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by Rob Horning

3 Feb 2009

This passage by Steve Waldman gets at the fundamental issue in recessions (and in the arguments about the stimulus package), something that the byzantine complexity of structured finance tends to conceal. This recession is not the product of some specific financial misstep or one bad class of investment so much as it is the inevitable consequence of having too much money looking for too few investment opportunities.

Ultimately, a financial system has to find productive projects for the private parties to invest in. The government can invest directly, can delegate investment to the best and the brightest, can saturate the public’s demand for money until private parties try to find other means of storing wealth. But it’s what real human beings do with real resources that ultimately matters. Our financial system didn’t fail because it was overlevered. It failed because it was uncreative: It could not conjure up worthwhile things to do with the capital it was asked to invest, and instead of owning up to that, it pretended that poor projects were good. Financial markets are ultimately information systems. The only way out of this is to discover worthwhile things to do, or more importantly, to develop better means of generating a diverse menu of worthwhile things to do going forward. Right now, the government is being asked to do what the semi-private financial system could not: generate a positive real return on trillions of dollars of undifferentiated future claims.

He is following up on an idea that investment banker/blogger Cassandra outlined in this post: After listing a bunch of dubious investment ideas that had been launched in the bubble period, Cassandra writes, “maybe credit crunch is wrong description. Maybe it’s actually a useful productive idea crunch. Maybe, we are—for the moment—overbuilt, over-satiated, over-consumed, and just full-up. And that is before we ask anyone for credit.”

This is similar to the Marxist idea of overaccumulation. Basically, workers are squeezed out of the production process by capital investment in technology. With fewer workers, you can’t extract value (no profits), since all value ultimately comes from human labor making something socially useful. “Productive projects,” in Waldman’s terminology, are a matter of putting workers to work on projects the world is capable of using. And, to oversimplify radically, Wall Street used financial chicanery to evade the problem of actually being productive, which allowed more capital to flow to capitalists rather than the workers who would have to be paid at some point.

Another way to look at this: Capitalism has no incentive to develop socially useful ends. The category of the socially useful, though not given by human nature and immutable, is not automatically elastic either; it needs to be fostered. (The growth of this category is the flowering of the species to its full potential.) Marx contends that capitalism, basically, fails to foster the socially useful—that is, the pursuit of surplus value prevents resources from being devoted to developing and reproducing human capabilities so that more things can be considered socially useful. (This may be part of the answer to why don’t Chinese workers consume more—at the site of the most intense capitalist exploitation of labor, the capacity to consume is stunted both by inadequate wages and inadequate cultural capital.) The point of the stimulus package, when you abstract away from the numbers and the “shovel-ready” projects and so on, is to invest in developing the category of the socially useful directly, rather in the indirect and haphazard way private investment deals with it. But will the state will necessarily be any better at finding “productive projects” than private investors? Won’t most of the money end up in pork projects and boondoggles like this? Megan McArdle argues stimulus spending should be able to pass some test of economic efficacy.

It is not enough to argue that the projects are worthy, as, say, covering the healthcare over people aged 55.  To go in the stimulus package, it should provide stimulus—that is, either spur real economic growth directly, or at least convince people that it will, improving their animal spirits. Programs that do not meet these criteria should not be part of the stimulus package.  There are better ways to assist the unemployed than to build a bridge we don’t need.  If a project won’t “pay” for itself, then it should be justified on its own terms, not packaged into a stimulus so that politicians don’t have to explain their choices to the American people.

But what is this test? Often we rely on sheer profitability to determine worthiness, but these investments are to a degree, by definition, non-capitalistic—these are programs private investment wouldn’t touch, and if you view that as a sign that they are inherently wasteful, all stimulus packages will be anathema to you. It seems like an investment in ideology.

David Leonhardt’s long NYT Magazine article “The Big Fix” looks at this question as well. He argues that our consuming habits in recent decades constituted an “investment-deficit disorder” that left the forces of innovation crippled. Thus the government must step in with infrastructure investments.

Governments have a unique role to play in making investments for two main reasons. Some activities, like mass transportation and pollution reduction, have societal benefits but not necessarily financial ones, and the private sector simply won’t undertake them. And while many other kinds of investments do bring big financial returns, only a fraction of those returns go to the original investor. This makes the private sector reluctant to jump in. As a result, economists say that the private sector tends to spend less on research and investment than is economically ideal.
Historically, the government has stepped into the void. It helped create new industries with its investments. Economic growth has many causes, including demographics and some forces that economists admit they don’t understand. But government investment seems to have one of the best track records of lifting growth. In the 1950s and ’60s, the G.I. Bill created a generation of college graduates, while the Interstate System of highways made the entire economy more productive. Later, the Defense Department developed the Internet, which spawned AOL, Google and the rest. The late ’90s Internet boom was the only sustained period in the last 35 years when the economy grew at 4 percent a year. It was also the only time in the past 35 years when the incomes of the poor and the middle class rose at a healthy pace. Growth doesn’t ensure rising living standards for everyone, but it sure helps.

