Monday, March 31, 2008

Do All New Mainstream Records Sound Alike?

Yes, according to this Word Magazine article:

No, it’s not you – records do all sound the same these days. Desperate to get their music on the radio at all costs, record labels are employing a new and powerful software to artificially sweeten it, polish it, make it “louder”… and squeeze out the last drops of its individuality.


When you turn on the radio, you might think music all sounds the same these days, then wonder if you’re just getting old. But you’re right, it does all sound the same. Every element of the recording process, from the first takes to the final tweaks, has been evolved with one simple aim: control. And that control often lies in the hands of a record company desperate to get their song on the radio. So they’ll encourage a controlled recording environment (slow, high-tech and using malleable digital effects). Every finished track is then coated in a thick layer of audio polish before being market-tested and despatched to a radio station, where further layers of polish are applied until the original recording is barely visible. That’s how you make a mainstream radio hit, and that’s what record labels want.
I'll post some further thoughts on this when I have more time later in the week.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Land of the Free? Not If You Have Nipple Rings

I just read this:

A Texas woman who claims she was forced to remove a nipple ring with pliers in order to board an airplane called Thursday for an apology by federal security agents and a civil rights investigation.


Hamlin said she was trying to board a flight from Lubbock to Dallas on Feb. 24 when she was scanned by a Transportation Security Administration agent after passing through a larger metal detector without problems.

The female TSA agent used a handheld detector that beeped when it passed in front of Hamlin's chest, the Dallas-area resident said.

Hamlin said she told the woman that she was wearing nipple piercings. The female agent then called over her male colleagues, one of whom said she would have to remove the body piercings, Hamlin claimed.

Hamlin said she could not remove them and asked if she could instead display her pierced breasts in private to the female agent. But several other male officers told her she could not board her flight until the jewelry was removed, she said.


"Still crying, she informed the TSA officer that she could not remove it without the help of pliers, and the officer gave a pair to her," said Hamlin's attorney, Gloria Allred, reading from a letter she sent Thursday to the director of the TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Liberties. Allred is a well-known Los Angeles lawyer who often represents high-profile claims.


She said she heard male TSA agents snickering as she took out the ring.
And here's the kicker:
She was scanned again and was allowed to board even though she still was wearing a belly button ring.
She was allowed through with a belly button ring, but not nipple rings? That's blatant evidence of reckless abuse of power by TSA.

Looking more into this story, I came across a BoingBoing post with a comment that directed readers to this site -- quote possibly the most unjust turn of events I have read in my life. It's so surreal that you'll think you're reading Kafka.

This Could Have Been A MadTV Sketch

Journalism In Trouble

Editor & Publisher reports on the 2008 PR Week/PR Newswire Media Survey. The most troubling part about the survey is this finding:

When asked to identify the most important aspect of their work, 91% of respondents say "make my publication successful by creating appealing content for its audiences" -- ahead of "educate and inform the masses," "break news," and "chronicle events as they happen." This finding, says the survey, suggests a significant level of commercial awareness on the part of journalists.
As Network predicted, Neil Postman warned, and Robert McChesney and John Nichols have identified, there are problems with corporate media -- chief among them being valuing the bottom-line over the free-flow of information to inform a democratic public.

The fact that 91% of respondents are more interested in making his/her respective publication successful rather than informative is depressing.

Further Details on the Clinton/Scaife Meeting

Talking Points Memo has more on the Clinton/Scaife meeting, suggesting that Clinton is taking part in the Right-wing smear against Obama about the Jeremiah Wright "controversy":

As you know, earlier today Hillary Clinton tried to stoke the Jeremiah Wright controversy by telling an editorial board meeting in Pittsburgh that Jeremiah Wright "would not have been my pastor" and then going on to note that she had denounced Don Imus in contrast to Obama's allegedly more tolerant attitude toward hate speech.

