Scientology’s Dear Leader complex

The “church” of Scientology reached a strange kind of mainstream success this decade. Sure, Tom Cruise’s summer of 2005 and indoctrination video might have raised some eyebrows. But Scientology’s reputation seems to have become “the wacky-but-harmless religion that Tom Cruise and John Travolta belong to.”

I’d chalk that up to a few factors: Star power and obsequious entertainment media. American culture’s general shift toward multiculturalism and, for the enlightened majority post-9/11, religious tolerance. A shrug-your-shoulders, post-modern “Scientology is no more bizarre than other religions” attitude among potential cynics. And, of course, the fruits of the group’s notoriously litigious/personally invasive stance toward pretty much anyone who had anything bad to say about Scientology in the ’80s and ’90s.

The St. Petersburg Times’ recent expose, on Scientology’s staff culture of intimidation and abuse allegedly driven by leader David Miscavige, won’t change all that. But if Scientology’s fortunes and reputation decline in the coming years, the paper’s stories recounting defectors’ accusations should mark a turning point.

The group had one possible strategy for persuasively rebutting the Times stories: deny everything. Instead, the hapless response turned into a classic emperor-has-no-clothes moment — the ostensibly matured Scientology revealed (or re-revealed) as a pitiful personality cult that no one should even consider taking seriously again.

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The best Michael Jackson tributes, appreciations, and responses

One mark of Michael Jackson’s cultural impact is the strain his death put on the Internet. Another is the number of appreciations, tributes, and responses that have been written about him in the past three days (and the range of people writing those pieces). Here’s a roundup of the best I’ve read so far.

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Why Settlers of Catan isn’t the perfect game (but Cities and Knights is)

I’ve been waiting for a decade for someone to write this story, and finally Andrew Curry did it for Wired: how Settlers of Catan and its German brethren revived the moribund and sorry (make that Sorry!) state of board games.

Curry nails why American board games are so lame — “either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyperintellectual pastimes for eggheads” — and why Settlers is so engaging: players are involved even when it’s not their turn; trading makes the game social, which makes it more fun; the board is always different; there are several possible routes to victory.

He also provides some tidbits that turn this into a plausible trend piece:

Last year, Settlers doubled its sales on this side of the Atlantic, moving 200,000 copies in the US and Canada—almost unheard-of performance for a new strategy game with nothing but word-of-mouth marketing. It has become the first German-style title to make the leap from game-geek specialty stores to major retailers like Barnes & Noble and Toys “R” Us.

But I’d quibble with one thing: Settlers of Catan isn’t actually perfect.

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The implications of an all-online entertainment future

Great post by Kevin Kelly on why the future of entertainment (and more!) will involve renting rather than owning, but having access to anything at any time.

This is key: “The chief holdup to full-scale conversion from ownership to omni-access is the issue of modification and control. In traditional property regimes only owners have the right to modify or control the use of the property. The right of modification is not transferred in rental, leasing, or licensing agreements.”

We have yet to deal with the legal (and cultural) ramifications of an entertainment world where everything is pure information rather than a physical object, and where you pay to access the information but not to own it. Those ramifications deserve an article or book of their own.

Hey, Rasika: Butter chicken is for lunch buffets, not for tasting menus

I’m a crazy Indian food fan, so it wasn’t hard picking a restaurant for a special dual-birthday dinner.

Rasika was one of the top 7 picks in Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s 2008 Dining Guide, and it was the second-highest-ranked Indian restaurant (41st overall) on Washingtonian’s 2008 Top 100. And while I’d eat Udupi Palace‘s lunch buffet for every meal if I could, I’d never been to a “modern” Indian restaurant.

Sitting at home with a full tummy (and with a bagful of leftovers in the fridge), I’m glad we went. But I’m also disappointed. For all the hype about Rasika’s innovative flair, the ostensible centerpieces of our meal consisted of the usual curry suspects available at any Indian restaurant.

