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Monday, Jun 2, 2008

Like many ol’ fashioned music nuts, I take heart in survey that says that CD buying is still a popular hobby.  The problem though is that this is one survey, as opposed to all the other ones that keep telling us that the CD is on the way out.  In a way, both trends are on track- while many people do indeed buy up CD’s, the numbers keep dropping year after year.  The thought is that the trend’s not gonna reverse itself with each successive generation using the Net more and more to get their music and as record stores big and small keep closing down.  Just as with vinyl, a niche market’s gonna remain but I’m not too optimist about the long-term future of the CD.


Granted again this is only one survey but how about this other nugget?: “... just 7% in a recent survey said online information had a major impact on their music purchases.”  What’s that say about blogs and mega-sources like Pitchfork and All Music Guide?  Are they themselves just niches?  Is it a matter of how much each of them alone really influence purposes or that they’re not part of a large-scale pop market?  Again, I don’t think this study’s got an definitive answers or that it’s the last word on the subject but what would it mean if other studies back this up?  It would kinda turn our little online music world upside down, wouldn’t it? 


Radio and TV as well as friends seem to be bigger influences on purchases, according to the study.  The industry is getting hip to this, putting more music in commercials and even shows for placement, not to mention building street teams to help with word of mouth.  Web fanatics can take solace in the fact that a slight majority find out about new artists from online sources but that clearly ain’t the only game for labels and artists.  The web is sucking up a lot of attention, action and ad dollars but avoiding all the other parts of the media world is still a stupid move when there’s obviously plenty of life still there otherwise.


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Monday, Jun 2, 2008

Taking off from a remark in the NYT foodie blog that “the same plate of pasta goes down a lot easier at $12—it even tastes better at $12—than it does at $16,” Felix Salmon wonders why the same is not true of wine, which we think tastes better when we know it was more expensive (at least according to a study described here).


everybody has wine insecurities. If we know that wine quality is inversely correlated with price, then why do we feel guilty bringing a cheap bottle of wine to a dinner party? Probably because if it turns out not to be very good, the “but it was quite expensive” defense is a reasonable one. When navigating a strange and scary and unfamiliar land - which is how most people feel when they enter a wine shop - one grasps at anything one knows, which means that people (a) buy brands they recognize, and (b) navigate by price, in the absence of any other means by which to narrow down the selection.
Very few people, by contrast, are insecure when it comes to food. They know what they like, and while they might well be willing to pay a lot of money for a great meal, they’re generally even happier when they pay very little money for a great meal. What’s more, if there’s one big secular trend in the restaurant world, it’s away from the three-star gourmet palaces of old, where you dressed for dinner and were served ostentatiously expensive food like Lobster Thermidor on fine china by obsequious waiters, and towards much more low-key shops which concentrate on the food more than the theater and which pride themselves on doing great things with formerly déclassé ingredients.
Interestingly, it’s the grander, more high-theater holdouts which still tend to have the magnificent wine lists full of really expensive bottles. Maybe the more casual places know that without the accompanying palaver, a great wine won’t seem quite as magnificent.


By “accompanying palaver” Salmon may mean the Grand Guignol absurdity of fine dining, but it seems to apply equally to all forms of marketing copy for consumption goods of nebulous utility. In these instances, we consume the copy, not the good. With pricey wine, we consume the experience of ourselves spending on something extravagant. It’s generally to retailers’ benefit to transform goods into experiences, which are subject to a different emotional and economic calculus. With experiential goods, there’s hardly any standard by which we could tell whether or not we were ripped off. So we feel safer spending on them, and the rewards they supply us are immeasurable. That’s perhaps why Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, says (in this Times of London profile) “Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.” Skepticism deprives us of the ability to fool ourselves into thinking our unique experiences are worth any price. We can’t know with any confidence what the real value of the experience it is, only that it diminishes if we start doubting it. If it creeps into our head that the wine is a ripoff, we enjoy it less than we would if were thinking we were giving ourselves an expensive treat. Skepticism makes us aware of hype as hype rather than letting hype serve its role of amplifying our experience of our own time. We only get to live once, and there is little good in regarding that time as inadequate or inferior to some lost time we would have preferred.


Marketing is primarily an exercise in achieving the transformation of goods into experiences: trying to make a routine shopping trip feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; trying to make us think of ourselves and the kind of people we can become rather than the good itself and its limited capabilities; trying to convince us that a good confers distinction, making ownership of it into an accomplishment in its own right. (An antidote to this is the pursuit of scoreboard—of bargains for their own sake.) Is it worth the effort to be skeptical of this sort of marketing? The danger is that these ersatz experiences with a price tag could supplant noncommercial experiences, which become devalued relative to those experiences being hyped. When experiences become purchasable in a market society, “real” experiences are only those with the imprimatur of the marketplace. Just as certain products seem more legitimate when they are bought in a “real store” (I’d rather get my socks from Macy’s than from a random dude on the corner of 76th Street and Broadway), experiences may become subject to the same bias.


