Goodbye. It's Not You. It's Them.

Do you ever reach for the refrigerator door and then think to yourself: "Why am I here? I'm not even hungry!" I do this all the time--often as I'm trying to figure out what to do between tasks. It's a reflex. Only it's not the refrigerator door, it's Facebook.

Somehow, Facebook has become the Seinfeld bass transition for real life. It's what I pop to as I'm redirecting my attention from writing to watching a video to stopping at an intersection at a red light.  The platform that did a good job of reconnecting me with old school friends and people I met overseas slowly became the reflexive way to kill off a few minutes before and after every activity. And in that time, it stopped doing what I wanted it to do in the first place.

Slowly, Facebook stopped working for me, and I started working for it. I can't see all of my friends posts in a purely chronological feed anymore. I can't be sure that my friends see the updates I post, and why post them if not to share them with others? Large swaths of my friends list are either silent or invisible to me. I'm no longer in touch with people in much of a meaningful way, and Facebook chooses to show me the videos and articles and surveys that my friends like more than the stuff ABOUT those people that initially made the service appealing. Is it the fault of the platform or the user behavior? With Facebook, the user behavior is manipulated by the platform, so that's not even a fair question.

Think about toasters. Sure, toasters have evolved over the decades, but mostly, they still do the same thing now as they have always done--apply controlled heat to bread to produce something magical. Some toasters add new features like timers and automation and settings, but they still fundamentally serve the purpose of toasting bread.

Now imagine if one of those features like a timer was so good that it took over. What if people stopped toasting bread with their toasters and just used them for clocks, timers, and alarms? What if the timer features were so good that it made sense for you to ditch your existing clocks. If toasting bread became a secondary concern for the toaster, and people really liked toasters because they were great at being programmable clocks, wouldn't we think "gee, it's odd that this thing has slots for bread"? (The same thing has happened with smart phones, of course.) We would! And to me, this is Facebook. I wanted it to toast my bread, but it doesn't do that very well anymore because it's gotten very good at prompting me to use it for everything BUT toasting bread.

So I'm out. The biggest problem here is that many events and conversations happen ONLY on Facebook now. That's great for Facebook's advertisers, but not so great for me. People who avoid Facebook miss out on announcements and invites and events unless people can share them in other ways. I'm going to lose out on a way to contact a lot of people for whom I don't have email addresses or phone numbers. But you know, it's time.

So please, share your details with me privately if you want to stay in touch. I have a Bandcamp page, a Soundcloud account, a rarely-used Twitter account, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, zeroplate.net, eBay, and for heaven's sake even a Google+ page. I'm always mjeanes or zeroplate, so pretty easy to find. Just not on Facebook anymore. I want to go back to toasting bread.

I still exist in the real world, and I'd much rather talk to you there anyway!

Impossible Things

Today, I tried my first Impossible Burger. If you're not familiar with Impossible foods, you can click on the link there or spend some time watching videos about it on YouTube. In short, it's a plant-based burger that boasts a more meat-like taste and texture than any other meatless burger on the market.

And I guess they aren't wrong about that. Austin's much-loved burger chain Hopdoddy sells the Impossible burger along with their usual selection of high-end beef, lamb, and veggie options. At $14 a pop, it sits nicely in their menu of expensive specialty burgers, and as a plant-based burger goes, it definitely tastes more like a regular old beef burger than anything else I've tried.

But it doesn't taste like a gourmet beef burger. As I bit into it, I was pleasantly surprised by the texture but I couldn't figure out why it tasted so familiar and then it hit me. It tastes like a cafeteria burger. Now, it's been a long time since I've had one, but those overly-processed, homogeneously gray patties are hard to forget. If you've ever had a cheap hamburger out of a microwavable bag, you know what I'm talking about. The Impossible burger tasted like that.

Which is not to say that it was bad. I enjoyed it, and the folks working the Hopdoddy grill got a nice crust on it so that it didn't feel exactly like a burger from a bag or a steam bin. But make no mistake, the Impossible Burger doesn't eat like a $14 gourmet beef patty.

I really like what the Impossible Foods crew is trying to do. If they can get the price on these things down to commodity ground beef levels, I could see the Impossible burger in its current form replacing fast food patties and school cafeteria burgers. But there's a huge gap right now between the price of a luxury, novelty burger and the taste. I suspect that most folks who want a veggie burger are going to be perfectly content with a black bean patty or something made with more grains and mushrooms and less science for half the price.

I'm curious to see how this turns into a product for use as a real ground beef replacement. Can you make meatloaf or tacos with it at home? I'd love to find out.

Remix History

Some of the songs I'm most proud of producing are the ones I didn't write. Writing songs can be hard. It's rewarding when they work out, but terribly frustrating when they don't. It's hard to know when a song is finished--when adding or removing one more sound will really help the song to evolve into the thing it wants to be. Thankfully, remixes aren't like that.

I've had the good fortune to work on remixes for a ton of people over the years. Sometimes these efforts were commissioned for a specific release. Other times they were opportunistic attempts at label synergy. Sometimes I just lived in the same town as other cool people and we talked about a remix, no matter how unlikely that collaboration might be. Still other times they were passion projects of mine with no release or commercial plan at all. After about 20 years of taking other people's sounds, melodies, voices, and beats, and turning them into something else, here's what I've learned.

 Unraveled Ears 12" (an anagram of Enduser and Larvae) Released by Ad Noiseam in 2003

Unraveled Ears 12" (an anagram of Enduser and Larvae) Released by Ad Noiseam in 2003

  1. You have to respect the work, but you don't have to like it. I've heard remixes from artists who are clearly just having a laugh with the source material. I've even gotten one or two of those back from other people before. When someone gives you access to the building blocks of a song, they are trusting you with their art. I haven't liked all of the stuff I've remixed, but I've always found SOMETHING in the work that I respected and that spoke to me. Turning in a half-assed remix or a track that bares no resemblance at all to the source material isn't fair to the artist you're working for.
  2. You need to have your own sound. In the best cases, a remix is more than a cynical way to take one song and create more product from it. It's an interpretation or a reflection--not merely derivative. In fact, most of the time, my remixes are additive. They answer the question "what would that songs have sounded like if I had written it?" And that's the beauty in a remix. I don't write the material, but I get to interpret it in my own style. If a Larvae remix doesn't sound like a Larvae song, well, I just don't hand it over.
  3. You have to relinquish control of the final product. As a remixer, you are a gun for hire. Your production work might be incredible and inventive and unique and so specifically YOU that it sounds like your own song, but it's not. Nothing gets under my skin like someone asking to remix a Larvae song and then assuming that they can do whatever the like with the output. When you take on remix work, you are still playing in someone else's sandbox. If I don't like your remix, I don't have to release it. If you don't want people to hear my version of your song, that is your right. I've had remixes go off into the void never to be heard from again, and I've just had to come to terms with the fact that work for hire still belongs to the author, and it should.
  4. You can try new things, but you have to honor your commitment to the song. One of the first times I really got into playing many layers of guitar for a song was on the remix I did for Cdatakill for a track called "Mingi." I love the way that came out, and it sounds like a true marriage of Cdatakill's original track and the Larvae sound that was evolving at the time. I experimented with chiptune emulators when working with a track from Curtis Chip, and with absolute minimalism when remixing a singer songwriter named Ben Trickey. These songs provided great opportunities for me to work with new tools and in new styles with an existing template of a song written by someone else!
 Bleeding Hearts vol. 2 12" released by Ad Noiseam in 2007. Featuring a remix of "Mingi" by yours truly.

Bleeding Hearts vol. 2 12" released by Ad Noiseam in 2007. Featuring a remix of "Mingi" by yours truly.

He's Lost Control Again

Leo

Album sales are dying, everyone is streaming, and indie radio DJs are playing MP3 mixtapes they downloaded from blogs. Where do you go from here if you are an artist trying to make music and release it into the world (especially if you want to make a few bucks?) I wrote about this TEN YEARS AGO and most of that is still relevant. Licencing is one option, but I'm here to tell you that selling or giving away your music isn't always the best idea.

In 2002, I was excited to participate in the 48 Hour Film Project but I didn't have a team with which to make a film. Instead, I was approached by a guy who did have a team and needed some music for his piece. After a quick discussion, I gave him a copy of Larvae's first single NEAR MISS and he wound up using it in the opening sequence of his short film. There was just one problem: that short was titled WHITE BITCH DOWN.

I'm anything but prudish, but still, this wasn't something I could call up my mom about! The play on BLACK HAWK DOWN probably seemed more clever in 2002 than it would today, but the title just bothered me. And there was nothing I could do about.

A few years later when I was producing work for Ad Noiseam, one of the strategies we had for getting the Larvae name out in the world was contributing b-sides and remixes and other non-album tracks to other labels for compilations. This was a lot of fun because it meant that Chris and I could work on stuff that was a little left-of-center relative to the tracks on the albums.

We donated our very earliest collaboration called "Staesis" to a label and we were thrilled that it was going to get mastered and released. But then I saw the title and the cover art.

You can click through this link to see the cover art which is actually somehow MUCH more controversial than the CD alone. And again, it wasn't the content alone that I had a problem with. If bondage is your thing and you practice it safely and consensually, then go for it! But I wasn't expecting to help to promote something that was so immediately off-putting to so many people. Outside of the context of a relationship or a specific kink scene, the cover art was simply objectifying in the worst way. But it was too late. There was our track, right there in the liner notes.

