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by Rob Horning

5 May 2009

I’ve worried before about whether I should switch to a cash-only lifestyle. The idea was that using only cash would keep me in touch with reality and allow me to actively resist the creep of ersatz convenience into my life. But this reasoning may be somewhat flawed, in that there are straight financial incentives for customers to use credit. (Then if they use it unwisely, they fall prey to the abusive lending practices that the consumer credit bill of rights law stalled in the Senate currently is intended to prevent. Basically, the payment system is designed to grease the path to debt slavery.) 

After looking at how interchange fees—what banks charge business for processing credit-card payments—have increased despite technology making credit-card usage far more efficient, Mike at Rortybomb wonders why more businesses don’t offer customers a discount for using cash. He breaks out some game-theoretical analysis to show that customers (thanks in part to rewards programs) have an incentive to pay with credit, especially since businesses pass on the bank fees to consumers through uniformly higher prices:

A small business I was at had a sign noting that they get charged over 2% every time a customer used a credit card, so why don’t you pay cash or with a check? But as I was about to pay cash, I wondered: “Don’t the prices already reflect that I will use a credit card? I might as well get points towards my free inflatable grill or whatever comes with the card.”

As Mike notes, this structure encourages us to use credit cards even when we don’t find using them to be more convenient.

Nonetheless, I still think retailers are too mindful of consumer convenience to ever implement a cash discount, which does send a message that customers are not always right in their preferences. The discount—differential pricing for different classes of consumers—would make explicit something retailers prefer to remain concealed: the practice of price discrimination. Once customers are aware that their activities might affect what they have to pay, their comfort level with shopping as a leisure activity generally has to shift as well. In America, set prices promote the enticing illusion that shopping has a leveling effect, that in the great arena of goods, all customers are equal since they are entitled to the same great deals. This also has the byproduct of letting us experience any exclusive deals we finagle as personal triumphs, secret signs of our specialness or our ability to beat the system, transcend it, rise above consumerism while mastering its terms.

by Bill Gibron

5 May 2009

Talk about questionable prospects! Who could ever imagine that Paramount, preservers of Gene Roddenberry’s seminal Star Trek empire, would mount a massive reboot of the series, an attempt in 2009 to turn the fortunes of a forty year old property into something modern and merchandisable. For a while, it looked like Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest would have to rally around the aging nostalgia factor and forge a path more backwards glancing than forward thinking. But the past can’t hold forth in the future forever.

Even with the still popular possibilities of The Next Generation (and to some extent, Deep Space Nine), fans both young and old just can’t get enough of the 1960s series. And with prequels being so plentiful (and usually unsuccessful), going back to the very beginning of Trek would appear tenuous at best. Luckily, studio heads cleared enough to give Lost‘s J.J. Abrams the creative Con - and it’s a good thing too. His Star Trek instantly becomes one of the year’s best films.

Troubled and rebellious as a young boy, James Tiberius Kirk can’t shake the feeling that he was meant for something more. Similarly, Vulcan child Spock has difficulty deciphering his half-human, half-alien feelings. The two end up at Starfleet Academy, where they begin to learn the ways of the United Federation of Planets. Along the way, they pick up some close friends - Kirk and new doctor cadet Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and for Spock, the special affections of communications specialist Uhura.

When a mystery mining vessel carrying the angry Romulan Nero breaks through the neutral zone and attacks Vulcan, Captain Pike pilots the newly christened Enterprise to intercept. On board are Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Chekov, the two latest additions to the crew. Eventually, the Federation learns of the Romulan’s time-travel inspired plan, it’s passion to destroy planets, and it’s particular vendetta with Spock - even though they’ve “technically” never met the young alien…at least, not this version of him.

It’s hard to express in mere words how wonderful J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot is, especially for a worn in the wool die-hard Trek head like yours truly. It’s a silly, grinning from ear to ear experience, a ‘wow’ that works overtime to keep from ever letting you down. From the moment we learn of our heroes’ hamstrung youth, to the final confrontation that will define their legacy for star dates to come, there is a reverence and a revitalization that finally turns Trek into everything founder Roddenberry - and his throngs of devotees - hoped for.

This is more than just a ‘remake’ or a ‘reimagining’. This is brilliant filmmaking artistry filtered through a deep appreciation for what Star Trek stands for, for the years it held the lantern for serious science fiction while other efforts traveled toward the ‘dark side’ of action adventure commerciality. Granted, Abrams pours on the thrills, but he doesn’t cheapen the mythology that made Kirk and company true cultural icons.

