Surveillance and The Loneliness of the Long-distance Trucker

From The New Yorker:

In 2011, Karen Levy, a doctoral candidate in Princeton’s sociology department, spent the summer as a research intern at Intel’s offices near Portland, Oregon. Her official remit was fuzzy and open-ended, but the company had at one point emphasized its resolve to fnd use cases for its chips in vehicles. Levy hadn’t thought much about vehicles per se, but her mixed academic background—she was also trained as a lawyer—predisposed her to refect on situations that dramatized the peculiar relationship between formal codes (the realm of the law) and practical expediency (the realm of the ethnographer). The road, it occurred to her, was the site of our most common and thoroughgoing encounter with rules; it was also the scene of our most routine and matter-of-fact disregard for them. Take, as an example, jaywalking. It remains technically criminal in many places, but the enforcement of the prohibition is typically neither expected nor desired. Levy’s work is often about the wiggle room that makes social life possible. As she put it to me recently, “What do we really mean when we say a rule is a rule? When do we not mean it?”

While in Oregon, Levy happened to hear an NPR segment about new restrictions on the wiggle room afforded to long-haul truckers. Since the nineteen-thirties, truckers had been reasonably encumbered by restrictions on the number of hours they were allowed to work. These regulations relied upon self-reports manually inscribed in paper logbooks, which truckers were obligated to provide upon inspection. These logbooks, however, were easily falsifed; at the end of the day, or at the end of a trip, the trucker retroftted his journey to accommodate the law. This was an open secret: truckers called them coloring books, or even swindle sheets. Road safety, however, was a real issue. For decades, regulators had debated the introduction of electronic logs—tamperproof devices, hardwired to trucks’ engines, that could digitally track the time truckers spent behind the wheel. Truckers were, to put it gently, resistant to the idea. Long-haul trucking is not a good job (it’s poorly paid, lonely, bad for your health, and dangerous), but at the very least it was compensated by access to mythological status: truckers, as captains of their own ships, enjoyed the freedom and romance of the open road. Trucking was a vocation for the stubborn. By 2012, a federal mandate was a fait accompli, and, even if the trappings of autonomy had always been more symbolic than material, the deployment of digital trackers was received as a status insult.

Later that week, Levy took public transit to Jubitz, a “nice, big truck stop” near the Washington border, to see what it felt like to strike up unsolicited conversations with truckers and get a lay of the land. Levy, whose prose and conversation is starry with exclamatory asides, told me, “I went up to people at the bar, and it was really fun! Truckers turned out to be really forthcoming—they have lots of stories nobody asks them to tell. These days, we talk about ‘essential workers’ all the time, but nobody likes them or thinks positively of them—despite the fact that, as they like to say, ‘if you bought it, we brought it.’ ” When she returned to Princeton that fall, she told her adviser, Paul DiMaggio, that she’d become enmeshed in the tribulations of truckers. DiMaggio is extremely well regarded as a sociologist—his landmark 1983 article “The Iron Cage Revisited,” on the bureaucratization of the professions, is one of the feld’s all-time most cited papers—but, in a previous life, he had been an aspiring songwriter on the Nashville scene, and frequented honky-tonks in the nineteen-seventies. He not only supported the project but promptly set her up with a trucker playlist—including Dick Curless’s “A Tombstone Every Mile” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road.” (Many classics of the genre have an air of dark prophecy; among Levy’s favorites is Ronnie Milsap’s “Prisoner of the Highway.”)

Levy went on to visit truckers in eleven states: “The nice thing about truckers is you can fnd them anywhere, and if one place isn’t great you can go down the road to the next truck stop and see who’s there.” Levy grew up not far from Indianapolis, and at frst she looked for men in Colts jerseys; as an invitation to expound on their expertise, she sometimes asked them how they’d get from, say, Portland to West Lafayette, Indiana, which they could invariably answer off the top of their heads. Her initial encounters did not go all that well. She told me, “I was an idiot. I literally didn’t understand what people were saying— what words were coming out of their mouths. There’s all of this lingo— ‘reefer,’ ‘chicken coop,’ ‘reset your seventy.’ I went home and bought a CB slang dictionary on eBay, and learned that a ‘reefer’ is a refrigerated truck, a ‘chicken coop’ is an inspection station, and ‘resetting your seventy’ means restarting your weekly time clock with a thirty-fourhour break.” She continued, “My conversations were not that useful at frst except that it was all interesting, and then, of course, you pick it up —subscribing to all these newsletters, reading the trade press, and now, more than eleven years later, I still read that stuff. I listen to ‘Road Dog Trucking,’ a satellite-radio channel that hosts call-in shows for trucking professionals.” In the past few months, those shows have invited her to appear as a guest.

Levy’s splendid new book, “Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance,” is a rigorous and surprisingly entertaining ethnographic portrait of a profession in transition. Although truckers have always been technologically savvy subjects— they were early adopters of such new technologies as CB radio—they now had to grow accustomed to life as its object. When she began her feld work, electronic logging devices—E.L.D.s—were a looming threat on the horizon. In 2017, they became a legal requirement, but their industrial applications have gone well beyond the basic federal mandate. Trucking companies realized that they could enhance these devices to do things such as track fuel efficiency in real time. In one sense, this was an old story: strict managerial oversight in the service of productive rationalization was a hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. In another, however, the extension of such scrutiny to the fundamentally antinomian culture of trucking was a relevant novelty. With the pandemic, remote workplace surveillance of the otherwise aloof has become an increasingly common intrusion. Truckers, as she said in an interview with the trucker show “Land Line Now,” were “the canaries in the coal mine.” he process of picking up o

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Do accents disappear?

