Monthly Archives: February 2011

What Would You Do?

Defaulting Or Hyperinflating

About a month ago, Kenichi Ohmae of Japan put out this column here (it’s in Japanese, unfortunately) pointing out that there are only 2 real options for Japan if it can’t fix its budget deficit. Since then of course the credit rating for Japan has been downgraded, and this year’s budget is headed for more of the same as previous years which is only going to make things worse.

The more recent column by Kenichi Ohmae (again, it’s only in Japanese), goes through just how screwed the Japanese budget is, given that more than half of the budget is going to be funded from bonds. In a sense, if the budget is about 5-6times the actual income of the government. The debt is AUD$7.077 trillion, while the annual government expenditure is looking about AUD$1.774 Trillion. More than half of that latter figure is going to be funded from bonds – which will dutifully be bought by the Japanese.

The point Ohmae makes in his recent column is that the Consumption Tax necessarily has to be raised from 5% to about 30%, and even then the government barely has a shot at paying the interest on the bonds. It has to cut expenditure by half (!) to be able to pay off the principle; all the while trying to look after its welfare obligations. As it stands, the Democrats in Japan under Naoto Kan don’t seem to have a chance of raising the Consumption Tax to 10% which is not even close to being enough; and there are no real cuts being mooted, which in turn means Japan won’t be able to meet its debt payments, leading to a default.

The other option is of course to print money and hyperinflate away the debt, which is another way of the government to seize hold of the savings of everybody to pay off its debts. Either way there’s going to be a furor, but judging from the headlines in Japan, it’s hard to see anybody being able to make any decision that won’t lead to a default or hyperinflating away the debt. The ramifications of this for the world are going to be really interesting to say the least.

It’s a sad state of affairs that the opposition Liberal Democrats who presided over the economy for 60 years with the bureaucrats of the Treasury created the problem, so it’s strictly not just about the Democratic Party that is being questioned. Ohmae is essentially demanding an apologia in the face of the final judgment of the marketplace, but really, how worried are people in Japan? Ohmae thinks that everybody is so used to talk of the crisis without feeling its impact, they’ve become inured to it, which is not a good thing.

Yet, if Japan defaulted and did what the Argentinian Government did and paid 30cents in the dollar, there would be riots to rival Tunisia, Egypt and Lybya. Which leaves hyperinflation as the more probable option. Ohmae observes that the idea there would be to write down debts by destroying the value of the debt, taking with it everybody’s financial assets. The nation is essentially commandeering everybody’s savings in Government Bonds. it’s an ugly business. It would only be then that the people would realise that it would have been better to have paid the extra tax so the government could pay off the debts, but it would be way too late by then.

Talk about the devil and the deep blue sea.

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Blast From The Past – 27/02/2011

The Beatles 2009 Remaster Box Set

I go in and out of phases where I can listen to the Beatles and not. It’s a whole lot different when you grow up listening to the Beatles looking up to them and to being older than the Beatles when they wrote the songs. One’s own transition into middle age makes it harder to stay attached to the Fab Four especially when you end up with other bands that mean more to you in so many other ways. The being said, any opportunity that gives you a reason to go back and have a close listen has got to be welcomed.

For years the 1987 set of remasters has bee the standard that is readily available as a bench mark. Prior to that, you’d have to go back to the LP releases, and scour trans Atlantic catalogues to fill out the missing tracks that appeared as singles, which got collected in the ‘Past Masters’ double CD set. The 1987 set was interesting in that George Martin had turned his hand at re-mixing some of the material to bring it up to date to late 1980s tastes which in hindsight have turned out to be rather a particular kind of use of digital. It was also ever so possibly hampered by the relative lack of tools to polish things up in a way that modern digital audio workstations can do. In any case the reputation of the 1987 set has been sinking for years, with some fans demanding yet another re-master.

I have to admit I’ve been sceptical of these demands because if it meant they were mastering to late 2000s standards, we were likely to see a highly compressed set with limiters being pushed hard to squeeze out ever more volume. My view had been, if the 1987 doesn’t seem quite loud enough for you, then all you really had to do was turn up your system. In other words, my suspicion had been that the crowd demanding a re-master were wanting the Beatles to be brought up to date in a way that doesn’t help the musicality of the recordings at all.