This is a movie that performs remarkably well on all levels - as an introduction to the seminal characters for newbies, a welcome return visit to younger versions of old friends, a highly sophisticated mainstream entertainment, a rock ‘em sock ‘em effects spectacle, and a reminder that ideas can be just as exciting and interesting as images. Abrams, working from an excellent script by frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, takes his time with each element, letting information and concepts sink in before rapidly and rationally moving on.

The opening battle, which we catch more or less in mid-strategy, instantly encases us in the world we are about to enter. It also sets the emotional tone. By the time an underage Kirk runs his step-dad’s classic car up to (and over) the edge of a nearby ravine, we are ready to go anywhere with this story - and Abrams takes us there, both outside the characters and inside their deepest fears.

This is a true origin story, the kind which doesn’t skimp on the painful parts. Both Kirk and Spock are seen as deeply hurt by their childhood circumstance. It is a realistic foundation which explains a great deal of their later relationship. Similarly, we understand the motives of Uhura and McCoy, each one taking up defense for their friend. As actors, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are so note-perfect as our Trek titans that we often wonder if we are viewing Shatner and Nimoy through some kind of age-defying prism.

Also excellent are Zoe Saldana, John Cho, and in a last act appearance that’s a tad too brief, a wonderful Simon Pegg as everyone’s favorite “beamer” Scotty. Of particular note is Karl Urban. About a billion light years from Middle Earth (where he was Eomer), his McCoy is so delicious dead-on, so absolutely channeling the spirit and spunk of DeForest Kelly that he almost steals the film from everyone else.

But it’s Eric Bana who brings it all together. His villain with a heart hellbent on revenge is not some ridiculous raving psychopath. Instead, he’s someone who literally lost everything, and is determined to make those who he believes responsible pay in the exact same way. This leads to Trek‘s biggest surprise - the sheer scope and size of the threat. When we first realize what’s about to happen to one of the series well known places, the shock is matched only by the sensation of seeing it play out powerfully on the big screen. Star Trek is the very definition of a blockbuster, a larger than life experience that has to be seen theatrically to be fully appreciated. This is as epic an entertainment as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the original Star Wars, and Christopher Nolan’s operatic Dark Knight.

Once again, long time Trekkies (or Trekkers), have no fear. No one has raped your memories this time around. If anything, Abrams has acknowledged and acquiesced to them, giving your love of the original series as much care and consideration as you do. And those unfamiliar with the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, you too should feel unafraid. Accessibility is the key here, the movie made so stunning in its ability to hook you and keep you happy that you’ll soon forget your four decades outside the obsessive Trek fray.

For all others in between, heed this advice - Star Trek is destined to be remembered as one of 2009’s biggest and best surprises, a gamble that beat both the house and those holding the cards to turn everyone into a winner. This is the reason why movies are magic. This is why some of us fell in love with the original series in the first place. Bless you J. J. Abrams. May you live long, and definitely prosper. 

by Thomas Hauner

5 May 2009

King Khan was the sovereign and the audience his court, just as one would suspect. Notorious for his stage antics and backing himself with the controlled chaos of a garage-inspired eight-piece funk outfit (his Shrines), dancing cheerleader, roller-skating geriatric hype-man, and any other member of the audience with the conviction to share the spotlight in various stages of undress, King Khan unleashed a riotous set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Yet, unlike my last King Khan and the Shrines experience, the result was relatively tame by comparison—and not for Mr. Khan’s lack of wanting.


by Sarah Zupko

5 May 2009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: Outer South—Former Bright Eyes poster boy, Conor Oberst returns in rootsy guise for his second album with the Mystic Valley Band and now resides firmly in that space between alt-country and pop that is also occupied by Wilco.

New York Dolls: Cause I Sez So—The New York Dolls were at the very forefront of the punk revolution, forming in 1971 and being the primary influence on early UK punk bands like the Sex Pistols and to a lesser degree the Clash. The original group broke up in the late ‘70s, but David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain reunited the band in 2004 and put out their first studio record since 1974 in 2006. Now they have another gritty rock platter for us in Cause I Sez So.

by L.B. Jeffries

5 May 2009

For an artistic medium that focuses heavily on mimicking real life activities, video games still have a few activities that they still seem to struggle with keeping entertaining. Games have been able to make shopping entertaining (so long as it’s for armor and weapons), getting dressed entertaining, and even going to work marginally engaging for a person. So why does driving in a car or traveling long distances cause people to complain? Tim Stone, in an essay on flying in Microsoft Flight Simulator comments, “There are two kinds of boring simulations. The bad kind bore because they fail to replicate some or all of the interesting aspects of their subject matter. The good kind bore because the activities or machines they recreate contain elements that are inherently boring.” Stone’s acknowledgment that some things are inherently boring is interesting because that’s technically true of almost any activity outside run and gun gaming. What makes shopping entertaining is finding out all the gear you could potentially have to improve your game. What makes getting dressed entertaining is creatively improving your appearance and stats. Even going to work has the minimal benefit of generating cash or some other perk for the player. What are the pitfalls of traveling and what are the ways games can make it work through benefits?

