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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008
What would the so-called Massachusetts "Games-as-Porn" bill really mean?

“SECTION 1. Section 31 of Chapter 272 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2004 Official Edition, is hereby amended by deleting the definition ‘Harmful to Minors’ inserting the following new definition:  ‘Harmful to minors’, matter is harmful to minors if it is obscene or, if taken as a whole, it (1) describes or represents nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement, so as to appeal predominantly to the prurient interest of minors; (2) depicts violence in a manner patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community, so as to appeal predominantly to the morbid interest in violence of minors; (3) is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors; and (4) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.


“SECTION 2. Said Section 31 of Chapter 272, as so appearing, is hereby further amended by inserting in the definition of ‘Visual Material’ after the word ‘videotape’, the following: ‘interactive media,’.”


-Full text of the proposed Massachusetts House Bill 1423, titled “An Act to Restrict the Sale of Video Games with Violent Content to Minors”


What you see above is the entirety of the bill introduced in Massachusets this week, sponsored by state representative Linda Dorcena Forry and backed by Boston mayor Thomas Menino.


From the outset, it’s easy to see that the introduction, discussion, and imminent failure of this bill is mostly for the sake of posing for cameras and influencing constituencies.  Anyone attached to a bill like this can be pointed at as a “family values” candidate, someone who supposedly has the best interests of our children in mind.  The recent popularity of gaming makes it a prime candidate for the fire and brimstone of politicians, something that people can look at and condemn at the drop of a hat as they watch it capture the imaginations of the world’s youth.  Shouldn’t they be outside, playing?  Should they really be interacting with something that treats stealing a car as a good thing?  This bill represents people who don’t understand a medium preaching to people frightened by it, a volatile combination any way you look at it.


Is this porn?

Is this porn?


Still, based on the text of the bill, one might take some issue with the ways it has been represented in the media.  For one, it is constantly referred to as the “games-as-porn” bill, which seems a bit disingenuous, since such a label seems to imply that those behind the bill are chomping at the bit to call games porn, to get them out of stores and ruin the day of the developers and publishers behind the filth.  I don’t necessarily see it that way—to me, it looks a little bit like a “games-can-be-porn” bill, which actually makes a little bit of sense, to a point.


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Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008


There has always been something accidental about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. His remains a myth forged out of an undeniable gift, cultural happenstance, and a “My Generation” style burnt out limelight. Had he not died by his own hand in 1994, the victim of so much fame and so much pain, he’d probably be a laid back Henry Rollins, regaling young emos with his cynical tales of antisocial grunge glory. But because he came and captured a moment, because he stood for something at the end of an era that had wallowed in superficial excess and carte blanche selfishness, he’s now considered a God. It’s a tag he’d never want to wear, though he gladly let you pay him for the privilege.


The internal yin and yang that drove this isolated Pacific Northwest child to the heights of rock stardom, and the depths of personal despair, are given a remarkable airing in AJ Schnack’s tone poem to one man’s talent, Kurt Cobain About a Son (released this past February on DVD by Shout! Factory). Consisting of conversations recorded with the late musician by author Michael Azerrad, we get that clichéd intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with his suddenly show biz past. Delving deep into areas that have now become iconography, while skimming over elements (drugs, his mental problems) that fail to serve his sense of place, we wind up with something akin to an unintentional elegy. On the one hand, it is clear that Cobain enjoyed most of his life. Yet there are so many fatalistic pronouncements and defeatist confessions that his suicide now seems like a forgone conclusion.


The movie begins with inspired images of Washington State - cold, autumnal, as beautiful as it is bleak. It’s Twin Peaks without the surreal soap operatics. Without even one direct portrait of the man or his now classic flannel shirt persona, landscapes and city blocks paint the picture. Schnack purposefully avoids making Cobain’s own words a support for such documentary standards. There are no old yearbook photos, no John Mellancamp like trips down Polaroid memory lane. Instead, we see Aberdeen and Olympia as they are now, reflections of the changes that Nirvana and the entire early ‘90s music revolution had on the region. The bohemia Cobain references is illustrated by current musicians and artists, some working the very same venues and spaces that, more than a decade ago, literally defined an entire cultural shift. Indeed, About a Son is as much about one man and his family as one symbol and the medium he mastered.


For the most part, Cobain’s childhood memories are soaked in a sense of measured relevance. He professes his ‘punkdom’ repeatedly, reinforcing the archetype with tales of homelessness, parental disassociation, and chucking rocks at cops. The slacker aesthetic is also championed, as idleness and a hatred of work are paired with poverty and a desire to succeed. There is very little about music here. While there are namechecks to Queen (and News of the World) as well as fabled influences like The Vaselines and Butthole Surfers, Cobain is very closed about his own muse. We don’t even realize he is talking about Nirvana until he specifically mentions the recording of Bleach. There are riffs on catering corporate interest, and a plan to garner favor by including little prizes with each unsolicited demo tape, but the songwriting process is barely mentioned.



