Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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I’ve rather considered myself a fervent traditionalist, for somebody who was born into the computer age, despite the glow of electronic devices pretty much dominating my time: I work IT. I’m a consummate forum troll. I’m rarely more than two hours away from a computer if I’m awake.

But I only just now got a cell phone, eschew the 3G network, maintain a personal library of more than two thousand books – as in the physical objects, not the digital feeds – and hate Web 2.0 with every fiber of my being. I’m friends with people who prefer personal contact and live performances to networking and recordings, and who keep LPs not just for the fidelity but for the social protocol as well.

The reason for this is as simple as it is distressing: I feel that we’re replacing a medium with new one that does not offer everything the former one did. We’re losing something. And not just the displaced jobs – else I’d be a neo-luddite – but something far more intrinsic; fundamental: We’re losing intellectualism.

I mean, sure, there’s already a lot written out there about how, with the decline of newspapers being able to afford foreign offices and investigative reporters, we’re deluged in a wave of amateurs, but that was always the case with the internet. This is a blog. This isn’t my first blog. I know the score. But perhaps I’m a skylarking idealist whose hope that the original precepts of the internet – a frank and open exchange of ideas – would be born out.

I remember in college lauding the internet for being what is essentially a printing press in every living room. The flip side to that is, when printing presses came out, what kept the presses running were not peer-reviewed periodicals and papers of record, but handbills and tawdry literature: The equivalent of “Obama is a Secret Radical Muslim” and Dan Brown potboilers.

How the concept of journalistic integrity came out of this cauldron, I don’t know, but we appear to be, with this shift in dynamics, losing it. It was inevitable, to be sure: What was the wild west of the electronic frontier would be tamed and, eventually, monetized, but short of that right now what we get is not exactly WalMart and not exactly anarchy but instead Abu Dhabi: Two or three big players with their own spurious agendas and a lotta unpaid laborers.

And in the fray we’re reading less (yet owning more “books”), not paying attention to what we read, and care not for the truth but the domination of the message. What matters is not what happened but who’s shouting loudest – in school we denigrate the Soviet Union for their reliance on propaganda to opiate the masses, but our current system of dueling propaganda isn’t exactly better.

Fox excuses itself by saying the NYTimes is a liberal rag and thus we need “balance.” Democrats lament that Republicans are pulling the debate to the right by catering to their extreme, and then turn around and suggest the solution to that is to do the same, reversed. The news is only too happy to “report” on both, which is to say they’ll take quotes ad verbatim and play on the salacious and scandalous attention rather than the veracity of the claims.

What matters is not whether a statistic quoted is correct, but how soon that statistic will become a meme before it is corrected. The Islamic Cultural Center on Park Place lost the media battle the moment Sarah Palin called it a “Ground Zero Mosque,” which it is of course neither, and only in the op ed pages do columnists report on the “error.”

Stephen Colbert reported on the “truthiness” of the current cultural zeitgeist: Nobody reads into anything, so everybody is duped by any ruse that plays to their pre- and mis-conceptions. I think the internet must take its fair share of blame, here. Rather than being the great egalitarian library – the forum (in the original sense of the term) of a new age – it’s instead done the exact opposite: Reinforced ignorance, hyperbolized public sentiment, and self-served prophecy.

We’re looking at ourselves through a funhouse mirror and calling it the world. We’ve become lumpen-sophists, in the ugliest form of the word. Perhaps we should take a step back and figure out what parts of this new electronic age really work and what clearly do not.


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Joel Kotkin of Foreign Policy waxes on about how suburbs, not cities, are the answer, because population alone doesn’t make a city World Class, especially when it’s marred with a complete lack of infrastructure and capital.

In short, he critiques the developing world’s contribution to urbanization by creating the world’s largest slums to date.

However, he’s only half right. Yes, Jakarta is no New York, but neither is Zurich.

Kotkin doesn’t realize that it is the heterogeneity that fosters the cultural zeitgeist of the Ur-city. Sure, you can have little economic powerhouses like western Europe, but they’re really just homogeneous suburbs of a different sort: Pushing the poor out of your jurisdiction doesn’t make your city better. It just increases class segregation – and that’s all suburbs are, segregated communities.

Yeah, it ain’t just population, but it ain’t just money either: Else-wise Tokyo would be on top, not New York. What’s holding the likes of Tokyo or Shanghai back aren’t that they’re too dense or that their respective countries are over-urbanizing, but that they’re monoliths demographically.

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  • Published: Aug 31st, 2010
  • Category: Media
  • Comments: 1

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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The problem with war films and mob films is that their message – “this is hell” and “these are bad men,” respectively – is undermined by the glamor of the medium. In order to make them interesting, they’re made likable, and suddenly you have mobsters not only enjoying Goodfellas but emulating it, and soldiers pumping themselves up for war by watching Apocalypse Now.

