Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle)

So close, and yet so far. Faint whiffs of greatness, only to be smothered by the rancid stench of screenwriting methane. I always know I'm in trouble when the reviews say it's a "feel-good movie." What that really means is "vapid wish-fulfillment movie." This one had some serious potential though. For at least the first hour, I was totally feeling it. First of all, as with City Of God, it was great to see a film about a part of the world which is extremely populated but which I know nothing about. Then I began getting that sinking sensation. You know, when you start to realize that a movie bringing up all these deep, primal emotions really has no interest in saying anything insightful about them? As soon as the credits rolled I said to myself, "Oops."

I also lowered my expectations when I found out the director was Danny Boyle. Boyle seems to me like one of those directors who must have had a really different childhood than I did. Whatever he wants out of cinema, it's not what I want. Trainspotting was entertaining because it was about people doing drugs and the soundtrack was great, but this is probably the fourth time I've thought about it since I saw it. Millions, like Slumdog Millionaire, was another silly movie about kids acquiring money through pure luck. I'm sorry, but that's just not a situation very many people find themselves in. If you had the freedom to pick whatever stories you wanted to film, what would compel you to pick stories like those? The guy definitely has the visual side of film making down, but the plots need some work. With Slumdog Millionaire, I kept wanting to reach in there and just give it a little...twist...just in a couple of places...hold still, this won't hurt a bit...but no. Everyone else in the theater seemed to be loving it though. Oh, how they were loving it. Personally, I couldn't wait to get home so I could go put on Midnight Cowboy.

(Slight spoiler warning):

I want to see Slumdog Millionaire 2, where the kid is forced by the Indian government to give up 70% of his winnings to taxes and an endless sea of sleazy stalkers constantly break into his house and he and the hot Indian girlfriend bicker about the phone bills and the laundry and it all just turns to shit.

"Film critic" rating: ***1/2
"Little Earl" rating: *1/2

Saturday, March 28, 2009

World's Least Practical Species?

According to the Associated Press, "Two rare and endangered clouded leopard cubs" were born in Virginia Tuesday, "the first such births there in 16 years. Zoo officials say breeding the animals is a challenge because when a pair are put together to mate, the male often kills the female. Mothers also often accidentally or intentionally kill their cubs." Ummm...is this a species that was ever really going to make it? I'll say one thing: zoologists sure love a good challenge.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why I Hated the 2008 Game of the Year

Last year a small title made it's way onto the Xbox Live marketplace. This small indie game named 'Braid' was developed by Jonathan Blow, a new pioneer in the games-as-art movement. The story behind the making of Braid is a tale all it's own. Blow worked on the game for three years by himself and funded the entire project with his own money. Jonathan Blow is of the new school of game design. From Wikipedia:

In a speech at the Free Play conference in Australia in September 2007, Blow suggested games were approaching the level of societal influence of other forms of art, such as films and novels. One example that Blow cites is World of Warcraft, which he labels "unethical", stating that such games exploit players by using a simple reward-for-suffering scheme to keep them in front of their computer. In his view, developers need to think about what reinforcement the games are providing players when they reward them for performing certain actions. He emphasized that there was a need for developers to design inspiring new games using "innovative, ethical and personal art.
When Braid was released last year it instantly won over nearly every game critic out there. It also found great success with gamers, becoming one of the most downloaded titles through the Xbox marketplace. It eventually won the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences "Casual Game of the Year". Everyone loved it.

Not me. I pretty much fucking hated it. As you're probably aware if you read this blog I'm a bit of a proponent of games-as-art. Braid was the game that was supposed to cross that magical barrier into art land and make Mr. Blow and all the other gamers feel that their medium had finally reached that magical realm of 'art' next to sculpture and cinema. But I would beg to differ. I thought the story was poorly written, difficult to decipher, and the game itself was just too difficult to derive any meaning from it. There were many opportunities for Blow to be more open with his narrative by giving the player an understandable and meaningful story, but it seems that at each opportunity to do so he purposefully hides the narrative through an obnoxious and pretentious writing style that only further obfuscates its intention. Why did Blow make this game and write this story if he didn't want anyone to see it? I think he might as well have just written the story in his diary if that's the case.

An annoying aspect about Braid is what's occured outside of the game itself. Because it's received such critical praise, because of the "Indie developer makes it big" story of its creation, and because of Blow's stature as an "Indie darling" most people seem hesitant to critique it. Critics think it's great because it has some sort of "mature" story and gamers think it's neat because it references older games such as Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong, but for all I care Jonathan Blow can just go... blow himself (ok, that one was too easy).