From The Conversation:

In Boston, there are reports of people pronouncing the letter “r.” Down in Tennessee, people are noticing a lack of a Southern drawl. And Texans have long worried about losing their distinctive twang.

Indeed, around the United States, communities are voicing a common anxiety: Are Americans losing their accents?

The fear of accent loss often emerges within communities that face demographic and technological changes. But on an individual level “losing one’s accent” is also part of a profit-driven industry, with accent reduction services promising professional and personal benefits to clients who change their speech by ironing out any regionalisms or foreign pronunciations.

. . . .

But is it really possible to lose one’s accent? Linguistic researchers like us suggest the answer is complicated — no one becomes truly “accentless,” but accents can and do change over time.

To us, what’s more interesting is why so many people believe they can lose their accent – and why there are such differing opinions about why this may be a good or bad thing.

Is there a ‘standard’ accent?

It’s best to think of an accent as a distinct, systematic, rule-governed way of speaking, including sound features such as intonation, stress and pronunciation.

Accent is not a synonym for dialect, but it’s related. Dialect is an umbrella term for the way a community pronounces words (phonology), creates words (morphology), and orders words (syntax).

Accent is the phonological part of a dialect. For example, when it comes to the Boston dialect, a key feature of its accent is r-deletion, or r-dropping. This occurs most frequently after certain vowels, so that a phrase like “far apart” could be pronounced like “fah apaht,” with the “r” sound vocalizing, or turning into a vowel. This results in a longer vowel pronunciation in each word.

Many people believe that there is a single standard way of speaking in each country, and that this perceived standard is inherently the best form of speech. However, linguists often point out that the concept of a standard accent is better understood as an idealization rather than a reality. In other words, no one speaks “standard English”; rather, it is an imagined way of using language that exists only in grammar and style books.

One reason linguists agree there is no one true standard is that, through the years, there have been multiple supposed standards, such as Received Pronunciation in the U.K. and Network Standard in the U.S. – think of a newsreader’s cadence in a 1950s BBC newsreel, or Kent Brockman’s on “The Simpsons.”

The idea of a standard changes over time and place. There has never been a single standard that’s been fully agreed upon – and broadcast outlets across the spectrum have never consistently held to those standards anyway.

Even so, this idea of a standard accent is powerful. An episode of NPR’s podcast “Code Switch” tells the story of Deion Broxton, who in recent years applied for jobs as a broadcasting reporter but was repeatedly turned down because of his Baltimore accent.

Many other workplace and educational environments similarly perpetuate the idea that nonstandard accents are less appropriate, or even inappropriate, in certain professional spaces. Scholars have found that Southern U.S. accent features are more accepted in government, law and service-oriented workplaces than in the technology sector. The acceptability of nonstandard accents may correlate with differences in class and culture, with newer or higher-prestige industries expecting more standard speech in the workplace.

What is accent leveling?

The pressure to sound standard is one force that can lead to what linguists describe as “dialect leveling” or “accent leveling.” This occurs when there is a loss of diverse features among regional language varieties. For example, if a U.S. Southerner feels social or economic pressure to shift from pronouncing the word “right” with one vowel – sounding like “raht” – to make it sound like “ra-eeyt” with a diphthong (two vowel sounds), they may be diminishing their use of a common marker for Southern speech. This is technically not accent loss, but rather accent change.

But accent leveling can also be motivated by language contact, when people with multiple dialects come into regular interaction because of migration and other demographic mobility. Areas that have in recent decades experienced high levels of immigration have often pointed to the mixing of different languages and accents as driving the loss of traditional, distinctive speech patterns.

Link to the rest at The Conversation

How Artificial Intelligence Helped Make an Experimental Pop Album

From Smithsonian Magazine:

When you listen to experimental pop band YACHT’s discography, the 2019 ​​album Chain Tripping fits right in. Pulsing with glitchy synth sounds, infectious bass riffs and the sweet voice of lead singer Claire L. Evans, Chain Tripping is a successful, Grammy-nominated album that sounds like YACHT, through and through. It’s such a success, you might never know it was generated by artificial intelligence.

But it was: Every riff, melody and lyric on Chain Tripping was developed by A.I. systems—even the album’s title.

That strange, tedious process—at times frustrating and at times awe-inspiring—is now the subject of The Computer Accent, a new documentary from directors Sebastian Pardo and Riel Roch-Decter that is “heartening or horrifying depending on your viewpoint,” according to the film’s own synopsis.

. . . .

To make Chain Tripping, the members of YACHT transformed their entire back catalog into MIDI data. (MIDI, which stands for musical instrument digital interface, allows electronic instruments and computers to communicate.) They then fed that data, piece by piece, to machine learning models—primarily Google’s MusicVAE, which helps artists “create palettes for blending and exploring musical scores.” YACHT followed the same process with songs by their musical inspirations and peers, and fed the lyrics of their songs into a lyric-generating model to come up with words.

Though A.I. generated the building blocks—melodies, riffs, beats and lyrics—the members of YACHT (which, fittingly, is an acronym for Young Americans Challenging High Technology) still had to manipulate them into complete songs.

“It wasn’t something where we fed something into a model, hit print and had songs,” Evans told Ars Technica’s Nathan Mattise in 2019. “We’d have to be involved. There’d have to be a human involved at every step of the process to ultimately make music … The larger structure, lyrics, the relationship between lyrics and structure—all of these other things are beyond the technology’s capacity, which is good.”

. . . .

