Sunday, November 29, 2009

Popularity Vs. Quality.

Is the notion that most popular forms of entertainment (best seller books, blockbuster movies, music hits) tend to be low in quality is just an elitist idea, or if there is some truth to it?

Well, it would make sense if you think that the ability to assess the quality of something requires exposure to it.

In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, in 1963, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.)
A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it. (The Economist)

So whether it is an elitist idea, one should not necessarily dismiss it. It is true of food, wine and ‘high culture’ as well.


When More Choice means... Less Choice.

Obviously the Internet has changed the world of entertainment (often referred to as ‘culture’ in French), in ways that are still hard to assess. The Economist has a lengthy report this week on the future of entertainment. Their analysis, based on figures and studies, can be summed up in the following paradox: the more choice you have, the less choice you make.

Blockbusters are doing well not in spite of the fact that people have more choice in entertainment, but because of it. Imagine walking into a music shop containing 4m songs (the number available on We7, a free music-streaming service in Britain) or more than 10m (the choice on iTunes), all of them arranged alphabetically in plain boxes. The choice would be overwhelming. It is far easier to grab the thing everybody is talking about or that you heard on the radio that morning.

Hence the increasing importance of the social dimension when buying entertainment products. I found it quite relevant. If you are like me, you may have also felt overwhelmed by the number of products now available, even to the point of freezing. Too many alternatives are impossible to process of course, you will go more easily towards the product you have heard of.

As a result, it seems that even though people have more choice they do not necessarily opt for more obscure entertainments. Of course, the internet has vastly increased the supply of niche media but, according to The Economist, it has also increased the supply of blockbusters.

The unfortunate result is that sales become more concentrated, be they in movies, books, music or newspapers. As for the less popular products, they will inevitably be more expensive (as it is on television with for example HBO).


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Lessons to Learn from Irak.

The war in Afghanistan has been the subject of many articles, posts and editorials lately but very few seem to see that there are lessons to learn from the war in Iraq.
One aspect hardly ever mentioned is the failure of relationship between the American military and its allies. In fact, it has gone so sour in Iraq that even the British have become vocally critical of the U.S. leadership. What is particularly pointing about the following comment is not only that it underlines the hubris of the US command but also that it underlines a more important problem - the divide between how the Europeans and the Americans handle conflicts.

According to the British chief of staff in Iraq, Colonel J.K.Tanner:

“We experienced real difficulty in dealing with American military and civilian organisations who, partly through arrogance and partly through bureaucracy, dictate that there is only one way: the American way.
“I now realise that I am a European, not an American. We managed to get on better…with our European partners and at times with the Arabs than with the Americans. Europeans chat to each other, whereas dialogue is alien to the US military… dealing with them corporately is akin to dealing with a group of Martians."
“If it isn’t on the PowerPoint slide, then it doesn’t happen.”
(The Telegraph)

War is certainly the greatest test of friendship between allied countries, and it seems that the so-called « Special Relationship » between the UK and the U.S. has failed the test of the war in Iraq. (I personally think it has been a myth for many years, and so it is about time that Brits finally acknowledge it.)
More importantly there is a useful lesson to learn for the war in Afghanistan whose success may precisely depend even more on cohesion and communication. If president Obama wants more troops from his allies, he needs to set clear goals and strategy not to them but with them. It is the only way European leaders, including the British and the Feench, can justify sending more troops to their public opinion.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Opposite of Competition in Europe and the U.S.

Last week, Charlemagne, The Economist’s weekly column, had a good wrap-up of one major differences between continental Europeans and Anglo-Saxons:

If you play word association, it turns out that for many in a Parisian classroom, the polar opposite of “competition” is “solidarity”: i.e. the useful rigor imposed by competition is overshadowed by the pain caused as society divides into winners and losers. For Anglo-Saxon liberals, the instinctive opposite of “competition” is “monopoly”: i.e. the pain of competition is justified by a quest for fairness, even before getting to arguments about efficiency and companies’ long-term fitness.

In Paris the idea that a free-market liberal may believe he is defending a moral position (rather than a necessary evil) often causes surprise. In parallel, it is salutary to be reminded that the other side has a point too. The open borders written into the
EU can be both positive and painful, as globalisation produces losers as well as winners.
As the object of this blog is to try to build bridges between the United-States and France, this is not only relevant but also deserves pause for thought. If we consider that we are all products of our environment, I would be tempted to see (partly at least) a historical explanation to this divide between our views of economics.

