks Daily)

RZ: There is a fair share of disappointment in the writer’s life. How do you cope with disappointment? 

JD: There are certain things that are a shock the first time around that you get used to, especially if you write novels. One is that there are very few signs of incremental progress. If this book took five years to write, the first four and three quarters years of that, there was really nothing to show for it other than how many words and pages I had. And then everything happens at once. I tell my students all the time that going through it the first time, it’s very hard to stay patient because you keep thinking there must be something I’m doing wrong. But when you’re doing it the fifth of sixth time, you’re used to it and psychologically it’s less dangerous.

RZ: But that’s more about keeping yourself encouraged. 

JD: Yes, there’s professional disappointment. And there’s also disappointment in the writing. I often feel that nothing is ever as good as it was the moment before you started writing it. When you finish it’s more like you’ve wrestled it to a draw. Maybe resignation is a better word than disappointment. The other thing is…in fiction…that you go from having complete control to the complete reverse of that when you’ve submitted to publishers, wondering who is reading your work, that someone is reading it on the subway…and that’s hard to get used to. 

Compline: Tom Bissell announces at the outset that he is writing under the gun, having spent the day glued to the subject of his essay, Grand Theft Auto. Not altogether coherent, the page is nevertheless dense with unexpected but lucid sense impressions. (There is also a good deal of ill-digested cocaine.)

There is no question, though, that GTA IV's violence can be extremely disturbing because it feels unprecedentedly distinct from how, say, films deal with violence. Think of the scene in GoodFellas in which Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy kick to death Billy Batts in Henry's restaurant. Afterwards they decide to put Batts's body in the trunk of Henry's car and bury it in the forest. Of course Batts is not yet dead and spends much of the ride to his place of interment weakly banging the trunk's interior. When Batts is discovered to be alive he is repeatedly, nightmarishly stabbed. The viewer of GoodFellas is implicated in the fate of Billy Batts in any number of ways. Most of us presumably feel closest to Henry, who has the least to do with the crime, but is absolutely an accomplice to it. Henry's point of view is our implied point of view. Thus we/Henry, unlike Tommy and Jimmy, retain our capacity for horror.

In GTA IV, Niko is charged with disposing of the bodies of two men whose deaths Niko is partially responsible for. You/Niko drive across Liberty City with these bodies in the trunk to a corrupt physician who plans to sell the organs on the black market. Here the horror of the situation is refracted in an entirely different manner, which allows the understanding that GTA IV is an engine of a far more intimate process of implication. While on his foul errand, Niko must cope with lifelike traffic, police harassment, red lights, pedestrians, and a poorly handling loan car. Literally thousands of in-game variables complicate what you are trying to do. The GoodFellas scene is an observed experience bound up in one's own moral perception. The GTA IV mission is a procedural event in which one's moral perception of the (admittedly much sillier) situation is scrambled by myriad other distractions. It turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can.

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