Of course both of these examples were deals made in good faith where exposure was the only reward. There's a lot of hand wringing in the online creative community about the perils of giving away creative work for free. And I get it--if this is your job then you need to be compensated. But I'd argue that whether you are being paid or not, the first thing you should be thinking about is how the work will be used. Do you want your song used to sell Pumpkin Lattes? Racks for servers? Whiskey? Do you want your song to be used as the anthem for a bunch neo-nazis in a movie? Do you want your song included on an album called, simply, "Fuck?"

In the last few years, a Larvae song was picked up and used (without permission) by a theater company in their production of a show called LEO. In this case, it turned out that I liked what they did with the song and the show looked neat. If they had asked, I would have said "sure, please use the song!" But they didn't ask. And when I contacted them, they never wrote back.

 A still from LEO. It looks cool, right?

A still from LEO. It looks cool, right?

Thanks to an eagle-eyed employee at the Sydney Opera House where the show was performed, I was alerted the the use of my song and eventually even paid for some of the performances since I had registered the song with BMI. But what if I hadn't? How many shows were performed before that manager in Sydney noticed my name? What if the show hadn't been cool, but had instead used my song to underscore some evil character or some vile political message? How would I ever know and why would the burden be on ME to get them to stop using it?

I've never made a living from music, so the money side of it has never been my primary concern. But even if you are trying to pay your rent with your royalties, agreeing to how your work is going to be used is more important than how much you are getting paid for it.

You Need More Anarchy In Your Soccer

Anarchist Soccer in Austin

You might not guess it from looking at me, but there are few things I enjoy more in life than playing soccer. My history with the game began in Germany where I joined a youth league at the age of six. Even though I know those games unfolded as a gaggle of tiny kids swarming on the ball wherever it went, when I remember them, they were tactical, strategic matches filled with passes and formations and plays. 

Growing up, youth soccer dictated my schedule through different seasons. Tuesdays and Thursdays were for practice. Saturday mornings brought games, oranges at halftime, and cleat-stomping trips to get pizza. When I lived in Japan, soccer introduced me to nearly all of my friends. We bonded over Nintendo games and trips to Tokyo and girls, but most of all, we played soccer together. The first job I ever had was delivering papers across a section of the Army base where we lived. I was terrible at it, because while I was delivering papers I knew that my friends were running around with their shoes off, playing four-a-side games with backpacks and bicycles for goal posts.

 The author, age 13

The author, age 13

It wasn't until I headed back to the US that I learned that soccer (and really all sports) were dominated by a specific class of people: jocks. Even though I'd seen THE BREAKFAST CLUB a dozen times, it hadn't clicked for me that the kids who wore Depeche Mode t-shirts and painted their nails black weren't welcomed in a place like a soccer park. In my community in Japan, those divisions weren't so severe. But back in the states, my friend Paul made the point very clear: the drama club kids and the soccer kids didn't mix. I thought it would be different for me since I actually liked both things, but when the puffed-chested assholes in my P.E. class walked by me calling me a "fag," I thought that maybe Paul was right.

There were exceptions, of course. I remember one guy on an opposing team in my youth league who always held his moppy hair back with a headband. I did the same with my growing mohawk and we'd always nod to each other when our teams met. I'm sure there were others, but it was largely a time when you had to pick sides and that always bothered me.

Fast forward to adulthood. After years of sedentary jobs, playing music in bands, and no outlet for soccer, I had lost touch with one of the things that made me the happiest in my youth. And I'd gotten fat. I still watched games on TV and took trips to see MLS matches across the country, but I had nowhere to play. I knew that I was too out of shape to contribute to a real team, and once I'd picked my side of weirdos and musicians and artists, I had gone in whole hog. I didn't know any jocks and I was pretty sure that they'd have the same attitude towards me as adults that they'd had in high school.

 MLS CUP '99, Foxboro Stadium

MLS CUP '99, Foxboro Stadium

But I was wrong. Soccer, maybe more than any other sport, attracts people of all types and shapes and backgrounds. I've played pickup soccer on a regular basis for 14 years now and no matter which city I've played in, the setup is basically the same. Former competitive players, novice players, soccer moms and dads, soccer kids, bike messengers, punks, and dudes with full sleeve tattoos blowing off steam before heading to the bar all come together to play soccer wherever there is space.

In 2007, I was visiting Austin and trying to find a pickup game on a Sunday. I knew about the games at Zilker, but a quick drive by convinced me that those weren't the games I was looking for. Instead, I found a post on a message board about Anarchist Soccer at Rosewood Park. That sounded more my speed. And yes, Anarchist Soccer is a real thing.

As the author of this article points out, Anarchist Soccer isn't about abandoning rules and teams and allegiances. It's not about chaos, but it's not about keeping score, either. This quote sums it up beautifully: 

It is also a safe space – for and by people who ‘wouldn’t feel comfortable or welcome in sports’. When we remove competitiveness from sports, we rediscover the play that was once at their root – the play we’ve forgotten in leading adult lives. This play, is exploratory and creative and allows us to connect with others in deeper, wonderful ways.
— http://organizationunbound.org/expressive-change/anarchist-soccer/

I truly believe that when we remove the competitive focus from sports, we can can create entirely new kinds of experiences, but that's not something that people generally learn if their only exposure to sports has been through winner-takes-all situations. Even pickup soccer isn't always friendly. People get worked up, excitable, and focused on winning or scoring rather than on playing. In normal pickup games, I've been barked at for screwing up. I've seen people run off the field and out of the park because they were made to feel like they weren't good enough to play. Sometimes strong players want to turn into coaches for weaker and slower players, which can feel intimidating. And in the worst situations, someone gets hurt because a player's drive to win the ball overruns their desire to protect other players, even opponents, from an unnecessary injury.

 Sunday soccer at rosewood park, Austin TX

Sunday soccer at rosewood park, Austin TX

But in Anarchist games, at least for the most part, we minimize those problems. We don't pick teams with captains. We don't keep score. We don't play shirts against skins. We don't tell anyone that they can't play, and we don't keep anyone isolated from the action because they aren't as fast or nimble or skilled as anyone else. Sometimes folks need a little reminding that Anarchist soccer is meant to be completely inclusive so that everyone has fun working together. Sometimes a competitive instinct or training kicks in and tempers flare up. But most of the time, the game just flows from this spirit that all are welcome to try their best, and it's a beautiful thing.

I'm glad to have finally found a place where my passion for soccer isn't held back by traditional sports expectations. I'm glad to have an outlet to exercise with friends and strangers alike, in an environment where the score matters less than the effort and the attitude. Sports necessarily engender an "us against them" vibe. By their nature, they encourage a hierarchy based on skill and accomplishment and they encourage opposition. Whether as a spectator or a player, the adrenaline rush to win often pushes people over the line that we would normally consider civil behavior. All of this can make for exciting events, but at every level from professional matches to league games, to pickup kickarounds in the park, I've seen sports bring out the worst in people, too.

When my friend Paul made his observation--that the sportos and the weirdos didn't mix--and it had more to do with social expectations than athletic prowess or interest. I think sports could use a little more anarchy and a lot more compassion, and I'm thankful that Anarchist Soccer provides a blueprint for that to work! 

Why Moments Matter

 Believe it or not, these are your heroes.

Believe it or not, these are your heroes.

People often ask me what a particular movie is about. Sometimes this is a straightforward question to answer. THE AVENGERS is about superheros coming together to stop an alien invasion. THE KARATE KID is about a wimpy outsider who learns discipline and confidence from an unlikely teacher. But many of my favorite movies aren't so simple to describe.

Sometimes, what a movie is about is far less important to me than how it makes me feel or what it inspires me to think about. For a film to work in this way, it may not be a successful or interesting narrative. It might fail in many spectacular ways. But a movie that hits me with a few inspired moments can still wind up being pretty special.

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is full of problems. The leads are too young for their roles and they lack chemistry. The villain's motivation only becomes clear when he expresses it directly in dialogue that amounts to "this is why I'm evil." There's nothing memorable about the score and much of the CGI world is so overstuffed with detail that it becomes a blur. And still, it had moments that I loved.

 What is going on here?

What is going on here?

VALERIAN is based on a French comic book. The film may lack compelling leads, but it's not short on ideas. I absolutely loved the parade of alien species that the film introduced as it set up the world of Alpha. Years from now, I won't remember much about this movie, but I'll not likely forget the sense of wonder that it inspired with a simple montage of alien species meeting each other for the first time.

I can understand why the movie is failing at the box office. Not only is it based on a property that's unknown to American audiences, it's also just a shabby story. Maybe that Chinese funding will help it to succeed in China. But all of that is a shame, because VALERIAN does construct a handful of outlandishly creative moments that would win over audiences if they emerged from a stronger film.

A Ghost Story Poster

On the other end of the spectrum from VALERIAN'S CGI bluster sits David Lowery's A GHOST STORY. That film could be described as slow and meditative (or dull and self-important if you are being less kind) and it's also got problems. WIll Oldham's drunken, half-baked party philosophy needs a counterpoint and doesn't get one, making it feel like the author's statement of intent. Lowery's use of long takes worked when I was feeling the movie's vibe. But when I wasn't, the slow, motionless shots inside of the Ghost's house just set my mind adrift. 

One scene in A GHOST STORY seemed so culturally insensitive that it took me out of the movie and had me wondering about Lowery and his background. I don't always mind being pulled out of a movie to think about the movie-making--I love marveling at good stunt work or particularly effective cinematography--but I didn't enjoy having the spell broken during this film that is all atmosphere to begin with.

But I still walked out of A GHOST STORY thinking that it was one of my favorite films of the year. Why? Because of three moments where the film did something special and made a point in a way that only a movie can. I won't give them away, but those moments captured something essential to me, and they burned themselves in my brain as nearly perfect realizations of very specific ideas.