For centuries, wars, revolutions and plagues ravaged the European continent and the impact on civilians only worsened with modern times to reach the climaxes of World War I and World War II and both wars changed Europe more than anything else since the Great Plagues in the 13th century.
One might argue that the notion of "solidarity" started to gain popularity during the enlightment and gained momentum with the French Revolution. Others might think the French Commune was also a major change, but I would argue that it took the impact of two world wars to build the consensus over the notion of solidarity.
In other words, the only way to survive and reconstruct a society that has been near annihilation is to get people to unite not only at a local level, but even at a state level – hence the need for welfare and government intervention. Contrary to the late 19th century, it became a national consensus in many European countries – and especially in France. The greater the destruction, the more national ‘solidarity’ was needed. (Americans may have had a sense of what that means when they think of the aftermath of Katrina). This also explains why the British turned toward a more socialistic policy (with a wave of nationalizations) in the wake of WWII, even though this world view is less engrained in their mindset, in part because destructions, wars and revolutions have not been part of their recent history to the level of continental Europe. This is why Europe has been built around the core idea of peace, security and prosperity. This is also why security (including economic security) is more relevant to the Europeans.

Now of course, there are many other historical factors to explain this quasi obsession with ‘solidarity’ – class antagonism, or the political role of the church (in France for instance), but it seems to me that the drift between Europe and the U.S. has been even greater in the aftermath of WWII. This, you might add, is an old story. After all, it’s been over 60 years now.
True, but the trauma of destruction lingers on and is passed on to the next generations. It also shaped a society and has turned the values of solidarity into mythical proportions (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité say the French). This, by the way, also explains why the Europeans are so keen on using diplomacy to the last resort and war as the last possible option – the trauma of war is greater in Europe, even at a subconscious level. (Many Americans often forget how the scars of World Wars are visible in every single village in continental Europe).

Imagine 9/11 or Katrina and multiply it to the point that everyone in the nation is personally affected and you can be sure if would change the values of the American people for decades. After all, the 1930s economic crisis almost turned the U.S. into a near-socialistic government.

This is not to say that Europe knows better. There can’t be value judgment in this, and no one is right or wrong. But it would help bridge the gap between us if Europeans and Americans realized that their world views are shaped by their history and that they are products of their own environment and history which they cannot escape and that there is precisely no value judgment to be made.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Getting Cosy with Sarkozy - on the Simpsons.

Nicolas Sarkozy et Carla Bruni dans les Simpson !
envoyé par lemondededemainTV. - L'actualité du moment en vidéo.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jon Stewart - Priceless

Last night's Daily Show episode was one of Jon Stewart's finest. How does one man skewer Fox News, Sarah Palin and Lou Dobbs in 40 minutes? The best quote, among many good ones:
"Because experts at Fox News are like winners at the Special Olympics, if you show up, you are one."


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Propaganda.... works.

I always thought that a bit of cynicism was good protection from propaganda and manipulation, but I may have been wrong.
That's at least what seems to indicate a new British study:
Michael Bruter, a senior lecturer in European politics at the school, fed a steady diet of slanted newsletters about Europe and the European Union — either all good news or all bad — to 1,200 citizens of six countries over two years.

Over time, Bruter found, and without exception, the readers subconsciously adopted the bias to varying degrees and changed their view of the EU and of themselves as Europeans, a few of them in the extreme. Surprisingly, they didn't register any change right after the newsletters stopped — not until full six months later, when they had obviously let down their guard.

Bruter calls this the "time bomb" effect of one-sided news. His study paints a blunt picture of how cynicism, far from inoculating citizens to resist political persuasion, merely delays the impact. (Source)

Mmmm... I wonder if fair and balance news could somehow make people "fair and balance" over time.....


Sarkozy, the Rejected Suitor.

This week Nicolas Sarkozy decorated Clint Eastwood with the order of Commander of the Legion of Honour, the highest decoration in France (established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802).Eastwood was actually ‘upgrade’ from ‘knight of the Legion of Honor’ previously given by Jacques Chirac.
Charles Bremmer asks a pointed question :
What is the service that Eastwood has rendered ?
Sarkozy's office says the honour is deserved because Eastwood "is a global star who is very fond of France.".