Later in the afternoon she repeated the same comments at a press conference and when asked why she had chosen to engage Obama on the Wright controversy she seemed to suggest that rather than being intentional she was only providing an answer to a direct question. "Well I answered a question in an ed board today that was very specific about what I would have done," Clinton told the reporter, "And you know I'm just speaking for myself, and i was answering a question that was posed to me."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Video Games, Violence, Rating Systems, and Warning Labels

A couple of years ago I bought the game The Suffering: The Ties That Bind for my wife. She's a big fan of the survival horror genre, and especially likes to watch all the gory, violent details animated on screen. Unlike the first game in the series, this one failed to hold my interest long. I still haven't finished it. I relay this information because of the circumstances around which I was subjected to when I bought the game at Best Buy -- I was carded.

"Whaaaa??" you may be thinking. That's right -- I was carded to buy a video game. It was strange, and the clerk even said that he thought it stupid but had to ask because of an overzealous, hovering boss. With its "M" rating, Best Buy needed to be sure that I was at least 17 to sell me the game. I didn't bother to protest it because I was in a hurry, but I still cannot think of any legal basis that Best Buy could deny someone the sale of a game based on the buyer's age. Unless...

Video games will be forced to carry cigarette-style health warnings under proposals to protect children from unsuitable digital material.

The report, commissioned by the Prime Minister in response to a growing moral panic about video games, will conclude that they can harm the development of children’s beliefs and value systems and desensitise them to violence. It will also recommend that retailers who sell video games to anyone under the age rating on the box should face a hefty fine or up to five years in prison. [emphasis mine]
I read the above in The London Times today. What the hell is this crap? I realize this is being proposed for the UK, and I'll admit that I'm not entirely sure exactly how the UK operates regarding the policing of its cultural content. Despite this, I'm going to argue from an American point of view.

Last I checked, there's no such warning on movies, books, or other content. What makes video games so special that they need to be singled out? Cultural conservatives have been claiming for decades that violent and sexual content is harmful to children; however, they are yet to provide any supporting evidence. To the contrary, there is little-to-no evidence linking violence in video games to violent behavior:
Perhaps most tellingly, video game critics fail to show where, exactly, the real-world evidence of harm lies. Assuming that teens are being exposed to bad language and animated violence, so what? Daily teen life involves some profanity, adult themes, and violent entertainment. Has the sexual material resulted in an increase in teen sex? No; the National Center for Health Statistics reported last year that fewer teens are engaging in sexual activity than in the past, and the rate dropped significantly between 1995 and 2002.

Has the video violence resulted in an increase in violent crime? No; on Oct. 17, 2005, the FBI released figures showing that the U.S. violent crime rate declined again last year. In fact, violent crime has dropped significantly over the past twenty years— just as video games have become more violent. The NIMF and Senator Lieberman even decried "graphic scenes of cannibalism" in video games.

Should America brace itself for a rise in teen cannibalism? Violent video games have been around since 1991, yet clear evidence of any harm has yet to emerge.

This line within the Times article is revealing about the true motives of the report's author, Tanya Byron, "[video games] can harm the development of children’s beliefs and value systems and desensitise them to violence" [emphasis mine].

Just exactly what "beliefs" and "value systems" are being harmed, and in what way? I'll hedge a bet that Byron never examines this question, and it's likely that her report is based on assumptions about what are the "proper" "beliefs" and "value systems" that children should be developing. In the end, the report appears to be endorsing censorship of ideas that the author does not like. This report's premise has also been brought into question before the study even began.

Finally, I'll just add that adding a "cigarette-style health warning" is a seriously bad idea. There's no evidence that there's any health risk to playing video games (and there's even evidence that some types of games are actually good for your health), while the evidence that there's a health risk associated with tobacco products is overwhelming. Drawing a comparison like this only serves to raise pseudoscience up while devaluing real science at the same time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

My wife sent me this link today, about the familial connection between Angelina Jolie and Hillary Clinton, as well as the connection between Brad Pitt and Barack Obama.

Jolie and Clinton are ninth cousins, twice removed, while Pitt and Obama are ninth cousins, according to a genealogical study conducted over the last three years.

In addition to her kinship with Jolie, Clinton is also related to Madonna, Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette, researchers found. Other cousins include Camilla Parker Bowles and Jack Kerouac.