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Tedious backstory and the problem with video game stories

This deserves an essay-length post, but for now video game fans should check out this excerpt from Nathan Rabin’s latest My Year of Flops entry at The Onion A.V. Club. It’s about Delgo, a fiasco of an animated movie, but perfectly describes why most video game stories are terrible.

Delgo immediately digs itself into a huge hole with an incredibly confusing, convoluted opening explosion of exposition via voiceover narration from Sally Kellerman outlining a fantasy realm staggering in its pointless complexity. You see, once upon a time in a land called Jhamora there lived a bunch of slithery lizard-people known as the Lokni. A loss of natural resources forced a bunch of dragonfly-looking motherfuckers known as the Nohrin to settle on Jhamora with the permission of the Lokni. Alas, Sedessa (voiced by Anne Bancroft), the power-mad sister of Nohrin king King Zahn (voiced by Louis Gossett Jr., the young people’s favorite) decides to terrorize the Lokni out of a sense of racial superiority. In the process she and her goons murder the father (Burt Reynolds) of the titular young Lokni boy-lizard (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.). Meanwhile, Sedessa is stripped of her wings and banished from the kingdom of the Nhorin as punishment for her brutality. Fifteen years later, Sedessa forms a strategic alliance with a race of ogre people and conspires with one General Raius to exacerbate tensions between the Lokni and Nhorin people so war will break out and she can seize power.

Does that make any fucking sense at all? Incidentally, all of this unfolds in the five minutes of exposition that opens the film. I was immediately lost. I found myself thinking, “Why am I expected to care about this?” and “Am I going to be tested on this?” instead of waiting breathlessly to find out what happened next. Before the action had even started I was hopelessly confused. …

Movies like Dragon Wars, Wing Commander and Delgo err in thinking that sci-fi audiences embrace movies like Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars and The Matrix because they have elaborate, involved mythologies, not despite then.

The Lord Of The Rings of the world suck audiences into their fantastical worlds with engaging characters, non-stop spectacle and compelling storylines, then get them to care about their mythologies. Delgo, on the other hand, assumes that the battle is won before it’s even begun and that audiences will give a mad-ass fuck about the complicated interrelationship between the Lokni and the Nohrin races because the film’s mythology was cobbled together from bits and pieces of The Dark Crystal, Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars.

I can’t begin to list the number of video games that make this mistake. Even critically acclaimed or otherwise interesting games, like Okami and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, stunt themselves with this nonsense.

I stopped wanting to explore Oblivion’s world and backstory, for example, as soon as I came across gobbledygook like: “The Khajiit began the fight in an unusual way by sending tree-cutting teams of Cathay-raht and the fearsome Senche-raht or ‘Battlecats’ into the outskirts of Valenwood’s forests.”

In light of Rabin’s great column, I’ll be interested to try out some of the winners of the Interactive Fiction Competition that Chris Dahlen notes in another A.V. Club piece.

Innovation-by-omission, and other thoughts

I’m writing most of my journalism-related posts at Publishing2.0 these days (“most” meaning the few that I get around to writing). So you should check out a couple recent posts: Why not writing a story is innovation, and how “scrapbook news” can help reframe the discussion about citizen journalism and crowdsourcing.

The greatest ‘band’ in the world

Here is a stunning performance by the world-famous Pete X, featuring (in this configuration): A “drummer” who only sometimes can get through Rock Band songs on the Hard setting; an inexplicably shirtless lawyer; a disco ball; a tambourine-less backup singer; and one bona-fide guitar hero.

Mostly we just did this to see if Prince’s people would send a takedown notice.

UPDATE: Drumroll please…

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Pete X – Purple Rain:

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The YouTube Content Identification Team

Best paragraph of the week: Chuck Klosterman on ‘Chinese Democracy’

From Chuck Klosterman’s great review of the new Axl Rose and Friends* album (I’m adding a paragraph break for easier reading):

But it’s actually better that Slash is not on this album. What’s cool about Chinese Democracy is that it truly does sound like a new enterprise, and I can’t imagine that being the case if Slash were dictating the sonic feel of every riff. The GNR members Rose misses more are Izzy Stradlin (who effortlessly wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s most memorable tunes) and Duff McKagan, the underappreciated bassist who made Appetite For Destruction so devastating.

