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by Lara Killian

3 May 2009

Sometimes there’s just nothing like a dog-eared hand-me-down copy of a dusty science fiction story to spice up your leisure reading for a day or two. Seeing an ‘80s-era paperback in a friend’s hands recently I inquired about it and was told that it was a borrowed copy of one of another friend’s all-time favorite books. Naturally I got myself put on the next-in-line list.

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The book is Robin McKinley’s 1982 The Blue Sword and it’s a classic coming of age story coupled with some pioneer rhetoric where the native ‘Hillfolk’ possess a bit of magic and a whole lot of amazing horsemanship, while outposts of barracks-inhabiting invaders attempt to hold the border with their inferior attitudes about property-ownership. Naturally these ‘Outlanders’ don’t believe in magic.

Harry is a young Outlander woman living at such an outpost, and after a run in with the king of the Hillfolk, come to parlay with her hosts, she finds herself uprooted and suddenly thrown into an adventure she has no control over. The same magic that protects the Hillfolk from discovery deep within their mountains has chosen Harry as an integral part of the fight that is to come between the Hillfolk, the Outlanders, and the inhuman Northerners who threaten all of them.

McKinley tells a great story, and it’s always fun to live vicariously through a character who turns out to have untapped strengths and also to be suspiciously quick to learn a foreign language as well as to master the art of fighting from horseback. Don’t we all wish we could do those things? Harry is supremely likable, however, and constantly questions her place in the coming fight. She has a role to play that none can foresee, and the fact that she is a foreigner in the Hillfolk’s midst complicates the part she finds she must play.

Consider asking a friend this week about any dusty classic favorites they keep tucked away in a corner bookshelf. Especially the ones you have never heard of. One hundred reviews over at Barnes & Noble give this book five stars, while almost three hundred at Amazon add up to a solid 4.5 stars out of five. It has been reissued every few years for almost three decades. If your friend is willing to entrust their treasured copy of a favorite story to you, you might find a new favorite yourself. Let me know if you find any gold mines.

by Jason Gross

3 May 2009

You might be sick of all the chatter about Twitter but beyond the Oprah/Ashton hype, it’s definitely worth mulling over, even in another medium like a blog.  In fact, talking about Twitter here is a good way to point out some of its strengths and pitfalls.

For Twitter’s strengths, what do Spin, the Village Voice and the L.A. Times have in common?  They’re all on Twitter of course but they’re also using it not just to post info about what’s new and upcoming in their publications (which is good promo) and some breaking entertainment news but also for concert reviews.  (Note: I occasionally write for the Voice and Spin)

Last night alone provided a lot of show tweets. Spin had details about an Atlantic City gig for No Doubt (“Tiny room! It’s almost bar mitzvah sized!” and “Gwen… dancing to Sublime at afterparty”) while the Village Voice’s live blog Sound of the City covered another big show (“If your armpits smell, you should not be at the Bat for Lashes show”).  Meanwhile, Ann Powers of the L.A. Times was also out, covering a show by Robin Thicke and Jennifer Hudson: “Thicke does know how to bump n grind! My my the girls in the front are fanning themselves!”

The advantages here are obvious.  You’re getting real time coverage of the show and not having to wait for the review to get published in the print edition the next day or appear on the website hours later (which means the middle of the night), if that.  There’s something special about hearing the details of a show as it happens that conveys the whole excitement of a live event.  Also, you can get filled in immediately about a show that you couldn’t make it to or get pumped up about a show that hasn’t reached your town yet.

I got caught up in it myself when I went to see the Dead at Madison Square Garden last weekend.  Unlike Spin/Voice/Powers, I made the mistake of not showing enough restraint in tweeting, actually doing it a few dozen times, which I don’t recommend.  I enjoyed filling in people with ongoing details about the show (set list, the crowd), but when you’re doing it at that kind of pace, you’re bound to trip up on details and facts- one downside to immediate live coverage is that you don’t always have a chance to edit or fact check right away.  I found that out when I flubbed some dates and part of the set list.  When writer Ben Lazar was tweeting from a Springsteen show last week, he was actually relieved when he couldn’t report anymore- “I’m actually glad the phone died - it allowed me to concentrate fully on the show instead of partly on what I’d tweet.”

