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by Tyler Gould

22 Sep 2009

Devendra Banhart
What Will We Be
(Warner Brothers)
Releasing: October 27

Live versions of “Baby” and “Chin Chin & Muck Muck” showed up on YouTube a few months back, and both will make it on to the delightfully eccentric folkster’s major label debut. The album version of “Baby” can be streamed on Devendra’s MySpace.

01 Can’t Help but Smiling
02 Angelika
03 Baby
04 Goin’ Back
05 First Song for B
06 Last Song for B
07 Chin Chin & Muck Muck
08 16th & Valencia, Roxy Music
09 Rats
10 Maria Leonza
11 Brindo
12 Meet Me at Lookout Point
13 Walilamdzi
14 Foolin’

by L.B. Jeffries

22 Sep 2009

The mark of a good competitive multiplayer game is one that can be enjoyed by a variety of players. For me, this equates to a game that I can play when I’m unwinding from work or when I come home from the bars on a Friday night. A game like Call of Duty 4 is fun when I’ve got my act together and I can focus, but otherwise, I’m going to get my ass kicked. There’s no secondary way to play the game, it’s just get in the trenches and brawl. One of the reasons I still consider Halo 3 the best multiplayer FPS on a console is because it finds a way to give the inept player some action. Between chucking a plasma grenade at someone or breaking out the shotgun, you can usually get in a few kills against a superior player (assuming we’re not talking about the shotty/sniper elites). The one problem with this is that whenever I log onto Social Slayer after needing a cab to get home, I’m not exactly a good teammate. Finding a way for a group of total strangers to coordinate is difficult enough without factoring in that everyone is at a different skill level. Most of the time everyone on a team will just scatter in a Halo 3 match usually with the result that the organized group always dominates. Valve’s procedural multiplayer game Left 4 Dead manages to create a game whose design promotes team work. It does so by imposing certain moments where a player will need assistance from others and creating a mutual aid dynamic. Where the excitement begins is in seeing how the various skill levels of the players pans out.

The game’s levels are set up a bit like a race track. At the start and at certain key points, you can pick up guns and ammo. Whichever gun you pick at the start is your primary weapon, with the secondary being a weaker pistol with infinite ammo. One health kit at the start and various pills and bombs are scattered randomly on the course. The higher the difficulty, the less time you’ll have to look around because you’ll be running non-stop. A player can be incapacitated from a variety of situations that will require someone’s help. Three types of zombies can knock you to the ground and continually attack, meaning someone has to come shoot them off you. Falling off a ledge or running out of health also means someone has to come help before you die permanently for that round. The way that you keep an expert player from ever dominating this system through memorization and skill is by procedurally generating the monsters. The game uses an AI director to study how the team is playing and match their performance to zombies. Gabe Newell in an interview for EDGE explains, “In terms of the signal that you’re giving the player, a difficulty level is like a flat line response as opposed to a wave. We tend to think of it almost in terms of signal processing. A difficulty level just says ‘go up to this level and remain constant’ in terms of the experience that it’s giving to people. That isn’t really the most entertaining experience that you can give people. They want peaks and valleys and really big reactions to the choices that they make.” Each level has its own unique ebb and flow that’s created based on the people around you rather than any set formula. As Simon Ferrari points out on his post on L4D, the game’s strength is its similarity to rhythm games.

From IGN.com

From IGN.com

What’s interesting about the system is the way that it encourages players of a variety of skill types. Justin Keverne uses Richard Bartlett’s essay on player types in online RPGs and applies it to the game. Each character in L4D represents a personality type, Bill is the grizzled veteran or Achiever. Zoey is the player who likes to organize people and sustain the group. Francis is the more narcissistic type of player who is interested in winning while Louis represents the explorer who wants to just experiment and see what happens in the game. As Keverne explains, the Francis character is liable to abandon you for the safe room so that they survive while the Louis character is liable to accidentally shoot you. Like an MMORPG, you can’t just cut out and go lone wolf in the game, so you begin to categorize players and adjust your style accordingly. Usually it is in the middle of a giant mob of zombies that you realize that you’re playing with a trigger happy nut. The sadly departed PixelVixen707 wrote that, “The game feels like a moshpit, and the kicking and flailing happen capriciously. In fact, I suspect many people will get sick of it almost immediately, and jump back to some metalhead shit like Gears of War 2.” That game, like Call of Duty 4, is just about winning. The only people who are getting much out of the experience are the Bill and Francis types of players.

