Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Official Disney Parks video in response to LucasFilm's purchase by Disney

Professional mattress jumpers

The man who gets paid to jump on mattresses says you can stop laughing now. There is nothing funny about jumping on mattresses day after day. Mattress after mattress. People refuse to understand.

"It's work," said professional mattress jumper Reuben Reynoso. "It's not for everybody. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it."

Reynoso, who jumps on three mattresses a day, does it the right way. He doesn't try for height. He doesn't go "boing" or turn a somersault. His 10 toes are not little piggies going to market. They are trained members of the team. It's not a trampoline, for goodness sakes, it's a $2,750 mattress.

"This is not a game," said Reynoso, bouncing up and down. "Not to me."

Jumping on a mattress is one of the final steps in making a handmade mattress or, to be more precise, a hand-and-foot-made mattress. It may be true that machines, which can be made to do most things, can be made to jump on a mattress. But a machine cannot do what Reynoso and his toes can do, which is to expertly compress no fewer than 28 layers of fluffy cotton batting while seeking to detect pea-size mattress lumps or other imperfections, the kind that can give insomnia to fairy-tale princesses and real-world princesses, too.

Reynoso does his jumping in the McRoskey mattress factory on Potrero Hill. McRoskey has been stomping out high-end mattresses in San Francisco for 112 years and is something of a cult among mattress fanciers. ...

He works a precise grid pattern, covering each section of the surface once, like an Augusta groundskeeper mowing the 18th green before the Masters. ...

Up, down, sidestep. Up, down, sidestep. One hundred bounces. Flip the mattress over and jump 100 more jumps on the other side.
--Steve Rubenstein, SFGate, on serious work

Where zombies came from

But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. ...

The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is the phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven. ... Not surprisingly, suicide was a frequent recourse of the slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders. ...

And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so. The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. ... To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. It is thought that slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order and to warn those who were despondent not to go too far.
--Amy Wilentz, NYT, on the functional purpose of zombies

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rescuing Star Wars from George Lucas

The Walt Disney Company, in a move that gives it a commanding position in the realm of fantasy movies, said Tuesday it had agreed to acquire Lucasfilm Ltd. from its founder, George Lucas, for $4.05 billion in stock and cash.

The sale provides a corporate home for a private company that grew from Mr. Lucas’s hugely successful “Star Wars” series, and became an enduring force in creating effects-driven science fiction entertainment for large and small screens. Mr. Lucas, who is 68 years old, had already announced he would step down from day-to-day operation of the company.

Disney said in a statement that it would revive the “Star Wars” franchise with new feature films, and that Mr. Lucas would serve as creative consultant on them. Star Wars Episode 7 is scheduled to be released in 2015, with more films expected to follow, the company said.
--Michael Cieply, NYT, on Mickey Mouse taking over the Empire

Monday, October 29, 2012

Leonardo the late bloomer

By the age of 42 (in an era in which life expectancy was 40), Leonardo da Vinci had yet to create anything commensurate with his lofty ambitions. At that point, Ross King writes in his new book, “Leonardo and ‘The Last Supper,’ ” he “had produced only a few scattered paintings, a bizarre-looking music instrument, some ephemeral decorations for masques and festivals and many hundreds of pages of notes and drawings for studies he had not yet published, or for inventions he had not yet built.” Too many of his projects — like creating a gigantic bronze horse on commission for Lodovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan — had gone unfinished; other projects having to do with architecture, military engineering and urban planning had not found patrons.
--Michiko Kakutani, NYT, on hope for the rest of us

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Flakiness via text message

Texting and instant messaging make it easier to navigate our social lives, but they are also turning us into ill-mannered flakes. Not long ago, the only way to break a social engagement, outside of blowing off someone completely, was to do it in person or on the phone. An effusive apology was expected, or at least the appearance of contrition.

But now, when our fingers tap our way out of social obligations, the barriers to canceling have been lowered. Not feeling up for going out? Have better plans? Just type a note on the fly (“Sorry can’t make it tonight”) and hit send.

