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by Mike Schiller

12 Mar 2009

A little background: I’m a software guy.  I grew up tinkering with BASIC, learning programming on PASCAL, taking years of college courses based on C++, and now I have a job programming Java.  I’ve always thought like a software guy, I will always think like a software guy.

I mention this because David Shippy and Mickie Phipps are hardware people.  In fact, they’re the hardware people responsible for the chips that run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, which is what their book The Race for a New Game Machine is all about.  They live and breathe microcircuitry, while I don’t even know if microcircuitry is a real word.  To them, everything worth doing can be put on a silicon chip; brilliance is measured in gigahertz.

As a software guy reading a book by hardware people, then, I’m willing to acknowledge that maybe Shippy and Phipps are at a disadvantage when I’m the one evaluating their book.  After all, there are passages like this:

When a kid drops $59.95 at Circuit City on Microsoft’s Halo 3 interactive shoot-em-up and launches the game on Xbox 360, more is demanded from this game console than has ever been demanded from any other game machine.  When the player swings a joystick and levels a weapon at a charging alien beast, then presses the button and showers it with lead, splattering it straight back to hell, the quality of the experience depends less on the code written by the people at Microsoft than on the processor brains in the chip inside the box.

That’s from the very first page of the prologue.  For a software guy to read that, it’s an awful way to start.  One, he (and when I say “he” from here on out, I speak of David Shippy, given that the entire book is written in his voice, from his point of view) speaks of the code written by the people at Microsoft, when Halo 3 was developed by Bungie; he actually slights the people who built the game, giving credit instead to those who sold the game.  While it’s an honest mistake—Microsoft’s name is the one splashed on the Halo 3 box, after all—that’s just the kind of thing that can make the hairs on the back of a developer’s neck stand on end.

The other problem with that passage: he actually puts the role of the chip designer above that of the developer.  In that one simple statement, he makes it known just how much stock he puts in what software people do.  Whether that was his intention or not, or whether he even believes it or not is irrelevant.  He just told us that the chip is more important.  As a software guy, I would counter: I’ve seen too many awful games running on these amazing machines to believe that the quality of the experience has more to do with the hardware than the software.

That’s not the only nit I have to pick, either.

So…this never happened, then?

So…this never happened, then?

In a chapter called “Do Your Homework”, Shippy recounts the research he did to get acquainted with the gaming industry, and he does a quick recap of gaming history up to the release of the PlayStation 2.  The problem?  He does all right up to 1984, where he details the doldrums that gaming was finding itself in…and then he skips right to the PlayStation.  As far as he’s concerned, the ten years of the NES, the SNES, the Sega Genesis, the rise of portable gaming in the form of the Game Boy…they never happened.  1984-1994 was a black hole for the industry as far as he was concerned.  While I don’t expect a full, detailed recount of every system that was ever released, the NES, at least, seems to be a bit of an omission, yes?  Shippy actually seems to have a decided aversion to Nintendo in general—the only reference to Nintendo that I recall is a passing mention of the GameCube, and only because a colleague worked on its chip.

Again, I’m being unfair, because none of this has much to do with the story that Shippy and Phipps are trying to tell.  The point, however, is that there is an interesting story to be found in The Race for a New Game Machine, but much of the audience who would be interested in that story is going to be alienated by the assumptions that are made and the history that is overlooked.

That’s why I’m putting this here.  I want to be able to talk about the story told in this book without the bias of a “software guy”.  As such, I had to lay out all my “software guy” problems before I talk about the good stuff—because there is good stuff, and it’s worth talking about without getting sidetracked.  For that writeup…well, you’ll have to come back next week.

by Michael Kabran

12 Mar 2009

Several years ago I was a member of a very short-lived band, Sonic Boob. (Note: Band names have been changed to preserve the anomymity of the victims involved.) We made some great music together (a strange combination of soul, post-rock, and emo), but, ultimately, we went our separate ways, because our opinions were too disparate on one key issue: the Backstreet Boys.

For those of you that just landed on Earth, the Backstreet Boys were a pre-millenial boy band, a pop music enterprise whose main purpose was entertainment and commerical success—not to create meaningful, groundbreaking, or divisive art.

