Monday, May 29, 2017

There Are Bots. Look Around.

The technological transformation of financial markets began way back in the 1970s. The first efforts focused on streamlining market access, facilitating orders with routing and matching programs. Algorithmic trading began to take off in the 1980s, and then, in the 1990s, came the internet.

When we talk about financial market efficiency, we’re really talking about information and access. If information flows freely and people can act on it via a relatively frictionless trading platform, then the price of goods, stocks, commodities, etc. is a meaningful reflection of what’s known about the world. The internet fundamentally transformed both information flows and access. News was incorporated into the market faster than ever before. Anyone with a modem could trade. Technology eliminated the gatekeepers: human order-routers (brokers) and human matching engines (known as ‘specialists’ in finance parlance) were no longer needed. The transition from “pits to bits” led to exchange consolidation; the storied NYSE acquired an electronic upstart to remain competitive.

Facilitation turned into automation, and now computers monitor the market and decide what to trade. They route orders, globally, with no need for human involvement beyond initial configuration and occasional check-ins. News breaks everywhere, all at once and in machine-readable formats, and vast quantities of price and tick data are instantly accessible. The result is that spreads are tighter, and prices are consistent even across exchanges and geographical boundaries.

Technology transformed financial markets, increasing efficiency and making things better for everyone.

Except when it didn’t.

For decades we’ve known that algorithmic trading can result in things going spectacularly off the rails. Black Monday, in 1987, is perhaps the most famous example: programmatic trading sell orders triggered other programmatic sell orders, which triggered still more sell orders, leading to a 20% drop in the market — and that happened in the pre-Internet era. Since then, we’ve seen unanticipated feedback loops, bad code, and strange algorithmic interactions lead to steep dives or spikes in stock prices. The Knight trading fiasco is one recent example; a stale test strategy was inadvertently pushed live and it sent crazy orders into the market, resulting in thousands of rapid trades and price swings unreflective of the fundamentals of the underlying companies. Crashes – flash crashes, now – send shockwaves through the market globally, impacting all asset types across all exchanges; the entire system is thrown into chaos while people try to sort out what’s going on.

So, while automation has been a net positive for the market, that side effect — fragility — negatively impacts and erodes trust in the health of the entire system. Regular people read the news, or look at their E-trade account, and begin to feel like financial markets are dangerous or rigged, which makes them both wary and angry. Media and analysts, meanwhile, simplify the story to make a very complex issue more accessible, creating a boogeyman in doing so: high-frequency trading (HFT).

The trouble is that “high-frequency trading” is about as precise as “fake news.”

HFT is a catch-all for a collection of strategies that share several traits: extremely rapid orders, a high quantity of orders, and very short holding periods. Some HFT strategies, such as market making and arbitrage, are net beneficial because they increase liquidity and improve price discovery. But others are very harmful. The nefarious ones involve intentional, deliberate, and brazen market manipulation, carried out by bad actors gaming the system for profit.

One example is quote stuffing, which involves flooding specific instruments (like a particular stock) with thousands and thousands of orders and cancellations at rates that exceed bandwidth capabilities. The goal is to increase latency and cause confusion among other participants in the market. Another example is spoofing, placing bids and offers with the intent to cancel rather than execute, and its advanced form, layering, where this is done at several pricing tiers to create the illusion of a fuller order book (in other words, faking supply and/or demand). The goals of these strategies is to entice other market participants — including other algorithms — to respond in a way that benefits the person running the manipulation strategy. People are creative. And in the early days of HFT, slimy people could do bad things with relative ease.

Technology brought us faster information flows and decreased barriers to access. But it also brought us increased fragility. A few bad actors in a gameable system can have a profound negative impact on participant trust, and on overall market resilience. The same thing is now happening with the marketplace of ideas in the era of social networks. (...)

Social networks enable malicious actors to operate at platform scale, because they were designed for fast information flows and virality. Bots and sockpuppets can be used to manipulate conversations, or to create the illusion of a mass groundswell of grassroots activity, with minimal effort. It’s incredibly easy to deploy bots into a hashtag to spread or to disrupt a message — quote stuffing the conversation the way a malicious HFT algorithm quote stuffs the order book of a stock. It’s easy to manipulate ratings or recommendation engines, to create networks of sockpuppets with the goal of subtly shaping opinions, preying on proximity bias and confirmation bias.

This would be a more manageable situation if the content remained on one platform. But the goal of a disinformation campaign is to ensure the greatest audience penetration, and achieving that involves spreading content across all of the popular social exchanges simultaneously. At a systems level, the social web is phenomenally easy to game because the big social platforms all have the same business model: eyes and ads. Since they directly compete with each other for dollars, they have had little incentive to cooperate on big issues. Each platform takes its own approach to troll-bashing and bot detection, with varying degrees of commitment; there’s no cross-platform policing of malicious actors happening at any kind of meaningful level.

