Monthly Archives: October 2006

The Economics of Attention – Richard Lanham (2006)

Economics of Attention

Richard Lanham’s new book, The Economics of Attention, is perhaps simply an elaboration of his 1994 book The Electronic Word, but it’s still good stuff. The title refers to the concept that the true scarcity at this point is people’s attention, not any material good (we’ll see if that continues indefinitely…). Lanham was long an English prof, and this is not a standard economics book by any means. Much of it deals with ideas coming from the currently mis-trusted field of rhetoric.

The concepts that I found most intriguing though had to do with what he terms the bi-stable oscillations that have been part of Western culture back to the days of Plato. One can find many ways of describing the polarities: style vs. substance; looking at vs. looking through; bottom up vs. top down; competition vs. play; etc. He sees the ‘philosophical’ viewpoint as looking for some ideal point in the middle of these polarities, while the ‘rhetorical’ view is more about oscillations between the poles, and investigation of the different approaches from each side.

Lanham portrays these polarities as lines, like the top figure:

But I think they are better represented as near circles, with the ends nearly touching (with the possibility of jumping the gap). The idea is that a pure interest in style makes style the substance, and vice versa (just as we might say about love and hate not being so far apart). For instance, if you are car designer, then your substance is in fact the stylistic aspects of the car, not the engine specs. Yet the engineers who profess to really caring about the efficiency of the drive shaft have their own stylistic concerns.

Another way of putting it is what Lanham calls ‘revisionist thinking’ – that initial you write something, try to get the idea down, then you go back and revise it, try to see whether you’ve communicated as you intended. There’s a shift back and forth from what you’re writing to how you’re writing it. He exposes the idea that somehow there is completely transparent, style-less writing as hogwash.

Bottom line is that Lanham sees a current shift back to an oscillating rhetorical view that can see style as just as important as substance, and that has big ramifications for education among other areas. Lots of work to do on ‘intellectual property’ along with old-style property. Good references to other works in many areas.

Here’s an interview with Lanham to get a taste of his approach.

Paul Motian

Paul Motian Trio

Been listening to a lot of recent Paul Motian music lately.  His Broadway standards CDs are very nice.  Mostly he’s playing with Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, but the stuff with EBB is good too.

Here’s a link to a Times review of the live gigs.

Pranks 2! – by RE/Search

Pranks 2

Pranks 2 is out now from RE/Search publications, reliable supplier of provocative material for nearly 30 years now.  In these days of increasing security checks and politics of fear, it’s refreshing to find some people who are into exploring their boundaries, and tweaking authority at the same time.

The book is 200 pages of interviews with various pranksters, and they provide enough range that surely some of them you will find inspiring (and others you may find simply obnoxious).  Help revive the American traditions of independent thinking and questioning authority!


What happens when your strategic goals are furthered through incompetence?

Well – for one thing, it makes it easy to find qualified people to help out.

And two, almost anything that happens can be judged a success.

Not sure if this is what the Bush Admin had in mind from the start, but it does seem to be the modus operandi for the last 4 years or so, Iraq and Katrina being only the big examples.

Matmos – Portland, 20-Oct-2006

Matmos CD

The first ever Matmos show in Portland was at Holocene last night, and I’d say it was challenging and good. The make music from just about any type of sound, the weirder the source the more they seem to like it. I enjoyed most of it; there were rhythmic moments and noisy moments. Toward the end a gal in the audience asked them to ‘play something good’; the reply from the band was that she was at the wrong show; if she wanted something good she should go to the Doug Fir.

They got help from a few local folks (the opening piece had a woman reading the SCUM manifesto from Valerie Solanas), and had two other guys with them doing guitars and other stuff. They also had images playing most of the time, often featuring various fleshy views, one apparently of a cow’s reproductive tract (I heard that’s what it was at the CD booth, and some or all of it is reproduced on the CD cover). I liked the video that went along with the piece that was for William Burroughs (I think), which had some neat distorted images of adding machines and whatnot. Another piece had the mic taped to an electric razor which was used to give a volunteer a mohawk on stage.

The encore video of repeated butt spanking was pretty funny, and was followed up with a little live spanking as well. Matmos is definitely out. Funny stuff on their Matador site here.

