30 November 2010
29 November 2010
In the 1990s, many Democrats embraced Bill Clinton’s wars of choice in the Balkans and accepted his encroachments on civil liberties following the Oklahoma City bombing, while many Republicans tilted noninterventionist and libertarian. If Al Gore had been president on 9/11, this pattern might have persisted, with conservatives resisting the Patriot Act the way they’ve rallied against the T.S.A.’s Rapiscan technology, and Vice President Joe Lieberman prodding his fellow Democrats in a more Cheney-esque direction on detainee policy.I found this so confusing when it happened.
But because a Republican was president instead, conservative partisans suppressed their libertarian impulses and accepted the logic of an open-ended war on terror, while Democratic partisans took turns accusing the Bush administration of shredding the Constitution.
27 November 2010
My co-Gent Barrett, in his post “Computing in virtual worlds,” writes:
“…there exists a faction represented by such people as Roger Ebert who believe that one may refer to one’s self as cultured while knowing almost nothing about the state of gaming…”
Some thoughts from a gaming outsider:
1.) Gaming is worth taking seriously, but this also means being ready to criticize. Plenty of what gamers do is, from my perspective, a waste. There’s a common perception that gamers spend a lot of time trying to get away from reality, to lose themselves in worlds which aren’t this one. There’s truth in this. It’s sad to me when someone masters Guitar Hero instead of actually learning to play guitar. On the other hand, judging gaming culture by its best-selling franchises would be like judging film by Michael Bay or contemporary literature by James Patterson. That is to say, it’s an exceptional community where the most interesting stuff doesn’t happen mainly on the fringes.
2.) Barrett’s exactly right to zero in on “sandboxes” as the most impressive sector of gaming culture. About once a year I go on a Conway’s Game of Life binge, marveling at, say, the Universal Turing Machine built on the grid. This “game” was one the earliest demonstrations of gaming culture’s impulse to wring as much complexity as possible out of constrained environments. I’m continually amazed by what happens when game designers set up open environments and let players loose to create. I’m delighted to see what talented puzzle-makers come up with when they pick out an interesting scenario — say, playing with time in a 2D platformer.
3.) However, games often stumble when it comes to narrative. There’s at least one sharp critic on this point in the gaming community: Ben Croshow, a.k.a. Yahtzee, the verbally dextrous and consistently NSFW voice of Zero Punctuation. While Croshow has a handful of examples of effective game storylines (e.g., his write-up of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), he spends a lot more time lambasting games for awful writing, stupid characters, and contrived events. My limited experience with major-release games is that there’s a constant give-and-take with interactivity: the story-driven game may or may not give you choices, and if it does you’re going to be constrained and herded toward the handful of endings the developers had in mind anyway. The stories work better for me when they’re minimal, more suggested than spelled out, as in, say, Shadow of the Colossus. One caveat with regard to stories and games: I’ve never played a MMORPG, so I’m not sure what it’s like to be part of one of these huge game-wide narrative events.
4.) Another major tension in story-driven games is the tension between the story’s requirement for a protagonist and the gameplay’s demand for continual violence. This got quite comical in Grand Theft Auto IV, where you were expected to somehow summon sympathy for Niko Bellic’s emotional turmoil between tasks that required you to guide Niko to commit mass slaughter. To return to the film analogy, you get a lot of the video-game equivalent of Michael Bay, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get Peckinpah or Miyazaki. But could you ever have an Antonioni? I’m not at all sure if this will hold up, but I’d posit for the sake of discussion that in film the relevant axis is stimulation-meditation, whereas in games the relevant axis is destruction-creation.
5.) The fanboy approach to gaming will continue to keep knowledge of gaming from functioning as cultural capital. If the gaming community wants to be taken seriously by the Eberts of the future, it should generate more of its own thoughtful critics.
6.) I would seriously love to play Miegakure.
24 November 2010
I. The argument
Alexander Pruss has posted the nine-step "consequence" argument against Calvinism. The consensus in the comments is that the fourth premise (sixth step) is the one to argue about.
II. The typology
From Adam Kotsko at AUFS:
In the center, you have liberalism, for which capitalism is here to stay and must simply be managed (and sometimes that “management” is held to consist in leaving it to its own devices). The attempts to get rid of capitalism can be classified as either trying to replace it with a system of similar universality and universalizability (left-wing) or retreating into a particularity that will shield us from its effects (right-wing). That really is how the situation is laid out: you have socialism (left-wing) or capitalism (liberalism), and the only place for a “third way” to land is on the right wing (whose exemplary form is fascism).In the comments, where there's a lot of noise but also some helpful clarifications, Kotsko explains a little further.