In fact, until a very notable event in November 2016, there was no public acknowledgement by Twitter, Facebook, or Google that there even was a problem. Prior to the U.S. Presidential election, tech companies managed to move fast and break things in pursuit of user satisfaction and revenue, but then fell back on slippery-slope arguments to explain why it was too difficult to rein in propaganda campaigns, harassment, bots, etc. They chose to pretend that algorithmic manipulation was a nonissue, so that they bore no responsibility for the downstream effects. Technology platforms are simply hosts of the content; they don’t create it. But as malicious actors get more sophisticated, and it becomes increasingly difficult for regular people to determine who or what they’re communicating with, there will be a profound erosion of trust in social networks.

Markets can’t function without trust.

by Renee DiResta, Ribbonfarm | Read more:
Image: uncredited

No Blue Wave

No doubt the exaggerated media focus on Montana was inevitable, in the age of the voracious 24/7 news cycle: This was only the second vacant congressional seat to be filled since Trump took office, and the first where the Democratic candidate appeared to have a real shot. But the Big Sky frenzy also spoke to the way American politics has almost entirely become a symbolic rather than ideological struggle — a proxy war between competing signifiers whose actual social meaning is unclear.

Despite their abundant differences, Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both semiotic candidates, who appeared to represent specific worldviews or dispositions (the espresso cosmopolitan; the shameless vulgarian) but presented themselves as a disruption to “normal” politics and were difficult to nail down in left-right ideological terms. Understanding an off-year congressional election in an idiosyncratic and thinly populated Western state, where fewer than 400,000 voters cast ballots, as a referendum on the national mood or the GOP health care bill or much of anything else is patently absurd. But it’s a miniature example of the same reduction to symbolism, in which everything is said to stand for something else and democracy becomes pure spectacle. (...)

For many people in, let’s say, the left-center quadrant of the American political spectrum — especially those who are not all that eager to confront the fractured and tormented state of the current Democratic Party — Montana and Georgia and 2018 seem(ed) to represent the opening chapters of a comeback narrative, the beginning of a happy ending. If what happened in 2016 was a nonsensical aberration, then maybe there’s a fix right around the corner, and normal, institutional politics can provide it.

First you chip away at Republican triumphalism, and the House majority, with a couple of special-election victories. Then it’s about organizing, recruiting the right candidates for the right seats, registering voters and ringing doorbells, right? Democrats picked up 31 seats in the George W. Bush midterms of 2006 — and will need 24 or so this time — so, hey, it could happen. For that matter, Republicans gained an astounding 63 seats in the Tea Party election of 2010, and many observers have speculated that Trump-revulsion might create that kind of cohesion on the left. So we sweep away Paul Ryan and his sneering goons, give Nancy Pelosi back her speaker’s gavel after eight long years, introduce the articles of impeachment and begin to set America back on the upward-trending path of political normalcy and niceness.

I suspect it’s pointless to list all the things that are wrong with that scenario, because either you agree with me that it’s a delusional fantasy built on seven different varieties of magical thinking or you don’t, and in the latter case I am not likely to convince you.

Andrew O'Hehir, The Atlantic |  Read more:

Tom Galle
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Let's Make House of Cards Great Again

It’s hard to get excited about the return of House of Cards. Not because, as has been endlessly posited for months now, it’s impossible to create a fictional president more shocking than the real-life one. No, instead it’s difficult to get excited about the return of House of Cards because it hasn’t been good for some years now.

Sure, I’ll be watching the new series this week, but only out of rote obligation. There is a chance it will rediscover the form and swagger of its first series, but that seems unlikely. After all, that series had some solid source material to work from, which prevented it from spinning off into the soapy, hollow camp of its later years.

However, if this House of Cards really is going to be a return to form – if it can somehow become a drama about a wily career politician who’ll take out anyone in his path to get what he wants, rather than a programme predominantly concerned with Robin Wright’s lovely outfits – here are all the ingredients it needs.

A decent baddie
Series one worked because Frank Underwood was on the ropes. He’d done some awful things, and a reporter was slinking ever closer to the truth. But since that storyline was abruptly dismantled in series two, Underwood has essentially been let loose to impose his will on an endless run of barely worthy opponents. He’s committed crime after crime – he’s a pinch away from being a serial killer, in fact – and the fall-out will be world-shaking if he’s ever caught. So let’s give him someone who’s actually capable of catching him. A house of cards is no fun if all the pieces are superglued together.