That’s an idea Graffiti Gamer harps on in his excellent NGJ Post about multiplayer session. After playing the game with both friends and random strangers, he found that the random players generated the more interesting experience. When he played with people he knew, they quickly organized themselves into a solid team. You didn’t abandon someone or hog your medkit because you knew this person, you trusted them. With random strangers, the group dynamic is far more interesting. After playing a series of levels with one group, he explains that they grew to trust each other despite the flaws in the other players. One player quickly showed themselves to be the Achiever while another was decent but tended to jump in front of friendly fire. Louis, true to Keverne’s categories, ended up being a bit unpredictable and hard to work with. By falling behind and forcing everyone to come rescue him or by choosing to shoot wildly, the player was a constant liability. But by the end of the game, they managed to coach him into sticking with the group and working with them. At the end of each group of levels is a final test for the team, a timed last stand where hordes of zombies attack until help arrives. Do you run for the helicopter or boat even if your teammate is trapped? Louis, in this particular session, abandoned everyone to their death. Infuriated along with the rest of the team, Graffiti Gamer writes, “I’ve yet to experience such impassioned feelings, a sensation of knowledge sharing, such an exceptionally interesting narrative when playing with friends as I have with randoms.”

Considering how remarkable the procedural zombies are, it’s still unsurprising that Valve resorted to a massive overhaul of the design by releasing a sequel. Although the overall experience is initially novel, it’s limited by a lack of real variety in weapons or zombies. The zombie horde needs a massive infusion of variety, and since the guns basically boil down to shotgun or assault rifle, some additional options are also needed. This becomes the most apparent when you play the game in Versus Mode, in which you can be a zombie yourself. There isn’t really any means of attacking the survivors except to wait until one or two fall behind the rest of the group or you hit them at a key choke point. Everything else you can do boils down to just distracting them or causing more of the AI zombies to swarm. On the first map of “No Mercy” for example, there’s a pit to the lower floor of the apartment building that you can’t climb back up. If you wait for just the right moment, you can catch a straggling player who is still up top while his teammates are trapped down below. The problem is that over time everyone learns these points and compensates for them. Everyone just ends up striving to play a certain way, and since there are only five kinds of zombies, there is a definitive peak method of doing this. You’re still just using the same tactics over and over again.

A fresh infusion of new weapons, zombies, and maps would help keep things vibrant. More ways to fight, betray, and aid one another would help to heighten the stakes. The ability to procedurally generate maps at random might be a bit difficult one, but Valve might also consider the Far Cry 2 solution. Just include a map editor that’s ridiculously easy to use and have users submit the maps to the network and vote on quality. Since you tend to only play a map once, lack of sophisticated planning is compensated for by the experience of exploring a new space. Left 4 Dead is able to make playing with a group of people of varying skills possible for everyone. Thanks to the internet, it can constantly shuffle the deck of who you have to work with. But like any good card game, you need a variety of cards to keep that interesting.

by Omar Kholeif

22 Sep 2009

In a recent PopMatters post, I highlighted the importance of the Glasgow music scene – and its historical relevance to the world of music. Like musical hotspots, Seattle and New York—Glasgow possesses the wet weather of one, and the greased-up urban spontaneity of the latter. As such, it should come as no surprise to find that another up and coming Glasgow-based band is rekindling the flame of the 1970s NY punk music scene in 2009.

In particular, I am referring to the quartet, known as Isosceles. A member of the Art Goes Pop music collective, Isosceles’ sound is emblematic of the collective’s moniker. Rickety guitar work is interspersed with a spattering of drums, and lead singer, Jack Valentine’s yelping vocal execution – all of which help position the band nicely between Television and The Modern Lovers.

And just like their forefathers, the foursome is keen to experiment with ironic, self-referential songs. Their second single (and perhaps their catchiest) entitled, “Kitch Bitch” is like a post-modern version of Pulp’s “Common People”, churned out at high speed. While their first single, “Get Your Hands Off’ is a tongue and cheek number that flips the notion that men are sex pests on its gender-bending head, suggesting instead that women are the ones hungry for the bump and grind. However, when Valentine begins to sing, “I said honey, don’t use your sexuality on me”, one starts to realise that his voice is laced with the equivalent of a wink and a snigger. For all of the song’s candour, it is still clear that the boys approach their subject matter with a sense of humour.

Having already supported Scottish stalwarts, Franz Ferdinand on a previous Scottish tour, the boys have already developed a healthy buzz in the area. Personally, my interest in the band grew out of trips to a local coffee shop (referenced in their second single). When I overheard the strapping young gentleman mutter something about his musical career, I felt such a strong compulsion to investigate them. In the year since then, the band have continued to develop their following in the Glasgow music scene, whilst maintaining their humble and erudite personas—saving their energy for their fervent, audience-pleasing shows.

by Rodger Jacobs

22 Sep 2009

Las Vegas can be a scary place to live, sort of like Bakersfield except with continuous sunshine and slot machines in every corner market.

