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Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Economist Gets Crunch?


In An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen displays considerable cred as both an economist and a foodie.  But it’s his economist’s take on our passion for eating out that makes Lunch special.  Read the book: you’ll view  upscale eateries, ethnic restaurants in strip malls, street food carts, and everything in between in a whole new light—thanks to your new lens on  producers costs and incentives.

Another useful topic is restaurants’ cross-subsidization of low-margin offerings with higher-margin offerings (like keeping the prices of entrees down by overcharging on drinks). That leads to a discussion of how local cinema operators make up for scant margins on tickets with higher-margin receipts from the refreshment counter. (Overall, about ½ of ticket receipts and sometimes up to 90% go back to the movie makers during a film’s typical opening weekend, writes the author.)

In their mission to refresh, cinemas cast popcorn in a stellar role.  Raw materials are inexpensive; popping is a snap—via production that the cinemas control. Movie operators also enjoy flexibility in pricing and have been known to stimulate demand through a witches brew of fat, salt, and oils.

No crunch at the cinema (click to enlarge)
Popcorn Is Quiet. But I can no longer remain silent: popcorn  becomes cinema’s ├╝ber-snack only when you add its sonic properties to the mix. It is a snack without crunch. That’s high-functioning design, given the near intimate distance between patrons in a crowded theatre. So don’t expect to score chips and unshelled peanuts at your local cinema’s refreshment counter (you might find nachos, but they’ll be hot and flaccid.) After cinemas introduced popcorn in the early 1930s, the high-margin snack helped keep them afloat during the Great Depression, notes Cowen and his alpha source, Popped Culture. But a sotto voce snack was at a premium for another reason: beginning with talkies in the late 1920s, you ingested dialog with your ears, not your eyes.

No need to get up: it's in the frigid-chair.
A Gateway Snack. With popcorn leading the way, snacking in the cinema has excelled as a role model for subsequent mindless eating wherever Americans watch TV. Perhaps Mr. Cowen’s next econ text will highlight TV dinners and TV trays as complementary goods?  “TV,” laments Brian Wansink in his cautionary Mindless Eating, “is a triple threat."
Aside from leading you to eat, it leads you not to pay attention to how much you eat, and it leads you to eat for too long. It’s a scripted conditioned ritual—we turn on the TV, we sit down in our favorite spot, we salivate, and we go get a snack. Eating or drinking gives us something to do with our hands, and it occupies us while we focus on the plot of our television show and on the questions that it raises: “What else is on?” “Have I seen this one before?” “Did the Flintstones really happen?” (103)
Mindless eating in front of the TV and silver screen has inspired descriptors of “trance eating” and “negative multitasking.” What could be timelier than the latter, given our market-driven cult of fractionating our attention span via multiple devices and activities. So what else are you reaching for as this excursion pulls into the station?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Abigail Washburn: World Music "Rock Star"

My fellow Americans, you just might have missed it: banjo virtuoso Abigail Washburn has become a roots/world music rock star on the British music scene. With added persuasion from her outstanding touring band, her latest album, City of Refuge, released in January of 2011, was a top-ten critics pick of the year in fROOTS and Songlines, Britain’s leading roots/world music magazines. In May of 2011, Washburn graced the cover of fROOTS and last week she was one of four finalists in Songlines’ artist of the year award.
In the U.S., Refuge has gotten strong reviews but less than the UK’s royal treatment. It wasn’t among the Times annual picks or on the many best-of annual lists on NPR’s audacious music web site. It did turn up as number 27 in the No Depression community’s top releases of the year.

Why the Anglo-American disconnect? Do Brits and other Europeans, given their location and enduring cultural connections with their former colonies, embrace a broader palette of multicultural musical influences? Abigail Washburn’s current work certainly fits that eclectic bill. It’s an uncommon hybrid of indie pop, Chinese and other East Asian influences (Washburn has lived in China and speaks Mandarin), and of course, American roots music.

Click to Enlarge
There are many moving parts in this broader discussion: Does the United States still embrace vestiges of musical and cultural isolationism? Our internal cultural diversity, of course, is second to none. (although we do melt much of it down via American pop music)  Do our exceptional domestic musical assets distract us from overseas influences?
Some of our top artists, of course—Ry Cooder, YoYo Ma, and Washburn’s husband, Bela Fleck--have been passionate in creating hybrid music that reaches beyond our shores. And college campuses and other venues periodically host leading lights on the international scene. Still, when did you last  listen to Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Titi Robin, Kala Ramnath, or Bassekou Kouyate? --all world music artists of the highest order.

When I spoke with Washburn’s symbiotic musical collaborator Kai Welch  after an October 2010 concert by the band at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, he agreed that the group's music would have been impossible two generations ago. How the world has contracted!  Back then, (my own salad years in the late 1960s), America’s idea of world music (the term, of course, hadn’t been coined) entailed Latin Jazz, jazz meets bossa nova, Olatunji, Makeba and Masakela, and, of course, George Harrison sitar riffs.

Co-conspirators Washburn and Welch

Through his songwriting and indie sensibilities, Welch—a gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist--has nudged Washburn toward greater emotional resonance.  (Her previous cd, the Sparrow Quartet, with a violin, cello, and two banjos, was no less multicultural, but many considered it too cerebral.)
Like  Sparrow, Refuge offers beautifully nuanced arrangements and ensemble playing, but it’s far more grounded, more emotionally immediate. And when you hear the group live (as in the clip below), you’ll appreciate its improvisational prowess as well. That clip is from a video accompaniment to Bob Boilin’s show on NPR. Prepare for musicianship that is disciplined yet adventurous in support of genre-transcending music. So forgive me for the earlier label of world music rock star!