My Velvet Underground

Just watched the Todd Haynes documentary on The Velvet Underground, and it sure leaves a mark. I’m not sure how much I need to add to the mythology of the VU but, simply put, white popular music can be split into two eras, before the Velvets and everything after. Before them, white popular music was always safe, somehow both too naive and too calculated. The songwriting might be melodic enough, but there was never enough grit. Listen too much and one might get a little sick – Haynes uses “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas & the Papas as a punching bag multiple times to prove this point. (The few exceptions to this rule tended to be white musicians trying their best with black music, such as the Rolling Stones finally putting the Diddley back into “Not Fade Away” after Buddy Holly couldn’t quite get the job done.) After the Velvets, there was an explosion that ripped popular music in a multitude of directions; each of the four core albums created entire genres.

However, because each of the original albums was so unique, not everyone’s Velvet Underground is the same. Todd Haynes makes his own version clear from the start – the first words we read are a Baudelaire quote, the first face we see is John Cale, and the first sound we hear is Cale’s droning viola lifted out of the Lou Reed’s masterpiece, “Heroin.” Cale is a brilliant musician but, with the Velvets, he was also a true modernist at an innovative peak, with all that entails. Thus, Haynes’s Velvets are the Velvets of Andy Warhol and his Factory, of experimental musicians like La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, and their Dream Syndicate, and – perhaps most relevant to the director Haynes himself – of the many avant-garde filmmakers of 1960s New York whose works he uses to place the Velvets in the context of the contemporary art scene. It’s all very well put together, but it’s in service of a version of the band that I admire but don’t love.

The first two Velvet albums have sublime moments – “Heroin,” of course, and the piano vamp of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” which shows how Cale’s fearlessness could pay off. However, they are difficult albums to listen to end-to-end. “European Son” starts off well but then descends into time-filling noise. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” now betrays what it always was, Reed aping and perhaps even satirizing Dylan. Much of White Light/White Heat sounds like the jokey backing track to a long-forgotten experimental art film. Sure, “Sister Ray” still squeezes out the sparks, but it can’t match its sequel “Roadrunner” by Velvets superfan Jonathan Richman (who claims in the film, adoringly and adorably, to have seen them 60-70 times and apparently opened for them as a teenager).

If the Velvets broke up when Reed pushed Cale out of the band, then I doubt I would care about them much more than I care about, say, Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart – interesting music in the back of my collection that I still usually skip when it comes up on shuffle. In the film, drummer Maureen Tucker makes it clear that Reed got rid of Cale so the band could “be more normal” – which is quite a statement to make about Lou Reed! Incredibly, after Reed replaced Cale with bassist and singer Doug Yule, the Velvets somehow began making music which was both wild, unhinged, AND listenable. John Cage had magically transformed into John Adams. The songs easily outshone everything being made at that time: “I Can’t Stand It,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “What Goes On,” “After Hours“, “Lisa Says,” “Sweet Jane“, “Who Loves the Sun“, “Head Held High“, “Rock & Roll“, and the compulsive “Foggy Notion” (which, amazingly, was not released until 15 years after the band dissolved because that’s just how it is with the Velvets).

The difference was actually quite simple. Rock and roll is first and foremost dance music. Even if people aren’t actually dancing, the music is meant to move you, to make you feel happy to be alive. Joe Strummer once described rock as the feeling of, after coming across a can on the street, kicking that can because it’s proof that you are alive, and it simply feels good to be alive. Go back and listen to Yule’s amazing bass line in “Foggy Notion” – it’s six minutes and forty-seven seconds of life, that much time without pain. Reed was now writing songs that could be danced to but that still had a perverse edge, a wild buzz, with the mysterious extra tones that Richman describes in the film. The heart of what made the Velvet Underground great was the hopped-up go-go band that still remembered sock-hops. (Consider how Velvet successor Pere Ubu’s best track is essentially a rave.)