Both of these experiences reminded me that moments can be transcendent, even when all 90 or 120 minutes of a movie are not. I go to see movies to experience those moments when the images, sounds, music, movement, and story all come together to express something unique or true or hilarious or insightful. The one thing I remember from THE AVENGERS is the moment when the Hulk slams Loki into the floor like a rag doll. Re-watch the KARATE KID's climactic fight and pay attention to how the music and the camera work and the insert shots of people in the audience all build to a perfect crescendo. If you have a high tolerance for plaintive storytelling, go see A GHOST STORY and see if there's not a moment in there that speaks to you about what it feels like to accept a truth that you'd rather ignore.

I can always tell you what a movie is about, but sometimes it's a conversation centered around one of these moments that makes sharing the experience worthwhile.

Why We Need To Be Less Grumpy

I have never been mistaken for one of the Shiny Happy People. My 10th grade US History teacher told me that I was unusually cynical for a 15 year old; more than two decades later, she might make the same observation about me now.

 The author, age 16.

I write music that is either sad or angry. I like movies that are slow and tragic. The best short story I've ever written was about a boy on his way to a friend's funeral. And all of this is important preamble because if I am the one telling you that you need to stop bumming people out, then it's getting serious!

The great internet polemic means that every point must be met with a counterpoint. The more boisterous the point, the more vigorous the counterpoint. If I like a movie, someone else will shoot the movie down as if propelled by some subconscious urge to provide the counterpoint. If I like a particular breakfast taco, someone else will fight that taco to the death because there's another taco somewhere else that's more worthy. Let's not even consider discussions about politics and the news; they are an impenetrable wasteland online. I've come to the conclusion that I just don't care listen to people judge everything anymore.

The author, unhappy at an early age.

You see, I've been having Star Wars dreams again. This hasn't happened since the time of the Prequel Trilogy. I don't read Star Wars news or poke around on Star Wars message boards or anything. I did in 1998, but I don't anymore. Now, for reasons that are only unlockable by a trained specialist, when I sleep deeply I begin to play the next Star Wars movie out in my head. When I wake up from one of these dreams, I hold on to a sense of wonder that's unlike most of the experiences I have with contemporary movies. As the details of the dream fade, I quickly move on and go about my day, but in those waking moments, I am truly excited about something. It's a rush! Unfortunately, that excitement is very easy for people to pick on.

A happier time.

And I get why Star Wars isn't your bag, I really do. I just don't see the value in pointing out how dumb people are for liking it.

You have every right to roll your eyes at the return of Twin Peaks, but who gains from your indifference?

I also get why you don't like watching soccer. Fine. Snide jabs at things in a tweet or a Facebook update don't add anything to my life. They only make you look petty for spending the energy to piss on someone else's parade.

You know, some folks really enjoy Dominos Pizza. I can't understand why, but who am I to even try and take that away from them? Jurassic World? Reality TV? Mixed Martial Arts? Look, I don't get the appeal of most things, but if you want to enjoy that stuff, go for it!

The same pattern repeats over and over. Whether it's a Vice article making fun of how people dress or a listicle about the perils of other listicles, or screeds about the multitude of ways in which 'hipsters' are ruining everything, we seem borderline obsessed with pointing out what we don't like.

Sometimes people react to this in the only way that they can--by posting a video of a baby koala cuddling a baby lizard. That's something that no one can possibly disparage. But the very fact that we get to the point where we have to shield ourselves from the indignant bile of the jaded generation with cute animal videos should be a huge warning sign.

The world is full of bitterness. There's enough pain and disappointment and tragedy and loss to go around, and I'm reminded of that every day. Some nights, it's a struggle to go to sleep with enough hope and energy that the future holds the joy to balance all of this out. Why make it worse because you don't like something that someone else likes?

It's important to let people enjoy things, whether or not we understand how or why they enjoy them. Sure, there are exceptions. We need to call out fascism and hate speech. We can provoke a real conversation if we apply a thoughtful, critical analysis to the gender politics of a movie or the inherent classism of a pop song, but simply downvoting things doesn't serve that purpose. It's becoming more and more clear to me that we need a reason to spew anything negative into the universe because the collective cynical dark matter that we've already amassed can easily become overwhelming.

We really need to be less grumpy, all of us. I know it's hard, but it'll be worth it. I find that the old maxim "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" speaks to me in profound ways now. I just can't take it anymore. Let's all be a little nicer to each other, appreciate our differences, and make a little extra effort to seed the world with hope that that's something around the corner worth waking up for. If we could all wake up, just once in a while, excited by our own Star Wars dreams, it just seems like this whole mad trip would be a little more bearable.

And I'm out. 

What I Learned From Reading "The Star Wars"

After reading the Dark Horse comic adaptation of George Lucas' original screenplay for The Star Wars, I'm amazed that the movie ever worked at all. Star Wars (the movie) ended up a nearly perfect distillation of the hero myth, but what Lucas started with was so much more confusing. Someone had to see the diamond in that lump of story coal, and the first thing I learned is that i wouldn't have been able to find the heart of the story in that draft.

The Star Wars is full of the characters and setups that you'll remember from the movies. It features a stubborn, fiesty princess, lazerswords, a giant space station, ships careening through asteroid belts, a trash compactor, and some mumbo jumbo about Jedis and Siths. It also turns much of what you'll remember upside down. Luke is a fatherly figure. Darth Vader is an Imperial General who honestly doesn't do a whole lot. Han Solo is not the handsome, dashing pilot that audiences fell in love with. The story features some of the same basic arc, but along the way there are several sit-down scenes where people talk about the senate and treaties and all of the boring nonsense that ended up in the prequels. The second thing I learned is that George Lucas doesn't like to let an idea go, even if it was cut for a good reason.

Turning a story like The Star Wars into something filmable must have taken a tremendous amount of creative work. This book has too many characters, too many threads to follow, and not enough satisfaction in the way that late-forming relationships resolve. I've not read the original screenplay, but I suspect that the fault here is the source material moreso than the work that writer JW Rinzler did to bring this story to the comic page. Every few pages yields an idea that ended up in a movie other than the original Star Wars and yet most of those ideas seem so unnatural and jarring in the context of this story. What reading this taught me was that you have to hone in on the core of the story you are trying to tell and not allow any scene to run off spending time developing a thread that doesn't help that primary story along.

Star Wars was always Lucas' homage to Flash Gordon and the pulpy serials of his youth, and that shines through in this version. We get not only a Skywalker but also a Starkiller. The plot spins off into details about Leia's royalty and the role that she plays as the future Queen of her people. There's a knight who is more machine than man, lots of daring sacrifice, and a thudding, wrong-headed love story that seems squeezed in just because such a thing would be expected. And it all fails to come together as simply as you remember because there is no central hero to follow. This isn't Luke's story, or Leia's or even Annikin's--it's just a tangle of characters barelling through space to stop an evil empire. I learned that all of the pulpy, amazing stuff in Star Wars is memorable because it serves the right purpose--not just because it's cool to see a man with a robot arm wielding a lazersword.

If all of this makes The Star Wars seem like a complete drag--it's not. The art is wonderful and the designs are intentionally inspired by a combination of the films and Ralph McQuarrie's original concept drawings. The comic book storytellers have chosen to work in familiar faces like the bounty hunters for some extra cognitive dissonance, so the whole thing plays out like a fun "What If" book. But the dialog is hard to get through. Characters spit out so many detailed numbers and descriptions of this tech or that and in the end I just wanted to skip those panels and get to something that illuminated the characters. I learned that no matter how fantastical and complex your imaginary world is, you don't need for your characters to spend time talking about it. Just let people see it!

One of the reasons that I picked this book up in the first place was to use it as a case study in the way that a screenplay changes from rough draft to the final thing that we see in a theater. On that front, the book is not disappointing at all!


My Creativity Manifesto

It's a new year.  I have unpinned the old calendars from the wall and resolved to buy  new ones once they go on sale.  I've taught myself to write and type dates that end in eleven.  I've watched the Facebook memes promoting hopeful promises and forward payments and all manner of good intentions rain lazily down my virtual wall the way that good ideas so often do--without sticking.  I've felt the cold grip of winter's cynicism grab at me and pull me back from writing this very piece for a solid week because I hear an icy voice whispering "who cares", "who will read it", "what can I possibly add that isn't yesterday's news", and "didn't all of my friends already promise to send something homemade to the first five people who asked for it?"  And still, as this southern town braces for a storm, its residents climbing over one another for batteries and bottled water that they will forget in the back of a closet, I feel compelled to finally put into words some account of the necessary and immediate change that I've taken. 

In our On Demand culture we are privy to a world of options.  We are faced with an endless array of choices for food, entertainment, education, activities, and escape and those choices are closer now than they have ever been in human history.  We can call forth nearly anything ever produced from our digital libraries of books, art, music, and films.  We can order shoes and have them delivered in mere days, for free.  We can venture to one of countless stores within minutes to shuffle through collections of soups, breads, spices, and cheeses that are so vast that we couldn't possibly explore them all before they change.  All of this progress is fantastic.  I've seen more movies in the last month from my "I always meant to see that" list thanks to streaming video than I bothered to watch in the last five years.  I've gained an appreciation for varieties of apples that I had never heard of until I was in my 30s.  My bookshelves are overflowing with wonderfully printed tomes about Infographics, Logo Design, the history of Comic Books, Action Figure collecting, and Independent Cinema and almost none of those topics would have even been a subject of any note 20 years ago.  Still, something feels lost.  In the midst of all of this consumption, we have largely forgotten how to create. 