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Monday, Jun 2, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-02...

A surprisingly busy release week (albeit one chock full of cross-platform movie adaptations) is giving way to a couple of firsts here at TWiG.


The first, uh, first is that this marks the first time that a given franchise has managed to snag the featured spot in The Week in Games twice.  That’s right, way back in the very first edition of The Week in Games, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword looked like the game to beat; this week, it’s Ninja Gaiden II, for the Xbox 360.  Let’s face it—a lot of us grew up on Mortal Kombat, living for the fatalities and the location-specific kills that the game introduced us to, inspiring arguments regarding which, of all of the kills in the game, was the coolest (read: bloodiest).  As much as we might purport to be above such base desires now, there’s still something appealing about a game that doesn’t just include blood as some means to an end of gritty realism, but revels in it, putting gushing fountains of red liquid where mere arteries should be.  My nearest point of reference would be Kill Bill for the style of the bloodletting going on here, though I’m sure you can point me toward obscure Japanese films that would be closer to the truth of the inspiration.


If Ninja Gaiden II were only about the blood, though, it wouldn’t be worth highlighting.  No, the other thing about the reborn Ninja Gaiden series is the way it preserves an old-school level of challenge to the player.  For those who can appreciate a good challenge (that is, things that are freaking hard), it’s refreshing to see that the franchise’s transition to 3D hasn’t brought with it a softening of the controller throwing, profanity-spewing, rage-inducing difficulty that so loudly marked its NES predecessors.  I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on the thing.


As for the other first, this is the first time that a single game has had a release that spans the entire gamut of current gaming systems.  From PS3 to the PC right down to the Nintendo DS, Lego Indiana Jones is making his debut this week.  If you aren’t looking forward to being chased by a giant Lego boulder and seeing how they handle the heart-ripping scene in Temple of Doom in a game aimed at kids, well, I don’t know you.


Otherwise, we have a whole pile of other movie-themed fodder (hello, Kung Fu Panda), GRID, which looks like a seriously fun bit of racing once you get past the drab visuals, and PC Mystery/Adventure fans who don’t mind a gothic bent in their gaming might find something to love in Dracula Origin.  For the first week of June, honestly, this is a hell of a release list.


The full list of games and a short trailer for Ninja Gaiden II is AFTER the JUMP:


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Monday, Jun 2, 2008
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This weekend I finished Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. First published in France in 2000 and 2001, this two part autobiographical tale of a young Iranian woman who grows up during a volatile time in Iran’s political development is a great starting point for trying to understand the struggle and confusion of many ordinary Iranian people during the time of the Islamic Revolution and subsequent establishing of the Islamic Republic. I should also mention, in case you’ve missed all the press about the movie version, first released in France and finally in the US in early 2008, that this is a graphic novel—not a customary autobiographical format, but extremely accessible here.


Satrapi’s parents sent her to Austria in 1983 to escape the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war and the increasing pressure of the Islamic regime. Her story telling manner is captivating as she describes the oddness of not fitting in, of coming from a totally different background from that of her classmates, and of being alone and independent in a foreign country at the age of 14. Satrapi must overcome assumptions that are made about her religion, her political background, and her sexual proclivities.


Satrapi, a wonderful graphic artist, lays out her poignant story in stark black and white, demanding the undivided attention of her reader as she portrays the most memorable and important events of her teenage and university years—telling off the nuns at her school, experimenting with drugs, living as a homeless person for several months, and feeling like a failure for wasting the incredible opportunity her parents gave her to make something of herself in Europe. All these episodes lay the groundwork for Satrapi to share her story, which is truly noteworthy.


I’m probably not the first to wish that Persepolis was required reading from high school on up to the highest ranking officials in the US and other world governments. If I sent Dubya a copy do you think he would flip through it? This is, after all, a picture book with words.


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Monday, Jun 2, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

This week: As Pa finishes grace over a sparse dinner table obviously devoid of a main course, he vents frustration toward his younger son. Pa’s misdirected anger nearly boils over and quickly turns to tears. But all is forgiven when their eldest son appears with a huge salmon. A lovely evening of family time follows but is cut short by yet another tantrum. All that’s missing is a sappy country song… no wait, there it is.


PopMatters offers exclusive early looks at new episodes of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.


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