‘Let It Be – Naked’ didn’t exactly make me feel like I needed to hear anew the Beatles from the beginning to the bitter end. While it was nice to hear the stark arrangement for historicity’s sake, there was something really un-inviting about that album – A bit like revisiting the hotel where you once had a dirty weekend. It might have been a great experience once but what the hell is it to you today? Do we really need to relive Beatlemania once more? The Beatles get better in every fan’s living memory each year, but it’s only natural that the recordings become more outdated with time. The gap that ensues is actually our growth as listeners. I felt it’s something we should be resigned with. “You want all this with more slam on the limier?”  I thought.

Fortunately the people who undertook the 2009 remastering were a lot more sensible than to take the whole lot and slam limiters on them all to make them all louder. The albums that have benefited the most are in fat the middle period albums from ‘Revolver’ through to ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ where all previous versions have sounded murky. I used to put a lot of that murk down to the fact that the Beatles pre-mixed parts of their arrangement to get down to 4 tracks and 8 tracks, and the murkiness was a result of the loss of fidelity and build up of tape noise. The 1987 remaster of ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is particularly murky through the slow numbers and the reverbs all seem to wash the beat obscure. ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ has always been a mystery tour through some hazy sounding recordings including the masterpiece, ‘I Am The Walrus’.

The good news is that it is these albums that have scrubbed up incredibly well. Suddenly you can hear the nuance of various percussion instruments and sudden surges of effects much better. The texture on the sitar in ‘Within You Without You’ cuts through the mix in a way that adds so much more definition to the song. It’s funny because I remember being quite happy listening to these albums on a standard D-90 cassette recording with tape hiss through some cruddy walkman, so it behooves me to be writing about sound quality in some ways, but it’s nice to find a new tangible benefit in listening to this new set.

There seems to be much discussion about the frequency response across the board and what is natural and what is not, but to my ears the biggest difference is just how much you can hear the guitars and bass guitar clearly. Whole passages come alive with the immediacy of their playing their main instruments. While the mix hasn’t changed, the overdubbed instruments have been placed further back in the sound, which is a great improvement. It’s nice to hear the detail in John’s strumming, the snap of Ringo’s drum heads, George’s picking on his Gibson SG, and the body on Paul’s Rickenbacker 4001 bass. Especially when I don’t feel I need to hear so much of the damn trumpet or the cellos. In other words, it brings you so much closer to the Beatles as players, and that has got to be a big bonus with this set.

And you know what? It’s so unmistakably, definitely, ‘Cranberry Sauce’, and not ‘I buried Paul’.

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Difficulty Of Gaining Perspective

Nothing So Worthless As An Uninformed Opinion

I’m being cruel, but I have to let loose with this one.

I recently procured for myself the boxed set of the 2009 Beatles Re-Masters (the one in stereo, not the hard-core Mono set) and had it sitting on my shelf for a good 2 months without even taking the plastic wrappers off each album inside the box. I figured I already had the 1987 boxed set which is bad enough, and it wasn’t going to surprise me in any way shape or form, so what was the rush?

Today, I finally decided to open them up and at least encode AAC files for the iPod, which meant I had to hunt up some artwork because believe it or not, “Get Album Artwork” got me sweet F.A. which meant I had to go to Amazon to pull off the album art (as you do). But that’s not the bit that’s ‘worthless’, no no, – that’s actually the cute ironic bit.

The bit I’m going to have a cruel laugh about are the 1 star reviews the Beatles are getting on Amazon. Some of this stuff is side-splittingly hilarious in what it reveals about the writers, more than the Beatles. After all, what possibly more can be written about the Beatles that could add to the weight of their cultural significance, and our collective understanding? But these people not only try, they’re trying to push back the tide of historic and world opinion. It’s brave, funny and idiotic.

Take this one from ‘Beatles For Sale’:

1: No Reply: a depressing song about a cheating girlfriend. Its songs like this and Run For Yr Life that make Lennon to be the hypocrite that he is. In his songs he bitches about cheating, and yet he destroys his family with an adulterous affair with Yoko Ono. He obviously knew neither Jesus Christ or cared about his family. In ways, he disgusts me. And yet, this is not the love of God. Adultery is a bitter subject for me, and I cannot be real objective. But I try. And I listen.