And don’t worry about giving advance notice. The later, the better. After all, bailing on dinner via text message doesn’t feel as disrespectful as standing up someone, or as embarrassing.

New Yorkers with social-driven ambitions and hyper schedules seem to be especially prone to this. And it is practically endemic among those in their 20s and younger, who were raised in the age of instant chatter. ...

“People don’t feel bad shooting someone a text to cancel, but no one would ever pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s have dinner next week because I want to go to this party instead,’ ” said Danielle Snyder, 27, a founder of the jewelry line Dannijo. “But when you say it out loud, you realize how bad it sounds.” ...

Rachel Libeskind, a 23-year-old artist who lives in TriBeCa, is constantly navigating her social circles from her iPhone. She finds that she’ll triple- or even quadruple-book plans on weekend nights, knowing there’s only a 60 percent chance she’ll engage in any of them. ...

Moreover, it’s not considered boorish when her peers abandon one another. “Because there is very little at stake in terms of having these plans, it’s not that rude,” she said. “It’s implicit because that’s how everyone is operating.” ...

Ms. Medine added that she would often R.S.V.P. to five events a night, knowing there’s little chance she would attend them all. “I don’t think any plan is a plan until you’re inside the restaurant looking at someone else,” she said.
--Caroline Tell, NYT, on the commitment-free commitment

Foodism as art, status marker, and religion

But what has happened is not that food has led to art, but that it has replaced it. Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.

Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power — or if they were to the manner born, to assert their place at the top of the social heap by flashing what they already knew. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. More and more of them also look to the expressive possibilities of careers in food: the cupcake shop, the pop-up restaurant, the high-end cookie business. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.

It took me some effort to explain to a former student recently that no, my peers did not talk about food all the time when we were her age, unless she meant which diner we were going to for breakfast. “But food is everything!” she said. ...

“Eat, Pray, Love,” the title goes, but a lot of people never make it past the first. Nor do they have to. Food now expresses the symbolic values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as the path to salvation, for the self and humanity both.
--William Deresiewicz, NYT, on the idolization of food. See also food-sex reversals.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Some worthy affirmative action candidates

Ting Shi said his first two years in the United States were wretched. He slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown, while his parents lived on East 89th Street, near a laundromat where they endured 12-hour shifts. He saw them only on Sundays. ...

Ting spent more than two years poring over dog-eared test prep books, attending summer and after-school classes, even going over math formulas on the walk home from school.

The afternoon his acceptance letter to Stuyvesant High School arrived in the mail, he and his parents gathered at the laundromat, the smell of detergent and the whirl of the washing machines filling the air. “Everyone was excited,” Ting recalled. ...

“Most of our parents don’t believe in ‘gifted,’ ” said Riyan Iqbal, 15, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, as he and his friends — of Bengali, Korean and Indian descent — meandered toward the subway from the Bronx High School of Science one recent afternoon. “It’s all about hard work.” ...

Riyan, the son of a taxi driver and a Duane Reade cashier, and his schoolmates said their parents routinely plied them with motivational tales about the trials they endured back home, walking to school barefoot, struggling with hunger, being set back by floods and political unrest. “You try to make up for their hardships,” Riyan said. ...

This fall, [Cambodian immigrant Emmie Cheng's] daughter Kassidi has spent every Tuesday afternoon and all of Saturday at the Horizon Program, a tutoring program near her house, reviewing work she has done over the past three years. Kassidi also takes a prep class on Sundays.

Still, Ms. Cheng, a director at a shoe importing company, said guiding her daughter through this process — which cost her about $2,000 this year alone — paled in comparison to what she had experienced earlier in her life. Her father and four brothers died of starvation during Cambodia’s civil war. And once here, she said, she watched her mother struggle in a garment factory.

“This is the easy part,” Ms. Cheng said.
--Kyle Spencer, NYT, on overcoming adversity

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Should anything be a dealbreaker for a voter?

