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by Rob Horning

27 Jan 2009

In Wired, writer Steven Levy admits that when he fails to update Twitter and the other social networks he participates in, he feels guilty. He loves the voyeuristic aspects of these services—“I’m fascinated by the quirks and preferences my “friends” reveal through comments, status reports, and alerts”—but feels his pleasure in this requires him to reveal more of his own life. Hence, he posts and inadvertently exposes more than he means to about himself: “Still, no matter how innocuous your individual tweets, the aggregate ends up being the foundation of a scary-deep self-portrait. It’s like a psychographic version of strip poker—I’m disrobing, 140 characters at a time.”

Twitter boosters claim that it’s very natural to get into a flow of sharing, and admittedly it seems as though such sharing could conceivably promote some kind of laudable openness, a communal intimacy never before available to humankind. Or maybe such sharing is a perfected version of earlier forms of communal knowledge—you can get the small-town recognition without the mean-spiritedness. (Call it participatory surveillance.)

But when I conducted my Twitter experiment I found that I didn’t want to share. Mainly, I didn’t want to posture. And I didn’t really want to follow anybody. (Why would I want more small talk from people?) Nonetheless I wanted to participate. So in my latest attempt to Twitter, I tried to address my reluctance through a series of distancing techniques, writing bogus quotations of what I thought skeptics might say about me or about anyone pontificating recklessly online. Anytime I was filled with self-doubt or thought of a cynical rebuttal to something I had written earlier or had thought about writing, I tried to articulate it as a criticism of someone else and post it to Twitter. Or if I read a really good put-down, I’d appropriate it and modify it to fit my format. But in practice, this quickly threatened to become a “scary-deep self-portrait,” a waste of perfectly useful self-loathing. Moreover, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to accomplish by this, so I knocked it off. It was “creepy,” and it’s probably even creepier that I am writing about it here.

Nicholas Carr, in an astute commentary on Levy’s article, suggests that when Levy feels weird about sharing, he is experiencing not guilt but shame.

Though he never names it, what Levy is really talking about here is shame. And the shame comes from something deeper than just self-exposure, though that’s certainly part of it. There’s an arrogance to sharing the details of one’s life in public with strangers—it’s the arrogance of power, the assumption that such details somehow deserve to be broadly aired. And as for the people, those strangers, on the receiving end of the disclosures, they suffer, through their desire to hear the details, to hungrily listen in, a kind of debasement.

That pretty much captures how I feel when I am thinking about posting to Twitter: a unsettling mix of arrogance and cravenness. As Carr had suggested in an earlier post, that moment is like self-consciousness squared. And at the same time, brevity becomes the soul of smugness.

I wonder whether those young enough to take social networks for granted experience these feelings, or if they lack the subject position from which to even recognize them, name them, understand that there are alternatives. It may be a meaningless matter for them; they have missed the social opportunity for a certain kind of privacy the same way I was born too late to discover whether I had any natural aptitude with horses. They disappeared from everyday life, and so may privacy as people my age have known it. Still, it seems that with all the tools for projecting our identity online, identity becomes that much more fragile. The apotheosis of social networks seems to be a generalized anomie, millions of people shouting into a deafening wind of discourse, everyone of them friends with all the rest.

by Farisa Khalid

26 Jan 2009

All over the world, from Bombay to Jackson Heights, NY to Southall, London, to Kuala Lumpur, more than 200,000 people listen to Indian film music a year, and over 70% of what they’re listening to is written by the same three men: Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, and Loy Mendoza. On film credits, they’re billed as their team name, “Shankar Eshaan Loy”, just like a corporation.  As big as these three have become, they practically are one. 

Their name alone exemplifies the best of modern India, Shankar, a Hindu, Ehsaan, a Muslim, and Loy, a Christian. They’re a part of the dynamism and success that evolves from a secular, progressive country.

