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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   October 31, 2014
Photo by PetsAdviser.com

• Americans are spending $5 billion on disposable costumes and candy this week, $350 million of which will go towards buying pet costumes, reports Kyle Chayka in his piece on the Halloween-Industrial Complex.

• Historians describe grass, leaves, bark, clay, and dirt as “famine foods” that European peasants once had to subsist on, which they “typically consumed in the form of cake, paste, soup or ashes.” Now, however you can find the same ingredients in the world’s most expensive and exclusive restaurants, writes Pierre Desrochers. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

• “Scabby the Rat,” the giant rat balloon that accompanies many labor protests, is protected speech.

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The Zombie Movie Without Zombies

A.M. Gittlitz   October 30, 2014
A woman ina gas mask and furs during WWII. / Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria Collections.

As unlikely as a “zombie apocalypse” remains, earnest discussion of how to prepare for such an event is a long-standing cultural standby. Amid a bloom of supernatural-orientated dramas culled from comics and B-Movies of the 50s, the zombie genre stands out as the most socially introspective. It raises the question of how to survive once society breaks down—a question that feels increasingly relevant. But the genre lets us approach the question sideways: it gives us enemies so slow and brain-dead that we can broach the subject playfully.

The reasons for the genre’s appeal are obvious. We can imagine its heroes blasting away hundreds of commoners approaching our castle without being bothered by the implications of class. Its villains are clear and uncomplicated, and the goal of the good guys is always to immunize themselves so as to remain human, while anchoring themselves to the sinking ship of civilization.

A new film, though, removes the comforting presence of that good-and-evil dichotomy. State of Emergence is a zombie movie without zombies. It’s the latest film by the Anti-Banality Union, an anonymous collective that re-edits genre blockbusters as a means of mocking their clichés and composing their own radical theses in the process. The result of this experiment is unsettling above and beyond their source material, and it cuts to the core of our angst over today’s emerging and intermingling global crises. (Watch the film’s trailer here.)

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Staying Sane with Rocks In My Pockets

Emma Rosenberg   October 30, 2014
A film still from the animated filmRocks In My Pockets

In the feature-length animated film Rocks In My Pockets, the macabre and the whimsical collide when Latvian-born filmmaker Signe Baumane tries to track the history of her psychological turmoil, and that of five other women in her family. “In this crazy world, how do you stay sane?” she asks. “Can I escape my own destiny?”

Her story begins with Baumane’s grandmother, who, at twenty years old, left a desk job to live a peasant’s life with her former boss in remote Latvia. She filled her years with the scut work of birthing and breast-feeding eight children. Her neighbor found her in a shallow river, fully clothed, trying to end her own life like the Virginia Woolf did. But she lacked the rocks in her pocket that would allow her to complete the act.

Much like cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, Baumane turns her gaze toward her family in order to make sense of her own life. She examines her genetic patrimony in unconventional ways, churning out bursts of quick revelation and half-baked associations. “I look at my fecal matter” she says, searching for the answer to the cause of her grandmother’s death in the toilet. Baumane perfectly captures the rhythms of her family’s reaction to their shared legacy—a predictable hemiola of secrecy, denial, and get-over-it grit.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   October 30, 2014
Marco Rubio caricature by DonkeyHotey

• Great Idea of the Day: Marco Rubio is stumping and traveling with a professional photographer, and when supporters or bystanders get their pictures taken with him, they’re handed a card that tells them where to go online to download their pictures. When they go online to get them, they must enter their names, addresses, and emails. This happens to be a perfect way “to collect information on voters and add them to Rubio’s PAC list: information that will be especially useful down the road should Rubio run for president in 2016,” reports Kate Nocera in Buzzfeed.

• An Oxfam report reveals that “the number of billionaires in the world has more than doubled since the financial crisis began.”

•“Businesses that ask creative professionals to work in exchange for “exposure” should be publicly named and shamed,” writes Ted Gioia in The Daily Beast, and he names and shames some, like the Ritz-Carlton, the NFL, the Smithsonian Institution, Showtime, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Library of Congress, and Google. (Via Helaine Olen.)

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Musk on Mars: Silicon Valley Disrupts the Universe

Kyle Chayka   October 29, 2014
New toy! / Photo by Pascal

It only took the mega-entrepreneur and fume-drunk Delphic Oracle of innovation Elon Musk six years to win the favor of the federal government and use it to get into space. The turnaround is so fast one wonders if he didn’t just call an Uber.