A grand plan
Again, season one turned out to be a big long con by Underwood. He’s a chess player at heart. He’s Sherlock gone bad. He can see a situation in three dimensions, several dozen moves ahead of anyone else, and the joy of the show comes from watching him manipulate people into unwittingly doing his bidding, only realising at the last moment that they’re caught up in his web. Creating another situation like this will require some narrative sleight of hand, and probably a little reverse engineering, but I’d rather watch that than another half-hearted threesome scene.

More talking to camera
Underwood barely broke the fourth wall last year. That is ridiculous, because it’s his entire raison d’etre. He meets someone, then glances over at us and drawls “If this guy was any stupider, his momma would have slung him in the trash,” and we’d feel like insiders. Which helps from a narrative standpoint, too; the more he lets us into his private world, the less he looks like an utterly irredeemable chumpwuzzle. It’d also be nice if he offered us more of his crackpot, faux-profound, down-home, reverse-Confucian sayings – usually along the lines of “Some say a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, but I say a weak is no chainer than its linkest strong” – but beggars can’t be choosers.

by Stuart Heritage, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Obesity Surgery May Work by Remaking Your Gut Microbiome

If you want to lose weight, there’s an app for that. Actually, hundreds. Fitbits, step trackers, food logs, calorie counters—people are increasingly using digital tools to fight obesity. But every year nearly 200,000 Americans opt for a more extreme, old-fashioned solution: surgery. Physically altering the size and shape of the stomach has proven to be the most effective and long-lasting treatment for morbid obesity, cutting the risk of premature death by up to 40 percent.

Bariatric surgery comes in a few flavors; there are stomach staples and industrial strength rubber bands. The most successful approach of all—a technique known as Roux-en-Y gastric bypass—is also the most aggressive. But a mounting body of evidence suggests that it may be possible to get all the weight-dropping effects of the procedure without going under the knife at all.

Why? Bacteria, of course!

It turns out gastric bypass not only restructures the topology of the human gut, but profoundly changes which microbes can survive and thrive in it. In a National Institute of Health-backed study published today, researchers at Arizona State University showed that patients who underwent the procedure developed totally different microbiomes, replete with organisms that promoted weight loss. And the effect appears to be permanent. The results confirmed earlier research with a smaller sample size, and also compared gastric bypass with another popular, though less invasive bariatric surgery. Only the bypass impacted microbiome diversity.

Interestingly, the procedure didn’t merely shift patient’s microbial profile from an obese to a healthy one. It actually created an entirely new ecosystem.

Gastric bypass works like this: A surgeon takes the upper portion of the stomach and cordons it off with stitches, creating a small pouch. Then the doctor attaches a Y-shaped section of the small intestine to the pouch, which routes any food you might swallow directly to the second segment of the small intestine, bypassing the portions of your digestive tract that do most of the nutrient- and calorie-absorbing. It’s a pretty dramatic organ-reorganization. One that makes for a less acidic environment with more oxygen, allowing microbes formerly unable to survive in the gut to flourish.

Like, for example Lactobacillus. It’s normally found mostly in the mouth, a much more neutral environment. But as soon as patients get their guts surgically modified, it starts showing up in their stomachs and in their stool samples. And like other members of the Bacillus family, it’s associated with weight loss. In fact, many of the new residents produce molecules that signal appetite-suppressing hormones and other neurological pathways that control eating.

Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, the environmental engineer who led the study, says they still need to tease out exactly how much of the weight loss effect can be attributed to this unique community of bacteria in humans. But previous work with mice suggests it might be something like all of it. When researchers transplanted beneficial microbes from mice that had undergone gastric bypass surgery into obese mice with normal-sized stomachs, they saw the same kind of dramatic weight loss caused by the surgery itself.

That means if you could find another way to make the gut a happy home for these waste-trimming microbes, you could get the same outcome without the dangers of surgery.

by Megan Molteni, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Jason Drees

Canada's 'Us and Them Cities'

In their bid to temper Canada’s overheated housing markets – some of which rank among the world’s least affordable – authorities in the country have slapped taxes on some foreign buyers and taken aim at vacant homes.

Now one group of analysts is recasting the crisis in a new light; exploring the dichotomy between the millions of empty bedrooms across the country and the many families struggling to live in cramped accommodation.

When the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis began delving into data on the country’s housing market some three years ago, one pattern kept cropping up. “We started to notice that there seems to be a misfit in the geometry of the population and the housing stock,” said the centre’s Paul Smetanin. The data suggested that in Ontario – Canada’s most populous province – 70% of people were living in homes that were either too big or too small for their family.

On Tuesday, the centre released a wide-ranging report that, among other findings, laid bare the extent of the issue. Across Ontario there are five million empty bedrooms. Basing itself on standards set out by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which look at the number of bedrooms required by households, the report found nearly two-thirds of the province’s households live in homes that are bigger than what they need, with more than 400,000 homes that count three or more empty bedrooms.