Because McKagan worked in numerous Seattle-based bands before joining Guns N’ Roses, he became the de facto arranger for many of those pre-Appetite tracks, and his philosophy was always to take the path of least resistance. He pushed the songs in whatever direction felt most organic. But Rose is the complete opposite. He takes the path of most resistance. Sometimes it seems like Axl believes every single Guns N’ Roses song needs to employ every single thing that Guns N’ Roses has the capacity to do—there needs to be a soft part, a hard part, a falsetto stretch, some piano plinking, some R&B bullshit, a little Judas Priest, subhuman sound effects, a few Robert Plant yowls, dolphin squeaks, wind, overt sentimentality, and a caustic modernization of the blues. When he’s able to temporarily balance those qualities (which happens on the title track and on “I.R.S.,” the album’s two strongest rock cuts), it’s sprawling and entertaining and profoundly impressive.


Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, “What was Axl doing here?” but “What did Axl think he was doing here?” … On the aforementioned “Sorry,” Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line (“But I don’t want to do it”) in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there’s gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the “Sorry” vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, “You know, I’ve weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I’m going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.”

* Remember, Chinese Democrasy is NOT a Guns N’ Roses album.

What is that thing on Beyonce’s hand?

Saturday Night Live had one of its stronger episodes of the season this weekend — further proof that Paul Rudd makes anything awesome. But forget the comedy (and Justin Timberlake’s awesome cameos).

What the heck is Beyonce wearing in her new video (and live performances, apparently) of Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)? It’s some kind of silvery metal glove-claw. You can get pretty good glimpses of it at :45 to :50 and 1:50 to 2:00 in the video:


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Best paragraph of the day: T-Pain and superheroes

From Nathan Rabin’s latest My Year of Flops entry — a double feature on The Phantom and The Shadow:

We live in the age of superheroes. And T-Pain. If you were to remove superheroes and T-Pain from pop culture, the world as we know it would devolve into madness and anarchy. Society would crumble. Incidentally, I’m listening to/reviewing the new T-Pain CD as I write this, so I apologize if my various roles at The A.V. Club bleed together. That’s why I’d like to humbly propose a new superhero franchise about a musician who stumbles upon a voice distorter laced with gamma rays, which gives him the magical ability to bang drunken skanks at will, secure half-priced lap-dances, wear ridiculous hats without shame or self-consciousness, and telekinetically convince rappers and singers who really should know better that their songs are fatally incomplete without his signature brand of creepy digital harmonizing.

Is Shepard Smith always so fair and balanced? (no, really)

This video of Fox News’s Carl Cameron dishing on McCain insiders’ views of Sarah Palin has gotten a lot of attention today.

It is pretty remarkable that McCain staffers would claim to a reporter that Palin didn’t know Africa is a continent — remarkable if true, for obvious reasons, and remarkable if false because that would show an incredibly intense smear campaign. (It sounded implausible to me at first, but Andrew Sullivan* points out that nobody has denied the claim. Plus if it’s not true, why make it up when there are surely plenty of other true embarrassing tidbits they could have told instead?)

But something else struck me in watching the video. Two-thirds of the way through (starting at 2:05), Cameron switches to reporting the spin from those in the McCain camp who are still defending the Palin pick.** He says (or rather they say) that McCain was leading from the time he picked Palin until Lehman Brothers failed. In other words, the economy, not Palin, lost it for McCain.

Then, before you can say fair and balanced, anchor Shepard Smith smoothly counters:

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Three reasons why the Beatles video game could disappoint

I love the Beatles, and I love video games. So I suppose I should be overjoyed that there’s going to be a Rock Band-but-not-called-Rock Band music video game featuring the fabulous foursome.