This is not only strange, it is typical, as Bremmer said, of the lingering love-hate relationship between the U.S. and France.
Sarkozy’s case is different from his predecessors’ though. After he initially threw himself into the arms of the US, he now acts more like a rejected suitor.
He took his first summer holiday as President in New England, not far from the Bushes. He has cooled off in a big way. Obama's refusal to take up his offer of special complicity has been taken as a personal affront by the French President. On Monday, he tore a strip off Obama over his failure to come to Berlin for the Wall celebrations, according to a leak of his remarks in le Canard Enchaîné. [French satirical paper].
"Obama is very disappointing in foreign policy. He doesn't just have difficult relations with me," he was quoted as saying. "It's the same with (Chancellor) Merkel and (Prime Minister) Brown. Europe does not excite him. As for the rest of the world, it's a disappointment too. The language has changed. There has been an opening up. The hand is outstretched but it is grasped by no-one."
A few days earlier Sarkozy launched into an anti-Obama tirade at the weekly cabinet meeting, comparing himself highly favourably with the US president, who, he said, had only managed to produce a single reform so far.(Le Canard is usually quite accurate with its Sarkozy quotes. Ministers read it closely to find out what the boss is
Sarkozy should take this as humbling experience rather than a personal smack, but I am afraid his ego is way too big for him to put it all in perspective. The fact remains that for Obama, Europe is less relevant that it used to be and France better get used to it.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy tried (too) hard this week to “emulate the gesture of reconciliation by the late President Mitterrand when he held hands with Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the Verdun battlefield in 1984”. This seems more like a desperate move after failing to build up a new relationship with Britain. Besides, Angela Merkel may not be so keen on those big shows of unity.
"France looks a little like the rejected lover in this couple de raison," le Monde said on Wednesday..
The fact that Sarkozy is down in the polls makes some grand scheme of unity probably more relevant to refurbish his image. That, and the French identity debate. His behavior, his lack of tact and finesse are quite embarrassing but unfortunately, they are neither new nor unexpected.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Linguistic Offense?

Excellent post on Charles Bremmer’s blog (the correspondent of Times in Paris) on how similar terms in French and English can be deceiving and may even cause offense. It’s something most of those who speak two languages know but it’s always good to be reminded every once in a while:

We have a ripe example of the linguistic minefield between France and Britain today. A French minister [Claude Lellouche, French minister in charge of Europe] has caused offence in Britain by calling the Conservative Party autistic.
[But] words often carry quite different tones on opposite sides of the Channel.
In France in recent years, autism has become a standard term in the political-media vocabulary. It does not shock. Handicap organisations complain about it, but the word has become a routine put-down for someone who seems determined not to listen to your point of view. Trade union leaders use it against the government. Teenagers use it in school yards. In Britain, of course, it is an outrage to use a metaphor that is akin to the old insult spastic.
He used other strong language, saying the plans of David Cameron, the Conservative leader, were 'pathetic' and would 'castrate' Britain in Europe. "They have essentially castrated your UK influence in the European parliament," he said.
Lellouche does not seem to be very sensitive to the strong overtones of these words in English.
Saying that someone's power has been émasculé in French is not as strong as saying that he has been castrated in English. Lellouche has been saying on the radio that he meant pathetic in the French sense of pathéthique -- meaning sad, like Tchaikovsky's symphony. The English sense is lamentable in French. He also said that he had no idea that autistic was offensive in English.

These are among dozens of terms -- like miserable and misérable (destitute in English), seduction and la séduction (the act of charming or winning over) or ...politician versus politicien, which refers to petty politcking. A politician in French is un homme or une femme politique.

The word autistic has stung most in Britain because sensitivity over the condition has put its metaphoric use beyond the pale.

France is less sensitive over using human iimpairment and physique in invective. Crétin is a more acceptable insult in French than English. Things are however changing. An association called Autisme France has been campaigning in recent years to have the media and politicians stop wielding the condition as an insult. "In colloquial French this designates someone in a bit of a bubble, who is a little dreamy," the association said recently.

The threshold of offensiveness is always moving. It is still acceptable in both languages to 'turn a deaf ear' or be 'blind' to something. The British call people dumb now in the American sense of stupid (which came via German). In French it remains acceptable to allude to bodily functions that are unmentionable in English. A senior radio commentator last night dismissed President Chirac's new memoirs as "chiantissime". That would politely be rendered as ultra-boring, but literally and crudely, it means that it provokes extreme excretion. And then there is the matter of race. Anything remotely ethnic cannot be used metaphorically in English. France is not quite there yet. The French for speech-writer or ghost-writer is still un nègre -- a negro.