At it's core Braid is a platformer, like Super Mario Bros. You play the character 'Tim'. The one difference is that you have the ability to manipulate time, by pressing a button you can rewind everything in the game world, like hitting the rewind button on a VCR where you get to see everything happen in reverse. This is also where the game derives its story. Tim is looking for 'The Princess', and there's a story told through books at the beginning of each world describing Tim's journey. Each level is basically a puzzle where you're trying to obtain a hard to reach jigsaw puzzle piece to complete a puzzle which reveals some aspect about the story and allows you to move on to the next world. These puzzles become increasingly difficult as you progress. By halfway through the game they're Grade-A Mensa level difficult. I'll admit, the puzzles can be fun and there's a nice rewarding feeling when you get when all of a sudden a puzzle 'clicks' in your head and you're able to solve it. It's akin to figuring out that really tough crossword clue.

This would be fine, but there's many problems. First off, the puzzles can be excrutiatingly hard. I stared at some for hours trying to figure them out. I think Blow went a little overboard with some of them. He's also quite adamant that the player figure out the puzzle with no help. On the official walkthrough there's basically no walkthrough. Blow only says "Figure it out for yourself". Like I said though, the later puzzles are really, really tough. I'll admit watching a few Youtube videos for some of the answers.

What's worse though is that some of the puzzles are just finicky as hell. For example, one puzzle piece is tucked away up high. If you jump off of a ledge there's a cloud that looks like you should be able to land on it and make your way over to the puzzle piece. I tried jumping from this ledge multiple times but was always just a little too far away from the cloud to land on it. I thought, "Well it would be too easy if all I had to do was jump on the cloud to get the piece", I mean, that's not really much of a puzzle. So I tried for hours to find some other method to get that puzzle piece. Finally I gave up and went to Youtube... only to discover that I was right all along, it's just that the game demanded you be standing on the very last pixel of the ledge in order to land on the cloud. Oh come on! That's not a puzzle, that's just overly demanding game design.

Hey it looks like Donkey Kong, it must be brilliant!

But that's not the worst aspect of the game. The worst part is the story. Critics said it was a mature story that really made you think. The story, told through the books, is written in this completely obnoxious prose that sounds like it came out of a high school writing class. Yes, it's trying to be deep, but it comes off as pretentous. Here's a typical passage:

“But to be fully couched within the comfort of a friend is a mode of existence with severe implications. To please you perfectly, she must understand you perfectly. Thus you cannot defy her expectations or escape her reach. Her benevolence has circumscribed you, and your life’s achievements will not reach beyond the map she has drawn.”

And it doesn't get any better. After completing the game I still have no idea what the game was about. Was the Princess even a real person, or did she just represent some sort of ideal? The problem is that Blow leaves the story so open to interpretation that it ceases to have any real inherent meaning. There's really no concrete aspect of the story that you can point to and say "This is what I think the story is about." Is it about the loss of a relationship? Is it about the perils of nuclear weapons? Is it about the loss of innocence? Is it a commentary on the state of the medium? Only Jonathan Blow knows.

There's an interesting disussion over at The Brainy Gamer between the writer of that blog and another about the meaning of Braid. I have to say, I was delighted when I read Mr. Brainy Gamer's response where he too wasn't the biggest fan, and he's a much better writer than I. Check out what he says. Braid comes to the PC on March 31st.

Well blogging friends, I'm off to Reno to celebrate my 30th birthday with a bunch of friends (LE was too cool for school to come). When I get back on Sunday I'll be 30, so you'll no longer be able to trust me, as I'll now be part of 'The Man' trying to keep those young rapscallions 'down'. If you want to join the party we'll be at the El Dorado in the Player's Spa Suite (sounds awesome, eh?).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lesser Children Of The Gods AKA Least Favorite Beatles Songs

So I was surfing the Yellow Submarine message boards on the Internet Movie Database this past weekend and I became intrigued by a thread titled "The WORST Beatles Songs..." Such a harsh phrase - and possibly an oxymoron of sorts. I would prefer to say "Least favorite Beatles songs." Let's face it, hardly any Beatles song is outright bad, but yes, there are certain ones that some of us may tend to skip over every now and again. Having successfully listed my ten favorite Beatles songs two years prior (wow, did I really leave "Hey Jude" out of there?), I am now, ladies and gentlemen, about to attempt the unthinkable. I am about to list...my TEN LEAST FAVORITE BEATLES SONGS. And I encourage anyone else to do the same (note: you do not have to list ten). I don't care how "classic" the track supposedly is. No cow is too sacred here. Just remember that saying a Beatles song is one of your least favorite is not the same as saying that the song is outright bad. I also disqualify from consideration some of the covers that the Beatles performed in their early years and did not write themselves (otherwise you'd probably see "Devil In Her Heart," "Mr. Moonlight," "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey," "A Taste of Honey," and "Til There Was You" below - and I love The Music Man!). So now, without further ado:

Ask Me Why (Please Please Me)
She's a Woman (single)
I Need You (Help!)
Wait (Rubber Soul)
Yellow Submarine (Revolver)
Good Day Sunshine (Revolver)
Revolution #1 (White Album)
Good Night (White Album)
Don't Let Me Down (single)
The Long and Winding Road (Let It Be)

Honorable mention:

There's a Place (Please Please Me)
Thank You Girl (single)
I Wanna Be Your Man (With The Beatles)
I'll Follow the Sun (Beatles For Sale)
Yes It Is (single)
If I Needed Someone (Rubber Soul)
Good Morning Good Morning (Sgt. Pepper)
The Inner Light (single)
Why Don't We Do It in the Road (White Album)
Birthday (White Album)
Two of Us (Let It Be)
Dig a Pony (Let It Be)

Sorry Ringo, I had to do it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

All Good Things...