I cracked up laughing. I mean, what is one to make of this? clearly the guy is struggling with balancing his faith with his love of the Beatles, but this is pretty silly stuff. Then Amazon asks, “was this review helpful to you?”

No.It wasn’t, but it amused me for 15 seconds. Heck, I’m still laughing. Yes it’s freakin’ hilarious. Here’s another from the 1 star reviews for ‘A Hard Day’s Night’:

The preformance quality on these songs isn’t good. The Beatles sound like they did this disc just to take commercial advantage of the movie. They don’t sound energetic on more than half of the tracks, and most of the songs have no meaning and are pointless.
Most are two minute half-effort run throughs that make the listener bored. If the group were to record this album with the same songs even two years later,it would’ve been better but they sound like a fish out of water.
I think their songwriting wasn’t completly developed at that time, notice they did cover tracks on the next album, also notice how much more sincere that one sounds. If this was the band’s only or first album they would’ve never made it. They sound like the Monkees here! This is terrible, I’m sorry you guys can’t stand me criticizing a Beatle’s album, but this is the worst (trust me, I have all of their albums).
Poor playing, manufactured sound, bad album.

You shake your head in laughter at reviews like that. This is some person’s conception of an early album by the Beatles with absolutely zero awareness of the era in which it was recorded; worse still, they’re expounding on some faulty notion of historicity and musicality as if they’re going to convince the world that ‘A Hard Days Night’ isn’t an important piece of recorded history.

Here’s another equally outlandish minority opinion:

this album let alone the stupidity of beatle lovers is outragous. this isn’t that great and NEITHER was the POP group you losers like so much. in case you don’t know THERE WERE OTHER ACTUALLY BANDS IN THE 60’S not strictly these losers as the media impleays. the media what do they know NOTHING they know NOTHING about or between a REAL ROCK band or the diferrence between a POP group and A ROCK GROUP. the beatles a “rock” group AS IF. they were BEARLY in the studio and whenever they played live you know right away that they are ALL studio. the beatles were NEVER a rock band just A TEEN IDOL POP GROUP WITH BORING SONGS THAT ALL SOUNDED THE SAME.

I cracked up. Who does this person think is going to be convinced by this rant? But hey, they took the time to type it into Amazon, and Amazon asks…

I know I always put the boot into bad reviews and bad reviewers of films, but I have to confess I’ve been misguided. There’s much worse out there. The general public let loose upon the virtual soapbox is an even worse promulgator of uninformed idiotic opinion. There’s a book out there that says the web is making us dumber. It’s not true. Judging from these reviews, there are plenty enough dumb people, it’s just that they’re all getting a say, and if you’re bored like me, you’ll probably come across it and get to read it. The funny thing is, some of the people handing out 5 stars are just as gob-smacked stupid.

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Australian Content

No Explaining This One Away

Baz Luhrmann’s going to bring his Great Gatsby production to Sydney. Strikes me that he’s missed the point already, but be that as it may he’s bringing it down under, and he’s going to qualify for the 40% producer’s off-set. Predictably, this has set off a bit of a row.

The Warner Bros-backed film is believed to be eligible for a producer offset allowing filmmakers to claim back 40 per cent of qualifying expenditure from the Tax Office. Neither Luhrmann nor Screen Australia would confirm the film had the offset, which would mean Warner Bros would get a $120 million movie for less than $80 million.

Australian producers say they are not angry about Gatsby; they are angry that other films that met similar criteria had been rejected.

There have been claims of inconsistent decisions by Screen Australia on television projects, and several companies have or are planning to appeal.

Beyond International’s fifth series of the documentary Taboo, about faith healing, was produced and filmed in Australia and employed Australian producers, directors and writers, with most of budget spent here, said its chief executive, Mikael Borglund. But it failed to get the offset, partly because it had little Australian content. An appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal failed.

Mr Borglund said that made no sense in light of the other Beyond projects that had received the offset.

”We just think that the same assessment tests and criteria should be applied by Screen Australia to our projects as those films that are produced with Warner Bros, Universal or Fox,” he said. ”With Gatsby, it is set in New York in the 1920s. So how could you argue it has significant Australian content?”

Indeed-a-mundo. Pray tell, right?

Anyway, the same article goes on to report Screen Australia’s response as:

Some applications might be rejected because they are more suited to the 15 per cent location offset, said Screen Australia’s chief operating officer, Fiona Cameron. ”Our role is to differentiate between the location offset and the producer offset.”