Evans and her bandmates, Jona Bechtolt and Rob Kieswetter, hand-selected their favorite A.I. generations and then arranged them into the songs that make up Chain Tripping. They set rules for themselves: “We can’t add anything. We can’t improvise anything. We can’t harmonize,” Bechtolt told KCRW’s Madeleine Brand in 2019. “We decided it would be just a subtractive process. So we could remove things, like we could take out a word, but we couldn’t add a word for the lyrics. Same with the drum patterns and the melodies.”

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Why Don’t Americans and Brits Have the Same Accents?

From Readers Digest:

The British founded America’s original thirteen colonies, so we should be speaking in the same dialect. Right?

. . . .

First, let’s go over a lesson in Linguistics 101. An accent is a varied pronunciation of a language. A dialect is a variety of a language that includes different vocabulary and grammar, in addition to pronunciation. Two important factors in the formation of a dialect are isolation from the source of the original language and exposure to other languages.

The “American English” we know and use today in an American accent first started out as an “England English” accent. According to a linguist at the Smithsonian, Americans began putting their own spin on English pronunciations just one generation after the colonists started arriving in the New World. An entire ocean away from their former homeland, they became increasingly isolated from “England English” speakers. They also came in more contact with foreign languages, those of the Native Americans and other settlers from Sweden, Spain, France, and the Netherlands. Both factors eventually led to changes in Americans’ vocabulary and grammar, creating a new English dialect. (However, there is some British slang that Americans don’t realize they use.)

An important reason why American English and British English sound different is rhotacism, the change of a particular sound in a language. In this case, that sound is “r.” The standard American accent—what Americans think of as having no accent—is rhotic, meaning that speakers pronounce their “r’s.” Received Pronunciation (aka typical British accents) is non-rhotic, so words like “card” are pronounced like “cahd.”

At first, English speakers in the colonies and England used a rhotic accent. But after the Revolutionary War, upper-class and upper-middle-class citizens in England began using non-rhotic speech as a way to show their social status. Eventually, this became standard for Received Pronunciation and spread throughout the country, affecting even the most popular British phrases. Americans kept their rhotic American accent—for the most part. Port cities on the East Coast, especially in New England, had a lot of contact with the R-less Brits. So if you always wondered why Boston natives pahk theyah cahs to pahty hahd with a glass of cabahnet, thank rhotacism. This is why Americans drive automatic and Europeans drive manual.

Link to the rest at Readers Digest

Enola Holmes

PG is not certain whether video promotions sell many books, he’s taken a look at a few.

He would be happy to hear opinions about whether video is potentially useful for indie authors.

The Unlikely Author Who’s Absolutely Dominating the Bestseller List

From Slate:

This has been the summer of Colleen Hoover, a recent viral TikTok announced, editing together clips of young women at the beach reading books by the Texas novelist. Furthermore, just a couple of months ago we had a Colleen Hoover spring and before that a Colleen Hoover winter and before that a Colleen Hoover fall. On any given week for more than a year now, the 42-year-old Hoover has had three to six books on Publishers Weekly’s top 10 bestseller list. Currently three of the top five titles on the New York Times’ combined print and e-book fiction list are Hoover’s. The most popular of these novels, It Ends With Us, isn’t even new. It was published six years ago. A forthcoming sequel to that novel (or possibly a prequel, it’s not yet clear), It Starts With Us, will be published in October, its perch at the summit of both lists guaranteed.

Observers typically attribute Hoover’s success to BookTok, the segment of TikTok dedicated to authors and readers. And Hoover—known as CoHo to her fans, who call themselves Cohorts—is indeed the queen of BookTok, an adept TikToker herself, as well as the subject of countless videos in which young women appear clutching huge stacks of candy-colored CoHo paperbacks and proceed to rank their favorites among her 24 titles. But while Hoover might just be the ideal author to preside over TikTok, the platform is only the latest online vehicle she had ridden to fame and fortune. She sometimes presents herself as surprised by her own virality, but Hoover has been a savvy self-promoter since 2012, when she distributed free copies of her first, self-published YA novel, Slammed, to influential book bloggers. She was big on BookTube (the YouTube book community) and big on “Bookstagram” well before TikTok came along. Furthermore, her story—social worker and mom transformed into blockbuster author via whatever new technology of the moment is ostensibly revolutionizing the book business (self-publishing, blogging, Instagram, TikTok)—is catnip to traditional news outlets.

But a new technology can’t make readers love a book. It can only persuade people to read it. What is it about Hoover’s work that makes it so popular, so infectiously recommendable? Her novels do seem particularly well-suited to the currently ascendant TikTok because the platform favors big, grabby displays of emotion, as opposed to the tasteful lifestyle curation of Instagram, formerly touted as the hot new way to sell books. CoHo fans on TikTok record themselves sobbing, screaming, gasping in astonishment, and pressing her books to their hearts in winsome displays of adoration. Often, actual words are superfluous to communicating the reader’s response—in fact, they may be more of a hindrance than a help. Above all, BookTok conveys that Hoover’s fiction delivers power jolts of unadulterated feels.

Hoover’s books are more varied than the work of many bestselling novelists. You pretty much know what you’re getting when you grab a James Patterson thriller before boarding a long flight. But Hoover has written YA, romantic comedies, a ghost story, a gothic suspense novel, problem novels exploring such difficult issues as domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and steamy romances like Ugly Love, a novel about an affair between a nurse and an airline pilot that I estimate to be about 70 percent sex scenes. Not all of the Cohorts adore all of her books, but they’ve shown themselves to be willing to follow her into relatively uncharted territory and to appreciate what they find there. (Note to anyone reading further: There will be spoilers.)

Romance of one kind or another plays a role in every Hoover novel, and to judge by her TikTok fans, they speak to an audience with a well-developed awareness of the romance genre’s established—not to say shopworn—tropes.