Traveling in games comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Luke Maciak at Terminally Incoherent identifies three main types: instant public transportation, real time public transportation, and instant map based transportation. Everything else is just using in-game means to get around. Maciak praises Morrowind’s system because it created an intricate commerce and bus route, which makes it so learning how to travel is a part of exploring the game. That’s consistent with the RPG elements of the game and something that Oblivion and Fallout 3 hold onto by requiring the player to find the location personally before they can fast travel to it. The complaint many people have about fast travel is that it’s both immersion breaking and discourages discovering missing quests or details. When you just insta-travel everywhere, the game world ceases to be really relevant or necessary. The problem for many players is that many times there isn’t anything left to discover and they’re just trudging to get on with the game. JRPG’s are able to circumvent this by making any form of travel beneficial due to getting cash and experience from random encounters, but that can easily become just as mindless once the monsters are inferior. The other alternative Maciak notes is World of Warcraft’s real-time public transportation, where you literally watch the landscape go by as you travel. In my personal experience, the most interesting part about taking the bus or subway is fighting for seats and watching crazy people. MMO’s typically provide the latter on their own but there’s always room for playing with the former.

The other, much larger kind of travel is the means given by the game. The first title that pops to mind is naturally Grand Theft Auto and the series has defined itself by giving the player a world to travel in. The games themselves opted for a curious solution to travel boredom by creating a huge number of radio stations to pick from. It ameliorates the boredom of traveling by providing the activities we typically do ourselves. Just like driving in real life, when you get in the car you tune out by listening to music and hearing the news. Saints Row and a few other mob games experimented with this by adding hostile zones where you’d be fired at for traveling into as well. The issue this is resolving is that often these games don’t make getting into a car wreck game ending, which means a chunk of the tension in driving is missing. An inherent sense of risk, however mild, adds to the focus required from the player and means they can’t tune out and become bored. That’s the concept that Far Cry 2 seized on by abandoning the radio distraction and focusing purely on the hostility. The landscape is literally unconquerable, meaning you will always be shot at and always plowing through guard posts. The game also borrows from the Morrowind design by filing the map with diamond briefcases that can be found with your GPS unit. The consistent issue at work is keeping the player focused on the game and engaged with traveling. It’s customary for walking or driving to not engage us, people can space out and often use the time to think about other things. In Stone’s essay he comments that this in of itself becomes a pleasure, to have a game accurately create that same meta-leveled escapism. The farther you plan to travel in a game, the more you have to accept that boredom is a part of the experience itself.

The incentive to create huge, open worlds that we can explore is very appealing on paper, but the method by which we explore and inhabit that space is still very much under consideration. Is it okay for you to ever get bored while playing a video game? Is the medium designed purely to alleviate boredom or can it just channel the sensation in strange directions? Should people just be allowed to fly or skip everything if they want to? There’s the Freelancer system, which allowed you to flip on afterburners to travel at high speeds or use a series of rings to travel through the universe. Or Final Fantasy 7 that made you trudge through the entire world map once before handing over the airship so you could go anywhere. Bobby at GameCulture Journal cites two key concepts to travel in real life as outlined by Michel de Certeau. ‘Synedoche’, when you describe the whole of something by referencing just one part, and ‘asyndenton’, or when you leave a conjunction out of a phrase. The point Certeau makes is that when we discuss traveling we often remove the actual travel part of the description and just describe the place we’re going to. Bobby comments, “The space traversed is often ignored; the destination is often represented by a single symbolic piece.”

So perhaps traveling is always conceptually going to be a backseat concept for players. The goal of traveling in a game should not necessarily be about entertainment or alleviating boredom but instead just fleshing out the experience of the game itself. If you’ve created a world where there might be something they missed or some hidden treasure yet to be found, the world will communicate a sense of discovery. When you’ve created beautiful vistas , you will create a sense of wonder. And when you’ve trudged through miles of forest and desert to get there, you will have created the sense of tedium that makes the final pay off worth it all. Whatever form the game is using, it’s helpful to remember that nobody really goes anywhere without first some kind of destination in mind.

//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