Creativity has somehow been twisted into a word that people associate with artists, free spirits, and the kind of folks who paint swirls of paisley on old VW bugs.  Just as I might complain that I'm not good at math, so many people I know will freely admit that they are not creative.  Yet creativity is what you might call a core human trait.  It's what allowed us to survive on this planet, to thrive, to commune, to develop, and ultimately to get to this place where we find ourselves now.  Without the ability to create life, or fire, or shelter, or to turn raw ingredients into meals, we would not have made it.  How strange it is that at this great height of civilization and technological achievement, so many people don't make a single thing even once per day.  I can wake up to my electronic alarm (backed up by my phone), heat up a pre-portioned packet of oatmeal, browse the internet, brush my teeth with a disposable brush as I drive to the store for a new DVD that I fancy, pay someone to cook me a nice lunch, play online games on my phone then continue them on my laptop at home, and correspond with a dozen people virtually before I go to sleep.  Nowhere in that day have I added anything to the world, and that's going to change. 

When was the last time you cooked something completely from scratch?  Maybe inspired by food TV and culinary blogs you occasionally find yourself trying out a recipe in the kitchen, but if you are like most people that I see in the grocery store, you let someone else do 90% of the preparation.  As I marveled at the grocery cart of a woman in front of me last week, I tried to count the number of single-ingredient items being swiped across the scanner.  Pork chops, eggs, and whole milk were the only ones.  Everything else came in a box, a can, a pouch, or a shrink-wrapped value pack with ten items for the price of eight.  She bought canned vegetables, ice cream, potato chips, and dozens of other things that were designed to be consumed on demand.  Even if she had stacked her cart full of wholesome, organic varieties of all of those things the simple fact remained that she would do nothing with the contents of that basket that would resemble creating a meal. 

Cooking is creative.  It's a simple form of making something that warms us and fulfills us in ways that simply reheating food cannot.  We can refine recipes over a lifetime just as we can hone cooking techniques with practice.  No one ever learned anything from heating up a frozen pizza every night, but learning to make a dough ball, to whip up a sauce, to shred cheese and slice toppings in a way that they will cook beautifully--those are creative experiences from which we grow.  And the food that we've created, even when it isn't worthy of Micheline stars, is especially rewarding when we share it.  I've cooked many meals for people and that experience is always a bit of a gamble.  The food may not always arrive on the plate with the look and flavor that I expected but I learn from that, I try new things, and at a most fundamental level I get to nourish my loved ones with something that I created out of nothing.  From now on, I want the contents of my grocery cart not to have ingredients, but to BE ingredients. 

When was the last time you gave someone a gift?  I see things in stores and catalogs that remind me of my wife all the time, and thankfully I'm in a position to purchase those things as often as I like to bring a smile to her face.  I know her taste in books, music, and toys.  We tend to like the same art and posters.  A day does not go by that I don't want to treat her with some trinket, large or small, that I think she will appreciate or use.  And yet in all of that, something still feels missing.  Our shelves are full of books we have not read, DVDs we have not watched, and games we rarely play.  We have shoes lodged under other shoes stuffed deep in the recesses of our closet, buried under a bag of t-shirts and yet shoes and hoodies and cute t-shirts make perfect gifts.  I know that these things will never go away completely--we won't resort to knitting all of our own clothes--but I miss the tactile experience of making gifts.  Our parents all save our kindergarten macaroni art until it crumbles and decays into the binding of scrapbooks and yet the lines of people who are returning store-bought gadgets and gizmos after Christmas is maddening.  Gifts are so often perfunctory that we find ourselves roaming the aisles of stores in a daze wondering what on Earth we will ever get for someone. 

It doesn't have to be that way.  Each of us can bake cookies, or fold a piece of paper and turn it into a hand-written card, or paint an old pepper mill, or burn a CD of our favorite songs.  The handmade revolution is not limited to hipsters and young people who like to sew together clothes from thrift stores.  We used to make mixtapes for our girlfriends and boyfriends but now we just carry along a lifetime's worth of songs on a device the size of a credit card and we wonder why none of it feels very special.  Even when we aren't truly making something brand new, we can still act as a specific and personalized filter to share things with the people we hold dear.  If you get a gift from me this year, it will be something that I made or customized or otherwise got my hands dirty to give to you.  Please don't take this to mean that I don't know that you want a blu-ray disc or a portfolio of famous art prints or that I am not paying attention to the consumable things that turn you on.  We can and should talk about those things and experience them together, but you will likely be experiencing them because you obtained them in some other way than as a gift from me, but perhaps you can enjoy them along with a mug of my homemade soup or in the glow of a new handmade lamp shade.  We need to turn all of this detritus of modern life into something that has meaning, and one way to do that is to give those items meaning by transforming and repurposing them. 

My computer used to be a tool for creativity.  It was purchased and configured to be a true workstation for music, graphics, and video.  Somehow over the years that workstation has turned into little more than a conduit for consumption.  It's a giant digital funnel for receiving all of the bits and bytes that make up our On Demand world.  I value the machine for its ability to bring the world to my doorstep, but I've somehow lost that sense that it is a vastly powerful tool for creation, too.  In fact, it's hard for something to be both things successfully, or at least hard for me to interact with the thing in both ways.  When I sit down with the express intention of writing, scanning images, designing postcards, or writing songs I first have to make it through the distraction firewall of email, blogs, news, scores, and status updates.  This was never a problem for a painter who's tool does only one thing.  No guitarist has ever sat down with a guitar and a stomp box and first used them to see what his high school friends had for lunch.  Since my computer is my primary tool, I need to get better at using it to create things and stop spending so much time on it just passing the hours. 

In truth, I am not really sure how I got here.  I've railed against mindless consumerism, brand worship, and crass commercial tie-ins for over a decade.  Fighting against the soulless plastic world we inhabit has been the thrust of my music and art for as long as I can remember.  Yet here I sit amidst stacks of storage boxes, plastic tubs, bookshelves, and bags full of stuff that I don't even have room for anymore.  My existential search for meaning outside of consumption hasn't kept me from amassing a collection of 800 action figures, thousands of CDs and DVDs, and more bits of software and hardware and electronic junk than I will ever find a use for in this lifetime.  For all of the paintings I have half-finshed, remixes I have promised and never delivered, posters I have designed and not printed, and short stories I have dreamed up never to write, I have fed thousands of hours of potentially creative time into droning consumption.  I consume Facebook statuses, YouTube videos, poorly-written film reviews, toys, comic books, and not-so-clever commentaries about box office results and soccer games.  I have spent hours upon hours looking at the creative output of others and saying "wow, that's cool" and then clicking through to the next item, the next page, the next void.  It's no secret that I've consumed more than my share of food in my lifetime and my body has paid the price.  I'm not sure how I got here but I know that it is all going to stop. 

My goal for this year and for time marching onward after that is to add more to this world than I take from it.  How that balance can be measured is something I don't know yet, and it may always have to be as intangible as a feeling that I am making decisions to create rather than to consume.  I suspect that it will be measured in small victories, and the first one is this manifesto.  I share these words with you as I hope to share many other things that I create, or that we create together.  Let's dig in, get our hands dirty, feel one thing transform into another, and really make something for a change.  

The Digital Age

Sometimes being an artist who makes electronic music is more trouble than it's worth.  Sure, I usually have the wide world of sound at my fingertips with every tool imaginable no more than a few clicks away.  I could never do what I do without technology--I never had the discipline or dexterity to be good at a regular instrument.  I never wanted to take lessons.  I usually had trouble working with bands.  So the computer/synth studio has always been my only 'in' to the world of making music.  Without the technology, I'd probably be a painter.  But sometimes, like when the computer needs to be replaced, I wonder if it's all worth it.

I started making music in 1991 with a couple of drum machines and synth modules all connected with MIDI cables.  The closest thing we had to a computer was some kind of rack-mounted storage device that would record and save our patches and midi sequences.  By 1993 I was working with a DOS version of Cakewalk and I was amazed that the computer could actually record the sequences and play them back on the hardware.  That machine didn't even boot up into Windows, but it worked.

I used the first Windows-based version of Cakewalk from late 1993 until 2001 when I was writing the songs for Monster Music.  When it was time to mix, I took my sequences and my hardware down to a studio, plugged it all in and loaded up the MIDI files from a floppy disc and went to town.  Around that time I was toying around with the idea of a new sequencer, something that could take advantage of some of my newer computer's speed and power.  I settled on Cubase, but all the way through the recording of Fashion Victim, I still never used my computer for anything other than a MIDI sequencer.  I did all of the sample editing in a hardware sampler, and just like I had 10 years earlier, I saved all of my patches with the sequence data and initialized the hardware each time I pressed play.

While I was mixing Kelvin with Genetic at his home studio, he asked why I wasn't rendering the tracks down to audio.  Of course it had occurred to me to do this, but never until the mixing phase.  I always assumed I would have the most flexibility and control over the sound if I kept everything MIDI up until the time I was ready to lay it down.  This came from the older days of working with tape and not wanting to commit anything until it was completely ready--after all, you don't want to waste tape.  When I started working on new tracks after the Fashion Victim tour, I decided I would start playing around with  computer audio.

The first thing to go was the sampler--I replaced the Akai hardware sampler with Native Instruments' software equivalent, Kontakt.  It took a little getting used to but before long I realized how nice it was not to worry about how long a sample was, or how much memory it took up.  I didn't have to edit and trim and save everything with the cuts to save space--I could load a whole beat into Kontakt, virtually trim it down to a single snare drum, then copy the beat again and pull out a kick, without ever hacking the actual audio file down.  Nice!  I started looking for a way to replace my trusty synths next.