Obama, on the other hand, shares his ancestry with six U.S. presidents, including current commander in chief, George W. Bush, and his father, George H.W. Bush.

Other far-reaching Obama relations include Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman and James Madison, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney and Sir Winston Churchill.


[John McCain] was found to be a sixth cousin to first lady Laura Bush.
Strange, isn't it, that almost every presidential election cycle in recent memory has some article about the familial connections between politicians and other politicians and/or celebrities. Isn't this only more evidence that our entire mainstream political and cultural structures are run by a perpetuating elite few?

Clinton Meets with Scaife

As has already been pointed out by Atrios over at Eschaton:

First Clinton allows Rupert Murdoch, Chair and CEO of News Corp., to host a fundraiser for her campaign, now this.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Video Game Console History

There's a seemingly complete list of video game consoles on the internet now. The consoles that I have had that are also listed:

(Although, we actually had an Atari 600; this is the closest to that which is on the list.)

(Rented when the system first came out, though, we didn't end up getting one to keep.)

A very Nintendo-heavy list and increasingly more PlayStation-friendly. But the list was missing this one, the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, which was more of a home computer than a straight game console (as was our Atari 600). We did play a lot of games on that system, especially the cassette-based text-adventure games. My Dad also says that he's got an old Magnavox Odyssey -- he claims that it played only two games so it was probably this one:

He also modded the system to remove the built-in controllers to make them portable, connected to the system with 1/4" jacks.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Top 100 Albums of the '80s

I was looking around for Boredoms' lyrics this morning and I came across this link in the Boredoms Soul Discharge wiki for Pitchfork's Top 100 Albums of the 1980s. Scanning though, there are a number of my favorite albums represented here. By the way, Soul Discharge comes in at 89:

Boredoms' first full-length gave adventurous listeners something disturbing and more than a little stupid to chew on, but Soul Discharge was arguably their greatest early example of their thrilling widescreen outbursts. They played Sabbath riffs over ramshackle, caveman Japanese Court beats; they managed to mangle even the most rudimentary garage pound, creating a soundtrack for scat-porn toons and destroying cats; and, of course, they managed to provide a lifetime of jams at a fraction of the sanity.
This is one of my favorite records -- "Bubblebop Shot" is simply awesome. Strange, fast, punk, noise, and off-the-wall crazy, this song will leave a weird feeling inside your ears.

At top 100 spot is Minor Threat's Out of Step EP. A great record; however, I still like their first 7" EP, Minor Threat, better. Eight songs of punch-you-in-the-face awesomeness, clocking in at just over nine minutes. The Out of Step EP has a different production sound than their early records, which sound more raw.

At number 54 is Big Black's Songs About Fucking. One of the records that started me down the road of noisy rock, this is one that I'll still put on every once in awhile. Though I think that vocalist/guitarist Steve Albini's other project from the '80s, Rapeman, was better, especially the Budd EP.

Mission of Burma's Signals, Calls, & Marches comes in at 53. This is record that I've been trying to get a copy of for quite a while. Everyone tells me that I'd really like it...

Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade gets the number 32 spot on the list. I didn't really like this record much the first time I heard it; however, letting it sit for a while and coming back put the record in a new perspective. Zen Arcade is good, but Land Speed Record is by far my favorite Hüsker Dü album. Despite it being live, I think this record captures the intensity and rawness of the band much better than any of their studio albums. And "Data Control" is just plain awesome.

Coming in at number 25 we have Black Flag's Damaged. While I generally dislike Henry Rollins' vocals (Keith Morrison's vocals for the Nervous Breakdown EP captured what I feel is the band's signature sound; the title track is one of those songs that you can listen to over and over again), for Damaged they work surprisingly well.

