Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Guitar Hero

Three or four days ago, I got to play Guitar Hero for the first time, at a friend's party. Then tonight I got to see and play Rock Band, which is fundamentally similar - a game that tests your sense of rhythm by sequencing certain actions to famous rock songs. First, let's get the pro forma out of the way:

As a musician, Guitar Hero offends my sensibilities.

As much as it bears a huge whiff of self-importance, I feel like it's the kind of thing I want to put in scare quote so I can hide its fundamental honesty. The game has a weird, not entirely obvious relation to actual musicianship, and it's supremely frustrating not to be good at something modeled on a real-life activity you're pretty good at. Someone tonight mentioned a video of the band Journey playing along to their own songs and failing miserably, apparently making a more direct form of that point - i.e. don't confuse this for the real thing, fatty.

But why is this important for musicians to protect? Well, because of the rewards of musicianship. Obviously, no groupies are going to glom onto the best of the best Guitar Hero players the way they (used to) do real guitar heroes, but there is a much more indefinable and slightly more fleeting set of emotional rewards that actual play reveals, a kind of climatic experience of accomplishment. And it's not incidental that a crowd is built in both to reward and punish.

But I'm not in Journey, and I don't play that much real guitar - it would probably take me a month to learn, to any level of competency, most of the songs featured on Guitar Hero, and to be frank, I don't really want to. The music that I play is generally way less virtuosic and more focused on a) getting some ideas out and b) having fun making noise. That's thanks to the final reason I'm offended by guitar hero - it's not just musicianship at stake, it's creativity. Despite my understanding of the principles of the cultural commons, it still simply feels a little less creative, to me, to play someone else's song, making Guitar Hero doubly fake.

Allright, so, got that judgment out of the way. Now on to actual thought. What's most confounding about the experience of playing Guitar Hero is the nonintuitive relationship between the source music and the requirements placed on the player. First, it's not as if there's anything like a "G" on the Guitar Hero controller - there are only five buttons and a little fin-like thing you strike to play. So, from the start, there's no such thing as a "note" - all you have is a color. Second, especially at the easy difficulty settings, you don't actually play all (or even most) of the notes, instead doing something drastically simpler and getting a whole slew of sound as a reward. What really sucks about this for anyone who is either a musician or just generally has good audio rhythm is that, obviously, there's no way to tell which of these many notes you're supposed to pretend to "play," so depending on the audio becomes a lost cause. Ultimately, while the song is crucial in a lot of ways, Guitar Hero is a visual rhythm game - you watch the little dots come down the screen and then hit the little buttons at the right time. It's a whole different language than music, one that happens to fit within one aspect of music's regime.

All that said, though, I must admit it's hella fun - weirdly, in some ways it's way more fun than playing an actual show, which is most often a stressful situation in which you kind of lose track of everything going on around you. By simplifying the whole process, Guitar Hero actually lets you enjoy it more, even with a fake audience. And maybe that's what's most upsetting of all - not that Guitar Hero is a matter of lowly mortals stealing fire from the musical Gods, but that it might keep some people who would otherwise be jumping over those initial hurdles from doing so. Lord knows, if it weren't for Fallout 3, I would be doing a lot more exploration of the rotting hulk of Washington, D. . . oh, wait.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hoodwinked! Bamboozled!

I was just watching a broadcast of an Obama Rally . . . I think live. In reference to McCain's economic policy, he says:

"We will not be hoodwinked. We will not be bamboozled."

I'm doing a little looking around, and it seems Obama has been using these phrases for a while. And it's not really Malcolm, just a speech from Spike Lee's movie, never actually delivered:


Is this a Democratic version of right-wing people quoting obscure passages of the bible? If so, HALLELUJAH. The mere connection has me fired up.