Ok, so I stole the title of this post from name of the final episode of another great science fiction show. If you are unaware, and you probably are, tonight marks the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. If you haven't been keeping up to date, Battlestar Galactica is a re-imagined retelling of the ultra campy late 70s original. But this isn't your father's Galactica. In Ron Moore and David Eick's new version, which began life as a mini-series on the Sci-Fi Network, things are much bleaker.

The mini-series begins with the planet getting nuked. Except this isn't Earth, this is Caprica, one of the 12 colonies of the tribes of Kobol, who long ago fled Kobol and set out to colonize the stars, except that one of those colonies became forgotten over time, that colony being a mythic placed named 'Earth'. The titular Battlestar Galactica is a relic of an old ship, old enough that it's now being turned into a museum of sorts, like an old aircraft carrier that they take Boy Scouts to. It's run by Capt. Adama, played by Edward James Olmos. The ship is a relic from the Cylon war, where the robots that humans had created 40 years ago rebelled against their masters, resulting in the aforementioned war. One day 40 years ago the Cylons stopped attacking and all but vanished, no one's heard of them until today, when the planet, and all the rest of the colonies gets nuked by them. Adama and his crew are the only ship that manages to escape the onslaught. This is not the cute Star Wars ripoff you remember.

What's different about the Cylons now is that they look human. They look, talk, and act just like us. The humans derisively call them 'skinjobs' (just like Blade Runner, also featuring Olmos). You see, in this reimagined series, everything is an allegory. The nuking of the planet is our 9/11, and the "evil robots who look just like us" motif is America's post-9/11 fear that the terrorists could be anyone of us, your next door neighbor, or that nice guy who runs the 7-11. Even the opening credits of every episode remind the viewer of this, with a shot of Caprica city getting nuked and Roslin taking the oath of office in an obvious nod to LBJ:

The show is a character driven drama. Yes it has action sequences, but it's much closer to something like 'The West Wing' than it is to '24'. This has allowed the show over the course of four seasons to explore all sorts of hot button issues - abortion, rape, the torture of prisoners, and, in what I think was it's best, the war in Iraq. Without trying to give too much away, let's just say that at one point the humans are captured by the Cylons, and from there the series turns all your conceptions of right and wrong on their head. The Cylons say they only want to 'bring peace' to humanity. The humans begin an insurgency, where they use improvised explosive devices to carry out suicide bombings. Sound familiar? And yes, it ends with one of the coolest rescue sequences ever that would make Capt. Kirk green with envy. The producers and the cast of the show were even recently invited to speak at the U.N.

The show has a strong spiritual element to it as well. It turns out that the humans are polytheistic, they worship multiple gods who all have Greek names (Athena, Zeus, etc.), while the Cylons have taken up their own religion - monotheism. They believe in "the one true God". God worshipping robots?? Greek god worshipping humans? Ahh, but this opens the doors to the exploration of spirituality and what it means to be human, or non-human.

So the Battlestar Galactica sets out for this fabled Earth, which for all they know is merely a legend, relentlessly pursued by the genocidal Cylons. Do they find Earth? I can't say, but they certainly question their humanity along the way. By the end we're not even sure who's more human, or if it even makes a difference. And be prepared for the end of season 4 where we're thrown the most mind-bending twist, and I'll just say it has something to do with Jimi Hendrix.

The final episode airs tonight of what multiple reviewers call "the best show on television you haven't seen". So say we all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

AIG Bonus-nanza

We could have built schools with that money. Or bought food and medicine for starving children. Or hell, built that fictitious monorail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Anything but gifts for criminals.

That's my response to the AIG bonus story. But I have to admit, a Totenkopf grin threatens to break out across my face when I read of recent public outcry. Why so concerned America? This sort of thing goes on all the time. Yes, AIG is running on government fumes. Are companies that sell stock to pension funds and municipalities and then waste their investor's money-in blatant disregard for the fiduciary duties that are supposed to make the corporate system workable-really any better? This is Wall Street folks. They were your heroes 2 years ago. They'll be your heroes again in 10.