That's about it for some of my favorite records making the list -- there are other bands on the list I like; however, Pitchfork chose records that aren't really my favorites. Of all the Sonic Youth that made the list, Pitchfork left off Bad Moon Rising. There's also a lot of Pixies records on the list; while I used to like that band much more when I was younger, I haven't listened to them in years. Only a few songs by them can be recalled from my memory. Other bands on the list that I've been meaning to listen to more of are The Fall, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Public Image Ltd., and Minutemen. PiL's First Edition is amazing -- "Theme" is a prefect record opener, and Lydon's lyrics for "Religion" (I & II) are a penetrating stab against that social malignancy akin to the Crass song "Asylum." But I still need to check out PiL's Metal Box, or Second Edition as it is also known.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Faithful Blinded While Looking for Vision of the Virgin Mary

Is this ironic, or what?

Reports in India of a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary in the sky have led about 50 people to blind themselves by staring at the sun.
The blindly-faithful have literally blinded themselves looking for a vision of the virgin Mary. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Monday, March 10, 2008

American Journalism Protects the Powerful

Glenn Greenwald wrote last week about Tucker Carlson's admission to a key criticism of American journalism -- that reliance on official sources leads to a less critical press which enables those in power to govern without accountability. Here's the transcript from the exchange between Carlson and UK reporter Gerri Peev about a comment that Peev published from an on-the-record interview with Barack Obama adviser Samantha Power [emphasis from Greenwald]:

CARLSON: What -- she wanted it off the record. Typically, the arrangement is if someone you're interviewing wants a quote off the record, you give it to them off the record. Why didn't you do that?

PEEV: Are you really that acquiescent in the United States? In the United Kingdom, journalists believe that on or off the record is a principle that's decided ahead of the interview. If a figure in public life.


PEEV: Someone who's ostensibly going to be an advisor to the man who could be the most powerful politician in the world, if she makes a comment and decides it's a bit too controversial and wants to withdraw it immediately after, unfortunately if the interview is on the record, it has to go ahead.

CARLSON: Right. Well, it's a little.

PEEV: I didn't set out in any way, shape.

CARLSON: Right. But I mean, since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here, it's a little much being lectured on journalistic ethics by a reporter from the "Scotsman," but I wonder if you could just explain what you think the effect is on the relationship between the press and the powerful. People don't talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did in this piece.

Don't you think that hurts the rest of us in our effort to get to the truth from the principals in these campaigns?

PEEV: If this is the first time that candid remarks have been published about what one campaign team thinks of the other candidate, then I would argue that your journalists aren't doing a very good job of getting to the truth. Now I did not go out of my way in any way, shape or form to hurt Miss Power. I believe she's an intelligent and perfectly affable woman. In fact, she's -- she is incredibly intelligent so she -- who knows she may have known what she was doing.

She regretted it. She probably acted with integrity. It's not for me to decide one way or the other whether she did the right thing. But I did not go out and try to end her career.

Instead of holding the powerful accountable, the American press serves as a "holder of secrets" in return for access to official sources. Carlson's philosophy has major holes -- the idea that this kind of symbiotic behavior between the press and the powerful will yield truths is laughable. What reason would the powerful have to give up any truths on-the-record? The current model exempts the powerful from any public scrutiny -- the press have essentially given the powerful, willingly, their only mechanism for holding public officials accountable and there is little reason to think that accountability will be applied voluntarily.

Read the entire Greenwald post -- he goes on to talk about Tim Russert's admission in testimony during the Scooter Libby trial that all of this interviews with public officials are strictly confidential. Who does this man serve? Not the public.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Further Thoughts on Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

I wanted to follow up on my previous post about file sharing and the entertainment industry's assumptions about file sharing.

The Digital Entertainment Survey revealed that most users of peer-to-peer file sharing systems are motivated by a lack of availability of content they are seeking, and the survey revealed that a majority of these users would gladly pay for such content if it were available through legal means.

Despite this data, the authors of the survey made the unsubstantiated claim that users of peer-to-peer file sharing systems are primarily motivated by the fact that they can get the content they seek for free.

I wanted to further expand upon what is happening here. As copyright law increasingly protects vaguely defined "intellectual property" of authors and producers, it enables the copyright holders to have a "limited" monopoly (I'm going to ignore, for the moment, the fact that the "limited" monopoly granted is far lengthier in time than it should be -- that's the subject of another post) on the culture they produce. This monopoly grants copyright holders the ability to create artificial scarcity.

