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by David Pullar

30 Oct 2008

The old saying about the fine line between genius and madness seems particularly apt when looking at writers. There must be something about the personality or temperament that is well-suited to long hours of isolated scribbling that leads to eccentricity and anti-sociability.

Recently, I’ve been reading Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals—a hatchet job on the writing profession if ever there was one. Now, Johnson is a curmudgeonly Conservative and has his own agenda in portraying the shortcomings of self-appointed (usually left-wing) intellectuals, but it’s hard to deny that at least the ones he selects are a sorry lot.

The most astonishing thing that comes out of these portraits is how poor at human relations some of the most humanist writers were. Johnson paints Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy, both known for their groundbreaking portrayals of women, as being hopelessly misogynistic in real life. Even more astonishing, given the psychological insights of much great literature, is how little empathy many of these writers have. How can someone understand people so well in the abstract and so little in the concrete?

A less polemical look at the writing profession is from Javier Marias, whose Written Lives is a true joy to read. Without any particular agenda, Marias relays anecdotes from the lives of some giants of literature: Nabokov, Mann, Mishima, Conrad, Faulkner. They’re mostly humorous and all the writers are portrayed as eccentric at the very least. Some (particularly Rimbaud or Mishima) are more accurately described as “crazy”.

There’s a lot of selection bias here. Johnson wanted to prove that intellectuals, particularly writers, are ineligible to tell the world how to live, based on their own (considerable) shortcomings. Marias wants to entertain. Either purpose will lead to a tendency to choose the most sensational stories. Obviously there are plenty of writers who are well-adjusted and even tempered—it’s just that a lot of the truly remarkable writers aren’t.

Are great writers any crazier or more deeply flawed than the rest of humanity, or do we simply forgive them more?  Do we excuse their foibles on account of their “artistic temperament”?  Do we say that their personality is unconnected to their art?

Even Johnson, who appears to be less willing to forgive faults than most, acknowledges that great art remains great irrespective of who created it. He takes more issue with the idea that great art should guide us, when the ideas and philosophies within served their creator so poorly.

As a lover of books and writing, I’m happy to cut the greats a little slack. And I’m more than happy to have a bit of a laugh at their oddities.

by Arun Subramanian

29 Oct 2008

It’s not difficult to imagine who the target audience for Mega Man 9 is.  A good number of gamers came of age during the heyday of the NES, when both challenge and level design encouraged multiple playthroughs of titles.  These qualities were particularly important considering both how much more $50 was then than it is now, and how many fewer people were playing video games to begin with, indicating a much more hardcore fanbase.  It doesn’t seem likely that newcomers to Mega Man will have any interest in Mega Man 9.  However, gamers who spent a good deal of time with Mega Man 1 and 2 in their formative years will very likely find the prospect of purchasing a new 8-bit Mega Man for $9.99 irresistible.

That said, it’s somewhat interesting to try and determine who will actually complete the game, given its level of difficulty.  From top to bottom, Mega Man 9 is a throwback to an another time in gaming.  The audiovisual presentation aims to match that of the earliest 8-bit titles to a fault.  Between that and the challenge presented, Mega Man 9 is strikingly content to present itself as though the last 20 years of gaming never happened.

As with the classic titles in the series, memorization, trial and error, and pure platforming ability are crucial to success in Mega Man 9.  Experimentation is also required in order to determine the most efficient order in which to defeat the bosses.  Again, Mega Man 9 is reminiscent of a time when beating the game was only the beginning of actually getting good at it, and punishing difficulty was welcomed, because level design and predictable enemy patterns meant that after the initial learning curve, dying was the player’s fault.

Normally, it might be difficult to argue that the “lost game”, retro feel that Mega Man 9 achieves was especially necessary in order to evoke nostalgia.  Indeed, games like Bionic Commando: Rearmed have demonstrated that the reboot of a long dormant franchise itself is likely to ensure decent enough sales among those that remember the original.  What makes Mega Man 9 unique is how active the franchise, or at least the protagonist, has been for many years regardless of the quality of individual titles.  Revisiting the early days of Mega Man when the series was at its strongest, then, is what makes the design of Mega Man 9 particularly notable. 

Although it makes perfect sense for Mega Man 9 to be distributed digitally (regardless of the brilliant limited edition physical packaging), it does seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the game’s aesthetics for there to be downloadable content and achievements for the Xbox 360 version.  But beyond that, Mega Man 9 does an admirable job of revisiting a classic gaming franchise, leaving the original presentation untouched, while offering brand new content.  For fans of the series, it offers a large amount of replay value for its relatively low price, though its retro brand of difficulty may prove too much for some.

by Jason Gross

29 Oct 2008

I’ve wondered about this when I’ve listened to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, two classic pre-psychedelic era 60’s live albums, where the crowds themselves are so boisterous that they become an important part of the live recording.  In both cases, what’s going on with the performance is enhanced by the audience reaction- I talk about this in more detail in an upcoming PopMatters article about yet another classic 60’s live album, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison.

I also wondered about this when I saw three bands at CMJ: Monotonix, DMBQ and AIDS Wolf. Other than the noise-rock connection, another thing that these three bands have in common is that they don’t like to be confined to the stage.  AIDS Wolf’s show at the Knitting Factory inspired a mini-mosh pit near the front of the stage, which sometimes spilled over there, encouraged by the band.  Diminutive singer Chloe Lum (aka Special Deluxe) also ran into the audience and writhed on the floor.  Nothing new unless you’ve never heard of Iggy Pop but seeing this kind of act up close is still exhilarating and definitely added something to the music and the performance. 