The Political Allegory of "V"

Good science-fiction is allegorical and often political in nature.
Examples abound – here are two obvious ones: in movies, (The Invasion of Body Snatchers as an allegory for communist infiltration, or more recently Distcrict 9 clearly about Apartheid) or TV (Star Trek and its-anti-Vietnam war message, or The Invaders also about communist infiltration).

The very best of science fiction is not only allegorical; it also deals with myths of our time. The most achieved sci-fi narrative is definitely Battlestar Galactica with its religious and political allegories so extended and well constructed that they become myths.
In 2005, Time said it was “a ripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with religious fundamentalists (here, genocidal robots called Cylons), sleeper cells, civil-liberties crackdowns and even a prisoner-torture scandal”.

BSG has definitely raised the bar so high that it will be hard for any new Sci-Fi to match its quality.
So what type of political allegory would (evil ) aliens pretending to be nice and offer ‘hope’ and ‘change’ be?
This week’s new series “V” is just about that – beautiful aliens showing up on earth and indoctrinating people (especially the youth) into spreading their messages of hope and change, while a group of people who know the truth organize resistance.
As the story progresses, you cannot escape the political allegory for Obama. But the “revelation” comes about 25 minutes into the show when the aliens’ plan for taking lover the world is finally revealed:
Ana, the charismatic leader gives an interview
“The intent goes beyond just healing we want to provide complete medical
services to all.”
“You’re talking about Universal Healthcare?!”.
“I believe that’s what you call it, yes”.
Meanwhile, the group of underground resistance sounds awfully like the tea-baggers.
It worries me that they came when we needed them the most. All they’re really doing is positioning themselves as the saviors of mankind.”, one of them says.

In case, you’re not familiar with Sci-Fi, V (which stands for “Visitors”) is a remake of a 1980s version, except that in the original (cult) series, the political allegory was clearly WWII and Nazi occupation with an anti-fascist message. And the Aliens did not give humanity health-care but the cure of cancer and other diseases. (and from a narrative perspective, what an anti-climax it would for these aliens to simply bring.. universal health care. After all, it is something that some countries (in real life) have already achieved on their own. Sure, it would be for the whole world, but I don’t think I’d be impressed with anything less than the cure of AIDS, Cancer, etc…)

As may be expected, the writer/producer, Scott Peters has denied any political undertone.
But Peters says the show has been in the works since 2007. Reality was "never really a factor," he says. "There's no political message being shoved down anyone's throat." (WP)
Whatever the producer may say, the political undertone is more than obvious which has not escaped far right-wing commentaries :
Fox News personalities Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck have all “endorsed” V as “a critique of ‘Obama-mania.’” The report quotes Hannity as saying: “You know, I think this is one show that I can actually get behind.” (Media Matters)

Here’s what Bill O’Reilly had to say about “V” :

From a purely entertaining perspective, the show is watchable but has a lot of tacky moments (and why, I ask, does the Alien speak French with… an American accent?) and it is probably also due to the fact that the first episode goes too fast and the story is too condensed. They should have had a two hour pilot instead and slowly build in the tension. It will most likely never match BSG.
The best scene in the pilot is probably when Ana, the alien leader gets ready for the interview with a journalist and blackmails him into showing the aliens in a positive light:
"Don't ask any questions that would portray us negatively."
He hesitates but
she says she’ll cancel the interview altogether
"This interview would
elevate your career, wouldn't it, Mr. Decker?"
And he finally gives in to her demand. It’s one of the most well written scenes in the whole episode.

It seems that Scott Peters (The 4400), the man behind the first episodes will be replaced by Scott Rosenbaum, the executive producer of Chuck and one of the writers of the cutting edge show “The Shield”.

As for me, I'll continue to watch "V" just to see how it's going to develop but I much prefer “Flashforward”, probably the most promising new SF series on air right now.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What it means to be French....

What does it mean to be French?

An overwhelming majority of the French believe their language is the greatest symbol of their nation. (in two different polls 80% here and here). This is uniquely French and certainly a major difference with what the Americans (or the British) might answer. (after all, contrary to France, the US has no official national language).
This has also interesting implications. It may for instance explain why the French are so reluctant to learn foreign languages (and particularly English of course).