Strangely, Haynes seems to be aware of this essential part of the band’s legacy even if it is always treated as subtext in the film. He cuts twice to Bo Diddley, once to “Road Runner” when Cale discusses the first time Tony Conrad added amplification to his musical experimentation and again when he describes the repetitive beats he loves in rock and roll. (Besides the obvious musical connections with the Velvets, Diddley was also one of the few early rock musicians with a key female instrumentalist.) I had to stop the film just to recover when Maureen Tucker described her experience when she first heard The Rolling Stone’s “Not Fade Away” while drive home from school – the sound hit her so hard that “I pulled off the road because it was too exciting to keep driving.” That’s the moment I recognized MY Velvet Underground in the film; I felt the exact same way, the exact same way, that she did when I first heard the avalanche of rhythm in that song. I recognized my Velvet Underground again when Haynes cuts directly to “Foggy Notion” – the band’s greatest song – to introduce Yule joining the group, a pitch-perfect moment.

While Haynes does recognize Yule’s contributions, it is also unclear if he tried to interview him for the film. Indeed, Doug Yule has always occupied an odd place in the Velvet’s orbit. He is typically viewed as the most lightweight member of the band – a journeyman drafted to replace the irreplaceable Cale – but I can’t help feeling that, without his arrival at just the right time, the Velvets would have never hit their peak, never become the band that I love. Cale makes a stunning admission in the film – that he has never met Doug Yule. Although original guitarist Sterling Morrison lobbied for his inclusion, Reed and Cale did not include Yule in their 1992 reunion, underlining that he was somehow not a part of the “real” Velvets. Well, Doug, if you ever somehow read this, you are absolutely part of my Velvet Underground.

I first heard of the Velvets as a teenager when thumbing through the sublime third edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, which described them as “the most influential rock & roll band of the last 20 years – no contest.” That was an intriguing statement, but how would I even hear their music? The few music stores of my hometown of Centralia, WA, certainly didn’t stock them, and even trips to nearby Olympia didn’t produce anything. They certainly weren’t played on our local radio stations, which was ironically in the full throes of early 90s alternative music at the time, a direct descendant of the Velvets. MP3s shared over the Internet were still a few years away and not something I could even imagine at the time.

Strangely, the first time I heard the band was on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which I had borrowed so I could dub Carmina Burana onto one of the camcorder movies my friends and I produced during high school. (We used Carmina Burana as a musical punchline because, even then, it was a cliché for overwrought direction.) The track immediately before that one was “Heroin” which to a sheltered teenager growing up in rural Washington state sounded like it might as well have come from the moon. I barely knew who the Talking Heads or the Clash were, and I certainly had no idea who Television or Gang of Four were. I had never heard anything so audacious, something so propulsive and unnerving at the same time. How could something this disturbing also sound so good?

Still, it took years and years for me to hear more Velvets. I caught up quickly on music before them, falling hard for Little Richard and Bo Diddley, while also finally getting ahold of their progeny such as Horses, London Calling, Marquee Moon, and More Songs about Buildings and Food. I noticed that one of my Columbia House catalogs finally had one – ONE! – Velvet Underground album, the compilation The Best of the Velvet Underground, which was a revelation when it finally arrived in the mail. For the first time, I heard “Sweet Jane” and “I Can’t Stand It” – songs which, again, sounded like nothing else I had ever heard.

Of course, I needed to get my hands on their actual albums, and if you grew up in the age of either iTunes or Spotify, it will be hard to describe to you just how difficult that was back then. Loaded, for example, was actually out-of-print in the US and only available via import. In other words, Americans had to pay foreigners to manufacture albums from one of the greatest American bands and then ship them on boats to us because, apparently, we had bad taste in music or something. I finally found my own copy of Loaded in a London CD shop in the spring of 1997 while spending a quarter at Oxford, costing me 20 pounds of my food stipend. Thus, I finally heard “Who Loves the Sun” while sharing a room with Christopher Tin on the portable CD player and mini-speaker I had packed with me from home. It was all worth it.