But another problem with live tweeting is that while you can pull off lotsa good one-liners, finding out something poignant and thoughtful to say there ain’t easy.  It’s not just the restraint of 140 characters at a time but also coming up with bon mots quickly and succinctly (which is why I think Twitter will supplement and not replace live review articles in pubs).  I’ll have more to say about cramming in hefty ideas into a tweet in my next blog post here, where I talk about some interesting and instructive arguments and discussions I’ve had on Twitter.

One piece of advice to anyone who’s doing a bunch of tweets for a live show.  Use hash tags (#) to group your posts.  It helps to give some context to what you’re talking about without having to repeat the subject in each tweet and it’s easier to find your group of tweets in one place this way.  There’s some good advice about how to use them at this blog.

by Jason Gross

2 May 2009

With over 100,000,000 online views of her video, who isn’t moved by the story of Susan Boyle?  Suddenly, it seems that after her performance last month on Britain’s Got Talent, this 48-year-old, ‘plain looking’ church volunteer Scot was an instant celebrity when she wowed everyone with her soaring rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Boyle does indeed have talent but how much of a coup was this really?  As blogger polyannacowgirl noted: “Is it really that noteworthy that an unattractive woman can sing, and has the confidence and desire to share her voice? People are behaving as if a dog performed open-heart surgery, and I find that pretty alarming.”

In the context of the show, it is kind of surprising, on the surface.  BGT is produced by Simon Cowell’s company SYCO (without the P).  Cowell you know from another little franchise he has called American Idol.  On a show like Idol, someone like Boyle would be a laughable novelty like William Hung.  You might remember WH as he was also made famous by a Cowell franchise (Idol) and has more in common with Boyle than you think.  Hung was someone who should have been screened out because he ain’t no singer (to put it mildly).  Instead, he was put on the show as a cute distraction- the guy was lovable but he had a crappy voice.  Because of that, he became an instant celebrity and got a record contract, releasing three albums.  Cowell knew how to milk the novelty of the guy well.

by Bill Gibron

2 May 2009

He remains an enigma, a brutal man with the gentle voice that literally took his sport to the heights of popularity, and then brought it crashing down around him when his ever-present vices overwhelmed his always scattered judgment. He was a powerhouse unable to contain his animalistic rage, a strategist who often resorted to pure physicality to defeat his opponents. As a legend, as a myth, Mike Tyson defies easy comparison. He lacks the activist spirit of those who came before him, but he also clouds the conversation over any current heavyweight champion. Now, as boxing dies its MMA trampled death, filmmaker James Toback sits down with the dethroned titan for a one-on-one that feeds into most people’s perspective of the man while offering enlightenment on subjects that heretofore remained unexplored.

Tyson’s story is no different from an entire generation of disaffected black youth. He grew up in a broken home, his mother and relatives so promiscuous that his concepts of sex were blurred and bruised at an early age. Running with the wrong crowd led to random crimes, easy money, and a stint in juvenile hall. A lack of discipline and a hard head took him upstate to more “authoritative” digs. There, he meets a mentor who eventually introduces him to boxing guru Cus D’Amato. Under the wise old man’s strict tutelage, Tyson learns there is more to the sport than punching power. For his elderly instructor, boxing is about the mind, not just the manner. 

With the focus provided, Tyson becomes a champion. With the spoils of any conquering warrior come the typical fame game trappings. Sadly, the young man, barely into his 20s, gives into many of them. A highly publicized marriage and divorce, a rape charge and jail term, and a series of spectacular/specious fights turn the world icon into a jaded, disenfranchised joke. Now he wonders, in his early 40s, what he will do with the rest of his life. With the help of archival footage and an incredibly candid back and forth with the subject himself, Toback takes everything we know about the man and filters it through a viewpoint veiled in a kind of denial and an unequaled sense of personal shame and pride.