The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is particularly acute in Canada’s largest city. In Toronto and the surrounding area, said Smetanin, “for every bedroom that a household actually needs, there’s almost six empty bedrooms”. (...)

In Vancouver – where the housing market ranks as one of the world’s least affordable800,000 bedrooms sit empty. It would take just 120,000 of these bedrooms to meet the needs of the many families and residents living in spaces that are too small. “So while the media is dominated by housing affordability concerns, there’s sort of this lingering contradiction.”

Smetanin pointed to several factors to explain the phenomenon. “We live in a country that’s obsessed with ownership,” he said, with Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver boasting some of the highest home ownership rates in the world.“When you have a look at the baby boomers and empty nesters that are sitting in very large homes and they own their own homes, they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

This inertia has been exacerbated by city planning that has emphasised the construction of detached homes and condos and all but ignored “gentle density” options such as duplexes and townhomes, he said. “So even if they wanted the right size, they’ve got nowhere else to go because it doesn’t exist.”

by Ashifa Kassam, The Guardian | Read more:
Image:Tim Schmalz’s statue Homeless Jesus. Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Zillow Faces Lawsuit Over ‘Zestimate’ Tool

It was bound to happen: A homeowner has filed suit against online realty giant Zillow, claiming the company’s controversial “Zestimate” tool repeatedly undervalued her house, creating a “tremendous road block” to its sale.

The suit, which may be the first of its kind, was filed in Cook County Circuit Court by a Glenview, Ill., real estate lawyer, Barbara Andersen. The suit alleges that despite Zillow’s denial that Zestimates constitute “appraisals,” the fact that they offer market-value estimates and “are promoted as a tool for potential buyers to use in assessing [the] market value of a given property,” shows that they meet the definition of an appraisal under state law. Not only should Zillow be licensed to perform appraisals before offering such estimates, the suit argues, but it also should obtain “the consent of the homeowner” before posting them online for everyone to see.

In an interview, Andersen told me she is considering bringing the issue to the Illinois attorney general because it affects all property owners in the state. She has also been approached about turning the matter into a class action, which could touch millions of owners across the country.

In the suit, Andersen said that she has been trying to sell her townhouse, which overlooks a golf course and is in a prime location, for $626,000 — roughly what she paid for it in 2009. Houses directly across the street but with greater square footage sell for $100,000 more, according to her court filing. But Zillow’s automated valuation system has apparently used sales of newly constructed houses from a different and less costly part of town as comparables in valuing her townhouse, she says. The most recent Zestimate is for $562,000. Andersen is seeking an injunction against Zillow and wants the company to either remove her Zestimate or amend it. For the time being, she is not seeking monetary damages, she told me.

Emily Heffter, a spokeswoman for Zillow, dismissed Andersen’s litigation as “without merit.” A publicly traded real estate marketing company based in Seattle, Zillow has been offering Zestimates since 2006. At present, it provides them for upwards of 110 million houses, whether for sale or not. Type in almost any house’s street address, and you’ll probably get a property description and a Zestimate. The value estimates are based on public records and other data using “a proprietary formula,” according to Zillow.

The Zestimate feature is the cornerstone of Zillow’s business model because it pulls in millions of house shoppers, allowing the company to sell advertising space to realty agents. Zillow makes big money with the help of its Zestimates: In the first quarter of this year, it reported $245.8 million in revenue — a 32 percent jump over the year before — including $175 million in payments from “premier” agents, who pay for advertising.

by Kenneth R. Harney, Washington Post | Read more:
Image: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg

Catnip


Researchers report that nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip that gives the plant its characteristic odor, is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET — the compound used in most commercial insect repellents. (...)

Catnip Repels Mosquitoes More Effectively Than DEET
Image: uncredited via:

[ed. Why have I never heard of this before? See also: Catnip vs DEET: No Contest (includes a couple of spray recipes).

Kyle Thompson, Untitled
via:

Why Google Is Suddenly Obsessed With Your Photos

Google tends to throw lots of ideas at the wall, and then harvest the data from what sticks. Right now the company is feasting on photos and videos being uploaded through its surprisingly popular app Google Photos. The cloud-storage service, salvaged from the husk of the struggling social network Google+ in 2015, now has 500 million monthly active users adding 1.2 billion photos per day. It’s on a growth trajectory to ascend to the vaunted billion-user club with essential products such as YouTube, Gmail, and Chrome. No one is quite sure what Google plans to do with all of these pictures in the long run, and it’s possible the company hasn’t even figured that out. But in a landscape fast becoming dominated by artificial intelligence, data — in this case, your photos — has become its own reward.