Several openers, and the SF dj Walter Kitundu doing the harp record player pieces (instruments he built himself) was quite good.

World Changing!

WorldChanging book

The WorldChanging folks have their big book coming out very shortly, and are doing a book tour. The main Portland event is on Sunday, Oct 29 at the World Forestry Center at 6pm. More details here.

The Decemberists – Portland, 18-Oct-2006

The Decemberists

Local heroes The Decemberists, fronted by Colin Meloy, played the second of their two pre-tour shows at the Crystal Ballroom last night, and the young crowd gave the band a rapturous welcome. If folks in the rest of the country like the band as much as they do here in Portland, then they will do very well indeed. As above, they have a nerdly love of dress-up.

They played much of the new CD, called ‘The Crane Wife,’ and it all sounded pretty good to me, if not overly exciting. Some of the new stuff veers into Jethro Tull-like territory, and one tune sounds an awful lot like Talking Heads ‘Life During Wartime’ but in general they sound like themselves, with Meloy’s wordy lyrics and lovely melodies guiding the sound. Here’s a review from Pitchfork.

At this stage the band reminds me of 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant’s original band, where she stood out from the competent musicians who had little stage presence. It seems to me only a matter of time before Colin Meloy heads out on his own. But in the meantime, I hope they enjoy the ride!

Yo La Tengo – Portland, 16-Oct-2006

Yo La Tengo

Superb! I really enjoyed the show last night at Crystal Ballroom. Just as with the new CD, they go from sweet pop songs to long drone-jams & guitar freakouts, and it all sounds good to me. I was thinking how I got their first record about 20 years ago, and here they are, still kicking it live, and they are not afraid.

Openers Why? were pretty darned good too!

More bands in town this week: The Decemberists, The Hold Steady, and Matmos… looking forward to it all.

Ideas on Happiness

While in Europe I read two books seemingly unrelated, but I found a few interesting ties. The first was by James Gunn, The Joy Makers, which consists of three parts, apparently each published separately in Sci-Fi mags in the 1954-55 timespan, then later collected as a book. Each of the stories links together on the subject of ‘hedonics’ – a systematized way to achieve happiness. As one character states it:

“The hedonics techniques aren’t something magical. They’re a reorientation and a discipline – a control not over external events but over our reactions to them. Happiness is inside. All you have to do is recognize that.”

Then Gunn takes things into the future, and he introduces the idea of terra-forming Venus, but mostly concentrates on how hedonics has reduced the people of earth to a very bad state. Much like what’s depicted in The Matrix:

“The thing had floated submerged in the fluid…. It was male; the long, white beard was proof of that. It was a pitiful thing, a kind of caricature of humanity, a fantastically hairy gnome curled blindly into a fetal position…. It had floated in this room in its gently moving nest of hair, nourished by the thick, fleshlike cord trailing from a tap protruding through the wall to where it had been grafted to the navel, dreaming the long, slow, happy fetal dreams.”


The second was Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, 2005. If you can get beyond the gratuitous provocations, there’s an investigation here of the possibility of love in a world of lust, along with some interesting questions of what human cloning might actually achieve. Here the far future clones of a man study his current-day autobiography, trying to understand how he lived. The man, Daniel1, is a ‘comedian’ who is never able to find a workable combination of love and sex. He muses on whether it’s ever possible.

The clones, while seemingly ‘beyond’ such problems, find that they are surely missing something as well, and some give up their cosy existence to find it.

I find Houellebecq provocative and amusing, but many will surely be turned off by his approach. Daniel1 calls himself “a pretty abrasive humanist” and that may sum it up for Houellebecq as well.

Pynchon's Next


Above, a shot of a V2 rocket in flight, from a photo at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.  They have one of the rockets in the building, it’s about 45 feet tall, with four fins at the bottom.  And of course that had me thinking about Gravity’s Rainbow, and the fact that Thomas Pynchon’s next novel is due out in December.  I think there’s a fair chance that this will be a very good book.

Against the Day - Pynchon

Check this site for a brief blurb on the book – purportedly written by Pynchon himself, and it certainly seems possible.  Here’s the first bit:

Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.