Musk’s galactic start-up SpaceX launched in 2002 with the stated aim of colonizing Mars, a locale which as yet lacks a stable source of oxygen, let alone a formalized innovation district. Quartz reports that in 2006, thanks to a loophole in the government agency’s founding document, NASA invested in the start-up, gambling on its ability to undercut other providers of space flights through the magic of Silicon Valley-style vertical integration. In 2008 the company had its first satellite flight, for the Malaysian government. That year, NASA awarded the company $1.6 billion in flights to the International Space Station by 2016.

Mars is still a ways off. But Musk and SpaceX are leading a larger trend in which the government is moving the onus of managing its most experimental projects to privatized Silicon Valley-style start-ups and their founders’ foundations. Government agencies are bureaucratic, and by nature slow to act; they test and re-evaluate everything, every step of the way. Start-ups are the opposite—remember Facebook’s legendary motto of “move fast and break things”? We just have to hope Musk and company don’t break anything too important. This week brought another reminder of how dangerous a game this is.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   October 29, 2014
Not pictured: sex toy or cuff links. / Photo by Harrisroberts

• Business Insider reports on a new sex toy that is apparently “exclusively for bankers.” No, we don’t know what that means, either, but it apparently comes with silver cufflinks and a money clip. Probably a prank. We approve.

• San Francisco mayor Ed Lee has signed a re-zoning bill that essentially legalizes Airbnb there, and San Franciscans are mourning the imminent death of many of the city’s neighborhoods.

• “Labor brokers providing Indian high-tech workers to American companies have hijacked a professional visa program, creating an underground system of financial bondage by stealing wages and benefits, even suing workers who quit,” according to a huge new report from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Guardian. (Via Helen DeWitt.)

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The “Status Bag” Bubble Won’t Pop

Abigail Sindzinski   October 28, 2014
The coveted "Birkin" bag by Hermès / Photo by Bernard Goldbach

Recently, the luxury fashion retail site Net-a-Porter sold out of a thousand $200 Karl Lagerfeld Barbie dolls in a single day. Founded in 2000, the site has since expanded to an accompanying magazine, a less expensive (but-still expensive) kid sister site called The Outnet, and now has an estimated value that might make Richie Rich’s parents salivate. On holiday weekend mornings I’ve watched as Net-a-Porter has sold through swaths of bags, dresses, shoes, and coats—all valued at anywhere between, say, a grand or seven—well before noon.

The persistent cultural obsession with the luxury item, perhaps especially the purse, continues to amaze. In today’s economy, the surest way to prove how unphased you are by our collective post-recession world is to wear a signifier of your wealth on your arm (appropriately, the signifier that you also use to carry your wealth). Even now, Elle, a magazine for working women, will still run a piece about the merits of spending thousands for that “status bag”—or even several of them. And the purveyors of these goods certainly aren’t suffering. Forbes recently thought to celebrate the CEO of the luxury house, Hérmes, whose family-held company’s assets outweigh “the Rockefellers, the Mellons and the Fords. Combined.”

The reasons that the institution of the status bag persists are self-evident. In defiance of the economy’s recent ups and downs, the luxury market has enjoyed continued success, and its items continue to influence our tastes. Meanwhile, lower-level brands now compete by offering less expensive, but still quite expensive, alternatives to the famous bags. Though trends seem to suggest a hint of remove—sometimes olfactory in nature—from fancier bags, the social pressure to wear the best remains.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   October 28, 2014
Buzzfeed's Jonah Peretti speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt last year.

• A professor at the University of Southern California is starting an academic journal called BuzzAdemia, for “Buzzfeed-style scholarship” (listicles written by academics) to be published on sites like Buzzfeed, Gawker, and Reddit. “Scholarly merit will be judged in part on retweets and Facebook likes,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. “After all, as the BuzzAdemia manifesto says, ‘The RT is the purest form of peer-review.’”

• In other news, from Matt Yglesias and Vox comes the #counterintuitive #take that “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers,” which, no.

• Or, you know, maybe we’re just “blinded by nostalgia,” which this First Look essay explains is a fairly common American flaw. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.) Meanwhile, David Dunning in Pacific Standard explains why “we are all confident idiots.”

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