At the company’s annual I/O developers conference, Google touted Photos as a signature platform getting a bevy of valuable updates. Users will soon be able to automatically share all their uploaded photos with a loved one, or filter which specific photos are auto-shared by date or topic. A new Suggested Sharing feature will use facial recognition to prompt users to send photos of their friends directly to them, similar to Facebook’s Moments app. The service already uses machine-learning algorithms to classify the objects in photos and make them searchable, so that users can easily find all their pictures of dogs or beer or sunsets. With all these perks, plus unlimited storage, Google Photos is set to become the most convenient, powerful option available for managing a large media library. No wonder the app’s user base has grown so fast. (Though I have my doubts about how “active” these users are — Photos comes preinstalled on Android devices and automatically collects your photos; I mostly use it to look up a friend’s dad’s HBO password that I screencapped once in 2014.)

But the question remains: Why is Google offering such a feature-rich product that doesn’t appear to be readily monetizable, outside of the few print photo books the company plans to sell? The simplest answer is that the company wants to keep people within its all-encompassing ecosystem. Today’s tech giants now offer to serve as caretakers to our digital lives across a suite of services in exchange for access to our personal information. “Even if Google doesn’t make any money directly from something that it offers, it’s still gathering data,” says Pedro Domingos, a computer science professor at the University of Washington and author of The Master Algorithm. “Increasingly these days, what people perceive at companies is that data is one of your biggest assets.”

What more data could Google possibly need? The search giant has effectively achieved its longstanding goal of “organizing the world’s information,” if you consider only the written word. But even cofounder Larry Page has acknowledged that the company’s mission statement is outdated. The internet is fast becoming dominated by visual messaging, benefiting platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Google Photos, especially now that it’s been fine-tuned for sharing, is a back door into the social networking and chat functionalities that Google has been trying and failing to pitch to customers for the last decade. While we allow the company to passively track us through platforms like Chrome and Maps, Google Photos may be the first Google product that persuades people to actively share their personal information with the company en masse since Gmail.

The data obtained from a photo, though, has the potential to be much more sensitive than what’s contained in an email. Google already has plenty of pictures of objects that it’s indexed across the web with its search engine, but it still doesn’t know that much about what individual people look like. To make the Photo app’s sharing and tagging features work, Google has to analyze a photo subject’s facial structure and create a unique “faceprint” for them. The company is currently fighting a lawsuit in Illinois alleging that this facial-recognition technology violates a state law protecting citizens’ biometric data, and the tech hasn’t been rolled out in many parts of Europe for fear it might run afoul of privacy laws. (...)

The cliché when criticizing free internet platforms has always been “You are the product.” Today a more accurate critique might be “You are the resource.” For a long time we worried that tech giants might sell our private information to the highest bidder. But with Silicon Valley throwing all its efforts into artificial intelligence, data itself has become its own currency. Andrew Ng, the researcher who founded the AI project Google Brain, recently called data a “scarce resource.” The firms that have the most of it can create complex machine-learning systems that power essential consumer tech products. The firms that don’t have enough of it probably never will now that we’re all firmly in the camp of Google, Amazon, Facebook, or Apple. “All those [companies] have a built-in, inherent advantage because they have tons and tons of data, and moreover they don’t have to share it with anybody else,” says Alex Rudnicky, a research professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science department. “In order to get the data, they have to provide something of value to users. And that’s kind of nontrivial to figure that out. They get the data, and then they can turn around and pitch these new products that leverage data for something else.”

Google’s entire engineering workflow is fast transitioning to this model. All the AI uses mentioned above — recognizing faces, automatically replying to emails, understanding voice commands — are now organized under a broad machine-learning framework known as TensorFlow. The company is staking its future on this system, scaling it down so that it can work on an Android phone that’s not connected to the internet and scaling up to power a new AI chip that will let outside companies leverage Google’s machine-learning advancements via the cloud. Rather than creating a bunch of siloed algorithms that execute discrete tasks, Google wants to devise an overarching AI that can deal with a wide variety of tasks, just like humans do. “Over time, what we discovered is that the same machine-learning techniques and algorithms that solve problems in one area could be used in lots and lots of other product areas and product domains,” Jeff Dean, the current leader of the Google Brain research team, said in a March blog post. “And so what you see is this general explosion of machine-learning usage across Google, across now hundreds of teams and thousands of developers using these machine learning techniques to solve problems in their areas.”

by Victor Luckerson, The Ringer | Read more:
Image: Getty/The Ringer

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Back Channel

Let me follow up on last night’s Post blockbuster about Jared Kushner and an attempted back-channel to Moscow.

To review, Kushner allegedly asked Russian Ambassador Kislyak to arrange a secret, secure back-channel through which members of the Trump team could communicate directly to the Kremlin. But this additional detail was the heart of last night’s Post blockbuster: Kushner reportedly asked Kislyak to allow Trump team members access to the secure facilities Russia itself uses to send secure communications from the US back to Moscow. This presumably involves secure facilities/hardware at the Russian Embassy and other US-located diplomatic facilities. These definitely exist. We have the same thing in Moscow.