Given this information, naturally, the question that divided Sonic Boob was: could the Backstreet Boys produce good music?

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that we were a band of music nerds, first and foremost, and so such questions seemed incredibly meaningful to us at the time. (Or perhaps that is already too clear.) At any rate, I fell on the side of the argument that thought the Backstreet Boys were capable of (and actually did produce some) good songs. Did I prefer to listen to these songs instead of, say, the works of Black Star, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, or Oswaldo Golijov? Certainly not. But, I also did not believe, as many of my bandmates did, that the Backstreet Boys’ apparent pandering to pre-pubescent youth was necessarily related to the group’s ability to perform/produce/create good music.

I supported my view with several alcohol-fueled points: 1) The Backstreet Boys utilized talented songwriters, producers, and arrangers who, while they surely wanted to make a buck, were musically-trained and have at least some artistic integrity. In most cases, the songwriting team and process is even insulated from the marketing machine for an album. 2) Extreme popularity and commercial success does not necessarily mean you suck. You can look at pop music as music of the masses. In other words, it’s a folk music (Intro to Anthropology, don’t fail me now). It doesn’t break new ground, sure, but it connects with people - -a whole lotta people—in a meaningful way and makes them feel. That counts for something—a variable or two in the complicated differential equation of good music. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how much you dress it up. (Please, no pig/lipstick metaphors.) AutoTune, synthesizers, and orchestral flourishes are nice, but they cannot cover up a crappy song. Similarly, they cannot make a bad song sound good. I mean, wasn’t the original Incredible Hulk TV show far superior to the recent CGI-saturated motion picture?

Here are my bandmates’ also alcohol-fueled rebuttal of my points: 1) The Backstreet Boys suck and so anyone who writes music for them also sucks. You certainly don’t need talent to write formulaic songs with a maximum of four chords and the most inane lyrics on Earth. 2) Economics and art do not make a tasty cocktail. They run counter to one another at nearly every step of the way. If you are worried about popularity and mass appeal, then you are at least unconsciously making decisions that compromise the artistic integrity of the music. Let’s say that as the songwriter for the Backstreet Boys, with your background in dodecaphony and atonal musical serialism, you are feeling a D diminished 13 chord as the next chord in the song you are writing for the group. Well, the audience certainly won’t stomach that kind of dissonance so, instead, you are forced to alter the artistic integrity of the song by plopping in a D minor triad—yet again. Over time, these compromises make music bland and boring—they make it suck. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how you dress it up. But in most popular music they successfully fool the masses into believing million-dollar production equates to a good song. Essentially, they make you believe the Hulk movie is way better than the original with its limited special effects. And the box office numbers don’t lie—they fooled most people.

In the end, Sonic Boob’s arguments were more interesting than our music and the band split. This brings me, in a most roundabout way, to my main point: Chris Cornell.

A brief, and albeit incredibly unscientific, survey of the growing body of (largely negative) criticism mounted at Cornell’s latest effort, Scream, a collaboration with pop-producing sensation Timbaland, shows, in essence, the debate I had with my bandmates lo those many years ago. Can a serious rock dude with major indie music street cred team up with a commercially-cognizant producer to make good music? Most critics have said “no.” In fact, the only reason I thought about a possible similarity between criticism of Scream and the debate within Sonic Boob was the extent to which critics have slammed Cornell for his apparent “change in direction.” What is significant, however, isn’t that critics dislike Scream. That’s certainly their job and what we love and expect from music criticism. What is significant is the way in which the critics have expressed their displeasure for Scream. This expression is what closely echoes my band’s disagreement.

Let me break it down: Many critics who dislike Scream seem to suggest that the album’s failings are related to Cornell’s desire for mass market appeal. As a result, these critics appear largely wary of the idea that good music can be birthed by artists aiming at commercial success. It’s not necessarily that these critics consciously believe that artists aiming for commercial appeal are incapable of producing good music. Rather it’s that their criticism of Scream is related to their belief that Cornell is aiming for mass market success. They believe, like my bandmates did, that this aim helps the music in some way to suck—at least a bit.