Years later, one of the perks of leading the design of Civilization IV was that I got to select the music for the game’s soundtrack, from the medieval Giovanni Palestrina through the modern John Adams. When it came time to pick music for the video of the Rock & Roll Wonder, a new addition for the series, I knew exactly which band I wanted. I asked Take-Two, a little sheepishly, if we could get ahold of The Velvet Underground or, at least, their label. I really had no idea what to expect, whether they would even consider it or how much it might cost. To Take-Two’s credit, they humored me and contacted Universal to find out. Turns out, we could get “Rock & Roll” for $5K, which sounded like a bargain to me.

The song choice itself was perhaps a little too on-the-nose; I probably thought having the song share its name with the Wonder would help distract my superiors from noticing that I was licensing a song from the people who had brought us the very family-friendly “Heroin.” Next time, I’ll just ask for “Foggy Notion” instead because it would be the best way to introduce a teenager living in rural Washington to the Velvet Underground.

I Shouldn’t Have to Write this Post

I have voted for a Democrat in ever election in my lifetime, and while I express my political view from time to time, it’s important to acknowledge that plenty of Republicans have served their country honorably in government. John McCain and Mitt Romney, for example, would both have been perfectly serviceable presidents. The country will always have a conservative party, and yet progress is still made because, each generation, what used to be an unthinkable progressive idea is now mainstream enough to be simply unchallenged by the GOP.

That context is necessary for the following statement: voting for Donald Trump is an unconscionable act.

I don’t need to list all of the ways he has beclowned our nation. Everyday, one just needs to read the news to see one more example of his cruelty, his ignorance, his incompetence, and his narcissism. Today’s violation is his ALL CAPS approval of his thugs running his opponent’s bus off the highway. Encouraging political violence is an unspeakably careless act for any politician, let alone the president. By itself, it would be enough of a reason to vote out any elected official, and I would vote against a Democrat who did the same. Consider that a president could do something this base, worse than anything Nixon ever did – who was a cartoon villain when I was young – and yet today will be forgotten in the unending waves of Trump’s crimes, failures, and corruptions.

Therefore, as the US is a two-party system, not voting for Joe Biden is also an unconscionable act. A second Trump term would mean that everything he has done was not just permitted or ignored but actually rewarded. I still have faith that America would recover, but every year undoing his damage is a year not feeding the hungry, not healing the sick, and not educating the ignorant.

Moreoever, all we have to do is vote. Our country has sometimes asked far too much from its citizens just for the right to vote, usually because of color or gender. Voter suppression may be the last refuge of minority rule, but Trump can still be easily beaten if every American just does his or her duty. All we have to do is vote.

The hard part is learning how to control Trump’s breed of American fascism because, no matter how many bad things one can say about Trump, the one thing that cannot be said about him is that he is not American. That fight, however, begins the day after Tuesday.

Trump is no Hitler

Donald Trump Won Because Of Bad Game Design

The 2016 presidential election has produced scores and scores of articles about how Donald Trump went from a novelty candidate to the White House. Most of these articles will overreach in their conclusions because they will focus on his election instead of his nomination, which now seems inevitable in hindsight. However, a very small percentage of Americans decided that Trump would be one of the two candidates for Presidents; he received 14 million votes in the primaries, from only 5.6% of America’s 251 million eligible voters. Only 1 in 20 Americans are responsible for Trump’s nomination. Indeed, only 800,000 more Americans voted for Trump in the Republican primaries than for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic ones (and 2.9 million more voted for Clinton than for Trump).

This percentage needs to be remembered when contextualizing Trump’s success — it is far from clear than even a significant minority of Americans ever wanted him to become President, and many, if not most, Republicans were essentially stuck with him after he clinched the nomination. Trump only won a plurality of votes in the primaries as more Republicans (55%) voted against him than voted for him. In fact, Trump won because of bad game design.