Of course, one has to put these conversations into context. Cobain would die almost a year from the last of these late night Q&As, and he was riding a wave of tabloid fervor over his tumultuous marriage to Courtney Love. One of the most revelatory moments of the entire film comes when said wife is mentioned. Though it’s clear that Cobain adored his spouse and child, he calls Love one of the most prophetic names in the annals of flame out rock stardom - Nancy Spungen. While it may be Freudian, it’s also the kind of fuel bound to fan a hundred angry messageboard screeds. The John and Yoko element of their coupling is a surface barely scratched, and when pressed about their partnership, Cobain gives an odd, detached answer. He’d already quit Courtney several times - just like his band.


The rest of Nirvana gets equally light airplay. Krist Novoselic comes across as the kind of agent provocateur Cobain was desperate to find. Grohl is the roommate who pressed the royalties issue later on. Others who fell in and out of the band are left out of the mix, and the entire tone of the material is businesslike and perfunctory. It’s odd to hear this man so centered on money. The parable talks of a wounded butterfly who tried to press art out of the MTV dervish of marketing and merchandising. But in About a Son, he’s frank about his financial focus. While offered under the guise of taking care of his then infant daughter Frances Bean, there’s clearly a cutthroat approach to the music industry in the man’s attitude. It’s something that goes hand in hand with all the frontloaded foreboding.


In fact, if Cobain were not already dead, one would picture him less than a step away from such a self-inflicted end. The notorious issues with his back and stomach are touched on, each one dissipating into a “wanting to kill myself” diagnosis. Heroin, when broached, also warrants a similar response. Clearly, Cobain was a man afflicted with demons, but he also appears in harmony with such horrors, chalking it up to his personality and his parenting. One of the things About a Son lacks (and it’s something the DVD avoids as well) is a clear explanation of such facets. Obviously on his guard most of the time, we have to infer a great many things from the man’s hints and circular conclusions. But that’s also the beauty of this mesmerizing document. It’s rare that we get to hear a famous face, in his own words, try and explain his celebrity.



It’s this very dissection that also helps this movie soar. Instead of relying on backseat psychologist or post-modern head shrinking, Azzerad and Schnack let the subject study himself. The lack of another presence, the use of day to day visuals to support the foundation, allows the many meanings in Cobain’s riffs to resonate. Our director does imply a few feelings (he admits as much on the scene specific audio commentary included on the disc) and when the images of the man finally appear at the end, the strategy seems more than sound. We are moved by the comparison between the frail, elfish human onscreen and the voice from Heaven we’ve heard for 90 minutes. It’s a juxtaposition that encapsulates everything that makes Cobain’s myth so unexpected. His songs may say it all (rights issues keep them out here, sadly), but there was much more on his mind than chorus and verse. About a Son proves that in sad, salutary spades.


 


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Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Various Artists - Brazil Classics at 20: Anti-aging Solutions Revealed
Mã - Tom Ze [MP3]
     


Balança Pema - Marisa Monte [MP3]
     


Claustrofobia - Martinho Da Silva [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


Big Dipper
She’s Fetching [MP3]
     


Sera Cahoone
Only As the Day Is Long [MP3]
     


Los Campesinos!
You! Me! Dancing! [MP3]
     


Buy at Rhapsody


Joseph Arthur
Rages of Babylon [MP3]
     


Witch
Eye [MP3]
     



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Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

Anger seems to be building about the imminent government bailout of the players and institutions caught up in the burst housing bubble. BusinessWeek‘s recession roundup piece this week touches on the brewing unrest (though only to make them seem a bit like wild-eyed radicals):


The airwaves and blogosphere are alive with people who say nothing should be done. They argue that intervening now would only delay the inevitable liquidation of credit-fueled excesses. “Under proposed bailouts, responsible people lose and have to give their money to gamblers, liars, and sleazy lenders,” says the widely followed Patrick.net housing blog.


This fury makes for the possibility of an otherwise unlikely shift in political orientation for the non-homeowning chumps who are going to end up being punished for their circumspection during the bubble’s inflation. Latte-sipping liberals like myself are ordinarily unlikely to pay much attention to the government-hating complaints of libertarians, but this passage from economist Arnold Kling at Econlog seemed to strike a chord with me:


There was some predatory borrowing going on in addition to predatory lending. And the worst lending mistakes were made by the least regulated segment of the market. So you have inexperienced amateur real estate speculators getting financing from Rolex-wearing mortgage brokers who sell the loans to 24-year-old Beamer-driving Wall Street investment bankers. Why can’t the rest of us just sit back and watch them all get what they deserve?
Instead, we get the Treasury and Congress coming up with “plans” to rewrite mortgages. These brilliant solutions contribute to making the mortgage securities market totally illiquid, because now nobody has any idea what the cash flows are going be under the (make them up as you go along) rules.



