2009 - %3, April

After 100 Days of Obama, Optimism Returning

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 9:02 AM EDT

A new AP poll shows that more Americans believe the country is moving in the right direction (48 percent) than those who think it is moving in the wrong direction (44 percent). According to the AP, this marks the first time since Saddam Hussein's capture in January 2004 that "right direction" has out-polled "wrong direction." NB: The "right direction" number was just 17 percent in the fall of 2008.

The AP makes it clear that Americans are still deeply worried about the economy and unemployment; for the first time in a long time, though, many of them have faith in our leaders' ability to fix the country's most pressing problems. One might even say it is morning in America.

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Negotiating With Pirates

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 12:27 AM EDT

Treasury's last offer to Chrysler's bondholders was 15% of the total value of their debt.  The bondholders sneered.  They wanted 65%.  Today, Treasury upped their offer:

The Treasury now proposes that the banks and other lenders accept as payment 22% of the $6.9 billion they are owed plus a 5% equity stake in Chrysler, said several people familiar with the matter.

....The new government offer leaves the U.S. and Chrysler lenders at least $3 billion apart with one week left before an April 30 Treasury deadline to determine the auto maker's fate. The two sides are also far apart in how big an ownership stake the lenders would get in a restructured Chrysler.

Who will blink?  I'll predict that they end up at, oh, 30% and a 20% equity stake.  Put your guess in comments.  Whoever comes closest get an autographed 8x10 of Lee Iacocca.

New Music: Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 7:28 PM EDT

Depeche Mode is not New Order, although you could be forgiven for mixing them up, I suppose, if you're not paying attention, or just looking at their keyboards, or maybe their career arcs. Actually, Depeche Mode's unlikely, meteoric rise to super-fame and subsequent plateau most resembles The Cure's: minimalist, early '80s experiments give way to mid-'80s "alt-culture" idolatry, then early 90's chart-topping mega-success, and finally a semi-retirement based on recycling (with varying degrees of success) the motifs of their earlier output. But there's a reason New Order gets their own section on my record shelves, while D-Mode languishes on the '80s shelf: they've always been a little, well, obvious for my taste, I guess, with their Peoples are Peoples and Personal Jesuses and I Expect to Find God Laffff-ing. Plus, what may be their artistic peak, 1990's "Enjoy the Silence," was basically a New Order homage, at best. But, weirdly enough, Sounds of the Universe, their 12th and latest album, achieves an intriguing complexity by looking to the lessons of early New Order, i.e., being a little obscure might not be such a bad thing.

Insurance Industry Plants Astroturf for Medicare Advantage Plans

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 6:02 PM EDT

With the subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans--private insurance provided at public expense--under attack by the Obama administration, the insurance industry is rolling out the astroturf. Their  PR campaign posits a phony "grassroots movement" by seniors who want to protect their beloved Advantage plans from a greedy federal government, which has had the gall to ask insurance companies to provide decent coverage at a reasonable cost.  

I recently wrote about the fake "community forums" for oldsters, complete with free food and door prizes, that are actually cheerleading and sales sessions for Advantage plans. The latest scam is even creepier--and it's being run by a former operative in John Kerry's presidential campaign.  

A Massachusetts newspaper, the Eagle-Tribune, recently discovered  that it was receiving phony letters to the editor supporting Medicare Advantage, using the names of real elderly people as signatories. "Some of those seniors are unaware that they have sent any such letters to newspapers. Some of them hadn’t even heard of Medicare Advantage,” writes Ken Anderson, a reporter for the paper.

Awl Aboard

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 4:29 PM EDT

Here's one reason I'm digging the newly launched Awl, started by former Gawkerites Choire Sicha and Alex Balk:

Remember how when blogging started to get attention the whole gang of print journalists would snort derisively about how it wasn’t “really writing”? And then, a couple of years later, when their papers were dying off and ownership was so desperate for anything to staunch the flow of red ink that it forced them all to start blogging, and they were like, “Holy shit, blogging is hard!” Well, there was a certain protected class of columnists and reporters who, because they were so established, were not made to sully themselves by coding HTML and searching for pooping dog videos. You don’t make a Maureen Dowd blog, particularly when Jennifer 8. Lee will do it five hundred times a day and happily twitpimp the results.
So don’t worry if Maureen Dowd doesn’t like Twitter; it’s not for her. There are plenty of other journalists who desperately need it (and some who definitely need to be weaned from it—David Carr, you are FILLING UP MY DASHBOARD, YOU HAVE TO CHILL). Let the Dowds bury their Dowds; the rest of us are stuck slapping up the minutiae out of fear that we will otherwise become invisible. Which is, of course, the worst thing of all.