Which is a total non-sequitur response to the question at hand: how can Screen Australia reject other Australian productions, only to hand out the welcome mat and the 40% off-set to a Warner Brothers picture just because it’s Baz Luhrmann’s production? And the answer is of course, it can’t explain how that happened – hence the very strange, borderline idiotic non-sequitur.

I dunno. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes and knows it, and still just doesn’t give a shit. I was talking to some people just today, and came up with the metaphor that the Australian arts industries as a whole is a flee on the back of a dog, riding a ute called the mining industry. That’s us.

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$1 Computer, $3 Game

All Fucked Up On The Eastern Front

Some time ago, I inherited a 17″ laptop PC from a company that went under, for $1. It’s a little old now, and it’s missing its battery so it needs the power point all the time, but it works just fine. In its heyday when it was new it was a $5k machine, but depreciation and writing it down and neglect brought the price down to $1 when I bought it off the dying firm.

Since then I’ve been putting on some old PC games for kicks. Some of them run, some of them don’t. It’s a shame that I can’t run ‘Baldur’s Gate’ 1&2 on it, but I did manage to pick up a copy of  a game called ‘Commander’ for $2.97 at Dick Smith last week. It’s been a while since I’ve played a strategy game set in Europe, where you fight hard on the Eastern Front. So for less than a McValue meal, I’ve been having much fun with this game for a few days now.

The game dumps you in on the German side in 1939, so you’re committed to marching into Paris and then doing your own Barbarossa, but once you’re underway, the Eastern Front turns into a very nasty mess very quickly. Quite frankly, the Western Front is nothing like the bloodbath that takes place in the East, which to some extent is a reasonably accurate reflection of what really happened. I certainly haven’t made it close to Stalingrad, but the equivalent stalemate blood-bowl bone-grinders are taking shape.

Once out East, the aim of the game ends up as trying to wipe out as many Russian units comprehensively at a faster rate than they can create units. The rate of attrition is quite horrendous. One imagines this was precisely the kind of nightmare scenario the generals on both sides faced. I know we in the anglophone world are much more familiar with D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and all that, but what took place out East was probably 3-5 times more ferocious than anything the western allies faced. For the price of a sandwich, I guess I’ve been given yet another history lesson.

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The World Wide Cinema

Hollywood’s Stake In It

Here’s The Economists’ take on the globalisation of distribution as seen from a Hollywood perspective.

The success of a film outside America is not purely a marketing matter. As foreign box-office sales have become more important, the people who manage international distribution have become more influential, weighing in on “green-light” decisions about which films are made. The studios are careful to seed films with actors, locations and, occasionally, languages that are well-known in target countries. Sony cites the foreign success of “The Green Hornet” (Taiwanese hero, Austrian-German villain) and “Resident Evil: Afterlife” (Japanese location) as evidence of that strategy.

Big noisy spectacle travels best. Jason Statham, the close-cropped star of many a mindlessly violent film, is a particular Russian favourite. Films based on well-known literature (including cartoon books) and myths may also fare well. Films that trade on contemporary American cultural references are about as popular abroad as an oil slick on a NASCAR track. (Note to our non-American readers: NASCAR is an American sport involving fast cars.) Comedy travels badly, too: Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler provoke guffaws at home but incomprehension abroad. As the market swings away from America, funny films are less likely to find financing or broad distribution anywhere. “You won’t see us doing a lot of comedies,” says Brad Grey, head of Paramount Pictures.

The growing internationalisation of the film business suits the biggest outfits, and not just because they can afford explosions. The major studios’ power lies not so much in their ability to make good films—plenty of smaller operations can do that—but in their ability to wring every possible drop of revenue from a film. With their superior global marketing machines and their ability to anticipate foreign tastes, they are increasingly dominating the market. For everyone else, there is a chance to win a gold statue.

World cinema is the catchphrase for films not dominated by Hollywood structure, or made outside of Hollywood structures, but that may well change as Hollywood’s reach goes even more global. If they start buying up distribution channels in non-English speaking countries, it’s going to impact on those local cinemas much more than in the past. After all, they’re competing for every disposable dollar going towards the screen, around the world.

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Check This Out

…And make up your own mind. They don’t really come at anything structural. They just talk about what worked for them.

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