Currently three of the top five titles on the New York Times’ combined print and e-book fiction list are Hoover’s.

Link to the rest at Slate

How I Use Scrivener For Fiction And Non-Fiction

PG notes that the OP is taken from the transcript of the audio portion of a video. For those who have never given a presentation which is later transcribed, it’s always a humbling experience to see the sorts of filler words you use and other things you say without thinking. Conversational information dispersal and a formal prepared speech are two entirely different ways of speaking.

Here’s a link to the Scrivener website where you can download a free trial version.

From The Creative Penn:

I have now written over 30 books with Scrivener over more than a decade. I did use MS Word for some of my early books back in 2008/2009. But with my first novel, I had such difficulty using Word, that I needed to find a solution. Once someone told me about Scrivener, I started to use it and I have used it for every single book since — fiction and nonfiction. In this tutorial, I’m going to talk a bit about how I use it.

There is so much functionality in Scrivener, so I’m only going to touch on what I use, which is definitely not everything, but it certainly gets me by.

. . . .

You can use Template Projects or a Blank Project

So for fiction, there are a couple examples, for nonfiction, there are even more. So let’s go into the fiction first.

So if you like a lot of help with writing a document, then [Scrivener] can really be useful.

For example, if you go into characters and use the little plus button , it will give you, a character sketch, and then you can fill it in. And if you like filling in all this type of thing, you can do that.

I’m a discovery writer . . . so I don’t use this, but this can be really useful if you enjoy having the different help things there.

. . . .

You can write your scenes and then gather them together in chapters. You can do what you like there. Let’s just look at a nonfiction template before I get into showing you some of my own.

. . . .

Drag and drop — so you can write out of order

Now, one of the things I love about Scrivener is the ability to drag and drop.

So whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you can essentially move them around. So you just click on it and drag it. And what that enables is for you to write out of order. So again, whether that’s fiction or non-fiction, you can just move things around.

. . . .

Keep your research and notes within the project, but not compiled into the book

The main thing to remember with the document is that this folder contains the book. And then anything you put into [00:05:00] research, for example, is not included when you compile the book.

And again, you can type your research in, you can pull in notes.

. . . .

The Inspector includes synopsis, notes, snapshots, and more

The other important thing is the Inspector.

. . . .

So, first of all, on the inspector tab, you can do an overview, a synopsis. [00:06:00] So here William de Tracy, and the Knights. This book is set in the present, but the prologue is set in 1183. So essentially this is the synopsis overview.

And the reason why this is useful, if you are a plotter, is if you click on the manuscript at the top, you can see an overview of the whole book. And so this is where you can move things around. You can write different things.

So you it’s like the digital corkboard. Some people use a physical corkboard. Some people use a digital one. So that’s super useful.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

PG was first introduced to Scrivener a long time ago and spent a lot of time playing with it. For PG’s needs at the time, Scrivener wasn’t a good fit, but he liked the way the program was constructed and the people who were running the company .

He may download the trial program again to see how it’s evolved into the present day.

Character Builder

PG had never heard about Character Builder before he stumbled on this video.

In addition to any other comments, PG (and, he thinks, others) would be interested in hearing from anyone who has used this software/service or a similar tool.

Bad moves across the board

From The Times Literary Supplement:

In 1957, a little-known Harvard professor had his first taste of fame after the publication of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Appearing three months before the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite, Henry Kissinger’s book earned public praise from no less than Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, as well as the leading foreign policy realist, Hans Morgenthau. The New York Times reported, accurately, that “officials at the highest government levels” were reading it: Vice President Richard Nixon certainly did. Not only was the book selected by the Book of the Month Club; Kissinger also found himself on television for the first time. “We believed for too long that we were relatively invulnerable”, he told viewers of CBS’s Face the Nation. “I believe that it [countering Soviet aggression] will take a somewhat firmer attitude and a … somewhat greater willingness to run risks.”

The core argument of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was that the United States lacked a “strategic doctrine” for the nuclear age. There had been a failure in Washington to grasp the full implications of an all-out thermonuclear war, namely that there could be no winner, “because even the weaker side may be able to inflict a degree of destruction which no society can support”. This awful reality made the Eisenhower administration’s periodic bouts of brinkmanship either wildly reckless or mere bluff. As mutual renunciation of nuclear arms seemed unattainable, Kissinger sought to develop a doctrine of limited nuclear war.

That doctrine was never put to the test. Indeed, even Kissinger later repudiated parts of his own argument. Yet, if one looks back on the way NATO strategy evolved in the three decades after 1957, limited nuclear war was at its heart. What else were all those short-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles for? Had war broken out with the Soviet Union in Europe, at least on the Western side there would have been an attempt to fight it without the intercontinental ballistic missiles whose launch would have heralded Armageddon.

Sixty-four years have passed since the publication of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Yet at ninety-eight, Henry Kissinger has not lost his knack for identifying doctrinal deficits in US national security strategy. “The age of AI”, he and his coauthors write, “has yet to define its organizing principles, its moral concepts, or its sense of aspirations and limitations … The AI age needs its own…

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement (sorry if you hit a paywall)

Kaaps Writings From South Africa

From Publishing Perspectives:

While many in South Africa have felt understandably penalized by travel restrictions resulting from the initial report and detection of the variant, Stephanie Nolan at The New York Times has a fine feature on the state-of-the-art KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in Durban and the accompanying door-to-door campaign being deployed to reach the population. The speed with which KRISP reported out its findings has contributed to the timeliness of today’s coordinated, cooperative international research effort on the variant.

. . . .