In the past six years, they’ve reinvigorated the musical genre in India.  Gone are the arcane, traditional village folk melodies of previous generations that accompanied many scenes of buxom heroines frolicking along the Western Ghats. Waves of immigration over twenty years have made the audience more global, more attuned to varieties of musical styles and sensibilities.  Hip-hop, alternative, techno, and the old-fashioned Broadway score, have become incorporated into the songs of Hindi films diversifying the sound and emotions contemporary Indian pop culture.

The songs of Shankar Ehsaan Loy have the extraordinary ability to unify masses of scattered people in different countries and of different generations through common melodies that are infectiously catchy and irresistibly singable.  Half the listeners don’t even speak or understand the Hindi lyrics of the songs.  But people, regardless of cultural background, know a good song when they hear one, and Shankar Ehsaan Loy have prodigiously churned out several in the short span of only half a decade.

The Essential Shankar Eshaan Loy:


Mission Kashmir (2000)
Love amidst the blood-soaked beauty of civil war-torn Kashmir.  The film itself was a compelling blend of heaving machismo and romanticism, like crossing parts of Rambo with Dr. Zhivago, but the score was haunting and otherworldly.  From the achingly wistful lullaby, “So Ja Chanda” to the famous folk serenade, “Bumbro” performed by resplendently costumed Kashmiri dancers, the songs wrap you around in a dreamy haze.


Dil Chata Hai (The Heart Wants… - 2001)
Farhan Akhtar’s debut film about the love lives of a group of three close friends facing the anxieties of what to do with their lives after college touched a raw nerve among Indian teens in the way Say Anything and The Breakfast Club spoke to the youth market of the late 80s.  The songs are wildly eclectic and catchy: the rousing club anthem, “Koi kahe kehta rahe,” the romantic banter sung to the strains of a deegiree-doo in “Jaane kyon,” the joyously playful movie nostalgia piece, “Woh ladki hai kahan” to the soaring title song, the soundtrack was inventive and fresh and different from anything ever heard in Indian movies.


Kuch Naa Kaho (Don’t Say a Word - 2003)
This slightly better than average romantic comedy about a single mother finding true love is one of those movies that proves that a gorgeous score can save a movie. The partnership of the three composers with the éminence gris of lyricists, Javed Akhtar was seldom as rapturous and lush as it was here.  The Old World court poetry of ghazals set to contemporary pop and disco melodies made for an eclectic blend of love songs and serenades.  The rapier “battle-of-the-sexes” banter of “Baat Meri Suniye” has a Cole Porter cleverness, while the dance tune, “Tumhe Aaja Maine Jo Dekha” is at once energetic in beat and tender in romantic longing. 


Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come - 2003)
The great, epic NRI (non-resident Indian) movie.  The Kapur family of Queens, with their emotional squabbles over marriage, money, and the future, their closeness with their friends and community, became a representation of us in our struggles to stake out an identity in the West while still retaining our Indian heritage.  The wistful title tune, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” is gentle nod to mythic move ballads of the past, “As Time Goes By,” and “Three Coins in a Fountain.”  But the most endearing, winning song is the boisterous wedding finale number, “Maahi Ve,” now played in every Indian wedding party in every hotel ballroom.


Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli - 2005)
Bunty and Babli is a playful crime caper, like Catch Me if You Can, where we’re rooting for the young con artist in spite of his callousness and naivete. The film follows a couple of teenage runaways on their Robin Hood escapades, hoodwinking corrupt government officials and slimy petty thieves, all of whom deserve the childish humiliation they receive. The songs are sublime; the best kind of musical storytelling that propels the narrative as well as enlivens the film. The pulsating call to adventure, “Dhadak Dhadak” that opens the movie, the irresistibly bouncy title theme, “Bunty aur Babli” and the famous, show-stopping rock-ghazal, “Kajra Re” are all unforgettable and totally appealing to everyone at a fundamental level of pure, joyous entertainment.