It is difficult to capture how extraordinary and close to incomprehensible such a step would be. As a number of former intelligence officials have noted, if an intelligence officer or really any other US government official did this it would be considered espionage.

This meant opening a channel where Trump team members could speak openly with Russian counterparts without fear of being heard by and behind the backs of the US intelligence community, US diplomats and the US military. Why do you want or need that? Even Kislyak was apparently taken aback by the request. And as a sidelight to this, even if we believe the absolute worst about Kushner and Flynn, no country would ever let foreign nationals have access to those kinds of facilities.

Why would Kushner and Flynn push for such a secret channel of communications?

by Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo |  Read more:

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cameron Crowe on the 'Singles' Soundtrack, Chris Cornell

In 1986, Cameron Crowe, in love with a Pacific Northwest girl, and frustrated with the craven scene in L.A. ("hair bands ... guys who lived off their girlfriends") moved to Seattle to make a fresh start. That girl was Nancy Wilson of hard-rocking sister act Heart, so Crowe was soon immersed in the city's scrappy music scene, frequenting the clubs and getting to know the young music geeks who, often laboring in coffee shops, "worked a nine to five and then played music all night." Crowe fell in love with the sounds and the ethos, and the idea for Singles, which he saw as a love letter to Seattle akin to Woody Allen's Manhattan or Spike Lee's many paeans to Brooklyn, was born.

In many ways, the film's story is in service to the music. Singles not only featured live performances by Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, but employed a newly drafted Eddie Vedder – just called up to the majors of Pearl Jam from California himself – as well as Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard in acting roles as members of Citizen Dick, the fictional band fronted by Matt Dillon's lead character, Cliff Poncier. "The first time the cast all got together was at the Off Ramp, a club just off the main freeway in downtown Seattle," Crowe recalls. "It was the second time Pearl Jam played in public with their new lead singer – Eddie from San Diego. Eddie had read the script, and wrote a new song for the movie, about relationships, called 'State of Love and Trust.' It became the soul of the movie in many ways."

Warner Bros. held the film at bay, unsure what to do with it, for almost nine months, until the explosive success of Nirvana's Nevermind put all things Seattle on the map. Suddenly the Singles soundtrack, packed to the gills with choice material by almost every other significant act on the scene, was rushed to release on June 30th, 1992, almost three months before the film itself saw light. On Friday, just short of 25 years later, the soundtrack will be reissued with an 18-track bonus disc of demos, live recordings and alternate takes. Crowe talked to Rolling Stone about putting together his ultimate mixtape.

What was your initial concept for the soundtrack, and how did that evolve over time?

Well, so much of the enthusiasm came from meeting and falling in love with a Seattle, Pacific Northwestern native. And when I started going up to Seattle, and ultimately got married in Seattle, part of the whole kind of wonderful feeling of love and community that was so different from L.A. to me was there was this great radio station called KCMU. It was kind of the college station, and it was way to the left of the dial. They played a lot of what would later be called the "Seattle sound," but they mixed it in with all kinds of stuff, like old blues. What in L.A. would have been called "cheesy R&B" was mixed in with Blood Circus or Mudhoney, and I just thought it was the greatest programming ever. Or somebody would tape Kurt Cobain half asleep having a phone conversation and they'd put that on the air. So I fell in love with the whole mix of genres, and I thought, "If I get to make a movie up here, it's going to sound like this."

Right, the soundtrack is not just about Nineties Seattle. You have a Jimi Hendrix tune, "May This Be Love," and he's a Seattle native, so you're dipping back into history a bit.

So much of it came from wanting to do a mix of Jimi Hendrix or Muddy Waters or Junior Wells, along with Mother Love Bone. We'd started to do a little bit of that in Say Anything, the movie before Singles, which was also partially shot in Seattle, and Mother Love Bone's "Chloe Dancer" is in Say Anything. So it was kind of like I was starting to be able to use some of this music that felt like it was only for those people that lived up there, and I was lucky to have gotten a taste of it. And Ann and Nancy Wilson are big music geeks and they were always surrounded by local musicians, and Kelly Curtis who was their publicist was managing Mother Love Bone, so I was immediately getting thrust into a community of great music and great people.

What came first, the music or the story?

They're intertwined for me: The music and the city and the people are all kind of beautifully twisted roots around each other. But the music was always there. I used to make cassettes of KCMU so that when I had to come down to L.A. for something, I could still be listening to KCMU. Now of course you can just stream it, but I still have all these cassettes, and they're filled with the greatest segues ever. ... I think it's called KEXP now, but it used to be called KCMU, "Music That Matters." And it was. (...)