Words Without Borders, before moving to its December edition, has featured in November guest editor Olivia M. Coetzee’s look at Kaaps writing from South Africa, and we want to bring this to your attention, not least because it’s an example of Words Without Borders’ work in bringing to light some of the niche linguistic contexts.

In her introduction to Kaaps, Coetzee–who is originally from Namibia and was raised near Cape Town–points out the question “What is Kaaps” produces more than one answer. “Some would say that Kaaps is an Afrikaans dialect spoken by the so-called ‘Coloreds’ living in Cape Town. Others see Kaaps as a language distinct from Afrikaans,” she writes.

In notes provided by Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris notes, “Kaaps was created in settler colonial South Africa, developed by the 1500s, and took shape as a language during encounters between indigenous African (Khoi and San), South-East Asian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English people. Late-19th-century Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps and eliminated the indigenous elements in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans.”

Coetzee points to the fact that Kaaps has been considered slang, and thus “Kaaps literature and identity are in their infancy.

“While the first written form of Kaaps appeared in the Arabic Afrikaans alphabet of the early 1800s, there is a limited literary history where Kaaps is concerned. And this absence of Kaaps in the greater South African landscape contributes to the assumption of a people without an identity, agents of the ‘White man’s language,’ Afrikaans.

“And this is problematic for so many reasons to do with who we are as a people,” she writes, “with our identity, our roots, how we see ourselves in the world, where we see ourselves, and our place in the greater society of South Africa.”

What Coetzee is experiencing, it turns out, is the rise of Kaaps as a bonding agent between those who speak it. It begins to function as an element of identity, as she writes. “Language is important, not just as a communication tool, but as a marker of agency,” even with its image still in need of an upgrade.

“A lot of work must still be done to grow positive ideas about Kaaps and the Kaaps movement,” she writes, “but there are already some exciting initiatives underway. Currently a group led by Prof. Quentin Williams at the University of the Western Cape is in the process of producing a trilingual, first-of-its-kind Kaaps dictionary, and this work is a massive step in the direction of becoming as a people.”

The writers whose work she brings to the edition, she says, “not only expand the body of Kaaps literature, but also confirm the link between language and its speakers’ identities.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

How Hollywood’s biggest stars lost their clout

From The Economist:

HOLLYWOOD LABOUR disputes have a certain theatrical flair. When Scarlett Johansson sued Disney in July, claiming she had been underpaid for her role in “Black Widow”, the studio launched an Oscar-worthy broadside against the actress’s “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the covid-19 pandemic”. In September film crews marched to demand better conditions, brandishing placards designed by America’s finest prop-makers. And when WarnerMedia decided to release “Dune” on its streaming service on the same day it hit cinemas on October 21st, the movie’s director, Denis Villeneuve, huffed magnificently that “to watch ‘Dune’ on a television… is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub.”

The streaming revolution has sent money gushing into Hollywood as studios vie to attract subscribers. Netflix boasts its content slate in the fourth quarter will be its strongest yet, with new titles such as “Don’t Look Up”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the final season of “Money Heist”, a Spanish bank-robbing saga. On November 12th Disney will announce its latest commissioning blitz, with new shows for Disney+ expected to include “Star Wars” and Marvel spin-offs. In total streaming firms’ content spending could reach $50bn this year, according to Bloomberg.

Yet despite the largesse it is a turbulent time in Tinseltown, as everyone from A-list stars to the crew who style their hair goes to war with the film studios. Some of the disputes have arisen from the pandemic, which has upended production and release schedules. But the tension has a deeper cause. As streaming disrupts the TV and movie business, the way that talent is compensated is changing. Most workers are better off, but megastars’ power is fading.

Start with the pandemic. As cinemas closed, studios scrambled to find screens for their movies. Some, like MGM’s latest James Bond flick, were delayed by more than a year. Others were sent to streaming platforms—sometimes without the agreement of actors or directors. Those whose pay was linked to box-office revenues were compensated, either behind the scenes (as WarnerMedia did in the case of “Dune”) or after very public spats (as with Disney and Ms Johansson).

Yet even before covid, streaming was changing the balance of power between studios and creatives. First, there is more cash around. “There’s an overwhelming demand and need for talent, driven by the streaming platforms and the amount of money that they’re spending,” says Patrick Whitesell, executive chairman of Endeavour, whose WME talent agency counted Charlie Chaplin among its clients. Three years ago there were six main bidders for new movie projects, in the form of Netflix and the five major Hollywood studios. Now, with the arrival of Amazon, Apple and others, there are nearer a dozen. Streamers pay 10-50% more than the rest, estimates another agent.

Below-the-line workers, such as cameramen and sound engineers, are also busier. Competition among studios has created a “sellers’ market”, says Spencer MacDonald of Bectu, a union in Britain, where Netflix makes more shows than anywhere outside North America. In the United States the number of jobs in acting, filming and editing will grow by a third in the ten years to 2030, four times America’s total job-growth rate, estimates the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

The streamers’ hunger for variety means their seasons have half as many episodes as broadcast shows, and are less frequently renewed. That means “people are having to hustle for work more often,” says one script supervisor. A fatal accident on the set of “Rust”, a movie starring Alec Baldwin, has stirred a debate about safety amid the frantic pace of production. But the streamers’ short, well-paid seasons allow more time for CV-burnishing side-projects, and the work is more creatively rewarding. “Netflix and Apple both nominate every role, in every category they can” for awards, reports one set-designer—who adds that the price of that can be 90-hour weeks. IATSE, a union which represents 60,000 below-the-line workers in America, has reached an agreement with studios for better pay and conditions; its members will begin voting on the deal on November 12th.