Each time I bought something new in the virtual instrument world, I would get rid of something on ebay in the real world.  The Emu Vintage Keys, Yamaha CS1x, TX81z, and the Novation A-Station were all replaced with software.  Before I knew it, I was looking at my 14 channel mixer and wondering why I needed something so big.  My hardware effects units were collecting dust and everything was just firing off in Cubase.  I didn't even use a MIDI controller much anymore--it was all point and click and virtual on-screen knobs.  But there were trade-offs, too.

For one thing, I used an Ensoniq EPS 16+ sampler keyboard for 12 years without a glitch but since I moved to the world of computer audio, I have gone through five different computers.  Each computer has had a different set up (live vs. studio) and every time I change of course there's a new operating system, new plugins and patches, new things to learn, and old things to reinstall.  Drivers, registration codes, unlock keys, challenge/response strings, service packs--it can all be a little maddening.  The old hardware wasn't too expandable and it didn't get a new set of features every couple of years, but it also didn't ever change.  I never had to update the firmware on a keyboard or install new drivers--I just flipped a switch and those things worked.  With software, even to get the same device to perform the same function on a different system, sometimes it requires a whole new set of patches and code.  Sometimes it won't work at all!

My latest computer upgrade was necessitated by the fact that all those fancy audio programs just wouldn't run smoothly anymore on my old beast of a desktop.  That machine still exceeds recommended qualifiactions for every piece of software that I use, but somehow when they all work together, they are just too much.  Years of internet browsing, defragging, photoshopping, and other non-music activities took their toll.  Since Microsoft has released two more major OS upgrades since the last time I bought a computer, and since I wasn't going to build my own machine this time, I finally hit a wall.

After several hours of futzing around with install discs and registration codes, I finally got most of my core products to work.  Cubase and the Native Instruments products all work and there's a noticable lack of processor strain on this new quad core machine.  Still, not everything is perfect.  The Antares Filter VST does not play with Vista and Antares is making too much money from AutoTune to be bothered to look into it.  They've simply stopped supporting Filter which is a real shame since it's a fantastic piece of software and it does something unique.  Pluggo needs a new authorization code so that means an email to Cycling 74 who are no longer selling Pluggo but claim to still support existing users (I hope!)   My trusty and 10+ year old sound card won't even fit in the new computer so I've resorted to using some Firewire breakout box that isn't quite as good and is going to need to be replaced.  I haven't used the new setup long enough to know if that's it, but I get the feeling that's NOT it. 

For all the ease and availability that this technology offers, it all comes with a price.  Sometimes that price is just a reboot and walkaway kind of thing, but other times, it's more like weeks and weeks of not doing anything because it's impossible to be productive when there are nagging software registrations and drivers and other shit to deal with.  Sometimes the price is too high, and I wish that I made music with a distortion pedal and a rock or something--but even then I'd still have to record it into something and I'm sure that just when I'd find that perfect tone, I'd look over to my computer screen and see a prompt to install a newer driver.

Band Names

I'm pretty sure that when you have to name your myspace page Larvaeband because someone else has already got a page with your band name, it's time to look for another thing to call your group.  I mean, in the age of digital downloads, MP3 sales, Myspace, Twitter, Facebook, and Google, how do you really pick a band name that someone is clearly already using?  I can see two bands stumbling upon the same idea or catchphrase or misquote at the same time and both trying to rush to put it to good use, but when someone's been using a name publicly and professionally for over a decade, I think it's fair to say that name is taken.

Now to be fair, Larvae isn't the most original name in the book.  While I did choose it in 1997 (and played shows that year with flyers and the whole nine,) there are other bands that have used that name or a variation.  There's a group called Larva, of course, and there's a punk band called Larvae that pops up in all the same places that I do, even though their first record appears to have come out after ours and they haven't done anything else that I can see since then.  I think I've got a pretty fair claim on this verbal territory, but then I'm sure the Charlatans UK thought the same thing.  I remember the Tampa band The Catherine Wheel opening for the much bigger and better-known UK band of the same name and the awkwardness that proceeded.  The lead singer from the Catherine Wheel that got to keep the name said "yeah, there's a Catherine Wheel in every town where we play."  Oops.

When I picked Larvae, it meant something to me and it sounded adequately weird, but I was never in love with it.  To me, it was a good name for a new project that was just being birthed, out from under the other band I was in at the time.  It was also inspired by Godflesh's use of "Mothra" as a song title--something that I always appreciated and something that pointed at what I initially wanted to do.  Larvae in fact started as me trying to make purely electronic music that had the kind of grit and anger as Godflesh.

Now, years and several albums later, I look back and realize that I probably could have picked a better name.  It's a little silly if it's just referencing a giant monster and it's a little grotesque if it's supposed to conjure a real bug.  It's no surprise really that the other bands I've seen using it are a metal act and a punk group.  It's not like some couple making folktronica somewhere in the midwest is going to come up with Larvae and think 'wow, that really fits our pastoral sound!'  I'm not sure it really fits MY sound anymore, but at this point I think I'm stuck with it.

The new Larvae record, Loss Leader is out now on Ad Noiseam and it's the first record we've made that is available for digital download. Those who might be interested can buy a high quality MP3 version of the record from the label itself, from Beatport, and from Amazon.com where it can actually be purchased with Pepsi Points! That's right, we are now trading our music for Pepsi, though I assume that Amazon will pay us in cash rather than soda.

This new step forward is exciting, and I've already been delving into all of the mechanics of it. I've been looking at and for data. I've been comparing the different sites and the way they work to sell the tracks and it's all very eye opening. I was pushing for independent musicians to embrace new markets for their music in a previous post and now that it's my turn, I'm finding that there is a lot to think and probably write about.

For instance, I never thought that anyone would be able to trade Pepsi caps for my work. I'm not happy or sad about it, just a little amused at the thought that I've taken such an anti-consumerist stance in previous Larvae work and that I am now the unwitting promotional partner for Pepsi. It's good, I think; it means that more people will be able to listen to Larvae and see what the music is all about. How Pepsi and Amazon work their payment out is really up to them. Ultimately, it's just amusing to be a part of that large corporate cycle, and it raises certain questions about the potential content of the music.

I'm sure that the disclaimers buried in all of Amazon's legal mumbo jumbo make this very clear, but I can imagine something like the following: a band puts out some sort of violently anti-semitic record that gets picked up by a distributor who happens to work with Amazon, the tracks get loaded for sale on Amazon.com and some 14 year old uses his Mountain Dew caps to download the songs. Of course the parents are ultimately responsible for what the kid is getting into, but can't you just see the headline: "Pepsi gives away hateful music to teens." It's a weird world, and stranger things happen all the time.

I am finding it increasingly frustrating lately that everything can be easily blamed on our troubled economy. A company has to lay off workers because they aren't hitting sales projections? Blame the economy. Another company has to cancel a holiday party? Blame the economy. Someone down the street can't sell his house? Blame the economy. Everyone seems to be acting like 'the economy' is this thing that exists in some tangible way--like it can be personified and then pegged as the scapegoat when people aren't making as much money as they'd like.

I realize that the economy in the United States is a complicated thing, but it's more like a gigantic system of behaviors than it is like a single entity. We have all kinds of ways of measuring the economy's health as if it were a person with a cold or a tree trying to bounce back from an unforgiving winter, but those are just shorthands and ways to describe something that is ultimately intangible.

We can measure certain economic indicators and then make predictions about people's behaviors, but beyond that. there's no actual thing that we can really pin all of this blame on. And yet we do it anyway.

When a company has to lay people off, why don't we blame the company's management who didn't have a business model that was flexible enough and sustainable enough to weather hard times? When an organization cancels Christmas and blames these hard times, why don't we blame THEM for not selling their widgets at a more attractive price or for not finding some other way to provide perks for their employees? It hits hard with layoffs and reports about missed profit goals, but when the CEOs and CFOs of these companies can just point to the diseased behemoth that we are told every day is the root of our troubles, how do those folks ever get held accountable?

Is the solution always to lay people off or ask for government bailout money? Are companies fretting not because they are losing money but just because they aren't making AS MUCH money as they had hoped? This kind of thing always drives me up a wall because for profit companies hang their hat on the model of the free market so that they can charge 190 dollars for 4 dollars worth of raw materials sewn up into a shoe by someone making a dollar a day in Malaysia, but they are quick to blame "the economy" when all of those profits aren't enough to keep gas in the Lexuses and BMWs. I'm going to stop letting companies and the media that report on them tell me that the economy is the reason that unemployment is shooting up and that we may all have to tighten our belts to keep big corporations from filing for bankruptcy. Let's call the people out who make products that people don't want or need, and who provide services that are grossly over-valued in the good times to the extent that they collapse when there's pressure.

One of my neighbors has a sign in his yard that says "Neither for President 2008". I would have gladly thrown this sign up in my own yard during the last election, but I was struggling to figure out who wouldn't be able to stomach either of the current candidates. The only possibilities that I could come up with were 1.)People so far to the right of McCain that they see him as a wimp and 2.)People who are so ruggedly anti-government that they will only support a Libertarian.

Over the last four years, I've had the privilege to travel around and see some of the venom that the Bush administration has inspired. People outside of the States are growing to hate us more and more. Even people here seem to have forgotten what it was that once made them proud to be Americans. Displaying any kind of patriotism in many circles is tantamount to supporting the cultural and economic imperialism that has come to characterize the role of the US in this decade. This has all got to stop.