Growth is another way of saying “expansion of the production of social utility”—people have more meaningful projects to work on and more fulfillment as a result. GDP, however, doesn’t necessarily measure that kind of growth; it can’t been massaged through financial manipulation, the creation of what David Harvey calls “fictitious capital.” As Leonhardt points out, recent “growth” has been illusory: “Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, argues that our bubble economy had something in common with the old Soviet economy. The Soviet Union’s growth was artificially raised by massive industrial output that ended up having little use. Ours was artificially raised by mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and even the occasional Ponzi scheme.” The fiscal stimulus could be directed at real growth to compensate for the capital destruction going on with the unmasking of the fictitious capital Wall Street had been creating.

The policy prescription that follows from this seems clear to me. The government should spend on those worthy but noncapitalistic projects that expand human potential and create public goods, and they should not spend on projects whose only purpose is to prop up asset values for those fat cats who hold vast amounts of fictitious capital. In other words, build transit systems and pay teachers better; don’t bail out banks. Of course, chances are we will do the opposite.

by PopMatters Staff

3 Feb 2009

We’re looking forward to the release of Frozen River on DVD February 10th. Melissa Leo’s performance was one of the finest acting turns of last year and got her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The film made our Top 30 coming in at #14. Matt Mazur describes it this way: “With an intellectual, pummeling veracity, writer-director Courtney Hunt executes a film that is sparse, powerful and assured. Finally, we have a feminist movie, made by a woman, starring women that is about real women’s issues. Yet, because of this, and because of Hollywood’s idiotic bias against films by female directors, Hunt is not getting the kind of awards circuit praise she and her first film truly deserve.”

by L.B. Jeffries

3 Feb 2009

Despite the progress being made with emergent changing narratives, player input, and creating vast open worlds to explore, there is still a lot of trial and error going on. Many people struggle with a story that is not inherently linear because it requires their active participation. Decades of film and centuries of books have created a pre-conditioned response to information exchanges: people listen, then respond. The problem is that games, on the other hand, rely on a concurrence of these two activities. Action and response are occurring simultaneously while the player interacts with a series of rules and sees how these rules respond to their conduct. Even creating a story that can function in concurrence of response and input requires epic amounts of writing and art to account for all the things the player might try to do. There’s another game design that handles this issue and some interesting insights can be learned from it. The player doesn’t change the narrative though, they change the music. Ben Abraham notes in an essay on interactive music that the visual elements of games have been coordinated with the music for years now. Starting as just a simple “change songs when the boss arrives” feature, the concept has been continuing to expand until the music is constantly responding to the player. Though we may still be figuring out how to generate a changing plot, games have long had the ability to generate personalized music in a believable manner.

It’s helpful when approaching music games to break them into two distinct groups. Games where the player is generating a song (emergent music) and games where the player is reproducing the song (linear music). With the booming success of Rock Band and Guitar Hero it’s easy to see the appeal of the latter. Player input is coordinated with the game via visual cues, failure results in the song being interrupted by invasive sounds. The indie gem Audiosurf puts an interesting spin by letting the player pick the song. This is then computed into a level that lets you play a variety of different game designs. It’s a greater degree of control than the pre-defined setlists of the other games so you don’t risk alienating your audience by music tastes. Both games typically jerk the player and interrupt the song when they screw up though, much like how a game’s narrative is broken by player death. Other games have combined the music with the game design and visuals so that they occur simultaneously.  The free to download Reset is synchronized with Trash80’s ‘Rest to Reset’ electronic music. The game is mostly a series of triangles and missiles chasing you, but each one flashes a different color in coordination with the beat. Since either game features minimal plot, the music itself becomes the player’s frame of reference for their input. Another linear music game that abandons the concept of player failure almost entirely is Reflexive Entertainment’s Music Catch, where the game challenges you to collect shapes and only requires you dodge the red kind. Grabbing a red shape results in a point deduction, but no intrusive sounds that break the music as in Audiosurf or Rock Band.


