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by Colin McGuire

14 Apr 2009

Here is why newspapers have a “chance”: Nostalgia.

Remember hearing about your parents spending all their money on vinyl when they were kids? Or how about how they proudly wore those skinny black ties on a daily basis? Or – yes, even at this point – dare I say, the flannel shirts?

Now think about how cool you look if you invite someone over to show off your imported collection of Elvis Costello records. Or how much you’d fit in at the nearest, hippest club wearing a nice, black, skinnier-than-usual tie over a plain, white, button-up t-shirt. And you’d be lying if you didn’t notice the tight, snap-buttoned plaid shirts being showcased on sale at the closest shopping mall.

Everything in pop culture comes full circle. How else do you think Brett Michaels could handle his own reality television show? So considering the notion that newspapers have been a major part – if not a central part – of pop culture far longer than “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” ever spent in the top 10, you have to think that, at some point, people are going to deem it “cool” to be one of the few remaining newspaper people, right?

Or, well, we can hope so.

But here is why newspapers’ “chance” is limited: Despondency. 

Everyone, everywhere, is so willing to give up on print media so quickly, it’s certainly going to make any crusade against saving the newspaper industry an uphill battle. Case in point: Reuters reported Monday that the Marriott hotel chain will stop offering free copies of The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and/or their local city paper at their hotels as a courtesy to their guests. 

Sure, this doesn’t really affect anyone aside from USA Today all that much (according to the article, this move reduces newspaper distribution by 50,000 copies daily - 18 million annually - and the WSJ openly admitted that this move would only truly have an impact on a very small amount of papers for their publication, if nothing else), but this is the latest in a string of moves that is seemingly kicking the newspaper industry in its ass as it slowly makes its way to the door.

It’s unwarranted. The assumption is that newspapers are dead. Sure, there are a ton of numbers that back that particular notion up, but, realistically speaking, newspapers are indeed not dead. There are thousands of publications still managing to stay afloat across this country and though times have become admittedly hard, the ratio of “living” newspapers to “dead” newspapers is staggeringly in favor of “living.”

You see, the more we read these kinds of stories – and the more people within the masses begin to dig out a plot for print media before the funeral is even arranged – the more pop culture as a whole starts accepting a world without newspapers. How much does it really benefit a hotel if they begin to make the delivery of a newspaper a simple “option” on their list of perks, right next to “high speed internet” and a few porn channels? Whine all you want about making this planet “more green” by saving trees and limiting the use of paper, but be honest, do you think anyone even considered saving a little oxygen when they needed to know what was going on, thousands of years ago when print media first took its form?

And I know, I know. You don’t receive your news from that particular medium anymore. You don’t turn to your local newspaper to see what happened the day before. You retrieve your information via Web sites, e-mails and the television. You love new media. You love knowing what happened first. You love instant news instantly.

But solely relying on those options for newsgathering is merely thoughtless. It’s shallow. It’s absolutely and utterly one-dimensional. A Web site refreshes in a half-hour. It has a search engine that can take hours to finally discover what exactly it was you were initially looking for. It’s written in present tense because writers are sitting on pins and needles, anxiously awaiting the next detail to provide an “update” on whatever story it may be.

A Web site isn’t a piece of paper in your hand that you can store away forever. It isn’t a mere blurb about the latest piece of news, offered up in a way that mirrors the fickle nature of how much a story can change on a dime and how much the actual news can always be flushed out a little better should someone put five more minutes of thought into their work.

The Marriott is doing so much more than simply not providing a customer with a newspaper whenever they decide to wake up. The Marriott is hopping on a ship that continues to sail without any regard for the repercussions the assumptions they promote could have on an entire industry. And that’s upsetting.