One of the best bits of Singles lore I've heard is the story of the Poncier tape that Jeff Ament designed – which is coming out in full on this new edition of the soundtrack – and how all these actual songs were birthed out of it.

It's kind of amazing. The idea was that Matt Dillon's character, Cliff Poncier, in the course of the movie, he loses his band, and he loses his girlfriend, and he gains soul. So, there's a period where he's on a street corner busking, having lost his band, but beginning his solo career. And there would be, in reality, these guys standing on the corner outside the clubs in Seattle hawking their solo cassettes. So we wanted Cliff Poncier to have his own solo cassette. And Jeff Ament, in classic style, designed this cassette cover and wrote out these fictitious song names for the cassette.

And Chris Cornell was another guy who was close to us when we were making the record, and still is a good friend. I really loved Soundgarden; they were my favorite band. I originally thought Chris could play the lead, but then I think that turned into too big of a commitment for everybody and so he became the guy he is in the movie, but in the course of making the movie he was close to all of us. He was always around.

Anyway, Jeff Ament had designed this solo cassette which we thought was hilarious because it had all of these cool song titles like "Flutter Girl," and "Spoonman," and just like a really true-type "I've lost my band, and now I'm a soulful guy – these are my songs now" feeling. So we loved that Jeff had played out the fictitious life of Cliff Poncier. And one night, I stayed home, and Nancy, we were then married, she went out to a club, and she came back home, and she said, "Man, I met this guy, and he was selling solo cassettes, and so I got one for you." And she hands me the Cliff Poncier cassette. And I was like, "That's funny, haha." And then she said, "You should listen to it." So I put on the cassette. And holy shit, this is Chris Cornell, as Cliff Poncier, recording all of these songs, with lyrics, and total creative vision, and he has recorded the entire fake, solo cassette. And it's fantastic. And "Seasons" comes on. And you just can't help but go, "Wow." This is a guy who we've only known in Soundgarden. And of course he's incredibly creative, but who's heard him like this?

by Alexis Sottile, Rolling Stone | Read more:
Image: markk
[ed. I still watch Singles a couple times a year, its one of my favorite movies. For an alternate (and, in my opinion, bullshit) take on Grunge, see also: Was Grunge Good?]

Ralph Goings, Perth Diner Still Life 1980
via:

Those Modern Pathologies

That modern pathology, the Pyramid of Cheops

The final triumph of modern individualism is an afterlife ensconed in a giant stone structure, carefully segregated from any other souls, based entirely around stuff. No county churchyards here. No slow surrender to nature and the weeds. Just piles of golden goblets and jeweled necklaces, carefully guarded by snake-infested traps. And, of course the bones of dead servants, guaranteed to keep serving you in the great beyond. Of course Heaven is neoliberal. There is no alternative!

That modern pathology, heterosexual intercourse for the sole purpose of procreation

Sex can bring people together. It can cement relationships between people and families. It can pulse with celestial fire, it can shatter inner worlds, it can inspire transcendent art, it can remake souls. Of course moderns took one look at all of that and thought: you know what the only acceptable purpose of sex is? Making a smaller copy of myself.

But calling this narcissism would be missing half the picture. It’s equally related to a sort of productivity fetish, a mindset where anything that doesn’t leave a material token didn’t really happen. Enjoyed the company of your closest friends? Not real unless you put the pictures on Facebook, tagged #bestiesforever. Broadened your horizons with a trip to another culture? Not real without crushed pennies or some other gift-shop tchotchke. Met your soulmate? Not real unless you’ve got a lump of screaming flesh to show for it. This is what capitalism does – reduce experiences to souveniers, reduce relationships to commodities, demand that everything good be mediated by a material end product in order to model the laboring-for-others that workers are told is their only life purpose.

That modern pathology, Homer’s Odyssey


If Harry Potter wasn’t vapid enough for you, now we have a travelogue for the Instagram generation.

Odysseus’ only salient characteristic is being “polymetis”, Very Smart. This is enough to give him a raving fan club of front-row-kids and aspirational Ivy Leaguers, the same people who thought Hermione Granger’s straight A’s made her a symbol of an entire generation of womenhood. Odysseus proves his chops in his very first adventure, where he encounters Lotus-Eaters who convince most of his men to eat a magic fruit that leaves them drugged and listless; Odysseus nobly drags them back to the ship and forces them to keep on rowing for him.