William Anderson, chief economist for the state of Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation noted on Friday, 18 September 2009, that the jobless rate in the Nevada area continued at a record-breaking pace in August with unemployment in the gaming and construction industries topping out at 13.4 percent.

The jobless rate in the Reno, Nevada area is at 12.4 percent, however. Why the discrepancy between north and south? The Pulitzer Prize-winning Las Vegas Sun explains:

Anderson said, “There are certainly a number of factors accounting for the high unemployment rate in Southern Nevada compared to the north.”

The Las Vegas area “is more concentrated in those industries or sectors which have been impacted the most by the current recession,” he said. “For instance, as of August, 8.7 percent of all jobs in Southern Nevada were in the hard-hit construction sector, compared to 5.7 percent in the Reno metro area.”

He said the gaming and recreation sectors in the Las Vegas area have been harder hit than in Reno. “In the Las Vegas metro area, leisure and hospitality establishments account for nearly 30 percent of all jobs in the region.” In the Reno area, that percentage is 17.4 percent.

by Rob Horning

21 Sep 2009

It’s easy to moralize about consumerism, assume it has grown up somehow out of the malfeasance of marketers and the laziness and gullibility of consumers, who are eager to replace other fulfilling ways to occupy themselves with shopping, a seemingly derivative activity that replaces the joy of developing our capabilities with the pleasures of passive ownership. This wish to moralize stems from a desire to individualize things far beyond our control and make it seem as though we are ultimately responsible for the sort of world we live in and that ultimately it suits us; it is the product of the sorts of choices we can imagine people making. Nobody, for instance, might have seemed to want that condo building that went up on the corner, or that brand new shopping center down the street from a nearly identical one, but it doesn’t seem so crazy once you see the people living or shopping there. And you can think to yourself, if we can only stop that guy, the guy walking into that new Dick’s Sporting Goods, or the guy who just leased that new condo, or who took out the mortgage on that townhouse in the new development where the horse farm used to be, we can restore some sanity and balance to our lives and the rate at which the familiar is changing all around us.

But what if the choices for them (and for us) are stacked, are pre-decided to a far greater degree than we are willing to recognize? What if the matrix in which we are making our decisions is shaped by things that our puny politics can’t touch, that our individual choices are grains of sand in a vast socioeconomic combine—we might have chosen to stick to some contiguous grain to form a minute little cluster, yet some much larger force has decided to shape up into a sand castle built too close to the incoming tide. (That was a little fanciful, but you see what I am getting at.)

The point is, it may be that international capital flows have driven our consumerist microbehaviors much more than we know; that it wasn’t just personal ignorance, irresponsibility, cupidity, greed and covetousness that drove the housing bubble and the boom in consumer debt; but instead those moral motives came after the fact, after our fate was sealed by the wash of investment coming in from overseas. We didn’t want consumerism, but someone had to sop up all those Chinese exports. We didn’t want to be in debt, but there were so many foreigners buying dollars, that the banks basically had to give money away to anybody, and who will turn down money when it seems to be offered to them for free? And if they think it sounds too good to be true, well, that’s precisely what marketing is for.

Liaquat Ahamed suggests took something like this took place in the past decade in an essay in the New York Times Book Review, of all places. He taps into a sort of historical reasoning that is far removed from finger-pointing and shaming people for wanting stuff and behaving irresponsibly:

In the wake of the 1997 financial crisis there, countries in East Asia set out to build up war chests of dollars as insurance against domestic banking runs or downturns in the global economy. At about the same time, China embarked on a program of export-led growth, engineered by keeping its currency artificially low.
Interpretations of what happened next differ. Some argue that to absorb these goods from abroad while avoiding unemployment at home, the United States very consciously stimulated consumer demand. The country, in effect, was forced to live beyond its means. Others believe that the Fed misread the fall in prices as a symptom of inadequate demand rather than for what it was — an astounding, once-in-a-generation expansion in the supply of low-cost goods — and kept interest rates low for an unusually long time, which provoked the real estate bubble.