Sure, it’ll be fun to shred to Taxman and show off my terrible John Lennon impression. But there are three issues that could keep this game from being bigger than Jesus.

First, not all of the great Beatles songs are suited to virtual rock. Just on a quick glance, the game will probably have to leave out Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Blackbird, A Day in the Life, Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, All You Need Is Love, Hey Jude, Let It Be. Songs like Norwegian Wood and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away would have to be separated from the full-band songs (unless you want your drummer and bassist to just sit there for three minutes).

True, there are dozens of guitar-heavy songs that will make it, but that will make for a decidedly uneven overview of the group — unlike, say, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, which can leave out Janie’s Got a Gun and Amazing and still give a pretty good idea of what the band sounds like.

Many of the earlier songs that do have guitars feature a fairly quiet, jangly acoustic guitar that would get drowned out by wannabe Ringos smacking the game’s plastic “drums”: Help (the verses), Eight Days a Week, Can’t Buy Me Love, to name a few.

That leads to the second potential problem: without a decent remastering, many of the songs could sound terrible. Take 1964 production values pumped through standard TV speakers and combine them with the clicking “strum” of fake guitars, the aforementioned loud drums, and inevitably too-loud singers, and it’ll be hard to hear the parts to many of the pre-Rubber Soul songs.

The reports on the forthcoming game are based on a vague conference call, during which the subject of remastering was rather conspicuously unaddressed. So maybe Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Gloria Harrison, and Apple Ltd. will get their collective act together before the end of 2009, and the Beatles catalog will finally be remastered and re-released first online and then via the video game. But I’m not going to get my hopes up.

The game could be fun even with a somewhat-circumscribed track list and less-than-stellar sound. But the whole effort could fizzle if it focuses on the guitars and forgets about the harmonies.

There are many reasons to love the Beatles. The complex-but-beautiful melodies. The deeper-than-they-seem lyrics (well, maybe not “love, love me do”). The innovative production. For me, the most exciting aspect of the band is their exuberance, their sheer joy of playing — something that infuses pretty much all of their recordings, no matter how much they were fighting outside (or inside) the studio. And nothing is more exuberant than their effortless, intricate harmonies: the falsetto “If there’s anything I could dooo!” in From Me to You; the call-and-response backups on Soldier of Love; the pristine overdubs on And Your Bird Can Sing.

But Rock Band doesn’t register harmony — only the melody. I haven’t played Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero World Tour yet, but nothing I’ve read indicates that they’ve added harmonies. SingStar 2, a just-released (in the U.S.) sequel to the PlayStation karaoke series, does have a harmony mode; we’ll see if the others follow suit.

You’d think the brains behind the Beatles game would make sure to build a harmony feature into such a marquee project. But given the seat-of-the-pants announcement and the lack of innovation in the current round of full-band music games, I wouldn’t bet on it.

So, Alex Rigopoulos, if you’re reading this (and I know you’re not) — don’t let me down. Without harmonies, it’s not the Beatles. Simple as that.

Sarah Palin and SNL’s cowardice

Tina Fey’s awesome Sarah Palin sketches have made Saturday Night Live worth watching this season, even as the show continues its overall post-Will Ferrell stagnation. (Digital shorts and an 80 percent brilliant cast don’t make up for the slavish adherence to a rigid, outdated sketch-comedy model.)

But if the real Palin appears on next week’s show — as has been rumored and now allegedly confirmed by the New York Post’s Cindy Adams — then Saturday Night Live will have proven its intellectual bankruptcy and moral cowardice once and for all.

When it comes to politics, SNL has always focused more on “cuddly caricature-making than worthy satire,” as Slate’s Troy Patterson wrote earlier this year. Patterson quotes Russel L. Peterson’s book Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke:

“The show’s political ‘characters’ are as one-dimensional and ‘lovable’ as any of the other catchphrase-spouting mannequins Lorne Michaels might hope to spin off onto the big screen (Jason Sudeikis as George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond as Dick Cheney in—Night at the Roxbury II).”