Say that President Obama (who they regard to be the superior candidate on a wide array of crucial issues) was caught on a series of videotapes (surreptitiously recorded in the Oval Office) repeatedly using anti-Hispanic slurs to refer to Mexican Americans, musing that his personal dislike of Mexicans motivated the record number that he deported, and noting that while he'd never transgress against the law by unlawfully targeting Mexican Americans, he sure does hate them.

It proved a clarifying hypothetical.

A few people stuck to their utilitarian theory of voting. For example, faced with a Twitter length version of the hypothetical, Chris Hayes avowed that he would still vote for the lesser of two evils ...

But he was very much an exception. When pressed, most people who responded to my piece by touting a utilitarian model of voting couldn't bring themselves to apply it if it benefited an anti-Mexican racist who took pleasure in deporting illegal immigrants. ...

But if you tell me that uttering anti-Hispanic slurs while deporting illegal aliens is a dealbreaker (as it would be for me), while the combination of extrajudicial assassinations, indefinite detention, warrantless spying, dead Pakistani innocents, and waging war without Congressional approval isn't a dealbreaker ... well, I'd suggest that no one can defend holding both of those views at once.
--Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, on discovering how utilitarian you really are

Should the President be able to execute American citizens without a trial?

His name was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and he was 16 years old when he died — when he was killed by a drone strike in Yemen, by the light of the moon. He was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was also born in America, who was also an American citizen, and who was killed by drone two weeks before his son was, along with another American citizen named Samir Khan. Of course, both Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were, at the very least, traitors to their country — they had both gone to Yemen and taken up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ...

I spent the better part of this past spring researching and writing a story for the August issue of Esquire entitled "The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama," which explores how President Obama's expansive embrace of the power to kill individuals identified as America's enemies has transformed not only his presidency but probably all American presidencies to follow.

The idea that American citizenship is no more a refuge against the attacks of American drones than farflung geography; the idea that the secret deliberations of the executive branch count as "due process" even when an American citizen is being considered for execution without trial; the idea, indeed, that "due process does not guarantee judicial process": all these ideas have entered the public sphere largely because the Obama administration made the extraordinary decision to target and kill an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki. ...

[T]he killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki constitutes a counter-narrative that the Lethal Presidency would do anything to avoid: an innocent killed by an administration that has turned its argument that it hardly ever makes mistakes into an appeal for the right make its mistakes in secret, with no public accountability at all, even when one of its mistakes results in the death of an American citizen. ...

Barack Obama has created the Lethal Presidency by insisting he that he has been given the power to kill, in secret, anyone who is plotting against Americans or American interests, even if he or she is an American citizen.

It will be very difficult to constrain that power, no matter who is president.
--Tom Junod, Esquire, on the erosion of due process

Leviathan rising


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Big Bird's big cash

According to financial statements for the year ended June 30, 2011, Sesame Workshop and its nonprofit and for-profit subsidiaries had total operating revenue of more than $134 million. They receive about $8 million a year in direct government grants and more indirectly via PBS subsidies. Big Bird and friends also receive corporate and foundation support, and donations amount to about a third of revenue. Distribution fees and royalties comprise another third and licensing revenue makes up the rest.

At the end of fiscal 2011, Sesame Workshop and its subsidiaries had total assets of $289 million. About $29 million was held in cash and "cash equivalents," mainly money-market mutual funds. Another $121 million on the balance sheet was held in "investments." According to the accompanying notes, these investments included stakes in hedge funds and private-equity funds. It's unclear from the financial statements if Big Bird has ever invested in funds run by Bain Capital, founded by Mitt Romney, but no doubt Sesame would be welcomed as a client by many investment managers.
--Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook on the big business of Big Bird

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The cultural technology of K-pop

Three music agencies dominate the K-pop industry. ...

The agencies recruit twelve-to-nineteen-year-olds from around the world, through both open auditions and a network of scouts. ... (Native English- or Chinese-speaking boys and girls, usually of Korean origin, are highly prized.) ...