One example is found in In re The Walt Disney Company Derivative Litigation, 907 A.2d 693 (Del. Ch. August 9, 2005). "By virtue of his Machiavellian (and imperial) nature as CEO, and his control over Ovitz's hiring in particular, Eisner to a large extent is responsible for the failings in process that infected and handicapped the board's decisionmaking abilities. Eisner stacked his (and I intentionally write “his” as opposed to “the Company's”) board of directors with friends and other acquaintances who, though not necessarily beholden to him in a legal sense, were certainly more willing to accede to his wishes and support him unconditionally than truly independent directors. On the other hand, I do not believe that the evidence, considered fairly, demonstrates that Eisner actively took steps to defeat or short-circuit a decisionmaking process that would otherwise have occurred." The court found in favor Eisner and Ovitz.

Ah well, this line of thinking isn't very productive. I hope this time real limitations on corruption and fraud in the financial markets will be put in place. We all make fun of Obama's hope mantra, but if he doesn't fix things who will? The next-best seems to be nothing at all.

Crazy Rant #2: Has Human Civilization Crested?

Now I don't mean to be a spoilsport here, but let's think about this for a second. We as a species are facing two pressing crises: the economy and the environment. Is it just me or are these two crises...mutually opposed? I mean, my understanding is that what makes an economy grow is when you have constant population growth, which creates new demand for lots and lots of material goods. Funny, but the very thing that is destroying our environment is the constant population growth and the subsequent production of lots and lots of material goods created in order to satisfy new demand. Anybody else see a problem here?

Take the housing crisis, for example. A housing boom is great for the economy but bad for the environment. As more families come into the world, those families need houses, and they need houses equipped with electricity and appliances and heat and probably cars as well. All this demand creates jobs, but it uses up resources. By the same token, a housing bust is great for the environment but is seriously unpleasant for humans. There's just something about a lack of growth that really zaps our cultural mojo.

Obama says he's going to fix both the economy and the environment at the same time by creating "green" jobs. But any "green" jobs he creates are just going to be cancelled out by the old fashioned "non-green" jobs we're going to lose. You know what I'm saying? How are we really supposed to create new jobs that won't simultaneously dig us deeper into a planetary hole? How do we keep this baby going? As Yoggoth put it to me over the phone a couple of weeks ago: "What's the end game here?"

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sandwich Porn

Those who know me have probably heard one or more effusive monologues on the joy and fulfillment that sandwiches bring to me. I love to eat them, but I also love to create them. So imagine my delight when I discovered Scanwiches.com, a website consisting of nothing but photos of sandwich cross-sections.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (Fincher)

Or, as I call it, The Curious Case Of The Oscars Totally Fucking Up Cinema. Here we have a movie that could have been delightful as simply a low-key, oddball comedy along the lines of Being There or Zelig and instead I feel like, somewhere along the line, some enterprising young studio exec must have stood up in a meeting and said, "No, no, no, we can win like - a zillion Oscars with this baby!" and so they molded it, however awkwardly, into an English Patient or Titanic wannabe. I don't care whether or not David Fincher wins an Oscar; I just want to see an uncluttered, organic cinematic experience. They sprayed this movie with too many pesticides.

First of all, let me ask you something: what's the moral of a story where a guy ages backwards? I mean, so what? His life's basically the same, except that it's...a little different. Aside from this little twist, Benjamin Button could have essentially been about a person who ages normally. It was like a mildly weird big-budget drama. They should have made it odder, stranger. Even Forrest Gump was weirder than this movie.

That said, as Oscar bait movies go, this is some Oscar bait I'm willing to watch. Even though there are about a gajillion flaws, for some indescribable reason, every scene in this movie is absorbing. If it's not a deep movie, it feels like a deep movie. Also, unlike most films made today, it is actually a pleasure to look at. Yeah, so Fincher doesn't really exploit the gimmick to its full potential, but, on the other hand, that's kind of what I like about it. It's a gimmicky movie that doesn't rely on its gimmick. True, there is no obvious "point" to this movie, but honestly, in an age of Crash and Million Dollar Baby, that's sort of refreshing. I mean, who says a movie has to have a big fat point?

Still, so many things do not work: 1) the whole Hurricane Katrina framing device; 2) Benjamin is born old but still the size of an infant - WTF? Apparently in the short story he's just born as an old man, proper size and everything. That would have made more sense. The bottom line is, I'm not exactly sure what David Fincher was hoping to say here. I believe Eric Roth was simply involved in an Oscar-winning screenwriter's exercise, which was to see if he could rewrite Forrest Gump and still win an Oscar. Well guys, they say it's an honor just to be nominated.

"Film critic" rating: **1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***

Thursday, March 12, 2009

They're Ripping On AMG Guy (Erlewine)!

Ah, success - a double-edged sword? When you're the unsung hero, toiling away in the AMG basement, they adore you. But scale your way up the heights of the music critic mountain, and then one day, they turn on you, like a rabid dog on his master. And where's the appreciation, the gratitude, the reward for all your years of AMG glory? Lying in the gutter, my friends, like so many used copies of U2's Pop.