I want to be proud of what this country is and what it offers again. I don't want to be proud that I can find a Big Mac or a Double Whopper in 150 countries, or that American films play more frequently than German ones IN GERMANY. I don't want to travel abroad and feel like I have to apologize for the way my country is acting, and I don't want to feel like there is some huge divide between "blue states" and "red states" as if the country itself is on the verge of some sort of political silver war. If you don't feel like there's a candidate in this election that really has your number, I can understand that--I've felt that for most of my adult life. If you don't feel like the polemic of a two-party system represents our diversity adequately, I can definitely feel that too. But if you can't find a way with the current choice between Obama and McCain that will at least make you start to feel better about this country, then I don't know what to say.

This is a pretty minor grievance, but I can't stand it when someone sends me a business form to complete and the lines on the page where I am supposed to enter text are just a series of underline characters. I realize that not everyone knows how to make forms in Word, or how to work with table properties to make certain edges of a table cell transparent, but when I get a form that's been approved for use throughout the company from an IT department and it uses the underline technique, I just have to wonder what people are doing with their time. I figured out how to make a form in Word years ago because I got frustrated having to look at forms that had fields like _____Matt____ ____Jeanes______. How is it that people who've been in the business world a lot longer than I have still deal with this stuff and think that these kinds of practices are OK?

There's a Thai restaurant in Sandy Springs that is rather unceremoniously named Thai Restaurant of Sandy Springs that I used to eat at a lot when I worked on that side of town. It was always a good place for a quick Thai lunch and they had a deal where you could get a free entree on your birthday, so I've always remembered it, even if I have very little occasion to be up in that area any more.

Tonight though, Leigh and I planned part of our evening around the Thai Restaurant of Sandy Springs, and more specifically, around the fried ice cream that they serve. We drove all the way up there to eat authentic sushi and ramen at Sushi Mio, then we caught Burn After Reading at the Lefont before heading back to the Thai place for the fried ice cream. I'm not joking when I say that they used to have some fried ice cream that was worth the trip on its own. It's not something I'd usually expect from a Thai restaurant, but whatever they do to make that dish, it's something special.

So we got there about 10 minutes after 9 PM and walked in past a sign that said "under new management." We checked the desert menu and sure enough, they still had the fried ice cream so we started to sit down. When I told the woman who was running the dining room that we only needed dessert menus, she quickly snatched up the dinner menus and the following exchange took place:

Lady: This is not a cafe. This is a restaurant. We don't sell just dessert.
Leigh and I look incredulous: Huh?
Lady: This is not a cafe.
Leigh (standing up): Did you say 'this is not a cafe?'
Lady: This is a restaurant, this is not a cafe. We have a 10 dollar minimum. You can't have just dessert.
Leigh: Well you just lost some business.
Lady: I'm sorry, we are a restaurant.

OK, so we got it, the aptly named Thai Restaurant of Sandy Springs is not the Thai Cafe of Sandy Springs, and the new owners don't take kindly to folks coming in for just dessert. Given the fact that there was exactly one table in the whole place (a two-top) that was occupied, I can only imagine that whatever money we might have spent there would have been helpful. Instead, that lady made enemies for life out of us, and I can say with certainty that I'll never go back to that place, ever.

What made this sad and frustrating were the facts that I had looked forward to and talked up this damn ice cream, and that instead of the lady being apologetic and kindly telling us that we'd need to spend at least 10 dollars, she snatched up the menus and told us that the place was not a cafe. There are a lot more customer-friendly ways to tell a potential customer that you don't typically serve just dessert if that's really going to be your stance. But why should it be? We went somewhere else instead, got dessert, drinks, and an appetizer and we spent 17 dollars and left a good tip. Some other restaurant (that was also not a cafe) got our business because this lady was too short sighted and too rude to see that we might be good paying customers. I've bitched about customer service in this blog before, and I am always still astonished that I get treated this way anywhere. With food prices going up, gas through the roof, people going out less, and a generally shitty economy, I would think that the Thai Restaurant of Sandy Springs would be happy to sell anything to anyone who walked in their door. Oh well, they won't ever sell me anything ever again.

I went to my first ever fencing competition today. It all seemed very complicated. What I know about fencing rivals what I know about fixing X-ray machines, so this was a good introduction.

The contestant we were with was having some sword trouble so she had dropped her weapons off at the shop (humorously named the Sword Masters) early in the morning. This reminded me a bit of going to the magic and weapon shop in a video game, so it was not surprising that the guy who appeared to be the customer servive face of the shop had longish hair with a dye job, facial piercings, and that he was wearing headphones and was glued to Myspace. For all I know, homeboy is on my friends list--he clearly fits the profile!

Except I hope that people on my friends list who work in service jobs have a keener sense for good customer service than this guy. After dropping the swords off at 8, my girlfriend started checking on them around 10:45. When I showed up at about 11:15, our fencer was in need of some weapons and her swords were still sitting in the queue. Captain LARP asked if we had a number and when we showed it to him, he said we were next in line.

Now, I'm a fairly reasonable guy and I know that customers can sometimes seem demanding. We all get frustrated when we feel like our needs aren't being met, and it's likewise reasonable to get frustrated when someone you are dealing with seems focused on that need that isn't being addressed. But you know, that is the art of customer service: being able to at least appease the customer when you have no real way to accomplish what they want you yo accomplish.

The sword master had apparently thrown a -8 against charisma because he was not interested in settling his customer's anxiety over the busted swords. When Amber told him that she'd heard the 'you are next in line' bit half an hour earlier, he put on his best condescending tone and threw out this gem: 'There's nothing I can do... Do you want to take the sword back and forfeit your place in line?' Not only was I not in the mood to be talked down to by a punk who was more interested in his Myspace profile than in working with his customers, but I got pretty incensed that he felt like he could be so cavalier when we were just trying to get an honest display of empathy. So I made sure he heard me when I said 'That's a shitty attitude!'

This was apparently the last straw. Maybe he'd had a long day of people interrupting his Myspace messaging already, or maybe I just reminded him a little too much of a wizard who gave him a beat down in D&D at some point, but he couldn't take it anymore so he stormed off. When he got back, he had a fencing buddy with him, so he took the guy behind a curtain and proceeded to explain (with a prop) how he'd like to crack my skull with a hammer and how I told him he had a shitty attitude and the nerve of me and whatever. This was strike two for the guy in my book, because if there's a second rule after 'don't treat the customer like shit' it is 'don't complain about the customer in a self-righteous way in a place where he can both see and hear you.' At this point, I felt a little more confrontation might get the guy to strike three, and I was curious what that looked like.

I realize that I was at this point antagonizing the guy for not much reason other than 'he started it,' but I wanted to sort of get my point across that providing good customer service, especially in a trying situation, is not really that hard if you just have a shred of kindness and if you take your job seriously. After a couple threats that I was 'really pushing him,' the guy used the hammer that he had demonstrated his skull cracking fantasy with to try and true up the blade on his pocket knife. He clearly wasn't thinking straight, as even I know from watching the Food Network that you don't fix a knife blade with a motherfucking hammer. Anyway, a couple of good whacks and the tip of his knife cracked right off, and I guess this was all he could bear. He stormed off again (strike three!) and the other guy who was working/talking during all of this asked me to leave his table.

In the end, I'm sure that the people at Sword Masters are not terrible people (though at least one of them is not too handy with fixing a blade apparently--so 'Masters' they may not all be,) but they could probably stand to learn a lesson from this. As it seems like they are just about the only game in town at fixing fencing weapons at the tournament, it's likely that they'll be able to continue to treat customers with disdain, and that's a shame. I would have loved to have grabbed the swords and taken them somewhere else, but that wasn't really an option. The woman who actually worked on the swords was nice and perfectly professional and she gave us a very understanding "we're working as fast as we can" type of response that was all anyone really wanted. What we didn't want was to see a guy checking his fucking email on the clock, who appeared bothered that we were running out of time.

The only reason any of us were even there was to make sure that some kids could go out on a strip, put on a mask, raise a sword and stab each other as anxious parents, coaches, and friends looked on. From what I could see, that happened a lot and the short time I spent at the competition was a lot of fun... especially watching that dude break his knife.

An Open Letter to Independent Artists and Record Labels

In the last decade, we've all watched in awe as the digital world has transformed nearly every facet of our lives, often in unanticipated ways. We take the portability and omnipresence of information for granted in so many ways that its difficult to remember a time when we had to wait days for someone to receive our stamped letter. People just a few years younger than me (I'm 32) have already grown up in a world so radically changed from the world that existed when I was a teen that the great divide between generations that keeps every old one from understanding every new one has gotten shorter. We don't have to wait to have children that we can't understand; our younger siblings are just as likely to to think about the world in ways that seem foreign to us as we did to our parents.

Though the digital revolution has touched everything from cars and clocks to health care, the development of language, and the very basic pillars of our economy, perhaps the area where the change is most visible is in the world of music. Digital technology quickly brought music production to the unwashed masses so that anyone with a computer could record a song, and the internet was right behind that wave, offering each artist a worldwide distribution network for everything he ever created (no matter how good or bad.) For those of us who grew up on Vinyl, Cassettes, and CDs, we probably all remember the thrill of the first time we downloaded an MP3 of a song we just couldn't find any other way. It might have been a new artist we'd never heard of before, or a long out-of-print record by our favorite band, or a demo track from someone screaming out into the vast digital wilderness just begging to be heard. We all have that experience and we may have had different feelings about how that experience would shape the music industry in the years ahead, but I think we all realized that MP3s represented a turning point.

Of course, with that thrill came the realization that something wasn't quite right. One MP3 quickly led to another and eventually we all stumbled upon something that an artist or label wasn't intending to offer to us for free: but there it was anyway. Debating the ethical decisions we were confronted with at that point will result in little useful dialog. We've turned the corner now and there's no looking back. We live in a world where the primary format for music distrbution will soon be non-physical. For those of us who have worked for a significant portion of our lives to make music and see it released on a plastic disc, suddenly our whole approach is being called into question.