In Seoul, both Tiffany and Jessica attended an international school by day; after school, they reported to S.M., where they trained until ten, and then they had to do homework. Jessica’s training lasted for seven years.

In addition to singing and dancing, the idols study acting and foreign languages—Japanese, Chinese, and English. They also receive media coaching and are readied for the intense scrutiny they will receive on the Internet from the “netizens” of Korea, the most wired country on earth. ... On average, only one in ten trainees makes it all the way to a début. ...

The charts change rapidly, and, because youth and novelty are at such a premium, established groups usually don’t last long: five years is the average shelf life of an idol. (Some idols extend their careers by acting in K-dramas.) New groups appear regularly; in 2011, about sixty groups made débuts, an unprecedented number. Only a fraction are likely to last; most will fade away after a couple of songs. ...

Lee Soo-man, S.M.’s founder—people in the company refer to him as Chairman Lee—is K-pop’s master architect. ...

Lee called his system “cultural technology.” ...

Lee and his colleagues produced a manual of cultural technology—it’s known around S.M. as C.T.—that catalogued the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise color of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual closeups). ...

In February, 2011, three members of kara, a hugely popular girl group with D.S.P., one of the smaller agencies, filed a lawsuit claiming that, even though the group earned the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars, each member was paid only a hundred and forty dollars a month. The agency disputed that figure, and eventually the two sides settled. The onerous restrictions that some agencies place on idols have been widely publicized in Korea. Another small agency, Alpha Entertainment, forbids its female trainees to have boyfriends and bars any food or water after 7 p.m., according to the Straits Times, Singapore’s English-language newspaper. They are not allowed to go anywhere without supervision.
--John Seabrook, New Yorker, on the factory behind the pop

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How much is government-provided healthcare worth?

In July, the Congressional Budget Office — the nonpartisan arbiter of the costs and consequences of government spending — decided that we had not been valuing these benefits [of government-provided health care] enough. In a report on how income and taxes are distributed across the population, it decided, for the first time, to value health benefits provided by the government at every penny they cost.

The decision stoked a long-simmering debate about how much health care is really worth to poor families who may not have enough to eat. The reclassification of health benefits added $4,600 a year to households in the bottom fifth of income. It shrank the nation’s yawning income gap and muted the increase of inequality over the last three decades. And it changed the picture of what the government does for Americans.

The reasoning behind the budget office’s action seems to make lots of sense: the government spends almost $8,000 on the average Medicaid beneficiary and more than $12,000 for each person on Medicare. Why shouldn’t that count as income? Without it, the recipients could not afford an essential, lifesaving service. Moreover, the budget office considers Social Security benefits as income. And that’s the way it treats the health insurance provided by employers to their workers.

But not everyone thinks health care is worth that much. In particular, the Census Bureau does not include health care and other noncash benefits when computing the official poverty rate. Even its Supplemental Poverty Measure — which was created to capture noncash sources of income, as well as all the costs faced by the poor — sets the value of Medicare and Medicaid at zero. ...

The change in approach alters the calculation of who is living in poverty. Including these health benefits at face value raises by 25 percent the income of households in the poorest fifth of the population, to $23,300 in 2009 from $18,900 under the previous calculation. This is more than three times the average income of the poorest fifth of households before federal taxes and government benefits kick in, which in 2009 was $7,600. ...

Because two-thirds of Medicare funds and 83 percent of Medicaid funds are spent on the poorest 40 percent of the population, the shift also narrows the nation’s income gap. Under the budget office’s old method, the richest fifth of American households made more than nine times the incomes of the poorest fifth, after taxes and government benefits. Under the new method, the rich take home less than 7.5 times what the poor do. ...

More of the nation’s income is being devoted to health care, [economist Richard Burkhauser] says, and that needs to be counted to help us decide the best way to spend our resources. We may ask why we are “spending so much to give poor people ‘Cadillac health care’ and nothing else,” he says.
--Eduardo Porter, NYT, on valuing healthcare at more than zero