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Monthly Archives: January, 2014

Above & Beyond: Acoustic

Above & Beyond Acoustic

Acoustic by Above and Beyond

Acoustic, an album of classic Above & Beyond and Oceanlab tracks reinterpreted for acoustic instruments, brings Above & Beyond full-circle. The trio reinvented the trance artist album with 2006’s Tri-State. Rather than turbocharge their songs (and these were indeed songs, rather than tracks, with a certain flow and craft that would be familiar even to rock fans) with enormous drops and breakdowns, the band (another rockist word) took an  approach to songwriting and arrangement that saw the instrumental title track encased in piano, “Good For Me” floating on air without a beat, and “For All I Care” festooned with the trapping of alt rock, all scratchy electric guitar and angsty vocals.

Overall, the album’s aesthetics presaged the eventual reentry of acoustic instruments (check out all the piano and guitar on Deadmau5’s While 1 < 2) and off-kilter musics (Mumford and Sons epitomize the trend) back into the mainstream. Yet, its innovations were palatable. When reengineered for Tri-State Remixed, they soared as trance classics, and Above & Beyond continued to sharpen its dancefloor chops on 2011’s Group Therapy, which now serves as the name of the group’s increasingly stylistically diverse podcast. Jono, Tony, and Paavo made it such that you could listen to new sounds and approaches to trance without having to pause and consider the novelty or remark on something that seemed unusual (granted, I’ve done that for the past two paragraphs here, but this is obviously after-the-fact).

Acoustic is both groundbreaking – a stripped down, latter-day MTV Unplugged from an alternate universe, one in which trance acts have the stuffy cultural capital of rock bands – and a return to Above & Beyond’s roots. There’s nothing much else like it. On closing number “Making Plans – the one all-new track here, and a verbal parallel to “Stealing Time,” also represented here in a mashup with “Satellite” – Tony McGuinness remarks that many of the band’s tracks start out as acoustic, stripped-down affairs. As Acoustic makes clear, the surprise with Above & Beyond isn’t how much these songs change when rejiggered for mass consumption, but how much they stay the same, holding onto those same memory melodies and lyrics (“Satellite”‘s opening lines are unforgettably poetic).

Songs such as “Sun and Moon” are beautiful wrapped up in the orchestral sweep and acoustics of this album, but the sound isn’t radically different when freed from the electronics of original home Group Therapy. Instead, the Acoustic version excavates what made the best of the band’s oeuvre (“Can’t Sleep,” “Sirens of the Sea,” “Miracle”) so good in the first place: A distinctive combination of melody, lyrical insight, and ornate arrangement that works in a stripped-down setting just as well as on a stage in front of thousands of fans. Acoustic isn’t a radical step forward so much as it is a de facto best-of, demonstrating why Above & Beyond are a cut above (and beyond). 

I once observed to someone in college that playing Nickelback songs on piano was a traumatic experience. One could see all the limitations of the tunes and how much the band relied on volume and in-your-face production. Acoustic is the exact opposite, plus who would have expected trance of all genres to be amenable to acoustic deconstruction? My favorite so far of 2014.

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Nintendo isn’t doomed yet

Everyone is aflame with commentary about Nintendo’s recent dismal projections of Wii U sales. I won’t go into details – if you’re reading this, you probably already know that the company expects several million fewer Wii Us (that is one weird-looking plural) sold through the end of this fiscal year. 3DS projections were also lowered slightly.

The Wii U has not been a success, but why has it struggled? I tackled this question a while back, largely discounting the specs issue while giving some credence to the possibility that marketing was at fault. My hunch, though, was that the 3DS – the world’s most successful dedicated console – was cannibalizing the Wii U. Nintendo’s portable has all of the company’s important IPs represented, better third-party support, and a lower price. Basically, a 3DS provides the comprehensive Nintendo fix, and the Wii U brings nothing else to the table for Nintendo’s audience except HD graphics and a sadly underutilized controller that permits asymmetric gameplay.

The Game Pad: A sad tale
The name “Wii U” is awful, and Nintendo itself has done little to show off or exploit the unique capabilities of its own system. The Game Pad has been orphaned, and its issues are indicative of the console’s problems as a whole.