Because we all know what assuming can do.

by Sarah Zupko

14 Apr 2009

Singular singer-songwriter Jill Sobule pursued an innovative approach for the development of her new album California Years in working with her fans to finance the recording sessions. In tomorrow’s review of the record, Jill Labrack says of Sobule: “like her musical peers Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, Sobule delves into the pervasive sadness of living with a sense of humor that makes it all okay, even magnetic.” “San Francisco” is the new video from the project directed by comedienne Margaret Cho and featuring a lyrical riff on Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”.

Jill Sobule
“A Good Life” [MP3]
     

by L.B. Jeffries

14 Apr 2009

One of the more interesting by-products of the internet is that games are continually exploring topics beyond the usual blockbuster action romps. Not needing to make a profit, easy distribution, and low technical requirements are proving to be the perfect recipe for games to start abandoning conventions and pushing the medium forward. Of all the things to get cut first, length is probably the most welcome. Rich Carlson explains in a column about creating Strange Adventures in Infinite Space that cutting the playtime of the game not only made it much more fun to play but also easier to make. They rely on the basic structure of a game like NetHack, numerous random variables with clearly defined goals, and base your score on meeting a certain time limit. The result is a kind of abbreviated Star Control 2 where you explore the galaxy, occasionally uncover a plot (it’s random if it even occurs), and generally finish all of this in ten to twenty minutes. In some games you will save the galaxy, in others you won’t get enough gear and will get blasted apart before winning. You don’t build ships, diplomacy is mostly random, and huge chunks of the story can be missed with no real loss to the game. The sense of loss that we’d normally feel is gone because of the low time commitment and the fact that you can just start playing again. What’s telling about this shortened game is that although they rely on the basic structure of the larger game, in order to cut back on length they also cut back on the game design options.

by Bill Gibron

13 Apr 2009

There’s a concerning discussion going on at one of the websites I write for (not this one, another), which has me thinking about the role of the writer in post-millennial media. Not the fiction scribe who is locked in some literary retreat somewhere, desperately trying to fashion a third act out of the personal memories of his time in boarding school and the girl that got away. Nor are we discussing the still viable journalist, the newspaper (or site) scribe whose job it is to get the facts straight and the story right - though part of what he or she does will apply. No, what needs to be differentiated in today’s messageboard morass is what readers want, what purists expect, and how someone who doesn’t really care about either can survive within such weak geek conceits.

The issue at hand seems to center on what information needs to be included in a DVD review. If you look at such pieces within PopMatters, you will see very little technical discussion and a lot of critical thinking. There’s no kibitzing over aspect ratio, additional content, or picture quality. For us (and I speak more for myself than the rest of the staff), the purpose behind a DVD review is to give the film/TV show/band/music/material in question another, more in-depth look. We are not out to guide consumers on when and how they should spend their limited cash. Now, let’s look at a site like DVD Beaver. Almost exclusively, their reviews run under 200 words - and most of the time, it’s nothing more than a plot overview followed by a “good/bad” certification. Where Beaver earns its bacon, however, is in the audio/video bottom line. They post images, list scientific breakdowns, and try to do as many compare/contrasts of differing versions as possible.

So on the one hand you have a readership that clearly could care less if the latest release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is nothing more than the 20th Anniversary Edition spiffed up with a plastic Lament Configuration collector’s box. Then there are those who want such an assessment to go beyond the movie and discuss each and every item that makes up the disc content proper. I call this the difference between being a “reporter” and being a “critic”. Again, I am not necessarily referring to the correspondent who sits on the sidelines of world events and attempts to make sense of it all. In this case, ‘report’ should perhaps be followed by the word “book”. It seems like, more and more, 21st century audiences want a basic, barebones, by the…you know, breakdown of everything, including the most minor or unimportant minutia.

And they have a point. With discs running between $10 and $30, and their Blu-ray counterparts costing even more, informed decisions are necessary before heading over to the nearest brick and mortar. This is especially true with genre titles. Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead have been released (and rereleased) so many times, in so many different ways, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all without a website devoted to the various format permutations. But how much is too much, meaning, how far does someone who writes for a living have to go to appease this particular arena. In my case, Fox sent a Screener DVD of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and I always mention in my reviews that I do not have final product, and therefore cannot accurately comment on final tech specs. In most cases that’s enough. But apparently, such a sentiment is confusing for those outside the craft.