The question is - why haven't the Right made more hay with it? It seemed linking Obama with X would be one hell of a lot more frightening to the people the McCain campaign is targetting (which is apparently ignorant, distrustful rednecks who truly believe themselves to be 'more patriotic' than other Americans and who really think Obama is a terrorist). But it seems this is a really subtle play on Obama's part, since the Republicans would probably just end up looking ridiculous if they accused him of referencing Malcom X . . . "But it's not really him, it's from a movie."


Friday, October 3, 2008

On Pelosi

Is anyone doing the cable news thing? MSNBC has Nancy Pelosi pitching the bailout bill, and has the Dow Jones ticker next to her. Pretty hilarious - at least for the last few minutes the Dow has been losing gains progressively as she speaks. The underlying assumption is just comical.

She's also doing a good job of shouting out Democrats who rewrote the bill with essential stuff on protecting mortgage holders, getting rid of golden parachutes, etc. I'm fairly impressed with both her and frankly with the entire process. I don't want to misinterpret this as a moment of Democrats showing backbone - god knows we're not quite there yet, and this was a real multiparty resistance to bullshit, with a lot of credit going to Republicans, which is if anything more inspiring.

And now we're watching the vote tallies come in in real time - something I have never seen in my lifetime. Really fascinating.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Liveblogging the (V.P.) Debate

9:31 - Biden's daughters are total hotties. And with that, I'm through.

9:30 - I think it's fairly predictable that Palin will benefit from low expectations. A blowout for Biden, but by whatever weird calculus prevails, I'm guessing it will be known as a draw.

9:28 - Biden's point about not questioning motives is huge. Not just presidential, but poetic. I'm not so sure it's true, of course - personally I imagine Jesse Helms was a corrupt fuck, but as a PR gesture it's got its merits.

9:25 - Palin doesn't come back at Biden on the Bork thing . . . this is a core conservative issue and it seems she's not even familiar with it, again.

9:23 - Biden may be closing this thing down. He's been visibly pissed off for most of the debate, and the question is whether people will identify more with that or with Palin's recycled Bush folksiness.

9:22 - John McCain is "the man we need to leave - I mean lead." Classic.

9:20 - She attributes "Shining city on a hill" to Reagan? I think that about sums up the depth of not just the McCain campaign but the Republican party.

9:16 - Palin completely fails to address the question of Cheney's interpretation of the VP's position outside of the executive branch. It strikes me that she's not even familiar with the issue. Biden gives the sensible answer that Cheney is self-aggrandizing.

9:14 - It's funny, Palin mentions "having a conversation" with McCain, and I can't even picture it. I can only see McCain holding her in barely-concealed contempt. McCain is flawed, but at least he's substantive. The idea of Sarah Palin in a position of authority in the U.S. national government is frankly frightening, just as much as it was before the debate.

9:12 - Palin on Biden's schoolteacher wife: "Her reward is in heaven, huh?" For a secular person, this comes across as weird and vaguely threatening. I wonder if this will be spun as a blunder.

9:10 - I'm starting to notice tone more than anything. She's clearly a charming performer, very Bush-like. But also like Bush, she's completely without substance, without a thought process. There's nothing back there. I just really wonder whether people will notice this, and whether they're going to make the right decision.

9:08 - Okay, I'M tired, I can't imagine what those two are feeling.

9:01 - "It's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider . . . " I can't say I hate Palin, which surprises me somewhat. But she's clearly a Barbie doll in the worst possible way. There's absolutely no substance here, she's regurgitating slogans.

9:00 - Biden seems to be getting tired. Repeating himself on Afghanistan.

8:58 - "Facts matter." There is no important principle that distinguishes the Democrats and Republicans.

8:56 - More incoherence from Palin on nuclear weapons . . . srsly.

8:56 - Biden takes the opening and runs down all of the places where there has been no declared difference between McCain and Bush.

8:53 - Biden's critique of Bush admin in Israel is harsh and pointed. But can h connect it to McCain? Again, he refuses to take the attack dog role. Palin - "I'm so glad we both love Israel." Creeeeeeeepy.

