The joys of not being a music critic

What are the qualities that are desirable in a music critic (or a movie critic, or video games reviewer, or book reviewer)?

Generally, the very first thing we want is that they review music that we have a chance of listening to. Maybe we’re considering whether to buy some music, and need some help to make a decision. Or we’re looking around to discover new music that we might like. Or we’re already listening to the music and want to reflect on the qualities of that music.

That means that we want music critics who like some of the same music we like. And since music critics usually wish to reach a sizeable audience, that means music critics have to like a lot of different things. Their tastes should be eclectic. Or, if a critic’s tastes are more particular, there needs to be an easy way to match them up with an audience with similar tastes. Music genres usually fulfill this purpose. For instance, if a reviewer only really likes post-rock, they can advertise themselves as a critic of post-rock.

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Music that is not for you

Renowned YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano recently talked about whether White people can enjoy Jay-Z. This was in response to a viewer question who asked what he thought about people who said that Jay-Z’s recent single, “The Story of O.J.” wasn’t for White people.

I mostly agree with Fantano’s answer: yes, White people can certainly enjoy Jay-Z’s music, yes they can enjoy rap, and yes rap is already ingrained in our musical culture. However, I observe that Fantano changed the question from “Is Jay-Z’s music for White people?” to “Can White people enjoy Jay-Z’s music?”

When someone says, “This music is not for you,” they are not trying to say “Stop enjoying this music.” Or, at least I don’t think they are. The question referred to arguments in the YouTube comments on Jay-Z’s video, but I couldn’t actually find these arguments. Instead what I found was a bunch of White people rather defensively asserting that they did enjoy the music.

What are they even reacting to? Did they read some YouTube comments that I can’t find? Or is it a matter of misinterpretation, in the same way that Anthony Fantano himself subtly changed the original question?

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Breath of the Wild: A nihilistic view

cn: There are no spoilers in this article, and the discussion is purely about game mechanics.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild has received near universal praise from critics, with Metacritic listing it as one of the best video games of all time. This is an exciting time, as we anticipate the numerous clones that will try (and fail) to capture what makes this game so great.

Like most adventure games, BotW is essentially a power fantasy. What makes the game exciting is the acquisition of power, and the illusion that your power matters. For example, you find better weapons and equipment, which grants you the power to access further game content. If BotW is better than similar games, then it is probably because it maintains a greater illusion of power for a longer period of time.

And indeed, the illusion of power is precisely what most critics praise. BotW is a game that lets you do anything! You can climb anywhere, and paraglide down. You can experience the story in any order, or just skip straight to the final boss immediately, if you so choose.

But as critics praise the extent of power that the game grants you, they are ignoring the other essential characteristic of a power fantasy: the illusion that the power matters.
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Unpopular tastes

I’ve said before that I tend not to like things that are popular (e.g. movies, music, TV shows, topics of interest, etc.). I reflect a lot on the minor disadvantages associated with such unpopular tastes.

To give an example, the popularly preferred social network is Facebook. What if you happen to hate Facebook, and instead prefer Google+? Either you join a network that’s missing most of your friends, or you just put up with a network you dislike. Many people think this problem could be solved if either Facebook changes or people leave. While this might help, the problem could never be eliminated, since there will always be someone dissatisfied with the most popular social network.

When it comes to social networks, many people want one that has their friends on it. But what about books? Do you particularly care whether you can find friends who like the same books? If you really like Ulysses, does it matter to you that few other people understand?
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Review: Obduction

[cn: This review is spoiler-free. I can’t speak for the comments.]

Obduction is a new game by the team that brought us Myst. Having played all the Myst games when I was younger,* I ended up buying Obduction, and almost immediately regretted it.

Hear me out, it’s not that it’s a bad game. It just reminded me of why I think retro pixelated games are so popular these days. Game creators can advertise high-quality graphics all they want, but ultimately the hardware required to render these graphics is sold separately. In many ways, this game had uglier graphics than Myst IV. I had to put the graphics on the lowest settings, deal with terrible frame rates, and sit through lots of long loading screens. My advice: bring a book.

That aside (and also putting aside numerous other technical issues), Obduction is an okay game. The main attraction is the story. Just sharing a bit of the game’s introduction: you find yourself teleported to a strange world, a deserted mining town surrounded by an alien landscape. You have to use environmental clues to figure out both the mechanics of the sci-fi world, as well as the events leading up to the desertion. But it’s not all mystery and sci-fi, it’s also about the human angle.

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Image credit: Cyan

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Life lessons from board games: Hanabi

Just as we can analyze fiction for its meaning and implication on our lives, we can also analyze board games. In some cases, the analogy is direct, if the board game is heavy on narrative and flavor (“You are investigating strange occurrences in Arkham, closing portals to other realms while the Ancient Ones stir in their slumber”). However, a lot of meaningful content could be extracted from the underlying mechanics and rules. Hanabi is a card game with virtually no narrative at all (it’s about making a fireworks show), and yet it says something deep about the nature of communication.

A Hanabi box stands in front of some tokens, and cards with colored numbers on them. The box says 'Race the clock... Build the fireworks... Launch your rockets!'

Hanabi is a cooperative card game, where players, as a team, seek to play cards in the right order. The problem is that players hold their cards backwards, and thus each player can only see other players’ cards, not their own cards. You can’t just tell other players what they are holding, you have to provide them with a limited number of clues, each clue obeying certain constraints. The game is thus all about efficient communication.

Hanabi is easy to carry around and teach to new players, so I’ve played a lot of games with beginners. I will discuss a common beginner’s mistake, and what it says about communication.
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Review: Hits and Mrs.

Content note: this is a spoiler free review. The book depicts rape, which is briefly discussed here.

PZ Myers brought to my attention to Hits and Mrs., a new novel by Karen Stollznow. The book is about Claudia Cox, and her efforts to expose her ex-fiance Gil Godsend, a famous psychic medium. This book was of particular interest to me, because of its topical nature, and because PZ mentioned its negative view of organized skepticism. Although, as it turns out, the negative view of organized skepticism plays only a very minor role.

The first thing that struck me about the book was its similarity to TV series Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones is a former superhero, currently working as a private detective specializing in cheating husbands. In the series, she faces off against an abusive ex slash supervillain with the power to control people. In Hits and Mrs. Claudia Cox is a former skeptical activist, currently working as a private detective specializing in cheating husbands. In the book, she faces off against a manipulative ex slash villain with the power to read people.

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