We have to look at the reality of this new world and find in it the opportunities that it brings that outweigh the limitations. For a boutique or small indie record label, the Compact Disc is appealing because the media is cheap and until very recently, it was the clear format of choice with nearly all consumers. A small label can invest relatively little in a short run of 300 - 2000 CDs and have a product that looks and feels as professional, presentable, and sellable as anything from a major. These products can be primed for retail with barcodes and shrinkwrap, and they can be everything that their mass-produced counterparts are with one major exception: availability.

The boutique or micro-indie label that is pressing no more than 2000 copies of any single release has to deal with the gross inequity of retail distribution, and often no amount of quality, art direction, or passion for good music can make any difference there. Look at the major retailers of Compact Discs in the United States, and it quickly becomes obvious why small labels don't have a share in the game. Best Buy operates over 1,100 retail stores in the United States, Canada and China; Circuit City has 650 locations; the dreaded Wal-Mart runs more than 6,700 locations; even a small competitor that focuses on counter-cultural product like Hot Topic has 690 retail stores. It's important to understand that these chains deal with distributors of goods on a large scale--they want products that they can merchandize and sell in all of their locations, or at least in entire regions, and small labels clearly aren't even up to the task of creating the volume of product to meet demand if that demand was even created. A label that releases 500 copies of a disc has no chance at all of working with these retailers because stores don't order individually from their distributors.

A network of smaller, independently owned and minded stores exists in the US, but even that network works with a particular set of distributors and with some major label product. All of this leads to a near-hopeless retail situation for small labels. Even in the best of cases, a small label that can get CDs into some of these stores in a limited number of markets still fails to have any real market penetration or recognition. The lack of a national or international retail presence reglegates these small releases to specialty sections in the few stores that will carry their records, or to boutique and often closed-ended retail locations that have no reach outside of an established niche customer base.

Indie bands have long known that touring and selling merchandise is far more lucrative than selling CDs in stores, and yet our historical model for the whole industry has been one where a band released a CD, the CD showed up in the store, the song was played in a club or on the radio, and we then went to a show when the band came to town and bought a ticket and a t-shirt. If the first part of that process (retail) presents an often insurmountable obstacle, how do we expect the remaining steps to work at all? Radio promotion without retail support leads to potential customers who cannot find the record when they go out shopping--these are often customers who are permanently lost because their retail experience offers them myriad alternatives. Touring without radio/club support and press leads to bands showing up in towns where no one has the faintest idea of who they are or why paying $7 to see them would be worthwhile. Online promotion has changed some of this dynamic, but even artists who are able to build a following through Myspace pages and online word-of-mouth have to work within the traditional Retail-Promotion-Performance-Merchandise model if they expect their music to reach potential consumers. Having a popular viral video or Myspace page can augment your success within that traditional model, but it won't replace any of those key components.

Just when the elements of promoting and selling a record (the sole reason that record labels exist,) appear to consipre against the indie record label, the answer begins to emerge from the haze. The move to a non-physical method of distribution is not without its challenges for a small label, but it offers a great chance to remove some of the obstacles that the historical model of record-selling presents. Since small labels have in many cases been reluctant to move towards this solution, let's look at a few of the common reasons that folks site about why dowloads as a release method aren't viable.

Lack of Perceived Quality
The thing that kept me from jumping feet first into the MP3 game was this nagging suspicion that the great ease with which an MP3 could be created, uploaded, traded, and copied meant that MP3 tracks would be less valuable than tracks found on physical media. To a certain extent, this fear is founded as anyone who lived through the mp3.com era of self-promotion should be well-aware. There's a near infinite supply of MP3 tracks available to potential consumers, and as Barry Schwartz explains in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, this creates a new kind of problem where having too many choices leads to people who can't make decisions. At the very least, it leads people towards new systems for weeding out the tracks that are worth investigating from those that are not. Anytime there's an artificial filter like that put on the wide world of choices, its necessarily going to funnel people to similar decisions, but that may not always be a bad thing. There is a long enough tail that the funnelling effect can still help people to make decisions when faced with the prospect of downloading terabytes of MP3s to find the handful of tracks that will be appealing.

But in the last few years with the rise of the iPod, we've seen this concern diminish. We're learning that people are gravitating towards these filters, and that they are surprisingly capable of doing their own filtering and at finding things that they like in the digital domain. The fact that a track is available only as an MP3 no longer has quite the stigma it once did, and in fact in a few more years (if it even takes that long,) most new consumers won't even consider the physical media as anything other than a memento or relic. Any cursory look around will tell the observer that the CD is no longer the center of the music universe. Portable CD players are becoming increasingly rare in public, and most new CD players are now fitted with a feature to play discs of MP3s to help keep the technology from being completely wiped out by progress. The MP3 is quickly becoming the defacto standard for music, so we shouldn't worry that releasing music for download will kill off interest. Small labels should just apply the same standards they would to physical CD production to MP3 releases so that the MP3 does not become an easy way to release substandard records.

Lack of Fidelity
Someone is getting red in the face trying to convince a friend or colleague that vinyl is better than CD right this minute. Someone else is explaining the mechanics of human hearing and dynamic range to justify the CD medium instead. And still someone else is probably chiming in that everyone is wrong--that anyone who listens to music not in Ogg Vorbis format on pig bladder loudspeakers is a fool. To all of this, I say that to the vast majority of consumers, none of this matters. Fidelity and sound quality are not the things that drive purchasing decisions. If they were, all of us who love music would have $6,000 CD players that don't have any more than a 2 digit LED display.

Clearly, the mass market is interested in price, portability, and preference. Price will always be the easiest driver for purchasing decisions. I don't know how many times friends have told me that they can't make it to a movie because they are broke. One of the things that continues to drive CD sales into the ground (losing sales at a rate of something like %10 a year!) is the fact that CDs require a $15 investment for a usually unknown quantity or reward. Will I like every track on the new Dixie Chicks album? Probably not, but with a CD, I will have paid for all of them regardless. While CDs remain portable, they are easily damaged and still nowhere near as portable as an MP3 player that can be no bigger than a single 6-sided die or a couple of credit cards stuck together. People want to take their music with them, and there are now entire industries popping up to support that desire from companies making an endless supply of iPod accessories, to companies that incorporate MP3 players into jackets, stuffed animals, phones, and watches. Yet in the face of all of this, there are still people making and distributing music who have not tapped into that shift in the market. The sad irony is that the company that makes MP3 playing sunglasses will make more money from me than the companies who release the MP3s that I fill those glasses up with in many cases!

Artists and labels must recognize that the average consumer is willing to sacrifice fidelity for portability and price. It's still noble to create truly great sounding records and to make those somehow available to the consumers who demand them, but such an endeavor should not come at the expense of reaching the majority of consumers who would rather have a digital file that they can play on their egg timer.

Loss of Control
It can't be argued that labels and artists won't lose control when their work enters the digital domain: they certainly will. No DRM scheme will survive the hackers and no work of any value will survive the thieves, cheapskates, and lazy enthusiasts who would rather not pay for things that they enjoy. By offering tracks for download, a label or artist may have to grant that they are losing some degree of control over how the work is distributed or used, but let's look at the alternative.

Any CD can be ripped, encoded, tagged, and uploaded to the web in less time than it takes to actually play the disc from start to finish. While it may amaze many of us that people are motivated to do this (and to turn CDs into downloads so quickly,) we all have to understand that this does and will continue to happen. Labels with deep pockets have begun to experiment with value-added components for CDs that can't be easily replicated or distributed online: interactive CD features, bonus artwork, subscriptions and the like. This kind of approach might help to keep a disc from losing some of its sales to MP3, but such features are usually only appealing to invested fans who want to collect those additional artifacts. For the casual listener who is not yet sold on the idea of buying an album he hasn't yet heard, the inclusion of a DVD with live footage of the same songs is not likely to be a great selling point.

Even vinyl-only releases aren't immune to the terror of being ripped and traded, since many DJs now prefer to spin from a laptop rather than a crate of records. The bottom line here is that whether we like it or not, we can't stop the work from being publically traded by refusing to play game with legitimate download services.

Who Will Know What This Is?
Much like the inital concern about quality and choice, the concern that consumers will be funnelled away from indie product towards more common sellers is a legitimate one. However, understanding the online habits of people who purchase music downloads can shed some light on how MP3s might work for indie labels and artists.

The digital store is fast replacing its physical counterpart. With myriad services like music blogs, last.fm, review websites and so on, potential customers can have a direct link to a purchase option for songs that they like immediately. The days of reading about a band in a magazine then clipping out that article and taking it to the store are all but over. While we can be fairly sure that small, niche artists are not going to go toe-to-toe with U2 and Jay-Z for download supremacy just because tracks are available on iTunes, we can be absolutely sure that they won't make a sale at all if the songs are not even available. The cost of submitting an album to pay download services is dropping and submitting to multiple services is getting easier. The default question from people I talk to about my own music has shifted since 2002 from "where can I find your CDs" to "do you have anything online?" I expect this to continue, and I think that the answer "yes, you can try out some tracks for $.99 a piece on [service x]" sounds better than "try a Bit Torrent, but realize you are stealing from me."

So where do we go from here?

Artists and labels have a legitimate cause for concern, but it seems clear that the world is leaving those who hesitate behind. We all need the Retail portion of the equation to work in order to make creating this music that we love any sort of viable business model. How then can we overcome some of these obstacles without completely jettisoning the work we've put in up to this point? I have a few ideas.