So how far would a director go in order to drive home the point? Would he make his film a documentary on the seediness and ugliness of the whole scene, to the point where there are no protagonists, only antagonists? He could inject the naif, a la the main character in Richard Price’s Clockers, or the hapless squadron in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but even then by doing so he’s saying, “you can be moral and do this bad stuff,” lending credence to it. He could also devise the “seeking redemption” theme, a la Nico Bellic from Grand Theft Auto 4 or, well, any and all anti-heroes Hollywood seems to love so much nowadays.

Two game sequels that seem, in my mind, to form the logical extreme of this debate have come out in the past week: Kane & Lynch 2 and Mafia 2. The originals of each were panned, one of the reasons for which was the fact that the protagonists – in this case the player avatars – are unlovable, unlikable soulless amoral bastards who are personally responsible for a great deal of death and misery about and around them.

So in that stead, Kane Marcus, James Lynch, Vito Scaletti and Joe Barbaro are bad men. They’re not in it to save their loved ones, because their loved ones’ misery is directly attributable their actions. They’re not in it for a just cause, except to get money and not die – everything and everybody else is expendable. In fact, the latter two are racist, sexist thugs and the former two are ugly, violent sociopaths with no redeeming qualities. And you play them.

In a way, it’s refreshing.

It’s, to say the least, visceral and immersive to hear your comrade-in-arms causally wax prose about how the moulinyans are “fucking animals, too busy selling dope and killing each other” to bother with you as you set out to rip them off on their turf, literally on the far side of the tracks. “Where’d he find the money to get a car this nice? Probably stole it himself.” Even the (licensed, actual) top 40 songs 2k Czech chose for the soundtrack to the game from the 40s and 50s are just as bad if not worse than the most reviled gangster rap lyrics today. (That’s right, you old folks got nothing to complain about.)

Just as it hits home that your wife is kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a local Shanghai mob boss because you blithely fucked up on his territory.

And both games are getting panned for it. Eurogamer UK especially didn’t like how bad the professional criminals were depicted in either of the Kane & Lynch games, and gave a scathing review of Mafia 2 for not living up to the bow-tied costume drama that was Godfather. (Eurogamer France loved it, tho.) To that I say, hey, real life mafiosi are and have been the very epitome of goons. They’re not nice guys. Hell, they’re not even well-dressed guys.

Likewise, Gamespot’s magazine Game Informer wrote a blistering review of Kane & Lynch 2 because the characters were “unlikable.” I disagree. I found them to be compelling tragic figures.

In that stead I wish we were to go back to the days of James Cagney films – villain protagonists that get theirs in the end. Or even, for that matter, Tarantino’s heyday films: Guys you don’t want to emulate, but are yet interested in seeing how they cope with their lives. Is this honestly not allowed in today’s works? Are we that bound to conventional plot formulae?

The one thing I’ve been bemoaning in computer games for a long while was the lack of decent writing. Now that I see people attempting exactly that, they’re getting punished for their efforts. Why bother?


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We’re all hostages.

Corporate profits are back to normal!

Hiring isn’t.

And clearly it will never be.

Lemme Break It Down For You,

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Jim Ledbetter: Your article on the economic woes of this country and the economists you quote completely miss the point.

Economists LOVE to make the argument that Americans must retool for a different marketplace because it means that all the blame for the anemic economy can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the working man: He costs too much. He knows too little. He’s not flexible enough. We need him to be fully qualified and experienced in our high-tech position but cheap enough to be competitive against his counterparts in India and flexible enough to work unpaid overtime after moving to a different city. Pardon me while I gag.

For the love of god, employers are not hiring because people aren’t buying their products and services. People aren’t buying their products and services because they, by being un- and under-employed, don’t have the money to.  It’s really as simple as that.

Obama’s problem is not that there is no government solution, as you suggest, but that governance and politics in general is the art of the compromise and as it stands the only thing compromised here was the obvious answer: A large, direct injection of cash into the economy through government works programs. FDR did it. China shrugged off this last economic bust by spending a trillion on infrastructure. But our current circumstance forces half-measures, and even those come at the cost of political expediency: Greasing the right palms, kickbacks to the right subcommittees and special interests, tax cuts for the rich and ever more corporate welfare.

The problem isn’t our stupid workers, it’s our stupid Congress, stupid.

Freedom of Religion

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is not dictated by popular vote.

The strongest point of our democracy is not that it reflects the will of the majority, but that it protects the rights of the minority. We are not governed by mob rule.

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