Last week, Stephen Thomas Erlewine reviewed U2's latest album No Line On The Horizon, bestowing upon it a nice, noncommittal rating of three stars. I have not heard the album myself, but, let's face it, that probably sounds about right. Some of his readers agreed. But others began doing the unthinkable: they began ripping on Stephen Thomas Erlewine! The nerve. The gall. The insouciance. Just what did he ever do that was so horrible? Listen to some of these "complaints":
I’m not surprised at this review, really. After all, it’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the man who gave Paris Hilton’s debut a 4.5. A review that will live in infamy. And Pop a measly and unfair 2.5, but whatever. He’s the king of negative backlash and bias...This sounds like the obligatory 2-star review he gives to just about every major artist once he impulsively declares them past their prime (R.E.M., Madonna, etc.). Good Job, STE, you make us proud.

Can you really trust a man who thinks Ween is better Jimi Hendrix?

Frankly, this is a lazy review, even if it doesn’t quite descend to the sedentary level of the Entertainment Weekly one. It’s almost enough to make you want to go and read Pitchfork (and take them seriously).

STE is as fickle and unrelentingly stubborn as they come...It’s been almost 12 years exactly since the release of Pop and he still hasn’t given it the reappraisal it commands and deserves.
First of all, who knew Pop had such a fanbase? But nevermind. The point is that I was shocked to hear such words directed at the master, the maestro, the AMG magician. Sure he's got his biases just like any other music critic (I still cringe at the thought of his - in my opinion - disproportionate Green Day admiration), but since when did that make him "the king of negative backlash and bias"? Fine, so he thinks Ween is better than Jimi Hendrix. Well guess what, I think Oasis are better than Bob Dylan (note: possibly not, but it sounds provocative so I'm leaving it in). Is a good music critic supposed to bend and contort his or her own personal opinions just so that they fit into some established notion of pop music taste? Hell no. A good music critic is supposed to say what he or she really thinks, consensus be damned. Sure, it may not have been trendy or hip for Erlewine to admit that he actually liked Paris Hilton's album, but hey, if he liked it, he liked it. Have you heard it? Neither have I.

I think the main flaw, if any, in Erlewine's writing is more of a flaw with the editorial style of AMG itself. Meaning: the reviewers apparently have to write their reviews from sort of an omniscient, absolutist point of view. They aren't allowed to simply say, "I" or "me" or "in my opinion," the way other reviewers can. As a result, I think this irritates people a little bit. Because AMG is so otherwise dependable, and because you know that so many people are going to read the AMG review and assume that everyone agrees that "Album #6753" deserves three stars rather than the five you'd give it, you think, "But I don't agree with that! This is just some guy's opinion!" Yet they write as if their opinion simply just...is. My guess is Erlewine would probably rather not compose in this manner, but he's required to adhere to AMG's own self-imposed style guidelines. Nevertheless, I think this keeps his writing from soaring the way that maybe Roger Ebert's does, or even the occasional Pitchfork review does. I just wished he simply tried to speak for himself rather than for some imaginary consensus. But hey, no music critic (other than me) can be perfect.

Anyways, this just goes to show you that you know you've finally made it when you start receiving your own backlash.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Odd Little Bits

I enjoyed these:

+ Zoo chimp "planned" stone attacks. More evidence that all chimpanzees secretly want to rip our faces off.

+ William Saletan created the mother of all false equivalences when he compared lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell research to supporting the torture of terrorism suspects by American authorities. Normally, the only people who mention false equivalences or other logical fallacies are blow-hards trying to show off. But this Saletan article is such a textbook example of the concept that I can't pass it up.

+ At the end of an otherwise mediocre New York Times review of Alexander Waugh's new book, The House of Wittgenstein, Jim Holt informs us:

"For all their quarreling, madness and self-destruction, the Wittgensteins were at least spared one sort of dysfunction: there is no trace of incestuous impulses among them. The same, alas, cannot be said of the author’s own family. Evelyn Waugh freely avowed feelings of more than paternal tenderness for his daughter Meg. When she announced her intention to wed a young man, her father sadly wrote to a friend, “She wants children, and that is a thing I can’t decently provide for her.” Even Oedipus would blush."

Wait...what? What does this have to do with the book, or with the Wittgensteins? Is this just your neighborly, "Hey there, no incest here! Not like Bob's dad. Who, by the way, committed incest." Intrigued by the idea that a well known conservative Catholic novelist was involved with his own daughter, I did a quick Google search and didn't find anything about incest in the first five Evelyn Waugh biographies I read. One did mention that Meg was his favorite child but that's hardly dispositive.

According to the biographical blurb at the end of the article, Jim "is working on a book about the puzzle of existence." Good luck with that Jim.

Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music

I thought I'd point out a wonderful resource called Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music. According to wikipedia the guide is:

"An online Flash-driven guide to electronic music created by Kenneth John Taylor of British Columbia... The guide uses a graph style layout to roughly depict the chronological order of genres' appearance and contains 7 separate but interlinked pages for various areas of electronic music (house, techno, breakbeat, jungle, hardcore, downtempo and trance). Each genre has its own node on the graph which, when selected, brings up an information box containing a description (often highly editorial) by Taylor and a varying number of low-quality example samples."