The main comment coming from readers has been “So what is on the various versions of the title? All the extras you mention? Some? None?”, and I am forced to write back with the simple sentiment - I don’t know. True, Fox released single, two disc and three disc versions of the title, but all I have is a screener. After that, if the questioner wishes to pursue the exchange, I usually get a response with something like “Well, a Google search will clear things up.” Oh really. Let’s dissect this suggestion for a moment, shall we. In essence, what the reader is requiring is this - that I, the person with nothing more than a prerelease copy of a film in my hand, should head out onto the World Wide Web, find someone else’s review or overview of the movie, and then copy/rely on/steal from them. For the audience, this may seem practical. For myself and other writers, it’s called plagiarism.

Now I’m not suggesting that the reader wants me to literally repeat the text I find while digging around the ‘Net, but he or she certainly wants me to use the work of others for my own benefit. Instead of offering up my own experiences and takes, I am to draw consensus from the rest of the community and then call it my own. Again, remember the suggestion - don’t rely on what you have in your own hand. Hit Google, get more information, and then report that. In actuality, it’s nothing novel to individuals in traditional media. News organizations frequently lift content from elsewhere, except in their case, they ascribe all attributes and footnote the fudge out of their sources. It’s standard operating procedure. But with the online writer more or less lost in a Wild West wilderness of rights and wrongs, what constitutes “research” and what constitutes theft.

It’s not surprising that within a realm of file sharing, bit torrents, and other forms of information misappropriation that this would be the suggestion. Bloggers frequently post content that they did not “originate” and yet call it their own, while some websites keep on critics who literally rob their reviews from other writers, merely changing the names Dragnet style to protect the less than innocent. In some ways, this is all connected to the ever-changing face of letters. On the one hand, there are reporters, people who simply regurgitate the most elemental of information and leave it at that. Then there are the critics, individuals who try to put such data into a kind of analytical perspective. They may not mention every fact, but they do try for a balance between both. And then there is the writer, someone who can be a bit of both, none of either, or a surreal smash-up of truth teller, sage, and spoiled sport.

I consider myself to be part of the last category. I am not in this to give you the A/V breakdown on the latest format releases. I do offer such insights, but I will not go out of my way to make sure that every single DVD I tackle gets the suggested Google once over. Have I ever used the online source as a means of solidifying a position on a disc? Yes. Have I ever borrowed or “believed” anything another writer has said to bolster my own opinions? Never! I consider myself a writer first and foremost. If I can’t get my point across creatively, maybe it doesn’t need to be made. That won’t make the people who pester me relentlessly about my lack of “completeness” happy, but frankly, that’s not the point. Differing approaches does not lessen the value of each and it also doesn’t make any one more “valid” than another. The next time you’re unhappy with the tech specs someone offers you in a DVD review, practice what you preach - do a Google search. That should solve your problem, right? Right.

by Rob Horning

13 Apr 2009

I found this NYT article about the alleged resurgence of thriftiness as an ethic strangely depressing. Isn’t this what I had been hoping for in writing all these screeds against consumerism, that there would be a return to some more sensible set of values once the waste and frivolity of status consumption was revealed to all? I don’t know, maybe; but it’s hard for me to overlook the inanity of this:

The gleefully frugal happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses. The mantra is cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair.

In San Francisco, Cooper Marcus, 36, has started choosing recipes based on the ingredients on sale at the market. Mr. Marcus canceled the family’s subscription to Netflix, his premium cable package and a wine club membership. He uses a program on his iPhone to find the cheapest gas and drives out of his way to save 50 cents per gallon.

“It seems a little crazy,” he laughs, then adds: “I’m frugal and loving it.”

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