Can't really beat a line like "let the Dowds bury their Dowds." Go Alex Balk. When did Gawker start to feel like established biggish media, anyone know?

Happy Earth Day

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 4:19 PM EDT

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Music Inspired by J. G. Ballard

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 3:48 PM EDT

If you go by numbers of books, J. G. Ballard takes up more room on my shelves than any other author other than Philip K. Dick, and while I don't know if that makes him my second favorite writer, I have enjoyed his work my whole life. The British writer died on Sunday, and while his fame was assured by his novels that became movies, Empire of the Sun and Crash, it was his dystopian science fiction work (usually short stories) that I always found most compelling. Their shocking ideas were often powerful precisely because they were aspects of our world taken to their logical—if extreme—conclusions. "The Concentration City," for instance, imagines an entirely enclosed conurbation so large its residents believe it to be infinite, while "Billenium" looks forward (almost quaintly now) at an overpopulated Earth so crowded with people the protagonists are stunned to discover a single hidden, empty room.

Whether it was his mind-blowing subject matter or edgy style, Ballard's fiction has always appealed to musicians as well, and his work has served as inspirations for songs, albums and even band names. After the jump, a couple examples and their connections (or lack thereof) to Ballard's work.

China Cracks Down on Pesky Names

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 2:41 PM EDT

Remember Tiki Tiki Tembo, the story of the unfortunately named Tikki Tikki Tembo-No Sa Rembo-Chari Bari Ruchi-Pip Peri Pembo, the Chinese boy with a name so extensive it was hazardous to the boy's health?

Well, China's had it with the unique names. Earlier this month Mother Jones reported on the wacky story of Texas legislator Betty Brown, who recommended that Asians adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with." Now China itself thinks it's time to simplify its citizens' names. According to Monday's New York Times, the People's Republic of China is upgrading the country's identity cards; its Public Security Bureau will replace the handwritten one currently used with a new card with color photos and embedded microchips that can be read by a computer. As the article explained:

How Twitter Makes Vanity Acceptable

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 2:06 PM EDT

I'm with Garry Trudeau all the way here. Speaking to Media Bistro:

The serious journotwits, though, are at it all day — 30, 40 tweets between breakfast and bedtime. And as someone who follows a lot of these folks, I can assure you that outside of the occasional interesting link, there's not much added news value.

It's all about fan base maintenance and trying to pump up follower counts. But high follower counts are like Mardi Gras throw beads — worthless out of context.

What amazes me is that these folks have voluntarily elected to add a new hour-a-day habit to what presumably were pretty busy schedules to begin with. Many of them Twitter about their apparently exemplary parenting, so you do wonder why they don't turn off their Berrys and recover that hour for the family — or at least make themselves a little more present for the people they're actually with.

Look, all of us are narcissists to some degree, but most find it embarrassing enough to at least try to hide it. What Twitter and its social media cousins do is disable inhibition. We expect narcissism from our movie stars and politicians and teenagers, but it's a little surprising to encounter so many otherwise personally modest journalists oblivious to how they're presenting.

Look, it's true. Twitter doesn't just make you stupid, it makes your most vain and most preening instincts socially acceptable. I realize that Twitter can be a great way to organize and build interest in a cause or event, and it provides those of us in the media with an additional way to distribute our links, and thus our content. But I preferred a world where people didn't think their breakfasts were automatically interesting to the world at large simply because they ate them.

H/T TNR.

First Movers

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

Some recent research apparently shows that the first brand of some particular good to hit the shelves in some particular area (Miller beer in Chicago, Heinz ketchup in Pittsburgh, etc.) manages to retain outsize market share for a very long time.  This prompts Matt Yglesias to look at maps showing the density of Starbucks stores and Walmarts:

You see some of the stereotype “latte liberal” stuff going on here, but it’s also clear that pure proximity to Seattle or to Bentonville is a big factor. And in the CPG market, these kind of impacts seem to last a long time. And somehow Tim Horton’s can be very popular in Canada but not make it big in the states. Why doesn’t In-and-Out Burger spread to the east coast?

I don't know about Starbucks, but a big part of the reason the Walmart map looks this way is simply that Walmart management chose to expand first and most densely close to its home territory.  In the case of In-N-Out, my understanding is that the family that owns them has declined to sell franchises, which limits their geographical reach based on how fast they can finance growth through internal cash flow.

So there's more going on than just first mover advantage.  Though there's certainly plenty of that too, especially for food items, I think, where people get accustomed to a particular taste and stick with it for a long time.  Taste in candy, for example, is famously set in childhood, which is why Americans scarf down megatons of Hershey's chocolate every year, while the rest of the world considers it barely fit for pig swill.  Lots of interesting stuff going on here.