It's a fun thing to poke around in and see how different genres of music are related and it's great how it provides samples for each genre so you get to actually hear the differences. It's highly editorial, often times Ishkur pokes fun at the genre (or sub-genre) in question. A good example is this snippet taken from the "Industrial Rock" category:

"Ah yes, Industrial Rock. The form of industrial that has had the most commercial success and it's all Trent Reznor's fault. Just how it's all Morrissey's fault there's emo."

I mean, this guide has it all. Do you know the difference between Buttrock Goa trance and Psytekk trance? Now you do! I even discovered that a line from the Sisters of Mercy song Detonation Boulevard is actually from a Chuck Berry song! Now if only this could be expanded to include every genre in the All Music Guide Little Earl would be in heaven. Bonus points to whoever can find where VNV Nation is hidden.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Adventures In Rap #11: Criminal Minded

I've been trying to reconcile the notion of KRS-One as the "Teacha" and the so-called "positive rapper" with a story I once heard about how he had assaulted P.M. Dawn's Prince Be onstage at a concert because he didn't think Prince Be was "hardcore" enough, or for that matter, with this article I read in Rolling Stone a few years back:
KRS-One has ignited controversy with his comments as a panelist at The New Yorker Festival on October 2nd, claiming that he and other African-Americans "cheered when 9/11 happened...I say that proudly."

As reported in the New York Daily News and confirmed by a New Yorker spokeswoman, the rapper explained his views by saying that prior to the attack World Trade Center security guards prevented black people from entering "because of the way we talk and dress. So when the planes hit the building, we were like, 'Mmmm -- justice.' [9/11] doesn't affect us. 9/11 happened to them, not us. The rich . . . those who are oppressing us. RCA or BMG, Universal, the radio stations."

KRS-One also criticized recent voter registration campaigns by members of the hip-hop community. "Voting in a corrupt society adds more corruption," he said. "America has to commit suicide if the world is to be a better place."

OK, maybe he was just having a bad day. Apparently the website for "Temple of Hip-Hop, the self-proclaimed hip-hop preservation society founded by KRS-One, includes a 'declaration of peace' that seeks to 'establish a foundation of health, love, awareness, wealth, peace and prosperity for ourselves, our children and their children's children, forever.' " So the guy's a bit complicated. Also, somebody tell him that 1) the terrorists were not trying to attack BMG, RCA, and Universal, and 2) the president is now Barack Obama.

At any rate, if you're looking for some kind of ideological clarity, rap is not your genre. And so it is that the "Teacha" and the "Philosopher" is responsible for arguably the first gangsta rap album. Behold the album cover - allegedly the first to depict the performers brandishing weapons. Or the track "9mm," likely one of the earliest rap songs to nonchalantly describe a murder:

Me knew a crack dealer by the name of Peter
Had to buck him down with my 9 millimeter
He said I had his girl, I said "Now what are you? Stupid?"
But he tried to play me out and KRS-One knew it
He reached for his pistol but it was just a waste
Cause my 9 millimeter was up against his face
He pulled his pistol anyway and I filled him full of lead
But just before he fell to the ground this is what I said...

Wa da da dang
Wa da da da dang (Ay!)
Listen to my 9 millimeter go bang

Sounds pretty "positive" to me. My personal favorite track has to be "P Is Free," which chronicles a situation I've often faced in my life, where a prostitute has offered me her services free of charge, if only I could just provide her with some crack. Hence the memorable chorus "The girlies are free/'cause the crack costs money/oh yeah!":

Ridin' one day on my freestyle fix
Jammin' to a tape Scott LaRock had mixed
I said to myself "This tape sound funky"
Ridin' past the 116th Street junkie
Thought I saw Denise but I was only assumin'
Took another look and that butt was boomin'
Did a little trick on my freestyle fix
And I was right beside the girl, she was all on the tip
She said "Hi, DJ KRS"
She kissed me on my neck so I gave her a peck
She said "I'm really in a hurry so I cannot wait
If you give me a lift while we ride to the bait"
She jumped on my bike, I said "Huh, what's your stop?"
She said "Right around the corner to the crack spot
If you buy me a crack I'll know how to act
But if you don't, you might as well step back"
I said "Now how the hell we jump off to this?
I'm doin' you a favor, I'm givin you a lift"
She said "KRS, you know it goes"
I said "Yeah, you little.....it seems that you're a hoe"

Not sure how he was hoping to establish "a foundation of health, love, awareness, wealth, peace," with lyrics such as these but to be fair, at this early stage in his career KRS-One was not making any claims about promoting non-violence or positivity or anything in particular. In fact, Criminal Minded may have been rap's edgiest album yet.