The best software tailored to the Game Pad includes the third-party The Wonderful 101, ZombiU, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Assassin’s Creed 3/4. In some cases, these games have gone to great lengths to show off the possibilities of a touch screen controller – The Wonderful 101 lets you draw patterns and navigate entire indoor sequences with just the Game Pad, for example. But the Game Pad has also shown great ability to trivialize painful gameplay mechanics, such as map navigation and inventory management. This is why I mentioned ZombiU (in addition to its terrific Game Pad vs Pro Controller multiplayer) and AC3/4 – the Game Pad is a natural way to get clutter off the TV and into the controller.

This is why I think arguments such as “Nintendo makes bad hardware” miss the point. The hardware is plenty capable, but its strengths aren’t in demand by demographics such as hardcore gamers (for whom online services and graphical capabilities are more important) or casuals (who do not care about hardware at all). Part of the issue is probably mobile devices, as the typical fallback argument goes – billions are being channeled into ripoffs such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga. And the XB1 and PS4 have given the hardcore exactly what they want in the form of sophisticated online gameplay and x86 processors, so Nintendo gets squeezed in a way. Nintendo has tried to cater to both markets while not having completely what either of them wants.

Game Over? Not yet
But I don’t think all is doom and gloom just yet. Nintendo’s financial position is solid, giving it the cash and time to figure out what’s next. And I think the company can turn this challenge into an advantage, if it looks at things right. Here’s what I mean: The disruption from tablets and smartphones is important but at what point do these endpoints stop being mobile devices and just become, well, devices? Many of them have processors clocked at > 2 GHz, with displays to shame any HDTV or PC, not to mention faster data connections than many PCs or consoles. I think Nintendo should look at the 3DS/Wii U with a similar attitude – the 3DS is already basically a mobile GameCube,  and that’s only the case because the company ridiculously lowballed its specs. With more devotion to power, it could have been more than a mobile Wii – i.e., a mobile Wii U. What if the company just merged its consoles into one line?

Doing so would solve the cannibalization problem I highlighted. At the same time, making something that can give gamers a Nintendo fix on the go and in the home – maybe it support HDMI, along with an updated, smarter StreetPass – would fit right in with the underrated transition of mobile hardware into do-everything-hardware that is just as good on the bus or in the lobby as it is in the conference room or at the desk. Of course, the challenge would still be carving out a niche independent from the Swiss Army Knife functionality of Android/iOS devices.

Rising to the challenge
But Nintendo has shown a great knack for innovation – and I don’t use that word lightly as a synonym for “new VC-funded photo app.” They’ve innovated for the past 30 years, and many of those innovations have failed, from the Virtual Boy to the Famicom Disk System to the Wii U – failing spectacularly is often a sign of real innovation, innovation for which many consumers aren’t ready. Others have succeeded – the N64’s joystick controller, motion sensors on the Wii, dual-screen on the DS. And that’s not even mentioning StreetPass, which as a real-time, proximity-based social network was years out ahead of the “Internet of Things” or iBeacon.

Moreover, Nintendo usually has its pulse on the future, but its insularity often means that it arrives at jarring conclusions, some of which it can’t explain or market to would-be customers. At other times, the sheer novelty of their creations sells itself, as was the case with Wii Sports. Still, I think that a company that has already dabbled in something as cool as StreetPass and two-screen gameplay can find some niche in the Increasing Complex Hyper-Connected World (TM) or whatever “the world” is being called now. There are more gaming endpoints available than ever before, but as they are iterated with better specs they’ll probably merge with the functionality and form factor many of our existing devices and stop being a discrete category. Rather than despair at this likely state of affairs, Nintendo should take heart and create something that bridges gaming needs on-the-go and in the home.

3 things Nintendo could do to get started
In the meantime, I think there are a lot of areas Nintendo could work on to lay the groundwork for its future. My wish list:

  • Stop tying downloads to hardware
  • Create a comprehensive account system, while keeping online services free (one of the Wii U’s underrated advantages over its competitors
  • Continue ignoring PSN/Xbox Live – imitating competitors won’t help Nintendo get rolling again, no more than Mac OS licensing helped Apple keep up with PCs in the 1990s

Nintendo isn’t destined for failure, no more than Microsoft was after the first-gen Xbox struggled mightily to get traction. But they’ll need to do a lot of things smarter in the short and long terms.

5 Quotes that Everyone Makes Fun of, but Which Actually Contain Profound Insights

Quotes2

Ridiculous and insightful are not mutually exclusive properties

I’ve wrapped a quasi-dense essay in a BuzzFeed-worthy headline. Forgive me.