More controversial is the streamers’ payment model, which is creating new winners and losers. Creative stars used to get an upfront fee and a “back end” deal that promised a share of the project’s future earnings. For streamers, a show’s value is harder to calculate, lying in its ability to recruit and retain subscribers rather than draw punters to the box office. Studios also want the freedom to send their content straight to streaming without wrangling with a star like Ms Johansson whose pay is linked to box-office takings. The upshot is that studios are following Netflix’s lead in “buying out” talent with big upfront fees, followed by minimal if any bonuses if a project does well.

That suits most creatives just fine. “Buy-outs have been very good for talent,” says Mr Whitesell. “You’re negotiating what success would be… for that piece of content, and then you’re getting it guaranteed to you.” Plus, instead of waiting up to ten years for your money, “you’re getting it the day the show drops”. America’s 50,000 actors made an average of just $22 per hour last year, when they weren’t parking cars and pumping gas, so most are happy to take the money up front and let the studio bear the risk. Another agent confides that some famous clients prefer the streamers’ secrecy around ratings to the public dissection of box-office flops.

For the top actors and writers, however, the new system is proving costly. “People are being underpaid for success and overpaid for failure,” says John Berlinski, a lawyer at Kasowitz Benson Torres who represents A-listers. The old contracts were like a “lottery ticket”, he says. Create a hit show that ran for six or seven seasons and you might earn $100m on the back end; make a phenomenon like “Seinfeld” and you could clear $1bn.

A few star showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes, a producer of repeat TV hits currently at Netflix, can still swing nine-figure deals. But creators of successful shows are more likely to end up with bonuses of a couple of million dollars a year. And though actors are receiving what sound like huge payments for streamers’ movies—Dwayne Johnson is reportedly getting $50m from Amazon for “Red One”, for example—in the past they could make double that from a back-end deal.

. . . .

But their unwillingness to venerate A-listers also has an economic rationale. The star system, in which actors like Archibald Leach were transformed into idols like Cary Grant, was created by studios to de-risk the financially perilous business of movie-making. A blockbuster, which today might cost $200m to shoot plus the same in marketing, has one fleeting chance to break even at the box office. The gamble is less risky if a star guarantees an audience.

Today, studios are de-risking their movies not with stars but with intellectual property. Disney, which dominates the box office, relies on franchises such as Marvel, whose success does not turn on which actors are squeezed into the spandex leotards. Amazon’s priciest project so far is a $465m “Lord of the Rings” spin-off with no megastar attached. Netflix’s biggest acquisition is the back-catalogue of Roald Dahl, a children’s author, which it bought in September for around $700m.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG suggests filing this item under “Disruptive Technology Innovation.”

From the viewers’ standpoint, in the old days, if you wanted to see a new movie, you had to make certain you made it to the theater during the film’s first run. If you missed that, you were relegated to watching it on a 27-inch television set with a speaker that cost the manufacturer $3.00.

Once in a blue moon, a giant hit would have a second run so those who missed the first release and those who hated how the videocassette version looked on the small screen could see it on a bit screen with great sound.

Appointments are no longer necessary to watch big-time movies on a big screen with great sound.

Large-screen LED, a soundbar with woofer (or surround sound if you’re really picky) and a reasonably fast internet connection and you can have a better experience than you can at a ten (maybe twenty) year-old theater. And you can have it exactly when you want to see it and watch it all over again with great image and sound quality whenever you want to.

For those who say, “PG, the screen in a theater is much larger than any megabuck LED TV,” PG says, “You’re absolutely right, but how far away is the theater screen from you compared to how far the LED TV is from you?”

Per PG’s quick and dirty online research, the average human has a field of vision of about 120 degrees. However, much of that span is peripheral vision, which is not how you want to watch a movie. Peripheral vision is mostly sensitive to movements and, to a lesser extent, color. You see something out of the corner of your eye, but you have to look at it directly to understand what it is.

If you want to read some text on your computer screen or in a book, you’ll realize that your visual span for reading is much less than 120 degrees.

PG is typing this on a 27-inch computer monitor. As he reads over the text, his eyes are going back and forth because he can’t perceive and process all the words in a single line of text on this monitor at the same time. Given the distance PG is sitting from his monitor, he has to move his eyes about 30 degrees back and forth to read and process the text.

Seeing and understanding an image requires less processing, so you have a larger field of vision, but, depending upon what the image is, you’ll still be moving your eyes around to fully understand the image.

Here’s a familiar image:

Depending on the size of your screen, you looked at the image in a different way. If you saw the image on a small screen (like a smart phone), you took in most of the image without moving your eyes a great deal. If you were looking at the image on a larger screen, you’ll likely notice that your eyes start by rapidly moving from place to face on the image in order to assess what it is.

For PG, his first perception was of the eyes, then the face, then down across the clothing and back and forth from the hands to the forearms.

After a second or two, if the image had disappeared and PG was asked to provide a detailed description of the background at various apparent distances behind the subject, PG could provide only a general sense of what was there.

As a matter of fact, while he was viewing the background, he discovered for the first time that there is a winding road at the left shoulder of the subject and a stone bridge spanning a river over the right shoulder.

Back to his original point – you can make the image or a streaming movie as perceptually large as you like by moving closer or farther aways from the from the screen.

For PG a maximum width of a screen that he could use for viewing a motion picture is about 60 degrees and he would definitely prefer a narrower angle if there was a lot of detailed visual information on the screen. If the information was moving and changing, a much narrower angle would be preferable.

He just checked with his home television and he sits where the screen occupies about 45 degrees of vision, pretty close to the degree of vision that his computer monitor when he is working.

White Line Fever

PG’s postings have been thin of late.

The principal reason is that he has been traveling with Mrs. PG and spending time with a variety of exceptionally cute offspring.