Don  (2006)
A very sleek, high-style crime thriller from Farhan Akthar, a remake of a 70s, pseudo-blaxploitation classic.  Superstar Shahrukh Khan takes on an early Amitabh Bachan role and adds his own distinctive shadings of personality.  The music is suitably sophisticated with brittle, hard-edged techno tones.  Songs magnificently showcase a character’s motivations and drives.  The lazy folk melody “Khaike Paan Banaras Wala” resurrected from the original film, is pumped up full throttle here, complete with a synthesized techno background and the nuanced vocal shadings of Udit Narayan.  The seductive disco piece, “Aaj Ki Raat” is at once mysterious and danceable, and the religious hymn to Ganesha, “Maurya Re”is brilliantly composed, sung, and staged complete with clouds of pink and orange dust, cymbals, and hundreds of street dancers.


Salaam-E-Ishq (Love’s Sweet Salute - 2007)
Love, Actually, masala-style. Converging stories of different couples struggling through relationships in Mumbai has a breezy, effervescent quality that’s wholly entertaining.  The eclectic song sequences are lavishly and lovingly staged by talented new director, Nikhil Advani.  The gorgeous, infectiously catchy title number, “Salaam-E-Ishq” is a crowd-pleasing extravaganza in the vein of the golden age of Hollywood musicals from the 50s with the entire cast lip syncing like mad on a spinning soundstage; the Trafalgar Square wedding serenade, “Tenu Leke” is outrageous fun, with the film’s matinee idol, Salman Khan, playfully hip-thrusting with sari-clad back-up dancers in front of Nelson’s column. And the pensive lament, “Ye Rabba” is tender and aching, and adds just the right note of melancholy to temper the film’s buoyancy.  The soundtrack is perhaps the most varied and virtuosic of the three composers, a startling showcase of their versatility.


Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (Dance, Baby, Dance - 2007)
A striving-for-edgy romantic comedy set in the South Asian immigrant borough of East London.  The filmmakers spent more time on creating the illusion of cool associated with the stars than on developing an actual plot.  The film’s only good song is the title song, “Jhoom,” but when it’s good, it’s incredible.  Inventive in melody and instrumentation, with a repetitive, Sufic trancelike beat that stays in your head for hours. It’s a perfect blend of hybrid styles, courtly Old World Persian, Indian Classical, rock n’ roll and Bhangra that exemplifies the borderless, dynamic quality of Shankar, Eshaan, and Loy.


Chandni Chowk to China (2009)
The trio’s first, mainstream, wide-audience based movie: Bollywood musical meets a Kung Fu action flick. Reuniting with Saalam-E-Ishq and Kal Ho Naa Ho director, Nikhil Advani, Shankar-Eshaan-Loy explore a variety of different styles to compliment the commercial vehicle of this new type of cross-over movie. There’s a slick, pop-like Michael Jackson quality to the title track, “Chandi Chowk to China” while the film’s memorable romantic scene, the two loves soaring among the night-lit skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Mary Poppins-style with a magic umbrella, is accompanied by the gentle, electronic synthesizer melody of “Tere Naina.”  But the best track, is the most traditionally minded.  It’s the simple hero’s theme music, “S.I.D.H.U.,” a pulsating, exhilarating Indian classical, earthy Punjabi paean to optimism.

by L.B. Jeffries

26 Jan 2009

The single-player of Halo 3 is fairly easy to grasp. It’s an effective game design for providing a relatively light combat experience. You play the ultimate cyborg badass and you run around curb stomping aliens in a static sci-fi narrative. The game design supports this by giving you regenerating shields, having cutscenes of people fawning over how awesome you are, and generally providing a solid FPS except for the blue A.I. interrupting you randomly. There isn’t much that anyone can’t grasp on their own, which is an accomplishment in of itself. The multiplayer, on the other hand, is still played today in the thousands and merits a closer look. Now that some time has gone by and the game has been dethroned by the extremely different Call of Duty 4 in terms of popularity, there’s now a chance to contrast the two and learn more about how they work. While the latter game that allows players to compete purely on skill, Halo 3 offers a larger amount of variety by having the weapons break the game into separate modes of play. Each mode has a distinct advantage over the other, so that the game allows both skilled players and unskilled ones to compete in the same space.

The chief virtue of the game in terms of appeal is the variety of play styles it supports. I have a decent middle-range game but prefer getting into close quarters with the spiker. Others prefer sniper rifles while there are always the power sword types who like close quarters. Iroquois Pliskin did a write-up of the multiplayer where he discusses this virtue in-depth. He explains, “The driving idea behind Halo’s combat is to create engagements at three distinct registers: long, medium, and short-range. Succeeding at each of these three distances requires the mastery of a different set of weapons and tactics; lobbing your grenades well is one of the essential skills in the game, and using them effectively is a different proposition at each of these three distances.” Indeed, the huge range of skills involved with the game and the wide range of players involved are what constitutes the typical Halo 3 multiplayer experience. A player using a sniper rifle typically jumps around and will immediately lose if you get into close quarters while its equipped. A player using a sword is easy prey for a sniper if they catch them in the open. The consequence of this constantly dueling range of skills is that in Halo 3 you can genuinely “dominate” someone. You can negate the combat range they are using by using the counter and get an advantage that is usually an instant kill. Although some levels do specialize or limit the ranges possible, Halo 3 maps usually feature a wide variety of terrain so that you can successfully engage with any of three approaches.

This idea of randomized dominance can be seen in the weapons as well. Guns that stay strong over multiple ranges tend to have a handicap like the Spartan Laser’s recharge time while guns that only work at one range tend to fire quickly and reload fast. Other guns can work at two different ranges, such as the Spiker’s extra damage in close quarters while still being a decent medium range weapon. Specialization is then the quickest way to rise in skill with Halo 3 so the player typically finds the weapon that supports their preferred combat and then they try to engage players in it. You grab a battle rifle and then try to engage people at medium to long range, for example. In terms of dealing with a gun being fired at you, realizing what’s being shot at you is only half the battle. Picking up on what kind of weapons the player you’re facing is always going for and then disarming that advantage by using the opposite kind is the quickest way to get ahead. This also illustrates why working as a team is so important, one person works at one range while another is going at a different distance. Contrast that to Call of Duty 4 where the players are all typically spread even and using the same set of weapons. Everyone has a basic assault rifle, everyone is shooting from the shoulder, and everyone is blindly lobbing grenades and ducking behind cover. A great deal of this can be attributed to the levels and class system in Call of Duty 4. As soon as you’re on the level where long range is best, everyone switches to those weapons. The game levels the variety of Halo 3 by allowing all players to pick their starting weapons and thus everyone is purely competing in terms of skill. There’s no random chance that the person is just using the superior gun for that range since they’ll have picked it. Halo 3, due to its ‘Find the gun’ setup for most types of play, cuts the skill barrier down and allows less competent players to still play. Contrast it to other games where you race to the guns: whoever gets the best weapon quickly dominates. Because Halo 3 balances out each weapon to always have a weakness, it doesn’t succumb to someone just finding the best gun on the map either.

For many players, it’s easy to think of this game design as flawed instead of brilliant. The idea that you cannot win purely on your skill is offensive to many players simply because what else is a game for except a contest of skill? With Halo 3 the emphasis on inclusion means that you can always pop into a match and make a kill. Even if you’re having a weak day or playing by yourself, you can engage with the game. Unlike Call of Duty 4, which is a bit tricky if you’ve had a few beers or are trying to relax, you can turn on Halo 3 and just unwind. The design also allows for very intense competitive play should you choose to engage on a different level. Mastering all the tricks with grenades, knowing when to retreat, and knowing each map perfectly allows players to gain a decisive edge. Team play is also a world in and of itself, since this essay is based mostly on rounds of playing Social Slayer solo. These options are still just ways around what is essentially engaging in an elaborate round of rock, paper, scissors. If you both choose the same range, it boils down to skill. If you choose rock and they choose scissor, then that dominance factor comes into play again. What makes this so impressive is that Halo 3 is an FPS you can engage with in a variety of ways. You can play it over a couple of beers, you can play it in a tournament, or you can play it to cool off from work. A little bit of chaos in the game is what makes that variety possible.

by Rob Horning

26 Jan 2009

PSFK linked to this post by Russell Davies, in which he explains his strategy to make himself actually pay attention to what he listens to:

unless I trick myself into paying attention to music that I either just revert to tried and trusted favourites or let all sorts of new stuff drift by me an in ambient haze. Not really listening.
So I thought I’d try a 26 week experiment; listening to a new letter every week. Just to see what I notice. This is week A.
Projects for paying attention to attention. Those seem interesting now.

I’m sympathetic to the desperate feeling of being overwhelmed by all the music that’s accessible to us, but I’m not sure that setting up arbitrary limits is the best solution. Ideally, there would be something at least semi-organic about how we pursue pleasure and pay attention. Is that the impasse we have reached, where we have to force ourselves to pay attention to the things we intended to do for fun? Maybe the “ambient haze” he worries about is actually preferable—the best we can do nowadays. (And maybe that explains why people like Animal Collective—and it’s even in the A’s!)

That said, my arbitrary listening approach has to do with waging a campaign to play every song I have on my iPod at least once. It’s a Sisyphean task and a bit joyless too. It certainly isn’t what I want music in my life for—to be the arbitrary yardstick for how much entertainment-industry product I’ve compelled myself to consume.

Anyway, this makes me wonder if we really have in fact entered into the so-called attention economy—the idea that our most precious currency is the attention we pay to something, since so much is freely offered and the competition amongst marketers for our eyeballs has never been fiercer. We do have a limited amount of time in which to concentrate our attention on things, but these limitations have not translated into a clear hierarchy of where to focus. Instead, we seem more bewildered than ever by all the possibilities, and we become more and more whimsical without necessarily wanting to. The need to pay attention to attention suggests that our culture has been too successful in promoting distractions; it may be that we can no longer tell distractions apart from things we want to be interested in. Distraction has become the common denominator of all leisure experiences; the only alternative is basically work, socially constructed as joyless.

(Bonus: My 15-song all-A playlist, judging by iTunes play count:
1. Abba, “Bang-a-boomerang”
2. AC/DC, “Dog Eat Dog”
3. Addrisi Brothers, “Time to Love”
4. Al Kooper, “Be Yourself (Be Real)”
5. Andrew Bird, “Fake Palindromes”
6. Alice Cooper, “Under My Wheels”
7. the Arrows, “Toughen Up”
8. Allman Brothers, “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ “
9. Asha Bhosle, “Ankhen Meri Maikhana”
10. Andy Kim, “Shoot ‘em Up Baby”
11. Angry Samoans, “Lights Out”
12. The Association, “It’ll Take a Little Time”
13. Aerovons, “World of You”
14. A.C. Newman, “Battle for Straight Time”
15. Allen Toussaint, “Electricity”)

by Lara Killian

26 Jan 2009

Yesterday marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, fondly known as the Bard of Scotland. Celebrations around the globe toasted the poet and lyricist responsible for bringing Scottish poetry to the world and Auld Lang Syne to us on New Year’s Eve—‘Hogmanay’ on his home turf.

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The Daily Record detailed some of the events taking place in Scotland to celebrate the day, while the BBC News provided a summary, accompanied by a photo of an actor reciting some of Burns’ poetry outside the poet’s family home in his birthplace of Alloway, Scotland. On NPR’s All Things Considered program, there was an interview with Alison Jones, the winner of the “Robert Burns World Federation Secondary Schools Competition Festival” for reciting his poetry.

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Traditionally, Burns’ anniversary is celebrated with haggis and whisky, and this year is a special landmark, with gatherings likely taking place in every city where those of Scottish descent reside, as well as those who feel, rather than share, that connection in their blood. The makers of The Famous Grouse whisky certainly planned ahead, crafting 250 bottles of a 37 year-old whisky which are now being donated for charity fund-raising efforts around the world. Though he only made it to his own 37th birthday, Burns’ legacy has withstood the test of time, and his influence has been felt for over two hundred years in poetry and song, from Scots Wha Hae to Tam O’Shanter. If you missed the celebration yesterday, feel free to raise a glass tonight.

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