KRS-One only began moving toward "consciousness" rap after his Boogie Down productions partner DJ Scott LaRock was suddenly murdered in a club after the album's release. Unfortunately, since BDP could not have anticipated the tragedy, this means that Scott LaRock's last testament to the world has ended up being a track called "Super Hoe," featuring the chorus "Scott LaRock had 'em all/he is the Superhoe":

Now many people have their ways of expressin'
What they do best, for Scott it's undressin'
Yes, either a girl or some date for the night
He doesn't want to hear that you're too tight
So do not think that Scott LaRock is mean
It's not his fault, he'll give you Vaseline
The Super Hoe is loose in your area
Makin' life for girls a little scarier
So if you got a radio tryin' to tape this
Do not keep in mind that he is a rapist
For the Super Hoe to be chillin'
Another female out there has to be willin'
So all you tramps and hoes raise your hand
Cause Super Hoe Scott LaRock understands
If you're a guy we'll talk about hangin'
And if you're a girl he'll talk about bangin'
If your moms call up, well, I don't know
But uh... (He is the Super Hoe)

Perhaps not the most fitting final statement. But rather, let us say that Criminal Minded as a whole can serve as his final musical epitaph. Indeed, for a 1987 rap album aiming more for street cred than a Run-D.M.C.-style crossover, the beats are actually very catchy, mellow, and pleasant. Scott LaRock also brings a welcome reggae flavor to several of the cuts. If Criminal Minded still sounds a bit dated, it sounds less dated than the other rap of that time. In short, we're getting closer to the good stuff.

As for KRS-One himself, he comes off as a congenial, honest sort of guy, although his persona seems a tad underdeveloped. He keeps boasting about how he's "teaching" and "educating" but mostly he just switches sentences around as if that somehow makes his rapping more complicated. It's like when you have to write a 10-page essay in college but you don't actually have an opinion on the topic, so you just spend ten pages trying to see how many different ways you can essentially say the same thing. From "Poetry": "Cause KRS-One means simply one KRS/That's it, that's all, solo, single, no more, no less." From "Word From Our Sponsor": "Many people know me, yet I'm known by few/My name is KRS-One, son, not two/Or three or four or five or six/The mix is on Scott LaRock and Scott LaRock is on the mix." So he seems to be claiming a linguistic brilliance that I don't think he necessarily demonstrates. Yeah, it was only 1987, and he was probably better than anyone else at that time. But not much better. I mean, in only a year or so we'd be hit with Slick Rick, Chuck D, Ice Cube, EPMD, and so on and so on, and personally, just as pure rappers, I think they'd all wipe the floor with KRS-One. But KRS-One's contribution is almost more of a cultural contribution than an artistic one. He is the guy who first stood back and started thinking about the direction of rap. Maybe. Sorta kinda.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

I read the news today, oh boy...

The previously announced Rock Band Beatles spinoff was given an official worldwide release date today, 09-09-09 (take from that date what you will). According to the press release:

"The music-based video game, an unprecedented, experiential progression through and celebration of the music and artistry of The Beatles, will be available simultaneously worldwide in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand ...

The Beatles: Rock Band will allow fans to pick up the guitar, bass, mic or drums and experience The Beatles extraordinary catalogue of music through gameplay that takes players on a journey through the legacy and evolution of the band’s legendary career. In addition, The Beatles: Rock Band will offer a limited number of new hardware offerings modeled after instruments used by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr throughout their career."

Maybe if LE comes over to visit this fall I'll finally get him to pick up one of those plastic instruments and rock out(?)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Meta-Ur Than He Oughta Be

Julian Sanchez, guy with a fancier blog then mine, says that Sam Wurzelbacher (nom de plume: Joe-the-Plumber) is a "metapundit" because:

"The last semblance of a link between the message and the identity of the messenger finally drops out completely: Joe’s entire significance lies in the decision to give him a microphone—and to give him a microphone not despite the fact that he’s not especially worth listening to, but because he’s not especially worth listening to. In that sense, he comes pretty close to the Platonic ideal of the “celebrity” as someone who’s “famous for being famous”: His stardom in the conservative movement is, paradoxically, its own lone rationale. Conservatives, self-declared foes of postmodernism, have finally produced the ultimate postmodern icon."

If you've ever majored in English you've heard all about metaness. Metaness often means something like self-referentiality, but more pretentious. Wurzelbacher is a higher level pundit, because he's the "Platonic ideal" of a pundit with none of the lower level qualities that would cause someone to be defined as a pundit. The idea of a metapundit is confusing, however, because I'm not aware of any qualifications necessary to become a pundit. According to a Wikipedia user's copy-and-paste of the OED, "The term originates from the Sanskrit term paṇḍitá (India), meaning learned. It refers to someone who is erudite in various subjects and who conducts religious ceremonies and offers counsel to the king or mayor." Nowadays it means some asshole on TV.