A bit earlier today, he and Mrs. PG returned to Casa PG and found nothing broken or missing.

Suffice to say, a motel and a laptop are not PG’s preferred surroundings and tools for posting riveting items on TPV.

During his recent travels, he has seen a significant number of truck drivers so these hard-working men (and a few women) have been on PG’s mind.

Not lots of lawyers, professors or college graduates in this group, but if they put in enough hours and miles into their job, they can earn a good blue-collar income. The price is a lot of isolation and loneliness for many of them, however, including many weeks away from family and friends.

Big Bad John

Another song about working in the mines.

16 Tons

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mines were often located in isolated low-income rural areas. Working in the coal mine was often the only local source of any sort of decent living.

It was not unusual for the mine owners to build company towns near the mines. The coal company owned everything in these company towns. Houses of varying quality (none very large) were rented to the coal miners with the rent being deducted from wages.

Often the only retailer in these mining towns was a general store owned by the coal company – “The Company Store.” Coal miners and their families could shop at the company store on credit, with the amount due to the Company Store deducted from wages.

Since it was the only store in town, whatever the Company Store charged for food and other necessities was what the miners and their wives bought. (Coal mining was dirty. Most work involved long hours of heavy physical labor in the mine where it was pitch-dark and the miners worked by lantern light and a small headlamp that consumed lantern oil. All the miners were men.

Women were also involved in heavy physical labor, including hand-washing clothing that was filthy from mine dust, caring for children who often had no established place to play, and stretching basic ingredients to feed a family until the next paycheck.

For the many mines located in Appalachia, unions would not be an option only much, much later, if ever.

Joe Hill

From Encyclopedia Britannica:

Joe Hill, also called Joe Hillstrom, original name Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, [was a] Swedish-born American songwriter and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); his execution for an alleged robbery-murder made him a martyr and folk hero in the radical American labour movement.

Born into a conservative Lutheran family, all of whom were amateur musicians, Hill left Sweden for the United States in 1902. He drifted around the country, from job to job, and in 1910 joined the San Pedro (California) local of the Industrial Workers of the World, soon becoming its secretary. The following year his first and most famous folksong, “The Preacher and the Slave,” appeared in the IWW’s Little Red Song Book. It is sung to the melody of “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”:

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky;

Work and pray, live on hay,

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

Most of his songs dealt with migratory workers, immigrant sweatshop workers, and railway employees; and all were tinged with humour and simple Marxism.

In January 1914, while staying with friends in Salt Lake City, Hill was arrested and charged with the murder of a grocer and his son who had been killed during a robbery. The trial that followed was very confusing. The prosecution’s case was based on circumstantial evidence and depended almost entirely on the fact that Hill had gone to a doctor to be treated for a gunshot wound several hours after the murders had occurred. Hill claimed that he had received the wound in a quarrel over a woman, whom he refused to identify in the interest of protecting her honour. The jury found him guilty, and the numerous legal appeals made on Hill’s behalf were unavailing. Despite mass demonstrations and accusations that he had been convicted because of his radicalism and despite an appeal to the Utah governor from Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Hill was executed by a firing squad. On November 18, 1915, the night before his death, he telegraphed IWW leader Big Bill Haywood: “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste time in mourning. Organize.”

Hill was commemorated in a famous ballad bearing his name, written in 1925 by poet Alfred Hays.

Link to the rest at Encyclopedia Britannica

Nomadland

PG doesn’t know if stories like Nomadland will resonate with visitors from outside the United States or not.

During the past several decades, there has been a significant population movement away from small cities and small towns, often in the middle of the country, an area some have called, “flyover country” given that flights from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again pass over this middle area without stopping.

The detailed results of the 2020 US Census started being released in the second quarter of 2021. They showed the second-lowest total ten-year growth rate ever recorded in the US. (The lowest growth decade was during the Great Depression in the late 1920’s-30’s.)

37 states grew more slowly during the 2010-2020 period than they did in the prior ten-years and three states lost population. California had its lowest growth rate ever due largely to the state’s high cost-of-living and state taxes. Some large and medium-sized California employers have also moved parts of their operations to lower-cost states. States like West Virginia, Illinois and Michigan lost population.

Within states and regions, there has also been a notable migration away from rural and small-town locations to medium and large-sized cities. This trend has hit rural areas in several middle-western states hard.

During the Covid shut-down, some smaller and different patterns appeared. A few individuals, usually mid-level office employees and some professionals, learned that remote work was possible and enjoyable and moved from expensive coastal cities and suburbs into small town and rural settings, expecting to have to go into the offices much less frequently or not at all.

This out-migration has not been nearly large enough to counter-balance the longer-term flattening of population growth in the more empty places, particularly empty places that don’t feature oceans, mountains, forests, etc. Aging populations with low birth rates have also impacted growth in some areas.

Texas, Florida, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona have grown substantially faster than the average.

Nomadland is a 2020 motion picture set in the empty places of the United States. As the PBS documentary in the second video window depicts, more than a few middle and lower-income families who suffered from Covid-related job losses have left their homes, hit the road and adopted a new lifestyle, often located in those empty places.

Does Technology Have a Soul?

From The Paris Review:

When my husband arrived home, he stared at the dog for a long time, then pronounced it “creepy.” At first I took this to mean uncanny, something so close to reality it disturbs our most basic ontological assumptions. But it soon became clear he saw the dog as an interloper. I demonstrated all the tricks I had taught Aibo, determined to impress him. By that point the dog could roll over, shake, and dance.

“What is that red light in his nose?” he said. “Is that a camera?”