Japanese band DMBQ recovered from the tragic death of their drummer in an ‘05 car accident. Live, singer Shinji Masuko (a noted music journalist) donned a Lighting Bolt-type mask with a mic tied to his face and climbed onto the ceiling’s pipe fixtures.  Guitarist Toru Matsui frequently held his whole guitar in his mouth while bassist Ryuichi Watanabe frequently made his way into the crowd.  As for drummer Shinji Wada, he threw his kit into the audience and encouraged the crowd to hold it up as well as his drum stool.  He jumped up on the stool and played his kit, elevated over the crowd.  Surely Iggy would appreciate such crowd participation.

After that, I didn’t think that Monotix could top that in another venue but they did.  The crazed Israeli trio, subject to bans in their hometown, spends little or no time on a stage.  Like DMBQ, their drummer (Haggai Fershtman) likes to play in the audience, frequently moving his kit around.  The singer (Ami Shalev) and (Yonatan Gat) soon join him there.  Sometimes, the drums wind up at the back of a club or more frequently on top of a bar, where Fershtman goes to play them, with the rest of the band following along.  At one point, Shalev emptied a garbage can and put it over Fershtman’s head before he took it off and climbed in it himself with the crowd passing him and the can around, over their heads.  Shalev also put a drum on Fershtman’s head and played it there while the drummer himself played the rest of his kit.  Later, Fershtman moved his kit to the exits and Shalev literally herded the crowd back there to join him.  I’d seen them do something similar at another show but this was still great entertainment to witness.  For the newbies, they couldn’t imagine anything being any more exciting afterward.  Sadly, the club put on the house music, which drown out their sing-a-long finale but by then, the crowd was gratified enough.

See what crowd participation can do?  Tough to duplicate at home for sure unless you have a nice big rumpus room and don’t mind breaking some furniture.

by Rob Horning

29 Oct 2008

In BusinessWeek, Heather Green reported on Google’s attempts to design an algorithm for ranking people as well as web pages. So ranked, people can then leverage their internet influence to attract ad dollars to their social networking profiles.

The new technology could track not just how many friends you have on Facebook but how many friends your friends have. Well-connected chums make you particularly influential. The tracking system also would follow how frequently people post things on each other’s sites. It could even rate how successful somebody is in getting friends to read a news story or watch a video clip, according to people familiar with the patent filing. “[Google] search displays Web pages with the highest influence—it makes complete sense for them to extend this to online communities and people,” says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR).

If you are good at getting your friends to watch YouTube videos or follow links or look at photos, then you become worthy of sponsorship by advertisers. This makes explicit the way in which sociality online is a competitive sport, less about conviviality but power. And there’s nothing like money to sharpen how we define ourselves on the internet, where our “presence” is far more throughly commercialized and monetized than it ever could be in the real world. A more catholic ranking scheme imposed by Google would most likely intensify that evolution, rendering voluntary, unmonitored reciprocity a quaint archaism. Why recommend anything to anyone without a finder’s fee?

But there’s a catch to the whole friends-for-money scheme: as it stands, Google will get your sponsorship money, while you get, if anything, the permission to use social networking services for free.

Using today’s standard advertising methods, a company such as Nike (NKE) would pay Google to place a display ad on a fan’s page or show a “sponsored link” when somebody searches for basketball-related news. With influence-tracking, Google could follow this group of fans’ shared interests more closely, see which other fan communities they interact with, and—most important—learn which members get the most attention when they update profiles or post pictures.
The added information would let Nike both sharpen and expand its targeting while allowing Google to charge a premium for its ad services.

This reminds me of Nicholas Carr’s assessment of Web 2.0 technologies—or “digital sharecropping” as he calls it:

Web 2.0’s economic system has turned out to be, in effect if not intent, a system of exploitation rather than a system of emancipation. By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.

So if Google has its way, amateur influencers of the future will have to content themselves with being paid in sheer prestige alone, like those BzzAgents who shill for advertisers for free (or for the comfort of having a commercial alibi for talking to people).

by Lara Killian

29 Oct 2008

Yesterday I finished reading a lavishly illustrated hardcover copy of Clive Barker’s fantastical Abarat (2002), and by complete coincidence I also stumbled across a paperback version. Same purple cover, same text, completely different book.


It’s lucky I encountered the hardcover first, or I wouldn’t have given this series another glance. The paperback looked so sad and lacking when compared to the fully colored artistic renderings of the strange people and island settings of the magical world of the Abarat. Not only is Barker a great storyteller, making the weird and wonderful both appealing and appalling, he is a gifted artist as well. Nearly every second or third page, the original version has one of his color-saturated depictions of the characters and locales of the Abarat.

Granted, the hardcover is one of the heaviest volumes I’ve ever struggled to hold up while reading at night. The paper is clearly specially selected to properly hold up to the full color printing process. The Abarat first editions must have been prohibitively expensive to produce. Seeing the fruits of Barker’s vibrant imagination in full color is worth the expense.

A website devoted to the series (ultimately to extend to five books) gives a taste of the amazing 300+ oil paintings Barker originally spent four years producing as part of the process in defining this alternate universe. Believe it or not, it all starts in a place called Chickentown, USA. Everything gets much better from there.

//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