On the other side of the aisle are the handful of critics (myself included) that are at least somewhat fond of Scream. For the most part, they separate Cornell’s music from his potential desire for commercial success. As a result, they seem overtly open to the possibility that good music can come from artists with eye towards popular appeal.

(I am of course oversimplifying the issue, but I think it’s useful to do so in this case to show how differently people view the relationship between commercial appeal and artistic integrity.)

Of course there are plenty of critics who do not fit my rubric. But the question is still a relevant one, particularly in this age of growing commercialism, where your favorite song may just end up appearing in a Geico or iTunes advertisement. At least it was relevant to Sonic Boob.

by Rob Horning

12 Mar 2009

Wired reports on a mobile-phone application that lets a user scan a barcode of a DVD and launch a bit-torrent download of it at their home (link via BoingBoing). Somehow this seems more like stealing than using a search engine to find a torrent in the privacy of one’s own home. Handling the object you will no longer have to buy seems to make tangible the notion of intellectual-property theft, which makes me wonder why anybody would bother to do it. Are there those among us gripped by a self-destructive desire to flamboyantly to perform theft in public rather than in the peace and anonymity of their own homes? This would be like defiantly parading to the Adult Books store rather than surfing for porn online.

Perhaps straight-up pirates who are looking to steal everything to sell it subway platforms and the like woudl benefit from a system in which they could just scan everything on the shelf, but it would seem like these people would have more reason to want not to be on camera in a retail outlet doing this.

It has been a long time since I browsed in a store looking for DVDs or music (one of the major quality-of-life improvements the internet has brought my life is that I never have to go to a record store again), so maybe I have lost touch with that level of impulsivity that would make bar-code-automated stealing seem like a good idea. I suppose it has a poetic flavor to it, using the retail machine’s tools against the system itself. (And then I’m going to get a tattoo of a bar code on my arm, to make an important statement about conformity.) It’s hard to remember what it was like to have to discover new culture by browsing in stores, though it was once my primary mode of cultural discovery. It still is, to some degree, in book stores and libraries. I’m not nostalgic for learning about music from the import section at Listening Booth—but it is for that sort of nostalgia that this bar-code-reader

But it seems like most discoveries of new cultural products to want are made online—a depressing fact is that we have our cultural world expanded not by wandering through the world having experiences and encountering unlikely or unexpected things, but through the systematic and highly rationalized, virtually automated mode of searching online. I could set a schedule by my cultural discoveries—every week or so I spend an hour or so plowing through newsgroups and mp3 blogs to see if anything sounds interesting. I’m not sure if these count as “discoveries” any more. Instead, I’m merely calibrating my internal novelty-seeking metabolism, rendering the very idea of discovery impossible.

by PopMatters Staff

12 Mar 2009

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Slumdog Millionaire. The Alchemist.

2. The fictional character most like you?

3. The greatest album, ever?
Parallel Lines, Led Zeppelin III.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars.

5. Your ideal brain food?

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Arranging the strings on my album, Light of X. Because I had the wherewithal to stick with the task even though I wasn’t initially sure I had the ability. That’s always good for one’s self esteem! :)

7. You want to be remembered for…?
Being a great singer, songwriter, and musician.

by Sarah Zupko

12 Mar 2009

We discovered Mike Farris two years ago at the Americana Music Festival where he put on a show that knocked our socks off. His 2007 album Salvation in Lights is just as good as his live and it clocked in at number 13 on our best music of 2007 list. Here’s what I said back then and still holds true with everything Farris does: “Ranging from straight-on gospel to blues and Stax-style soul, the record is grounded in Farris’ faith and his sublime musicianship. There’s a real New Orleans feel to the bulk of these tunes, as Dixielandesque horns pop in and out of songs, adding to the delightful Southern stew.”

Farris has a new live album releasing in April called SHOUT! Live featuring the McCrary Sisters. The performances are culled from his scorching Sunday night shows in Nashville at the Station Inn as part of the Sunday Night Shout series. Check out the EPK for the new release and learn more about this unbelievably talented artist.


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