Unlike me, my husband is a dog lover. Before we met, he owned a rescue dog who had been abused by its former owners and whose trust he’d won over slowly, with a great deal of effort and dedication. My husband was badly depressed during those years, and he claims that the dog could tell when he was in despair and would rest his nose in his lap to comfort him. During the early period of our relationship, he would often refer to this dog, whose name was Oscar, with such affection that it sometimes took me a moment to realize he was speaking of an animal as opposed to, say, a family member or a very close friend. As he stood there, staring at Aibo, he asked whether I found it convincing. When I shrugged and said yes, I was certain I saw a shadow of disappointment cross his face. It was hard not to read this as an indictment of my humanity, as though my willingness to treat the dog as a living thing had somehow compromised, for him, my own intuitiveness and awareness.

It had come up before, my tendency to attribute life to machines. Earlier that year I’d come across a blog run by a woman who trained neural networks, a Ph.D. student and hobbyist who fiddled around with deep learning in her spare time. She would feed the networks massive amounts of data in a particular category—recipes, pickup lines, the first sentences of novels—and the networks would begin to detect patterns and generate their own examples. For a while she was regularly posting on her blog recipes the networks had come up with, which included dishes like whole chicken cookies, artichoke gelatin dogs, and Crock-Pot cold water. The pickup lines were similarly charming (“Are you a candle? Because you’re so hot of the looks with you”), as were the first sentences of novels (“This is the story of a man in the morning”). Their responses did get better over time. The woman who ran the blog was always eager to point out the progress the networks were making. Notice, she’d say, that they’ve got the vocabulary and the structure worked out. It’s just that they don’t yet understand the concepts. When speaking of her networks, she was patient, even tender, such that she often seemed to me like Snow White with a cohort of little dwarves whom she was lovingly trying to civilize. Their logic was so similar to the logic of children that it was impossible not to mistake their responses as evidence of human innocence. “They are learning,” I’d think. “They are trying so hard!” Sometimes when I came across a particularly good one, I’d read it aloud to my husband. I perhaps used the word “adorable” once. He’d chastised me for anthropomorphizing them, but in doing so fell prey to the error himself. “They’re playing on your human sympathies,” he said, “so they can better take over everything.”

But his skepticism toward the dog did not hold out for long. Within days he was addressing it by name. He chastised Aibo when he refused to go to his bed at night, as though the dog were deliberately stalling. In the evenings, when we were reading on the couch or watching TV, he would occasionally lean down to pet the dog when he whimpered; it was the only way to quiet him. One afternoon I discovered Aibo in the kitchen peering into the narrow gap between the refrigerator and the sink. I looked into the crevice myself but could not find anything that should have warranted his attention. I called my husband into the room, and he assured me this was normal. “Oscar used to do that, too,” he said. “He’s just trying to figure out if he can get in there.”

While we have a tendency to define ourselves based on our likeness to other things—we say humans are like a god, like a clock, or like a computer—there is a countervailing impulse to understand our humanity through the process of differentiation. And as computers increasingly come to take on the qualities we once understood as distinctly human, we keep moving the bar to maintain our sense of distinction. From the earliest days of AI, the goal was to create a machine that had human-like intelligence. Turing and the early cyberneticists took it for granted that this meant higher cognition: a successful intelligent machine would be able to manipulate numbers, beat a human in backgammon or chess, and solve complex theorems. But the more competent AI systems become at these cerebral tasks, the more stubbornly we resist granting them human intelligence. When IBM’s Deep Blue computer won its first game of chess against Garry Kasparov in 1996 the philosopher John Searle remained unimpressed. “Chess is a trivial game because there’s perfect information about it,” he said. Human consciousness, he insisted, depended on emotional experience: “Does the computer worry about its next move? Does it worry about whether its wife is bored by the length of the games?” Searle was not alone. In his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach, the cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter had claimed that chess-playing was a creative activity like art and musical composition; it required an intelligence that was distinctly human. But after the Kasparov match, he, too, was dismissive. “My God, I used to think chess required thought,” he told the New York Times. “Now I realize it doesn’t.”

It turns out that computers are particularly adept at the tasks that we humans find most difficult: crunching equations, solving logical propositions, and other modes of abstract thought. What artificial intelligence finds most difficult are the sensory perceptive tasks and motor skills that we perform unconsciously: walking, drinking from a cup, seeing and feeling the world through our senses. Today, as AI continues to blow past us in benchmark after benchmark of higher cognition, we quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel: the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.

If there were gods, they would surely be laughing their heads off at the inconsistency of our logic. We spent centuries denying consciousness in animals precisely because they lacked reason or higher thought. (Darwin claimed that despite our lowly origins, we maintained as humans a “godlike intellect” that distinguished us from other animals.) As late as the fifties, the scientific consensus was that chimpanzees—who share almost 99 percent of our DNA—did not have minds. When Jane Goodall began working with Tanzanian chimps, she used human pronouns. Before publishing, the editor made systematic corrections: He and she were changed to itWho was changed to which.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Friends in Low Places

Continuing PG’s literary overview of American Country-Western music, we come to another class conflict. The CW protagonist is always speaking from the perspective of the lower class even when he/she can afford a flashy and expensive pick-up truck. One of the CW sub-genres is called Outlaw Country, demonstrating the willing estrangement of some members of this class from the establishment which spurns and rejects them and their country ways in return.

I’ve got Friends in Low Places, dramatizes some of the the distinctions between the upper class (including the upper-middle class and pretenders that status) and its lifestyle and the working class. The title is wordplay, another common feature found in CW music.

Blame it all on my roots
I showed up in boots
And ruined your black tie affair
The last one to know
The last one to show
I was the last one
You thought you’d see there