The flood of money was coming in and it had to go somewhere. If you accept this logic, the question becomes, how does a nation “very consciously stimulate consumer demand”? Is it simply a matter of sending out checks—metaphorically dropping cash from helicopters, Bernanke style? Is it the president telling everyone to return to business as usual and start shopping, as Bush did after 9/11? Is it working ideological visions of what the good life is supposed to consist of in speeches and political campaigns? Or is it something that plays out more indirectly: Banks increase their marketing, which contributes to the promulgation of a certain view of a successful life, one that hinges on consumption rather than savings. Luxury goods makers begin trying to reach aspirational consumers, i.e. turn us into aspirational consumers. People begin to evaluate their wealth not in dollar figures but in belongings, in house size, in car size, in the extent of their credit line. I don’t know what the answer is, but it seems that if there is such a throttle that can be controlled for consumer demand, we would want to seize control of it for ourselves. I never got the memo from the “Untied States” that I was now expected to consume more and like it. Instead, I ended up consuming more and felt out of control about it; I found myself spending more time in stores without knowing why and without a clue about how to reverse the trend. (This was before the government started sending out tax rebate checks to “stimulate” us all.)

Ahamed argues that the U.S. “found itself literally operating as a gigantic bank, taking short-term liquid deposits from countries with surpluses and investing the money in long-term, risky assets at home and abroad.”—I don’t know if that “literally” belongs there, but the upshot is that the U.S. basically imported risk from abroad and distributed it among its citizens—with a little creativity one could probably reconstitute this process as what Jacob Hacker has dubbed the Great Risk Shift—the way in which middle-class people in America now have less of a social safety net. If we wouldn’t take on debt and risk voluntarily, we could be forced to by the slow and steady withdrawal of social services. Goodbye Social Security, hello 401K loaded with all sorts of investments that turn out to be surprisingly dicey, like those money market accounts that teetered on the edge of buck-breaking last fall. Ahamed cites FT columnist Martin Wolf:

As Wolf traces out so well in his 2008 book “Fixing Global Finance,” the United States was able to absorb all the goods coming out of Asia only by letting its consumers go progressively deeper into debt — a process that had its own limits. Moreover, the flood of money simply overwhelmed the capacity of financial institutions to handle it. A lot, for example, ended up in the most unregulated segments of the global banking system, like off-shore deposits on the books of non-American banks. These banks, now awash with cash and desperate for places to put the money, became easy marks for American investment banks seeking to peddle securitized mortgages. When a large percentage of these loans went bad, instead of a dollar panic we had a global banking crisis.

It’s hard to grasp the idea that a “flood of money” can be a problem, but that is what happens when we confuse money with prosperity—money has to be moving to ahve value, and there can be too much of it around to keep it moving. Too much money means that the economy has become too imbalanced, that we have exceeded inherent limits, that socially useful labor has become detached from the society it was supposed to be useful for (i.e. impoverished Chinese making junk for underemployed America).

It’s not clear what causes these global financial imbalances—governmental trade policies are part of it. But individual citizen choice doesn’t seem to factor in. Still, there must be reliable mechanisms by which the requisite consumer behavior is extracted from given populations. Is it some inborn greed in human nature that gets tapped into or sublimated as the situation requires? Or is it the existing class structures around the world, and the endless struggle for mobility within them (and over the signals that represent belonging) that plays the integral role? Is this the essence of the class struggle, a means of balancing international capital flows?

Anyway, if global money flows have reversed, American consumers will find the field in which they make choices suddenly changed. Suddenly they will seem thrifty and moral again, especially in the aggregate, and we can begin to generalize about what the consumption data means morally, what it tells us about how people really are. This is where a recent post by Anton Steinpilz at Generation Bubble picks up the story:Taking off from one of the dime-a-dozen “recessionista” stories about the New Thrift, Steinpilz claims that the middle classes are now “worried that their children and their children’s children will have snatched from them the exorbitant privilege of indulging their ephemeral pleasures with made-to-break trifles of sweated and immiserated workers throughout the developing world.” To replace that lost privilege, they will start to loot the lifestyles of the local poor, raid their T.J. Maxxes and Aldis, and co-opt what constraints the poor have always found inescapable and make them into accoutrements and gestures, apparent trends in the hands of those classes that still might have chosen differently. When the middle class could afford to, because of international financial trends, it emulates the rich; trends have reversed, they emulate the poor; either way they remain class-signifier parasites. The rich could always contrive more positional goods to keep themselves differentiated; the poor instead (if I am reading Steinpilz correctly) find the meaning of their lives seized from them and injected into an alien lifestyle.

So, a theory: Destabilization along the boundaries of social class allows for the calibration of individual behavior with the larger demands of international capital flows, without ever allowing individuals to recognize the connection or opt out of the game without giving up the principles of personal identity altogether.

//Mixed media

Tibet House's 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert Celebrated Philip Glass' 80th

// Notes from the Road

"Philip Glass, the artistic director of the Tibet House benefits, celebrated his 80th birthday at this year's annual benefit with performances from Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Brittany Howard, Sufjan Stevens and more.

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