This is somewhat defensible in normal times. It’s at best irresponsible in elections like this one. Here’s Peterson again, via Patterson:

“By avoiding issues in favor of personalities and by ‘balancing’ these shallow criticisms between conservatives and liberals, late-night comics are playing it safe but endangering democracy.”

With Sarah Palin, SNL found a politician so shallow and farcical that personality-based satire was actually appropriate. The McCain campaign’s policy proposals deserve plenty of criticism, but the biggest problem with Palin isn’t her policies (or her abuse of power, or her serial lying). It’s that she’s absurdly unprepared for the vice presidency and apparently has little grasp of policy in the first place — that she’s a farce, as Andrew Sullivan put it. In this respect, SNL‘s take on Palin was spot-on: a fauxlksy, beauty-pageant contestant who thinks winks and ignorance are appropriate for a vice presidential candidate.

If Lorne Michaels gives Palin a cameo and SNL‘s writers don’t protest, they will be undermining their own criticism. A cameo would say “Hey, never mind those silly Tina Fey sketches! It’s not so bad that a vice presidential candidate is dangerously unprepared — if it were, we’d never have let her appear on the show!”

If SNL‘s writers and performers do this, they are apologists, not satirists.

If they shrug off their previous personality-based criticism but also won’t criticize the McCain campaign’s policy proposals or recent mob incitement, they simply have nothing to say. (Mocking McCain’s doddering mannerisms and making bogus Williams Ayers mentions, as they did in a debate sketch Thursday, does not count as satire, either.)

And if they put Palin on, they are cowards twice over. First, for mercilessly mocking her on national TV but pretending everything’s peachy when she comes on the show. Second, for not believing a single word they say.

So what’s it going to be, Saturday Night Live: Should we take you seriously, or are you just a big joke?

A terribly sad thing I never want to hear again

Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelf for about six years. I made it through the first 80 pages two or three times, but never mustered the willpower to plow through the whole thing. I read Broom of the System and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, also about six years ago, but don’t remember them well other than that some of the short stories in Brief Interviews were depressingly impressive.

So I can’t properly speak to the importance, quality, or influence of David Foster Wallace’s fiction. But, boy, his nonfiction was good.

Some of the essays and articles — okay, all of them — collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster are incredibly pretentious in parts. But Wallace still somehow managed to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, observant, and absurdly smart writers I’ve ever read.

He took the cliche of cultural essay writing — the discovery of grand meaning in banal American minutia, or in a movie, or in an athlete, or in anything — and repeatedly made it true, through sheer force of intellect, imagination, and accumulated detail. I agree with John Seery: “Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off.”

After Stephen King and Stephen Hunter, Wallace was probably the biggest influence on my own formative writing and thinking. (In college that influence expressed itself as blatant copycat pieces. I hope by now his influence is more a part of my thought process, and shows up in my writing primarily as purposeful homage, like using the word “tummies” in this post.) And I’m really, really sad that he’s dead.

I wish I could write more of a tribute, but I’d have to reread all his stuff to do it justice. You should just go read those two nonfiction collections (some of the essays in them are available online: a dispatch from the Maine Lobster Festival; an article on Roger Federer; a piece on David Lynch).

Anyway, writing about the suicide of creative-genius heroes sucks. So I’ll just end with the beginning of an appreciation of Elliott Smith I wrote in 2003. Replace the word “musician” with “writer” (and ignore the addiction part, I assume) and the sentiment still holds.

There’s a terrible irony to suicide. In too many cases when overwhelming loneliness and self-loathing ultimately end in death, it turns out that love and appreciation were there in abundance. They just couldn’t get through the barriers built of depression and addiction.

It’s even worse to think about musician suicides: They were unable to accept or process not only the affection of family and friends, but the joy, pleasure and awe they inspired in their many fans.

The truth is, I didn’t just want to be as good a writer as DFW — I wanted to be as smart as he was. But if this is the price of genius, I’m happy never to know what that’s like.