  1. Release More Vinyl - Vinyl sales are on the rise, and not just among the dance scene. Sure, good old fashioned wax is not available at those big retailers I rattled off before (except Hot Topic,) but it is becoming more of a presence at specialty shops. For consumers who want a physical product, vinyl has great appeal and it flies in the face of the price and portability constraints that usually drive people towards downloads. Meeting those customers demands by offering high quality vinyl releases is one way to keep the physical medium of music releases alive and to preserve that old paradigm to which we all cling.

  2. Pay Attention to Merchandise - Products that can't be downloaded and are ancillary to the music itself still have a place and can in fact be far more profitable than the music itself. While we may never stop many people from downloading tracks for free, we can offer them products that they cannot download to which they may gravitate instead. Remember that artists have always banked on concert ticket and t-shirt sales, and in the face of music that can be had for free, these other products start to look even more attractive. Of course there's no guarantee that an artist will be able to push caps, posters, and hoodies, but knowing that these kinds of objects are a serious additional revenue stream may help labels to make the right decisions about which releases to back in the first place.

  3. Be Everywhere - The limitations of traditional retail don't exist in the digital world, so why not exploit that fact? Instead of using one distributor to handle physical product sales in a region, why not use five or ten reputable download services to handle sales worldwide? Sure, this will require some additional legwork from the label, but in the end, the more available the work is from places that people already frequent (and there are lots of sales numbers to tell us which places those are,) the more likely an artist is to sell units.

  4. Go Granular - With the physical medium, a label is limited to a fixed number of products that it can physically manufacture. This limitation doesn't exist in the digital world, and the increased granularity allows for all kinds of new revenue streams. While a label or artist will likely lose out on some money when a consumer purchases only one track instead of an entire album, those sales can be augmented more easily online. Using the granularity of track-at-a-time vs. album-at-a-time sales, a label should be able to offer a wider array of quality work without having to force music into formats. Does an artist have a great single without enough material you love to make an album? Release the good stuff and send her back to work on the rest! Does one song get played more frequently than others? Convert it to a ringtone and sell that too! Does someone have a handful of remixes or alternate versions lying around that are interesting to die-hard fans but don't warrant a separate CD or vinyl record alone? Release them online at the same places that sell the original tracks!

  5. Work With Artists - It's important for small artists to understand the economics of the music industry. Those artists who aren't at all interested in the money side of things should be easy to negotiate with--pay them nothing but make their music avaialable! With reduced manufacturing costs, label budgets can be diverted into promotional activities and tour support--the things that make Retail successful in the first place! Even an artist who has copies of his album in every store in the nation won't sell many if no one who goes to those stores knows what the album is. Artits and labels should work to find new ways to make releasing records profitable, and this might mean changing the way royalties and advances are handled. Be creative, and don't be afraid to give up a little in the beginning to potentially gain a lot in the long run.

There's an exciting future ahead of us. We can see it. We're already immersed in it. It's already shaping the way we make music, the way we think about commerce, and the way we interact with other fans of the things we like. We all need to learn to leverage that future to make our voices heard and to bring new music and art into the world that is worthwhile. In my mind, the independent labels and artists have been the only things worth following for the last ten or fifteen years. Let's all make sure that the business end of what supports those enterprises can be viable so that we'll all have better, more exciting and inspiring music to look forward to downloading tomorrow.

Return to the Cinema
And... we're back. After a long hiatus, the Zeroplate THINK page is back and I'm bringing the Movie thoughts back from the dead and incorporating them here instead. In case you missed those, peep the link: Film Thoughts by Zeroplate With no futher Adu (who gets the nod for a hat trick against Poland--take that Poland!)
Transformers
I did not cry when Optimus Prime handed the Matrix over to Hot Rod in 1986. This is likely due to the fact that I thought Rodimus Prime (name notwithstanding) was a much cooler design/toy than the boxy 18 wheeler Prime in the first place. It's probably also helped by the fact that the animated Transformers movie just wasn't worth getting too emotional about. I had plenty of Transformers like most kids I knew, but I never had most of the ones I really wanted--Soundwave, Megatron, Jetfire, Omega Supreme, Grimlock--those just never found their way to my house. I will always be grateful to my grandmother who somehow had Bluestreak and Jazz waiting for me under the tree in 1984 despite the fact that the toys were nowhere to be found on shelves--I still don't know how she did that.

I moved to Japan in the late 80's and found out quickly that Transformers was a little different over there. There were Battle Beasts and Micro Masters and lots of things that looked more and more dubious over time. Around then, just about the only Transformers being made anymore were sets of bots that built bigger bots that somehow never managed to be as cool as the original Devastator. As I got more into soccer, music, and fretting over girls, the Transformers took their rightful place in yard sales and trash bins. When I got old enough to start collecting toys again, I never really considered going back to get Transformers because they just didn't hold the magic for me that something like Star Wars or even X-Men comics did.

I point all of that out only to say that I'm not the world's biggest TransFan and in fact, I have no particular love for the property aside from memories of those toys that were waiting so unexpectedly for me in 1984. So, when I heard that Michael Bay was making a Transformers movie, my immediate reaction was 'that might be cool but it will probably be very dumb.' It took a while for info about the project to leak out but when the robot designs and casting rumors started hitting the web, the fan uproar was something I hadn't expected. So they were making Bumblebee a Camero instead of a Beetle--who cares? A lot of people, apparently, I just wasn't one of them.

There was a scene in the Japanese film The Returner where a commercial jumbo jet transformed into a robot looking thing and that was the first time I had seen an effect in a film that made me think "you know, the idea of transforming vehicle/robots in a live action movie might be really fun." In fact, it seemed like a no-brainer once CGI technology caught up to the ideas, but what threatened to ruin such a movie was the backstory of a glorified toy commercial cum cultural phenomenon that people were apparently far more attached to than I knew.

I'm happy to say that Michael Bay's Transformers is neither as stupid as I thought it would be, nor as beholden to the toy's shaky mythology as some fans wanted, meaning that in the end, it manages to be a hell of a fun movie. I don't know Blackout from a hole in the ground, but watching that thing transform and rip shit up was a lot of fun. The human characters (even though there were too many) didn't get in the way of the film's mammoth momentum, which was probably my biggest concern with the Michael Bay credit on the film. Bay manages to throw in a little something for everyone--there's a goofy boy who's the film's cipher; a hot (though somewhat plastic looking) love interest who actually does something more than just look pretty and need saving; there are the clueless but often funny parents that most parents who accompany 10 year olds will identify with; there are the macho and tough talking Army guys who don't steal the show from the robots but do give people like my dad someone to shout "hoo haa" to; there are funny black characters, a latino soldier who apparently said some funny stuff in Spanish without subtitles, and there's a voice from the original cartoon in Optimus Prime. I mean, this sort of thing almost sounds like it was focus-grouped together--the only thing missing is an Asian straight man who knows kung-fu and a laughably queeny fashion designer turned arms dealer. And as calculated as all of that sounds, it somehow works pretty well without really feeling like it's pandering (though the stepped off of MTV into the world of advanced cryptology crew was a stretch.)

What I hope this film does is show people in Hollywood that you can blow a lot of shit up without insulting everyone's intelligence (too much). While Bay's version of the military is a bit idealistic and fetishized, it's better than the usually hapless, one-dimensional military portrayed in so many other films. The utterly unbelievable computer hackers are silly, but for the 13 year olds in the audience, they are probably relatable and I'd rather them be cool and smart than completely socially inept, greasy, and taping their glasses together to prove they know how to work a computer. I hope that people realize you need human characters with some charisma to carry all of the battling ones and zeros, but you don't have to make them overly cute or bring all of the action in the film to a stop long enough for them to drop a one-liner in order to entertain. It's very unlikely that anyone in Hollywood will learn anything from the success of Transformers beyond "lets greenlight He-Man, Sectaurs, and Thundercats triolgies right now!" but I can always hope.

From the minds that brought us "Courtney, this is not a democracy, it's a cheerocracy." we now have the great fortune to look forward to "It's not called Gym-nice-tics." Bring it On had enough going for it that while it was trite and predictable, it wasn't entirely vapid. Bring it On 2 might as well have been called It's Been Broughten, if that joke hadn't already been used in a movie that parodied the original pretty effectively. Now, from the fertile mind of a writer who obviously likes taking a worn out plot and wrapping it up in teen girl fantasy comes Stick It, a film that would be redundant even if Bring it On didn't exist.

I can only imagine that some creature slithered its way out of The Hell of Spec Scripts to bring the world the idea of a rebellious former gymnast who has turned to a life of extreme sports only to be forced to return to the fluffy, goody-goody world of gymnastics by the long arm of the law. Will this rough-around-the-edges black sheep make it back in the stuffy world of rainbow colored leotards and gym-speak? Will she infuse her routines with a little of her individualism and win over the judges? Will she have a moment where she realizes that she has to do things "her way", thereby proving to her coach, her peers, and her detractors that we all need to be ourselves? I would imagine that none of us need to actually see the film to answer those questions.

What got me really riled up about the flick was the following, however:



First of all, does the target market for this movie (consisting primarily of tween girls and pervy old men, I'd imagine) even know who Black Flag is? Secondly, does dressing the outcast gymnast in a bogus Black Flag shirt add to her "stick it to the man" persona, or take away from it? After all, I can only imagine that the shirt is a compromise from the costume department who wanted to show their punky, x-games-ified heroine in an iconic outsider t-shirt but that they couldn't obtain the rights or agree on a genuninely punk band that wasn't somehow offensive to the studio , so we are all left with this. Maybe this is some ironic NEW band or lip gloss brand or something that is meant to rip Black Flag and I'm not getting it. Either way, have we really come to this?