The Republic came second with 92%. Public services came third with 91%. The Tricolor flag made (surprisingly) 88% and the Laicité (the French version of secularism) came next with 85 percent, followed for 77% by the Marseillaise national anthem.

Why these polls?
Because, in a very typical French fashion, the government has just decreed a debate on French identity. It is supposed to take place in the prefectures and sub- prefectures with the participation of NGOs, teachers, trade unions, elected officials etc…. Just like anything else they have done, it has taken everyone by surprise.
But no one is fool enough to miss the political timing of this initiative which is probably why it has sparked controversy. It is easy to see it as an attempt to divert attention from the recent polemics over Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand's past as a sex tourist in Asia, and over the president’s attempt of nepotism.
Sarkozy has also been accused of trying to woo the far right voters with the coming regional elections in mind, as the debate has come in the midst of the government’s talk to ban the full-body Islamic veil and implement a tougher approach to immigration.
Of course, in France, talks of national identity and national pride smacks Marshal Pétain's days and still is a sensitive issue. Recently, Sarkozy said that Frenchness had been forged by the "singular relationship of the French to the land", and that "All French families have grandparents who at one time or another worked the land.". This link to the land was also a common theme of Pétain (and here) but in today’s France, it is nothing more than a myth. Farmers represent only about 3% of the working population. Worse, this link to the land somewhat excludes all those French born in families of immigrants. (which is kind of ironic since the French president is himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant father with no farming grandparents and thus no connection to the French land or the “terroir”).

This soul-searching debate was initiated by the Minister of Immigration and National Identity Eric Besson. Yes, however strange this may sound, there is a ministry of ‘National Identity’ in France – a novelty even in this country. (Eric Besson, interestingly, used to be a socialist and switched side during the presidential campaign, and helped Sarkozy prep for the presidential debate during the campaign, giving him insight about his opponent, Segolène Rorale and was so he rewarded with this new ministry in the government).

What I find particularly it disturbing is that a debate on French identity should be so intimately linked to the immigration question. Just as disturbing to the left is that it comes from Eric Besson whom they see (rightfully) as a traitor and an opportunist. Divide to conquer is certainly what Sarkozy must have in mind (but division on this question also appears in his own camp).

Besson said he wants every young French citizen to sing the Marseillaise once a year, following a course on the theme of the national hymn. (Personally, I think the lyrics - here in French and here in English - are horribly gory and violent. My suggestion would be to change them, or find another song altogether. Unfortunately, given the recent polls, I’m afraid not many French people would agree with me.).
Forcing kids to sing the national anthem would be nothing more than a useless gimmick. Paradoxically, Besson seems to find the inspiration for this overt form of patriotism in… the American model (including with regard to immigration). He doesn't seem to see that what works in a country may not work in another! That is simply not the way the French do it.
What will come out of this 4 month debate? I think it is a lot of hot air. Inevitably, we’ll end up with reinforcing images d’Epinal (French expression referring to an emphatically traditionalist and naïve depiction of something), and for that, why not simply read Asterix, (who just celebrated his 50th birthday). At least, he is funny, which is a lot more than anyone in this government can say :

"It is clear that Asterix was made with the image of the French," says Uderzo. "We took the tics and the manners of the French" – but that it relies so heavily on ingenious wordplay and puns for its humour.

Uderzo told French radio that Astérix was born when the owner of a French magazine called Pilote wanted a comic strip his kids could read that represented French culture. The creators settled on Gaulles as their characters, because he said, nothing is more French than the Gaulles. (VOA)



Death of Claud Levi-Strauss.

Today the last of the great French intellecuals died at 100.

For those of you for whom Levi-Strauss means denim, you should know he was one of the preeminent social anthropologists of the 20th century and whose erudite, often mind-bendingly labored studies of indigenous Brazilian tribes led to influential theories examining human behavior and culture Mr. Lévi-Strauss was often paired with writers Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux as the towering
French intellectuals of the last century. He said his life's work was "an attempt to show that there are laws of mythical thinking as strict and rigorous as you would find in the natural sciences." He was best-known for popularizing a social science theory known as "structuralism," a philosophical method of approaching anthropology that identified behavioral codes that were crucial to the functioning of any society and that are inherent in the human mind.

(Wash Post)