State-by-state, the Republican primaries have widely different rules, but they generally follow a winner-takes-all philosophy. By securing at least a plurality of votes, Trump won all 99 delegates in Florida, all 58 in Arizona, all 57 in Illinois, and all 172 in California. Other states with hybrid rules still gave Trump the vast majority of the delegates – for example, 89 of 95 delegates in New York and 70 of 71 in Pennsylvania – just for finishing first. The intention behind this rule is to shorten the primary process, to keep Republican candidates from damaging each other with friendly fire during an overlong race. However, like many rules intending to fix one issue, this one created a new one — that the nominee did not need a majority of votes to win a majority of the overall delegates. Trump won with an exploit.

In contrast, the Democratic primaries largely divide up delegates proportionally, so each candidate earns delegates proportional to his or her performance. Sometimes, these results can be quite close; in Illinois, for example, Clinton earned 79 pledged delegates while Sanders earned 77. This system has the downside of potentially extending the race much longer than perhaps the party desires, but a candidate without a majority of voters is also unlikely to ever earn a majority of pledged delegates. Under the Democratic system, Trump would have gone into the convention with roughly 45% of the delegates (estimating from his national primary vote percentage), and his nomination would be far from assured, especially considering how many Republicans would have preferred anyone but Trump. The Republican Convention would have been a messy affair, but at least the party would have had a chance to avoid the worst presidential nominee of our lifetimes.

Let me repeat for emphasis: If the Republican party had used the ruleset of the Democratic party, Trump would not have been guaranteed the nomination. Although rules are written to favor certain outcomes, they must be judged not just by what they fix in the best-case (shortening the primaries) but also by what they enable in the worst-case (Donald Trump).

How should the GOP patch this exploit? One obvious suggestion would be to adopt the superdelegate system of the Democrats, which gives the party establishment extra votes to prevent an undesirable candidate like Trump. However, superdelegates are also an example of bad game design because they create a much more extreme version of the problem that the Republican’s winner-take-all primaries were supposed to fix — extending the primary race longer than desired, possibly even until the convention when the superdelegates actually vote. When Clinton did clinch the nomination on June 6th, with only six states left to vote, the ridiculous but technically possible scenario still existed that Sanders could win if enough superdelegates switched from Clinton to Sanders. Indeed, Sanders made a fairly remarkable transformation from decrying the superdelegate system as undemocratic early on to asking for their help near the end to take the win away from Clinton, a nakedly undemocratic move. The real question Democrats need to ask themselves is whether they would ever actually be willing to use the superdelegates to override a majority of primary voters as doing so would clearly be a betrayal of the process. If the party is not willing to use them in such a way, then superdelegates are surely more trouble than they are worth.

The answer – for both Republicans and Democrats – is a simple state-by-state proportional distribution of delegates, with no superdelegates, and the nomination should only be guaranteed to a candidate able to earn a majority of delegates (and, most likely, votes as well). This scenario does increase the likelihood of a contested convention (where no one candidate controls a majority), which could be a problem in the mass media era. However, as we have seen in 2016, the alternative is much, much worse.

Speaking of bad design, we could certainly spend time talking about how the Electoral College is hurting democracy, but instead, I would encourage everyone to write your state legislator about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is a clever community-built patch for some legacy code with which we’re all currently stuck.

US vs. Germany: The Ideal Draw

The World Cup teams of the US and Germany are in an odd position for their upcoming match on Thursday. If the game is a draw, then both teams advance to the round of 16, which means that the ideal strategy – as pointed out by Mark Heggen on Twitter – is for the two teams to agree to just sit on the ground and let the clock run out. Considering that the US coach Jürgen Klinsmann is from Germany and that West Germany infamously took part in the fixed Anschluss game, it’s hard not to wonder if there will be a little funny business during the match. At the very least, the match threatens to be a defensive snoozefest.