Imagine the horrors of a world where poor galley slaves can leave behind their unpaid labor to live on a tropical beach and enjoy their lives! It is only thanks to Odysseus that this catastrophe is averted. One might think a few readers would note that a few months later, the vast majority of sailors in Odysseus’ fleet died horribly, eaten by cannibals. One might think a few readers would wonder if, really, the guy who dragged galley slaves back to their galleys only to get them killed a few months later was really such a good guy. In fact, nobody asks this question, because Odysseus is Very Smart. It’s no coincidence that the Odyssey came out in the generation of the invasion of Iraq War – if Very Smart people declare that dying horribly was the right thing to do, and then it turns out it wasn’t, at least they were benevolent technocrats with your best interests in mind.

Odysseus then goes on to have sex with various sorceresses and sea-nymphs while protesting that he doesn’t want to have sex with them and is loyal to his far-off wife. This is portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. Also, his sailors get turned into pigs, eaten by sea monsters, and drowned in a giant whirlpool. This is not portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. In one scene, some starving sailors eat a sacred cow belonging to the Sun God; this is portrayed as clearly justifying their deaths.

We can start to sketch a psychological picture of the sort of person who could enjoy the Odyssey. They identify with Odysseus, that’s obvious. They want to feel like they’ve suffered – after all, suffering is ennobling! – but they don’t want to actually suffer. They imagine the “suffering” of having to have sex with lots of sea nymphs they’re not super-interested in, all while their friends and subordinates are massacred all around them (but only for good reasons, like them stealing cattle, or them not being Very Smart). At the end of all of it, much like the rich kids attending the Fyre Festival, they can show up on their front doorstep and say “Oh, what suffering I have seen – and I the only survivor!”

The Odyssey is a book for rich individualist aspirational Very Smart narcissists who simultaneously want to outsource their ennobling hardships to the lower classes, and remain so contemptuous of those lower classes that they imagine them literally getting turned into swine by a sorceress, and end up having sex with that sorceress, who is unable to resist them because they are Very Smart.

I weep for the modern generation.

by Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex |  Read more:
Image: Homer's Odyssey

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Who Goes Nazi?

It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.

It is preposterous to think that they are divided by any racial characteristics. Germans may be more susceptible to Nazism than most people, but I doubt it. Jews are barred out, but it is an arbitrary ruling. I know lots of Jews who are born Nazis and many others who would heil Hitler tomorrow morning if given a chance. There are Jews who have repudiated their own ancestors in order to become “Honorary Aryans and Nazis”; there are full-blooded Jews who have enthusiastically entered Hitler’s secret service. Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.

It is also, to an immense extent, the disease of a generation—the generation which was either young or unborn at the end of the last war. This is as true of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans as of Germans. It is the disease of the so-called “lost generation.”

Sometimes I think there are direct biological factors at work—a type of education, feeding, and physical training which has produced a new kind of human being with an imbalance in his nature. He has been fed vitamins and filled with energies that are beyond the capacity of his intellect to discipline. He has been treated to forms of education which have released him from inhibitions. His body is vigorous. His mind is childish. His soul has been almost completely neglected.

At any rate, let us look round the room.

The gentleman standing beside the fireplace with an almost untouched glass of whiskey beside him on the mantelpiece is Mr. A, a descendant of one of the great American families. There has never been an American Blue Book without several persons of his surname in it. He is poor and earns his living as an editor. He has had a classical education, has a sound and cultivated taste in literature, painting, and music; has not a touch of snobbery in him; is full of humor, courtesy, and wit. He was a lieutenant in the World War, is a Republican in politics, but voted twice for Roosevelt, last time for Willkie. He is modest, not particularly brilliant, a staunch friend, and a man who greatly enjoys the company of pretty and witty women. His wife, whom he adored, is dead, and he will never remarry.

He has never attracted any attention because of outstanding bravery. But I will put my hand in the fire that nothing on earth could ever make him a Nazi. He would greatly dislike fighting them, but they could never convert him. . . . Why not?

Beside him stands Mr. B, a man of his own class, graduate of the same preparatory school and university, rich, a sportsman, owner of a famous racing stable, vice-president of a bank, married to a well-known society belle. He is a good fellow and extremely popular. But if America were going Nazi he would certainly join up, and early. Why? . . . Why the one and not the other?

Mr. A has a life that is established according to a certain form of personal behavior. Although he has no money, his unostentatious distinction and education have always assured him a position. He has never been engaged in sharp competition. He is a free man. I doubt whether ever in his life he has done anything he did not want to do or anything that was against his code. Nazism wouldn’t fit in with his standards and he has never become accustomed to making concessions.

Mr. B has risen beyond his real abilities by virtue of health, good looks, and being a good mixer. He married for money and he has done lots of other things for money. His code is not his own; it is that of his class—no worse, no better, He fits easily into whatever pattern is successful. That is his sole measure of value—success. Nazism as a minority movement would not attract him. As a movement likely to attain power, it would.

by Dorothy Thompson, Harper's | Read more: