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by Barry Lenser

9 Jan 2009

I’ve now listened to “Do You Want to Know a Secret” many times, read of its origins, and taken ample notes. Even so, I don’t think I could put together a commentary that aspires to be original or insightful. Throughout, I found myself insistently qualifying both the positive and negative reactions I had toward the song. As in: “Secret” doesn’t amount to much but it easily delivers a warm and modest pop pleasure. It’s hard to dislike but closer to forgettable than not. It’s lightweight but knowingly so. Such ambivalence can frustrate one’s attempt at lucid criticism.

The song itself is simple and fairly straightforward. Musically, the Beatles drew inspiration from an early ‘60s doo-wop hit called “I Really Love You” by the Stereos. What results is a tight but fanciful bounce of a song that moves along with a procession of lilting guitar plucks and a crisp, contained rhythm. The only twist comes right at the outset when the combined effect of minimalist spaghetti strumming and George’s earnest vocal produces a heavier, more uncertain tone. This dissolves within seconds though, giving way to the wispy amble that marks the song.

Lyrically, John borrowed from a tune in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which includes the line “Wanna know a secret/ Promise not to tell”. According to Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write, the titular “secret” referred to how John “had just realized that he was really in love” with his first wife Cynthia. Strangely, he wrote this song a short time after his marriage to her, which would seem to undercut the sense of excitement and discovery that one might experience while harboring such emotion (and not wedding its target). But John couldn’t have felt too strongly about how “Secret” would convey these sentiments because the vast majority of the song is so breezy and also because he allowed George to take the lead vocal.

Perhaps this detail, that “Secret” seems like a bone which the band tossed to George, partly animates my mixed thoughts. It almost reinforces the song’s disposable feel or attaches a negating asterisk to any enjoyment you might derive.  But this is likely just an instance of outside factors unduly influencing how a song is received. The effect is more contrived than anything. What isn’t contrived is that enjoyment, which, however qualified, doesn’t require a tedious explanation for its existence.

by Mike Schiller

8 Jan 2009

If you’re the type to follow a blog like this one, you’ve no doubt heard the news of UGO Entertainment’s purchase of the 1Up network and all of the properties underneath it, followed closely by the news of game rag stalwart EGM’s sudden (not to mention unfortunately timed, at one month before its 20th anniversary) cancellation.  The entire fiasco has resulted in a confirmed list of at least 30 staffers suddenly finding themselves having to check the “unemployed” box on every form they fill out for at least the near-term future.

Thus far, UGO’s been saying lots of nice things about letting 1up remain its own brand while simultaneously getting rid of a whole bunch of the people that made that site stand out (that is, the podcasters) among the major game sites, but I’m not going to be too hard on UGO here, because when you get down to it, it’s just business, as much as we’d prefer to think of it as more than that.  That’s small comfort to those who were just pink slipped, but turnover always happens in these situations, and we’re just not in the sort of economy that welcomes exceptions to that rule.

Gamers of a certain age will never forget this page.

Gamers of a certain age will never forget the Sheng Long hoax.

For many older gamers such as myself, the disappearance of EGM is really hitting home.  This is the magazine that gave us the infamous secret of Sheng Long, the magazine that started the “Lair is crap” wave of anti-publicity, the only magazine that most of us would ever have thought to have bought despite the presence of Fabio on the cover.  Heck, I remember the first one, which I bought shortly after spending way too much time with an Issue of Nintendo Power trying to figure out whether those Mega Man 2 screens were too spectacular to be real.

Still, the departure of EGM is just another domino to drop in the course of print media’s apparent march to extinction.

One could argue that print is already flirting with complete irrelevance as far as gaming goes, given that the only major American gaming rags left are Play (whose primary claim to fame is its “girls of gaming” feature), Game Informer (whose circulation will continue to thrive due to its status as a “free” bonus for signing up for GameStop’s membership card), GamePro (I’m sorry, I just never much cared for GamePro) and the official platform-specific magazines.  Europe still has a couple of solid mags in the form of Eurogamer and Edge, and Japan’s Famitsu continues to be a nationwide tastemaker (nothing solidifies the hype of a Japanese release like a 39 or 40 out of 40 from a Famitsu review).  Even so, with the ease of internet access still exponentially increasing and the shrinking window that separates “breaking” with “outdated”, it’s hard to see much of a future for print.  On an online source, you can see video previews of upcoming games; in print, you need to look at pictures.  Online sources can publish instantly, leaving print sources at least two weeks in the dust when it comes to news.

Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…

Maybe if they put Fabio on every cover…

If a print publication is to succeed, it is going to need to a) appeal to the nostalgia of an audience that grew up with print, and b) provide a service that online outlets can’t.  In the case of Famitsu, for example, that service is in the presentation of scored reviews by a core set of reviewers which still garners as much or more respect than any of the current online crop of reviewers.  For English-language audiences, however, this approach is more difficult because any of the writers who could pull this sort of clout are already gainfully employed online.

Perhaps if there were a print mag that was structured more like an academic journal, in which experts, scholars, and the rest of us were encouraged to submit essays to a prestigious editorial board, the best of which would be published, we would want to subscribe to it.  Of course, The Escapist already does this online, so it’s difficult to see it succeeding in a subscription-centered arena.  Gonzo game journalism already has its place online, as does some surprisingly well-constructed fan-fiction.

The truth is, there really isn’t anything that print magazines can offer that online outlets can’t, and even the most nostalgically-minded reader is going to favor something free, current, and dynamic.  Even I’ll admit that despite my own subscription to EGM, I wasn’t really reading it anymore; maybe I maintained it for the fresh-ink smell that a just-delivered magazine has.  Still, EGM was something of an institution in its own right, a holdover from the Nintendo age that managed to hold on longer than it could have thanks to some sharp editorial minds and solid writing.  Inevitable as EGM’s demise may have been, January 6, 2009 was still a sad day for gaming as we knew it.

by Jason Gross

8 Jan 2009

Count me among the millions of people who are relieved that the error of Bush II is coming to a close and who believes that Obama will do better just by showing up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  His campaign proposals, though vague, had the ring of common sense after eight years of pig-headed, disastrous neo-con horse-crap which destroyed the economy, got us into an un-necessary war, tarnished our image overseas and other horrifying foul-up’s.  While I’m ready and wiling to give Obama a chance, I’ve been curious about the growing chorus of criticism that’s been coming at him even before he takes office.  Most of this has come from the progressive movement which backed him and now wonder why he’s surrounding himself with wanks, shills and good ol’ boys on the Beltway scene.

One particular choice for his inner circle that I find troubling is his pick of the RIAA’s favorite lawyers to serve in the Justice Department, as detailed in this CNet article.  These crumb-bums were the ones arguing cases about suing downloaders and as CNET notes, that’s pretty much in line with soon-to-be-vice-prez Joe Bidden’s line that the govt’s gotta crack down on unauthorized downloading of entertainment goodies.  My concern (back to CNet) again is that the suits (and maybe Biden) will push the new prez to have tax dough back the prosecution of these cases.  Curiously enough, the RIAA had just announced that they were going to back off some on their court cases against downloaders.  Is it too ridiculous to see a connection with that and the recent appointment of their lawyers to team Obama? 

Time will tell but right now, it ain’t too comforting to have these guys in top law enforcement jobs.  Don’t get me wrong- I’m not going to get sentimental about Alberto “Sleazebag” Gonzalez.  But I do wonder and worry what the new guys are gonna make their priority after the inauguration.

by PopMatters Staff

8 Jan 2009

Blitzen Trapper
Furr [MP3]
     

Pale Young Gentlemen
Paper Planes (M.I.A. cover) [MP3]
     

Eleni Mandell
Artificial Fire [MP3]
     

Ladyfinger
Little Things [MP3]
     

Y La Bamba
Alida St. (Debut Mix) [MP3]
     

Buy at iTunes Music Store

Bodies of Water
Under the Pines [Video]

by Rob Horning

8 Jan 2009

It’s clear our economy has run into an effective demand problem: for highly logical reasons banks are loath to lend and consumers are choosing to save rather than spend. (How dare we! After so much effort has been invested in making us slavishly consume the surplus!) This WSJ chart illuminates what it has chosen to call “the frugality trap”:

The chart illustrates how the U.S. economy’s dependence on consumer spending has grown and grown over the past few decades, but seemed to reach a ceiling in 2001. The current crisis may be an indication that the level achieved was not as stable as it appeared, but the solution the ruling class has apparently settled on is an effort to restore that level. That’s why it is a trap rather than an opportunity to reconceive our collective economic purpose. An economic reorganization to stabilize a smaller personal consumption to GDP ratio would presumably be to painful—it would seem to mean a reduction in living standards and would definitely mean growing accustomed to acquiring fewer new things—and politically unacceptable. Obama’s proposed fiscal stimulus package (a wealth of spending initiatives and, as we’ve recently learned, tax cuts) is meant to try to turn the tide against this, and the stock markets anyway seem enthusiastic about its chances.

But there remains something jarring about shoveling money at people so they will buy more, particularly since easy credit, fueling heedless consumerism, helped bring the economy to this point where it requires stimulus. Economist Arnold Kling, an outspoken stimulus skeptic, expresses the problem succinctly: “from a Keynesian perspective, you always want to transfer wealth from the prudent to the profligate. But from any normal perspective, you don’t.” This is exactly what sticks in my craw when I think about, say, plans to prevent foreclosures. Money is being transferred from the prudent people who eschewed real-estate purchases they couldn’t afford (like me) to those profligate people who trusted in the zeitgeist (made manifest in ready credit) and didn’t worry about such trivial concerns as affordability. They were acting on the same principles as the bankers apparently were, if this immortal quote from Citibank CEO Chuck Prince, uttered at the height of the bubble, is any indication: “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” If the credit is out there, you’re a fool not to take it, even if you know the whole thing is unsustainable. (Some of Ponzi schemer BernieMadoff’s clients apparently had this view as well.) Of course, no one is taking Prince’s compensation from the bubble years back since he was fired, whereas the people who danced to the music by buying overpriced, oversized houses now have to give them back to the banks.

Anyway, a Keynesian stimulus requires getting people—anyone, prudent or not—to spend, even if they don’t “deserve” to. The need to overcome that ideological obstacle requires a strenuous effort to remove moral debate from economic policy considerations. This column by the FT’s Martin Wolf is an excellent example. The most important lesson from Keynes, he argues, is

that one should not treat the economy as a morality tale. In the 1930s, two opposing ideological visions were on offer: the Austrian; and the socialist. The Austrians – Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek – argued that a purging of the excesses of the 1920s was required. Socialists argued that socialism needed to replace failed capitalism, outright. These views were grounded in alternative secular religions: the former in the view that individual self-seeking behaviour guaranteed a stable economic order; the latter in the idea that the identical motivation could lead only to exploitation, instability and crisis.
Keynes’s genius – a very English one – was to insist we should approach an economic system not as a morality play but as a technical challenge. He wished to preserve as much liberty as possible, while recognising that the minimum state was unacceptable to a democratic society with an urbanised economy. He wished to preserve a market economy, without believing that laisser faire makes everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

But the ideological impediment is persistent, warranting political compromise that tends to reinforce the skepticism.Paul Krugman has written a series of posts about the stimulus possibly being too small:

I see the following scenario: a weak stimulus plan, perhaps even weaker than what we’re talking about now, is crafted to win those extra GOP votes. The plan limits the rise in unemployment, but things are still pretty bad, with the rate peaking at something like 9 percent and coming down only slowly. And then Mitch McConnell says “See, government spending doesn’t work.”

Tyler Cowen makes precisely that case in advance, in economic terms: He argues that

Recovery requires that zombie banks behave like real banks, that risk premia are properly priced, and that the economy undergoes its sectoral shifts toward whatever will replace construction and finance and debt-driven consumption. Fiscal policy won’t do much toward these ends and in fact a temporarily successful stimulus might hinder these long-run adjustments.

Perhaps the ideological conundrum comes down to this: when individuals and firms spend recklessly, this constitutes their freedom (even when the need to spend feels like a compulsion); when governments do the same, this proves they are dispensable (even when government credit is universally acknowledged as necessary to maintain the economic system as we know it). How can we resent and discourage the systemic incentives to fiscal recklessness at the individual level by licensing the government to be reckless in our stead?

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A Chat with José González at Newport Folk Festival

// Notes from the Road

"José González's sets during Newport Folk Festival weren't on his birthday (that is today) but each looked to be a special intimate performance.

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