This is a gutsy move on Tyson’s part. He realizes that, no matter what he says, there will be a contingency that sees through his so-called “excuses” and infers things into his words that really aren’t there. At the beginning, when he cries over his time with D’Amato and the number of juvenile titles he’s won, there’s an honesty and vulnerability that sheds new light on his character. But when we get to the Evander Holyfield fight and the infamous ear bite, the repeated mantra of “headbutt - revenge” grows old. Tyson has a lot of those moments, well measured out explanations for elements of his life that require a more profound insight. It’s not quite rehearsal. Instead, it’s the words of someone who has had plenty of time to think about his particular lot, and has come up with a complete set of well rationalized answers that he believes will quiet the critics - or if not silence them, give them a bit more backstory to chew on.

Yet Tyson also recognizes his flaws. He realizes his lustful appetites, especially for women, got him in more trouble personally and legally than he should have ever experienced (his comments about the crime that got him sent away for three years are particularly brutal in their direct disdain). He freely admits to letting “leeches” suck away his money, making his last few fights all about the paycheck. He never defends his words, using a sideshow carnival barker strategy of promotion to explain his often outrageous words. There are times when he ties himself to individuals he’s not worthy of being associated with (Muhammad Ali is name checked, and Jack Johnson is referenced as well), but Tyson never forgets that boxing is basically an individual sport. It was he who came so prepared for his first fights that they barely lasted beyond the first round. It was also he who enjoyed the party aspects of his persona to the point where he, physically, couldn’t handle the competition.

For his part, Toback knows he has a live wire on his hands and never lets the camera leave him for long. This is not a standard exercise in talking heads. Tyson is the only voice we hear, except for various ring announcers and close confidants offered during the insert material. The camera stays close, never really leaving the ex-champs face, and the lisp that many have laughed over throughout the years is here, even more pronounced than before. Toback wants a linear story - childhood to fame to fall to fatherhood (Tyson’s new role is as able daddy to his six kids) - and he basically gets one, allowing the audience to drink in the totality of the man’s ludicrous existence. Time disappears for some of the discussion, our frame of reference forgetting that Tyson was barely 20 when he won his first heavyweight title, and not even thirty when he exited an Indiana prison. As he says at one point during the course of the conversation, he’s lived a whole lotta life in his merely 42 years on the planet.

That’s perhaps why Tyson isn’t the apology everyone is looking for. It is not a mea culpa meant to resurrect his reputation and rebuild his professional mantle. At his age, he is unsure what he will do next. There is no George Forman like resurrection in the future, the goodwill he built up three decades ago all spent on a wine, women, and the same old hard luck song. He maintains a friendly relationship with his ex, honors his numerous tattoos, prays to Allah (he defends Islam as the religion of love), recognizes his shortcomings without striving to fully correct them, and appears content to let the rest of the world define him as monster…or misbegotten hero. While there have been better documentaries on the subject of fallen idols, the gladiatorial nature of Tyson’s trip through the fame machine is fascinating in its own right. Because it’s personal, it matter - even if the end result is no more clear than the mystery that is the man himself.

by Jon Bream / Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

1 May 2009

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leonard Cohen’s songs are better known than he is.

Starting with Judy Collins in 1966 (“Suzanne”), they’ve been covered more than 1,500 times by other singers, whose versions often became more famous than his own.

Like Kris Kristofferson, Cohen is both a songwriting giant and a less-than-pretty singer. He has never had a song land in the top 40. Only two of his 18 albums have gone gold and one is a “hits” collection.

With the 74-year-old Canadian poet on his first U.S. tour in 15 years, we picked the best covers of 12 of his best-known songs.

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Moving Pixels Podcast: Highbrow, Middle Brow, and Lowbrow in Free-to-Play Gaming

// Moving Pixels

"From the charmingly trashy to the more artistically inclined, there is a wide variety of gaming options in the free-to-play market.

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