8:51 - Again with the "second Holocaust." Downright offensive.

8:49 - And now she's failing to distinguish between "sitting down" and "diplomacy." Biden points out the ridiculousness of the McCain campaigns attempts to square the circle.

8:48 - What I'm most impressed by is that Palin can say "Akmedenijad" (sp?) without showing her pride. Her answer is not just vague but outdated even by standards of debate rhetoric, going back to the "talking to dictators" line against Obama. Wasn't that like, three months ago?

8:47 - Okay, Palin is predictably ineffectual, going back to Iraq. The McCain campaign must know that this isn't much of a selling strategy.

8:46 - Biden on Pakistan vs. Iran is strong, but I'm on the fucking edge of my seat waiting for Palin. This will be where she lives or dies - international affairs.

8:45 - Okay though, Biden on McCain's fundamental understanding of the war is fairly devastating.

8:43 - There's just nothing spectacular or really interesting happening here so far. Biden has gotten mad a couple times, and that's good stuff. But they're both really just regurgitating vague outlines of party positions.

8:42 - I have to confess that even I am simply tired of talking about Iraq, to the extent that even if I did think a withdrawal was surrender, I'd be excited about it.

8:40 - On to Iraq. And I notice George Bush has not been mentioned a single time.

8:39 - And Biden seems to have gotten something interesting, apparently no difference between gay and straight couples civilly.

8:37 - Wow, Biden says something that sounds very strong - no constitutional or legal distinction between straight and gay couples.

8:35 - Palin is good on energy, and she's getting a lot of time on it.

8:32 - "If you don't understand the causes, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution." Biden is good here. Although "clean coal" is total bullshit.

8:31 - Ooh, climate change, this should be good. Sounds like Palin is hedging a bit . . . maybe there is some human effect. And now she's just babbling . . . "I'm not interested in debating the causes, I'm here to talk about how are we going to get to positively effect the impacts." Her manner collapsed in the course of one question.

8:30 - Palin dodges mortgages to talk about Energy - I'm not sure that's going to play well. I have to say, though, she seems confident, and her smiling manner is compelling.

8:26 - "I hope the governor can convince John McCain to impose a windfall profits tax on oil companies like she did in Alaska." This sort of jiu-jitsu seems more common this cycle - complimentary but convoluted.

8:24 - Okay, Palin is off-topic, but she's performing well on her tough stance against tax breaks for oil companies. It's got Biden defensive for the first time. She's even gotten Biden praising her.

8:21 - Biden's analysis of McCain's healthcare plan is impassioned and compelling.

8:19 - The tax cut thing seems pretty clear cut. Palin's response isn't completely incoherent, which is kind of like hitting it out of the park. That seems like a theme here.

8:15 - Biden actually knows the details of McCain's positions - how many times has he supported deregulation? 20. Palin turns around and has numbers of her own - 94 times Obama didn't reduce taxes. Biden rebuts with overwhelming strength - McCain did the same thing 477 times. Palin goes back to her mayoral term . . . that's what's known as being on your heels.

8:10 - Oh, who do we blame subprimes on, to Palin. This should be good. Blaming Wall Street for being greedy is like castigating the fox for eating chickens. And she's calling for strict oversight, weird from a Republican. The message about restraint is a good one for a Republican, hits the good messages about conservatism and responsibility at a time when it makes sense.

8:09 - Palin's literally incoherent, babbling sloganeering is just creepy.

8:08 - The effect of Palin talking about McCain nonstop has a bit of a weird vibe to it. Biden's doing it a bit with Obama too. It's kind of like they're competing car salesmen.

8:06 - Palin goes to soccer moms as economic belwethers . . . and my own mom next to me sighs in disgust. That seems like a signal that folksiness isn't selling.

8:04 - First question on the bailout. "The worst economic policies we've ever had." But will he relate it to McCain? Well, going more positive than that - pro-Obama.