Earlier in this crisis, when the Fed was not handing out billions to investment bankers, I would have scoffed at the phrase predatory borrowing as a conservative sophism designed to conceal how ignorant but hopeful first-time buyers were led into deep water by unscrupulous mortgage brokers. The state, the media, and business all linked arms to tout home ownership as the only legitimate path to bourgeois security and fulfillment of the true American dream (the “ownership society”), and then aflame with that ideology, eventual subprime borrowers scrambled to get themselves some of that sweet home equity. Who could blame them? The abuses of the lending industry were so egregious, it was easy to overlook the overreaching by borrowers who were just trying to live the dream that had been foisted on them.


Seemingly everyone endorsed this program—the state, the banks, the press, your friends and neighbors—so now the sentiment appears to be that everyone should pitch in to clean up now that the program has been revealed to be a total mess. The housing bubble was a shared social problem that derived from people with laudable intentions but misguided methods. That’s BusinessWeek’s view:


There’s a social aspect, too. Concentrated foreclosures, voluntary and otherwise, can destroy neighborhoods because abandonment increases decay and crime. And the housing crash undermines the social compact. “Talk about the rich vs. the poor was to some extent buffered by rising house prices. Now all you have to do is stare at your paycheck and your negative home equity,” frets University of Chicago Graduate School of Business economist Raghuram G. Rajan.


But I am having a harder and harder time accepting that “social compact”, or maintaining sympathy for borrowers in over their heads in homes (which incidentally have destroyed the countryside in which I was raised) that have far more space than they need. They were under ideological pressure to keep up, but somehow I resisted. If the housing problems exacerbates tensions between rich and poor, that might even be a good thing for getting some measures through to ameliorate income inequality in general. But instead we are getting measures that are worsening it.


So I agree with Kling when he writes this:


The people who most deserve to be in homes now are the people who decided in 2005 and 2006 that they could not afford the then-prevailing house prices or who decided to at least wait to accumulate a down payment. If you can sort out the predatory borrowers from the victims of predatory lenders sufficiently well to identify the latter, then the best thing that you can do with taxpayer money is to write checks for those victims.
The way I see it, government has served primarily to prolong and exacerbate the problem.


Sadly, there is little solace at this point in feeling like a smarty-pants for staying out of trouble and being resistant to the dominant ideology, when those in trouble are still getting the love and attention from the government in the form of tax breaks and handouts and, now, most likely, bailouts. It’s becoming easier and easier to lump the borrowers in with the brokers and bankers who exploited the dream at the expense, it turns out, of skeptics and habitual rule-followers who thought twice about liar loans or thought it would be insane to expect home prices to continue to double every 18 months. The borrowers fueled the fire that is now burning through my money and the state’s diverting it from investments that might help me much more directly.


Yes, preventing the Great Depression II is a worthwhile cause, but one that should have been forestalled by all the regulatory checks and balances in place to manage the economy. Instead, we had a Fed and treasury Department also wrapped up in ideology during the bubble-building years: they refused to regulate the exploding lending industry and kept rates unreasonably low for too long to keep lenders awash in cheap money, which inevitably found its way into hyperinflated home values. And if the expected bailouts come through, moral hazard will reign supreme, as will the underlying fantasia about the importance of owning homes.


In this climate, the Democratic presidential candidates seem to be saying the wrong things and the Republican candidate the apparently sensible thing:


In the Presidential race, Republican Senator John McCain doesn’t want to bail out either side, favoring private workouts between borrowers and lenders. Here’s how he summed up his feelings on Mar.11: “It is not the government’s role to bail out investors…or lending institutions who didn’t do their job.” Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both tilt toward homeowners, but Clinton is more aggressive, calling for a voluntary 5-year freeze on subprime mortgage rates and a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures.


No one likes foreclosures—everybody involved loses. But no one likes deadbeats either. And no one likes ridiculously unaffordable prices for residential real estate. And homeowners who can’t afford the mortgages they signed up for—credulously or not—are not automatically victims. The real victims are the renters, who are seeing their rents increase with inflation while jobs become scarcer. That pool includes a lot of urbanites who you’d expect to lean Democratic, and they are probably more vulnerable than they would be ordinarily to some clever rhetoric from the Republicans. But then again, nothing about the current politicos in the G.O.P. leads me to believe that the party has the savvy or the inclination to make the pitch.


So the enemies of the ownership society have no place to turn.


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Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

Anyone who’s writing about a multi-stage festival is jiving you when they say they’re really reporting on it.  Unless they cloned themselves to do the rounds, the truth is that they caught a fraction of what was offered up.  At best, the writer is gonna fish for some kind of angle and sum-up moments that cover the whole festival but read a few of those articles and other than mentioning a few of the same bands, it sounds like these scribes attended different fests.  What usually gets written up are the buzz bands of the moment, big marquee names and maybe if they’re lucky, a handful of mostly unknown acts (I did that myself on my other blog).  At just about every panel at SXSW that I’ve done, a question always comes up from an inspiring musician or label about what they need to do to get noticed in this onslaught of music.  Ideally, the right answer would be “write good songs” but the truth is that you can just as easily (or more easily) make it on a good sound or a good appearance.  But what the hell does it mean for a band to get noticed in 2008?


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