On the opposite end of the spectrum are non-linear music games that feature emergent music. The player can generate a song through their actions. There are surprisingly very few games that do this despite the fact that it’s fairly manageable. Sega’s Rez is the principle example. The game creates a basic background track and then lets the player interact by having enemies cause a sound that coordinates in some way. A drum beat, an electronic beep, etc. It’s a little off to constantly shoehorn the music concept into narrative games but it does help; the background track is the backstory, the player’s actions generate sounds that fit into the backstory, and these all form in the player’s mind to generate a personal song. Procedurally, it is irrelevant what the player hits or misses, they are generating the experience they want from the song as well as playing a game. That’s the thing people are struggling with the most in emergent narratives today: not forcing the player to do or see something. Music games circumvent this entirely because the individual sounds are just a part of a whole. Another example that doesn’t rely on techno music is Jonathon Mak’s Everyday Shooter, which takes inspiration from Steve Reich. The game works in a very similar manner, skirting the interruption problem of death by having the death sound coordinate with the background as well. Every element of the player’s input produces a response sound that coincides with the music, from shifting around in the menu to collecting points. The lesson about emergent narrative here comes from the success these games have in creating a new kind of emergent experience. The design empowers the player because they never have to be restricted into behaving outside a certain set of parameters. What if you were to cut down on the shooter elements of these games and focus more on generating the song itself? Another example is the recent web game Auditorium or Electroplankton. By getting a grasp of the mechanics of producing a song through enormous player options, you can start to get a better understanding of how a story could be generated from the same situation.


There are also games that simply rely on music as a reward for player activity. The WiiWare Art Style series of games features interesting takes on using music in response to player input. In Orbient, collecting an extra moon adds a layer of music to the background, making the song more rich and pleasant while you beat the level. In Rotohex, every 6 combinations adds another layer of music so that you are not just building a score, you are building a song. And if you want to cut the game part out, the DS music software KORG DS-10 Synthesizer is a pretty damn impressive nuts and bolts demonstration of generating a song using a game’s interface. It’s interesting that amongst the complaints lodged at any of these games, none of them involve failing to create a believable song. None of them fail to deliver an emergent song or recreate a linear song through game design. Music is not an experience that the audience or author expects to control in a structured exchange. Sometimes you listen, sometimes you respond to a song by skipping around. Sometimes you want to hear the sad track on an album, sometimes you want to hear the fast, fun one. The key is that the artist’s vision doesn’t break down because the audience is fooling around with the order of events. A musical album stands both on its singles, the work as a whole, the songs played live, and even when the songs are played by other people. Marketwise, there should be more emergent music games purely because they are a blast to play. In terms of learning how to create an emergent narrative, we’ve only begun to learn from their versatility.

by Thomas Hauner

3 Feb 2009

Hans-Peter Lindstrøm demurely set up his Macbook Pro, keyboard, samplers, and bottle of Corona behind a façade of calm and excitement. He was eager to supplant the gastric bass and tweeting highs of Studio B’s house DJ with his own mix, but at the same time he wasn’t rubbing it in.

The same went for his throbbing but playfully cool set. Lindstrøm (his DJ-ing nom de guerre) crafted ethereal polyphonies, enveloping listeners and the room in a gradually pulsating haze. While the side stage’s speakers perfectly blended weaving choruses of electronic whistles, buzzes, and washes, an unsuspecting bass would penetrate the mix, however coyly. It was only after the crowd was fully immersed in a pounding yet diffused disco beat that a song’s climax was ever evident.

And that was the beauty of the scruffy Norwegian’s set. Lindstrøm took the music in a direction where all eventually wanted to be, but without the obvious cues and countdowns—only after teasing and toying a beat so much that once it finely arrived you almost forgot you were craving it to begin with. 

He did it with “Where You Go I Go Too”, the epic title track of his most recent release, taunting jittery marimba sounds and guitar with other whimsical accents. As these sounds coalesced with a spectrum of synths and frenetic high-hats, an underlying bass became self-evident. But ever so gradually. Only the heroic entrance of bright ascending synthesizer lines finally confirmed the beat’s summit. After a euphoric acme was firmly in place the beat sublimated back into more atmospheric tinkering, and the next subtly towering track was underway.

That Lindstrøm submerges his beats, only for them to resurface at pinnacle moments, is a reflection of his personal MO. “The melody is the backbone of a track. The beat is just a wrapping” he told an interviewer once.

The strangest aspect of his set was that the crowd seemed more interested in staring at him crouch behind his setup than in dancing to the perfect mixes coming from it. Getting down to his powerfully delicate blend of Culture Club synths, boogie disco horns, and trance beats seemed to escape half the club. It didn’t matter: Lindstrøm out danced them all onstage himself.

by tjmHolden

2 Feb 2009

In bringing a close to my coverage of the “Super Bowl”, one of America’s major cultural events of the year, I wanted to follow up on the topic that wove in and out of yesterdays live-blogging narrative: the ads. Actually, there will be two entries on this topic, the first of which was: “what did you think?”

What was your opinion of the ads overall, and in particular?: likes, dislikes, things that struck you—if anything. Or was it all just a big come-on, a major waste of time (and money and neural activity)?



//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

READ the article