By definition, culture and ideas cannot be scarce. Once an idea is "out there," everyone has access to that idea. An idea is non-tangible. But the expression of that idea can be tangible (and it usually is tangible). I'm describing the idea/expression dichotomy, which was the original intent of copyright law. Increasingly, copyright law protects ideas, not just the expression of those ideas.

Since copyright grants the ability to create artificial scarcity, copyright holders have a monopoly on price as well as a monopoly on availability. Before digital mediums became more widespread, users of culture had a difficult time circumventing this artificial scarcity. Mass producing copies of content was not cheap or easy. With digital mediums, mass producing copies of content is very cheap and very easy -- all one needs is a computer with the right software. Moreover, sharing that content with millions of people is even easier with an internet connection. This is what people do with peer-to-peer networks -- they are sharing culture that is not readily available from traditional sources.

Content providers and copyright holders seem to be holding onto the old model of artificial scarcity. They don't re-issue old content often, and some content is not pressed as much as others. As the survey demonstrates, when people cannot find the content that they seek, they will go online and download the content through peer-to-peer networks. The content is readily available through these means and is not available through the traditional gatekeepers.

Instead of fighting their best customers (as the survey states, "Pirates are typically media heavy consumers and purchase considerable quantities of legal content"), content providers should take advantage of peer-t0-peer and digital technologies to provide the content that people seek for free on peer-to-peer networks. A majority of these users (two-thirds) are willing to pay for such content through legal means. You'd think that copyright holders would take advantage of this market; however, you'd also be asking them to relinquish their control of this content by releasing easily accessible digital copies of content.

This is why I think that such change is unlikely; the entertainment industries have been fighting for years to create more legal controls over the flow of information. By nature, peer-to-peer networks are anarchist. There is little in the means of authority and control because the internet is governed by protocols, or a handshake between two talking computers. Power is evenly shared within these distributed networks. The industry would have to be willing to give up its current hold on the power over access to content.

Considering that the industry is now concerned with controlling not only access but use of content, this scenario seems very unlikely.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Poor Consumer Choice Drives Rampant File Sharing Online

TorrentFreak has a great post up today about a new study from UK based Entertainment Media Research titled, "2008 Digital Entertainment Survey." The report states on page 209:

Pirates perceive legal sites don't have the range of content of illegal ones (70%) and take longer to acquire content (68%). That it is free is, of course, the main reason why piracy is so rife but perceptions of a lack of choice in legal sites is a contributory factor.
The claim about content being free as the primary motivator is an assumption on part of the researchers, and they make no attempt to support that claim. And considering the next paragraph on page 209, the researchers actually discredit their claim:
Pirates are typically media heavy consumers and purchase considerable quantities of legal content in addition to unauthorised content. Nearly 2 out of 3 pirates claim they would pay for legal downloads if what they wanted was available.
So, users of peer-to-peer file sharing systems are actually the industry's best customers. 67% of these individuals would be willing to pay for the content that they seek if it were available through legal means. I think that hardly qualifies the fact that current content on peer-to-peer systems is free as the primary reason for its popularity.

I'd bet that the "contributory factor" of lack of choice is probably more influential than content providers would like to think.

Finally, on page 13 of the report there is the evidence that 7 out of 10 peer-to-peer system users would stop using peer-to-peer file sharing if they were to receive a cease and desist letter from their ISP. In fact, the report even encourages the further use of such scare tactics:
All of this makes a more direct ISP warning strategy more attractive to discourage digital piracy. [emphasis in original]
The report states that teenagers are most likely to be persuaded by such tactics (78% of males and 75% of females), which isn't surprising because I think teenagers are most likely to be influenced by perceived authority figures like an ISP.

Judging by this, I think it's probable that the misinformation scare campaigns from the RIAA and the MPAA are likely to continue or even get worse. It's unfortunate that these organizations insist on criminalizing their best customers at the detriment of their own bottom line. If copyright holders simply provided services that customers want -- DRM free, easily accessible content for a reasonable price -- then it seems that they'd have a large share of peer-to-peer users who'd prefer to purchase content through legal means.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Siegelman Censorhsip Update

Via Talking Points Memo, "FCC Commissioner Wants Probe of Siegelman 60 Minutes Blackout." Rueters reports:

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said he had asked the chairman of the FCC to open an inquiry into the Feb. 24 incident at WHNT, a CBS affiliate in Huntsville, Alabama, in which civil rights footage from the 1960s was blacked out.