Little Earl and I, as fellow English majors, have a long ridiculed post-modern criticism. Meta-narratives became new and special in the academic world 40 years ago in spite of the fact that Laurence Stern's Tristram Shandy, written 250 years ago, is weirder and more meta than 99% of literature written since. So I don't care about Wurzelbacher's metapunditry. What I do care about is his extreme luck. How do I get to be the liberal version of this guy? I could be Yoggoth-the-lawyer or even just Yoggoth-the-liberal. Cable news programs would ask my opinion on topics I know nothing about. I'd get a free trip to Israel - no, I'd get paid to go to Israel! Well, I don't know if I really want to go to Israel. Bobby Jindal criticized funding for volcano research, how about I go to Hawaii to report on that?

In short, I don't have anything against Sam. I'm happy for him. The people who take him seriously are kinda dumb, but they were dumb before he came along. People want to hear what he has to say, they want to be around him, simply because he's some random guy. "You're random, we love you!" Isn't that the Cosmic American dream come true?

P.S. Sanchez really should have used the term Ur-pundit, it would have sounded cooler.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Arrested Development

I read on the Onion A.V. Club that someone greenlighted an Arrested Development movie. My response was, "what's Arrested Development?" I noticed that David Cross was involved, which piqued my interest. David Cross is always about to be very funny, but never actually is. But hipsters like him, and he's probably a good writer. Like Conan O'Brien.

One Google search latter, I arrived at the approved of corporate consumption zone - arresteddevelopment.msn.com - and found every episode available for viewing. I promptly watched 10 of them. I recommend the show to all of you. It's about a wealthy dysfunctional family that owns a real estate development company. The corrupt father gets arrested for business shenanigans and the good natured son has to take over and keep the family together. That son's son has a crush on his cousin who comes to live with them because of money problems. The good natured son has a crush on his asshole brother's Spanish soap opera star girlfriend. The youngest brother character falls flat, but everything else in the show is well done. With failing real estate companies, families moving back together to save money, and a nation coming to grips with the idea that we'll all have to start doing something other than moving pretend money around on computer screens, this is a show for our times. It was, of course, canceled after 3 seasons of mediocre ratings.

P.S. I begin to slowly hate any product that advertises on these internet broadcasts as I watch their stupid commercial 50 times in a row. There's one for Cheetos with a debonair sounding orange cat promoting sly social rebellion in the form of orange Cheeto fingers wiped on a smug woman's coat. There's also a weird sort-of-anti-racist moment where the smug white woman greets the Cheetos eating woman with an "hola" and gets a smirk in return. I think the white woman is assuming the other woman is a native Spanish speaker, and this is meant to show how rude non-Cheetos-eating women are. Personally, I eat the organic jalapeño Cheeto-like snacks from Trader Joes so out-elitist that you marketing fucks.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Your Economic Crisis

A short reading list:

"It was a brilliant simplification of an intractable problem. And Li didn't just radically dumb down the difficulty of working out correlations; he decided not to even bother trying to map and calculate all the nearly infinite relationships between the various loans that made up a pool. What happens when the number of pool members increases or when you mix negative correlations with positive ones? Never mind all that, he said. The only thing that matters is the final correlation number—one clean, simple, all-sufficient figure that sums up everything."

"Often the banks themselves have no idea if they are making money or not. The regulation of derivatives has been so weak, and the speed of innovation of new products so fast, that it has left a void on the trading floor. Cowboy traders have been taking advantage of a flawed system, knowing there is almost no chance of anything coming back to hurt them. So long as the traders can make it look like they have made a profit, they get their bonuses. This is the financial equivalent of the Wild West, yet only those on the inside realise this."

"“They were the worst of them all,” said Frank Partnoy, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a derivatives expert. Mr. Vickrey of Gradient Analytics said, “It was extreme hubris, fueled by greed.” Other firms used many of the same shady techniques as A.I.G., but none did them on such a broad scale and with such utter recklessness. And yet — and this is the part that should make your blood boil — the company is being kept alive precisely because it behaved so badly.

When you start asking around about how A.I.G. made money during the housing bubble, you hear the same two phrases again and again: “regulatory arbitrage” and “ratings arbitrage.” The word “arbitrage” usually means taking advantage of a price differential between two securities — a bond and stock of the same company, for instance — that are related in some way. When the word is used to describe A.I.G.’s actions, however, it means something entirely different. It means taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. A less polite but perhaps more accurate term would be “scam.”"

Hey, one man's scam is another man's religion.

Well at least a higher top-bracket income tax will get a little bit of our money back, eh?

Carl Newman Has Good Taste

I was just talking to Little Earl about Carl "AC" Newman's new album, Get Guilty. Long story short, I like it. There was an old interview with Newman in which he claimed that he lacked talent, but made up for it with good taste. That explanation appeals to me, and relates back to my appreciation for the band XTC.

Then I read this new emusic.com interview with Newman:

"What are a couple of your all-time favorite movies, and do they ever influence the content of your lyrics? - Brian S.

I really love Rushmore. Probably my favorite movie."

In case you're new around here, or are old around here and didn't know it, Rushmore is one of my favorite movies. Thus it is proven, Carl Newman has good taste.