What I reject is local-ism, which makes the irreducibility of the local a starting place and rejects universalizability in principle — i.e., people who will say “the whole problem with capitalism is that it’s universal; universalism is oppressive in itself; we need local/particular strategies that can never become universal and hence oppressive, etc.” I think we need models that are universalizable, that can be applied (while making adjustments for local circumstances) everywhere, that think through what it would look like for something to be applied universally...It goes without saying that if you don't think capitalism is the problem, you'll be in the "liberal" category here. Anyways, "universalizability" is a useful concept.
One more thing: I have to admit it was a little bit disturbing when Kotsko broke the fourth wall in the comments and started talking about the disagreement being a performance for the lurkers, of which I am one.
23 November 2010
I'm at my desk listening to the new Kanye West album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I'm not going to argue with the pop critic consensus: it's good. When the staff of the music review website Pitchfork named rap duo Outkast's "B.O.B." the best track of the last decade, they praised the song for its "obliteration of the boundaries separating hip-hop, metal, and electro," thereby expressing a culturally democratic hope for a world where genres exist only as objects of play. It takes imagination to crack through the rigid marketing categories of pop music without losing focus; Kanye's got an excess of that kind of imagination. Who else would imagine that you could successfully juxtapose a hook by Justin Vernon, the quiet pretty voice of indie band Bon Iver, with a rap verse from Nicki Minaj that reminds me of O.D.B.'s insane vocalizations on Enter the 36 Chambers? Kanye throws his tender heart in a blender, along with pretty much the entire landscape of pop music, and out comes a classic album.
Classic, that is, insofar as pop music can be classic.
This weekend, I spent some time working through Beethoven's Eroica symphony. I know, I know, it's one of the basic texts of the Western musical tradition, but I'd never sat down with the score before. As you might expect, there's a lot going on, and I'm barely past the surface. And so I was interested to read through David P. Goldman's First Things essay "Why We Can't Hear Wagner's Music." I won't try to sum up Goldman's essay, but he makes good use of the approach to music theory first elaborated by Heinrich Schenker. Schenkerian analysis is a way of identifying deep harmonic structures in tonal music; its most devoted proponents — including, perhaps, Goldman — take Schenker's analysis as describing the heart of Music Itself. Rhythm, timbre, and dynamics are surface phenomena, albeit important ones (and I expect a real Schenkerian analyst could make good use of these concepts).
Though I can't do this kind of analysis, I'm starting to make sense of the foreground of the Eroica. The harmonic motion, even on the surface, is subtle, seductive, propulsive. You don't need me to tell you this, though. It doesn't take much time with Beethoven to make bad pop music sound unbearably repetitive, to the point where I want to say that pop music becomes indistinguishable from sound effects in the computer age.
Listening to Kanye, it's hard to sustain the extreme opinion. Of course the harmonic sense is more or less lobotomized, but we've still got rhythm (lots), timbre (a little), dynamics, and — perhaps most of all — glorious allusion. To understand the achievement of the Eroica, I've had to read up on symphony and sonata forms in the time of Mozart and Haydn: out of context, the third theme in the Allegro, the use of a funeral march, or even the very heft of the symphony lose force. It's fun in a similar — though less intellectual — way to catch Kanye riffing on Black Sabbath, or borrowing ideas from old Jay-Z lyrics, or bringing his predecessor-in-production the RZA in to take a verse. And, since there's rappers everywhere, you get some delicious wordplay to boot. To me, these things aren't merely ornamentation over a harmonic essence. (I could be badly mistaken here: David Goldman, for example, has a strong theological reason for connecting beauty and truth, and his emphasis on the harmonic structure of music in part falls out of that.)
Which isn't to say the limitations in harmonic vocabulary don't handicap the album; it's just that this is true of so much pop music that you can't really single Kanye out.
Also, I'd appreciate moral vision, but that might be too much to ask.
(Also relevant: Peter Suderman muses on why pop music critics converge on Kanye.)
19 November 2010
"Actors are essentially emotion-producing instruments, and some are always tuned and ready while others will reach a fantastic pitch on one take and never equal it again, no matter how hard they try."And later:
"A director is a kind of idea and taste machine; a movie is a series of creative and technical decisions, and it's the director's job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible. Shooting a movie is the worst milieu for creative work ever devised by man. It is a noisy, physical apparatus; it is difficult to concentrate -- and you have to do it from eight-thirty to six-thirty, five days a week. It's not an environment an artist would ever choose to work in. The only advantage is has is that you must do it, and you can't procrastinate."Via Kottke.
By the way, I'm finally going to watch 8 1/2 this weekend.
11 November 2010
"The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two."
-Mark Greif, "What was the Hipster?"
07 November 2010
For years, the federal government bought the [dairy] industry's excess cheese and butter, an outgrowth of a Depression-era commitment to use price supports and other tools to maintain the dairy industry as a vital national resource. This stockpile, packed away in cool caves in Missouri, grew to a value of more than $4 billion by 1983, when Washington switched gears.
-“While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales,” New York Times, 7 Nov 2010