8:04 - "Can I call you Joe?" from Palin. Well-calibrated folksiness.

8:02 - The most anticipated VP debate in history . . . and Bryan Williams puts that in perspective immediately by pointing out what a weird pick Palin was.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Utopian Community and the Critique of Liberalism

The social failures of utopian communities, whether based on religious stricture, as in the case of Warren Jeffs' polygamist sect, or on the liberal universalism and enlightenment, as in the case of Auroville, seem to end in similar sorts of failures. In both Auroville and the Texas polygamists' ranch, there were accusations of child abuse and neglect, abuse of power, and general dysfunction.

The "mother" who runs Auroville concieved it as "a universal town where people from around the world could live together in harmony and unity, without having to worry about food and shelter." Setting aside for a moment the implicit scientific utopianism of the second part of the claim, the social utopianism of the first perfectly encapsulates the overtly stated goals that underpin much of modern Western society. And, as both David Theo Goldberg and Carl Schmitt would predict (from vastly different perspectives), this universalism leads quite directly to an oppression that must be actively disavowed - according to the BBC article, local Tamils have great difficulty becoming members of the exclusive (universalist) club at Auroville, a contradiction that would seem difficult to maintain. Is this an instance of the need for supposedly universalist humanism to covertly exclude some as "non-human" in order to sustain its enterprise?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Contemplating the Rhetorical Uses of "History" as a judge.

The use of “history” as an abstract replacement for God or moral law is pretty noticeable these days - as in George Bush's “History will judge our actions.” I saw an episode of Battlestar Galactica the other day that used the same phraseology, and maybe since the show usually puts me in a thoughtful mood, it jumped out at me. What's the warrant underlying such a statement? What, really, are the moral groundings and the ensuing moral consequences of a stance that leaves some sort of ultimate judgment to History? What exactly is the nature of that judgment? What, ultimately, are the consequences of making an abstracted History the compass for our actions, or the justification of them?

In what ways does History have the capacity to serve as a stand-in for these monumental constructions of ethics – or even for the more recent administrative ethic of efficiency and good management?

What are the consequences of History’s judgment? Are they parallel with those of Heaven, Hell, Evil or Waste?
If the sort of judgment implied in these statements is a moral one, then the stakes are in part the memories held of us by future human beings. The punishment of such a proclamation ostensibly would be that our grandchildren would, if they decide to, remember us as fools, criminals, sinners.

There's a bit of a conundrum here – if History is our judge, then we are claiming that it takes the role of an ethic. But we must imagine that those figures that we imagine in the future (and who are in turn remembering us in the past) have some different ethic, some absolute ethic, some way to judge the rightness of a decision using capacities that we have not yet developed.

In this sense, the invocation of history as a judge of our actions has much in common with the logic of cryogenics - we don't have the power of judgment now that would be required to judge these actions, but in the future, our more advanced successors will have that power.

Of course, much of this speculation would be irrelevant if we interpret the statement in a second possible way. When we say “History will be our judge,” maybe we are not referring to the people who will judge us on new and better ethical grounds, but to some objective set of outcomes that will be clearly decipherable as vindicating our action. In the Bush case, once you do a little reading, it's clear that this second goal is what's in effect, since it's still believed by at least a few that the democratization of Iraq will have long-term positive consequences in the region, such as destabilizing state sponsors of terrorism.

But really, this is only a further deferral of the problem already presented, as it nonetheless assumes that our descendants will have the ability to experience their own surroundings in some sense in relation to an imagined alternative outcome. It also presents a curious problem of regression - if we are deferring the judgment of our actions to some hypothetical future point at which their consequences will become clear, must we not in turn defer the judgment of those consequences until their consequences become clear? This is the problem of all logic that tries to justify current suffering in the name of future outcomes.