"The FCC now needs to find out if something analogous is going on here," Copps said at a luncheon with media watchdog groups. "Was this an attempt to suppress information on the public airwaves, or was it really just a technical problem?"

The New Distribution Model

Music is undergoing some radical distribution changes lately.

First we had Radiohead's In Rainbows, which was released in a pay-what-you-want fashion via digital download. While the results of Radiohead's experiment are still unknown, we do know that the physical release of In Rainbows in CD and vinyl formats sold 122,000 copies in the first week. While that isn't as well as Hail to the Thief sold in its first week (300,000), it certainly wasn't a flop. And don't forget that Gigwise reported that In Rainbows sold approximately 1.2 million digital downloads, which is significantly more than the debut of Hail to the Thief.

After Radiohead's experiment, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails revealed that he would release Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust for free or for $5 for higher quality mp3 files. And now Reznor has taken it a step further with his own Nine Inch Nails release of Ghosts.

First, I want to mention that Ghosts is being licensed under the Creative Commons License, which is a significant departure from current copyright laws that govern most of our culture. The Creative Commons License allows the ability to copy, share, distribute, perform, and display a work. The license also allows any derivative or transgressive works to be made from the original work. All that is required for such freedom is attribution to the original artist, non-commercial use of the original work, and that any derivative or transgressive works be licensed under the Creative Commons License. This kind of license really puts the culture back into the hands of the people and not solely into the hands of authors and producers -- this is how we can encourage creativity while also making creative works financially rewarding.

A four volume music set, Ghosts is being offered through a variety of distribution methods. There's a digital download for the first volume, which has been made available for free. Reznor has also taken it upon himself to upload this first volume to bit torrent, which is revolutionary. Here's what Reznor said on the subject:

Now that we're no longer constrained by a record label, we've decided to personally upload Ghosts I, the first of the four volumes, to various torrent sites, because we believe BitTorrent is a revolutionary digital distribution method, and we believe in finding ways to utilize new technologies instead of fighting them.
I think this would be the first time that a major, mainstream artist has voluntarily uploaded his/her music to bit torrent him/herself.

Alternatively, music fans can purchase the entire set in higher quality mp3 files for $5 via digital download. There are several options for the purchased digital files -- 320 kbps LAME encoded and fully tagged, FLAC lossless, and Apple lossless. All digital files are 100% DRM-free. The digital download also comes with a 40 page PDF file and other digital extras.

The two CD set comes with everything from the $5 digital download plus a double CD in a six panel digipak with a 16 page booklet. Then there's the deluxe CD set, which has all of the above plus a DVD with the multi-track session for all 36 Ghosts tracks in .wav format. This will allow people to easier create derivate and transgressive works from Ghosts. In this set, there's also a Blu-ray disc of the album which has an accompanying exclusive slide show for the music.

Finally, there's was the ultra-deluxe limited edition set (already sold out!), which came with all of the above plus a four LP vinyl box, a book with 48 pages of photographs, and another book with two exclusive Giclee prints. This set was personally signed and numbered by Reznor.

This is quite an amazing array of format options. I think that Reznor's methods are far superior to what Radiohead did first, and I'm really impressed that Reznor is utilizing bit torrent technology (though, I shouldn't be surprised.) This could be the direction that the music industry goes, and I think that it leaves room for existing labels; however, they will have to relinquish some of their existing copyright standards. Reznor's decision to include the DVD of wav files for derivative and transgressive works is at odds with how the industry generally runs itself -- very protectionist and obsessed with content control. Furthermore, Reznor's decision to license under Creative Commons is also at odds with the music industry. If this album is successful, and I think that it's likely to be, I hope that we'll see more artists take similar action.

The RIAA should be pissing its pants right now.