5. – “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Punch Magazine, 1899, wrongly attributed to Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office.

What a fool, right? Though this quote originated in a humor magazine, it paints a great picture of what many were thinking/still think at any moment following major industrial progress – “what else can be done?” – and lampooning it. Someone who felt that way in 1899 wouldn’t have seen much of the automobile, airplane, or computer, not even the Internet (or the much more important washing machine). Seems like he was way off…

…but at the same time, someone alive at the turn of the 20th century would have been familiar with many items that remain mainstays of everyday life even today, whether they were created during the 19th century or far, far earlier, and which have not been disrupted. Let’s see: indoor plumbing, electric lighting, refrigeration, beer, shoes, silverware, restaurants, chairs.

Some of those are millennia old – when will someone “disrupt” shoes in a way that would make them unrecognizable to a citizen of the Roman Empire?

Despite the presumed technological progress of the 20th and 21st centuries, someone from the 19th century wouldn’t be out of place at all listening to a classical orchestra, which still relies on age-old instruments such as the piano and the violin.

And 19th century people had already seen the telegraph (check out the gorgeous opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West – yes, a film, I know, something cowboys would have been mostly unfamiliar with despite the existence of cameras), which was essentially a proto-Internet – phone service and Internet service can almost be looked at as iterations on telegraphy, although their improvements are still no match for how much the telegraph improved upon communications mechanisms like the Pony Express.

So yes, the quote is off a bit – it’s hyperbolic, as humor tends to be, but it makes a good case for much of what really matters having been invented long ago and seldom matched for the changes it caused.

4. – “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.” – U.S. president Barack Obama

This one’s amazing because it upsets conventional wisdom on two fronts, by 1) harpooning the notion that anything in human affairs is an unstoppable force unshaped by the interests and politics of specific persons; 2) applying that logic specifically to the Internet/”the Internet” (more on this below).

John F. Kennedy once stated that “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Actually, it’s more like: “everything has a thousand fathers and nothing is generated spontaneously or birthed virginally (well, except for…forget it).” As romantic as the notion is that everyone is self-made, it just doesn’t square with the sheer amount of different forces at work on us every day, many of them completely unknown to us (see the next item in this list). Luck matters – but it’s hard to accept this in part because the idea of an unjust/random world is too upsetting even for heartless billionaires to entertain, plus the most influential voices are naturally inclined to downplay the notion of luck-driven reality – in part because of their own positions, and how they want to regard them as fully merited.

And it’s not just luck. For example, a world without government regulation and centralized currency would be unbearable – a Bitcoin dystopia. In the U.S. it’s impossible to do anything without benefiting (and/or being stung by) government influence – even matters as simple as setting up electricity, water supplies, and road access are subject to regulation (and for good reason!). The idea of someone blazing a trail through day to day affairs, untouched by the concurrent and previous actions of others, is a fantasy.

The zinger about the Internet is even better. If the National Science Foundation hadn’t handed over infrastructure investment to the private sector, and if cable companies had been regulated like telephone operators, “the Internet” (scare marks explained below) would look a lot different. It wasn’t some unstoppable force (i.e., “God”), but a manmade creation contingent about human decisions.

3. – “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” – former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Rumsfeld won the Foot in Mouth Award from something called the Plain English Campaign for this remark. I don’t what they were getting at – the remark is repetitive, but it makes sense. There are some things that we do not even realize that we’re unaware of, sure – I didn’t know that “enterprise channel partners” were even a thing before my first real job. But what’s overlooked is that this huge blind spot in our knowledge is often papered-over by arrogance – sort of like what the first quote above would be getting at, were it serious.

Economist Ha-Joon Chang cited this statement as enormously important for understanding the current difficulties that many economies have had digging themselves out from the late 2000s recession. Basically, they are making policy in part believing that they know every possible factor that contributes to the success or failure of an economy. Yet economies are vast things, shaped by millions of people and by laws, regulations, and actions that are far beyond the control of the state in question – isn’t it possible, even likely, that central bankers and politicians have no idea about some of the forces that buoy and depress economic performance?

2. – “The Internet is a series of tubes.” – late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens

Before he died in a plane crash in 2010, Alaska senator Ted Stevens was best known for funneling pork to his home state and wearing Hulk ties while screaming at other elderly men and women. This 2006 gem was gold for John Stewart et al and anyone seeking confirmation that old people/government officials/anyone outside Silicon Valley misunderstands what “the Internet” is all about.