As a game designer, of course, this situation is appalling. Anytime a game’s rules rewards players for boring themselves (not to mention us, the viewers), the problem is with the game designer, not with the players. A similar match-throwing problem haunted the round-robin badminton tournament at the last Olympics, and game designer David Sirlin wrote a great article which placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the tournament organizers. In the case of the US-Germany game, the problem is not quite so egregious – especially since the loser will have to play Belgium in the next round – but obviously the system could be improved.

I am a game designer, after all, so what would I do? The core of the problem is that whenever a game has more than two teams (and the World Cup is basically a game with 32 teams), diplomacy automatically becomes an important tool, regardless of the intentions of the game designer. Therefore, if winning is not required to advance, diplomacy can override the usual incentive for victory. The problem is that diplomacy is considered totally verboten (and a little unmanly) in competitive sports, even though it is considered totally normal in tabletop gaming. (As they love to play in Germany, of course!)

The solution is to focus the two teams on the one incentive left for them in the tournament – the seeding for the next round. The tournament’s rules should dictate that if two teams can advance with a draw, then the group’s other two teams are eliminated immediately. (The phenomenal card game Battle Line – by the German Reiner Knizia! – has a similar rule that allows capturing a flag early if a player can prove that no cards left in the deck could beat the ones on his or her own side.) However, instead of just cancelling the match between the US and Germany, which is problematic for many reasons, the tournament should let them play the game solely to determine who gets the top seed out of the group. Therefore, the two teams are rewarded for playing the game at full effort and have no incentive to make a mockery of the competition.

Now, context is important here as every rule always has a complexity cost. Adding this type of special casing to a video game or, especially, to a tabletop game might not be worth the extra overhead for the player to keep track of it. However, because the stakes for the World Cup are so high and because avoiding diplomacy is a design aesthetic for the tournament, this rule could be useful. Indeed, after the Anschluss game, FIFA changed the World Cup rules so that the final games of the round-robin phase would be played simultaneously to reduce the incentive for diplomacy. The situation the US and Germany face may not but common, but it’s also likely to happen again – all that is required is for a final game to be played between teams which both have one win and one draw. Better game design always beats the alternative.

Calling All Dawns

Christopher Tin’s new album, Calling All Dawns, came out a couple weeks ago. Have a listen:

Besides being able to record new pieces in Abbey Road with the Royal Philharmonic (not to mention Anonymous 4 and von Stade and Dulce Pontes), Chris also got to redo Baba Yetu with the Soweto Gospel Choir. As you can hear above, they did an incredible job finding the piece’s exuberance and abundance of joy. I especially enjoy the (new?) solo voice that rises above the bridge. In fact, Chris did change a few things for this version (via Steinar Kristoffersen):

    Steinar: ‘The last time we wrote you mentioned that […] the audio guys over at Firaxis decided to remove your percussion and replace it with their own. I must confess I’m curious [about] why the decision to replace your percussion was necessary or even desirable. I’ll also admit, however, that – alas – I do like both versions of the track, and I probably have a particular fondness for the Civ 4 version, if only because I heard and fell in love with that versionfirst. Which is, from a composer’s point of view (a point of view I can relate to and understand), unfortunate since that’s not how you intended the track to go, but, well, there it is. It’s still a wonderful track either way, and I’m happy to have both versions on my playlist.’

    Chris: ‘Yeah, it’s unfortunate that most people heard the Firaxis version first; and now that I’m creating yet a THIRD version, I have to figure out how to add something new, yet appeal to those who already fell in love with the first two versions. Nuts. :)’

    This album has been Chris’s labor of love for quite some time. If you appreciate his music, go buy it now.

This Will Surely End Badly

So, I have finally joined the pseudo-masses and am now on Twitter. I’m not sure how this will all play out – perhaps my blog will someday report that I lasted twittered 283 days ago – but it’s worth a try. I’ll be twittering my GDC thoughts this week (assuming I can make it work from my BlackBerry). Come to think of it, this might actually allow me to record the GDC notes I’ve always wanted to take but never did (or misplaced). Also, by twittering, I’ll get to skip writing my annual, three-months-late GDC summary! So, there’s that…