Another implication of these sorts of claims is that WE DON'T KNOW what the outcome will be. In what way does this statement position us relative to our ignorance of our actions’ consequences? I have a colleague who, as far as I can tell following on Derrida, makes quite strong claims about the ultimate undecidability of the consequences of actions. But he often seems to me to be making the mistake of taking this as supporting an ethical undermining of all supposedly 'progressive action, making of it nothing more than self-delusion. I, on the other hand, feel that confronting and overcoming this vacuum of knowledge of the future - acting despite our ignorance - is fundamental to being human, or for that matter alive.

The problem with the appeal to history, just as with my friend's deconstructionist ethics, is the inevitable ethical abdication – the refusal to stake a claim on any element of one’s judgment. If we can only appeal to history as an ethical standard, rather than to some piece of our own understanding, expectations, even hopes, we are distanced from the consequences of our own actions. We take less responsibility for them insofar as we defer judgment.

The core aspect of these statements is exactly that deferral of judgment. Strip away some strong layers of implication, and you'll notice that there is often no overt claim that History will find us to be right - only that history will judge us. In other words, this is a slightly fancier way of throwing up our hands and saying "Meh."

One final series of questions - what are the cultural circumstances that allow history to take on this moral role? For something so frequently used by Bush, and evangelical Christian, it's striking how much that statement smacks of Enlightenment. If History is judging us, who's not judging us? You guessed it - God. And whether you are more convinced by my reading of the History here being invoked as "future enlightened ethicists" or "objective administrative outcomes," the progressivism, humanism, and technologism here are obvious.

So, does "history" have good or bad implications for decision making? I would say both - positive, by my lights, exactly to the degree that it implies a pragmatic, outcome-oriented decision-making process. But the far more powerful implication also seems to be far more ethically dangerous - the idea that the wisdom of our present decisions will be truly unknowable until some uncertain time in the future. This may be the true ontological nature of human experience - of, in fact, all existence - but it does not have an ethical consequence. The truly ethical act is to traverse the terror of that ultimate, cosmic uncertainty, and act with the best knowledge you have, and stake one's own ethical status on that what is possible within our narrow human capabilities.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hillary Clinton purged Indiana voter rolls of blacks and students . . . probably.

Edit: This story has been shown to be a serious misinterpretation of the evidence - I didn't realize how little respect Black Box Voter had in the blog community when I first read it. I leave it up here because some of what I wrote still holds water, and as an object lesson in the risks of flying off the handle.

Huge numbers of voters purged from the rolls in Indiana.
Especially heavily hit was Porter county/Valparaiso, where MORE THAN HALF of all voters were removed from the rolls - and which also happens to be a college town. Almost as bad was Gary, where about a third of the current total of registered voters were purged - and which also happens to be one of the most densely black cities in America.

Removing huge numbers of college students and black people from the voter rolls before the Democratic primary - who might that benefit? Things that make you go hmm.

The post above just contains raw numbers, without any irresponsible speculation - so let me inject some. If this story gets some legs, I'm betting that a minimum of vetting on this purge will turn up yet more evidence that despite any policies we might like, what Hillory Clinton and her coterie really bring to the table is exactly the same political playbook as Bush. And have you guys seen the clips of her from yesterday? Her gas-tax holiday has been universally mocked and debunked, including by, apparently, every economist who has been asked about it. Stephanopolous (amazingly) actually pressed her on this a few days ago, and her response was that she wouldn't "throw her lot in with the economists. Sound familiar? Part of the whole anti-elitist thing she's apparently glommed onto lately. Here's video of the whole shameful, embarrassing thing.

I'm not one of those "I'll vote for McCain" loonies, but this whole scenario just gets more and more depressing. Hillary herself remained at least a pretty damn inspiring historical figure until she realized (it seems) that she had to turn completely to the dark side if she had any hope of killing . . . well, hope. All of the intuitive antipathy I've felt towards her from the start of this is being completely borne out by hard evidence of just how bad she really is.