But all that hay that comedians and techies made out of this comment is a product of confusing the Internet with “the Internet” – the former is the literal telecommunications infrastructure that makes network services possible, while the latter is a nebulous ideological term synonymous with the persons, corporations and foundations that contribute to its most notable traits.

It should be obvious that the parties and interests behind the Internet and “the Internet” are not the same – on one side, you’ve got Verizon, Deutsch Telekom, Comcast, and other corporations that make service physically possible. On the other, you’ve got Google, Facebook, Tencent et al, who are mostly interested in providing service on top of that infrastructure.

When someone talks about “using the Internet” or “because of the Internet __” they’re almost always referring to the latter group, and their reference is often propped-up with language about openness and communication. Such rhetoric can’t be as easily applied to the telecoms whose pipes/tubes (yes) underpin these services – it won’t do to say that Verizon promotes “openness,” when it’s most interested in providing services that benefit its bottom line. And that’s ok!

The distinction between Internet/”Internet” is rarely made except when political issues come to the fore, which makes sense since absolutely everything is about politics in the end. Take today’s net neutrality ruling in the U.S., which has many in the tech press up in arms about the end of equal treatment for all content providers.

Under the new arrangement, it could be possible for telecoms to give faster lanes to the highest bidder, or degrade traffic for services that compete with its own. By managing the Internet, these telecoms could “ruin” (or “Balkanize,” in the popular terminology) “the Internet.” In other words, they could possibly make it such that the current traits we attribute to “the Internet” would change, which would be an almost purely ideological/cosmetic change with very little of interest on the technological front.

“Balkanizing” “the Internet” is presumed to be bad without exception, but it’s not clear why – something something openness something something something progress. Essentially, it’s being argued that upsetting the status quo and potentially letting different companies and even countries manage their telecommunications infrastructure according to different interest is evil. This rings of desperation, and it wouldn’t make sense without the vast political and ideological capital that the term “the Internet” has built up, a sort of meta-infrastructure that no other communicative medium has accrued.

I mean, the same certainly doesn’t hold for telephony. No one fears the implications of “the Telephony” being “Balkanized,” although it already is, with tons of different standards in countries such as China, and things seem to be working out ok. By pleading for the preservation of “the Internet,” major Web companies are asking for something akin to clearance to drive on all roads, everywhere. But this doesn’t really work out historically, does it? The same TV content isn’t beamed to every station equally under an agreement to preserve “the Television,” and, well, if something as significant as national boundaries can still exist and be meaningful (and they are – just look at the current Japan/China row), wouldn’t one just assume that “the Internet” is not truly global and is instead architected and run by countries with specific national interests and attributes?

The fact that providers are worried about the Internet’s infrastructure demonstrates that “the Internet’s” traits aren’t set in stone, God-given, or immutable. Rather, they’re the product of specific business deals, technological decisions, and regulatory action, any of which could change and set “the Internet” off on an entirely different course because, well, it is meta-infrastructure and not actual physical infrastructure. It IS a bunch of tubes at heart, and those tubes matter, since it’s hard to pin down exactly what exists on top of them.

1. – “I invented the Internet” – attributed (spuriously) to Al Gore and a fabrication, although it may be a very, very loose rephrase of related remarks

I left this one for last since I needed the setup from the previous one. Well, Al, which is it? The Internet or “the Internet?”

He could probably make a strong case for either, actually. Government research and regulation was key to shaping telecommunications infrastructure in the 1980s and 1990s, and Gore was a member of Congress at that time.

On a meta level (for “the Internet”) – well, since “the Internet” is a cultural phenomenon, it’s plausible for any single person to say that he “invented” it in a some way, either by opting for streaming music over physical purchases, switching from Outlook to Gmail, or becoming active on Reddit. Culture is forged by these small actions done en masse. In light of the surprising insight of “You didn’t build that,” in fact, just about anyone can lay claim to inventing (or maybe “contributing” is a more palatable term for most observers) significant cultural artifacts.

Invention has been romanticized to hell, as if it were something that happened in the isolation of a lab or study, and the consequences of this romanticization is the awful patent system. Ideas aren’t exclusive property, and many discoveries have been made simultaneously by unrelated parties. No one individual “invented” anything without some influence, some contribution from someone else. But the myth lives on so that everyone can clutch his pearls and make a scene when someone else claims he did (Gore) or didn’t (Obama) invent/build something.